Doll Face by Dylan H Jones #WritingWales

Dylan H. Jones - Doll Face_cover_high res

If ever I needed reminding that I have led a (mercifully) sheltered life, I just have to pick up a crime novel. Some of the scenarios dreamed up by the authors working in this genre are not only out of my realm of experience, they don’t even figure in my knowledge bank.

Until I read Doll Face, the second title in Dylan H Jones’ Tudor Manx series, I was blissfully unaware for example that there is a certain section of the population that likes to step into rubberised full body suits whenever they feel like adopting a new persona.


Living Dolls … A subculture of men who like to dress like dolls. They wear body suits, masks, anything that makes them more feminine.

I have to believe that Jones has done his homework and not only do such people walk this planet  there are businesses that supply their needs. What a way to make a living!

The habit provides the title of Doll Face, and is responsible for some thoroughly creepy moments.

I read the first novel in this series  — Anglesey Blue  — last year and enjoyed it as you can see from my review . I wasn’t the only one. It was long listed for the Guardian’s ‘Not the Booker Prize’ 2017 and occupied the #1 Best Seller spot in Welsh Crime for a time. Not bad for a debut novel. 

I wondered at the time how this series would progress. It’s hard enough to write one successful novel but coming up with an equally good second in a series is tough. In an interview I did with Dylan Jones he said his plan was to set each book in a different season with his central character, Detective Inspector Tudor Manx, wrestling with his decision to return to his native island of Anglesey in Wales.

Though Doll Face takes place in Spring, a season associated with hope and growth, it feels a darker novel to me than the winterly Anglesey Blue. It’s set three months after the first novel with Manx’s detective skills called upon when a body of a young woman is found horribly mutilated. Then gruesome video footage comes to light showing details of how she was murdered.

Suspicion falls on her nasty ex husband and on her employer, the millionaire tech-entrepreneur Kimble McLain. McLain is such a big cheese and philanthropist that the high-ups in the police force want Manx to go cautiously. But of course this is a guy who doesn’t understand the word ‘no’. Besides, when another similarly mutilated body is discovered, it quickly becomes clear that there could be a serial killer on the island. The investigation takes Manx into the world of religious fanaticism and child abuse.

Some of the threads from the earlier novel make a return in Doll Face. There’s  the disappearance of his sister many years earlier which continues to haunt Manx. There was a cliff-hanger at the end of Anglesey Blue which I thought would have been picked up in this second novel but we didn’t get much further forward on that plot line.  But there was a significant development about the hitherto hinted-at reasons why Manx left his previous job with the London Metropolitan serious crime division under a dark cloud of suspicion.

The inspector’s strained relationship with the forensic scientist Ashton Bevan is also shaping up nicely while we got to know more about the two key members of the team: policewoman Delyth Morris and Falklands’ War veteran Detective Sergeant Maldwyn Nader, who is suffering from PTSD. I’m warming to them both as well as to the cigar smoking, sports car driving inspector. Maybe by book four one of the women on the island will have persuaded Manx that it’s time his fashion sense came into the twenty-first century.

An entertaining read with plenty of twists and dangling threads to keep you reading. It can be read as a stand-alone novel though it you want to get under the skin of Anglesey, it would be worth reading Anglesey Blue also.


About the Book: Doll Face by Dylan H Jones is published in March 2018 by Bloodhound Books.

About the Author: Dylan H Jones is a native of Anglesey so he knows a thing or two about the island, its landscape, language and people. He has worked in television and the creative industry, as a producer at the Welsh TV Channel, S4C before becoming creative director  at Channel 4, London. In 1999, Dylan moved to California where he worked a copywriter in LA, writing movie trailers and TV ads. 

More information is available on his website  and in a Q&A with Dylan Jones on this blog site in which he talks about the choice of Anglesey as a setting and his plans for the series.

Why I read this book: It’s a great opportunity to showcase the writing from my native country of Wales. Thanks to Dylan Jones and to Bloodhound Books for providing me with an advance copy of Doll Face in return for a fair review.


The Ladies Paradise by Émile Zola [book review]

the Ladies ParadiseLook around any large city centre today and it’s difficult to imagine that we once managed to exist without the gleaming glass edifices of department stores.  Yet there was indeed a time when shopping was done via small stores and boutiques, often family owned, that dealt in a limited range of merchandise. Buying an umbrella, a new coat and a pair of curtains on the same expedition would mean an inconvenient visit to three separate shops.

All that changed in the mid 19th century with the creation of the first department store in Paris, the Au Bon Marché, quickly followed by Samaritaine, Printemps, and the crème de la crème, the Galeries Lafayette. With their Art Nouveau architectural styles forged from glass and iron and lavish decorations they quickly attracted as many customers as museums or palaces attract daily visitors today.

