What are you reading the week of March 18, 2017?
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John Blackburn (born Northumberland, 26 June 1923; died 1993) was born in 1923 in the village of Corbridge, England, the second son of a clergyman, Charles Eliel Blackburn and Adelaide Fenwick, a watercolor painter. He wrote thrillers, horror novels, and The Flame and the Wind (1967), an unusual historical novel set in Roman times, in which a nephew of Pontius Pilate tries to discover the facts about the crucifixion of Jesus.
Blackburn started attending Haileybury College near London in 1937, but his education was interrupted by the onset of World War II; the shadow of the war, and that of Nazi Germany, would later play a role in many of his works. He served as a radio officer during the war in the Mercantile Marine from 1942 to 1945, and resumed his education afterwards at Durham University, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1949. Blackburn taught for several years after that, first in London and then in Berlin, and married Joan Mary Clift in 1950. Returning to London in 1952, he took over the management of Red Lion Books.
It was there that Blackburn began writing, and the immediate success in 1958 of his first novel, A Scent of New-Mown Hay, led him to take up a career as a writer full-time. He and his wife also maintained an antiquarian bookstore, a secondary career that would inform some of Blackburn’s later work. A prolific author, Blackburn would write nearly 30 novels between 1958 and 1985; most of these were horror and thrillers, but also included one historical novel set in Roman times, The Flame and the Wind (1967). He died in 1993.
He was the author of many novels whose ambience of horror derives from a calculated use of material from several genres, including science fiction, often simultaneously. The loose General Kirk sequence beginning with A Scent of New-Mown Hay (1958), A Sour Apple Tree (1958) and Broken Boy (1959), tends to manipulate the patterns of espionage and thriller fiction to buttress and ultimately provide explanations for tales whose effects are fundamentally akin to gothic horror and fantasy. Ex-Nazis often crop up in these books, as in the first, where a German Scientist spreads around the world a mutated plague-bearing fungus boasting both the eponymous aroma (which provides early warning to its female victims) and the capacity to shapeshift. The protagonist of this novel, General Charles Kirk, head of (the nonexistent) British Foreign Office Intelligence, oversees in further volumes assignments by various agents, whose missions cast an occultish glow on Cold War storylines, several featuring explicit science fiction motifs.
His horror novels are often structured as thrillers, with detective story plots involving international espionage, but leading to a supernatural resolution. This means that, as with some of the books of James Herbert, many of Blackburn's horror novels are notable for pace and plotting rather than for atmospheric effects. Blackburn specialised in mixing modern concerns such as germ warfare and international conspiracies with ancient traditions and curses, often to ingenious effect.
In Bury Him Darkly (1969), and object which its obsessed discoverers think to be the Holy Grail is in fact an aeons-old artefact containing suddenly fruitful alien spores.
In For Fear of Little Men (1972), the eponymous creatures – trolls and gnomes, et cetera – are a lost race, the degenerate survivals of an ancient Welsh civilization.
His secondary occupation as the proprietor--with his wife--of an antiquarian bookstore formed the basis of his bibliomystery novel Blue Octavo (1963).
Blackburn's novels Nothing But the Night and The Gaunt Woman were the basis for screenplays. The Gaunt Woman appeared as a made-for-TV movie in 1969 as Destiny of a Spy and Nothing But the Night was released to theaters in 1972.
This bio includes additional information from the Science Fiction Encyclopedia's biography of John Blackburn and the Valancourt Books author biography
My work load is beginning to let up a little. So this weeks biography features someone who caught my attention this week when I stumbled across the title of his first published work A Scent of New-Mown Hay. I can't place it, but that title struck a chord of memory which I can't place. So I did a little digging.
I'm about half way through Ada Palmer's new book, Seven Surrenders, the second volume in her Terra Ignota series. These books are so difficult to describe. They concern the seedy underbelly and machinations of a futuristic utopian society built on an edifice of 18th century enlightenment philosophy. The book is an intricately plotted gordian knot of philosophy and political intrigue. The series is at once satirical and disturbing. The narrator of the first two books is a brilliant serial killer turned government "fixer" inspired by the Marquis de Sade, so the disturbing aspects shouldn't be surprising.
Palmer's books are quite a challenge. You're thrown into an intricate world who's structure and institutions you're left to work out as you read. Add in the fact that the narrator is the most unreliable of all unreliable narrators (he is after all a murderous sociopath!), and a future culture that eschews gender identifications (except where the narrator decides to randomly assign a gender to a character whenever he feels the need) and you find yourself in a dizzying world with a shifting, effervescent nature. They're the sorts of books which you will either love or hate. (I'm pretty sure that most people will hate them.) One this is certain, you'll definitely have an opinion about them.
I'm reading my Early Reviewer, Strange Magic: An Essex Witches Mystery by Sydney Moore. It's been an enjoyable mystery so far.
