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The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

“She’s always thought it’s cruel to make mourners sing. If there’s one thing she understands about grief, it’s how it chokes: the fingers of death, squeezing the throats of the living.”

Another “gothic chiller” from Purcell, set this time in Victorian Bath. Purcell usually gives her main characters a profession and this time it is the making of silhouettes. It also involves the Victorian craze for mediums and the spirit world and a child spirit medium. The plot is simple: Agnes looks after her mother and nephew. She works by making and selling silhouettes and people come for a sitting. Suddenly people who have visited her for a sitting start to be murdered. Running parallel is the story of Pearl, a child medium who is an albino. She is looked after by her older sister who practices mesmerism. Her father is dying of “phossy/fossy jaw” a condition caused by working with phosphorus (linked to the match industry. Agnes has a friend called Simon, a doctor who was married to her late sister.

There you have the bones of it. All that is needed now is a bunch of tropes: an unreliable narrator, spooky séances, mysterious messages, murder, lots of twists, lots of red herrings, dark atmospheric weather, a fair sprinkling of wickedness, inimical sisterly relationships and spirits contacted by séance.

Purcell can write and construct a plot that moves along with its twists and turns:

“This is not the first time she has heard of spiritualists, although she usually keeps such talk at a distance by saying she does not believe. A more honest statement would be that she does not want to believe. She wants the dead safely caged in Heaven or Hell, not wandering, watching her through the cloudy eyes of a corpse.

It is a lot of nonsense and here again the only decent and moral character is the doctor, the only male character we get to know. The rest are all damaged/deceitful/dangerous in various ways. There was a certain predictability about this and it left a bad taste.

4 out of 10

Starting English Magic by Uschi Gatward

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I liked her first one Madeleine, but the others less so.

Haunters at the Hearth edited by Tanya Kirk

This volume of the Tales of the Weird series is a seasonal collection. The stories date between 1864 and 1974. There are stories from Winston Graham (of Poldark fame), Amelia Edwards, Howard Spring, W W Jacobs, E G Swain, D H Lawrence, A M Burrage, E S Knights, Eleanor Smith, Margaret Irwin, Elizabeth Bowen, R H Malden, James Hadley Chase, W F Harvey, Mildred Clingerman, L P Hartley, George Denby and Celia Fremlin. Eighteen in all.

This is a good collection for cold winter nights by a fire (preferably with a glass of wine). The stories have a good deal of variety, there is even one where the haunting is done via the medium of books. L P Hartley’s contribution (The Waits) is chilling, but one of my favourites was the one by A M Burrage, Oberon Road. It is a sort of cross between A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. Bowen’s story, written in 1942, is set in the war and pretty effective. There are also haunted mirrors, Satanic ritual, a couple of ghostly modes of transportation, a pantomime cat which is more than it seems, a group telling ghost stories, a walking trip where a honeymooning couple find an abandoned village, a sinister guest and much more.

A solid collection, some stronger than others and a few that are rather good.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Cornish Horrors 

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The Monk by Matthew Lewis

“Ambrosio was yet to learn, that to an heart unacquainted with her, Vice is ever most dangerous when lurking behind the Mask of Virtue.”

“She sealed his lips with a wanton kiss; 'Though I forgive your breaking your vows to heaven, I expect you to keep your vows to me.”

One of the more notorious eighteenth century gothic novels. It was published in 1796 when Lewis was twenty. This is a novel written by a teenage male – bear that in mind – it explains a lot.

This has pretty much all the gothic tropes: haunted castles, evil monks and nuns, misogyny, rape, ghostly nuns, incest, crypts, fiendish puzzles, convoluted plotlines, unrequited love, a good walk on part for Lucifer (who is, well, sort of devilish), some bartering of souls, hypocrisy, religious mania, date rape drugs (I kid you not), plenty of darkness, a female breast described as a “beauteous orb” (did I mention it was written by a teenager?), the corruption of innocence, starvation, heartbreak, misery and death. I may have missed a few.

As you may have guessed I was not overly enamoured of this and much preferred Radcliffe. One of the few positives that I can think of is that there was less bad poetry here than in Radcliffe. It caused controversy at the time with plenty in favour and against. The Marquis de Sade was a fan. This is the Catholic Church we are dealing with (set in Spain), so obviously women are the fount of evil. It is worth noting that Lewis didn’t know much about Catholic ritual, so he just made it up!

