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It’s wartime London and a thick fog is making the darkness of the blackout even deeper. A perfect night for murder! Four men are together in an artist’s studio. Bruce Manaton, the artist, is working on a portrait of his friend, actor André Delaunier, dressed for the sitting in the scarlet robes of a Cardinal. Meantime two other men, Robert Cavenish and Ian Mackellon, are absorbed in a game of chess. Each couple is in a pool of light while the rest of the studio is in shadow. In the kitchen off the studio, Bruce’s sister, Rosanne, is preparing a meal (because she’s the woman, obviously). Suddenly into this quiet scene bursts the local Special Constable, clutching a young soldier whom he claims has just murdered the old miser who lives next door. But when Inspector MacDonald of the Yard begins to investigate, he’s not convinced it’s as simple a case as it first appears…
ECR Lorac has been one of the major successes of the British Library Crime Classics series as far as I’m concerned, and I guess I’m not alone since they’ve now republished several of the Inspector MacDonald books, as well as a standalone written under another of her pen names, Carol Carnac. One of her real strengths is her settings, and her wartime ones are particularly atmospheric. Here she uses the combination of fog and blackout brilliantly, not just to provide a cloak for nefarious goings-on, but also to conjure up a sense of what it was like to be living in a London still struggling stoically on under the constant threat of air raids.
The worst of the Blitz is over, but the memories of the bombings are still fresh. So much so, that, as Bruce later explains to Inspector MacDonald “Londoners have heard so many bangs during their recent history, that a pistol shot isn’t so impressive a row as it used to be.” This, together with the random blasts of fog horns, means that the group in the studio didn’t consciously hear the shot that killed old Mr Folliner.
Through patient police work, MacDonald and his team soon have reason to doubt that the young soldier, who, it turns out, is Mr Folliner’s nephew, is the murderer, although he was found by the Special Constable in the old man’s bedroom with the corpse. But if he’s innocent, then who did the deed? The list of suspects is small, and it seems almost impossible that anyone in the vicinity at the time could have done it. MacDonald will have to work out not only whodunit, but how.
It’s a good puzzle, with some of the elements of the “impossible crime” about it, though I find it impossible myself to explain why without giving mild spoilers, so I won’t. The characterisation is very good, with Bruce and Rosanne Manaton particularly well developed. Bruce is talented, but he’s moody and selfish, and Rosanne acts almost as much as a mother to him as a sister. People aren’t spending much on art during the war, so Rosanne struggles to make ends meet and stop Bruce blowing what little money they do have on drink. She too is a talented artist, but Bruce kindly lets her sacrifice her own career so that she can do all the cooking and cleaning and worrying for them both.
We also get to know Inspector MacDonald a little better, though his life outside work is still largely a blank. I like that he never works alone – Lorac always makes us aware of the teamwork that is going on in the background to support his detecting, and gives them full credit for their contribution. As used to be the case in those halcyon days (in fiction), the police team work well together, efficiently, professionally and in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
Another great read from Lorac’s pen – I remain baffled as to why she is less well known than the other Golden Age Queens of Crime and am very glad that the BL is doing such a great job in changing that.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
Having been cooped up inside for so long, the porpy and I thought it would be nice to go for a little walk in the woods. This week’s story comes from Weird Woods, edited by John Miller, a new anthology in the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series…
The Man Who Went Too Far by EF Benson
The little village of St. Faith’s nestles in a hollow of wooded hill up on the north bank of the river Fawn in the country of Hampshire, huddling close round its grey Norman church as if for spiritual protection against the fays and fairies, the trolls and “little people,” who might be supposed still to linger in the vast empty spaces of the New Forest, and to come after dusk and do their doubtful businesses.
At the end of the village is a little house, where an artist, Frank, has come to live in isolation, communing with nature. Today, however, he is awaiting the arrival of an old friend, Darcy, whom he has not seen for several years. But when Darcy sees him, he is astonished at his appearance…
“Frank!” he exclaimed. “Yes, that is my name,” he said, laughing; “what is the matter?” Darcy took his hand. “What have you done to yourself?” he asked. “You are a boy again.”
It’s not simply Frank’s physical appearance that has changed, though. He seems to have become all mystical, and has developed an uncanny intimacy with nature and all her offspring…
He paused on the margin of the stream and whistled softly. Next moment a moor-hen made its splashing flight across the river, and ran up the bank. Frank took it very gently in his hands and stroked its head, as the creature lay against his shirt. “And is the house among the reeds still secure?” he half-crooned to it. “And is the missus quite well, and are the neighbours flourishing? There, dear, home with you,” and he flung it into the air.
Later, they talk, and Frank explains that…
“…when I left London, abandoned my career, such as it was, I did so because I intended to devote my life to the cultivation of joy, and, by continuous and unsparing effort, to be happy.”
He had found humanity to be too Puritan, too downright dismal, to enable him to find joy among them.
“So I took one step backwards or forwards, as you may choose to put it, and went straight to Nature, to trees, birds, animals, to all those things which quite clearly pursue one aim only, which blindly follow the great native instinct to be happy without any care at all for morality, or human law or divine law.”
Darcy is a bit cynical about all this, but he looks at Frank’s youthful, joyous face and wonders. Frank continues…
“I looked at happy things, zealously avoided the sight of anything unhappy, and by degrees a little trickle of the happiness of this blissful world began to filter into me. The trickle grew more abundant, and now, my dear fellow, if I could for a moment divert from me into you one half of the torrent of joy that pours through me day and night, you would throw the world, art, everything aside, and just live, exist.”
Eventually, one day, as he lay in a deep state of contemplation of joyfulness, he heard the sound of music, from some flute-like instrument.
“It came from the reeds and from the sky and from the trees. It was everywhere, it was the sound of life. It was, my dear Darcy, as the Greeks would have said, it was Pan playing on his pipes, the voice of Nature. It was the life-melody, the world-melody.”
And now Frank hopes that soon he will be allowed into the presence of Pan and through him learn the true meaning of life.
“Then having gained that, ah, my dear Darcy, I shall preach such a gospel of joy, showing myself as the living proof of the truth, that Puritanism, the dismal religion of sour faces, shall vanish like a breath of smoke, and be dispersed and disappear in the sunlit air.”
* * * * *
Pan seems to be a mysterious god: sometimes, as Frank thinks, a kind of pagan offshoot of the Christian religion (as he also appears a few years later in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame); sometimes a force of ancient Satanic evil, to be avoided at all costs (as he appears earlier in The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen). Since the prologue hints at the ending, it comes as little surprise to the reader to find which version of Pan appears here! It’s the ancient forces of paganism that carry this story out of straight horror into “weird” territory.
The beginning is full of gorgeously lush descriptions of the natural world – so lush I felt Benson was overdoing it until I realised he’s deliberately showing it as an enchanted, almost fairy-tale place. But the story gradually darkens, and we see that Frank’s anti-Puritanism stance barely conceals a hedonistic, narcissistic view of life. So there’s a feeling of this being a morality tale of a kind – a dark kind. It made me briefly feel quite pro-Puritan!
The story is a little longer than usual. It took me around forty minutes to read, I think, but it was time very well spent. Here’s a link if you’d like to read it, and I found this audio version of it too online. I’ve only listened to the first minute or so, but the narrator sounds good.
(The porpy will be fine just as soon as I coax him out of hiding…)
A collection of short stories linked by subject matter and style rather than through the characters, this is a wonderful homage to the science fiction of the late 19th/early 20th century. There are nine stories in all, and I gave six of them five stars, two got four, and only the last story in the book, which I freely admit I didn’t understand, let it down a little for me at the end. But not enough to spoil my overall enjoyment – some of these stories are brilliant and the quality of the writing is superb.
As regulars will know, I love early science fiction, books from the colonial era, and stories set in fog-bound, sooty old London, and Mason manages to tick all those boxes in this slim collection, so I think it’s fair to say I was destined to love it. It could all have gone horribly wrong though if he’d got the style wrong or dragged in accidental anachronisms. Fortunately, he does an amazing job at catching just the right tone, and I could imagine HG Wells and the lads nodding enthusiastically over his shoulder while he was writing. That’s not to say the stories feel old-fashioned or dated, though. Mason looks at the subjects he chooses with a modern eye, but includes those observations so subtly it becomes part of the style. So the anachronisms that are there are quite intentional and disguised so beautifully that they’re barely noticeable, except in the way that they make the subject matter resonate with a modern reader. In short, what I’m attempting – badly – to say is that there’s no need to have read any early science fiction to enjoy the stories – they work twice, as a homage as I’ve said, but as a fully relevant modern collection too.
Here’s a flavour of a few of the stories I loved most:
The Ecstasy of Alfred Russell Wallace – Wallace is a collector of bugs and birds and animals, which he sends home for the many scientists studying such things. During a fever, he has an epiphany and realises that living things evolve to survive. He writes to a scientist he knows vaguely – Charles Darwin – and waits for a reply. And waits. And waits. And gradually he begins to doubt himself, and to doubt the scientific community, fearing they will take his idea for their own since he isn’t one of them and doesn’t deserve recognition. This reads so much like a true story I looked it up, and Wallace did indeed exist, although his real story seems to be rather different than the story Mason gives us. It’s truly excellent, full of insight into how the scientific world worked in that era.
On Growing Ferns and Other Plants in Glass Cases in the Midst of the Smoke of London (Phew! He likes his long titles!) – This is the story of an asthmatic child and his anxious mother, and the lengths to which she will go to save his life. Mason gives a superb depiction of nineteenth century sooty London, industrialized and choking. Also of medicine, at a time when the treatment was often worse than the disease. It has a wonderful science fiction element to it which I won’t explain for fear of spoilers, but it’s a fabulous story that brought the tears to my eyes at the end.
