Murder in the Basement (Roger Sheringham 8) by Anthony Berkeley

Whowasdunin?

😀 😀 😀 😀

When a newlywed couple move into their new house, their happiness soon turns to dismay on discovering a body buried in the basement. Enter Chief Inspector Moresby, whose first task is to discover the identity of the victim – a young woman who has been dead for just a few months. His investigations lead him to a small preparatory school, Roland House, and he remembers that his friend, the novelist and occasional amateur detective Roger Sheringham, had worked at the school for a few weeks the year before to get some local colour for a novel he had been planning to write, So Moresby calls on Sheringham’s knowledge of the staff of Roland House, and soon decides who is the culprit. But now the task begins of trying to prove it – not easy when the assumed murderer has so carefully ensured there would be no evidence to link him to the crime…

This has an unusual structure for a mystery novel which is successful in parts and rather less so in others. The first section follows Moresby as he and his team carry out the painstaking work of identifying the victim. This is quite interesting and is short enough that it doesn’t have time to start dragging. By the end of it, Moresby knows who the victim was, but the reader is kept in the dark a little longer.

Sheringham, it turns out, has written the first few chapters of his planned novel, using the various staff members as models for his characters. He gives the manuscript to Moresby, and Moresby challenges him (and, therefore, the reader) to name the victim based on his knowledge of the people involved. So the second part is Sheringham’s manuscript, through which we learn about all the personalities involved and see the tensions that exist among the group in the rather claustrophobic setting of a boys’ boarding school. I enjoyed this section – Sheringham’s authorial “voice” has a tone of mild mockery which makes his depiction of the characters quite amusing. In fact, I think I’d have been quite happy if the whole story had been told by Sheringham as an insider at the school, rather than the more formal investigation by Moresby. Martin Edwards calls this section the first appearance of a “whowasdunin” element in a mystery novel, a technique that has been used often by other authors since. I must admit I didn’t think there was any real way to solve that aspect – any of the female characters could easily have been the victim, for any number of reasons.

Anthony Berkeley

At the end of section two, Moresby reveals the identity of the victim, and from that extrapolates who he thinks is the only possible murderer. So the third section is mostly of Moresby trying to get evidence to prove his theory, followed at the very end by Sheringham taking over to wrap up the case. This third section didn’t work so well for me. I felt it went on too long and became repetitive, and I wasn’t convinced that Moresby would so quickly have stopped considering other solutions. And when Sheringham did his stuff, it seemed abrupt and too pat – he leaps almost magically to the correct interpretation of events based on little more than guesswork, though he would no doubt say it was founded on his understanding of human psychology. I felt that the victim got rather forgotten in the end – it all became something of a game of cat and mouse between the men in the story, a battle of wills, and none of them seemed too bothered about getting justice for the murdered woman.

So a bit of a mixed bag, enjoyably and entertainingly written but not wholly satisfactory in terms of the mystery solving element. I was surprised by how little Sheringham appeared in it, and rather regretted that since I found him more interesting and amusing than the somewhat stolid and unimaginative Moresby. I enjoyed it overall, though, and certainly enough to want to read more of the Sheringham novels.

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

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 315…

Episode 315

Oh, no! The TBR has gone up again, by another 3 to 185! What’s going on?? Well, actually what’s going on is the Australian Open, which means I’ve had to go nocturnal, which means I’m an exhausted stupefied zombie most of the time, which means I’m hardly reading, which means I’m falling behind! So, in short, it’s this man’s fault!

Here are a few more I’ll be reading soon, if I can stay awake… 

Winner of the People’s Choice

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

There were only two books in the running right from the off this time and although Nine Coaches Waiting ran a good race, the winner took an early lead and stretched it throughout, romping home with several lengths to spare. I’m looking forward to this one which, as well as being the People’s Choice for April, is one of the books on my brand spanking new Classics Club list. Excellent choice, People!

The Blurb says: It was a cloudless summer day in the year nineteen hundred.

Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three of the girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of Hanging Rock. Further, higher, till at last they disappeared.

They never returned.

Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction the reader must decide for themselves.

* * * * *

English Classic

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

The last of the English classics on my first Classics Club list, I’ve been saving this re-read for a special reward to myself for reaching the end. (I still have three others to read, but because this one is the longest and I plan to read it slowly and savour it, I anticipate it’ll be the one I finish last.) I know this one isn’t a favourite for a lot of Austen fans, but I love it…

The Blurb says: Taken from the poverty of her parents’ home in Portsmouth, Fanny Price is brought up with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park, acutely aware of her humble rank and with her cousin Edmund as her sole ally. During her uncle’s absence in Antigua, the Crawfords arrive in the neighbourhood bringing with them the glamour of London life and a reckless taste for flirtation.

Mansfield Park is considered Jane Austen’s first mature work and, with its quiet heroine and subtle examination of social position and moral integrity, one of her most profound.

* * * * *

Scottish Classic

No Mean City by A. McArthur and H. Kingsley Long

The second last of my Scottish classics, and one of those books I don’t expect to enjoy at all but feel I ought to have read. (*sigh* I wish I could stop feeling that way about books – I blame John Knox.) However, my low expectations mean that if it surprises me, it can only be in a good way!

The Blurb says: No book is more associated with the city of Glasgow than No Mean City. First published in 1935, it is the story of Johnnie Stark, son of a violent father and a downtrodden mother, the ‘Razor King’ of Glasgow’s pre-war slum underworld, the Gorbals. The savage, near-truth descriptions, the raw character portrayals, bring to life a story that is fascinating, authentic and convincing.

* * * * *

Vintage Crime

Jumping Jenny by Anthony Berkeley

Courtesy of the British Library. I’ve had a mixed reaction to Anthony Berkeley, but more positive than otherwise, so I’m looking forward to this one. I don’t think I’ve read any of his “inverted mysteries” before – a subgenre that can be great… or not great! We’ll see…

The Blurb says: At a costume party with the dubious theme of ‘famous murderers and their victims’, the know-it-all amateur criminologist Roger Sheringham is settled in for an evening of beer, small talk and analysing his companions. One guest in particular has caught his attention for her theatrics, and his theory that she might have several enemies among the partygoers proves true when she is found hanging from the ‘decorative’ gallows on the roof terrace.

Noticing a key detail which could implicate a friend in the crime, Sheringham decides to meddle with the scene and unwittingly casts himself into jeopardy as the uncommonly thorough police investigation circles closer and closer to the truth. Tightly paced and cleverly defying the conventions of the classic detective story, this 1933 novel remains a milestone of the inverted mystery subgenre.

* * * * *

Scottish Crime

Still Life by Val McDermid

I really enjoyed the first few in McDermid’s Karen Pirie series, but the last couple have been too full of pro-separatist polemics and sycophantic adulation of her personal friend, our First Minister, (an adulation I do not share). (Isn’t it annoying when people who have chosen to be educated outside their country and then live outside their country and write about another country for most of their lives feel they have the right to tell those of us who have actually made our lives here how we should vote?) This one is make or break time – if it’s more of the same then it’ll be the last McDermid I read, but if she’s taken note of the criticism that many other Scots as well as myself have made over her thumping her political views at us, then I’ll be delighted to continue. It’s up to you, Ms McDermid… 

The Blurb says: When a lobster fisherman discovers a dead body in Scotland’s Firth of Forth, Karen is called into investigate. She quickly discovers that the case will require untangling a complicated web—including a historic disappearance, art forgery, and secret identities—that seems to orbit around a painting copyist who can mimic anyone from Holbein to Hockney. Meanwhile, a traffic crash leads to the discovery of a skeleton in a suburban garage. Needless to say, Karen has her plate full. Meanwhile, the man responsible for the death of the love of her life is being released from prison, reopening old wounds just as she was getting back on her feet.

Tightly plotted and intensely gripping, Still Life is Val McDermid at her best, and new and longtime readers alike will delight in the latest addition to this superior series.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

As promised, here is your reminder of the forthcoming Review-Alongs

16th February 2022 – Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

Kelly and I have also agreed to do a mini Review-Along in March, which you are more than welcome to join if you fancy it…

23rd March 2022 – The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

And after that, the next Review-Along is…

20th April 2022 – Notre-Dame de Paris/The Hunchback of Notre Dame
by Victor Hugo

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Dear me!

🤬

In a far future, some human beings have developed the ability to “jaunte” – to travel long distances by the power of their mind. This has led to major changes in how society operates, as rich men have to find ever more elaborate ways of securing their properties against jaunting invaders, and of keeping their womenfolk safe from potential rapists jaunting into their rooms at night. For some reason (I have no idea why – maybe he told me, maybe he didn’t – I don’t care) this has all led to interplanetary war between the inner and outer settlements in the solar system. In the midst of all this, Gully Foyle is trapped all alone on a wrecked ship in the middle of space and when another ship passes by and refuses to rescue him, he swears revenge.

This has very high ratings on Goodreads and lots of people claiming it’s the best book ever written in the history of this galaxy or any other. I guess they must all like following a bunch of despicable people doing despicable things for no logical reason. Some SF novels suggest that humanity will improve as we continue to evolve – others, and this is one of them, suggest that humanity has no redeeming features whatsoever and will gradually revert to a sort of savagery. For some reason, the latter seem to be respected more than the former, in the era of modern SF anyway. This, I now remember, is why I hate most SF from the late 50s, 60s, and 70s. Bad taste pulp.

Book 83 of 90

Gully rapes the first woman to put in an appearance in the book. This is pretty much a signal for the casual misogyny that runs throughout. All the women are possessions and sex toys, rising or falling in the social order by virtue of whose daughters they are, who they sleep with, or who they are raped by. They are not all victims though – they are just as vile and vicious as the men on the whole. Torture and murder are the norm in this society, not to mention genocide. How can any reader possibly care about the outcome for any of these characters? Beats me. I certainly felt that they would all be improved by death.

Alfred Bester

Trying to see what all the 5-starrers (mostly men) saw in this that I didn’t, it appears that in fact they love all the things I hated. They love that Gully is disgusting – it seems to enthral them that he is viciously violent without compassion or regret. Some of them suggest that he becomes good in the end – hmm, depends on your definition of good. They buy into the collapse of society brought about by jaunting, as if it’s to be expected that if we could break into other people’s houses and rape their daughters, we would. They seem to understand why jaunting has led to interplanetary war – odd, since the point of jaunting is that no one has found a way to jaunte through space. They claim it’s an SF version of The Count of Monte Cristo – I haven’t read it, so I’ll take that as a warning not to.

Clearly I’m not on the right wavelength for this one, and I can’t tell you how happy that makes me. If you want to read about a vile man doing vile things in a vile society, highly recommended!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

I’ll be looking forward to reading more…

… but did I?

Having written well over a thousand reviews since I started blogging way back in 2013, I’ve become a master of the art of recycling phrases. One I use often to finish a review of a book I’ve enjoyed is “I’ll be looking forward to reading more of her work/this series/his books in the future.” I mean it when I say it, and it won’t surprise you in the least to know that I have a page on my TBR spreadsheet dedicated to keeping track of authors to whom I’ve given a five-star review, which I go through regularly to see if they have any new books coming out or to remind me to acquire one from their back catalogue. But regular visitors will also be aware of my TBR woes – the occasional culling, the books that linger there, not forgotten but not read either.

