Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie

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

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

Agatha Christie

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

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

Hugh Fraser

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

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

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The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells

…and no cheese to be found…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book 25 of 90

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The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus

The camera lies… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Kalfus

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

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

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

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Brother by David Chariandy

The failure of the dream…

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

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

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

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

David Chariandy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crème de la crème…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olga Wojtas

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

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

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

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

God’s chosen few…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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

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

Portrait of James Hogg by Sir John Watson Gordon

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

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

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

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

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

Book 24 of 90

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

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

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The Rock (Sullivan and Broderick 1) by Robert Daws

Sun, sea, sand and murder…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Daws

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

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

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

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Goodness, Truth and Beauty…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

The wonderful Maggie Smith in her prime…

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

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

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

The wonderful Muriel Spark in her prime…

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

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

Book 23 of 90

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The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse

The Totleigh Towers Horror…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book 22 of 90

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Bats in the Belfry by ECR Lorac

Starring MacDonald of the Yard…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Bruce Attleton doesn’t turn up in Paris as planned, his friend Neil Rockingham begins to worry. A strange man called Debrette had been harrassing Attleton, so Rockingham sets another friend, young Robert Grenville, the task of tracking Debrette down. Things take a sinister turn when Grenville finds Attleton’s suticase, complete with passport, in the cellar of the Belfry – an old building where Debrette had been living until very recently. Time to bring in Inspector MacDonald of the Yard…

This is an excellent early example of the police procedural novel, mixed with just enough amateur detection from young Grenville to make it fun and to keep the authentic Golden Age feel. Grenville plays a very minor second fiddle to the professional Inspector MacDonald though, and the police methods throughout have a feeling of authenticity that is rare in my experience of early crime fiction. MacDonald doesn’t work alone – he heads a team, all allocated with different tasks and responsibilities suited to their rank, and we get a clear picture of the painstaking detection that lies behind MacDonald’s brilliance.

The plot is nicely convoluted, involving murder, possible blackmail, secrets within families, a bit of adultery, and a solution that I only got to about five pages before MacDonald revealed all. MacDonald does, at one point, make a rather unbelievable leap of intuition, but for the most part the mystery is solved by conscientious fact-checking of alibis and identities, following suspects and making good use of forensic evidence.

Challenge details:
Book: 42
Subject Heading: Capital Crimes
Publication Year: 1937

The book is based in London – one of my favourite locations for crime novels – and Lorac is wonderfully descriptive in her writing, especially in the way she highlights the ancient and modern jostling side by side in the city, with short alleys leading from offices and factories to quiet little residential squares that seem unchanged by the passing centuries. The Belfry itself is a spooky place and Lorac gets in some nice little touches of horror to tingle the reader’s spine. It is of course written in the third person past tense, as all good fiction should be. (Opinionated? Moi? 😉 ) Back in the Golden Age, most crime authors wrote well but Lorac’s writing impressed me more than most, often having quite a literary feel without ever becoming pretentious.

In the tangled networks of courts and alleys which lie between Fleet Street and Holboro, Great Turnstile and Farringdon Street, there still exist certain small houses which were built not long after the great fire of 1666. It was in one of these that Grenville had been fortunate enough to find quarters – an absurd little red-tiled house of two stories, with a grass plot in front of it and its immediate neighbours. On all sides around this ancient oasis of greenery towered enormous blocks which reverberated day and night with the roar and clatter of printing presses, of restaurant activities, with the incessant whirr of the machinery which maintains the civilisation of this bewildering epoch of ours…

ECR Lorac (I think)

As with a lot of Golden Age fiction, there’s a romantic sub-plot – young Grenville is in love with Elizabeth, Attleton’s ward. They are both fun characters – Grenville is headstrong and occasionally foolish, always putting himself in danger and often paying the price for it, while Elizabeth is a modern girl, living in her club and with a mind and a will of her own. They give the reader someone to root for amidst the rest of the other rather unpleasant characters who are assembled as victims, suspects or both. Being modern young people, they talk in a kind of slang not far removed from how Wodehouse characters speak, and this adds a nice element of humour, keeping the overall tone light. MacDonald is no slouch in the slang department too, and I loved how Lorac gave each of the major characters such distinctive voices and personalities.

I can’t begin to imagine why a book as good as this one would ever have been allowed to become “forgotten”. The British Library Crime Classics can be a bit variable in quality, but it’s finding these occasional little gems among them that makes the series so enjoyable. One of their best, and happily they’ve reissued another of Lorac’s, Fire in the Thatch, which I’m looking forward to reading soon. Highly recommended.

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

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The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The assassin and his prey…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The story of three men whose lives become intertwined across decades and continents, the book primarily tells of the assassination of Trotsky in Mexico in 1940. Its purpose runs deeper though: to look at the corruption and failure of the utopian dream of communism and to inspire compassion for the people caught up in this vast and dreadful experiment.

Iván is a failed writer living in Cuba under Castro. Having inadvertently crossed the regime in his youth, he has lost confidence in his ability to write anything worthwhile that will be acceptable under the strict censorship in force at the time. We meet him as his wife is dying, in the near present. He tells her of a man he once knew, the man who loved dogs, and of the strange story this man told him. His wife asks him why he never wrote the story, and the book is partly Iván’s attempt to explain his reluctance.

The story the man who loved dogs told Iván is of Ramón Mercader del Rio, a young Spaniard caught up in the Spanish Civil War, who is recruited by the Stalinist regime to assassinate Stalin’s great enemy, Trotsky. This introduces the two main strands of the novel which run side by side, with Iván’s story fading somewhat into the background. We follow Ramón through the Spanish Civil War, learning a good deal about that event as we go, and seeing the idealism which drove many of those on the Republican side to believe that the USSR was a shining beacon to the masses of the world. And we meet Trotsky just as he is exiled from the USSR, with Stalin re-writing history to portray him as a traitor to the Revolution.

