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.

Amazon UK Link
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The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott

St Valentine’s Day villainy…

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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!

Amazon UK Link
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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.

Amazon UK Link
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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
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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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.

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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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

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?

Tuesday Terror! Ghosts in the House by AC Benson and RH Benson

Oh, brother…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of nineteen stories, nine by AC Benson and ten from his brother RH Benson, plus a short essay on haunted houses by RH. These two are also brothers of the more famous EF Benson, and all three dabbled in ghost story writing to a greater or lesser degree. There’s an informative introduction by Hugh Lamb giving some biographical detail of each of the brothers and discussing the background to the stories.

I seem to be overusing the term “mixed bag” recently, but this is another one for me. Mostly I enjoyed AC’s stories and loved a few of them. RH, on the other hand, did nothing for me, so I’ll get him out of the way first.

On the basis of the stories collected here, many of which come from a series of tales about priests telling of supernatural occurrences they have experienced, RH seems to be firstly, obsessed by religion, specifically Catholicism; and secondly, intent on examining the question of whether hauntings are actually spirits returned from the dead, or psychological, produced by the expectations of the observer, or physical manifestations of echoes of tragic events. Almost every one of his stories includes these two aspects, so that they are repetitive and, to me, entirely uninteresting. They feel like fragments, and I hoped that they might eventually pull together into some climax, but they certainly didn’t in the ones selected here. I fear RH never achieved more than a three star rating from me and often dipped to two, or even one more than once.

AC, on the other hand, consistently achieved four stars and several fives. His stories also have strong religious themes and I admit this did begin to bore me by the end. But he uses much more imaginative ways to examine the themes than his brother. Some of his stories are standard hauntings but with original twists, such as Basil Netherby, where the haunting comes out through the music composed by the haunted man. Other of his stories read like fables, with adventuring protagonists participating in what are fundamentally battles between good and evil, but which are done so well they don’t feel stale and repetitive like poor old RH’s. Both brothers write well technically, but AC lifts his tales with the use of some great imagery. His stories also feel complete in themselves, whether a few pages or close to novella length.

Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most – all from AC:

Basil Netherby – a great story, which I’ve already highlighted as a Tuesday Terror! post.

Out of the Sea – the story takes place in a small, poor seaside village. There’s a shipwreck and two sailors are found dead on the shore. Later, a family, the Grimstons, approach the local priest to seek his help – they are being haunted by a ghostly shadow that smells of the sea and corruption. This, like so many of the stories, is a tale of atonement for an evil deed, with a rather heavy-handed religious message at the end, but it’s very well told, dark and effective.

The Snake, The Leper and the Grey Frost – A fable of a boy who has heard of a treasure and wants to go on a quest to find it, so asks the village wise man for advice. The wise man sets him on the path and tells him to beware the snake, the leper and the grey frost. But each is hidden in some way so the boy has a series of narrow escapes, until eventually he is caught in the grey frost. This is a tale of the power of faith, but it’s not explicit. It’s beautifully written and has some great imagery, especially of what the boy sees in the frost. I found this one surprisingly moving.

The Grey Cat – Young Roderick strays to a pool which has an evil reputation. There he meets a cat which befriends him but refuses to follow him home, so that Roderick, becoming oddly obsessed by the creature, finds himself returning to the pool again and again. The reader quickly knows the cat is clearly demonic in origin and so does the local priest, who enters into a battle to save young Roderick’s soul. Fable-like in style again and with some fantastic imagery, especially of… nope, spoiler! You’ll have to read it. I loved this one, although again its overtly religious message is a little heavy-handed.

The Uttermost Farthing – this is almost novella length and again is very well written with some great horror imagery and an effective ghostly atmosphere. Biblical scholars will of course recognise the reference in the title. (I googled it.) The narrator visits the house of a friend, to find that it’s haunted by the previous tenant, a man who had carried out experiments into how to use evil thoughts as a weapon against his enemies. The two men, together with the inevitable local priest, must find the papers left by the evil-doer and destroy them, but the ghost is determined to stop them…

Overall, for me it would have been a stronger collection had RH been left out of it altogether. But full marks to AC, whose fable-like stories in particular stand out for their imaginativeness and imagery, and the quality of his stories in general makes me very glad to have read the collection.

No wonder the porpentine’s praying!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Knock at the door, number 4…

…or The Reading Bingo Challenge!

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

More than 500 pages

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura. I’ve read a few chunky novels this year, so at random I’ve gone for this one, which I read as part of my Russian Revolution challenge. It tells the story of the assassination of Trotsky, allowing us to see his life as an exile and his assassin’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War and subsequent recruitment by Stalin’s regime.

Leon Trotsky (second right) and his wife Natalya Sedova (far left) are welcomed to Tampico Harbour, Mexico by Frida Kahlo and the US Trotskyist leader Max Shachtman, January 1937.
Getty Images/Gamma-Keystone

A forgotten classic

Marriage by Susan Ferrier. Following a discussion with my brother on Scottish classics, he sent me this one, of which I hadn’t heard. It tells of two sisters, separated as babies, one to be brought up in the strict religion of the Scottish Highlands, the other to live amongst the fashionably loose-moralled people of London.

A book that became a movie

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. The story of Richard Hannay being chased around Scotland by some nasty German spies just before the First World War. I enjoyed this, but I enjoyed Hitchcock’s classic film version considerably more!

The 39 Steps – but he only kissed her to escape from the baddies…

Published this year

The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware. I loved this story of Hal Greenaway, who receives a letter telling her she has been left something by her grandmother. The only problem is Hal knows her real grandmother died years ago! But she decides to go anyway to the house in Cornwall to find out what she’s inherited. Deliciously Gothic in a modern setting.

With a number in the title

The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace. This classic story from 1905 has a surprisingly contemporary storyline – of people objecting to political agitators using the safety of foreign countries to stir up revolutions back in their own nation. It’s a vigilante story – not my favourite kind – but I found it entertaining and unexpectedly thought-provoking.

