Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore – Robin Sloan

This isn’t the kind of book I would normally choose but something about it called to me from a charity shop bookshelf; probably the fact that it is about a bookshop!

Essentially, the plot revolves around a young man – Clay Jannon – stumbling into a night-shift job at the eponymous bookshop.  The bookshop is an old mysterious play with not many customers although those there are, are odd.

To amuse himself Clay designs a 3D computer model of the bookshop and unwittingly cracks a code.

The book then becomes more of a thriller than a book about a bookshop.

I enjoyed about 2/3 of this book.  Mr Penumbra, Clay and Clay’s random assortment of friends are quite engaging and I liked the way Clay pulled his network together to help solve the problems they faced.

I liked the descriptions of the bookshop as well.  It’s the kind of place I like to visit and I could almost smell that lovely, musty old book scent from the descriptions.

I didn’t like the last 1/3 of the book.  I felt it all got a bit silly and ridiculous.  It almost felt as though one person had written the first part, put it away for a decade or so and then either come back to finish it having evolved into a different person or got someone else to finish writing it.  I feel slightly cheated by it; I found the first parts absorbing and looked forward to picking my book up again only to hit loony tunes-ville in the last part.

Would I recommend this book?  Yes, but, a bit like A Suitable Boy, with reservations about the ending.

Salome – Oscar Wilde – Directed by Owen Horsley for RSC

I’m really not sure where to start writing this week’s blog.  My partner came out of the theatre saying he didn’t understand the point of Salome being played by a man.  My question was more fundamental; I didn’t get the point of the play!

I don’t think this is particularly a problem with the play.  I think it’s mostly about me and the fact that I’m emotionally knackered with other stuff going on in my life just now.  I just don’t think I had the capacity to engage with what was happening on the stage.

I think this was a useful reminder to me that whatever we watch, read or listen to there needs to be a level of emotional engagement with it for us to either “get it” or reject it.  Salome simply washed over me.

Thinking back over the production I recognise that the acting was good.  Matthew Pidgeon was good as Herod; drunk as a skunk and fascinated by his step-daughter in the early parts of the play and rapidly sobered by the horrific demands of the step-daughter for Iokanaan’s head.

Matthew Tennyson was interesting as Salome; an air of innocence on the cusp of adulthood ripening to thwarted, manipulative lust during the dance.

The words of the play are beautifully poetic and evocative.  At some point, when I can uncover the Complete Oscar Wilde book and a Bible from my piles of books, I’d like to go back to the sources and reflect on how Wilde draws from the Bible and how Owen Horsley draws on both for his production.

In the meantime, note to self; spend some time catching up with myself so next time I’m at the theatre I’m in the right frame of mind!

Click here to find out more about RSC production of Salome

Double for Murder – John Creasey

This review isn’t really about the novel but about John Creasey, a prolific author of 562 books!

I was first introduced to John Creasey (and his various pseudonyms) by my Dad when I was a young teenager.  I’d grown out of children’s books but wasn’t really ready for adult books and there was no such thing as young adult fiction in the mid-1970s.  I’d read every Agatha Christie I could lay my hands on, polished off all the Leslie Charteris the local library had in stock and was at a bit of a loose end.  The Baron and the Toff series came along at the exactly the right time and I have collected most of both series since that time.

The books were written between the late 1930s and late 1970s and are dated and sexist in a similar way to the Saint novels of Charteris.  Unlike Charteris, however, the women are not always damsels in distress in need of rescuing.  In fact John Mannering’s wife is a partner in a lot of the later stories.  Both The Toff and The Baron are similar in many ways to The Saint.  They use the skills of criminals to bring justice and retribution to people the Police can’t touch.  And they often work with a tame detective who had previously been trying to bring them down.

The books are short and perfect for those times when you want something to read that isn’t too taxing – they are a definite improvement on daytime TV when you’re slumped on the sofa feeling poorly!  But you don’t want to read too many of them in one sitting or you realise just how formulaic they are.

What interests me is just why The Saint books remain so popular when the John Creasey ones have fallen out of fashion?  They are no better written, no less formulaic and clichéd yet they seem to have endured.  My guess is it’s down to the lovely, late Roger Moore.

May be I should start a campaign to get some of the John Creasey’s reissued?

Click here to find out more about John Creasey

Look Who’s Back – Timur Vermes

This book starts in Berlin, 2011, with Adolf Hitler waking up on a patch of wasteland smelling vaguely of petrol but alive and well!

The rest of the book is about Hitler discovering modern Germany and the modern world; the “Internetwork”, getting onto a television and becoming a media celebrity.  The book is absurd and laugh out loud funny in places.

But it also has a serious point to make.  We fail to see the ridiculousness of parts of our western culture and this book hold a mirror up to show us some of these things.  For example, collagen implants in lips, merchandising blitz when something new and expected to be popular comes out and having a media friendly email address.

The book ends as Hitler is recovering in hospital having been beaten up by 2 neo-Nazi things who think he is poking fun at “the real Hitler” and all he stood for.

The book is written by a German journalist and was first published, in Germany in 2012.  It became an international best seller and was made into a Netflix film in 2016.

I think the problem with the book is – as you might have guessed from the straws I’m clutching at writing this review – although the book is a fun read there isn’t enough of real substance.  It’s difficult to find enough to write about without regurgitating the whole story.

I’d recommend it as a fun days reading.  It will make you giggle and you can then move on to something you can get your teeth into.

King John; treachery, tyranny and the road to Magna Carta – Marc Morris

Another not-quite-satisfying royal biography.  At least this one was more balanced, looking at all aspects of King John, in so far as they are known.

And this is the key problem with this particular book, at least for me.  King John is another medieval character about whom not that much is known.  This makes the book very definitely a political/public life biography.

I finished the book knowing a lot more about John’s political machinations and the instability throughout Europe during the lives of his parents (Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine), the reign of his brother (Richard II/Richard the Lionheart) and during his own reign.  This has helped to reinforce what I’ve learned from other reading and to see different viewpoints.

It was also good to see King John in a different way from the two-dimensional villain he is usually portrayed as in Robin Hood-type films and stories.

However, it is frustrating to not know more about John as a person and to learn hardly anything about Isabelle of Angouleme, his children with her and his numerous illegitimate children.  Who were they?  What happened to them? Who did they become?

Despite its shortcomings and frustrations though the book was definitely worth reading…if only for the fabulous quote of the chronicler Matthew Paris, almost a contemporary of john, who said:

“Foul as it is, hell itself is made fouler by the presence of King John”

A popular King then!!!!

Click here to find out about Magna Carta in Lincoln Castle