Leon Trotsky (second right) and his wife Natalya Sedova (far left) are welcomed to Tampico Harbour, Mexico by Frida Kahlo and the US Trotskyist leader Max Shachtman, January 1937.
Getty Images/Gamma-Keystone

This is a monumental novel, both in length and in the depth of detail it presents. I found it fascinating although I felt that huge swathes of it read more like factual history and biography than a fully fictionalised account of events. As regulars will know, I’ve spent much of the last year immersed in the history of the Russian Revolution, and I felt strongly that without all my recently gained knowledge of the politics and personalities, I would have struggled badly both to understand and to maintain my interest in this. I did struggle a bit with all the various factions in the Spanish Civil War, although in the end I was rather clearer about this muddled period of history than I had been before. Once Ramón left that arena to become a tool of the USSR, I felt I was back on more solid ground, however.

Although Padura occasionally refers to some of the atrocities that were carried out by Trotsky or in his name, the overall tone of the book is rather sympathetic to him. This jarred a little – I do see the romantic appeal of Trotsky as a great thinker and orator and a fanatical idealist, but I’m not convinced that he would have been much of an improvement over Stalin had history played out differently and put Trotsky in power. There’s a distinct suggestion that Trotsky’s actions were forgiveable because they were carried out against enemies of the Revolution, whereas Stalin’s crimes were far worse because he turned on those who had fought alongside him to bring the Revolution into being. Firstly, I wasn’t convinced by the historical accuracy of this assessment as it related to Trotsky, and secondly… well, an atrocity is an atrocity, surely, however it’s justified.

Ramon Mercader del Rio after the assassination

Where the book excels, though, is in the pictures it paints of the lives of Trotsky in exile and Ramón being trained, or brainwashed, depending on how you view it, to be his assassin. The Trotsky strand feels very well grounded in truth, with a lot of references to documented events. Trotsky in the book comes over as a man still fixated on the idea of a Marxist revolution, and obsessed with proving his innocence of the charges of treason against him.

His assassin I know nothing about in real life, so can’t say if the same truthfulness applies there. But the Ramón in the book is a fascinating character. We are shown his childhood and relationship with his mother, whose early adoption of communism led her son to take up arms in the Spanish Civil War and introduced him to the Soviet agent who would recruit him. Then we see the brainwashing techniques employed by the Soviets, and Ramón’s life under different identities as a sleeper, waiting for the call to act. True or not, it’s all entirely credible and convincing.

The third story, that of Iván, felt extraneous to me – yet another excuse for a writer to write about the difficulties of being a writer, a subject which seems to be endlessly fascinating to writers but about which I personally have read more than enough. It does however cast some light on life in Cuba under its own communist regime and as such earns its place in the book, even if I sighed a little each time we ended up back in Iván’s company.

Leonardo Padura

The quality of the writing is excellent and for the most part so is the translation by Anna Kushner. There are occasional strange word choices though – sheepherders? Shepherds, surely? – and it uses American spelling and vocabulary – shined, rather than shone, etc. Padura’s deep research is complemented by his intelligence and insight, all of which mean that the book is more than a novel – it’s a real contribution to the history of 20th century communism across the world, looked at from a human perspective. My only caveat is as I mentioned earlier – without some existing knowledge of the history, it may be a struggle to get through. But for anyone with an interest in the USSR, Cuba or the Spanish Civil War, I’d say it’s pretty much an essential read and one I highly recommend.

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Bump in the Night (Flaxborough Chronicles 2) by Colin Watson

Skulduggery in Middle England…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Chalmsbury is normally a quiet town with at least a veneer of respectability. So it’s a bit of a shock when the residents have their sleep disturbed one Tuesday night when somebody blows up the local drinking fountain. A prankster, is the general feeling, but when on the following Tuesday a statue unfortunately loses its head in another blast, people want the police to get to the bottom of it before more damage is done. The problem is the local Inspector is friends with the man the townsfolk suspect is responsible. So suddenly Inspector Purbright from the neighbouring town of Flaxborough finds himself drafted in…

Colin Watson wrote the twelve books that make up the Flaxborough Chronicles over a period stretching from 1958 to 1982, with this second in the series dating from 1960. Like many series, the books improve for the first two or three, hit a peak in the middle of the series, and then tail off a little towards the end, but even the less good ones are still way ahead of most of the competition. This one loses a little for me by having the action moved to Chalmsbury, which means that we don’t see much of the regular cast of characters who appear in the ones based in Flaxborough itself. But it has its own cast of deliciously quirky characters to make up for that lack, and has the same sly and wicked wit, poking fun at the respectable middle-classes of Middle England.

“Mr Hoole was the complainant, sir, but he didn’t exactly report it. He just stood under where the sign had been and used bad language. I advised him to be careful and he changed to much longer words that didn’t seem to give as much offence to bystanders.”

The books are peculiarly suited to the ’50s and early ’60s – a time when class structures were still fairly rigid in Britain, and people were judged as much by their professional role as by their character, but when the first breezes of the winds of change of the later ’60s were beginning to be felt. The joy of Watson is that he takes delight in letting the reader peek at the scandals hidden behind the lace curtains of the outwardly respectable. It’s quietly subversive, and must have seemed even more so at the time.

Some of the stories were turned into a TV series in 1977 under the title Murder Most English, starring Anton Rodgers as Inspector Purbright. I re-watched them two or three years ago on DVD and they’ve stood up well to the passage of time. Perfect Sunday afternoon viewing…

In this one, the action takes place mainly among the shop and business owners of the town, and Purbright soon finds that most of them are willing to gossip about their friends and neighbours. There’s a good deal to gossip about – everything from drunk driving to murky business dealings to marital infidelity goes on regularly, and everyone knows everyone else’s business. The solution seems perfectly obvious from early on, so you can be sure that won’t turn out to be the real one in the end. Underneath all the humour and light social commentary, there’s an excellent plot, full of motives, alibis and clues, and it’s not long before the destruction of property escalates to a death and a murder investigation. These books are a little too late to really count as Golden Age from a strict time point of view, but they have that feel about them, only with added hanky-panky. Often Watson makes an oblique innuendo and leaves it to the reader’s mind to fill in the blanks, and I always imagine him winking cheekily as he does so…

“A somewhat impetuous man, Mr Biggadyke, by all accounts.”
“Very likely. But that was no excuse for him going round and telling everybody that story about the Colonel and Bessie Egan.”
“Ah, yes. And the spurs.”

