“The Female Detective” by Andrew Forrester (1864)

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female detective“Who am I? It can matter little who I am.”

Literature is populated with almost as many detectives as it is criminals. Some of the best of these are women. We all know Miss Marple, and many of us are familiar with Agatha Christie’s other female detective, Tuppence Beresford. And then there’s Lisbeth Salander, Nancy Drew, Jessica Fletcher, Temperance Brennan, Thursday Next, Ellie Miller … but how many people recognise the name “Miss Gladden”? I would wager very few. But Miss Gladden occupies a very important role in the history of the fictional female detective: she was the first.

Written way back in the 1860s, the novel is another one reproduced for a new generation for the British Library Crime Classics series, which I’ve dealt with a few other times on the blog so far and always loved. This one indeed introduces us to the first ever female detective in literary history. She gives her name as Miss Gladden, but freely admits that it’s not her real name. In fact, we discover very little about her; more interested as she is in talking about her cases and adventures.

The book is split into seven stories of wildly varying lengths which detail some of the cases of our heroine. Some involve a murder, some involve theft, one involves an issue of inheritance, but they all orbit around the fact that the person investigating is female. The stories are of varying quality and interest, and the language is what one would expect of the time.

Miss Gladden, as mentioned, keeps much of her identity secret, and the novel is certainly of its time with the impression it gives of women. Although written by a man, I actually think it does a fairly good job of giving us a female protagonist who is on one hand certainly feminine, and yet at the same time, incorrigible, strong and capable. The book makes note of the fact that it is easier for a woman to eavesdrop without being suspected, or to gain access to the private places of female suspects – be they physical or simply mental – than a man may be able to. Characters accept Gladden in her role, regardless of her gender, which is refreshing, and it’s also noted that she isn’t the only female detective in London. In reality, of course, there wouldn’t be a female police officer until 1915, some fifty years after this book was written.

Some of the stories seem to lack a satisfactory ending. Sometimes justice reaches the criminal by some other method than that of Gladden, or simply she stops writing about them, either unable to solve the case or unwilling to press on with it. Some of the solutions given also, I don’t think, would stand up in modern crime writing, but one can let them slide here.

The book is notable for its historical and literary importance, and I’m not sorry I’ve read it, nor indeed that it’s been widely published again, but I have found more than ever that I just can’t always get on with the style and language of books from two centuries previous. The blueprints are there for all the women who followed in Miss Gladden’s footsteps, but the stories have much improved over time when compared to this original installment.

“Acceptance” by Jeff VanderMeer (2014)

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acceptance“Just out of reach, just beyond you: the rush and froth of the surf, the sharp smell of the sea, the crisscrossing shape of the gulls, their sudden, jarring cries.”

Sometimes reading a book feels like a duty, especially when it’s not a terribly good book. (Oh, have I revealed where I’m going with this one already? Whoops.) Acceptance is the third in the Southern Reach trilogy after Annihilation and Authority, so I was indeed only reading it to complete the series. As one may expect, this post will therefore be laced with spoilers, and since I don’t do “Read More” tags on here, they are about to begin.

The third book in the series follows three separate stories. The first is dealing with the lighthouse keeper, Saul Evans, from before the forgotten coast had become Area X had he was working to keep the lighthouse operative and tend the grounds. He has started a secret relationship with another villager, Charlie, and it is this and the visits from precocious pre-teen Gloria that keep him going. He is less impressed by the continual visits of Henry and Suzanne of the “Science & Seance Brigade” who seem to be conducting experiments inside his lighthouse, but he’s not sure of their nature.

The second story follows Control and Ghost Bird, the main characters of the second book. Ghost Bird is the clone of the biologist, one of the expedition members of the first book, and Control is the former head of Southern Reach, the organisation responsible for working out the secrets of Area X. They have crossed back over into mysterious area, and are now heading for Failure Island, across the bay, where a second lighthouse stands broken and unused, but they think there may be the answers they’re looking for over there, but the closer they get to answers, the closer they get to danger, too.

The third story is that of the Director, also of Southern Reach. Her story is that of her life, spanning her childhood and her enrollment into Southern Reach, and the issues with her colleagues there. She grew up in what is now Area X and is determined to go back again. Her story, like Saul’s, mostly takes place before the events of the first book, as she plots with her assistant director Grace to get in.

With a gap of seven and a half months between the second and third book in the trilogy, and fifty-odd books in between, it’s fair to assume that some of the details have been lost in my mind, and even after reading a synopsis of the last book, I found it difficult to connect the two again. It’s a complicated tapestry of stories and lies and characters who both are and are not who they say they are. It feels open-ended, with many questions still left unanswered. Maybe it does answer them but my brain had switched off and I didn’t notice. Who knows? But I know some definitely remain unclear.

