War & Turpentine (2013) by Stefan Hertmans

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We turn tough and get sentimental; we laugh as we cry; our life’s a waking slumber, a slumberous wake; we quarrel with our arms around each other; we lash out at each other while shrugging our shoulders; no part of our bodies or minds remains intact; we breathe as long as live and live merely because we are breathing, as long as it lasts. 

Before the Booker International long-list came out earlier this year I hadn’t heard of Stefan Hertmans but I immediately added some of the finalists, including this novel, to my ever growing to-read list as soon as the news came out. I heard so many positive things about it in the months that followed but resisted getting myself a copy until I went to the library to collect Silkworm a week or two ago and it just happened to be prominently displayed on the neighbouring shelf. Obviously it was destiny.

It took me a little while to get through War & Turpentine; not because it’s a particularly dense book but because it soon became clear that this was one worth taking my time over. It’s a strange novel that seems to straddle a couple of genres but essentially it’s based on the memories of the writer’s grandfather, Urbain Martein, which were written down in three notebooks in the later years of his life. The notebooks were passed to Hertmans on Martein’s death but not read until three decades later. In the first and last parts of the novel Hertmans combs over his grandfather’s life and work pre- and post-war: a poor childhood in Ghent, his father’s career restoring frescoes in churches, his early training in an iron foundry, art school, love, marriage and eventual death. Cutting through Hertman’s story is Urbain’s personal account of his experiences in the Great War, as they were written down in painstaking detail many years later. This is the backbone of the novel and its looming presence colours everything you read before and after.

It’s a little difficult to tell where the line between fiction and memoir really lies here, particularly because Hertmans illustrates his story with images of his grandfather’s sketches, paintings by the great masters he loved and photographs of the places he knew. I think this might be one of the things I liked most about this novel though. It’s almost like Hertmans deliberately allows the edges between art and real life to become a bit blurred because, for his grandfather, they were part of the same story. It occasionally makes for some quite painful reading but in amongst the poverty of Urbain’s childhood and the grim horror of the trenches Hertmans shines a light on moments that have the power to both devastate you and uplift you at the same time. One short scene, which takes place in a  small dockyard church while Urbain is in Liverpool recovering from wounds received at the front, made me quite emotional and I found myself blinking back tears and swearing at myself to keep it together at least until I was in a less public place. Hertman really touchingly shows all the brutal inhumanity of the world (a description of a gelatine factory will make your eyes water) alongside the wondrous and the beautiful: Urbain’s paintings, his mother, his short love affair, the Liverpool church, the beautiful landscape surrounding the battlefields, the sight of animals escaping the warefare… It’s a sad novel really but the contrasts give it a kind of hopefulness.

Hertman’s skill as a poet is evident here in the touchingly lyrical language. It’s so finely crafted it feels almost like a delicate work of art in itself. I really enjoyed this.

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The Story of Mary Ancel (c1838) by William Makepeace Thackeray

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William Makepeace Thackeray (courtesy of Wikimedia)

It’s usually at about this time of year that I return again to Rex Collings’ collection of Victorian & Edwardian Ghost Stories, published in 1996. This is my third visit to the collection which is, sadly, now looking rather battered and suffering from some mysterious blue staining round the edges. I always look forward to reading these short stories – there’s something quite cosy about them. Unfortunately that annoying, pernickety part of my brain really struggles with the misleading title; some of the stories in this collection are neither Victorian nor Edwardian; some of them are also not ghost stories. I think The Story of Mary Ancel just about qualifies as Victorian (my brief internet search suggested that it was definitely printed in The New Monthly Magazine in 1838, the year after Victoria’s coronation, but I don’t know whether this was its first appearance or a reprint). There is no ghost though and I think you’d be stretching the truth if you were to describe it as ‘horror’. It’s really not very scary. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it; I think I would just like the book to do what it says on the cover.

