FictionFan’s Book Reviews

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Stocking Fillers: Shelf Life and The Pocket Detective

Shelf Life edited by Alex Johnson

😀 😀 😀 😀

A collection of essays and thoughts on all things bookish from writers of the past, this is the kind of book that I always feel is perfect as that little extra Christmas gift for the bibliomaniac in your circle. It’s attractive and well-produced – one of those soft hardbacks, if you know what I mean – and the contents range from thoughtful to opinionated to fun. There are eleven entries in total. Obviously everyone will find different things to appeal to them, so here’s a little taste of some of them to give you a feeling for what’s in there.

It starts with a bit of fun as William Blades comments on the dangers pesky children present to the safety of books, in which he includes a story about some children taking their father’s precious volumes to build a fort and using valuable tomes to chuck at each other as they re-fought one of the battles of the Crimea. I kinda was on the kids’ side…

Stephen Leacock humorously advises on how to write a melodramatic novel, ensuring that the standard format is met in every respect, and shows that identikit fiction was around long before the woman in the red coat appeared on every second book jacket.

Theodore Roosevelt encourages a wide variety of reading for pleasure and gain, and talks of how books tend to lead one to another in a never-ending chain. Rudyard Kipling advises a class of schoolboys – those who were destined by birth to rule the empire – to use books to learn from history and other people’s experiences, as this will be a help to them when they find themselves having to make life and death decisions of their own. On the other hand Arthur Schopenhauer gets really quite grumpy about people reading, and writing, the vast output of “bad” books when they should be devoting their time to thinking for themselves. Frighteningly, he sometimes reminded me of me…

Hence the number, which no man can count, of bad books, those rank weeds of literature, which draw nourishment from the corn and choke it. . . Nine-tenths of the whole of our present literature has no other aim than to get a few shillings out of the pockets of the public; and to this end author, publisher and reviewer are in league.

Walter Benjamin talks of the joy of book-collecting, and William Gladstone gives practical advice on how to create a library to store your 20,000 volumes, including how to screw the shelves together. First you will require a room of “quite ordinary size”, some forty feet by twenty feet with four windows on either side. Charles Lamb, among other things, discusses the thorny question of which books one can read in public without embarrassment.

So lots of variety and amusement to be had, and also some more thought-provoking stuff along the way. I’ll give the last word to Francis Bacon…

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* * * * *

The Pocket Detective by Kate Jackson

😀 😀 😀 😀

Another little stocking filler from the British Library, this is a companion piece to their series of Crime Classics. It’s full of puzzles, ranging from the fun to the fiendish, and will be appreciated by anyone with a decent knowledge of vintage crime fiction. Truthfully I found a lot of it quite difficult so I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who’s only read a few Christies and Sayers in their life. It ranges well beyond the books the BL has published, though, so that adds fun for those with a wider familiarity with the genre.

It has question and answer puzzles (they’re the ones I found hardest, since they’re entirely dependant on you knowing the books quite well), word grids, crosswords and word searches, matching puzzles, such as characters to books, anagrams and word wheels. It also has some distorted covers of the BL series to identify – I found most of those entirely too distorted, hence impossible, and would be intrigued to know if anyone can get them. But there are some fun spot-the-difference puzzles based on the gorgeous BL covers – I loved those. Happily, all the answers are in the back.

So all-in-all, an entertaining little gift for the vintage crime enthusiast in your life.

NB Both books were provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

FictionFan Awards 2018 – Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

I’m still struggling with the obsession with identikit so-called psychological thrillers that is dominating modern crime fiction at the moment, so have read fewer books in this category this year than every before in my adult life, I think. I can’t help thinking that the astonishing rise in popularity of vintage crime over the last few years suggests I’m not alone in this. However, happily I’ve still managed to find a few great reads, none of which have the ubiquitous and terminally unoriginal woman in red/yellow coat on the cover, you’ll note…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

Hal (Harriet) Westaway is struggling to keep her head above water. The bills keep pouring in and in these winter months she doesn’t get enough custom at her kiosk on Brighton’s West Pier to pay them all. Things are reaching a crisis. So when she receives a letter from a solicitor informing her that she has been left a legacy by her grandmother it seems like the answer to a prayer. There’s only one problem – Hal knows there’s been a mistake. Her real grandmother died years ago… 

All I ask for in crime fiction is a good story well told; some characters I can like, hate, worry about, mistrust; enough uncertainty about how it will play out to keep me turning pages; a minimum of unnecessary padding; and told in the past tense, preferably third person. And that’s exactly what Ruth Ware has given me in this hugely enjoyable thriller. Add in a dark and dusty old house full of attics and cellars and narrow little staircases, the shade of a wicked old woman who tyrannised over her family, a bunch of squabbling siblings, and a scary old housekeeper who knows more than she’s telling, and I’m pretty much in modern-Gothic heaven!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Broken Ground by Val McDermid

DCI Karen Pirie of Police Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit is in the middle of re-investigating a series of rapes when she is diverted to a crime scene in the Highlands. A woman and her husband are on a kind of treasure hunt, looking for something that the woman’s grandfather buried in a peat bog long ago. They find the spot, but when they dig down into the peat, they are shocked to discover not only the looted items but the body of a man, almost perfectly preserved…

Now that a national police force has taken the place of the old regional forces in Scotland in real life, it gives fiction writers the ability to have their detectives travel all over the country, and McDermid is as comfortable writing about the Highlands as she is her hometown of Edinburgh. She gives an amazingly good sense of place and a wholly authentic feel to contemporary Scottish life and to a professional police force where dysfunctional drunken mavericks wouldn’t be tolerated. The fifth book in the Karen Pirie series and an excellent addition.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Sweet William by Iain Maitland

A man escapes from a secure psychiatric hospital to find his little son, sweet William, and run off to a new life, just the two of them, in the south of France. This is the story of the next forty-eight hours…

And what a story! A complete roller-coaster during most of which we’re stuck inside the head of Orrey, the father, whose frequent assertions that he’s not mad somehow fail to convince us! Dark and disturbing doesn’t even begin to describe it. By all rights, I should have hated it – I’ve bored on often enough about my dislike of using children to up the tension in crime fiction. But it’s a tour de force piece of writing with one of the most brilliantly drawn disturbed central characters I’ve read in a long time – think Mr Heming or The Dinner or Zoran Drvenkar. Then add in relentless pacing that drives the book forward at a speed to leave you gasping – the definitive page-turner! 

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee

Roused from a drug-addled stupor in an opium den in the backstreets of Calcutta, Sam Wyndham, Captain in the Calcutta police, discovers the place is being raided. Discovery of his addiction will finish his career so he flees, only to stumble across the body of a horribly mutilated Chinaman. Or did he? Next day, when no report of the murder comes in, Sam is left wondering if he hallucinated the whole thing. That is, until he is called out to another murder, where the body has been mutilated in exactly the same way…

This series goes from strength to strength with each new instalment – this is the third. Set in the early 1920s, the dying days of the Raj when the Indian Independence movement was well under way, Mukherjee always manages to work the political situation into his stories without allowing it to overwhelm them or feeling like a history lesson. As always, though, the plot is founded much more on human nature than on politics. I feel this is his strongest plot so far, which takes us into some dark episodes in the dealings between the Raj and their subjects. There’s a good deal of moral ambiguity in there, and some excellently complex characterisation to carry it off. And it all builds to a first-rate, entirely credible thriller finale that I found fully satisfying.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Since I couldn’t find a single thing to criticise about this book, it was the only possible choice to be this year’s winner.

When Bertrand Barthelme runs his car off the A35 into a tree one evening and dies, Inspector Georges Gorski has no reason to think it was anything other than an unfortunate accident. But Barthelme’s widow thinks there’s something odd about her husband having been at that spot at that time and asks Gorski to look into it a bit more. Mme Barthelme is an attractive 40-something with more than a touch of the femme fatale in this first meeting, so Gorski finds himself agreeing. Meantime, Barthelme’s 17-year-old son Raymond starts a kind of investigation of his own, in an attempt to learn more about the father with whom he had always had a rather cold, distant relationship. Both investigations will head off in unexpected directions.

This is on the face of it a crime novel, but the quality of the writing, the depth of the characterisation, the creation of place and time and the intelligence of the game the author plays with the reader all raise it so that it sits easily into the literary fiction category, in my opinion at the highest level. The setting – the small town of Saint-Louis, in the corner of France that borders Germany and Switzerland, some time in the 1970s – is brilliantly drawn, but it’s the human characters who make it such an absorbing story.  Not a word is wasted – with the briefest of descriptions, Burnet can create a person who feels real, solid, entire, as if they might be a neighbour we’ve known all our life. I loved every lean and beautifully placed word of this slim book, and was wholly absorbed from beginning to end. Superb!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next Week: Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

TBR Thursday 181…

Episode 181

A dramatic fall in the TBR since I last reported – down 4 to 224! This is rather astonishing since, for non-blog related reasons, my reading has been way down over the last couple of weeks – but clearly so has my book acquiring! As you might have noticed, I’ve also been pretty lax at posting, visiting, commenting and replying to comments – apologies, and I’m hoping to get back to my normal pattern soon.

Here are a few more that are due soonish, though I don’t seem to be sticking to my schedule very rigidly at the moment. What a rebel!

Dickens for Christmas

For years it’s been my personal tradition to read Dickens over Christmas, so I put five of them on my Classics Club list. This year, it’s the turn of Little Dorrit. This will be a re-read, but it’s many years since I read it…

The Blurb says: When Arthur Clennam returns to England after many years abroad, he takes a kindly interest in Amy Dorrit, his mother’s seamstress, and in the affairs of Amy’s father, William Dorrit, a man of shabby grandeur, long imprisoned for debt in Marshalsea prison. As Arthur soon discovers, the dark shadow of the prison stretches far beyond its walls to affect the lives of many, from the kindly Mr Panks, the reluctant rent-collector of Bleeding Heart Yard, and the tipsily garrulous Flora Finching, to Merdle, an unscrupulous financier, and the bureaucratic Barnacles in the Circumlocution Office. A masterly evocation of the state and psychology of imprisonment, Little Dorrit is one of the supreme works of Dickens’s maturity.