I can never think of these books without the word skulduggery coming into my mind – everybody, except Purbright, is always up to something they shouldn’t be, but it’s mainly mild naughtiness rather than outright badness.

“So you see the person I think the police ought to be looking for is someone here in the town who’s been turned into an enemy of society – perhaps through being sent to jail for a crime he didn’t commit.”
“That ought to be a lot easier,” Kebble daringly remarked, “than having to pick from all the people in Chalmsbury who haven’t been sent to prison for things they did commit.”

Colin Watson

A delight – books I revisit often and enjoy anew every time. They’ve been quite hard to get hold of for some time, so I’m happy to see that Farrago are issuing them as e-books. If you’ve never met Inspector Purbright, give yourself a treat – these books are guaranteed to chase the blues away…

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

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Seduced by Mrs Robinson by Beverly Gray

So here’s to you…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The Graduate was released in 1967 and won an Oscar for its director, Mike Nichols. Beverly Gray was at the same stage of her life as the young hero of the movie, Benjamin Braddock – just leaving college and part of a generation that was seeking something different to the plans their parents had made for them. This book is partly about the making of the film, partly about the influence it has had on later culture, but mostly about the impact it had on Gray herself and her peers. Because of the type of book it is, it’s of course full of spoilers for the movie, and so will be this review.

I’m maybe a decade younger than Gray and The Graduate didn’t have the same impact on me when I first saw it, on TV probably in the late 70s (and quite probably with some bits cut, I’d imagine – British TV was like that back then). I liked it well enough and loved the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack, but it didn’t speak to me about my life. I thought of it as an enjoyable rom-com – a bit racy, perhaps, but by the late ’70s, frankly, what wasn’t? So I was intrigued to see if Gray would deepen my appreciation for it.

Gray starts by discussing her own reaction to the film on its release, and how those reactions have changed somewhat as she has swapped the optimism of youth for the realism (or cynicism or pessimism, depending on how you look at it) of experience. The ending in particular – seen at the time as a hopeful rejection of their parents’ values – seems more ambiguous looking back. OK, so they’d run off – now what?

She then goes back in time a little to discuss the origin of the film and its production, She introduces us to the writer of the original book, Charles Webb, and tells us about his own life on which he drew somewhat for the plot (though his affair with his parents’ friend was purely wishful thinking). The book didn’t take off at first – reviews I’ve read of it suggest it’s not terribly well written. Gray says it was compared in style to The Catcher in the Rye and clearly was in the same vein of trying to capture that generational shift that happened in America during the ’60s. Although the film came out in ’67 at the height of Vietnam, the book places it closer to ’62, which is why Benjamin is not living in fear of being drafted. Despite its relative lack of success, it attracted the attention of an aspiring movie producer, Larry Turman, who managed to get Mike Nichols interested, and also persuaded backer Joe E Levine to put up the money.

Gray then takes us through the making of the film, though more from the perspective of the people than the technical side of it. We learn how the young Dustin Hoffman got the role, how Nichols got the performances out of his stars, whose leg it actually is in the rolling up the stocking scene. (Admit it – you’re intrigued now, aren’t you? Send me chocolate and I might tell you…)

Then she takes us through the film scene by scene, pointing out some of the techniques and effects Nichols used. I found this was the perfect stage to re-watch the movie. This is an interesting section, done well, getting a nice balance between detail and overall impression. It’s done from the perspective of the viewer rather than the film-makers, so she points out what has been done rather than how it was done. For example, she points out the use of mirrors, glass and reflections throughout the film, or tiny details like Ben being anti-smoking before his rebellion and then taking up smoking at round about the same time as he… ahem… takes up with Mrs Robinson. These are all the things I never notice, so I found this added a lot to my appreciation of how Nichols achieved his story-telling effects.

The final section tells us how the film impacted on the later careers of its stars, not always positively, and how it has been referenced in popular culture in the decades since its release. Some of this made my eyes glaze over a bit, partly because a lot of the references related to specifically American things, like ads, and partly because, not being an avid movie watcher, I hadn’t seen a lot of the films she mentioned. However it would work better for American cinema enthusiasts, I’m sure.

Gray writes lightly and conversationally, with a good deal of fairly waspish humour sprinkled over the pages, and the book is enjoyable to read. It doesn’t have the depth of a deeply researched production critique (like Citizen Kane, for instance), but that’s not its aim. The personal aspect of how it touched Gray and her generation adds interest, though occasionally she has a tendency to dismiss any interpretation of it that differs from her own. And of course it relates directly only to a small subset of that generation – well off, college educated, white – something Gray doesn’t really acknowledge, at least not explicitly.

I enjoyed the read and the re-watch it inspired, and I found, like Gray, that my advancing years had made that ending look a lot deeper than my young self had spotted. In fact, the final scene of Benjamin and Elaine on the bus feels much less victorious to me now. Gray explains how Nichols managed to catch the ambiguous expressions on the actors’ faces, almost by accident, and yet it gives the film a depth and poignancy it might not otherwise have had.

If like me you haven’t watched it in years, treat yourself to a movie night – it has more than stood the test of time. And if you’re a fan of the film, then I happily recommend the book.

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

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The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen

Weird and wonderful…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of those stories of Arthur Machen that fit into what would now be thought of as ‘weird’ tales. Normally when a book is titled after one story with the rest lumped under “and other”, my expectation would be that the title story would be the best of them. And indeed, I loved The Great God Pan, as you’ll know if you read my Tuesday Terror! post about it. But I was thrilled to find that many of the other stories in this book are at least as good, and some are even better. I’ve discovered a new favourite horror writer!

