FictionFan’s Book Reviews

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Tuesday Terror! Mad Maudlin by Rosy Thornton

Buffering…please wait…

sandlands

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

Tuesday Terror 2

Mad Maudlin
by Rosy Thornton

Rosy Thornton
Rosy Thornton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There the woman sits, singing…

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

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

buffering* * * * * * *

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

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

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

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

Film of the Book: Moby Dick

Directed by John Huston (1956)

moby-dick-poster-2

From the book review:

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

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

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

Film of the Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orson Welles thundering...
Orson Welles thundering…

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

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

moby-dick-st-elmos-fire-2

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

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

Thar she blows!
Thar she blows!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

moby-dick-dvd

THE FILM!

* * * * *

The Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer

Murder as performance art…

🙂 🙂 🙂

the-beautiful-deadTV reporter Eve Singer is on the crime beat, so she’s called to the scene of a brutal murder committed in the foyer of an office building, just feet from where people are passing by on the pavement outside. This is a murderer who likes to perform his gory crimes in public, and then stage them as if it were some kind of performance art. When he makes contact with Eve, at first it seems like a great thing – she’ll have the exclusive story and it will give her career a much needed boost. But soon she realises that she’s becoming caught up in the murderer’s schemes, almost to the point of becoming an accessory…

First off, let me say that I love Belinda Bauer. And this book has in it many of the things I love her for – the great writing, touches of humour, some nice building of suspense and an original and dramatic climax. However, for me, this isn’t one of her best. It feels derivative – there are touches of Hannibal and Clarice in the relationship between Eve and the killer, and heavy shades of Psycho over the storyline. Perhaps there’s not much new left to say in the serial killer novel – certainly it’s been a while since I read one that felt fresh. But the derivations in this one seemed so blatant that I wondered at points if she was deliberately referencing some of the greats as a kind of inside joke, but if so, it didn’t quite come off, and simply ended up feeling rather unoriginal.

The structure also doesn’t feel up to Bauer’s usual standard. We are given biographies of the characters rather than being allowed to get to know them through the plot – whatever happened to ‘show, don’t tell’? Eve’s father suffers from dementia and this is used partly to give some humour to the book – always tricky with such a sensitive subject and I felt it occasionally passed over into tastelessness. And while I thought the portrayal of his dementia was well done for most of the book, when it became part of the plotting in the later stages it crossed the credibility line and began to feel contrived and inauthentic, and I found myself feeling that this awful disease was being used for entertainment purposes rather than being given the empathy it deserves. The humour didn’t work as well for me as usual, I didn’t take to Eve much, and the amount of lazy swearing throughout became utterly tedious, not to mention Eve’s need to vomit every time a corpse turned up.

Belinda Bauer
Belinda Bauer

On the upside, there are passages where Bauer achieves that delicious feeling of creepiness, for example, when Eve thinks she’s being followed home in the dark, and it does have a great thriller ending which redeemed it a little in my eyes. I was also pleased that this murderer was pretty eclectic in his choice of victims, not exclusively butchering vulnerable young women. But overall, this is one I’m going to put down to an off day, and go back to waiting avidly for her next offering. I’ve given it three stars but, in truth, I think one of those stars is from a mixture of loyalty and the feeling that I may be judging it too harshly because of my perhaps overly high expectations. Because, despite this one, I do love Belinda Bauer. I can’t help wondering in general if the pressure to get a new book out every year is really a good thing in the long run…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 108…

Episode 108…

Phew! No further increase to the TBR this week, but no decrease either – stable on 194! I’m sure it’ll start to fall dramatically soon…

So here are a few more that should reach the top of the heap soonish…

Factual

the-travelers-guide-to-spaceCourtesy of NetGalley. Recent political events at home and abroad have given me an urgent desire to emigrate to another planet, so I’m hoping this book will give me some handy pointers…

The Blurb says: Traveling into space and visiting or even emigrating to nearby worlds will soon become part of the human experience. Scientists, engineers, and investors are working hard to make space tourism a reality. As experienced astronauts will tell you, extraterrestrial travel is incomparably thrilling. To make the most of the experience requires profound physical and mental adjustments by travelers as they adapt to microgravity and alterations in virtually every aspect of life, from eating to intimacy. Everyone who goes into space and returns sees Earth and life on it from a profoundly different perspective. If you have ever wondered about space travel, now you have the opportunity to find out.

Astronomer and former NASA/ASEE scientist Neil F. Comins has written the go-to book for anyone interested in space exploration, including potential travelers. He describes the joys and the dangers travelers will face—weightlessness, unparalleled views of Earth and the cosmos, the opportunity to walk on or jump off another world, as well as radiation, projectiles, unbreathable atmospheres, and potential equipment failures. He also provides insights into specific types of travel and destinations, including suborbital flights (nonstop flights to space and back), Earth-orbiting space stations, the Moon, asteroids, comets, and Mars—the first-choice candidate for colonization. Although many challenges to space travel are technical, Comins outlines these matters in clear language for all readers. He synthesizes key issues and cutting-edge research in astronomy, physics, biology, psychology, and sociology to create a complete manual for those eager to take the ultimate voyage, as well as those just interested in the adventure.

* * * * *

Crime

the-death-of-kingsCourtesy of Mantle. The latest entry in Rennie Airth’s series of thoughtful crime novels set in England just after the Second World War featuring Inspector John Madden (adore that cover!)…

The Blurb says:  On a hot summer day in 1938, a beautiful actress is murdered on the grand Kent estate of Sir Jack Jessup, close friend of the Prince of Wales. An instant headline in the papers, the confession of a local troublemaker swiftly brings the case to a close, but in 1949, the reappearance of a jade necklace raises questions about the murder. Was the man convicted and executed the decade before truly guilty, or had he wrongly been sent to the gallows?

Inspector Madden is summoned out of retirement at the request of former Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair to re-open the case at Scotland Yard. Set in the aftermath of World War II, The Death of Kings is an atmospheric and captivating police procedural, and is a story of honour and justice that takes Madden through the idyllic English countryside, post-war streets of London, and into the criminal underworld of the Chinese Triads.

* * * * *

Fiction

rebeccaFrom my Classics Club list, a much anticipated re-read and an opportunity to do a comparison with the wonderful Hitchcock film… (is this the worst blurb you ever read?? I would never pick this book up on the basis of it – sounds like Barbara Cartland on an off day!)

The Blurb says: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…

Working as a lady’s companion, the heroine of Rebecca learns her place. Her future looks bleak until, on a trip to the South of France, she meets Max de Winter, a handsome widower whose sudden proposal of marriage takes her by surprise. She accepts, but whisked from glamorous Monte Carlo to the ominous and brooding Manderley, the new Mrs de Winter finds Max a changed man. And the memory of his dead wife Rebecca is forever kept alive by the forbidding housekeeper, Mrs Danvers…

Not since Jane Eyre has a heroine faced such difficulty with the Other Woman. An international bestseller that has never gone out of print, Rebecca is the haunting story of a young girl consumed by love and the struggle to find her identity.

* * * * *

Delightfulness

stiff-upper-lip-jeevesJonathan Cecil is brilliant at narrating the Jeeves and Wooster books so this will be delicious fun… (Total count of unlistened-to audiobooks as at today = 78. See how sneakily I snuck that in…?)

The Blurb says: When the news breaks that Madeline Bassett is engaged to Gussie Fink-Nottle, Bertie’s relief is intense. But when Madeline attempts to turn Gussie vegetarian, Bertie’s instinct for self-preservation sends him with the steadfast Jeeves on another uproariously funny mission to Sir Watkyn Bassett’s residence, Totleigh Towers.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

A fine collection…

😀 😀 😀 😀

sandlandsThis is a collection of loosely linked short stories based in the Suffolk sandlings, an area the author clearly knows and loves well. Although each story stands by itself, locations reappear frequently, and occasionally characters at the centre of one story are referred to peripherally in another, which gives the collection a feeling of wholeness – the individual pieces gradually fitting together to create a complete picture of the landscape and community of this place. Many of the stories include the wildlife of the region, either actually or symbolically – foxes, deer, owls, et al.

There is a tone of nostalgia running through the collection. Although most of the stories are set in the present day, they are often looking back at events in the past, and there is a general theme of connections across the generations. This allows Thornton to look at how the region has changed, with the collapse of many of its traditional ways of life, such as fishing; and also to look forward with a kind of fear to an uncertain future, as sea rises due to climate change threaten this low-lying coastal land.

suffolk-fox

The writing is excellent, especially when she is writing about the natural world…

As he stood he closed his eyes and let his mind trace out the melody as it rose and fell. He knew no other bird which could combine within a single phrase that round, full-throated tone like a thrush or blackbird before soaring up as impossibly high as the trilling of a skylark. But his favourite of all was a low, bubbling warble, a note so pure and liquid clear you felt refreshed to hear it, as if you had actually drunk the spring water the sound resembled, welling fresh from the rock.

Several of the stories have an air of ghostliness about them, usually mild and not the main focus, though there is one that I feel counts as a ‘proper’ ghost story, and beautifully creepy it is too! (It may well appear on a future Tuesday Terror! post.) Lots of them also read almost like folk tales, or rely on superstition for their impact. But there’s also humour in the collection, which prevents the nostalgia from becoming overly melancholic.

