FictionFan’s Book Reviews

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TBR Thursday (on a Friday) 350 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 350

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

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OK, People, time for another batch of four – still in 2020, and all from authors I’d previously enjoyed and want to read more of. I like to run three months ahead with these polls, so the winner will be a December read. Rodney Stone is on the list because I keep meaning to read more Conan Doyle beyond the Holmes stories. After I re-read Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, I briefly thought it would be fun to re-read all her books in order – the idea only lasted about ten seconds, but long enough to add her second book, The Murder on the Links, to my TBR! I randomly pick up any Maigrets that turn up as Kindle deals, which is why Maigret and Monsieur Charles got onto my list. And I thoroughly enjoyed the first part of Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo trilogy, Palace Walk, so added the second part, Palace of Desire.

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Fiction

Rodney Stone by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Added 28th February 2020. 219 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.63 average rating. 264 pages.

The Blurb says: Rodney Stone and his best friend, Jim Harrison—the relative of a blacksmith and former boxer—have always been drawn to dark and dangerous places. When they wander into Cliffe Royale, an old, deserted mansion that was the scene of a gruesome murder fifteen years earlier, they’re both frightened and strangely excited to cross paths with a ghostly figure.

Before they can identify who the ghost is and what it wants, Rodney’s wealthy uncle, Sir Charles Tregellis, arrives in Brighton and leaves later with Rodney in tow. Rodney soon learns that Tregellis, a typical dandy, is connected to just about everyone in London and has focused his attention on an upcoming boxing match to be witnessed by thirty thousand spectators. If Tregellis’ unnamed challenger wins the fight, it could mean grave trouble for Tregellis and everyone he’s associated with—including Rodney.

Distracted by the upcoming fight, Rodney almost forgets about the chilling discovery he made at Cliffe Royale with Jim—until the past comes back to haunt them all.

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Vintage Crime

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

Added 20th March 2020. 72,630 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.86 average. 220 pages.

The Blurb says: Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is summoned to France after receiving a distressing letter with a urgent cry for help. Upon his arrival in Merlinville-sur-Mer, the investigator finds the man who penned the letter, the South American millionaire Monsieur Renauld, stabbed to death and his body flung into a freshly dug open grave on the golf course adjoining the property. Meanwhile the millionaire’s wife is found bound and gagged in her room. Apparently, it seems that Renauld and his wife were victims of a failed break-in, resulting in Renauld’s kidnapping and death.

There’s no lack of suspects: his wife, whose dagger served as the weapon; his embittered son, who would have killed for independence; and his mistress, who refused to be ignored – and each felt deserving of the dead man’s fortune. The police think they’ve found the culprit. But Poirot has his doubts. Why is the dead man wearing an overcoat that is too big for him? And who was the impassioned love-letter in the pocket for? Before Poirot can answer these questions, the case is turned upside down by the discovery of a second, identically murdered corpse…

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Vintage Crime

Maigret and Monsieur Charles by Georges Simenon

Added 19th April 2020. 628 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.88 average. 167 pages.

The Blurb says: When an elegant but nervous woman appears in Inspector Maigret’s office and reports her rich and successful husband missing, Maigret and Lapointe find themselves on the trail of a man leading a double life: a prominent Parisian solicitor by day, a playboy known as “Monsieur Charles” by night.

In Simenon’s final novel featuring Inspector Maigret, the famous detective reaches a pivotal moment in his career, contemplating his past and future as he delves into the Paris underworld one last time, to investigate the case of a missing lawyer.

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Historical Fiction

Palace of Desire by Naguib Mahfouz

Added 27th April 2020. 9,109 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.24 average. 432 pages. 

The Blurb says: The sensual and provocative second volume in the Cairo Trilogy, Palace Of Desire follows the Al Jawad family into the awakening world of the 1920’s and the sometimes violent clash between Islamic ideals, personal dreams and modern realities.

Having given up his vices after his son’s death, ageing patriarch Al-Sayyid Ahmad pursues an arousing lute-player – only to find she has married his eldest son. His rebellious children struggle to move beyond his domination as they test the loosening reins of societal and parental control. And Ahmad’s youngest son, in an unforgettable portrayal of unrequited love, ardently courts the sophisticated daughter of a rich Europeanised family.

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

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VOTE NOW!

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

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TBR Thursday 349…

Episode 349

Although I spent most of my break watching the coverage of the Queen’s funeral and all the ceremonies that went with it, I still managed to read several books, mostly of the lighter kind. The end result is that the TBR has dropped by a massive EIGHT to 168!

 Get it? Here are a few more that should get to the front of the queue soon…

Fiction

Trust by Hernan Diaz

Courtesy of Picador via NetGalley. Another one that I got months ago and am only now getting round to, and which in the interim has been longlisted but not shortlisted for the Booker. I picked it purely on the basis of the blurb (and the great cover) but I must say every review I’ve seen of it so far has made me even more enthusiastic about it. My track record with new fiction this year has been pretty abysmal though – wonder if he’s decided to go for “creative” rather than “good”, like so many others… 

The Blurb says: Even through the roar and effervescence of the 1920s, everyone in New York has heard of Benjamin and Helen Rask. He is a legendary Wall Street tycoon; she is the daughter of eccentric aristocrats. Together, they have risen to the very top of a world of seemingly endless wealth—all as a decade of excess and speculation draws to an end. But at what cost have they acquired their immense fortune?

This is the mystery at the center of Bonds, a successful 1938 novel that all of New York seems to have read. But there are other versions of this tale of privilege and deceit.

Hernan Diaz’s Trust elegantly puts these competing narratives into conversation with each other—and in tension with the perspective of one woman bent on disentangling fact from fiction. The result is a novel that spans an entire century and becomes more exhilarating with each new revelation.

Provocative and propulsive, Trust engages the reader in a quest for the truth while confronting the deceptions that often live at the heart of relationships, the reality-warping gravitational pull of capital, and the ease with which power can manipulate the truth.

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Anthology

Marple: Twelve New Stories by Various Authors

Courtesy of HarperCollins. There are some great authors in this homage to the wonderful Miss Marple, so it could be a lot of fun. (I do wish people would stop referring to her as Marple, though – it’s both rude and anachronistic. Her name is Miss Marple.) But I’ll be judging them on how well they catch the style and tone of the originals and I can be harsh when someone messes with one of my idols! We’ll see…

The Blurb says: A brand new collection of short stories featuring the Queen of Crime’s legendary detective Jane Marple, penned by twelve remarkable bestselling and acclaimed authors.

This collection of twelve original short stories, all featuring Jane Marple, will introduce the character to a whole new generation. Each author reimagines Agatha Christie’s Marple through their own unique perspective while staying true to the hallmarks of a traditional mystery.

Miss Marple was first introduced to readers in a story Christie wrote for The Royal Magazine in 1927 and made her first appearance in a full-length novel in 1930’s The Murder at the Vicarage. It has been 45 years since Agatha Christie’s last Marple novel, Sleeping Murder, was published posthumously in 1976, and this collection of ingenious new stories by twelve Christie devotees will be a timely reminder why Jane Marple remains the most famous fictional female detective of all time.

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Legal Thriller

Suspect by Scott Turow

Courtesy of Swift Press via NetGalley. Having written an elegiac tribute in my review of The Last Trial which appeared to end the Kindle County series, you could have knocked me down with the proverbial when this one popped up on NetGalley! I’m half thrilled, half apprehensive – the character of Sandy Stern was so important to the series that I’m not sure if his granddaughter, Pinky Granum, will have quite the same appeal. On the other hand, if anyone can make it work, Turow can…

The Blurb says: For as long as Lucia Gomez has been the police chief in the city of Highland Isle, near Kindle County, she has known that any woman in law enforcement must walk a precarious line between authority and camaraderie to gain respect.  She has maintained a spotless reputation—until now. Three male police officers have accused her of soliciting sex in exchange for promotions to higher ranks. With few people left who she can trust, Chief Gomez turns to an old friend, Rik Dudek, to act as her attorney in the federal grand jury investigation, insisting to Rik that the accusations against her are part of an ugly smear campaign designed to destroy her career and empower her enemies—both outside the police force and within.

Clarice “Pinky” Granum spent most of her youth experimenting with an impressive array of drugs and failing out of various professions, including the police academy. Pinky knows that in the eyes of most people, she’s nothing but a screwup—but she doesn’t trust most people’s opinions anyway. Moreover, she finally has a respectable-enough job as a licensed P.I. working for Rik on his roster of mostly minor cases, like workman’s comp, DUIs and bar fights. Rik’s shabby office and even shabbier cases are a far cry from the kinds of high-profile criminal matters Pinky became familiar with in the law office of her grandfather, Sandy Stern. But Rik and Pinky feel that Chief Gomez’s case, which has attracted national attention, is their chance to break into the legal big leagues.

Guided by her gut instinct and razor-sharp investigative skills, Pinky dives headfirst into a twisted scandal that will draw her into the deepest recesses of the city’s criminal networks, as well as the human mind. But she will need every scrap of tenacity and courage to unravel the dark secrets those closest to her are determined to keep hidden.

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Miss Silver on Audio

Miss Silver Comes to Stay by Patricia Wentworth read by Diana Bishop

Since finishing my marathon 20 Audiobooks of Summer challenge I’ve not been able to face any more – I may have put myself off audiobooks for life! However I’m trying to ease myself back in with a light vintage crime novel. So far I’ve been listening to it for a week and have managed only about a third of it… hmm…

The Blurb says: When he was 21 James Lessiter told Henrietta Cray that he loved her before all things and so broke Catherine Lee’s heart. But James has a side to him that most people do not see. When the engagement is broken off no one is sure why and Rietta refuses to explain. Twenty years later James returns to the village an extremely wealthy man. Rietta is still unmarried and Catherine is a penniless widow living in a cottage on the Lessiter estate. Trouble is inevitable, for Catherine has started to sell some of the valuable contents of the cottage to keep up a lifestyle she cannot afford but James has his suspicions and is looking forward to exposing her. He has always enjoyed seeing someone else suffer whatever the cost. When he is brutally murdered there are all too many people who would benefit from his death but fortunately Miss Silver is ready to investigate.

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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?

Homage to Caledonia by Daniel Gray

Scots Wha Hae…

😐 😐

Through interviews and extracts from letters, Daniel Gray sets out to pay homage to the Scots who went to fight for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, as part of the International Brigades. Gray claims, and I have no reason to doubt him, that more Scots per head of population went than from any other country and sets out to show the strength of the Scottish reaction against Franco and fascism.