The Line Agent Pascal – a story set in colonial Brazil. Pascal is one of the agents who live along the communications line that crosses the country, each many, many miles from the next along. Every morning, a signal is sent from head office and each agent confirms in turn that the line is working. But one day, one of the agents doesn’t respond. This is a great character study of Pascal, a man who struggles to fit in with other people, so his solitary posting suits him perfectly despite the dangers lurking in the forest around his station. But he has grown to think of the other men along the line as some kind of friends despite never having met them. The colonial setting is great, with the feeling of loneliness and constant danger from nature or the displaced indigenous people. Worthy of Conrad, and in fact reminded me not a little of the setting in his story, An Outpost of Progress, though the story (and the continent!) is entirely different.
On the Cause of Winds and Waves, &c. – The story of a female aéronaute – a balloonist – whose exploits have made her famous. But when one day she sees an odd rift in the sky she discovers that her gender and class mean that the scientific community not only don’t take her seriously but actually ridicule and humiliate her. So she sets out to prove her story true, taking along a witness. Another science fiction one, but with a delightful quirk that takes it into the realms of metafiction. (I swore I’d never use any word beginning with meta- on the blog, but I really can’t think of another way to describe it. 😉)
So plenty of variety linked, as I said at the beginning, by style, subject matter and wonderful writing. A great collection – highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle at Pan Macmillan.
Oh, dear! Back in lockdown, back in reading slump! I’ve only finished one book in the whole of October so far – this is becoming critical! It’s extremely hard to keep a book blog running if you can’t be bothered to read books or write reviews, I’ve discovered. I may have to come up with something creative – a cake-tasting blog, perhaps? All this is my excuse for why the TBR has crept back up by two to 199. Still below the magical 200, though…
Here are a few more that will be sliding off soon…
Weird Woods edited by John Miller
Courtesy of the British Library. Another themed anthology of vintage horror stories from the BL’s Tales of the Weird series – it makes the porpy and me so happy that they’re doing the same for vintage horror as they’ve done for vintage crime!
The Blurb says: Woods play an important and recurring role in horror, fantasy, the gothic and the weird. They are places in which strange things happen, where you often can’t see where you are or what is around you. Supernatural creatures thrive in the thickets. Trees reach into underworlds of earth, myth and magic. Forests are full of ghosts.
In this new collection, immerse yourself in the whispering voices between the branches in Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor, witness an inexplicable death in Yorkshire’s Strid Wood and prepare yourself for an encounter with malignant pagan powers in the dark of the New Forest. This edition also includes notes on the real locations and folklore which inspired these deliciously sinister stories.
* * * * *
The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. I’m sure there was a creaky old black and white TV adaptation of this when I was a kid, but apart from the character names I remember nothing else about it. Sounds as if it could be wonderful… or awful! We’ll see…
The Blurb says: The second of Cooper’s five Leatherstocking Tales, this is the one which has consistently captured the imagination of generations since it was first published in 1826. It’s success lies partly in the historical role Cooper gives to his Indian characters, against the grain of accumulated racial hostility, and partly in his evocation of the wild beautiful landscapes of North America which the French and the British fought to control throughout the eighteenth century. At the center of the novel is the celebrated `Massacre’ of British troops and their families by Indian allies of the French at Fort William Henry in 1757. Around this historical event, Cooper built a romantic fiction of captivity, sexuality, and heroism, in which the destiny of the Mohicans Chingachgook and his son Uncas is inseparable from the lives of Alice and Cora Munro and of Hawkeye the frontier scout. The controlled, elaborate writing gives natural pace to the violence of the novel’s action: like the nature whose plundering Copper laments, the books placid surfaces conceal inexplicable and deathly forces.
* * * * *
The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons
Courtesy of the British Library again! I’ve loved the previous books of Julian Symons that they’ve re-published, so have high hopes for this one. The cover’s very different from their usual style, isn’t it?
The Blurb says: The murder, a brutal stabbing, definitely took place on Guy Fawkes night. It was definitely by the bonfire on the village green. There were definitely a number of witnesses to a row between a group of Teddy Boys. And yet, was it definitely clear to anybody exactly what they had seen?
In the writhing, violent shadows, it seems as if the truth may have gone up in smoke.
* * * * *
Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor
Since I’m currently listening to Dracula, this seems like the obvious one to choose for my next listen, especially since I’ve seen some great reviews appearing around the blogosphere. It’s narrated by Anna Chancellor, whom I love, and Barry McGovern, whom I don’t know very well but am told is great, so I’m looking forward to filling some of the dark lockdown evenings with this…
The Blurb says: 1878: The Lyceum Theatre, London. Three extraordinary people begin their life together, a life that will be full of drama, transformation, passionate and painful devotion to art and to one another. Henry Irving, the Chief, is the volcanic leading man and impresario; Ellen Terry is the most lauded and desired actress of her generation, outspoken and generous of heart; and ever following along behind them in the shadows is the unremarkable theatre manager, Bram Stoker.
Fresh from life in Dublin as a clerk, Bram may seem the least colourful of the trio but he is wrestling with dark demons in a new city, in a new marriage, and with his own literary aspirations. As he walks the London streets at night, streets haunted by the Ripper and the gossip which swirls around his friend Oscar Wilde, he finds new inspiration. But the Chief is determined that nothing will get in the way of his manager’s devotion to the Lyceum and to himself. And both men are enchanted by the beauty and boldness of the elusive Ellen.
This exceptional novel explores the complexities of love that stands dangerously outside social convention, the restlessness of creativity, and the experiences that led to Dracula, the most iconic supernatural tale of all time.
* * * * *
NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or Audible UK.
Isherwood Williams has been on a field trip in the wilderness for a while when he is bitten by a snake. For a few days he’s out of it, feverish as the poison works through his system. On recovering, he drives to the nearest town only to discover that while he’s been in isolation, a plague has destroyed nearly all human life. He sets out on a road journey through America, looking for other survivors and gathering material for his forthcoming travelogue…
OK, I made up that last bit, but honestly that’s what this feels like – a guide book to America written by someone rather boring. Maybe it would resonate more if these were places I knew or had some kind of emotional response to, but I don’t, and so it’s just a list of street names interspersed with amazing insights like, in the absence of man, weeds sprout between paving stones, and dogs go hungry.
A few pigeons fluttered up at Rockefeller Center, disturbed now by the sound of a single motor. At Forty-second Street, yielding to a whim, he stopped the car in the middle of Fifth Avenue and got out, leaving Princess shut up.
He walked East on Forty-second Street, the empty sidewalk ridiculously wide. He entered Grand Central Terminal, and looked in at the vast expanse of waiting-room.
“Waugh!” he called loudly, and felt a childlike pleasure as an echo came reverberating back from the high vault, through the emptiness.
I believe later in the book he finally meets some people and sets up a kind of back-to-nature life, but I gave up at the 20% mark – rapidly becoming the standard point where I abandon books for boring me to death. To be fair, this may have seemed more original when it first came out in 1949, but it’s been done so many times since, and done better. It doesn’t compare in any way to the brilliance of The Day of the Triffids, for example, published just two years later, or more recently to the unsettling starkness of The Road. Where both those authors recognised that the primary thing that makes even post-apocalyptic novels interesting is the interaction of humans, Stewart chooses to have Ish, as he’s known, feel superior and judgemental towards the few remnants of humanity he encounters, and quickly decide he’d rather be on his own than with them. So all that’s left is endless unemotional descriptions of the effects of nature returning to a world without humanity, sometimes through Ish’s eyes, and sometimes through annoying little inset sections in italics where Stewart chooses to give a kind of running lecture on the subject.
Book 69 of 90
And perhaps because our own pandemic has allowed us to have a tiny insight into how the world reacts when man retreats, I didn’t even feel he’d got it right. He says, for instance, that wildlife continues to shun the cities – not what happened during our various lockdowns when the internet was awash with pictures of all kinds of creatures revelling in our absence and dancing in our streets. He also has Ish constantly fearing he’ll come across piles of the dead, but he doesn’t. Where are they all? If everyone suddenly got sick all at the same time, so sick that most of them died, who on earth buried them? Stewart hints that everyone died in hospitals so has Ish avoid them, but no hospital system in the world has capacity to take in the entire population simultaneously, a fact of which we have all recently become only too aware. Ish wanders round New York and sees no corpses, smells no putrefaction, etc. It’s as if humanity has been vaporised by aliens rather than killed by disease (which frankly would have been a more fun story).
Perhaps, not being a housekeeper, he had not previously noticed dust, or perhaps this place was particularly dusty. No matter which! From now on, dust would be a part of his life.
Back at the car, he slipped it into gear, crossed Forty-second Street, and continued south. On the steps of the Library he saw a grey cat crouched, paws stretched out in front, as if in caricature of the stone lions above.
At the Flatiron Building he turned into Broadway, and followed it clear to Wall Street. There they both got out, and Princess showed interest in some kind of trail which ran along the sidewalk. Wall Street! He enjoyed walking along its empty length.
I’ve been abandoning an excessive number of books this year, due to my own plague-inspired blues, so perhaps I’d have had more patience with this at another time, and perhaps it becomes more interesting once Ish finally becomes part of a community. But right now it’s simply boring me, so I’m giving up the struggle and don’t see myself ever returning to it. As post-apocalyptic books go, this is the dullest I’ve ever tried to read. In a world full of interesting people, what a pity that tedious Ish is the one who survived…
Even more than usual, I’m dreaming of escaping this grubby old world and seeking purer air and better manners somewhere far away, where inventing Twitter is a criminal offence, politicians must take a vow of silence, and chocolate grows on trees. Perhaps Venus will be an idyllic vacation spot… let’s see…
Foundling on Venus by John and Dorothy De Courcy
(I have no idea what this picture is supposed to represent since there is absolutely no scene in the story like this!)