Rosy Thornton
Rosy Thornton

These are stories with an ending, rather than the more fragmentary style so often employed in contemporary short story writing. Normally I prefer stories with endings, but to be honest sometimes the endings here feel a little contrived, almost amounting to the dreaded “twist” on occasion. But this is my one criticism of a collection which I otherwise thoroughly enjoyed and recommend, from an author I am now keen to investigate further. As with any collection, I enjoyed some of the stories more than others – here are a few of the ones that stood out for me…

The White Doe – the first story in the collection, this tells of a woman grieving the death of her mother. The doe of the title refers both to an old folk tale and to an actual white doe, that Fran spots in the woods near her home. As the story unfolds, we learn that Fran has a personal history that in a strange way mirrors the folk tale. I found this story excellently written and frankly rather disturbing, and it set the tone of gentle unease that runs through much of the collection.

white-doe-2

The Interregnum – this is a delicious and wickedly funny tale of village life. The local parish priest is on maternity leave, so the parish brings in a ‘temp’ to cover – an unordained but highly qualified woman, Ivy. We see the story develop through the eyes of Dorothy, the elderly secretary of the parish council. Ivy, the stand-in, keeps telling the parishioners of the pagan rituals that pre-dated and were often absorbed into Christianity. Although some of her ideas seem a bit strange, the parishioners are a kind lot who go along with her ideas, until they gradually find themselves performing rites that feel, somehow, vaguely pagan. The ending of this one is also a twist, but in this case it works perfectly and left me laughing. Well-told, and a nice indicator of how Thornton can write in a variety of styles.

The Watcher of Souls is a beautiful story about Rebecca, an elderly lady in remission from cancer. During her regular walks in the woods, she becomes fascinated by a barn owl that roosts in an old, split oak tree. One day, she finds an old tin buried within the hollow of the tree, and within it are some old love letters…. The ending was one of those that felt a little too contrived for my taste, but otherwise this is a sad little story made lovely by the subtlety of the writing.

suffolk-barn-owl

Mackerel – the final story in the collection and one that in many ways sums up the themes of the book. An old woman is cooking mackerel for her favourite granddaughter, and as she does, she reminisces about the differences between her own life when she was young and her granddaughter’s life – both with entirely different aspirations and expectations, but both finding life fulfilling in their own ways. The story also talks of fishing, back when it was a way of life rather than an industry, and when mackerel was still plentiful before it was overfished almost into local extinction. A very nostalgic tale, this one, almost elegiac, as of a lifestyle lost forever. And a fine one to end on.

NB This book was kindly provided for review by the author.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell

Revenge is a dish best served Gothic…

the-old-nurses-story-cover

I had no idea Mrs Gaskell had written ghost stories till I read about it on Helen’s great blog, She Reads Novels. Helen said “I love Gaskell’s writing and this is an excellent example of a Victorian ghost story.” So of course I had to seek it out, since it sounds perfect for these dark nights and for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

The Old Nurse’s Story
by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell
Elizabeth Gaskell

The old nurse Hester is telling the children in her care a story about their own mother, whom she also nursed back when she herself was a young girl.

There never was such a baby before or since, though you’ve all of you been fine enough in your turns; but for sweet, winning ways, you’ve none of you come up to your mother. She took after her mother, who was a real lady born; a Miss Furnivall, a grand-daughter of Lord Furnivall’s, in Northumberland.

Sadly, little Miss Rosamond was orphaned when she only about four or five. On her death-bed, her mother made Hester promise never to leave the child, to which Hester willingly agreed since she was devoted to Rosamond. Now Rosamond’s guardians have arranged for them to go to live with an elderly relative of Rosamond’s mother, Miss Grace Furnivall, in a rambling old house in Northumberland…

…we saw a great and stately house, with many trees close around it, so close that in some places their branches dragged against the walls when the wind blew, and some hung broken down; for no one seemed to take much charge of the place; – to lop the wood, or to keep the moss-covered carriage-way in order. Only in front of the house all was clear. The great oval drive was without a weed; and neither tree nor creeper was allowed to grow over the long, many-windowed front; at both sides of which a wing projected, which were each the ends of other side fronts; for the house, although it was so desolate, was even grander than I expected.

the-old-nurses-story-house

At first, all is well. Miss Furnivall is old and rather grim and sad, as is her servant and life-long companion Mrs Stark, but they grow to love the child, and the servants of the house are warm and friendly, welcoming both Hester and Rosamond into their lives. But gradually strange things begin to happen…

As winter drew on, and the days grew shorter, I was sometimes almost certain that I heard a noise as if some one was playing on the great organ in the hall. I did not hear it every evening; but, certainly, I did very often, usually when I was sitting with Miss Rosamond, after I had put her to bed, and keeping quite still and silent in the bedroom. Then I used to hear it booming and swelling away in the distance. The first night, when I went down to my supper, I asked Dorothy who had been playing music, and James said very shortly that I was a gowk to take the wind soughing among the trees for music; but I saw Dorothy look at him very fearfully, and Bessy, the kitchen-maid, said something beneath her breath, and went quite white.

The servants keep up the pretence that nothing is wrong, and Hester is young and brave, so she doesn’t let it bother her. But then, one cold, snowy winter’s evening, Hester returns from church to discover that Rosamond is missing, the only clue to where she has gone her little footsteps in the snow.

the-old-nurses-story-snow

When Hester tells Miss Furnivall what has happened, she is shocked and terrified by the old lady’s reaction…

…she threw her arms up – her old and withered arms – and cried aloud, “Oh! Heaven forgive! Have mercy!”

Mrs. Stark took hold of her; roughly enough, I thought; but she was past Mrs. Stark’s management, and spoke to me, in a kind of wild warning and authority.

“Hester! keep her from that child! It will lure her to her death! That evil child! Tell her it is a wicked, naughty child.” Then, Mrs. Stark hurried me out of the room; where, indeed, I was glad enough to go; but Miss Furnivall kept shrieking out, “Oh, have mercy! Wilt Thou never forgive! It is many a long year ago”

Illustration by mgkellermeyer via Deviant Art
Illustration by mgkellermeyer via Deviant Art

* * * * * * *

Another great one this week! As soon as we get the description of the crumbling old mansion, dark and gloomy because of the crowding unkempt trees and with, of course, a wing sealed off, we know we’re in for a Gothic treat. The writing is excellent as you’d expect, perfectly suited to this style of storytelling. The story starts off slow, giving us time to grow to care about Hester and little Rosamond; and then Gaskell starts to build the tension, gradually at first with the mysterious organ playing, then bit by bit getting creepier and scarier till it reaches its dramatic climax. Along the way, it tells a dark story about pride, jealousy, sibling rivalry, guilt… and awful revenge! The moral of the story is clear…

“Alas! alas! what is done in youth can never be undone in age! What is done in youth can never be undone in age!”

So true! Thank goodness I was perfect in every way in my youth, but the rest of you must be so worried!

If you’d like to read it, (about 10,000 words), here’s a link. And thanks, Helen, for pointing me in this direction!

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

Death on the Riviera by John Bude

Sun, sea and murder…

😀 😀 😀 😀

death-on-the-rivieraInspector Meredith and his young sidekick Acting-Sergeant Freddy Strang have been sent to the Riviera to help the French police hunt down a counterfeiter – a Brit who seems to be involved in laundering fake money in the little towns along the coast. While they’re there, a murder is committed amongst some of the English people living on the Riviera, so they become involved in that investigation too, especially since it seems that the two crimes may both link to the various people staying in the home of Nesta Hedderwick. This is quite handy for young Freddy, since he’s fallen in love with Nesta’s niece, Dilys…

The title of the book made me think this would be mainly a murder mystery, but in fact the bulk of the book is about the counterfeiting investigation, with the murder and subsequent investigation only happening quite late on. It’s a personal preference thing, and I’m not quite sure what it says about me(!), but I really prefer my crime fiction to be about murders. I’ve never managed to get up much interest in theft or fraud as a plotline. So, true to form, I enjoyed the murder investigation of this one, but found the counterfeiting plot rather dull.

In both sections, it’s really more of a howdunit – the villains are relatively obvious from fairly early on. In the counterfeiting plot, the question is more about how the money is being disseminated. This involves Meredith and Strang in quite a lot of driving along the coast, visiting the various small towns. Bude creates an authentic feel to the setting, with all the cafés and rich tourists, the gorgeous scenery and glorious weather, and Meredith and Strang have plenty of time to enjoy their stay while working on the case, complete with a fair amount of fine dining and wine-tippling.

The murder plot is something of an ‘impossible’ crime, though not of the locked room variety. I’m not going to reveal much about it since it would be hard without spoilers. But it’s fiendishly contrived, with a neat (if rather incredible) solution. The who is easy, the how less so, though I did guess how it was done a few microseconds before it was revealed. I felt the motive was a little shaky, to be honest, but it’s really more about the puzzle than the motivation.

