The Mystery of the Skeleton Key by Bernard Capes

Painful…

😦

The story begins in Paris, where Vivian Bickerdike is waiting for the arrival of a friend. He falls into conversation with a stranger, who turns out to be Baron Le Sage. So it’s something of a coincidence when they meet again a short while later, this time as they each make their way to a country house party in Hampshire. The Baron is on his way to play chess with Sir Calvin Kennett, while Bickerdike has been summoned by his friend, Sir Calvin’s son Hugo, a young man of volatile moods who seems to have something on his mind. But before Bickerdike finds out what the trouble is, there’s a murder. One of the maids, Annie Evans, was an unusually good-looking young woman (for a maid), and had been the unintentional cause of a feud between two of her admirers. Now Annie is dead, shot with Hugo’s gun. Enter Sergeant Ridgway of Scotland Yard…

This is dire. The writing is so clunky that many of the sentences are almost indecipherable. Not that it matters, because most of them are pointless waffle anyway. Have an example:

Le Sage, in the course of a pleasant little drive with Audrey, asked innumerable questions and answered none. This idiosyncrasy of his greatly amused the young lady, who was by disposition frankly outspoken, and whose habit it never was to consider in conversation whether she committed herself or anyone else. Truth with her was at least a state of nature – though it might sometimes have worn with greater credit to itself a little more trimming – and states of nature are relatively pardonable in the young. A child who sees no indecorum in nakedness can hardly be expected to clothe Truth.

Imagine over 200 pages of this. Imagine my pain.

Challenge details:
Book: 15
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1919

The plotting is so bad that I would say I lost interest early on, except that would be inaccurate, since in fact at no point did I have any interest to lose. There are no clues cunningly sprinkled for the discerning reader to misinterpret – we simply have to wait for the author to get bored and reveal the solution. Unfortunately it took him far longer to reach that point of ennui than me, so I skipped the last 40%, tuned back in for the solution, laughed hollowly at the ridiculousness of it all, and deleted the book from my Kindle in a marked manner.

Bernard Capes

I’ve said it before – sometimes the books that Martin Edwards has chosen to include in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books baffle me. I can’t see that this badly-written, rambling nonsense of a book has contributed anything to the development of the mystery novel – anything good, at least – and it certainly isn’t high on entertainment value. However, Edwards says that GK Chesterton found the prose poetic – clearly Chesterton defines that word differently than I. And Julian Symons apparently described the book as ‘a neglected tour de force’. Justifiably neglected, in my opinion.

I often wonder in these cases if it’s simply that I can’t see wonders other people are marvelling over, so I checked the ratings on Goodreads, and no, I am not alone! This has an exceptionally low rating, even though it has been read by very few people and most of them are dedicated vintage crime aficionados. Proving yet again that fellow readers are often the most trustworthy guides.

So, I think it would be safe to say this one falls into the Not Recommended category.

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 341…

Episode 341

Not only is the #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer challenge wrecking my reading of normal books, but now I’m falling behind on the challenge too! So the TBR is up again – only by 1 to 179, but I know for a fact that there’s a parcel on the way…

Guess which of these dogs I feel like? Anyway, here are a few more that should be keeping me awake soon…

Fiction

At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón

I added this to my TBR years ago, presumably because it was recommended or I had seen a glowing review – can’t remember! However I’m still desperately trying to fill the South America box in my Wanderlust challenge, so hopefully this will do the trick – the unnamed country is apparently a fictionalised Peru… 

The Blurb says: Nelson’s life is not turning out the way he hoped. His girlfriend is sleeping with another man, his brother has left their South American country and moved to the United States, leaving Nelson to care for their widowed mother, and his acting career can’t seem to get off the ground. That is, until he lands a starring role in a touring revival of The Idiot President, a legendary play by Nelson’s hero, Henry Nunez, leader of the storied guerrilla theatre troupe Diciembre. And that’s when the real trouble begins.

The tour takes Nelson out of the shelter of the city and across a landscape he’s never seen, which still bears the scars of the civil war. With each performance, Nelson grows closer to his fellow actors, becoming hopelessly entangled in their complicated lives, until, during one memorable performance, a long-buried betrayal surfaces to force the troupe into chaos.

Vintage Crime

The Seat of the Scornful by John Dickson Carr

Courtesy of the British Library. I loved Carr’s Inspector Bencolin books but so far haven’t enjoyed the Dr Gideon Fell ones nearly so much. I keep hoping though, and as always the blurb sounds good…

The Blurb says: Judge Horace Ireton didn’t care about the letter of the law. He was interested in administering absolute, impartial justice as he saw it. To some, his methods of meting out justice made him seem hardly human, for they were coldly calculated – the same type of “cat and mouse” technique that he used in his chess games with Dr. Gideon Fell, the elephantine detective. The system, as he explained it, consisted in “letting your opponent think he’s perfectly safe, winning hands down: and then catch him in a corner.” But the system was not infallible. One day Judge Ireton was found with a pistol in his hand, beside the body of his daughter’s fiancé, a man he had every reason to dislike, as many people knew; and he found that when one was on the inside looking out, the game had to be played differently.

(P.S. I’ve skipped the BL’s May release because it has finally happened that it’s one I have previously read and reviewed. It’s Green for Danger by Christianna Brand, and it’s excellent – highly recommended! Here’s my review.)

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Miss Silver on Audio

Latter End by Patricia Wentworth read by Diana Bishop

Another couple for the #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer challenge! I recently read a standalone mystery by Wentworth and thoroughly enjoyed it, so want to try her long-running Miss Silver series. I don’t know this narrator but reviews are good and if I enjoy her, zillions of the books are available on audio… 

The Blurb says: Things had never been quite the same at Latter End since Lois had taken over. Suddenly life seemed to be an endless succession of bitter family rows which Lois, needless to say, invariably won.

More than one person at Latter End found themselves stretched to the limit by Lois and her bullying, and it was only a matter of time before somebody snapped. It was unthinkable of course . . . but if anyone ever murdered Lois Latter, it would be very embarrassing to discover just how many people might have wished her dead.

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Trollope on Audio

The Warden by Anthony Trollope read by Timothy West

I love this book and have read it many times over the years, so I’m looking forward to listening to it this time. It’s read by Timothy West whom I haven’t previously listened to as a narrator but have always enjoyed as an actor. I hope he’s good, since I seem to have acquired his narrations of several hefty classics! This one is reasonably short though…

The Blurb says: Trollope’s witty, satirical story of a quiet cathedral town shaken by scandal – as the traditional values of Septimus Harding are attacked by zealous reformers and ruthless newspapers – is a drama of conscience that pits individual integrity against worldly ambition.

In The Warden Anthony Trollope brought the fictional county of Barsetshire to life, peopled by a cast of brilliantly realised characters that have made him among the supreme chroniclers of the minutiae of Victorian England. It is the first book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire.

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Origins of Science Fiction edited by Michael Newton

A stellar line-up…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the latest in the Oxford World’s Classics hardback collection, several of which recently have been anthologies or collections of weird and Gothic horror. This one is a slight departure into science fiction but, as the editor Michael Newton suggests in his introduction, early science fiction has its roots in the Gothic tradition; and certainly many of the stories in the collection would sit just as neatly in a horror collection. There are seventeen stories in it, most of them quite substantial and with one or two reaching novella-length. It’s in the usual OWC format: an informative and interesting introduction, scholarly in content, but written in an accessible non-academic style; the stories, each preceded by a short biography of the author, including their contributions to the field of science fiction; and the all-important notes, which explain the many classical references and allusions, historical references and any terms that have fallen out of use. I found the notes in this one particularly good – well-written and done on a kind of “need to know” basis; that is, not overloaded with too much detail and digression.

In his introduction, Newton discusses how the concerns of the time are woven into the stories – the gathering pace of scientific and technological development, the impact of colonialism, anxiety about man’s future ability to communicate with the ‘other’, whether that other may be alien, evolved humanity, or machine. It’s interesting that all of those concerns are still subjects of contemporary science fiction, suggesting we haven’t yet solved the questions these early science fiction authors posed. He also talks about how many authors at that time who were known primarily for other styles of writing ventured into science fiction, sometimes to the displeasure of their publishers and perhaps to the bafflement of their readers. Certainly some of the names that turn up here surprised me – George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc. Others are much better known as stalwarts, even progenitors, of the genre: HG Wells, of course, and Edgar Allan Poe, among others. It’s truly a stellar line-up and they have produced some stellar stories – I gave them a veritable galaxy of stars. These are the included stories:

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley – The Mortal Immortal
Edgar Allan Poe – The Conversation of Eiros and Charmian
Nathaniel Hawthorne – Rappaccini’s Daughter
Edgar Allan Poe – The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar
Fitz-James O’Brien – The Diamond Lens
George Eliot – The Lifted Veil
Grant Allan – Pausodyne
Frank R Stockton – The Water-Devil: A Marine Tale
HG Wells – The Crystal Egg
Rudyard Kipling – Wireless
Mary E Wilkins Freeman – The Hall Bedroom
HG Wells – The Country of the Blind
EM Forster – The Machine Stops
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Terror of Blue John Gap
Jack London – The Red One
Gertrude Barrows Bennett – Friend Island
WEB du Bois – The Comet

With ten out of the seventeen receiving five stars apiece, and nearly all of the others receiving four or four and a half, it’s an almost impossible task to pick favourites, so the ones I’ve chosen to highlight are a fairly random bunch:

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot – The narrator is an introverted, artistic type who, following an illness, develops a kind of second sight which allows him to understand the inner thoughts of those around him, and occasionally to have previsions of the future. Despite a prevision showing him that marriage to the woman he loves is likely to be disastrous, he goes ahead and marries her anyway! After years of misery, a medical friend of his visits and they carry out a scientific experiment which leads to a shocking ending. This wasn’t my favourite story in the collection, although I enjoyed it and felt it was very well written. But I was so taken with the idea of George Eliot writing science fiction that I just had to include it!

