A young man goes to meet an old friend who is returning to visit the neighbourhood where she grew up and he still lives. Aisha’s visit prompts Michael to think back to his childhood and teen years in the 1980s, when he and his older brother Francis were being brought up by their mother, an immigrant to Canada from Trinidad whose husband had deserted her when the boys were young. She is strict with the boys, with the usual immigrant dream that they will make successful lives in this society that is new to her. But she has to struggle hard to make ends meet, working several jobs, often having to leave the boys alone and usually exhausted when she finally gets home. So the boys, good at heart, have too many opportunities to drift into the ‘wrong’ crowd. When they are caught up in an incident of street violence, it begins a chain of events that will ultimately lead to tragedy.
This is a short book with no unnecessary padding, and its brevity makes it all the more powerful. It’s a story of how the immigrant dream can go wrong, but it’s not overtly hammering polemics at the reader nor too heavily making a ‘point’. I found it eye-opening, though, because I’d never really thought of Canada as having the kind of immigrant neighbourhoods described so vividly in the book.
Some of our neighbours have memories of the events that began with the shootings that hot summer. But new people are always arriving in the Park. And they often come under challenging circumstances, from the Caribbean, from South Asia and Africa and the Middle East, from places like Jaffna and Mogadishu. For these newer neighbours, there is always a story connected to Mother and me, a story made all the more frightening through each inventive retelling among neighbours. It is a story, effectively vague, of a young man deeply “troubled” and of a younger brother carrying “history,” and of a mother showing now the creep of “madness.”
Chariandy brings the neighbourhood of Scarborough to life, showing it as a place where a constant influx of immigrants from different countries around the world first settle when they arrive in Canada, seeing their life there as a stage on the road to either them or their children one day making it in their new world and moving on to more desirable areas. The city of which the neighbourhood is a suburb is, I think, Toronto, but really it could be any big city, in almost any Western country. There is poverty here, both financial and of expectations, and there’s the violence and insecurity that usually goes with that; and the exploitation of these incomers as a ready supply of cheap and disposable labour by unscrupulous employers. But Chariandy also shows the kindness that can exist among people when they all face the same problems and share the same dreams.
I found the portrait of the neighbourhood utterly believable, drawn without the exaggerated over-dramatisation that often infests books about the failure of the immigrant dream, making them feel like an unnuanced and often unfair condemnation of the host nation. Although this book centres on a tragedy, Chariandy also allows the reader to see hope – to believe that for some, the dream is indeed possible to attain; and this has a double effect – it stops the book from presenting a picture of unrelenting despair, and it makes the events even more tragic because they don’t feel as if they were inevitable.
There’s also a short section of the boys and their mother visiting Trinidad – her home, but a new country to them, full of relatives they’ve never met and a lifestyle that is as foreign to them as Canada is to their mother. Again beautifully done, Chariandy shows the freshness of the immigrant dream through the eyes of the Trinidadian relatives, who assume that the mother’s life in Canada is one of comfort and ease in comparison to their own, while the reader has seen the reality of constant days of struggle, hard, poorly-paid work and exhaustion.
We brushed our teeth at a pipe outdoors that offered only cold water. And trying to pee one last time before bed, I stepped on something hard but moving, an insect, prehistoric big it seemed to me, that clicked angrily and flapped away. Francis and I lay down on our mat, but when the lights were turned off, we couldn’t sleep. Wild creatures called in the dark, and the air was filled with the hum of insects, louder than any traffic we heard at home. The living room window framed a full moon that shone like a cool white sun, and billions of stars, a universe we had never even imagined.
An excellent novel, insightful, beautifully written, and with some wonderfully believable characterisation. And happily, unlike too much Canadian literature, available in the UK! Highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing.
Amy Kellogg and her friend Wilma are on holiday in Mexico City but it’s turning out to be a fraught time. Wilma, always moody and overbearing, is behaving even worse than usual following her second divorce. She’s drinking to excess and arguing with Amy on the slightest provocation. Then, following a drinking session, Wilma dies in a fall from the hotel balcony. Her depressed and emotional state leads the authorities to rule it as a suicide. Amy’s husband, Rupert, rushes to his shocked wife’s side, but when he returns home to San Francisco a week later, he returns alone. Amy, he tells her family, needed time to herself and has gone off to New York. But Amy’s brother Gill doesn’t believe his adored little sister would have gone off without telling him herself, and as time passes with no word from her, his suspicions grow…
Well, this is a little gem! Told in the third person, Millar lets us glimpse inside the heads of all the characters in turn but only giving us enough to tantalise our suspicions. We know that Rupert isn’t telling all he knows but we don’t know what he’s hiding. Is he a wife murderer as Gill suspects? If so, why would he have killed the woman he apparently loved? Gill suspects the age-old story of another woman and has his suspicions of who that woman might be. But if Rupert hasn’t killed her, where is Amy? It’s entirely out of character for her to have gone off on her own, this woman who has always seemed so dependant on others and so meekly subservient to the stronger characters she is surrounded by – her brother, her husband, Wilma. Increasingly desperate, Gill turns to a private detective, Elmer Dodd, and we follow him as he tries to find the truth.
The plotting is great, full of little twists that kept me puzzling over what had happened until the very last page. It’s more of a psychological mystery than a whodunit – the clues are all in the personalities and the things they do that seem out of character. The characterisation is brilliant – done with a light touch but no less astute for that. There’s Rupert’s secretary, nursing a crush for Rupert so secret she’s not even fully aware of it herself. Gill’s wife, long tired of Gill’s almost obsessively over-protective love for his little sister, is trying hard not to be glad that Amy has gone and is fighting against her instinctive hope that she never returns. The maid in the hotel in Mexico, she who listens through the walls of the title, might be a little stereotyped, but her greed and petty criminality are believable, her contempt for the rich Americans who stay in the hotel adds a good deal of humour, and her superstitions are used to give an air of real unease to some parts of the story. Elmer Dodd is excellent too. He’s a man who wants to know the truth but he’s not ruthless about it. He has sympathy for the weaknesses of human nature, and has a kind of warmth that makes people trust him.
This was my introduction to Margaret Millar after having seen her praised by various vintage crime fans around the blogosphere, and I’m very glad to have met her. A darkly twisted story, tightly plotted and lifted by some affectionately humorous character portraits and observations of society, not a word is wasted as Millar leads the reader through a labyrinth of suspicion and doubt. Great fun, and highly recommended – another author to add to my growing list of vintage crime favourites!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Vertigo.
So the first TBR Thursday of the year and the first report since I set my annual target to reduce the TBR by 40. Hmm. Well, I’m rushing to do this before the postman arrives because I fear the situation is going to deteriorate badly when he does. At this precise moment it’s up by 1 to 206. Could be worse… let’s face it, WILL be worse…
Here are a few that are at the top of the heap…
Grey Granite by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
The winner of the last Classics Club Spin is this, the third volume of A Scots Quair trilogy. I loved the first one, Sunset Song, and found the second, Cloud Howe, disappointing, so anything could happen with this one… fingers crossed!
The Blurb says: Chris Guthrie and her son, Ewan, have come to the industrial town of Duncairn, where life is as hard as the granite of the buildings all around them. These are the Depression years of the 1930s, and Chris is far from the fields of her youth in Sunset Song. In a society of factory owners, shopkeepers, policemen, petty clerks and industrial labourers, “Chris Caledonia” must make her living as bets she can by working in Ma Cleghorn’s boarding house. Ewan finds employment in a steel foundry and tries to lead a peaceful strike against the manufacture of armaments. In the face of violence and police brutality, his socialist idealism is forged into something harder and fiercer as he becomes a communist activist ready to sacrifice himself, his girlfriend, and even the truth itself, for the cause. Grey Granite is the last and grimmest volume of the Scots Quair trilogy. Chris Guthrie is one of the great characters in Scottish Literature and no reader of Sunset Song and Cloud Howe should miss this last rich chapter in her tale.
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The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar
Courtesy of Pushkin Vertigo. I’ve seen Margaret Millar mentioned by various vintage crime fans around the blogosphere, so am looking forward to trying her for myself…
The Blurb says: Amy Kellogg is not having a pleasant vacation in Mexico. She’s been arguing nonstop with her friend and traveling companion, Wilma, and she wants nothing more than to go home to California. But their holiday takes a nightmarish turn when Wilma is found dead on the street below their room-an apparent suicide.
Rupert Kellogg has just returned from seeing his wife Amy through the difficulties surrounding the apparent suicide of her friend in Mexico. But Rupert is returning alone-which worries Amy’s brother. Amy was traumatized by the suicide, Rupert explains, and has taken a holiday in New York City to settle her nerves. But as gone girl Amy’s absence drags on for weeks and then months, the sense of unease among her family changes to suspicion and eventual allegations.
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Braised Pork by An Yu
Courtesy of Harville Secker via NetGalley. I know nothing about either book or author but I thought it sounded intriguingly strange…
The Blurb says: One morning in autumn, Jia Jia walks into the bathroom of her Beijing apartment to find her husband – with whom she had been breakfasting barely an hour before – dead in the bathtub. Next to him a piece of paper unfolds like the wings of a butterfly, and on it is an image that Jia Jia can’t forget.
Profoundly troubled by what she has seen, even while she is abruptly released from a marriage that had constrained her, Jia Jia embarks on a journey to discover the truth of the sketch. Starting at her neighbourhood bar, with its brandy and vinyl, and fuelled by anger, bewilderment, curiosity and love, Jia Jia travels deep into her past in order to arrive at her future.
Braised Pork is a cinematic, often dreamlike evocation of nocturnal Beijing and the high plains of Tibet, and an exploration of myth-making, loss, and a world beyond words, which ultimately sees a young woman find a new and deeper sense of herself.
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Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin
This has been languishing on my TBR since September 2016, which is odd since I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the couple of books I’ve previously read from this author. This is the first in a quartet, of which I’ve already read the last one – yeah, must stop doing that! This will take me to one of my last Around the World destinations, I hope…
The Blurb says: ‘Can you ever come to terms with a missing child?’ Julia Davidsson has not. Her five-year-old son disappeared twenty years previously on the Swedish island of Oland. No trace of him has ever been found.
