FictionFan’s Book Reviews

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FictionFan Awards 2021 – Short Story Collections & Anthologies

A round of applause…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2021.

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

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2020 and October 2021* regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

(*my reviews have been running late recently so some drifted into November this year)

THE CATEGORIES

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

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

Vintage Crime Fiction

Factual

Short Story Collections & Anthologies

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2021

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

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

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

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

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

SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
& ANTHOLOGIES

Between horror, science fiction and mystery, I’ve read umpteen vintage genre collections and anthologies this year, many of them excellent, so I’ve decided to give them their own category. Five of them got the full five stars, so shortlisting was easy!

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Nature’s Warnings edited by Mike Ashley

This themed anthology from the great pairing of Mike Ashley and the British Library brings together eleven stories each with a focus on some aspect of ecology. It starts with an introduction in which Ashley discusses the rise in ecological awareness since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, but goes on to point out that SF writers had been considering ecological subjects for decades before that – dystopian destruction, animals and nature fighting back against man’s intrusions, symbiosis, settlement and terraforming of new worlds, and so on.

There’s the usual mix of well known SF authors, such as Philip K Dick and Clifford D Simak, together with some I’d never heard of, though since I’m no expert in this genre perhaps they’re more familiar to those who are. Two or three of the stories are a bit didactic and preachy for my taste, too busily making a point at the expense of entertaining. But the majority are very good – it’s always fascinating to see how imaginatively SF writers can deal with basically similar subject matter.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Bodies from the Library 4 edited by Tony Medawar

The theme of this series of anthologies of vintage mystery stories is that they are all, or mostly, ones that have never before been collected in book form since their first appearance in magazines or occasionally as scripts for radio plays. There are seventeen stories in this one, ranging from some that are only a few pages long right up to a short novel-length one from Christianna Brand, which frankly is worth the entrance price alone. There are some big names – Brand, of course, Ngaio Marsh, ECR Lorac, Edmund Crispin, et al – and, as usual, a few that were new to me. The last six stories form a little series, when well-known writers of the day were challenged by a newspaper to write a story based on a picture each of them were given.

Of course the quality varies, and there were several of the stories that got fairly low individual ratings from me (some of which are from the bigger names too). But they were mostly the shorter, less substantial stories, and were well outweighed by the many excellent ones. So overall, a very enjoyable collection and I’m now waiting to see if Medawar can find even more great uncollected stories for another volume!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Spaceworlds edited by Mike Ashley

This anthology takes as its theme living in space, either on space stations or ships. As always there’s an informative introduction from the series editor, Mike Ashley, in which he gives a short history of the development of the ideas of how man might make the colossal journeys around the solar system and beyond. The nine stories in this collection date between 1940 to 1967, so late enough for the scientific difficulties of space travel to be well understood, but early enough for the full play of imagination still to have plenty of scope.

Because of the theme of this collection, only one of the stories involves aliens and the characters rarely land on a planet, but the authors show how varied stories can be even when they share similar settings. A couple of them depend too much on technical problems for my taste – as soon as widgets break down and need to be repaired by ingenious scientific methods my brain seizes up and my eyes glaze over, but that’s simply a subjective issue. The other seven stories are all about the side of science fiction that interests me much more – examining how humans react when placed in unique situations. Another very enjoyable collection.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Born of the Sun edited by Mike Ashley

Mike Ashley’s third nomination in this category and fourth overall for this year’s awards – a phenomenal achievement! I was torn between this and the eventual winner, even considering whether to make it a joint award this year. This collection of ten vintage science fiction stories takes us on a tour of our Solar System. “Ten?” I hear you ask. Yes, there are six of the seven actual planets in the system (excluding Earth). Saturn’s moon Titan is included instead of the planet itself. (Well, obviously one couldn’t live on Saturn, silly!) Pluto is included because it was considered a planet until Neil De Grasse Tyson viciously demoted it to lump of rock or some such. The Asteroid Belt gets its own entry since there have been lots of stories about it. And there’s a mysterious planet, Vulcan – never seen but once postulated to exist by scientists trying to explain the oddness of Mercury’s orbit before Einstein’s theories provided a better explanation; and exercising a considerable magnetic pull on the imaginations of SF writers of the time.

Before each story there is an introduction to the planet, giving its dual history – the advances in scientific understanding of its physical properties over the decades, along with a potted history of how it was viewed and used over time by SF writers. These intros are fantastic – pitched at absolutely the right level for the interested non-scientist and packed full of examples of authors and specific stories to investigate further. Each story is also prefaced with fabulous pictures of the relevant planetscape, mostly as envisioned by Lucien Rudaux, a French artist and astronomer of the early 20th century. I must say that, much though I enjoyed most of the stories, it was the intros in this one that made it extra special – of all the great anthologies the BL has produced this year, this one is my favourite by miles… or I should probably say, by light-years!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2021

for

BEST SHORT STORY COLLECTION

Green Tea and Other Weird Stories
by Sheridan Le Fanu

This was an extremely difficult choice given how much I loved Born of the Sun, but the combination of great stories and an excellent introduction and notes in this collection helped consolidate Le Fanu’s position as one of my favourite horror writers of all time.

In terms of horror writing, it could be said that Sheridan Le Fanu needs no introduction, but in fact the introduction in this new collection of his work adds a lot of interesting insight into his life and work. Aaron Worth, Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Boston University, discusses whether Le Fanu was really the originator of weird fiction, as a term as well as a sub-genre, as is sometimes claimed. He also discusses the influence on Le Fanu’s work of his position as an Anglo-Irish Protestant of Huguenot descent living as part of a ruling class over a largely Catholic country.

The collection contains twelve stories, three of them novella length, and an exceptionally fine bunch they are, including some of his best known such as Green Tea, Schalken the Painter and my own favourite vampire story, the wonderful Carmilla. In most cases where more than one version of the story exists, Worth has gone back to the original and that seemed to me to work very well – there were a few of the stories I’d read before that I enjoyed more here, either because later changes had been stripped out or because the excellent notes provided extra information that enhanced my reading. I’ve said it before, but this is another example of how a well curated collection can become greater than the sum of its parts.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Six Degrees of Separation – From Wharton 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. This month’s starting book is…

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. For once I’ve read it! My own little blurb says…

From the beginning of this beautifully written novella we know that it will end in tragedy, as we see the middle-aged Ethan Frome, half-crippled and withdrawn, and looking older than his years. We are told his injuries date back to his ‘smash-up’ twenty-four years ago. The book then takes us back to that time, when Ethan was a young man in his prime, but struggling to scratch a living from a failing farm and shackled to a sickly wife he couldn’t love. The only happiness in his life comes from his growing love for Mattie, cousin to Ethan’s wife Zeena – a young girl left on her own in the world and reliant on Zeena’s cold charity.

Made me sob buckets, quite frankly! Edith Wharton’s first name was Edith, which may seem a little obvious. A little less obvious is that the author of my first selection’s first name was Edith too! Carol Carnac was a pseudonym of ECR Lorac which was a pseudonym of Edith Caroline Rivett…Book cover and link to Amazon product page

Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac

A group of young people are off on a trip to the Austrian Alps for a skiing holiday. With sixteen places in the group, it’s been a mammoth job to get everyone organised and some last minute cancellations mean that a few places have been filled by friends of friends, not directly known by other people in the group. So when some money goes missing from one of the hotel rooms, suddenly suspicion begins to threaten what had been up till then a most enjoyable jaunt. Meantime, back in London, a body has been found burned beyond recognition in a house fire. The police soon have reason to suspect this was no accident however, and the print of a ski-stick in the ground outside the house has Inspector Rivers intrigued…

The Austrian Alps link me to my next book…

Snow Country by Sebastian Faulks

Set between the wars, this tells the story of two damaged people, Anton and Lena, who each look for a kind of healing in the Schloss Seeblick, a mental health sanatorium in a mountain valley in Carinthia. Along the way, we see events in the wider world through Anton’s experiences as a foreign correspondent, and get glimpses of the complex political situation in this part of Europe as extremism grows on both left and right. And through Martha, the daughter of the founder of the Schloss Seeblick, who now acts as both administrator and therapist, we are given some insight into the development of psychoanalysis in Austria in the wake of Freud’s theories. 

Psychiatry plays a large part in the plot of Snow Country and also in my next book…

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Chief Bromden has been on the mental ward for years, one of the Chronics who are never expected to recover. Everyone believes he is deaf and dumb, but his silence is a choice – a result of years of feeling that no one heard him when he spoke. Chief Bromden may be insane – or perhaps he’s too sane. As he puts it himself…

…you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.

Into the ward one day comes a new patient, Randle P McMurphy: loud, brash, crude, funny. Maybe he’s insane, or maybe he’s faking it to get away from the work farm he was in for “fighting and fucking too much”. McMurphy is soon the “bull goose loony” in the ward, a gambling man challenging Nurse Ratched for supremacy…

A cuckoo is a type of bird, (see how educational my blog is?) and a different bird gets title billing (plus puns!) in my next choice…

Click for review

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

When luscious Miss Wonderly hires the detective firm of Spade and Archer to find her sister, Sam Spade might not believe her story but he’s happy to accept the $200 dollars she pays them upfront. So is Miles Archer, though his interest is more in the lady’s lovely legs. The job turns out to be more than either partner bargains for though, when Miles is shot dead. With Miss Wonderly begging for his help to protect her and find the Maltese Falcon of the title, Miles’ wife hoping his death means she and Sam can finally be together, and the police accusing him of murdering a man in revenge for Miles’ death, Spade is in trouble up to his neck. But nothing he can’t handle…

Humphrey Bogart starred in the movie of The Maltese Falcon, and also in the movie of my fifth pick…

The African Queen by CS Forester

It is 1914. When the Germans round up all the native inhabitants of the Reverend Samuel Sayer’s mission in Central Africa to take them off to fight in the war, the Reverend quickly succumbs to fever and dies, leaving his faithful sister all alone. Until along comes Charles Allnut, a Cockney mechanic who had been out on the river collecting supplies when the Germans came, and returned to find all the people at the mine where he worked gone too. He realises he can’t leave Rose here, so takes her with him aboard the little steam boat, the African Queen, planning to find somewhere safe to hole up till the war is over, at least in this part of the world. Rose, however, has a different idea. She wants revenge on the Germans for destroying her brother’s life work, and quickly convinces herself that they should take the African Queen down river to Lake Wittelsbach, there to destroy the German gunboat that patrols the lake. It takes her a little longer to convince Allnut…

The African Queen is a Belgian-owned steamboat working the Ulanga River in Tanzania. My sixth and final book also takes us on a steamboat journey along an African river, this time into the dark heart of the Belgian Congo…

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

One night a group of friends are aboard a boat on the Thames waiting for the tide before they can set sail. As darkness grows around them, one of the men, Marlow, tells the story of the time he worked as a pilot on a steamboat on the Congo and of the rogue ivory trader, Kurtz, whom he met there.