Some of the descriptions are overdone as well, like this one describing Lucifer’s first appearance:

It was a Youth seemingly scarce eighteen, the perfection of whose form and face was unrivalled. He was perfectly naked: A bright Star sparkled upon his forehead; two crimson wings extended themselves from his shoulders; and his silken locks were confined by a band of many-coloured fires, which played round his head, formed themselves into a variety of figures, and shone with a brilliance far surpassing that of precious Stones. Circlets of Diamonds were fastened round his arms and ankles, and in his right hand He bore a silver branch, imitating Myrtle. His form shone with dazzling glory: He was surrounded by clouds of rose-coloured light, and at the moment that He appeared, a refreshing air breathed perfumes through the Cavern.”

Lewis worked as a diplomat and was an MP for a while. The source of his income were two plantations in Jamaica, he owned over five hundred slaves.

This was pretty awful stuff.

2 out of 10

Starting Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

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I presume you're comparing The Monk to the Mysteries of Udolpho? I quite agree with you, it's a long time since I read Udolpho but I remember it as a rollicking good read, The Monk along with Vathek and The Castle of Otranto was an A level book (our English mistress selected our books on the basis we'd never read them from choice - she was certainly right there).

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Arthur and George by Julian Barnes

“Honour is not just a matter of internal good feeling, but also of external behaviour.”

This is Barnes’s account of a true story relating to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. It tells the story of the case of George Edalji. He is the son of a Scottish mother and a Parsee father. His father is Rector of Great Wyrley in the Midlands. For a period of years the family receives very nasty anonymous letters. The police aren’t interested and even suggest George may be writing them or that it may be racial prejudice. George finishes school and trains to be a solicitor. The letters stop and start and then someone in the district starts to attack/slash animals. George is suspected and on no real evidence he is arrested, tried and sentenced to seven years hard labour. Barnes tells the story at the beginning of the book.

He then switches to Conan Doyle and pretty much writes his biography until the death of his first wife Touie. George serves three years of his sentence and then sets about trying to clear his name. One of his letters setting out his case reaches Conan Doyle, who is at a low ebb. George’s case fires him with enthusiasm because of the injustice and he sets about trying to prove George’s innocence. The rest of the novel covers Conan Doyle’s attempts to get George a pardon and their interactions. Conan Doyle’s interactions with the police force and other bastions of the establishment are also rather interesting. Barnes also outlines Conan Doyle’s growing interest in Spiritualism. This is a real case with a real outcome which is well recorded and known.

The boundaries between fact and fiction seem to be quite blurred here. Barnes examines the inner lives of the two men involved and also looks quite closely at Anson, the Chief Constable. This is quite a worthy book and interesting if you don’t know the story. Barnes weaves in a lot of ideas and the whole is quite dense. The last twenty or thirty pages seemed quite pointless but it’s an interesting exercise.

7 out of 10

Starting Chouette by Claire Oshetsky

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English Magic by Uschi Gatward

“Now that the lamp is on, the darkness seems to fall faster around it, this pool of yellow light the only lit space in the world.”

This is a debut collection of short stories and it’s not about magic or fantasy, it’s about the England of the present day. Sadly it will be Gatward’s last collection as she was diagnosed with cancer at the time of publication and died soon afterwards. The stories cover politics, subversion, ritual, the natural world, those on the edges of society, collective action and much more. It was published by the independent Galley Beggar Press.

There are some striking stories. “My Brother is Back” is based on the story of Talha Ahsan who was arrested in 2006 and extradited to the US where he remained for about eight years. “The Clinic” starts with a parents and a baby at a clinic. Little clues build up and gradually the reader realises that this is dystopian and we are dealing with a totalitarian state and that something catastrophic has happened. Vaguely reminiscent of The Road.

“The Creche” depicts a trip by a Mother and Toddler group to a seaside resort. Inevitably the English weather is cold and wet and there is a certain humour to this. However there is a sense of threat and menace in the background.