Until his shoe arrives in the post. It has been sent to Julia’s father, a retired sea-captain still living on the island. Soon he and Julia are piecing together fragments of the past: fragments that point inexorably to a local man called Nils Kant, known to delight in the pain of others. But Nils Kant died during the 1960s. So who is the stranger seen wandering across the fields as darkness falls?
It soon becomes clear that someone wants to stop Julia’s search for the truth. And that he’s much, much closer than she thinks…
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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
The Spanish Civil War is one of those periods of history about which I am embarrassingly ignorant despite the fact that it inspired so many writers at the time and afterwards. Sometimes ignorance becomes self-reinforcing – when I see a book about the Spanish Civil War, I avoid it because I feel I don’t know enough about the history to understand the book, and therefore I never learn about it. But having enjoyed my Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge a couple of years ago, I feel inspired to finally read myself into this period of history in the same way.
I’m going for a mix of fact and fiction, and am hoping to read a selection that will show me the war through the eyes of contemporaries and also retrospectively, through history and novels. As well as books by British authors, I’ll be trying to read some Spanish writers, though unfortunately I’ll be restricted to those which are available in English. I’ll be hoping to mix some lighter, action reads in with the heavier stuff as I go along. I expect my initial list will expand and change as one book leads to another.
I’m already conscious that the books I’ve selected seem to be heavily weighted to the Republican side, so if anyone knows of any good fiction from the perspective of the Nationalists, or indeed other good books from the Republican perspective, I’ll be grateful for recommendations. It seems to have been the accepted position of most British writers of the time that we should be on the side of the Republicans, but I have no real view on the matter as yet, not being a fan of either fascists or communists as a general rule, so I’ll be starting at least with an impartial eye.
Here’s my initial list, in no particular order:
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (fiction)
High in the pine forests of the Spanish Sierra, a guerrilla band prepares to blow up a vital bridge. Robert Jordan, a young American volunteer, has been sent to handle the dynamiting. There, in the mountains, he finds the dangers and the intense comradeship of war. And there he discovers Maria, a young woman who has escaped from Franco’s rebels…
The Battle for Spain by Anthony Beevor (history)
With new material gleaned from the Russian archives and numerous other sources, this brisk and accessible book (Spain’s #1 bestseller for twelve weeks), provides a balanced and penetrating perspective, explaining the tensions that led to this terrible overture to World War II and affording new insights into the war – its causes, course, and consequences.
In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda (fiction)
Natalia is hesitant when a stranger asks her to dance at the fiesta in Diamond Square in Barcelona. But Joe is charming and forceful, and she takes his hand. They marry and soon have two children; for Natalia it is an awakening, both good and bad. Then the Spanish Civil War erupts, and lays waste to the city and to their simple existence…
The Frozen Heart by Almudena Grandes (fiction)
Alvaro discovers an old folder with letters sent to his father in Russia, faded photos of people he never met, and a locked grey metal box. From the provincial heartlands of Spain to the battlefields of Russia, this is a mesmerizing journey through a war that tore families apart, pitting fathers against sons, brothers against brothers, and wives against husbands…
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee (memoirs)
Young Laurie Lee walks to London, and makes a living labouring and playing the violin. But, deciding to travel further afield, he heads for Spain. With just a blanket to sleep under and his trusty violin, he spends a year crossing Spain, from Vigo in the north to the southern coast. Only the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War puts an end to his extraordinary peregrinations…
Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom (fiction)
Madrid: Sept., 1940. Enter British spy Harry Brett, sent to win the confidence of a shadowy Madrid businessman. Meanwhile, ex-Red Cross nurse Barbara Clare is engaged in a secret mission of her own—to find her former lover, whose passion for the Communist cause led him into the International Brigades and who vanished on the bloody battlefields of the Jarama.
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (memoirs)
“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism…” Thus wrote Orwell following his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Here he brings to bear the force of his humanity, passion, and clarity, describing with bitter intensity the hopes and betrayals of that chaotic episode.
Homage to Caledonia by Daniel Grey (history)
Thirty-five thousand people from across the world volunteered to join the armed resistance in a war on fascism. More people, proportionately, went from Scotland than any other country, and the nation was gripped by the conflict. What drove so many ordinary Scots to volunteer in a foreign war? Here, their stories are powerfully and honestly told, often in their own words.
¡España una, grande, libre! Spain, one, great and free!
I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!
(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)
For the runners-up!
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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in
Like last year, I’ve been reading so many classics this year it hasn’t left room for an awful lot of modern literary fiction, and I don’t include classics in these awards. However, being forced to be choosier means I’ve thoroughly enjoyed most of the books I have read. I gave eleven books the full five stars, so the choice was not easy. And two of these could really share top spot, but since I’m not the Booker committee I’ll actually make a decision!
The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
In 1930s Malaya, young Ren was the houseboy of Dr McPherson until the doctor’s death. Before he died, the doctor gave Ren two instructions – firstly, that he should go into the employment of another doctor, William Abbott, and secondly, that he should find Dr McPherson’s severed finger and bury it alongside him in his grave. Ren has 49 days to complete this second task; if he fails, Dr McPherson’s soul will remain wandering the earth for ever. Meantime, Ji Lin is working as a dance-hall hostess, and when one of her customers becomes overly amorous he drops something – a preserved and blackened finger in a vial. And suddenly strange things begin to happen around Ji Lin – unexplained deaths and vivid dreams that seem to impinge on her waking life…
While there is on one level a relatively straightforward crime and mystery element to this, it’s shrouded in the folklore of the Chinese inhabitants of colonial Malaya (now Malaysia), especially as regards the mythology surrounding death rituals and the legend of the weretiger. I enjoyed every word of it – the characterisation, the descriptions of the society, the perspective on colonialism, the elements of humour and romance, the folklore, the eerieness and the darkness – great stuff!
After years of unsuccessful IVF treatment, Meg and Nate have given up their attempt to have a child, leaving Meg especially feeling that a vital part of her remains empty and unfulfilled. Her older sister Anna is home in Australia after spending several years working for various aid agencies in Thailand and Cambodia. At lunch one day, Anna introduces Meg to some friends who have just become parents via commercial surrogacy in Thailand. Suddenly Meg feels the hope she thought she had stifled come to life again. Anna is horrified at first but she comes to recognise Meg’s desperation and agrees to use her knowledge of the language and customs of Thailand to help her sister and brother-in-law navigate their way through the difficult path they have chosen.
Savage brings a balanced impartiality to the moral questions around the issue of paid surrogacy. I’m always afraid when a book is so clearly based around a moral issue that the author will slip into polemics, forcing her view on the reader. Savage avoids this by having her characters have very different opinions on the subject and letting them speak for themselves. An “issues” book where the author trusts the reader to think for herself, very well written, deeply emotional and, in my opinion, a very fine novel indeed.
Fleeing from her hometown of Glasgow in search of a better life, young Bessy Buckley finds herself more or less accidentally taking a job as maid at Castel Haivers, the home of Arabella Reid and her husband James, halfway along the road to Edinburgh. Arabella is young, beautiful and kind, and the affection-starved Bessy is soon devoted to her new mistress. But soon Bessy finds she’s not the first maid to whom Arabella has shown peculiar attention; in particular there was a girl named Nora, who died in circumstances that seem to cast a dark shadow over the household…
This is a take on the Victorian sensation novel complete with touches of Gothic horror, insanity, shocking deaths and so on. But what makes it special is Bessy, our narrator. She’s both feisty and vulnerable, strong but sometimes unsure of herself, devoted to but clear-sighted about the flaws of her mistress. However, it’s Bessy’s voice that is so special – a real tour-de-force from Harris in recreating an entirely credible dialect and slang for that place and time. Bessy is Irish originally, as were so many Glaswegians, and I loved the way Harris managed to give her language an authentic touch of Glasgow-Irish at points. Great characters, lots of humour, nicely spooky at points – a great read!
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak
Tequila Leila’s body is dead, but as her consciousness slowly fades, she finds herself drifting through memories of her life – the childhood that made her the woman she would become, her family, her loves, her friends. And along the way, we are given a picture of the underbelly of Istanbul, of those on the margins finding ways to live in a society that rejects them.
Despite the fact that the main character is dead, this is a wonderfully uplifting, life-affirming story. Time ticks down minute by minute for Leila, each marked by an episode from her life, often triggered by a memory of an aroma or a taste, such as the lemons the women used to make the wax for their legs, or the cardamom coffee that Leila loved. And as we follow Leila through her memories, we learn about the people who have had the greatest impact on her life. Her father, hoping always for a son. Her mother, a second wife married as little more than a child to provide that son that the first wife has failed to give. Her uncle, a man who will disrupt her childhood and change her possible futures irrevocably. And most of all her friends – five people she meets along the way who become bound together closer than any family, through ties of love and mutual support in a world that has made them outsiders. Beautifully written, a wonderful book that moved me to tears and laughter, that angered me and comforted me and, most of all, that made me love these characters with all their quirks and flaws and generosity of spirit. Could so easily have been my winner…
A former surgeon now acts as a general doctor in a small run-down clinic serving a population of rural villagers. Frustrated with the way his life has turned out, the surgeon is in a near perpetual state of disappointment and ill-temper. Then, one night after a long day when he has been giving all the local children their polio vaccinations, he is approached by three very strange patients, each with terrible wounds. They are a husband, wife and young son who were attacked in the street, robbed, stabbed and left to die. Which indeed they did. Now they have been given the chance to return from the afterlife, but before they come alive at dawn the next day, they must have their wounds treated or they will die again…
A beautifully written fable which, while it can be read on one level simply as a unique, interesting and very human story, has layer upon layer of depth, dealing with the big questions of life, death, faith, and the place of medicine in all of these. The whole question of the unknowableness of God’s plan and of the place of faith in determining how to act underlies every decision the characters are forced to make and, in the end, their humanity is all they have to guide them. Paralkar also shows the skills we take for granted in our surgeons – the near miracles we expect them to perform, and our readiness to criticise and blame if they fail. The underlying suggestion seems to be that we’re near to a point of refusing to accept death as inevitable, and what does that do to questions of faith?