Mary Ancel’s tale is set in France after the revolution and describes an attempt by a rogue named Monsieur Schneider, a friend of the infamous Robespierre, to force this wealthy young woman into an engagement. He could pop the question in the traditional manner of course but decides to pre-empt any difficulties by turning up at Mary’s family home with a guillotine and executioner, brought especially all the way from Paris, and threatening to do away with her father if she doesn’t agree to be his wife. What a pig. She doesn’t have much choice so she agrees to the engagement but thankfully Mary is a sensible, clever sort of person and not ready to get pushed about by the villainous Schneider.

“I am told that you Englishmen consider it cowardly to cry; as for me, I wept and roared incessantly; when Mary squeezed me for the last time the tears came out of me as if I had been neither more nor less than a great wet sponge.” 

The story is narrated by Mary’s cousin Pierre, who has amorous intentions of his own, and he goes on at great length about what a virtuous, worthy and (of course) beautiful young woman she is. Frankly, Mary is much better than all of the useless men in this story and she manages to deal with the whole ridiculous situation with surprisingly little fuss. Go Mary. For this reason I didn’t mind Pierre’s sentimentality too much, especially as Thackeray also uses it to poke fun at the earnestness of Pierre’s youthful attachment to her. There’s some quiet, dry humour hidden away here if you look for it.

This was my first time reading anything by Thackeray, although I’ve had my eyes on Vanity Fair for years now, and he didn’t disappoint.  The next story in the book is a Dickens one which gives me hope that we might actually get a ghost. Hurrah. Hopefully we’re in safe hands.

Silkworm (2014) by Robert Galbraith

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I made a quick lunch-break dash to the library in order to pick this up and still had enough time to read some of the first chapter on a park bench before heading back to the office. It was a lot of effort to go to for a book I hadn’t really planned on reading so soon after The Cuckoo’s Calling – usually I get a bit bored if I work my way through a series too quickly – but the recent TV adaptation was getting discussed in great detail in my office and it was driving me kind of nuts. I was worried that if I didn’t read it soon then someone was going to spill too many beans and ruin the ending.

(Incidentally, I am currently a week behind on ‘Bake Off’ and having a very similar problem. I have to go make a cup of tea whenever my colleagues start discussing it.)

In Silkworm’s opening chapters, private detective Cormoran Strike takes up the case of missing author Owen Quine. Quine’s last act, in the days before his disappearance, was to send draft copies of his latest bizarre novel to everyone he knows including his wife, his mistress, his editor, his agent, his biggest rival and his publisher. Unfortunately for them the novel contains some vicious, thinly disguised poison-pen portraits and reveals some deep, dark secrets they’d probably rather not share. Under the circumstances it’s clear that there are several people who might have liked to get their revenge on Quine, or prevent him revealing further unpleasant truths, so Strike and his assistant Robin have to work out precisely who appears in the novel, who read it and who has the most to hide.

It’s a much darker, grittier novel than The Cuckoo’s Calling but I don’t think I enjoyed it quite as much. The plot is cleverer and just like Cuckoo it’s carefully put together with no worrying loopholes or loose ends. I’ve said before that I really love the way that Rowling builds vivid, believable worlds around her characters and this isn’t an exception. I particularly like the way that she describes real London places; it makes Strike’s world feel tangible. Similarly, however, I’ve also said before that I wish some of Rowling’s later novels were shorter and I stand by that here too. I think this novel wouldn’t have started to drag so much if Rowling was better at staying on topic. She wastes too many precious words on scenes that don’t matter, that slow the pace and become an annoying distraction from the real story. I liked Silkworm but would have enjoyed it even more if it had been a few pages shorter.

I’m also starting to wonder whether Robin might be a better central protagonist. Strike’s ok but I think telling the story from Robin’s point of view might actually feel just a little fresher. At the moment her relationship with Strike is straying into clichéd territory and I’m scared it’s going to get a bit predictable in the end. I’ll keep on with the series, since I’m quite enjoying them and they’re very easy to read. Maybe Rowling will surprise me.

