Tag Archives: The Readers Summer Book Club

Let Them Eat Cake! But Make Sure It’s Paama’s Cake!……….What I Thought Of Redemption In Indigo by Karen Lord

……….Books are pretty constant in shape and basic form but the stories inside them come in all shapes and sizes. Most of them I read are good to better than good, with the odd turkey thrown in! But sometimes I come across a book that’s just a real feel-good read – what I mean is that it’s not just the story itself, but the way the story is written that gives me pleasure. Redemption In Indigo is one of those unusual books in that the story is pretty good but the real delight in the book is the way the story is told. Or to put that another way Karen Lord is a even better storyteller than the good story she has to tell!!

Hugh Lupton Storyteller
The wonderful storyteller Hugh Lupton

There’s clearly a rich heritage in storytelling around the world and I tend to think it’s a very special, exceptional talent. I also tend to think that while all authors of fiction are storytellers, not every storyteller is necessarily an author! I say that because of a spectacularly good oral storyteller I heard when I first arrived to teach in England. The Primary School I worked in was having a book week – and this was in the late 1980’s when these things were new and in their infancy. The school had arranged for a storyteller to come and tell stories to our Year 6 classes. To be honest, I thought it might be a struggle to catch and maintain the pupils interest – I could not have been more wrong! The guy was an absolute genius called Hugh Lupton – his website is well worth a visit and includes samples of his magical storytelling (and books he’s written which maybe suggests I’m wrong and that every storyteller IS an author!) Anyway, in the late eighties I’d never heard of him – but today he’s one of Britain’s leading storytellers! When I saw him, he told a couple of warm up stories which were quirky, irreverent and absolutely engrossing. He had every pupil in the palm of his hand in seconds. From there he told the story of Gawain and The Loathly Lady – it was a master-class! You could have heard a pin drop – it was magnificent, memorable and unforgettable – I still vividly remember it 25 years later!

And it is that mastery of the storyteller’s art which is at the heart of “Redemption In Indigo” and that’s what I liked about it most. The Redemption In Indigo by Karen Lordstory is based on a Senegalese folk tale, and I think it’s based in Africa – or perhaps the Caribbean where Karen Lord lives. It tells the story of Paama, a woman humiliated by her husband’s extreme gluttony who happens to be a wonderful cook and a wonderfully strong character! She’s given the power of the Chaos stick by an other-wordly being or god. The stick had originally been in the possession of another other-worldly being, the Indigo Lord. It’s taken from him for reasons revealed slowly through the book and given to Paama because the other-world beings / gods believe she is the kind of human being to be able to make wise use of the Chaos Stick. There’s only two flaws in the plan – they forget to tell her how to use it and the Indigo Lord wants it back! The story then unfolds of first the search for Paama and then the attempts of the Indigo Lord to persuade her to give it back. As with all good tales, the story is one in which Paama learns about herself and other people, in which the Indigo Lord learns about himself, other people and other, other-worldly beings and in which the reader learns a number of maxims and truths and sayings about people and about life. Along the way it throws into the mix plague, heroism, chocolate cake, a wonderful poet, a peacock, a pillow for reading dreams, the King Of Dark Waters and the Queen Of Ever-Changing Lands, among others! She stirs them all into the mix, in a kind of story-telling pot, and it turns out beautifully, almost as desirable and delicious as Paama’s cooking must be!!!

The narrative flows gently and easily throughout and the quality of her writing is absolutely brilliant. As you’d expect with a folk tale, it’s a fantastical flight of imaginative fancy throughout, populated by talking spiders, talking insects, beings with magical powers, humans with magical powers, characters who are at the extremes and some wonderfully clever and quite memorable sentences-cum-life-maxims!!!

The Trickster tried to process this, shook his head and returned to the issue of his inner struggle. “You have ruined my reputation, do you realise that?”

She looked at him affectionately. “You were ready for ruin, do you realise that?”

He shrugged, which can be a lovely thing to see when six out of eight shoulders are going at once.

One of the things I liked most about the book, was the very explicit role Karen Lord took as narrator of the story. She talks straight to you as reader and it really does help draw you into the story. It is expertly handled with a lovely balance of storytelling, wit, comment, talking to you as the reader and imagining how you as the reader are feeling or reacting to different parts of the story! She maintains it right to the end, which in itself is a really good ending, and as you finish, it really does feel that you’ve been told a story rather than you’ve read a book!