Paralkar has achieved the perfect balance of giving a satisfying and thought-provoking story without telling the reader what to think, and as a result this is one that each reader will make unique to herself. One of the most original novels I’ve read in years.
(And yet… it seems to have sunk almost without trace, having garnered only 172 ratings on Goodreads as compared to Elif Shafak’s 5113. Suggesting that a Booker nomination is more influential than an FF Award – surely not! Get out there, people, read it, review it and force it on everyone you know… for my sake! 😉 )
An extremely difficult choice this year – both Furious Hours and 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World would have been worthy winners too. But this book just edged ahead in the final furlong – its originality, its profound humanity, and the fact that several months after reading it I still often find myself pondering over the questions it raises. One that I will undoubtedly read again – the highest accolade I can give to any book – and I’m looking forward with great anticipation to seeing what Paralkar gives us in the future.
Thanks to all of you who’ve joined me for this year’s awards feature.
I hope you’ve enjoyed it – I’ve enjoyed your company!
This shortish audiobook (2 hours 37 minutes) contains five ghost stories from the pen of MR James, narrated by the always wonderful Derek Jacobi. I do admire James’ writing style and usually find his stories enjoyable even although I rarely find them scary. I think it’s because he often tells them at a remove – a narrator tells us of something that once happened rather than us being put there while it’s actually happening, which prevents them from building any kind of atmosphere of tension. Quite often, in fact, we are told the end before we’re given the story. I’ve still read relatively few of his stories, though, so maybe I just haven’t come across the really spooky ones yet.
Since there are only five stories in this volume, here’s a brief idea of each:
The View from the Hill – an antiquary, Mr Fanshawe, visits his friend Squire Richards in the country. Fanshawe borrows a set of binoculars from his friend, but when he looks through them, he sees things that aren’t there, such as church spires that once existed but are long gone. Richards acquired the binoculars when he bought up some of the possessions of a man named Baxter after his death. It culminates with Richards’ old servant telling the two friends the story of Baxter and the experiments he carried out. It’s well told, but knowing in advance that Baxter died kinda spoils the tension, and nothing terribly bad happens in the present. I gave this one four stars.
Rats – A story that, oddly, isn’t about rats. A man is staying as the only guest at an inn. Out of nosiness, one day when the landlord is out, he decides to take a look into the other empty rooms on his floor. One is locked, but he finds a key that will open it. Inside, he sees something that scares him and swiftly retreats. But his curiosity is too strong – on his last day, he goes to the room again, and this time he sees… well, of course I’m not going to tell you! This one is lighter in tone and quite fun, but again not scary. Another 4 star read.
A School Story – two men are discussing the tradition of ghost story telling in public (i.e. posh) schools, and then one tells the other a real ghost story which happened when he was a schoolboy. The haunting concerns a teacher, Mr Sampson, who begins to receive odd messages in Latin, either via the boys or in notes. The messages seem to imply that if he won’t go to the sender, then the sender will come to him. And then one day the teacher disappears… Again, well told, but there is our narrator, safe and sound and old, so we know whatever happened he clearly wasn’t harmed by it. Four stars again.
The Ash Tree – ah, this was much spookier! Starting back in the late 17th century, Mrs Mothersole is condemned as a witch and swears revenge on the man who gave evidence against her, Sir Matthew Fell. He later dies mysteriously, as if from some kind of poison. For years, the room in which he died lies empty out of superstition. But now his grandson decides to sleep in the room, even although the window is shaded by an ash tree growing just outside, and despite being warned that folklore says that sleeping near an ash tree is unwise… I think the reason this works better is because it’s told in the third person and therefore there’s no foreknowledge as to what happens to the grandson. There’s also lots of nicely scary imagery and old superstitions and stuff. This one got the full five stars!
The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance – Told as a series of letters from a man to his brother and set at Christmastime. The letter-writer’s uncle, a rector, has disappeared and our narrator has gone to his uncle’s town to try to find out what has happened to him. I must say that I really had no idea what was going on in this one. It’s full of really quite effective stuff about a Punch and Judy show – a form of entertainment I’ve always found quite scary in itself – but if there’s a coherent story in there, I missed it. This is possibly because I was listening rather than reading – sometimes I don’t seem to concentrate as well in that format. I thought the imagery was excellent and there was a definite sense of dread and oddness about the whole thing, but I found it too unexplained to be satisfying. Jacobi’s performance was great though – he really shines best when the stories get darker. Five stars for him, but just three for the story, though I may read a print version one day.
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Overall, this is an enjoyable listen – not harrowing, and the inclusion of what is apparently James’ only story set at Christmastime makes it perfect for this time of year. The shortest story is about 15 minutes and the longest around 45, so it can be easily split over several short sessions or binge-listened in one evening. MR James is undoubtedly the ideal choice for people who like their horror to be of the mildest variety, and Jacobi as narrator is always a treat. Recommended.
Okonkwo is determined not to be like his drunken, feckless father. Through hard work, he gains an honoured place in his Ibo village as a yam grower with three wives and several children. As we follow what happens to him, we will learn about the ways and traditions of his people, and of how the coming of the white man changed them irrevocably.
If ever a man deserved his success, that man was Okonkwo. At an early age he had achieved fame as the greatest wrestler in all the land. That was not luck. At the most one could say that his chi or personal god was good. But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man say yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed. And not only his chi but his clan too, because it judged a man by the work of his hands.
The thing is that Achebe’s depiction of those ways and traditions are so appalling that I found myself completely on the side of the colonisers, not a place I either expected or wanted to be! The perpetual beatings of wives and children paled into insignificance when compared to the frequent killings for no reason at the behest of the many seemingly cruel and unjust gods worshipped and feared by the people. Centuries of farming tradition and yet they hadn’t worked out any methods of crop irrigation or protection, leaving them entirely at the mercy of the elements and of those pesky gods. The customs of deciding that some people should be treated as outcasts for no discernible cause and, even worse, of throwing twins out at birth to be left to die in the open made me feel that anything had to have been better than this. Come the colonisers, and with them education, healthcare, and a religion that taught of a loving god, gave a place to the outcasts and saved the lives of the abandoned twins – sounds good to me! And that makes me feel bad, because of course I really ought to be up in arms about the iniquities of the colonisers, oughtn’t I?
I really struggled for at least half of this quite short book. It’s quite repetitive and although it’s certainly revealing and, I assume, honest about the life and traditions of the village, there’s very little in the way of story. I must say Achebe surprised me, though. I knew nothing about him except that he called Conrad a “thoroughgoing racist” for his portrayal of colonisation, and I assumed therefore that he would show the Africans in a positive light. I admire him, therefore, for not taking that easy route and instead giving a very harsh and unromanticised portrayal of life before the colonisers arrived. I suspect his real argument with Conrad was probably that Conrad often leaves the “natives” at the periphery of the picture, as if they are merely props on a stage set for the star actors in his dramas, the white men, and I certainly would agree with that assessment though I wouldn’t agree that that makes him racist. Achebe reverses this, putting the Africans as the central stars, with the colonisers having merely walk-on roles, and this has apparently influenced generations of African writers ever since the book was first published in 1958, making them realise the possibility of telling their own stories.
The story picks up in the second half, once the colonisers arrive. We see the mix of missionary and soldier, one trying to change the Africans through the influence of Christianity, the other controlling them at the point of the gun. We see any form of violent resistance met with a wholly disproportionate response, and the newly installed justice system being used as a thin veneer to camouflage total dominance. We see misunderstandings caused by a failure of each to attempt to understand the other’s culture, and those misunderstandings often escalating to murder or massacre. Again, Achebe doesn’t make this entirely one-sided. While obviously the military might of the colonisers is by far the greater, he shows that many of the Africans are attracted to the things they offer, whether that be a better life or simply the pleasure that comes from being on the side of the more powerful, especially to those who have been treated as outcasts by their own society.
Through Okonkwo and the older villagers, we see their despair at the destruction of the old ways, and from a male perspective I could certainly sympathise with that. But from a female perspective, I couldn’t help but feel that the women would have had less to regret – on the basis of Achebe’s depiction, they lacked all political power and had little influence even in the domestic sphere, not to mention the accepted tradition that husbands ought to beat their wives regularly. (Not, of course, that that tradition was exclusive to Africans…)
“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”
I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoyed it, either for the very bleak portrayal of the life of the Africans, nor for any particular literary merit. It is well written but not exceptionally so and the structure makes it feel rather unbalanced, with what story there is all happening towards the end. What makes it stand out is the rare centrality of the Nigerian people in their own story, and the, to me, unexpected even-handedness with which Achebe treats both Africans and colonisers. For those reasons, and because it’s considered an African classic by the “father of African literature”, I’m glad to have read it.
The story of how two generations of an extended family live their lives in misery and strife, and then die, usually horribly.
By the time Cyrus was released from the hospital and the army, his gonorrhoea was dried up. When he got home to Connecticut there remained only enough of it for his wife.
I give up. In The Grapes of Wrath at least there was some glorious writing amid the misery, but here the writing ranges from mediocre to poor, with some of the most unrealistic dialogue I’ve ever read. The Chinaman who manages to convey all the worst stereotyping while supposedly showing how silly the stereotyping is. The ranchers who sit around discussing the meaning of the Bible, including varying translations of the original Hebrew. The spell-it-out-in-case-you-miss-it religious symbolism laid on with a trowel. The women who are all victims or whores or both. The casual racism. And the misery. The misery. Oh, woe is me, the misery!
First there were Indians, an inferior breed without energy, inventiveness, or culture, a people that lived on grubs and grasshoppers and shellfish, too lazy to hunt or fish. They ate what they could pick up and planted nothing. They pounded bitter acorns for flour. Even their warfare was a weary pantomime.
Looking at my notes for my first reading session of about fifty pages, I see that one man lost his leg in war, one wife died of suicide after contracting gonorrhoea from her adulterous husband, wife #2 is dying of consumption, one brother beat another to a pulp, and a father has gone off after his son with a shotgun. Admittedly no one could say nothing ever happens, but it’s hardly a barrel of laughs. At this point I was wondering if the rise in use of anti-depressants could be dated to the time when Steinbeck was included on the curricula of schools and colleges.