This book is an excoriating study of the horrors of colonialism in Africa. Conrad shows the devastating impact the white man had on both the society and the land of Africa, but he also shows that this devastation turns back on the coloniser, corrupting him physically and psychologically, and by extension, corrupting the societies from which he comes.

….“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams….”
….He was silent for a while.
….“… No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone….”

* * * * *

So from Wharton to Conrad, via Edith, Austrian Alps, psychiatry, birds, Bogart and African steamboats!

Hope you enjoyed the journey! 😀

Recalled to Life (Dalziel and Pascoe 13) by Reginald Hill

The last Golden Age murder…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Back in 1963 Dalziel was a young detective, working for a man he respected as a mentor and friend, Wally Tallantire. It was Tallantire who solved what has since been called “the last Golden Age murder” – called that, anyway, by the documentary maker who is casting doubt on the investigation and questioning the verdict. A weekend house party at Mickledore Hall had included a government minister, a diplomat with Royal connections, a CIA officer, a variety of spouses and a couple of nannies, and much bed-hopping had gone on. It all ended with the shooting of one of the wives, and Tallantire’s investigation led to the conviction of the owner of the Hall, Ralph Mickledore, and his lover, the American nanny Cissy Kohler. Mickledore, strangely confident that he would be pardoned, found his confidence misplaced and was hanged. Cissy Kohler, whose confession led to the conviction of them both, has spent thirty years in prison, but is now out and is claiming Tallantire forced the confession out of her. In a bid to protect the reputation of his old mentor, now dead, Dalziel starts to look into the case again. At first he is confident the right people were convicted at the time, but gradually he begins to worry that Tallantire may indeed have cut a few corners…

This is quite an odd one in the series, in that it’s a cold case investigation. As is usual in the UK, another force has been tasked with carrying out the review of the handling of the case and Dalziel is told by his boss to keep out of it, but when does Dalziel ever do what his boss tells him? Soon he has dragged Pascoe into his unofficial investigation, reluctantly since Pascoe is in the unenviable position of being the liaison with the official investigators. Pascoe never knew Tallantire, but his loyalty to Dalziel is stronger than he would like to admit so he understands why Dalziel wants Tallantire’s name cleared.

1963 was the time of the Profumo affair in Britain, which involved the downfall of a government minister, John Profumo, when it was revealed that he had been having an affair with a woman, Christine Keeler, who had also been playing around with a Soviet naval officer. One scandal led to another, and there were all kinds of rumours of men in prominent positions being involved with high-class prostitutes provided by a kind of socialite pimp, who later killed himself. Hill has used this story freely to build his own version of the scandal among the people visiting Mickledore Hall, but with enough differences to keep it interesting. For instance, he has added at least one murder! One of the things I like about Hill is that when he borrows from life or fiction, he makes it very clear that he’s doing so – it is no coincidence, I’m sure, that Christine Keeler and Cissy Kohler share initials, for instance. The title is also borrowed, from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, in which an innocent man spends many years in prison for the crime of knowing too much about the sordid secrets of the rich and powerful.

However, Cissy is not an appealing character. Whether guilty or innocent of involvement in the murder for which she was convicted, there is no doubt that one of her young charges died while in her care, either through negligence or deliberate design. And during her imprisonment she killed a prison guard. Dalziel feels these actions vindicate Tallantire’s belief in her guilt. But when he comes to suspect that maybe Tallantire did pressure her into a confession, he realises this would mean that the real guilty party got away with murder, and that’s not an idea that pleases him.

When Dalziel is told in no uncertain terms to take a holiday before he gets suspended, he decides to go to America, where several of the original suspects now are, including Cissy herself. Seeing Dalziel blundering about America in his usual blunt, bull in a china shop way is fun – he is as baffled by some aspects of American culture as the Americans are by him.

Reginald Hill

The story in this one is very convoluted, and it seems as if everyone has at least one secret, often more. I think it gets too busy at times, and crosses the credibility line more than Hill usually does. However, he’s great at showing how big a part class played in all aspects of British life in the early ‘60s – it still does, of course, but there’s not the same reverence today as there was back then towards the “well-born” rich and powerful. The death of the child makes it darker than a true Golden Age mystery would normally be, and gives a psychological depth and ambiguity to Cissy’s character that might otherwise have been missing. But there’s also enough humour in it to lift the tone and make it as entertaining as most of these books are. Not one I’d recommend as an entry point for newcomers to the series since I think it works better if you know Dalziel well, but a rewarding and enjoyable read for existing fans.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

These Names Make Clues by ECR Lorac

MacDonald on the spot…

😀 😀 😀 😀

After being rather rude about detective fiction to a man he later discovered was Graham Coombe, a publisher of the genre, Inspector MacDonald is surprised to be invited to a little party at Coombe’s house. The party is to be a treasure hunt, with a group of thriller writers and a group of more heavyweight writers competing to solve clues which will lead them to the treasure. Coombe thinks it will be amusing to have a bona fide detective there too, especially one who is on record as suggesting that real detectives are better at solving things than fictional ones. MacDonald hesitates, but in the end decides to go. So he’s on the spot when one of the guests is killed…

This is quite different in style to the other Loracs I’ve read. She was clearly having fun at the expense of her own profession and there’s some mild humour over various styles and personalities which Martin Edwards suggests in his introduction may have been influenced by her chums in the Detection Club. But it’s not as light-hearted as it at first seems – there’s a serious plot in there too.

Each guest at the party is given a literary pseudonym and part of the game is for them all to work out who each other is in real life, most of them never having met before. While this conceit is quite amusing, I must say it led to a good deal of confusion for this poor reader. For the first few chapters we are introduced to “Samuel Pepys”, “Jane Austen” and so on, and then after the murder they all start to be called by their “real” names, which, as is normal in the world of novel-writing, are often pseudonyms too. So with each character having at least two names, sometimes more, I spent a ridiculous amount of time going back to the list which is happily provided a few chapters in, of which pseudonym matches which “real” name. This also made me realise that I wasn’t building up a real picture of most of the characters, or they should have been recognisable by that regardless of which name was being used for them.

The plot is as complex as the names and really couldn’t be described as fair-play, I feel. However, since I can rarely work out whodunit and don’t make much of an effort to try, this didn’t bother me. The book has a traditional “closed circle” of suspects – it’s clear that it must have been someone in the house during the party who committed the first crime. It also has the kind of complicated murder method more common in a howdunit style of mystery, but in this one MacDonald very quickly works out the how and the reader is allowed to know too. Of course, there is a second murder, and it has aspects of the locked room mystery, again with a complicated method. So there’s a lot going on, too much, I felt, and too many coincidences at play.

Normally Lorac’s settings play a major part in her books, be it London in the Blitz or the rural Lune Valley. This one hasn’t got that – although Coombe’s house is in London it has more of the feel of the “country house” mystery, with most of the action taking place in people’s drawings rooms.

I enjoyed it more than this review is probably suggesting, but I didn’t think it was quite up to the standard I’ve come to expect of her. I liked that we got to see MacDonald off duty in the first section of the book, making him feel a bit more rounded as a character. And I always enjoy the way he’s a team player, involving his junior officers fully and neither ridiculing nor patronising them, as some Golden Age police ‘tecs do. So plenty to like about it, but I’d tend to suggest it’s one for existing Lorac fans – new readers would be better to start elsewhere, probably with one of her wartime books where I feel she excels.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 308…

Episode 308

Another massive drop in the TBR since I last reported to 182 – down 4! Which is almost exactly the same number as my abandoned heap has grown by. An odd coincidence, eh?

Here are a few more that will discover their fate soon. Exciting, isn’t it?

Christie Shorts 

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie

Courtesy of HarperCollins. Another of the HarperCollins series of special edition hardbacks of some of Christie’s short story collections, and again much more gorgeous than the cover pic makes it look. I’ve read this collection before but it must have been a long time ago since I haven’t reviewed it on the blog, so I’m looking forward to revisiting it. I also received a copy of The Tuesday Club Murders, which I’ve quite recently listened to on audio and reviewed, under its alternative title, The Thirteen Problems. So I’ll probably save it for a while before reading it again, but do recommend it – I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Blurb says: First came a sinister warning to Poirot not to eat any plum pudding… then the discovery of a corpse in a chest… next, an overheard quarrel that led to murder… the strange case of the dead man who altered his eating habits… and the puzzle of the victim who dreamt his own suicide.

What links these five baffling cases? The little grey cells of Monsieur Hercule Poirot!

Contains the stories:
• The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding
• The Mystery of the Spanish Chest
• Four-And-Twenty Blackbirds
• The Under Dog
• The Dream

* * * * *

Vintage Crime

Murder in the Basement by Anthony Berkeley

Courtesy of the British Library. The last Berkeley novel the BL re-issued was a standalone, but this one stars his regular amateur ‘tec, Roger Sheringham, whom I’ve encountered before in a few short stories. I’m looking forward to seeing him in action in a full length novel.

The Blurb says: Roger and Molly Dane have something of a surprise in their new house. When Roger explores the basement on return from their honeymoon, he discovers something odd with the flooring. Hoping to find buried treasure, he digs up the body of a woman instead. Chief Inspector Moresby and Roger Sheringham are then left with the task of discovering who the lady was, how she came to be there, and who shot her in the back of the head.

* * * * *

Thriller

The Chateau by Catherine Cooper

Courtesy of HarperCollins. This is another of the unsolicited thrillers they send me from time to time, some of which end up quite quickly on the abandoned heap, and some of which I unexpectedly enjoy! I’m hoping this one will fall into the latter category… 

The Blurb says: They thought it was perfect. They were wrong…

A glamorous chateau

Aura and Nick don’t talk about what happened in England. They’ve bought a chateau in France to make a fresh start, and their kids need them to stay together – whatever it costs.