“Beltane” follows a couple discovering a rural May celebration in a village. There are the usual processions, bonfires, food, drink and maypoles! However the reader id on edge because there is again an underlying sense of unease and the thought in the back of the mind, “Is this going to turn into The Wicker Man”.

In “Lammas” and old man recollects his past in a rather disjointed and muddled way. It is a history of political protest and radicalism in the East End of London (this time shades of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, one of the greatest English novels).

Again “Oh Whistle And” recollects other works. This time it is one of M R James’s best ghost stories “Oh Whistle and I’ll come to you my lad” (rather than the poem/song by Burns). The starting point for the story is Edward Snowden the US whistleblower. The characters are given letters rather than names and we are I the middle of the security and surveillance society.

“The Bird” (shades of Hitchcock) involves a honeymooning couple returning to their Brighton flat and discovering there is a bird trapped behind their fire. Their reactions sheds light on their relationship.

This is an excellent collection and they all have impact and reflection on England today.

9 out of 10

Starting The Midnight Bell by Patrick Hamilton

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The Bronte's went to Woolworths

“A woman at one of mother's parties once said to me, "Do you like reading?" which smote us all to silence, for how could one tell her that books are like having a bath or sleeping, or eating bread - absolute necessities which one never thinks of in terms of appreciation. And we all sat waiting for her to say that she had so little time for reading, before ruling her right out for ever and ever.”

There are rare occasions when I finish a book and think WTF. This was one of those. It’s another offering from Virago. Rachel Ferguson was a novelist, journalist, critic and campaigner for women’s rights.

This is about the Carne sisters and their mother. Mr Carne has recently died. The sisters have a vivid fantasy life which gets a bit mixed up with the real world at times. This is firmly set in the upper middle class in the 1930s and there is a level of snobbishness which reflects that. They are rather cruel to the youngest sister’s governess who eventually leaves, being unable to cope with the “weirdness”. There is no discernible plot and consequently no real start or finish. Eccentric is possibly one word for this. A couple of the character are childhood toys and the dog plays a significant role. In their imaginations they are friends with some real life people:

“We get their papers, and follow their careers, and pick up gossip, and memorise anecdotes, and study paragraphs, and follow their moves about the country, and, as usually happens if you really mean business, often get into personal touch with their friends or business associates, all with some fresh item or atom of knowledge to add to the heap.

It would probably be called stalking these days.

The whole thing is a bit muddled. I can see why it can be seen as a working out of grief, but it does very fixed in the English middle class. The Bronte’s do pop up in the fantasy world, indeed, shopping in Woolworths.

6 out of 10

Starting Jenny Wren by E H Young

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Glad it's not just me France

Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch

“It was a good plan, and like all plans since the dawn of time, this would fail to survive contact with real life.”

Third in the Rivers of London series. It’s more Harry Dresden than Harry Potter and there is a certain laconic humour which helps the series along.

“This is why magic is worse even than quantum physics. Because, while both spit in the eye of common sense, I've never yet had a Higgs Bosun turn up and try to have a conversation with me.”

As always London is the backdrop and in particular the Underground (and the sewers). This one is a murder mystery and the main plot of the series, the search for a particular villain, though present is a side show here. The minor characters are further developed and are all quite strong. There is the usual magic and mayhem along with a fair bit of police procedural. There are also communities of people living in the many tunnels under London (which, as ever, is a significant character in itself). As this takes place around Christmas, the weather also plays a role:

“The media response to unusual weather is as ritualized and predictable as the stages of grief. First comes denial: "I can't believe there's so much snow." Then anger: "Why can't I drive my car, why are the trains not running?" Then blame: "Why haven't the local authorities sanded the roads, “Where are the snowplows?”, and how come the Canadians can deal with this and we can't?" This last stage goes on the longest and tends to trail off into a mumbled grumbling moan, enlivened by occasional ILLEGALS ATE MY SNOWPLOW headlines from the *Daily Mail....*”

It is formulaic, but that doesn’t really matter as it works as entertainment and is good last thing at night to doze off to.

7 out of 10

Starting Manhattan in Reverse by Peter F Hamilton

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This was one of my favourites in the series, partly because a lot of it is set in and around the area I used to work in, so I could imagine the settings very well.

