FictionFan’s Book Reviews

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TBR Thursday 220…

Episode 220

I’m back! As soon as the aliens caught sight of the assembled forces of Tommy, Tuppence and Porpy they fled back to their own sector of the galaxy, squealing! The Kpop stars have promised to stop dancing, and the sun has calmed down to a temperate glow. The world is safe! Well… for the moment anyway. The remarkable thing is that, despite everything, my TBR has gone up, by 2 to 215! My postman is clearly intrepid… 

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

History

Brothers York by Thomas Penn

Courtesy of Allen Lane via NetGalley. I thoroughly enjoyed Thomas Penn’s earlier book on Henry VII, Winter King, so grabbed this at the first opportunity. My knowledge of the Wars of the Roses really comes more from popular culture than actual histories, not least the notoriously inaccurate (but utterly compelling) Shakespeare plays. So I’m looking forward to learning about the facts behind the legends…

The Blurb says: It is 1461 and England is crippled by civil war. One freezing morning, a teenage boy wins a battle in the Welsh marches, and claims the crown. He is Edward IV, first king of the usurping house of York…

Thomas Penn’s brilliant new telling of the wars of the roses takes us inside a conflict that fractured the nation for more than three decades. During this time, the house of York came to dominate England. At its heart were three charismatic brothers – Edward, George and Richard – who became the figureheads of a spectacular ruling dynasty. Together, they looked invincible. But with Edward’s ascendancy the brothers began to turn on one another, unleashing a catastrophic chain of rebellion, vendetta, fratricide, usurpation and regicide. The brutal end came at Bosworth Field in 1485, with the death of the youngest, then Richard III, at the hands of a new usurper, Henry Tudor.

The story of a warring family unable to sustain its influence and power, Brothers York brings to life a dynasty that could have been as magnificent as the Tudors. Its tragedy was that, in the space of one generation, it destroyed itself.

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Dickens at Christmas

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics and another for my Classics Club list. It has long been my tradition to read a Dickens over Christmas and, in fact, as soon as I am appointed Queen of the World by popular acclaim it will be the law that everyone must. This year’s choice is a re-read, but it’s years since I read it so my memory of it is vague. Almost as good as reading it for the first time! And I’m looking forward to reading the intro and notes in my OWC copy – I haven’t read any of the novels in their editions before…

The Blurb says: Set against the backdrop of the Gordon Riots of 1780, Barnaby Rudge is a story of mystery and suspense which begins with an unsolved double murder and goes on to involve conspiracy, blackmail, abduction and retribution. Through the course of the novel fathers and sons become opposed, apprentices plot against their masters and Protestants clash with Catholics on the streets. And, as London erupts into riot, Barnaby Rudge himself struggles to escape the curse of his own past. With its dramatic descriptions of public violence and private horror, its strange secrets and ghostly doublings, Barnaby Rudge is a powerful, disturbing blend of historical realism and Gothic melodrama.

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Vintage Crime

The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs

Courtesy of the British Library. I’ve enjoyed the other novels from George Bellairs which the BL has previously issued, so I’m looking forward to meeting up with Inspector Littlejohn again…

The Blurb says: Jim Teasdale has been drowned in the Dumb River, near Ely, miles from his Yorkshire home. His body, clearly dumped in the usually silent (‘dumb’) waterway, has been discovered before the killer intended — disturbed by a torrential flood.

With critical urgency it’s up to Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard to trace the mystery of the unassuming victim’s murder to its source, leaving waves of scandal and sensation in his wake as the hidden, salacious dealings of Jim Teasdale begin to surface.

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Fiction

The Mystery of Cloomber by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Despite my life-long love affair with Conan Doyle there’s loads of his stuff I’ve never read, including this. Mystery, colonialism and shipwrecked Buddhist monks – what more could you possibly ask? Mind you, the spiritualism aspect is a bit of a worry – Conan Doyle did get a bit obsessed with it sometimes…

The Blurb says: What dark deed from the past haunts Major Heatherstone? Why does he live like a hermit at Cloomber Hall, forbidding his children to venture beyond the estate grounds? Why is he plagued by the sound of a tolling bell, and why does his paranoia rise to frantic levels each year on the fifth of October? With the sudden appearance of three shipwrecked Buddhist monks, the answers to these questions follow close behind.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Gothic thriller unfolds in his native Scotland, in a remote coastal village surrounded by dreary moors. The creator of Sherlock Holmes combines his skill at weaving tales of mystery with his deep fascination with spiritualism and the paranormal. First published in 1889, the novel offers a cautionary view of British colonialism in the form of a captivating story of murder and revenge.

* * * * *

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

I’ll be catching up with all your posts and comments over the next couple of days.
I’ve missed you!

Tuesday Terror! Dystopia Hits Kirkintilloch!

The end of the world is nigh…

I’m hoping this urgent message gets through to you all, but I don’t hold out much hope. All the signs are that the end of the world is beginning… and it’s starting here in Kirkintilloch! Unless of course you’re not there already and I’m the last survivor…

It began on Friday, late at night, when suddenly the internet went down. Since then, it’s been in and out like the cuckoo in a Swiss clock, only less noisily, and it seems to be getting worse. Unable to draft posts or get round your blogs or even answer your comments except in brief bursts, I’ve had plenty of time to think about what’s going on, and it’s scary…

Here are the options:

1. It’s a local problem that will soon be fixed by my internet provider. Well, I’m sure that’s what They would like us to think! But I suspect one of the following is far more likely…

2. A solar flare has taken down communications throughout the world and all technology will collapse over the next few days leaving us at the mercy of vengeful nature. I have therefore gone into survival mode – I rushed to the supermarket and bought up all the chocolate.

 

3. The capitalists/socialists/anarchists/kpop fans (delete as applicable) have carried out a coup and have shut down the internet while they consolidate power. Any day now the identity of the new World President will be announced. My greatest fear is that it might be this chap…

… but I have the ultimate deterrent against him and his forces! If he sings that ghastly music at me, I shall retaliate by playing my guitar – a dreadful torture guaranteed to send any human insane within minutes.

4. Aliens are circling the earth and have cut off communications in a first step towards full-scale invasion. Hah! Little do they know about my impregnable Home Defence System! I have stopped emptying Tommy and Tuppence’s litter trays and within a few hours no one will be able to get within ten miles of my house without being overcome by a noxious miasma that will stun them into instant unconsciousness. (I admit there is a slight weakness in this plan, in that it depends on the aliens having noses…)

Whatever the cause, I urge you all, dear friends, to take your own precautions. Farewell, and be safe! May it all end up a bit more like Station Eleven than The Road!

Of course, in the unlikely event that it turns out to be option 1, I’ll see you all once it gets fixed and I can get some posts prepared…

The porpy is here with me inside our safety cordon,
ready to defend our liberty…

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Honour, once lost…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

As a youth, Jim dreamed of glory, sure that one day he would meet a challenge that would give him the opportunity to prove his honour to the world. But when the moment comes, an act of cowardice places him beyond the pale, despised by his peers and by himself. Driven from place to place with his story always catching up with him, Jim is eventually offered a position in Patusan, a small country on a remote Indonesian island, where he will be able to start afresh among natives who neither know nor care about his past. But despite the admiration and even love he wins there, Jim still carries his disgrace and guilt inside himself…

After introducing Jim and telling us a little of his background as the son of a clergyman trained to be an officer in the merchant fleet, the long first section tells of his fateful voyage aboard the Patna, a rather decrepit vessel carrying hundreds of pilgrims across the Arabian Sea en route to Mecca. Marlow, our narrator, first encounters Jim during the official inquiry into this voyage, so that we know from the beginning that something went badly wrong. Jim alone of the ship’s officers has remained to face the inquiry and Marlow becomes fascinated by this young man, whose actions seem so alien to his appearance.

“…all the time I had before me these blue, boyish eyes looking straight into mine, this young face, these capable shoulders, the open bronzed forehead with a white line under the roots of clustering fair hair, this appearance appealing at sight to all my sympathies: this frank aspect, the artless smile, the youthful seriousness. He was of the right sort; he was one of us.”

As in Heart of Darkness, Conrad is examining the effects of colonialism, not on the colonised, but on the colonisers. Through Jim, he shows that the Empire has created a change in how the British imagine the rank of “gentleman”: no longer a title simply describing the land-owning class, but now a word that has come to represent a set of virtues – courage, moral rectitude, fairness, chivalry, patriotism and honour. Despite the book’s title, Jim is no member of the aristocracy – he is one of the new middle-class breed of gentlemen, educated to these virtues and sent out to carry British values through all the vast reach of the Empire. So his disgrace is more than a personal thing – it’s a weakening of the image the British project as a validation of their right to rule. Where an aristocrat with family power and wealth behind him might fall and be forgiven, these new gentlemen have only these virtues to justify their rank, and to fail in them is to lose that status – to be no longer “one of us”.

The story of the Patna is wonderfully told. Marlow takes his time in revealing the fate of the ship, digressing frequently so that gradually he builds a fascinating picture of the transient world of the merchant seamen who serviced the trade routes of the various colonial powers. As he finally reaches the incident that changes Jim’s life so irreversibly and its aftermath, Conrad employs some wonderful horror imagery, again related more to the imagined than the real. Imagination seems central to his theme – Jim’s imagination of how he would react in a moment of crisis as compared to the actuality, the imagined virtues of the gentleman, the imagined role of the colonisers as just and paternalistic, if stern, guardians of their colonised “natives”. Even the fate of the Patna is more imagined than real, showing that honour and its loss is dependant on intent rather than effect.