As a Scot, there are many things about the Scottish psyche that annoy me, but two stand out. The first is the habit of too many Scots to always boast about how we’re the best at whatever we do, and especially that we’re “better than England”. (This always seems like such a pathetic boast to me, even assuming it were true, since it comes inevitably from people who despise England – is it such a great boast to be better than a thing you despise? “I smell better than a skunk.” Wouldn’t it be better to be better than something you admire? “I smell better than a rose.” Anyway…) The second is the habit of many Scots to pretend that Scots are homogeneous in their views and, of course, always in agreement with the view of the person making the claim. So you will hear people say things like “Scotland rejects the Union” when in fact 55% of Scots voted to stay in the Union. Or “Scotland is being dragged out of the EU against our will” when in fact 38% of Scots voted to leave the EU. Daniel Gray commits both of these Scottishisms, repeatedly.

Book 11

There is, I think, no doubt that proportionally more Scots went to Spain than from the other countries in the UK. However, as Gray tells us, the total figure was in fact 549. Not an insignificant number, but hardly a mass movement either. He goes on at length about how “Scotland” was totally behind these men and the Republicans generally, while simultaneously admitting to all the individuals and groups who were pro-Franco or neutral, including not only the UK government and the Tory Party, which at that time was the most popular party in Scotland (with 48.9% of the vote in the general election of 1935), but also the Catholic church and, not least, the Labour Party. He makes it clear that most of the men who went were members of or affiliated with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), an organisation that never rose to being anything more than a small minority group, even in its stronghold of Red Clydeside (simplistically, industrial Glasgow and its surrounds). He constantly goes on about the men going from “Scotland” while simultaneously showing by his own account that most of them went from the areas of Glasgow where the CPGB had most influence. He talks repeatedly about the German and Italian support of Franco, while doing his best to pretend that the CPGB and the Republicans were mostly independent of influence from the Soviet Union.

It’s not that there’s no truth in his account. From what I could tell the facts he gives are evidence-based. It’s that there’s far too much skewing of the narrative for this to count as history. It is hagiography, written by a man who clearly shares the political slant of the men and women who supported the Republicans. I would agree that majority opinion in Scotland would probably have been anti-fascist, and certainly it appears there was a lot of fund-raising for the Republican side as well as the people who actually went to fight. But then as now, Scots were not a homogeneous group, being divided between urban and rural, well-off and poor, Catholic and Protestant, Labour and Tory, etc., etc. Had he written a book about Glasgow’s support for the Republicans it might have felt more accurate, since Glasgow, although also not homogeneous, has for over a century been the major centre of left-wing support in Scotland.

Despite this, there is some interest in reading the accounts of the men who fought and the women who fund-raised, nursed, campaigned, etc. The book is not particularly well written and some of the chapters are shaky in their focus, often because Gray is distorting the narrative to suit his bias. But I found I learned quite a lot, though often by reading between the lines and resorting to Google to fact-check. I was hoping for a serious history book that would have done more than tell the individual stories of some of the men who went; that would delve into the rise of Communism in some areas of Scotland and would look in an objective way at how wide-spread this was, and equally how wide-spread or otherwise the support for Franco was. This book makes claims about the near-universality of Scottish support for the Republicans, and that may be true, but it doesn’t provide the evidence needed to back up the claim.

One last criticism, of the publisher, Luath Press. This is without exception the worst formatted purchased book I have ever read on Kindle. The font size changes randomly from paragraph to paragraph, the captions of pictures are inserted randomly within surrounding text, there are typos and formatting issues throughout. To actually sell a book in this condition is disgraceful and I’d think long and hard before ever buying another book from this publisher.

So overall, interesting enough if what you want are anecdotes about the Scots who went to war, but not a serious contribution to the history of the period, and not in any way comparable to the Orwell book it homages in its title.

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! The Valley of the Veils of Death by Bertram Atkey

Evil under the sun…

Much though the porpy and I love a good old London fog or a mirky moor, we equally enjoy being transported to foreign climes, where even the blinding sun over the Australian desert can’t bleach out the evil men leave behind them. This story is taken from The Ghost Slayers – a British Library collection themed around psychic investigators, edited by Mike Ashley. The investigator in this one is Mesmer Milann, a man who calls himself a “mediator” between this world and the unseen…

The Valley of the Veils of Death
by Bertram Atkey

Save for the deep purple curtains which were hung round the room so that they shrouded the walls and windows completely, the number and odd placing of the electric bulbs – only one of which was burning – and a huge centaur, savagely sculptured in shining, slate-hued marble, there was nothing in the room to suggest that this was a temple of the occult.

Hmm, well, sounds pretty occultish to me! This is the office of Mesmer Milann, to whom the famous explorer Mr George Tarronhall has come seeking advice about a strange adventure that befell him while he was crossing the Australian desert…

“I had camped early in the afternoon by an unexpected water hole. There were ten people, all but Rivers, the scientist of the expedition, and myself being blacks.”

(The few mentions of the indigenous Australians are stereotyped but not derogatory, and are typical of the colonial time – the story dates from 1914.)

(Some stereotypes are more fun…)

Rivers and Tarronhall wander off to explore the surrounding area and come to a valley, which looks like any other valley of the region, all sand and rocky outcrops…

“…and yet of all the strange places I have passed through, of all the odd corners of the world I have seen, that little insignificant valley is the one place that remains, and will remain always, in my mind… It was haunted – if ever any place in the world is haunted.”

The two men come across a sinister sight…

“There were two of them at the foot of the miniature cliff on which we stood. I leaned over to see them better, and found that they were skeletons, lying on their sides, with the skulls half turned upwards, so that we looked down straight into the empty eye sockets. It may have been my fancy – probably it was – but it seemed to me that there was a queer craning look about the poise of the skulls, exactly as though they were watching us.”

Near the skeletons the men find a small canvas bag and, despite the air of menace in the valley, they open it…

“I heard Rivers say, to himself rather than to me, ‘I could have sworn the thing moved.’ And he was looking at one of the skeletons behind him.
….“I affected not to hear, and turned up the bag, pouring out on the sand such a collection of precious stones as Australia, or any other country, has never before produced. Sapphires, emeralds and rubies, for the most part, with a slab of wonderful opal, dirty and uncut, of course, but magnificent.”

Naturally they take the stones – who wouldn’t? But that night, as they lie asleep in their tent, something enters…

“And, if you can imagine it, the darkness became charged as it were with warning – most horrible. Warning; it poured down on me, into me, like an electric current, enveloped me like water, paralysed me momentarily. I was frightened too – terror-stricken.”

When the feeling passes, the men discover the jewels have gone. Next morning they go back to the valley and find the bag lying again next to the skeletons. Now Tarronhall wants Milann to explain the experience but also to advise whether it would be safe to try again to take the jewels. Milann agrees to take on the case, and Tarronhall asks how he will proceed. Milann says he will visit the valley that night…

“But I shall not need my body. I shall go in the spirit!”

And he invites Tarronhall to accompany him…

“You and your fellow explorers have exhausted the globe; soon enough, now, the arc-lights of civilization will illuminate the darkest corners of this world. Come with me tonight to another – to the Sub-World. There are sights to test the courage of the bolder spirit. I will free you from the gross flesh, and we will traverse together the dim Tracts of the Elementals, enter the Red Fogs of the Tentacle-Spirits, pass over the Place of the Were-Wolves, look upon the Craters of the Unicorns, the Plains of the Centaurs, the Morass of Minotaurs!” His eyes glittered and flamed like jewels, and his voice rolled like distant thunder. “We will adventure through the Haunts of the Vampires together—”

Gosh, I wonder how many stars that little holiday would get on Trip Advisor!

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Perhaps the actual trip they take back to the valley doesn’t have minotaurs, centaurs nor even, to my great disappointment, tentacle-spirits, but it’s still an enjoyable adventure with some lovely scary elements to it. Overall I found this very well written in that slightly high melodramatic style that works perfectly for horror, and I share Mike Ashley’s puzzlement, mentioned in his introduction to the story, as to why Atkey’s Mesmer Milann stories have been allowed to sink into obscurity. I’d happily read more, if anyone from BL-world is listening! Unfortunately its obscurity means I can’t find an online version to link to, but the anthology is well worth acquiring – full review soon! The porpy and I, meantime, have decided to remove the Australian desert from our travel bucket-list…

(After all that Australian sun, the porpy has decided that
haunted Gothic castles aren’t so bad after all!)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link

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NB For the benefit of new readers since it’s the porpy’s first appearance for the season, the fretful porpentine reference comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.

So the Fretful Porpentine rating is for the scariness factor, whereas the Overall story rating is for the story’s quality.

At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón

The Idiot President’s son…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Nelson has spent his young life expecting to leave his South American home and emigrate to the US in the footsteps of his elder brother, on a chain migration visa. But, just as it finally seems this dream is about to become reality, Nelson’s father dies and he knows he can’t simply leave his mother alone. He has always wanted to be an actor/playwright, and is coming to the end of his studies at the Conservatory. He auditions for a role in a touring revival of a play, The Idiot President, which once gained notoriety for Diciembre, the company who originally performed it in towns and villages during the recent civil war. Henry Nuñez, who wrote the play, and Patalarga were original members of the three-man cast, and will again play the eponymous Idiot President and his servant, while Nelson is chosen to play Alejo, the President’s son. As they tour the provinces of the country, the three men will gradually learn about each other’s pasts and develop an intricate and intimate kind of friendship. But we know from our unnamed narrator that tragedy of some kind looms…

….“How are things out there?” the old police chief asked. “What’s happening over in the provinces?”
….The provinces – this was another thing Nelson had come to understand. No matter where you went, no matter how far you traveled into the far-flung countryside, the provinces were always further out. It was impossible to arrive there. Not here – never here – always just down the road.