The Water-Devil: A Marine Tale by Frank R Stockton – A stranger comes to stay at a village blacksmith’s where the locals gather of an evening to smoke and tell stories. On learning he’s a sea-soldier (marine), they beg him for a tale. He tells them of the time the ship he was on was becalmed in Bengal Bay, despite good winds blowing. One of the crew told them of the Water-Devil – a creature lurking at the bottom of the sea that can trap a ship with its one incredibly long arm, and then pull it down to eat all aboard! Lots of humour in this, beautifully told in the style of old fishermen’s tall tales. The ending clarifies why it counts as science fiction, but obviously I can’t tell you! I’ve only read two tales from Frank R Stockton and loved them both – must seek out more!

The Red One by Jack London – Guadalcanal. A man, a scientist, is ashore from a ship when he hears a strange booming noise. Intrigued, he sets off to investigate, but gets attacked by bushmen and can’t get back to the ship before it sails. He is taken in by some villagers who worship the Red One – the source of the mysterious noise. Although it is forbidden, he persuades one of the village women to take him to see the Red One and he’s astonished by what he finds… This is my first ever Jack London story, and I thought it was brilliantly told, with humour, peril and horror all intermingled. Lots of outdated language about the natives, of course, as is the norm for colonial tales, but in this case I felt it may have been deliberate – i.e., part of the character of the scientist, rather than representative of the views of the author – though I may be wrong. Still a great story, anyway!

The Comet by W.E.B. Du Bois – Jim, a “Negro”, works as a messenger in a bank. Everyone is excited because a comet is just about to make a near pass of the Earth. Jim is sent down to the vault to look for something and when he comes back up, everyone is dead, apparently as a result of the comet. He wanders the city (New York) and eventually finds one living person – a rich, white woman. Du Bois was a writer of the Harlem Renaissance and, while this story is undoubtedly science fiction, it’s also one of the most powerful stories I’ve read from this era (1920) about race. Excellently written, it is raw, full of anger and yet with a tone of despair, and it left me sobbing and furious at the end. I knew his name but haven’t read anything by him before – I’ll certainly be seeking out more.

So some science fiction stalwarts, some old names in a new genre and some new (to me) names who thrilled me. A truly great collection – my highest recommendation!

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

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday (on a Tuesday) 340 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 340

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

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OK, People, time for another batch of four – moving in to 2020, and a reasonably varied bunch this month though heavy on crime. I like to run three months ahead with these polls, so the winner will be an October read. I loved the first book I read by William Shaw and abandoned the second, so Salt Lane could go either way. I acquired The Charing Cross Mystery because I’d enjoyed Fletcher’s The Middle Temple Murder. For some reason I’ve read very little Kazuo Ishiguro, so bought Never Let Me Go in a bid to correct that. And Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper is on the TBR and on my Classics Club list because I loved Henderson’s A Voice Like Velvet. These all have the potential to be great reads, I think… 

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Crime

Salt Lane by William Shaw

Added 1st January 2020. 2,233 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.02 average rating. 452 pages.

The Blurb says: DS Alexandra Cupidi has done it again. She should have learnt to keep her big mouth shut, after the scandal that sent her packing – resentful teenager in tow – from the London Met to the lonely Kent coastline. Even murder looks different in this landscape of fens, ditches and stark beaches, shadowed by the towers of Dungeness power station. Murder looks a lot less pretty.

The man drowned in the slurry pit had been herded there like an animal. He was North African, like many of the fruit pickers that work the fields. The more Cupidi discovers, the more she wants to ask – but these people are suspicious of questions.

It will take an understanding of this strange place – its old ways and new crimes – to uncover the dark conspiracy behind the murder. Cupidi is not afraid to travel that road. But she should be. She should, by now, have learnt.

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Vintage Crime

The Charing Cross Mystery by JS Fletcher

Added 1st January 2020. 185 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.56 average. 268 pages.

The Blurb says: When a retired police inspector suddenly drops dead in a train carriage arriving at Charing Cross station, young London barrister Hetherwick finds himself the key witness to the murder. Thrust into the centre of this terrifying mystery, Hetherwick must unveil the disturbing truths of the case and locate the nefarious culprit. Fans of ‘Sherlock Holmes’ will be enthralled by this 20th century crime classic, a gripping tale of mystery and suspense that will have them on the edge of their seats till the very end.

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Fiction

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Added 10th January 2020. 578,195 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.84 average. 275 pages. 

The Blurb says: Hailsham seems like a pleasant English boarding school, far from the influences of the city. Its students are well tended and supported, trained in art and literature, and become just the sort of people the world wants them to be. But, curiously, they are taught nothing of the outside world and are allowed little contact with it.

Within the grounds of Hailsham, Kathy grows from schoolgirl to young woman, but it’s only when she and her friends Ruth and Tommy leave the safe grounds of the school (as they always knew they would) that they realize the full truth of what Hailsham is.

Never Let Me Go breaks through the boundaries of the literary novel. It is a gripping mystery, a beautiful love story, and also a scathing critique of human arrogance and a moral examination of how we treat the vulnerable and different in our society. In exploring the themes of memory and the impact of the past, Ishiguro takes on the idea of a possible future to create his most moving and powerful book to date.

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Vintage Crime

Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper by Donald Henderson

Added 10th January 2020. 338 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.55 average. 215 pages.

The Blurb says: In Raymond Chandler’s favourite novel, Mr Bowling buys the newspapers only to find out what the latest is on the murders he’s just committed…

Mr Bowling is getting away with murder. On each occasion he buys a newspaper to see whether anyone suspects him. But there is a war on, and the clues he leaves are going unnoticed. Which is a shame, because Mr Bowling is not a conventional serial killer: he wants to get caught so that his torment can end. How many more newspapers must he buy before the police finally catch up with him?

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

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VOTE NOW!

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

There’s a problem with the poll, as you’ve probably discovered! However the votes are being recorded at Crowdsignal, the poll host, even if it shows as still buffering. Thanks for voting and sorry for the problem – hopefully I’ll be able to work out the winner from the Crowdsignal records, and if not I’ll base it on the preferences in the comments. So if your vote doesn’t seem to record, please also tell me your choice in the comments. UPDATE: Problem now resolved and the poll is working normally.

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Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

A wartime comfort read…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s 1940 and elderly John Howard is feeling useless because no one wants his service in the war effort. His son has been killed in the Battle of Heligoland Bight and his daughter now lives in the US with her husband. So feeling a little lost he decides to take a holiday in France (in the middle of a war, as you do). Once there, he learns that the German Blitzkrieg has begun and it looks like France will soon fall. He realises he has to head home while he still can. An English couple at his hotel can’t leave for England straight away and beg him to take their two young children with him. Howard is hesitant – he may have been a father but he’s never had to look after young children by himself. However, he agrees and they set off. But the German invasion is happening faster than he expected and soon the transport system of the country collapses. Howard must make his way as best he can, and as he goes he finds himself collecting other children of various nationalities to take to safety.

On the whole I quite enjoyed this gentle, heart-warming story, but not nearly as much as the other Shute novels I’ve read. Published in 1942, it must have been written during the early days of the war, when France had capitulated and Britain was standing alone against the mighty Nazi war machine; and is clearly directed at those people in Britain and America who were at home worrying, while Europe raged and British sons and grandsons were already in the Forces, fighting in several arenas and preparing for the day when they would be strong enough to liberate France and drive the Nazis back. It is designed to show the innate goodness, generosity and courage of the Brits, as opposed to the nasty Germans and the cowardly French, and our expectations that the Americans, if they would not fight with us, would at least provide sanctuary for refugees. It’s not quite propaganda, but it comes close, as much contemporaneous wartime fiction did.

Book 5 of 20

Some of the attitudes irritated me. That it was considered best to get English children back to England makes perfect sense, and yes, I could even see that some French parents might have wished to send their children to Britain or America if they could. But when Howard started randomly picking up children who had been separated from their families and deciding that they too should be sent to America rather than trying to find their relatives or leaving them with local authorities, it seemed high-handed in the extreme. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen to these little children after the war – would they ever be reunited with their families? And I imagined grandparents discovering their son or daughter was dead and their grandchildren had mysteriously vanished for ever without a word or sign. The children themselves, those who had been orphaned, seemed remarkably easily comforted by the idea that they’d be going to the utopian Land of the Free – what’s a dead parent or two in comparison with the chance to learn English and play baseball? I think it was when the Nazi wanted Howard (his enemy, remember) to take his child too that I felt Shute had pushed it too far.