The second section of the book doesn’t work quite so well. When Marlow visits Jim in Patusan some years later, Jim tells him of his life there, how he has found a kind of peace in this isolated place, among natives who have given him the honorific title of “Lord” as a reward for his bringing peace and prosperity where before there had been only strife. Even allowing for the imagined fable-like quality of the story, Jim’s rise to prominence in this society smacks a little too much of white superiority to make for comfortable reading, and his love affair with the woman he calls Jewel (white, of course, but not English, therefore not his equal) is full of high melodrama and exalted suffering. However, the knowledge that he can never resume his place in the world of the white man festers, while his terror remains that his new-found respect could be lost should his story become known or, worse, should he face another trial of character and fail again. After a rather too long drag through this part of the story, the pace and quality picks up again, with the final section having all the depth and power of the earlier Patna segment.

The quality of the writing and imagery is excellent, although I found the structure Conrad uses for telling the story makes it a more difficult read than it needs to be and requires some suspension of disbelief. Jim’s story is relayed to us as a first-person account within a third-person frame, as our narrator, Marlow, tells Jim’s story to a group of colonial friends after dinner one evening. This device means the bulk of the book is given to us within quotation marks, which can become quite confusing when Marlow is relating conversations, especially at second-hand between third parties. Repeated use of nested punctuation marks like “ ‘ “…” ’ ” can make the modern reader (this one at any rate) shudder, and I found I frequently had to re-read paragraphs more than once to be sure of who had said what to whom. The idea of Marlow telling around 75% of the story in one long after-dinner tale is also clumsy – the audiobook comes in at 16 hours, so I can only assume Marlow’s friends were willing to sit listening not just until dawn but roughly to lunchtime the following day.

Joseph Conrad

These quibbles aside, the book is a wonderful study of the British gentleman who, as a class, ruled the Empire – a character who appears in simpler forms in everything from Rider Haggard’s African adventure stories to Agatha Christie’s retired colonials. Conrad shows how this type was imagined into being, and how important it was to the British sense of its own identity abroad and its justification of its right to rule. If we are more virtuous than everyone else, is it not natural that we should be their lords? And having imagined ourselves in this way, what is left of us, as individuals and as cogs in the Imperial machine, if we falter, weaken and fail?

An excellent book, both in simple terms of the extraordinary story of Jim’s life and for the depth and insight into the Victorian Imperial mindset. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. Even more than usual, the knowledgeable introduction and notes, this time by Jacques Berthoud, aided considerably in placing the book in its literary and historical context and in clarifying my thoughts on its themes, thus helping to inform my review.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Enoch Powell: Politics and Ideas in Modern Britain by Paul Corthorn

The politics of decline and nationhood…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

For my generation, arriving at political awareness in the 1970s, Enoch Powell had already become the chief bogeyman for those of us on the left. He is best remembered for his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech of 1968, when he issued dire apocalyptic warnings about the dangers of mass immigration in terms which even in those days were incendiary and which to modern eyes are vilely, shockingly racist. He is still worshipped by the extreme right in Britain, happily a tiny proportion of our society, while some on the left still drag his name out whenever they want to present anti-immigrationism and racism as synonymous. However, he is also considered as one of the leading and most influential thinkers of his generation, and for many years I have wondered why such an intelligent man didn’t realise that this speech would blow his career into smithereens on that day in 1968, making him such a pariah to so many that all other aspects of his contribution to political life are hidden under its dark shadow, and also making rational discussion of immigration policies in the UK almost impossible for decades to come – still today, in fact.

Paul Corthorn is Senior Lecturer in Modern British History at Queen’s University Belfast. In his introduction, he acknowledges that much previous biography of Powell has been strongly pro or anti. In this book, Corthorn is striving to present Powell’s views on a variety of topics and how he came to form them, without judgement. Corthorn shapes his work around the political themes that engaged Powell throughout his political life rather than working to a timeline, and makes clear that this is an examination of Powell’s political thought and contribution rather than a personal biography of his life. Having previously ploughed through a rather nauseating and ultimately unrevealing hagiography of the man, I found this approach refreshing. Corthorn takes much of his argument from a close analysis of Powell’s speeches, to which Powell gave great thought. Corthorn suggests that the idea of ‘decline’ underpins much of Powell’s thinking, as his generation grappled with the end of the British Empire and sought to redefine nationhood and Britain’s role in the world, facing up to the new reality of American dominance.

The five themes Corthorn uses are international relations, economics, immigration, Europe and Northern Ireland. He does an excellent job of showing that each forms part of a coherent whole in terms of Powell’s thinking – that the ideas of decline and of nationhood run through all of his arguments and remain consistent, though his opinions on policy changed over time and sometimes could seem contradictory.

Enoch Powell

(The thing about Powell, as I learned when I reviewed a previous biography on Amazon, is that whatever you say about him he is so divisive that people will call you a fascist racist if you show any admiration for him at all, or a Trotskyite commie if you refuse to genuflect when mentioning his name. But hey! I reckon if people are calling you both, then you’re probably somewhere in the middle which is where I like to be, so if you’re going to be upset by me praising/criticising him you probably should look away now.)

There can be little doubt that Powell was one of the great political thinkers of the mid-twentieth century. He was tackling Britain’s future while most others were still clinging desperately to its past. He foresaw many of the issues we are dealing with today while others were burying their heads in the sand. He saw that American hegemony and the West’s interference in the Middle East would lead to a series of unwinnable wars. He was against devolution for the constituent nations of the UK because he believed that it would weaken identification with the UK as a nation state while never satisfying those who desired full independence. He believed that supranational organisations like the UN and NATO would weaken the ability of nation states to act in their own interests (which he saw as a bad thing). He believed that the then Common Market (now European Union) would progress inexorably towards political union – in his view, an undesirable outcome. And he believed that if governments refused to control immigration, then populism, with all its inherent dangers, would be the eventual outcome (the actual point he was making in 1968, lost entirely because of his use of degrading racist language). He was totally against allowing the Republic of Ireland to have a say in the administration of Northern Ireland, believing it would leave Northern Ireland always as a sort of semi-detached part of the UK – instead he wanted it be fully integrated into the non-devolved political system he favoured for all four UK nations. He was propounding the main ideas behind the economic theories that would eventually come to be called Thatcherism long before Thatcher.

Paul Corthorn

Corthorn finishes with a brief but excellent critical round-up of the preceding chapters and an analysis of why Powell’s reputation and legacy are still matters of dispute. Love or hate him, it is fascinating to read of a politician who gave so much thought to the long-term and who rarely allowed partisanship to sway him into short-term compromise. He changed party affiliation frequently and expected a level of loyalty from others that he rarely was willing to give. This, of course, made him an arrogant maverick with more than a hint of narcissism, and meant that he never gained the power he felt was his due, where a more emollient compromiser may have achieved more. And ultimately it was that arrogance – that failure to accept that those he saw as his intellectual inferiors (i.e., everyone) would not be wowed into agreement by his brilliance – that led him to think that it would be acceptable to speak of immigration in the racist terminology he used in the 1968 speech.

An excellent book that gives real and balanced insight into the thinking of this undoubtedly brilliant, undoubtedly deeply flawed man, and along the way casts a lot of thought-provoking light on many of the questions we are still grappling with today. I can’t say I like Powell any better than I did, but I rather wish I believed our present generation of politicians were as deep-thinking and forward-looking. Highly recommended.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 219…

Episode 219

No reduction in the TBR this week… but no increase either! Remaining stable on 213…

Here are a few more I’ll be butting up against soon…

English Classic

The Go-Between by LP Hartley

For my Classics Club list. During the last Classics Club spin, three of us – Rose, Sandra and myself – all put this book on our list at the same number thinking it would be fun to review it at the same time. The number didn’t come up but we decided to do a review-along anyway, all posting our reviews on 15th January if we can. Anyone else is welcome to join in, either with the reviewing or just the reading! It’s a long overdue re-read for me of a book I thought was brilliant first time around… and second… and….

Even if you haven’t read the book, I bet you recognise the first line…

The Blurb says: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’

When one long, hot summer, young Leo is staying with a school-friend at Brandham Hall, he begins to act as a messenger between Ted, the farmer, and Marian, the beautiful young woman up at the hall. He becomes drawn deeper and deeper into their dangerous game of deceit and desire, until his role brings him to a shocking and premature revelation. The haunting story of a young boy’s awakening into the secrets of the adult world, The Go-Between is also an unforgettable evocation of the boundaries of Edwardian society.

* * * * *

Vintage Crime

The Christmas Egg by Mary Kelly

A seasonal mystery, courtesy of the British Library. I’ve never heard of Mary Kelly, but apparently she was well regarded in her time. Another gorgeous cover, and it sounds like fun…

The Blurb says: London. 22nd December. Chief Inspector Brett Nightingale and Sergeant Beddoes have been called to a gloomy flat off Islington High Street. An elderly woman lies dead on the bed, and her trunk has been looted. The woman is Princess Olga Karukhin – an emigrant of Civil War Russia – and her trunk is missing its glittering treasure…

Out in the dizzying neon and festive chaos of the capital a colourful cast of suspects abound: the downtrodden grandson, a plutocratic jeweller, Bolsheviks with unfinished business? Beddoes and Nightingale have their work cut out in this tightly-paced, quirky and highly enjoyable jewel of the mystery genre.

* * * * *

New Crime

The Cabin by Jørn Lier Horst

Courtesy of Penguin UK – Michael Joseph via NetGalley. This is the second in Horst’s Cold Case Quartet and for once I’ve actually read the first! And I enjoyed it – William Wisting is the kind of detective I like – dedicated, hard-working, with a stable family life and a life outside work. And the cover looks delightfully seasonal…

The Blurb says: It’s been fifteen years since Simon Meier walked out of his house, never to be seen again. And just one day since politician Bernard Clausen was found dead at his cabin on the Norwegian coast.

When Chief Inspector William Wisting is asked to investigate he soon discovers he may have found the key to solving Meier’s disappearance. But doing so means he must work with an old adversary to piece together what really happened all those years ago.

