loulamac’s #CBRV review #82: Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris; audiobook read by Johanna Parker

dead until dark

I watch True Blood, but I am not a fan. I don’t like Anna Paquin’s performance, and Stephen Moyer makes my skin crawl. I watch True Blood for Eric, I swoon over True Blood for Eric, I rewind and pause True Blood for Eric. So that, plus my monomaniacal loathing of all things Twilight might have you wondering why on earth I would go to the trouble of downloading this audiobook for my gym and running sessions. Why indeed? It just sort of happened, and now that it has, it’s not right but it’s ok. I won’t be reappraising the ghastly TV Sookie’n’Bill any time soon, but I didn’t mind this book.

For any of you who don’t know already, Sookie Stackhouse is a telepathic waitress in rural Louisiana. Vampires have recently ‘come out of the coffin’, although they are still something of a rarity in Sookie’s hometown. All that changes when Bill Compton, veteran of the American Civil War, walks into the bar where she works. The two are thrown together when Sookie saves his life, and before long they’ve fallen into bed, and in love. Alongside this unusual love story is a murder-mystery, as someone is killing local chicks who’ve got history with vampires. Sookie looks like she’s lined up to be the next victim, and her brother Jason is the prime suspect.

The murder element of the plot had much more traction in the book than I remember from the TV show, which is part of the reason I enjoyed it more than I was expecting. Johanna Parker’s reading is another. She manages to overcome the more banal sequences (much of the book is given over to descriptions of what Sookie is putting on as she gets dressed, down to the colour of the scrunchy she has put over the elastic band that’s holding her ponytail in place), and gives Sookie a voice that is down-home without quite being hokey. Sookie is selfish and frightened, but also loves her friends and family, and really cares about what happens to them. Johanna Parker gives her dignity and stops her from coming across as shrill (Anna Paquin, take note).

loulamac’s #CBRV review #81: Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

michael k

This is a strange, disquieting, upsetting book. It is dream-like and confusing, while being very well-written. Having said that, I didn’t enjoy it. I don’t see how you can ‘enjoy’ reading a book about a brutal world intruding into the existence of a fragile idiot savant. Terrible things happen.

Michael K is a simple man, in every sense of the word. Living in a South Africa riven by civil war, Michael’s in his thirties, and his hare-lip and learning disabilities mean that his existence is limited to his work as a municipal gardener in Cape Town and taking care of his invalid mother. Illness has meant that she can no longer work as a domestic for a rich family who live in a luxury apartment overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and she wants nothing more than to die on the farm where she was born. So with nothing more than a cart Michael has made, very little money and no official papers, the pair set out on their journey. It is winter, and after a short time Anna is in hospital, where she dies, leaving Michael alone. Before long, Michael is picked up by the authorities, and finds himself in a work camp. What follows is a surreal chain of events that sees him escape, nearly starve to death in the mountains, cultivate pumpkins on an abandoned farm, be arrested again and kept in the prison hospital before escaping once more to return to the coast.

The sense of the chasm between the haves and have-nots is intense in this novel. Anna K lives in a small room under the stairs in the apartment block, a room intended for the air conditioning equipment. The book also seethes with injustice, whether it’s the unfairness of Anna K’s life, her ignominious death, the exploitation of refugees in the work camp, or Michael’s incarceration. What’s interesting is that despite the books subject matter, it somehow doesn’t come across as political. Michael isn’t accepting of his fate, but in his repeated escapes from imprisonment and refusal to eat he isn’t making a statement, he’s just doing what feels right for him.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #80: Call for the Dead by John Le Carré


This is an interesting, charming little book. While no classic, it is noteworthy as it is the first outing of David Cornwell as John Le Carré and provides the introduction of George Smiley.

The plot hinges upon a murder mystery, is set against the backdrop of the cold war and features characters we’ll get to know better in the Karla Trilogy. Unlike the later Smiley novels however Call for the Dead is more focused on the solving of a crime than it is international espionage, and reveals much more about Smiley’s emotional life. Fascinatingly this includes his courtship of, marriage to and first estrangement from ‘the demon Ann’, a character who is so absent but so crucial to Smiley’s battle with Karla.

The crime in question is the apparent suicide of a civil servant from the Foreign Office, who kills himself in his Surrey home a matter of hours after meeting with Smiley. Smarting as his boss points the finger, Smiley’s spidey-sense is set a-tingling when his initial interview with the widow throws up more questions than it answers. Working with a policeman who is on the eve of retirement, and the reliably glib Peter Guillam, Smiley  digs deeper and uncovers a conspiracy that goes back to his years as a recruiter in pre-war Germany.