The book is edited by Aaron Worth, Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Boston University. He provides an informative introduction, which gives a brief biography of Machen’s literary life along with a discussion of his influences and themes, and of his own influence on later generations of writers. Worth also provides copious notes to explain any unfamiliar terms, or allusions within the text to other works, to mythologies, or to the preoccupations of Machen’s society. All of this richly enhanced my reading experience, reminding me once again that, great though it is to be able to download so many old stories, a well-edited volume is still a major pleasure.

Machen’s stories are set mainly in two locations, both of which he evokes brilliantly. His native Monmouthshire, in Wales, is depicted as a place with connections to its deep past, where ancient beliefs and rituals are hidden just under the surface of civilised life. His London is a place of dark alleys and hidden evils, with a kind of degenerate race living side by side with the respectable people, and often stretching out a corrupting hand towards them. Worth tells us that Machen was sometimes considered to be connected to the Decadent movement – Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, et al – although Machen himself disputed this. But there is a definite air of decadence with a small ‘d’ about the stories. Many have strong sexual undercurrents (never overtly spelled out – it’s the Victorian era) and paganism is a recurring feature. There’s also a frequent suggestion that the morally deficient are most likely to succumb to the forces of evil, and will often pay a horrible price for their weakness.

The Great God Pan
All the fabulous illustrations on the post are by mgkellermeyer via DeviantArt.com.

The quality of the writing is excellent – stylistically it compares to the likes of Conan Doyle or HG Wells. There’s a good deal of humour in it alongside some effective and occasionally gruesome horror and he’s a great storyteller. His descriptive writing is also very good. I particularly liked how he used London pollution effectively to give a strangeness to the city – his skies are purple, grey, dark, red, and the street lamps have to fight to shed their light through the dirty air. His Wales is equally good in what feels like a deliberately contrasting way. There, the air is clear but there are hidden things behind ancient rock formations – old symbols, and sometimes new symbols placed by ancient races.

The Welsh parts have a very similar feel to Lovecraft’s ruins – Lovecraft acknowledged his influence – but where Lovecraft opted for ancient malign aliens, Machen’s evil is all of earth, earthly. Worth reminds us that this was at a time when Victorian society was having to get used to the ideas that man had evolved from the beast and that the world was far, far more ancient than had previously been thought. Where Wells takes evolution far into the future in The Time Machine, Machen instead suggests that some of the ancient things of earth are still here, unevolved and unchanging. And that sometimes they might even live within us…

The stories range in length from a couple of pages to well over a hundred. I gave every one individually either 4 or 5 stars – I think that’s a first for me in any collection. Some of the very short ones are a little fragmentary, but each either tells a tale on its own or adds depth to the world Machen has created. Some are outright horror, some more an evocation of a kind of witchy paganism, some based more in reality. Marvellous stuff! Hard to pick favourites, but here are just a few of the ones I enjoyed most:-

The Shining Pyramid

The Inmost Light – this one features Dyson, who along with his friend Phillips, appears in a few of the stories, almost as a kind of Holmes and Watson of the occult. Dyson sees a horribly frightening face in a window and some time later discovers the woman of the house has died. The doctor at the inquest declares that her brain was inhuman, and Dyson investigates. This has some great London scenes and a decidedly demonic theme – Machen apparently subsidised his meagre earnings as an author at one point by taking on the job of cataloguing a library of occult publications, and used the knowledge he gained from that throughout his work. Excellently told and a very effective horror ending.

The Three Impostors – this is the longest in the book and in fact reads like a mini-collection of stories all linked by one major underlying one. It has a great mixture of humour and horror within the separate episodes, and again stars Dyson and Phillips. The main story is of an evil cult which sucks people in through exploiting their greed or weakness, and then either forces them to join or uses them as victims. But it’s really the minor stories that make this one special. My favourite of all, I think.

The White People – a story told by one man to another as an illustration that evil is an elemental force. It tells of a girl who from an early age has seen things invisible to others. She is introduced to old stories and pagan rituals by her nurse. This displays another common theme of the stories – female sexuality and its links to witchery, paganism and even Satanism. It’s brilliantly told and one can see its influence on both weird and witch fiction, and Machen’s siting of evil within humans rather than as an external force is particularly effective.

The White People

I could go on, and on, but I won’t. I’ll just say if, like me, you’ve managed to miss out on Machen up till now, I strongly recommend you make his acquaintance – a great collection.

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

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Endurance by Alfred Lansing

True heroism…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a straightforward, factual telling of the story of Ernest Shackleton and his crew, and their failed 1914 bid to cross the Antarctic on foot from west to east. It’s also one of the most stirring and emotionally turbulent books I’ve ever read. These were the days of the great explorers, making crazy expeditions in the name of scientific discovery, but just as much for national pride and for the sheer glory of being the first. Shackleton’s expedition was at least in part to wipe out Britain’s humiliation at being beaten to the South Pole by Norway’s Roald Amundsen.

If by any chance you don’t know whether Shackleton and his men survived, I urge you not to look it up before reading this one. I was extremely vague on the whole thing and as a result found myself totally caught up, willing them on, crying over each new disaster, celebrating with them over any small triumph. Talk about emotional rollercoaster! As it got towards the end, my tension levels were going through the roof, just as they would have been had these men been personal friends – indeed, after the long journey I’d made in their company, I truly felt they were.

The crew as the voyage begins

Having set the scene for the expedition, Lansing introduces us to Shackleton the man – rather self-aggrandizing, hoping to enrich himself, but also a great leader, loyal to his men and capable of inspiring great loyalty from them – and from the reader. I didn’t totally like him, but if I’m ever trapped in a life or death situation, I hope Shackleton is my leader. Gradually, Lansing then brings each of the men to life, using extracts from journals and other records to show us how they worked together as a team, and played together to keep their spirits up and fend off boredom even when in extreme situations. We are made privy to their jokes, their foibles, their little rivalries, and most of all to their truly heroic will to survive. When you read old adventure stories, like Rider Haggard or Conan Doyle, sometimes the heroes can seem too good to be true. But the men of the Endurance are real, and they are as great as any fictional heroes – the stronger looking out for the weaker, no disloyalty, no factions emerging, no blame being cast around when things go wrong. Working together, finding ways to overcome every hurdle, never giving up hope… oh no! I’m going to start sobbing again any minute now…

Trapped in the ice during the long polar night…

Anyway! It all goes wrong early on, when the Endurance becomes trapped in the ice. There’s nothing the crew can do except wait, and hope that the ice drifts in the direction they want to go, or breaks up enough to allow them to get back to open water. But the great pressure of the ice on the hull eventually proves too much for the brave ship, and the men find themselves out on the ice with only what they could salvage before she went to her doom. From there on, it’s a battle between man and nature, with nature holding all the cards. Having said don’t look it up, I won’t spoil it by telling you what happens, but there are moments of drama, tragedy, hope, despair and even occasionally laughter.