The characters are strong, well developed and always engaging. The  core story of Paama, the Lord and the Chaos Stick is very good and well supported by a number of tangents that the story slips into before it ties it back up to the main narrative. I found it to be a very clever and in a way, a very charming book – that’s not a word I use often but that really is how this book felt to read. It kind of charmed me from start to finish and I liked being charmed by it!

I read Redemption In Indigo as part of The Readers Summer Book Club. This is exactly the kind of experience I’d hoped to get out of taking part – this is a book I wouldn’t have chosen myself in a million years – but I really did enjoy it – Karen Lord is a writer – or a storyteller – of real quality!

If you want to read more about this book, there are great reviews of it at Savidge Reads and at David H’s blog.

A Love Like A Wild Rose, Beautiful, But Willing To Draw Blood In Its Defence!………What I Thought Of Now You See Me by S.J. Bolton

Now You See Me by SJ Bolton……….The one thing this book isn’t short of is blood! There’s tons of the stuff in the pages of this terrific detective story/thriller by S.J. Bolton. However, there’s a bit of love too – though for the most part it’s more the love product of a twisted, warped mind than perhaps the conventional everyday love that I know about! But the two are cleverly connected together in this story of DC Lacey Flint and her attempts to find a pyschopathic killer butchering women across London in a kind of homage to Jack The Ripper.

DC Flint’s involvement with the murder starts at the outset for the first victim blunders, throat cut and bleeding from that and other stab wounds straight into DC Flint’s arms as she gets out of her car. It’s clear very early on that this is no coincidence on the part of the killer who begins a killing spree across London, butchering women while constantly linking the crimes in some way or other to the notorious Jack The Ripper. As the body count mounts, DC Flint moves from detective to bait for the killer and even to a shadowy place where as the reader you end up unsure just exactly what DC Flint’s connections to these deaths, and to the killer might be.

I read Now You See Me as part of The Readers Summer Book Club. It was the one of the books I was most looking forward to and yet I was apprehensive that it might not live up to expectations – I shouldn’t have been concerned – I loved it! I usually enjoy detective fiction so I was always confident that if the book lived up to  reviews elsewhere and some of the hype around it, I’d like it. What I’d not expected was for it to be such a fabulously great read! At this point, this is the best detective story I’ve read this year by some distance. And for me, there were three things that made it special, so special in fact that it overcame the fact that as I read the book, I  didn’t particularly like or warm to DC Flint as a character!

The first thing that makes it special is the plot itself. The interweaving of the killings, the search for the killer, the link to Jack The Ripper and the lives of the main characters is quite brilliantly done. As a result, the book rips along at a really good pace and it’s full of twists and turns. What’s very clever about those twists and turns, is that they are always so well embedded in either history, or in the characters, they are always believable. It’s a book that constantly throws you off the scent and catches you off guard but you never feel it’s being done just for the sake of it or just because the author is trying to manipulate you as the reader!

The second thing about it is the way it connects up to the Jack The Ripper killings, which are done subtly in places, sledge-hammer like in others! But it’s never less than utterly engrossing. I had a bit of difficulty with the fact that DC Flint, in addition to being the first witness and in addition to her role as both detective and bait,  is also apparently the font of all knowledge within the Met on Jack The Ripper! This stretched the character a bit for me, but it didn’t detract from the writing or the story. The sections of the book looking at the Ripper murders was informative, intriguing and very effective. Equally the connections made with the Ripper killings have been really well thought out – it’s miles beyond the simplistic kind of “let’s have all the bodies in Whitechapel” stuff and the connections become small puzzles in themselves at times.

The last thing that I loved about this book is the main character – I didn’t like her but I loved reading about her! There’s a little bit of the standard “flawed” genius about DC Flint, but in her case her issues, problems and faults are certainly unusual and they are drip fed into the story rather than poured out in the space of the first couple of chapters. Somehow what it ends up doing is creating a detective who I didn’t like, didn’t even rate, and yet, as a result, it made her all the more realistic. It really engaged me as a reader – my brain was following the narrative, trying to make sense of the relationships, trying to work out who the killer was and why, and then on top of all of that, trying to come to terms with the main character throughout. It’s an absorbing read!