Unlike Gaul, the north continent of Venus is divided into four parts. No Caesar has set foot here either, nor shall one – for the dank, stinging, caustic air swallows up the lives of men and only Venus may say, I conquered.
Hmm, so not an environmental paradise then, but surely the inhabitants will be advanced, peaceful, artistic? Well, apparently the Africans exploit their quarter, the Asians engage in…
…the bitter game of power politics, secret murder, and misery – most of all, misery.
… and the Martians use their quarter as a penal colony. So it looks as if my last hope rests in the American zone…
The Federated States, after their fashion, plunder the land and send screaming ships to North America laden with booty and with men grown suddenly rich – and with men who will never care for riches or anything else again. These are the fortunate dead.
I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve selected the right location, but look! There’s a town, built just at the intersection where all four quarters meet! Maybe it will be a perfect spot for tourists…
From the arbitrary point where the four territories met, New Reno flung its sprawling, dirty carcass over the muddy soil and roared and hooted endlessly, laughed with the rough boisterousness of miners and spacemen, rang with the brittle, brassy laughter of women following a trade older than New Reno. It clanged and shouted and bellowed so loudly that quiet sobbing was never heard.
Think I might have a staycation this year after all. Anyway, one day a young waitress, Jane, comes across a little child, sobbing as he sits on the street, apparently abandoned.
….Oh, my!” she breathed, bending over the tiny form. “You poor thing. Where’s your mama?” ….The little figure rubbed its face, looked at her blankly and heaved a long, shuddering sigh. ….“I can’t leave you sitting here in the mud!” She pulled out a handkerchief and tried to wipe away some of the mud and then helped him up. His clothes were rags, his feet bare.
She takes the child home and feeds him and puts him to bed, but he’s still wide awake, so she begins to tell him a story – the tale of a ship that crashed on an unknown planet…
“The big, beautiful ship was all broken. Well, since they couldn’t fix the ship at all now, they set out on foot to find out where they were and to see if they could get help. Then they found that they were in a land of great big giants, and the people were very fierce…”
(Nope, this scene doesn’t exist either!)
* * * * *
The actual story of this is quite slight and it’s not too hard to work out what the twist at the end is likely to be. But it’s a lovely description of a frontier society, much like the Old West but transplanted to a truly hostile environment where people can’t venture outside without protection from the very air they must breathe. It’s also got a few nicely imaginative touches, like the Martian society as shown by their attitude towards their penal colony, or the way the crash victims set out to survive. It’s very short, but well written and entertaining, and with just enough substance to scrape into the thought-provoking category – thoughts that are not very complimentary to Earthlings, I must admit.
(Bland, but better.)
I read it in Born of the Sun, edited by Mike Ashley – a collection which promises to take me to each of the planets in our solar system, so I haven’t given up all hope of finding my paradise yet. Maybe I’ll visit The Hell Planet next – I hear it’s nice this time of year…
Meantime, if you’d like to read this one, it’s available on Project Gutenberg – here’s a link.
The Joymount Cement Company is in trouble. Its main local competitor, Chayle’s, has found a new formula that allows them to produce cement more cheaply, thus undercutting Joymount. Joymount’s board of directors decide to give their chief chemist a few weeks to try to replicate the formula – if he fails, then the company may have to close. King, the chemist, tries his best but, as the deadline approaches, he is no nearer finding the solution, so he persuades one of the other directors, Brand, to sneak into Chayle’s with him one night to see what they can find out. That’s when things begin to go horribly wrong…
This is an “inverted” mystery, a format for which I understand Crofts was particularly well known. (For the uninitiated, this means that the crime is shown first including the identity of the criminal, and then the story joins the detective, showing the methods he uses to investigate it.) The story leading up to the break-in at Chayle’s and the resulting death that happens there is very well told, but only takes up about a quarter of the book. Inspector French from Scotland Yard is brought in because the local police suspect that there’s more to the break-in and death at Chayle’s than meets the eye. French soon confirms this, and now a murder hunt is on.
At this point, I was thinking that it was going to be a long haul watching French discover what we, the readers, already knew had happened. I should have had more faith in Crofts’ reputation! I can only be vague because I want to avoid even the smallest of spoilers, but suddenly another event happens that turns the story on its head, leading to another crime – one to which the reader does not know the solution. This second crime forms the main focus of the book, and a very satisfying mystery it is. The possible suspect list is tiny, but the clues are so beautifully meted out that I changed my mind several times about whodunit, and only got about halfway there in the end. It’s also a howdunit – until the method is discovered, it’s almost impossible to know who would have had the opportunity to commit the crime. So in the end, Crofts throws in everything – an inverted crime, a traditional mystery, alibis, method, motives, all wrapped up in a police procedural, and it all works brilliantly.
He also does a lovely job with the characterisation – not so much of French, who truthfully is a bit bland as detectives go, in this one at any rate, but of the men involved – King, Brand, their boss Tasker, and their opposite numbers at Chayle’s. They are each given clear motivation for how they act individually, and there’s a good deal of moral ambiguity floating around – while not everyone is guilty in the eyes of the law, very few could be called entirely innocent. The murkiness of the business world is at the heart of the story, and the lengths to which men will go in the pursuit of profit. (Yes, they’re all men – it was first published in 1934.)
I loved this. So intricately plotted but also with a very human set of characters to stop it from being merely a puzzle. It’s only the second book of Crofts I’ve read, the other being The 12:30 from Croydon, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. It too is an inverted mystery, but very different in how it’s done, showing that this particular sub-genre has more room for variety than I’d have expected. I will now add Crofts to my ever-growing list of vintage crime writers to be further explored! Happily I have another couple of his books already waiting on the TBR pile…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.
(Yes, I know it’s not Thursday, but I forgot to do my quarterly post yesterday, so I’m fitting it in today instead.) At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. Although I’m not slumping as badly as I was earlier in the year, I’m still not reading at anything like my usual rate, so there’s zero chance of me meeting targets this year. (What’s new??) But I’ve decided not to beat myself up over it, and I’m still slowly chipping away at my various challenges.
Here goes, then – the third check-in of the year…
Well, it’s actually slightly better than I was expecting! Most of the challenges are still badly behind, but I think I’ve actually caught up a little since I last reported. The Classics Club is the real problem, since I’m supposed to finish my list by next summer. Does anyone know what the punishment is for failure? It better not be chocolate-denial…
The TBR had dipped a bit at the end of September, although honesty compels me to admit October has been a bit of a spree so far. My recent disappointing experiences with some of the older books on the TBR has given me just the excuse I needed to add new ones. Plus my favourite publishers have come out of lockdown and a few parcels have been arriving – yay! However, I continue to cull the wishlist monthly, so the combined figure is still on target – amazingly…
* * * * * * *
The Classics Club
I’ve read a respectable six from my Classics Club list. I had two left unreviewed from the previous quarter, and now have three unreviewed at the end of September. My reviewing slump has actually been worse than the reading slump. Still, that means I’ve reviewed five this quarter…
64. Flemington by Violet Jacob – Set during the Jacobite Rebellions, this is the story of two men on opposite sides in the conflict. Well told, some great characterisation and a good deal of moral ambiguity, with Jacob showing that both sides believed in the honour of their cause. I enjoyed it very much. 4½ stars.
65. The African Queenby CS Forester – The book on which the classic Hepburn/Bogart film is based, this is the story of a spinster lady and a Cockney steamboat pilot coming together to destroy a German gunboat. The main strength of the book is in the descriptions of the African riverscape. It’s an old-fashioned adventure story, enjoyable but let down a little by the ending, which was changed in the film to make it more exciting. 3½ stars.
66. The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson – Set in Elgin in the 1920s, this autobiographical novel tells of a little girl growing up among the women of Lady’s Lane. Her mother is a prostitute and little Janie is seen as neglected, though she doesn’t feel that way herself. But when the Cruelty Man comes calling, Janie’s life will change. It’s a hard story, told with warmth and empathy and humour, and no bitterly pointed finger of blame from the adult Kesson. A beautiful book. 5 stars.
67. The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison – Another Scottish classic, this time set in Gleneagles just after the Jacobite Rebellion. It’s based on the history of Mitchison’s own family, and while it is clearly brilliantly researched and gives a real flavour of the lives of the minor aristocracy of the time, sadly it’s let down by a weak and rather dull plot. I abandoned it halfway through. Just 2 stars.
68. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler – this classic noir simply didn’t work for me, but I take the blame since noir rarely does. The detective, Marlowe, is convinced that his friend didn’t murder his wife, even though he confessed and committed suicide. The book is way too long, with more emphasis on Chandler’s musings on life than on the plot. Again, just 2 stars.
A very mixed bunch this quarter, but with a couple of goodies in the mix. If I never read about another Jacobite though, I’ll die happy…
68 down, 22 to go!
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Murder Mystery Mayhem
I’ve read and reviewed three for this challenge this quarter. I’m going through a bad phase with these, often unable to see why Martin Edwards would have included them in his list. However, I’ll keep going for a while longer since, despite this quarter’s dismal experience, overall I’ve enjoyed most of the one I’ve read. To see the full challenge, click here.
38. The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham – A murder mystery with a twist – the dead man appears to have died twice! This is an unusual Campion mystery in that it’s told in the first person rather than the usual third. I enjoyed getting inside his head – it made him seem a little less of the silly ass that he sometimes appears. One of the more enjoyable Campion books for me. 4 stars.
