FictionFan’s Book Reviews

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Shorts August 2022…

A Bunch of Minis…

I’m storming through the books at such an alarming rate at the moment that my reviewing is continually behind. So another little batch of three, all for the #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer challenge…

Books 13, 14 and 15

A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie

Read by Joan Hickson

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Rex Fortescue is poisoned the list of suspects includes most of his family and several others who either want to inherit his money or who may have been hurt by his dodgy business practices in the past. The suspect list is soon reduced by one, when another member of the family becomes the next victim. But what brings Miss Marple into the investigation is the third murder, of the maid Gladys. Gladys had grown up in the local orphanage and Miss Marple had trained her for domestic service, so she feels a sense of responsibility towards this young woman who has no one else to care about her. And Miss Marple feels that aspects of her death were particularly cruel, showing that the murderer treated her with a kind of mocking contempt. So, like an avenging angel with knitting needles, Miss Marple descends on the household at Yew Tree Lodge to find justice for Gladys…

This is one of my favourites. (I know, I say that about so many of them, but it’s true!) It makes great use of the nursery rhyme referenced in the title, but without allowing the constraints of sticking to the rhyme to make the story feel at all contrived. But what makes it stand out most is Miss Marple’s righteous anger over the murder of Gladys. One of my regular criticisms of Golden Age authors, including Christie, is that domestic servants are often despatched as second or third victims with barely a second’s thought or a moment’s recognition, merely as a convenient way to move the plot forward. So it’s refreshing to see Miss Marple really care about Gladys’ murder, possibly more than Rex Fortescue’s own family care about his. And the mystery itself is good – not perhaps quite as fair-play as some of her books, but the suspect list is full of intriguing characters, most of whom are unsympathetic enough for the reader to happily contemplate their fictional hanging! Read superbly by the wonderful Joan Hickson – a treat!

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Cover Her Face by PD James

Read by Daniel Weyman

🙂 🙂 😐

The servant problem has become so acute post-war that the Maxies of Martingale are reduced to taking on a “delinquent” as housemaid – Sally Jupp, a young woman with an illegitimate child. But Sally refuses to be as humble, penitent and grateful as a fallen woman should be, and various members of the household soon have reasons to resent her presence. So when she is found strangled in her room one morning, the field of suspects is wide. Enter Inspector Adam Dalgleish – full-time policeman and part-time poet…

I mentioned when I put this on my reading list that I used to love PD James but had found her last few books a struggle because it had felt to me that her style had dated badly. I hoped by going back to the beginning of her long-running Dalgleish series that my love might be revived, but I fear not. Sadly her class snobbery is too much for me to take now. It’s odd – I can put up with snobbery and other ’isms in the older authors of the Golden Age much better than from post-war authors. I suspect I feel they should have known better, although my own love for this series back in the day suggests I didn’t know better myself at that time! Whatever, I find I now have no tolerance for passages in post-war novels like the following, describing an elderly maid…

Dagleish had met a number of Marthas in his time and had never supposed them to be complicated people. They were concerned with the comfort of the body, the cooking of food, the unending menial tasks which someone must carry out before the life of the mind can have any true validity. Their own undemanding emotional needs found fulfilment in service. They were loyal, hardworking and truthful and made good witnesses because they lacked both the imagination and the practice necessary for successful lying. They could be a nuisance if they decided to shield those who had gained their loyalty but this was an overt danger which could be anticipated. He expected no difficulty with Martha.

I shall remain grateful to PD James for the enjoyment her books once gave me, but sometimes it’s best to leave the past undisturbed.

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Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome

Read by Ian Carmichael

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

I’ve reviewed this one previously, and my dear little cat Tuppence also once told us why it was her favourite book, so I shall merely remind you all that it’s the funniest book ever written. Ian Carmichael is the perfect narrator for it, and I laughed and chuckled and guffawed my way through the audiobook – if you can get hold of his narration, I highly recommend you do so! In lieu of a review, then, have an extract…

….I knew a young fellow once, who was studying to play the bagpipes, and you would be surprised at the amount of opposition he had to contend with. Why, not even from the members of his own family did he receive what you could call active encouragement. His father was dead against the business from the beginning, and spoke quite unfeelingly on the subject.
….My friend used to get up early in the morning to practise, but he had to give that plan up, because of his sister. She was somewhat religiously inclined, and she said it seemed such an awful thing to begin the day like that.
….So he sat up at night instead, and played after the family had gone to bed, but that did not do, as it got the house such a bad name. People, going home late, would stop outside to listen, and then put it about all over the town, the next morning, that a fearful murder had been committed at Mr. Jefferson’s the night before; and would describe how they had heard the victim’s shrieks and the brutal oaths and curses of the murderer, followed by the prayer for mercy, and the last dying gurgle of the corpse.
….So they let him practise in the day-time, in the back-kitchen with all the doors shut; but his more successful passages could generally be heard in the sitting-room, in spite of these precautions, and would affect his mother almost to tears.
….She said it put her in mind of her poor father (he had been swallowed by a shark, poor man, while bathing off the coast of New Guinea – where the connection came in, she could not explain).

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Two out of three ain’t bad! 😉

TBR Thursday 346…

Episode 346

A big drop in the TBR this week – down 3 to 172! I might even get below the magic 170 soon, if I don’t fall at the last hurdle…

Here are a few more I should run into soon…

Crime

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

My Looking Forward posts have made me thoroughly ashamed of all the books lingering on my TBR that I acquired because I’d enjoyed the author before. So I’m going to try my hardest to fit some of them into my reading schedule, starting with this one from Belinda Bauer, which I acquired in 2015!

The Blurb says: Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb digs holes on Exmoor, hoping to find a body. Every day after school, while his classmates swap football stickers, Steven goes digging to lay to rest the ghost of the uncle he never knew, who disappeared aged eleven and is assumed to have fallen victim to the notorious serial killer Arnold Avery.

Only Steven’s Nan is not convinced her son is dead. She still waits for him to come home, standing bitter guard at the front window while her family fragments around her. Steven is determined to heal the widening cracks between them before it’s too late. And if that means presenting his grandmother with the bones of her murdered son, he’ll do it.

So the boy takes the next logical step, carefully crafting a letter to Arnold Avery in prison. And there begins a dangerous cat-and-mouse game between a desperate child and a bored serial killer . . .

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Maigret on Audio

The Misty Harbour by Georges Simenon read by Gareth Armstrong

The last three for the #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer challenge. Having unexpectedly raced through the longest book left on my list over last weekend, it’s now looking possible that I might actually finish the challenge on time! First up, another admirably short Maigret, read as usual by the excellent Gareth Armstrong…

The Blurb says: A new translation of Georges Simenon’s gripping tale of lost identity. A man picked up for wandering in obvious distress among the cars and buses on the Grands Boulevards. Questioned in French, he remains mute… A madman?

In Maigret’s office, he is searched. His suit is new, his underwear is new, his shoes are new. All identifying labels have been removed. No identification papers. No wallet. Five crisp thousand-franc bills have been slipped into one of his pockets.

Answers lead Maigret to a small harbour town, whose quiet citizens conceal a poisonous malice.

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Greene on Audio

The Quiet American by Graham Greene read by Simon Cadell

One I haven’t read before from Graham Greene. It was the narrator as much as the book that made me choose this one as an audiobook – I have fond memories of the late Simon Cadell as an actor. The blurb sounds interesting too, though, and I’m intrigued to find out what it is that makes it “controversial”…

The Blurb says: “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused,” Graham Greene’s narrator Fowler remarks of Alden Pyle, the eponymous “Quiet American” of what is perhaps the most controversial novel of his career. Pyle is the brash young idealist sent out by Washington on a mysterious mission to Saigon, where the French Army struggles against the Vietminh guerrillas. As young Pyle’s well-intentioned policies blunder into bloodshed, Fowler, a seasoned and cynical British reporter, finds it impossible to stand safely aside as an observer. But Fowler’s motives for intervening are suspect, both to the police and himself, for Pyle has stolen Fowler’s beautiful Vietnamese mistress.

Originally published in 1956 and twice adapted to film, The Quiet American remains a terrifiying and prescient portrait of innocence at large. 

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Christie on Audio

By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser

What better incentive to get to the end of the challenge than a Christie/Fraser/Tommy and Tuppence mystery! There are aspects of creepiness in this one that shiver my spine whenever I think of them…

The Blurb says: While visiting Tommy’s Aunt Ada at Sunny Ridge Nursing Home, Tuppence encounters some odd residents including Mrs. Lancaster who mystifies her with talk about “your poor child” and “something behind the fireplace”.

When Aunt Ada dies a few weeks later, she leaves Tommy and Tuppence a painting featuring a house, which Tuppence is sure she has seen before. This realization leads her on a dangerous adventure involving a missing tombstone, diamond smuggling and a horrible discovery of what Mrs. Lancaster was talking about.

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

Women, know your place…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

George Melbury has been blessed with only one child, his daughter Grace, so he decides to spend his hard-earned money on educating her. A happy child, growing up among the woods that surround the tiny hamlet of Little Hintock and provide the people there with their living, Grace forms an early attachment to her childhood friend, Giles Winterborne, and it’s her father’s wish that she will one day marry him. But when Grace returns to Little Hintock after years spent at boarding school, she has become such a cultured lady that Mr Melbury no longer thinks Giles is good enough for her, and Grace tends to agree so doesn’t put up much of a fight. Instead, she is wooed and won by the new local doctor, impoverished scion of a once wealthy local family. Happy ending? Good grief, no! This is Hardy, so poor Grace’s troubles are just beginning…

First off, let me start by saying I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Hardy writes like a dream, and the woodland setting gives him the opportunity for some wonderful descriptive prose. Over the course of the book, the reader gets a clear picture of the society of the woodlanders, the trades they follow and how they make their living, their limited but enjoyed social life, the gradations of class even within the working population, the gender roles – a Hardy speciality – and the social and cultural gulf between the working people and the gentry.