Both Meredith and Freddy are likeable characters. Meredith is methodical and efficient, while Freddy works more on intuition. Freddy has shades of a Wodehouse character – I felt he would fit in well at the Drones Club (though as one of the more sensible ones – think Kipper Herring rather than Gussie Fink-Nottle), which I have to say made me wonder why he was slumming it working for the police. I’d have liked to know a little more about him, but even without much background to his character he adds a touch of lightness and occasional humour, and his romance with Dilys is nicely handled.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, despite not being enthralled by the counterfeiting strand – the writing is very good, the plotting is clever, especially of the murder, and the characters well enough drawn to be interesting. Another intriguing author resurrected by the British Library – one I’d be happy to read more from.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

One for lovers of whimsy…

🙂 🙂 🙂

the-presidents-hatDaniel Mercier is eating alone one night in a restaurant when François Mitterrand, President of France, and some friends settle themselves at the next table. Daniel is thrilled to be so close to the great man, and begins to imagine that he’s part of the President’s group. When they leave the restaurant, Daniel notices that Mitterrand has accidentally left his signature hat behind. Succumbing to an overwhelming temptation, Daniel picks it up, crams it on his own head, and scuttles quickly out of the restaurant before Mitterrand notices and comes back for it. The strange thing is that, almost immediately he acquires the hat, Daniel, usually a rather diffident and anxious young man, finds his confidence growing and his bosses appreciating him more. So when he in turn accidentally leaves the hat on a train, he is very upset. But the woman who picks it up suddenly finds the desire and courage to change her own rather unhappy life…

Mitterrand and his hat...
Mitterrand and his hat…

And so the story progresses, with the hat being passed from one person to another. In each case, we learn a bit about their story and then see how the possession of the hat leads them to make fundamental changes for the better in their lives. The book is well-written and quite entertaining, though undoubtedly a little on the twee side for me. The stories vary in their interest level. One that I enjoyed tells of a ‘nose’ – a man who used to have a glowing reputation for creating lovely and highly successful perfumes, but who in recent years seems to have lost the knack. The descriptions of how he finds himself inspired by various smells that he comes across and how he then goes about recreating these is done well, and I enjoyed the idea of him being able to identify the scent each person he met was wearing. Other episodes were less successful for me – like the man who found his entire political outlook on life changing as a result of wearing the hat. Even whimsy must have some basis in reality, and the idea that one shows one’s conversion to socialism by buying up lots of expensive art to hang around one’s home seemed a little odd.

Antoine Laurain
Antoine Laurain

It’s not a book to over-analyse, but… well, when did that ever stop me? 😉 I found it intriguing in an irritating kind of way that all the men in the book were inspired to change either their working or political lives, while the solitary (beautiful, of course) woman’s story is one of breaking off a romantic relationship where she’s being used, and then finding true love with a man who gives her the support she needs. The book was written, I believe, in 2012 – have we really not got beyond these stereotypes? I also didn’t much care for the portrayal of Mitterrand – a man I know almost nothing about, so it’s not that I have a bias. In the book he comes over as rather creepy, misusing his position as President to use the Secret Service for personal rather than political purposes, and lasciviously drooling over a photo of the woman who briefly has his hat. For all I know, this might be an accurate portrayal, but even if it is, it didn’t feel right in a book as frothy and fanciful as this one is.

Still, it is quite readable and lightly enjoyable for the most part, so I’ll stop criticising now. Not one that worked terribly well for me, as you’ll have gathered, but I’m sure will work better for people who are more skilled than I am at immersing themselves fully in a bit of whimsy…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 107…

Episode 107…

I fear the TBR has reached its highest ever level – up a horrendous 9 to 194! This is mainly because I added several books for my Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge though, plus I picked up a few books that were on my wishlist in Amazon’s various Kindle sales.

Tragically, I also noticed recently that the number of audiobooks I’ve acquired over the years and then not listened to has grown to alarming numbers, and they’re not included in the TBR at all… I haven’t done a final count of them yet, but, inspired by the fact that I just acquired a spiffy new set of bluetooth headphones, I will be making an effort to get back into the habit of listening more regularly. A lot of the audiobooks I’ve picked up are re-reads, acquired as much for the narrator as the book itself – for example, the Joan Hickson readings of the Miss Marple stories, and lots of Jonathan Cecil reading PG Wodehouse. Then I’ve also picked up the audio version of some books that I’ll be reading so that I can swap between versions – I’m currently listening to Our Mutual Friend as well as reading it, and I downloaded Simon Callow’s reading of Animal Farm to go along with the book.

So without further ado, here are a few that are rising to the top of the pile…

Crime

a-dangerous-crossingCourtesy of Amazon Vine. When I heard that our very own Cleo won a charity auction to have her name included as a cameo role in this book, I simply had to snap up a copy. And then to start reading it instead of all the books that I had already scheduled…

The Blurb says: 1939: Europe is on the brink of war. Lily Shepherd, a servant girl, boards an ocean liner for Australia. She is on her way to a new life, leaving behind the shadows in her past. For a humble girl, the passage proves magical – a band, cocktails, fancy dress balls. A time when she is beholden to no one. The exotic locations along the way – Naples, Cairo, Ceylon – allow her to see places she’d only ever dreamed of, and to make friends with people higher up the social scale who would ordinarily never give her the time of day. She even allows herself to hope that a man who she couldn’t possibly have a future with outside the cocoon of the ship might return her feelings.

But Lily soon realises that her new-found friends are also escaping secrets in their past. As the ship’s glamour fades, the stage is set for something awful to happen. By the time the ship docks, two of Lily’s fellow passengers are dead, war has been declared and Lily’s life will be irrevocably changed.

* * * * *

Fiction

titians-boatmanCourtesy of Black & White Publishing. I thoroughly enjoyed Victoria Blake’s true crime book, Mrs Maybrick, so am keen to try her fiction. Her new book will be published later this month…

The Blurb says:  It is 1576 and Venice is in chaos, ravaged by disease and overrun by crime.In the midst of the anarchy we find those brave souls who have chosen not to flee the city. Titian, most celebrated of Venetian painters, his health failing badly; Sabastiano, a gondolier who is the eyes and ears of the corrupted and crumbling city and Tullia, the most famous courtesan of the age who must fight to retain her status as well as her worldly possessions. And in the present day the echoes of what happened centuries earlier still ripple as the lives of ordinary people as far distant as London and New York are touched by the legacy of old Venice…

* * * * *

Crime

the-abc-murdersAmidst my Audible backlog are several of Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels narrated by the lovely Hugh Fraser, better known to Christie fans, perhaps, as Captain Hastings. I’ve already started this one and he’s doing a great job…

The Blurb says: There’s a serial killer on the loose, bent on working his way through the alphabet. And as a macabre calling card he leaves beside each victim’s corpse the ABC Railway Guide open at the name of the town where the murder has taken place. Having begun with Andover, Bexhill and then Churston, there seems little chance of the murderer being caught – until he makes the crucial and vain mistake of challenging Hercule Poirot to frustrate his plans.

* * * * *

Thriller

live-by-nightCourtesy of Audible. Every month I am offered some Audible releases to review and have been refusing them for ages, but of course now I know I have a huge backlog I can’t resist adding to it. I’ve only read one Dennis Lehane before but loved it, so this one appeals. It’s being re-launched by Audible to tie in with the movie release this month…

The Blurb says: Joe Coughlin is 19 when he meets Emma Gould. A small-time thief in 1920s Boston, he is told to cuff her while his accomplices raid the casino she works for. But Joe falls in love with Emma – and his life changes forever.

That meeting is the beginning of Joe’s journey to becoming one of the nation’s most feared and respected gangsters. It is a journey beset by violence, double-crossing, drama, and pain. And it is a journey into the soul of prohibition-era America….

A powerful, deeply moving novel, Live by Night is a tour-de-force by Dennis Lehane, writer on The Wire and author of modern classics such as Shutter Island, Gone, Baby, Gone and The Given Day.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible UK.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

Cast Iron (Enzo Files 6) by Peter May

Secrets of the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀

cast-ironBack in book 1 of the Enzo Files series, Scottish forensic expert Enzo Macleod, now living in Toulouse, took on a bet that he could use modern forensic techniques to solve the seven unsolved murders that were described in a true crime book written by Parisian journalist Roger Raffin. A few years on, he is now beginning his investigation into the sixth murder, of a young girl, Lucie Martin. Lucie disappeared one day back in 1989, and no trace of her was found until the great heatwave of 2003 when her skeleton showed up in the dried-out shore of the lake near her home. Her parents believe she was murdered by a notorious serial killer who was active at that time, but he had a cast-iron alibi for the time she disappeared. Enzo has very little to go on as he reopens the case, but it soon becomes clear someone is out to stop him from finding out the truth…

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I’m a big fan of Peter May’s work, going all the way back to his China thrillers. I admit, however, that the Enzo Files is the one series of his to which I’ve never really taken. In fact, I haven’t read them all – just the first two, then this one. But this is really due to a matter of personal preference than any real criticism of the books. May’s usual protagonists tend to be unencumbered by family ties, or to develop relationships as the series progress. But Enzo comes with a lot of family baggage, which gets added to in each book. Having left his first wife and their daughter, he moved to France with his new love, who then died giving birth to another daughter. So in the early books there’s a lot of working out of resentments with his first, abandoned daughter, Kirsty, and by the time of this book, both daughters have acquired lovers who featured in earlier cases.

Enzo meantime picks up women at a rate that would make George Clooney jealous, so that by the time of this book he has tense relationships with more than one ex. And in each story, some or all of his extended family get involved in the investigation. May does it very well, and keeps all the various personal storylines ticking over, but it’s just not my kind of thing – I find all the relationship stuff takes away from the focus on the plot (and I frankly don’t see what it is about Enzo that apparently makes him so irresistible to women). But I wouldn’t want to put other readers off – what I don’t like about this series may well make it particularly appealing to people who like their protagonists to have a ‘real’ life beyond the immediate plot.

As Enzo begins his investigation by visiting the victim’s family, he is unaware that his daughter Sophie and her boyfriend Bertrand have been abducted, until he receives a warning to stop if he wants to get them back safely. Naturally, this only makes him redouble his efforts! The strand involving Sophie and Bertrand’s imprisonment and attempts to escape is my favourite bit of the book. It takes us into traditional thriller territory with plenty of action and mounting tension, and May excels at this type of writing.

