The Invisible Man by HG Wells

Beware the mad scientists!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

One night, while a snowstorm rages, a man arrives at the inn in a Sussex village, asking for rooms. He is bundled up in scarves, gloves, and a large hat, so much so that Mrs Hall, the innkeeper, can see nothing of him except the tip of his very pink nose. She installs him in front of the fire but even as the room heats up he refuses to remove his outer layers. Still, he pays a sizeable deposit upfront, so she is willing to put up with his demands for privacy, even when he starts to use her parlour to carry out strange experiments. Eventually she discovers that underneath his hat and shaded spectacles, his head is entirely covered in bandages. Disfigured from some accident, she figures. Ah, if only she knew the book title! In time, as his experiments fail, the man begins to run low on money. And coincidentally (or is it??) that’s when the burglaries begin…

(NB On re-reading this review before posting, I think it’s a little more spoilerish than I usually aim for, so if you don’t already know the story and want to read the book some day, you might prefer to skip to the last paragraph now. I’ll forgive you. 😉 The short review is – highly recommended!)

* * * * *

HG Wells
1901 Photograph by Elliott & Fry, owned by the National Portrait Gallery

First published in 1897, this is perhaps the oddest of Wells’ five main science fiction classics, in that it starts out as a very funny comedy and then gradually darkens to become grim and tragic. Comitragedy, then, rather than tragicomedy. It’s another mad science one – this time, the main character, Griffin, has found a way to refract light that can make a human being invisible. A man almost entirely void of conscience or empathy, he sees all the opportunities this could bring, but his overweening pride makes him blind to the potential problems. And, like all these mad scientists, he forgets to work out how to put the genie back into the bottle before he lets it out.

So here he is, invisible, unable to reverse it, and growing increasingly desperate for money to continue his experiments. His initial crimes are small ones but as he discovers the power over others that his invisibility gives him, he becomes ever more vicious and violent to anyone who gets in his way. And first the villagers, and then the wider countryside, become determined to stop him, in any way they can…

The beginning section in the inn is full of some lovely humour, mocking the simple country bumpkins of this little village, but doing it affectionately so that it doesn’t feel cruel or too snobbish. Griffin’s invisibility leads to some fun incidents reminiscent of poltergeist stories.

As she did so, a most extraordinary thing happened. The bed-clothes gathered themselves together, leapt up suddenly into a sort of peak, and then jumped headlong over the bottom rail. It was exactly as if a hand had clutched them in the centre and flung them aside. Immediately after, the stranger’s hat hopped off the bed-post, described a whirling flight in the air through the better part of a circle, and then dashed straight at Mrs. Hall’s face.

From the James Whale film adaptation of 1933.
It’s Claude Rains, of course – didn’t you recognise him?

The informative introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by Matthew Beaumont, Professor in English Literature at University College London, points out that this was at a time when spiritualism was all the rage, and that Wells was mocking some of the practices of the fake mediums of the day. Beaumont also puts the book into its literary context, highlighting influences on Wells followed by his influence on later books. Some of the influences are easy to see – there’s a definite element of Jekyll and Hyde (1886) in Griffin, and the chase scenes of this monster are reminiscent of Frankenstein (1818); though it’s much harder to feel empathy, I found, for Griffin, a monster largely of his own making, and with few redeeming features. He ought by rights to deserve some pity, since as an albino at a time when people were less tolerant of difference, he had found himself rather isolated as a child, but somehow his coldness and extreme cruelty left me unable to sympathise. However, this early outcast status makes his detachment from society understandable, and that detachment in turn leads him to act in ways that eventually make his alienation complete.

But although the book echoes these earlier works to some degree, it certainly has its own originality, and Wells’ usual great storytelling skills make it another excellent read, although I did find the descent from comedy to violence and horror somewhat disconcerting. In retrospect, as I’m writing this, I’m thinking that may have been the point but as I was reading, it felt jerky, like suddenly going round a hair-pin bend. However, both sections are very well done with both the humour and the horror coming through effectively, and it’s easy to see why this tale has retained its hold on the public imagination and been so influential on later writers and filmmakers.

I must say I have enjoyed reading these five classics from HG Wells more than almost any other aspect of my reading over the last few months. They tend to share common themes but, far from making them feel repetitive, that in fact highlights the amazing imagination of the man, to be able to come up with so many fresh ways to examine the things that interested him. And at risk of sounding as if I’m on their payroll, reading these OWC editions has enhanced my pleasure hugely; the introductions are always well written and give just the right amount of information to inform without overloading the reader with lots of irrelevant detail or academic jargon. I always read the intros as afterwords, and get a glow of smug satisfaction if I’ve picked up on the things they mention, and a lesser but still satisfying glow when they tell me something I didn’t spot. Great stuff!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….The fox stopped. Without turning, he said in a husky whisper:
….“I am renouncing the world, dear Sister. I have forsworn the consumption of chicken. From now on my diet will consist of nothing but plants and herbs.”
….The hen was astounded. She said:
….“Are you calling me Sister? Why, you are my worst enemy!”
….“We are all brothers and sisters. We are one family,” said the fox. “What I wish for now is to live in peace and quiet. I am going on the pilgrimage, on the Hajj, Sister. But don’t tell anyone.”
….The hen said:
….“Going on the Hajj? I beg you, take me with you. I won’t tell a soul.”
….He said:
….“I’ll take you with me on one condition: that you keep your distance. Don’t walk too close to me. I don’t want anyone who sees us to think I am planning to eat you up.”

From: Abu Ali the Fox (you just know it’s not going to end well for the hen, don’t you?)

* * * * * * * * *

….Clarke unfolded the two-page letter, which was dated March 31, and saw that it was indeed from Kubrick. Fairly brief, quite to the point, it seemingly had two clear agendas. One was picking his brain about a possible telescope purchase (the director mentioned a Questar telescope in the first and last sentences). The other was his desire to discuss “the possibility of doing the proverbial ‘really good’ science fiction movie.” This line – the second after the Questar bit – would become well known, and certainly served as the initial aim of the nascent project Kubrick was proposing.
….“My main interest lies along these broad areas, naturally assuming great plot and character,” Kubrick wrote. “1. The reasons for believing in the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. 2. The impact (and perhaps even lack of impact in some quarters) such discovery would have on Earth in the near future. 3. A space probe with a landing and exploration of the Moon and Mars.”

* * * * * * * * *

.He held a white cloth – it was a serviette he had brought with him – over the lower part of his face, so that his mouth and jaws were completely hidden, and that was the reason for his muffled voice. But it was not that which startled Mrs. Hall, It was the fact that all his forehead above his blue glasses was covered by a white bandage, and that another covered his ears, leaving not a scrap of his face exposed excepting only his pink, peaked nose. It was bright, pink, and shiny just as it had been at first. He wore a dark-brown velvet jacket with a high, black, linen-lined collar turned up about his neck. The thick black hair, escaping as it could below and between the cross bandages, projected in curious tails and horns, giving him the strangest appearance conceivable. This muffled and bandaged head was so unlike what she had anticipated, that for a moment she was rigid.

* * * * * * * * *

….There was a noise.
….She couldn’t identify quite what or where it was, but it sounded like somebody trying not to make a sound.
….Somebody in the house.
….Catherine’s neck prickled with ancient warning.
….She was thirty-one and had lived alone all her adult life until she’d moved in with Adam nearly two years before. When you lived alone, and you heard a noise in the night, you didn’t cower under the bedclothes and wait for your fate to saunter up the stairs and down the hallway. When you lived alone, you got up and grabbed the torch, the bat, the hairspray, and you sneaked downstairs to confront…
….The dishwasher.
….Which was the only thing that had ever made a noise loud enough to wake her.
….But she hadn’t set the dishwasher…

* * * * * * * * *

….Yesterday, walking around the places in central Bogotá where some of the events that I’m going to explore in this report happened, trying to make sure once more that nothing has escaped me in its painstaking reconstruction, I found myself wondering aloud how I’ve come to know these things I might be better off not knowing: how had I come to spend so much time thinking about these dead people, living with them, talking to them, listening to their regrets and regretting, in turn, not being able to do anything to alleviate their suffering. And I was astonished that it had all started with a few casual words, casually spoken by Dr Benavides inviting me to his house. At that moment, I thought I was accepting in order not to deny someone my time who had been generous with his own at a difficult moment, so the visit would simply be one more commitment out of the many insignificant things that use up our lives. I couldn’t know how mistaken I’d been, for what happened that night put in motion a frightful mechanism that would only end with this book: this book written in atonement for crimes that, although I did not commit them, I have ended up inheriting. 

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

Sinister Dexter (PorterGirl 3) by Lucy Brazier

Tea-bag crisis strikes Old College!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Things have got very dark indeed in Old College since we last visited. The new Bursar, Professor Dexter Sinistrov, whom we last met while he was engaged in nefarious goings-on in the neighbouring college, has now settled into his role. His first priority has been to cut the catering budget, leading to a serious shortage of biscuits in the Porters Lodge – and they’re down to their last three tea-bags! This tragedy, along with the small matter of two corpses being found at the bottom of the garden, means our beloved Deputy Head Porter has her hands full. Especially since The Dean seems to think the best way to solve the crime would be for him to dress up as Zorro, Head Porter is busily leading a double life online, and Porter is becoming ever more romantically involved with the local police sergeant. Mind you, Deputy Head Porter herself doesn’t seem totally immune to the charms of DCI Thompson…

….“Oh, you’re a porter, are you?” Professor Palmer seats himself and leans over, perilously close to my breakfast. I place a defensive forearm around the plate. “You’re rather pretty to be carrying bags, don’t you think?”
….It takes every ounce of temperance to refrain from stabbing him in the face with my fork. Had it not already got bacon on it, I’m afraid this would have very likely been the outcome.
….“Porters,” I emphasise the upper-case P through gritted teeth, “are not the carriers of bags, but the keepers of keys.”