It’s a puzzle that leads them into a dark underworld on the trail of Clausen’s interests and vices. A shady place from which they may never emerge – especially when he finds it leads closer to home than he ever could have imagined.

* * * * *

Fiction

Something to Answer For by PH Newby

This was the book that won the first ever Booker Prize in 1969. That’s not why I’m reading it though – I was recommended it to fill one of the tricky compulsory places on my Around the World challenge, the Suez Canal. The colonial aspects always appeal to me, so fingers crossed!

The Blurb says: It is 1956 and Townrow is in Port Said – of these two facts he’s reasonably certain. He has been summoned by the widow of his deceased friend, Elie Khoury. She is convinced that Elie was murdered, but nobody seems to agree with her. What about Leah Strauss, the mistress? And the invading British paratroops? Only an Englishman, surely, would take for granted that the British have behaved themselves. In this disorientating world Townrow must assess the rules by which he has been living his life – to wonder whether he, too, may have something to answer for. . .

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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?

Far North by Marcel Theroux

The end of civilisation…

🙂 🙂 😐

Makepeace Hatfield lives alone – the last resident of the town of Evangeline in Siberia. Some unexplained catastrophe has destroyed civilisation and decimated humanity. But one day Makepeace sees something that makes her think that somewhere remnants of civilisation may still exist and she sets off to find out…

This is a pretty standard post-apocalypse story, and I might as well start by saying I found it rather dull and pointless. We never know what caused the catastrophe – possibly climate change, though if so it doesn’t seem to have had much impact on the snowy wastes of Siberia. And, while we see humanity’s struggle to survive, there’s nothing terribly insightful about it. Scenes of horror and misery abound, there’s the usual cult religious aspects that are always included as part of apocalyptic dystopian fiction, man’s inhumanity to man is given full play, and we see that those who had stuck to their old traditional ways of life are better suited to survival than those who had lived in cities, far removed from nature and with skills that are useless in this new/old society. It has been compared (probably by the marketing people) to The Road, but it has none of the profundity or bleak beauty of that book – this is simply a kind of adventure story that quite frankly doesn’t have enough adventure in it.

I read it as part of my Around the World challenge, thinking it would be a good one for the Arctic. But while there are lots of descriptions of the wildlife of the area and mentions of the local indigenous tribespeople, I never found the setting came to life for me. I can’t quite put my finger on why. I think it may be because I felt that survival in the Arctic region should have been much tougher, oddly, than it’s portrayed. Perhaps that’s my misunderstanding of the region – I know people have populated the area for millennia so clearly survival is not impossible – but I can only say I didn’t feel the cold seeping into my bones as much as I anticipated.

I’m struggling to find much to say about this one, to be honest. It is quite readable, the writing is good and Makepeace is a likeable heroine. I didn’t hate it, but I suspect I’ll have forgotten all about it in a couple of weeks. I think I’ll look for a different book to give me Arctic chills…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! August Heat by WF Harvey

Carved in stone…

It’s been varying between ridiculously rainy and flippin’ freezin’ here for the last couple of weeks, so it seems like a good idea to get away from it all back to some summer sunshine. Though this little story is quite likely to leave you feeling as chilled as an ice-lolly at the North Pole…

August Heat
by WF Harvey

WF Harvey

I have had what I believe to be the most remarkable day in my life, and while the events are still fresh in my mind, I wish to put them down on paper as clearly as possible.

Our narrator is James Clarence Withencroft…

By profession I am an artist, not a very successful one, but I earn enough money by my black-and-white work to satisfy my necessary wants.

On this day, the heat is oppressive and Withencroft is thinking about going for a swim when he is suddenly struck by an idea for a picture, so he sits down and gets to work…

The final result, for a hurried sketch, was, I felt sure, the best thing I had done. It showed a criminal in the dock immediately after the judge had pronounced sentence. The man was fat – enormously fat. The flesh hung in rolls about his chin; it creased his huge, stumpy neck. He was clean shaven (perhaps I should say a few days before he must have been clean shaven) and almost bald. He stood in the dock, his short, clumsy fingers clasping the rail, looking straight in front of him. The feeling that his expression conveyed was not so much one of horror as of utter, absolute collapse.

Satisfied, he decides to go for a walk, wandering the streets randomly till he loses track of where he is. Evening is beginning to fall when…

I found myself standing before a gate that led into a yard bordered by a strip of thirsty earth, where there were flowers, purple stock and scarlet geranium. Above the entrance was a board with the inscription –

On an impulse, Withencroft enters the yard, and comes across the mason working on a piece of marble. When the man turns, Withencroft is startled…

It was the man I had been drawing, whose portrait lay in my pocket. He sat there, huge and elephantine, the sweat pouring from his scalp, which he wiped with a red silk handkerchief. But though the face was the same, the expression was absolutely different.

The mason is friendly and invites Withencroft to take a seat and have a cooling drink. Withencroft complies, and asks Athinson what he’s working on. Atkinson tells him this particular stone isn’t strong enough to be a real headstone so he’s using it as a sample for an exhibition. He stands back to let Withencroft see the inscription…

SACRED TO THE MEMORY
OF
JAMES CLARENCE WITHENCROFT.
BORN JAN. 18TH, 1860.
HE PASSED AWAY VERY SUDDENLY
ON AUGUST 20TH, 190—
“In the midst of life we are in death.”

Withencroft is silent for a long moment, then…

…a cold shudder ran down my spine. I asked him where he had seen the name.
“Oh, I didn’t see it anywhere,” replied Mr. Atkinson. “I wanted some name, and I put down the first that came into my head. Why do you want to know?”
“It’s a strange coincidence, but it happens to be mine.”

And the date just happens to be August 20th…

* * * * *

This is a miniature gem of a story! No ghost nor obvious supernatural happenings, but that these two men who had never met before should have each drawn or named the other, and then come together as if by coincidence… spooky! Tombstones always add that special touch of creepiness. And the end is deliciously twisted and chilling. It’s excellently done and very short – well worth reading! And totally suitable for scaredy-cats…

I read it in the Oxford World’s Classic anthology, Horror Stories, but if you’d like to read it online, here’s a link…

The porpy found this one enjoyably shivery…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Look over there…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Hercule Poirot has retired to the village of King’s Abbott to grow vegetable marrows but, as we all know, wherever that man goes, murder is sure to follow. Roger Ackroyd is a wealthy man and a leading light in the community, but he’s not always generous to his many dependants. So when he is found dead in his study there are plenty of suspects. Dr James Sheppard is first on the scene of the crime and once Poirot becomes involved in the investigation the doctor finds himself acting as his unofficial assistant. It is through Dr Sheppard’s eyes that the reader follows the case.

This is one of the most famous of the Poirot books and many people consider it to be the best. I always have a hard time deciding on “best” Christies because so many of them are so good, but this would undoubtedly make my top 5. However, it’s one of those ones that’s got such an amazingly brilliant solution, like Murder on the Orient Express and a couple of others, that once read never forgotten, so I tend to re-read it less often. I found on this re-read after many years, though, that although I remembered the solution very clearly, I’d actually forgotten most of the plot, so it still made for an enjoyable revisit.

Mr Ackroyd had been upset earlier on the day of his death by the news that wealthy widow Mrs Ferrars, with whom rumour suggested he was romantically involved, had died apparently by her own hand. At dinner that evening, he told Dr Sheppard that he’d received a letter from her which he hadn’t yet read. When his body is discovered later, no trace of the letter is to be found. Also missing is young Ralph Paton, Mr Ackroyd’s stepson, and when he fails to show up the next day suspicion quickly falls on him. Ralph’s fiancée, Mr Ackroyd’s niece Flora, begs Poirot to come out of retirement to prove Ralph is innocent. Poirot gently points out to Flora that if he takes the case he will find the truth, and if the truth turns out to be that Ralph is guilty, she may regret her request. Flora is sure of Ralph, though, so Poirot agrees. The local police know of his reputation and are happy to have him work with them.

Agatha Christie

“My dear Caroline,” I said. “There’s no doubt at all about what the man’s profession has been. He’s a retired hairdresser. Look at that moustache of his.” Caroline dissented. She said that if the man was a hairdresser, he would have wavy hair – not straight. All hairdressers did.

Part of the fun is seeing Poirot and his methods through Dr Sheppard’s eyes. Though he’s amused by the detective’s appearance and mannerisms, Sheppard soon begins to appreciate that Poirot’s unusual methods often get people to reveal things that the more direct questioning of the police officers fails to elicit. Poirot is of a social standing to mix as a guest in the homes of the village elite and, since gossip is the favourite pastime of many of them, including Sheppard’s delightfully nosy spinster sister, Caroline, they make him very welcome in the hopes of pumping him for information. Sheppard also has inside knowledge of all the village characters and their histories, useful to Poirot and entertainingly presented to the reader. The gossip session over the mah-jong game, for example, is beautifully humorous – so much so that it’s easy to overlook any clues that might be concealed amid the exchange of titbits of information Caroline and her cronies have managed to gather.

But that is certainly not the sort of information that Caroline is after. She wants to know where he comes from, what he does, whether he is married, what his wife was, or is, like, whether he has children, what his mother’s maiden name was—and so on. Somebody very like Caroline must have invented the questions on passports, I think.