The book is well written, with just the right balance of detail, action, reflection and, frankly, gore. The killings in themselves are pretty gruesome – there were bits where I felt physically uncomfortable reading the book – but that just added to the enjoyment of it! While the section below is far from the goriest, it gives you a very early flavour of the quality of SJ Bolton’s writing.

“I hadn’t the heart to argue, so I just kept staring at the dead woman. Blood had spattered across the lower part of her face. Her throat and chest were awash with it. It was pooling beneath her on the pavement, finding tiny nicks in the paving stones to travel along. In the middle of her chest I could just make out the fabric of her shirt. Lower down her body, it was impossible. The wound on her throat wasn’t the worst of her injuries, not by any means. I remembered hearing once that the average female body contained around five litres of blood. I’d just never considered what it would look like when it was all spilling out.”

 So, ‘Now You See Me’ delivers blood and gore from beginning to end – in between, and throughout, it delivers a terrific plot and a detective who I didn’t like, but who I loved, including those ‘wild rose’ bits, character thorns and all!

Shakespeare Might Have Enjoyed This More Than I Did!……….What I Thought Of Bleakly Hall By Elaine di Rollo……….The Readers Summer Book Club

……….In Shakespeare’s First Folio, published in 1623, the plays were divided into three categories – comedies, tragedies and histories.

I think if you were to try and categorise Bleakly Hall by Elaine di Rollo, you could make a case for putting it into each of those sections – for it’s part-comic, part-tragic and historically its based around 1920, with sections told in flashback to the Great War of 14-18. Would Shakespeare have liked it? My guess is that he might well have done! Did I like it? Yes I did, at least I think I did!!!!!

I read this as the fourth book in the Readers Summer Book Club list. Of the books on the list, this was one that I wasn’t overly keen on or excited by, on reading the blurb on the cover. The quote from The Scotsman read …”lightly carbonated comedy” (whatever the hell that means!) – the TES Literary Supplement referred to it as “A bold comic creation”. With my track record of finding books labelled as ‘comedy’ and ‘hilarious’, anything but, I wasn’t really looking forward to this book. But I enjoyed it – though I’d have to say the bits I enjoyed least were the overtly comedic bits – maybe I just haven’t got a sense of humour!!!

Bleakly Hall is the rambling, ramshackle home of the Blackwood brothers, Grier and Curran, who are trying to keep it going as a health retreat for elderly Edwardians, based around water treatments and their supposed curative powers. Like most of the guests, Bleakly Hall is on its last legs and has become home to a collection of idiosyncratic and unusual characters, some of whom are guests, some are staff and some are the Blackwood  family and friends. Into Bleakly Hall comes Monty, having survived her experience as a nurse at home and on the Front Line during the war. Monty arrives at Bleakly with a specific and very definite agenda, to confront and challenge Captain Foxley, now a resident at Bleakly Hall as a permanent guest of the Blackwoods, with whom he served during the war. The events leading up to that confrontation, and the reasons behind it, are a major part of the book.

The comedy in the novel comes in part from the almost classic British farce of some of the events and the interactions between the characters – some of this worked better than other bits for me – personally I found the funniest comedy to be in di Rollo’s writing about the plumbing and boilerworks at Bleakly Hall which almost become a character in their own right! There was however a sharper darker comedy that I really did like in some of the passages relating the experiences of the different protagonists during the war. The almost macabre humour is exceptionally well captured in the book and it adds a further degree of poignancy and pathos to the tragedy and horror of their experiences in the War.

The female characters in the novel are all strong, and I liked this about the book. Monty and her friend from the Front, Ada, come across as feisty, determined and confident women, opening up the world around them in their own ways at that time. However there are equally strong female characters in Sophia, who is perhaps a more “typical” female character for the times and yet there’s an inner strength and resolve in her. Similarly I liked the character of Curran’s wife, Mae. You can’t like her for her shallow and cruel behaviour to Curran, whose been left without legs and in a wheelchair by War (I’m giving nothing away about the plot here!) – but though you can’t like her, I still warmed to her somehow!

The male characters of Curran, Grier and Foxley weren’t as well drawn for me – there was something a little bit cliched or predictable about them – although that may be unfair in that I can see the way they come across may have been an accurate picture of men and their behaviour and attitudes at that time. As I read the book I thought they came across better when the narrative focused on their relationships and interactions with other men – in their interactions with women it all felt a bit “Lord Peter Wimsey” in places to me! (Tried Dorothy L Sayers once – not for me! Hated it!)

