FictionFan’s Book Reviews

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The Gothic Book Tag

Health Alert: Stock up on medicinal chocolate…

Well, during my two-week break (did you miss me? You better have…), I’ve been reading up a storm, most of it horror or Gothic or otherwise packed with spookifulliness. So you will need to take safety precautions before visiting my blog over the next couple of weeks – it would be awful if your eyes started from their spheres and your hair stood on end like quills upon the Fretful Porpentine.

It’s a fretful porpentine!

(Poor porpy – he keeps looking at his hibernation box longingly, but I’ve told him he’s got a long way to go yet…)

My advice is – take precautionary chocolate at least three times daily for the next month. This can be in the form of truffles, hot chocolate or fudge cake – the choice is yours. But keep some 80% plain chocolate aside for emergency top-ups as required.

To start the ball rolling (is it a ball? Or is it in fact the head of the headless ghost??), I thought I’d join in with the Classic Club’s

The Gothic Book Tag

1. Which classic book story has scared you the most?

Truthfully I rarely find books can maintain scariness for more than odd moments – I think short stories are much more effective. So I’m going with The Monkey’s Paw by WW Jacobs – a story that sends chills down my spine every time I think of it. If you want to be terrified this Hallowe’en, here’s a link

2. Scariest moment in a book?

That would be the moment in The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, when Eleanor realises the hand she has been clutching for comfort doesn’t belong to whom she thought it did…

“God God,” Eleanor said, flinging herself out of bed and across the room to stand shuddering in a corner, “God God – whose hand was I holding?”

3. Classic villain that you love to hate?

Sauron. There are so many great villains in The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, in fact – Denethor and Saruman are up there amongst my most hated too, but Sauron wins because he’s not really in the book in person – he simply broods over it like a malignant dark cloud of supernatural terror…

4. Creepiest setting in a book story?

The island in The Willows by Algernon Blackwood – from the moment those willows clapped their little hands I developed a total horror of the place…

Then we lay panting and laughing after our exertions on the hot yellow sand, sheltered from the wind, and in the full blaze of a scorching sun, a cloudless blue sky above, and an immense army of dancing, shouting willow bushes, closing in from all sides, shining with spray and clapping their thousand little hands as though to applaud the success of our efforts.

5. Best scary cover ever?

6. Book you’re too scared to read?

Nope! Can’t think of one! There are loads I won’t read because the subject matter sounds too gory or graphic, but that’s not a matter of fear, simply of good taste… 😉😎

7. Spookiest creature in a book story?

Thrawn Janet – if you can cope with the Scots language in Robert Louis Stevenson’s great story, then this tale of a woman who has become the victim in the fight between good and evil and may now be the Devil’s pawn is wonderfully chilling. The image of her tramp-trampin’ and croonin’ lives with me…

Syne she turned round, an’ shawed her face; Mr Soulis had the same cauld grue as twice that day afore, an’ it was borne in upon him what folk said, that Janet was deid lang syne, an’ this was a bogle in her clay-cauld flesh. He drew back a pickle and he scanned her narrowly. She was tramp-trampin’ in the cla’es, croonin’ to hersel’; and eh! Gude guide us, but it was a fearsome face.

8. Classic book story that haunts you to this day?

The Apple Tree by Daphne du Maurier – the imagery of the tree as a possible reincarnation of the unpleasant main character’s dead wife is nightmarish…

Up and down went the heavy axe, splitting and tearing at the tree. Off came the peeling bark, the great white strips of underwood, raw and stringy. Hack at it, blast at it, gouge at the tough tissue, throw the axe away, claw at the rubbery flesh with the bare hands. Not far enough yet, go on, go on.

9. Favourite cliffhanger or unexpected twist?

Meg’s heroic exploit in Tam o’Shanter – Robert Burns plays it mainly for laughs in his classic ghostly poem, but there’s some wonderful horror imagery in there too, and I love that the brave horse Meg/Maggie wins the day, though making a great sacrifice as she does…

For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie prest,
And flew at Tam wi’ furious ettle;
But little wist she Maggie’s mettle!
Ae spring brought off her master hale,
But left behind her ain grey tail:
The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.

10. Classic book story you really, really disliked?

Berenice by Edgar Allan Poe. I suspect Poe must have been having toothache on the day he wrote this horrible little story…

The eyes were lifeless, and lustreless, and seemingly pupilless, and I shrank involuntarily from their glassy stare to he contemplation of the thin and shrunken lips. They parted; and in a smile of peculiar meaning, the teeth of the changed Berenice disclosed themselves slowly to my view. Would to God that I had never beheld them, or that, having done so, I had died!

11. Character death that disturbed/upset you the most?

I’m not going to name the character because that would be a major spoiler, but I will say the death at the end of Agatha Christie’s The Last Séance in her The Hound of Death collection has lingered in the scaredycat portion of my mind for the best part of half a century now, and shows no signs of going away…

The curtains of the alcove seemed to have been pulled back a little, the medium’s figure was just visible through the opening, her head fallen forward on her breast. Suddenly Madame Exe drew in her breath sharply. A ribbon-like stream of mist was issuing from the medium’s mouth. It condensed and began gradually to assume a shape, the shape of a little child.

12. List your top 5 Gothic/scary/horror classic reads.

A Christmas Carol
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus
The Island of Dr Moreau
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

13. Share your scariest/creepiest quote, poem or meme.

….“Oh, Man, look here! Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.
….They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
….Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
….“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
….“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

From A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

🎃🎃🎃🎃🎃

TBR Thursday 176…

Episode 176…

I had already typed this post yesterday, boasting about how I hadn’t had an increase in the TBR for five weeks. Then the postman knocked the door. So… up five to 232!! 

Here’s what’s rolling down the TBR tracks soon… a brilliant selection this week, I think!

Historical Fiction

Courtesy of Mantle, Pan MacMillan. This was one that arrived yesterday and I’m thrilled to bits! Possibly my most eagerly anticipated book of the year – all 801 pages of it! The Shardlake series is my favourite historical fiction series ever and a new one is better than being let loose in a chocolate shop! So for once when I say “can’t wait”, I mean it literally. I’ve already begun…

The Blurb says: Summer, 1549. Two years after the death of Henry VIII, England is sliding into chaos . . .

The nominal king, Edward VI, is eleven years old. His uncle Edward Seymour, Lord Hertford, rules as Protector. The extirpation of the old religion by radical Protestants is stirring discontent among the populace while the Protector’s prolonged war with Scotland is proving a disastrous failure and threatens to involve France. Worst of all, the economy is in collapse, inflation rages and rebellion is stirring among the peasantry.

Since the old King’s death, Matthew Shardlake has been working as a lawyer in the service of Henry’s younger daughter, the Lady Elizabeth. The gruesome murder of the wife of a distant Norfolk relation of Elizabeth’s mother, John Boleyn – which could have political implications for Elizabeth – brings Shardlake and his assistant Nicholas Overton to the summer assizes at Norwich. There they are reunited with Shardlake’s former assistant Jack Barak. The three find layers of mystery and danger surrounding the death of Edith Boleyn, as a second murder is committed.

And then East Anglia explodes, as peasant rebellion breaks out across the country. The yeoman Robert Kett leads a force of thousands in overthrowing the landlords and establishing a vast camp outside Norwich. Soon the rebels have taken over the city, England’s second largest . . . 

* * * * *

Horror

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Another of the horror anthologies I’ve been lucky enough to acquire for this spooky season. The porpy and I will both need new hair-dos by the time we get through them all, I suspect…

The Blurb says: A young, inexperienced governess is charged with the care of Miles and Flora, two small children abandoned by their uncle at his grand country house. She sees the figure of an unknown man on the tower and his face at the window. It is Peter Quint, the master’s dissolute valet, and he has come for little Miles. But Peter Quint is dead.

Like the other tales collected here – ‘Sir Edmund Orme’, ‘Owen Wingrave’, and ‘The Friends of the Friends’ – ‘The Turn of the Screw’ is to all immediate appearances a ghost story. But are the appearances what they seem? Is what appears to the governess a ghost or a hallucination? Who else sees what she sees? The reader may wonder whether the children are victims of corruption from beyond the grave, or victims of the governess’s ‘infernal imagination’, which torments but also enthrals her?

‘The Turn of the Screw’ is probably the most famous, certainly the most eerily equivocal, of all ghostly tales. Is it a subtle, self-conscious exploration of the haunted house of Victorian culture, filled with echoes of sexual and social unease? Or is it simply, ‘the most hopelessly evil story that we have ever read’?

* * * * *

Historical Fiction

I bought this in August 2013 so it must be time to read it, I feel. It has lingered on the TBR because it’s quite long and is the first part of a trilogy. But I’m still as keen to read it now as I was back then…

The Blurb says: At the heart of this vibrant saga is a vast ship, the Ibis. Her destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean shortly before the outbreak of the Opium Wars in China. In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a diverse cast of Indians and Westerners on board, from a bankrupt raja to a widowed tribeswoman, from a mulatto American freedman to a free-spirited French orphan. As their old family ties are washed away, they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais, or ship-brothers. The vast sweep of this historical adventure spans the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, and the exotic backstreets of Canton.

* * * * *

Crime

Courtesy of Quercus via NetGalley. A Gothic thriller from Elly Griffiths! I shall quietly ignore the hideous Gone Girl/Disclaimer reference in the blurb – do publishers really want to put people off?? Well, they’ve failed – I’m super-excited about this one!

The Blurb says: A gripping contemporary Gothic thriller from the bestselling author of the Dr Ruth Galloway mysteries: Wilkie Collins and MR James meet Gone Girl and Disclaimer.

Clare Cassidy is no stranger to murder. As a literature teacher specialising in the Gothic writer RM Holland, she teaches a short course on it every year. Then Clare’s life and work collide tragically when one of her colleagues is found dead, a line from an RM Holland story by her body. The investigating police detective is convinced the writer’s works somehow hold the key to the case.