Written by someone under 30

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin. I always end up having to google authors for this one, and was amazed to find that Crispin wrote this book when he was only 25. The story is of a man who discovers a body in a toyshop but when he returns there with the police, the toyshop has gone! A mad romp of a book and great fun.

A book with non-human characters

Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd. Hope Clearwater works for a research project in the Republic of the Congo, observing chimpanzees. The chimps play a real role in the book and are as well developed as the human characters. Plus this may be my last opportunity to use one of my favourite GIFs…

A funny book

Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas. Shona McMonagle, ex-student of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, becomes a time-traveller in this very funny romp set in pre-revolutionary Russia. Very well written, lots of delightful Scottish references and some less than reverential nods to that other book about pupils of the Marcia Blaine, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

A science fiction or fantasy book

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. I’ve read some brilliant classic science fiction this year, and this was up there with the best. A post-apocalyptic vision of life after strange green lights appear in the sky, striking blind everyone who saw them. And to make matters worse, the triffids have got loose – walking, man-eating plants! A great, thought-provoking story.

The 1962 movie…

A mystery

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths. I’m liking this trend towards modern Gothic very much, and this is another goodie! Clare Cassidy is writing a biography of the writer of a terrifying ghost story, The Stranger. And when one of her colleagues is brutally murdered, it becomes clear that somehow the story holds the clue to the case…

A one-word title

Brother by David Chariandy. The story of two brothers whose mother has immigrated from Trinidad to Canada. She has to work hard to make a living, so the boys are often left alone. Drifting into the ‘wrong’ crowd, they will become caught up in events that lead to tragedy. A story of the immigrant dream gone wrong, beautifully written and told.

Free square

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by PG Wodehouse. Whenever my world is grey, Bertie Wooster brings the sunshine back. But, since they’re all re-reads for me, they never get in the running for my awards despite giving me so much pleasure. In this one, Bertie, Jeeves, Aunt Dahlia and Wodehouse are all on top form as they navigate Bertie away from the horrors of marriage once again – spiffing!

My fave Jeeves and Wooster

A book of short stories

The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre. Between classic crime and horror anthologies, I’m spoilt for choice this year. This one includes Scottish and Irish writers which makes it a little different from the usual, and the title story arose out of the same evening get-together that led to the writing of Frankenstein.

The Vampyre – Illustration by Anne Yvonne Gilbert

Set on a different continent

Springtime in a Broken Mirror by Mario Benedetti. My Around the World challenge has taken me to a few continents this year with some great reads along the way. This one is set mainly in Argentina, although it’s about Uruguayan political dissidents exiled there. A wonderful book, about home and exile, loneliness, longing, belonging – about loyalty and love, and hope, and sometimes despair.

Non-fiction

Sleeping with the Lights On by Darryl Jones. A deceptively short history of horror in books in film, this is packed full of concentrated juicy goodness, written in an engaging and accessible style. It covers everything from mad science to creepypasta, and has added approximately five million titles to my must read/watch lists – horrifying!

Creepypasta – The Slenderman

First book by a favourite author

Fatherland by Robert Harris. I came late to Harris so am enjoying fitting some of his backlist in between his new releases as part of my Five Times Five challenge. This is the story of a murder in Berlin, set in a world where Nazi Germany won World War Two – a world in which Hitler still rules and the people of Germany are in the grip of a totalitarian regime.

Heard about online

That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina. Most of the new releases I read, I first hear about online in some way, but this is one I was inspired to read directly by other bloggers’ reviews. It’s the story of a love affair, that we know from the beginning ends in tragedy. Beautifully written, and wonderfully evocative of the culture of Puglia in the 1980s.

A best-selling book

Tombland by CJ Sansom. Sansom’s books go directly to the bestseller lists long before they are released, and rightly so. This is another great addition to the Tudor-set Matthew Shardlake series, where Matthew is swept up in the Kett Rebellion while investigating a murder in Norfolk at the request of the young Princess Elizabeth.

Robert Kett at the Oak of Reformation
by Samuel Wale (c.1746)

Based on a true story

The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus. Kalfus is one of my favourite authors and I’m going to keep going on about him till you all give in and read him! This one tells of the death of Tolstoy and the development of propaganda in Revolutionary Russia. Darkness leavened with humour, and all Kalfus’ sparkling originality in the story-telling.

From the bottom of the TBR pile

Raven Black by Ann Cleeves. Finally, after years of talking about it, I broke my duck with Ann Cleeves’ books. This, the first in her series of crime novels set on Shetland, had been sitting on my TBR since 16/12/2013, so it seemed like it might be time to actually read it! Now all I have to do is read all her other ones…

A book a friend loves

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith. Not just one friend, but nearly everyone I know who reads has recommended this one to me at some point! Two men meet on a train and one suggests that they swap murders – Bruno will murder Guy’s wife if Guy murders Bruno’s father. I enjoyed this influential psychological thriller, (but truthfully I enjoyed Hitchcock’s film of the book considerably more again…)

A book that scared me

Haunted Houses by Charlotte Riddell. These two short novels from a “forgotten” Victorian only scared me a little bit, but they entertained me hugely! The Uninhabited House is the stronger of the two, especially in terms of the ghostly aspects. But Fairy Water is full of charm with a delightful first-person narrator who grows ever more likeable as the book progresses. Horror for scaredy-cats!

A book that is more than 10 years old

The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux. In a year of classics and vintage crime, I’m spoiled for choice for this category! This early locked room murder mystery wins the spot because a) the murder weapon is a mutton-bone b) the murder victim isn’t dead(!) and c) Hercule Poirot describes it as “a masterpiece”. Good enough for me!

Rouletabille, the detective.
By Josep Simont i Guillén – Published in the French newspaper L’Illustration where the story was first serialised

The second book in a series

Bump in the Night by Colin Watson. I’ve had a lot of fun revisiting Colin Watson’s Flaxborough Chronicles this year, as they’ve been reissued for Kindle – a series I first enjoyed when it was still being published, and it’s now become “vintage”. So what does that make me?? (Rhetorical question – don’t you dare answer it!) Light-hearted crime with a touch of sly humour.