As I said, this is no classic. The writing and plot do show glimmers of the glory that was to come in Smiley’s People (read my review of that here), but the chapter headings, massive chunks of dialogue, and explanatory epistle from Smiley at the end are pretty clunky. It is worth a read though, if only to satisfy any curiosity you may have about Smiley himself.

loulamac’s #CBV review #79: 9 Things Successful People Do Differently by Heidi Grant Halvorson


I bought this for my husband at JFK, as he’s a bit prone to sofa-attachment and procrastination. We were on our way home from a trip that saw me run the Chicago marathon, so I was feeling smug and ‘successful’. One of the eponymous nine things, however, is not buying this book for other people to try to galvanise them into action. That lesson was worth the purchase price alone.

This is a cosy little self-help read that sits snugly in your hand. Which means you can hide the title if you’re on public transport, something I felt the need to do having drawn a few strange looks (us Brits just don’t read books like this). The nine things in question are, as is often the case in books like this, pretty obvious and based on common sense, but as is also often the case do bear writing down and exemplifying.

My personal favourites were numbers one (get specific) and five (focus on getting better rather than being good), as both spoke to my long distance running goals. The rest (which include ‘have grit’ and ‘don’t tempt fate’) are pretty sensible too, and all challenge the notion that successful people have ‘genius’ or ‘talent’ that mere mortals don’t have. According to this helpful little book, being successful is ‘about making smart choices, using the right strategies, and taking action’. You can’t argue with that can you?

In case you’re wondering, my husband’s still sitting on the sofa.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #78: Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood


William Bradshaw is on a train to Berlin when he meets the eponymous Mr Norris. The two strike up a rapport over the course of the journey that turns into an intimate, if unlikely, friendship. Arthur Norris is a funny little man, as in funny peculiar. He is fastidious in his dress, secretive about his sources of income, prone to exaggeration and obfuscation, and the proud wearer of a selection of wigs. He is also embroiled with the Communist movement, a risky thing in a Berlin where Nazism is on the rise. Over the course of a couple of years, as their friendship deepens and Bradshaw becomes more tangled up in Norris’ shady and complicated life, he too gets involved with the Communists, plays his part in a mysterious business deal Norris has set up in Switzerland, and finally helps his friend flee the country.

Mr Norris Changes Trains was my first experience of the 1930s Berlin brought to life by Ishwerwood. This book and the subsequent stories that make up ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ (which in turn inspired the musical Cabaret), are based on Isherwood’s experiences whilst living in Germany as Hitler rose to prominence and power. At times the book is laugh-out-loud funny, and Isherwood’s descriptions of the demimonde that Bradshaw and Norris live on the edges of really tickled me:

I must have been already drunk when I arrived at the Troika, because I remember getting a shock when I looked into the cloakroom mirror and found that I was wearing a false nose. The place was crammed. It was difficult to say who was dancing and who was merely standing up.

The novel is peopled with colourful characters. As well as Mr Norris, who is such an odd and untrustworthy chap that you do wonder why Bradshaw is friends with him, there is the Communist boxer Otto, gossipy landlady Fraulein Schroeder and dominatrix Anni, to name but a few. And while the book is very funny, it is also very sad, depicting as it does a city on the brink of irrevocable change.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #77: Follow Me Down by Shelby Foote; audiobook read by Tom Parker


It’s 1949, and in the shoreline water of a Mississippi island the body of a young woman is discovered. She has been strangled, tied with wire to blocks to weigh her down and has been in the water for a few days. Her blonde hair and the gold anklet she is wearing quickly identify her as Beulah, the eighteen year girl who turned up on the island three weeks before with her fifty year old lover Luther Eustis. A witness leads police to him, and he is arrested and tried for her murder.

All of this is revealed to you in the opening chapter, which is narrated by the court reporter in the town where the trial is to take place. The joy of this book, then, is not in detection or the chase, but in the gradual reveal of Eustis’ motives, and the strange path that seems to inevitably lead him to murder. Faith, passion and birthright all combine to bring Eustis to his young lover and his crime. This is disclosed to us over the course of the book by an array of narrators. These include the aforementioned reporter, Eustis himself, his wife, Beulah, the ‘Dummy’ witness who identifies him, and his trial lawyer. Each of these very different voices has its own perspective, knowledge of and level of intimacy with the quiet, respectable and devout Eustis, and helps build the picture of how he came to do what he did.

