FictionFan’s Book Reviews

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The Good People by Hannah Kent

The story of a changeling…

😐 😐

the-good-peopleWhen her husband Martin suddenly dies, Nóra is left alone, except for the young grandchild she is looking after, the son of her dead daughter. Young Michéal was a healthy child for the first couple of years of his life, but now there’s something seriously wrong with him – he can no longer walk or talk and needs constant attention. Nóra finds him a burden and is ashamed of him, trying to hide him from the sight of the other villagers. But there is already gossip about the child – some believe he is a changeling, left by the Good People (i.e. fairies) in the place of the real Michéal whom they have stolen. And Nóra is becoming more willing to believe this too.

Kent uses Martin’s wake to introduce us to this small, superstitious Irish community in the early 1800s. The villagers share their belief between the teachings of the Catholic church and the older, more pagan, traditions, and see no real contradiction between them. But the Catholic church doesn’t feel the same way, and the new priest is determined to stamp out the old practices. The villagers operate a simple policy of pretending to go along with this, while still carrying out the old rites behind the priest’s back. In the woods lives old Nance, the village midwife and wise woman, to whom the villagers secretly turn when they need the kind of help of which the priest wouldn’t approve. Nance knows the ways of the Good People, and uses a mix of magic and herb lore to heal and cure. And she’s had experience of changelings before…

Kent’s prose is just as skilled in this as in her earlier novel, Burial Rites, and again she creates her setting brilliantly and believably. Unfortunately, the story of this one isn’t nearly as interesting and is dragged out for far too long, becoming ever slower and more repetitive as it goes along. It’s entirely monotone – misery all the way, with no glimmer of light amidst all the darkness. It’s crystal clear from very early on how it’s all going to play out – arguably, the same could be said of Burial Rites, but in that one although the ending is never in doubt, the interest is in discovering the reason behind the crime. In this one, the reason is obvious and particularly unpleasant, as are the descriptions of how awful Nóra found it to deal with this child.

Hannah Kent
Hannah Kent

Nance’s story is a little more interesting, if just as depressing, as we discover how she learned her lore about the Good People. And another character is introduced, young Mary, whom Nóra hires to help her with the child. I initially hoped that she would bring a touch of lightness into the story, but sadly not – she too is soon dragged down to the general level of desperation prevailing in the village. It feels authentic to a degree – people in rural Ireland were undoubtedly dirt-poor and superstitious in that era, so I imagine happiness wasn’t overflowing. But I bet it wasn’t entirely non-existent either, and I always dislike these books that simply invite us to wallow voyeuristically in other people’s misery and show nothing to contrast with it. Not only did I not care about any of the characters, I actively disliked them all, especially Nóra.

Sadly, I found at about the halfway point that I couldn’t stand much more of it, so flicked through the second half, dipping in and out to see if the tone changed, or if the story veered from the predictable path. But neither did, and I came away from it admiring the prose and the research, but disappointed in both the monotone style and the repetitive and over-long story. I’m sure it will appeal more to people who have a greater tolerance for this kind of unrelieved misery novel than I do – a mismatch between book and reader on this occasion.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 111…

Episode 111…

Oh, dear, oh dear, oh dear! The TBR has gone up again – how??? I’ve been so strict with myself!!! But I’m still managing to avoid going over the 200 watershed – this week’s total is 198…

Time to get some reading done – quickly! Here are some that are coming up soon…

Factual

a-peoples-tragedyFor the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge. It’ll be ages before I get to this (I need to get through Trotsky first) but I thought I’d give it a mention now, since The Bodley Head have issued this special centenary edition and kindly let me have a copy. Another 900+ pages – whose idea was this challenge?? But it’s lavishly illustrated so that’s always a bonus… and it’s a nicely designed, good quality paperback with what I think are called French flaps on both the front and back covers.

The Blurb says: Opening with a panorama of Russian society, from the cloistered world of the Tsar to the brutal life of the peasants, A People’s Tragedy follows workers, soldiers, intellectuals and villagers as their world is consumed by revolution and then degenerates into violence and dictatorship. Drawing on vast original research, Figes conveys above all the shocking experience of the revolution for those who lived it, while providing the clearest and most cogent account of how and why it unfolded.

Illustrated with over 100 photographs and now including a new introduction that reflects on the revolution’s centennial legacy, A People’s Tragedy is a masterful and definitive record of one of the most important events in modern history.

* * * * *

Fiction

the cone gatherers 2This one appeared on a TBR post a couple of years ago but I didn’t get around to reading it at that time, and it’s been gazing at me accusingly ever since. So to make it feel better, I stuck it on my Classics Club list under the Scottish section…

The Blurb says:  Calum and Neil are the cone-gatherers – two brothers at work in the forest of a large Scottish estate. But the harmony of their life together is shadowed by the obsessive hatred of Duror, the gamekeeper.

Set during the Second World War, Robin Jenkins’ greatest novel is an immensely powerful examination of good and evil, and mankind’s propensity for both. Removed from the destruction and bloodshed of the war, the brothers’ oblivious happiness becomes increasingly fragile as darker forces close in around them.

Suspenseful, dark and unforgettable, The Cone-Gatherers is a towering work of fiction, a masterpiece of modern Scottish literature.

* * * * *

Crime

the-bishops-girlA couple of years ago, I reviewed Rebecca Burns’ excellent short story collection, The Settling Earth. So when she contacted me to offer a copy of her new novel, I was delighted. I realise the blurb makes it sound a bit like a romance, but I’m reliably informed (by the author!) that it’s actually a historical fiction/mystery…

The Blurb says: The body had no name. It was not supposed to be there…

Jess is a researcher on a quest to give the one-hundred-year-old skeleton, discovered in the exhumed grave of a prominent bishop, an identity. But she’s not sure of her own – her career is stalling, her marriage is failing. She doesn’t want to spend hours in the archives, rifling through dusty papers in an endless search for a name. And when a young man named Hayden makes clear his interest in her, Jess has to decide what is most important to her.

* * * * *

Crime

let-the-dead-speakCourtesy of NetGalley. Woohoo! Maeve Kerrigan is back – and it looks like she’s been promoted! It’s been a loooooooong wait for this one!

The Blurb says: The chilling new crime novel from award-winning author, Jane Casey. When an 18-year-old girl returns home to find her house covered in blood and her mother missing, Detective Maeve Kerrigan and the murder squad must navigate a web of lies to discover the truth… When eighteen-year-old Chloe Emery returns to her West London home she finds Kate, her mother, missing and the house covered in blood. There may not be a body, but everything else points to murder. Maeve Kerrigan is young, ambitious and determined to prove she’s up to her new role as detective sergeant. In the absence of a body, she and maverick detective Josh Derwent turn their attention to the neighbours. The ultra-religious Norrises are acting suspiciously; their teenage daughter definitely has something to hide. Then there’s William Turner, once accused of stabbing a schoolmate and the neighbourhood’s favourite criminal. Is he merely a scapegoat or is there more behind the charismatic façade? As the accusations fly, Maeve must piece together a patchwork of conflicting testimonies, none of which quite add up. Who is lying, who is not? The answer could lead them to the truth about Kate Emery, and save the life of someone else.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

The root of all evil…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

our-mutual-friendOld Mr Harmon has been a tyrannical father to his children, so that the odd terms of his will are in keeping with his character. He has left the bulk of his fortune to his one surviving son, John, on condition that he marries a girl his father has chosen for him – a girl he has never met. Bella Wilfer is a mercenary young lady, quite willing to go along with this scheme. But when John drowns on his way home from foreign parts, Bella finds herself in the unsatisfactory position of having to go into mourning for a man she didn’t know, without the benefit of receiving any of the wealth she was expecting. The money passes to the Boffins, who decide it is their duty to do something to help Bella.

Jesse Hexam is the man who dragged the body identified as John Harmon from the Thames. This is how he makes his living, rowing up and down the river looking for corpses, often taking his daughter Lizzie along to row for him. But during the identification of this corpse, Lizzie catches the eye of a young and rather unscrupulous lawyer, Eugene Wrayburn. Eugene’s pursuit of Lizzie will affect many people around them, leading to jealousy, resentment and dark deeds. But, as always with Dickens, there are possibilities for redemption too…

It was a foggy day in London, and the fog was heavy and dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking, wheezing, and choking; inanimate London was a sooty spectre, divided in purpose between being visible and invisible, and so being wholly neither. Gaslights flared in the shops with a haggard and unblest air, as knowing themselves to be night-creatures that had no business abroad under the sun; while the sun itself, when it was for a few moments dimly indicated through circling eddies of fog, showed as if it had gone out, and were collapsing flat and cold.

Hexam and Lizzie look for corpses
Hexam and Lizzie look for corpses

Much though I love Dickens, considering him the greatest writer of all time, I’ve never been blind to his faults. It’s always been a balancing act for me – the anger beneath the social satire, the wonderfully created and unforgettably caricatured minor characters, the brilliantly atmospheric descriptive writing; all offset against the parade of nauseatingly saccharin heroines, the occasional descent into an archness I try hard not to call twee, and the fact that sometimes the plots don’t quite gel – a result of them being serialised, I assume, and Dickens not really having decided on an ending when he published the beginning.

In this book, the seesaw falls slightly more to the side of the weaknesses than the strengths. I believe this was the last complete book he wrote, and he was involved in a serious accident in the middle of writing, when he was on a train that became derailed, leaving many people injured. He was unhurt physically but apparently the experience left him shocked. Perhaps it was that, or perhaps age was simply tiring him, but for me, this books lacks some of what makes his great books great.

The Boffins
The Boffins

The major theme of the book is money – how possession of it corrupts, and how lack of it causes great suffering. He satirises the class of society that hangs around the rich, especially the nouveau riche. Mr and Mrs Veneering seem to have come from nowhere, but their lavish hospitality wins them a whole host of new “oldest friends”. The Lammles show the pitfalls of marrying for money, each believing the other is wealthy till after the wedding, when they discover that they have each married a mirror image of themselves – another person on the make. Having inherited the Harmon wealth, kind old “Noddy” Boffin finds himself the target of conmen and would-be thieves, and begins to admire and emulate some of the great misers he finds in books. And, through old Betty Higden’s story, Dickens shows the iniquities of the Poor Laws of the time, and how many people would rather starve than end up living on the state’s merciless mercy.

That night she took refuge from the Samaritan in his latest accredited form, under a farmer’s rick; and if – worth thinking of, perhaps, my fellow-Christians – the Samaritan had in the lonely night “passed by on the other side,” she would have most devoutly thanked High Heaven for her escape from him.