I shall start with my usual disclaimer – I’ve been blog buddies with Lucy for years now, so you may have to assume that I’m biased…

This series has been loads of fun since the beginning, when it started out as a serialisation on Lucy’s blog. The first book, First Lady of the Keys, (previously titled Secret Diary of PorterGirl), was taken directly from the blog and occasionally showed its origins by being a bit loose in structure perhaps, especially in the early chapters. But the second book, The Vanishing Lord, and this one are both much tighter and better plotted. There is a running story arc in the background so the books are very definitely meant to be read in order. In fact, the opening of this one contains lots of spoilers for the earlier books.

With this third book, I feel Lucy has really taken a step up in terms of plotting, giving this one a distinct story of its own as well as progressing the background story. A young student and his boyfriend are found dead in each others arms in the College gardens, with no visible signs of how they died. DCI Thomson and his team carry out the official investigation, while The Dean and his team carry out an unofficial one. In the background, the usual machinations of the Fellowship of Old College continue, with suggestions that the Vicious Circle, a secret society within the College who mete out their own form of vengeance against anyone who they feel endangers college tradition, might be back in operation. The mysterious and menacing Professor Sinistrov is acting suspiciously, but is he part of the Vicious Circle? Or, as The Dean suspects, a Russian spy? Or does he have a secret agenda of his own? Or is he simply anti-biscuit? No-one can be sure, but if Deputy Head Porter doesn’t get a decent cup of tea soon, there’ll be ructions…

….“I think it’s fair to say that we are of the opinion that Maurinio and his rugged companion were engaged in a personal relationship?”
….The Dean’s approach to the subject matter is amusing. Which is why what he says next is all the more surprising.
….“I would have made an excellent homosexual, Deputy Head Porter” he continues, wistfully. “I’ve always had above average good looks and an unusually superior sense of style.”
….“Yes” I say, tentatively. “I think there is somewhat more to it than that, Sir.” But he isn’t listening. He has found a crusted stain on the hem of his jumper and is scratching at it furiously.

Lucy Brazier

The story is only part of the fun of these books though. Mostly it’s about the quirky bunch of characters Lucy has created and the strange and esoteric life of this ancient institution based, not altogether exaggeratedly, on one of our real much-revered universities. The Dean continues to be at the centre of most of the daily mayhem, while Head Porter’s character is gradually deepening as we learn more about his life outside the college. While totally loyal to the College and her colleagues, Deputy Head Porter observes them with an objective and humorous eye, and continues to try to get everyone to behave a little more sensibly – a hopeless task, I fear! As always, there are some set-piece comedy scenes – I’m proud to claim a tiny bit of credit for being part of the crowd of blog followers who forced Lucy to take her characters off to an open-mic night disguised as a struggling rock band!

Great fun! I’m even willing to overlook the fact that it’s written in my pet hate present tense. If you haven’t visited Old College yet, I heartily recommend you do so the very next time you need cheering up. But remember to read them in order! And Lucy, I hope you’re hard at work on the next one…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Slender indeed…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The May of Teck Club in London’s Kensington is a place for “for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.” The book tells of the lives of the crop of “girls” in residence just as the war in Europe had ended in the summer of 1945. These girls may be somewhat impecunious, but they are not from the poorer classes of society – rather they are the daughters of the genteel and the minor upper-classes, and for most of them, their main occupation is to seek a suitable husband. While the rules state an upper age limit of thirty, a few women have stayed on, becoming almost surrogate matrons to the younger girls and desperately trying to stop the bright young things from allowing standards of behaviour to fall.

There’s a bit of time-shifting in the book. As it begins, we’re in the ‘60s, when we learn of the death of Nicholas Farringdon, a man who used to be a frequent visitor to the club in 1945. He was in love with the beautiful, slinky Selina, who not only had slender means, but also hips so slender she was able to slither out of a small upstairs window for the purposes of having illicit sex on the roof. We see the story mainly through the eyes of Jane Wright, a resident of the club in the ‘40s, and now a journalist in the ‘60s, who wants to determine why, twenty years later, Nicholas should die a martyr in Haiti where he had gone off to be a Jesuit missionary. This is not out of any concern or warmth for him – she merely thinks she may be able to make a story for her paper out of it.

In truth, though, the plot is negligible – for the most part we simply observe the girls as they go about their lives in the club, and we rarely step over the threshold into the wider world. The club is very much like the boarding schools as depicted in so many school series of that era – these girls may be older and sex may have replaced midnight feasts as their method of rebellion, but there’s the same kind of dynamics of different types of people having to learn to rub along together, and the same kind of loyalty to the club as schoolgirls show to their schools (in fiction).

The girls have survived the war, but seem to have been relatively untouched by it. Some have worked in administrative and secretarial roles as part of the war effort, and are wondering what they will do now that peace will soon remove the need for them. We hear about how some have lost young men of their acquaintance, but their ghosts are not allowed to darken the tone. The girls are rather proud of the bomb that narrowly missed the club – they like to point out the damage to visitors – and there’s a rumour that another bomb is buried somewhere in the garden, unexploded.

Muriel Spark
Photo by Frank Monaco/REX (502449b)

This is rather an odd little book and I’m not at all sure if it has some deep and profound meaning that was lost on me. From my perspective, to be honest, it read like a bit of well-written and sharply observed fluff. I know that sounds rather harsh and dismissive, but I kept waiting to be startled by great insights, to be blown away by the depth of the characterisation, as I was with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. But it never happened with this one. I enjoyed it – there’s a lot of humour in it and the girls were an entertaining bunch to spend time with. When I finished, however, I felt it had been something of a sorbet – delicious but hardly satisfying.

I think I felt this way partly because the ‘slender means’ of these girls seems to relate as much to their shallow lives as to their financial status. In some ways, I felt Spark’s depiction of them was rather cruel, though undoubtedly amusing. I found myself laughing at the girls for the most part, rather than with them. Again, this was very different to my reaction to the girls and women in Miss Jean Brodie, who had my complete sympathy even when they were behaving rather badly.

Juliet Stevenson

I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Juliet Stevenson, which was something of a mixed bag for me. I enjoyed her straight narration of the narrative and her delivery of the girls’ dialogue, but I found her accents for two of the male characters, one Russian, one American, overdone and distracting.

Perhaps I missed something in this book, or perhaps there’s not much there to be missed. In summary, an entertaining read that I enjoyed as it was happening but felt rather underwhelmed by in the end. I do recommend it for the writing, the observation and the humour, but I feel that anyone who loved The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie should lower their expectations a little before embarking on this one.

For different viewpoints of this and other Spark novels, don’t forget to visit Ali’s blog, Heavenali, where she’s running a year-long #ReadingMuriel2018 feature in honour of the centenary of her birth (Spark’s not Ali’s!), and rounding up links to the various reviews of participants around the blogosphere.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

With my little eye…

…aka The I-Spy Tag…

Couldn’t resist doing this tag that’s been doing the rounds recently…

The instructions: Find a book on your bookshelves that contains (either on the cover or in the title) an example for each category. You must have a separate book for all 20, get as creative as you want and do it within five minutes!! (Or longer if you have way too many books on way too many overcrowded shelves!)

Ha! Five minutes! Yeah, right! Anyway…

I decided to use only books on my TBR – books I own but haven’t yet read (or very occasionally, re-read). There’s currently well over 200 of them so I knew I’d have plenty of choice! But I still struggled with one or two…

Here’s your mission, should you choose to accept it. Most of these have been hanging around my TBR for ages and never made it to the top. Which one or two do you think I should prioritise soon?

Food

The Poisoned Chocolates Case

added to TBR 19/10/17

Transport

Way Station

added to TBR 16/12/16

Weapon

The Black Arrow

added to TBR 11/12/17

Animal

The Case of the Late Pig

added to TBR 26/1/18

Number

The Hotel of the Three Roses

added to TBR 18/2/16

Something you read

The Report

added to TBR 20/12/13

Body of Water

The Sea

added to TBR 26/11/16

Product of Fire

River of Smoke

added to TBR 22/10/15

Royalty

The King of Taksim Square

added to TBR 1/12/15

Architecture

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

added to TBR 16/12/15

Clothing

The Woman in Black

added to TBR 15/10/14

Family Member

The Sisters Brothers

added to TBR 5/1/13

Time of Day

The River at Night

added to TBR 2/2/17

Music

For Whom the Bell Tolls

added to TBR 19/4/18

Paranormal Being

The Haunter of the Dark

added to TBR 25/10/14

Occupation

Starship Troopers

added to TBR 1/8/17

Season

Soft Summer Blood

added to TBR 3/12/15

Colour

Red Shift

added to TBR 9/8/14

Celestial Body

Half of a Yellow Sun

added to TBR 23/3/16

Something that grows

Nada the Lily

added to TBR 9/12/15

* * * * *

Phew! So many great sounding books!
Why on earth haven’t I read them yet??

