Six Degrees of Separation – From Funder to…

Chain links…

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

Stasiland by Anna Funder. I haven’t read this non-fiction book, but here’s what Goodreads tells me…

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell; shortly afterwards the two Germanies reunited, and East Germany ceased to exist. In a country where the headquarters of the secret police can become a museum literally overnight, and one in 50 East Germans were informing on their countrymen and women, there are a thousand stories just waiting to get out. Anna Funder tells extraordinary tales from the underbelly of the former East Germany…

Sounds rather good and has a zillion glowing reviews. Hmm, one for the wishlist, I think!

East Germany of course was communist before the fall of the Wall, and that leads me to my first book…

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth. The story of Ira Ringold, a Jewish-American radio star who, at the height of his stardom marries Eve Frame, once a Hollywood starlet and now also a radio star. The marriage is disastrous and, when Ira finally leaves her, Eve publishes a memoir in which she claims he is a communist taking orders from the Kremlin and betraying America. In the McCarthy era, this accusation alone is enough to destroy Ira’s career. The second book of Roth’s wonderful American Trilogy.

America’s not too keen on communism, but the country in my next book would claim to have made communism work…

Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong. The first in the long-running Inspector Chen series, this tells of the murder of a young woman who was a model worker under the Communist regime. The author’s depiction of Shanghai and the lives of the people there in the 1990s is fascinating and detailed, describing food, clothing, customs and the rapidly changing face of Chinese life at a point where capitalism was beginning to be encouraged after years of strict communism, but where the state still had a stranglehold on every aspect of life.

China can’t claim to be the first communist state, though – that honour belongs to the country in my next book…

The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus. A book that takes us from one death-bed – Tolstoy’s – to another – Lenin’s, and along the way tells us of the early development of the propaganda methods used by Lenin and Stalin. Told with all of Kalfus’ sparkling storytelling skills, this has 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.

Communism may have failed fairly spectacularly in Russia but that doesn’t stop revolutionaries attempting to impose it in other countries from time to time, like the country in my next book…

Springtime in a Broken Mirror by Mario Benedetti. Santiago is a political prisoner in Montevideo, Uruguay, in the 1970s, following the failed revolution there. His family and friends are scattered, exiled from the country they call home. This is a beautifully written book and profoundly moving. Although it’s based around the revolutions of South America, it is not about politics as such; rather, it is about the impact that political upheaval has on the individuals caught up in it. It’s about home and exile, loneliness, longing, belonging. It’s about loyalty and love, and hope, and sometimes despair.

The communists may not have been able to hang on to power in Uruguay, but unfortunately they have a stranglehold in the country in my next book…

The Accusation by Bandi. This is a collection of seven short stories written between 1989 and 1995 under the regimes of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in North Korea, and smuggled out of the country to be published in the West. The stories are strongly polemical, as would be expected under the circumstances, and highly critical of the dehumanisation under the regime, where every aspect of people’s lives and even thoughts are dictated and controlled through fear, and truth is manipulated in true Orwellian fashion.

One day, hopefully, the 38th Parallel will no longer form a divide between North and South, and Korea will be united again as one free democratic state. Which brings me back to Berlin…

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré. The classic that changed the tone of spy thrillers – a bleak, cold portrayal of the work of spies far removed from the glamour of James Bond and his like, as world weary British spymaster Leamas takes on his East German counterparts. Le Carré shows a moral equivalence between the agents on both sides of the wall rather than the good Brits/evil enemies portrayal that was more standard in fiction before his time. Both sides are shown as using methods that are murky at best and the question that underpins it is the old one of whether the ends justify the means.

* * * * *

So from Funder to le Carré via communism, communism, communism, communism, communism and communism!

Hope you enjoyed the journey! 😀

TBR Thursday 235… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. I usually start off pretty well and then it all goes horribly wrong later in the year. However, due to a severe dose of plagueomania, for most of March I’ve been struggling to read anything except thrillers and mysteries, so I fear the horribly wrong bit has started early this year !

Here goes – the first check-in of the year…

Actually I thought the reading targets figures might be much worse than they are. The classics are taking the worst hit as generally speaking they require the most concentration. The Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge won’t get underway properly until I finish the Around the World Challenge, which should happen in April but may drift to May.

However, the TBR figures are going in completely the wrong direction! After exercising iron willpower over new releases all last year I seem to have gone mad this year and have acquired about a million! Well, slight exaggeration but it won’t be if I keep going on like this. Must do better!

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in December, and this quarter I’ve done most of my travelling in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. One is still patiently waiting for me to review it – better do it soon before the holiday tan wears off! It’ll appear in the next round-up.

On the Main Journey (made by the characters in Around the World in 80 Days) I visited the Suez Canal only to find that I’d turned up in the middle of the Suez Crisis to witness the dying throes of the British Empire, in PH Newby’s Something to Answer For, the first ever Booker Prize winner.

I also had a few detours this quarter. First, I went to the Swedish island of Öland, where I got involved with the disappearance of a little boy many years earlier, in Johan Theorin’s excellent Echoes From the Dead. Off to Sicily next where I got caught up in Garibaldi’s attempt to unify Italy, spending some time with the decaying aristocracy in Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Then I found myself in Ruritania, (which may have been a fictional country but is still probably better known than many a real one so I’ve decided it counts!) and had great fun with Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll as he impersonated the Ruritanian King in Anthony Hope’s swashbuckling adventure The Prisoner of Zenda. I also returned to China, a destination I’d already visited. I enjoyed the magically realistic look at life for the modern urban Chinese woman in An Yu’s Braised Pork so much I’ve decided to swap it in to replace the one I’d previously listed for China.

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

76 down, 4 to go!

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The Classics Club

Although I’ve only read three from my Classics Club list this quarter, I had a backlog of four from the previous quarter still to review. So six reviews this quarter, and one still to review which will appear next time…

57. The New Road by Neil Munro – Set midway between the two major Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745, this great adventure story tells of two men travelling north into Highland country at the time when General Wade was building his New Road as part of the effort to pacify the clans. Entertaining and very well written, although the heavy sprinkling of Scots language and rhythms combined with its assumption of familiarity with the historical context might make it a demanding read for non-Scots. But for me, 5 stars.

58. The Go-Between by LP Hartley – A re-read of a book I loved in my youth and happily I loved it just as much all over again. The narrator Leo looks back to the summer of 1900 from a distance of fifty years. The story he tells us is one of subtle gradations of class and social convention, of sexual awakening and the loss of innocence, and over it all is an air of unease created by the older Leo’s knowledge of the horrors of the wars which would soon engulf the 20th century, changing this enchanted world of privilege for ever. 5 stars

59. The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown – A miserable and misanthropic portrayal of small-town Scottish life in the mid-19th century. I admired the skill of it, and the use of language, but it’s not an enjoyable read. And, while it is undoubtedly insightful about some aspects of Scottish culture, it certainly doesn’t give a full or rounded picture. 3 generous stars.

60. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway – No such reservations for this wonderful classic set during the Spanish Civil War. A love story, a story of the horror of war, of loyalty and comradeship, and surprisingly with a very strong female character at its heart, there is so much beauty in this book, side by side with so much brutality and so much tragedy. A real masterpiece – the descriptive writing is wonderful and the depth of insight into humanity and how people behave in times of war is breathtaking. 5 supernova-bright stars.

61. Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens – Set during the Gordon Riots of 1780, this is Dickens’ first attempt at the historical novel. The structure he uses is not wholly successful, but it’s filled as always with some delightfully original characters and also has some very fine mob scenes that hint at what would come in his later, and much better, A Tale of Two Cities. 4 stars because I’m comparing it to other Dickens’ novels, but would be 5 stars if compared to almost any other author’s work.

62. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – In this excoriating study of the horrors of colonialism in Africa, Conrad shows the devastating impact the white man has on both the society and the land of Africa, but he also shows that this devastation turns back on the coloniser, corrupting him physically and psychologically, and by extension, corrupting the societies from which he comes. Not an easy read, but more than worth the effort. 5 stars.

A fantastic quarter! I hope my next batch of classics are just as good!

Update to the list: I abandoned the third book in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy, Grey Granite, at too early a stage to review. (If you’re interested in why, here’s a link to my comments on Goodreads.) So I’m replacing it with The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson. Details will appear on a future TBR post.

62 down, 28 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

Although I’ve continued to read a ton of vintage crime, I’ve only actually read two for this challenge this quarter. To see the full challenge, click here.

35.  The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie – When a rich old lady is killed in her country house, the various members of the household come under suspicion. This is the first book ever published by Agatha Christie and therefore our first introduction to the two characters who would become her most famous, Poirot and Hastings. Great fun to see how the Queen of Crime began! 4½ stars.

36.  Trent’s Last Case by EC Bentley – Another murder in a country house, this time of an American business tycoon. Trent is a journalist and amateur detective who soon thinks he knows what happened, but has his own reasons for not revealing his suspicions. From 1913, it’s an intriguing look at one stage on the road to development of the genre. 4 stars.

36 down, 66 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

Although this challenge hasn’t really started yet, it would be crazy not to link Hemingway’s classic to it…

1.  For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. This story of love set amidst war is one of the best known books in English about the Spanish Civil War. The wonderful writing and profound insight into Spanish culture and the realities of war mean it richly deserves its status as a major classic. A glowing 5 stars and a great way to start the challenge!

1 down, and who knows how many to go!

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Another great quarter’s reading, even if the last month has thrown me off track a little! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

Trent’s Last Case by EC Bentley

Person or persons unknown…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When wealthy American business tycoon Sigsbee Manderson is found shot dead in the grounds of his English country house, freelance journalist and amateur detective Philip Trent is commissioned by one of the Fleet Street newspapers to investigate. Trent quickly learns that Manderson’s marriage was in difficulties. His young trophy bride Mabel had soon discovered that the life of a rich socialite bored her, and although she did her best to fulfil her duties as wife and hostess, Manderson had become increasingly withdrawn from her. Also in the house are Manderson’s two secretaries: his American business secretary, Calvin Bunner, and John Marlowe, an Englishman who looked after the social side of Manderson’s diary. A manservant and a stereotypical French maid complete the list of inhabitants, while Mabel’s uncle, coincidentally an old friend of Trent’s, Nathaniel Cupples, is ensconced in a nearby hotel. Although the coroner’s inquest finds a verdict of murder by person or persons unknown, Trent soon feels he has a good idea what happened that night. But for reasons of his own, he can’t reveal his suspicions…

This one was first published in 1913, before the Golden Age had got properly under way and therefore before the genre had developed its recognisable structure. Here we get Trent’s solution halfway through, along with his reasons for not revealing it. The rest of the book takes us through what follows, eventually leading to Trent finding the full truth, complete with a little twist in the tail. It’s enjoyable in parts, but the structure makes it uneven, and it’s one of those ones that depends very much on two adults being unable to have a simple conversation which would have brought out the truth much earlier. It also goes wildly far over the credibility line more than once, all becoming rather ridiculous in the end. Admittedly, what I just called ridiculous, Martin Edwards describes as a ‘clever surprise solution’, so as always these things are in the eye of the beholder.

