The Face in the Glass: The Gothic Tales of Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Tales of unease…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This new collection from the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series contains fourteen short horror stories from the pen of a woman probably best-known for her sensation novels, Mary Elizabeth Braddon. It comes with a brief but informative introduction from Greg Buzwell, who tells a little about Braddon’s unconventional personal life and discusses the writers who may have influenced her.

I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of her writing. In my ignorance and literary snobbishness, I was expecting these to be at the pulpy end of horror, probably full of high melodrama and swooning maidens, but they’re not at all. There’s a wide variety of styles, from the standard hauntings to tales of revenge, but also some with a more reflective edge, about wasted lives and possible afterlives. Most of them involve the supernatural in one way or another, but human evil is also there in many of them. Some have a touch of romance and there’s some gentle humour in the observations of the society in which the stories are set.

However, the stories often contain a great deal of sadness and unfairness and somehow this stopped me from being able to love them all wholeheartedly. I often say that the joy of vintage crime is that authors knew to kill people that everyone disliked, so the reader doesn’t have to be grief-stricken. The same tends to apply to vintage horror – the people to whom bad things happen usually either deserve it or aren’t developed well enough for the reader to care, while the hero or heroine, or the narrator/observer, usually survives. In these stories, I found Braddon was very talented at creating characters that I grew to care about quickly, and then at the end they would often die, leaving me feeling sad rather than pleasantly chilled. And her women in particular seem to suffer unfairly at the hands of both human and supernatural evil. This is simply a matter of preference, however – it doesn’t make the stories any less good but for me it did make them a little less enjoyable.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Despite this, I rated ten of the fourteen stories as either four or five stars, and none of them got less than three, so it’s fair to say I was very impressed by her storytelling skill. Several of the ones that got four would have been fives too, had it not been for the fact that I was upset by the unhappiness of the endings. Braddon is expert at creating an air of unease, or of taking things off in an unexpected direction. These aren’t stories to make you jump at sudden horror, but they tend to linger in the mind after the last page is turned. There are strong women in them, but they are operating in social conventions that restrict them and leave them vulnerable to all kinds of dangers and cruelties. Very few of them swoon, though, and some of them have their revenge…

Here is a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:-

Eveline’s Visitant – I reviewed this previously in a Tuesday Terror! Post.

My Wife’s Promise – a man was a polar explorer until he married, after which he intended to stay home. However, when their first and only child dies, he finds himself tempted to join an expedition, and his selfless wife agrees that he should go. This is a rather tragic story, but it’s very well told with lots of excellent stuff about polar voyages.

Three Times – a strange story about a lion tamer who becomes fixated on a man who begins to turn up in his audience from time to time. Each time he appears, the lion tamer loses control of his beasts and becomes increasingly convinced that somehow the man in the audience is a kind of portent of doom. It’s never fully explained, but that is what gives it its wonderful air of unease – is something supernatural happening or not? Or is it all in the lion tamer’s mind? Nicely creepy.

The Ghost’s Name – this seems as if it’s a traditional haunted house story, but there’s more to it than that. Lady Halverdene’s husband is a drunken brute, and she and her sister choose to stay away from the gaze of society in his country home. There’s a room there which used to be a nursery, and tales are told of children who have slept there dying young. This isn’t scary in a supernatural way, but there’s plenty of drama in it, and some great observations of characters and society. And a rather fun little twist at the end!

Good Lady Ducayne – young Bella takes a job as paid companion to the extremely old Lady Ducayne. Bella knows that Lady Ducayne’s previous companions have sickened and died, but she is young, healthy and in need of money to keep her mother and herself out of dire poverty. Lady Ducayne takes her off to Italy and it’s not long before her health begins to decline. Fortunately for her, she has already won the admiration and love of a young gentleman who happens also to be a doctor. I loved this one – it’s a great mix of vague spookiness and human evil, and Bella is a delightful heroine whom we get to know through her letters home to her beloved mother. And for once, I came out of this one smiling.

So a very good collection overall with plenty of variety, and if you can put up with some rather sad endings then I highly recommend it. I’m now keen to read Lady Audley’s Secret to see how her style translates to novel length.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 216…

Episode 216

You might want to hold on to your hats, people, because you’re in for a major shock! The TBR has plunged this week by a massive FOUR – down to 214! 

Here are a few more I’ll be diving into soon…

American Classic

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

This is on both my Classics Club list and my 5 x 5 Challenge. Oh dear! I do think Steinbeck’s prose is wonderful but I find his worldview depressing way beyond realism. I’m really hoping this will be the one that I can finally love without reservation… but I’m not confident…

The Blurb says: Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. Here Steinbeck created some of his most memorable characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity; the inexplicability of love; and the murderous consequences of love’s absence.

* * * * *

Classic Sci-Fi

Wild Harbour by Ian MacPherson

Well, I made it through just 8% of Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein before throwing it at the wall. So I found I had an empty slot in the Sci-Fi section of my Classics Club list. Serendipitously, the British Library had sent me a copy of this vintage sci-fi from a Scottish author, which is quite a rarity in itself…

The Blurb says: Something has happened in Europe. Fearing the approach of it to Britain, Terry and Hugh retreat from their home to the remote highlands of Scotland, prepared to live a simple existence together whilst the fighting resolves itself far away. Encouraged by Terry, Hugh begins a journal to note down the highs and lows of this return to nature, and to process their concerns of the oncoming danger. But as the sounds of guns by night grow louder, the grim prospect of encroaching war threatens to invade their cherish isolation and demolish any hope of future peace. Macpherson’s only science fiction novel is a bleak and truly prescient novel of future war first published in 1936, just 3 years before the outbreak of conflict in Europe. A carefully drawn tale of survival in the wilderness and the value of our connection with others, Wild Harbour is both beautiful and heart-rending.

(Since I know some of you enjoy my embittered abandonment comments on Goodreads, here’s what I said about Starship Troopers

8% in and bored out of my mind. I paraphrase…

“I saw a building and directed a bomb with a funny name at it. It blew up. I saw another building and directed another bomb with an equally funny name at it. It blew up.” Ad nauseam.

If only I had a bomb with a funny name I could blow this book up. As it is, I’ll have to settle for deleting it from my Kindle. A classic? Perhaps, but only if you like bombs.)

* * * * *

Historical Crime

Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee

The much-anticipated next instalment in Mukherjee’s excellent Sam Wyndham series, set in the last days of the Raj. My only criticism of this series has been Sam’s tedious opium addiction, so I’m delighted to see he’s seeking a cure – I sincerely hope he finds it…

The Blurb says: 1922, India. Leaving Calcutta, Captain Sam Wyndham heads for the hills of Assam, to the ashram of a sainted monk where he hopes to conquer his opium addiction. But when he arrives, he sees a ghost from his past – a man thought to be long dead, a man Wyndham hoped he would never see again.

1905, London. As a young constable, Sam Wyndham is on his usual East London beat when he comes across an old flame, Bessie Drummond, attacked in the streets. The next day, when Bessie is found brutally beaten in her own room, locked from the inside, Wyndham promises to get to the bottom of this. But the case will cost the young constable more than he ever imagined.

In Assam, Wyndham knows he must call his friend and colleague Sergeant Banerjee for help. He is certain this figure from his past isn’t here by coincidence, but for revenge . . .

* * * * *

Historical Fiction

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

For my Around the World challenge, but also mainly because I’ve wanted to read this one for a long time. Regulars will know I enjoy colonial-era fiction, but it’s usually told through the eyes of the colonisers. This book is lauded as changing that, and putting an African voice and perspective centre-stage…  

The Blurb says: Okonkwo is the greatest warrior alive, famous throughout West Africa. But when he accidentally kills a clansman, things begin to fall apart. Then Okonkwo returns from exile to find missionaries and colonial governors have arrived in the village. With his world thrown radically off-balance he can only hurtle towards tragedy. Chinua Achebe’s stark novel reshaped both African and world literature. This arresting parable of a proud but powerless man witnessing the ruin of his people begins Achebe’s landmark trilogy of works chronicling the fate of one African community, continued in Arrow of God and No Longer at Ease.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Payment Deferred by CS Forester

Fade to grey…

🙂 🙂 🙂

We first meet William Marble as he sits in his dining room one evening, totting up his debts. William is a bank clerk who deals in currency exchange, and his salary is of the respectable rather than the generous kind. Despite his humble house, he and his wife Annie always overspend their budget and for a long time William has been shuffling his debt around, borrowing from one person to pay off another. But now he’s reached the point where he has no-one left to tap and his creditors are looking to be paid. Then his young nephew arrives unexpectedly from Australia, with a wallet stuffed with wads of banknotes. And it just so happens William has a cupboard full of photography chemicals that can easily double as poison…

This is not a detective novel, so that little blurb isn’t nearly as spoilerish as it might seem. The murder happens right at the beginning, and the book is actually about the impact it has on William’s psychology. We watch as guilt and fear eat away at him, destroying his already weak character. It’s very well written and psychologically convincing but, oh my, it’s depressing! William is deeply unlikeable while Annie is portrayed as so stupid that it seems unlikely that William would ever have found her attractive. They have two teenage children. Winnie, William’s favourite, starts out OK, but becomes progressively harder to like as the book goes on, while John, the son, has all the makings of a fine young man till his father’s increasingly erratic behaviour begins to affect him. I had a lot of sympathy for John, a little for poor stupid Annie, and none at all for the other two.

William eventually solves his money problems by carrying out a shady transaction at his bank – what today we’d describe as insider trading. Clearly Forester understood what he was talking he about when he described the details of how this scheme worked, but I fear I didn’t and my eyes began to glaze over. However, the end result is that William suddenly becomes well off, and we see how this change in fortune too affects the members of the family, not for the better.

Challenge details:
Book: 74
Subject Heading: The Psychology of Crime
Publication Year: 1926

The element of suspense comes from wondering what the outcome will be. Will William give himself away? Will Annie begin to suspect him? But it’s very underplayed – for reasons made clear early on, there’s no active investigation going on into the young victim’s disappearance. While the vast majority of the book is very credible, the ending left me annoyed at the abrupt and contrived way Forester tied everything up.

As you can probably tell, this one is not a favourite of mine. I often struggle with books where the criminal is the main character unless there’s plenty of black humour to lift the tone. In this one there is no humour, leaving it a bleak story with a couple of episodes that I found distinctly unpleasant. Had it been set amidst the anxious speed of big city life I would call it noir, but the respectable dullness of the middle-class suburban setting left the tone feeling grey. I also felt it went on too long (though in actual pages it’s quite short) – the endless descriptions of William drinking whisky to drown his guilt, his heart constantly thudding, pounding, racing, poor Annie’s repeated descent into sobbing for one reason or another, all became so repetitive that they lost any impact after a while.