Edited by Madeleine
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Chouette by Claire Oschetsky

“I begin to understand what a gift I've been given, to have been chosen for this task. The truth overwhelms me, and humbles me. The birds are telling me that my life's work, as your mother, will be to teach you how to be yourself- and to honor however much of the wild world you have in you, owl-baby- rather than mold you to be what I want you to be, or what your father wants you to be.”

A really fabulous book about motherhood, difference, disability, non-conformity, neuro divergence and it really is a fable (and parable). Tiny is married to an intellectual property lawyer when she becomes pregnant by her owl-lover. There is magic realism and feminism here:

“How could such a thing come to pass between woman and owl?

Tiny has an owl baby which she chooses to rear, despite her husband’s fears, he thinks surgery is required. Chouette (the feminine for owl in French) is taught to hunt and follow her instincts. There are ups and downs for Tiny as her husband and his family try to impose conformity and normalcy.

Music is central as well as Tiny is a cellist and there is a list of music at the end of the novel.

Tiny sees wonder and beauty in her daughter whilst society sees problems, difference and something to be treated or cured.  The husband wheels in experts, therapies and approaches but science and theory just aren’t right for Chouette.

The second person narration works well and there is a vein of humour:

“Housekeeping is nothing more than a losing encounter with entropy”

There are powerful contrasts and descriptions and it is very much Tiny and Chouette against the world. Even from just after birth when Chouette is in an incubator:

“My poor girl’s wings are bruised and battered from beating against her box. She is alone and afraid. I lift off the top of the box and I pick her up. Alarms begin to sound. My daughter’s eyes are still closed and she is rooting about blindly and her skin is covered in black natal down. I hold her to my breast and she begins to feed.” 

This is published by Virago in the UK and is well worth looking up.

9 out of 10

Starting Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

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The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T E Lawrence

“My proper share was a minor one, but because of a fluent pen, a free speech, and a certain adroitness of brain, I took upon myself, as I describe it, a mock primacy. In reality I never had any office among the Arabs, was never in charge of the British mission with them….

So I had to join the conspiracy, and, for what my word was worth, assured the men of their reward. In our two years’ partnership under fire they grew accustomed to believing me and to think my Government, like myself, sincere. In this hope they performed some fine things but, of course, instead of being proud of what we did together, I was continually and bitterly ashamed.

This is not an easy book to review. The film is much better known. The film is a magnificent piece of cinematography (as well as being endless), but it focuses much more on Lawrence than the book does. The book is a chronological account of Lawrence’s time in Arabia in the last two years of the war. It isn’t just a then I did this, then I did that account. Lawrence describes the minutiae of daily lie, food, customs, tribal relations, the idiosyncrasies of camels and the pitfalls of desert travel.

We now know many things that Lawrence did not. He suspected that the British and the French would betray the Arabs after the war, but hoped they wouldn’t. We know now that was the intention all along. The Balfour Declaration of November 1917 meant the British government had promised the Jews a homeland in Palestine. As Koestler said “One nation solemnly promised to a second nation, the country of a third”. Palestine was ninety percent Arab. Churchill expressed it more succinctly:

“I do not agree that a dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time… I do not admit that a wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race, a more worldly-wise race… has come in and taken their place.”

Enough of the imperialists for now.

The title is from the Book of Proverbs:

“Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars

The book was written and rewritten. Lawrence lost most of the first draft at Reading railway station in 1919 and had to start again. Lawrence had kept notes whilst all this happened and wrote again. It is a very personal version of events and stands alongside similar accounts from the Western Front. Lawrence was illegitimate, the son of a baronet and a governess and had trained as an archaeologist. He was involved in the peace conferences after the war and became disillusioned (more disillusioned). He hated the publicity and his notoriety. Lawrence re-enlisted under a different name. He died young (46) in a motorcycle accident.

