The Book Courtship Tag

Love is a many-splendoured thing…

I was tagged by the lovely Jessie at Dwell in Possibility for…

So here goes…

(NB If I’ve reviewed a book, clicking in the cover will take you to the full review.)

Phase 1: Initial Attraction (A book you bought because of the cover)

I don’t think I’ve ever bought a book purely because of its cover, but sometimes I’ll look out for a certain edition because I love the design. In my youth, I gradually acquired a huge collection of Agatha Christie’s books with the Tom Adams covers – I still think they’re fabulous, because they actually relate to clues in the stories but without giving anything away…

And I’m currently looking to acquire all the Vintage Classics editions of Toni Morrison’s books – I love these simple, subtle covers…

Phase 2: First Impressions (A book you got because of the summary)

Ah, now this is more like me. I love a good blurb! The most recent one I’ve acquired purely on the basis of the blurb is this one, which I’ll be reading soon as it’s due for release on 3rd May…

The Blurb says: The Shape of the Ruins is a masterly story of conspiracy, political obsession, and literary investigation. When a man is arrested at a museum for attempting to steal the bullet-ridden suit of a murdered Colombian politician, few notice. But soon this thwarted theft takes on greater meaning as it becomes a thread in a widening web of popular fixations with conspiracy theories, assassinations, and historical secrets; and it haunts those who feel that only they know the real truth behind these killings.

This novel explores the darkest moments of a country’s past and brings to life the ways in which past violence shapes our present lives. A compulsive read, beautiful and profound, eerily relevant to our times and deeply personal, The Shape of the Ruins is a tour-de-force story by a master at uncovering the incisive wounds of our memories.

Phase 3: Sweet Talk (A book with great writing)

So many choices! I’m going to go for Andrew Motion, a past Poet Laureate, whose descriptions of nature enable me to see the beauty he sees…

I woke in the air – swept up by the angels of heaven all beating their wings together and singing. Then not singing but whispering. Whistling. Cooing. Gurgling. Crooning. Because they were not angels any more, they were pigeons, the same as last night, and now leaving with their mess drizzling beneath them in a continual white rain, first with laborious flusterings and squabblings, then twisting and looping and swaying and swerving until they had formed a gigantic letter S which held its shape . . . and held its shape . . . before it slackened and became a smoke-cloud blowing towards the horizon.

Phase 4: First Date (A first book of a series which made you want to pursue the rest of the series)

Again so many! So I’m going with a recent one…

I loved this first book in Mukherjee’s historical crime series set in the last days of the Raj. The tricky second book turned out to be nearly as good and I’m now eagerly awaiting the third in the series, due out this June…

Phase 5: Late Night Phone Calls (A book that kept you up all night long)

This doesn’t happen to me as often now as it did when I was young, but I tend to find Sharon Bolton’s standalones pretty unputdownable, and her last one was no exception…

Phase 6: Always On My Mind (A book you couldn’t stop thinking about)

Again, there are several – books that I’ve loved for the prose, or books that have become touchstones for great truths, or books that have in some way re-shaped my view of the world. This one is all three – a book I hope I will never stop thinking about…

They sang of bosses and masters and misses; of mules and dogs and the shamelessness of life. They sang lovingly of graveyards and sisters long gone. Of pork in the woods; meal in the pan; fish on the line; cane, rain and rocking chairs.

And they beat. The women for having known them and no more, no more; the children for having been them but never again. They killed a boss so often and so completely they had to bring him back to life to pulp him one more time. Tasting hot mealcake among pine trees, they beat it away. Singing love songs to Mr Death, they smashed his head. More than the rest, they killed the flirt who folks called Life for leading them on. Making them think the next sunrise would be worth it; that another stroke of time would do it at last.

Phase 7: Getting Physical (A book you love the feel of)

Gotta be hardbacks with cloth covers and good quality, smooth pages. The most recent one that has given me nearly as much pleasure for the tactile experience while reading as for the fab insides is…

Phase 8: Meeting the Parents (A book you would recommend to your friends and family)

In her later years, following successful cataract surgery, my mother came back to books with a vengeance after decades of being unable to enjoy reading. Along with my siblings, I enthusiastically shared many of my favourites with her. After I recommended the first one to her, we read the early CJ Sansom books more or less together – one more reason for me to love that series…

Phase 9: Thinking About the Future (A book or series that you know you’ll re-read many times in the future)

(Well, come on – you knew Darcy would appear somewhere, didn’t you?)

Phase 10: Share the Love (Here’s who I’m tagging)

I don’t usually tag people because I never know who’s already done a tag or who enjoys doing them, plus I find it hard to pick which of my lovely bloggy friends to tag. So I’m tagging everyone who would like to do it – I’d love to read your answers!

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Thanks for tagging me, Jessie! 😀

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie

“You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Poirot is on a little holiday in Egypt, and his poor unsuspecting fellow travellers have no idea that this means one of them, at least, will surely be murdered before the trip is over. As he closes his hotel window one evening, he overhears two unidentified characters talking in another room. “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?” Poirot smilingly dismisses it – they’re probably discussing a play, he thinks, or a mystery novel.

After this great start, Poirot recedes into the background for a bit, while the reader is introduced to all the other characters. The main group is the Boynton family, a strange and nervy bunch ruled over by their manipulative and sadistic matriarch, Mrs Boynton – one of Christie’s greatest creations, in my opinion. Her step-children are all grown up in the physical sense, but have never managed to cut loose from her control. Lennox, the eldest, is married to Nadine, the least affected by Mrs Boynton since she wasn’t brainwashed in childhood as the others were. Then there are the two younger step-children, Carol and Raymond, who are desperate for freedom but caught like moths in a flame, unable to work out how to escape. But the most troubled member of the family is the youngest, Ginevra, Mrs Boynton’s own child, now on the brink of womanhood and driven to the edge of madness by her mother’s evil games.

There are others on the trip too, who will all find themselves involved with the Boyntons in one way or another. Sarah King provides the main perspective, though in the third person. Newly qualified as a doctor, she is concerned about what she sees happening to the younger Boyntons. There’s also a French psychologist on the trip, Dr Gerrard, and it’s through the conversations of the two doctors that Christie lays out the psychology of Mrs Boynton for the readers. Add in an elderly spinster who’s abroad for the first time, an American who’s in love with Nadine, a British lady politician who does a good line in bullying on her own account, and the Arab servants, and there’s a plentiful supply of suspects and witnesses for Poirot to interview when the inevitable happens…

Agatha Christie

A bit like with Dickens, my favourite Christie tends to be the one I’ve just read, and this is no exception. For the Egyptian setting, which Christie paints in shades of exotic menace; for the great plot, one of her best; for the psychologically diverse and well drawn group of characters; and most of all for the brooding, malignant presence of Mrs Boynton, a bloated, poisonous spider at the centre of her web, this is a top-rank novel from the pen of the High Queen of Crime.

Much of the first half of the novel is taken up with Christie allowing each character their turn in the spotlight, and the opportunity to say or do something that will look deeply suspicious later on. I’ve read it so often that, of course, I spot all the clues now as they happen but, for me, this contains the best delivered crucial clue in all the detective fiction I’ve read. It’s hidden in plain sight – it’s right there, and yet I defy you to see it. And if that’s not enough, just before the denouement Poirot lays out every clue in a list for the local British dignitary, Colonel Carbury. Fair play taken to its extreme, and yet the case is still utterly baffling until Poirot brilliantly solves it, at which point it’s completely satisfying.

Hugh Fraser

I listened to Hugh Fraser’s narration, which is excellent as always. He doesn’t “act” the characters, except for Poirot, so no falsely high voices for the women and so on, but he subtly differentiates between them so it’s always clear who’s speaking, and he gives them American or English accents as appropriate. For his version of Poirot, Fraser reproduces a very close approximation to David Suchet’s Poirot accent, giving the narration a wonderful familiarity for fans of the TV adaptations.

Fabulous stuff – I’m having so much fun listening to the audiobooks of all these favourite Christies. It’s a great way to make even the ones I know inside out feel fresh again. And for new readers, what a treat! Highly recommended.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White

The long and the short of it…

🙂 🙂 😐

An insane murderer is rampaging through the countryside, killing young women. Helen, a young woman, has taken a job with the Warren family in their manor house right slap bang in the middle of where the murderer is doing his thing. But she’s perfectly safe, because there are lots of other people in the house with her. Except that, for one reason or another, gradually all the other people either leave the house or become incapable of helping. Soon Helen is on her own… or is she??

Fairly recently, I read Ethel Lina White’s short story, An Unlocked Window, in the British Library’s Murder at the Manor anthology. While I can’t find a direct reference to back me up on this, the book and the story share so many similarities that I’m convinced the story is a reworking of the book – the book was written in 1933 and the story six years later in 1939. I thought the short story was great – with a credible plot and really effectively scary. The book, on the other hand, has so many sillinesses that I found it quite hard to take seriously, and it’s so stretched out and repetitive that any scare factor disappeared long before the end was reached. Perhaps I’d have felt less critical if I hadn’t read the story first – having seen how well the premise worked in the short form, my expectations might have been too high going in.

There are good things about it and overall it’s a light, entertaining read for the most part, although I did find myself beginning to skim in the last third, feeling that I was more than ready for the thriller ending. It has a nice Gothic feel to it, with the rambling old house and a bunch of eccentric and not very likeable upper class characters, whom White, via Helen, has some fun showing up as arrogant snobs and relatively useless members of the human race. The servants come off much better, though they’re not exactly saints either. To call Helen curious would be an understatement – she pokes her nose in everywhere and always has to be where the action is. The cook likes to drink her employer’s brandy, while her husband’s main feature is his laziness. But still, they all have good hearts, which is more than can be said for the Warrens. On the whole, I enjoyed the characterisations although unfortunately Helen annoyed me intensely throughout.

Challenge details:
Book: 38
Subject Heading: Murder at the Manor
Publication Year: 1933

My first real problem is with Helen’s position in the household. I have no idea what she’s actually employed to do. She refers to herself as “the help” but beyond dusting the bannisters occasionally so she can eavesdrop on conversations, I couldn’t work out her duties. If she’s supposed to do housework, then how come she’d never been in the Professor’s study before that night? If she’s a maid, she most certainly wouldn’t don an evening gown and eat her meals with the family, as she does. In fact, I can’t think of any servant other than a governess or a companion who would ever have eaten with the family in a household like this one, and she’s neither of those. So right from the start, credibility was gone.

