Brother by David Chariandy

The failure of the dream…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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.

David Chariandy

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.

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TBR Thursday 218…

Episode 218

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

(My cats love this gif so much!)

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

Scottish Crime

Blood City by Douglas Skelton

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

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

* * * * *

Vintage Crime Shorts

The Measure of Malice edited by Martin Edwards

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

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

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

* * * * *

Scottish Classic

The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown

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

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

* * * * *

Historical Crime

Now You See Them by Elly Griffiths

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Family Matters by Anthony Rolls

Poisonous relationships…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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.

Challenge details:
Book: 81
Subject Heading: The Ironists
Publication Year: 1933

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.

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Mother of Pearl by Angela Savage

The birds and the bees…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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.

Angela Savage

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…

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Bodies from the Library 2 edited by Tony Medawar

A case of the finest vintage…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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.

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Snow White and Other Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

Happily ever after…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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.

Rumpelstiltskin
by Anne Anderson

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.

Rapunzel
by Walter Crane

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’.”

The Brothers Grimm

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.

The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs
by Maurice Sendak

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.

Hansel and Gretel
by Arthur Rackham

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.

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Nada the Lily by H Rider Haggard

A tale of Zululand…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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.

Book 48 of 90

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.

H Rider Haggard

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.

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Book 10 of 20

Sanditon by Jane Austen

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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.

Sea bathing at Brighton

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.

Fear not, my Darcy – Sidney will never steal my heart from you…

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.

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TBR Thursday 206…

Episode 206

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…

Fairy Tales

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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Fiction

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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Fiction

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.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

In the Heat of the Night by John Ball

“They call me Mr Tibbs.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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!)

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in the 1967 film of the book

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.

Book 46 of 90

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.

John Ball

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.

Book 6 of 20

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TBR Thursday 200…

A stroll around the TBR…

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.

The definition…

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!

The target…

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…

The breakdown…

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…

Factual………………………. 2
Fiction……………….………. 94
Crime/thriller…….……… 107
Horror………………..……… 6
Sci-fi……………………..….. 12
Romance (eh?)………… 1 (How did that get on there?)

The format…

198 of the books are Kindle, and only 24 paper! Thank goodness – I’d need a bigger house if they were all paper copies…

Chatsworth: Darcy’s Library!!

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.

Have a Great TBR Thursday! 😀

The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott

St Valentine’s Day villainy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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.

Catherine seeks advice from her spiritual adviser

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).

The monk and the glee maiden

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!

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Clouds of Witness (Lord Peter Wimsey 2) by Dorothy L Sayers

My last Wimsey…

😐 😐

The fiancé of Lady Mary Wimsey is found shot dead outside the Yorkshire shooting lodge her brother, the Duke of Denver, has taken for the season. The subsequent inquest finds that Cathcart’s death was murder, and points the finger firmly in the direction of the Duke. Lady Mary had found the Duke standing over the corpse of Captain Denis Cathcart as she had been on her way out of the house at 3 a.m., for reasons she refuses to specify. Added to this is the indisputable fact that the Duke and Cathcart had had a quarrel earlier in the evening, loud enough to be overheard by the various guests staying in the house. When his faithful batman Bunter shows him the report of the murder in the newspaper, Lord Peter Wimsey, brother of the Duke and Lady Mary, rushes to Yorkshire to save his brother from the gallows.

I’m not a fan of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, but this is one of the books in my Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge to read the novels listed in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. Happily for me, it’s one of the earliest books in the series, the second, before the arrival on the scene of Ms Sayer’s tedious alter-ego, Harriet Vane, and Peter’s interminable courtship of her. Unhappily, the snobbery which infests her books is already present – cultural, intellectual, economic, geographic: you name it, she’s snobbish about it.

Still, at least at this early stage Sayers does concentrate more on the detection than on Lord Peter’s tiresome character, though there’s more than enough of that too. He’s the type of amateur detective to whom the dull police are delighted to hand over their cases, especially this one, since the main desire of the policeman in charge of the case is to languish after the lovely Lady Mary, whose exalted birth means she is far above the reach even of this cultured, well-educated gentlemanly plod.

