FictionFan’s Book Reviews

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The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

The one with Little Nell…

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Nell Trent, a child of thirteen, lives with her doting grandfather in his shop where he ekes out an existence selling old and unusual items. Grandfather (he is never named) has lost both his beloved wife and their daughter, Nell’s mother, and Nell has become a substitute to him for their loss, though he also loves her for her own sake. He is worried about what might happen to her when he dies, so is determined to make lots of money so he can provide for her. But the method he chooses – gambling – soon becomes an addiction, and he gradually loses all his savings and ends up in debt to the evil dwarf, Daniel Quilp. Quilp turns Nell and her grandfather out of their home, and they must leave London and learn to make their way in a life of poverty. Grandfather is old and becoming senile, so young Nell must take on any jobs she can find, and beg for them both when work isn’t available. But Quilp isn’t finished with them yet…

This is the only one of Dickens’ novels that I hadn’t read before, so it was a real pleasure to get to know the cast of characters and follow Nell on her journeys. Unfortunately what happens to Little Nell is so well known (in case you don’t know, I won’t say) and a book I read a few years ago had also told me what happens to Quilp, so I didn’t get the joy of suspense over the main plotline. But, as usual with Dickens, there are so many sub-plots and digressions, the characters are so beautifully quirky, the settings are described so wonderfully and the language is a delight, so I didn’t feel I missed out on much.

(Nell dreaming angelic dreams amidst the shop’s curiosities…)

Nell starts out rather better than a lot of Dickens’ drooping heroines. She’s a girl of spirit who loves to laugh, and who affectionately teases her only friend, young Kit, her grandfather’s assistant. She does eventually turn into the usual saccharin perfect saint, though, losing much of her initial appeal as she does. But all the worry of looking after her grandfather and herself falls on her, and Dickens allows her to have enough strength and ingenuity to carry them both through some dangerous and heart-breaking moments. She’s not quite as strong as Kickass Kate Nickleby, but she’s certainly no Drippy Dora Copperfield either! I could fully understand why people got so caught up in her story when the book was originally published in serial form although, sadly, apparently the story about people storming the docks in New York when the ship carrying the last instalment arrived is apocryphal. Grandfather is a surprisingly unattractive character who really doesn’t deserve Nell’s devotion, but in him Dickens gives a great portrayal of how addiction can destroy a man’s character and life.

Book 73 of 90

The bulk of the story, however, is really about Kit, Quilp and the characters around them in London. Quilp is a sadist who delights in bullying his wife and anyone else who comes in his way. For no particular reason – Quilp doesn’t need reasons – he has taken against Kit and sets out to destroy him. But Kit is an honest, upright young boy who has the knack of winning friends who will stand by him when he needs them. When Nell leaves London with her grandfather, Kit hopes to find her one day, so he can make sure she is alright. Quilp also wants to find Nell, but for very different reasons – mostly just to be mean to her and to a young man called Dick Swiveller, who has been persuaded by Nell’s brother (oh, I forgot to mention – Nell has a ne’er-do-well brother, Fred) that he, Dick, should marry Nell, for complicated reasons. Gosh, summarising Dickens’ plots is exceptionally hard! Trust me, it all makes sense in the book! Dick is a lot of fun, constantly quoting from romantic songs of the day, and having a heart of gold under his drunken wastrel exterior.

Quilp is a great villain, without a single redeeming feature. Because he’s described as an ugly, misshapen dwarf when we first meet him, I tried to have some sympathy – to consider whether his treatment as a child may have warped his character – but honestly, he’s so vile that after a bit I couldn’t feel anything for him other than hatred and a desire to see him get his comeuppance! Sally Brass is another wonderful character. Sister to Sampson Brass, Quilp’s lawyer, she works alongside her brother and is the real force in the business. She’s mannish in her mannerisms, obnoxious, a tyrant to her little servant, and joins happily in all Quilp’s evil schemes. Sampson also goes along with Quilp, but he’s weaker than Sally and acts mostly out of fear of Quilp’s wrath.

(Quilp interrupts the ladies taking tea…)

Now, the ladies being together under these circumstances, it was extremely natural that the discourse should turn upon the propensity of mankind to tyrannise over the weaker sex, and the duty that devolved upon the weaker sex to resist that tyranny and assert their rights and dignity. It was natural for four reasons; firstly because Mrs Quilp being a young woman and notoriously under the dominion of her husband ought to be excited to rebel, secondly because Mrs Quilp’s parent was known to be laudably shrewish in her disposition and inclined to resist male authority, thirdly because each visitor wished to show for herself how superior she was in this respect to the generality of her sex, and fourthly because the company being accustomed to scandalise each other in pairs were deprived of their usual subject of conversation now that they were all assembled in close friendship, and had consequently no better employment than to attack the common enemy.

I felt there were more signs of this one’s origins as a serial than in most of his novels. It starts off with a first-person narrator, but this is dropped after a few chapters and from there on it becomes a third-person narrative. Kit starts out as a kind of simpleton comedy character, but then turns into a fine upstanding young man with plenty of intelligence as the story develops, and Dick has a similar change of character, though less marked. And there are, unusually for Dickens, one or two loose ends, particularly one around the birth of the one of the characters. There’s a great introduction by Elizabeth M. Brennan in my Oxford World’s Classics edition, which explains how these discrepancies arose from the rushed method of writing for weekly publication and the fact that Dickens hadn’t planned out the whole story when he began to write it. Brennan also tells us that Dickens cut some passages before the serialisation was published in novel form, including the birth mystery to which I referred. It doesn’t, however, explain why Dickens chose to cut that particular scene, leaving the reader to guess from a couple of hints along the way. The cut sections are given in the appendices.

(Grandfather gambling away Nell’s little hoard of money…)

However, none of these minor flaws are enough of a problem to take away from the sheer enjoyability of watching Dickens masterfully juggle humour and pathos, horror and joy, with all of his usual skill. And, oh dear, as always there’s so much I haven’t even touched on – the travelling entertainers Nell meets with on her journey, the waxworks, the Punch and Judy men, the hellish scenes of industrialised towns, Quilp’s poor mother-in-law, Kit’s family, the delightfully obstinate pony Whisker, the prison scenes, and so much more!

I’ll have to let it settle and perhaps read it at least once more to decide where it will finally sit in my league table of Dickens’ novels. Currently, it’s in the middle – not quite up there with Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby and so on, but not down at the bottom with poor Oliver Twist either. However, a middle-rank Dickens is still vastly better than most other books written by people unfortunate enough to not be Dickens, so that means it’s great – highly recommended!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! Weird Woods edited by John Miller

If you go down to the woods today…

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Set amidst the ancient woods and forests of Britain, these twelve tales take us into the realms of folklore and the supernatural. The book starts with a short introduction from the editor in which he discusses how woods have been seen as the home to all kinds of weirdness – hauntings, druids, evil things surviving from the ancient past. He suggests that modern people have become physically separated from the forest, and this has led to them learning to fear it.

The stories come from the usual mix of well-known and less familiar writers, and the occasional one who is perhaps better remembered for a different genre. EF Benson, Algernon Blackwood and MR James appear, along with Edith Nesbit, Marjorie Bowen and Walter de la Mare, and several others whose names weren’t familiar to me. I gave the bulk of the stories – seven of them – four stars, while two achieved the full five, and the rest were all threes. So not many real stand-outs, but no complete duds either. Overall, a solid collection.

As usual, here’s a flavour of some of the ones I most enjoyed:

The Man Who Went Too Far by EF Benson – probably the most “weird” story in the book, this is a tale of narcissism, the search for joy and the god of nature, Pan. I highlighted this in a previous Tuesday Terror! post.

The White Lady by Elliot O’Donnell – presented as a true story. When the narrator was a boy, he was fascinated by tales of a White Lady who was said to haunt a tree-lined avenue in the local laird’s estate. So one night he sneaks out and hides inside the bole of a tree. He does indeed see the White Lady but he also sees something more… This is a short story, but well-told.

The Name-Tree by Mary Webb – Laura has a deep passionate love of the cherry orchard owned by her father, especially of one tree, her name-tree. Her father has fallen on hard times, though, and sells the orchard, although the new owner allows them to stay on as tenants. But he develops a passion for Laura, and when she will not willingly give herself to him, he threatens that he will throw them out of their home and part her from her beloved cherry orchard for ever. But if she consents, the orchard will be hers forever. The intro tells us that Webb was a feminist writer, and the story certainly has strong feminist themes. Dark, disturbing and excellent.

The Tree by Walter de la Mare – this is a very weird story of a man who has become obsessed by a wondrous tree of a kind never before seen. For years, he draws and paints it again and again, and eventually his drawings begin to appear on the art market, until one day his long-estranged brother sees one. Thinking that now his brother must be making money from his art, he decides to visit him, but what he finds is not what he expects! No idea what this one was about, exactly, but it’s quite unsettling and very well written.

So plenty of variety and some new names for me to look out for in the future. Personally I’m more inclined to find that spookiness lies in alleyways and foggy days and Gothic buildings and the haunts of men, but I enjoyed my tramp though the woods, and I suspect the stories in this collection would have an even stronger appeal to people more in tune with nature and the world of folklore.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Invention of China by Bill Hayton

And the point is…?

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The basic premise of the book is that China, as a nation-state, only came into existence as an invention of a few intellectuals in the 19th century, and that therefore its claims to a 5,000-year-old civilisation are somehow false. It’s the “therefore” in the proposition that is the problem – the conclusion does not automatically follow from the premise. Take the UK – a construct of a few power-brokers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Does that somehow negate the shared history of the four nations prior to the Union, even if that history was often one of strife? Or take the EU, if it survives in the long-term – will future generations suggest that Europeans don’t have a shared history prior to the end of WW2?