A book with a blue cover

Murder by Matchlight by ECR Lorac. Lorac is probably my favourite of all the authors the British Library Crime Classics have introduced me too – I’ve loved all three of the books they’ve reissued so far. This one takes place in WW2 London during the bombings and gives a real picture of ordinary Londoners just trying to get on with their lives.

* * * * * * *

Bingo! Full House!
What do I win??

 

TBR Thursday 183…

Episode 183

Another amazing drop in the TBR this week – down 2 to 222! I’ve finally got the thing under control! So long as no strangely-clad gentlemen pop round to visit, that is…

Here are a few more that should make me merry…

Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the British Library. My efforts to catch up on my little backlog of vintage crime novels continues with this one, which is apparently quite famous among football fans. Of whom I am not one…

The Blurb says: The 1939 Arsenal side is firing on all cylinders and celebrating a string of victories. They appear unstoppable, but the Trojans – a side of amateurs who are on a winning streak of their own – may be about to silence the Gunners. Moments into the second half the whistle blows, but not for a goal or penalty. One of the Trojans has collapsed on the pitch. By the end of the day, he is dead.

Gribble’s unique mystery, featuring the actual Arsenal squad of 1939, sends Inspector Anthony Slade into the world of professional football to investigate a case of deadly foul play on and off the pitch.

* * * * *

Crime

Courtesy of Little, Brown Book Group via NetGalley. I loved Harper’s first book, The Dry, and was a little disappointed in her second, Force of Nature. So I have my fingers crossed that this one is a return to her excellent top form…

The Blurb says: Two brothers meet at the remote fence line separating their cattle farms under the relenting sun of the remote outback. In an isolated part of Western Australia, they are each other’s nearest neighbour, their homes three hours’ drive apart.

They are at the stockman’s grave, a landmark so old that no one can remember who is buried there. But today, the scant shadow it casts was the last hope for their middle brother, Cameron, who lies dead at their feet.

Something had been on Cam’s mind. Did he choose to walk to his death? Because if he didn’t, the isolation of the outback leaves few suspects…

* * * * *

Classic Adventure

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Another one from my Classics Club list. I loved reading a few of Burroughs’ Barsoom Chronicles a few years back, so I’m hoping he entertains me just as much with this one.

The Blurb says: A central figure in American popular culture, Tarzan first came swinging through the jungle in the pages of a pulp-fiction magazine in 1912, and subsequently appeared in the novel that went on to spawn numerous film, full-length cartoon, and theatrical adaptations.

The infant Tarzan, lost on the coast of West Africa, is adopted by an ape-mother and grows up to become a model of physical strength and natural prowess, and eventually leader of his tribe. When he encounters a group of white Europeans, and rescues Jane Porter from a marauding ape, he finds love, and must choose between the values of civilization and the jungle.

Jason Haslam’s engaging introduction situates the novel not only in the pulp fiction industry, but also against the backdrop of adventure stories, European exploration in Africa, and the debates over nature versus civilization.

* * * * *

More Vintage Crime

Courtesy of Collins Crime Club. I hadn’t realised this one has a Christmas theme till I popped into Goodreads to copy the blurb – must try to fit it in before Santa gets here!

The Blurb says: The delight of Christmas shoppers at the unveiling of a London department store’s famous window display turns to horror when one of the mannequins is discovered to be a dead body…

Mander’s Department Store in London’s West End is so famous for its elaborate window displays that on Monday mornings crowds gather to watch the window blinds being raised on a new weekly display. On this particular Monday, just a few weeks before Christmas, the onlookers quickly realise that one of the figures is in fact a human corpse, placed among the wax mannequins. Then a second body is discovered, and this striking tableau begins a baffling and complex case for Inspector Devenish of Scotland Yard.

Vernon Loder’s first book The Mystery at Stowe had endeared him in 1928 as ‘one of the most promising recruits to the ranks of detective story writers’. Inspired by the glamour of the legendary Selfridges store on London’s Oxford Street, The Shop Window Murders followed, an entertaining and richly plotted example of the Golden Age deductive puzzle novel, one of his best mysteries for bafflement and ingenuity.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

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

TBR Thursday 182…

A fifth batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

I’m going dramatically slowly on this challenge because of all the other vintage crime books that have come my way recently, but I haven’t forgotten about it completely!

And since I’ve now read and reviewed all of the books from the fourth batch of MMM books, here goes for the fifth batch…

Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles

Courtesy of Dover Publications via NetGalley. Martin Edwards lists this one under the sub-heading The Ironists. Hmm… ironically, I’m not always all that keen on irony, but we’ll see. The blurb sounds good…

The Blurb says: Dr. Edmund Bickleigh married above his station. Although popular and well respected in his little Devonshire community, he seethes with resentment at the superior social status of his domineering wife, Julia. Bickleigh soothes his inferiority complex by seducing as many of the local women as he possibly can — but with the collapse of his latest fling and a fresh dose of sneering contempt from Julia, the doctor resolves to silence his wife forever and begins plotting the perfect murder.

With Malice Aforethought, Francis Iles produced not just a darkly comic narrative of psychological suspense but also a landmark in crime fiction: for the first time, the murderer’s identity was revealed at the start of the tale. Hailed as a tour de force by the British press of its day, the book retains its shock value and stands at #16 in the Crime Writers’ Association ranking of the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time. (Oh good grief, not another book list – save me!!)

Challenge details

Book No: 80

Subject Heading: The Ironists

Publication Year: 1931

Martin Edwards says: “…what set Malice Aforethought apart was the cool wit of the story-telling, which makes the book compulsive reading despite the shortage of characters with whom readers would wish to identify. It was entirely in keeping with the ironic tone of the book that it was dedicated to the author’s wife, from whom he became divorced less than a year later.”

