Something Fresh (Blandings 1) by PG Wodehouse

The Scandal of the Stolen Scarab!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When the Hon. Freddie Threepwood gets engaged to American heiress Aline Peters, Lord Emsworth is thrilled. As a younger son, the Hon. Freddie has been a trial and a tribulation to him, and the idea of him settling down with a rich wife is a great relief to what one might loosely describe as Lord Emsworth’s mind. Lord Emsworth’s mind is mostly notable for being absent, though, and this leads him to accidentally steal a valuable scarab from Mr Peters, Aline’s father – the pride of his collection. Mr Peters knows that to denounce the theft would break up the engagement, and he’s as keen on getting Aline married into the British aristocracy as Lord Emsworth is to marry Freddie to American money. So Mr Peters lets it be known that he will handsomely reward anyone who steals the scarab back and returns it to him. Enter Joan Valentine, an old school friend of Aline who is in need of money. Joan decides to head off to Blandings Castle, Lord Emsworth’s seat, in the guise of being Aline’s maid, to steal the scarab and get the reward. Imagine her surprise when she finds her neighbour, Ashe Marson, has also turned up at Blandings purporting to be Mr Peters’ valet, with the same intention. The competition is on for who will get to the scarab first, but the general air of misunderstandings and romantic entanglements at Blandings make the task far from simple…

I’ve always preferred the Jeeves and Wooster books to the Blandings books, mainly because I love Bertie Wooster and have never found any of the Blandings regulars as likeable. So it’s been a long number of years since I last read a Blandings book, until I was encouraged to do so by a recent review from Julé at Gallimaufry Book Studio. Noting that my favourite Jeeves and Wooster narrator, Jonathan Cecil, had recorded the first Blandings book was an extra incentive. And I enjoyed it a lot!

Despite it being a Blandings book, the Emsworth family play a rather secondary role, and I think that works to the book’s advantage. Instead the leads are Ashe and Joan and they’re both very likeable characters whom the reader would like to see succeed in their mission and achieve a happy ending. It’s a Wodehouse book, so of course happy endings are guaranteed! Joan is one of Wodehouse’s modern, feisty heroines with a mind of her own, a spirit of adventure and a determination to make her own way in the world. But that doesn’t make her immune to the charms of a man who appreciates her independence and admires her for it, like, for example, young Ashe. He has made a living writing pulp detective stories for magazines but is heartily sick of it and wants to try something different. The reward Mr Peters is offering will give either of them the means to make a fresh start in life.

PG Wodehouse

As well as the upstairs characters, we spend a lot of time below stairs with the servants, from Beach, the hypochondriac but immensely dignified butler, to the gossiping valets of the various guests who exchange scandalous and sometimes scurrilous stories about their employers past and present. Despite the main characters in Wodehouse’s books being culled from among the upper class, he’s actually not nearly as snobbish as many of his contemporaries. He sends up both high and low equally, and laughs at the aristocrats for the same kinds of quirks as he mocks in his servants. Just as Jeeves is at least Bertie’s equal, so Beach, though a figure of fun, is easily the intellectual and organisational superior of Lord Emsworth. If anything, the servant class has the upper hand over the aristos, even though they show all due deference to their ‘masters’. This somehow means the books feel less dated than they should, despite their belonging to a specific social level at a specific point in time. It’s an idealised, impossibly innocent world for sure, but all the more fun for that!

Needless to say, everything comes right at the end. Sundered hearts are united with true loves, and no one is left unhappy or heart-broken at the end. The sun always shines even when it rains, all’s right with the rightest of all possible worlds and everyone is destined to live happily ever after. Well, at least until the next time Wodehouse takes up his pen and throws them all into a different set of confusions and turmoil! I still prefer the Jeeves books, but enjoyed my visit to Blandings and will spend more time there in future.

Audible UK Link

Two’s company 3…

Two for the Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge this week. One of these I expected to love and didn’t; the other I expected not to love and did. So much for judging books by their covers!

The Floating Admiral by The Detection Club



While out fishing on the local river, Neddy Ware sees a rowing boat floating upstream on the tide. He manages to hook it and bring it to the bank, where he discovers it contains a dead body. Admiral Penistone, the corpse, is a newcomer to the area so no one knows much about him or his niece, Elma, who lives with him. It’s up to Inspector Rudge to find out who could have had a motive to kill him. He’ll be helped or hindered in his investigation by the eleven Golden Age mystery writers, all members of the Detection Club, who wrote this mystery, one chapter each and then forwarding it on to the next author to add their chapter, with no collusion as to the solution. Some of the true greats are here, like Christie and Sayers, and lots of others who have been having a renaissance in the recent splurge of vintage re-releases.

Challenge details:
Book: 27
Subject Heading: ‘Play Up! Play Up! and Play the Game!’
Publication Year: 1931

Lovely idea. I fear I found it a total flop. The first several writers repeat each other ad nauseam, each adding a few more clues or red herrings as they go. Poor Rudge never gets a chance to investigate anything, since each new writer wheels him around and sends him off in a different direction. I was determined to persevere, mainly because it has inexplicably high ratings on Goodreads, but by halfway through I was losing the will to live. Then Ronald Knox decided to use his chapter to list thirty-nine questions arising from the previous chapters, all of which needed to be answered before we could arrive at the solution. Thirty-nine! I gave up. I tried flicking forward to the last chapter as I usually do when abandoning a book mid-stream, only to discover the last chapter is about novella-length (unsurprisingly, really, since I suppose it has to address those thirty-nine questions plus any more that had been added in the second half). I asked myself if I would be able to sleep at night without ever discovering who killed the Admiral, and while pondering that question quietly dozed off, which I felt was a fairly effective answer. I also tried reading the various other solutions from some of the other authors which are given as an appendix, but the first couple were so ludicrous I gave up. Clearly many people have enjoyed this, but for the life of me I can’t understand why. Oh well!

Amazon UK Link

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The Medbury Fort Murder by George Limnelius

Sex in the Golden Age??

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Lieutenant Lepean is found with his throat cut and his head nearly severed from his body in a locked room at the isolated Medbury Fort on the Thames, it soon becomes clear he was justifiably disliked by a whole host of his colleagues. Four in particular had good reason to hate him – two he was blackmailing, one whose family he had dishonoured, and one whose girlfriend the lascivious Lepean was pursuing. But first Chief Inspector McMaster and Inspector Paton will have to work out how someone managed to get into his locked bedroom…

Despite the locked room aspect – never my favourite style of mystery – there’s actually much more in this one about motivation than means. First published in 1929, Limnelius is remarkably open about sex, acknowledging unjudgementally that sex happens outside marriage, that lust does not always equate to love, and that sexual jealousy rouses dangerous passions. The sexual elements are viewed largely from the male perspective, but the women are not all simply passive recipients of male desire – he makes it clear that women are sexual beings too. All very different from the usual chaste Golden Agers, although still couched in terms that are far from the graphic soft porn that some writers tend to go for in these degenerate days!

Challenge details:
Book: 30
Subject Heading: Miraculous Murders
Publication Year: 1929

However, just as I was going to hail Limnelius as a man before his time, he reassured me that while he may be forward-thinking about sex, he’s conventionally Golden Age when it comes to class…

In the history of crime there is no single case of a murder of violence having being committed by an educated man. The sane, educated mind is not capable of the necessary degree of egotism combined with ferocity.

Hmm, tell that to Lord Lucan!

It’s very well written and, classism notwithstanding, I found the psychology of the various characters convincing. The solution shocked me somewhat, not because it’s particularly shocking in itself, but merely that the motivation seemed far too modern for a book of this era, and probably more realistic as a result. I enjoyed it very much. I believe he only wrote a handful of novels, but I look forward to reading more if I can track any down.

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 366 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 366

(A reminder of The People’s Choice plan. Once a month, 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.)

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OK, People, time for another batch of four, all from 2021. I like to run three months ahead with these polls, so the winner will be an April read. Mystery at Lynden Sands by JJ Connington is one for my Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge. I added The Brownie of Bodsbeck after enjoying James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Graham Greene’s two-novella volume, The Third Man and The Fallen Idol, is on my Classics Club list. And I added Hemingway’s Complete Short Stories because it came up as a Kindle sale! It’s a strange batch this time, I think!

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Vintage Crime

Mystery at Lynden Sands by JJ Connington

Added 19th April 2021. 88 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.08 average rating. 294 pages.

The Blurb says: In the fourth Sir Clinton Driffield mystery, the detective finds himself up against a missing heir, an accidental bigamist, a series of secret marriages and impersonations and an ingenious scientific murder. Aided by his wit and powers of reasoning, as well as Wendover, his very own Watson, Sir Clinton once again succeeds in piecing together a solution as the novel reaches its thrilling climax.

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The Brownie of Bodsbeck by James Hogg

Added 22nd May 2021. 7 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.29 average. 203 pages.

The Blurb says: “Walter’s blood curdled within him at this relation. He was superstitious, but he always affected to disbelieve the existence of the Brownie, though the evidences were so strong as not to admit of any doubt; but this double assurance, that his only daughter, whom he loved above all the world besides, was leagued with evil spirits, utterly confounded him.” (Extract)

(FF says: I can’t find a proper blurb for this one, but apparently it’s about the persecution of the Covenanters by the Royalists led by Claverhouse in late 17th century Scotland, if that means anything to you!)

James Hogg (1770-1835) was a Scottish poet, novelist and essayist who wrote in both Scots and English. As a young man he worked as a shepherd and farmhand, and was largely self-educated through reading. He was a friend of many of the great writers of his day, including Sir Walter Scott, of whom he later wrote an unauthorized biography.

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The Third Man and The Fallen Idol by Graham Greene

Added 6th June 2021. 2,750 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.74 average. 146 pages.

The Blurb says: The Third Man is Graham Greene’s brilliant recreation of post-war Vienna, a ‘smashed dreary city’ occupied by the four Allied powers. Rollo Martins, a second-rate novelist, arrives penniless to visit his friend and hero, Harry Lime. But Harry has died in suspicious circumstances, and the police are closing in on his associates…

The Fallen Idol is the chilling story of a small boy caught up in the games that adults play. Left in the care of the butler and his wife whilst his parents go on a fortnight’s holiday, Philip realises too late the danger of lies and deceit. But the truth is even deadlier.