Hayton argues that the intellectual underpinning of the idea of a Chinese nation-state was absorbed from European ideas in the 19th century – agreed, of course. He also seems to suggest that the idea of an ancient nation of “China” is used still today to promote the idea of a Chinese race, as distinct from a Chinese nationality. Well, OK, perhaps – but, in reality, is that much different to the West? We’re so tied up in questions of race and nationality that people now often need several hyphens to describe themselves – Kamala Harris, first Asian-African-American woman to become VP, etc. If we haven’t learned to think of Brits as simply Brits rather than Asian-British, Afro-Caribbean-British, etc., can we afford to be too sniffy about China’s failures on racial integration? We may talk the talk, but the year of race protests and riots we’ve just endured suggests that perhaps we don’t walk the walk much better than China.

Hayton suggests that part of China’s foreign policy is to keep the diaspora feeling that it is Chinese in order to promote China abroad, partly by automatically allowing citizenship to those descended from a Chinese ancestor. Well, while it’s not (as far as I know) British policy to exert some form of British control over its diaspora now, it certainly was in the days of Empire – we fought wars over it, eh, America? And we certainly still give priority paths to British citizenship to people descended from a Brit – my greatest fear is that Trump will remember his Scottish mother and decide to seek residency here, which we would be hard put under our rules not to grant, I believe. As evidence of China’s desire to influence its diaspora, Hayton discusses events held abroad to promote Chinese culture and heritage to emigrants of Chinese descent. Hmm, not so different, I felt, to St Patrick’s Day parades, beloved far more by the Irish diaspora than at home, and heavily promoted by Ireland nowadays to boost the tourism industry, and used in the recent past to garner Irish-American support for the IRA terrorist campaign against the UK; or Burns Night, a knees-up that is more enthusiastically attended among descendants of Scots abroad than it is here in Scotland. We even have an annual Tartan Day parade in New York, specifically promoted by the Scottish government to try to make Scottish-Americans so nostalgic about the old country they will spend lots of American money on Scottish goods. Not sure it works.

Chinese New Year – Melbourne-style

So the more I read about how different China supposedly is, the more I felt that it was pretty much the same as all the other nation-states with imperial tendencies – perhaps it just took a little longer for it to adopt an essentially European idea. And I don’t think that its modern nation-state status in any way means it shouldn’t be allowed to lay claim to its 5000-year-old history. We do. We look on Roman Britain as our heritage – iron age Britain, Viking Britain, Norman Britain, Empire Britain, multicultural modern Britain – all parts of what makes us us, for good or ill. And for most of that long history, we weren’t a nation-state either.

Hayton suggests, though, that the Chinese desire to maintain control over places like Taiwan and Tibet arise out of an untrue history that all these regions (or nations) are historically part of a nation of China which he suggests never existed before the 19th century. Again, simplistically true, but is not that always the way of Empire? China is simply at a different stage than Europe – we have been forced unwillingly to accept the loss of our Empires and redefine our nation-states and re-write our histories accordingly; China is still grimly hanging on to its claims over its ancient tributaries and, as we did, using distorted narratives and racial arguments to justify them. Let’s face it, fan though I am of the Commonwealth, it exists merely to tie together the countries that were once part of the British Empire. Is that a bad thing? The only difference is that states can leave the Commonwealth if they choose, but that’s only been the case for half a century or so. No doubt in time the Chinese Empire will go the same way, and who is to say if the breakaway parts won’t find, as with the old colonies of the European Empires, that there is a benefit in maintaining historical, cultural and economic ties once the shackles of enforced domination have been thrown off?

I gave up on the book halfway through, since I found the arguments tenuous, shallow and not particularly well laid-out. And, to be honest, I’m not sure if the point is one that it was worth the effort of making. China is a fascinating nation with many facets, good and bad. It does many things I find objectionable, especially in terms of its human rights abuses. But this effort to deny it its claim to its heritage seems odd – a throwback to the days when we in Europe looked sneeringly down on the rest of the world. We don’t still do that. Do we?

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher Yale University Press via Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Lost Gallows (Inspector Bencolin) by John Dickson Carr

Hanging out with Jack Ketch…

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M. Henri Bencolin, head of the Parisian detective force, is visiting London with his young American friend Jeff Marle. They are staying at the notorious Brimstone Club, a gentleman’s club where past members have been reputed not to behave like gentlemen. Anyone can become a member so long as they can afford the fees, and it has seen more than its fair share of shady characters cross its Gothic-like threshold. Bencolin’s old friend Sir John Landervorne, once of Scotland Yard and now retired, lives at the club, and it’s he who tells Bencolin and Marle of the strange occurrence that sets them all on the trail of a murderer who calls himself “Jack Ketch”, a nickname commonly used for the public hangman. One night, lost in a London fog, a young man saw the shadow of a gallows reflected on a wall, and a man climbing the stairs towards the noose. Later that evening, Bencolin and his friends themselves witness something even stranger – a car being driven by a corpse…

This is the third book in Carr’s Bencolin series. (I think – the last one was also billed as the third but is now being called the second, so there’s an extra mystery that remains unsolved! It doesn’t matter though, they all stand alone.) Written when Carr was very young, each of the three I’ve read have a strong horror element to go along with Carr’s trademark “impossible” crime. Bencolin himself is a darkly mysterious detective, brilliant but rather cold. The only things he shows any passion about are catching his villain, and proving his superiority to all other detectives. Marle acts as his unofficial sidekick and narrator of the stories.

Carr makes excellent use of the London fog in this one, and all the stuff about gallows and hangmen is beautifully chilling, especially since the book is set back in the days when hanging was still the punishment for murder. And it soon transpires that Jack Ketch may be seeking revenge for a crime that has gone unpunished by the law. The victim of Jack Ketch’s scheme is an Egyptian, also a member of the Brimstone, who is being terrorised by a series of strange items turning up in his rooms or arriving through the mail – all things that seem to mean something to him and have him fearing for his life. And then he disappears! It’s up to Bencolin to find out the real identity of Jack Ketch before any more murders are done.

John Dickson Carr

I must admit I was a good way into this before I could get my head round the plot at all – there seem to be an awful lot of people and lots of apparently unconnected incidents at first. But it all begins to come together about halfway through, and then moves into a spookily thrilling ending, full of Gothic horrors and an almost, but not quite, supernatural feel to it. I didn’t find the “how” aspects of this one quite as mysterious as usual – I had a reasonably good idea of most of it well before the end – and the motive is never really hidden. But I admit to being totally blind-sided by the “whodunit” solution. I was so sure it was …….. but it turned out it was actually……..! Who’d have guessed?! In truth, I think the rather lacklustre characterisation of everyone except Bencolin and Marle made the guessing quite difficult – this is much more of a puzzle than a character-driven story. When Bencolin explains it all at the end, though, I had to admit it had been fair-play – the clues were all there for those eagle-eyed enough to spot them.

Another entertaining entry in this series, though not perhaps my favourite. The book has the added bonus of a Bencolin short story, The Ends of Justice, which is another “impossible” crime – a distinctly unlikely one, I felt, but that didn’t prevent me enjoying it!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 268 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 268

(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, time for the next batch of four! Still working through books acquired in 2015 – this was definitely a year when I had no control over my book-buying addiction at all! As usual, I’m planning three months ahead so the winner will be an April read. An odd bunch, this time, I think. Blacklands is the first in a trilogy – I also have book 2 which I acquired at the same time. Belinda Bauer is one of those authors I often love and sometimes don’t, so it could go either way. The Ocean at the End of the Lane was acquired while I was having a brief but passionate love affair with Neil Gaiman. Cold Comfort Farm was a recommendation from L. Marie, though in what context I’ve long forgotten! I love Megan Abbott’s books where she explores the dark hormonal side of teenage girl angst, but Die A Little sounds very different – noir written by a woman is still quite unusual. I haven’t kept a note of it, but I suspect Margot is the culprit for adding that one!

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Crime

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

Added 8th July 2015. 7,426 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.69 average rating. 240 pages.

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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Fantasy

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Added 8th July 2015. 494,184 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.00 average. 181 pages.

The Blurb says: Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

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Fiction

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Added 16th July 2015. 42,593 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.90 average. 338 pages. 

The Blurb says: Winner of the 1933 Femina Vie Heureuse Prize, COLD COMFORT FARM is a wickedly funny portrait of British rural life in the 1930s. Flora Poste, a recently orphaned socialite, moves in with her country relatives, the gloomy Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm, and becomes enmeshed in a web of violent emotions, despair, and scheming, until Flora manages to set things right.

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Crime

Die a Little by Megan Abbott

Added 3rd September 2015. 2,407 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.67 average. 256 pages.

The Blurb says: Shadow-dodging through the glamorous world of 1950s Hollywood and its seedy flip side, Megan Abbott’s debut, Die a Little, is a gem of the darkest hue. This ingenious twist on a classic noir tale tells the story of Lora King, a schoolteacher, and her brother Bill, a junior investigator with the district attorney’s office. Lora’s comfortable, suburban life is jarringly disrupted when Bill falls in love with a mysterious young woman named Alice Steele, a Hollywood wardrobe assistant with a murky past.

Made sisters by marriage but not by choice, the bond between Lora and Alice is marred by envy and mistrust. Spurred on by inconsistencies in Alice’s personal history and possibly jealous of Alice’s hold on her brother, Lora finds herself lured into the dark alleys and mean streets of seamy Los Angeles. Assuming the role of amateur detective, she uncovers a shadowy world of drugs, prostitution, and ultimately, murder.