Hugh Fraser

Christie is always brilliant at misdirection, and this book may be her best example of that. Is it fair-play? Yes, I think so – I think there are enough clues to allow the reader to work it out, but they’re so beautifully hidden I bet very few readers will. However, unlike a lot of clever plotters, Christie always remembers that to be truly satisfying a mystery novel needs more than that. In this one, the Sheppards are really what make it so enjoyable – the doctor’s often satirical observations of Poirot and his fellow villagers, and Caroline’s good-natured love of gossip. Combined with Poirot’s little grey cells and eccentricities, they make this not only a triumph of plotting but a highly entertaining read too. And, as always, Hugh Fraser is the perfect narrator. Great stuff!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Deep Waters edited by Martin Edwards

Not waving, but drowning…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This new collection of vintage crime shorts from the British Library contains sixteen stories, all connected in some way to water – rivers, lakes, swimming pools, oceans. Martin Edwards suggests in his usual informative introduction that perhaps Britain’s view of itself as a maritime nation makes us particularly drawn to watery fiction of all kinds, so it’s not surprising that mystery writers got in on the act.

These collections are always variable, both in quality and in the reader’s reaction to the theme being used. This reader found this one particularly variable, partly because I felt some of the stories only made the cut because of their connection to water, but partly because I’m not a sailor and some of the stories use a fair amount of sailing terminology which always makes me lose interest. Sailors will, I’m sure, feel differently about these. Only a couple of the solutions rely on sailing specifics, though – the majority give us the usual range of motives, clues and styles of detection. And, as always, the contributors range from the very well known writers, like Conan Doyle or Michael Innes, through newer favourites recently getting a revival via the BL and other publishers, like Edmund Crispin or Christopher St. John Sprigg, to writers new to me although they may be well known to vintage crime aficionados, such as James Pattinson and Andrew Garve.

In total, I gave eight of the stories either four or five stars, while the other eight ranged between 2½ and 3½. So no complete duds, but quite a few that were relatively weak, I felt. However, when they were good, they were very, very good, meaning that I found plenty to enjoy. Here are a few of the ones that stood out most for me, and you’ll see from these examples that this collection has a lot of stories that don’t stick rigidly to the traditional detective story format, which gives them a feeling of originality and allows for some great storytelling, including occasional touches of spookiness or horror…

The Echo of a Mutiny by R. Austin Freeman – An inverted mystery (one where we know who the murderer is before we see how the detective solves it) starring Freeman’s regular scientific detective, Dr Thorndyke, this is a longer story at 40 pages or so. A new lighthouse keeper is sent to a rock lighthouse in a rowing boat, but never arrives. The local authorities assume he simply had an accident and drowned, but since Thorndyke happens to be in the neighbourhood they ask him what he thinks, and he finds that murder has been done. The backstory of the murder is very well done, and the solution relies on a nice clue and a neat bit of detection.

Four Friends and Death by Christopher St. John Sprigg – Four men on a boat drink a toast in cognac, and one of them falls dead of cyanide poisoning. The boat is in a Spanish port and of course good Englishmen don’t trust foreign police forces, so the three survivors decide to solve the mystery themselves before reporting the death. Was it a dramatic suicide? Or is one of the three hiding a secret? This is well written, beautifully tense, and ingeniously plotted and revealed. A short one, but excellent.

The Turning of the Tide by CS Forester – in this one, we’re inside the murderer-to-be’s head as he bumps off a fellow solicitor who is about to reveal that the murderer has been defrauding his clients. The story revolves around the disposal of the body – the murderer knows that without a body the police’s chances of solving the crime are much lower, so he resolves to dump it in the sea. Needless to say, it doesn’t go quite as planned, and it turns into a superbly effective horror story, very well told. Spine-tingling!

A Question of Timing by Phyllis Bentley – this is a quirky and intriguing story of a detective writer who accidentally gets caught up in a crime while walking along the river thinking through his latest plot. It’s a story about how serendipity and chance mess with the best laid plans, and has a nice touch of romance in the background. Very well told again – an enjoyable lighter story.

The Queer Fish by Kem Bennett – Our unlikely hero is a poacher who, after an evening drinking in the pub, is stopped on his way home by two men who force him at gunpoint to take them in his boat to France. This is a kind of adventure story but with a mystery element – it’s only later we discover why the men are trying to escape. It has a couple of fun twists towards the end. Well written and highly entertaining!

So a mixed collection, but with plenty of good stuff in it that’s a little out of the ordinary run of mystery stories. I enjoyed the ones I enjoyed so much that they more than compensated for the ones I didn’t. I do love these anthologies…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 218…

Episode 218

Spookily, the TBR has dropped by two this week, to 213. I feel as if I’ve read very little so I can only assume they’ve been scared off the list somehow…

(My cats love this gif so much!)

Here are a few more I’ll be busting soon – hope they haven’t been ghost-written!

Scottish Crime

Blood City by Douglas Skelton

This is the first book in a quartet. I read and loved the fourth book a few years ago (I know, illogical, which proves I’m not Vulcan) and have been meaning to read the earlier books ever since. This has been on my TBR since 2016…

The Blurb says: Meet Davie McCall – not your average henchman. Abused and tormented by his father for fifteen years, there is a darkness in him searching for a way out. Under the wing of Glasgow’s Godfather, Joe ‘the Tailor’ Klein, he flourishes. Joe the Tailor may be a killer, but there are some lines he won’t cross, and Davie agrees with his strict moral code. He doesn’t like drugs. He won’t condone foul language. He abhors violence against women. When the Tailor refuses to be part of Glasgow’s new drug trade, the hits start rolling. It’s every man for himself as the entire criminal underworld turns on itself, and Davie is well and truly caught up in the action. But a young reporter makes him wonder if he can leave his life of crime behind and Davie must learn the hard way that you cannot change. Blood City is a novel set in Glasgow’s underworld at a time when it was undergoing a seismic shift. A tale of violence, corruption and betrayal, loyalties will be tested and friendships torn apart.

* * * * *

Vintage Crime Shorts

The Measure of Malice edited by Martin Edwards

Another anthology of vintage short detective stories from the wonderful British Library Crime Classics series. These may be a little less to my taste than usual, since mysteries that hinge on physical clues don’t usually work as well for me as those that depend on motive. But my lower expectations leave me hoping to be surprised!

The Blurb says: The detective’s role is simple: to catch the culprit. Yet behind each casual observation lies a learned mind, trained on finding the key to the mystery. Crimes, whatever their form, are often best solved through deliberations of logic – preferably amid complicated gadgetry and a pile of hefty scientific volumes.

The detectives in this collection are masters of scientific deduction, whether they are identifying the perpetrator from a single scrap of fabric, or picking out the poison from a sinister line-up. Containing stories by R. Austin Freeman, J. J. Connington and the master of logical reasoning, Arthur Conan Doyle, The Measure of Malice collects tales of rational thinking to prove the power of the human brain over villainous deeds.

* * * * *

Scottish Classic

The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown

From my Classics Club list. I think this sounds dismal and the words “postmodern alienation” send an apprehensive shiver down my spine. But my brother tells me it’s good, so I’ll either enjoy the book or I’ll enjoy bashing him over the head with it. Win-win!

The Blurb says: The most famous Scottish novel of the early 20th century, The House with the Green Shutters has remained a landmark on the literary scene ever since it was first published in 1901. Determined to overthrow the sentimental “kailyard” stereotypes of the day, George Douglas Brown exposed the bitter pettiness of commercial greed and small-town Scottish life as he himself had come to know it. More than this, however, his novel lays bare the seductive and crippling presence of patriarchal authority in Scottish culture at large, symbolized by the terrible struggle between old John Gourlay and his weak but imaginative son. Illuminated by lightning flashes of descriptive brilliance, Brown’s prose evokes melodrama, Greek tragedy, and postmodern alienation in a unique and unforgettably powerful reading experience. Introduced by Cairns Craig.

* * * * *

Historical Crime

Now You See Them by Elly Griffiths

Courtesy of Quercus via NetGalley. The latest entry in Griffiths’ so far excellent Stephens and Mephisto series, set in Brighton. Up till now it’s been set in the 1950s, but this one seems to be taking us into the ’60s… 

The Blurb says: DCI Edgar Stephens, Detective Sergeants Emma Holmes and Bob Willis, and of course magician Max Mephisto, are facing a brave new world: the 1960s. Max is a huge TV star in the USA, and life in Brighton has settled down for the three police officers.

The funeral of Diablo, actor and wartime comrade to Edgar and Max, throws the gang back together. A more surprising face to see is Ruby, Edgar ex-fiance, now the star of her own TV show. At the funeral Ruby asks Emma’s advice about someone who is stalking her. Emma is flattered and promises to investigate.

Then Ruby goes missing and the race to find her involves not only the old comrades but sundry new characters from the often bewildering world of the sixties music scene…

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Blogger Recognition Award

…aka How It All Began…

I’m thrilled to have been nominated for The Blogger Recognition Award by carllbatnag at The Pine-Scented Chronicles – thank you!

The Award Rules

1. Thank the blogger/s who nominated you and provide a link to their blog.
2. Write a post to show your award.
3. Give a brief story of how your blog started.
4. Give two pieces of advice to new bloggers.
5. Select 15 other bloggers you want to give this award to.
6. Comment (or pingback) on each blog and let them know you have nominated them and provide the link to the post you created.

3. Give a brief story of how your blog started…

Once upon a time, there was a lovely young woman of noble birth, Lady FF, who fell in love with the King’s favourite son, and he loved her right back because did I mention she was gorgeous? She looked a bit like this…

…and her Prince looked a bit like this, when he was playing tennis, which he did a lot when he wasn’t telling Lady FF about how her eyes were like bright stars lighting up the vast void of his personal heaven…

The King looked a bit like this…

(…and, whisper it not, there were moments when Lady FF wondered if the more mature man might not be more her style. But the King was already married whereas the Prince wasn’t, so that helped with the decision.) The King’s wife looked a bit like this…

Now, Lady FF was never one to judge by appearances, which was a pity because any fool could have seen that the Queen had some kind of major personality disorder. The Queen was deeply jealous of Lady FF because of the love the Prince bore for her, plus because Lady FF was considerably better looking than she and frankly had better dress sense.