So I wondered – have I read all these books that I looked forward to reading? Have I read any of them? And if I have, did I like the ones I looked forward to as much as the ones that made me look forward to them? I thought it might be fun (for me, and hopefully for you too) to look back at my reviews starting with the oldest, find ones where I looked forward to reading more from the author, and then check if I actually did. (If you think this is just a cheat’s way of highlighting some old reviews of books I enjoyed long ago, then you may well be right… 😉 )

Let’s see then…

A Dying Fall by Elly Griffiths

First reviewed 5th Feb, 2013. This is the fifth book in the Ruth Galloway series, some of which I had already read before I started blogging. I was already beginning to lose interest apparently but said “despite my criticisms I will still be looking out for the next in the series.” So did I?

I did! I read books 6, 7 and 8 and backtracked to read book 2 before finally calling it quits on the series, but in the interim Griffiths had begun her new Stephens and Mephisto series set in Brighton in the 1950s and ‘60s, which I loved and have read five of so far! Plus the first in what seems to be another new series, starring police officer Harbinder Kaur. In fact Griffiths is one of my most reviewed authors – I’ve reviewed eleven of her books. I don’t always love each book, but I’m still always excited to see a new one appear, and she’s incredibly prolific. I currently have the second Harbinder Kaur book on my TBR.

* * * * *

Unhallowed Ground by Gillian White

First reviewed 23rd Feb, 2013. A slow-burn psychological thriller which I thoroughly enjoyed, and said “on the basis of this book, I am certainly looking forward to reading more of White’s work.” Did I?

I did! I went on to read three others, all also standalone thrillers, over the next few months. If memory serves me right, Open Road were reissuing many of her books and they all appeared on NetGalley within a short space of time. I enjoyed all the ones I read, especially Copycat which I thought was brilliantly done, but I think I overdosed on her after a bit – I usually like to leave more of a gap between books from any author. Hmm, nine years is quite a gap – I may have to put her back on the wishlist!

* * * * *

The Lion Wakes by Robert Low

First reviewed 28th Feb, 2013. This was the first in a trilogy recounting the story of Robert the Bruce and the first Scottish War of Independence, and I loved it mainly because the history seemed pretty accurate and he used lots of great Scots dialect. I said “An excellent read – I will certainly be looking out for the next in the series.” Did I?

I did! I read both the other books in the trilogy but unfortunately I felt they went downhill badly. Due, I suspect, to a backlash from his established, mostly non-Scottish fan base, he toned the use of Scots right down in the later books, and the plots turned into the kind of sword-and-sandal blood and gore stories that never appeal to me much, so he slipped off my “looking forward to” list after that. Oh well!

* * * * *

The Burning by Jane Casey

First reviewed 28th February 2013. The first book in Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan police procedural series, and I fell in love with Maeve immediately. I said “A great new entrant to the detective genre and one I hope to see again.” Did I?

I did! The next couple of books consolidated the series as a firm favourite and I have read all nine of them now, usually as soon as they appear. I’ve also read a couple of her Jess Tennant Young Adult crime trilogy (though I lost the impetus to read book 3), and her recent standalone thriller (which I really didn’t enjoy). There’s a new Maeve due out in Feb 2023 and it’s already on my wishlist!

* * * * *

Success! To be honest though, these early reviews all predated the blog when I used to only review on Amazon, and when I started the blog I selected books and authors I had enjoyed for my first batch of posts (hence why these reviews were all posted within a few days), so it’s not really a fair sample. I’ll go through a few more from time to time, and I’m quite sure my success rate will drop significantly!

Have you read any of these authors?
What authors would be on your “looking forward to” list?

Still Life (Chief Inspector Gamache 1) by Louise Penny

Armand of Avonlea…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When a much-loved resident of the small town of Three Pines is murdered, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team are sent from the Sûreté du Quebec to investigate. Gamache is much taken by the apparently idyllic life here, so much slower than city life and with a real sense of community, but he will slowly begin to uncover the hidden secrets of some of the residents.

This is the first in what may be the one series of which I’ve read most glowing reviews in my time on the blogosphere. Several long-term fans warned me that it’s not the best of the series, which is often true of the first book in many series. A lot of time is naturally spent introducing the people who will become recurring characters, and in a book with such a strong setting, a good deal of space has to be devoted to creating that too.

I had rather mixed feelings about it, to be honest. As with so much modern crime it is far too long for its content, with so much waffling and painting of word pictures that sometimes the plot seems to have been entirely forgotten, not just by the reader but by many of the characters too. Gamache spends inordinate amounts of time sitting on benches or in cafes, eating freshly-baked muffins and mulling about life in general. The Three Pines setting reminded me of Avonlea – lots of quirky but fundamentally good-hearted people all supporting each other and being generally lovely. I’ve never actually come across a place like that and am not convinced they exist outside children’s fiction, but I see the attraction of spending some time there.

Not that everything is idyllic, of course – we get a little mild homophobia, although of course the main characters are all totally non-homophobic, non-racist, non-greedy, non-selfish and non-everything else that makes fictional people generally repugnant but (*whispers*) interesting. And there’s a murder, so obviously there’s at least one bad apple in the wholesome barrel of the town.

Louise Penny

But the murder is really just an unfortunate blip in a world where everyone loves each other devotedly, spending their time being understanding and caring, gathering together to carry out soul-cleansing rituals in the woods, and eating lavish amounts of home-made soup and fresh bread – always fresh. (I found myself wondering if there is somewhere in the wealthy Western world where people serve their guests mouldy bread? I’d have felt the freshness of the bread could be a given, just once.) Joking aside, I did find Penny’s habit of using at least one adjective per noun got a little wearing, especially when some nouns always attracted the same adjective each time, and it added to the feeling that I had at times that I was wading through a word-bog.

However, it was interesting enough as a first book for me to stick with the series for one or two more, to see if the slightly saccharin taste wears off and if the characters become less idealised. I was hoping that perhaps the later books would be shorter given that the setting has already been described in this one with as much detail as an Ordnance Survey map, but sadly I see they actually tend to get longer over time. I’m hoping that’s because the characters and stories become more complex…

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 314…

Episode 314

Well, the New Year resolution to reduce the TBR has got off to a fine start – it’s gone up three to 182! Still, eleven and a half months to go…

Here are a few more I’ll be reading soon. A couple of Scottish writers this week, and all four books are from writers I’ve enjoyed before…

Factual

Unlocking the World by John Darwin

Courtesy of Allen Lane. John Darwin won the 2013 FF Factual Book of the Year Award for his excellent Unfinished Empire. The prize is that I will read the author’s next book. It’s taken a while for a new one to come along, and happily it looks just as interesting…

The Blurb says: Steam power transformed our world, initiating the complex, resource-devouring industrial system the consequences of which we live with today. It revolutionized work and production, but also the ease and cost of movement over land and water. The result was to throw open vast areas of the world to the rampaging expansion of Europeans and Americans on a scale previously unimaginable.

Unlocking the World is the captivating history of the great port cities which emerged as the bridgeheads of this new steam-driven economy, reshaping not just the trade and industry of the regions around them but their culture and politics as well. They were the agents of what we now call ‘globalization’, but their impact and influence, and the reactions they provoked, were far from predictable. Nor were they immune to the great upheavals in world politics across the ‘steam century’.

This book is global history at its very best. Packed with fascinating case histories (from New Orleans to Montreal, Bombay to Singapore, Calcutta to Shanghai), individual stories and original ideas, Darwin’s book allows us, for better or worse, to see the modern age taking shape.

* * * * *

Scottish Historical Crime

The Heretic by Liam McIlvaney

Courtesy of HarperCollins. I’ve only read one of Liam McIlvanney’s books before, and found it a good read, though it suffered from my inability to stop comparing it unfairly with the great Glasgow-set crime novels of his dad, William McIlvanney. I’m happy to have a second chance and hopefully will be able to judge him on his own merits this time – I’ll try, anyway!

The Blurb says: Set in 1976, seven years after the murders recounted in Liam McIlvanney’s breakout novel, The Quaker, this new Glasgow noir novel is a standalone mystery featuring serial character, Detective Duncan McCormack.

McCormack has returned to Glasgow after a stint with the Metropolitan Police in London. The reason for his return is left a lurking mystery throughout. He is investigating a series of murders that seem at first to be the result of random bouts of violence among Glasgow’s poor and destitute. McCormack, however, has insight into Glasgow’s underground that many of his colleagues don’t. He has a secret of his own that he guards carefully but that takes him places and introduces him to people that prove essential to his investigations.

Mcilvanney’s The Quaker was named the Scottish Crime Fiction Book of the Year and a Washington Post Best Book of the Year. The Guardian called it “a solidly crafted and satisfying detective story.” McIlvanney is known for his well crafted plots, his deep characterization, and his stylish prose. The Heretic is no exception.

* * * * *

Scottish Historical Fiction

Rose Nicolson by Andrew Greig

Courtesy of Quercus via NetGalley. I’ve loved Greig’s writing in the past but have been less enamoured by the subjects he has chosen to write about – his books can be a bit too grief-laden for my tastes. This one, however, sounds right up my street, and my hopes for it are stratospheric! (Any blurb that includes the line “John Knox is dead” is already singing my song… 😉 )

The Blurb says: Embra, winter of 1574. Queen Mary has fled Scotland, to raise an army from the French. Her son and heir, Jamie is held under protection in Stirling Castle. John Knox is dead. The people are unmoored and lurching under the uncertain governance of this riven land. It’s a deadly time for young student Will Fowler, short of stature, low of birth but mightily ambitious, to make his name.

Fowler has found himself where the scorch marks of the martyrs burned at the stake can be seen on every street, where differences in doctrine can prove fatal, where the feuds of great families pull innocents into their bloody realm. There he befriends the austere stick-wielding philosopher Tom Nicolson, son of a fishing family whose sister Rose, untutored, brilliant and exceedingly beautiful exhibits a free-thinking mind that can only bring danger upon her and her admirers. The lowly students are adept at attracting the attentions of the rich and powerful, not least Walter Scott, brave and ruthless heir to Branxholm and Buccleuch, who is set on exploiting the civil wars to further his political and dynastic ambitions. His friendship and patronage will lead Will to the to the very centre of a conspiracy that will determine who will take Scotland’s crown.

Rose Nicolson is a vivid, passionate and unforgettable novel of this most dramatic period of Scotland’s history, told by a character whose rise mirrors the conflicts he narrates, the battles between faith and reason, love and friendship, self-interest and loyalty. It confirms Andrew Greig as one of the great contemporary writers of fiction.