It is assumed by everyone that Helen is to be the murderer’s next victim – no idea why. Perhaps she was the only remaining young woman in the district. The assumption is also that he’ll come for her this dark and stormy night (despite him having committed another murder just that afternoon – prolific!). So Professor Warren puts all kinds of safety measures in operation which everyone then promptly ignores, even Helen, who doesn’t seem to be able to remember basic things like don’t open the door to potential murderers late at night. Gradually all the people who could have protected her either leave the house or become incapacitated in one way or another, until she is left only with horrible old Lady Warren, whose hobby is throwing things at menials, and Lady Warren’s even more horrible nurse, whose hobby is tormenting Helen. It’s a fun premise, but it takes far too long to get there. The ending when it finally came sadly didn’t surprise me (although it’s entirely different from the short story’s ending) – it had seemed increasingly obvious as time went on, both whodunit and what form the denouement would take.

Ethel Lina White

I didn’t dislike it as much as this critical review is probably suggesting – for the most part, it held my attention and was quite amusing. But in the end I’d recommend the short story far more highly than the book – it’s tighter and most of the extraneous stuff is stripped out, meaning that it works much more effectively as a chiller thriller. I can only think White herself must have felt that she could do better, so took the main plot points and created something much better. I find it interesting that Hitchcock chose to use An Unlocked Window for an episode of his TV series, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, rather than filming the full book, and he knew a thing or two about scariness! However, this book was filmed too, as The Spiral Staircase, and I’ll be watching it soon to see how it compares to the written version.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 156…

Episode 156…

Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!! A massive drop in the TBR since I last reported! Down 4 to 214! But I’m now stuck in the middle of a bunch of giant tomes and a parcel is heading my way, so the slide has probably come to an end for a bit…

(Apparently he was fine!)

Here are a few more that should fall over the edge soon…

Film History

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster. Last year I was blown away by the experience of reading Arthur C Clarke’s book and watching Stanley Kubrick’s film together, as they were intended to be. So I couldn’t resist this book about the creation of these two masterpieces, or, perhaps, joint masterpiece…

The Blurb says: Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the film’s release, this is the definitive story of the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, acclaimed today as one of the greatest films ever made, including the inside account of how director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke created this cinematic masterpiece.

Regarded as a masterpiece today, 2001: A Space Odyssey received mixed reviews on its 1968 release. Author Michael Benson explains how 2001 was made, telling the story primarily through the two people most responsible for the film, Kubrick and science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke. A colourful nonfiction narrative packed with memorable characters and remarkable incidents, Space Odyssey provides a 360-degree view of this extraordinary work, tracking the film from Kubrick and Clarke’s first meeting in New York in 1964 through its UK production from 1965-1968, during which some of the most complex sets ever made were merged with visual effects so innovative that they scarcely seem dated today. A concluding chapter examines the film’s legacy as it grew into it current justifiably exalted status.

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Humorous Crime

The third instalment of Lucy Brazier’s PorterGirl series. I shall stock up in readiness with stacks of sausage sandwiches, copious buckets of tea and a barrel-load of biscuits to fortify myself for whatever skulduggery awaits me in Old College this time… 😱

The Blurb says: “Sometimes the opposite of right isn’t wrong. It’s left.”

Tragedy strikes once more at Old College… The Porters’ Lodge is down to its last tea bag and no one has seen a biscuit for over a week. Almost as troubling are the two dead bodies at the bottom of the College gardens and a woman has gone missing. The Dean is convinced that occult machinations are to blame, Deputy Head Porter suspects something closer to home.

The formidable DCI Thompson refuses to be sidelined and a rather unpleasant Professor gets his comeuppance. As the body count rises, Head Porter tries to live a secret double life and The Dean believes his job is under threat from the Russian Secret Service. Deputy Head Porter finds herself with her hands full keeping Old College running smoothly as well as defending herself against the sinister intentions of the new Bursar.

Spies, poisoning, murder – and none of this would be any problem at all, if only someone would get the biscuits out and put the kettle on…

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Gothic Horror

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Regulars will know I love Sir Arthur nearly as much as I love Dr Watson and Darcy, so I couldn’t resist begging a copy of this new collection of all his darker tales. I’ve read several of them before and even reviewed one or two as Tuesday Terror! posts, but there are plenty more which will be new to me. I can barely resist rubbing my hands in glee…

The Blurb says: Arthur Conan Doyle was the greatest genre writer Britain has ever produced. Throughout a long writing career, he drew on his own medical background, his travels, and his increasing interest in spiritualism and the occult to produce a spectacular array of gothic tales. Many of Doyle’s writings are recognized as the very greatest tales of terror. They range from hauntings in the polar wasteland to evil surgeons and malevolent jungle landscapes.

This collection brings together over thirty of Conan Doyle’s best gothic tales. Darryl Jones’s introduction discusses the contradictions in Conan Doyle’s very public life – as a medical doctor who became obsessed with the spirit world, or a British imperialist drawn to support Irish Home Rule – and shows the ways in which these found articulation in that most anxious of all literary forms, the Gothic.

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Spark on Audio

Having recently thoroughly enjoyed my first encounter with Muriel Spark in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I decided to try to fit another one in for the second phase of Heavenali’s #ReadingMuriel2018, which she’s running to celebrate Spark’s centenary year. And I thought it might be fun to listen to Juliet Stevenson reading it to me…

The Blurb says: It is 1945; a time of cultural and political change, and also one of slender means. Spark’s evocative and sharply drawn novel focuses on a group of women living together in a hostel in Kensington who face new challenges in uncertain times. The novel is at once dramatic and character-based, and shows Muriel Spark at the height of her literary powers. Juliet Stevenson reads with her customary wit and intelligence this powerful masterpiece.

(Is this the shortest blurb in the history of the universe? I like it!)

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible.

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

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The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells

…and no cheese to be found…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Mr Bedford’s financial difficulties become pressing, he leaves London for the quiet of the Kentish countryside to write a play which he is sure will win him fame and fortune, despite him never having written anything before. Instead, he meets his new neighbour Mr Cavor, an eccentric scientist, and becomes intrigued and excited by the possibilities of the invention Cavor is working on – a substance that will defy gravity. Bedford, always with an eye for the main chance, begins to imagine the commercial possibilities of such a substance, but Cavor is more interested in the glory that he will gain from the scientific community. And so it is that these two mismatched men find themselves as partners on an incredible voyage – to the Moon!

….I do not remember before that night thinking at all of the risks we were running. Now they came like that array of spectres that once beleaguered Prague, and camped around me. The strangeness of what we were about to do, the unearthliness of it, overwhelmed me. I was like a man awakened out of pleasant dreams to the most horrible surroundings. I lay, eyes wide open, and the sphere seemed to get more flimsy and feeble, and Cavor more unreal and fantastic, and the whole enterprise madder and madder every moment.
….I got out of bed and wandered about. I sat at the window and stared at the immensity of space. Between the stars was the void, the unfathomable darkness!

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying revisiting some of the HG Wells stories I enjoyed in my youth, and reading for the first time the ones I missed back then. As with the others, I read the Oxford World’s Classics version, which has the usual informative and enjoyable introduction, this time from Simon J James, Professor of Victorian Literature and Head of the Department of English Studies at Durham University, which sets the book in its historical and literary context. This is one I hadn’t read before and perhaps it’s fair to say it’s one of the less well known ones, though only in comparison to the universal fame of some of the others, like The War of the Worlds or The Time Machine. While I think it hasn’t got quite the depth of those, it’s at least as enjoyable, if not more so.

Mostly this is because of the characterisation and the interplay between the two men, which give the book a lot of humour. Bedford, our narrator, is rather a selfish cad without too much going on in the way of ethics or heroism, but I found him impossible to dislike. He’s so honest about his own personality, not apologising for it, but not hypocritically trying to make himself seem like anything other than what he is – someone who’s out for what he can get. Cavor also has some issues with ethics, though in his case it’s not about greed. He’s one of these scientists who is so obsessed with his own theories and experiments, he doesn’t much care what impact they might have on other people – even the possibility that he might accidentally destroy the world seems like an acceptable risk to him. He simply won’t tell the world it’s in danger, so nobody has to worry about it.

….“It’s this accursed science,” I cried. “It’s the very Devil. The mediæval priests and persecutors were right and the Moderns are all wrong. You tamper with it—and it offers you gifts. And directly you take them it knocks you to pieces in some unexpected way. Old passions and new weapons—now it upsets your religion, now it upsets your social ideas, now it whirls you off to desolation and misery!”

To a large degree, this is a straightforward adventure novel with a great story and lots of danger and excitement. But, being Wells, there are also underlying themes relating to contemporary concerns: primarily two, in this case. Firstly, through Cavor’s invention of Cavorite (the name gives an indication of Cavor’s desire for glory, I feel!), Wells looks at the huge leaps that were being made in the fields of science and technology and issues a warning that, while these promise great progress for mankind, they also threaten potential catastrophe if the science isn’t tempered by ethical controls. Secondly, through the race of beings that Cavor and Bedford find when they arrive on the moon, Wells speculates on a form of society so utopian in its social control that it becomes positively terrifying! He uses this society, though, as a vehicle to comment on the less than utopian situation back on Earth, though I couldn’t help feeling he frequently had his tongue stuck firmly in his cheek as he did so.

….The stuff was not unlike a terrestrial mushroom, only it was much laxer in texture, and, as one swallowed it, it warmed the throat. At first we experienced a mere mechanical satisfaction in eating; then our blood began to run warmer, and we tingled at the lips and fingers, and then new and slightly irrelevant ideas came bubbling up in our minds.
….“It’s good,” said I. “Infernally good! What a home for our surplus population! Our poor surplus population,” and I broke off another large portion.

But the themes are treated more lightly in this one, and Wells allows his imagination free rein. One of the things I enjoyed most was how he includes a lot of realistic science even as he creates an impossible substance in Cavorite and an equally impossible race of moon-beings, the Selenites. Of course we’ve all looked down on Earth from planes now, but Wells imagines how it would look from space. He describes convincingly how to control a sphere covered in Cavorite by using gravity and the slingshot effect of planetary mass. He describes the weightlessness of zero gravity brilliantly, many decades before anyone had experienced it. His Selenites are a vision of evolved insect life, which frankly gave me the shivers, especially when he describes how they are bred, reared and surgically altered to happily fulfil a single function in life – a kind of precursor of the humans in Brave New World but with insect faces and arms!

I won’t give spoilers as to what happens to the men, but the ending gives a minor commentary on one of Wells’ other recurring themes – man’s tendency to look on other people’s territory as fair game for invasion and colonisation. But since you’re now thinking – but wait! That IS a spoiler! I assure you it’s really not, but you’ll have to read the book to find out why it’s not. Or you could just read it because it’s a great read – lots of humour, great descriptive writing, enough depth to keep it interesting without overwhelming the story, a couple of characters you can’t help liking even though you feel you shouldn’t, and plenty of excitement. What are you waiting for? Jump aboard the Cavorite sphere – you don’t get the chance to go to the Moon every day of the week!