The key themes running through the book for me were friendship, the way people carry the past with them through life and reinvention. The strength of the friendships between Monty and Ada, Monty and Sophia, Curran and Foxley, Grier and Foxley, are all brilliantly captured. As I read them it gave the book a real intimacy and I thought it prevented some of the more emotional parts of the book becoming schmaltzy. (Not sure if schmaltzy is actually a word but I like it anyway!).

The tragedy of war and its impact on all of them is the best bit of the book. The depictions of life at the front for the men, officers and for Ada and Monty as Nurses are raw and gut-wrenching in places, but shot through with warmth and humour and an almost fatalistic honesty. In some ways these parts of the book were so good, I could have spent the whole novel happily reading about them during the War itself and by the time I reached the end of the book, Bleakly Hall had almost become unnecessary for me! For all its horror and decay and death, there’s also a real feeling of hope for the future and change about the book. It comes through in the changing roles of the women in the novel, in the emerging chattering classes of the young who either survived or missed the war, with their determination to have a good time, and in the changing relationships between the characters themselves.

The book is really well written. The style and use of language is always easy and yet enjoyable to read, and in the humourous parts, when Elaine di Rollo reigns in the comedy to the right side of slapstick, it reads wonderfully!

‘Captain Foxley staggered to the window, half-blinded by the sticky crimson ooze of strawberry jam that had splattered on to his face. It had also spattered the wall and the floor, and a great red gobbet of the stuff clung to the curtain. A draught of cold air blasted in through the shattered window, cooling Monty’s burning cheeks. She sprang forward, “Are you hurt?”. Her anger drained away immediately to be replaced by embarrassment (though she could not quite bring herself to apologise)

Captain Foxley backed away from her and put his hand up to his face to wipe jam from his eye. “No,” he said, “At least I don’t think so. It seems I got through Ypres with hardly a scratch, only to be blinded in my own rooms by a woman with a jam jar. Do you always throw preserves at your patients Miss Montgomery?’

Although I enjoyed much of Bleakly Hall, I didn’t enjoy the ending of the book. I won’t say anything in detail about it because I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone else. But for me, this was where the comedy elements didn’t work and the more tragic themes of the book weren’t strong enough to make up for that. But overall I’m glad I read it and it was certainly a much better book than I’d expected from reading that blurb.  I guess that if the critic from The Scotsman is right, then lightly carbonated comedy is just not quite my thing!!!!!

I read Bleakly Hall as part of The Readers Summer Book Club. If you want to join, details can be found from the link below and there are still come cracking books to be read so it’s not too late!!!

“When You Are Going Through Hell – Keep Going!”……….What I Thought Of Packing For Mars By Mary Roach…….

……….I guess the quote borrowed from Churchill in the title gives away from the outset how I felt about Packing For Mars!

It wasn’t for me. It’s not normally the kind of book I’d choose but it was the third in the series for The Readers Summer Book Club and I do think one of the great things about book clubs is that they introduce you to things you wouldn’t otherwise have read. Alas they’re not always books you are glad you found!

Packing For Mars is essentially a non- fiction book about space exploration and the whole lunar adventure – which some of the facts in the book made me re-categorise as ‘lunar lunacy’ at times!

If I’m honest, the topic of space doesn’t really do it for me either. I do remember the excitement on radio and black and white TV of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when I was a kid and I quite enjoyed Apollo 13, the film with Tom Hanks! But that’s about it for me and space!

Coupled to that lack of interest in the topic, there was a quote from The Times on the cover of Packing For Mars! It said “incredibly funny”! I should have known. The last time I read on a blurb about how hilarious a book was, came just before I wasted precious hours of my life reading Paul Torday’s awful book “Salmon Fishing In Yemen”! To be fair, while Packing For Mars was on  a humour par with Salmon Fishing – with a laughter count for both books of absolutely zero for me- the book wasn’t as dull as Salmon Fishing.

It’s crammed with info and Mary Roach’s style of writing is certainly engaging, pacy, and easily accessible. Beyond that I can’t think of any positives and I wouldn’t want to castigate the book. It was simply that I didn’t like it. However many others have loved it and if you want to read the reviews of those who did like, laugh, and love this book, there are very positive comments at Savidge Reads and there are lots of positive comments on The Readers discussion page about the book over at GoodReads.

