Way Station by Clifford D. Simak

Alien visitors…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Way Station 2As a young man, Enoch Wallace fought at Gettysburg. When the war was over, he returned to his parents’ farm in Wisconsin, soon finding himself alone there after the death of his father. One day, he met a stranger who put a strange proposition to him. Ulysses, as Enoch named him, was a being from another world, a representative of the Galactic Council, who wanted to set up a way station on Earth for intergalactic travellers wishing to explore this remote sector of the galaxy. Ulysses had chosen Enoch to be in charge of the way station because of his interest in the stars and his readiness to accept new ideas. Enoch accepted, and now, nearly a hundred years later, Enoch is still running the way station, and he’s still a young man. It is his seemingly eternal youthfulness that has at last attracted the interest of US Intelligence…

First published in 1963, this, like much of the science fiction of the Cold War era, is steeped in the fear of nuclear holocaust. The world is on the brink of another war, about to hold a last-ditch Peace Conference that no one expects to succeed. Enoch longs for Earth to be able to join the Galactic Confraternity because he has glimpsed some of the wonders out there and wants his fellow humans to be able to access the accumulated knowledge of a myriad of civilisations. But he knows that war will destroy the chance of that – only worlds that have moved beyond constant wars are invited in.

Enoch lives a solitary life on the farm. When he is inside the station – which used to be the family home and still looks that way to the outside world – he doesn’t age, but outside he does, so he restricts his outings to an hour a day, and his only real contact is with the mailman who brings him whatever he needs in the way of supplies. It’s an isolated, sparsely populated community, who keep themselves to themselves, so his apparent non-ageing is quietly ignored by his neighbours. But when an incident brings him into conflict with one of those neighbours, his anonymity is threatened. And on top of this, something has happened on Earth that has offended an alien race and the Galactic Council are threatening to withdraw from the sector. Enoch must decide whether to stay with humanity, and age and die, or leave Earth forever.

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This starts out slowly with a lot of information about the way station and Enoch’s life, all of which is interesting and much of it highly imaginative. After a bit, though, I began to long for the appearance of a plot, and happily it turned up just before I lost patience. As we get to know more about the Galactic Confraternity, we see that it isn’t quite as perfect as Enoch had thought – things are beginning to go wrong, and just like on Earth there are squabbles and power struggles arising within it.

Clifford D Simak
Clifford D Simak

The writing is excellent and the characterisation of Enoch is considerably more complex than is often the case in science fiction of this period. The concept of the way station allows for all kinds of imaginative aliens to visit, and Simak makes full use of the opportunity, plus the actual method of intergalactic travel is both fascinating and disturbing – personally I’ll wait till they get Star Trek-style matter transference working, I think! Although Enoch often has alien company, we see his desire for human contact too, and the impossibility of this without endangering his secret. As the plot progresses, it develops a kind of mystical, new-age aspect – an odd mix of the spiritual with the technological, and a hint of supernatural thrown in for good measure, but although that makes it sound messy, it all works together well. The ending is too neat, but the journey there is thought-provoking in more ways than one. The book won the 1964 Hugo Award for Best Novel – well deserved, in my opinion.

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The Corpse in the Waxworks (Inspector Bencolin 4) by John Dickson Carr

Chamber of horrors…

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The Corpse in the WaxworksInspector Bencolin and his friend Jeff Marle take on a case involving a woman who walked into the Musée Augustin waxworks one evening and was never seen alive again. Her body later turned up in the Seine. Before they can discover who killed her, they must find out why she went to the waxworks, and why so many other unlikely people seem to find it a place worth visiting late in the evenings…

This is the fourth in the series about the Mephistophelian Bencolin, head of the Parisian detective force, and his American sidekick Marle. The plots are always intricate versions of the “impossible” crime subgenre for which Carr was apparently famous, and this is just as fiendish as the others. But what makes them stand out most from the crowd is Carr’s ability to create wonderfully macabre settings, steeped in horror and decadence and the gruesomeness of the Grand Guignol.

The idea of being in a waxworks late at night is pretty creepy to begin with, but these waxworks have been made by a master of the art and, in the dim green light of the basement, one could be forgiven for imagining that one or two of them are real. But is it imagination? Is that movement you glimpsed out of the corner of your eye a trick of the light, or…? Carr is brilliant at spooking both poor Jeff and the reader too, and the decadent evil at the heart of the plot seems right at home in this world of shadows and horrors. Yes, the story veers wildly over the credibility line as it does in all of the Bencolin books, but much in the way of Edgar Allen Poe – there is a madness underneath most of the crimes.

John Dickson Carr
John Dickson Carr

Bencolin himself is a bit too over the top to be believable – he is all devilish mystery and almost mystical insight. But Jeff is a great foil who provides the humanity that Bencolin lacks. There are only five books in total in the Bencolin series, I understand. Four of them, including this and the other three the BL has previously re-published, were written early in Carr’s career, and he revisited the characters just once years later – I’m hoping they issue it too sometime for completion’s sake. I love the way he mixes the various horror genres into the standard mystery novel and comes up with something quite unique in my experience. Since I still haven’t read anything else by him I don’t know how they compare to the later work he is better remembered for, but they’ve certainly whetted my appetite to find out. This one is excellent and there’s no need to read them in order so if a creepy night in a waxworks sounds like your kind of thing, go for it!

The book also includes a bonus Bencolin short story, The Murder in Number Four – another impossible crime, this time the murder of a man alone in a carriage of a moving train. Witnesses confirm no one could have gone along the corridor to the carriage without being seen, and yet the deed was done. Obviously this doesn’t have the same intricacy as the novels, but it has the same atmosphere of creepiness and Bencolin is as mysteriously brilliant as ever. An added treat!

