Category Archives: History

The Yard, Alex Grecian (Penguin, 2013)

The Yard

A year after Jack the Ripper’s string of murders stuns Whitechapel, and there is another killer on the loose in London, the city at the centre of the world.

Alex Grecian expertly interweaves the stories of multiple characters within, and related to, Scotland Yard, leading with the protagonist Inspector Little, who has just joined the “Murder Squad”.

Grecian’s ability to effortlessly glide between stories makes for gripping reading of a novel which echoes the style of a movie, a TV show or even a graphic novel, such as Grecian’s own Proof.

Nonetheless, the author’s tense and suspenseful style somewhat casts into the shadows what is really a rather mediocre plot, which does not produce anything that is extremely exciting or revolutionary.

The novel provides us with an interesting look into the workings of Scotland Yard, and also the developments of forensic science during late 19th century, when many were highly skeptical about the use of fingerprints for identification.

While the story itself is easy to imagine, I was only able to picture modern-day London; the description of Victorian London was not wholly convincing, and I felt that it lacked the muggy, noisy and bustling atmosphere which I tend to associate with the capital during that era.

The Yard is, on the whole, a well-produced, promising debut novel; it is a definite page-turner, in which style and form nevertheless triumph over content and story-line.

3.5 Books

2 Comments

Filed under History, Mystery

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak (Black Swan, 2008)

‘Thanks for the beautiful review […] all best and much respect.’
Markus Zusak, 2013 (via Twitter)

The Book Thief

Narrated by Death – not something that can be said about most novels; however, Zusak pulls it off wonderfully. A dry sense of humour, short and blunt sentences, as well an interaction with the reader are all characteristics which make Death the perfect narrator for The Book Thief.

The book thief is Liesel Meminger, a German girl, who is delivered to the house of Hans and Rosa Hubermann at the start of the novel. En route, she encounters Death for the first time, following the loss of her brother. We are told that they will meet each other on two further occasions.

The first book stolen by Liesel is a gravedigger’s manual which she gathers up from the snow after her brother’s burial. She goes on to steal several others, which she studies religiously; she later learns to read and write, with the aid of her Papa, Hans, with whom she shares a very close bond.

We get a better idea of the mysterious Hubermanns, when they selflessly take in and hide Max Vandenburg, a Jewish fist-fighter. Liesel develops a close friendship with Max, who is likewise a victim of Nazi persecution. The literature produced by Max for his friend Liesel truly enforces the novel’s emphasis on words, particularly in regards to their strength and importance at a time of great oppression and loneliness, where many people desperately desired to escape and rebel.

One of those who rebels is Rudy, a school-friend of Liesel, who, one day, dresses up like Jesse Owens and sprints through the streets of Molching. His affection shared with Liesel, and his constant pestering for just one kiss, makes for a beautiful, yet heart-breaking love story in The Book Thief.

Zusak places us in Himmel Road, at the centre of Nazi influence in Germany, allowing us to witness the suffering of innocent Germans, both at the hands of the British, who bombard the city in air raids, and of their fellow countrymen, who march shackled Jews through the streets to concentration camps.

My only real criticism would be the use of the German pejoratives saumensch and saukerl, which I felt lost their meaning through overuse. However, I feel that with this gem, Zusak has produced one of the most excellent novels of our century – sheer brilliance and originality – and one that I would steal, given the chance.

4.5 books

4 Comments

Filed under Drama, History

The House by the Thames and the people who lived there, Gillian Tindall (Pimlico, 2007)

House by the thames

A brief warning to the reader: if you are expecting, like I was,  a present-day London-based One Hundred Years of Solitude, albeit on a smaller scale, you will be somewhat disappointed. I think this teaches us not to judge a book by its cover. What we do receive nonetheless is an endearing historical account spanning nearly half a millennium, about the people who lived in, and the area surrounding,  a lone house on Bankside: number 49.

Gillian Tindall takes us on an exciting journey through the centuries, focussing specifically on the Southwark area, which as she states herself, has often been overlooked by historians.