But, Mr Hardy, what is the message of the book? We know you’re a feminist, and that’s as clear here as it is in Tess. So why do I come away from this one feeling you are issuing a warning to fathers not to educate their daughters above their station? Why does it seem as if you are saying that true goodness is the preserve of the poor and humble – that education corrupts? Why does Grace’s education change her from a loving child into a cold-hearted little snob? Why does she change from being a hearty, healthy daughter of the woods into a delicate little flower, who sews not and neither does she spin for fear of spoiling her pretty little hands? Even with the one rich character, whom I was willing to boo as being a parasite on society, what do we learn but that she too is a woman on the make, educated and married above her station? You as good as state that Grace would have been a happier, better woman if she’d never been taught to think and had married within the sphere to which she was born. This hardly reads like a paean to social mobility, especially not for daughters!

Book 12 of 20

I actually thought this might have been an early one, from before Hardy fully developed his feminism but it isn’t. It falls between The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I felt were clearer on Hardy’s views on the status of women. It’s not that he doesn’t sympathise with Grace’s position as a women educated out of her class, nor even that I feel the portrayal is inaccurate for the time. It’s simply that, whether he intended it or not, the underlying message seems to be, not that society should get a grip and accept that women should have the right to both an education and a happy life, but that it would probably be better for the poor little dears to stew in ignorance so they will make a happy child-bearer and home-cleaner for a worthy working man. I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but even the ending left me wondering if he was really suggesting that men should be allowed to behave badly, but that women should find it in their sweet, feminine little hearts to forgive? Pah, I tell you, and forsooth!!

Thomas Hardy

Maybe I expect too much from him – he is undoubtedly far advanced in his portrayal of women in comparison to many of his contemporary male writers, especially in his recognition of women as sexual and, in Grace’s case, intellectual beings. But perhaps Grace isn’t quite tragic enough, or perhaps I missed out on nuance because I was listening rather than reading – a skill I don’t think I’ve yet fully mastered. Or perhaps it’s simply that I never grew fond of little Miss Snooty-and-Delicate who can’t order a meal for herself in a pub despite/because of her education, while I loved her rival in love, Marty, Miss Ignorant-but-Self-Sufficient, whose attitude to life is give me the tools and the opportunity and I can make a living for myself as well as any man. Why do the men all prefer Grace? Do men really want wives who need to be pampered and petted rather than ones who will share their burdens as equals? Pah!

Anyway, as I said, I thoroughly enjoyed this one – nothing I like better than having a one-sided argument with a great author who can’t answer back… 😉

I listened to the narration by Samuel West – again excellent. West father and son seem to be becoming my go-to narrators for a lot of the great English classics.

Audible UK Link

TBR Thursday (on a Tuesday) 345 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 345

(A reminder of The People’s Choice plan. Once a month, I shall list the four oldest books on the TBR, then the next four, and so on, and each time you will select the one you think I should read, either because you’ve read and enjoyed it, or because you think the blurb looks good. And I will read the one you pick within three months! If I begin to fall behind, I’ll have a gap till I catch up again. In the event of a tie, I’ll have the casting vote.)

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OK, People, time for another batch of four – still in 2020, and a rather odd selection this month, all historical fiction but very different from each other. I like to run three months ahead with these polls, so the winner will be a November read. I picked up The Sealwoman’s Gift in a charity shop on impulse, mainly because I used to like the author’s father when he presented Mastermind on TV! I also bought Cold Mountain there on the same day, but it was on my wishlist since I’d previously enjoyed another of his books, Nightwoods. I loved Neil Munro’s The New Road, so acquired Doom Castle and it’s now on my Classics Club list. A Suitable Boy is one I’ve long wanted to read but its excessive length means it keeps getting shoved aside.

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Historical Fiction

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

Added 11th January 2020. 5,160 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.16 average rating. 365 pages.

The Blurb says: In 1627 Barbary pirates raided the coast of Iceland and abducted some 400 of its people, including 250 from a tiny island off the mainland. Among the captives sold into slavery in Algiers were the island pastor, his wife and their three children. Although the raid itself is well documented, little is known about what happened to the women and children afterwards. It was a time when women everywhere were largely silent.

In this brilliant reimagining, Sally Magnusson gives a voice to Ásta, the pastor’s wife. Enslaved in an alien Arab culture Ásta meets the loss of both her freedom and her children with the one thing she has brought from home: the stories in her head. Steeped in the sagas and folk tales of her northern homeland, she finds herself experiencing not just the separations and agonies of captivity, but the reassessments that come in any age when intelligent eyes are opened to other lives, other cultures and other kinds of loving.

The Sealwoman’s Gift is about the eternal power of storytelling to help us survive. The novel is full of stories – Icelandic ones told to fend off a slave-owner’s advances, Arabian ones to help an old man die. And there are others, too: the stories we tell ourselves to protect our minds from what cannot otherwise be borne, the stories we need to make us happy.

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Historical Fiction

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

Added 11th January 2020. 234,132 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.88 average. 449 pages.

The Blurb says: Based on local history & family stories passed down by Frazier’s great-great-grandfather, Cold Mountain is the tale of a wounded Confederate soldier, Inman, who walks away from the ravages of the war & back home to his prewar sweetheart, Ada. His odyssey thru the devastated landscape of the soon-to-be-defeated South interweaves with Ada’s struggle to revive her father’s farm, with the help of an intrepid young drifter named Ruby. As their long-separated lives begin to converge at the close of the war, Inman & Ada confront the vastly transformed world they’ve been delivered.

Frazier reveals insight into human relations with the land & the dangers of solitude. He also shares with the great 19th century novelists a keen observation of a society undergoing change. Cold Mountain recreates a world gone by that speaks to our time.

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Historical Fiction

Doom Castle by Neil Munro

Added 26th January 2020. 31 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.48 average. 360 pages.

The Blurb says: “No pomp, no pleasant amenities; the place seemed to jut into the sea, defying man’s oldest and most bitter enemy, its gable ends and one crenellated bastion or turret betraying its sinister relation to its age, its whole aspect arrogant and unfriendly, essential of war. Caught suddenly by the vision that swept the fretted curve of the coast, it seemed blackly to perpetuate the spirit of the land, its silence, its solitude and terrors.”

This was the Count Victor’s fist sight of Castle Doom. His mission to Scotland from France in 1755 brought him into this wild land of danger and mystery, where he met the haunting Count Doom, the lovely Olivia, the dastardly Simon MacTaggart – and gothic jeopardy armed with claymores, dirks, and bagpipes.

Here is the most unusual historical novel you will ever read, by a Scot worthy to sit at the right hand of the throne of Sir Walter Scott!

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Historical Fiction

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

Added 29th January 2020. 45,879 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.12 average. 1553 pages. 

The Blurb says: Vikram Seth’s novel is, at its core, a love story: Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, are both trying to find—through love or through exacting maternal appraisal—a suitable boy for Lata to marry. Set in the early 1950s, in an India newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis, A Suitable Boy takes us into the richly imagined world of four large extended families and spins a compulsively readable tale of their lives and loves. A sweeping panoramic portrait of a complex, multi-ethnic society in flux, A Suitable Boy remains the story of ordinary people caught up in a web of love and ambition, humour and sadness, prejudice and reconciliation, the most delicate social etiquette and the most appalling violence.

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

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The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

Heartless…

😐 😐

Piano tuner Edgar Blake specializes in Erard pianos, a French make. One day in 1886, he receives a strange request from the War Office – to go to Mae Lwin, a small colonial outpost in Burma, to tune the Erard of the mysterious Doctor Anthony Carroll who is trying to negotiate peace between warring factions in the country. But who is Dr Carroll? There are so many conflicting stories about him, not least the one of him demanding that the War Office provide him first with a valuable grand piano and then with a specialist to tune it…

Perhaps if I hadn’t read Heart of Darkness I would have thought this story was interesting and original. However, I have, so I didn’t. The major differences are that Heart of Darkness is indeed original, is wonderfully written, and isn’t padded out with a zillion words of extraneous description and potted history of the country presented in the form of army reports. The other major difference is that Kurtz (the mystery man in Heart of Darkness) is indeed mysterious and enigmatic, and is a metaphor for the darkness of colonialism and how it corrupts the coloniser as much as the colonised; whereas Carroll isn’t. Lastly, Heart of Darkness ends believably and memorably; this one doesn’t.

I admit I skimmed the last 30%, so bored was I by that stage by the endless descriptions – it was like being forced to look at the three hundred photos someone has brought back from a holiday, all of them of trees. (This actually happened to me on one occasion – three hundred is not an exaggeration – and I thought I might actually die of boredom, or be forced to commit murder to make it stop. This book made me feel the same way.) It reads as if Mason spent a great holiday in Burma and wanted to share every impression of the country, regardless of relevance, and tacked on a lot of historical facts that he’d gleaned, perhaps from a guide book, perhaps from wikipedia, to try to turn it into a novel. And then there are the details about how to tune a piano.

Yep. That’s about all I have to say about this one.

Amazon UK Link

Latter End (Miss Silver 11) by Patricia Wentworth

Repent at leisure…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Two cousins are attracted to Lois – Jimmy Latter, older, well established and with a large house; and Anthony, young, good-looking, but just starting out in life. For purely mercenary reasons Lois opts for Jimmy, and becomes the chatelaine of Latter End. But now she has inherited a fortune of her own and is rather bored with Jimmy, which is a shame since he worships her. Which is more than can be said for his large household of distantly connected relations and ancient retainers, who can’t stand Lois – a feeling that is mutual. Lois wants to run things her own way and the first thing she wants is to get rid of all these people – Jimmy’s two younger step-sisters, a woman he grew up with and views as a kind of surrogate sister (although her view of Jimmy is somewhat less platonic), old servants who have been around so long they have come to be treated almost as part of the family, and so on. And she has Jimmy wrapped round her little finger, so she can always persuade him that her plans to send all these people away to fend for themselves are made for their own benefit. So when Lois turns up dead, poisoned, the field of suspects is wide. Jimmy, however, fears he may have driven Lois to suicide, so begs Miss Silver to investigate, hoping she will prove that Lois was murdered…

Lois is that stalwart of vintage mysteries, one of the things that makes them so enjoyable – a truly unlikeable victim that neither characters nor readers feel much need to grieve over. True, Jimmy grieves, but only to an extent – even before Lois died his eyes had been opened to her true nature, so if he can only be assured that her death wasn’t his fault he’ll be able to get over her pretty easily. The rest of the characters are frankly overjoyed that she’s gone – their only concern is that they don’t want themselves or each other to be accused of the murder.