39. The Killer and the Slain by Hugh Walpole – the story of a man driven to murder and the effect it has on him. This is a rip-off of Jekyll and Hyde, and not nearly as well done, dull and over-padded. I can’t imagine why it’s on the list. Abandoned halfway through, and a generous 1 star.
40. Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi by Jorge Luis Borges – dear me! I only got halfway again in this one! It’s a spoof of The Old Man in the Corner stories and filled with “humour”, but I found it overly wordy, condescendingly knowing and gratingly arch, with every client (of the three I read, at least) having exactly the same characterisation. 1 star, though I may have to introduce a zero stars rating soon.
40 down, 62 to go!
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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge
I’ve actually read two history books for this so far, but have only reviewed one (in October, but I’m counting it anyway). I haven’t managed to fit in any more of the fiction books yet, and I think this challenge is really only going to take off properly next year. My enthusiasm is still high, though – it’s just a matter of scheduling!
2. The Spanish Civil War by Stanley G Payne – this was an excellent introduction to the subject, concise but packed full of information, clearly presented. Payne has been a historian of Spain and European fascism throughout his career, and this book feels like the sum of all that immense study, distilled down to its pure essence. 5 stars.
2 down, indefinite number to go!
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So a more productive quarter in terms of quantity, with enough great books to make it all worthwhile. Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!
A tiny drop in the TBR this week – down 1 to 197. Not the most impressive achievement, but baby steps, baby steps…
(I know, I’ve used that one before, but it’s too good to only use once!)
Here are a few more that will be slipping off soon…
Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald
One for the Classics Club. When this one came up on a recent People’s Choice poll it lost, but Alyson suggested we read it anyway and co-ordinate our reviews and comments on 26th October, and a few other people decided that sounded like fun. So a reminder to Alyson, Christine and Eva if you’re still interested, and an invitation to anyone else who fancies joining in. (Sadly, Sandra has had to pull out of this one.) I have read this before but so long ago I remember very little about it except that it didn’t blow me away to the same extent as The Great Gatsby…
The Blurb says: Between the First World War and the Wall Street Crash the French Riviera was the stylish place for wealthy Americans to visit. Among the most fashionable are the Divers, Dick and Nicole who hold court at their villa. Into their circle comes Rosemary Hoyt, a film star, who is instantly attracted to them, but understands little of the dark secrets and hidden corruption that hold them together. As Dick draws closer to Rosemary, he fractures the delicate structure of his marriage and sets both Nicole and himself on to a dangerous path where only the strongest can survive. In this exquisite, lyrical novel, Fitzgerald has poured much of the essence of his own life; he has also depicted the age of materialism, shattered idealism and broken dreams.
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Green Tea and Other Weird Stories by Sheridan Le Fanu
I have been the lucky recipient of a ton of anthologies and collections this year to feed my Tuesday Terror!, Transwarp Tuesday!, and even my long neglected Tuesday ‘Tec! short story slots. Here’s the first, courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics – a new collection just in time for spooky season. The porpy is thrilled!
The Blurb says: Sheridan Le Fanu is one of the indispensable figures in the history of Gothic and horror fiction-the most important such writer in English, certainly, between Poe and M. R. James. While a number of his sensation and mystery novels were popular with mid-Victorian readers, it was in shorter forms that he truly excelled, and most showed himself an innovator in the field of uncanny fiction. Tales such as ‘Carmilla’ and ‘Green Tea’ prompted M. R. James to remark, ‘he succeeds in inspiring a mysterious terror better than any other writer’.
This landmark critical edition includes the original versions of all five stories later collected in the superb In a Glass Darkly, along with seven equally chilling tales spanning the length of Le Fanu’s career, from ‘Schalken the Painter‘, a pioneering story of the walking dead, to ‘Laura Silver Bell’, a haunting exploration of the dark side of fairy lore.
Aaron Worth’s introduction discusses the paranoid, claustrophobic world of Le Fanu’s fiction as a counterpoint-one in its own way equally modern-to the cosmic horror tale as practiced by such writers as H. P. Lovecraft.
The Blurb says: This new volume in the Bodies from the Library series features the work of 18 prolific authors who, like Christie and Crofts, saw their popularity soar during the Golden Age. Aside from novels, they all wrote short fiction – stories, serials and plays – and although most of them have been collected in books over the last 100 years, here are the ones that got away…
In this book you will encounter classic series detectives including Colonel Gore, Roger Sheringham, Hildegarde Withers and Henri Bencolin; Hercule Poirot solves ‘The Incident of the Dog’s Ball’; Roderick Alleyn returns to New Zealand in a recently discovered television drama by Ngaio Marsh; and Dorothy L. Sayers’ chilling ‘The House of the Poplars’ is published for the first time.
With a full-length novella by John Dickson Carr and an unpublished radio script by Cyril Hare, this diverse collection concludes with some early ‘flash fiction’ commissioned by Collins’ Crime Club in 1938. Each mini story had to feature an orange, resulting in six very different tales from Peter Cheyney, Ethel Lina White, David Hume, Nicholas Blake, John Rhode and – in his only foray into writing detective fiction – the publisher himself, William Collins.
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Born of the Sun edited by Mike Ashley
The British Library has been super generous with sci-fi and horror anthologies, so I’m looking forward to sharing the others with you soon. This is the first on my list, and I love the idea of travelling the solar system in this way…
The Blurb says: An original concept featuring a Golden Age science fiction for every planet in the Solar System, Born of the Sun includes never-before-republished material from the British Library collection – effectively exclusive by their rarity. This is the 7th of our weighty Science Fiction Classics anthologies, a set which wonderfully embodies the Golden Age of the genre.
Terror in the steamy jungles of Venus, encounters on the arid expanse of Jupiter; asteroids mysteriously bursting with vegetation whizz past and reveal worlds beyond imagination orbiting the giver of all known life – the Sun. Mike Ashley curates this literary tour through the space around this heavenly body, taking in the sights of Mercury, Venus, Mars, an alternate Earth, strange goings on on Saturn and tales from a bizarre civilization on Neptune. Pluto (still a planet in the Classic period of Science fiction) becomes the site for a desperate tale of isolation, and a nameless point at the limits of the Sun’s orbital space gives rise to a final poetic vision of this spot in the universe we call home…
Born of the Sun collects one story for each of the planets thought to be in our solar system during the Golden Age of Science fiction, from some of the greatest, and from some of the most obscure, authors of the genre. Featuring the genius works of Larry Niven, Poul Andersen, Clifford D Simak, Clare Winger Harris and many more.
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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
On starting my personal challenge to get an understanding of the Spanish Civil War through history, memoirs and fiction, the first book I wanted was one which basically explained the historical background, laid out the events leading up to the war, introduced the main leaders, explained the factions and tried, at least, to avoid bias. This last point was the hardest – all the best known histories on the subject seem to be pretty overwhelmingly biased towards the Republican (left) side. After a couple of false starts, I settled on this one and feel I couldn’t have made a better decision. Payne has been a historian of Spain and European fascism throughout his career, and this book feels like the sum of all that immense study, distilled down to its pure essence. Every word in its short 286 pages counts, so that there’s far more information in here than in many a waffly 900-page tome I’ve struggled through on other historical periods.
Payne’s bias, if he has one, seems slightly to the right, though it’s quite clear he’s no more a fan of the regimes of the far-right than the far-left. He avoids any kind of romanticisation of the left – generally a recurring feature of British and American writing on the SCW, showing how much better the left were at propaganda, if nothing else. Indeed, propaganda and the role of foreign journalists and novelists in its dissemination at the time, and on public perception of the conflict even today, is one of the many subjects he addresses in the book.
Payne starts with a brief introduction, putting the SCW into the context of the many civil wars happening in Eastern Europe and around the “periphery” of Europe around that time. He notes that Spain was unique in being the only Western European country to have a civil war in the interwar years, and that, while the political upheavals in other western nations like Germany and Italy rose out of the aftermath of WW1, Spain had remained neutral in that conflict.
He continues by giving a concise and clear history of Spain, from the time of the Romans. This is done in a just a few pages, but gives the newcomer to the subject a very clear idea of the development of the social, political and economic conditions in the country just prior to the civil war. He discusses Spain’s failure to modernise at the same rate as other European countries, remaining more rural and socially backward, less literate, poorer. Out of these conditions arose the factions on left and right that would both eventually feel that a limited conflict would give power into their hands.
Payne slows down a bit as he discusses the years from around 1930 to the outbreak of war, but it is still a very distilled account – no padding, very few anecdotes or character sketches, but everything very clearly explained. The profusion of factions on both left and right are the main reason I, and I’m sure I’m not alone, find the SCW more confusing than many other conflicts or historical events, and Payne takes the time to explain each in turn – how they arose, their affiliations to outside forces like the USSR or Mussolini’s Italy, their regional power bases within Spain, what they believed in and what kind of government they wanted to create. As he develops the history of events, Payne is excellent at constantly reminding the reader of where each faction stands whenever they are mentioned, so that I rarely found it necessary to turn to the included glossary of all those dreaded acronyms, like POUM and PCE and CEDA. In fact, by the end of the book I actually had a good idea of what all these terms actually meant – a considerable achievement, believe me!