A couple on the brink

The expat community is welcoming, but when a neighbour is murdered at a lavish party, Aura and Nick don’t know who to trust.

A secret that is bound to come out…

Someone knows exactly why they really came to the chateau. And someone is going to give them what they deserve.

The Sunday Times bestseller is back with a rollercoaster read, perfect for fans of Lucy Foley and Ruth Ware.

* * * * *

Dalziel and Pascoe on Audio

The Wood Beyond by Reginald Hill narrated by Jonathan Keeble

Continuing my slow re-read of my favourite crime series of all time. A new narrator has taken over, so I’m hoping I’ll like him as much as I’ve grown to like Colin Buchanan who did most of the earlier books. My memory of this one is that I wasn’t as keen on it as most of the others in this middle section of the series, but it’s a long time since I last read it so we’ll see…

The Blurb says: A ravaged wood, a man in uniform long dead – this is not a World War One battlefield, but Wanwood House, a pharmaceutical research centre. Peter Pascoe attends his grandmother’s funeral, and scattering her ashes leads him too into war-torn woods in search of his great-grandfather who fought and died in Passchendaele. Seeing the wood for the trees is the problem for Andy Dalziel when he finds himself fancying an animal rights activist, despite her possible complicity in a murderous assault and her appalling taste in whisky. A mind-bending puzzle leading us on the wild side of the pastoral.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

FictionFan Awards 2021 – Factual

A round of applause…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2021.

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

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2020 and October 2021* regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

(*my reviews have been running late recently so some drifted into November this year)

THE CATEGORIES

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

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

Vintage Crime Fiction

Factual

Short Story Collections & Anthologies

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2021

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

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

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

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

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

FACTUAL

I’ve read far fewer factual books than usual this year, and a lot of them related to my ongoing Reading the Spanish Civil War challenge. Fortunately most of the books were excellent – out of a total of eight books read, five got the full five stars, So that made shortlisting easy!

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Yesterday’s Tomorrows edited by Mike Ashley

Mike Ashley has been editing the British Library’s Science Fiction Classics series for the last few years, for which he has selected some excellent novels and brought together several enjoyable themed anthologies. So it seems natural that he should produce what can be seen as a guide book to his chosen genre, classic British science fiction novels from the mid-1890s to the mid-1960s. He has selected 100 of these, discussing the merits of each and placing them in their context within the genre.

I love this kind of book – when you don’t really know a genre very well it can be hard to know where to start, and I have a tendency to read the very well known ones and then give up. This has given me not just the basic 100 books to explore, but an understanding of what was happening in the genre and how the later writers built on the work of the earlier ones. I’ve resisted the temptation so far to challenge myself to read all 100 but, as Seven of Nine would remind us, resistance is futile…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

Orwell’s classic memoir of his time as a participant in the Spanish Civil War has the mix of romanticised idealism and hard-nosed realism that has become embedded as the received mythology of the war in the popular imagination – in Britain, at least. Orwell attached himself to POUM, one of the many factions on the left – a Trotskyite grouping opposed, not only to the right whom they were supposed to be fighting, but also to the USSR-backed Communist faction. This division led to fighting on the streets of Barcelona in May of 1937, as a result of which POUM were driven underground by the ascendant Communists.

Splitting the politics off into the appendices works very well, preventing the human side of the story from getting bogged down in analysis. I was expecting it to be more propagandistic than it is – his honesty gives a very clear picture of his growing disillusion, not with the theories and ideals underpinning the revolution, but with the realities of it. Although I was glad I knew a bit of the background, I didn’t think it was necessary. It could easily be read on its own – it’s more about the experience of participating in a civil war than it is about the rights or wrongs of the cause. An excellent read.

Barricade in Barcelona during the May Days

Click to see the full review

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The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

May, 1940. Already weakened by failures in Norway, the successful blitzkrieg in Holland and Belgium sounded the death knell for Chamberlain as Prime Minister. Reluctantly King George VI offered the position to Winston Churchill, a man adored by the public although many of his colleagues thought him too erratic for the role. Larson sets out to tell of Churchill’s first year in power: holding British morale together during the Blitz; desperately working to build up British forces to defend against the expected invasion; battling to get America, even if they weren’t willing to put boots on the ground, to at least assist with money and equipment while Britain stood alone against the overpowering forces of the Nazi war machine.

Larson is brilliant at bringing historical events to life so that it feels as if the reader is there in the room rather than reading a dry recital of historical facts years afterwards. Here he uses a variety of personal accounts to paint a vivid picture of Churchill through this dramatic period – primarily the diaries of his daughter, Mary, and his private secretary, Jock Colville, supplemented by various letters and memos between Churchill and members of his inner team. Larson also turns to contemporaneous reports in the newspapers and on radio, to show what people knew and how they felt at the time rather than through the lens of hindsight.

Visiting the bombed out Coventry Cathedral

Click to see the full review

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The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan

Gerald Brenan explains in his introduction that, having been there at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he wanted to understand what led to it, and preoccupied himself with studying this during the war. This book, first published in 1943, is the result, and is now considered a classic history of the period.

Where Brenan excels is in his detailed breakdown of the background to the conflict, especially his explanation of why the various different regions in Spain developed differing political alignments dependant on local geographical, agricultural and industrial factors. While all were affected by the power plays amongst the monarchy, Church and military, he shows that the impact differed according to the economic and social history of each region. I found that I was gradually developing a map of the country in my mind, one that showed not simply where places were but what people did there – how they lived, were they wealthy or poor, who owned the land, was the land fertile, what were their local industries, and so on. He also shows how parts of Spain looked over the border towards Europe while other parts were still influenced by their Moorish past. I found this a fascinating and hugely informative read, that left me with a much better understanding of what led to the rise of the various factions, and why the drive towards war became seemingly unstoppable.

Gerald Brenan

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2021

for

BEST FACTUAL

The Gathering Storm by Winston Churchill

While all the shortlisted books are excellent and highly recommended, again it was easy to pick the winner in this category. This series, among his other writings, won Churchill the Nobel Prize for Literature and for once I heartily concur.

The first book in Churchill’s massive six-volume history of the Second World War, this covers the period from the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 to the day when Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940. It is a superbly written account of the period from one man’s viewpoint – that man happening to be one of the handful of important men who decided the fate of the world for the second half of the twentieth century at least.

Churchill leads us through his stance against appeasement, explaining how the Nazis used the time gained by the Allies’ dithering to build up a mighty war machine. He is pretty brutal about failures of the national policies of the WW1 victors, especially the US’ self-interested and isolationist position of neutrality. But France and Britain come in for plenty of criticism too, for continuing to attempt to mollify and compromise with Hitler’s Germany long after, in Churchill’s opinion, such attempts were obviously dangerous. He barely hides his disgust at the Munich agreement and the betrayal of the Allies’ commitment to Czechoslovakia. And he takes us through the early days of the war, when Chamberlain’s failures led to his resignation, and the monarch and Parliament turned to Churchill to lead Britain through her darkest hour.

A first-rate history with just enough of the personal to bring out the emotional drama of war – I will certainly go on to read the other five volumes in the series.

….A few feet behind me, as I sat in my old chair, was the wooden map-case I had had fixed in 1911, and inside it still remained the chart of the North Sea on which each day, in order to focus attention on the supreme objective, I had made the Naval Intelligence Branch record the movements and dispositions of the German High Seas Fleet. Since 1911 much more than a quarter of a century had passed, and still mortal peril threatened us at the hands of the same nation. Once again defence of the rights of a weak State, outraged and invaded by unprovoked aggression, forced us to draw the sword. Once again we must fight for life and honour against all the might and fury of the valiant, disciplined, and ruthless German race. Once again! So be it.

Spoiler alert: We won!

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Short Story Collections & Anthologies

Tuesday ‘Tec! Murder by the Book edited by Martin Edwards

Beware writers!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Whenever one of these British Library anthologies, be it crime, science fiction or horror, pops through my door, I rub my hands in glee, knowing that at least some of the stories will be great and I’ll be treated to a raft of authors, both old favourites and new acquaintances. This one contains sixteen stories, all connected in some way to books, book collectors or authors. I came to the conclusion, in fact, that being a writer is a very dangerous thing – so many of them seem to become either murderers or murder victims! Plenty of big names here – Ngaio Marsh, Julian Symons, Christianna Brand, etc. – and a few less well known ones, though through reading so many of these anthologies I’m beginning to recognise and look forward to some of the names which turn up regularly even if I’ve not yet read any of their novels. All those who, like me, loved The Red House Mystery and felt it was such a pity AA Milne only wrote one mystery novel will be delighted to know there’s a short story from him in this collection, and a fine one it is too!

The overall quality of the stories is unusually high. The lowest rating I gave was three stars (meaning OK), but by far the majority were either good or excellent. Eight out of the sixteen earned the full five stars. The variation in styles is also wide, from traditional “closed circle” and “impossible crime” mysteries, to humorous and self-mocking takes on the life of the poor downtrodden mystery writer, all the way to full-on thriller-style stories.

With such a cornucopia of goodies, it’s extremely hard to pick just a few to highlight, but here goes – three picked fairly randomly from my favourites to give a flavour of the variety…

A Question of Character by Victor Canning – Geoffrey Gilroy is a moderately successful thriller writer, but his wife, who had never written before their marriage, has now become a publishing sensation. When he finds himself being referred to as “Martha Gilroy’s husband”, he decides she’s got to go – a nice little murder will salve his vanity, plus it will allow him to marry his mistress, a woman who happily shows no inclination to write books of any kind. He plans the murder meticulously, but you know what they say about the best-laid plans! This is great – it becomes a fast-paced thriller half-way through and builds up some real page-turning tension.

Book of Honour by John Creasey – Malcolm Graham, our narrator, is a book distributor in colonial-era India. One day he gives a little money to a poor man, Baburao, who is trying to sell cheap postcards to eke out a living. Baburao uses the money to set up a rickety shelf from which he sells books. He approaches Malcolm, who again helps him, this time by allowing him to select some of his company’s books to sell, on credit. Baburao uses this favour wisely again, until eventually he has set up a thriving business as a bookseller, with his own shops. But Baburao never forgets his poor origins, and spends his time and money helping those in the famine camps. There is a crime in this one, and it’s rather a heart-breaker, but the overall story is of these two good men, Malcolm and Baburao, and their mutual respect and growing friendship. I thought it was excellent, full of humanity and warmth.