This is going to be rather a frustrating review, for two reasons. The first is that the slow revelation of the story and the mysteries within it are what lead the reader to want to keep turning the pages, and so it would be entirely unfair to reveal any more of the plot than I already have. The South American country is probably Peru, although it’s never named. Alarcón himself is Peruvian by birth, although he has lived in America since early childhood. However, he seems to maintain strong links to his Peruvian heritage, and the style of the book feels to me far closer to the Latin American tradition than to mainstream US American fiction. The main action of the book, the revival tour, takes place in 2001 and the civil war seems to have ended a dozen or so years earlier, so Nelson lived through it, but as a very young child. Henry and Patalarga, however, were men at the time, and the political aspects of their play marked them as dissidents. So although the book doesn’t take us deeply into the reasons behind the war, its after-effects hover over the present day, so that we see the nation and its people damaged and scarred and still in the process of anxious healing.

They were mostly inured to the austere beauty of the landscape by then; it was right in front of them, so commonplace and overwhelming they could no longer see it. In Nelson’s journals his descriptions of the highland terrain are hampered by his own maddening ignorance, that of a lifelong city dweller who has no idea what he’s looking at: mountains are described with simplistic variations of “large”, “medium”, or “small”, as if he were ordering a soda from a fast food restaurant.

The second reason for the difficulty in reviewing is that I’d love to be able to tell you what the book is about, but frankly I’m not at all sure that I know! Other than the effects of civil war, the strongest theme seems to be of identity, and Alarcón plays with this brilliantly in different ways throughout the book. From Nelson’s longing to be American, through the obvious metaphor of plays and acting, to questions of family, friendship and love, Alarcón seems to be looking at the formation of identity at the personal level. It’s partly a coming-of-age novel, and we see how Nelson is influenced by experience and by the people he becomes close to in his formative years. But we also see the more political side of identity – how in changing political circumstances people are identified by their convictions or their allegiances. Yesterday’s dissident is today’s patriot, and vice versa. Fame is illusory and dependent on circumstance. The best, albeit unsatisfactory, way I can think to sum it up is that we see the formation of individual identity mirroring society’s fracturing and reformation as a result of war.

….They ran through it again and again one afternoon, and even set up mirrors so Henry could see Nelson’s reaction. Three, four, five times, he kicked poor Patalarga, all the while locking eyes with Nelson.
….“Remember, I’m not kicking him, I’m kicking you!” Henry shouted.
….On the sixth run-through, he missed Patalarga’s hands, and nearly took off the servant’s head. Patalarga threw himself out of harm’s way just in time. Everyone stopped. The theatre was silent. Patalarga was splayed out on the stage, breathing hard.
….“Okay,” he said, “that’s enough.”
….Henry had gone pale. He apologised and helped Patalarga to his feet, almost falling down himself in the process. “I didn’t mean to, I…”
….“It’s all right,” Patalarga said.
….But Nelson couldn’t help thinking: if he’s kicking Alejo the whole time, why isn’t he apologising to me?
….For a moment the three of them stood, observing their reflections in the mirror, not quite sure what had just happened. Henry looked as if he might be sick; Patalarga, like a man who’d been kicked in the chest five times; Nelson, like a heartbroken child.
….“Are you all right?” Henry said toward the mirror.
….It was unclear whom he was asking.

Daniel Alarcón

However, although I found it thought-provoking, I must immediately dispel the idea that is a grim or difficult read. It is written lightly, beautifully indeed, and has humour and warmth all through. There is a love story at the heart of it, and not one you’d expect at all. And it is full of mystery – who is the narrator? Why is he telling Nelson’s story? What is the looming tragedy that is foreshadowed again and again as the narrator takes us close to the truth and then veers away again? It’s wonderfully done, and makes what could have been a heavy read into a page-turner, and when the ending came I found it surprising and satisfying, and it left me with my thoughts even more provoked. Is the message perhaps that our stories are an integral part of our identities, and that to tell another’s story is a form of theft? I don’t know. I don’t know. But I loved it, every single word. I do hope this frustrating review might have tempted you to read it. And if you already have, please tell me what you think it was about!

Amazon UK Link

The Seat of the Scornful (Gideon Fell 14) by John Dickson Carr

Cat and mouse…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When his daughter announces she is engaged, Mr Justice Ireton insists on meeting the young man. The first meeting doesn’t go well since the judge recognises Tony Morell as someone he has come across before, in the course of his job. The second meeting goes even worse. A phonecall to the local telephone exchange begging for help brings Police Constable Weems rushing to the judge’s holiday bungalow, where he finds Morell dead and Mr Justice Ireton sitting calmly in his chair, gun in hand…

The couple of Gideon Fell novels I’ve read previously have been “impossible crimes” and the emphasis has been on the puzzle rather than the people. This one is entirely different in tone, much more of a standard mystery, and as a result I liked it far more. It still has strong aspects of the howdunit to please the puzzlers out there, but there is also a group of characters with various motives for wanting rid of Morell. Gideon Fell himself seems less rude than in our previous meetings, and in fact has an almost Poirot-esque twinkle over the two young people we all soon hope to see become a romance. He is also rather clearer in how he works his way to the solution of the mystery, again relying more this time on the personalities and motives of the people involved, rather than sticking entirely to the technical aspects of how the crime was done.

Morell is a man with a reputation. A few years earlier he had become the centre of a scandal involving a rich young girl whom he had tried to blackmail into marriage. Now he says he wants to marry Connie, the judge’s daughter, and it’s not surprising the judge is not thrilled by that idea. But nor is Fred Barlow, the judge’s protegé, who fancies himself in love with Connie too. Or perhaps someone is exacting revenge for that earlier scandal, or maybe there are other secrets in Morell’s life that have made him a target. In a sense, this is the opposite of a “locked room” mystery – Morell’s body is found in a room to which many people could have had access, and who could have then disappeared into the night without being seen by any witnesses. So Inspector Graham and Dr Fell have to try work out the culprit from the physical evidence – who could have got access to the gun? Why is there a little pile of sand on the carpet? Why is the telephone broken? – and from what they learn about Morell’s background, through interviewing the various people who knew him or knew of him.

The book is also much stronger on characterisation than the other Fells I’ve read. The judge is a man who seems to enjoy the power his position gives him too much. His daughter, Connie, is dependent on him financially but chafes against his rather cold expectations of how she should behave. Fred Barlow is loyal to the judge for his past support, but is clear-eyed enough to recognise the strain of sadism the judge employs on the criminals who appear before him, and perhaps also on those closer to home. Inspector Graham is a solid, painstaking officer, not at all cowed by having to investigate a judge and his family and friends. Even PC Weems is well developed, as a young man just starting out in his career and sometimes feeling out of his depth but showing promise of developing into a good detective in time.

John Dickson Carr

First published in 1941 the book is set before the war, and among the group of younger characters there is still a mild feeling of the decadence that Carr employed so well in his earlier Bencolin novels. While it doesn’t have a strong element of horror in the way some of his other books have, there is a lot of tension in the latter stages and some scenes that have a definite air of eerie peril. I enjoyed it hugely and raced through it. Although the number of suspects is fairly limited I still changed my mind several times along the way, and found the ending satisfying, when Fell reveals the solution of both who and how, and tells us how he reached it. Good stuff, and I’m glad to have finally grown to admire Dr Fell after a fairly rocky start with this series. I’m now looking forward to reading more with my enthusiasm for Carr’s work fully restored!

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

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 348…

Episode 348

A week or two ago, I made the mistake of saying that the porpy and I intended to finish up some anthologies from previous years that have been lingering half-read before acquiring any new ones. The Laughing Gods of Bookworld couldn’t pass up that chance, could they? Seven – I’ve received seven anthologies of vintage crime and spookiness since I made that foolish statement! So despite me still powering through books at an unprecedented rate, the TBR has gone up FIVE to 176, and the porpy is demanding higher wages and regular rest breaks! 

Here are a few more that should make me smile soon…

Spooky Anthology

Ghosts from the Library edited by Tony Medawar

Courtesy of Collins Crime Club. I’ve loved the Bodies from the Library series of vintage crime anthologies that CCC and Tony Medawar have been doing for the last few years, so I’m super excited to see them branching out into ghost stories from the pens of some of the great mystery writers. The porpy and I can’t wait to get into this one!

The Blurb says: It is said that books are written to bring sunshine into our dull, grey lives – to show us places we want to escape to, lives we want to live, people we want to love. But there are also stories that can only be found in the deepest, darkest corners of the library. Stories about the unexplained, of lost souls, of things that go bump before the silence. Before the screaming.

And some stories just disappear. Stories printed in old newspapers, broadcast live on the wireless, sometimes not even published at all – these are the stories you cannot find on even the dustiest of library shelves.

Ghosts from the Library resurrects forgotten tales of the supernatural by some of the most acclaimed mystery authors of all time. From Arthur Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr to Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier, this spine-chilling anthology brings together thirteen uncollected tales of terror, plus some additional surprises.

Close the windows. Draw the curtains. Just don’t let the lights go out…

* * * * *

Historical Fiction

The Colony by Audrey Magee

Courtesy of Faber & Faber via NetGalley. I’m so far behind with review copies at the moment. I’ve had this for months, picked purely on the basis of the blurb, and in the interim it’s been longlisted for the Booker, and shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction! Does that make it more or less likely that I’ll love it? We’ll soon see!

The Blurb says: It is the summer of 1979. An English painter travels to a small island off the west coast of Ireland. Mr. Lloyd takes the last leg by currach, though boats with engines are available and he doesn’t much like the sea. He wants the authentic experience, to be changed by this place, to let its quiet and light fill him, give him room to create. He doesn’t know that a Frenchman follows close behind. Jean-Pierre Masson has visited the island for many years, studying the language of those who make it their home. He is fiercely protective of their isolation, deems it essential to exploring his theories of language preservation and identity.

But the people who live on this rock–three miles long and half a mile wide–have their own views on what is being recorded, what is being taken, and what ought to be given in return. Over the summer, each of them–from great-grandmother Bean Uí Fhloinn to widowed Mairéad to fifteen-year-old James, who is determined to avoid the life of a fisherman–will wrestle with their values and desires. Meanwhile, all over Ireland, violence is erupting. And there is blame enough to go around.

An expertly woven portrait of character and place, a stirring investigation into yearning to find one’s way, and an unflinchingly political critique of the long, seething cost of imperialism, Audrey Magee’s The Colony is a novel that transports, that celebrates beauty and connection, and that reckons with the inevitable ruptures of independence.