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

Book 25 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Through the wattle fence Gregor saw Stepan getting ready. Aksinia, bedecked in a green woollen skirt, led out his horse. Stepan smilingly said something to her. Unhurriedly, in lordly fashion, he kissed his wife, and his arm lingered long around her shoulder. His sunburnt and work-stained hand showed coal-black against her white jacket. He stood with his back to Gregor; his stiff, clean-shaven neck, his broad, somewhat heavy shoulders, and (whenever he bent towards his wife) the twisted ends of his light-brown moustache were visible across the fence.
….Aksinia laughed at something and shook her head. Sitting as though rooted into the saddle, Stepan rode his black horse at a hurried walk through the gate, and Aksinia walked at his side, holding the stirrup, and looking up lovingly and thirstily into his eyes.
….With a long, unwinking stare Gregor watched them to the turn of the road.

* * * * * * * * *

….It was one of those dismal Berlin mornings, when the famous Berliner-luft seems not so much bracing as merely raw, the moisture stinging the face and hands like a thousand frozen needles. On the Potsdamer Chaussee, the spray from the wheels of the passing cars forced the few pedestrians close to the sides of the buildings. Watching them through the rain-flecked window, March imagined a city of blind men, feeling their way to work.
….It was all so normal. Later, that was what would strike him most. It was like having an accident: before it, nothing out of the ordinary; then the moment; and after it, a world that was changed forever. For there was nothing more routine than a body fished out of the Havel. It happened twice a month – derelicts and failed businessmen, reckless kids and lovelorn teenagers; accidents and suicides and murders; the desperate, the foolish, the sad.

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….On April 2, 1917, Wilson called on Congress to declare war on Germany. Seven months later, Lenin struck at the heart of Russia’s post-czarist Provisional Government and imposed the world’s first one-party state dictatorship. The world would never be the same again, on both counts.
….One mission of this book, therefore, is to show how these two intellectuals and dreamers managed to achieve those two ends and, in the process, overthrow traditional standards of geopolitics and alter forever the distribution of world power. Indeed, the world that both sought to bring into being was one that would be dominated not by laws and institutions, but by ideals and ideologies. The great goal of future foreign policy for both the United States and the eventual Soviet Union would be, not to protect their own national interests as narrowly understood, as almost all nations understood foreign policy before 1917, but to make others see the world as they did. As the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote on the eve of the French Revolution, “Sometimes men must be forced to be free.” That was a challenge the French revolutionaries took on, with disastrous results for Europe. It was one Wilson and Lenin both accepted in 1917, with (one is forced to conclude) disastrous results for the entire world.

(Am I the only one who wants to argue individually with nearly every word of those paragraphs? Oh dear, this could be an exhausting read… 😉 )

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….“For Joe?” said Mrs. Stevens placidly, her eye on the hat.
….Audrey nodded. She took a pin from her mouth, found a place in the hat for it, and said, “He likes a bit of pink.”
….“I don’t say I mind a bit of pink myself,” said her aunt. “Joe Turner isn’t the only one.”
….“It isn’t everybody’s colour,” said Audrey, holding the hat out at arm’s length, and regarding it thoughtfully. “Stylish, isn’t it?”
….“Oh, it’ll suit you all right, and it would have suited me at your age. A bit too dressy for me now, though wearing better than some other people, I daresay. I was never one to pretend to be what I wasn’t. If I’m fifty-five, I’m fifty-five – that’s what I say.”
….“Fifty-eight, isn’t it, auntie?”
….“I was just giving that as an example,” said Mrs. Stevens with great dignity.

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….When I first got here I loved the landscape, the fertility and fecundity of it, the life it gave off. There were no bare places. Everything was shrouded in shoots and thorns and leaves; there were little paths running everywhere, made by animals or insects. The smells and colours were powerful. I used all my free time, hours and hours of it, to go off walking into the bush. I wanted to move closer to the lush heart of things. But over time what had compelled me most deeply began to show a different, hidden side. The vitality and heat became oppressive and somehow threatening. Nothing could be maintained here, nothing stayed the same. Metal started to corrode and rust, fabrics rotted, bright paint faded away. You could not clear a place in the forest and expect to find it again two weeks later.

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So…are you tempted?

The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus

The camera lies… 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is 1910 and a packed train makes its way into Astapov, a little village suddenly famous because Tolstoy is there, in the process of dying. Aboard the train are two men: Professor Vladimir Vorobev, a scientist who has developed a new method of embalming that can make corpses look strangely alive; and Nikolai Gribshin, a young film-maker attached to Pathé News. In a little cottage close by, Lenin is holed up, using a pseudonym, and doing his best to manipulate events to inspire his long-awaited revolution. And there’s another man in the neighbourhood, known as the Caucasian – Stalin – who is intrigued by the new art of film-making, seeing its potential for truth-telling and, more importantly, for truth-creation…

This was Ken Kalfus’ first novel, published in 2003, although he had previously published collections of short stories. Kalfus lived in Moscow for some years in, I think, the ’90s and a lot of his work is about the USSR in one way or another. Regular visitors will know that I’ve loved everything of his that I’ve read, and so won’t be surprised to learn that I thoroughly enjoyed this. And how nice of him to write a novel that fits so neatly into my Russian Revolution challenge!*

The book is in two parts, subtitled Pre- and Post-. Gribshin emerges quickly as the main character, and the major theme of the book is about the development of propaganda techniques under Stalin, specifically using film. More widely, it’s about facts, presentation of facts, distortion of truth using facts, myth-making. Given our current obsession with “fake news”, it feels even more timely today than I suspect it would have done when originally published.

Comrade Astapov had gone soft, unsteeled by the violence and death he had witnessed. Recent events had demanded the loss of life on an imponderable scale. Whether the number of Russian dead concluded in five zeros or six was hotly debated in the domestic and foreign press, but the zeros were merely a human invention, a Babylonian bookkeeping trick. The deaths were made tangible only when you stopped counting them: Velimir Krikalev, the looter summarily executed at the outside wall of a foundry in Tsaritsyn; Sonya Khlebnikova, the red-haired girl who perished unfed in some unheated barracks in Kaluga; Anton Gribshin, who froze to death the previous winter on the Arbat while searching for bread.

The first part, Pre-, deals with the death of Tolstoy, though the great man is something of a bit player in his own demise. Instead, we see the media vultures circling, all wanting to get an angle on the story and to tell it in the way that suits their agenda. Meantime, Tolstoy’s family and literary agent are engaged in a battle to gain control of his literary legacy. Spurred on by hints from the Caucasian, Gribshin begins to recognise the power of the camera to present a story that may contain no direct lies, but which nevertheless presents a false narrative. As always with Kalfus, there’s a lot of humour – the scenes between Lenin and Stalin are particularly enjoyable, with Lenin spouting Marxist theory every time he speaks while Stalin the thug is more attracted to direct, violent action. But there’s also a lot of real insight into both the way humans behave and the history and politics of the period.

The second part, Post-, jumps forward to after the Revolution when the new USSR was in the process of being created. Gribshin is now working in the new Commissariat of Enlightenment – the State’s propaganda machine, where he is is responsible for making films showing events as the leaders want them to be interpreted. Kalfus shows us the reality of life at this period: the widespread starvation as the peasants withhold food from the cities; the ongoing civil war and its attendant atrocities; the State’s attempt to weaken the peasantry through the destruction of religion. Finally, this section takes us to another death-bed, this time Lenin’s, where all Gribshin’s learned propaganda skills are merged with Vorobev’s embalming skills to complete the creation of the cult of Lenin, a quasi-religion in its own right, complete with its own rituals and iconography.

According to secret reports from the Commissariat’s foreign agents, the movies had reached every burb and hamlet of America. This transformation of the civilized world had taken place in a single historic instant. Despite its rejection of Byzantium, the West was creating an image-ruled empire of its own, a shimmering, electrified web of pictures, unarticulated meaning, and passionate association forged between unrelated ideas. This was how to do it: either starve the masses of meaning or expose them to so much that the sum of it would be unintelligible. Wireless cinema loomed. A man’s psyche would be continually massaged, pummelled and manipulated so that he would be unable to complete a thought without making reference to some image manufactured for his persuasion. Exhausted, his mind would hunger for thoughtlessness. Political power and commercial gain would follow.

Ken Kalfus

If that all makes it sound like heavyweight politics, then I’ve done it a disservice. The actual Russian stuff is secondary to the examination of the art of propaganda and myth-making, and the story is told with a great mix of light and shade – the underlying darkness leavened by occasional humour and some mild but deliciously macabre horror around the death-bed and embalming scenes. The final chapter (which I won’t detail) showcases all Kalfus’ sparkling originality in storytelling, finding a unique way to show the reader how propaganda continued to be used to re-create the foundational myths to suit the requirements of different leaders of the USSR and beyond, as the twentieth century advanced.

I recommend it to anyone who has been fascinated by the recent corruption of truth by all sides in contemporary events on both sides of the Atlantic, or by the intervention of Russian propaganda in Western affairs. But more than that, I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys an excellent story, excellently told.

*Actually, this isn’t mere coincidence. It was partly reading Kalfus’ short story collection Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies that initially sparked my interest in learning more about the period, and I’ve been saving this one as a reward to myself for all the mammoth history-reading I’ve done.

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The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

Detecting the Detection Club…

😀 😀 😀 😀

During the Golden Age of crime fiction in Britain – between the two world wars – some of the leading authors got together to form the Detection Club, an organisation that’s still going strong today. At the time of writing this book, Martin Edwards had been elected to membership and was the archivist of the club, although he has since become President, following in the prestigious footsteps of such luminaries as GK Chesterton, Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and, more recently, HRF Keating and Simon Brett.

Although the Club was largely social in nature, Edwards sets out to show how the interactions of its members helped to define the style and direction of detective fiction in these early years. He suggests that in fact the existence of the club may be part of the reason that the Golden Age style of detective fiction lasted longer in Britain than elsewhere. Membership was by election only, so that existing members decided which writers could get in, and, as a result, exerted considerable control over which types of book were highly regarded within the community. Over the years several of the original members had a go at defining the “rules” of detective fiction, usually half-jokingly, but clearly indicating their own opinion of what fell within the definition.

Ruler: Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on, nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Do you solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Do you promise to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics; and utterly and forever to forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Will you honour the King’s English?
Candidate: I will.