This is the world brought to life by Émile Zola in The Ladies Paradise, one of the 20 titles in his Rougon-Macquart cycle. He gives an insider’s view of the inner-workings of this fictional major department store (even down to the detail of how cash handed over by customers is transported through the store to a counting room) re-creating the magnetism these new edifices held for their customers. The stores were places designed to entice shoppers (particularly women) and persuade them to part with their money using techniques that we think of as twentieth century commercial practices.

Heavy advertising, a ‘no questions asked’ returns policy, rapid home delivery,  ‘pile them high’ displays of specially procured merchandise and seasonal sales. All techniques used by the proprietor of The Ladies’ Paradise, Octave Mouret, to turn a fairly modest shop into the biggest, boldest, most successful Emporium Paris, and indeed the whole of France, has ever seen.

His ambitions have repercussions. As his business thrives, the small, family owned shops around the city find they can no longer compete. They can’t store the range of products nor get the volume discounts from manufacturers needed to match Mouret’s low prices. Customers begin to shun their dark little places in favour of the spectacles of The Ladies’ Paradise where each new season brings another joy to the senses. One year it’s a writing room and free cold drinks to help customers re-charge their batteries before their next foray into the displays; another season brings balloons for every child. And every year another new department is opened within the store. No matter the crush when the sales are on – it’s all part of the fun and appeal of the store.

Zola constantly contrasts the brilliantly lit magnificence of The Ladies Paradise with the Galaries Lafayette Parisdarkness and dinginess of the more traditional stores. At the Paradise “there was an explosion of white bathed in flames…. a blinding white light in which every tone of white was dissolving, a dusting of stars snowing …” but the old shops “….dark shadows were falling from the ceiling in great shovelfuls, like black earth into the grave.” The small traders desperately try to hold out but seek deeper and deeper into debt and squeezed out physically by the expansionism of Mouret’s store.

The demise of the independent trader isn’t the only aspect of this rampant consumerism to be exposed by Zola. He shows how Mouret uses the mechanisms of seduction, transforming everything for sale into an object of desire. The store becomes a machine that causes women to lose their heads. Driven to euphoria by the sheer range of delights on offer and the bargains, they buy what they don’t need, spend far beyond their budgets, and resort to shoplifting. Even when they know they are out of control, they cannot stop.

The crowd had reached the silk department … At the far end of the hall, around one of the small cast-iron columns, which supported the glass roof, material was streaming down like a bubbling sheet of water. … Women pale with desire were leaning over as if to look at themselves. Faced with the secret fear of being caught in the overflow of all this luxury and with an irresistable desire to throw themselves into it and be lost.

At the end of one of the grandest of his sales  “the customers, despoiled and violated, were going away in disarray, their desires satisfied, and with the secret shame of having yielded to temptation in the depths of some sleazy hotel.”

Mouret is depicted as the grand despoiler and exploiter, luring his customers with ever more exotic displays. His understanding of the psychology of his female customer provides critical.

He had discovered that she could not resist a bargain, that she bought without necessity when she thought she saw a cheap line, and on this observation he based his system of reductions in price of unsold items, preferring to sell them at a loss, faithful to his principle of continual renewal of the goods.”

The Ladies Paradise portrays women as much as of a commodity as the goods on offer in the store. Zola often shows them as fragmented, distorted parts of the body that merge with the fabrics and objects in the shop. As they pass through the various displays mirrors reflect their faces in reverse and bits of their shoulders and arms while headless mannequins are used to line the central staircase and as a window dressing.

Mouret himself is the great Seducer, a man with a low regard for women’s ability to resist temptation .

[his] unique passion was to conquer Woman. He wished her to be queen in her house, and he had built this temple to get her completely at his mercy. His sole aim was to intoxicate her with gallant attentions, and traffic on her desires, work on her fever. Night and day he racked his brain to invent fresh attractions.”

Then, “…when he had emptied her purse and shattered her nerves, he was full of the secret scorn of a man to whom a woman had just been stupid enough to yield herself.”

He more than meets his match however in the shape of Denise Baudu, a young orphaned provincial girl who arrives in the city with her two younger brothers. She is taken in by her uncle but he cannot support her because his shop is hemorrhaging customers to the Ladies’ Paradise. Her uncle detests Mouret’s establishment and he, and his family, rail volibly against it every day but Denise finds it mesmerising. She gets a job there as a lowly salesgirl and moves into the dormitory provided for staff. As the novel progresses she encounters hostilities and animosity, is derided for her shabby clothes and untidy hair and her inability to make a sale. She is fired and then rehired. She comes to the attention of Mouret but she resists his advances, refusing to become another notch on his belt; refusing in essence to be commodified.