One day, the Prince went off to the forest to hunt. (Fear not! He didn’t actually kill anything – he simply hunted for pretty creatures, snapped them and posted the pics to his Instagram account. Pictures like this…)

When evening fell and he had not returned, Lady FF was worried so she set off bravely – did I mention she was terribly brave? – following the tracks of his horse’s hooves deep into the darkest depths of the deepest dell. (She’d been experimenting with alliteration recently.) There she came upon an ancient cottage. She knocked on the door and was astonished when who should open it but the Queen herself!

“Where is my Prince?” Lady FF demanded. She could be peremptory when required.

“Buried deep in cavern halls
Without his racquet or his balls.”

(Balls like this!)

(Seriously, people, your minds…!)

“But why?” Lady FF whined. She could be whiny too, but in an irresistibly attractive way.

“To keep him from your clutching hands.
You ne’er shall be Princess of these lands.”

“Ne’er?”

“Ne’er!”

Lady FF dropped to her knees, clasped her hands and looked beseechingly at the cruel Queen.

“Is there nothing I can do or say to make you change your mind, oh fair and gentle Queen?” (Flattery ne’er goes amiss in these circumstances.)

The Queen cackled gleefully.

“Listen close and I shall tell
The only way to break my spell.
The Royal Castle has a room
In which is piled your awful doom.
Three thousand books all bound in blue
You must read them all, it’s true.
And when you finish every one
You may then wed my loving son.
But proof I need of all you do
So every book you must review!”

And so Lady FF began a book blog, and dreamt each night of the time to come when she and her Prince would live happily ever after…

* * * * *

4. Give two pieces of advice to new bloggers…

a) Have fun! That’s what it’s all about. Do as much or as little as you like and don’t compare your blog to other people’s – they’re they and you’re you. And when it all starts to feel like work, take a break, bake a cake, sail on a lake, or run off with a sheik – the blog (and your followers) will still be there when you and your enthusiasm return.

b) If you want people to come to your blog and chat, go to their blogs and chat. Quid pro quo, as that great philosopher and linguist Donald J. Trump would say.

Bonus advice…

c) Never mention Donald J. Trump.

* * * * *

(Gratuitous Darcy pic…)

5. Select 15 other bloggers you want to give this award to.

OK, I don’t usually do this, but there don’t seem to have been so many awards and tags going around lately, so I’m going to spread the love this time. Here’s my fifteen – all bloggers who richly deserve an award for the fun they add to the blogosphere. I shall be deeply offended if you don’t accept the award and link your post back to me. In fact, I’m already plotting my revenge…

Cathy @ Between the Lines
Karissa @ Karissa Reads Books
MarinaSofia @ Finding Time to Write
Jennifer @ Tar Heel Reader
Margaret @ Books Please
Kelly @ Kelly’s Thoughts and Ramblings
Rose @ Rose Reads Novels
Katrina @ Pining for the West
Anne @ I’ve Read This
Jane @ Just Reading a Book
L. Marie @ El Space
Debbie @ Musings by an ND Domer’s Mom
Madame Bibi @ Madame Bibi Lophile Recommends
Eva @ Novel Delights
Stargazer

Have a great Wednesday! 😀

Tuesday Terror! The Case of Lady Sannox by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Never betray Sir Arthur…

I don’t usually use two stories from the same author so close together, but firstly, it’s my beloved ACD, and secondly, I feel this is almost a companion piece to last week’s story, The Retirement of Signor Lambert. Another adulterous affair, another revenge but this time against the erring wife and so, so much more horrific than last week’s. Not for the faint-hearted – you have been warned!

The Case of Lady Sannox
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The relations between Douglas Stone and the notorious Lady Sannox were very well known both among the fashionable circles of which she was a brilliant member, and the scientific bodies which numbered him among their most illustrious confreres. There was naturally, therefore, a very widespread interest when it was announced one morning that the lady had absolutely and for ever taken the veil, and that the world would see her no more. When, at the very tail of this rumour, there came the assurance that the celebrated operating surgeon, the man of steel nerves, had been found in the morning by his valet, seated on one side of his bed, smiling pleasantly upon the universe, with both legs jammed into one side of his breeches and his great brain about as valuable as a cap full of porridge, the matter was strong enough to give quite a little thrill of interest to folk who had never hoped that their jaded nerves were capable of such a sensation.

Douglas Stone had expensive tastes and liked the best of everything. And when he met Lady Sannox, he knew he had to have her. Not a terribly difficult task…

She had a liking for new experiences, and was gracious to most men who wooed her. It may have been cause or it may have been effect that Lord Sannox looked fifty, though he was but six-and-thirty.

The Lovers

Poor old Lord Sannox! Don’t feel too sorry for him, though! People had never been sure whether he was unaware of his wife’s indiscretions or whether he simply chose to ignore them. But when Douglas Stone became the new favourite, even Lord Sannox couldn’t fail to notice…

There was no subterfuge about Stone. In his high-handed, impetuous fashion, he set all caution and discretion at defiance. The scandal became notorious.

The Husband

One night, Stone was due to visit his Lady but as he was about to leave home a man arrived, asking for his medical assistance for his wife…

A few moments later the butler swung open the door and ushered in a small and decrepit man, who walked with a bent back and with the forward push of the face and blink of the eyes which goes with extreme short sight. His face was swarthy, and his hair and beard of the deepest black. In one hand he held a turban of white muslin striped with red, in the other a small chamois-leather bag.

He tells Stone that his wife has met with an accident and has been poisoned by an obscure Oriental poison. She must have an operation immediately if she is to be saved! Stone is rather unmoved by this, but the promise of a huge fee sways him, and they set off to the man’s house…

It was a mean-looking house in a narrow and sordid street. The surgeon, who knew his London well, cast a swift glance into the shadows, but there was nothing distinctive—no shop, no movement, nothing but a double line of dull, flat-faced houses, a double stretch of wet flagstones which gleamed in the lamplight, and a double rush of water in the gutters which swirled and gurgled towards the sewer gratings.

Inside, the man takes Stone to the patient…

A single small lamp stood upon a bracket on the wall. Douglas Stone took it down, and picking his way among the lumber, walked over to a couch in the corner, on which lay a woman dressed in the Turkish fashion, with yashmak and veil.

And then…

The Climax

* * * * *

No, if you want to know the rest you must read it for yourself! It’s one of the stories in Late Victorian Gothic Tales (and many other anthologies), but if you’d like to read it online, here’s a link

I warn you, this one actually horrifies me and the porpy has now taken a lifelong vow of celibacy and retired to a monastery. It reminds us that ACD is not nearly as cuddly as Dr Watson and that he was a medical man before he was a writer. But it is brilliantly written, and completely unforgettable – though you might wish it wasn’t! It also reminds us that humans are much more to be feared than ghosties, ghoulies or even things that go bump in the night!

The porpy’s at the back. But fear not! I’m sure I’ll be able to tempt him
out again once the initial horror begins to fade!

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

GAN Quest: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Whom the gods would destroy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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. His supposed deafness makes him invisible to the staff, which means that he can listen in to conversations patients aren’t meant to hear. He knows that Nurse Ratched, in charge of the ward, is part of the Combine – the all-powerful authorities who control men through psychiatry, medication and technology. 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, and geeing the Acutes up to rebel. The Acutes are men who are being treated with a view to them one day being able to leave and resume a normal life outside. But then McMurphy discovers that most of the Acutes are there voluntarily and could leave whenever they like, whereas he has been committed, and Nurse Ratched has complete power to decide his fate. Chief Bromden watches, hoping that somehow McMurphy is big enough to beat the Combine…

First published in 1962, the book is of its time in that there’s a lot that reads like racism and misogyny today. But if you can look past this, it also has a good deal to say about the concerns of the time, many of which remain unresolved today – the treatment of mental illness, the tendency of society to suppress individuality, the emasculation felt by some men in a society that no longer values physical strength and aggression as it once did, the closeting of homosexuality, the destruction of Native American lands and traditions by the forces of capitalism (also part of Chief’s Combine). (It struck me as odd, in fact, that Kesey was so sympathetic to Native American culture while being rather blatantly racist about African Americans.)

The writing is wonderfully versatile, ranging from the profanity and sexual crudeness and humour of the men’s language, to profound insights into this small microcosm of the insane world we all live in, to the frightening imagery of the Combine delusions inside Chief’s head, to moments of beauty as Chief begins to appreciate the possibilities of life again under McMurphy’s domineering tutelage. Here describing a young dog he sees from the window of the ward at night…

Galloping from one particularly interesting hole to the next, he became so took with what was coming off – the moon up there, the night, the breeze full of smells so wild makes a young dog drunk – that he had to lie down on his back and roll. He twisted and thrashed around like a fish, back bowed and belly up, and when he got to his feet and shook himself a spray came off him in the moon like silver scales.

Book 53 of 90

The ambiguity over Chief’s sanity means that the reader has to decide whether to interpret things as he does, or to consider whether his bias is making Nurse Ratched seem crueller and McMurphy saner than they might look from a different perspective. In the film, McMurphy is very much the hero, even if a flawed one. In the book, it’s not so clear cut, and I felt Chief Bromden himself was the central character – whether Ratched or McMurphy are in the right becomes somewhat secondary to how Chief’s interpretation of their actions and motives gradually affects his own mental state. I found I was cheering on McMurphy and the patients, but a small voice in my head kept suggesting that maybe Ratched was right that McMurphy’s incitement to rebellion was damaging them as badly as McMurphy felt Ratched and the system were. For Chief, McMurphy takes on an almost Christ-like role: a man willing to sacrifice himself to free others of their sins – in this case, the sin of not fitting in to society’s expectations. I suspect that may have been what Kesey wanted the reader to feel too – he’s certainly critiquing his society ferociously. But by using the setting of a mental hospital and giving us a Chronic for our guide, he leaves open the possibility that everything we are seeing is an insane view of the world. Intentional or not – I couldn’t decide – it makes the book wonderfully thought-provoking.