* * * * *

Vintage Crime

Courtesy of Poisoned Pen Press via NetGalley. I’ve had this sitting on my TBR for ages, constantly shoved down the list by newer shinier books, poor thing. I’ve liked but not loved the other two John Bude books I’ve read – maybe this is the one that will finally wow me…

The Blurb says: Welworth Garden City in the 1940s is a forward-thinking town where free spirits find a home – vegetarians, socialists, and an array of exotic religious groups. Chief among these are the Children of Osiris, led by the eccentric High Prophet, Eustace K. Mildmann. The cult is a seething hotbed of petty resentment, jealousy and dark secrets – which eventually lead to murder. The stage is set for one of Inspector Meredith’s most bizarre and exacting cases.

This witty crime novel by a writer on top form is a neglected classic of British crime fiction.

* * * * *

Classic Sci-Fi

Another one from my Classics Club list. It was reading this book that inspired Stanley Kubrick to invite Arthur C Clarke to collaborate with him on making a movie – and so the amazingly mind-blowing 2001: A Space Odyssey was born. Looking at the blurb, it’s obvious that some of the themes of this book made their way into the film…

The Blurb says: The Overlords appeared suddenly over every city–intellectually, technologically, and militarily superior to humankind. Benevolent, they made few demands: unify earth, eliminate poverty, and end war. With little rebellion, humankind agreed, and a golden age began.

But at what cost? With the advent of peace, man ceases to strive for creative greatness, and a malaise settles over the human race. To those who resist, it becomes evident that the Overlords have an agenda of their own. As civilization approaches the crossroads, will the Overlords spell the end for humankind . . . or the beginning?

* * * * *

Yuletide Fun

Courtesy of the British Library. A new Christmas-themed vintage crime anthology from the BL is becoming a bit of a Christmas tradition too, happily for me, since I love them!

The Blurb says: A Christmas party is punctuated by a gunshot under a policeman’s watchful eye. A jewel heist is planned amidst the glitz and glamour of Oxford Street’s Christmas shopping. Lost in a snowstorm, a man finds a motive for murder. This collection of mysteries explores the darker side of the festive season from unexplained disturbances in the fresh snow, to the darkness that lurks beneath the sparkling decorations. With neglected stories by John Bude and E. C. R. Lorac, as well as tales by little-known writers of crime fiction, Martin Edwards blends the cosy atmosphere of the fireside story with a chill to match the temperature outside. This is a gripping seasonal collection sure to delight mystery fans.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

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

Dickens at Christmas! The Cricket on the Hearth

But where’s Christmas??

After last week’s surprisingly dark and unfestive The Chimes, I didn’t know what to expect from the next of Dickens’ Christmas books. But I was hoping for something a bit more cheerful for this week’s…

* * * * *

The Cricket on the Hearth
by Charles Dickens

The kettle began it! Don’t tell me what Mrs. Peerybingle said. I know better. Mrs. Peerybingle may leave it on record to the end of time that she couldn’t say which of them began it; but I say the kettle did. I ought to know, I hope? The kettle began it, full five minutes by the little waxy-faced Dutch clock in the corner, before the Cricket uttered a chirp.

Title page
by Daniel Maclise

We meet little Mrs. Peerybingle, Dot as she is known affectionately to her husband John, as she waits for said husband to return home from his work as a carrier. Dot is a young thing, very young indeed, and John is well into middle-age, but despite this disparity they seem an idyllically happy couple, especially now they have their own little Baby to make their lives complete. It is a scene of saccharin-sweet domestic bliss…

It was pleasant to see Dot, with her little figure and her baby in her arms: a very doll of a baby: glancing with a coquettish thoughtfulness at the fire, and inclining her delicate little head just enough on one side to let it rest in an odd, half-natural, half-affected, wholly nestling and agreeable manner, on the great rugged figure of the Carrier. It was pleasant to see him, with his tender awkwardness, endeavouring to adapt his rude support to her slight need, and make his burly middle age a leaning-staff not inappropriate to her blooming youth.

Domestic Bliss
by John Leech

The little house is blessed by having a resident Cricket which lives on the hearth and chirps merrily when all is well.

“The first time I heard its cheerful little note, John, was on that night when you brought me home—when you brought me to my new home here; its little mistress. Nearly a year ago. You recollect, John?”

Oh, yes! John remembered. I should think so!

“Its chirp was such a welcome to me! It seemed so full of promise and encouragement. It seemed to say, you would be kind and gentle with me, and would not expect (I had a fear of that, John, then) to find an old head on the shoulders of your foolish little wife.”

Caleb and Blind Bertha
by John Leech

But this contented little household is about to be shaken to its core. A stranger arrives who seems to disturb Dot’s usually cheerful state of mind.

It was a loud cry from the Carrier’s wife: a loud, sharp, sudden cry, that made the room ring like a glass vessel. She had risen from her seat, and stood like one transfixed by terror and surprise. The Stranger had advanced towards the fire to warm himself, and stood within a short stride of her chair. But quite still.

The stranger’s arrival disrupts the happy home and the lives not only of John and Dot but of several of their friends and neighbours. Will the Household Spirit in the form of the Cricket on the Hearth be able to restore harmony and joy to all?

* * * * *

First off, Christmas doesn’t feature at all in this one! Instead the day of celebration we’re heading towards is the first anniversary of the wedding of John and Dot, and the story focuses on marriages between older men and young girls. John loves Dot with all his heart and has done ever since she was a child. (I know, creepy, but it seems to have been relatively normal back in those times – look at Knightley and Emma.) The question that John belatedly is forced to consider is, can little Dot possibly love him in the same way, or has he been unintentionally cruel in persuading her to devote her youth to him? It has never before occurred to him that her heart may have prompted her towards a man nearer her own age. The stranger is the catalyst for this dark night of the soul for poor, kind, honest John, but to take the point further and show another side to it, Dickens includes another couple about to be wed where the age difference is even greater and the bride is being more or less forced into the marriage by her mother because the bridegroom is wealthy.

Boxer
by Edwin Landseer
(Rubbish illustration, Landseer! Boxer is a sweetie-pie,
not a reincarnation of the Hound of the Baskervilles!)

The story takes an age to start. It’s about three pages before that kettle mentioned in the first paragraph finally comes to the boil, and then we have to fight through pages of sugar-sweet descriptions of the happy little home before things take off. But once it gets going, it has all Dickens usual mix of humour and pathos, and some typically quirky and enjoyable Dickensian characters. John is lovely, and Dot grew on me after a shaky start. Mr Tackleton is the villain of the piece – the older man who is about to marry a young girl he knows doesn’t care for him in the least, he’s also the mean and nasty employer of the other two main characters, dear old Caleb the toymaker and his blind daughter Bertha. Plus there’s a lovely dog called Boxer who’s a great character in his own right, adding much fun to the proceedings!

He had business elsewhere; going down all the turnings, looking into all the wells, bolting in and out of all the cottages, dashing into the midst of all the Dame Schools, fluttering all the pigeons, magnifying the tails of all the cats, and trotting into the public-houses like a regular customer. Wherever he went, somebody or other might have been heard to cry, “Halloa! here’s Boxer!”

It’s novella length, with plenty of room for jealousy, self-doubt, sorrow, generosity of spirit, joy and, of course, redemption. I enjoyed it very much and was left feeling pleasantly uplifted. So despite it not mentioning Christmas, I reckon it still counts as appropriately seasonal, being full of goodwill and joy to all men (and women) (and dogs).

Happy ending
by John Leech

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅 🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

 

The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories by Henry James

Mostly about the Other Stories…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This collection is made up of four stories – the novella length title story and three shorter ones. The Turn of the Screw is, of course, a classic of the horror genre, and since I’ve already had my say about it in a Tuesday Terror! post, here’s a brief summary of the others…

Sir Edmund Orme – Our narrator becomes fascinated by a mother and daughter, Mrs Marden and Charlotte, because of what he feels is their peculiarly strong concern for each other. Then, as he finds himself falling in love with Charlotte, the narrator begins to see a strange man, who never speaks, and his appearances seem to coincide with Mrs Marden’s “episodes”. Eventually, she takes him into her confidence and tells him the story of her one-time lover, Sir Edmund Orme.

Despite having a ghost in it, the story really isn’t scary or spooky. It’s strange, however, and a little unsettling, mainly because the narrator comes over as something of a predator who coldly uses Mrs Marden’s fear and Charlotte’s love for her mother to achieve his own ends. It’s superficially entertaining, but left me feeling rather as if I’d been made an accessory to something rather cruel.

Owen Wingrave – the title character is a young man from a military family who is being crammed for the entrance exam to get into Sandhurst, the army’s elite officer training college. However, Owen has different views – he despises war, and believes that politicians who lead their nations into war should be hanged, drawn and quartered. When he drops out of training, his family and friends put pressure on him to think again, and when the girl he loves implies that he is a coward, to prove her wrong he agrees to spend a night in the haunted room of his family castle…

The ghostly factor of this one is well-nigh non-existent, but it’s a good story for all that. It’s a rather poignant look at how military tradition forces young men to seek glory rather than choosing a more peaceful path in life.

The Friends of the Friends – another I’ve written about previously in a Tuesday Terror! post. This tells the story of two people, a man and a woman, who share the distinction of each having seen a ghost. This coincidence makes their mutual friends want to bring them together, but circumstances always seem to prevent them meeting. Eventually it seems they will meet, but it isn’t to be – one of them dies before the meeting takes place. The other one, however, as we know, can see ghosts…

Again unsettling rather than scary, this starts out quite jollily with a lot of jibes about society and so on, but gradually darkens into a story about jealousy taken perhaps to the point of madness.