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Short Stories

Complete Short Stories by Ernest Hemingway

Added 27th June 2021. 35,296 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.29 average. 676 pages. 

The Blurb says: This stunning collection of short stories by Nobel Prize­–winning author, Ernest Hemingway, contains a lifetime of work—ranging from fan favorites to several stories only available in this compilation.

In this definitive collection of short stories, you will delight in Ernest Hemingway’s most beloved classics such as “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” and discover seven new tales published for the first time in this collection. For Hemingway fans The Complete Short Stories is an invaluable treasury.

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

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

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Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash

And only man is vile…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In a small Appalachian town where natural beauty and the ugliness of the meths business clash, Sheriff Les Clary is preparing for retirement. He has bought himself some land and is having a cabin built on it, where he can leave the ugliness behind and spend his days painting the beauty. But before he leaves, he’ll have to deal with one last case. On the surface it’s not a particularly serious case – a matter of deliberate pollution of a river – but the motivations behind it will take him deep into the darkness that scars this community, and rake up some of the traumatic moments of his life, both professional and personal.

Les’ friend, Becky Shytle, is also a survivor of trauma (as, quite frankly, is everyone in the book). In Becky’s case, she was caught up in a school shooting as a young child, in which her beloved teacher died – an outcome for which she blames herself. After the shooting, she was mute for months, and eventually her parents sent her to stay with her grandparents in the Appalachians. Here she learned the healing power of nature and found her voice again, though that early trauma and a later one still haunt her.

The book alternates between Les and Becky as narrators, chapter about, more or less. Becky’s sections are written as if in her journal, where she writes in poetic language and often includes poems. We all have a different tolerance level for poetic style in prose – mine is low, and Becky’s chapters increasingly irritated me as the book went on. What starts out as wonderfully descriptive writing morphs eventually into a kind of contrived “creative” writing, where Becky/Rash invent new words because apparently the English language simply isn’t large enough as it stands. However, I’m quite sure that people who love poetic writing will love this.

Les’ chapters, on the other hand, are written in the sort of world-weary style of noir and I loved this, and enjoyed the thoughtful portrayal of his character as a good man driven down by the things he has witnessed in his job. He has his own morality, which is not always the morality demanded of a law officer. For example, he takes bribes to look the other way, so long as he feels the crime he is ignoring is one which the law treats too harshly. He is a mix of righteousness and weakness, whose absorption in his own emotional state makes him cold, blind, perhaps, to those of other people. His wife’s depression, for example, seems to have been an unwelcome annoyance to him, his sympathy going all to himself rather than to her. However, he is aware of mistakes he has made along the way, and beats himself up emotionally over them. I felt Rash wanted me to sympathise with him, but I found myself less forgiving than Rash seemed to be aiming for.

It’s a relatively short book at under 300 pages, but it’s a very slow burn. It takes nearly half the book before any kind of plot emerges, and even then it’s rather low-key. Most of the time is taken up with studies of the two main characters and rather shallower ones of a handful of secondary characters. In sum, they paint a picture of this rather dreadful society where drugs are distorting and destroying the social structures and blurring moral lines. Not everyone in town is a dealer or an addict, but all are affected in some way – by crime, by the addiction of a family member, by poverty. The contrast between that and the loveliness that nature abundantly provides is rather disorienting, and ultimately depressing: “Though every prospect pleases, And only man is vile.” The whole tone is bleak and although there is a resolution of sorts at the end for the characters, one feels that this society in a larger sense may be beyond hope of redemption.

Ron Rash

I have mixed feelings about it, overall. I loved Rash’s writing when he was sticking to the plainer, bleaker style of Les’ voice, but the over-poeticism (as I saw it) of Becky’s chapters remained a running irritant throughout. I fear I found the depiction of this drug-saturated society both totally credible and totally depressing. And I found the sheer number of traumas that our various characters had lived through and carried as emotional baggage all felt too much – beyond likelihood, and therefore reminding me that Rash was manipulating the characters like the man behind the curtain, making his dolls dance to a dismal tune of his own composing. Yes, I know that’s what all authors do, but the success of a puppet show comes in making the audience forget the existence of the puppeteer.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate, via NetGalley. (In 2016! Oops!)

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker

I want my mummy!

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Our narrator, barrister Malcolm Ross, is sent a message by the girl he’s already well on the way to falling in love with, Margaret Trelawny, begging him to come to her aid. Her father has been attacked and seriously injured. Malcolm rushes to her side, as do the doctor and the police. Abel Trelawny’s physical injuries are severe but not life-threatening, but he is in a strange comatose condition. He has, oddly, left instructions on what must be done in just such an eventuality. He must not be removed from his room, which is full of Egyptian treasures he has “collected” from tombs, including several sarcophagi. And two people must watch over him each night. So Malcolm offers to stay at the house, and helps with the watching while carrying on his wooing. Slowly he and Margaret learn that her father has been studying one mummy in particular, Queen Tera, and believes that she had magical skills. He believes that she intends to come back from the dead, and Trelawny intends to help her…

This would have made a great short story or novella, but at full-novel length it’s incredibly over-stretched and repetitive. It’s well written, of course, and the narration from Simon Vance is excellent – it may in fact have been the only thing that got me through all the repetition. There are parts that are very good, like the flashback to when Trelawny and his associate stole – sorry, I mean “collected” – the contents of Tera’s tomb, including Tera herself! Then there are parts where Malcolm tells us for the umpteenth time all about how sweet his Margaret is, to the point where I was about ready to put an Egyptian curse on both of them myself.

Bram Stoker

However my desire to know what would happen when Trelawny carried out his experiment held my interest throughout. Who doesn’t love a resurrected mummy?? But what an anti-climax! After eight hours of listening, the experiment is packed into the last quarter of an hour, and the actual climax takes about two minutes! And I don’t mean to quibble, but the happy ending seemed wildly inappropriate to the big build-up! I had already learned from another review that the story apparently had two endings, so after I’d finished I did a bit of checking. It turns out the original ending from 1903 was far from happy – in fact, it was so bleak the publisher refused to reissue the book in 1912 unless Stoker altered it. So he did, and now the happy ending is the one most commonly used. I found a copy of the original online, and while it certainly suits the tone better and is more Stoker-ish, it’s just as rushed and tacked on at the last moment as the later ending. I seem to remember complaining about the abrupt way Dracula finishes too, so maybe it was a deliberate stylistic choice of Stoker’s to end stories this way, but it felt like an unsatisfactory pay-off after a lengthy (though mostly enjoyable) listen.

(The porpy did a bit of research during the boring bits, and
discovered that even the ancient Egyptians loved porpies!)

Relief of a porcupine in an Egyptian desert; detail of a wall fragment from the grave of Penhenuka at Saqqara, Egypt. Old Kingdom, 5th Dynasty, c. 2500 BCE. Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany. Painted limestone. ÄM 1132.
Attribution: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Audible UK Link

PS Sorry I’m falling behind with answering comments and reading posts. The Australian Open has started which means I have to become even more nocturnal than I usually am, which throws out what I optimistically refer to as ‘my schedule’. I’ll catch up when the virtual jet lag wears off! Blame these men…

Meantime, good morning and good night!

The Craftsman by Sharon Bolton

Toil and trouble…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The people who attend the funeral of Larry Glassbrook, dead after spending many years in prison for the murders of several teenagers, aren’t there to mourn so much as to assure themselves he is really dead. Florence Lovelady is one. Now a senior police officer, back then she was a raw WPC who was responsible for bringing Larry to justice, at great cost to herself. But when she visits the house Larry used to live in, she finds something that makes her realise that the story of the murders isn’t over yet…

This is told in two timelines, starting in 1999 (which in terms of the book is the present day), then going back to 1969 when the murders were happening, and then coming back to the present for the last section. The “present” sections are given in the present tense, while the “past” sections are in past tense, so at least there’s slightly more logic to the use of the present tense than many times when it’s used, but it’s still annoying. However, Bolton is such a good writer she can carry it off if anyone can. All sections are first person accounts from Florence.

The setting is the village of Sabden, nestling at the foot of Pendle Hill in Lancashire, famed for being the site of the infamous witch trial in the 17th century. Bolton uses this historical event as a starting point to bring the idea of witchcraft and the supernatural into her story, and to explore the idea of modern witchcraft. If, like me, you don’t believe in the power of crystals and the magical uses of herbs and so on, you will have to be willing to suspend your disbelief at points. Fortunately it doesn’t play a large part in most of the story and Bolton is very good at leaving it ambiguous enough for the rationalists among us to justify all that happens rationally – for the most part. And it creates a deliciously creepy atmosphere, with a growing sense of dread and some real cliff-hanger moments that make reading the next chapter essential!

The 1969 part of the story is excellent. Three teenagers have gone missing, separately, about a month between each disappearance. Tensions are rising in the town at the police’s failure to find either the children or their abductor, and the police are at a loss. Graduate Florence brings with her new-fangled ideas about analysing data to spot patterns and so on, and is rubbing up her colleagues the wrong way. Combined with the usual sexism of the period, this means she has to battle hard to have her voice and her ideas heard. (FF delicately stifles a yawn.) But she’s a determined type, and even her bosses soon have to admit that sometimes her suggestions make sense. And then she finds one of the teenagers, dead unfortunately, and the missing persons case becomes a hunt for a murderer.

Sharon Bolton

The 1999 sections are considerably less successful in my opinion, with Florence behaving in ways that I found hard to believe any senior police officer would. The woo-woo-witchcraft element is also stronger here, especially in the last section. While the story remains compelling and full of atmosphere, the credibility falls away sharply, and I shall draw a kind veil over the last couple of ludicrous chapters, which had they not happened at the very end would probably have led to me abandoning the book.