CS Forester

However, this is mostly a matter of personal taste – I do think it does what it sets out to do very well; that is, to show the disintegration of the man and the effect this has on his family. Call me shallow but, although I admired the skill and the writing, I simply didn’t find it entertaining or enjoyable. Nor was it quite tragic enough to be harrowing, somehow. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, but the ratings on Goodreads suggest plenty of people have enjoyed it far more than I did, so if the idea of it appeals to you, don’t let my reaction put you off. Noir is not my favourite colour, even when it’s faded…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link – sorry, can only find used copies on Amazon US.

Tuesday Terror! The Moon-Bog by HP Lovecraft

Wraiths and frogs…

HP Lovecraft has become an annual fixture on Tuesday Terror! ever since I first came across him and mocked his overblown style a few years back. Somehow his “weird” imagery wormed itself into my brain and, while I still occasionally mock him, I’ve come to admire his work and to realise how influential it has been on horror and weird fiction right up to the present day. The porpy and I first read this story last year and still remember some of the imagery distinctly, so it seems a perfect choice for this week’s…

The Moon-Bog
by HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

Somewhere, to what remote and fearsome region I know not, Denys Barry has gone. I was with him the last night he lived among men, and heard his screams when the thing came to him; but all the peasants and police in County Meath could never find him, or the others, though they searched long and far. And now I shudder when I hear the frogs piping in swamps, or see the moon in lonely places.

Ah, frogs! Deliciously Lovecraftian! Having made his money in America, Denys Barry has purchased the decayed ancestral castle of his family in Ireland and has spent the last few years restoring it to its former glory, much to the joy of the local peasantry who benefited from the work and money he provided.

But in time there came troubles, and the peasants ceased to bless him, and fled away instead as from a doom. And then he sent a letter and asked me to visit him, for he was lonely in the castle with no one to speak to save the new servants and labourers he had brought from the north.

Artist unknown

Our narrator hastens to be by his friend’s side…

I had reached Kilderry in the summer sunset, as the gold of the sky lighted the green of the hills and groves and the blue of the bog, where on a far islet a strange olden ruin glistened spectrally. That sunset was very beautiful, but the peasants at Ballylough had warned me against it and said that Kilderry had become accursed, so that I almost shuddered to see the high turrets of the castle gilded with fire.

That evening, Denys tells him of the trouble…

The peasants had gone from Kilderry because Denys Barry was to drain the great bog. For all his love of Ireland, America had not left him untouched, and he hated the beautiful wasted space where peat might be cut and land opened up. The legends and superstitions of Kilderry did not move him, and he laughed when the peasants first refused to help, and then cursed him and went away to Ballylough with their few belongings as they saw his determination.

Art by bealinn via deviantart.com

Our narrator laughs too. Oh, how they laugh! Superstitious peasants! What rational man would pay attention to their absurd fears?

They had to do with some preposterous legend of the bog, and of a grim guardian spirit that dwelt in the strange olden ruin on the far islet I had seen in the sunset. There were tales of dancing lights in the dark of the moon, and of chill winds when the night was warm; of wraiths in white hovering over the waters, and of an imagined city of stone deep down below the swampy surface. But foremost among the weird fancies, and alone in its absolute unanimity, was that of the curse awaiting him who should dare to touch or drain the vast reddish morass.

Here’s a tip for anyone thinking of moving to a new neighbourhood: always listen to the fears of the local peasants! Denys proceeds with his plans, bringing in labourers from outside since the locals have left. Meantime our narrator’s nights are disturbed by dreams of wild music and mysterious figures on the bog. And then on the night before the bog is due to be drained, he is woken by the sound of shrill piping and a strange light…

Terrible and piercing was the shaft of ruddy refulgence that streamed through the Gothic window, and the whole chamber was brilliant with a splendour intense and unearthly.

Finally plucking up his courage, he looks out of his tower room window at the bog below…

Half gliding, half floating in the air, the white-clad bog-wraiths were slowly retreating toward the still waters and the island ruin in fantastic formations suggesting some ancient and solemn ceremonial dance. Their waving translucent arms, guided by the detestable piping of those unseen flutes, beckoned in uncanny rhythm to a throng of lurching labourers who followed dog-like with blind, brainless, floundering steps as if dragged by a clumsy but resistless daemon-will. As the naiads neared the bog, without altering their course, a new line of stumbling stragglers zigzagged drunkenly out of the castle from some door far below my window, groped sightlessly across the courtyard and through the intervening bit of village, and joined the floundering column of labourers on the plain.

And then the shrieking begins…

Art by Stephen Fabian

* * * * *

I think this is my favourite of all the Lovecraft stories I’ve read. A wonderful mix of Gothic horror and weird fiction, the frogs are not to be missed, and the whole thing is full of Lovecraft’s amazing imagery. I read it in the gorgeous British Library hardback, The Gothic Tales of HP Lovecraft – a book that I highly recommend both for the quality of the stories and for the tactile beauty of the book. However if you’d like to read this story online, here’s a link.  I warn you, though, if you ever let Lovecraft inside your head, you may never be able to rid yourself of him…

The porpy is refusing to come out of the tree till
he’s sure there are no frogs around…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

The battlefield of love…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Gertrude and Walter Morel are an unequal match: she, the educated daughter of “burgher stock”, he, a miner in the Nottingham coal fields. Their attraction is one of physical passion, which soon burns out. Gertrude comes to despise the very things that she once found irresistible in Walter: his animalistic physicality and domineering masculinity. She turns away from him and invests her love in her children, especially her two oldest sons, William and Paul. As they grow into manhood, Gertrude treats them in turn almost as surrogate husbands, and exerts such a hold on their affections that each finds it hard to develop relationships with women. The book follows Paul through his childhood, adolescence and young manhood, and the three women who vie for his love.

In her arms lay the delicate baby. Its deep blue eyes, always looking up at her unblinking, seemed to draw her innermost thoughts out of her. She no longer loved her husband; she had not wanted this child to come, and there it lay in her arms and pulled at her heart. She felt as if the navel string that had connected its frail little body with hers had not been broken. A wave of hot love went over her to the infant. She held it close to her face and breast. With all her force, with all her soul she would make up to it for having brought it into the world unloved. She would love it all the more now it was here; carry it in her love. Its clear, knowing eyes gave her pain and fear. Did it know all about her? When it lay under her heart, had it been listening then? Was there a reproach in the look? She felt the marrow melt in her bones, with fear and pain.

This is one of the first adult books I read, way back in the dark ages, and I loved it as passionately as Gertrude loved her sons, re-reading it several times over the space of a very few years. I deliberately haven’t revisited it since my late teens, having a growing fear that Lawrence is one of those writers best read at the time of raging adolescent hormones, when all his angsting about his characters’ never-ending sexual obsessions and hang-ups resonates most strongly. Although I didn’t react to it with quite as much emotional intensity on this re-read, I’m glad to say it holds up to a cynical adult gaze very well.

Book 52 of 90

It’s wonderfully perceptive about Gertrude and Walter’s marriage and the quiet battlefield it becomes. Paul, who is a lightly fictionalised version of Lawrence himself, is firmly on his mother’s side throughout, as are all the children. This is understandable since Walter alternates between affection and bullying towards them and their mother. But I must admit to having a considerable amount of sympathy for Walter, and this, I think, must be a tribute to the honesty of Lawrence’s writing. Walter is what he is – a brash, crude, physical, working man at a time when the husband expected to be treated as head of the household. Gertrude, when her passionate attraction to his maleness wears off, seems to want to change him and, by showing her discontent, does, though not in the way she intended. In the early days of their marriage he shows kindness to Gertrude again and again, and she rejects him, scorns him. Would he have taken to drinking with the men night after night if she had made their home more welcoming to him? Would he have bullied her and the children if she had not made it so clear that he had no real place in their lives other than as provider? If she had not shown her contempt for their father so openly, would the children have avoided and feared and despised him? Perhaps Walter would have turned out as he did regardless, but I felt he was never given a chance – he had all the physical strength, but Gertrude’s bitterness and sense of her own innate superiority were the stronger forces in all their lives.

Paul’s own feelings (and therefore presumably Lawrence’s) are increasingly ambivalent about his mother as he grows into manhood. He loves her – that is without question. But as he finds himself struggling to develop satisfying relationships with the women with whom he becomes involved, he knows that this is at least partly due to the influence and pull of his mother’s overweening, almost romantic, love for him. Of course, this being Lawrence, this psychological question plays out largely at the sexual level.

Miriam and Clara are the two women who love Paul, though Lord alone knows why. With Miriam, it’s all about his artist’s soul; his relationship with Clara is pretty much purely physical. He treats both women appallingly, but frankly, they’re both so pathetic I couldn’t get up much sympathy. Muriel especially would be enough to drive any man to drink, with her constant flower-sniffing and soulful eyes and desire to sacrifice herself in a quasi-religious way on the altar of love. Here’s a woman who can make sex such a monstrous aberration from the pure holiness of existence that it wouldn’t take many of her to ensure the extinction of humanity. Clara on the other hand has zero personality (but beautiful arms and, I regret to say, bouncy breasts). She exists merely as the adjunct of the men in her life – her husband and Paul, her lover. When we meet her, we are told she is an early feminist, but we see no signs of that in her behaviour.

DH Lawrence
Photo credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It would be easy to accuse Lawrence of misogyny in his handling of these two characters, and I was tempted to do so. Two things save him, I think. The first is that, although they were apparently based on real lovers of Lawrence’s, they come over more as representations of Paul’s narcissistic struggle with his own desires than as real women in their own right. Miriam and Gertrude are fighting for his soul, while Gertrude is more willing to accept the physicality of his relationship with Clara, feeling that less of a threat to her hold over Paul. The second is not my own thought – it comes from the insightful introduction by David Trotter in my Oxford World’s Classics edition, who points out that in female modernist writings of the same era, the male characters are often equally underdeveloped, there for the sole purpose of allowing the women to explore aspects of themselves. Once I recognised the truth of that, I was more willing to forgive Lawrence. However, from a purely literary point of view, I felt the Miriam stuff went on for too long and became tediously repetitive, hence the loss of half a star.