* * * * *

The Wolf Hall Trilogy on Audio

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

We waited so long for the final part of this trilogy that I felt I really needed to re-read the first two books before tackling the third. So since I’d heard that Ben Miles does a wonderful job of the narration, I decided to listen to them all. They’re incredibly long and as regulars will know I’m incredibly slow at listening to audiobooks, so this will be a kind of mini-challenge to listen to the whole trilogy this year. I’ve started this one and totally agree about Miles’ narration so far…

The Blurb says: Listen to the exciting new rendition of Wolf Hall, read by Ben Miles, who was personally cast by the author and played Thomas Cromwell in the Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. The winner of the Man Booker Prize and captivating first book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy.

England, the 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce the pope refuses to grant. Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey’s clerk and later his successor.

Cromwell is a wholly original man: the son of a brutal blacksmith, a political genius, a briber, a charmer, a bully, a man with a delicate and deadly expertise in manipulating people and events.

Ruthless in pursuit of his own interests, he is as ambitious in his wider politics as he is for himself. His reforming agenda is carried out in the grip of a self-interested parliament and a king who fluctuates between romantic passions and murderous rages.

From one of our finest living writers, Wolf Hall is that very rare thing: a truly great English novel, one that explores the intersection of individual psychology and wider politics. With a vast array of character and richly overflowing with incident, it peels back history to show us Tudor England as a half-made society, moulding itself with great passion and suffering and courage.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

TBR Thursday (on a Wednesday) 313 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 313

(A reminder of The People’s Choice plan. Once a month, I shall list the four oldest books on the TBR, then the next four, and so on, and each time you will select the one you think I should read, either because you’ve read and enjoyed it, or because you think the blurb looks good. And I will read the one you pick within three months! If I begin to fall behind, I’ll have a gap till I catch up again. In the event of a tie, I’ll have the casting vote.)

* * * * *

OK, People, time for the next batch of four, all from 2018 and an interesting list this time, I think.  I like to run three months ahead with these polls, so the winner will be a April read. The Cottage at Hope Cove is the only romance novel on my list, added because it was highly recommended by another blogger I followed back then, who specialised in romance. I added Picnic at Hanging Rock because I loved the film and wanted to read the book, and it’s now on my new Classics Club list. Mrs Ritchie was added because I enjoyed another book by the same author. And Nine Coaches Waiting is another that was added on the basis of a fellow blogger’s recommendation, this time Helen at She Reads Novels. There are a couple here I’d really like to read and a couple I’ll be happy to move off my TBR, so you really can’t go wrong! 😉

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Romance

The Cottage at Hope Cove by Hannah Ellis

Added 9th August 2018. 4,822 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.34 average rating. 337 pages.

The Blurb says: Lizzie Beaumont has it all: a great career, a wealthy fiancé, and the wedding of her dreams just months away. But when her fiancé puts work before her again, she sets off for a week in the picturesque town of Hope Cove. She’s hoping for time away from the chaos to find herself.

Instead, she finds Max.

When the gorgeous guy next door asks her for decorating help, Lizzie finds herself all too eager to please. The week she expected to drag suddenly flies by, and before she knows it, she has to return to her other life. The life with the impending marriage and the fiancé she loves.

Or does she?

One week with Max has left her questioning her life choices. Is her fiancé the man of her dreams, or just the man who asked? Now Lizzie must decide what her life will be. Will she go for the safe and predictable route, or take a chance on a man she hardly knows? No matter what she does, someone’s heart is going to break. She just doesn’t want it to be hers.

* * * * *

Classic Historical Fiction

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

Added 17th August 2018. 18,008 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.69 average. 189 pages.

The Blurb says: It was a cloudless summer day in the year nineteen hundred.

Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three of the girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of Hanging Rock. Further, higher, till at last they disappeared.

They never returned.

Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction the reader must decide for themselves.

* * * * *

Scottish Fiction

Mrs Ritchie by Willa Muir

Added 6th October 2018. 1 rating on Goodreads, with a 5.00 average! 338 pages. 

The Blurb says: [FF says: For the first time ever, I can’t find a blurb for this book. Here’s an extract from the introduction in my copy instead.] Johnny and Annie’s marriage in Mrs Ritchie is also born out of deceit and disguise. The young Annie Rattray’s mask of gently wooing womanhood utterly blinds Johnny to the terrifying harridan within – and ultimately traps him into the baleful hell of a loveless and soul-destroying marriage. [FF says: Gosh! Despite this, Muir’s reputation is of a strong feminist, and that was certainly the feeling I had from her other novel.]

* * * * *

Historical Suspense

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

Added 26th October 2018. 14,037 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.04 average. 342 pages.

The Blurb says: A governess in a French chateau encounters an apparent plot against her young charge’s life in this unforgettably haunting and beautifully written suspense novel.

When lovely Linda Martin first arrives at Château Valmy as an English governess to the nine-year-old Count Philippe de Valmy, the opulence and history surrounding her seems like a wondrous, ecstatic dream. But a palpable terror is crouching in the shadows. Philippe’s uncle, Léon de Valmy, is the epitome of charm, yet dynamic and arrogant, his paralysis little hindrance as he moves noiselessly in his wheelchair from room to room. Only his son Raoul, a handsome, sardonic man who drives himself and his car with equally reckless abandon, seems able to stand up to him. To Linda, Raoul is an enigma, though irresistibly attracted to him, she senses some dark twist in his nature. When an accident deep in the woods nearly kills Linda’s innocent charge, she begins to wonder if someone has deadly plans for the young count.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

VOTE NOW!

(Click on title and then remember to also click on Vote, or your vote won’t count!)

* * * * *

Tuesday Terror! The Festival by HP Lovecraft

Festive fun…

The porpy is ready to go into hibernation and is rather huffy because we read more mystery and science fiction short stories than horror this year, but I’ve promised him that next year I’ll be sure to build up a stock of scariness just for him! I’ve also agreed with his demand that no horror season could be considered complete without at least one story from HP Lovecraft, master of the weird, so here it is. Taken from the collection Chill Tidings, from the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series, a collection I didn’t get around to reviewing before Christmas and now feel the moment has passed. We enjoyed it though – probably a four-star read overall. Anyway, here’s Lovecraft…

The Festival
by HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide, and I had come at last to the ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden; where also they had commanded their sons to keep festival once every century, that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten.

One feels that primal secrets should be forgotten as quickly as possible – who ever heard of a primal secret that wasn’t trouble?? Anyway, our idiotic intrepid hero ends up in the infamous town of Kingsport, known to all HPL fans as a place where slithery things are common, dark forbidden books are the only kind the local library keeps, and humans are regularly driven insane…

…snowy Kingsport with its ancient vanes and steeples, ridgepoles and chimney-pots, wharves and small bridges, willow-trees and graveyards; endless labyrinths of steep, narrow, crooked streets, and dizzy church-crowned central peak that time durst not touch; ceaseless mazes of colonial houses piled and scattered at all angles and levels like a child’s disordered blocks; antiquity hovering on grey wings over winter-whitened gables and gambrel roofs; fanlights and small-paned windows one by one gleaming out in the cold dusk to join Orion and the archaic stars. And against the rotting wharves the sea pounded; the secretive, immemorial sea out of which the people had come in the elder time.

Yes, half-fish, half-frog, half-human people if my memory serves me better than my maths! It’s a cheery old place, Kingsport – perfect for a winter weekend getaway…

The printless road was very lonely, and sometimes I thought I heard a distant horrible creaking as of a gibbet in the wind. They had hanged four kinsmen of mine for witchcraft in 1692, but I did not know just where.

He finds the house of his distant family, whom he’s never met before…

When I sounded the archaic iron knocker I was half afraid. Some fear had been gathering in me, perhaps because of the strangeness of my heritage, and the bleakness of the evening, and the queerness of the silence in that aged town of curious customs.

Curious is one word for the customs of Kingsport, but perhaps not the one I would choose. He is welcomed by an old man, dumb apparently, and with a bland face that at first strikes him as kindly, but on entering the gothic old house, he feels fear returning…

This fear grew stronger from what had before lessened it, for the more I looked at the old man’s bland face the more its very blandness terrified me. The eyes never moved, and the skin was too like wax. Finally I was sure it was not a face at all, but a fiendishly cunning mask.

The Festival in Kingsport
by mcrassuart via deviantart.com

Does he turn and run? Nope. Instead he takes a seat and waits for hours to be led to the festival. Meantime he whiles away the time with some pleasant reading material provided by his host…

I saw that the books were hoary and mouldy, and that they included old Morryster’s wild Marvells of Science, the terrible Saducismus Triumphatus of Joseph Glanvill, published in 1681, the shocking Daemonolatreia of Remigius, printed in 1595 at Lyons, and worst of all, the unmentionable Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, in Olaus Wormius’ forbidden Latin translation; a book which I had never seen, but of which I had heard monstrous things whispered.

Finally the time comes for the people to make their way to the festival…

We went out into the moonless and tortuous network of that incredibly ancient town; went out as the lights in the curtained windows disappeared one by one, and the Dog Star leered at the throng of cowled, cloaked figures that poured silently from every doorway and formed monstrous processions up this street and that, past the creaking signs and antediluvian gables, the thatched roofs and diamond-paned windows; threading precipitous lanes where decaying houses overlapped and crumbled together, gliding across open courts and churchyards where the bobbing lanthorns made eldritch drunken constellations.

And yet still he doesn’t run…

* * * * *

Lovecraft’s style is so instantly recognisable and while he creates a wonderfully weird atmosphere of impending horror, I must admit his overblown vocabulary always makes me laugh! This story is much shorter than many of his rambling excursions through the terrors of Kingsport and its surrounds, and is very effective. It’s also utterly typical of his style so a good introduction for newcomers to his work, though I found I had to read quite a lot of his stuff before I became a real fan. If you’d like to find out exactly what happens at the festival, here’s a link. I promise it’ll make even your worst family Christmas look cosy in comparison and your weirdest relatives will suddenly seem normal…

(The porpy has now gone off to his hibernation box to dream of ghosties and ghoulies and Gothic horrors of all kinds. He’ll be back in the autumn, refreshed and ready for more!)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

Intimacy of strangers…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As the Orient express makes its way from Ostend To Istanbul, the passengers on this long journey find themselves thrust into a kind of intimacy where secrets are revealed and character flaws are laid bare. Myers is a Jew in the currant business, going to Istanbul to supervise the purchase of a rival company. Coral Musker is a dancer, going out to join a dance group to replace a girl who has fallen ill. Mabel Warren, a journalist and a drunk, who is in the station at Ostend to see off the beautiful woman she loves, spots a man whom she recognises and jumps aboard as the train is about to leave. The man is travelling as Richard John, a teacher from a school in England, but Mabel knows he’s really Dr Czinner, who fled from Yugoslavia five years ago after giving evidence in the trial of a General in the ruling regime accused of rape. Czinner was then a prominent figure in the opposition to the dictatorship and Mabel realises that if he is now returning to Belgrade, there may be a story here that could get her a coveted byline on the front pages of her paper.