Not knowing who to trust, and afraid that the killer is someone she knows, Clare confides her darkest suspicions and fears about the case to her journal. Then one day she notices some other writing in the diary. Writing that isn’t hers…

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

* * * * *

 

Due to having totally run out of reviews and to having received Tombland (did I mention it’s 801 pages?), I’m disappearing for a bit to do some intensive reading. Don’t get up to mischief while I’m gone…

The Gothic Tales of H. P. Lovecraft edited by Xavier Aldana Reyes

Fear, frogs and fungoids…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

“Shrieking, slithering, torrential shadows of red viscous madness chasing one another through endless, ensanguined corridors of purple fulgurous sky…”

I have an ongoing love/hate relationship with Lovecraft. When he manages to restrain his worst excesses, he’s the equal of any horror writer I’ve read and far superior to most, but when he gets into full “weird” mode, he seems to lose control and goes wandering off through chapters as long and tortuous as the ancient tunnels and buildings he describes. So the idea of some of his shorter, more Gothic tales collected in one volume appealed to me greatly. I’m happy to say I loved this collection – every story got either a four or five star rating individually, a rare occurrence that has happened to me only once before, as far as I remember.

There are thirteen tales in the collection, ranging in length from eight pages to forty or so. They are simply presented, without illustrations or notes. However there is a short but informative introduction by Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes, Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University and a member of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies. Reyes discusses how Lovecraft’s reputation as a major influence in weird fiction has led to his more traditionally Gothic work being somewhat overlooked. But Reyes points out that even in his weird fiction, Lovecraft often used Gothic concerns. Having read the stories, I’d say the reverse is also true – that his Gothic tales often include elements of his major weird works, particularly in the settings, the hint of unknown fears from something more cosmic than ghostly, and the idea of the degeneration of humanity, which recurs frequently not only in Lovecraft’s work but in that of many of his near contemporaries.

HP Lovecraft

Reyes also mentions Lovecraft’s well-known racist views. The stories collected here have been selected to avoid the worst of these. I’m not sure whether that’s the right decision – to get a real flavour of the man, unfortunately one has to be made aware of his views, since they underlie so many of his recurring themes. However, there’s no doubt in my mind that the less overtly racist stories are considerably more fun to read.

I cannot even hint what it was like, for it was a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable. It was the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and desolation; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation; the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide.

But enough of the analysis! It’s all about the stories, of course! Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most…

The Music of Erich Zann – I used this for a Tuesday Terror! post. Great stuff!

The Music of Erich Zann

The Alchemist – a young man is brought up in the castle of his ancestors by an old servitor. On his 21st birthday he is given papers revealing the family curse – each head of the family will die around the age of 32. Naturally, this thought obsesses the young man, so he sets out to find the reason for the curse and to reverse it if he can. Lots of Gothic in this one – the ancient castle with ruined wings, decayed aristocratic family, bats, cobwebs, darkness, curses and so on. And a nicely shocking moment when… nah! I’m not telling! And only ten pages… well done, HP!

The Moon-Bog – the narrator’s friend returns to his ancestral home in Ireland. At first all is well… until he decides to drain the bog for peat. This is also heavily Gothic but has touches of his trademark weird – the frogs especially are a delightfully Lovecraftian touch, but I shall say no more about them… It’s excellently written with some wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of the bog before and during the draining.

The Moon-Bog
by bealinn via deviantart.com

The Shunned House – an empty house, a nameless horror, and no Lovecraft collection would be complete without phosphorescent fungoids! This is straight horror, well-paced, and full of great imagery even though it’s written in plainer, more restrained language than usual.

The Strange High House in the Mist – this, I felt, was more clearly heading into weird territory though still with Gothic aspects.

In the morning mist comes up from the sea by the cliffs beyond Kingsport. White and feathery it comes from the deep to its brothers the clouds, full of dreams of dank pastures and caves of leviathan. And later, in still summer rains on the steep roofs of poets, the clouds scatter bits of those dreams, that men shall not live without rumour of old, strange secrets, and wonders that planets tell planets alone in the night.

It tells of a house in Kingsport, a fictional town in Massachusetts, and one of Lovecraft’s regular settings. It’s set high on an inaccessible cliff where the sea mists meet the clouds, providing a conduit through which pass things unknown to puny humanity. Until one man decides to ascend the cliff…

The Strange High House in the Mist
by tikirussy via deviantart.com

The book itself is gorgeous. The cover illustrations on back and front are embossed in what looks like silver, but seems to have different tones in it so that it takes on different colours in some lights. The print is clear and the paper is high quality, with a lovely thickness and weight to it. Given the Gothic theme, it would be perfect as a gift not just for existing Lovecraft fans but for anyone who enjoys Poe or MR James and hasn’t yet sampled the delights of weird fiction – a good introduction that clearly shows the crossovers between the genres. Of course, if you’re anything like me, you might prefer to keep the gift for yourself…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, The British Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! Monos and Daimonos by Edward Bulwer

I vant to be alone…

I love solitude. Next to chocolate and cake, it’s my favourite thing. Give me a desert island with a nice house (with a library) on it and regular food drops from the local supermarket and I’d be a happy bunny! (I’d take the cats, of course, but only if they promised not to disturb me while I was reading.) But after reading this week’s tale, I may have to rethink my position…

Monos and Daimonos
by Edward Bulwer

Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Our narrator was taken as a child by his father to live in solitude in a rocky wasteland…

…the whole country round seemed nothing but rock! – wastes, bleak, blank, dreary; trees stunted, herbage blasted; caverns through which some black and wild stream (that never knew star or sunlight, but through rare and hidden chasms of the huge stones above it) went dashing and howling on its blessed course…

When his father dies, he is sent to live with relatives, but he finds he doesn’t really like people and they don’t much like him. So on reaching his majority, he demands control of his money and leaves, to the mutual satisfaction of all…

So I took my leave of them all, cousin and aunt – and when I came to my old uncle, who had liked me less than any, I grasped his hand with so friendly a gripe, that, well I ween, the dainty and nice member was but little inclined to its ordinary functions in future.

For many years, he travels in the wild and lonely places of the world, far from humanity…

I commenced my pilgrimage – I pierced the burning sands – I traversed the vast deserts – I came into the enormous woods of Africa, where human step never trod, nor human voice never started the thrilling and intense solemnity that broods over the great solitudes, as it brooded over chaos before the world was!

But at last he decides to return to civilisation. He sets off on a sea voyage to return to his native land, soon discovering that he dislikes humanity just as much as ever. However, one other passenger befriends him against his will…

He was an idle and curious being, full of the frivolities, and egotisms, and importance of them to whom towns are homes, and talk has become a mental aliment. He was one pervading, irritating, offensive tissue of little and low thoughts.

Happily for our narrator the ship strikes a rock, and he swims to a deserted island, thrilled at the thought that his new friend has doubtless drowned. His happiness turns out to be premature, when the offensive tissue suddenly appears again, all cheery and smiley…

He came up with his hideous grin, and his twinkling eye; and he flung his arms round me, – I would sooner have felt the slimy fold of the serpent – and said, with his grating and harsh voice, “Ha! ha! my friend, we shall be together still!”… And my lip trembled, and my hand clenched of its own accord.

* * * * *

This is a great little tale! To our misanthropic narrator, his tale is one of unjust misery and woe, but to the reader there’s a vein of humour running through it. How often have we all tried to get away from that irritating person who for some reason won’t realise that they’re annoying us? While Bulwer (later Bulwer-Lytton) exaggerates massively, the premise is familiar enough to induce recognition and even some sympathy for his constantly thwarted desire for solitude. But there’s also, of course, horror in the story as our narrator reaches the end of his tether and then is forced to suffer the consequences…

While I was reading it, I kept being reminded of my favourite Poe story, Silence: A Fable. That one has no humour and is much more mysterious and unsettling in tone, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why this one felt so reminiscent of it, other than that they both involve solitude and a rocky wasteland. Fortunately the notes in The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre explain. Apparently Poe was a great admirer of Bulwer-Lytton’s work and praised this story highly. “Poe’s Silence – A Fable (1838) is heavily indebted to ‘Monos and Daimonos’, to the point where, as Mabbot points out, some sentences are taken ‘almost verbatim’.” Aha! That explains why I kept feeling a mild sense of déjà vu, particularly over phrases like “illimitable deserts”!

And mine eyes fell upon the countenance of the man, and his countenance was wan with terror. And, hurriedly, he raised his head from his hand, and stood forth upon the rock and listened. But there was no voice throughout the vast illimitable desert, and the characters upon the rock were SILENCE.

However, the tales are certainly different enough that I don’t feel Poe has in any way stolen from this tale – he has merely used it as an inspirational jumping off point to create something unique and wonderful in itself. (I was rather thrilled, I admit, to discover that finally I’ve read enough horror to make the odd connection and spot the odd reference for myself. *preens smugly*)

I can only find a link to a rather messy scanned version this week, but here it is. I do recommend The Vampyre collection though – only about halfway through it, but so far I’ve thoroughly enjoyed most of the stories I’ve read. I’ll review it fully later.

The porpy and I loved this one, even though we were more amused than terrified by it. Now we’re off out to find a party and be sociable – sometimes solitude can be taken too far…

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😱 😱

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Porpy Party!
A Prickle of Porpentines

NB The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham

Down in the deeps…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When strange fireballs are seen crashing into the oceans, there are many theories. In the world of the Cold War, most people are convinced it’s the Russians, or maybe the Chinese, testing some new weapon. But after a while, the fireballs stop and people gradually lose interest. A few scientists go on investigating though, especially Professor Bocker, who is convinced the fireballs originated from somewhere much further away than Russia. And then strange things begin to happen in the ocean deeps…

Our narrator is Mike Watson who, along with his wife Phyllis, makes radio documentaries for the EBC – the English Broadcasting Corporation. They see some of the fireballs themselves while on a cruise for their honeymoon and by reporting on this, they find themselves in the position of being the ECB’s “experts” on the subject. The story happens in several distinct phases, covering a period of years. At first, the Watsons accompany the scientists on their initial investigations into what’s happening in the deeps, and then they become the main supporters for Professor Bocker, as he is ridiculed in the press for his suggestion that there may be aliens down there. Gradually, as man’s weapons prove ineffective, the world becomes apocalyptic and we follow the Watsons as they struggle for survival.

Mike and Phyllis are very well drawn, likeable characters and their strong, loving partnership provides much of the warmth in the book, and also a considerable amount of humour. Wyndham really does female characters exceptionally well for this period in science (or speculative) fiction – Phyllis is at least as intelligent and resilient as Mike and each is a support to the other at different points in the book. Although they do get involved in action on occasion, their role is really to observe and describe, which they do very well. However, for me, this is the book’s major weakness – for much of the time, they learn things at second hand, meaning the reader is told about events rather than being present for them; and in the latter stages when they are in survival mode, they don’t know what’s happening in the wider world and therefore nor do we. The ending, when it comes, happens off stage, with us being told about it in what amounts almost to a postscript. After such a strong start, it feels as if it ends “not with a bang, but a whimper”.