It’s not the fault of the book – it’s entirely on me. The writing is atmospheric, creepy and oftentimes beautiful, but I find myself uninterested in most of the characters, and the plot gets away from me too fast, mostly because I’ve failed to remember where we were. But I think even if I had known with crystal clear precision, it wouldn’t have helped. Books need to grab you, and while this one does, it feels more like a hostage situation than being dragged off on a friendly fictional adventure. There’s much about loneliness in the book, and an appreciation for the natural world and things we can’t understand. Humans are shown as curious again, perhaps our most valuable trait, but the novel as a whole lacked something.

I’m not altogether sorry to be leaving Area X. Something magical happened here, I’m sure, but I can’t for the life of me express what it was.

“Something Rotten” by Jasper Fforde (2004)

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something“The Minotaur had been causing trouble far in excess of his literary importance.”

And I’m back to Fforde. This review will contain spoilers for those who haven’t read the earlier books, so make sure you’re up to date on The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book and The Well of Lost Plots before checking this one out. This might just be the best of the bunch so far.

The fourth book in Thursday Next’s story picks up in 1988, two years after the events of the last one. She’s now heading up Jurisfiction and has spent most of the missing years within fiction, avoiding the real world where her husband no longer exists, having been eradicated when he was two-years-old. She is still a woman of action though, and hasn’t been held back by her infant son Friday. However, when an incident in the Western genre goes wrong, Thursday finds herself unwilling to stay on and so makes her way back into the real world, bringing Hamlet along with her as he’s under the impression that people in the Outland see him as something of a ditherer.

It couldn’t be a worse time to bring a Danish prince to England though, as the new Chanellor Yorrick Kaine – a fictional character who has escaped from who knows where – has all but declared war on Denmark and is setting about banning all Danish literature. Elsewhere, evil corporation Goliath has decided to apologise for all its past transgressions and is turning itself into a religion, the thirteenth-century seer St Zvlkx is due to make an appearance again, hopefully to discuss his Revealments, there’s an assassin after Thursday, in the absence of Hamlet, Ophelia has led a hostile takeover of the play and ruined it, and the fate of the world rests on Swindon winning the World Croquet League this coming weekend.

It’s just another normal day for Thursday Next.

As ever, there are a million different threads here but they all tie up wonderfully. Things from previous novels are brought back and explained, and we get a whole new list of things to enjoy. The star of the book though, other than Thursday, is Hamlet. He begins consuming the different versions of his play that we’ve produced, and finds that everyone seems to have their own take on who he is and how he feels. After all, he’s never had a clue himself. He’s portrayed as a worrier who is unable to make a snap decision, as well as being somewhat vain but very emotionally unstable. He’s a delight, and you can tell Fforde enjoyed playing with him, although at the end you do get the feeling it was all done just to have a single joke pay off brilliantly. But I’m not complaining.

Another great sequence involves Thursday and friends heading across the Welsh border to track down a cloned Shakespeare, playing on the notion of infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters. What if you had infinite Shakespeares? How much quicker would you find genius? The book is full of great scenes, and also becomes the first in the series to introduce illustrations, which bring to life the bizarre world even further.

There’s also the introduction of a few new characters, such as Cindy Stoker, the most dangerous assassin in England and wife of Thursday’s friend Spike, Millon de Floss, Thursday’s official stalker, and young Friday, who is it hinted at will become very important to the planet’s future survival. After spending the majority of the last book inside the Bookworld, it’s quite refreshing to now return to this bizarre, twisted version of England that Fforde has created. Any world that gives us dodos, croquet as a national sport, and George Formby as President is one that I want to spend more time in. Fforde continues to write with such intelligent humour that you laugh your way through a book that feels light as air and never bogs you down, despite occasionally dealing with some very dramatic and beautifully written scenes about love and loss.

The book feels like it’s wrapping up, and in some ways it is. This isn’t the last we’ve seen of Thursday, but it feels like an end of “part one”, as in the next book, we will have jumped ahead in time to the early 21st century. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it…

“Animal” by Sara Pascoe (2016)

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animal“Writing a book is an arrogant thing to do.”