This romance strand was the weakest aspect of the novel for me. Although I could relate to the early parts of the novel which portray her sufferings at the hands of some spiteful sales girls and male assistants, I found it harder to believe in the attraction she held for Mouret. Further lacking credibility was that Denise, with little commercial experience to her name, is able to persuade him to introduce some innovations that improve efficiency and result in greater sales.

As a novel which shows the emergence of the department stores with their attendant materialism as a symbol of progress, this is an outstanding piece of work. Zola depicts this new form of retail as an ambiguous development. Department stores gave women power to express themselves more fully; freed from the constraints of the parlour and the small show they could throw themselves enthusiasically into a public space. But the cost was loss of self restraint when faced with objects designed to appeal to their erotic instincts. A pair of leather gloves in the Ladies’ Paradise for example smells “like an animal in rut which has landed in a girl’s powder box.” They are caught up in a gigantic dream machine against which they have few reserves.

The Ladies’ Paradise can be read on multiple levels. First as a romance between a lowly shop girl and a successful wealthy businessman. Second as an exploration of social change with the birth of consumerism. And finally as a portrayal of the physical transformation of Paris through the influence of people like Haussmann. If you love luxuriant prose, the long paragraphs that describe in minute detail the architecture, store layout, customers’ apparel and merchandise, will delight.  If you prefer a plot driven novel, be aware that this is one of the weakest aspects of The Ladies’ Paradise.

About the Book:

The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) was published in 1883. As with many of the other novels in the Rougon-Macquart series, it features characters who make an appearance in other titles. The pratogonist of The Ladies’ Paradise, Octave Mouret, appears in Pot -Bouille, as an ambitious philanderer in fact.  My edition from Oxford World Classics is translated by Brian Nelson who has also written the excellent introduction to the text.

Why I Read This Book: I’m part way through reading all of the Rougon-Macquart series. I’ve enjoyed every one I’ve read so farThe Ladies’ Paradise was recommended by Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers – see her review here.

Bookends #3 March 2018

Article: 21st century women writers

My chosen article this week was published by The New York Times to mark Women’s History Month. In Vanguard Books by Women their staff writers considered which women writers in the 21st century are at the helm of new paths in writing. They wanted to identify those women who are opening new realms and whose works ” suggest and embody unexplored possibilities in form, feeling and knowledge.”

They ended up with a list of 15 books that they considered remarkable. From Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah to Zadie Smith’s NW, Hang Kang’s The Vegetarian and Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado which seems to be a curious blend of fantasy, police procedural and horror. They admit the choices are idiosyncratic and there are numerous good books that were not included. Even so some of the selections are strange. Why choose NW when On Beauty or White Teeth were infinitely better? Why not Ali Smith whose How to Be Both surely counts as inventive? And what possessed them to leave out Hilary Mantel who has surely broken the mould for historical fiction?

What do you think – do you agree with the list or think there are some glaring omissions?

Book: The Fisher Child by Philip Casey 

A little away day to Dublin this week gave me a good excuse to pop into a bookshop. Just at the point where I had to admit I was lost (despite having a map) I saw Books Upstairs, one of the shops Cathy at 746books recommended, and apparently the oldest independent bookstore in the city. What a friendly team they have in the shop – not only did they put me on the right path to my destination but they shared their deep knowledge of contemporary Irish writers. I could have bought at least half a dozen but I my laptop bag was already too heavy so I had to limit it to just one – a novel by Philip Casey, a writer who was a regular at Books Upstairs until his death in February this year.

This is the blurb:

The Fisher Child is in three parts. In the first, Kate is happily married to Dan, both of them second-generation Irish and comfortable in their middle-class north London lives. They have two children, a boy and a girl, with another one on the way. But when Meg is born, Dan cannot accept her as his child, and retreats to Ireland in bewilderment. In Wexford, his family are partaking in the the bi-centenary commemoration of the 1798 Rebellion, and he learns about his ancestor Hugh Byrne, a rebel who was forced to flee Ireland, presumably to America. Dan will never know what the reader discovers in part two – that Hugh had not settled in America but in the Caribbean island of Montserrat, where he fell in love with Ama, a black slave whose genes have lain hidden in Dan’s family for two centuries.

Blog Post: A stranded reader

Blogger Harriet Devine had a miserable experience recently which she wrote about in this post. It’s a miserable enough experience having your travel documents, credit cards and cash stolen. Add to the misery the fact that you can’t get home until replacement documents are issued (you may be on a warm, sunny Mediterranean island but even paradise palls when you have no money to spend). But imagine having to endure that without anything decent to read! The bookcases in some hotels may be full of paperbacks other visitors have left behind but they are seldom the kind of book I want to read. And so it proved for poor Harriet….