Peter May
Peter May

The main plot regarding Lucie’s murder is also excellent, showing all May’s usual skill at creating strong characters and interesting settings, and managing to have some credible emotional content to offset the action thriller side of the book. However, there is also an overarching plot to the series which comes to a climax in this one, and I felt there was perhaps a little too much going on and too many coincidental crossovers between the various strands. But May’s writing is a pleasure to read as always, and he manages to bring all the threads together well in the end. Some aspects of this work as a standalone, but because it reveals so much about the background plot, I would strongly suggest this is a series that should be read in order. Reading this one first would undoubtedly spoil the earlier books in a significant way. The first book in the series seems to be known as Extraordinary People now, though it was originally published under the title Dry Bones.

I hope my relatively lukewarm review won’t deter people from trying this series. Even with favourite authors, we all prefer some of their stuff to others, but any Peter May book is still head and shoulders above most of the competition. And this is as well-written and strongly plotted as always, while the French setting gives it an added level of interest. So, despite my personal reservations, I still recommend the series, especially if the complicated family relationships aspect appeals to you.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Six Degrees of Separation – From Larrson to…

Chain links…

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

the-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo

This month’s starting book is Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In truth, I wasn’t a fan of this trilogy, finding it all rather long-drawn out and tedious, and I never could get up any affection for the weird Lisbeth Salander. I abandoned book 2 and never got around to the third one.

The dragon in the title made me think of…

Click for review

Sharon Bolton’s novella Here Be Dragons. It’s part of her brilliant Lacey Flint series, but this time told from the perspective of the lovely Mark Joesbury, one of my (many) fictional heroes. It’s such a great little thriller, I had to create an entirely new rating system for it – it was the first to score 5 on the Yippee Ki Yay scale, thus making it a Bruce Willis!

Yippee Ki Yay rating:    😮😮😮😮😮

It's a Bruce Willis!
It’s a Bruce Willis!

The action all takes place on the Thames, which made me think of…

fearie tales

Neil Gaiman’s short story Down to a Sunless Sea, which I came across in an excellent anthology of horror stories based on fairy tales, Fearie Tales. Gaiman’s story is a take on The Singing Bone, though in many ways much darker. A woman wanders the Rotherhithe docks ‘as she has done for years, for decades.’ She tells the story of her young son who ran away to sea and signed on with a stormcrow ship – one cursed by ill luck…

The Thames is a filthy beast: it winds through London like a snake, or a sea serpent. All the rivers flow into it, the Fleet and the Tyburn and the Neckinger, carrying all the filth and scum and waste, the bodies of cats and dogs and the bones of sheep and pigs down into the brown water of the Thames, which carries them east into the estuary and from there into the North Sea and oblivion.

I find it impossible to think of Neil Gaiman without thinking of another story of his…

the truth is a cave

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains. This dark tale is superbly illustrated by Eddie Campbell and the pictures and words complement each other perfectly to create something truly stunning. It is the tale of a journey, a quest into the Black Mountains to find a cave – to find the truth. Our narrator is a small man, a dwarf, but he’s strong and he’s driven. As we meet him, he is about to hire a guide, Calum MacInnes, to take him to a cave on the Misty Isle which is reputed to be filled with gold…

I am old now, or at least, I am no longer young, and everything I see reminds me of something else I’ve seen, such that I see nothing for the first time. A bonny girl, her hair fiery-red, reminds me only of another hundred such lasses, and their mothers, and what they were as they grew, and what they looked like when they died. It is the curse of age, that all things are reflections of other things.

I say that, but my time on the Misty Isle, that is also called, by the wise, the Winged Isle, reminds me of nothing but itself.

DSCN0545

The Misty Isle is based on the Isle of Skye, which is part of the Inner Hebrides, an island group off the coast of Scotland. Which made me think of a book set in the Outer Hebrides…

The Blackhouse

Peter May’s The Blackhouse. This is the first of his trilogy set on Lewis, and was the book that shot him onto the bestseller lists when it was selected as a Richard and Judy pick.  DS Fin MacLeod is sent back to Lewis to investigate a murder that resembles one that took place earlier in his Edinburgh patch. It gradually emerges that the shadow of the past may be involved in the current investigation.

Peter May on Lewis
Peter May on Lewis

Before he wrote the Lewis books, Peter May wrote a series based in China, which made me think of…

imperial woman

Imperial Woman by Pearl S Buck. This is a fictionalised biography of Tzu Hsi, who ruled as regent and Empress of China from 1861-1908, effectively the end of the empire, which collapsed just 3 years after her death. Tzu Hsi is portrayed here as a beautiful, ambitious tyrant, scheming to become and then remain Empress. The language is rather too stylised for my taste but Tzu Hsi’s story is a fascinating one and certainly worth the telling.

In the fourth moon month the wisteria blooms. It was the duty of the Court Chief Gardener to report to the Empress the exact day upon which the vines would blossom and he had so reported. The Empress did then decree that upon this day she would not appear in the Audience Hall, nor would she hear any affairs of state.

Portrait of Tzu Hsi by Hubert Voss (1906)
Portrait of Tzu Hsi by Hubert Voss (1906)

And thinking of female rulers reminded me of…

the rival queens

The Rival Queens, Nancy Goldstone’s romping history of Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France, and her daughter Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre. It was a great time for Queens. Over in England, Elizabeth was working up to the beheading of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. But the shenanigans of Catherine and Marguerite frankly make the British Royals look tame. A little biased in Marguerite’s favour, I felt, but hugely enjoyable, complete with a fair amount of ribald humour. At points it reads like a great thriller, complete with cliffhanger endings to chapters, and then at others it becomes like an episode of Dallas, with Catherine in the role of JR and Marguerite as sweet little Pamela.

the-rival-queens-portraits
Catherine and Marguerite

 * * * * *

So Larrson to Goldstone via dragons, the Thames, Neil Gaiman, the Hebrides, China, empresses and queens!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

An avoidable disaster…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

dead-wakeOn a day which had earlier been foggy but was now clear and calm, some passengers aboard the Lusitania stood on deck and watched the ‘dead wake’ of a German U-boat torpedo heading towards the bow of the ship. It was 7th May 1915; Europe was engulfed in war while the USA was desperately maintaining its position of neutrality. Larson tells the story of the last voyage of the Lusitania, its passengers and crew, and the wider political situation that gave rise to the circumstances in which the ship was left unprotected in waters in which it was known U-boats were operating.

Larson starts with a prologue about the evening before the attack. Before she sailed from New York, the Germans had threatened they would attack the Lusitania, but the passengers weren’t particularly anxious. The Lusitania had been built for speed, the fastest ship of its time. Captain William Turner was confident she could outrun any U-boat. Anyway, given the threat and the knowledge that U-boats were operating around the coasts of Britain and Ireland, there was a general confidence that the Royal Navy would be on hand to escort them for the last dangerous stage of the journey.

lusitania-advertising-poster

Larson uses four main strands to tell the full story of what happened. We learn about the codebreakers of the British Admiralty who had obtained the German codes and were therefore able to track U-boat movements with a fair degree of accuracy. Eerily reminiscent of the Bletchley codebreakers of WW2, there was the same dilemma as to how often to act on information obtained – too often and the Germans would work out that their codes had been cracked, and change them. So some ships were left unprotected, sacrifices, almost, to the greater war effort. Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, and was desperate to draw the US into the war on the British side. There appears to be little doubt that he felt that if German U-boats sank ships with American citizens aboard, this might be a decisive factor.

U-20 - the U-boat that fired the fatal torpedo...
U-20 – the U-boat that fired the fatal torpedo…

Secondly, Larson takes us aboard U-20, the U-boat that would fire the fatal torpedo, and introduces us to its Captain, Walther Schwieger. By using Schwieger’s logs amongst other sources, Larson creates an absorbing and authentic-feeling depiction of life aboard the ship, including a lot of fascinating detail about how U-boats actually worked – the logistical difficulties of diving, with the weight constantly changing as the amount of fuel aboard decreased; and how the crew would have to run from place to place to keep the boat level when manoeuvring. Larson widens this out to tell of some of the dangers for these early submarines, and some of the horrific accidents that had happened to them. And he takes us further, into the ever-changing policy of the German government with regards to the sinking of passenger and merchant ships.

lusitania-nyt-headlines

The third aspect revolves around President Wilson and America’s lengthy vacillations before finally committing to war. Politically hoping to sit it out while Britain bore the brunt, Wilson was also suffering personally from the loss of his much-loved wife, closely followed by what sounds like a rather adolescent rush of passion for another woman. It appears that he spent as much time a-wooing as a-Presidenting, and his desire to spend his life taking his new love out for romantic drives meant that he seemed almost infinitely capable of overlooking Germany’s constant breaches of the rules regarding neutral nations. (I should say the harshness of this interpretation is mine – Larson gives the facts but doesn’t draw the conclusions quite as brutally as I have done. Perhaps because he’s American and I’m British. But he leaves plenty of space for the reader to draw her own conclusions.)