Challenge details:
Book: 12
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1913

EC Bentley

Edwards also points out, in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, that Bentley was experimenting with some of the things which would later become part of the standard for mystery novels – the unlikeable victim over whom the reader need not waste too much time grieving, the country house with its enclosed set of suspects, and an attempt at fair play, making sure the reader is given all the clues to pit her wits against the detective. I’m not sure how well he succeeds in that last aspect – when the clues and solutions are so wildly incredible, one wonders if the reader can really be said to have a fair chance even if all the information is given. I did spot one or two of the clues and worked out little bits of what was going on, but I came out of it rather glad that my mind isn’t quite distorted enough to have worked out the whole puzzle!

It didn’t become a favourite for me, or inspire me to seek out more of Bentley’s Trent books (it turns out not have been his last case after all!) but overall I enjoyed it, partly for the story itself and partly for the interest of seeing another stage towards the development of the genre.

I downloaded it from wikisource.

TBR Thursday 234…

Episode 234

It seems very odd to me that my plagueophobia seems to be stopping me from reading but not stopping me from acquiring books! The TBR is back at 214 – up 6! 

(Nope, no reason for this gif other than that it makes me happy!)

So I’ve thrown my reading list out of the window (making sure no one was within six feet of it at the time, of course) and picked some lighter reading till I get back to normal…

Historical Crime Fiction

Execution by SJ Parris

Courtesy of HarperCollins via NetGalley. I read and enjoyed the first book in this series when it came out way back in 2011, and the second book has been lingering unread on my TBR since 2014. The series is now up to number 6, and tragically, despite being so far behind, I couldn’t resist… well, it’s about Mary, Queen of Scots, after all…

The Blurb says: The sixth Tudor thriller featuring Giordano Bruno: heretic, philosopher and spy. Perfect for fans of C. J. Sansom.

England, 1586.

A TREASONOUS CONSPIRACY
Giordano Bruno returns to England to bring shocking new intelligence to Sir Francis Walsingham. A band of Catholic Englishmen are plotting to kill Queen Elizabeth and spring Mary Queen of Scots from prison to take the English throne in her place.

A DEADLY TRAP
Bruno is surprised to find that Walsingham is aware of the plot, led by the young, wealthy noble Anthony Babington, and is allowing it to progress. His hope is that Mary will put her support in writing and condemn herself to a traitor’s death.

A QUEEN IN MORTAL DANGER
Bruno is tasked with going undercover to join the conspirators. Can he stop them before he is exposed? Either way a queen will die; Bruno must make sure it is the right one. [FF says: I wonder which Queen will die? Tense, isn’t it…? 😉 ]

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Crime

All That’s Dead by Stuart MacBride

Courtesy of HarperCollins. I used to love this series in the early days but gradually I felt the characters evolved from being quirky to being outright cartoonish – I felt MacBride had bored of his own creations and wasn’t taking it seriously any more. So I gave up after book 8. However HC sent me this one – book 12 – and I’m happy to jump back in and see if he’s got back into his stride…

The Blurb says: Darkness is coming…

Inspector Logan McRae was looking forward to a nice simple case – something to ease him back into work after a year off on the sick. [FF says: Again? I’m sure this is at least the third book that has begun with Logan returning after a year off on the sick. Perhaps he should consider retraining. 🤔] But the powers-that-be have other ideas…

The high-profile anti-independence campaigner, Professor Wilson, has gone missing, leaving nothing but bloodstains behind. There’s a war brewing between the factions for and against Scottish Nationalism. Infighting in the police ranks. And it’s all playing out in the merciless glare of the media. Logan’s superiors want results, and they want them now.

Someone out there is trying to make a point, and they’re making it in blood. If Logan can’t stop them, it won’t just be his career that dies.

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Thriller

The Split by Sharon Bolton

Courtesy of Orion via NetGalley. A new thriller from Sharon Bolton is always a special treat – one of my favourite current authors…

The Blurb says: She’s got nowhere else to hide…and now he’s coming for her.

Two years ago Felicity Lloyd desperately signed up for an extended research trip working on the remote island of South Georgia.

It was her only way to escape.

And now he’s coming for her.

Freddie Lloyd has just got out of prison for murder and is on his way to where Felicity is hiding. And this time, he won’t stop until he finds her.

Because no matter how far you run, some secrets will always catch up with you…

Tense, gripping and with a twist you won’t see coming, [FF says: well, I will now since you’ve told me to expect it! 🙄] Sharon Bolton is back in an explosive new thriller about a woman on the run…

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Thriller

The Never Game by Jeffery Deaver

Courtesy of HarperCollins again. I was a huge fan of Deaver’s earliest books way back in the Dark Ages, but he lost me with his hugely successful and long-running Lincoln Rhyme series – I could never buy into the character, I’m afraid. So I’m delighted to see him starting a new series and can’t wait to see if this will revive the old magic for me!

The Blurb says: From the bestselling and award-winning master of suspense, the first novel in a thrilling new series, introducing Colter Shaw.

“You have been abandoned.”

A young woman has gone missing in Silicon Valley and her father has hired Colter Shaw to find her. The son of a survivalist family, Shaw is an expert tracker. Now he makes a living as a “reward seeker,” traveling the country to help police solve crimes and private citizens locate missing persons. But what seems a simple investigation quickly thrusts him into the dark heart of America’s tech hub and the cutthroat billion-dollar video-gaming industry.

“Escape if you can.”

When another victim is kidnapped, the clues point to one video game with a troubled past–The Whispering Man. In that game, the player has to survive after being abandoned in an inhospitable setting with five random objects. Is a madman bringing the game to life? [FF says: Oooh… 😲]

“Or die with dignity.”

Shaw finds himself caught in a cat-and-mouse game, risking his own life to save the victims even as he pursues the kidnapper across both Silicon Valley and the dark ‘net. Encountering eccentric game designers, trigger-happy gamers and ruthless tech titans, he soon learns that he isn’t the only one on the hunt: someone is on his trail and closing fast.

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Why hadn’t the explorers known by looking at the sky that the world was round? The sky was curved, like the inside of a huge glass ball, very dark blue with the sprinkles of bright stars. The night was quiet. There was the smell of warm cedars. She was not trying to think of the music at all when it came back to her. The first part happened in her mind just as it had been played. She listened in a quiet, slow way and thought the notes out like a problem in geometry so she would remember. She could see the shape of the sounds very clear and she would not forget them.

~The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

* * * * *

….Through the window of the bar parlour the short red face of Mr. Clark could be seen peering after the lorry. It carried some country policeman in uniform. As near the pond as it could get, it stopped. The policemen clambered down and hauled out a cumbrous apparatus of iron and rope.
….The Chief Constable strode up to the pond. “It’s not so big, Mr. Fortune. We’ll soon make sure one way or the other.”
….“Yes, yes.” Reggie walked around the bank and measured distances with his eye. “We’re going to make quite sure. They couldn’t throw him further than this. Begin from here and work towards that end.”
….The drags were put in and the constabulary hauled and the black water grew turbid and yellow. The ropes strained. “Got something,” the Chief Constable grunted. “Go steady, lads.” Out of the depths of the pond into the shallows came a shapeless mass of cloth. Policemen splashed in and lifted on to the bank something that had been a man.

~The Football Photograph by HC Bailey, in Settling Scores

* * * * *

….“We want a cheap loaf, cheap bread and provisions cheaper!”
….From the back came a song, quiet at first then louder as we all joined in.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common off the goose.

….All of us singing. I hadn’t known the words before I went in, but they were fixed pretty straight by the time I came out.
….I crossed the street, humming the tune and the thought of a good roast goose dinner in my head. I’d have it with sausages or a thick slice of bacon. I didn’t mind. Bacon. My tummy near collapsed at the thought. And peas. All the peas I could eat.
….It was punishing to think of.
….All the singing in the world couldn’t hide a thing. I was hard hungry. And I was no nearer to being fed.

~The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd

* * * * *

….When he writes of the siege of St Andrews Castle Knox can be pacily exciting, but here his tone is warmly hagiographical. He dramatizes Wishart’s words effortlessly. Knox’s plain prose is quickened by biblical phrasings, spiced by local and temporal details like the dyke at the edge of the moor and the pleasant sunshine. In such vignettes Knox writes like a proto-novelist. His wish to manipulate history seems to prepare the soil for the historical novel which would take strong root in Scotland centuries later in the age of Walter Scott. Elsewhere, as Knox delights in flourishing long transcripts of his own arguments and speeches, the reader is soon wearied by his hectoring egotism and realizes that for this man a three-hour sermon might have been on the short side.

~Scotland’s Books by Robert Crawford

* * * * *

….At last we were at the cathedral. Its great grey front, embellished with hundreds of statues and boasting a pair of the finest oak doors in Europe, rose for the first time before me, and the sudden sense of my audacity almost overcame me. Everything was in a mist as I dismounted. I saw the Marshall and Sapt dimly, and dimly the throng of gorgeously robed priests who awaited me. And my eyes were still dim as I walked up the great nave, with the pealing of the organ in my ears. I saw nothing of the brilliant throng that filled it, I hardly distinguished the stately figure of the Cardinal as he rose from the archiepiscopal throne to greet me. Two faces only stood out side by side clearly before my eyes – the face of a girl, pale and lovely, surmounted by a crown of the glorious Elphberg hair (for in a woman it is glorious), and the face of a man, whose full-blooded red cheeks, black hair, and dark deep eyes told me that at last I was in presence of my brother, Black Michael. And when he saw me his red cheeks went pale all in a moment, and his helmet fell with a clatter on the floor. Till that moment, I believe that he had not realised that the king was in very truth come to Strelsau.

~The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

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So… are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 233…

Episode 233

A massive drop of 5 in the TBR since I last posted two weeks ago – down to 208! I’ve been far too busy stockpiling chocolate and cat treats to acquire books! However, now that I have been sentenced to solitary confinement either I’ll be racing through the books on my TBR or I’ll be spending way too much time browsing the bookshelves on Amazon…

Here are a few that will reach the top of the heap soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

An excellent choice, people! Mind you, this whole thing is reminding me of how many seriously tempting books are lingering unread on my TBR so any of the four would have been excellent. The other three contenders all scored pretty evenly in the end, but this one took a clear lead from the beginning and never faltered as it sped towards the finish line.  I plan to read and review it by the end of June. 