On every side the immense dark silence seemed pressing him, so tiny a spark, into extinction, and yet, almost nothing, he could not be extinct. Night, in which everything was lost, went reaching out, beyond stars and sun. Stars and sun, a few bright grains, went spinning round for terror, and holding each other in embrace, there in a darkness that outpassed them all, and left them tiny and daunted. So much, and himself, infinitesimal, at the core a nothingness, and yet not nothing.
“Mother!” he whimpered—“mother!”

The writing is always good and often beautiful, and Lawrence has the ability to create an emotional intensity that, while it can feel a little overdone at times, nevertheless sheds light on some of the essential truths of the human condition. There are scenes I have never forgotten from those early reads, and I found them just as powerful still. It makes me and my inner teenager very happy to be able still to say – highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link – none, sorry. Can’t find this edition on the US site.

Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie, plus Murder, She Said

Evil Under the Sun

Beware! Poirot on holiday!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Jolly Roger Hotel sits secluded on Smuggler’s Island, a promontory off the Devon coast that can be reached only by boat or over the paved causeway from the mainland. Here the well-to-do come for a peaceful holiday in luxurious surroundings. Imagine their horror, then, on discovering that Hercule Poirot has booked in as a fellow guest! The man is a walking pestilence – wherever he goes, murder is sure to follow. There ought to be a special clause about him in travel insurance policies!

As beautiful actress Arlena Stuart comes out of the hotel and walks to the beach, all eyes are drawn to her; the men in admiration, the women in disapproval. Arlena has a reputation – gossip about her relationships with various men is whispered whenever her name is mentioned. Her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, seems to be either unaware or uncaring of his wife’s indiscretions, but he’s the only one. Here on Smuggler’s Island, Arlena is carrying on a heady flirtation with a fellow guest – a young man by the name of Patrick Redfern – careless of the effect on Patrick’s young wife, Christine. Patrick seems trapped in Arlena’s web, unable to escape, as so many other men are rumoured to have been before. Fanatical minister Stephen Lane sees her as the embodiment of evil; Rosamond Darnley hates seeing how she treats Rosamond’s childhood friend, Kenneth; Kenneth’s daughter from an earlier marriage resents this woman who has come into their home and brought no happiness with her. There are rumours that Arlena is being blackmailed, and any of the other guests could be the blackmailer. So when Arlena’s body is found in a lonely cove, everyone on the island finds themselves suspect…

I know I sound like a broken record with these Christie novels but this is another one I love. The plotting is great – both the how and the why. The isolated island gives it the feel of a closed circle mystery – while it’s possible that someone came from the mainland to murder Arlena it’s soon shown to have been unlikely. So Poirot, with the full co-operation of the police, sets out to talk to the various guests, to try to uncover the truth from beneath all the alibis and motives and lies. It’s another one of the ones where, shortly before the end, Poirot kindly lists all the clues giving the reader one last chance to work it out before all is revealed. Good luck with that! It’s entirely fair-play but your little grey cells will have to be in excellent working order to spot the solution.

For once I think I prefer the Ustinov adaptation to the Suchet, because the wonderful and beautiful Diana Rigg is so well cast as Arlena…

I love the characterisation in this one even more than the plotting, though. Patrick’s infatuation and Christine’s jealousy are well done, and young Linda’s teenage resentment of her step-mother feels very realistic. Two American guests, the voluble Mrs Gardiner and her complaisant husband, provide a touch of warmth and comedy amid the atmosphere of overhanging evil. Mr Blatt lets us see how money doesn’t provide automatic entry to the rarefied heights of social snobbery, while Major Barry is one of Christie’s always excellent retired colonials, willing to bore anyone polite enough to listen to his interminable stories of days gone by. Arlena herself is seen only through the eyes of others, leaving her rather ambiguous, while Rosamond’s protectiveness of Kenneth suggests she may feel something deeper than friendship for him.

Excellent! If you haven’t read it before, do; and if you have, read it again! Another one that I highly recommend.

NB This book was provided for review in a new edition with great new covers by the publisher, HarperCollins.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* * * * *

Murder, She Said

😀 😀 😀

HarperCollins also sent me another treat – a little book of Miss Marple quotes. It’s beautifully produced in hardback and the quotes are divided up into sections, such as The Art of Conversation, Human Nature, Men and Women, etc.

“If people do not choose to lower their voices, one must assume that they are prepared to be overheard.”

It has an introduction by Tony Medawar, partly about Christie’s inspirations for the character and partly a biography of what can be gleaned of Miss Marple’s life. The book also includes a brief article called “Does a Woman’s Instinct Make Her a Good Detective?”, written by Christie for a British newspaper in 1928 to publicise a set of short stories she was issuing at that time. And at the back it has a complete bibliography of all the Miss Marple novels and short stories. Apparently there’s a companion volume in the same style for Poirot fans, called Little Grey Cells.

“I’ve never been an advocate of teetotalism. A little strong drink is always advisable on the premises in case there is a shock or an accident. Invaluable at such times. Or, of course, if a gentleman should arrive suddenly.”

It’s the kind of book that would be a fun little gift for a Miss Marple fan –  not substantial enough to be a main gift; it didn’t take long for me to flick through the pages – but a good idea for a stocking filler. There are days when we could all do with a bit of Miss Marple’s clear-eyed wisdom…

“Most people – and I don’t exclude policemen – are far too trusting for this wicked world. They believe what is told them. I never do. I’m afraid I always like to prove a thing for myself.”

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 215…

Episode 215

A tiny increase this week in the TBR – up 1 to 218 – thus proving the trend is still down. (Yes, I’ve obtained my diploma in the Art of Fake News, and am now studying for my Masters…)

Here are a few I’ll be reading soon. Period.

Fiction

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

I thoroughly enjoyed a collection of Conrad’s novellas which I read a year or so ago, so time to give one of his novels a try. This will also tick off another of the compulsory destinations on my Around the World challenge…

The Blurb says: Jim, a young British seaman, becomes first mate on the Patna, a ship full of pilgrims travelling to Mecca for the hajj. When the ship starts rapidly taking on water and disaster seems imminent, Jim joins his captain and other crew members in abandoning the ship and its passengers. A few days later, they are picked up by a British ship. However, the Patna and its passengers are later also saved, and the reprehensible actions of the crew are exposed. The other participants evade the judicial court of inquiry, leaving Jim to the court alone. He is publicly censured for this action and the novel follows his later attempts at coming to terms with his past. The novel is counted as one of 100 best books of the 20th century.

* * * * *

Crime

The Lying Room by Nicci French

I enjoyed a couple of this crime-writing duo’s Freida Klein series, but the idea of eight books for one story isn’t for me, though I know plenty of people enjoyed them, so I gave up part-way through. This one claims to be a standalone, so I’m hoping it won’t have a cliffhanger ending. Must admit, I’m rather put off by the blurb’s use of the most overused cliché in the cliché-riddled morass of current crime fiction – “how far is she prepared to go to protect those she loves?” I’m trying to think when I last saw a blurb that didn’t say that…

The Blurb says: A trusted colleague and friend. A mother. A wife. Neve Connolly is all these things. She has also made mistakes; some small, some unconsciously done, some large, some deliberate. She is only human, after all.

But now one mistake is spiralling out of control and Neve is bringing those around her into immense danger.
She can’t tell the truth. So how far is she prepared to go to protect those she loves?

And who does she really know? And who can she trust?

A liar. A cheat. A threat. Neve Connolly is all these things.

Could she be a murderer?

* * * * *

Scottish Classic

Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

One from my Classics Club list. I loved the first part of the A Scots Quair trilogy, Sunset Song, when I re-read it a couple of years ago. When I first read the trilogy many years ago, I remember not being as impressed by the other two books, but I’m hoping my older self might appreciate them more. We’ll see…

The Blurb says: A powerful and evocative saga of Scottish life through three decades, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s magnificent trilogy moves from the years of The Great War to the hungry Thirties. From the hills of Kinraddie and the jute mills by Segget Water to the grey granite walls of Duncairn, A Scots Quair tells the life of a woman and the story of a people. This is the second novel in the trilogy A Scots Quair which continues to follow the life of Chris Guthrie as she embarks on her second marriage to the minister Robert Colquhoun.

* * * * *

Crime

A Darker Domain by Val McDermid

I’m reading the Karen Pirie series all out of order but it doesn’t seem to be lessening my enjoyment of them – each one so far has worked well as a standalone. This is the second, and it’s been sitting on my Kindle for over two years… 

The Blurb says: Twenty-five years ago, the daughter of the richest man in Scotland and her baby son were kidnapped and held to ransom. But Catriona Grant ended up dead and little Adam’s fate has remained a mystery ever since. When a new clue is discovered in a deserted Tuscan villa – along with grisly evidence of a recent murder – cold case expert DI Karen Pirie is assigned to follow the trail.

She’s already working a case from the same year. During the Miners’ Strike of 1984, pit worker Mick Prentice vanished. He was presumed to have broken ranks and fled south with other ‘scabs’… but Karen finds that the reported events of that night don’t add up. Where did he really go? And is there a link to the Grant mystery?

The truth is stranger – and far darker – than fiction.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Long Call by Ann Cleeves

Maybe it’s an off day…

😦

Nope, 25% and I can’t go on. I know Cleeves is extremely popular and I enjoyed the only other book of hers I’ve read, the first in her Shetland series. This one feels as if it’s written by someone else, someone with considerably less skill.

Briefly, my major complaint is that this reads like a book written by an older person trying to prove her liberal credentials and sound as if she’s hip to current trends. (I’m roughly the same age as Ann Cleeves so I hope that excuses my bluntness a little. I try not to pretend I’m hip, though, as my use of the word “hip” proves.) The team is made up of a rapacious, predatory, heterosexual female, a sexist, over-ambitious, heterosexual male, and an idyllically happily married, decent, kind, faithful and loving gay man. (Is there such a word as heterophobic? I really object to it as much as I do to homophobia.) The aforesaid gay man is the son of parents who belonged to a strict Christian sect or, as Cleeves prefers to refer to them, “religious bigots” or “God-botherers”. I can’t help wondering if she would have used those terms if he was the son of strict Muslims or Jews. (Is Christianophobic a word? This actual liberal objects to it as much as I do to Islamophobia or anti-Semitism.)

