TBR Thursday 183…

Episode 183

Another amazing drop in the TBR this week – down 2 to 222! I’ve finally got the thing under control! So long as no strangely-clad gentlemen pop round to visit, that is…

Here are a few more that should make me merry…

Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the British Library. My efforts to catch up on my little backlog of vintage crime novels continues with this one, which is apparently quite famous among football fans. Of whom I am not one…

The Blurb says: The 1939 Arsenal side is firing on all cylinders and celebrating a string of victories. They appear unstoppable, but the Trojans – a side of amateurs who are on a winning streak of their own – may be about to silence the Gunners. Moments into the second half the whistle blows, but not for a goal or penalty. One of the Trojans has collapsed on the pitch. By the end of the day, he is dead.

Gribble’s unique mystery, featuring the actual Arsenal squad of 1939, sends Inspector Anthony Slade into the world of professional football to investigate a case of deadly foul play on and off the pitch.

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Crime

Courtesy of Little, Brown Book Group via NetGalley. I loved Harper’s first book, The Dry, and was a little disappointed in her second, Force of Nature. So I have my fingers crossed that this one is a return to her excellent top form…

The Blurb says: Two brothers meet at the remote fence line separating their cattle farms under the relenting sun of the remote outback. In an isolated part of Western Australia, they are each other’s nearest neighbour, their homes three hours’ drive apart.

They are at the stockman’s grave, a landmark so old that no one can remember who is buried there. But today, the scant shadow it casts was the last hope for their middle brother, Cameron, who lies dead at their feet.

Something had been on Cam’s mind. Did he choose to walk to his death? Because if he didn’t, the isolation of the outback leaves few suspects…

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Classic Adventure

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Another one from my Classics Club list. I loved reading a few of Burroughs’ Barsoom Chronicles a few years back, so I’m hoping he entertains me just as much with this one.

The Blurb says: A central figure in American popular culture, Tarzan first came swinging through the jungle in the pages of a pulp-fiction magazine in 1912, and subsequently appeared in the novel that went on to spawn numerous film, full-length cartoon, and theatrical adaptations.

The infant Tarzan, lost on the coast of West Africa, is adopted by an ape-mother and grows up to become a model of physical strength and natural prowess, and eventually leader of his tribe. When he encounters a group of white Europeans, and rescues Jane Porter from a marauding ape, he finds love, and must choose between the values of civilization and the jungle.

Jason Haslam’s engaging introduction situates the novel not only in the pulp fiction industry, but also against the backdrop of adventure stories, European exploration in Africa, and the debates over nature versus civilization.

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More Vintage Crime

Courtesy of Collins Crime Club. I hadn’t realised this one has a Christmas theme till I popped into Goodreads to copy the blurb – must try to fit it in before Santa gets here!

The Blurb says: The delight of Christmas shoppers at the unveiling of a London department store’s famous window display turns to horror when one of the mannequins is discovered to be a dead body…

Mander’s Department Store in London’s West End is so famous for its elaborate window displays that on Monday mornings crowds gather to watch the window blinds being raised on a new weekly display. On this particular Monday, just a few weeks before Christmas, the onlookers quickly realise that one of the figures is in fact a human corpse, placed among the wax mannequins. Then a second body is discovered, and this striking tableau begins a baffling and complex case for Inspector Devenish of Scotland Yard.

Vernon Loder’s first book The Mystery at Stowe had endeared him in 1928 as ‘one of the most promising recruits to the ranks of detective story writers’. Inspired by the glamour of the legendary Selfridges store on London’s Oxford Street, The Shop Window Murders followed, an entertaining and richly plotted example of the Golden Age deductive puzzle novel, one of his best mysteries for bafflement and ingenuity.

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

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

Death Makes a Prophet by John Bude

Quirky crime…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Eustace K Mildmann is the unlikely founder of a new religion based on Egyptian gods, new age mysticism, vegetarianism, short trousers and general silliness. Even more unlikely is that this religion – The Children of Osiris, or Cooism – has attracted thousands of followers, including some of the wealthier residents of Welworth Garden City. Now, however, Eustace’s position as Head Prophet is in danger, with the rise of the charismatic fez-wearing Peta Penpeti, who may (or may not) be the reincarnation of an Egyptian priest. Penpeti has the advantage of appearing exotically foreign, which appeals greatly to the female members of the cult. Poor Eustace risks losing not only control of the cult but also the woman he worships to this usurper. Factions abound, secrets are hidden, rivalries fester. And when the whole cult is invited to take part in a festival in the grounds of its wealthiest benefactress, Mrs Alicia Hagge-Smith, all this simmering passion leads to murder…

The first half concentrates on describing the cult and its various adherents, and is mildly amusing. But although it goes on for a long time – too long – I never got any real feel either for what the religion was offering its followers, nor why so many people were attracted to it. It seemed to need a heftier suspension of disbelief than I could summon up. The second half becomes more serious after the murder is committed and Bude’s recurring detective, Inspector Meredith, is called in to investigate. The reader is privy to hints about the backgrounds of various characters so to some extent is ahead of the police. The actual murder method is nicely contrived and provides more of a mystery perhaps than the simple question of whodunit.

John Bude is apparently one of the most popular of the “forgotten” authors the British Library has resurrected, but for some reason I never find myself loving his books. They are well written, and this one in particular has a lot of humour around the quack religion and the various eccentric characters who are drawn towards it. But I think it’s that very eccentricity that stopped me from feeling involved – these are characters to laugh at, not to care about. And while I can enjoy a supporting cast of quirky characters, I prefer the central characters to have a greater feeling of realism. Unfortunately, I also find Inspector Meredith a rather bland detective – this is the third book I’ve read in this series and I would find it difficult to give any kind of character sketch of him.

Not one that stood out for me then – in fact, I’ll admit to skim-reading most of the second half because I had pretty much lost interest in the outcome by then. But, since other people clearly enjoy his style more than I, I accept my reaction is clearly subjective. If you like your crime fiction to be laced with humour and especially if you’ve appreciated Bude’s other books, then I expect you would enjoy this one too. Personally, I’ve preferred him when he’s been in more serious mode, but I don’t think I’m ever going to become a die-hard fan.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Dickens at Christmas! The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain

Lord! Keep my Memory Green!

There has been a distinct lack of festive spirit in the Dickens’ Christmas books so far, and only a couple left to go. So fingers crossed for this week’s…

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The Haunted Man and The Ghost’s Bargain
by Charles Dickens

Title Page
by John Tenniel

Everybody said he looked like a haunted man. The extent of my present claim for everybody is, that they were so far right. He did.

This is our protagonist – Mr Redlaw, a chemist and academic, who teaches in a great college. He dwells on sorrows from his past and has allowed these memories to stop him from finding enjoyment and pleasure in life, though he’s a good man, generous to those around him. He is haunted, however, by a mysterious spectre that appears to him when he is alone and brooding…

Ghastly and cold, colourless in its leaden face and hands, but with his features, and his bright eyes, and his grizzled hair, and dressed in the gloomy shadow of his dress, it came into his terrible appearance of existence, motionless, without a sound. As he leaned his arm upon the elbow of his chair, ruminating before the fire, it leaned upon the chair-back, close above him, with its appalling copy of his face looking where his face looked, and bearing the expression his face bore.

Mr Redlaw and the Phantom
by John Leech

On this particular evening, just before Christmas, as Mr Redlaw remembers his youthful hopes and how they were dashed by the betrayal of a friend and the death of his beloved sister, the ghost tempts him…

….“If I could forget my sorrow and wrong, I would,” the Ghost repeated. “If I could forget my sorrow and my wrong, I would!”
….“Evil spirit of myself,” returned the haunted man, in a low, trembling tone, “my life is darkened by that incessant whisper.”
….“It is an echo,” said the Phantom.
….“If it be an echo of my thoughts—as now, indeed, I know it is,” rejoined the haunted man, “why should I, therefore, be tormented? It is not a selfish thought. I suffer it to range beyond myself. All men and women have their sorrows, – most of them their wrongs; ingratitude, and sordid jealousy, and interest, besetting all degrees of life. Who would not forget their sorrows and their wrongs?”

Frontispiece
by John Tenniel

And the Phantom grants his wish. The memories of all events from his past which have painful associations are stripped from his mind. But the ghost goes further…

“The gift that I have given, you shall give again, go where you will. Without recovering yourself the power that you have yielded up, you shall henceforth destroy its like in all whom you approach. Your wisdom has discovered that the memory of sorrow, wrong, and trouble is the lot of all mankind, and that mankind would be the happier, in its other memories, without it. Go! Be its benefactor! Freed from such remembrance, from this hour, carry involuntarily the blessing of such freedom with you.”

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Mr Swidger and Milly
by Frank Stone

Well, this is much more like the thing! It starts with Mr Swidger, the old caretaker of the college, and his family hanging holly as they do every year at Christmas-time, and culminates with a grand feast on Christmas Day. It has a strong message most suitable for the Christmas season: that it is our sorrows in life which humanise us and make us able to empathise with the troubles of others. And it has an equally powerful social message – that children abandoned to a life of poverty without love or hope cannot grow up to be anything other than monstrous. The child in this is a fuller version of Ignorance in A Christmas Carol – a thing to be prevented, or feared.


The Tetterbys
by John Leech

We see the Swidgers as they are affected by the ghost’s bargain. As their memories of their shared hardships and sorrows fade, so do the bonds that hold them together, and these warm, loving people become hard and cruel. We see the Tetterbys, a family with many children and little money to feed them but with love a-plenty, turned resentful and bitter as their memories melt away of the things they have endured and overcome together. And we see Mr Redlaw learn that the only people not susceptible to the ghostly curse are those who have never known the softer emotions, for they are cursed already…

“This,” said the Phantom, pointing to the boy, “is the last, completest illustration of a human creature, utterly bereft of such remembrances as you have yielded up. No softening memory of sorrow, wrong, or trouble enters here, because this wretched mortal from his birth has been abandoned to a worse condition than the beasts, and has, within his knowledge, no one contrast, no humanising touch, to make a grain of such a memory spring up in his hardened breast. All within this desolate creature is barren wilderness. All within the man bereft of what you have resigned, is the same barren wilderness. Woe to such a man! Woe, tenfold, to the nation that shall count its monsters such as this, lying here, by hundreds and by thousands!”

Mr Redlaw and the Boy
by John Leech

And, lesson learned, we see the ghost take back his bargain, harmony and love restored, Mr Redlaw wiser, and more than one loving hand reached out to raise the child up from his hopelessness. Exactly what a Christmas story should be!