I really like Sara Pascoe. She’s a newer face on the panel shows and comedy programmes of our televisions, and I fell a little bit in love with her when she first appeared on QI and knew lots of stuff about London and pandas. She’s the kind of woman I’d love to tell, “Hey, I really like you. You’re so beautiful…” but before I could finish, she’d throw her drink in my face and yell, “What about my brain??” I’d splutter through the G&T or whatever she drinks before saying, “I haven’t finished! You’re beautiful, intelligent, funny and generally awesome.” And then I’d still feel guilty as I do right now about the fact I started with “beautiful”, and feel that maybe I worded the compliment badly. But it was a compliment – I’ve always been very attracted to women’s brains. A smart woman is a sexy woman, although I’m obviously aware that a woman is not an object to be looked at, and I don’t expect anything to come from the compliment, I’m just trying to be nice, I … I’m digging myself into a hole here, aren’t I? Look, I just like paying people compliments, I’m just a bit cack-handed at it.

(Sara, should you read this and I did it wrong, I sincerely apologise. Can we forget this ever happened and move on?)

A couple of my female friends have been reading Animal and they went on to me about how amazing it was. Finding myself with that free trial of Audible that everyone who listens to podcasts gets bombarded with a few times a week, and going on the suggestion of a friend that it’s even better when read aloud, I downloaded the book and it has become the first audiobook I’ve ever listened to. Sara has a wonderful voice, full of real warmth, like she’s talking to you down the pub. You and her, the writer and the reader, are mates, and she’s going to tell you what she’s learnt about the female mind and body.

Split into three sections – Love, Body and Consent – the book is part-memoir, interspersed with stories from her own life (some hilarious, some tragic) and part science book, talking about what it is to be a woman both now and throughout history. She covers every possible aspect of this, including but certainly not limited to whether humans are naturally monogamous or not, how menstruation is viewed and treated around the world, what the “right” age is for consent, how we define rape, why men feel sleepy after sex and women don’t, female genital mutilation, the politics of abortion, why women evolved breasts, the female orgasm, and why humans are one of only three species on the planet (aside from killer whales and pilot whales) to undergo a menopause.

I wondered, as a man, how relevant the book would be to me, but it turns out your gender doesn’t matter in the slightest. It is eye-opening, incredibly interesting, sharply funny, and while perhaps in another person’s hands the ideas could come across as lecturing or dull, Sara weaves genius throughout it. She’s naturally funny, and very frank and open about her own problems, concerns and issues.

It’s also given me a really interesting new discussion topic for others around me. Not strangers on the bus; I’m not confident enough to strike up loud “Did you know?” conversations about tampons with them (yet) but with friends and colleagues. Most of my friends are female, as indeed are most of the people I work with, and this book has granted me access to things I, shamefacedly, even as a sexual active man in his late twenties, still didn’t really understand. One of the most curious facts I found out was about how long a menstrual cycle could last. I’d always been under the assumption it was 28 days – about a month – and had never really considered that it varied that much between women. I don’t know why. I don’t think about it much, I guess. After finding out the truth, I asked the girls at work if they knew. They all said 28 days. I revealed that, actually, it could be anywhere between 20 and 60 days. None of them knew this, and one of these girls is at university studying to be a surgeon. Even if this fact had somehow slipped through the net of secondary school sex ed, then that’s one thing, but is medical school not even drawing attention to this?

And, yeah, while we’re at it, why are the boys sent out of the room when girls learn about menstruation at school? If you take the argument that it might be uncomfortable or embarrassing for pre-teen girls to ask questions in a room full of boys, then that’s fine and I totally understand it, but the boys should be taught this stuff too, separately. We might not have the equipment, but we should know how it works. It might remove some of society’s stigma about the whole thing. Boys should probably also get a brush up on consent, as barely a week goes by without some boy somewhere dodging a jail sentence because he’s convinced a jury that consent was granted. We need to update both our sex education and our rape laws. But Sara will explain all this much more eloquently than I ever could.

I believe firmly that everyone, regardless of whether you’re male, female or somewhere in between, should read this book. It’s fascinating, funny and might even save your life.

“The Man In The High Castle” by Philip K. Dick (1962)

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A chilling alternate world

A chilling alternate world

“For a week Mr R Childan had been anxiously watching the mail.”

It’s been a busy week so it’s taken me longer than usual to plow through a relatively small book. What with the Olympics, the wedding of one of my best friends, the necessary post-wedding day of recovery, illness and the fact I’ve been getting through two books at the same time (the second to come soon), it’s taken me longer than I anticipated to make my way through this modern classic. Have these distractions affected my view of the book? Almost certainly. But first, on with the plot.