From beauty myth to family jealousy in six steps

It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation where the idea is to create a chain of book connections. This month we begin with a non-fiction title from 1990: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf.

beauty mythThere is in a clue in the subtitle  “How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women” about the primary message of this book. Wolf argues that as the social power and prominence of women have increased, the pressure to conform to unrealistic social standards of physical beauty has also grown stronger because of commercial influences on the mass media.  Amongst her evidence she cites a rise in cases of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia and the rapid growth of plastic surgery.

The Beauty Myth became a best seller and generated considerable debate. I remember thinking when I read it that, though interesting and thought-provoking, it wasn’t anywhere near as convincing as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. I’ll give Wolf  a lot of credit however for bringing the topic out into the open. Sadly, we see evidence regularly that the issues she saw then haven’t gone away.

PygmalionLet’s stay with myth and beauty for my first link: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, is a play about a professor who trains a poor, uneducated girl to act and speak like a lady. The title comes from the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor unable to find any real woman who fitted his idea of the perfect female. He carves a statue out of ivory that is so beautiful and so perfect that he falls in love with it and wants to give it life.



Nora WebsterPygmalion is of course a story about transformation and change; a theme which is central to my next book; also by an Irish writer. In Nora Webster Colm Toibin gives us a deep and penetrating portrayal of a middle-aged widow struggling to remake her life after the premature death of her husband. She returns to the office work she thought she had left behind forever, begins listening to the classical music her husband never liked and starts making new friends. One of the most significant signs that she is moving on comes when she visits the hairdresser and emerges with a radical new style.


I could link to another work about transformation,  Educating Rita by Willy Russel, in which a young uneducated hairdresser enrols for an Open University degree course because she wants more from life.  I’ve seen the stage version and watched the film multiple times (it’s one of my all time favourites) but I can’t really use it for this chain since it would mean breaking my rule that I select only texts I’ve read.

AmericanahSo let’s go down a different path and to another book which uses hair styles as part of a theme about identity. The main character in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie only begins to feel truly free and true to her Nigerian roots when she decides she will no longer spend hours and vast sums of money on having her hair ‘relaxed’.  Hair, she comes to realise, is a political issue in America with black women expected to relax their natural curls with strong chemicals in order to conform to comfortable white norms. Before she makes her first return home to the Nigeria she left 15 years earlier, she visits a salon to have her hair braided.

portrait of a lady

I’m sticking with the issue of identity for my next book. A Portrait of a Lady is one of Henry James’ most respected novels. It wasn’t one I enjoyed at first reading – I found it incredibly slow (page after page where nothing much happens except someone opens an umbrella)… I must admit I skimmed many passages. It wasn’t until I re-read the book that I began to fully appreciate this tale of a young American woman who insists that she must be free to write her own plot and then to live with the unfortunate consequences of her decisions. Still not sure I understand the ending however….


God - of-small-thingsConsequences takes me to India and to a novel that won the Booker Prize in 1997. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy  has two captivating characters in the form of  Rahel Kochamma and her brother Esth. They’re used to being the centre of attention so when their new cousin arrives to spend Christmas at the family home, their noses are put out of joint. Their jealousy has tragic repercussions that don’t become apparent until the final chapters of the novel. Until then we’re treated to some tremendous comic scenes involving these effervescent twins.


Lives of OthersThe family rivalries depicted in Arundhati Roy’s novel remind me of Neel Mukherjee’s  novel The Lives of Others which is set in India during the second half of the 1960s. In it we meet three generations of the large and relatively wealthy Ghosh family who live together in one house, their rooms allocated on a strictly hierarchical basis. The  patriarchal Prafullanath and his wife Charubala live on the top floor., the widow of their youngest son is relegated to a storage room on the ground floor of the house. Inevitably there are tensions over saris and wedding jewellery.


And with that I’ve reached the end of a chain which has moved from notions of beauty through female identity to familial disputes. If you’re interested in how other bloggers created their chains, take a look at booksaremyfavouriteandbest and also find out how to join the meme hosted by Kate.




Bookends #2 March 2018

Today’s Bookends post comes from inside my snowy bower in Wales. My village was in the eye of the storm that came through on Thursday, recording the highest snowfall in the country. Though the snow is still coming down it looks as if the road out of the village is now clear. Hope so because after two days confined to barracks I’m getting a little stir crazy. There is only so much baking, eating, reading one can do….

When I relaunched Bookends last week I said that each post would consist of just three things that have caught my attention, aroused my curiosity; stimulated my interest

  • a book
  • a blog post and
  • an article

So let’s kick off this week with a book that has been in my ‘to read’ collection for a very long time. But since it’s International Women’s Day in a few day’s time (March 8), it feels appropriate to highlight a collection that explores the lives of colourful, intrepid women in history.

Book: Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman.