* * * * *

While for the most part I found the writing good and certainly effective at conjuring up an atmosphere, I several times came across sentences so badly constructed that they required me to go back and read them again to catch the meaning, and sometimes they were still obscure after that. Perhaps sometimes James was doing this for effect, to add to the vagueness and ambiguity. But truthfully, I mostly felt it was simply clumsy, lazy writing that he hadn’t bothered to revise properly before publication, and as a result I’ve entirely lost the desire to read any of his novels.

Aside from that criticism, each of the four stories is well-structured, and the sense of vagueness that surrounds the narrative intention has the effect of leaving them open to interpretation. I found this tended to make them linger in my mind for longer than most spooky stories, as I mulled over what was beneath the surface. And generally speaking, I concluded that what was there was rather unpleasant – hints of child sexual abuse in The Turn of the Screw, a controlling lover in Sir Edmund Orme, family pressure taken to extremes in Owen Wingrave and extreme jealousy in The Friends of the Friends. Horror stories always tend to be based on unpleasant things, of course, but here it somehow left me feeling more uncomfortable than usual and I’m not sure I know why. Perhaps because the horror aspects are mostly low-key and so the underlying story stands out more than usual, or perhaps because James uses ambiguity to force the reader to, in a sense, fill in the blanks, making it feel as if the unpleasantness comes from inside her own mind. Whatever the reason, it meant that though I quite enjoyed them while reading I found they left a slightly nasty aftertaste – especially The Turn of the Screw. I wonder if that was James’ intention? I suspect it may have been.

Henry James

You can probably tell that I feel quite ambivalent about this collection. I rated each of the three shorter stories as four stars and The Turn of the Screw as five, but that’s mostly due to my appreciation of their impact rather than an indication of my enjoyment.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

FictionFan Awards 2018 – Factual

A round of applause…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

FACTUAL

Overall I’ve had a pretty slow year on the factual front – I think I’ve been in recovery from overdoing the heavy history the year before. But although I’ve read far less, I’ve still had some great reads…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Daughters of the Winter Queen by Nancy Goldstone

The Winter Queen of the title is Elizabeth, daughter of James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, and herself briefly Queen of Bohemia, through her marriage to Frederick. Elizabeth and Frederick produced an alarming number of children, the majority of whom lived into adulthood, and as their sons and daughters grew up and contracted marriages or made alliances, they spread their influence throughout the ruling families of 17th century Europe, thus being involved in all the major events (aka wars) of that turbulent period. The book is about the four daughters who survived their childhood years, and at least as much about their brothers, husbands, suitors or male friends.

Goldstone writes breezily, with a great deal of affection towards her subjects, and with a lot of humour. Although there’s lots of history in here, clearly excellently researched, she tells her story almost as if she were writing a novel – a comedy of manners, perhaps, with the odd episode of tragedy thrown in to leaven it, and the non-academic style makes it approachable and easily digestible. The book is a pleasure to read, which is not something that can always be said about history books!

Triumph of the Winter Queen by Gerrit van Honthorst
The Queen surrounded by her many children in various allegorical poses.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Country House Library by Mark Purcell

This beautifully produced and gorgeously, lavishly illustrated publication is far more than a coffee table book. It’s a comprehensive history of British bookishness from its beginning to the present day. The main thrust of it covers the 17th to 19th centuries – the period when the country house came into its own and wealthy people saw libraries as an essential feature of their homes. Mark Purcell looks at both the books and the rooms they were stored in.

Purcell has clearly had a ball prying into the bookshelves and book catalogues of centuries’ worth of bibliophiles, and his enthusiasm is matched by deep knowledge, backed up with an immense amount of research. This results in a phenomenal amount of detail, which in the early chapters overwhelmed me a little and made the reading heavy going. But I found that I gradually became fascinated, especially when I realised that the bookshelves of the rich – who, of course, were also the powerful – cast an interesting sidelight on many famous historical personages and the societies in which they lived.

Chatsworth: Darcy’s Library!!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit Fox

In 1908, an elderly lady, Miss Gilchrist, was bludgeoned to death in her Glasgow home and a brooch was stolen. Shortly afterwards, Oscar Slater pawned a brooch and boarded a ship bound for America. These two facts were enough for the police to decide that he was the guilty man and, sure enough, they arrested and charged him, and he was convicted and condemned to death – a sentence that was swiftly commuted to life imprisonment in response to a growing feeling of doubt over the verdict among some sectors of the public. This book sets out to tell the story of the case and specifically of Arthur Conan Doyle’s involvement in the campaign to have the verdict overturned.

I found this a fascinating read, especially since rather to my surprise I learned quite a lot that I didn’t know about my own city and country. The class divisions, the way people lived, the prejudices and culture all feel authentic and still recognisable to this Glaswegian, and the wider picture of policing and justice in Scotland feels very well researched. The story of Conan Doyle’s involvement is also told well with lots of interesting digressions into the art and science of detection, and plenty of referencing to the world of Sherlock Holmes. One that true crime fans will thoroughly enjoy. 

Click to see the full review

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Space Odyssey: The Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the masterpiece science fiction film that grew out of a collaboration between two creative geniuses, Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. In this book, Michael Benson tells the story of that collaboration, and of the making of the film, its release and its impact. Benson starts by telling the story of how Kubrick approached Clarke with a view to them working together, and then goes on to give a fascinating picture of two creative giants working together, mostly in harmony, each inspiring the other so that the end results were greater than either could have achieved alone.

The book is an excellently balanced mix of the technical geekery of film-making with the human creativity behind it. Not just Clarke and Kubrick, but all of the major members of the crew come to life, as Benson illustrates their personalities with well-timed and well-told anecdotes about life on the set. The quality of the writing and research together with Benson’s great storytelling ability make this not only informative but a real pleasure to read – as much a masterpiece of its kind as the original film and book are of theirs. Highly recommended.

Kubrick and Clarke on set

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

FACTUAL


Despite the quality of the runners-up, there was never any hesitation in my mind as to which book should win this category.

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. These were the days of the great explorers, making crazy expeditions in the name of scientific discovery, but just as much for national pride and for the sheer glory of being the first.

I listened to the audio version narrated by Simon Prebble, and he does a fabulous job. Lansing’s language is wonderfully descriptive, but not full of overly poetic flourishes. This rather plain style, however, works beautifully – the events are so thrilling and the men are such heroes that they don’t need any great fanfares or flowery flourishes to enhance their story. I found myself totally caught up, willing them on, crying over each new disaster, celebrating with them over any small triumph. 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.

The Endurance trapped in the ice during the long polar night…

Click to see the full review

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Next Week: Best Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Dickens at Christmas! The Chimes

The eye of a needle…

Every year in the run up to Christmas, I read, watch or listen to at least one version of A Christmas Carol – the book that exemplifies the spirit of Christmas. This year, thanks to the lovely people at Oxford World’s Classics, I have a gorgeous new edition of all five of Dickens’ Christmas books, so for a change I thought I’d read the other four for a little mini-series of…

* * * * *

The Chimes
by Charles Dickens

Old Toby “Trotty” Veck is in his usual place just outside the church-door one cold and windy winter day at the end of the year, waiting and hoping that someone will hire him to carry a letter or a parcel so that he can earn sixpence or a shilling.


Toby “Trotty” Veck
by John Leech

Of material wealth, Trotty has little – just enough to keep body and soul together, though not very securely. He has a daughter, Meg, whom he loves with all his warm heart. And the church bells are like old friends too…

For, being but a simple man, he invested them with a strange and solemn character. They were so mysterious, often heard and never seen; so high up, so far off, so full of such a deep strong melody, that he regarded them with a species of awe; and sometimes when he looked up at the dark arched windows in the tower, he half expected to be beckoned to by something which was not a Bell, and yet was what he had heard so often sounding in the Chimes.

But, even so, the hard life of the poor people of London makes Trotty wonder sometimes…

…whether we have any business on the face of the earth, or not. Sometimes I think we must have—a little; and sometimes I think we must be intruding. I get so puzzled sometimes that I am not even able to make up my mind whether there is any good at all in us, or whether we are born bad.


The original frontispiece
by Daniel Maclise

On this day Meg arrives unexpectedly, bringing a rare hot meal for her father – a delicious dish of tripe! She also brings news. Her lover, Richard, has proposed that they should marry on New Year’s Day and they have come to get her father’s blessing. While Trotty is still digesting this news and his tripe, a local bigwig stops to hire him to carry a letter. This man lectures Meg and Richard on how reprehensible it is of them to marry and bring more poor children into the world who will inevitably turn out bad. Then the recipient of the letter, another well-fed rich man, upbraids Trotty for going into the New Year owing a little money, which he had spent on the luxury of food. By now Trotty is convinced the poor are born bad and don’t deserve to live.

But, that night, as he sits pondering over this thought, the church bells seem to be calling angrily to him, and he goes to the darkened church, where he finds the door open…

Illustration by
Clarkson Stanfield

… and climbs up to the top of the steeple.

He saw the tower, whither his charmed footsteps had brought him, swarming with dwarf phantoms, spirits, elfin creatures of the Bells . . . He saw them, of all aspects and all shapes. He saw them ugly, handsome, crippled, exquisitely formed. He saw them young, he saw them old, he saw them kind, he saw them cruel, he saw them merry, he saw them grim; he saw them dance, and heard them sing; he saw them tear their hair, and heard them howl.


Illustration by
Arthur Rackham

* * * * *

Well! This is Dickens in full social justice warrior mode, showing the dire poverty in which so many people lived contrasted with the smug and hypocritical rich, who lecture when a sixpence would work better, who wallow in their own well-fed self-satisfaction as they blame the poor for cluttering up their otherwise charming and tidy world. It has little of the humour of A Christmas Carol – it is dark to the point where it had me sobbing, with starvation and death, men jailed for the crime of trying to stay alive, women driven to prostitution, infanticide and suicide. And while there is a form of redemption at the end, it feels a fairly hollow one to me – the Chimes, by showing Toby how awful life without faith can be, restore his belief that the poor are not doomed from birth to be bad. There are lots of Biblical references and warnings to spouting “Christian” hypocrites who think that lectures on morality are enough to win them a place in heaven. But the underlying message seems confused – both that the rich should do more to alleviate poverty, but that the poor should fall back on faith when there’s no food to be had. I couldn’t help feeling it must have been a long time since Dickens went hungry. There’s also some foreshadowing of his message in the later A Tale of Two Cities – that if the rich don’t deal with the poor…

…afore the day comes when even his Bible changes in his altered mind, and the words seem to him to read, as they have sometimes read in my own eyes—in jail: “Whither thou goest, I can Not go; where thou lodgest, I do Not lodge; thy people are Not my people; Nor thy God my God!”