One of the many questions has always been was Lawrence queer. To my reading it would seem so, he was clearly much more at ease in the company of men. The book’s dedication is a poem to SA, possibly Selim Ahmed, written by Lawrence:

I loved you, so I drew these tides of
Men into my hands
And wrote my will across the
Sky in stars
To earn you freedom, the seven
Pillared worthy house,
That your eyes might be
Shining for me
When I came

Death seemed my servant on the
Road, 'til we were near
And saw you waiting:
When you smiled and in sorrowful
Envy he outran me
And took you apart:
Into his quietness

Love, the way-weary, groped to your body,
Our brief wage
Ours for the moment
Before Earth's soft hand explored your shape
And the blind
Worms grew fat upon
Your substance

Men prayed me that I set our work,
The inviolate house,
As a memory of you
But for fit monument I shattered it,
Unfinished: And now
The little things creep out to patch
Themselves hovels
In the marred shadow
Of your gift.

Lawrence also recounts his capture by the Turks, his rape and torture, which did have a profound effect on him.

Lawrence is complex personality. He is serving his country with ambivalence. He is not an innocent, but is naïve. He respected the Arabs and their culture, but still did what he did knowing that is was possible, even likely that the Allied powers would betray the Arab uprising. It’s a fascinating account and it is difficult to assess how much is absolutely true. Nevertheless it is worth reading. The imperialism is present, but Lawrence’s role has nuance (unlike Churchill’s).

7 out of 10

Starting Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

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October by China Mieville

“The revolution of 1917 is a revolution of trains. History proceeding in screams of cold metal. The tsar’s wheeled palace, shunted into sidings forever; Lenin’s sealed stateless carriage; Guchkov and Shulgin’s meandering abdication express; the trains criss-crossing Russia heavy with desperate deserters; the engine stoked by ‘Konstantin Ivanov’, Lenin in his wig, eagerly shovelling coal. And more and more will come: Trotsky’s armoured train, the Red Army’s propaganda trains, the troop carriers of the Civil War. Looming trains, trains hurtling through trees, out of the dark. Revolutions, Marx said, are the locomotives of history. ‘Put the locomotive into top gear’, Lenin exhorted himself in a private note, scant weeks after October, ‘and keep it on the rails.’ But how could you keep it there if there really was only one true way, one line, and it is blocked? ‘I have gone where you did not want me to go.’ In”

This is China Mieville’s account of the Russian Revolution. Each chapter covers a month from February to October with an introduction that sets the scene. This is a narrative account and not a scholastic or academic treatise. Mieville has read pretty widely. His reading includes academic historians of all political persuasions and the polemical texts written at the time. Mieville does have a point of view but the account is balanced. The story telling is good and I suppose being a novelist helps in that respect. He manages to be fair to all the participants. It’s very readable and in itself the story is dramatic. There are limits to this work. Mieville has looked at works in English and translated into English and has not looked at the extensive documentation in the Russian language.

Mieville’s approach is not dualist and there is nuance. He does focus on St Petersburg (Petrograd as it was then) primarily. There is an enormous literature on the Russian Revolution, but the strength of this contribution is that it was written by a story teller. He is happy to address the messiness and dynamism of the process. There is a significant sense of movement in the work and quite a lot on the role of trains in the revolution! Mieville himself was aware of the challenges:

 What I was constantly aware of was trying to mediate between specifics and generalities. One of the things I try to stress all the way through the book and in discussions is that this is very specifically a story of a particular place—Russia—in a particular time—1917. There is a line to walk: the story isn’t simply a curio of that moment, but equally one wants to try to avoid a kind of kitsch, “as then, so now” reductionism. So a key point is constantly being aware of the concrete particularities of that moment that you’re writing about.

Mieville is also very aware of what might have been and reflects on some of the changes that occurred as a result, but sadly did not last:

“October, for an instant, brings a new kind of power. Fleetingly, there is a shift towards workers’ control of production and the rights of peasants to the land. Equal rights for men and women in work and in marriage, the right to divorce, maternity support. The decriminalization of homosexuality, 100 years ago. Moves towards national self-determination. Free and universal education, the expansion of literacy. And with literacy comes cultural explosion, a thirst to learn, the mushrooming of universities and lecture series and adult schools. A change in the soul, as Lunacharsky might put it, as much as in the factory. And though those moments are snuffed out, reversed, become bleak jokes and memories all too soon, it might have been otherwise.”

Mieville is particularly strong on explaining Lenin’s role and the nature of the movement all of those involved were riding; it was essentially a revolution from below. This is a good account of the October Revolution related by a good storyteller.