“Lee,” he said at last, “I mean no disrespect, but I’ve never been able to figure why you people still talk pidgin when an illiterate baboon from the black bogs of Ireland, with a head full of Gaelic and a tongue like a potato, learns to talk a poor grade of English in ten years.” Lee grinned. “Me talkee Chinese talk,” he said.
Then there’s the evil woman – you know, the one who destroys good men by tempting them with her nasty womanly sex stuff. Not that I’d call Steinbeck a misogynist, exactly – he really hates all of humanity. But his hatred of men is pretty much all to do with violence and greed while with his women it’s all to do with sex and with their little habit of causing the downfall of men. Not that the women enjoy any of it – by my reckoning at least three of them killed themselves, a couple contracted sexually transmitted diseases, several were beaten up by various men and the solitary “happy” one had a stream of children and spent her entire life in drudgery, cooking and cleaning and then watching her children go off and make a miserable mess of their lives.
The boys exchanged uneasy glances. It was their first experience with the inexorable logic of women, which is overwhelming even, or perhaps especially, when it is wrong. This was new to them, exciting and frightening.
Book 56 of 90
I do feel sorry for Steinbeck – I assume he must have had a rotten life. But I’ve decided to stop allowing him to strangle my hard won joie de vivre while emptying my half-full glass. I finished this one, and sadly feel that it wasn’t worth the effort – and boy, was it an effort! Into each life some rain must fall, for sure, but Steinbeck is a deluge. I’m putting up my umbrella, and writing Steinbeck off my TBR permanently. And I feel happier already…
There is great safety for a shy man with a whore. Having been paid for, and in advance, she has become a commodity, and a shy man can be gay with her and even brutal to her. Also, there is none of the horror of the possible turndown which shrivels the guts of timid men.
I’m back! As soon as the aliens caught sight of the assembled forces of Tommy, Tuppence and Porpy they fled back to their own sector of the galaxy, squealing! The Kpop stars have promised to stop dancing, and the sun has calmed down to a temperate glow. The world is safe! Well… for the moment anyway. The remarkable thing is that, despite everything, my TBR has gone up, by 2 to 215! My postman is clearly intrepid…
Here are a few more I’ll be unpacking soon…
Brothers York by Thomas Penn
Courtesy of Allen Lane via NetGalley. I thoroughly enjoyed Thomas Penn’s earlier book on Henry VII, Winter King, so grabbed this at the first opportunity. My knowledge of the Wars of the Roses really comes more from popular culture than actual histories, not least the notoriously inaccurate (but utterly compelling) Shakespeare plays. So I’m looking forward to learning about the facts behind the legends…
The Blurb says: It is 1461 and England is crippled by civil war. One freezing morning, a teenage boy wins a battle in the Welsh marches, and claims the crown. He is Edward IV, first king of the usurping house of York…
Thomas Penn’s brilliant new telling of the wars of the roses takes us inside a conflict that fractured the nation for more than three decades. During this time, the house of York came to dominate England. At its heart were three charismatic brothers – Edward, George and Richard – who became the figureheads of a spectacular ruling dynasty. Together, they looked invincible. But with Edward’s ascendancy the brothers began to turn on one another, unleashing a catastrophic chain of rebellion, vendetta, fratricide, usurpation and regicide. The brutal end came at Bosworth Field in 1485, with the death of the youngest, then Richard III, at the hands of a new usurper, Henry Tudor.
The story of a warring family unable to sustain its influence and power, Brothers York brings to life a dynasty that could have been as magnificent as the Tudors. Its tragedy was that, in the space of one generation, it destroyed itself.
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Dickens at Christmas
Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics and another for my Classics Club list. It has long been my tradition to read a Dickens over Christmas and, in fact, as soon as I am appointed Queen of the World by popular acclaim it will be the law that everyone must. This year’s choice is a re-read, but it’s years since I read it so my memory of it is vague. Almost as good as reading it for the first time! And I’m looking forward to reading the intro and notes in my OWC copy – I haven’t read any of the novels in their editions before…
The Blurb says: Set against the backdrop of the Gordon Riots of 1780, Barnaby Rudge is a story of mystery and suspense which begins with an unsolved double murder and goes on to involve conspiracy, blackmail, abduction and retribution. Through the course of the novel fathers and sons become opposed, apprentices plot against their masters and Protestants clash with Catholics on the streets. And, as London erupts into riot, Barnaby Rudge himself struggles to escape the curse of his own past. With its dramatic descriptions of public violence and private horror, its strange secrets and ghostly doublings, Barnaby Rudge is a powerful, disturbing blend of historical realism and Gothic melodrama.
* * * * *
The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs
Courtesy of the British Library. I’ve enjoyed the other novels from George Bellairs which the BL has previously issued, so I’m looking forward to meeting up with Inspector Littlejohn again…
The Blurb says: Jim Teasdale has been drowned in the Dumb River, near Ely, miles from his Yorkshire home. His body, clearly dumped in the usually silent (‘dumb’) waterway, has been discovered before the killer intended — disturbed by a torrential flood.
With critical urgency it’s up to Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard to trace the mystery of the unassuming victim’s murder to its source, leaving waves of scandal and sensation in his wake as the hidden, salacious dealings of Jim Teasdale begin to surface.
* * * * *
The Mystery of Cloomber by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Despite my life-long love affair with Conan Doyle there’s loads of his stuff I’ve never read, including this. Mystery, colonialism and shipwrecked Buddhist monks – what more could you possibly ask? Mind you, the spiritualism aspect is a bit of a worry – Conan Doyle did get a bit obsessed with it sometimes…
The Blurb says: What dark deed from the past haunts Major Heatherstone? Why does he live like a hermit at Cloomber Hall, forbidding his children to venture beyond the estate grounds? Why is he plagued by the sound of a tolling bell, and why does his paranoia rise to frantic levels each year on the fifth of October? With the sudden appearance of three shipwrecked Buddhist monks, the answers to these questions follow close behind.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Gothic thriller unfolds in his native Scotland, in a remote coastal village surrounded by dreary moors. The creator of Sherlock Holmes combines his skill at weaving tales of mystery with his deep fascination with spiritualism and the paranormal. First published in 1889, the novel offers a cautionary view of British colonialism in the form of a captivating story of murder and revenge.
* * * * *
NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?
I’ll be catching up with all your posts and comments over the next couple of days.
I’ve missed you!
Spookily, the TBR has dropped by two this week, to 213. I feel as if I’ve read very little so I can only assume they’ve been scared off the list somehow…
(My cats love this gif so much!)
Here are a few more I’ll be busting soon – hope they haven’t been ghost-written!
Blood City by Douglas Skelton
This is the first book in a quartet. I read and loved the fourth book a few years ago (I know, illogical, which proves I’m not Vulcan) and have been meaning to read the earlier books ever since. This has been on my TBR since 2016…
The Blurb says: Meet Davie McCall – not your average henchman. Abused and tormented by his father for fifteen years, there is a darkness in him searching for a way out. Under the wing of Glasgow’s Godfather, Joe ‘the Tailor’ Klein, he flourishes. Joe the Tailor may be a killer, but there are some lines he won’t cross, and Davie agrees with his strict moral code. He doesn’t like drugs. He won’t condone foul language. He abhors violence against women. When the Tailor refuses to be part of Glasgow’s new drug trade, the hits start rolling. It’s every man for himself as the entire criminal underworld turns on itself, and Davie is well and truly caught up in the action. But a young reporter makes him wonder if he can leave his life of crime behind and Davie must learn the hard way that you cannot change. Blood City is a novel set in Glasgow’s underworld at a time when it was undergoing a seismic shift. A tale of violence, corruption and betrayal, loyalties will be tested and friendships torn apart.
* * * * *
Vintage Crime Shorts
The Measure of Malice edited by Martin Edwards
Another anthology of vintage short detective stories from the wonderful British Library Crime Classics series. These may be a little less to my taste than usual, since mysteries that hinge on physical clues don’t usually work as well for me as those that depend on motive. But my lower expectations leave me hoping to be surprised!
The Blurb says: The detective’s role is simple: to catch the culprit. Yet behind each casual observation lies a learned mind, trained on finding the key to the mystery. Crimes, whatever their form, are often best solved through deliberations of logic – preferably amid complicated gadgetry and a pile of hefty scientific volumes.
The detectives in this collection are masters of scientific deduction, whether they are identifying the perpetrator from a single scrap of fabric, or picking out the poison from a sinister line-up. Containing stories by R. Austin Freeman, J. J. Connington and the master of logical reasoning, Arthur Conan Doyle, The Measure of Malice collects tales of rational thinking to prove the power of the human brain over villainous deeds.
* * * * *
The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown
From my Classics Club list. I think this sounds dismal and the words “postmodern alienation” send an apprehensive shiver down my spine. But my brother tells me it’s good, so I’ll either enjoy the book or I’ll enjoy bashing him over the head with it. Win-win!
The Blurb says: The most famous Scottish novel of the early 20th century, The House with the Green Shutters has remained a landmark on the literary scene ever since it was first published in 1901. Determined to overthrow the sentimental “kailyard” stereotypes of the day, George Douglas Brown exposed the bitter pettiness of commercial greed and small-town Scottish life as he himself had come to know it. More than this, however, his novel lays bare the seductive and crippling presence of patriarchal authority in Scottish culture at large, symbolized by the terrible struggle between old John Gourlay and his weak but imaginative son. Illuminated by lightning flashes of descriptive brilliance, Brown’s prose evokes melodrama, Greek tragedy, and postmodern alienation in a unique and unforgettably powerful reading experience. Introduced by Cairns Craig.
* * * * *
Now You See Them by Elly Griffiths
Courtesy of Quercus via NetGalley. The latest entry in Griffiths’ so far excellent Stephens and Mephisto series, set in Brighton. Up till now it’s been set in the 1950s, but this one seems to be taking us into the ’60s…
The Blurb says: DCI Edgar Stephens, Detective Sergeants Emma Holmes and Bob Willis, and of course magician Max Mephisto, are facing a brave new world: the 1960s. Max is a huge TV star in the USA, and life in Brighton has settled down for the three police officers.