Then, as Christmas is a time in which, of all times in the year, the memory of every remediable sorrow, wrong, and trouble in the world around us, should be active with us, not less than our own experiences, for all good, he laid his hand upon the boy, and, silently calling Him to witness who laid His hand on children in old time, rebuking, in the majesty of His prophetic knowledge, those who kept them from Him, vowed to protect him, teach him, and reclaim him.

Dinner in the Great Hall
by Clarkson Stanfield

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Festive Joy Rating:     🎅 🎅 🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Scottish Clearances by TM Devine

A history of the dispossessed…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Highland Clearances of the 19th century are one of the great factors in the Scottish psyche, a period which has left a legacy of bitterness against landlordism, and about which we can still become outraged, even while being proud of the Scottish Diaspora of which it formed a considerable part. The legend is that landowners and clan chiefs, in pursuit of profit, turned the land over to sheep and forcibly evicted the crofters who had traditionally eked out a precarious subsistence from their small portions of land. Some were driven to emigrate semi-voluntarily for economic reasons; some were forced into emigration by landowners who simply wanted to rid themselves of these inconvenient hindrances to “improved” land use. The story is made worse by the feelings of betrayal – the breaking of the bonds of kinship that were at the heart of the clan system.

Tom Devine doesn’t exactly aim to overturn the legend in this scholarly and convincing work. Rather, he sets out to expand and explain – to strip out the emotion and look more closely at the historical factors that led to the Clearances, and to give an accurate, and therefore more balanced, picture of what actually happened. He also seeks to answer the question of why the similar patterns of altered land use and emigration that took place in the rural Lowlands were neither as traumatic at the time, nor have the same emotional resonances today.

(The Corries lamenting the Clearances in Hush Hush)

He starts by looking at Highland society in the centuries prior to the Clearances, debunking some of the myths embedded in the later romanticisation of the clan system. For example, he points out that bonds of kinship weren’t as strong as we like to think, since warring clan chiefs regularly took territory from their opponents and inherited the occupants of the land as they did so. However, in return for their military service, the clan leaders were seen as having a responsibility to provide clan members with land. Rents were initially paid in kind, but over the years this gradually changed to cash transactions, so that eventually the relationship became more akin to landlord and tenant. Devine suggests, therefore, that the clan system had begun to decline long before the 19th century, helped on its way by the repressive measures various monarchs used against their unruly Highland subjects, culminating in the deliberate attempt to break the power of the clan chiefs following the last Jacobite rebellion in 1745.

Devine then discusses the similarities and differences between Lowland and Highland society. Geographical factors made the Lowlands more suitable for arable farming while the Highlands were largely given over to livestock farming. This led to longer leases in the Lowlands, which in turn meant that evictions could only happen more slowly. In the Highlands leases tended to be annual so that large numbers of people could be evicted in short spaces of time. Arable farming required more labour, especially in the early stages of improvement, giving more time for the rural population to adjust and to develop other marketable skills, such as the small cottage industries that grew up in Border villages around this time. The Lowlands had the further advantage of proximity to the towns which were beginning to grow in response to the industrial revolution, absorbing some of the excess population from the rural areas.

(The Emigrants – the statue at Helmsdale laments the Clearances while recognising our national pride in the achievements of the resulting Diaspora)

Devine also points to religion as a factor, with the Presbyterian church acting as a socially cohesive factor in the Lowlands, while in the Highlands their Episcopalian and Catholic religions were out of favour and seen as a focus for disloyalty and rebellion. There was also a level of racism involved that reduced the sympathy for Highlanders – Celts were seen as throw-backs, aborigines, lazy, while Anglo-Saxon Lowlanders were hard-working achievers. So, following the years of famines when Highlanders depended on various charities to survive, charitable impulses ran dry and there was a general feeling that ridding the country of these sub-standard parasites would be of benefit to the nation as a whole. (I’m glad to say that I think that particularly vile strand of racism doesn’t exist any more, though I feel there were still remnants of it around during my childhood).

(The Proclaimers comparing the Thatcherite industrial devastation of Scotland in the 1980s to the Clearances of a century and half earlier in Letter from America)

Even in the Highlands, though, Devine does a little to absolve the landlords of their reputation for callous greed. He makes the point that many of the hereditary chiefs by this time were in severe financial straits. Some had sold out to incomers, others had had to put their bankrupt estates in the hands of trustees, usually based in far-away Edinburgh and with a legal responsibility to return the land to profitability regardless of the human cost. He gives examples of how some landlords tried to mitigate the effects of the changes, with varying degrees of success. And he makes the point that a system that depends on small land-holdings only works as long as population numbers remain stable – if the population rises, as it began to do when healthcare and general conditions improved, then the system of subsistence crofting is bound to fail.

This is only a brief flavour of what is covered in the book. It’s very well written and all the points are clearly explained, so that it’s easily accessible to the general reader, but it also has plenty of tables of facts and figures for those who are looking at it more academically. I have a reasonable familiarity with Scottish history of this period but still learned a great deal and appreciated the comparisons between the two very different societies which make up our small country. I also found it put the period into context with events happening elsewhere in Britain and the western world. I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Scottish history.

Sir Tom Devine

But I’d go further, and say that it’s a real insight into how societies react to major changes in economic circumstances, relevant to many of those communities currently being hit by the advances from the industrial 20th century to the technological 21st. The comparisons between the impacts on the Lowlands and the Highlands of changes in land use and economic systems surely have lessons we can learn about how such changes can be managed to minimise the trauma for the people caught up in these often unavoidable shifts.

So I’m not ready to let go of my bitterness completely nor to entirely forgive, but I have a fuller understanding now of the historical forces behind the events, and that can only be a good thing.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

FictionFan Awards 2018 – Literary Fiction and Book of the Year

A standing ovation please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

LITERARY FICTION

I’ve been so busy this year trying to catch up with my Classics Club list and various other challenges that I’ve read far fewer new releases than usual, but being a bit choosier means that I’ve enjoyed most of those I have read. As a result, the shortlisting has been extremely tough. In the end, I’ve decided not to include classics or any of the fiction I read as part of my Russian challenge since I’ve already posted about them in previous challenge summaries. All of which very neatly leaves me with five excellent contenders, so here goes…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd

As Hope Clearwater sits on the beach outside her home in the Republic of the Congo, she looks back over the circumstances of her life that have brought her here: her marriage to mathematician John Clearwater, and her later work at Grosso Arvore, a chimpanzee research project run by the world-famous primate expert, Eugene Mallabar. The two stories, though separate, have the common theme of the pursuit of scientific fame and the toll that can take on those who fail. There are other themes too – the war that rumbles on in the Congo, the evolutionary and genetic links between human and chimp – and a third story, of Hope’s love affair with Usman Shoukry, an Egyptian mercenary pilot fighting on the pro-government side in the war 

This is Boyd at his best and the narration by Harriet Walter does it full justice. The book sprawls across time and geographic location, bringing each to life and never allowing the reader to become lost. Each separate strand is interesting and engrossing and they are well enough linked that they feel like a satisfying whole. The writing and storytelling are of course excellent – when is Boyd ever anything less? It feels perfectly balanced, a story about chimps that has much to say about humanity, and says it beautifully.

Click to see the full review

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That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina

When a PI tracks Tommaso down in London to give him the news that he has been left a large legacy, Tommaso tells him he doesn’t want it. To make the PI understand why his anonymity is so important to him, Tommaso agrees to tell him the story of why he left Italy – the story of his last summer in Puglia. That was the summer, long ago, when Tommaso met and fell in love with Anna. We know from the beginning that their relationship ended with some kind of tragedy that led Tommaso to cut all ties with home and take on a new identity in London. But it’s only after we follow Tommaso through the events of the summer that we find out what happened…

On the face of it, this is a straightforward account of a love affair, but the quality of the writing, the great pacing and, most of all, the superb sense of place make it so much more than that. It’s an intense character study of Tommaso, and it’s wonderfully evocative of the culture of Puglia, in the heel of Italy, in the 1980s – still strictly conservative in outlook, still largely in thrall to Catholicism, and with strong family expectations that children will follow the paths determined for them by their parents. A first-class début.

Click to see the full review

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Eagle and Crane by Suzanne Rindell

Earl Shaw takes two small planes barnstorming round Depression-era California, tempting customers to go up for a scenic flight. One day, the pilots take up two young men, Louis Thorn and Harry Yamada. Daredevil Harry decides he will walk along the wing, and Louis, feeling challenged and a little humiliated, follows suit. Earl offers them both jobs as aerial stuntmen and so the act of Eagle & Crane is born – Eagle to represent the good ol’ US of A, and Crane to represent the villainous and untrustworthy Japs of Harry’s heritage. But the war is about to begin, and suddenly white America will begin to see its Japanese-heritage fellow citizens as more than a comic-book threat. And Harry and Louis will find their friendship altered and strained…

While the book has some elements of the thriller, it definitely falls far more into the category of literary fiction for me. Rindell’s research is skilfully fed to us through the development of her characters and her story, so that we gradually get a real feel for rural Californian life and attitudes in this period, and an in-depth look at the impact of the internment of Japanese-Americans. This third book cements her place as one of my favourite authors.

Click to see the full review

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Springtime in a Broken Mirror by Mario Benedetti

Santiago is a political prisoner in Montevideo, Uruguay, in the 1970s. His family and friends are scattered, exiled from the country they call home. As Santiago sits in jail not knowing when – if – he’ll be released, he writes letters full of love to his wife, Graciela. For him, life is static, his memories of their love the thing that has sustained him through the torture and now the sheer stultification of his imprisonment. But for Graciela, life is a moving thing – she is still young, in a new city, with a job and a growing child, and for her the present is more vivid than the past. She finds herself increasingly attracted to Ronaldo, but knows that Santiago needs her love and loyalty. The crux of the story is deceptively simple – what will Graciela decide to do?

This is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read in a long time, and credit must go to the translator, Nick Caistor, who has done a marvellous job. Although it’s based around the revolutions of South America, it is not about politics as such; rather, it is about the impact that political upheaval has on the individuals caught up in it. It’s about home and exile, loneliness, longing, belonging. It’s about loyalty and love, and hope, and sometimes despair. It’s profoundly moving – full of emotional truth. Wonderful!