The Blurb says: Penang, 1939. Sixteen-year-old Philip Hutton is a loner. Half English, half Chinese and feeling neither, he discovers a sense of belonging in an unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat. Philip shows his new friend around his adored island of Penang, and in return Endo trains him in the art and discipline of aikido. But such knowledge comes at a terrible price. The enigmatic Endo is bound by disciplines of his own and when the Japanese invade Malaya, threatening to destroy Philip’s family and everything he loves, he realises that his trusted sensei – to whom he owes absolute loyalty – has been harbouring a devastating secret. Philip must risk everything in an attempt to save those he has placed in mortal danger and discover who and what he really is.

With masterful and gorgeous narrative, replete with exotic and captivating images, sounds and aromas – of rain swept beaches, magical mountain temples, pungent spice warehouses, opulent colonial ballrooms and fetid and forbidding rainforests – Tan Twan Eng weaves a haunting and unforgettable story of betrayal, barbaric cruelty, steadfast courage and enduring love.

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Historical Fiction

Serena by Ron Rash

Although Serena didn’t win the previous People’s Choice poll, MarinaSofia mentioned that she had a copy in her TBR too, so we decided to read it and co-ordinate our reviews for the week beginning 13th April. Regular commenter Christine (who doesn’t blog… yet) is going to read it too and share her view in the comments. Anyone else who has a copy fishing about, or feels like acquiring one, is more than welcome to join us!

The Blurb says: The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains—but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattle-snakes, even saving her husband’s life in the wilderness. Together this lord and lady of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons’ intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning.

Rash’s masterful balance of violence and beauty yields a riveting novel that, at its core, tells of love both honored and betrayed.

* * * * *

Vintage Crime

Settling Scores edited by Martin Edwards

Courtesy of the British Library. A new anthology from the BL is always a treat and I vastly prefer reading about sport than participating in it! And look! I’m sure that’s Centre Court at Wimbledon on the cover! Plus, I’m always a sucker for the word ‘skulduggery’…

The Blurb says: ‘The detective story is a game between two players, the author… and the reader.’ – Ronald Knox

From the squash court to the golf links, the football pitch to the swimming pool and the race course to the cricket square, no court, grounds, stadium or stand is safe from skulduggery. Entering the arena where sport clashes with crime, this spirited medley of short stories showcases the greatest deadly plays and criminal gambits of the mystery genre.

With contenders by some of the finest writers in the field, including Celia Fremlin, Michael Gilbert, Gladys Mitchell and Leo Bruce, this new anthology offers a ringside view of the darker side of sports and proves that crime, naturally, is a game for all seasons.

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Thriller

The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Courtesy of HarperCollins. Another of the little batch of contemporary thrillers and crime novels that HP kindly sent me, with perfect timing as it turns out since I’m not in the mood for heavyweight fiction at the moment. This isn’t one I’d have picked for myself necessarily, but it’s getting great reviews and there’s nothing like a murder or two to make the day seem a little brighter… 😉

The Blurb says: On an island off the coast of Ireland, guests gather to celebrate two people joining their lives together as one. The groom: handsome and charming, a rising television star. The bride: smart and ambitious, a magazine publisher. It’s a wedding for a magazine, or for a celebrity: the designer dress, the remote location, the luxe party favours, the boutique whiskey. The cell phone service may be spotty and the waves may be rough, but every detail has been expertly planned and will be expertly executed.

But perfection is for plans, and people are all too human. As the champagne is popped and the festivities begin, resentments and petty jealousies begin to mingle with the reminiscences and well wishes. The groomsmen begin the drinking game from their school days. The bridesmaid not-so-accidentally ruins her dress. The bride’s oldest (male) friend gives an uncomfortably caring toast.

And then someone turns up dead. Who didn’t wish the happy couple well? And perhaps more important, why?

* * * * *

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 232 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 232

(A reminder of the People’s Choice plan. Once a month or so, I shall list the four oldest books on the TBR, then the next four, and so on, and each time you will select the one you think I should read, either because you’ve read and enjoyed it, or because you think the blurb looks good. And I will read the one you pick within three months! If I begin to fall behind, I’ll have a gap till I catch up again. In the event of a tie, I’ll have the casting vote.)

OK, are we all ready for the next batch of four? Leaping ahead by a whole year, these are all books that I added to my TBR in 2013/4, so it’s about time I read one of them, eh? I will read and review this month’s winner by the end of June.

Are you ready? Then put on your flippers, adjust your snorkel and dive in…

Crime

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney

Added 4th January 2013. 3,879 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.66 average rating. 449 pages.

The Blurb says: Rose Janko is missing. It has been seven years since she disappeared, and nobody said a word. Now, following the death of his wife, her father Leon feels compelled to find her. Rumour had it she ran off when her baby boy was born with the family’s genetic disorder. Leon is not so sure. He wants to know the truth and he hires a private investigator to discover it – Ray Lovell. Ray starts to delve deeper, but his investigation is hampered by the very people who ought to be helping him – the Jankos. He cannot understand their reluctance to help. Why don’t they want to find Rose Janko?

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Historical Fiction

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

Added 5th June 2013. 10,890 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.23 average. 460 pages.

The Blurb says: Penang, 1939. Sixteen-year-old Philip Hutton is a loner. Half English, half Chinese and feeling neither, he discovers a sense of belonging in an unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat. Philip shows his new friend around his adored island of Penang, and in return Endo trains him in the art and discipline of aikido. But such knowledge comes at a terrible price. The enigmatic Endo is bound by disciplines of his own and when the Japanese invade Malaya, threatening to destroy Philip’s family and everything he loves, he realises that his trusted sensei – to whom he owes absolute loyalty – has been harbouring a devastating secret. Philip must risk everything in an attempt to save those he has placed in mortal danger and discover who and what he really is.

With masterful and gorgeous narrative, replete with exotic and captivating images, sounds and aromas – of rain swept beaches, magical mountain temples, pungent spice warehouses, opulent colonial ballrooms and fetid and forbidding rainforests – Tan Twan Eng weaves a haunting and unforgettable story of betrayal, barbaric cruelty, steadfast courage and enduring love. 

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Fiction Short Stories

Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga

Added 20th December 2013. 5,277 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.35 average. 353 pages.

The Blurb says: Welcome to Kittur, India. It’s on India’s southwestern coast, bounded by the Arabian Sea to the west and the Kaliamma River to the south and east. It’s blessed with rich soil and scenic beauty, and it’s been around for centuries. Of its 193,432 residents, only 89 declare themselves to be without religion or caste. And if the characters in Between the Assassinations are any indication, Kittur is an extraordinary crossroads of the brightest minds and the poorest morals, the up-and-coming and the downtrodden, and the poets and the prophets of an India that modern literature has rarely addressed.

A blinding, brilliant, and brave mosaic of Indian life as it is lived in a place called Kittur, Between the Assassinations, with all the humour, sympathy, and unflinching candour of The White Tiger, enlarges our understanding of the world we live in today.

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Crime

Frozen Out by Quentin Bates

Added 1st January 2014. 1,943 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.60 average. 337 pages. 

The Blurb says: The discovery of a corpse washed up on a beach in an Icelandic backwater sparks a series of events that propels the village of Hvalvik’s police sergeant Gunnhildur into deep waters.

Although under pressure to deal with the matter quickly, she is suspicious that the man’s death was no accident and once she has identified the body, sets about investigating his final hours.The case takes Gunnhildur away from her village and into a cosmopolitan world of shady deals, government corruption and violence. She finds herself alone and less than welcome in this hostile environment as she tries to find out who it was that made sure the young man drowned on a dark night one hundred kilometres from where he should have been – and why.

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VOTE NOW!

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

 

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

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….“We are deciding which gowns and kirtles to take to Greenwich next week, my lord,” Elizabeth explained to her husband. “I have so many new ones and Lady Verney is kindly modelling them for me so that I can see how they look.” She nodded at Eleanor to carry on and the king watched attentively as the model demonstrated an elegant green brocade gown, showing how the skirt flowed behind her as she walked, and the full marten-trimmed pink sleeves, tied with silver laces, were draped from the elbow to show the tight cream-embroidered linen sleeves of the kirtle beneath. His obvious interest led me to surmise that the world of female fashion was something of a mystery to him.

~The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson

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….Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong – belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd. They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road standing on the tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes into fresh and glittering air: the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west like a pale Victorian watercolour; a race in miniature motors, a band playing, flower gardens in bloom below the front, an aeroplane advertising something for the health in pale vanishing clouds across the sky.

~Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

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….Walking back to the door, avoiding the broken floorboards, she realised something else had been bothering her all this time. And now she knew what it was: that smell from her dream last night, it was in here too.
….The room spun and suddenly all she could smell was that cloying stink, She needed to get out, needed fresh air.
….She waited, listening for anyone outside in the corridor, because she didn’t want them to find her here.
….When she turned the handle, it wobbled but the door didn’t move. She tried again, this time putting her weight behind it.
….The latch. The fucking latch. Why had she let it close behind her?
….She wrenched at the door handle, twisted and turned it, pushed and pulled. Come on, come on. Rattled and shook it. Move.
….At last the handle began to shift and she pushed down harder, shifted her weight backwards. And the handle came off in her hand.

~The Guest House by Abbie Frost

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….He pretended to notice Wield for the first time, went close to him and put his mouth next to his ear.
….“Ah, Sergeant Wield,” he murmured. “Any messages for me?”
….“No, sir,” said Wield. “Not that I know of.”
….“Not even from the other bloody side!” bellowed Dalziel. He looked as if he was about to thump the sergeant with the paper.
….“It’s all a mistake, sir,” interposed Pascoe hastily.
….“Mistake? Certainly it’s a bloody mistake. I go down to Birmingham for a conference. Hello Andy, they all say. How’s that Choker of yours? they all say. Fine, I say. All under control, I say. That was the bloody mistake! You know what it says here in this rag?”
….He unfolded the paper with some difficulty.
….“It has long been common practice among American police forces to call on the aid of clairvoyants when they are baffled,” he read. “I leave a normal English CID unit doing its job. I come back and suddenly it’s the Mid-Yorkshire precinct and we’re baffled! No wonder Kojak’s bald.”
….Pascoe risked a smile. Lots of things made Dalziel angry. Not having his jokes appreciated was one of them.

~A Killing Kindness by Reginald Hill

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From the Archives:

….A small world might seem limiting, but think of the pleasure in owning a world the size of a small town and surveying the domain like a colossus. The gravity of Wild 2 is so weak you would literally be as light as a feather. A small push and you could escape your world and sail into deep space. And think of the glittering minerals – a hoard magnificent enough to power all the dreams ever dreamed.

~Dreams of Other Worlds by Chris Impey and Holly Henry

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So… are you tempted?