* * * * *

Domestic Thriller

Unfaithful by JL Butler

Courtesy of HarperCollins. Sometimes HC send me books that look great (see Ghosts from the Library above). Other times they send me ones that don’t sound like my kind of thing at all! The odd thing is that sometimes the great-looking ones turn out to be not-so-great, and occasionally the not-my-kind-of-thing ones turn out to be fun, so I’m always willing to at least try them. This is a not-my-kind-of-thing one…

(Unfortunately I’m not going to be able to read this without picturing the prominent Labour politician Rachel Reeves in the starring role. Does the author not know about her? The editor?? The publisher???)

The Blurb says: A FATAL attraction…
Rachel Reeves has it all. The perfect family, a rich husband, and a gorgeous home. But when her only child flies the nest, Rachel feels lost – and succumbs to a mind-blowing one-night stand.

With a DEADLY twist…
Instantly regretting her infidelity, Rachel cuts ties with Chris. But he won’t let her go that easily. She erases him from her life – until a text changes everything.

And an UNFORGETTABLE end…
Someone knows what she did.
And they’re ready to destroy her entire life because of it.
 

* * * * *

Crime

Catch Your Death by Lissa Marie Redmond

Courtesy of Severn House via NetGalley. Another one that might turn out to be not-my-kind-of-thing, although this time I chose it for myself on the grounds that it sounds like it could be fun! I don’t know the author at all but she seems to have a solid fan base and high ratings. This is the 6th book in a series.

The Blurb says: When Cold Case Detective Lauren Riley’s partner, Shane Reese, runs into an old friend, he’s invited to a school reunion at a new luxury spa and resort. Lauren’s also invited and it sounds like a perfect weekend getaway, except it brings up painful memories for Reese – like the unsolved murder of his high school friend Jessica Toakese seventeen years earlier.

The prime suspects will be at the reunion. Among those suspects is Reese, who has kept his involvement a secret from Lauren and the entire police force. As the friends reminisce an intense snowstorm traps them inside and tensions rise. After a heated confrontation, one of the party is brutally murdered and Lauren believes it’s connected to Jessica’s death.

But who could the murderer be: the jealous husband; the regretful trophy wife; the abused failed actor; the true crime podcast host; the drunken louse; the insecure millionaire; the desperate spa owner . . . or the Cold Case detective?

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Listen…

#20(Audio)BooksOfSummer Round-Up

I did it! I did it!! 20 audiobooks, all listened to, all reviewed!!! I succeeded at a challenge!!!! I’m running out of exclamation marks!!!!!

So before we get to the books, what have I learned from this harrowing wonderful experience?

1. I prefer male narrators to female on the whole. This is not actually sexism. There is no doubt that my hearing isn’t as sharp as it once was, and I find the lower voices of male narrators easier to hear clearly. Why this should be I don’t know, but ‘tis so. More mature female voices that have deepened work fine too – Jilly Bond, Joan Hickson, Diana Bishop are some of the ones I’ve hugely enjoyed during the challenge. High-voiced young actresses irritate my ears – sorry, ladies!

2. I prefer proper old-school actors as narrators, who have been trained to enunciate clearly. Authentic dialects, authentic drunken mumbling, authentic whispering – all fine, so long as the actor remembers that the listener needs to be able to make out what is being said!

3 . Fast-paced books with simple plots work fine as audiobooks, as do slow-paced books with intricate plots. But slow-paced books with simple plots send me to sleep, while fast-paced books with intricate plots require far better levels of concentration than I have!

4. Listening to a much loved book read by a great narrator is one of the finest pleasures this life can afford! Take a bow, Ian Carmichael, Timothy West, Hugh Fraser, Steven Crossley, Jonathan Cecil!

5. The final takeaway – listening to audiobooks for a minimum of two hours a day basically does my head in. I think that’s the technical term. I never want to repeat the experience as long as I live, or even in Paradise or… anywhere else I might end up after I’m dead. Never. I remember the wonderful comedian Dara O’Briain doing a monologue on the use of the word “Listen” and how it often portends no good. To his list, I’d add that the word “Listen” has now taken on horror aspects for me – as if I am submitting myself and my poor innocent ears to self-inflicted and unnecessary torture. Half an hour – enjoyable. An hour – bearable. Two hours – cruel and unusual punishment!

Warning: Dara uses some strong language…

* * * * *

I made a couple of changes to the list along the way, so here’s the final version, in ascending order:

Disappointing

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene read by Andrew Sachs

The Rendezvous and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier read by Edward de Souza

Cover Her Face by PD James read by Daniel Weyman

* * * * *

Okay

Pied Piper by Nevil Shute read by David Rintoul

* * * * *

Good

Rumpole’s Return by John Mortimer read by Robert Hardy

Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller read by Jilly Bond

* * * * *

Very Good

The Flemish House by Georges Simenon read by Gareth Armstrong

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy read by Samuel West

The Misty Harbour by Georges Simenon read by Gareth Armstrong

By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser

* * * * *

Excellent

Heartstone by CJ Sansom read by Steven Crossley

N or M? by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser

The Mating Season by PG Wodehouse read by Jonathan Cecil

Silas Marner by George Eliot read by Andrew Sachs

Rain and Other Stories by W Somerset Maugham read by Steven Crossley

Latter End by Patricia Wentworth read by Diana Bishop

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome read by Ian Carmichael

A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie read by Joan Hickson

The Quiet American by Graham Greene read by Simon Cadell

* * * * *

Book of the Summer!

The Warden by Anthony Trollope read by Timothy West

* * * * *

A great summer of listening – have I tempted you?

By the Pricking of My Thumbs (Tommy and Tuppence) by Agatha Christie

“Was it your poor child?”

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Tommy and Tuppence visit Tommy’s elderly Aunt Ada in the Sunny Ridge nursing home, Tuppence falls into conversation with a sweet but rather confused old lady called Mrs Lancaster. As Tuppence, in a thoughtful moment, gazes at the fireplace, she is startled when Mrs Lancaster asks, “Was it your poor child?” The way she asks sends a shiver down Tuppence’s spine (and mine). A few weeks later Aunt Ada dies and when they return to the home to collect her belongings, Tuppence determines to speak to Mrs Lancaster again. But they discover Mrs Lancaster has gone – collected by her relatives. Tuppence, with nothing but her instincts to go on, finds this puzzling and worrying, and decides to track Mrs Lancaster down. She meets with a brick wall, however, of lawyers and bankers none of whom seem to know exactly where Mrs Lancaster might be…

This is a late Christie, published in 1968, and as with many of the later books the plotting isn’t as tight as when she was at her peak. But although it all gets a bit rambly in the middle, it has a wonderfully spooky atmosphere. From Mrs Lancaster’s spine-shivering question, Tuppence finds herself entering a maze of old rumours and gossip, much of them about murdered or missing children. People are very willing to talk, but memories are vague and Tuppence finds it impossible to pin down hard facts or dates.

All she has to go on is a painting that Mrs Lancaster had given to Aunt Ada, of a house by a canal that Tuppence feels sure she has seen once before, perhaps from a car or a train. So while Tommy is off at a hush-hush conference with his old colleagues from his days in the Secret Service, Tuppence digs out train timetables and old diaries, and sets out to repeat any journeys she has made over the last few years in the hope of spotting the house again. But it seems that someone doesn’t want Mrs Lancaster to be found, and Tuppence soon finds herself in danger. Will Tommy find her in time?

Book 20 of 20

Tommy and Tuppence are the only detectives of Christie who age in real time, so in this book they are now in their sixties. Between this and the nursing home theme, there’s quite a bit of musing on ageing in the book, both on the physical limitations it brings and on the mental decline that faces some elderly people. Christie, herself ageing of course, does this rather well. Tommy and Tuppence still spar as much as they always have, but Tommy perhaps worries about his wife a little more now, feeling that Tuppence should recognise that she’s not a young adventurer any more and should take more care for her safety. But that wouldn’t be Tuppence’s style at all! Once she gets her teeth into a thing she doesn’t let go, no matter where it leads her.

Hugh Fraser

Hugh Fraser really is a fantastic narrator! He always brings out the humour in the books, but in this one he also creates the spooky atmosphere brilliantly, never over-acting but knowing exactly how to chill the reader. He copes with a range of elderly lady voices beautifully, bringing out all the fun of Aunt Ada’s rudeness and the pathos of Mrs Lancaster’s confusion. He differentiates the characters with a different voice for each and never slips, so that it’s always easy to tell who’s speaking even when several people are conversing together. And he does a great job with Tuppence’s character, making her just as enjoyable as she is on the page!

Despite the woolliness in the mid-section, the basic plot is strong and the unsettling atmosphere lasts all the way through to the chilling ending. A great way to finish the #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer challenge!

Audible UK Link

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

The emperor is dead, long live the emperor…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Thomas Fowler is a veteran journalist who’s been stationed for some years in Vietnam, reporting on the rising violence as France tries to cling on to its colony and America’s involvement is growing. The story begins when Fowler is told of the death of Alden Pyle, a young American attaché who had arrived in Saigon a few months earlier. Fowler then tells us the history of his relationship with Pyle – acquaintanceship, perhaps friendship, certainly rivalry. For Pyle had stolen Fowler’s young Vietnamese lover, Phuong, promising marriage and entry to the glamorous American world of skyscrapers and fashion that Phuong had read about in magazines. And along the way Greene shows us old colonialism giving way to the new American mission to use its wealth and military might to westernize and democratize the world, whether the world likes it or not.

When I read the blurb, I wondered why the book had been considered “controversial”, and now having read it, I assume it’s because of the anti-Americanism that runs through it. To be honest, for a Brit of my generation and political leanings, that isn’t exactly controversial – it’s quite a mainstream position, and one that exists just as much, or perhaps even more, today as back in the early 1950s when this book is set. Anti-Americanism is the wrong term, really; it’s more anti-US foreign policy – a belief that the US blunders into situations around the world that it doesn’t understand, values non-American life cheaply in pursuit of its aim to create an American hegemony, and then retreats, its own nose bloodied, leaving the people in a worse state than they were in before the Americans arrived. (And sadly America’s allies, especially the UK, tend to allow the US to drag them into their military catastrophes.) Greene wrote this book before the Vietnam war, but he clearly saw the writing on the wall and uses Pyle as a metaphor for the sometimes well-meaning but always fundamentally ruthless and self-interested policies the US has pursued since it decided to declare itself the “leader of the free world” after the Second World War.