Challenge details:
Book: 19
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1926

I’m by no means alone in often mentioning the sexism that pervades early detective fiction, but it always stands out particularly for me when the author is female (which, ironically, is quite sexist of me, I suppose). I can’t help feeling that Dorothy L didn’t think much of her fellow women. Here we have a wife so dull she apparently deserves to be cheated on, a couple of mistresses, one out for sex, the other out for money, and a dippy aristocratic type dabbling with those outrageous socialists who threaten the moral fabric of Good Old England, with their uncouthness and revolutionary ideas (like preventing the rich from exploiting the poor). Fortunately, all socialists are, as we know, snivelling cowards, plus their table manners and dress sense are terrible, so she’ll surely be saved from her girly silliness and be “persuaded” to marry a pillar of the establishment and breed up new generations of true blue-blooded Englishmen, just as she should!

Dorothy L Sayers

Oh dear, my reverse snobbery is showing again – I do apologise! What I meant to say is that the book is quite entertaining in some respects, and some parts of it are well written and quite atmospheric, such as when Wimsey and Bunter find themselves lost on the moor in a fog. But the plotting is fundamentally silly and the solution is a major cop-out, and, in case you haven’t spotted it, I do find Lord Peter’s insufferable superiority… well… insufferable. Thankfully this is the only Wimsey novel on Martin Edwards’ list, so I shall be spared reading any more of them, and you will be spared reading any more reviews of them. Win-win!

PS If you’ve never read a Lord Peter Wimsey novel, in fairness I feel I should say my reaction is purely allergic. Many, many people love these books, and you really shouldn’t rely on my opinion of them.

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Dunstan by Conn Iggulden

Part saint, part sinner…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Young Dunstan and his brother are sent off by their father to be educated by the monks in the abbey at Glastonbury. There, Dunstan will become fascinated by the processes involved in construction and smithing, and will decide early on that one day he will replace the current abbey with a great building for the glory of God and, much more importantly, for the glory of Dunstan. To achieve this aim he must become a monk and must cultivate the rich and powerful who will be able to fund his dream. This is the story of Dunstan’s long life, of the seven Kings he served and of the gradual coalescence of all the small kingdoms into one coherent England, ruled by a single monarch.

I’ve seen so much praise for Conn Iggulden over the years, but generally he writes “sword and sandals” stories about early wars, and the periods and subjects rarely appeal to me. So I was delighted to get the opportunity to try his work in this story, which is much more to my taste. You can now sign me up as a fan – he’s a great storyteller, and this is a great story!

I didn’t know much about the real Dunstan and deliberately avoided finding anything out before reading, so that I could accept Iggulden’s version at face value. His historical notes at the end of the book remind us that our knowledge of this early period – the 10th century, AD – is patchy, with many gaps that may never be filled. The main facts of Dunstan’s life are well documented, and Iggulden sticks to them. But that leaves him plenty of room to use his imagination to fill in all the bits that aren’t known and to create a characterisation that could be true, and is certainly believable.

The story is given in Dunstan’s own voice, writing his reminiscences towards the end of his life. This makes it a perfect format for an audiobook, and the narrator, Geoffrey Beevers, does a wonderful job of bringing the man and his story to life.

Dunstan playing his harp as the devil pays a visit…
but Iggulden reveals the “truth” behind the legend

Iggulden’s Dunstan is hardly saintly, especially in his youth and early adulthood. He’s deliciously wicked and does some pretty terrible things during his life, but somehow he keeps the reader on his side. I think it’s because he doesn’t really attempt to explain too much or to justify his actions – he occasionally feels guilt and a twinge of remorse, but he never wallows or gets mawkish about it. Instead he shows us the inherent instability and violence in a society almost perpetually at war, either between internal rival factions or against the Viking raiders who were a constant threat, and the use and abuse of power that was commonplace among those who could wield it. All of this makes Dunstan’s own actions seem far less out of the ordinary than they would be in a less lawless environment.

The stream of Kings all with annoyingly similar names provide the drama that keeps the story moving along at a good pace. Some are Dunstan’s friends, some mistrust him, some are outright enemies. As he ages, some of the later ones, whose fathers and grandfathers Dunstan had known, look on him as a mentor, and in some cases, at a time when primogeniture wasn’t quite as established as it later became, Dunstan is influential in ensuring their accession to the crown. Again, Iggulden appears to stick to the known facts but provides fictional stories to fill the spaces in-between, making each of these monarchs fully rounded humans rather than just names and dates in a history book, and keeping the whole thing firmly rooted in the attitudes of the day.