Six Degrees of Separation – From Treloar to…

Chain links…

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

Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar. Haven’t read this one but here’s what the blurb tells us…

For years Kitty Hawke has lived alone on Wolfe Island, witness to the island’s erosion and clinging to the ghosts of her past. Her work as a sculptor and her wolfdog Girl are enough. News of mainland turmoil is as distant as myth until refugees from that world arrive: her granddaughter Cat, and Luis and Alejandra, a brother and sister escaping persecution. When threats from the mainland draw closer, they are forced to flee for their lives. They travel north through winter, a journey during which Kitty must decide what she will do to protect the people she loves.

It has glowing reviews, but I don’t think it’s one for me. Ignoring the pesky ‘e’, I’m jumping to another title with a wild creature in it…

The Lion Wakes by Robert Low. Set in the turbulent period of Scottish history of Wallace and Bruce, this book gives an unvarnished and unromanticised picture of the still almost barbarian life in Scotland then. No great patriots here, fighting for independence. The picture instead is of a group of scheming aristocrats, plotting how best to gain more land and wealth for themselves, and willing to destroy both the land and the common people to achieve their ends. I thoroughly enjoyed this claymore-and-kilt adventure, especially since it has a lot of excellent Scottish dialect.

And following a theme, on to another with a wild creature in the title…

Eagle & Crane by Suzanne Rindell. When Earl Shaw wins two small planes in a poker game, he decides to put his skills as a showman to good use by taking the planes barnstorming round Depression-era California, tempting customers to go up for a scenic flight. Earl offers two young men, Louis Thorn and Harry Yamada, jobs as aerial stuntmen and so the act of Eagle & Crane is born – Eagle to represent the good ol’ US of A, and Crane to represent the villainous and untrustworthy Japs of Harry’s heritage. But the war is about to begin, and suddenly white America will begin to see its Japanese-heritage citizens as more than a comic-book threat. A great book from one of my newest favourite authors.

Next in this month’s menagerie…

The Elephant’s Journey by José Saramago. King Dom João III of Portugal wishes to give a present to the Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian, and decides that the elephant Solomon would be the ideal gift. It’s the mid-sixteenth century, so the only method of transport for Solomon is his own four feet. This is the story of his journey, along with his keeper Subhro and a troop of Portuguese soldiers, as they make their way through Spain and Italy, finally crossing the Alps to reach their destination, Vienna. Not much depth to this one, but it’s quite entertaining…

Not sure which of these counts as the wildest – man or beast…

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Lord Greystoke and his young wife Lady Alice are on their way to take up a new colonial appointment in Africa when the crew of the ship they are on mutiny. The mutineers drop their passengers off on a wild coast, far from civilised habitation, but close to the jungle. For a while they survive, long enough for Lady Alice to bear the son she was already carrying. But when disaster strikes, leaving the baby all alone in the world, he is adopted by a tribe of apes and grows up learning their ways, unaware of his own heritage. Great fun – full of thrills, excitement, high love and general drama!

One of my many grievances with the next one is that it takes 93% of the book before we finally catch sight of the eponymous creature of the wild ocean…

Moby-Dick; or, The White Whale by Herman Melville. Our narrator (call him Ishmael) signs up for a voyage aboard the whaling ship Pequod, only to find that the Captain, Ahab, is pursuing a personal vendetta against the whale which caused him to lose his leg – Moby-Dick. Off we go, searching for that pesky whale through every ocean, sea and puddle in the world, talking cod Shakespearian and fantasising about the sensual aspects of whale blubber! Gosh, I enjoyed dreading this book, then hating it and writing a scathing review – not to mention the fun I had pastiching it! I miss that old monster of the deep…

And back to the jungle for my last wild beast…

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo. In 1930s Malaya, young Ren was the houseboy of Dr McPherson until the doctor’s death. Before he died, the doctor gave Ren two instructions – firstly, that he should go into the employment of another doctor, William Abbott, and secondly, that he should find Dr McPherson’s severed finger and bury it alongside him in his grave. Ren has 49 days to complete this second task; if he fails, Dr McPherson’s soul will remain wandering the earth for ever. I enjoyed every word of this – the characterisation, the descriptions of the society, the perspective on colonialism, the elements of humour and romance, the folklore, the eerieness and the darkness.

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So Treloar to Choo, via wolves, lions, eagles, elephants, apes, whales and tigers!

Hope you enjoyed the safari. 😀

TBR Thursday 231…

Episode 231

I seem to be in  major reading slump this week and not one of the 213 (up one) books on the TBR is calling my name! I can only hope the postman has gone on holiday and doesn’t visit till I get back in the swing…

Here are a few that hopefully will tempt me soon…

Lit-Crit

Scotland’s Books by Robert Crawford

I bought this ages ago in one of my periodic fits of feeling I ought to know my own literary heritage better. I assumed, wrongly, that it would be one of these list-style books, like 1001 Books Before You Die, etc. It turned out to be a hefty tome full of essays on various aspects of Scottish literature. Not what I was looking for at the time, so it has lain neglected on my shelves ever since. Time to bite the bullet and see if I can struggle through it… and maybe even learn something! 

The Blurb says: From Treasure Island to Trainspotting, Scotland’s rich literary tradition has influenced writing across centuries and cultures far beyond its borders. Here, for the first time, is a single volume presenting the glories of fifteen centuries of Scottish literature.

In Scotland’s Books poet Robert Crawford tells the story of Scottish writing and its relationship to the country’s history. Stretching from the medieval masterpiece of St Columba’s Iona – the earliest surviving Scottish work – to the imaginative, thriving world of twenty-first-century writing with authors such as Ali Smith and James Kelman, this outstanding collection traces the development of literature in Scotland and explores the cultural, linguistic and literary heritage of the nation. It includes extracts from the writing discussed to give a flavour of the original work, full quotations in their own language, previously unpublished works by authors and plenty of new research. Informative and readable, this is the definitive guide to the marvellous legacy of Scottish literature.

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Historical Fiction

The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson

Courtesy of HarperCollins via NetGalley. This one caught my eye because I’ve just finished reading a history of the Yorks, so for once I actually know who Elizabeth of York is! Better read it quick before I forget again… 

The Blurb says: Elizabeth of York, her life already tainted by dishonour and tragedy, now queen to the first Tudor king, Henry the VII.

Joan Vaux, servant of the court, straining against marriage and motherhood and privy to the deepest and darkest secrets of her queen. Like the ravens, Joan must use her eyes and her senses, as conspiracy whispers through the dark corridors of the Tower.

Through Joan’s eyes, The Lady of the Ravens inhabits the squalid streets of Tudor London, the whispering walls of its most fearsome fortress and the glamorous court of a kingdom in crisis.

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Adventure

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. When I saw they were bringing out a new edition of this adventure story, I couldn’t resist! Who doesn’t need a bit of swashbuckling in their lives every now and then? Doesn’t it sound like fun?

The Blurb says: ‘If love were the only thing, I would follow you-in rags if need be … But is love the only thing?’

Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda is a swashbuckling adventure set in Ruritania, a mythical pocket kingdom. Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll closely resembles the King of Ruritania, and to foil a coup by his rival to the throne, he is persuaded to impersonate him for a day. However, Rassendyll’s role becomes more complicated when the real king is kidnapped, and he falls for the lovely Princess Flavia. Although the story is set in the near past, Ruritania is a semi-feudal land in which a strong sword arm can carry the day, and Rassendyll and his allies fight to rescue the king. But if he succeeds, our hero and Flavia will have to choose between love and honour.

As Nicholas Daly’s introduction outlines, this thrilling tale inspired not only stage and screen adaptations, but also place names, and even a popular board game. A whole new subgenre of ‘Ruritanian romances’ followed, though no imitation managed to capture the charm, exuberance, and sheer storytelling power of Hope’s classic tale.

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Fiction on Audio

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

I loved Graham Greene when I was young, but have been rather disappointed by a couple of his books I’ve read recently. This has left me scared to revisit the ones I adored. This is one I’ve never read before and is considered one of his best, so fingers crossed it will revive my love. It’s narrated by Samuel West.

The Blurb says: A gang war is raging through the dark underworld of Brighton. Seventeen-year-old Pinkie, malign and ruthless, has killed a man. Believing he can escape retribution, he is unprepared for the courageous, life-embracing Ida Arnold. Greene’s gripping thriller, exposes a world of loneliness and fear, of life lived on the ‘dangerous edge of things’.

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….A boy rushed past him carrying a rock the size of a soda can, and Shawn wondered where it could’ve come from, this rough chunk of nature in a village trimmed with locked doors and polished glass. Then he noticed three wide-shouldered men surrounding a tree, breaking off branches. They looked almost calm – the fire in their eyes was not wildfire, but a controlled, channelled anger.
….He followed them. He wasn’t alone – the crowd seemed to converge behind them. From the corner of one eye, he saw a flash of movement, a boy jumping to land on a parked car, but he stayed behind the three men with their branches, trailing them with a sense of wonder. Fists flew up all around him, and voices rose in exuberance and fury, their words swarming together until they morphed into chants. “Black power!” “Fight the power!”
….And the men swung their branches, shattering a wall of glass.

~Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

* * * * *

….The statues are disappearing. They are covered in sandbags, or wooden planking. They’ve been carried down to cellars, or camouflaged. Peter’s bronze horse no longer rears above the city, smashing the air. His hooves beat against the sand which packs against him and the planks that mask him.
….The whole city is going into disguise, and its people are going into disguise with it, carrying pickaxes, spades and entrenching tools over their shoulders, smearing their faces with sweat and dirt, clodding their boots with mud. They’ve taken trams and trains out of the city, to work on its defences. They sleep in hay, boil water for tea over twig fires, and bandage their blistered city hands with rags. Students, schoolchildren, women, old men: they’re all here, digging for their lives.

~The Siege by Helen Dunmore – now abandoned, due to a) present tense and b) the author having forgotten to include a plot…

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….“…I, for one, felt a curious reluctance to enter that dark foreboding belt of trees. Something stronger than myself seemed to be holding me back and urging me not to enter. I felt more definitely convinced than ever of the evilness of the spot. I think that some of the others experienced the same sensations that I did, though they would have been loath to admit it. The trees were so closely planted that the moonlight could not penetrate. There were a dozen soft sounds all round us, whisperings and sighings. The feeling was eerie in the extreme, and by common consent we all kept close together.
….“Suddenly we came out into the open clearing in the middle of the grove and stood rooted to the spot in amazement, for there, on the threshold of the Idol House, stood a shimmering figure wrapped tightly round in diaphanous gauze and with two crescent horns rising from the dark masses of her hair.
….“‘My God!’ said Richard Haydon, and the sweat sprang out on his brow.”