Extract from the initiation ritual for the Detection Club in the Thirties.

The book is clearly very well researched – not an easy task since apparently many of the records of the Club were lost during the years of WW2. It’s written in what I’ve come to see as Edwards’ usual style for non-fiction – conversational, feeling as if one were having a discussion with a knowledgeable friend – and is therefore easy and enjoyable to read. It covers a lot of the same ground that he covers in his introductions to the various British Library Crime Classics and in his most recent The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Novels. By their nature, those other books force a structure on the way he gives information. In contrast, this one struck me as much looser in structure, often going off at tangents – one chapter, for example, starts with Agatha Christie meeting her second husband, then goes on to talk about séances in various writers’ work, then ends up with a discussion on the Depression and the formation of the National Government! Personally, I enjoyed the structured style of The Story of Classic Crime more, but I think this is very much down to reader preference.

Detection Club Dinner 1932

Where this book differs is by going much more deeply into the personal lives of the various authors who were members of the Club during the Golden Age – Sayers, Christie, Berkeley, the Coles, et al. I’ve said this before, but I’m not keen on knowing a lot about the authors whose books I enjoy since, if I end up not liking them on a personal basis, it can affect my enjoyment of their books. There were undoubtedly aspects of this that I found verged on the intrusive – tales of secret love affairs, unacknowledged illegitimate children, etc. But for the most part, Edwards is warm and affectionate towards his subjects, so there’s no feeling of a hatchet job being done on any of them. Edwards also shows how these hidden episodes of their lives may have influenced their writing, which I suppose is a justification for revealing things they tried hard to keep private while they were alive. (Do I sound somewhat disapprovingly judgemental there? I tried hard not to, but I think I failed…)

Two important Club members – Dorothy L Sayers and Eric the Skull.

To a degree, the book follows a linear timeline although with a lot of digressions. Edwards talks informatively about how detective fiction was influenced by current events, such as the Depression of the ’30s, or the rise of the various dictatorships in the pre-WW2 years. He also discusses and rather argues against the idea that Golden Age crime fiction was culturally snobbish – I disagree – but suggests that it was often intellectually snobbish – I agree. I do find that just occasionally Edwards comes over as somewhat dogmatic in his opinions – he has a tendency to be a little dismissive about anyone who holds a different point of view. He also clearly has favourites amongst the authors – Sayers is mentioned more often than everyone else put together, I suspect! But that all adds to the personal, conversational feel of the book. I’m sure if I knew anything like enough to write a similar book, Christie would appear just as often.

Martin Edwards (left) taking over from past President, Simon Brett, 2015

Overall, then, an enjoyable and informative read, maybe more geared towards people who enjoy personal biographies of their favourite authors, but with plenty of stuff about the history of the crime novel for the rest of us. And because there’s quite a lot of crossover between this and The Story of Classic Crime, they could easily be read either as companion pieces, or the reader could select the style that would most suit – more biographical about the authors in this one, more concentration on the books in the other.

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Six Degrees of Separation – From Golden to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before…

This month’s starting book is Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. I haven’t read it but the blurb tells me…

In Memoirs of a Geisha, we enter a world where appearances are paramount; where a girl’s virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder; where women are trained to beguile the most powerful men; and where love is scorned as illusion. It is a unique and triumphant work of fiction—at once romantic, erotic, suspenseful—and completely unforgettable.

The life of a Japanese Geisha shares similarities with that of the Chinese courtesan, which made me think of…

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan. Violet Minturn is the half-Chinese daughter of an American woman, owner of a high-class courtesan house in Shanghai in the early 20th century. As a young teenager, she is separated from her mother and sold into a courtesan house, and the story follows her trials and tribulations through her life into middle-age. I found it a patchy read overall, but the descriptions of the courtesan traditions have stayed with me.

“The only problem with old men is that they die, sometimes suddenly. You may have one as your patron who gives you a handsome stipend. It’s a sad day when you learn his sons are burning incense for him at the family temple. You can be sure that his wife won’t be toddling over with your stipend in hand.”

Shanghai is also the venue for a yet to be published book, City of Devils by Paul French, which I’m eagerly anticipating because of how much I enjoyed his earlier book…

Midnight in Peking by Paul French – a fascinating story of a true-life crime committed in the last days of old Peking as the threat of invasion, war and revolution spread fear amongst the Chinese and foreign inhabitants of the city. Was Pamela Werner an innocent schoolgirl or an independent and rebellious young woman bent on sampling some of the excitements Peking could offer? Was she murdered by a maniac or by someone closer to home? French’s solution, when it comes, is as convincing as it is horrifying.

Schoolgirl… or sophisticate?

When I do a search, Peking gets only one other mention in my blog reviews, in the wonderfully prescient…

The Machine Stops by EM Forster. Written way back in 1909, Forster imagines a world where man has created a Machine to fulfil all his wants, and has now handed over control of life to the Machine. People sit in their individual rooms, never physically meeting other humans. All their needs are catered for at the touch of a button, and they communicate constantly with their thousands of friends through the Machine in short bursts, increasingly irritated by the interruptions of people contacting them, but still responding to those interruptions. Sounds amazingly familiar, doesn’t it? As does this quote from it…

Few travelled in these days, for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over. Rapid intercourse, from which the previous civilisation had hoped so much, had ended by defeating itself. What was the good of going to Peking when it was just like Shrewsbury? Why return to Shrewsbury when it would all be like Peking? Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul.

One reason for going to Shrewsbury might be to visit Brother Cadfael, a favourite of mine in both the books and the TV adaptation. I haven’t reviewed any of the books on the blog, but I have one on my TBR…

Brother Cadfael’s Penance by Ellis Peters. The Goodreads blurb tells me:

While Cadfael has bent Abbey rules, he has never broken his monastic vows–until now. Word has come to Shrewsbury of a treacherous act that has left 30 of Maud’s knights imprisoned. All have been ransomed except Cadfael’s secret son, Olivier. Conceived in Cadfael’s soldiering youth and unaware of his father’s identity, Olivier will die if he is not freed.

Cadfael’s soldiering youth took him to the Crusades in the Holy Lands, which includes the territories we now call Israel and Palestine. Which made me think of…

Losing Israel by Jasmine Donahaye. In this beautifully written and thoughtful book, the author, a British-born Jew, muses on her troubled relationship with the place she thinks of as ‘home’ – Israel. At the age of forty, Donahaye started a journey that led her to learn the other history of Israel – the one that talks about ethnic cleansing of the Arabs, that explains the refugee camps, that suggests that the Palestinian Arabs saw this land as home as much as the Jews, either of Palestine or from the diaspora, ever did, and had as much right to it. This book is the story of that journey, as she takes the reader through her gradual awakening to the full complexities of the history of this troubled region and her agonised process of reassessment of the country she still loves and feels inextricably drawn towards.

(Two sides to every story)

One of the things Donahaye talks about is the renaming of Arab villages after they had been cleared of their occupants, to give them Hebrew names and to, in some cases, suggest links back to the Biblical era. This reminds me of…

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. When John Ames learns he doesn’t have much longer to live, he takes up his pen to write to his young son, to tell him some of the things he would have liked to tell him in person as he grew up. As Ames writes, it is 1956, so his personal recollections take him back to the end of the previous century, but his knowledge of his family history allows him to go back a few decades further, to the Civil War and the struggle for the abolition of slavery. A beautifully written book, full of emotional truth.

Well, I can imagine him beyond the world, looking back at me with an amazement of realisation – “This is why we have lived this life!” There are a thousand, thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.

* * * * *

So Golden to Robinson, via courtesans, Shanghai, Peking, Shrewsbury, the Holy Lands and Biblical place names!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

Downfall (Joel Williams 4) by Margot Kinberg

Did he fall or was he pushed?

😀 😀 😀 😀

While playing truant from school, a teenage boy climbs the scaffolding on a nearby construction site, and falls to his death. The police investigate, but there are no suspicious circumstances and no apparent motive for anyone to have wanted to harm Curtis, so it’s filed as a tragic accident. Two years later, Joel Williams, ex-cop turned University professor, is carrying out research along with two colleagues into a for-profit organisation that provides schools for young people viewed as at-risk. This organisation, Second Chance, runs the school from which Curtis truanted that day. As Joel and his colleagues dig into the organisation’s records, they notice some odd discrepancies that start them wondering if there might have been more to Curtis’ death than had been thought…

I shall start with my usual disclaimer: regular visitors will be well aware that Margot and I are long-time blog buddies, so you will have to assume that there may be a level of bias in this review, but as always I shall try to be as honest as I can.

This is Joel Williams’ fourth outing, so his character is well established by now. His police background means he still has contacts on the force, so when he finds himself involved in investigations, his old colleagues are generally happy to have him help out. As a result, the books have a good mix of being part police procedural, part amateur detective, while still feeling realistic and credible. Joel is no maverick – he works with the police, handing over any information he finds promptly, and leaving the serving officers to carry out formal interviews, arrests, etc. Joel is also pleasingly normal, with a stable home life, and a job that he enjoys.

In this one, there are two connected strands. At the same time as Joel is researching Second Chance, another organisation is offering to make a substantial donation to the University of Tilton where he works, in return for being allowed to set up a permanent research facility on methods of providing services designed to keep troubled young people from ending up in jail. So we see Joel struggling to decide whether such organisations can really be run with the best interest of students at heart, or whether corners will be cut in pursuit of profit. His research into Second Chance and the events of the story will feed into his eventual decision whether to support the new initiative. I found this aspect of the book particularly interesting because I worked for some years in a not dissimilar for-profit organisation and struggled with some of the same questions, though fortunately none of our pupils or colleagues were murdered!

Because of the research angle, the book takes us off campus this time, giving us a wider picture of Philadelphia with its mix of affluent and more deprived neighbourhoods. As Joel and his fellow researchers look into Second Chance, we get some insight into how organisations like this are funded and monitored, and Kinberg gives an even-handed picture of the benefits and potential pitfalls of these kind of semi-detached facilities. And she doesn’t lose sight of the fact that at the heart of the story is the tragic death of a young boy, allowing us to see the effects of this on his mother and friends.

Margot Kinberg

Another interesting story from Kinberg that, partly because of the age of the victim, felt a little darker to me than her last book. In truth, I had a good idea of whodunit from fairly early on since the pool of suspects isn’t large, but the interest of the book is more in watching how Joel and the police go about getting enough evidence to prove that Curtis was killed and to make a charge stick. One that has enough of the police procedural about it to appeal to fans of that genre, but with the added element of Joel’s amateur involvement allowing it to retain a feeling of the traditional mystery novel too. Recommended, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Joel’s investigations in future novels.