The funeral of Diablo, actor and wartime comrade to Edgar and Max, throws the gang back together. A more surprising face to see is Ruby, Edgar ex-fiance, now the star of her own TV show. At the funeral Ruby asks Emma’s advice about someone who is stalking her. Emma is flattered and promises to investigate.
Then Ruby goes missing and the race to find her involves not only the old comrades but sundry new characters from the often bewildering world of the sixties music scene…
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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
Even the most kind-hearted of Robert Arthur Kewdingham’s family have to admit he can be quite annoying. Having lost his job in middle-age, he now spends his time on his collections of second-rate Roman artefacts and dried-out beetles, while telling anyone who will listen about his past life as a priest in Atlantis. Opinions on his wife, Bertha, are divided. Some, mostly the men, feel that her husband doesn’t deserve such a handsome, spirited wife and that he treats her badly. Others, mostly the women, feel that if she had any sort of wifeliness about her she’d shake Robert out of his eccentricities and back into the world of useful employment. Robert and Bertha live in a state of constant quarrelling, tired of each other, dissatisfied with their lives but unable to change. It’s a pity that Bertha is attractive to other men, and that Robert keeps a pharmacy-size stock of poisons readily to hand to treat his rampaging hypochondria. Things are bound to get nasty…
This is a lot of fun and a real step up from the only other Rolls I’ve read, Scarweather. It’s a kind of inverted mystery – we know a murder will be done, and it’s not too long before we can guess who the victim will be. But such are the divided opinions on this unhappy couple that several people could have reason to do away with either one of them. In fact, the question is almost one of who will murder the victim first!
The characterisation is excellent, not just of the awful Robert and Bertha (who got some sneaking sympathy from me even though I didn’t feel she really deserved it), but of the various members of the extended family. Robert’s old father lives with them and an unpleasant old codger he is, constantly reciting quotations to Bertha of how an ideal woman should behave. Uncle Richard is a decent man and feels Bertha has more to put up with than any woman deserves, even moody ones like her. Cousin John is firmly on Bertha’s side – too much so perhaps. The Poundle-Quaintons, mother and spinster daughter, feel it’s their duty to drop little hints to Bertha on how she should manage her husband better. And Robert’s sister, clear-eyed about her brother, does her best to befriend the unhappy wife.
There is much here to do with various drugs and poisons in use at the time. Robert’s genuine illnesses, topped up by his enjoyment of his hypochondria, mean that Dr Bagge is a frequent visitor to the house, partly as physician and partly as friend. Dr Bagge likes to make up his own medicines and tries to stop Robert from dosing himself up on quack preparations, with little success. Once the murder is done, the presence of all these various medicines and drugs will complicate the matter badly for the authorities, and there’s a good deal of wit in the way Rolls handles all the various effects and side-effects of the different poisons around the house, not to mention in how Dr Bagge views his patients as good subjects for him to try out his latest concoctions on.
The idea of living in this house full of rather unpleasant people is pretty awful but I must say they’re a lot of fun to watch from the outside. The mystery is handled very originally – usually with an inverted murder, in my limited experience, the reader knows who the murderer is, but here Rolls manages to keep to that kind of style while still keeping the reader somewhat in the dark. As a result, I found it much more of a page-turner as I really wanted to know who was the guilty party and how it would be proved. Vague, I know, but deliberately – this is one where it would be easy to give accidental spoilers.
Another very enjoyable read from the British Library Crime Classics series, and of course it has the usual informative introduction from Martin Edwards. Good stuff – I’ll be looking out for more from Rolls, though unfortunately he wasn’t as prolific as many of the Golden Age writers.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
After years of unsuccessful IVF treatment, Meg and Nate have given up their attempt to have a child, leaving Meg especially feeling that a vital part of her remains empty and unfulfilled. Her older sister Anna is home in Australia after spending several years working for various aid agencies in Thailand and Cambodia. At lunch one day, Anna introduces Meg to some friends, a gay couple who have just become parents via commercial surrogacy in Thailand. Suddenly Meg feels the hope she thought she had stifled come to life again. Anna is horrified at first – to her, commercial surrogacy is an exploitation of poor women in countries where their rights are already limited. But she comes to recognise Meg’s desperation and agrees to put her principles aside and use her knowledge of the language and customs of Thailand to help her sister and brother-in-law navigate their way through the difficult path they have chosen.
In Thailand, Mod feels the weight of family responsibilities bearing down on her. Her mother, younger siblings and most of all her little son, Puy, all depend on the little money she can make as a street-vendor, selling chicken. Then she learns that a friend is acting as a surrogate and being paid what seems like a small fortune. For Mod, the money is an important factor, but so is her religious belief that helping others will allow her to earn merit – a kind of spiritual savings account to provide an easier passage to reincarnation. Through the story of these three women, Meg, Anna, and Mod, the reader is shown the quiet tragedy of infertility and the complex morality around the question of paid surrogacy.
I shall start by saying that I’ve known the author via the blogosphere for a long time now, and know that this book has been a real labour of love for her over the last few years. Angela has previously written three crime novels, also based in Thailand, but this is her first venture into literary fiction. As always, I’ve tried my best not to let my friendship with her bias my review.
Most of the story is based in Thailand, a place Savage clearly knows extremely well. We see it from different angles, through the eyes of each of the three main characters. Savage shows it as a place of contrasts – rapidly modernising both physically and socially, but still with many people living in real poverty and holding to the old traditions. I loved the way she managed to be observational without being judgemental, and the insights she gave into the traditional culture and beliefs of the Thai people.
She brings this same balanced impartiality to the moral questions around the issue of paid surrogacy. I’m always afraid when a book is so clearly based around a moral issue that the author will slip into polemics, forcing her view on the reader. Savage avoids this by having her characters have very different opinions on the subject and letting them speak for themselves. The reader is then left with the task of using her own judgement on the matter.
It would have been so easy, and so lazy, to portray Mod as simply the poor third-world victim of first-world greed, but Mod is drawn with far more complexity than that, as is Meg. Mod is indeed treated as a commodity by the surrogacy agency, but her decisions are her own at every step of the way, and she sees this as a way to help others while also improving life for her own family. Savage does however show that in some cases the surrogates may have been pushed into it, by husbands or family, which obviously opens up an entirely different moral equation.
The embryo in this case is not biologically related to Mod or Meg; the eggs are from another woman, although the sperm is Nate’s own. This raises all kinds of questions regarding what makes a “mother” – is it the woman who donates the egg, the woman whose womb carries the child to term, or the woman who proposes to raise and nurture the child throughout its life? Savage handles these questions beautifully, raising them, exploring them, and leaving them gently unanswered. She also looks at the impact on the surrogate of giving up a child she has carried and birthed, and happily Savage doesn’t over-emotionalise this. She looks too at the fear of the adoptive mother of not feeling the same bond as she would to a biological child, and questions whether a child born in this way ought to be taught about the culture of her biological mother or her surrogate mother.
Many of the questions around surrogacy seemed to me to mirror the old debates around adoption, and we know that in most cases adoption works well for all involved. It is of course the question of money that raises the issue of exploitation, but is earning money this way better or worse than sex work, or sending young children out to work, or some of the other ways people in conditions of poverty have to sell themselves or their labour in order to survive? I must say I started out ready to be angry on behalf of the surrogates, but I came out of it much less sure of my stance.
This is also a deeply emotional read as we all wait with the three women, all of whom I had come to care about, to see if the procedure is a success. Even I, who haven’t a maternal bone in my body, was on tenterhooks throughout, hoping all would go well and dreading that it wouldn’t. Did it? You’ll have to read it if you want to know the answer to that. An “issues” book where the author trusts the reader to think for herself, very well written and, in my opinion, a very fine novel indeed. Highly recommended (and that’s not because I’m biased, but because it deserves it).
NB Angela kindly sent me a copy of the book all the way from Australia. Thanks, Angela, and congratulations! You even made me cry…
I’ve read lots of collections of vintage short mystery stories over the last few years, as publishers have responded to what seems to be a growing appetite for the style of the Golden Age authors. I’m always struck by how many of the major novelists of the period excelled in this format too, while it would appear that there were many other authors who more or less specialised in short stories. This collection of fifteen stories includes some of the biggest names of all, like Sayers and Christie, some of the authors who are currently being resurrected for a modern audience, like ECR Lorac and John Rhode, and some whose names were unfamiliar to me, though they’re probably well known to real vintage crime aficionados, like Helen Simpson or C.A. Alington.
Described as ‘forgotten’, the stories are previously uncollected and in several cases unpublished, so even those who have read quite widely in this genre will find some real treats here. There are two novellas – a previously unpublished one from Edmund Crispin starring Gervase Fen, and one from a writing duo I hadn’t come across before, who styled themselves Q. Patrick. Dorothy L. Sayers fans will be thrilled by the inclusion of a never-before-published Lord Peter Wimsey story, and Margery Allingham fans will enjoy her script for a radio play. Tony Medawar provides brief but informative literary bios of each of the authors, which throw up some interesting factlets, such as that “Peter Antony” was actually an alias used by the famous play- and screen-writing brothers, Peter and Anthony Shaffer.
This is one of the best mixed anthologies I’ve come across. There is the usual variation in quality, of course, but I gave 11 of the stories either four or five stars and found only a couple of them disappointing. And the five which got the full five stars are all great – they alone make the book a real treat. Here’s a flavour of them:
No Face by Christianna Brand – A psychic claims to be receiving messages from a bloody serial killer, known only as No Face. Is the psychic a fake? But if so, how does he seem to know where the murderer will strike next? This is excellent – it has a real atmosphere of creepy dread that is as much horror as crime, The characterisation of the psychic is very well done and there’s a delicious twist in the tail.