Wilson getting his priorities in order...
Wilson getting his priorities in order…

The fourth section, and the one that humanises the story, is of the voyage of the Lusitania itself. Larson introduces us to many of the passengers, telling us a little of their lives before the voyage, so that we come to care about them. There were many children aboard, including young infants. Some people were bringing irreplaceable art and literary objects across in the way of business. There were pregnant women, and nannies and servants, and of course the crew. Larson explains that the crew were relatively inexperienced as so many sailors had been absorbed into the war effort. While they carried out regular drills, logistics meant they couldn’t actually lower all the lifeboats during them, so that when the disaster actually happened this lack of experience fed into the resulting loss of life. But he also shows the heroism of many of the crew and some of the passengers, turning their backs on their own safety to assist others. Even so, the loss of life was massive, and by telling the personal stories of some who died and others who survived but lost children or parents or lovers, Larson brings home the intimate tragedies that sometimes get lost in the bigger picture.

1915 painting of the sinking
1915 painting of the sinking

And finally, Larson tells of the aftermath, both personal for some of the survivors or grieving relatives of the dead; and political, in terms of the subsequent investigations in Britain into what went wrong, and Wilson’s attempts to ensure that even a direct attack on US citizens wouldn’t drag his country into war.

Larson balances the political and personal just about perfectly in the book, I feel. His excellent writing style creates the kind of tension normally associated with a novel rather than a factual book, and his careful characterisation of many of the people involved gives a human dimension that is often missing from straight histories. He doesn’t shy away from the politics though, and each of the governments, British, German and American, come in for their fair share of harsh criticism, including some of the individuals within them. An excellent book, thoroughly researched and well told – highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Selection Day by Aravind Adiga

The Gentleman’s Game…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

“India: A country said to have two real religions – cinema and cricket.”

selection-day-2Two brothers are being groomed by their father to become the greatest cricketers in India. Radha, the elder, with his film-star looks and love of the game, is the better of the two, and it’s accepted that he will be the star. But as they grow up, Radha’s skill diminishes, just a little, but enough for him to be eclipsed by the younger Manju, whose attitude to the game is more ambivalent. Their mother having disappeared when they were little (run away? dead? The boys aren’t sure), the brothers have been brought up by their tyrannical father Mohan, who is determined they will succeed in the sport as a way to raise the family out of the slums. So when the chance of sponsorship comes along, Mohan grabs it, even though it’s at best an unethical deal which sells his sons into a kind of bondage and, at worst, borders on the illegal.

This is a story of sibling rivalry, tied in with a wider picture of corruption in society shown through the corruption in cricket. The game, once the preserve of all that was considered gentlemanly, has become all about money. The days of languorous five-day test matches has morphed into not only one-day cricket, but the hideousness of the ultra-short 20-20, which Adiga describes in his humorous glossary of cricketing terms at the end of the book as “in the eyes of some older fans, almost as bad as baseball.” It’s not necessary, I think, to know about cricket to enjoy the book – Adiga doesn’t fall into the trap of lengthy descriptions of games, tactics or technicalities, and the sport could as easily be any other. But cricket has a particular resonance, because of its origin as a game of the British Empire, a period whose influence is still vital in understanding much of Indian society.

In the next few minutes, Anand Mehta came up with the following observations about cricket: that it was a fraud, and at the most fundamental level. Only ten countries play this game, and only five of them play it well. If we had any self-respect, we’d finally grow up as a people and play football. No: let’s not expose ourselves to real competition, much safer to be in a “world cup” against St. Kitts and Bangladesh. Self-obsession without self-belief: the very definition of the Indian middle class, which is why it loves this fraud sport.

Poised to offer the world more deep thoughts about the gentleman’s game, Mehta heard:

Shot! Bloody good shot!…

Confronted by the sound and smell of an instant of real cricket, Mehta felt all his mighty observations turn to ashes.

As Manju hits adolescence, he becomes fascinated by another young player, Javed. Javed is gay and Manju’s attraction to him suggests that he is too. But Manju is of a lower class than Javed and has a father who’s not likely to be the most supportive, so it would take considerably more courage for him to admit his feelings than Javed. But his relationship with Javed isn’t purely about physical attraction – Manju finds himself influenced by the older, more confident boy in other ways. Javed, another talented cricketer, sees the corruption in the sport and wants Manju to give it up. So poor Manju has a jealous brother who feels he deserves to be the best, a friend pulling him away from cricket, and his father and his coach putting pressure on him to practice every moment he can. It’s not altogether surprising that he’s confused before he gets to Selection Day, the day on which the big teams pick which young players they will sign.

Sachin Tendulkar, India's finest batman and constantly held up to the boys as an example of what they could be. He's also much loved by advertising executives...
Sachin Tendulkar, India’s finest batman and constantly held up to the boys as an example of what they could be. He’s also much loved by advertising executives…

I love Adiga’s depiction of Mumbai or Bombay (names which he uses interchangeably). He shows the poverty, corruption and class divisions quite clearly but, unlike some of the (usually ex-pat) Indian writers who love to wallow exclusively in the misery, Adiga, who lives in Mumbai, also shows the other side – the vibrancy, the struggle for social mobility, the advances of recent years. His characters, even when they’re being put through the emotional wringer, manage to have some fun along the way, and the whole atmosphere he portrays lacks the irredeemable hopelessness of so much Indian literature. There’s also a good deal of humour, often very perceptive and coming at unexpected moments, startling me into laughter. This book tackles some tough subjects, but on the whole Adiga simply lays the arguments out and leaves the reader to come to her own conclusions – there’s no whiff of the polemical in his writing.

“People thought I had a future as a writer, Manju. I wanted to write a great novel about Mumbai,” the principal said, playing with her glasses. “But then…then I began, and I could not write it. The only thing I could write about, in fact, was that I couldn’t write about the city.

“The sun, which I can’t describe like Homer, rises over Mumbai, which I can’t describe like Salman Rushdie, creating new moral dilemmas for all of us, which I won’t be able to describe like Amitav Ghosh.”

Aravind Adiga
Aravind Adiga

There is, however, some great characterisation, and he writes about them empathetically so that it’s hard not to see why even the less savoury characters have turned out as they have. One of the things I loved was seeing how the perception of Mohan, the boys’ father, changed as they grew up. This man who loomed over them in childhood shrinks as they grow – both physically and in terms of his influence. It’s the mark of the quality of Adiga’s writing that this happens so gradually there’s no jarring moment, but towards the end I realised I had come to feel about him quite differently than I had in the beginning.

For me, this was a slow-burn book. It took at least a third of the book before I was convinced that this tale of cricketing brothers was going to hold my interest. But as it progressed, I began to appreciate the subtlety with which Adiga was showing various aspects of contemporary Indian life, and as always I found his writing pure pleasure to read. And by the time I reached the end, I found he had again created some characters who had become real to me, in the way Masterji did in his excellent Last Man in Tower. This book confirms Adiga’s place as one of my favourite authors, and gets my wholehearted recommendation.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 106…

Episode 106…

The first TBR post of the New Year and unsurprisingly the TBR has leapt up over the festive season… by 9 to 185! But this is normal, so I’m not worried. No, really, I’m not! Do I look worried? Don’t answer that…

Best thing to do is to get on with some reading… here are a few that will reach the top of the pile soon…

Sci-Fi

the-massacre-of-mankindCourtesy of NetGalley. Since I love The War of the Worlds, love books about Mars, and have heard good things about Stephen Baxter’s writing, this sounded irresistible, especially since it’s been authorised by HG Wells’ estate…

The Blurb says: It has been 14 years since the Martians invaded England. The world has moved on, always watching the skies but content that we know how to defeat the Martian menace. Machinery looted from the abandoned capsules and war-machines has led to technological leaps forward. The Martians are vulnerable to earth germs. The Army is prepared. So when the signs of launches on Mars are seen, there seems little reason to worry. Unless you listen to one man, Walter Jenkins, the narrator of Wells’ book. He is sure that the Martians have learned, adapted, understood their defeat.

He is right.

Thrust into the chaos of a new invasion, a journalist – sister-in-law to Walter Jenkins – must survive, escape and report on the war. The Massacre of Mankind has begun.

* * * * *

Fiction

animal-farmFirst up for the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge. I haven’t re-read this since it broke my heart as a teenager (Boxer! Sniff!) but I’m hoping I’m tougher now, and might be able to remember it’s an allegory…

The Blurb says:  One night on an English farm, Major the boar recounts his vision of a utopia where his fellow creatures own the land along with the means of production and are no longer the slaves of humans. Before long his dream comes true, and for a short while all animals really are equal. But the clever pigs educate themselves and soon learn how to extend their own power, inevitably at the expense of the rest of the community.

This well-loved tale is, of course, a satire on the Soviet Communist system that still remains a powerful warning despite the changes in world politics since Animal Farm was first published.

* * * * *

Crime

the-12-30-from-croydonCourtesy of NetGalley. Inspector French was one of Martin Edwards’ tips in his guest post Ten Top Golden Age Detectives, so I jumped at the chance to get my hands on this one…

The Blurb says: We begin with a body. Andrew Crowther, a wealthy retired manufacturer, is found dead in his seat on the 12.30 flight from Croydon to Paris. Rather less orthodox is the ensuing flashback in which we live with the killer at every stage, from the first thoughts of murder to the strains and stresses of living with its execution. Seen from the criminal’s perspective, a mild-mannered Inspector by the name of French is simply another character who needs to be dealt with. This is an unconventional yet gripping story of intrigue, betrayal, obsession, justification and self-delusion. And will the killer get away with it?