~The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie

* * * * *

….Dark human shapes could be made out in the distance, flitting indistinctly against the gloomy border of the forest, and near the river two bronze figures, leaning on tall spears, stood in the sunlight under fantastic head-dresses of spotted skins, warlike and still in statuesque repose. And from right to left along the lighted shore moved a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman.
….She walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments. She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; she had brass leggings to the knee, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of glass beads on her neck; bizarre things, charms, gifts of witch-men, that hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step. She must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her. She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress. And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul.

~Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

* * * * *

(Context: a verra Scottish doctor, McBane, and a very English Major, Boddy, attempt to have a conversation…)

….The Major . . . faced the others with a solemn expression. “There seems no doubt, eh? It is suicide – what?”
….“You’d be a fool to go lookin’ for any other explanation,” said McBane witheringly. “But I wonder why she deed it.”
….North shook his head. “We’ve no line on the motive so far, sir.”
….“Damn all,” added Boddy. “Damn all, McBane.”
….“Wi’ a wumman,” said McBane philosophically, “whatever she does ’tis a waste o’ guid time to look for a motive. A wumman’s motiveless, wi’oot direction – a boot wi’oot a rudder.”
….“Boot?” asked the Major with a puzzled look.
….“Aye – a sheep, mon, a sheep wi’oot a body at the helm.”
….“A sheep?” inquired the Major. “Confound it all, McBane, why a sheep?”
….McBane eyed him with a baleful glint. “I’m theenking your stupeedity is too profound to be genuine. Wull ye quit your havering, mon?”

~Death Knows No Calendar by John Bude

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So… are you tempted?

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Introducing Poirot and Hastings…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Captain Hastings is home from the war on leave and his old friend John Cavendish invites him to stay at his family’s manor house, Styles, where Hastings was a frequent visitor in earlier years. There have been some changes since then. John is now married to Mary, not that that stops Hastings immediately being struck like a lovelorn schoolboy by her beauty and grace. Then there’s Cynthia, a young woman staying at the manor while she works in the pharmacy of the local hospital. Hastings is immediately struck like a lovelorn schoolboy by her auburn-gold hair and vivacity. Old Mrs Inglethorp, John’s stepmother, has re-married the awful Alfred whom everyone dislikes on the grounds that he’s clearly a fortune hunter and worse, he sports a bushy black beard which makes him look like a bounder. And there’s Evie – a lady who acts as a companion and general helper to Mrs Inglethorp. Evie is middle-aged and has a rather gruff, almost manly demeanour, so that happily Hastings manages to remain immune to her charms. And in a house in the village are a group of Belgian refugees, including a retired police officer, M. Hercule Poirot…

This is the first book ever published by Agatha Christie and therefore our first introduction to the two characters who would become her most famous, Poirot and Hastings. It’s decades since I last read it so I didn’t remember much about it at all and was delighted to discover that it’s a whole lot of fun. It’s not as polished as the books from her peak period – the pacing isn’t as smooth and some of the clues are pretty obvious requiring Hastings to be… well, it grieves me to say it, but a bit thick to miss them! I pretty quickly worked out whodunit, although it’s possible that maybe the solution was deeply embedded in my subconscious from long ago (though that’s unlikely given my terrible memory). But the intricacies of the plotting show the promise of her later skill and the book has the touches of humour that always make her such a pleasure to read.

Challenge details:
Book: 18
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1920

Poirot himself has some of the quirks we all know so well – his obsessive straightening of ornaments, his occasional French exclamations, his egg-shaped head and neatness of dress. But he’s much more of an action man than in the later books, frequently running, jumping, leaping into cars and driving off, and on one occasion even physically tackling a suspect! When I thought about it, this does actually make more sense for a retired police officer than the delightful fussiness of his later career, but it’s not quite as appealing and unique. He does however have the same soft heart and romantic nature of the later Poirot, as determined to mend broken hearts as to mete out justice. Inspector Japp also puts in an appearance, also rather different from the later Japp but still entertaining.

Agatha Christie

I did have a quiet laugh to myself at the obvious fact that Christie was clearly a major Holmes fan, since quite often Hastings sounds almost indistinguishable from Dr Watson, and this version of Poirot is much more into physical clues like Holmes than the psychology of the individual as he would later be. I’m pretty confident she’d read Poe’s detective stories too! But when you’re learning your craft who better to imitate than the masters, and her debt is repaid a zillion times over by all the many authors who have since unashamedly borrowed from her in their turn. And frankly, spotting these connections adds an extra element of enjoyment to nerds like me…

All-in-all, while I wouldn’t rank this as her best, it’s as good as most of the vintage crime I’ve been reading recently, which means it’s very good. My buddy, author and Christie aficionado Margot Kinberg, tells me that the book was turned down several times before finding a publisher. All I can say is I hope the ones who turned her down were eaten up by jealousy and regret when they realised what they’d missed out on! Four stars for the quality and an extra half for the interest of seeing how the indisputable Queen of Crime started out.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 230…

Episode 230

Well, after last week’s dramatic rise, an even more dizzying drop this week – down SIX to 212! (Five finished, one abandoned.)

(No, this isn’t me – but I kinda wish it was…)

Here are a few more I’ll be dipping into soon…

Scottish Classic

Flemington by Violet Jacob

One from my Classics Club list. I know nothing about either book or author other than that this turns up frequently on Best Scottish Novels lists. I see it’s about the Jacobites again – clearly we still have some work to do to get that episode of history out of our systems! I may or may not read the included short story collection… I’ll see how I get on with the novel before deciding!

The Blurb says: Violet Jacob’s fifth and finest novel is a tragic drama of the 1745 Jacobite Rising, tightly written, poetic in its symbolic intensity, lit by flashes of humour and informed by the author’s own family history as one of the Erskines of the House of Dun near Montrose. Drawn back to these roots in her later years, Violet Jacob also wrote many unforgettable short stories about the people, the landscapes and the language of the North-east. In this volume fourteen of these stories are re-collected and re-edited as Tales from Angus.

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Dalziel and Pascoe

A Killing Kindness by Reginald Hill

Continuing my very slow re-read of my favourite crime series, this is book 6, by which time Hill was really getting into his stride…

The Blurb says: When Mary Dinwoodie is found choked in a ditch following a night out with her boyfriend, a mysterious caller phones the local paper with a quotation from Hamlet. The career of the Yorkshire Choker is underway. If Superintendent Dalziel is unimpressed by the literary phone calls, he is downright angry when Sergeant Wield calls in a clairvoyant. Linguists, psychiatrists, mediums — it’s all a load of nonsense as far as he is concerned, designed to make a fool of him. And meanwhile the Choker strikes again — and again!

* * * * *

Crime

The Guesthouse by Abbie Frost

Courtesy of HarperCollins, who occasionally send me books I haven’t specifically requested and probably wouldn’t. I love this, because it tempts me to keep a toe in the water of contemporary crime, which regulars will know I’ve been struggling with recently. I’m guessing this one is a deliberate take on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None

The Blurb says: Seven guests. One Killer. A holiday to remember…

Not all the guests will survive their stay…

You use an app, called Cloud BNB, to book a room online. And on a cold and windy afternoon you arrive at The Guesthouse, a dramatic old building on a remote stretch of hillside in Ireland.

You are expecting a relaxing break, but you find something very different. Something unimaginable. Because a killer has lured you and six other guests here and now you can’t escape.

One thing’s for certain: not all of you will come back from this holiday alive…

* * * * *

Christie on Audio

The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie

I’m pretty sure I’ve read all Agatha Christie’s mystery novels but I think there are some short story collections I’ve missed over the years, and this may be one of them. I know I’ve come across some of the individual stories in anthologies but I don’t think I’ve read them all together. The narrator is again the wonderful Joan Hickson…

The Blurb says: When her friends from the Tuesday Night Club visit Miss Marple’s house, the conversation often turns to unsolved crimes. Trying to solve these 13 mysteries are Raymond West, a young writer; the artist Joyce Lemprière; Dr Pender, the clergyman, who claims to know the hidden side of human character; Mr Petherick, a lawyer who is only interested in the logical approach; and Sir Henry Clithering, whose experience as commissioner of Scotland Yard speaks for itself. Then, of course, there is Miss Marple, who has observed enough about human nature to be more than a match for the most perspicacious investigator.

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Now, thirty years after it all ended, the Slow seemed the most natural thing in the world. It felt quaint to imagine people reacting to it with shock.
….Hopper knew she was one of the last ‘before’ children: born four years before the planet’s rotation finally stopped. She was a rarity. There had been plenty born since, of course, but the birth rate had plummeted in those final years. The world had paused, waiting for the cataclysm, and those children already young had been treated like royalty – fed well, treated whenever possible, as if in premature apology for a spoiled planet their parents could not mend.
….But during those years, new children were perceived at best as an extravagance, at worst as a cruelty. Why bring a child into a world winding itself down? The chaos and shortages at the end of the Slow had kept the planet’s libido in check.

~The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

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….Mrs. Dreed was not a housekeeper; she was an atmosphere. She was a chill wind blowing down a corridor. A draught under the door. A silence descending on a cocktail party. A shadow on the grass. Mrs. Dreed was always present before she was actually noticed. A premonitory shiver went down the spine, a turn of the head, and there she was – tall, gaunt and usually disapproving. Her dresses were severe and tubular. She wore them with the air of a prison wardress. If Sam’s theatrical guests, in a general sense, be looked upon as Royalists, then Mrs. Dreed was without question the Roundhead in their midst.

~Death in White Pyjamas by John Bude

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….The divisiveness of the new ideologies could turn brothers into faceless strangers and trade unionists or shop owners into class enemies. Normal human instincts were overridden. In the tense spring of 1936, on his way to Madrid University, Julián Marías, a disciple of the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, never forgot the hatred in the expression of a tram-driver at a stop as he watched a beautiful and well-dressed young woman step down onto the pavement. ‘We’ve really had it,’ Marías said to himself. ‘When Marx has more effect than hormones, there is nothing to be done.’