The book is set in the 1930s, and gives a real sense of the political unease throughout Europe in this between wars period. Through Czinner’s story, we see the rising clash of extreme right and left ideologies that scarred the twentieth century and, while Greene gives a sympathetic portrayal of Czinner as a man and an idealist, he indicates little belief that leftist regimes would be any better than the fascist dictatorships springing up across the continent. Poverty and inequality, Greene seems to suggest, make people open to any leader who convincingly promises to make life better, and those at bare subsistence level don’t much care what ideology that leader may be professing. Czinner wants to love his fellow man, and perhaps more importantly wants to be loved by him, but man is a fickle beast who will tend to follow the leader he fears most.

Greene’s treatment of Myers, the Jew, is undoubtedly problematic to modern eyes and makes for uncomfortable reading. However, if the reader can look past the surface, Greene is actually giving a remarkably sympathetic portrayal for that time. While accepting the perceived negative characteristics of Jews as actuality, Greene is seeking to show how, in Western Europe at least, they have developed in response to the discrimination and prejudice Jews have had to deal with on a daily basis. Jews, he suggests, who have run from pogroms before and fear that they will be driven out again from their new, uncertain places of refuge can hardly be blamed for their love of gold, as a form of portable security – a deposit against the need to buy acceptance in the now or future refuge elsewhere. We see Myers in a constant conflict of emotions. He is proud of his wealth and importance as the owner of a successful and growing business, but at the same time there is the constant anxiety of what we now call micro-aggressions and the growing fear, soon to be tragically justified, that those aggressions might at any time turn to violence. The race memory of centuries of persecution never sinks below the surface, and so he ingratiates himself to people he inwardly despises, and despises himself for doing so. Although I found some of this difficult reading, I felt that Greene was appealing for understanding and tolerance rather than intentionally contributing to the stereotyping that has done so much harm.

Mabel is also problematic as a character, in very similar ways. Greene is frank and open about her lesbianism in a way that was rare in literature as early as this. But he is a male author, writing in a time when lesbianism was still not openly discussed, and I felt again his portrayal relied too heavily on stereotypes, as if he was writing about something he didn’t properly understand. Like Myers, Mabel has more than her share of negative characteristics – she drinks, she hates men, she manipulates young women, she uses people without caring about the impact she may have on their lives, she wallows in self-pity. She is desperate for love, but Greene, perhaps unintentionally, gives the impression that lesbian love is doomed to be sordid and impermanent. Again, though, it seemed to me that he was seeking to elicit sympathy for her from a readership who largely would have no knowledge of the world of lesbian love and would mostly be heavily prejudiced against it. Mabel, he seems to be saying, is a horrible person, but how could she not be when her whole life has been one rejection after another, when the world treats her as a living perversion?

Graham Greene

Coral, happily, is considerably easier to like and to pity – a young woman alone in the world and tired of the insecurity of poverty. She may seem weak and some might judge her immoral but she has her reasons, and in the end she’s the one who shows herself to have the warmest heart.

The story itself is excellent, taking the characters into unfamiliar and frightening situations that will reveal them to themselves as much as to us. As with most Greene, it’s not exactly uplifting – in fact, in some ways it’s downright depressing – and there are no real heroes. But there is warmth and sympathy here, all under the already looming shadow of the horrors soon to be unleashed across Europe. I considered deducting a star for the stereotyping problems, but having allowed the book to settle in my mind for a few weeks, I really feel that it deserves to be cut some slack for the time of writing and for what I feel were Greene’s good intentions; and the quality of the writing, the storytelling and the humanity of it put it up there amongst Greene’s best for me.

Amazon UK Link

New Year’s Resolutions aka…

…The Annual Failure Report…

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

The 2021 Results

I continued to plan much of my reading at the beginning of the year, as I have done for a few years now, leaving space for new releases or impulse buys along the way. I never stick to the plan rigidly but it does mean that I remember to make progress towards all of my various challenges… in theory. 

1) Reading Resolutions

I planned to read:

a) 72 books that I already owned as at 31st Dec 2020. I managed to read 53 of these – not as many as planned, but not too bad. I also got rid of another 17, either by abandoning them which happened a LOT this year, or by brutally culling them on the grounds that they no longer appealed. So I feel I’ve been reasonably successful despite the fact that I…

b) 12 books from the People’s Choice Polls, where I reveal a few of the oldest books on my TBR and You, the People, choose which one I should read. Success! I’ve loved this challenge, and have read (or abandoned) all twelve of your choices, and reviewed them all! It’s been a major factor in my culling too – I quickly learned not to put books on the poll I’d really lost all desire to read… 😉

c) 18 books from my Classics Club list. I was due to finish by mid-2021 but knew that was impossible, so extended to the end of the year. Hmm! I read 13 of them. On the upside, my classics reading continues to give me a great deal of pleasure and there were some fab books among the 13, so I feel as if I passed even though I…

d) 6 books in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series. I said this might be ambitious as the books tend to get chunkier as they go along, so having read 4 this year feels like an achievement, though strictly speaking it’s fair to say that I…

e) 8 books for the Spanish Civil War challenge. I read just 6 for this challenge this year, but in my defence there were some pretty massive factual books in there! And I thoroughly enjoyed the few novels I read, so I feel pretty good about this even though I (All Together, Now!)…

f) 12 books for the Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge. I’ve failed to read twelve books every single year of this challenge, so it should come as no surprise to learn that I only read 8 of them again this year. But I’m rather proud of the fact that I bounce back so well from repeated defeats – Robert the Bruce would be proud of me, even though I…

g) 36 books first published in 2021 (minimum). I tried, lord knows I tried. Can I be held responsible for the monstrosities that are brazenly misrepresented as “the best book ever written”? Is it my fault when books are “creatively” written, or written in the first person present tense, or don’t have a plot, or are full of adolescent swearing? Did I make authors think that misery and grief, self-pity and narcissism, death by cancer or dementia, child abuse or graphic violence were entertaining?? I managed to read 22 new releases – or read enough of them to write a review anyway – and abandoned an astonishing 15. So I didn’t meet my target, fair enough, but I don’t feel I can be held solely responsible for the fact that I…

2) Reduce the TBR

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

Target for TBR (i.e., books I own): 153

Result: 179

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

Result: 247

I blame you for this failure. I was doing pretty well till all your Best of 2021 lists came out, tempting me into a flurry of additions to my wishlist at the end of the year! However, the TBR and wishlist both continue to head in the right direction and I feel far more in control of them than I did a couple of years ago, so I feel pretty good about them even though I…

I didn’t set a specific target for review copies, but I took a total of 74 which is considerably up on last year though not as bad as in the years before that. A lot of them have been unsolicited this year, and I’ve become stricter about not automatically adding them to my TBR if they really don’t appeal, but I’ve had some great reads from the unsolicited pile that I’d never have chosen for myself, so overall I love getting them! I’ve cut right down on NetGalley since I’ve found I’ve been abandoning so many new releases, and am being much more careful about which ones I request. The number of unread review books at the end of the year has gone down slightly from 26 last year to 21 this year.

Overall I read 119 books, which is better than 2020 (known as The Year of the Great Slump) but still slightly less than usual (so 2021 will henceforth be known as The Year of the Lesser Slump). But I’ve been back properly in the reading groove for the last few months, so I’m hoping that the slumpiness is behind me now and 2022 will be known as The Year of Great Reading!

* * * * * * * * *

Resolutions for 2022

Despite my failure to meet most of my targets, I’d like to emphasise that I don’t care! So this year’s targets are just as likely to fall by the wayside, but they give me a great excuse to play with my spreadsheet. 😉 There’s a lot of crossover in these targets…

1) Reading Resolutions

I plan to read:

a) 72 books that I already own as at today. I’ve never achieved this target but it would feel like cheating to lower it, and who knows – maybe this year! Lots of the books in the targets below are included in this figure, so it’s not as bad as it seems…

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

c) 18 books from my Classics Club list. This will be the last 5 from my first Classics Club list, and 13 from my brand new list which looks all shiny and appealing at the moment. Can’t wait to get stuck in!

d) 6 books in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series. I doubt I’ll achieve this since the books are getting longer now, but we’ll see! The end of the series is beginning to be within sight. 

e) 10 books for the Spanish Civil War challenge. I have 10 books remaining on the TBR or wishlist for this challenge, and then I’m calling it quits. Unless I come across more that I feel an urgent need to add, of course.

f) 12 books for the Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge. I’m sticking with 12 even though I failed so dismally this year. 2022 will be the year I succeed…!

g) 8 books for the Wanderlust Bingo challenge. This was really supposed to be a one-year challenge but didn’t work out that way! So I have eight left to go…

h) 24 books first published in 2021/22 (minimum). I’m reducing this target considerably this year given last year’s debacle, but it’s a minimum figure and I’ll be thrilled if I end up reading and enjoying far more – I’ll be trying hard to find some gems! 

2) Reduce the TBR

I’ll be adding vastly to the wishlist this year to include all the classics on my new list that I don’t already own – probably an extra fifty or so. And I’m actually reasonably happy with my current numbers after the reductions of the last three years – don’t want to run out of books! 😉 So I’m aiming to reduce the TBR by only twenty-nine this year to get down to a nice round figure, and the combined TBR/wishlist will actually go up!

Target for TBR: 150

Target for combined TBR/wishlist (which is a truer picture): 280.

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

Wish me luck!

* * * * *

A GUID NEW YEAR
TAE YIN AND A’!

LANG MAY YOUR LUM REEK!

TBR Thursday 312 and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

I usually include a summary of how I’m progressing (or not) towards the targets I set myself for the year, but since I’ll be looking at my New Year’s Resolutions old and new tomorrow, I’ll leave that for then. So just a round-up of the books I’ve read and reviewed for my various ongoing challenges this time.

* * * * * * *

The Classics Club

I’ve read four from my Classics Club list this quarter, but have only reviewed one so far…

81. The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw – This story of three young men and their experiences serving in the Second World War is wonderful – harrowing, thought-provoking, emotional and beautifully written. 5 stars.

I abandoned The Drowned World by JG Ballard, since death by drowning began to seem preferable to death by boredom. Rather than search out yet another SF “classic”, I’ve decided to swap in a book I’d already read and enjoyed…

82. The Society of Time by John Brunner – A trilogy of stories set in an alternative history where the Spanish Armada won and Britain became a colony of the Spanish Empire, this provides an interesting look at how our present is very much determined by our past. 4 stars.

Only a couple of reviews then, but The Young Lions by itself made it a great quarter for classics!

82 down, 8 to go!

* * * * * * *

Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve read two from this challenge this quarter and reviewed them both…

47. Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare – Hare takes us into the even then rather archaic and now defunct world of the Assizes – a system of travelling justice – for this very enjoyable mystery. 5 stars.

48. Tracks in the Snow by Godfrey R Benson – Dull, plodding, repetitive and riddled with plot holes, apparently this was the only mystery novel Benson wrote, and I can only say that I am heartily glad of that. 2 stars.

48 down, 54 to go!