Almost Famous Women

The women who feature in this debut work are creativly impulsive, fiercely independent and sometimes reckless. In They include a cross-dressing Standard Oil heiress Joe Carstairs, an aviator and writer who lives alone in Nairobi; Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter; Oscar Wilde’s wild niece, Dolly; and James Joyce’s daughter. This is a work of fiction though Megan Bergman based each story on biographical information (sometimes very scanty).



Blog Post: The Emerald Isle beckons

It’s March so it must be time for Reading Ireland month which is hosted by Cathy at It’s easy to take part — you just read something which is related to Ireland. It could be a book by an Irish author, or set in Ireland or characters who are of Irish origin. If you’re stuck for ideas, Cathy has a list of around 100 suggestions on the site. More info can be found on the Reading Ireland announcement page.

And finally…

Article: Can novels change our attitudes to death?

In an article for Electric Literature, professor John MacNeill Miller asks whether novels such as Lincoln in the Bardo, which deal with the afterlife, can help address our phobia about death.

Maybe not the most uplifting topic for the end of the week but one that got me thinking about death scenes in literature. Two come to mind immediately: Emma Bovary in Gustav Flaubert’s Madam Bovary and Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son. The first is not how most people would want to spend their final moments on this earth; the second is considerably more traditional though rather sentimental.  Have you come across any scenes that are more realistic, neither sentimental nor dwelling on the gruesome?

Books to mark Wales’ special day

Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus i chi!

daffodils in snow

March 1 is St David’s Day in Wales —St David being our patron saint — so usually a day for celebration of all things Welsh. The celebrations will be very muted this year however with schools closed and concerts cancelled because of Storm Emma, so I thought I would mark the occasion by highlighting some new books from authors and publishers based in Wales.


One Woman Walks WalesOne Woman Walks Wales. Ursula Martin is a remarkable account of a courageous woman. After a cancer diagnosis and then Ursula Martin was too weak to  walk more than a few steps. But she is a determined woman so she set a goal  to walk the four miles to her nearest post box every day. Her progress was so slow drivers would stop to offer her a lift. She persevered.

Her next goal was even more ambitious: to walk the 200 miles to her follow up appointment with the medical team. Coming out of the meeting, she headed back home on foot. And then just kept walking…..

In 17 months, she walked the length and breadth of Wales, across its beaches, up and down the coastal paths, through mountains, farms and urban sprawl.

One Woman Walks Wales is publsihed by Honno. If you order direct from their site they will make a donation of £1 to the Target Ovarian Cancer charity.

Also coming soon from Honno is Albi by Hilary Shepherd which is set in Spain in 1930s. The Civil War turns everything upside down for nine-year-old Albi and his family. They are under siege from outside and held captive by secrets within the home. Albi must sometimes close his ears and his eyes if he is to survive.

The Glass AisleSeren Books have a strong poetry collection, the newest addition to which is The Glass Aisle by Paul Henry. It features twenty eight poems including an elergy  to displaced workhouse residents, set on a stretch of canal in the Brecon Beacons National Park. A performance version of  The Glass Aisle, featuring songs co-written with fellow musician and songwriter Brian Briggs, (‘Stornoway’), is currently touring festivals.  More details can be found on the Seren website.

I mentioned another of their recent publications May by Naomi Krüger in my recent Bookends post. It’s a novel written from the perspective of a woman with dementia who is trying to piece together the fragments of her memory. Definitely one I am going to be buying.

Hummingbird.pngWelsh publisher, Parthian, is offering Hummingbird by Tristan Hughes, a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Wales. Born in  Ontario, he spent his childhood on th Welsh island of Ynys Mon. Hummingbird, his fourth novel takes him back to Canada, to a remote location where fifteen-year-old Zachary Tayler lives a lonely and isolated life with his father. One summer the enigmatic Eva Spiller arrives in search of the remains of her parents and together they embark on a strange and disconcerting journey of discovery. This novel won the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Award for 2018. More details are on the Parthian website.







A shot of crime

I’m slowly making my way through a backlog of crime fiction novels that have occupied my bookshelves for a few months. It’s not a genre I read that regularly because although I enjoy them at the time, they are the books I never remember after I finish them.

I’m going to forsake new purchases but I still have a few on the shelves for those times when crime novels fit the need perfectly (like when I have a heavy cold and the brain can’t deal with anything deep and meaningful). It’s unlikely I will ever find myself with unable to satisfy a sudden desire for crime – my local library is wall to wall with these kinds of novels.

Here are two of my most recent reads.

Sussex Downs MurderSussex Downs Murder by John Bude (British Library Crime Classics) 

This is the second of Bude’s novels to feature the modest but highly effective Superintendent Meredith.  The tightly-plotted tale begins with the disappearance of a Sussex farmer and the discovery of his abandoned car. Initially it appears he might have been kidnapped but when human bones are found in the Sussex Downs, police quickly realise they have a murderer on the loose.