So overall I loved about 97% of this and thought the ending was silly, hence the loss of a star. If you’re happy with nonsense – sorry, I mean, magic – in your crime novels, you probably won’t have the same issue. I haven’t decided yet whether to read the next book, The Buried, which has just been released – while I enjoyed Florence as a character and loved the setting and atmosphere, I’ll wait for other reviews to give me an idea of whether it returns to real life or remains in the world of potions and spells…

Amazon UK Link

Two’s company 2…

Another double review to help clear my backlog, though this particular pair really demand to be reviewed together…

Dialogues of the Dead (Dalziel and Pascoe 19)
by Reginald Hill

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When an AA man dies after apparently falling from a bridge, it is assumed to be an accident. Then a young musician crashes his car into a tree and dies, again put down to accident. But at the local library, librarians Dick Dee and Rye Pomona are going through the massive pile of entries to a short story competition in the local paper when they come across anonymous stories that show another side to these deaths, and it appears they must have been written before the deaths were reported in the media. As Dalziel and Pascoe begin to investigate, there’s another death, then another, and it appears obvious the team have a serial killer on their hands. The killer is soon nicknamed the Wordman, since each death is accompanied by another short story. Meantime, new member of the team, “Hat” Bowler, is falling in love…

I had forgotten just how good this one is! It’s a wonderful blend of light and dark, and full of Hill’s trademark love of words and wordplay, which this time he puts at the centre of the story by filling the Wordman’s written “confessions” with literary “clues”, and by involving the librarians – Dick Dee especially loves to play word games. There’s a huge cast – essential, since so many of them will be bumped off and there need to be enough left as suspects. It’s mainly set among the self-styled great and good of the town, and Hill has excelled himself in creating characters who stay just the right side of caricature. Dalziel is on fine form, which means the book is full of humour, but Hill is expert at suddenly changing the mask from comedy to tragedy – the murders are dark enough, but the Wordman’s confessions take us deep into a troubled and damaged mind.

The denouement is tense and thrilling, and the solution shocks. And we’re left with the reader knowing more about what happened than Dalziel and Pascoe. They think that everything has finally been wrapped up, maybe not neatly, but securely. However…

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Death’s Jest-Book (Dalziel and Pascoe 20)
by Reginald Hill

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s impossible to see this one as anything other than as Part Two of Dialogues of the Dead. Unlike many of the books in the series, this one does not stand on its own – anyone trying to read it without having read the one before would probably be completely lost, or at the very least feel as if important stuff had been left out. As a result, I’m not giving a little blurb, since almost anything I say about this one could spoil the last one. I’d also say to anyone who’s reading the series in order, make room to read these two one after the other – they’re both intricately plotted and having the details of the first one fresh in your mind helps when reading the second.

Oddly, although it is a sequel of sorts, this one doesn’t work nearly as well as the first, in my opinion. Hill had obviously become fascinated by the character of Franny Roote over the course of the series – a man who appeared in one of the early cases and reappears in several of the later ones, becoming a kind of nemesis for Peter Pascoe. In this one we get screeds of letters he writes to Pascoe which take up probably around a third of the book, and while they’re interesting, often amusing and, of course, well written, they slow the main plot down to a crawl. I’m afraid I never found Franny quite as entertaining as Hill clearly thought he was, although he provides an interesting study in psychology both of himself and of Pascoe’s reaction to him. I’m not sure the psychology is completely convincing, though.

The other aspect that weakens this one is very hard to discuss without spoilers, so forgive my vagueness. As I said above, at the end of Dialogues of the Dead, the reader knows more than the characters. This continues throughout Death’s Jest-Book, which is basically the story of Dalziel and the team gradually realising that their knowledge is incomplete and trying to fill the gap. Hat’s love story continues too but, knowing what we know, we more or less know how that will work out. So all through we’re watching the characters learning about things the reader already knows. Of course it’s more complex than that makes it sound, and there’s still all the usual stuff that makes Hill so enjoyable – the writing, the language, the regular characters, secondary plots, moral dilemmas – but the pace is very slow, and plot-wise it doesn’t build the same level of tension. It’s good – just not as good as the first part of this story, and being a sequel of sorts it’s impossible to avoid making that comparison.

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In summary, then, together the two books form one massive story – both books individually are chunksters. Dialogues of the Dead is excellent and could be read separately as a standalone, although the reader is likely to feel that there are some loose ends. Death’s Jest-Book is good but with some structural weaknesses, and is very much a sequel or second part. It doesn’t work well as a standalone, and should be read soon after Dialogues of the Dead while the details are fresh.

TBR Thursday 365…

Episode 365

Reading-wise, this year has got off to a terrible start – I just haven’t been in the mood, for some obscure reason. So I haven’t finished a book this week, but fortunately I also haven’t received any. The TBR is staying balanced on 170!

(Yeah, I’ve used that gif before, but it’s too good to only use once!) Anyway here are a few more I should get to soon…


The Life of Crime by Martin Edwards

Courtesy of HarperCollins. An unsolicited one, and a giant tome. To be honest, much though I enjoyed Martin Edwards’ much shorter delve into the history of mystery writing, I’m not sure I’m interested enough to read over 600 pages on the subject. But I’ll dip in and see – I suspect this may be a book more intended for dipping than reading straight through anyway. I’ll soon find out!

The Blurb says: In the first major history of crime fiction in fifty years, The Life of Crime: Detecting the History of Mysteries and their Creators traces the evolution of the genre from the eighteenth century to the present, offering brand-new perspective on the world’s most popular form of fiction.

Author Martin Edwards is a multi-award-winning crime novelist, the President of the Detection Club, archivist of the Crime Writers’ Association and series consultant to the British Library’s highly successful series of crime classics, and therefore uniquely qualified to write this book. He has been a widely respected genre commentator for more than thirty years, winning the CWA Diamond Dagger for making a significant contribution to crime writing in 2020, when he also compiled and published Howdunit: A Masterclass in Crime Writing by Members of the Detection Club and the novel Mortmain Hall. His critically acclaimed The Golden Age of Murder (Collins Crime Club, 2015) was a landmark study of Detective Fiction between the wars.

The Life of Crime is the result of a lifetime of reading and enjoying all types of crime fiction, old and new, from around the world. In what will surely be regarded as his magnum opus, Martin Edwards has thrown himself undaunted into the breadth and complexity of the genre to write an authoritative – and readable – study of its development and evolution. With crime fiction being read more widely read than ever around the world, and with individual authors increasingly the subject of extensive academic study, his expert distillation of more than two centuries of extraordinary books and authors – from the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann to the novels of Patricia Cornwell – into one coherent history is an extraordinary feat and makes for compelling reading.

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Edith and Kim by Charlotte Philby

Courtesy of HarperCollins. Another unsolicited one, but one I would have picked for myself even if I hadn’t been sent a copy. I’m intrigued by the fact that it’s written by Charlotte, granddaughter of probably the most famous British traitor of the last century, Kim Philby. Whether that will give her any additional insight is a rather moot point as far as I’m concerned, since Philby ran off to his masters in the USSR in 1963 and died in 1988. But we’ll see!

The Blurb says: To betray, you must first belong…

In June 1934, Kim Philby met his Soviet handler, the spy Arnold Deutsch. The woman who introduced them was called Edith Tudor-Hart. She changed the course of 20th century history.

Then she was written out of it.

Drawing on the Secret Intelligence Files on Edith Tudor-Hart, along with the private archive letters of Kim Philby, this finely worked, evocative and beautifully tense novel – by the granddaughter of Kim Philby – tells the story of the woman behind the Third Man.

* * * * *

Historical Crime

The Bookseller of Inverness by SG MacLean

Courtesy of Quercus via NetGalley. I’ve had a mixed reaction to MacLean’s books – her Seeker series didn’t really work for me, but I did enjoy one of her Alexander Seaton books. This one is set in the aftermath of Culloden, which gives it the advantage that I will be familiar with the historical background, and the disadvantage that I’m bored with the Scottish obsession with the Jacobites. So it could go either way! Fingers crossed…

The Blurb says: After Culloden, Iain MacGillivray was left for dead on Drumossie Moor. Wounded, his face brutally slashed, he survived only by pretending to be dead as the Redcoats patrolled the corpses of his Jacobite comrades.

Six years later, with the clan chiefs routed and the Highlands subsumed into the British state, Iain lives a quiet life, working as a bookseller in Inverness. One day, after helping several of his regular customers, he notices a stranger lurking in the upper gallery of his shop, poring over his collection. But the man refuses to say what he’s searching for and only leaves when Iain closes for the night.

The next morning Iain opens up shop and finds the stranger dead, his throat cut, and the murder weapon laid out in front of him – a sword with a white cockade on its hilt, the emblem of the Jacobites. With no sign of the killer, Iain wonders whether the stranger discovered what he was looking for – and whether he paid for it with his life. He soon finds himself embroiled in a web of deceit and a series of old scores to be settled in the ashes of war.

* * * * *

Dalziel and Pascoe on Audio

Good Morning, Midnight by Reginald Hill read by Shaun Dooley 

Continuing my re-read of my favourite police procedural series via audio, this is the 21st book. While I’ve been irritated by the constant changing of the narrator in the later books, I did quite enjoy Shaun Dooley’s rather understated narration of the last book, once I got used to it. 

The Blurb says: Like father like son. But heredity seems to have gone a gene too far when Pal Maciver’s suicide in a locked room exactly mirrors that of his father ten years earlier.

In each case accusing fingers point towards Pal’s stepmother, the beautiful enigmatic Kay Kafka. But she turns out to have a formidable champion, Mid-Yorkshire’s own super-heavyweight, Detective Superintendent Andrew Dalziel. DCI Peter Pascoe, nominally in charge of the investigation, finds he is constantly body-checked by his superior as he tries to disentangle the complex relationships of the Maciver family.

At first these inquiries seem local and domestic. What really happened between Pal and his stepmother? And how has key witness and exotic hooker Dolores, Our Lady of Pain, contrived to disappear from the face of Mid-Yorkshire?

Gradually, however, it becomes clear that the fall-out from Pal’s suicide spreads far beyond Yorkshire. To London, to America. Even to Iraq. But the emotional epicentre is firmly placed in mid-Yorkshire where Pascoe comes to learn that for some people the heart too is a locked room, and in there it is always midnight.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

A New Challenge for 2023…

The Looking Forward Challenge

Last year I did a series of eight Looking Forward posts where I looked back at old reviews which I finished by saying something along the lines of “I’ll be looking forward to reading more of her work/this series/his books in the future” to see if I actually did read more and, if I did, did I like the ones I looked forward to as much as the ones that made me look forward to them. My success rate at following up on these authors was higher than I anticipated, but there were some that had slipped through the net completely or who still have books I haven’t read and would like to. In some cases I’d actually bought the relevant book or books and then left them lingering unread in the dark recesses of the TBR, sometimes for years.