Nevil Shute

This has been more critical than I initially intended. It is quite a sweet story, a bit slow and rather repetitive, but quite cosy, if such a thing can be said about a story set in a country occupied by the Nazis. But as I thought about it to write my review I realised I had real reservations about the underlying messages in it (confirming my general view that thinking is a Bad Thing and should be avoided at all costs). Understandable, of course, given the time of writing, since clearly the readership of the time would have wanted the British and Americans to be portrayed as the good guys (which in that particular war we largely were, at least in Europe), even to the point of suggesting some kind of innate superiority. But I have to say that reading it with modern eyes, I found it a little too sycophantic towards our American cousins and a little too self-congratulatory about our own perfections as a people. In terms of tension in the storytelling, the book begins with Howard relating the story to a man in his London club, so we know from the beginning that he and the children made it to England safely. Again, I can well see that at the time the readership probably did not want to be reading books that left them tense and scared over the fate of fictional children when their real lives were already full of fear for their own children, but it does mean that there’s never any real sense of dread, even when Howard and the children meet with dangerous situations along the way. A wartime comfort read for those waiting and worrying at home, and I’m sure it would have been better appreciated by its intended readership than by cynical old me.

I listened to the audio book narrated by David Rintoul, and he did a very good job.

Audible UK Link

The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime edited by Martin Edwards

Taking the low road…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Another anthology of vintage crime from the British Library, this one has the theme of Scottish stories – either stories written by Scots, or written by people from elsewhere (generally England) but set in Scotland. There are seventeen stories in total, though a handful of them are very short and quite slight. There’s the usual mix of weel-kent names, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson; some regulars of these anthologies, such as Michael Innes and GK Chesterton; and several that I’ve never come across before. Some of my favourite stories were from these never previously encountered writers, of whom several were Scottish, so that pleased my patriotic little soul and has given me a few names to investigate further – always one of the pleasures of these anthologies. The geographical spread is good too – a few of the stories are set in the big cities, but the writers have taken full advantage of the less populated areas of the Highlands and the Borders too.

In terms of quality, there was only one outright dud and that was the Chesterton story. However, regular readers of my reviews might remember that I can’t stand Chesterton’s silly religiosity, and he compounded his usual faults in this one by throwing in just about every negative Scottish stereotype you can think of, so I suspect my rating is quite subjective! Of the rest, I rated ten as either good, very good or excellent, which makes this one of the stronger of these collections. I really liked the variety – everything from humour, both dark and light, to veering towards the noir end of crime fiction, and Edwards has picked a lot of stories that show different aspects of Scottish life, from urban to rural to wilderness, from the mean streets of Glasgow to the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ Lairds of the Highlands. The vast majority of the stories are about the middle or upper classes but that’s standard for British vintage crime generally.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

A Medical Crime by J Storer Clouston – Carrington, a sort of consulting detective, tells of a case in Kinbuckie, a smallish town where a series of burglaries have taken place. The local provost has asked Carrington to investigate, since the police seem baffled. The local Superintendent tells Carrington that there are signs that lead him to believe one of the six local doctors must be involved, and Carrington has to work out which. He uses some clever trickery to do just that. An excellent story, well-written and clever enough to be enjoyable though I did have my suspicions which proved to be right for once. But what lifts it is the gentle humour that Clouston pokes at small-town Scottish prejudices. Lots of fun!

Footsteps by Anthony Wynne – Starring Dr Hailey, who was Wynne’s regular detective. Here he is invited to visit a friend who is staying in an old Scottish castle, where a few years earlier the Laird’s wife had died and the Laird had killed himself. Now ghostly footsteps sound along the corridors and Hailey’s friend’s nerves are frayed to breaking point. Hailey is a strictly rational man, so sets out to discover the truth of the footsteps and in so doing uncovers a dark story of jealousy and murder. A delightfully creepy start to this one and it gradually becomes very dark towards the end. Wynne uses the Gothic setting to create a deliciously sinister and spooky atmosphere.

The Body of Sir Henry by Augustus Muir. MacIver, now a bigwig in the police, tells a tale of when he was a young beat policeman in the Borders. One rainy night a car stops and the driver asks him for directions to a nearby village where there is only one big house (the obvious inference being that anyone who could afford a car back then must be gentry). As the car drives away, it is suddenly lit up by the reflection of its headlights in a shop window, and MacIver sees that the back seat is occupied by a beautiful woman… and what looks to him like a dead man! He decides to follow them on his bicycle to the big house to investigate. The mystery element of this is very slight but the story-telling is great, with a touch of creepiness, some humour and a healthy dash of danger.

The Running of the Deer by PM Hubbard. Our narrator, himself a member of the gentry, has been asked by a friend to supervise the culling of the deer hinds on the friend’s estate. The other two men who are helping with the culling seem to be a little at odds with each other. During the hunt, something spooks the deer and they begin to run towards the stalkers. In the ensuing chaos, one of the two men dies. Accident? Or murder? A very well-written story, full of great descriptions of the hills in winter and of the traditions and rules surrounding deer-stalking, and the behaviour patterns of deer. The strength of the central story is all in the ambiguity of it. My favourite story of the collection!

So loads of variety and lots of writers who deserve to be much better known than they are. I’m off now to see if any of their books are in print!

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 339…

Episode 339

Due to me spending so much time listening to audiobooks for the 20 (Audio)Books Of Summer challenge, not to mention Wimbledon, my reading of “proper” books has slumped dramatically, yet they continue to pop through the letterbox! Result – the TBR is up 7 to 178! Help!! I knew it would all start to go wrong again…

Here are a few more that should reach the top of the pile soon…

Vintage Crime Anthology

Bodies from the Library 5 edited by Tony Medawar

Courtesy of Collins Crime Club. I’m always delighted when one of this series of anthologies pops through the door, so I’m glad to see the publisher describing them as “annual” in the blurb, suggesting they intend to continue producing them…

The Blurb says: The Golden Age still casts a long shadow, with many of the authors who were published at that time still hugely popular today. Aside from novels, they all wrote short fiction – stories, serials and plays – and although many have been republished in books over the last 100 years, Bodies from the Library collects the ones that are impossible to find: stories that appeared in a newspaper, magazine or an anthology that has long been out of print; ephemeral works such as plays not aired, staged or screened for decades; and unpublished stories that were absorbed into an author’s archive when they died . . .

Complete with fascinating biographies by Tony Medawar of all the featured authors, this latest volume in the annual Bodies from the Library series once again brings into the daylight the forgotten, the lost and the unknown, and is an indispensable collection for any bookshelf.

Historical Fiction

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler

Courtesy of Serpent’s Tail via NetGalley. I read a biography of John Wilkes Booth some years ago, and while I enjoyed it, I remember thinking at the time that the rest of his family actually sounded considerably more interesting than him! So I really like the sound of this one and am happy to see it’s getting pretty high ratings so far…

The Blurb says: In 1822, a secret family moves into a secret cabin some thirty miles northeast of Baltimore, to farm, to hide, and to bear ten children over the course of the next sixteen years. Junius Booth–breadwinner, celebrated Shakespearean actor, and master of the house in more ways than one–is at once a mesmerizing talent and a man of terrifying instability. One by one the children arrive, as year by year, the country draws frighteningly closer to the boiling point of secession and civil war.

As the tenor of the world shifts, the Booths emerge from their hidden lives to cement their place as one of the country’s leading theatrical families. But behind the curtains of the many stages they have graced, multiple scandals, family triumphs, and criminal disasters begin to take their toll, and the solemn siblings of John Wilkes Booth are left to reckon with the truth behind the destructively specious promise of an early prophecy.

Booth is a startling portrait of a country in the throes of change and a vivid exploration of the ties that make, and break, a family.

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Crime

Autopsy by Patricia Cornwell

Courtesy of HarperCollins. I loved the first few Kay Scarpetta books but eventually grew tired of them – there’s only so often a forensic pathologist and her family can be targeted by a crazed killer in every book before it becomes just a tad unbelievable! It must be twenty years since I read one. So I’m not sure whether this one will work for me or not – only one way to find out!

The Blurb says: Forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta has returned to Virginia as the chief medical examiner. Finding herself the new girl in town once again after being away for many years, she’s inherited an overbearing secretary and a legacy of neglect and possible corruption.

She and her husband Benton Wesley, now a forensic psychologist with the U.S. Secret Service, have relocated to Old Town Alexandria where she’s headquartered five miles from the Pentagon in a post-pandemic world that’s been torn by civil and political unrest. Just weeks on the job, she’s called to a scene by railroad tracks where a woman’s body has been shockingly displayed, her throat cut down to the spine, and as Scarpetta begins to follow the trail, it leads unnervingly close to her own historic neighborhood.

At the same time, a catastrophe occurs in a top secret private laboratory in outer space, and at least two scientists aboard are found dead. Appointed to the highly classified Doomsday Commission that specializes in sensitive national security cases, Scarpetta is summoned to the White House Situation Room and tasked with finding out what happened. But even as she works the first crime scene in space remotely, an apparent serial killer strikes again. And this time, Scarpetta could be in greater danger than ever before.

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Maugham on Audio

Rain and Other Stories by W Somerset Maugham read by Steven Crossley

A couple more for the #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer challenge! It was the narrator as much as the author that attracted me to this one, Steven Crossley being the wonderful narrator of the Shardlake books that I’ve been enjoying so much. However since I acquired this, I’ve read and enjoyed The Painted Veil, so I’m looking forward to spending more time with Maugham, especially since several of you commented on how much you’d enjoyed his short stories.

The Blurb says: W. Somerset Maugham is one of the best-loved short story writers of the last 100 years. In this collection of his finest short work Maugham takes the listener to the sun-drenched Pacific islands where the Governor mercilessly abuses the inhabitants; to the story “Rain”, in which the Reverend and the prostitute play out one of the most famous finales ever written; to the studies of chauvinistic Colonels, and snide conversations in Edwardian drawing rooms, as well as at the gates of heaven. As an introduction to one of the greatest writers in the English language Steven Crossley’s reading is the perfect place to start.