Shelby Foote came into my life years ago, when he appeared in Ken Burn’s documentary series about the American Civil War, and I was curious about his works of fiction. I wasn’t disappointed. His writing is evocative and dreamy without the slightest hint of showiness or fuss. He also does not shy away from the darker side of human nature and what can drive a man to do a terrible thing that is so out of character. Tom Parker’s reading of the novel is beautiful. Calm and considered, his tone and accent combine with Foote’s prose to hypnotise. The story will exert a quiet grip on you, and is not easily forgotten.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #76: Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ by Mendal Johnson

Let's Go Play at the Adams by Mendal Johnson 1980 Bantam pbk

At Halloween, The Guardian published an article by the writer Joseph D’Lacey, where he shared his favourite horror novels. Number one on that list was this absolutely gripping and disturbing gem, the only book Mendal Johnson wrote before he died of cirrhosis of the liver. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, if not in any year, it’s so shocking and brilliant.

The book is based loosely on the 1965 torture-murder of Sylvia Likens, and as the cover of the paperback sensationally tells us, ‘tonight the kids are taking care of the babysitter’. Twenty year old Barbara is on her summer break from college, and has been employed to look after Billy and Cindy Adams while their parents are away in Europe. Barbara is perky and pretty in her summer dresses. Training to be a teacher, she anticipates a couple of weeks of playing with the kids, making sure they’re washed and fed, and going swimming in the afternoon. Her conceited complacency is interrupted rather rudely when she wakes up one morning to discover she has been bound and gagged, and is being held captive by the Adams children and their three friends John, Dianne and Paul. Ranging in age from ten to seventeen, these children have christened themselves the ‘Freedom Five’. It soon becomes clear to Barbara that the world has been turned upside-down, and that she is one adult who is no longer in charge.  These seemingly average children are conducting an experiment, and are surprised at the ease at which they have up-ended society’s convention. As Bobby says to Barbara on one of his guard duties, “Like when we were all figuring out if we could do it, it seemed like something we had to do. Like if you think you can do something, you have to”.

What follows is a grim and relentless exploration of how this swing in power plays out, as the book shifts from Barbara’s perspective to each of the children’s, and back again. The children are prepared to deal with the consequences of their actions, but because they are children they live utterly in the moment, and don’t hold back from escalating the situation. In the course of her captivity, Barbara is tested to the limit physically and mentally, as the children inflict bodily and psychological torment on her. Over the course of a few days her smug little personality disintegrates (the passages where she holds imaginary conversations with her college roommate are revealing and tragic) as she realises that she can’t bully, cajole or frighten the children into freeing her. Each of them has different motivations for embarking on the course of action that sees a young woman tied to a bed and tortured, and they have very different reasons for not wanting to let her go, despite the sadness and affection that some of them feel.

Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ is not for the faint hearted, the dense and intense prose pulls you in and doesn’t let you go. The mounting sense of dread is unremitting, and as I read the book I was shocked and unsurprised all at once. Perhaps this is where the true horror lies, that it isn’t a surprise that these children behave in the way they do. People, however young they are, have infinite capacity for cruelty, and ultimately, self-preservation.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #75: Alfred & Emily by Doris Lessing

alfred & emily

Alfred and Emily were Doris Lessing’s mum and dad, and like many of their generation, both were badly affected by the First World War. Alfred was injured by shrapnel, and lost his leg above the knee. For the rest of his life he refused to accept the limitations of his disability, and tried to live as an active, physical man. He was dead in his early 60s, his heart giving out after many years of battling diabetes. During the war, Emily was a well-respected nurse, tending to the broken young men coming back from Europe. What they saw and suffered during their wartime experiences hung over both of them for the rest of their lives.

Alfred & Emily is one of Lessing’s last books, and she is in contemplative mood. The book is split into two halves, with the first telling their alternative story. In it, they meet as young adults and become friends. The Great War doesn’t break out, they marry other people, and tread very different paths. Lessing’s memories of her parents become fantasies, with him a prosperous farmer and her a rich man’s widow who captivates children with her stories of the exploits of mice and uses her influence to open charity schools.

The second half shares anecdotes from their real existence. Although the war has shattered them, they are married with two children. Ex-pat life in Rhodesia is tough. Without advice or experience, they select land and build a house without shelter and far from water. Their dreams of a glamorous ex-pat lifestyle are shattered, and the evening dresses and cricket whites they packed expecting Kenya’s ‘Happy Valley’ moulder in their trunks. This is a life from which Doris and her brother escape as quickly as they can, although of course they never really leave it behind.