You’re Busy Writing by Edmund Crispin – Ted Bradley is a thriller writer who longs for peace to write. He sets himself a target of 2,000 words a day, but between his cleaning lady and her laundry worries, the telephone and random visitors at his cottage, he finds he’s constantly losing his flow just at the point when he’s come up with a killer metaphor or thrilling clue! On this day he’s already been interrupted countless times when a couple he barely knows turn up at his door, invite themselves in and make it clear they intend to spend the whole day and evening there, drinking his booze and keeping him from his work, until it’s dark enough for them to elope together, deserting their respective spouses. Let’s just say Ted finds a drastic way to solve his problem. Very funny, laugh out loud at some points, and one can’t help feeling it’s written from Crispin’s own experience, although hopefully he found other ways to rid himself of unwanted interruptions!

One final thought – the last four stories in the book are four of the very best. I’ve said it before, but anthologists should always aim to start with a great story or two to get the busy reader’s attention and goodwill, and then keep the rest of the best to end with, and that way the reader will promptly forget if any of the ones in the middle were a bit disappointing. This anthology starts with the weakest story of all in my opinion, but, dear reader, it’s worth rushing past that one because goodies await you in abundance! Highly recommended.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Pūrākau edited by Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka

Subtitle: Māori Myths Retold by Māori Writers

Wrong reader, wrong book…

🙂 🙂 😐

This is a collection of short stories and a few poems based on Māori mythology, as the subtitle suggests. Since I know nothing about Māori mythology, I thought this might be an interesting way to fill the gap, but sadly I had to conclude that I was wrong. In retrospect this book would work much better for someone who is already familiar with the mythology and, more importantly, knows a fair amount of the Māori language. The editors have chosen not to include footnotes or even a glossary to explain the many Māori words and expressions used throughout the stories. I get that – why should they? It is not their function to mollycoddle my ignorance. I would not expect someone writing in German to footnote every word for my benefit. Rather, I would choose not to read the book unless and until it was translated into English. With this one, I started out willing to google the translations of the Māori words, but in the end there were so many of them, and some of the stories depended so totally on understanding words or myths unfamiliar to me, that I found I was spending more time reading Google than the book. Eventually I found myself abandoning stories as it began to feel as if I were doing a translation exercise in school rather than reading for pleasure. So, not the book’s fault – it is clearly aimed at a demographic of which I am not part. Wrong reader, wrong book.

In light of that, I’m not sure that anything I have to say about the stories I did make it through would be particularly insightful. I enjoyed some of them, both the retellings of original myths or the stories that took those myths and used them in a modern context. However, I felt the quality varied wildly from excellent to pretty poor. I learned a little about the mythology, though not as much as I had hoped. And I learned something about modern Māori culture, or at least about the authors’ chosen perspectives on Māori culture: the deprivation, the prevalence of substance abuse and incest, and their bitterness against the colonisers and current white population whom they see as the cause of their social problems. The stories set in modern times eliminated my cosy existing belief that somehow New Zealand was doing better on issues of racial harmony than the rest of us. But most of the stories left me feeling that I hadn’t understood them: literally, because I didn’t understand the many Māori words, or figuratively, because I didn’t understand the mythology and culture underpinning them. A fairly generous 2½ stars for me then.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Wintringham Mystery by Anthony Berkeley

Searching for Cicely…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Stephen Munro has run through the small inheritance left him by an uncle and finds he needs a job. A demobbed army officer from the upper classes, he has no useful experience, so the only job he can get is as footman to Lady Susan Carey at Wintringham Hall. Lady Susan is hosting a house party, and unfortunately for the new footman several of the guests know him on a social footing, putting him in a rather awkward situation. Especially so when Pauline, the woman he loves, turns up with her new fiancé. However when one of the guests goes missing in mysterious circumstances, Lady Susan turns to Stephen, for whom she has developed a maternal fondness, to act as a kind of private detective on her behalf…

This is a lot of fun, so long as you can overlook the basic silliness of it all. Pauline soon teams up with Stephen in the investigation and there’s more than a whiff of romance in the air, while the other characters range from Wodehouse-type silly asses, to nasty crooks, to pretty girls, to downtrodden companions. No police, which is odd given that the story involves not only theft but murder, but they must have done things differently in Sussex in the 1920s! The story was originally serialised in six parts in a newspaper, and I did wonder at points if Berkeley knew how it was going to end when he started it – it seems to wander around quite a lot in the middle, not quite sure if it’s a comedy or a serious crime story, and some of the characters’ personalities seem to change a bit as the story develops. However, it’s very entertaining, so I was able to forgive the lack of credibility and slightly chaotic plotting.

The British obsession with class is present in full force. The very idea of a young man from a good family taking a job as a footman is apparently hilarious, not only to the other guests but to the reader (most of whom would have been from the working class given that the newspaper in question was The Daily Mirror – proving, if proof were needed, that British elitism is a tradition upheld by those at the bottom as much as those at the top). To be fair to Stephen, he takes the job seriously and does it rather well for the short period before Lady Susan decides to convert him from employee to guest.

The mystery all begins when one of the guests, Freddie, insists on holding a kind of séance, naturally with all the lights turned out. When they are turned back on, it transpires that Cicely, a young protégée of Lady Susan, has disappeared. Some of the guests think supernatural forces are at work, others think Cicely is playing an elaborate hoax and will soon reappear when she tires of hiding, and others think that some kind of nefarious happenings are… er… happening. This last group feel vindicated when Cicely doesn’t reappear, and Lady Susan’s jewels disappear! Stephen and Pauline must try to find Cicely and work out what is going on. And then someone dies…

Anthony Berkeley

Not that that death in any way darkens the general tone of jollity and romance! Each of the characters has some kind of mystery about them or behaves in a suspicious manner, so Stephen and Pauline have great fun guessing at motives and wandering about the house by torchlight in the middle of the night, and so on. Lady Susan takes the loss of her jewels and a death on her property in her stride, showing the true stiff-upper-lip spirit of the aristocracy. Makes you proud to be British!

In the end, the solution is in one sense quite simple and in another so complex that two days after reading it I can’t for the life of me remember what it was all about! Seems to me there are loose ends lying around all over the place, unless they were all neatly tied up but lost in the general confusion. But all’s well that ends well, eh? And I enjoyed it very much while I was reading it, which is the main thing. One not to be taken too seriously, then, but great for when you just want a bit of light entertainment to while away a few hours.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 307 – Review-Along and The People’s Choice

Episode 307

A special edition this week, announcing the results of the Review-Along discussions and The People’s Choice Poll, so let’s dive straight in…

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Review-Along

Some great suggestions from Christine and Kelly provoked lots of interest and discussion – thank you, ladies!

One book quickly emerged as the front-runner and stayed that way, so it’ll be the February read. However there was another book that lots of people were interested in reading too, so I thought we could put it on for a later Review-Along. Obviously no one should feel obliged to read both, or indeed either, of the books, but anyone is welcome to join in whether you took part in the discussions or not.

For newcomers, the idea is simple – everyone will read the book in their own time and at their own pace, and we’ll all review it on the same day. For non-bloggers or anyone who doesn’t want to review the book on their own blog, you’re invited to leave your reviews/opinions in the comments section of my review on the day.

Here they are then…

Review-Along 16th February 2022

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

12 people expressed an interest in reading this one! This is relatively short – my copy has 256 pages.

The Blurb says: Go Tell It On The Mountain, first published in 1953, is Baldwin’s first major work, a semi-autobiographical novel that has established itself as an American classic. With lyrical precision, psychological directness, resonating symbolic power, and a rage that is at once unrelenting and compassionate, Baldwin chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy’s discovery of the terms of his identity as the stepson of the minister of a storefront Pentecostal church in Harlem one Saturday in March of 1935. Baldwin’s rendering of his protagonist’s spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle of self-invention opened new possibilities in the American language and in the way Americans understand themselves.

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Review-Along 20th April 2022

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame/Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

8 people said they might join in on this one, if they could fit it in. I’ve suggested 20th April 2022, but if that date doesn’t suit anyone let me know in the comments and we can change it. The book is chunky but not quite as chunky as I’d thought – my copy comes in at 592 pages.

The Blurb says: Victor Hugo’s Romantic novel of dark passions and unrequited love.

In the vaulted Gothic towers of Notre-Dame Cathedral lives Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bellringer. Mocked and shunned for his appearance, he is pitied only by Esmerelda, a beautiful gypsy dancer to whom he becomes completely devoted. Esmerelda, however, has also attracted the attention of the sinister archdeacon Claude Frollo, and when she rejects his lecherous approaches, Frollo hatches a plot to destroy her, that only Quasimodo can prevent. Victor Hugo’s sensational, evocative novel brings life to the medieval Paris he loved, and mourns its passing in one of the greatest historical romances of the nineteenth century.

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I’m looking forward hugely to reading all the reviews of both of these books, and the books themselves, of course – hope you are too! I’ll remind of the dates nearer the time, on my regular Thursday TBR posts.

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The People’s Choice Poll

It was a close race for most of the way this time, but then one book gradually pulled ahead by a few votes, so it’ll be my January read. Regulars will know I’ve been struggling to get back to running three months ahead with these since I fell behind during my long hiatus in the middle of the year, so I’ve decided that, rather than run a separate poll for February, the second choice book will get that slot. So we have two winners, and I think they both sound as if they could be great – fingers crossed!

January Winner

The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell

The Blurb says: India, 1857–the year of the Great Mutiny, when Muslim soldiers turned in bloody rebellion on their British overlords. This time of convulsion is the subject of J. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, widely considered one of the finest British novels of the last fifty years.

Farrell’s story is set in an isolated Victorian outpost on the subcontinent. Rumours of strife filter in from afar, and yet the members of the colonial community remain confident of their military and, above all, moral superiority. But when they find themselves under actual siege, the true character of their dominion–at once brutal, blundering, and wistful–is soon revealed.