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Gaiman on Audio

Neverwhere: A BBC Radio Full Cast Dramatisation

First swap for the challenge! Sadly the full cast adaptation of Mansfield Park was dire – badly adapted, lots of irritating incidental music and Billie Piper sounded as if she was suffering from sinusitis! So I quickly abandoned it and am swapping it for this one which I acquired years ago when I was going through a brief Gaiman phase. Not sure if this will work for me either, but we’ll see! It certainly has a stellar cast list…

The Blurb says: Beneath the streets of London there is another London. A subterranean labyrinth of sewers and abandoned tube stations. A somewhere that is Neverwhere…. An act of kindness sees Richard Mayhew catapulted from his ordinary life into the strange world of London Below. There he meets the Earl of Earl’s Court, faces a life-threatening ordeal at the hands of the Black Friars, comes face to face with the Great Beast of London, and encounters an Angel. Called Islington. Accompanied by the mysterious Door and her companions, the Marquis de Carabas and the bodyguard Hunter, Richard embarks on an extraordinary quest to escape from the fiendish assassins Croup and Vandemar and to discover who ordered them to murder her family – all the while trying to get back to his old life in London Above. Adapted for radio by the award-winning Dirk Maggs, this captivating dramatisation features a stellar cast including David Harewood, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Christopher Lee, Anthony Head and David Schofield. Contains over 25 minutes of additional unbroadcast material, including extended scenes, bloopers and outtakes.

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Dark (Lacey Flint 5) by Sharon Bolton

Lacey’s back!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a baby is snatched from its mother and thrown into the Thames aboard an inflatable unicorn, off-duty police officer Lacey Flint gives chase in her kayak. It soon becomes clear this terrifying incident is to be the first of many. DCI Mark Joesbury has been following the trail of a group of women-haters who have been communicating through the dark web, and had known that something was about to happen. Now he and his team know that the men involved are planning a campaign of terror, directed at women. And by getting involved in this first incident, Lacey has made herself a target…

Wow! When Sharon Bolton is on top form, there is no one to beat her. And she is most certainly on her top form in this one! Of course it’s a pleasure to meet up with Lacey and Mark and the rest of the regulars again, and to see how their lives have developed since we last saw them, which seems like a very long time ago. Dana and Helen are now the proud parents of a son, and this makes the whole terror campaign even more frightening for Dana since these men realise that one of the best ways to frighten women is to go after their children. I don’t want to reveal much about Lacey and Mark, since there may be people reading this who haven’t read the rest of the series, so I’ll just say that their running on/off relationship continues to move forward in this instalment. And Bolton continues to use her chosen setting of the Thames to brilliant effect, with Lacey still working in the Metropolitan Police’s marine unit.

The storyline is both fantastic and terrifyingly possible. It’s based on the idea of incels, which has become one of those words that gets bandied around these days, usually as an insult. However Bolton shows them not as a trivial group of disgruntled men who can’t get girlfriends, but as the basis of a seriously misogynistic movement with the aim of removing the hard won rights of women and returning them to a position of subservience within a new patriarchy. She does an amazing job of showing how feasible such an organisation would be, and compares their aims to the kinds of strict patriarchal regimes that already exist in other parts of the world, which makes the whole idea seem considerably less unlikely than it might do on face value in our (supposedly) liberal world. (As I was reading it, The US Supreme Court was in the process of removing the right to abortion, while in most of the West a heated debate is underway on all aspects of women’s rights, with many things that we have fought long and hard for suddenly seeming to be under threat amid attempts by extremist activists to silence women’s voices. Johnny Depp was suing Amber Heard, and whichever side you’re on in that one I suspect we would all agree that the sexualised abuse and death threats directed at Heard daily on social media have been a real sign that misogyny is alive and well, and very often propped up by women.)

Bolton also uses the idea of the dark web to great effect, showing it as a place where all kinds of organisations can group and recruit members, spread information and disinformation, and conspire to commit all kinds of criminal acts under the noses of the authorities but with them unable to identify the names or locations of the people involved. I don’t know whether this is true or not, having no experience whatsoever of the dark web, but I found it scarily believable.

However, Bolton knows how to get the balance right between this all too believable background and the main thriller elements that keep the pace hurtling along. There are aspects that aren’t wholly credible, but I didn’t have time to stop and think about them as my need to keep turning those pages was too strong. I did guess who the baddie was quite early on, but because this is more of a thriller than a straight mystery that didn’t matter – the tension comes from fear of what will happen in the future rather than from discovering the culprit.

Sharon Bolton

I do like the way Lacey has evolved over the series. Bolton has done it slowly and naturally, so that it feels realistic. She’s now less of a loner, beginning to let her guard down a bit with the people she has come to think of as friends. This makes her more likeable than she was in the beginning, and from my perspective that’s a good thing – I always prefer a likeable central character. And no spoilers, but the very last line left me gobsmacked – I did not see that coming! Unfortunately, or that should really be fortunately, you’ll have to read the entire series in order to find out what I’m talking about – my advice would be to start now… 😉 Great book, great series! Keep ‘em coming, Ms Bolton!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday (on a Tuesday) 338 and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. I’ve been reading up a storm recently (Editor’s note: I wrote this before Wimbledon crashed my reading to zero) and have banned myself from acquiring books from NetGalley for a few months (Editor’s note: I wrote this before acquiring two books from NetGalley this week) to catch up with all my other reading. Has it worked?

Here goes, then – the second check-in of the year…

Woohoo! I don’t think I’ve ever been this much on target halfway through the year! I have reduced the target for the Spanish Civil War challenge – see below – and the Wanderlust challenge is still wandering on, six months after the original deadline. But overall I’m happy with these figures.

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The Classics Club

I’ve been racing through my new Classics Club list so far, partly because a couple of the recent People’s Choices have been CC books. I’ve read five this quarter and had three left still to review at the end of last quarter, including the final two for my first list. I’m finally up to date with CC reviews, for the first time in ages…

First List

89. Children of the Dead End by Patrick MacGill – Ugh! I abandoned this misogynistic fictionalised memoir halfway through. Mr MacGill dislikes women nearly as much as I dislike him. 1 star.

90. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – I saved this re-read of a favourite as a treat for myself for finishing the first list, and a treat it certainly was! 5 stars.

90 down, 0 to go!

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Second List

2. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay – A deliciously ambiguous story of missing girls, that manages to be entertaining and unsettling in equal parts. 5 stars.

3. Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo – After way too much architectural detail in the first half, the thrilling story in the second half won me over! I also enjoyed reading this along with fellow bloggers in a Review-Along. 5 stars.

4. Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth – This satire on Anglo-Irish landowners is a rather slight novella, mildly entertaining, but I felt it didn’t live up to its reputation. 3 stars.

5. Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens – although this re-read was my annual Christmas Dickens, I didn’t get around to reviewing it until May! As always, a great read, even though it’s not quite in Dickens’ top rank. 4 Dickensian stars, which glow brighter than normal stars.

6. The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham –  Set in colonial Hong Kong, this tells the story of initially empty-headed Kitty Fane when her husband drags her into a cholera zone in China. Well-written and thought-provoking. 4½ stars.

7. Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar – dark but not quite noir, this is well written, and alongside the murder mystery element takes a thoughtful look at the shame of a respectable woman succumbing to alcoholism in her later life. 4 stars.

One or two duds, but mostly some great reading in this quarter’s classics reading!

7 down, 73 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve read three for this challenge this quarter and had two left still to review from the quarter before. I’ve reviewed three and still have another two not yet reviewed…

49. The Z Murders by J Jefferson Farjeon. More a thriller than a mystery, involving a chase across England in pursuit of a lurid serial killer. Fast-paced and entertaining. 4 stars.

50. The Grell Mystery by Frank Froest. Written by a genuine ex-top cop, this has too much of a feel of being a memoir for it to work well as a mystery novel. Interesting rather than entertaining. 3 stars.

51. The House by the River by AP Herbert. A great little story about the psychological effects of murder on the murderer and his loyal friend, unfortunately buried in a mass of description and digression. 2½ stars.

Still very much a mixed bag, this challenge, and I’m considering giving it up once I’ve read the remaining books I’ve already acquired for it.

51 down, 51 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I’ve started plenty of books for this challenge, but most of them have ended up on the abandoned heap pretty quickly. I finished just one…

10. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Zafón does a wonderful job of depicting a city in the aftermath of civil war, but first and foremost this is a great story, wonderfully told. 5 stars.

As a result of my increasing disappointment and irritation with many of my choices for this challenge, I’ve decided to read the remaining three books I already own, cancel the other ones from my wishlist, and then draw a line under it.

10 down, 3 to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I’ve read three and reviewed three – hurrah, I’m still on track with this challenge! So did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

April – Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay. Plenty of layers in this ambiguous tale – mild horror, some humour, and a true mystery at its heart. 5 stars.

May – The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton – A book that follows the plot of Vanity Fair remarkably closely – very remarkably closely – and yet fails to duplicate any of the humour or insightful satire of the original. A generous 2 stars.

JuneThe Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham. An excellent character study combined with a colonial setting in this tale of a woman who traps herself in marriage to a man she doesn’t love. 4½ stars.

Two out of three ain’t bad! Well done, People – you did great! Keep up the good work! 😉

6 down, 6 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

I’ve read three books for this challenge this quarter and had one still to review from the previous quarter. I’ve reviewed three, with one still to come. The blue boxes are books from previous quarters, and the orange are the ones I’m adding this quarter. If you click on the bingo card you should get a larger version.

