The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett

Broadening the mind…

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Matthew Bramble, hypochondriac and charitable Welsh gentleman with a choleric temper and a humorously jaundiced view of life, takes his family on a journey round Britain seeking benefit to his health. As each member of the party writes letters to their friends we see the country and its regional customs through their eyes, meeting with some interesting and often eccentric characters, and being witness to some hilarious (and some not so hilarious) episodes along the way. Told entirely through letters, the introduction by Lewis M Knapp informs me it is “often regarded as the most successful epistolary novel in English”.

Matthew takes a grumpy view of life, especially in the beginning when his health is worrying him. A bachelor, he feels a little hard done by to have acquired a family – his maiden sister, Tabitha, who is desperate to throw off her spinster state, and two wards, Jery and Lydia, children of another sister now deceased. Despite his frequent grumbles about them all, though, he loves them and is mostly kind to them. The family are accompanied on their travels, of course, by servants. The maid, Win Jenkins, provides much of the comic relief – her letters full of misspellings and malapropisms, often ‘accidentally’ apt. Through her, we see the family from another angle, not always complimentary. Along the way, they pick up another servant, the eponymous Humphry Clinker, although it baffles me a bit why the book was given his name since I wouldn’t consider him one of the major characters.

Men dancing in a coffee house
All illustrations by Thomas Rowlandson courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Arts via Wikimedia Commons

Part picaresque, part travelogue, there’s not much in the way of a plot, although there’s a love story concerning Lydia that runs throughout and pulls the thing together to a degree. However, really it’s not setting out to tell a story – it’s an observation, often satirical, of life in England and Scotland in the second half of the eighteenth century.

This was a bit of a rollercoaster for me. I started off loving it, then it dipped badly to the point where I considered giving up, and then picked up again to a most enjoyable second half. As so often, especially with books from long ago, this is more to do with the reader than the book. It starts in the spa towns of England some years before our beloved Bath of Austen’s day, but still eminently recognisable. Then it moves to London where Smollett satirises the politics, politicians and literati of the day, most of whom I didn’t recognise even after checking who they were in the notes at the back, and I found this section intensely dull. However, the family then heads north, up through England and into Scotland where Smollett (a Scot, of course) discourses on habits, customs and the effects of the still relatively recent Union of Scotland and England. Naturally, I found this fascinating and fun since it’s a subject I am interested in and know reasonably well. I suspect other modern readers would find different parts entertaining and dull according to their own interests and knowledge.

Clinker preaching in Clerkenwell Prison

Some of the humour is quite crude, often dealing with bodily functions, about which Matthew the hypochondriac especially seems somewhat obsessed. Times were different too, of course, and some of what was apparently humorous back then seems rather cruel today. The women fall into two categories: young, desperately seeking romance, and foolish; or old, desperately seeking husbands, and foolish. I fear our Mr Smollett would today be called a misogynist, though I expect back then he was simply reflecting the prevalent world view.

However, there’s far more ‘good’ humour than bad. The three main correspondents are Matthew, Jery and Lydia, and they each see the world through the prism of their own age, experience and gender. Smollett is brilliant at creating individual voices for each, and maintaining them without a hitch. To Matthew, Bath is a dreadful place, full of riff-raff and the nouveau riche, and he is deeply concerned about the unsanitary conditions prevailing in the famous spas where people drink the waters for their health.

For my part, I detest it [Bath] so much, that I should not have been able to stay so long in the place, if I had not discovered some old friends, whose conversation alleviates my disgust. Going to the coffee-house one forenoon, I could not help contemplating the company, with equal surprise and compassion. We consisted of thirteen individuals: seven lamed by the gout, rheumatism, or palsy; three maimed by accident; and the rest either deaf or blind. One hobbled, another hopped, a third dragged his legs after him like a wounded snake, a fourth straddled betwixt a pair of long crutches, like the mummy of a felon hanging in chains; a fifth was bent into a horizontal position, like a mounted telescope, shoved in by a couple of chairmen; and a sixth was the bust of a man, set upright in a wheel machine, which the waiter moved from place to place.

To Jery, it’s a place where he socialises with his peers and talks horses. To Lydia, it’s an enchanted place of romance, with dancing and handsome young men galore. This three-way look at places continues throughout the journey and, as well as providing humour, gives a rounded picture of the attractions and downsides of the various places they stop at, while continuing to let us get to know each of the characters better. Tabby and Win write less often, and mostly about domestic matters for strictly humorous purposes, and if I recall correctly, Humphry doesn’t write at all, so everything we learn about him, we learn at second hand.

Tobias Smollett c. 1770
Artist unknown

Like most Scottish authors following the Union, Smollett was writing primarily for an English audience and, as Scott sometimes does at a later period, he uses the Scottish section to try to explain Scottish culture to them, musing on customs, accents, the legal system, the differences between Lowland and Highland culture, and so on. He introduces another Scottish character later in the book, whose discussions with Matthew enable Smollett to show both sides of the Union – the pros and cons – and this is remarkably interesting given our current national obsession with the same vexed questions three centuries on. He touches briefly on the already-developing cultural dominance of England and English in language and literature, a thing Matthew seems to see as positive, leaving me wondering if Smollett did too. The book itself is written almost entirely in standard English of the time, so should present no major problems for a patient modern reader.

Humphry Clinker smashing a dish at dinner

I’ve hummed and hawed over my rating for this one. I was highly entertained by bits and bored to tears by other bits. But because I’m reading it as a Scottish classic and enjoyed the Scottish parts so much, in the end I’ve decided to dismiss the London section and the bawdier parts from my mind and give it the full five stars. And a definite recommendation, if for no other reason than to enjoy Win’s mangled language and observations of her “betters”…

DEAR MARY,

Sunders Macully, the Scotchman, who pushes directly for Vails, has promised to give it you into your own hand, and therefore I would not miss the opportunity to let you know as I am still in the land of the living: and yet I have been on the brink of the other world since I sent you my last letter. — We went by sea to another kingdom called Fife, and coming back, had like to have gone to pot in a storm. — What between the frite and sickness, I thought I should have brought my heart up; even Mr Clinker was not his own man for eight and forty hours after we got ashore. It was well for some folks that we scaped drownding; for mistress was very frexious, and seemed but indifferently prepared for a change; but, thank God, she was soon put in a better frame by the private exaltations of the reverend Mr Macrocodile.

Book 44 of 90

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

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Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by PG Wodehouse

Brouhaha at Brinkley…

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When Jeeves returns to the old homestead after a short holiday, imagine his horror on discovering that in his absence Bertie has taken the opportunity to grow a moustache! Not everyone shares his distaste for the facial hair, though. Florence Craye, for one, thinks it’s simply marvellous. In fact, so enthusiastic is she that her fiancé, the beefy Stilton Cheesewright, develops a strong desire to break Bertie’s spine in four, or perhaps, five places. Only the thought that he has drawn Bertie in the Drones Club darts tournament and stands to win a hefty sum should Bertie triumph stays Stilton’s wrath. Bertie thinks it might be expedient however to retreat to Brinkley Court, Aunt Dahlia’s place, till the heat dies down, little knowing that he will soon find the place teeming with Florences, Stiltons, lovelorn playwrights, Liverpudlian newspaper magnates and Lord Sidcup, once known to all and sundry as the would-be dictator Roderick Spode. Will Jeeves overcome the coolness that has arisen over the matter of the moustache and rally round the young master in his hour of need? Or will Bertie find himself at last facing the long walk down the aisle into the dreaded state of matrimony…?

Wodehouse is on top form in this one, and I enjoyed meeting up with Florence Craye again – always one of my favourite Wooster girlfriends. She’s less drippy than Madeleine Bassett, less haughty than Honoria Glossop and less troublesome than Stiffy Byng. Were it not for the fact that she writes highbrow literary novels, I feel she would be a good match for our Bertie, but the poor man really prefers to curl up with The Mystery of the Pink Crayfish or suchlike.

I like B. Wooster the way he is. Lay off him, I say. Don’t try to change him, or you may lose the flavour. Even when we were merely affianced, I recalled, this woman had dashed the mystery thriller from my hand, instructing me to read instead a perfectly frightful thing by a bird called Tolstoy. At the thought of what horrors might ensue after the clergyman had done his stuff and she had a legal right to bring my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave, the imagination boggled.

Stilton’s jealousy gets a proper workout since, not only does he fear that Florence still has feelings for her ex-fiancé Bertie, but Percy Gorringe, a playwright who is converting Florence’s novel for the stage, seems to be mooning around after her rather a lot too.

PG Wodehouse

Meantime, Aunt Dahlia is trying to offload her magazine Milady’s Boudoir to a Liverpudlian newspaper magnate, Mr Trotter, so he and his social-climbing wife are in residence too as she hopes the wonders of Anatole’s cooking will soften him up and get her a good price. But when Uncle Tom invites Spode to Brinkley specifically to check out the pearl necklace he recently purchased for her, Aunt Dahlia is aghast. She has pawned the necklace to keep the magazine afloat till she sells it, and the pearls she is wearing are a paste imitation. Only Jeeves can save the day!