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Tuesday Terror! The King in Yellow by Robert W Chambers

Indescribable horror…

This is a short collection of four horror stories, all linked by a play called The King in Yellow which, we are told, reveals truths so awful that anyone who reads it will be driven to madness and despair. Sounds perfect for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Terror 2The King in Yellow
by Robert W Chambers

 

It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect.

The first thing to say is that it appears that Chambers’ The King in Yellow collection usually includes ten stories. For this new edition, Pushkin Press have extracted the four that are linked and omitted the other six, which reviews tell me are mostly of a different style.

Each story is very short, so the entire volume isn’t much more than novella length. In truth, I found it a rather disappointing collection, with only one story that stood out for me. The awful truths contained in the play of The King in Yellow are not revealed to the reader, so fortunately at least I was spared from being driven insane. But this technique of telling the reader that there is something so awful it can’t be described – a technique used frequently in weird fiction, particularly by my old friend Lovecraft – strikes me as a major cop-out.

…it set me thinking of what my architect’s books say about the custom in early times to consecrate the choir as soon as it was built, and that the nave, being finished sometimes half a century later, often did not get any blessing at all: I wondered idly if that had been the case at St. Barnabé, and whether something not usually supposed to be at home in a Christian church might have entered undetected and taken possession of the west gallery.

* * * * * * *

Here’s a brief idea of each of the four stories:

The Repairer of Reputations – a story told by a madman, driven mad obviously by having been foolish enough to read The King in Yellow. He is convinced he is entitled to become a King which involves him having to bump off the man he believes stands in his way. All very weird, but not really in a good way. I gave this one a generous 2½ stars.

The Mask – a sculptor, Boris, has discovered a solution that turns living things into the purest marble (including sweet little bunny rabbits – you have been warned, animal lovers!). Meantime Boris’s friend, the narrator, is in love with Genevieve, Boris’s wife. There’s lots of gothic drama, high, exalted love, madness and despair, mixed together with some nice horror and just a touch of weirdness. Good stuff! I gave this one 5 stars.

….Although I knew nothing of chemistry, I listened fascinated. He picked up an Easter lily which Geneviève had brought that morning from Notre Dame, and dropped it into the basin. Instantly the liquid lost its crystalline clearness. For a second the lily was enveloped in a milk-white foam, which disappeared, leaving the fluid opalescent. Changing tints of orange and crimson played over the surface, and then what seemed to be a ray of pure sunlight struck through from the bottom where the lily was resting. At the same instant he plunged his hand into the basin and drew out the flower. “There is no danger,” he explained, “if you choose the right moment. That golden ray is the signal.”
….He held the lily toward me, and I took it in my hand. It had turned to stone, to the purest marble.
….“You see,” he said, “it is without a flaw. What sculptor could reproduce it?”
….The marble was white as snow, but in its depths the veins of the lily were tinged with palest azure, and a faint flush lingered deep in its heart.

In the Court of the Dragon – a man goes to church just after reading The King in Yellow. He becomes obsessed by the organist – a dark figure who keeps appearing wherever he goes. Is he paranoid, driven to madness by the play? Or is there a more sinister reason behind the organist’s appearances? Hmm – I found this OK-ish, but nothing special, and gave it just 3 stars.

The Yellow Sign – An artist and his model seem to be sharing a common nightmare about the artist being in a coffin in a hearse. Needless to say, they’ve both read The King in Yellow, thus allowing evil and madness into their lives. This one has some quite good horror aspects, though, and a nice sense of creepiness to it. I gave it 3½ stars.

“Do you think I could forget that face?” she murmured. “Three times I saw the hearse pass below my window, and every time the driver turned and looked up at me. Oh, his face was so white and – and soft? It looked dead – it looked as if it had been dead a long time.”

* * * * * * *

So a mixed bag. The question is – would I recommend it? In truth, not for the quality of the stories themselves on the whole, but I’m led to believe these are considered to have been influential on Lovecraft and others, and are often referenced by later writers, so I guess I’d recommend them to people who are interested in the development of weird fiction.

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀

The porpy doesn’t understand why people would find yellow scary…

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

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Brother by David Chariandy

The failure of the dream…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A young man goes to meet an old friend who is returning to visit the neighbourhood where she grew up and he still lives. Aisha’s visit prompts Michael to think back to his childhood and teen years in the 1980s, when he and his older brother Francis were being brought up by their mother, an immigrant to Canada from Trinidad whose husband had deserted her when the boys were young. She is strict with the boys, with the usual immigrant dream that they will make successful lives in this society that is new to her. But she has to struggle hard to make ends meet, working several jobs, often having to leave the boys alone and usually exhausted when she finally gets home. So the boys, good at heart, have too many opportunities to drift into the ‘wrong’ crowd. When they are caught up in an incident of street violence, it begins a chain of events that will ultimately lead to tragedy.

This is a short book with no unnecessary padding, and its brevity makes it all the more powerful. It’s a story of how the immigrant dream can go wrong, but it’s not overtly hammering polemics at the reader nor too heavily making a ‘point’. I found it eye-opening, though, because I’d never really thought of Canada as having the kind of immigrant neighbourhoods described so vividly in the book.

Some of our neighbours have memories of the events that began with the shootings that hot summer. But new people are always arriving in the Park. And they often come under challenging circumstances, from the Caribbean, from South Asia and Africa and the Middle East, from places like Jaffna and Mogadishu. For these newer neighbours, there is always a story connected to Mother and me, a story made all the more frightening through each inventive retelling among neighbours. It is a story, effectively vague, of a young man deeply “troubled” and of a younger brother carrying “history,” and of a mother showing now the creep of “madness.”

Chariandy brings the neighbourhood of Scarborough to life, showing it as a place where a constant influx of immigrants from different countries around the world first settle when they arrive in Canada, seeing their life there as a stage on the road to either them or their children one day making it in their new world and moving on to more desirable areas. The city of which the neighbourhood is a suburb is, I think, Toronto, but really it could be any big city, in almost any Western country. There is poverty here, both financial and of expectations, and there’s the violence and insecurity that usually goes with that; and the exploitation of these incomers as a ready supply of cheap and disposable labour by unscrupulous employers. But Chariandy also shows the kindness that can exist among people when they all face the same problems and share the same dreams.

David Chariandy

I found the portrait of the neighbourhood utterly believable, drawn without the exaggerated over-dramatisation that often infests books about the failure of the immigrant dream, making them feel like an unnuanced and often unfair condemnation of the host nation. Although this book centres on a tragedy, Chariandy also allows the reader to see hope – to believe that for some, the dream is indeed possible to attain; and this has a double effect – it stops the book from presenting a picture of unrelenting despair, and it makes the events even more tragic because they don’t feel as if they were inevitable.

There’s also a short section of the boys and their mother visiting Trinidad – her home, but a new country to them, full of relatives they’ve never met and a lifestyle that is as foreign to them as Canada is to their mother. Again beautifully done, Chariandy shows the freshness of the immigrant dream through the eyes of the Trinidadian relatives, who assume that the mother’s life in Canada is one of comfort and ease in comparison to their own, while the reader has seen the reality of constant days of struggle, hard, poorly-paid work and exhaustion.

We brushed our teeth at a pipe outdoors that offered only cold water. And trying to pee one last time before bed, I stepped on something hard but moving, an insect, prehistoric big it seemed to me, that clicked angrily and flapped away.
Francis and I lay down on our mat, but when the lights were turned off, we couldn’t sleep. Wild creatures called in the dark, and the air was filled with the hum of insects, louder than any traffic we heard at home. The living room window framed a full moon that shone like a cool white sun, and billions of stars, a universe we had never even imagined.

An excellent novel, insightful, beautifully written, and with some wonderfully believable characterisation. And happily, unlike too much Canadian literature, available in the UK! Highly recommended.

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

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The Long Arm of the Law edited by Martin Edwards

‘Allo! ‘Allo! ‘Allo! Wot’s going on ‘ere, then?

😀 😀 😀

Another of the British Library’s collection of vintage detective stories, this one takes us away from the amateur detective beloved of Golden Age authors and gives the downtrodden policeman* his place in the spotlight.

(*Yup, no female police officers, of course, in these older stories, so I’m not going to attempt to be pointlessly politically correct with lots of he/she-ing, etc.)

The book is informatively introduced by Martin Edwards as usual, plus he gives a little introduction to each story telling the reader a little about the author. He points out that although policemen were somewhat overshadowed by their amateur rivals, they were still there throughout the period, and not always as the simple stooge or sidekick.

The stories in these collections always tend to be variable in quality, and that’s the case in this one too, with several of the fifteen stories getting an individual rating of three stars (OK) or below from me. However, I also gave three stories four stars (liked it) while another four achieved the full five stars (loved it). Overall, that makes this one of the weaker collections for me, and I found I was having to plough through quite a lot of mediocre stuff to find the gems. Perhaps I’ve just read too many of these collections too close together, but my enthusiasm certainly wore a little thin halfway through this one.

There are fewer of the usual suspects among the authors, presumably because most of the well known ones who’ve shown up in previous collections concentrated on their gifted amateur ‘tecs. But Edgar Wallace is there, along with Freeman Wills Croft, Nicholas Blake and Christianna Brand, among others. There are several I haven’t come across before and one or two who I felt didn’t succeed quite as well in short form as in their novels (always bearing in mind I’m no expert and am comparing tiny sample sizes – often one story versus one novel) – ECR Lorac, for example, or Gil North.

Here’s a flavour of the stories I liked best:

The Man Who Married Too Often by Roy Vickers – an excellent “inverted” mystery where we know whodunit and the story revolves around how the police prove it. A fortune-hunting woman tricks a man into marriage only to discover he’s a bigamist when his wife shows up. Murder ensues. It turns neatly on a fair-play clue and a quirk of the law, and it’s perfectly possible for the reader to get the solution before it’s revealed. But I didn’t.

The Chief Witness by John Creasey – a story of secrets within families and their sometimes tragic consequences. A child lies in bed listening to his mother and father argue. Murder ensues. The motivation is a bit weak in this one, but the writing is good and it’s very well told, especially the opening with the child discovering his mother’s body. Plus I liked the policeman in this one – he’s one of those ones who cares about the people as much as the puzzle.

Old Mr Martin by Michael Gilbert – Old Mr Martin is a sweet-shop owner, much loved by generations of children to whom he often gives free sweeties. (No, no, it’s not what you’re thinking, I promise!) But even so, murder ensues. When he dies and his premises are sold, a body is found buried in the cellar. The police assume it must have been a previous tenant, because it couldn’t have been nice old Mr Martin. Could it? Again I liked the writing, and this one had an intriguing plot point based on how people sometimes disappeared without trace in the chaos of the wartime bombing of London.

Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill in the film version of Green for Danger

After the Event by Christianna Brand – easily the highlight of the collection for me, starring Inspector Cockrill whom I’d met before in Green for Danger. In this story, an old detective is recounting one of his past cases to a group of admiring listeners, but Inspector Cockrill keeps chipping in and stealing his thunder. During rehearsals for a stage production of Othello, murder ensues. Othello’s wife is strangled – that is to say, the wife of the actor playing Othello. The old detective charged someone for the crime but the accused got off. Cockrill then takes over to show where the old detective went wrong and to reveal who actually dunit. Lots of humour in this one, a nice plot with some good clues, and very well told.

So plenty here to interest vintage crime enthusiasts even if it wouldn’t be the first of these collections I would recommend to newcomers. (Capital Crimes, since you ask, or Miraculous Mysteries.)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

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TBR Thursday 155…

Episode 155…

The steady decline in the TBR has stalled temporarily. It’s jumped up 1 to 218, but I’m sure it will fall again soon…

Here are a few more that should drop off soon…

History

Courtesy of Weidenfeld & Nicolson. I found Nancy Goldstone’s earlier book The Rival Queens a highly readable and entertaining history, so I’m hoping for more of the same with this one, especially since I know nothing about any of these royal ladies…

The Blurb says: In a sweeping narrative encompassing political intrigue, illicit love affairs and even a murder mystery, Nancy Goldstone tells the riveting story of a queen who lost her throne, and of her four defiant daughters.

Elizabeth Stuart’s (1596-1662) marriage to a German count far below her rank was arranged with the understanding that her father, James I of England, would help his new son-in-law achieve the crown of Bohemia. The terrible betrayal of this promise would ruin ‘the Winter Queen’, as Elizabeth would forever be known, imperil the lives of those she loved and launch a war that would last thirty years.

Forced into exile, the Winter Queen found refuge for her growing family in Holland, where the glorious art and culture of the Dutch Golden Age formed the backdrop to her daughters’ education. The eldest, Princess Elizabeth (1618-80), counted the philosopher René Descartes as her closest friend. Louisa (1622-1709), whose lively manner would provoke heartache and scandal, was a gifted artist. Henrietta Maria (1626-51), the beauty of the family, would achieve the dynastic ambition of marrying into royalty, although at great cost. But it was the youngest, Sophia (1630-1714), a heroine in the tradition of Jane Austen, with a ready wit and strength of character, who would fulfil the promise of her great-grandmother Mary, Queen of Scots, a legacy which endures to this day.

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Science Fiction

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Last of the five HG Wells science fiction blockbusters in the OWC catalogue, this is another I have never read before. If it’s halfway as good as the other four, I’m in for a treat…

The Blurb says: One night in the depths of winter, a bizarre and sinister stranger wrapped in bandages and eccentric clothing arrives in a remote English village. His peculiar, secretive activities in the room he rents spook the locals. Speculation about his identity becomes horror and disbelief when the villagers discover that, beneath his disguise, he is invisible.

Griffin, as the man is called, is an embittered scientist who is determined to exploit his extraordinary gifts, developed in the course of brutal self-experimentation, in order to conduct a Reign of Terror on the sleepy inhabitants of England. As the police close in on him, he becomes ever more desperate and violent.

In this pioneering novella, subtitled “A Grotesque Romance”, Wells combines comedy, both farcical and satirical, and tragedy–to superbly unsettling effect. Since its publication in 1897, The Invisible Man has haunted not only popular culture (in particular cinema) but also the greatest and most experimental novels of the twentieth century.

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Fiction

The last scheduled book for my Russian Revolution Challenge. I freely admit my enthusiasm for this one has worn off considerably, purely because I feel I’ve reached a surfeit of massive descriptions of the Revolution now. However, it is considered to be a great classic, so I’ll have a go, and if I can’t take it, it can go back on the shelf for a couple of years till I get back in the mood…

The Blurb says: The epic novel of love, war and revolution from Mikhail Sholokhov, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

An extraordinary Russian masterpiece, And Quiet Flows the Don follows the turbulent fortunes of the Cossack people through peace, war and revolution – among them the proud and rebellious Gregor Melekhov, who struggles to be with the woman he loves as his country is torn apart. Borne of Mikhail Sholokhov’s own early life in the lands of the Cossacks by the river Don, it is a searing portrait of a nation swept up in conflict, with all the tragic choices it brings.

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Crime

The constant drip, drip, drip of blog reviews praising Ann Cleeves has finally worn me down, so it’s time to pluck this one from where it’s been hiding for three years in the depths of the TBR and shove it onto the top of the pile…

The Blurb says: Raven Black is the first book in Ann Cleeves’ Shetland series – filmed as the major BBC1 drama starring Douglas Henshall, Shetland.

It is a cold January morning and Shetland lies buried beneath a deep layer of snow. Trudging home, Fran Hunter’s eye is drawn to a vivid splash of colour on the white ground, ravens circling above. It is the strangled body of her teenage neighbour Catherine Ross. As Fran opens her mouth to scream, the ravens continue their deadly dance . . .

The locals on the quiet island stubbornly focus their gaze on one man – loner and simpleton Magnus Tait. But when police insist on opening out the investigation a veil of suspicion and fear is thrown over the entire community. For the first time in years, Catherine’s neighbours nervously lock their doors, whilst a killer lives on in their midst.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon.

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

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Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas

Crème de la crème…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Shona McMonagle works in an Edinburgh library, putting to good use the excellent education she received at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls. Woe betide anyone who requests a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, though – That Book, as Shona calls it, which she believes so misrepresented all that the School stood for. Being a middle-aged woman of steady nerves and common sense, Shona takes it in her stride when the supposedly long-dead Miss Blaine shows up in the library one day. Miss Blaine is not dead, however – she is a time-traveller, and wants to recruit Shona to her elite team of people who travel through time on missions to sort out problems. Soon Shona finds herself transported back to Russia, sometime in the early 19th century, where she believes her task is to save young Lidia Ivanovna from marriage to an elderly general, and instead make sure she marries the super gorgeous and charming Sasha. But, despite her encyclopaedic knowledge of history, her multilingual abilities, and her skill in martial arts, sometimes Shona gets things wrong…

….“Yes,” I said, “every single Blainer is the crème de la crème by virtue of our outstanding education. But a depraved novelist claimed that this epithet applied only to a small coterie, the pupils of one particular teacher. And in a salacious misrepresentation of our beloved school and its irreproachable staff, she portrayed that teacher as a promiscuous adulteress who was prepared to prostitute her pupils. Pupils whose prepubescent sexual fantasises she described in sordid detail.”
….I had to clutch a nearby gilt salon chair for support, and to let my pulse slow down. I pride myself on my self-control, but this is a wound that will never heal.
….A lady sitting nearby leaned forward eagerly: “Please, Shona Fergusovna, may we have the name of this book and its author? In order that we may avoid it, of course.”

Well, this is a total hoot! Olga Wojtas has created a wonderful character in the astonishingly talented but oddly myopic Shona, a woman who can do just about anything but fails to see the blindingly obvious even when it’s right under her nose. The book cover mentions Wodehouse, and I see that comparison – Shona’s Russia has the same unreal quality as Wodehouse’s England, though not nearly as idyllic, and there’s no doubt the book had me laughing as much as Wodehouse does. But I’d be more tempted to compare it to Blackadder – based on ‘proper’ history grossly exaggerated for comic effect and with a central character who is somewhat apart from the others. The Russian aristocracy reminded me very much of Queenie and her courtiers, with their total disregard for their inferiors and their general level of silliness, while Shona’s chief serf Old Vatrushkin could easily have stood in for Baldrick. But Shona Fergusovna (as she calls herself in Russia) is much nicer than Blackadder – her ambition is to help everyone around her, even if they don’t particularly want to be helped.

….“If you’re not able to follow my instructions, then Lidia Ivanovna is not able to go to Madame Potapova’s party,” she said, yellow wool flowing from her needles. “Which is a pity, since I know she would enjoy wearing this fichu.”
….I sighed. “All right. I agree.”
….“You swear?”
….“Never. I believe it’s the sign of a limited vocabulary.”

The plot involves a whole host of ghastly deaths but it’s fine, because nobody cares and they mostly deserve it. One of the most fun aspects is that, unlike in most crime fiction where the point is for the reader to be way behind the fictional ‘tec and surprised by the solution, in this one, the reader sees what’s going on long, long before Shona catches on. Since we’re being told the story by Shona in first person (past tense), we are treated to her constant misinterpretations of the events around her. This could have been annoying if Shona had been less likeable, but it’s her desire to see the best in people and her kindness that lead her astray time and again, plus she’s very funny, sometimes even intentionally. She’s also a feisty feminist, who can’t help trying to spread political correctness everywhere she goes, much to the utter bafflement of everyone she meets, who seem to think their society is fine the way it is. It’s beautifully done – Wojtas manages to make fun of non-political correctness and political correctness at one and the same time.

….“We’ll start with a Dashing White Sergeant,” I told them…
As I played, the other musicians gamely following my lead, I called out clear, simple instructions for dancing the reel. “Forward, back, forward! Grab an arm! Twizzle! Hoppity-hop!”
….But despite the precision of my directions, it was a catastrophe. The dancers careered into one another, crashing into tables and chairs, smashing glasses, knocking over footmen. Then came an ominous commotion at the far end of the ballroom, and a shriek of “Saints in heaven! Save him!”

Olga Wojtas

Then there’s the Scottishness – such joy! So many Scottish writers abandon their Scottishness, understandably, so that their books can appeal to a wider audience. I sympathise, even though it annoys me. Wojtas instead makes a feature of it, and does so brilliantly. There’s no dialect at all that would make it hard for non-Scots to read, but lots of specifically Scottish references and figures of speech that had me howling. Any book that includes a reference to Jimmy Logan, a John Knox joke, a running gag on Jock Tamson and his bairns, and more than one side-swipe at the Glasgow-Edinburgh rivalry will work for me! But it will also work for non-Scots, because Wojtas lightly provides just enough information to explain the references, so that the jokes still deliver.

