FictionFan’s Book Reviews

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TBR Thursday 331 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 331

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

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OK, People, time for another batch of four! Still in 2019, and an interesting mix this time, I think. I like to run three months ahead with these polls, so the winner will be an August read. A recent Rebus novel, In a House of Lies  by Ian Rankin slipped through my net when it was released and has been lingering ever since. I added Home by Marilynne Robinson because I loved Gilead a few years ago – it’s still the only one of hers I’ve read. Similarly, The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo was added because I loved her later The Night Tiger.  I acquired The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler on the recommendation of a blogger who later disappeared from the blogosphere – I’ve included it on my new Classics Club list.   I’ll be quite happy to read any of these, so you really can’t go wrong… 😉

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Crime

In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin

Added 23rd March 2019. 13,972 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.11 average rating. 370 pages.

The Blurb says: Everyone has something to hide
A missing private investigator is found, locked in a car hidden deep in the woods. Worse still – both for his family and the police – is that his body was in an area that had already been searched.

Everyone has secrets
Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke is part of a new inquiry, combing through the mistakes of the original case. There were always suspicions over how the investigation was handled and now – after a decade without answers – it’s time for the truth.

Nobody is innocent
Every officer involved must be questioned, and it seems everyone on the case has something to hide, and everything to lose. But there is one man who knows where the trail may lead – and that it could be the end of him: John Rebus.

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Fiction

Home by Marilynne Robinson

Added 27th April 2019. 24,611 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.03 average. 325 pages.

The Blurb says: Jack Boughton – prodigal son – has been gone twenty years. He returns home seeking refuge and to make peace with the past. A bad boy from childhood, an alcoholic who cannot hold down a job, Jack is perpetually at odds with his surroundings and with his traditionalist father, though he remains Boughton’s most beloved child. His sister Glory has also returned, fleeing her own mistakes, to care for their dying father. A moving book about families, about love and death and faith, Home is unforgettable. It is a masterpiece.

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Fantasy

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

Added 23rd August 2019. 28,329 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.80 average. 368 pages. 

The Blurb says: Seventeen-year-old Li Lan lives in 1890s Malaya with her quietly-ruined father, who returns one evening with a proposition – the fabulously wealthy Lim family want Li Lan to marry their son. The only problem is, he’s dead. After a fateful visit to the Lim mansion, Li Lan finds herself haunted not only by her ghostly would-be suitor, but also her desire for the Lims’ handsome new heir. At night she is drawn into the Chinese afterlife – a world of ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, monstrous bureaucracy and vengeful spirits. Enlisting the help of mysterious Er Lang (a dragon turned clerk) Li Lan must uncover the secrets of the ghost world – before she becomes trapped there forever.

Drawing on traditional Malayan folklore and superstition, The Ghost Bride is a haunting, exotic and romantic read perfect for fans of Empress Orchid and Memoirs of a Geisha.

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Spy Thriller

The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler

Added 8th October 2019. 8,827 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.92 average. 244 pages.

The Blurb says: English crime novelist Charles Latimer is travelling in Istanbul when he makes the acquaintance of Turkish police inspector Colonel Haki. It is from him that he first hears of the mysterious Dimitrios – an infamous master criminal, long wanted by the law, whose body has just been fished out of the Bosphorus. Fascinated by the story, Latimer decides to retrace Dimitrios’ steps across Europe to gather material for a new book. But, as he gradually discovers more about his subject’s shadowy history, fascination tips over into obsession. And, in entering Dimitrios’ criminal underworld, Latimer realizes that his own life may be on the line.

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

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The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

She ain’t no Becky Sharp…

😐 😐

Undine Spragg has been spoiled by her pathetic parents to the point of becoming barely functional as a human being. Greedy, shallow, brain-dead, common as muck, amazingly men fall for her because she has red hair. Because, let’s face it, the men are all shallow and brain-dead too, though far too classy to be greedy or common. No, the men are quite contented to amble pointlessly through life, living off the wealth of their relatives. Undine always wants something she can’t have – baubles, mainly, and bangles and beads. And admiration. And when she can’t have it she throws a tantrum because she has the mental capacity of a not very bright two-year-old. Surprisingly this behaviour appears to work, and people give her whatever she wants simply to shut her up, much in the way a stressed mother might shove a dummy in the mouth of a screaming child. And yet men love her…

This dismal, tedious tome is touted as a brilliant satire of American high society at the beginning of the twentieth century. “Brilliant” is a subjective term, so I’ll confine myself to subjectively disagreeing, wholeheartedly. “Satire”, however, has a specific meaning…

Satire: A poem or (in later use) a novel, film, or other work of art which uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immorality or foolishness, esp. as a form of social or political commentary.

~ Oxford English Dictionary

The problem with the book is that there is no humour in it, no irony, not much exaggeration that I could see, and the very occasional attempt at ridicule doesn’t come off because they’re all such tedious people – not even worthy of ridicule. Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair) is a brilliantly drawn central figure in a satire, because she is witty, intelligent, manipulative and determined, and because she starts with nothing, making the reader have more sympathy for her than for the immoral, feckless snobs she makes her victims. Undine, on the other hand is dull, stupid and talentless, and comes from a background where her every whim has been met. Why would anyone sympathise with her?

Becky’s victims are indeed exaggerated, often to the point of caricature. Who can forget the awfulness of miserly, lascivious Sir Pitt the elder, or the sanctimonious hypocrisy of Sir Pitt the younger, or the gullible vanity of poor Jos Sedley? Simpering, snivelling Amelia is the Victorian heroine taken to extremes, and Thackeray’s demolition of the reader’s initial sympathy for her is masterly. And so on.

Undine’s victims are typical, unexaggerated society wastrels, living on inherited wealth and contributing nothing of either good or ill to the society they infest. They are dull in themselves, and therefore dull for the reader to spend time with. Can one ridicule someone with no outstanding characteristics? I guess it’s possible, but there are few signs of it happening here. Ridicule should surely make you laugh at the object, or perhaps if you’re a nicer person than I, wince in sympathy. It shouldn’t make you curl your lip disparagingly while trying to stifle a yawn…

Edith Wharton

I seriously considered abandoning the book halfway through on the grounds that I have sworn an oath that, whatever I die of, it won’t be boredom. But I decided to struggle on in the hope that perhaps there would be a whole marvellous cast of caricatured eccentrics waiting on the later pages, and maybe Undine would become deliciously wicked rather than depressingly selfish, and all the humour might have been saved for the later chapters. But sadly not, despite her following Becky Sharp’s career closely. Remarkably closely, actually, up to the very latter stages, which is why I have chosen to compare the books. I think the major difference is Becky enjoyed her life, so we enjoyed it with her, and despite her treatment of them she brought some fun and excitement into the lives of her victims – Undine is miserable pretty much all the time, empty and miserable, and she brings nothing but emptiness and misery into anyone’s life, including this reader’s. She sure ain’t no Becky Sharp, though it felt clear to me from the plagiarising mirroring of the plot that Wharton intended her to be.

Book 5 of 12

This was the People’s Choice winner for May – sorry, People! Never mind – it’s the first loser this year, and next month’s looks great… 😀

Amazon UK Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my recent reading in quotes…

….It was 28th April. Wet, naturally, the grass percolating water as John Rebus walked to the grave of his father, dead five years to the day. He placed a wreath so that it lay, yellow and red, the colours of remembrance, against the still shining marble. He paused for a moment, trying to think of things to say, but there seemed nothing to say, nothing to think. He had been a good enough father and that was that. The old man wouldn’t have wanted him to waste his words in any case. So he stood there, hands respectfully behind his back, crows laughing on the walls around him, until the water seeping into his shoes told him that there was a warm car waiting for him at the cemetery gates.
….He drove quietly, hating to be back here in Fife, back where the old days had never been ‘the good old days,’ where ghosts rustled in the shells of empty houses and the shutters went up every evening on a handful of desultory shops, those metal shutters that gave the vandals somewhere to write their names. How Rebus hated it all, this singular lack of an environment. It stank the way it had always done: of misuse, of disuse, of the sheer wastage of life.

~ Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin

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….The second photograph is from the wedding itself. In it, the newly-weds pose in front of a glossy, cream trailer, holding hands, but standing apart. A dog is a moving blur behind them. Chrome trim winks in the sunlight, and both have their eyes slightly narrowed against the glare. Rose has had her hair done – permed, lightened and arranged into blonde flicks that frame her face. The high neck of her wedding dress hides the birthmark. She smiles nervously. Her new husband, Ivo Janko, wears a black suit; he is blade-thin with longish, slicked-back dark hair, high cheekbones and large, dark eyes. He’s very good looking, and looks as though he knows it. He does not smile – his expression appears arrogant, even hostile. He seems to be leaning away from her, his body tense, his chin lifted. Studying his face in the photograph – looking for clues – I decide that his expression is due less to arrogance than nervousness. They are both very young, after all, and are marrying a person they hardly know. Who would look at ease?

~ The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney

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….Crusade and pilgrimage strengthened linkages between northern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. And around the time that the crusades began, trumpets resembling the one found at Billingsgate began to appear in European art. Arabic influence is shown in the decorative knobs along its length, grafted onto a straight-stemmed form of Byzantine origin. Although we cannot be certain, it seems highly probable that returning crusader fleets carried the archetype into Europe, whence it was honed and replicated by the brassworkers of Nuremberg and Paris.
….No home-grown instrument, then, the ships trumpet, but one that originated in the Holy Land. It embodies a peculiar crossover between the prosaic business of ship-signalling and the potent symbolism of the crusade. And as the only surviving example of its kind, the Billingsgate Trumpet powerfully commemorates the furthest from England a mediaeval ship would go, limited by seaworthiness, circumscribed by piety.

