zondag 29 januari 2017

"The Road to Little Dribbling" by Bill Bryson

“The rooms were small and airless and cramped. To make matters worse, somebody in our group was making the most dreadful silent farts. Fortunately, it was me, so I wasn’t nearly as bothered as the others.”

When you feel like having a good laugh, reading a book by Bill Bryson is always a safe bet. I've read all of his travel books, and I've smiled, grinned, giggled, laughed out loud and literally rolled on the floor laughing, unaware of the people around me, who were probably wondering what was wrong with me. Luckily, that was usually only my wife, who should know me by now. 

Anyway, one of those books was "Notes From a Small Island", an account of his first visit to Britain, a classic in humourous travel literature. Now, twenty years after that book, Bryson is back with another book about Great Britain, a country he has lived in for most of his life. So he travels around Britain again, with his keen sense of observation and his critical mind as his sole companions.

As always, the book is full of anecdotes and self-mockery, and Bryson has lots of interesting ànd funny things to say about the oddest subjects. Really, he is able to make it fascinating to read about things like the British road numbering system, spelling mistakes, or even the hairs growing out of his nose and ears. He stares in wonder at the glorious countryside, or the beautiful villages and towns he visits, but he comes down hard on stupid and rude people and he's devasted by the disappearance of so many wonderful things he encountered when he first travelled the country. He may have got a bit grumpier in his old age, but that only adds to the fun. Bryson evidently still loves Britain, but during his travels, it becomes clear that he feels the country is going downhill in many respects. His conclusion speaks for itself:

“It occurred to me, not for the first time, that if Britain is ever to sort itself out, it is going to require a lot of euthanasia.”

It isn't really necessary to read "Notes from a Small Island" first, but you might as well do just that, because it's absolutely brilliant. "The Road to Little Dribbling" may not be quite on the same level as the aforementioned "Notes..." or "Neither Here Nor There", but it's still that safe bet you were looking for.

Author: Bill Bryson
Title: The Road to Little Dribbling
Publisher: Black Swan, London
Year: 2015
Number of pages: 477 p.
ISBN: 9780552779838

zondag 22 januari 2017

"The Searchers" by Alan LeMay

"Martin found the body of Henry Edwards draped on its back across the broad sill of a bedroom window. The Comanche knives had done eery work upon this body. Like Martha, Henry and both boys had been scalped."

I used to read a lot of westerns when I was a teenager. You know: Max Brand, Zane Grey, Louis L'Amour (and Karl May, of course, who was my favourite). But I grew out of them. I still read historical novels about the west, but not the traditional westerns. Still, I was tempted to read 'The Searchers', Alan LeMay's novel upon which the famous John Wayne movie was based - widely regarded as one of the very best western films of all times.  It turns out 'The Searchers' is not a traditional western at all - at least not the shoot-'em-up type of story that most people think of when imagining 'western'.

Texas in the 1860s. The Comanches are raiding white settlements, prompting many to leave. Henry Edwards and his family have decided to stay, but it was only a matter of time before the Comanches attack their place as well.

When Henry's brother Amos and the Edwards' adopted son Martin arrive at the house, they find most of the family slaughtered. The two daughters are missing. 17-year old Lucy is found a bit later, brutally raped and murdered; the youngest, Debbie, was taken by the Indians. Amos and Martin set out to rescue her. The search lasts for years and Amos and Martin not only have to fight Indians, but also storms, robbers and other misadventures. The final confrontation is shocking (and quite different from the movie verson).

The book was probably inspired by the real-life story of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was kidnapped by Comanches in a similar fashion in the 1830s. It might be difficult to market a story like this these days, with the one-sided, negative view of Native Americans. But as the events are completely told from the point of view of the whites, it makes sense. This is not about who was right or wrong - this is about dealing with feelings of guilt, hatred and revenge. It is a bleak reading experience. But it's exactly this dark atmosphere which makes it a very good novel.

Author: Alan LeMay
Title: The Searchers
Publisher: Pinnacle Books, New York
Year: 2013 (orig. 1954)
Number of pages: xl + 308 p.
ISBN: 9780786031429

zondag 15 januari 2017

"Tot de dood ons scheidt..." van Jo Claes

"Hij klonk grimmig. Als een jager die eindelijk het wild in zijn vizier had gekregen en bloed rook."

Wanneer de bejaarde Louise Haelterman aan een hartaanval overlijdt, lijkt niets te wijzen op een misdaad, zelfs als dat niet lang komt na het dodelijk ongeval van haar gezelschapsdame Tilly Winters. Maar wanneer even later een universiteitsprofessor in verdachte omstandigheden om het leven komt en enkele dagen later een van zijn studenten vermoord wordt teruggevonden, gaat er een alarmbelletje af bij hoofdinspecteur Thomas Berg, zeker als blijkt dat de vier overlijdens gelinkt kunnen worden aan het tragische verhaal van Joris Dehaene. Dehaene was een jonge dichter, die tijdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog leider was van een verzetsbeweging en door de Gestapo werd geëxecuteerd. Wie heeft hem destijds verraden en waarom is dit nu nog relevant? In Leuven loopt iemand rond die kost wat kost wil voorkomen dat de ware geschiedenis aan het licht komt.