Conn Iggulden

As a monk and later Abbot of Glastonbury, and finally rising to be Archbishop of Canterbury – the top religious job in England – the early church plays a role in the story too, and again I found Iggulden’s portrayal entirely convincing. This was centuries before the Reformation, of course, but the corruptions in the Roman church already existed, and both real-life and fictional Dunstan were involved in rooting out the worst of these and transforming the Church in England to follow the Benedictine rule. Iggulden’s Dunstan, though, is hardly a devout, pious man, although his relationship with God and his religion deepens as he ages. He recognises his sins, but believes that God will weigh them in the balance with his great works – the buildings he constructed, his role as Royal Treasurer, his influence over the kings and, through them, the realm, and his transformation of the Church.

This is a lengthy book with a huge cast of characters, but Iggulden makes them all individual so that the reader doesn’t feel swamped by them. I felt fully immersed in Dunstan’s world, even though it took me weeks to listen to the whole thing, and I feel I’ve learned a lot about a period of history that was previously a blank to me. I do hope Iggulden writes more on subjects like this, although I’m now tempted to try his sword and sandals books after all…

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Treasure hunt…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a young lady comes to Sherlock Holmes for advice, what at first seems like an intriguing mystery soon turns into a tale of murderous revenge. Mary Morstan’s father disappeared some years ago, just after he had returned from colonial service. He had been in the Andaman Islands, one of the officers charged with guarding the prisoners held there. A few years after his disappearance, Miss Morstan received a large pearl in the mail, and every year for the six years since then, she has received another. Now she has been contacted by a man who claims to know what happened to her father and says he wishes to right the wrong that has been done to her. He has asked her to come to his house where he will tell her the tale. Holmes is happy to accompany her because he is bored and seeking distraction from the cocaine bottle. Watson is happy to go along because he is falling in love…

The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air, and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghost-like in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light, – sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all human kind, they flitted from the gloom into the light, and so back into the gloom once more. I am not subject to impressions, but the dull, heavy evening, with the strange business upon which we were engaged, combined to make me nervous and depressed.

Thaddeus Sholto tells them an astonishing story of hidden treasure and takes them to visit his brother Bartholomew. But when they reach Bartholomew’s house they find him dead, in a locked room. Holmes will soon solve the mystery and the companions will set off on a thrilling manhunt through London and down the Thames.

Like most of the long stories, this one takes the form of the first half being about Holmes solving the puzzle and tracking the criminal, and then the second half takes the reader back to learn the story behind the crime. In terms of the actual puzzle, this one is rather weak with not much opportunity for the Great Detective to show off his genius for deduction. He does however get to show us his mastery of disguise and his intimate knowledge of London’s murkier areas.

The story has a few other aspects, though, that I enjoy more than the basic mystery. The back story takes us to the time of the Indian Uprising of 1857, to the Agra Fort in Uttar Pradesh where many fled seeking refuge from the fighting. Here we are told a story of fabulous treasure, greed and murder, oaths of loyalty, betrayal and revenge. Back in London, while the solving of the mystery is a little too easy, it leads to a manhunt in the company of the loveable dog Toby with the assistance of the Baker Street Irregulars, a gang of street urchins Holmes sometimes employs to help him find people who don’t want to be found, and the whole thing culminates in a thrilling chase as Holmes and Watson get on the trail of their suspect.

Last but not least, this is the story in which Dr Watson finally loses his heart for real. When I was a child reading these stories for the first time, my admiration was all for Holmes and his brilliant reasoning skills. But over the years my loyalty has shifted, as I came to realise that all the warmth and humanity in the stories comes from Watson. He’s a soppy old buffer who is manly enough to wear his heart on his sleeve and has always been susceptible to the fairer sex. But when he meets Miss Morstan, it’s the work of only a few hours for him to know that she is his soulmate. The course of true love has to go over a few bumps, though, before he can hope for his happy ending and there’s no guarantee he will win her hand in the final outcome.