All good, and all typically Dickensian, but it seemed to me that the old anger wasn’t there; especially with the Poor Law stuff, I felt his tone was resigned, almost defeated. The characters are well-drawn to serve his purpose of showing the shallowness and greed of this portion of society, but on the whole they’re not caricatured enough to make them unforgettable, in the way that, say, Sairey Gamp is, or Uriah Heep. In fact, I can’t think of a character from this book whose name has really become part of the general public consciousness, as, for example, Fagin has, or Mr Micawber, or Scrooge.

The plot takes an age to get going and I found myself wondering exactly where the focus was – again not a thing I usually find with Dickens. There are always multiple sub-plots and meandering detours, but generally it’s clear where the plot is heading. I found Bella’s story too light to hang a whole book around, while Lizzie’s story, much more darkly satisfying, keeps disappearing for large parts of the book. But the real problem with the plot is the end, so here goes with a major spoiler….

Betty Higden flees from the tender mercies of "the Parish"
Betty Higden flees from the tender mercies of “the Parish”

* * * * * * * MAJOR SPOILER ALERT * * * * * * *

The idea that Mr and Mrs Boffin together with Mr Rokesmith keep up a charade for literally years to teach Bella a lesson is simply too unbelievable even for this reader who happily swallows most of Dickens’ amazing coincidences and contrivances without blinking. The thing is, Noddy’s descent into miserliness is one of the more interesting parts of the book, so that when it turns out to have been an act, it takes away much of the book’s substance. Furthermore, I feel I have to point out that the eventual division of the money represents a major fraud on the Crown, to whom it in fact belongs!

It feels to me as if Dickens had intended the miser storyline to be “true”, and then, having written himself into a corner, had to hastily contrive this twist to get himself back out – the major peril of publishing in instalments.

* * * * * * * END OF MAJOR SPOILER * * * * * * *

Bella and Lizzie are both good heroines, though. Lizzie in particular shows herself to be strong and self-reliant, and the scenes where she resists her own inclinations in the matter of love, or where she sees her brother’s selfishness clearly but still loves him, make her one of his most likeable. Bella’s redemption from mercenary little madam to loving little wife and mother has its nauseating moments, but on the whole she’s rounded and believable, and her alteration is given a proper foundation. Jenny Wren is also intriguing, and perhaps the most traditionally Dickensian caricature in the book – although Dickens clearly liked her, so that the caricature is kind with none of his occasional cruelty. But what on earth was Dickens playing at with all this daughters treating their fathers as children stuff? It was silly enough when it was only Jenny who kept referring to her father as her ‘bad child’ but when Bella started doing it with her father too… well, I’m still wondering what was going on in Dickens’ mind! Though perhaps I don’t really want to know.

Jenny Wren and Mr Riah
Jenny Wren and Mr Riah

I was delighted with the positive way Dickens portrayed Mr Riah, his one Jewish character. Not only is Mr Riah shown as kind and generous, but Dickens takes the opportunity to discuss anti-Semitism and the unfairness of how minorities are often judged by the behaviour of the worst of them. This is Dickens at his best, when he tackles an injustice head on, and I felt it went a long way towards making up for Fagin – a great Dickensian character but not exactly flattering in its portrayal of Jewishness.

“I reflected – clearly reflected for the first time, that in bending my neck to the yoke I was willing to wear, I bent the unwilling necks of the whole Jewish people. For it is not, in Christian countries, with the Jews as with other peoples. Men say, ‘This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.’ Not so with the Jews. Men find the bad among us easily enough – among what peoples are the bad not easily found? – but they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say ‘All Jews are alike.’”

Nobody does dark and wicked deeds quite like Dickens, and happily there’s plenty of evil to make us shiver. The filthy and polluted Thames runs through the heart of the book, appearing again and again as the place where the foulest acts take place, and Dickens uses it to great effect as he builds up an atmosphere of tension and horror. I’ve included enough spoilers, so I’ll just say that these river scenes are up there with the best of Dickens’ writing.

The white face of the winter day came sluggishly on, veiled in a frosty mist; and the shadowy ships in the river slowly changed to black substances; and the sun, blood-red on the eastern marshes behind dark masts and yards, seemed filled with the ruins of a forest it had set on fire.

Dark deeds by the river...
Dark deeds by the river…

To sum up, then, there are too many weaknesses in this for it to count as one of Dickens’ absolute best, but then he sets the bar so high. Even as one of his second-tier novels, it’s still a greater book than the vast majority out there, and its strengths still justify a five-star rating. When you’re the greatest writer the world has ever known, you can get away with an occasional clunky plot device or two…

Book 5 of 90Book 5 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose…

…a Valentine post…

Not every great love is romantic in nature, so today I thought I’d send my Valentines to people, real or fictional, whose varied kinds of love have entertained and moved me over the years.

heart-and-roses* * * * *

Matthew and Anne
Anne of Green Gables

When shy Matthew Cuthbert goes to pick up a boy from the orphanage only to discover they’ve sent a skinny, red-haired little girl instead, he decides to leave it up to his sister Marilla to break the news to the child that she’ll have to go back. But during the drive home, little Anne chats brightly about her past and her imaginative impressions of this new place she’s found herself in, and by the time they reach Green Gables, Matthew has discovered he kinda likes having her around…

Matthew, much to his own surprise, was enjoying himself. Like most quiet folks he liked talkative people when they were willing to do the talking themselves and did not expect him to keep up his end of it.

Matthew soon becomes one of the pivotal people in Anne’s life, offering her support and admiration such as she has never known in her lonely life, and under his kind treatment she blossoms. Although Matthew doesn’t speak often, he has one of the most sob-worthy lines in the book…

“Well now, I’d rather have you than a dozen boys, Anne,’ said Matthew patting her hand. ‘Just mind you that – rather than a dozen boys. Well now, I guess it wasn’t a boy that took the Avery scholarship, was it? It was a girl – my girl – my girl that I’m proud of.”

anne-and-matthew

* * * * *

Holmes and Watson
The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot

Watson wears his deep love for his friend on his sleeve, but it’s not often Holmes shows his feelings. So it’s all the more affecting when he does…

…I broke through that cloud of despair and had a glimpse of Holmes’s face, white, rigid, and drawn with horror – the very look which I had seen upon the features of the dead. It was that vision which gave me an instant of sanity and of strength. I dashed from my chair, threw my arms round Holmes, and together we lurched through the door, and an instant afterwards had thrown ourselves down upon the grass plot and were lying side by side, conscious only of the glorious sunshine which was bursting its way through the hellish cloud of terror which had girt us in.

“Upon my word, Watson!” said Holmes at last with an unsteady voice, “I owe you both my thanks and an apology. It was an unjustifiable experiment even for one’s self, and doubly so for a friend. I am really very sorry.”

“You know,” I answered with some emotion, for I have never seen so much of Holmes’s heart before, “that it is my greatest joy and privilege to help you.”

holmes-and-watson

* * * * *

Alexander the Great and Bucephalus

When the great horse Bucephalus was offered for sale to Philip of Macedonia, the price seemed too high for a beast that no one had been able to tame. But Philip’s young son Alexander greatly admired the massive, black horse with a white star on his forehead. He made a wager with the owner that if he could ride the horse, the price would be waived. Alexander guessed that the horse was spooked by his own shadow, so turned Bucephalus’s face to the sun, and the horse allowed him to mount. From that moment they were inseparable companions until Bucephalus died many years later at the Battle of the Hydaspes. As a tribute to his great and loyal friend, Alexander founded a town and named it Bucephala.

(I was so in love with this story as a child that, when I finally persuaded my parents to let me have a puppy, I wanted to call him Bucephalus. My brother wanted to call him Hercules. My dad put his foot down, and the puppy became Sandy. He was a miniature poodle. Perhaps Dad was right… 😉 )

'Alexander taming Bucephalus' statue by 19thC Scottish sculptor, John Steell, at Edinburgh City Chambers, Edinburgh, Scotland
‘Alexander taming Bucephalus’ statue by 19thC Scottish sculptor, John Steell, at Edinburgh City Chambers, Edinburgh, Scotland

* * * * *

Scarlett O’Hara and Tara
Gone with the Wind

Husbands may come and go in Scarlett’s life, but her father taught her early to love their land – Tara…

Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O’Hara, that Tara, that land doesn’t mean anything to you? Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.

She learns her lesson well…

I can’t let Tara go. I won’t let it go while there’s a breath left in my body.

Even Rhett comes second…

Tara! Home. I’ll go home. And I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all… tomorrow is another day…

Personally, I prefer Rhett...
Personally, I’m not convinced she got her priorities right…

* * * * *

Lizzie and Jane
Pride and Prejudice

Long before Lizzie meets Darcy, she has another love in her life – her beloved sister Jane, whom she admires even while laughing at her just a little…

“But that is one great difference between us. Compliments always take you by surprise, and me never. What could be more natural than his asking you again? He could not help seeing that you were about five times as pretty as every other woman in the room. No thanks to his gallantry for that. Well, he certainly is very agreeable, and I give you leave to like him. You have liked many a stupider person.”

“Dear Lizzy!”

“Oh! you are a great deal too apt, you know, to like people in general. You never see a fault in anybody. All the world are good and agreeable in your eyes. I never heard you speak ill of a human being in your life.”

“I would not wish to be hasty in censuring anyone; but I always speak what I think.”

“I know you do; and it is that which makes the wonder. With your good sense, to be so honestly blind to the follies and nonsense of others! Affectation of candour is common enough — one meets with it everywhere. But to be candid without ostentation or design — to take the good of everybody’s character and make it still better, and say nothing of the bad — belongs to you alone.”

Oh, for goodness sake! It's Jane and Lizzie, okay? It's NOT a gratuitous Darcy pic!
Oh, for goodness sake! It’s Jane and Lizzie, okay? It’s NOT a gratuitous Darcy pic!

* * * * * *

happy-valentines-day-2014

The Death of Kings (John Madden 5) by Rennie Airth

A new take on the Golden Age…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

the-death-of-kingsWhen retired policeman Tom Derry receives an anonymous letter enclosing a jade pendant that the writer claims belonged to a murder victim, he discusses it with Angus Sinclair, who had worked with him on the original investigation. Sinclair is worried – at the back of his mind he had always had doubts about the guilt of the man convicted and hanged for the crime. Not well enough to look into the matter himself, Sinclair asks his old friend John Madden to check things out.

Now in 1949, Madden is retired too, but he still has contacts in the force, not least Billy Styles who used to be his subordinate but is now a detective inspector. The murder took place back in 1938, when a small-time actress, Portia Blake, was a guest at a house-party. She went out for a walk in the woods, and her body was later discovered, strangled. A man with a previous conviction for attempted rape was in the vicinity and suspicion soon fell on him, and after interrogation he confessed. As a result, the investigation was quickly wrapped up and other possible solutions were never checked. So it’s up to Madden to track down the people who were there that weekend, and see if anyone else had a motive…

I’ve always enjoyed the Madden books, and this is an excellent addition to the series. They are somewhat quieter and slower than most modern crime novels, relying on the quality of the writing and the carefully created post-war setting to carry them. There is most definitely a Golden Age feel to them, quite intentionally, I think, though they are at the more thoughtful end of the Golden Age, or perhaps in the slightly later tradition of PD James.