Alongside the narration of events, Payne includes themed chapters where he goes more deeply into one aspect of the conflict, such as religion or foreign intervention or propaganda, etc., and it’s in these chapters that he’s more analytical. He debunks some of the commonly held and somewhat romantic myths, explaining their origin, and replaces them with factual analysis, including plenty of statistics, on numbers of executions on both sides, for example, or the brutal atrocities carried out, again by both sides. He is critical of Franco’s skills as a war strategist, suggesting his failure to take decisive action at crucial moments led to a prolongation of the conflict. But his strongest criticism is directed at the shambolic chaos on the left, with faction fighting faction, and no clear plan of what they were trying to achieve. He compares the conditions in Republican and Nationalist zones, and suggests a major factor in the Nationalists’ success was their economic competence – indeed, their competence generally. The picture he paints is of idealism, factionalism and chaos on the left defeated by planning, pragmatism and organisation on the right. (Are you listening, America?)
My only caveat, and it’s a small one, would be that a basic understanding of the Russian revolution and of the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini would be helpful, but I think he gives enough information on them in passing to prevent any reader from feeling too lost. So, in conclusion, great as an introduction for the newcomer, but there’s also plenty of analysis in here to interest those with an existing knowledge of events. Highly recommended – the perfect start to my quest!
This week’s story comes from a new anthology of eerie stories from the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series, this one with the theme of settings in the various districts of London – Into the London Fog. The tale of terror I’ve selected is set in Kensington, during the Blitz, and comes from the pen of an author I’ve seen mentioned a lot around the blogosphere but have never previously read…
The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen
Mrs Drover is in London for the day, and visits her deserted home to pick up some things she’d left there when she and her family fled to the country to avoid the Blitz. She finds herself feeling a strange sense of dislocation…
In her once familiar street, as in any unused channel, an unfamiliar queerness had silted up; a cat wove itself in and out of railings, but no human eye watched Mrs. Drover’s return. Shifting some parcels under her arm, she slowly forced round her latchkey in an unwilling lock, then gave the door, which had warped, a push with her knee. Dead air came out to meet her as she went in.
Everything is cold, and the empty rooms show the things usually unnoticed in a full house…
…the yellow smoke stain up the white marble mantelpiece, the ring left by a vase on the top of the escritoire; the bruise in the wallpaper where, on the door being thrown open widely, the china handle had always hit the wall.
She passes through the hall to go upstairs…
A shaft of refracted daylight now lay across the hall. She stopped dead and stared at the hall table—on this lay a letter addressed to her.
How could a letter be there? Who could have put it on the table? Mrs Drover hurries up to her bedroom, and opens the letter…
Dear Kathleen: You will not have forgotten that today is our anniversary, and the day we said. The years have gone by at once slowly and fast. In view of the fact that nothing has changed, I shall rely upon you to keep your promise. I was sorry to see you leave London, but was satisfied that you would be back in time. You may expect me, therefore, at the hour arranged. Until then…
She remembers. She remembers the day her soldier fiancé left in 1916 to return to the war in France. She remembers their last meeting in the evening gloom of the garden, and the promise he forced from her before he left. She remembers his unkindness and her relief that he would soon be gone.
Turning away and looking back up the lawn she saw, through branches of trees, the drawing-room window alight: She caught a breath for the moment when she could go running back there into the safe arms of her mother and sister, and cry: “What shall I do, what shall I do? He has gone.”
She remembers being informed that he was “missing, presumed killed”. But she does not remember the appointed hour for the fulfilment of her promise. And she does not remember his face…
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Well, this is a little cracker – right up there with The Turn of a Screw in terms of ambiguity! It’s only a few short pages, but Bowen builds a tremendous atmosphere of apprehension and the dislocation of war. We think of WW1 and WW2 as two separate events, but Bowen shows them as a continuum – the second war reviving traumas barely healed from the first.
Mrs Drover is outwardly a passive character. Her first lover seemed to rather want to possess her than love her, and her reaction seems to have been entirely submissive. Left single after the end of the war, she is grateful to attract another man and strives to be a good wife and mother. But there are subtle indications that there may be more going on beneath her calm surface…
Since the birth of the third of her little boys, attended by a quite serious illness, she had had an intermittent muscular flicker to the left of her mouth…
This wonderfully ambiguous character portrait leaves the reader unsure whether anything is true. It’s told in the third person, but if the narrator is omniscient she chooses carefully which parts of her knowledge she will reveal. Is it the repeated trauma of war – the loss of a lover in the first, the loss of a home in the second – that has driven Mrs Drover over the edge? Or is her lover really about to return – living or dead? The ending manages the difficult feat of being both almost entirely unexplained and yet fully satisfying.
Is it a ghost story? Or a story of revenge for a promise forgotten? Or a story of mental breakdown brought on by trauma? I still haven’t decided – you’ll need to read it and make up your own mind! Here’s a link. Whatever it is, the porpy and I think it’s great!
Serenata has always been a fitness freak, no day complete without its allocated hours of exercises and running. So much so that, now she has reached sixty, her knees have given up the unequal struggle and forced her to learn to take things easy. Still trying to come to terms with this, she finds it rather cruel and insensitive when her husband Remington decides that, after a lifetime of sedentary laziness, he will run a marathon. Besides, she hates the new culture of fitness sweeping the country – when she started her punishing regime all those years ago, she was unusual, and that was a large part of the charm. Now when she’s out cycling it seems half the world is there alongside her, and for her running was always something you did on your own to get fit, not in crowds for pleasure. Plus, is there just a little jealousy in there? Serenata has never run a marathon… not that she wanted to, of course, but still. She is honest enough to admit to herself that she thoroughly resents Remington’s new-found enthusiasm…
This is my first Shriver so I don’t know how it compares to her other books. This one is written with a great deal of humour from the perspective of a grumpy older woman struggling to take modern attitudes seriously and derisive of the hubristic belief of the young that they have somehow invented anti-racism and feminism and know all the answers. Anyone who reads my tweets or reviews may not be too surprised to learn that this resonated strongly with me! Shriver mercilessly mocks the worst of political correctness and the ridiculous extremes of identity politics which have made us wary even of referring to ourselves as men or women for fear that that will offend someone somewhere somehow, or of inadvertently using a term that was considered not just acceptable but progressive five years ago but is now apparently an indication of some hideously unforgivable Neanderthal attitude. Poor Serenata gets very tired of people assuming that because she’s white, middle-class, middle-aged and straight, that that automatically must mean she’s racist, homophobic and downright stupid. Oh, Serenata, I feel your pain!
Remington, meantime, is going through a mid-life crisis, complete with an infatuation with another woman, his fitness coach. Serenata realises that her open mockery of his marathon ambition is driving a wedge into their long and happy marriage, so tries her best to show him support. Shriver is very funny about the whole fitness industry, where one marathon is no longer enough – people have to run at least four, consecutively, in a desert, if they want respect these days. To her horror, Remington is not satisfied by his marathon. Instead he now decides he wants to do the Mettleman Triathlon – a gruelling all-day race involving cycling, swimming and running. Serenata feels this may literally kill him, but her earlier ridicule means Remington puts her warnings down to mere petulance. Will he survive? Even if he does, will their marriage survive? Does Serenata even want it to?
I don’t know how young people will react to this – it may be making too much fun of subjects they erroneously think they own. But as someone roughly the same age as Serenata, I found it sharp and perceptive, and hilarious. I’m sure when I was young I was just as convinced my elders were all idiots, but now that I’m old I can see that the young have their fair share of idiocy too, and I look forward gleefully to the day when the youth of today are old (as they will be, sooner than they think) and are being told by their grandchildren’s generation that they failed in everything and know nothing about anything. Serenata is an unlikely heroine, but I’m sure she speaks for many of us who have spent a lifetime fighting all the ’isms only to find ourselves derided, dismissed, patronised or ignored by those who benefit every day from our achievements – even for many who would never admit it for fear of not seeming groovy/cool/woke/insert-latest-self-congratulatory-buzzword-here.
So, highly recommended for grumpy older women everywhere, and please feel free to call me Serenata from now on… *smiles sweetly*
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins, via NetGalley.
The TBR has been fluctuating wildly during my break but has settled back to exactly where it was last time I reported – 198! I’m still working on it though…
Here are a few more that will be falling off the edge soon…
Red Pill by Hari Kunzru
Courtesy of Simon & Schuster UK via NetGalley. I’ve loved a couple of Hari Kunzru’s earlier books, especially White Tears, so a new release from him is a major event in my reading diary, especially since there’s usually a long wait between books. The blurb of this one makes it sound as if it’s been written specially for me…
The Blurb says: When a Brooklyn writer leaves behind his young family to take up the offer of a three month residency at the Deuter Centre on the shore of Berlin’s Lake Wannsee, he arrives with romantic dreams of days devoted to total artistic absorption. However, The Deuter Centre turns out to be anything but the idyllic writerly retreat he imagines and, rather than study at the clinical and closely monitored desk assigned to him, he opts to spend much of the time holed up in his bedroom watching Blue Lives, an ultraviolent cop show with a bleak and merciless view of the world.
One night, while at a glamourous party in the city, he meets Anton, the charismatic creator of Blue Lives, and they strike up a passionate and alcohol-fuelled conversation about the pessimism at the show’s core. It is a conversation that marks the beginning of the writer’s obsession with Anton and leads him on a journey into the heart of moral darkness that threatens to destroy everything he holds most dear, including his own mind.
Red Pill is a novel about the alt-right, online culture, creativity, sanity and history. It is the story of the 21st century, told through the prism of the centuries that preceded it, and it shows how the darkest chapters of our past have returned to haunt our present. More than anything, though, Red Pill is a story about love and how it can endure in a world where everything else seems to have lost all meaning.
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The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman
Courtesy of Atlantic Books via NetGalley. To be honest, I can’t remember why I requested this one, since it doesn’t totally sound like my kind of thing – a glowing review I saw around the blogosphere perhaps? However, it’s got a very high average rating on Goodreads, so I’m willing to be persuaded…
The Blurb says: A regular weekday morning veers drastically off-course for five strangers whose paths cross in a London café – their lives never to be the same again when an apparently crazed gunman holds them hostage. But there is more to the situation than first meets the eye and as the captives grapple with their own inner demons, the line between right and wrong starts to blur. Will the secrets they keep stop them from escaping with their lives?