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

LITERARY FICTION

Tombland by CJ Sansom


This was an extremely difficult decision and I swayed back and forwards between Tombland and Springtime in a Broken Mirror several times, but in the end my love for the wonderful Matthew Shardlake won out…

It’s 1549, and young King Edward VI is on the throne. Since he is still a child, his guardians have appointed a Protector to rule in his stead, his uncle Edward Seymour. There is great poverty in the towns and cities while, in the farming lands of the north and west, landlords are enclosing common land for their own sheep, fermenting unrest amongst the smallholders and tenant farmers who relied on that land to eke out their own precarious living. Throw in the usual religious turmoil and an unpopular and unwinnable war against those pesky Scots, and the time is ripe for rebellion. It’s at this moment that Shardlake is summoned by Princess Elizabeth to investigate a murder of which one of her distant Boleyn relatives stands accused. And so he must head for Norwich, a city that will soon be at the heart of the East Anglian rebellion, led by the charismatic Robert Kett…

This is another completely satisfying addition to the series, confirming again my belief that Sansom is the best historical fiction writer certainly today and perhaps ever. He tells his story in a straightforward linear way, creating a great historical setting founded on in-depth research, a strong plot, and a group of brilliantly depicted characters who have all the complexity of real, flawed humanity. Shardlake himself continues to be one of the most appealing characters in fiction – irascible, often lonely, occasionally a little self-pitying, but intelligent, determined, dedicated, charitable and wholeheartedly loyal to those he takes into his generous heart. Superb!

Click to see the full review

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And now…

the nominees for the Book of the Year Award are…

FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2018

THE WINNER

Five excellent contenders, but no hesitation in my mind as which deserves to win. This is a straightforward, factual telling of the story of Ernest Shackleton and his crew, and their failed 1914 bid to cross the Antarctic on foot from west to east. It’s also one of the most stirring and emotionally turbulent books I’ve ever read.

Then, at just about two o’clock, they saw where they were. A quirk of wind tore the clouds apart, and two wicked peaks loomed above a line of cliffs and the perpendicular faces of glaciers that dropped sheer into the sea. The coastline looked to be about a mile away, perhaps a little more. But vastly more important, in that single glimpse, they saw to their terror that they were only a short distance outside the line of breakers, the point at which the seas ceased to behave like swells and became combers instead, rushing faster and faster towards their own destruction against the land. As each swell passed under them, they could feel it tugging momentarily at the boat, trying to get hold of her and hurl her toward the beach. It seemed now that everything, the wind, the current and even the sea itself, were united in a single determined purpose, once and for all to annihilate this tiny boat which thus far had defied all their efforts to destroy it.

A wonderfully emotive journey that shows the human spirit at its very best. First published in 1959, this fully earns its reputation as a classic of non-fiction writing.

Click to see the full review

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Thanks to all of you who’ve joined me for this year’s awards feature.

I hope you’ve enjoyed it – I’ve enjoyed your company!

TBR Thursday 182…

A fifth batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

I’m going dramatically slowly on this challenge because of all the other vintage crime books that have come my way recently, but I haven’t forgotten about it completely!

And since I’ve now read and reviewed all of the books from the fourth batch of MMM books, here goes for the fifth batch…

Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles

Courtesy of Dover Publications via NetGalley. Martin Edwards lists this one under the sub-heading The Ironists. Hmm… ironically, I’m not always all that keen on irony, but we’ll see. The blurb sounds good…

The Blurb says: Dr. Edmund Bickleigh married above his station. Although popular and well respected in his little Devonshire community, he seethes with resentment at the superior social status of his domineering wife, Julia. Bickleigh soothes his inferiority complex by seducing as many of the local women as he possibly can — but with the collapse of his latest fling and a fresh dose of sneering contempt from Julia, the doctor resolves to silence his wife forever and begins plotting the perfect murder.

With Malice Aforethought, Francis Iles produced not just a darkly comic narrative of psychological suspense but also a landmark in crime fiction: for the first time, the murderer’s identity was revealed at the start of the tale. Hailed as a tour de force by the British press of its day, the book retains its shock value and stands at #16 in the Crime Writers’ Association ranking of the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time. (Oh good grief, not another book list – save me!!)

Challenge details

Book No: 80

Subject Heading: The Ironists

Publication Year: 1931

Martin Edwards says: “…what set Malice Aforethought apart was the cool wit of the story-telling, which makes the book compulsive reading despite the shortage of characters with whom readers would wish to identify. It was entirely in keeping with the ironic tone of the book that it was dedicated to the author’s wife, from whom he became divorced less than a year later.”

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Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers

I am not one of Ms Sayers’ legion of fans, finding both her and her detective Lord Peter Wimsey snobby and irritatin’. However it’s a long time since I last read one, so maybe I’ve become more open-minded with age. Yeah, right… 😂

The Blurb says: The Duke of Denver, accused of murder, stands trial for his life in the House of Lords.Naturally, his brother Lord Peter Wimsey is investigating the crime – this is a family affair. The murder took place at the duke’s shooting lodge and Lord Peter’s sister was engaged to marry the dead man.But why does the duke refuse to co-operate with the investigation? Can he really be guilty, or is he covering up for someone?

Challenge details

Book No: 19

Subject Heading: The Great Detectives

Publication Year: 1926

Edwards says: “Lord Peter Wimsey was created as a conscious act of escapism by a young writer who was short of money, and experiencing one unsatisfactory love affair after another. Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, second son of the Duke of Denver, began his fictional life as a fantasy figure.”

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Death of an Airman by Christopher St John Sprigg

A detecting bishop! Take that, Father Brown! I’m expecting at least an archbishop next time… or maybe the Pope!

The Blurb says: Death of an Airman is an enjoyable and unorthodox whodunit from a writer whose short life was as remarkable as that of any of his fictional creations. When an aeroplane crashes, and its pilot is killed, Edwin Marriott, the Bishop of Cootamundra in Australia, is on hand. In England on leave, the Bishop has decided to learn how to fly, but he is not convinced that the pilot’s death was accidental. In due course, naturally, he is proved right. The Bishop and Inspector Bray of Scotland Yard make an appealing pair of detectives, and ultimately a cunning criminal scheme is uncovered.

Challenge details

Book No: 58

Subject Heading: Scientific Enquiries

Publication Year: 1934

Edwards says: “The story ‘bubbles over with zest and vitality’, as Dorothy L Sayers said in The Sunday Times; she applauded ‘a most ingenious and exciting plot, full of good puzzles and discoveries and worked out among a varied cast of entertaining characters.’

* * * * *

Payment Deferred by CS Forester

I’ve never thought of CS Forester as a crime writer – Hornblower and The African Queen are what spring to my mind. Sounds good, though…

The Blurb says: Mr Marble is in serious debt, desperate for money to pay his family’s bills, until the combination of a wealthy relative, a bottle of Cyanide and a shovel offer him the perfect solution. In fact, his troubles are only just beginning. Slowly the Marble family becomes poisoned by guilt, and caught in an increasingly dangerous trap of secrets, fear and blackmail. Then, in a final twist of the knife, Mrs Marble ensures that retribution comes in the most unexpected of ways…

First published in 1926, C. S. Forester’s gritty psychological thriller took crime writing in a new direction, portraying ordinary, desperate people committing monstrous acts, and showing events spiralling terribly, chillingly, out of control.

Challenge details

Book No: 74

Subject Heading: The Psychology of Crime

Publication Year: 1926

Edwards says: “Marble is haunted by fear that his secret will be discovered, and Forester charts his disintegration in sharp, disdainful prose. Payment Deferred is a short but striking book; despite the young author’s inexperience, it remains a compelling read.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK. The quotes from Martin Edwards are from his book,
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

Poisoned chocolates??? Blasphemy!!!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Joan Bendix dies of poisoning, it’s quickly clear that the weapon was a box of chocolate liqueurs given to her by her husband. A clear-cut case, it would appear, but on closer examination there are a couple of problems. Firstly, Graham and Joan Bendix were happily married, so what would Graham’s motive have been? Secondly, and more importantly, he had had no chance to poison the chocolates – he had been given them by a man at his club, Sir Eustace Pennefather, that very morning. Sir Eustace himself had received them that morning through the post, so it appears that perhaps the intended victim was Sir Eustace. This would make more sense, since Sir Eustace has a shady reputation regarding money and women. The police find themselves baffled, so turn (as you do) to a bunch of self-styled amateur criminologists for help. Enter Roger Sheringham and the members of his Crimes Circle…

As Martin Edwards explains in his introduction, Berkeley wrote this to show how most detective fiction is carefully contrived so that each piece of evidence can have only one meaning – the meaning brilliantly deduced and revealed by the detective in the last scene. Berkeley does this by sending the six members of the Crimes Circle off to investigate in their own way for a week, after which, on consecutive evenings, one by one they give their solution only to have it destroyed the next evening as the new solution is put forth. It’s brilliantly done and highly entertaining, with a lot of humour in the characterisation of the members.

Of course, I spotted the solution straight away. So did all six criminologists, although each spotted a different one. Unfortunately, when my solution showed up in the very early stages of the book, I, along with the amateur ‘tec who proposed it, had to hang my head in shame as the others neatly demolished it, showing me that each of the clues I had carefully collected couldn’t possibly mean what I thought it meant. After that, I decided to resign as a detective and simply watch the rest at work!

Challenge details:
Book: 22
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1929

They’re an intriguing and mismatched bunch, brought together simply because each has an interest in crime. Roger Sheringham is Berkeley’s recurring amateur detective, but it should not be assumed that that means his solution will necessarily be the right one – Berkeley apparently enjoyed making him get it wrong occasionally. There’s a famous and rather pompous defence barrister, a dramatist of the intellectual variety, a novelist who delves somewhat pretentiously into the psychology of her characters, a detective-mystery writer who thinks rather highly of himself, and a rather insignificant little man who is in perpetual awe of everyone else. Each approaches the problem from a different angle, and since they and the victims and suspects all move in the same social circles, several of them have the advantage of being able to add details from their own knowledge. I admit it – I was totally convinced by every solution they offered, which suggests I must be the detective-mystery writer’s dream reader!

Anthony Berkeley

While the cleverness and originality of the plotting are what make the book unique, it’s also well written and has a good basic mystery at its core. Berkeley might be having a bit of fun at his fellow mystery writers’ expense, and his own, but it’s not at all done with a sense of superiority or sneering. His affection for the conventions comes through clearly even as he subverts them and in the end it is fair play – there’s nothing to stop the armchair detective getting to the real solution except for all the delightful red herrings and blind alleys along the way. But is the real solution really the solution? For a bit of extra fun, the BL have included an alternative solution written later by another mystery novelist, Christianna Brand, and have enticed Martin Edwards to come up with yet another!

A most enjoyable read – light-hearted, amusing and clever, and fully deserves its reputation as a classic of the genre.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Dickens at Christmas! The Battle of Life

How they did dance!

It’s been a roller-coaster ride so far with Dickens’ Christmas books – The Chimes, while good, was thoroughly depressing, and The Cricket on the Hearth, while delightfully uplifting, forgot to mention Christmas! So what’s in store for us, I wonder, in this week’s…

* * * * *

The Battle of Life
by Charles Dickens

Once upon a time, it matters little when, and in stalwart England, it matters little where, a fierce battle was fought. It was fought upon a long summer day when the waving grass was green. Many a wild flower formed by the Almighty Hand to be a perfumed goblet for the dew, felt its enamelled cup filled high with blood that day, and shrinking dropped. Many an insect deriving its delicate colour from harmless leaves and herbs, was stained anew that day by dying men, and marked its frightened way with an unnatural track.

