I’m gradually compiling full indexes in the menu at the top of the page. Meantime, you can find a review by author, genre or title using the Find A Review drop-down box on the right, click on tags in the Tag Cloud, or browse my most recent reviews below.
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My current absence is because we have had a family bereavement. My sister Sheila, who commented here under the pseudonym BigSister, died last week after an illness which felt long while it was happening, but was actually only a few months. I don’t normally blog about personal matters, as you know, but some of you who have been around for a long time have interacted with BigSister over the years, and she was a keen, if silent, supporter of those of you who have published novels, buying, reading, and talking to me about them. She also enjoyed visiting many of your blogs, though never commenting, I think, and again this has been part of our regular lengthy bookish phone conversations over the past few years.
This doesn’t feel like the right place for any kind of memorial to her full and active life, so I thought instead I’d pay tribute to the influence she had on my early reading (and the influence she still tried to have on my later reading too, with rather less success)!
From Hitchcock’s adaptation of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps
BigSister was eight years older than me, which seemed like a huge difference when we were young. She always seemed grown-up to me, she being the eldest of four and I the baby of the family. From the time I was about five or six until I was old enough to go alone, she would take me with her to the library each week – she was a voracious reader all her life, often reading more than a book a day. And with a phenomenal memory for the written word! Whereas I can barely remember a book I read last week, she had almost total recall of plots and characters of books she read forty years ago. Back in those days, you were only allowed to take two books out of the library at a time, so BigSister had managed to gain possession of library cards for all the less enthusiastic readers in the family so she could get a big enough stash to feed her addiction. And like many addicts, she was a pusher too, giving me free access from an early age to her already groaning bookshelves…
BigSister read just about any genre and had a totally open approach to supervising my reading – if it appealed to me, then her attitude was always, well, try it and see how you get on. On reflection, I think this might be why I missed a lot of the children’s books of my day – I feel I was reading relatively adult books quite young. There was no such thing as YA back then, but lots of writers were writing books that worked easily for both child and adult. She’d stop me from choosing anything too unsuitable or way beyond my ability to understand, though. If she didn’t know a book I liked the look of, she’d read the first few pages and the last few and that would be enough for her to decide whether it was okay for me.
Illustration from Kipling’s The Jungle Book
It was easier back in those halcyon days, because even crime fiction veered well away from the gruesome and harrowing and no published writer would have dreamt of peppering their work with graphic sex and swear words (except DH Lawrence, naturally, but fortunately I didn’t encounter him till my teens). So I met Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Ed McBain, Mickey Spillane, Carter Dickson, John D MacDonald, and a myriad of other crime writers now sadly forgotten (by me), and was guided towards the adventure stories of Rider Haggard, Gavin Lyall, Conan Doyle, John Buchan, Alistair MacLean, et al. I didn’t like them all – I never got on with Kipling, whom she loved, for instance – but it all helped me form my own tastes in time. The classics weren’t omitted – Jane Eyre, Little Women, Oliver Twist, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Treasure Island, etc., were mixed in with general fiction like the Mapp and Lucia books, and total pulp, like Dick Tracy. Did anyone ever read the Modesty Blaise books? They shocked me to my socks when I was a little’un and I suspect they might shock me just as much now, but for different reasons.
She never had as much success with science fiction. While I liked the more speculative end of it – Wells, Wyndham, Asimov, Pohl – I was never able to follow her into the realms of fantasy, where she spent many, many happy hours. She never gave up though – like any pusher, she kept offering me little doses of the soft stuff in the hopes I’d get addicted to the hard stuff in time. In the last few years she has tried every Hallowe’en to get to me read A Night in the Lonesome October – I could never bring myself to admit to her that I’d tried, hated it, and thrown it on the abandoned pile!
In more recent years, she became a dedicated fan of Terry Pratchett’s books, and I was always a little sad that I couldn’t share her love for them. In the last few months, as concentration became harder for her, it was Pratchett she turned to, reading them all again even though she could probably have quoted them from memory. On my last visit to her, her main concern was for me to get her Kindle to work with the hospital wifi so she could access more of the Pratchetts in her library.
I can’t finish without mentioning her lifelong love for Lord of the Rings, a pleasure I happily shared. Which was just as well, really. We shared a room for a couple of years when I was a teenybopper and she was a student. The walls on my side had posters of Marc Bolan and Alice Cooper – BigSister had posters of Gandalf and Aragorn and a map of Middle-earth. Yes, indeed, she was an addict! She even liked Tom Bombadil! She regularly stated that her ambition was to be knocked on the head and get amnesia so she could have the pleasure of reading LOTR again as if for the first time.
The last but one comment that she left on the blog before she became too ill was on my New Year confession of the state of my TBR. She said “I’m so glad I don’t have a TBR! I do however have a lot of books I want to read.” And that seems to me to sum up neatly the voracious, eclectic, mood-reading philosophy of her bookish life.
“Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
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Apologies to all of you whose recent comments and links have been left unanswered. I shall be back in action around the blogosphere soon.
Lord Greystoke and his young wife Lady Alice are on their way to take up a new colonial appointment in Africa when the crew of the ship they are on mutiny. The mutineers drop their passengers off on a wild coast, far from civilised habitation, but close to the jungle. For a while they survive, long enough for Lady Alice to bear the son she was already carrying. But when disaster strikes, leaving the baby all alone in the world, he is adopted by a tribe of apes and grows up learning their ways, unaware of his own heritage. However, when he discovers the hut his parents built and all their belongings including their books, he realises he is different from the other apes. And then more white people are marooned in the same place by another bunch of mutineers, and he sees the lovely Jane…
Basically, this is simply a romping adventure story that is as enjoyable now as when it took the reading public’s imagination by storm back in 1912, when it was first published in the pulp magazine The All-Story. There’s something about the way Burroughs tells stories that makes them great fun despite all the many ways he transgresses modern sensibilities. It’s a sort of innocent charm – I feel sure he’d be amazed and appalled if he thought he’d offended anyone. He so truly believes that white Anglo-Saxons are the pinnacle of evolution and that women will forgive any little character flaws (like cannibalism, for example) so long as a man has rippling biceps and the ability to fight apes single-handed. (Both jolly good attributes in a man, I admit – I wonder if Rafa fights apes…)
Evolution was still a relatively new idea when Burroughs was writing this, and many authors were exploring the subject in different ways. Burroughs’ ideas may seem pretty shocking to us now, but they were fairly mainstream at the time. He shows a kind of pyramid of evolution starting with real apes that we would recognise as such. Then there’s the tribe that adopt Tarzan, who are a kind of link between ape and man, with the beginnings of a verbal language and some basic forms of ritual, such as…
…the fierce, mad, intoxicating revel of the Dum-Dum. ….From this primitive function has arisen, unquestionably, all the forms and ceremonials of modern church and state, for through all the countless ages, back beyond the last, uttermost ramparts of a dawning humanity our fierce, hairy forebears danced out the rites of the Dum-Dum to the sound of their earthen drums, beneath the bright light of a tropical moon in the depth of a mighty jungle which stands unchanged today as it stood on that long forgotten night in the dim, unthinkable vistas of the long dead past when our first shaggy ancestor swung from a swaying bough and dropped lightly upon the soft turf of the first meeting place.
Burroughs’ depiction of the ape society is great – he humanises the apes just enough so that we see them as individuals and like or dislike them accordingly, but he ensures that even the “good” ones never stop being wild, brutal beasts. I found them utterly believable as a type of proto-human.
Next on the ladder are the black “savages”, along with Jane’s black maid. Oh dear, this is where you have to keep reminding yourself that it was the times! The maid is the traditional figure of fun – the black mammy who continued to appear in American culture well into the ‘50s, or maybe even later, so poor old Burroughs can’t be condemned too harshly. The savages – well, it’s not so much their savage lifestyle that’s the problem; many writers from Kipling to Conrad via Rider Haggard et al have depicted the indigenous African tribes just as problematically to modern eyes. It’s more the suggestion that they’re actually another link in the evolutionary chain – less intelligent, less resourceful, a lower form of life altogether than the white man.
Book 39 of 90
Tarzan is the zenith of the evolutionary heap. Not only is he a perfect physical specimen of rampant manhood, but he’s so intelligent he actually manages to teach himself to read and write without ever having heard a human speak. But also his prime pedigree as an English aristocrat can’t be hidden for long…
…and so he rose, and taking the locket in his hand, stooped gravely like some courtier of old, and pressed his lips upon it where hers had rested. ….It was a stately and gallant little compliment performed with the grace and dignity of utter unconsciousness of self. It was the hall-mark of his aristocratic birth, the natural outcropping of many generations of fine breeding, an hereditary instinct of graciousness which a lifetime of uncouth and savage training and environment could not eradicate.
It goes without saying that women aren’t quite so evolved, though obviously white women outrank black women. But frankly, girls, when you have Tarzan looking out for you, how evolved do you need to be?
….Jane Porter – her lithe, young form flattened against the trunk of a great tree, her hands tight pressed against her rising and falling bosom, and her eyes wide with mingled horror, fascination, fear, and admiration – watched the primordial ape battle with the primeval man for possession of a woman – for her. ….As the great muscles of the man’s back and shoulders knotted beneath the tension of his efforts, and the huge biceps and forearm held at bay those mighty tusks, the veil of centuries of civilization and culture was swept from the blurred vision of the Baltimore girl.
The racist and sexist aspects are so overblown and unintentional that personally I found them hilarious rather than offensive. And while many aspects of the story are a bit ridiculous if you stop to analyse them too deeply, it’s so full of thrills, excitement, high love and general drama that it swept me along on a tsunami-sized wave of fun. Highly recommended!
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(I reckon Rafa should play Tarzan in the next film. I shall of course be auditioning for Jane…)
….He did what no red-blooded man needs lessons in doing. He took his woman in his arms and smothered her upturned, panting lips with kisses. ….For a moment FictionFan Jane Porter lay there with half-closed eyes. For a moment – the first in her young life – she knew the meaning of love.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.