Frank Wild (left) and Ernest Shackleton with the crushed Endurance

Lansing presents all this in a rather understated way. The book is full of facts – like the compass position of the men each time they are able to take a measurement, or exactly what food rations they were allowed each day. He doesn’t give a running commentary on either people or events – he simply presents them to the reader, often using the crew members’ own words as recorded contemporaneously in their journals. Lansing’s language is wonderfully descriptive, but not full of overly poetic flourishes. This rather plain style, however, works beautifully – the events are so thrilling and the men are such heroes that they don’t need any great fanfares or flowery flourishes to enhance their story. And he makes us hear each crack of the ice, each groan of the ship’s timbers. We feel the bitter cold and the perpetually soaked clothing and bedding. And we are shown the men’s hunger so vividly that we too begin to see each passing seal as food…

Making camp on an ice floe…

Shackleton came to no. 5 tent, just at breakfast time, to inform Macklin that he had decided against the trip. It was a crushing disappointment, coming as it did on the heels of a miserable night of wet, misty weather during which nobody had slept much. Shackleton had hardly left when Macklin turned on Clark for some feeble reason, and the two men were almost immediately shouting at one another. The tension spread to Orde-Lees and Worsley and triggered a blasphemous exchange between them. In the midst of it, Greenstreet upset his powdered milk. He whirled on Clark, cursing him for causing the accident, because Clark had called his attention for a moment. Clark tried to protest, but Greenstreet shouted him down. Then Greenstreet paused to get his breath, and in that instant his anger was spent and he suddenly fell silent. Everyone else in the tent became quiet too and looked at Greenstreet, shaggy-haired, bearded and filthy with blubber-soot, holding his empty mug in his hand and looking helplessly down into the snow that had thirstily soaked up his precious milk. The loss was so tragic, he seemed almost on the point of weeping. Without speaking, Clark reached out and poured some of his milk into Greenstreet’s mug, then Worsley, then Macklin, and Rickinson and Kerr, Orde-Lees and finally Blackborow. They finished in silence.

I listened to the audio version narrated by Simon Prebble, and he does a fabulous job. The crew were a diverse group, with Irish, Scots, Australians, New Zealanders, etc., alongside the Englishmen who made up the majority, and Prebble gives each a distinctive voice and personality, complete with appropriate accent. This added to the feeling of getting to know them as real living individuals rather than simply as historical characters on the page.

A wonderfully emotive journey that shows the human spirit at its very best – I can’t recommend this one highly enough! I was a sobbing, traumatised wreck by the end – but was the ending tragedy or triumph? If you don’t already know, you’ll have to read it to find out… or better still, listen to the audiobook.

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Tuesday Terror! The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

Paganism and Victorian shenanigans…

First published in 1890, this is the title story in the new Oxford World’s Classics collection, The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories. It’s considered to be a classic of the genre, influential on later writers from HP Lovecraft to Stephen King. So I prodded the porpentine awake, and we sat down ready to be horrified, in this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2The Great God Pan
by Arthur Machen

Arthur Machen

‘I have heard myself called quack, and charlatan and impostor, but all the while I knew I was on the right path. Five years ago I reached the goal, and since then every day has been a preparation for what we shall do tonight.’

Clarke has been asked by his friend Dr Raymond to witness an experiment in his laboratory in far away Wales (Machen’s native land), the culmination of the work of years. He proposes to carry out a brain operation on his young ward, Mary, which, he claims, will allow her to look into the spiritual world closed off to our normal brains – to see the Great God Pan, as he puts it. Clarke isn’t so sure the whole thing is a good idea…

“Consider the matter well, Raymond. It’s a great responsibility. Something might go wrong; you would be a miserable man for the rest of your days.”
“No, I think not, even if the worst happened. As you know, I rescued Mary from the gutter, and from almost certain starvation, when she was a child; I think her life is mine, to use as I see fit.”

Crikey! I’m betting Mary’s thinking pretty nostalgically about that gutter round about now! Anyway, needless to say, it all goes horribly wrong…

…suddenly her eyes opened. Clarke quailed before them. They shone with an awful light, looking far away, and a great wonder fell upon her face, and her hands stretched out as if to touch what was invisible; but in an instant the wonder faded, and gave place to the most awful terror.

Le Faune by Carlos Schwabe.
Musées d’art et d’histoire in Geneva.

Poor Mary collapses, shrieking. When Clarke sees her next, three days later, she is lying in her bed, grinning vacantly. Fortunately, Dr Raymond manages to be quite philosophical about the whole thing…

“Yes,” said the doctor, still quite cool, “it is a great pity; she is a hopeless idiot. However, it could not be helped; and, after all, she has seen the Great God Pan.”

Oh, well, that’s all right then! This is all in the nature of a prologue. The story then jumps forward some twenty years or so and the scene shifts to London. Clarke has remained interested in the occult and makes a habit of gathering strange stories. These stories are relayed to the reader as a series of snippets or brief sketches with a variety of narrators. To the people involved these incidents seem entirely random at first. But after a while, Clarke begins to see a pattern emerging. His subsequent investigations take him into the dark belly of London’s seamy underworld, on the trail of a mysterious woman who has been connected to some of the strange and horrible events…

“I should be wrong in saying that she found her level in going to this particular quarter, or associating with these people, for from what I was told, I should think the worst den in London far too good for her. The person from whom I got my information, as you may suppose, no great Puritan, shuddered and grew sick in telling me of the nameless infamies which were laid to her charge…”

Fabulous illustration by sandpaperdaisy at deviantart.com

* * * * * * *

While the porpy and I weren’t exactly terrified, we thought this was a jolly good story. Mad science, that great love of Victorian horror and science fiction writers, mingled with paganism and a good deal of hinting at immoral and quite possibly unnatural sexual shenanigans, there’s also plenty of typically Victorian, fine descriptive writing, both of nature in the countryside and of the dark and gloomy streets of London at night. The Great God Pan is no cuddly pipe-playing faun in this one – he’s satanic, possibly in fact Satan, and we all know what happens to innocent young girls who fall in the path of that old cloven-hoofed goat. Being Victorian, we are spared the details, but Machen manages to get his meaning across. Of course, the woman is the one who succumbs to the dark pagan powers – but then the men succumb to the equally dark force of female sexuality. (They’re called Victorian attitudes for a reason…)

Combine that with Clarke’s familiarity with the seamy side of London life, where he cheerfully admits, with no attempt at concealment, “I have always been fond of diving into Queer Street for my amusement, and I found my knowledge of that locality and its inhabitants very useful.” Even worse, that he is there on the trail of a society lady who also likes to head to the lower levels to take her pleasure. No wonder it was considered pretty shocking at the time! (So disgusted were the morally upstanding Victorians, in fact, that it apparently shot to the top of the best-sellers list…)

Guillermo del Toro acknowledges the influence of the story on his film, Pan’s Labyrinth

It might be a little less shocking now, but it’s well told and one can easily see its place in the chain that links horror writers of different generations. It’s almost like a bridging link from the older ones, – the Gothic style of Poe, for example – through his contemporaries – his dark London having much of the feel of Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde – and onto those who followed, like Lovecraft, who acknowledged his debt to Machen. Great stuff, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the collection…

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

More of a ramble than a review…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When young Nicholas Nickleby’s father dies leaving him penniless, he, his mother and his sister, Kate, must throw themselves on the charity of their uncle, Ralph Nickleby. Though rich, Ralph is a cold, unfeeling man who sees no reason why he should be responsible for the welfare of his feckless brother’s family. He seems to take delight in finding the worst position he can for young Nicholas, as assistant to Wackford Squeers, proprietor and headmaster of Dotheboys Hall school for boys. This post will take Nicholas far from his family to distant Yorkshire, leaving his sister to the doubtful protection of their uncle…

I have a tendency to decide each time I read a Dickens book that it’s one of his very best, leaving me to wonder which ones aren’t! But this really IS one of his best, showcasing everything that makes Dickens one of the few writers who can present a 900-page novel and leave the reader wishing it was a little longer.

As tends to be the case in his major books, there is a mix of underlying plot with a series of episodes that stand almost on their own. So we see Nicholas first in Dotheboys Hall, where unloving parents abandon their young sons, or often stepsons, to the negligent and cruel care of Squeers and his equally horrible wife. Dickens uses this to provide a pointed commentary on this kind of legalised child abandonment, and to show the physical and emotional damage it causes. But he leavens it with some humour, often rather cruel, especially when directed at Squeers’ son and daughter (who, one could argue, are as much victims of their parents’ over-indulgence as the pupils are of their neglect).

Then there’s the wonderful section when Nicholas falls in with the travelling company of actors under the headship of actor-manager and all-round ham, Vincent Crummles. Who could ever forget the Infant Phenomenon, she of uncertain age who has been playing child roles for longer than is perhaps chronologically plausible? Dickens is at his most humorous here, with his affectionately caricatured portraits of the various actors and a few side-swipes at the practice of plagiarism which he suggests was the norm at a time when “new” plays were required each week. I love how Crummles demands that each play is written to a formula, to include all the things his actors are noted for – there must be a sword fight, the Infant Phenomenon must get to dance, there must be a romance for Miss Snevellicci, etc.

The Infant Phenomenon…

Nicholas’ third section is back in London when he is employed by the charitable Cheeryble brothers, whose main motivation in life is to do good to others. Dickens manages to avoid mawkishness in this novel (something he doesn’t always achieve) and the Cheerybles are less caricatured than my memory from earlier reads, or perhaps TV adaptations, suggested. Although the ultimate in kindliness, the brothers also have cores of steel that prevent them being taken advantage of, and allow them to act decisively when they see wrong being done. Their characterisation is undoubtedly more nuanced than many of Dickens’ “good” characters, but he still manages to use them to show that good deeds done with truly charitable hearts are repaid ten-fold by the affection and loyalty of the recipients.

Nicholas is also more complex than most of Dickens’ young heroes. At heart he is naturally good, but he’s hot-tempered, can have a wicked sense of humour at times, is not above poking fun at the dreadful Miss Fanny Squeers, and even flirts outrageously with Miss Snevellicci. He’s tougher too – although he gets help along the way, one feels Nicholas would have been perfectly capable of making his own way in life if he had to. And he’s kind and fiercely loyal – his friendship with Smike, one of the boys from Dotheboys, is beautifully portrayed, and always has me sobbing buckets. If I was forced to fall in love with a Dickens hero, Nicholas would be the one…

Nicholas gets a little hot-tempered…

I love Kate, too. She’s so different from his usual drooping, dim-witted heroines! Society makes it tough for women to stand on their own two feet at that time, but one feels that if any woman could do it, Kate could. She stands up to her uncle, she supports her mother, and she provides a stabilising influence on the more volatile Nicholas. She has her own story too, running separately from Nicholas’. Her job in Mantolini’s milliner’s shop provides another arena for Dickens’ humour, this time at the expense of the ‘macaroni’, the foppishly fashionable man-about-town, and the silly women who fall for them. Mantolini himself (real name Alfred Muntle) is pure comedy joy. But Dickens has a point to make too about the intolerable working conditions for women, working 12 or 14 hours a day and never seeing sunshine, all for a pittance barely enough to keep body and soul together.