…then the poor may rise up and deal with the rich.

A happy ending
by John Leech

Powerful stuff! I can see why it’s not as well loved as A Christmas Carol – it feels rushed and a little untidy, the message is not so clear and, despite the happy-ish ending, I certainly didn’t come away from it feeling as uplifted as I do when Tiny Tim asks God to bless us, everyone. In fact, I felt angry, depressed and as if I wanted to go and beat a few rich hypocrites over the head with a yule log – and I don’t mean the cake. So I think Dickens pretty much succeeded in his aim…

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Murder by Matchlight by ECR Lorac

Maybe it’s because they are Londoners…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a cold winter in London during World War 2, with the blackout in full force and the population living with the constant spectre of bombing raids. One night, young Bruce Mallaig is sitting on a bench in Regent’s Park thinking romantic thoughts of the girl he loves, when he sees – or mostly hears due to the pitch darkness – two men near the little footbridge, one on the bridge, the other standing below it. While he ponders what they might be up to, the man on the bridge lights a match and Mallaig catches a glimpse of a face looming behind him. The match goes out and there’s a thud as of someone falling. By the time Mallaig fumbles his torch alight, the man on the bridge is dead…

Of course, this is the story he tells the police, but is it true? There was another witness too, the man under the bridge, whose story sounds less likely but possible. Inspector MacDonald of the Yard will have to decide if either of these witness could have done the deed, or had a fourth person been there in the darkness, unseen except for that brief glimpse Mallaig caught in the matchlight? But first MacDonald will have to identify the victim before he can try to discover the motive for the crime.

This is the third of ECR Lorac’s books that the British Library has re-issued and she’s now become one of my firm favourites. MacDonald is a likeable detective – a moral man but with the ability to make allowances for the moral weaknesses of others. He’s thoughtful and kind, Oxford-educated but doesn’t live in an ivory tower. He’s as likely to go to see the latest variety show at the music-hall as to attend the newest production of Shakespeare, and this stands him in good stead in this investigation, since it soon turns out the victim lived in a boarding-house full of variety performers.

The plot is very good, with plenty of motives to provide red herrings, and an investigation that relies on MacDonald getting to the truth the old-fashioned way – by interviewing the various suspects both formally and informally, while his team carry out the painstaking work of checking alibis and tracking people’s movements. That’s one of the things I like most about these books – Lorac makes it clear that policing is a team sport. While MacDonald has the intuition and insight to make assumptions about who might be lying or telling the truth, he relies on his hard-working and competent subordinates to get the evidence to support or negate his theories.

One of Lorac’s chief skills is in developing her settings with a great feeling of authenticity. This one takes us to the heart of the capital city during the bombings, and gives a wonderful depiction of the dogged Londoners picking themselves up and carrying on, with the kind of defiant resilience that was the hallmark of London’s (and Britain’s) war-time attitude. But she doesn’t shy away from showing that this spirit wasn’t universal – many people were scared, while some took advantage of the confusion caused by the destruction in less than legal ways. In fact, Lorac uses this confusion as part of her plot and gives a real picture of the bombed out areas of the city and the disruption which that caused, with people dispersed from their old communities so that suddenly neighbours no longer knew neighbours in the way they had before the war, allowing the unscrupulous to “disappear” into new lives, even new identities.

I also love her characterisation. The most vivid characters here are the variety performers, and as you would expect they can be a bit larger than life, and their quirky skills again play a part in the plotting. She doesn’t overdo it, though, so they still feel credible. But it’s the “ordinary” people she does so well – the old caretaker who looks after the boarding-house and does a bit of cleaning on the side, Mallaig, MacDonald’s subordinates. This is back in the period when authors used to assume that people who weren’t the baddies were good, and this is emphasised more here because, published in 1945, consciously or unconsciously it plays into the story Londoners told themselves to keep their chins up in the face of adversity: a story of plucky cheerfulness, neighbourliness and acts of heroism – a story they told so convincingly it became their reality. A heinous crime has been committed, with a motivation that might feel somewhat out-dated now, but would have resonated strongly at the time. But, despite the crime and the bombs, all will be well because London and Londoners will never allow Hitler the satisfaction of thinking he can give more than they can take. And with men like MacDonald in charge, London is in safe hands.

London 1944 – fighting Hitler one cuppa tea at a time…

Strong plot, good characterisation, plenty of mild humour to lift the tone – all-in-all, an excellent read that gives a real insight into the war on the Home Front, and the patriotic spirit that carried London through. Great stuff!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

FictionFan Awards 2018 – Genre Fiction

Please rise…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

GENRE FICTION

I don’t always include an award for genre fiction, but I’ve had a lot of fun this year reading classic science fiction and horror, so it seemed a shame to leave them out in the cold. Some of my favourites were re-reads – The Day of the Triffids, for instance – so can’t be included. I’m including several short story collections since so much good genre fiction comes in that format.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Gothic Tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Although best known today for his Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote prolifically across a whole range of genres in his lifetime. This collection brings together thirty-four of his tales which have been categorised as “gothic”, although some of them are more gothic than others.

The level of horror is variable from mild and even humorous to really quite scary. But the real joy of the collection, as always with Conan Doyle, is the sheer quality of his story-telling skills. Whether relating an Arctic adventure complete with ghostly apparition, or telling a tale of vengeance set in the wild frontier of old America, or forcing the reader to spend a night in a museum full of not completely dead Egyptian mummies, or taking us into the dark heart of the British Empire, his powers of description and ability to create atmosphere and tension are surely second to none. And his total command of a wonderful vocabulary and seemingly effortless writing style make the stories pure pleasure to read.

Click to see the full review

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The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells

When Mr Bedford leaves London for the quiet of the Kentish countryside he meets his new neighbour, Mr Cavor, an eccentric scientist, and becomes intrigued and excited by the possibilities of the invention Cavor is working on – a substance that will defy gravity. Bedford, always with an eye for the main chance, begins to imagine the commercial possibilities of such a substance, but Cavor is more interested in the glory that he will gain from the scientific community. And so it is that these two mismatched men find themselves as partners on an incredible voyage – to the Moon!

To a large degree, this is a straightforward adventure novel with a great story and lots of danger and excitement. But, being Wells, there are also underlying themes relating to contemporary concerns: primarily the danger of science untempered by ethical control and a rather terrifying vision of a utopian society. But the themes are treated more lightly in this one and Wells allows his imagination free rein, resulting in a great read – lots of humour, great descriptive writing, enough depth to keep it interesting without overwhelming the story, a couple of characters you can’t help liking even though you feel you shouldn’t, and plenty of excitement.

Click to see the full review

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The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen

This is a collection of those stories of Arthur Machen that fit into what would now be thought of as ‘weird’ tales. His stories are set mainly in two locations, both of which he evokes brilliantly. His native Monmouthshire, in Wales, is depicted as a place with connections to its deep past, where ancient beliefs and rituals are hidden just under the surface of civilised life. His London is a place of dark alleys and hidden evils, with a kind of degenerate race living side by side with the respectable people, and often stretching out a corrupting hand towards them. Many have strong sexual undercurrents (never overtly spelled out – it’s the Victorian era) and paganism is a recurring feature.

The quality of the writing is excellent, especially the descriptive imagery he uses to give both of his settings a sense of evil things lurking unseen, ready to prey on the morally weak or unwary. The Welsh parts have a very similar feel to Lovecraft’s ruins – Lovecraft acknowledged his influence – but where Lovecraft opted for ancient malign aliens, Machen’s evil, though equally ancient, is all of earth, earthly. However, there’s a good deal of humour alongside the effective and occasionally gruesome horror and he’s a great storyteller, making this a marvellously entertaining collection. 

Click to see the full review

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In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson

It’s 1980. Travis Stillwell lives life on the road, travelling from small town to small town in Texas, running from the memories of his earlier life, seeking something lost. Some nights he’ll pick up a woman in a honky-tonk bar, but not for love – these women are victims, killed almost as a sacrifice to those demons he can’t shake off. But one night he picks up Rue, a beautiful young woman who is more evil than even the horrors in his own mind – a woman searching for her own kind of mate, who will change him in ways he could never have imagined even in his worst nightmares. When he wakes up the next day, he is wounded, bloodied, and prey to a strange and terrible hunger – a hunger he must satisfy so that he and Rue can live.

I don’t normally read modern horror but I’m glad I made an exception for this one. It’s a bloody and often gruesome vampire novel, but it’s also so much more than that. Part examination of the hard-scrabble life of rural Texans in the early ’80s and part-metaphor for the lasting shockwaves of the traumas visited on America, and its young men in particular, by the Vietnam war, it’s right up there with the best of American fiction writing, so much so that I considered putting it in the literary fiction category. The writing and imagery are wonderful, poetic and brutal at the same time – it blew me away. 

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

BEST GENRE FICTION

This was an extremely difficult decision – at least three of these books could easily have won. But Lovecraft has been a stalwart of the blog for years now, so it felt only right he should finally win a prize!

In his introduction to this collection of thirteen tales, Xavier Aldana Reyes discusses how Lovecraft’s reputation as a major influence in weird fiction has led to his more traditionally Gothic work being somewhat overlooked. But Reyes points out that even in his weird fiction, Lovecraft often used Gothic concerns. Having read the stories, I’d say the reverse is also true – that his Gothic tales often include elements of his major weird works, particularly in the settings, the hint of unknown fears from something more cosmic than ghostly, and the idea of the degeneration of humanity, which recurs frequently not only in Lovecraft’s work but in that of many of his near contemporaries. 