Lora’s fascination with Alice’s “sins” increases in direct proportion to the escalation of her own relationship with Mike Standish, a charmingly amoral press agent who appears to know more about his old friend Alice than he reveals. The deeper Lora digs to uncover Alice’s secrets, the more her own life begins to resemble Alice’s sinister past — and present.

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

Tuesday Terror! Madam Crowl’s Ghost by Sheridan Le Fanu

Deathly dialect…

Taken from the collection Green Tea and Other Weird Stories, this is one of several stories Le Fanu wrote in a Northumbrian dialect. I have no idea how authentic it is, but I love it – there’s a kind of softness and lilt to the words and phrasing that seems made for relating ghostly tales by the light of the fire. So here we go for this week’s…

Madam Crowl’s Ghost
by Sheridan Le Fanu

J Sheridan Le Fanu

I’m an ald woman now, and I was but thirteen, my last birthday, the night I came to Applewale House. My aunt was the housekeeper there…

Already anxious and homesick, the girl’s fears are increased by the teasing of two fellow passengers on the coach, on hearing where she was headed…

“Ho, then,” says one of them, “you’ll not be long there!”

And I looked at him as much as to say “Why not?” for I had spoken out when I told them where I was goin’, as if ’twas something clever I hed to say.

“Because,” says he, “and don’t you for your life tell no one, only watch her and see—she’s possessed by the devil, and more an half a ghost.”

The sight of the old house does nothing to cheer her up…

A great white-and-black house it is, wi’ great black beams across and right up it, and gables lookin’ out, as white as a sheet, to the moon, and the shadows o’ the trees, two or three up and down in front, you could count the leaves on them, and all the little diamond-shaped winda-panes, glimmering on the great hall winda, and great shutters, in the old fashion, hinged on the wall outside, boulted across all the rest o’ the windas in front…

The girl’s aunt and another woman share the task of looking after old Madam Crowl, whose mind is beginning to fail and she sometimes has periods of a kind of insanity. It’s a while before the girl gets to see the old lady, but one day her aunt has gone off to have a cup of tea while Madam Crowl is asleep, and tells the girl to listen out for any signs of her wakening. The girl can’t resist the temptation to take a quick peep at her ancient mistress on her bed…

There she was, dressed out. You never sid the like in they days. Satin and silk, and scarlet and green, and gold and pint lace; by Jen! ’twas a sight! A big powdered wig, half as high as herself, was a-top o’ her head, and, wow!—was ever such wrinkles?—and her old baggy throat all powdered white, and her cheeks rouged, and mouse-skin eyebrows, that Mrs. Wyvern used to stick on, and there she lay proud and stark, wi’ a pair o’ clocked silk hose on, and heels to her shoon as tall as nine-pins. Lawk! . . . Her wrinkled little hands was stretched down by her sides, and such long nails, all cut into points, I never sid in my days. Could it ever a bin the fashion for grit fowk to wear their fingernails so?

(Mouse-skin eyebrows?!?!? Aargh!!!)

Suddenly the old woman wakes…

And in an instant she opens her eyes and up she sits, and spins herself round, and down wi’ her, wi’ a clack on her two tall heels on the floor, facin’ me, ogglin’ in my face wi’ her two great glassy eyes, and a wicked simper wi’ her wrinkled lips, and lang fause teeth… Says she:

“Ye little limb! what for did ye say I killed the boy? I’ll tickle ye till ye’re stiff!”

(Illustration by Charles William Stewart
for the Folio Society)

Terrified, the girl flees to her aunt, who seems to find a disturbing meaning in the old woman’s words. But Madam Crowl’s remaining time is short, and soon she is in the throes of her last, uneasy illness…

She pined, and windered, and went off, torflin’, torflin’, quiet enough, till a day or two before her flittin’, and then she took to rabblin’, and sometimes skirlin’ in the bed, ye’d think a robber had a knife to her throat, and she used to work out o’ the bed, and not being strong enough, then, to walk or stand, she’d fall on the flure, wi’ her ald wizened hands stretched before her face, and skirlin’ still for mercy.

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The version I’m linking to is slightly different to the one in the book but not significantly. The book doesn’t have the short introduction, so the narrator isn’t named. Although there are some unfamiliar words sprinkled throughout, it’s not hard to guess their meaning from the context, and of course the notes in the Oxford World’s Classics edition I was reading explain any that might be a bit too obscure.

The story is dark – a mix of human evil and supernatural horror, made scarier by being seen through the eyes of such a young narrator. The porpy quivered quite a bit at points, while I loved the language and the perfectly paced build up to a satisfyingly ghoulish conclusion.

It’s reasonably short – I think it only took me twenty minutes or so to read. If you’d like to read it, here’s a link.

(The porpy is becoming a big Le Fanu fan…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

Truth v emotional truth…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a short collection of six stories, some of them autobiographical, others fictional. A couple of them are set at Christmas, while Thanksgiving and birthdays make appearances in others. For me, the collection was divided strictly down the middle. The three autobiographical ones were overly sentimental, veering perilously close to mawkishness, and full of preachy moral lessons the young Capote learned from his wise but childlike elderly cousin. The three fictional ones, however, were excellent – emotional, certainly, but with an underlying feeling of truthfulness that I found sadly lacking in the autobiographical ones. Since it’s a short collection, here’s a brief idea of each story:

A Christmas Memory – here we meet young Buddy, as the child Capote was known, as he and his cousin prepare for Christmas. There is much baking of cakes and collecting of boughs to decorate the house, and so on. The impression is of a rather lonely child, living with elderly relatives because of some family problem. The elderly cousin, here unnamed, is dismissed by her siblings as somewhat simple, but to Buddy she has retained her childlike innocence and sense of joy in life. It’s beautifully written, but too sentimentalised to ring wholly true.

A Thanksgiving Visitor – now we learn that the elderly cousin is called Miss Sook, and that the family problem is the separation and divorce of young Buddy’s parents, each of whom has gone off to live his or her own life leaving Buddy in the care of relatives. In this one, Buddy is being bullied by a boy at school, and Miss Sook sets out to deal with the issue by inviting the boy to Thanksgiving dinner, much to Buddy’s horror. Buddy behaves badly, and is taught a moral lesson that will stand him in good stead for life. My contemporaneous note about this one contained the words “self-pitying” and “trite”.

One Christmas – in this last of the autobiographical stories, Buddy’s father decides the boy should spend Christmas with him in New Orleans. Buddy barely knows his father, and has to travel hundreds of miles all alone to stay with this stranger. We learn more about his parents in this one, and if true (and I have no reason to doubt it) they were a pretty appalling pair. Buddy behaves rather badly, and when he gets home Miss Sook teaches him a moral lesson, blah, blah, blah. This one tipped right over into mawkishness, leaving me feeling as if I’d seriously over-indulged in Christmas cake. I was glad to move on to the fictional stories!

Master Misery – this is a strange, sad and rather haunting story of a young woman who leaves her small town to come to New York, full of dreams of how wonderful life will be there. But of course it isn’t, and she finds herself in a dreary job with no spare money for fun. So when she hears of a man who will pay to have other people’s dreams related to him, she goes to see him. There’s a mystical edge to this, although it never quite tips over into the supernatural. It’s a kind of allegory on the difficulty of keeping dreams alive when faced with the harshness of reality. Beautifully written, emotional in a good way, and thought-provoking.

Children on Their Birthdays – the story of Miss Bobbit, a little girl who comes to stay in town. She dresses oddly and behaves like an imperious grown-up lady, and two of the boys in the neighbourhood are so smitten with her that their lifelong friendship is broken by their mutual jealousy. That’s where the story starts, not where it ends. The ending, in fact, is told to us at the beginning – Miss Bobbit dies, run over by a bus. However, the real emotion of the story is in the boys’ friendship rather than their feelings for the girl. It’s a wonderful depiction of the hormonal angst of teenage boys discovering girls for the first time.

Jug of Silver – this is probably the least overtly emotional story in the collection and a rather more cheerful one to end on. As a publicity stunt, the owner of the local drug store fills a jug with coins and promises to give it on Christmas Eve to the customer who guesses nearest to the total in the jug. A poor little boy called Appleseed is determined to win, but first he has to find the money to buy something in the store to qualify for a guess. He comes every day to stare at the jug, and says he’s counting the coins. The story itself is enjoyable, but the real interest is in the depiction of small town life, with some lovely descriptions of the preparations for Christmas.

Truman Capote

The whole thing reminded me rather of the Avonlea-based short stories of LM Montgomery: warm, full of moral lessons and with a love of small town life, and walking that dangerous tightrope between emotionalism and mawkishness. For me, Montgomery manages the balance better, and her insertion of humour lifts the overall tone. There’s not a lot of humour in this collection and a good deal too much self-pity. I feel harsh saying that, because if “Buddy’s” depiction of his parents is authentic, then he had some reason to feel sorry for his younger self, though it would seem he lived a pretty pampered life in material terms in comparison to the poverty of many of those around him. But he milks it too much for my taste, I fear. Overall, I gave each of the three fictional stories five stars, but the autobiographical ones only managed to scrape a generous three apiece.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Classics via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link – sorry, can’t find this edition on Amazon US

Inspector French: Sudden Death by Freeman Wills Crofts

More how than why…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Anne Day is delighted to be offered the job of housekeeper at Frayle, the home of the Grinsmead family. However, she soon discovers there are tensions in the household. Mrs Grinsmead seems mistrustful and suspicious of everyone. At first, Anne puts this down to a persecution complex but gradually she begins to wonder if perhaps Mrs Grinsmead has some cause for her worries. But Anne’s still not prepared for the tragedy that will soon strike. Enter Inspector French of Scotland Yard!