It seems a bit pointless to do the Looking Forward posts unless it actually inspires me to finally fill those gaps, so over the last few months I’ve been trying to fit some of them into my reading schedule. However, since challenges always motivate me, I decided to create a little challenge to read a book from each of the remaining authors in 2023 – that is, those authors who featured on a Looking Forward post in 2022 as having slipped through the net and/or whose books are still stuck on my TBR.

Turns out there are fourteen of them, and I already have books from ten of them on my TBR. Here they are, in no particular order, with the books I’m planning to read. The links on the book titles will take you to Goodreads if you want to find out more about them…

Gillian White – Refuge

Jane Casey – The Close

Johan Theorin – The Darkest Room

Tom Vowler – Every Seventh Wave

RJ Ellory – City of Lies

Hari Kunzru – The Impressionist

Lexie Conyngham – A Knife in Darkness

Camilla Läckberg – The Preacher

Yrsa Sigurdardottir – Last Rituals

Douglas Watt – Death of a Chief

Colm Tóibín – The South

Ken Kalfus – 2 A.M. in Little America

Chris Grabenstein – Tilt-a-Whirl

Jude Morgan – The Taste of Sorrow

I’m planning to do more of the Looking Forward posts this year, so the challenge may turn into a cyclical thing where each year I try to catch up on the books I’ve reminded myself about the year before! Of course the problem is, if I enjoy these books I’ll probably finish my review by saying I’m looking forward to more…
#neverendingtreadmill #toomanybooks #firstworldproblems

Have you read any of the books on my list? Are there authors you’re looking forward to catching up on in 2023?

Wish Me Luck!

The Horned God edited by Michael Wheatley

When the pipes play…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The last of the British Library Tales of the Weird anthologies that the porpy and I have read for this year’s spooky season, this one contains 11 stories and 6 short poems all on the theme of Pan. As I’ve said before, the poems in these anthologies never really interest me and I tend to skim over them, so to be fair I don’t include them when deciding how to rate the book. The eleven stories, though, are very good. I’ve always liked Pan from way back when first introduced to him in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and indeed the relevant chapter of that book, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, is included here and works very well as a standalone story, showing Pan in his demigod role as friend and protector of animals.

Most of the stories here, though, are more interested in Pan as everything from a champion of free sex, to a corrupter of the innocent, to a campaigner against the deadliness of some of the more joyless types of Christianity. Pan, when he’s being presented as a positive force, encourages people to find freedom from the strict conventionalities of Victorian/Edwardian society, that being the era of most of these stories. But just as often he’s presented as bad or, rather, amoral, corrupting people and destroying them either morally or physically or both. Seems to very much depend on the outlook of the author!

The blurb suggests the stories share a theme of “queer awakenings” which surprised me when I looked at the index and saw that Ratty and Mole were about to appear, along with Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan which I had also already read and loved, and which for me had themes of degeneracy and degradation rather than any kind of awakening, queer or otherwise! As I suspected, this claim is little more than a marketing ploy to tie in with the current obsession with all things queer in contemporary culture – while it could feasibly be claimed for a couple of the stories, most of the sex, actual or implied, in the stories is of the heterosexual kind (with occasional mild hints of bestiality!), and often not presented positively at all. Being of that earlier era, it is also never described graphically, though there are enough hints for the reader to be able to imagine what’s going on in those forest glades at midnight…

The Great God Pan
Illustration by
mgkellermeyer via

This is another collection that got consistently high ratings from me, excluding the poems. Of the eleven stories, I gave seven the full five stars, and none of the stories rated as poor. Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

The Moon-Slave by Barry Pain – a story of a young girl who loves to dance! I highlighted this one in a previous Tuesday Terror! post.

The Story of a Panic by EM Forster – Young Eustace, a “repellent” 14-year-old (is there any other kind?), is staying in an Italian hotel with two aunts and a group of dully conventional and mostly middle-aged English and American people. During a picnic, everyone suddenly feels a great fear and they all run off… except Eustace. Whatever happened to him on that hill, (and there’s a reason the word “panic” has Pan in it), Eustace is changed forever, and no matter how hard they try, the other guests are unable to “cure” him. This is one on which the “queer awakenings” claim is based, and it can certainly easily be read that way, though it can equally be read as simply a breaking away from society’s conventions. It’s very well told, with some humour but also with some depth.

The Devil’s Martyr by Signe Toksvig – (If you’re wondering, yes, she was the great-aunt of Sandi Toksvig.) An orphaned young boy has been left in the guardianship of a bishop, who has handed him over to monks to train him up for a life in the Church – a particularly harsh version of the Church, where all is sin and the monks enjoy nothing more than a good bit of self-flagellation of an evening. However, a friend of the boy’s father shows up and gets the bishop to agree to allow the boy to go away with him for a month. During that month, he introduces the boy to wine, women and song, and shows him there is another god to worship – Pan, who in this story is not unlike the Devil. This is a dark story which is certainly about sexual awakening, but also about the evils that can result when religion is taken to extremes.

Pan in The Wind in the Willows

The Golden Bough by David H Keller – Two newlyweds are honeymooning, when the rather fey young wife tells her husband that she has dreamt of a house and wants them to live in it. The husband, who is wealthy and loving to a fault, agrees to drive around till they find the house, which they eventually do. It turns out to be a castle, isolated from all other people, in the middle of a forest. The husband isn’t wildly keen but decides to stay there for a while in the hopes his young wife will tire of the loneliness. But there’s a mysterious man in the forest, who plays a mysterious pipe, and the wife becomes enthralled by him. Very dark, with elements of fairy stories and some great horror imagery at the end.

I seem to have picked out some of the darker stories, but there are lighter stories too. However, the overall lesson is that Pan is not a god to treat lightly! If you hear those pipes when you’re walking in the forest, run! An excellent collection that is interesting for showing the variety of ways in which Pan has been portrayed.

(The porpy admitted that he and his chums often sneak off
to worship their demigod Pan in the forest at midnight…)

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

Amazon UK Link

Guy Mannering by Sir Walter Scott

The missing heir…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

One dark night a traveller in the south-west of Scotland loses his way, and begs a night’s lodging at Ellangowan, the house of Mr Godfrey Bertram. Mrs Bertram is in labour and soon gives birth to a son, their first child. The traveller, Guy Mannering, has revealed he has studied astrology and agrees to cast the child’s fortune. But when he discovers that the stars foretell three distinct periods of danger, each potentially fatal to the child, he insists that the fortune should be read only when the child is five years old. But young Harry Bertram will meet the first period of danger before his fifth birthday is over, when a conflict takes place between smugglers and the local excise-men, during which Harry disappears. The shock sends Mrs Bertram, again pregnant, into labour, and she gives birth to a daughter, Lucy, but dies in childbirth.

Fast forward 17 years, to probably the mid-1780s. All has gone wrong at Ellangowan, and Mr Bertram is being forced to sell up. Guy Mannering, now a middle-aged widower with a daughter of his own, Julia, has returned from India where he has spent his career as an army officer. Harry is still missing. And then Mr Bertram dies, leaving Lucy almost destitute. Mannering decides to ask her to make her home in his house, to be a companion to Julia. Ellangowan is sold, but with the proviso that if the heir returns, the property shall revert to him…

This was Scott’s second book, and I must say I found it considerably better than its more famous and more lauded predecessor, Waverley. Partly this is a matter of taste – I’m rather tired of the Scottish obsession with the Jacobite era, when Waverley is set. But I also thought the characterisation in Guy Mannering is much truer and more realistic, and, perhaps because it’s not set around such a pivotal event, I felt Scott explained the background more clearly, rather than assuming the reader would be aware of it. Both gypsies and smugglers play important roles in the story, and Scott incorporates a lot of information about both groups and how they were perceived in Scotland at this time, all of which is interesting from both a historical and a literary viewpoint.

Book 11 of 80

I was less keen on the structure. The gap of seventeen years after the first section of the book is somewhat dislocating. Suddenly half the characters whom we have become invested in are dead, while the other half are much older, having lived a full life in the interim. Personalities have changed, sometimes with reason, due to events that have happened in the interim, and sometimes simply due to age. My other issue might arise from my pedantic nature, but when a book is called Guy Mannering I expect Guy Mannering to be the central character. But after casting the child’s fortune, he disappears for the entire first section of the book, and when he reappears after the gap, so does a young man we are introduced to as Vanbeest Brown, who is the hero for the rest of the book. Mannering’s role is secondary at best, and arguably not even that.

Sir Walter Scott by Sir Henry Raeburn
Scottish National Portrait Gallery

However, there are some great characters in the book, some of whom were household names in Scotland in my youth, though I’m not sure they still are. Vanbeest Brown (have you guessed who he is yet?) is an enjoyable young hero who is constantly falling into scrapes, but is also always helping his friends out of them. There’s Meg Merrilies, the gypsy woman, who also appeared at Harry’s birth and plays a vital role throughout the story. Dirk Hattaraick is the boo-hiss baddie (or at least one of them!), a Dutch smuggler plying his trade around the shores of Britain and Northern Europe. Dominie Sampson is Lucy’s childhood tutor and is a sort of tragicomic figure, although personally I found him too caricatured. Farmer and dog-breeder Dandie Dinmont is the major rural character, loyal and true, and so popular was he that there’s a real breed of dog called Dandie Dinmont terriors in his honour. In Edinburgh, we are amidst the lawyers, and here advocate Paulus Pleydell is central, as the man who will sort out the legal entanglements the various characters fall into, including the inheritance issues, and take on a kind of avuncular role towards the young people. And the two girls, Julia and Lucy, are so much better drawn than the female characters in Waverley. Lucy might be a little too much like the future self-sacrificing heroines beloved by the Victorians, but Julia is mischievous and gay, her romantic excesses tempered by her sense of humour.