Miss Morstan and I stood together, and her hand was in mine. A wondrous subtle thing is love, for here were we two who had never seen each other before that day, between whom no word or even look of affection had ever passed, and yet now in an hour of trouble our hands instinctively sought for each other. I have marvelled at it since, but at the time it seemed the most natural thing that I should go out to her so, and, as she has often told me, there was in her also the instinct to turn to me for comfort and protection. So we stood hand in hand, like two children, and there was peace in our hearts for all the dark things that surrounded us.

Anyone who has read my blog will know I’m a devoted fan of Conan Doyle’s story-telling. He is fluent and easy, writing in a relaxed style that tends to hide the skilfulness of his technique. He shifts effortlessly between deadly peril and sweet romance, and the friendship between Holmes and Watson is beautifully done. Watson’s wholehearted admiration and love for his friend are there for all the world to see, but Holmes’ appreciation of Watson seems colder, until something happens – Watson is put in danger, or Holmes inadvertently hurts his sensitive feelings – when we see the mask slip, and are allowed to glimpse the strong affection that exists behind the great man’s unemotional exterior.

Mystery, thrills, romance, friendship and a lovely dog – really, what more could you want? If you haven’t read the Holmes and Watson stories yet, I envy you…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 193…

Episode 193

Well, I’ve had a little influx of books this week, so I must be getting through them too, since the overall increase is just 1 to 231. Surprises me, since I feel as if I’ve done nothing except gaze at the farce put on by our revered and well-paid politicians for weeks now.

Order! Order! Here’s what’s next on the order paper…

Crime

Courtesy of 4th Estate at HarperCollins. This one popped unexpectedly through my letter-box a couple of weeks ago. I always enjoy getting the occasional book sent to me that I haven’t specifically chosen because it kicks me out of my rut. Sometimes they turn out to be great reads – fingers crossed for this one!

The Blurb says: A gripping literary thriller and the first of a new crime series, from the bestselling author of Before We Met.

Detective Inspector Robin Lyons is going home. Dismissed for misconduct from the Met’s Homicide Command after refusing to follow orders, unable to pay her bills (or hold down a relationship), she has no choice but to take her teenage daughter Lennie and move back in with her parents in the city she thought she’d escaped forever at 18. In Birmingham, sharing a bunkbed with Lennie and navigating the stormy relationship with her mother, Robin works as a benefit-fraud investigator – to the delight of those wanting to see her cut down to size.

Only Corinna, her best friend of 20 years, seems happy to have Robin back. But when Corinna’s family is engulfed by violence and her missing husband becomes a murder suspect, Robin can’t bear to stand idly by as the police investigate. Can she trust them to find the truth of what happened? And why does it bother her so much that the officer in charge is her ex-boyfriend – the love of her teenage life? As Robin launches her own unofficial investigation and realises there may be a link to the disappearance of a young woman, she starts to wonder how well we can really know the people we love – and how far any of us will go to protect our own.

* * * * *

Scottish Classic

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. I know very little about this one except that it always shows up on lists of Scottish classics, and that I mercilessy mocked my brother for years for reading obscure Scottish books like this and he’s now getting his own back. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed the Scottish section of my Classics Club list, so my hopes are high… well, fairly high… though I’ve just read the blurb… maybe I should have done that before I put it on my list… 

The Blurb says: Smollett’s savage, boisterously funny lambasting of eighteenth-century British society charts the unfortunate journey of the gout-ridden and irascible squire Matthew Bramble across Britain, who finds himself everywhere surrounded by decadents, pimps, con-men, raucousness and degeneracy – until the arrival of the trusty manservant Humphry Clinker promises to improve his fortunes.

Populated with unforgettable grotesques and written with a relish for earthy humour and wordplay, and a ferocious pessimism, Humphry Clinker is Smollett’s masterpiece.

* * * * *

Crime

Courtesy of HarperCollins. Hurrah! A new one in the wonderful Maeve Kerrigan series! It’s been a long wait for this, so hopes are astronomically high…

The Blurb says: Leo Stone is a killer. A year ago, he was convicted of murdering two women and sentenced to life without parole. But now, a juror from his trial has revealed the jury was prejudiced, and a retrial is called.