It’s a fairly small group of suspects who might have committed the crime – if crime, indeed, there were. (I’ve not said what happened because quite a big proportion of the book happens before the actual crime, and a lot of the suspense in the book is in wondering who the victim will be.) There are Mr and Mrs Grinsmead – she nervy and paranoid, as I’ve said, he attractive and superficially quite kind but really rather cold and selfish. Anne herself is something of an innocent, willing to accept people at face value but with an occasional flash of insight. Anne feels sorry for Mrs Grinsmead and soon becomes her confidante. Then there’s Edith Cheame, the governess of the couple’s little children, who, Anne soon realises, has very little concern for anyone but herself. The cook, the maid and the chauffeur round out what seems like a huge staff for a country solicitor, but of course they’re not important enough to play any role other than as witnesses. There are also various friends and neighbours who play their part, as well as old Mrs Grinsmead, Mr Grinsmead’s mother. (Lots of Grinsmeads and my spellchecker hates them all… 😉 )

Freeman Wills Croft

This novel contains not one but two locked room mysteries – one that is way too fiendish and technical for my poor mind to have had any hope of solving, and the other which seemed to me to be rather blindingly obvious; so much so, that I felt I must be missing something since I almost never work out how locked room mysteries are done. The perspective alternates between Anne and Inspector French, although all told in the third person. I enjoyed the Anne bits very much, since it’s through her we learn about all the various residents in the house and their possible motives. The French bits didn’t work so well for me, as they involve him painstakingly going over and over the technicalities of how the locked room bits were worked. That’s a subjective complaint, though – I’m always more interested in the why than the how in crime fiction. For people who enjoy the puzzle aspect of impossible crimes, I’m sure this would work much better. However, despite that, the book held my attention and, although I had my suspicions from about halfway through which eventually turned out to be right, I was unsure enough about it to still be in suspense until all was revealed. I must say I don’t think French covered himself in glory in this one, though – he seemed to take an awful long time to get there.

This is my second Inspector French novel and I enjoyed the other one considerably more. This is just as well written, but I simply didn’t find the story as interesting. I’m still keen to read others in the series though, and meantime recommend this one to the puzzle-solving enthusiasts out there.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 267…

Episode 267

Hmm, the new year splurging has begun. Only a little so far on the TBR – up 1 to 194 – but the wishlist has grown dramatically, and it’s mainly your fault. All these posts about books to look forward to in 2021, and best-of lists for 2020, not to mention recommendations for my challenges – frankly it’s all very stressful! I need a spa day…

Here’s another batch of ones I knead to get to soon…

Factual

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

Next up for my Spanish Civil War challenge, I suspect this is probably the best known book about the subject in the English language. I also suspect it might be too one-sided and polemical for my taste, but we’ll see…

The Blurb says: Homage to Catalonia is George Orwell’s personal account of his experiences and observations fighting for the Republican army during the Spanish Civil War. The war was one of the shaping events on his political outlook and a significant part of what led him to write, in 1946, “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for Democratic Socialism, as I understand it.”

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Review-along: Scottish Classic

The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn

A few of us have been discussing what book we could read as a review-along – i.e., those of us who blog will post our reviews on the same day, and those who don’t blog will post their opinions in the comments section. It came down to a shortlist of two: this, and Vanity Fair. So I’m suggesting we do both, though a few months apart. This one first, a highly rated Scottish classic from an author I haven’t tried before. Sounds great, though! I’m suggesting a review date of Wednesday 24th March to allow time for possible difficulties in getting hold of it. (If that date doesn’t work for anyone, let me know.) Rose and Christine are in – I’m hoping Alyson will be too if she hasn’t already read it (or fancies re-reading it). And anyone else who would like to join in will be very welcome – the more the merrier!

The Blurb says: The Silver Darlings is a tale of lives hard won from a cruel sea and crueller landlords. It tells of strong young men and stronger women whose loves, fears and sorrows are set deep in a landscape of raw beauty and bleak reward. The dawning of the Herring Fisheries brought with it the hope of escape from the brutality of the Highland Clearances, and Neil Gunn’s story paints a vivid picture of a community fighting against nature and history and refusing to be crushed.

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English Classic

Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

Another one from my Classics Club list. Margery Sharp is an author I’ve heard so many people around the blogosphere praise, and this will be my introduction to her work. I’m not sure it’s my kind of thing, but I have my fingers crossed!

The Blurb says: Cluny Brown has committed an unforgivable sin: She refuses to know her place. Last week, she took herself to tea at the Ritz. Then she spent almost an entire day in bed eating oranges. To teach her discipline, her uncle, a plumber who has raised the orphaned Cluny since she was a baby, sends her into service to be a parlor maid at one of England’s stately manor houses.

At Friars Carmel in Devonshire, Cluny meets her employers: Sir Henry, the quintessential country squire, and Lady Carmel, who oversees the management of her home with unruffled calm. Their son, Andrew, newly returned from abroad with a Polish émigré writer friend, is certain that the world is once again on the brink of war. Then there’s Andrew’s beautiful fiancée and the priggish pharmacist. While everyone around her struggles to keep pace with a rapidly changing world, Cluny continues to be Cluny, transforming the lives of those around her with her infectious zest for life.

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Crime

The Less Dead by Denise Mina

Courtesy of Random House Vintage via NetGalley. I’ve only read a couple of Denise Mina’s books and have thoroughly enjoyed them, so I have high hopes for this one…

The Blurb says: When Margo goes in search of her birth mother for the first time, she meets her aunt, Nikki, instead. Margo learns that her mother, Susan, was a sex worker murdered soon after Margo’s adoption. To this day, Susan’s killer has never been found.

Nikki asks Margo for help. She has received threatening and haunting letters from the murderer, for decades. She is determined to find him, but she can’t do it alone…

A brilliant, thought-provoking and heart-wrenching new thriller about identity and the value of a life, from the award-winning author of The Long Drop and Conviction.

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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?

The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan

Subtitled: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

My theory is that it takes at least fifty years before historians can tackle any period with the necessary objectivity to produce anything approaching “truth” – a term that will always be disputed in relation to history. Writers who lived through events are generally unable to avoid two flaws: firstly, they assume their readers are familiar with the people and events of the period and therefore often don’t explain them well enough for future generations; and, secondly, the closer to events a writer is, the harder it is to avoid personal bias and opinion from distorting the story. Having said that, Brenan does his best to avoid bias and for the most part does a good job, but sometimes it’s clear that, like most British intellectuals of the time, his sympathies were with the left, and he tends to forgive their excesses more easily than those from the right. A bigger problem for me, as a newcomer to the period, was that he often left me struggling to follow timelines, or to work out the political alignment or even nationality of a particular person – he obviously assumed his contemporary readership would know these things from reading the news.

Where Brenan excels is in his detailed breakdown of the background to the conflict, especially his explanation of why the various different regions in Spain developed differing political alignments dependant on local geographical, agricultural and industrial factors. While all were affected by the power plays amongst the monarchy, Church and military, he shows that the impact differed according to the economic and social history of each region. I found that I was gradually developing a map of the country in my mind, one that showed not simply where places were but what people did there – how they lived, were they wealthy or poor, who owned the land, was the land fertile, what were their local industries, and so on. He also shows how parts of Spain looked over the border towards Europe while other parts were still influenced by their Moorish past. This left me with a much better understanding not only of the drivers that led to the Civil War, but also, in fact, of the current demands for independence from some regions which are still part of Spanish politics today.

Book 3

He also delves into the rise of the various factions on the left, explaining why some turned to anarchism while others adopted socialism, etc., again showing how this arose out of local rather than national factors. Syndicalism, a form of trades unionism that was effective in industrialised centres, was less well-suited to rural areas, for example. He explains the Spanish form of anarchism well, making it seem like a reasonable idea rather than the kind of extreme bogeyman philosophy it tends to be seen as now. He does the same for the right, but it wasn’t so divided and so is easier on the whole to understand, and I suspect Brenan was more fascinated by the philosophies underpinning left than right, so he writes about them more deeply and interestingly. He also explains the rise of anti-clericalism, showing how over time the Church ceased to be seen as the champion of the poor and became instead the paid instrument of the rich and powerful, helping them to maintain social control, and thus leading to the hatred that would result in so many atrocities towards clerics.

On occasion, he has a tendency to state an opinion as fact without supporting evidence, or to generalise about the “Spanish temperament” or the “Spanish psyche”, as if they were uniform things, which is a bit odd since the whole book is proving that Spain was a deeply fractured society at the time, region against region, philosophy against philosophy. And it’s easy with hindsight to scoff a little at those things he got wrong, as, for instance, when he suggests that Spaniards would never accept a dictatorship and that Franco’s regime would therefore be short-lived. As a right-wing dictator, he seems to see Franco in the same terms as Mussolini or Hitler, but future history would show distinct differences in Franco’s approach, which is probably why he survived into old age. But predicting the future is always difficult, and he doesn’t go too far down that line.

In the epilogue, Brenan explains that he is writing too soon to give an account of the war itself. He mentions the atrocities and, while accepting that the left participated too, claims the number of executions carried out by the right were far greater – a claim that I believe is now considered less clear-cut.