Book 11 of 20

Although Lois’ duplicity and manipulation undoubtedly make her ripe for murdering, in her defence I have to admit that she had a point about the hangers-on in the household. Only two of them, step-sister Julia and cousin Anthony, seem to feel that they should make their own way in life. All the rest seem quite happy to live eternally in Jimmy’s home and off his generosity. Jimmy is old-fashioned enough to think his new wife should meekly fit herself in to all the existing household routines and traditions. Lois is not that kind of woman! She wants to be mistress of her own home, especially once she finds that she is in fact wealthier than Jimmy. Wentworth was clearly less sympathetic to that attitude than I was, and anyway when we first meet Lois she is attempting to revive her rejected suitor’s love for her despite now being a Married Woman so I quite agreed she is a Bad Lot Who Deserves All She Gets!

Patricia Wentworth

I loved this one. Wentworth writes exceptionally well for this genre, and while she doesn’t quite compare to Christie in terms of plotting, she manages a similar mix of mystery, suspense, occasional humour and a touch of romance. Miss Silver is not unlike Miss Marple in that she uses her status as an elderly spinster to open up the world of gossip above and below stairs, while her long life and keen intuition allow her to judge when people are hiding secrets. Like Miss Marple, she works in tandem with the police who know her of old and have a grudging respect for her abilities. However, she’s also different enough to avoid feeling like a carbon copy of Miss Marple. Miss Silver is a professional investigator, who takes on investigations for financial reward, and she therefore has a businesslike efficiency in place of Miss Marple’s disguise of fluffy ditheriness and random village parallels. Both ladies knit, however! Google tells me they both first appeared in 1927, so if this is correct, clearly their similarities are entirely coincidental.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Diana Bishop, and she did an excellent job. She has recorded millions of the Miss Silvers (approximately), and I can see they are going to feature regularly in my future listening! Highly recommended, book and audiobook both.

Audible UK Link

TBR Thursday 344…

Episode 344

Well, I was doing well, racing through some shorter books and feeling confident. But then at the last moment a parcel arrived! The result – the TBR remains perfectly balanced for another week on 175…

Here are a few more I should get to soon…

Horror

Queens of the Abyss edited by Mike Ashley

It will soon be time for the porpy to come out of hibernation in preparation for the spooky season! Before acquiring any new anthologies or collections this year, he wants to try to finish the few that are lingering on our TBR, which we’ve dipped into in past years for Tuesday Terror! posts but not read all the way through. This is the first of those…

The Blurb says: It is too often accepted that during the 19th and early 20th centuries it was the male writers who developed and pushed the boundaries of the weird tale, with women writers following in their wake—but this is far from the truth. This new anthology follows the instrumental contributions made by women writers to the weird tale, and revives the lost authors of the early pulp magazines along with the often overlooked work of more familiar authors. See the darker side of The Secret Garden author Frances Hodgson Burnett and the sensitively-drawn nightmares of Marie Corelli and Violet Quirk. Hear the captivating voices of Weird Tales magazine contributors Sophie Wenzel Ellis, Greye La Spina, and Margaret St Clair, and bow down to the sensational, surreal, and challenging writers who broke down the barriers of the day. Featuring material never before republished, from the abyssal depths of the British Library vaults.

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Fiction

The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux

Possibly the last book for my cursed Wanderlust challenge, assuming I manage not to abandon it! I don’t think I’ve read anything by Paul Theroux before, but I’m pretty sure I saw the film of this one many moons ago. Don’t remember anything about it though! Sounds great…

The Blurb says: The Mosquito Coast – winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize – is a breathtaking novel about fanaticism and a futile search for utopia from bestseller Paul Theroux.

Allie Fox is going to re-create the world. Abominating the cops, crooks, junkies and scavengers of modern America, he abandons civilisation and takes the family to live in the Honduran jungle. There his tortured, messianic genius keeps them alive, his hoarse tirades harrying them through a diseased and dirty Eden towards unimaginable darkness.

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James on Audio

Cover Her Face by PD James read by Daniel Weyman

Another couple for the #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer challenge! I’m falling behind now and losing my impetus, so I may or may not get to these in time. This one is a replacement for Neverwhere, which I abandoned after five minutes due to the mumbling of the cast drowned out by the ridiculously overpowering sound effects – ugh! I loved PD James back in the day – for years she was an autobuy on publication day for me. I didn’t love her later books quite so much – her style dated quite badly, I think. But I thought I’d go back to where it all began and see if my enthusiasm can be revived…  

The Blurb says: From P. D. James, one of the masters of British crime fiction, comes the debut novel that introduced Scotland Yard detective Adam Dalgliesh. Set against the English countryside, Cover Her Face is a classic murder mystery filled with James’ trademark plot twists, intrigue, and suspense.

Though the Martingale manor house has hosted the annual St Cedd’s Church fête for generations, this year feels different. On top of organizing stalls and presiding over luncheon, the bishop, and the tea tent, Mrs Eleanor Maxie now also has to contend with the news of her son’s sudden engagement to the new parlour maid, the sly and sensuous single mother Sally Jupp.

Sally has quite a reputation as a ruthless social climber, and no one at Martingale seems too happy about the engagement. But the Maxie family barely has time to contend with her wily ways – on the following morning the whole village is shocked by the discovery of Sally Jupp’s body.

Investigating the violent death at the manor house, Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh becomes embroiled in the complicated passions beneath the calm surface of English village life.

In Cover Her Face, award-winning P. D. James meticulously plots a complex story of family secrets and suspicion. 

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Heller on Audio

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller read by Jilly Bond

This is another replacement, for Reginald Hill’s Death’s Jest Book. Long story, but basically there’s one audiobook in the Dalziel and Pascoe series missing on Audible, the one before this, and I had intended to re-read the paper copy of it by now – hasn’t happened yet, so I have to postpone this one for a while. However, I loved the film of Notes on a Scandal and have been meaning to read the book for years, so I’m happy with the exchange!

The Blurb says: A lonely schoolteacher reveals more than she intends when she records the story of her best friend’s affair with a pupil in this sly, insightful novel.

Schoolteacher Barbara Covett has led a solitary existence; aside from her cat, Portia, she has few friends and no intimates. When Sheba Hart joins St. George’s as the new art teacher, Barbara senses the possibility of a new friendship. It begins with lunches and continues with regular invitations to meals with Sheba’s seemingly close-knit family. But as Barbara and Sheba’s relationship develops, another does as well: Sheba has begun a passionate affair with an underage male student. When it comes to light and Sheba falls prey to the inevitable media circus, Barbara decides to write an account in her friend’s defense—an account that reveals not only Sheba’s secrets but her own.

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Warden (Barchester Chronicles 1) by Anthony Trollope

Blessed are the meek…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Septimus Harding is the Warden of Hiram’s Hospital, a charitable institution founded by a long-ago legacy to provide alms and accommodation to twelve old men of Barchester. Over the years the value of the legacy has grown so that now, as well as providing for the twelve pensioners, it also pays a generous stipend of £800 a year to the Warden and provides him with a large, comfortable house. Mr Harding is a conscientious man, neither ambitious nor particularly intelligent, who does his duty as pastor to the old men, and loves them. His elder daughter, Susan, is happily married to Archdeacon Grantly, and his younger child, Eleanor, hasn’t yet admitted to her love for a newcomer to town, the young doctor John Bold, but everyone knows that their eventual union is only a matter of time. So Mr Harding is a contented man. But John Bold is young and idealistic, and he sees the huge disparity between the alms paid to the twelve pensioners and the stipend paid to the Warden, and he feels the Church is misappropriating money that was intended to be spent on the poor of the town. Despite his as yet undeclared love for Eleanor, he begins a public campaign against what he sees as the Church’s abuse…

While I enjoyed all of the Barchester books to varying degrees, this first one has always been my favourite. A short book, it is perfectly formed, and what makes it so special is that Trollope shows all the characters as fundamentally decent people even while he allows them all to have wildly differing opinions on the subject of Church patronage. It is an idealised picture of a world that probably never existed, but that is what makes it such a comfortable and comforting read. It describes a world where even Church abuses are carried out with the best of intentions and where the worst accusations that can be aimed at the officers of the Church are of thoughtlessness and a certain lack of zeal. To Archdeacon Grantly, representing the views of the Church hierarchy, so long as the twelve bedesmen are being well looked after, and they are, then of course the remaining money should go to provide a comfortable living for the Warden, for the Church has a responsibility to provide good livings for all its officers (especially if they happen to be personal friends of the Bishop, who happens to be Archdeacon Grantly’s father).

Donald Pleasence and Nigel Hawthorne as Mr Harding and Archdeacon Grantly in the BBC’s wonderful 1982 production of The Barchester Chronicles

John Bold’s position is given fair treatment too. Mr Harding has never given much thought to Hiram’s original intentions when he made his bequest because Mr Harding is not a thinker, deferring always to the Archdeacon and the Bishop as a good Churchman should. However, when Bold, whom he admires and likes, points out the disparity between what the Church receives from the legacy and what it pays out in charity to the old men, Mr Harding cannot fail to see that his point is valid. But if the Archdeacon thinks it’s justified, then surely it is? As the Archdeacon gears up to fight the accusations of abuse, John Bold turns to the campaigning press to make his case directly to the public. And this public trial by media is the book’s other great theme, as we see poor Mr Harding caught up in a storm not of his own making, publicly reviled and humiliated, and portrayed as a monster of greed, lining his own pockets at the expense of the poor.