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

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The Silence by Susan Allott

Strength of character…

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

The book is told in the third person throughout. The 1967 strand forms the bulk of the book, is told in past tense, and mostly centres on Mandy’s life in the few months running up to her disappearance, with occasional sections showing us Isla’s rather fragmentary child’s-eye memories of Mandy and her own family. Unusually for the time, Isla’s mother worked outside the home, so Mandy often looked after Isla, watching her while she swam off the beach at the back of their properties, giving her snacks, chatting to her, and generally being a kind of aunt figure to her. As Isla’s memories of her slowly revive she realises how much she loved Mandy, who gave her a kind of emotional sanctuary at a time when her parents’ fraught relationship was making her home life unhappy.

Isla also begins to remember Mandy’s husband Steve, and how all the local children were a bit afraid of him, though Isla had forgotten why in the intervening years. As the story unfolds, we discover that Steve was with the police, and part of his job was to remove Aboriginal children from their families as part of the government policy to break their links with their communities and ‘merge’ them into white society. Steve, though, is finding it increasingly difficult to believe that the children benefit from this policy – he knows they often end up in children’s homes rather than loving adoptive families. While for most it’s an invisible problem or not a problem at all, some people, like Steve and also Isla’s father, are beginning to question the cruel racism that underlies the forced removals.

The later strand in 1997 doesn’t take up so much space, and as so often happens in dual timeline books, I mostly felt it was a distraction from the main story, although it’s equally well written. It’s written in present tense, and mainly focuses on Isla as she gradually begins to discover what happened back in 1967. Isla is a recovering alcoholic, a trait she has inherited from her dad who, however, is decidedly unrecovered. We gradually learn how his alcoholism has affected the family over the years.

So, dual timeline, parts in present tense, two alcoholics, and a trendy “worthy” subject – by rights I should have hated this. But I didn’t! The writing is terrific, the pacing is perfect, and Allott handles the subject of race and forced separations with a great deal of subtlety, showing the differences in society’s attitudes between the two timelines and indeed with our current attitude too. There are no anachronisms in either of the time periods, and she doesn’t preach or belabour the message. She makes the correct assumption that most people didn’t think they were doing wrong back then, or didn’t think at all. They’re not monsters even if to our modern eyes the acts they committed may seem monstrous. She also avoids giving too many descriptions of drunkenness and hangovers – just enough to remind us of Isla’s underlying struggle with her addiction.

Susan Allott
Susan Allott

All that makes it good, but what made it great for me is the character of Mandy. She’s not perfect and makes some foolish choices, but never with bad intent. She reminded me, oddly, of the character of Ida in Brighton Rock, not that the stories have any similarities at all. But both women are kind, open-hearted, generous souls, slow to judge, quick to comfort, who attract the troubled and damaged and then become snarled in their problems. They each have a sense of impending tragedy in their stories, too, since society judges harshly and treats cruelly those who give love and comfort too freely – especially women, especially back then. I loved her – an excellent creation who makes it hard to believe she came from the pen of a début novelist.

The story itself is straightforward, never stretching credulity, and told with deceptive simplicity – all the complexity is in the characterisation. Allott shows you don’t need twelve sudden twists at the end or an “I did not see that coming” moment – she proves that even if there is a sense of inevitability there can still be true suspense. I cared deeply about what Mandy’s fate would be, but never felt like rushing to the last page to find out – I savoured every step of the journey. Highly recommended, and Allott has leapt straight onto my list of must-read authors. I hope she’s working hard on her next book…

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

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Murder’s a Swine by Nap Lombard

Dynamic duo…

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Murder's a SwineAir-raid warden Clem Poplett scurries out of the rain to enjoy a quick smoke in the well of a block of flats which has been designated as an air-raid shelter. He discovers it’s already occupied by Agnes Kinghof, a resident of the block, who has locked herself out and is waiting for the caretaker to come home so he can let her in with his spare key. As the two chat, Agnes becomes aware of an unpleasant odour. Investigating, they discover a very dead body hidden beneath the sandbags in the shelter. Agnes, truth to tell, is rather thrilled – there’s nothing she and her husband Andrew enjoy more than a little amateur detecting! That same evening, Mrs Sibley, who lives in one of the upper flats, is woken by a tapping at her window and is shocked into hysterics when she sees a pig’s head apparently staring in at her. This delights Agnes even more…

Set in the period of the “phoney war” when nothing bad had started happening to the people of London, and with a delightful detective duo in Agnes and Andrew, this is a light-hearted, frothy entertainment, written for humour but with a surprisingly decent mystery underneath. It is soon discovered that the dead man and Mrs Sibley are connected, and the probable identity of the murderer is also soon known. But for various reasons it appears that that person may be disguised as someone else – one of the people who lives in the block of flats or someone who has easy access to the building. So Agnes and Andrew decide to assist the unfortunately named Inspector Eggshell with his enquiries, whether he wants them to or not. Andrew’s cousin Lord “Pig” Whitestone is a high-up in Scotland Yard, and he very definitely doesn’t want them involved – especially Agnes, since he believes a woman’s place is in the home, looking attractive. Agnes is a modern woman, though, who thinks nothing of shinning up a ladder in the middle of the night in pursuit of a possible murderer, even if it means her sheer Couleur de Rose silk stockings may be ruined!

I couldn’t make up my mind whether the influences for this duo were Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford or Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man movies. In the intro, Martin Edwards suggests the latter, and I’m happy to go along – there’s the definite cocktail-drinking life’s-a-lark feel about the young couple. Had it been set later in the war this may have jarred, but the authors show that apart from some shortages the war hadn’t started to feel real to the people on the home front this early on. The authors are another married duo – Gordon Neil Stewart and Pamela Hansford Johnson, writing as “Nap Lombard”. It’s very well written with some great comic timing, and quite racy for the period in an entirely innocent and inoffensive way, with lots of mostly humorous hints of sex and stuff going on behind the blackout curtains. In one sense it’s quite sexist, with all the young women trying to be attractive to catch their respective men and all the men being big tough protectors to the little women in their lives. But, like Tuppence Beresford, our intrepid Agnes is the driving force in the partnership so it has a reasonably modern feel too.