* * * * *

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers

I am not one of Ms Sayers’ legion of fans, finding both her and her detective Lord Peter Wimsey snobby and irritatin’. However it’s a long time since I last read one, so maybe I’ve become more open-minded with age. Yeah, right… 😂

The Blurb says: The Duke of Denver, accused of murder, stands trial for his life in the House of Lords.Naturally, his brother Lord Peter Wimsey is investigating the crime – this is a family affair. The murder took place at the duke’s shooting lodge and Lord Peter’s sister was engaged to marry the dead man.But why does the duke refuse to co-operate with the investigation? Can he really be guilty, or is he covering up for someone?

Challenge details

Book No: 19

Subject Heading: The Great Detectives

Publication Year: 1926

Edwards says: “Lord Peter Wimsey was created as a conscious act of escapism by a young writer who was short of money, and experiencing one unsatisfactory love affair after another. Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, second son of the Duke of Denver, began his fictional life as a fantasy figure.”

* * * * *

Death of an Airman by Christopher St John Sprigg

A detecting bishop! Take that, Father Brown! I’m expecting at least an archbishop next time… or maybe the Pope!

The Blurb says: Death of an Airman is an enjoyable and unorthodox whodunit from a writer whose short life was as remarkable as that of any of his fictional creations. When an aeroplane crashes, and its pilot is killed, Edwin Marriott, the Bishop of Cootamundra in Australia, is on hand. In England on leave, the Bishop has decided to learn how to fly, but he is not convinced that the pilot’s death was accidental. In due course, naturally, he is proved right. The Bishop and Inspector Bray of Scotland Yard make an appealing pair of detectives, and ultimately a cunning criminal scheme is uncovered.

Challenge details

Book No: 58

Subject Heading: Scientific Enquiries

Publication Year: 1934

Edwards says: “The story ‘bubbles over with zest and vitality’, as Dorothy L Sayers said in The Sunday Times; she applauded ‘a most ingenious and exciting plot, full of good puzzles and discoveries and worked out among a varied cast of entertaining characters.’

* * * * *

Payment Deferred by CS Forester

I’ve never thought of CS Forester as a crime writer – Hornblower and The African Queen are what spring to my mind. Sounds good, though…

The Blurb says: Mr Marble is in serious debt, desperate for money to pay his family’s bills, until the combination of a wealthy relative, a bottle of Cyanide and a shovel offer him the perfect solution. In fact, his troubles are only just beginning. Slowly the Marble family becomes poisoned by guilt, and caught in an increasingly dangerous trap of secrets, fear and blackmail. Then, in a final twist of the knife, Mrs Marble ensures that retribution comes in the most unexpected of ways…

First published in 1926, C. S. Forester’s gritty psychological thriller took crime writing in a new direction, portraying ordinary, desperate people committing monstrous acts, and showing events spiralling terribly, chillingly, out of control.

Challenge details

Book No: 74

Subject Heading: The Psychology of Crime

Publication Year: 1926

Edwards says: “Marble is haunted by fear that his secret will be discovered, and Forester charts his disintegration in sharp, disdainful prose. Payment Deferred is a short but striking book; despite the young author’s inexperience, it remains a compelling read.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK. The quotes from Martin Edwards are from his book,
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

* * * * *

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

FictionFan Awards 2018 – Factual

A round of applause…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

FACTUAL

Overall I’ve had a pretty slow year on the factual front – I think I’ve been in recovery from overdoing the heavy history the year before. But although I’ve read far less, I’ve still had some great reads…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Daughters of the Winter Queen by Nancy Goldstone

The Winter Queen of the title is Elizabeth, daughter of James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, and herself briefly Queen of Bohemia, through her marriage to Frederick. Elizabeth and Frederick produced an alarming number of children, the majority of whom lived into adulthood, and as their sons and daughters grew up and contracted marriages or made alliances, they spread their influence throughout the ruling families of 17th century Europe, thus being involved in all the major events (aka wars) of that turbulent period. The book is about the four daughters who survived their childhood years, and at least as much about their brothers, husbands, suitors or male friends.

Goldstone writes breezily, with a great deal of affection towards her subjects, and with a lot of humour. Although there’s lots of history in here, clearly excellently researched, she tells her story almost as if she were writing a novel – a comedy of manners, perhaps, with the odd episode of tragedy thrown in to leaven it, and the non-academic style makes it approachable and easily digestible. The book is a pleasure to read, which is not something that can always be said about history books!

Triumph of the Winter Queen by Gerrit van Honthorst
The Queen surrounded by her many children in various allegorical poses.

Click to see the full review

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The Country House Library by Mark Purcell

This beautifully produced and gorgeously, lavishly illustrated publication is far more than a coffee table book. It’s a comprehensive history of British bookishness from its beginning to the present day. The main thrust of it covers the 17th to 19th centuries – the period when the country house came into its own and wealthy people saw libraries as an essential feature of their homes. Mark Purcell looks at both the books and the rooms they were stored in.

Purcell has clearly had a ball prying into the bookshelves and book catalogues of centuries’ worth of bibliophiles, and his enthusiasm is matched by deep knowledge, backed up with an immense amount of research. This results in a phenomenal amount of detail, which in the early chapters overwhelmed me a little and made the reading heavy going. But I found that I gradually became fascinated, especially when I realised that the bookshelves of the rich – who, of course, were also the powerful – cast an interesting sidelight on many famous historical personages and the societies in which they lived.

Chatsworth: Darcy’s Library!!

Click to see the full review

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Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit Fox

In 1908, an elderly lady, Miss Gilchrist, was bludgeoned to death in her Glasgow home and a brooch was stolen. Shortly afterwards, Oscar Slater pawned a brooch and boarded a ship bound for America. These two facts were enough for the police to decide that he was the guilty man and, sure enough, they arrested and charged him, and he was convicted and condemned to death – a sentence that was swiftly commuted to life imprisonment in response to a growing feeling of doubt over the verdict among some sectors of the public. This book sets out to tell the story of the case and specifically of Arthur Conan Doyle’s involvement in the campaign to have the verdict overturned.

I found this a fascinating read, especially since rather to my surprise I learned quite a lot that I didn’t know about my own city and country. The class divisions, the way people lived, the prejudices and culture all feel authentic and still recognisable to this Glaswegian, and the wider picture of policing and justice in Scotland feels very well researched. The story of Conan Doyle’s involvement is also told well with lots of interesting digressions into the art and science of detection, and plenty of referencing to the world of Sherlock Holmes. One that true crime fans will thoroughly enjoy. 