Although he shows both sides of the argument fairly, Trollope’s sympathies are all with Mr Harding. He seems to be accepting that the Church does appropriate money to itself and its officers that could be spent on alleviating poverty. But, it feels as if he is saying, is the Church not such a great and beautiful institution that it is worth the money that it takes? Are not the buildings lovely and worth the cost of their upkeep, from the little parish churches to the great cathedrals like Barchester? Are not the services, with their comforting rituals and soaring choirs, designed to bring man closer to God? Do not the Church’s officers, drawn largely from the younger sons of the gentry, need to be provided with comfortable accommodation and a generous income? The poor, after all, are used to being poor, so should they not be grateful for the little charitable portion the Church allows them? In Trollope’s world, Bold is shown as having the misguided zealousness of youth, well intended certainly, but not quite understanding yet how the world works. While admitting the point at the heart of Bold’s argument, Trollope seems to be regretful that reforming zealots can’t simply leave a system that works so well alone. What’s to be gained by impoverishing churchmen simply to give a little more to poor people who already have enough for their simpler needs?

Book 10 of 20

Despite my own atheism and my disgust at the various abuses that have been perpetrated in the name of religion over the centuries, I find each time I read the book that I too am on the side of poor Mr Harding, at least while I’m reading. My cynical brain knows that the picture Trollope is presenting of the Church is idealised, but my heart loves those ancient cathedrals and the choirs and the traditions, and the cloistered peace of mellow cathedral towns. In real life I would side with Bold, but in this fictional world I too believe that he is merely making the pensioners unhappy and greedy by telling them they deserve more. He is destroying the contentment of his love’s father, reducing her income, and simultaneously destroying the grateful acceptance of the bedesmen. To what end? In this world of Barchester even the poor are healthy, well-fed and rosy-cheeked, so why rock the boat?

If only that had ever been true. Trollope’s world is a fantasy, but it is a comforting fantasy, and one in which many of the respectable people of his time firmly believed. There is almost no point of connection between Trollope’s happy vision of the poor and that of his reforming contemporaries, like Dickens. This book was published in the same year as Little Dorrit, with its searing depiction of the debtors’ prison, the Marshalsea. Compare and contrast.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Timothy West who did a marvellous job. He has narrated many of Trollope’s works and I’m very much looking forward to listening to more.

Audible UK Link

Six Degrees of Separation – From Ozeki to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before. This month’s starting book is…

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki. The blurb on Goodreads says…

After the tragic death of his beloved musician father, fourteen-year-old Benny Oh begins to hear voices. The voices belong to the things in his house — a sneaker, a broken Christmas ornament, a piece of wilted lettuce. Although Benny doesn’t understand what these things are saying, he can sense their emotional tone; some are pleasant, a gentle hum or coo, but others are snide, angry and full of pain. When his mother, Annabelle, develops a hoarding problem, the voices grow more clamorous.

I fear I thought Ozeki’s previous novel, A Tale for the Time Being, was one of the silliest books I’ve ever had the misfortune to be hyped into reading, so I certainly won’t be falling for the hype around this one, which sounds equally nonsensical.

Using voices as the link leads me to my first choice…

The Voices Beyond by Johan Theorin

The fourth book in Theorin’s Öland Quartet, this atmospheric crime thriller begins when a young boy has a terrifying experience when he takes his dingy out in the middle of the night. Drifting in the darkness, a sudden shaft of moonlight shows a boat approaching and he doesn’t have time to get out of the way. He manages to climb aboard the boat before his dingy is sunk, but what awaits him there is the stuff of nightmares – dying men (or are they already dead?) on the deck stalking towards him and calling out in a language he doesn’t understand. The book has a strand that takes the reader back to time of the Great Terror in the Stalinist USSR, and it is this strand that lifts the book so far above average.

And Stalin leads me to my second book…

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The story the man who loved dogs tells is of Ramón Mercader del Rio, a young Spaniard caught up in the Spanish Civil War, who is recruited by the Stalinist regime to assassinate Stalin’s great enemy, Trotsky. This introduces the two main strands of the novel which run side by side. We follow Ramón through the Spanish Civil War, learning a good deal about that event as we go, and seeing the idealism which drove many of those on the Republican side to believe that the USSR was a shining beacon to the masses of the world. And we meet Trotsky just as he is exiled from the USSR, with Stalin re-writing history to portray him as a traitor to the Revolution.

I’m spoiled for choice when I use the Spanish Civil War as a link! I’ll go for…

In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda

One evening in the early 1930s in Barcelona, Natalia dances with a young man at a fiesta in Diamond Square. They fall in love, marry and have children, but the political situation is deteriorating and soon the nation will be plunged into civil war. This is the story of Natalia’s marriage and life, before, during and after the war. It is a fascinating picture of someone who has no interest in or understanding of politics – who simply endures as other people destroy her world then put it back together in a different form.

We didn’t get up on Sundays so as not to be so hungry. And we took the kid to a [refugee] camp in a lorry Julie sent our way after I’d done a lot of persuading. But he knew he was being lied to. He knew better than I did that it was a lie and I was the liar. And we talked about sending him to a camp, before we actually did, and he’d look down and clam up, as if we grown-ups didn’t exist. Mrs Enriqueta promised she’d visit him. I told him I’d go every Sunday. The lorry left Barcelona with us in the back and a cardboard suitcase held together by a piece of string, and it turned down the white road that led to the lie.

Barcelona takes me to my next novel…

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Barcelona, 1945. Young Daniel Sempere’s father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books – a mysterious place full of labyrinthine corridors where rare and banned books are piled randomly on shelves. There, Daniel is told he should select a book and it will then be his responsibility to ensure that his chosen book survives. Daniel selects a book called The Shadow of the Wind by a forgotten author called Julián Carax. As Daniel comes under the spell of the book, he finds himself searching for the truth of what happened to Carax…

Under the warm light cast by the reading lamp, I was plunged into a new world of images and sensations peopled by characters who seemed as real to me as my surroundings. Page after page I let the spell of the story and its world take me over, until the breath of dawn touched my window and my tired eyes slid over the last page. I lay in the bluish half-light with the book on my chest and listened to the murmur of the sleeping city. My eyes began to close, but I resisted. I did not want to lose the story’s spell or bid farewell to its characters just yet.

This series of anthologies is itself a library of forgotten stories. I’ve picked the second in the series, which to my mind is the best… 

Bodies from the Library 2 edited by Tony Medawar

This collection of fifteen stories includes some of the biggest names of all, like Sayers and Christie, some of the authors who are currently being resurrected for a modern audience, like ECR Lorac and John Rhode, and some whose names were unfamiliar to me, though they’re probably well known to real vintage crime aficionados, like Helen Simpson or C.A. Alington. Described as ‘forgotten’, the stories are previously uncollected and in several cases unpublished, so even those who have read quite widely in this genre will find some real treats here.

One of my favourite stories in the collection is by Christianna Brand, which leads me to my final selection…

Green for Danger by Christianna Brand

World War 2 is underway and a military hospital has been set up at Heron’s Park in Kent. When a patient at the hospital dies unexpectedly on the operating table, at first it’s assumed the death was no more than an unusual reaction to the anaesthetic, but when Inspector Cockrill is called in to confirm this, he learns a couple of things that lead him to suspect the death may have been murder. But before he can find out who did it, he first has to work out how it was done…

This has everything you would hope for from a true Golden Age mystery, and is exceptionally well written to boot.

Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill in the film version of Green for Danger

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So from Ozeki to Brand, via voices, Stalin, the Spanish Civil War, Barcelona, forgotten stories and Christianna Brand!

Hope you enjoyed the journey! 😀

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

An interesting character study…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Mrs Scott is elderly now, living alone in her small cottage since her only son emigrated to Canada. One day a rider comes to visit her – Patrick Sellar, the factor of the local landowner, the Countess of Sutherland. He tells Mrs Scott she must leave her home and go to live by the sea where the crofters will have to learn to live by a new trade, fishing. The crofters’ land is wanted for sheep – a more profitable venture for the landlords. As Mrs Scott seeks help from her neighbours and the church, we learn about her past and see her gradually come to understand herself better than she had. And eventually we see how she faces up to an uncertain future…

The story is set in Sutherland in the early 1800s at the height of the Highland Clearances, which is one of those landmark events by which Scotland defines itself, and which still provides food for the sense of grievance that feeds the socialist aspirations of a large majority of the population and the nationalist aspirations of a large minority. Patrick Sellar is a real historical figure, though Mrs Scott is fictional. Unfortunately Crichton Smith’s grasp on historical facts is somewhat tenuous – not unusual in a nation where history is distorted too readily into a propaganda tool and where historical accuracy is rarely allowed to get in the way of the grievance mythology.

However, Crichton Smith’s glaring timeline errors irritated me so much that I found it distracting. For instance, he calls the landlord “the Duke” throughout. In fact, the Duke in question wasn’t a duke at that time – he was the Marquess of Stafford. The land belonged to his wife in her own right as the sole heir to the Sutherland Earldom, and her title at this time was the Countess of Sutherland. This, that the Countess of Sutherland was the most prominent of the landlords involved in the Clearances, is, I would have said, one of the best known facts about the whole era, so it both surprised and annoyed me that Crichton Smith consistently got the titles wrong.

Then there’s the question of Mrs Scott’s age. We are told that her husband left her and their very young son, joined the army, and died a few months later in Spain during the Napoleonic wars, so presumably sometime between 1808-14. Patrick Sellar’s career as factor ended in ignominy in 1817 after he was tried for some of his cruel actions while evicting the tenants. So how exactly did a woman young enough to have her first child after 1800 become an old woman before 1817? Crichton Smith claimed his purpose was not to write a historical novel – fair enough, but even if the Clearances are only background to Mrs Scott’s story, a little bit of historical credibility would have been good.

Book 9 of 80
Classics Club Spin #30

However, indeed the Clearances are not Crichton Smith’s main target. The story is mostly about another recurring theme of Scottish literature – the stranglehold of the reformed Church on the people and its abuses, and here he does a much better job. Mrs Scott naturally turns to her church in her trouble, but finds that church and landlords are in a symbiotic relationship, each upholding the other, and neither showing much concern for the poor and powerless. Circumstances lead her to take help from a local man, Donald Macleod, who is seen as a troublemaker by those in authority, as an atheist and as a man who stands up for what he sees as his rights. (Donald Macleod was apparently also a real person but not one familiar to me.) And as she spends time with him and his family, Mrs Scott comes to re-assess her own church-driven moral rigidity and stern humourlessness, and to realise that this may be what caused first her husband and then her son to leave her.