It frequently stretches credulity and the ending is quite ridiculous, but honestly it doesn’t matter – the book isn’t aiming for gritty slice-of-life stuff. It’s the kind of thing to pick up when you want a few hours of pure entertainment in the company of some very enjoyable characters. Unfortunately, “Nap Lombard” only wrote two mystery novels – I do hope the BL will publish the other one some day. Great fun! 

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

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In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda

The civilian war…

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In Diamond SquareOne evening in the early 1930s in Barcelona, young, motherless and naive Natalia dances with a young man at a fiesta in Diamond Square. They fall in love, though it seems an unequal love, more as if Natalia has fallen under Joe’s ultra-masculine power. They marry and have children, but the political situation is deteriorating and soon the nation will be plunged into civil war…

This is the story of Natalia’s marriage and life, before, during and after the war. It is a fascinating picture of someone who has no interest in or understanding of politics – who simply endures as other people destroy her world then put it back together in a different form. The war happens mostly off the page, referred to but not visited.

The first section shows us Natalia’s marriage before the war. Initially overwhelmed by her rather bullying husband, we see her grow until they gradually become a more equal partnership, although still in a society that is very much a patriarchal one. She becomes a mother, and we see the traditions of the women around the subject of childbirth. Joe, a carpenter, decides to build a pigeon loft on the roof, and Pidgey, as he calls Natalia, soon finds her home full of pigeons who, like her children, seem to become solely her responsibility. Then war comes, and Joe – partly because he believes in it and partly because his business is failing – gets swept up and goes off to fight on the Republican side along with his friends, leaving Natalia, the children and the pigeons to fend for themselves in a city full of shortages and suspicion. How to work and care for her children at the same time, how to feed her family when both money and food are scarce, how to navigate a city where the political allegiances of her husband can open some doors and close others – these are the things Natalia must grapple with in a world that, as a young housewife, she has barely known before.

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I don’t want to give too much of the story away, so I’ll leave you to find out what happens to Natalia and Joe for yourself (which reminds me, do NOT read the prologue before you read the book, since it’s really an introduction explaining why the author wrote it and reveals far too much about how Natalia’s story works out). The rather undramatic way the story is told works very well at allowing the tragedies inflicted on civilian populations during civil war to come through with a real feeling of truth and integrity. We see the random violence carried out by both sides, often on nothing more than suspicion – a man may have been thought to do business with the “other side” and this will be reason enough for him and his family to be terrorised and worse. We see how this gradually forces people on both sides more and more to the extremes, each seeing the other side as evil. And we see how impossible it is in this broken society for a woman to earn enough to keep her children above the starvation line. The tragedy is quiet here, but it is as devastating to the civilians as the guns and bombs are to the fighters.

We didn’t get up on Sundays so as not to be so hungry. And we took the kid to a [refugee] camp in a lorry Julie sent our way after I’d done a lot of persuading. But he knew he was being lied to. He knew better than I did that it was a lie and I was the liar. And we talked about sending him to a camp, before we actually did, and he’d look down and clam up, as if we grown-ups didn’t exist. Mrs Enriqueta promised she’d visit him. I told him I’d go every Sunday. The lorry left Barcelona with us in the back and a cardboard suitcase held together by a piece of string, and it turned down the white road that led to the lie.

And in the last section, we see the aftermath – the war over, but the impact on those involved reverberating through the following years. For some there is a future, but only when they can come to terms with what they had to do to survive.

Although, or perhaps because, Pidgey is an unremarkable woman who simply wants to be a wife and mother, I found myself fully absorbed in her story. Rodoreda shows how strong and resilient people have to be just to survive when society fractures and neighbour comes to mistrust neighbour. For little, ordinary, unheroic Pidgey, it may be too much to ask – as she nears the point of desperation, my heart broke for her and for all those civilians caught up in wars not of their own making.

Merce Rodoreda
Mercè Rodoreda

Well translated from the original Catalan by Peter Bush, the book is quite short but packed full of power and emotion. There is no need to know anything about the Spanish Civil War in order to appreciate the book. It could, in a sense, be any civil war. However, it gives a great insight into the lives of women in Barcelona at this point in time, and adds some real depth to an aspect that is often somewhat overlooked in formal histories of the period – the impact of the war on non-aligned non-participants. Natalia didn’t care whether the Communists or the Fascists won, so long as whoever did provided bread for her children.

The sections set before and during the war are excellent but for me the final section, after the war, is a little too dragged out. It is an interesting picture, though, of the world resettling like a shaken kaleidoscope into a new pattern, not entirely dissimilar to the old, leaving unspoken the question of what it was all for – did anyone win? I will remember Natalia’s story.

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Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

One man’s war…

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Homage to CataloniaOrwell’s memoir of his time as a participant in the Spanish Civil War has the mix of romanticised idealism and hard-nosed realism that has become embedded as the received mythology of the war in the popular imagination – in Britain, at least. I assume that’s an indication of how influential this book was on forming British opinion at the time and in the years since. Orwell attached himself to POUM, one of the many factions on the left – a Trotskyite grouping opposed, not only to the right whom they were supposed to be fighting, but also to the USSR-backed Communist faction. This division led to fighting on the streets of Barcelona in May of 1937, as a result of which POUM were driven underground by the ascendant Communists.