Detectives Maeve Kerrigan and Josh Derwent are tasked with re-examining the evidence. Before long, they uncover links between Stone and a possible third victim.

But with Stone behind bars, a fourth woman disappears in similar circumstances. Is there a copycat killer out there, or have they been wrong about Stone from the start? And will Maeve discover the truth before another innocent victim is killed?

* * * * *

Gothic Horror

Courtesy of Head of Zeus via NetGalley. I loved Paver’s Dark Matter, finding it up there with the very best of classic horror, and was pleased to see my opinion reinforced when it was one of the few modern books mentioned by the illustrious horror expert, Darryl Jones, in his history of the genre, Sleeping With The Lights On. So… no pressure for this one, then, Ms Paver… 😉

The Blurb says: In Edwardian Suffolk, a manor house stands alone in a lost corner of the Fens: a glinting wilderness of water whose whispering reeds guard ancient secrets. Maud is a lonely child growing up without a mother, ruled by her repressive father. When he finds a painted medieval devil in a graveyard, unhallowed forces are awakened.

Maud’s battle has begun. She must survive a world haunted by witchcraft, the age-old legends of her beloved fen – and the even more nightmarish demons of her father’s past.

Spanning five centuries, Wakenhyrst is a darkly gothic thriller about murderous obsession and one girl’s longing to fly free.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

TBR Thursday 189…

Episode 189

Happily a couple of excellent reads seem to have broken my slump and got me back into the reading groove. Tragically the same seems to apply to my book acquisition groove! The TBR is up just 2 to 228, but I have a horrible feeling the postman might be about to knock at the door at any moment…

Here are a few more that should reach the launch pad soon…

True Crime

This one appealed to me when it came out a couple of years ago and I’m only now managing to fit it in. Since then I’ve seen a few reviews of it – all positive, so my hopes are high…

The Blurb says: In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, they rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions and sent their children to study in Europe.

Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed off. The family of an Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, became a prime target. Her relatives were shot and poisoned. And this was just the beginning, as more and more members of the tribe began to die under mysterious circumstances, and many of those who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered.

As the death toll climbed, the FBI took up the case. It was one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations and the bureau badly bungled it. In desperation, its young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to unravel the mystery. Together with the Osage he and his undercover team began to expose one of the most chilling conspiracies in American history.

* * * * *

Fiction

One of the more difficult to fill categories on the Main Journey of my Around the World challenge is “elephant travel”. The elephant in this book is admittedly travelling on the wrong continent, but I still think I deserve points for initiative! It sounds deliciously quirky and better be good, because I really doubt I’ll be able to find another one…

The Blurb says: A delightful, witty tale of friendship and adventure from prize-winning novelist José Saramago.

In 1551, King João III of Portugal gave Archduke Maximilian an unusual wedding present: an elephant named Solomon. In José Saramago’s remarkable and imaginative retelling, Solomon and his keeper, Subhro, begin in dismal conditions, forgotten in a corner of the palace grounds. When it occurs to the king and queen that an elephant would be an appropriate wedding gift, everyone rushes to get them ready: Subhro is given two new suits of clothes and Solomon a long overdue scrub. Accompanied by the Archduke, his new wife, and the royal guard, these unlikely heroes traverse a continent riven by the Reformation and civil wars, witnessed along the way by scholars, historians, and wide-eyed ordinary people as they make their way through the storied cities of northern Italy; they brave the Alps and the terrifying Isarco and Brenner Passes; across the Mediterranean Sea and up the Inn River; and at last, toward their grand entry into the imperial city.

* * * * *

Scottish Classics

One from the Scottish section on my Classics Club list – The Fair Maid of Perth. This will be a re-read but from so long ago that I remember almost nothing about it except a general feeling of having loved it. All the blurbs on Goodreads and Amazon are dreadful for some reason, with many of them kindly telling how the story ends, so beware! (I reckon that should be a hanging offence.) This is the best I could find, but it fails to mention the central romance…

The Blurb says: The Fair Maid of Perth centres on the merchant classes of Perth in the fourteenth century, and their commitment to the pacific values of trade, in a bloody and brutal era in which no right to life is recognised, and in which the Scottish nobles fight for control of the weak Scottish monarchy, and clans are prepared to extinguish each other to gain supremacy in the central Highlands. It is a remarkable novel, in part because late in his career Scott has a new subject, and in part because he employs a spare narrative style that is without parallel in the rest of his oeuvre. Far too many critics, from his son-in-law J.G. Lockhart to the present day, have written off late Scott, and seen his last works as evidence of failing powers. The readers of this edition (which is not my edition) of The Fair Maid of Perth will see that these critics are mistaken, for in it we witness a luminous creative intelligence working at high pressure to produce a tightly organised and deeply moving novel.