Hope you enjoyed this peek into the recesses of my TBR! 😀

Gratuitous Darcy pic just because I can…

Raven Black (Shetland 1) by Ann Cleeves

An excellent start…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

A few days after New Year, sixteen-year-old Catherine Ross is found strangled in the snow in the middle of a field. The islanders immediately jump to the conclusion that she was killed by Magnus Tait, an elderly loner who has long been convicted in the public mind of the murder of another girl several years earlier. That child disappeared and her body was never found, and no evidence was found to allow the police to charge Magnus with the crime, but ever since the islanders have kept their children well away from him. Catherine Ross was an outsider, though, her father having brought her to the island just recently, after the death of her mother. And Catherine was interested in people, and perhaps a little cruel sometimes. She was known to have been in Magnus’ company a couple of times, so his guilt seems certain. But Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez, another outsider, isn’t convinced…

This is the first novel in Cleeves’ Shetland series, the books behind the successful TV series of the same name. She captures the atmosphere of the island beautifully – the mixture of that feeling of claustrophobia where everyone knows everyone else’s secrets and the isolation of the small villages outside the main harbour town. She also shows how old traditions remain side by side with the increasing modernisation of life, as the islanders prepare for the big annual festival of Up Helly Aa; perhaps not as ancient a festival as some like to believe, but one that has become a part of life and a major tourist attraction over the years.

The plotting is excellent, as Perez tries to work out whether the two cases are linked or separate. Being in the third person past tense, the reader is allowed to see the story develop from a variety of perspectives, including Perez himself as he investigates, Magnus Tait as he waits knowing that the finger of suspicion will be pointed in his direction, and Sally, daughter of a teacher at the local school and Catherine’s best friend. This lets us see events from different angles, gradually giving a rounder picture of the victim and the various suspects.

Up Helly Aa – when the Shetlanders celebrate their Viking connections by burning a longboat…
Photo by David Gifford

Magnus is very well done – he is a man with what we’d probably call learning difficulties, able to function but well aware that he lacks social skills. Cleeves does a great job of making the reader find him both creepy and rather sad at the same time. Through Sally’s eyes we see the life of youngsters on the island, socially and at school. She and Catherine were drawn together mainly by being treated as outsiders – Catherine because she has newly arrived on the island, and Sally because she’s the daughter of a rather unpopular teacher.

Perez’ character is only revealed to certain extent in this opening novel, leaving plenty of room for development in later instalments. He’s from Fair Isle, an even smaller, more remote community, and is under pressure from his parents to return there. The break-up of his marriage has left him unsure of what he wants in life, but he’s no angst-ridden maverick. He’s a thoughtful, fair officer who tries hard not to be swayed by popular opinion but instead to look to the facts of the case. In this one, he finds himself becoming attracted to a young woman, Fran, another incomer, who found Catherine’s body, and this budding relationship allows us to see his human, off-duty side.

Ann Cleeves

There are plenty of other characters – parents, other pupils, boyfriends and so on – to provide a wide pool of suspects and witnesses, and these are all drawn equally believably although with a little less depth. Late on, I had an inkling about how one aspect of the story was going to play out, but I didn’t get close to the main solution. When it came though, I found it both credible and satisfying.

Overall, I thought this was an excellent start to the series and am keen to read more. I’m also happy to have finally broken my duck with this well-known and much loved author, and am now equally eager to read her Vera Stanhope novels. If someone as successful as Ann Cleeves actually needs my recommendation, then she most certainly has it!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Six Degrees of Separation – From Kingsolver to…

Chain links…

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

This month’s starting book is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I haven’t read it but it’s been sitting on my TBR since 2015, so maybe I’ll get to it soon! The blurb tells me…

The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it — from garden seeds to Scripture — is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

Another book set in the Congo, though this time in what was once the French Congo, is…

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. I loved this book, with its themes of the pursuit of scientific fame, evolution, war and, on a more personal level, the breakdown of a marriage.

I stopped and filled my lungs, smelling Africa – smelling dust, woodsmoke, a perfume from a flower, something musty, something decaying.

I also loved it for its observations of the lives of the chimps, which seems like an excellent cue to reprise one of my favourite gifs…

I can’t ever think of chimps now without being reminded of another wonderful book…

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel – this is a beautifully written novel in three parts, each of which relates to a small town in the mountains of the title. Again it has a theme of evolution running through it, this time the old debate of faith versus science, and the chimps appear as both real and symbolic throughout. But that aside, the sheer quality of the writing along with the more overt themes of grief and love make it a wonderful read. It gets my highest recommendation – one that has left some indelible images in my mind.

If a job was left unfinished at the end of a day – the coop not repaired, a row of vegetables not weeded – we knew that one of us had sat down and wept. That’s the nature of grief: it’s a creature with many arms but few legs, and it staggers about, searching for support. Frayed chicken wire and a profusion of weeds became expressions of our loss. I can’t look at chicken wire now without thinking of my lost son. There’s something about the warp and weft of it, so thin yet strong, so porous yet solid, that reminds me of how we loved him. Later, because of our neglect, chickens died at the jaws of a fox that slipped into the coop, and the crop of vegetables was not so bountiful – but so it goes: a son dies and the earth becomes barren.

Another book where the stories in it all link back to a mountain is…

Fujisan by Randy Taguchi. This rather strange but very moving collection of four stories is centred round the iconic Mount Fuji. There is a spiritual feel to the book; these characters are seeking something that will enable them to explain themselves to themselves and their searches take them in strange and surprising directions. ‘Blue Summit’ tells of an ex-cult member now working in a convenience store and learning how to live outside the cult. ‘Sea of Trees’ is a disturbing tale of three boys confronting death while spending a night in the woods of Mount Fuji. ‘Jamilla’ is a compulsive hoarder and this is the tale of the social worker detailed to clear her house. And lastly, in ‘Child of Night’ a walk up the mountain becomes a journey of self-discovery for a nurse who is struggling with the ethics of her job. Stories that have stayed in my mind in the five or six years since I read them.

The story ‘Sea of Trees’ in this collection tells a strange and disturbing story of young people in a wood, and so does…

In the Woods by Tana French. In 1984, three children went into the woods in Knocknaree. Only one returned, with blood – not his own – in his shoes, so traumatised he is never able to remember what happened. The other two children have never been found. That traumatised child is now a detective on the Murder Squad, Rob Ryan. And when another child is found murdered in Knocknaree, he and his partner Cassie are given the case. I enjoyed this début in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, with a few reservations as to overwriting and over-padding, and really must read more of her books someday

A book set in Dublin that I enjoyed with no reservations at all is…

The Visitor by Maeve Brennan. This novella is an early, previously unpublished work of Maeve Brennan’s, discovered in a University archive after her death. It is a wonderful study of loneliness, self-absorption and selfishness, of thwarted love, both romantic and familial, and of a longing for that nebulous thing we call ‘home’, and is beautifully written.

She walked out along the shallow path. At the gate she turned to look up at Miss Kilbride’s window. It was blind and closed, like a person sleeping. Like Miss Kilbride, lying on her back in difficult slumber. And later, waking to dream of a doubtful deathly union with her long-lost hero, with whom she had once struggled in valiant, well-dressed immodesty on a small settee, for love’s sake.

Regulars will know I always try to find an author pic for my reviews, and the picture of Maeve Brennan is one of my favourites. I want to be on the other side of that table, listening…

Maeve Brennan

Another of my favourite author pics is this one…

So my final book will be…

Docherty by William McIlvanney. On a December night in 1903, Tam Docherty lifts his new-born son and declares that this one will never go down the pits – this child Conn, his youngest, will work with his brains, rise out of the poverty of his heritage. The book covers the next twenty years or so, telling the story of Conn and his family, and most of all of Tam himself, a man who may be “only five foot fower. But when yer hert goes fae yer heid tae yer taes, that’s a lot o’ hert.” A beautiful book, written mostly in standard English, but with some excellent Scottish dialect…

“Son, it’s easy tae be guid oan a fu’ belly. It’s when a man’s goat two bites an’ wan o’ them he’ll share, ye ken whit he’s made o’. Listen. In ony country in the world, who are the only folk that ken whit it’s like tae leeve in that country? The folk at the boattom. The rest can a’ kid themselves oan. They can afford to hiv fancy ideas. We canny, son. We loass the wan idea o’ who we are, we’re deid. We’re wan anither. Tae survive, we’ll respect wan anither. When the time comes, we’ll a’ move forward thegither, or nut at all.”

* * * * *

So Kingsolver to McIlvanney, via the Congo, chimps, mountains, woods, Dublin and author photographs!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov

The human face of the Revolution…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Melekhov family own a farm in the small Cossack village of Tatarsk, on the banks of the Don. In this strongly patriarchal society, the adult sons remain at home, bringing their wives to join the family, while the adult daughters leave to go to the family homes of their husbands. Patriarch Pantaleimon Melekhov has two adult sons: Piotra, already married as the book begins, and Gregor, just reaching manhood. This Nobel Prize-winning novel will follow the members of the family through the upheavals of early 20th century Russia, casting light on those events from the Cossack perspective.

The novel is divided into four sections. The first section is Peace, which shows the traditional life of the Cossacks before war and revolution changed it for ever. The writing is glorious and, unlike most Russian literature of my experience, the translation by Stephen Garry flows naturally, without the clunkiness and frequent obscurity that so often makes the Russians hard work. Sholokhov paints an entirely credible, unvarnished picture of the lives of his characters – a harsh, physical life, where the women are expected to work as hard as the men, and often fill their roles on the farms when the men are off at their military camps, an important part of the Cossack tradition. Farming and horses are at the heart of life here, with the beloved Don providing water and fish. The landscape is beautifully described, while Cossack life is shown in all its brutality – a society where violence and rape are commonplace, but which nevertheless has a strong social order and strictly observed customs.