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The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer by Joël Dicker
Courtesy of Quercus via NetGalley. Again, not sure about this one, but I’m trying to get back to reading at least some contemporary crime before I lose touch completely. Maybe this will revive my enthusiasm… or crush it! It’s 640 pages long, so it will have to be really special to justify the length. We’ll see…
The Blurb says: In the summer of 1994, the quiet seaside town of Orphea reels from the discovery of two brutal murders.
Confounding their superiors, two young police officers, Jesse Rosenberg and Derek Scott crack the case and arrest the murderer, earning themselves handsome promotions and the lasting respect of their colleagues.
But twenty years later, just as he is on the point of taking early retirement, Rosenberg is approached by Stephanie Mailer, a journalist who believes he made a mistake back in 1994 and that the real murderer is still out there, perhaps ready to strike again. Before she can give any more details however, Stephanie Mailer mysteriously disappears without trace, and Rosenberg and Scott are forced to confront the awful possibility that her suspicions might have been proved horribly true.
What happened to Stephanie Mailer? What did she know? And what really happened in Orphea all those years ago?
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Horror on Audio
Dracula by Bram Stoker read by Greg Wise and Saskia Reeves
I’ve been meaning to re-read Dracula for years, so couldn’t resist the idea of the lovely Greg Wise reading it to me… and Saskia, of course! Should keep the porpy and me entertained as we get into the swing of spooky season!
The Blurb says: Young lawyer Jonathan Harker journeys to Transylvania to meet with the mysterious Count Dracula only to discover that his nobleman client is a vampire who is thirsty for new blood. After imprisoning Harker in his castle, Dracula travels to England to seduce Jonathan’s fiancée, Mina, and the battle against an ineffable evil begins.
Led by philosopher and metaphysician Professor Van Helsing – Dracula’s most indomitable adversary – Harker, Mina, and a band of allies unite, determined to confront and destroy the Count before he can escape.
Bram Stoker ingeniously modernized gothic folklore by moving his vampire from traditional castle ruins to modern England. With Dracula, which has been interpreted and dissected by scholars for generations, Stoker changed the vampire novel forever.
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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or Audible UK.
When Philip Marlowe helps out a drunken Terry Lennox one night, it starts a kind of casual friendship between the two men. So when Lennox’s wife is beaten to death, it’s to Marlowe that he turns for help, not to investigate the crime, but to assist him to flee the country. Hearing later that Lennox has confessed to the murder, Marlowe doesn’t believe it – he can believe that Lennox might have killed his serially unfaithful wife, but not that he would have done it so brutally. Meantime, he has been approached by the publisher of Roger Wade, a successful writer now struggling with bouts of drunkenness which are making it impossible for him to finish his latest book. The publisher wants Marlowe to keep Wade sober, if he can, and to try to find out what is causing Wade to behave this way. Marlowe refuses, but soon gets sucked into Wade’s troubles anyway, partly because of Wade’s beautiful, golden wife.
This one didn’t do it for me at all, I’m afraid. Admittedly, it has several of the elements I most dislike about American noir fiction – the constant drunkenness, the casual violence, the ubiquitous Great God Gun at whose altar all America worships, apparently. The women exist purely as sexual beings, the men (despite the constant availability of women and drink – or maybe because of it) are all existentially miserable, corrupt and violent – even the good ones. Society as a whole is also corrupt, bleak and hollow. No one does a normal, honest job, or has a happy family life. Only old people have children, and that purely so they can despise them. Love only appears as lust, and even the fulfilment of that lust usually ends in tears, literally. Makes me wonder why anyone would choose to go on living and, indeed, one of the recurring themes of the book is suicide. Somehow this kind of depressing noir vision of life works quite well on screen for me, but not in books, maybe because I have too much time to get bored with it.
Book 68 of 90 CC Spin 24
As if specially to annoy me further, Chandler, obviously in autobiographical mood, chose for another of his themes to write about how hard it is for writers to write, a subject that writers too often find far more fascinating than I do. My feeling is that if writers hate writing, the solution is simple – don’t do it. The world will not run short of books. And fewer books about the plight of poor struggling writers would be a major bonus for poor struggling readers.
The writing itself is fine, though without the slick snappiness I generally expect from American noir of this era. I did not however find it as “literary” as many other reviews suggest. Of course, we all define “literary” differently, but for me it means it has something to say about society or “the human condition”. This speaks only about the drunk, the corrupt and the violent. Chandler suggests that his characters had often been damaged by their experiences in the recent WW2, but I didn’t find he handled this aspect convincingly – except in the case of one character, it seemed more like an excuse than a cause. Some of the descriptive stuff paints wonderfully evocative pictures, though…
The bar was filling up. A couple of streamlined demi-virgins went by caroling and waving. They knew the two hotshots in the booth farther on. The air began to be spattered with darlings and crimson fingernails.
The biggest problem, though, is that the book is bloated to a degree where the actual story gets almost completely overwhelmed by the rather pointless padding, repetitive dialogue and occasional mini-essays on what Chandler feels is wrong with the world. I had to make a huge effort to keep going, in the hope, not fulfilled, that at some point the reason for the book’s reputation would become clear. I can only assume that it’s a mismatch between book and reader, since undoubtedly it is almost universally loved by those who read it. Personally, I vastly preferred The Big Sleep, the only other Chandler I’ve read. Although it’s a long time since I read it, I seem to remember it was tighter, slicker and more entertaining, with Marlowe operating as a proper private eye. In this one, the amount of actual detection Marlowe does is pretty much zero – he just gets caught up in events and wanders somewhat aimlessly around annoying people till they punch him. Sadly, I could see their point.
“I’ve got five hundred pages of typescript here, well over a hundred thousand words. My books run long. The public likes long books. The damn fool public thinks if there’s a lot of pages there must be a lot of gold.”
The evenings have grown long and dark, the porpy is awake from his summer hibernation and practising his quivering, the ghosts have donned their freshly laundered sheets – it’s time for terror! And what better way to start than with a classic tale from a master of horror, taken from this brand new collection, Green Tea and Other Weird Stories, issued by Oxford World’s Classics just in time to scare us all into fits this spooky season…
Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter by Sheridan Le Fanu
Our narrator is admiring a painting of a lovely young girl, painted years before by the Dutch painter, Schalken, and now owned by the narrator’s friend…
In its hand the figure bears a lamp, by whose light alone the form and face are illuminated; the features are marked by an arch smile, such as pretty women wear when engaged in successfully practicing some roguish trick;…
But there is another figure in the painting…
…in the background, and, excepting where the dim red light of an expiring fire serves to define the form, totally in the shade, stands the figure of a man equipped in the old fashion, with doublet and so forth, in an attitude of alarm, his hand being placed upon the hilt of his sword, which he appears to be in the act of drawing.
The painting’s owner tells the tale which is said to have inspired the painting – the tale of Rose, whom Schalken, when young, loved and lost.
Rose Velderkaust was very young, having, at the period of which we speak, not yet attained her seventeenth year, and, if tradition speaks truth, possessed all the soft dimpling charms of the fair, light-haired Flemish maidens.
Rose was the niece of the painter under whom Schalken was studying, Gerard Douw. She soon grew to love Schalken too, but he was poor and could not aspire to her hand until he had made his mark in his chosen career, so he set to at his studies with a good will, and the two young people were content to wait.
But one evening, while Schalken had stayed late to continue his work after all the other pupils had left, he was disturbed by the arrival of a sinister stranger, half-hidden in the gloom of the room…
There was an air of gravity and importance about the garb of this person, and something indescribably odd, I might say awful, in the perfect, stone-like movelessness of the figure, that effectually checked the testy comment which had at once risen to the lips of the irritated artist.
The stranger asked Schalken to arrange for Douw to meet him there the following night. This Douw duly did, and the stranger revealed his name, Wilken Vanderhausen, and his purpose…
“You visited the town of Rotterdam some four months ago, and then I saw in the church of St. Lawrence your niece, Rose Velderkaust. I desire to marry her, and if I satisfy you as to the fact that I am very wealthy, more wealthy than any husband you could dream of for her, I expect that you will forward my views to the utmost of your authority.”
Now, Douw knew nothing about this man and was repelled by his appearance and manner, but when the stranger handed him a box full of pure gold ingots, he immediately decided Vanderhausen would make a perfect husband for his beloved niece, for, as he explained to the appalled Rose…
“Rose, my girl, it is very true he has not thy pretty face, but I know him to be wealthy and liberal; and were he ten times more ugly” – (“which is inconceivable,” observed Rose) – these two virtues would be sufficient” continued her uncle “to counterbalance all his deformity, and if not of power sufficient actually to alter the shape of his features, at least of efficacy enough to prevent one thinking them amiss.”
…and what are women, after all, if not chattels to be sold to the highest bidder? And so within the week, Rose is married off to Vanderhausen, and whisked away by him to Rotterdam. Weeks pass, and no word is heard of the newlyweds, and a worried Douw can find no trace of them at the address Vanderhausen had given them. But one dark night, a frantic knocking is heard at the door, and Rose is admitted, in a state of profound terror. She begs her uncle to bring her a minister of God…
“Oh that the holy man were here,” she said; “he can deliver me: the dead and the living can never be one: God has forbidden it… Do not, do not leave me for a moment,” said she; “I am lost for ever if you do…”
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The odd thing is that I’ve read this story before and thought it was okay, but this time I loved it! This is apparently the original version of the story from 1839, whereas it’s usually a later revised version that shows up in collections. I haven’t directly compared them and it’s quite a while since I read the later version, but it seems to me that this version fills in more of the blanks, and gives it more depth. Le Fanu uses the real Schalken’s painting style, of showing figures in dark rooms lit only by a single candle or lamp, to great effect, with most of the scenes in the story being full of shadowy corners and menacing gloom.