….Then she closed her mouth, looked again at the cat-eyed boy, and lacing her fingers, spoke her next words very slowly to him. ….“Listen. Go around to the back of the hospital to the guard’s office. It will say ‘Emergency Admissions’ on the door. A-D-M-I-S-I-O-N-S. But the guard will be there. Tell him to get over here on the double. Move now. Move!” She unlaced her fingers and made scooping motions with her hands, the palms pushing against the wintry air. ….A man in a brown suit came toward her, puffing little white clouds of breath. “Fire truck’s on its way. Get back inside. You’ll freeze to death.” ….The nurse nodded. ….“You left out a s, ma’am,” the boy said. The North was new to him and he had just begun to learn he could speak up to white people. But she’d already gone, rubbing her arms against the cold. ….“Granny, she left out a s.” ….“And a ‘please.’”
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….Like two charging bulls they came together, and like two wolves sought each other’s throat. Against the long canines of the ape was pitted the thin blade of the man’s knife. ….Jane Porter – her lithe, young form flattened against the trunk of a great tree, her hands tight pressed against her rising and falling bosom, and her eyes wide with mingled horror, fascination, fear, and admiration – watched the primordial ape battle with the primeval man for possession of a woman – for her. ….As the great muscles of the man’s back and shoulders knotted beneath the tension of his efforts, and the huge biceps and forearm held at bay those mighty tusks, the veil of centuries of civilization and culture was swept from the blurred vision of the Baltimore girl. ….When the long knife drank deep a dozen times of Terkoz’ heart’s blood, and the great carcass rolled lifeless upon the ground, it was a primeval woman who sprang forward with outstretched arms toward the primeval man who had fought for her and won her. ….And Tarzan? ….He did what no red-blooded man needs lessons in doing. He took his woman in his arms and smothered her upturned, panting lips with kisses. ….For a moment Jane Porter lay there with half-closed eyes. For a moment – the first in her young life – she knew the meaning of love.
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….When I first travelled to Europe [from Australia] as a student in 1983 I was thrilled, certain that I was going to the centre of the world. But as we neared Heathrow, the pilot of the British Airways jet made an announcement I have never forgotten: ‘We are now approaching a rather small, foggy island in the North Sea.’ In all my life I had never thought of Britain like that. When we landed I was astonished at the gentle quality of the air. Even the scent on the breeze seemed soothing, lacking that distinctive eucalyptus tang I was barely conscious of until it wasn’t there. And the sun. Where was the sun? In strength and penetration, it more resembled an austral moon than the great fiery orb that scorched my homeland.
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….The flames leap merrily as I write. They must consume all when I am done. They may take me too, in the end, but they will keep me warm first. Perhaps I will be found like poor Brother Severus, whose body vanished into ash and left only his feet and one hand still in the chair! What devil took him so, that charred him even before he went to hell? ….Am I afraid of the other place? What fool is not? Yet I have raised great churches to set against my sins. It is my fervent hope that there is no eternal torment waiting for me now. How they would smile then, the dead, to see old Dunstan cast down! Made young again, perhaps, to be torn and broken for their pleasure. I could bear it better if I were young, I know. How those saints would laugh and shake their fat heads. I wonder, sometimes, if I can feel them clustered around me, all those who have gone before. Like bees pressing on a pane of glass, I feel their souls watching. Or perhaps it is just the wind and the scratching of woodworm in cantilevered joists. ….Settle, Dunstan. Tell the story.
Orphaned as a child, Philip Ashley has been brought up by his cousin Ambrose and expects one day to be heir to his estate in Cornwall. For Ambrose, although by no means elderly, is a settled bachelor, and both he and Philip enjoy their entirely masculine household and way of life. But while Ambrose is making one of his regular trips to Italy for his health, Philip is stunned to receive a letter from him, saying that Ambrose has fallen in love and married the woman that Philip will come to think of as “my cousin Rachel”. Ambrose’s happiness is to be short-lived though. Soon he will die without ever returning home, of a brain tumour according to the official version, but Ambrose has given Philip a different story in his increasingly worrying letters home. Philip is ready to blame Rachel morally, at least, and perhaps legally for his death. And then Rachel visits Philip in Cornwall and he finds himself falling in love. But is Rachel the fascinating and charming woman he sees, or the cold, manipulative money-grabber, and perhaps worse, of Ambrose’s letters…?
I listened to this as an audiobook, competently but not thrillingly narrated by Jonathan Pryce, and I suspect that may have affected my view of it. The story starts and ends brilliantly, but the mid-section, where Philip falls in love with Rachel, seems to go on for ever with nothing actually happening. I tired utterly of Philip’s first person descriptions of Rachel’s perfections and had to fight an urgent desire to tell him to grow up and get a life. If it weren’t for the fact that it was du Maurier and I felt I should have loved it, I would undoubtedly have given up. I certainly wish I’d read the book instead in this instance – I suspect it would still have bored me if I’d been reading but it’s easier to skim the dull repetitive stuff in the written form.
Where du Maurier does excel is in the ambiguity of the characterisation. The basic question of whether Rachel is good or bad is further muddied by us seeing her only through Philip’s eyes and Ambrose’s letters, and it’s not clear how much either of them can be relied on. Certainly neither is objective about Rachel – they see her through the eyes of lust and love. Also, their long years of living without women in their lives mean that neither of them make good judges, especially Philip, who has grown up without mother, sisters or even a nurse or governess. To him, women are as unfamiliar as Martians. There’s also the fact that Ambrose’s illness seems to have been inherited from his father, so may it have been inherited also by Philip? Ambrose’s father had periods where he was delusional and even violent – has this been passed down? There’s undoubtedly an edge of irrationality in some of Philip’s actions, despite us seeing them through his own eyes.
Rachel is the centre of the book, of course, and du Maurier does a brilliant job of having the reader sway in her favour and against her again and again. She has had an unconventional upbringing by a mother who seems to have been morally lax, so it isn’t surprising that she occasionally steps outside the bounds of what is considered acceptable. The time in which the book is set isn’t specified, but it feels to me like early Victorian in terms of clothes, travelling, lifestyle and attitudes. Is she really a hustler out for what she can get? Or is she a victim of Ambrose’s failure to make adequate provision for her? Is she a woman who uses sexual temptation to manipulate men? Or is she a free-thinker – a woman unwilling to limit herself by the unequal moral codes enforced on her by a patriarchal society, which gives women no rights and no financial liberty? Is she villain or victim?
I wondered how du Maurier would end it – no, of course I’m not going to tell you! But when it came, I felt the ending was perfect. Any other possible ending I could think of wouldn’t have had the same impact – it wouldn’t have left the story and the characters lingering in my mind as they have done.
So if it wasn’t for that tedious over-stretched mid-section, I’d have loved this. The audiobook comes with an introduction from Roger Michell who directed the recent film of the book (which I haven’t seen), and he comments that Philip and Ambrose were not alone in their obsession with Rachel – that du Maurier too had fallen in love with her. This strikes me as very perceptive – it reads as if du Maurier couldn’t stop talking about her, like a teenage girl in the throes of infatuation. Fun for the teenager, not so much for the adults who have to listen to her ecstasies! She redeemed herself in the end though, so overall I’m glad to have read it and would recommend it (and also recommend you brush up on your skim-reading skills before beginning… 😉 )
Top football team Arsenal is playing a friendly against the Trojans – an amateur team who have been on an amazing winning streak and are thrilled to be taking on the professionals. The ground is jam-packed – seventy thousand spectators have crammed themselves onto the terraces, mostly Arsenal fans but plenty hoping the Trojans will play well and provide an exciting match. But shortly into the second half, the Trojans’ newest player, right-half John Doyce, collapses and has to be carried off the field. The game continues, with neither players nor crowd knowing that in the treatment room a desperate battle is being carried on to save Doyce’s life. By the time the final whistle is blown, the battle has been lost…
In a lot of ways, this is a standard murder mystery with a Scotland Yard Inspector as detective. But what makes it unique is that it’s set amid the real Arsenal team of its time of writing – 1939 – and the actual players and manager appear in the book. Gribble has also had access to behind the scenes at the stadium, and provides what feels like an authentic picture of what it would have been like playing or working for a top club back then, in the days when even professional sides still had players who had “real” jobs as well as their sporting careers.
I’m not a big football fan, but it’s impossible to be British and not have a reasonable knowledge of the game, and I enjoyed the look back at a time when boys wanted to play for their local teams for the glory of the game, rather than to become fabulously wealthy celebrities with their own clothing label and drug habit – back when sportspeople were actually sporting. It also brought back memories of how terrifying exhilarating it was to be packed like sardines in an overfull stadium, the vast majority of people standing on the terraces with only the posh folk sitting in the stands (yeah, strange terminology, I know), and the horror excitement of the massive surge forward when your team scored. Those days are gone – the major disasters of the seventies and eighties pushed stadiums to become all-seater, so younger fans won’t ever have had that experience – I don’t know whether that makes them lucky or unlucky, to be honest.
Fortunately, however, the book gets out of the football stadium before my reminiscences turned to boredom, and the plot revolves around the personal lives of the players rather than their sporting careers. Unsurprisingly, Gribble’s victim is one of the fictional Trojan players, and the real players and staff at Arsenal play only minor roles. I think it’s also safe to say that the real people can be discounted as suspects! Doyce was an unpleasant chap with a reputation as a womaniser and had given several of his team-mates and the staff of the Trojans cause to dislike him. He’d only joined the club a week earlier, but several of them had played together before in another team, and another of the Trojans was his business partner. So there’s a good pool of suspects and some intriguing motives for Inspector Slade and Sergeant Clinton to investigate.