I finished a few books last week. House of Fun: 20 Glorious Years in Parliament by Simon Hoggart was an amusing and sometimes sharply-observed look at UK politics and politicians in recent years, although the overall effect was faintly depressing as the nation continues to decline.
The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh was a droll if rather slight work, but a good quick read.
Finished We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler with some relief. Good in bits, but the narrator was boring and the book felt too much like a lecture.
Also finished The Greatest Rock & Pop Miscellany Ever! which was full of useless bits of musical information, and just up my street.
Now reading The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman. Two chapters in, and it's very good.
Also reading The Fabric of Sin by Phil Rickman. I'm reading the Merrily Watkins mysteries in chronological order, and this, the ninth, is my first this year.
I've got a million books going, at least it feels that way. I'm still reading Gore Vidal's Burr and its very good. It provides a small contrast to the general worship of the founding fathers. They were just like us: deeply flawed. Still, I'm kind of plodding along and want to get it finished.
I started Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty last night and it seems to have grabbed my attention. A wealthy family gets the bad news that 'all the money is gone'.
I've also got Poison King the Life and Legend of Mithradates going and it has proven to be very entertaining. Such a sly boots, that Mithradates! So clever!
There's still more in the pile that I'm reading but these are the three that I'm focussing on at the moment.
>4 cappybear: Guns of August is one of my favorites of hers. I hope you continue to enjoy it. I also very much enjoyed her Zimmerman Telegram if you haven't read it already.
I am reading "The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully" by Frank Ostaseski (neither seem to have a proper tag) and absolutely loving it. Having lost my Mom about a year ago, this book is beyond helpful, both for me, and care of Dad as he slows down. Highly recommended.
I Am Number Four,I just finished reading though it's a favorite the author is believe is Patticus Lore. Not my type of genre though I gave it a chance and now that title amongst others from the series is in my Top Favorites Ivery read the bookids may times since 2016 ebook on my library overdrive app and I'm just waiting for the other book series to be available from overdrive and I'll then red those and give a better review.
Finished The Inkblots, an LTER book. In telling the story of Herman Rorschach and his test, the book also gives a glimpse into the other persons involved in originating psychological theory and the field of psychotherapy as it's been practiced and viewed from then to the present. It's an engaging and interesting story.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
This is the first autobiography of Maya Angelou in which she tells the story of her life from birth to young adulthood and the birth of her son Guy in the early 40's. I was blown away with her writing and her recollection of a severe and difficult life growing up in America as an African American child and young woman. She is an amazing writer and I am looking forward to reading more of her books.
I finished Elizabeth Jenkins' The Tortoise and the Hare a beautifully written tale of a troubled 1950's English marriage.
Next up: William Trevor's novella Nights at the Alexandra. The book also includes two of Trevor's short stories -- one of which is a special favorite of mine, "The Ballroom of Romance".
Will Not Attend: Lively Stories of Detachment and Isolation by Adam Resnick
Comedy writer Adam Resnick, who has written for David Letterman and Saturday Night Live, now writes about his life in a series of essays that are fabulously funny and yet disturbing. I could not help but laugh through these stories and some hit very close to home. Recommended to those not afraid of dark humor.
Apprentice in Death by J. D. Robb
In Death series
4 1/2 ⭐s
Finally, a book in this series that has some meat to it. It reminds me of some of why I started reading this series in the first place. The characters are emotionally more believable with even a few insights into relationships formed over the years and the "family" which Roarke and Eve have built around themselves. Eve Dallas is confronted with a LDSK, long distance serial killer, the likes which haven't been seen since the Urban Wars of the early 21st century. Random killings, or is there a pattern and purpose? 3 people are shot down at an ice skating rink by a sniper using a laser rifle. Eve and her partner Peabody have to figure the means and motive before more victims begin stacking up. Things are intense, as there are very few snipers skilled enough for such shooting other than those in the military or NYPSD's own tactical SWAT team. This is one of the best of this series in many years. I read it in one sitting.
I reread Generations in 2017 to see if the future is panning out as predicted. Many predictions seem right on although I don't see Millennials as civic minded but rather narcissistic. Maybe they just haven't been galvanized by purpose yet.
Chestnut Street – Maeve Binchy
Audiobook read by Sale Bermingham
From the book jacket: Maeve Binchy imagined a street in Dublin with many characters coming and going, and every once in a while she would write about one of these people. She would then put the story in a drawer, “for the future,” she would say. (This collection of short stories was published after Binchy’s death.)
Binchy does a great job of giving us a picture of a neighborhood. Characters come in contact with one another, interact, leave, and return. They support one another, fight, make-up, deride, and defend in turns. They witness one another’s triumphs and defeats. But always there is a sense of community, of a shared culture and similar experiences. Binchy’s characters seem like real people; I recognize many of them though I live in Wisconsin and this is set in Dublin.
Sale Bermingham does a fine job narrating the audiobook. She really brought these characters to life.
Voyager – Diana Gabaldon
Book on CD performed by Davina Porter
Book three in the popular Outlander series.