Gerald Brenan

Despite the small flaws I’ve mentioned, I found this a fascinating and hugely informative read, that has left me with a much better understanding of what led to the rise of the various factions, and why the drive towards war became seemingly unstoppable. I highly recommend it – its classic status is well deserved. However, I was glad I had already read Stanley G Payne’s The Spanish Civil War first – because it is a more conventional history written much more recently, I had some prior understanding without which I may have found myself floundering too deeply at those points where Brenan assumed existing knowledge.

My thanks to José Ignacio from A Crime is Afoot, who suggested this one when I was looking for something to give me some background to the war – an excellent recommendation!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! Into the London Fog edited by Elizabeth Dearnley

A question of expectations…

🙂 🙂 🙂

An anthology of horror stories on the theme of London Fog sounds perfect – the porpy and I quivered in anticipation. The introduction is interesting, so long as you can tolerate the “woke” language, where words like “gender” and “other” are used as verbs. Dearnley discusses the “transgressive” nature of horror and how fog could be used either literally or metaphorically. It sounded a little to me like a compression of the discussion of how fog had been used in literature in Christine L. Corton’s book, London Fog, so I was glad to see that volume name-checked in this book’s bibliography.

There are fourteen titles listed in the index, although it transpires that several aren’t stories, but essays or extracts from writers such as Sam Selvon, Virginia Woolf, et al. Also, several – both stories and essays – mention fog barely or not at all, and occasionally barely mention London either. It’s a question of expectations – when an anthology is subtitled “Eerie Tales from the Weird City” and titled “Into the London Fog”, then my pedantic mind expects fourteen eerie, weird tales with something to do with London fog. Perhaps I’m being unreasonable. But the result was that I found this collection disappointing, even although there are a few good stories in it. Had it been described as a mixed literary anthology on the theme of London, I may have liked it more, though then I’d have been comparing it adversely to London: A Literary Anthology (another British Library publication), which does the same only better.

As always, here’s a flavour of the entries I enjoyed most (since I like to meet my readers’ expectations… 😉 )

The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen – this story about a woman returning to her closed-up London home during the Blitz is excellent – atmospheric, evocative and scary! I posted about it earlier in Tuesday Terror!

N by Arthur Machen – this lives up to the book’s subtitle, falling distinctly into the definition of weird. Three old men discuss a place in Stoke Newington called Canon’s Park. One tells of a man who saw it and described it as a place of great, almost impossible, beauty. But another of the old men remembers the place from his youth, and declares it to be nothing more than a district of streets and houses. The third man investigates, and finds the place is connected to strange and spooky events! Machen is a great writer, and here he gives some excellent depictions of old London and a tale that is odd, ambiguous and well told.

My Girl and the City by Sam Selvon – despite my annoyance at the inclusion of extracts and essays, I must admit I loved this piece. It’s a reflection on Selvon’s love of London, and the difficulty for a writer of finding a way to write about something that has already been experienced by so many and written about so often before. It is beautifully written – a love poem to his girl and to the city.

I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed loads of anthologies this winter, most of them from the wonderful British Library weird and science fiction series, and will be reviewing and recommending them over the coming weeks. This one didn’t hit the mark for me because it didn’t meet my expectations, but if the idea of a mix of horror and literary essays appeals to you, then it may work better for you.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Sovereign (Matthew Shardlake 3) by CJ Sansom

Conspiracy theories…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When King Henry VIII is progressing to York with his young wife Catherine Howard, Archbishop Cranmer appoints Matthew Shardlake to go there to assist in dealing with the petitions the locals will be making to the King. But Cranmer has another task for Shardlake while he’s there. Sir Edward Broderick is imprisoned in York, suspected of taking part in a conspiracy against the King, and Cranmer wants him brought safely back to London so he can be questioned by the Tower’s skilled torturers. Shardlake is reluctant – the idea of torture appals him – but when Cranmer gives an order it’s unwise to disobey. So accompanied by his assistant, Jack Barak, Shardlake goes. And it’s not long before he witnesses a man dying, perhaps by accident, but perhaps by murder. Soon Shardlake is sucked into a plot involving politics, the murky past of the Royal line, and the future of the Realm. And he’s in danger…

I loved reading this series and now I’m enjoying them just as much again as audiobooks. Steven Crossley does a great job again – his Shardlake is now how I imagine him sounding, and I’ve grown used to his Barak, though he sounds a bit older and gruffer than he did in my mind while reading. In this one there are lots of Yorkshire characters, and Crossley does them just as well. As always, there’s a huge cast, but he gives each one a distinct voice and manner of speaking, which I find a great help in remembering who is who when listening rather than reading. First rate narrations – a real pleasure to listen to.

Shardlake is now thoroughly disillusioned with Reform, having seen that the new regime seems just as cruel and unfair as life ever was when England was part of the Roman Catholic church. His faith has been shaken to the point where he’s not sure if he still believes in God at all, and he, like most of his countrymen, now sees Henry as a tyrant to be feared rather than a monarch to be loved. So his feelings about the prisoner are ambivalent – he doesn’t support the conspirators, but he understands their hatred of the King.

Meanwhile, Barak’s attraction to one of Queen Catherine’s servants means he and Shardlake are around the Queen’s retinue quite often, seeing things that Matthew finds deeply worrying. The young Queen is behaving foolishly, and that is a dangerous thing for a Queen of Henry’s to do. And a third strand is that Shardlake befriends an old lawyer who has had a falling out with his only remaining relative, and wishes to make up with him before he dies, which his physician has told him will be soon. Shardlake agrees to take the old man back to London with him and help him find his nephew.

As always with these books, it is long and slow, going deep into the way people lived in Henry’s England – both those at the top and those in the ranks below. The secret at the heart of the book, the one which causes all the trouble and puts Shardlake in danger, is based on a real rumour current at the time, muddied by a real prophecy which many believed (even though it was originally fictional). I won’t go into it any more deeply than that since that would take me into spoiler territory, but it gives the book a feeling of authenticity, which is what I always like about this series. Sansom, a historian himself, never produces a plot that feels anachronistic or as if it couldn’t have happened. And the blend between the historical characters and the fictional ones is so seamless I often have to check who really existed and who didn’t. That’s the one downside of the audiobooks – they don’t include the explanation Sansom usually gives as an end note, clarifying what is real and what he’s invented.

CJ Sansom

An excellent book, which again deepens our knowledge of Shardlake and our respect for him, and in this one we get to know Barak better and meet Tamasin, who will become a major character in the series as it goes on. It could be argued that the books get too long and could do with an edit, and I’d usually be arguing that myself, but I love the way Sansom shows us all sorts of stuff along the way that may not move the plot along, but builds up a full and fascinating picture of the time. In this case, the King’s progress takes centre stage and we learn all about the massive organisation that went into it – not as an info dump, but naturally, as Shardlake himself learns about it. And we are given a gruesome glimpse into some of the torture methods Henry’s henchmen employed – it’ll be a while before I make another dental appointment, for sure.

Great stuff – highly recommended, both book and audiobook.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A Surprise for Christmas edited by Martin Edwards

Ho! Ho! Aargh!

😀 😀 😀 😀

What better time to be thinking about murder than when getting together with your loved ones for some festive cheer! (Only 350 shopping days left – better hurry!) This is another collection of vintage crime stories from Martin Edwards and the British Library, each with a Christmas theme. There are twelve in the book, as always with a mix of very famous authors like Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and GK Chesterton, along with some that are less well known, to me at least.

And, as always, the quality is somewhat mixed, although there are no real duds and a few standout stories among them. I gave six of them four stars, while three got the full five, so I’d say this was a pretty solid collection overall. The stories I ranked highest all came at the end, which left me feeling much more impressed than I was, perhaps, halfway through. I felt it was a bit of cheat to include a Julian Symons story that had turned up in the Christmas collection just a couple of years ago, though, giving it a different title this time. But that will only matter to geeks like me who read all of the crime anthologies the BL produces, and it is a good story!

As usual, here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I most enjoyed…

Dead Man’s Hand by ER Punshon. A servant and his wife plan to murder and rob their employer. This is a very short and quite slight story, but it uses the heavy snowfall in an intriguing way to provide cover for the murderer, and gives a nicely dark picture of evil and guilt.

On Christmas Day in the Morning by Margery Allingham. On Christmas morning, a postman is run down by a car and killed. The police think they know who the men were who were in the car, but it seems they couldn’t have done it since the postman was in a different place when they drove drunkenly through the village. It’s up to Campion to work out if they are the guilty ones, and if so, how it happened. This is quite an interesting take on breaking an unbreakable alibi, but what lifts it is the insightful and somewhat sad picture of how lonely Christmas can be for those without families around them.

Give me a Ring by Anthony Gilbert (aka Anne Meredith). On Christmas Eve, Gillian Hynde loses her way in a sudden London fog and steps into a shop to ask for directions. Unknowingly, she has walked into danger, and finds herself kidnapped and held captive. The story is mostly about her fiancé’s desperate attempts to find her, with the assistance of Arthur Crook, lawyer and scourge of the criminal classes – and apparently a successful series detective back in the day. This is a nearly novella-length thriller, very well written, fast-moving and high on suspense, especially since both Gillian and Richard, the fiancé, are likeable protagonists.

The Turn-Again Bell by Barry Perowne. An elderly rector is waiting for his son to come home on Christmas leave from the navy. The plan is that the son will marry his childhood sweetheart on Boxing Day, in the Rector’s ancient Norman church. But there is a legend that each Rector will at some time hear the church bell toll just once on Christmas Eve and this is a portent that he will not live to see the following Christmas. This is a beautifully written, perfect little story, admittedly with no actual crime in it but with all the right messages for Christmas, and it left me with a tear or two in my cynical eye, and a warm fuzzy feeling of goodwill to all mankind. Can’t be bad, eh?