The BBC’s idea of what the Kraken may have looked like – but not mine…

The journey is enjoyable though and, being Wyndham, well and entertainingly written. Reading it so soon after reading The Day of the Triffids made it impossible for me to avoid comparisons, and that didn’t work to this one’s advantage. There isn’t the depth of themes of that one, perhaps because Triffids is about what humanity does to itself, whereas this is a more straightforward man v. aliens story.

However, Wyndham raises a couple of interesting topics along the way, which still feel very relevant today. He shows the paranoia of the Cold War period and how all threatening occurrences are automatically attributed by all sides to “the enemy” even when evidence shows the contrary. He discusses how the unknown causes a different kind of fear – how can one begin to beat an enemy when one doesn’t understand how they think or what they want, or even how they look. And going on from that, he suggests that peace is impossible between two such different species – the survival of each is dependent on it controlling all the resources of the planet, hence somehow one species has to utterly annihilate the other. That too could be read in terms of the Cold War – thankfully, the world dodged the total annihilation bullet during that one, but it was a serious fear at the time, and sadly is a fear that could very easily recur if we continue to allow power-crazed egomaniacs to have control of the nuclear button.

John Wyndham

So plenty to think about and enjoy, but the distancing from the action undoubtedly slows the pace and leads to something of a sense of detachment. Much though I enjoyed the company of Mike and Phyllis, I spent a good deal of time wishing I was with Professor Bocker and the scientists as they tried to find a solution, or even with the government as they struggled to maintain order. And while I felt the effectiveness of the aliens remaining an enigma, I longed to know what they looked like, wanted, ate – how they lived. A mixed bag for me then – I enjoyed it, but I wanted more from it than I got in the end.

* * * * *

I listened to the audiobook version with Alex Jennings narrating and he does a first-class job. He differentiates beautifully between each character, giving each a distinctive and convincing voice, and brings out all the emotion, the humour and the horror. The book has the occasional speech from the unnamed Prime Minister of the day, who was Churchill in real life, and Jennings does a great Churchill impersonation! I thoroughly enjoyed the listening experience.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

My brother and I had a heated debate over the pronunciation. Clearly, it rhymes with cake, bake and wake, no matter what he says…

The Bravo of London (Max Carrados) by Ernest Bramah

Fun!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

A criminal gang, led by the evil and monstrous Julian Joolby, have a plan to flood the money markets with forged banknotes. For Comrade Bronsky of Soviet Russia, this is designed to bring the financial systems of the corrupt capitalist West crashing to its knees. For Joolby and his pals, though, being, one suspects, corruptly capitalist, they just want to get rich. But before they can put their plan into action, they need to get the right paper for their banknotes from the sole paper-mill that supplies the Bank of England. They have a plan to get past the super-tight security, but they haven’t factored in Max Carrados, blind amateur detective extraordinaire, and his delightfully interfering niece, Nora.

The book starts by introducing us to Joolby and some of his gang, and I really wasn’t sure whether I’d stick with it. Joolby is evil indeed, but he also has some kind of physical disability that leads to his body being misshapen – a huge bloated upper half, perched on small weak legs. In tune with the time of writing – the book was published in 1934 – Bramah has no hesitation in mocking his physical appearance, describing him as so repulsive that people are repelled and disgusted by him. To add to this, Joolby has a Chinese assistant whose appearance and difficulties with English are also the subject of much light-hearted humour. My initial reluctance was lessened, though, once I realised that much of this was being done tongue-in-cheek, Bramah almost mocking his own mockery and stereotyping. In fact, he does later on suggest that Joolby’s wickedness may have developed in part as a response to the unkind treatment he has received from “normal” people, and Bramah redeems himself in other ways later on too, though I can’t be more specific without spoilers.

So I found the first fifty pages or so a bit of a struggle, with my own political correctness getting in the way of my sense of humour somewhat. But then the scene moves to Tapsfield, the small town which is home to the paper-mill, and the book becomes much more standard Golden Age fare – middle-class people, country cottages, tea on the lawn, a touch of romance. Max Carrados himself is too good to be true, so a hefty suspension of disbelief is required. His blindness has made all of his other senses more acute, so that he can pick up on all kinds of clues that sighted people miss. I believe he had a usual sidekick in the short stories he normally appeared in, but in this, the only novel about him, the sidekick role is taken on by his niece, Nora, feisty but feminine – a lioness when her young man is threatened.

The plot is silly but fun. In fact, fun is the most important feature of the book. I’m aware that my review hasn’t made it sound overly appealing, but that’s because I haven’t mentioned the humour. In Joolby’s world, Won Chou is the main source of comedy, and though at first it feels a bit cruel, as if we’re laughing at him, gradually it begins to feel as if actually we’re laughing with him at the other characters. Comrade Bronsky is delightfully amusing too – Bramah has a lot of fun with him at the expense of the still new communism of Russia. In Tapsfield, the maid Ophelia is comic gold – yes, I know it’s such a cliché to laugh at the lower orders, but again it’s affectionately done and she really is one of the stars of the show. And frankly, Bramah is just as wickedly funny about Ophelia’s employer, Miss Tilehurst, and her susceptibility to all things romantic.

Ernest Bramah

By about a third of the way through, I’d settled into Bramah’s style and from there on thoroughly enjoyed this romp. It’s very well written, with lots of great descriptions of the alleys and backstreets of the less salubrious areas of London contrasting with the idyllic rural scenery around Tapsfield. The baddies are bad and the goodies are good and there are one or two in between who provide a nice touch of moral ambiguity to add a little variety. If you can put aside your modern sensibilities and get into the spirit, then this is highly entertaining. After a rocky start, I ended up loving it!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 175… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…

Impressively the overall figure has fallen again! It would have been even better if I hadn’t had a major splurge on review copies, but sometimes a splurge is irresistible. I’m still being rigid about adding sparingly to the wishlist and culling it ruthlessly at the end of every month. A book has to persuade me it’s essential to my happiness and wellbeing to win a coveted spot! I still have a long way to go to achieve my New Year’s Resolution – to reduce the overall total to 360. I shall sharpen my culling shears…

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in June, and I’ve only made a couple of trips since then…

I actually read The Dain Curse back in June but forgot to include it in this challenge last quarter – this rather silly, almost entirely incomprehensible, but surprisingly entertaining book took me to San Francisco, one of the stops on the Main List. I visited Uruguay and several other countries in South America in the company of political exiles and their families, in Mario Benedetti’s wonderful Springtime in a Broken Mirror. And master storyteller Robert Harris took me back in time to Ancient Rome in Imperium for some political shenanigans in the company of Cicero and his pals. (I also discovered I’d been to Canada twice, so have dropped one of them off the list.)

Must do better! And must get to Africa!!

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

54 down, 26 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve reviewed six from my Classics Club list this quarter, which means I’ve caught up a little more. I’ll be slowing down for a bit though as I really must tackle some of the longer ones on my list rather than leaving them all to the end…

29. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan – 4 stars for this “shocker”, an action thriller set amidst the murky world of wartime foreign agents, and involving much running around the moors of south-west Scotland.

30. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – 5 stars for this, one of the finest examples of the science fiction books that grew out of Cold War paranoia – a suddenly dystopian society where the science horrors are balanced by an exceptionally strong human story and one of the best female characters in the genre.

31. Mildred Pierce by James M Cain – poor writing style, psychologically unconvincing and terminally dull. I feel I was generous in giving this tale of a troubled mother/daughter relationship in Depression-era America 2 stars.

32. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain again. 4 reluctant stars for this noir so black there’s no gleam of light, hope or beauty. Superbly done, but to what end? Left me feeling I needed to scrub my mind clean.

33. Marriage by Susan Ferrier – 3½ stars for this 1818 tale of two sisters, one good and tediously pious, the other mercenary but underdeveloped. Hyped by the publisher as the Scottish Jane Austen, I fear that the comparison doesn’t work to this one’s advantage.

34. Imagined Corners by Willa Muir – a modernist look at Scottish society through the prism of the small town of Calderwick and the families who live there. Feminism, repression and religion – the book takes on a lot and partially delivers. 4 stars.

I’ve also made a couple more changes to my list. I abandoned Miss Lonelyhearts after about 10 pages of abortion, suicide, marital rape and religious mania. That made me look again at my American list, which has been hugely disappointing so far, pulling the whole challenge down. I’m toying with swapping the rest out for something else – maybe Irish, maybe translated fiction. But perhaps I’ve just had some unlucky choices so far, so I’ll have one last rejig before I do:

  • I’ve replaced Miss Lonelyhearts with In the Heat of the Night by John Ball – at least it will be a good excuse to re-watch the excellent film.
  • And I’ve removed The Jungle – another one that sounds deliberately designed to show the miserable pointlessness of existence – and replaced it with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.

34 down, 56 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

This quarter I’ve read just three books for this one, but they were all excellent so I don’t mind. To see the full challenge, click here.

18.  The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton – mysterious goings-on and nefarious crimes in an English village. More of a thriller than a mystery, and quite dark – enjoyed this a lot! 5 stars.

19.  The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson – a locked room mystery set in the Houses of Parliament, written by one of early women MPs. A good mystery and a fun look at all the quirky traditions of Parliament. 4½ stars.

20.  The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie – Miss Marple’s first outing as she uses all her knowledge of human nature and evil to discover who shot Colonel Protheroe in the vicar’s study. One of the best! 5 stars.

20 down, 82 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Still struggling to fit this challenge in, but I have a couple scheduled over the next few weeks. Just one again this quarter though…

2. Imperium by Robert Harris – the first book in the Cicero trilogy, this tells of his early struggles to get ahead in law and politics. Excellently written, but not a period that ever really grabs me, so it’s not my favourite Harris. However, I’m still looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy. 4 stars.

2 down, 23 to go!

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A good quarter’s reading! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

 

Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

Hidden histories…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Two strangers in Paris for very different reasons meet, and through them the reader is taken to two important parts of France’s past – the Nazi occupation of France and France’s own colonial occupation of Algeria. Hannah is a post-doctoral student, in Paris to research a chapter for a book on women’s experiences during the Nazi occupation. Tariq is a 19-year-old from Morocco, who has left his comfortable home to try to find out more about his mother, a Frenchwoman who died when he was an infant.

I have very mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I knew very little about either of the parts of history Faulks discusses, and found them interesting and well written, with a feeling of having been well researched. On the other hand, the whole framing device of Hannah and Tariq and their experiences is completely unconvincing – so much so that I had to jump over an almost insurmountable credibility barrier before the book had got properly underway.

I’ll get my criticisms out of the way first, then. Hannah has just arrived in Paris, on her own, when she comes across a homeless girl in the street, a complete stranger, who appears to be ill. So she takes her back to her flat, looks after her, leaves her there while she goes out to work and doesn’t mind when the girl moves a friend in – Tariq. Well, that’s all lovely, and nobody robs her or trashes the place and Tariq becomes the perfect lodger. But. Seriously? It simply would never happen, unless Hannah was nuts and we’re not led to believe that she is. Nor did I feel that a young man in Paris for the first adventure of his life would want to spend his time living with a thirty-something landlady.

The other thing that jarred was Faulks attempt to bring a kind of ghostly vibe into the story, as each becomes consumed by the history they are researching. I could have accepted it if there were only one of them – one could have put it down to overwork, stress, over-active imagination, etc. But both beginning to see and hear people and events from the past? Partly my problem with this was that it reminded me a little of how Hari Kunzru brought the past into the present supernaturally in White Tears, and that comparison worked to Faulks’ disadvantage, since Kunzru did it so much more effectively.

Outside the Moulin Rouge in 1941.

But once Faulks begins to let us hear the stories of the women during the Occupation, his storytelling rests on much firmer grounds. He does this by having Hannah listen to tapes made as a kind of living history project, when the women were elderly and looking back at their experiences. I found these stories compelling and often moving, and they carried me through my problems with the framing story. He is making the point that this is a period which France prefers not to examine too closely and tends to somewhat distort by suggesting that most people were either actively or passively resisting the Germans. Faulks suggests that in fact most people were willing to go along with whoever looked like they’d be the winner – their over-riding desire was to not have the same massive loss of life as in WW1 and they didn’t think much more deeply than that. It was only after the tide of war turned against Germany that women were vilified for associating with the German soldiers – Faulks suggests that before that it was commonplace and most people weren’t overly concerned about it.

The other side of the historical aspect – France’s troubled relationship with Algeria – isn’t done quite so well, with an awful lot of info-dumping. However, since I didn’t know a lot of the info I still found it interesting reading. Faulks is obviously comparing the two episodes as opposite sides of occupation, but I felt that was a little simplistic. More interesting was the comparison of how both events are downplayed in France – a hidden past that, Faulks seems to be suggesting, must come fully into the light before France can reconcile itself with its own history and properly understand its present.

Sebastian Faulks

I rather wish that, instead of having the present day framing and the double history, Faulks had simply taken us back to the days of the Occupation and told a straightforward story of the women caught up in events. Somehow, the art of plain storytelling seems to be considered old-fashioned at the moment, and books become unnecessarily complex as a result, laying themselves open, as this one does, to having parts that work and parts that don’t. My advice to all authors is – find an interesting story, tell it, then stop. Within that simple framework, all things are possible, from Frankenstein to The Lord of the Rings, from Pride and Prejudice to The Great Gatsby, from The War of the Worlds to War and Peace.

Overall, the good outweighed the less good for me with this one, but I feel it could have been excellent had it been more simply told. Nevertheless, recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! Berenice by Edgar Allan Poe

Don’t forget to floss…

When discussing classic horror stories, it’s not possible to omit Edgar Allan Poe. Plus his stories are always great. Aren’t they? Time to find out in this week’s…

Berenice
by Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

 

Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform. Overreaching the wide horizon like the rainbow, its hues are as various as the hues of that arch, as distinct too, yet as intimately blended. Overreaching the wide horizon like the rainbow! How is it that from Beauty I have derived a type of unloveliness? — from the covenant of Peace a simile of sorrow? But thus is it. And as, in ethics, Evil is a consequence of Good, so, in fact, out of Joy is sorrow born.

After this cheery start, we learn that our narrator is Egaeus, the last of his line (thankfully), who grows up in the family mansion with his cousin, Berenice. He suffers from a mental condition, monomania he calls it though the opium might have something to do with it, that causes him to focus excessively on whatever grabs his attention to the exclusion of all else. She, once beautiful and agile, now suffers from an unnamed illness that causes her to waste away whilst having epileptic-style fits that leave her in a kind of trance. So they decide to get married. It’s a true romance…

During the brightest days of her unparalleled beauty, most surely I had never loved her. In the strange anomaly of my existence, feelings with me, had never been of the heart, and my passions always were of the mind. . . And now—now I shuddered in her presence, and grew pale at her approach; yet, bitterly lamenting her fallen and desolate condition, I called to mind that she had loved me long, and, in an evil moment, I spoke to her of marriage.

However, Berenice does have one feature which takes our dashing hero’s fancy…

The eyes were lifeless, and lustreless, and seemingly pupilless, and I shrank involuntarily from their glassy stare to he contemplation of the thin and shrunken lips. They parted; and in a smile of peculiar meaning, the teeth of the changed Berenice disclosed themselves slowly to my view. Would to God that I had never beheld them, or that, having done so, I had died!


Unfortunately, he does not die. The same cannot be said for poor Berenice, who having smiled her ghastly smile, quietly goes off and becomes deceased. But a little matter like death isn’t enough to undo the effect of her toothiness on our lovely narrator. He carries out a horrific deed, and then, like so many before and since, pleads amnesia…

Yet its memory was replete with horror—horror more horrible from being vague, and terror more terrible from ambiguity. It was a fearful page in the record of my existence, written all over with dim, and hideous, and unintelligible recollections. . . I had done a deed—what was it? I asked myself the question aloud, and the whispering echoes of the chamber answered me,—“what was it?”

Harry Clarke illustration

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Well, if you want to know what it was, here’s a link – but take my advice and don’t! Ugh! I reckon Poe must have been having a bad day when he wrote this one! I can’t say it scared me exactly, more disgusted me. Apparently it also disgusted the first readers too, and even Poe himself later said “I allow that it approaches the very verge of bad taste…” Approaches?? It walks right up and punches it on the nose!

Combine that with his constant insertion of bits of untranslated French and Latin…

Of Mademoiselle Salle it has been well said, “Que tous ses pas etaient des sentiments,” and of Berenice I more seriously believed que toutes ses dents etaient des idees.

Quite so!

The words were the singular but simple ones of the poet Ebn Zaiat:—”Dicebant mihi sodales si sepulchrum amicae visitarem, curas meas aliquantulum fore levatas.” Why then, as I perused them, did the hairs of my head erect themselves on end, and the blood of my body become congealed within my veins?

Why indeed?

On the upside, there’s lots of traditionally Gothic stuff about the gloomy old mansion and the library filled with ancient, unspeakable tomes and so on. But I’m afraid this won’t figure in my list of top Poe stories. His narrator was opium-sozzled throughout and by the end of this I was kinda wishing I was too…

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😐 😐

The porpy’s teeth are nearly as lovely as Berenice’s…

NB I read this in the anthology Horror Stories, which was provided for review by Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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The Murder at the Vicarage (Miss Marple) by Agatha Christie

Enter Miss Marple…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Colonel Protheroe is one of those men nobody likes, so when he’s shot dead in the vicar’s study the list of suspects is long. He’s a bullying husband to his second wife, Anne, an overbearing father to Lettice, his daughter, a tough magistrate meting out harsh judgement to the criminal classes of St Mary Mead, antagonistic to anyone whose morals he deems to be lax, and an exacting churchwarden, always on the look out for wrongdoing amongst the church officials and congregation. In fact, it was just earlier that very day that the vicar had remarked that anyone who murdered the colonel would be doing the world a favour!

The police are suitably baffled, but fortunately there’s an old lady in the village, with an observant eye, an ear for gossip, an astute mind and an unerring instinct for recognising evil… Miss Marple! Relying on her lifetime’s store of village parallels, she will sniff out the real guilty party while the police are still chasing wild geese all over the village green…

The narrator in the book is the vicar, Leonard Clement, and he and his younger and rather irreverent wife, Griselda, give the book much of its humour and warmth. It’s Miss Marple’s first appearance and she’s more dithery and less prone to Delphic pronouncements than she becomes in some of the later novels. This is her as I always picture her (I suspect it may have been the first one I read) and is the main reason I never think the actresses who play her do so with quite enough of a fluttery old woman feel to the character. Here, she’s a village gossip who watches the ongoings in the village through her binoculars under the pretence of being an avid bird-watcher, and the Clements joke about her as a nosy busy-body, always prying into the lives of her neighbours. As the book goes on, Leonard finds himself investigating alongside her, and gradually gains an appreciation of the intelligence and strength of character underneath this outward appearance, as does the reader.

Challenge details:
Book: 24
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1930

The plot is very good, with as much emphasis on alibis and timings as on motives. Because Colonel Protheroe was such an unpleasant man, the reader (like the characters) doesn’t have to waste much time grieving for him. The suspects range from the sympathetic to the mysterious, from the wicked to the pitiable, as Christie gradually feeds their motives out to us. She shows the village as a place where no secret can be kept for long from the little army of elderly ladies who fill their lives excitedly gossiping about their neighbours. But while some of them are always getting the wrong end of the stick and spreading false stories, Miss Marple has the insight to see through to the truth. In his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Martin Edwards has placed this novel in his The Great Detectives section, and Miss Marple rightly deserves to be there. But he could as easily have put it in his Serpents in Eden category, for its classic portrayal of hidden wickedness beneath the idyllic surface of an English village.

Agatha Christie

Inspector Slack also makes his first appearance in this book – a dedicated officer, but one who is always jumping to hasty conclusions. He never stops to listen to people properly, and is brash and a bit bullying, and oh, so dismissive of our elderly heroine! A mistake, as he will discover when she reveals all towards the end!

I love this book and have read it about a million times. So it was a real pleasure to listen to the incomparable Joan Hickson’s narration of it this time – I find listening to Christie on audiobook brings back a feeling of freshness even to the ones I know more or less off by heart. Hickson gets the warmth and humour of the books, and gives each character a subtly distinctive voice, though never letting the acting get in the way of the narration. She does the working-class people particularly well, managing to avoid the slight feeling of caricaturing that can come through to modern readers in the books.