The Billingsgate Trumpet
Found during excavations in 1984, and kept in the Museum of London

~ The Ship Asunder by Tom Nancollas

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….“I want to take you to Pakistan.”
….Suzie looked up. “Khalid, do you? You’ve never said that before.”
….Even as he said it, he knew it was a terrible idea.
….It just wouldn’t work. His cousins would be charming, wrapping Suzie up in clothes and jewellery and taking care of her, and whispering in his ear about her prettiness, spoiling Alia with everything she asked for. But there was something that he’d find too difficult, pulling him in two directions. It wasn’t their fault. Just the artifice, pretending again that he belonged there, when things had moved on so much. This was his life now. He had created something that couldn’t be exported.
….His mother called every week from Karachi to ask him about the family, and sometimes he put Alia on the phone. It was all kind of excruciating because of the language. The incantation of the same words, Mashallah, Khuda Hafiz, and his little girl’s blank expressions when she heard Urdu, which made him guilty for not teaching her more, and not knowing quite who this grandmother was or where the voice came from. The worst was when Alia held the phone away from her ear with a scrunched-up nose and refused to speak at all.

~ Edgware Road by Yasmin Cordery Khan

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So… are you tempted?

Killing Rock (Sullivan and Broderick 3) by Robert Daws

Complicated but satisfying…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Detective Sergeant Tamara Sullivan has decided to make her temporary transfer from London’s Met to the Royal Gibraltar Police permanent, but bureaucracy means that she must have a month’s break between the two jobs. She opts to spend the time looking after a friend’s small ranch across the border in Spain. The friend’s daughter is an Inspector with the Spanish police and the two young women immediately hit it off. So when cases arise in both Gibraltar and Spain, each of which seems to have a cross-border element, Tamara and Consuela find themselves putting their talents together. Meantime, Gus Broderick finds he might be connected to the victim in the Gibraltar case, so for much of the time he has to take a back seat and trust that Tamara will be able to clear his name.

This has a hugely complicated plot (not helped by the outbreak of war while I was in the middle of the book, resulting in a long gap in reading and a complete loss of concentration!), but it all comes together very satisfactorily in the end. Sullivan is very much the lead character in this one and she’s a likeable detective who plays by the rules, is intelligent, occasionally a little reckless but not too much so, and has a healthy social life and good working relationships with her colleagues. She’s developing into one of my favourite contemporary detectives. Broderick too is a professional, and he has the family life that Sullivan hasn’t yet, so between them they give a nicely rounded picture of normal life, and isn’t that refreshing in modern crime fiction! And the Gibraltar setting is great – Daws has been a regular visitor there for many years and clearly knows the place and the culture very well. I find this surviving outpost of the old British Empire fascinating, and in this one we get to see some of the tensions between Gibraltar and Spain, and also how local people work well together across the border, leaving the politicians to do the squabbling.

The Gibraltar case involves the discovery of the body of a woman, long buried beneath what was then a building site. A letter is found in her possession that suggests she knew Gus Broderick long ago, so her death in Gibraltar, far from her own home but close to his, makes him a suspect. His colleagues are never in any doubt of his innocence, but to prove it they must discover why the woman was there and what happened to her. This involves painstaking tracing of all the people who were connected to the building site at the time of her death.

The Spanish case is both more spectacular and far more complicated, and I’m wary of giving any possible spoilers so forgive some vagueness. It begins when three bodies are found drowned in a swimming pool, and it soon becomes clear this is one in a series of similar killings. But the victims don’t appear to be completely random, and it’s up to Consuela, with a good deal of unofficial assistance from Tamara, to find out the connection. The third-person narrative allows the reader access to information before the detectives, so we meet a couple of mysterious characters that we know must be involved in some way, but it’s not till the end that all the different strands come together and make sense. I felt as if I was floundering a bit halfway through and feared it was all going to be too much to pull together credibly, but Daws does a great job of showing how all the different parts are ultimately connected. 

Robert Daws

This is settling down to be a very good series. It’s not at all cosy, but it avoids a reliance on shock twists, gore and angst-ridden detectives. Swearing is kept to a minimum, professionals behave professionally, plots are complicated and intriguing but also solid and credible. It’s not obsessed with the fashionable and grossly overused subjects of the day – race, gender and identity issues – which is a boon and a blessing to personkind! And the unique setting provides an added level of interest. Each book acts perfectly as a standalone so there’s no particular need to read them in order. I do hope Daws’ acting commitments allow him to keep finding the time to write – he’s as good at each job as the other!

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 330…

Episode 330

Running late… no time for GIF searching. Just time to say, TBR up 2 to 175! 

Here are a few more I should get to soon… 

Science Fiction

The Origins of Science Fiction edited by Michael Newton

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Another in their lovely hardback series, many of which are anthologies of classic horror or science fiction, all with OWC’s trademark introductions and notes. I’ve loved all the ones I’ve read so far, so have high hopes for this one…

The Blurb says: This anthology provides a selection of science-fiction tales from the close of the ‘Romantic’ period to the end of the First World War. It gathers together classic short stories, from Edgar Allan Poe’s playful hoaxes to Gertrude Barrows Bennett’s feminist fantasy. In this way, the book shows the vitality and literary diversity of the field, and also expresses something of the potent appeal of the visionary, the fascination with science, and the allure of an imagined future that characterised this period. An excellent resource for those interested in science fiction, and also an essential volume for understanding the development of the genre.

In his introduction, Michael Newton draws together literary influences from Jonathan Swift to Mary Shelley, the interest in the irrational and dreaming mind, and the relation of the tales to the fact of Empire and the discoveries made by anthropology. He also considers how the figure of the alien and non-human ‘other’ complicated contemporary definitions of the human being.

Fiction

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy

Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing via NetGalley. No reason for this one – I just liked the sound of the blurb. And I love the cover, though of course I’d never be shallow enough to allow that to sway me… 😉

The Blurb says: Cushla Lavery lives with her mother in a small town near Belfast. At twenty-four, she splits her time between her day job as a teacher to a class of seven-year-olds, and regular bartending shifts in the pub owned by her family. It’s here, on a day like any other – as the daily news rolls in of another car bomb exploding, another man shot, killed, beaten or left for dead – that she meets Michael Agnew, an older (and married) barrister who draws her into his sophisticated group of friends.

When the father of a young boy in her class becomes the victim of a savage attack, Cushla is compelled to help his family. But as her affair with Michael intensifies, political tensions in the town escalate, threatening to destroy all she is working to hold together.

As tender as it is unflinching, Trespasses is a masterfully executed and intimate portrait of those caught between the warring realms of the personal and political, rooted in a turbulent and brutally imagined moment of history – where it’s not just what you do that matters, but what you are.

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Fiction

Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda

One obliquely for my Spanish Civil War challenge. I loved the only other book I’ve read by this author – In Diamond Square – and was tempted to add this one by Jane’s review. It isn’t directly about the war but Jane tells us that “the cover blurb says that it can be seen ‘as an allegory for life under a dictatorship’”. It sounds totally weird and possibly wonderful… or possibly not! We’ll see…

The Blurb says: Death in Spring is a dark and dream-like tale of a teenage boy’s coming of age in a remote village in the Catalan mountains; a place cut off from the outside world, where cruel customs are blindly followed, and attempts at rebellion swiftly crushed. When his father dies, he must navigate this oppressive society alone, and learn how to live in a place of crippling conformity.

Often seen as an allegory for life under a dictatorship, Death in Spring is a bewitching and unsettling novel about power, exile, and the hope that comes from even the smallest gestures of independence.

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Dalziel and Pascoe on Audio

Arms and the Women by Reginald Hill read by Jonathan Keeble

Continuing my slow re-read of my favourite police procedural series, this is Book 18, and we’re now reaching the later books I’ve only read a couple of times before, so am vague about the plots. I have a feeling this one falls into the lighter category – more humour and less concentration on social issues. But I could be wrong! We’ll see!

The Blurb says: Ellie Pascoe is a novelist, former campus radical, overprotective mother–and as an inspector’s wife, on high alert of suspicious behaviour. When she thwarts an abduction plot, her husband, Peter, and his partner, Andrew Dalziel, assume a link to one of their past cases. An attack on Ellie’s best friend, Daphne, and a series of threatening letters from Ellie’s foiled kidnappers prove them wrong. Packed off to an isolated seaside safe place, Ellie, Daphne, and their bodyguard, DC Shirley Novello, aren’t about to lie in wait for the culprits’ next move. They’re on the offensive. No matter how calculated their plot of retaliation is, they have no idea just how desperately someone wants Ellie out of the picture. Or how insanely epic the reasons are. 

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

A novel without a hero…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Paul Dombey is a wealthy, proud and cold man, with only one desire – to have a son to bear his name and to carry on the business he has built. His downtrodden wife has already given him a daughter, Florence, but what use is a daughter? What good is she in business? However, finally the son arrives – young Paul, who within a few hours will be motherless as Mrs Dombey dies, almost unremarked by anyone except the broken-hearted Florence. This is the tale of young Paul’s life…

Well, at least so the title would suggest. And for the first third of the book we do indeed follow Paul, as he grows into a weakly child and is sent off to school in Brighton where it is hoped the sea air will restore his health. *spoiler alert* Alas! ‘Tis not to be. Our little hero dies and we are left with a huge gaping hole, possibly in our hearts (I certainly sobbed buckets!), and most definitely in the book!

Dickens quickly regroups and from then on Florence is our central character and she does her best, poor little lamb. But Dickens’ heroines are only allowed a little latitude for heroism. They must be sweet, pure, loving and put-upon, and they must rely on male friends and acquaintances, mostly, for help in their many woes. So Dickens promptly introduces a new hero – young Walter Gay, nephew of Solomon Gills who owns a shop dealing in ship’s instruments. Walter promptly falls in love with Florence (they are both still children at this stage) and sets out to be her chief support and defender. For alas, although she is now Dombey’s only child, this merely makes him resent her even more. So we, the readers, mop up our tears over Paul and get ready to take Walter to our hearts instead. And what does Dickens do then? Promptly sends Walter to Barbados on a sailing ship so that he disappears for years, and for most of the rest of the book! I love Dickens, but I must admit he annoys me sometimes!