But for me it’s been hell to get to the end.

However heel no more – from now on I’m ignoring Churchill’s exhortations to keep going! This morning in the Observer I read an article about book endings by James Bridle. In it he says

“Equally I don’t finish half the books I start; these are literary dead ends; they don’t lead anywhere else; I double back and start again.”

This is sound advice because I don’t think I did myself or Packing For Mars any favours by trudging wearily to the end of it on my hands and knees. I’ll try to remind myself of these words before I start books in the future – especially when they have quoted those fateful words of doom on the cover “Incredibly funny”!!!!!!!

What I Thought Of……….Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan ……….#The Readers Summer Book Club……….

……….I once made a curry that smelled great, looked great, sounded great and so the taste was – well the taste was nearly great! I got one ingredient wrong and so in the end it was that frustrating word ‘nearly’ sneaking in front of great. And odd as it might sound, Half Blood Blues has become my reading equivalent of that curry!

The novel tells the story of a group of itinerant jazz musicians immersed in making music and the European jazz scene of the late 1930’s, first in Berlin and then in Paris. The group are a mix of American’s and Germans, all in love with jazz and all running increasing risks as a result, partly because of the undesirable status of their music in the eyes of the Nazis. The risks they all run in addition to the music are considerable because of course the Nazis had a long list of things which didn’t qualify for their Aryan utopia and so the various band members have additional problems of sexuality and colour. But none runs a greater risk than the trumpet playing genius that is Hieronymus Falk, known throughout the book as Hiero or ‘The Kind. Hieronymus is the son of a German woman and an African soldier, one of thousands stationed in the Rhineland by the French in the aftermath of the First World War. With such a cultural heritage, Hieronymus is a non- person according to Nazi ethnic categorisation, a reminder of a hated time in German history and someone who everyone knows will have no real chance of survival at the hands of the Nazis. But fall into their hands he inevitably does, and the central plot of the novel then looks into solving that mystery of just how that happened.

The story unfolds through the eyes of Sid Griffiths, one of two Baltimore jazzmen who played and lived through those times as first Germany itself and then much of Europe came under rule of what the novel calls ‘The Boots’. It is now 1990 and Sid and his fellow Baltimore resident and 1940 band mate, Chip Jones, are returning to Europe for the launch of a documentary film about the life and death of Hieronymous Falk. Prompted by that film and its subject matter of Hieronymous being captured and interred by the Nazis in 1940, Sid looks back and reflects on the events and subsequent betrayals surrounding Hiero’s initial arrest and then imprisonment.

As the story unfolds, mainly in retrospect through Sid’s memories of what happened in Paris in 1940, we learn more about the music, the eponymous, cult album ‘Half Blood Blues’ made by Hiero, Sid, Chip and the other members of their jazz band and we follow their life stories leading up to and during those early years of war.

The story is brilliantly balanced between its telling of the development of early jazz in Europe, it’s depiction of the hope, fears and fates of people living under the Nazis in Europe, and the part of the plot which is a very subtle and clever ‘whodunnit and why’? It blends these three strands seamlessly together so the flow and pace of the novel are both excellent. I have to admit that before reading this I knew very little about the horrific treatment of black people under the Nazi’s and I knew nothing about the jazz scene of the 1930’s and 1940’s in Europe or America. The novel is so meticulously researched however that I learned so much from reading it but all that factual information and all that detail are beautifully written into the narrative, and so while you learn as you read, you know you are never reading anything other than a really good story.