Inspector Slade is professional in his approach, but is helped along by his almost superhuman ability to make wild guesses that turn out to be correct. A couple of these were pretty ridiculous, in truth, and I felt they let the plotting down badly – with a little more work Gribble could have made these leaps a result of investigation rather than miraculous-level intuition. Otherwise, the plotting is pretty good, especially in the motivation, and on the whole I liked the characterisation although for the most part it’s not very in-depth. I debated whether it’s “fair-play” – in the introduction, Martin Edwards describes it that way – but I’m not wholly convinced. The explanation when it comes could have applied to several of the suspects – the vital piece of information that identifies the murderer wasn’t available to the reader. There are also odd plot holes, like people being married without their friends and colleagues knowing and people being engaged but no-one knowing to whom. Necessary for the plot to work, but unlikely…
Overall then, I enjoyed this without being entirely convinced by the plotting. The evocative and well-written descriptions of attending a football match back in the days when it was a major weekly occasion in the lives of so much of working-class Britain – of doing the football “pools”, of trying to find out the results of rival matches once the game was over, of seventy thousand people all wending their way homewards very slowly on overcrowded buses and trains – entertained me far more than I anticipated, and I suspect would appeal even more to die-hard football fans (especially ones of a certain age). A walk down memory lane… and, as with so much vintage crime, fun as much for what it shows us about society as for the actual mystery element.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
I’m getting a bit worried that my postman may have been abducted by aliens – there has been a distinct dearth of parcel deliveries so far this year. The result is a massive drop in the TBR – down 2 to 225! It’s worrying…
Here are a few more that should fall over the edge soon…
This is one I’ve wanted to read for a long time. I remember the Patty Hearst story from when it happened, when I was in my early teens. I was fascinated by it without ever fully understanding what it was all about – in fact, it may well have been that vagueness that made it so intriguing…
The Blurb says: Domestic terrorism. Financial uncertainty. Troops abroad, fighting an unsuccessful and bloody war against guerrilla insurgents. A violent generation gap emerging between a discontented youth and their disapproving, angry elders.
This was the early seventies in America, and it was against this backdrop that the kidnapping of nineteen-year-old Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Front – a rag-tag, cult-like group of political extremists and criminals – stole headlines across the world. Using new research and drawing on the formidable abilities that made The Run of His Life a global bestseller, Jeffrey Toobin uncovers the story of the kidnapping and its aftermath in vivid prose and forensic detail.
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Courtesy of Serpent’s Tail via NetGalley. It feels like too long since I randomly picked a book based purely on the blurb, with no prior knowledge of either it or the author. I suspect I shall either love this or hate it – I’m hoping it’s the former!
The Blurb says: As dusk approaches, a former surgeon goes about closing up his dilapidated clinic in rural India. His day, like all his days, has been long and hard. His medical supplies arrive late if at all, the electrics in the clinic threaten to burn out at any minute, and his overseer, a corrupt government official, blackmails and extorts him. It is thankless work, but the surgeon has long given up any hope of reward in this life.
That night, as the surgeon completes his paperwork, he is visited by a family – a teacher, his heavily pregnant wife and their young son. Victims of a senseless attack, they reveal to the surgeon wounds that they could not possibly have survived.
And so the surgeon finds himself faced with a preposterous task: to mend the wounds of the dead family before sunrise so that they may return to life. But this is not the only challenge laid before the surgeon, and as the night unfolds he realises his future is tied more closely to that of the dead family than he could have imagined.
At once dustily realist and magically unreal, Night Theatre is a powerful fable about the miracles we ask of doctors, and the fine line they negotiate between life and death.
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Fiction on Audio
I’ve often been tempted by Conn Iggulden’s books and the subject matter of this one sounded particularly appealing. So since I had some Audible credits to use up, I gave into temptation. I’ve sneakily started listening to this already and am loving it so far – Geoffrey Beevers is doing a wonderful narration…
The Blurb says: “I have broken my vows. I have murdered innocents. I have trod down the soil over their dead face with my bare heels, and only the moon as witness. I have loved a woman and she ruined me. I have loved a king and yet I ruined him.”
The year is 937. England is a nation divided, ruled by minor kings and Viking lords. Each vies for land and power. The Wessex king Æthelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, is readying himself to throw a spear into the north. Behind him stands Dunstan, the man who will control the destiny of the next seven kings of England and the fate of an entire nation. Welcome to the original game for the English throne.
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Courtesy of HarperCollins. I don’t get many unsolicited books from publishers except for vintage crime, but this popped through my letterbox a few weeks ago, and it looks like fun. The blurb makes it sound quite dark, but the quotes on the cover and early reviews suggest there’s lots of black humour in it. I’m intrigued…
The Blurb says: Reseng was raised by cantankerous Old Raccoon in the Library of Dogs. To anyone asking, it’s just an ordinary library. To anyone in the know, it’s a hub for Seoul’s organised crime, and a place where contract killings are plotted and planned. So it’s no surprise that Reseng has grown up to become one of the best hitmen in Seoul. He takes orders from the plotters, carries out his grim duties, and comforts himself afterwards with copious quantities of beer and his two cats, Desk and Lampshade.
But after he takes pity on a target and lets her die how she chooses, he finds his every move is being watched. Is he finally about to fall victim to his own game? And why does that new female librarian at the library act so strangely? Is he looking for his enemies in all the wrong places? Could he be at the centre of a plot bigger than anything he’s ever known?
If there’s one thing I love more than most things, it’s being told all about a subject I know nothing about by someone with an enthusiastic passion for it and the ability to write in a way that brings it to life. I knew nothing about the various rock lighthouses that stand as warnings to shipping around Britain’s shore, and I couldn’t have asked for a better guide to them than Tom Nancollas.
He starts with a brief introduction of himself – he is a building conservationist who chose to study rock lighthouses for his dissertation, giving him a lasting interest in the subject. Having regularly visited as a boy both the Wirral coastline and Cornwall, where his family originated, he tells us he grew up feeling an affinity for the sea and a fascination for all its many moods. For this book, he set out to visit seven of the major rock lighthouses, sometimes getting permission to land and see the interiors, other times examining them from the outside. Along the way, he tells us tales of their construction and history, of the men who built, lived in and maintained them over the years, and of the many shipwrecks they have doubtless averted and of some they didn’t. His style is non-academic, sometimes lyrical, always enthusiastic, and I found myself coming to share his fascination for these incredible feats of engineering and his admiration for those who built and worked on them.
He begins with Eddystone, off Plymouth as a way of showing how what became the standard design for rock lighthouses developed. Eddystone has had four lighthouses over the centuries – the first rather whimsical structure unable to withstand its first storm, the second, a part timber building destroyed by fire. The third, (above), built of interlocking stone blocks which provided the strength and stability required to stand up to the sea’s constant pounding, became the model for future lighthouses, and lasted for many years until it too eventually began to shake. It wasn’t the lighthouse at fault though – the rock it was built on had eroded. And so the Victorians built a fourth, the one which still stands, still warning ships to steer clear.
The chapter is a great mix of explaining the building techniques in language easily understandable by the complete layperson, together with vignettes about the architects and builders which humanise the subject. Nancollas also fills in the historical background, lightly but with enough depth to give a feel for what was going on in Britain and the western world at each point. He talks of Britain’s growing status as a maritime trading nation and tells tales of the shipwrecks and disasters that gave an urgency to finding some reliable way of guiding ships safely through the rocky hazards around the coast.
Each subsequent chapter takes a similar form, gradually leading us round the coasts: to Cornwall’s rocky shores to visit Wolf Rock lighthouse; over to the Scillies to Bishop Rock; up to Scotland to the Bell Rock off Arbroath, built by the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson; to the now disused and decaying Perch Rock in the Wirral; over to Ireland to Fastnet off Cork; and to Haulbowline on Carlingford Lough, in a kind of no-man’s-sea between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Each has its own story and its own history, and Nancollas extends out to tell us something of the places near which they’re situated.
For example, while discussing Bishop Rock, he talks about the Scillies, once one landmass and perhaps even attached to Cornwall, now divided into somewhat isolated islands by rising sea levels. He doesn’t specifically mention climate change, but talks of how the Scillies will eventually be completely submerged and, as the highest point, the Bishop Rock lighthouse will be the last thing in that seascape to be seen above the water. It’s beautifully written, and I found it both moving and frightening.
Or another example – Haulbowline. The troubled history of the divided island of Ireland means that all records of its building have been lost, if they ever existed. The lighthouse is now unmanned, but Nancollas visits it and tries to visualise it as it once was, with the help of stories from the men with him – the ferry pilot, the lighthouse mechanic, and the grandson of a previous keeper. He tells of how during the Troubles, the British Navy patrolled the lough, stopping and searching suspect ships for contraband, smuggled weapons, etc. He describes the lighthouse as liminal, belonging to neither one side nor the other but standing as a kind of symbol of humanity amidst this disputed and often violent zone.
I have one criticism of the book, which is the lack of adequate illustrations. There are some black and white on page photos, but the book is crying out for glossy sections of full colour pictures: of the lighthouses themselves first and foremost, but also of some of the many men we learn so much about along the way. (I nearly deducted half a star for the lack, but in the end couldn’t bring myself to do it.) That aside, I loved Nancollas’ writing, when he is explaining technical stuff simply, or when he is musing more philosophically about things past and future, or when he talks lyrically of the power of the sea.
I had time, from the elevated perspective of the tower balcony and lantern, to study the sea, really look at it, and watch it behaving in a way you don’t really see from the shore. It breaks around the reef in repeating patterns that reflect the submerged geology around the rock’s waist. There is a point to the south-west, in the path of the Atlantic, where the sea gathers itself up and splinters over a submerged reef on a long, horizontal plume that looks like the scaly neck of a giant beast. On a smaller piece of rock nearby it breaks into a perfectly contained white cloud, always the same size and shape. Engulfing the Little Fastnet, the sea falls back and dribbles in thousands of streams down crevices that will deepen over the centuries. Here, you get something of the sea’s eternity – rising, falling, calming, dousing and rinsing and thrusting against the rocks in myriad ways, a lazy, beast-like play of motion that will never end.
A fascinating subject, brought wonderfully to life, I highly recommend this one.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. All the lighthouse illustrations I’ve used are from Wikimedia Commons.