The story drags along, padded to the extreme with unnecessary nothingness. For example, I don’t need to hear about the predatory middle-aged female’s lust for men so young they could equally be termed boys. Would Cleeves expect me to empathise with a middle-aged male officer who lusted after women young enough to be termed girls? I don’t need to hear in detail about how two of the characters watch TV over breakfast – if they danced naked on the roof as the sun rose over the hills, worshipping the Great God Pan, that might merit a paragraph or two, but watching TV rates no more than a line, surely.

It probably deserves a three-star rating, but since I couldn’t bring myself to read on, one-star it is. I own a couple of Cleeves’ earlier books from her previous Vera and Shetland series which I have yet to read, so I can only hope that this one is a blip in her standards – we all have off days. And after spending a couple of hours in the company of this book, this has turned into one of mine…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pan MacMillan.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! De Profundis by Coutts Brisbane

F. Horribilis!

Ghosties and ghoulies are terrifying of course, but some people simply refuse to believe in them. However, there are other terrors lurking in the hidden places of the world which can’t be so easily dismissed. Time to meet some of them in this week’s…

De Profundis
by Coutts Brisbane

It all begins with our narrator on a camping holiday in Cornwall. He drifts off to sleep next to a field where a horse is happily grazing. Next morning, he starts off to get the train back to London…

My direct route lay through the field in front and, climbing on the gate, I stood at gaze, seeing that close beside the walled shaft-mouth lay something which, I was absolutely certain, had not been there overnight – a large skeleton. I noticed, too, that my friendly horse was nowhere in view, though the boundaries of the field were all in sight and, exceedingly puzzled, approached the bones. They were fresh, raw, though not a particle of meat adhered to them, and unmistakably equine.

Unable to work out what has happened, he heads off to his home, where he is carrying out experiments on different types of petroleum to try to find a cheaper, more efficient fuel. His friend, Mayence, turns up with a barrel-full of paraffin for him to test. Mayence tells him of the strange fate that has befallen a policeman down in Surrey…

“Devilish rummy! Found the poor beggar behind a hedge, uniform on—helmet, too. Beastly! And I may have spoken to him – been held up thereabouts more than once. Poor chap!”
“What are you gibbering about? Was he murdered?” I demanded irritably.
Mayence shivered.
“Ghastly, I tell you! Nothing but his clothes, only bones left inside ’em. Ugh!”

Our narrator tells Mayence about the horse, and at that moment they hear a disturbance from outside…

Right opposite, building operations were in progress, and a great hole had been dug in the earth, from which, as we looked, the workmen came crowding and jostling, howling gigantically, in a frenzied hurry to reach the narrow door in the hoarding along the street front.
“Lord!” ejaculated Mayence. “What in thunder’s up! Look at that chap!”

Then they see, coming from the excavation…

A cloud of dust flew up and hid everything for an instant; then something which looked exactly like a wave of treacle – a brownish-black, shiny, wet-looking, lapping tide – flooded up over the edge of the hole, and flowed out towards the men jammed in the doorway.

As they wonder what it can be, suddenly another friend of the narrator, Vidal, bursts into the room in a panic…

“They’re coming up!” he screamed. “Shut that window! We’re done for! I saw ’em once before, but nothing like this!”
Mayence grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him roughly.
“What?” he shouted. “What the blazes is it?”
“Ants!” quavered Vidal. “Millions of trillions! They’re stinging everyone to death; keep ’em out!”

Suddenly the people of London are fleeing in all directions as ants pour from various excavations sites all over the city in what seems to be a co-ordinated attack. Quick-thinking Mayence realises that paraffin will keep them off, so the three men cover themselves in the contents of the barrel he’d brought, and start out to make their escape from the city, seeing innumerable horrors on their way…

We trudged on towards the river without a word; pity, horror, terror, all capacity for emotion seemed numbed to exhaustion, and we moved mechanically. Blackfriars Bridge was choked by another dreadful barricade, the approaches to the stations were impassable. The river was dotted with people swimming or clinging to lifebuoys or fragments of wood, the barges anchored on the further side were hidden by men clustering like swarming bees, the outermost continually dragged down by others who struggled up from the water…

* * * * *

Well, this one scared me alright! I hate ants with a passion – even the tiny little ones we get give me the creeps, much less ones that are an inch and a half long and out to annihilate humankind! Brisbane manages to develop the three characters quickly, making them likeable and injecting a touch of humour into the story in their interactions, which lightens the tone a little but without detracting from the drama or scariness. It’s very well written with a lot of action packed into a short space, and there’s a deliciously chilling little climax at the end.

I’ve never heard of this author before, but the author bio in the anthology tells me he is an Australian of Scottish descent, real name Robert Coutts Armour, and that he was a prolific contributor of short stories to sci-fi and adventure magazines in the first half of the twentieth century. I’d happily read more of his stuff, though it doesn’t seem to be easy to get hold of. This one is available online, though, at the rather wonderful Project Gutenberg Australia. If you’d like to read it, here’s a link…

It’s a fretful porpentine!

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

NB I read this one in the anthology Menace of the Monster, provided for review by the British Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Six Degrees of Separation – From Taddeo to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before. It’s ages since I’ve done one of these, but somehow this month’s first book set me off on an unstoppable chain…

I haven’t read this, and won’t! Here’s what Goodreads says about it…

Desire as we’ve never seen it before: a riveting true story about the sex lives of three real American women, based on nearly a decade of reporting.

It thrills us and torments us. It controls our thoughts and destroys our lives. It’s all we live for. Yet we almost never speak of it. And as a buried force in our lives, desire remains largely unexplored—until now. Over the past eight years, journalist Lisa Taddeo has driven across the country six times to embed herself with ordinary women from different regions and backgrounds. The result, Three Women, is the deepest nonfiction portrait of desire ever written.

Dear me! Now if this was a book about chocolate I could understand it, but sex? I can only imagine the author and/or blurb writer are in the midst of puberty because, trust me, girlies, the all-consumingness of the desire for sex happily ratchets down to sane proportions once maturity kicks in. The desire for doughnuts, however, is a different thing altogether…

This made me think of books with too much sex, which leaves me spoiled for choice really. I think I’ll go for…

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. This is a highly regarded book about WW1 and has many good points. However, it has some of the worst written sex scenes it has been my misfortune to read. In my review, I said…

…the two lovers rarely talk other than to decide where next they can have sex. And unfortunately, Faulks just doesn’t have what it takes to make sex sound like fun. As he gives us detail after detail of each positional change, each bodily fluid and its eventual destination, each grunt, groan and sigh, I developed a picture of poor Elizabeth, the love interest, as one of those bendy toys that used to be so popular. As so often in male sex fantasies, her willingness, nay, desperation, to have sex with Stephen knows no bounds, so we’ve barely finished the cigarette after the last session before we’re off again.

This reminded me of how often I’ve noticed that male authors of a certain age, just before they hit their second childhood, seem to go through a second adolescence. Which brings me to…

Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving. I abandoned this one too early to review on the blog but I left a brief, bitter comment on Goodreads…

Abandoned. I was already finding the book repetitive and a bit silly, but was willing to persevere till I hit the extended graphic oral sex scene at the 18% mark, which other reviews lead me to believe is the first of many. Not good enough otherwise to tempt me to read hundreds more pages of an elderly man’s sex fantasies. Note to self: Remember to stop getting books written by men over the age of 60 – it must be hormonal…

Of course, it’s not possible to think of middle-aged men and their sex obsessions without thinking of the poor male protagonist of…

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Here we have a middle-aged man who springs a sudden surprise on his wife. Again I think my feelings about him came through loud and clear in my review…

High Court judge Fiona Maye’s comfortable life is rocked when her husband of many years announces that he would like her permission to have an affair. The poor man has his reasons – apparently he and Fiona haven’t had sex for seven weeks and one day so you can understand his desperation. (Am I sounding unsympathetic? Oh, I haven’t even begun…)

And while we’re on the subject of male authors and their fantasies, it would be unfair to neglect Brodie Moncur, the protagonist in…

Love Is Blind by William Boyd

Another one that brought out my inner snarkiness. Here’s an extract from my little blurb for the exciting story of this book…

…he falls in love with Lika Blum, the girlfriend of an Irish pianist. Then he stays in love with her for the rest of the book, has sex with her quite a lot, and fantasises about having sex with her most of the rest of the time. He has sex with her in Paris, the South of France, Scotland and St Petersburg. And maybe other places – I forget.

Of course, the Europeans shouldn’t be left out. Books written by middle-aged men show that we all have things in common, whatever our nationality. Which brings me to…

The Midas Murders by Pieter Aspe

The last book I will ever read from this author, as this quote from my review will explain…

It’s in the attitude to women that the book really shows itself up to be an unpleasant piece of work. Van In (along with every other man in the book and therefore presumably the author) never looks at a woman without commenting on her breasts, her rear, her legs or her availability in the most derogatory terms. Hannelore has descended from being a colleague to being an object for sexual fantasising – the biggest fantasy being that an intelligent, beautiful and successful woman would find anything remotely attractive in the drunken, sexist and shabby Van In.

And suddenly that comment whisks my memory off to the Faroe Islands, where yet another middle-aged male author fantasises about beautiful, intelligent women falling for the most unlikely of men…

The Last Refuge by Craig Robertson

Here’s what I said about this charmer…

Given that Callum is a violent drunk with a shady past, living in a shack, suspected of murder, penniless and with no obvious future prospects, why are we supposed to believe that an intelligent, successful professional woman would be interested in him? If an author wants me to believe that, then he must be shown to be charming, fascinating, a great conversationalist, someone who saves kittens from being run over by trucks – something to make him seem attractive – but Callum is none of these things. We’re not talking about 17-year-olds here, where ‘bad boy’ syndrome might apply – we’re talking about mature, nearly middle-aged adults. But with Callum we are supposed to believe that not one, but two, women find him attractive – standards on the Faroe Islands must be pretty low.

Well, it appears that I might be wrong about obsessive desire! It does seem to rear its head (if you think that’s a pun, it’s your mind, not mine… 😉 ) with great regularity. Why does no one ever write books about doughnut fantasies??

* * * * *

So Taddeo to Robertson via sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, and sex!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

Dancing with Darcy is far more fun – even better than doughnuts!