Click to see the full review

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Space Odyssey: The Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the masterpiece science fiction film that grew out of a collaboration between two creative geniuses, Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. In this book, Michael Benson tells the story of that collaboration, and of the making of the film, its release and its impact. Benson starts by telling the story of how Kubrick approached Clarke with a view to them working together, and then goes on to give a fascinating picture of two creative giants working together, mostly in harmony, each inspiring the other so that the end results were greater than either could have achieved alone.

The book is an excellently balanced mix of the technical geekery of film-making with the human creativity behind it. Not just Clarke and Kubrick, but all of the major members of the crew come to life, as Benson illustrates their personalities with well-timed and well-told anecdotes about life on the set. The quality of the writing and research together with Benson’s great storytelling ability make this not only informative but a real pleasure to read – as much a masterpiece of its kind as the original film and book are of theirs. Highly recommended.

Kubrick and Clarke on set

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

FACTUAL


Despite the quality of the runners-up, there was never any hesitation in my mind as to which book should win this category.

This is a straightforward, factual telling of the story of Ernest Shackleton and his crew, and their failed 1914 bid to cross the Antarctic on foot from west to east. It’s also one of the most stirring and emotionally turbulent books I’ve ever read. These were the days of the great explorers, making crazy expeditions in the name of scientific discovery, but just as much for national pride and for the sheer glory of being the first.

I listened to the audio version narrated by Simon Prebble, and he does a fabulous job. Lansing’s language is wonderfully descriptive, but not full of overly poetic flourishes. This rather plain style, however, works beautifully – the events are so thrilling and the men are such heroes that they don’t need any great fanfares or flowery flourishes to enhance their story. I found myself totally caught up, willing them on, crying over each new disaster, celebrating with them over any small triumph. As it got towards the end, my tension levels were going through the roof, just as they would have been had these men been personal friends – indeed, after the long journey I’d made in their company, I truly felt they were.

The Endurance trapped in the ice during the long polar night…

Click to see the full review

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Next Week: Best Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Tuesday Terror! Basil Netherby by AC Benson

If music be the food of evil…

Apparently the famous EF Benson had two ghost-story-writing brothers – AC and RH (their parents were clearly big on initials). This collection includes stories from both of them, turn and turn about. So in a future post I’ll highlight one of RH’s, but AC takes the stage for this week’s…

Basil Netherby
by AC Benson

AC Benson

“…for God’s sake, dear Leonard, if you would help a friend who is on the edge (I dare not say of what), come to me tomorrow, UNINVITED. You will think this very strange, but do not mind that – only come – unannounced, do you see…”

This forms the postscript to a letter our narrator, Leonard Ward, receives from his old friend, Basil Netherby. They had studied music together, and since then Netherby has been travelling from place to place working on his compositions. Now he is lodging in an old house called Treheale, in Cornwall. The main body of the letter gives a glowing account of the work Netherby is doing there – only the postscript worries Ward…

My first thought was that Basil was mad; my next thought that he had drifted into some awkward situation, fallen under some unfortunate influence – was perhaps being blackmailed – and I knew his sensitive character well enough to feel sure that whatever the trouble was it would be exaggerated ten times over by his lively and apprehensive mind.

Netherby has also enclosed a sample of the music he had been writing, and this worries Ward even more…

…what music it was! It was like nothing of which I’d ever even dreamed. There was a wild, intemperate voluptuousness about it, a kind of evil relish of beauty which gave me a painful thrill.

So Ward rushes off to Cornwall. But, to his surprise, when he gets there, Netherby is looking fine – more than fine, in fact. He has a vigour and glow he never before possessed and seems in high spirits. But Ward worries that this change in his friend is a sign of something troubling and he begins to connect it with the house. This feeling grows stronger when, while walking around the wooded grounds, he comes across a path that takes him to a strange-looking little door at a corner of the house…

I do not know what was the obsession that fell on me at the sight of this place. A cold dismay seemed to spring from the dark and clutch me; there are places which seem so soaked, as it were, in malign memories that they give out a kind of spiritual aroma of evil. I have seen in my life things which might naturally seem to produce in the mind associations of terror and gloom. I have seen men die; I have seen a man writhe in pain on the ground from a mortal injury; but I never experienced anything like the thrill of horror which passed through my shuddering mind at the sight of the little door with its dark eye-holes.

* * * * *

I’ve only read a few of the stories from each of the two brothers so far, but AC is winning hands down, not least because of this excellent tale. There’s no great mystery to it – Ward is soon told that the malign influence Netherby is suffering under is the ghost of the house’s previous owner, a dissolute man who had spent his life corrupting the youth of the village and seems intent on continuing after death.

The writing is great and soon creates a real atmosphere of evil and dread. AC uses the idea of Netherby’s music very effectively, showing it both as having resulted from corruption and of being, in itself, corrupting. As Ward says…

Heard upon the piano, the accent of subtle evil that ran through the music became even more obvious. I seemed to struggle between two feelings – an over-powering admiration, and a sense of shame at my own capacity for admiring it.

There’s a distinct but distinctly Edwardian suggestion that the corruption is of a sensual nature, turning these decent young men’s thoughts to something slightly more earthy than a well-turned ankle, and thus leading them from the path of righteousness into temptation. (All the stories so far have had a religious element underpinning them; sometimes broadly, especially in RH’s; sometimes, as in this one, rather more subtly.) The question is whether Ward will be able to save his friend and get him away from the house before it’s too late, but the ghost doesn’t take too kindly to that idea. As the story reaches its crescendo it becomes tense indeed! Good stuff!

