Beetle Queen

I was never scared of beetles when I was little, but I certainly never saw them as beautiful. Or interesting. But that’s what MG Leonard makes them in this, the follow-up to Beetle Boy. I’m not the first person to say that reading these books makes you want to start collecting beetles – in all their many, many varieties – right away. Just to look at them. And appreciate the wondrous things they’re capable of.

Two other pluses in this book: the exciting, funny, chaotic climax at a film awards ceremony; and the fabulous villain of the piece: Lucretia Cutter. She’s a genuine original and truly, truly creepy. I hope there’s even more of her in the third and final volume.

Beetle Q


Keeping On Keeping On

I love Alan Bennett’s writing, even when – in many of his plays – I’m not really sure what he’s getting at. His prose is elegant. His dialogue is witty. He has an eye for the odd little occurrences of daily that make me think I must be walking around with my eyes shut. The majority of this book consists of extracts from his diaries written between 2005 and 2015. And they’re a delight. Here’s just one example:

I am said in today’s Independent on Sunday to be ‘pushing eighty’ , with a photograph taken at seventy in corroboration. The article is about the decline of Northern drollery,  of which I am an example, though whether of the drollery or its decline I’m not sure.


Great Britain’s Great War

A friend of mine used to make documentaries for television. Part of the process included research with academic histories: books full of footnotes, quotes from those involved, facts and figures galore. He didn’t mind; he rather liked it. It would have sent me looking for the nearest high window to throw myself through.

Jeremy Paxman’s book is the kind of history I like. More narrative than detailed explanation, it reads – almost – like a novel. In fact, this is my second reading; it’s so well-written that the pages slip by. But note the title. This is a book about Great Britain’s war: how it became involved, how its men fought, why they fought, how its society was affected during and after the conflict. It is NOT an all-encompassing history told from all sides.

And it doesn’t go into exhaustive detail. What it offers is a picture of, and a feeling for – a sense – of a way of life about to be changed forever. I particularly liked his examination of the concept of ‘duty’ and his refusal to view the war with hindsight, with today’s focus on individualism. He brings the past to life. And makes it so very, very readable.

Great War

Light of the World

James Lee Burke’s first Dave Robicheaux novel – The Neon Rain – was a sleek 240 pages. Light of the World – Robicheaux’s 20th adventureclocks in at an eyeball-numbing 550. And once you settle into it, you realise that you’re going to feel every single one of them. Robicheaux broods constantly about guilt, evil and redemption. Clete Purcell is either on the booze, falling in love with the wrong woman, or threatening to kill every bad guy in sight to protect his daughter. She just happens to be up in Montana with the two of them because… she felt like a holiday, I think. Trouble is, once she’s there, she wants to protect Robicheaux’s daughter Alafair from the psychopathic killer who’s back from the apparent dead and intent on tracking her down. It gets complicated.

And then more complicated. And more. Everybody is always getting  in everybody else’s face, threatening terminal violence and/or dismemberment. And they keep doing it. The threats and confrontations pile up to the point where I was sitting in my chair wondering when anybody was actually going to make good on just on of those promises – simply to move the story along.

I really like James Lee Burke. I think he’s a wonderful writer. But this reads like a book written to meet a publisher’s deadline, rather than something he really wanted to write. (And boy, wouldn’t we all like THAT problem.) So I’m going to keep looking for his work. Even as I wish that he wouldn’t let the Page Count Goblin out of his cage so often.




The Rosie Project

A brisk trot through reviews on Amazon told me that I wasn’t alone in being confused by the ending. And like several of those reviewers, I ended up resorting to Wikipedia to work out precisely who the father was. (Not that this is new for me.)

I don’t write that to put the book down; I liked it a lot. The characters are engaging, the plot’s clever, and there are a couple of moments that made me laugh so hard I cried. But 300 pages seems an awful lot for what is, in effect, a pleasant little love story. When did books get so L-O-N-G? (Films too, for that matter.) When did everything turn into an EVENT?


Creole Belle

James Lee Burke writes like a dream. Vivid, lyrical prose makes you feel the heat and humidity of southern Louisiana, and smell the swamps and the rain and the cut grass. You can see the mists settling on the lakes and rivers.

But – and here the armies of JLB fans are going to start sharpening their machetes – this lyricism is always at the service of pretty much the same old plot. Dave Robicheaux will be fighting the alcoholic demons in his head. Clete Purcell will be getting ready to go postal. Dave’s daughter Alafair will be putting jerks down with words that crack like a whip. The villains will be entitled white racists, or homicidal cracker psychopaths. Everybody will always sound as though their heads are about to explode.

I read everything he writes, though, because I know that every so often all these elements come together in a gripping story. Creole Belle is one of them. And if it’s not as good as the first four Robicheaux novels, or Pegasus Descending, or In the Moon of Red Ponies, it’s awfully close.



Shock Value

Few people I know share my fondness for late 1970s horror movies. Actually, not ALL late 70s horror movies. I never liked the Friday 13th series, or any of the Halloweens that followed the first one. Tobe Hooper’s output after The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was just too OTT for me. The Exorcist has its moments – the best dream sequence in any movie ever – but I also find it a little OTT. And I really disliked Last House On The Left. But I could happily watch Halloween, Alien, The Hills Have Eyes, Dawn of the Dead and Carrie right now, this minute.

What I love about this book is that it offers long, movie-buff-friendly chapters on all of the films listed above, as well as Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Dressed to Kill. (Plus a lot of others I can’t remember as I sit here writing this.) They’re all fascinating, packed with information about what went into the making of each, how they were received by audiences and critics, and what happened to the careers of the directors in later years.

I’ve read reviews online that attack this book for its mistakes – Taxi Driver does NOT begin with Travis Bickle talking about washing the scum off the streets – but that kind of nit-picking always annoys me. Perfection is for God and angels. What I think Jason Zinoman does really well is tell great stories about all the films and document the point at which old horror movies – Dracula, Frankenstein et al – gave way to what he calls the New Horror, and how it grew out of the society of the 70s.

I loved it.