This book is set in an alternate 1963, in a divided USA ruled half by Germany and half by Japan, because this is a world where the Allies lost World War Two, and the Nazis and Japanese ended up all but taking over the planet. In this nightmarish vision of what-might-have-been, we follow several characters as they find their way through the world. Mr Childan is a shopkeeper specialising in Americana antiques, who comes to believe his reputation is tarnished after discovering he has been tricked into selling forgeries. Mr Tagomi is a Japanese businessman seeking the perfect gift for a client, and is struggling to do business with another man, Baynes, who keeps putting off any transactions.

Frank Frink is a Jew who has begun making homemade jewellery with the hopes of selling it off and making his money from it. His ex-wife, Juliana, is a judo instructor who has begun a sexual relationship with an Italian truck driver called Joe, who introduces her to a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which is banned in many parts of the world because it depicts an alternate universe – one in which the Allies won the war.

Their stories interweave and overlap as they navigate a life that we can only gaze at in horror. Here, the surviving Jews have mostly had to undergo facial restructuring and name changes to avoid detection in society. Slavery is legal, Africa has been all but wiped out thanks to further genocide, the Japanese influence on the world means that everyone makes decisions based on their readings of the I Ching, and Hitler is still alive, although very ill. The main point of divergence seems to come when FDR is assassinated, and thus the USA don’t have the leadership to perform well in battle, and are still undergoing a Depression when the war starts. Here, the Allies surrender in 1947.

The idea of the “story within a story” of what would happen had the Allies won is a really interesting concept, and the version of events in that story play out somewhat differently to what really happened too, giving us three versions of reality by the time we’re done. It’s a nice meta touch. In true Philip K. Dick form, however, many things are left unanswered, character arcs seem to go unfinished, and there’s not a real sense of conclusion about any of it. At least, I never felt there was. It’s a really interesting idea, and one that literature has explored frequently (in alternate history writing, I’m sure “What if Hitler had won the war?” must be the most common starting point), but I’ve seen it done better.

The jewellery-making subplot I find boring, and I never really clicked with Mr Tagomi. I find Mr Childan’s clumsy attempts to not offend his new Japanese friends quite endearing, and Juliana Frink is an incredible character and the most interesting by far. I understand why it’s a modern classic, and I think it’s an important, intelligent novel, and while it may be one of the first novels to properly explore a world where the Axis powers won, it isn’t the best one. Even Stephen Fry’s Making History is a more engaging example. It’s a novel worth reading for some really inventive ideas, but it’s never going to be a favourite of mine.

“The Improbability Of Love” by Hannah Rothschild (2015)

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improbability“It was going to be the sale of the century.”

I’ve never been one for art. I’ve been to several of the country’s most impressive and important galleries in my time, but I’m generally never left feeling how I think I should. Art very rarely makes me feel what other people seem to feel when they look at paintings. I can tell when something’s good, and it’s that old adage of “I know what I like”, but paintings and sculpture don’t really fill me with emotion. I’ve known people who get it, and this book has perhaps nudged me a little closer to intending to visit a gallery soon. The Improbability of Love is, as you may have surmised, set within the art world and the gilded, wealthy corners of creative society, and it’s rather swanky, as you may imagine.

Annie McDee is struggling in her new life without Desmond. She’s now found herself in an antique shop looking for a present for a man she knows she shouldn’t be dating. Tucked away behind a rubber plant, she sees a painting that strikes her as particularly beautiful. She buys it, but she has no idea that she’s just acquired a genuine Watteau; a painting that has passed through the hands of everyone from Voltaire to Hitler and stuns anyone who sees it. Annie has other things to worry about; her new job as a personal chef, her mother’s ongoing struggles with alcoholism, and the fact she’s caught the eye of a young museum guide called Jesse. But she’s desperately uninterested in opening up her heart to let someone else in.

Soon, however, with her painting in tow, she is plunged into the art world, which is populated by arrogant critics, penniless nobility, ruthless art dealers, desperate Russians, kind restorers, and more millionaires than you can shake a stick at. When Rebecca Winkleman is asked by her father, the wildly successful art dealer and Auschwitz survivor Memling, to track down a painting that he’s been missing for years, she finds herself also on the trail of The Improbability of Love, unaware that it’s owned by her new chef. Elsewhere, the mad, fame-and-fortune-hungry Barty has to convince a Russian oligarch to foster an interest in art, Earl Beachendon must find an artist willing to sell his works to the museum or his career is over, and poor Jesse must try not to let his feelings for Annie overcome him.

If only paintings could talk… And fortunately, here, they can. Of sorts, anyway, as the book is interspersed with chapters from the point of view of the painting itself, allowing us to learn about its history and meaning. You can certainly say it’s had an interesting life.