It is written in simple language, in third person but from Mrs Scott’s perspective. Her age and the circumstances in which she finds herself gain her sympathy from the beginning, but initially the reader too sees her as her son must have done, as a woman so determined to judge others by her strict moral code that she makes the lives of those around her miserable. As we learn her story, though, our sympathy grows – her life has been hard and perhaps her natural liveliness and humour were driven out by her early experiences. Abandoned by her feckless husband, she has devoted her life to her son, but her emotional repression means that she shows this devotion through nagging and criticism rather than through gestures of love and affection. And when he too abandons her, all she has left is her church – a church that preaches hell and damnation more than love and salvation, that rules through authoritarian fear. It is her final abandonment by the church that is the catalyst for her to re-assess her life. So there is a sense of hope in the end, not that life will be easier nor that eviction can be avoided, but that Mrs Scott may free herself of the shackles of misery in which the church has bound her, and learn a more open way of thinking even at her late age.

Iain Crichton Smith

After a very shaky start caused by the historical howlers, I eventually became absorbed in Mrs Scott’s story. It’s a short book and isn’t saying anything particularly new or profound – it is covering ground that has been well travelled in Scottish fiction, one might say trampled into a mire. But Crichton Smith keeps the story intentionally intimate by showing the effects of large events on one individual, and that makes it an emotional read, especially in the second half. I’m not convinced it really has the weight or quality to be considered a true classic, but it works well as a character study and an interesting, if slight, commentary on the way the church in Scotland has been used as a tool to keep the underlings under.

Amazon UK Link

Friday Frippery! Classics Club 10th Anniversary…

…and a questionnaire

The Classics Club is celebrating its 10th anniversary and has posed us all ten questions about our experiences with the club and with classics in general…

1.  When did you join the Classics Club?

I signed up in June 2016, and took five and a half years to finish my first list of ninety books, having made several changes to the original list along the way. I started on my second list at the beginning of this year – just eighty books this time – and am racing through them in the first flush of enthusiasm that only a shiny new booklist can bring!

2.  What is the best classic book you’ve read for the club so far? Why?

All of these questions are nearly impossible to answer, and my responses would probably be different on a different day! Excluding re-reads (which therefore excludes Dickens who would otherwise always win) I think I’d have to say The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Not only was it considerably more enjoyable than I expected with a lot of humour, but it’s Scottish, and it really helped put a lot of later Scottish fiction into context for me. It has the duality and the national obsession with our love/hate (mainly hate) relationship with our Knoxian brand of Calvinism, both themes that run through much of our literature. I think of it often, which has to be a sign of a great book.

3.  What is the first classic you ever read?

The thing is, I’m relatively ancient, which means that many children’s books I read when young which are now considered classics weren’t old enough to be thought of as classics when I read them! The Narnia books, even The Hobbit, weren’t classics when I read them. Possibly The Wind in the Willows was one of the first that would have counted by my own definition of being more than fifty years old, although I’m pretty sure I read the Holmes stories when I couldn’t have been much older (though shockingly even some of the later Holmes stories wouldn’t have counted as classics when I first read them!), and also some Rider Haggard, especially King Solomon’s Mines. Little Women and its sequels. And Anne of Green Gables, of course! But which was the first? Your guess is as good as mine!

4.  Which classic book inspired you the most?

I don’t know that any have really inspired me, but I did look on Anne of Green Gables as my role model when I was a kid. You could say Dickens’ books inspired me never to become a writer – I decided very early on that I’d never write a book if I couldn’t write one as good as his. The rest is history… 😉

5.  What is the most challenging one you’ve ever read, or tried to read?

Hmm, I’m never quite sure what “challenging” means in the context of books. I’ve disliked many that I’ve read – Lolita, Moby Dick, East of Eden – and abandoned many because I hated them – Earth Abides, Cannery Row, Last Exit to Brooklyn – but I wouldn’t say any of them challenged me. Maybe Heart of Darkness – it took me three reads to really appreciate it and I certainly found the notes essential, so yes, perhaps that counts as challenging.

6.  Favourite movie adaptation of a classic? Least favourite?

That really is an impossible question! Most favourite – any Hitchcock adaptation, especially Strangers on a Train, Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility, In the Heat of the Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, etc., etc. So I’m going to pick Moby-Dick – I thought the book was pretty bad but the film cut out all the stuff I disliked about the book and did what the book should have done but didn’t – turned Captain Ahab’s hunt for the whale into a thrilling adventure! I loved the film! And in the same vein, I’ll pick Slaughterhouse-Five as my least favourite – it seemed to miss out most of the complexity which made the book so thought-provoking and the changes the director made to the story weakened its impact and depth. I didn’t hate the film but I wouldn’t really recommend it either.

7.  Which classic character most reminds you of yourself?

The Queen in Snow White.

8.  Has there been a classic title you expected to dislike and ended up loving? Respecting? Appreciating?

Hmm, it would be rare for me to put a book I actually expected to dislike on my reading list – so rare I can’t think of one, in fact. I read purely for pleasure so whenever I open a book I hope it will thrill me, and am disappointed if it doesn’t – as happens frequently! However sometimes my expectations are lower than others – like with Silas Marner recently which, based on my lukewarm reaction to Middlemarch, I thought might be a middling read but ended up enjoying far more than I expected to.

9.  Classic/s you are DEFINITELY GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year?

Goodness, I don’t know! That’s far too far in the future! OK, I’ll pick one randomly from my new list and then we’ll see if I actually stick to it – Crime and Punishment!

10. Favourite memory with a classic and/or your favourite memory with The Classics Club?

Hmm, another difficult one! I remember how breathlessly I raced through The Great Gatsby the first time I read it long, long ago. I remember how much fun and laughter I had buddy-reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books with a blogging friend.

I remember how I sobbed over that bit in Little Women/Good Wives that I can’t specify since it would be a spoiler, but you all know the bit I mean! I remember how I swooned over my Darcy – and still do! And with the Classics Club? My favourite memory of it would be seeing some of my blog buddies join in with lists of their own, so that now we can all compare spin lists and exchange opinions! And seeing some of you reading some relatively unknown Scottish classics on my recommendation, and enjoying them! And the chit-chat that reviewing classics always seems to inspire.

Thanks again to all the moderators past and present who have given generously of their time to make the Classics Club the huge success it is!

Have a Classic Day! 😀

TBR Thursday 343…

Episode 343

Another drop in the TBR this week – down 2 to 175! This is mainly because I’m running out of steam on the #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer challenge and drifting back to paper books…

Here are a few more I’ll be sniffing soon…

Factual

Homage to Caledonia by Daniel Gray

One of the last few books for my Spanish Civil War challenge. While it’s true that Scottish support went pretty overwhelmingly to the Communists/Republicans, I’ll be interested to see if the book acknowledges that there was support for the Fascists/Nationalists too, as readers of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie will be aware. Sometimes we like to airbrush bits of history out…

The Blurb says: Thirty-five thousand people from across the world volunteered to join the armed resistance in a war on fascism. More people, proportionately, went from Scotland than any other country, and the entire nation was gripped by the conflict. What drove so many ordinary Scots to volunteer in a foreign war?

Their stories are powerfully and honestly told, often in their own words: the ordinary men and women who made their way to Spain over the Pyrenees when the UK government banned anyone from going to support either side; the nurses and ambulance personnel who discovered for themselves the horrors of modern warfare; and the people back home who defied their poverty to give generously to the Spanish republican cause.

Even in war there are light-hearted moments: a Scottish volunteer drunkenly urinating in his general’s boots, enduring the dark comedy of learning to shoot with sticks amidst a scarcity of rifles, or enjoying the surreal experience of raising a dram with Errol Flynn. They went from all over the country: Glasgow, Edinburgh. Aberdeen, Dundee, Fife and the Highlands, and they fought to save Scotland, and the world, from the growing threat of fascism.

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Crime

The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths

I loved the first book in Griffiths’ new Harbinder Kaur series, The Stranger Diaries, but for some unknown reason I missed this second one when it was released. And now the way too prolific Griffiths has already produced a third! I need to learn how to speed read! 

The Blurb says: The death of a ninety-year-old woman with a heart condition should absolutely not be suspicious. DS Harbinder Kaur certainly sees nothing to concern her in carer Natalka’s account of Peggy Smith’s death.

But when Natalka reveals that Peggy lied about her heart condition and that she had been sure someone was following her…
And that Peggy Smith had been a ‘murder consultant’ who plotted deaths for authors, and knew more about murder than anyone has any right to…
And when clearing out Peggy’s flat ends in Natalka being held at gunpoint by a masked figure…

Well then DS Harbinder Kaur thinks that maybe there is no such thing as an unsuspicious death after all.

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Du Maurier on Audio

The Rendezvous and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier read by Edward de Souza

Another couple for the #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer challenge! First, another collection of stories. I prefer du Maurier as a short story writer than a novelist, on the whole. I don’t know Edward de Souza well, but his narration of this collection gets heaps of praise from Audible reviewers!  

The Blurb says: A happily married woman commits suicide for no apparent reason; a young man tries to break some important news to the beautiful girl he had hoped to marry; a con girl plays the same bold game too often and a novelist embarks on a romantic adventure but is woefully disappointed.

In all these stories, glimpses into personal lives are vividly portrayed, but they are all written with warmth and are wonderfully evocative.

This collection includes 14 of du Maurier’s short stories.

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Hardy on Audio

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy read by Samuel West

Having loved Timothy West’s narration of Trollope last week, now here’s his son narrating Hardy! I’ve listened to Samuel West before, narrating Brighton Rock, and I thought he was wonderful, so I’m expecting great things of this one. It’s the longest remaining book on my challenge…

The Blurb says: In this classically simple tale of the disastrous impact of outside life on a secluded community in Dorset, Hardy narrates the rivalry for the hand of Grace Melbury between a simple and loyal woodlander and an exotic and sophisticated outsider. Betrayal, adultery, disillusion, and moral compromise are all worked out in a setting evoked as both beautiful and treacherous. The Woodlanders, with its thematic portrayal of the role of social class, gender, and evolutionary survival, as well as its insights into the capacities and limitations of language, exhibits Hardy’s acute awareness of his era’s most troubling dilemmas.