Well, that’s a jolly start! Still, good to get the depressing bit out of the way early!

The Battle
by Richard Doyle

On the site of this ancient battle now stand pretty villages and prosperous farms, and over the centuries the old horrors have mostly been forgotten. Our story concerns two sisters, Grace and Marion, and when we first meet them, they are in their father’s orchard, dancing for the sheer joy of life and the entertainment of the apple-pickers…

They were very glad to please them, but they danced to please themselves (or at least you would have supposed so); and you could no more help admiring, than they could help dancing. How they did dance!

Frontispiece
by Daniel Maclise

This is Marion’s birthday and coincidentally also the birthday of Alfred, who has been the ward of their father but who today comes of age. He is to go off to study for three years, but it is understood by all that on his return, he and Marion will marry. But Grace, to whose care he entrusts Marion, is not to be forgotten…

“…when I come back and reclaim you, dearest, and the bright prospect of our married life lies stretched before us, it shall be one of our chief pleasures to consult how we can make Grace happy; how we can anticipate her wishes; how we can show our gratitude and love to her; how we can return her something of the debt she will have heaped upon us.”

But the course of true love never does run smooth – fortunately for us, since stories would be incredibly boring if it did. When Alfred returns three years later, it is to find the house in uproar and poor Grace having fainted away…

….‘What is it!’ cried Alfred, grasping his hair with his hands, and looking in an agony from face to face, as he bent upon his knee beside the insensible girl. ‘Will no one look at me? Will no one speak to me? Does no one know me? Is there no voice among you all, to tell me what it is!’
….There was a murmur among them. ‘She is gone.’
….‘Gone!’ he echoed.


Gone!
by Richard Doyle

* * * * *

I enjoyed several things about this, but it is a rather strange tale, not at all festive, and the central story left me totally unconvinced. The two sisters are the sort of drooping, too perfect girls in which Dickens specialises, and Alfred is the male equivalent. The mystery is, why has Marion gone? Has she run off with another man? Or is there some deeply moral and self-sacrificing reason behind her strange actions? Go on, guess!

Fortunately, there are several characters who are much more fun. Clemency Newcome, the maid, and her strange courtship by/of her husband-to-be provide most of the humour and the warmth that the central story lacks. The girls’ father, Doctor Jeddler, believes all human life is farce, though the events of the story will make him a wiser man (but less happy, which seems a pity). There are a couple of lawyers, Snitchey and Craggs, who are a good double-act and allow Dickens to make some pointed remarks about one of his favourite subjects, the law. Their wives, while only having small parts to play, add considerably to the entertainment value of the whole thing by their rivalry with each other. And the mysterious man who may or may not have seduced our sweet little Marion away from her loving family has enough moral ambiguity to make him a significantly more attractive hero than the good but insipid Alfred.

The Secret Interview
by Daniel Maclise

Why is it called The Battle of Life? Why all the battlefield and buried corpse references, some of which are quite revolting…?

On this ground where we now sit, where I saw my two girls dance this morning, where the fruit has just been gathered for our eating from these trees, the roots of which are struck in Men, not earth…

No idea! Possibly just so Dickens could make a point about war being a Bad Thing.

Yet not a hundred people in that battle knew for what they fought, or why; not a hundred of the inconsiderate rejoicers in the victory, why they rejoiced. Not half a hundred people were the better for the gain or loss. Not half-a-dozen men agree to this hour on the cause or merits; and nobody, in short, ever knew anything distinct about it, but the mourners of the slain.

But I really couldn’t see the relevance of this to the actual story. Oh well, not to worry – I enjoyed it anyway, and of course it has a happy ending! But I am hoping next week’s might have something to do with Christmas…

The Sisters
by Daniel Maclise

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Stocking Fillers: Shelf Life and The Pocket Detective

Shelf Life edited by Alex Johnson

😀 😀 😀 😀

A collection of essays and thoughts on all things bookish from writers of the past, this is the kind of book that I always feel is perfect as that little extra Christmas gift for the bibliomaniac in your circle. It’s attractive and well-produced – one of those soft hardbacks, if you know what I mean – and the contents range from thoughtful to opinionated to fun. There are eleven entries in total. Obviously everyone will find different things to appeal to them, so here’s a little taste of some of them to give you a feeling for what’s in there.

It starts with a bit of fun as William Blades comments on the dangers pesky children present to the safety of books, in which he includes a story about some children taking their father’s precious volumes to build a fort and using valuable tomes to chuck at each other as they re-fought one of the battles of the Crimea. I kinda was on the kids’ side…

Stephen Leacock humorously advises on how to write a melodramatic novel, ensuring that the standard format is met in every respect, and shows that identikit fiction was around long before the woman in the red coat appeared on every second book jacket.

Theodore Roosevelt encourages a wide variety of reading for pleasure and gain, and talks of how books tend to lead one to another in a never-ending chain. Rudyard Kipling advises a class of schoolboys – those who were destined by birth to rule the empire – to use books to learn from history and other people’s experiences, as this will be a help to them when they find themselves having to make life and death decisions of their own. On the other hand Arthur Schopenhauer gets really quite grumpy about people reading, and writing, the vast output of “bad” books when they should be devoting their time to thinking for themselves. Frighteningly, he sometimes reminded me of me…

Hence the number, which no man can count, of bad books, those rank weeds of literature, which draw nourishment from the corn and choke it. . . Nine-tenths of the whole of our present literature has no other aim than to get a few shillings out of the pockets of the public; and to this end author, publisher and reviewer are in league.

Walter Benjamin talks of the joy of book-collecting, and William Gladstone gives practical advice on how to create a library to store your 20,000 volumes, including how to screw the shelves together. First you will require a room of “quite ordinary size”, some forty feet by twenty feet with four windows on either side. Charles Lamb, among other things, discusses the thorny question of which books one can read in public without embarrassment.

So lots of variety and amusement to be had, and also some more thought-provoking stuff along the way. I’ll give the last word to Francis Bacon…

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* * * * *

The Pocket Detective by Kate Jackson

😀 😀 😀 😀

Another little stocking filler from the British Library, this is a companion piece to their series of Crime Classics. It’s full of puzzles, ranging from the fun to the fiendish, and will be appreciated by anyone with a decent knowledge of vintage crime fiction. Truthfully I found a lot of it quite difficult so I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who’s only read a few Christies and Sayers in their life. It ranges well beyond the books the BL has published, though, so that adds fun for those with a wider familiarity with the genre.

It has question and answer puzzles (they’re the ones I found hardest, since they’re entirely dependant on you knowing the books quite well), word grids, crosswords and word searches, matching puzzles, such as characters to books, anagrams and word wheels. It also has some distorted covers of the BL series to identify – I found most of those entirely too distorted, hence impossible, and would be intrigued to know if anyone can get them. But there are some fun spot-the-difference puzzles based on the gorgeous BL covers – I loved those. Happily, all the answers are in the back.

So all-in-all, an entertaining little gift for the vintage crime enthusiast in your life.

NB Both books were provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

FictionFan Awards 2018 – Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

I’m still struggling with the obsession with identikit so-called psychological thrillers that is dominating modern crime fiction at the moment, so have read fewer books in this category this year than every before in my adult life, I think. I can’t help thinking that the astonishing rise in popularity of vintage crime over the last few years suggests I’m not alone in this. However, happily I’ve still managed to find a few great reads, none of which have the ubiquitous and terminally unoriginal woman in red/yellow coat on the cover, you’ll note…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

Hal (Harriet) Westaway is struggling to keep her head above water. The bills keep pouring in and in these winter months she doesn’t get enough custom at her kiosk on Brighton’s West Pier to pay them all. Things are reaching a crisis. So when she receives a letter from a solicitor informing her that she has been left a legacy by her grandmother it seems like the answer to a prayer. There’s only one problem – Hal knows there’s been a mistake. Her real grandmother died years ago… 

All I ask for in crime fiction is a good story well told; some characters I can like, hate, worry about, mistrust; enough uncertainty about how it will play out to keep me turning pages; a minimum of unnecessary padding; and told in the past tense, preferably third person. And that’s exactly what Ruth Ware has given me in this hugely enjoyable thriller. Add in a dark and dusty old house full of attics and cellars and narrow little staircases, the shade of a wicked old woman who tyrannised over her family, a bunch of squabbling siblings, and a scary old housekeeper who knows more than she’s telling, and I’m pretty much in modern-Gothic heaven!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Broken Ground by Val McDermid

DCI Karen Pirie of Police Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit is in the middle of re-investigating a series of rapes when she is diverted to a crime scene in the Highlands. A woman and her husband are on a kind of treasure hunt, looking for something that the woman’s grandfather buried in a peat bog long ago. They find the spot, but when they dig down into the peat, they are shocked to discover not only the looted items but the body of a man, almost perfectly preserved…

Now that a national police force has taken the place of the old regional forces in Scotland in real life, it gives fiction writers the ability to have their detectives travel all over the country, and McDermid is as comfortable writing about the Highlands as she is her hometown of Edinburgh. She gives an amazingly good sense of place and a wholly authentic feel to contemporary Scottish life and to a professional police force where dysfunctional drunken mavericks wouldn’t be tolerated. The fifth book in the Karen Pirie series and an excellent addition.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Sweet William by Iain Maitland

A man escapes from a secure psychiatric hospital to find his little son, sweet William, and run off to a new life, just the two of them, in the south of France. This is the story of the next forty-eight hours…

And what a story! A complete roller-coaster during most of which we’re stuck inside the head of Orrey, the father, whose frequent assertions that he’s not mad somehow fail to convince us! Dark and disturbing doesn’t even begin to describe it. By all rights, I should have hated it – I’ve bored on often enough about my dislike of using children to up the tension in crime fiction. But it’s a tour de force piece of writing with one of the most brilliantly drawn disturbed central characters I’ve read in a long time – think Mr Heming or The Dinner or Zoran Drvenkar. Then add in relentless pacing that drives the book forward at a speed to leave you gasping – the definitive page-turner! 