….Towards evening a thunderstorm gathered. A mass of heavy cloud lay over the village. Lashed into fury by the wind, the Don sent great foaming breakers against its banks. The sky flamed with dry lightning, occasional peals of thunder shook the earth. A vulture circled with outspread wings below the clouds, and ravens croakingly pursued him. Breathing out coolness the cloud passed down the Don from the east. Beyond the water-meadows the heaven blackened menacingly, the steppe lay in an expectant silence. In the village the closed shutters rattled, the old people hurried home crossing themselves. A grey pillar of dust whirled over the square, and the heat-burdened earth was already beginning to be sown with the first grains of rain.

Young Gregor has developed a passionate desire for Aksinia, the wife of a neighbour, and this storyline carries through much of the novel. However, although the blurb suggests this is a kind of love story in the vein of Doctor Zhivago, it certainly isn’t. To a large degree, Gregor’s and Aksinia’s relationship is there to allow us to see different aspects of life – how the patriarchy works, how custom and tradition play an important role, how violence is never far from the surface, how women are treated within this society, how lust and sex are a commonplace part of life, not hidden and repressed as in most societies. I found Sholokhov’s portrayal of the women in his story fascinating, although it isn’t the main focus. There’s an animalistic quality to the characters – they are driven by earthy, physical passions, the women as much as the men. In a society where young husbands are often absent on military duty, the women are shown as having strong sexual needs, leading to adultery being commonplace. But we also see that women are property and often treated with more cruelty and less respect than the Cossacks’ beloved horses. Sholokhov doesn’t shield his readers from the brutality of beatings and rape, some of the descriptions of which are graphic in the extreme. Despite their subordinate status though, these women are strong and opinionated, and play their full part in their society, and, some of them, in the Revolution also.

….Through the wattle fence Gregor saw Stepan getting ready. Aksinia, bedecked in a green woollen skirt, led out his horse. Stepan smilingly said something to her. Unhurriedly, in lordly fashion, he kissed his wife, and his arm lingered long around her shoulder. His sunburnt and work-stained hand showed coal-black against her white jacket. He stood with his back to Gregor; his stiff, clean-shaven neck, his broad, somewhat heavy shoulders, and (whenever he bent towards his wife) the twisted ends of his light-brown moustache were visible across the fence.
….Aksinia laughed at something and shook her head. Sitting as though rooted into the saddle, Stepan rode his black horse at a hurried walk through the gate, and Aksinia walked at his side, holding the stirrup, and looking up lovingly and thirstily into his eyes.
….With a long, unwinking stare Gregor watched them to the turn of the road.

Having thoroughly immersed the reader in Cossack society and the lives of the people of the village, in the remaining three sections Sholokhov shows the impact of the three phases that led the Russian peoples from the end of Tsarism to the beginnings of the USSR – World War I, the Revolution, and the Civil War. My recent fixation with the history of this period undoubtedly helped me to understand all the nuances of these sections, but Sholokhov does such a great job that I think the book acts almost as a straight history in its own right, with the added fascination that we’re seeing how it all played out through the eyes of those at the bottom of the society’s power structures, rather than via the political actors and intelligentsia whose opinions are the ones we normally hear.

A Cossack troop rides off to war c.1914

The Cossack view is particularly interesting because they were divided – some fell under the Bolshevik sway, others feared the Bolsheviks would destroy their way of life for ever. Sholokhov gradually shows every aspect, from the agitators sent out to the villages to try to win them over to the Bolshevik cause, to the dreadful conditions in the army leading to demoralisation and the gradual breakdown of discipline, to the eventual taking of sides and how that impacted life back in the villages. We see the divide between the elders who wanted to maintain the status quo, and the younger men who were more attracted by the new politics, and how this began to weaken the patriarchal stranglehold. But throughout all of this history and politics, Sholokhov remembers the importance of humanity and keeps the reader in touch with how his characters are affected and changed by their experiences. There is horrific brutality in the war scenes, told not for effect but because it is truth. Sholokhov doesn’t express his own views overtly but he makes it very clear that bloody war is not a great and glorious thing. Instead it robs people of their humanity, coarsening and brutalising them and then sending them, if they’re lucky, to try in some way to put their shattered lives back together again.

….Very similar were all the prayers which the cossacks wrote down and concealed under their shirts, tying them to the strings of the little ikons blessed by their mothers, and to the little bundles of their native earth. But death came upon all alike, upon those who wrote down the prayers also. Their bodies rotted in the fields of Galicia and Eastern Prussia, in the Carpathians and Roumania, wherever the ruddy flames of war flickered and the traces of cossack horses were imprinted in the earth.

As you have hopefully gathered, I think this is a wonderful book, one that fully deserves its reputation as a great classic of the Revolution, and of literature in general. It is by no means an easy read in terms of subject matter, with some images that will haunt me for a long time to come, but it’s so well written I found myself fully engaged and caring deeply about these people. To be able to tell such a difficult and complicated history while simultaneously humanising it is a real feat, and one Sholokhov has pulled off superbly. An outstanding finale to the fictional side of my Russian Revolution challenge – highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Red House Mystery by AA Milne

Pleasingly devious…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Antony Gillingham receives a letter from his old friend, Bill Beverley, saying that Bill is currently visiting at Red House, Antony decides to pop along since he’s in the neighbourhood. But he arrives just as a shot has been fired, to find one of the country house’s residents, Cayley, banging frantically on the locked living-room door. Two men had entered the room – the house’s owner Mark Ablett, and his brother, Robert, a ne’er-do-well just returned from Australia. Now Robert lies dead on the living-room floor, and Mark has disappeared…

….“Of course it’s very hampering being a detective, when you don’t know anything about detecting, and when nobody knows that you’re doing detection, and you can’t have people up to cross-examine them, and you have neither the energy nor the means to make proper enquiries; and, in short, when you’re doing the whole thing in a thoroughly amateur, haphazard way.”

Well, this was a lot of fun! It’s very well written, with lots of humour and two very likeable protagonists in Antony and Bill. Antony is a man of means but with an interest in human nature. So rather than living the life of the idle rich, he has worked in a variety of roles, from shop-keeping to waiting. Now he decides to try his hand at amateur detection. He’s helped by having the ability to record anything he observes with his subconscious mind and then to retrieve those observations later at will. Bill is a pleasant young man, not unintelligent but without his friend’s perceptiveness. He proves to be a loyal and faithful sidekick, though, who cheerfully plays Watson to Antony’s Holmes – Milne openly and affectionately uses Holmes and Watson as a running joke between his two amateur ‘tecs.

….“Are you prepared to be the complete Watson?” he asked.
….“Watson?”
….“Do-you-follow-me-Watson; that one. Are you prepared to have quite obvious things explained to you, to ask futile questions, to give me chances of scoring off you, to make brilliant discoveries of your own two or three days after I have made them myself – all that kind of thing? Because it all helps.”
….“My dear Tony,” said Bill delightedly, “need you ask?”

Challenge details:
Book: 17
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1922

The plot is in the nature of a locked room mystery, though not in terms of how anyone could have got in or out. The mystery is in working out what happened inside the room and why Mark has apparently run off. There is (of course) a house party at the time of the murder, so that there are plenty of people to be witnesses and/or suspects. Cayley, the man who was banging on the door as Antony arrived, is Mark Ablett’s young cousin, whose education Mark had paid for. Cayley now lives with him and fulfills the functions of a secretary and general man of business for Mark. No-one really knows what it is that the victim Robert did all those years ago that resulted in him being sent off to Australia to avoid scandal, nor why he has suddenly returned. There are a couple of young women to provide love interests or possibly motives. The domestic staff add to the humour, with Milne showing just a touch of Golden Age snobbery but not enough to spoil the fun. And secret tunnels! Really every book should have secret tunnels, I think, don’t you?

….“It isn’t everybody’s colour,” said Audrey, holding the hat out at arm’s length, and regarding it thoughtfully. “Stylish, isn’t it?”
….“Oh, it’ll suit you all right, and it would have suited me at your age. A bit too dressy for me now, though wearing better than some other people, I daresay. I was never one to pretend to be what I wasn’t. If I’m fifty-five, I’m fifty-five – that’s what I say.”
….“Fifty-eight, isn’t it, auntie?”
….“I was just giving that as an example,” said Mrs. Stevens with great dignity.

AA Milne

Antony uses his knowledge of human nature and his observational skills to spot little inconsistencies in the stories of the other occupants of the house to gradually uncover the truth. It’s very well plotted – I did have a kind of idea of part of the how of it all, but was nicely baffled by the why. And I loved Antony and Bill as a team. My only disappointment is that Milne never wrote another mystery novel – I feel they’d have made the basis of a great detective duo series. But at least we have this book, and happily it’s available for download from wikisource. Highly recommended for the next time you want something that’s well written, pleasingly devious, and above all, entertaining!

TBR Thursday 158…

Episode 158…

Better news this week, but only a little. The TBR has dropped by a miniscule 1 to 220. Still, it’s just a matter of continuing to take baby steps…

Here are a few more that will slide my way soon…

Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the British Library. This one popped through my letterbox last week out of the blue. I know nothing about either the book or the author, but the blurb makes it sound as if it’ll be a lot of fun! An immoral masterwork? Oooh…

The Blurb says: In this darkly comic, quite immoral masterwork, Edward is an effete, poor young man who has something in store for his only relative, his wealthy aunt. First published in 1934, this classic mystery is considered a masterpiece of the inverted detective story, in which it is known “whodunit.” The question is “how will they catch ’em?” Highly unpredictable, it contains one of the most surprising denouements in all of detective fiction.