GibraltarKilling Rock by Robert Daws – 5 stars. The unique setting of this last outpost of Empire provides an added level of interest to this police procedural series. I’ve slotted it into the Free Square.

Sahara/North Africa – Biggles Defends the Desert by Capt WE Johns – 5 stars.  A WW2 adventure for flying ace Biggles and his squadron, as they fight to ensure the safety of Allied planes crossing the desert. Unsurprisingly, I’m slotting it into the Desert box!

Hong Kong/China – The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham – 4½ stars. The colonial backdrop of Hong Kong provides the initial setting while the meat of the story takes place in the Chinese interior, so a perfect fit for the Far East box.

Three excellent books this quarter but this challenge is cursed! I keep picking interesting looking books that turn out to be duds. So I’m dropping my initial plan to fill all the boxes only with books I recommend or I could still be trying to fill the last three boxes sometime in the next millennium!

22 down, 3 to go!

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Overall, a great quarter and I’ve made some progress on all my challenges – hurrah! Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

The role of the narrator…

When narrating a book, a narrator has to decide how to interpret the various accents of different characters in the dialogue. This is crucial to allowing the reader to get lost in the book, and to being able to believe the placing of the characters in the social structure being portrayed in the book. The Power and the Glory is set in Mexico, and nearly all of the characters are Mexican. Therefore presumably they all speak Spanish or Mexican dialects. However, obviously, the book is written in English. So there are two choices open to the narrator: he can either give all of the Mexican characters appropriate Mexican accents, or he can give them all comparable English accents. (Of course, if the narrator and/or publisher were American, Canadian, Australian, Kiwi, etc., then it would make sense to give a range of the accents of those countries, but in this instance it’s an English author, and an English narrator.)

As an example, in the English-translation Maigret audiobooks, Gareth Armstrong chooses to give all of the characters appropriate English accents. If they are upper class he gives them a posh English accent. If they are working class he gives them a rougher London accent. If they don’t come from Paris he gives them a suitable regional English accent. This works very well. The only time he gives anyone a “foreign” accent is if the character is not French, and therefore would sound foreign to the French characters.

It would be equally logical, even if I feel it would be a little annoying, had he chosen to give all of the characters French accents. In order to do this effectively, he would obviously have to be able to give a range of French accents – educated, rural, working class, etc. – and I’m not sure many English speakers know enough about the range of French accents to catch the nuance of that. I certainly don’t.

Andrew Sachs as Manuel in Fawlty Towers

But it seems to me that the one choice a narrator can’t make, in these circumstances where every character is native to the setting of the book but the book is either written in or translated into English, is to give some of the characters English accents and some of the characters foreign accents. Where is the logic in that? And unfortunately that’s what Andrew Sachs has done in his narration of The Power and the Glory. Some of the characters, mostly the educated and/or powerful ones, sound English although they are Mexican, and then there’s a range of what I can only describe as caricatures of Mexican accents, mostly for the poor and downtrodden characters. I found it completely annoying and distracting and, dare I say, a touch condescending? But the point where I really began to wonder if I could take any more was when a mestizo character appears, and Sachs gives him an accent that at first I thought sounded very like Manuel from Fawlty Towers (not surprisingly since that is the “Spanish” accent that Andrew Sachs is most famous for), but then I realised that what it actually reminded me of was Calimero! This particular character whines quite often – “You’re going to leave me here to die, señor”, etc., – and I kept expecting him to finish every sentence with “It’s an injustice, it is, yeah!”

(If you don’t know Calimero, this is him – the most annoying cartoon character ever created, and as good an argument for eating chicken as I can think of.)

The result of this was that at no point did I connect with the book. If you’re a regular visitor you will know that Graham Greene is one of my favourite novelists and, while I don’t think The Power and the Glory is his best book, I certainly think it’s a good one. But although I struggled past the mestizo and Calimero incident and listened to the end, I found the narration too distracting to allow me to enjoy the book. In all fairness I should say that many people have found this an excellent narration, though some other reviewers have made comments similar to (though less brutally rude than) my own.

Book 4 of 20

I wouldn’t normally review a narration rather than the book itself, but this is one of my #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer, so I had to say something about it 😉 One day I’ll re-read a paper copy, and review the book properly.

Audible UK Link

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

Drink and death…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Claude Margolis is found stabbed to death, suspicion falls not unnaturally on a woman who has been spending time with him recently, Virginia Barkeley, who is found wandering the streets nearby in a drunken state and covered in blood. Virginia’s husband hires lawyer Eric Meecham to defend her. However his lawyerly skills aren’t needed for too long, since although Virginia can’t remember the events of the evening, another witness has come forward whose evidence seems to clear her. But something doesn’t feel quite right about the whole thing to Meecham, and he finds himself trying to find out exactly what did happen to Margolis…

This is billed as noir, but although it has some noir elements I don’t think it sits fully in that genre. It’s closer to a traditional mystery in style with Meecham playing the role of the unofficial detective. None of the various women fulfils the requirements of the femme fatale, being considerably more realistic and well-rounded than those usually are. Meecham is a little cynical about human nature, but he’s not completely world-weary, he works within the law, and he treats women like real people even if he does display the occasional “me Tarzan, you Jane” mentality typical of the time.

However, there are undoubtedly bleak aspects to the story that may be why some consider it noir. Drink plays a large part – not just Virginia’s blackout, but there’s another character, an elderly woman who, late in life, has become an alcoholic after a lifetime of not drinking. As her son says of her “One drink, and she was a drunk. She’d been a drunk for maybe thirty years and didn’t find it out until then. For her the world vanished in that instant.” It’s a really excellent portrayal of the shame of alcoholism for an elderly, respectable woman – hiding and lying, trying to keep up appearances, and always desperately trying to find the money to buy the next bottle.

Book 7 of 80

Her son, Earl Loftus, is another interesting characterisation. Still a young man, he is dying of a then incurable condition – leukaemia – and Millar shows how this affects his thoughts and actions, and the people around him. I am deliberately avoiding saying how Earl fits into the story, since the plot is revealed slowly and steadily as the book progresses and almost any information about it could count as a spoiler. But I found the depiction of him as a dying man credible and quite moving, and his actions seemed to arise naturally out of his situation.

The pace is slow and steady throughout, perhaps a little too slow in the middle section where I found my interest dipping for a while. But Meecham is a likeable lead character who shows a lot of empathy and understanding for the weakness and frailties that lead the other characters to act as they do. I could have done without the instant “true love” he finds with a character with whom he has exchanged all of about six sentences, especially since I found the girl annoyingly keen to become his adoring, submissive slave. (Is it just me, or are female authors of this era often more sexist than their male counterparts? Seems to me male crime writers of the ‘50s and ‘60s like their female love interests to be strong, sexy and a bit dangerous, while female authors make them clingy and pathetic. Maybe I just notice it more when it’s a female author who annoys me in this way.)

Margaret Millar

Some aspects of the plot are fairly easy to work out, but enough is held back to allow for a surprise at the end – a surprise that in truth seemed to me to lessen the general credibility up to that point, although not enough to lose me completely. It’s very well written, with the strength lying more in the characterisation than the plot. Overall, I preferred the only other Millar I’ve read to date, The Listening Walls, but I enjoyed this one enough to cement her in her place as an author I’d like to investigate further.

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 337…

Episode 337

As anticipated, the tennis is playing havoc with my reading, but happily I haven’t had time to acquire many books either. So the TBR is remaining steady on 174…

(I’m behind with reading posts and answering comments too – sorry! I blame this chap!)

Anyway, here are a few more books I’m hoping to catch up with soon… 

Winner of the People’s Choice

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Wow, another one vote victory! Cloudstreet and Winter in Madrid ran neck and neck all the way through but in the end Cloudstreet broke the tape! Toni Morrison was never in contention but I suspect that’s because she had two entries which split the pro-Morrison vote. Excellent choice, People – I’m looking forward to it! It will be a September read.

The Blurb says: Hailed as a classic, Tim Winton’s masterful family saga is both a paean to working-class Australians and an unflinching examination of the human heart’s capacity for sorrow, joy, and endless gradations in between. An award-winning work, Cloudstreet exemplifies the brilliant ability of fiction to captivate and inspire.

Struggling to rebuild their lives after being touched by disaster, the Pickle family, who’ve inherited a big house called Cloudstreet in a suburb of Perth, take in the God-fearing Lambs as tenants. The Lambs have suffered their own catastrophes, and determined to survive, they open up a grocery on the ground floor. From 1944 to 1964, the shared experiences of the two overpopulated clans — running the gamut from drunkenness, adultery, and death to resurrection, marriage, and birth — bond them to each other and to the bustling, haunted house in ways no one could have anticipated.

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Historical Fiction 

Privilege by Guinevere Glasfurd

Courtesy of John Murray via NetGalley. I enjoyed Glasfurd’s first novel, The Year Without Summer, so I’m hoping this one will be just as good. Certainly sounds interesting…

The Blurb says: After her father is disgraced, Delphine Vimond is cast out of her home in Rouen and flees to Paris. Into her life tumbles Chancery Smith, apprentice printer sent from London to discover the mysterious author of potentially incendiary papers marked only D . In a battle of wits with the French censor, Henri Gilbert, Delphine and Chancery set off in a frantic search for D ‘s author. But who is D and does D even exist?