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Autopsy (Kay Scarpetta 25) by Patricia Cornwell

My last Scarpetta…

😦 😦

Kay Scarpetta has returned to where she started out all those long years ago, to be Chief Medical Examiner in Virginia. The location means she’ll be handy for her other job, as advisor on the POTUS’ Doomsday committee. She is investigating the brutal murder of a woman when she receives a call informing her she’s needed in the Situation Room. There’s been an incident in a space station and two astronauts have died, the third escaping in the shuttle back to land in Russian-controlled territory.

This, I’m afraid, is a bit of a mess. Cornwell has thrown everything into it – serial killers, cutting edge technology that feels more like science fiction, politics, international skulduggery, poisoning by mystery drugs, personal problems, staffing problems, hints at corruption, etc., etc. Every topic is treated with total superficiality and it’s hard to see exactly what the connecting story is supposed to be. There are hints that somehow the woman’s murder and the space deaths may be connected, which, if true, really is a coincidence too far.

The real problem is that the story doesn’t fill the pages. All these strands are started off, and then nothing happens to move them forward until they are all resolved in a tacked-on climax which of course involves the usual peril to Scarpetta and her family. How many close shaves can these people endure? They’d be safer in a war zone than in government employment in America, apparently. Instead of plot momentum, the pages are filled with pointless detail. Scarpetta cannot walk down a corridor without us being told what colour the carpet is, what the doors are made of, what pictures hang on the wall, how loud or soft her footsteps sound, whether she’s carrying her scene case or rolling it. It can take a page to get from the entrance of a building to the elevator, and the poor reader soon learns to know that there will be another corridor to be described when Scarpetta reaches the desired floor. I don’t need to know that a basin is marble, that a car is a Tesla, that Scarpetta puts gel in her hair in the morning. Not every noun requires an adjective. And I do not need or want to know the make and qualities of every gun every gun-obsessed American owns.

Patricia Cornwell

Scarpetta herself is so tedious and self-important and this is not helped by the book being in the always annoying first-person present tense. Everyone is incompetent except for her and her immediate family and inner circle (and frankly even several of them are a bit on the crazy side). Virginia has collapsed into a morass of incompetence and corruption since she left, and she knows she’s been given the job because she’s the only one – the only person in the whole wide world and space above – who’s capable of running the department efficiently. Why is it her responsibility to investigate every crime single-handedly? Does Virginia not employ police detectives? What qualifies her to advise the space programme? Do NASA and the US military have no medics, no scientists, no procedures, no contingency planning? What would happen to America if she died? Would it simply collapse, unable to carry out any function without her?

I stuck it out for over two-thirds and was determined to finish, but it broke me. I couldn’t take one more paragraph of Scarpetta complaining about her secretary, her predecessor, her colleagues, her sister. I couldn’t take one more page of unnecessary description. I couldn’t bear to wait any longer to see if any of the story strands would ever move forward. So I skipped to the end and discovered the dénouement was even worse than I feared. My last Scarpetta. My last Cornwell.

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

Amazon UK Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my recent reading in quotes…

….…you could tell by her eyes that she was losing interest and Iain was looking warningly at his mother but she didn’t pay too much attention to that for after all didn’t he have to be saved from himself. How could this girl, so pale and fashionable, milk the cows, cut the corn with a sickle, plant potatoes, carry the peats home and do all the other jobs a woman had to do?
….Unless, of course, Iain went to Glasgow.
….Hadn’t she done everything for him, even when her mother had been screaming inside her that she must be strict with him? And now this girl, hatched heaven knows where but quite suited to Glasgow with its lights like the fires of hell, had come to her home and was only half listening to what she had to say. And looking so confident though she was only seventeen, and casting around very likely to see if there were any mirrors in the room and comparing this house to the great houses in which she was used to staying. I do not like her, she was saying to herself, as she took back the scone which had been barely pecked at (but perhaps in Glasgow they had finer food than that and something called coffy which you could buy in a dish).

~ Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

* * * * *

….I forward the file to her, and she opens it on a computer display, clicking on PLAY. All we see is darkness, the muddy image of the road leading to Colonial Landing’s walled brick entrance.
….At 5:13 P.M., something is pulled over one camera, then the other, making a quiet crinkly plastic sound exactly as August described. Two minutes later, Gwen Hainey’s code, 1988, is entered, and the entrance gate slides open. There’s no car engine, no sound of anything driving through.
….Just the wind and rain, then the faint strains of organ music getting louder, crescendoing like The Phantom of the Opera. But what we’re listening to isn’t Andrew Lloyd Webber.
….“Next you hear the entrance gate close, and then nothing,” I say to Lucy. “Apparently, all was quiet until fifty-two minutes later.”
….I fast-forward the recording almost to the end. We listen to the noise of the metal exit gate opening. Then the same eerie musical theme is playing again, and it’s enough to make one’s hair stand on end.

~ Autopsy by Patricia Cornwell

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….To look at Montmorency you would imagine that he was an angel sent upon the earth, for some reason withheld from mankind, in the shape of a small fox-terrier. There is a sort of Oh-what-a-wicked-world-this-is-and-how-I-wish-I-could-do-something-to-make-it-better-and-nobler expression about Montmorency that has been known to bring the tears into the eyes of pious old ladies and gentlemen.
….When first he came to live at my expense, I never thought I should be able to get him to stop long. I used to sit down and look at him, as he sat on the rug and looked up at me, and think: “Oh, that dog will never live. He will be snatched up to the bright skies in a chariot, that is what will happen to him.”
….But, when I had paid for about a dozen chickens that he had killed; and had dragged him, growling and kicking, by the scruff of his neck, out of a hundred and fourteen street fights; and had had a dead cat brought round for my inspection by an irate female, who called me a murderer; and had been summoned by the man next door but one for having a ferocious dog at large, that had kept him pinned up in his own tool-shed, afraid to venture his nose outside the door for over two hours on a cold night; and had learned that the gardener, unknown to myself, had won thirty shillings by backing him to kill rats against time, then I began to think that maybe they’d let him remain on earth for a bit longer, after all.

~ Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome

* * * * *

Nor were they entirely safe in the city: in early April 1986, after two performances of a piece titled The Idiot President, Diciembre’s lead actor and playwright was arrested for incitement, and left to languish for the better part of a year at a prison known as Collectors. His name was Henry Nuñez, and his freedom was, for a brief time, a cause célèbre. Letters were written on his behalf in a handful of foreign countries, by mostly well-meaning people who’d never heard of him before and who had no opinion about his work. Somewhere in the archives of one or another of the national radio stations lurks the audio of a jailhouse interview: this serious young man, liberally seasoning his statements with citations of Camus and Ionesco, describing a prison production of The Idiot President, with inmates in the starring roles. “Criminals and delinquents have an intuitive understanding of a play about national politics,” Henry said in a firm, uncowed voice.

~ At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón

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So… are you tempted?

Rain and Other Stories by W Somerset Maugham

A masterclass in character…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of short stories, many of them with a colonial setting in the South Seas, though a few are set in Britain. It’s billed as having eleven stories, but four of them are extremely short fragments of description or little anecdotes – well written and quite enjoyable, but more like linking passages than stories, and I decided not to rate them. The remaining seven are quite substantial in length, with a couple reaching novella length, and I found every one of them good, and several excellent. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated excellently by Steven Crossley who created perfectly appropriate voices for each of the myriad of characters who cross the pages.

In each case, while the settings and stories are interesting, the real strength is in the depth and variety of the characterisation. Maugham makes each character completely believable, however extreme or banal their actions may be, and in almost every case, with one notable exception, he makes the reader sympathise with even those whose attitudes and actions at first seem obnoxious. He penetrates below the outer shell, showing with a few deft and sometimes shocking revelations the complexity of each individual, and how they are the product of the attitudes of their society to class, gender, colonialism and religion. His narrators often learn this lesson along with his readers, so that they share the sometimes sudden insight that changes our view of a character we thought we understood.

Book 9 of 20

Of the seven stories to which I gave a rating, one earned 3 stars, two 4 stars, and four 5 stars, and a couple of the 5-stars rate among the best short stories I’ve ever read. I found myself completely absorbed, listening for long periods with no loss of concentration (which regular visitors will know is unusual for me with audiobooks). Here’s a brief flavour of the ones I enjoyed most:

Mackintosh – Mackintosh is sent to an island in the South Seas to be assistant to the Governor, Walker. Walker is a bullying, boastful old man who rules the island like an absolute monarch. In Mackintosh’s eyes, he behaves as a tyrant towards the natives, ready to humiliate them or worse if they refuse to obey his commands. But he treats Mackintosh as an underling too, rather than as any kind of equal, and though Mackintosh thinks his growing outrage and hatred for Walker is because of how he treats the natives, the reader wonders how much it is really to do with Walker’s treatment of himself. As the story progresses, I found my perceptions of both men changing, and the ending is shocking while still arising naturally and almost inevitably out of what has gone before. Brilliant characterisation and great storytelling – probably my favourite story in the collection.

Rain – A little group of people travelling to various destinations are held up when an outbreak of measles causes them to be quarantined in Pago Pago, and they lodge with a trader. Told in the third person, we see the other characters from the perspective of Dr McPhail. He and his wife are forced into a kind of intimacy with another couple – Davidson, a fanatical missionary who believes it is his mission to save souls, even when they’d much rather not be saved, and his wife, who believes as fanatically in her husband as he believes in God. The other person staying in the lodgings is a young woman called Sadie Thompson, who they soon realise is a whore. Davidson decides to save her soul. Another substantial story in length, and with a lot to say about religious fanaticism and colonialism, but also about the patriarchy in action. Davidson is the one character in the collection who I felt was given no redeeming features. I found the ending a little obvious, but still effective – another great story.