Orwell was present first when POUM were part of the force fighting Franco’s Fascists, and later during the Barcelona May Days, and gives his personal account of both. In the bulk of the memoir there are surprisingly little polemics – he saves the political analysis for the appendices. This makes it a very readable account regardless of whether one agrees with Orwell’s political standpoint or not. In fact, the book is almost entirely about the left – the Fascists are there in the background as the enemy to be beaten, but the political foreground is taken up by the factional infighting on the Republican side.

He starts his account with his experiences as an international recruit, driven by his desire to defeat Fascism. He describes the conditions the recruits faced – ill-equipped, incomplete uniforms, a shortage of guns and ammunition. He suggests that his fellow Spanish recruits were motivated like him by an idealistic belief in their cause, and of course there is truth in that. But he’s also honest enough to recognise that the shortages of necessities, including bread, in civilian life drove many to join up simply as a way of getting food. Mothers, he tells us, sent their sons into the army so that they could smuggle bread out to their families. Orwell was horrified by the youth of many of the recruits – boys as young as fourteen or fifteen, with no real idea what they were fighting for. He describes the filth and squalor within the troop quarters, where there was a basic lack of sanitation and a permanent stench of human waste, and rats – lots of rats.

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But he contrasts this with his enthusiasm for the principles of equality that pertained at this early stage of the war. There were no Sénors, only comrades. Orders, he suggests, were obeyed because the soldiers agreed to them rather than for fear of punishment. Not so on the Fascist side, he tells us, filled with forced conscripts rather than willing volunteers and desperate to desert given the slightest opportunity. I wonder. I am old and cynical and stopped believing long ago that good and evil are ever quite so clear cut, and I had to keep reminding myself that Orwell was just thirty-three when he arrived in Spain – still young enough for his cynicism to be held at bay by his idealism. He tries to defend the left against claims that their military indiscipline led to their repeated defeats, but he failed to convince me of that.

In reality, he saw very little fighting. He was positioned in trenches, facing Fascist forces in their own trenches, but neither advancing. He doesn’t make any effort to explain the military course of the war – that’s not his aim. Rather this is a personal description of what it was like to be there. As such, it adds colour, but doesn’t replace reading an actual history. On the one occasion when he is involved in more than a skirmish, he describes very well the mix of fear and bravery that he felt, although with a little of the gung-ho hubris that often pervades British war memoirs.

When his division is sent back to Barcelona, he describes the changes in the six months since he was last there. Then it seemed to him a truly socialist city, everyone equal. Now it is already reverting to normal – the rich able to get anything, the poor living with desperate shortages. He recognises himself as one of the wealthy, eating well, able to buy smuggled American cigarettes, etc.

Then the left factions start fighting each other, over nothing much, it seems. Orwell himself seems rather disillusioned by this stage, but still believes anything will be better for the workers than a Franco win, with a return to clericalism and a class-ridden society. He makes it clear that he didn’t really understand what was going on in Barcelona at the time – newspapers were either full of propaganda or heavily censored.

Barricade in Barcelona during the May Days

Back at the front, he is shot through the neck by a sniper. This allows him to see first hand and describe the medical treatment received by the injured – rather better than I’d have expected in truth, and happily he recovers well. Finally released from hospital, he discovers POUM have been suppressed, and some of his friends have been killed or imprisoned, so again this allows him to see the inhumane conditions of prisons, and the complete lack of any pretence of rule of law. He is forced into hiding until the British Consul can arrange for him and his wife to leave Spain. He writes very well about the atmosphere of suspicion, confusion and betrayal, and I found this account of the failure of his cause and his dreams beautifully and movingly written towards the end.

George Orwell
George Orwell

The first appendix gives a good summary of the politics on the left – the split between the anarchists, Trotskyists, Stalinists, et al. He is succinct and fairly clear-eyed about the chaotic nature of the left, and also about the journalistic propaganda being used by every faction. The second appendix is a lengthy discussion of what lay behind the factional infighting in Barcelona. His analysis obviously has to be treated with the caution that any participant account should receive, especially one written long before the fog of war had had time to clear. It’s interestingly done, though, with lots of references as to how it was being reported at the time in the leftist press, especially in England.

I enjoyed this much more than I expected. Splitting the politics off into the appendices works very well, preventing the human side of the story from getting bogged down in analysis. I was expecting it to be more propagandistic than it is – his honesty gives a very clear picture of his growing disillusion, not with the theories and ideals underpinning the revolution, but with the realities of it. Although I was glad I knew a bit of the background, I didn’t think it was necessary. It could easily be read on its own – it’s more about the experience of participating in a civil war than it is about the rights or wrongs of the cause. An excellent read.

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People’s Choice: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

On a mission…

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The Price family arrive in a remote village in the Belgian Congo to take over the Baptist mission there. The preacher father, Nathan, is enthusiastic and sure of his ability to bring the villagers to his rather wrathful version of God. The mother, Orleanna, and their four daughters are less keen, but being female their opinions don’t count, so at first they’re willing to try to make the best of it. It’s only for a year, after all. But when the Congo declares independence from Belgium and the mission tells Nathan to return to America, he refuses – he is determined to finish his work whatever the cost to his own family. Left without even the meagre wage the mission had provided or the support of other missionaries to fall back on in emergencies, life, already hard, becomes almost unbearably tough for Orleanna and the girls. And then tragedy strikes…

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

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

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

The story is told in the voices of the mother and daughters. Orleanna only appears briefly at the beginning of each section of the book and she is looking back from the perspective of her old age. The girls, however, are telling us the story in real time throughout, in rotating chapters, and Kingsolver does a remarkable job of juggling four distinct voices and personalities, while gradually ageing them through childhood into young adulthood and finally to the more reflective maturity of mid-life. By the end of the book, they are of the age their parents were at the beginning, and so can perhaps understand and forgive more readily than their younger selves could.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book 2 of 12