* * * * *

Scottish Fiction

Courtesy of Canongate via NetGalley. Another one I know nothing about other than the blurb, but the Shetland setting appeals and Canongate do a good job in promoting quality Scottish fiction, current and classic, so fingers crossed for this début…  

The Blurb says: Shetland: a place of sheep and soil, of harsh weather, close ties and an age-old way of life. A place where David has lived all his life, like his father and grandfather before him, but where he abides only in the present moment. A place where Sandy, a newcomer but already a crofter, may have finally found a home. A place that Alice has fled to after the death of her husband.

But times do change – island inhabitants die, or move away, and David worries that no young families will take over the chain of stories and care that this valley has always needed, while others wonder if it was ever truly theirs to join. In the wind and sun and storms from the Atlantic, these islanders must decide: what is left of us when the day’s work is done, the children grown, and all our choices have been made?

The debut novel from one of our most exciting new literary voices, The Valley at the Centre of the World is a story about community and isolation, about what is passed down, and what is lost between the cracks.

* * * * *

More Vintage Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley again. Farrago are gradually reissuing all twelve of Colin Watson’s Flaxborough Chronicles – this is number 4. I’ve read them all before, some of them many times, so am only selecting the ones I haven’t re-read for a long while, but they’re all great fun…

The Blurb says: Whatever can have happened to Lil?

Flaxborough butcher Arthur Spain is worried that his sister-in-law hasn’t been in touch lately, so he pays her a visit. But Lil’s not at home, and by her porch door are a dozen bottles of curdling milk… Alarmed, he calls in the local police, D.I. Purbright and his ever-reliable Sergeant Sid Love.

It transpires Lilian Bannister is the second middle-aged woman in the town to mysteriously vanish, and the link is traced to a local lonely hearts agency called Handclasp House. So when a vulnerable-seeming lady with the charming title of Lucy Teatime signs up for a romantic rendezvous, the two detectives try extra hard to look out for her. But Miss Teatime has a few surprises of her own up her dainty sleeve!

Witty and a little wicked, Colin Watson’s tales offer a mordantly entertaining cast of characters and laugh-out-loud wordplay.

* * * * *

Classics Club

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. A few years back, I listened to Heart of Darkness on audio with Kenneth Branagh narrating, during my daily commute. Frankly, I didn’t have a clue what was going on – not a unique occurrence for me with audiobooks, which I find require a different kind of concentration. I decided this was one that needed to be read on paper, so stuck it on my Classics Club list. And to be extra safe, I begged a copy from OWC so that if I still don’t understand it, their intro and notes should help! Plus I get a bonus of ‘Other Tales’…

The Blurb says: The finest of all Conrad’s tales, Heart of Darkness is set in an atmosphere of mystery and menace, and tells of Marlow’s perilous journey up the Congo River to relieve his employer’s agent, the renowned and formidable Mr. Kurtz. What he sees on his journey, and his eventual encounter with Kurtz, horrify and perplex him, and call into question the very bases of civilization and human nature. Endlessly reinterpreted by critics and adapted for film, radio, and television, the story shows Conrad at his most intense and sophisticated.

The other three tales in this volume depict corruption and obsession, and question racial assumptions. Set in the exotic surroundings of Africa, Malaysia, and the east, they variously appraise the glamour, folly, and rapacity of imperial adventure. This revised edition uses the English first edition texts and has a new chronology and bibliography.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

Fatherland by Robert Harris

What if…?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is a spring day in 1964 in Berlin, when the body of an elderly man is fished out of a lake. Detective Xavier March is not convinced that the death was accident or suicide and begins to investigate. But this is a world where Nazi Germany won World War Two – a world in which Hitler still rules and the people of Germany and the lands they conquered are in the grip of a totalitarian regime. When March is told that the Gestapo are taking over the case, he finds he can’t let go of it, and soon he will begin to suspect that the murder was only a tiny part of a great conspiracy, the revelation of which would strike at the very foundations of the regime. And he finds himself in ever increasing danger…

I believe this was Harris’ ‘breakthrough’ novel when it was published back in 1992, and I’m not surprised. It’s a wonderfully realised alternative history – accept the basic premise that the Nazis won and all the rest flows from it with total credibility. The state that Harris describes is a kind of mash-up of Orwellian ideas with the realities of the Soviet Union of the Cold War era.

But I think the reason it works so well is that Harris doesn’t get too bogged down in describing his world at the expense of plot. His main characters are entirely fictional rather than, as so often happens with this kind of alternative history, fictionalised versions of real people. Although Hitler, Churchill and others get mentioned, they’re not directly involved in the story. Nor is March any different than he would have been in our reality – he’s an ordinary dedicated police detective with no great love or hate towards the regime. He’s still fairly young, so his life since a child has been under the Nazis and he accepts it as normal, and just wants to be allowed to get on with his job. It’s only as the story progresses and he gets nearer to the secret at the heart of it that he begins to realise the true horrors perpetrated by the Nazis in their early years.

From the 1994 HBO TV movie – the action takes place as Germany prepares to celebrate Hitler’s 75th birthday

The other aspect that I thought was done particularly well was how Harris showed what happens to regimes like this when they manage to stay in power for a long time. Just as in real totalitarian states, most people are not dissidents – they accept life as it is, grumble a bit about the things they don’t like, and don’t pay a lot of attention to things that don’t affect them directly. But it’s the ’60s, and attitudes are changing even here. Young people want to know more about the wider world – they want to travel and read books from other cultures and listen to the Beatles. With advancing technology it’s harder for the regime to control all information flows as easily as they once did so people are becoming more aware of what life is like in other parts of the world. Although the story is not about the pressure for change or for a return to democracy, the reader can sniff it in the air. The old leaders are ageing fast – the world goes on turning, regimes evolve or die. Harris handles all this superbly, I thought. He also shows how other nations, once adversaries, have had to accept the realpolitik of the situation and begin to deal with Germany as just another state. Defeated little Britain barely gets a mention, its power in the world long gone. The American President is about to finally give formal recognition to the Nazi regime by making a state visit to the country.

Robert Harris

But all this is relayed to the reader lightly as background to the main story. Meantime March is involved in a traditional style thriller, where he’s racing to find the truth before the Gestapo stop him. He’s aided by a young, female, American journalist stationed in Berlin, who as well as being involved in the main plot, tells March how the regime is seen by outsiders and reveals things about their actions that the world knows but the citizens of Nazi Germany don’t, including the Holocaust. (As a side note, I found some of the descriptions of this aspect to be particularly graphic and somewhat upsetting, though obviously true and therefore not gratuitous.)

I’ve tried not to say much about the plot because it’s nicely labyrinthine and much of the pleasure comes from being led through it gradually. I’ll simply say that while some of it is deliberately obvious, lots of it isn’t, and though I felt rightly that I knew where we were heading, I still didn’t know at all what route we would take or what would happen when we got there. I hope that’s enigmatic enough to be intriguing!

I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Michael Jayston who did a great job. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book both for the skill of the plotting and for the excellence of the creation of the alternative history. Highly recommended – Harris really is a master at this kind of historical thriller.

Book 1 of 25

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Luckily for Frederick – or the Palatine, as he was called in England – he had some potent weapons in his wooing arsenal. Although his property was in Germany, he had been educated in France by his suave uncle the duke of Bouillon. The duke could not have provided a more thorough or excellent preparation for royal lovemaking. Whatever else the results of Frederick’s studies, his uncle had made sure that he knew how to dress, that his manners were charming, that he spoke French to perfection, and, more important, that he was well versed in the art of romance.
….Judging by the recollections of an observer who chronicled the Palatine’s visit to England, Frederick’s first performance at court was nothing short of masterful. He flattered James [. . .] conciliated Anne [. . .] joked with Henry [. . .] and then knocked it completely out of the park with Elizabeth: “Stooping low to take up the lowest part of her Garment to kiss it, she most gracefully courtesying lower than accustomed, and with her Hand staying him from that humblest Reverence, gave him at his rising a fair Advantage (which he took) of kissing her.”

* * * * * * * * *

….All things considered, the new academic year has not got off to a very auspicious start. No tea and biscuits in the Porters’ Lodge, a murderous Russian inducted as our new Bursar and now two dead bodies at the bottom of the gardens. When I first came to Old College a year ago, the arbitrary arrival of dead bodies used to worry me a bit. I soon learnt that, for some reason, academia is more dangerous than would first appear and for reasons harking back to the ancient founding of the College, prominent figures of The Fellowship meeting an untimely demise was par for the course. And, having also learned what a conniving bunch of power-crazed narcissists they all are, this seems perfectly reasonable. The politics of the academic elite make the machinations of Ancient Rome look like a bun fight and many of the devious buggers deserve everything they get. Not all of them. But quite a few of them.

* * * * * * * * *

….Jane, observing Selena’s long glance of perfect balance and equanimity resting upon Nicholas, immediately foresaw that she would be disposed in the front seat with Felix, while Selena stepped with her arch-footed poise into the back, where Nicholas would join her, and she foresaw that this arrangement would come about with effortless elegance. She had no objection to Felix but she could not hope to win him for herself, having nothing to offer a man like Felix. She felt she had a certain something, though small, to offer Nicholas, this being her literary and brain-work side, which Selena lacked. It was in fact a misunderstanding of Nicholas. She vaguely thought of him as a more attractive Rudi Bittesch, to imagine he would receive more pleasure and reassurance from a literary girl than simply a girl. It was the girl in Jane that had moved him to kiss her at the party. She might have gone further with Nicholas without her literary leanings. This was a mistake she continued to make in her relations with men, inferring from her own preference for men of books and literature their preference for women from the same business, and it never really occurred to her that literary men, if they like women at all, do not want literary women, but girls.