Book 19 of 20

However, old-style European colonialism fares no better. Greene shows it in its death throes, desperately trying to retain control of the colonies it still possesses, but gradually being forced into retreat, leaving the field open for the new superpowers to move in. The particular European empire in the book is the French, but Greene is clearly including all the old European empires in his critique. Fowler’s weary cynicism and fatalism about the future is as much a metaphor for tired and war-ravaged old Europe as Pyle is for brash young America. In their actions there’s not much to choose between them, but Europe, Greene seems to be suggesting, is finally learning the futility of trying to maintain its control over other peoples just at the point where the US has decided it will rule the world and impose its values and culture across the globe at the point of a gun. The question hangs unspoken in the Saigon air – how many lives are a price worth paying for the ideology of “freedom”? Pyle makes it clear that there’s no upper limit, so long, of course, as they’re not American lives.

Fortunately there’s an excellent human story to stop all this heavyweight political stuff from becoming too much. We learn of Pyle’s death in the first pages, and then go back to his arrival in Saigon as a seeming innocent. But he has more depth than first appears and Fowler is reluctantly drawn into a kind of intimacy with him because of Phuong, the young woman whom both men care about, though in different ways. Vietnam is in the midst of conflict with various factions fighting for power, sometimes with the overt or covert support of the various colonialist powers. Terrorist acts are a daily occurrence, and Greene shows the constant anxiety, the fear and the grief of living in a society in turmoil. And he shows the uncaring cruelty of those vying for power towards the people they use as pawns in their games.

Graham Greene

Most of all I feel it’s a wonderful character study of Fowler – a man whose cynicism is founded on age and experience, whose career as a journalist reporting from the trouble spots of the world has allowed him to see humanity at its worst and has left him wary of those who believe they have the right or the power to impose their culture and control on others. Pyle and Phuong are shown to us only through Fowler’s eyes, but he is an honest observer, able to see the strengths and weaknesses in both of them and, indeed, in himself. And eventually we learn what led to Pyle’s death.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Simon Cadell. While his narration is good overall, it has some weaknesses, not least that he sometimes seems to forget that Pyle is American. It’s also an older recording and the sound quality is not great – the volume dips and rises, and sometimes it’s a bit fuzzy. This is one case where I would recommend reading rather than listening, unless you can find a better narration. The book itself, though, is wonderful – undoubtedly one of Greene’s best and therefore highly recommended!

Audible UK Link

The Misty Harbour (Maigret 15) by Georges Simenon

Mystery man

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

A man has been picked up in the streets of Paris, wandering around in what is clearly a state of distress. There is nothing on him to identify him and he doesn’t speak. Beneath the wig he’s wearing, the police discover a recently healed gunshot wound, which seems to account for his befuddled state. After a publicity appeal, a woman comes forward and identifies him as Yves Joris, formerly a captain in the merchant navy, now the harbour-master at Ouistreham, a small port in Lower Normandy. The woman is his maid, Julie, and she’s upset to find him in his present condition. She tells the police that he disappeared six weeks ago, and had no wound at that time. So when and where was he shot? And who tended his wound? How did he end up wandering the streets of Paris? Who gave him the little bundle of new banknotes found in his pocket?

Maigret accompanies Joris and Julie back to Ouistreham with a view to finding out what has happened to Joris. But the case takes a darker turn when the next day Joris is found dead in his bed, poisoned with strychnine…

This one is a real puzzle and Maigret has to do a lot of proper detective work to get at the truth. He also stays largely sober, spending more time on the case than in bars for once, which works well for me – I find his usual endless drinking rather tedious. He soon realises he needs assistance so sends for his dependable colleague, Sergeant Lucas, to join him. It becomes apparent that many of the people of the small town may be involved in some way, and as is the way in tight-knit communities, people are not always willing to share what they know with the police. So Maigret and Lucas have to do a lot of spying and eavesdropping to find out what’s been going on.

Book 18 of 20

As always, the setting is one of the main strengths of the book. Ouistreham is frequented by merchant ships plying their trade around the Nordic countries and across to Britain, and Simenon works this into the story. We soon learn there’s some kind of Norwegian link, while Julie’s brother, Big Louis, is a seaman on a ship that becomes the focus of Maigret’s investigation, since it was in port both when Joris disappeared and again when he is murdered. Louis has a history of violence and has spent time in jail, but Julie is convinced of his innocence in this matter. But then, is Julie innocent? It appears that Joris has left her everything he had, and since a large deposit has recently been made into his bank account she’ll do quite well out of his death. Suspicion doesn’t only fall on these two though – the local mayor is behaving oddly too, and Maigret soon becomes aware of a mystery man who was also in the town at the relevant time.

Georges Simenon

I must say I had no idea what this was all about until Maigret revealed all at the end, and I’m still not sure that all the loose ends are properly tied up. However, as I say regularly, I find my concentration levels dip more when listening to an audiobook than when reading, so it may well be that I missed some bits of explanation along the way. No matter – the fact that I felt a couple of minor questions were left unanswered didn’t spoil my enjoyment overall. Maigret’s depiction of this small working port is excellent, the detection element is well done, there is some good characterisation, and the major story revolves around messy human relationships – my favourite kind! One of the stronger Maigret novels for me, and I may well read it in a “proper” book format sometime to see if it clears up those bits of the story that remained misty for me this time!

Audible UK Link

TBR Thursday 347…

Episode 347

I’m racing through books at the moment, with the result that my TBR is still shrinking despite the arrival of new books – down 1 again this week, to 171! –  and my list of unwritten reviews is getting out of control! Still, between this week’s rather heavyweight selection of books and the US Open starting next week I think it’s safe to assume I’ll be slowing down!

Here are a few more that should reach the final round soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice

The winner took a huge early lead this week and although the other books fought back gamely they were never able to catch up. They all looked good this time which always makes for fun voting! And the one You, The People, have chosen looks like it could be excellent – good choice, People! Since I like to run three months ahead with these polls, the winner will be a November read. And the winner is…

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

The Blurb says: In 1627 Barbary pirates raided the coast of Iceland and abducted some 400 of its people, including 250 from a tiny island off the mainland. Among the captives sold into slavery in Algiers were the island pastor, his wife and their three children. Although the raid itself is well documented, little is known about what happened to the women and children afterwards. It was a time when women everywhere were largely silent.

In this brilliant reimagining, Sally Magnusson gives a voice to Ásta, the pastor’s wife. Enslaved in an alien Arab culture Ásta meets the loss of both her freedom and her children with the one thing she has brought from home: the stories in her head. Steeped in the sagas and folk tales of her northern homeland, she finds herself experiencing not just the separations and agonies of captivity, but the reassessments that come in any age when intelligent eyes are opened to other lives, other cultures and other kinds of loving.

The Sealwoman’s Gift is about the eternal power of storytelling to help us survive. The novel is full of stories – Icelandic ones told to fend off a slave-owner’s advances, Arabian ones to help an old man die. And there are others, too: the stories we tell ourselves to protect our minds from what cannot otherwise be borne, the stories we need to make us happy.

* * * * *

Lit-Crit

Honoré de Balzac: My Reading by Peter Brooks

Courtesy of Oxford University Press. Regulars will know from my scrappy reviews that I don’t really research the classics I read to any great extent, nor do I read much literary criticism. But, since I have included my first Balzac on my new Classics Club list, when I spotted this in the OUP’s latest catalogue I thought it might be fun to read it first. Apparently there’s a whole series of these for different classic authors…

The Blurb says: A book on the experience of reading Honoré de Balzac’s La Comédie humaine which recounts the process of Peter Brooks’ own discovery of Balzac.

A personal account of coming to terms with Balzac: moving from more classical and restrained authors to the highly-coloured melodramatic novels of the Human Comedy, which give us the dynamics of a new and challenging world on the threshold of modernity. This volume shows readers how to read, and to love reading, Balzac, and how to engage with his vast work.

* * * * *

Classic in Translation

Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

So obviously I’ll then have to read my first Balzac before I forget everything I’ve just read! No idea how I’m going to fit this in, to be honest, but at least it doesn’t look like quite as much of a brick as I feared it might be!

The Blurb says: Monsieur Goriot is one of a select group of lodgers at Madame Vauquer’s Parisian boarding house. At first his wealth inspires respect, but as his circumstances are reduced he is shunned by those around him, and soon his only remaining visitors are two beautiful, mysterious young women. Goriot claims that they are his daughters, but his fellow boarders, including master criminal Vautrin, have other ideas. And when Eugène Rastignac, a poor but ambitious law student, learns the truth, he decides to turn it to his advantage. Père Goriot is one of the key novels of Balzac’s Comédie Humaine series, and a compelling examination of two obsessions, love and money. Witty and brilliantly detailed, it is a superb study of the bourgeoisie in the years following the French Revolution.

* * * * *

Vintage Crime

Crook o’Lune by ECR Lorac

Courtesy of the British Library. I’m always delighted when a “new” ECR Lorac pops up in the BL’s Crime Classics series, and this one sounds as intriguing as always…

The Blurb says: It all began with sheep-stealing. A hateful act among the shepherds of the fells, and yet not a matter of life and death. Then came arson and with the leaping of the flames, death and disorder reached the peaceful moors.

Holidaying with his friends the Hoggetts in High Gimmerdale while on a trip to find some farmland for his retirement, Robert Macdonald agrees to help in investigating the identity of the sheep-stealers, before being dragged into a case requiring his full experience as Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard.

Drawing on her own experience living in Lunesdale, Lorac spins a tale portraying the natural beauty, cosy quiet and more brutal elements of country living in this classic rural mystery first published in 1953.

* * * * *

Gaskell on Audio

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell read by Juliet Stevenson

Another one for my Classics Club list. I may or may not get on with the audiobook – I’ve struggled a bit with Juliet Stevenson’s narrations in the past – so if it doesn’t grab me I’ll abandon it and read a paper copy later. But fingers crossed – maybe this will be Stevenson’s chance to win me over! And after galloping through the books on the #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer challenge, I intend to take plenty of time over this one!

The Blurb says: Written at the request of Charles Dickens, North and South is a book about rebellion; it poses fundamental questions about the nature of social authority and obedience. Gaskell expertly blends individual feeling with social concern, and her heroine, Margaret Hale, is one of the most original creations of Victorian literature.