Great fun! I hope Wojtas is working hard on the follow-up because I really don’t want to wait too long to meet up with Shona again…

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

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The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

God’s chosen few…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When George Colwan, Laird of Dalcastle, takes a much younger bride, the marriage is doomed from the beginning. The Laird is a fun-loving, hard-drinking, party animal – the bride, Rabina, holds extreme religious views of the Calvinist variety. She despises him; he is disappointed in her. Remarkably, despite this, they manage to produce two sons. The first, George, will grow up to be the apple of his father’s eye. The younger, Robert, bears an uncanny resemblance to Rabina’s close friend and spiritual adviser, Reverend Wringhim. The Laird rejects him and Robert is brought up as a ward of Reverend Wringhim, who indoctrinates him in the antinomian sect which believes that some people – the elect, or justified – are predestined to be saved by God, while everyone else will burn in hell. This is a satire on the idea of predestination, an examination of the origins of the sectarianism which still disfigures Scotland today, a tale of sibling rivalry, a story of madness, murder and the devil. And surprisingly, it’s also full of humour…

It’s a historical novel: first published in 1824, it’s set more than a century earlier, between 1687 and 1715, roughly – or from the Glorious Revolution that saw the final downfall of the Stuarts, through the parliamentary Union between Scotland and England, and on towards the Jacobite rebellions. I’m reasonably familiar with this period of history on a fairly superficial level, but I was nevertheless glad to be reading a book with explanatory notes, and would suggest that’s essential for anyone who doesn’t know the background to the religious and political situation in Scotland at that time. Not that the book gets at all bogged down in any of these subjects, but the author assumes the reader’s familiarity with them, so doesn’t explain them as he goes along. My Oxford World’s Classics edition provides concise background information – enough to allow the reader to understand the references without feeling that s/he’s reading a history book – and a glossary and notes which explain any unfamiliar terms or allusions. The informative introduction, by Ian Duncan, Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, sets the book in its historical and literary context, and provides some biographical information on the author.

Portrait of James Hogg by Sir John Watson Gordon

The story is told in two main parts, plus a short epilogue. The second part is the memoir and confession referred to in the title. The first is written by “the Editor” who, before presenting the reader with the memoir, tells what he has managed to learn of the actual events. This means we see the same story twice, allowing us to judge for ourself how much we can rely on the sinner’s account. The third part wraps the story up in the author’s present day and is unfortunately full of references to real people who were doubtless recognisable at the time but who have faded into obscurity since, so that some of the humour of this section is rather lost now.

The justified sinner of the title is the younger brother, Robert. Abandoned by the man the law says is his father, and subjected to the religious fanaticism of his guardian and his mother, it’s perhaps not surprising that the boy grows up to be somewhat twisted and jealous of his elder brother, who seems to have a golden life. But Robert’s problems really begin when Reverend Wringhim informs him that God has decided Robert should be one of the elect, predestined for salvation. The question the book satirises is – if one is predestined for salvation, does that mean one can sin free of consequences? In fact, is it possible for the elect to sin at all or, by virtue of their exalted status, do things that would be sinful if done by one of the damned cease to be sins when done by one of the elect? The book is not an attack on religious faith in general, but Hogg has a lot of fun with all the gradations of extremity within this particularly elitist little piece of dogma. On a wider level, he quietly mocks the way all religious sects tend to cherry-pick the bits of dogma that suit their world view best, while ignoring or “interpreting” the inconvenient bits of Scripture they don’t like.

From that moment, I conceived it decreed, not that I should be a minister of the gospel, but a champion of it, to cut off the enemies of the Lord from the face of the earth; and I rejoiced in the commission, finding it more congenial to my nature to be cutting sinners off with the sword, than to be haranguing them from the pulpit, striving to produce an effect, which God, by his act of absolute predestination, had forever rendered impracticable. The more I pondered on these things, the more I saw of the folly and inconsistency of ministers, in spending their lives, striving and remonstrating with sinners, in order to do that which they had it not in their power to do. Seeing that God had from all eternity decided the fate of every individual that was to be born of woman, how vain was it in man to endeavour to save those whom their Maker had, by an unchangeable decree, doomed to destruction.

On the day that Robert is told he is one of the elect, he meets a mysterious young man under whose spell he gradually falls. This man convinces Robert that he cannot sin whatever he does, and gradually leads him down a path that will lead to murder – more than one! The structure makes this particularly intriguing. Robert’s own memoir can be seen as the confession of a madman and his tempter could easily be seen as a delusion. But the Editor’s account suggests that the tempter is a real being, seen and witnessed by many others in physical form. To modern eyes, the temptation to see him as a product of mental illness is almost irresistible, but I suspect readers at the time would have been in no doubt about his Satanic origins.

It all sounds terribly dark and serious, I know, but the satirical element keeps it entertaining. There’s a lot of humour in it, particularly in the comparison of the Editor’s portrayal of Robert as a snivelling coward and Robert’s own vastly more heroic portrayal of himself. There’s also some great horror as Robert gets sucked further and further into his tempter’s schemes. And a whole lot of fairly wry insight into Scottish society. The vast majority is written in standard English, but there’s some brilliantly executed dialect in the dialogue, where Hogg manages to differentiate between the various regions of Scotland, and rather shows that the “common” man has considerably more common sense than his social “betters.”

Book 24 of 90

I read this one reluctantly because I felt I ought to given its status as a Scottish classic, and ended up much to my own surprise enjoying it thoroughly. Hogg takes all these theological and societal aspects, and turns them into an entertaining mix of humour and horror, with some excellently satirical characterisation. Like so many others, it has suffered from the cultural domination exerted by England over the last few centuries, but it’s time these Scottish classics took their rightful place in the sun as equal partners in the great British literary tradition – highly recommended.

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

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TBR Thursday 154… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…

Well, that’s pretty fabulous! Although the owned books have increased, the wishlist is dropping, due in part to my rigorous monthly culling. And considering I added approximately twenty books all in one go last month for my latest Five x Five Challenge, then I think it’s spectacular that the overall figure has gone down!

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in December, and I’ve been travelling non-stop since then…

780px-Around_the_World_in_Eighty_Days_map

I didn’t go to any of the locations on the Main Journey, but I had lots of interesting detours. First, William Boyd took me to study chimps and humans in the Republic of the Congo in Brazzaville Beach. Then I headed off with Angela Savage to look at the seamier side of life in Thailand in Behind the Night Bazaar. I had a harrowing but wonderful journey across the Antarctic under the leadership of Ernest Shackleton, in Alfred Lansing’s Endurance. I thought a little trip to Wales would be nicely relaxing after that, till Arthur Machen showed me the ancient evils hidden behind every Welsh rock in The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories. Leonardo Padura took me on a mini-world trip in The Man Who Loved Dogs, on the trail of Trotsky’s assassin – we visited Cuba, the USSR, Mexico and Spain. After much thought, I’m declaring it for Spain, since I feel I learned most about that country from the book. Then off for a nice winter break in a resort town in New Zealand, only to get mixed up in a murder or two in Gordon Ell’s The Ice Shroud. And finally, murder reared its ugly head again when I fled to Gibraltar with Robert Daws for a bit of sun, sea and sand in The Rock. Phew! This travelling business isn’t very restful!

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

46 down, 34 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve read five from my Classics Club list this quarter, but so far only reviewed four. Still a little behind, but I’m gradually catching up…

  1. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens – 5 stars for this wonderful, typically Dickensian novel – one of his very best and a great way to start the year.
  2. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith – just 4 stars for this influential psychological thriller, which I didn’t enjoy quite as much as I enjoyed Hitchcock’s film of the book
  3. The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse – 5 glittering stars for this sparkling comedy from the master where, as always, Jeeves saves the day.
  4. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark – 5 stars for this novel in which Spark uses brilliantly barbed humour to skewer Edinburgh society of the between-the-wars years.

23 down, 67 to go!

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Reading the Russian Revolution

Getting very close to the end of this challenge now. This quarter, I’ve read three but so far only reviewed two. To see the full challenge, click here.

13. Rasputin: The Biography by Douglas Smith – I was a little disappointed in this one, which seemed to spend more time debunking myths about Rasputin than shedding light on the truth of the man and his life. Just 3 stars.

14. The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura –  a monumental novel about two men: Trotsky and the Spanish agent of Stalin’s USSR who assassinated him. Although it often reads more like a factual book than a fiction, the combination of great writing and thorough research make it a winner, and an essential read for anyone interested in the history of communism. 5 stars.

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

This quarter I’ve read five books for this one, but so far only reviewed four (yes, I’m way behind on reviews). To see the full challenge, click here.

11.  Quick Curtain by Alan Melville – this one claims to be “witty”, but wit is in the eye of the beholder. This beholder thought it was silly to the point of irritation and felt quite generous when she gave it 2 stars.

12.  The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace – a novel about a group of self-appointed vigilantes who set out to right what they see as wrongs. This one has a surprisingly contemporary plot about foreign political agitators and what to do about them. 4 stars.

13.  Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith – one of the first “psychological thrillers”, which looks at the effects of murder on the minds of the murderers. An essential read for its influential status. 4 stars.

14. Bats in the Belfry by ECR Lorac – an excellent early example of the police procedural, with realistic detection, a strong plot, some appealing characters, humour and a nice touch of horror. A well-deserved 5 stars.

14 down, 88 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Give me a break! I’ve only just started it…!

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A good quarter’s reading! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures, and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

The Rock (Sullivan and Broderick 1) by Robert Daws

Sun, sea, sand and murder…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Detective Sergeant Tamara Sullivan of the London Metropolitan Police steps outside the rules, she effectively stalls her career. Now she’s been sent on a three-month secondment to the Royal Gibraltar Police Force, which she sees at first as a form of punishment. But sun, sea, sand and friendly colleagues soon make her feel that as punishments go, this one could be worse. Meantime, two motorcycle cops chasing a thief are involved in a fatal accident in which a well-known and well-loved local resident dies. When one of the cops is later found hanged, the obvious conclusion is suicide, but Sullivan’s new boss, Chief Inspector Gus Broderick, isn’t so sure…

There seems to be a little spate of actors taking to writing crime novels at the moment and I’m always a little hesitant to read them if it’s an actor I like in case the books change how I feel about them. I’ve had a major soft spot for Robert Daws for many years. Partly this is because he’s a great character actor with a lovely sense of comic timing, and partly it’s because he tends to act in the kind of things I enjoy watching. He was a brilliant Tuppy Glossop in the Fry and Laurie version of Jeeves and Wooster. He starred with Brenda Blethyn in the wonderful comedy drama, Outside Edge, back in the ’90s. I even seem to remember him way back as one of the smaller roles in the fabulous Robin of Sherwood series in the ’80s. So I was a bit apprehensive to “meet” him in his new guise of crime writer.