Privilege is a story of adventure and mishap set against the turmoil of mid-18th century France at odds with the absolute power of the King who is determined to suppress opposition on pain of death. At a time when books required royal privilege before they could be published – a system enforced by the Chief Censor and a network of spies – many were censored or banned, and their authors harshly punished. Books that fell foul of the system were published outside France and smuggled back in at great risk.

Costa-shortlisted author Guinevere Glasfurd has conjured a vibrant world of entitlement and danger, where the right to live and think freely could come at the highest cost.

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Wodehouse on Audio

The Mating Season by PG Wodehouse narrated by Jonathan Cecil

Another batch for the #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer challenge! Can’t go wrong with Wodehouse! And Jonathan Cecil is the perfect narrator for the Jeeves and Wooster books. A bit of light relief to keep my spirits up through the challenge!

The Blurb says: At Deverill Hall, an idyllic Tudor manor in the picture-perfect village of King’s Deverill, impostors are in the air. The prime example is man-about-town Bertie Wooster, doing a good turn to Gussie Fink-Nottle by impersonating him while he enjoys fourteen days away from society after being caught taking an unscheduled dip in the fountains of Trafalgar Square. Bertie is of course one of nature’s gentlemen, but the stakes are high: if all is revealed, there’s a danger that Gussie’s simpering fiancée Madeline may turn her wide eyes on Bertie instead.

It’s a brilliant plan – until Gussie himself turns up, imitating Bertram Wooster. After that, only the massive brain of Jeeves (himself in disguise) can set things right.

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Eliot on Audio

Silas Marner by George Eliot narrated by Andrew Sachs

Fortified with Wodehouse, I hope to have the strength to get through this one, which is one of those books I feel I should read more than actually wanting to. One for my Classics Club list, and on the upside, it’s reasonably short!

The Blurb says:  Falsely accused, cut off from his past, Silas the weaver is reduced to a spider-like existence, endlessly weaving his web and hoarding his gold. Meanwhile, Godfrey Cass, son of the squire, contracts a secret marriage. While the village celebrates Christmas and New Year, two apparently inexplicable events occur. Silas loses his gold and finds a child on his hearth. The imaginative control George Eliot displays as her narrative gradually reveals causes and connections has rarely been surpassed.

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Rumpole on Audio

Rumpole’s Return by John Mortimer read by Robert Hardy

I suspect I’ll need a bit of a mood lift after Silas Marner! Rumpole is always fun, and while I’d have liked Leo McKern to narrate them (the actor who played Rumpole on TV), I love Robert Hardy and think he’ll be an excellent substitute…

The Blurb says: Has Rumpole hung up his wig for good? Can it be? Yes, the beloved barrister is now retired (though far from retiring) and gently ripening to a rosy hue in the Florida sunshine. But a colleague’s casual request for advice on a difficult case sends him winging back across the Atlantic, and before he’s through, our hero will come up against a fanatical religious cult and a mysterious letter written in blood.

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Knots and Crosses (Rebus 1) by Ian Rankin

A study in psyche…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Three young girls have been abducted from the streets of Edinburgh, and Detective Sergeant John Rebus has been assigned to the team investigating the disappearances. Soon the discovery of the bodies of the girls makes the case even more serious, and the race is on to find the killer before any more girls go missing

This is the first book in what became the long-running Rebus series, and it is very different in style from the way the series developed later. Apparently Rankin hadn’t originally intended it to become a series – he wrote this as a one-off, as an examination of a damaged man, suffering from PTSD following his experiences in the SAS.

I’m very glad that I didn’t originally read this series in order because, to be honest, had I read this book first I doubt very much whether I would have gone on to read any of the others. (Thus confirming my general belief that the first book in any series is often the weakest, and it’s often better to jump in around the third or fourth and then work backwards.) The quality of the writing is already here – Rankin could already evoke Edinburgh in all its contrasts of wealth and poverty, the powerful and the marginalised. But the story, as a crime story, is well nigh non-existent. The missing girls are so forgotten about that I still couldn’t tell you any of their names. There is almost no detection, on the page at least, and we spend far more time learning about Rebus’ psychological problems than about either the victims or the perpetrator.

And while it’s an interesting thought to see how a man suffering from the effects of PTSD would have difficulty coping in the police, I’m afraid the implausibility of the reasons for Rebus’ problems made it impossible for me to fully buy in to the premise. Having read many of the later books, I’ve always been aware that Rebus had served in the SAS at an earlier point in his life, but here in the first book we learn that in fact he was so traumatised during the training that he never made it through. In itself this is hard enough to accept since, although the SAS has the reputation of being only for the toughest of the tough, I can’t believe that they would put new recruits through the kind of extreme experiences to which we are expected to believe Rebus was subjected, and send them back into civvy street as broken men.

But what I found even more unbelievable is that the police would employ someone so badly damaged. Because he is very badly damaged, to the point of frequently collapsing, losing awareness of where he is, losing consciousness, becoming violent, etc. And it’s certainly not due to the stress of his current job, since he doesn’t really appear to do anything very much.

The other thing that surprised me is that Rebus is shown here as a man of faith, battling to reconcile his belief in an all-powerful, loving God with the horrors he sees happening daily in the world around him. It’s interestingly done, with that distinctive Scottish flavour of ambivalence towards the whole subject of religion, but again feels very different to the cynical Rebus who develops in the later books.

This whole concentration on Rebus’ psyche goes on for far too long. The story of the abductions is really packed into the last few chapters, by which point I had pretty much forgotten all about the dead girls. I was also disappointed that Rankin fell back on the old clichés of the motivation of the killer arising out of personal animosity for the detective, together with a side story involving Rebus’ brother. However, in these final chapters we see the beginnings of the more traditional style of noir-ish police procedural that Rankin would develop in future books and, throughout, his skill in invoking atmosphere and excellence in characterisation are already clear. Although the Edinburgh setting is already well developed, there isn’t the focus on specifically Scottish society and culture that would become a major feature down the line.

Ian Rankin

So, all in all, my recommendation to newcomers would be to come in a few books further on, when Rankin had begun to focus more on the crime aspects and had allowed Rebus to become rather more functional! For existing fans this one is interesting to see how it all began, but with the proviso that the Rebus of this book has become a very different man by the time Rankin fully hits his stride. I’ll be interested to see over the next few books if that transformation is done by a process of slow evolution, or if Rankin merely threw out the bits of Rebus’ original character that didn’t work so well once he had decided to use him as the lead in a long-running series.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by James Macpherson, who has narrated all of the Rebus books and does a fine job with them.

Audible UK Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my recent reading in quotes…

….The commissioner added, “These guys talk about a Day of Retribution, when those who’ve made their lives miserable will get what’s coming to them. We’ve been seeing increasing references to it.”
….“It’s a delicate balancing act,” Joesbury said. “They want to get their communities excited, wound up about what’s coming, without giving too much away.”
….Brabin said, “Why babies? Why was the first attack on babies? How does that fit with their woman-hating agenda?”
….“We think it’s about attention?” Joesbury said. “Terrorists want to shock, to have everyone talking about them. An attack going unnoticed would be the worst kind of failure. Well, what would cause more outrage than an attack on a baby?”
….“Killing a puppy?” Brabin suggested.
….Joesbury let his lips relax into a half smile. “I stand corrected.”

~ The Dark by Sharon Bolton

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….While Mannering was gazing round the ruins, he heard from the interior of an apartment on the left hand the voice of the gipsey he had seen on the preceding evening. He soon found an aperture through which he could observe her without being himself visible; and could not help feeling that her figure, her employment, and her situation conveyed the exact impression of an ancient sibyl.
….She sate upon a broken corner-stone in the angle of a paved apartment, part of which she had swept clean to afford a smooth space for the evolutions of her spindle. A strong sunbeam through a lofty and narrow window fell upon her wild dress and features, and afforded her light for her occupation; the rest of the apartment was very gloomy. Equipt in a habit which mingled the national dress of the Scottish common people with something of an Eastern costume, she spun a thread drawn from wool of three different colours, black, white, and grey, by assistance of those ancient implements of housewifery now almost banished from the land, the distaff and spindle. As she spun, she sung what seemed to be a charm.

~ Guy Mannering by Sir Walter Scott

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….A week before he was due to leave, Katherine held a small goodbye tea party for her husband. He had few friends and most of them were also tuners: Mr Wiggers, who specialised in Broadwoods, Mr d’Argences, the Frenchman whose passion was Viennese uprights, and Mr Poffy, who wasn’t actually a piano tuner since he repaired organs mostly – It is nice, Edgar once explained to Katherine, to have variety in one’s friends. Of course, this hardly spanned the full array of Those Associated with Pianos. The London Directory alone, between Physicians and Pickle and Sauce Manufacturers, listed Pianoforte makers, Pianoforte action-makers, Pianoforte fret-cutters, hammer coverers, hammer- and damper-felt manufacturers, hammer rail-makers, ivory bleachers, ivory cutters, key makers, pin makers, silkers, small-work Manufacturers, Pianoforte string makers, Pianoforte tuners. Notably absent from the party was Mr Hastings, who also specialized in Erards, and who had snubbed Edgar ever since he had put up a sign in his workshop reading ‘Gone to Burma to tune in the service of Her Majesty; please consult Mr George Hastings for minor tunings that cannot await my return’.