The Siege of Krishnapur is a companion to Troubles, about the Easter 1916 rebellion in Ireland, and The Singapore Grip, which takes place just before World War II, as the sun begins to set upon the British Empire. Together these three novels offer an unequalled picture of the follies of empire.

Winner of the Booker Prize.

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February Winner

The Chink in the Armour by Marie Belloc Lowndes

The Blurb says: Wealthy widow Sylvia Bailey is idling around Europe when she befriends another widow, Madame Wolsky, who is a gambling addict. As they are spending their last days together in Paris, two friends decide to go to a fortune teller, but the visit leaves them anxious.

However, despite a psychic’s warning that they will find themselves in a grave danger from which at least one of them will not escape, Sylvia and Madame Wolsky decide to go to the gambling town of Lacville in order to test their fortune.

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Thanks to everyone who participated in either the Review-Along discussion or the People’s Choice Poll. You’ve made some excellent choices! 😀

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

FictionFan Awards 2021 – Vintage Crime Fiction

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2021.

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

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2020 and October 2021* regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

(*my reviews have been running late recently so some drifted into November this year)

THE CATEGORIES

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

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

Vintage Crime Fiction

Factual

Short Story Collections & Anthologies

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2021

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

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

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

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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

VINTAGE CRIME FICTION

This has been another fab year for vintage crime fiction with publishers re-issuing more and more “forgotten” books, keeping me entertained with some of my most enjoyable reads of the year, not to mention my slowly ongoing Murder, Mystery, Mayhem Challenge. To keep it simple, I’m calling anything published up to 1971 Vintage, and anything after that date Modern. That way it ties in with the date I use to differentiate classic from modern in literary fiction.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare

Mr Justice Barber is a High Court judge, currently acting as His Majesty’s Judge of Assize in the Southern Circuit of England. When he receives a threatening anonymous letter he doesn’t think much of it, since threats tend to come with the position and as the King’s representative he is surrounded by police and officials to protect his dignity and, if necessary, his life. However, when he then receives a box of chocolates which turn out to have been poisoned, he begins to take the matter more seriously…

Cyril Hare drew on his personal experience as a barrister and Judge’s Marshal to give a wonderful depiction of the Assizes, an archaic and now defunct system of travelling justice. The characterisation is excellent, especially of the judge’s wife, Hilda, a brilliant, qualified barrister in her own right who now acts as a kind of power behind the throne to her husband. The mystery is fair play, but of course I failed to work it out!

Click to see the full review

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The Corpse in the Waxworks by John Dickson Carr

Inspector Bencolin and his friend Jeff Marle take on a case involving a woman who walked into the Musée Augustin waxworks one evening and was never seen alive again. Her body later turned up in the Seine. Before they can discover who killed her, they must find out why she went to the waxworks, and why so many other unlikely people seem to find it a place worth visiting late in the evenings…

This is the fourth in the series about the Mephistophelian Bencolin, head of the Parisian detective force, and his American sidekick Marle. The plots are always intricate versions of the “impossible” crime subgenre for which Carr was famous, and this is just as fiendish as the others. But what makes them stand out most from the crowd is Carr’s ability to create wonderfully macabre settings, steeped in decadence and the gruesomeness of the Grand Guignol. Carr is brilliant at spooking both poor Jeff and the reader too, and the decadent evil at the heart of the plot seems right at home in this waxen world of shadows and horrors.

Click to see the full review

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Cécile is Dead by Georges Simenon

Cécile Pardon had become a regular visitor to Inspector Maigret at his office in the Police Judiciaire building in Paris. A spinster who lived with her elderly widowed aunt, Cécile had become convinced that someone was coming in to their apartment at night while they slept. Maigret had made a superficial gesture towards investigating, but everyone thought she was imagining things. So on this morning, when Maigret saw her sitting patiently in the waiting room he left her there and got on with other things. When eventually he went to collect her, she was gone. Later, the body of her aunt is found in the apartment, strangled, and Cécile is nowhere to be found. The title gives a clue as to her fate.

This is one of the best of the Maigrets I’ve read so far. Simenon’s portrayal of the unglamorous side of Paris is as excellent as always, but this one is better plotted than some, the themes have depth, and the characterisation throughout is excellent. And I always enjoy when the solution manages to surprise me but still feel credible. Quite a bleak story, but Maigret’s fundamental decency and integrity always stop these stories from becoming too depressingly noir.

Click to see the full review

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The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

When country solicitor Robert Blair is contacted by Marion Sharp with a request for his help in a matter involving the police, his first reaction is to refer her to another lawyer specialising in criminal matters. But Miss Sharpe is adamant and the case sounds intriguing, so Robert heads off to Miss Sharpe’s house, The Franchise, to meet her, her mother and Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard. The Sharpes are eminently respectable ladies, so the story that schoolgirl Betty Kane tells sounds fantastical – she claims that the two women abducted her, locked her in their attic and tried to force her to work as their servant, doling out regular vicious beatings when she didn’t comply.

This is considered a classic of crime fiction, and it fully deserves its reputation. The writing is great and the plot is perfectly delivered. I found a lot of unintended amusement in Tey’s clear snobbery and good old-fashioned Tory values, but she gives a very insightful picture of the kind of trial by media with which we’re all only too familiar today.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2021

for

BEST VINTAGE CRIME FICTION

The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher

I gave ten vintage crime books five stars this year, and yet the decision was quite easy. This one stood out, mostly because of its sheer enjoyability, but also partly because Rudolph Fisher had the distinction of being the first black American author to write a mystery novel, then remaining the only one to have done so until several decades later. He was considered to be part of the Harlem Renaissance, but sadly he died a young man just a few years after publishing this, his only mystery novel.

It’s a late evening in Harlem, in the early 1930s, and a little group of people are waiting to see Frimbo, a conjure-man with extraordinary powers to see the future and even to change it, or so the locals believe. But while Jinx Jenkins is sitting in Frimbo’s dark consulting room, Frimbo seems to lose the thread of what he’s saying and then goes silent. Jinx turns the single light on him, only to discover he is dead. But how did he die? And how could anyone have killed him without Jinx seeing it? Sergeant Perry Dart and his friend Dr Archer will have to find their way through a maze of motives and superstition to get to the truth…

Well, this is just fabulous fun! There’s a real Golden Age style mystery at the heart of it, complete with clues, motives, a closed list of suspects, and so on. But the setting makes it entirely unique. Fisher gives a vivid, joyous picture of life in Harlem, bringing to life a cast of exclusively black characters from all walks of life, from the highly educated Dr Archer to the new arrival from Africa, Frimbo, to the local flyboys hustling to survive in a Depression-era America that hasn’t yet moved far from the post-Civil War era. Amid the mystery and the lighthearted elements of comedy, a surprisingly clear picture emerges of this black culture within a culture, where poverty and racism are so normal they are barely remarked upon, and where old superstitious practices sit comfortably alongside traditional religion. Life is hard in Harlem, for sure, but there’s an exuberance about the characters – a kind of live for the moment feeling – that makes them a joy to spend time with. Great stuff!

….In the narrow strip of interspace, a tall brown girl was doing a song and dance to the absorbed delight of the patrons seated nearest her. Her flame chiffon dress, normally long and flowing, had been caught up bit by bit in her palms, which rested nonchalantly on her hips, until now it was not so much a dress as a sash, gathered about her waist. The long shapely smooth brown limbs below were bare from trim slippers to sash, and only a bit of silken underthing stood between her modesty and surrounding admiration.
….With extraordinary ease and grace, this young lady was proving beyond question the error of reserving legs for mere locomotion, and no one who believed that the chief function of the hips was to support the torso could long have maintained so ridiculous a notion against the argument of her eloquent gestures.
….Bubber caught sight of this vision and halted in his tracks. His abetting of justice, his stern immediate duty as a deputy of the law, faded.
….“Boy!” he said softly. “What a pair of eyes!”

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Factual

Midsummer Mysteries by Agatha Christie

The Queen of Crime presents…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

HarperCollins seem to be doing a series of special edition hardback collections of some of Agatha Christie’s short stories, and this is one of them. First off, the books themselves are lovely, much nicer even than the cover images make them appear. They have touches of foil to make them appealingly shiny, the spines are as nicely designed as the fronts, and they all have endpaper patterns suited to the theme of the collection. I’ve been lucky enough to receive a few of them and they look great on the shelf.

This one has a seasonal theme – all the mysteries are set in the types of places we all long to visit for some summer sun. Sadly, I am of course reviewing it in entirely the wrong season, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that in book-blog world it is always summer for somebody, somewhere!

There are twelve stories, plus a short extract from Christie’s autobiography about a rather unpleasant incident in her childhood (which, to be honest, I felt jarred a little with the overall fun tone of the collection even if it did fit the summer vacation theme). The stories have been culled from various other collections, so that all of her recurring detectives are represented. Poirot and Miss Marple appear, of course, as do Tommy and Tuppence, Mr Satterthwaite and Harley Quinn, and Parker Pyne, plus there are a couple of stories which don’t feature a ‘tec at all. As always the standard is variable to an extent, or at least my enjoyment is – I’ve never been a fan of either Parker Pyne or Harley Quinn, but I know a lot of people appreciate them far more than I do. In total, I gave five of the stories the full 5 stars, and the rest ranged between 3½ and 4½, so no duds and a very high standard overall.

Agatha Christie

I’ve highlighted a couple of the five-star stories previously on the blog – The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim and The Idol House of Astarte – so here’s a brief flavour of my other favourites from the collection:

The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman – A doctor friend is visiting Poirot when he receives a message from one of his patients, Count Foscatini, who says he has been attacked and is dying. Sure enough, when Poirot and the doctor get to his house, the Count is dead. Suspicion falls on two Italian men who were apparently the Count’s dinner guests that evening, but Poirot is not convinced! This is quite a slight story, but well done – a proper mystery complete with clues, etc., and rather Holmesian in style as the title would suggest.

The Rajah’s Emerald – James Bond (Ha! Not that one!) is in Kimpton-on-Sea and feeling left out. His girlfriend is staying at the posh Esplanade Hotel while he’s stuck in a cheap boarding house, and she seems more interested in her well-off pals than him. They decide to go for a bathe – the hotel crowd have private changing huts, but James must use the public huts which he discovers are queued out. So he nips into a private bathing hut that has been left open and quickly changes. However, after the swim, he inadvertently pulls on the wrong trousers – a pair that had been left in the hut by its owner. And then he finds something unexpected in the pocket… (see title for clue). This is great fun! A likeable lead character, lots of humour and a good little story – and yes, our James gets his own back on his snobby girlfriend in the end – hurrah!