So a good mix of style and tone, with everything from high octane thrills to more thoughtful festive fare. And proves it’s not always necessary to murder someone to enjoy yourself at Christmas…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 266…

Episode 266

A major step towards achieving my 2021 TBR reduction plan this week – no increase! Admittedly, no decrease either, but one step at a time. Sitting pretty on 193…

Here’s a few I should be pulling out soon…

Factual

The Invention of China by Bill Hayton

Courtesy of Yale University Press via Amazon Vine. It’s so rare that Amazon Vine offers me a book these days, much less an interesting-sounding one. I have a feeling the author, who is a journalist rather than a historian, is going to have to work quite hard to convince me of his argument though, unless the blurb over-simplifies it…

The Blurb says: China’s current leadership lays claim to a 5,000-year-old civilization, but “China” as a unified country and people, Bill Hayton argues, was created far more recently by a small group of intellectuals.

In this compelling account, Hayton shows how China’s present-day geopolitical problems—the fates of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea—were born in the struggle to create a modern nation-state. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reformers and revolutionaries adopted foreign ideas to “invent’ a new vision of China. By asserting a particular, politicized version of the past the government bolstered its claim to a vast territory stretching from the Pacific to Central Asia. Ranging across history, nationhood, language, and territory, Hayton shows how the Republic’s reworking of its past not only helped it to justify its right to rule a century ago—but continues to motivate and direct policy today.

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Vintage Crime

The Port of London Murders by Josephine Bell

Courtesy of the British Library. Isn’t it a gorgeous cover again? However, it’s getting pretty mixed reviews so far. I haven’t read anything by Bell before, so this will be my introduction to her…

The Blurb says: Wapping. Tugs and barges on the river. A west-end shop that deals apparently in nothing but lingerie. Women who sell their souls for something in a little screw of paper. A doctor in the slums who has mysterious visitors …

In a mean street of dockland a woman is dead, with every sign of suicide …

A derelict barge casts part of a cargo ashore, boxes which have double ends: some of these box-ends are empty, others conceal pink chiffon nightdresses …

The river police are concerned with the smuggling, Detective-Sergeant Chandler with an apparent suicide which he believes to be murder. River and shore police confer. Sergeant Chandler visits his suspects once more. He is never seen again …

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Crime

Cemetery Road by Greg Iles

Courtesy of HarperCollins. I was really tempted by Iles’ last hugely successful book, Mississippi Blood, but as usual never found time to read it, so I was pleased to be sent a copy of this one. I actually thought he was a newish author but it looks like he has an extensive back catalogue and a large and loyal fan base. Will I join them? It’s nearly 600 pages long, so it’ll have to be good to keep my attention…

The Blurb says: Marshall McEwan is one of the most successful journalists in Washington, DC. But his father is terminally ill, and he must return to his childhood home – a place he vowed he would never go back to.

Bienville, Mississippi, is no longer the city Marshall remembers. His family’s 150-year-old newspaper is failing, and Jet Talal, the love of his youth, has married into the family of Max Matheson, one of a dozen powerful patriarchs who rule the town through the exclusive Bienville Poker Club. The city’s only hope of economic salvation is a new, billion-dollar Chinese paper mill. But on the verge of the deal’s consummation, two deaths rock Bienville to its core.

Joining forces with his former lover, Marshall begins digging for the truth. But he and Jet soon discover that the soil of Mississippi is a minefield where explosive secrets can be far more destructive than injustice.

* * * * *

Scottish Classic on Audio

Whisky Galore by Sir Compton Mackenzie read by David Rintoul

One from my Classics Club list. I vaguely know the story of this, I think from watching the ancient film version when I was a kid, but I’ve never read it. David Rintoul is a Scottish actor, so I’m expecting him to breeze through the islanders’ accents… 

The Blurb says: It’s 1943, and the war has brought rationing to the Hebridean Islands of Great and Little Todday. When food is in short supply, it is bad enough, but when the whisky runs out, it looks like the end of the world.

Morale is at rock bottom. George Campbell needs a wee dram to give him the courage to stand up to his mother and marry Catriona. The priest, the doctor and, of course, the landlord at the inn are all having a very thin time of it. There’s no conversation, no jollity, no fun – until a shipwreck off the coast brings a piece of extraordinary good fortune….

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

A new challenge for 2021…

Wanderlust Bingo

I loved the Around the World in Eighty Books challenge. It made me look for books I wouldn’t normally have gone for, many of which were great reads, and forced me out of my insular British comfort zone. I’ve been trying to think of a replacement challenge ever since I finished it. So here it is…

A bingo card with 25 boxes containing regions of the world, methods of travel and geographical features.

My plan is that for the first half of the year I’ll just wait and see what boxes I can fill from my general reading, and then towards the end I’ll frantically try to find books to fill in any missing squares! Any type of book will count – crime, fiction, science fiction, non-fiction. A country can only appear once, and one of the boxes will be filled by a book from my home country of Scotland.

If you fancy joining in, feel free! Otherwise, I’m hoping you’ll give me the pleasure of your company as I travel. 😀

Wish Me Bon Voyage!

People’s Choice: The Old Buzzard Had It Coming by Donis Casey

Cosy-ish murder mystery in Oklahoma…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Harley Day beats his wife, terrorises his children, fights with his neighbours and has fallen out with his relations, so when he turns up dead the general feeling in the little town of Boynton and the surrounding farming community is that the old buzzard sure had it coming! Alafair Tucker’s husband owns the neighbouring farm to the Days’, but Alafair wouldn’t have been too much interested in Harley’s death except that she has found out that her daughter, Phoebe, has been sneaking over to visit Harley’s son, John Lee, and the two youngsters appear to be in love. So when John Lee becomes the chief suspect, Alafair wants to know the truth – did he do it?

Set in the early 1900s in Oklahoma, this is a cosy-ish murder mystery with lots and lots of authentic-feeling details about life in a farming community at that time. Alafair and her husband Shaw have nine surviving children, ranging from little kids to teenage sons and full-grown daughters, and the prevailing feeling reminded me very much of the Waltons – they all love each other and get along; the kids are kind and respectful, and help their parents with the farm and housework; and they’re all very close, so that a threat to one is a threat to all.

I say cosy-ish rather than cosy, though, because there’s enough grit in here to keep it feeling real. We learn of the children Alafair lost in infancy, we see the poverty of the less fortunate members of the community, and we see how women’s lives are dependant on the will and nature of their men. Shaw is a lovely husband, who works hard, stays sober and enjoys nothing more than spending time with his wife and kids, so Alafair’s life is sweet, even though she works harder than a modern woman could possibly imagine just to keep her huge family fed and the household running smoothly. Shaw and Alafair have a modern outlook for the time (though not in any way anachronistic), allowing their daughters to be educated beyond basic schooling if they choose – one of the oldest girls has secretarial qualifications, for example.

In contrast, Harley Day is a vicious, drunken brute who neglects his farm, so his wife and family are poor and often hungry, to say nothing of the constant threat of physical violence. Although everyone knows this, there’s no real way to intervene – Harley effectively owns his family, and the idea of his wife leaving him would be scandalous despite his treatment of her, and anyway, how would she survive and be able to feed her many children?

Donis Casey

The book is fairly slow, but that seems to suit the story, set in a time when life itself was slower paced and things took longer – no quick phone calls, so if you wanted to ask a neighbour something you had to hitch up the pony to the buggy and drive a few miles over difficult roads and through bitterly cold weather. Casey tells us in detail about how Alafair feeds her family – a massive undertaking with no convenience foods – and how the weekly laundry wash gets done, and so on. But she does it very well, as part of the story rather than as an interruption to it, and I loved all this detail, while thanking my stars for microwaves and washing machines!

The mystery element is very good, although Alafair’s detection skills rely a little too much on lucky guesswork. There’s a good range of suspects, and the pacing, though slow, is steady, holding my interest throughout. Alafair’s method is simply to go and ask questions of various neighbours and townsfolk, and this lets us see how the society works. I didn’t guess the murderer, but found the solution satisfying and believable, and rather darker than I anticipated. I found the whole read enjoyable, absorbing and comfortably relaxing, and Alafair’s plethora of children means there’s plenty of room for more stories about her family in the future – I look forward to reading some of them.

Book 1 of 12

You chose this book for me in a People’s Choice Poll, and hurrah! You picked a winner! Well done, People – I knew I could rely on you! 😉

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Six Degrees of Separation – From O’Farrell to…

Chain links…

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

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. I haven’t read it but the blurb tells me…

Hamnet is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child. Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

All the glowing reviews of this have tempted me to read it, but I believe it’s present tense (ugh!) and for some unaccountable and pretentious reason O’Farrell has chosen to refer to Anne Hathaway as Agnes, which would irritate me profoundly every time she was mentioned. In my first choice of books, she’s Anne…

The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan. Shakespeare may get the title billing, and I loved his story as imagined by Morgan, but for me the standout feature of the book was the character of Anne – her love for Will, her fear of losing him, her strength to let him follow his driven path despite the cost to herself. She has to provide the strength that can make their relationship survive his absence, that gives him the freedom to be something she never fully understands. Will says:

‘You made Will Shakespeare, Anne. And without you there wouldn’t be a life, but the unformed shape of one, never to be.’ 

And such is Jude Morgan’s skill that this reader believed this completely.