Ken Kesey

I read this once before long ago when I was enthralled by the film, and found the book disappointingly different. This time round I appreciated those slight differences in emphasis – the actions and events are almost identical, but seeing them through Chief’s eyes rather than directly through our own adds a layer of ambiguity that perhaps the film lacks. A great book and a great film, but perhaps best not read and watched too closely together.

This is my book for the Classics Club Spin #21.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* * * * *

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

Achieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

Yes, there is no doubt that psychiatry was an obsession in American culture at this period, and Kesey uses it effectively to look at many aspects of his contemporary society.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

This one is always tricky. Yes, we’ve had insane narrators since Poe’s time, but this feels different – Chief’s insanity is a response to the world he lives in, and the suggestion that our society is stripping us of the ability to be individuals hence driving us mad feels urgently original.

Must be superbly written.

I felt Kesey maintained Chief’s voice and perspective brilliantly – an intelligent, sensitive man but not well-educated. The sheer variety in tones throughout the book impressed me hugely, as did its feeling of emotional truth. So, achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

I’m very tempted, I must admit. While at that time all America was not mad (I say nothing about today’s America… 😉 ), here Kesey is suggesting that it is the “American experience” that is at the root of the madness of his characters – its obsessions, its inequality, its drive towards conformity at the expense of individuality and masculinity. But in the end, I don’t think it ranges quite broadly enough to claim this flag. With regret, not achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel but, with 5 stars and 4 GAN flags, I’m delighted to declare this…

A Great American Novel.

* * * * * * * * *

 

The Curious Mr Tarrant by C. Daly King

A mystery to me…

😐 😐

A collection of eight mysteries starring the mysterious Trevis Tarrant, ably assisted by his manservant, Katoh, who is actually a Japanese spy.

I must admit that sometimes the most baffling mystery to me is why a book has been included in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, and this is one of those cases. Edwards says: The Curious Mr Tarrant is one of the most renowned collection of stories focusing primarily on impossible crimes.” It appears the stories were admired by Ellery Queen and Dorothy L Sayers, amongst others, so clearly they saw more in King than I. Apparently he never achieved popular success in his native America, though, and had difficulty finding publishers there. I’m kinda with the Americans on this one, and think it’s unfortunate this has been chosen to fill one of only four slots in the Across the Atlantic section.

It actually starts off pretty well. I gave a couple of the early stories 5 stars and another 4. But the rest ranged from mediocre to dire, getting progressively worse as they went along. The final story slumped all the way to one star.

Tarrant is an amateur detective, but his interest is purely in the bizarre. He investigates for the intellectual thrill, and has no particular interest in achieving justice. In the early stories the narrator is Jerry Phelan, a young man about town who meets Tarrant during the first case in the collection, The Episode of the Codex Curse. Jerry and the girl he loves, Valerie, are quite fun, as is Jerry’s sister, Mary – all three of them have a Wodehouse-ish vibe. They gradually play smaller and smaller roles and eventually all but disappear, and the later stories badly miss the element of humour they bring to the earlier ones. Tarrant himself is one of these annoying geniuses with a remarkable gift for working out what seems unfathomable to the mere mortals around him. I liked him well enough at the beginning but tired of him quite quickly. And the last few stories introduce a strange kind of supernatural or mystical element, which is too nonsensical to be taken seriously, but not nonsensical enough to be amusing.

Challenge details:
Book: 92
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1935

When reviewing a collection, I usually highlight a few of my favourite stories. Here I’m afraid there are only two that I really enjoyed, although, in fairness, both of them are very good:

The Episode of the Tangible Illusion – Valerie is refusing to marry Jerry because she thinks she’s going mad. She hears footsteps in her house when no-one is there, and sees strange images in her room at night. Jerry, having met Tarrant in a previous case and admiring his talent for explaining the inexplicable, asks him to investigate. This is the second story in the book and is very well told, with a great mix of humour, spookiness and a lovely little romance. The solution is ingenious and the detective element is stronger than in most of the other stories.

The Episode of “Torment IV” – Torment IV is the name of a small yacht, and the story is based on the idea of the Mary Celeste. One day the yacht is found abandoned, and it transpires that the family who were on it all drowned. Tarrant investigates what happened to drive them all into the sea, given that the sea had been calm and nothing seems to be amiss on the boat. This is as much horror as detection and it has a great element of suspense. Although the solution is actually a bit silly, the ending is quite effectively scary.

C Daly King

And that’s it. There’s another one, The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem – a traditional locked room mystery – which seems to be highly thought of. I fear I found it dull. The characterisation is non-existent and the whole thing hinges purely on the technical details of how the deed was done.

Overall, I couldn’t recommend this collection, although the couple of stories I’ve highlighted are worth reading should you ever happen across them. A disappointment.

(The Kindle version I’m linking to has an extra four stories that King wrote later which weren’t originally included in the collection. I’m afraid I couldn’t get up enough enthusiasm to read them.)

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 217…

Episode 217

Oops! A tiny little increase in the TBR this week – up 1 to 215. But it’s not my fault! It’s all these politicians! How is a girl to concentrate when the “civilised” world is going into meltdown?? Still, they might all be useless, but at least our new PM is more entertaining than the last one…

Here are a few more I’ll be putting to the vote soon…

American Classic

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

I surprised myself by loving my introduction to Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, a few years ago, so am hoping he works the same magic with this one, which actually sounds more like my kind of thing…

The Blurb says: High in the pine forests of the Spanish Sierra, a guerrilla band prepares to blow up a vital bridge. Robert Jordan, a young American volunteer, has been sent to handle the dynamiting. There, in the mountains, he finds the dangers and the intense comradeship of war. And there he discovers Maria, a young woman who has escaped from Franco’s rebels…

* * * * *

Vintage Sci-Fi Shorts

Menace of the Monster edited by Mike Ashley

I thoroughly enjoyed the other volume I’ve read in this series of vintage sci-fi from the British Library, Menace of the Machine, so I have high hopes for this one. I’ve already dipped into it to find a Tuesday Terror! story and the porpy and I were both cowering behind a barrel of ant spray after reading De Profundis – we’re hoping they’re not all quite as scary as that one!

The Blurb says: The field of classic science fiction is populated with bizarre and fearsome creatures, be they lifeforms from other worlds, corrupted beasts from our own planet or entities from unimaginable dimensions.

Collected within is a diverse host of these otherworldly beings, from savage prehistoric revenants to nightmare predators encountered in the dark of space; from alien visitors on trial under US law to unfamiliar species under the knife in an intergalactic hospital; and from warlike Martians to the peaceful creatures for whom Man might be the monstrous invader…

* * * * *

Horror

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

This has been on my TBR since 2014, mainly because I’ve only read one ghost story of Hill’s and it was bland, unscary and derivative. This one is of course much praised, so hopefully it will be better, but my expectations are low. I did see a theatre adaptation of it many moons ago and, hmm, well, let’s just say I snored more than I shrieked… but the book is always better, right? Right?

The Blurb says: The classic ghost story by Susan Hill: a chilling tale about a menacing spectre haunting a small English town.

Arthur Kipps is an up-and-coming London solicitor who is sent to Crythin Gifford—a faraway town in the windswept salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway—to attend the funeral and settle the affairs of a client, Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. Mrs. Drablow’s house stands at the end of the causeway, wreathed in fog and mystery, but Kipps is unaware of the tragic secrets that lie hidden behind its sheltered windows. The routine business trip he anticipated quickly takes a horrifying turn when he finds himself haunted by a series of mysterious sounds and images—a rocking chair in a deserted nursery, the eerie sound of a pony and trap, a child’s scream in the fog, and, most terrifying of all, a ghostly woman dressed all in black. Psychologically terrifying and deliciously eerie, The Woman in Black is a remarkable thriller of the first rate.

* * * * *

Scottish Classic

The New Road by Neil Munro

I know nothing about this one other than it regularly appears on lists of Scottish classics. The blurb might be short but it still sounds intriguing… 

The Blurb says: The New Road tells the story of Aeneas McMaster – a young man haunted by the disappearance of his Jacobite father 14 years earlier. It is also the story of the Highlands at the time when General Wade’s road was carving its way between Stirling and Inverness into the traditional strongholds of the Clans.

* * * * *

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert

Roll up! Roll up!

😀 😀 😀 😀

One day, just as the Omaha World Fair of 1898 draws to a close, two elderly sisters are sitting quietly in their Nebraska farmhouse when an extraordinary event occurs – a hot-air balloon crashes onto their roof. In it is Ferret Skerritt, ventriloquist and magician. He has survived but with a badly broken leg which means that he has to stay in the farmhouse while he recovers – an intrusion the old ladies find a welcome break from their dull routine. They ask him for his story and he is at first reluctant to tell them, instead telling us, the readers. We hear about his early life as an orphan, why he became a ventriloquist, his fascination with the World Fair, his puppet Oscar. And most of all, we learn about his great love for Cecily, an actress also working in the Fair. Finally, we will learn why he was in the hot-air balloon on the day of the crash…

By all rights I should have hated this one. Mostly it’s a romance, with much sighing over Cecily’s many perfections, and it has generous hints of the kind of trendy liberal “woke”-ness that normally makes me run a mile. But the writing is gorgeous and all the stuff about the World Fair is wonderful. I kept expecting to reach a point where the love aspect got too much for me, especially when in the later stages it takes on a kind of ghostly, mystical element, but it kept my attention to the end, and I was well content to gloss over the relative weakness of the plot and its too tidy resolution.

(This is why I love doing challenges. I only read this because of the Omaha setting which is a compulsory stop on my Around the World Challenge. I would never have chosen it based on the blurb or even the mixed reviews.)