In this one, we have the country house party, a rather upper class list of suspects, a traditional style of investigation carried out mostly through interviews of the various people who were there at the time, and a restricted time period for the murder, making alibi an important feature. There is also a connection to the Chinese Triads through one of the suspects – a half-Chinese man from Hong Kong. Normally I’d run a mile from a story about the Triads – not my thing at all – but I’m delighted to say that, while it’s an important element of the story, it’s somewhat understated and isn’t allowed to overwhelm the other features. At heart this is a traditional detective story, and the Triad storyline feels realistic within that.

In the last couple of books, I’ve lightly criticised the fact that much of the investigation is carried out off-stage, so to speak, with information being given to the reader via police officers talking to each other. I’m delighted to say this one doesn’t take that approach – it goes back to the, in my opinion, much more satisfying style of Madden actually getting out and about and talking to people himself. This makes the characterisation of the suspects much better developed, which consequently meant I felt more invested in the outcome. It also allows for deepening of Madden’s own character, since we see the investigation proceed from his perspective, though in third person.

The old regulars are here too – Angus Sinclair, curmudgeonly with gout, but his brain still sharp; Billy Styles, still faithful to his old mentor; Lily Poole, the lone female detective in this man’s world. I’ve always liked the way Airth deals with Lily – she is strong and intelligent, but not feminist in the strident sense, and the sexism she encounters isn’t ill-meant – just a true reflection of how things were back then. She realises it’s an unfair world but does her best to progress within the existing rules rather than constantly kicking against them. And Airth always lets her have a major impact on the investigation without it ever feeling forced or unrealistic for the time. Madden’s family is here too – his wife, Helen, able to cast some light on some of the suspects from her days as a society girl, and his daughter, Lucy, now a young woman, constantly sticking her nose in and gossiping about the case, but doing it all with a lot of charm (which manages, just, to stay this side of nauseating).

Rennie Airth
Rennie Airth

The solution relies a little too much on Madden getting a sudden intuition, but otherwise it’s both dark and satisfying. Airth includes the kind of class element that is so often present in Golden Age books, with the rather upper-class old school policemen tending to protect those of their own background; but he has Billy Styles comment on it, suggesting that winds of change are about to shake up the way policing is done in this post-war world. Altogether, an absorbing, rather slow-paced novel, but with excellent timing so that it holds the reader’s attention throughout. This would work fine as a standalone, with enough background given to each of the regulars to let new readers understand how they relate to each other, but as with any series it’s probably best to read them in order, starting with River of Darkness.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle (Pan MacMillan).

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Traveler’s Guide to Space by Neil F Comins

Turning dreams into nightmares…

😐 😐

the-travelers-guide-to-spaceThe ultimate adventure of space tourism is likely to become a reality within the next few decades, at least for the very, very rich. It’s not something I ever actually anticipate doing now – too old, too poor – but a girl can still dream! And I’ve dreamed of going into space all my life, having grown up during the great space race era of the ’60s and early ’70s. One of my most wonderful memories is of crowding round a small TV in a boarding house (we were on holiday at the time) watching the grainy pictures of the first moon landing. I anticipated that, by the time I was an adult, we’d be visiting the moon as easily as popping over to Europe.

In this book, Neil Comins sets out to describe the realities of what a space tourist might expect. He starts off with a clear, simple description of the objects in the solar system that we may one day soon be able to visit, from sub-orbital flights, to the International Space Station or commercial equivalents, to the Moon, comets, the moons of Mars, and possibly Mars itself! Inspiring, huh?

Approaching Dust Storm on Mars by Ludek Pesek
Approaching Dust Storm on Mars by Ludek Pesek

Well, no, unfortunately. Comins clearly is one of those travellers (I’ll revert to the correct British spelling of the word now) who is so busy thinking of all the things that could possibly go wrong, he forgets to stop and look at the view. From sick-bags to radiation poisoning, no potential pitfall is left unexamined. It all starts OK, with him giving a realistic idea of the training a traveller would be expected to undergo, what they would wear, eat, etc. But then he starts a catalogue of woe. Where it might be sufficient to say that people on long flights would have to contend against boredom, Comins goes on to talk about the features and symptoms of boredom at great length (somewhat ironically, I felt). While it might be useful to point out that group dynamics have to be carefully controlled, he chunters on about all the various personality clashes that might make life intolerable. When talking about the type of food that will be available, he doesn’t neglect to point out the dangers of flatulence. From speeding particles piercing the optic nerve to the symptoms of PTSD, no misery is left unexplored.

picard-ryker-facepalm

He picks it up towards the end by talking about space photography and the joys of sex in microgravity, but sadly by that time I was exhibiting all the symptoms of anxiety, depression and boredom, so was incapable of anything other than a desire to get back to terra firma. So when he went on to explain that the effects of microgravity might make sex quite problematic for both men and women, I barely had enough strength left to be disappointed. I’m afraid I skim-read the last third or so.

Given my undying love for Star Trek and my belief that life on Mars crab-cartoonhas to be better than life on Earth (no Brexit, no Trump, no soccer – bliss!), it amazed me that Comins could actually make a wet weekend in Bognor sound exciting in comparison to space travel. Though I’m sure if he wrote a book about Bognor, he’d warn of flu germs, the drying effects of the salt in seawater, and lethal crabs lurking in the sand to nip unwary toes.

More seriously, the book is extraordinarily dull, with lengthy bullet point lists of symptoms of everything from anxiety to bipolar disorder, and even of things you should try to see from space, starting with

  • the Earth
  • the Moon
  • the Sun…

Gosh, that’s helpful! I’d never have thought of looking out for any of those things! He has taught me one invaluable thing should I ever be lucky enough to go into space – to check the passenger list to make sure Comins isn’t going on the same trip. I fear those group dynamics may well task the most conciliatory captain. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going out to gaze at the stars and resume my dreaming…

apollo-17-launch

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

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TBR Thursday 110…

Episode 110…

Well, the TBR dipped a little during the week, but tragically a late run of arrivals shoved it right back up – to 197 again! Still, it may not have gone down, but at least it hasn’t gone up – so that’s success, right? Right?? And I’m still avoiding the big 200 for the moment – which is actually kinda sad, because a few of us were getting quite enthusiastic last time about forming a 200 Club and looking down our noses at people with tiny TBRs of only 180 or so… maybe next week! 😉

Meantime, here are some that are toppling off the top of the pile…

Factual

history-of-the-russian-revolution-2For the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge. Penguin Modern Classics have issued a new edition of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution for the centenary year, with the original three parts all collected into one volume, and have kindly provided me with a copy. It’s 992 pages long, (big pages, small print), so I may be some time…

The Blurb says: “During the first two months of 1917 Russia was still a Romanov monarchy. Eight months later the Bolsheviks stood at the helm. They were little known to anybody when the year began, and their leaders were still under indictment for state treason when they came to power. You will not find another such sharp turn in history especially if you remember that it involves a nation of 150 million people. It is clear that the events of 1917, whatever you think of them, deserve study.” Leon Trotsky, from History of the Russian Revolution

Regarded by many as among the most powerful works of history ever written, this book offers an unparalleled account of one of the most pivotal and hotly debated events in world history. This book reveals, from the perspective of one of its central actors, the Russian Revolution’s profoundly democratic, emancipatory character.

* * * * *

Short Stories

house-of-skinThis collection has been on my TBR list since April 2011! I actually read a couple of the stories back then and was very impressed, but then got distracted and put it aside. Well past time I got back to it, and it will fit nicely for the Around the World challenge…

The Blurb says:  These are provocative, often shocking, tales of obsession, love, racism, addiction, betrayal, even murder, but told in such sensuous, richly-textured prose each story is rendered magical and timeless. The stories are set in islands across the Pacific where the author has lived and traveled extensively – Hawaii, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Fiji, Vanuatu – parts of the world only barely explored in contemporary literature. Davenport offers her readers not just mesmerizing writing, but also brings them bulletins from an ancient, yet seemingly brave, new world.

* * * * *

Sci-Fi

the-time-machineCourtesy of Amazon Vine. A new edition from Oxford World Classics, with an introduction and notes by Roger Luckhurst, who last appeared on the blog as the excellent and informative editor of The Classic Horror Stories of HP Lovecraft. Couldn’t resist this re-read…

The Blurb says: At a Victorian dinner party, in Richmond, London, the Time Traveller returns to tell his extraordinary tale of mankind’s future in the year 802,701 AD. It is a dystopian vision of Darwinian evolution, with humans split into an above-ground species of Eloi, and their troglodyte brothers.

The first book H. G. Wells published, The Time Machine is a scientific romance that helped invent the genre of science fiction and the time travel story. Even before its serialisation had finished in the spring of 1895, Wells had been declared ‘a man of genius’, and the book heralded a fifty year career of a major cultural and political controversialist. It is a sardonic rejection of Victorian ideals of progress and improvement and a detailed satirical commentary on the Decadent culture of the 1890s.

This edition features a contextual introduction, detailed explanatory notes, and two essays Wells wrote just prior to the publication of his first book.

* * * * *

Crime

the-dryI’ve seen so many glowing reviews of this, and was finally pushed over the edge by this one from Renee at It’s Book Talk… So I had to snaffle a copy from Amazon Vine…

The Blurb says: Amid the worst drought to ravage Australia in a century, it hasn’t rained in small country town Kiewarra for two years. Tensions in the community become unbearable when three members of the Hadler family are brutally murdered. Everyone thinks Luke Hadler, who committed suicide after slaughtering his wife and six-year-old son, is guilty.

Policeman Aaron Falk returns to the town of his youth for the funeral of his childhood best friend, and is unwillingly drawn into the investigation. As questions mount and suspicion spreads through the town, Falk is forced to confront the community that rejected him twenty years earlier. Because Falk and Luke Hadler shared a secret, one which Luke’s death threatens to unearth. And as Falk probes deeper into the killings, secrets from his past and why he left home bubble to the surface as he questions the truth of his friend’s crime.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible UK.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

Six Degrees of Separation – From Groff to…

Chain links…

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

fates-and-furies

This month’s starting book is Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. I haven’t read this one, but the blurb tells me…

Every story has two sides. Every relationship has two perspectives. And sometimes, it turns out, the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets. At the core of this rich, expansive, layered novel, Lauren Groff presents the story of one such marriage over the course of twenty-four years.