* * * * * * * * *

….The devil makes work for idle hands. The memory of his mother saying those words was so sharp that he almost turned round, expecting to see her sitting in the chair by the fire, the belt filled with horsehair round her waist, one needle stuck into it, held firm, while the other flew. She could knit a pair of stockings in an afternoon, a plain jersey in a week. She was known as the best knitter in the south, though she’d never enjoyed doing the fancy Fair Isle patterns. What point is there in that? she’d say, putting the stress on the last word so she’d almost spit it out. Will it keep dee ony warmer?
….
He wondered what other work the devil might find for him.

* * * * * * * * *

….Tear the collar of your last shirt at your throat, dear heart! Tear the hair of your head, thin with your joyless, heavy life; bite your lips till the blood comes; wring your work-scarred hands and beat yourself against the floor on the threshold of your empty hut! The master is missing from your hut, your husband is missing, your children are fatherless; and remember that no-one will caress you or your orphans, no-one will press your head to his breast at night, when you drop worn out with weariness; and no-one will say to you as once he said: “Don’t worry, Aniska, we’ll manage somehow!” You will not get another husband, for labour, anxieties, children have withered you and lined you. No father will come for your half-naked, snivelling children. You yourself will have to do all the ploughing, the dragging, panting with the over-great strain. You will have to pitchfork the sheaves from the reaper, to throw them onto the wagon, to raise the heavy bundles of wheat on the pitchfork, feeling the while that something is rending beneath your belly. And afterwards you will writhe with pain, covering yourself with your rags and issuing with blood.

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Sometimes tomorrow never comes… 

😦

This is now the third post I’ve written about this book, though the other two will remain unpublished. The problem is that as soon as I start writing about the portrayal of the black characters, I feel I’ll be offending the many, many Americans who consider this a great novel. Clearly, American attitudes to race are quite different to mine, reflective of our different histories; and slaves and their descendants being depicted as devoted domestic pets seems to be a theme that runs through a great deal of American fiction hailed as “great”, even sometimes incomprehensibly (to me) cited as anti-racist. I doubt a smugly superior lecture from me will change anything, so why even try to explain just how distasteful I find it, in this, in Huckleberry Finn, yes, even to a much lesser degree in Mockingbird. It’s not as if we don’t have our own problems with racism here in the UK, albeit of a different style, and some of our own classic literature makes me feel equally queasy.

With unerring African instinct, the negroes had all discovered that Gerald had a loud bark and no bite at all, and they took shameless advantage of him.

It isn’t just the portrayal of race that led me to abandon the book at 15%, however. I bored rapidly with the endless, vapid descriptions of dresses and waist-sizes. Interesting once – not interesting after the first twenty times. I thought at one point I might actually escape from Scarlett’s tedious wardrobe to go to war with the men, but sadly not. A couple of paragraphs dispensed with a year of history, and back we were, trying on widows’ frocks.

The air was always thick with threats of selling slaves south and of direful whippings, but there had never been a slave sold from Tara and only one whipping, and that administered for not grooming down Gerald’s pet horse after a long day’s hunting.

(Am I alone in wishing Mammy had keep tightening till Scarlett croaked?)

I find it quite incomprehensible that this book is still rated as highly as it is. I admit I loved the film when I watched it nearly half a century ago, but times change, and the attitudes expressed in the book (by the author, not just by the characters) make it feel horribly outdated now. Even putting the race question to one side, though, I found the writing unremarkable, the characterisation shallow of the main characters and non-existent of the others, the over-padded length tedious, and the concentration on frocks and dances a total trivialisation of a subject that deserves so much more. Maybe the other 85% is brilliant, but I’m not willing to waste any more of my time on the off-chance. I’d rather be reading Toni Morrison. Heck, I’d rather be reading William Faulkner!!!

Prissy had never been more than a mile away from Twelve Oaks or Tara before, and the trip on the train plus her elevation to nurse was almost more than the brain in her little black skull could bear.

Since obviously this will not be achieving Great American Novel status in my quest, and given that it’s the latest in a lengthening line of GAN contenders that have left me with a bad taste, I’ve decided to ban all other books about slavery and race written by white Americans prior to, say, 1950 from my TBR. Goodbye, Uncle Tom! I fear that re-read will never happen now. I shall leave you decently buried in the long-ago, where I wish I’d left Gone with the Wind. Sadly my love affair with Rhett and Scarlett is officially over…

Book 26 of 90

* * * * *

To cheer us all up and remind us that some white people even back then had at least a little more insight about black lives…

Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy

Causes and effects…

😀 😀 😀 😀

On 26 April 1986 the no.4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine exploded. In this book, Plokhy sets out to explain why and how this disaster occurred, and to look at the fallout, both actual and political, that followed. Plokhy is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University. The book begins with him visiting the present-day Chernobyl site, now a kind of macabre tourist venue, with the destroyed reactor buried in its own specially designed sarcophagus.

He then takes us back in time, to the Soviet Congress of 1986, when the newly elected Mikhail Gorbachev set out to change the direction of the USSR from military might through the long-standing arms race to becoming an economic powerhouse. This led to dramatic increases in targets for the building of nuclear power plants and for the amount of energy to be produced, all on ridiculously short time-frames. Plokhy goes even further back to show the early slipshod development of nuclear power plants in the USSR. While some people already had safety concerns, they were living under a regime that didn’t welcome dissent, and so mostly these were not passed up the line or were ignored when they were.

Having set the technical and political background, Plokhy then recounts in detail the events that led up to the disaster – a series of technical and management failures, mostly caused by the time pressures and targets forced on the plant. He gives a vivid account of the immediate aftermath, when it was unclear how devastating the accident had been, and when men were sent in to investigate without adequate equipment to protect themselves or even to accurately measure the radiation. Denial became a feature of the whole thing – both official denials by the government, trying to hide the scale of the accident from their own people and from international governments; and the more human denial, of people caught up in the disaster, unable or unwilling to believe that they couldn’t somehow put the genie back in the bottle – that things had spiralled beyond their control. Plokhy shows clearly how the regime’s culture of holding individuals culpable as scapegoats for systemic failures led to a lack of openness, which in turn delayed necessary actions like evacuation which would have saved at least some lives.

The sarcophagus built over the destroyed reactor

Plokhy goes on to show the political aftermath, suggesting that the disaster played a major role in the break-up of the Soviet Union a few years later. And he finishes with a heartfelt plea to the international community to act to prevent such disasters in the future by monitoring and rigorously inspecting nuclear facilities, especially in countries with authoritarian governments where there is a culture of blame that prevents people expressing safety concerns.

I found this an interesting and informative read, and felt Plokhy handled the technical side of the story well. He simplified it enough for my non-technical brain to grasp the main points, but there are plenty of facts and figures in there for those with a greater understanding of the science of nuclear power. In terms of style, he tries to get a balance between the politics, the technological aspects and the individual people caught up in the events, and to a large degree he manages this well. However, I did find the book occasionally got bogged down in giving too much biographical detail about some individuals – more than I felt was necessary for the purpose of the book. In contrast, I found as the book went on there was a tendency to deal in numbers rather than people, so that the book didn’t have quite the emotional punch I was expecting. Regulars will know I’m not one for a lot of emoting in factual books, but I did feel with this one that I began to view the outcomes as statistical rather than as a tragedy with a human face.

Serhii Plokhy

And I found the somewhat polemical chapters at the end rather simplistic, in truth. While I wouldn’t at all argue with the need for monitoring, I’m not convinced that, firstly, authoritarian states would welcome international interference and, secondly, that we in the oh-so-superior democratic west have a much better record in either safety or encouraging openness. Seems to me we do a pretty good line in “blame culture” ourselves. However, I agree with Plokhy’s basic argument – that this technology with such vast potential for disaster should be subject to international scrutiny, since radiation respects no borders.

Overall then, despite a few criticisms, I found this a well-presented and worthwhile read that shows clearly the links between policy and technology and the dangers when the two are not working in synch. Recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allen Lane, via Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 157…

Episode 157…

Well, as anticipated, after last week’s huge fall in the TBR, it all went horribly wrong this week – up SEVEN to 221! This looks a bit like me whenever the postman knocks the door…

The only solution is to read, read, READ…

Factual

Courtesy of NetGalley. I thought I needed cheering up after all those Russian Revolutionaries, and what could be more laugh-a-minute than a book about the rise of Hitler? (Note to self: make therapist appointment…)

The Blurb says: On the evening of November 8, 1923, the thirty-four-year-old Adolf Hitler stormed into a beer hall in Munich, fired his pistol in the air, and proclaimed a revolution. Seventeen hours later, all that remained of his bold move was a trail of destruction. Hitler was on the run from the police. His career seemed to be over.

In The Trial of Adolf Hitler, the acclaimed historian David King tells the true story of the monumental criminal proceeding that followed when Hitler and nine other suspects were charged with high treason. Reporters from as far away as Argentina and Australia flocked to Munich for the sensational four-week spectacle. By its end, Hitler would transform the fiasco of the beer hall putsch into a stunning victory for the fledgling Nazi Party. It was this trial that thrust Hitler into the limelight, provided him with an unprecedented stage for his demagoguery, and set him on his improbable path to power.

Based on trial transcripts, police files, and many other new sources, including some five hundred documents recently discovered from the Landsberg Prison record office, The Trial of Adolf Hitler is a gripping true story of crime and punishment – and a haunting failure of justice with catastrophic consequences.