For Two Thousand Years (1934) by Mihail Sebastian

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“Exactly the same thing happens with that age-old call for death which is always present somewhere on Romanian streets but audible only at certain moments. Year after year it resounds in the ear of the common man, who is indifferent, in a hurry, with other things on his mind. Year after year it rumbles and echoes in street and byway and nobody hears it. And one day, out of nowhere, behold how it suddenly pierces the wall of deafness around it and issues from every crack and from under every stone.”

My last stopover on the Around the World in 80 Books tour was in the West Indies for Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea. For my latest trip I’ve made a completely impractical (but metaphorical) leap over the ocean back to Europe to enjoy a brief stay in Romania – thankfully cost and carbon footprint aren’t a worry here or I might have planned the whole trip better and found a more efficient route 🙂

For Two Thousand Years has only recently appeared in English and I didn’t know much about it before it caught my eye in Waterstones a few months ago. Sebastian’s semi-autobiographical novel takes the very loose form of a diary covering about ten years in the life of a young Jewish man who, when the novel opens in 1923, is an impressionable student at the university in Bucharest. I found the opening passages unsettling, mainly because these were, of course, times of great political and social upheaval and the narrator suffers a great deal at the hands of anti-Semitic mobs on his way to lectures each day. It provokes much argument amongst his friends about what the future holds for the Jews in Europe but the narrator is much more introspective; he wonders what being Jewish means to him personally and whether he will ever really be accepted on his own terms in a Romania which repeatedly rejects and threatens those like him.

The book becomes less brooding – but no less intense – as he moves away from the university and I found it interesting to observe the ways in which his views evolve as he embarks on new ventures and makes new friends. He’s much less self-conscious from here on and there’s less soul searching so I’m sorry to say that I enjoyed these chapters a little more. I hope it isn’t spoiling things too much if I say that the novel takes a quietly sinister turn in the final pages. I was in a noisy hairdresser’s salon at this point in my reading, with a head full of foils, and I wondered later whether the incongruous setting might have made these chapters more shocking than they really were. I’d be interested to know whether anyone else found them as gut-wrenchingly painful to read as I did, much more alarming even than the violence displayed by the racist mobs in previous chapters.

My engagement with this novel went in fits and starts. We didn’t get off to the best beginning but there were several long passages that I loved, I mean really loved. I was so taken with some of Sebastian’s language and imagery that I ended up underlining several long passages in pencil, more than I have with any other novel I’ve read recently. On the other hand there’s no escaping the fact that on some occasions I had a hard time staying focussed. At times I was desperate to finish this novel; at others I wanted to savour every word. My feelings switched from one extreme to the other almost continually until the final few chapters when they suddenly fell very much in the books favour. I didn’t always find this an easy read – for several reasons – but it was beautifully written and haunted me long after I finished.

Nemesis (1971) by Agatha Christie

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I thoroughly enjoyed The Cuckoo’s Calling and fancied something similarly entertaining and, well, murdery for my next read. All I could lay my hands on at short notice were the trusty Agatha Christies I’ve accumulated over the years and which are dotted about on various shelves and in various cardboard boxes around the house. Nemesis just happened to be the first one I found. It’s the last Miss Marple novel Christie wrote although I didn’t find this out until later. If I’d known beforehand I might have been careful to take my leave of dear old Marps properly and with the respect she deserves, instead of flinging the book to one side in disgust as soon as I’d finished the last sentence.

Oh well.

The book opens with the death of an old friend, Jason Rafiel, who apparently helped Marple solve A Caribbean Mystery a few books previously (not that I’ve read it). Rafiel kindly leaves Marple a generous gift in his will but only on the very strict condition that she solves a murder first. He clearly has a specific murder in mind, of course – not just any will do – but the will is very vague on all the essential details, like who exactly has been murdered and when and where and so on. Fortunately it transpires that Rafiel has also left Marple a ticket for a coach holiday in the southern counties so she grudgingly goes along for the ride in the hope that the subject of her investigation will make itself known during the trip.