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee

Roused from a drug-addled stupor in an opium den in the backstreets of Calcutta, Sam Wyndham, Captain in the Calcutta police, discovers the place is being raided. Discovery of his addiction will finish his career so he flees, only to stumble across the body of a horribly mutilated Chinaman. Or did he? Next day, when no report of the murder comes in, Sam is left wondering if he hallucinated the whole thing. That is, until he is called out to another murder, where the body has been mutilated in exactly the same way…

This series goes from strength to strength with each new instalment – this is the third. Set in the early 1920s, the dying days of the Raj when the Indian Independence movement was well under way, Mukherjee always manages to work the political situation into his stories without allowing it to overwhelm them or feeling like a history lesson. As always, though, the plot is founded much more on human nature than on politics. I feel this is his strongest plot so far, which takes us into some dark episodes in the dealings between the Raj and their subjects. There’s a good deal of moral ambiguity in there, and some excellently complex characterisation to carry it off. And it all builds to a first-rate, entirely credible thriller finale that I found fully satisfying.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Since I couldn’t find a single thing to criticise about this book, it was the only possible choice to be this year’s winner.

When Bertrand Barthelme runs his car off the A35 into a tree one evening and dies, Inspector Georges Gorski has no reason to think it was anything other than an unfortunate accident. But Barthelme’s widow thinks there’s something odd about her husband having been at that spot at that time and asks Gorski to look into it a bit more. Mme Barthelme is an attractive 40-something with more than a touch of the femme fatale in this first meeting, so Gorski finds himself agreeing. Meantime, Barthelme’s 17-year-old son Raymond starts a kind of investigation of his own, in an attempt to learn more about the father with whom he had always had a rather cold, distant relationship. Both investigations will head off in unexpected directions.

This is on the face of it a crime novel, but the quality of the writing, the depth of the characterisation, the creation of place and time and the intelligence of the game the author plays with the reader all raise it so that it sits easily into the literary fiction category, in my opinion at the highest level. The setting – the small town of Saint-Louis, in the corner of France that borders Germany and Switzerland, some time in the 1970s – is brilliantly drawn, but it’s the human characters who make it such an absorbing story.  Not a word is wasted – with the briefest of descriptions, Burnet can create a person who feels real, solid, entire, as if they might be a neighbour we’ve known all our life. I loved every lean and beautifully placed word of this slim book, and was wholly absorbed from beginning to end. Superb!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next Week: Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

TBR Thursday 181…

Episode 181

A dramatic fall in the TBR since I last reported – down 4 to 224! This is rather astonishing since, for non-blog related reasons, my reading has been way down over the last couple of weeks – but clearly so has my book acquiring! As you might have noticed, I’ve also been pretty lax at posting, visiting, commenting and replying to comments – apologies, and I’m hoping to get back to my normal pattern soon.

Here are a few more that are due soonish, though I don’t seem to be sticking to my schedule very rigidly at the moment. What a rebel!

Dickens for Christmas

For years it’s been my personal tradition to read Dickens over Christmas, so I put five of them on my Classics Club list. This year, it’s the turn of Little Dorrit. This will be a re-read, but it’s many years since I read it…

The Blurb says: When Arthur Clennam returns to England after many years abroad, he takes a kindly interest in Amy Dorrit, his mother’s seamstress, and in the affairs of Amy’s father, William Dorrit, a man of shabby grandeur, long imprisoned for debt in Marshalsea prison. As Arthur soon discovers, the dark shadow of the prison stretches far beyond its walls to affect the lives of many, from the kindly Mr Panks, the reluctant rent-collector of Bleeding Heart Yard, and the tipsily garrulous Flora Finching, to Merdle, an unscrupulous financier, and the bureaucratic Barnacles in the Circumlocution Office. A masterly evocation of the state and psychology of imprisonment, Little Dorrit is one of the supreme works of Dickens’s maturity.

* * * * *

Vintage Crime

Courtesy of Poisoned Pen Press via NetGalley. I’ve had this sitting on my TBR for ages, constantly shoved down the list by newer shinier books, poor thing. I’ve liked but not loved the other two John Bude books I’ve read – maybe this is the one that will finally wow me…

The Blurb says: Welworth Garden City in the 1940s is a forward-thinking town where free spirits find a home – vegetarians, socialists, and an array of exotic religious groups. Chief among these are the Children of Osiris, led by the eccentric High Prophet, Eustace K. Mildmann. The cult is a seething hotbed of petty resentment, jealousy and dark secrets – which eventually lead to murder. The stage is set for one of Inspector Meredith’s most bizarre and exacting cases.

This witty crime novel by a writer on top form is a neglected classic of British crime fiction.

* * * * *

Classic Sci-Fi

Another one from my Classics Club list. It was reading this book that inspired Stanley Kubrick to invite Arthur C Clarke to collaborate with him on making a movie – and so the amazingly mind-blowing 2001: A Space Odyssey was born. Looking at the blurb, it’s obvious that some of the themes of this book made their way into the film…

The Blurb says: The Overlords appeared suddenly over every city–intellectually, technologically, and militarily superior to humankind. Benevolent, they made few demands: unify earth, eliminate poverty, and end war. With little rebellion, humankind agreed, and a golden age began.

But at what cost? With the advent of peace, man ceases to strive for creative greatness, and a malaise settles over the human race. To those who resist, it becomes evident that the Overlords have an agenda of their own. As civilization approaches the crossroads, will the Overlords spell the end for humankind . . . or the beginning?

* * * * *

Yuletide Fun

Courtesy of the British Library. A new Christmas-themed vintage crime anthology from the BL is becoming a bit of a Christmas tradition too, happily for me, since I love them!

The Blurb says: A Christmas party is punctuated by a gunshot under a policeman’s watchful eye. A jewel heist is planned amidst the glitz and glamour of Oxford Street’s Christmas shopping. Lost in a snowstorm, a man finds a motive for murder. This collection of mysteries explores the darker side of the festive season from unexplained disturbances in the fresh snow, to the darkness that lurks beneath the sparkling decorations. With neglected stories by John Bude and E. C. R. Lorac, as well as tales by little-known writers of crime fiction, Martin Edwards blends the cosy atmosphere of the fireside story with a chill to match the temperature outside. This is a gripping seasonal collection sure to delight mystery fans.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

Dickens at Christmas! The Cricket on the Hearth

But where’s Christmas??

After last week’s surprisingly dark and unfestive The Chimes, I didn’t know what to expect from the next of Dickens’ Christmas books. But I was hoping for something a bit more cheerful for this week’s…

* * * * *

The Cricket on the Hearth
by Charles Dickens

The kettle began it! Don’t tell me what Mrs. Peerybingle said. I know better. Mrs. Peerybingle may leave it on record to the end of time that she couldn’t say which of them began it; but I say the kettle did. I ought to know, I hope? The kettle began it, full five minutes by the little waxy-faced Dutch clock in the corner, before the Cricket uttered a chirp.

Title page
by Daniel Maclise

We meet little Mrs. Peerybingle, Dot as she is known affectionately to her husband John, as she waits for said husband to return home from his work as a carrier. Dot is a young thing, very young indeed, and John is well into middle-age, but despite this disparity they seem an idyllically happy couple, especially now they have their own little Baby to make their lives complete. It is a scene of saccharin-sweet domestic bliss…

It was pleasant to see Dot, with her little figure and her baby in her arms: a very doll of a baby: glancing with a coquettish thoughtfulness at the fire, and inclining her delicate little head just enough on one side to let it rest in an odd, half-natural, half-affected, wholly nestling and agreeable manner, on the great rugged figure of the Carrier. It was pleasant to see him, with his tender awkwardness, endeavouring to adapt his rude support to her slight need, and make his burly middle age a leaning-staff not inappropriate to her blooming youth.

Domestic Bliss
by John Leech

The little house is blessed by having a resident Cricket which lives on the hearth and chirps merrily when all is well.

“The first time I heard its cheerful little note, John, was on that night when you brought me home—when you brought me to my new home here; its little mistress. Nearly a year ago. You recollect, John?”

Oh, yes! John remembered. I should think so!

“Its chirp was such a welcome to me! It seemed so full of promise and encouragement. It seemed to say, you would be kind and gentle with me, and would not expect (I had a fear of that, John, then) to find an old head on the shoulders of your foolish little wife.”

Caleb and Blind Bertha
by John Leech

But this contented little household is about to be shaken to its core. A stranger arrives who seems to disturb Dot’s usually cheerful state of mind.

It was a loud cry from the Carrier’s wife: a loud, sharp, sudden cry, that made the room ring like a glass vessel. She had risen from her seat, and stood like one transfixed by terror and surprise. The Stranger had advanced towards the fire to warm himself, and stood within a short stride of her chair. But quite still.

The stranger’s arrival disrupts the happy home and the lives not only of John and Dot but of several of their friends and neighbours. Will the Household Spirit in the form of the Cricket on the Hearth be able to restore harmony and joy to all?

* * * * *

First off, Christmas doesn’t feature at all in this one! Instead the day of celebration we’re heading towards is the first anniversary of the wedding of John and Dot, and the story focuses on marriages between older men and young girls. John loves Dot with all his heart and has done ever since she was a child. (I know, creepy, but it seems to have been relatively normal back in those times – look at Knightley and Emma.) The question that John belatedly is forced to consider is, can little Dot possibly love him in the same way, or has he been unintentionally cruel in persuading her to devote her youth to him? It has never before occurred to him that her heart may have prompted her towards a man nearer her own age. The stranger is the catalyst for this dark night of the soul for poor, kind, honest John, but to take the point further and show another side to it, Dickens includes another couple about to be wed where the age difference is even greater and the bride is being more or less forced into the marriage by her mother because the bridegroom is wealthy.

Boxer
by Edwin Landseer
(Rubbish illustration, Landseer! Boxer is a sweetie-pie,
not a reincarnation of the Hound of the Baskervilles!)

The story takes an age to start. It’s about three pages before that kettle mentioned in the first paragraph finally comes to the boil, and then we have to fight through pages of sugar-sweet descriptions of the happy little home before things take off. But once it gets going, it has all Dickens usual mix of humour and pathos, and some typically quirky and enjoyable Dickensian characters. John is lovely, and Dot grew on me after a shaky start. Mr Tackleton is the villain of the piece – the older man who is about to marry a young girl he knows doesn’t care for him in the least, he’s also the mean and nasty employer of the other two main characters, dear old Caleb the toymaker and his blind daughter Bertha. Plus there’s a lovely dog called Boxer who’s a great character in his own right, adding much fun to the proceedings!

He had business elsewhere; going down all the turnings, looking into all the wells, bolting in and out of all the cottages, dashing into the midst of all the Dame Schools, fluttering all the pigeons, magnifying the tails of all the cats, and trotting into the public-houses like a regular customer. Wherever he went, somebody or other might have been heard to cry, “Halloa! here’s Boxer!”

It’s novella length, with plenty of room for jealousy, self-doubt, sorrow, generosity of spirit, joy and, of course, redemption. I enjoyed it very much and was left feeling pleasantly uplifted. So despite it not mentioning Christmas, I reckon it still counts as appropriately seasonal, being full of goodwill and joy to all men (and women) (and dogs).