"Tot de dood ons scheidt..." verschilt enigszins van de vorige boeken rond Thomas Berg, in die zin dat Berg zelf hier een wat kleinere rol speelt. Het zijn vooral Chloë Winters, dochter van Tilly, en Dries Haelterman, achterneef van Louise, die de rol van speurder op zich nemen en stap voor stap Berg helpen om de dader te ontmaskeren. Zoals steeds schotelt Claes ons, naast het intrigerende mysterie, weer een hele hoop interessante informatie voor over archeologie, geschiedenis, kunst, mythologie, en in dit verhaal ook fotografie. Ditmaal zijn kunst en symboliek zelfs bijzonder belangrijk in de ontrafeling van het mysterie, wanneer Berg, Winters en Haelterman allerhande sporen volgen die Louise heeft achtergelaten, en waarvoor ze een Dan Brown-achtige speurtocht beginnen. Claes geeft ook even een knipoog naar Agatha Christie, in een scène waarin de verdachten allen worden samengeroepen en Berg de misdaad en de motieven uit de doeken doet.

Spannend, intrigerend en bij momenten humoristisch (de scène waarin Berg tegen wil en dank op date gaat is bijzonder grappig). Dit is een van de betere Thomas Berg-romans - en de andere zijn ook al niet mis.

Auteur: Jo Claes
Titel: Tot de dood ons scheidt...
Uitgeverij: Houtekiet, Antwerpen/Utrecht
Jaar: 2012
Aantal bladzijden: 476 blz.
ISBN: 9789089242112

woensdag 11 januari 2017

"Stamboul Train" by Graham Greene

“When there was a choice between love of a woman and hate of a man, her mind could cherish only one emotion, for her love might be a subject for laughter, but no one ever had ever mocked her hatred.”

In "Stamboul Train" we follow a couple of very different individuals on board the Orient Express, on their voyage from Ostend to Istanbul. There's Coral Musker, a very young and naïve dancer who is on her way to Istanbul to be a show girl. Carleton Myatt is a Jewish entrepeneur, who is concered that his partner in Turkey is double-crossing him. The lesbian reporter Mabel Warren is travelling with her companion Janet Pardoe. Then there's the teacher Richard John, who is in fact the exiled Serbian communist leader dr. Richard Czinner, and he's on his way to his country to lead a revolt. There's Q.C. Savory, a pompous writer, who provides most of the comic relief, and finally, there's the master thief Josef Grünlich, who is on the run after he murdered someone in a burglary-gone-wrong.

The lives of these characters intertwine as Coral falls in love with Myatt. When she falls ill, she meets dr. Czinner. Meanwhile, Mabel Warren has discovered dr. Czinner's identity, and wants to seal her reputation as a journalist by getting an exclusive interview with him - whatever it takes. The other characters also get involved in this complex web of interactions.

This is a very early Greene novel and it was his breakthrough when it was first released in 1932. Greene separated his novels in serious novels and 'entertainments' (nowadays, we would call them thrillers) and he didn't hide the fact that he wrote the latter mainly for the money. But whatever group his novels are categorised in, Greene always focused on characters. There's an interesting storyline running through the book (actually, there are several), but it's mainly the characters and the way they interact that make this a compelling novel.

The last part of the novel mainly focuses on Myatt's business venture. Frankly, this happens to be the least engaging of the threads in the book, so it's a bit of an anti-climax. This is not Greene's best novel, but it does have flashes of the brilliance we would see in later novels.

Author: Graham Greene
Title: Stamboul Train
Publisher: Vintage, London
Year: 2004 (orig. 1932)
Number of pages: xiii + 197 p.
ISBN: 9780099478362

vrijdag 6 januari 2017

"King Kong vs. Tarzan" by Will Murray

"Like some barbaric Hannibal, Tarzan of the Apes stood balanced on the back of the lead elephant, and watched the primeval gorilla-thing push his way out of the forest."

I don't know what it says about me, but I've always been fascinated by stories which have monkeys in them. There is the old "Planet of the Apes" movie series, of course, which I've seen maybe a dozen times. Watching the "King Kong" remake in 1976 was one of the most memorable experiences of my childhood, and "Tarzan of the Apes" was my all-time favourite hero. As a child I used to imagine stories in which Tarzan travelled to the Planet of the Apes, or battled against the mighty Kong. These kinds of crossovers usually only appear in a child's mind, of course. But I was clearly not the only with these fantasies. Last year, a comic series "Tarzan on the Planet of The Apes" was published and just a few months ago, author Will Murray wrote the novel "King Kong vs. Tarzan".

The King Kong story is well know. A film crew strikes down on Skull Island and soon actress Ann Darrow is captured by natives and is offered as a sacrifice to their god, Kong, who turns out to be a giant gorilla. The crew manages to save Ann and capture Kong, who is brought to New York aboard their ship, to be exhibited as the 'Eighth Wonder of the World'. This novel tells the untold story of what happened on the journey from Skull Island to New York.

The book would have benefited from 150 fewer pager. For about half the book, Kong is asleep. There is a lot of talking and most of it is all about how Kong can be fed on the way to New York. Now the author might have lots of interesting things to tell about Kong's digestive processing, but in all fairness, that's not something I want to read about in an adventure novel. The story starts to gain pace when the Wanderer reaches the African shores and Kong manages to escape. Tarzan first appears well over halfway the book, and he isn't happy with the monster wreaking havoc in his jungle. It has to be said: the author is well versed in the Tarzan lore and he emulates Edgar Rice Burroughs' style very well. Kong lacks purpose, though. In the original story, the giant gorilla is driven and ultimately defeated by his obsession with Ann Darrow. In this book, he seems to have completely forgotten about her (up until the end, that is). He only seems interested in what animal he's going to have for his next snack. More realistic, maybe, but who cares about realism in a story about a giant gorilla? The showdown between Tarzan and Kong is well done, though.

Not exactly a dream come true, but as far as crossovers go, this is a pretty good effort. Still, maybe these kinds of children's fantasies should just stay where they belong: in a child's mind.

Author: Will Murray
Title: King Kong vs. Tarzan
Publisher: Altus Press
Year: 2016
Number of pages: 465 p.
ISBN: 9781618272812