After a good start, I found the book got very slow for a while as Scott set up all the characters and their various settings and situations. But the second half speeds up considerably and is full of intrigue and action with lots of danger, spiced with just the right amount of romance. There’s some Scots dialect, but not enough to be problematic, and in general the writing is excellent. The two main settings, the rural south-west and the city of Edinburgh, are very well depicted and provide an interesting contrast. Scott weaves his large cast of characters in and out of his dance with great skill, and ensures we like all the good ones and hate all the bad ones, which is just as it should be! He should have called it Harry Bertram though…

Amazon UK Link

Two’s company…

Still being a million miles behind with reviews, I’m going to do a few double posts over the next few weeks, containing two short reviews each, to cut into the backlog. First up, two mystery novels, one which I enjoyed very much and one which didn’t hit the spot for me…

Death at La Fenice (Brunetti 1) by Donna Leon

In the beginning…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

World-famous conductor, Maestro Helmut Wellauer, is appearing at La Fenice opera house in Venice when he is poisoned with cyanide during the second act interval. The show goes on front-stage with a stand-in conductor, but backstage Commissario Guido Brunetti is already discovering that Wellauer was roundly disliked by almost everyone who knew him. But who disliked him enough to murder him, and why? Brunetti decides that the only way to find the murderer is to learn everything he can about the victim, so he begins to delve into Wellauer’s past, where he will uncover some disturbing secrets…

I’ve read a couple of the recent entries in this long-running series and enjoyed them well enough, but not to the extent of being particularly inspired to read more. However, this first one turned up in an Audible sale and the narrator, Richard Morant, sounded good so I thought I’d give it a try. And I must say I thought this was vastly better than those later ones!

For the first novel in a series, the development of Brunetti as a character is excellent, and we begin to get a picture of his extended (and happily functional) family life. Venice comes alive, not so much in the sense of physical descriptions though they’re there, but as an atmosphere and a culture, a fully-rounded society. Leon talks knowledgeably about opera and music generally, and gives a good picture of a culture where the arts are both highly valued and well and widely understood. And the plot is excellent – it is dark, indeed it shocked me at a couple of points, but Brunetti’s humanity and sympathy towards the various suspects stops it from becoming too bleak. It’s a little weak on the investigative side, perhaps, but Brunetti’s colleagues avoid the mild caricaturing that I wasn’t so keen on in the later books – they are much more believable as real people here. I can now understand why so many people have become hooked on this series, and I look forward to reading more of the earlier ones.

Audible UK Link

* * * * *

The White Priory Murders (Sir Henry Merrivale 2)
by Carter Dickson

Footprints in the snow…

😐 😐

James Bennett has been invited to a house party in the White Priory, home to the Bohun brothers, John and Maurice. The star guest is Marcia Tait, a glamorous actress who has just walked out of a Hollywood contract so she can act in a play written by Maurice Bohun. The house is full of people connected to Marcia – fellow actors, people from the movie company, lovers actual and hopeful – and Marcia loves to be the centre of attention. In fact, it’s a real mystery why it’s taken so long for someone to murder her…

I’ve had a mixed reaction to Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr, loving some of his early books and not getting on well at all with his more famous locked room mysteries. This is one of the latter – in this case, the “locked room” is a pavilion in the ground of the White Priory where Marcia planned to spend the night alone (maybe), and is found dead with only one set of foot-prints, of the man who found her, in the snow outside. I must admit I’m weary of the one/no set of footprints in the snow trope beloved of locked roomsters, so my heart sank as we began to go through and discard all of the usual possibilities – secret tunnels, fresh snow falls, people dropping in from hot air balloons overhead (OK, I made that one up, but at least it would be different).

I’m afraid I found this dull, as I often do with locked rooms, and I didn’t like any of the characters including the detective, Sir Henry Merrivale, retired policeman. All the intricacies of alibis and who could have got to the pavilion and how left me both confused and bored, and there’s lots of jerky dialogue that mainly consists of people being rude to each other. I eventually abandoned it at 60% and flipped to the end to discover whodunit. A week later, I’ve forgotten.

I’m sure this would work fine for people who enjoy locked room mysteries or impossible crimes. Unfortunately it just happens not to be my kind of thing.

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

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 364…

Episode 364

Well, after boasting last week about my amazing success in reducing the TBR, I don’t know how to break the news that it’s gone up in the first five days of the year – by 6! Now at 170.

The only solution is to read these ones at warp speed. Engage!

Winner of the People’s Choice

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden

There was never any doubt about the winner this month! In This House of Brede leapt into a commanding lead with the first few votes and continued to pull further ahead all the way through, eventually winning by what I think may be the biggest ever margin. ECR Lorac made a valiant effort to catch up, but never even got within touching distance. An excellent choice, People – it will be a March read!

The Blurb says: ‘The motto was Pax but the word was set in a circle of thorns. Peace, but what a strange peace, made of unremitting toil and effort . . .’

Bruised by tragedy, Philippa Talbot leaves behind a successful career with the civil service for a new calling: to join an enclosed order of Benedictine nuns. In this small community of fewer than one hundred women, she soon discovers all the human frailties: jealousy, love, despair. But each crisis of heart and conscience is guided by the compassion and intelligence of the Abbess and by the Sisters’ shared bond of faith and ritual. Away from the world, and yet at one with it, Philippa must learn to forgive and forget her past.

A vivid and exceedingly insightful portrait of religious community, In This House of Brede is the second instalment in Godden’s acclaimed ‘convent novels.’

* * * * *

Short Stories

The Virgin of the Seven Daggers and Other Stories by Vernon Lee

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. The porpy and I thought we’d reached the end of this year’s mammoth batch of spooky collections and anthologies, but when I saw that OWC and one of my favourite editors, Aaron Worth, were issuing a new collection, how could I resist? We’ve started it already, and even the porpy thinks this one is well worth delaying hibernation for!

The Blurb says: Vernon Lee was a polymath whose copious writings include deeply learned studies of art, music, literature, and history, but also a small but exquisitely crafted group of Gothic tales, most of which first appeared in fin de siècle periodicals including the iconic Yellow Book. In these stories of obsession and possession, transgressive desire reaches out from the past — through a haunting portrait, a murdered poet’s lock of hair, the uncanny voice of a diabolical castrato — dragging Lee’s protagonists to their doom. Among those haunted by Lee’s ‘spurious ghosts’ was Henry James, who praised her ‘gruesome, graceful…ingenious tales, full of imagination’.

This new edition includes Lee’s landmark 1890 collection Hauntings complete, along with six additional tales and the 1880 essay ‘Faustus and Helena’, in which Lee probes the elusive nature of the supernatural as a ‘vital…fluctuating…potent’ force that resists definite representation. Aaron Worth’s contextual introduction, drawing upon Lee’s newly published letters, reassesses her place in the pantheon of the fantastic.

* * * * *


Hunting Time by Jeffery Deaver

Courtesy of HarperCollins via NetGalley. Having thoroughly enjoyed Deaver’s Colter Shaw trilogy, I was pleased and not terribly surprised to discover there would be a book four after all! Wonder how it will work now that the trilogy’s background storyline has been completed…

Allison Parker is on the run with her teenage daughter, Hannah, and Colter Shaw has been hired by her eccentric boss, entrepreneur Marty Harmon, to find and protect her. Though he’s an expert at tracking missing persons–even those who don’t wish to be found–Shaw has met his match in Allison, who brings all her skills as a brilliant engineer designing revolutionary technology to the game of evading detection.

The reason for Allison’s panicked flight is soon apparent. She’s being stalked by her ex-husband, Jon Merritt. Newly released from prison and fueled by blinding rage, Jon is a man whose former profession as a police detective makes him uniquely suited for the hunt. And he’s not alone. Two hitmen are also hot on her heels–an eerie pair of thugs who take delight not only in murder but in the sport of devising clever ways to make bodies disappear forever. Even if Shaw manages to catch up with Allison and her daughter, his troubles will just be beginning.

As Shaw ventures further into the wilderness, the truth becomes as hard to decipher as the forest’s unmarked trails…and peril awaits at every turn.

* * * * *

Shardlake on Audio

Lamentation by CJ Sansom read by Steven Crossley

Continuing my re-read of this great series via audiobook. Rumour is there’ll be a new book next year – hope so, since I’ll soon run out of re-reads! I won’t be reviewing this one since I already have.

The Blurb says: Summer, 1546. King Henry VIII is slowly, painfully dying. His Protestant and Catholic councillors are engaged in a final and decisive power struggle; whoever wins will control the government of Henry’s successor, eight-year-old Prince Edward. As heretics are hunted across London, and the radical Protestant Anne Askew is burned at the stake, the Catholic party focus their attack on Henry’s sixth wife, Matthew Shardlake’s old mentor, Queen Catherine Parr.

Shardlake, still haunted by events aboard the warship Mary Rose the year before, is working on the Cotterstoke Will case, a savage dispute between rival siblings. Then, unexpectedly, he is summoned to Whitehall Palace and asked for help by his old patron, the now beleaguered and desperate Queen. For Catherine Parr has a secret. She has written a confessional book, Lamentation of a Sinner, so radically Protestant that if it came to the King’s attention it could bring both her and her sympathizers crashing down.

But, although the book was kept secret and hidden inside a locked chest in the Queen’s private chamber, it has – inexplicably – vanished. Only one page has been found, clutched in the hand of a murdered London printer.

Shardlake’s investigations take him on a trail that begins among the backstreet print shops of London but leads him and Jack Barak into the dark and labyrinthine world of the politics of the royal court. Loyalty to the Queen will drive him into a swirl of intrigue inside Whitehall Palace, where Catholic enemies and Protestant friends can be equally dangerous, and the political opportunists, who will follow the wind wherever it blows, more dangerous than either.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Wandering again…

Wanderlust Bingo 2023/4

I love having a challenge on the go that reminds me to get out of my insular British comfort zone and look for books that take me to different places and cultures. So having finally finished the first Wanderlust Bingo challenge, I’ve decided to do it all again! There are some slight differences – I got rid of a couple of the boxes that I found really hard to fill, and have split some of the larger geographical areas up a bit more; so, for example, Oceania has been split this time into Australia and Polynesia. So here it is – the second Wanderlust Bingo card…

The other major change I’m making is to make it a two-year challenge this time! Trying to do it all in one year last time was far too pressured. Two years should be easy-ish, but I’m not really bothered about a deadline – if it takes less or more time than I’m anticipating, that’s fine! It will all depend on what books come my way.