* * * * *

Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley. I usually love Belinda Bauer’s books, and then very occasionally I don’t. Hopefully this will fall into the love category, though the blurb has me worried. But frankly I’m just so excited to see a contemporary crime novel that doesn’t have the ubiquitous “girl in a red/yellow coat walking away” on the cover – a sure sign the insides will be as formulaic as the outsides. Happily, Bauer’s insides can be depended on to be original (as the pathologist said to the mortician…)

The Blurb says: On a stifling summer’s day, eleven-year-old Jack and his two sisters sit in their broken-down car, waiting for their mother to come back and rescue them. Jack’s in charge, she said. I won’t be long. But she doesn’t come back. She never comes back. And life as the children know it is changed for ever. Three years later, mum-to-be Catherine wakes to find a knife beside her bed, and a note that says: I could have killed you.

Meanwhile Jack is still in charge – of his sisters, of supporting them all, of making sure nobody knows they’re alone in the house, and – quite suddenly – of finding out the truth about what happened to his mother.

But the truth can be a dangerous thing . .

* * * * *

Folklore

Courtesy of NetGalley again. To be honest, I’m not at all sure this is going to be my kind of thing, but it’s good to step out of the tramlines from time to time, and it’ll be an interesting stop on my Around the World tour…

The Blurb says: A collection of 30 traditional Syrian and Lebanese folktales infused with new life by Lebanese women, collected by Najla Khoury.

While civil war raged in Lebanon, Najla Khoury travelled with a theatre troupe, putting on shows in marginal areas where electricity was a luxury, in air raid shelters, Palestinian refugee camps, and isolated villages. Their plays were largely based on oral tales, and she combed the country in search of stories. Many years later, she chose one hundred stories from among the most popular and published them in Arabic in 2014, exactly as she received them, from the mouths of the storytellers who told them as they had heard them when they were children from their parents and grandparents. Out of the hundred stories published in Arabic, Inea Bushnaq and Najla Khoury chose thirty for this book.

* * * * *

Fiction

Courtesy of Amazon Vine UK. I know nothing about this book or author, but the blurb makes it sound like just my kind of thing. (🤣 Worrying, isn’t it?) And will be another fascinating detour on my world trip…

The Blurb says: The Shape of the Ruins is a masterly story of conspiracy, political obsession, and literary investigation. When a man is arrested at a museum for attempting to steal the bullet-ridden suit of a murdered Colombian politician, few notice. But soon this thwarted theft takes on greater meaning as it becomes a thread in a widening web of popular fixations with conspiracy theories, assassinations, and historical secrets; and it haunts those who feel that only they know the real truth behind these killings.

This novel explores the darkest moments of a country’s past and brings to life the ways in which past violence shapes our present lives. A compulsive read, beautiful and profound, eerily relevant to our times and deeply personal, The Shape of the Ruins is a tour-de-force story by a master at uncovering the incisive wounds of our memories.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut

Channelling Greene…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Having retreated to a remote country hospital following the messy break-up of his marriage, Doctor Frank Eloff is in a reasonably contented rut. The hospital is in a town that was briefly the capital of a newly set-up homeland in South Africa. But politics move on, and the homeland ceased to exist when apartheid ended, so that now the town is sparsely occupied and the hospital has very few patients and only a tiny staff. But one day a new doctor shows up – young Laurence Waters, who has chosen to do his year’s compulsory post-qualifying service in this remote spot. Idealistic and somewhat naive, Laurence wants to do good, and his presence becomes a catalyst for change. This is a story of disillusionment – of a man and of a country.

In both style and subject matter, the book reminded me very much of Graham Greene. Galgut has that same spare precision with words, that ability to conjure a pervading air of menace and decay, that empathetic insight into the fallibilities of human nature. His main character and narrator, Frank, also has all the attributes of a Greene protagonist – somewhat passive, without the strength of character to be either fully good or fully bad, an observer forced to become an unwilling participant. His marriage ended years ago, but he is treading water, unwilling to finalise the divorce – symbolic of the end of apartheid not yet having produced the hoped-for change. The lives of all the hospital staff are in limbo, each waiting for a change that seems increasingly unlikely – the head of the hospital waiting for promotion back to the city, Frank waiting to fill her shoes when – if – she goes, a married couple from Cuba, one wishing to return, the other wishing to stay, and their marriage slowly disintegrating under the strain.

Along comes Laurence, fresh and full of hope, forcing the others to recognise the lethargy they’ve sunk into. The question seems to be – will Laurence change them or will they destroy his idealistic optimism? The answer never seems in doubt.

There was much I loved about this – the writing, the characterisation of Frank, the creation of an air of uneasy melancholy and later of menace and fear. I was totally involved for well over half of the book. And then, and I can’t quite put my finger on the reason, it fell away and rather lost me towards the end. I felt the plot wasn’t developed well enough – it all seemed contrived to deliver an ending. (Yes, I know all plots are contrived to deliver endings, but the good ones don’t feel as if they are.) The drama all takes place off the page, which does stop it reading like a thriller, which it isn’t, but also somehow stops it from delivering an emotional impact. When the major event finally occurred, I found I didn’t much care. And that made me realise that, although Frank is fully and excellently realised, the other characters hadn’t come to life for me, not even Laurence. In a sense, I think that’s part of the point – Frank is detached from emotional involvement, and therefore so are we. But even when he is finally jarred out of his apathy, his efforts at playing a more active part are half-hearted and soon over. Again, I think this is meant to be symbolic of the failure of the hopes of the new South Africa, but whatever, it left me shrugging a bit.

Damon Galgut

I also developed the impression, rightly or wrongly, that this feeling of utter depression about the state of post-apartheid South Africa was terribly white. Galgut doesn’t romanticise the past in any way – quite the reverse – but he also gives no feeling for the immense hope that surely existed among black South Africans, finally free from the yoke of subjugation. Even when things didn’t improve as dramatically as people hoped, I found the idea of apathetic acceptance unrealistic. I’d have expected continued hope, anger, possibly despair – not apathy. But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps in the rural areas things went on much as they always had.

I certainly enjoyed Galgut’s writing and found the book thought-provoking if not entirely convincing. I’ll be looking forward to reading more of his work and, despite my reservations, I do recommend this one – although it tailed off for me at the end, I found it an absorbing and worthwhile read up to that point.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Book Courtship Tag

Love is a many-splendoured thing…

I was tagged by the lovely Jessie at Dwell in Possibility for…

So here goes…

(NB If I’ve reviewed a book, clicking in the cover will take you to the full review.)

Phase 1: Initial Attraction (A book you bought because of the cover)

I don’t think I’ve ever bought a book purely because of its cover, but sometimes I’ll look out for a certain edition because I love the design. In my youth, I gradually acquired a huge collection of Agatha Christie’s books with the Tom Adams covers – I still think they’re fabulous, because they actually relate to clues in the stories but without giving anything away…

And I’m currently looking to acquire all the Vintage Classics editions of Toni Morrison’s books – I love these simple, subtle covers…

Phase 2: First Impressions (A book you got because of the summary)

Ah, now this is more like me. I love a good blurb! The most recent one I’ve acquired purely on the basis of the blurb is this one, which I’ll be reading soon as it’s due for release on 3rd May…

The Blurb says: The Shape of the Ruins is a masterly story of conspiracy, political obsession, and literary investigation. When a man is arrested at a museum for attempting to steal the bullet-ridden suit of a murdered Colombian politician, few notice. But soon this thwarted theft takes on greater meaning as it becomes a thread in a widening web of popular fixations with conspiracy theories, assassinations, and historical secrets; and it haunts those who feel that only they know the real truth behind these killings.

This novel explores the darkest moments of a country’s past and brings to life the ways in which past violence shapes our present lives. A compulsive read, beautiful and profound, eerily relevant to our times and deeply personal, The Shape of the Ruins is a tour-de-force story by a master at uncovering the incisive wounds of our memories.

Phase 3: Sweet Talk (A book with great writing)

So many choices! I’m going to go for Andrew Motion, a past Poet Laureate, whose descriptions of nature enable me to see the beauty he sees…

I woke in the air – swept up by the angels of heaven all beating their wings together and singing. Then not singing but whispering. Whistling. Cooing. Gurgling. Crooning. Because they were not angels any more, they were pigeons, the same as last night, and now leaving with their mess drizzling beneath them in a continual white rain, first with laborious flusterings and squabblings, then twisting and looping and swaying and swerving until they had formed a gigantic letter S which held its shape . . . and held its shape . . . before it slackened and became a smoke-cloud blowing towards the horizon.

Phase 4: First Date (A first book of a series which made you want to pursue the rest of the series)

Again so many! So I’m going with a recent one…

I loved this first book in Mukherjee’s historical crime series set in the last days of the Raj. The tricky second book turned out to be nearly as good and I’m now eagerly awaiting the third in the series, due out this June…

Phase 5: Late Night Phone Calls (A book that kept you up all night long)

This doesn’t happen to me as often now as it did when I was young, but I tend to find Sharon Bolton’s standalones pretty unputdownable, and her last one was no exception…

Phase 6: Always On My Mind (A book you couldn’t stop thinking about)

Again, there are several – books that I’ve loved for the prose, or books that have become touchstones for great truths, or books that have in some way re-shaped my view of the world. This one is all three – a book I hope I will never stop thinking about…

They sang of bosses and masters and misses; of mules and dogs and the shamelessness of life. They sang lovingly of graveyards and sisters long gone. Of pork in the woods; meal in the pan; fish on the line; cane, rain and rocking chairs.