When Margaret Hale’s father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience she is forced to leave her comfortable home in the tranquil countryside of Hampshire and move with her family to the fictional industrial town of Milton in the north of England. Though at first disgusted by her new surroundings, she witnesses the brutality wrought by the Industrial Revolution and becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill workers. Sympathetic to the poor she makes friends among them and develops a fervent sense of social justice. She clashes with the mill-owner and self-made man, John Thornton, who is contemptuous of his workers. However, their fierce opposition masks a deeper attraction.

* * * * *

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

Best days of our lives…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Sheba Hart joins the staff of St George’s school, history teacher Barbara Covett finds herself fascinated by the younger woman – a fascination that borders on obsession. Sheba, we soon discover, is no stranger to obsession herself, only her obsession is more dangerous. She has developed a sexual passion for one of her pupils, 15-year-old Steven Connolly. Barbara tells us the story – her version of it, at least – so we learn right from the beginning that Sheba’s affair has been discovered…

This is an intensely readable book, short and taut, and with a wonderful narrator in Barbara who is really the star of the show even though it’s Sheba’s story she’s ostensibly telling. In the early stages she tells us about the life of an inner-city school in a not particularly salubrious area of London, and the picture she paints is insightful and feels authentic, and is full of humour. It’s a kind of battle-ground – teachers vs. pupils, and also teachers vs. management. Barbara is nearing the end of her career and any idealism she may once have had is long gone – by her own account she is competent, but cynical, with low expectations of what any teacher can hope to achieve beyond maintaining discipline and getting through the day.

Sheba is the opposite. Although approaching middle-age this is her first job as a pottery teacher and she still believes she will be able to mould young minds to share her passion for art. She receives a rude awakening when her teenage pupils scent the weakness that comes with inexperience and set out to torment her. This provides an opening for Barbara to insert herself into Sheba’s life as a kind of wise mentor. But it also leaves Sheba vulnerable to the one pupil who shows a mild interest in art, and a much stronger interest in Sheba herself – Steven Connolly. As Sheba becomes ever more embroiled in this inappropriate relationship, Barbara becomes her only confidante.

I enjoyed Barbara’s twisted character very much. A single woman living alone with her cat (hmm… who does that remind me of? 👵😼), she is lonely and we gradually learn that she seems to have great talent for alienating friends who then become enemies. Is she a closeted lesbian? Perhaps. But if she is, it’s not clear whether she’s aware of it. Her obsession with Sheba borders on the sexual, and she certainly seems jealous of both Sheba’s husband and her youthful lover. But her own account is that she is simply looking for a friend. Barbara’s idea of friendship is extreme, however – she resents all other claims on Sheba’s time, and we see her attempt to manipulate herself into a position where she is the one person Sheba depends on. If Barbara wasn’t such an awful person, it would be easy to feel sorry for her. But I didn’t!

Book 17 of 20

I have to admit I didn’t find the rest of the characters quite as believable. The main problem was that I simply couldn’t see what would possibly have attracted attractive Sheba to this rather uncouth teenager. He doesn’t sound like a physical hunk, and he’s certainly not a smooth-talking flatterer. Is it simply that he shows his interest in her? But if Sheba is as attractive as Barbara leads us to believe she must be used to male flattery, and if she wanted an affair she could surely have found someone with more going for him than poor Steven! (Yes, I know these things happen in real life, but this one didn’t convince me.) Putting my disbelief to one side, however, it’s a wonderful depiction of self-delusion as Sheba convinces herself and tries to convince Barbara that this is more than sex – it’s love. Barbara’s cynicism on that point is equal to my own!

Sheba’s family are rather stock characters – the unsuspecting husband with a not-unchequered past of his own; the surly teenage daughter going off the rails; the son with Downs Syndrome who needs a lot of love and attention; the disapproving mother who feels her daughter has under-achieved in life. They exist, mostly, simply for the reader to feel that Sheba is betraying them – somehow her sin wouldn’t have seemed quite so sinful had she been free of family ties.

Zoë Heller

And on the subject of sin, that’s the book’s other deliciously twisted strength. I wonder if anyone would have the courage now to write a book suggesting that the boy was as manipulative as the woman? Of course we only see Steven through Barbara’s unreliable eyes, but it does seem as if he merely wants a bit of sexual experience with a “hot” teacher – there’s little of the victim about him. He’s a disgusting little oik, to be honest – or is he? Do I think that because Barbara thinks it? Is he really a male Lolita, preyed on by a paedophile? The law would certainly say so. Heller uses Barbara cleverly to show us only one side of the story – Barbara’s. This makes it an ambiguous read. Why really did Sheba become obsessed? What impact did it all have on Steven? By not telling us, Heller avoids preachiness and leaves each reader to make her own moral judgements.

A rather lighter read than the subject matter suggests, I’m not sure there’s really much profundity here or much depth of insight into what brings these situations about. However, the wonderful characterisation of Barbara carries it, and while perhaps not quite as thought-provoking as it might have been, I certainly enjoyed listening to it, especially since the audiobook narrator, Jilly Bond, did an excellent job of bringing Barbara’s voice to life.

Audible UK Link

Looking forward to…

Episode 8

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

Let’s see then…

Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim: A 900-Year-Old Story Retold by John Guy

First reviewed 5th May 2013. This was the book that started me reading serious history again after a lengthy break during my working life. I said “For a non-historian like myself, this is exactly how history should be presented – assume no knowledge on the part of the reader, fill in all the necessary background, give a picture of the wider society and tell the whole thing in an interesting way.” The five-star rating put Guy on my list of authors to read more of. But did I?

I did! I loved his sympathetic biography of the divisive Mary, Queen of Scots, and was equally impressed by his biography of the later years of that other towering female of the Tudor era, Elizabeth I. I also read a couple of short histories he’s written, on the Tudors generally and on Thomas More, both of which I felt were good but too brief to do the subjects justice. I don’t know if he’ll be writing more – he’s retired from academia now – but if he does I’ll be reading it!

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Testament of a Witch by Douglas Watt

First reviewed 7th May 2013. A historical crime fiction set in late 17th century Scotland, a time of uneasy peace, treasonable plots, religious division, superstition and witch-hunts. I thought this was an excellently researched novel from a man who should know his stuff, since he holds a PhD in Scottish History and has written factual history. It gives a great picture of Scotland just at the moment when the days of superstition are about to give way to the age of Enlightenment. I said “I will now be backtracking to read the first in the series, Death of a Chief, and look forward to meeting MacKenzie and Scougall [the detectives] again in the future.” But did I?

No, I didn’t! What can I say? Death of a Chief has been lingering in the depths of my wishlist ever since, and the series now runs to five books! I am duly ashamed, and will purchase it forthwith. And I’ll try my best not to let it linger for another several years on my TBR!

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The Stranger by Camilla Läckberg

First reviewed 14th May 2013. This book briefly restored my then-fading interest in Nordic crime because the lead character, policeman Patrik Hedström, is that rare and precious creature – a sober, likeable, intelligent detective who works within the rules and has a happy home life. Such a change from the stream of drunken, angst-ridden detectives who had already begun to bore me. I said “…this book works well as a standalone for anyone who, like me, hasn’t read the previous ones in the series – an omission I now intend to rectify.” But did I?

Hmm, well, yes and no. I backtracked to the first in the series, The Ice Princess, and thoroughly enjoyed it too, so added the second book, The Preacher, to my TBR where it has remained ever since! There is a reason for this, though. In the interim, I tried to read a new book by her, a non-series book called The Gilded Cage. Here’s the feedback I sent to the publisher via NetGalley:

Umm…no thanks. I still have some standards of decency, unlike, apparently, Ms Lackberg, whose books I used to enjoy. I didn’t make it past the first few pages. I think the blurb should have given some indication of the graphic, indeed pornographic, sex scenes the unsuspecting reader will encounter as soon as she opens it. Then I could have put on my dirty mac and turned the collar up, like the dirty old men who used to sidle into the ‘blue’ movies in my youth…

It rather put me off Lackberg, I fear! I may still read The Preacher one day, though, once Time the Great Healer has had a chance to work… 😂

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Someone to Watch Over Me by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

First reviewed 15th May 2013. Another Nordic crime, this is the fifth in a series but was the first I read. Darker than Lackberg and with a mild supernatural element to it, it’s very well written and chillingly atmospheric, and with an excellent sense of the Icelandic setting – its culture, weather and recent economic woes. I said “Highly recommended, and I look forward to backtracking through the rest of the series.” But did I?

No, but I read several other books by the prolific Sigurdardóttir that aren’t in this series. She alternates between dark crime and supernatural stories, sometimes combining them, and I continued to admire her writing, sense of place and ability to create an incredibly tense and often spine-tinglingly spooky atmosphere. However, my tastes were changing and gradually she became too dark for me. Some of her murder methods have remained inextricably lodged in my memory banks and I suspect I’d need several years of therapy to get them out! I have a couple of her books still sitting in my TBR, including the first in this series, Last Rituals, and will read them some day, but I’ll need to be in the right mood to cope with the inevitable gore…

* * * * *

So, one I’ll read again if he publishes another book, one I have shamefully neglected and am now vowing to put that right, and two Nordic crime novelists who are both in different ways victims of my increasingly conservative tastes. Safe to say this is a fairly mixed batch, but none of them have been banished from my reading list for eternity… 😂

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

The Rendezvous and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

Disappointing…

🙂 🙂 😐

Although this was apparently the last collection of short stories to be published in du Maurier’s lifetime, most of the fourteen stories in it date from her early twenties, with only a handful from later in her career. I feel that shows – these are not her best work, with some of them ranking as pretty poor, in my opinion. In general I found them rather unoriginal, often padded and repetitive to a length far longer than the story justified, with “twists” that were all too obvious. But what really put me off the collection was the almost complete lack of likeable characters. There is, I feel, a kind of cruelty towards the characters – they start out miserable, go through hell, and come out worse than they began; not in every case, but often enough for me to have remarked several times in my contemporaneous notes that she really doesn’t seem to like people, especially women. Her women are either weak and ripe to be victims, or they are manipulative, cruel and cold. There is rarely love in the pages though there’s plenty of lust, desire and rather sordid infidelity. The rare “good” character seldom achieves any kind of reward or happy ending, while many of the nasty ones do quite well for themselves. My misery meter swung towards high quite early on, and by the end it was hovering consistently in the danger zone – only copious supplies of medicinal chocolate got me through.