I loved this collection – every story got either a four or five star rating individually, a rare occurrence indeed. Many of the stories are traditional in style and genuinely scary, while others show Lovecraft’s brilliance in creating an unsettling atmosphere where man exists as a helpless plaything, at the mercy of forces we are too puny to comprehend. Great stuff, and a worthy winner!

Click to see the full review

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Next Week: Best Factual

The Classics Club Spin #19

In the lap of the gods…

classics club logo 2

The Classics Club is holding its 19th Spin, and my 6th. The idea is to list 20 of the books on your Classics Club list before next Tuesday, 27th November. On that day, the Classics Club will post the winning number. The challenge is to read and review whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by 31st January, 2019. This seems like a super generous amount of time, so the Club is recommending we set ourselves the challenge to read one of the chunkier books on our lists, and as we all know some of those pesky classics can be very chunky indeed!

All very well and I’m always up for a challenge! But… I’ve already scheduled my annual Dickens monster, Little Dorrit this year, for the festive season and also committed to reading all five of his Christmas books! So I’ve put some biggies on my list but I’ve also snuck some shorter ones in there in the hopes that fate will be kind to me *laughs hollowly*. It’s all in the lap of the gods…

* * * * *

1) The American by Henry James

2) Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

3) Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

4) The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr

5) Earth Abides by George R Stewart

6) Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald

7) Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

8) The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison

9) I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane

10) The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

11) Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

12) The African Queen by CS Forester

13) Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie

14) The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham

15) Starship Troopers by Robert A Heinlein

16) In the Heat of the Night by John Ball

17) The Go-Between by LP Hartley

18) The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

19) Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver

20) The Drowned World by JG Ballard

* * * * * * *

I’d be delighted to read most of these. Remember, Classics Club Gods, short! Short! In the Heat of the Night. The African Queen. I, The Jury. But if you must go long, then Mansfield Park would be nice, or The Bull Calves, or The Game of Kings…

Which one would you like to see win?

The Moving Toyshop (Gervase Fen 3) by Edmund Crispin

Murder Stalks The University!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Poet Richard Cadogan decides he needs a break from routine so heads to Oxford. As he walks along a street at night looking at the window displays of the closed shops, he notices the door of a toyshop is open. His curiosity gets the better of him so he enters, but is shocked to find the corpse of a woman lying on the floor. Before he has the chance to leave the shop to report what looks like a murder, he is hit on the head and falls unconscious. When he comes round some time later he finds himself locked in a cupboard, but manages to make his escape and go to the police. However when they return with him to the spot, not only has the corpse disappeared but the whole shop has gone, and in its place is a grocer’s shop! Not unnaturally, the police have difficulty believing his story after this, so he turns to his old friend, the amateur sleuth and university professor, Gervase Fen…

This is one of those crime novels that goes way beyond the credibility line, but makes up for its general silliness by being a whole lot of fun. Due to an unfortunate mistake, Cadogan is soon wanted by the police for stealing from the grocer’s shop, so all the time he and Fen are racing round Oxford pursuing their investigations, the local police are racing around too, pursuing Cadogan! Fen tries to get his old friend the Chief Constable to call them off, but the Chief Constable is far more interested in discussing the themes of Measure for Measure – well, it is Oxford after all, where even the truck drivers read DH Lawrence…

He felt about him and produced a greasy edition of Sons and Lovers for general inspection, then he put it away again. “We’ve lorst touch,’ he continued, ‘with sex – the grand primeval energy; the dark, mysterious source of life. Not,’ he added confidentially, ‘that I’ve ever exactly felt that – beggin’ your pardon – when I’ve been in bed with the old woman. But that’s because industrial civilisation ‘as got me in its clutches.’

Challenge details:
Book: 49
Subject Heading: Making Fun of Murder
Publication Year: 1946

Fen is somewhat eccentric to say the least, and does his detection through a series of brilliant deductions well beyond the scope of us mere mortals, aided by large dollops of luck and coincidence. In fact, I can’t say I ever had much of an idea why exactly the villains had gone to such elaborate lengths to complicate a murder that should really have been pretty easy, but given their efforts to baffle and confuse, it’s just as well Fen is on hand to jump to the correct conclusions! He gradually involves his students as a kind of informal mob of enforcers, which might have worked out better if there weren’t quite so many bars in Oxford. Their ham-fisted efforts to help catch the bad guys add a lot to the farcical feel of the thing.

It’s very well written and full of humour. Cadogan and Fen make a great duo as they bicker their way through the investigation, filling in any lulls by playing literary games with each other, such as naming the most unreadable books of all time. (I was pleased to see Ulysses made the list, but was shocked that Moby-Dick didn’t get a mention!) It occasionally takes on a surreal quality when Fen makes it clear he knows he’s a character in a book…

‘Murder Stalks the University,’ said Fen. ‘The Blood on the Mortarboard. Fen Strikes Back.’
‘What’s that you’re saying?’ Cadogan asked in a faint, rather gurgling voice.
‘My dear fellow, are you all right? I was making up titles for Crispin.’

Edmund Crispin

As a little added bonus, I was thrilled to read the part of the book that inspired the brilliant fairground scene in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train – one of my favourite films, largely because of that finale.

A thoroughly entertaining read, and I look forward to improving my acquaintance with Crispin and Fen in the future. Highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Maker of Moons by Robert W Chambers

Across the seven oceans…

I wasn’t too thrilled with Robert W Chambers’ best-known collection, The King in Yellow, finding the quality hugely variable from story to story, so time to see if he can impress me more with this week’s…

The Maker of Moons
by Robert W Chambers

Robert W Chambers

We first meet our narrator, Roy, when he is visiting a jeweller’s, where his friend Godfrey who works there is showing him a fantastic carving of a serpent made of what appears to be pure gold. Godfrey explains that he got it from an old man who lives in the Cardinal Woods. But suddenly Roy’s attention is distracted…

But I was not looking at the serpent. Something was moving – crawling out of Godfrey’s coat pocket – the pocket nearest to me – something soft and yellow with crab-like legs all covered with coarse yellow hair.

Godfrey tells him this hideous little creature came clinging to the box containing the gold serpent. Roy asks what it is but Godfrey doesn’t know…

“It is, I believe, the connecting link between a sea-urchin, a spider, and the devil. It looks venomous but I can’t find either fangs or mouth. Is it blind? These things may be eyes but they look as if they were painted. A Japanese sculptor might have produced such an impossible beast, but it is hard to believe that God did. It looks unfinished too. I have a mad idea that this creature is only one of the parts of some larger and more grotesque organism – it looks so lonely, so hopelessly dependent, so cursedly unfinished.”

Coincidentally Roy is going off to the Cardinal Woods on the following day, for a bit of shooting with a couple of friends, Pierpoint, an amiable but rather useless rich young man, and Barris, a Secret Service agent. Soon Barris reveals he has an ulterior motive – someone in the woods appears to be making gold, threatening the collapse of the whole capitalist system!

“Don’t ask me how it’s made,” said Barris, quietly; “I don’t know. But I do know that somewhere in the region of the Cardinal Woods there is a gang of people who do know how gold is made, and who make it. You understand the danger this is to every civilized nation. It’s got to be stopped of course. Drummond and I have decided that I am the man to stop it. Wherever and whoever these people are – these gold-makers – they must be caught, every one of them – caught or shot.”

While Pierpoint accompanies Barris to track down these villains, Roy makes off into the forest to kill things. But he comes across a beautiful glade complete with a pool of water and a beautiful, mysterious lady with whom he promptly and soppily falls deeply in love.

….“Listen,” sighed the voice of the wind, and “listen” echoed the swaying trees with every little leaf a-quiver. I listened.
….Where the long grasses trembled with the cricket’s cadence I heard her name, Ysonde; I heard it in the rustling woodbine where grey moths hovered; I heard it in the drip, drip, drip of the dew from the porch. The silent meadow brook whispered her name, the rippling woodland streams repeated it, Ysonde, Ysonde, until all earth and sky were filled with the soft thrill, Ysonde, Ysonde, Ysonde.

You’ll have gathered that her name is Ysonde.

But where does she come from, this mysterious lady? And what is her connection to the equally mysterious but deeply sinister Chinaman who seems to be lurking in the woods? And where does the gold come in? And what about those creatures?? Barris has some notion of what’s going on…

“The Kuen-Yuin are sorcerers,” he said, pausing before the hammock where Pierpont lay watching him; “I mean exactly what I say – sorcerers. I’ve seen them – I’ve seen them at their devilish business, and I repeat to you solemnly, that as there are angels above, there is a race of devils on earth, and they are sorcerers . . . Do you know what goes on in the interior of China? Does Europe know – could any human being conceive of the condition of that gigantic hell-pit? . . . I tell you that when the fires from this pit of hell have eaten through the continent to the coast, the explosion will inundate half a world – and God help the other half.”

* * * * *

This is a rather wonderful story that is a kind of mash-up of genres – fantasy, weird, adventure, horror and with a large dollop of Yellow Peril thrown in for good measure. But the Kuen-Yuin are so mystical and magical that they seem more like aliens than humans, which means the inherent racism of Yellow Peril stories feels diluted – the horror is of their supernatural evil, rather than any perceived inferiority of race. The writing is great, all the way from high romance to creeping terror, with some fantastic imagery along the way.

Parts are humorous, such as the interactions between the three friends, but other parts are frightening, and still others dreamlike, almost hallucinogenic in feel, especially when they speak of Yian, the city of the Kuen-Yuin, which lies “across the seven oceans and the river which is longer than from the earth to the moon”.

“I have seen it,” said Barris dreamily. “I have seen the dead plains of Black Cathay and I have crossed the mountains of Death, whose summits are above the atmosphere. I have seen the shadow of Xangi cast across Abaddon. Better to die a million miles from Yezd and Ater Quedah than to have seen the white water-lotus close in the shadow of Xangi! I have slept among the ruins of Xaindu where the winds never cease and the Wulwulleh is wailed by the dead.”