This is a collection of nineteen stories, nine by AC Benson and ten from his brother RH Benson, plus a short essay on haunted houses by RH. These two are also brothers of the more famous EF Benson, and all three dabbled in ghost story writing to a greater or lesser degree. There’s an informative introduction by Hugh Lamb giving some biographical detail of each of the brothers and discussing the background to the stories.
I seem to be overusing the term “mixed bag” recently, but this is another one for me. Mostly I enjoyed AC’s stories and loved a few of them. RH, on the other hand, did nothing for me, so I’ll get him out of the way first.
On the basis of the stories collected here, many of which come from a series of tales about priests telling of supernatural occurrences they have experienced, RH seems to be firstly, obsessed by religion, specifically Catholicism; and secondly, intent on examining the question of whether hauntings are actually spirits returned from the dead, or psychological, produced by the expectations of the observer, or physical manifestations of echoes of tragic events. Almost every one of his stories includes these two aspects, so that they are repetitive and, to me, entirely uninteresting. They feel like fragments, and I hoped that they might eventually pull together into some climax, but they certainly didn’t in the ones selected here. I fear RH never achieved more than a three star rating from me and often dipped to two, or even one more than once.
AC, on the other hand, consistently achieved four stars and several fives. His stories also have strong religious themes and I admit this did begin to bore me by the end. But he uses much more imaginative ways to examine the themes than his brother. Some of his stories are standard hauntings but with original twists, such as Basil Netherby, where the haunting comes out through the music composed by the haunted man. Other of his stories read like fables, with adventuring protagonists participating in what are fundamentally battles between good and evil, but which are done so well they don’t feel stale and repetitive like poor old RH’s. Both brothers write well technically, but AC lifts his tales with the use of some great imagery. His stories also feel complete in themselves, whether a few pages or close to novella length.
Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most – all from AC:
Basil Netherby – a great story, which I’ve already highlighted as a Tuesday Terror! post.
Out of the Sea – the story takes place in a small, poor seaside village. There’s a shipwreck and two sailors are found dead on the shore. Later, a family, the Grimstons, approach the local priest to seek his help – they are being haunted by a ghostly shadow that smells of the sea and corruption. This, like so many of the stories, is a tale of atonement for an evil deed, with a rather heavy-handed religious message at the end, but it’s very well told, dark and effective.
The Snake, The Leper and the Grey Frost – A fable of a boy who has heard of a treasure and wants to go on a quest to find it, so asks the village wise man for advice. The wise man sets him on the path and tells him to beware the snake, the leper and the grey frost. But each is hidden in some way so the boy has a series of narrow escapes, until eventually he is caught in the grey frost. This is a tale of the power of faith, but it’s not explicit. It’s beautifully written and has some great imagery, especially of what the boy sees in the frost. I found this one surprisingly moving.
The Grey Cat – Young Roderick strays to a pool which has an evil reputation. There he meets a cat which befriends him but refuses to follow him home, so that Roderick, becoming oddly obsessed by the creature, finds himself returning to the pool again and again. The reader quickly knows the cat is clearly demonic in origin and so does the local priest, who enters into a battle to save young Roderick’s soul. Fable-like in style again and with some fantastic imagery, especially of… nope, spoiler! You’ll have to read it. I loved this one, although again its overtly religious message is a little heavy-handed.
The Uttermost Farthing – this is almost novella length and again is very well written with some great horror imagery and an effective ghostly atmosphere. Biblical scholars will of course recognise the reference in the title. (I googled it.) The narrator visits the house of a friend, to find that it’s haunted by the previous tenant, a man who had carried out experiments into how to use evil thoughts as a weapon against his enemies. The two men, together with the inevitable local priest, must find the papers left by the evil-doer and destroy them, but the ghost is determined to stop them…
Overall, for me it would have been a stronger collection had RH been left out of it altogether. But full marks to AC, whose fable-like stories in particular stand out for their imaginativeness and imagery, and the quality of his stories in general makes me very glad to have read the collection.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Chillers.
Twenty-four years ago, Katharina Haugen went missing and has never been seen since. She left a partially packed suitcase and a sheet of paper filled with cryptic numbers, the meaning of which has never been discovered. The obvious suspect, her husband Martin, had a cast-iron alibi, and the police have never been able to identify any other suspects. Every year on the anniversary of her disappearance, William Wisting, the detective who investigated the case at the time, visits Martin, and over the year they’ve developed a kind of friendship. But this year when Wisting calls at his house as usual, Martin has gone missing too. And then Wisting discovers that the new Cold Cases Group has discovered new evidence linking the Katharina case to another unsolved disappearance…
It was only on finishing this that I realised it’s the twelfth in a series about Norwegian detective William Wisting, which explains why I felt we weren’t given much background about him or his family. Other than that, this worked very well as a standalone. Wisting is the kind of detective I like – dedicated, hard-working, with a stable family life and a life outside work. He’s a widower with a grown-up son and daughter. Thomas is home on leave from his job in the military, but doesn’t play a significant part in the story. Line, on the other hand, is a journalist, working freelance since the birth of her child, and is asked to write a series of articles and make a podcast about the other cold case, the Nadia Krogh disappearance, so she has a bigger role. Horst handles this very credibly, avoiding the temptation to have her act as some kind of all-action sidekick to her father, and instead using her to give the reader another perspective on the case as it unfolds.
This is a slow-paced book, based firmly on the realism of police investigation. As such, there’s not a lot of action or any of the ubiquitous shock twists so prevalent in current crime writing. It also becomes clear relatively early on who is responsible for the disappearances, meaning that the bulk of the story is more about how the police go about catching the perpetrator and finding evidence. In common with a lot of contemporary crime fiction, I felt it could have lost a hundred pages and been the better for it. Nevertheless, it never lost my attention even during the rather overlong mid-section, and this is because I felt both the writing and the depth of the characterisation were strong enough to carry it. The inclusion of Wisting’s family helped to make him a rounded character – driven, for sure, but not to excessive extremes. And his relationship with Martin, Katharina’s husband, is developed very well and realistically, as we see how the event that brought them together – Katharina’s disappearance – also acts as an invisible barrier to them becoming full friends.
The detective from the Cold Cases Group, Adrian Stiller, is rather more enigmatic. His methods take him close to the line and sometimes across it, and he’s quite willing to manipulate people to get his results, but he’s effective. He’s also troubled, and it’s only towards the end that we learn why. This is billed as the first in a “Cold Case Quartet”, so I’m assuming he will feature in the others and will probably be filled out more as a character in them. In this one, I wasn’t sure whether I liked him or not, so it will be interesting to see how he develops. Not having read the previous books, I don’t know if Wisting usually works alone, but in this one the two of them together made for an interesting pairing – both desiring the same end, but not sure about each other’s methods of achieving it.
Overall I enjoyed this, and would recommend it to readers who like a thoughtful, character-driven approach to crime rather than twisty action- packed thrillers. I’ll be keen to read the next in the quartet, and look forward to reading some of the earlier books in the series too, though I don’t think they’ve all been translated.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin UK – Michael Joseph.
In the run up to Christmas, Mander’s Department Store puts on an elaborate window display to attract the attention of passing shoppers. It turns out the display is even more elaborate than they intended, though, when onlookers spot that two of the figures aren’t mannequins – in fact, they’re corpses! One is Mr Mander himself, the brains behind the store, while the other is the strangely named Effie Tumour, one of the store’s department heads. She has been stabbed; he, shot. It’s up to Inspector Devenish of the Yard to work out who killed them, and how and why.
This falls mainly into the category of the puzzle mystery, or the howdunit, and unfortunately that’s never my favourite kind of plot. The detection tends to take the form of Devenish speculating as to how a piece of the puzzle could have happened, and then looking for evidence to prove or disprove his theory before moving on to the next piece. My mind doesn’t work that way – I’m never very interested in the kind of detailed physical clue that shows that someone must have been in such and such a place at such and such a moment and therefore must have been seen by so and so. So sadly I found a good deal of this somewhat tedious, even though I could see that it was good of its kind.
When it moved on to possible motive it worked much better for me, and although there’s not a huge amount of in-depth characterisation, what there is of it is very good, making me regret that Loder hadn’t concentrated more on the why and less on the how. Miss Tumour (why do you think he called her that? Most odd…) was engaged to the manager of the store, Mr Kephim (I suppose if you’re called Tumour, the idea of changing your name to Kephim might not be so bad). But it appears she’s been clandestinely meeting up with Mr Mander. Was it a case of jealousy then? But Mr Mander has other secrets too, including claiming an invention of another man as his own, and charming the elderly widow who is providing the financial backing for the store, which her son is not thrilled about. So plenty of people might have wanted to bump him off.
A mixed bag for me, then, but on the whole the good bits were outweighed by the bits where my eyes were tending to glaze over. Regrettably, the solution when it comes is also mixed – it’s unexpected and interesting, which is good, but large parts of it are still speculative. Devenish may be right in his assumptions, but I couldn’t help feeling he could just as easily be wrong. I’m sure the puzzle aspects will appeal to people who enjoy pitting their wits alongside the detective to try to make sense of baffling physical clues, but personally, being more interested in motive and characterisation, I found it all rather unsatisfactory.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.
My 2019 reading has got off to a start so slow I feel I might have to learn to read backwards. Fortunately my book acquisition rate seems to have slowed too, so the end result is an increase of just 1 to 227.
Here are a few that I will get to… sometime!
Courtesy of Quercus via NetGalley. Gorgeous cover, isn’t it? The setting of colonial Malaysia will fit beautifully in my Around the World challenge. Plus I think the blurb is wonderfully enticing…
The Blurb says: In 1930s colonial Malaya, a dissolute British doctor receives a surprise gift of an eleven-year-old Chinese houseboy. Sent as a bequest from an old friend, young Ren has a mission: to find his dead master’s severed finger and reunite it with his body. Ren has forty-nine days, or else his master’s soul will roam the earth forever. Ji Lin, an apprentice dressmaker, moonlights as a dancehall girl to pay her mother’s debts. One night, Ji Lin’s dance partner leaves her with a gruesome souvenir that leads her on a crooked, dark trail.