* * * * *

Fiction

the-good-peopleCourtesy of NetGalley. Having loved Hannah Kent’s début, Burial Rites, this is one of my most anticipated books of 2017. It’s been out for a while elsewhere but is only being published over here in February, so I’ve spent much of the last few months trying to avoid reading reviews of it…

The Blurb says: Nóra Leahy has lost her daughter and her husband in the same year, and is now burdened with the care of her four-year-old grandson, Micheál. The boy cannot walk, or speak, and Nora, mistrustful of the tongues of gossips, has kept the child hidden from those who might see in his deformity evidence of otherworldly interference. Unable to care for the child alone, Nóra hires a fourteen-year-old servant girl, Mary, who soon hears the whispers in the valley about the blasted creature causing grief to fall upon the widow’s house.

Alone, hedged in by rumour, Mary and her mistress seek out the only person in the valley who might be able to help Micheál. For although her neighbours are wary of her, it is said that old Nance Roche has the knowledge. That she consorts with Them, the Good People. And that only she can return those whom they have taken…

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken or adapted from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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

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Murder, She Wrote: Design for Murder by Jessica Fletcher, Donald Bain and Renée Paley-Bain

Danger alert: Jessica Fletcher’s in town…

😀 😀 😀 😀

design-for-murderDuring a catwalk show in New York’s Fashion Week, a young model collapses and dies. Rowena Roth had been an unpleasant girl, arrogant and rude, so few people other than her mother could truthfully say they grieved for her loss. It seems like one of those tragic things that happen sometimes – perhaps a heart condition that she had never been aware of. But then a second model is found dead. The question is: are the deaths connected? Fortunately for the NYPD, Jessica Fletcher is in town, ready to offer them as much advice as they can take…

I love the TV series of Murder, She Wrote. It’s my go-to cosy for winter afternoons, and I’ve been known to binge-watch several shows one after the other. This is largely because I think Angela Lansbury is fab in the role, plus the style of the show means that, despite the phenomenal murder rate, nothing distasteful ever really happens, and Cabot Cove still looks like a wonderful spot to spend some time. Would the books work as well without Lansbury’s presence?

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 2...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 1…

The story is told in the first person (past tense) from Jessica’s perspective, so we get to see the thoughts inside her head. Jessica is all sweetness and charm on the outside, and full of some rather waspish thoughts on the inside. I kinda liked that – I always assumed on the TV show that, behind that ultra-friendly exterior, an astute and clear-sighted brain must be ticking away. Like Miss Marple (from whom she’s clearly directly descended), Jessica must be an ‘expert in wickedness’ if she’s to see through the façade the villain erects to cover his/her crimes. I found I could easily imagine Angela Lansbury speaking her lines, and the marvellous facial expressions she would have used to convey the unspoken thoughts.

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 2...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 2…

I was rather disappointed that the book was set in New York rather than Cabot Cove. But Seth and Mort both appear during phone conversations, so I didn’t have to do without my two favourite men completely. The description of Fashion Week felt thoroughly researched – though given, of course, that Murder, She Wrote spin of cosiness that means it doesn’t feel quite authentic to real life. The plot covers the lengths to which young girls will go to succeed in the cut-throat world of modelling, touching on subjects like extreme dieting and cosmetic surgery. The jealousies are shown too, but it’s all done with a light touch. And, of course, we don’t care about the murder victims, so no dismal grief or angst to contend with.

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 3...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 3…

Jessica is just as irresistible to men as she is in the show – this time it’s Detective Aaron Kopecky who’s badly smitten by her charms. Got to admit, this was the one bit of the book that I found tedious – Kopecky’s admiration became repetitive and his attempts to woo Jessica by dangling information about the case in front of her became laboured and annoying in the end. But it wasn’t enough of an issue to spoil the book for me overall.

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 4...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 4…

The plot is quite interesting, and stays more or less within the bounds of credibility. Jessica is at the show because of her friendship with the designer’s mother – she and her son both hail from Cabot Cove originally. And it’s not long before Jessica is nosing around amongst the models, publicity people, cosmetic surgeons, et al, coming up with stunning insights long before poor Detective Kopecky is even close. I don’t think it could really count as fair-play, though maybe that’s just sour grapes because I didn’t work out the solution. But it’s well written – a nice cosy, with the genuine feeling of the show and enough contact with the familiar characters to prevent me missing the Cabot Cove setting too much. I’ll cheerfully read more of these, and recommend it not just to fans of the show, but to cosy lovers in general. Good fun!

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 5...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 5…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge…

Proletariat of the World, Unite!

rrr-challenge-logo

2017 sees the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution that ushered in nearly a century of Soviet rule in Russia and its satellites and annexed territories, while its aftershocks still reverberate through the world today. It’s a period about which I know very little – I’m more aware of mid-20th century history as it relates to the USSR than I am about the period just before and after the revolution. So I have decided to set myself a little challenge to read myself into this period of history during the centenary year.

lenin-quote-revolutionary-situation

I’m going for a mix of factual and fiction, and since several of these books are monsters in terms of size, my list is pretty short. However, I’ve tried to come up with a selection that will show me the Revolution through the eyes of contemporaries, both supporters and opponents, and also retrospectively, through history, biography and fiction. I’ve also tried to select books that are considered to be amongst the most important written on the subject, even though I expect some of them will be pretty tough going.

george-orwell-quote-revolution

Here’s my initial list (in no particular order), which might be subject to change or additions as I go along…

history-of-the-russian-revolutionHistory of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky (history)

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

animal-farmAnimal Farm by George Orwell (fiction)

“All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.”

This well-loved tale is, of course, a satire on the Soviet Communist system that still remains a powerful warning despite the changes in world politics since Animal Farm was first published.

memoirs-of-a-revolutionaryMemoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge (memoir)

Victor Serge was an anarchist who initially supported the Russian Revolution. He was also a writer of rare integrity, who left behind a remarkable eyewitness record in fiction, journalism, and above all his masterwork, Memoirs of a Revolutionary. In it he tells the story of how the Revolution unfolded, swept up an entire nation, and eventually failed.

blood-red-snow-whiteBlood Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgewick (fiction)

When writer Arthur Ransome leaves his unhappy marriage in England and moves to Russia to work as a journalist, he has little idea of the violent revolution about to erupt. Unwittingly, he finds himself at its center, tapped by the British to report back on the Bolsheviks even as he becomes dangerously, romantically entangled with Trotsky’s personal secretary.

revolution-trotsky

ten-days-that-shook-the-worldTen Days that Shook the World by John Reed (journalism)

John Reed’s eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution. A contemporary journalist writing in the first flush of revolutionary enthusiasm, he gives a gripping record of the events in Petrograd in November 1917, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks finally seized power. Reed’s account is the product of passionate involvement and remains an unsurpassed classic of reporting.

doctor-zhivagoDoctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (fiction)

This epic tale about the effects of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath on a bourgeois family was not published in the Soviet Union until 1987. One of the results of its publication in the West was Pasternak’s complete rejection by Soviet authorities; when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 he was compelled to decline it.

a-peoples-tragedyA People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes (history)

Vast in scope, exhaustive in original research, written with passion, narrative skill, and human sympathy, A People’s Tragedy is a profound account of the Russian Revolution for a new generation. Distinguished scholar Orlando Figes presents a panorama of Russian society on the eve of the Revolution, and then narrates the story of how these social forces were violently erased.

november-1916November 1916 by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (fictionalised history)

The month of November 1916 in Russia was outwardly quiet—the proverbial calm before the storm—but beneath the placid surface, society seethed fiercely.With masterly and moving empathy, through the eyes of both historical and fictional protagonists, Solzhenitsyn unforgettably transports us to that time and place—the last of pre-Soviet Russia.
.

revolution-jfk

the-white-guardThe White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov (fiction)

Drawing closely on Bulgakov’s personal experiences of the horrors of civil war, The White Guard takes place in Kiev, 1918, a time of turmoil and suffocating uncertainty as the Bolsheviks, Socialists and Germans fight for control of the city. It tells the story of the Turbins, a once-wealthy Russian family, as they are forced to come to terms with revolution and a new regime.

lenin-book-coverA biography of Lenin

I can’t find an existing one that seems to be accepted as definitive and relatively unbiased, so I’m leaving this blank at the moment in the hopes that a new one may be published during the centenary. However, if anyone knows of a good one, please let me know.

* * * * * * *

Should be fun! Well… maybe not fun, exactly, but… er… interesting. Or something.

stalin-quote
* * * * * * *

If anyone feels like joining in, I’d be more than happy to do an occasional round-up post linking to reviews. Just in case, I’ve drawn up an extensive list of rules, which must be strictly adhered to. Are you ready?

READING THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION CHALLENGE

THE RULES

1. Read whatever you like, whenever you like, if you like. Or watch a film. Or don’t.

* * * * * * *

Seriously, my list is history heavy because as you know I enjoy reading heavy history. But it’s not to everyone’s taste, so if you prefer to read entirely fiction, or fiction and some memoirs, or watch movies or documentaries, or anything at all really, then that’s great. I’m also not setting any targets (for you or me) in terms of how many books to read, and no deadlines of any kind. The only “rules” I would suggest are, firstly, that you let me know in the comments if you decide to join in; and, secondly, that, if you do, you tag any relevant WordPress post as RRRchallenge (and for Tweets, #RRRchallenge). That way, I’ll be able to pick up any posts when I do a summary. If you’re not on WordPress or Twitter, then a comment on this or any other post of mine will have the same effect.

churchill-on-lenin

I’m also not restricting the time period. Personally I’m interested in learning more about the period from before the revolution (roughly 1890) up to the 1930s because that’s when I know least about, but if anyone wants to read about Stalin or the post-WW2 period, or the end of the USSR, or even Putin’s Russia, then feel free. And lastly, don’t feel under any pressure to join in at all! I won’t be offended… well, not enough to declare war on you anyway, (though I may sing the Red Flag to you which, frankly, would be worse).