And for me, like my curry, it has all the right ingredients to make it a great story – well nearly all the right ingredients. The setting is late 1930’s into 1940, one of the most interesting times in history. There’s always a risk in writing novels around Nazism because their deeds are so horrific, it needs to be a great story to keep the reader emotionally attached to the characters and their lives. Half Blood Blues does that and more. The characters are really well done, as are the relationships between them. I love music and while I’d admit I’m not into jazz, I still like the idea of jazz, how the music is made and of course what is it that makes musician’s want to do what they do. The descriptions in the book of music, the feelings on making music and on listening to music, and the parts of the book where she describes the music of “Half Blood Blues” itself are brilliantly done. If Esi Edugyan isn’t a jazz fan, she does a fantastic job of sounding like one! The story of what happens to Hiero is terrific, told with just the right amount of tension and emotion for me and by telling it in retrospect the book flits around in time but that only adds to the enjoyment and intrigue around the plot. It has a great ending but I won’t spoil that by saying anything more. Perhaps best of all, the book tells the story of “big” characters, whether it’s the almost femme fatale like Delilah, or the way the character of Louis Armstrong hovers like a colossus over the main characters and over Parisian jazz in 1940, or the main characters like Sid, Chip and Hiero who were for me so brilliantly drawn and so “believable”, I actually googled “Hieronymus Falk” about 6 chapters in, just in case it was actually a real jazz musician I’d not heard of!!

So with all that going for it, what made it only “nearly” great?

When I made that curry, the problem ingredient were cloves. I couldn’t find any. Undeterred I used logic (not a good idea for me at the best of times and certainly not in the kitchen!). I reasoned that cloves had to be similar to “oil of cloves”, the stuff you put on toothache to numb the pain. So as the recipe called for three or four cloves, I reckoned that three drops of oil of cloves would be the equivalent of a clove, so twelve drops went into the curry! It didn’t kill the taste completely but when we sat down to eat, we all found the anaesthetic effect of the oil of cloves kick in right from the start!!! After three or four mouthfuls we all found our tongue and bottom lips start to go numb!! Have you ever tried eating a curry with a frozen bottom lip? Well I’ve done it, so you don’t have to! And the result was that I had most of my curry on my shirt by the end because I couldn’t feel anything!

And there is an oil of cloves ingredient in Half Blood Blues or at least in my reading of it. And it was the dialogue.

It’s like a kind of jazz slang, which is partly because the musicians in the story have to create their own language to communicate as the Americans speak little German or French and the Europeans little English in return. However there feels more to it than that because there’s also a kind of jazz-slang patois used in the dialogue between say Sid and Chip or between Sid and Delilah. Now this slang dialogue is brilliantly done and it’s further evidence of how richly written this book is. I have to admit that in most reviews I read of the book before I read it myself, this dialogue was often cited as one of the book’s strengths and I can see why that would be. But it didn’t work for me – it just irritated me and acted a little bit like an anaesthetic for me, slightly numbing my enjoyment of the other rich and wonderful things in this book. Sorry, but for me, the patois-slang was just oil of cloves in a curry!

Overall, however, this is a good book and while I think it’s only nearly a great book, many others think there is no ‘nearly’ about it. If you won’t be bothered by the slang dialogue (or if you are the sort who is weird enough to like oil of cloves in your curry!), you’ll love this book.

I read it as part of The Readers Summer Book Club and you can read more about it and other reviews of the book on their websites Savidge Reads or Gav Reads.

What I Thought Of ……….The Last Werewolf By Glen Duncan……….#TheReadersSummerBookClub

………They say that the world loves an underdog and in a sense, in a world seemingly obsessed with vampires, this could in some ways be a book for the ultimate underdog – though in this case it’s a huge, fearsome and ravenous-every-full-moon underdog!! At the moment, compared to the see-them-in-every-bookstore vampires, the werewolf is the much less glamorous and much less popularised part of the modern fiction roll-call of horror creatures. So this is certainly as good a time as any to focus on the werewolf as underdog, except that the underdog in this case is Jake Marlowe, the last survivor of the werewolf species and a man who has to devour one of us every full moon. Not quite the underdog after all!

Jake has been a werewolf for over 200 years,having survived a werewolf attack on him while in Snowdonia. But these days, there are no survivors of werewolf attacks, because even if anyone is lucky enough to be merely injured rather than devoured, a fatal virus acquired by the werewolves is also passed on to humans. With no “new” werewolves, and with the assassination of the only other living werewolf,  Jake becomes the last werewolf in existence.  The main threat to Jake comes from the sinister WOCOP (World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena) and in particular it’s two head-hunters, Grainger and his protege, Ellis.  However, there is also an additional threat from the vampire families, who have discovered that a virus within the werewolves is beneficial to them in resisting sunlight! So while one force wants him dead, another needs him alive. And so the hunt begins.