This is surprising, as we encounter interesting characters from the top of the social and financial hierarchy, like Anna Lee, a famous moviestar, right down to the destitute labourers living in squalor. Tindall delves into the lives of the poor, reminiscent of Dickens, to whom she alludes at times, highlighting the lives of both desperation and privilege on Bankside.

One of the book’s main features is Tindall’s flowing prose style; not typical of historical accounts, it captivates the reader, effectively holding our attention throughout and developing like a novel until its conclusion. In The House by the Thames and the people who lived there, we are educated and enthralled by the socio-economic history of London’s bankside, which takes us from the watermen company of the Sells, the most prominent family in the book, right up to the building of the Globe and the Tate Modern. Together, these two edifices have preserved the life of its quiet neighbour number 49 to the present-day and secured the prolongation of its fame in the future on Bankside.

3.5 Books

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Non-Fiction

The Interpretation of Murder, Jed Rubenfeld (Headline, 2007)

Interpretation of Murder

The death of debutante Elizabeth Rutherford and the attack on Nora Acton the following night coincides with Sigmund Freud’s arrival to New York. The latter is due to deliver a series of lectures at Clark University. Rubenfeld proposes his hypothesis for the latter’s dislike of the US, which forms the backbone to this thought-provoking novel.

Detective Littlemore heads the investigation’s inquiries, while Freud entrusts Stratham Younger, the first-person narrator of the novel, to conduct several psychoanalysis sessions with the surviving victim, Miss Acton. This is where this unique novel comes into its own, as we gain an insight into Freud’s psychoanalytic methods and his beliefs, specifically in regards to the Oedipus complex. We also encounter some Shakespeare, through Stratham’s alternative interpretation of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech.

The picture of the US at the turn of the twentieth-century painted by Rubenfeld captures the country’s immense growth; economically, populously and physically, with the appearance of many skyscrapers. The author’s tendency to shift from this development to a Freudian conspiracy or a murder investigation may cause confusion for some. I, however, feel that this shift in perspective reflects the disjointed nature of a murder inquiry, while adding to the suspense of this exciting novel.

For the most part, the institutions of law and psychology remain apart, pursuing separate leads, nonetheless, we see a merging of the two, highlighting the importance of latter particularly, in criminal inquiries. Some may point out a few inconsistencies in The Interpretation of Murder, but I personally think that this novel, full of shocking twists, will keep you thinking throughout. A superb debut from Jed Rubenfeld; I look forward to reading its sequel The Death Instinct.

4 Books

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Mystery

The City of Shadows, Michael Russell (Avon, 2012)

City of Shadows_Medium

In The City of Shadows, we are given an insight into Ireland, specifically Dublin, in the build-up to WWII. I myself had very little prior knowledge of this period in Ireland, and was surprised to learn about the strong influence of Nazism, the strength of the Catholic Church and the hostility against homosexuals. More well-informed readers may be more familiar with this history, and would probably warn me not to take it as given, as this is nonetheless a fictional work.

Through Stefan Gillespie’s investigation, in which he discovers the bodies of Vincent Walsh and Susan Field, Hannah Rosen’s  friend,  we are taken to Danzig and back, delving into the darkest corners of life. These are not the only two deaths we encounter in The City of Shadows, as institutional corruption in the government, the police and the church uncovers bribery, blackmail and a lack of consideration for the value of human life.

The pastoral location of West Wicklow, Stefan’s childhood home, is also explored, where Tom, his son, now lives with his grandparents. Here lies the underlying subplot: a fight for justice. The local priest attempts to send Tom away, owed to the views of his Protestant father and his late Jewish mother. This battle illustrates the fragility of human nature, as Stefan becomes a product of the evil against which he is fighting.

Meanwhile, the love affair between Stefan and Hannah Rosen, a Jewish friend of the deceased Susan, is tested by the discriminatory society and by distance, as she travels to Danzig and later follows her Jewish roots to Palestine.

I felt somewhat disappointed with the conclusion of the novel, which was not as romantic or ideal as I had expected; nevertheless, it is a realistic ending to a gripping mystery novel, into which Michael Russell cleverly weaves the history of the era. An excellent debut by an author from whom I hope to hear more in the coming years.

Image

1 Comment

Filed under History, Mystery