* * * * * * *

Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I’ve only read one for this challenge this quarter, which I haven’t yet reviewed. However I had two still to review from the quarter before…

7.  Franco: A Personal and Political Biography by Stanley G Payne and Jesús Palacios – All-in-all, I learned a lot from this about Franco’s life, personality, politics and the powerful people in his court, but rather less about Spain under his rule than I had expected to. Although I felt sure the book was factually accurate, I found it hard to discount the obvious pro-Franco bias and this made me dubious about some of the authors’ interpretations. 3½ stars.

8. Nada by Carmen Laforet – In this story set in Barcelona under Franco’s post-war dictatorship, Laforet creates an atmosphere of almost hallucinatory, slightly nightmarish unreality which I felt was very effective in symbolising a city coming to terms with the after-effects of a war where the citizens had fought and killed each other in the streets only a few years earlier.

Hoping to pick up the pace on this challenge next year with lots of fiction to come.

8 down, indefinite number to go!

* * * * * * *

The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I’m up to date with this challenge! I read three this month and still had one to review from last quarter. Did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

September – Knock, Murderer, Knock by Harriet Rutland – Set in a Hydro hotel, this is quite a fun mystery in the typical Golden Age style. The setting means there is a small circle of suspects, each with secrets and possible motives, while the police detective soon has to give way to a talented amateur. 4 stars.

October – Blackout by Ragnar Jónasson – Set in Iceland, the basic plot of the book is quite interesting and the last third is comparatively fast-paced as all the different strands finally come together. But oh dear, it’s hopelessly repetitive and it took all my willpower to stick it out to the end. 2½ (generous) stars.

NovemberGorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith – By 19%, three unidentified corpses, no suspects, no plot, two beatings, one naked woman, and endless lectures about Soviet history and how awful life is under Soviet rule. Abandoned because they still haven’t invented a vaccine for boredom. 1 star.

DecemberWe Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. When you start fantasising about the main character being murdered, then it’s probably time to stop reading. Abandoned at 35%. 1 star.

Well, okay, from one perspective Your Choices may not have been hugely successful. But on the other hand, look at all the awful books You’ve helped get off my TBR! Way to go, People!

12 down, 0 to go!

* * * * * * *

Wanderlust Bingo

I’ve read several books for this challenge this quarter, some of which didn’t quite fit the boxes as I’d hoped and a couple of which I didn’t enjoy and abandoned. But with a bit of juggling I’ve still managed to fill five boxes and have another two reviews to come. So much better, but still way behind, and in conjunction with Margaret at BooksPlease, who’s also doing this challenge, we’ve agreed to forget the official end date of the end of 2021 and simply leave it open – we’ll finish when we finish! I have books lined up for every missing box, so fingers crossed for no more abandonments! The dark blue boxes are books from previous quarters, and the orange are the ones I’m adding this quarter. I still might shuffle them again before the end so this is all quite tentative at this stage. (If you click on the bingo card you should get a larger version.)

New Zealand – Pūrakāu edited by Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka – 3 stars. What could be more appropriate for the Oceania slot than this collection of updated Māori myths?

Universe – Spaceworlds edited by Mike Ashley – 4½ stars. A collection of vintage science fiction stories based on the theme of living in space, either on space stations or ships, neatly fills the Space slot.

AustriaSnow Country by Sebastian Faulks – 5 stars. The main setting of this novel is the Schloss Seeblick, a kind of mental health sanatorium in a mountain valley in Carinthia, so perfect for the Mountain slot.

GreenlandSeven Graves, One Winter by Christoffer Petersen – 4½ stars. A murder mystery set partly in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, and partly in a small village in the very north of the island ticks off the Polar Regions slot.

IsraelThe Twisted Wire by Richard Falkirk – 4 stars.  This is an action thriller set in Israel at the height of the Middle East conflict of the late 60s/early 70s, so a nice fit for the Middle East slot.

Still a long, long way to go, but still travelling hopefully…

15 down, 10 to go!

* * * * * * *

A better quarter, making progress on all my challenges for once! Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Maternal urges…

🤬

A psychopathic teenager walks into his school and kills seven of his fellow students. His mother responds by making it all about her. She then decides to bore her absent husband to death (assuming he isn’t already dead – I couldn’t help feeling that perhaps he’d killed himself and she was communing with his memory) by writing him endless letters, moaning on for 2000 pages (judged by feeling, rather than counting) about how she never really liked kids anyway, especially not her own. I don’t know if her husband, dead or alive, continued to read all the letters but if I’d been him I’d have moved and not left a forwarding address. Happily I had the easier option of abandoning the book at the 35% mark and deleting it in a marked manner from my Kindle.

I have no idea if one is supposed to sympathise with Eva, the mother, but I didn’t. I didn’t sympathise with Kevin either. Or with Franklin, the dad. In the nurture v nature debate, I tend to think that sometimes it’s nurture and sometimes it’s nature, and the worst cases are usually where it’s both. In the what’s gone wrong with American society that makes young men behave like Kevin debate, it seems blindingly obvious that the answer is that young men can get hold of automatic assault weapons and, therefore, that school shootings would be easily preventable by the simple measure of banning guns. (Yes, I know that for some reason Shriver made him use a bow and arrow, and I can only assume this is because she too knows the answer to the real-life problem is blindingly obvious, so wanted to try to avoid people making that point. Too bad.) In the should we/shouldn’t we have a child debate, I have no sympathy whatsoever for any adult, educated woman living in a society where contraception is readily available, who knows she doesn’t like children but decides to have one anyway. Eva is supposedly an intelligent, educated feminist living in late 20th century America – so what’s her problem? Why would she decide to have a baby when what she really wanted was frequent flyer miles? I didn’t believe in her – she failed at the first hurdle, which was to convince me of her motivation.

So, having made this stupid decision, does she decide to make the best of it? Of course not. She whines and whines in the modern, narcissistic, me-me-me way, about how awful her privileged little middle-class life (complete with nannies for the unspeakable child) is and how her son is some kind of alien parasite, feeding on her, body and soul. Pah! I wondered why, when fictional Kevin had the fictional weapon in his hand, he didn’t decide to do the world a favour and rid us of fictional Eva before she became an avid letter-writer. Had I been the author, Eva would have been the first and only victim, and I would then have had the jury acquit Kevin on the grounds of justifiable homicide. It would have been a shorter book but, I feel, a more satisfying one.

Oh, yes, before I finish, don’t let me forget to mention that it’s wildly verbose, torturously overlong and unforgivably, soul-crushingly dull.

Book 12 of 12

This was The People’s Choice for December and I truly expected to love it, so you are not in any way responsible for my allergic reaction, People! Thank you for getting this one off my TBR. 😉

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 311…

Episode 311

For the third week in a row the TBR has remained steady on 182. Have I found the secret of perfect balance?

Here are a few more I should be tripping over soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

One of the reasons I love the People’s Choice is that I never have any idea which book You, the People, will choose. If I’d had to bet on how You’d vote in the March poll, The Chrysalids wouldn’t even have been in the running. But it went into an immediate lead and gained strength all the way through the voting, winning in the end with a massive majority – more than twice the votes of the next contender. It’ll be a re-read so I’m in the happy position of knowing I’ll enjoy it, and it’s one from my new Classics Club list! Good choice, People!

The Blurb says: First published in 1955, The Chrysalids is a post-nuclear story of genetic mutation in a devastated world, which tells of the lengths the intolerant will go to to keep themselves pure.

David Strorm’s father doesn’t approve of Angus Morton’s unusually large horses, calling them blasphemies against nature. Little does he realize that his own son, his niece Rosalind and their friends, have their own secret aberration which would label them as mutants. But as David and Rosalind grow older it becomes more difficult to conceal their differences from the village elders. Soon they face a choice: wait for eventual discovery or flee to the terrifying and mutable Badlands…

Historical Fiction 

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

Courtesy of Random House Cornerstone via NetGalley. I’ve enjoyed Towles’ previous books, and this one sounds as if it should be just as good. Plus I’m hoping it will fill a box on my Wanderlust Bingo card. Plus gorgeous cover!

The Blurb says: The bestselling author of A Gentleman in Moscow and Rules of Civility and master of absorbing, sophisticated fiction returns with a stylish and propulsive novel set in 1950s America.

In June, 1954, eighteen-year-old Emmett Watson is driven home to Nebraska by the warden of the work farm where he has just served a year for involuntary manslaughter. His mother long gone, his father recently deceased, and the family farm foreclosed upon by the bank, Emmett’s intention is to pick up his eight-year-old brother and head west where they can start their lives anew. But when the warden drives away, Emmett discovers that two friends from the work farm have hidden themselves in the trunk of the warden’s car. Together, they have hatched an altogether different plan for Emmett’s future.

* * * * *

Classic Crime

The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham

The final book from the Crime section of my first Classics Club list, this one has been recommended to me by many as the best of Allingham’s Campion books. I’ve never yet managed to become a huge fan of Allingham, but maybe this will be the one that finally does the trick…

The Blurb says: A fog is creeping through the weary streets of London—so too are whispers that the Tiger is back in town, undetected by the law, untroubled by morals. And the rumours are true: Jack Havoc, charismatic outlaw, knife-wielding killer, and ingenious jail-breaker, is on the loose once again.

As Havoc stalks the smog-cloaked alleyways of the city, it falls to Albert Campion to hunt down the fugitive and put a stop to his rampage—before it’s too late . . .

* * * * *

Memoirs

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee

One for my Spanish Civil War challenge. I may be the only person on the planet who has never read Cider with Rosie, and now I’m bypassing it completely to jump straight to the second volume of Lee’s autobiographical trilogy (though there appears to be some debate over just how accurately autobiographical it is). Accurate or not, I’m hoping it will be beautifully written…

The Blurb says: ‘The stooping figure of my mother, waist-deep in the grass and caught there like a piece of sheep’s wool, was the last I saw of my country home as I left it to discover the world.’

Abandoning the Cotswolds village that raised him, the young Laurie Lee walks to London. There he makes a living labouring and playing the violin. But, deciding to travel further a field and knowing only the Spanish phrase for ‘Will you please give me a glass of water?’, he heads for Spain. With just a blanket to sleep under and his trusty violin, he spends a year crossing Spain, from Vigo in the north to the southern coast. Only the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War puts an end to his extraordinary peregrinations . . .

* * * * *

Thriller

Over My Dead Body by Jeffrey Archer

Courtesy of HarperCollins. Way back when the world was young, I used to enjoy Jeffrey Archer’s books. They were usually nonsense, but good nonsense! Then he committed perjury over a rather sordid incident and went to jail, and I boycotted him. So when this one turned up unsolicited from the lovely people at HarperCollins, I swithered over whether I should stick to my principles or go with the flow. Looks like my principles lost… 😉

The Blurb says: The clock is ticking in this rollercoaster ride of a thriller…

In London, the Metropolitan Police set up a new Unsolved Murders Unit—a cold case squad—to catch the criminals nobody else can.

In Geneva, millionaire art collector Miles Faulkner—convicted of forgery and theft—was pronounced dead two months ago. So why is his unscrupulous lawyer still representing a dead client?