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putin-democracyPEACE, LAND, BREAD!

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again…

…aka New Year’s Resolutions…

So! Last year at this time I set myself some reading resolutions for 2016. Time to see just how badly I did! And then to set myself up for another bout of humiliation next year. Still, you know what they say…’tis better to travel hopefully than to arrive. (I’m pretty sure all these cliché writers had massive TBRs too.)

The 2016 Results

OK, there will be no unseemly laughter, catcalling or crowing, is that clear? Anyone who emits so much as a giggle will be sent to stand in the corner, and a guffaw will earn the perpetrator two hours in the public stocks – I have been collecting rotten tomatoes specially…

No, Darcy, not even you!
No, Darcy, not even you!

1) Cut back on taking freebies for review.

Take no more than 18 books during the year, and reduce the total outstanding at year end from 25 to 12.

The Result: Oh, dear! Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! Well, I suppose it’s best to get the worst one over with first. Ahem! OK, I took 63 books for review over the year, and I have 30 outstanding at year end, of which 17 are overdue. What can I say? I’m weak! This dramatic failure goes a long way to explain the rest of my results…

shame-gif-1

2) A minimum of 12 re-reads.

The Result: Er… 8. 66%. Two-thirds. OK, OK – failed!

shame-gif-2

3) Reduce the TBR!

a) Reduce the overall total to 130.

The Result: The final total is… 181!

b) Read at least 35 books that have been on the TBR since 2014 or earlier.

The Result: A miserable… 14!

c) Read at least 45 books that went onto the TBR in 2015.

The Result: So near, and yet… so far! 44!

FAILED! FAILED! FAILED!

shame-gif-6

4) New-to-me authors.

a) No more than 20 books by new-to-me authors to be added to the TBR during 2016.

The Result: I really don’t want to tell you this!! Really!! OK, here goes… 53!!

b) Read at least 20 catch-up books from authors I’ve previously enjoyed.

The Result: Lucky for some! But not me… 13!

shame-gif-4

5) Classics

Read at least 10 GAN Quest novels and at least 5 other classics, including Dickens.

The Result: 7 GAN Quest books read in the year (or abandoned, which is much the same thing), 6 other classics read, including Dickens. Ooh, almost a partial success, but overall… a failure!

shame-gif-7

6) Read at least 12 sci-fi/fantasy novels, mixed between classic and new.

The Result: A totally pathetic… 4!!

shame-gif-5

* * * * *

I am now popping outside for a moment to throw those rotten tomatoes at myself… back soon!

* * * * *

Resolutions for 2017

Right! (Does anyone know how to get tomato stains out?) This year I’m completely confident I’ll achieve all my resolutions… maybe even over-achieve! You do believe me… don’t you? I’m going to try to be a little more realistic this time…

I know you've seen this one before, but I just love it so much!
I know you’ve seen this one before, but I just love it so much!

1) Cut back on taking freebies for review.

Take no more than 36 books during the year, averaging 3 a month, and reduce the total outstanding at year end from 30 to 20, none of which are overdue. This means I’ll be reading roughly 4 a month. If I can stick to that, all the other resolutions should be easy…

2) A minimum of 12 re-reads.

I’m sticking with that – it seems as if it should be easily achievable. Though I thought that last year too…

3) Reduce the TBR!

a) Reduce the overall total from 181 to 150.

Should be possible, though it will depend on how many books move from the wishlist to the TBR…

b) Read at least 35 books that have been on the TBR since 2015 or earlier.

I currently have a ridiculous 103 books that have been on the TBR for more than a year (because of my addiction to review copies). But realistically it’ll be a slow job to reduce this figure, so I’m only aiming to cut them by a third. With luck I might overachieve on this since a lot of them are classics and GAN books.

c) Read at least 50 books that went onto the TBR in 2016.

I have 78 books outstanding from 2016, including nearly all of my review copy backlog. If I can resist adding so many new books this year, then I should be able to read the majority of these.

This one's just 'cos I needed cheering up!
This one’s just ‘cos I needed cheering up!

4) Classics

Read 20 classics. I’m not completely abandoning the GAN Quest – some of the books on my Classics Club list are Great American Novel contenders, and there are still a few of the last batch on my TBR – but I’m not setting a separate target for this year. 

5) Other Stuff

I’m not setting targets for science fiction, the Around the World Challenge, or catch-up books from authors I’ve previously enjoyed, but I’ll still be aiming to read several from each category. I’ll also be setting myself another little challenge – details next week – but otherwise my main concentration this year will be reading stuff I already have, and trying not to add too many new books.

Wish me luck!

fireworks

HAPPY NEW YEAR!
LANG MAY YOUR LUM REEK!

The Final Countdown plus Challenges Report…

TBR Year-End Report

Last New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So, time for 2016’s final count to see how I did over the year…

tbr-dec-2016

Well, I know you won’t believe me, but despite the fact that the overall total has gone up, I’m going to declare this a major victory. Firstly, it’s only increased by 12 overall. The TBR (books I own) has increased by nearly thirty, but the wishlists (books I don’t yet own) have fallen. This is due to my wonderful system of sticking all the books I’d like to read on my Amazon wishlist and then snapping them up any time they go on sale – and anyone who Kindles will know that books go on sale all the time. And the jolly thing is that piles of Kindle books don’t take up nearly as much room as piles of paper books.

ostrichSecondly, after a major splurge on review books in the middle of the year, I have made a serious effort to stop requesting so many, and the number outstanding is finally beginning to drop.

But thirdly – and the real reason I’m feeling rather smug – is that in the middle of the year I joined the Classics Club, and this involved adding between 40 and 50 books to either the TBR or the wishlist. So for the end of year total to have only increased by 12 means it would in fact have reduced by a decent amount if not for those added classics. And the Classics Club challenge runs over five years, so it doesn’t stress me out that my overall total includes nearly 90 classics at the moment, since I only intend to read about twenty a year, regardless of how quickly I acquire them.

I can hear you laughing, but I do genuinely feel more in control of the TBR than I have in ages…

denialcalvin-hobbes690x400

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in September, and I’ve been concentrating since then on bringing review copies under control, but I’ve seen a little bit of the world nonetheless…

780px-Around_the_World_in_Eighty_Days_map

I went for a looooong sea voyage in the company of Cap’n Ahab, Ishmael and the boys from the Pequod. I’m trying to only add books I recommend to my Around the World list, but I’m slotting Moby-Dick in for the Pacific meantime, to be replaced later if I read something I prefer. I visited 19th century New Brunswick in Canada to witness a true crime and subsequent trial in Black River Road by Debra Komar. Then I was shown the horror of the WW2 fire-bombing of Dresden in Germany in the wonderful Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. My last trip was closer to home and considerably more relaxing, if you discount a murder or two – north to the Scottish Highlands in the company of Anthony Wynne in Murder of a Lady.

Since it’s the end of the year, here’s the full list so far…

The Main Journey

  1. London  – Martin Chuzzlewit
  2. Orient Express – Travels with My Aunt
  3. France – The Sisters of Versailles
  4. Alps
  5. Venice
  6. Brindisi
  7. Mediterranean Sea
  8. Suez
  9. Egypt
  10. Red Sea/Arabian Sea
  11. Bombay
  12. Calcutta – A Rising Man
  13. Kholby
  14. Elephant Travel
  15. Allahabad
  16. Indian Ocean/ South China Sea
  17. Hong Kong
  18. Shanghai
  19. Yokohama
  20. Pacific – Moby-Dick: Or, The White Whale
  21. San Francisco
  22. Sioux lands
  23. Omaha
  24. New York – Three-Martini Lunch
  25. Atlantic Ocean
  26. Queenstown (Cobh) Ireland
  27. London – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

The Detours

That leaves 53 spots for me to randomly tour the world, so here’s where I’ve been so far…

  1. The Hebrides – Coffin Road
  2. Florida – Their Eyes Were Watching God
  3. Iceland – Snowblind
  4. Himalayas – Black Narcissus
  5. Ireland – The Heather Blazing
  6. Channel Islands – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
  7. Australian Outback – Fear is the Rider
  8. Portugal – The High Mountains of Portugal
  9. Milan, Italy – The Murdered Banker
  10. Madrid, Spain – A Heart So White
  11. Saturn – 2001: A Space Odyssey
  12. Kabul, Afghanistan – The Kite Runner
  13. Vatican City – Conclave
  14. New Brunswick, Canada – Black River Road
  15. Dresden, Germany – Slaughterhouse-Five
  16. Scottish Highlands – Murder of a Lady

23 down, 57 to go!

* * * * * * *

The Classics Club

classics club logo 2

So far, I’ve read four from my Classics Club list – a little behind schedule, but I’m expecting to make that up quickly now that I’ve got fewer review copies to contend with.

  1. 4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie – a 5-star re-read. Classic crime writing at its best.
  2. Passing by Nella Larson – 4 stars for this book about race and belonging.
  3. Moby-Dick: or, The White Whale by Herman Melville – just 2 stars for that pesky and apparently ubiquitous whale.
  4. The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White – 5 stars for the book on which Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes is based.