And they beat. The women for having known them and no more, no more; the children for having been them but never again. They killed a boss so often and so completely they had to bring him back to life to pulp him one more time. Tasting hot mealcake among pine trees, they beat it away. Singing love songs to Mr Death, they smashed his head. More than the rest, they killed the flirt who folks called Life for leading them on. Making them think the next sunrise would be worth it; that another stroke of time would do it at last.

Phase 7: Getting Physical (A book you love the feel of)

Gotta be hardbacks with cloth covers and good quality, smooth pages. The most recent one that has given me nearly as much pleasure for the tactile experience while reading as for the fab insides is…

Phase 8: Meeting the Parents (A book you would recommend to your friends and family)

In her later years, following successful cataract surgery, my mother came back to books with a vengeance after decades of being unable to enjoy reading. Along with my siblings, I enthusiastically shared many of my favourites with her. After I recommended the first one to her, we read the early CJ Sansom books more or less together – one more reason for me to love that series…

Phase 9: Thinking About the Future (A book or series that you know you’ll re-read many times in the future)

(Well, come on – you knew Darcy would appear somewhere, didn’t you?)

Phase 10: Share the Love (Here’s who I’m tagging)

I don’t usually tag people because I never know who’s already done a tag or who enjoys doing them, plus I find it hard to pick which of my lovely bloggy friends to tag. So I’m tagging everyone who would like to do it – I’d love to read your answers!

* * * * *

Thanks for tagging me, Jessie! 😀

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie

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

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

Agatha Christie

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

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

Hugh Fraser

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

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

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White

The long and the short of it…

🙂 🙂 😐

An insane murderer is rampaging through the countryside, killing young women. Helen, a young woman, has taken a job with the Warren family in their manor house right slap bang in the middle of where the murderer is doing his thing. But she’s perfectly safe, because there are lots of other people in the house with her. Except that, for one reason or another, gradually all the other people either leave the house or become incapable of helping. Soon Helen is on her own… or is she??

Fairly recently, I read Ethel Lina White’s short story, An Unlocked Window, in the British Library’s Murder at the Manor anthology. While I can’t find a direct reference to back me up on this, the book and the story share so many similarities that I’m convinced the story is a reworking of the book – the book was written in 1933 and the story six years later in 1939. I thought the short story was great – with a credible plot and really effectively scary. The book, on the other hand, has so many sillinesses that I found it quite hard to take seriously, and it’s so stretched out and repetitive that any scare factor disappeared long before the end was reached. Perhaps I’d have felt less critical if I hadn’t read the story first – having seen how well the premise worked in the short form, my expectations might have been too high going in.

There are good things about it and overall it’s a light, entertaining read for the most part, although I did find myself beginning to skim in the last third, feeling that I was more than ready for the thriller ending. It has a nice Gothic feel to it, with the rambling old house and a bunch of eccentric and not very likeable upper class characters, whom White, via Helen, has some fun showing up as arrogant snobs and relatively useless members of the human race. The servants come off much better, though they’re not exactly saints either. To call Helen curious would be an understatement – she pokes her nose in everywhere and always has to be where the action is. The cook likes to drink her employer’s brandy, while her husband’s main feature is his laziness. But still, they all have good hearts, which is more than can be said for the Warrens. On the whole, I enjoyed the characterisations although unfortunately Helen annoyed me intensely throughout.

Challenge details:
Book: 38
Subject Heading: Murder at the Manor
Publication Year: 1933

My first real problem is with Helen’s position in the household. I have no idea what she’s actually employed to do. She refers to herself as “the help” but beyond dusting the bannisters occasionally so she can eavesdrop on conversations, I couldn’t work out her duties. If she’s supposed to do housework, then how come she’d never been in the Professor’s study before that night? If she’s a maid, she most certainly wouldn’t don an evening gown and eat her meals with the family, as she does. In fact, I can’t think of any servant other than a governess or a companion who would ever have eaten with the family in a household like this one, and she’s neither of those. So right from the start, credibility was gone.

It is assumed by everyone that Helen is to be the murderer’s next victim – no idea why. Perhaps she was the only remaining young woman in the district. The assumption is also that he’ll come for her this dark and stormy night (despite him having committed another murder just that afternoon – prolific!). So Professor Warren puts all kinds of safety measures in operation which everyone then promptly ignores, even Helen, who doesn’t seem to be able to remember basic things like don’t open the door to potential murderers late at night. Gradually all the people who could have protected her either leave the house or become incapacitated in one way or another, until she is left only with horrible old Lady Warren, whose hobby is throwing things at menials, and Lady Warren’s even more horrible nurse, whose hobby is tormenting Helen. It’s a fun premise, but it takes far too long to get there. The ending when it finally came sadly didn’t surprise me (although it’s entirely different from the short story’s ending) – it had seemed increasingly obvious as time went on, both whodunit and what form the denouement would take.

Ethel Lina White

I didn’t dislike it as much as this critical review is probably suggesting – for the most part, it held my attention and was quite amusing. But in the end I’d recommend the short story far more highly than the book – it’s tighter and most of the extraneous stuff is stripped out, meaning that it works much more effectively as a chiller thriller. I can only think White herself must have felt that she could do better, so took the main plot points and created something much better. I find it interesting that Hitchcock chose to use An Unlocked Window for an episode of his TV series, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, rather than filming the full book, and he knew a thing or two about scariness! However, this book was filmed too, as The Spiral Staircase, and I’ll be watching it soon to see how it compares to the written version.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 156…

Episode 156…

Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!! A massive drop in the TBR since I last reported! Down 4 to 214! But I’m now stuck in the middle of a bunch of giant tomes and a parcel is heading my way, so the slide has probably come to an end for a bit…

(Apparently he was fine!)

Here are a few more that should fall over the edge soon…

Film History

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster. Last year I was blown away by the experience of reading Arthur C Clarke’s book and watching Stanley Kubrick’s film together, as they were intended to be. So I couldn’t resist this book about the creation of these two masterpieces, or, perhaps, joint masterpiece…

The Blurb says: Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the film’s release, this is the definitive story of the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, acclaimed today as one of the greatest films ever made, including the inside account of how director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke created this cinematic masterpiece.

Regarded as a masterpiece today, 2001: A Space Odyssey received mixed reviews on its 1968 release. Author Michael Benson explains how 2001 was made, telling the story primarily through the two people most responsible for the film, Kubrick and science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke. A colourful nonfiction narrative packed with memorable characters and remarkable incidents, Space Odyssey provides a 360-degree view of this extraordinary work, tracking the film from Kubrick and Clarke’s first meeting in New York in 1964 through its UK production from 1965-1968, during which some of the most complex sets ever made were merged with visual effects so innovative that they scarcely seem dated today. A concluding chapter examines the film’s legacy as it grew into it current justifiably exalted status.

* * * * *

Humorous Crime

The third instalment of Lucy Brazier’s PorterGirl series. I shall stock up in readiness with stacks of sausage sandwiches, copious buckets of tea and a barrel-load of biscuits to fortify myself for whatever skulduggery awaits me in Old College this time… 😱

The Blurb says: “Sometimes the opposite of right isn’t wrong. It’s left.”

Tragedy strikes once more at Old College… The Porters’ Lodge is down to its last tea bag and no one has seen a biscuit for over a week. Almost as troubling are the two dead bodies at the bottom of the College gardens and a woman has gone missing. The Dean is convinced that occult machinations are to blame, Deputy Head Porter suspects something closer to home.

The formidable DCI Thompson refuses to be sidelined and a rather unpleasant Professor gets his comeuppance. As the body count rises, Head Porter tries to live a secret double life and The Dean believes his job is under threat from the Russian Secret Service. Deputy Head Porter finds herself with her hands full keeping Old College running smoothly as well as defending herself against the sinister intentions of the new Bursar.

Spies, poisoning, murder – and none of this would be any problem at all, if only someone would get the biscuits out and put the kettle on…

* * * * *

Gothic Horror

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Regulars will know I love Sir Arthur nearly as much as I love Dr Watson and Darcy, so I couldn’t resist begging a copy of this new collection of all his darker tales. I’ve read several of them before and even reviewed one or two as Tuesday Terror! posts, but there are plenty more which will be new to me. I can barely resist rubbing my hands in glee…

The Blurb says: Arthur Conan Doyle was the greatest genre writer Britain has ever produced. Throughout a long writing career, he drew on his own medical background, his travels, and his increasing interest in spiritualism and the occult to produce a spectacular array of gothic tales. Many of Doyle’s writings are recognized as the very greatest tales of terror. They range from hauntings in the polar wasteland to evil surgeons and malevolent jungle landscapes.

This collection brings together over thirty of Conan Doyle’s best gothic tales. Darryl Jones’s introduction discusses the contradictions in Conan Doyle’s very public life – as a medical doctor who became obsessed with the spirit world, or a British imperialist drawn to support Irish Home Rule – and shows the ways in which these found articulation in that most anxious of all literary forms, the Gothic.

* * * * *

Spark on Audio

Having recently thoroughly enjoyed my first encounter with Muriel Spark in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I decided to try to fit another one in for the second phase of Heavenali’s #ReadingMuriel2018, which she’s running to celebrate Spark’s centenary year. And I thought it might be fun to listen to Juliet Stevenson reading it to me…

The Blurb says: It is 1945; a time of cultural and political change, and also one of slender means. Spark’s evocative and sharply drawn novel focuses on a group of women living together in a hostel in Kensington who face new challenges in uncertain times. The novel is at once dramatic and character-based, and shows Muriel Spark at the height of her literary powers. Juliet Stevenson reads with her customary wit and intelligence this powerful masterpiece.

(Is this the shortest blurb in the history of the universe? I like it!)

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *