Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

The customary expedient of provincial girls and men in such circumstances is churchgoing. In an ordinary village or country town one can safely calculate that, either on Christmas day or the Sunday contiguous, any native home for the holidays, who has not through age or ennui lost the appetite for seeing and being seen, will turn up in some pew or other, shining with hope, self-consciousness, and new clothes. Thus the congregation on Christmas morning is mostly a Tussaud collection of celebrities who have been born in the neighbourhood. Hither the mistress, left neglected at home all the year, can steal and observe the development of the returned lover who has forgotten her, and think as she watches him over her prayer book that he may throb with a renewed fidelity when novelties have lost their charm. And hither a comparatively recent settler like Eustacia may betake herself to scrutinize the person of a native son who left home before her advent upon the scene, and consider if the friendship of his parents be worth cultivating during his next absence in order to secure a knowledge of him on his next return.

~The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

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Leila was scared. What had started off yesterday as a sort of game wasn’t fun any more. She was thinking she really shouldn’t have gone along with it. But he’d been so nice at the start – kind and caring. He’d said he was worried about her and told her she was pretty. Her mother called her plain. He’d said a young girl like her shouldn’t be out all by herself after dark. It wasn’t safe and it was very wrong of her mother not to look after her properly, which Leila sort of knew. He’d said he would take care of her and together they’d teach her mother a lesson. He’d given her chocolates – really posh ones with soft centres – and told her he’d bought her a beautiful doll and it was waiting for her in his flat. It wasn’t like she was going with a stranger – she would never have done that. She knew him, so did her mother, which made it OK.

~Taken by Lisa Stone

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….Tormad blew up his big buoy until his eyes disappeared. He had got it from the man in Golspie, and though its skin crackled with age it seemed tight enough. He could hardly blow up the second one for laughing, because it was the bag of an old set of pipes to which they had danced many a time as boys. It had a legendary history, for the old piper, its owner, had been a wild enough lad in his day. When he was driven from home, he cursed the landlord-woman (who had inherited all that land), her sassenach husband, her factors, in tongues of fire. Then he had broken his pipes, tearing them apart. It had been an impressive, a terrifying scene, and shortly after it he had died.
….Well, here was the bag, and perhaps it marked not an end but a beginning! They had had a little superstitious fear about using it. But they couldn’t afford to buy another buoy, and, anyway, they argued, if it brought them luck it would be a revenge over the powers that be. The dead piper wouldn’t be disappointed at that!

~The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn

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….Don Miguel’s mind swirled like water in a rotated cup. He put his hands to his head and struggled to think clearly. He had been trained to some extent in casuistry, and he could see the dim outlines of a logical sequence here. Postulate: the terrible women gladiators who wrought the harm originated in a non-actual world – a world brought about through the experimental interference of Society members with their own past history. Therefore the consequences of their acts were also non-actual, or potential. Therefore the rectification of these consequences must be not non-actual, if this was a safe case to exclude the middle…
….It came to him with blinding, horrifying suddenness that in fact, in the fact where he must now have found himself, all the nightmare so vivid in his memory had already not happened.

~The Society of Time by John Brunner

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….Hopkins stood and, as Ismay recalled it, first made “a tilt or two at the British Constitution in general, and the irrepressible Prime Minister in particular.” Then he turned to face Churchill.
….“I suppose you wish to know what I am going to say to President Roosevelt on my return,” he said.
….This was an understatement. Churchill was desperate to know how well his courtship of Hopkins was progressing, and what indeed he would tell the President.
….“Well,” Hopkins said, “I’m going to quote you one verse from that Book of Books in the truth of which Mr. Johnson’s mother and my own Scottish mother were brought up – ”
….Hopkins dropped his voice to a near whisper and recited a passage from the Bible’s Book of Ruth: “Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”
….Then, softly, he added: “Even to the end.”
….This was his own addition, and with it a wave of gratitude and relief seemed to engulf the room.
….Churchill wept.

~The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

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So… are you tempted?

People’s Choice: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

On a mission…

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The Price family arrive in a remote village in the Belgian Congo to take over the Baptist mission there. The preacher father, Nathan, is enthusiastic and sure of his ability to bring the villagers to his rather wrathful version of God. The mother, Orleanna, and their four daughters are less keen, but being female their opinions don’t count, so at first they’re willing to try to make the best of it. It’s only for a year, after all. 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…

We are told from the beginning that Orleanna has left one of her precious children buried in the African soil, but we don’t find out which one till long into the book, nor how she dies. The first half of the book tells of the day-to-day life of the family as they begin to learn about the ways of the people they have come to live among. Gradually the older girls realise, each in her own way, that the Congolese are not in some kind of spiritual darkness – they have their own culture, beliefs and traditions, as meaningful to them as baptism and the Commandments are to Nathan. The poverty in their life is not of the spirit but of the body, scraping out a mean existence from land the forest is always seeking to reclaim, at the mercy of the rain – too little equals famine, too much, mudslides and destruction. Meanwhile, the white colonialists in the cities live in luxury gained through the exploitation of the Congo’s rich natural resources and its people.

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened. First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

Yes, it is a preaching, message-driven book with much to say about racism, the evils of modern colonialism, the greed of American capitalism, and the perversion of religion into a tool of subjugation and control. But it’s done extremely well and is beautifully written, and (perhaps because I agreed with most of what she was saying) I found I wasn’t irritated by the drip-drip of worthiness running through it. It’s also somewhat plotless – I’d describe it as a family saga except that somehow that always sounds like a rather disparaging term. It follows the girls from childhood into their middle age, so that we see not just what happened to them in the mission but how that period impacted the rest of their lives.

The story is told in the voices of the mother and daughters. Orleanna only appears briefly at the beginning of each section of the book and she is looking back from the perspective of her old age. The girls, however, are telling us the story 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. By the end of the book, they are of the age their parents were at the beginning, and so can perhaps understand and forgive more readily than their younger selves could.

Rachel is the eldest, fifteen when the book begins, a typical teenager, more interested in clothes and boys than religion and missions, and is frankly appalled at being dragged to a place where there are no cinemas or dances, no potential boyfriends (since to Rachel black boys certainly don’t count), and no electricity. It’s 1959, so no cell phones or internet – the girls are completely cut off from their former lives. Rachel is not what you’d call studious and she uses words wrongly all the time, which gives a humorous edge to her chapters. But she’s a survivor, protected by the shell of narcissism her prettiness has allowed her to develop.

….Slowly Father raised one arm above his head like one of those gods they had in Roman times, fixing to send down the thunderbolts and the lightning. Everyone looked up at him, smiling, clapping, waving their arms over their heads, bare bosoms and all. Then he began to speak. It was not so much a speech as a rising storm.
….“The Lord rideth,” he said, low and threatening, “upon a swift cloud, and shall come into Egypt.”
….Hurray! they all cheered, but I felt a knot in my stomach. He was getting that look he gets, oh boy, like Here comes Moses tramping down off of Mount Syanide with ten fresh ways to wreck your life.

Ruth May is the youngest, just five when we first meet her, and to me her voice was the least true – she uses a vocabulary and thought processes well beyond her years, I felt. But she’s still fun, and unlike her sisters she’s young enough to adapt quickly to life in the village, befriending the African children and picking up their language easily.

Adah and Leah are twins, aged about fourteen at the start. Adah was brain-damaged at birth, and although highly intelligent she rarely speaks. She thinks oddly too, loving to find palindromes wherever she can and having a particular enjoyment in reading and writing backwards. I found this extremely tedious and was glad that she gradually grew out of it before I reached breaking point – reading backwards, I’ve realised, is not something I enjoy! Leah soon begins to show through as the main voice. Also intelligent, she is observant and interested in the world around her, though she’s still young enough at the beginning to not always understand what she sees.

Later in the book, we see how life plays out for the three surviving daughters. I need to be vague here so as not to give spoilers, but two of the girls make very different lives for themselves in Africa, while the third returns to America, though still carrying her African experiences in her heart. These three lives combined give Kingsolver an opportunity to show the broad history of this part of Africa and its troubled relationship with America over the next three decades or so, and she does it very skilfully so that it remains a personal story rather than sinking into polemics. She has an agenda and she gets it across, but it’s the girls, now women, who think the thoughts and live the lives that show the reader the contrasts, the politics, the aftermath of colonialism – no lectures from the author required.

There is not justice in this world. Father, forgive me wherever you are, but this world has brought one vile abomination after another down on the heads of the gentle, and I’ll not live to see the meek inherit anything. What there is in this world, I think, is a tendency for human errors to level themselves like water throughout their sphere of influence. That’s pretty much the whole of what I can say, looking back. There’s the possibility of balance. Unbearable burdens that the world somehow does bear with a certain grace.

Book 2 of 12

This was a People’s Choice Poll winner so thank you, People – you picked an excellent one! I thought this was a wonderful book, well deserving all the praise and plaudits it has received. It made me laugh and cry and care and think – isn’t that what all good fiction should do?

Amazon UK Link
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Domino Island by Desmond Bagley

They don’t write them like that anymore

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When rich businessman David Salton dies, it looks like the Western and Continental Insurance company are in for a big hit – he was insured for half a million pounds. Although the inquest found he had died of natural causes, the circumstances of his death were a little odd, so before they agree to pay out the company sends their best investigator to take a look. Bill Kemp had a career in military intelligence before he went into the insurance industry, and when the investigation becomes the catalyst for all sorts of shenanigans on the Caribbean island of Campanilla he’ll need all of his skills just to survive…

(It occurs to me on writing that blurb that I don’t know why the book is called Domino Island, since the island is called Campanilla – maybe I missed the explanation! Anyway, it doesn’t really matter.)

Desmond Bagley was a hugely popular British thriller writer back in the ‘60s-‘80s, and the fact that most of his books are still readily available suggests he’s still got a pretty solid fan base nearly forty years after his death. So when this previously unpublished novel was found in his archives in 2017, more or less complete and with his own notes of the changes he intended to make, the idea of publishing it would have been irresistible. Michael Davis, a lifelong Bagley fan, took on the task of tidying it up and this is the result – and an excellent result it is, too! My inner cynic feared that Bagley or his publishers must have felt it wasn’t good enough to be published, but the editor of this volume explains that in fact it was well on the way to publication when Bagley withdrew it because he’d signed a deal that required him to produce a different novel tied into a movie he had scripted, and he didn’t want the two publications to clash. I don’t know why he never returned to this one, though.

The fictional island of Campanilla was part of the British Empire, but has recently gained independence and is now operating partly as a tourist destination and partly as an offshore tax haven, where the wealthy are extremely wealthy and the poor find it extremely difficult to survive because of the inflated prices and property values that wealthy people bring along with them. So there’s political tension between the governing party who see their job as keeping life sweet for the rich, and the opposition, divided between a moderately left party and an extreme left-wing, veering towards communism. David Salton was the leader of the soft-left party, so Kemp wonders if his political opponents may have had something to do with his death.

But there are other possibilities too. It transpires that Salton may have been a good man in the world of politics, but he was a philanderer in his spare time, keeping his mistress in a luxury flat while his wife lived in their secluded home in a different part of the island. Then there’s Negrini – owner of a local casino and reputed to have ties to the US Mafia. Salton has promised that if he gets into power he’ll crack down on the gambling industry. The status of the island as a tax haven means that there’s lots of financial skulduggery bubbling beneath the surface, so there are plenty of other people with a vested interest in making sure that a politician who intends to tackle corruption shouldn’t get into power.

All these various people and factions don’t want Kemp investigating and stirring around in the murky dealings of the island, and soon he finds that he’s in personal danger at the same time as political tensions on the island are reaching boiling point. It all comes to a climax in a traditional thriller ending, with goodies pitted against baddies, corpses aplenty and an entirely unexpected (by me) but satisfying solution to the mystery of Salton’s death.

The writing is very good, and not nearly as dated in attitudes to women as thrillers of this era usually are. It’s years since I read any Bagley and I can’t remember if his females were always treated this well or whether perhaps part of Davis’ tidying-up was to make the tone more acceptable to modern readers. Whatever, the women are pretty good characters, and one of them is even kinda kickass, which I found unexpectedly refreshing. They’ve certainly not been modernised to the extent of not feeling true to the time, however.

Desmond Bagley

There are parts where I felt it could have been tighter and a bit faster paced, and maybe Bagley’s final edit would have seen to this, but it never drags. Kemp, who tells the story in the first person, is a likeable and believable protagonist – he’s resourceful but not a superhero. He soon teams up with the forces of law and order in the person of Superintendent Hanna of the island police, another likeable character, and they work well together. The story is both interesting and well told, and although the island is fictional, it feels entirely authentic both politically and culturally. I enjoyed this one very much, and now want to go back and investigate some of his other books – it is sadly true to say that they don’t write them like that anymore, and they really should…

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

Amazon UK Link
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TBR Thursday 273…

Episode 273

I can barely bring myself to report on the TBR this week. After achieving a Zen-like state of perfect balance over the last few weeks, a fit of NetGalley madness overcame me and *takes deep breath* it’s gone up by 7 to 197! Why couldn’t they have rejected all my requests? Why?? WHY???

Here are a few more that will make a tiny dent in the heap soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

Well, that was the closest race ever! A Meditation on Murder leapt into such a big early lead it looked as if it was going to be untouchable, but gradually, very gradually, The Cuckoo’s Calling began to gain on it, until at last they were neck-and-neck. For a day or so I thought I would have to use my casting vote for the first time ever, but at the last moment a sudden vote gave the victory to Galbraith! The People Have Spoken! This will be a May read…

The Blurb says: After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.

Factual

Franco: A Personal and Political Biography by Stanley G Payne and Jesús Palacios

Next up for my Spanish Civil War challenge. I was very impressed by Payne’s history of the war, so was delighted to see that he had also written a full biography of Franco, and promptly bought it. Since then I’ve looked up the co-author, Jesús Palacios, on wikipedia, and it would appear he has been involved in fascist and neo-Nazi organisations, so my enthusiasm is severely dented! However, the blurb claims the book is ‘objective and balanced’ – we shall see!

The Blurb says: General Francisco Franco ruled Spain for nearly forty years, as one of the most powerful and controversial leaders in that nation’s long history. He has been the subject of many biographies, several of them more than a thousand pages in length, but all the preceding works have tended toward one extreme of interpretation or the other. This is the first comprehensive scholarly biography of Franco in English that is objective and balanced in its coverage, treating all three major aspects of his life—personal, military, and political. The co-authors, both renowned historians of Spain, present a deeply researched account that has made extensive use of the Franco Archive (long inaccessible to historians). They have also conducted in-depth interviews with his only daughter to explain better his family background, personal life, and marital environment, as well as his military and political career.

Franco: A Personal and Political Biography depicts his early life, explains his career and rise to prominence as an army officer who became Europe’s youngest interwar brigadier general in 1926, and then discusses his role in the affairs of the troubled Second Spanish Republic (1931–36). Stanley G. Payne and Jesús Palacios examine in detail how Franco became dictator and how his leadership led to victory in the Spanish Civil War that consolidated his regime. They also explore Franco’s role in the great repression that accompanied the Civil War—resulting in tens of thousands of executions—and examine at length his controversial role in World War II. This masterful biography highlights Franco’s metamorphoses and adaptations to retain power as politics, culture, and economics shifted in the four decades of his dictatorship.

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Historical Fiction

The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore

Courtesy of Granta Books via NetGalley. I know nothing about the author and haven’t seen any reviews of the book – I was simply attracted by the blurb. It feels like it’s been a while since I took a blind punt on a book – fingers crossed! 

The Blurb says: England, 1643. Parliament is battling the King; the war between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers rages. Puritanical fervour has gripped the nation, and the hot terror of damnation burns black in every shadow.

In Manningtree, depleted of men since the wars began, the women are left to their own devices. At the margins of this diminished community are those who are barely tolerated by the affluent villagers – the old, the poor, the unmarried, the sharp-tongued. Rebecca West, daughter of the formidable Beldam West, fatherless and husbandless, chafes against the drudgery of her days, livened only by her infatuation with the clerk John Edes. But then newcomer Matthew Hopkins, a mysterious, pious figure dressed from head to toe in black, takes over The Thorn Inn and begins to ask questions about the women of the margins. When a child falls ill with a fever and starts to rave about covens and pacts, the questions take on a bladed edge.

The Manningtree Witches plunges its readers into the fever and menace of the English witch trials, where suspicion, mistrust and betrayal ran amok as the power of men went unchecked and the integrity of women went undefended. It is a visceral, thrilling book that announces a bold new talent.

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Crime

The Last Trial by Scott Turow

Courtesy of Pan Macmillan via NetGalley. Scott Turow has long been a favourite author of mine and in this one he’s back in his usual stamping ground of Kindle County. Despite it being described as an “explosive thriller”, his books are usually long, slow and thoughtful, as much literary fiction as legal thriller, and I suspect this one will be too…

The Blurb says: In this explosive legal thriller from New York Times bestselling author Scott Turow, two formidable men collide: a celebrated criminal defense lawyer at the end of his career and his lifelong friend, a renowned doctor accused of murder.

At 85 years old, Alejandro “Sandy” Stern, a brilliant defense lawyer with his health failing but spirit intact, is on the brink of retirement. But when his old friend Dr. Kiril Pafko, a former Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, is faced with charges of insider trading, fraud, and murder, his entire life’s work is put in jeopardy, and Stern decides to take on one last trial.

In a case that will provide the defining coda to both men’s accomplished lives, Stern probes beneath the surface of his friend’s dazzling veneer as a distinguished cancer researcher. As the trial progresses, Stern will question everything he thought he knew about his friend. Despite Pafko’s many failings, is he innocent of the terrible charges laid against him? How far will Stern go to save his friend, and–no matter the trial’s outcome–will he ever know the truth? Stern’s duty to defend his client and his belief in the power of the judicial system both face a final, terrible test in the courtroom, where the evidence and reality are sometimes worlds apart.

Full of the deep insights into the spaces where the fragility of human nature and the justice system collide, Scott Turow’s The Last Trial is a masterful legal thriller that unfolds in page-turning suspense–and questions how we measure a life.

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Tuesday Terror! Green Tea and Other Weird Stories by Sheridan Le Fanu

Read after dark…

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In terms of horror writing, it could be said that Sheridan Le Fanu needs no introduction, but in fact the introduction in this new collection of his work adds a lot of interesting insight into his life and work. Aaron Worth, Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Boston University, discusses whether Le Fanu was really the originator of weird fiction, as a term as well as a sub-genre, as is sometimes claimed. This, of course, depends very much on how the term ‘weird fiction’ is defined, and Worth shows how it has changed over time, from something implying “a coherent, ordered cosmic system” to its currently popular meaning of “cosmic meaningless”. He also discusses the influence on Le Fanu’s work of his position as an Anglo-Irish Protestant of Huguenot descent living as part of a ruling class over a largely Catholic country.

J Sheridan Le Fanu

Personally I think of Le Fanu as Gothic rather than weird, but all these definitions are a bit vague round the edges and tend to meld into one another. However he is classified, there’s no doubt he wrote some great stories and influenced many of the writers who came after him. This collection contains twelve stories, three of them novella length, and an exceptionally fine bunch they are, including some of his best known such as Green Tea, Schalken the Painter and my own favourite vampire story, the wonderful Carmilla. Individually I gave six of them the full five stars, and the other six got either four or four and a half, so this ranks as one of the most highly rated horror collections I’ve reviewed. In most cases where more than one version of the story exists, Worth has gone back to the original and that seemed to me to work very well – there were a few of the stories I’d read before that I enjoyed more here, either because later changes had been stripped out or because the excellent notes provided extra information that enhanced my reading. I’ve said it before, but this is another example of how a well curated collection can become greater than the sum of its parts.

When so many of the stories are good, it’s hard to pick just a few to highlight, but these are ones I particularly enjoyed:

Borrhomeo the Astrologer – Set in Milan in 1630, a plague year. Borrhomeo is an alchemist, seeking the elixir of life and the potion that will turn lead into gold. The devil, disguised as a young man, turns up and tempts him by giving him enough of the elixir to allow him to live for a thousand years. But in return he must go out and spread the pestilence to all the churches and holy houses in the city. The moral of the story is – never trust the devil offering gifts! Borrhomeo’s fate may be well deserved but I’m not sure what the Court of Human Rights would have to say about it… 😱

Green Tea – The story of a clergyman who, through drinking too much green tea, begins to hallucinate – or is it real? – a monkey that goes everywhere with him. This is bad enough, but when the monkey begins to speak, cursing foully and blasphemously, the clergyman finds he can no longer pray. He contacts Dr Hesselius, a specialist in such matters of the mind, but will Hesselius be able to find a cure for his problem before it’s too late? There’s lots in this about Swedenborg – a Swedish theologian and philosopher whose rather strange ideas, Worth tells us, Le Fanu used more than once as an influence for his stories.

The Haunted House in Westminster – This story is probably better known as Mr Justice Harbottle from Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly collection, but here Worth has given us the original, and for me it works better in this format. The corrupt and cruel hanging judge deliberately hangs a man whose wife he has taken to be his housekeeper – a euphemism for mistress, of course. But the judge then receives a letter warning him he will be tried for this crime in a “Court of Appeals”. This is no ordinary part of the justice system though – one night the judge falls asleep and finds himself in a very strange and frightening court, waiting for judgement to be handed down… 😱

Carmilla – not the first vampire story, but one of the best and certainly one of the most influential on the vampire genre. This is novella length, which allows room for character development, but keeps it tighter and more focused than a full length novel would be (looking at you, Dracula!). When a young girl falls ill close to Laura’s isolated Gothic Austrian home, Laura’s father takes her in. Laura feels immediately drawn to her, having dreamt about her in childhood. But Carmilla has a secret… and sharp teeth! Full of mild lesbian eroticism and a wonderful mix of the Gothic and folklore traditions, this has some great horror imagery, such as the coffin half-filled with blood in which the vampire sleeps. Much better than Dracula’s dirt!

I have also previously highlighted two of the stories in Tuesday Terror! posts – Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter and Madam Crowl’s Ghost.

Wonderful stuff! Enough horror to satisfy those who like to shiver, but also great writing and lots to analyse for those who prefer to dig a little deeper, guided by an expert. Highly recommended!

After that the porpy has decided he’s going into hibernation! He thanks you for your company and will be back in autumn, rested and ready to quiver again!

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

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The Gathering Storm by Winston Churchill

“If necessary, alone”…

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The first book in Churchill’s massive six-volume history of the Second World War, this covers the period from the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 to the day when Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940. The series, among his other writings, won Churchill the Nobel Prize for Literature, although the liberal intellectual snobberati like to suggest that that was out of gratitude for his wartime leadership rather than for its literary merits. The snobberati, as usual, are wrong. This is a superbly written account of the period from one man’s viewpoint – that man happening to be one of the handful of important men who decided the fate of the world for the second half of the twentieth century at least.

Despite recent attempts at revisionist history, it is still, I think, generally accepted that the conditions that allowed for the rise of Hitler and the Nazis were seeded in the Treaty of Versailles that formally ended the First World War, and then fertilized by the failures of the Allies, mainly the US, France and Britain, to act at an early stage to prevent Germany from re-arming. Exhausted from WW1 and with no appetite for further war, appeasement seemed the easier option, and the old men who ran the world dithered as Hitler began to forge a massive fighting machine and revived German pride and resentment at their treatment by the victors of the 1914-18 war. Churchill was the main opponent of appeasement, arguing consistently that Germany must be dealt with before they became too powerful for the Allies to control. Alas! How different history may have been if only his views had prevailed in the mid-1930s.

Of course, in this book Churchill shows that Churchill thinks Churchill was right all along, but I tend to agree with him about that so his bias in his own favour didn’t become an issue. He is remarkably personally generous to those individuals with whom he disagreed, even as he condemns their weakness and failure to act. He tries to give their side of the arguments as fairly as he can, considering that they were proved wrong time and time again.

But he is pretty brutal about failures of the national policies of the WW1 allies, especially the US’s self-interested and isolationist position of neutrality. He points out that the Allies reluctantly agreed to Wilson’s League of Nations after WW1, only for the American government then to refuse to ratify it, immediately making it a toothless tiger. He talks about the damage done, economically and politically, by the reparations forced on Germany, and how the US was unwilling to cancel debt to allow the German economy to recover, not to mention the economies of America’s erstwhile allies.

But France and Britain come in for plenty of criticism too, for continuing to attempt to mollify and compromise with Hitler’s Germany long after, in Churchill’s opinion, such attempts were obviously dangerous. He talks in depth about Germany’s open and secret build-up of their army, naval power and, most frighteningly, air force, while Britain and France lagged behind, hoping that somehow war could be avoided. He barely hides his disgust at the Munich agreement and the betrayal of the Allies’ commitment to Czechoslovakia.

For the French Government to leave her faithful ally Czechoslovakia to her fate was a melancholy lapse from which flowed terrible consequences. Not only wise and fair policy, but chivalry, honour, and sympathy for a small threatened people made an overwhelming concentration. Great Britain, who would certainly have fought if bound by treaty obligations, was nevertheless now deeply involved, and it must be recorded with regret that the British Government not only acquiesced but encouraged the French Government in a fatal course.

He shows how he argued forcefully for the Allies to take a military stand before Germany overtook France and Britain in terms of military force, but to no avail. And therefore, when even the appeasers finally agreed that Germany must be stopped, the Germans had built up a huge military advantage; and the British, quickly left alone as one ally, France, was defeated, and the other, the US, sat on its haunches doing nothing, had to try to fend off an invasion long enough to allow for a massive expansion in manpower, munitions, and the vital air power – defensive and offensive – that had been allowed to fall so badly behind.

Although the story is told from a personal perspective, with Churchill more than most the personal is political, and so this reads like a formal history far more than a personal memoir. Churchill claims, and I have no reason to doubt him, that he asked other people to rigorously check the facts in the book, so that there is a solid historical foundation below the upper layer of Churchill’s own opinion. One sees his mastery over detail, his ability to look at the full chessboard of war, his willingness to throw away a pawn or two to capture the queen, his courage to be open about the dangers ahead, his inspirational belief in Britain’s eventual ability to prevail which meant so much to the national psyche during the war’s darkest days. We see him pull all the political levers at his command, all the contacts and loyalties he had built up over his already long lifetime in the spotlight on the world’s stage, to bring people and nations round to his views – a long task and often seemingly futile, but he never weakened or turned away, never decided to let his reputation rest on his past achievements as many men of his age may have done. Was he perfect? Absolutely not. Opinionated, demanding, a risk taker, an imperialist to the core – I imagine the people around him found him maddening and exhausting. But he also commanded deep personal loyalty and respect from those who worked closely with him, and was admired and increasingly revered by a large majority of the general public for his steadfastness and patriotism in these early days of the war. He was the right man at the right time, and how often does that happen?

A few feet behind me, as I sat in my old chair, was the wooden map-case I had had fixed in 1911, and inside it still remained the chart of the North Sea on which each day, in order to focus attention on the supreme objective, I had made the Naval Intelligence Branch record the movements and dispositions of the German High Seas Fleet. Since 1911 much more than a quarter of a century had passed, and still mortal peril threatened us at the hands of the same nation. Once again defence of the rights of a weak State, outraged and invaded by unprovoked aggression, forced us to draw the sword. Once again we must fight for life and honour against all the might and fury of the valiant, disciplined, and ruthless German race. Once again! So be it.

I really thought this might be a turgid read, but it’s actually a first-rate history with just enough of the personal to bring out the emotional drama of war. I also realised while reading it how influential it must have been on the early interpretations of the history of the period, since it chimed in almost every particular with what I was taught about the war in school in the 1970s. I will certainly go on to read the other five volumes in the series.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

Murder in St Loo…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Hercule Poirot is making one of his periodic attempts at retirement, and has gone for a little break in St. Loo with his old friend Captain Hastings, home from the Argentine. But wherever that pesky man goes, murder is sure to follow! As he sits on the hotel terrace with Hastings, something whizzes past his head – not a pebble, as he first thinks, but a bullet, apparently having just missed its target, a young woman called Nick Buckley who lives in the End House of the title. Once Poirot has introduced himself to Nick, he discovers this is the latest in a series of what appear to be attempts on her life, and he takes on the task of finding the would-be murderer before he or she succeeds…

This has always been one of my favourite Poirots, which never seems to get quite the love I feel it deserves. I love the solution – one of Christie’s cleverest, I think – and the way that you can see in retrospect that she gave you all the clues and even drew attention to some of them along the way, and yet still left you – well, me, anyway – completely baffled right up to the reveal.

Nick seems to be a popular young woman, without an enemy in the world, and with no worldly wealth to provide a motive. But the attacks on her suggest that it must be someone close to her who is trying to kill her, so her little group of friends and neighbours come under suspicion. Poirot will have to find which of them has a reason to want her dead. But when someone else is killed in mistake for Nick, he feels guilty for having been unable to prevent that murder, and still fears Nick will be the next victim.

Although the story is quite serious and Nick’s friends are a motley and mostly unlikeable crew, there’s a lot of humour in this one in the banter between Poirot and Hastings. Poor old Hastings – Poirot really is extremely rude about his intellectual abilities! Nonetheless it’s often Hastings’ simplistic way of looking at things that puts Poirot on the right track. Sometimes Hastings bites back, but Poirot always gets the last word…

“Do you suppose I’d have made a success of my ranch out in the Argentine if I were the kind of credulous fool you make out?”
“Do not enrage yourself, mon ami. You have made a great success of it—you and your wife.”
“Bella,” I said, “always goes by my judgement.”
“She is as wise as she is charming,” said Poirot.

I listened to it again this time with the wonderful Hugh Fraser narrating – these Agatha Christie audiobooks have become a major source of relaxation to me during the last few months, always entertaining even when I know the stories so well. Fortunately I still have many more to go…

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

TBR Thursday 272 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 272

(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.)

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OK, time for the next batch of four! Still working through books acquired in 2015, but finally getting close to the end of them! As usual, I’m planning three months ahead so the winner will be a May read. A crime week this time, but still quite varied, I think. The Cuckoo’s Calling keeps lingering simply because it’s so long. (OK, I cannot tell a lie – it’s also because I think Cormoran Strike is a really silly name.) I read and enjoyed a later book in the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series, so bought the first in the series, Last Rituals, intending to catch up – that clearly went well! I’m ashamed to say that Soft Summer Blood is a NetGalley book – don’t know what happened to make it linger since I’d enjoyed a couple of Helton’s other books. And A Meditation on Murder was acquired on the recommendation of a blogger who has since disappeared without trace from the blogosphere.

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Crime

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

Added 12th September 2015. 498,822 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.87 average rating. 561 pages.

The Blurb says: After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.

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Crime

Last Rituals by Yrsa Sirgurdardottir

Added 3rd November 2015. 8,980 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.59 average. 314 pages.

The Blurb says: At a university in Reykjavík, the body of a young German student is discovered, his eyes cut out and strange symbols carved into his chest. Police waste no time in making an arrest, but the victim’s family isn’t convinced that the right man is in custody. They ask Thóra Guðmundsdóttir, an attorney and single mother of two, to investigate. It isn’t long before Thóra and her associate, Matthew Reich, uncover the deceased student’s obsession with Iceland’s grisly history of torture, execution, and witch hunts. But there are very contemporary horrors hidden in the long, cold shadow of dark traditions. And for two suddenly endangered investigators, nothing is quite what it seems … and no one can be trusted.

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Crime

Soft Summer Blood by Peter Helton

Added 3rd December 2015. 55 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.67 average. 224 pages. 

The Blurb says: It all seemed so simple: a murder; an obvious suspect; a shaky alibi: DI McLusky never had it so good. Until a second killing challenges all his earlier assumptions. With every new piece of evidence McLusky brings to light, the case becomes more complicated. Does it have its roots in a disappearance eighteen years earlier, or is it firmly based in the present?

Meanwhile, DI Kat Fairfield and DS Jack Sorbie are tasked with finding the daughter of a prominent Italian politician, who has disappeared while on a student exchange programme at Bristol University. Neither is overjoyed to be lumbered with a routine missing person’s case while McLusky heads a high-profile murder investigation. Until they find a dead body of their own…

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Crime

A Meditation on Murder by Robert Thorogood

Added 5th December 2015. 1,499 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.99 average. 358 pages.

The Blurb says: Aslan Kennedy has an idyllic life: Leader of a Spiritual Retreat for wealthy holidaymakers on one of the Caribbean’s most unspoilt islands, Saint Marie. Until he’s murdered, that is. The case seems open and shut: when Aslan was killed he was inside a locked room with only five other people, one of whom has already confessed to the murder.

Detective Inspector Richard Poole is hot, bothered, and fed up with talking to witnesses who’d rather discuss his ‘aura’ than their whereabouts at the time of the murder. But he also knows that the facts of the case don’t quite stack up. In fact, he’s convinced that the person who’s just confessed to the murder is the one person who couldn’t have done it. Determined to track down the real killer, DI Poole is soon on the trail, and no stone will be left unturned.

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VOTE NOW!

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

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

Tuesday ‘Tec! Bodies from the Library 3 edited by Tony Medawar

Mixed bag…

🙂 🙂 🙂

As with the previous books in the series, this is a collection of stories that have rarely or never been included in a collection before. There are twelve stories, plus a fun collection of very short shorts where several writers were challenged to come up with a story all using the same object – an orange. There’s the usual mix of well known authors like Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, alongside some that have recently come back to prominence during the current revival, like Christopher St John Sprigg and Josephine Bell, and a few from authors entirely unfamiliar to me.

The problem with these “never before collected” collections is that there is bound to be a finite number of great stories that fall into that category. I read and loved the second book in the series, and was surprised at the high quality of the stories in it. I’m afraid this one feels rather like the leftovers – the ones that weren’t good enough to be included in the earlier books. Only one achieved a five-star rating from me – The Hampstead Murder by Christopher Bush, which I highlighted in a previous Tuesday ‘Tec! post. A handful got four stars, but I found the rest disappointing and not really worth the bother of collecting. I feel the series has probably run its course, in this format at least.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the better stories:

The Incident of the Dog’s Ball by Agatha Christie – although this story was only discovered many years after Christie’s death, it has certainly been collected before since I had already read it! A woman writes to Poirot for advice, but the letter doesn’t arrive till some months later. Poirot discovers the woman died just after she had written the letter, a death put down to accident. But the letter makes Poirot think that there may have been a darker cause, so he sets out to investigate. This story forms the nucleus of the plot of what would become the novel, Dumb Witness.

The Case of the Unlucky Airman by Christopher St John Sprigg – it’s sad that Sprigg died so young, since the little I’ve read of his stuff suggests he had a lot of talent. This one involves an airman who lands to get an oil leak fixed. He taxies into an empty hangar, there is the sound of a shot and he is found dead. An intriguing take on a “locked room” mystery – well told and quite fun.

The Riddle of the Black Spade by Stuart Palmer – a man is killed on a golf course, apparently by a ball with a black spade trademark. At first, his son is suspected, until it turns out the ball was one of the victim’s own. The police captain investigating the death is “assisted” by a spinster lady, Hildegard Withers, who apparently was the star of a series of novels and stories, and popular in her day. This story is light-hearted and entertaining, with some surprises and a clearly explained howdunit solution.

Grand Guignol by John Dickson Carr – written while he was at University, this story formed the basis of his early novel It Walks By Night. I felt a bit smug about that, since in my review of It Walks By Night, I mentioned that the book made me think of the traditions of Grand Guignol! The basic plot and solution are the same but it’s done differently, and the dénouement here is all a bit silly and unbelievable. But it’s an interesting look at the beginnings of the style he would later develop into the decadent horror feel of the Bencolin novels.

So a few enjoyable stories, though often as much for seeing how these famous authors started out than as polished articles in their own right. I’m sure real vintage crime fans will find enough of interest to make reading the collection worthwhile, as I did, but for newcomers or more casual fans I’d recommend the earlier book, Bodies from the Library 2, as a more entertaining collection overall. I haven’t mentioned the first book in the series because I haven’t yet read it.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Under World (Dalziel and Pascoe 10) by Reginald Hill

Digging deep…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Colin Farr is an angry young man. When young Tracy Pedley vanished some years earlier in the woods around the Yorkshire mining town of Burrthorpe, the townspeople held Colin’s father responsible. Some felt he must have killed her, others that his carelessness led to her disappearance – he had taken the little girl out for a walk and his story was that he then let her return the last part of the journey alone, and she was never seen again. The police, however, blamed a different man but that didn’t stop the gossip, and Colin’s father died in an accident that may or may not have been suicide. Now the cop who was in charge of the case back then has retired and is serialising his memoirs in the local paper, bringing the old story back to the surface and Colin’s anger back to boiling point. And then someone dies down the mine…

The story is set a couple of years after the Miner’s Strike of 1984, while memories are fresh and scars not yet healed. The miners hate the bosses and the feeling is mutual, and those who scabbed during the strike have not been forgiven. But the biggest divide is between the miners and the police, who were used by a heavy-handed government to break the strike, often violently. Hill works all these resentments through his plot, giving the book a real feel for the period and for how devastating the strike and its aftermath were for the mining communities. Although the mine at Burrthorpe is still working, the writing is on the wall for the whole British mining industry and the miners know their way of life is coming to an end. Not that it’s a good way of life – the work is hard and dangerous, and many men who manage to avoid accidents are still struck down by the deadly lung diseases that come with breathing in coal-dust down the pits. But it’s a life that has developed strong ties of community, where trust is an essential component of the job – one careless worker could put everyone in danger.

Another aspect of the strike that Hill uses very effectively is the coming together of the women – the miners’ wives and mothers, struggling to hold their families together with no income, taking on the role of breadwinner sometimes, dealing with the mental health problems and domestic violence that grew in correlation with the desperation (and, in their own eyes, emasculation) of the men. The women built support networks, campaigned for their men and begged for their children, and showed a level of strength and resilience that fed into the wider story of women’s demands to be treated as equals.

As is often the case with Hill, the plot is somewhat secondary to the social aspects and to the further development of the recurring characters in his team. Although it’s a bleak story, Dalziel always adds an element of humour, and his rough uncouthness appeals much more to the miners than Pascoe’s sympathetic attempts to understand their point of view. Dalziel is of them, so understands them naturally, and they him.

Ellie Pascoe, still struggling to finish her novel, takes a part-time job giving classes to the miners and finds herself drawn to the troubled Colin, partly because he shows he has an intelligence she, in her middle-class way, doesn’t expect to find in a miner, and partly becoming attracted to his overt physical masculinity despite her feminist disdain. Ellie doesn’t come out of this novel well – she behaves like a spoilt privileged child and becomes intensely annoying, to the point where it’s hard to understand what Peter Pascoe could possibly like about her. She settles back down a little in future books, but this is not one of her better outings. However, later in the book she comes to know the women of the Burrthorpe support group and has enough self-awareness to recognise that they roll up their sleeves and do what needs to be done, rather than pontificating about women’s rights from a lofty academic height. What always redeems Ellie is her willingness to recognise her own faults.

Reginald Hill

Hill gives a very authentic feel to what it was like to work in a mine at that time – the physical demands, the danger, the safety protocols, the reliance on each other. He also shows the do-gooder element of society, visiting the mine in order to get a vicarious thrill, so they can then go off and make political points in their nice clean safe council chambers and middle-class restaurants. The climax of the novel happens below ground, in a tense and thrilling finale which more than makes up for the rather too obvious solution to the central mystery.

Another fine outing for Dalziel and Pascoe, and one of the most realistic pictures of the post-strike-era mining communities I’ve come across in fiction. I listened to the audiobook with Colin Buchanan reading, and now that I’ve got used to his voices for the characters, I enjoy his narrations.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link – sorry, doesn’t seem to be available on the US site. Here’s a link to the Kindle version instead.

The Port of London Murders by Josephine Bell

A slice of life…

😀 😀 😀 😀

As fog rolls over the Thames a barge bearing a cargo of boxes ostensibly full of rubber breaks free from the tug pulling it, and tips its load into the river, later to be washed up along the banks. Meantime, an old woman dies, apparently from suicide. But Detective Sergeant Chandler isn’t convinced – he thinks it might be murder. As he begins to investigate, his colleagues in the river police are finding there’s something strange about the boxes that are being found along the river…

This book from 1938 has a rather different feel to it than the usual Golden Age mystery. Although there are two separate police investigations going on, it’s not what we’d think of as a police procedural, and yet it’s a bit too slow and thoughtful to be a thriller either. Also, the reader has a much better idea of what’s going on than the police because we are taken round all the various characters involved, being made privy to things the police haven’t yet found out. So there’s no real surprise about the solution to the crime element when it comes.

It’s really more of a look at the social conditions of those people struggling to live on the margins of post-depression pre-war poverty in the docklands beside the Thames. The plot revolves around the trade in illegally smuggled drugs – that’s not a spoiler since it’s made quite clear from early on. Both these aspects feel very realistic, the drugs plot especially feeling much more true to life than the often glamourised or exaggerated picture of it in fiction. Here it’s simply a case of unscrupulous people making money off the miserable addiction of others. Yes, there are murders done when they feel at risk, but no shoot-outs between rival gangs or king-pins taking revenge and so on. This is business – sordid and nasty, but simply business. We are also shown the addict’s view – the misery of it and how people are gradually driven to cross boundaries of behaviour in their desperate need to satisfy their cravings.

We also get a look at the pre-NHS health system, where poor people chose doctors on the basis of how cheap they were, and doctors could do little to alleviate the kinds of illness brought on by poverty and the appalling air of foggy, sooty, dirty London.

All of this is done very well – worked into the story rather than simply dumped on the reader. There is also some quite good characterisation of a few of the working-class residents of the area, in particular of three people caught up unknowingly in the mystery – a young man and the girl he’s trying to woo, and the girl’s young brother, who more than anything wants a ride in the river police’s boat. They humanise the story a little, and it needs it, because otherwise it’s a rather grim and miserable tale. A slice of life that happily most of us will never live, but not so far removed from the everyday as to make it seem unrecognisable.

Josephine Bell

It’s well written and the social commentary aspect is very strong. It seemed to me quite unusual for the era in its concentration on the poor and the working-class – most Golden Age mysteries tend to feature the middle-class, and their working-class characters are often cringe-makingly caricatured. Here they felt true – neither idealised nor denigrated for their poverty or the way they spoke or behaved. Unfortunately the actual crime side of it didn’t work so well for me – it felt rather like an add-on to give the social aspects a focus, and I’m never a huge fan of the type of crime novel where the reader knows more than the detectives. However, it was my first introduction to Josephine Bell, and I enjoyed it enough to want to read more, to see if this kind of rather gritty realism is typical of her style.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 271…

Episode 271

Total balance on the TBR this week – two out, two in, so remaining steady on 190…

Here are a few more that should fall off the pile soon…

Vintage Science Fiction

The Society of Time by John Brunner

Courtesy of the British Library. I’ve read a few of the BL’s Science Fiction Classics series now and have found them consistently interesting, and always so far from authors completely unknown to me. This collection sounds intriguing…

The Blurb says: Drifting through a party celebrating 400 years since the Spanish Armada’s successful invasion of Britain, Don Miguel Navarro – Licentiate of the Society of Time – is shaken by the host’s possession of a flawless mask from an ancient Aztec festival. ‘Imported’ from the past, the discovery signals a breach in the Society’s policing of time-travel and imminent danger to reality itself. Today, a relic out of time; tomorrow, the rewriting of the course of history? In three ground-breaking novellas, John Brunner weaves an ingenious tale of diverging timelines and a battle for dominance over the fourth dimension.

The Society of Time stories were abridged when first collected. Here, the trilogy is reprinted in full along with two mesmerising standalone novellas: The Analysts and Father of Lies.

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Thriller

Taken by Lisa Stone

Courtesy of HarperCollins. Another unsolicited review copy from HC, and another that I fear from the blurb may not be for me. But it has high ratings on Goodreads, and I live in hope! We’ll see… 

The Blurb says: Have you seen Leila?

8-year-old Leila Smith has seen and heard things that no child should ever have to. On the Hawthorn Estate, where she lives, she often stays out after dark to avoid going home. But what Leila doesn’t know is that someone has been watching her in the playground. One day, she disappears without a trace…

The police start a nationwide search but it’s as if Leila has vanished into thin air. Who kidnapped her? What do they want? Will she return home safely or is she lost forever?

A thriller with a difference!

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Vintage Crime

The Corpse in the Waxworks by John Dickson Carr

Courtesy of the British Library again! Apparently there were only five books in Carr’s Bencolin series and this is the fourth the BL has published so far, so I’m hoping they’ll complete the set eventually. Back in Paris for this one, and it sounds as deliciously creepy as all the rest…

The Blurb says: Last night Mademoiselle Duchêne was seen heading into the Gallery of Horrors at the Musée Augustin waxworks, alive. Today she was found in the Seine, murdered. The museum’s proprietor, long perturbed by the unnatural vitality of his figures, claims that he saw one of them following the victim into the dark – a lead that Henri Bencolin, head of the Paris police and expert of ‘impossible’ crimes, cannot possibly resist.

Surrounded by the eerie noises of the night, Bencolin prepares to enter the ill-fated waxworks, his associate Jeff Marle and the victim’s fiancé in tow. Waiting within, beneath the glass-eyed gaze of a leering waxen satyr, is a gruesome discovery and the first clues of a twisted and ingenious mystery.

First published in 1932 at the height of crime fiction’s Golden Age, this macabre and atmospheric dive into the murky underground of Parisian society presents an intelligent puzzle delivered at a stunning pace. This new edition also includes The Murder in Number Four, a rare Inspector Bencolin short story.

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Classic on Audio

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

Let’s be honest – the idea of Alan Rickman reading to me in that wonderful voice of his is so delightful that the actual book is almost irrelevant. But happily the book sounds good too…

The Blurb says: Set on Egdon Heath, a fictional barren moor in Wessex, Eustacia Vye longs for the excitement of city life but is cut off from the world in her grandfather’s lonely cottage. Clym Yeobright who has returned to the area to become a schoolmaster seems to offer everything she dreams of: passion, excitement and the opportunity to escape. However, Clym’s ambitions are quite different from hers, and marriage only increases Eustacia’s destructive restlessness, drawing others into a tangled web of deceit and unhappiness. 

Considered a truly modern story due to its sexual politics and hindered desires it still holds relevance to audiences today. There is a tension between the symbolic setting of the heath and the modernity of the characters that makes the listener question our freedom to shape our lives as we wish. Are we always able to live our dreams?

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Transwarp Tuesday! Born of the Sun edited by Mike Ashley

Touring the Solar System…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This collection of ten vintage science fiction stories takes us on a tour of our Solar System. “Ten?” I hear you ask. Yes, there are six of the seven actual planets in the system (excluding Earth). Saturn’s moon Titan is included instead of the planet itself. (Well, obviously one couldn’t live on Saturn, silly!) Pluto is included because it was considered a planet until Neil De Grasse Tyson viciously demoted it to lump of rock or some such. The Asteroid Belt gets its own entry since there have been lots of stories about it. And there’s a mysterious planet, Vulcan – never seen but once postulated to exist by scientists trying to explain the oddness of Mercury’s orbit before Einstein’s theories provided a better explanation; and exercising a considerable magnetic pull on the imaginations of SF writers of the time.

The editor, Mike Ashley (who is wonderful at these anthologies, by the way), has chosen most of the stories from the ‘40s and ‘50s, with just a couple of earlier ones and a couple from the ‘60s. He explains that this is because he wanted to “select stories that took at least some notice of the scientific understanding of the day”. Before each story there is an introduction to the planet, giving its dual history – the advances in scientific understanding of its physical properties over the decades, along with a potted history of how it was viewed and used over time by SF writers. These intros are fantastic – pitched at absolutely the right level for the interested non-scientist and packed full of examples of authors and specific stories to investigate further. (Would make the basis for a great challenge, and I may be unable to resist!) Each story is also prefaced with fabulous pictures of the relevant planetscape, mostly as envisioned by Lucien Rudaux, a French artist and astronomer of the early 20th century. I must say that, much though I enjoyed most of the stories, it was the intros in this one that made it extra special – of all the great anthologies the BL has produced this year, this one is my favourite by miles… or I should probably say, by light-years!

On to the actual stories! Of the ten, I gave six either 4 or 5 stars, and only a couple were duds for me, one which went on too long and another which I simply didn’t understand, so it may work fine for the more science-minded reader. Here’s a flavour of a few of those I most enjoyed:

Foundling on Venus by John and Dorothy De Courcy. A story of the various races and species all living in New Reno, a frontier town on Venus, with all the violence and vice that usually comes with that. The story tells of a child found in the street by a young woman, and we gradually learn how he, and she, came to be there. I used this one for a Transwarp Tuesday! Post.

The Lonely Path by John Ashcroft. Mars! The first manned flight has landed on Mars, sent to examine a strange tower standing hugely high in the desolate landscape. The astronauts gradually discover the purpose of the tower and what happened to its builder. It’s an excellent, novelette-length story, well-told, interesting and thoughtful.

Mars as seen from its moon Deimos
by Lucien Rudaux

Garden in the Void by Poul Anderson. Set in the Asteroid Belt, this tells of two prospectors, hoping to strike it rich so they can return to earth. One day they spot a green asteroid and land to investigate. They find it is covered in vegetation and has its very own gardener – a human who was stranded there many years before and has developed a kind of symbiotic relationship with the plants. I found this quite a creepy story, very well told, with lots of science that mostly went right over my head, but I was still able to follow the story easily.

Wait It Out by Larry Niven. This is “hard” SF – i.e., based on real science, but explained well enough that there’s no need to be an astrophysicist to understand the story! Our narrator is one of the two men aboard the first ship to land on Pluto. But they land on ice, and their nuclear powered engine temporarily melts it. As soon as they switch their engine off, the ice refreezes and their ship is trapped. This is a bleak story but very well told, and I found the ideas in it left me feeling a bit discombobulated.

So some excellent stories in here, enhanced by the fantastic introductions. If you’re interested in science fiction in even the mildest way, then I heartily recommend this anthology to you. Great stuff!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

Rom without the com…

😐 😐

Cluny Brown is extremely plain, except to the many men who think she’s beautiful. She does scandalous things like going for tea at the Ritz, so her uncle who doesn’t seem to like her much (and incidentally hasn’t spotted her beauty) sends her off to be trained as a parlour-maid at the Devonshire home of Lady Carmel. There, several men will fall in love with several women, there will be mild misunderstandings and mild jealousies, and then they will all sort themselves into perfect partnerships and live happily ever after. As will I, now that this one can be cheerfully despatched to the charity shop…

I realise this book is beloved by all and even sundry, but I fear its charm largely escaped me. Cluny manages to be both underdeveloped and unrealistic, which is quite a feat when you think about it. Perhaps Sharp genuinely had no idea about the working-class – she certainly gives me that impression – but an editor could surely have told her that by 1938 aggrieved uncles weren’t actually able to force reluctant twenty-year-old nieces into service against their will. Nor are all working-class people fundamentally stupid, although that’s how they’re portrayed in this book. Sharp reminds us of Cluny’s basic stupidity on a regular basis, unnecessarily since she never has a thought worth thinking or expresses an opinion worth expressing. Her eventual rebellious metamorphosis is ludicrous, since up to that point the most rebellious thing she had ever done was to eat oranges in bed. She seems perfectly willing to go off with any man who promises to let her keep a puppy – one felt she could have got a job, a flat and a puppy all on her own, and foregone the dubious pleasure of having to put up with any of these tedious men.

Book 74 of 90

For tedious they are! There’s working class therefore stupid Uncle Arn, he who can’t cope with the idea that his niece might be attractive to men so gets rid of her so he can sit in the evenings staring happily at his wall – one imagines his mouth hanging open and his mind echoing emptily as he does so. Sir Henry Carmel, stereotypical Little Englander member of the declining gentry, is also stupid now I think about it – Sharp clearly felt stupid is a synonym for funny. We’ll have to agree to differ on that. Mr Wilson, the chemist, attracted to Cluny because she looks at him adoringly, rather like that puppy she so longs for, and apparently happy to marry a woman whom he considers to be his inferior, socially, culturally and intellectually, presumably because he wants submissive admiration rather than any kind of equal partnership in life. One is supposed to like him, I think. Belinski, the Polish writer who comes to stay at the house, has more comic potential and actually provides the glimmerings of a plot in the early stages, as it appears he has got into the bad books of the Nazis and may be in danger. But no, turns out it’s all been a misunderstanding, and really he’s just a mediocre writer and marginally more successful womaniser.

Margery Sharp

Andrew, the son of the house, is somewhat better as a character, being given a little more complexity and letting us see the gentry coming to terms with the approaching war. His mother, Lady Carmel, is also quite well drawn – outwardly she seems to be rather vague and wispy, but in fact she’s more perceptive than all the rest, and guides her useless menfolk with a good deal of charm. Beautiful Betty, love interest of many, is fun, and her development from immature social butterfly to poised society woman is much better done than poor Cluny’s unlikely coming-of-age story. I won’t mention the other servants, since quite frankly Wodehouse gives his domestics more depth and realism.

Nope, not for me. I’m not much of a fan of rom-coms in general, and even less so when the com bit gets missed out, leaving little except dull meanderings through a largely unrealistic depiction of pre-war life.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Crime at Diana’s Pool by Victor L Whitechurch

Stabbed in the back…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Felix Nayland is hosting a garden party for the worthies of Coppleswick, and has laid on entertainment in the form of an Albanian band. Later that day, Nayland turns up dead, face down in the pond known as Diana’s Pool, with a knife in his back. The odd thing is that he is wearing the uniform jacket of one of the band, who is now mysteriously missing and therefore quickly becomes the prime suspect. But the local vicar, Reverend Westerham, has spotted some odd clues around the crime scene and he has his doubts. Anyway, even if the musician is guilty, why is the victim wearing his jacket? Nayland is a newcomer to the area, having spent his life as a diplomat travelling the globe and getting mixed up in all sorts of murky events – could it be that some incident from his past has somehow caught up with him?

This is another of the novels in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, in the subsection Murder at the Manor. Edwards tell us that Whitechurch adopted an approach which for the time was unorthodox – he wrote the beginning, including the murder, without knowing himself how the book would develop or who the murderer would be. I’m not sure how much difference this made to the eventual outcome – it reads like a pretty standard murder mystery of the time.

Challenge details:
Book: 37
Subject Heading: Murder at the Manor
Publication Year: 1927

Westerham is a likeable amateur ’tec and, as was the way in crime novels back then, the police quite happily include him in their investigations once they discover that he is a particularly observant witness. The policeman in charge of the investigation, Detective Sergeant Ringwood, gets a big build-up from his colleagues – “…he’s a demon for solving things” Constable Froome informs Westerman. Hmm, personally I thought he was more in the tradition of Japp or Lestrade, and that it was lucky for all involved that justice didn’t rest on the intelligence of the boys in blue!

Victor L Whitechurch

The plot gets a bit messy, which I suppose might be due to Whitechurch’s lack of planning ahead, and takes us into the murky world of South American politics. To be honest I found this pretty uninteresting, and since Nayland wasn’t given any time or space to develop as a character, it was hard to care much about his murder. There’s a side plot concerning the girl that Westerman is falling in love with, and because I liked him, I found I cared far more about the resolution of that strand. I don’t think it’s really fair play, although in fact I guessed the murderer quite early on, though not the motive. Just as an aside, I should mention that if you’re going to commit murder or participate in any other kind of dodgy dealings, it is not a good idea in general to have your initials embroidered or engraved on your belongings, but, if you must, then you should make every effort not to drop them at the scene of the crime. There were two instances of monogrammed items in this story, plus an identifiably foreign type of cigarette paper, all conveniently dropped as clues around the place, and it all felt a bit too contrived.

Overall, I enjoyed this well enough but didn’t think it had anything to really make it stand out from the crowd. It hasn’t inspired me to actively seek out more of Whitechurch’s work, but I’d still be happy enough to read another if it came my way.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 270…

Episode 270

Still on the right track! The TBR has fallen by a massive 1 to 190! I really think I’m getting the hang of this now..

Here are a few more that should float my way soon…

Fiction

Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan

Courtesy of Random House Cornerstone via NetGalley. I haven’t read any of Fagan’s books to date, but this one sounds as if it could be wonderful… or awful! Only one way to find out…

The Blurb says: The devil’s daughter rows to Edinburgh in a coffin, to work as maid for the Minister of Culture, a man who lives a dual life. But the real reason she’s there is to bear him and his barren wife a child, the consequences of which curse the tenement building that is their home for a hundred years. As we travel through the nine floors of the building and the next eight decades, the resident’s lives entwine over the ages and in unpredictable ways. Along the way we encounter the city’s most infamous Madam, a seance, a civil rights lawyer, a bone mermaid, a famous Beat poet, a notorious Edinburgh gang, a spy, the literati, artists, thinkers, strippers, the spirit world – until a cosmic agent finally exposes the true horror of the building’s longest kept secret. No. 10 Luckenbooth Close hurtles the reader through personal and global history – eerily reflecting modern life today.

* * * * *

Thriller

Domino Island by Desmond Bagley

Courtesy of HarperCollins. I have vague memories of reading a couple of Bagley’s books back in my early teens and enjoying them, but have never revisited him in my adult years. So I was delighted to receive a copy of this one – time to recapture a piece of my lost youth! 

The Blurb says: Bill Kemp, an ex-serviceman working in London as an insurance investigator, is sent to the Caribbean to determine the legitimacy of an expensive life insurance claim following the inexplicable death of businessman David Salton. His rapidly inflated premiums immediately before his death stand to make his young widow a very rich lady! Once there, Kemp discovers that Salton’s political ambitions had made him a lot of enemies, and local tensions around a forthcoming election are already spilling over into protest and violence on the streets. Salton also had friends in unexpected places, including the impossibly beautiful Leotta Tomsson, to whom there is much more than meets the eye. Kemp realises that Salton’s death and the local unrest are a deliberate smokescreen for an altogether more ambitious plot by an enemy in their midst, and as the island comes under siege, even Kemp’s army training seems feeble in the face of such a determined foe.

Unseen for more than 40 years and believed lost, Domino Island was accepted for publication in 1972 but then replaced by a different novel to coincide with the release of The Mackintosh Man, the Paul Newman film based on Bagley’s earlier novel The Freedom Trap. It is a classic Bagley tour de force with an all-action finale.

* * * * *

Fiction

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

When Roth is at his best there is no one better at political fiction, and this is reputed to be one of his best. I’m not sure the blurb writer has grasped that it’s an alternative history, unless I missed the Lindbergh Presidency. But it sounds frighteningly relevant…

The Blurb says: When the renowned aviation hero and rabid isolationist Charles A. Lindbergh defeated Franklin Roosevelt by a landslide in the1940 presidential election, fear invaded every Jewish household in America. Not only had Lindbergh publicly blamed the Jews for pushing America towards a pointless war with Nazi Germany, but, upon taking office as the 33rd president of the United States, he negotiated a cordial ‘understanding’ with Adolf Hitler.

What then followed in America is the historical setting for this startling new novel by Pulitzer-prize winner Philip Roth, who recounts what it was like for his Newark family during the menacing years of the Lindbergh presidency, when American citizens who happened to be Jews had every reason to expect the worst.

* * * * *

Vintage Crime

Inspector French and the Crime at Guildford by Freeman Wills Crofts

Courtesy of HarperCollins again. This is the third of a little batch of three Inspector French books they sent me. So far I’ve liked one and loved one, so my expectations for this one are high…

The Blurb says: A weekend board meeting brings a jewellery firm’s accountant to the managing director’s impressive Guildford home. On the Sunday morning, he is found dead and is soon the subject of a murder inquiry by the local police. Meanwhile, Chief Inspector French is investigating the sensational burglary of half a million pounds’ worth of jewels from the safe of an office in London’s Kingsway. French must determine the connection between the theft and the murder as he embarks on a perilous chase to track down the criminals.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Less Dead by Denise Mina

A tale of two cities…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Two things conspire to make Margo Dunlop decide to seek out her birth mother: the recent death of her adoptive mother, and her own pregnancy which, as a doctor, has led her to worry about the possibility of unknown genetic issues. She’s too late, however – 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, when sex workers were still mostly local women (as opposed to trafficked girls from abroad), driven to the trade by a combination of poverty, lack of opportunity and, often, addiction to drink or drugs. 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…

I’ll start by saying the murder plot and its solution are by far the weakest part of the book. They feel like little more than a vehicle to allow Mina to discuss what clearly interested her far more – the lives of those involved in the sex trade at that time, and how they were treated by a society that preferred to ignore their existence, and by a police force who saw them as third-class citizens. Hence the title – murdered prostitutes were considered “the less dead”, and the investigations into their deaths were perfunctory and under-resourced. The general feeling was that they “asked for it”.

Fortunately, I was also far more interested in that aspect, so the weakness of the murder plot didn’t spoil the book for me. Mina’s knowledge of Glasgow appears to be encyclopaedic and, although she is dealing mostly with a section of society that I knew and still know very little about, the city she describes feels entirely authentic. 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. (In 1990, just a year after Susan’s murder, Glasgow would become the first British city to be named European City of Culture, and the impact this had on how Glasgow changed, physically, socially and psychologically, cannot be overstated.) 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. Of course there are still major problems of poverty and inequality as in all large cities, and Mina is as clear-sighted about the present as the past. Street prostitution may not be as commonplace, but only because it’s now carried on indoors – still largely driven by addiction, still as prevalent, still as sordid, but better hidden from disapproving eyes.

Denise Mina

Nikki is a wonderful creation – too strong to be pitied or demeaned, but with no attempt to glorify her or the trade she worked in either. The book isn’t done as a dual timeline, so that we learn about the past wholly through the eyes of those in the present who were there at the time. Nikki is around fifty now, a survivor who made it through mostly by her own efforts but helped a little by the general improvement in standards of life over the recent decades. There are enough touches of Glaswegian dialect in her speech to make it authentically distinctive, while causing no problems for a non-Glaswegian reader. Margo’s middle-class upbringing provides a reason for Nikki to explain things about her very different life naturally, as one would to anyone who hadn’t shared one’s life experiences, and this of course means that she explains it to the reader too.

I found Margo and her middle-class friends slightly less well portrayed, but only in comparison. As she tries to work out what happened to the mother she never knew, Margo’s drives around the city and visits to various houses in different parts of it give the reader a real sense of a place of contrasts – wealthy and poor, old and new, respectable and seedy. I wondered, though, if my fascination for this deep gaze at my own city would be shared by people who don’t know it, or if they might find themselves wishing that the drives didn’t last as long and fewer street names and street histories were given. However, this is a far more accurate depiction of Glasgow 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 weaknesses in the mystery plot.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Friday Frippery! A Fruit Basket…

…of Quotes…

APPLE

In his devouring mind’s eye he pictured to himself every roasting-pig running about with a pudding in his belly and an apple in his mouth; the pigeons were snugly put to bed in a comfortable pie and tucked in with a coverlet of crust; the geese were swimming in their own gravy; and the ducks pairing cosily in dishes, like snug married couples, with a decent competency of onion sauce.

~The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

STRAWBERRIES

….He conducted her about the lawns, and flower-beds, and conservatories; and thence to the fruit-garden and greenhouses, where he asked her if she liked strawberries.
….“Yes,” said Tess, “when they come.”
….“They are already here.” D’Urberville began gathering specimens of the fruit for her, handing them back to her as he stooped; and, presently, selecting a specially fine product of the “British Queen” variety, he stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth.
….“No – no!” she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips. “I would rather take it in my own hand.”
….“Nonsense!” he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in.

~Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

ORANGE

I didn’t yet know that this was the actress not listed in the program, that this was that Sessaly, the “violet-eyed trollop” of Opium and Vanities. Her eyes were not violet, after all – they were amber. They were the color of candied ginger or a slice of cinnamon cake. Faded paper, polished leather, a brandied apricot. Orange-peel tea. I considered them, imagining the letters I would write to her. Pipe tobacco, perhaps. A honey lozenge, an autumn leaf. I would look through books of poetry, not to thieve but to avoid. Dear Sessaly, I thought later that night, not actually with pen to paper but lying on my back, writing the words in the air with my finger, let me say nothing to you that’s already been said.

~The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert (spot the bonus apricot!)

BANANAS

PEACH

Slowly, dawn was breaking. Streaks of colour – peach bellinis, orange martinis, strawberry margaritas, frozen negronis – streamed above the horizon, east to west. Within a matter of seconds, calls to prayer from the surrounding mosques reverberated around her, none of them synchronized. Far in the distance, the Bosphorus, waking from its turquoise sleep, yawned with force.

~10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

PINEAPPLE

….We are very fond of pine-apple, all three of us.  We looked at the picture on the tin; we thought of the juice.  We smiled at one another, and Harris got a spoon ready.
….Then we looked for the knife to open the tin with.  We turned out everything in the hamper.  We turned out the bags.  We pulled up the boards at the bottom of the boat.  We took everything out on to the bank and shook it.  There was no tin-opener to be found.
….Then Harris tried to open the tin with a pocket-knife, and broke the knife and cut himself badly; and George tried a pair of scissors, and the scissors flew up, and nearly put his eye out. While they were dressing their wounds, I tried to make a hole in the thing with the spiky end of the hitcher, and the hitcher slipped and jerked me out between the boat and the bank into two feet of muddy water, and the tin rolled over, uninjured, and broke a teacup.
….Then we all got mad.  We took that tin out on the bank, and Harris went up into a field and got a big sharp stone, and I went back into the boat and brought out the mast, and George held the tin and Harris held the sharp end of his stone against the top of it, and I took the mast and poised it high up in the air, and gathered up all my strength and brought it down.
….It was George’s straw hat that saved his life that day.  He keeps that hat now (what is left of it), and, of a winter’s evening, when the pipes are lit and the boys are telling stretchers about the dangers they have passed through, George brings it down and shows it round, and the stirring tale is told anew, with fresh exaggerations every time.
….Harris got off with merely a flesh wound.

~Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

CHERRY

…red like a pomegranate seed, red like a blood spot on an egg, red like a ladybug, red like a ruby or more specifically a red beryl, red like coral, red like an unripe cherry, red like a Hindu lady’s bindi, red like the eye of a nocturnal predator, red like a fire on a distant shore, the subject of his every dream and his every scientific pursuit.
….“Mars,” he says.

~Equilateral by Ken Kalfus

WATERMELON

….The tip of her e-cigarette/sonic screwdriver glowed as she sooked. A huge cloud of watermelon vape drifted its way around Logan’s head, glowing in the sunlight. ‘Come on then, what you doing?’
….‘Investigating.’ Logan held up a hand, blocking the glare from his screen. ‘Or at least I’m trying to.’
….‘I know that, you idiot; investigating, what?’
….‘People’s Army for Scottish Liberation. Apparently they had ties to the Scottish People’s Liberation Army, the Scottish Freedom Fighters’ Resistance Front, End of Empire, and Arbroath Thirteen Twenty. AKA nutters so extreme that even Settler Watch didn’t want anything to do with them.’
….Another cloud of fruity smelling fog. ‘It’s Womble-funting dick-muppets like that who give good old-fashioned Scottish Nationalists a bad name.’

~All That’s Dead by Stuart MacBride

GRAPES

A large red drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone, and a torn cloud, like a bloody rag, hung over the spot of its going. And dusk crept over the sky from the eastern horizon, and darkness crept over the land from the east.

~The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (Is that cheating? Im……peach me!)

LEMON

….He bought a can of Pearl with the last two dollars he had, then dropped a quarter in the Wurlitzer. He punched a number and settled down at a table and tipped his chair back against the wall and put his boots up. He set his hat over his eyes and drifted in the peaceful dark of not being on the road.
….The man in the box began to sing.
….The music rose and fell.
….Out of the darkness came her scent of lemon and vanilla, the curve of a white calf beneath the hem of a pale blue cotton dress, her shape an hourglass, like time itself slipping away. She, before the picture window that looked out on the mimosa dropping its pink petals on the grass. Her slow smile spreading beneath a pair of eyes as blue as cobalt glass. Water sheeting in the window and casting its shadow like a spell of memory on the wall behind. Her little red suitcase turntable scratching out a song beneath the window and he, a boy, with his bare feet on hers as she held his hands and the record turned and they danced.
….Their private, sad melody unspooling in his heart forever.

~In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson

* * * * *

I actually find it astonishing that never once have bananas turned up in a quote in eight years of blogging. Clearly they are not considered a literary fruit, which seems most unfair. A lack of authorial imagination, obviously…

her sun-bleached hair, yellow as a ripe banana.”

“…his long nose, curved like a banana.”

…his fat hands, each finger as plump as a banana.”

“…her old skin, parchment-dry and speckled brown like an overripe banana.”

“…he pressed her close to him, his strong manly hand firm on the small of her back, and suddenly, for no reason she could understand, she found herself longing for a banana.”

See? Easy! 😉

Have you a banana quote?
Or any other fruity book links?

TBR Thursday 269…

Episode 269

Off to a racing start in this new year – the TBR has plummeted by three to 191! Could it be that the 2020 slump is over? I’m sure it’s all going to go smoothly from now on…

Here are a few more that should slide off soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

It was an exciting race this week, People! Cold Comfort Farm took an early lead that looked unassailable, but then Blacklands started to creep up behind. It was touch and go for a while, but then CCF got some late support that helped take it over the finish line in style! I plan to read and review it in April…

The Blurb says: Winner of the 1933 Femina Vie Heureuse Prize, COLD COMFORT FARM is a wickedly funny portrait of British rural life in the 1930s. Flora Poste, a recently orphaned socialite, moves in with her country relatives, the gloomy Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm, and becomes enmeshed in a web of violent emotions, despair, and scheming, until Flora manages to set things right.

Factual

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

Generally I love Erik Larson and I’m always interested in Churchill, so this should be perfect for me. But the blurb makes it sound more like a family saga than a history. Hopefully bad blurb syndrome – we’ll see!