As you’d expect, they’re well enough written and some of the descriptive writing is very good. Occasional stories are lighter, with some humour, and those tended to work better for me. I listened to the audiobook version read by Edward de Souza, and to be honest I think it was only the excellence of his narration that kept me going to the end. Overall, then, of the fourteen stories, I rated only five as excellent or good, while five rated as poor and the remaining four were middling.

Book 16 of 20

Here’s a brief flavour of the three I rated most highly…

The Supreme Artist – an ageing actor is visited in his changing room after a performance one day by a woman who seems to remember him from a youthful romantic dalliance which he has completely forgotten. However, it would be rude to say so, and he’s an actor, so he throws himself into the part, playing a man who has spent his life hiding the broken heart she left him with. He may or may not convince the woman, but he gradually begins to convince himself! There’s a lot of humour in this and it’s a fun characterisation, done very well.

Leading Lady – an actress this time, not ageing, but no longer in the first blush of youth. She is about to star in a play being produced by a man she has never worked with before. He wants an up-and-coming young actor to play the male lead, but the actress has seen this young man act and fears he will outshine her, with both youth and novelty on his side. But the producer is the money man, of course, so she can’t simply refuse. So she sets out to manipulate the producer into deciding for himself that the young actor shouldn’t get the role. This is also well done, although it’s one of the many where the woman has nothing admirable about her. And frankly, it reads rather differently after the MeToo movement and the many recent scandals in the world of acting than it would have done before – the element that might have seemed humorous when it was written doesn’t seem quite so funny any more.

Escort – A merchant ship is sailing home to England during WW2, through seas dangerous with U-boats. The captain is taken ill so the First Officer, our narrator, finds himself in charge. A U-boat finds them but a sudden fog rolls up just in time to save them. When the fog recedes, an old sailing barque appears, and hails them to offer them a safe escort home. This has a spooky element to it, which is done well. As far as I can find out it must have been written during the war, and it has a definite patriotic message, one designed to draw on British pride in great naval victories of the past. To be truthful, it mirrors very closely a famous story written by Arthur Machen during WW1, The Bowmen, except that his is set on land and draws on a different but equally heroic British legend. Had du Maurier read it, or is it coincidence? I don’t know, but I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.

So a disappointing collection for me, and one more suitable for du Maurier completists than for newcomers wanting to sample her work.

Audible UK Link

Shorts August 2022…

A Bunch of Minis…

I’m storming through the books at such an alarming rate at the moment that my reviewing is continually behind. So another little batch of three, all for the #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer challenge…

Books 13, 14 and 15

A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie

Read by Joan Hickson

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Rex Fortescue is poisoned the list of suspects includes most of his family and several others who either want to inherit his money or who may have been hurt by his dodgy business practices in the past. The suspect list is soon reduced by one, when another member of the family becomes the next victim. But what brings Miss Marple into the investigation is the third murder, of the maid Gladys. Gladys had grown up in the local orphanage and Miss Marple had trained her for domestic service, so she feels a sense of responsibility towards this young woman who has no one else to care about her. And Miss Marple feels that aspects of her death were particularly cruel, showing that the murderer treated her with a kind of mocking contempt. So, like an avenging angel with knitting needles, Miss Marple descends on the household at Yew Tree Lodge to find justice for Gladys…

This is one of my favourites. (I know, I say that about so many of them, but it’s true!) It makes great use of the nursery rhyme referenced in the title, but without allowing the constraints of sticking to the rhyme to make the story feel at all contrived. But what makes it stand out most is Miss Marple’s righteous anger over the murder of Gladys. One of my regular criticisms of Golden Age authors, including Christie, is that domestic servants are often despatched as second or third victims with barely a second’s thought or a moment’s recognition, merely as a convenient way to move the plot forward. So it’s refreshing to see Miss Marple really care about Gladys’ murder, possibly more than Rex Fortescue’s own family care about his. And the mystery itself is good – not perhaps quite as fair-play as some of her books, but the suspect list is full of intriguing characters, most of whom are unsympathetic enough for the reader to happily contemplate their fictional hanging! Read superbly by the wonderful Joan Hickson – a treat!

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Cover Her Face by PD James

Read by Daniel Weyman

🙂 🙂 😐

The servant problem has become so acute post-war that the Maxies of Martingale are reduced to taking on a “delinquent” as housemaid – Sally Jupp, a young woman with an illegitimate child. But Sally refuses to be as humble, penitent and grateful as a fallen woman should be, and various members of the household soon have reasons to resent her presence. So when she is found strangled in her room one morning, the field of suspects is wide. Enter Inspector Adam Dalgleish – full-time policeman and part-time poet…

I mentioned when I put this on my reading list that I used to love PD James but had found her last few books a struggle because it had felt to me that her style had dated badly. I hoped by going back to the beginning of her long-running Dalgleish series that my love might be revived, but I fear not. Sadly her class snobbery is too much for me to take now. It’s odd – I can put up with snobbery and other ’isms in the older authors of the Golden Age much better than from post-war authors. I suspect I feel they should have known better, although my own love for this series back in the day suggests I didn’t know better myself at that time! Whatever, I find I now have no tolerance for passages in post-war novels like the following, describing an elderly maid…

Dagleish had met a number of Marthas in his time and had never supposed them to be complicated people. They were concerned with the comfort of the body, the cooking of food, the unending menial tasks which someone must carry out before the life of the mind can have any true validity. Their own undemanding emotional needs found fulfilment in service. They were loyal, hardworking and truthful and made good witnesses because they lacked both the imagination and the practice necessary for successful lying. They could be a nuisance if they decided to shield those who had gained their loyalty but this was an overt danger which could be anticipated. He expected no difficulty with Martha.

I shall remain grateful to PD James for the enjoyment her books once gave me, but sometimes it’s best to leave the past undisturbed.

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Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome

Read by Ian Carmichael

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

I’ve reviewed this one previously, and my dear little cat Tuppence also once told us why it was her favourite book, so I shall merely remind you all that it’s the funniest book ever written. Ian Carmichael is the perfect narrator for it, and I laughed and chuckled and guffawed my way through the audiobook – if you can get hold of his narration, I highly recommend you do so! In lieu of a review, then, have an extract…

….I knew a young fellow once, who was studying to play the bagpipes, and you would be surprised at the amount of opposition he had to contend with. Why, not even from the members of his own family did he receive what you could call active encouragement. His father was dead against the business from the beginning, and spoke quite unfeelingly on the subject.
….My friend used to get up early in the morning to practise, but he had to give that plan up, because of his sister. She was somewhat religiously inclined, and she said it seemed such an awful thing to begin the day like that.
….So he sat up at night instead, and played after the family had gone to bed, but that did not do, as it got the house such a bad name. People, going home late, would stop outside to listen, and then put it about all over the town, the next morning, that a fearful murder had been committed at Mr. Jefferson’s the night before; and would describe how they had heard the victim’s shrieks and the brutal oaths and curses of the murderer, followed by the prayer for mercy, and the last dying gurgle of the corpse.
….So they let him practise in the day-time, in the back-kitchen with all the doors shut; but his more successful passages could generally be heard in the sitting-room, in spite of these precautions, and would affect his mother almost to tears.
….She said it put her in mind of her poor father (he had been swallowed by a shark, poor man, while bathing off the coast of New Guinea – where the connection came in, she could not explain).

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Two out of three ain’t bad! 😉

TBR Thursday 346…

Episode 346

A big drop in the TBR this week – down 3 to 172! I might even get below the magic 170 soon, if I don’t fall at the last hurdle…

Here are a few more I should run into soon…

Crime

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

My Looking Forward posts have made me thoroughly ashamed of all the books lingering on my TBR that I acquired because I’d enjoyed the author before. So I’m going to try my hardest to fit some of them into my reading schedule, starting with this one from Belinda Bauer, which I acquired in 2015!

The Blurb says: Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb digs holes on Exmoor, hoping to find a body. Every day after school, while his classmates swap football stickers, Steven goes digging to lay to rest the ghost of the uncle he never knew, who disappeared aged eleven and is assumed to have fallen victim to the notorious serial killer Arnold Avery.

Only Steven’s Nan is not convinced her son is dead. She still waits for him to come home, standing bitter guard at the front window while her family fragments around her. Steven is determined to heal the widening cracks between them before it’s too late. And if that means presenting his grandmother with the bones of her murdered son, he’ll do it.

So the boy takes the next logical step, carefully crafting a letter to Arnold Avery in prison. And there begins a dangerous cat-and-mouse game between a desperate child and a bored serial killer . . .

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Maigret on Audio

The Misty Harbour by Georges Simenon read by Gareth Armstrong

The last three for the #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer challenge. Having unexpectedly raced through the longest book left on my list over last weekend, it’s now looking possible that I might actually finish the challenge on time! First up, another admirably short Maigret, read as usual by the excellent Gareth Armstrong…

The Blurb says: A new translation of Georges Simenon’s gripping tale of lost identity. A man picked up for wandering in obvious distress among the cars and buses on the Grands Boulevards. Questioned in French, he remains mute… A madman?

In Maigret’s office, he is searched. His suit is new, his underwear is new, his shoes are new. All identifying labels have been removed. No identification papers. No wallet. Five crisp thousand-franc bills have been slipped into one of his pockets.

Answers lead Maigret to a small harbour town, whose quiet citizens conceal a poisonous malice.

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Greene on Audio

The Quiet American by Graham Greene read by Simon Cadell

One I haven’t read before from Graham Greene. It was the narrator as much as the book that made me choose this one as an audiobook – I have fond memories of the late Simon Cadell as an actor. The blurb sounds interesting too, though, and I’m intrigued to find out what it is that makes it “controversial”…

The Blurb says: “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused,” Graham Greene’s narrator Fowler remarks of Alden Pyle, the eponymous “Quiet American” of what is perhaps the most controversial novel of his career. Pyle is the brash young idealist sent out by Washington on a mysterious mission to Saigon, where the French Army struggles against the Vietminh guerrillas. As young Pyle’s well-intentioned policies blunder into bloodshed, Fowler, a seasoned and cynical British reporter, finds it impossible to stand safely aside as an observer. But Fowler’s motives for intervening are suspect, both to the police and himself, for Pyle has stolen Fowler’s beautiful Vietnamese mistress.

Originally published in 1956 and twice adapted to film, The Quiet American remains a terrifiying and prescient portrait of innocence at large. 