Mantolini gets a little over-dramatic…

Through Kate, and later through Nicholas’ love interest, Dickens shows how women were so much at the mercy of men, to be treated kindly or cruelly at their whim, with very little recourse. Lord Frederick Verisopht, despite the typically silly name, is another complex character who grows and changes during the course of the book, first behaving as a predator towards Kate, driven on by the uniformly evil Sir Mulberry Hawk, but gradually realising the wrong that is being done to her. I have a very soft spot for Sir Frederick. (Sorry! I should have tried harder to resist that…)

Of course, there’s a whole batch of quirkier characters too. Vain and empty-headed Mrs Nickleby is a comic gem who had me laughing at her (affectionately, mostly) many times. Newman Noggs and John Browdie, though very different, are each the kind of loyal friend who pop up often in Dickens to help the young hero along the way. The story of the Kenwigs, Mr Lillyvick and Miss Petowker is a delightful little satire on class and cupidity. And the late-blossoming romance of dear little Miss La Creevy is guaranteed to melt the hardest heart.

The greatest writer the world has ever known…

For me, though, the most intriguing character in the book has to be Uncle Ralph, the villain of the piece. Again, he’s much more subtly drawn than Dickens’ villains sometimes are. We get a hint as to why he may have turned out as he did, and though we’re hoping throughout for him to get his comeuppance, when it comes it seems particularly harsh, leaving this reader at least feeling somewhat torn. He deserves to pay for his behaviour to the young Nicklebys and others, for sure, but the price is cruelly high. I always remember the old RSC adaptation (which I may re-watch and review separately) where the role was played superbly by John Woodvine, and I remember how he made me feel that Ralph demanded a little pity too… just a little, but perhaps enough to keep us all human.

More of a ramble than a review, but in summary – one of Dickens’ very best, and since he’s without question the greatest writer the world has ever known, then that’s pretty spectacular…

Book 20 of 90

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In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson

Blood, bloody, bloodier, bloodiest…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1980. Travis Stillwell lives life on the road, travelling from small town to small town in Texas, running from the memories of his earlier life, seeking something lost. Some nights he’ll pick up a woman in a honky-tonk bar, but not for love – these women are victims, killed almost as a sacrifice to those demons he can’t shake off. But one night he picks up Rue, a beautiful young woman who is more evil than even the horrors in his own mind – a woman searching for her own kind of mate, who will change him in ways he could never have imagined even in his worst nightmares. When he wakes up the next day, he is wounded, bloodied, and prey to a strange and terrible hunger – a hunger he must satisfy so that he and Rue can live.

OK, so it’s a vampire novel. Let’s get that out of the way straight off. It has scenes of the bloodiest horror written in language so vividly, viscerally descriptive that I may never be able to wash my mind clean of them. But the odd thing is, I’m not sure I want to…

“Travis lay the knife on the floor and shuffled forward on his knees like a man about to perform a tender act. He put his face between the girl’s white legs and touched his lips to her wound, and his mouth filled instantly and he was forced to spit.
EAT!
But there was something else now too, wasn’t there? A warmth. A kindling.
He put his lips against the wound again and this time swallowed when his mouth had filled and the horror and revulsion he had imagined were not the things he felt. He felt only a bright relief as the blood slicked his throat and struck the furnace of his gut and its heat spread, and before all of this had even happened he had swallowed again, and again. . .
Take it all, Rue said. Take it all.”

…because the book is so, so much more than that. Part examination of the hard-scrabble life of rural Texans and part-metaphor for the lasting shockwaves of the traumas visited on America, and its young men in particular, by the Vietnam war, it’s right up there with the best of American fiction writing. I’ve seen it being compared to McCarthy and McMurtry which makes me want to go and read both those authors straight away. The prose is gorgeous, moving seamlessly between melancholy beauty and savage brutality and creating indelible images in both. I could see the landscape and the sky; feel the dust, the burning sun, the rain; smell the stale beer and cigarette smoke and the all-pervasive stench of blood and death.

The characterisation is intense and flawless, so that we come to know and care about each individual. Travis stops at a run-down motel, where young widow Annabelle ekes out a precarious existence and does her best to help her young son Sandy deal with the death of his father. Her kindness to this stranger, who is indeed strange, leads her into mortal peril, at the same time as it awakens in Travis a kind of longing that tears his dual nature apart. Meantime, Travis is being pursued by veteran detective Reader for his earlier, human crimes. Dogged and determined, Reader has seen too much horror already in his life and is haunted by his own personal tragedy, but he’s a good man – a moral man, who provides a rock of decency for us to cling to, a promise of hope amid the darkness.

Remarkably, the author makes us care too for Travis, serial killer turned vampire, as he gradually reveals the experiences that have formed him, first as the child of a stern, forbidding father and a pleasure-loving mother, and later, in Vietnam, a time which branded him physically and mentally. Even Rue, the disgusting, monstrously evil thing that gives the novel its truest horror, has her own back-story. Perhaps it’s too hard to sympathise with Rue, but Davidson makes us understand her, and oh, how we feel her hunger! For blood. For love.

Andy Davidson

To me, the vampire thing felt very much like an allegory for the rot and horror of Vietnam, for these men who returned to no hero’s welcome, whose stories were left untold for too long, left to fester in the darkness of silence. For most of the novel I wasn’t even sure whether the vampire aspect was real or a kind of figment of Travis’ tortured imagination. A part of me wishes Davidson had left it fully ambiguous, because inside here is a great American novel and I fear it may be sidelined into genre fiction. And at the same time, although the horror is handled superbly with some fabulously gory imagery, it may be too slow and too literary in style for many dedicated horror fans.