Doesn’t appeal, in truth, but the word “fate” in the title made me think of…

f daniel kehlmann

F: A Novel by Daniel Kehlmann. A book I loved for its wit and intelligence, while frankly having no idea what it’s about! F is for family, or failure, or faith, or fraud, or fear, or fate. Or possibly it isn’t. Knowingly pretentious, wickedly funny, marginally surreal at points and superbly written – a joy to read!

…and Arthur described his idea to write a book that would be a message to a single human being, in which therefore all the artistry would serve as mere camouflage, so that nobody aside from this one person could decode it, and this very fact paradoxically would make the book a high literary achievement. Asked what the message would be, he said that would depend on the recipient. When asked who the recipient would be, he said that would depend on the message.

The book that Arthur writes is called My Name is No One, which reminded me of…

Ooh!

Patrick Flanery’s I Am No One. This book looks at our new surveillance culture through the growing paranoia of the narrator, who believes he is being watched both online and in real life. As always with Flanery, the writing is excellent and, in the first person telling of this one, he sustains the narrator’s almost stream of consciousness voice beautifully, without ever losing the reader. The uncertainty of the plot is brilliantly done and creates an atmosphere of growing tension as the story slowly unfolds.

Patrick Flanery
Patrick Flanery

Although the book is set mainly in New York, it refers to the narrator having lived for several years in Oxford, England, which made me think of…

saints of the shadow bible

Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin, since as every reader of this series knows, Rebus’s favourite drinking den is The Oxford Bar. One of the things that I love most about this series is that Rankin always has his finger on the political pulse of Scotland, and this book is set to the background of the run-up to the recent Scottish Independence Referendum.

Ian Rankin in Rebus favourite pub, the Oxford Bar. Photograph by Murdo Macleod
Ian Rankin in Rebus favourite pub, the Oxford Bar.
Photograph by Murdo Macleod

But the plot also relates to the re-opening of a case from long ago – a case that Rebus worked on when he was just starting his career, which made me think of…

asking for the moon

Reginald Hill’s short story The Last National Service Man, in his collection titled Asking for the Moon. Written after the Dalziel and Pascoe series had been established for many years, Hill takes us back to their first meeting when young Pascoe was still wet behind the ears. Although the story could easily be read and enjoyed by a new reader, it’s full of little in-jokes and references for longtime fans, to whom Hill dedicated the collection with his usual wit…

Dedication 3

Throughout the series, Hill often included references to the works of Jane Austen in place and character names, and even occasionally in plot details, which made me think of…

northanger abbey

Northanger Abbey, the most deliciously light of all Austen’s books, filled with humour as Austen pokes gentle fun at her own class and gender. Catherine Morland is our naïve 17-year-old heroine, leaving her country parsonage home for the first time to visit the bright lights of Bath in the company of her generous neighbours, the Allens. Starry-eyed and romantic, she will soon be caught up in a horror story to match the Gothic sensation novels she loves – a product of her wild imagination… or is it??

Northanger illustration 1

She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance. A misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can…

…I will only add, in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance.

As part of the hideous Austen Project, the surprisingly enjoyable modern take on Northanger Abbey was written by Val McDermid, which led me to think of…

out of bounds

Out of Bounds, the fourth book in McDermid’s DCI Karen Pirie series. Karen is dealing with two cold cases, one regarding a horrific rape and murder, and the other of what looked at the time like a terror attack by the IRA. But as Karen investigates, she begins to think the motive may have been more personal. Set in her native Scotland, this series shows McDermid back at her best, and McDermid’s best is pretty much unbeatable!

Val McDermid
Val McDermid

 * * * * *

So Groff to McDermid, via fate, book titles, Oxford, early careers, Austen references, and modern re-tellings!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

Tuesday Terror! Death in December by Victor Gunn

Don’t go into the Death Room!!

crimson-snow

Each time I’ve reviewed one of the British Library anthologies of vintage crime stories, I’ve commented that several of the stories have a touch of horror. The latest collection, Crimson Snow, is no exception. This story is taken from the collection and would be perfectly suitable for a Tuesday ‘Tec post, but instead I’ve decided that it should be this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2Death in December by Victor Gunn

Victor Gunn
Victor Gunn

“Christmas Eve, now, and sundry log fires awaiting us,” said Johnny gaily, as he turned the Alvis’s long nose into the lane. “Ironsides, old sourpuss, we’re going to have the time of our lives. No routine – no murders – no crooks. Nothing but jollity and laughter.”

Johnny Lister and his boss, Chief Inspector Bill Cromwell, affectionately known as Ironsides, are on their way to a Christmas house party at Johnny’s father’s place. General Lister has only recently inherited Cloon Castle to add to his existing collection of mansions, so this is Johnny’s first visit there. Johnny’s high spirits aren’t shared by grumpy old Ironsides…

“The name’s enough to give you a fit of depression,” growled the Chief Inspector. “It’s a wonder they didn’t call it Gloom Castle, and have done with it.”

ironsides-sees-red

There’s snow on the ground and the look of the sky says there’s more on the way as they drive along the entrance road to the castle. Suddenly, a strange figure appears out of the gloom – a man in a “queer, old-fashioned cape, and a high-crowned wide-brimmed hat”. He is staggering and Johnny thinks he must be ill, but by the time the car gets to where the man was standing, he has gone. Johnny shrugs and drives on, but Ironsides growls at him to stop and go back. Johnny protests, but Ironsides insists…

“I don’t know what I think,” interrupted Bill Cromwell. “Either I’m mad, or blind – but I’ll swear that there were no footprints in the snow. Didn’t you notice?”

Back they go, but find no trace of the man nor any footprints. They shrug it off because they are stout Englishmen, but secretly they’re both a little spooked. And the spookery gets worse when, after dinner on the first night, General Lister is persuaded by the assembled guests to tell the story of the Death Room, prompting his guests to ask who’s been given that room…

“Nobody is sleeping in the Death Room,” interrupted the general, almost curtly. “The Death Room is downstairs, and it is always kept heavily locked, so there’s no sense in discussing it at all. It has been locked for over a hundred years.”

the-dead-man-laughs

Naturally, this is too tempting to resist. Although the general is unwilling, one of his guests, a rather obnoxious young man, Ronnie Charton, becomes determined to spend the night in the Death Room and eventually the general is forced to give way. A decision Ronnie soon begins to regret, when he is wakened in the middle of the night by a horrible cry. By the light of the moon he sees a dreadful sight…

Panic seized him – an awful, crazy, nightmare panic. He flung himself round towards the door, his shoes slipping and slithering on the floor, so that he lost his balance and crashed into the end of the heavy table. Rebounding from this, he tottered to the door, and managed to turn the key in the lock. He was breathing in great sobbing gulps, his face turned over his shoulder, staring… staring…

* * * * * * *

Despite the fact that this is actually a crime mystery, it has some brilliantly atmospheric horror writing in it, and Ronnie’s experiences in the Death Room genuinely raised the hair on the back of my neck! The castle is a great setting – only parts of it have been modernised, so there are long unlit cobwebby passages, dark gloomy corners and a family crypt complete with disturbed coffins, not to mention the legend of the Death Room itself. It’s up to Ironsides, with Johnny’s help, to find a rational explanation of events, in which they get no help from poor Ronnie, whose nerves are so badly affected that, after incoherently babbling out his story, he collapses into a state of shock and semi-consciousness. And you remember the snow? Well, it fell… and it fell… and it fell… so no hope of assistance from the outside world for a while…

three-dates-with-death

Johnny’s general air of lightheartedness is a nice foil for Ironsides’ grumpiness, and provides plenty of humour to offset against the horror. Together they make an excellent team. The whodunit part is perhaps easier to work out than the fiendishly plotted howdunit of the ghostly goings-on, and the eventual solution depends on a nice bit of detection. I’d love to read more of the adventures of Johnny and Ironsides – I may have to start a petition to force the British Library to bring some back from the bookish Death Room…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

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Titian’s Boatman by Victoria Blake

The art of living…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

titians-boatmanIt is 1576, and Titian is living in plague-ridden Venice – an old man, refusing to flee from the city he loves. As he waits for death to find him, he thinks back to his young days, when his career was just beginning, recalling the time when he painted the portrait that became known as The Man with the Blue Sleeve. By the time his one surviving son, Pomponio, reaches Venice, Titian is dead; and, in the disorder of the time, his studio has been ransacked and many of his paintings stolen. As the plague eventually recedes from the city, we meet Tullia, one of the city’s courtesans, returning to find that she too has had her home looted. With her wealth gone, she realises she will have to start again, sending out signals to the rich men of Venice that she is available for their pleasure – at a price. In this city where the main mode of travel is by water, Sebastiano the boatman is an observer of the great people of the city, knowing their weaknesses and sometimes their secrets, their lives often touching on his.

In London in 2011, actor Terry Jardine is currently in rehearsal of A Winter’s Tale. Terry recently lost his beloved mother, and that, together with a break-up of a long-term relationship, has brought him to a kind of crisis in his life. When he breaks down during rehearsals, his director, Ludovico, comforts him, and so begins a love story between these two men. Meantime in New York, we meet Aurora, a Cuban-born maid working for Mr and Mrs Pereira, a couple who are being surreptitiously investigated by the police.

These four characters – Terry, Aurora, Sebastiano and Tullia – are all loosely linked through Titian and his art. The book jumps back and forwards between them, which could easily have made it feel disjointed. But the quality of the writing, together with some excellent characterisation, makes each section compelling, so that, rather than feeling irritated by the jumps, I found I was looking forward in each case to finding out a little more of the story of whichever character came to the fore. There is no over-arching plot as such, but the links to Titian’s paintings give the book a structure that stops it from feeling too fragmentary.

titian_-_man_with_the_blue_sleeve_-_wga22932

Blake has clearly done her research for the Venetian strands, and creates a marvellously authentic-feeling picture of the 16th century society of the city. As we learn more about Sebastiano, we see how his family was severely affected when his father became briefly caught up in the schemes of Titian’s son, Pomponio, and how different the rules of justice were for rich and poor. But in the Venice section, it’s Tullia’s story that stood out for me – the precarious life of the courtesan dependant entirely on youth and beauty, and the need to achieve wealth before these begin to fade. There is a recurring theme throughout the strands of children separated from their mothers, and in Tullia’s case this is both fascinating and moving, as we learn of younger or less pretty daughters of the wealthy farmed off to convents to avoid the need for families to find dowries to enable them to marry.

In the contemporary section, Aurora is fascinated by a Titian owned by her employers, of the death of Saint Sebastian. Blake writes with a lovely light touch, so its only gradually that we discover why this painting means so much to her, and how it is connected to her own childhood when her parents sent her to the US to escape from Castro’s Cuba.

Terry’s connection to Titian begins in the National Gallery as he is admiring The Man with the Blue Sleeve, when it suddenly seems to him that the painting is talking to him, prophesying his death. The growing love between Terry and Ludovico is beautifully done, giving the book its emotional heart. We see the importance of the theatre to Terry – he can’t imagine himself as anything other than an actor, and can’t imagine life continuing if he were ever to become unable to act. Ludovico was also separated from his mother as a baby and never knew her identity, but now she wishes to meet him and he doesn’t know how to feel about that. The two men give each other the emotional support each needs to get through these difficult moments in their lives.

I’ve been deliberately vague about each strand, because the joy of the book is in the slow revelations through which the characters are gradually built-up, layer on layer, so that we see what has made them who they are. In the end, all the strands come together, but as with the whole book it’s done gently – there’s no big dramatic denouement or stunning twist, just a somewhat understated unfolding of the connections through Titian’s art that link these people about whom we’ve come to care.

Victoria Blake
Victoria Blake

I know Victoria Blake somewhat through our blogs, but as always I’ve tried not to let that colour my review. In truth, I loved this book. The slowish start when all the various strands are introduced meant that it took a little while to grab me, but the quality of the prose carried me until the gradual deepening of the characterisation caused me to become completely absorbed by the stories of these people. Of course, it’s about art and the effect it can have in many different ways, but mostly it’s about people, told with a depth of understanding and sympathy for human frailties, and the various kinds of love that give us the strength to withstand life’s blows. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Black & White Publishing.

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Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

Deep and crisp and even…

😀 😀 😀 😀

crimson-snowThe latest addition to the British Library themed anthologies of classic crime, this one includes eleven stories all set around the festive season. A great time for people to get together in family gatherings or country house parties, and bump each other off. Who amongst us hasn’t thought that the one thing that would improve Christmas would be the quick dispatching of one of our nearest and dearest, or that the only way to pay for all those gifts would be to hasten the inheritance from one of our much loved rich relatives? Or is that just me? On the basis of the evidence in this book, I’m not alone in thinking Christmas is a particularly jolly time for a murder…

As with the earlier anthologies, this one is introduced and edited by Martin Edwards who also gives a short introduction to each story telling a little about the author. There’s the usual mix of well-known authors – Margery Allingham, Edgar Wallace – and forgotten ones, and as always the quality of the individual stories varies. However, overall I thought this was a more consistent collection than the last couple – none of the stories rate as less than three stars for me and there are plenty of fours and a sprinkling of fives. The lengths also vary from a few pages to a couple of the stories being what I’d think of as novelette length – taking an hour or so to read.

chalk-outline

There’s a nice variety of whodunits and howdunits, some dark and serious, others lighter and more quirky, and a few with ghostly aspects to add to the winter chills. And there’s fog and feverish policemen, and wicked carol-singers, and isolated houses with all access cut off by snow… perfect accompaniment to a mug of hot chocolate and a seat near the fire!

Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most…

The Ghost’s Touch by Fergus Hume – when the narrator is invited to spend the festive season as a guest in a haunted country house, one feels he should have swiftly invented a prior engagement. However, clearly he doesn’t read crime novels, because off he goes, all cheerful and expecting to have a good time. Hah! After the fire, the ghost, and a meeting with the murderer at the dead of night, I suspect he changed his mind… The plot in this one is totally obvious, but nevertheless the author manages to get a nice atmosphere of tension going, and it’s very well written.

crime-scene-tape

Death in December by Victor Gunn – a great cross between ghost and crime story, this one is probably going to appear on a future Tuesday Terror! post so I won’t go into detail. It’s one of the longer stories in the collection, giving time for a bit more characterisation than usual and both the detectives, grumpy Bill “Ironside” Cromwell and his sidekick, lovely Johnny Lister, are well drawn and fun. There are aspects of both who and how in this one, not to mention some genuinely scary bits, all topped off with a lot of humour. And a nice little bit of detection too…

Mr Cork’s Secret by Macdonald Hastings – When Montague Cork’s firm insures a valuable necklace, Montague begins to worry about its safety. So off he goes with his wife to a top London hotel where the owner of the necklace is expected to be staying. He’s lucky to get a room at such short notice, especially at Christmas time. Not so lucky for the person who vacated the room, though – since he was carried out feet first by the police, headed for the morgue. Could the murder have anything to do with the necklace? It’s up to Montague to find out… This has a nice twist in that when it was originally published the author held one fact back as part of a competition. Edwards has left it like that, but at the end of the book, gives the solution as provided by the author, along with the prize-winners’ suggestions.

handcuffs

Deep and Crisp and Even by Michael Gilbert – PC Petrella is covering for his boss over Christmas, and takes his duties seriously. So it’s unfortunate that he develops a feverish cold leaving him weak and a bit confused. But when he suspects a house in the neighbourhood has been burgled, he’s determined to track the perpetrator, even when he’s near collapse himself. Complete with carol-singing, dreadful weather and seasonal illness, this is a fun little story with a neat twist.

* * * * *

So plenty of good stuff here, and a lot of the stories make excellent use of either weather or the holidays to add to the atmosphere and tension. I’m thoroughly enjoying these anthologies – even the less good stories are always fun for seeing the different attitudes and writing styles of the time, and the little author bios add a bit of context, putting each story into its appropriate place in the development of crime fiction. I also like the way they’re themed, and this theme in particular works well – I suppose that these would mostly have originally been published in Christmas editions of magazines, and perhaps that inspired the authors to show off their best. Next to the London-themed one, this is probably my favourite of the collections so far. I do hope there will be more…

blood-spatterNB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

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Four…

It’s my birthday!

Goodness! Who knew when I started the blog that I’d actually stick it out for four years! I certainly didn’t! I almost feel like I should apologise to those of you who’ve been around since the earliest days – you have read roughly 600 reviews, over 100 TBR posts, several nonsense posts, a couple of heartfelt political posts, and the occasional pastiche! You deserve a huge thank you…thank-youAnd thanks too to all the newer people who’ve joined me along the way – you should know I appreciate every view, every like, every comment. If it weren’t for all of you, I’d never have kept going this long. (So, in a sense, it’s your own fault… 😉 )

So, while I meander on about a few statistics, put your feet up and have a bit of cake…

4th-3

* * * * * * *

In 2016 I read 118 books – a total of 37770 pages, or an average of 103 pages per day. Down a good bit on 2015 (110) and even more on 2014 (117). I abandoned six books at too early a stage to justify a review. I went through a big reading slump last year, what with the world falling apart with Brexit, Trump and all. But even so, there’s no doubt blogging eats into my reading time more and more.  Which isn’t a problem yet, but might become so if I end up with no books to review!

The breakdown of ratings for the year was…

5 stars (I love it)                       55

4 stars (I like it)                        36

3 stars (It’s OK)                        16

2 stars (I don’t like it)                7

1 star    (I hate it)                       4

year-4-pie-chart

A similar pattern to 2015 overall, which I’m pleased about because there were points when I felt I might be rating more harshly than usual because of my slump. Any year where over three-quarters of books fall into either the “I like it” or “I love it” category has to be a good year!

* * * * * * *

The split of genres…

genre-split-2016

Crime continues to fall as my distaste for the current trend of misery-fests continues, though I’ve been reading far more vintage crime this year to make up for it. Genre fiction has collapsed! However I should read more SF this year, since I’ve included several in my Classics Club list. Pleased to see a bit of a rise again in fiction – I was surprised when it dropped off last year.

* * * * * * *

The divide continues between what you, my valued regulars, like, and what the rest of the great anonymous world out there pops in to view.

Here are the top 5 posts based on views: –

Thrawn Janet – a Tuesday Terror! post from March 2014. This story written in archaic Scots has been in the leading spot for the last two years. I’m convinced it must be on the curriculum of some massive online literature course. Rarely a day goes by when it doesn’t get a few visits. Very odd!

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains – from July 2014. Still in second place, as it has been since posting. I remain convinced it’s the pics that bring people in on that one.

DSCN0535

The Tell-Tale Heart – posted in October 2015, and like Thrawn Janet attracts visitors more or less daily. The Tuesday Terror! posts in general attract far more random visits from searches than any other kind of post on the blog.

Butchering Books – The Wind in the Willows – posted in October 2015, this one had stopped getting lots of views until a couple of months ago a visitor posted a link on her Facebook page, resulting in a big surge of visits over the next few weeks.

1985-wind-in-the-willows-police-chase-toad-print_700_600_U3R3

The Apple TreeTuesday Terror! again, from March 2014. This one has never really surged but picks up a steady stream of a few visits a week – no idea why. It’s a great story though!

* * * * * * *

But you, my dear regular visitors, are rather surprising in your tastes too! Here are the 5 reviews you most ‘liked’ last year…

4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie

Exposure by Helen Dunmore

Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene

2001: A Space Odyssey (Film of the Book review)

Dubliners by James Joyce

Well! Only one 21st century book! I find that fascinating, considering that the vast majority of my reviews are of new releases or fairly recent books.

year-4-classic-pie-chart

I was so intrigued I checked the next five… Slaughterhouse-Five, 2001: A Space Odyssey (the book), Moby-Dick, Jekyll and Hyde, Black Narcissus! In fact, I only reviewed 17 classics and 8 of them appear in the top ten most “liked” reviews. Isn’t that odd??

* * * * *

Happily you also joined in on some of the fun posts, which are the ones I usually most enjoy doing. Here are some of the ones you “liked” and/or commented on most…

Let’s Have a Heated Debate! On Women’s Only Literary PrizesWoo, boy! You like a debate, don’t you?! I must find some other subject to rile you all up again soon… 😉

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again… – Oh, how you like to laugh at my total failure to achieve ANY of my New Year’s Resolutions! But I’ll achieve them all this year, you’ll see…

The Story of a Year in Books – a story created from all the book titles I read in 2016. I’m so glad you “liked” this one, because I had so much fun doing it! My personal favourite post of the year…

The Entertainer Blogger Award – frankly, I think you only visit for these tags and awards because you know there’ll be a picture of my Darcy…

darcy-smouldering

Friday Frippery: A conversation regarding whales… – that pesky whale seems to have dominated the year, so I had to get him out of my system somehow! I’ll miss him, you know…

So that was Year Four. Thank you all so much for being part of it!

Hope you’ll stick around for Year Five!