~ The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

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….He began to hiccup with nerves at the thought of facing for the seven hundred and thirty-eighth time his harsh house-keeper – his wife. There she would be, lying in the big shameless bed that filled up half the room, a bony shadow within the mosquito tent, a lanky jaw and a short grey pigtail and an absurd bonnet. She thought she had a position to keep up: a government pensioner; the wife of the only married priest. She was proud of it. “José.”
….“I’m.. hic…coming, my love,” he said, and lifted himself from the crate. Somebody somewhere laughed.
….He lifted little pink eyes like those of a pig conscious of the slaughter-room. A high child’s voice said: “José.” He stared in a bewildered way around the patio. At a barred window opposite, three children watched him with deep gravity. He turned his back and took a step or two towards his door, moving very slowly because of his bulk. “José,” somebody squeaked again, “José.” He looked back over his shoulder and caught the faces out in expressions of wild glee; his little pink eyes showed no anger – he had no right to be angry; he moved his mouth into a ragged, baffled, disintegrated smile, and as if that sign of weakness gave them all the licence they needed, they squealed back at him without disguise, “José, José. Come to bed, José.” Their little shameless voices filled the patio, and he smiled humbly and sketched small gestures for silence, and there was no respect anywhere left for him in his home, in the town, in the whole abandoned star.

~ The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

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So… are you tempted?

The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham

Adultery in the time of cholera…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Despite her charm and beauty and although she has had many admirers, Kitty Garstin at the age of twenty-five finds herself still unmarried and close to ending up on the shelf. The situation becomes more urgent when her younger sister makes an excellent match, and Kitty is horrified at the idea of her sister marrying first. So she accepts a proposal from a man she doesn’t love – Walter Fane, a bacteriologist who is about to take up a position in Hong Kong, (called Tching-yen in the book). Once out in the colony, Kitty falls for the easy charm of Charlie Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary, and they begin an affair. Kitty thinks this is true love, but for Charlie it’s merely one episode of many – his true love is his wife, despite his infidelity to her. So when Walter finds out about the affair he gives Kitty a choice – divorce him and marry Charlie, or accompany him to an area of China in the midst of a cholera epidemic. It’s then that Kitty discovers Charlie has no intention of leaving his wife, and seems quite comfortable with the idea of Kitty going into China…

Although written in the third person, the book is told from Kitty’s perspective throughout, and so we only get to know as much about the other characters as she knows. This leaves Walter as rather vague, since Kitty never really understands him, not even why he should be in love with someone that he clearly sees, justifiably, as his intellectual inferior. When Walter makes his demand that she accompany him into the cholera zone, she believes that he is hoping that she will die there. And she may be right.

I found Kitty rather annoying at first, empty-headed and shallow. She never really develops a great deal of depth in her personality, but Maugham certainly creates depth in his characterization of her. In some ways it’s a coming of age story, as Kitty’s experiences first show her how empty of any meaning her life has been, and then give her the opportunity to grow. It’s also a study of the position of this class of women in that era, when a good marriage was still the ultimate sign of success and when divorce was still so scandalous that it would thrust a woman out of respectable society. Kitty has been trained and educated only to be ornamental and charming, so one can hardly blame her for her shallowness. Her role as a wife is to support her husband and to have children. Perhaps if Kitty had had a child she may not have indulged in an affair, but being the wife of a man obsessed by his work and having servants to do all the tedious work around the home leaves Kitty, and all colonial women to an extent, with very little to fill their empty days.

Book 6 of 80

First published in 1925, the book is of its age when it comes to colonial attitudes. Some of the language that Maugham uses in describing the Chinese characters and culture certainly seems offensive to modern eyes, more so, I felt, than in some other colonial writing from the same era. However, it does give an idea of how foreign and unsettling everything seems to Kitty, and as the story unfolds she shows at least a little desire to understand more about the people she finds herself living amongst. But mostly China is relegated to a beautiful and exotic background against which a very English story plays out.

There’s also a religious aspect to the book that rather puzzled me. Kitty has no belief in a God, but once in the cholera zone she begins to help out at the local convent which is caring for both cholera patients and orphans, and in her conversations with the nuns there’s a suggestion that she comes to feel that her lack of faith is part of the emptiness inside her. Yet there’s no suggestion of her converting to a life of religion. I couldn’t quite make out what Maugham was trying to say about religion – he seemed to admire the dedication and faith of the nuns without accepting the truth of their beliefs. I googled him afterwards and actually think that maybe this is a reflection of his own ambivalence – he seems to have been an atheist or agnostic of the kind who struggles with and perhaps regrets his lack of faith.

W Somerset Maugham

I loved the book for the quality of the writing and the characterization, and particularly appreciated the way he developed Kitty gradually and realistically over the course of the story. But I had two minor quibbles that just stopped it from being a five-star read for me. The first is entirely subjective and isn’t a criticism of the book – I had seen and thoroughly enjoyed the film before I read it and that unfortunately meant that I knew how the story was going to play out, which took away any suspense and reduced my emotional response. My second criticism is more objective – I hated the way it ended, the last few pages being filled with a kind of pretentious, breathless hyper-emotionalism that didn’t seem to match the rest of the book, nor tie in with Kitty’s character as we had come to know her. Again, it had the same kind of jumbled religious undertones that I felt had been confusing throughout, so perhaps Maugham was trying to resolve Kitty’s feelings about faith in some way in the end. But if so, I’m afraid it didn’t work for me.

Despite that, overall I found it interesting, thought-provoking and enjoyable, and very well written, and it has certainly left me keen to read more of his work. 4½ stars for me, so rounded up.

Book 6 of 12

This was the People’s Choice winner for June. An excellent choice, People – well done!

Amazon UK Link

N or M? (Tommy and Tuppence 3) by Agatha Christie

Careless talk costs lives…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1940, and Tommy and Tuppence are desperate to help the war effort in any way they can. But they’re in their forties now, and Tommy is seen as too old for the armed services while Tuppence’s old skills from her days as a nurse in WW1 don’t seem to be in demand either. Tommy gets in touch with Mr Carter, now retired from the Secret Service, and asks if he can pull any strings. And then a Mr Grant shows up, ostensibly offering Tommy a dull but useful clerical role in Scotland. But when Tuppence leaves the room, Mr Grant tells Tommy this is a cover story – really the Secret Service want him to go undercover to a boarding house in the South of England from where they believe a top Nazi spy is operating. But they don’t know who – all they know is that it’s one of two people known only by their code initials, one male, one female – N or M. It’s vital the spy should be uncovered – the whole war depends on it! The operation is top secret and no one must know he’s going, not even Tuppence. So off Tommy goes, but when he gets there he’s in for a big surprise when he meets one of his fellow guests – Mrs Blenkinsop, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his eavesdropping wife…

I’m afraid when Ms Christie gets into espionage plots they become so convoluted and unlikely that I’m always left feeling if this was the best the Nazis could do the only wonder is they didn’t lose more quickly! But I don’t care – Tommy and Tuppence, especially Tuppence, are so much fun to spend time with that the plot can be as silly as it likes and I’ll still love the book! And there’s so much in it about the anxieties that would have been forefront in the minds of people on the Home Front that I expect it didn’t seem nearly so unbelievable when it was published in 1941 – Fifth Columnists, parachuting spies, those perfidious Irish, Nazi sympathisers, German refugees who might be spies… and all while Britain was standing alone against the mighty Nazi war machine, and victory was far from certain. As would have been the case for so many people too old to serve, Tommy and Tuppence’s two children – adults now – are in the forces, and both doing jobs requiring a lot of secrecy so that their parents don’t even know where they are much of the time. It’s partly to take their minds off this constant worry that makes them both so keen to be doing something – anything – to help.

Book 3 of 20

The boarding house is filled with a variety of characters who all look innocent enough, but equally could all be N or M. There’s the retired military man who seems to despair of democratic Britain and feels the Nazis are doing quite a good job of running Germany – but is he really a Nazi sympathiser or just a grumpy old man? Is the Irishwoman loyal to Britain despite her husband’s Irish nationalism during WW1? Is the young German really a refugee from a regime he hates, or is he an infiltrator? What about the hypochondriacal man and his put-upon wife – are they what they seem? Surely the mother evacuated from London with her young child must be just what she claims? That was what made the idea of the Fifth Column so frightening – once you accept the idea as possible, then anyone could be a Nazi spy. And so every careless word could lead to death or disaster for our troops. Christie captures this feeling of paranoia very well.

Despite all this serious stuff, there’s also enough humour in it to stop the tone from becoming too dark. The banter between Tommy and Tuppence is always entertaining, and here there’s an added element in that we see how their children treat them as if they were ancient and past it, while Tommy and Tuppence in reality are doing a far more important and secret job than either of them. Albert makes an appearance, and while it’s always fun to see him, sadly he follows in the tradition of Lord Wimsey’s Bunter or Campion’s Lugg – the comedy working class character who adores and idolises his master or mistress. Albert actually refers to Tommy as his master, for goodness sake! So I’m glad he plays a fairly minor role, and am devoutly thankful that neither Poirot nor Miss Marple saw the need for a working class sidekick.

Hugh Fraser

Hugh Fraser is as wonderful as always. Here he gets the chance to play loads of different characters, from grumpy old men to beautiful, moody young women, not to mention the toddler who speaks mostly in baby language and gurgles, and he handles them all brilliantly! So, despite my niggles with the plot, this is a hugely enjoyable listening experience, and Tommy and Tuppence are as much fun as ever!