There are, I think, some good reasons why I was so disappointed with the last of Marple’s adventures. Firstly, while I initially enjoyed the elaborate set up it didn’t really add a great deal to the plot, apart from giving the story an unusually slow start. The rest of the story felt quite sluggish, formulaic, a little tired even, and there were some vague plot holes that worried me, although I won’t go into them here in case I spoil the book for someone else. I was convinced quite early on that I’d guessed the identity of the killer and then was horrified to be proven right. I really hate it when that happens.

On a more disturbing note, at first I was quite pleased to notice that there didn’t seem to be as much of the latent xenophobia in this book compared with some of the others, although it’s true that poor Mr Caspar is briefly suspected of committing the unknown crime on no grounds whatsoever besides looking a bit foreign. Later on, however, I found the absurdly bigoted victim blaming a little hard to take. This is one of the more obvious examples of a sentiment that is repeated on a couple of occasions:

“Girls, you must remember, are far more ready to be raped nowadays than they used to be. Their mothers insist, very often, that they should call it rape.” 

If the best that can be said about a novel is that for once there’s more misogyny than racism then you’re on worrying ground.

I’m wondering whether I seem to notice these regressive views more in the Miss Marple novels or whether it’s simply the case that I’ve read more of these recently. Did Christie make Marple say this awful stuff because she was supposed to be elderly and, therefore perhaps, more likely to have some outdated and old fashioned opinions? Does it necessarily reflect Christie’s own views? I’m not sure, but I think I might stick to Poirot (whom I prefer anyway) for a bit to see if they’re any better.

The grave of Arthur Conan Doyle

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Way, way back at the end of last year P and I went to Bournemouth where we visited the grave of Mary Shelley (and family, of course). When I posted my photographs of the trip here I mentioned that we’d visited another nearby(ish) grave the next day…. but I then I completely forgot to actually post those photographs. Until now.

The visit to Sir Arthur’s last resting place necessitated a drive from Bournemouth, through the beautiful New Forest, to the village of Minstead. Apparently he fell in love with this part of the world – it really is stunning – while researching his book The White Company and he later bought a holiday home here for his wife Jean. They were both originally buried in the grounds of their home in Crowborough, East Sussex but were moved in the 1950s when the house was sold. They now lie under a tree in the graveyard of All Saints Church in Minstead.

Arthur and Jean couldn’t really have picked a nicer spot in which to spend eternity if they’d picked it themselves. My enjoyment of the setting was probably helped by the fact that it was one of those beautifully clear but bitterly cold December afternoons and the sun was just starting to set as we arrived at the church. The church itself is unusually homey to look at, almost like someone has stuck a tower onto the side of someone’s red brick cottage.

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The Doyle grave is at the far edge of the churchyard – apparently because his spiritualist beliefs were at odds with church doctrine – with the church on one side and the forest edge on the other. It’s marked with a simple cross and inscription but it was quite nice to note that a pipe had been left on the base stone. I’m not sure how long its been there or who left it but it gives you the strange feeling that Sherlock Holmes has been along to pay his respects to his creator.

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The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) by Robert Galbraith

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“How easy it was to capitalize on a person’s own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life.” 

I came back from France with a nasty cold and was pretty much useless for anything requiring an upright position (or breathing) for a few days after our return, which put a very definite stop to my Doctor Zhivago reading plans. Something light, entertaining and plot driven was in order so I reached for The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first in the J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith mysteries. I have vague memories of having bought this at a library book sale when I was still at my old job so it’s probably been lurking in the unread pile for about two years at least. It was clearly high time to knock this one on the head.

As I said, The Cuckoo’s Calling is the first in the series and introduces us to Rowling’s private investigator Cormoran Strike who, as the book opens, is newly dumped, broke and living in his office. Strike is asked to investigate the supposed suicide of a world famous supermodel and – no surprises – it quickly becomes clear that her family were right to suspect foul play all along. Over the course of the investigation Strike interviews anyone with a known connection to the victim and meticulously reconstructs her last movements, all this while his disastrous private life disintegrates around him.