But the book is much more than just a tale of a desperate struggle for survival in the face of unrelenting pursuit. There is a great balance of action and introspection from Jake throughout the book and this lifts this novel way beyond some thrill-a-minute, cheap, gory story of death and destruction.

Glen Duncan has taken a really clever mix of some archetypal ideas about werewolves and vampires, layered in an almost thriller-style plot of twists and turns and then blended it all together with a wonderful main character in Jake.  Jake is funny, smart, well-read and yet cunning and complex. There’s a wonderful matter-of-fact feeling to much of what Jake says and thinks and this tone is maintained throughout whether it’s Jake telling of his horrific origins, or of his friendship with Harley, or his mix of love and lust sessions with the high-class whore Madeline, or telling of his gruesome killings every month at full moon. Right from the outset, Glen Duncan adopts this world-weary tone for Jake (and it makes sense – he’s been alive for 200 odd years – who wouldn’t be world-weary after that lot!). It’s a master-stoke because for me it was instrumental in making the book so much more than a blood-and-guts fest. The book begins with Jake being told by his man on the inside of WOCOP, Harley, about the demise of the Berliner, the only other werewolf besides Jake.

“I thought of the Berliner, whose name (God being dead, irony still rollickingly alive) was Wolfgang, pictured his last moments: the frost reeling under him, his moonlit muzzle and seating pelt, the split-second in which his eyes merged disbelief and fear and horror and sadness and relief – then the white and final light of silver.

‘What are you going to do?’ Harley repeated.

All wolf and no gang. Humour darkens. I looked out of the window. The snow was coming down with the implacability of an Old Testament plague. In Earls Court Road pedestrians tottered and slid and in the cold swirling angelic freshness felt their childhoods still there and the shock like a snapped stem of not being children any more. Two nights ago I’d eaten a forty-three-year-old hedge fund specialist. I’ve been in a phase of taking the ones no one wants.” 

In spite of the fact that he eats hedge-fund managers and other people, you can’t help but like Jake! (Actually on the eating bankers thing, it might be a help rather than a hindrance to liking him!!!!). He tells the retrospective parts of his werewolf existence and of some of his kills with an intriguing blend of gory detail, self-awareness, emotion and dry humour! It’s yet another master-stoke! It also allows the character to maintain a beautiful balance between doing just enough to keep going and yet being aware of much of the ills in his life and perhaps the feeling that though his end may be near, it might be what he actually wants. He’s also of course cast as the narrator and generally this works well. The only slight issue I had with this part of the character was the fact that Jake is supposedly writing what we read in a journal and it then gets referred to periodically through the novel. This felt a bit forced and unnecessary to me. (It felt a bit  – “and in between doing the last twenty-six things and waiting for the next full moon – I wrote up my journal!”) Personally I’d have been happy to accept it throughout the book after reading that it was Jake’s journal at the start and without it being referred to at the end. However I can see from how the book ends that Glen Duncan might have had reasons to keep reminding us about the journal aspect but I’ll say no more as I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone.

Much of the story revolves around the hunt for Jake and this allows the author to mix the traditional and the modern and it’s perhaps where the most imaginative parts of the book lie. The transformation from man to wolf is the literary equivalent of watching the cinematic transformation in “An American Werewolf In London” which I watched almost thirty years ago! The book keeps much of the archetypal folklore around werewolves. The hair, the wolf’s sly cunning, the deadliness of silver, the hunts in green forests and the equally sly and powerful werewolf head-hunters Grainger and Ellis have all those Hammer Horror characteristics of coldness, fearlessness and the supreme confidence of those who know the cards are stacked in their favour. Equally the plot moves the chase around and mixes up hunter and hunted. The best way to describe the action plot sections is to say it’s a bit like watching a hairier man-eating version of Jason Bourne! And yet for me, it absolutely worked! So much so that when the plot deviated from the hunter and hunted in the last third, albeit for good reason, I felt the pace dropped a little and it meandered a bit. The deviation is central to the book and it works brilliantly – I just found it a little too slow in getting back to the chase/hunt part of the plot – but when it did, it picked up with all the humour laden force of the previous parts of the book. I got a similar feel of it being a little overdone with the descriptions of Jake’s sexual urges and conquests in both his man and wolf personas – they were needed, and they are well-written but occasionally either some passages over-did the description or it felt like there was too much thought and deed sex – but maybe that’s what you do when you know your end is nigh!