8 out of 10

Starting Citizen Clem by John Bew

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Cornish Horrors edited by Joan Passey

A collection from the British Library Tales of the Weird series, all set in Cornwall: part of England which is pretty much a land in itself with its own language. Plenty of gothic horror here, no pasties. In this collection there is a variety of writers, including Bram Stoker, Poe, Mary Braddon, Conan Doyle, F. Tennyson Jesse, Quiller Couch, Clara Venn, E M Bray, Mary Penn and various others including anonymous and someone entitled M.H. They are collected from the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

There is an intelligently written introduction by Dr Joan Passey which reminds us that there is a rich heritage of folklore and history to draw from in Cornwall. As she reminds us Cornwall is:

 "real, and close, alternately viewed as the end of the land and its beginning”

As you would imagine the sea and the coast often play a significant role, as do sailors and those who work on the seas. The tales are variable. The Conan Doyle is a Sherlock Holmes short story. There are a couple of variations on the love triangle, the Bram Stoker one being the best. Folklore is best represented by The Phantom Hare and The Screaming Skull is suitably creepy (and completely ridiculous of course) and there is even a potential werewolf tale (My Father’s Secret).

There are a few duds, but this is a decent enough collection and takes advantage of the rugged landscape and stormy weather.

7 out of 10

Starting The Lure of Atlantis edited by Michael Wheatley

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The Midnight Bell by Patrick Hamilton

"The Saloon Bar was narrow and about thirty feet in length. On your right was the bar itself, in all its bottly glitter, and on your left was a row of tables set against a comfortable and continuous leather seat which went the whole length of the bar. At the far end the Saloon Bar opened out into the Saloon Lounge. This was a large, square room, filled with a dozen or so small, round, copper-covered tables. Around each table were three or four white wicker armchairs, and on each table there lay a large stone ash-tray supplied by a Whisky firm."

This is the first part of Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky trilogy, published in 1929. The novel revolves around a public house called the Midnight Bell, in the Euston area. The first book concerns Bob a twenty-five year old sailor who is working at the bar in the pub. The other two main characters are Ella, who also works at the bar and Jenny, a prostitute and regular visitor to the pub. The second book in the trilogy focuses on Jenny and the third on Ella. Bob is infatuated with Jenny, Ella is very fond of Bob. Jenny is less fond of Bob than he is of her.

Bob has aspirations to become a writer. He has also been working hard and saving and has put aside eighty pounds in his bank account as part of his plans to write one day. Bob, however, is now obsessed with Jenny, who tolerates him and periodically encourages him a little and this is an exploration of obsession and doomed love. It’s also about the desire to possess, reform and “rescue” someone.

The pub itself is the vibrant heart of the novel and this is a great evocation of 1920s London and pub life. This is certainly not the Bright Young Things and the Flappers. It is partially autobiographical and there is subtlety in the portrayal of both characters. The reader is taken through Bob’s gradual whittling down of his savings as he attempts to buy his way into Jenny’s heart. Jenny is not a caricature, not evil or heartless.

Hamilton is most definitely not a writer who does “happy”, but the writing is immersive. The ending is not a surprise, but this is more about the journey: the reader knows all along that Bob is fooling himself.

There is a three part adaptation by the BBC from about twenty years ago, which I haven’t seen. This is a good start to the trilogy.

8 out of 10

Starting The Siege of Pleasure by Patrick Hamilton

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Loved The Midnight Bell. The Siege of Pleasure gave some background to Jenny but wasn't as good. And The Plains of Cement was a nice (albeit sad) conclusion.

Edited by Hux
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Manhattan in Reverse by Peter Hamilton

“His reaction was a sign of civilization. Nobody reaches for a gun anymore, just for his lawyer.”

My first foray in Hamilton is a collection of short stories. Admittedly and easy way in as Hamilton is best known for his space opera type novels. These tend to be very, very long, eight to twelve hundred pages. I have a couple on my shelves and they have been there for years. This is just a try out before I read one of the lengthier ones.

This consists of seven stories, one of which is pretty much a novella. There are some stories set in Hamilton’s Commonwealth universe, which would probably reverberate more with those who have read the series.