~The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor

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….His wife replied very emotionally, “No man has ever seen either of my daughters since they stopped going to school when they were little girls.”
….He struck his hands together and shouted at her, “Not so fast…. Slow down. Do you think I have any doubts about that, woman? If I did, not even murder would satisfy me. I’m just talking about what will go through the minds of some people who don’t know us. ‘No man has ever seen either of my daughters…’ God’s will be done. Would you have wanted a man to see them? What a crazy prattler you are. I’m repeating what might be rumoured by fools. Yes… he’s an officer in the area. He walks along our streets morning and evening. So it’s not out of the question that people, if they learned he was marrying one of the girls, would suspect that he might have seen one of them. I would despise giving my daughter to someone if that meant stirring up doubts about my honour. No daughter of mine will marry a man until I am satisfied that his primary motive for marrying her is a sincere desire to be related to me… me… me… me…”

~Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

* * * * *

….“Well, let me tell you, Jeeves, and you can paste this in your hat, shapeliness isn’t everything in this world. In fact, it sometimes seems to me that the more curved and lissome the members of the opposite sex, the more likely they are to set Hell’s foundations quivering. Do you recall telling me once about someone who told somebody he could tell him something which would make him think a bit? Knitted socks and porcupines entered into it, I remember.”
….“I think you may be referring to the ghost of the father of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, sir. Addressing his son, he said ‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, thy knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine.’”
….“That’s right. Locks, of course, not socks. Odd that he should have said porpentine when he meant porcupine. Slip of the tongue, no doubt, as often happens with ghosts.”

~Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse

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So… are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 229…

Episode 229

The relentless horror of the TBR continues to grow – up FIVE again, to 218. In my defence (I feel I use that phrase a lot these days…), three of them are unsolicited ones I received from publishers, all of which look interesting, so really, it’s not (all) my fault! I may have to put all the challenges to one side and have a month of reading review copies only to catch up.

Here are a few that should be exercising my brain soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

We had a runaway winner in last week’s poll, gaining nearly half of all votes cast! And it seems the appropriate choice since it’s the oldest on my TBR. Serena was the runner-up, closely followed by Bloodstream, with poor old JK Rowling trailing in well behind the rest of the field. Thanks to everyone who voted – I shall be reading and reviewing this one by the end of May…

The Blurb says: From the Man Booker Prize–winning author of The Line of Beauty: a magnificent, century-spanning saga about a love triangle that spawns a myth, and a family mystery, across generations.

In the late summer of 1913, George Sawle brings his Cambridge schoolmate – a handsome, aristocratic young poet named Cecil Valance – to his family’s modest home outside London for the weekend. George is enthralled by Cecil, and soon his sixteen-year-old sister, Daphne, is equally besotted by him and the stories he tells about Corley Court, the country estate he is heir to. But what Cecil writes in Daphne’s autograph album will change their and their families’ lives forever: a poem that, after Cecil is killed in the Great War and his reputation burnished, will become a touchstone for a generation, a work recited by every schoolchild in England. Over time, a tragic love story is spun, even as other secrets lie buried – until, decades later, an ambitious biographer threatens to unearth them.

Rich with Hollinghurst’s signature gifts – haunting sensuality, delicious wit and exquisite lyricism – The Stranger’s Child is a tour de force: a masterly novel about the lingering power of desire, how the heart creates its own history, and how legends are made.

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Vintage Crime

Death in White Pyjamas & Death Knows No Calendar by John Bude

Courtesy of the British Library. A twofer! I’ve quite enjoyed the couple of John Budes I’ve read previously although he hasn’t so far become one of the stars of the BL collection for me. But he has two chances to convince me in this new volume… they both sound good! And such a great cover again…

The Blurb says: Two of John Bude’s finest Golden Age mysteries return to the limelight.

Death in White Pyjamas: A theatre-owner, a ‘slightly sinister’ producer, a burgeoning playwright and a cast of ego-driven actors have gathered at a country home to read through the promising script for Pigs in Porcelain. Before the production ever reaches the stage, one of their number is found murdered in the grounds wearing what mysteriously seems to be somebody else’s white pyjamas. Enter Inspector Harting and Sergeant Dane to unravel this curious plot.

Death Knows No Calendar: Investigating a deadly shooting with no shooter in a locked artist’s studio, detective fiction enthusiast Major Tom Boddy has a long day ahead of him. With four colourful suspects to scrutinise, and not one but two ‘impossible’ elements of the crime to solve, this extremely rare and thoroughly entertaining mystery is long overdue its return to print. 

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Historical Fiction/Folklore

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann

Courtesy of riverrun at Quercus via NetGalley. Sounds utterly weird and way out of my comfort zone, but I adored Kehlmann’s F: A Novel and suspect if anyone can pull this off, he can…

The Blurb says: He’s a trickster, a player, a jester. His handshake’s like a pact with the devil, his smile like a crack in the clouds; he’s watching you now and he’s gone when you turn. Tyll Ulenspiegel is here!

In a village like every other village in Germany, a scrawny boy balances on a rope between two trees. He’s practising. He practises by the mill, by the blacksmiths; he practises in the forest at night, where the Cold Woman whispers and goblins roam. When he comes out, he will never be the same.

Tyll will escape the ordinary villages. In the mines he will defy death. On the battlefield he will run faster than cannonballs. In the courts he will trick the heads of state. As a travelling entertainer, his journey will take him across the land and into the heart of a never-ending war.

A prince’s doomed acceptance of the Bohemian throne has European armies lurching brutally for dominion and now the Winter King casts a sunless pall. Between the quests of fat counts, witch-hunters and scheming queens, Tyll dances his mocking fugue; exposing the folly of kings and the wisdom of fools.

With macabre humour and moving humanity, Daniel Kehlmann lifts this legend from medieval German folklore and enters him on the stage of the Thirty Years’ War. When citizens become the playthings of politics and puppetry, Tyll, in his demonic grace and his thirst for freedom, is the very spirit of rebellion – a cork in water, a laugh in the dark, a hero for all time.

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Wodehouse on Audio

Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse

Time to top up my happiness quotient with a little trip to Wodehouse world in the company of Bertie Wooster, Jeeves and the perfect narrator for these stories, Jonathan Cecil. I’ve already started listening to this and am remembering the reason the word “guffaw” was invented…  

The Blurb says: Trapped in rural Steeple Bumpleigh, a man less stalwart than Bertie Wooster would probably give way at the knees.

For among those present were Florence Craye, to whom Bertie had once been engaged and her new fiance ‘Stilton’ Cheesewright, who sees Bertie as a snake in the grass. And that biggest blot on the landscape, Edwin the Boy Scout, who is busy doing acts of kindness out of sheer malevolence.

All Bertie’s forebodings are fully justified. For in his efforts to oil the wheels of commerce, promote the course of true love and avoid the consequences of a vendetta, he becomes the prey of all and sundry. In fact only Jeeves can save him…

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Friday Frippery! The Case of the Twelve Red Roses

from the lost files of Sir Arthur Donan Coyle

My notes show that it was a raw, foggy February morning in 1893 as I hurried to my old friend Sherlock Holmes’ rooms in Baker Street in response to his urgent summons. The sun had given up the attempt to penetrate the sooty vapours that were choking the city, leaving it in a deep gloom despite the early hour, and the street lamps still burned. I was glad to reach my destination.

“Good morning, Holmes,” I said, as I made my way quickly to the welcoming fire in his room.

Holmes started, disturbed from a deep reverie. “Ah, Watson,” he said, “what do you make of this?”

I took the item from him and laughed. “Well, Holmes, a dozen red roses is not an unusual thing to see on February 14th, but I admit I am astounded that you should indulge in such a romantic gesture! May I enquire who is to be the lucky recipient?”

Holmes shook his head. “That, Watson, is the question! No, no, happily I am immune to the epidemic of love which plagues London at this time of year. These were brought to me by our old friend Lestrade. They were found earlier this morning in Piccadilly Circus, lying beside the body of a dead man. I have high hopes that Lestrade is finally developing some skill in detection.”

I looked at him enquiringly, and he continued:

“The obvious inference is that the roses belonged to either the victim or the murderer, but for once Lestrade has looked beyond the obvious! The signature on the card is “Richard” and a check of the victim’s pockets showed that his name was George Marshall, discounting him as the purchaser of the flowers. However, he was killed by an arrow and, with an astuteness I would not have expected, Lestrade realised that the murderer would therefore have been some distance from his victim, hence it would be improbable for him to have dropped the roses beside the body.”

“But, then, who…”

“Exactly, Watson. Who, indeed? If not the giver of the roses, then surely the recipient must have been present when the crime was committed. Come, Watson! An excellent day for a hunt! Cherchez la femme, my dear fellow, cherchez la femme!”

Stopping only to throw on his greatcoat and muffler, Holmes rushed from the house and hailed a passing hansom cab. We bundled in and the cabbie asked the question I too wished to have answered: “Where to, sir?”

“Mademoiselle Millie’s in Covent Garden,” Holmes replied, adding quietly to me “the florist whose name is on the card.”

The flower shop was an oasis of colour and scent in the dreary city and Mademoiselle Millie herself was the brightest bloom of all, her copper hair and sparkling green eyes giving a promise of spring after the long winter. She was able to tell us immediately who had bought the roses.

“Yes, sir, that would be Mr Richard Hillson, the young lawyer from the firm across the street. He’s a regular, sir – always roses, and always the same message ‘To my darling Jessica, whom I hope one day to call my wife. All my love, Richard.’ So romantic, sir!”

There was something about the way she blushed when she said romantic that made my heart beat a little faster. I was sorry when Holmes rushed me out of the shop, but I made a mental vow to purchase flowers for my surgery more often in future. The lawyer’s office was only a few steps away. We entered a bright and pleasant room and were greeted immediately by a polite, well-dressed young clerk. It was clear this business was flourishing. On enquiring after Mr Hillson, the clerk asked us to wait for a moment while he checked if the lawyer was free.

“Mr Hillson will see you now, gentlemen,” he said, and leading us along a panelled corridor, showed us in to a well-appointed office. As Mr Hillson rose to shake hands, two things were immediately apparent: firstly, that the young lawyer was an exceptionally handsome fellow and, secondly, that he was in a condition of some distress. Despite his best endeavours, he was unable to disguise the tremor in his hands nor the shocked expression in his eyes.

“I am Sherlock Holmes and this is my colleague, Dr Watson,” my companion said. “We have come to discuss the matter of the twelve red roses you bought this morning.”

He got no further. Hillson gave a great groan and buried his face in his hands. “I did it, Mr Holmes,” he said. “I killed him!”

Holmes frowned slightly and there was a short silence. Then he said: “Tell me the whole tale, young man. Who was this man to you? Why did you kill him? And how?”

The lawyer took a deep breath and stammered out his story as best he could. In short, George Marshall was the half-brother of Jessica, the woman Hillson had adored since they first met four years ago. On the death of their father, George had become Jessica’s legal guardian, and had refused outright to agree to allow the young couple to wed so that he could retain control of her inheritance. Hillson had waited patiently since under the terms of her father’s will, George’s guardianship would end on Jessica’s twenty-fifth birthday, still three years in the future. But, said Hillson, during a chance meeting in Piccadilly Circus, his patience had finally broken and in a moment of insanity, he had killed George.

“How?” asked Holmes again.

The young man looked up at Holmes’ stern face and for the first time seemed to hesitate. “Why… why… I stabbed him, Mr Holmes. In the chest.”