I don’t want to say much about plot so as not to include any spoilers for previous books, but I will say this: most of the characters readers have come to love (or love to hate) are present. Also, the basic plot formula remains intact: Claire will never stop rushing into danger despite warnings, nor will she refrain from imposing her 20th century values on an 18th century society, one or more characters will need to be rescued from some sort of imprisonment, there will be scenes of mad passionate love-making, some people will be killed or injured, and the book will end with a sort of cliff-hanger that encourages readers to anxiously await the next installment.
This isn’t great literature, but the series is fun to read. This installment delves more deeply into the supernatural, which I thought detracted from the central story.
Davina Porter is absolutely perfect when narrating this series. Her skill with voices and dialects gives each character a unique voice, making it easy to distinguish who is speaking in any given scene. I could listen to her for hours (and I did … 36 discs and 43 hours 45 minutes to be exact). 5 Stars for her performance.
I've finally started Under the North Star 3: Reconciliation, the third novel in Väinö Linna's trilogy, a classic of Finnish literature. I'm happy to be back in the world of these character, although there is a ridiculous plot spoiler in the Translator's Introduction (the Translator Introduction in the first two volumes were entirely benign).
I was checking in at http://neglectedbooks.com and I ran across a review for A Dreadful Lemon Sky by John D. MacDonald. I realized I'd never read one of MacDonald's books, primarily because he is so prolific and I never trust a prolific author. The reviewer said that he read one for review purposes and immediately became a fan.
I am over halfway through A Dreadful Lemon Sky and it IS really good; not just "good for a mystery" but it's a well written novel/ mystery. I'm not sure when it was published but it is slightly dated, but not really, just an absence of cell phones, laptops & google.
After reading two not-so-great novels, A Dreadful Lemon Sky is just the ticket.
About to re-read The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt in prep for a visit to Venice next month.
Not doing much reading the last few weeks as nothing has really captured my attention. Slowly reading Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior a few pages at a time before bed each night. About to download Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel.
Finished Plague Land by S.D. Sykes. Bleak but intriguing with the historical detail.
Now reading Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World. Joan Druett. True survival adventure.
I finished William Trevor's beautiful novella, Nights at the Alexandra. The book also included two of his short stories, "The Ballroom of Romance" and "The Hill Bachelors." The three haunting tales seemed of a piece, complementing each other so well.
Next up: A book several of you have recommended -- A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
I have 3 going right now: eggshells by Caitriona Lally; the Heirs by Susan Rieger; and Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Maria, Daughter of Immigrants– Maria Antonietta Berriozabal
Maria details how her grandparents and parents came from Mexico to the United States, and worked as sharecroppers on neighboring ranches in central Texas. Ultimately her parents settled in San Antonio, where her father worked as a laborer and her mother “made do” with the little they had, raising six children in a small house on the impoverished West Side of that city. Maria was the second child, but her older brother was frail due to asthma, so Maria decided on her own at a young age that it was up to her to help her family. Despite encouragement to go to college, she went to work right out of high school, contributing most of her salary to the family so that her younger siblings could finish their educations. Eventually she married, finished her own college degree, and then successfully ran for a seat on the City Council – the first Hispanic woman to be elected to that post in San Antonio’s history.
I really enjoyed and was captivated by Maria’s personal journey as she outlines it in the book. But a little more than half-way through the book, it seemed to become more of a history of the politics of the city than Maria’s autobiography. I still found this interesting, because I’m from San Antonio, but I think it detracted from the central story of her own life.
In the interest of full disclosure I must say that Maria is a close friend of my family’s, and that four pages of this book are devoted to my mother and her role as Maria mentor. So this was an emotional read for me, and I put it off for a few years because it was released so close to my mother’s death, that I just couldn’t bring myself to read it earlier.
I’m glad I got to know more about Maria. She’s a remarkable woman, and many young women today will benefit – whether they know it or not – by the path she blazed.
The Bat – Jo Nesbø
Book on CD read by John Lee
Book #1 in the Inspector Harry Hole series. Harry is a member of the Oslo Crime Squad, and he’s sent to Sydney Australia after a young Norwegian woman is murdered. Harry’s role is to “observe” and offer advice, if asked, but he’s not to interfere with the investigation. Of course, Harry can’t just sit idly by. First he befriends one of the lead detectives, and then one of the witnesses. Before long he’s pointed out the pattern of killings that point to a psychopathic serial killer.
The first thriller I read by Nesbø was The Snowman, set in Oslo and featuring Harry Hole. When I realized it was part of a series, I decided to go back to book one, except that at that time it wasn’t available in the USA. I’m glad I finally got to it.
Nesbø writes a tight, fast-paced thriller with plenty of clues, several red herrings, a flawed but likeable lead detective, and an interesting setting. I’ll definitely read more of this series.
John Lee does a fine job narrating the audio version. He has good pacing and I loved his Aussie accent! He even does a pretty good job with the female voices.
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