However, I needn’t have worried! This is a very well written short novel that feels in many ways like the pilot episode of a TV series, so it didn’t surprise me to read in the afterword that it’s been optioned and is being developed for TV. The mystery in the book is a good one, with proper suspects and clues and a strong thriller ending. There’s a connected sub-plot about an old lady in a big house, with a dark secret in a room upstairs, which is beautifully creepy.

But as an introduction to a new series, the most important aspect is the development of the recurring characters – Sullivan, Broderick and their colleagues. And oh, how lovely that they’re all likeable, not too maverick, no known addiction problems, and get on well together as a team! That might make them sound dull, but they’re not – both Sullivan and Broderick will step over the line when necessary, but in the sense of taking risks to solve their case rather than in the casual beating up of suspects or being outrageously rude to superior officers, etc. More importantly, there’s an enjoyable vein of humour running through the book in the dialogue amongst the regulars, and Daws manages to make this sound very natural and realistic. Young DC Calbot, for instance, has a habit of saying things which could be mild innuendo but might just as easily be entirely innocent, and Sullivan’s inability to decide whether he’s doing it deliberately is fun.

Sullivan is single and reasonably happy to be so. Broderick was married, but now lives with his sister who helps him care for his younger daughter, a girl with Downs syndrome, an aspect of the story which Daws handles very well without any sense of mawkishness. Broderick is a bit grumpy on the surface and a little peeved to have been landed with this Met secondee with a dodgy reputation, but he soon begins to see that she’s a good officer and sets about bringing her fully into the team.

Robert Daws

Daws apparently knows Gibraltar well and he brings the setting to life. It’s an intriguing place, this bastion of Britishness set off the coast of Spain, and Daws makes a good start at showing its unique culture along with its natural beauty, though there’s plenty of room for further development of this as the series progresses.

Third person, past tense, very little swearing, hard-hitting crimes without being unnecessarily gruesome, interesting location – I thoroughly enjoyed this introduction to Sullivan and Broderick and am looking forward to reading the next in the series, The Poisoned Rock, soon. And, just in case any TV moguls are reading my blog, I think this would make an excellent TV series. Any chance of Mr Daws playing Broderick, please? Just askin’…

NB I won this and The Poisoned Rock from Urbane Press, via The Quiet Geordie‘s giveaway. Thanks again – much appreciated!

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Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….After another short rest, Curtis finally made it to the third floor. It hadn’t been easy, but he was fifteen – old enough to get all the way to the top if he’d wanted to. He finally reached the beam he’d been dreaming of sitting on – perched like a bird over the city street below. When he got to the beam, he slowly straightened up and prepared to walk to the end of it. He knew he could do it: all it took was concentration. Foot in front of foot. He focused carefully and started moving. Then he heard it again – that same noise he’d heard earlier. He stopped for a moment but didn’t hear anything. Still, he couldn’t help feeling like someone was watching him.
….All of a sudden, the world spun out of control as Curtis felt a hard push from behind and lost his balance. He scrabbled frantically to grab something – anything – to keep him from falling…

* * * * * * * * *

….Seated with Stuart and Brent Tarleton in the cool shade of the porch of Tara, her father’s plantation, that bright April afternoon of 1861, she made a pretty picture. Her new green flowered-muslin dress spread its twelve yards of billowing material over her hoops and exactly matched the flat-heeled green morocco slippers her father had recently brought her from Atlanta. The dress set off to perfection the seventeen-inch waist, the smallest in three counties, and the tightly fitting basque showed breasts well matured for her sixteen years. But for all the modesty of her spreading skirts, the demureness of hair netted smoothly into a chignon and the quietness of small white hands folded in her lap, her true self was poorly concealed. The green eyes in the carefully sweet face were turbulent, wilful, lusty with life, distinctly at variance with her decorous demeanor. Her manners had been imposed upon her by her mother’s gentle admonitions and the sterner discipline of her mammy; her eyes were her own.

* * * * * * * * *

….It would be easy to blame the Chernobyl accident on the failed communist system and the design flaws of Chernobyl-type reactors, implying that those problems belong to the past. But this confidence would be misplaced. The causes of the Chernobyl meltdown are very much in evidence today. Authoritarian rulers pursuing enhanced or great-power status – and eager to accelerate economic development and overcome energy and demographic crises, while paying lip service to ecological concerns – are more in evidence now than they were in 1986. Could the nuclear Armageddon called Chernobyl repeat itself? No one knows the answer to this question. But there is no doubt that a new Chernobyl-type disaster is more likely to happen if we do not learn the lessons of the one that has already occurred.

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….So we two poor terrestrial castaways, lost in that wild-growing moon jungle, crawled in terror before the sounds that had come upon us. We crawled, as it seemed, a long time before we saw either Selenite or mooncalf, though we heard the bellowing and gruntulous noises of these latter continually drawing nearer to us. We crawled through stony ravines, over snow slopes, amidst fungi that ripped like thin bladders at our thrust, emitting a watery humour, over a perfect pavement of things like puff-balls, and beneath interminable thickets of scrub. And ever more helplessly our eyes sought for our abandoned sphere. The noise of the mooncalves would at times be a vast flat calf-like sound, at times it rose to an amazed and wrathy bellowing, and again it would become a clogged bestial sound, as though these unseen creatures had sought to eat and bellow at the same time.

* * * * * * * * *

….“Yes,” I said, “every single Blainer is the crème de la crème by virtue of our outstanding education. But a depraved novelist claimed that this epithet applied only to a small coterie, the pupils of one particular teacher. And in a salacious misrepresentation of our beloved school and its irreproachable staff, she portrayed that teacher as a promiscuous adulteress who was prepared to prostitute her pupils. Pupils whose prepubescent sexual fantasises she described in sordid detail.”
….I had to clutch a nearby gilt salon chair for support, and to let my pulse slow down. I pride myself on my self-control, but this is a wound that will never heal.
….A lady sitting nearby leaned forward eagerly: “Please, Shona Fergusovna, may we have the name of this book and its author? In order that we may avoid it, of course.”

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Goodness, Truth and Beauty…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Miss Brodie is a teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in the years between the wars. As she repeatedly tells anyone who will listen, she is in her prime. The people she confides in most are a group of girls who were once in her class and whom she singled out as her girls – the Brodie set. Under cover of teaching them history, she instead tells them the story of her lost love, Hugh, who died in the First World War, and of the joys of being a woman in her prime. She would never marry, she declares, since she is too devoted to her girls. But that doesn’t mean she has to live the life of a nun…

The book gets off to an excellent start, introducing us first to the girls in the Brodie set. Spark plays around with time, taking us back to the girls’ first introduction to Miss Brodie as ten-year-olds, and then forwards to what feels like the present of the book, in the late ’30s when the girls are almost grown-up; and then forward again, often telling us the girls’ future as a way of shedding light on their personalities in the now. The time-shifting is cleverly done – the whole book sparkles with intelligence, in fact – giving layers of depth to what fundamentally is a rather slight little story of one of the many “surplus” women left single after the huge loss of young men in WW1.

Six years previously, Miss Brodie had led her new class into the garden for a history lesson underneath the big elm. On the way through the school corridors they passed the headmistress’s study. The door was wide open, the room was empty.
“Little girls,” said Miss Brodie, “come and observe this.”
They clustered round the open door while she pointed to a large poster pinned with drawing-pins on the opposite wall within the room. It depicted a man’s big face. Underneath were the words “Safety First.”
“This is Stanley Baldwin who got in as Prime Minister and got out again ere long,” said Miss Brodie. “Miss Mackay retains him on the wall because she believes in the slogan ‘Safety First.’ But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first. Follow me.”

Although the story may be slight, the characterisation of Miss Brodie is anything but – she is wonderfully realised as an unconventional woman battling against the rigid restrictions of prim and proper Edinburgh society, yearning for art and beauty in her life, longing for love, desperately needing the adulation both of men and of her girls. Her beauty and exotic behaviour bring her admiration from more than one man and lead her into the realms of scandal, endangering her necessary respectability and her career. But perhaps Miss Brodie’s real misfortune is that in the end she isn’t quite unconventional enough.

The wonderful Maggie Smith in her prime…

The writing is excellent, full of barbed humour but with dark undercurrents of repressed sexuality and warped morality. Spark skewers this Edinburgh society with its fixation on class, its soul-destroying respectability, still suffering from the blight of Calvin’s and Knox’s self-righteous, unforgiving Protestantism, obsessed by immorality and sin.

In fact, it was the religion of Calvin of which Sandy felt deprived, or rather a specified recognition of it. She desired this birthright; something definite to reject. It pervaded the place in proportion as it was unacknowledged. In some ways the most real and rooted people whom Sandy knew were Miss Gaunt and the Kerr sisters who made no evasions about their belief that God had planned for practically everybody before they were born a nasty surprise when they died. Later, when Sandy read John Calvin, she found that although popular conceptions of Calvinism were sometimes mistaken, in this particular there was no mistake, indeed it was but a mild understanding of the case, he having made it God’s pleasure to implant in certain people an erroneous sense of joy and salvation, so that their surprise at the end might be the nastier.

It would have been easy for Spark to make Miss Brodie a heroine, leading her girls out of the darkness of repression into the light of self-expression, which is how Miss Brodie herself would justify how she exerts her influence over them. But instead Spark makes Miss Brodie fatally flawed – narcissistic and self-obsessed; blinded by romanticism into admiration of the Fascist regimes springing up around Europe; willing to use the girls as surrogates to lead the life she wishes she could have. But even in her tiny realm, she doesn’t wield absolute power – as the girls mature, they begin to make choices for themselves. The irony is that this is what Miss Brodie has encouraged them to do, but in the full and erroneous expectation that they would make the choices she wanted them to. If Miss Brodie is a heroine, she is a tragic one. The reader is told from the beginning that one of her students will one day betray her.

The wonderful Muriel Spark in her prime…

And when that betrayal comes, the reader is left to decide whether it was deserved. Spark creates a wonderful murkiness around actions and motives that meant this reader could sympathise with both Miss Brodie and her betrayer, yet condemn them both at the same time. No-one is fully likeable, no-one’s motives are completely pure. Instead these women are entirely human, glorious in their complicatedness, selfish in their desires, trapped in their conventions, and ultimately, for some at least, doomed by their weaknesses.

A book that fully deserves its reputation as a Scottish classic – Miss Brodie is one of those literary characters who have become part of the national psyche. But though it says much about the Edinburgh of the period in which it’s set, its focus on the messy humanity of the characters prevents it from being restricted to that small sphere – these are people who could be met with anywhere. I look forward to reading more of Spark’s work – if it comes close to this in quality, I’m in for a treat. And meantime, if you haven’t already read this, then I recommend it wholeheartedly to you.

Book 23 of 90

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