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

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Domino Island by Desmond Bagley

They don’t write them like that anymore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Desmond Bagley

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

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

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

Read after dark…

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

J Sheridan Le Fanu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Gathering Storm by Winston Churchill

“If necessary, alone”…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

Murder in St Loo…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audible UK Link
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Under World (Dalziel and Pascoe 10) by Reginald Hill

Digging deep…

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

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

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

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

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

Reginald Hill

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

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

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

Transwarp Tuesday! Born of the Sun edited by Mike Ashley

Touring the Solar System…

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

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

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

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

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

Mars as seen from its moon Deimos
by Lucien Rudaux

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

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

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

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

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The Less Dead by Denise Mina

A tale of two cities…

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Two things conspire to make Margo Dunlop decide to seek out her birth mother: the recent death of her adoptive mother, and her own pregnancy which, as a doctor, has led her to worry about the possibility of unknown genetic issues. She’s too late, however – her mother, Susan, died shortly after giving Margo up for adoption. But the counselling service puts her in touch with her mother’s sister, Nikki, and they arrange to meet. Nikki has a strange story to tell, and a request to make. Like Nikki herself, Susan was a street prostitute on the Drag – Glasgow’s red light zone – back in the late1980s, when sex workers were still mostly local women (as opposed to trafficked girls from abroad), driven to the trade by a combination of poverty, lack of opportunity and, often, addiction to drink or drugs. Susan was brutally murdered and left lying naked in the street – one of a spate of murders of prostitutes over the course of a few years. Nikki is convinced the murders were carried out by one man, although the police disagree. The man in question had an alibi for the time of Susan’s murder, but Nikki hopes that Margo will be able to use her privileged position as a doctor to help break the alibi. At first, Margo thinks Nikki is some kind of fantasist, but events soon convince her that there may be some truth in her story…

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

Fortunately, I was also far more interested in that aspect, so the weakness of the murder plot didn’t spoil the book for me. Mina’s knowledge of Glasgow appears to be encyclopaedic and, although she is dealing mostly with a section of society that I knew and still know very little about, the city she describes feels entirely authentic. This was a time of huge change for Glasgow, dragging itself out of the poverty and gang violence of the post-war era and recreating itself as a modern, vibrant cultural centre. (In 1990, just a year after Susan’s murder, Glasgow would become the first British city to be named European City of Culture, and the impact this had on how Glasgow changed, physically, socially and psychologically, cannot be overstated.) Mina’s story straddles this transformation, Susan a product of the old times and Margo of a new, more affluent and perhaps more hopeful future, but still saddled metaphorically as well as literally by the city’s past. Of course there are still major problems of poverty and inequality as in all large cities, and Mina is as clear-sighted about the present as the past. Street prostitution may not be as commonplace, but only because it’s now carried on indoors – still largely driven by addiction, still as prevalent, still as sordid, but better hidden from disapproving eyes.

Denise Mina

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

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

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

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The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

The one with Little Nell…

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

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

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

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

Book 73 of 90

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

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

(Quilp interrupts the ladies taking tea…)

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday Terror! Madam Crowl’s Ghost by Sheridan Le Fanu

Deathly dialect…

Taken from the collection Green Tea and Other Weird Stories, this is one of several stories Le Fanu wrote in a Northumbrian dialect. I have no idea how authentic it is, but I love it – there’s a kind of softness and lilt to the words and phrasing that seems made for relating ghostly tales by the light of the fire. So here we go for this week’s…

Madam Crowl’s Ghost
by Sheridan Le Fanu

J Sheridan Le Fanu

I’m an ald woman now, and I was but thirteen, my last birthday, the night I came to Applewale House. My aunt was the housekeeper there…

Already anxious and homesick, the girl’s fears are increased by the teasing of two fellow passengers on the coach, on hearing where she was headed…

“Ho, then,” says one of them, “you’ll not be long there!”

And I looked at him as much as to say “Why not?” for I had spoken out when I told them where I was goin’, as if ’twas something clever I hed to say.

“Because,” says he, “and don’t you for your life tell no one, only watch her and see—she’s possessed by the devil, and more an half a ghost.”

The sight of the old house does nothing to cheer her up…

A great white-and-black house it is, wi’ great black beams across and right up it, and gables lookin’ out, as white as a sheet, to the moon, and the shadows o’ the trees, two or three up and down in front, you could count the leaves on them, and all the little diamond-shaped winda-panes, glimmering on the great hall winda, and great shutters, in the old fashion, hinged on the wall outside, boulted across all the rest o’ the windas in front…

The girl’s aunt and another woman share the task of looking after old Madam Crowl, whose mind is beginning to fail and she sometimes has periods of a kind of insanity. It’s a while before the girl gets to see the old lady, but one day her aunt has gone off to have a cup of tea while Madam Crowl is asleep, and tells the girl to listen out for any signs of her wakening. The girl can’t resist the temptation to take a quick peep at her ancient mistress on her bed…

There she was, dressed out. You never sid the like in they days. Satin and silk, and scarlet and green, and gold and pint lace; by Jen! ’twas a sight! A big powdered wig, half as high as herself, was a-top o’ her head, and, wow!—was ever such wrinkles?—and her old baggy throat all powdered white, and her cheeks rouged, and mouse-skin eyebrows, that Mrs. Wyvern used to stick on, and there she lay proud and stark, wi’ a pair o’ clocked silk hose on, and heels to her shoon as tall as nine-pins. Lawk! . . . Her wrinkled little hands was stretched down by her sides, and such long nails, all cut into points, I never sid in my days. Could it ever a bin the fashion for grit fowk to wear their fingernails so?

(Mouse-skin eyebrows?!?!? Aargh!!!)