Superintendent Meredith is called to investigate and painstakingly unravels the mystery of the bones. His is a very civilised form of detection, relying on systematic evaluation of evidence and oodles of double checking of facts. In between chasing down details about a cloaked man seen striding the downs on the night of the farmer’s disappearance, a fake telegram and a butterfly catcher who wears sunglasses at night, the Super is able to pop home for a sustaining lunch with his wife.

John Bude has a good eye for locational details and an ability to plot meticulously.  In keeping with the spirit of the Golden Age of Fiction, we get the very helpful explanation at the end of the book of how the crime was committed. Without this I admit I was struggling to keep all the different clues straight in my head.

This probably isn’t the kind of crime novel for people who love the gritty Nordic Noir style, but it’s still highly enjoyable. I warn you though, it does require focused concentration to follow the trail of clues.

The Beautiful DeadThe Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer

This is a dark and intense psychological novel that does a brilliant job of getting inside the head of a serial killer. Eve Singer is an ambitious young TV crime reporter who is accustomed to getting close to the scenes of murder so she can be first with the news. But she has never before been the target of a killer.

She needs death in order to keep her job. The killer needs her to broadcast to the world how beautiful death can be. What Eve realises too late is that his obsession for public exhibitions of death will involve her own.

Usually I find the portraits of journalists in novels are highly unrealistic but Bauer, has a former reporter, writes convincingly about the world of television news and the pressure to get the story, no matter what. Eve is caught between the demands of her bully news editor and the  obsessive killer, forcing her to make uncomfortable moral decisions.

I don’t understand why Bauer hasn’t had the attention enjoyed by other thriller writers. Every book I’ve read by her has been first class, well written and well plotted with fleshed out characters and taut storylines. The Beautiful Dead is no exception.

Bookends #1 February 2018

It’s been a long time since I last did one of my Bookend posts. Not sure why I stopped doing them. Maybe I was travelling and didn’t get the time to write them for a few weekends and just got out of the habit. Or maybe I just ran out of steam.

But Simon’s weekend miscellany posts at Stuck in a Book have given me the motivation to give Bookends another go. In its original incarnation, Bookends was a round up of miscellaneous bookish news. I’m going to streamline this a bit and in future each post will consist of just three things that have caught my attention, aroused my curiosity; stimulated my interest

  • a book
  • a blog post and
  • an article

Book: May by Naomi Krüger


Here in Wales we will be celebrating our patron saint’s day (St David) next week. So it seems very appropriate to highlight a new title from Seren, one of the independent publishers in Wales. May is the debut novel of Naomi Krüger, creative co-director of the North West Literary Salon and a lecturer in creative writing. It caught my attention because it’s written from the perspective of a woman with dementia who is trying to piece together the fragments of her memory. I’m currently reading and loving Three Things About Elsie  by Joanna Cannon which is also about an elderly woman and her past. I also enjoyed Emma Healey’s debut novel Elizabeth is Missing, which had an octogenarian narrator. Maybe Naomi Krüger’s novel will complete my hat trick? May is published by Seren on March 12. Details are on their website here

To whet your appetite, here is the blurb:

The door to the past has been locked to May but fragments of memories still remain: a boy running on the green, his fiery hair, a letter without a stamp, a secret she promised not to tell. She can’t piece together the past or even make sense of the present, but she revisits what she knows again and again. The boy, the letter, the secret. She can’t grasp what they mean, but maybe the people she’s loved and lost can uncover the mystery of the red-headed boy and his connection to May.

Blog post: Anticipating the Man Booker International Prize List

The longlist for the Man Booker International Prize will be announced on March 12. Tony Messenger has put together his own wishlist; titles that he thinks will be on the judges’ list; or should be. Do you agree with his predictions?

Article: In Praise of Negative Book Reviews

In the journal The Baffler, author and columnist Rafia Zakaria argues the case for more  negative book reviews. “The general tone and tenor of the contemporary book review is an advertisement-style frippery”, she claims, consisting of “vapid and overblown praise”.  She doesn’t give any examples unfortunately or cite the offending publications but I can’t say I’ve noticed a preponderance of “forced and foppish praise” in the newspaper review sections I read. Have you?


The Comforters by Muriel Spark #bookreview

The ComfortersThe Comforters was Muriel Spark’s first novel. She went on to write a further 21, gaining a reputation for blending wit and humour within darker themes of evil and suffering.

It contains two broad plot lines.

Once concerns the suspicions of Laurence Manders that his elderly grandmother Louisa Jepp is heavily involved in a diamond-smuggling operation. The other focuses on his on-off girlfriend Caroline Rose,  a writer who is a recent convert to Catholicism. While working on a book about 20th-century fiction called “Form in the Modern Novel” she is visited by what she calls a “Typing Ghost”, an invisible being that repeats and remarks upon her thoughts and actions.