I didn’t yet know that this was the actress not listed in the program, that this was that Sessaly, the “violet-eyed trollop” of Opium and Vanities. Her eyes were not violet, after all – they were amber. They were the color of candied ginger or a slice of cinnamon cake. Faded paper, polished leather, a brandied apricot. Orange-peel tea. I considered them, imagining the letters I would write to her. Pipe tobacco, perhaps. A honey lozenge, an autumn leaf. I would look through books of poetry, not to thieve but to avoid. Dear Sessaly, I thought later that night, not actually with pen to paper but lying on my back, writing the words in the air with my finger, let me say nothing to you that’s already been said.

(This is the real event that Schaffert has used as his “World Fair”.)

As well as Cecily and Ferret, there’s a cast of characters who would be eccentric in most lifestyles but who are well and believably drawn as the street entertainers, small-time actors and grifters who haunt the periphery of the Fair. August is Ferret’s best friend – a gay half-caste Indian (using the terminology of the time) who is madly in love with Ferret but knows his love will never be returned. (Yeah. But oddly it works, more or less.) Billy Wakefield is a rich man with a tragic past which somehow fails to make him sympathetic – he’s by no means a stock baddie, but he’s a man who is used to getting his own way regardless of who may get hurt in the process. Cecily works in a company of actors who are performing in the House of Horrors – Cecily herself playing Marie Antoinette being beheaded many times a day for the gruesome delight of the paying customers. And the Nebraskan sisters have their own peculiarities, such as their intention to build a kind of temple on their ground with Ferret as an unlikely prophet.

The characterisation is more whimsical than profound, and Cecily herself is an enigma, to me at least. I found her irritating and not a particularly loveable person, but everyone seems to love her anyway. The story, which looks as if it’s going to be a straightforward romance at first, takes off in an unexpected direction halfway through. I don’t want to include spoilers so I won’t say more on that, except that every time I thought I’d got a handle on where the story was going Schaffert would surprise me – not with shocks and twists, but with an almost fairy-tale like quality of unreality, or illusion.

I can see your absence everywhere, in everything. I could look at a rose, but instead of seeing the rose, I would see you not holding it. I look at the moonlight, and there you are, not in it.

Timothy Schaffert

For me, the Fair itself was the star of the show. Schaffert shows all the surface glamour, and all the hidden tawdriness beneath: the Grand Court where the rich play, the midway for the common herd. He shows the unofficial street entertainers, the whores, the drunks, the sellers of obscene photographs, the many ways to fleece the gullible. But there’s a feeling that the open grifting and true friendships on midway are somehow more honest than the insincerity among the respectable rich, where friendships are superficial and people live for scandal and gossip. Schaffert’s plot runs the full length of the Fair, so that we see it from its dazzling opening with all the buildings white and shining in the sun, to its close, when the veneer is already peeling off, glamour gone, showing the cheap shabbiness beneath and the last fair people left stealing anything they can before they leave.

I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone to read this – an odd one, but a surprise winner.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Retirement of Signor Lambert by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A cautionary tale…

If you have been a visitor to my blog for any length of time, you will know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has his very own pedestal in my bookish hall of fame. Adventure, crime, historical fiction – he was a master of so many genres. Not least, horror! Here’s a deliciously horrid little story for this week’s…

The Retirement of Signor Lambert
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir William Sparter was a man who had raised himself in the course of a quarter of a century from earning four-and-twenty shillings a week as a fitter in Portsmouth Dockyard to being the owner of a yard and a fleet of his own. . . now, at the age of fifty, he owned a mansion in Leinster Gardens, a country house at Taplow and a shooting in Argyleshire, with the best stable, the choicest cellars and the prettiest wife in town.

Life is pretty good for Sir William, but for one thing.

And yet he had failed in one thing, and that the most important of all. He had never succeeded in gaining the affection of his wife.

Oh, he had tried! His pretty wife had married him not for love, but because of his wealth and power. Sir William had hoped to win her love in time…

But the very qualities which had helped him in his public life had made him unbearable in private. He was tactless, unsympathetic, overbearing, almost brutal sometimes, and utterly unable to think out those small attentions in word and deed which women value far more than the larger material benefits.

Well, I’m not so sure in this case. She did marry him for his large “material benefits” after all. Anyway, then Sir William makes a terrible discovery…

…when a letter of his wife’s came, through the treachery of a servant, into his hands, and he realized that if she was cold to him she had passion enough for another.

Sir William was not a man who would forgive such a betrayal…

His firm, his ironclads, his patents, everything was dropped, and he turned his huge energies to the undoing of the man.

He confronts his wife, and insists she write a letter to her lover…

“William, you are plotting some revenge. Oh, William, if I have wronged you, I am so sorry—”
“Copy that letter!”
“But what is it that you wish to do? Why should you desire him to come at that hour?”
“Copy that letter!”
“How can you be so harsh, William? You know very well—”
“Copy that letter!”
“I begin to hate you, William. I believe that it is a fiend, not a man, that I have married.”
“Copy that letter!”
Gradually the inflexible will and the unfaltering purpose began to prevail over the creature of nerves and moods. Reluctantly, mutinously, she took the pen in her hand.

The letter written, Sir William sends his wife to bed. Then he takes out two things and begins to read. The first is a paper…

…a recent number of the “Musical Record,” and it contained a biography and picture of the famous Signor Lambert, whose wonderful tenor voice had been the delight of the public and the despair of his rivals. The picture was that of a good-natured, self-satisfied creature, young and handsome, with a full eye, a curling moustache and a bull neck.

The lover!

The second thing is a medical book on the organs of speech and voice-production…

There were numerous coloured illustrations, to which he paid particular attention. Most of them were of the internal anatomy of the larynx, with the silvery vocal cords shining from under the pink arytenoid cartilage. Far into the night Sir William Sparter, with those great virile eyebrows still bunched together, pored over these irrelevant pictures, and read and reread the text in which they were explained.

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Woo! Am I glad I never had an affair with Sir Arthur’s wife! This little story shows Conan Doyle at his most twisted. Sir William’s method of revenge is cruel and carried out with a cold-blooded competence that chills the blood. While it’s hard to sympathise with Signor Lambert, his punishment is harsh indeed. Jacqueline, the wife, doesn’t gain much sympathy either – having married Sir William for his money and then having betrayed him, she seems to think that he should simply forgive. But nothing in Sir William’s personality could have led her to think that he was the forgiving kind…

He could frighten his wife, he could dominate her, he could make her admire his strength and respect his consistency, he could mould her to his will in every other direction, but, do what he would, he could not make her love him.

We aren’t given many details of the aftermath for the characters after the act of revenge – I shiver when I think of poor Jacqueline’s reaction and the fear she must have felt, compelled as she would have been to remain married to a man whose potential for pitiless brutality she now fully understood.

Once read, never forgotten! I read it in Gothic Tales of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but if you’d like to read it online, here’s a link. I think of Signor Lambert often – a cautionary tale for all you adulterers out there…

The porpy reckons this story has made him immune
to female charms for a while…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Peterloo: The English Uprising by Robert Poole

A milestone on the road to democracy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Two hundred years ago, on 16th August, 1819, a huge rally of some 50,000 people gathered in St Peter’s Field in Manchester, to demand greater representation in Parliament. Although the demonstrators were peaceful and unarmed, they were charged by the cavalry and local Yeomanry, riding through the crowd with sabres drawn. Many hundreds were injured and eighteen were killed, either from crush injuries or from sabre wounds. Known as Peterloo, this incident is embedded in the national consciousness as a tragic milestone on the long, long road to democracy.

Robert Poole is Professor of History at the University of Central Lancashire. He suggests that 1819 should be seen in the context of the end of the long 18th century following the Glorious Revolution, as much as the beginning of the reforming 19th century. The Napoleonic Wars had ended at last, but for the handloom weavers and mill-workers in and around Manchester, peace brought no dividend. The huge national debt had led to high taxation, usually indirect which then as now hit the poor disproportionately. Wealth inequality, already major, was growing. Government policies such as the Corn Laws favoured landowners and voters (a tiny number of the wealthy) rather than workers. Wages, already low, were falling still further. Starvation was an actuality even for people working long hours in appalling conditions.

One of the banners carried by the marchers that so frightened the authorities.

Poole concentrates most of the book on the period between the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) and 1819, with the focus on what led up to the massacre more than on its aftermath. He gives a detailed account of the conditions of the workers, the prevailing economic circumstances, the political environment, and the effect of recent upheavals in France on the establishment’s fear of bloody revolution. The book is clearly the result of immense research, pulled together into a very readable narrative that is accessible to the non-historian without in any way over-simplifying the content. There are maps of the area, and a generous helping of illustrations throughout, which aid in understanding how events were perceived at the time. Although it’s clear Poole is on the “side” of the reformers (who in today’s Britain would disagree with that position?), he nevertheless casts an objective eye on why the authorities behaved as they did, condemning where appropriate, but showing some understanding of the pressures they felt themselves under too. He also shows that, although there was no violence on that day from the reformers’ side, there had been violent incidents before, and it was known that the marchers had been being drilled by ex-soldiers, leading the authorities to fear an armed uprising. Overall I felt that Poole gave as even-handed an account of the background as possible, while not in any way minimising or excusing the atrocity that occurred.

Along the way, we learn a lot about the leaders of the Reform movement and their aims, not always uniform. Poole also tells us about the many spies embedded in the movement, reporting every word and action back to the Home Office. We are told about the Government’s use of political power to make it almost impossible for people to protest legally, and about the abuses of the legal system, such as the suspension of habeas corpus, to allow those perceived as ringleaders to be kept in jail for long periods often without trial. Poole tells us about the women who joined the reform movement, not at this early stage demanding votes for themselves, but in support of their men. Despite all the attempts to threaten, bully or otherwise silence them, the people marched, and marched again, and the authorities, local and national, unwilling, perhaps unable, to give in to their demands, felt they had to do something to restore order.