Suddenly the old woman wakes…

And in an instant she opens her eyes and up she sits, and spins herself round, and down wi’ her, wi’ a clack on her two tall heels on the floor, facin’ me, ogglin’ in my face wi’ her two great glassy eyes, and a wicked simper wi’ her wrinkled lips, and lang fause teeth… Says she:

“Ye little limb! what for did ye say I killed the boy? I’ll tickle ye till ye’re stiff!”

(Illustration by Charles William Stewart
for the Folio Society)

Terrified, the girl flees to her aunt, who seems to find a disturbing meaning in the old woman’s words. But Madam Crowl’s remaining time is short, and soon she is in the throes of her last, uneasy illness…

She pined, and windered, and went off, torflin’, torflin’, quiet enough, till a day or two before her flittin’, and then she took to rabblin’, and sometimes skirlin’ in the bed, ye’d think a robber had a knife to her throat, and she used to work out o’ the bed, and not being strong enough, then, to walk or stand, she’d fall on the flure, wi’ her ald wizened hands stretched before her face, and skirlin’ still for mercy.

* * * * *

The version I’m linking to is slightly different to the one in the book but not significantly. The book doesn’t have the short introduction, so the narrator isn’t named. Although there are some unfamiliar words sprinkled throughout, it’s not hard to guess their meaning from the context, and of course the notes in the Oxford World’s Classics edition I was reading explain any that might be a bit too obscure.

The story is dark – a mix of human evil and supernatural horror, made scarier by being seen through the eyes of such a young narrator. The porpy quivered quite a bit at points, while I loved the language and the perfectly paced build up to a satisfyingly ghoulish conclusion.

It’s reasonably short – I think it only took me twenty minutes or so to read. If you’d like to read it, here’s a link.

(The porpy is becoming a big Le Fanu fan…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan

Subtitled: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Gerald Brenan explains in his introduction that, having been there at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he wanted to understand what led to it, and preoccupied himself with studying this during the war. This book, first published in 1943, is the result, and is now considered a classic history of the period.

My theory is that it takes at least fifty years before historians can tackle any period with the necessary objectivity to produce anything approaching “truth” – a term that will always be disputed in relation to history. Writers who lived through events are generally unable to avoid two flaws: firstly, they assume their readers are familiar with the people and events of the period and therefore often don’t explain them well enough for future generations; and, secondly, the closer to events a writer is, the harder it is to avoid personal bias and opinion from distorting the story. Having said that, Brenan does his best to avoid bias and for the most part does a good job, but sometimes it’s clear that, like most British intellectuals of the time, his sympathies were with the left, and he tends to forgive their excesses more easily than those from the right. A bigger problem for me, as a newcomer to the period, was that he often left me struggling to follow timelines, or to work out the political alignment or even nationality of a particular person – he obviously assumed his contemporary readership would know these things from reading the news.

Where Brenan excels is in his detailed breakdown of the background to the conflict, especially his explanation of why the various different regions in Spain developed differing political alignments dependant on local geographical, agricultural and industrial factors. While all were affected by the power plays amongst the monarchy, Church and military, he shows that the impact differed according to the economic and social history of each region. I found that I was gradually developing a map of the country in my mind, one that showed not simply where places were but what people did there – how they lived, were they wealthy or poor, who owned the land, was the land fertile, what were their local industries, and so on. He also shows how parts of Spain looked over the border towards Europe while other parts were still influenced by their Moorish past. This left me with a much better understanding not only of the drivers that led to the Civil War, but also, in fact, of the current demands for independence from some regions which are still part of Spanish politics today.

Book 3

He also delves into the rise of the various factions on the left, explaining why some turned to anarchism while others adopted socialism, etc., again showing how this arose out of local rather than national factors. Syndicalism, a form of trades unionism that was effective in industrialised centres, was less well-suited to rural areas, for example. He explains the Spanish form of anarchism well, making it seem like a reasonable idea rather than the kind of extreme bogeyman philosophy it tends to be seen as now. He does the same for the right, but it wasn’t so divided and so is easier on the whole to understand, and I suspect Brenan was more fascinated by the philosophies underpinning left than right, so he writes about them more deeply and interestingly. He also explains the rise of anti-clericalism, showing how over time the Church ceased to be seen as the champion of the poor and became instead the paid instrument of the rich and powerful, helping them to maintain social control, and thus leading to the hatred that would result in so many atrocities towards clerics.

On occasion, he has a tendency to state an opinion as fact without supporting evidence, or to generalise about the “Spanish temperament” or the “Spanish psyche”, as if they were uniform things, which is a bit odd since the whole book is proving that Spain was a deeply fractured society at the time, region against region, philosophy against philosophy. And it’s easy with hindsight to scoff a little at those things he got wrong, as, for instance, when he suggests that Spaniards would never accept a dictatorship and that Franco’s regime would therefore be short-lived. As a right-wing dictator, he seems to see Franco in the same terms as Mussolini or Hitler, but future history would show distinct differences in Franco’s approach, which is probably why he survived into old age. But predicting the future is always difficult, and he doesn’t go too far down that line.

In the epilogue, Brenan explains that he is writing too soon to give an account of the war itself. He mentions the atrocities and, while accepting that the left participated too, claims the number of executions carried out by the right were far greater – a claim that I believe is now considered less clear-cut.

Gerald Brenan

Despite the small flaws I’ve mentioned, I found this a fascinating and hugely informative read, that has left me with a much better understanding of what led to the rise of the various factions, and why the drive towards war became seemingly unstoppable. I highly recommend it – its classic status is well deserved. However, I was glad I had already read Stanley G Payne’s The Spanish Civil War first – because it is a more conventional history written much more recently, I had some prior understanding without which I may have found myself floundering too deeply at those points where Brenan assumed existing knowledge.