I did wonder if I was going to like this book. It’s one that seemed to have had a lot of publicity and table space in bookshops, which is either a sign that it’s really good, or that they’ve got a lot of them to shift. But actually, yeah, I did. I love the worlds of the fabulously wealthy (wouldn’t you love to have so much money that money stopped mattering?) and it’s fun to see how they spend their millions and billions on too much food, old paintings and extravagant houses. Mine would all go on books and good wine

Something odd is going on in here, though. While the characters are all interesting, three-dimensional and broken in their own ways, the real hero of the book is the painting itself and, to a lesser extent, all art. Much is made of the fact that act can instill emotions in us, change the way we feel, and make us feel things we didn’t know were possible. It’s a book that has inspired me to trek up to London specifically to go peruse another gallery. Maybe art lovers will get even more out of this book, being able to picture the paintings in question and knowing how the fictional ones would look. I mean, I can tell a Klimt from a Caravaggio, but I’ve never been overcome by emotion for a painting. Do I need to try harder?

The look is great, and somewhat unique thanks to the inclusion of the painting’s monologues. The painting is rather funny as a character, full of snobbery and disdain for its new owner, in the beginning at least. The book as a whole is gripping, and we bounce between characters, getting inside everyone’s heads and finding out what a dark and twisted place the world is when there’s this much money at stake. Hannah Rothschild is also great at having you think you know where a plot thread is going, only to twist it at the last moment. A really fun romp through an unfamiliar world.

“Harry Potter And The Cursed Child” by J. K. Rowling (2016)

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cursed childThe eighth story. Nineteen years later.

Not much compels me to stop one book in favour of another, but the newest installment in the Harry Potter series dropping onto the doormat will do that to a person. So, here it is. Merlin knows when I’ll ever get tickets to see it, so reading it is the next best thing. This is one of the hardest reviews I’ve ever had to write, so let’s just crack on. First, the plot.

No. Don’t worry. I’m not going to tell you anything.

So, now how did I feel about it? You’re asking a very big question there. I guess primarily, I can’t believe that despite the fact the theatre has been previewing the show for months, and the sheer amount of people involved in it, absolutely nothing leaked. Maybe friends told friends, but the Internet in general managed to keep very quiet.

The one thing I will say is that the opening scene replays the epilogue from Deathly Hallows, so there aren’t really any surprises there. But then it carries on and we get the first new dialogue from these characters since 2007 and I got the most ridiculous goosebumps. You forget in between readings that these stories are magical. It takes a moment to get used to reading it in script form rather than as a novel, but I think I understand why it works as a play. Two plays, in fact. There’s a lot here, and to compress it would be a disaster.

The face (and hair) of one struggling with the state of finishing Cursed Child.

The face (and hair) of one who is struggling with his Cursed Child feelings.

The play somehow is nothing at all like I expected, and yet everything I knew it would be. And you can take that in any way you see fit. I’m trying to work out if I liked it, and I think I did, but there’s a lot in here that requires a lot of processing. It seemingly changes a few of the rules that Rowling had previously established, and added something that I don’t think any of us really expected. And even that feels like saying too much.

Many of the characters we know and love are present and correct. Some of them changed somewhat with time, but their cores remain in tact. The children are great, and occasionally you could have guessed what was going to happen with some of them, but there are some surprises present too. There are, however, some absences that are particularly notable. One old favourite is mentioned, but another has been scrubbed entirely from the text. I know they can’t name everyone, but, well, come on. Sadder still is the reveal of a couple of deaths we’ve missed in the last nineteen years.

My brain keeps playing with the question, “But did you like it?” All I can think is that the staging and casting must be the best the West End has ever seen, as I’ve not seen a single complaint from anyone who happens to have seen the show. It’s magical, but it lacks something. It feels too late, maybe. A sort of, “be careful what you wish for” scenario. We all wanted more from Harry, and now we’ve got it, but is it quite what we hoped we’d get? Already I’ve seen polls on Twitter where people are debating whether to consider this addition canonical or not.

I sound negative, and I’m not really. The emotional wallops are very real and Rowling’s world stands the test of time for its depth, breadth and sheer power. I think it’s just because I’ve read it in three hours. I need to go back through, slower, and get to grips with it. That can be a summer project. I may even return to these pages to give a second review. But for now, I leave you with the most wishy-washy vague thing I’ve ever written.

Read it yourself and form your own opinion. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. Leave me a comment or find me on Twitter, @fellfromfiction. For now though, I need to go and sort myself and my thoughts out.

Mischief managed.

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