On a luxury liner en route to New York, the battle for power at the heart of a wealthy dynasty is about to turn to murder.

And at the heart of all three investigations are Detective Chief Inspector William Warwick, rising star of the department, and ex-undercover agent Ross Hogan, brought in from the cold.

But can they catch the killers before it’s too late?

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

* * * * *

MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYBODY!

FictionFan Awards 2021 – Literary Fiction and Book of the Year!

A standing ovation, please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2021.

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

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2020 and October 2021* regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

(*my reviews have been running late recently so some drifted into November this year)

THE CATEGORIES

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

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

Vintage Crime Fiction

Factual

Short Story Collections & Anthologies

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2021

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

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

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

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

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

LITERARY FICTION

It has been a wild and uneasy ride in my bid to get back in touch with new releases this year. I have abandoned nearly as many novels as I have finished, and am heartily bored with the contemporary obsession with identity politics of all kinds, grief-soaked tales of misery and the plethora of self-indulgent, narcissistic books about how people “feel”. Give me a window on the world – on history in the making – at the very least an interesting story – and keep your feelings for your diaries, authors. And write your books well, not “creatively”. Thanks.

Haha, sorry! Amidst the dross, happily a few gems still sparkled – books that did indeed transport me to different times, different places, different lives. I gave only 6 modern novels the full five stars, and one of them, The Promise by Damon Galgut, I failed to review, so the shortlist was very easy to compile.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

The Price family arrive in a remote village in the Belgian Congo to take over the Baptist mission there. It’s only supposed to be for a year, but when the Congo declares independence from Belgium and the mission tells Nathan to return to America, he refuses – he is determined to finish his work whatever the cost to his own family. Left without even the meagre wage the mission had provided or the support of other missionaries to fall back on in emergencies, life, already hard, becomes almost unbearably tough for Orleanna and the girls. And then tragedy strikes…

The story is told in the voices of the mother and daughters. Orleanna only appears briefly but the girls tell us their stories in real time throughout, in rotating chapters, and Kingsolver does a remarkable job of juggling four distinct voices and personalities, while gradually ageing them through childhood into young adulthood and finally to the more reflective maturity of mid-life. A great book that made me laugh and cry and care and think.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Snow Country by Sebastian Faulks

After leaving university in Vienna, Anton Heidick gradually builds a small reputation as a foreign correspondent, sent off to witness major events around the world. But it’s now 1914, and the clouds of war are gathering across Europe. Lena has survived a difficult childhood as the daughter of an illiterate and often drunken woman. She too makes her way to Vienna, where she becomes involved with Rudolph, a young left-wing activist. Later, between the wars, Anton and Lena will both find themselves at the Schloss Seeblick, a mental health sanatorium in a mountain valley in Carinthia, each seeking a kind of healing.

Anton and Lena are the main characters, but there’s a cast of secondary characters who each give us a different perspective on this period of Austrian history. Unusually for modern fiction, all of the characters are likeable, and all are fundamentally decent people trying to do their best despite their normal human weaknesses and flaws. I found that deeply refreshing, and was happy to find myself totally immersed in each of their stories.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Nightshift by Kiare Ladner

Meggie has come to live in London from her home in South Africa. She has an office job which she finds dull, and a boyfriend whom she loves, but she feels as if she wants something more from life than marriage and children, though she isn’t sure what. Then one day Sabine comes to work in the office and Meggie finds herself immediately fascinated by this beautiful, enigmatic young woman. They form a tentative friendship, or so it seems to Meggie, and when Sabine decides to move to the nightshift, Meggie follows. Years later, she is looking back at this period of her life in the dying days of the last millennium, and telling the story of her obsession with Sabine…

Meggie’s quest to work out her sexuality, to make herself into someone new with her own place and identity in this shifting, impermanent community is beautifully done – an extreme example, admittedly, but recognisable as a part of life we all go through to a degree as we move into adulthood. In Meggie’s case, the whole thing is given a kind of hallucinatory edge, not only because of the drink and drugs, but because of the nocturnal life she is leading and the insomnia this brings on. Dark and disturbing, the book is nonetheless full of humanity and sympathy for human frailty. An excellent début.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

To Cook a Bear by Mikael Niemi

When the Pastor goes walking round the woods and hills around his village in Pajala in the north of Sweden, seeking new botanical specimens, he is always accompanied by the young Sami boy, Jussi, whom he had found living wild and near to starving, and taken in to his own family. The Pastor, we gradually discover, is the founder and leader of the Lutheran Pietist Revival movement, Lars Levi Laestadius – a real person, who as well as his religious work made a name for himself in the scientific field through his work on botany. When a local maid goes missing and is later found dead, the villagers believe it was the work of a killer bear and they set out to hunt the creature down, but the Pastor’s scientific knowledge and keen powers of observation lead him to think that the girl died at the hands of a human. And then another girl is attacked…

This is one of these books that, despite having a murder mystery at its heart, falls very definitely into the category of literary fiction. As the Pastor and Jussi go about their investigation, the author slowly builds a detailed picture of mid-nineteenth century life here in this remote northern area where Sweden and Lapland meet, and of the Pastor’s mission to stamp out the drunkenness that bedevils the population and bring education to the poor so that they can lift themselves out of their physical and spiritual poverty. Jussi’s wonder and musings on the importance of writing are beautifully done, and he is clearly a metaphor for what Niemi sees as Laestadius’ major contribution to the advancement of his own people, Niemi himself having been born in Pajala about a century after the time the book is set. A truly absorbing read.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2021

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

Last Days in Cleaver Square
by Patrick McGrath

Despite the paucity of excellent books, it was still hard to choose a winner in this category since several of the shortlist would have been worthy. My final decision may have been swayed by my current absorption in reading about the Spanish Civil War, but I feel it’s not necessary to know much about the war or Franco’s dictatorship to appreciate this one.

Francis McNulty is an old man now, in 1975, but his younger self was one of the many men who had gone to aid the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, in his case as a medic. Now he is frail, although he hates the word, and showing signs of mental decline, perhaps even the beginnings of dementia. So when he starts seeing visions of General Franco at first in his garden and then later inside his house, his daughter puts it down to his mental state. Francis is convinced though that Franco, currently on his deathbed in Spain, is haunting him, and his memories of his time in Spain and the horrors he witnessed there are brought back afresh to his mind.

Told as Francis’ journal in a somewhat disjointed and rambling fashion as befits an elderly, possibly confused man, this is a wonderful picture of someone haunted by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. The story Francis reveals is a human one, of unexpected love and loyalty, of betrayal and the search for redemption and forgiveness. But it’s also a wonderful portrayal of ageing, with all the pathos of declining physical and mental faculties, and a beautiful depiction of closeted homosexuality, since Francis chose the easier path at that time of outwardly living a heterosexual life. Beautifully written, entertaining, moving and full of emotional truth – it made me laugh, made me cry and made me think, and still makes me smile with pleasure whenever I think of it.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

And now…

the nominees for the Book of the Year Award are…

Best Vintage Crime Fiction – The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher
Best Factual – The Gathering Storm by Winston Churchill
Best Short Story Collection – Green Tea and Other Weird Stories by Sheridan Le Fanu
Best Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller – The Last Trial by Scott Turow
Best Literary Fiction – Last Days in Cleaver Square by Patrick McGrath

FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2021

THE WINNER

The Last Trial
by Scott Turow

In the end, an easy choice despite the quality of all the category winners. As the finale to the career of a character I’ve been following for most of my adult life, lawyer Alejandro “Sandy” Stern, this book is from the pen of an author at the top of his very considerable game. Although it is given added resonance by the emotional attachment long-term fans will feel for Stern, it would also work very well as a standalone for a new reader. Although written before Covid hit the headlines, its story of ethics and skulduggery in the field of medical research feels even more relevant in these trying times. A great book in a wonderful series – though Sandy’s career may have drawn to a close, I sincerely hope Turow’s will continue for many years, and many books, yet.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Thanks to all of you who’ve joined me for this year’s awards feature.

I hope you’ve enjoyed it – I’ve enjoyed your company!

Tuesday Terror! Old Applejoy’s Ghost by Frank R Stockton

The spirit of Christmas…

I know lots of you don’t like scary stories, but not all ghosts are bad. This tale, taken from the collection Chill Tidings, features a ghost who would surely be welcome at any Christmas party…

Old Applejoy’s Ghost
by Frank R Stockton

Frank R Stockton

For many years old Applejoy’s ghost had wandered freely about the grand old house and the fine estate of which he had once been the lord and master. But early in that spring a change had come over the household of his grandson, John Applejoy, an elderly man, a bachelor, and – for the later portion of his life – almost a recluse. His young niece, Bertha, had come to live with him, and it was since her arrival that old Applejoy’s ghost had confined himself to the upper portions of the house.

Old Applejoy’s ghost had had the freedom of the house because any time his grandson saw him, he dismissed him as a dream. The house has become dull indeed in the grandson’s time, but now young Bertha has brought youth and beauty back to the hall, and the ghost doesn’t want to inadvertently scare her away. However, one night the ghost realises Christmas is coming…

“Winter has come,” he said to himself. “And in two days it will be Christmas!” Suddenly he started to his feet. “Can it be,” he exclaimed, “that my close-fisted grandson John does not intend to celebrate Christmas! It has been years since he has done so, but now that Bertha is in the house, will he dare to pass over it as though it were but a common day? It is almost incredible that such a thing could happen, but so far there have been no signs of any preparations. I have seen nothing, heard nothing, smelt nothing. I will go this moment and investigate.”

He descends to the kitchen…

….“Let me see what the old curmudgeon has provided for Christmas.”
….So saying, old Applejoy’s ghost went around the spacious pantry, looking upon shelves and tables. “Emptiness! Emptiness! Emptiness!” he exclaimed. “A cold leg of mutton, a ham half gone, and cold boiled potatoes – it makes me shiver to look at them! Pies? there ought to be rows and rows of them, and there is not one! And Christmas two days off!”

Old Applejoy’s ghost is determined that Bertha shall have the Christmas she deserves, but how to achieve it? He wanders to his grandson’s room…

….There lay the old man, his eyelids as tightly closed as if there had been money underneath them. The ghost of old Applejoy stood by his bedside…
….“I can make him wake up and look at me,” he thought, “so that I might tell him what I think of him, but what impression could I expect my words to make upon a one-chicken man like John? Moreover, if I should be able to speak to him, he would persuade himself that he had been dreaming, and my words would be of no avail!”


He considers talking to the old housekeeper, but…

“It would be of no use,” he said. “She would never be able to induce old John to turn one inch aside from his parsimonious path. More than that, if she were to see me she would probably scream – die, for all I know – and that would be a pretty preparation for Christmas!”

He looks in on Bertha, sweetly dreaming in a room lit by moonlight, and quietly murmuring the name “Tom”. Then suddenly she wakes…

….The maiden did not move, but fixed her lovely blue eyes upon the apparition, who trembled for fear that she might scream or faint.
….“Am I asleep?” she murmured, and then, after turning her head from side to side to assure herself that she was in her own room, she looked full into the face of old Applejoy’s ghost, and boldly spoke to him. “Are you a spirit?”