My thanks to José Ignacio from A Crime is Afoot, who suggested this one when I was looking for something to give me some background to the war – an excellent recommendation!

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Sovereign (Matthew Shardlake 3) by CJ Sansom

Conspiracy theories…

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When King Henry VIII is progressing to York with his young wife Catherine Howard, Archbishop Cranmer appoints Matthew Shardlake to go there to assist in dealing with the petitions the locals will be making to the King. But Cranmer has another task for Shardlake while he’s there. Sir Edward Broderick is imprisoned in York, suspected of taking part in a conspiracy against the King, and Cranmer wants him brought safely back to London so he can be questioned by the Tower’s skilled torturers. Shardlake is reluctant – the idea of torture appals him – but when Cranmer gives an order it’s unwise to disobey. So accompanied by his assistant, Jack Barak, Shardlake goes. And it’s not long before he witnesses a man dying, perhaps by accident, but perhaps by murder. Soon Shardlake is sucked into a plot involving politics, the murky past of the Royal line, and the future of the Realm. And he’s in danger…

I loved reading this series and now I’m enjoying them just as much again as audiobooks. Steven Crossley does a great job again – his Shardlake is now how I imagine him sounding, and I’ve grown used to his Barak, though he sounds a bit older and gruffer than he did in my mind while reading. In this one there are lots of Yorkshire characters, and Crossley does them just as well. As always, there’s a huge cast, but he gives each one a distinct voice and manner of speaking, which I find a great help in remembering who is who when listening rather than reading. First rate narrations – a real pleasure to listen to.

Shardlake is now thoroughly disillusioned with Reform, having seen that the new regime seems just as cruel and unfair as life ever was when England was part of the Roman Catholic church. His faith has been shaken to the point where he’s not sure if he still believes in God at all, and he, like most of his countrymen, now sees Henry as a tyrant to be feared rather than a monarch to be loved. So his feelings about the prisoner are ambivalent – he doesn’t support the conspirators, but he understands their hatred of the King.

Meanwhile, Barak’s attraction to one of Queen Catherine’s servants means he and Shardlake are around the Queen’s retinue quite often, seeing things that Matthew finds deeply worrying. The young Queen is behaving foolishly, and that is a dangerous thing for a Queen of Henry’s to do. And a third strand is that Shardlake befriends an old lawyer who has had a falling out with his only remaining relative, and wishes to make up with him before he dies, which his physician has told him will be soon. Shardlake agrees to take the old man back to London with him and help him find his nephew.

As always with these books, it is long and slow, going deep into the way people lived in Henry’s England – both those at the top and those in the ranks below. The secret at the heart of the book, the one which causes all the trouble and puts Shardlake in danger, is based on a real rumour current at the time, muddied by a real prophecy which many believed (even though it was originally fictional). I won’t go into it any more deeply than that since that would take me into spoiler territory, but it gives the book a feeling of authenticity, which is what I always like about this series. Sansom, a historian himself, never produces a plot that feels anachronistic or as if it couldn’t have happened. And the blend between the historical characters and the fictional ones is so seamless I often have to check who really existed and who didn’t. That’s the one downside of the audiobooks – they don’t include the explanation Sansom usually gives as an end note, clarifying what is real and what he’s invented.

CJ Sansom

An excellent book, which again deepens our knowledge of Shardlake and our respect for him, and in this one we get to know Barak better and meet Tamasin, who will become a major character in the series as it goes on. It could be argued that the books get too long and could do with an edit, and I’d usually be arguing that myself, but I love the way Sansom shows us all sorts of stuff along the way that may not move the plot along, but builds up a full and fascinating picture of the time. In this case, the King’s progress takes centre stage and we learn all about the massive organisation that went into it – not as an info dump, but naturally, as Shardlake himself learns about it. And we are given a gruesome glimpse into some of the torture methods Henry’s henchmen employed – it’ll be a while before I make another dental appointment, for sure.

Great stuff – highly recommended, both book and audiobook.

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People’s Choice: The Old Buzzard Had It Coming by Donis Casey

Cosy-ish murder mystery in Oklahoma…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Harley Day beats his wife, terrorises his children, fights with his neighbours and has fallen out with his relations, so when he turns up dead the general feeling in the little town of Boynton and the surrounding farming community is that the old buzzard sure had it coming! Alafair Tucker’s husband owns the neighbouring farm to the Days’, but Alafair wouldn’t have been too much interested in Harley’s death except that she has found out that her daughter, Phoebe, has been sneaking over to visit Harley’s son, John Lee, and the two youngsters appear to be in love. So when John Lee becomes the chief suspect, Alafair wants to know the truth – did he do it?

Set in the early 1900s in Oklahoma, this is a cosy-ish murder mystery with lots and lots of authentic-feeling details about life in a farming community at that time. Alafair and her husband Shaw have nine surviving children, ranging from little kids to teenage sons and full-grown daughters, and the prevailing feeling reminded me very much of the Waltons – they all love each other and get along; the kids are kind and respectful, and help their parents with the farm and housework; and they’re all very close, so that a threat to one is a threat to all.

I say cosy-ish rather than cosy, though, because there’s enough grit in here to keep it feeling real. We learn of the children Alafair lost in infancy, we see the poverty of the less fortunate members of the community, and we see how women’s lives are dependant on the will and nature of their men. Shaw is a lovely husband, who works hard, stays sober and enjoys nothing more than spending time with his wife and kids, so Alafair’s life is sweet, even though she works harder than a modern woman could possibly imagine just to keep her huge family fed and the household running smoothly. Shaw and Alafair have a modern outlook for the time (though not in any way anachronistic), allowing their daughters to be educated beyond basic schooling if they choose – one of the oldest girls has secretarial qualifications, for example.