Every time Caroline has a thought, it gets echoed by the Typing Ghost. One day she writes:  On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena. 

“Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her left. It stopped and was immediately followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena.”

Most of the novel is connected to the differing reactions of Laurence and Caroline to these mysteries. Laurence is excited and intrigued when he discovers jewels hidden in a loaf of bread at his grandmother’s cottage and finds her in a conflab with three mysterious figures. Mr Webster the baker and the Hogarths, a father and his crippled son could, he surmises be “a gang … maybe Communist spies”.

Caroline on the other hand is is frightened by her mystery.  Her friends cannot hear the noises of typewriter keys being tapped and a voice that sounds “like one person speaking in several tones at once”. Nor do they manage to record them on tape. Caroline thus fears the worst, that the visitations mean she is going mad. This adds to the isolation she feels because of her religious beliefs and the fact other converts she encounters are either distasteful or a bit dense.

With the aid of Laurence, her friends, and her priest, Caroline comes to see that another writer, “a writer on another plane of existence” is writing a story about her. She, and everyone around her, exist as characters within a fictional realm of an unknown author’s imagination. The Comforters is thus about the question of reality versus truth using a variation on the device of a novel within a novel.

I’m conscious that this summary of the plot doesn’t truly convey how complex and convoluted this is as a novel. As it progressed I found it more and more confusing. I reached the final third hoping all the pieces would fall into place but they never did so I abandoned the book.

I noticed that The Comforters was lauded by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, both of whom saw a manuscript of the novel and encouraged Muriel Spark to find a publisher. Greene called it “One of the few really original first novels one has read for many years” while Evelyn Waugh deemed it Brilliantly original and fascinating.’ Waugh did however seem to suggest that the first part of the book worked better than the latter sections.

That was also my reaction.

I enjoyed the light comedy opening where we’re introduced to Granny Louisa and Laurence, a young man which a lively imagination who sees nothing wrong in opening letters addressed to other people or rummaging through the drawers of their cupboards.


There were times when I thought this part of the novel wouldn’t have been out of place in an Ealing comedy film. We get a part-gypsy old lady who relies on pigeons for communicating with her ‘gang’ members, diamonds smuggled inside plaster casts of saints and transported to a London-based fence in granny’s home-made pickles.  Stanley Holloway would have been perfect as a gang member with Katie Johnson (from The Ladykillers) as Granny Louisa.

The plot line involving Caroline’s hallucinations was an interesting meta-fictive element but the rest of the book was way too jumbled. I couldn’t work out the point Spark was making through the Baron (a bookseller friend of Caroline’s) who is obsessed by a man he thinks is England’s leading Satanist or the oppressive, malevolent figure of Mrs Georgina Hogg, a former servant to Laurence’s family. Other, more astute readers, will probably have understood the significance but it went over my head, and I wasn’t so deeply engaged with the novel otherwise that I wanted to expend any more energy in trying to work it all out.


About the book: Muriel Spark finished writing The Comforters in 1955 but it was not published until 1957. It quickly became a commercial success, though not to the same extent as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 1961.

Why I read this book:  Ann at Cafe Society has embarked on a project to read something from every year of her life. I’m dipping my toe in these waters too. Since 2018 is Muriel Spark’s centenary and her first novel was published in my first year on this planet, I thought The Comforters would be as good a place to begin as any. I’ve also enjoyed the two other Muriel Spark novels I’ve read (Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means) so expected I would be similarly entertained by this one. Hmm.

Other opinions: Other reviewers have enjoyed this far more than I did. Take a look at reviews by HeavenAli  (who is hosting a#ReadingMuriel2018 project) and piningforthewest. 






A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles #bookreview

gentleman_in_moscowIn Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, the Russian Revolution is a few years old but the country is still in a state of upheaval. The ruling bodies are on a mission to root out individuals whom they consider to be a destabilising force. Their attention turns to Count Alexander Rostov, a suave and handsome member of the aristocracy who has gained a reputation as a poet but whose work is considered counter-revolutionary by the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs.

Only his connections with some high-ranking officials save him from being stood in front of a wall and shot. Instead, after declaring him to be a “Former Person” , the Committee sentence the count to imprisonment in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. It’s the city’s foremost hotel, an Art Deco edifice place frequented by the rich and famous, bureaucrats and foreign visitors. As befitting his status and love of the finer aspects of life, the count has been a regular guest at the Metropol, occupying the elegantly furnished suite 317 from which he can look upon the Bolshoi Theatre.