“…the core of the cultured imitation can be discerned, as a rule merely by holding the cultured pearl up before a strong light. This is what I did in the matter of Mrs Travers’ necklace. I had no need of the endoscope.”
“The what?”
“Endoscope, sir. An instrument which enables one to peer into the cultured pearl’s interior and discern the core.”
I was conscious of a passing pang for the oyster world, feeling – and I think correctly – that life for these unfortunate bivalves must be one damn thing after another…

Jonathan Cecil

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Jonathan Cecil who does his usual marvellous job of creating distinct and appropriate voices for each character – in this one he had extra fun with the Liverpudlian accents. His Bertie is perfect, and I love his Aunt Dahlia – one hears the baying hounds and distant view-halloo of the Quorn and Pytchley Hunts ringing in her tones each time she speaks.

Great fun – there’s nothing quite like spending a few hours in the company of these old friends to bring the sunshine into the gloomiest autumn day.

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Broomsticks Over Flaxborough (Flaxborough Chronicles 7) by Colin Watson

Devilishly good…

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The Flaxborough Citizen tells the worthy people of the town that the Folklore Society’s revel to celebrate Roodmas was well attended. It sounds like it was a fun do, with a discussion of old traditions round a bonfire, followed by refreshments and dancing. But sometimes newspapers don’t tell the whole story…

Naked as on the day she was born, save for a double-looped string of amber beads and a pair of harlequin-framed spectacles, Mrs Flora Pentatuke, of 33 Partney Avenue, Flaxborough, leaped nimbly over the embers of the fire.

The next day, it is discovered one of the revellers, a promiscuous young lady by the name of Edna Hillyard, has gone missing, leaving only her car and her neatly folded clothes behind her. Inspector Purbright is at first inclined to think that she’s simply gone off for a bit of jiggery-pokery, but when the newspapers begin to print lurid reports that black magic and witchcraft have turned respectable little Flax into the Town of Fear, he realises he’ll have to take it all a bit more seriously. Especially when some of the town’s prominent citizens become the targets of witchly curses…

Of all twelve of the Flaxborough Chronicles, this is the one I love best. I think Watson peaked here, finding the perfect story with which to lampoon all his favourite targets at once. As always, he pulls aside the net curtains of respectability to let us glimpse the salacious shenanigans going on behind them. But his humour on the subject of sex is of the saucy seaside postcard variety – more “Ooh, you are awful!” than Fifty Shades of Grey. Class is as prevalent in Watson’s books as it is in British society, and he has a delicious lack of reverence for the town’s worthies as, indeed, does Inspector Purbright. It’s a joy to see him manipulating his Chief Constable, Mr Chubb – a man who finds it hard to accept that his social equals could possibly be up to any kind of skulduggery.

….Pook nodded at Miss Parkin’s sapience and looked again at the Citizen report while he drank some coffee and demolished the rest of the KreemiKrunch.
….“What’s a faggot-master?” he inquired.
….Mrs Gloss frowned. “If you must know, we generally have a little bonfire to brighten up our outdoor meetings, and Mr Cowdrey looks after it. He has had experience with the Scouts.”
….“I know,” Pook said, without looking up from the paper. He somehow made the acknowledgement sound like a notice of impending prosecution.

What makes this one stand out even more is the inclusion of the Lucillite campaign, complete with the Lucies – a group of girls going door-to-door as part of the drive to persuade the ladies of the houses to change their laundry detergent. First published in 1972, Watson ruthlessly lampoons the advertising campaigns of the day to persuade women that all their troubles could be solved by changing to a new brand of soap powder, thus enabling them to achieve an idyllic marriage by ensuring their husbands’ shirts are whiter than white. At the same time, he mercilessly mocks the kind of marketing lingo that was coming into vogue then (and still exists in some of our sadder companies – I speak from bitter experience!).

….“An ad-clens revolution. A turn round of the whole concept. Everything up to now has been slanted on women wanting to please men. But do they?”
….“Exactly. Do they? We’ve been hammering away for years on this whiteness thing. And why? Because Motivational Research said whiteness represented lost virginity.”
….“Every washday the woman got her hymen back so she could offer it again to her mate. Sure, sure. You remember the Vurj campaign, Richard? Always a shot of washwife handing the Vurj pack to man in white hubbyshirt.”
….“God! How off-beam can one get? Listen, this is how I see it, Gordon. Copulation equals children equals drudgegrudge. Right?”
….“Right.”

All the regulars are here – Purbright and Chubb, Sergeant Love of the innocent face and rather less innocent mind, and Miss Teatime, up to her delicately feminine armpits in Psychical Research. Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention, the plot’s excellent too. If I haven’t persuaded you to read any of the other books, I’ll take one last stab at letting Mr Watson persuade you to read this one…

….“Well,” said Gordon, “you’ve heard about industrial sabotage. Right?” He pointed at the prints, opened his mouth, shut it again, and began walking rapidly up and down. He stopped and pointed once more at the prints. “Right?”
….“The lady with the very odd eyes,” Miss Teatime began.
….“Agent,” snapped Gordon. “From P and Q probably. Or C and H. KGB even.”
….Miss Teatime looked shocked. “The Russians?”
….“Kleen-Gear Biological. Do I have to spell it out for you?”

Fabulous!

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

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Sinister Dexter (PorterGirl 3) by Lucy Brazier

Tea-bag crisis strikes Old College!

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Things have got very dark indeed in Old College since we last visited. The new Bursar, Professor Dexter Sinistrov, whom we last met while he was engaged in nefarious goings-on in the neighbouring college, has now settled into his role. His first priority has been to cut the catering budget, leading to a serious shortage of biscuits in the Porters Lodge – and they’re down to their last three tea-bags! This tragedy, along with the small matter of two corpses being found at the bottom of the garden, means our beloved Deputy Head Porter has her hands full. Especially since The Dean seems to think the best way to solve the crime would be for him to dress up as Zorro, Head Porter is busily leading a double life online, and Porter is becoming ever more romantically involved with the local police sergeant. Mind you, Deputy Head Porter herself doesn’t seem totally immune to the charms of DCI Thompson…

….“Oh, you’re a porter, are you?” Professor Palmer seats himself and leans over, perilously close to my breakfast. I place a defensive forearm around the plate. “You’re rather pretty to be carrying bags, don’t you think?”
….It takes every ounce of temperance to refrain from stabbing him in the face with my fork. Had it not already got bacon on it, I’m afraid this would have very likely been the outcome.
….“Porters,” I emphasise the upper-case P through gritted teeth, “are not the carriers of bags, but the keepers of keys.”

I shall start with my usual disclaimer – I’ve been blog buddies with Lucy for years now, so you may have to assume that I’m biased…

This series has been loads of fun since the beginning, when it started out as a serialisation on Lucy’s blog. The first book, First Lady of the Keys, (previously titled Secret Diary of PorterGirl), was taken directly from the blog and occasionally showed its origins by being a bit loose in structure perhaps, especially in the early chapters. But the second book, The Vanishing Lord, and this one are both much tighter and better plotted. There is a running story arc in the background so the books are very definitely meant to be read in order. In fact, the opening of this one contains lots of spoilers for the earlier books.

With this third book, I feel Lucy has really taken a step up in terms of plotting, giving this one a distinct story of its own as well as progressing the background story. A young student and his boyfriend are found dead in each others arms in the College gardens, with no visible signs of how they died. DCI Thomson and his team carry out the official investigation, while The Dean and his team carry out an unofficial one. In the background, the usual machinations of the Fellowship of Old College continue, with suggestions that the Vicious Circle, a secret society within the College who mete out their own form of vengeance against anyone who they feel endangers college tradition, might be back in operation. The mysterious and menacing Professor Sinistrov is acting suspiciously, but is he part of the Vicious Circle? Or, as The Dean suspects, a Russian spy? Or does he have a secret agenda of his own? Or is he simply anti-biscuit? No-one can be sure, but if Deputy Head Porter doesn’t get a decent cup of tea soon, there’ll be ructions…

….“I think it’s fair to say that we are of the opinion that Maurinio and his rugged companion were engaged in a personal relationship?”
….The Dean’s approach to the subject matter is amusing. Which is why what he says next is all the more surprising.
….“I would have made an excellent homosexual, Deputy Head Porter” he continues, wistfully. “I’ve always had above average good looks and an unusually superior sense of style.”
….“Yes” I say, tentatively. “I think there is somewhat more to it than that, Sir.” But he isn’t listening. He has found a crusted stain on the hem of his jumper and is scratching at it furiously.

Lucy Brazier

The story is only part of the fun of these books though. Mostly it’s about the quirky bunch of characters Lucy has created and the strange and esoteric life of this ancient institution based, not altogether exaggeratedly, on one of our real much-revered universities. The Dean continues to be at the centre of most of the daily mayhem, while Head Porter’s character is gradually deepening as we learn more about his life outside the college. While totally loyal to the College and her colleagues, Deputy Head Porter observes them with an objective and humorous eye, and continues to try to get everyone to behave a little more sensibly – a hopeless task, I fear! As always, there are some set-piece comedy scenes – I’m proud to claim a tiny bit of credit for being part of the crowd of blog followers who forced Lucy to take her characters off to an open-mic night disguised as a struggling rock band!