Jane – the story of two women as seen through the eyes of the male narrator. Both are widows – Mrs. Tower, an apparently happy society woman; and Jane, her sister-in-law, whom Mrs Tower sees as her “cross” – a rather annoying bore she tolerates only because of their family connection. But then Jane does something remarkable and quite out of character – she marries a man many years her junior, changes her look and becomes a society sensation. Again this story is mostly character studies of the two women, but this time with lots of humour and a touch of unexpected pathos. A sympathetic portrayal of both women, and very well done.

The Colonel’s Lady – Colonel George Peregrine is a typical bluff ex-soldier, in a seemingly contented but childless and passionless marriage to Evie. One day he learns his wife has had a book of poems published, and although poetry really isn’t his thing he skims a couple and tells her the book is “jolly good”. However, to his astonishment the book becomes a bestseller and soon everyone seems to be talking about it, and he feels his friends and acquaintances are giving him sly or sympathetic glances. Eventually he decides he’d better read it properly, and learns he doesn’t know Evie nearly as well as he thought! Another one with a lot of humour, and a great character study of George. But it also has quite a lot to say about the relative and changing positions of men and women in this society.

W Somerset Maugham

The cumulative effect of a lot of these stories left me with the feeling that Maugham was something of a feminist, so I was astonished on googling to find that he has been accused of misogyny! My extremely limited reading so far has turned up no evidence of this – quite the reverse, in fact, with all the women shown sympathetically and due attention given to the unequal expectations of them within a patriarchal system. So I suppose I’ll just have to read the rest of his books to find out what he did to earn this reputation. Given the quality of the little I’ve read so far, that will certainly be no hardship!

Audible UK Link

Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton

A locked train carriage mystery…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Sir Wilfred Saxonby is found dead in a locked carriage in a train, it looks like it must have been suicide, for how could a murderer have got onto and then off a moving train? But Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard can find no evidence that Sir Wilfred had been suicidal, and those who know him find it impossible to believe. And there are one or two odd things – like the mysterious red light that caused the train driver to slow down while the train was passing through Blackdown Tunnel, or the fact that Sir Wilfred apparently used an unlicensed gun even though he owned several licensed ones. Arnold can make no sense of it, so consults his old friend Desmond Merrion, a man with a gift of imagination that sometimes enables him to make sense of the seemingly senseless…

Although there’s a slight whodunit aspect to this, mostly it’s a howdunit, with the mystery revolving around various aspects of how the crime could have been committed, and who had alibis and who didn’t. It starts out well – the point about the red light and slowing train is intriguing, and the solution to that aspect, which comes quite early on, is fun. But then it kind of collapses into a morass of ever more complicated, and ever less interesting, speculation as to how the unnamed murderer or murderers did the deed, with Arnold and Merrion each spouting theory after theory, only for the next fact to come along and change everything.

This felt very different in style to the only other Merrion book I’ve read, The Secret of High Eldersham. That one had a wonderfully creepy atmosphere and aspects of a thriller, in that Merrion and others were put in peril. Merrion also had an enjoyable sidekick in it. This one had none of that – it is a cerebral puzzle with no peril and therefore very little atmosphere. Whoever turned out to be the culprit, I feel I’d have met it with a mental shrug, since none of the suspects were developed in a way to make me care about them. Having said that, Merrion himself is likeable and not nearly as insufferable as some of these brilliant amateur ‘tecs, and Arnold too is quite fun, even if he’s not exactly the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

Miles Burton

Although it’s well written and will probably appeal to the puzzle-orientated reader, I gradually found myself losing interest. I had decided on the most likely suspect fairly early on, and found it odd that neither Merrion nor Arnold seemed to be spotting what seemed like fairly obvious indicators. But I had no idea why the crime had been committed, and was disappointed that when all was revealed it was clear that the reader had had no chance to work that out, since the required information was withheld until very close to the end.

Overall, then, I found the plotting rather dull despite its “impossible” cleverness, and felt too much emphasis was given to the puzzle aspect at the expense of developing any sense of atmosphere or tension. However, it’s redeemed a little by the quality of the writing and the likeability of the two leads, Merrion and Arnold.

Book 7 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for July, and it was more enjoyable than not, so we’ll call that a success, People! 😉

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 342…

Episode 342

Phew! A little flurry of finished books and no new arrivals means the TBR has fallen this week, down 2 to 177!

Here are a few more that are reaching the top of the heap…

Winner of the People’s Choice

It became even more exciting than usual this month when the poll suddenly stopped working halfway through! Happily, although they weren’t showing up on the blog the votes were being recorded on Crowdsignal’s site, the poll host, where I was also able to delete the myriad of multiple votes from people who’d tried several times to get their vote to record. So I think the final result is accurate! Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper put up a very strong performance but in the end it was pipped at the post by just one vote. The winner is…

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Blurb says: Hailsham seems like a pleasant English boarding school, far from the influences of the city. Its students are well tended and supported, trained in art and literature, and become just the sort of people the world wants them to be. But, curiously, they are taught nothing of the outside world and are allowed little contact with it.

Within the grounds of Hailsham, Kathy grows from schoolgirl to young woman, but it’s only when she and her friends Ruth and Tommy leave the safe grounds of the school (as they always knew they would) that they realize the full truth of what Hailsham is.

Never Let Me Go breaks through the boundaries of the literary novel. It is a gripping mystery, a beautiful love story, and also a scathing critique of human arrogance and a moral examination of how we treat the vulnerable and different in our society. In exploring the themes of memory and the impact of the past, Ishiguro takes on the idea of a possible future to create his most moving and powerful book to date.

Good choice, People! It’ll be an October read.

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Fiction

Dr. B. by Daniel Birbaum

Courtesy of 4th Estate via NetGalley. I picked this one purely on the basis of the blurb, but sadly it’s getting pretty negative ratings on Goodreads. However given my track record of disagreeing with the majority on books, maybe that means I’ll love it! Maybe. 

The Blurb says: In 1933, after Hitler and the Nazi Party consolidated power in Germany, Immanuel Birnbaum, a German Jewish journalist based in Warsaw, is forbidden from writing for newspapers in his homeland. Six years later, just months before the German invasion of Poland that ignites World War II, Immanuel escapes to Sweden with his wife and two young sons.

Living as a refugee in Stockholm, Immanuel continues to write, contributing articles to a liberal Swiss newspaper in Basel under the name Dr. B. He also begins working as an editor for the legendary German publisher S. Fischer Verlag. Gottfried Bermann Fischer had established an office in Stockholm to evade German censorship, publishing celebrated German writers such as Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig.

Immanuel also becomes entangled with British intelligence agents who produce and distribute anti-Nazi propaganda in Stockholm. On orders from Winston Churchill, the Allied spies plan several acts of sabotage. But when the Swedish postal service picks up a letter written in invisible ink, the plotters are exposed. The letter, long a mystery in military history accounts, was in fact written by Dr. B. But why would a Jew living in exile and targeted for death by the Nazis have wanted to tip them off?

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Queen of Crime

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

Courtesy of HarperCollins. Sometimes out of the blue HarperCollins send me a couple of Christies. I don’t know why – they don’t seem to be new editions. New print-runs maybe? Anyway, whatever the reason I always enjoy getting them – nice covers! This one has always been a favourite – how could it not be, with such an iconic title? 

The Blurb says: When the Bantrys wake to find the body of a beautiful, young stranger in their library, Dolly Bantry knows there’s only one person to call: her old friend Miss Marple.

Who was the young girl? What was she doing in the library? And is there a connection with another dead girl, whose charred remains are discovered in an abandoned quarry?

Miss Marple must solve the mystery, before tongues start to wag, and the murderer strikes again.

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Jerome on Audio

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome read by Ian Carmichael

Another couple for the #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer challenge! First, one of my favourite books of all time. I’ve read it so often I practically know it by heart but it still makes me cry with laughter and even at one point – the same point every time – actually cry. Ian Carmichael, who was once a wonderful Bertie Wooster, seems like a very appropriate choice for narrator…

The Blurb says: A comic masterpiece that has never been out of print since it was first published in 1889.

Martyrs to hypochondria and general seediness, J. and his friends George and Harris decide that a jaunt up the Thames would suit them to a ‘T’. But when they set off, they can hardly predict the troubles that lie ahead with tow-ropes, unreliable weather forecasts and tins of pineapple chunks – not to mention the devastation left in the wake of J.’s small fox-terrier Montmorency. Three Men in a Boat was an instant success when it appeared in 1889, and, with its benign escapism, authorial discursions and wonderful evocation of the late-Victorian ‘clerking classes’, it hilariously captured the spirit of its age.

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Forster on Audio

Howard’s End by EM Forster read by Edward Petherbridge

Why have I never read or seen Howard’s End? Baffling. Since Breakfast at Tiffany’s and I didn’t get along, I abandoned it and am swapping this one in to replace it. This one is on my Classics Club list. I fell in love with Edward Petherbridge many years ago, when he played a wonderful Newman Noggs in a fabulous RSC stage production of Nicholas Nickleby which was filmed for TV – a very rare event back in 1982. So I’m looking forward to his narration as much as to the book – fingers crossed!

The Blurb says: Howards End is the story of the liberal Schlegel sisters and their struggle to come to terms with social class and their German heritage in Edwardian England. Their lives are intertwined with those of the wealthy and pragmatic Wilcox family and their country house, Howards End, as well as the lower-middle-class Basts.

When Helen Schlegel and Paul Wilcox’s brief romance ends badly the Schlegels hope to never see the Wilcoxes again. However, the family moves from their country estate, Howards End, to a flat across the road from them. When Helen befriends Leonard Bast, a man of lower status, the political and cultural differences between the families are exacerbated and brought to a fatal confrontation at Howard’s End.

Considered by some to be Forster’s masterpiece it is a story about social conventions, codes of conduct, and personal relationships in turn-of-the-century England.