Book 5 of 80

You’ll have gathered that I don’t think this is the best plotted of Dickens’ books. I had some other quibbles too – unlikely friendships, inconceivable romantic attachments, less humour than usual, especially in the first section. However, as always, there’s lots to love too. Florence, despite the restrictions placed on her, shows herself to be strong, resilient and intelligent. She is pathetic in her longing for her revolting father’s love, but that’s not an unreasonable thing for a child to be pathetic about. I’ll try to avoid more spoilers, but she does take control of her own future to a greater degree than most of Dickens’ heroines, and Dickens gives her a lovely dog, Diogenes, which allows her to have some love and cheerfulness in her lonely life.

In fact, there are a lot of rather good women in this one – good as characters, I mean, rather than morally good. I think they’re more interesting than the men for once. There’s Polly Toodles, young Paul’s wet nurse who is loved by both the children and has plenty of room in her generous heart for a couple of extra children despite her own large brood. Through her and her husband, we see the building of the railways in progress and Dickens is always excellent on the subject of industrialisation and the changes it brings to places and ways of life.

Then there’s Mrs Louisa Chick, Dombey’s sister, and her friend, Miss Lucretia Tox who is a beautifully tragic picture of faded gentility – a romantic heart with no one who wants the love she would so like to give. Although she’s a secondary character, I found her story quietly heart-breaking. Susan Nipper, Florence’s maid, is a bit of a comedy character, but again she is strong and resourceful, and loyal to her mistress, as indeed Florence is loyal to her. They provide an interesting picture of two women from very different classes and levels of education who nevertheless find themselves in solidarity against an unfair world. Mrs Pipchin, Paul’s landlady in Brighton, is not cruel to the children exactly, but she is cold and grasping – it’s all about the money with her.

A major character later in the book is Edith Granger, whom Dombey condescendingly decides to marry. She reminded me very much of Estella in Great Expectations, in that she had been brought up to fulfil a purpose not of her own choosing; in her case, to marry a rich man. Mostly her inward struggle is portrayed very well. However, some of her actions seemed not just illogical but frankly unbelievable, so that I found my sympathy for her waning over the course of the book. And possibly the strongest female character is Alice, whom, since she appears only quite late on and is central to the book’s climax, I can’t say much about at all without spoilers, except that she is righteously full of rage and out for revenge, and Dickens does vengeful women brilliantly!

Oh, there are some men in it too, but I’ve run out of space! Maybe I’ll talk about them the next time I read the book… 😉

Charles Dickens

Overall, I didn’t think this one worked as well as his very best in terms of plotting and structure, and I felt the absence of a hero for most of the book left it feeling a bit unfocused. But as always I loved the writing, and the huge cast of characters provide us with everything from comedy to cold-hearted cruelty, with a healthy dash of sentimental romance along the way. The oppressed position of women is a central theme – from Florence’s dismissal from her father’s love for the sin of being born female, through Edith being as good as sold into marriage, to Alice’s story and the reasons for her fury against one man in particular but also against the society that looks the other way or blames the woman when women are mistreated by men. I’d almost suggest Dickens was being a bit of a feminist here! Not one of my top favourites, but a very good one nevertheless, and as always, highly recommended!

Amazon UK Link

Classics Club Round-Up 4 – English

When I joined the Classics Club back in June 2016, I created a list of 90 books which I planned to read and review during the next five years. I divided the original list into five sections: American, English, Scottish, Crime and Science Fiction. So rather than trying to summarise the whole thing in one post, I’ve decided to give each section a post to itself as I complete it. Here’s the fourth…

THE ENGLISH SECTION

When it comes to the Classics, English is my comfort zone. In my day, it was English literature we were primarily taught in school, with a sprinkling of American and almost no Scottish. The same applies to history. The result is that I understand classic English literature without having to work at it, and I understand the social, cultural and historical background. So when I pick up an English classic, I am conditioned to enjoy it, and almost always do. More objectively, I also happen to think that the English have given us some of the greatest writers and finest fiction in the history of the world.

The result of my predisposition towards classic English literature is that this section is heavily weighted towards the good and the great. This was helped by the fact that it contained several re-reads of old favourites, and included five Dickens novels. Anyone who’s visited my blog for any length of time can’t fail to be aware of my abiding love for Dickens!

Starting with the bad and working up towards the good then – the quotes are from my reviews:

ABANDONED AND REPLACED

I abandoned no books in this section. I replaced two, but only to make room for two that hadn’t been on my original list that I read along the way and wanted to add. The two that I bumped to make room would both have been re-reads, and will no doubt be re-read again some time in the future:

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens was replaced by The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens.

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene was replaced by Middlemarch by George Eliot.

THE BAD ONES

Bad is, of course, a subjective term…

No Name by William Wilkie Collins – “As always, I came away with the impression that Collins was trying to ‘do a Dickens’ and was failing pretty dramatically.”

Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp – “Sharp clearly felt stupid is a synonym for funny. We’ll have to agree to differ on that.”

THE MIDDLING ONES

Middlemarch by George Eliot – “A book that engaged my intellect more than my emotions and, in the end, failed to make me care about the outcomes for the people with whom I’d spent so much time.”

The African Queen by CS Forester – “Do people change as rapidly as these two do, even in extreme circumstances? Hmm, perhaps, but I wasn’t entirely convinced.”

THE GOOD ONES

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens – “…this is one where the individual parts may not come together as well as in his greatest novels, but it’s well worth reading anyway, for the riots and for the interest of seeing Dickens experiment with the historical novel as a form.”

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens – “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 gave this one five stars at the time, but reading back over my review I feel I was too generous, so have reduced it to four for the purposes of this summary.]

Dark deeds by the river…

Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore – “The description of the harvest itself is wonderfully done, full of warmth as Blackmore describes the age-old rituals that surround this most important point of the rural year. For this picture of farming life alone, the book is well worth reading.”

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence – “…as he finds himself struggling to develop satisfying relationships with the women with whom he becomes involved, he knows that this is at least partly due to the influence and pull of his mother’s overweening, almost romantic, love for him. Of course, this being Lawrence, this psychological question plays out largely at the sexual level.”

Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer – “And in the tradition of romances, it all ends when everyone becomes engaged to the right partner, so only those of us who have a tendency to over-analyse everything have to worry about the probable unfortunate offspring of some of the more fiery matches!”

THE GREAT ONES

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – “She may not have as much fun as Lizzie, and Edmund is not a hero I’d particularly want to marry myself, but Fanny knows what she wants and has the strength of mind and character to get it, and she deserves to be admired for that!”

Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley – “…I’d like to make a law where every scientist should be locked in a room for one week every year and be forced to read and contemplate this book, and maybe write an essay on it for public consumption before being considered for funding.”

Boris Karloff and Edward Van Sloan in Frankenstein 1931

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens – “Nell starts out rather better than a lot of Dickens’ drooping heroines. She’s a girl of spirit who loves to laugh . . . She’s not quite as strong as Kickass Kate Nickleby, but she’s certainly no Drippy Dora Copperfield either!”

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens – “Little Dorrit is perfect, hence perfectly nauseating – too good, too trembling, too quiet, too accepting, too forgiving, too much slipping and flitting about (just walk, woman, for goodness sake!), and too, too tiny. Too Dickensian, in fact!”

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy – “Had Tess been less pure of nature, she may have been able to conceal her transgression and create a second chance for herself with the besotted Angel Clare, and we see her struggle with the temptation to do this. This reader willed her to do it, her mother advised her to do it, but Tess, pure to the point of idiocy, believed in a world of fairness, where men and women would be judged by the same standards – if she could forgive, surely she could be forgiven? Poor Tess!”

Nada the Lily by H Rider Haggard – “…Haggard’s portrayal has a firm foundation in history and apparently also in the legend and folklore of the Zulu people. What I found so surprising about it is that Haggard offers the story to his British readers non-judgementally – he presents this society as it is (in his mind, at least – I have no way to gauge its accuracy) and the characters judge each other by their own standards, not by ours.”

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – “Conrad shows the devastating impact the white man had on both the society and the land of Africa, but he also shows that this devastation turns back on the coloniser, corrupting him physically and psychologically, and by extension, corrupting the societies from which he comes.”

Rebecca  by Daphne du Maurier – “The book is famously compared to Jane Eyre, but the dead Rebecca is much more vividly alive in Manderley than the madwoman in Mr Rochester’s attic ever is. She infuses every room with the strength of her personality, as our narrator flits through the house like a ghost, or like the lowliest little maid, afraid to touch anything.”

The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse – “Madeline is as soupy as ever, still thinking that each time a bunny rabbit sneezes a wee star is born. One can quite understand Bertie’s reluctance to enter into the blessed state of matrimony with her.”

The Go-Between by LP Hartley – “There is an air of nostalgia for a golden age, but below the surface brilliance the reader is aware of the rot of a rigid social code that restricts most the very people who superficially seem most privileged.”

THE BEST ONE

(Obviously it was always going to be a Dickens! If I’d excluded Dickens, either Tess or The Go-Between would have been my choice. Or Frankenstein…)

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens – “Nicholas is also more complex than most of Dickens’ young heroes. At heart he is naturally good, but he’s hot-tempered, can have a wicked sense of humour at times, is not above poking fun at the dreadful Miss Fanny Squeers, and even flirts outrageously with Miss Snevellicci. He’s tougher too – although he gets help along the way, one feels Nicholas would have been perfectly capable of making his own way in life if he had to. And he’s kind and fiercely loyal – his friendship with Smike, one of the boys from Dotheboys, is beautifully portrayed, and always has me sobbing buckets. If I was forced to fall in love with a Dickens hero, Nicholas would be the one…”

(Nicholas gets a little hot-tempered…)

* * * * *

So a wonderful section – any nation that can produce such great literature can’t be all bad! 😉

Thanks for your company on my journey!