Great fun! I’m even willing to overlook the fact that it’s written in my pet hate present tense. If you haven’t visited Old College yet, I heartily recommend you do so the very next time you need cheering up. But remember to read them in order! And Lucy, I hope you’re hard at work on the next one…

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

Crème de la crème…

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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 Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse

The Totleigh Towers Horror…

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Sir Watkyn Bassett’s country seat at Totleigh Towers is probably the last place in the world Bertie Wooster would choose to visit. In his role as magistrate, Sir Watkyn once fined Bertie five pounds for the crime of stealing a policeman’s helmet. Unfortunately Sir Watkyn has forgotten the details of the crime, and thinks Bertie is a habitual criminal whom he sent to jail. But when Bertie receives an anguished plea from his old pal Gussie Finknottle, he is horrified to learn that Madeline has broken off her engagement to the aforesaid newt-fancying Gussie. Madeline, regular readers will know, thinks Bertie loves her and is quite likely to decide to marry him unless he can find a way to patch things up between the sundered lovers. Add to this the fact that Aunt Dahlia wants him to steal a silver cow-creamer from Sir Watkyn, and it seems fate has decided that Bertie must enter the lion’s den. Fortunately Jeeves will be by his side…

This is one of the best of the Jeeves and Wooster books, filled with all the regulars and a plot that gets ever more convoluted until Jeeves manages to sort everything out for the young master in the end. Madeline is as soupy as ever, still thinking that each time a bunny rabbit sneezes a wee star is born. One can quite understand Bertie’s reluctance to enter into the blessed state of matrimony with her. Gussie is as hopeless as ever – not only has he managed to offend Madeline, but he’s lost a notebook in which he has carefully jotted down some stinging insults about his host and Roderick Spode, a man whom it’s unwise to annoy unless one likes having one’s spine tied in a knot. In the interval since we last saw him, Spode has become an aspiring dictator. His followers wear black shorts – unfortunately other dictators had already used black and brown shirts, so his choices were somewhat limited. And to top it all off, Stiffy Byng wants Bertie to steal another policeman’s helmet! Dark days, indeed!

The plots are only part of what makes Wodehouse so wonderful though – and he does have a tendency to recycle the main points, like the Gussie-Madeline break-up. It’s the humour and general silliness of it all that makes them such a joy to read, combined with the certain knowledge that everything will be all right in the end, thanks to Jeeves. And most of all, it’s the wonderful use of language…

He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.

It was a silver cow. But when I say ‘cow’, don’t go running away with the idea of some decent, self-respecting cudster such as you may observe loading grass into itself in the nearest meadow. This was a sinister, leering, Underworld sort of animal, the kind that would spit out of the side of its mouth for twopence.

I remembered something Jeeves had once called Gussie. “A sensitive plant, what?”
“Exactly. You know your Shelley, Bertie.”
“Oh, am I?”

“The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”

She laughed – a bit louder than I could have wished in my frail state of health, but then she is always a woman who tends to bring plaster falling from the ceiling when amused.

He was, as I had already been able to perceive, a breathtaking cove. About seven feet in height, and swathed in a plaid ulster which made him look about six feet across, he caught the eye and arrested it. It was as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment.

“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?'”
“The mood will pass, sir.”

I listened to the audiobook this time, narrated by Martin Jarvis. He does a great job, giving each person a distinctive voice well suited to his or her character. His Madeline in particular had me in hoots. It occurred to me that men “doing” Wodehouse women actually works rather better than when women act them, because they’re written very much from Bertie’s perspective and he’s baffled by them on the whole. A woman acting Madeline is never as funny as Bertie’s descriptions of her. I usually look out for Jonathan Cecil’s narrations of the Jeeves books, but Jarvis was just as good once I got used to his different style.

Altogether, great fun! You either ‘get’ Wodehouse’s humour or you don’t, and for those of us who do, there’s no greater pleasure than a visit to his world. I hope you’re one of the lucky ones too…

Book 22 of 90

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The Mystery of Briony Lodge by David Bagchi

Say nothing of the dog…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a client turns up at Baker Street, she is accidentally shown to 221d by mistake – the room upstairs from the famous consulting detective Sherlock Holmes. This room is occupied by J. Yes, that J. The one from Three Men in a Boat. He’s there that day with Harris and George, to say nothing of the dog, Montmorency. And when the lovely Miss Briony Lodge appeals for his help over some mysterious letters she’s been receiving, he’s so taken with her that he decides to play along with her belief that he is Holmes and investigate the mystery himself, with the rather dubious help of his friends.

So begins this mash-up pastiche of two of my favourite bookish delights of all time. When I was offered a copy of this my first impulse was to shudder violently and issue a haughty thanks but no thanks – regulars will know nothing is more guaranteed to make me froth at the mouth than people messing with my literary idols. However something made me glance at the ‘look inside’ feature on Amazon. The first line made me laugh out loud…

“To Montmorency she is always the woman.”

One good line doesn’t necessarily mean the whole thing will be good though, so I read on…

“Young men such as ourselves, with active minds (naturally I excuse you from this generalisation, George) and active bodies (forgive me, Harris, I don’t mean you, of course) do not need rest. Rest for us is the mere counterfeit of death. There will be time enough for rest when the Grim Reaper taps us on the shoulder and asks to see our ticket.”

This is followed by a delightfully silly argument between the three men on the subject of how many servants a knight of yore would have had as he went off to “try his valour against all manner of foe”

By now I was sold! And I’m happy to say that the entire book lives up to the promise of these first few pages. Bagchi clearly knows the originals inside out and loves them, and he replicates J.’s voice with impressive accuracy and warm affection. Holmes himself is an off-page presence, but there are zillions of references to the stories and it’s great fun trying to spot them all. I’m pretty sure Bagchi must also be a Wodehouse fan, because there are occasional touches of his kind of humour in there too.

The plot is a mash-up of several of the Holmes stories combined with a trip down the Thames to some of the places that appear in Three Men in a Boat. If I have a criticism, it’s that occasionally Bagchi veers too close to the original – such as in J.’s musings on the mysterious workings of the British railway system. But for the vast majority he achieves that difficult balance of staying true to the source while stamping his own originality on top, and the story all hangs together very well.

It’s mostly told by J. in the first person, but it turns out that by coincidence Holmes has sent Watson to follow a chap who happens to be involved in the mystery too (being deliberately vague here). So, in the manner of The Hound of the Baskervilles, we get to read Watson’s reports to Holmes along with extracts from his personal journal, and Bagchi has totally nailed Watson’s style too.

My dear Holmes,
Today’s proceedings have been as full of incident as we could have wished or feared. I only hope that my pen can do justice to the high drama of the day.

Deliciously, even the chapter headings match the style of the originals. Here’s Chapter 2, a J. chapter…

Of the power of female beauty upon the male brain—A decorated ceiling—On the supernatural abilities of dogs—The railway guide a threat to public morality—On the glorious freedom of God’s special creation, the locomotive—Harris has an idea—The moral degeneracy of the downstream man.

David Bagchi

It’s 155 pages – long enough to be satisfying without reaching the point of outstaying its welcome. I’ve said snootily in past rips of dreadful pastiches and follow-on novels that writers shouldn’t set themselves up for comparison with the greats unless the quality of their own writing is up to standard. Bagchi’s is – there are bits which, if taken out of context, I’m sure would fool most of us into thinking they had genuinely been penned by either Jerome or Conan Doyle. I enjoyed every minute of the couple of hours it took me to read, laughing out loud many times along the way. Highly recommended – a better cure for the blues than cocaine, liver pills or clumps on the side of the head…

Oh, and, Mr Bagchi… I think there’s plenty of room for a sequel…

NB This book was provided for review by the author.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Vanishing Lord (PorterGirl 2) by Lucy Brazier

Missing paintings and medieval rumpy-pumpy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In this second book, PorterGirl has settled in now at Old College and begun to understand some of the weird traditions. So when the famous portrait of the college’s founder Lord Layton disappears, she knows not to call the police – the college keeps its problems to itself. Unfortunately the police aren’t quite so au fait with the college’s rules, so when word leaks out, they come snooping around and soon begin to suspect that the wall of silence they’re being met with from the Dean and porters suggests they must know more about the alleged theft than they’re letting on. Meantime a mysterious man is spotted around the college – who is he? And why does Deputy Head Porter keep getting the feeling she’s being followed? And did the Master of neighbouring Hawkins College die a natural death or is he one in the long line of mysterious murders that afflict these ancient institutions? And, most importantly, can Deputy Head Porter manage to filch a few more giant cookies from Head of Catering?? A girl has to keep her strength up after all…

The PorterGirl stories originated as a blog in which Lucy fictionalised her real life experiences as the first female Deputy Head Porter at one of our most ancient colleges. One hopes she exaggerates quite a bit! Lucy is a long-time blog buddy of mine, so you will have to assume that I’m biased.

Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed this second outing and felt it was a significant step up in terms of structure and writing from the first. Knowing Lucy, I’m aware that following the initial issue of the first book she was signed up by a publisher and, as a result, this book has had a professional edit. One of my criticisms of The First Lady of the Keys (originally published as Secret Diary of PorterGirl) was that sometimes the bloggy nature of its origin showed through, with the early chapters reading more like rather loosely related journal entries before she got properly into her stride later in the book. This slight problem has been eliminated in the new book, so that it flows much better, with the humorous digressions arising out of the plot rather than impeding it.