The novella, Watching Trees Grow is set in an alternative world where the Roman Empire didn’t fall. It starts in Oxford in the 1820s where there are already telephones and electric cars and are on the verge of atomic power. It is a detective story and spans over two hundred years. The problem of longevity has been cracked and so we see the same characters over the years.

Footvote looks at modern Britain, with a twist. Someone has opened a wormhole to another planet and is allowing it to stay open for two years. Who goes and who stays and what are the criteria. It’s an exploration of family life and modern Britain.

If at First … is a time travelling story with a twist

The Forever Kitten is very short and explores a form of immortality with a very nasty twist.

Blessed by an Angel is a spin off from his Void series.

The last two stories: The Demon Trap and Manhattan in Reverse are linked to the Commonwealth series and feature Paula Myo, a detective of sorts and a vat grown human.

Hamilton throws lots of ideas around, but the basic theme is about what makes us human. The ideas are interesting and I will read some of his longer stuff if I have a rainy month or two!

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Minutes of Glory and other stories by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

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The Lure of Atlantis edited by Michael Wheatley

Another in the Tales of the Weird series from the British Library. The theme is Atlantis and this is by far the weakest collection in the series. Plato has a lot to answer for! Unfortunately here the dividing line between weird and silly is rather frequently crossed.

There are ten short stories in this one: well nine and an extract from Verne’s twenty thousand Leagues Under the Sea. It’s split into four sections: Atlantis Rediscovered, Atlantis Revisited, Atlantis Resurrected and Atlantis Reimagined.

Apart from the Verne there are stories from H P Lovecraft, Donald Wandrei, Henry Kuttner, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Howard, Edmond Hamilton, Frances Bragg Middleton, Joel Martin Nichols Jr and finally Will Smith and R J Robbins.

Again the standard is variable. The Lovecraft contains some very unpleasant anti-German tropes. There are a couple which recall past lives. Nothing really stood out. A couple reminded me of Dungeons and Dragons. Not as engaging as previous books in the series.

5 out of 10

Starting Salvation by Peter Hamilton

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The Siege of Pleasure by Patrick Hamilton

““You’re a bad little girl, ain’t you?” he said waggishly. “How did you get that way?”

“Oo,” she said, in the same burlesquing spirit. “I Took the Wrong Turning, my dear. I Took to Drink.”

“You did–eh?”

“That’s right, my dear,” she went on in the same way, “All through a Glass of Port.”

She was speaking without the slightest seriousness at the moment, but a little later, thinking of odd things as she humoured him and his kisses and the taxi curved and sped through the mauve-lit London streets, she wondered whether she had accidentally hit on truth.”


This is the second in Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky trilogy. This one is the story of the second of the three characters who dominate the books: Jenny, the young prostitute. This is a how did it all start account and is set just before the first in the series.

At the beginning of the novel (actually a novella) Jenny has just started a job in service working for three elderly members of the same family. It’s a steady job and Jenny does it well. This is the story of her “downfall” and is very much an advertisement for the evils of strong drink as the quote above illustrates.

The turning point for Jenny is a night out and the morning after which takes up the majority of the novel. She ditches her steady but rather boring boyfriend for more exciting company. It is a reflection on the human condition and I am realising that Hamilton is not really a happy soul (not surprising given his history). He certainly isn’t sentimental and catches something of the appeal of alcohol:

“A permeating coma, a warm haze of noises and conversation wrapped her comfortable around–together with something more. What that something more was she did not quite know. She sat there and let it flow through her. It was a glow, a kind of premonition. It was certainly a spiritual, but much more emphatically a physical, premonition of good about to befall. It was like the effect on the body of good news, without the good news–a delicious short cut to that inconstant elation which was so arduously won by virtue from the everyday world. It engendered the desire to celebrate nothing for no reason.

This is the start of a downward spiral, which is continued in book one in her interactions with Bob. Hamilton is also talking about class. Jenny because of her origins and her violent upbringing has her aspirations limited. All she can expect is a life in a factory, in service or as a wife with children.

It is bleak, but again it is a vivid picture of 1920s London that doesn’t involve flappers and the privileged.

8 out of 10

Starting The Plains of Cement by Patrick Hamilton.

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