Exit Before Midnight by Q. Patrick – A group of eight people are trapped on the fortieth floor of an office building on New Year’s Eve as a murderer picks them off one by one. Carol is the central character and to add to her woes two of the men are vying for her attention. But could one of them be the murderer? Oh, and did I forget to mention? The lights have fused and they only have a limited supply of matches…This is novella length, with great plotting and real tension, while Carol’s dilemma adds a light element of romance to lift the tone. Loved it, and will be hoping to find more from this duo.
Room to Let by Margery Allingham – This is a radio script, so is given to us purely as dialogue with a few stage directions. It’s a first-class mash-up of a The Lodger-type story and a locked room mystery. Following a fire at a private asylum, a mysterious stranger rents a room from Mrs Musgrave, a crippled lady in a wheelchair. The stranger gradually gains control over her, her daughter, Molly, and their faithful maid, Alice. But… could he possibly be Jack the Ripper?? It culminates with a corpse in a locked room. The framing device is of the story being told years later at a dinner of detectives, whose spirit of competitiveness to solve the mystery gives a humorous edge to the start and end. Well plotted and highly entertaining.
The Adventure of the Dorset Squire by C.A. Alington – This short short story is a sort of country house farce and very funny. There’s no real crime but lots of screaming and confusion – great fun!
The Locked Room by Dorothy L. Sayers – Previously unpublished, it dates to the period before Harriet Vane began to infest the Lord Peter Wimsey books, allowing Peter the freedom for a nice bit of flirtation with a fellow guest at a country house party, Betty Carlyle. When the host apparently kills himself, Betty is unconvinced – she suspects the host’s wife murdered him. This becomes a problem some months later, when the wife decides to marry Betty’s cousin. So she appeals to Lord Peter to uncover the truth. Well plotted, the writing is up to her usual high standard, and the flirtation gives it a lot of fun. Yes, even although I’m normally an un-fan of Sayers, this one got under my guard!
If you’re already a vintage crime fan, then this is one to grab; and if you’re new to the genre, then you’ll find this a very enjoyable way to introduce yourself to some of the greats. Highly recommended!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.
This is a new entry in Oxford World’s Classics gorgeous hardback series, which so far seems to be concentrating on classic collections of short stories. Like most people, I know some of the Grimms’ stories from childhood, though in a bowdlerised version, and from Disney, pantomimes, ballets, etc. However, I’ve only tried to read the originals once before, in Philip Pullman’s version. He’d modernised the language horribly and tried to put in some archly knowing little jokes, and I disliked it all so much I only got about a third of the way through. So when I saw that this collection is a modern translation too, I was a bit apprehensive. Of course, I needn’t have worried – as always the OWC have treated the stories with respect and the translator, Joyce Crick, has done an excellent job of using standard modern English, making the stories easily approachable and enjoyable, while still retaining the sense of antiquity which gives them part of their charm. She tells us she has striven to return the stories as far as possible to the Grimms, by stripping out the layers that some later translations and adaptations have added over the years.
The book includes the Grimms’ Preface to the Second Edition where they explain how the stories were collected, from where, and that the point was to preserve the stories before the custom of oral storytelling died out. However the interesting main introduction, also by Joyce Crick, reveals that some at least of the stories were not collected from peasants but from friends of the Grimms from their own social class, recounting tales they had been told in their childhoods. Crick uses the introduction to supply some historical context to the stories, an insight into the then-contemporary drive to collect folklore, and to give some background about the brothers’ lives, while also looking more academically at the relevance of the stories to their own time and place.
While many of the stories could be shared with children, either to read themselves or to have read aloud to them, others may be less suitable, either because of some fairly strong images of horror or simply because of the more adult themes they contain. This volume is clearly aimed primarily at the adult reader, with the introductions, appendices and notes, and also because it lacks illustrations. Crick explains: “The present edition has no pictures, though its conversations have certainly invited them, taking place as ever between a princess and a frog, or a wolf and a girl in a red bonnet, or two frightened children in the forest, but also between a disgruntled fiddler and a Jew, and between a boy-giant and an officious bailiff. So this selection finds itself aimed at readers who once read these tales in their childhood, or had them read to them, and are returning to them late, apple bitten, naivety lost, in history. It was Jacob Grimm who spoke of a ‘lost Paradise of poesy’.”
There are 82 stories in the collection, including all the best known ones, like Rapunzel, Snow White, Cinderella, although sometimes not going by those names – here we have the originals rather than the versions that have developed over time. So Cinderella appears here as Ashypet, and we have the spirit of her dead mother sending her aid rather than a wand-wielding fairy godmother. But there are also lots that I either didn’t know or hadn’t heard for many years, so I found it an excellent mix of the familiar and the new. There’s humour, horror, lots of poor girls finding their Princes and even some poor men finding their Princesses, animal fables, morality tales, supernatural intervention and human goodness and evil. There are quite a lot of stories that repeat or echo other ones, but each time with enough of a different take to allow them to stand as individual.
I loved the retellings of all the stories I already loved – Rapunzel, The Singing Bone, The Tale of the Boy Who Set Out to Learn Fear (some great horror imagery and lots of humour in that one), The Tale of the Fisherman, etc. But I found lots of new favourites too, including Cat and Mouse as Partners (a timely warning of the perfidy of our beloved felines), Faithful John (horrific in parts, but they all live happily ever after, even the beheaded children!), The Three Little Men in the Forest (which I’m sure I’ve come across before but for some reason particularly enjoyed the way it’s told here), Clever Hans (lots of humour enhanced by some lovely repetition). And on and on… too many to list. There were very few I didn’t enjoy – a couple that felt unnecessarily cruel, like Sensible Elsie whose fate seemed rather worse than she deserved, and a couple which had rather ugly depictions of Jews – of their time, but didn’t sit comfortably with me in today’s world.
Overall, I loved this collection, and will undoubtedly dip into it again often. I heartily recommend it to anyone who doesn’t know the stories and would like to, or to people who are already familiar with them but would have their appreciation enhanced by the great extras always found in OWC editions.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.
This is the tale of Umslopogaas, unacknowledged son of Chaka, a great Zulu king. Chaka’s rule was that he should have no living sons to challenge him on their coming to manhood, so when any of his many wives gave birth, the baby was put to death. But Umslopogaas’ mother begged her brother Mopo to save her child, and Mopo therefore adopted the boy and brought him up as his own son, alongside his daughter, the beautiful Nada. As Umslopogaas nears manhood, he falls out of favour and is forced to flee, subsequently forming an alliance with Galazi the Wolf and becoming a chieftain in his own right. But he never forgets his love for his sister and dreams that one day they will be together again…
This can be a difficult read for a modern reader, given its portrayal of the brutal savagery of the Zulus. But if you can look past that, it’s well worth reading. It’s written entirely from the perspective of Mopo, Umslopogaas’ uncle, and white men play no active part in it at all, although there is mention of the increasing threat they represent to the Zulus. Chaka’s reign was a time of extreme cruelty and brutality – it is said, for example, that following his mother’s death he had 7000 of his followers killed for not showing enough grief. So Haggard’s portrayal has a firm foundation in history and apparently also in the legend and folklore of the Zulu people. What I found so surprising about it is that Haggard offers the story to his British readers non-judgementally – he presents this society as it is (in his mind, at least – I have no way to gauge its accuracy) and the characters judge each other by their own standards, not by ours. I imagine this must have been a unique experience for contemporary readers back in 1892, when it was first published, used as they would have been to seeing Africa and Africans via patronising colonial eyes. I must say, it’s still pretty unique now, in that Haggard has managed to create an entirely believable picture without projecting white people or their attitudes or values onto a story about Africa.
Chaka was a real person and many of the events in the book are real also. Umpslopogaas, Galazi and Nada are fictional, but Mopo is also based on a real man who was close to the centre of power in Chaka’s kingdom. In the book, Mopo is a witchdoctor, and there are some supernatural elements that we would now call superstition or even fakery, but which are accepted internally in the story as true. There is every kind of violence and brutality you could name – mass killings, infanticide, gory battles, ravening wolf packs and so on. Women, of course, are property and Haggard shows clearly their complete subjugation within society, but again without overt judgement. Nonetheless, a few women play an active role in the story, both for good and evil, and Haggard shows how they may have had no hard power but they could exercise some influence over their men, though in a limited way. This is a country where men die young, in battle or killed by their leader to prevent them becoming a threat, and where – as a result, I assume – polygamy is the norm. Again, no British judgement here – despite the central love story, Haggard never suggests that Umslopogaas will or should have only one wife. But he does show how tensions could arise amongst the women, as older wives found themselves pushed aside in favour of younger favourites.
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The story itself is told by a very old Mopo looking back, and he often foreshadows the future for the characters, so that the reader knows from early on that many of the characters came to a tragic end. As a tragic love story, in truth, it didn’t do much for me – Nada isn’t in it enough for me to have grown to care deeply about her, and Umslopogaas is too honest a portrayal for me to have found him truly heroic. I was actually fonder of Galazi the Wolf, who seems less personally ambitious and with a core of loyalty that’s in short supply in this society. Haggard has him loving Umslopogaas like a brother, but my twenty-first century eyes couldn’t help seeing his love as more intimate than that, and I’d love to know if that was Haggard’s intention. A Google search confirms I’m by no means the only person to have read it that way. Certainly, and this is a feature of Victorian British culture which I could easily believe would be part of African culture too, the relationships between the men is considered to be much more important than any relationship between man and woman, except perhaps the relationship of mothers and sons.
Lastly, I must mention the quality of the writing. Narrated by Mopo, Haggard maintains his voice throughout superbly, never allowing “white” attitudes or expressions to slip in. The violence and unvarnished brutality might put some readers off, but I found it a fascinating and ultimately credible depiction of the Zulus of Chaka’s time. This society is very different from our own modern Western one, but it has its own internal structure, rules and traditions, and the characters behave honourably or dishonourably within their own moral standards, not ours. If you can put aside your post-colonial prejudices, then there is much here to admire and enjoy – one of our more difficult classics in our current condition of hyper-sensitivity over questions of race, perhaps, but a true classic nevertheless.