Great stuff!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

Orange sorbet…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Frances Jellicoe is happy when she is offered a job to survey the gardens of a decayed country house, Lyntons, for the new absentee American owner. Frances’ mother has recently died after years of ill-health, and for the first time in her adulthood Frances is free to make her own life. Leaving London and the flat she and her mother shared gives her a sense of liberty. When she arrives at Lyntons, she finds she won’t be alone. Peter has also been hired, to survey the architectural state of the house, and is there with his beautiful but mercurial wife, Cara. To Frances’ surprise, they befriend her and soon she finds herself caught up in their volatile relationship. As time passes, secrets from the past will be revealed that will impact on the events of that summer, the summer of 1969…

The first half of this book crawls along at a snail’s pace and I nearly abandoned it at the halfway mark. Looking at other reviews suggested, however, that it picks up in the second half, so I stuck with it, and indeed, it did hold my attention more as it went on. But, here I am, a few days later, struggling to think of anything to say about it. It’s one of those books that I neither loved nor hated, that filled a few hours in a reasonably entertaining way (in the second half), and that now, some three days after finishing, I can barely remember anything about.

It’s well written, especially the descriptions of the dilapidated old house, once home to a wealthy family and later requisitioned by the army to accommodate soldiers during WW2. The blurb tells us that Frances spies on Peter and Cara through a Judas hole in her bathroom, though in reality this forms only a tiny, insignificant part of the story. Mostly, she observes them directly, as they rather surprisingly choose to include her in all their activities. There’s also a totally unsuccessful attempt to introduce some ghostliness into the proceedings – this goes nowhere and adds nothing.

The three characters failed to convince me at all, though it’s enjoyable enough to read about them. Peter, a sensible, hard-headed type, seems entirely unsuited to the fanciful, fey Cara, and neither of them seem as if they would be interested in a dull middle-aged woman like Frances. Of course, Frances is an unreliable narrator (is there any other kind these days?) so who knows how much of what she tells us really happens? Not me, for one. There’s also what feels like some attempt to introduce a quasi-religious aspect to the story, which fell flat on its face as far as I was concerned.

Claire Fuller

Was I surprised by the big reveal? Not really. Did I care? Not really.

You know, I started out intending to rate this as four stars because, despite my unrelenting negativity about it, I did find it mostly entertaining once I got past that interminable first half. But I’ve realised while drafting the review that I can’t think of much positive to say about it, except that the writing was good enough to carry me through a rather pointless, unrealistic and ultimately forgettable plot. So a sorbet – enjoyable but not satisfying. Would I recommend it? Not really.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Fig Tree.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 174…

Episode 174…

Down again for the third week in a row – the TBR now stands at 229 – down 2. I’m the Queen of Willpower!

Here’s what’s I hope to be rhapsodising about soon…

Lit Crit

Courtesy of Oxford University Press. While I was begging a copy of Horror Stories, an anthology edited and introduced by Darryl Jones, from Oxford World’s Classics, they mentioned that Darryl Jones was publishing his own book on the history and evolution of horror writing. So naturally I begged a copy of it too…

The Blurb says: As Darryl Jones shows in Sleeping with the Lights On, the horror genre is vast, ranging from vampires, ghosts, and werewolves to mad scientists, Satanists, and deranged serial killers. The cathartic release of scaring ourselves has made its appearance everywhere from Shakespearean tragedies to Internet memes. Exploring the key tropes of the genre, including its monsters, its psychological chills, and its love affair with the macabre, Jones explains why horror stories disturb us, and how society responds to literary and film representations of the gruesome and taboo. Should the enjoyment of horror be regarded with suspicion? What kind of a distinction should we make between the commonly reviled carnage of the contemporary horror genre and the culturally acceptable bloodbaths of ancient Greek tragedies?

Analyzing how horror has been used throughout history to articulate the fears and taboos of the current generation, Jones considers the continuing evolution of the genre today. As horror is marketed to mainstream society in the form of romantic vampires and blockbuster hits, it maintains its shadowy presence on the edges of respectability, as banned films and violent Internet phenomena push us to question both our own preconceptions and the terrifying capacity of human nature.

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Horror

Courtesy of Random House Transworld. Yes, I’m truly steeped in horror this autumn, but how could I possibly have resisted a follow-on novel to Dracula, co-written by a descendant of Bram Stoker himself? Mind you, regulars will know follow-on novels frequently bring me out in a rash…

The Blurb says: The prequel to Dracula, penned by a Stoker descendant and a bestselling writer, Dracul is a supernatural historical thriller in which a young Bram Stoker must confront an indescribable evil.

It is 1868, and a 22-year-old Bram Stoker has locked himself inside a desolate tower to face off against a vile and ungodly beast, armed with mirrors and crucifixes and holy water and a gun, kept company by a bottle of plum brandy, praying to survive a single night, the longest of his life. Desperate to leave a record of what he has witnessed, Bram scribbles out the events that led him here–a childhood illness, a haunting nanny, stories once thought to be fables now proven true.

A riveting novel of Gothic suspense, Dracul reveals not only Dracula’s true origin, but Bram Stoker’s–and the tale of the enigmatic woman who connects them.

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Fiction

I added this book to the TBR back in December 2013, following, I think, a recommendation from Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books. It seems like I should try to get it read before it hits its fifth anniversary! The tragic thing is it’s not even the oldest book on my TBR…

The Blurb says: It is an early spring evening in 1943 when the air-raid sirens wail out over the East End of London. From every corner of Bethnal Green, people emerge from pubs, cinemas and houses and set off for the shelter of the tube station. But at the entrance steps, something goes badly wrong, the crowd panics, and 173 people are crushed to death. When an enquiry is called for, it falls to the local magistrate, Laurence Dunne, to find out what happened during those few, fatally confused minutes. But as Dunne gathers testimony from the guilt-stricken warden of the shelter, the priest struggling to bring comfort to his congregation, and the grieving mother who has lost her youngest daughter, the picture grows ever murkier. The more questions Dunne asks, the more difficult it becomes to disentangle truth from rumour – and to decide just how much truth the damaged community can actually bear. It is only decades later, when the case is reopened by one of the children who survived, that the facts can finally be brought to light…

* * * * *

Crime

This is narrated by Gareth Armstrong, whose narration of Maigret novels I’ve enjoyed before…

The Blurb says: When Maigret’s .45 revolver is stolen from his home, he becomes embroiled in a murder in which the gun may have played a deadly role.

Maigret is the victim of a burglary in which the .45 revolver he had received as a gift from the FBI is stolen. That evening Maigret attends a dinner where François Lagrange, an acquaintance of Maigret’s friend, is expected but fails to appear due to ill health.

Following his instincts, Maigret decides to investigate Lagrange’s absence and uncovers a body stowed in a trunk as well as Lagrange, who refuses to talk and seems to have lost his mind. Only Maigret can uncover the truth – and the fateful role his revolver may have played.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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Imagined Corners by Willa Muir

Repression, religion and sex…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Calderwick is a small town on the east coast of Scotland – a town that looks in on itself, that has “turned its back on the sea”. When Hector Shand marries, he brings his young bride Elizabeth to live in the town he left in disgrace some years earlier, after he had ruined another young girl’s reputation. Hector is the half-brother of the mill owner, John Shand, one of the leading men in the town, and they have a sister, another Elizabeth (known as Lizzie or Elise), who also left the town many years earlier in disgrace, running off with a man to whom she wasn’t married. Now Elise, newly widowed from yet another man, is returning to Calderwick too. Muir sets out to look at Calderwick society – Scottish society – both from the perspective of those who consider it home and from those who are looking at it with the fresh eyes of incomers.

This book is full of doubles, used as complements and contrasts to each other, as a method of showing both sides of the themes Muir raises. I’ve become aware through reading various scholarly introductions and reviews of Scottish classics that the double, or duality, is a particular feature of Scottish writing – Jekyll and Hyde, the good and bad brothers in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the separated twin sisters in Marriage, and many others examples in books I haven’t yet read. Scholars suggest this may have arisen as a result of the Union, which has left Scots with a legacy of divided nationality – Scottish and/or British. Another theory is that it arises out of the tensions in Scottish society as it began to emerge from the stranglehold of Calvinism. Both of these theories could be applied to this book, I feel.

The themes Muir deals with include a kind of feminism, cultural rather than political; parochialism; the worth or otherwise of higher education; and, of course, religion – all Scottish fiction worth its salt addresses the effect of Knox and his hellfire on the Scottish psyche. I felt Muir was trying to do too much in this relatively short novel and as a result failed to get far beneath the superficial in most of her themes. From my perspective, it doesn’t reach the profundity of insight for which I feel it’s aiming.

However, it’s an interesting and enjoyable read, with some good, though somewhat exaggerated characterisation, and an excellent picture of the kind of society prevalent in the smaller towns of Scotland in the early 20th century. Calderwick is apparently a fictionalised version of Montrose, where Muir grew up. Published in 1935, it’s set in 1912, though the attitudes of many of the characters felt to me much more in tune with the ‘30s than the pre-WW1 era. In fact, if it weren’t for the references to the style of women’s clothing, I’d have read it thinking it was about a post-war society. There are no references to what’s going on in the wider world that might have rooted it in time – there’s a curious feeling of isolation, as if Calderwick is unaffected by the world outside.

Book 34 of 90

The two Elizabeths are both struggling with the status of women in society. Elise, the elder, escaped to Europe, a place Muir seems to suggest allows greater freedom, although even there she eventually succumbs to the conventional by marrying. Young Elizabeth, newly married, is an idealist with that kind of ecstatic fervour that seems to be prevalent in modernist feminist writing – so tiring. Quickly discovering that her husband isn’t quite the man she thought, she decides to be a Noble Wife – a support and guide to her husband-child, all-forgiving, a kind of Earth Mother. It’s all rather nauseating. Muir uses it to discuss how women were expected to maintain moral (sexual) standards higher than those of the men, to provide a kind of moral structure on which they could lean, and to help them control their rampant sexuality. There’s much daring talk of sex and Elizabeth’s enjoyment of the physical side of love, in defiance of the repression forced on women by Church and society. In a world where sex is seen as sinful (for women), Muir suggests, then women who discover they enjoy it immediately have to question their own moral righteousness. Oh, how I recognise the Scottishness of that! Knox’s trumpet still blasts…

The other main family is the Murrays. William is the minister of the Free Church, a particularly Calvinist version of Presbyterianism. His brother Ned is suffering from some kind of mental breakdown due to something that happened while he was at university. As Ned spirals ever downwards, William wrestles with his faith. Why would God allow this? Is it a punishment? William knows that God is a god of anger as well as a god of love, but in Scottish Presbyterianism the anger part generally takes precedence. As Ned descends into madness, and William wrings his hands helplessly and looks unavailingly to his God for help, their sister, Sarah, rolls up her sleeves and gets on with the job of trying to hold all their lives together. It’s not made explicit, but Muir clearly implies that, in a crisis, forget God and man – it’ll all end up on the shoulders of the womenfolk.