Morgan introduces us to Shakespeare’s theatre friends and rivals, including Kit Marlowe, who stars in my next choice…

Crimson Rose by MJ Trow. It’s the opening night of Marlowe’s new play Tamburlaine Part 2 at the Rose Theatre and everyone is expecting it to be spectacular, especially the bit where they shoot the Governor. But as the guns go off, screams are heard from the audience and a woman falls dead, shot through the neck. This is a clever and funny mystery where Shakespeare is shown as a kind of hick just up from the country, while Marlowe is a 16th century James Bond. Great fun, especially the interactions among the theatre company.

More theatrical fun in my third book…

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. I adore the wonderful section when Nicholas falls in with the travelling company of actors under the headship of actor-manager and all-round ham, Vincent Crummles. Who could ever forget the Infant Phenomenon…?

.‘May I ask how old she is?’ inquired Nicholas.
….‘You may, sir,’ replied Mr Crummles, looking steadily in his questioner’s face, as some men do when they have doubts about being implicitly believed in what they are going to say. ‘She is ten years of age, sir.’
….‘Not more!’
….‘Not a day.’
….‘Dear me!’ said Nicholas, ‘it’s extraordinary.’
….It was; for the infant phenomenon, though of short stature, had a comparatively aged countenance, and had moreover been precisely the same age–not perhaps to the full extent of the memory of the oldest inhabitant, but certainly for five good years. But she had been kept up late every night, and put upon an unlimited allowance of gin-and-water from infancy, to prevent her growing tall, and perhaps this system of training had produced in the infant phenomenon these additional phenomena.

Moving away from fiction but staying with Dickens and the stage takes me to…

Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World by Simon Callow. A superbly readable and affectionate account of the great man’s life, viewing it from the perspective of how Dickens’ love for the world of the theatre influenced his life and work. Interspersed generously with Dickens’ own words, taken from his correspondence with friends, we get a real feel for his massive personality, his sense of fun, his unstoppable energy and, yes, his occasional pomposity too.

Simon Callow as Dickens

Simon Callow has often performed as Dickens, and he also appeared in the film Shakespeare In Love, set during the period when Shakespeare was writing Romeo and Juliet. My next choice is set in that same period, though that’s where the resemblance ends!

Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell. A new playhouse is opening in London and the owners are determined to make it a huge success. Actors are easy to get hold of but new plays are the magic that bring in the playgoers. Over at the Theatre, Richard Shakespeare is struggling to survive on the measly wages he receives. He’s getting too old to play women’s roles and his older brother Will won’t promise him roles playing men. He seems like the perfect target for the new playhouse – offer him regular well-paid work and perhaps he’d be willing to steal the two new scripts Will is working on – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. This is a light-hearted historical mystery, which may not be one for purists but gives a great depiction of how theatre operated in Shakespeare’s day.

Shakespeare wrote some pretty good plays, but I feel his main claim to fame is as the creator of the fretful porpentine, our very own star of Tuesday Terror! The porpy, who rather neatly comes from Hamlet, also turns up in my last book…

Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse. With sundered hearts all over the place, drunken uncles dressed in Sindbad costumes and pestilential Boy Scouts to deal with, it’s surprising that Bertie and Jeeves have time for a little literary discussion…

….Do you recall telling me once about someone who told somebody he could tell him something which would make him think a bit? Knitted socks and porcupines entered into it, I remember.”
….“I think you may be referring to the ghost of the father of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, sir. Addressing his son, he said ‘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.’”
….“That’s right. Locks, of course, not socks. Odd that he should have said porpentine when he meant porcupine. Slip of the tongue, no doubt, as often happens with ghosts.”

* * * * *

So from O’Farrell to Wodehouse via Shakespeare, Kit Marlowe, theatricals, Dickens, Simon Callow, and the fretful porpentine.

Hope you enjoyed the journey! 😀

New Year’s Resolutions aka…

…The Annual Failure Report…

It has become an annual tradition at this time each year that I look back at the bookish resolutions I made last year, confess just how badly I failed, and then, nothing daunted, set some more targets for me to fail at next year. So, let’s begin! I’m almost frightened to look…

The 2020 Results

I planned much of my reading at the beginning of the year, but events soon drove me into the mother of all slumps, so my good intentions were thrown by the wayside as I retreated into the comforting worlds of vintage and classics. That won’t stop me from planning ahead again this year, though! Failure is merely a state of mind…

1) Reading Resolutions

I planned to read:

a) 88 books that I already owned as at 1st Jan 2020. 

The Result: I read 52. This is bad. Very bad. Even worse than last year when I managed 60. Oh well, never mind! Might as well start off the way I mean to go on…

b) 8 books for the Around the World challenge.

The Result: Yay! I did it! I finally finished this challenge and loved doing it, so I count this one as a major success! 

c) 22 books from my Classics Club list. 

The Result: I read 12. This one all went horribly wrong! Not that I didn’t read classics – I did – tons of them. Just not the ones on my Classics Club list. I find as I get near the end of this challenge the books that looked so shiny when I put them on the list five years ago are now looking somewhat dull and tarnished. Must do better!

d) 6 books in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series.

The Result: Ooh, so close! I read 5, mostly in audiobook format, and thoroughly enjoyed all of them. So I don’t care that I…

e) 7 books for my Spanish Civil War challenge

The Result: I read a measly miserly 2! I have no excuses – I hang my head in shame.

f) 12 books for the Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge.

The result: I read 6. Despite reading a zillion vintage crime books, I failed to fit these in. I blame the British Library for sending me all the review copies…

g) 24 books first published in 2020 (minimum).

The Result: I only read (to the end) 20 new releases this year. Admittedly I also abandoned an astonishing 15 – mostly for being too woke or for sending me to sleep. Sometimes both. So my failure was not for want of trying! (Am I sounding defensive now? I think I am… 😂)

2) Reduce the TBR

I aimed for an overall reduction of 40 books last year. So…

Target for TBR (i.e., books I own): 165

Result: 193

Target for combined TBR/wishlist (which is a truer picture): 282.

Result: 280

WOOHOO!!! For the second year in a row I’ve met the combined target reduction! This is because I’ve continued to acquire loads that were already on my wishlist, while practising iron self-control to limit additions to the wishlist, with the result that it’s steadily decreasing.

Overall I read 112 books, which is the lowest number since I started recording my reading on Goodreads in 2013, and a lot of them were quite short! My page count was also down but this figure on Goodreads is never accurate since it assumes 100% of the pages in abandoned books and often assumes zero pages for audiobooks, so I tend to ignore it.

I didn’t set a specific target for review copies, but I took a total of 63 which is considerably down on the last few years, though still a bit too high. I’ve cut right down on NetGalley since I’ve found I’ve been abandoning so many new releases, but my favourite publishers have all been super generous with paper copies again this year, despite lockdowns! The number of unread review books at the end of the year has risen slightly from 24 last year to 26 this year.

Despite my see-sawing slumpiness throughout the year, and despite having failed at nearly every target I set myself, overall I feel good about my *ahem* achievements. 

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Resolutions for 2021

After this year’s dire failure to meet almost any of my targets I’m going to try to be a bit more realistic this year. There’s a lot of crossover in these targets…

1) Reading Resolutions

I plan to read:

a) 72 books that I already own as at today. Although I’m reducing the target, this is still higher than I’ve achieved in the last few years. Lots of the books in the targets below are included in this figure, so it’s not as bad as it seems…

b) 12 books from the People’s Choice Polls, where I reveal a few of the oldest books on my TBR and you, the People, choose which one I should read. I already have the last three you picked lined up to be read in the first three months of the year.

c) 18 books from my Classics Club list. I only have 18 left to go but I’m supposed to finish by mid-summer. I think that’s highly unlikely, so I’m extending the deadline to the end of the year. Doable.

d) 6 books in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series. These get chunkier as the series goes along, so this might be ambitious, but I’m enjoying them, so we’ll see… 

e) 8 books for the Spanish Civil War challenge. This is the year when finally I intend to get into this challenge properly. If not now, never!

f) 12 books for the Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge. I’m sticking with 12 even though I failed so dismally this year. Not sure that I’ll succeed next year either!

g) 36 books first published in 2021 (minimum). I’m really losing touch with contemporary crime and fiction, so am upping this target considerably and am going to make a determined effort to find books that appeal to me. They must be out there, hiding! I’m sure I can do this…

2) Reduce the TBR

Again I’m going for an overall reduction of 40 books this year. So…

Target for TBR: 153

Target for combined TBR/wishlist (which is a truer picture): 240.

If I stick to my reading resolutions, it should be easy… 

Wish me luck!

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A GUID NEW YEAR
TAE YIN AND A’!

LANG MAY YOUR LUM REEK!

TBR Thursday 265… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

I usually include a summary of how I’m progressing (or not) towards the targets I set myself for the year, but since I’ll be looking at my New Year’s Resolutions old and new tomorrow, I’ll leave that for then. So just a round-up of the books I’ve read and reviewed for my various ongoing challenges this time. Given that I’ve read almost nothing except vintage crime and short story anthologies for the last few months, this may be the shortest report in the history of the blogosphere…

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The Classics Club

I only read one from my Classics Club list this quarter, but I had three left unreviewed from the previous quarter…

69. Earth Abides by George R Stewart – An apocalyptic tale set in a post-plague world that may have been startlingly original when it was first published, but sadly bored me to distraction now. I abandoned it at 20%. 1 star.

70. The American by Henry James – The story of cultures clashing when a nouveau riche American businessman attempts to marry into the snobbish European aristocracy. I enjoyed this more than I expected to, and it has left me less reluctant to tackle some of James’ other novels. 4 stars.

71. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – The story of Willie Stark, an ambitious, high-flying politician in the Depression-era South, told through the eyes of his most loyal lieutenant, Jack Burden. Along the way we learn much about the corruption at the heart of American politics, but primarily this is a book about humanity in all its flawed imperfection. A brilliant book that earned a Pulitzer prize and the, arguably, even more prestigious accolade of being named my third Great American Novel. 5 stars.

72. Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald – A book full of narcissism and misogyny written by a misogynistic narcissist. Gah! I hated this and abandoned it at 32%. I did enjoy discovering that my fellow read-alongers all felt much the same way about it, though! 1 star, but only because I don’t have a zero rating.

So a very mixed bunch this quarter, but the brilliance of All the King’s Men made up for all the rest.

72 down, 18 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

Although I’ve read a ton of vintage crime over the last few months, none of them were part of this challenge…

40 down, 62 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

Oh, dear, oh, dear! Not only have I not ready any books for this challenge this quarter, I still haven’t reviewed the book that I finished reading back in July!

2 down, indefinite number to go!

* * * * * * *

Well, that was exciting, wasn’t it? 😉 I’m sure things will pick up in the new year – 2021 has to be better than 2020! Doesn’t it?? Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

Man Alive, number 5…

…or The Reading Bingo Challenge!

Another year draws to a close, so it must be time for… The Bingo Reading Challenge! I don’t deliberately look for books to read to meet this challenge, but at the end of the year it’s always fun to see how many boxes I can fill. Some of the categories are easy-peasy… others not so much. For some reason I didn’t do it last year, but I’d achieved a full house in each of the four years before that, so the pressure is on…

More than 500 pages

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens. This one is always an easy starter for me because of my habit of reading a Dickens novel over Christmas and the New Year. Barnaby Rudge is the story of a group of people caught up in the Gordon Riots of the 1780s. Not a favourite but still very good.

A forgotten classic

Something to Answer For by PH Newby. Is it a classic? Well, it’s over 50 years old – just – and still in print, so it qualifies by my broad definition. Its main claim to fame is as the winner of the first ever Booker Prize. The story is set at the time of the Suez Crisis of 1956, and I think it’s trying to say something satirical about the effect on the British psyche of the loss of the Empire. I think. Sadly it’s kinda incomprehensible and not very good…

The second book in a series

Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr. The second Bencolin and Marle book, and like the first, a great mix of mystery and horror. Rich financier Jérôme D’Aunay begs Inspector Henri Bencolin to investigate the death of his friend, Myron Alison. Alison died in Castle Skull, last seen running ablaze about the battlements. As the name suggests, the castle is the ultimate in Gothic, and so is much of the story.

With a number in the title

The Man with Six Senses by Muriel Jaeger. Michael Bristowe is a young man with a strange talent – he can sense physical objects even when they are out of sight. But is it a gift or a curse? In this vintage SF novel from 1920, Jaeger seems to be questioning if humanity can continue to evolve at all in a world where difference is shunned.

A book that became a movie

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. As a small band of guerrillas await the order to blow up a bridge, an American volunteer falls in love with a Spanish girl. A brilliant start to my sadly neglected Spanish Civil War challenge.

Published this year

The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd. Six intertwined stories show the effects around the world of the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. Some of the stories are fully fictional, while others are based on real people, such as Mary Shelley’s fateful trip when she would be inspired to write her masterpiece, Frankenstein.

Written by someone under 30

Braised Pork by An Yu. Following the death of her husband, as Jia Jia follows the steps of his final journey to Tibet, she finds herself drifting into a place where the lines between reality and dreams become blurred. An Yu was just 26 when this beautifully written book came out – makes you sick, doesn’t it? 😉

A mystery

Checkmate to Murder by ECR Lorac. Spoiled for choice in this category, so I’m going with a five-star book from one of my new favourite authors.  A foggy night in wartime London is the setting for this murder mystery which has aspects of an “impossible” crime.

A book with non-human characters

Dracula by Bram Stoker. Not only is Dracula the vampire himself non-human, but frankly the heroine, Mina, is so sickeningly perfect I began to wonder if she were an alien! I listened to the audiobook narrated by Greg Wise and Saskia Reeves, and their excellent performance carried me effortlessly through the boring bits slower sections.

A science fiction or fantasy book

The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray. When a rogue white dwarf star passes through the solar system, its gravitational pull affects the Earth’s rotation on its axis. Gradually over a period of years it slows, with days and nights lengthening; and then it stops completely, leaving half the earth’s surface in endless burning day and the other half in endless frozen night. Overlong, but well written and with excellent characterisation – a strong début.

A one-word title

Dissolution by CJ Sansom. One of Cromwell’s commissioners has been murdered at a monastery on the Sussex coast, and Cromwell dispatches lawyer Matthew Shardlake to investigate. The first book in this excellent series set in Tudor England, and a very enjoyable re-read.

Free square

The Mystery of Cloomber by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Since Dickens and Christie are getting mentions, I couldn’t leave out Conan Doyle – he’d have been so hurt! A mystery with a generous dollop of horror, a touch of Empire and some suitably inscrutable, scarily mystical Orientals – what more could you ask?

A funny book

Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse. Jeeves and Bertie, Florence Craye and Stilton Cheesewright, Nobby Hopwood and Boko Fittleworth, Uncle Percy and pestilential young Edwin, all gathered together at Aunt Agatha’s home in Steeple Bumpleigh. Need I say more?

My fave Jeeves and Wooster

A book of short stories

A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth by Daniel Mason. I loved this collection of short stories linked by subject matter and style rather than through the characters, creating a wonderful homage to the science fiction of the late 19th/early 20th century. That’s not to say the stories feel old-fashioned or dated, though. Mason looks at the subjects he chooses with a modern eye, thus ensuring they also resonate with a modern reader.

Set on a different continent

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad. In the harbour town of Sulaco, on the coast of the South American country of Costaguana, the silver mine of San Tomé becomes a bone of contention when yet another political coup is on the cards. Costaguana is fictional, but geographically it is based on Colombia. A wonderful book that looks at the destructive and insidious economic colonisation by capitalist countries of those nations whose resources they exploit and whose cultures they destroy.

Heard about online

A Month in the Country by JL Carr. I had never come across this novella in pre-blogging days, but over the last few years several blog buddies have reviewed it, usually in glowing terms. A young man spends a summer restoring a wall painting in an old church. Badly damaged by his wartime experiences, not physically but mentally, he will find a kind of healing as the long summer passes.

Non-fiction

The Brothers York by Thomas Penn. A very readable history of the three sons of Richard, Duke of York, two of whom became Kings of England – Edward IV and Richard III – during the period known as the Wars of the Roses. Plenty of treachery, betrayal and general skulduggery from these monarchs and their supporters – in fact, not unlike the vastly superior “democratic” leaders we have today…

A best-selling book

The Guest List by Lucy Foley. Published just six months ago, nominated for the CWA Gold Dagger and winner of the Goodreads Choice Award for Mystery and Thriller, and with 171,660 ratings so far on Goodreads, I think it’s safe to call this book a best-seller! Set on a rugged island off the coast of Ireland during a flashy celebrity wedding, sadly I wasn’t as enthralled by it as many others have been – when will the trend for these formulaic “that day” novels end? Not while they sell in the hundreds of thousands, I suppose…

Based on a true story

The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson. Largely autobiographical and set in Scotland in the 1920s, this tells the story of Janie, a little girl growing up among the women of the Lane, a place where the poor struggle to eke out an existence. Janie doesn’t feel neglected by her prostitute mother, but the Cruelty Man disagrees. A beautiful book, full of empathy for those on the margins, that challenges the reader to be slow to judge.

From the bottom of the TBR pile

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollingsworth. This had been lingering on my TBR since July 2012, and was the inaugural winner of the People’s Choice Poll, where I reveal some of the lingerers and you pick which one I should read. But it really wasn’t your fault that I abandoned it for being disjointed, unrealistic and frankly boring. I’m sure you’ll get better at this with practice… 😉

First book by a favourite author

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie. A long overdue re-read of Christie’s first book, and the first appearance of Poirot and the lovely Hastings. A poisoning, a country house, a selection of suspects and a dramatic dénouement – the intricacies of the plotting show the promise of her later skill and the book has the touches of humour that always make her such a pleasure to read.

A book a friend loves

The Go-Between by LP Hartley. This is a bit of a cheat because I didn’t read it because a friend loved it – instead, some friends read it with me, and happily  we all loved it! Leo Colston, as a middle-aged man, looks back to the year of 1900 when he was a child on the edge of puberty, spending a long golden summer with the family of a school-friend. A wonderful book, which I’m glad to say affected me just as much on this re-reading as when I first read it decades ago.

A book that scared me

The Weird Tales of William Hope Hodsgon. I don’t scare easily with books, but a couple of the stories in this collection had the porpy and me quivering, especially The Derelict, which tells of three idiots sailors who come across a derelict ship in the middle of the ocean and decide to board her… DON’T DO IT!!!

A book that is more than 10 years old

Lady Susan by Jane Austen. Again spoiled for choice but although not published till 1871 this was probably written around 1794, which makes it the oldest book I read this year. Lady Susan is a deliciously wicked creation who plots and schemes, and manipulates all the men around her who can’t resist her feminine wiles. Lots of humour in this comedy of manners, full of Austen’s trademark observational wit. A joy!

A book with a blue cover

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope. There don’t seem to be as many blue covers around this year, but I like this one. A classic swashbuckling adventure that introduced the world to the fictional country of Ruritania, this spawned so many imitations they became a sub-genre all on their own, of “Ruritarian romances”. Great fun!

* * * * * * *

Bingo! Full House!
What do I win??