Sanditon is a fictional little village on the south coast of England, and local landowner Mr Thomas Parker dreams of turning it into a health resort like its bigger neighbours, Brighton and Eastbourne. The current fad among the fashionable is for sea-air and sea-bathing, both promised to cure any number of ills. Mr Parker and his wife invite the young daughter of a friend to visit, Charlotte Heywood, and it’s through her sensible eyes that the reader sees the inhabitants of Sanditon, with all their foibles, kindnesses and hypocrisies.
This is known as Austen’s unfinished novel but it would be more accurate to describe it as barely started. We get a mere 70 pages – just enough to introduce us to some of the many characters and to begin to see the various plot strands on which Austen’s health never permitted her to follow through. It’s a pity, because it looks as if it would have been fun, and rather different from her finished novels. There’s a more cynical tone about it – the same bright wit but with a harsher, less forgiving edge. It’s not nearly as polished as her usual writing but that’s hardly surprising since in reality this couldn’t have been much more than a first draft.
It begins with the meeting between Mr Parker and Charlotte’s father, and we quickly see that Sanditon is an obsession of Mr Parker’s – he is determined to improve it, whether it wants to be improved or not, by building bathing machines and upgrading houses to be suitable for the fashionable people he hopes to attract. He has a partner in his enterprise – Lady Denham, the great lady of the neighbourhood, having inherited wealth from one husband, a title from another and a pack of relatives from both. Mr Parker’s extended family includes two sisters and a younger brother, all suffering from debilitating ailments according to themselves, or from hypochondria, as the more cynical might see it. There is another brother, Sidney, who, it appears, would likely be the sensible one and possibly a love interest for Charlotte, but I fear we catch only a glimpse of his handsome features before the fragment ends. We also know that new visitors to the town are expected, including a “half-mulatto” heiress from the West Indies, but again we are left tantalised but with our curiosity unsatisfied.
There’s a lot of humour in the portrayal of the Parker siblings, rather less subtle than Austen’s usual. There’s no knowing, of course, how the book would have developed, but I felt that it would probably have had a lot of filler added later – this felt very rapid for Austen as if she were getting down the main elements of the characters and setting up the plot, possibly with the intention of then re-working it to add in more of her delightful social observation. But perhaps she was trying a new style intentionally. The introduction by Kathryn Sutherland in my Oxford World Classic’s edition (which is about a third as long as the entire fragment of story) puts it in its historical context, in an England looking to the future now that the long Napoleonic Wars are finally over. Perhaps Austen was reflecting the new modernity and process of rapid change that tends to follow a long war.
Obviously it can’t be wholly satisfying as merely the start of a story, but I enjoyed reading it nevertheless, and had fun deciding for myself who would marry whom and be happy and who would be taught the folly of their ways and so on. I can see the appeal for people who like to have a go at finishing it, although I’m not sure there’s enough there to give a real indication of where Austen would have taken us. I’m delighted to hear that Andrew Davies is adapting it for television next year. He’s clearly going to have to come up with a plot since this fragment won’t be enough to make a TV series out of. I remember Alan Bleasdale adding in a lengthy backstory for Oliver Twist when he adapted that book many years ago, and while I enjoyed it I wasn’t convinced it felt like Dickens. I’m intrigued to see if Andrew Davies will manage to make this one feel like Austen. He is, of course, the man behind my beloved 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, so he certainly has the credentials. Meantime, I’m desperately avoiding all advance publicity.
If you haven’t already, you have plenty of time to read this before the adaptation comes out and invent your own story before Davies tells us his. Personally, I shall be very annoyed if he doesn’t allow Charlotte and Sidney a chance at romance… (if you know, please don’t tell me!)
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.
Well, if I’d written this little blurb yesterday as I should have done, I’d have been boasting that the TBR hadn’t increased since I last reported. Sadly, due to heat apathy, Mueller monosyllables and Boris bedlam, I’m writing it now instead… and the postman’s been! Up 3 to 227, and not a single one of them is made out of ice-cream…
Here are a few more that I should be reading soon if I don’t melt (a couple I’ve started already, in fact). I seem to be having a vintage week, by accident rather than design…
Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Snow White and Other Tales is the latest in their hardback range of collected short stories which I’ve been loving so far, both for the content and for the lovely books themselves, which are always much more vibrant and gorgeous than the cover pics suggest …
The Blurb says: The tales gathered by the Grimm brothers are at once familiar, fantastic, homely, and frightening. They seem to belong to no time, or to some distant feudal age of fairytale imagining. Grand palaces, humble cottages, and the forest full of menace are their settings; and they are peopled by kings and princesses, witches and robbers, millers and golden birds, stepmothers and talking frogs.
Regarded from their inception both as uncozy nursery stories and as raw material for the folklorist the tales were in fact compositions, collected from literate tellers and shaped into a distinctive kind of literature. This translation mirrors the apparent artlessness of the Grimms, and fully represents the range of less well-known fables, morality tales, and comic stories as well as the classic tales. It takes the stories back to their roots in German Romanticism and includes variant stories and tales that were deemed unsuitable for children. In her fascinating introduction, Joyce Crick explores their origins, and their literary evolution at the hands of the Grimms.
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One for my 5 x 5 Challenge from the wonderful William McIlvanney. So far I’ve loved everything of his I’ve read – will this one continue that trend? I haven’t read any short stories by him before. I wonder if they’ll be as short as the blurb…
The Blurb says: These are the stories of the casualties of social and emotional struggle, who defy defeat with humour, resilience, and inspiring faith in their dreams. The walking wounded. These are the stories of ordinary people.
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Another 5 x 5 Challenge book, and also one of my 20 Books of Summer. My reaction to Toni Morrison has been mixed – loved Beloved but wasn’t so blown away by Song of Solomon. Maybe that’s good since it means I’ll be approaching this one with more realistic expectations…
The Blurb says: On the day that Jacob, an Anglo-Dutch trader, agrees to accept a slave in lieu of payment for a debt from a plantation owner, little Florens’s life changes irrevocably. With her keen intelligence and passion for wearing the cast-off shoes of her mistress, Florens has never blurred into the background and now at the age of eight she is uprooted from her family to begin a new life with a new master. She ends up part of Jacob’s household, along with his wife Rebekka, Lina their Native American servant, and the enigmatic Sorrow who was rescued from a shipwreck. Together these women face the trials of their harsh environment as Jacob attempts to carve out a place for himself in the brutally unforgiving landscape of North America in the seventeenth century.
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Christie on Audio
I find these Hugh Fraser narrations are giving a new lease of life to all these Christies I’ve read and re-read over the years. This is one I don’t remember so well, so I’m looking forward to rediscovering it…
The Blurb says: An old widow is brutally killed in the parlour of her cottage…
Mrs McGinty died from a brutal blow to the back of her head. Suspicion fell immediately on her shifty lodger, James Bentley, whose clothes revealed traces of the victim’s blood and hair. Yet something was amiss: Bentley just didn’t look like a murderer.
Poirot believed he could save the man from the gallows – what he didn’t realise was that his own life was now in great danger…
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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
When night patrolman Sam Wood finds a dead man in the street, it’s quickly apparent the man has been murdered. It also transpires he’s a prominent person – Maestro Enrico Mantoli, a famous conductor who was organising a music festival in the town. The new police chief, Bill Gillespie, has never run a murder investigation before. In fact, he hasn’t much experiencing of policing at all – he was mainly hired because of his intimidating air of authority and his willingness to uphold this Alabama town’s resistance to change in the face of the Civil Rights movement. He orders Sam to check around for anyone who looks like he might be trying to leave town. When Sam comes across a black man sitting quietly in the Colored waiting room of the train station and discovers he has a sizeable amount of cash in his wallet, it seems the case is closed. Until the black man reveals his identity to Gillespie – Virgil Tibbs, a homicide investigator with the Pasadena police, who’s passing through Wells on his way back north after visiting his mother…
I seem to have spent a lot of time recently reading about the American South around the time of the Civil Rights movement. This book is fundamentally a crime novel with a very good plot and some excellent detection elements. But it’s far more than that – it paints an entirely believable picture of being a black man in a town that’s run by the whites for the whites at a time when segregation and racism were still entirely acceptable. It also takes us into the minds of the white people, though, showing how they are the product of their conditioning, and how they react when they are forced to reassess the things they take for granted about their own racial superiority.
(I do have one niggling reservation, about me rather than the book. It was written by a white man showing the perspective of a black man in the American South, and I am a white Scotswoman, so although it rings wholly true to me, I can’t help feeling I’m not the best person to judge the portrayals of either race in that place and time. That said, on with the review!)
Gillespie is prevailed upon by his superiors to bring Tibbs in on the investigation. He has mixed feelings about it – on the one hand, he doesn’t want to be shown up by a despised black man; on the other hand, if the case isn’t solved, then he can blame Tibbs. Sam Wood ends up as a sort of unofficial partner to Tibbs, and although he’s a much nicer man than Gillespie, he too has to fight his repugnance to treating a black man as in any way equal. There are all sorts of subtle nuances that show how pervasive racism is in this society, like the white people all calling Tibbs Virgil, while he is supposed to refer to them by their title and surname, or like Sam’s unease at Tibbs sitting in the front seat of their car.
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In fact, Tibbs is the one who is most at ease with himself and with the situation. He grew up in the South, knows the rules and conforms to them, never arguing about being forced to use the Colored washroom or not being allowed to eat in the diner, nor openly objecting to the overt racist language directed at him. But he’s worked in California, a place where racism still exists for sure, but not in this formalised, legally endorsed way. While the white men think they’re superior to Tibbs because of their race, Tibbs is well aware of his own superiority in training and experience. But he’s human enough to need to prove it, so he’s driven to stay and solve the case rather than taking the easy option of simply getting on the next train out of town.
The plot itself is very good, and the investigation takes us through all the levels in this society from rich to poor, from the cultural leaders involved in setting up the music festival, to the political class, increasingly divided between the socially conservative and the more liberal elements, to the poor people trying to scratch a living in a town that has lost its biggest employer and is struggling to find a new purpose.
But it’s undoubtedly the characterisation that makes this one special. Tibbs himself is likeable, a hero it’s easy to root for. Woods and Gillespie are more complex and they each grow and learn over the course of the investigation, about police-work but also about themselves. It avoids a saccharine wholesale conversion to woolly brotherhood-of-man liberalism on their parts, but gives hope that people and society can change, given patience and the right circumstances.