Family Matters by Anthony Rolls

Poisonous relationships…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Even the most kind-hearted of Robert Arthur Kewdingham’s family have to admit he can be quite annoying. Having lost his job in middle-age, he now spends his time on his collections of second-rate Roman artefacts and dried-out beetles, while telling anyone who will listen about his past life as a priest in Atlantis. Opinions on his wife, Bertha, are divided. Some, mostly the men, feel that her husband doesn’t deserve such a handsome, spirited wife and that he treats her badly. Others, mostly the women, feel that if she had any sort of wifeliness about her she’d shake Robert out of his eccentricities and back into the world of useful employment. Robert and Bertha live in a state of constant quarrelling, tired of each other, dissatisfied with their lives but unable to change. It’s a pity that Bertha is attractive to other men, and that Robert keeps a pharmacy-size stock of poisons readily to hand to treat his rampaging hypochondria. Things are bound to get nasty…

This is a lot of fun and a real step up from the only other Rolls I’ve read, Scarweather. It’s a kind of inverted mystery – we know a murder will be done, and it’s not too long before we can guess who the victim will be. But such are the divided opinions on this unhappy couple that several people could have reason to do away with either one of them. In fact, the question is almost one of who will murder the victim first!

The characterisation is excellent, not just of the awful Robert and Bertha (who got some sneaking sympathy from me even though I didn’t feel she really deserved it), but of the various members of the extended family. Robert’s old father lives with them and an unpleasant old codger he is, constantly reciting quotations to Bertha of how an ideal woman should behave. Uncle Richard is a decent man and feels Bertha has more to put up with than any woman deserves, even moody ones like her. Cousin John is firmly on Bertha’s side – too much so perhaps. The Poundle-Quaintons, mother and spinster daughter, feel it’s their duty to drop little hints to Bertha on how she should manage her husband better. And Robert’s sister, clear-eyed about her brother, does her best to befriend the unhappy wife.

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

There is much here to do with various drugs and poisons in use at the time. Robert’s genuine illnesses, topped up by his enjoyment of his hypochondria, mean that Dr Bagge is a frequent visitor to the house, partly as physician and partly as friend. Dr Bagge likes to make up his own medicines and tries to stop Robert from dosing himself up on quack preparations, with little success. Once the murder is done, the presence of all these various medicines and drugs will complicate the matter badly for the authorities, and there’s a good deal of wit in the way Rolls handles all the various effects and side-effects of the different poisons around the house, not to mention in how Dr Bagge views his patients as good subjects for him to try out his latest concoctions on.

The idea of living in this house full of rather unpleasant people is pretty awful but I must say they’re a lot of fun to watch from the outside. The mystery is handled very originally – usually with an inverted murder, in my limited experience, the reader knows who the murderer is, but here Rolls manages to keep to that kind of style while still keeping the reader somewhat in the dark. As a result, I found it much more of a page-turner as I really wanted to know who was the guilty party and how it would be proved. Vague, I know, but deliberately – this is one where it would be easy to give accidental spoilers.

Another very enjoyable read from the British Library Crime Classics series, and of course it has the usual informative introduction from Martin Edwards. Good stuff – I’ll be looking out for more from Rolls, though unfortunately he wasn’t as prolific as many of the Golden Age writers.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 214… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. It’s usually by this stage of the year that it becomes blindingly obvious that, unless cloning technology is invented tomorrow, I stand zero chance of meeting any of my targets, and I have a sinking feeling this year will be no different!

So here we are – the third check-in of the year…

Oh, dear! It’s not looking hopeful! The MMM challenge is done and dusted for this year, and I’m doing fine at keeping the new releases under control, but that was supposed to give me time to keep up with all the rest! I’ve picked up a tiny bit on the other challenges, but not nearly enough. I don’t understand it – I feel as if I’ve read nothing but challenge books for months… well, apart from vintage crime, vintage horror and vintage sci-fi. Hmm! I think I’m beginning to see the problem… oh well, three months to go and miracles do happen. Don’t they?

The TBR is going better. Although I’m unlikely to meet the target on books I own, especially the older ones, the overall combined TBR/wishlist figure is still on track. That calls for a celebration!

* * * * * * *

The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in June, and this quarter I’ve visited four continents (maybe five – my geography is terrible) and sailed through every ocean!

On the Main Journey (made by the characters in Around the World in 80 Days) my exciting round the world voyage in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas took me through the Mediterranean, while my visit to fictional Mayapore in North Central India in Paul Scott’s wonderful The Jewel in the Crown will tick the box for the equally fictional Kholby in Uttar Pradesh. Confused? Me too!

I had several detours this quarter, some good, some not so much. I went to Papua New Guinea in Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip, only to find myself in the midst of a bloody civil war, which I could have coped with if only the book hadn’t been quite so bad. I slipped back in time to Zululand in H. Rider Haggard’s wonderful Nada the Lily, for a stirring adventure based on African history and folklore. Then I was taken behind the Berlin Wall to East Germany, in John le Carré’s excellent and influential The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. My final trip was with John Steinbeck in The Pearl – a tragic (and profoundly depressing) story of the pointlessness of life (though I think it’s supposed to be about the evils of capitalism), set in Mexico.

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

69 down, 11 to go!

* * * * * * *

The Classics Club

I’ve reviewed seven books from my Classics Club list this quarter and have one other pending…

45. Middlemarch by George Eliot – Set just before the Reform Act of 1832, Eliot uses the better off residents of the provincial town of Middlemarch to muse on the state of society at a point of change. A book that engaged my intellect more than my emotions and, in the end, failed to make me care about the outcomes for the people with whom I’d spent so much time. 3½ stars.

46. In the Heat of the Night by John Ball – Fundamentally a crime novel with a very good plot and some excellent detection elements, but it’s far more than that – it paints an entirely believable picture of being a black man in a town that’s run by the whites for the whites at a time when segregation and racism were still entirely acceptable. 5 stars.

47. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas by Jules Verne – Scientist Aronnax and his companions find themselves unwilling guests aboard the submarine Nautilus as Captain Nemo takes them on a fabulous journey beneath the seas and oceans of the world. The descriptions of the wonders of the deeps, the glimpses of other civilisations, the mystery surrounding Captain Nemo and the thrilling adventure aspects all more than made up for the excessive fish-detail. 5 stars

48. Nada the Lily by H. Rider Haggard – This is the tale of Umslopogaas, unacknowledged son of Chaka, a great Zulu king, and the beautiful Nada the Lily whom he loves. Excellently written in the voice of Umslopogaas’ adoptive father Mopo, Haggard has managed to create an entirely believable picture without projecting white people or their attitudes or values onto a story about Africa. 5 stars.

49. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré – British spymaster Alec Leamas is asked to stay “out in the cold” for one last operation – to take part in an elaborate sting to infiltrate the East German set-up and bring down his opposite number. Thought-provoking, intelligent, engrossing and hugely influential on the genre. 4½ stars.

50. On the Beach by Nevil Shute – A devastating nuclear war has been fought across the world, wiping out almost all life. We follow a group of characters in the city and suburbs of Melbourne as they figure out how to spend their last few months of life. Well written and with excellent characterisation and as relevant today as it was when written. 5 stars.

51. Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr. – A bunch of sad losers hang around getting drunk, drugged and beating each other up, with added sexual depravity. Ugh! The style is as vile as the content, making this the best argument for book-banning I’ve read. 1 star.

How is it that I’m still behind with this challenge?? Oh well, I have several more lined up over the next couple of months…

51 down, 39 to go!

* * * * * * *

Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve read five of these this quarter but have only posted reviews for two so far – the rest will be coming soon. I also abandoned one at too early a stage to make a review worthwhile. To see the full challenge, click here.

29.  The Middle Temple Murder by JS Fletcher – When young newspaper editor Frank Spargo happens upon a murder scene late one night, his journalistic instincts lead him to follow the story. It’s dated in style but well written, cleverly plotted and entertaining – I enjoyed it a lot. 4½ stars.

30.  The Case of Miss Elliot by Baroness Orczy – An old man sits in the corner of a teahouse, endlessly twisting pieces of string into elaborate knots and mulling over the great unsolved mysteries of the day, in this collection of twelve short stories. Reasonably enjoyable but not wholly satisfying. 3½ stars.

31.  Case for Three Detectives by Leo Bruce – This is a parody spoofing three detectives, Wimsey, Poirot and Father Brown. I found it so dire as to be unreadable. Sometimes things are just old, not vintage. Can’t understand why Martin Edwards included this one, to be honest. Abandoned too early to review, so zero stars.

31 down, 71 to go!

* * * * * * *

5 x 5 Challenge

Three reviewed for this challenge this quarter! Still a long way to go though…

5.  A Mercy by Toni Morrison. As Rebekka Vaark lies sick, possibly dying, of smallpox, we learn of the people who make up the household – how they came to be there, how they live, the relationships between them. And we get a picture of the birth of America, built with the blood and toil of those who came voluntarily and those who were brought against their will. Beautiful writing, excellent characterisation. 5 stars.

6.  The Pearl by John Steinbeck. One day, poor pearl fisherman Kino finds a huge and lustrous pearl, so valuable that it will change his life for ever. But when word spreads of his find, human greed will work its evil, dragging Kino into a nightmare. Beautiful prose, but really, Steinbeck’s view of the world is utterly joyless. He really should have eaten more chocolate. 3½ stars.

7. Walking Wounded by William McIlvanney. McIlvanney takes to the short story form to create a collection of character studies of the inhabitants of his recurring setting of fictional Graithnock. Another excellent book from the modern Scottish bard – wonderfully written and insightful about the culture in which it’s set. 5 stars.

7 down, 18 to go!

* * * * * * *

Another great quarter’s reading, even if I’m still behind! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

The River at Night by Erica Ferencik

Wilderness adventure…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Wini, our narrator, isn’t an adventurous type but she’s persuaded by her group of friends to go white-water rafting in the wilds of Maine. Pia has always been the leader, the one who holds the group together and who pushes them to step out of their normal routine once a year and take risks. This time she assures them their guide is experienced and knows the river well. It turns out Ryan is a twenty-year-old student with the looks of a Greek hero and enough confidence to persuade the more reluctant members of the group to trust him. Big mistake. Soon enough they run into trouble when their raft is lost and one of their party is killed. You’d think that would be the bad part of the trip, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong… you’re forgetting that fictional wildernesses are always home to the strangest people…

There are so many books and films about wilderness adventures going horribly wrong that it must be difficult to bring anything original to the table, and Ferencik doesn’t try. We have the usual group of people with pre-existing tensions that will come to the fore when danger threatens. There’s the traditional mix of peril from nature and man – there’s always some kind of weirdo around when an adventure holiday goes wrong, right? We have the ubiquitous current trend of women discovering how strong and resilient they truly are under adversity. And in line with modern adventures, there’s plenty of blood, vomiting and unplanned urination to ensure that reading during mealtimes is not advised.