(The porpentine became obsessed with the music…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

NB The collection Ghosts in the House was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Chillers.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

No Name by William Wilkie Collins

Money, money, money…

😦 😦

When Magdalen and Norah Vanstone are left orphaned by the sudden and unexpected deaths of their parents, they are further shocked to discover that their parents had not been married when the girls were born. Not only does this make the sisters illegitimate – a shameful thing in itself – but due to a quirk of the law it also prevents them from inheriting their father’s wealth. The money goes to their father’s estranged brother, Michael Vanstone, who resolutely refuses to help them. Norah accepts this but the fiery Magdalen cannot. She decides she will regain their lost inheritance, whatever the cost…

It’s many years since I read Collins’ two most famous books, The Moonstone and The Woman in White, neither of which became a favourite. I thought perhaps the passing of time would have made me able to appreciate him more, especially since so many people hold him in such high regard. I’m afraid I found this book tedious, filled with unlikeable characters about whom I cared not a jot.

As always, I came away with the impression that Collins was trying to ‘do a Dickens’ and was failing pretty dramatically. He suggests the book is going to address a social injustice, as Dickens does so well, but in reality his treatment of the stigma of illegitimacy is superficial. He attempts to create characters with that kind of caricaturing Dickens does so well, but they come off like pale imitations. We have the swindler, Captain Wragge, who helps Magdalen with her revenge scheme. He’s given little quirks like recording all his swindles as carefully as if they were legitimate business deals, or having certain mannerisms in the way he talks. But he doesn’t have either the humour of Dickens’ minor characters nor the truly sinister feeling of Dickens’ villains. His wife is a simple-minded giantess, whom he treats despicably. In a Dickens story, she would either be tragic or comic. Here, she’s merely a plot vehicle – pitiable but irritating when she’s on the page, and forgotten when she’s not required.

Millais frontispiece to 1864 Sampson Low edition

Admittedly Magdalen is a more rounded character than some of Dickens’ many insipid young girls. Unfortunately, she’s such an unpleasant little money-grubber I found it impossible to get up any liking or concern for her. Yes, it must be sad not to be rich if you thought you would be, but frankly she’s hardly poor either in comparison to the true poverty of so many at that time. Norah is considerably more likeable – she decides to earn her living and gets on with it. She and Miss Garth, the girls’ old governess, were the only two characters I cared about at all, and unfortunately Collins dumps them a third of the way through and from then on we only hear little snippets about how they’re getting on, while we spend far too much time with whining Magdalen, the Wragges and the Vanstone household. The problem for me was that the villains were no more despicable than the ostensible heroine of the novel.

William Wilkie Collins
Portrait by Rudolph Lehmann

But OK, so he’s no Dickens, and his characters’ sole obsession is with acquiring and hoarding money. I could probably still have squeezed some enjoyment out of that if only it hadn’t been so unnecessarily long! I hear you, Collins’ fans – no, it’s not as long as some of Dickens’ books, but Dickens would have had a cast of thousands, each described to unique perfection, with a dozen sub-plots all being juggled masterfully. Here we have one dull plot – “Give me back my money!” – and a handful of unattractive characters, and it’s dragged out for over 700 tortuous pages! Do we all know how it will end? I think we have a fair idea! It’s a Victorian novel after all and there are conventions. So the journey matters since the end is barely in doubt. And this journey is like being on a train for twenty hours with the blinds drawn, and nothing good to read…

Oh dear! I was going to try to make this sound more balanced but sometimes reviews take on their own momentum. There is an interesting introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by Virginia Blain, Associate Professor in English at Macquarie University in Sydney. Unsurprisingly, she’s considerably more enthusiastic about the book than I, and I enjoyed reading (and disagreeing with) her opinion!

I’m sure fans of Collins’ style will enjoy the book. But for those of us who prefer the flamboyance and genius of a Dickens, then I fear this will taste as thin and unappetising as a plate of Scrooge’s gruel…

Book 36 of 90

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 178…

Episode 178…

Another drop this week – the TBR is down 2 to 226! Unless the postman has arrived since I posted this, in which case it’s gone up 1 to 229…

Here’s a few more that should make my head spin…

Factual

Courtesy of the British Library. From the look of this book, it’s the kind of thing that would be great as a stocking filler or little extra gift for a book lover. Sounds like fun – part 1!

The Blurb says: Books: reading, collecting, and the physical housing of them has brought the book-lover joy and stress for centuries. Fascinated writers have tried to capture the particular relationships we form with our library, and the desperate troubles we will undergo to preserve it. With Alex Johnson as your guide, immerse yourself in this eclectic anthology and hear from an iconic Prime Minister musing over the best way to store your books and an illustrious US President explaining the best works to read outdoors. Enjoy serious speculations on the psychological implications of reading from a 19th century philosopher, and less serious ones concerning the predicament of dispensing with unwanted volumes or the danger of letting children (the enemies of books) near your collection. The many facets of book-mania are pondered and celebrated with both sincerity and irreverence in this lively selection of essays, poems, lectures, and commentaries ranging from the 16th to the 20th century.

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Also from the British Library, this delicious little companion to their Crime Classics series looks fiendishly entertaining! Sounds like fun – part 2!

The Blurb says: Polish off your magnifying glass and step into the shoes of your favourite detectives as you unlock tantalising clues and solve intricate puzzles. There are over 100 criminally teasing challenges to be scrutinised, including word searches, anagrams, snapshot covers, and crosswords a favourite puzzle of crime fictions golden age. Suitable for all ages and levels, this is the ultimate test for fans of the British Library Crime Classics series. For six years, the British Library have brought neglected crime fiction writers into the spotlight in a series of republished novels and anthologies. There are now more than 50 British Library Crime Classics titles to collect.

Fiction

For my largely neglected 5 x 5 Challenge. I was blown away by Beloved when I read it nearly three years ago, and yet I still haven’t read any of Toni Morrison’s other books. Time to change that…

The Blurb says: Song of Solomon is a work of outstanding beauty and power, whose story covers the years from the 1930’s to the 1960’s in America. At its centre is Macon Dead Jr, the son of a wealthy black property owner, who has been brought up to revere the white world. Macon learns about the tyranny of white society from his friend Guitar, though he is more concerned to escape the tyranny of his father. So while Guitar joins a terrorist group of poor blacks, Macon goes home to the South, lured by tales of buried family treasure. His journey leads to the discovery of something more valuable than gold, his past. Yet the truth about his origins and his true self is not fully revealed to Macon until he and Guitar meet once again in powerful, and deadly confrontation.