An excellent book that deserves its status as a classic of the genre – well written and plotted, and insightful about race and class at a moment of change. Highly recommended.
Since this is the 200th TBR Thursday post I’ve done on the blog, I thought instead of listing the next four books I intend to read as usual, I’d take you on a little tour of some of the dark alleys and hidden byways of my ever-expanding TBR.
My TBR is made up of books I own but haven’t yet read, plus a tiny sprinkling of books I’d like to re-read in the near future.
The current total…
It’s gone up again while I’ve been on hiatus to 222! One simply never knows when a book avalanche might occur!
I’d like to reduce the total not because of a simple numbers game, but because there are lots of potentially great books on it I’d really like to read but keep shoving aside in favour of new releases, which often turn out to be less than stellar. Under my gradual reduction plan, I want to get down to 185 by the end of this year, mostly by severely controlling the numbers of books I buy or accept for review. It’s possible…
I usually only acquire factual books and sci-fi and horror books when I intend to read them, so there are never many lingering on the list. Crime and fiction are a different story…
Romance (eh?)………… 1 (How did that get on there?)
198 of the books are Kindle, and only 24 paper! Thank goodness – I’d need a bigger house if they were all paper copies…
The oldest book…
The Observations by Jane Harris, which I acquired on 20/6/2011. I can’t remember why I went for it now, but I still think it sounds good.
The Blurb says: Scotland, 1863. In an attempt to escape her past, Bessy Buckley takes a job working as a maid in a big country house. But when Arabella, her beautiful mistress, asks her to undertake a series of bizarre tasks, Bessy begins to realise that she hasn’t quite landed on her feet. In one of the most acclaimed debuts of recent years, Jane Harris has created a heroine who will make you laugh and cry as she narrates this unforgettable story about secrets and suspicions and the redemptive power of love and friendship.
However, I’ve scheduled it as one of my 20 Books of Summer, so it should finally escape from the list soon! Then the oldest one will be The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst – acquired on 29/7/2012.
Again, no idea why, and this one doesn’t appeal to me much now. Plus it’s very long! So it may linger on the list for a while longer.
The Blurb says: In the late summer of 1913, George Sawle brings his Cambridge schoolmate – a handsome, aristocratic young poet named Cecil Valance – to his family’s modest home outside London for the weekend. George is enthralled by Cecil, and soon his sixteen-year-old sister, Daphne, is equally besotted by him and the stories he tells about Corley Court, the country estate he is heir to. But what Cecil writes in Daphne’s autograph album will change their and their families’ lives forever: a poem that, after Cecil is killed in the Great War and his reputation burnished, will become a touchstone for a generation, a work recited by every schoolchild in England. Over time, a tragic love story is spun, even as other secrets lie buried – until, decades later, an ambitious biographer threatens to unearth them.
The newest book…
Books, actually, since I received a delectable parcel of mouth-watering delights from the lovely people at the British Library only yesterday. Vintage crime, vintage horror, vintage sci-fi – FF heaven! What was I saying about cutting back on review copies…??
The review copies…
Currently 22 26 outstanding which, due to my exercising iron self-control at the moment, is was the lowest it’s been for about three years. The oldest review copy, I’m ashamed to say, is Soft Summer Blood by Peter Helton, which I acquired from NetGalley on 01/04/16. I’ve read and enjoyed his books before too, so I have no excuse.
The newest review copy (before yesterday’s parcel) is Snow White and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm – a recent addition to the Oxford World’s Classics gorgeous hardback series, which popped through my letterbox unexpectedly on 15/5/19. (These covers never look good on the blog but in real life they’re vibrant and gorgeous…)
The 200th book on the list…
Lots of my more recent acquisitions are for one or another of my ongoing challenges – I’m trying to get out of the habit of random book-buying till I feel more in control of the backlog on the TBR. The 200th book is Tracks in the Snow by Godfrey R Benson, one for my Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge, acquired on 16/3/19.
The books I most want to read and can’t understand why I don’t just do it…
(I’ve excluded ones I’ve scheduled for the next few months.)
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Hope you enjoyed the guided tour of my TBR! I’d love to look round yours, if you fancy answering the questions either on your blog or in the comments below.
Catherine Glover, generally known as the Fair Maid of her hometown of Perth, is beloved by the town’s famed armourer, Henry Smith of the Wynd. But she has also caught the eye of the pleasure loving and dissolute Earl of Rothsay*, eldest son and heir to King Robert III. On St Valentine’s Day, these men will both try to win Catherine, one honourably, one dishonourably, setting in motion a chain of events that will involve the citizens of Perth in the high politics and treacheries of the nobility, and the wild feuds of the Highland clans which inhabit the land to the north of the Fair City.
I first read this book as a young teenager back in the Dark Ages and remembered nothing about it except that I loved it. Since then I’ve read a fair amount of Scott, with varying levels of appreciation. Most recently, I read and was rather disappointed by what is probably his most famous work, Waverley, and wondered if I had simply fallen out of love with Scott’s style over the years. Not so! This book, in my opinion, is vastly superior to Waverley, having all of its strengths and none of its weaknesses. It’s a top rank historical novel that deserves to be more widely read, and is undoubtedly the book I would recommend to people coming to Scott for the first time. It’s written almost entirely in standard English (none of the annoying Latin, French and Gaelic which pepper Waverley) so is easily accessible to the modern reader. And it’s as powerful in its way as A Tale of Two Cities, with a deep understanding of the history and politics of the time but also, more importantly, of the workings of the human heart and mind.
The period is the tail end of the 14th century, when Scotland was in name one nation under one monarch, but where the Highlands clans operated as separate fiefdoms and were a constant threat to the peace of the nation from the north. At the southern border, Scotland and England were in a perpetual state of enmity – sometimes warring, sometimes skirmishing, but never truly at peace. It’s a period about which I know very little, but didn’t need to – Scott gives all the information that the reader needs to understand the plot without bogging the book down in unnecessary historical detail. He actually shortens the timeline, compressing various events that happened at different times to bring them together into his story, but he manages to do this without seriously distorting the underlying significance of them. In Scott’s story, events that in real time took place over a decade or so happen in a period of weeks, starting on St Valentine’s Day and ending on Palm Sunday.
“True — true,” said the monarch, reseating himself; “more violence — more battle. Oh, Scotland! Scotland! if the best blood of thy bravest children could enrich thy barren soil, what land on earth would excel thee in fertility! When is it that a white hair is seen on the beard of a Scottishman, unless he be some wretch like thy sovereign, protected from murder by impotence, to witness the scenes of slaughter to which he cannot put a period? Let them come in, delay them not. They are in haste to kill, and, grudge each other each fresh breath of their Creator’s blessed air. The demon of strife and slaughter hath possessed the whole land!”
Scott tells the story in the third person, taking the reader in turn to the various participants, so that sometimes we are in the presence of the weak King Robert and his nobles, all scheming and jostling for power; sometimes we are with Rothsay and his disreputable followers, taking their pleasure at the expense of the decent burghers of Perth; and mostly we’re with those burghers – Henry, Catherine, her father Simon Glover and various other townspeople, as they try to live honest Christian lives in a time when security was scarce and men had to be willing to fight for their own safety and to protect the women they loved. Later, we spend time with the Highland clans, seeing how they lived (perhaps – Scott has a reputation for creating the modern image of the clans from his imagination, but it rings true enough for this reader).
There are lots of great characters in the novel. Henry is a famed fighter, trying to tame his warring nature for the sake of peace-loving Catherine. Through her, we get a glimpse at the state of the Church, with the first hints of the Reformation to come and with the fear of being accused of heresy ever present. Simon is a good and decent man, and a loving father. Conachar, the young Highland boy who is his apprentice, allows us to see the attitudes of the townspeople to their wild Highland neighbours. The Royals are excellent – poor Robert III, who means well but is ineffective as either King or father, his scheming and disloyal brother Albany and the feuding Earls of March and Douglas, each given extraordinary power due to the weakness of the King. Rothsay’s followers include some great baddies – Ramorny, who has a personal reason to want vengeance against Henry; Bonthron, Ramorny’s beast-like assassin; and the marvellous Henbane Dwining, a skilled physician who uses his arts for evil as well as for good and is deliciously sinister and manipulative.
“There is no room for pardon where offence must not be taken,” answered the mediciner. “An insect must thank a giant that he does not tread on him. Yet, noble knight, insects have their power of harming as well as physicians. What would it have cost me, save a moment’s trouble, so to have drugged that balm, as should have made your arm rot to the shoulder joint, and your life blood curdle in your veins to a corrupted jelly? What is there that prevented me to use means yet more subtle, and to taint your room with essences, before which the light of life twinkles more and more dimly, till it expires, like a torch amidst the foul vapours of some subterranean dungeon? You little estimate my power, if you know not that these and yet deeper modes of destruction stand at command of my art. But a physician slays not the patient by whose generosity he lives, and far less will he the breath of whose nostrils is the hope of revenge destroy the vowed ally who is to favour his pursuit of it.”
But it’s the plot that makes the novel. It moves along at a good pace, never losing track of the various strands – Henry and Catherine, the Royal power plays, Rothsay and his scurrilous followers. And it all leads up to one of the most harrowingly dramatic climaxes I’ve read, as the Highland feud is brought to a bloody and horrific halt. I don’t want to say too much about the Highland strand since it develops late in the book and so takes us into spoiler territory, but it’s a brilliant depiction of a blood feud, of the savagery of hand-to-hand battle, of sacrifice and the loyalty of kinship, of the honour given to the physically brave and the shame heaped on the coward. It moved me to tears for more than one reason. And even more horrifyingly, this part of it is based on actual events.
Book 42 of 90
A great book, and a true classic. If you only ever read one Scott novel, make it this one. It gets my highest recommendation!
*Some modern publications show this as Rothesay, the modern spelling of the town from which the title derives. However, my copy gives the old spelling throughout, so I’ve stuck with that, despite my spell-checker’s frantic attempts to change it!