“With what?” Holmes’ demeanour remained unrelenting.

“With… with a pocket knife.”

Suddenly Holmes threw back his head and laughed heartily. “Come, come, Mr Hillson! It is as well you have taken to the legal profession and not to the stage. Though I suspect your career will be cut short if you will insist on confessing to crimes you did not commit! Now, tell me the truth – what happened this morning?”

“I cannot tell you more than I have,” said the young man with an air of quiet desperation. “I killed him and I will say so in court!”

“Then if you will not tell me, I must seek the truth elsewhere. Come, Watson! We must pay a visit to Miss Jessica Marshall.”

“There is no need, Mr Holmes – I am here.” A young woman had slipped quietly into the room unnoticed as we talked. Her lovely face showed signs of recent tears, but as she walked towards Holmes, her look and bearing were quietly resolute. “Richard is telling an untruth, but you must forgive him for he does it for my sake. I know you will understand the foolish things men sometimes do to protect those they… love.” She blushed prettily as she spoke the word, and glanced up at Holmes with a look of honest trust.

“Well, well, Miss Marshall. He shall be forgiven if, between you, you now manage to give a true account of this morning’s affair,” Holmes said kindly, leading the young woman to a chair by the small fireplace. Hillson sat next to her and clasped her little gloved hand in his. “You must say nothing, my dear,” he said. “You must trust entirely to me to know what is best in this matter.”

Miss Marshall smiled gently and patted his hand. “Oh, Richard. If you trusted me more, you would not have felt the need to lie. I didn’t kill George, and I know you didn’t either, so there is nothing to fear.” Then turning to Holmes, she began her statement.

Hillson had asked her to meet him at Piccadilly Circus early that morning – their usual rendezvous each Valentine’s Day, when the young lover would give her roses and they would remake the vows they had first given each other so long ago. But this year, George had followed her, and just as she arrived at the centre of the Circus where workmen were installing a new fountain, he had overtaken her, and insisted that she come home with him immediately. When she refused, he grasped her arm so tightly that she cried out in pain and one of the workmen approached to enquire if she needed assistance. At that, George released his grip and Miss Marshall took the opportunity to run into an alleyway and hide. Some minutes later, she crept back to see if Hillson was at the appointed place, and was horrified to see George lying on the ground with blood seeping from beneath his cloaked body.

Hillson took over the story at that point. Arriving just at that moment, he first saw George lying dead in the street, then, dropping the roses in his shock, he glanced up and saw Miss Marshall in the entrance to the alley. Making an entirely erroneous and, in less fraught circumstances, unforgivable assumption, he hissed at her to run away quickly and meet him later at his office and, shocked too, she complied. Hillson then saw that the workmen had begun to notice that something was amiss, so he fled too, and knew no more.

“You have both been foolish beyond words,” said Holmes, but then his sternness dissipated as he chuckled. “However, if there is one day in the year when lovers must be forgiven their folly, this is surely it. I promise you are safe from the law, and may I be the first to congratulate you? There is no longer a bar to your marriage, and that will cure your absurd romanticism as nothing else will!” We left them, seated with their hands clasped and heads close together, still stunned but with new joy budding in their hearts.

“But, Holmes,” I said rather peevishly, as we hailed a cab outside, “who killed George Marshall? And why?”

Telling the driver to take us to Piccadilly Circus, Holmes laughed. “I shall not tell you – I shall show you!” he replied.

The new fountain was to be a fine addition to the Circus. Atop the structure would stand wingèd Eros, God of Love, pointing his bow down Shaftesbury Avenue in honour of the old Earl.

When we arrived, we saw that the workmen had raised the statue onto the base and were in the process of making it secure. Holmes approached them and asked to speak to the man who had come to Miss Marshall’s assistance that morning. “That was me, sir,” said a middle-aged man with full whiskers which could not quite hide the anxiety on his face.

“So, my good man,” said Holmes, “tell me how Eros’ arrow found its way into the chest of the unfortunate George Marshall.”

The man gasped. “But how could you possibly know that, sir? It was an accident pure and simple. As our young apprentice was fixing it onto the statue, it just… slipped from his hand and flew through the air. Such a tragedy, and the boy so young. We all agreed to remove the arrow from the poor gentleman’s chest and say nothing – poor people like us don’t find much pity once the law becomes involved. Oh, sir, can’t you save him? We all know your reputation as a man who is kind to those who meant no harm.”

“Well, well, I daresay I’ll be able to come up with a story that will satisfy the police. But tell the lad to be more careful in future!”

“I will, sir, and thank’ee! Thank’ee!”

“So, Watson,” Holmes said as we began our walk back to Baker Street, “it may not be quite as tradition suggests, but once again Eros’ arrow has been the means of bringing together two young lovers. The Gods work in mysterious ways…” And he set off at a brisk pace, chuckling.

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HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY!

TBR Thursday 228 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 228

As you know, I live in a constant state of war with my TBR and frankly it seems to be winning. So I’ve developed a new battle tactic and am recruiting you all as my crack regiment to help me defeat the enemy! 

The problem is that most of the new books I acquire are review copies or books for challenges and so they get priority. This means that books which don’t “need” to be read linger eternally in the deep recesses of my spreadsheet, getting a chance to escape only on the rare occasion I have a gap in my schedule. And of course it’s the longer books that tend to be left longest. 

So here’s the plan. Once a month or so, I shall list the four oldest books on the TBR, then the next four, and so on, and each time you will select the one you think I should read, either because you’ve read and enjoyed it, or because you think the blurb looks good. And I will read the one you pick within three months! (If I begin to fall behind, I’ll have a gap till I catch up again.) In the event of a tie, I’ll have the casting vote.

Are you ready? Then don your armour, leap on your warhorse, and get ready to fight the good fight!

Historical Fiction

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

The oldest book on the TBR, added on 29th July 2012! 10,060 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.31 average rating. 564 pages.

The Blurb says: From the Man Booker Prize–winning author of The Line of Beauty: a magnificent, century-spanning saga about a love triangle that spawns a myth, and a family mystery, across generations.

In the late summer of 1913, George Sawle brings his Cambridge schoolmate – a handsome, aristocratic young poet named Cecil Valance – to his family’s modest home outside London for the weekend. George is enthralled by Cecil, and soon his sixteen-year-old sister, Daphne, is equally besotted by him and the stories he tells about Corley Court, the country estate he is heir to. But what Cecil writes in Daphne’s autograph album will change their and their families’ lives forever: a poem that, after Cecil is killed in the Great War and his reputation burnished, will become a touchstone for a generation, a work recited by every schoolchild in England. Over time, a tragic love story is spun, even as other secrets lie buried – until, decades later, an ambitious biographer threatens to unearth them.

Rich with Hollinghurst’s signature gifts – haunting sensuality, delicious wit and exquisite lyricism – The Stranger’s Child is a tour de force: a masterly novel about the lingering power of desire, how the heart creates its own history, and how legends are made.

* * * * *

Historical Fiction

Serena by Ron Rash

Added 13th September 2012. 32,849 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.53 average. 371 pages.

The Blurb says: The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains—but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattle-snakes, even saving her husband’s life in the wilderness. Together this lord and lady of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons’ intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning.

Rash’s masterful balance of violence and beauty yields a riveting novel that, at its core, tells of love both honored and betrayed.

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Contemporary Fiction

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

Added 27th September 2012. 291,491 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.30 average. 494 pages.

The Blurb says: When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock.

Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war.

Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils … Pagford is not what it first seems.

And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?

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Thriller

Bloodstream by Tess Gerritson

Added 27th December 2012. 12,342 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.96 average. 516 pages. 

The Blurb says: A spine-tingling thriller from the bestselling author of the Rizzoli & Isles series.
The small resort of Tranquillity, Maine, seems like the perfect spot for Dr Claire Elliot to shelter her son, Noah, from the temptations of the city and the traumatic memory of his father’s death. Claire’s hopeful that she can earn the trust of the town as she builds a new practice. But her plans unravel when an outbreak of teenage violence, far more deadly than anything she has encountered in the city, erupts in the local school.

In trying to find a medical explanation for this murderous epidemic, Claire stumbles upon an insidious evil which has blighted the town’s past and threatens its future. Terrified that Noah too is at risk, she must prove her theory before everything she loves is destroyed.

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VOTE NOW!

 

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

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….On the evening of 30 April 1483, London was in holiday mood. The next day, it would erupt in the day-long street party that was the ‘maying’, which, with its associations of anarchy and sex, was one of the more eagerly anticipated feast days. In the early morning, Londoners would walk through the city gates out into the surrounding countryside, bathe their faces in dew, and return with garlands to adorn houses, doorways and churches in preparation of the day’s junketing. In the heart of the city, outside St Andrew Undershaft, stood the great corporate-sponsored maypole from which the church took its name. Each parish, too, had prepared its maypole, its feasts, bonfires, stages and ‘warlike shows’ of archery and gunfire, its batteries of drummers and its pageants that would sway through the streets. At the heart of each pageant were the ‘lord and lady of May’, the young May king and queen. Their procession, a triumph of ‘honour and glory’, marked spring’s conquest over winter whose discord and duplicity, ‘heaviness and trouble’, was replaced by universal peace, the spring flowers of ‘perfect charity’ and the buds of ‘truth and unity’. That year, London’s preparations acquired a particular intensity as, the next day, the city was due to welcome a real May king, the twelve-year-old boy whose choreographed arrival promised a new start for both the city and the country – Edward V.

~The Brothers York by Thomas Penn

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….He was sitting on a bench, inertly watching the devastation wrought by Bendicò in the flowerbeds; every now and again the dog would turn innocent eyes towards him as if asking for praise at labour done: fourteen carnations broken off, half a hedge torn apart, an irrigation channel blocked. How human!
….“Good Bendicò, come here.” And the animal hurried up and put its earthy nostrils into his hand, anxious to show it had forgiven this silly interruption of a fine job of work.

~The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa

* * * * *

….A voice came over the speaker system, replacing the electronic alarm.
….“This is not a test. Repeat, this is not a test.”
….They paused to look at each other, reading a fresh panic in eyes reflecting their own. Not a test! It had to be a test. Otherwise they’d just lost a thousand million pounds’ worth of tin and plastic. Lost it for how long? Hepton checked his watch. The system had been inoperative for over two minutes. That meant it was really serious. Another minute or so could spell disaster.
….Fagin, the operations manager, had appeared from nowhere and was sprinting from console to console as though taking part in some kind of party game. Two of the brass were in evidence too, looking as though they’d just stepped out of a meeting. They carried files under their arms and stood by the far door, knowing nothing of the system or how to be of help. That was typical. The people who held the purse strings and gave the orders knew nothing about anything.