Jane in Search of a Job – Jane is desperately seeking paid employment, so answers an advertisement in the paper. She finds that the job is to act as a double for a foreign princess, who fears an attempt is to be made on her life. Jane happily takes the job since not only is the pay generous, but she will get to wear some fabulous frocks as she pretends to be the princess. But all is not as it seems, and Jane will soon be in peril! What luck that she should meet a charming and heroic young man at just this time… Another one where the reader is completely on the side of the lovely lead character, and the story has just the right amount of danger, some humour and a smidgen of romance. What more could you want? This is another one that plainly shows the Holmesian influence on Christie’s early stories, but as always she takes an idea and makes it her own.

So a thoroughly enjoyable collection of stories in an attractively designed hardback. Perfect gift material, I’d say, for either existing fan or newcomer. Or for yourself, of course…

(Ooh, and as I went to get links, I’ve just discovered they’ve issued an Audible version too with Hugh Fraser, David Suchet and Joan Hickson narrating the various stories! Sounds fab!)

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

A Reading Diary

Day 1

Off to a mixed start! Three bodies, frozen under the snow in Gorky Park in Moscow, faces and fingertips mutilated to prevent easy identification. Bit of tension between our hero-to-be, Arkady Renko, and the boo-hiss stereotypical baddie from the KGB. The writing is messy with sentences quite often requiring more than one reading to try (or fail) to work out what the author is trying to communicate, but maybe it will improve. Or maybe it won’t.

“Vodka was liquid taxation, and the price was always rising. It was accepted that three was the lucky number on a bottle in terms of economic prudence and desired effect. It was a perfect example of primitive communism.”

Eh?

Day 2

No movement in the plot whatsoever. I say plot, but I fear one has yet to appear. We’ve had our first naked woman though, complete with nipple description! Arkady’s wife, who seems to stroll around their apartment naked despite the Arctic weather outside – who knew Muscovites had such effective heating systems in the 1980s? Impressive! And fortunate, since she and Arkady generate no heat of their own, clearly disliking each other quite a lot. Arkady meets another girl, though – a weird and quirky twenty-one-year-old, with whom our middle-aged hero is obviously destined to have sex at some point. I wonder what her nipples will be like…

Day 3

Still no identification of the corpses. Still no movement in the investigation. Arkady and his wife have split up after Arkady got into a punch-up with her lover. Arkady has been beaten up by someone whose identity we also don’t know, but despite being punched in the heart twice and kicked in the head, next day he’s fine. To summarise – three unidentified corpses, no suspects, no plot, two beatings, one naked woman, and endless lectures about Soviet history and how awful life is under Soviet rule (because presumably we didn’t know that). To quote Chandler Bing, could I be more bored?

Day 4

Apparently I could.

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Abandoned at 19%. Life is too short and the book is too long.

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This was The People’s Choice winner for November. Thanks for getting it off my TBR, People! 😉

Book 11 of 12

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday (on a Friday) 306 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 306

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

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OK, People, time for the next batch of four, a mixed bunch, all from 2018. I’m still trying to get back to being three months ahead with these polls, so excuse the frequency of them at the moment. The winner of this one will be a January read, in theory! The first couple – The Chink in the Armour and The Red Thumb Mark – are two vintage crimes I added because I’d enjoyed other books by those authors. The Scarlet Letter is a hangover from back when I was doing the Great American Novel Quest – I’m kind of ashamed that I’ve still never read it. And The Siege of Krishnapur is on there just because I liked the blurb. I reckon all of these sound as if they could be good or terrible, so it’s up to you to find a good one for me! 😉

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Vintage Crime

The Chink in the Armour by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Added 3rd April 2018. 61 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.43 average rating. 230 pages.

The Blurb says: Wealthy widow Sylvia Bailey is idling around Europe when she befriends another widow, Madame Wolsky, who is a gambling addict. As they are spending their last days together in Paris, two friends decide to go to a fortune teller, but the visit leaves them anxious. However, despite a psychic’s warning that they will find themselves in a grave danger from which at least one of them will not escape, Sylvia and Madame Wolsky decide to go to the gambling town of Lacville in order to test their fortune.

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Vintage Crime

The Red Thumb Mark by R Austin Freeman

Added 13th May 2018. 818 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.73 average. 235 pages.

The Blurb says: In all of London, there are few who know more about science than Dr. John Thorndyke, and fewer still who know more about crime. A “medical jurispractitioner” equally at home in the lab or the courtroom, he has made his name confronting the deadliest criminals in England with irrefutable proof of their guilt. In the case of the red thumb mark, however, Thorndyke must set his singular mind to saving an innocent man.

A cache of diamonds has been stolen out of a shipping firm’s safe, and the only evidence is a perfect thumbprint left in a pool of blood. The print is a match to Reuben Hornby, nephew of the firm’s owner. Hornby insists that he had nothing to do with the theft, however, and asks Dr. Thorndyke to find the real culprit. With all the evidence pointing in one direction, only he is brilliant enough to look the other way.

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American Classic

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Added 19th May 2018. 758,294 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.42 average. 279 pages. 

The Blurb says: Hailed by Henry James as “the finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in the country,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter reaches to our nation’s historical and moral roots for the material of great tragedy. Set in an early New England colony, the novel shows the terrible impact a single, passionate act has on the lives of three members of the community: the defiant Hester Prynne; the fiery, tortured Reverend Dimmesdale; and the obsessed, vengeful Chillingworth.

With The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne became the first American novelist to forge from our Puritan heritage a universal classic, a masterful exploration of humanity’s unending struggle with sin, guilt and pride.

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Fiction

The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell

Added 17th June 2018. 6,791 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.91 average. 344 pages.

The Blurb says: India, 1857–the year of the Great Mutiny, when Muslim soldiers turned in bloody rebellion on their British overlords. This time of convulsion is the subject of J. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, widely considered one of the finest British novels of the last fifty years.

Farrell’s story is set in an isolated Victorian outpost on the subcontinent. Rumours of strife filter in from afar, and yet the members of the colonial community remain confident of their military and, above all, moral superiority. But when they find themselves under actual siege, the true character of their dominion–at once brutal, blundering, and wistful–is soon revealed.

The Siege of Krishnapur is a companion to Troubles, about the Easter 1916 rebellion in Ireland, and The Singapore Grip, which takes place just before World War II, as the sun begins to set upon the British Empire. Together these three novels offer an unequalled picture of the follies of empire.

Winner of the Booker Prize.

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

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VOTE NOW!

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

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TBR Thursday 305…

Episode 305

I’ve found the secret of perfect balance!  Two in, two out – The TBR remains on 186!

Here are a few more to which I’ll be gibbon my attention soon… 

Vintage Horror 

I Am Stone by R Murray Gilchrist

Courtesy of the British Library. Another new release in the BL’s Tales of the Weird series. I don’t think I’ve come across this author at all before, not even with a short story in an anthology, so this will be a true leap into the unknown…

The Blurb says: Through vampiric trysts, heady visions of ghostly processions, and metaphorical tales of murdering one’s own psyche, the portrait of a truly unique writer of the strange tale emerges.

R. Murray Gilchrist was lauded for his imagination and florid, illustrative style during the fin-de-siecle period, and this new collection showcases the very best of his short fiction. Despite being admired by H. G. Wells and described by Arnold Bennett as “almost the peak of perfection in that difficult genre [of short fiction],” Gilchrist and his works are now largely forgotten. Packed with thrilling encounters and unforgettable descriptions from the weirdest ebb of the writer’s mind, this anthology aims to introduce a new readership to Gilchrist’s entrancing and influential oeuvre.

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Historical Fiction

Learwife by JR Thorpe

Courtesy of Canongate via NetGalley. I picked this on the basis of the blurb, which I think sounds great. However reviews have made me wonder if I’ll get along with the writing style, which people are calling “lyrical”, “abstract” and “metaphorical” – not three of my favourite words! However, they’re also calling it “unique” and “unforgettable”. We’ll see…

The Blurb says: Inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear, this breathtaking debut novel tells the story of the most famous woman ever written out of literary history.

Word has come. Care-bent King Lear is dead, driven mad and betrayed. His three daughters too, broken in battle. But someone has survived: Lear’s queen. Exiled to a nunnery years ago, written out of history, her name forgotten. Now she can tell her story.

Though her grief and rage may threaten to crack the earth open, she knows she must seek answers. Why was she sent away in shame and disgrace? What has happened to Kent, her oldest friend and ally? And what will become of her now, in this place of women? To find peace she must reckon with her past and make a terrible choice – one upon which her destiny, and that of the entire abbey, rests.

Giving unforgettable voice to a woman whose absence has been a tantalising mystery, Learwife is a breathtaking novel of loss, renewal and how history bleeds into the present.

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Vintage Crime

Murder After Christmas by Rupert Latimer

Courtesy of the British Library. Another author I’ve never come across before, but this sounds like it should be a fun romp designed to get us in the mood for mince pies, though preferably not poisoned ones…

The Blurb says: Good old Uncle Willie – rich, truculent and seemingly propped up by his fierce willpower alone – has come to stay with the Redpaths for the holidays. It is just their luck for him to be found dead the morning after Christmas day, dressed in his Santa Claus costume, seemingly poisoned by his favourite chocolates. Or was there something sinister in the mince pies? If so, was it the ones stashed in his room or those sent to him mysteriously by post? More importantly, since his will was recently redrafted, who stands to gain by this unseasonable crime?

First published in 1944, Murder After Christmas is a lively riot of murder, mince pies and misdirection, cleverly playing with beloved murder mystery tropes to create something pacey, light-hearted, and admirably suited for the holiday season.

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Thriller

The Cottage by Lisa Stone

Courtesy of HarperCollins. I enjoyed Stone’s previous book, Taken, even though it didn’t sound much like my kind of thing. So I’m hoping I might enjoy this one too, even though it doesn’t sound much like my kind of thing!

The Blurb says: An isolated cottage…
After losing her job and boyfriend, Jan Hamlin is in desperate need of a fresh start. So she jumps at the chance to rent a secluded cottage on the edge of Coleshaw Woods.