As time runs out for Ren’s mission, a series of unexplained deaths occur amid rumours of tigers who turn into men. In their journey to keep a promise and discover the truth, Ren and Ji Lin’s paths will cross in ways they will never forget.
Captivating and lushly written, The Night Tiger explores the rich world of servants and masters, ancient superstition and modern ambition, sibling rivalry and unexpected love. Woven through with Chinese folklore and a tantalizing mystery, this novel is a page-turner of the highest order.
* * * * *
Sir Arthur & Mr Holmes
Anyone who visits my blog will be well aware of my never-ending love affair with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This re-read will also tie in with the Around the World challenge in a sneaky kind of way which I will explain when I review it…
The Blurb says: When a beautiful young woman is sent a letter inviting her to a sinister assignation, she immediately seeks the advice of the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes.
For this is not the first mysterious item Mary Marston has received in the post. Every year for the last six years an anonymous benefactor has sent her a large lustrous pearl. Now it appears the sender of the pearls would like to meet her to right a wrong.
But when Sherlock Holmes and his faithful sidekick Watson, aiding Miss Marston, attend the assignation, they embark on a dark and mysterious adventure involving a one-legged ruffian, some hidden treasure, deadly poison darts and a thrilling race along the River Thames.
* * * * *
I’m ashamed to say I won this book in a giveaway from the lovely Anne at ivereadthis.com back at the beginning of 2017, and I’m only now getting around to reading it. And it’s another that will take me to foreign climes for my Around the World challenge, this time to look at the life of the ex-pat in Hong Kong…
The Blurb says: These stories follow a kind of life cycle of expatriates in Hong Kong, a place often called the most thrilling city on the planet. They share the feeling of being between two worlds, the experience of being neither here nor there and trying to find a way to fill that space. From the hedonistic first days in How To Pick Up A Maid in Statue Square, as Fast Eddy instructs on how best to approach Filipina maids on their rest day; through the muted middle in Rephrasing Kate, as Kate encounters a charismatic bad boy and is forced to admit her infidelities; to the inevitable end in The Dirty Duck, as Philip realizes his inability to commit and resolves to return home to Australia; Hong Kong alters them all with its frenetic mixture of capitalism and exoticism. Characters exist between the worlds they once knew and this place which now holds them in its spell and shapes them to its ends. Their stories explore how they cope with this space where loneliness and alienation intersect, a place where insomniac young bankers forfeit their ambition while chasing deviant sexual encounters, or consume themselves with climbing the corporate ladder. It is a world where passive domestics live and work for the money they can send home, while their keepers assemble poolside to engage in conversations aroused by the expats’ desire to connect to others who share their fates. Always, of course, there is The Globe, a favourite watering hole where, when night falls, they meet to tell their stories.
* * * * *
Courtesy of the Collins Crime Club. I suspect the victim was stampeded to death by book-bloggers who’d come to the end of their 2018 book-buying bans…
The Blurb says: Book 50 in the Detective Club Crime Classics series is Carolyn Wells’ Murder in the Bookshop, a classic locked room murder mystery which will have a special resonance for lovers and collectors of Golden Age detective fiction. Includes a bonus murder story: The Shakespeare Title-Page Mystery.
When Philip Balfour is found murdered in a New York bookstore, the number one suspect is his librarian, a man who has coveted Balfour’s widow. But when the police discover that a book worth $100,000 is missing, detective Fleming Stone realises that some people covet rare volumes even more highly than other men’s wives, and embarks on one of his most dangerous investigations.
The human race has taken its first tentative steps into space and is dreaming of visiting other planets, when its plans are changed forever by the arrival of alien spaceships. The aliens seem benign, although they quickly put an end to human space travel. They also end war and animal cruelty, and usher in a utopian period where no-one goes hungry and no-one has to work if they don’t want to. Known only as the Overlords, they don’t allow the humans to see them, communicating only by voice. It seems that they allow humans to organise their own affairs, but their influence over the United Nations (gradually becoming a world government) certainly steers things in the direction they want Earth to go. All the good results of their background rule mean that humanity is happy to go along, for the most part.
But some people are aware that, without the struggle for survival and advancement, creativity is being destroyed and science is becoming moribund. So they set up a small colony, with the willing consent of the Overlords, where they hope to allow music, art and science to flourish. Still, however, no-one knows what the Overlords’ ultimate plan is – all they know is that they have promised to reveal themselves to humanity in fifty years…
Book 38 of 90
This is a book I wanted to love, but found didn’t live up to my expectations. Unfortunately most of the things that disappointed me a little will take me close to spoiler territory, so forgive any vagueness caused by my attempt to avoid that. The first and major thing is that I didn’t believe for a moment that humanity would happily submit en masse to a race of aliens who told us what to do, however apparently benign their intentions. We don’t even submit to our democratically elected governments half the time! When I said that the unelected UN was turning into a world government, did you think “oh, that’s a good idea”? No, nor me. There are a few people who are against the alien rule, but they’re shown as fringe fanatics and pretty insignificant. So the fundamental premise of the book left me floundering around looking for my lost credulity before it even really got underway.
The second thing is that the hidden appearance of the aliens is made much of, and when the big reveal finally happened, it made me laugh. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to! It was clearly intended to be all metaphysical and philosophical and stuff like that, but it just struck me as kinda silly, especially when Clarke attempted to explain the relevance. I understand from my friend Wikipedia that the idea originated in an earlier short story of Clarke’s, but that, although he changed all the meaning for the book, he left in all references to a different meaning from the short story. This probably explains why I found it messy and unconvincing. Plus it was signalled so far in advance that the only surprise was that it didn’t come as a surprise.
The third thing may not be Clarke’s fault – the basic storyline felt as if I’d read and watched it a million times or so before. Still avoiding spoilers as much as possible, it’s the old theme of what will the end result of evolution be, and Wells was asking that question fifty years earlier. Clarke’s answer is different to Wells’ but similar to many others since then. Now maybe Clarke was the first – the book was published in 1953 – in which case I apologise to him. But it meant I wasn’t excited by it – I found it pretty predictable and it therefore felt as if it took an awful long time getting there.
On the upside, it’s well written and the ending is left ambiguous, which makes it thought-provoking. With all of these how-will-humanity-end-up stories, the question has to be if it’s a future we would seek, or seek to avoid. Often authors tell us – the future is either utopian or dystopian; it’s decided for us in advance. Here that question is open, allowing the reader to use her own imagination to, effectively, write the sequel. I feel many sci-fi shows, films and books may have been trying to write that sequel for years, consciously or subconsciously. And, indeed, it’s a theme Clarke returned to himself in the later 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was after reading Childhood’s End that Stanley Kubrick invited Clarke to collaborate with him on the project that would eventually result in the book and film of Space Odyssey, and together they created a much better and more internally coherent story, in my opinion, while retaining that ambiguity which lifts this one above the average, despite my criticisms of it.
Overall, then, it didn’t wow me as much as I’d hoped, but I’m still glad to have read it, partly because it’s considered a classic in its own right, and partly because I was intrigued to read the book that inspired Kubrick. The fact that Kubrick, who at that time was reading science fiction voraciously looking for inspiration, found the ideas original suggests to me that a major part of my disappointment comes from reading the book too late, after years of reading and watching other people creating variations on the theme.
This anthology consists of twenty-nine horror stories from the long 19th century: that is, roughly, up to the beginning of WW1. It comes with an interesting and informative introduction written by the editor, Darryl Jones, Professor of English Literature and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity College Dublin. I recently read and reviewed Jones’ own history of horror, Sleeping with the Lights On, and while obviously that book goes into considerably more detail, this introduction covers similar territory, discussing the various sub-genres, and how horror reflects and to some extent addresses the anxieties of its times. The stories in the collection are selected to give a feel for the broad range of horror writing in the Victorian era, so there’s everything here from mild and humorous to too strong for my moderate tastes, from a few pages to near novella length, from household names to people of whom I’d never heard. Jones also discusses the importance of periodicals in that era, and tells us that around two-thirds of these stories first appeared in those.
There are plenty of lesser known stories in here to make it an enjoyable read even for people who’ve read a fair amount of Victorian horror already, but I felt that, because it also includes several major classics, it would be an ideal collection for someone relatively new to the genre who wanted to get a feel for the style of some of the better known authors too. Robert Louis Stevenson is here, with The Body-Snatcher; Dickens’ The Signal-Man; Kipling’s The Mark of the Beast; Gilman’s The Yellow Wall Paper; Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw; and Blackwood’s The Wendigo. There are also examples of horror writing from authors who are probably better known (to me, at least) for their other works: Balzac, Melville, Zola. And a couple of my newer favourites, found since I started this little detour into the delights of terror, appear too: Arthur Machen and Robert W Chambers. There are ghosties and ghoulies and lang-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, and mad scientists, of course, and family curses, and vampires, and insane narrators, and Gothic houses galore.
Since I’ve featured several of the more familiar stories already in Tuesday Terror!, here are a few of the rest that I most enjoyed. I hadn’t heard of these ones before, but they may be well-known to better-read horror fans…
Chickamauga by Ambrose Bierce – a little boy is fighting imaginary battles with his toy sword and strays so far that he becomes lost in the woods. He falls asleep, and when he awakes the ground is covered in dreadful crawling things. I don’t want to say much more because the impact of the story is in discovering what it is the boy sees and what has happened. But it’s a commentary on how we pass the drive to war down from generation to generation – powerful and horrifying.
August Heat by WF Harvey – Our protagonist draws a picture of a man standing in the dock after being condemned to death. It’s come entirely from his imagination, so imagine his surprise when he meets that very man later that day. Turns out the man is a stone-mason and is busy carving a name on a gravestone… this is a deliciously spine-tingling little horror story, with a delightfully scary ending. Camp-fire material!