* * * * *

Dickens for Christmas

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Every year, I revisit A Christmas Carol over the Christmas season, trying new audiobooks or TV/film adaptations. But it’s actually been a few years now since I read the paper copy. This hardback is a new edition for this year and, as with this entire series of hardbacks, is much more gorgeous in real life than the cover picture makes it look. My plan is to read one of the five Christmas stories each week in December…

The Blurb says: ‘What was merry Christmas to Scrooge? Out upon merry Christmas! What good had it ever done to him?’

Ebenezer Scrooge is a bad-tempered skinflint who hates Christmas and all it stands for, but a ghostly visitor foretells three apparitions who will thaw Scrooge’s frozen heart. A Christmas Carol has gripped the public imagination since it was first published in 1843, and it is now as much a part of Christmas as mistletoe or plum pudding. This edition reprints the story alongside Dickens’s four other Christmas Books: The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, and The Haunted Man. All five stories show Dickens at his unpredictable best, jumbling together comedy and melodrama, genial romance and urgent social satire, in pursuit of his aim ‘to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land’.

* * * * *

Horror

Courtesy of Collins Chillers. Last week I mentioned HarperCollins had sent me a selection of three new horror collections – this is the second. I’ve read some EF Benson before, but had no idea his brothers wrote ghost stories too…

The Blurb says: One of the most extraordinary, and prolific writing families of the last one hundred years must be the Bensons. All three brothers wrote ghost stories, and Fred Benson is acknowledged as one of the finest writers of supernatural fiction of this century, whose name is mentioned in the same breath as such other greats as M.R. James and H.R. Wakefield. However, for many years his success in the genre has overshadowed the work that Arthur and Hugh did in the field of the supernatural story; and their weird tales, long out of print and difficult to find, were known to only a few enthusiasts.

Now, for the first time, the best supernatural tales of A.C. and R.H. Benson have been gathered together into one volume. Hugh Lamb, whose ground-breaking anthologies of the 1970s were largely responsible for their re-discovery, has collected nineteen of the best stories by both writers, including A.C. Benson’s masterful tales ‘Basil Netherby’ and ‘The Uttermost Farthing’. Also included is a rare 1913 article, ‘Haunted Houses’, by R.H. Benson, reprinted here for the first time, and an Introduction which examines the lives and writings of these two complex and fascinating men.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

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

Tuesday Terror! The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Dreadful dreadfulness…

I’ve seen about a million adaptations and derivations of this classic tale, but have never before read the original. Time to rectify that in this week’s…

The Turn of the Screw
by Henry James

Henry James
by John Singer Sargent

A house party has spent a happy evening swapping ghost stories, when one man, Douglas, tells them that he has a tale given to him by a woman he once knew…

….“Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It’s quite too horrible.” This, naturally, was declared by several voices to give the thing the utmost price, and our friend, with quiet art, prepared his triumph by turning his eyes over the rest of us and going on: “It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it.”
….“For sheer terror?” I remember asking.
….He seemed to say it was not so simple as that; to be really at a loss how to qualify it. He passed his hand over his eyes, made a little wincing grimace. “For dreadful—dreadfulness!”

The story is of a young governess who is engaged to look after two children, the orphaned niece and nephew of her employer. He makes it clear he sees the children as a nuisance and tells her…

“…that she should never trouble him—but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything; only meet all questions herself, receive all moneys from his solicitor, take the whole thing over and let him alone. She promised to do this, and she mentioned to me that when, for a moment, disburdened, delighted, he held her hand, thanking her for the sacrifice, she already felt rewarded.

ENO open-air production of Britten’s opera – If the ghosts don’t make you scream, the singing might…

This gives the reader an early indication that she’s certifiably nuts, something that becomes ever clearer as the tale progresses. Luckily, this means she’ll fit well in at the house in Bly where she will be living, since all the inmates could do with some urgent psychiatric intervention. But first, we must meet her young charges…

The little girl who accompanied Mrs. Grose appeared to me on the spot a creature so charming as to make it a great fortune to have to do with her. She was the most beautiful child I had ever seen, and I afterward wondered that my employer had not told me more of her.

Possibly her employer had sussed that a child of such unnatural beauty and charm must be the spawn of Satan… but I anticipate! The brother is equally uncanny…

…I felt, as he stood wistfully looking out for me before the door of the inn at which the coach had put him down, that I had seen him, on the instant, without and within, in the great glow of freshness, the same positive fragrance of purity, in which I had, from the first moment, seen his little sister. He was incredibly beautiful…

Michelle Dockery in a BBC adaptation from 2009

Our governess soon learns of the strange unexplained deaths of the two people who had previously cared for these unnatural monstrosities, but even that doesn’t make her hand in her notice and seek alternative employment. Not even the appearance of dead people around the old homestead is enough to make this woman run for the hills…

I was there to protect and defend the little creatures in the world the most bereaved and the most lovable, the appeal of whose helplessness had suddenly become only too explicit, a deep, constant ache of one’s own committed heart. We were cut off, really, together; we were united in our danger. They had nothing but me, and I—well, I had THEM.

Jodhi May in a TV adaptation from 1999.
Good heavens! Is that?… can it be??… the ghost of Darcy behind her???

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Well, my goodness! This didn’t terrify the porpy and me exactly, but it chilled us to the bone. Its ambiguity is its major feature, with nothing clear or explained and with deliberate gaps in time and explanations that leave the reader to make her own interpretations. The great introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition tells me that debate has raged ever since publication over whether the ghosts are real or a figment of the governess’ disordered imagination. I’m in the middle – I could argue for or against the reality of the ghosts. However, I’m decidedly of the opinion that, either way, the governess is crazy and disturbingly obsessed by the beauty of the children. Maybe it’s a symptom of today’s world, but every time the story hinted at corruption or evil I saw it as a euphemism for sexual abuse, and wondered whether the original readers would have thought that or if they’d have seen the evil as a more satanic thing. Had the children been abused by their former guardians? I suspected so. Was the governess sexually abusive? Hmm, perhaps not, but her overwhelming need for the love of the children and her constant physical hugging and kissing of them felt smothering and extreme. Had the children, as victims of abuse sometimes do, become abusers in turn? I don’t want to stray too far into spoiler territory but we are left to wonder why young Miles had been expelled from school…

Deborah Kerr in a movie adaptation, titled The Innocents, from 1961.