Happy ending
by John Leech

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅 🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

 

The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories by Henry James

Mostly about the Other Stories…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This collection is made up of four stories – the novella length title story and three shorter ones. The Turn of the Screw is, of course, a classic of the horror genre, and since I’ve already had my say about it in a Tuesday Terror! post, here’s a brief summary of the others…

Sir Edmund Orme – Our narrator becomes fascinated by a mother and daughter, Mrs Marden and Charlotte, because of what he feels is their peculiarly strong concern for each other. Then, as he finds himself falling in love with Charlotte, the narrator begins to see a strange man, who never speaks, and his appearances seem to coincide with Mrs Marden’s “episodes”. Eventually, she takes him into her confidence and tells him the story of her one-time lover, Sir Edmund Orme.

Despite having a ghost in it, the story really isn’t scary or spooky. It’s strange, however, and a little unsettling, mainly because the narrator comes over as something of a predator who coldly uses Mrs Marden’s fear and Charlotte’s love for her mother to achieve his own ends. It’s superficially entertaining, but left me feeling rather as if I’d been made an accessory to something rather cruel.

Owen Wingrave – the title character is a young man from a military family who is being crammed for the entrance exam to get into Sandhurst, the army’s elite officer training college. However, Owen has different views – he despises war, and believes that politicians who lead their nations into war should be hanged, drawn and quartered. When he drops out of training, his family and friends put pressure on him to think again, and when the girl he loves implies that he is a coward, to prove her wrong he agrees to spend a night in the haunted room of his family castle…

The ghostly factor of this one is well-nigh non-existent, but it’s a good story for all that. It’s a rather poignant look at how military tradition forces young men to seek glory rather than choosing a more peaceful path in life.

The Friends of the Friends – another I’ve written about previously in a Tuesday Terror! post. This tells the story of two people, a man and a woman, who share the distinction of each having seen a ghost. This coincidence makes their mutual friends want to bring them together, but circumstances always seem to prevent them meeting. Eventually it seems they will meet, but it isn’t to be – one of them dies before the meeting takes place. The other one, however, as we know, can see ghosts…

Again unsettling rather than scary, this starts out quite jollily with a lot of jibes about society and so on, but gradually darkens into a story about jealousy taken perhaps to the point of madness.

* * * * *

While for the most part I found the writing good and certainly effective at conjuring up an atmosphere, I several times came across sentences so badly constructed that they required me to go back and read them again to catch the meaning, and sometimes they were still obscure after that. Perhaps sometimes James was doing this for effect, to add to the vagueness and ambiguity. But truthfully, I mostly felt it was simply clumsy, lazy writing that he hadn’t bothered to revise properly before publication, and as a result I’ve entirely lost the desire to read any of his novels.

Aside from that criticism, each of the four stories is well-structured, and the sense of vagueness that surrounds the narrative intention has the effect of leaving them open to interpretation. I found this tended to make them linger in my mind for longer than most spooky stories, as I mulled over what was beneath the surface. And generally speaking, I concluded that what was there was rather unpleasant – hints of child sexual abuse in The Turn of the Screw, a controlling lover in Sir Edmund Orme, family pressure taken to extremes in Owen Wingrave and extreme jealousy in The Friends of the Friends. Horror stories always tend to be based on unpleasant things, of course, but here it somehow left me feeling more uncomfortable than usual and I’m not sure I know why. Perhaps because the horror aspects are mostly low-key and so the underlying story stands out more than usual, or perhaps because James uses ambiguity to force the reader to, in a sense, fill in the blanks, making it feel as if the unpleasantness comes from inside her own mind. Whatever the reason, it meant that though I quite enjoyed them while reading I found they left a slightly nasty aftertaste – especially The Turn of the Screw. I wonder if that was James’ intention? I suspect it may have been.

Henry James

You can probably tell that I feel quite ambivalent about this collection. I rated each of the three shorter stories as four stars and The Turn of the Screw as five, but that’s mostly due to my appreciation of their impact rather than an indication of my enjoyment.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

FictionFan Awards 2018 – Factual

A round of applause…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

FACTUAL

Overall I’ve had a pretty slow year on the factual front – I think I’ve been in recovery from overdoing the heavy history the year before. But although I’ve read far less, I’ve still had some great reads…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Daughters of the Winter Queen by Nancy Goldstone

The Winter Queen of the title is Elizabeth, daughter of James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, and herself briefly Queen of Bohemia, through her marriage to Frederick. Elizabeth and Frederick produced an alarming number of children, the majority of whom lived into adulthood, and as their sons and daughters grew up and contracted marriages or made alliances, they spread their influence throughout the ruling families of 17th century Europe, thus being involved in all the major events (aka wars) of that turbulent period. The book is about the four daughters who survived their childhood years, and at least as much about their brothers, husbands, suitors or male friends.

Goldstone writes breezily, with a great deal of affection towards her subjects, and with a lot of humour. Although there’s lots of history in here, clearly excellently researched, she tells her story almost as if she were writing a novel – a comedy of manners, perhaps, with the odd episode of tragedy thrown in to leaven it, and the non-academic style makes it approachable and easily digestible. The book is a pleasure to read, which is not something that can always be said about history books!

Triumph of the Winter Queen by Gerrit van Honthorst
The Queen surrounded by her many children in various allegorical poses.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Country House Library by Mark Purcell

This beautifully produced and gorgeously, lavishly illustrated publication is far more than a coffee table book. It’s a comprehensive history of British bookishness from its beginning to the present day. The main thrust of it covers the 17th to 19th centuries – the period when the country house came into its own and wealthy people saw libraries as an essential feature of their homes. Mark Purcell looks at both the books and the rooms they were stored in.

Purcell has clearly had a ball prying into the bookshelves and book catalogues of centuries’ worth of bibliophiles, and his enthusiasm is matched by deep knowledge, backed up with an immense amount of research. This results in a phenomenal amount of detail, which in the early chapters overwhelmed me a little and made the reading heavy going. But I found that I gradually became fascinated, especially when I realised that the bookshelves of the rich – who, of course, were also the powerful – cast an interesting sidelight on many famous historical personages and the societies in which they lived.

Chatsworth: Darcy’s Library!!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit Fox

In 1908, an elderly lady, Miss Gilchrist, was bludgeoned to death in her Glasgow home and a brooch was stolen. Shortly afterwards, Oscar Slater pawned a brooch and boarded a ship bound for America. These two facts were enough for the police to decide that he was the guilty man and, sure enough, they arrested and charged him, and he was convicted and condemned to death – a sentence that was swiftly commuted to life imprisonment in response to a growing feeling of doubt over the verdict among some sectors of the public. This book sets out to tell the story of the case and specifically of Arthur Conan Doyle’s involvement in the campaign to have the verdict overturned.

I found this a fascinating read, especially since rather to my surprise I learned quite a lot that I didn’t know about my own city and country. The class divisions, the way people lived, the prejudices and culture all feel authentic and still recognisable to this Glaswegian, and the wider picture of policing and justice in Scotland feels very well researched. The story of Conan Doyle’s involvement is also told well with lots of interesting digressions into the art and science of detection, and plenty of referencing to the world of Sherlock Holmes. One that true crime fans will thoroughly enjoy. 

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Space Odyssey: The Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the masterpiece science fiction film that grew out of a collaboration between two creative geniuses, Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. In this book, Michael Benson tells the story of that collaboration, and of the making of the film, its release and its impact. Benson starts by telling the story of how Kubrick approached Clarke with a view to them working together, and then goes on to give a fascinating picture of two creative giants working together, mostly in harmony, each inspiring the other so that the end results were greater than either could have achieved alone.

The book is an excellently balanced mix of the technical geekery of film-making with the human creativity behind it. Not just Clarke and Kubrick, but all of the major members of the crew come to life, as Benson illustrates their personalities with well-timed and well-told anecdotes about life on the set. The quality of the writing and research together with Benson’s great storytelling ability make this not only informative but a real pleasure to read – as much a masterpiece of its kind as the original film and book are of theirs. Highly recommended.

Kubrick and Clarke on set

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

FACTUAL


Despite the quality of the runners-up, there was never any hesitation in my mind as to which book should win this category.

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

I listened to the audio version narrated by Simon Prebble, and he does a fabulous job. Lansing’s language is wonderfully descriptive, but not full of overly poetic flourishes. This rather plain style, however, works beautifully – the events are so thrilling and the men are such heroes that they don’t need any great fanfares or flowery flourishes to enhance their story. I found myself totally caught up, willing them on, crying over each new disaster, celebrating with them over any small triumph. As it got towards the end, my tension levels were going through the roof, just as they would have been had these men been personal friends – indeed, after the long journey I’d made in their company, I truly felt they were.

The Endurance trapped in the ice during the long polar night…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next Week: Best Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Dickens at Christmas! The Chimes

The eye of a needle…

Every year in the run up to Christmas, I read, watch or listen to at least one version of A Christmas Carol – the book that exemplifies the spirit of Christmas. This year, thanks to the lovely people at Oxford World’s Classics, I have a gorgeous new edition of all five of Dickens’ Christmas books, so for a change I thought I’d read the other four for a little mini-series of…

* * * * *

The Chimes
by Charles Dickens

Old Toby “Trotty” Veck is in his usual place just outside the church-door one cold and windy winter day at the end of the year, waiting and hoping that someone will hire him to carry a letter or a parcel so that he can earn sixpence or a shilling.


Toby “Trotty” Veck
by John Leech

Of material wealth, Trotty has little – just enough to keep body and soul together, though not very securely. He has a daughter, Meg, whom he loves with all his warm heart. And the church bells are like old friends too…

For, being but a simple man, he invested them with a strange and solemn character. They were so mysterious, often heard and never seen; so high up, so far off, so full of such a deep strong melody, that he regarded them with a species of awe; and sometimes when he looked up at the dark arched windows in the tower, he half expected to be beckoned to by something which was not a Bell, and yet was what he had heard so often sounding in the Chimes.

But, even so, the hard life of the poor people of London makes Trotty wonder sometimes…

…whether we have any business on the face of the earth, or not. Sometimes I think we must have—a little; and sometimes I think we must be intruding. I get so puzzled sometimes that I am not even able to make up my mind whether there is any good at all in us, or whether we are born bad.


The original frontispiece
by Daniel Maclise

On this day Meg arrives unexpectedly, bringing a rare hot meal for her father – a delicious dish of tripe! She also brings news. Her lover, Richard, has proposed that they should marry on New Year’s Day and they have come to get her father’s blessing. While Trotty is still digesting this news and his tripe, a local bigwig stops to hire him to carry a letter. This man lectures Meg and Richard on how reprehensible it is of them to marry and bring more poor children into the world who will inevitably turn out bad. Then the recipient of the letter, another well-fed rich man, upbraids Trotty for going into the New Year owing a little money, which he had spent on the luxury of food. By now Trotty is convinced the poor are born bad and don’t deserve to live.