My plan is that for the first year I’ll just wait and see what boxes I can fill from my general reading, and then in the second year I’ll frantically try to find books to fill in any missing squares! Any type of book will count – crime, fiction, science fiction, non-fiction. A country can only appear once and a book can only fill one box, and my home country of Scotland now gets its very own box. Do you have a favourite book that you feel would fill one of my boxes? All recommendations welcome!

If you fancy joining in, I’d love to follow your journey! Otherwise, I’m hoping you’ll give me the pleasure of your company as I travel. 😀

Wish Me Bon Voyage!

New Year’s Resolutions aka…

…The Annual Failure Report…

It has become an annual tradition at this time each year that I look back at the bookish resolutions I made last year, confess just how badly I failed, and then, nothing daunted, set some more targets for me to fail at next year. However, I have had a stonking reading year this year, beating all previous records in terms of quantity and doing pretty well in terms of quality too! So we may be in for a surprise! Fortify yourself with the last of the Christmas eggnog, have some medicinal chocolate close to hand and let’s begin! 

The 2022 Results

I continued to plan much of my reading at the beginning of the year, as I have done for a few years now, leaving space for new releases or impulse buys along the way. I never stick to the plan rigidly but it does mean that I remember to make progress towards all of my various challenges… in theory. 

1) Reading Resolutions

I planned to read:

a) 72 books that I already owned as at 31st Dec 2021. I fully read 57 of these – my highest total since records began – and partly read and abandoned another 20. Mathematicians will be able to work out that this is a total of 77! (I count the abandoned ones because they are now off my TBR, which is the purpose of the target.) So for the first (and quite probably the last) time ever, I…

b) 12 books from the People’s Choice Polls, where I reveal a few of the oldest books on my TBR and You, the People, choose which one I should read. Success! I continue to love this challenge (and hope you do too), and have read (or abandoned) all twelve of your choices, and reviewed them all! I’ve discovered that the longer books lie around unread, the more likely I am to abandon them (I haven’t quite worked out why this is so, but ’tis so!), so anything that helps remove these older books from the TBR is a Good Thing, and also means I…

c) 18 books from my Classics Club list. I read 19! This included the last five from my first list and 14 from my new list. I also read several other classics that weren’t on either list – classics have been the backbone of my reading this year, giving me a great deal of pleasure and rating consistently higher than most other books I read. So I…

d) 6 books in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series. I said I didn’t expect to achieve this since the later books get longer and longer, and I’m so slow at listening to audiobooks. But I read four and had the added joy of also reading a new collection of his “forgotten” short stories, so I feel as if I succeeded even though I…

e) 10 books for the Spanish Civil War challenge. I planned to read all the remaining books on my TBR or wishlist for this challenge and then call it quits. But I got fed up after a little spate of disappointing ones, so decided just to read the ones I already owned and stop acquiring more. The end result was that I only completely read four (I abandoned a few too), but I did finish the challenge! Not sure whether that counts as a Pass or a Fail really, but since I enjoyed the challenge overall and had some great reads, I’m going to declare that I…

f) 12 books for the Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge. Ooh, so close! I read (or abandoned) 11! The closest I’ve ever got to succeeding, but I can’t disguise the fact that I…

g) 8 books for the Wanderlust Bingo challenge. I finally finished this one-year challenge in just under two years! But last year’s failure doesn’t count and, by reading 8 books this year, I…

h) 24 books first published in 2021/22 (minimum). Oh, dear! I tried! But contemporary fiction/crime fiction and I just aren’t getting along these days! I blame the books, regularly, and I abandoned an astonishing 12 of them this year, some from authors I’ve previously enjoyed, and most of them lauded around the blogosphere, Goodreads and even by the judges of various awards, so I accept that it’s me that’s out of tune. (Although I still blame the books!) In the end, I only managed to finish 23 of them, and even then some of them came in for pretty hefty criticism in my reviews. So, although I feel it’s not really my fault (I blame the books!), there’s no way round it – I… 

2) Reduce the TBR

I aimed to reduce the TBR by only twenty-nine this year to get down to a nice round figure, and I actually increased the target for the combined TBR/wishlist because of all the books I added when planning my new Classics Club list. So…

Target for TBR (i.e., books I own): 150

Result: 164

Target for combined TBR/wishlist (which is a truer picture): 280.

Result: 277

This despite the usual flurry of additions at the end of the year when all your Best Of lists tempt me to forget my iron willpower! Unbelievably, and I think for the first time ever, I…

I didn’t set a specific target for review copies, but I took a total of 62 which was down on the previous year but still higher than I’d like. A lot of them have been unsolicited again this year though that seems to have reduced dramatically in the last few months. I’m pretty strict now about not automatically adding them to my TBR if they really don’t appeal, but again this year I’ve had some fab reads and been introduced to some great new authors from the unsolicited pile, so I hope they don’t dry up completely! I’ve been extremely strict with myself about NetGalley requests, only requesting books from tried and true authors or on the basis of recommendations from trusted fellow reviewers. The number of unread review books at the end of the year is at its lowest level in years – 16 – and that’s about where I’d like to keep it.

Overall I read 135 books, the highest total since I began recording my reading on Goodreads in 2013! More importantly, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying reading again. After The Year of the Great Slump (2020) and The Year of the Lesser Slump (2021), 2022 will henceforth be known as The Year of the Great Comeback!

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Resolutions for 2023

Before setting a new bunch of targets, I’d like to emphasise that I don’t care whether I succeed or fail! They are merely to give me a kind of plan for the year, but if I get fed up with any or all of the challenges I set myself, I shall toss them aside and do something else instead! Mostly all these targets just give me a great excuse to play with my  cherished spreadsheet. 😉 There’s a lot of crossover in these targets which means they’re not as ridiculous as they first look…

1) Reading Resolutions

I plan to read:

a) 72 books that I already own as at today. Again I’m going to try to get rid of a good number of the older books this year, so that the remaining books will be mostly recent acquisitions. I achieved this target this year, so can I do it again? Lots of the books in the targets below are included in the 72, so it’s not as bad as it seems…

b) 12 books from the People’s Choice Polls, where I reveal a few of the oldest books on my TBR and You, the People, choose which one I should read. I already have the last three you picked lined up to be read in the first three months of the year. 

c) 16 books from my Classics Club list. My enthusiasm for my new list remains high, so this one should be easy! 

d) 4 books in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series. There are only four books left to go in my re-read, or re-listen, of this favourite series, so although some of them are seriously long, this should be easily doable…

e) 12 books for the Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge. I’m sticking with 12 even though I have never achieved this target. This may be the last year of this challenge, since I’m running out of books that are easily acquirable at reasonable prices, and I’m not enthusiastic enough to search out pricey second-hand copies of the missing ones.

f) 13 books for the New Wanderlust Bingo challenge. There will be a brand new Wanderlust Bingo card coming along soon, and this time I’m going to be more realistic and plan to do it over two years rather than one!

g) 14 books for the Looking Forward challenge. I’m planning a new challenge based on the series of Looking Forward To posts I did this year (and plan to do again next year) – details to follow soon!

h) 30 books first published in 2022/23 (minimum). Given my abject failure to achieve a target of 24 this year, I have no idea why I’m increasing the target to 30 this year! Masochism, perhaps? In reality, it’s that I feel I’m getting seriously out of touch with new releases, so I’m going to work hard to hunt down some shiny gems that will re-inspire my enthusiasm! 

2) Reduce the TBR

As I mentioned, I’ve discovered that the longer the gap between acquisition and reading, the higher the chance of abandonment. I suspect I enjoy books more while my enthusiasm is fresh. So while having a huge TBR/wishlist is fun, it really doesn’t work well for me, so I’m going to continue gradually trying to reduce it without going as far as having a complete ban on new acquisitions. Ideally I’d eventually like to get back to reading books within a few weeks or at most months of acquiring them, as I used to do before I allowed my TBR to spiral out of control. So I’m aiming to reduce the TBR by another 24 at least this year, though hopefully more, and the combined TBR/wishlist by 27, to get down to nice round numbers. 

Target for TBR: 140

Target for combined TBR/wishlist (which is a truer picture): 250.

If I stick to my reading resolutions, it should be easy… 

Wish me luck!

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TBR Thursday 363 and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

I usually include a summary of how I’m progressing (or not) towards the targets I set myself for the year, but since I’ll be looking at my New Year’s Resolutions old and new tomorrow, I’ll leave that for then. So just a round-up of the books I’ve read and reviewed for my various ongoing challenges this time.

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The Classics Club

I’ve read another two from my list this quarter, but haven’t reviewed either of them yet. And I had three still to review from the quarter before and have reviewed just one of them! So four outstanding – must do better…

10. The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler – This ‘thriller’ completely failed to thrill, becoming bogged down in turgid descriptions of obscure Eastern European politics that may have interested a contemporary audience but didn’t interest me. I said “Have never been quite so bored in my entire life, except possibly during the whale classification sections of Moby Dick.” Abandoned at 30%. 1 star.

Oh dear! A pity, since I enjoyed all four of the ones I haven’t reviewed! 😉

10 down, 70 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve read four for this challenge this quarter and had another two left still to review from the quarter before, and have reviewed five, so just one left outstanding…

54. Calamity Town by Ellery Queen. A slightly weak plot, perhaps, and could have done with some trimming of the length. But the depiction of the town and the characterisation of the family and townspeople are excellently done and the writing is great. 5 stars.

55. Max Carrados by Ernest Bramah. A collection of short stories about blind amateur detective Max Carrados. The stories are well written and some of the plots are interesting, though others are pretty dull, but I tired very quickly of Carrados’ superhuman compensating sensory abilities. 3 stars.

56. Israel Rank by Roy Horniman. I could probably have tolerated the anti-Semitism as of its time, but I found the book dull and overlong, and eventually abandoned it halfway through. It’s the book that the film Kind Hearts and Coronets is based on, and my advice is forget the book and watch the film! 2 stars

57. The Nursing Home Murder by Ngaio Marsh. A revisit to an old favourite series, which happily I found has stood the test of time well despite some of the usual Golden Age snobbery. Alleyn is quite a cheerful detective, who enjoys his job and has a keen sense of justice, so the books fall neatly into that sweet spot that is neither too cosy nor too grim. 4 stars.