Within the gore and action and sex, there’s something strangely gentle at the core of the book – about what gives us the instinct to go on, to fight for survival and in particular the impact that other people have on our will to live. On finishing the book, and putting it down, I definitely had a thought of “Mmmmmm…..”. In fact I know I actually said “Mmmmmmmmmmmmm” out loud on reading the last page.

Now there are two kinds of Mmmmm for me – one has a question mark at the end and the other an exclamation mark. And in the case of The Last Werewolf, it was definitely a puzzled Mmmmmm? I’ve thought about that since. I think it was partly the fact that reading this took me way outside my comfort zone – I hadn’t expected to like this at all but it was so clever and well-written, I’d actually liked it from the off. Another part of it was the ending – for me it didn’t quite live up to the rest of the book. So if, in spite of the ending, I liked it, why Mmmmmmm?

The question that’s been in my head since I finished it has been  – although I liked it, did I really enjoy it? (Which isn’t the same necessarily as did I like it?!) And I’ve come to the conclusion, almost in spite of myself, that I enjoyed this book immensely.  It feels kind of strange to say that a book about a man-hunt for the last surviving werewolf, who stops off to slaughter and eat innocent victims every few weeks, had me rooting for the werewolf and was great fun to read! But it was! It was a terrific book and a very good start to the list chosen for “The Readers Summer Book Club”. If the others are as good as this, then it’ll be a few weeks of reading joy ahead! Can’t wait.

And though of course there is no such thing as werewolves, I may carry this review with me on late night walks with the dog in the nearby woods – just in case Jake’s kind are out there it’ll prove that in this human v wolf struggle for survival, I was very much on the side of the werewolves!

The Box Of (Might-Otherwise-Never-Have-Been-Discovered-By-Me) Blogging Delights!!

One of my favourite books as a child was John Masefield’s “The Box Of Delights”. If you don’t know it, the story is a children’s fantasy novel about a boy struggling to hold the power of a magic box which allows whoever owns it to be shrunk in size and experience the wonderful delights inside the box and to be able to visit the past.

I mention it because the internet and particularly blogging and social interaction media like Twitter, have become a ‘box of delights’ for me in the weeks since I discovered them. I know that there are many irritations, frustrations and concerns about the internet but through other people’s blogs and tweets I’ve already found out about so many books that I wouldn’t otherwise have read.

In the relatively short time I’ve been reading other people’s blogs about books and writing I’ve been amazed just how many people are out there with a love of books and reading and there’s no doubt some have already started to influence me and subtly alter my reading preferences (for example, through Book Snob’s blog I have rediscovered Robert Graves and am about to embark on Siegfried Sassoon’s diaries, through dovegreyreader’s blog I have discovered Adam Mar-Jones and thanks to Random Jottings, I’m about to take a deep breath and then dive tentatively into the world of Mapp and Lucia!!)

A twitterer (or is it tweeter – who cares?!) I follow is Savidge Reads, who has also just re-started his blog (though I’m new to it). Through that I picked up on a podcast called The Readers which I’ve started to listen to and because of that I found several other book and reading related podcasts that I’m starting to check out (last night I enjoyed listening to the World Book Club interview with Carlos Ruiz Zafon – great stuff!).

In addition to the podcasts, The Readers is planning a Summer Book Club and they’ve just released the titles. The format sounds like a combination of e-mail exchanges, Skype discussions and podcast interviews with each of the eight authors on the list. It sounds like a great idea and yet again has led me to books I wouldn’t otherwise have discovered. There are eight titles on the list.

Pure by Andrew Miller
The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan
Packing For Mars by Mary Roach
Now You See Me by S.J. Bolton
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
Bleakly Hall by Elaine di Rollo
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

I’ve read two of them (Pure, which I finished yesterday and of which more later, and Half Blood Blues, which I read last weekend and which again more of later!). The other six have added further to my reading travels because I may not have come across them otherwise and they are now on order!

The Readers Summer Book Club confirmed yet again for me that discovering blogging (as I write that I am cringing because I can imagine anybody reading it thinking ‘How the hell can he only now be discovering blogging?!! Where has this man been?!!!!!!’ – Answer Dont really know!), and discovering Twitter (yes I know, same questions and same answer!) has been a real “Box Of Delights” for me and one I’m really, really, glad I opened!