Willa Muir

Although it’s very well observed, I found that Muir’s resolutions to the various storylines feel overly contrived to make her points. While I certainly recognise the patriarchal society and the repressive religion that has blighted Scotland for centuries (are we out of it now? Hmm, perhaps), I felt that, as with much feminist literature, she has treated her men unfairly, making each either weak or immoral. There’s a kind of implied suggestion (or perhaps I’m inferring it unfairly) that the only way to get away from the repression is to flee Scotland (and maybe men too) – I’d have preferred at least one of them to decide to fight from within, as so many strong Scottish women have done in real life, working alongside the many good Scottish men to change the culture immeasurably for the better. Muir’s own views may have been coloured by the fact that she spent much of her life in the shadow cast by her more famous husband, the poet Edwin Muir, and spent many years working as a translator to fund his creative endeavours. We’re all the products of our own experiences, in the end.

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Tuesday Terror! The Vampyre by John Polidori

Invidious comparisons…

One summer evening in 1816, a group of friends got to discussing tales of the supernatural, and challenged each other to write their own story. Two defaulted, Lord Byron wrote a “fragment” entitled Augustus Darvell, Mary Godwin, later Shelley, wrote Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, and Byron’s doctor, John Polidori, wrote this story…

The Vampyre
by John Polidori

Portrait of John Polidori
by FG Gainsford c. 1816

…there appeared at the various parties of the leaders of the ton a nobleman, more remarkable for his singularities, than his rank. He gazed upon the mirth around him, as if he could not participate therein. Apparently, the light laughter of the fair only attracted his attention, that he might by a look quell it, and throw fear into those breasts where thoughtlessness reigned.

A young gentleman by the name of Aubrey becomes fascinated by a rather older nobleman, Lord Ruthven, because he finds Ruthven’s character impossible to guess at. Ruthven is attractive but his eyes are strangely inexpressive, giving no clue to his feelings. The susceptible, inexperienced Aubrey…

…allowing his imagination to picture every thing that flattered its propensity to extravagant ideas, he soon formed this object into the hero of a romance, and determined to observe the offspring of his fancy, rather than the person before him.

Illustration by Anne Yvonne Gilbert

Discovering that Ruthven intends to travel abroad, Aubrey arranges to go too, and soon the men become travelling companions. But over time, Aubrey begins to realise that his friend is not necessarily a very nice man…

Aubrey could not avoid remarking, that it was not upon the virtuous, reduced to indigence by the misfortunes attendant even upon virtue, that he bestowed his alms;—these were sent from the door with hardly suppressed sneers; but when the profligate came to ask something, not to relieve his wants, but to allow him to wallow in his lust, or to sink him still deeper in his iniquity, he was sent away with rich charity.

Aubrey tries to give him the benefit of the doubt, even though he can see that Ruthven preys on young women, (in rather unspecified ways), leaving them and their families ruined and disgraced. Then Aubrey’s guardians warn him that Ruthven is a bad lot, and Aubrey decides to leave and travel alone to Greece. But here, tragedy strikes – and soon Aubrey will become convinced that his one-time friend is hiding a terrible secret…

There was no colour upon her cheek, not even upon her lip; yet there was a stillness about her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there:—upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein:—to this the men pointed, crying, simultaneously struck with horror, “A Vampyre! a Vampyre!”

Advertising poster showing Byron as the author

* * * * * * *

I can’t help imagining the two friends, Mary Shelley and John Polidori, getting together again a couple of years later…

Mary: So, did you write a story?
John (proudly): Yes, I did! Here it is! Did you?
Mary (taking the few sheets from John’s hand): Umm… well, yes, I did. (She holds out a massive manuscript.)
John: Oh! (pauses) So… what’s it about?
Mary: Oh, you know, the usual stuff. Mad science, ethics, perceptions of difference, man usurping God as creator, existential questions of loneliness and belonging, the essence of humanity… what’s yours about?
John: Umm… well, it’s about… umm… well, a man who’s actually a vampire.
Mary: Ah! I see! (She riffles through the tiny sheaf of pages.) That should be… fun!
John: I feel a bit embarrassed now.
Mary (kindly): Oh, don’t be! At least you wrote a story. Byron only managed a “fragment”…

Mary Shelley
by Samuel John Stump 1831

Mary was right – this is… fun! Not terribly well written fun, it has to be said, and not very vampirish either, to modern eyes. However, apparently it started the whole fictional vampire obsession, so it deserves praise for that. The introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition tells me that originally it was published under Byron’s name by an unscrupulous publisher looking to cash in on his notoriety, and I wonder if it would have had the same impact without that. I doubt it. I did find it amusing that some people said it was Byron’s best work – bet they felt a bit foolish when it came out he hadn’t written it! Polidori nicked the basic idea from Byron’s “fragment” (which is included in the book and is much better written) and expanded it into a full short story. He was apparently also taking a bit of a swipe at Byron himself – Ruthven being the name Byron’s cast-off mistress Caroline Lamb had given him in her own fictional portrayal in her novel, Glenarvon.

Lord Byron
by Thomas Phillips 1813

In truth, I found the story of the story more interesting than the story. Neither the porpy nor I found it scary, and while the porpy didn’t laugh at some of the clunky, over-dramatic sentences, I did. Clearly the porpy has a sweeter nature than I…

John: Mary, your book is wonderful! It’s destined to be a great classic! I predict it will become one of the foundation stones of modern literature! I shuddered, I cried, I got angry, I shivered in fear! Your creature will fire imaginations through the centuries! Bravissima!
Mary: Thanks, John! Er… your story’s quite good too!

If you’d like to read it online, here’s a link. I read it in The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre, which I’ll review fully at a later date.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀

Not a quill was raised…

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Imperium (Cicero Trilogy 1) by Robert Harris

When in Rome…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Young lawyer Cicero is already developing a reputation as a skilful lawyer and compelling orator, when one day a Sicilian by the name of Sthenius comes asking for his aid. The unscrupulous governor of Sicily, Verres, has used his position of power to openly steal from Sthenius and now Verres is using the law to further victimise him. Cicero realises that a victory against Verres would propel him into the public eye – a greatly to-be-desired outcome for a man with ambitions to win the most important office in Rome one day, that of the consulship. But while it might gain him the love of the people, it’s bound to antagonise the aristocrats…

We are told the story by Tiro, Cicero’s slave and secretary, who has invented his own system of shorthand and, as a result, has made himself essential to the great man. Robert Harris is the master of fictionalising real events in historical settings and does his usual excellent job here. Tiro really existed and did write a book about Cicero, long ago lost. Harris’ version of Tiro is a wonderful creation – he allows us to see Cicero from the viewpoint of someone loyal to him but not to the point of obsession, sometimes critical, sometimes mildly mocking. Tiro’s position as a favoured slave means that he has a good understanding of all the various players and the political games they are playing, but has no vested interest or opportunity for personal gain from them. This makes him a more objective observer than any of the other participants. From Tiro’s perspective, what’s good for Cicero is good for those dependant on him. Fortunately for Tiro, Cicero is also a good master who mostly is quite considerate, although from time to time he seems to forget that poor Tiro needs to sleep occasionally.

In his afterword, Harris says about the story that “the majority of the events it describes did actually happen; the remainder at least could have happened; and nothing, I hope (a hostage to fortune, this), demonstrably did not happen”. This is both the strength and the weakness of the novel. Like most famous people from history, Cicero’s life is mostly fairly routine disturbed by the occasional major event. The major events here are brought to life brilliantly – the investigation of Verres’ alleged crimes and his trial at the beginning of the book and the battle for the consulship at the end. The long period in the middle when Cicero is making his name, forming alliances and making political enemies also feels realistic and credible, but unfortunately isn’t nearly so interesting. Also, the picture that develops of Cicero is possibly too real – in the end, he’s just a man jostling for personal power and wealth, and as such I couldn’t get too excited about whether he won or not. I had hoped for a hero and had to settle for a politician… and gosh, I feel I’ve had my fill of them recently!

Robert Harris

The only reason I haven’t given this the full five stars is that ancient Rome and all their shenanigans isn’t a period of history I ever find wildly interesting, and even though Harris makes it more fun than most writers, my usual problem remains of zillions of characters all with remarkably similar names all vying for election to short term positions of power. My lack of knowledge was both a benefit and a drawback. I’ve seen reviews from people who know Roman history and society who have criticised some of the factual stuff, but I didn’t spot any of that and was able to just enjoy it as a story. On the other hand, there are so many people involved, both centrally and peripherally, that I’m sure it would have helped to have at least some pre-knowledge of who they all were and what they were famous for. Harris does a great job of keeping the Roman newbie informed, but I still found myself constantly trying to remember what he’d previously told us about various characters as they re-appeared a few chapters later.

So overall not my favourite Harris, but primarily because it’s not my favourite period of history. Still an excellent read, though, that held my interest enough to make me want to continue on and read the other two books in the trilogy. And fortunately my lack of knowledge of Cicero and Rome means I have no idea what awaits me…

Book 2 of 25

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The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

The best Gentlemen’s Club in England…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s the early 1930s. Britain’s finances haven’t yet recovered from the Great War and now the Stock Market collapse has brought matters close to crisis. So the Home Secretary has invited an American financier to a private dinner at the House of Commons to schmooze him into agreeing to make the government a substantial loan. But when the Division Bell sounds, the Home Secretary has to leave the room to go and vote. The Home Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, young Robert West, is also hurrying along the corridor to vote, but as he passes the room where the financier waits alone, he hears a shot. Rushing in with the other people in the corridor, he finds the financier dead! But no-one else is in the room, no-one left by the door after the shot was fired and there’s no other exit. Suicide is soon discounted, so how was he killed? Who killed him? And why? Robert finds himself working as a liaison with the police to find the answers…

This is a lot of fun, especially if, like me, you’re fascinated by all the quirky traditions that surround parliamentary procedures in this ancient seat of government. It was written by Ellen Wilkinson, one of the earliest women Members of Parliament, who had temporarily lost her seat. She got back into Parliament at the next election – a gain for politics, but a loss to the world of crime fiction, since this turned out to be the only crime novel she wrote. She gives an entirely authentic, affectionate, but humorously sardonic look at being a working-class woman in an institution still often referred to as the best Gentlemen’s Club in England. The female MP in the story, Grace Richards, isn’t the main character but she provides lots of opportunities for Wilkinson to mock some of the rampant sexism to which women MPs were subjected, and Martin Edwards confirms in his introduction what I suspected while reading – that Grace is a thinly-disguised version of Wilkinson herself.