The Blurb says: On Winston Churchill’s first day as prime minister, Adolf Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium. Poland and Czechoslovakia had already fallen, and the Dunkirk evacuation was just two weeks away. For the next twelve months, Hitler would wage a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons. It was up to Churchill to hold his country together and persuade President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain was a worthy ally–and willing to fight to the end.

In The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson shows how Churchill taught the British people “the art of being fearless.” It is a story of political brinkmanship, but it’s also an intimate domestic drama, set against the backdrop of Churchill’s prime-ministerial country home, Chequers; his wartime retreat, Ditchley, where he and his entourage go when the moon is brightest and the bombing threat is highest; and of course 10 Downing Street in London. Drawing on diaries, original archival documents, and once-secret intelligence reports–some released only recently–Larson provides a new lens on London’s darkest year through the day-to-day experience of Churchill and his family: his wife, Clementine; their youngest daughter, Mary, who chafes against her parents’ wartime protectiveness; their son, Randolph, and his beautiful, unhappy wife, Pamela; Pamela’s illicit lover, a dashing American emissary; and the advisers in Churchill’s “Secret Circle,” to whom he turns in the hardest moments.

* * * * *

Fiction

In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda

One for my Spanish Civil War challenge. Now that I’ve got some slight grip on the actual history, I’m looking forward to exploring some fiction. If anyone has any recommendations for lit-fic, action thrillers or even crime set in the period, I’m open to suggestions – books written by Spaniards preferred (but not essential), but must be available in translation since sadly I don’t read Spanish.

The Blurb says: Barcelona, early 1930s: Natalia, a pretty shop-girl from the working-class quarter of Gracia, is hesitant when a stranger asks her to dance at the fiesta in Diamond Square. But Joe is charming and forceful, and she takes his hand.

They marry and soon have two children; for Natalia it is an awakening, both good and bad. When Joe decides to breed pigeons, the birds delight his son and daughter – and infuriate his wife. Then the Spanish Civil War erupts, and lays waste to the city and to their simple existence. Natalia remains in Barcelona, struggling to feed her family, while Joe goes to fight the fascists, and one by one his beloved birds fly away.

A highly acclaimed classic that has been translated into more than twenty languages, In Diamond Square is the moving, vivid and powerful story of a woman caught up in a convulsive period of history.

* * * * *

Contemporary Fiction

The Fallout by Rebecca Thornton

Courtesy of HarperCollins. HarperCollins occasionally send me a little batch of books – some of them have been great, but sometimes they don’t much appeal. This is one of the “doesn’t much appeal” ones, but I’ll give it a try. Maybe it’ll surprise me! (It’s quite possibly the blurb that’s putting me off – someone needs to tell blurb-writers that it’s OK to write in sentences and paragraphs…)

The Blurb says: Everyone has an opinion. Everyone has a secret.
I only took my eyes off him for a second.
One little mistake is all it takes . . .

When Sarah forgets to check on her best friend’s little boy, distraction turns to disaster. And she’s faced with a dilemma.

Tell the truth, lose a friend.
Tell a lie, keep her close.

In a split second, Sarah seals her fate. But accidents have aftershocks, and lies have consequences. And when it’s someone else’s child, the rumours are quick to multiply.

Everyone’s talking about what happened. And sooner or later, the truth will have to come spilling out…

* * * * *

Christie on Audio

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie read by Kenneth Branagh

Just for a change, I thought I’d try Branagh’s narration rather than my usual favourite for Poirot books, Hugh Fraser. This is one of my top favourite Christies, so he’d better do it well, or else!! 😉

The Blurb says: The tranquillity of a cruise along the Nile is shattered by the discovery that Linnet Ridgeway has been shot through the head. She was young, stylish and beautiful, a girl who had everything – until she lost her life. Hercule Poirot recalls an earlier outburst by a fellow passenger: ‘I’d like to put my dear little pistol against her head and just press the trigger.’ Yet in this exotic setting, nothing is ever quite what it seems…

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

The one with Little Nell…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Nell Trent, a child of thirteen, lives with her doting grandfather in his shop where he ekes out an existence selling old and unusual items. Grandfather (he is never named) has lost both his beloved wife and their daughter, Nell’s mother, and Nell has become a substitute to him for their loss, though he also loves her for her own sake. He is worried about what might happen to her when he dies, so is determined to make lots of money so he can provide for her. But the method he chooses – gambling – soon becomes an addiction, and he gradually loses all his savings and ends up in debt to the evil dwarf, Daniel Quilp. Quilp turns Nell and her grandfather out of their home, and they must leave London and learn to make their way in a life of poverty. Grandfather is old and becoming senile, so young Nell must take on any jobs she can find, and beg for them both when work isn’t available. But Quilp isn’t finished with them yet…

This is the only one of Dickens’ novels that I hadn’t read before, so it was a real pleasure to get to know the cast of characters and follow Nell on her journeys. Unfortunately what happens to Little Nell is so well known (in case you don’t know, I won’t say) and a book I read a few years ago had also told me what happens to Quilp, so I didn’t get the joy of suspense over the main plotline. But, as usual with Dickens, there are so many sub-plots and digressions, the characters are so beautifully quirky, the settings are described so wonderfully and the language is a delight, so I didn’t feel I missed out on much.

(Nell dreaming angelic dreams amidst the shop’s curiosities…)

Nell starts out rather better than a lot of Dickens’ drooping heroines. She’s a girl of spirit who loves to laugh, and who affectionately teases her only friend, young Kit, her grandfather’s assistant. She does eventually turn into the usual saccharin perfect saint, though, losing much of her initial appeal as she does. But all the worry of looking after her grandfather and herself falls on her, and Dickens allows her to have enough strength and ingenuity to carry them both through some dangerous and heart-breaking moments. She’s not quite as strong as Kickass Kate Nickleby, but she’s certainly no Drippy Dora Copperfield either! I could fully understand why people got so caught up in her story when the book was originally published in serial form although, sadly, apparently the story about people storming the docks in New York when the ship carrying the last instalment arrived is apocryphal. Grandfather is a surprisingly unattractive character who really doesn’t deserve Nell’s devotion, but in him Dickens gives a great portrayal of how addiction can destroy a man’s character and life.

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The bulk of the story, however, is really about Kit, Quilp and the characters around them in London. Quilp is a sadist who delights in bullying his wife and anyone else who comes in his way. For no particular reason – Quilp doesn’t need reasons – he has taken against Kit and sets out to destroy him. But Kit is an honest, upright young boy who has the knack of winning friends who will stand by him when he needs them. When Nell leaves London with her grandfather, Kit hopes to find her one day, so he can make sure she is alright. Quilp also wants to find Nell, but for very different reasons – mostly just to be mean to her and to a young man called Dick Swiveller, who has been persuaded by Nell’s brother (oh, I forgot to mention – Nell has a ne’er-do-well brother, Fred) that he, Dick, should marry Nell, for complicated reasons. Gosh, summarising Dickens’ plots is exceptionally hard! Trust me, it all makes sense in the book! Dick is a lot of fun, constantly quoting from romantic songs of the day, and having a heart of gold under his drunken wastrel exterior.

Quilp is a great villain, without a single redeeming feature. Because he’s described as an ugly, misshapen dwarf when we first meet him, I tried to have some sympathy – to consider whether his treatment as a child may have warped his character – but honestly, he’s so vile that after a bit I couldn’t feel anything for him other than hatred and a desire to see him get his comeuppance! Sally Brass is another wonderful character. Sister to Sampson Brass, Quilp’s lawyer, she works alongside her brother and is the real force in the business. She’s mannish in her mannerisms, obnoxious, a tyrant to her little servant, and joins happily in all Quilp’s evil schemes. Sampson also goes along with Quilp, but he’s weaker than Sally and acts mostly out of fear of Quilp’s wrath.

(Quilp interrupts the ladies taking tea…)

Now, the ladies being together under these circumstances, it was extremely natural that the discourse should turn upon the propensity of mankind to tyrannise over the weaker sex, and the duty that devolved upon the weaker sex to resist that tyranny and assert their rights and dignity. It was natural for four reasons; firstly because Mrs Quilp being a young woman and notoriously under the dominion of her husband ought to be excited to rebel, secondly because Mrs Quilp’s parent was known to be laudably shrewish in her disposition and inclined to resist male authority, thirdly because each visitor wished to show for herself how superior she was in this respect to the generality of her sex, and fourthly because the company being accustomed to scandalise each other in pairs were deprived of their usual subject of conversation now that they were all assembled in close friendship, and had consequently no better employment than to attack the common enemy.

I felt there were more signs of this one’s origins as a serial than in most of his novels. It starts off with a first-person narrator, but this is dropped after a few chapters and from there on it becomes a third-person narrative. Kit starts out as a kind of simpleton comedy character, but then turns into a fine upstanding young man with plenty of intelligence as the story develops, and Dick has a similar change of character, though less marked. And there are, unusually for Dickens, one or two loose ends, particularly one around the birth of the one of the characters. There’s a great introduction by Elizabeth M. Brennan in my Oxford World’s Classics edition, which explains how these discrepancies arose from the rushed method of writing for weekly publication and the fact that Dickens hadn’t planned out the whole story when he began to write it. Brennan also tells us that Dickens cut some passages before the serialisation was published in novel form, including the birth mystery to which I referred. It doesn’t, however, explain why Dickens chose to cut that particular scene, leaving the reader to guess from a couple of hints along the way. The cut sections are given in the appendices.

(Grandfather gambling away Nell’s little hoard of money…)

However, none of these minor flaws are enough of a problem to take away from the sheer enjoyability of watching Dickens masterfully juggle humour and pathos, horror and joy, with all of his usual skill. And, oh dear, as always there’s so much I haven’t even touched on – the travelling entertainers Nell meets with on her journey, the waxworks, the Punch and Judy men, the hellish scenes of industrialised towns, Quilp’s poor mother-in-law, Kit’s family, the delightfully obstinate pony Whisker, the prison scenes, and so much more!

I’ll have to let it settle and perhaps read it at least once more to decide where it will finally sit in my league table of Dickens’ novels. Currently, it’s in the middle – not quite up there with Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby and so on, but not down at the bottom with poor Oliver Twist either. However, a middle-rank Dickens is still vastly better than most other books written by people unfortunate enough to not be Dickens, so that means it’s great – highly recommended!

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