58. Death on the Down Beat by Sebastian Farr. The murder of a conductor mid-performance provides a unique little puzzle that’s told almost entirely through letters and documents related to the case, including newspaper clippings,  a chart of the orchestra and even four pages of the score of the relevant part of the music being played at the time of the victim’s demise! I loved the sheer fun and novelty of the musical clues, which allowed me to overlook the book’s other weaknesses. 5 stars.

As has been the case throughout this challenge, a mixed bunch, but more good than bad this time!

58 down, 44 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I read and reviewed the final two books for this challenge, and posted my wrap post yesterday…

12. The Gate of the Sun by Derek Lambert. This is a long book which covers the years from the early stages of the war, 1937, by which time the International Brigades were active, to 1975, the year of Franco’s death. Lambert’s desire to paint a panoramic picture of Spain’s development over forty years sometimes took him too far from the personal stories which turn history into novels. But for the most part I found the book absorbing, very well written and deeply insightful about the war-time conditions, its aftermath and the impact on some of the people caught up in events. 4 for the novel, 5 for the accuracy of and insight into the historical setting, so overall 4½ stars.

13. Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom. 1940, and four people, all British, play out their own drama in a Madrid still wrecked and reeling, its people starving and afraid. Well written as any book by Sansom is, grounded in accurate history but seen through an obvious left-wing lens, and more of a slow thoughtful look at the period than a fast-paced political or action thriller. 4 stars.

Two good books to finish off this challenge triumphantly!

13 down, 0 to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I read three this quarter and had two still to review form the quarter before. I’ve reviewed all five and am up-to-date! So did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

August – The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler. Sadly it fared no better as a People’s Choice than it did as a Classic! 😉 1 star.

September – Cloudstreet by Tim Winton. While willing to accept that this is probably a good depiction of a time and a place, I fear I never get along with plotless novels, and by 20% of this long book no plot had begun to emerge. Abandoned. 2 stars.

October – Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Probably best described as a literary science fiction set in a dystopian world but in our own recent past, this is not about a struggle against injustice, a battle for rights – it is a portrait of brainwashing, and of a society that has learned how to look the other way. I found it thought-provoking and quietly devastating, and sadly all too relevant to the world we live in. 5 stars.

NovemberThe Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson. A raid by Barbary pirates results in a group of Icelanders being taken to a life of slavery in Algiers. The historical aspects are interesting and, I assume, accurate. But I found the central romance between slave and slave-owner outdated and rather nauseating. 2 stars.

DecemberThe Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie. Poirot and Hastings on the trail of a murderer in France. An early one from when Christie was still developing her characters and her style, but already her trademark plotting skills are evident in this entertaining mystery. 4½ stars.

So a mixed bag to finish the year, but the couple of great books well outweighed the rather less stellar ones. Good work, People! Possibly my favourite challenge since I never know what You will choose! Let’s do it all again next year!

12 down, 0 to go!

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So a few duds this quarter, but many really excellent books too! I’m still a mile behind with reviews, especially of Classics, but hopefully I’ll get on top of the backlog in the New Year. Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

Reading the Spanish Civil War – Wrap!

¡No pasarán!
They Shall Not Pass!

It’s a full three years since I decided to a challenge myself to read my way into this piece of history which has always been a large gap in my knowledge. Little did I know that just a few weeks later Covid would hit the world, one of its less important effects being to drive me into a major reading slump that came and went for the best part of two years. So despite the time it’s taken, I’ve only read thirteen books, a mix of fact and fiction, which is quite a bit less than I originally planned, but feels like enough – for now, anyway. My main purpose was to give myself enough background knowledge to stop avoiding novels about the Spanish Civil War on the grounds that I wouldn’t be able to appreciate them properly, and happily I feel I’ve achieved that aim, so challenge met!

If you want to see the full list of the books I read, you’ll find it here. I abandoned two of the books on my initial list of eight as I went along. On the other hand, I added seven – a combination of books that were recommended to me and books to which some other part of my reading led me.

In total, then, thirteen books, of which six are factual (three history, one biography and two memoirs) and seven fiction. Although I had an ongoing issue throughout with the persistent left-wing bias of pretty much all of the British and American novels I read, and with much of the factual stuff too, in the end I enjoyed the vast majority of them, with only a couple being quite disappointing. And I felt I learned a lot!  So to celebrate the end of this challenge, I thought I’d pick out what were the highlights for me – all books that I unreservedly recommend.

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The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan

Brenan excels in his detailed breakdown of the background to the conflict, especially his explanation of why the various different regions in Spain developed differing political alignments dependant on local geographical, agricultural and industrial factors. While all were affected by the power plays amongst the monarchy, Church and military, he shows that the impact differed according to the economic and social history of each region. I found that I was gradually developing a map of the country in my mind, one that showed not simply where places were but what people did there – how they lived, were they wealthy or poor, who owned the land, was the land fertile, what were their local industries, and so on. I found this a fascinating and hugely informative read, that left me with a much better understanding of what led to the rise of the various factions, and why the drive towards war became seemingly unstoppable.

It is in the nature of revolutions to throw up moments when all the more brilliant dreams of the human race seem about to be realized, and the Catalans with their expansive and self-dramatizing character were not behind other peoples in this respect. Visitors to Barcelona in the autumn of 1936 will never forget the moving and uplifting experience and, as the resistance to the military rebellion stiffened, the impressions they brought back with them spread to wider and wider circles. Spain became the scene of a drama in which it seemed as if the fortunes of the civilized world were being played out in miniature. As in a crystal, those people who had eyes for the future looked, expecting to read there their own fate.

* * * * *


Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

Orwell’s memoir of his time in Spain, fighting for the Republican side in the International Brigades, is obviously a heavily biased account, which adds colour but doesn’t replace reading an actual history. It does however give a lot of insight into how the fractures and in-fighting among the factions on the left weakened the Republicans, leaving the door open for the much better disciplined Nationalists, especially once Franco took command. Orwell sees the conflict in terms of good and evil, which I found rather too simplified, but his honesty gives a very clear picture of his growing disillusion, not with the theories and ideals underpinning the revolution, but with the realities of it. Despite its bias, I enjoyed this much more than I expected.

* * * * *


For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

In the pine forests high in the Spanish Sierra, a small band of Republican guerrillas is holed up, waiting instructions. Robert Jordan, an American who has volunteered, is sent to lead them in the blowing up of a bridge to prevent Franco’s Nationalists from bringing up reinforcements during a Republican offensive scheduled to begin in a few days time. Over the next few days as they prepare for their mission, Robert will learn the stories of these people and we will learn his, seeing what drives a man to participate in a war in a country not his own, and the effect it has on him. As the group sit in the evenings in the cave where they are living, they tell each other stories they have told many times before – stories of the days before war, of atrocities they have seen and participated in, of bullfighting and politics and love. A book of this stature doesn’t require a recommendation from me but it has it anyway – my highest. A masterpiece.

Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.

* * * * *


In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda

This is the story of Natalia’s marriage and life in Barcelona, before, during and after the war. The war happens mostly off the page, referred to but not visited. When her husband gets swept up and goes off to fight on the Republican side along with his friends, Natalia must fend for herself in a city full of shortages and suspicion. How to work and care for her children at the same time, how to feed her family when both money and food are scarce, how to navigate a city where the political allegiances of her husband can open some doors and close others – these are the things Natalia must grapple with in a world that, as a young housewife, she has barely known before. It is a fascinating picture of someone who has no interest in or understanding of politics – who simply endures as other people destroy her world then put it back together in a different form. Natalia – Pidgey, as she is known – has taken up permanent residence in my heart.

* * * * *


Nada by Carmen Laforet

The Civil War is over but Spain is still suffering its after-effects when Andrea comes to Barcelona from her provincial home to study literature at the University. She is enthralled at the idea of Barcelona, having only childish memories of earlier visits to her then wealthy relatives. When she arrives at her grandmother’s house in the middle of the night, she discovers the family is no longer wealthy – quite the reverse. The house is old, run-down, dirty and over-stuffed with furniture and trinkets, relics of when the family owned the whole house, before they had to divide it into two and sell the other half. The family are as Gothic as the house, with a general air of insanity hovering over the household. The book is considered a classic of existential literature, and part of the Spanish tremendismo style, which apparently was characterized by a tendency to emphasise violence and grotesquery. This gives Andrea’s Barcelona a kind of nebulous, nightmarish quality that somehow paints a clearer picture of the social dislocation caused by civil war than a more direct depiction might have done.

* * * * *

So it’s a wrap!

Thank you for joining me on my journey and I hope you enjoyed at least some parts of my obsession with the Spanish Civil War, which may continue although the challenge has ended. I shall give the last word to Orwell…

In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war.

¡España una, grande, libre!
Spain, one, great and free!

Tuesday Terror! The Moon-Slave by Barry Pain

That’s how you know…

This week’s story is taken from The Horned God, a British Library Tales of the Weird anthology focusing on stories starring the Great God Pan. They are a warning to us all to live in crowded cities, preferably with our doors and windows sealed to keep out the horrors and temptations of the natural world! Our little heroine in this story paid no heed to this advice, as she danced ‘neath the light of an enchanted moon…

The Moon-Slave
by Barry Pain

Barry Pain

The Princess Viola had, even in her childhood, an inevitable submission to the dance; a rhythmical madness in her blood answered hotly to the dance music, swaying her, as the wind sways trees, to movements of perfect sympathy and grace.

Like many of us girlies, she has found dancing with (most) men something of a disappointment…

‘They are all right,’ she said to herself as she thought of the men she had left, ‘but they cannot dance. Mechanically they are all right; they have learned it and don’t make childish mistakes; but they are only one-two-three machines. They haven’t the inspiration of dancing. It is so different when I dance alone.’

Even her Prince, the handsome Hugo, to whom she has become betrothed, doesn’t set her blood tingling when they dance…

With others the betrothal was merely a question of state. With her it was merely a question of obedience to the wishes of authority; it had been arranged; Hugo was comme ci, comme ça—no god in her eyes; it did not matter. But with Hugo it was quite different—he loved her.

Perhaps if she had loved him it would have been different – love is the secret ingredient that turns (most) men into good dancers, after all. The betrothal party is in full swing, but Viola, bored with the dance, slips off into the palace grounds and finds herself at the entrance to the old overgrown maze…

Many years ago the clue to the maze had been lost; it was but rarely now that anyone entered it. Its gravel paths were green with weeds, and in some places the hedges, spreading beyond their borders, had made the way almost impassable.