Although Schalken gets the billing in the title, it’s really Douw, as a man who equates money with worth, and poor Rose, the victim in different ways of each of the three men in her life, who are the stars. Douw is a decent man by the standards of his time, behaving merely as his society expects, and Schalken is a weak one, putting up no fight for his love. They both fail Rose, leaving her with no protection against the horror of Vanderhausen. When the story reaches its climax, they have a last chance to save her, but will they? You’ll have to read it to find out…
It’s nicely creepy without being terrifying, very well written as you’d expect from Le Fanu, lots to analyse if you’re that way inclined, and the porpy and I found it a great way to kick off our annual spookfest! The revised version is available online, but I couldn’t find this original version.
NB For the benefit of new readers since it’s the porpy’s first appearance for the season, the fretful porpentine reference comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, Thy knotted and combined locks to part And each particular hair to stand on end, Like quills upon the fretful porpentine
So the Fretful Porpentine rating is for the scariness factor, whereas the Overall rating is for the story’s quality.
It is 1540, and lawyer Matthew Shardlake has taken on the case of a girl who has been charged with the murder of her young cousin. The girl, Elizabeth, is refusing to speak, partly from shock perhaps, but she also seems to be full of rage. If she won’t plead she knows she will be subjected to torture, but still she keeps her silence. At the last moment, Shardlake finds that she is to be given a temporary reprieve – twelve days more in the Hole at Newgate prison before the torture begins, unless Shardlake can get to the truth of what happened before then. But then Shardlake learns that the reprieve has been the work of the King’s vicar general, Thomas Cromwell. And in return, Cromwell wants Shardlake to do a job for him – one that may save Cromwell from the King’s growing displeasure…
The two cases in this story are completely separate and quite different from each other, providing the kind of contrast that always makes the Shardlake books so enjoyable. While the Cromwell strand takes us deep into the machinations of the powerful men vying for the King’s favour, Elizabeth’s story is far away from politics, set in her merchant uncle’s home. This allows Sansom to roam widely through the streets of London, and the various types and classes of people who populate them.
Cromwell provides Shardlake with a new assistant, a tough young commoner by the name of Jack Barak who was once helped by Cromwell and now feels a great loyalty to him. Shardlake’s feelings are more mixed – he has been appalled by some of the things Cromwell has done in the name of Reform, including torturing and burning heretics, and is no longer as enthusiastic a Reformer as he once was. However, when Cromwell demands service a man has to be very brave or very foolish to refuse, and Shardlake is neither, plus he knows it’s the only way to gain time to investigate Elizabeth’s case.
Cromwell has been told that the formula for an ancient weapon once used by the Byzantines, known as “dark fire”, has been rediscovered. Having told King Henry, he has now discovered that the men who promised to supply it to him have been murdered. Cromwell is already on extremely shaky ground with the King since it was he who arranged the marriage to Anne of Cleves, which turned out to be a disaster, and he knows that if he fails to provide the promised new weapon the King will be even more furious. Now the King has set his amorous sights on young Catherine Howard and Cromwell fears that, if she becomes Queen, then her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, will take Cromwell’s place as the second most important man in the land. So he tasks Shardlake with finding the murderers and, more importantly, with finding either the supply of dark fire he has been promised or at least the formula for it.
Elizabeth had been recently orphaned and sent to live in her Uncle Edwin’s family. She never fitted in with her cousins, two girls and a boy, all of whom seemed to enjoy teasing her about her less refined manners. But when she is accused of having killed the boy by throwing him down the well, her other uncle, Joseph, refuses to believe her guilty. It is he who begs Shardlake to take her case, and as Shardlake and Barak investigate, they will find that there are dark secrets in this family – dark and dangerous.
Both stories are very well told, and Sansom keeps the balance between them well, never losing sight of either for too long. Although Barak’s job is to help Shardlake with the dark fire investigation, he is happy to help with Elizabeth’s case too, especially since in some ways she reminds him of himself when he too found himself in trouble at a young age. Despite having little in common, the rough commoner Barak and the cultured lawyer Shardlake gradually begin to find a mutual respect for each other, and even the beginnings of friendship.
As always, the historical setting feels completely authentic, both in terms of the high events surrounding the King and court, and in the depiction of how people lived and worked at this period. Sansom gives an amazing amount of detail about all sorts of things, from the dinner-tables of the high and mighty to the inns and brothels of the poorer parts of the city, and manages to do this seamlessly as part of the story so that it never feels like an info dump. It becomes an immersive experience, and I always feel a sense of dislocation when I return to the modern world. Both plots in this one are interesting, although I found myself more involved in the more personal one of Elizabeth and her family than in Cromwell and his political shenanigans. Brother Guy from the first book is now in London working as an apothecary. He and Matthew have become firm friends and he plays an important role in this book, which is an added bonus for me since he’s one of my favourite characters.
I listened to the audiobook this time, which is wonderfully narrated by Steven Crossley. I will admit his voice for Barak didn’t chime with my own idea of how he should sound at first but I soon got used to it. His Shardlake is perfect, though, and he uses a huge variety of tones and accents for the other people in what is a pretty vast cast of characters. It makes such a difference to ease of listening when each character is so clearly differentiated, especially in such a long book.
So, an excellent second outing for Shardlake and, in common with all the books in this series, gets my highest recommendation.
A woman dies on a Greek island and it is put down to accident or maybe suicide. But a mysterious stranger arrives from Athens – Hermes Diaktoros (isn’t that name hilarious with its hilarious reference to Greek mythology? What? You don’t get it? No, me neither, but fear not, the author will explain it – every single time he introduces himself to another character. Hilariously.) “The fat man” thinks there is more to the woman’s death than has been revealed…
I put up with the dirt, the rain, the storms and howling winds. I put up with the unpleasant small-minded people. I put up with the misogyny. I put up with the author constantly referring to the detective as “the fat man”. I put up with the use of the c-word. I even put up with the gratuitous and graphic description of incestuous sex between one man and two sisters. But when it comes to pages of revolting detail about how to hang a goat up alive by its back legs and then slaughter and eviscerate it, I must resort to misquoting Churchill – up with this I will not put.
Maybe an accurate depiction of the more backward areas of the Greek islands, but not a place I want to spend any time, either really or fictionally. The author clearly missed the class at writing school where they tell the pupils crime novels are supposed to entertain, not disgust. Abandoned at 39%, but highly recommended to anyone who wants to know how to gut goats.
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Oops, People! Another People’s Choice hits the wall! I’m coming to the conclusion that the reason these books have lingered on my TBR for so long is that subliminally I must have picked up enough information about them from reviews to know at a subconscious level that they wouldn’t work for me. However, the upside is that at least they’re coming off the TBR at last, so I hope you’ll forgive me for this string of negative, grumpy reviews. Thanks to all who voted – I really do appreciate it, though it may not always seem that way… 😉
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Due to having fallen behind with life, the universe and everything, I shall be taking a short break to catch my breath! Back soon – be good!
All you people who’ve been worried about my shrinking TBR can breathe a sigh of relief this week – it’s gone up 2 to 198! Still below the magic 200, though, and of course it wasn’t my fault. I tried to stop the postman delivering the box of books, but he insisted, so what could I do?? I’m sure I’ll be back on track soon…
Here are a few more that will be tripping my way soon…
The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale
Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing via NetGalley. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed several of Summerscale’s earlier books, loving her mix of true events and social commentary. This one sounds like a great way to kick off spooky season too…
The Blurb says:London, 1938. In the suburbs of the city, an ordinary young housewife has become the eye in a storm of chaos. In Alma Fielding’s modest home, china flies off the shelves, eggs fly through the air; stolen jewellery appears on her fingers, white mice crawl out of her handbag, beetles appear from under her gloves; in the middle of a car journey, a terrapin materialises on her lap. Nandor Fodor – a Jewish-Hungarian refugee and chief ghost hunter for the International Institute for Psychical Research – reads of the case, and hastens to the scene of the haunting. But when Fodor starts his scrupulous investigation, he discovers that the case is even stranger than it seems. By unravelling Alma’s peculiar history, he finds a different and darker type of haunting: trauma, alienation, loss – and the foreshadowing of a nation’s worst fears. As the spectre of Fascism lengthens over Europe, and as Fodor’s obsession with the case deepens, Alma becomes ever more disturbed. With rigour, daring and insight, the award-winning pioneer of non-fiction writing Kate Summerscale shadows Fodor’s enquiry, delving into long-hidden archives to find the human story behind a very modern haunting.
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The American by Henry James
Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. One from my Classics Club list. I’ve only read a few of James’ ghostly novellas before, and am not at all convinced his style won’t drive me insane in a full-length book. But we book bloggers must sometimes suffer for our art, so I shall gird up my loins (do women have loins? I should have paid more attention in anatomy classes. I know men have them… and pigs…) and face him bravely!
The Blurb says: During a trip to Europe, Christopher Newman, a wealthy American businessman, asks the charming Claire de Cintre to be his wife. To his dismay, he receives an icy reception from the heads of her family, who find Newman to be a vulgar example of the American privileged class. Brilliantly combining elements of comedy, tragedy, romance and melodrama, this tale of thwarted desire vividly contrasts nineteenth-century American and European manners. Oxford’s edition of The American, which was first published in 1877, is the only one that uses James’ revised 1907 text.