There’s nothing wrong with writing to a formula, of course – thriller writers have been doing it for at least a century. Ferencik relies on the quality of her writing and characterisation to carry the thing off, and on the whole she succeeds pretty well. The four women are well drawn, each with a distinct personality, and the dynamics of their friendship rings true, with the little petty annoyances and resentments that build up in any small group over time but underpinned by genuine affection and a history of mutual support in bad times. Ryan, the guide, is also reasonably believable, though at every point I felt he came over as older than his supposed age of twenty – he felt too mature and adult to be that age (but that may be a sign of my own age!). The baddies, on the other hand, are ridiculously over-the-top, and their back-story left me totally unconvinced. Sadly I thought they were a real weakness in the plotting, neither credible nor realistic.

Erica Ferencik

Ferencik writes well, both in the slower passages when she is revealing her characters to the reader and in the fast-action sequences which grow and escalate as the book goes on. Too much swearing, of course, none of it necessary and adding nothing to either story or character.

So a mostly good example of a fairly formulaic thriller, let down a little by the unbelievability of the baddies. I enjoyed reading it, but hope she does something a little more original next time – I believe she has the talent, she just needs to find a better plot. Recommended, though, as an entertaining read overall.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Murderer’s Violin by Erckmann-Chatrian

The Devilish Diet!

Last year, the porpy and I were put off the demon drink by this duo’s humorously macabre little story, The Burgomaster in Bottle. This year, it appears they’re now trying to put us off food too! Let’s see if they succeed in this week’s…

The Murderer’s Violin
by Erckmann-Chatrian

Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian

Karl Hâfitz had spent six years in mastering counterpoint. He had studied Haydn, Glück, Mozart, Beethoven, and Rossini; he enjoyed capital health, and was possessed of ample means which permitted him to indulge his artistic tastes – in a word, he possessed all that goes to make up the grand and beautiful in music, except that insignificant but very necessary thing – inspiration!

I know exactly how he feels! I possess everything except inspiration, talent and ability; otherwise I’m a brilliant musician! Anyway… every time Karl tries to write a piece of music, his instructor points out that it’s copied from one of the greats…

Karl cried with rage, he got very angry, and disputed the point; but the old master quietly opened one of his numerous music-books, and putting his finger on the passage, said ‘Look there, my boy.’

Karl is convinced, while his instructor is equally sure that Karl isn’t doing this deliberately. He has a theory as to why Karl has no original inspiration…

“. . . you are growing too fat decidedly; you drink too generous a wine, and, above all, too much beer. That is what is shutting up the avenues of your intellect. You must get thinner!”
“Get thinner!”
“Yes, or give up music. You do not lack science, but ideas, and it is very simple; if you pass your whole life covering the strings of your violin with a coat of grease how can they vibrate?”

Poor Karl! But he is heroic in the face of this terrible decree…

“I will not shrink from any sacrifice. Since matter oppresses the mind I will starve myself.”

He sets off on a long walking journey and, after several weeks of strenuous exercise and little food and drink, is considerably thinner but still uninspired. One evening, after a long day of walking, he is tired and night is falling…

Just then he perceived by the light of the moon an old ruined inn half-hidden in trees on the opposite side of the way; the door was off its hinges, the small-window panes were broken, the chimney was in ruins.

Karl is philosophical, murmuring to himself…

“. . . it is rather ill-looking indeed, but we must not judge by appearances.”

Eh? Why not? Yes, we must, Karl! Don’t go in!! Tchah! They never listen, do they? Still, once he gets past the thuggish axe-carrying innkeeper and his mad chicken-hugging daughter into the badly-lit half-bare room with only a small fire, things begin to look up…

“You have no cheese, then?”
“No.”
“No butter, nor bread, nor milk?”
“No.”
“Well, good heavens! What have you got?”
“We can roast some potatoes in the embers.”

In a sudden burst of enthusiasm, Karl realises this is the perfect place for him…

“I shall remain here three months – six months – any time that may be necessary to make me as thin as a fakir.”

However, later that night, in the loft that is his bedroom, he is awoken suddenly by the sound of a deep sob. He sees a man, a skeleton almost, lifting a violin and beginning to play…

There was in this ghostly music something of the cadence with which the earth falls upon the coffin of a dearly-loved friend . . .

* * * * *

Another lovely mix of humour and mild horror in this one! It feels a bit slapdash, to be sure – the story of the haunting is all kind of shoved in without enough explanation, but it doesn’t matter because it’s clearly only supposed to be an amusing entertainment rather than a meaningful psychological study. And on that level it works very well. Some of the stories in the collection are much darker and longer than the two I’ve highlighted so far, but they’re all well written and full of some great descriptive imagery. This one is a fairly standard ghost story, but Karl is a likeable hero. There’s almost a folk-tale feel to his quest and one can’t help hoping that somehow he will find his inspiration.

Good fun! The porpy and I were only a little scared – mostly we were entertained and amused.

Unfortunately I can’t find an online version, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be recommending the collection when I finish it, assuming the rest of the stories are as good as the ones I’ve read so far.

(The porpentine felt in the need of a feast after this…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀

NB The collection The Invisible Eye was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Chillers.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Film of the Book: On the Beach

Directed by Stanley Kramer (1959)

From the review of the book by Nevil Shute:

A devastating nuclear war has been fought across the world, wiping out almost all life. Only in the far South have people survived, so far, but they know that the poisonous fallout is gradually heading their way and the scientists have told them there is nothing they can do to save themselves. We follow a group of characters in the city and suburbs of Melbourne as they figure out how to spend their last few months of life…

You can read the full book review by clicking here

In terms of action and even dialogue, the film stays pretty close to the book for the most part, but there are some differences that I felt changed the emphasis and tone quite a bit. Before I get into those, though, I had some real problems with the casting and what I’ll call the Hollywoodisation of the film. In the book, Captain Dwight Towers is American, but all the other major characters are Australian. It jarred with me throughout that in the movie the vast majority of the main characters speak with American accents. Most of them make no attempt to sound Australian, and there’s a distinct contrast between their voices and the minor characters, many of whom are authentic Aussies.

(I cannot lie – I got very tired of Waltzing Matilda by the time the film was finished.)

The star factor clearly came into play in Kramer’s casting, too. Ava Gardner is about twenty years too old for the character of Moira, so that, instead of a young innocent drinking and playing the field to ward off thoughts of her impending death with her life unlived, we have an older woman who has been drinking and playing the field for decades before the war even began. She’s good, but she’s not the girl in the book, and therefore her story is not so heart-breaking. Fred Astaire is also far older than the character he is playing, but because he’s a secondary character and not involved in romance, I found that didn’t bother me so much – I rather enjoyed his performance, though I felt someone should have talked to him about his eye make-up which looked like a throwback to the days of the silent movies.

Ava Gardner and Fred Asatire – good performances but too old for the roles

Gregory Peck is very good as Dwight and Anthony Perkins is good as Peter, although a sadly Americanised version. The woman who plays Mary, Donna Anderson – hmm. I couldn’t decide whether her acting is terrible or whether the fault is Kramer’s direction, but she’s a real weakness in what is otherwise a solid cast.

As much as warning of the dangers of nuclear holocaust, it seemed to me the book was speculating on how humanity, knowing that its end was inescapable, would deal with its own demise. The film somehow keeps trying to inject hope where in the book there is none, I think in an attempt to create some suspense. While Kramer doesn’t go so far as to change the outcome for humanity, he does change how the people react to it, thus rather missing Shute’s point. I’m now heading into pretty major spoiler territory, so if you’re intending to read the book or watch the film, you might want to skip ahead to the last paragraph…

(The mystery of the invisible baby! Little Jennifer, Peter and Mary’s child, never physically appears in the movie but they might have made a better job of pretending she was there. Elbowing her in the face so you can kiss her mum doesn’t seem very caring…)

* * * * *

Mary, in the book, chooses to go into denial. It’s not that she doesn’t know they’re all going to die, she simply makes a decision to live the last few months of her life as she would if they had a future ahead of them. In the film, she more or less goes insane, at one point becoming almost catatonic. Why? It added nothing and was less psychologically interesting.

Anthony Perkins and Donna Anderson as Peter and Mad Mary

In the book, Shute describes how the people of Melbourne cope with daily existence as shortages grow, and their domestic concerns as death approaches – things like what to do about their farm animals and pets, how long to continue going to work, how to cope without milk and petrol and so on. I said in my review: It’s a slow-moving but fascinating and rather moving depiction of an undramatic end – all the bombs and war and destruction occurred far away; for the people of Melbourne, nothing has outwardly happened and yet every part of their existence has been irrevocably changed. The film shows us very little of these concerns, preferring to concentrate on the minimal action provided by the submarine’s expedition north and on the romance between Dwight and Moira. As a result there’s far less depth to it.

Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner as Dwight and Moira

But the biggest and worst change is the relationship between Dwight and Moira. Dwight’s wife and children are already dead, having been in America during the war. In the book, Dwight, rather like Mary, chooses in light of his own impending death to go on as if they are alive and will all die together, and be together in some form of afterlife. This prevents him from being able to fall in love with Moira as she wishes. In the film, Hollywoodisation demands romance, so they fall in love. The fact that Dwight so easily gets over his wife cheapens and lessens him as a character – a terrible mistake.

The end is also changed for no reason that I could think of. In the book, Dwight follows military norms to the end, scuttling the submarine so it can’t fall into the hands of a now non-existent enemy. In the film, he and his crew sentimentally set out for home, wishing to die in America. This also ruins the book’s sad end for Moira, choosing to die looking out over the bay where Dwight’s body lies in his sunken vessel. In the film, she watches him leave her, not out of a sense of duty but out of some kind of sickly sweet patriotism. And then Kramer tacks on an over-the-top warning to humanity about the dangers of nuclear weapons, obviously not realising that, if you feel you need to spell out your point, then you’ve failed to make it.

Spelling out the point…

* * * END OF SPOILERS * * *

You know, before I started writing this I was intending to give the film five stars – I did enjoy watching it. But as I’ve been writing it’s been going down in my estimation – the perils of over-analysis! So now I feel quite generous giving it four.

★ ★ ★ ★

And that makes the decision very easy this time…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

THE BOOK!