~Westwind by Ian Rankin

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….He had elevated lust to its most exalted type. It was for the sake of this lust alone that he had married the first time and then for the second. Over the course of time, his conjugal love was affected by calm new elements of affection and familiarity, but in essence it continued to be based on bodily desire. When an emotion is of this type, especially when it has acquired a renewed power and exuberant vitality, it cannot be content with only one form of expression. Thus he had shot off in pursuit of all the varieties of love and passion, like a wild bull. Whenever desire called, he answered, deliriously and enthusiastically. No woman was anything more than a body to him. All the same, he would not bow his head before that body unless he found it truly worthy of being seen, touched, smelled, tasted, and heard. It was lust, yes, but not bestial or blind.

~Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

* * * * *

….Gallivan suddenly put his hands flat on the table and leaned forward, staring beyond me down the Rhine. He said, softly: “There she is, Mr. Marle. There’s Castle Skull.”
….It was still far away, but our steamer seemed to sweep with incredible speed now. At first it was a domed blot with two thin towers, swimming in spectral dusk, disembodied high above the pines on the right. Now the river lay dead black. There were white streaks in the grey sky behind the towers, but the dark fleece of thunderheads crawled to blot them out. From the left bank, a few lights ruffled the inky water. It had grown very warm.
….Then Castle Skull grew in size, though it seemed even farther above our heads. Massive walls, battlemented and fully a hundred feet high, were built into the hillside. I bent over the rail and craned my neck to look up. In the centre of the walls, built so that the middle of the battlements constituted the teeth of the death’s head, reared the vast skull of stone. The light was too dim to make out details, but I saw the eyes. I saw the two towers on either side, horribly like ears; I saw the whole thin, rain-blacked, monstrous pile move slowly above our heads.

~Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr

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So… are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 227…

Episode 227

Hurrah! The awful rise in the TBR has been reversed this week due to me finally finishing a few books – down three to 213! I’m sure success is finally within my sights…

Here are a few more I’ll be banging into soon…

Fiction

The Siege by Helen Dunmore

I’ve already been to Moscow for my Around the World challenge, but given the size of Russia and the fact that both Moscow and St Petersburg/Leningrad have been considered capital cities, sometimes simultaneously, with Moscow looking east while St Petersburg looked west, I wanted to visit both. Doctor Zhivago took me back to the Revolution; this one is set during WW2.  

The Blurb says: Leningrad, September 1941. Hitler orders the German forces to surround the city at the start of the most dangerous, desperate winter in its history. For two pairs of lovers – Anna and Andrei, Anna’s novelist father and banned actress Marina – the siege becomes a battle for survival. They will soon discover what it is like to be so hungry you boil shoe leather to make soup, so cold you burn furniture and books. But this is not just a struggle to exist, it is also a fight to keep the spark of hope alive…

The Siege is a brilliantly imagined novel of war and the wounds it inflicts on ordinary people’s lives, and a profoundly moving celebration of love, life and survival.

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Classic American Fiction

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

One from my Classics Club list. I must admit I’m dreading this one – the blurb and reviews make it sound quite awful. But I know many people love it so (despite the fact that many people also love Gone with the Wind and East of Eden, making me doubtful about whether many people were reading the same versions as me 😉 ) I’ll give it a go. If it surprises me, it can only be in a good way…

The Blurb says: Carson McCullers’ prodigious first novel was published to instant acclaim when she was just twenty-three. Set in a small town in the middle of the deep South, it is the story of John Singer, a lonely deaf-mute, and a disparate group of people who are drawn towards his kind, sympathetic nature. The owner of the café where Singer eats every day, a young girl desperate to grow up, an angry drunkard, a frustrated black doctor: each pours their heart out to Singer, their silent confidant, and he in turn changes their disenchanted lives in ways they could never imagine. 

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Historical Fiction

The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd

Courtesy of John Murray Press via NetGalley. Hmm, this sounds good but early reviews have been very mixed. Still, maybe the many people who didn’t like it are Steinbeck fans, so there’s still hope…

The Blurb says: In 1815, a supervolcanic eruption led to the extraordinary ‘Year Without Summer’ in 1816: a massive climate disruption causing famine, poverty and riots. Lives, both ordinary and privileged, changed forever.

1815, Sumbawa Island, Indonesia
Mount Tambora explodes in a cataclysmic eruption, killing thousands. Sent to investigate, ship surgeon Henry Hogg can barely believe his eyes. Once a paradise, the island is now solid ash, the surrounding sea turned to stone. But worse is yet to come: as the ash cloud rises and covers the sun, the seasons will fail.

1816.
In Switzerland, Mary Shelley finds dark inspiration. Confined inside by the unseasonable weather, thousands of famine refugees stream past her door. In Vermont, preacher Charles Whitlock begs his followers to keep faith as drought dries their wells and their livestock starve. In Britain, the ambitious and lovesick painter John Constable struggles to reconcile the idyllic England he paints with the misery that surrounds him. In the Fens, farm labourer Sarah Hobbs has had enough of going hungry while the farmers flaunt their wealth. And Hope Peter, returned from Napoleonic war, finds his family home demolished and a fence gone up in its place. He flees to London, where he falls in with a group of revolutionaries who speak of a better life, whatever the cost. As desperation sets in, Britain becomes racked with riots – rebellion is in the air.

The Year Without Summer is the story of the books written, the art made; of the journeys taken, of the love longed for and the lives lost during that fateful year. Six separate lives, connected only by an event many thousands of miles away. Few had heard of Tambora – but none could escape its effects.

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Science Fiction

The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

Courtesy of Random House Cornerstone via NetGalley. I don’t know anything about either book or author – I just took a fancy to try some contemporary sci-fi for a change…  

The Blurb says: The Last Day is set 40 years into the future after the planet’s rotation has slowed to a halt, resulting in half the earth facing the constant light of the sun while the other half lives in an endless, frozen night. The plot centres on a young scientist who is called back to London from the frozen Atlantic and begins to uncover a truth which could change the future of the human race.

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 226…

Episode 226

No! No, no, no!!! What’s happening to me??? After last week’s ginormous jump, I was so sure the TBR would drop this week, but… it’s up another FOUR to 216! Partly this is because I’m currently reading three longish books so haven’t finished one for days, and partly it’s because I’ve had a couple of unsolicited ones sent by publishers (which is always fun and gets me to read things I wouldn’t necessarily otherwise pick). Then there have been a couple of unmissable Kindle deals. So you see, it’s really not my fault! 

Here are a few I should get to soon…

Fiction

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

Mahfouz is a Nobel Prize winner, which ought to be a recommendation but, given my experiences with fellow winners in the past, I view more as a warning. However, it does sound excellent. I’m only planning to read the first in the trilogy, Palace Walk, as a way to visit Egypt for my Around the World challenge. Hopefully I’ll love it enough to want to read the other two later… 

The Blurb says: The Nobel Prize—winning writer’s masterwork is the engrossing story of a Muslim family in Cairo during Britain’s occupation of Egypt in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The novels of The Cairo Trilogy trace three generations of the family of tyrannical patriarch Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, who rules his household with a strict hand while living a secret life of self-indulgence. Palace Walk introduces us to his gentle, oppressed wife, Amina, his cloistered daughters, Aisha and Khadija, and his three sons–the tragic and idealistic Fahmy, the dissolute hedonist Yasin, and the soul-searching intellectual Kamal. Al-Sayyid Ahmad’s rebellious children struggle to move beyond his domination in Palace of Desire, as the world around them opens to the currents of modernity and political and domestic turmoil brought by the 1920s. Sugar Street brings Mahfouz’s vivid tapestry of an evolving Egypt to a dramatic climax as the aging patriarch sees one grandson become a Communist, one a Muslim fundamentalist, and one the lover of a powerful politician.

Throughout the trilogy, the family’s trials mirror those of their turbulent country during the years spanning the two World Wars, as change comes to a society that has resisted it for centuries. Filled with compelling drama, earthy humour, and remarkable insight, The Cairo Trilogy is the achievement of a master storyteller.

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Classic English Fiction

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

I read this a year or so ago and tragically kept putting off writing a review until it got to the point I no longer felt it was fresh enough in my mind to do so. Fortunately it’s short and I loved it, so it’s no hardship to read it again. This time I’ll take notes! One for the Classics Club. 

The Blurb says: Conrad’s narrator Marlow, a seaman and wanderer, recounts his physical and psychological journey in search of the infamous ivory trader Kurtz: dying, insane, and guilty of unspeakable atrocities. Travelling upriver to the heart of the African continent, he gradually becomes obsessed by this enigmatic, wraith-like figure. Marlow’s discovery of how Kurtz has gained his position of power over the local people involves him in a radical questioning, not only of his own nature and values, but also those of western civilisation. The inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning film Apocalypse Now, Heart of Darkness is a quintessentially modernist work exploring the limits of human experience and the nightmarish realities of imperialism.

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Thriller

Westwind by Ian Rankin

Courtesy of Orion via NetGalley. There appears to be a new trend of publishers digging out the early, out of print works of famous authors and re-publishing them, and this is one of those. Sometimes this turns up a hidden gem, other times one feels it would have been kinder to leave them buried in the past. We’ll see which category this one falls into…

The Blurb says: It always starts with a small lie. That’s how you stop noticing the bigger ones.

After his friend suspects something strange going on at the launch facility where they both work – and then goes missing – Martin Hepton doesn’t believe the official line of “long-term sick leave”…

Refusing to stop asking questions, he leaves his old life behind, aware that someone is shadowing his every move. The only hope he has is his ex-girlfriend Jill Watson – the only journalist who will believe his story.

But neither of them can believe the puzzle they’re piecing together – or just how shocking the secret is that everybody wants to stay hidden…

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Vintage Crime

Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr

Courtesy of the British Library. I absolutely loved It Walks by Night – the first Bencolin and Marle book – so am thrilled that the BL has now followed up with the second. The very title send shivers of pleasurable anticipation down my spine…

The Blurb says: That is the case. Alison has been murdered. His blazing body was seen running about the battlements of Castle Skull.

And so a dark shadow looms over the Rhineland where Inspector Henri Bencolin and his accomplice Jeff Marle have arrived from Paris. Entreated by the Belgian financier D’Aunay to investigate the gruesome and grimly theatrical death of actor Myron Alison, the pair find themselves at the imposing hilltop fortress Schloss Schädel, in which a small group of suspects are still assembled.

As thunder rolls in the distance, Bencolin and Marle enter a world steeped in macabre legends of murder and magic to catch the killer still walking the maze-like passages and towers of the keep.

This new edition of John Dickson Carrs spirited and deeply atmospheric early novel also features the rare Inspector Bencolin short story ‘The Fourth Suspect’.

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?