Viola enters the maze anyway with the idea of reaching the space at the centre, but gradually is lulled by the darkness…

She soon forgot her purpose, and wandered about quite aimlessly, sometimes forcing her way where the brambles had flung a laced barrier across her path, and a dragging mass of convolvulus struck wet and cool upon her cheek.

By chance… or is it?… she finds herself in the centre…

Here the ground was carpeted with sand, fine and, as it seemed, beaten hard. From the summer night sky immediately above, the moonlight, unobstructed here, streamed straight down upon the scene. Viola began to think about dancing.

And that’s when she makes her mistake…

‘Sweet moon,’ she said in a kind of mock prayer, ‘make your white light come down in music into my dancing-room here, and I will dance most deliciously for you to see.’ She flung her head backward and let her hands fall; her eyes were half closed, and her mouth was a kissing mouth. ‘Ah! sweet moon,’ she whispered, ‘do this for me, and I will be your slave; I will be what you will.’

Oh dear!

Quite suddenly the air was filled with the sound of a grand invisible orchestra. Viola did not stop to wonder. To the music of a slow saraband she swayed and postured. In the music there was the regular beat of small drums and a perpetual drone. The air seemed to be filled with the perfume of some bitter spice. Viola could fancy almost that she saw a smouldering camp-fire and heard far off the roar of some desolate wild beast. She let her long hair fall, raising the heavy strands of it in either hand as she moved slowly to the laden music. Slowly her body swayed with drowsy grace, slowly her satin shoes slid over the silver sand.

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

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Things we have learned today:

1. Never wander off alone at night.

2. Never go into old forgotten mazes.

3. Never make pacts with powers you don’t understand!

4. If given a choice between a Prince and a desolate wild beast, pick the Prince!!

This is a short story, beautifully written and full of the kind of lush descriptions of the natural world that normally signal the arrival of Pan. It’s very clear where it’s heading but it’s done so well that it still manages to create an atmosphere of tension. In the style of those happy bygone days it’s packed full of sensuality and repressed desire without ever resorting to spelling everything out in graphic detail, and that subtlety and allusion works so much better than the hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-hammer approach of too much modern writing. The porpy and I both loved this one!

If you’d like to read it, here’s a link.

(The porpy apologises for the unseasonal story
and wishes you a Merry Christmas!)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link

Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom

After the conflict…

😀 😀 😀 😀

1940. The Spanish Civil War is over and Franco’s regime is in charge. What will later be known as the Second World War is underway – France has fallen, Britain has retreated from Dunkirk and is grimly facing daily aerial bombardment, and Franco is rumoured to be about to bring Spain into the war on the side of Germany and Hitler. Against this backdrop, four English people will play out their own drama in a Madrid still wrecked and reeling, its people starving and afraid.

Harry Brett has been invalided out of the army after Dunkirk, suffering from damaged hearing and shell shock. He has recovered well enough, though, to take on a job proposed to him by the Secret Service – to go out to Spain and try to win the confidence of Sandy Forsyth, once his old school friend and now involved in shady dealings in Madrid. When he gets there and makes contact with Sandy, he discovers Sandy is now living with another old acquaintance – Barbara Clare, once the lover of another school friend, Bernie Piper, who was declared missing, presumed dead, after the battle of Jarama. We follow these three as Harry tries to find out what Sandy is up to, and Barbara continues to hope against the odds that Bernie is not dead and to use whatever little influence and money she has to find him.

I read this book years ago when it came out (2006) and didn’t really connect with it. I wondered at the time if it was because I didn’t know enough about the Spanish Civil War – what the various factions were and what they were fighting for, and who was allied to whom, and so on. So when I started my Spanish Civil War challenge, I decided to make this the last book of the challenge, to see if all my new-found knowledge would make a difference to my reaction. And it did! I still didn’t wholeheartedly love it, largely because it’s very long and I didn’t feel the central stories were strong enough to carry it. However, I enjoyed it considerably more this time, both because I better understood the various tensions among the characters and because it was interesting to see Sansom’s take on the history.

Book 13

Sansom joins the long list of British and American authors who take the Republican side when writing about the conflict. In this version of history, Republicans are good people, and it was only the nasty Communists, whom real Republicans despise as much as they despise Fascists, who committed all the atrocities on the left, while real Republicans were decent souls defending a democratically elected government against a fascist insurgency. This means that the opposite must also be true – that everyone on the Nationalist side must be an evil Fascist or, perhaps worse, a monarchist. I guess this distortion or, at the least, over-simplification has been repeated so often now that many people accept it as truth, especially when it ties in with their existing political leanings, as it clearly does with Sansom.

The personal stories of the characters are done well, and Sansom uses them to show different aspects of the conflict and its aftermath. The three men, Harry, Sandy and Bernie, all attended an elite public school called Rookwood, and in the early part of the book there are many flashbacks to their time there, showing us how they developed into the men they became. Harry was always the neutral one, friend to both of the others and with no strong views on politics or anything else. Sandy was the bad boy, expelled from previous schools, and soon to be expelled from Rookwood too. Already arrogant, already cruel, naturally he would side with the Fascists in later life. Bernie was a scholarship boy from a humble background, and he already resented the inequalities in society, declaring himself a socialist, so it is no surprise when he later heads off to Spain to fight in the International Brigades. In political terms the characterisations are a little simplistic, but they work well in human terms, although I found Harry’s neutrality made him rather bland to be given the role of main character. The role of public schools in shaping the leaders of the future is portrayed well, though again clearly through the lens of Sansom’s left-wing bias.

Barbara is the outsider, brought into this group as the lover of first Bernie and later Sandy. She is, frankly, an unlikely heroine to have inspired so much passion – Sansom repeatedly tells us that she lacks beauty, mainly because she wears glasses and frumpy clothes, and I couldn’t see much that was outstanding in her personality to overcome these dreadful flaws. We know Sandy is a bad man because he hates her wearing glasses, while Bernie is good and pure because he loves her even with her glasses on. Am I sounding sarcastic? Good, I intend to. However, her role in the Red Cross first as a nurse and later in helping to reunite refugee children with their families gives insight into another aspect of civil war, and makes her the most likeable of the main characters, despite her glasses.

The twin stories – Harry’s spying on Sandy and Barbara’s search for Bernie – come together eventually in a thriller-ish ending, but a rather muted one, which perhaps suits the post-war tone better than a more heroic event would have done. Sansom resists the temptation to make everything happy ever after, which adds credibility, but leaves a rather depressing after-taste.

Overall then, well written as any book by Sansom is, grounded in accurate history but seen through a left-wing lens, and more of a slow thoughtful look at the period than a fast-paced political or action thriller. My own reading experience suggests it works better if the reader is reasonably well versed in this period of history beforehand, in which case it’s well worth reading.

Amazon UK Link

The Murder on the Links (Poirot) by Agatha Christie

Poirot and the foxhound…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

On his way home from Paris, the ever-susceptible Hastings is charmed by a girl who shares his carriage on the train to Calais. As they part he asks her name and, laughing, she replies “Cinderella”. He never expects to see her again, but of course he does! The next day Poirot receives a letter begging him to come to Merlinville-sur-Mer, a small resort midway between Boulogne and Calais, to look into an urgent matter for a M. Renauld. Renauld says he is in imminent fear for his life, and though Poirot and Hastings travel there as quickly as they can, alas, too late! Renauld is dead, stabbed in the back and tipped into a shallow open grave on the golf course that borders his property. Poirot feels he owes it to his would-be client to work with the French authorities to find his killer…

Christie’s third book and only the second Poirot novel, she still at this stage hasn’t quite settled into the style that would eventually become her trademark, but in terms of plotting this is a big step up from her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Hastings too has settled into the character with which we are familiar. Poirot is still rather different – he’s much more physically active than in the later books, and although there are mentions of things like his passion for order, his eccentricities are not yet so much in evidence. There are odd little things that stand out, like his moustache being described as “military” rather than the later “luxurious” and so on, but he’s closer to his final characterisation than he was in Styles. His relationship with the French police detective, Giraud, is much more of a rivalry than the collaborative approach he has with the police inspectors he works with in later books – his attitude to Giraud, and Giraud’s to him, reminded me much more of Holmes’ sarcastic superiority than Poirot’s later affectionate mockery.

The plot is nicely complicated, with plenty of shifts and twists along the way. On the night before Poirot and Hastings arrive, Renauld and his wife were woken in the night by two masked men, who proceeded to tie up and gag Mme Renauld, and then demanded that Renauld tell them the “secret”. When he refused, they dragged him out of the room, and he wasn’t seen alive again. What was the secret they were after? Renauld had mentioned Santiago in his letter to Poirot, and it transpired he had business dealings there. His son, Jack, was about to set off to Santiago on his father’s instructions, but M Renauld hadn’t told him why, simply that he would send further instructions later. But there are odd things closer to home too. Why has Renauld had several meetings with a neighbour, Mme Daubreuil? Were they having an affair? Why does Mme Daubreuil’s lovely daughter Marthe have anxious eyes? Who is the mysterious Bella Duveen, a letter from whom is found in Renauld’s overcoat pocket? And what has Cinderella to do with the whole thing? And just when things seem complicated enough, another dead body is found…

Agatha Christie

Giraud is the “foxhound” style of detective, minutely poring over the ground in search of physical clues, like the match that appears to be of a kind more common in South America. Poirot is more thoughtfully observant, as likely to spot what should be there but isn’t as to obsess about what is there. While Giraud hides behind bushes to eavesdrop, Poirot simply listens to what people tell him, and uses his little grey cells to spot the tiny inconsistencies that will lead him to the truth. I did work out part of the howdunit aspect of the plot, but was still taken by surprise by the solution to the whodunit.

My memory of this was that it was quite a weak one which is why it’s so long since I revisited it. But I was wrong – it’s a good plot, an interesting story and there’s plenty of fun along the way, plus a touch of romance for our Hastings. It’s also enjoyable for seeing how Christie was continuing to develop her style and her characters. Not one of her very best, but as always with Christie, even her second tier novels are better than most people’s best. Well worth reading!

Book 12 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for December. You were very kind, People, to pick me a Christie – always a sure-fire winner! 😀

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