I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoyed the story – it stank too deeply of corruption and vice to be entertaining, especially with the involvement of such young children, and I searched in vain for someone I could trust. Of course this is clearly the intended effect, so full marks to James for creating something so disturbing. There are references to some of the Gothic classics and particularly echoes of Jane Eyre, but in this case I had to feel that it was the governess who should have been locked in the attic. Generally speaking, I shrug off written horror as soon as I close the book, but I found myself thinking of this story when I woke in the dark reaches of the night, and I had troubled dreams…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The porpy was chilled to the bone by this one…

NB I read this in The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories, provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. I’ll review the full book later.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 176…

Episode 176…

I had already typed this post yesterday, boasting about how I hadn’t had an increase in the TBR for five weeks. Then the postman knocked the door. So… up five to 232!! 

Here’s what’s rolling down the TBR tracks soon… a brilliant selection this week, I think!

Historical Fiction

Courtesy of Mantle, Pan MacMillan. This was one that arrived yesterday and I’m thrilled to bits! Possibly my most eagerly anticipated book of the year – all 801 pages of it! The Shardlake series is my favourite historical fiction series ever and a new one is better than being let loose in a chocolate shop! So for once when I say “can’t wait”, I mean it literally. I’ve already begun…

The Blurb says: Summer, 1549. Two years after the death of Henry VIII, England is sliding into chaos . . .

The nominal king, Edward VI, is eleven years old. His uncle Edward Seymour, Lord Hertford, rules as Protector. The extirpation of the old religion by radical Protestants is stirring discontent among the populace while the Protector’s prolonged war with Scotland is proving a disastrous failure and threatens to involve France. Worst of all, the economy is in collapse, inflation rages and rebellion is stirring among the peasantry.

Since the old King’s death, Matthew Shardlake has been working as a lawyer in the service of Henry’s younger daughter, the Lady Elizabeth. The gruesome murder of the wife of a distant Norfolk relation of Elizabeth’s mother, John Boleyn – which could have political implications for Elizabeth – brings Shardlake and his assistant Nicholas Overton to the summer assizes at Norwich. There they are reunited with Shardlake’s former assistant Jack Barak. The three find layers of mystery and danger surrounding the death of Edith Boleyn, as a second murder is committed.

And then East Anglia explodes, as peasant rebellion breaks out across the country. The yeoman Robert Kett leads a force of thousands in overthrowing the landlords and establishing a vast camp outside Norwich. Soon the rebels have taken over the city, England’s second largest . . . 

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Horror

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Another of the horror anthologies I’ve been lucky enough to acquire for this spooky season. The porpy and I will both need new hair-dos by the time we get through them all, I suspect…

The Blurb says: A young, inexperienced governess is charged with the care of Miles and Flora, two small children abandoned by their uncle at his grand country house. She sees the figure of an unknown man on the tower and his face at the window. It is Peter Quint, the master’s dissolute valet, and he has come for little Miles. But Peter Quint is dead.

Like the other tales collected here – ‘Sir Edmund Orme’, ‘Owen Wingrave’, and ‘The Friends of the Friends’ – ‘The Turn of the Screw’ is to all immediate appearances a ghost story. But are the appearances what they seem? Is what appears to the governess a ghost or a hallucination? Who else sees what she sees? The reader may wonder whether the children are victims of corruption from beyond the grave, or victims of the governess’s ‘infernal imagination’, which torments but also enthrals her?

‘The Turn of the Screw’ is probably the most famous, certainly the most eerily equivocal, of all ghostly tales. Is it a subtle, self-conscious exploration of the haunted house of Victorian culture, filled with echoes of sexual and social unease? Or is it simply, ‘the most hopelessly evil story that we have ever read’?

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Historical Fiction

I bought this in August 2013 so it must be time to read it, I feel. It has lingered on the TBR because it’s quite long and is the first part of a trilogy. But I’m still as keen to read it now as I was back then…

The Blurb says: At the heart of this vibrant saga is a vast ship, the Ibis. Her destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean shortly before the outbreak of the Opium Wars in China. In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a diverse cast of Indians and Westerners on board, from a bankrupt raja to a widowed tribeswoman, from a mulatto American freedman to a free-spirited French orphan. As their old family ties are washed away, they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais, or ship-brothers. The vast sweep of this historical adventure spans the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, and the exotic backstreets of Canton.

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Crime

Courtesy of Quercus via NetGalley. A Gothic thriller from Elly Griffiths! I shall quietly ignore the hideous Gone Girl/Disclaimer reference in the blurb – do publishers really want to put people off?? Well, they’ve failed – I’m super-excited about this one!

The Blurb says: A gripping contemporary Gothic thriller from the bestselling author of the Dr Ruth Galloway mysteries: Wilkie Collins and MR James meet Gone Girl and Disclaimer.

Clare Cassidy is no stranger to murder. As a literature teacher specialising in the Gothic writer RM Holland, she teaches a short course on it every year. Then Clare’s life and work collide tragically when one of her colleagues is found dead, a line from an RM Holland story by her body. The investigating police detective is convinced the writer’s works somehow hold the key to the case.

Not knowing who to trust, and afraid that the killer is someone she knows, Clare confides her darkest suspicions and fears about the case to her journal. Then one day she notices some other writing in the diary. Writing that isn’t hers…

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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?

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Due to having totally run out of reviews and to having received Tombland (did I mention it’s 801 pages?), I’m disappearing for a bit to do some intensive reading. Don’t get up to mischief while I’m gone…