The Derelict by William Hope Hodgson – To demonstrate his theory that, given the right conditions, life will come into being spontaneously, an old doctor tells the tale of when he was once on a ship blown off course by a storm. When the storm abated, they discovered they were next to another ship, long abandoned. They went to investigate… (For goodness sake, never investigate abandoned anythings! It never turns out well…) There’s some brilliant horror imagery in this and heart-pounding peril! Great!
The Adventure of Lady Wishaw’s Hand by Richard Marsh – Our narrator, Pugh, is sent a strange and unexpected legacy on the death of his acquaintance, Colin Wishaw – a woman’s hand! It looks remarkably alive, and it’s not long before we become aware that it can move on its own. A delightful tale of a family curse – light horror, lots of humour (that hand can be very naughty!) and a narrator who deserves all he gets. Lovely stuff!
Because of the wide range of content and styles, unsurprisingly my reactions to them varied wildly too. Seventeen got either four or five stars, which is a pretty high proportion of the total. But several got two stars and one, a hideous story from Bram Stoker that starts with the killing of a kitten, was abandoned before I finished the first page! However, different readers will bring their own tastes to the stories and may well find that they enjoy the ones I disliked – I knew as I was rating them that often my reaction was based on how the stories made me feel rather than their intrinsic quality. The same may apply to my five stars, of course – stories moderate enough for me may be too mild for those who prefer harder hitting stuff. In short, there will be something here for everyone and inevitably everyone will be less keen on some too. That’s why I think it’s such a good sampler, which I happily recommend to the seasoned reader or the horror newbie alike.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.
In November 1959, two men drove into the small Kansas farming community of Holcomb, broke into the Clutter family’s home and brutally murdered the four occupants, Herb and Bonnie Clutter and their two teenage children, Nancy and Kenyon. Before the murderers were caught, Truman Capote decided to write about the crime, so went to Holcomb to interview friends and neighbours of the victims, residents of the town, and the men investigating the case. It wasn’t long before the perpetrators were identified and captured, so Capote continued his project by writing about the trial and its aftermath – the imprisonment and execution of the murderers, Perry Smith and Richard “Dick” Hickock. This book, first published in 1966, is the result.
Capote approaches the subject from three angles, the victims, the townspeople and the murderers, with the narrative rotating among them. The Clutters, as portrayed here, were fine people, upstanding members of their community and their church, good neighbours and well respected. The children, especially Nancy, seem almost too good to be true, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much the old adage of never speaking ill of the dead had influenced the picture Capote paints. So even at this early stage of the book, I had begun to wonder how much reliance could be placed on Capote’s account of the people involved.
This feeling grew as the book progressed and Capote recounted as if they were facts things that he could only have learned from his interviews. While this may be fair enough with regards to the innocent people involved (though even then, oral testimony, especially when given not under oath, is notoriously unreliable), taking the words of Hickock and Smith at their own evaluation and drawing inferences as to their characters from this shaky evidence left me in a kind of limbo as to whether the book should be considered “true crime” or a fictionalised novel. I believe it gets categorised as a “non-fiction novel” – a description that seems deeply contradictory and problematic to me, designed to allow inaccuracies to pass unchallenged.
Book 37 of 90
To be clear, I found it extremely readable and, viewing it as fiction, the characterisation of the murderers is wholly credible. Capote seeks to understand them by going back through their early experiences for clues as to why they turned out as they did. Smith in particular had a terrible childhood, with an alcoholic mother who pretty much abandoned him and a father who was at best an intermittent presence and a disruptive one at that. Hickock is more difficult to pigeon-hole – his family seemed both respectable and caring. Capote ventures into psychiatry for answers, using the reports that were drawn up for the men by their defence team. He gives a relatively nuanced picture, neither seeking to whitewash them nor to wholly condemn.
His portrayal of the impact of this horrific crime on the small community is equally convincing. In a place where people didn’t feel the need to lock their doors at night, the intrusion of this horror seemed incredible, and Capote shows how for the first time neighbour began to suspect and fear neighbour. The arrest and conviction of the murderers couldn’t wholly put the genie back in the bottle, as Capote describes it – the townspeople’s feelings of security would never be the same.
An interesting omission is the perspective of the Clutters’ two older daughters, neither of whom lived at home. While Capote gives us some facts about them, we don’t get to know them at all nor to learn how they fared in the future. I could only assume that they refused to be interviewed for the book.
Some of the later scenes felt too contrived to be true, and I later learned on looking at wikipedia that some of the people involved had indeed denied their truth. For example, the scene where the wife of Perry’s jailer holds his hand while he sobs after being sentenced to death felt like something written for a Cagney film (or perhaps copied from one). And the super convenient final scene, played out between the chief investigator and one of the friends of young Nancy, now all grown up, provides a heartwarming conclusion of the restoration of order and the rebirth of all that is good and hopeful in life, and I didn’t believe a single word of it. According to wikipedia, the investigator later denied that it ever happened.
So I have very mixed feelings about the book overall. It’s not got the essential truth to be true crime, and yet it’s presented too factually to really be considered a novel. And yet, it is beautifully written and intensely readable, and while it may not have factual truth, it feels as if, with regards to the personalities of the murderers, it may have achieved some kind of emotional truth – certainly emotional credibility, at any rate. I quite understand why it has a reputation as a classic of the genre – I’m just not sure what genre it’s a classic of. Perhaps it should be viewed as a one-off, uncategorisable. And as such, I’m happy to recommend it.
When John Wilkins realises married life with his wife May isn’t living up to his expectations, he begins to fantasise about another young woman he’s met, his local librarian, Sheila. The first half of the book is taken up with John telling his story to a psychiatrist. In the second half, we are shown a murder trial. We, like the jury, have to decide whether the evidence against John stacks up, or have the defence put up strong enough counter arguments? The book doesn’t reveal who the victim is till quite late on, so I won’t either.
I do feel modern crime fiction suffers terribly from our increasingly lax laws and social order! This plot works because John is trapped in his marriage, at a time when divorce could only be obtained by mutual consent or by proving the other party at fault. May might be a dull wife, but she’s a perfect one, and since she declares she loves John, she’s not willing to countenance the idea of divorce. Sheila, on the other hand, might be a dreadful flirt but, in line with the times, this doesn’t mean she’s sexually promiscuous, to John’s great disappointment.
John is a deeply unlikeable character – narcissistic and selfish, spoiled by his doting mother, but also insecure, suspecting the motives of those around him. He’s convinced, for example, that it’s not him May loves, as much as the respectable house he provides for her. He could be right about that – she’s an aspiring social climber, though her ambitions are for John as much as herself. There’s no doubt he’s abusive towards her, emotionally and occasionally physically. And though we are hearing the story from John’s perspective, it’s clear that there are times when she’s rather scared of him.
John is a troubled man, who has blackouts whenever he drinks. It’s left rather ambiguous as to whether this is because he drinks to excess or whether it’s some kind of unfortunate reaction, meaning that it’s difficult to decide whether he deserves any sympathy for it. But there are periods, sometimes lengthy, when he can’t remember what he did or where he went, and as his emotional state grows more fragile, these episodes are becoming more frequent. So when he declares he can’t remember what happened on the night of the murder, there’s a good chance he’s being truthful. It’s up to the detective hired by his loving mother to try to find out what he was doing over the relevant time.
Despite the unlikeableness of the main character, I enjoyed this one, for lots of different reasons. Symons does an excellent job of maintaining John’s voice in the first section, as he recounts his life experiences. Although his fantasies can be dark, he’s quite self-aware, and so there’s some self-deprecating and observational humour along the way. The trial section is done well, feeling quite authentic without becoming bogged down in too much detail. And I also liked the light the book casts on the society of the time. First published in 1957, it’s later than true Golden Age, and feels very much on the cusp of the change to the “modern” world of the ‘60s and beyond. Partly this is because of the social questions over divorce, at that time coming under pressure for change, and partly it’s because of the introduction of psychiatry into the story, and the examination of John’s culpability if he’s proven guilty. It also shows the worlds of work and marriage, and the beginnings of the more aspirational, socially mobile society of the second half of the century. All of this is done lightly, though, so that it doesn’t drag the story-telling down.
In the end, the way the plot played out didn’t have the impact on me that I felt was intended, though to be fair, that could well be that what was original back then feels a little too familiar now – often a problem with reading early novels that have influenced later writers. But I happily recommend it as an intelligent, enjoyable and well written psychological thriller, that has stood up very well to the test of time. My first introduction to Julian Symons, and I’m looking forward to getting to know him better.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
The TBR has been up and down over the last couple of weeks – loads of books in, loads read, leaving the final count up just 1 at 226. It’s felt a bit like a game of snakes and ladders…
I wish I could do that! Anyway, here are a few more that should slither my way soon…
Courtesy of Atlantic Monthly Press via NetGalley. I read a previous book of Tim Flannery’s on climate change and was impressed by his obvious expertise and arguments more than his style, which seemed a bit didactic and overbearing. But I suspect that was because he was so outraged at the lack of world action, so I’m hoping he’ll be approaching this less contentious subject a bit more calmly. It’s already in the running for the prize for longest blurb of the year, and it’s only January…
The Blurb says: In Europe: A Natural History, world-renowned scientist, explorer, and conservationist Tim Flannery applies the eloquent interdisciplinary approach he used in his ecological histories of Australia and North America to the story of Europe. He begins 100 million years ago, when the continents of Asia, North America, and Africa interacted to create an island archipelago that would later become the Europe we know today. It was on these ancient tropical lands that the first distinctly European organisms evolved. Flannery teaches us about Europe’s midwife toad, which has endured since the continent’s beginning, while elephants, crocodiles, and giant sharks have come and gone. He explores the monumental changes wrought by the devastating comet strike and shows how rapid atmospheric shifts transformed the European archipelago into a single landmass during the Eocene.
