'The Grim Reaper' by Bernard Knight
This is the sixth Crowner John book in the series. As with the others, the action picks up soon after the previous book ended. However, Knight does recap a great deal, so even if you have not read any of the other books you can pick up the story very easily. Indeed this might be a good one if you want to read as a stand-alone volume. Knight certainly communicates the nature of society and the law in late 12th Century England very well without it seeming to be a lecture.
This book is focused on Exeter and is actually a serial killer investigation. On those grounds it is probably one of the best of the series. John also gets back with Nesta his Welsh mistress and inn keeper, one of the favourite characters of the books. The suspects are limited by the fact that though the murders are diverse in nature, the corpses are accompanied by written extracts from the Bible.
Given the low level of literacy, even among clergymen, this restricts the likely killer to certain priests in the city. We are shown each of the various men and rather different to the previous books, the reader is effectively encouraged to decide between them. However, the investigation is not straightforward. John's own secretary, Thomas De Peyne is even arrested as a suspect, given his knowledge. As is common there is a lot of friction between John and his brother-in-law the Sheriff of Devon, but there is additional issues with the arrival of the judges of the periodic courts in Exeter. Knight balances the politics of the time very well and this adds an extra dimension to the investigations.
Overall, I enjoyed the book and felt it was one of the strongest so far. However, as you can see from my reviews of the previous ones, you can never tell the quality of the next book in the series. Despite, that I am persisting with working my way through them.
'The Twilight Man' by Michael Moorcock
I bought this book at the same time as 'The Rituals of Infinity' (1971) which I read in July: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2021/05/books-i-listened-toread-in-may.html Like that book it had started life as an episodic story in 'New Worlds' and this combined, revised version was published in 1966. I have read a review which suggests 'The Twilight Man' is atypical of Moorcock's work. However, in contrast I see a lot of seeds of novels and stories which followed. For example a decadent world in which the population had technology to do what they wish and a very 1960s attitude to sex, seems very characteristic of the Dancers at the End of Time novels. The Faustian pact with a flawed, powerful person which has a high cost to the one making the deal, runs right through the Elric books. Even the rotation of Earth having ceased and the Moon or some equivalent welded to the planet, appears again in Moorcock's writing. Thus, I see this novel as laying out many of the themes Moorcock would return over the following two decades and beyond.
As a novel in itself, it is crisp and tight, perhaps unsurprising for something originally produce for a magazine. Moorcock manages to produce a range of different characters quickly but effectively. This enables to see a range of approaches to humanity dealing with the end of the ability to reproduce its species. At times, in this regard, it reminds me a little of 'On the Beach' (1957) by Nevil Shute. However, Moorcock wraps it in his characteristic baroque styling which combines science fiction with fantasy in his unique way. As with the best science fiction, while there is action, the reader is provoked into considering how they would react and behave themselves in this context. Overall if you are looking for a deft, brisk piece of science fiction which delivers a lot for being slender, and, despite the dated sexual politics, asks relevant questions in an age when we have powerful billionaires, our environment is damaged and many societies are facing declining birth rates, then I recommend this book. It is also refreshing to have something that can be read in one sitting, rather than the 800+ page books which are so dominant in science fiction and especially fantasy.
'Altar of Bones' by Philip Carter
Bizarrely 'Philip Carter' (now has added an 'L.' in the middle presumably to avoid confusion with the dietician; cycling and IQ test authors of the same name), it is stated openly, is a pseudonym for an internationally acclaimed author. Who this is in reality I have not been able to find out. A rather ambivalent review quoted on the cover of the edition I read, suggests it might be Harlan Coben and goes on to say, though, that it is better than his other novels, despite their success. I did wonder if it was produced by a female author in the way that J.K. Rowling published books as Robert Galbraith when she moved into producing thrillers; knowing that male readers, especially of action books, too often baulk if they see a female name on the cover. Certainly there are strong female characters in this novel, though ultimately the outcomes for the heroine Zoe Dmitroff ends up with a painfully conventional conclusion; one that I felt was included to please mainstream US readers. At times I do wonder if it was written by the couple, especially given how many characters turn up and the two story threads orbiting the same protagonists.