Delighted that she seems unafraid, old Applejoy’s ghost promptly hatches a scheme that she should speak to her uncle…

“When you have told him all the events of this night, and when he sees that they must have happened, I want you to tell him that it is the wish and desire of his grandfather, to whom he owes everything, that there shall be worthy festivities in this house on Christmas Day and Night. Tell him to open his cellars and spend his money. Tell him to send for at least a dozen good friends and relatives to attend the great holiday celebration that is to be held in this house.”

And will Tom be one of those guests?

* * * * *

If you want to know the answer to that, you’ll need to read the story – here’s a link.

Charming and fun, bit of humour, bit of romance, lots of cakes and mince pies, wine and plum pudding – a sweet little Christmas story. Wish I had a ghost to arrange Christmas for me!

(The porpy wishes you all a Very Merry Christmas!)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Chateau by Catherine Cooper

Brits abroad…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Aura and Nick have left England and the thing that happened there behind to create an idyllic new life in France, in an old run-down château which they intend to renovate and run as a posh B&B, or chambres d’hôtes, as Aura likes to call it, proving she has mastered at least three words of French. With them they bring their not-at-all-pretentiously-named sons, Sorrel and Bay, and a film crew, consisting of Seb and Chloe, who are filming the family for inclusion in a fly-on-the-wall series about Brits making new lives as ex-pats in France. Joining the merry throng is Helen from HappyHelp, an organisation that matches up backpackers with families who give them bed and board in return for a few hours work each day (or as Chloe puts it, an unpaid au pair). But the thing that happened in London casts long shadows. Nick and Aura’s marriage is on a knife-edge, and the strange things that begin happening as soon as they arrive add to the tension. And then there’s a murder…

I’m so inconsistent about this kind of thriller that even I don’t know what it is that sometimes makes one work for me, when others quickly get thrown at the wall. This is written in present tense from a variety of first person viewpoints and has the dreaded “that day” aspect of something that happened in the past looming over the present but the reader being kept in the dark nearly the whole way through as to what exactly happened back then, and the plot crosses the credibility line about a hundred times. So I ought to have hated it. And yet…

I think it’s mainly because Aura and Nick are so awful that they become funny, and I felt that that was deliberate on the part of the author. Aura in particular is one of these dreadful types who prides herself on having all the right attitudes, while in fact being swayed by every ludicrous fad that hits her social media feed. And, of course, like the climate warriors who jet around from protest to protest, or the social justice warriors who campaign against victimisation by victimising strangers on Twitter, her attitudes are shallow, self-serving and optional. I loved the occasional line Cooper would throw into Aura’s monologues that showed both her superficiality and lack of self-awareness – some of them made me laugh out loud…

I felt a whoosh of relief – as a semi-vegetarian I don’t think I could cope with getting rid of a dead rabbit.

…or…

Bay is simply adorable dressed as a pumpkin – I try not to think about the poor kid who must have slaved over his costume in some godforsaken sweatshop, but sometimes needs must.

Nick is also pretty awful but in a different way, and honestly, while I try very hard not to blame women for the faults of their men, I couldn’t help having some sympathy for him. Being married to Aura would have tested any man to the limits. However, I can’t go into detail about what puts Nick into the awful bracket because that would impinge on the thing that happened back in England. Suffice it to say, my sympathy for him only went so far.

Although murder and some dark deeds form parts of the plot, the story is quite lightly told for the most part, surprisingly so at times. One plot strand in particular involves a teenager, and has an air almost of innocence around it, in comparison to the standard fare of most thrillers of today. While I got a little tired of the fact that sixteen-year-old Ella thinks of nothing but boys, ever, I felt she thought of them in a way that was pretty true to her age. In a sense, I felt it gave the book a Young Adult vibe – unusually for me with contemporary thrillers, I’d be quite comfortable with the idea of mid-teens reading this one. There is some swearing, but not too much, and some sex, but not graphic. The one thing Aura and I have in common is that we are both prudes and prefer to look away when people are getting up to hanky-panky!

Catherine Cooper

The other aspect that amused me (and I do hope it was supposed to) was the awful ex-pat community, all socialising with each other and having as little to do with actual French people as possible. Aura, of course, speaks no French at all but really doesn’t see it as essential when she can always get other people to do things for her. I laughed again when she said in the same sentence that she wanted Sorrel and Bay to grow up bi-lingual and that she intended to home school them. I guess the two languages would be English and Pretentious then!

It’s a quick read and not one that requires a great deal of concentration to keep on top of the storyline. So despite myself, I found it entertaining – a relaxing and enjoyable way to spend a few lazy hours.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tracks in the Snow by Godfrey R. Benson

Truly baffling…

😐 😐

Eustace Peters had retired from the Consular Service and taken a house in Long Wilton, the parish of which our narrator, Robert Driver, is rector. The two men had become friends, so Driver is shocked and saddened when Peters is found dead in his bed – murdered! The evening before Driver had spent the evening with Peters and some other guests: Callaghan, Thalberg and Vane-Cartwright, each of whom had been known to Peters from different contexts. Footprints in the snow suggest, though, that the murderer had come from outside the house, so suspicion falls first on the gardener who had been overheard threatening that he’d like to kill his employer. It is soon shown he could not have been the guilty man, however, so the other three men are elevated to the position of suspects. For some unexplained reason, the police seem to leave it mostly up to the rector to investigate.

I’ve enjoyed a lot of the books listed in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, but occasionally I come across one that baffles me utterly – not because of the mystery, but because the book is so bad I can’t understand why it is included. This is one of those. The writing is dull, plodding and repetitive, and the plot, such as it is, is stretched out far too thinly over a whole year, which coincidentally is how much I felt I aged while reading it.

There’s no real mystery. The rector happens on clues, stories and documents by chance and coincidence, which lead him to know who the murderer was and why. But does the book stop then? No, it meanders on and on, trying and failing to build a sense of tension. The story goes out to the mysterious colonial Far East and off to Italy, but the author chooses not to take the reader with it. Instead we stay in England, guests of the rector, the most insistent bore since the Ancient Mariner. We hear about all these possibly exciting events in far-flung places second-hand, through stories people tell the rector or letters they send him.

Challenge details:
Book:
4
Subject Heading:
A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 19
06

At the end, Benson treats us to excuses for all the plot holes and a kind of mass filling in of all the gaps in such a clumsy, amateurish way that I might have found it unintentionally hilarious had my brain not ceased to function several hours earlier. I could only assume he’d read back over his manuscript at the end, made a note of all the things that didn’t quite makes sense and, instead of going back and correcting them, simply tried to explain them away…

In particular, tardy attention had been paid to the report of the young constable who, as I mentioned [250 pages ago!], followed Sergeant Speke into Peters’ room, and who had incurred some blame because his apparent slowness had allowed some trespassers to come and make footprints on the lawn (I fancy his notes had been overlooked when some officer in charge of the case had been superseded by another).

Apparently this was the only mystery novel Benson wrote, and I can only say that I am heartily glad of that. For me, this was already one too many.

I downloaded this one from manybooks.com, but take my advice – don’t.

TBR Thursday 310 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 310

(A reminder of The People’s Choice plan. Once a month, I shall list the four oldest books on the TBR, then the next four, and so on, and each time you will select the one you think I should read, either because you’ve read and enjoyed it, or because you think the blurb looks good. And I will read the one you pick within three months! If I begin to fall behind, I’ll have a gap till I catch up again. In the event of a tie, I’ll have the casting vote.)

* * * * *

OK, People, time for the next batch of four, a genre week, bit of crime, bit of sci-fi, still all from 2018. Finally I’m back to running three months ahead with these polls, so the winner will be a March read. Background for Murder is one for my on-going Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge. I’m ashamed to say Don’t Let Go is a NetGalley book that fell by the wayside when I took more review books than I could fit in. The Chrysalids will be a re-read of an old favourite, and is now on my new Classics Club list. And The Craftsman is from an author whose thrillers I usually love but sometimes don’t. I’d be happy for a variety of reasons to get any one of these off my TBR and onto my reading list, so you really can’t go wrong! 😉

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Vintage Crime

Background for Murder by Shelley Smith

Added 30th June 2018. 31 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.35 average rating. 204 pages.

The Blurb says: Dr Maurice Royd, the head of a psychiatric hospital, is found slumped over his desk with his skull caved in. But a lack of hard evidence leaves the local police stumped. The difficulty is that there are too many people who could have murdered Dr Royd, too many people who wished him dead. Any one of that ‘bunch of crazies’ might have yielded to the impulse to do it.

Private Investigator Jacob Chaos is given the case by Scotland Yard. Now time is of the essence for Chaos as he tries to get the job done discreetly, hushing up any possibility of a scandal. But it seems there is quite a lot of funny business concerning the late Dr Royd and digging any deeper seems to start stirring up trouble.

Before he knows it, Chaos inadvertently kick-starts a killing spree. Racing against the clock with an ever growing list of suspects, Jacob Chaos must work to unravel the twisted skeins hiding the truth and catch the audacious murderer…

Background for Murder is a classic whodunit and stark exposé of human horror in the tangled worlds of sanity and insanity.

* * * * *

Thriller

Don’t Let Go by Harlan Coben

Added 4th July 2018. 54,445 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.05 average. 351 pages.

The Blurb says: Suburban New Jersey Detective Napoleon “Nap” Dumas hasn’t been the same since senior year of high school, when his twin brother Leo and Leo’s girlfriend Diana were found dead on the railroad tracks—and Maura, the girl Nap considered the love of his life, broke up with him and disappeared without explanation. For fifteen years, Nap has been searching, both for Maura and for the real reason behind his brother’s death. And now, it looks as though he may finally find what he’s been looking for.

When Maura’s fingerprints turn up in the rental car of a suspected murderer, Nap embarks on a quest for answers that only leads to more questions—about the woman he loved, about the childhood friends he thought he knew, about the abandoned military base near where he grew up, and mostly about Leo and Diana—whose deaths are darker and far more sinister than Nap ever dared imagine.

* * * * *

Classic Science Fiction

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

Added 16th July 2018. 48,172 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.93 average. 200 pages. 

The Blurb says: First published in 1955, The Chrysalids is a post-nuclear story of genetic mutation in a devastated world, which tells of the lengths the intolerant will go to to keep themselves pure.

David Strorm’s father doesn’t approve of Angus Morton’s unusually large horses, calling them blasphemies against nature. Little does he realize that his own son, his niece Rosalind and their friends, have their own secret aberration which would label them as mutants. But as David and Rosalind grow older it becomes more difficult to conceal their differences from the village elders. Soon they face a choice: wait for eventual discovery or flee to the terrifying and mutable Badlands…

* * * * *

Thriller

The Craftsman by Sharon Bolton

Added 18th July 2018. 5,739 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.01 average. 431 pages.