* * * * *

Thriller

I’m ashamed to admit I won this in a giveaway in February 2017 and this is me just getting around to reading it – this being one of the reasons I don’t often enter giveaways! It sounded good then and it still sounds good now…

The Blurb says: A heart-stopping, page-turning thriller that sees a trip of a lifetime – white-water rafting in the remote US wilderness – turn into a battle for survival for four best friends.

Win Allen doesn’t want an adventure. After a miserable divorce and the death of her beloved brother, she just wants to spend some time with her three best friends away from her soul-crushing job. But athletic, energetic Pia has other plans. Plans for an adrenaline-raising, breath-taking, white-water rafting trip in the Maine wilderness. Five thousand square miles of remote countryside. Just mountains, rivers and fresh air. No phone coverage. No people. No help.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

Fighting the flab…

😀 😀 😀

In the scorching heat of the Australian Outback, two brothers meet at the site of an old grave, where a man lies dead – their brother, Cameron. He is far from his vehicle and without water or anything to shade him from the broiling sun. But how did he get there? Is this some dreadful form of suicide or is there some more sinister reason for his death? Nathan, the brother closest to him in age but who has been rather detached from the family for some years, starts asking questions and soon begins to uncover tensions and secrets that make him reassess those closest to him…

This starts off with a brilliant first chapter that is creepy and horrific, though not in a gruesome way, and immediately places the reader in this vast isolated cattle-ranching country on the edge of the desert, where one mistake can mean death to the unwary, from heatstroke, dehydration or snakes. Then Harper gradually introduces us to the various family members and slowly fills in each person’s past so that we begin to understand the undercurrents that run underneath the outwardly united front the family presents to the world.

Nathan’s son Xander is visiting for Christmas. His home is with his mother in the city, so he provides another outsider view of the family, and an interesting perspective on the differences in lifestyle between these isolated ranchers and the urbanites. Bub, the youngest of the three brothers, has a chip on his shoulder about his brothers always seeming to be the ones in charge. The sons’ mother, Liz, has had a hard struggle to hold her family together despite her (long-dead) husband’s brutality and cruelty. Harry has worked on the property for so long he’s viewed as part of the family. And although he has fought against it, Nathan has always been strongly attracted to Cameron’s wife, Ilse. Throw in a couple of backpackers doing temporary jobs on the property, Cameron’s two daughters, and the folk from the tiny little local town, and there’s plenty of room for resentments and rumours, lies and secrets, to have built up in the claustrophobia of this small community.

Harper is great at creating settings, using some of the extreme conditions and environments to be found in the vastness of Australia as her backdrop, and showing how the fight to survive in harsh inhospitable conditions takes a toll on her characters, physically and mentally. Here she sets the book at the hottest time of the year, when the danger is at its greatest for anyone who doesn’t obey the rules of survival that all inhabitants are taught from childhood. If accurate, and I assume it is, it sounds quite literally like hell on earth (to my cold-seeking Northern soul, at least) and I couldn’t help wondering why on earth anyone would choose to live there. It’s not just the heat, though – Harper shows the isolation and loneliness that comes with living on huge ranches, some as large as small European nations, and suggests, again I assume with good reason, that suicide is another of the hazards of life there.

The plot is interesting, but the story comes to light only gradually, so I won’t risk spoilers by saying more about it. The weakness of the book is that it’s too gradual – it comes in at just under 400 pages and could easily have lost 100 pages or more and been a better, tighter book. After a great start, there are large parts where nothing seems to happen for ridiculously long periods of time – pages filled with mundane and repetitive dialogue and descriptions of the effects of heat that didn’t move things along at all. I considered abandoning it more than once, and skimmed many pages in the mid-section. However, it picks up again in the last quarter so in the end I was glad I stuck with it. I do wish authors (and editors) would work harder to tighten up their middles – there’s a bookish obesity epidemic out there! Especially in crime fiction.