But, that night, as he sits pondering over this thought, the church bells seem to be calling angrily to him, and he goes to the darkened church, where he finds the door open…

Illustration by
Clarkson Stanfield

… and climbs up to the top of the steeple.

He saw the tower, whither his charmed footsteps had brought him, swarming with dwarf phantoms, spirits, elfin creatures of the Bells . . . He saw them, of all aspects and all shapes. He saw them ugly, handsome, crippled, exquisitely formed. He saw them young, he saw them old, he saw them kind, he saw them cruel, he saw them merry, he saw them grim; he saw them dance, and heard them sing; he saw them tear their hair, and heard them howl.


Illustration by
Arthur Rackham

* * * * *

Well! This is Dickens in full social justice warrior mode, showing the dire poverty in which so many people lived contrasted with the smug and hypocritical rich, who lecture when a sixpence would work better, who wallow in their own well-fed self-satisfaction as they blame the poor for cluttering up their otherwise charming and tidy world. It has little of the humour of A Christmas Carol – it is dark to the point where it had me sobbing, with starvation and death, men jailed for the crime of trying to stay alive, women driven to prostitution, infanticide and suicide. And while there is a form of redemption at the end, it feels a fairly hollow one to me – the Chimes, by showing Toby how awful life without faith can be, restore his belief that the poor are not doomed from birth to be bad. There are lots of Biblical references and warnings to spouting “Christian” hypocrites who think that lectures on morality are enough to win them a place in heaven. But the underlying message seems confused – both that the rich should do more to alleviate poverty, but that the poor should fall back on faith when there’s no food to be had. I couldn’t help feeling it must have been a long time since Dickens went hungry. There’s also some foreshadowing of his message in the later A Tale of Two Cities – that if the rich don’t deal with the poor…

…afore the day comes when even his Bible changes in his altered mind, and the words seem to him to read, as they have sometimes read in my own eyes—in jail: “Whither thou goest, I can Not go; where thou lodgest, I do Not lodge; thy people are Not my people; Nor thy God my God!”

…then the poor may rise up and deal with the rich.

A happy ending
by John Leech

Powerful stuff! I can see why it’s not as well loved as A Christmas Carol – it feels rushed and a little untidy, the message is not so clear and, despite the happy-ish ending, I certainly didn’t come away from it feeling as uplifted as I do when Tiny Tim asks God to bless us, everyone. In fact, I felt angry, depressed and as if I wanted to go and beat a few rich hypocrites over the head with a yule log – and I don’t mean the cake. So I think Dickens pretty much succeeded in his aim…

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Murder by Matchlight by ECR Lorac

Maybe it’s because they are Londoners…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a cold winter in London during World War 2, with the blackout in full force and the population living with the constant spectre of bombing raids. One night, young Bruce Mallaig is sitting on a bench in Regent’s Park thinking romantic thoughts of the girl he loves, when he sees – or mostly hears due to the pitch darkness – two men near the little footbridge, one on the bridge, the other standing below it. While he ponders what they might be up to, the man on the bridge lights a match and Mallaig catches a glimpse of a face looming behind him. The match goes out and there’s a thud as of someone falling. By the time Mallaig fumbles his torch alight, the man on the bridge is dead…

Of course, this is the story he tells the police, but is it true? There was another witness too, the man under the bridge, whose story sounds less likely but possible. Inspector MacDonald of the Yard will have to decide if either of these witness could have done the deed, or had a fourth person been there in the darkness, unseen except for that brief glimpse Mallaig caught in the matchlight? But first MacDonald will have to identify the victim before he can try to discover the motive for the crime.

This is the third of ECR Lorac’s books that the British Library has re-issued and she’s now become one of my firm favourites. MacDonald is a likeable detective – a moral man but with the ability to make allowances for the moral weaknesses of others. He’s thoughtful and kind, Oxford-educated but doesn’t live in an ivory tower. He’s as likely to go to see the latest variety show at the music-hall as to attend the newest production of Shakespeare, and this stands him in good stead in this investigation, since it soon turns out the victim lived in a boarding-house full of variety performers.

The plot is very good, with plenty of motives to provide red herrings, and an investigation that relies on MacDonald getting to the truth the old-fashioned way – by interviewing the various suspects both formally and informally, while his team carry out the painstaking work of checking alibis and tracking people’s movements. That’s one of the things I like most about these books – Lorac makes it clear that policing is a team sport. While MacDonald has the intuition and insight to make assumptions about who might be lying or telling the truth, he relies on his hard-working and competent subordinates to get the evidence to support or negate his theories.

One of Lorac’s chief skills is in developing her settings with a great feeling of authenticity. This one takes us to the heart of the capital city during the bombings, and gives a wonderful depiction of the dogged Londoners picking themselves up and carrying on, with the kind of defiant resilience that was the hallmark of London’s (and Britain’s) war-time attitude. But she doesn’t shy away from showing that this spirit wasn’t universal – many people were scared, while some took advantage of the confusion caused by the destruction in less than legal ways. In fact, Lorac uses this confusion as part of her plot and gives a real picture of the bombed out areas of the city and the disruption which that caused, with people dispersed from their old communities so that suddenly neighbours no longer knew neighbours in the way they had before the war, allowing the unscrupulous to “disappear” into new lives, even new identities.

I also love her characterisation. The most vivid characters here are the variety performers, and as you would expect they can be a bit larger than life, and their quirky skills again play a part in the plotting. She doesn’t overdo it, though, so they still feel credible. But it’s the “ordinary” people she does so well – the old caretaker who looks after the boarding-house and does a bit of cleaning on the side, Mallaig, MacDonald’s subordinates. This is back in the period when authors used to assume that people who weren’t the baddies were good, and this is emphasised more here because, published in 1945, consciously or unconsciously it plays into the story Londoners told themselves to keep their chins up in the face of adversity: a story of plucky cheerfulness, neighbourliness and acts of heroism – a story they told so convincingly it became their reality. A heinous crime has been committed, with a motivation that might feel somewhat out-dated now, but would have resonated strongly at the time. But, despite the crime and the bombs, all will be well because London and Londoners will never allow Hitler the satisfaction of thinking he can give more than they can take. And with men like MacDonald in charge, London is in safe hands.

London 1944 – fighting Hitler one cuppa tea at a time…

Strong plot, good characterisation, plenty of mild humour to lift the tone – all-in-all, an excellent read that gives a real insight into the war on the Home Front, and the patriotic spirit that carried London through. Great stuff!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

FictionFan Awards 2018 – Genre Fiction

Please rise…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

GENRE FICTION

I don’t always include an award for genre fiction, but I’ve had a lot of fun this year reading classic science fiction and horror, so it seemed a shame to leave them out in the cold. Some of my favourites were re-reads – The Day of the Triffids, for instance – so can’t be included. I’m including several short story collections since so much good genre fiction comes in that format.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Gothic Tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Although best known today for his Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote prolifically across a whole range of genres in his lifetime. This collection brings together thirty-four of his tales which have been categorised as “gothic”, although some of them are more gothic than others.

The level of horror is variable from mild and even humorous to really quite scary. But the real joy of the collection, as always with Conan Doyle, is the sheer quality of his story-telling skills. Whether relating an Arctic adventure complete with ghostly apparition, or telling a tale of vengeance set in the wild frontier of old America, or forcing the reader to spend a night in a museum full of not completely dead Egyptian mummies, or taking us into the dark heart of the British Empire, his powers of description and ability to create atmosphere and tension are surely second to none. And his total command of a wonderful vocabulary and seemingly effortless writing style make the stories pure pleasure to read.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells

When Mr Bedford leaves London for the quiet of the Kentish countryside he meets his new neighbour, Mr Cavor, an eccentric scientist, and becomes intrigued and excited by the possibilities of the invention Cavor is working on – a substance that will defy gravity. Bedford, always with an eye for the main chance, begins to imagine the commercial possibilities of such a substance, but Cavor is more interested in the glory that he will gain from the scientific community. And so it is that these two mismatched men find themselves as partners on an incredible voyage – to the Moon!

To a large degree, this is a straightforward adventure novel with a great story and lots of danger and excitement. But, being Wells, there are also underlying themes relating to contemporary concerns: primarily the danger of science untempered by ethical control and a rather terrifying vision of a utopian society. But the themes are treated more lightly in this one and Wells allows his imagination free rein, resulting in a great read – lots of humour, great descriptive writing, enough depth to keep it interesting without overwhelming the story, a couple of characters you can’t help liking even though you feel you shouldn’t, and plenty of excitement.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen

This is a collection of those stories of Arthur Machen that fit into what would now be thought of as ‘weird’ tales. His stories are set mainly in two locations, both of which he evokes brilliantly. His native Monmouthshire, in Wales, is depicted as a place with connections to its deep past, where ancient beliefs and rituals are hidden just under the surface of civilised life. His London is a place of dark alleys and hidden evils, with a kind of degenerate race living side by side with the respectable people, and often stretching out a corrupting hand towards them. Many have strong sexual undercurrents (never overtly spelled out – it’s the Victorian era) and paganism is a recurring feature.

The quality of the writing is excellent, especially the descriptive imagery he uses to give both of his settings a sense of evil things lurking unseen, ready to prey on the morally weak or unwary. The Welsh parts have a very similar feel to Lovecraft’s ruins – Lovecraft acknowledged his influence – but where Lovecraft opted for ancient malign aliens, Machen’s evil, though equally ancient, is all of earth, earthly. However, there’s a good deal of humour alongside the effective and occasionally gruesome horror and he’s a great storyteller, making this a marvellously entertaining collection. 

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson

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

I don’t normally read modern horror but I’m glad I made an exception for this one. It’s a bloody and often gruesome vampire novel, but it’s also so much more than that. Part examination of the hard-scrabble life of rural Texans in the early ’80s and part-metaphor for the lasting shockwaves of the traumas visited on America, and its young men in particular, by the Vietnam war, it’s right up there with the best of American fiction writing, so much so that I considered putting it in the literary fiction category. The writing and imagery are wonderful, poetic and brutal at the same time – it blew me away. 

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

BEST GENRE FICTION

This was an extremely difficult decision – at least three of these books could easily have won. But Lovecraft has been a stalwart of the blog for years now, so it felt only right he should finally win a prize!