This is not to suggest it has become sensible – I’d never accuse Lucy of that! The characters are just as quirky, the plot proudly struts far over the credibility line, the vocabulary is as grandiloquent as ever, and the humour takes priority.

Deputy Head Porter

The main characters are developed a bit more in this outing. Porter gets a bit of a love interest while Head Porter is behaving very mysteriously, leading to all kinds of suspicions as to what he might be up to. The Dean continues to cause mayhem wherever he goes, and seems to look to Deputy Head Porter to provide him with with a constant supply of mysteries for them to investigate – which in Old College isn’t too tricky since barely a day goes by without some poor academic keeling over under unexplained circumstances. There are some great humorous set pieces, like the drunken night in the Dean’s office – or, to be more specific, the resulting hangover the following day. Or the occasion when the Dean thinks it might be a good idea for them all to don fancy dress and invade the neighbouring college…

To add to the fun, Deputy Head Porter stumbles across an ancient diary kept by one of her earliest predecessors and we are treated to occasional extracts. The diary explains the origins of some of the traditions which have baffled Deputy Head Porter, but also tells us a good deal about the diarist’s complicated love-life, all in deliciously mock medieval language. We also find out a bit about the original Lord Layton, the man behind the portrait – a man who makes the Borgias seem quite cuddly.

Fie! Today hast been a wonder, I tellst thee. The wants of these educated gentlefolk taketh it out of a man. The Order of the Lesser Dragon hast invited other learned muggins to the College to work as tutors and run matters. They are naming themselves ‘The Fellowship’ and now I wonder about what the mynster said ere about them having the occult ways because since they arrived the morrow there hast been strange and terrible ceremonials in the chapel and they weren’t no ways of God I can tell thee that as I know well the ways of God, which can also be strange and terrible, but leastways there is the promyse of Heaven at the end of it and all you get at the end of College days is a fancye parchment with your name on it.

If I was being hypercritical (which, as you know, I am!) I’d mention that, just occasionally, the high-flown language which is a trademark of the books leads to words being used when they don’t quite mean what they’re being used to mean, which makes this pedant twitchy. And, viewing it as a standalone, I’d suggest the ending is perhaps a little anti-climactic. However in many respects this is a serial rather than a series, so there are plenty of hanging threads ready to be picked up and woven into the next volume.

All-in-all, a most enjoyable romp – the kind of book that brightens up a dull day. I hope Lucy is working hard on the next episode!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* * * * * * *

PS My apologies for suddenly disappearing and not responding to comments etc for the last few days. I had a mini domestic trauma, involving cat fight, emergency vet, stitches, etc – all’s well though. Tuppence is almost fully recovered, and my wounds should heal soon too – she really doesn’t like being put in a catbox!

And now I’m disappearing again…gotta support my boys…

See y’all in a couple of weeks! 😀

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse

Trouble at Totleigh Towers…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When told that Stiffy Byng requires his presence at Totleigh Towers to perform a little task for her, Bertie issues a strong nolle prosequi. This young menace to society, Stiffy, while undoubtedly easy on the eye, is well known for landing her friends in hot water up to their chins. Plus Totleigh Towers is the home of Sir Watkyn Bassett who, due to an unfortunate misunderstanding, is convinced that Bertie is a habitual thief. Only Jeeves’ brilliance in the past has prevented Bertie from serving time at His Majesty’s pleasure, and Bertie has no desire to risk another encounter with Sir Watkyn. But storm clouds are gathering. There is a rift in the lute of love between Madeline, daughter of Sir Watkyn, and Gussie Fink-Nottle, keeper of newts, over the issue of steak pies – Gussie would like to eat them while Madeline is insisting on him sticking to a vegetarian diet. In the past, Madeline has made it clear that, should she find it necessary to return Gussie to store, Bertie will be expected to fill the vacancy for prospective bridegroom. Madeline, as readers will recall, believes that every time a fairy sheds a tear, a wee bit star is born in the Milky Way, so one can readily understand why Bertie is so keen to see Madeline and Gussie reconciled. The only way to make sure of it is to go to Totleigh Towers after all…

….‘Jeeves,’ I said, ‘as always, you have found the way. I’ll wire Miss Bassett and ask if I can come, and I’ll wire Aunt Dahlia that I can’t give her lunch as I’m leaving town, and I’ll tell Stiffy that whatever she has in mind she gets no service and co-operation from me. Yes, Jeeves, you’ve hit it! I’ll go to Totleigh, though the flesh creeps at the prospect. Pop Bassett will be there, Spode will be there, Stiffy will be there, the dog Bartholomew will be there. It makes one wonder why so much fuss has been made about those half-a-league half-a-league half-a-league-onward bimbos who rode into the Valley of Death. They weren’t going to find Pop Bassett at the other end. Ah well, let us hope for the best.’
….‘The only course to pursue, sir.’
….‘Stiff upper lip, Jeeves, what?’
….‘Indubitably, sir. That, if I may say so, is the spirit.’

PG Wodehouse

This is one of Wodehouse’s later novels, written in 1963 when he was in his eighties. While it’s still a lot of fun with all of his trademark lightness and charm, it doesn’t really compare to the books he was writing at his peak. In fact, the plot is largely a re-hash of elements that have appeared in previous books – Stiffy and the favour, stealing objets d’art from Sir Watkyn, Spode threatening to break the neck of anyone who upsets Madeline, etc., – and Wodehouse frequently refers back to those earlier episodes, going over what happened in them with the pretext of bringing new readers up to date. Wodehouse always carried plot elements and jokes from book to book, but each time changing them enough so that they achieved a feeling of being both fresh and familiar at the same time, like variations on a theme – the ultimate comfort reading, in fact. But in this one it feels more like repetition than variation. I hesitate to use the word stale – Wodehouse could never be that – but certainly not straight from the oven. However, I suspect that might only be obvious to people who have a good familiarity with the earlier Jeeves books.

….She was heading for the piano, and something told me that it was her intention to sing old folk songs, a pastime to which, as I have indicated, she devoted not a little of her leisure. She was particularly given to indulgence in this nuisance when her soul had been undergoing an upheaval and required soothing, as of course it probably did at this juncture.
….
My fears were realized. She sang two in rapid succession, and the thought that this sort of thing would be a permanent feature of our married life chilled me to the core.

Jonathan Cecil

There are some new elements in it, though, which lift it and make it still an enjoyable read . For example, Major Plank is a retired bastion of the Empire, giving Wodehouse the opportunity to poke some fun at the British attitudes to its colonies at the time – though the book was written in the ’60s, it’s set in the ’30s, I’d say. And, while Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia doesn’t appear in person, we have the fun of some of her phone conversations with her much-loved but exasperating nephew.

I listened to the audiobook version with Jonathan Cecil narrating and, as always, he does an excellent job, giving distinct voices to all the different characters and doing an excellent Bertie. Even though this isn’t one of the all-time bests, it’s still great, mood-enhancing entertainment, as are all of the Jeeves books.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Oliver Twisted (Ivy Meadows 3) by Cindy Brown

Please, sir, I want some more…

😀 😀 😀 😀

oliver twistedIvy Meadows is an actress part of the time and a private detective the rest of it. So when her PI boss, her Uncle Bob, is hired to investigate a series of thefts aboard a cruise ship, Ivy puts both her talents to use – detecting when she’s not playing Nancy in the Dickens-themed cruise’s production of Oliver! At Sea! But things take a serious turn almost as soon as she steps on board, when she finds the body of the girl she was due to share a cabin with stuffed into the wardrobe. It’s not clear how she died, but Ivy and Bob suspect murder and that in some way her death may be tied in to the thefts.

This is a fun romp, with a very likeable lead character in the shape of Ivy. Her career as a detective is just beginning, so she’s not what you’d think of as slick at it. Her technique is mainly to blurt out questions at people and hope they don’t wonder why she’s asking! But she’s intelligent and perceptive, curious about people in general, and endearingly aware of her own deficiencies. Fortunately she’s also attractive, both physically and personality-wise, so she soon builds up some on-board friendships that help her with her enquiries, while adding to the general fun.

The Dickens theme is done well, without taking itself too seriously. The cruise ship sounds frighteningly realistic with Boz’s Buffet, the Drood Deck, and fancy-dress parties where everyone dresses up as Dickens characters. The actors double as ‘ambient’ characters when they’re not on stage, so that Oliver wanders around picking the pockets of guests, while Madame Defarge knits scarves and an Eastern European Bill Sykes is mean to our Nancy (when he’s not flirting with her).

I must admit that, as has become one of my regular whines, I felt the book was a bit too long for its content, especially in the first half. It seemed to take forever for the investigation element to get underway, and I had to suspend an awful lot of disbelief that no formal investigation of the death seemed to be taking place. But when a second death happens about halfway through, things hot up, and the plot is actually rather darker than it seems as if it’s going to be. However, the general feeling is one of a well-written cosy.

Cindy Brown
Cindy Brown

There’s lots of humour in the book, and I appreciated this more as the book progressed and I found Ivy had won me over. If murder and theft aren’t enough, she also has to contend with the fact that her Uncle Bob seems to have fallen for a woman whom Ivy suspects of being a fortune hunter or worse. Oh, and then there’s the little matter that no-one thought to warn her of when she took the job as Nancy – that part of her task would be to perform aerial acrobatics 40 feet above the stage! The production of Oliver! At Sea! is largely ‘borrowed’ from the musical Oliver, with some strategic changes – songs such as Gruel, Glorious Gruel have an eerie familiarity! There’s also a touch of romance, but this isn’t allowed to overwhelm the book.