A tap at the window…
Very quickly though, things take a dark turn. At night, Jan hears strange noises, and faint taps at the window. Something, or someone, is out there.

A forest that hides many secrets…
Jan refuses to be scared off. But whoever is outside isn’t going away, and it soon becomes clear that the nightmare is only just beginning…

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

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Review-Alongers! 

I decided to do a separate post for the options for our next review-along, so if you missed it here’s the link. All welcome!

Review-Alongers! All welcome…

Time to choose…

I thought it might be easier to have a separate post for this rather than tacking it on at the end of my usual TBR post, so I can post the blurbs of the books plus give us more room for discussion in the comments without it getting confused with other stuff!

So, I nominated Christine and Alyson to come up with a few choices this time since they were both “founder members” and haven’t had a pick yet. Unfortunately I haven’t heard from Alyson this week – hopefully she’s just taking a break and will be back soon – but Kelly had mentioned a couple of books from her new Classics Club list she fancied putting forward, so I’ve included them instead. Alyson, if you read this and are interested, I’ll nominate you again next time!

Click on the title or book cover to go through to Goodreads if you want to look at reviews.

Christine’s suggestions…

Plumb by Maurice Gee

The Blurb says: Long regarded as one of the finest novels ever written by a New Zealander, Maurice Gee’s Plumb introduces us to the intolerant, irascible clergyman George Plumb, one of the most memorable characters in New Zealand literature &- half saint, half monster, superhuman in his spiritual strength and destructive in his utter self-absorption. What personal price is this man prepared to pay in the pursuit of his conscience, no matter what the consequences are for those he loves?

Christine says: I decided I had to have an NZ author in the mix. This is more a character exploration than a plot driven novel.

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

The Blurb says: Go Tell It On The Mountain, first published in 1953, is Baldwin’s first major work, a semi-autobiographical novel that has established itself as an American classic. With lyrical precision, psychological directness, resonating symbolic power, and a rage that is at once unrelenting and compassionate, Baldwin chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy’s discovery of the terms of his identity as the stepson of the minister of a storefront Pentecostal church in Harlem one Saturday in March of 1935. Baldwin’s rendering of his protagonist’s spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle of self-invention opened new possibilities in the American language and in the way Americans understand themselves.

Christine says: I’ve been planning to read something by Baldwin since I saw a documentary about him some time back.

The City and the City by China Miéville

The Blurb says: When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he investigates, the evidence points to conspiracies far stranger and more deadly than anything he could have imagined.

Borlú must travel from the decaying Beszel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own. This is a border crossing like no other, a journey as psychic as it is physical, a shift in perception, a seeing of the unseen. His destination is Beszel’s equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the rich and vibrant city of Ul Qoma. With Ul Qoman detective Qussim Dhatt, and struggling with his own transition, Borlú is enmeshed in a sordid underworld of rabid nationalists intent on destroying their neighboring city, and unificationists who dream of dissolving the two into one. As the detectives uncover the dead woman’s secrets, they begin to suspect a truth that could cost them and those they care about more than their lives.

What stands against them are murderous powers in Beszel and in Ul Qoma: and, most terrifying of all, that which lies between these two cities.

Casting shades of Kafka and Philip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler and 1984The City & the City is a murder mystery taken to dazzling metaphysical and artistic heights.

Christine says: A crime meets SciFi story which I enjoyed a decade or so ago and am interested to reread.

Kelly’s suggestions…

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

The Blurb says: Victor Hugo’s Romantic novel of dark passions and unrequited love.

In the vaulted Gothic towers of Notre-Dame Cathedral lives Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bellringer. Mocked and shunned for his appearance, he is pitied only by Esmerelda, a beautiful gypsy dancer to whom he becomes completely devoted. Esmerelda, however, has also attracted the attention of the sinister archdeacon Claude Frollo, and when she rejects his lecherous approaches, Frollo hatches a plot to destroy her, that only Quasimodo can prevent. Victor Hugo’s sensational, evocative novel brings life to the medieval Paris he loved, and mourns its passing in one of the greatest historical romances of the nineteenth century.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne

The Blurb says: An adventurous geology professor chances upon a manuscript in which a 16th-century explorer claims to have found a route to the earth’s core. Professor Lidenbrock can’t resist the opportunity to investigate, and with his nephew Axel, he sets off across Iceland in the company of Hans Bjelke, a native guide. The expedition descends into an extinct volcano toward a sunless sea, where they encounter a subterranean world of luminous rocks, antediluvian forests, and fantastic marine life — a living past that holds the secrets to the origins of human existence.

 

Rules:

There are no rules really, just a few points:

  1. The book will be chosen on the basis of the discussion below, trying to find one that appeals to most of us. So you should say which ones you fancy and also say if you really don’t fancy one or more – your opinion might or might not win the day, but it won’t count if you don’t tell us what it is!
  2. Since somebody has to make the final decision, that will be me! ( 😂 Maybe we should think about rotating that in future…)
  3. Anyone is welcome to join in!
  4. And the other side of that coin – if the chosen book doesn’t appeal or you don’t have time, no one should feel obliged to join in! The aim is to have fun!
  5. Everyone who participates will review the book on the same day. Non-bloggers will leave their opinions in the comments section of my review. I’m proposing 16th February, 2022, for this one, but if that doesn’t suit anyone, say so in the comments and we can find another date.
  6. I’ll announce the chosen book next Thursday on my normal TBR post.

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Let discussions commence!

 

 

Snow Country (Austrian Trilogy 2) by Sebastian Faulks

Hearts and minds…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As a younger son, Anton Heidick is expected to stay at home in his small town in Styria and take over his father’s sausage-making business. Anton wants to go to Vienna to study though, and his parents don’t stop him although they refuse to support him financially. So he works his way through by tutoring the young son of a wealthy family, and there he meets Delphine, who is paid to teach French to the daughter of the house. This will be the beginning of a love affair that will have a major part in shaping Anton’s future. On leaving university, Anton decides he wants to be a journalist, and gradually builds a small reputation as a foreign correspondent, sent off to witness major events around the world. But it’s now 1914, and the clouds of war are gathering across Europe…

We meet Lena in the late 1920s, and learn of her difficult childhood as the child of an illiterate and often drunken woman, who earns a living partly through prostitution and partly by working as a cleaner at the Schloss Seeblick, a kind of mental health sanatorium in a mountain valley in Carinthia. Lena too makes her way to Vienna, where she becomes involved with Rudolph, a young left-wing activist. But things don’t work out as she expected, and when her mother dies she returns to Carinthia, and is offered her mother’s old job at the sanatorium. It is to here that, a few years later, Anton too will come, firstly to write an article about the sanatorium, and then to seek help for his own mental health problems, a leftover from his experiences during the war years.

The underlying plot in this is rather slight, based around Anton’s love for Delphine and Lena’s search to find a place for herself in a world that hasn’t shown her much sympathy or opportunity. But the story is in some ways simply a vehicle to allow Faulks to show us various aspects of Austrian society and to create a general picture of the period from just before the First World War to within sight of the Second.

Anton and Lena are the main characters, but three others play significant roles and give us different perspectives: Delphine, a Frenchwoman who will find herself living in an enemy country when the war starts; Rudolph, the young socialist that Lena is involved with in Vienna, who allows us glimpses of the complex political situation in this part of Europe; and Martha, the daughter of the founder of the Schloss Seeblick, who now acts as both administrator and therapist, and who gives some insight into the development of psychoanalysis in Austria in the wake of Freud’s theories. Unusually for contemporary fiction, all of the characters are likeable, and all are fundamentally decent people trying to do their best, despite their normal human weaknesses and flaws. I found that deeply refreshing, and was happy to find myself totally involved in each of their stories.

Anton’s career as a journalist also takes us to other places, giving little vignettes within the main story, designed to show the state of the world at this uneasy time. He visits Panama to witness the completion of the canal, and muses on the roles of France and America, the rise of the new powers in the world and the decay of the old. He casually mentions the workforce, treated little better than slaves, but as a man of his time, he accepts this without much question. Later he attends the trial in Paris of Mme Cailloux (a real person), wife of a prominent politician, who stands accused of shooting the editor of Le Figaro. This gives Faulks room to give an excellent picture of France just before the war, with half the population wanting peace and the other half clamouring for war to wipe out the stain of past defeats and show that France is a major power yet.

I would have happily had a whole book of Anton travelling from place to place, showing us the world through major news events. The sudden change to Lena’s life makes sense and works well in the end, but on the whole I didn’t find her life as interesting at Anton’s. However it’s through her relationship with Rudolph that we see the rise of extremism at both ends of the political spectrum initially, before fascism won out. Rudolph’s story also lets us see the growing resentment between the politically sophisticated and relatively wealthy Viennese urbanites and the people of rural Austria, poorer, less well educated and with fewer opportunities.

Sebastian Faulks

I feel I’ve made this book sound horribly heavyweight and a bit polemical, so let me correct that. Faulks writes with a light hand, and all these background events are never allowed to stop the flow of the human story of our characters’ lives. There are some tragic incidents which are treated with welcome restraint, some occasional humour to lift the tone, and affairs of the heart – not hearts and flowers romances, but grown-up, complex relationships with a feeling of truth about them. Of course I have some criticisms – perhaps a little lack of depth, too much discussion of Freud for my taste, a rather too neat ending – but none of these seriously affected my overall enjoyment. I was completely absorbed throughout and sorry to leave the characters behind when the last page turned. Apparently the book is the second in a loose Austrian trilogy, although each also stands on its own, and I’m looking forward to going back to read the first, Human Traces, and seeing where Faulks takes us in the third. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! Randalls Round: Nine Nightmares by Eleanor Scott

Bedtime reading…

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First published in 1929, this was Eleanor Scott’s only collection of weird stories although she wrote several books in other genres. This edition includes all nine of the stories in the original collection, plus two written by “N. Dennett”, now believed to have been a pseudonym of Eleanor Scott, which was itself a pseudonym, the author’s real name being Helen Leys. The introduction is by Aaron Worth, Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Boston University, who has appeared on the blog twice before as editor of two excellent collections, Green Tea and Other Weird Stories by Sheridan Le Fanu, and The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen. In fact, Worth takes a large part of the credit for inspiring my interest in weird fiction, so I’m always pleased to see his name pop up.