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Inspector French and the Mystery on Southampton Water by Freeman Wills Crofts
Courtesy of HarperCollins. To celebrate the publishing centenary of Freeman Wills Crofts, HarperCollins are reissuing three of his books and I was thrilled to receive a surprise box containing them all! I’ve only read one of the Inspector French books before, The 12:30 from Croydon, and loved it, and have been meaning to read more, so here’s the first. Couldn’t wait, so I’ve started it already…
The Blurb says: The Joymount Rapid Hardening Cement Manufacturing Company on the Solent is in serious financial trouble. Its rival, Chayle on the Isle of Wight, has a secret new manufacturing process and is underselling them. Having failed to crack the secret legitimately, two employees hatch a plot to break in and steal it. But the scheme does not go according to plan, resulting in damage and death, and Inspector French is brought in to solve one of the most dramatic and labyrinthine cases of his entire career.
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Dalziel & Pascoe on Audio
Child’s Play by Reginald Hill read by Colin Buchanan
I enjoyed Colin Buchanan as narrator of these books more than I was expecting in Exit Lines (review soon), so decided to go for the audiobook again for the next one in my slow re-read of this great series…
The Blurb says: Geraldine Lomas’s son went missing in Italy during World War Two, but the eccentric old lady never accepted his death.
Now she is dead, leaving the Lomas beer fortune to be divided between an animal rights organization, a fascist front and a services benevolent fund. As disgruntled relatives gather by the graveside, the funeral is interrupted by a middle-aged man in an Italian suit, who falls to his knees crying, ‘Mama!’
Andy Dalziel is preoccupied with the illegal book one of his sergeants is running on who is to be appointed as the new chief Constable. But when a dead Italian turns up in the police car park, Peter Pascoe and his bloated superior are plunged into an investigation that makes internal police politics look like child’s play…
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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or Audible UK.
A plane crashes en route to Dublin. Four men were supposed to have been going on the trip, but only three boarded the plane. There were no survivors and no bodies have been found. The first problem is that no one knows which of the four men is the one who is, presumably, still alive. The second problem is that he hasn’t turned up, explaining why he missed the flight. Inspector Lewis and his assistant, Sergeant Young, have to backtrack through the last day or two to see if they can identify the man who didn’t fly, and find out why he has disappeared…
This is a very odd crime novel. I assumed the crime would be that the plane had been deliberately destroyed, meaning that the pilot and passengers had been murdered. But this idea never seems to feature much. Maybe back in the 1950s, planes were always falling out of the sky en route to Dublin so it didn’t seem so suspicious? Instead, Lewis and Young seem to be merely trying to identify the dead and the living, for the sake of the inquests. And yet I couldn’t quite swallow the idea that two relatively high-level officers would be assigned to such a task. Fortunately, however, it soon transpires that all four of the men had secrets, so the lack of an obvious crime soon fades into the background as the investigation begins to centre on what they’d all been up to in the days before the flight.
Some of the early part follows the usual detective story format of Lewis questioning locals, but soon he hones in on the Wade family, who seem to have had connections with all four of the men. From then on it’s told partly through members of the family giving their recollections, mixed with a straight third-person narrative of what they’re telling. Again odd, but it does work eventually, after a rather slow and confusing start. Mostly we see the action from the perspective of Hester, the older of Mr Wade’s two daughters. She’s a sensible young woman, who is worried that her father seems bent on speculating his small remaining fortune on the advice of one of the plane’s passengers. Another is the Wade’s lodger, a strange, nervous man who seems almost paranoid at times. A third man is a neighbour and long-time friend of the family. And the fourth is Harry, a ne’er-do-well with poetical aspirations, with whom young Hester is beginning to fancy herself in love. So the family is as keen to know who has survived as the police are, and readily co-operate in telling all they know of the days leading up to the crash.
The basis for the plot is all a bit silly really, and not terribly credible. But the actual plotting of the mystery element is excellent – it’s a real puzzle, based on clues and logic and elimination. The reader has as much chance as the police to work out the identities of the men on the basis of the clues given. Needless to say, I didn’t, although some parts of the story were easier to guess at than others. The characterisation is a bit contrived to serve the plot, and I must admit it took me ages before I could tell most of the missing men apart without checking back each time to remind myself which was which. Harry the poet and the Wade family members are much better drawn, especially Hester, who provides a rare character to care about amidst the many unlikeable and unscrupulous people in the cast.
Overall, I have rather mixed feelings about it. I enjoyed the second half much more than the first, and suspect it would greatly appeal to people who enjoy the challenge of a clue-based logic puzzle. It’s not quite as successful in terms of character and motive, but these aspects are still strong enough to give an enjoyable background for the puzzle elements. One for the mind rather than the emotions, I think.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
Way back in March 2016, I decided to participate in the Around the World in 80 Books Challenge, created and hosted by Sarah and Lucy at Hard Book Habit. Here’s what they said:
Here’s the deal. You’ll need to read 80 books set or connected with the random destinations of your choice, then you blog about each book that you read en route. You can choose any books you like – this challenge is not limited to fiction – and the only catch is that you must read at least one book connected to each continent, one sea-based book, and a book that involves travel – think the Orient Express, flight, hot-air balloons, train journeys, car trips, etc… the rest is up to you.
(Sadly in the intervening years Hard Book Habit has ceased to exist, and as far as I know Sarah and Lucy are no longer blogging.)
Four and a half years later, I limped wearily home, having visited every continent, sailed every sea, travelled through time and even ventured into space.
My original plan, which for once I stuck to, was to go back to the book that inspired the challenge, Around the World in Eighty Days, and see if I could find books for each stage of Phileas Fogg’s original journey. Wikipedia not only told me where Fogg and his faithful servant Passepartout stopped, but they provided a map which became my logo for the challenge…
That would fill 27 of the 80 slots, and the other 53 would be detours – taking me anywhere and everywhere, but making sure to meet each of the requirements of the challenge.
So here it is – the final list, with links to all my reviews:
I loved doing this challenge – probably the one I’ve enjoyed most of all the ones I’ve participated in. While I filled a lot of the spots on my journey from books I’d have been reading anyway, I also kept a weather eye open for books set in places I hadn’t yet visited, and that led me to read many books that probably would have otherwise passed me by. So to celebrate the end of the challenge, I’ve decided to highlight just five of the books, each of which I loved and probably wouldn’t have read without this incentive.
Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz
A family saga, set in Egypt to the backdrop of the end of WW1, the rise of nationalism and the dying days of colonial Egypt. It took me a long time to feel involved with this family and their community but once I did I became completely absorbed in the slow telling of their lives. Usually I’d be more interested in the out-going, more political lives of the sons, but in this case I found myself fascinated by Mahfouz’ depiction of the lives and feelings of the women – the total seclusion and lack of agency, and the way that the mothers themselves trained their daughters to accept, conform and even be contented with this half-life. A deserved classic, and for once a Nobel Prize-winning novel that I feel merits that accolade.
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel
There are three distinct sections in this novel, each very different but with common themes running through them, and all linked to a small town in the High Mountains, Tuizelo. It is a subtle discussion of the evolution vs. faith debate, with the old evolutionary saw of “risen apes, not fallen angels” appearing repeatedly. Chimps appear in some form in each of the sections, sometimes symbolically, sometimes actually. I found the whole thing an original and insightful approach to the question that provokes thought without forcing any specific answers on the reader. The writing is nothing short of brilliant. It flows smoothly, feels light and airy, but is full of insight into grief and love and heartache, and has left some indelible images in my mind.
Endurance by Alfred Lansing
This is a straightforward, factual telling of the story of Ernest Shackleton and his crew, and their failed 1914 bid to cross the Antarctic on foot from west to east. It’s also one of the most stirring and emotionally turbulent books I’ve ever read. I found myself totally caught up in the men’s adventure, willing them on, crying over each new disaster, celebrating with them over any small triumph. Talk about emotional rollercoaster! As it got towards the end, my tension levels were going through the roof, just as they would have been had these men been personal friends – indeed, after the long journey I’d made in their company, I truly felt they were.
Springtime in a Broken Mirror by Mario Benedetti
Santiago is a political prisoner in Montevideo, Uruguay, in the 1970s. His family and friends are scattered, exiled from the country they call home. Although the book is based around the revolutions of South America, it is not about politics as such; rather, it is about the impact that political upheaval has on the individuals caught up in it. It’s about home and exile, loneliness, longing, belonging. It’s about loyalty and love, and sometimes despair. It’s profoundly moving – full of emotional truth. And, in the end, it holds out hope: that the human spirit has the resilience to find new ways of living when the old ones are taken away. A wonderful read.
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak
Tequila Leila’s body is dead, but her brain has not yet shut completely down. As her consciousness slowly fades, she finds herself drifting through memories of her life – the childhood that made her the woman she would become, her family, her loves and, most of all, her friends. And along the way, we are given a picture of the underbelly of Istanbul, of those on the margins finding ways to live in a society that rejects them. The prose is wonderful, the many stories feel utterly true and real, and they are beautifully brought together to create an intensely moving picture of a life that might pass unremarked and unmourned by society, but showing how remarkable such a life can be in its intimate details and how mourning is a tribute gained by a loving, generous soul regardless of status.
This was an incredibly hard choice, since I tried hard to fill most of the slots with great books, and there are very few in the final list that I wouldn’t wholeheartedly recommend. And I thoroughly enjoyed rounding the whole thing off by reading the wonderful Around the World in Eighty Days itself, which not only filled the impossible Yokohama spot but was an excellent way to bring my travels to an end.