The main character, however, is Robert West, an extremely likeable young man who wants to do his duty to his party and country, but is fairly easily distracted by a beautiful face. The granddaughter of the dead financier just happens to have a beautiful face, so Robert soon finds his loyalties divided when she asks him for information he should really be keeping secret. The first question the police have to resolve is: was this murder personal or was it politically motivated? But even if they find the answer to that they still won’t be able to prove anything unless they can work out how the murder was done. It’s a good example of a locked room mystery, though it’s dependent on the various investigators not trying very hard to solve it until the last chapter! The plot is pleasingly tricky without being impossible for the reader to make a good stab at guessing the culprit and motive.

Challenge details:
Book: 89
Subject Heading: Singletons
Publication Year: 1932

The two enjoyable characters of Robert and Grace make this fun to read, especially since the victim was a mean old banker so nobody much cares that he’s dead. Even his granddaughter is pretty stoical about the whole thing. One of the reasons I love Golden Age crime is that they tended not to make the reader wallow too deeply in grief for the victims, so that one can actually enjoy the books. What makes this one stand out from the crowd, though, is the way Wilkinson manages to tell us so much about the workings of Parliament without getting heavily bogged down in politics, though she does make enough references to give the reader an informed glimpse of the various concerns of the day, economically and socially, at a time when society was changing pretty dramatically, not least for women. I found it intriguing and amusing that, although she herself was a Labour MP (hence on the left), Robert is a Conservative (on the right). She rather cheekily lets us see his opinions being swayed by fiery young socialist Grace – whose face, while not as beautiful as the victim’s granddaughter’s, is beautiful enough to trouble the susceptible Robert…

Ellen Wilkinson

I thoroughly enjoyed this and recommend it not just as a good mystery, but as an entertaining way to get an insider’s account of the life of early women MPs. Wilkinson went on to play a prominent role in the Jarrow March – a piece of history that eventually fed into huge social change in Britain – so most of me is glad she resumed her political career. But a bit of me wishes she’d chucked it all up and written more books instead…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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TBR Thursday 173…

Episode 173…

Another tiny step in the right direction this week – the TBR is down 1 to 231. Here are a few more that I should get to soon…

Horror

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Another of the great anthologies I’ve been lucky enough to acquire to feed the porpy’s addiction this autumn. There’s a new paperback edition of this due out on 25th October but the old edition is still available in the meantime. It’s introduced and edited by Darryl Jones, who’s becoming my go-to expert in classic horror and sci-fi in the way Martin Edwards is for vintage crime…

The Blurb says: The modern horror story grew and developed across the nineteenth century, embracing categories as diverse as ghost stories, supernatural and psychological horror, medical and scientific horrors, colonial horror, and tales of mystery and premonition. This anthology brings together 29 of the greatest horror stories of the period from 1816 to 1912, from the British, Irish, American, and European traditions. It ranges widely across the sub-genres to encompass authors whose terror-inducing powers remain unsurpassed.

The book includes stories by some of the best writers of the century – Hoffmann, Poe, Balzac, Dickens, Hawthorne, Melville, Zola – as well as established genre classics such as M. R. James, Arthur Machen, Bram Stoker, Algernon Blackwood, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and others. It includes rare and little-known pieces by writers such as William Maginn, Francis Marion Crawford, W. F. Harvey, and William Hope Hodgson, and shows the important role played by periodicals in popularizing the horror story. Wherever possible stories are reprinted in their first published form, with background information about their authors and helpful, contextualizing annotation. Darryl Jones’s lively introduction discusses horror’s literary evolution and its articulation of cultural preoccupations and anxieties. These are stories guaranteed to freeze the blood, revolt the senses, and keep you awake at night: prepare to be terrified!

* * * * *

Factual

Courtesy of Allen Lane. Tom Devine is probably the most distinguished Scottish historian of the last few decades, so I’m looking forward to learning more about this shameful period of Scottish history – a period that affected not only Scotland but has had a major impact on most of the English-speaking world through the resulting Scottish Diaspora… (Factlet: 33 American Presidents have Scottish ancestry – 34 if you consider Trump to be a real President.)

The Blurb says:  Eighteenth-century Scotland is famed for generating many of the enlightened ideas which helped to shape the modern world. But there was in the same period another side to the history of the nation. Many of Scotland’s people were subjected to coercive and sometimes violent change: traditional and customary relationships were overturned and replaced by the ‘rational’ exploitation of land use.The Scottish Clearances is a superb and highly original account of this sometimes terrible process, which changed the Lowland countryside forever, as it also did, more infamously, the old society of the Highlands.

Based on an extensive use of original sources, this pioneering book is the first to chart this tumultuous saga in one volume, with due attention to evictions and loss of land in both north and south of the Highland line. In the process, old myths are exploded and familiar assumptions undermined. With many fascinating details and the sense of an epic human story, The Scottish Clearances is an evocative memorial to all whose lives were irreparably changed in the interests of economic efficiency.

The result created the landscape of Scotland as we know it today, but that came at a price. This is a story of forced clearance, of the destruction of entire communities and of large-scale emigration. Some winners were able to adapt and exploit the new opportunities, but there were also others who lost everything.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of Collins Crime Club. I’ve only read a couple of Max Carrados short stories before, so I’m looking forward to reading this, the only full-length novel. Plus, who could possibly resist that fabulous cover?

The Blurb says: The classic crime novel featuring blind detective Max Carrados, whose popularity rivalled that of Sherlock Holmes, complete with a new introduction and an extra short story.

In his dark little curio shop Julian Joolby is weaving an extravagant scheme to smash the financial machinery of the world by flooding the Oriental market with forged banknotes. But this monster of wickedness has not reckoned on Max Carrados, the suave and resourceful investigator whose visual impairment gives him heightened powers of perception that ordinary detectives overlook.

Max Carrados was a blind detective whose stories by Ernest Bramah appeared from 1914 alongside Sherlock Holmes in the Strand Magazine, in which they often had top billing. Described by George Orwell as among ‘the only detective stories since Poe that are worth re-reading’, the 25 stories were collected in three hugely popular volumes, culminating in a full-length novel, The Bravo of London (1934), in which Carrados engages in a battle of wits against a fiendish plot that threatens to overthrow civilisation itself.

This Detective Club classic is introduced by Tony Medawar, who investigates the impact on the genre of Bramah’s blind detective and the relative obscurity of this, the only Max Carrados novel. This edition also includes the sole uncollected short story The Bunch of Violets.

* * * * *

Historical Crime

Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing via NetGalley. I was very tempted by Purcell’s earlier novel, The Silent Companions, but still haven’t managed to fit it in. So I decided to grab her new one quick…

The Blurb says: Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder.

When Dorothea’s charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted with the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.

The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations – of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses – will shake Dorothea’s belief in rationality, and the power of redemption.

Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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Springtime in a Broken Mirror by Mario Benedetti

When the time comes…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Santiago is a political prisoner in Montevideo, Uruguay, in the 1970s. His family and friends are scattered, exiled from the country they call home. The book begins with Santiago writing to his wife, Graciela, who is living in Buenos Aires with their young daughter, Beatriz. In Buenos Aires, too, is Santiago’s father and Ronaldo, his friend and former fellow revolutionary. Interspersed by some sections where we hear from the author in his own voice, relating some of his own experiences as a political exile, the book rotates among these characters, letting us see each through their own eyes, and through the eyes of the other characters.

This is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read in a long time, and credit must go to the translator, Nick Caistor, who has done a marvellous job. Although it’s based around the revolutions of South America, it is not about politics as such; rather, it is about the impact that political upheaval has on the individuals caught up in it. It’s about home and exile, loneliness, longing, belonging. It’s about loyalty and love, and hope, and sometimes despair. It’s profoundly moving – full of emotional truth.

As Santiago sits in jail not knowing when – if – he’ll be released, he writes letters full of love to Graciela. For him, life is static, his memories of their love the thing that has sustained him through the torture and now the sheer stultification of his imprisonment. But for Graciela, life is a moving thing – she is still young, in a new city, with a job and a growing child, and for her the present is more vivid than the past. She finds herself increasingly attracted to Ronaldo, but knows that Santiago needs her love and loyalty. Graciela is the only character in the book who doesn’t speak for herself, so that the reader must try to understand her through what the other characters say. She is in a different kind of prison to Santiago, but one which has just as effectively halted her life. The crux of the story is deceptively simple – what will Graciela decide to do?

Rafael, Santiago’s father, is an old man now, exiled because of Santiago’s actions. He muses on the meaning of “home”, feeling homesick more than the other characters, perhaps because for him there is less chance of ever returning. Through him, Benedetti gives a heartbreaking depiction of the kind of homesickness that comes when a person is unwillingly forced to live elsewhere. He captures it beautifully – the odd things one misses, the clinging to people who have come from the same place, who understand one’s own culture, and the eventual almost unnoticeable putting down of fragile new roots, the settling and acceptance, and even the beginnings of a new feeling of “home”.

It soothes you, gives you peace of mind to know what’s coming next, to know what’s round every corner, after every streetlamp, every newspaper kiosk. Here, on the other hand, when I first set out walking, everything took me by surprise. And all that surprise made me weary. And then, when I turned back, I didn’t head home, I just went to the room. I was tired of being surprised. Maybe that’s why I started using the stick. To stop being thrown off balance. Or perhaps so that any fellow countrymen I met would say: “But Don Rafael, back there you never used a cane”, and I could reply: “Well, you didn’t wear those guayabera shirts either”.

Beatriz’s voice brings a touch of lightness to the story, preventing the tone from becoming too bleak. Life isn’t always easy for her, either – she gets into fights at school over people saying nasty things about her dad being in prison. She defends him on the grounds that he’s a political prisoner, even though she doesn’t really know what that means – but she knows it means he’s a good man, not a criminal. She’s spent half her life in Buenos Aires, and questions in her childish way whether she is Uruguayan or Argentinian. For the children, if a time comes when they can go home, will it feel like home? Or will it be, for them, another kind of exile? But although Benedetti makes Beatriz’s sections as thought-provoking as the rest of the book, her voice is convincingly childish. She loves words, and when she learns a new one, she shoehorns it in at every available opportunity, providing some much-needed humour. At one point, her favourite word is abound

….On Sundays the streets are almost empty and I wonder where all the millions I saw on Friday can have got to. My Grandpa Rafael says that on Sundays people stay at home to rest. To rest means to sleep.
….There’s a lot of sleep in this country. Especially on Sundays, because there are many millions asleep. If each sleeping person snores nine times an hour (my mum snores fourteen times) that means each million inhabitants snore nine million times an hour. In other words, snores abound.