The porpy and I loved it, and neither of us will soon forget those horrible crab-like yellow creatures…

Enough to give the porpy a bad hair day…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

* * * * *

The fabulous top and bottom illustrations are by the super-talented mgkellermeyer at deviantart.com. The middle one is the original frontispiece by Lancelot Speed via Wikipedia.

* * * * *

It’s quite long, but if you’d like to read it online, here’s a link. I read it in the collection Out of the Dark, provided for review courtesy of Collins Chillers.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by PG Wodehouse

Brouhaha at Brinkley…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Jeeves returns to the old homestead after a short holiday, imagine his horror on discovering that in his absence Bertie has taken the opportunity to grow a moustache! Not everyone shares his distaste for the facial hair, though. Florence Craye, for one, thinks it’s simply marvellous. In fact, so enthusiastic is she that her fiancé, the beefy Stilton Cheesewright, develops a strong desire to break Bertie’s spine in four, or perhaps, five places. Only the thought that he has drawn Bertie in the Drones Club darts tournament and stands to win a hefty sum should Bertie triumph stays Stilton’s wrath. Bertie thinks it might be expedient however to retreat to Brinkley Court, Aunt Dahlia’s place, till the heat dies down, little knowing that he will soon find the place teeming with Florences, Stiltons, lovelorn playwrights, Liverpudlian newspaper magnates and Lord Sidcup, once known to all and sundry as the would-be dictator Roderick Spode. Will Jeeves overcome the coolness that has arisen over the matter of the moustache and rally round the young master in his hour of need? Or will Bertie find himself at last facing the long walk down the aisle into the dreaded state of matrimony…?

Wodehouse is on top form in this one, and I enjoyed meeting up with Florence Craye again – always one of my favourite Wooster girlfriends. She’s less drippy than Madeleine Bassett, less haughty than Honoria Glossop and less troublesome than Stiffy Byng. Were it not for the fact that she writes highbrow literary novels, I feel she would be a good match for our Bertie, but the poor man really prefers to curl up with The Mystery of the Pink Crayfish or suchlike.

I like B. Wooster the way he is. Lay off him, I say. Don’t try to change him, or you may lose the flavour. Even when we were merely affianced, I recalled, this woman had dashed the mystery thriller from my hand, instructing me to read instead a perfectly frightful thing by a bird called Tolstoy. At the thought of what horrors might ensue after the clergyman had done his stuff and she had a legal right to bring my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave, the imagination boggled.

Stilton’s jealousy gets a proper workout since, not only does he fear that Florence still has feelings for her ex-fiancé Bertie, but Percy Gorringe, a playwright who is converting Florence’s novel for the stage, seems to be mooning around after her rather a lot too.

PG Wodehouse

Meantime, Aunt Dahlia is trying to offload her magazine Milady’s Boudoir to a Liverpudlian newspaper magnate, Mr Trotter, so he and his social-climbing wife are in residence too as she hopes the wonders of Anatole’s cooking will soften him up and get her a good price. But when Uncle Tom invites Spode to Brinkley specifically to check out the pearl necklace he recently purchased for her, Aunt Dahlia is aghast. She has pawned the necklace to keep the magazine afloat till she sells it, and the pearls she is wearing are a paste imitation. Only Jeeves can save the day!

“…the core of the cultured imitation can be discerned, as a rule merely by holding the cultured pearl up before a strong light. This is what I did in the matter of Mrs Travers’ necklace. I had no need of the endoscope.”
“The what?”
“Endoscope, sir. An instrument which enables one to peer into the cultured pearl’s interior and discern the core.”
I was conscious of a passing pang for the oyster world, feeling – and I think correctly – that life for these unfortunate bivalves must be one damn thing after another…

Jonathan Cecil

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Jonathan Cecil who does his usual marvellous job of creating distinct and appropriate voices for each character – in this one he had extra fun with the Liverpudlian accents. His Bertie is perfect, and I love his Aunt Dahlia – one hears the baying hounds and distant view-halloo of the Quorn and Pytchley Hunts ringing in her tones each time she speaks.

Great fun – there’s nothing quite like spending a few hours in the company of these old friends to bring the sunshine into the gloomiest autumn day.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

FictionFan Awards 2018 – Vintage Crime Fiction

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

VINTAGE CRIME FICTION

This has been another fab year for vintage crime fiction with both the British Library Crime Classics and the Collins Crime Club working hard to keep me entertained with some of my most enjoyable reads of the year, not to mention my slowly ongoing Murder, Mystery, Mayhem Challenge.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Fire in the Thatch by ECR Lorac

The Second World War is drawing to a close when the tenancy of a piece of land complete with thatched cottage falls vacant on the estate of Colonel St Cyres, in Devon. The Colonel is determined the lease shall go to someone who shares his love of the land and who wants to work it productively. However, his daughter-in-law June has different ideas. A Londoner by birth and a party-girl by nature, June is staying with her father-in-law because her husband, the Colonel’s son, is a prisoner of war in Burma. She wants the Colonel to give the cottage to a “friend” of hers, a Mr Gressingham, who would use it as a place to entertain his (and June’s) rather decadent London friends. Fast forward a few months, and Inspector MacDonald of the Yard is on his way to investigate what might have been a case of accidental death, or possibly one of arson and murder…

Lorac’s writing is excellent and the picture she creates of rural England during the war years is totally convincing. Inspector MacDonald is an appealing detective – a thoughtful and kindly man, strictly moral on his own account but with the capacity to make some allowance for moral weakness in others. Although convoluted, the plot is firmly grounded in human nature, giving it a timeless quality. Lorac and MacDonald deserve their return to the limelight!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Eye of Osiris by R. Austin Freeman

One November day in 1902, John Bellingham disappears from the study of a friend’s house where he had been waiting for his friend to return home. Two years later, there has still been no sign of him and his potential heirs are left in limbo, unable to execute his rather strange will. And then pieces of a dismembered skeleton begin to show up in odd places. Meantime, young Dr Paul Berkeley, our narrator, has fallen in love with Ruth Bellingham, the missing man’s niece, whose father is one of the potential heirs. He persuades Ruth’s father, Godfrey Bellingham, to allow Dr John Thorndyke, an expert in medical jurisprudence, to look into the case. It’s up to Thorndyke to find a way to identify the remains and to find out what was behind Bellingham’s disappearance.

The prose is elegant, reminding me of Conan Doyle’s easy style, and the wit in Berkeley’s observations of the other characters made me chuckle aloud several times. And I adored the romance! Ruth feels remarkably modern considering the book was written in 1911 – humorous and intelligent, strong and self-reliant. A thoroughly entertaining read!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

It’s the early 1930s. Britain’s finances haven’t yet recovered from the Great War and now the Stock Market collapse has brought matters close to crisis. So the Home Secretary has invited an American financier to a private dinner at the House of Commons to schmooze him into agreeing to make the government a substantial loan. But when the Division Bell sounds, the Home Secretary has to leave the room to go and vote. The Home Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, young Robert West, is also hurrying along the corridor to vote, but as he passes the room where the financier waits alone, he hears a shot. Rushing in with the other people in the corridor, he finds the financier dead! Who killed him? And why? Robert finds himself working as a liaison with the police to find the answers…

This is a lot of fun, with two likeable lead characters in Robert and Grace, a feisty young Socialist MP based on the author herself, who wrote the book during a temporary halt in her own Parliamentary career. The plot is a bit messy perhaps, but that’s more than compensated for by the humour and especially the enjoyable insider look at all the quirky traditions that surround parliamentary procedures. Great fun!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

Mademoiselle Mathilde Stangerson is attacked in her yellow bedroom by a murderer wielding a mutton-bone. When her father and the other people in the house break down the door, Mlle S is on the floor and her murderer is nowhere to be found. How did the murderer get out of a room in which the only door and window were securely locked? Enter our hero, Joseph Rouletabille, a young journalist who at the age of eighteen has already acquired a reputation as an inspired amateur detective.

A classic ‘locked room’ mystery with another ‘impossible crime’ thrown in for good measure, this is a fabulous little romp that is more and more fun as it goes along. Hercule Poirot himself described it as a masterpiece, and who am I to disagree? Essential reading for vintage crime fans and so nearly the winner…

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

BEST VINTAGE CRIME FICTION

The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

Good though the shorlisted books are, the decision was an easy one. The Murder of My Aunt entertained me as much as any book I’ve read this year.

Edward Powell is an unhappy young man. He lives with his annoying Aunt Mildred who, as his guardian and trustee of his inheritance, holds the purse-strings, rather too tightly in Edward’s opinion. To make matters worse, he’s forced to live in the family home in a small village in Wales, surrounded by landscape and hills and sheep and all that awful stuff, when he should be mingling with artists and bright young things in one of the fashionable hotspots of the world. Really it’s too much to bear. So he decides there’s only one thing to be done… the clue is in the title!

Edward’s voice is what makes the book so special. The writing is fantastic, so that Hull manages to let the reader see both the truth and Edward’s unreliable interpretation of it simultaneously. One couldn’t possibly like Edward, and in real life one would pretty quickly want to hit him over the head with a brick, but his journal is a joy to read. It’s a brilliant portrait of a man obsessed with his own comforts, utterly selfish, and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. An expert example of how to make an unlikeable character work, and full of wicked humour – brilliant!

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Genre Fiction

TBR Thursday 180…

Episode 180…

Well, the TBR has neither risen nor fallen, remaining at the astonishingly low figure of 228. I’m sure that at last I have achieved a perfect sense of balance…

Here’s a few more I should be spinning through soon…

Fiction

For my sadly neglected 5 x 5 Challenge. William McIlvanney’s hugely influential Laidlaw trilogy means that he’s probably best known as a crime writer, but in reality the bulk of his work was literary fiction.  This one is a loose follow-up to Docherty, taking up the story of a grandson of the original Docherty and moving forward in time to the mid-twentieth century…

The Blurb says: Tom Docherty was 17 in the summer of 1955. With school behind him and a summer job at a brick works, Tom had his whole life before him. Years later, alone in a rented flat in Edinburgh and lost in memories, Tom recalls the intellectual and sexual awakening of his youth. In looking back, Tom discovers that only by understanding where he comes from can he make sense of his life as it is now.