This approach is a really interesting idea, but it doesn’t quite come off. The writing style of each half is very different, but neither is satisfactory. It’s hard to explain, but I was left wishing there was more for me to sink my teeth into. The first part fails to create a convincing England in an alternative reality where a whole generation of men wasn’t decimated by the First World War. The second is a jumbled mix of events that just about hang together, but barely. Buried in there are Lessing’s musings on grief, disappointment, and children bearing the sorrows of their parents, which are as acute and raw as you would expect of her. But overall it saddens me to say that the book is patchy and disappointing.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #74: The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing


My mum has always been mad about Doris Lessing, mad enough to put me off reading her like some kind of embarrassed teenager. I really enjoyed The Grass is Singing when I read it many years ago, but vague antipathy had prevented me from voyaging any further into the back catalogue of this prolific writer. Her recent death prompted me to pick up the first book of hers I found on my mum’s shelf, which happened to be The Fifth Child. I was startled and left feeling decidedly uncomfortable.

Harriet and David Lovatt are happy to have found each other. It’s London in the 1960s, and unlike most of their peers they’re not looking for casual sex or meaningless encounters. So when they meet at a work Christmas party they are relieved, and quickly map out their lives together. They buy a big house in a commuter town, a house far bigger than they need for just the two of them, and proceed to fill it with children. Harriet is pregnant four times in quick succession, and though she suffers with her pregnancies, relies on her mother to keep the house going, and causes her relatives to roll their eyes, life is good for the Lovatts.

And then Harriet falls pregnant for the fifth time. From the start, the pregnancy is different to the others. By the time Ben, the fifth child, is born, Harriet is ill and exhausted and knows something is gravely wrong. Ben is fearsomely strong, barely needs to sleep, doesn’t speak. While it is hardly spoken of, Ben’s strangeness, how different he is, has started to take its toll on the family. The other children are badly affected, Harriet’s mother leaves, David throws himself into his work, friends and relatives stop coming for Christmas. By the end of the book, Harriet is alone with little but the memories of the family that has been destroyed by the changeling child.

The book is at its best in the first two-thirds, as we get to know Harriet and her family, and as a result can appreciate the havoc that Ben wreaks upon this domestic idyll. The sense of dread that hangs over them from the start of Harriet’s fifth pregnancy only intensifies as Ben is born, and becomes a terrifying and dangerous presence in their lives. The final part of the novel, as Ben gets older and starts to find his place in the world is much weaker, and the theory that Harriet constructs to explain Ben would have been better left unsaid. Despite that, the horror and anxiety that stalks Harriet as she tries to do her best by her children, raising Ben while trying to protect the others from him, makes chilling reading.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #73: The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis


It’s the early 1900s, and Digory and Polly are next door neighbours in a smart part of London. Digory, whose mother is very sick, is staying with his aunt and uncle, and the two children form a friendship as they play in their houses and gardens over the course of the summer. One day, their adventures take them to Uncle Andrew’s study. Uncle Andrew is a nasty piece of work who has been dabbling in magic. He tricks Polly into touching a magic ring that causes her to vanish, and Digory has no choice but to follow her to bring her home.

The two children find themselves in the ‘wood between worlds’, and their first adventure takes them to the dying world of Charn and introduces us to Queen Jadis (who we get to know even better in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe) when Digory awakes her from her sleep. After a disastrous trip back to London, the children, with Uncle Andrew, Jadis, a London cabby and his horse Strawberry in tow, end up in a dim new world. Light dawns with Aslan, whose song gives life to the darkness, and the land and seas, plants and animals of Narnia are created. After a failed attempt on Aslan’s life, Jadis escapes to the north, and to atone for his part in bringing such evil into the new Narnia, Digory goes on an errand to bring back a magical apple that will protect Narnia. With Narnia now safe, Aslan returns Digory, Polly and Uncle Andrew to London, where a fruit from the magic tree restores Digory’s mother back to health.

The Magician’s Nephew, although published sixth, chronologically speaking is the first of the Narnia stories, dealing as it does with the creation of the magical land. As well as meeting Aslan for the first time, we learn the origins of The White Witch, and discover how the wardrobe came to be a magical portal to Narnia. The book gives the Narnia series its own creation myth, and as you’d expect with Lewis, there are biblical parallels with this and the forbidden fruit that Jadis gorges herself on. As with the other stories, Lewis doesn’t shy away from showing the selfish, cowardly and greedy sides of his characters, and as with the Pevensie children in later books, Polly and Digory are more real and likeable for it. This book was is magical to me now as it was on first reading when I was seven years old, and I don’t think that will ever change.