Animal Farm by George Orwell

“Fake news” and “alternative facts”…

🙂 🙂 🙂

animal-farm-2Inspired by a dream had by Old Major, the white boar, the animals of Manor Farm rebel against their human master and throw him off the land. They agree to work the farm for their own mutual benefit, sharing the work and the produce fairly, each according to his ability and need. Being the most intelligent animals, the pigs take over the planning, both of how to maximise the farm’s yield and of how to protect themselves from outside hostility. But, as we all know, power corrupts…

Of course, this fable is an allegory of the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union. First published in 1945, Orwell apparently wrote it as a warning to the nations of the Allies, who had been united with the USSR in fighting Nazi Germany and who therefore had been motivated to overlook some of the horrors going on under Stalin. He also felt there were many in the West who were happy to fool themselves that the USSR was a successful experiment in socialism, so he wanted to draw attention to the fact that the regime had become totalitarian, with a hierarchical power structure that Orwell saw as not altogether dissimilar to the power structures in the capitalist Western democracies, with an entrenched ruling class putting its own interests first. (All of this is paraphrased from Orwell’s own introduction to the Ukranian edition of the book, which is reproduced as an appendix in my Penguin Modern Classics edition.)

animal-farm-poster

I first read this as a school text, when I was about thirteen, I think. I remembered it as having rather blown me away at the time, but truthfully because of the Boxer storyline rather than the politics. At that time – the early ’70s – here in the UK, public opinion had largely caught up with Orwell’s interpretation of the regime, and the USSR was seen by the majority as evil and scary, with it and the US facing off against each other over Europe’s head, each building bigger and bigger weapons. (There was a fairly significant minority view, too, that the USSR was indeed successfully socialist and a good thing, and that anyway, whether it was or wasn’t, pacifism and unilateral disarmament were the way to go.) So the message of the book wasn’t really shocking or new as it may have been to those first readers back just after WW2.

animal-farm-boxer

Now, another 40 years on, older, possibly more knowledgeable and certainly more critical, I found I had some issues with Orwell’s portrayal.

The reason Orwell gives for the pigs becoming the leaders is their intelligence. The other animals are fundamentally stupid. Is that, then, Orwell’s view of the leadership and people of the USSR? Are the leaders all brainy while the proles are basically thick? It’s not simply that the other animals are uneducated – in the first flush of enthusiasm after the rebellion, all are given the opportunity to learn to read, but only the pigs and the donkey succeed. Poor old Boxer the horse, the backbone of the revolution, hardworking and utterly loyal, never manages to get past ABCD in learning the alphabet. I fear it smacks of a kind of utterly misplaced intellectual elitism to me, a suggestion that those who become totalitarian dictators do it through superior intelligence. Later, the pigs resort to intimidation, misinformation and propaganda, but not till after the intelligence/stupidity divide has allowed them to take a stranglehold on power. But there’s another aspect to it too, which sat uneasily with me. In this fable, all intelligent animals become corrupt despots, while stupidity seems to equal loyalty and a sense of fairplay and sacrifice.

Good Heavens! Has Napoleon taken to Twitter...???
Good Heavens! Has Napoleon taken to Twitter…???

My second problem is with the idea that the pigs become more humanlike as they become more corrupt. Assuming Farmer Jones represents Czarist Russia, then OK – I can go along with that for the sake of the fable. But if you factor in the other humans on neighbouring farms, with whom the pigs sometimes form alliances and at other times fight, then presumably these other farms represent the countries neighbouring the USSR. So, if the humans in the allegory represent corrupt leadership, the message seems to be that all leaders of all forms of government are corrupt and abuse their proletariat just as much as the USSR does. Even if for the sake of argument one accepts this as true (which I struggle to do even hypothetically), I can’t help but feel it means Orwell undoes his own argument about the unique corruption of power in the USSR. If democratic governments are just as bad as totalitarian ones, then… what’s the point he’s trying to make? Orwell says in his introduction that he didn’t mean for the pigs and humans to appear to fully reconcile at the end, and indeed they don’t, but they have become so similar that it’s hard to say which ones are the more morally or politically acceptable.

animal-farm-all-animals-equal

The book foreshadows the idea of “double-think”, later developed much more effectively and credibly in 1984, as the founding principles of the regime change over time while Squealer, the regime’s spokespig, blatantly denies the truth of the past, and disseminates the new “truth” through regime propaganda. (But at least Orwell doesn’t have the pigs go completely over the credibility line by claiming, for example, that Snowball the pig can’t be the leader because he was born on a foreign farm, or perhaps that Napoleon the pig would have won the popular vote if only five million illegal pigs hadn’t voted for his opponent… 😉 )

In summary, I really preferred the book when I was twelve, when the simplified allegory and emotional appeal of Boxer’s story worked better for me. My adult self found it a bit too simplistic and reliant on the reader not making any serious critical analysis of the underlying messages, when it all begins to lack coherence. An interesting and cautionary re-read though, especially in this troubled time of “fake news” and “alternative facts”.

rrr-challenge-logo-final

Book 1 in the RRR Challenge

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Mezzotint by MR James

An artistic haunting…

the-mezzotint

Last week I featured Rosy Thornton’s deliciously spooky story Mad Maudlin, and to my great pleasure she popped in to the comments afterwards. She confirmed that the pub in the story is indeed The Ship Inn, Blaxhall, as I had surmised, but she then went on to tell me that “At the risk of sounding pretentious, I wrote the story as a sort of homage to M.R. James’s ghost story The Mezzotint in which figures mysteriously appear and disappear from an engraving.” So that seemed like the natural choice for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

The Mezzotint by MR James

MR James
MR James

Mr Williams is the curator of the art department of a university and is responsible for acquiring new items. He often does business with a reliable dealer, Mr Britnell. One day he receives the new catalogue from Mr Britnell, together with an accompanying note…

Dear Sir,

We beg to call your attention to No. 978 in our accompanying catalogue, which we shall be glad to send on approval.

Yours faithfully,

J. W. Britnell.

Trusting the man’s judgement, Mr Williams asks him to send the item on approval. When it arrives, it turns out it is a mezzotint of a house…

It was a rather indifferent mezzotint, and an indifferent mezzotint is, perhaps, the worst form of engraving known. It presented a full-face view of a not very large manor-house of the last century, with three rows of plain sashed windows with rusticated masonry about them, a parapet with balls or vases at the angles, and a small portico in the centre.

There is a torn off label on the back which was clearly once the address, but now shows only — ngley Hall,ssex. Disappointed at the ordinariness of the mezzotint, not to mention the ridiculously high price Mr Britnell is asking for it, Mr Williams lays the picture aside, meaning to return it the following day. But that evening Mr Williams has a visit from a friend who, during the course of the conversation, picks up the picture. Mr Williams confirms it’s from Mr Britnell and remarks on the poor quality of it, and the lack of any figures to give it some interest…

‘It’s not worth two guineas, I should think,’ said Binks; ‘but I don’t think it’s so badly done. The moonlight seems rather good to me; and I should have thought there were figures, or at least a figure, just on the edge in front.’

ghost-stories-of-an-antiquary

Mr Williams looks again, and sure enough…

…indeed there was — hardly more than a black blot on the extreme edge of the engraving — the head of a man or woman, a good deal muffled up, the back turned to the spectator, and looking towards the house.

Assuming he had simply missed the small figure earlier, Mr Williams agrees it makes the mezzotint a little more interesting, and again lays it aside. Later that evening, after dinner, Mr Williams (clearly a sociable creature) has a few more friends in for drinks. He casually hands the picture to a colleague who is also interested in art, without looking at it again himself. So he’s a little surprised when his friend comments…

It’s really a very good piece of work, Williams; it has quite a feeling of the romantic period. The light is admirably managed, it seems to me, and the figure, though it’s rather too grotesque, is somehow very impressive.’

But he thinks no more about it, till he’s later preparing for bed by the light of a single candle…

The picture lay face upwards on the table where the last man who looked at it had put it, and it caught his eye as he turned the lamp down. What he saw made him very nearly drop the candle on the floor, and he declares now if he had been left in the dark at that moment he would have had a fit. But, as that did not happen, he was able to put down the light on the table and take a good look at the picture. It was indubitable — rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.

Image by mcsorley
Image by mcsorley

* * * * * * *

Well, this is a good little story with some spooky moments! The picture continues to change, gradually revealing a rather horrific story, and when Mr Williams manages to track down the history of the house, he finds that it tells of a tragic crime that took place there some years earlier. It’s well written, with quite a lot of humour as well as the spooky stuff.

I must be honest and say that it didn’t tingle my spine much. It’s imaginative and he tells the story well, but there’s no sense of peril – the picture appears to present no threat to Mr Williams. So while the story behind the picture is scary, it’s distanced from the reader by being seen at a remove, if that makes sense. And all the humour and friendly interactions between Mr Williams and his colleagues take away from any build-up of tension. I know lots of people think of MR James as one of the best writers of ghost stories, and admittedly I haven’t read a lot of him, but his style never leaves me quivering although I do enjoy the imagination and the writing. Truthfully, I found Rosy Thornton’s story much spookier, especially the ending where she leaves it beautifully ambiguous, whereas MR James wraps everything up all nice and neat. So, for me, this is a case where the homage works better than the original…

If you’d like to read The Mezzotint (about 4,500 words), here’s a link.

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The propentine took a bit of time out from fretting this week...
The porpentine took a bit of time out from fretting this week…

Visiting Cathy…

The Books That Built the Blogger…

I’m honoured to be guest posting over at Cathy’s place today, in her great new feature where she finds out about the Books That Built the Blogger. I do hope you’ll pop over.

I know many of you already follow Cathy, but if you haven’t met her yet, she writes great reviews and is the host of a couple of annual challenges that loads of us look forward to every year – the Reading Ireland Challenge in March and the 20 Books of Summer Challenge. She also cheers me up greatly in another way – her blog is called 746 Books because that’s how many books were on her TBR when she started blogging. Makes me chuckle every time…

Normal service will be resumed tomorrow. Meantime, for your delight and delectation…

Two great sportsmen. Aww, Rafa, next year for sure...
Two great sportsmen.
Aww, Rafa, next year for sure…

The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham read by David Thorpe

Campion’s first appearance…

😀 😀 😀 😀

the-crime-at-black-dudleyDr George Abbershaw has gone down to Black Dudley Manor to join a house party for the weekend. The house is owned by George’s friend, Wyatt Petrie, but is occupied by Wyatt’s uncle by marriage, Colonel Coombe. The elderly wheelchair-bound colonel likes the company of young people, so often asks Wyatt to bring a group of his friends down for the weekend. George, though, is there mainly because he’s fallen in love with a girl who is also a guest, Meggie Oliphaunt, and he hopes to find an opportunity to propose to her. Colonel Coombe has also invited a few friends of his own.

In the evening, talk turns to old legends and Wyatt reluctantly tells of the ritual of a dagger that hangs prominently on the wall. The ritual involves turning off the lights and running around the house in the dark, passing the knife from person to person. What jolly fun! However when the lights come up Colonel Coombe is found dead. His friends tell the assembled company that his death was expected as he was very ill, and hasten to get a cremation certificate signed and hustle the body off the premises, so as not to spoil the weekend (!). But it soon becomes obvious to George that there’s something fishy going on (!) – and when something goes missing, suddenly the young people find themselves the prisoners of the Colonel’s friends…

This is apparently the book in which Allingham’s regular ‘tec, Albert Campion, makes his first appearance, although in this one, George is the main focus and Campion is a secondary character. George is a sensible young man, but Campion appears to be a foolish fop, like Bertie Wooster, only with fewer brains and a falsetto voice. He does develop a bit more depth as the book progresses, but it’s a strange first outing.