* * * * *

Mrs McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser

Where are they now?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When old Mrs McGinty is brutally killed in her own parlour, suspicion quickly falls on her lodger, the rather unprepossessing James Bentley. All the evidence points in his direction, and he is duly charged, tried and convicted. But somehow it doesn’t feel right to Superintendent Spence. He’s met many murderers in his long career and Bentley doesn’t seem to him to fit the profile. With the police case closed, he takes his concerns to his old friend Hercule Poirot, asking him to investigate with a view to either turning up evidence that will clear Bentley or alternatively finding something that will reassure Spence the right man has been convicted. But Poirot must hurry, before Bentley goes to the gallows…

This is yet another great mystery from the supremely talented Ms Christie. First published in 1952, she was still at the height of her formidable plotting powers and had that ease and occasional playfulness in her style that always makes her books such a pleasure to read. I’ve always loved the books in which Ariadne Oliver appears – Christie uses this mystery-writing friend of Poirot to provide a humorous and delightfully self-deprecating insight into the life of the detective novelist, and Ariadne’s love/hate relationship with her Finnish recurring detective must surely be based on Christie’s own frustrations with her Belgian one…

“How do I know?” said Mrs. Oliver crossly. “How do I know why I ever thought of the revolting man? I must have been mad! Why a Finn when I know nothing about Finland? Why a vegetarian? Why all the idiotic mannerisms he’s got? These things just happen. You try something – and people seem to like it – and then you go on – and before you know where you are, you’ve got someone like that maddening Sven Hjerson tied to you for life. And people even write and say how fond you must be of him. Fond of him? If I met that bony gangling vegetable eating Finn in real life, I’d do a better murder than any I’ve ever invented.”

One of Ariadne’s books is being adapted for the stage by a young playwright, Robin Upward, who lives in the village where Mrs McGinty’s murder took place. So Poirot seeks her help to get an inside look at the villagers – her erratic intuition usually leads her to the wrong conclusions, but Poirot often finds her insight into how people behave when they don’t realise they’re being observed of great help to him. It’s also an opportunity to see how Christie may have felt herself about the frustrations of seeing other people adapt her work…

“But you’ve no idea of the agony of having your characters taken and made to say things that they never would have said, and do things that they never would have done. And if you protest, all they say is that it’s ‘good theatre.’ That’s all Robin Upward thinks of. Everyone says he’s very clever. If he’s so clever I don’t see why he doesn’t write a play of his own and leave my poor unfortunate Finn alone. He’s not even a Finn any longer. He’s become a member of the Norwegian Resistance movement.”

Poirot’s accommodation provides a good deal of humour in this one too. He must stay in the village, so boards with the Summerhayes – a couple with little experience of providing for paying guests and less talent. Maureen Summerhayes is delightful but scatterbrained, and her untidiness and lack of organisation drive the obsessively neat Poirot to distraction, while her less than mediocre cooking skills leave him longing for a well-cooked meal and a decent cup of coffee.

Following a clue missed by the police, Poirot soon begins to suspect that the motive for the murder lies in the past. He discovers a newspaper cutting in Mrs McGinty’s effects relating to four old murders with photos of the murderers, under the heading “Where are they now?” Poirot thinks that one at least of them may be living in the village complete with a new name and persona. But which? The recent war has destroyed many records, allowing people with shady pasts to reinvent themselves with reasonable safety from discovery. But as word of Poirot’s investigation spreads, it seems as if someone is getting nervous, and nervous murderers take risks…

Agatha Christie

I enjoyed this one thoroughly. I’d read it before long ago and pretty soon remembered whodunit but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment. It allowed me instead to look out for the clues as they happened, so I can say that this is a fair-play one – all the clues are there and they’re often quite easy to spot, but much more difficult to interpret correctly. Great fun, and as always Hugh Fraser’s narration is excellent, bringing out all the humour and warmth in the stories. Highly recommended!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

TBR Thursday 213…

Episode 213

I was racing through the books over the weekend, with the result that the TBR has sustained a massive drop – down 2 to 221. However now that both the UK and the US have gone into political meltdown mode again, I can’t read and watch news obsessively! I do wish our politicians would compare their diaries and schedule their scandals a little better – it’s so unfair on those of us who’d like a bit of peace to read…

Anyway, assuming the world keeps spinning, here are a few I should get to soonish…

Classics Club Spin #21 winner

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Quite a good result from the Classics Club spin this time. I’d been intending to read this in November anyway, so with a bit of juggling I might be able to fit it into October instead. I loved the movie of this so much when it came out I saw it several times in the cinema and then decided to read the book. Unfortunately they’re really quite different in a lot of ways and so I found the book disappointing. However it’s been years since I last saw the film, so I’m hoping this time I’ll be able to approach the book a bit more open-mindedly…

The Blurb says: Boisterous, ribald, and ultimately shattering, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the seminal novel of the 1960s that has left an indelible mark on the literature of our time. Here is the unforgettable story of a mental ward and its inhabitants, especially the tyrannical Big Nurse Ratched and Randle Patrick McMurphy, the brawling, fun-loving new inmate who resolves to oppose her. We see the struggle through the eyes of Chief Bromden, the seemingly mute half-Indian patient who witnesses and understands McMurphy’s heroic attempt to do battle with the awesome powers that keep them all imprisoned.

* * * * *

Classic Science Fiction

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

Also from my Classics Club list. I haven’t read much Heinlein and have been fairly ambivalent about what I have read so far. So let’s see if this classic can turn me into a fan. Can’t say the blurb is doing much for me…

The Blurb says: The historians can’t seem to settle whether to call this one “The Third Space War” (or the fourth), or whether “The First Interstellar War” fits it better. We just call it “The Bug War.” Everything up to then and still later were “incidents,” “patrols,” or “police actions.” However, you are just as dead if you buy the farm in an “incident” as you are if you buy it in a declared war…

In one of Robert A. Heinlein’s most controversial bestsellers, a recruit of the future goes through the toughest boot camp in the Universe—and into battle with the Terran Mobile Infantry against mankind’s most alarming enemy.

* * * * *

Vintage Mystery Stories

Deep Waters edited by Martin Edwards

Courtesy of the British Library. I love these themed short story collections, so I’m looking forward to this new anthology – I’ve got my water-wings handy in case of upsets… 

The Blurb says: From picturesque canals to the swirling currents of the ocean, a world of secrets lies buried beneath the surface of the water. Dubious vessels crawl along riverbeds, while the murky depths conceal more than one gruesome murder.

The stories in this collection will dredge up delight in crime fiction fans, as watery graves claim unintended dwellers and disembodied whispers penetrate the sleeping quarters of a ship’s captain. How might a thief plot their escape from a floating crime scene? And what is to follow when murder victims, lost to the ocean floor, inevitably resurface?

This British Library anthology uncovers the best mysteries set below the surface, including stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, William Hope Hodgson, and R. Austin Freeman.

* * * * *

Fiction

Far North by Marcel Theroux

I don’t know what to expect from this, but I’m hopeful. I’ve only read one of his other novels, Strange Bodies, which was strange indeed but also rather wonderful. I’ve been meaning to read more for ages – this has been on my Kindle since May 2013! 

The Blurb says: Out on the far northern border of a failed state, Makepeace patrols the ruins of a dying city and tries to keep its unruly inhabitants in check.

Into this cold, isolated world comes evidence that life is flourishing elsewhere – a refugee from the vast emptiness of forest, whose existence inspires Makepeace to take to the road to reconnect with human society.

What Makepeace finds is a world unravelling, stockaded villages enforcing a rough and uncertain justice, mysterious slave camps labouring to harness the little understood technologies of a vanished civilization. But Makepeace’s journey also leads to unexpected human contact, tenderness, and the dark secrets behind this frozen world.

Far North leads the reader on a quest through an unforgettable arctic landscape, from humanity’s origins to its likely end. Bleak, haunting, spare – and yet ultimately hopeful, the novel is suffused with an ecstatic awareness of the world’s fragility and beauty, and its unexpected ability to recover from our worst trespasses.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Hour of Peril by Daniel Stashower

The President and the detective…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Abraham Lincoln has won the Presidential election and now, in early 1861, is about to undertake the journey from his home in Springfield, Illinois, to Washington for his inauguration. But these are troubled times, and the journey is complicated because of all of the different railroad companies that own parts of the route. One of the company owners hears of a plot to destroy his railroad to prevent Lincoln making it to Washington, and so he calls in the already famous private detective, Allan Pinkerton. But when Pinkerton starts to investigate, he becomes convinced that there is a deeper plot in the planning – to assassinate Lincoln before he is inaugurated. This book tells the story of Lincoln’s journey, the plot against him, and Pinkerton’s attempt to ensure his safe arrival in Washington.

It’s written very much in the style of a true crime book, although it has aspects that fall as much into the category of history. Stashower focuses on three main aspects: a biographical look at Pinkerton and the development of his detective agency; the rising tensions in the still-new nation that would soon break out into full scale civil war; and Lincoln’s journey, and the plot against him.

Route of Lincoln’s whistle-stop inaugural trip 1861

The first section is mostly about Pinkerton, a man who started out as a political activist in his native Glasgow in Scotland until, perhaps to escape the authorities there, he emigrated to America with his young wife. I grew up knowing tales of the great American detective Pinkerton and his agents, but hadn’t realised he was born and lived only three or so miles away from where I spent my childhood years, so that was an added point of interest for me; plus the authenticity shown in the little time that the book spends on Scotland and the political situation there (about which I know a fair amount) convinced me of the author’s historical reliability. Once the story moves to America, Stashower shows us how this journeyman cooper gradually became a detective for hire, and then grew a business of many agents able to work undercover in all levels of society. Stashower discusses Pinkerton’s methods,  his policy that “the ends justify the means”, and the clients who called on him to prevent crimes if he could, or else bring the criminals to justice after the event.

The logo that gave rise to the expression, “private eye”

Pinkerton was also ahead of his time in recognising the value of women detectives, though it was actually a woman, Kate Warne, who convinced him of this when she persuaded him to hire her. She went on to become one of his most trusted agents, and played a major role in the events covered by the book, all of which Stashower recounts most interestingly. If any biographers are out there looking for a subject, I’d love to read a full bio of her life!

The focus then switches between Lincoln and Pinkerton, the one preparing for his journey, the other setting up his agents to infiltrate the pro-Secessionists in Baltimore, where the threat to Lincoln seemed to be greatest. The political background is woven into these two stories, with Stashower assuming some prior knowledge of the events leading up to the civil war on the part of his readers, but ensuring that he gives enough so that people, like me, whose understanding of that period is superficial and even sketchy don’t get left behind.