A very enjoyable cosy, better written than many in that genre, with a decent plot and some great characters. I can only echo Oliver himself… “Please, sir, I want some more!” It’s apparently the third in the series, each of which has a theatre theme, and I’ll be adding the other two to my list for those days when only something light-hearted and fun will do.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 7
Book 8

Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene

‘Tis better to travel hopefully…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Travels with my AuntWhen middle-aged Henry Pulling attends the cremation of his mother, he meets his mother’s sister, Aunt Augusta, a woman he knows only from old family photographs. It seems Aunt Augusta was something of the black sheep of the family, her distinctly racy and unconventional lifestyle making her unwelcome. But Henry finds himself drawn towards her, her frank stories of a life full of incident providing a contrast to his own rather dull and lonely existence as a retired bank manager in the respectable little community of Southwood. And soon Augusta entices Henry to join her on some of her journeys, first on the Orient Express to Istanbul and later to South America.

This is a gentle little comedy without any of the profundity of Greene’s major works but still with a certain amount of charm. Published in 1969, at a time when Greene was in his mid-60s, it does rather read like a tolerant older man’s view of the ‘permissive’ society of the ’60s, with its focus on ‘free love’ and incessant pot-smoking. However, through Aunt Augusta’s stories, we are also taken on a light trip back through the century, though her storytelling technique makes it hard to pin down the truth of any event she is describing. From running a church for dogs in Brighton to her rather seedy career in France, from possibly having something to do with the Resistance to consorting with Nazi war criminals, Augusta’s exuberant zest for life manages somehow to overcome Henry’s normal repugnance for anything not quite respectable. The lesson he must learn from Augusta is the simple one that there is a difference between the tedium of merely existing and the joy of experiencing life.

I went restlessly out and crossed the little garden where an American couple (from the St James or the Albany) were having tea. One of them was raising a little bag, like a drowned animal, from his cup at the end of a cord. At that distressing sight I felt very far away from England, and it was with a pang that I realized how much I was likely to miss Southwood and the dahlias in the company of Aunt Augusta.

The writing is, of course, excellent, especially the stories of their travels and the various places they pass through. It’s not a travelogue, so there are no tourist brochure style descriptions – instead, it’s a vague, impressionistic picture of the process of travelling and the places passed by as seen through Henry’s untutored, and often uninterested, eye. The reader is more likely to be told about the availability of ham sandwiches than the great architecture of a given town. This changes a little when they head off to South America – in this section, we begin to get a much clearer picture both of the natural world and the strange and rather corrupt society Henry finds himself sucked into.

orient express poster

When a train pulls into a great city I am reminded of the closing moments of an overture. All the rural and urban themes of our long journey were picked up again: a factory was followed by a meadow, a patch of autostrada by a country road, a gas-works by a modern church: the houses began to tread on each other’s heels, advertisements for Fiat cars swarmed closer together, the conductor who had brought breakfast passed, working intensely down the corridor to rouse some important passenger, the last fields were squeezed out and at last there were only houses, houses, houses, and Milano, flashed the signs, Milano.

The humour runs at a consistently gentle level throughout, never becoming riotously funny, but never getting lost either. Unfortunately a good deal of the humour is centred on Aunt Augusta’s younger lover, Wordsworth, a man from Sierra Leone, and to modern eyes his portrayal feels horribly stereotyped at best and somewhat racist at worst. In fact, given Greene’s age and the time of writing, Wordsworth is actually rather affectionately portrayed – indeed, he’s about the only likeable character, the only one with a true, warm and generous heart. But still, I found some of the dialect and his rather childish naivety made for pretty uncomfortable reading in places. Otherwise, however, the contrast between Henry’s buttoned-up mentality and Augusta’s free-wheeling acceptance of all life has to offer gives plenty of opportunity for Greene to quietly mock the society of the time.

The vicar was saying clearly, while the congregation buzzed ambiguously to disguise the fact that they had forgotten the words: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, have committed…” I noticed that the detective-sergeant, perhaps from professional prudence, did not join in this plea of guilty. “We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings…” I had never before noticed how the prayer sounded like the words of an old lag addressing the Bench with a plea for mercy. The presence of Detective Sergeant Sparrow seemed to alter the whole tone of the service.

Graham Greene
Graham Greene

This would not be the book I would recommend to people wanting to sample Greene for the first time. Much better to try one of his more serious novels where the depth of the subject matter tends to withstand dating a little better. In truth, I think profundity suits his style better than humour. But, overall, I found this a pleasurable if rather light read – one where the journey is more enjoyable perhaps than the destination.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

(Ticking off the “Orient Express” category for the Around the World in 80 Books challenge.)

The Miser’s Dream (Eli Marks 3) by John Gaspard

the miser's dreamAs if by magic…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

From the window of his bedroom, Eli can see into the projectionist’s booth of the nearby movie theatre, and often watches the flickering lights to see if he can work out what movie is showing. But one evening what he sees is a body lying motionless on the floor. When the police arrive, they find all the elements of a classic ‘locked room’ mystery. The projectionist lies dead with the murder weapon nearby, but the door is locked on the inside, the window is tiny and barred, and the gaps through which the films are projected are too small for anyone to get through. They also find an empty film can…

I love this series. Eli is a great character – a stage magician with a fun sense of humour, who’s always getting mixed up in murders either through his job or because of his connection to his ex-wife, the delightfully named Assistant District Attorney Deirdre Sutton-Hutton and her new husband, Homicide Detective Fred Hutton. Eli’s back together with his girlfriend Megan, the psychic, in this one, although he’s suffering from wild jealousy because she’s become friendly with another visiting magician, Quinton Moon. Not only is Quinton charming and good-looking, he’s also a much better magician than Eli, so it’s hardly surprising Eli’s teeth grind every time his name is mentioned.

Eli is still living with his elderly uncle, above the magic shop which they jointly run. The regulars are all back and, as always, add a good deal of fun to the story. But, for all the warmth and humour in these books, I wouldn’t quite class them as cosies. The plots are always strong and though there is the ongoing romance between Eli and Megan this never takes over from the crime and investigation element. Eli’s connection to the police gets over the awkwardness of the amateur detective element, and this book sees the reappearance of the shady and scary underworld figure, known only as ‘Harry Lime’, who débuted in the last book, The Bullet Catch.

.

It’s ‘Harry Lime’ who puts Eli onto the probable motive for the crime – he is convinced that the film can had contained a (real) lost masterpiece, London After Midnight. And he’s also able to provide a list of the people most likely to be keen to acquire such a prize. It’s now up to Eli and the police to investigate them and to solve the mystery of how the murderer managed to carry out the crime. As always, Gaspard comes up with some quirky suspects and characters to supplement the regulars.

Gaspard is not a magician but writes as knowledgeably as if he were, and the magic always plays a part in the plot. He follows the magician’s code of never revealing how the tricks are done, and describes them so well it’s almost like watching a great magician at work. The book titles are the names of magic tricks. In real life, he’s been involved in film-making as both writer and director and, since the introduction of ‘Harry Lime’, this has become a strong strand in the plots too, with lots of references to and jokes about classic movies.

John Gaspard
John Gaspard

The plotting and investigation elements of the book are very much like the traditional Golden Age mysteries – a crime, a collection of suspects, clues, red herrings etc. But the writing and characterisation bring them bang up to date so that they never read like pastiches. A truly welcome break from the modern diet of bleakness and misery, these are proper mysteries – not one of which I’ve been able to solve before Eli! And I hope to get the opportunity to fail to solve many more in the future. Highly recommended – this could easily be read as a standalone, but I’d recommend reading in order, starting with The Ambitious Card, to get the full benefit of the regular characters.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Secret Diary of PorterGirl by Lucy Brazier

secret diary of portergirlMurder and mayhem at Old College…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When PorterGirl becomes the first female in 600 years to work as a porter in Old College, she’s expecting to face her share of old-fashioned prejudice and to have to learn all the quirky traditions of this venerable institution. But she soon finds there are dark secrets in the College’s history – secrets that even today some members of the Fellowship of the College are desperate to keep hidden. And, having an inquisitive nature and a background as a police officer, PorterGirl soon finds herself deeply embroiled in the shady goings-on that… er… go on behind these hallowed walls. As danger begins to dog her footsteps, it’s just as well there’s no shortage of tea and sausage sandwiches to keep her spirits up!

The Secret Diary of PorterGirl began life as a blog, and frequent visitors here will doubtless recognise PorterGirl as one of my delightfully witty regular commenters. I’ve been a follower and fan of Lucy’s blog for a long time now and was delighted to hear that she had compiled her blog stories into book form. Obviously, since we’re blog buddies and friends, you will have to assume some bias in this review, but I will try to be as honest as I can.