The Blurb says: Old enemies . . . New crimes

Thirty years ago, WPC Florence Lovelady’s career was made when she arrested coffin-maker Larry Glassbrook for three shocking murders. Larry confessed; it was an open and shut case. But now he’s dead, and events from the past are repeating themselves.

The town Florence left behind still has many secrets. Will she finally uncover the truth? Or will time run out for her first?

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

VOTE NOW!

(Click on title and then remember to also click on Vote, or your vote won’t count!)

* * * * *

FictionFan Awards 2021 – Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Drum roll, please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2021.

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

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2020 and October 2021* regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

(*my reviews have been running late recently so some drifted into November this year)

THE CATEGORIES

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

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

Vintage Crime Fiction

Factual

Short Story Collections & Anthologies

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2021

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

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

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

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

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

MODERN CRIME FICTION/
THRILLERS

I’m still out of synch with most modern crime fiction and have abandoned several this year, including some from authors I’ve previously enjoyed. However, happily there have also been some that I’ve loved, proving that it’s still possible to win the judge’s approval with a good story, written well! I gave a total of seven the full five stars, and have selected my shortlist on the basis that these five were all new releases within the last eighteen months or so…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Final Twist by Jeffery Deaver

In the third and final part of Deaver’s Colter Shaw trilogy, Shaw has come to San Francisco on the trail of the conspiracy which he believes led to his father’s murder, finishing the story arc that has been running in the background of the previous two books. Here, he’ll find he is both hunter and prey, as the people behind the conspiracy try to stop him from getting the evidence he needs to bring them down.

Although it’s essential to switch off one’s credibility monitor, I enjoyed this one just as much as the other two in the trilogy. There are conventions to this kind of thriller and Deaver is a master of them, so that when he goes over the top, the reader is quite happy to go along with him. There is hardly any swearing, remarkably little gruesomeness and gore, and no graphic sex, so it’s all very tasteful despite the constant violence! I’ve enjoyed spending time with Deaver after a long gap away from his books.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Silence by Susan Allott

In 1997, in her flat in London, Isla Green gets a phone call from her dad in Sydney. He’s worried. He tells her that the police have been looking into the disappearance of Mandy Mallory, who used to be their next-door-neighbour back in 1967 when Isla was a very little child, and they seem to have him in their sights as a suspect in her possible murder. Isla has always been close to her dad, so she decides to go home to Sydney to support him through all this – the first time she has been home in years. At first she is convinced her father could never have killed anyone, but once she’s home old memories begin to resurface and she sees the people she thought she knew through different, more experienced eyes, and suddenly she’s not so sure any more…

The writing is terrific, the pacing is perfect, and Allott handles the subject of race and forced separations in the Aboriginal community with a great deal of subtlety, showing the differences in society’s attitudes between the two timelines and indeed with our current attitude too. The story itself is straightforward, never stretching credulity, and told with deceptive simplicity – all the complexity is in the excellent characterisation. A great début!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Pact by Sharon Bolton

It’s the night before A-level results and a group of six friends have gathered together as they’ve done most nights of this gorgeous summer. They’re confident they’ll get the results they need for their chosen Universities, for they’re the cleverest group in their expensive, academically-renowned school. But drink and drugs and youth are a dangerous combination, and they all agree to one last mad escapade that results in the death of a woman and her two young children. Panicked, they flee the scene, but they’re sure the police will soon trace the car they were in. And then Megan, the quiet one, the outsider, offers to take the rap for them all on one condition – that when she gets out, they’ll each do her one favour, whatever she asks. Fast forward twenty years… Megan is back, and she’s ready to call in the debt…

Goodness, when Bolton’s on form there’s no one to touch her for truly thrilling thrillers! This one grabbed me right from the start as I watched these six kids – selfish, yes, but also programmed to be high achievers by pushy parents and ambitious schools – do one stupid thing and then follow it up with another, even stupider. Even though the blurb reveals this early part of the plot, the tension that Bolton creates is irresistible, the definition of page-turning!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Less Dead by Denise Mina

When Margo Dunlop decides to seek out her birth mother, she discovers she’s too late – her mother, Susan, died shortly after giving Margo up for adoption. But the counselling service puts her in touch with her mother’s sister, Nikki, and they arrange to meet. Nikki has a strange story to tell, and a request to make. Like Nikki herself, Susan was a street prostitute on the Drag – Glasgow’s red light zone – back in the late1980s. Susan was brutally murdered and left lying naked in the street – one of a spate of murders of prostitutes over the course of a few years. Nikki is convinced the murders were carried out by one man, although the police disagree. The man in question had an alibi for the time of Susan’s murder, but Nikki hopes that Margo will be able to use her privileged position as a doctor to help break the alibi. At first, Margo thinks Nikki is some kind of fantasist, but events soon convince her that there may be some truth in her story…

This was a time of huge change for Glasgow, dragging itself out of the poverty and gang violence of the post-war era and recreating itself as a modern, vibrant cultural centre. Mina’s story straddles this transformation, Susan a product of the old times and Margo of a new, more affluent and perhaps more hopeful future, but still saddled metaphorically as well as literally by the city’s past. Mina’s knowledge of Glasgow appears to be encyclopaedic and this is a far more accurate depiction of the city than in the vast majority of contemporary crime fiction, written, I feel, with unromanticized affection, and the strength of the story of these despised and disregarded women well outweighs the slight weakness of the mystery plot.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2021

for

BEST MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

The Last Trial
by Scott Turow

Despite the quality of the shortlisted books, there was never any doubt over the winner this year. Not only is this an excellent novel in its own right, it represents the finale for one of modern crime fiction’s most brilliantly drawn characters – Sandy Stern.

Lawyer Alejandro “Sandy” Stern is old now and beginning to fail both physically and mentally, but when Kiril Pafko finds himself in trouble, Sandy agrees to defend him. Facing his own mortality, Sandy finds himself thinking back to the people who have been important in his life – his family and friends. Kiril is one of those friends, a brilliant Nobel prizewinner, who has developed a drug that combats cancer with spectacular results. Too spectacular – Kiril is on trial for suppressing negative studies into the side-effects of the drug, and for the murder of patients who, the prosecution claims, had their lives shortened by taking it. Kiril is also accused of having made a fortune by selling shares in the drug just before the negative studies became public. Although for Sandy the main aim is to have Kiril legally acquitted, Kiril is just as concerned about the damage to his reputation in the scientific community, and Sandy finds that their differing objectives mean that his client often impedes his attempts to argue the case on legal grounds.

Sandy Stern first appeared in Presumed Innocent in 1987 and Turow has used him over the series to present a thoughtful and realistic picture of how the law works in the US, slowly and not always achieving true justice, but an essential part of the democratic system of ensuring the rights of the individual. The books are always billed as legal thrillers which I think does them an injustice. To me, these long ago crossed the line into literary fiction – they are far more about the human condition in all its frailties and strengths than about exciting courtroom drama, and the writing is of the highest quality. A wonderful finale to what has been a superb series.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Literary Fiction and
Book of the Year 2021

Tuesday ‘Tec! The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie

One for the Christmas stocking…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Unlike a lot of collections put together by editors, Agatha Christie herself originally selected the stories for inclusion in this one, now reprinted by HarperCollins in a gorgeous special edition hardback complete with shiny foil highlights on the cover and delightfully Christmassy endpapers. In her original introduction, also included in the book, Christie tells us:

This book of Christmas fare may be described as ‘The Chef’s Selection. I am the Chef!

There are two main courses: ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ and ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest; a selection of Entrées: ‘Greenshaw’s Folly’, ‘The Dream’ and ‘The Under Dog’, and a Sorbet: ‘Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds’.

Just six then, but most of them are longer and more substantial than a typical short story, allowing room for full mysteries complete with multiple suspects, plenty of motives and clues galore. I find this longer length works better in the mystery genre – sometimes when a story is very short, it’s also fairly obvious, with no room to hide those essential red herrings. The title story is the only one with a specifically festive setting, and Christie tells us that the Christmas house party in it is based on her own childhood experiences of Christmases spent with relatives in Abney Hall in the north of England.

I loved this collection. I’d read it before long ago and have read a couple of the stories more recently in other anthologies, but the rest had faded into the vast echoing recesses of my dodgy memory banks so that it felt as if I was reading them for the first time. I rated every story as either 4½ or 5 stars, and the fun of the stories was enhanced by the pleasure of reading it in such a well produced edition. Since I’d find it hard to choose favourites, here’s a very brief flavour of each story:

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding – When a young Middle-Eastern prince has a precious ruby stolen, he persuades Poirot to spend Christmas at a house party in King’s Lacey, where the thief is also a guest, in hopes of retrieving the stone without scandal. It’s a fun story with lots of humour, a kindly hostess and some delightful children who decide to give Poirot a murder for Christmas!

The Mystery of the Spanish Chest – On the morning after a party, a body is found in a Spanish chest in the room where the party had been held. A man is quickly arrested, but the wife of the murder victim is convinced he didn’t do it, and asks Poirot for help. Not sure that this one is fair play, but it has a good “impossible crime” element to the solution and some enjoyable characterisation, with a very Christie-esque version of a femme fatale.

The Under Dog – When bad-tempered old Sir Reuben is murdered, it appears only his nephew had the opportunity, and he is arrested. But Sir Reuben’s widow is sure that Sir Reuben’s secretary is the guilty man and calls on Poirot to prove it. Poirot makes it clear that he will consider all the suspects equally though. And first, he has to discover if the nephew is really innocent. Nice twist in the howdunit aspect of this, and it turns out that many people may have had motives. I was satisfyingly surprised when the identity of the murderer was revealed.

Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds – Poirot and a friend are dining out when the friend points out an old man who eats regularly in the restaurant, always ordering the same dishes. However, the waitress tells them that the week before he had suddenly ordered a meal full of dishes he normally avoided. When Poirot later hears that the old man has died after an accidental fall downstairs, he is suspicious and sets out to investigate. The solution here may be a bit obvious, but it’s interestingly told, turning on how we all tend to be creatures of habit.

The Dream – Rich old Benedict Farley summons Poirot, He has been having a recurring dream in which he ends up shooting himself, and wants to know if Poirot thinks someone could be hypnotising him to kill himself. Poirot says no and is dismissed. But a few days later, Farley dies, apparently in exactly the manner of his dream. Finding Poirot’s name in the old man’s diary, the police call him in. This is very well done, and I enjoyed it even though I had a distinct memory of whodunit.

Greenshaw’s Folly – Greenshaw’s Folly is a house built by a rich man, long dead. His elderly granddaughter now owns the place, and she has been dropping hints to various people that she intends to leave them the house in her will. A niece of Miss Marple’s nephew is working for the old lady, going through old Greenshaw’s diairies, so when the old lady is murdered, Miss Marple becomes involved. An excellent story, and a special treat to have a Miss Marple story to round off the collection.

Great stories and a lovely book – perfect gift material for the vintage mystery fan in your life, or better yet, for yourself! Ho! Ho! Ho!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link