Whoever wrote this book, published in 2011, it looks as if they were aiming to produce their equivalent of 'The Da Vinci Code' (2003; movie 2006). The sense of a special bloodline passed through women; visits to art galleries and chases around Paris and consulting eccentric specialists certainly parallel incidents in that book. It also had minor parallels with 'Labyrinth' (2005) by Kate Mosse. People are seeking a shrine, the eponymous Altar of Bones, located in Siberia, that while not granting immortality can cure incurable diseases and slow up the ageing process. If that is not enough, there is a spy story about KGB operatives in the USA both assassinating President Kennedy (with a film to prove it) and Marilyn Monroe. The fact that one of the antagonists seeking the film effectively exits the novel shows the extent to which the author had bitten off more than they could chew.
The book is fast moving and if you enjoy Dan Brown's books this will go down well. It is rather bewildering at the start when we are introduced to a string of characters in quite a bit of detail and then they are bumped off; though one reappears alive later. Zoe's mother being a Russian mafia boss does seem to jar with the novel and at least one of the assassins seems like the Terminator and able to cause a string of shootings without provoking any genuine official resistance, no matter which country she is in. The book is not a bad thriller and probably would work for you if seeking an action-mystery book with fewer religious overtones. However, you have to accept stretching of credibility and, conversely, some very conventional outcomes, especially for female characters.
'The New Pelican Guide to English Literature 7. From James to Eliot' ed. by Boris Ford
This is the 1988 edition of the 1983 revision of this volume, though some chapters look to have had minimal updating since 1960. I was given it as a gift when I finished a job in the civil service in 1991, largely on the basis that I read a lot of books by Aldous Huxley. While the book covers the period when he was active, he barely gets a mention. After two introductory chapters on Britain at the time and on its literary scene, the book is a series of essays predominantly about one author or a set of authors and on occasion, a theme. The time frame is rather vague but sort of covers the 1890s to the 1950s, though some chapters, especially the one on Irish writing, stretches far beyond that. The writing is at times intense with critiques, especially of poetry, going down to considering individual words used in specific poems.
Despite the use of 23 writers, predominantly literature academics, there is a connecting theme and that is how negatively they view their subjects. D.H. Lawrence is permitted a couple of books deemed worthy but a lot of his stuff is dismissed as too fantastical. Virginia Woolf is entirely condemned as being 'minor'; Bernard Shaw, Graham Greene, C.P. Snow and W.H. Auden are seen as writing, respectively, nothing of quality and/or nothing substantial. I do not know if this was agreed by the various contributors, but in chapter after chapter they seem to be comparing their subject to some unrevealed 'golden' example that all these authors and poets fall short in meeting. Who the authors or the time period that they are thinking of, is not clear.
There is reference to French and Russian writing which generally seems to come off better than anything they read from those writing in English. You can tell the age of many of the essays, presumably brought over from the Pelican Guide version as even complex French text is not translated; it assumed that the reader is highly fluent in the language so can comprehend the very specialised points being made by those quotations.
There are some interesting points made, such as the role of sailors and the sea in Joseph Conrad's work and Ezra Pound effectively contrasting different versions of himself in his work. The chapters on the rural tradition, First World War writing and Irish English-language literature are interesting. I was introduced to the work of Edward Thomas and L.H. Myers with which I was not familiar. However, fitting with the consistent tone of this book, both are presented as, at best, mediocre; hardly encouraging me to read them. The poet Hugh MacDiarmid was also unfamiliar to me but given his extensive use of Scottish dialect which requires a multitude of footnotes to explain, I would hardly count him as being an English-language poet.
Some of the chapters, notably on the 'language of thought', and criticism and the reading public are so wrapped up in themselves and so dismissive that they are a waste of time; in the latter case, it seems the essayist seems to think that since the death of his journal, no effective criticism has been produced. These are irritating expoundings on topics of minimal interest and are more about the essayists wanting to get irritated about something rather than contribute to scholarship.
I can certainly see why this book gets bad reviews online. If you are to be a student on 20th Century English Literature then this book can be guaranteed to quell and interest, let alone passion, you might have in the authors of that time. This book recommends none of them and portrays them instead as failing and rather pathetic inadequate people not in control of their writing and unable to attain, in most cases any baseline standards; the best only achieve it once or twice, no matter how long their careers.
I came away from this book really questioning why it had been produced and continued to be put out in multiple editions. Yes, it might help with being critical of writing of these times, but in most cases a student writing this way, shackled to personal hobbyhorses and dismissing what many would feel were 'major' if not 'great' authors and poets, would be unlikely to score highly for their essay.