Lucy began her blog when, in real life, she left her job as a police officer and went to work at a college in one of our oldest and most prestigious Universities in the role of Deputy Head Porter. As with any ancient institution, the real ‘Old College’ is awash with traditions, some of them inspiring and others that seem a little more, shall we say, esoteric. Having always written for her own pleasure, Lucy began to blog about her experiences and, as the blog gained a following, gradually started to embellish the already strange truth of college life with some even stranger storylines of her own invention. The book is a compilation of the blog entries, though Lucy has made some changes to pull it together into a more structured form.

Maybe Old College looks something like this...
Maybe Old College looks something like this…

In the early chapters, the bloggy origins of the book show through as PorterGirl tells us about her first days in the new job, and introduces us to some of the characters who grow and develop as the book progresses. PorterGirl is one of life’s sunny enthusiasts with a keen observational eye for the humour in any situation and some of the set pieces are a delight. The inaugural meeting of the Committee for the Prevention of Drunken Behaviour, for example, held unfortunately on a day when PorterGirl is herself somewhat hungover, is comic joy as she listens with growing apprehension to the Fellowship’s plans for dealing with drunken students by having porters put them into the recovery position and attempt to ensure they remain conscious…

“What if the drunkard is a girl?” the Dean continues. “We can’t have our Porters wrestling drunk young ladies to the floor and forcing them to lie on their sides. Think of our reputation!”…

“I think” I say as politely as I can “that if the person is upright and able to physically fend us off they are not in need of urgent medical attention… I feel trying to force them onto the ground, male or female, will only inflame the situation.”

“That is one way of looking at it,” says Senior Tutor. “But I think it should be thought about. It would be easier to prod them repeatedly from the recovery position.”

As the plot begins to thicken, it takes on the tone of a somewhat spoofed Dan Brown story (though some might say Dan Brown’s books read like spoofs of Dan Brown books!), full of secret societies, mysterious symbols and ancient traditions. What stops it from becoming too much is the character of PorterGirl herself – level-headed and competent, she steers a path of relative sanity through the maze of strange happenings and odd behaviour of her increasingly caricatured characters. The humour stays strong throughout and as PorterGirl begins to develop affection for her colleagues, so does the reader. But there are also some quite touching scenes, such as PorterGirl’s burgeoning friendship with the elderly Professor K, and some well-written action scenes towards the end as PorterGirl gets close to the truth and begins to run into danger. These changes of tone add depth and contrast to the overall effect.

Lucy Brazier - with Deputy Head Porter's trademark bowler hat and wine!
Lucy Brazier – with Deputy Head Porter’s trademark bowler hat and wine!

Biased I may be, but I think this is a great début. The structure is a little unbalanced with the change from journal type early chapters on the role of the Deputy Head Porter to a full on mystery adventure in the second half, but this is due to the way the book originated and doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment. Now that Lucy has established her characters and the world of Old College the possibilities are endless, and I look forward to seeing how her style develops in the future. Something to read when the world feels grey and a little laughter is required to brighten the day!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Heath Robinson’s Great War

heath robinson's great warThe mechanics of war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

William Heath Robinson was a British cartoonist and illustrator who is now best remembered for his cartoon contraptions. In fact, he’s one of very few cartoonists whose name has become a shortcut in everyday use – in his case, for any design that seems unnecessarily complicated or slightly ridiculous. (Makes me think of these wine bottle openers that require a gas canister, a physics degree and a diploma in Health & Safety to operate.) His career having begun in 1897, he was already well established by the time of the outbreak of WW1, and this collection from the Bodleian Library brings together three of his wartime books – Some ‘Frightful’ War Pictures (1915), Hunlikely! (1916), and The Saintly Hun: a book of German virtues (1917).

An introduction by Geoffrey Beare of The William Heath Robinson Trust gives a brief biography of the man. Starting out as a book illustrator he gradually moved on to drawing humorous sketches for some of the periodicals of the day. His first ‘contraptions’ appeared in The Sketch in 1908, in a series entitled Great British Industries – Duly Protected. Over the following years, while book illustrations became less prevalent, his humorous work steadily became more popular. He remained popular between the wars, still entertaining the country with his cartoons during the Second World War, until his death in 1944.

 

These First World War cartoons are satirical and absurd in tone and directed as much at the British war effort as at the enemy. Apparently they were hugely popular with the troops as well as at home. Some of the things he poked fun at – poison gas warfare, for example – made me think that somewhere during the last century we seem to have lost our willingness to laugh collectively at horrors while keeping our individual fears hidden, or perhaps even as a method of keeping those individual fears at bay. We’re much more likely now as a society to protest and publicly emote. I’m not sure which is the healthier reaction, to be honest, since neither seems to prevent war, but these made me think very much of the old ‘stiff upper lip’ approach we used to take. I suppose in a continent that had been fighting amongst itself since pre-history the people had to have a way of lightening the emotional toll or survival would have been well nigh impossible; and perhaps it’s the long years of relative peace (in Western Europe) since WW2 that have caused us to react differently now. The book certainly made me feel that the idea of Tommies trudging through the mud of the trenches cheerily singing Tipperary is not so far-fetched and propagandistic as our generation might think. I like the thought that, even in the midst of the hell around them, the boys at the Front were able to laugh at the tragic absurdities of their situation. It doesn’t make the idea of war better but it makes it somehow more bearable.

Anyway… as well as his contraption cartoons, Heath Robinson also drew a series of silhouettes depicting German officers and soldiers performing acts of kindness to old ladies and animals, as an ironic response to the daily reports of atrocities, many true but many propaganda, that were appearing simultaneously in the press. As Mike Webb of the Bodleian Library points out in his preface, “Although in his gentle way Heath Robinson was drawing attention to these stories, there is no rancour or hate in his depictions, and perhaps one can detect too an undercurrent of mockery of not only German propaganda, but also more hysterical sections of the British Press.”

 

Over this 100 year anniversary of the start of WW1, as well as reading a very good history of the lead-up to the war, I have found that reading some of the complementary publications of writings of the time has added a lot to my understanding of how it must actually have felt, particularly for those at home, as the war dragged on. This collection adds to that understanding, along with the excellent collection of war journalism in The Telegraph Book of the First World War. And on a lighter note many of the cartoons are still as fresh and funny as they would have been at the time. The book itself is good quality and well produced, and would make a great gift for anyone with an interest in the WW1 period. Or for yourself…

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

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The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum edited by Iain Hollingshead

the lunatics have taken over the asylumTo whom it may concern…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As any Brit will know, The Daily Telegraph is one of our more right-wing newspapers. This book contains a collection culled from the Letters to the Editor section of the paper, submitted by the intelligent, the witty, the grumpy and the occasionally downright weird people who are part of the readership. The letters cover the period from the last general election in 2010 through our experiment in Conservative/Liberal coalition government, and give a great flavour of the issues and scandals that have exercised the minds of retired colonels and maiden aunts in the leafy suburbs of Conservative England. While I try not to discourage anyone from any good book, this one is really only for UK political geeks. Many of the entries are humorous, but a lot of them depend on the reader knowing the personalities and politics of contemporary Britain.

The selection is grouped under headings such as Goodbye Gordon, Chillaxing Conservatives, Swivel-eyed Loons, etc. If you don’t get these references, then I suggest the book is not for you. However, if you do, from whatever side of the political spectrum you hail, you will probably find this as entertaining as I did. There’s no doubt that Letters to the Editor has become a competitive sport in Britain with people vying to be the funniest or the most intelligent or the most condescending as their character dictates, and the result is some very fine humour, intentional or otherwise. The book is also a lighthearted reminder of some of the treasured political moments of the last five years – just the thing to read in the wake of the weirdest General Election results Britain has ever seen to remind us not to take it all so seriously. Buffoons exist on either side of the political divide, so at least while they’re wrecking the economy and destroying our society, we can be sure our politicians will always entertain us…

Nick Clegg and David Cameron, the coalition leaders 'you never promised me a rose garden...'
Nick Clegg and David Cameron, the coalition leaders
‘you never promised me a rose garden…’

To give a little flavour of the book, I’ve tried to select a few letters that don’t require an in-depth knowledge of the British political scene…

Sir – Dear Lord, I know that I don’t talk to you that much, but I note that you have recently taken away my favourite actor, Patrick Swayze, my favourite actress, Farrah Fawcett, my favourite musician, Michael Jackson, and my favourite cricketer, Alec Bedser.

I just wanted to let you know that my favourite Prime Minister is Gordon Brown. Amen

David Say

 

On the TV Debates held before the 2010 election

Sir – The most astonishing fact is that Gordon Brown finished third out of three and his acolytes are relieved. I dread their ambitions for the country.

Kiran Solanki

Gordon Brown discovering that he had been recorded calling a member of the public 'a bigoted woman'... (source: bbc)
Gordon Brown discovering that he had been recorded calling an ‘elderly’ member of the public a ‘bigoted woman’…
(source: bbc)

Sir – I would think that Gillian Duffy, sixty-five, is probably more annoyed at being described as ‘elderly’ than a ‘bigot’.

Andrew J. Morrison (64 years and 355 days)

 

Sir – David Cameron wants to help us old people to downsize. I am already two inches shorter than I used to be, so I don’t need his help.

John de Lange

 

Sir – May I suggest that if the police are to use water cannons to disperse rioting students, they include some soap in the tank?

Finlay Mason

 

On the subject of gay marriage

Sir – Being a devoted husband, as well as a staunch and active member of the Conservative Party, I’d be grateful to learn what further changes it will adopt, especially in regard to monogamy. My wife could do with a bit more help around the house.

Robert Vincent

A great gift for the political nerd in your life – I would mention Christmas stockings but for fear that you might all lynch me…

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

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Tuesday Terror! The Dancing Partner by Jerome K Jerome

The last waltz…

 

Best known for being the author of the funniest book ever written, Three Men in a Boat, you’d assume that any horror story Jerome K Jerome produced would be beautifully light and humorous, wouldn’t you? Well, you’d be right…and you’d also be wrong…

Take your partners please, as the band strikes up for this week’s…

 

TUESDAY TERROR!

The Dancing Partner by Jerome K Jerome

 

Jerome K Jerome
Jerome K Jerome

 

This story is taken from Jerome’s book, Novel Notes.

In a small town in the Black Forest, there lived a man called Nicholaus Geibel – an inventor of mechanical toys. In his shop, he had cats that washed their faces, dolls that spoke, rabbits that smoothed their whiskers. But as well as these small toys, he loved to make strange things that would never sell – he made them just for the sheer pleasure of it and many of them showed his rather wicked sense of humour…

…a skeleton that, supported by an upright iron bar, would dance a hornpipe; a life-size lady doll that could play the fiddle; and a gentleman with a hollow inside who could smoke a pipe and drink more lager beer than any three average German students out together, which is saying much.

One day, Geibel heard his daughter, Olga, and her friends bemoaning the quantity and quality of dancing partners at a recent ball, and describing the partner they wished they could find…

“Oh, I never mind how they talk,” said a fourth. “If a man dances well he may be a fool for all I care.”
“He generally is,” slipped in a thin girl, rather spitefully.
“I go to a ball to dance,” continued the previous speaker, not noticing the interruption. “All I ask of a partner is that he shall hold me firmly, take me round steadily, and not get tired before I do.”

Oh, really - whose picture were you expecting?
Oh, really! Whose picture were you expecting?

And so Geibel decided that he would surprise the town at the next ball. He spent some weeks tinkering in his workshop, every now and again chuckling to himself at what a sensation his new invention would be. And sure enough, when the guests were all gathered at the start of the next ball, Geibel and his new ‘friend’ entered to much applause and laughter…

Geibel placed his hand encouragingly on Fritz’s shoulder, and the lieutenant bowed low, accompanying the action with a harsh clicking noise in his throat, unpleasantly suggestive of a death rattle.

After some hesitation, Olga’s friend, Annette, agreed to be Fritz’s first partner, and at first everything went perfectly…

Keeping perfect time and step, and holding its little partner tightly clasped in an unyielding embrace, it revolved steadily, pouring forth at the same time a constant flow of squeaky conversation, broken by brief intervals of grinding silence.

(D’you know, I’m sure I’ve danced with him myself!)

Since everything was going so splendidly, Geibel went off with a friend to have a drink and a smoke, leaving the young people to it. The dance whirled on, and Annette turned the knob that controlled the automaton’s speed…

…and the figure flew round with her swifter and swifter. Couple after couple dropped out exhausted, but they only went the faster, till at length they were the only pair left dancing.

Becoming concerned, the older women urged Annette to stop, but she didn’t reply…and they saw that she had fainted. Some of the men intervened to try to stop the automaton…

Two of them made a bungling rush at the figure, which had the result of forcing it out of its orbit in the centre of the room, and sending it crashing against the walls and the furniture. A stream of blood showed itself down the girl’s white frock, and followed her along the floor…

 

the dancing partner

* * * * * * *

Well! From that point the story continues on its gory way to its gruesome end. If you want to read it, click here.

This is one of the strangest stories I’ve read in a while. Right up to the last couple of pages, it’s a lovely confection making light fun of both the young men and young women who frequent the town’s dances. But then it suddenly turns into something not far off the Texas Chainsaw Massacre! It’s quite well written and very readable, but I fear I kept waiting for a punchline that didn’t come. I don’t know what to make of it really. I suppose the moral of the story is you should never waltz with an automaton on the first date…

Fretful porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:         🙂 🙂 🙂

 

 

Tuesday Terror! A Ghost Story by Mark Twain

The elephant in the room…

 

Since so many of the writers of the 19th century wrote in several genres, it crossed my mind to wonder if Mark Twain had ever written horror. Indeed he did – but in his own inimitable style. With his tongue firmly in his cheek, he mocks not just the conventions of the horror story, but has a little swipe at the gullibility of both humans and ghosts in this week’s…

 

TUESDAY TERROR!

A Ghost Story by Mark Twain

 

mark twain

I took a large room, far up Broadway, in a huge old building whose upper stories had been wholly unoccupied for years, until I came. The place had long been given up to dust and cobwebs, to solitude and silence. I seemed groping among the tombs and invading the privacy of the dead, that first night I climbed up to my quarters. For the first time in my life a superstitious dread came over me; and as I turned a dark angle of the stairway and an invisible cobweb swung its lazy woof in my face and clung there, I shuddered as one who had encountered a phantom.

As he prepares to spend his first night in this room, Twain uses every horror story cliché he can think of, from shrieking winds and rain to fanciful half-heard voices and half-forgotten memories, to send our narrator into a mood of nervous melancholy. As the fire burns low, he falls into a deep sleep, but naturally he is soon wakened…

…and filled with a shuddering expectancy. All was still. All but my own heart – I could hear it beat. Presently the bedclothes began to slip away slowly toward the foot of the bed, as if some one were pulling them! I could not stir; I could not speak. Still the blankets slipped deliberately away, till my breast was uncovered. Then with a great effort I seized them and drew them over my head.

ghost story illustration

Sadly, this plan for ghost avoidance proves somewhat ineffective, since he can still hear groaning and the sound of heavy footsteps stomping around the room like an elephant. But then the footsteps recede, as if the thing is leaving the room, and our narrator risks a peek from beneath the bedclothes. And sees nothing! Giving himself a shake, he convinces himself that the whole thing was a dream, and gets up to smoke his pipe beside the fire, when…

…down went the pipe out of my nerveless fingers, the blood forsook my cheeks, and my placid breathing was cut short with a gasp! In the ashes on the hearth, side by side with my own bare footprint, was another, so vast that in comparison mine was but an infant’s’! Then I had HAD a visitor, and the elephant tread was explained.

And then he hears mysterious sounds from all over the house (yes, even clanking chains). Soon he hears the treads returning towards his room, and all sorts of spooky phenomena begin – pallid, floating faces, warm blood dripping down from above, sighs and whispers all around him. Terrified, he listens to the steps draw closer and closer and gradually a form appears in front of him – and as it takes shape he recognises it as the ghost of the Cardiff Giant. (The Cardiff Giant was apparently a famous hoax – the petrified figure of a giant “found” near Cardiff, New York, and put on display for the gullible. To compound the fraud, PT Barnum copied the original and put his version on display too – in the museum just across the road from our narrator’s room.) This apparition has an unexpected effect…

The Cardiff Giant on display...
The Cardiff Giant on display…

All my misery vanished – for a child might know that no harm could come with that benignant countenance. My cheerful spirits returned at once, and in sympathy with them the gas flamed up brightly again. Never a lonely outcast was so glad to welcome company as I was to greet the friendly giant.

However as the giant stumbles about the room breaking all the furniture, the narrator’s pleasure quickly turns to annoyance…

“Now what sort of a way is that to do? First you come lumbering about the place bringing a legion of vagabond goblins along with you to worry me to death, and then when I overlook an indelicacy of costume which would not be tolerated anywhere by cultivated people except in a respectable theater, and not even there if the nudity were of YOUR sex, you repay me by wrecking all the furniture you can find to sit down on.”

Finally, the giant settles on the floor and proceeds to reveal the reason for his haunting of the house…

twain ghost story illustration

* * * * * * *

The final twist is typical Twain, full of mocking humour. Here’s a link if you don’t know the story and would like to know what happens… click here for the full story.

This is a wonderfully crafted story – the early build-up shows how well Twain could have written a really chilling tale had he chosen, but instead he turns all the conventions on their heads and produces a deliciously humorous pastiche. Though I didn’t know about the Cardiff Giant while I was reading, it really didn’t matter since Twain gets the basic fact of it being a hoax over within the story, which in itself is a kind of hoax too. No scare factor in this ghost story, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a great one – the porpentine and I chuckled enormously throughout and, for once, knew the author actually meant us to!

smiling porpentine

Fretful porpentine rating: 😯

Overall story rating:         😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

 

The Bullet Catch (Eli Marks 2) by John Gaspard

the bullet catchMagic, movies and murder…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When stage magician Eli Marks is talked into attending his High School reunion by an old friend, Jake North, he suddenly finds himself entangled in two potentially deadly situations. An up-and-coming actor, Jake is in the middle of shooting a film about a magic trick that went wrong, resulting in the death of the magician. But Jake fears that someone is out to kill him and means to do so during the filming of the trick. So he asks Eli to come along as his magic consultant to make sure no-one can tamper with the trick. Then during the reunion Eli meets up with the girl he had a major crush on at school, the gorgeous Trish Henry. She showed no interest in him back then, but falls into conversation with him now and they spend the evening chatting. It’s something of a pity that she’s married – especially since her husband Dylan had a reputation at school of being one of the bad boys, and doesn’t seem to have improved with time. And when he’s murdered later that same night, Eli finds himself getting sucked into the investigation.