* * * * *

Crime

Courtesy of Michael Joseph via NetGalley. Having been immersed in vintage crime for the last few months, I’m beginning to feel a craving for some contemporary crime (but not identikit domestic misery-fests!). This sounds intriguing…

The Blurb says: Twenty-four years ago Katharina Haugen went missing. All she left behind was her husband Martin and a mysterious string of numbers scribbled on a piece of paper. Every year on October 9th Chief Inspector William Wisting takes out the files to the case he was never able to solve. Stares at the code he was never able to crack. And visits the husband he was never able to help. But now Martin Haugen is missing too.

As Wisting prepares to investigate another missing persons case he’s visited by a detective from Oslo. Adrian Stiller is convinced Martin’s involved in another disappearance of a young woman and asks Wisting to close the net around Martin. But is Wisting playing cat and mouse with a dangerous killer or a grief-stricken husband who cannot lay the past to rest?

Set between the icy streets and dark forests of Norway, The Katharina Code is a heart-stopping story of one man’s obsession with his coldest case. Atmospheric, gripping and suspenseful; this is Nordic Noir at its very best.

* * * * *

Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the British Library. But I’m not giving up on vintage crime! In fact, I’ve built up a little backlog, so I’m going to spend December having a little mini-splurge of Dickens and vintage crime – doesn’t that sound fun? This one is by Julian Symons, who seems to be rather better known these days for his often critical analysis of other Golden Age authors than for his own writing. Always risky setting yourself up as both an author and a critic – I shall have my red pencil ready… 😉

The Blurb says: John Wilkins meets a beautiful, irresistible girl, and his world is turned upside down. Looking at his wife, and thinking of the girl, everything turns red before his eyes – the colour of murder.

But did he really commit the heinous crime he was accused of? Told innovatively in two parts: the psychiatric assessment of Wilkins and the trial for suspected murder on the Brighton seafront, Symons’ award-winning mystery tantalizes the reader with glimpses of the elusive truth and makes a daring exploration of the nature of justice itself.

* * * * *

Fiction on Audio

I read this thousands of years ago when the world and I were young, but I remember very little about it now. So I thought it would be fun to listen to the audio version, narrated by Jonathan Pryce…

The Blurb says: From the bestselling author of Rebecca, another classic set in beautiful and mysterious Cornwall.

Orphaned at an early age, Philip Ashley is raised by his benevolent older cousin, Ambrose. Resolutely single, Ambrose delights in Philip as his heir, a man who will love his grand home as much as he does himself. But the cosy world the two construct is shattered when Ambrose sets off on a trip to Florence. There he falls in love and marries – and there he dies suddenly. In almost no time at all, the new widow – Philip’s cousin Rachel – turns up in England. Despite himself, Philip is drawn to this beautiful, sophisticated, mysterious woman like a moth to the flame. And yet… might she have had a hand in Ambrose’s death?

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

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

Heretics and Believers by Peter Marshall

From papists to puritans, and all points in-between…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In this massive history of the English Reformation, Marshall looks in detail at the people and events that gradually led England from Catholicism to Protestantism. He doesn’t fixate on the bickering Tudor Royals, although of course they played their part. Instead he focuses mostly on those of the ranks below – the lords, bishops and religious thinkers of the period, with the occasional nod to the common people. He therefore gives a picture of the Reformation as being fundamentally about points of difference in interpretation of the Gospel, rather than, as is sometimes portrayed, a largely political change carried out by and for the benefit of those pesky Kings and Queens. He suggests that the Reformation was bloodier than is often claimed, and that its relative slowness meant that people became accustomed to thinking about questions that had previously been simply accepted. He gives the impression that he believes the Reformation allowed the genie of individual thought out of the bottle, whether for good or ill.

The book begins with an excellent exposition of medieval religious rites and traditions, and how the Biblical stories were interpreted into daily ritual. The sacraments and sacramentals, the eucharist, transubstantiation, purgatory, etc., are all explained simply and without judgement or commentary. This is enormously helpful to those of us who are not practising Christians and so are vague about what these things mean today, much less half a millennium ago. Marshall points out that the pre-Reformation Catholic church had not been an unchanging entity for centuries, as it is often portrayed, and that even prior to the Reformation there was a growing number of people who were concerned that the rituals, relics and so on, were taking away from the simplicity of the core message of salvation through Christ.

The history is largely given in a linear fashion, starting with an in-depth look at the status of the Church prior to what would come to be seen as the beginning of the Reformation, then going through all the various stages of it, the advances and retreats, power-struggles, factions, purges, burnings and bloody executions. Along the way Marshall introduces us to the major, and many minor, players, and discusses the development of the theology underpinning the religious arguments and the political considerations motivating the powerful.

The book contains a massive amount of detail, and it is well written without unnecessary academic jargon. So in that sense, it is approachable for the general reader. However, this general reader often felt swamped by the hundreds of unfamiliar names trotted out once to illustrate a particular point. For me, with only a superficial knowledge of the period, I found the meat of the argument was often lost in the minutiae which surrounded it. I’m sure all the detail would make it an excellent read for people with a sound existing knowledge of the period who wish to gain additional insight, or particularly for students. But I don’t know that I’d wholeheartedly recommend it as an introduction to the subject, or even as a next step to the relative newcomer.

Peter Marshall

Having said that, I left it for a few weeks before writing this review to see how it settled in my mind, and now that my memory has expelled all the minor names and incidents, I do feel I have a much clearer idea about the broad sweep of events and, more importantly, about the religious arguments behind them. I find Marshall has also made me more aware that ordinary worshippers were more than simply pawns of the powerful – that these arguments mattered to them too and that pressure for change came from the bottom up as much as from the top down. So, although I admit I struggled at times with what felt like information overload, in the end I feel I have gained from the reading of it.

Peter Marshall is professor of history at the University of Warwick. Heretics and Believers won the 2018 Wolfson History Prize.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! Basil Netherby by AC Benson

If music be the food of evil…

Apparently the famous EF Benson had two ghost-story-writing brothers – AC and RH (their parents were clearly big on initials). This collection includes stories from both of them, turn and turn about. So in a future post I’ll highlight one of RH’s, but AC takes the stage for this week’s…

Basil Netherby
by AC Benson

AC Benson

“…for God’s sake, dear Leonard, if you would help a friend who is on the edge (I dare not say of what), come to me tomorrow, UNINVITED. You will think this very strange, but do not mind that – only come – unannounced, do you see…”

This forms the postscript to a letter our narrator, Leonard Ward, receives from his old friend, Basil Netherby. They had studied music together, and since then Netherby has been travelling from place to place working on his compositions. Now he is lodging in an old house called Treheale, in Cornwall. The main body of the letter gives a glowing account of the work Netherby is doing there – only the postscript worries Ward…

My first thought was that Basil was mad; my next thought that he had drifted into some awkward situation, fallen under some unfortunate influence – was perhaps being blackmailed – and I knew his sensitive character well enough to feel sure that whatever the trouble was it would be exaggerated ten times over by his lively and apprehensive mind.

Netherby has also enclosed a sample of the music he had been writing, and this worries Ward even more…

…what music it was! It was like nothing of which I’d ever even dreamed. There was a wild, intemperate voluptuousness about it, a kind of evil relish of beauty which gave me a painful thrill.

So Ward rushes off to Cornwall. But, to his surprise, when he gets there, Netherby is looking fine – more than fine, in fact. He has a vigour and glow he never before possessed and seems in high spirits. But Ward worries that this change in his friend is a sign of something troubling and he begins to connect it with the house. This feeling grows stronger when, while walking around the wooded grounds, he comes across a path that takes him to a strange-looking little door at a corner of the house…

I do not know what was the obsession that fell on me at the sight of this place. A cold dismay seemed to spring from the dark and clutch me; there are places which seem so soaked, as it were, in malign memories that they give out a kind of spiritual aroma of evil. I have seen in my life things which might naturally seem to produce in the mind associations of terror and gloom. I have seen men die; I have seen a man writhe in pain on the ground from a mortal injury; but I never experienced anything like the thrill of horror which passed through my shuddering mind at the sight of the little door with its dark eye-holes.

* * * * *

I’ve only read a few of the stories from each of the two brothers so far, but AC is winning hands down, not least because of this excellent tale. There’s no great mystery to it – Ward is soon told that the malign influence Netherby is suffering under is the ghost of the house’s previous owner, a dissolute man who had spent his life corrupting the youth of the village and seems intent on continuing after death.

The writing is great and soon creates a real atmosphere of evil and dread. AC uses the idea of Netherby’s music very effectively, showing it both as having resulted from corruption and of being, in itself, corrupting. As Ward says…

Heard upon the piano, the accent of subtle evil that ran through the music became even more obvious. I seemed to struggle between two feelings – an over-powering admiration, and a sense of shame at my own capacity for admiring it.

There’s a distinct but distinctly Edwardian suggestion that the corruption is of a sensual nature, turning these decent young men’s thoughts to something slightly more earthy than a well-turned ankle, and thus leading them from the path of righteousness into temptation. (All the stories so far have had a religious element underpinning them; sometimes broadly, especially in RH’s; sometimes, as in this one, rather more subtly.) The question is whether Ward will be able to save his friend and get him away from the house before it’s too late, but the ghost doesn’t take too kindly to that idea. As the story reaches its crescendo it becomes tense indeed! Good stuff!