In his introduction to this collection of thirteen tales, Xavier Aldana Reyes discusses how Lovecraft’s reputation as a major influence in weird fiction has led to his more traditionally Gothic work being somewhat overlooked. But Reyes points out that even in his weird fiction, Lovecraft often used Gothic concerns. Having read the stories, I’d say the reverse is also true – that his Gothic tales often include elements of his major weird works, particularly in the settings, the hint of unknown fears from something more cosmic than ghostly, and the idea of the degeneration of humanity, which recurs frequently not only in Lovecraft’s work but in that of many of his near contemporaries. 

I loved this collection – every story got either a four or five star rating individually, a rare occurrence indeed. Many of the stories are traditional in style and genuinely scary, while others show Lovecraft’s brilliance in creating an unsettling atmosphere where man exists as a helpless plaything, at the mercy of forces we are too puny to comprehend. Great stuff, and a worthy winner!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next Week: Best Factual

The Classics Club Spin #19

In the lap of the gods…

classics club logo 2

The Classics Club is holding its 19th Spin, and my 6th. The idea is to list 20 of the books on your Classics Club list before next Tuesday, 27th November. On that day, the Classics Club will post the winning number. The challenge is to read and review whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by 31st January, 2019. This seems like a super generous amount of time, so the Club is recommending we set ourselves the challenge to read one of the chunkier books on our lists, and as we all know some of those pesky classics can be very chunky indeed!

All very well and I’m always up for a challenge! But… I’ve already scheduled my annual Dickens monster, Little Dorrit this year, for the festive season and also committed to reading all five of his Christmas books! So I’ve put some biggies on my list but I’ve also snuck some shorter ones in there in the hopes that fate will be kind to me *laughs hollowly*. It’s all in the lap of the gods…

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1) The American by Henry James

2) Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

3) Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

4) The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr

5) Earth Abides by George R Stewart

6) Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald

7) Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

8) The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison

9) I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane

10) The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

11) Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

12) The African Queen by CS Forester

13) Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie

14) The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham

15) Starship Troopers by Robert A Heinlein

16) In the Heat of the Night by John Ball

17) The Go-Between by LP Hartley

18) The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

19) Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver

20) The Drowned World by JG Ballard

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I’d be delighted to read most of these. Remember, Classics Club Gods, short! Short! In the Heat of the Night. The African Queen. I, The Jury. But if you must go long, then Mansfield Park would be nice, or The Bull Calves, or The Game of Kings…

Which one would you like to see win?

The Moving Toyshop (Gervase Fen 3) by Edmund Crispin

Murder Stalks The University!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Poet Richard Cadogan decides he needs a break from routine so heads to Oxford. As he walks along a street at night looking at the window displays of the closed shops, he notices the door of a toyshop is open. His curiosity gets the better of him so he enters, but is shocked to find the corpse of a woman lying on the floor. Before he has the chance to leave the shop to report what looks like a murder, he is hit on the head and falls unconscious. When he comes round some time later he finds himself locked in a cupboard, but manages to make his escape and go to the police. However when they return with him to the spot, not only has the corpse disappeared but the whole shop has gone, and in its place is a grocer’s shop! Not unnaturally, the police have difficulty believing his story after this, so he turns to his old friend, the amateur sleuth and university professor, Gervase Fen…

This is one of those crime novels that goes way beyond the credibility line, but makes up for its general silliness by being a whole lot of fun. Due to an unfortunate mistake, Cadogan is soon wanted by the police for stealing from the grocer’s shop, so all the time he and Fen are racing round Oxford pursuing their investigations, the local police are racing around too, pursuing Cadogan! Fen tries to get his old friend the Chief Constable to call them off, but the Chief Constable is far more interested in discussing the themes of Measure for Measure – well, it is Oxford after all, where even the truck drivers read DH Lawrence…

He felt about him and produced a greasy edition of Sons and Lovers for general inspection, then he put it away again. “We’ve lorst touch,’ he continued, ‘with sex – the grand primeval energy; the dark, mysterious source of life. Not,’ he added confidentially, ‘that I’ve ever exactly felt that – beggin’ your pardon – when I’ve been in bed with the old woman. But that’s because industrial civilisation ‘as got me in its clutches.’

Challenge details:
Book: 49
Subject Heading: Making Fun of Murder
Publication Year: 1946

Fen is somewhat eccentric to say the least, and does his detection through a series of brilliant deductions well beyond the scope of us mere mortals, aided by large dollops of luck and coincidence. In fact, I can’t say I ever had much of an idea why exactly the villains had gone to such elaborate lengths to complicate a murder that should really have been pretty easy, but given their efforts to baffle and confuse, it’s just as well Fen is on hand to jump to the correct conclusions! He gradually involves his students as a kind of informal mob of enforcers, which might have worked out better if there weren’t quite so many bars in Oxford. Their ham-fisted efforts to help catch the bad guys add a lot to the farcical feel of the thing.

It’s very well written and full of humour. Cadogan and Fen make a great duo as they bicker their way through the investigation, filling in any lulls by playing literary games with each other, such as naming the most unreadable books of all time. (I was pleased to see Ulysses made the list, but was shocked that Moby-Dick didn’t get a mention!) It occasionally takes on a surreal quality when Fen makes it clear he knows he’s a character in a book…

‘Murder Stalks the University,’ said Fen. ‘The Blood on the Mortarboard. Fen Strikes Back.’
‘What’s that you’re saying?’ Cadogan asked in a faint, rather gurgling voice.
‘My dear fellow, are you all right? I was making up titles for Crispin.’

Edmund Crispin

As a little added bonus, I was thrilled to read the part of the book that inspired the brilliant fairground scene in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train – one of my favourite films, largely because of that finale.

A thoroughly entertaining read, and I look forward to improving my acquaintance with Crispin and Fen in the future. Highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Maker of Moons by Robert W Chambers

Across the seven oceans…

I wasn’t too thrilled with Robert W Chambers’ best-known collection, The King in Yellow, finding the quality hugely variable from story to story, so time to see if he can impress me more with this week’s…

The Maker of Moons
by Robert W Chambers

Robert W Chambers

We first meet our narrator, Roy, when he is visiting a jeweller’s, where his friend Godfrey who works there is showing him a fantastic carving of a serpent made of what appears to be pure gold. Godfrey explains that he got it from an old man who lives in the Cardinal Woods. But suddenly Roy’s attention is distracted…

But I was not looking at the serpent. Something was moving – crawling out of Godfrey’s coat pocket – the pocket nearest to me – something soft and yellow with crab-like legs all covered with coarse yellow hair.

Godfrey tells him this hideous little creature came clinging to the box containing the gold serpent. Roy asks what it is but Godfrey doesn’t know…

“It is, I believe, the connecting link between a sea-urchin, a spider, and the devil. It looks venomous but I can’t find either fangs or mouth. Is it blind? These things may be eyes but they look as if they were painted. A Japanese sculptor might have produced such an impossible beast, but it is hard to believe that God did. It looks unfinished too. I have a mad idea that this creature is only one of the parts of some larger and more grotesque organism – it looks so lonely, so hopelessly dependent, so cursedly unfinished.”

Coincidentally Roy is going off to the Cardinal Woods on the following day, for a bit of shooting with a couple of friends, Pierpoint, an amiable but rather useless rich young man, and Barris, a Secret Service agent. Soon Barris reveals he has an ulterior motive – someone in the woods appears to be making gold, threatening the collapse of the whole capitalist system!

“Don’t ask me how it’s made,” said Barris, quietly; “I don’t know. But I do know that somewhere in the region of the Cardinal Woods there is a gang of people who do know how gold is made, and who make it. You understand the danger this is to every civilized nation. It’s got to be stopped of course. Drummond and I have decided that I am the man to stop it. Wherever and whoever these people are – these gold-makers – they must be caught, every one of them – caught or shot.”

While Pierpoint accompanies Barris to track down these villains, Roy makes off into the forest to kill things. But he comes across a beautiful glade complete with a pool of water and a beautiful, mysterious lady with whom he promptly and soppily falls deeply in love.

….“Listen,” sighed the voice of the wind, and “listen” echoed the swaying trees with every little leaf a-quiver. I listened.
….Where the long grasses trembled with the cricket’s cadence I heard her name, Ysonde; I heard it in the rustling woodbine where grey moths hovered; I heard it in the drip, drip, drip of the dew from the porch. The silent meadow brook whispered her name, the rippling woodland streams repeated it, Ysonde, Ysonde, until all earth and sky were filled with the soft thrill, Ysonde, Ysonde, Ysonde.

You’ll have gathered that her name is Ysonde.

But where does she come from, this mysterious lady? And what is her connection to the equally mysterious but deeply sinister Chinaman who seems to be lurking in the woods? And where does the gold come in? And what about those creatures?? Barris has some notion of what’s going on…

“The Kuen-Yuin are sorcerers,” he said, pausing before the hammock where Pierpont lay watching him; “I mean exactly what I say – sorcerers. I’ve seen them – I’ve seen them at their devilish business, and I repeat to you solemnly, that as there are angels above, there is a race of devils on earth, and they are sorcerers . . . Do you know what goes on in the interior of China? Does Europe know – could any human being conceive of the condition of that gigantic hell-pit? . . . I tell you that when the fires from this pit of hell have eaten through the continent to the coast, the explosion will inundate half a world – and God help the other half.”

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This is a rather wonderful story that is a kind of mash-up of genres – fantasy, weird, adventure, horror and with a large dollop of Yellow Peril thrown in for good measure. But the Kuen-Yuin are so mystical and magical that they seem more like aliens than humans, which means the inherent racism of Yellow Peril stories feels diluted – the horror is of their supernatural evil, rather than any perceived inferiority of race. The writing is great, all the way from high romance to creeping terror, with some fantastic imagery along the way.

Parts are humorous, such as the interactions between the three friends, but other parts are frightening, and still others dreamlike, almost hallucinogenic in feel, especially when they speak of Yian, the city of the Kuen-Yuin, which lies “across the seven oceans and the river which is longer than from the earth to the moon”.

“I have seen it,” said Barris dreamily. “I have seen the dead plains of Black Cathay and I have crossed the mountains of Death, whose summits are above the atmosphere. I have seen the shadow of Xangi cast across Abaddon. Better to die a million miles from Yezd and Ater Quedah than to have seen the white water-lotus close in the shadow of Xangi! I have slept among the ruins of Xaindu where the winds never cease and the Wulwulleh is wailed by the dead.”

The porpy and I loved it, and neither of us will soon forget those horrible crab-like yellow creatures…

Enough to give the porpy a bad hair day…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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The fabulous top and bottom illustrations are by the super-talented mgkellermeyer at deviantart.com. The middle one is the original frontispiece by Lancelot Speed via Wikipedia.

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It’s quite long, but if you’d like to read it online, here’s a link. I read it in the collection Out of the Dark, provided for review courtesy of Collins Chillers.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link