Peter Davidson as Campion and Brian Glover as his manservant Lugg in the TV adaptation
Peter Davidson as Campion and Brian Glover as his manservant Lugg in the TV adaptation

There is much running to and fro through secret tunnels, which are nearly as complex as the convoluted plot involving criminal gangs, mysterious papers and suchlike. Despite the darkness of the plot, and some episodes of viciousness on the part of the baddies, the general tone is light and fun. George and Meggie are both likeable characters, and their romance is handled nicely, not overwhelming the story but giving the reader something to care about amidst all the mayhem. Campion adds a lot of humour to the story, partly laughing with him and partly laughing at him. He’s shrewder than he first appears, but in the end it’s down to George to solve the puzzle of what it is the colonel’s friends are looking for, and who killed the colonel. And of course to engineer the escape from the baddies. In fact, Campion more or less disappears towards the end and plays no part in the final denouement – presumably at that point Allingham didn’t see him as her central character.

I listened to the audiobook version, and I have to say I felt David Thorpe’s narration was great! I’ve seen some critical reviews of it, mainly from Campion fans objecting to the falsetto voice he uses for Campion and for the foolishness Thorpe puts into his character. But this is how he is written in the book and I felt Thorpe was paying attention to the words of this one, rather than basing his characterisation on how Campion develops in later novels. Thorpe brings out all the humour in the story, but also does an excellent job with the darker sections. He held my attention throughout, which doesn’t always happen with audiobooks. A 5 star narration, in my opinion.

Margery Allingham
Margery Allingham

However, I’ve never rated Allingham as highly as the other Golden Age Queens of Crime: Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers; and truthfully I’m not sure that this book has changed my mind. I found it enjoyable, but too convoluted and not at all credible, and apart from George and Meggie, too many of the characters are caricatures. I didn’t feel it was fairplay at all – the eventual solution seemed to come from nowhere, though of course it’s possible I missed hidden clues along the way (even good audiobooks have a tendency to induce occasional napping). I’m glad I listened though – I think the narration actually made me enjoy the book more than I might have, had I been reading a paper copy. So overall, a fun listen of a reasonably entertaining book, but probably not the best one to start with to get a feel for the character Campion eventually becomes.

I was inspired to seek out this book by Margot Kinberg’s excellent Spotlight of it.

Albert Campion is one of Martin Edwards’ picks for Ten Top Golden Age Detectives.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

TBR Thursday 109…

Episode 109…

It’s inexplicable!! Despite the phenomenal and unprecedented amount of willpower I’ve gone through this week, somehow my TBR seems to have gone up 3… to 197!! 197!! It’s beyond human understanding! The worst thing is it was only 194 when I started writing this post… before the emails started arriving from NetGalley! Still at least the postman hasn’t brought any today… yet!

So I better start speed-reading or I’m going to drift over the 200 mark, which just can’t be allowed to happen! Here are a few that are getting near the top of the heap…

Fiction

the-accusationCourtesy of NetGalley. Heading off to North Korea on my Around the World tour, though this isn’t a holiday I’m expecting to enjoy exactly…

The Blurb says: The Accusation is a deeply moving and eye-opening work of fiction that paints a powerful portrait of life under the North Korean regime. Set during the period of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s leadership, the seven stories that make up The Accusation give voice to people living under this most bizarre and horrifying of dictatorships. The characters of these compelling stories come from a wide variety of backgrounds, from a young mother living among the elite in Pyongyang whose son misbehaves during a political rally, to a former Communist war hero who is deeply disillusioned with the intrusion of the Party into everything he holds dear, to a husband and father who is denied a travel permit and sneaks onto a train in order to visit his critically ill mother. Written with deep emotion and writing talent, The Accusation is a vivid depiction of life in a closed-off one-party state, and also a hopeful testament to the humanity and rich internal life that persists even in such inhumane conditions.

* * * * *

Crime

the-cheltenham-square-murderCourtesy of NetGalley. Having enjoyed John Bude’s Death on the Riviera recently, I jumped at the chance to read this one. Hurrah for the British Library Crime Classics!

The Blurb says:  In the seeming tranquility of Regency Square in Cheltenham live the diverse inhabitants of its ten houses. One summer’s evening, the square’s rivalries and allegiances are disrupted by a sudden and unusual death – an arrow to the head, shot through an open window at no. 6. Unfortunately for the murderer, an invitation to visit had just been sent by the crime writer Aldous Barnet, staying with his sister at no. 8, to his friend Superintendent Meredith. Three days after his arrival, Meredith finds himself investigating the shocking murder two doors down. Six of the square’s inhabitants are keen members of the Wellington Archery Club, but if Meredith and Long thought that the case was going to be easy to solve, they were wrong…

The Cheltenham Square Murder is a classic example of how John Bude builds a drama within a very specific location. Here the Regency splendour of Cheltenham provides the perfect setting for a story in which appearances are certainly deceiving.

* * * * *

Fiction

the-white-guardNext up for the Reading the Russian Revolution challenge. Another one that I suspect may be a tough read…

The Blurb says: White Guard, Mikhail Bulgakov’s semi-autobiographical first novel, is the story of the Turbin family in Kiev in 1918. Alexei, Elena, and Nikolka Turbin have just lost their mother—their father had died years before—and find themselves plunged into the chaotic civil war that erupted in the Ukraine in the wake of the Russian Revolution. In the context of this family’s personal loss and the social turmoil surrounding them, Bulgakov creates a brilliant picture of the existential crises brought about by the revolution and the loss of social, moral, and political certainties. He confronts the reader with the bewildering cruelty that ripped Russian life apart at the beginning of the last century as well as with the extraordinary ways in which the Turbins preserved their humanity.

* * * * *

Crime

rather-be-the-devilThe audiobook is narrated by James Macpherson, whom some of you may remember as DCI Michael Jardine from the old TV series, Taggart. I’ve listened to him read Rebus before, and he has the perfect accent for it plus the acting skills to bring the characters to life…

The Blurb says: Some cases never leave you.

For John Rebus, 40 years may have passed, but the death of beautiful, promiscuous Maria Turquand still preys on his mind. She was murdered in her hotel room on the night a famous rock star and his entourage were staying there, and Maria’s killer has never been found.

Meanwhile, the dark heart of Edinburgh remains up for grabs. A young pretender, Darryl Christie, may have staked his claim, but a vicious attack leaves him weakened and vulnerable, and an inquiry into a major money laundering scheme threatens his position. Has old-time crime boss Big Ger Cafferty really given up the ghost, or is he biding his time until Edinburgh is once more ripe for the picking?

In a tale of twisted power, deep-rooted corruption and bitter rivalries, Rather Be the Devil showcases Rankin and Rebus at their unstoppable best.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible UK.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

Radio Girls by Sarah-Jane Stratford

Inform, educate and entertain…

😀 😀 😀 😀

radio-girlsMaisie Musgrave is thrilled when she gets a job as a typist at the newly formed BBC. She’s not particularly pretty, and her relative poverty means she’s rather dowdily dressed. Both of which are a little unfortunate, since her main ambition is to find a man and get married. But once she becomes exposed to some of the new thinking at the Beeb, and especially some of the feisty and successful women making their names there, Maisie begins to develop ambitions of her own – perhaps to produce a radio show one day, or even write for the Radio Times. Those ambitions will still leave her enough time for a bit of dabbling in romance, though…

Stratford has clearly thoroughly researched this fascinating period of the BBC’s early history, while it was still struggling to work out quite what its role was to be. Many thought that radio was a passing fad and, at that time, the BBC wasn’t a news organisation as it is now. However, there were people within the organisation with very firm views on how it should develop and Stratford incorporates them into her story. Lord Reith is now always thought of as the father of the BBC, who gave it its mission statement – to “inform, educate and entertain”, specifically in that order. But in the book he’s shown as the upholder of the establishment and the status quo – a man who felt that women should know their place and stay in it. So his relationship with Hilda Matheson, also a real person, was never going to be easy – feisty, feminist, lesbian, friend to the Bloomsbury set and lover of more than one of them at different times. Hilda becomes Maisie’s mentor and influence, though Maisie has a strong enough personality not to come under Hilda’s sway entirely.

Hilda Matheson
Hilda Matheson

All good stuff, and I found Hilda in particular an intriguing character. I hadn’t heard of her before, but it seems she too was highly influential on how the BBC developed, particularly in terms of setting out to inform the newly enfranchised female population of Britain, many of whom were clamouring to know more about the political world so that they could participate fully. However, she also seems to have promoted her own leftish political agenda, this being before the BBC made impartiality its fundamental principle (in theory, at least). I’d like to read a biography of Hilda sometime, if I can find one.

And that rather brings me to the problem with the book. For the first half, there’s really very little plot. We simply follow Maisie as she settles in to her new job and begins to get to know the people she’s working with and for. It’s well written, Maisie is quite fun and there’s some humour in it…but no real story. But be careful what you wish for, because in the second half, when the story finally arrives, it’s kinda silly and not very well done at all. It revolves around the growing Nazi threat, with Hilda and Maisie becoming kind of unbelievable amateur spies. And it’s very stretched out with large sections where nothing happens to move the plot along. It feels like Stratford had done all the research, decided what characters she was going to focus on, but then hadn’t really been able to think quite what to do with them. A large part of me wished she had gone for a non-fiction approach, either concentrating on Hilda Matheson or widening it out to cover the early years of the BBC.

John, later Lord, Reith
John, later Lord, Reith

And I do apologise, sisterhood, but I am bored, bored, BORED, with every second story being about how fabulous/intelligent/feisty/strong all women are and how weak/sexist/corrupt/nasty all men are. Feminism was surely never about proving women were vastly superior to men… was it? So why has it become so??

* * * * *

FF’s Fourth Law: It’s not necessary for men to be made to look bad in order for women to look good.