His new abode will be considerably more modest; a miniscule attic room whose ceiling slopes so acutely it’s difficult for the new occupant to stand to his full height. Into this disused servant’s quarter, the count crams some of his favourite pieces of fine furniture: two high back chairs, an oriental coffee table, a Louis XVI desk, two table lamps fashioned from elephants and his grandmother’s favourite set of porcelain plates.

It’s in this cell that he will live for the next forty years.

The insularity of this setting seemed one that would pose considerable challenges for both writer and reader. A Gentleman in Moscow is a long novel with more than 400 pages of small text and not much white space. I started reading with some trepidation. Could this book sustain my interest when the central character never goes anywhere?

The answer is unquestionably yes.

Unable to send his count out into the world, Towles makes the world come to the count. Effectively he makes a whole new world out of the hotel, one peopled by a multitude of colourful characters. Actresses preen in the lobby, overseas journalists get drunk in the bar; members of the ruling elite plot and scheme and architects dream of one day being allowed to design more than just residential tower blocks. Other more permanent characters are the people who make this haven a special place: the barber who does not permit political talk within his salon; the moody chef who has to work magic with cauliflower and cabbage when other food becomes scarce and the bar staff who keep the candlelight glowing and glasses twinkling. And then there is Nina, a child of nine who has discovered more about the hidden corners and spaces of the hotel than the count ever dreamed existed. With the aid of a skeleton key she unlocks for him the secrets of the Metropol.

No character is as engaging or enticing as the count however. He’s a man who adopts a philosophical stance to the limitations of his new residence. Convinced that “by the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world.”  he determines on a path that will enable him to live a full and rich life. He adopts a few rituals; a weekly visit to the barber, a daily perusal of the newspapers in the lobby;  dinner in the Metropole’s prestigious Boyarsky restaurant and squat exercises every morning (the number of repetitions he achieves diminishes every few years). He lives according to the principle that, “If one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them.” And so he hits on a means to double the size of his room; kicking through into a closet to create a study.

As the years progress he proves to be the epitomy of the perfect gentleman; intelligent and charming; uncomplaining about his confinement and generous with his time and advice about the correct pairing of wine and food. He builds a camaraderie with the chef and maitre d’ that sees them plot how to beg and scrounge the ingredients for a perfect bouillabaisse. He is on first name terms with Marina the hotel seamstress whose help he needs when his trousers split. He even stands in loco parentis to the daughter of young girl.

Meanwhile the revolution lumbers along. It disrupts the smooth running of the hotel to the dismay of the staff who pride themselves on their professionalism. The quality of service which has been the hallmark of the Metropol is threatened. First,  the government decrees, in accordance with the spirit of egalitarianism, that labels must be removed from all the wine bottles in the hotel cellar. Then the overbearing manager nicknamed The Bishop (a Soviet stooge) introduces a new procedure  for taking, placing and billing of orders in the restaurant.  This procedure involves a lot of paperwork:

Henceforth … when a waiter took an order, he would write it on a pad designed for this purpose. Leaving the table, he would bring the order to the bookkeeper, who, having made an entry in his ledger, would issue a cooking slip for the kitchen. In the kitchen, a corresponding entry would be made for the cooking log, at which point the cooking could commence. When the food was ready for consumption, a confirmation slip would be issued by the kitchen to the bookkeeper, who in turn would provide  a stamped receipt to the waiter authorising the retrieval of the food. Thus a few minutes later the waiter would be able to make the appropriate notation on his notepad confirming that the dish which had been ordered, logged, cooked and retrieved and was finally on the table.

Towles can’t resist the opportunity to highlight the idiocies of the Soviet system but that doesn’t mean he completely ignores its darker side.  His unnamed narrator acknowledges that the 1930s was a difficult time for Russia with famine, housing shortages, constraints on artists and regular purges of undesirable individuals. Closer to home, the count’s friend Mishka feels the weight of censorship of the arts and literature and Nina, an enthusiastic supporter of  collectivisation, sees at first hand the savagery of Stalin’s plans for agriculture.  When her husband is arrested and sentenced to hard labour she feels compelled to follow him to Siberia, leaving her small daughter Sofia in the Count’s care and protection.

With the exception of  twist in the final section of the novel, there are no big dramatic turns of events. The delight is in the development of the characters.  I loved the many touches of humour but also the more reflective passages where the count recalls his childhood spent on a large family estate outside of the city and his relationship with his  friend Mishka, a poet. A Gentleman in Moscow is a beautifully paced novel, packed with detail and atmosphere that is a joy to read.


About the author Amor Towles was born and raised in Boston, USA. He worked as an investment professional for many years before devoting himself to writing. A Gentleman in Moscow was published in 2016. It is his second novel.

Why I read this book: Quite simply because I saw several very positive reviews of this during 2017. If you want a second opinion on just how good this book is, take a look at these reviews:

Karen at kaggsysbookishramblings 

Lisa at ANZLitLovers

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