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Christie on Audio

By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser

What better incentive to get to the end of the challenge than a Christie/Fraser/Tommy and Tuppence mystery! There are aspects of creepiness in this one that shiver my spine whenever I think of them…

The Blurb says: While visiting Tommy’s Aunt Ada at Sunny Ridge Nursing Home, Tuppence encounters some odd residents including Mrs. Lancaster who mystifies her with talk about “your poor child” and “something behind the fireplace”.

When Aunt Ada dies a few weeks later, she leaves Tommy and Tuppence a painting featuring a house, which Tuppence is sure she has seen before. This realization leads her on a dangerous adventure involving a missing tombstone, diamond smuggling and a horrible discovery of what Mrs. Lancaster was talking about.

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

Women, know your place…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

George Melbury has been blessed with only one child, his daughter Grace, so he decides to spend his hard-earned money on educating her. A happy child, growing up among the woods that surround the tiny hamlet of Little Hintock and provide the people there with their living, Grace forms an early attachment to her childhood friend, Giles Winterborne, and it’s her father’s wish that she will one day marry him. But when Grace returns to Little Hintock after years spent at boarding school, she has become such a cultured lady that Mr Melbury no longer thinks Giles is good enough for her, and Grace tends to agree so doesn’t put up much of a fight. Instead, she is wooed and won by the new local doctor, impoverished scion of a once wealthy local family. Happy ending? Good grief, no! This is Hardy, so poor Grace’s troubles are just beginning…

First off, let me start by saying I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Hardy writes like a dream, and the woodland setting gives him the opportunity for some wonderful descriptive prose. Over the course of the book, the reader gets a clear picture of the society of the woodlanders, the trades they follow and how they make their living, their limited but enjoyed social life, the gradations of class even within the working population, the gender roles – a Hardy speciality – and the social and cultural gulf between the working people and the gentry.

But, Mr Hardy, what is the message of the book? We know you’re a feminist, and that’s as clear here as it is in Tess. So why do I come away from this one feeling you are issuing a warning to fathers not to educate their daughters above their station? Why does it seem as if you are saying that true goodness is the preserve of the poor and humble – that education corrupts? Why does Grace’s education change her from a loving child into a cold-hearted little snob? Why does she change from being a hearty, healthy daughter of the woods into a delicate little flower, who sews not and neither does she spin for fear of spoiling her pretty little hands? Even with the one rich character, whom I was willing to boo as being a parasite on society, what do we learn but that she too is a woman on the make, educated and married above her station? You as good as state that Grace would have been a happier, better woman if she’d never been taught to think and had married within the sphere to which she was born. This hardly reads like a paean to social mobility, especially not for daughters!

Book 12 of 20

I actually thought this might have been an early one, from before Hardy fully developed his feminism but it isn’t. It falls between The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I felt were clearer on Hardy’s views on the status of women. It’s not that he doesn’t sympathise with Grace’s position as a women educated out of her class, nor even that I feel the portrayal is inaccurate for the time. It’s simply that, whether he intended it or not, the underlying message seems to be, not that society should get a grip and accept that women should have the right to both an education and a happy life, but that it would probably be better for the poor little dears to stew in ignorance so they will make a happy child-bearer and home-cleaner for a worthy working man. I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but even the ending left me wondering if he was really suggesting that men should be allowed to behave badly, but that women should find it in their sweet, feminine little hearts to forgive? Pah, I tell you, and forsooth!!

Thomas Hardy

Maybe I expect too much from him – he is undoubtedly far advanced in his portrayal of women in comparison to many of his contemporary male writers, especially in his recognition of women as sexual and, in Grace’s case, intellectual beings. But perhaps Grace isn’t quite tragic enough, or perhaps I missed out on nuance because I was listening rather than reading – a skill I don’t think I’ve yet fully mastered. Or perhaps it’s simply that I never grew fond of little Miss Snooty-and-Delicate who can’t order a meal for herself in a pub despite/because of her education, while I loved her rival in love, Marty, Miss Ignorant-but-Self-Sufficient, whose attitude to life is give me the tools and the opportunity and I can make a living for myself as well as any man. Why do the men all prefer Grace? Do men really want wives who need to be pampered and petted rather than ones who will share their burdens as equals? Pah!

Anyway, as I said, I thoroughly enjoyed this one – nothing I like better than having a one-sided argument with a great author who can’t answer back… 😉

I listened to the narration by Samuel West – again excellent. West father and son seem to be becoming my go-to narrators for a lot of the great English classics.

Audible UK Link

TBR Thursday (on a Tuesday) 345 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 345

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

* * * * *

OK, People, time for another batch of four – still in 2020, and a rather odd selection this month, all historical fiction but very different from each other. I like to run three months ahead with these polls, so the winner will be a November read. I picked up The Sealwoman’s Gift in a charity shop on impulse, mainly because I used to like the author’s father when he presented Mastermind on TV! I also bought Cold Mountain there on the same day, but it was on my wishlist since I’d previously enjoyed another of his books, Nightwoods. I loved Neil Munro’s The New Road, so acquired Doom Castle and it’s now on my Classics Club list. A Suitable Boy is one I’ve long wanted to read but its excessive length means it keeps getting shoved aside.

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Historical Fiction

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

Added 11th January 2020. 5,160 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.16 average rating. 365 pages.

The Blurb says: In 1627 Barbary pirates raided the coast of Iceland and abducted some 400 of its people, including 250 from a tiny island off the mainland. Among the captives sold into slavery in Algiers were the island pastor, his wife and their three children. Although the raid itself is well documented, little is known about what happened to the women and children afterwards. It was a time when women everywhere were largely silent.

In this brilliant reimagining, Sally Magnusson gives a voice to Ásta, the pastor’s wife. Enslaved in an alien Arab culture Ásta meets the loss of both her freedom and her children with the one thing she has brought from home: the stories in her head. Steeped in the sagas and folk tales of her northern homeland, she finds herself experiencing not just the separations and agonies of captivity, but the reassessments that come in any age when intelligent eyes are opened to other lives, other cultures and other kinds of loving.

The Sealwoman’s Gift is about the eternal power of storytelling to help us survive. The novel is full of stories – Icelandic ones told to fend off a slave-owner’s advances, Arabian ones to help an old man die. And there are others, too: the stories we tell ourselves to protect our minds from what cannot otherwise be borne, the stories we need to make us happy.

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Historical Fiction

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

Added 11th January 2020. 234,132 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.88 average. 449 pages.

The Blurb says: Based on local history & family stories passed down by Frazier’s great-great-grandfather, Cold Mountain is the tale of a wounded Confederate soldier, Inman, who walks away from the ravages of the war & back home to his prewar sweetheart, Ada. His odyssey thru the devastated landscape of the soon-to-be-defeated South interweaves with Ada’s struggle to revive her father’s farm, with the help of an intrepid young drifter named Ruby. As their long-separated lives begin to converge at the close of the war, Inman & Ada confront the vastly transformed world they’ve been delivered.

Frazier reveals insight into human relations with the land & the dangers of solitude. He also shares with the great 19th century novelists a keen observation of a society undergoing change. Cold Mountain recreates a world gone by that speaks to our time.

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Historical Fiction

Doom Castle by Neil Munro

Added 26th January 2020. 31 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.48 average. 360 pages.

The Blurb says: “No pomp, no pleasant amenities; the place seemed to jut into the sea, defying man’s oldest and most bitter enemy, its gable ends and one crenellated bastion or turret betraying its sinister relation to its age, its whole aspect arrogant and unfriendly, essential of war. Caught suddenly by the vision that swept the fretted curve of the coast, it seemed blackly to perpetuate the spirit of the land, its silence, its solitude and terrors.”

This was the Count Victor’s fist sight of Castle Doom. His mission to Scotland from France in 1755 brought him into this wild land of danger and mystery, where he met the haunting Count Doom, the lovely Olivia, the dastardly Simon MacTaggart – and gothic jeopardy armed with claymores, dirks, and bagpipes.

Here is the most unusual historical novel you will ever read, by a Scot worthy to sit at the right hand of the throne of Sir Walter Scott!

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Historical Fiction

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

Added 29th January 2020. 45,879 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.12 average. 1553 pages. 

The Blurb says: Vikram Seth’s novel is, at its core, a love story: Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, are both trying to find—through love or through exacting maternal appraisal—a suitable boy for Lata to marry. Set in the early 1950s, in an India newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis, A Suitable Boy takes us into the richly imagined world of four large extended families and spins a compulsively readable tale of their lives and loves. A sweeping panoramic portrait of a complex, multi-ethnic society in flux, A Suitable Boy remains the story of ordinary people caught up in a web of love and ambition, humour and sadness, prejudice and reconciliation, the most delicate social etiquette and the most appalling violence.

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

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The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

Heartless…

😐 😐

Piano tuner Edgar Blake specializes in Erard pianos, a French make. One day in 1886, he receives a strange request from the War Office – to go to Mae Lwin, a small colonial outpost in Burma, to tune the Erard of the mysterious Doctor Anthony Carroll who is trying to negotiate peace between warring factions in the country. But who is Dr Carroll? There are so many conflicting stories about him, not least the one of him demanding that the War Office provide him first with a valuable grand piano and then with a specialist to tune it…

Perhaps if I hadn’t read Heart of Darkness I would have thought this story was interesting and original. However, I have, so I didn’t. The major differences are that Heart of Darkness is indeed original, is wonderfully written, and isn’t padded out with a zillion words of extraneous description and potted history of the country presented in the form of army reports. The other major difference is that Kurtz (the mystery man in Heart of Darkness) is indeed mysterious and enigmatic, and is a metaphor for the darkness of colonialism and how it corrupts the coloniser as much as the colonised; whereas Carroll isn’t. Lastly, Heart of Darkness ends believably and memorably; this one doesn’t.

I admit I skimmed the last 30%, so bored was I by that stage by the endless descriptions – it was like being forced to look at the three hundred photos someone has brought back from a holiday, all of them of trees. (This actually happened to me on one occasion – three hundred is not an exaggeration – and I thought I might actually die of boredom, or be forced to commit murder to make it stop. This book made me feel the same way.) It reads as if Mason spent a great holiday in Burma and wanted to share every impression of the country, regardless of relevance, and tacked on a lot of historical facts that he’d gleaned, perhaps from a guide book, perhaps from wikipedia, to try to turn it into a novel. And then there are the details about how to tune a piano.

Yep. That’s about all I have to say about this one.

Amazon UK Link