In contrast, Harley Day is a vicious, drunken brute who neglects his farm, so his wife and family are poor and often hungry, to say nothing of the constant threat of physical violence. Although everyone knows this, there’s no real way to intervene – Harley effectively owns his family, and the idea of his wife leaving him would be scandalous despite his treatment of her, and anyway, how would she survive and be able to feed her many children?

Donis Casey

The book is fairly slow, but that seems to suit the story, set in a time when life itself was slower paced and things took longer – no quick phone calls, so if you wanted to ask a neighbour something you had to hitch up the pony to the buggy and drive a few miles over difficult roads and through bitterly cold weather. Casey tells us in detail about how Alafair feeds her family – a massive undertaking with no convenience foods – and how the weekly laundry wash gets done, and so on. But she does it very well, as part of the story rather than as an interruption to it, and I loved all this detail, while thanking my stars for microwaves and washing machines!

The mystery element is very good, although Alafair’s detection skills rely a little too much on lucky guesswork. There’s a good range of suspects, and the pacing, though slow, is steady, holding my interest throughout. Alafair’s method is simply to go and ask questions of various neighbours and townsfolk, and this lets us see how the society works. I didn’t guess the murderer, but found the solution satisfying and believable, and rather darker than I anticipated. I found the whole read enjoyable, absorbing and comfortably relaxing, and Alafair’s plethora of children means there’s plenty of room for more stories about her family in the future – I look forward to reading some of them.

Book 1 of 12

You chose this book for me in a People’s Choice Poll, and hurrah! You picked a winner! Well done, People – I knew I could rely on you! 😉

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Tuesday Terror! The Curse of the Catafalques by F. Anstey

Repent at leisure…

Sometimes victims of ghostly hauntings and demonic curses must be pitied, but frankly at other times the victim really deserves all he gets. Our young hero in this Christmas tale of horror, from the Spirits of the Season collection, is one of the latter…

The Curse of the Catafalques
by F. Anstey

F Anstey

in the “Curse of the Catafalques” I was confronted with a horror so weird and so altogether unusual, that I doubt whether I shall ever succeed in wholly forgetting it – and I know that I have never felt really well since.

It all begins when our narrator sets off on a sea voyage to return to England from Melbourne, to where he has been banished by his uncle for being a bit of a feckless wastrel.

I resolved to return home and convince him of his error, and give him one more opportunity of repairing it; he had failed to discover the best means of utilizing my undoubted ability, yet I would not reproach him (nor do I reproach him even now), for I too have felt the difficulty.

On boarding the ship, he meets the stranger who is to share his cabin…

He was a tall cadaverous young man of about my own age, and my first view of him was not encouraging, for when I came in, I found him rolling restlessly on the cabin floor, and uttering hollow groans.

Not sea-sickness, as our hero first thinks. The stranger, Augustus McFadden, is regretting his agreement to go to England to woo and marry the girl, unfortunately named Chlorine Catafalque, to whom his rich aunt has left her fortune. An attractive baronet’s daughter with a fortune – what’s not to like? But there seems to be a catch, as Augustus soon reveals…

“The very day after I had despatched my fatal letter [agreeing to the marriage], my aunt’s explanatory packet arrived. I tell you that when I read the hideous revelations it contained, and knew to what horrors I had innocently pledged myself, my hair stood on end, and I believe it has remained on end ever since. But it was too late. Here I am, engaged to carry out a task from which my inmost soul recoils. Ah, if I dared but retract!”

Encouraged by our narrator, Augustus decides he can’t go through with it, and stays in Melbourne, while our hero promises to go to the baronet and explain that Augustus died on the voyage. But when he thinks the matter over later, he has an inspiration…

But it struck me that, under judiciously sympathetic treatment, the lady might prove not inconsolable, and that I myself might be able to heal the wound I was about to inflict.

It would be even easier to console the heiress, he thinks, if he were simply to take on the identity of Augustus, whose face or photograph Chlorine has never seen…

What harm would this innocent deception do to anyone? McFadden, even if he ever knew, would have no right to complain – he had given up all pretensions himself – and if he was merely anxious to preserve his reputation, his wishes would be more than carried out, for I flattered myself that whatever ideal Chlorine might have formed of her destined suitor, I should come much nearer to it than poor McFadden could ever have done.

Of course, unlike Augustus, our hero doesn’t know the details of the family curse. But he will soon learn, as his soon-to be father-in-law reveals that all suitors to the hand of a Catafalque maiden must undergo a terrifying pre-nuptial ordeal…

….“In 1770, it is true, one solitary suitor was emboldened by love and daring to face the ordeal. He went calmly and resolutely to the chamber where the Curse was then lodged, and the next morning they found him outside the door – a gibbering maniac!”
….I writhed on my chair. “Augustus!” cried Chlorine wildly, “promise me you will not permit the Curse to turn you into a gibbering maniac. I think if I saw you gibber I should die!”
….I was on the verge of gibbering then; I dared not trust myself to speak.

* * * * *

This is played strictly for laughs and gets them in plenty. Our ne’er-do-well hero is oddly loveable and makes no attempt to hide his moral weaknesses from the reader. The big dénouement comes at midnight on Christmas Eve, so it’s perfect festive fare, and the horror aspect is so mild that even the biggest scaredy-cat out there won’t have to hide under the bed. In fact, the porpy chuckled all the way through! If you’d like to read the whole thing, here’s a link. It took me about forty minutes to read, I think. 

And the moral of the story? Always read the small print…

(The porpy wishes you all a Merry Little Christmas, with cake…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 

Overall story rating:           🎅 🎅 🎅 🎅 🎅

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link – sorry, can’t find this collection listed on Amazon US.