Certainly, the vampire element would have ensured I’d never have read it, had I not been sent a copy by the publisher. Even then I started it with reluctance, expecting to read a few chapters and then abandon it. But these are not the vampires of modern fiction – sexy heroes who seduce as they suck the blood of their victims. There is more of the original Dracula or Carmilla perhaps, lust and insatiable hunger, but much darker, more brutal – bloodier. But even nightmares are bearable when they are revealed with integrity and meaning and relayed in such astonishing language and imagery. There are scenes I will never forget – scenes of utter brutality that made me cry for the sorrows of the world. Nor will I forget the people – the desperate search for humanity and love that we see in each character, however distorted. And the writing! Ah, the writing!

“He watched her go, thinking of the children they had been when they were married. He eighteen, she seventeen. She a half-breed, he a white Texan boy, theirs a romance, Reader had always thought, befitting the romance of the land itself, the wide open spaces and faraway horizons, where the hearts of the young were as big and green as the vast sweep of the eastern grasslands, and the land and the courses of the lives lived on it moved and rolled in ways no man could ever predict, as though the breath of giants were easing over them, shaping them, turning them.”

Do I recommend it? I hope I’ve made it clear how graphically horrific some parts are, and also how exceptional I think it is, how it transcends horror to become something altogether more profound and strangely beautiful. The decision has to be yours. Personally, I am so glad to have read it.

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

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The Country House Library by Mark Purcell

Books, books, glorious books!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This beautifully produced and gorgeously, lavishly illustrated publication is far more than a coffee table book. It’s a comprehensive history of British bookishness from its beginning to the present day. The main thrust of it covers the 17th to 19th centuries – the period when the country house came into its own and wealthy people saw Libraries as an essential feature of their homes. Mark Purcell looks at both the books and the rooms they were stored in, and differentiates between them by calling the book collections ‘libraries’ with a small ‘l’ and the rooms ‘Libraries’ with a capital ‘L’, and I’m going to stick with that for this review.

There’s so much in the book that I’ll only be able to give a flavour of it. Purcell has clearly had a ball prying into the bookshelves and book catalogues of centuries’ worth of bibliophiles, and his enthusiasm is matched by deep knowledge, backed up with an immense amount of research. This results in a phenomenal amount of detail, which in the early chapters overwhelmed me a little and made the reading heavy going. Purcell doesn’t simplify by explaining bookish vocabulary which may be unfamiliar to the general reader (like me!), so at first I found myself doing a bit of googling.

The Great Library at Cassiobury Park

But I found that I gradually became fascinated, especially when I realised that the bookshelves of the rich – who, of course, were also the powerful – cast an interesting sidelight on many famous historical personages and the societies in which they lived. Because Purcell tells us as much about the storage of books as the books themselves, it also becomes an architectural history, and a history of the lifestyles, interests and leisure pursuits of these people – an aspect often not covered in standard histories which tend to be concentrated on politics and power.

Eighth century book storage

Purcell follows a fairly linear timeline throughout. He starts with the speculation that the tradition of libraries in Britain began in Roman villas, with scrolls, and discusses in depth what kind of books would have been read. In the next few chapters, he covers the period up to and through medieval times, showing that there was a considerable level of scholarship amongst the nobility. He also discusses how books were stored before Libraries became a feature – in chests or flat on shelves in small studies or closets set aside purely for the purpose of reading and study. Not unnaturally, the main focus is on the English since they comprise by far the largest population, but happily he ranges out to Scotland, Ireland and Wales too throughout the book, which I found tended to bring together the histories of those nations, showing a common Britishness that often doesn’t come through in histories or biographies of a particular subject.

Medieval study

He then goes on to discuss the foundations (and fates) of the great libraries of the late 17th and 18th centuries, some of which would later form the basis of many of our great national and public collections today (and some of America’s and even Australia’s too). By now, some of the collectors were including lighter, more entertaining books amongst the great classics and heavy religious texts – novels, but also lots of informative books, like cookery books, books on animal husbandry, etc. English was by now more common than Latin and Greek, and books in modern languages were beginning to appear on the shelves of the well-travelled. Illustrated books of things like foreign flora and fauna made me feel that this illustrated book is part of a long tradition, and while wikipedia and Google are fabulous alternatives for those of us with modest homes, I lusted for the libraries of the 19th century in particular.

Alnswick Castle

I also lusted for their Libraries! From the illustrations, the earliest ones look rather bare and functional – huge half-empty rooms surrounded by shelving. But by the 19th century, Libraries had become living spaces where people spent part of their leisure time. Railways had allowed for the tradition of the weekend house party to begin, and Libraries were becoming part of the attractions of the country house, sometimes even including billiard tables, or being situated next door to the billiard room. Comfy seats appear – and footstools, card tables, open fires and reading lamps. The nouveau riche in particular went for comfort and novels, and I found myself longing to either be a nouveau riche 19th or early 20th century country house owner, or at the very least to be invited to one of their house parties. Another place to be added to my ‘where to go when they invent a time machine’ list.

Purcell is a bit saddened by book collectors who had old books rebound – personally I think they’re gorgeous!

In the major houses, books regularly outgrew the space in the main Library, (don’t we all recognise that problem!), so that other rooms would gradually be co-opted into use as secondary Libraries. Purcell shows that many of the householders provided books and even occasionally specific Libraries for their servants, and some of the libraries gradually began to operate almost like public lending libraries for people in the surrounding countryside.

On the right: Vita Sackville-West’s tower room library

Purcell finishes by discussing the 20th century, when many of these libraries were sold off or donated, sometimes as a method of paying off swingeing inheritance taxes. He himself works with the National Trust, the body that has taken over responsibility for maintaining many of these great country houses on behalf of the nation, and he tells how they’ve gradually realised the bookish treasures they’ve acquired along with the houses. A sad and also happy end – the passing of a great tradition, but hopefully these rooms and books will be maintained and made available to scholars and the public for years to come, even if we’re not allowed to actually read them.

As you can hopefully tell, I loved this – it might have been heavy going in places, but I learned lots about a subject dear to my bookish heart. And those illustrations are to die for…

Chatsworth: Darcy’s Library!!

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

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The Mystery of Briony Lodge by David Bagchi

Say nothing of the dog…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

“To Montmorency she is always the woman.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Bagchi

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

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

NB This book was provided for review by the author.

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