Jane Harper

In summary, then, there’s an excellent book in here struggling to get out from under the flab. The interesting plot, good characterisation and great sense of place make it worth reading but it’s badly let down by being far too long for the story it contains. I think Harper is a talented writer (which is why I’m so grouchy!), so will be looking forward to her next novel, with my fingers crossed that she can learn when she’s done enough to set the atmosphere and get on with telling the story.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 188…

Episode 188

I’m in a bit of a reading slump at the moment, but fortunately I appear to be in a book-acquiring slump too, so the TBR has increased by just one to 226.

Maybe these will help pull me out of the doldrums…

Quotes

A gift from my brother. A little bit of Dickens sounds like a wonderful way to brighten every day of the year, doesn’t it? 

The Blurb says: A charming memento of the Victorian era’s literary colossus, The Daily Charles Dickens is a literary almanac for the ages. Tenderly and irreverently anthologized by Dickens scholar James R. Kincaid, this collection mines the British author’s beloved novels and Christmas stories as well as his lesser-known sketches and letters for “an around-the-calendar set of jolts, soothings, blandishments, and soarings.”

A bedside companion to dip into year round, this book introduces each month with a longer seasonal quote, while concise bits of wisdom and whimsy mark each day. Hopping gleefully from Esther Summerson’s abandonment by her mother in Bleak House to a meditation on the difficult posture of letter-writing in The Pickwick Papers, this anthology displays the wide range of Dickens’s stylistic virtuosity—his humour and his deep tragic sense, his ear for repetition, and his genius at all sorts of voices.

* * * * *

Fiction

Courtesy of Scribner. I thoroughly enjoyed Tom Barbash’s writing in his short story collection, Stay Up With Me, although, as with a lot of modern short stories, I found some of them rather too fragmentary for my taste. I’ve been waiting patiently for a long time for his next production and am delighted that he’s chosen the novel form this time. Sounds good…

The Blurb says: An evocative and wildly absorbing novel about the Winters, a family living in New York City’s famed Dakota apartment building in the year leading up to John Lennon’s assassination.

It’s the fall of 1979 in New York City when twenty-three-year-old Anton Winter, back from the Peace Corps and on the mend from a nasty bout of malaria, returns to his childhood home in the Dakota. Anton’s father, the famous late-night host Buddy Winter, is there to greet him, himself recovering from a breakdown. Before long, Anton is swept up in an effort to reignite Buddy’s stalled career, a mission that takes him from the gritty streets of New York, to the slopes of the Lake Placid Olympics, to the Hollywood Hills, to the blue waters of the Bermuda Triangle, and brings him into close quarters with the likes of Johnny Carson, Ted and Joan Kennedy, and a seagoing John Lennon.

But the more Anton finds himself enmeshed in his father’s professional and spiritual reinvention, the more he questions his own path, and fissures in the Winter family begin to threaten their close bond. By turns hilarious and poignant, The Dakota Winters is a family saga, a page-turning social novel, and a tale of a critical moment in the history of New York City and the country at large.

* * * * *

Classic Thriller

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. One for my Classics Club list. I don’t know anything about this other than the blurb and the fact that it’s considered a classic of espionage fiction. It sounds good, though, and I’ll know a lot more once I read the OWC introduction… and the book, of course!

The Blurb says: One of the first great spy novels, The Riddle of the Sands is set during the long suspicious years leading up to the First World War. Bored with his life in London, a young man accepts an invitation to join a friend on a sailing holiday in the North Sea. A vivid exploration of the mysteries of seamanship, the story builds in excitement as these two young adventurers discover a German plot to invade England.

* * * * *

Thriller

Courtesy of Quercus via NetGalley. I didn’t realise when I requested this one that it’s not actually a new novel from May – it’s a re-publication from way back in his first incarnation as a novelist, long before he rose to the bestseller lists. I’ve always wanted to see how he started out, but the early books have been out of print since before I became a fan – he had a pause in novel writing when he spent several years writing and producing dramas for Scottish television. So I’m intrigued, but have lowered my expectations a little to allow for the fact that he was still learning his craft…

The Blurb says: There are two men on their way to Brussels from the UK: Neil Bannerman, an iconoclastic journalist for Scotland’s Daily Standard whose irate editor wants him out of the way, and Kale–a professional assassin.