As a casual reader, I found the middle section of the book, where Poole describes the many marches and protests prior to the day of Peterloo, harder to plough through, although this is more a criticism of me than the book. For students, historians or people who like an in-depth approach, then the level of detail Poole provides will be appreciated. However, I found the long first section on the political, social and economic background fascinating and written with great clarity, while the description of the event itself at the end is excellent – a clear and balanced account, and by that stage Poole has ensured the reader understands all the various elements that came together to clash so tragically on St Peter’s Field.

Poole concludes by examining the numbers of dead and injured, explaining the sources historians have used for determining these figures. He discusses the trials and imprisonments that followed. He takes a very interesting look at the reporting of the day and how public opinion was changed by a few journalists offering eyewitness accounts. He then sets this event as a link in the chain of the longer reform movement, later leading to the 1832 Reform Act and on towards Chartism and eventual achievement of universal manhood suffrage, where every vote counted equally. He compares (as I did while reading) the period 1817/19 to today’s Britain (and I’d add America and several European nations, not omitting the EU itself), with populism rising as a response to an elite who don’t listen to the concerns of the people, (and again I’d add, or who discount the legitimacy of any democratically-expressed decision with which they disagree). I also found myself comparing these events to the ongoing Hong Kong protests, with a chilling sense of foreboding.

I was taught about Peterloo by an inspirational history teacher at school and it helped form my long-held opinion that if democracy is to survive, then democracy itself must be accepted by all as more important than any one political issue or partisan affiliation. Democracy is a fragile thing, and this book is an excellent reminder of how hard-fought the battle was to win it. I highly recommend it.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Face in the Glass: The Gothic Tales of Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Tales of unease…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This new collection from the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series contains fourteen short horror stories from the pen of a woman probably best-known for her sensation novels, Mary Elizabeth Braddon. It comes with a brief but informative introduction from Greg Buzwell, who tells a little about Braddon’s unconventional personal life and discusses the writers who may have influenced her.

I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of her writing. In my ignorance and literary snobbishness, I was expecting these to be at the pulpy end of horror, probably full of high melodrama and swooning maidens, but they’re not at all. There’s a wide variety of styles, from the standard hauntings to tales of revenge, but also some with a more reflective edge, about wasted lives and possible afterlives. Most of them involve the supernatural in one way or another, but human evil is also there in many of them. Some have a touch of romance and there’s some gentle humour in the observations of the society in which the stories are set.

However, the stories often contain a great deal of sadness and unfairness and somehow this stopped me from being able to love them all wholeheartedly. I often say that the joy of vintage crime is that authors knew to kill people that everyone disliked, so the reader doesn’t have to be grief-stricken. The same tends to apply to vintage horror – the people to whom bad things happen usually either deserve it or aren’t developed well enough for the reader to care, while the hero or heroine, or the narrator/observer, usually survives. In these stories, I found Braddon was very talented at creating characters that I grew to care about quickly, and then at the end they would often die, leaving me feeling sad rather than pleasantly chilled. And her women in particular seem to suffer unfairly at the hands of both human and supernatural evil. This is simply a matter of preference, however – it doesn’t make the stories any less good but for me it did make them a little less enjoyable.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Despite this, I rated ten of the fourteen stories as either four or five stars, and none of them got less than three, so it’s fair to say I was very impressed by her storytelling skill. Several of the ones that got four would have been fives too, had it not been for the fact that I was upset by the unhappiness of the endings. Braddon is expert at creating an air of unease, or of taking things off in an unexpected direction. These aren’t stories to make you jump at sudden horror, but they tend to linger in the mind after the last page is turned. There are strong women in them, but they are operating in social conventions that restrict them and leave them vulnerable to all kinds of dangers and cruelties. Very few of them swoon, though, and some of them have their revenge…

Here is a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:-

Eveline’s Visitant – I reviewed this previously in a Tuesday Terror! Post.

My Wife’s Promise – a man was a polar explorer until he married, after which he intended to stay home. However, when their first and only child dies, he finds himself tempted to join an expedition, and his selfless wife agrees that he should go. This is a rather tragic story, but it’s very well told with lots of excellent stuff about polar voyages.

Three Times – a strange story about a lion tamer who becomes fixated on a man who begins to turn up in his audience from time to time. Each time he appears, the lion tamer loses control of his beasts and becomes increasingly convinced that somehow the man in the audience is a kind of portent of doom. It’s never fully explained, but that is what gives it its wonderful air of unease – is something supernatural happening or not? Or is it all in the lion tamer’s mind? Nicely creepy.

The Ghost’s Name – this seems as if it’s a traditional haunted house story, but there’s more to it than that. Lady Halverdene’s husband is a drunken brute, and she and her sister choose to stay away from the gaze of society in his country home. There’s a room there which used to be a nursery, and tales are told of children who have slept there dying young. This isn’t scary in a supernatural way, but there’s plenty of drama in it, and some great observations of characters and society. And a rather fun little twist at the end!

Good Lady Ducayne – young Bella takes a job as paid companion to the extremely old Lady Ducayne. Bella knows that Lady Ducayne’s previous companions have sickened and died, but she is young, healthy and in need of money to keep her mother and herself out of dire poverty. Lady Ducayne takes her off to Italy and it’s not long before her health begins to decline. Fortunately for her, she has already won the admiration and love of a young gentleman who happens also to be a doctor. I loved this one – it’s a great mix of vague spookiness and human evil, and Bella is a delightful heroine whom we get to know through her letters home to her beloved mother. And for once, I came out of this one smiling.

So a very good collection overall with plenty of variety, and if you can put up with some rather sad endings then I highly recommend it. I’m now keen to read Lady Audley’s Secret to see how her style translates to novel length.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 216…

Episode 216

You might want to hold on to your hats, people, because you’re in for a major shock! The TBR has plunged this week by a massive FOUR – down to 214! 

Here are a few more I’ll be diving into soon…

American Classic

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

This is on both my Classics Club list and my 5 x 5 Challenge. Oh dear! I do think Steinbeck’s prose is wonderful but I find his worldview depressing way beyond realism. I’m really hoping this will be the one that I can finally love without reservation… but I’m not confident…

The Blurb says: Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. Here Steinbeck created some of his most memorable characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity; the inexplicability of love; and the murderous consequences of love’s absence.

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Classic Sci-Fi

Wild Harbour by Ian MacPherson

Well, I made it through just 8% of Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein before throwing it at the wall. So I found I had an empty slot in the Sci-Fi section of my Classics Club list. Serendipitously, the British Library had sent me a copy of this vintage sci-fi from a Scottish author, which is quite a rarity in itself…

The Blurb says: Something has happened in Europe. Fearing the approach of it to Britain, Terry and Hugh retreat from their home to the remote highlands of Scotland, prepared to live a simple existence together whilst the fighting resolves itself far away. Encouraged by Terry, Hugh begins a journal to note down the highs and lows of this return to nature, and to process their concerns of the oncoming danger. But as the sounds of guns by night grow louder, the grim prospect of encroaching war threatens to invade their cherish isolation and demolish any hope of future peace. Macpherson’s only science fiction novel is a bleak and truly prescient novel of future war first published in 1936, just 3 years before the outbreak of conflict in Europe. A carefully drawn tale of survival in the wilderness and the value of our connection with others, Wild Harbour is both beautiful and heart-rending.

(Since I know some of you enjoy my embittered abandonment comments on Goodreads, here’s what I said about Starship Troopers

8% in and bored out of my mind. I paraphrase…

“I saw a building and directed a bomb with a funny name at it. It blew up. I saw another building and directed another bomb with an equally funny name at it. It blew up.” Ad nauseam.

If only I had a bomb with a funny name I could blow this book up. As it is, I’ll have to settle for deleting it from my Kindle. A classic? Perhaps, but only if you like bombs.)

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Historical Crime

Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee

The much-anticipated next instalment in Mukherjee’s excellent Sam Wyndham series, set in the last days of the Raj. My only criticism of this series has been Sam’s tedious opium addiction, so I’m delighted to see he’s seeking a cure – I sincerely hope he finds it…

The Blurb says: 1922, India. Leaving Calcutta, Captain Sam Wyndham heads for the hills of Assam, to the ashram of a sainted monk where he hopes to conquer his opium addiction. But when he arrives, he sees a ghost from his past – a man thought to be long dead, a man Wyndham hoped he would never see again.

1905, London. As a young constable, Sam Wyndham is on his usual East London beat when he comes across an old flame, Bessie Drummond, attacked in the streets. The next day, when Bessie is found brutally beaten in her own room, locked from the inside, Wyndham promises to get to the bottom of this. But the case will cost the young constable more than he ever imagined.

In Assam, Wyndham knows he must call his friend and colleague Sergeant Banerjee for help. He is certain this figure from his past isn’t here by coincidence, but for revenge . . .

* * * * *

Historical Fiction

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

For my Around the World challenge, but also mainly because I’ve wanted to read this one for a long time. Regulars will know I enjoy colonial-era fiction, but it’s usually told through the eyes of the colonisers. This book is lauded as changing that, and putting an African voice and perspective centre-stage…  

The Blurb says: Okonkwo is the greatest warrior alive, famous throughout West Africa. But when he accidentally kills a clansman, things begin to fall apart. Then Okonkwo returns from exile to find missionaries and colonial governors have arrived in the village. With his world thrown radically off-balance he can only hurtle towards tragedy. Chinua Achebe’s stark novel reshaped both African and world literature. This arresting parable of a proud but powerless man witnessing the ruin of his people begins Achebe’s landmark trilogy of works chronicling the fate of one African community, continued in Arrow of God and No Longer at Ease.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?