 

I loved Gaspard’s first book about Eli, The Ambitious Card, and ended my review with the fervent hope that we’d meet him again. I’m delighted to say this book is just as much fun. Eli is a truly likeable protagonist, intelligent and humorous, but with no pretensions to be a superhero. He’s currently single since Megan, his girlfriend from the last book, felt they were rushing things and suggested they take a break. He still wants things to work out with Megan but feels the pull of his old attraction to Trish, especially when she seems to be clinging to him as she tries to cope after her husband’s murder. Other old friends from the previous book put in appearances too. Eli is still living with his elderly uncle Harry, and their relationship is one of the things I like best about the series – it’s realistic and touching without being in any way mawkish, and their interactions provide much of the humour and warmth in the book. Harry’s group of elderly magician friends are fun to spend time with, as well as providing Eli with a great source of information about magic tricks of all kinds. And Franny the phone psychic is back in a minor role, still surprisingly spot-on with some of her predictions.

John Gaspard
John Gaspard

The plotting in this one is actually better than in the first, I think. The darker strand about Dylan’s murder is beautifully balanced by the more humorous strand about Jake and the film set. Gaspard has had real-life experience of directing low-budget films and clearly had fun sending the process up a little. There’s a whole bunch of slightly caricatured characters, from the harassed director to the embittered writer. And the book is laced with references to great classic films, making me want to go back and re-watch most of them. Overall, this is shaping up to be one of my favourite series – not quite light enough to be cosies, but warm and amusing, and great fun! I hope Mr Gaspard is hard at work on the next one…

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

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The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I tried…I really tried…

🙂 🙂 🙂

the phantom tollboothMilo is an irritating kind of child – finds school boring, can’t quite see the point of learning maths, doesn’t pay attention to the things around him and is eternally bored. Irritating but normal, I’d say. Then one day he discovers a mysterious package in his bedroom which turns out to be a magical tollbooth that transports him to another world. And soon he is on a quest to return Rhyme and Reason to this strange land…

Oh, dear! I tried so hard to like this. A lot of it is quite imaginative – the conductor who plays the colours of the day, the numbers’ mine, some of the wordplay. But most of the ‘quirky’ characters are thinly-disguised teachers, banging home their unsubtle message that we must all learn how to read and count, and pay attention at school etc etc. At first, I assumed my negative reaction was because I was just too old for it (and I’m sure that is a large part of the reason). But then I remembered my childhood reaction to the dreaded The Water Babies, with its hideous pair of monstrous horrors,                                          Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid – a book I thoroughly hated and despised when I was young for its preachy and patronising tone (while I’m pretty sure I missed most of the satirical elements of it). Although The Phantom Tollbooth is undoubtedly more fun, I realised it follows the same pattern of unsubtle moralising and lesson-teaching all the way through.

“That’s why you’re here. You weren’t thinking, and you weren’t paying attention either. People who don’t pay attention often get stuck in the Doldrums.”

“You must never feel badly about making mistakes,” explained Reason quietly, “as long as you take the trouble to learn from them.”

“For always remember that while it is wrong to use too few [words], it is often far worse to use too many.”

the phantom tollbooth map

Then there are the bits that I’m sure grated with me far more as an adult than they would as a child. But I do feel if an author sets out to preach about how important education is, then he has some responsibility for getting his facts right, even when he’s aiming for humour – else how is a child to learn properly? (The same criticism applies to the grammatical errors in the book…)

“We offer you the hospitality of our kingdom.”
“Country,”
“Nation,”
“State,”
“Commonwealth,”
“Realm,”
“Empire,”
“Palatinate,”
“Principality,”
“Do all those words mean the same thing?” gasped Milo.
“Of course.”
“Certainly.”
“Precisely.”
“Exactly.”
“Yes,” they replied in order.

Clever, isn’t it? Of course, it’s also completely
wrong,
misleading,
erroneous,
incorrect,
imprecise,
inaccurate,
and did I mention wrong?

 

Rhyme and Reason practice synchronised preaching - poor Milo looks a bit like how I felt by that stage...
Rhyme and Reason practice synchronised preaching – poor Milo looks a bit like how I felt by that stage…

However, I recognise from all the comments made at the time of the poll that many people adore this book, as children and as adults, so I’ll stop criticising it now. This is one of those cases where I’m happy to admit that my reaction might be a bit unfair – I can see much to admire and enjoy in the book, but in the end it just didn’t quite work for me. There’s no doubt that some of the jokes are quite clever and it did make me laugh a few times. So I’ll end the review on a more appreciative note with one of those bits…

“Why, did you know that if a beaver two feet long with a tail a foot and a half long can build a dam twelve feet high and six feet wide in two days, all you would need to build the Kariba Dam is a beaver sixty-eight feet long with a fifty-one foot tail?”

“Where would you find a beaver as big as that?” grumbled the Humbug…

“I’m sure I don’t know,” he replied, “but if you did, you’d certainly know what to do with him.”

Thanks to all of you who voted to add this book to my TBR – I’m sorry to be so unenthusiastic about it. Better luck next time!

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Tuppy Glossop’s One True Love…

A Valentine’s Day Tribute to PG Wodehouse…

 

right ho jeevesAll dedicated Jeeves followers know that, amidst all the sundered hearts and star-crossed lovers, one thing can be counted on throughout – Tuppy Glossop’s one true love is Aunt Dahlia’s only child, Angela.

Or is she? I beg to put forward another hypothesis for your consideration. My evidence is taken from Right Ho, Jeeves – the book which lets us see the Angela/Tuppy relationship most intimately, and I think when the facts are presented to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you too will draw the conclusion that Tuppy’s heart belongs firmly to Another.

* * * * * * * * *

First let’s look at some of the things that Tuppy says about his supposedly beloved Angela.

* * * * * * * * *

The witness Bertie Wooster tells us…

…they had had their little tiffs, notably on the occasion when Tuppy – with what he said was fearless honesty and I considered thorough goofiness – had told Angela that her new hat made her look like a Pekinese.

Next Aunt Dahlia takes the stand to recount Tuppy’s reaction on learning of Angela’s terrifying encounter with a shark while holidaying in the South of France…

He sat listening like a lump of dough, as if she had been talking about the weather, and when she had finished, he took his cigarette holder out of his mouth and said “I expect it was only a floating log!” And when Angela described how the thing had jumped and snapped at her, he took his cigarette holder out of his mouth again, and said, “Ah! Probably a flatfish. Quite harmless. No doubt it was just trying to play.” Well, I mean!

But perhaps the most damning evidence comes directly from Tuppy’s own mouth…

I’m not saying I don’t love the little blighter! I love her passionately. But that doesn’t alter the fact that I consider that what she needs most in this world is a swift kick in the pants.

* * * * * * * * *

Do these sound like the comments of a dedicated lover when talking about the object of his adoration? I think not! But, you may be thinking, this merely shows that Tuppy is unromantic, incapable of expressing his true feelings. It doesn’t prove his heart is inconstant.

Valid points, ladies and gentlemen…until we see how eloquent Tuppy can be when he is truly moved by overwhelming feelings of love and desire…

* * * * * * * * *

He lets his mask slip when talking to Bertie…

There is something cold there [in the larder]. A steak-and-kidney pie. We had it for lunch today. One of Anatole’s ripest. A masterly pie, Bertie, and it wasn’t more than half-finished.

And wakeful late that night, does Tuppy sneak round to serenade Angela beneath the light of the moon? Let’s ask him…

Well, round about one a.m. I thought the time was ripe. I stole from my room and went downstairs. The pie seemed to beckon to me. I got to the larder. I fished it out. I set it on the table. I found knife and fork. I collected salt, mustard, and pepper. There were some cold potatoes. I added those. And I was about to pitch in when I heard a sound behind me…

Catching him in this compromising position, Angela bravely tries to hide her broken heart behind a little womanly badinage, but is Tuppy’s first concern for Angela’s hurt feelings? Judge for yourself from Tuppy’s own words as he tells Bertie what happened next…

“You’ve no idea,” she said, “how Mr Glossop loves food. He just lives for it. He always eats six or seven meals a day and then starts in again after bedtime. I think it’s rather wonderful.” Your aunt seemed interested, and said it reminded her of a boa constrictor. Angela said, didn’t she mean a python? And then they argued as to which of the two it was…And the pie lying there on the table, and me unable to touch it. You begin to understand why I said I had been through hell.

* * * * * * * * *

There you have it, ladies and gentleman of the jury – the evidence is before you. And I put it to you that the evidence proves conclusively that Tuppy Glossop’s one true love is not Angela – it is in fact…

DSCN0521

Anatole’s Steak-and-Kidney Pie!

* * * * * * * * *

How do you find the defendant? Guilty or not guilty?

* * * * * * * * *

This post was inspired by Honoria Plum’s request on her blog Plumtopia for fans to honour PG Wodehouse this Valentine’s Day by discussing some of the greatest romances contained within his pages. If you visit her blog, you will find the other posts and links that she has gathered. Thanks for thinking up such a fun idea, Honoria Plum!

(The illustration is © Paul Cox from the Folio Society edition of the book.)