Expecting to find only a difficult, dreary political investigation in Belgium, Bannerman has barely settled in when tragedy strikes. His host, a fellow journalist, along with a British Cabinet minister, are discovered dead in the minister’s elegant Brussels townhouse. It appears that they have shot each other. But the dead journalist’s young autistic daughter, Tania, was hidden in a closet during the killings, and when she draws a chilling picture of a third party–a man with no face–Bannerman suddenly finds himself a reluctant participant in a desperate murder investigation.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

 

….Then she closed her mouth, looked again at the cat-eyed boy, and lacing her fingers, spoke her next words very slowly to him.
….“Listen. Go around to the back of the hospital to the guard’s office. It will say ‘Emergency Admissions’ on the door. A-D-M-I-S-I-O-N-S. But the guard will be there. Tell him to get over here on the double. Move now. Move!” She unlaced her fingers and made scooping motions with her hands, the palms pushing against the wintry air.
….A man in a brown suit came toward her, puffing little white clouds of breath. “Fire truck’s on its way. Get back inside. You’ll freeze to death.”
….The nurse nodded.
….“You left out a s, ma’am,” the boy said. The North was new to him and he had just begun to learn he could speak up to white people. But she’d already gone, rubbing her arms against the cold.
….“Granny, she left out a s.”
….“And a ‘please.’”

* * * * * * * * *

….Like two charging bulls they came together, and like two wolves sought each other’s throat. Against the long canines of the ape was pitted the thin blade of the man’s knife.
….Jane Porter – her lithe, young form flattened against the trunk of a great tree, her hands tight pressed against her rising and falling bosom, and her eyes wide with mingled horror, fascination, fear, and admiration – watched the primordial ape battle with the primeval man for possession of a woman – for her.
….As the great muscles of the man’s back and shoulders knotted beneath the tension of his efforts, and the huge biceps and forearm held at bay those mighty tusks, the veil of centuries of civilization and culture was swept from the blurred vision of the Baltimore girl.
….When the long knife drank deep a dozen times of Terkoz’ heart’s blood, and the great carcass rolled lifeless upon the ground, it was a primeval woman who sprang forward with outstretched arms toward the primeval man who had fought for her and won her.
….And Tarzan?
….He did what no red-blooded man needs lessons in doing. He took his woman in his arms and smothered her upturned, panting lips with kisses.
….For a moment Jane Porter lay there with half-closed eyes. For a moment – the first in her young life – she knew the meaning of love.

* * * * * * * * *

….When I first travelled to Europe [from Australia] as a student in 1983 I was thrilled, certain that I was going to the centre of the world. But as we neared Heathrow, the pilot of the British Airways jet made an announcement I have never forgotten: ‘We are now approaching a rather small, foggy island in the North Sea.’ In all my life I had never thought of Britain like that. When we landed I was astonished at the gentle quality of the air. Even the scent on the breeze seemed soothing, lacking that distinctive eucalyptus tang I was barely conscious of until it wasn’t there. And the sun. Where was the sun? In strength and penetration, it more resembled an austral moon than the great fiery orb that scorched my homeland.

* * * * * * * * *

….The flames leap merrily as I write. They must consume all when I am done. They may take me too, in the end, but they will keep me warm first. Perhaps I will be found like poor Brother Severus, whose body vanished into ash and left only his feet and one hand still in the chair! What devil took him so, that charred him even before he went to hell?
….Am I afraid of the other place? What fool is not? Yet I have raised great churches to set against my sins. It is my fervent hope that there is no eternal torment waiting for me now. How they would smile then, the dead, to see old Dunstan cast down! Made young again, perhaps, to be torn and broken for their pleasure. I could bear it better if I were young, I know. How those saints would laugh and shake their fat heads. I wonder, sometimes, if I can feel them clustered around me, all those who have gone before. Like bees pressing on a pane of glass, I feel their souls watching. Or perhaps it is just the wind and the scratching of woodworm in cantilevered joists.
….Settle, Dunstan. Tell the story.

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?