Review Catch-Up

I’ve built up rather a pile of books to catch up on reviewing – it’s all the lovely fault of getting stuck into my Shiny archiving project. So here are some shorter takes to reduce the pile somewhat.

Dan Leno & the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd

This was our book group choice this month, the first in our new A-Z series – being the ‘A is for’ – Ackroyd. (You can see what we’re reading for B & C on the sidebar to your right.)

This book was my choice; I love Ackroyd, and after re-reading Hawksmoor a while ago, I wanted to revisit more of his books – and I’d recently watched the film adaptation, ‘The Limehouse Golem’ starring Bill Nighy, which piqued my interest in this one.

The novel begins in 1881, and is set in the real world of the Victorian music-hall, where Dan Leno reigned supreme, and builds in other characters including Karl Marx and George Gissing. It also uses the infamous Ratcliff Highway Murders of 1811 as a springboard to a later killing spree. Ackroyd’s novels more often than not weave his fiction around real people and events.

It begins with Elizabeth Cree being taken to the gallows for murdering her husband, John Cree whom she believed to be the ‘Limehouse Golem’ – a murderer who had been killing for some time amongst these streets where many Jews lived, hence the epithet. Elizabeth had met John Cree at the music hall, where she was Dan Leno’s protégé, cross-dressing as a boy and singing bawdy songs where she thrived on all the attention. Marriage brought her the respectability she thought she craved, but not such an enjoyable life… I won’t say more on the plot, but the brooding and febrile atmosphere in this novel is palpable (it’s a bit gory too).

The 2017 film takes a very different point of view to the novel, which is told mainly in Elizabeth’s voice, alternating with sections of court transcripts and diary entries. The movie, however, concentrates on Inspector Kildare (Nighy) who is under pressure to find the golem, and believes he can get Elizabeth off the murder charge if he can prove John Cree is the murderer and that she killed him in self-defence. I enjoyed both the book and the film, but especially the music hall bits in each of them. (both 8.5/10)

Here’s a favourite quote:

This chop house was also a favourite resort for those performers who appeared at the Oxford Music Hall down the road, and on many occasions, Gissing noticed how those ‘out of a crib’ were supported by their more fortunate colleagues; he had even thought of writing a novel upon a music-hall theme, but realised just in time that the subject was too light and frivolous for a serious artist.

Source: Own copy. Peter Ackroyd, Dan Leno & the Limehouse Golem (1994) BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)

The Man Among the Seals & Inner Weather by Denis Johnson

I’ve only read Johnson’s superb novella Train Dreams before, and I’d love to read his short stories in Jesus’ Son and the more recent The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. Johnson was also a poet, and I found a book of his first two collections on the Blackwell’s £1 shelf last summer when Rebecca and I met up for an afternoon in Oxford. The Man Among the Seals was published in 1969, and Inner Weather in 1976.

The earlier, larger set of poems is full of domestic settings – most are quite dark, such as ‘Why I Might Go to the Next Football Game’ in which a man recounts his first kiss as a child to which he reacts in the playground by tackling and punching the poor girl, now being a spectator and realising that it wasn’t a game. Another, ‘Checking the Traps’ is all about catching mice and not very nice! Amongst all the drunks and other lowlife, the main character in these poems is his long-suffering wife, who is, thankfully, obviously loved in one way or another – but he’s quite candid. One I enjoyed, ‘A Consequence of Gravity’, begins:

my wife’s voice yelling from
the window holds the distant echoes
of a thousand mothers-in-law, all the women,
all the weight, increasing, of this planet.

The second much shorter collection has some of the same preoccupations, but his style has changed to using capitals at the beginnings of sentences. Some of them do display a sense of ‘Inner Weather’, but the one on the right tickled me at the beginning, however, then it gets more strange and internal down the page!

For me this was rather a mixed bag. I definitely preferred the second collection, which felt more focused, but for just £1 I’m not complaining. While I wouldn’t go out of my way to seek out more of his poetry, I do still want to read more of his other writing.

Source: Own copy. Denis Johnson, The Man Among the Seals & Inner Weather (Carnegie Mellon, 2017), paperback, 78 pages. BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s (affiliate links)

Department of Mind-Blowing Theories: Science Cartoons by Tom Gauld

Tom Gauld’s cartoons and graphic novels are the biz. Just love ’em! And his new collection of science cartoons made me guffaw, snort and chortle from start to finish – they’re hilarious, full of puns, yet always insightful, and surprisingly full of literary references.

I’ve made some of my many favourites into a little montage below. This book was a real pick-me-up! Just what was required to appeal to my inner geek. (10/10)

Tom Gauld, Dept of Mind-Blowing Theories (Canongate, 2020) Hardback, 160 pages. BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s (affiliate links)

8 thoughts on “Review Catch-Up

  1. Café Society says:

    I don’t think I’ve read that particular Ackroyd, which means if I have it didn’t actually make much of an impression on me. My favourite is English Music. Have you read that?

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      English Music I remember loving and must be the next I re-read. This one was really good but was sandwiched between the difficult House of Doctor Dee and Milton in America. I do recommend it.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Lovely selection of books there Annabel! I read Dan Leno yonks ago when I had an Ackroyd phase and remember loving it – he’s a good writer. The only Denis Johnson I’ve read is Already Dead which is wonderful – highly recommend it. As for Ton Gauld, his cartoons are fab and even as a non-scientist I’m tempted!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I can feel another Ackroyd phase coming upon me – mostly re-reading. I own more of his books than any other author.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’ve still got 6 to review in the pile. Mostly ones I want to write more at length about, but it’s so hard to get going on a review sometimes.

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