Stashower tells us of the various people surrounding Lincoln, and their differing opinions on how he should meet the threat. Given that he had won the election on a minority of the vote, it was felt to be important that he should let people see and hear him, trying to win them over before he took office. This meant that the train journey became serpentine, looping and doubling back so that he could visit as many places as possible. To make matters worse from a security point of view, his advisors and he thought it was necessary to put out an itinerary in advance, so that the people, and unfortunately therefore the plotters, would know when and where they could get close to him. To get to Washington, he would have to go through Baltimore – a state then known as Mobtown and one that was considered likely to go over to the Confederacy side in the event of war. Despite the fact that we all know that Lincoln survived for a few more years, Stashower manages to build a real atmosphere of tension – we may know the outcome, but I certainly didn’t know how or even if he would make it through Baltimore safely.

Pinkerton (left) with Lincoln and Major General John A. McClernand at Antietam in1862

Meantime, Pinkerton and his agents take us undercover deep into the conspiracy to stop Lincoln, showing how for many of those involved it was really a talking game, but for a few fanatics, it was a real plot. Pinkerton’s task was a double one – to trap the plotters while also managing Lincoln’s safe transit through this dangerous city. I’ll say no more, so that I won’t spoil the tension for anyone who, like me, doesn’t know this story. But towards the end I found it as tense as a thriller and raced through the last chapters with a need to know how it all worked out.

Daniel Stashower

Finally, Stashower gives a short summary of what happened afterwards to the various people involved – the people who travelled with Lincoln, Pinkerton and his agents, and some of the plotters. He also shows how conflicting versions of the story make getting at the facts difficult – Pinkerton and some of Lincoln’s people didn’t see eye to eye either at the time or afterwards, and each side perhaps embellished the facts to suit their own purposes. Nothing really changes, eh? Except maybe it’s a bit easier to travel from Illinois to Washington now.

A thoroughly enjoyable book – well written, interesting and informative, giving a lot of insight into this troubled period just before the Civil War. Highly recommended!

Thanks, Margot – you know my tastes well. 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Gateway of the Monster by William Hope Hodgson

Ghost hunting…

So far this season all my spooky tales have involved women – one swooning victim and two rather more sassy heroines, so it’s about time to see how the men do when up against the supernatural. And who should be better able to cope than a ghost hunter? Here we will meet Carnacki the ghost finder, in this week’s…

The Gateway of the Monster
by William Hope Hodgson

William Hope Hodgson

Five men gather for dinner at the home of Carnacki, self-styled ghost-finder. As is a ritual on these evenings, after dinner Carnacki begins to tell the tale of his latest adventure. He had been contacted by a man named Anderson to investigate a haunted room in Anderson’s ancestral home…

Two days later, I drove to the house late in the afternoon. I found it a very old place, standing quite alone in its own grounds. Anderson had left a letter with the butler, I found, pleading excuses for his absence, and leaving the whole house at my disposal for my investigations.

Hmm! Well, Anderson is not showing the male of the species in a very brave light! However, the old butler, Peter, was able to give Carnacki some details of the haunting…

From him I learned more particulars regarding two things that Anderson had mentioned in but a casual manner. The first was that the door of the Grey Room would be heard in the dead of night to open, and slam heavily, and this even though the butler knew it was locked, and the key on the bunch in his pantry. The second was that the bedclothes would always be found torn off the bed, and hurled in a heap into a corner.

Anderson had already given Carnacki the horrible history of the Grey Room…

Three people had been strangled in it—an ancestor of his and his wife and child. This is authentic, as I had taken very great pains to discover; so that you can imagine it was with a feeling I had a striking case to investigate that I went upstairs after dinner to have a look at the Grey Room.

Examination of the room by daylight reveals nothing out of the ordinary, but during the night Carnacki, in his bedroom further down the corridor, is awakened by the banging of a door and, stopping only to light his candle, rushes out into the corridor…

Then a queer thing happened. I could not go a step toward the Grey Room. You all know I am not really a cowardly chap. I’ve gone into too many cases connected with ghostly things, to be accused of that; but I tell you I funked it; simply funked it, just like any blessed kid. There was something precious unholy in the air that night.

More male cowardice!

Old Peter begs Carnacki not to enter the Grey Room after darkness, but Carnacki is determined to find out what evil is hidden there, and determines to spend the night in the room. However, as an experienced ghost hunter, he takes precautions…

I returned then to the centre of the room, and measured out a space twenty-one feet in diameter, which I swept with a ‘broom of hyssop.’ About this, I drew a circle of chalk, taking care never to step over the circle. Beyond this I smudged, with a bunch of garlic, a broad belt right around the chalked circle…

There’s much more of this, including pentagrams and holy water and so on, and finally Carnacki settles himself in the centre of his circle and waits…

* * * * *

Well! This is nicely scary! There’s a lot more that happens in the lead-up to the night in the room than I’ve given above, and the actual events in the room are dramatic and tense. I must mention that there is a cat in the story which has (very) bad things happen to it, but it’s not shown graphically and isn’t dwelt on, so I didn’t find it as upsetting as I usually do when an animal is involved. The evil presence is done well, and we eventually learn why it’s coming to that particular room and what happened that led to the original stranglings. It’s not a traditional haunting – it has aspects of the “weird”; that is, of things and powers in nature or the cosmos that we puny humans cannot understand.

(All the illustrations I’ve used are from the original publication in The Idler, by Florence Briscoe)

Since it has everything you need to scare – haunted room, evil monstrous presence, dark night, arcane rituals – I was a bit puzzled as to why it didn’t terrify me and the porpy totally to the point of shrieking. And I realised it’s the first person narrative being given by the ghost hunter after the event. Knowing he obviously survives with body and mind intact rather reduces the tension. That small reservation aside, though, we raced through this and enjoyed it very much. I believe there are other Carnacki stories in this new collection of Hodgson’s weird tales from the British Library and we’re looking forward to them. And to be fair, Carnacki turned out to be very brave after all, even though he’s a man…

If you’d like to read this one online, here’s a link…

Enough to give the porpy a bad hair day…

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Mother of Pearl by Angela Savage

The birds and the bees…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

After years of unsuccessful IVF treatment, Meg and Nate have given up their attempt to have a child, leaving Meg especially feeling that a vital part of her remains empty and unfulfilled. Her older sister Anna is home in Australia after spending several years working for various aid agencies in Thailand and Cambodia. At lunch one day, Anna introduces Meg to some friends, a gay couple who have just become parents via commercial surrogacy in Thailand. Suddenly Meg feels the hope she thought she had stifled come to life again. Anna is horrified at first – to her, commercial surrogacy is an exploitation of poor women in countries where their rights are already limited. But she comes to recognise Meg’s desperation and agrees to put her principles aside and use her knowledge of the language and customs of Thailand to help her sister and brother-in-law navigate their way through the difficult path they have chosen.

In Thailand, Mod feels the weight of family responsibilities bearing down on her. Her mother, younger siblings and most of all her little son, Puy, all depend on the little money she can make as a street-vendor, selling chicken. Then she learns that a friend is acting as a surrogate and being paid what seems like a small fortune. For Mod, the money is an important factor, but so is her religious belief that helping others will allow her to earn merit – a kind of spiritual savings account to provide an easier passage to reincarnation. Through the story of these three women, Meg, Anna, and Mod, the reader is shown the quiet tragedy of infertility and the complex morality around the question of paid surrogacy.

I shall start by saying that I’ve known the author via the blogosphere for a long time now, and know that this book has been a real labour of love for her over the last few years. Angela has previously written three crime novels, also based in Thailand, but this is her first venture into literary fiction. As always, I’ve tried my best not to let my friendship with her bias my review.

Most of the story is based in Thailand, a place Savage clearly knows extremely well. We see it from different angles, through the eyes of each of the three main characters. Savage shows it as a place of contrasts – rapidly modernising both physically and socially, but still with many people living in real poverty and holding to the old traditions. I loved the way she managed to be observational without being judgemental, and the insights she gave into the traditional culture and beliefs of the Thai people.

She brings this same balanced impartiality to the moral questions around the issue of paid surrogacy. I’m always afraid when a book is so clearly based around a moral issue that the author will slip into polemics, forcing her view on the reader. Savage avoids this by having her characters have very different opinions on the subject and letting them speak for themselves. The reader is then left with the task of using her own judgement on the matter.

It would have been so easy, and so lazy, to portray Mod as simply the poor third-world victim of first-world greed, but Mod is drawn with far more complexity than that, as is Meg. Mod is indeed treated as a commodity by the surrogacy agency, but her decisions are her own at every step of the way, and she sees this as a way to help others while also improving life for her own family. Savage does however show that in some cases the surrogates may have been pushed into it, by husbands or family, which obviously opens up an entirely different moral equation.

The embryo in this case is not biologically related to Mod or Meg; the eggs are from another woman, although the sperm is Nate’s own. This raises all kinds of questions regarding what makes a “mother” – is it the woman who donates the egg, the woman whose womb carries the child to term, or the woman who proposes to raise and nurture the child throughout its life? Savage handles these questions beautifully, raising them, exploring them, and leaving them gently unanswered. She also looks at the impact on the surrogate of giving up a child she has carried and birthed, and happily Savage doesn’t over-emotionalise this. She looks too at the fear of the adoptive mother of not feeling the same bond as she would to a biological child, and questions whether a child born in this way ought to be taught about the culture of her biological mother or her surrogate mother.

Many of the questions around surrogacy seemed to me to mirror the old debates around adoption, and we know that in most cases adoption works well for all involved. It is of course the question of money that raises the issue of exploitation, but is earning money this way better or worse than sex work, or sending young children out to work, or some of the other ways people in conditions of poverty have to sell themselves or their labour in order to survive? I must say I started out ready to be angry on behalf of the surrogates, but I came out of it much less sure of my stance.

Angela Savage

This is also a deeply emotional read as we all wait with the three women, all of whom I had come to care about, to see if the procedure is a success. Even I, who haven’t a maternal bone in my body, was on tenterhooks throughout, hoping all would go well and dreading that it wouldn’t. Did it? You’ll have to read it if you want to know the answer to that. An “issues” book where the author trusts the reader to think for herself, very well written and, in my opinion, a very fine novel indeed. Highly recommended (and that’s not because I’m biased, but because it deserves it).

NB Angela kindly sent me a copy of the book all the way from Australia. Thanks, Angela, and congratulations! You even made me cry…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link