(The porpentine became obsessed with the music…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

NB The collection Ghosts in the House was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Chillers.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

“Hell is empty!”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Clare Cassidy is writing a biography of the writer RM Holland, who was best known for his terrifying ghost story, The Stranger. So she’s happy to be teaching at Talgarth Academy, a school in Sussex which was once Holland’s home and where his study is still intact, giving Clare access to his papers. Clare uses The Stranger as part of her lessons, both for her school pupils and for the adults who attend her creative writing classes in school holidays. But when one of her colleagues is brutally murdered, Clare is shocked to learn that a piece of paper was found by her body containing a line from Holland’s story. And soon, as the plot thickens, it becomes clear that somehow the story holds the clue to the case…

Elly Griffiths is brilliant, and so is this! I’m tempted to leave the review at that, since the real joy of the book is going into it completely cold and watching Griffiths gradually build up some great characterisations and a truly spooky atmosphere. So, if you’re going to read it soon, my advice would be to stop reading this and avoid other reviews just in case.

* * * * *

Still here? OK, then! The book is told to us from three points of view – Clare, her daughter Georgie, and DS Harbinder Kaur, the detective in charge of the case. I found each of them a little off-putting at first for different reasons, but as Griffiths gradually developed them more fully, I grew to like them all – though not necessarily to trust them! In fact, as the saying goes, I trusted no-one – Griffiths left me happily in doubt all the way through as to everyone’s guilt, innocence, reliability as narrators, motives.

The pleasure of this one is not so much the destination as the journey. The three voices are distinct, and each is fun in her own way. Through Clare we learn a lot about the background to RM Holland’s story and the rumours that the school is haunted by the ghost of his wife. We also learn about her friendship with Ella, the victim, often through extracts from Clare’s diary. Georgie is a bright, intelligent teenager and her narrative shows her manipulating the adults around her by playing on their expectations of what a teenager should be like. Harbinder gradually becomes the star, however. Indian, gay and still living at home with her parents in her thirties, her sections are increasingly full of humour as the reader realises that her abrasiveness and sarcasm are really a kind of defence mechanism.

I loved the way Griffiths gradually fed us the story of The Stranger, which in itself is a pretty good pastiche of a real Victorian ghost story. But the spookiness doesn’t stop with it – the main story has some seriously goose-pimply moments, and at least two where I gasped out loud! Lovely Gothic stuff, with the old house and all the diary-writing and mysterious messages and other things I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. Even the investigation has a rather old-fashioned feel to it, with the emphasis on suspects, motives and clues rather than on forensics.

Elly Griffiths
Photo: Jerry Bauer

A great read, especially for this time of year. Griffiths is undoubtedly one of the most talented (and prolific) writers out there at the moment, and she shows here that she can step beyond the usual police procedural. I’ve seen a few reviewers say they hope Harbinder will get a series of her own. Much though I enjoyed her character, I vote no! I’m hoping Griffiths will continue to break free from the predictability of series and give us more standalones, complete in themselves, instead. Highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Maigret’s Revolver (Maigret 40) by Georges Simenon

Drinking like a fish out of water…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Madame Maigret is upset when a young man who had called to see Inspector Maigret steals the revolver Maigret had been given as a keepsake by the American police. Mme Maigret had taken a liking to the youth and is fearful that he may intend to take his own life. Maigret fears the gun may be used for different, more criminal purposes. Either way, he feels it necessary to try to track the young man down. But first he’ll have to find out who the boy is…

This is an enjoyable entry in the long-running Maigret series. The plot is rather light, though it does eventually involve a corpse in a trunk, but the characterisation is particularly strong, I felt. We see Maigret interacting with his wife more than in some of the others I’ve read, getting a good impression of how strong their marriage is, even if Maigret isn’t the most demonstrative of husbands. We also see them in the company of friends and this gives a more rounded picture of him as someone who has a life outside work. There is a femme fatale-ish female character, with the associated sexism of the day in the descriptions of her (and any other female character who happens along). There’s a rather pathetic character, who might be bad or might be mad or might just be terrified – I’m saying no more for fear of spoilers – but I thought he was very well depicted, and also gave an opportunity for Maigret to show his humanity.

What really made this one stand out for me, though, is that the story takes Maigret to London. Though he stays mostly in one location in the city, I thought Simenon did a good job of contrasting London and Londoners with Paris and Parisians, all with a touch of humour that lightened the tone and let us see Maigret feeling suddenly less secure in an environment of which he wasn’t as much the master as usual. He’s horrified by the strict licensing laws which prevent him from getting a drink in the mornings or afternoons, but happily this doesn’t stop him from putting away enough to sink a ship in the course of the day or so that he spends there.

When he finally does find the youth and the reason behind the theft of the gun, we again see the mix in his character of equal drives towards justice and sympathy – he is not prepared to overlook crimes but he is willing to listen to and understand the reasons, and to do what he can to help those he considers worth helping. But for those whom he considers truly wicked, then he has the patience to spin a spider-like web and wait for them to trap themselves.

Georges Simenon

Good fun. I’ve been reading these randomly – they work perfectly as standalones – and have only read a few to date. Although this isn’t the most exciting plot, I think it’s the one I’ve enjoyed most so far because I got a real feel for Maigret’s character, more than in my other choices, and as a result found I liked him more as a person.

I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Gareth Armstrong, who again does a fine job. He’s very good at giving different voices to each character, each with an accent suited to their class and position, and avoids the temptation to go overboard, especially with the female characters. Overall, an enjoyable book enjoyably narrated.

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TBR Thursday 179…

Episode 179…

Well, considering how many books have arrived in my house over the last week, I’m astonished to report that the TBR has only gone up by 2 – to 228! Clearly I must be getting through them as fast as a champion swimmer just about to take Olympic gold – what could possibly go wrong?

(This looks remarkably like my postman…)

Here’s a few more I should be getting my teeth into soon…

True Crime

The only non-fiction book on my Classics Club list, I can’t understand why I’ve never got around to reading this before – surely the most famous true crime book of them all. Time to correct this omission…

The Blurb says: The chilling true crime ‘non-fiction novel’ that made Truman Capote’s name, In Cold Blood is a seminal work of modern prose, a remarkable synthesis of journalistic skill and powerfully evocative narrative published in Penguin Modern Classics.

Controversial and compelling, In Cold Blood reconstructs the murder in 1959 of a Kansas farmer, his wife and both their children. Truman Capote’s comprehensive study of the killings and subsequent investigation explores the circumstances surrounding this terrible crime and the effect it had on those involved. At the centre of his study are the amoral young killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock, who, vividly drawn by Capote, are shown to be reprehensible yet entirely and frighteningly human.

‘It is the American dream turning into the American nightmare … By juxtaposing and dovetailing the lives and values of the Clutters and those of the killers, Capote produces a stark image of the deep doubleness of American life … a remarkable book’ Spectator.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the British Library. I have loved both the ECR Lorac books the BL has previously re-published, so am thrilled at the thought of this one. Great title, great cover… will the insides match up? My hopes are high…

The Blurb says: London. 1945. The capital is shrouded in the darkness of the blackout, and mystery abounds in the parks after dusk.

During a stroll through Regent’s Park, Bruce Mallaig witnesses two men acting suspiciously around a footbridge. In a matter of moments, one of them has been murdered; Mallaig’s view of the assailant but a brief glimpse of a ghastly face in the glow of a struck match.

The murderer’s noiseless approach and escape seems to defy all logic, and even the victim’s identity is quickly thrown into uncertainty. Lorac’s shrewd yet personable C.I.D. man MacDonald must set to work once again to unravel this near-impossible mystery.

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Fiction

Courtesy of Penguin Viking via NetGalley. Although he can be variable, I love William Boyd and each new book is a special pleasure. This one is being very positively reviewed so far, and the setting – Edinburgh, Paris, pre-Revolutionary St Petersburg – almost makes it seem as if he’s written it specially for me. Hmm… my expectations are pretty stratospheric… can it possibly live up to them??

The Blurb says: This is William Boyd’s sweeping, heart-stopping new novel. Set at the end of the 19th century, it follows the fortunes of Brodie Moncur, a young Scottish musician, about to embark on the story of his life.

When Brodie is offered a job in Paris, he seizes the chance to flee Edinburgh and his tyrannical clergyman father, and begin a wildly different new chapter in his life. In Paris, a fateful encounter with a famous pianist irrevocably changes his future – and sparks an obsessive love affair with a beautiful Russian soprano, Lika Blum. Moving from Paris to St Petersburg to Edinburgh and back again, Brodie’s love for Lika and its dangerous consequences pursue him around Europe and beyond, during an era of overwhelming change as the nineteenth century becomes the twentieth.

Love is Blind is a tale of dizzying passion and brutal revenge; of artistic endeavour and the illusions it creates; of all the possibilities that life can offer, and how cruelly they can be snatched away. At once an intimate portrait of one man’s life and an expansive exploration of the beginning of the twentieth century, Love is Blind is a masterly new novel from one of Britain’s best loved storytellers.

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Horror

Courtesy of Collins Chillers. This is the third and last of the selection of new horror collections HarperCollins kindly sent me. I’ve only “met” Robert W Chambers once before, in a short collection of his The King in Yellow stories, and to be honest I wasn’t thrilled by them. So it’ll be interesting to see if this collection can change my mind…

The Blurb says: Robert William Chambers’ The King in Yellow (1895) has long been recognised as a landmark work in the field of the macabre, and has been described as the most important work of American supernatural fiction between Poe and the moderns. Despite the book’s success, its author was to return only rarely to the genre during the remainder of a writing career which spanned four decades.

When Chambers did return to the supernatural, however, he displayed all the imagination and skill which distinguished The King in Yellow. He created the enigmatic and seemingly omniscient Westrel Keen, the ‘Tracer of Lost Persons’, and chronicled the strange adventures of an eminent naturalist who scours the earth for ‘extinct’ animals – and usually finds them. One of his greatest creations, perhaps, was 1920’s The Slayer of Souls, which features a monstrous conspiracy to take over the world: a conspiracy which can only be stopped by supernatural forces.

For the first time in a single volume, Hugh Lamb has selected the best of the author’s supernatural tales, together with an introduction which provides further information about the author who was, in his heyday, called ‘the most popular writer in America’.

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

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