* * * * *

Pretty much the only good men in this book are the gay ones – which I think might be taking the “diversity” agenda (gosh, how I hate what that word has come to mean) just a little too far. But then I seem to have forgotten to pay my dues to the Political Correctness Club recently…

So yes, I got a little tired of how the “feminist” aspects were handled, although to be fair it’s no worse in that respect than a lot of contemporary fiction written by women. *ducks to avoid the rotten tomatoes*

Sarah-Jane Stratford
Sarah-Jane Stratford

Overall, then, I felt it was a little let down by a weak plot and too much blatant political correctness seeping through. But it is well researched and well written, creating what feels like a reasonably authentic picture of the early days of the BBC, and certainly interesting enough to keep me turning the pages. I liked the characterisation of both the fictional and real people for the most part, and enjoyed the way Stratford kept the tone light with some well judged humour along the way. I will look out for more from this author in the future, and hope that experience will allow her to find a better balance between historical research and plot next time. And despite my reservations, I recommend this one as an enjoyable and informative read.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allison and Busby.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! Mad Maudlin by Rosy Thornton

Buffering…please wait…

sandlands

When I reviewed Rosy Thornton’s collection of short stories set in the Suffolk sandlings, I mentioned that there was an air of mild ghostliness about some of them, and that one of them, in fact, is a “proper” ghost story. So I thought it would be perfect for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

Mad Maudlin
by Rosy Thornton

Rosy Thornton
Rosy Thornton

The unnamed narrator of the story is staying in The Ship, a pub that features more than once in the stories. (Intriguingly, there’s nothing to identify whether the narrator is male or female, but for pretty vague and possibly sexist reasons, I thought of him as male while reading, so for ease I’m going with he/him throughout.)

I’m looking at a piano. That is, I’m looking at the video image of a piano, because I’m in the half-light of a rented bedroom at the back of a pub after closing and it’s just me and the laptop.

That afternoon, the narrator had filmed in the bar of the pub where locals and regulars had been having a folk session, playing and singing centuries-old traditional songs. Later, in his room, he had found two earlier videos of folk nights in the same pub on a local historical website – one from 1954, and the second from 1979. He has been comparing the three, noticing how little has changed over the years in the bar, and that the same songs are still being sung.

The Ship Inn, Blaxhall - I can't be sure, but I reckon this is the pub the story is set in.
The Ship Inn, Blaxhall – I can’t be sure, but I reckon this is the pub the story is set in.

Pubs, I’ve always thought, can be divided into two camps according to the stability of their décor. There are those that undergo a complete refit once or twice a decade, reinventing themselves from Haywain kitsch through ebony veneer and mirrors and back again in accordance with the latest fashion (or in spite of it) like the shifting political colours over some volatile town hall. Then there are others, the ones you’ll generally find me drinking in, where change is so incrementally slow as to be almost imperceptible, as gradual as the softening of the contours of a familiar face.

Even the photos on the wall of The Ship have stayed unchanged over the years – the old football team in their baggy shorts and moustaches…

One or two of the eldest players could be grandfather to the youngest, a grinning lad of twelve or thirteen, as if every able-bodied male in the village had to turn out to make up the eleven – and perhaps it was the case, it occurs to me with a bit of a shiver as I spot the date inscribed below the picture: 1919.

Drinking in the bar of the Ship Inn, Blaxhall - can't find a date.
Drinking in the bar of the Ship Inn, Blaxhall – can’t find a date.

One of the photos he spots in the 1954 video is of a woman dressed in the clothes of an even earlier era – a woman with a distinctively cleft chin, giving her a heart-shaped face. The face seems familiar to him…

I’m sure I’ve seen it, or an echo of it, very recently. Just this afternoon, in fact. That’s it: a woman with the same chin sat in the corner seat… and sang ‘Tom o’ Bedlam’ in a soft but sure contralto.

A strong family resemblance, he assumes, not unusual in a small village. Clicking through to the 1979 video, he is astonished to see the same face again, sitting in the same corner seat, singing…

For to see poor Tom o’ Bedlam
ten thousand miles I’d travel;
Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes
for to save her shoes from gravel…

Daughter, mother and grandmother? But the resemblance is so strong. Hastily he opens up the file of the video he took himself that evening and searches for the woman he had listened to singing…

I let the tape roll on. But as the teenagers linger on their final major chord, modulating to a plaintive minor, and applause stutters around the bar, the scraping chairs and rumbling voices are interrupted not by the woman with the cleft chin, but by the piano again…

The Ship Inn, Blaxhall, circa 1900.
The Ship Inn, Blaxhall, circa 1900.

He runs through the tape again, but the woman isn’t there. Had he stopped recording before she sang for some reason he’s now forgotten? He hastens back to the 1954 video to look again at the photo…

The camera swings round, and my stomach lurches. The corner chair is no longer empty…

There the woman sits, singing…

So drink to Tom o’ Bedlam,
he’ll fill the seas in barrels.
I’ll drink it all, all brewed with gall,
with Mad Maudlin I will travel.

Now trembling, he clicks again to reopen one of the other files, but now the connection is playing up and all he gets is the maddening rotating circle that tells him it’s buffering. And yet, somehow, he can still hear the singing…

buffering* * * * * * *

Ooh, this is a creepy one! It starts out as if it’s simply going to be an interesting look at the three videos, with some musings perhaps on unchanging traditions in small communities where generations of families still live in close proximity. And even just as that, the quality of the writing and observations make it interesting. But then, gradually at first, Thornton sneaks in a couple of things that are a little odd and a gentle air of unease begins to develop. She reminds us subtly that the narrator is alone in unfamiliar surroundings, in a room above the bar that appears in the films.

Then gradually, as the woman begins to shift from photo to video, sometimes appearing, sometimes not; and then when the buffering begins, and the only lights in the room are the laptop screen and the winking bulbs of the router, and the only sound is the singing… and it still goes on even when the screen freezes… ooh, I say! The ending is left beautifully ambiguous, adding much to the spine-tingling feeling of dread.

A first-class ghost story that relies on tension and atmosphere rather than chainsaws and gore. I loved that Thornton managed to use modern technology so effectively in what feels nevertheless like a traditional style of tale. Great stuff! I wonder if she could be persuaded to write an entire collection of ghost stories…

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

Film of the Book: Moby Dick

Directed by John Huston (1956)

moby-dick-poster-2

From the book review:

Our narrator (call him Ishmael) signs up for a voyage aboard the whaling ship Pequod, only to find that the Captain, Ahab, is pursuing a personal vendetta against the whale which caused him to lose his leg – Moby-Dick.

See, I still find that blurb quite appealing, even knowing what I now know – that that whole story is crammed into a few pages near the beginning and the last few pages at the end, and all the rest is filled with digressions, varying in degree of interest from quite exciting to cure for insomnia status.

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

Film of the Book

Having slated the book of Moby-Dick, it took me some time to work up the enthusiasm to watch the film despite knowing that it had a pretty good reputation. After all, lots of people unaccountably seem to think the book’s good too! I was cheered by a couple of things – the running time is only 1 hour 50 minutes, so clearly a lot of the extraneous digressions must have been cut – hurrah! And Huston wrote the screenplay along with Ray Bradbury who, unlike Melville, knew a thing or two about how to tell a good story.

The film starts off much like the book, with our narrator Ishmael arriving in the town of New Bedford to join a whaling ship. There he meets Queequeg the cannibal, a South Sea Islander. Imagine my surprise on discovering that this “dark-complexioned” man is played by a white actor! I couldn’t decide whether it would have been better or worse if they’d at least tried to make him look black-ish. But scuttling quickly away from that thorny issue towards another, I couldn’t help but note that the film had also omitted the YA instalove between Ishmael and Queequeg that led to (implied… or possibly just inferred) gay sex romps in the book – I can’t begin to express how happy I was at that decision! Melville’s obsession with hands squeezing blubber while fantasizing about squeezing other things has left me with emotional scars…

Friedrich von Ledebur as the quaintly coloured Queequeg
Friedrich von Ledebur as the quaintly coloured Queequeg

So it was obvious from an early stage that there were going to be significant differences between book and film. Huston did indeed strip out pretty much all of the digressions and a good deal of the philosophising, though I felt he and Bradbury had managed to condense the main points so that the film doesn’t lose too much of the depth. We still see Ahab’s obsession with getting his revenge, and Bradbury (I assume) creates some fairly sharply focused dialogue between Ahab and Starbuck that I felt actually made the whole religion/blasphemy point much clearer than Melville managed in the book. Plus, to my joy, Ahab mostly speaks in standard English rather than the cod-Shakespearian horrors employed by Melville. There’s still a bit of ye-ing rather than you-ing, but nothing too out of place for its 19th century context. The major difference is that the movie keeps the action going – Ahab appears within the first few minutes and it’s not long before the Pequod sails – unlike in the book, where I had nearly died of boredom before we even saw the ship. Then, boom! Ahab persuades the crew to take an oath to kill the Great White Whale, and the hunt is on!

Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab and Leo Genn as Starbuck
Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab and Leo Genn as Starbuck

On the whole, the acting is good, rather than excellent, but the action and drama made up for any weaknesses in performance. Gregory Peck is not at all my idea of Ahab, but once I got used to him I thought he does a fine job, at points when he does his raging speeches reminding me of Orson Welles. Which is a coincidence since Welles himself appears in a great, if oddly superfluous, cameo as the preacher giving a sermon before the voyage, thundering away about Jonah and the whale.

Orson Welles thundering...
Orson Welles thundering…

Despite his unlikeliness for the role, Friedrich von Ledebur as Queequeg stands out, as does Harry Andrews as Stubb. But really the success of the film is all down to Huston’s direction in the end. Not just the big action scenes, but little touches like the women standing in silence as the ship sets sail – where did he find those amazing faces? (In a small town in Ireland apparently.) With no words at all, he manages to create a real sense of the dangers of the voyage just from the worn and fatalistic expressions of these women watching their men sail out, perhaps never to return.

The special effects are great for the time, and the way Huston films it gives a real sense of the power of the sea and the constant peril to the sailors leaping about the dizzyingly high rigging of the fragile-looking ship. The scenes with the whales work brilliantly, though they can get a little gory for modern tastes (mine, at least), and when Moby Dick finally appears (after only an hour and a half, unlike in the book when it took roughly six weeks 😉 ) he is terrifying! The storm is fantastic, with Ahab ordering his men up the rigging in defiance of howling wind and lashing rain; and the birds hovering over the hunting scenes create a real atmosphere of wild menace – man against nature. And I loved the St Elmo’s Fire scene (or, as Melville would incomprehensibly put it, the corpusants scene).

moby-dick-st-elmos-fire-2

I loved the way much of the film is in subdued tones of blue and grey and brown, almost as if it’s in black and white, giving extra dramatic effect to sudden flashes of bright colour – the blood of the whales, or the green of the St Elmo’s Fire. I’m going to admit that during the climactic finale, as Ahab and the whale fought their final battle to the death, the tears were pouring down my face as I frantically cheered Moby on!

In short, this is the story I hoped for when I read the book! No lack of narrative drive here! No long hours of tedium while Melville shows off his knowledge of whales, religion, Shakespeare and anything else he can think of. Extract the gem of the story from the dross, get a great scriptwriter to polish it, hire some decent actors, work a few miracles with effects, and hey presto! A magnificent film is born!

Thar she blows!
Thar she blows!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

So without the slightest hesitation I say: chuck out the book and watch the film instead!
I hereby declare…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

moby-dick-dvd

THE FILM!

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