Ronaldo’s voice is more detached, giving us some of the background to what led to Santiago’s imprisonment. But he also talks of exile, giving us a rather more positive view of the possibilities and joys of sharing cultures. There is a feeling throughout the book of South America as one entity, with exiles and refugees from the various revolutions in different countries drifting from place to place depending on where sanctuary can be found. It also takes an interesting view of Cuba as the one country whose revolution has been successful, looked at from the perspective of the communists in other South American countries. Benedetti’s own sections tell of exiles trying to get to Cuba to make a new life, at the same time as some Cubans were trying to leave to get to the US for the same reason.

….How can we forget that these young people, separated from their surroundings, families, friends, their classrooms, have been denied their basic human right, to rebel as youngsters, to fight as youngsters? The only right they’ve been left with is to die as youngsters.
….Sometimes these young people demonstrate bullet-proof courage, and yet their minds are not disappointment-proof. If only I and other veterans could convince them that their duty is to stay young. Not to grow old out of nostalgia, boredom or rancour, but to stay young, so that when the time comes to go back they do so as young people and not as the relics of past rebelliousness. As youngsters – that is – as life.

Mario Benedetti

This is a short book, but has more to say than many lengthier tomes. I have no idea about the political situation in South America in that, or any other, era, but didn’t find this got in the way of my understanding of the book. Fundamentally, it’s about people, and especially people who have been forced out of their homelands – the reasons for the exile are secondary to its impact. And, in the end, it holds out hope: that the human spirit has the resilience to find new ways of living when the old ones are taken away. A wonderful book – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Classics, via Amazon Vine.

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Tuesday Terror! Haunted Houses by Charlotte Riddell

Entertainingly shivery…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

For those who prefer a rather more gentle haunting experience comes this delightful pair of novels from another “forgotten” Victorian, the Irish-born Charlotte Riddell.

The second novel, The Uninhabited House, seems to be rather better known than the first, Fairy Water, and I would agree it’s the stronger of the two, especially in terms of the ghostly aspects. But Fairy Water is full of charm with a delightful first-person narrator who grows ever more likeable as the book progresses.

Fairy Water

Charlotte Riddell

Our narrator is Mr H Stafford Trevor, a bachelor of independent means who has made it his life’s work to dine out. His natural habitat is the foggy London of good society but he often visits his cousin’s country house, Fairy Water, especially in strawberry season since he’s rather fonder of fresh strawberries than he is of his cousin. Mr Trevor is a delightful combination of self-satisfication and self-deprecation – a man who claims to live for pleasure only, but whom we come to realise is a staunch friend to those he loves. His voice is what makes this story special – he is deliciously snobbish and a little wicked about the society in which he moves…

Old friends welcome me for the sake of Auld Lang Syne, to speak in the hideous idiom of a people whose accent I detest, and whose ways are abhorrent to me – one degree less abhorrent only than their primitive ballads, always suggestive of the screech of a bagpipe. Young couples welcome me for the sake of the dead and gone; people whose position is assured, because, like dear Lady Mary, who plays a little part in this story, it is quite safe to whisper secret scandals, and the latest and most wicked bon mot in my ear; and the nouveau riche, because, poor wretches, they believe I must be somebody.

When the rather boorish, bullying cousin marries a girl young enough to be his granddaughter, Stafford finds himself befriending her; and later, when the cousin dies, he becomes a kind of surrogate father to Mary, the young widow, and unofficial guardian to her several children. He is also attached to a young man, Valentine Waldrum, the son of a woman he once loved. Valentine has become the owner of Crow Hall – the haunted house – following the tragic death of his father who had been driven mad by the ghostly presence there. To help Valentine, Stafford will attempt to rid Crow Hall of its resident spectre.

The ghostly stuff is very mild and often humorous, and is something of an add-on to the story of poor Mary, left in a difficult position because of the iniquitous will of her dead husband, and Valentine, who fears his father’s insanity may be hereditary. The perceptive among you may suspect that romance ensues – I couldn’t possibly comment. But while Stafford tries to do his best for the young people, he still has time for plenty of humorous commentary on the various characters involved in the story. Scare factor very low – entertainment factor very high!

The Uninhabited House

This time our narrator is a young man, Harry Patterson, who works as a clerk in the law firm of Mr Craven. On their books is River Hall, the property of a young girl orphaned when her father took his own life in the library. The girl’s aunt, Miss Blake, is a great comic character – rude, somewhat uncouth, and an opportunity for Riddell to poke fun at her own Irish background. Mr Craven keeps letting the house, but tenants never stay long. Eventually one aggrieved tenant complains bitterly that he should have been warned that the house was haunted. With his reputation at stake, Mr Craven is reluctant to continue letting the house, but our intrepid clerk offers to live in River Hall himself and lay the ghost, if he can. (The perceptive among you may wonder if he’s inspired by feelings of romance for the young owner – I couldn’t possibly comment.)

….It is as well to confess at once that I was for the moment frightened. Subsequently I saw many wonderful sights, and had some terrible experiences in the Uninhabited House; but I can honestly say, no sight or experience so completely cowed me for the time being, as that dull blackness to which I could assign no shape, that spirit-like rapping of fleshless fingers, which seemed to increase in vehemence as I obeyed its summons.
….Doctors say it is not possible for the heart to stand still and a human being live, and, as I am not a doctor, I do not like to contradict their dogma, otherwise I could positively declare my heart did cease beating as I listened, looking out into the night with the shadow of that darkness projecting itself upon my mind…

The spookiness aspect of this is stronger than in Fairy Water but still of the mild shiver variety rather than the hiding behind the sofa kind. It’s soon clear there’s also a mystery surrounding the haunting, and as the book goes on it actually becomes as much a mystery novel as a ghost story. Again our narrator is extremely likeable – brave but not to the point of arrogance, and as amusingly observant of society’s eccentrics as Mr Trevor in Fairy Water. The storytelling in this one is more direct, giving it a better flow overall, and while the mystery might not be the hardest in the world to work out, it gives an added element of interest to the plot.

I found both of these to be highly enjoyable page-turners, with enough spookiness to entertain but mild enough for the scaredest of scaredy-cats out there. The quality of the writing is excellent, with a touch of Victorian sentimentality but not too much, and the warm humour makes both books pleasingly amusing. Apparently Riddell wrote lots of short ghost stories too, and I look forward to seeking them out.

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😱 😱

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The porpentine was amused too…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link (I’m afraid it’s not due out till April 2019 in the US)

An April Shroud (Dalziel and Pascoe 4) by Reginald Hill

In which Dalziel becomes human…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Following newly-minted-Inspector Peter Pascoe’s wedding to Ellie Soper, Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel sets off on a little holiday. His plan is to drive around the countryside hoping to find enough of interest to keep him occupied, but in reality he’s feeling a little lost and even lonely. Peter’s wedding has brought home to him his own lack of family, and he’s reached as high as he’s likely to go in his career. But his plans are put on hold when April showers turn into a veritable flood and his car becomes waterlogged. Rescued by a family returning from a funeral, he goes with them to their home, Lake House, to dry off and phone a garage. But the combination of an intriguing death in the family and the friendly charms of the remarkably cheerful widow persuade him to prolong his visit…

One of the things that always kept this series fresh was that Hill regularly changed the focus among the various characters. In this one, Andy gets his first solo outing. Peter makes token appearances at the beginning and end but plays no real part in the story. This gives Hill the chance to let the reader get to know Andy from the inside – prior to this we’d really always seen him through someone else’s eyes, usually Peter’s.

Although I grew very fond of all the major characters – Pascoe, Ellie, Wieldy, Novello – Dalziel was always the one I enjoyed most. He’s such an intriguing mix of brash, uncouth Yorkshireman – a big, loud, crude, bullying brute of a man – and well-hidden sensitivity: a man who might use blatantly offensive homophobic terms, but will defend his gay colleagues at a time when that was highly unusual; who can be hideously sexist in the language he uses to women, but who respects their intelligence and strength far more than many of his politically correct colleagues; who is no respecter of class, but who uses his own mostly artificial veneer of uncultured boorishness as a blunt weapon to dominate any company he’s in, from the rugby club to the manor house.

This is the book where we really begin to see him as more than a caricature. As he finds himself drawn towards the widow, Bonnie, he gets sucked into a moral quagmire largely of his own making. The police have investigated the death of Conrad Fielding and have reluctantly concluded it was an accident, despite the fact that the insurance claim on his death will come in very handy for the rest of the household. Lake House is costly to live in and too run-down to let, so the family have come up with a scheme to convert part of it into a mock-Medieval Banqueting Hall. But funding has run out and bankruptcy looms unless the insurance money comes through in time for them to finish the work on the place before the scheduled opening in a couple of weeks’ time. As Andy gets to know the family better, he has to decide whether to share what he learns about them with the local police or keep his suspicions to himself. It’s not as if he knows anything for sure…

Reginald Hill

Hill also has fun with the characters in the house, from the elderly poet Hereward, about to be given an award he feels he should have been given years ago when young enough to enjoy it, to the budding film-maker who augments his income by taking the kind of girlie photos that show up in the less respectable kind of magazine, to the Woosterish young man who wants nothing more than to punt on the lake, shooting ducks. The widow herself is a typically wonderful Hill woman – strong, intelligent, generous, quite possibly wicked, definitely ambiguous. A Yorkshire femme fatale. Is she attracted to Andy for his innate charm and manly physique? Even Andy is doubtful about that. Or is she using him as protection from the interest of the local police?

The mystery itself becomes more complicated when more bodies begin to show up in unexpected places. Accidents? Murders? Connected or coincidental? Andy will eventually work it all out, but then he’ll still have to decide what to do about it. And meantime, the inaugural Medieval Banquet grows ever closer…

Lots of humour as always, but in this one Hill gives us the first real indication of how the series will develop in terms of depth of characterisation and the complicated relationship between our two main players, Dalziel and Pascoe. And in this one, for the first time, we begin to see that Andy is human too, with all the vulnerabilities and sensitivities he so successfully hides from the world. As always, highly recommended – the best detective series of all time!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link