Thursday, 8 April 2021

Bad Day in Minsk by Jonathan Pinnock

We've all had bad days, haven't we? But rest assured they've never been quite as bad as the one Tom Winscombe's having - kidnapped after a failed break in at the offices of a secretive think tank, sent under-cover into Belarus, kidnapped again (by Belarusan mafia this time), escaping, getting caught in a fire-fight between various gangs while the building burns beneath him ... It's the stuff of nightmares, but since he became involved in the affairs of deceased mathematical geniuses the Vavasor brothers it's become all too frequent an occurrence for Tom.

Bad Day in Minsk is the fourth in the Mathematical Mystery series by Jonathan Pinnock, and as much, if not more, fun than the earlier stories. Always inclined to stumble into the sort of trouble that ends up with armed men threatening him, Tom finds himself coerced into posing as an expert on chaos theory and sent to Minsk. He's on his own this time, without girlfriend Dorothy who usually saves the day but with luck on his side, and help from some new acquaintances, Tom manages to not only escape with his life but come out of it all looking quite heroic (if only Dorothy would see that!)

Full of thrills, tension and laughs in equal amounts, it's a fun read, which, despite the danger that Tom frequently finds himself in and the high body count among his adversaries, doesn't take itself too seriously. For me, it's the kind of escapism I need right now. It is possible to jump into the series at this point, as Tom makes great efforts to explain the back-story of his highly improbably adventures as he goes along, but I think it's best to start at the beginning with book one - The Truth About Archie and Pye 

If you want to learn more about Jonathan Pinnock and the origins of the series see our interview with him here

Thursday, 1 April 2021

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

A holiday is an unusual, if not unheard of, thing for Stevens, the butler at Darlington Hall, but his new American employer is back in the US for a few weeks, and Stevens is off on a trip to the West Country, to see the sights and visit a former colleague. Miss Kenton, now Mrs Benn, was formerly housekeeper at Darlington and Stevens hopes to be able to persuade her to return. His reasons are solid and practical, citing the unavailability of staff in the modern post-war world of the 50s, but hidden away he holds more personal, sentimental ones.

As he travels the quiet roads of 1950s England, Stevens reminiscences about the inter-war glory years, when Lord Darlington was heavily involved in European affairs, and the house filled with people of power and influence, ponders on what makes a 'great' butler and the meaning of dignity, and just occasionally lets his imperturbable butler's mask slip enough to let us glimpse the man behind - the emotions he's bottled away, the life and love he could have had if not for his belief that duty overrides all.

I first read The Remains of the Day sometime in the early 90s shortly after it won the Booker prize; I loved it then, and it was a pleasure to revisit it, though I think my feeling about Stevens have changed. Then I felt his life had been totally wasted, and that it was his own fault - his loyalty given to a man who never deserved it, the love of his life lost through his stubborn pride and 'dignity'. Now I'm inclined to judge Stevens less harshly; even feel sorry for him. Born and bred into the profession of butler, he follows his father's footsteps, and I feel there's little else he could have done. He copies the example set for him - believing that a butler should be ever-present, constantly at his employers beck and call, putting their needs above his own, never breathing a word of his own personal troubles. His aim is to be a perfect cog in a machine - in another life I could imagine him as the perfect Soviet factory worker putting tractor production and state quotas above personal feelings. 

And like that factory worker, Stevens has put total faith in his employer. His sole aim in life was to be the best butler possible. He didn't consider himself informed enough to have an opinion on anything outside this, particularly on the wider poltical issues of the day, but unquestioningly left that to his 'betters', such as Lord Darlington. Such loyalty has turned out to be misplaced (in the light of later events Lord Darlington is labelled as a Nazi sympathiser), and Stevens now finds himself adrift, unsure of how he should have behaved, and uncertain of what life now holds for him.

The Remains of the Day is a quietly moving story of a life spent in serving others, often at the loss of personal happiness, but ultimately I feel it's one of hopefulness as we leave Stevens with his professional brave face on, looking forward to to the future.