The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley

Peril in Paris…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Jess has left her job in England rather suddenly, and in a way that means it’s advisable that she make herself scarce for a while. So she tells her brother Ben that she is coming to visit him in Paris. However, when she arrives Ben is not there, and no one in the opulent apartment building where he’s been living seems able to tell Jess where he might be. He isn’t replying to texts or phone calls, and when Jess breaks into his apartment she finds his wallet and other items that she would have expected him to take with him had he left voluntarily. All alone in a foreign country, the language of which she doesn’t speak, Jess sets out to find out what can have happened to Ben…

Jess and Ben haven’t been close for years. When they were children, their mother committed suicide and they were taken into care. Ben, good looking, always able to charm people, was quickly adopted while Jess stayed in the care system being passed from foster home to foster home. So Ben was the one who got a good education and all the opportunities in life, while Jess has had to scrabble in a series of no-hope jobs to survive. But Jess still loves her brother and has turned to him for help from time to time. Now it seems that perhaps Ben needs her help for once.

Jess is surprised that Ben can afford to live in an apartment as expensive as this one seems to be, but she soon learns that one of the other tenants, Nick, is a friend of his from his university days and got him in at a reduced rent. All the tenants in the building seem reluctant to talk about Ben and Jess soon comes to suspect that there are some kinds of dynamics going on that she doesn’t understand. And soon she begins to feel threatened, though she can’t quite work out where the threat is coming from…

This is a fast-paced page-turner which I enjoyed considerably more than the only other Foley I’ve read, The Guest List. As usual there’s too much adolescent swearing for my taste, and as well as Anglo-Saxon cursing Foley has clearly googled common French swearwords and shoehorns them in as often as she can. The writing is good, though rather simplistic – there are no great descriptions or evocations of Paris. However, for me that suited the style of story and kept the pace rocketing along. The apartment building itself is very well depicted and has some lovely Gothic touches which help to ramp up the tension.

Lucy Foley

I liked Jess as a character. She’s had a tough life so she doesn’t scare easily and she feels she can take care of herself. She’s a bit out of her depth in this city where she knows no one and doesn’t know whom she can trust, but her love for her brother gives her the courage she needs to keep searching even when things get scary. The other residents of the apartments are an unlikeable bunch, intentionally so, and secrets abound! There are alternating chapters from the viewpoints of several of the characters, and although their voices are not really distinctive enough their personalities and thoughts are, so it’s quickly easy to recognise each of them as the perspective shifts.

The story touches on some serious topics, but lightly – this is an entertainment rather than a preachy “issues” book (hurrah!). The ending, though unlikely, didn’t feel impossible, so my credulity meter stayed in the safety zone and I found it all quite satisfying.

So an entertaining thriller, certainly not cosy, but not too dark and grim either. I raced through it over a couple of days and thoroughly enjoyed it.

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

Amazon UK Link

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze

Built for one thing…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

On the run after a prison-break, Tim Sunblade stops off in a cheap motel and hires himself a ten-dollar hooker. But when Virginia shows up, all lavender eyes and sinuous limbs and expensive scent, Tim sees she’s clearly used to a much classier trade. Next day he takes her along with him, telling himself he’ll drop her somewhere when he tires of her. But his fascination with her grows, to say nothing of his lust, and anyway he needs someone to help him with the big job he’s planning. Virginia has her own reasons to get away for a while and doesn’t object at all to the idea of getting rich, so Tim’s plan suits her just fine…

A noir thriller from 1953, apparently the book went out of print for many years and the difficulty of getting hold of it added to its aura as a cult classic. It’s now been back in print for a decade or so, and seems to be pleasing its new readership just as much as its reputation suggested. Noir sometimes works for me and sometimes not, so I was intrigued to give it a try at least, especially since the audiobook narrator, Malcolm Hillgartner, has also been highly praised.

Tim is our narrator and in true noir style we know from the beginning that his story is going to end badly. Virginia is the mystery that keeps the suspense going. Will she betray him, or will she share his downfall? The more time Tim spends with her, the more addicted to her he becomes – and it is an addiction, one he often wishes he could shake, but her looks, her sensuality, even her calculating coldness all exert a growing hold over him, so that he finds he can’t face losing her. But what of her? Is there a heart underneath her hard exterior? Does Tim mean anything to her or does she simply see him as a means to an end? Does she feel any of the lust and passion Tim feels for her, or is she just very good at her profession?

Elliott Chaze

This is undoubtedly noir, but not quite as pitch black as some. Tim has a heart and Virginia is ambiguous enough for us not to be sure till quite late on whether she has too. This gives it a kind of emotional warmth despite their actions – there’s not quite the level of amorality as there is in The Postman Always Rings Twice, for instance, which is way too dark for me. Although this pair are driven by lust and money, you kinda feel they’re both deeper than that – that perhaps there are reasons they are as they are. I found myself liking them both, despite everything, and that meant I was far more interested in their fate than if I’d wholeheartedly despised them. There’s a strong feeling that they are both emotionally affected by their actions too, that guilt may not be an altogether foreign emotion to either of them, which isn’t generally the case in the blackest noir, I think.

But it’s certainly noir in that there’s no hope of a happy ending, and the sense of impending tragedy grows strongly in the latter stages. We don’t know what the tragedy will be, exactly, but there’s a kind of inexorable quality to it, as if all things are fore-ordained, and once on the path there’s no way to turn off.

You’ve never heard a siren until you’ve heard one looking for you and you alone. Then you really hear it and know what it is and understand that the man who invented it was no man, but a fiend from hell who patched together certain sounds and blends of sounds in a way that would paralyze and sicken. You sit in your living room and hear a siren and it’s a small and lonesome thing and all it means to you is that you have to listen until it goes away. But when it is after you, it is the texture of the whole world. You will hear it until you die. It tears the guts out of you like a drill against a nerve and it moves into you and expands.

The writing is great, with rather more literary qualities than a lot of pulp noir – it has more depth of characterisation and a wider focus, so that we see the world these two live in rather than being laser-focused on their lust, greed and crimes, though all those aspects are there too.

I loved it – probably my favourite noir novel, though I admit I haven’t read a lot of the genre. I also loved Malcolm Hillgartner’s narration – he is completely believable as Tim and keeps the emotional level just right, relying on little changes in speed or emphasis to increase the tension as the story moves towards its wonderfully dark climax. And one last bit of praise – isn’t it a wonderful cover? Perfect for the story and the expression on the blonde’s face is exactly Virginia.

She was a creature of moonlight, crazy as moonlight, all upthrusting radiance and hard silver dimples and hollows, built for one thing and only one thing and perfectly for that.

Great book, great narration – highly recommended!

Audible UK Link (For UK Audible members, it’s included on APlus)

TBR Thursday 329…

Episode 329

No change in the TBR this week – remaining steady on 173. This is mainly because I’ve had less time for reading since, despite my better judgement, I seem to have been obsessively watching the Depp/Heard trial. My verdict? Well, here’s a visual representation of how I see their relationship…

(The wonderful Andy Capp drawn by cartoonist Reg Smythe)

Here are a few more I should be battling with soon… 

Crime

The Murder Rule by Dervla McTiernan

Courtesy of HarperCollins. Dervla McTiernan is one of those authors I’ve been meaning to try for years but have never managed to fit in, so I was pleased when this one popped through my letterbox from the good people at HarperCollins. Happily too, it’s a standalone, so I’m not going to be jumping into the middle of an established series!

The Blurb says: For fans of the compulsive psychological suspense of Ruth Ware and Tana French, a mother daughter story—one running from a horrible truth, and the other fighting to reveal it—that twists and turns in shocking ways, from the internationally bestselling author of The Scholar and The Ruin.

First Rule: Make them like you.

Second Rule: Make them need you.

Third Rule: Make them pay.

They think I’m a young, idealistic law student, that I’m passionate about reforming a corrupt and brutal system.

They think I’m working hard to impress them.

They think I’m here to save an innocent man on death row.

They’re wrong. I’m going to bury him.

Fiction

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruif Zafón

One for my sadly neglected Spanish Civil War challenge. There’s every possibility I’ll hate this because of the fantasy elements, but there’s also every possibility I’ll love it if the zillions of glowing reviews can be depended on! We shall see!

The Blurb says: Barcelona, 1945: A city slowly heals from its war wounds, and Daniel, an antiquarian book dealer’s son who mourns the loss of his mother, finds solace in a mysterious book entitled The Shadow of the Wind, by one Julian Carax. But when he sets out to find the author’s other works, he makes a shocking discovery: someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book Carax has written. In fact, Daniel may have the last of Carax’s books in existence. Soon Daniel’s seemingly innocent quest opens a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets–an epic story of murder, madness, and doomed love.

* * * * *

Adventure

Biggles Defends the Desert by Capt. W.E. Johns

OK, you have no idea the trouble I’ve had trying to fill the annoying Desert box on my Wanderlust Bingo challenge! I have searched and acquired and abandoned and searched, and I’m at the point of despair. So then I remembered Biggles! I loved Biggles so much as a child, and that heroic pilot and his faithful team went everywhere making the world a better, safer place by beating mostly the Germans, but also anyone else who didn’t realise the British way of life is best, the British upper lip is the stiffest, and Britain rules supreme! Oops, sorry – anyway, I was sure he must have fought somebody in at least one desert in his time (and the book will be quick and short) and I wonder if I’ll still love him… I suspect I probably will!

The Blurb says: It’s the Second World War and Biggles is in the desert, defending the vital air-route from the West coast of Africa to the Middle East. Urgent stores, dispatches and important officials and officers are regularly flown over this route, but lately a number of planes have unaccountably failed to arrive at their destinations. They’ve disappeared on route and Biggles is there to find out why – and stop it happening again.

* * * * *

Rebus on Audio

Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin read by James Macpherson

The fact that I am about to listen to the very first Rebus book, a series second only to the Dalziel and Pascoe books in my affections, and all narrated by the wonderful James Macpherson, SHOULD NOT be taken to mean that I intend to listen to the entire series in order! I mean, there are 23 of them and still counting, so it would be silly – extremely silly – to embark on such a task….

The Blurb says: ‘And in Edinburgh of all places. I mean, you never think of that sort of thing happening in Edinburgh, do you…?’ ‘That sort of thing’ is the brutal abduction and murder of two young girls. And now a third is missing, presumably gone to the same sad end. Detective Sergeant John Rebus, smoking and drinking too much, his own young daughter spirited away south by his disenchanted wife, is one of many policemen hunting the killer. And then the messages begin to arrive: knotted string and matchstick crosses – taunting Rebus with pieces of a puzzle only he can solve. 

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

The underrated heroine…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Fanny Price, daughter of a woman who married beneath her and a feckless drunken father, is one of many siblings, all living in relative poverty in Portsmouth. When Mrs Price appeals to her sisters for assistance, they hatch the plan of taking Fanny into their own care, thus relieving Mrs Price of the need to provide for her. Fanny is promptly transplanted from all she has ever known to the, to her, huge house of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, to be brought up alongside their daughters, although always as the poor relation. Here Fanny will grow up, treated kindly to a degree, but expected always to defer to her cousins and to be grateful to her uncle and aunts. Sir Thomas also has two sons, already almost grown up when Fanny joins the family, and the younger of these, Edmund, will become her protector and friend. And Fanny’s lonely little heart will respond to his true kindness…

(What follows is mildly spoilery, but I think we all know how every Austen novel ends…)

Fanny is a shy and self-effacing soul, and her modesty, lack of ready wit and frequent moralising mean that she’s often treated as the least of Austen’s heroines. I’ve always had a soft spot for her, though, and for the novel as a whole, which may not have the sparkling charm of Pride and Prejudice or Northanger Abbey but in some ways gives a broader view of the society within which Austin lived and wrote.

There’s no doubt that Fanny’s quietness and strong moral values do make her harder to warm to as quickly as a Lizzie Bennet or even an Anne Elliot. But she’s deceptively strong-willed and even defiant of the passive role demanded of all women to some degree, but especially of the poor relation, dependent on charity. As a contrast to Anne Elliot, famously persuaded by her relatives to refuse the man she loved, Fanny is clear in her own mind that love is the only foundation for a marriage, and refuses to be forced into a match her relatives think is not just suitable, but wildly above what she could have reasonably hoped for.

Of course, she takes it for granted, being a sensible little thing, that one should only fall in love with a respectable and wealthy young man – she has the example of her mother’s downfall to remind her of the perils of marrying an unsuitable man. And she’s also protected from the dangers of falling for the first man to admire her because she has already given her heart to Edmund. Nonetheless, she has to be admired for standing firm and demanding her right to make her own decisions.

It’s not only on the marital question that she shows that firmness of character, or stubbornness, if one wants to be less kind about it. All through her story she refuses to compromise her own moral judgements by acceding to the wishes of the more assertive characters by whom she’s surrounded, on small issues as well as large. It’s understandable that the people around her find her annoying sometimes, and I’m sure I would too if she were a friend or relative of mine, but as a character it makes her considerably more interesting than some of the more pathetic women in 19th century literature.

Book 90 of 90
Finished!

Intriguingly she doesn’t just live by a pre-determined set of morals handed to her by her society – she thinks deeply about right and wrong, and comes to her own conclusions. Commentary on the book suggests Austen was using this to show the rise of Evangelical Christianity at the time – it’s not something I know much about, but I find it a convincing argument. To me, the more important aspect is that, while she outwardly defers to Edmund’s more educated and experienced outlook on questions of religion and morality, in fact it is she who influences and strengthens his views. He comes to recognise her moral strength in time, but Fanny is far too clever to ever let him suspect that she is deliberately setting out to mould him into her ideal of manhood. Perhaps Fanny doesn’t even realise herself that that’s what she’s doing, but there’s no doubt in my mind who will make all the important decisions for them both throughout their lives, once she finishes training him!

The outside world plays a role in the book too, though mostly off stage. Sir Thomas’ long absence in his plantation means that much has been written regarding whether the book can be interpreted as supporting or opposing slavery. In my opinion it does neither – it merely recognises that at that time many families in Britain owed their wealth to slavery, a simple truth. What we do see though is the role of men as landowners and householders, the suitable career options for the non-aristocratic wealthy, and the changing views on the Church as a sinecure for younger sons. We are also reminded of the restricted circumstances of this class of women, though interestingly all of the younger women in the book rebel against these in one way or another. Most of these rebellions end in social disaster for the women involved, but the book gives little sense of moral disapproval of their attempts to break free. Austen seems to disapprove of the silly ways they go about it rather than of the idea of rebellion itself. She uses Fanny to show how quiet, determined rebellion can be more successful than flamboyant gestures, and she largely reserves her disapproval for the men.

Jane Austen

As always, there’s far too much in any of these major classics to discuss in a reasonable length blog post, so I’ll finish with one last thing that I particularly enjoy about this book – that Austen takes us out of wealthy society to visit Fanny’s parents’ home in Portsmouth, showing us this naval town during the Napoleonic era, and allowing Fanny to recognise the comforts that wealth provides. Again I’d love to claim that Austen was making some point other than that money is a Good Thing, but I fear she isn’t. She does make it clear that wealth doesn’t guarantee health or happiness, but she doesn’t mawkishly pretend that poverty, even the relative poverty of Fanny’s family, is in any way romantic or better.

One of my favourite Austens (but then I say that about them all), and one that is often overlooked or underrated. She may not have as much fun as Lizzie, and Edmund is not a hero I’d particularly want to marry myself, but Fanny knows what she wants and has the strength of mind and character to get it, and she deserves to be admired for that!

Amazon UK Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my recent reading in quotes…

….There was a line-up at the luggage counter, and they took their places at the end of it. To Mrs. Hamilton, who was quick to sense atmosphere, the big room had an air of excitement gone stale, anticipation soured by reality.
….Journey’s end, she thought. She felt stale and sour herself, and the feeling reminded her of Virginia; Virginia at Christmas time, the year she was eight. For weeks and weeks the child had dreamed of Christmas, and then on Christmas morning she had awakened and found that Christmas was only another day. There were presents, of course, but they weren’t, they never could be, as big and exciting and mysterious as the packages they came in. In the afternoon Virginia had wept, rocking herself back and forth in misery.
….“I want my Christmas back again. I want my Christmas!” Mrs Hamilton knew now that what Virginia had wanted back were the wild and wonderful hopes, the boxes unopened, the ribbons still in bows.

~ Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

* * * * *

From Churchill’s tribute in the House to Neville Chamberlain, on his death…

….At the lychgate we may all pass our own conduct and our own judgments under a searching review. It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with the shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.

~ Their Finest Hour by Winston Churchill

* * * * *

….Emily Gaunt was coming down the stairs to her bedroom, fresh from her bath. Emily Gaunt was a pleasant person, well-proportioned, and, for a housemaid, unusually fair to see. Her eyes, like her hair, were a very dark brown, and there was a certain refinement in her features. Her hair was hanging about her shoulders and her face – usually pale – was rosy from her bath. In the absence of a dressing-gown or kimono, she wore an old coat of Cook’s over her night-gown. Cook was skinny and Emily was plump, so that Cook’s coat was far from meeting where it ought to have met. There was a great deal of Emily’s neck and Emily’s night-gown to be seen.
….Stephen, so far, had taken little notice of Emily, except that one evening he had smiled at her for some reason and she had smiled at him; but at this moment, in the special circumstances of this lovely evening, she seemed in his eyes surprisingly desirable. In the half-light from the dining-room it was easy to forget that she was a servant. She was merely a warm young female creature, plump and comely, and scantily clad.
….And there was no one else in the house.

~ The House by the River by A.P. Herbert

* * * * *

….She turned back into the room, and going to her writing-table laid Mrs. Fairford’s note before her, and began to study it minutely. She had read in the “Boudoir Chat” of one of the Sunday papers that the smartest women were using the new pigeon-blood notepaper with white ink; and rather against her mother’s advice she had ordered a large supply, with her monogram in silver. It was a disappointment, therefore, to find that Mrs. Fairford wrote on the old-fashioned white sheet, without even a monogram—simply her address and telephone number. It gave Undine rather a poor opinion of Mrs. Fairford’s social standing, and for a moment she thought with considerable satisfaction of answering the note on her pigeon-blood paper. Then she remembered Mrs. Heeny’s emphatic commendation of Mrs. Fairford, and her pen wavered. What if white paper were really newer than pigeon blood? It might be more stylish, anyhow. Well, she didn’t care if Mrs. Fairford didn’t like red paper—SHE did! And she wasn’t going to truckle to any woman who lived in a small house down beyond Park Avenue…

~ The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

* * * * *

….The sea was no longer oil-smooth. Little waves were forming on the tops of the swell, making patterns of white as they broke. I knew I hadn’t much time. I cupped my hands round my mouth and shouted: “Mary Deare! Ahoy! Is there anybody on board?” A gull shifted his stance uneasily on one of the ventilators, watching me with a beady eye. There was no answer, no sound except the door to the after deck-house slatting back and forth, regular as a metronome, and the bump of the lifeboat against the port side. It was obvious that she was deserted. All the evidence of abandonment was there on the deck – the empty falls, the stray pieces of clothing, a loaf lying in the scuppers, a hunk of cheese trampled into the deck, a half-open suitcase spilling nylons and cigarettes, a pair of sea boots; they had left her in a hurry and at night.
….But why?
….A sense of unease held me for a moment – a deserted ship with all its secrets, all its death-in-life stillness – I felt like an intruder and glanced quickly back towards Sea Witch. She was no bigger than a toy now in the leaden immensity of sea and sky, and the wind was beginning to moan through the empty ship – hurry! hurry!

~ The Wreck of the Mary Deare by Hammond Innes

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So… are you tempted?

I Have Something to Tell You by Susan Lewis

Mid-life crises…

🙂 🙂

Edward Blake drops his wife Vanessa at the station in the morning, as she is off to visit a friend in London. That evening he returns from work to his empty house, watches some TV and goes to bed. Next morning he discovers his wife’s body in the guest room, murdered. Not surprisingly the police find this story hard to believe, especially when the London friend denies all knowledge of a planned visit, and Edward is arrested. Enter Jessica “Jay” Wells, criminal defence solicitor, who will gradually discover that Vanessa had many secrets, one of which may have got her killed…

An interesting premise and the first 150 pages or so are very good as we gradually discover more about Edward and Vanessa’s marriage, and the possible suspect list grows as some of Vanessa’s secrets are revealed. The writing is good, and while all the characters are terribly middle-class in a trendy liberal sort of way, they’re reasonably well drawn.

And then Jay’s husband says those fateful words – “I have something to tell you” – and suddenly we’re thrust into a marriage teetering on the brink of breakdown, full of guilt and reproaches and tears and shouting and, from me, yawning. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a contemporary heroine in want of a good husband must instead be landed with an unfaithful jerk, and furthermore that her response will almost inevitably be to respond in kind. Ask me how interested I am in middle-aged people having sex – no, on second thoughts, guess. This tedious storyline takes up more space than the murder, overwhelming the entire second half of the book.

(To be fair, the book is in no way graphic and we are rarely taken inside any of the well-used bedrooms, but, oh boy, even when Jay’s not actually doing sex, she spends an awful lot of time thinking about it. Can we please have some professional female characters who are ruled by their heads, not their hormones? Is that too much to ask? If even women writers show women as unable to perform professional roles professionally, what hope is there for us?)

With so much adulterous hanky-panky going on throughout, it is somewhat ironic that the ending should turn out to be quite such an anti-climax – the earth barely trembled for this reader. The enormous length also gives plenty of time for even the least competent armchair ‘tec (i.e., me) to work out the “twist”. I did see that coming!

The thing is there’s a good story in here and, as I said before, the writing is fine. Had the book been cut by about 150-200 pages to remove most of the relationship nonsense it could have been excellent and, without getting into spoiler territory, it would have meant the solution could have been presented in a much more tense and surprising way. As it is, it’s a flabby 500 pages that began to lose my interest about a third of the way in and eventually had me skimming through all the descriptions of Jay’s feelings of betrayal, romantic longings and adolescent lust love. I kept going because I was interested enough to see how it played out but sadly in the end felt it hadn’t really been worth the time invested.

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

Amazon UK Link

Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen by PG Wodehouse

The Maiden Eggesford horror…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Bertie Wooster wakes one morning to find he has developed pink spots on his chest, his doctor orders him off to the country to rest. Aunt Dahlia finds him a little cottage, Wee Nooke, in the village of Maiden Eggesford, where she herself is visiting at Eggesford Hall. Needless to say, idyllic though the setting is, there’s no rest to be found for poor Bertie! Not only does Aunt Dahlia want him to help her nobble a horse in the big local race, but old flame Vanessa Cook has decided that she will marry Bertie, much to his horror. Not only is she the type of girl who expects him to give up smoking and cocktails, but she also feels he would be improved by reading more poetry. And Orlo Porter, who loves Vanessa and has been spurned by her, is on the warpath.

….“Lord Chesterfield said that since he had had the full use of his reason nobody had heard him laugh. I don’t suppose you have read Lord Chesterfield’s ‘Letters To His Son’?”
….Well, of course I hadn’t. Bertram Wooster does not read other people’s letters. If I were employed in the post office I wouldn’t even read the postcards.

This was the last novel PG Wodehouse finished before his death, and it’s in the nature of a reprise of all his greatest hits. All the plots in the Jeeves and Wooster books are fundamentally the same, and that’s a large part of their charm. You know exactly what to expect and Wodehouse never fails to deliver. He repeats jokes from book to book, and yet they seem fresh every time because he’s such a master of the witty turn of phrase and his use of language is delicious.

If she ever turned into a werewolf, it would be one of those jolly breezy werewolves whom it is a pleasure to know.

The books with Aunt Dahlia in them are always my favourites. In this one, she intends to nobble Potato Chip, the racehorse owned by Vanessa’s father, because she has bet her all on Simla, owned by her host at Eggesford Hall. To achieve her aim, she arranges to steal a cat to which Potato Chip has become so deeply attached he refuses to train unless the cat is with him, and of course where better to hide a stolen cat than in Bertie’s cottage! Bertie tries to point out how ungentlemanly nobbling racehorses is, but Aunt Dahlia simply doesn’t see it that way. As Bertie has come to realise, aunts aren’t gentlemen. Mr Cook is on the warpath…

He was a red-headed chap, and my experience of the red-headed is that you can always expect high blood pressure from them in times of stress. The first Queen Elizabeth had red hair, and look what she did to Mary Queen of Scots.

PG Wodehouse

Of course, things get progressively more tangled, until the inimitable Jeeves saves the day with his usual display of inspired brilliance. Despite this having been written when Wodehouse was in his nineties, it’s right up there amongst his best. I chuckled my way through it, safe in the knowledge that all would be well. Jonathan Cecil is the perfect narrator for these books, and they are guaranteed to bring sunshine into the greyest day. It’s time they made Wodehouse available on the NHS!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

TBR Thursday 328…

Episode 328

A few books have arrived courtesy of various well-meaning publishers, plus I had a little spree to celebrate… er… Spree Day! As a result, despite some serious reading, the TBR has leapt back up by 3 to 176! I blame booksellers!

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

Winner of the People’s Choice

Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton

Well, People, a shock result this time! Calamity Town romped into a lead early on, but soon both White Nights and Death in the Tunnel started to fight back. The voting continued right through to yesterday afternoon with the lead changing several times. And the result? All three won! They all ended up with exactly the same number of votes, and even The Glass Key put in a good race though it never got into serious contention! So, the casting vote is mine. A difficult choice! I’ll probably be reading Calamity Town at some point this year anyway since it’s on my Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge. And since You’ve given me some fairly hefty ones this year so far, I’m going for the shorter of the other two.  It’ll be a July read, Great choice, People, even if You did leave me to do the hard bit… 😉 

The Blurb says: On a dark November evening, Sir Wilfred Saxonby is travelling alone in the 5 o’clock train from Cannon Street, in a locked compartment. The train slows and stops inside a tunnel; and by the time it emerges again minutes later, Sir Wilfred has been shot dead, his heart pierced by a single bullet.

Suicide seems to be the answer, even though no motive can be found. Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard thinks again when learns that a mysterious red light in the tunnel caused the train to slow down.

Finding himself stumped by the puzzle, Arnold consults his friend Desmond Merrion, a wealthy amateur expert in criminology. Merrion quickly comes up with an ‘essential brainwave’ and helps to establish how Sir Wilfred met his end, but although it seems that the dead man fell victim to a complex conspiracy, the investigators are puzzled about the conspirators’ motives as well as their identities. Can there be a connection with Sir Wilfred’s seemingly troubled family life, his highly successful business, or his high-handed and unforgiving personality? And what is the significance of the wallet found on the corpse, and the bank notes that it contained?

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Factual

The Ship Asunder by Tom Nancollas

Courtesy of Particular Books. I loved Nancollas’ first book, Seashaken Houses, the story of some of the rock lighthouses around Britain’s shores. This one sounds just as fascinating, and I’m hoping it inspires my imagination just as much… 

The Blurb says: If Britain’s maritime history were embodied in a single ship, she would have a prehistoric prow, a mast plucked from a Victorian steamship, the hull of a modest fishing vessel, the propeller of an ocean liner and an anchor made of stone. We might call her Asunder, and, fantastical though she is, we could in fact find her today, scattered in fragments across the country’s creeks and coastlines.

In his moving and original new history, Tom Nancollas goes in search of eleven relics that together tell the story of Britain at sea. From the swallowtail prow of a Bronze Age vessel to a stone ship moored at a Baroque quayside, each one illuminates a distinct phase of our adventures upon the waves; each brings us close to the people, places and vessels that made a maritime nation. Weaving together stories of great naval architects and unsung shipwrights, fishermen and merchants, shipwrecks and superstition, pilgrimage, trade and war, The Ship Asunder celebrates the richness of Britain’s seafaring tradition in all its glory and tragedy, triumph and disaster, and asks how we might best memorialize it as it vanishes from our shores.

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Fiction

Edgware Road by Yasmin Cordery Khan

Courtesy of Head of Zeus via NetGalley. No particular reason for this one – I picked it simply on the grounds that the blurb sounds quite appealing…

The Blurb says: 1981. Khalid Quraishi is one of the lucky ones. He works nights in the glitzy West End, and comes home every morning to his beautiful wife and daughter. He’s a world away from Karachi and the family he left behind.

But Khalid likes to gamble, and he likes to win. Twenty pounds on the fruit machine, fifty on a sure-thing horse, a thousand on an investment that seems certain to pay out. Now he’s been offered a huge opportunity, a chance to get in early with a new bank, and it looks like he’ll finally have his big win.

2003. Alia Quraishi doesn’t really remember her dad. After her parents’ divorce she hardly saw him, and her mum refuses to talk about her charming ex-husband. So, when he died in what the police wrote off as a sad accident, Alia had no reason to believe there was more going on.

Now almost twenty years have passed and she’s tired of only understanding half of who she is. Her dad’s death alone and miles from his west London stomping ground doesn’t add up with the man she knew. If she’s going to find out the truth about her father – and learn about the other half of herself – Alia is going to have to visit his home, a place she’s never been, and connect with a family that feel more like strangers.

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Crime

The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley

Courtesy of HarperCollins. An unsolicited one. I had a fairly lukewarm reaction to Foley’s The Guest List, but with enough enthusiasm to be interested to try her again, and the Paris setting appeals…

The Blurb says: Welcome to No.12 rue des Amants

A beautiful old apartment block, far from the glittering lights of the Eiffel Tower and the bustling banks of the Seine.

Where nothing goes unseen, and everyone has a story to unlock.

The watchful concierge
The scorned lover
The prying journalist
The naïve student
The unwanted guest

There was a murder here last night.
A mystery lies behind the door of apartment three.

Who holds the key?

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Crime

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney

One from the TBR backlog. This is currently the book that has lingered longest – I bought it in January 2013. I loved her earlier The Tenderness of Wolves, so don’t know why it’s taken me so long to finally get around to this one, though the fact that it’s 533 pages might have something to do with it…

The Blurb says: Rose Janko is missing. It has been seven years since she disappeared, and nobody said a word.

Now, following the death of his wife, her father Leon feels compelled to find her. Rumour had it she ran off when her baby boy was born with the family’s genetic disorder. Leon is not so sure. He wants to know the truth and he hires a private investigator to discover it – Ray Lovell.

Ray starts to delve deeper, but his investigation is hampered by the very people who ought to be helping him – the Jankos. He cannot understand their reluctance to help.

Why don’t they want to find Rose Janko?

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth

Family history…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Thady Quirk has lived on the estate of the Rackrent family all his life, and here sets out to tell the story of the four Rackrents who have owned the estate over that period. The introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by Kathryn J Kirkpatrick, is nearly a third as long as the entire novella, and tells us that “Castle Rackrent has gathered a dazzling array of firsts – the first regional novel, the first socio-historical novel, the first Irish novel, the first Big House novel, the first saga novel.” Whew! But the question is, is it good? And for me the answer is it’s rather underwhelming, not helped in truth by all these accolades and high-flown claims which set expectations too high.

In fact, it is a rather slight novella, taking a humorous look at the Anglo-Irish Protestants who were given land in Ireland in order to subdue the Catholic natives, but then mismanaged it through incompetence or lack of interest. The Rackrent heirs show all the fecklessness of their class, and all the different weaknesses that lead them to gradually lose their fortune and control of their estates. Spendthrifts, gamblers, drunkards – the Rackrents have one thing in common; they do nothing to improve the estate, but expect it to provide enough income to pay for their vices. We see the evils of absentee landlordism and, of course, of rack-renting – demanding extortionate rents from tenants on threat of eviction. And we see the slow downfall of the family, helped along by the manipulations of Thady’s wily son, who rises to be the estate manager and in time to help the Rackrent dynasty come to its end.

Book 4 of 80

It’s written in a form of dialect but clearly aimed at an English readership as much as Irish, so not at all difficult to read. Edgeworth has included what she calls a glossary to explain some terms and traditions which may be unfamiliar to English readers. These take the form of explanatory notes, and are interesting and quite fun, containing some anecdotes to illustrate points she raises in the novella itself.

A mildly entertaining read, then, but I feel its fame is probably mostly for all those “firsts” and for the academic analysis of what the story has to say about the period. As you can probably tell from this lacklustre review, it didn’t inspire me to lavish either praise or scorn – a couple of weeks after reading it, it has faded almost completely away.

This was the book chosen for me by the Classics Club Spin #29.

Amazon UK Link

Looking forward to…

Episode 4

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

Let’s see then…

Noon by Aatish Taseer

First reviewed 16th March 2013. This novel is semi-autobiographical, echoing the author’s own life as a young man with an Indian mother, an absent father in Pakistan, and a Western education. While it’s a little too episodic to quite hold together as a novel, I was impressed by Taseer’s insight and his effective and compelling storytelling. I said “I will certainly look out for more from this author in the future.” But did I?

I did! I read his next novel, The Way Things Were, and was delighted to find all the promise of his debut fulfilled in this huge and ambitious book, full of profound insight, brilliant characterisation and beautiful language. It uses one family as a vehicle for an intellectual contemplation on the political and cultural state of India more than half a century after Independence, and a kind of call for the country to rediscover its pre-Empire roots and build on that to move forward to a new, distinctively Indian future. Personally I feel it should have won the Booker that year, 2015, and it’s a sign of how pointless these awards are at finding the best books that it wasn’t even longlisted. Taseer seems to write more non-fiction than fiction, so I’m still patiently waiting for his next novel…

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Equilateral by Ken Kalfus

First reviewed 16th March 2013. Kalfus plays with early science fiction, empire and colonialism, and the arrogance of science in this novel about a man building a gigantic triangle in the desert sands of Egypt in order to communicate with the canal-building Martians. I said “Even the geometry becomes magical in this author’s gifted hands as the red planet reprises its eternal sci-fi role as a place of mystery and wonder.” The five stars I gave it ensured Kalfus a place on my looking-forward-to list. But did I?

I most certainly did! I’ve read everything he’s written since, and all bar one of the books on his back catalogue, and loved them all. If I had to name a single favourite contemporary writer, Kalfus would be the one. A master of the short story form as well as rather quirky novels, he ranges widely across politics, science fiction, contemporary life, but in every case the often-humorous business of being human in a messy world lies at the heart of his writing. He makes me laugh, and cry, and think, which is surely what all fine fiction should do. My only complaint about him is that he is remarkably unprolific, but I’m delighted that he has a new novel coming out in May, 2 A.M. in Little America – it’s on pre-order, of course!

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A Season for the Dead by David Hewson

First reviewed 18th March 2013. This is the first in a series set in contemporary Rome and featuring a young police detective, Nic Costa. I said “A very enjoyable read. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.” But did I?

I did! Well, at least, I read the second in the series, The Villa of Mysteries, and again enjoyed it well enough, though finding it a bit over-padded. I then read a different style of book he wrote along with AJ Hartley – a novelisation of Macbeth, and found it somewhat pretentious, failing to meet the artistic heights the authors were aiming for. It was also overly long. Then I read The Killing, Hewson’s novelisation of the hit Scandi TV series of that name. Overlong doesn’t even begin to describe it! Padded to over 700 pages, it managed to make something that had been thrilling to watch into a cure for insomnia, I’m afraid. I didn’t review it on the blog – I was too bored. I might still read another in the Nic Costa series at some point, but sadly Hewson has slipped off my must-read list.

* * * * *

Bitter Water by Gordon Ferris

First reviewed 21st March 2013. This is the second in Ferris’ four-part Douglas Brodie series, which was one of the earliest Kindle self-publishing sensations. Tartan Noir at its finest, the series is set in Glasgow in the years after WW2. Brodie, still trying to come to terms with his wartime experiences, has become a crime journalist and an unintentional amateur detective. I said “In my view, Ferris is the most exciting new Scottish crime writer on the scene” and the five star rating put Ferris firmly on my list to read more of, but did I?

I did! I had already read his earlier books about another character, Danny McRae, set in the same time period but in London, and I went on to read the remaining books in the Brodie series. While they do work as standalones, together they build to show Brodie dealing with the aftermath of war and what we would now call post-traumatic stress, and the third book in particular, Pilgrim Soul, takes us into the darkness of the Holocaust as Brodie investigates a case set among Glasgow’s Jewish community, reviving his memories of his work as an interrogator for the post-war war crimes trials. The final book, Gallowglass, has its own plot, but also lets us see whether Brodie will have the strength to find a way to live with his experiences. Really a wonderful quartet. Since then Ferris has written a couple of books set in contemporary India. I enjoyed Money Tree, though I felt it veered a little too close to the polemical, and haven’t yet read the second, Only Human. Selfishly, I wish he’d return to post-war Glasgow crime. However, he hasn’t published anything for four years now, so I’d be glad to see anything from him at this point!

* * * * *

Three favourites among this batch! No wonder I can’t keep up with my TBR! I am beginning to notice just how male my list of authors to follow is looking – hopefully a few more women will elbow their way on in future batches…

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

The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews

Evil has come…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1643, and England is in the midst of Civil War. Thomas Treadwater has been injured and is temporarily unfit for fighting, so when he receives a worrying letter from his sister he makes for home. Esther has written that their father has fallen under the influence of a girl he had taken in as a maid – Chrissa Moore. Hard for Thomas to believe since his father is a staunch Puritan with impeccable morals – not at all the type to fall into the clutches of a seductress. But Esther hints that Chrissa may have bewitched him. On arriving home, Thomas finds all the sheep on the farm dead or dying, his father struck down by apoplexy, and Chrissa in jail on the basis of Esther’s accusation of witchcraft. But is Esther telling the truth? As Thomas learns more he begins to suspect that evil has come to his father’s house… something more evil even than witchcraft…

The first half of this novel makes it seem as if it’s going to be a fairly standard story about a woman accused of witchcraft at a time of religious and social turmoil. Very well written and clearly excellently researched, there is enough mystery around Esther’s motivations for her accusations to make it interesting and compelling even in this crowded field.

But then, wow! Suddenly, about halfway through, Andrews takes it into a whole different direction – full-on supernatural horror, but soundly based on the superstitions, religious beliefs and mythology of the time. The suddenness with which this happens is jarring, or perhaps shocking would be a better word, although we have known from occasional chapters set sixty years in the future, 1703, that the events of 1643 have cast long, dark shadows, and that the story may not be over even yet. The change takes the book to an entirely different level, one where Andrews touches on some of the deep religious questions torturing England as the Reformation continues to rive the country – questions such as free will, faith, God’s plan and man’s submission to it, predestination, and the end times as foretold in the Book of Revelation. (Note to self: MUST read the Book of Revelation – it has inspired so much great literary and horror writing!)

Antichrist on Leviathan
from Liber Floridus, 1120, via wikipedia

I don’t want to go into the plot in any more detail since it’s one that works better the less you know going in. I was super-impressed by how well Andrews captured what felt like an authentic 17th century mindset, in all of her characters, but especially in Thomas. As for many others, the horrors unleashed by the Reformation in terms of persecution and war has led Thomas to question his own faith. He is a pre-Enlightenment man though he doesn’t know it, and his scepticism will play a role in how he acts. He turns for help in his troubles to his old mentor, John Milton (yes, that one), and through him we learn a little about the philosophical questions of the day. The whole thing is a fascinating imagining of what might come to pass if those parts of the Bible that sceptics call superstition and even believers think of as allegory turned out to be the literal truth. How would we respond? Is faith strong enough to enable us to submit to God’s will, or would we, with the best of intentions perhaps, try to thwart His plan?

The writing is great, as is the characterisation. Thomas, as our narrator, is the one we get to know best and it’s his confusion and moral dilemma that involves us most. But both Esther and Chrissa are wonderful creations too – Chrissa at first seeming the more complex of the two, but Esther soon revealing herself as something more than the simple innocent worried for her father that she first appears. Milton’s appearance might have seemed a bit too quirky if handled less well, but he’s not in it enough to overwhelm the story, and mostly acts as a vehicle to discuss the theological and philosophical issues of the day.

All of that might make the book sound heavy and ponderous – not at all! Andrews manages to get all this depth into what is fundamentally a thrilling horror story of the old-fashioned kind – free of graphic gore and based on the age-old debate of good versus evil, and man’s moral frailty. I wondered how much classic horror Andrews has read – some of the passages in the latter sections as the book builds to its climax put me in mind very much of the horror greats, especially the writing of William Hope Hodgson. It may be, though, that the similarity comes not from Andrews being influenced directly by these writers but by them all having been influenced by the same mythological and Biblical sources.

Rosie Andrews

I think this is a wonderful book – thrilling, thought-provoking, brilliantly achieved. I loved that Andrews put herself and her readers so firmly in the mind-set of the time and never let 21st century beliefs or attitudes distort the picture. I thought her horror writing was fantastic, creating some truly marvellous imagery. And despite my own strictly rational outlook, she immersed me in the beliefs of the time so well that I found the story credible within the world in which its set, and the ending entirely satisfactory. The thing I found hardest to believe, in fact, is that this is a debut novel, and I can’t wait to see what Andrews gives us in the future. Highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Raven Books via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link

The Z Murders by J Jefferson Farjeon

Race into danger…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Richard Temperley arrives at Euston station after an irritating journey on the night train. The man with whom he’d shared a carriage had snored loudly all night, keeping Richard awake. Now it’s three in the morning, and the porter suggests he should go to a nearby hotel where they will let him snooze in the smoking room until day properly breaks. Richard thinks this sounds like a good plan till he gets to the smoking room and discovers the snoring man has beaten him to it. But oddly the man is no longer snoring. Possibly because he’s been shot dead…

This is a thriller rather than a mystery, mostly involving long journeys across England by rail and road in pursuit of the mysterious villain who is bumping people off, apparently randomly, and leaving a small piece of enamelled metal in the shape of a Z as his calling card. The reader meets the villain long before Richard does, but although we know who he is and gradually what he’s doing, we still don’t know his motive until near the end. Richard’s motivation is much easier to understand – he caught sight of a beautiful young woman leaving the smoking room just as he went in, and he’s fearful that the police will assume she did the deed. So rather than helping the police with their enquiries like a good little citizen, he sets off to find the woman and, that achieved, to try to save her by finding out what’s going on. Meantime the police go about their business and it becomes a race as to whether the police or Richard and the woman, Sylvia Wynne, will arrive at the unknown destination first, and whether any of them will get there in time to stop the villain from fulfilling his mission.

Like a lot of thrillers, the story in this is well beyond the bounds of credibility and the villain is completely over the top in evilness. However, I really enjoyed Farjeon’s writing which in the descriptive passages is often quite literary, but in the action passages is fast-paced and propulsive. He’s very good at creating a sense of place and atmosphere, and several times he gets a real sense of creepy impending horror into the story. Richard’s exhaustion in the first chapters is very well done, leaving him a bit woozy and not thinking too clearly. Both Richard and the mysterious Sylvia are likeable characters and their dialogue is fun in that snappy style of the era, and this reader was happy to overlook Richard’s unlikely love at first sight and hope for their romance to blossom.

Challenge details:
Book:
71
Subject Heading:
Multiplying Murders
Publication Year: 19
32

As I said, the villain is over the top (Martin Edwards describes him perfectly as “lurid”), but that doesn’t prevent him from being scary! Farjeon gives the villain a disability to make him seem freakish – not unusual for that time, but not such comfortable reading now. However, it is effective even if it adds to the incredibility of his actions. He lacks all sympathy for others and in return it’s impossible for the reader to have any sympathy for him. A real baddie with no ambiguity in the characterisation, he made me shudder more than once!

J Jefferson Farjeon

Unfortunately Farjeon spoils it a bit at the end by having the villain and his accomplice reveal the motive, which has been the main mystery, through a conversation with each other, rather than either Richard or the police working it out. But the thriller aspect works well and I found the pages turning quickly as Richard and Sylvia raced towards danger. I’ve only read one Farjeon novel before, Thirteen Guests, and had a similar reaction – good writing and an interesting set-up, but let down a little by the way he resolves the mystery without the detective showing any particular brilliance. However, in this one I felt he developed a much more effective atmosphere of tension and danger that made me more willing to overlook any flaws. Overall I found it fast-paced and entertaining and, while it may not yet have made Farjeon one of my favourite vintage crime writers, I’ll certainly be happy to read more from him.

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 327 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 327

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

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OK, People, time for the next batch of four! Still in 2019, and a crime month this month, mostly vintage. I like to run three months ahead with these polls, so the winner will be a July read. I’ve had a mixed reaction to Ann Cleeves, but enjoyed the first in her Shetland series – White Nights is the second. I acquired Death in the Tunnel after enjoying another of Miles Burton’s books, The Secret of High Eldersham. I’ve enjoyed a couple of Dashiell Hammett’s books in the past, and occasional blog visitor Christophe recommended The Glass Key as one of his best. Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town is one of the books for my Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge. I’ll be quite happy to read any of these, so you really can’t go wrong… 😉

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Crime

White Nights by Ann Cleeves

Added 24th February 2019. 23,244 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.01 average rating. 392 pages.

The Blurb says: It’s midsummer in the Shetland Islands, the time of the white nights, when birds sing at midnight and the sun never sets. Artist Bella Sinclair throws an elaborate party to launch an exhibition of her work at The Herring House, a gallery on the beach.

The party ends in farce when one the guests, a mysterious Englishman, bursts into tears and claims not to know who he is or where he’s come from. The following day the Englishman is found hanging from a rafter, and Detective Jimmy Perez is convinced that the man has been murdered. He is reinforced in this belief when Roddy, Bella’s musician nephew, is murdered, too.

But the detective’s relationship with Fran Hunter may have clouded his judgment, for this is a crazy time of the year when night blurs into day and nothing is quite as it seems.

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Vintage Crime

Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton

Added 24th February 2019. 611 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.48 average. 190 pages.

The Blurb says: On a dark November evening, Sir Wilfred Saxonby is travelling alone in the 5 o’clock train from Cannon Street, in a locked compartment. The train slows and stops inside a tunnel; and by the time it emerges again minutes later, Sir Wilfred has been shot dead, his heart pierced by a single bullet.

Suicide seems to be the answer, even though no motive can be found. Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard thinks again when learns that a mysterious red light in the tunnel caused the train to slow down.

Finding himself stumped by the puzzle, Arnold consults his friend Desmond Merrion, a wealthy amateur expert in criminology. Merrion quickly comes up with an ‘essential brainwave’ and helps to establish how Sir Wilfred met his end, but although it seems that the dead man fell victim to a complex conspiracy, the investigators are puzzled about the conspirators’ motives as well as their identities. Can there be a connection with Sir Wilfred’s seemingly troubled family life, his highly successful business, or his high-handed and unforgiving personality? And what is the significance of the wallet found on the corpse, and the bank notes that it contained?

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Vintage Crime

The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett

Added 24th February 2019. 11,647 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.94 average. 214 pages. 

The Blurb says: Paul Madvig was a cheerfully corrupt ward-heeler who aspired to something better: the daughter of Senator Ralph Bancroft Henry, the heiress to a dynasty of political purebreds. Did he want her badly enough to commit murder? And if Madvig was innocent, which of his dozens of enemies was doing an awfully good job of framing him? Dashiell Hammett’s tour de force of detective fiction combines an airtight plot, authentically venal characters, and writing of telegraphic crispness. [FF says: What on earth is a ward-heeler?]

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Vintage Crime

Calamity Town by Ellery Queen

Added 16th March 2019. 535 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.77 average. 290 pages.

The Blurb says: At the tail end of the long summer of 1940, there is nowhere in the country more charming than Wrightsville. The Depression has abated, and for the first time in years the city is booming. There is hope in Wrightsville, but Ellery Queen has come looking for death.

The mystery author is hoping for fodder for a novel, and he senses the corruption that lurks beneath the apple pie façade. He rents a house owned by the town’s first family, whose three daughters star in most of the local gossip. One is fragile, left at the altar three years ago and never recovered. Another is engaged to the city’s rising political star, an upright man who’s already boring her. And then there’s Lola, the divorced, bohemian black sheep. Together, they make a volatile combination. Once he sees the ugliness in Wrightsville, Queen sits back — waiting for the crime to come to him.

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

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VOTE NOW!

(Click on title and then remember to also click on Vote, or your vote won’t count!)

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