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Shorts & Abandonments July 2022…

A Bunch of Minis…

Since I still seem to have a backlog of books to review, here’s another little batch of minis to help me catch up – two winners and two abandonments…

Rumpole’s Return by John Mortimer

😀 😀 😀 😀

Following a string of lost cases tried in front of Judge Bullingham, Rumpole has taken this as a sign and retired with She Who Must Be Obeyed to live out his twilight years in Florida, at the home of his son and his son’s American wife. However a very little of the Florida lifestyle is sufficient for Rumpole, so when he gets a letter from the lovely Phyllida née Trant (Rumpole prefers to forget her married name) asking his advice about a matter of blood, he sneaks off, flies home, and resumes his career, much to the annoyance of the young man who has moved into his room in chambers in the interim.

The Rumpole books are always entertaining, and this is no exception. All the regular characters appear, and all the running jokes are reprised. While any of the books can be read on its own, they do sometimes rely a little on the reader having some familiarity with the characters and how they’re connected to each other, either from previous books or from the excellent TV series which actually came before the books. I was sorry to find that the wonderful TV Rumpole, the late Leo McKern, had never done narrations for the books, but Robert Hardy made an excellent substitute. The books are matched so closely to the TV series that I could see all the characters in my head, and somehow that really enhanced the audiobook experience. Thoroughly good fun!

Book 7 of 20

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A couple I abandoned…

…and my short and to the point comments on Goodreads, made in the full throes of abandonment grumpiness…

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

“Is this really an American classic? I made it through forty minutes of the audiobook. If I ever feel like simulating brain-death I may listen to the other two hours.”

Privilege by Guinevere Glasfurd

“Story didn’t grab me and I was already thinking of abandoning it when the author decided I would like to read about the hero masturbating. She was mistaken. I wouldn’t.”

* * * * *

The Mating Season by PG Wodehouse

Bertie is due to make a reluctant visit to friends of his Aunt Agatha at Deverill Hall, but there’s one bright gleam on the horizon. His old friend Catsmeat Potter Pirbright (possibly my favourite fictional name in the universe) is putting on a cross-talk act for the local village entertainment and Bertie relishes the chance to don a green beard and hit his fellow performer with an umbrella! But the dark clouds are gathering. Gussie Fink-Nottle is also due at Deverill Hall, at the behest of his fiancée, Madeline Bassett, she who thinks that the stars are God’s daisy chain, but due to an unfortunate incident involving a fountain and a policeman, Gussie has been unavoidably detained at His Majesty’s Pleasure. Should Madeline discover this, the engagement will be off, and Madeline may well decide to marry Bertie instead! So to avoid this dreadful fate, Bertie decides to impersonate Gussie, but when Gussie then escapes his durance vile and turns up, there’s only one solution – Gussie must impersonate Bertie…

Yet another wonderful treat from the master, this one involves most of the characters being disguised as each other, adding to the general mayhem and allowing them all tae see theirsels as ithers see them, as the Bard once said. Bertie is not at all happy at people thinking that he’s the teetotal newt-fancier Gussie, but is amazed to learn that Gussie is equally horrified to be mistaken for the natty boulevardier Bertie considers himself to be. Add in five aunts – five! – and it’s easy to see why Deverill Hall could easily be mistaken for a House of Horror…

On the cue ‘five aunts’ I had given at the knees a trifle, for the thought of being confronted with such a solid gaggle of aunts, even if those of another, was an unnerving one. Reminding myself that in this life it is not aunts that matter, but the courage that one brings to them, I pulled myself together.

Great stuff, and as always the narration by Jonathan Cecil is perfection!

Book 8 of 20

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Win some, lose some! 😉

Looking forward to…

Episode 7

Another selection in my occasional looks back at old reviews which I finished by saying something along the lines of “I’ll be looking forward to reading more of her work/this series/his books in the future” to see if I actually did read more and, if I did, did I like the ones I looked forward to as much as the ones that made me look forward to them?

Let’s see then…

The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan

First reviewed 24th April 2013. A well researched and beautifully written imagining of Shakespeare’s life and the events that may have influenced his writing. I said “A wonderful book that will appeal not only to Shakespeare fans but also to anyone who appreciates a superbly crafted tale filled with poetry, humanity and tenderness.” Its five-star rating put Morgan onto my looking forward list to read more of his work. But did I?

I did not! I find this unaccountable. He is no longer on my list and I can only assume I removed him during a particularly brutal cull. Over the intervening years, several people have recommended his book about the Brontës, The Taste of Sorrow, and I have now added it to my wishlist. (These posts are playing havoc with my TBR!)

* * * * *

Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux

First reviewed 25th April 2013. This one is hard to summarise in a few words. Part science fiction, it’s really a study of what it is that makes us us. I said “A story of mad science turned to evil purpose, the age-old search for immortality, man’s inhumanity to man, but at its heart this is a search for a definition of humanity.” I loved it and again its five stars put him on my list to read more. But did I?

I did! I read his next book, Far North, and sadly felt it was a pretty standard post-apocalypse thriller that didn’t really thrill me. As a result Theroux slipped off my list. I’d still be happy to read another of his books if it came my way, but I no longer specifically look out for him. (Harsh, I know, to drop someone on the basis of one book, but there are well over a hundred authors on my Looking Forward To list, so I have to be pretty brutal.)

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Free Fall by Chris Grabenstein

First reviewed 3rd May 2013. Set in the sunny beach resort of Sea Haven, this is the 8th book in a series about police detective John Ceepak, as told by his sidekick, Officer Danny Boyle. I described it as “cosy with an edge” and said “I’m certainly looking forward to spending some more time in Sea Haven in the future.” But did I?

I did not! To be fair, this is mostly because he hasn’t published another in this series since, seeming now to be concentrating on a highly successful series of children’s books. But I could have – should have – read some of the earlier books in the series! I’ve now added the first, Tilt-A-Whirl, to my wishlist.

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The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann

First reviewed 4th May 2013. This historical fiction is beautifully written, though sometimes a little too sweet and frothy for my taste. However the art of the folding fan, its manufacture and use, is given centre stage, and I found that aspect fascinating. As a debut novel, I felt it showed real promise and said “overall this book gave me a sense of deep enjoyment. I look forward to reading more from this author in the future.” But did I?

I did not! However I’m completely exonerated from the charge of neglect this time, since she has never published another novel. Such a pity, since I felt she has a lot to offer. Her website tells me she’s working on another, so I’ll keep looking forward to reading more sometime in the future…

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So, two neglected authors I’ve now reinstated to my wishlist, one who fell off my must-read list but stayed on my might-read list, and one who has stymied my desire to read more by not writing more! Undoubtedly my least successful batch of four so far – told you things would soon start to go downhill. 😂

Have you read any of these authors?
Are they on your “looking forward to” list?

Silas Marner by George Eliot

The importance of community…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Unjustly accused of theft, Silas Marner, his faith in God and man shattered, flees his home and church and sets himself up in a new place where he knows no one and no one knows him. Raveloe is a small rural village with a strong sense of community among the working class, who, as tradition demands, show deference to the local Squire and his feckless sons. Here Silas lives alone, plying his trade as a linen weaver and accumulating a store of gold which he carefully hides and takes out each night to lovingly count. And so his life may have continued, but that one night his hoard of gold is stolen. He is still reeling and depressed from this disaster when, a short time later, a little girl walks through his door. Silas discovers the body of the child’s mother nearby in the snow, and decides to adopt the girl, whom he calls Hephzibah, or Eppie for short.

Being one of the small minority who didn’t love Middlemarch, I began this one with a lot of hesitation – a book I felt should read rather than one I wanted to. So the pleasure of discovering that I loved it was all the greater for being unexpected. This one has what, for me, Middlemarch lacked – a strong plot. Its brevity is undoubtedly another point in its favour!

It gets off to a bit of a rocky start, as Eliot pontificates for a while about “the poor”, in that supercilious way that suggests they are one homogenous mass, easy to categorise, define and condescend to. “The poor”, apparently, are rather stupid, highly superstitious, easily led, and would fall somewhere not far above beasts of the field in a zoological league table. Whenever one of these 19th century writers talks about “the poor”, I feel I get a better understanding of why people invented guillotines. Happily, however, once she has staked her claim to social and intellectual superiority, she moves on quite quickly, and her depiction of individual members of “the poor” is much more nuanced and insightful than this opening monologue had led me to fear.

Book 6 0f 20

I also feared that Eppie might be one of these saccharin, perfect angels that infest Victorian fiction, usually shortly before they die tragically. Happily not! Eppie is wilful, naughty and refreshingly normal, and won past even my pretty strong anti-child defences. Silas’ reaction to her arrival is very well portrayed, as he sees her as a kind of redeeming gift from the God whom he felt had deserted him. Since she’s a very young child on her arrival, Silas, a man with no experience of children, has to reach out for help, forcing him to become part of the village life he had until then shunned. Perhaps he never quite regains his lost trust in man or God to the same level of naivety of his youth, but he learns to love again, and to appreciate neighbourliness and kindness and the value of community.

Book 8 of 80

The other side of the story is darker, and gives it a weight that prevents Silas’ story from being too sweet. The reader knows the identity of the dead woman, although the villagers do not, and we know why she was there that night, in a snow storm. “The poor” may get Eliot’s condescension, but she is stern on the fecklessness of those who live off the labour of others – the Squire class. Squire Cass himself is a man of pride and temper, and his sons have grown up with weak characters and a sense of entitlement that leads them into vice, each of a different kind. Eliot allows the possibility of redemption, but she intends to make her characters work for it.

George Eliot

I particularly enjoyed the occasional intervals where we eavesdrop on the men of the village, gathered of an evening in the local tavern to swap stories and exchange gossip. There’s a lot of humour in these passages, but they also give a great depiction of the social hierarchy of village life, based not so much on wealth as on age and experience, with a sense of earned wisdom being passed down through the generations. Eliot also shows how the women of the village try to ensure that motherless Eppie is given the guidance on womanly matters that Silas can’t provide.

Having been rather rude about Andrew Sachs’ narration of The Power and the Glory recently, I was delighted to find him excellent in this one. Without the distraction of “foreign” accents to contend with, he gives a full range of very good characterisations, each well suited to the social class of the character in question.

In the end, the various strands all come together satisfyingly, managing to be sweet without a surfeit of sugar. An excellent listening experience, and I’m now keen to explore more of Eliot’s work.

Audible UK Link