This is fairly standard detective fare but, for all its occasional sweariness and talk of rap megastars, Twitter and Boris Johnson, The Cuckoo’s Calling feels somehow endearingly old fashioned. There’s no pathology or forensics here but a lot of time is spent combing over minute details gleaned from interviews with witnesses and there are some traditional red herrings to misdirect you along the way. Strike is an old school private detective with a background in the military, woman trouble, a fondness for drink and the ability to handle himself in a fight. He’s not, however, such an enormous cliché that he feels derivative or that you can’t believe in him; in fact, I warmed to him quite a bit and particularly enjoyed his interactions with Robin, the fresh faced secretary from the temping agency who arrives on page one. Their mutual embarrassment and wariness of each other was kind of heartening and I’d consider reading the next in the series just to see how this relationship develops.

Like the later Harry Potter books this suffers from a lack of editing and I couldn’t help thinking that a little careful cutting here and there might have made this novel feel a little tighter without necessarily sacrificing any of the momentum or atmosphere that Rowling is so good at creating. And she does that exceptionally well here, I think; The Cuckoo’s Calling isn’t an astounding work of art but it is engrossing and the world she creates for her characters is vivid and believable. In spite of its flaws it succeeded in cheering me up at a time when I was feeling pretty rubbish. It got me through my cold, its after effects and the depressing post-holiday return to work which, in all honesty, is the worst. I was grateful to have this book to look forward to on my lunchbreaks during that first week back.

The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick

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“Truth, she thought. As terrible as death. But harder to find.”

I’m sure I’m not the only person who sometimes finds themselves left cold by an acclaimed, cult novel…. right? It’s not anything new of course (hey there, Catcher in the Rye, I’m looking at you…) but it always leaves me wondering whether I’m the only one who has failed to grasp the bigger meaning in something. I know everyone has different tastes but for some reason my inability to get to grips with The Man in the High Castle bothered me more than it should have. I feel like I need someone to explain to me precisely what I’m missing.

I should say, to start with, that I actually think that on the face of it this is a fairly well-constructed and carefully considered take on the alternative war history. In this novel D supposes that if Roosevelt had been assassinated early in his presidency then the US, and the Allies as a whole, may well have gone on to lose the Second World War. In his alternate post-war world the former Allied states have been divided up by the victors with Germany and Japan now controlling large portions of the former United States. Around this setting D constructs a complex story involving the trade in pre-war American ‘antiques’, a German defector and a plot that threatens the tentative peace between the Axis powers. Linking all the characters is The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a contentious new novel putting forward an alternative history of its own.

Let’s start with the good stuff. I liked the idea behind this novel. Historical ‘what ifs’ are always interesting to consider and D’s speculations are carefully plotted. In fact, my favourite parts of this novel were those passages in which the characters discussed how the course of history might have changed if this or that had happened differently. It’s the kind of rabbit hole thinking my sad little brain loves. Of course, neither of the histories he theorises is true – either the one the characters live in the novel or the one they read about – but I think that’s part of the book’s cleverness. D seems to be suggesting that really the course of history can only ever be down to luck, chance and tiny, random decisions. It can’t be predicted.

Unfortunately, however, my enjoyment of this novel was spoiled by the characters. Having created such a vivid and complex world for them to inhabit it’s a shame D doesn’t seem to have made the same effort to make them believable. I partly blame this on the fact that there are quite a few of them and the novel jumps around from one to the other quite quickly. Usually I wouldn’t find that annoying at all but when it’s combined with the rather stilted inner monologues D writes for his characters and their inexplicable reliance on the I’Ching to guide their decision making it’s suddenly quite an obstacle. Altogether it makes an already fragmented novel feel disjointed and the already shadowy characters feel completely inhuman.

Finally – and this is my last point because I don’t want this to sound like a completely insane rant – I really, really didn’t like the ending. I spent longer than I really needed to rereading and scratching my head over those last few pages because it looked to me like plain bad storytelling.

It’s my own fault for reading something based entirely on the reviews for the Amazon Prime adaptation. Has anyone watched the show? How does it compare to the book?