In his introduction, Worth tells us that the collection didn’t sell well on its original publication, which he suggests was more to do with poor marketing than the quality of the work. While he points out that many of the stories and the general style are rather derivative of other writers of the period, especially MR James, he suggests that Scott took the weird genre in her own direction towards what would later, quite recently in fact, come to be called “folk horror”. He also says that despite the somewhat derivative quality of some of the stories she makes them her own, and describes them as “intrinsically excellent”.

Even with my limited knowledge of weird and horror fiction, I did indeed find that many of the stories felt quite derivative, not just of James but especially of Machen, and being forced into this comparison didn’t work to Scott’s benefit, since I feel Machen is significantly better at “folk horror”, even if it didn’t exist as a genre when he was writing. On reading over my notes on each story, it appears I also had some issues with her endings, being annoyed sometimes by them being left too ambiguous to be satisfying, and then with other stories lamenting that the ending was too obvious, or too neat, or too well explained. Maybe I was just in a picky, Goldilocks kind of mood! There was only one story where I felt the ending had been exactly the bowl of porridge I’d been looking for.

These criticisms notwithstanding, I enjoyed the collection overall, and there were a few stories that I thought were excellent. Scott was very good at creating an atmosphere of unease and some parts of the stories are genuinely scary, with a nightmarish quality to them. In fact, Scott claimed the stories were based on her own nightmares (although Worth amused me by commenting that “one wonders how much these were influenced by her bedtime reading”). I gave three of the stories 5 stars, one 3 stars, and all the rest either 4 or 4½, so a consistently high standard throughout with no real failures. As usual, here’s a flavour of a few of my favourites:

Celui-Lá – On the advice of his doctor, Maddox goes for a break to a small village in Breton, where he stays with the local priest. Maddox is walking on the beach when he sees a strange figure, digging in the sand. The figure sees Maddox and runs off, so Maddox goes to where it was digging and finds an ancient parchment. The priest believes the words on the parchment are an incantation – but too late! Maddox has already read them aloud! This one felt particularly derivative, but it’s well written and quite effective in creating a nightmarish atmosphere, and this was the one where I felt the ending achieved the perfect balance of being ambiguous but satisfying.

The Tree – Two young artists, a couple, take a studio, outside which grows a giant ash tree. Ralph hates it and wants to chop it down, and Nan reluctantly agrees. But then Ralph has a dream in which every axe stroke against the tree seems also to be cutting into him, so they decide to keep the tree. But somehow it has worked its way into Ralph’s mind, and now everything he paints has the tree in it, spoiling his work. Nan decides to take drastic action… Again derivative – Worth mentions Walter de la Mare’s The Tree, which overall I feel is a better story – but it’s again very effective at creating an atmosphere of impending dread.

The Old Lady – Our narrator, Honor, is a student at Oxford. She bets a friend that she can get on with anyone, and her friend chooses Adela, another student, a shrinking, silent girl. Honor duly befriends Adela, and is able to wangle an invite to her home in the holidays, where Adela lives with her guardian – a creepy, ancient old woman. Honor is invited back for the midsummer break, but Adela warns her that mysterious deaths tend to happen around midsummer. This is a spooky one, but Honor is delightfully feisty and doesn’t plan on being anybody’s victim! A very enjoyable story even though the ending is a bit too abrupt.

So a good collection rather than a great one for me, but an interesting addition to the BL’s always intriguing Tales of the Weird series.

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

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Later…

*Gulps* I forgot to put the porpy’s bit in and now he’s furious! So here he is…

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😮 😮 😮

(I’m off to hide now… see ya later!)

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Blackout (Dark Iceland 2) by Ragnar Jónasson

Repeat after me…

🙂 🙂 😐

A man is found brutally killed outside a house he was building. Although the case is being run from the police office in Akureyri, the victim, Elías, had also been working on the new road tunnel being built in Siglufjörður , so the local police are asked to help. Unfortunately since it’s a tiny place there are only three police officers there, and each of them is far more concerned with his personal life than dealing with pesky crimes. Fortunately there’s a news reporter also on the trail, and although she has more than her fair share of personal issues too, she at least seems keen to actually do her job.

The basic plot of the book is quite interesting and the last third is comparatively fast-paced as all the different strands finally come together so that we learn why Elías was killed and get to the resolutions of some of the myriad of personal problems swilling around. For that reason, the book has escaped the one-star review that it had been heading directly towards up until that stage. But, oh dear, it’s been a long time since I read something so hopelessly repetitive as this – was there any kind of edit done on it? The number of typos and missing words in the Kindle version certainly suggest the publisher saved a bit of money on proof-reading.

By repetitive, I don’t mean that the author goes over the same things in different ways to show different aspects – done well, that can be interesting. No, in this case it’s actual repetition of the same thoughts, again and again, expressed in almost identical ways each time, and all having nothing to do with the actual case. We hear over and over about how Hlynur was a bully in his childhood and now feels guilty about it. Ari Thór still hasn’t got over his break-up with Kristín, despite two years having passed – but then again Kristín, whose thoughts on the subject we also hear repeatedly, hasn’t got over it either. The third police officer hasn’t got over the fact that his wife has left him to live in the big city. The journalist hasn’t got over something that we keep getting hints about but which isn’t revealed till very late on. Dear me, what a miserable, self-pitying, self-absorbed bunch of people to spend time with!

Then there’s the ash. The book is set just after the unpronounceable (and unspellable) volcano erupted back in, I think, 2010, and we are told innumerable times that Reykjavik is still being affected by ash in the air, while Siglufjörður is not. Once is enough. Or describe it differently each time. But to simply keep repeating it is more than tiresome.

Ragnar Jónasson

Anyway, as I said(!), on the rare occasions that the plot appears, it’s quite interesting. Elías appears to have two different reputations depending on who you talk to. Some think he’s a good man, who spends his spare time working for a charity that helps people affected by the economic crash. Others hint that he’s got a dark side, dabbling in crime and with a cruel streak. Yet others know exactly what he’s been doing, but can’t share that knowledge with the police for fear of incriminating themselves. In the brief moments that the police and the journalist can spare from their personal problems, they manage to piece together Elías’ true character and find the reason for his murder. There is also a linked strand that leads to a kind of thriller ending – a race against time to save a life – and this is done reasonably well, although still interrupted by all the personal problems reaching their climaxes at the same time.

I have loved some Jónasson books in the past, and I honestly don’t know if it’s that I’ve become more critical of the kind of filler employed by contemporary crime writers and their concentration on their protagonists’ angst rather than the mystery at hand, or if indeed this book simply isn’t up to the standard of his others. Probably a combination of both. Either way, I’d find it hard to recommend this one. I made it to the end but only by dint of exerting every ounce of willpower I possess…

This was The People’s Choice winner for October. You win some, you lose some… 😉

Book 10 of 12

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Quickies…

…aka Admitting Defeat…

During my blogging slump in the middle of the year I was still reading but didn’t have the oomph to write reviews or even take my usual fairly extensive notes. So some books slipped through the cracks, and I’ve finally accepted that I’m never going to review them now (given that I’ve pretty much forgotten all the details!). So I’m going to follow the shining example of several other bloggers, and do a little batch of quickies…

* * * * *

Due to a Death by Mary Kelly

😀 😀 😀 😀

Set on the Kent marshes in the depressed and depressing little town of Gunfleet in the 1960s, this is a wonderfully written and atmospheric novel about the death of a young girl. It’s told as a kind of flashback through the eyes of the main character, Agnes, as she sits in the peace of the church just after she’s learned of the discovery of the girl’s body on the marsh, thinking back over the summer and piecing together the events that have led to this moment. Kelly wrote one of my favourites from the British Library Crime Classics series, The Spoilt Kill, and in terms of quality of writing I think this one may even surpass that one. However, I found this relentlessly bleak, especially when the underlying cause of the death is revealed.

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

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* * * * *

The Twisted Wire by Richard Falkirk

😀 😀 😀 😀

This is an action thriller set in Israel at the height of the Middle East conflict of the late 60s/early 70s. Our hero is that standard of thrillers – an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary events, as he gets mistaken for an American diplomat with the same name and suddenly finds himself the target of… well, just about everybody, really! I enjoyed it – as well as having all the usual thriller elements of murder, espionage and a touch of romance (or lust – well, it was the ’70s!), I felt that Falkirk gave a pretty well-balanced view of the situation in the Middle East at the time, without taking one side or the other too much, or getting bogged down in too much detail. The pace is fast, but the quality of the writing and authentic feel of the setting lift it above the normal run of pulp thrillers.

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

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* * * * *

A Lonely Man by Chris Power

🙂 🙂 🙂

Two British men meet at a writers’ talk in Berlin and fall into a kind of friendship. Patrick tells Robert (our protagonist) that he had ghost-written a book for a Russian oligarch, now dead, maybe by suicide, but Patrick thinks it more likely that he was killed by Putin’s henchmen, and he believes that now they’re looking for him. Robert doesn’t know if he believes any of this, but he’s been desperately looking for a plot for his next book and this sounds to him as if it has potential. So he starts trying to squeeze more details out of Patrick, while pretending he’s just offering a friendly ear. But is Patrick a fantasist, or is there real danger? This starts out well and then loses its way in the middle, and the rather silly ending destroys any remaining feeling of ambiguity. However, the basic writing skills are all there and I’d happily read another by him to see if he improves in terms of plotting.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Faber & Faber via NetGalley.

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* * * * *

The Promise by Damon Galgut

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As Amor’s mother is dying, Amor overhears her extract a promise from her husband that he will give their Black servant, Salome, the house that she lives in. The book is told in four parts, each about a member of the family, and how they manage to avoid fulfilling this promise over the years. How I wish I had written a review of this one because I loved it! I found each of the stories in it absorbing, and the whole gives an excellent depiction of how South Africa developed in the years following the end of apartheid. Had I reviewed it, it would doubtless have appeared on the shortlist for my Book of the Year Awards, and may even have won. I can only apologise to Mr Galgut, and hope that the Booker Prize he got for it will be some small consolation for missing out on the prestigious FF Award.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage via NetGalley.

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* * * * *

Well, that’s them off my list and off my conscience! Normal service will now be resumed… 😉