As the story moves through millions of years of evolutionary history, Flannery eventually turns to our own species, describing the immense impact humans had on the continent’s flora and fauna–within 30,000 years of our arrival in Europe, the woolly rhino, the cave bear, and the giant elk, among others, would disappear completely. The story continues right up to the present, as Flannery describes Europe’s leading role in wildlife restoration, and then looks ahead to ponder the continent’s future: with advancements in gene editing technology, European scientists are working to recreate some of the continent’s lost creatures, such as the great ox of Europe’s primeval forests and even the woolly mammoth.
Written with Flannery’s characteristic combination of elegant prose and scientific expertise, Europe: A Natural History narrates the dramatic natural history and dynamic evolution of one of the most influential places on Earth.
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Courtesy of the British Library. I’ve nearly caught up with my backlog of vintage crime review books now – just another couple to go (unless the postman has other ideas). I read another of Julian Symons’ books, The Colour of Murder, just before Christmas – review to follow – and enjoyed it, so am looking forward to this one. And it’s in the running for shortest blurb!
The Blurb says: When a stranger arrives at Belting, he is met with a very mixed reception by the occupants of the old house. Claiming his so-called “rightful inheritance,” the stranger makes plans to take up residence at once. Such a thing was bound to cause problems in the family—but why were so many of them turning up dead?
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Courtesy of Random House Vintage via NetGalley. I have had this since July 2017 but it kept sliding down the TBR as I got distracted by new shiny things. I was originally tempted towards it when fellow blogger Marina Sofia revealed that she had lived in the same neighbourhood as the killer, though fortunately at a later date. It’s in the running for least informative blurb of the year…
The Blurb says: “On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting…”
With these chilling first words, acclaimed master of psychological suspense Emmanuel Carrère begins his exploration of the double life of a respectable doctor, 18 years of lies, five murders and the extremes to which ordinary people can go.
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This one fits into two of my challenges, the Classics Club and the Five Times Five. I’m always slightly ambivalent about Steinbeck – his prose can be sublime but I find he veers towards bathos in his attempt to manipulate his readers’ emotions. I’m hoping this one might avoid that pitfall. It’s in the running for most intriguing blurb…
The Blurb says: A Depression era portrait of people living in an area near a sardine fishery in Monterey, CA known as Cannery Row.
From the opening of the novel: “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.”
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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
It has become an annual tradition at this time each year that I look back at the bookish resolutions I made last year, confess just how badly I failed, and then, nothing daunted, set some more targets for me to fail at next year. So, let’s begin!
The 2018 Results
1) Cut back on taking freebies for review.
The Target: Accept no more than 48 for review, and read at least 48, so my backlog at the end of the year should be no more (and hopefully less) than it was at the end of 2017 – i.e., 32.
The Result: Oh! 48! Oh dear, I must have misread that! I seem to have accepted 98! Well, it’s only one number different, right? On the upside, I read (or abandoned) 100, meaning that the outstanding total at the end of the year is now 30.
2) Reducing the TBR
a) Read at least 72 books that were on the TBR at the end of 2017.
b) Buy no more than 36 books during the year.
c) The TBR target for the end of the year to be 170. And the target for the overall figure, TBR plus wishlist, standing at a ridiculous 415 at the end of 2017, to be 360.
a) I fear I only managed to read 49 books that were on my TBR at the end of 2017.
b) Even I thought this this one was hilarious! However, I was as strict as possible and managed to keep the number down to a mere 58. So less than double the target – impressive!
c) The TBR total (that is, books I own) stands at a horrific 225! BUT… the overall figure, including wishlist, is down to 364! The mathematicians among you will realise this is because I acquired lots of books that were on my wishlist. I’ve been brutal at controlling additions to my wishlist this year, and it’s paid off!
The Result: I did indeed finish this challenge in the early summer and loved doing it. One day I might do a similar challenge. Maybe the Spanish Civil War. Or Europe between the wars…
b)Great American Novel Quest – I planned to restart this once the Russian challenge finished, with a low target of just 4 books in 2018.
The Result: I’ve not been enjoying the American books I put on my Classics Club list on the whole, so have allowed the GAN Quest to lapse. I might revive it from time to time if I read a book that I think meets the criteria – loads of my original list of contenders are still sitting on my TBR.
c)Classics Club – To stay on track with this, I planned to read 24 books in 2018 (and start tackling at least some of the longer ones).
The Result: I nearly made it, but not quite. I read 20 over the year, but I did tackle a few of the longer ones. Overall, that means I’ve caught up a little, but am still a few books behind schedule. However, I’m thoroughly enjoying getting back to some classics reading after years of concentrating on new releases.
d)Around the World in 80 Books – I was about halfway through this one at the end of 2017 and averaging 20 books a year, so that was the target for 2018 too.
The Result: Again, nearly but not quite – I read 16 this year. I’m loving this challenge, though, and have lots of great books lined up for it next year.
e)Murder, Mystery, Mayhem – Targeted 20 books for 2018, on the grounds that this would make this a five year challenge.
The Result: Not even close! I read just 12 of these, mainly because I started receiving lots of other vintage crime novels for review. But I’m enjoying this challenge too, so I don’t mind if it takes longer than I initially planned.
4) Other stuff
I didn’t set targets for anything else, but hoped to fit in some more re-reads and do a bit more catching up with authors and series I’ve enjoyed.
The Result: I re-read 15 books over the year, and 25 that count as “catch-ups”, so I’m quite happy with those figures.
Overall then, while I failed on almost every single count, I somehow feel as if I did pretty well! I’m sure the psychologists would have fun with that…
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Resolutions for 2019
I’ve done something I’ve never tried before and I’m not at all sure how I’ll feel about it or if I’ll stick to it. Basically, I’ve planned my whole year’s reading in advance, leaving just 30 spaces for new releases, re-reads and random temptations. The idea is this will stop me adding gazillions of books I’ll never find time to read, and ensure I’m reading loads of the books I already own. It should also mean I’ll make progress on my challenges. So my resolutions this year are strictly a numbers game and there’s lots of crossover among the categories…
1) Reading Resolutions
I plan to read:
a) 88 books that I already own as at today. Since I read roughly 125 books a year, that gives me around 40 spaces to fill with books I either buy or receive for review this year.
b) 25 books for the Around the World challenge. This should complete it this year. I’ve selected all the remaining books now and have already acquired most of them.
c) 25 books from my Classics Club list. Ambitious, but doable, and would bring me up to schedule and even a tiny bit ahead. I already have all of these.
d) 10 books from my sadly neglected 5 x 5 challenge. Again, I already own most of these and anticipate loving them, so why do I keep putting them off for other books?
e) 12 books for the Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge, again all ones I already have. I’m going for a lowish figure this year since I’m hoping I’ll still be getting lots of other vintage crime for review.
f) 24 books first published in 2019 (minimum). The downside of my challenges is that I’m reading far less new crime and literary fiction and am beginning to seriously miss it, so I’m going to ensure I read at least two a month.
2) Reduce the TBR
I’m going for an overall reduction of 40 books this year. So…
Target for TBR: 185
Target for combined TBR/wishlist (which is a truer picture): 324.
If I stick to my reading resolutions, it should be easy…
Another year draws to a close, so it must be time for… The Reading Bingo Challenge! I don’t deliberately look for books to read to meet this challenge, but at the end of the year it’s always fun to see how many boxes I can fill. Some of the categories are easy-peasy… others not so much. I’ve achieved a full house in each of the last three years, so the pressure is on…
More than 500 pages
The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura. I’ve read a few chunky novels this year, so at random I’ve gone for this one, which I read as part of my Russian Revolution challenge. It tells the story of the assassination of Trotsky, allowing us to see his life as an exile and his assassin’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War and subsequent recruitment by Stalin’s regime.
A forgotten classic
Marriage by Susan Ferrier. Following a discussion with my brother on Scottish classics, he sent me this one, of which I hadn’t heard. It tells of two sisters, separated as babies, one to be brought up in the strict religion of the Scottish Highlands, the other to live amongst the fashionably loose-moralled people of London.
A book that became a movie
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. The story of Richard Hannay being chased around Scotland by some nasty German spies just before the First World War. I enjoyed this, but I enjoyed Hitchcock’s classic film version considerably more!
Published this year
The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware. I loved this story of Hal Greenaway, who receives a letter telling her she has been left something by her grandmother. The only problem is Hal knows her real grandmother died years ago! But she decides to go anyway to the house in Cornwall to find out what she’s inherited. Deliciously Gothic in a modern setting.
With a number in the title
The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace. This classic story from 1905 has a surprisingly contemporary storyline – of people objecting to political agitators using the safety of foreign countries to stir up revolutions back in their own nation. It’s a vigilante story – not my favourite kind – but I found it entertaining and unexpectedly thought-provoking.
Written by someone under 30
The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin. I always end up having to google authors for this one, and was amazed to find that Crispin wrote this book when he was only 25. The story is of a man who discovers a body in a toyshop but when he returns there with the police, the toyshop has gone! A mad romp of a book and great fun.
A book with non-human characters
Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd. Hope Clearwater works for a research project in the Republic of the Congo, observing chimpanzees. The chimps play a real role in the book and are as well developed as the human characters. Plus this may be my last opportunity to use one of my favourite GIFs…
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. I’ve read some brilliant classic science fiction this year, and this was up there with the best. A post-apocalyptic vision of life after strange green lights appear in the sky, striking blind everyone who saw them. And to make matters worse, the triffids have got loose – walking, man-eating plants! A great, thought-provoking story.
The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths. I’m liking this trend towards modern Gothic very much, and this is another goodie! Clare Cassidy is writing a biography of the writer of a terrifying ghost story, The Stranger. And when one of her colleagues is brutally murdered, it becomes clear that somehow the story holds the clue to the case…
A one-word title
Brother by David Chariandy. The story of two brothers whose mother has immigrated from Trinidad to Canada. She has to work hard to make a living, so the boys are often left alone. Drifting into the ‘wrong’ crowd, they will become caught up in events that lead to tragedy. A story of the immigrant dream gone wrong, beautifully written and told.
Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by PG Wodehouse. Whenever my world is grey, Bertie Wooster brings the sunshine back. But, since they’re all re-reads for me, they never get in the running for my awards despite giving me so much pleasure. In this one, Bertie, Jeeves, Aunt Dahlia and Wodehouse are all on top form as they navigate Bertie away from the horrors of marriage once again – spiffing!
A book of short stories
The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre. Between classic crime and horror anthologies, I’m spoilt for choice this year. This one includes Scottish and Irish writers which makes it a little different from the usual, and the title story arose out of the same evening get-together that led to the writing of Frankenstein.
Set on a different continent
Springtime in a Broken Mirror by Mario Benedetti. My Around the World challenge has taken me to a few continents this year with some great reads along the way. This one is set mainly in Argentina, although it’s about Uruguayan political dissidents exiled there. A wonderful book, about home and exile, loneliness, longing, belonging – about loyalty and love, and hope, and sometimes despair.
Sleeping with the Lights On by Darryl Jones. A deceptively short history of horror in books in film, this is packed full of concentrated juicy goodness, written in an engaging and accessible style. It covers everything from mad science to creepypasta, and has added approximately five million titles to my must read/watch lists – horrifying!
First book by a favourite author
Fatherland by Robert Harris. I came late to Harris so am enjoying fitting some of his backlist in between his new releases as part of my Five Times Five challenge. This is the story of a murder in Berlin, set in a world where Nazi Germany won World War Two – a world in which Hitler still rules and the people of Germany are in the grip of a totalitarian regime.
Heard about online
That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina. Most of the new releases I read, I first hear about online in some way, but this is one I was inspired to read directly by other bloggers’ reviews. It’s the story of a love affair, that we know from the beginning ends in tragedy. Beautifully written, and wonderfully evocative of the culture of Puglia in the 1980s.
A best-selling book
Tombland by CJ Sansom. Sansom’s books go directly to the bestseller lists long before they are released, and rightly so. This is another great addition to the Tudor-set Matthew Shardlake series, where Matthew is swept up in the Kett Rebellion while investigating a murder in Norfolk at the request of the young Princess Elizabeth.
Based on a true story
The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus. Kalfus is one of my favourite authors and I’m going to keep going on about him till you all give in and read him! This one tells of the death of Tolstoy and the development of propaganda in Revolutionary Russia. Darkness leavened with humour, and all Kalfus’ sparkling originality in the story-telling.
From the bottom of the TBR pile
Raven Black by Ann Cleeves. Finally, after years of talking about it, I broke my duck with Ann Cleeves’ books. This, the first in her series of crime novels set on Shetland, had been sitting on my TBR since 16/12/2013, so it seemed like it might be time to actually read it! Now all I have to do is read all her other ones…
A book a friend loves
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith. Not just one friend, but nearly everyone I know who reads has recommended this one to me at some point! Two men meet on a train and one suggests that they swap murders – Bruno will murder Guy’s wife if Guy murders Bruno’s father. I enjoyed this influential psychological thriller, (but truthfully I enjoyed Hitchcock’s film of the book considerably more again…)
A book that scared me
Haunted Houses by Charlotte Riddell. These two short novels from a “forgotten” Victorian only scared me a little bit, but they entertained me hugely! The Uninhabited House is the stronger of the two, especially in terms of the ghostly aspects. But Fairy Water is full of charm with a delightful first-person narrator who grows ever more likeable as the book progresses. Horror for scaredy-cats!
A book that is more than 10 years old
The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux. In a year of classics and vintage crime, I’m spoiled for choice for this category! This early locked room murder mystery wins the spot because a) the murder weapon is a mutton-bone b) the murder victim isn’t dead(!) and c) Hercule Poirot describes it as “a masterpiece”. Good enough for me!
The second book in a series
Bump in the Night by Colin Watson. I’ve had a lot of fun revisiting Colin Watson’s Flaxborough Chronicles this year, as they’ve been reissued for Kindle – a series I first enjoyed when it was still being published, and it’s now become “vintage”. So what does that make me?? (Rhetorical question – don’t you dare answer it!) Light-hearted crime with a touch of sly humour.
A book with a blue cover
Murder by Matchlight by ECR Lorac. Lorac is probably my favourite of all the authors the British Library Crime Classics have introduced me too – I’ve loved all three of the books they’ve reissued so far. This one takes place in WW2 London during the bombings and gives a real picture of ordinary Londoners just trying to get on with their lives.
Last New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…
In a last ditch attempt to get down to the figure I set in my New Year’s Resolutions last year, I brutally culled the wishlist one last time, which led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Did I succeed? All shall be revealed when I post this year’s resolutions on Monday! But I’m getting so good at chopping, I’m thinking of taking up a new career…
I’ve done rubbishly on all my challenges this quarter, mainly because I’d developed a big backlog of review copies so I’ve been frantically reading them instead…
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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge
Last check-in was in September, and I’ve been nowhere since then! Nowhere!
However, I did pretty well taking the year as a whole, and will be packing my suitcase again in the New Year – I have some great books lined up!
To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.
54 down, 26 to go!
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The Classics Club
I’ve actually read five books from my Classics Club list this quarter but have only reviewed two so far, so expect a little splurge of classics reviews in January.
35. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy – 5 stars for this wonderful book that asks many questions that are still relevant in today’s world, about class, gender and how people are impacted by modernisation.
36. No Name by William Wilkie Collins – I’m afraid I found this book tedious, filled with unlikeable characters about whom I cared not a jot. Just 2 stars.
Again, I’ve done pretty well over the year as a whole. I should be halfway through at this stage and I’m only a little behind if you add in the ones awaiting review. And I’ve been tackling some of the longer ones recently so they’re not all left till the end.
36 down, 54 to go!
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Murder Mystery Mayhem
I’m going really slowly on this challenge, because of all the other vintage crime I’ve been lucky enough to receive for review, so I only managed a couple this quarter. To see the full challenge, click here.
21. The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin – this is one of those crime novels that goes way beyond the credibility line, but makes up for its general silliness by being a whole lot of fun. I loved it! 5 stars.
22. The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley – 5 stars again for this as Berkeley gently mocks the conventions of the mystery novel, and has a lot of fun at his fellow mystery writers’ expense, and his own. Highly entertaining and cleverly done!
22 down, 80 to go!
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5 x 5 Challenge
Oh, dear! I just can’t seem to get anywhere with this challenge. I’m doing great at acquiring the books – just not so good at actually finding time to read them! Next year…
2 down, 23 to go!
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Not too successful with the challenges, then, but a good quarter’s reading nevertheless!
Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…
It’s been my habit for many years to revisit Dickens’ best known Christmas story over the festive season each year. Sometimes this will be for a re-read but in recent years I’ve been enjoying some of the many adaptations of it in film or on audio. This year I went for Audible’s full cast dramatisation, having enjoyed several of their other productions. I knew going in that it had some great competition to beat – Patrick Stewart’s abridged narration has been my go-to for years, and Tom Baker’s unabridged version is up there at the same standard. But this one has Derek Jacobi as Dickens/the narrator, and anyone who’s read my reviews will know I am a huge fan of his audio narrations.
This follows the pattern Audible have been using for their Original Drama series of being part narration, part dramatisation. I love this approach. The dramatised elements make it a livelier listen which holds my attention better than even excellent straight narrations sometimes do, while the narrated bits allow for the depth and background that sometimes gets lost when a book is reduced to only dialogue in a full-scale dramatisation. It allows the listener to hear the author’s voice come through in the writing which, especially when the author is as brilliant as Dickens, is an essential.
Jacobi is undoubtedly the star of this production, having by far the biggest role as narrator of the linking pieces between the relatively sparse dialogue. He is excellent, of course, but not having the chance to create any of the wonderfully larger-than-life characters meant I felt his talents were a tiny bit wasted. Personally I’d have preferred him to be performing Scrooge, especially since I felt Kenneth Cranham’s performance in the role was a little too understated for my taste. However that’s purely a subjective opinion – I love the big, booming, overblown performances of Stewart and Baker, but Cranham’s quieter interpretation may work better for many people. The division between narrator and main character in this dramatisation leaves Cranham with a far smaller role than either Stewart or Baker, since they have the fun of creating their own dramatic interpretation of the non-dialogue parts too.
All the other performances are good, with no weak links in the chain. The standouts for me are Jamie Glover as Bob Cratchit and Miriam Margolyes as The Ghost of Christmas Present. Glover’s Cratchit is less down-trodden than he is sometimes portrayed, somehow – I can’t quite put my finger on why, exactly, since as far as my not always reliable memory could confirm there were no changes to the words Dickens gives him. But Glover’s performance conveyed him to me as a strong, good-humoured man, limited by his poverty, but not broken by his miserly, bullying boss or the circumstances of his life. I enjoyed him very much.
Margolyes is an old hand at Dickens, not just appearing in many of the BBC serialisations over the decades, but also having performed in her one-woman show, Dickens’ Women, for some years (a wonderful performance that’s also available on audio and which I highly recommend). So she ‘gets’ him, and is not afraid to exploit the huge emotional range he allows to those who perform his work. For me, a successful Dickens performance is when I can imagine it might be done as he himself would have delivered it at one of his famous readings, and Margolyes is one of those actors who always achieves this. She frightened me and moved me – when she talked of Ignorance and Want I believed utterly that she meant every terrible, warning word, sadly as relevant today as when Dickens wrote them.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!”
If the adaptation by RD Carstairs is abridged at all, it must be very lightly. I noticed nothing missing and the running time is similar to an unabridged narration. It may be that there are minor changes to the order of some parts – there’s quite a lot of quick cutting between Jacobi’s narration and Scrooge’s inner thoughts as delivered by Cranham that worked very effectively to bring the two parts together. But there are certainly no significant changes to either tone or meaning and all the words, I think, are Dickens’ own.
So, in conclusion, a hugely enjoyable dramatisation which, while it might not quite have replaced Stewart or Baker as my favourite audio version, is certainly up there in contention with them. Highly recommended.