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters I Love to Hate

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.

This week’s theme is character focussed and gives me the perfect opportunity to think
about some of those characters I get a real kick out of hating. They’re not always the main villains but they’re the ones I can’t wait to see get their comeuppance.

I don’t know if I’m just an angry, resentful person but I didn’t seem to have a lot of trouble putting this list together.

1. Daisy in The Great Gatsby. I will never forgive Daisy. What an awful, awful human being.

2. Toad in The Wind in the Willows. Why won’t he see sense? It’s infuriating.

3. Elizabeth in the Poldark series. Ross is an idiot.

4. Almost everyone except Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion. Austen’s
books are full of perfectly silly, intentionally annoying characters who make the real heroes shine in comparison.

5. Blanche Ingram in Jane Eyre. Although, in fairness to Blanche, Rochester’s behaviour to both she and Jane at this point of the novel is kind of, well… he’s a bit of an arse here, isn’t’ he? Sorry.

6. Grima Wormtongue in the The Two Towers. Having manipulated, lied and flattered his
way into a position of power his downfall is so satisfying to see.

7. Cathy and Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights. I love the book but it’s hard to watch them deliberately hurt each other. They’re selfish, hateful people.

8. Mrs Trunchbull in MatildaA properly terrifying children’s villain.

9. Mondego, Danglars and Villefort in The Count of Monte Cristo. By the end of this book I was egging the Count on with real bloodthirsty gusto; I was so desperate for him to get his revenge.

10. Delores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. She deserves everything she gets.

This list is quite classics heavy although that certainly wasn’t my intention when I started writing it. Maybe more recent novels have moved away from this sort of character? Or maybe I don’t read the right kind of modern books. I don’t know.

H is for Hawk (2014) by Helen MacDonald

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I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.

It’s been several weeks since I finished this book so you’ll have to forgive the hurried, vague review which doesn’t really do it justice. Despite not being my usual cup of tea (at least on first appearances) this was an early addition to my birthday wishlist; I say this because when H is for Hawk first came out I carelessly dismissed it as a sort of misery memoir until several word of mouth recommendations assured me I’d got that entirely wrong.  I’m pleased I got over my initial reservations; this was very well worth the reading.

It’s a difficult book to describe, H is for Hawk, because there’s a lot going on here but put very simply it’s a memoir of MacDonald’s attempt to train a goshawk named Mabel in the wake of her father’s sudden death. She knits her grief into the story of Mabel, describing both her memories of her father as well as the practicalities of purchasing, training and living with a wild bird.  Alongside this tale MacDonald also provides a study of the reclusive author T.H. White whose own chaotic dabblings in falconry, as described in his 1951 book The Goshawk, were a source of much childhood confusion and inspiration to McDonald. In this way she provides a really moving account of her own grief, carefully scrutinising all the ways in which she consciously or unconsciously looked to the wilderness as an escape from her own life in much the same way White did seventy years before. In her own eyes they both follow an ancient, literary tradition, that of the grief stricken hero who retreats into the wild to forget the traumas of the past. Her attraction to the sullen, troublesome goshawk and to White, a fellow misfit, reflect her own perception of herself as an outsider in grief.

For a memoir about grief this isn’t a dark book although of course it deals with what was clearly a very dark time in the writer’s life. For me it was a surprisingly enjoyable read, told with real passion and warmth. Because it’s so unusual – part nature writing, part personal memoir, part literary biography – it’d be very easy to accuse H is for Hawk of feeling scrappy but I really don’t think it does. There’s a lot going on of course but it’s all meshed together really naturally so you almost don’t notice the switch from one theme to another. The strongest parts, at least for me, were McDonald’s descriptions of the natural world. I think I could read some of her descriptions of afternoons spent flying Mabel over the flat Cambridgeshire countryside again and again and I would still find them lovely.

As I said, it’s just a quickie review today but I’ll be back again soon with a post on The Man in the High Castle. I have more to say about that one… read into that what you will.