4 down, 86 to go!

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Here’s to another great year of reading in 2017! 😀

The Story of a Year in Books…

A Victorian Murder Mystery

(OK, so I was bored. And it occurred to me it might be fun to see if I could make a story out of the titles of all the books I’ve reviewed this year… in the order I reviewed them! I really need to get a proper hobby… The eagle-eyed amongst you might spot one film in there – couldn’t resist – it just seemed to fit. 😉 )

Martin Chuzzlewit and the sisters of Versailles rattled through the swirling London fog and snow on their way to the Children’s Home. As they travelled along Coffin Road, their eyes were watching Godfrey, their cabbie, knowing his broken promise to turn up on the dot of seven o’clock had made them late for their appointment.

london fog

“Take the A26, Godfrey,” Chuzzlewit called out. Snowblind, Godfrey swerved, nearly knocking down Martin Luther and a clubbable woman who were crossing the road arm in arm. A passing journalist, Winston Churchill at The Telegraph, pushed them to safety just in time, crying “Even the dead would be scared to walk these streets in this damnable weather!”

“Thank you, sir!” said Martin, gratefully. “I am no one important, but Mrs Dalloway here is on a vital mission. She is carrying a potion made from the rare black narcissus, which it is believed may be the cure for the strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.”

Hyperventilating hysterically and gulping down some Vichy water, Mrs Dalloway cried “Blessed are those who thirst! You are beloved, dear sir! I call down all the blessings of heaven on your head! Now we must rush if we are to be in time to prevent the murder at the manor!”

At that moment, they heard the noise of time as Big Ben struck the hour. Turning into Euston Station, they hurried swiftly through the massive building, dark and echoing at this hour, like caves of steel. In a corner, an old flower seller had tried to fend off the cold by setting the heather blazing, but she still had a little left. “Buy some lucky heather, pretty lady,” she crooned as Mrs Dalloway sailed past. Nightblind, Mrs Dalloway heard only the echo of the words, which seemed to her disordered mind like a spectral voice rising from the cold, cold ground.

As they left the station and hurried across the Hyde Park green, Martin Luther’s fearful eyes searched around the green for danger. In the woods, he spied a group of Dubliners, teaching each other the names of the trees. “Well, this is an advancement of learning,” mused Martin, philosophically. “Hey ho! Let the great world spin!”

london-fog

Finally they arrived at the Theatre Royal where that evening a performance of Henry IV was to be staged. A woman in blue stood by the entrance, with a large dog on a leash by her side. The previous evening’s storm had uprooted an old tree which now lay across the road. In the gaslight, the shadow cast on the ground by its twigs looked so like a mysterious old map that Martin found himself unconsciously looking for the traditional marking: Here Be Dragons. But then, as he looked more closely, he saw to his horror a reflection of the moon in a dead eye!

Absalom! Absalom!” he cried in great dismay, recognising immediately his old friend and bank manager. The woman in blue, known to her wide acquaintanceship as Mrs Maybrick, cackled haggishly. “There will be a dark redemption for this night’s work, sir!”

Shortly, two Bow Street Runners arrived on the scene, Gandhi and Churchill. Earlier that day, they had been doing crowd control at the Easter Parade, (unusually, being held in November this year) where the ladies of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society had got somewhat out of hand after imbibing rather freely of the punch provided at that event. Gandhi was still trembling nervously, for when ladies get up to horseplay, fear is the rider, he had discovered. “I wish I could go on a little holiday to the High Mountains of Portugal,” he thought, wistfully, “rather than having to deal with the sans pareil mystery that we have here!”

Close your eyes,” commanded Runner Churchill. “You know you’ll faint if you look at the murdered banker. Especially since he’s been so horrifically mutilated; that snow-covered thing on his left kneecap is a heart so white!

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Mrs Maybrick, (whom, after the sudden death of her landlady six months earlier, some suspected of being  the secret poisoner), was in the grip of a ruling passion by now, chuckling and dancing, till she was pulled from her feet by the power of the dog. Normally, she kept Daisy in chains, but that day she had felt in need of protection after having a strange, prophetic vision of a murder during a futuristic journey, in the year 2001: a space odyssey, in fact. It brought back to her all the horrible memories of her typist sister, Elizabeth: the forgotten years and the tragedy that happened during that other terrible journey she always thought of as her “travels with my aunt” – the wicked boy, the exposure and, worst of all, the dead witness. Thank goodness the other typist had been on hand to catch the culprit, and it would be a long time before her arch-nemesis Douglas MacArthur saw the outside of a jail cell again. But I digress!

Runner Churchill gazed at the open wounds on the victim, whose name he had now learned was Absalom Hudson. At that moment, the widow turned up, just as the organ grinder on the corner began to play the Rat Stone Serenade. Mrs Hudson, and the Malabar rose she wore in her lapel (a rare bloom), presented a tragic but charming picture as she begged Runner Churchill for a sight of her husband’s corpse.

“I fear that’s impossible, ma’am. It’s against the rules, and our Sergeant Cluff stands firm on the matter. And he’s American!” “Ah!” interjected Gandhi. “That explains the three-martini lunches, then!” Ignoring him, Churchill continued “No one may see the body till the police artist has drawn the hospital sketches – I wish someone would hurry up and invent photography!”

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At the hospital, Mrs Hudson was joined by a friend who was staying with them for a while, the visitor being a French citizen, Kane by name. Bending over the body, Nurse Oliver twisted round to confirm the corpse was dead – though most people felt the missing heart was a good indicator of that status. But it’s always best to have these things confirmed by a professional. “His pulse rate is zero, ‘K? That means he’s dead.” Mrs Dalloway’s eyes skittered around, for one moment making her look truly, madly, guilty. “Eureka!” cried Doctor LaRose. “I’ve always wondered how to tell! It’s always been an enigma to me!” The girls in nurses’ uniforms in the corridor giggled, especially Nurse Jane Steele, who secretly was rather in love with the doctor.

A crusading journalist, always the seeker after truth, arrived fresh from a prayer meeting at Chapel Springs, (survival of which was frankly quite remarkable given the length of the sermon). The magnificent Spilsbury, as he was called, had rushed to the hospital on the 4:50 from Paddington. He was a different class, upper-middle, to be precise, and wondered aloud if the death might have been accidental. Mrs Hudson was outraged. “It’s murder,” she said. “As my husband himself would tell you if only it were possible that he had from the dust returned.” Strangely, a kite suddenly appeared around the corner of the corridor, and a moment later, a small child ran by in the perfect pass, holding the kite. Runner Gandhi boxed his ears and sent him on his way.

All the parties now gathered in a conclave to hear the opinion of Runner Dick Churchill, who was considered something of a rising man. He had studied the methods of Sergeant Cluff, and refined them in his head as he walked his beat along the dirt roads of old London. His greatest success to date had been in the case of the Magpie murders, when he deduced that the perpetrators were the infamous Seagull Gang, led by the notorious Henry Vavasour. As a pupil, during the schooldays, of Jesus College, Cambridge, Churchill had often skipped off out of bounds, down by the Black River Road, where he had made a detailed study of various types of mud, and produced a short monograph that had about it some echoes of Sherlock Holmes.

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Churchill was something of a philosopher about death, having spent much time in the thin air of the Cambridgeshire countryside, contemplating, amongst other things, the long, long life of trees. He himself had no fear of the blood, cardinal red though it may be. He thought of death as but a passing, a welcome to the Universe where he believed the immortal soul would spend a blissful eternity, looking back at life simply as being in the past tense. His thoughts were suddenly disturbed…

“Lend me your moby, Dick,” said Mrs Hudson. “I’d like to call my lawyer.”

Suddenly it all fell into place. “Mobile phones haven’t been invented yet!” Churchill cried, cuffing her. He had realised she was none other than the Black Widow, a time traveller from the future who had come back to Victorian London to escape justice for the crimes she would commit in 2001 – three dead husbands and the murder of a lady! Locking her temporarily in the hospital’s Slaughterhouse-Five (a name they were soon to change to Intensive Care Unit), he set off to hail a cab to take them to the police station. And so we leave them, as the cabhorse pulls off onto the road to justice, and the wheel spins. We must pray that time will bring the balm of Gilead to those shattered witnesses of this horrific crime…

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HAVE A GREAT DAY! 😀

Friday Frippery! Dear Santa…

…A Last Minute Request

I’ve gone and missed the last posting date for my Christmas pressies, so I’m hoping you and Rudolph could help me by dropping off some gifts while you’re doing your rounds tomorrow night. Here’s the list…

For Lizzie Bennet…

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…a set of noise cancelling headphones for when her mother’s trying to persuade her to marry the oleaginous Mr Collins.

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For Sherlock Holmes…

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… a nice vaping pipe. Three of these should solve any problem…

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For Hercule Poirot…

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…a Flick Knife Moustache Comb – useful should he ever have to defend his moustache from an evil villain.

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For Mr Rochester…

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…one or other of these self-help books should be useful, I think…

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For Miss Marple…

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…a handy tote bag, and something to help her with that difficult gift for Hercule…

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For Bertie Wooster…

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…to help deal with those occasional pesky infestations…

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For Scrooge…

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… a nice t-shirt will keep him warm and provide a handy reminder for when he hears those chains start to clank…

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For Darcy…

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Ahh, Darcy! The man who has everything! What could I give him but…

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Well, why should he be denied the opportunity to admire his own magnificence?

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Thanks for your help, Santa, and…

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MERRY CHRISTMAS!