Audible UK Link

TBR Thursday 336 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 336

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

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OK, People, time for another batch of four – the final books from 2019, and all fiction this time. I like to run three months ahead with these polls, so the winner will be a September read. Amazon had a Kindle daily deal on all Toni Morrison books and I bought, I think, five of them – I’ve read three and still have Jazz and The Bluest Eye to go. Australian blogger Rose is a fan of Tim Winton, and when I asked her where I should start with him, she recommended Cloudstreet. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid will be a re-read, to tie in with my Spanish Civil War challenge. I do have a preferred choice this month, but I’m not telling you which!

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Fiction

Jazz by Toni Morrison

Added 10th November 2019. 26,843 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.86 average rating. 229 pages.

The Blurb says: In the winter of 1926, when everybody everywhere sees nothing but good things ahead, Joe Trace, middle-aged door-to-door salesman of Cleopatra beauty products, shoots his teenage lover to death. At the funeral, Joe’s wife, Violet, attacks the girl’s corpse. This passionate, profound story of love and obsession brings us back and forth in time, as a narrative is assembled from the emotions, hopes, fears, and deep realities of black urban life.

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Fiction

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Added 10th November 2019. 207,795 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.09 average. 208 pages.

The Blurb says: Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison powerfully examines our obsession with beauty and conformity—and asks questions about race, class, and gender with her characteristic subtly and grace.

In Morrison’s bestselling first novel, Pecola Breedlove—an 11-year-old Black girl in an America whose love for its blond, blue-eyed children can devastate all others—prays for her eyes to turn blue: so that she will be beautiful, so that people will look at her, so that her world will be different. This is the story of the nightmare at the heart of her yearning, and the tragedy of its fulfillment.

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Fiction

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Added 1st December 2019. 22,625 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.00 average. 426 pages. 

The Blurb says: Hailed as a classic, Tim Winton’s masterful family saga is both a paean to working-class Australians and an unflinching examination of the human heart’s capacity for sorrow, joy, and endless gradations in between. An award-winning work, Cloudstreet exemplifies the brilliant ability of fiction to captivate and inspire.

Struggling to rebuild their lives after being touched by disaster, the Pickle family, who’ve inherited a big house called Cloudstreet in a suburb of Perth, take in the God-fearing Lambs as tenants. The Lambs have suffered their own catastrophes, and determined to survive, they open up a grocery on the ground floor. From 1944 to 1964, the shared experiences of the two overpopulated clans — running the gamut from drunkenness, adultery, and death to resurrection, marriage, and birth — bond them to each other and to the bustling, haunted house in ways no one could have anticipated.

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Historical Fiction

Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom

Added 18th December 2019. 15,624 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.85 average. 549 pages.

The Blurb says: 1940: The Spanish Civil War is over, and Madrid lies ruined, its people starving, while the Germans continue their relentless march through Europe. Britain now stands alone while General Franco considers whether to abandon neutrality and enter the war.

Into this uncertain world comes Harry Brett: a traumatized veteran of Dunkirk turned reluctant spy for the British Secret Service. Sent to gain the confidence of old school friend Sandy Forsyth, now a shady Madrid businessman, Harry finds himself involved in a dangerous game – and surrounded by memories.

Meanwhile Sandy’s girlfriend, ex-Red Cross nurse Barbara Clare, is engaged in a secret mission of her own – to find her former lover Bernie Piper, a passionate Communist in the International Brigades, who vanished on the bloody battlefields of the Jarama.

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

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VOTE NOW!

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

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The Murder Rule by Dervla McTiernan

A question of guilt…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Young law student Hannah Rokeby is desperate to get taken on by the Innocence Project, a group run by charismatic attorney Rob Parekh to fight to free prisoners they believe have been wrongly convicted. Places on the project are coveted by students, since it looks good on a new lawyer’s CV. But Hannah has deeper reasons for wanting to be part of it – personal reasons. The Project is trying to free Michael Dandridge, convicted of rape and murder, but long ago Hannah’s mother was a victim of Dandridge too and Hannah feels she must ensure Dandridge stays in prison for the sake of her mother’s mental health. So she tricks her way in, but then slowly begins to discover there may be things about Dandridge’s past that don’t quite fit with what she believes…

Written in the third person past tense, we see the story unfold from Hannah’s perspective so that we know what she knows – no more and no less. In the beginning, mostly what she knows comes from an old diary her mom kept back when she knew Dandridge and his friend Tom. This diary is given to the reader in short chapters between the present day story of Hannah settling in at the project. Happily, though, McTiernan is not playing the overused “that day” game – we know pretty quickly what happened to cause Hannah’s mother to fear Dandridge for all these years, and that lets us sympathise to some extent with the lies and tricks Hannah plays to get on the project, although some of them are rather cruel and make her hard to like.

Dervla McTiernan

It’s very well written and keeps up a good pace, avoiding any mid-book flab. In fact it comes in at under 300 pages, so quite short for a contemporary crime novel, but I felt it’s the perfect length for the story. It held my interest throughout and kept me turning the pages, so a successful read from the sheer enjoyability aspect. However, my credibility meter went into the red zone at a fairly early point and by the end was screeching out overload signals. The final courtroom scene was almost farcical – any last remnants of believability disappeared into the distance, never to be seen again. I don’t want to go into the plot in any detail, since it has so many twists and turns it would be hard to avoid spoilers. But oddly, it isn’t the basic plot that has the credibility issues – all of that I could believe reasonably easily. It’s the silly way it’s played out, with unnecessary drama, people being beaten to a pulp one day and then being back to being action-man the next day, Hannah brilliantly spotting things missed by all the qualified lawyers, the evil pantomime baddies, the aforesaid courtroom scene. I felt that had McTiernan written it as a straight mystery it could have been excellent, but trying to turn it into a thriller simply took it far too far from any sense of realism.

So although I enjoyed reading it for the most part, I was left with a slight feeling of disappointment that it could have been so much better than it was. However, I believe this is something of a departure for McTiernan, and I certainly enjoyed it enough to try another of her books to see if her usual style works better for me. Meantime, if you enjoy a fast-paced mystery/thriller and aren’t as picky about credibility issues as I am, this is a well-written and entertaining read.

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

Amazon UK Link

Looking forward to…

Episode 6

Another selection in my occasional looks back at old reviews which I finished by saying something along the lines of “I’ll be looking forward to reading more of her work/this series/his books in the future” to see if I actually did read more and, if I did, did I like the ones I looked forward to as much as the ones that made me look forward to them?

Let’s see then…

The Blinded Man by Arne Dahl

First reviewed 11th April, 2013. This is the first book in the Intercrime series, about a special police unit set up by the Swedish authorities to investigate ‘violent crimes with an international character’. I said “an enjoyable, well plotted police procedural with elements of both mystery and thriller” and mentioned that I was looking forward to reading the next in the series. But did I?

I did! The next one was Bad Blood, also in 2013, a dark and complex story about a serial killer who has come to Sweden from the USA. I gave it five stars and again said I’d be looking forward to the next one. But I haven’t read any more since. I was already losing interest at that stage in both Scandi crime as a genre, though I’ve continued to read some sporadically over the intervening years, and in darker, more graphic crime generally, and I guess by the time his next novel appeared it simply didn’t appeal to me. And I’m afraid it still doesn’t. The blurb mentions terrorism and massacres – not for me, I fear!

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Close to the Bone by Stuart MacBride

First reviewed 19th April 2013. This is the eighth in MacBride’s Aberdeen-set Logan McRae series which I had been following since it started. However, my enthusiasm was wearing thin, since it seemed to me MacBride was bored with his characters and taking the series in the direction of broad farce more than crime fiction. I said “I’m not sure where the series is heading and I’ll probably stick with it for another book or two but I think it may be close to the time that it should reach an end before it becomes too farcical.” So did I?

Hmm, no and yes. When the next book came along I decided I really wasn’t enthusiastic to read it, so dropped the series. However, a couple of years ago HarperCollins sent me a review copy of All That’s Dead, the 12th book in the series, and I decided to give it a chance to bring back the old magic. And to an extent it did. I said “I felt he’d pulled the recurring characters back a little from the extreme caricaturing that lost me eventually in the earlier books” and I felt the plotting was stronger again. I enjoyed it a lot and gave it 4½ stars. It hasn’t made me want to read the books I’ve missed, though, and I’m not sure whether I’ll read the next, if a new one comes along. Maybe. His most recent book is a standalone thriller and it doesn’t appeal to me at all – apparently about a serial killer called the Bloodsmith! Sounds graphic, gruesome and bloody – not for me!

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Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru

First reviewed 23rd April 2013. A beautifully written book about a diverse cast of characters all of whose lives are affected in some way by the location in which they find themselves, the empty and mysterious Californian desert. I said “…the wonderful prose, the fascinating tales, the occasional flashes of humour and, above all, the sympathetic characters all combine to make this a book to be both savoured and enjoyed.” Its five star rating put it on my list to read more from him. But did I?

I did! I loved his next book, White Tears, even more than Gods Without Men – a book that uses the history of early blues music to muse on race, on cultural appropriation, and on race guilt, and a book I still think of often. Then I was a little disappointed by his next, Red Pill, purely because its subject matter – a man having an existential crisis mirroring the political existential crisis in the US, all told with a lot of reference to German romantic poetry – didn’t work for me. He’s still firmly on my looking forward to list though, and has a back catalogue that I must find time to explore. His breakthrough novel, The Impressionist, has been lingering on my wishlist for far too long…

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Death in a Scarlet Gown by Lexie Conyngham

First reviewed 23rd April 2013. This is the first in the Murray of Letho series – historical fiction set in the Scotland of the early 19th century. When I reviewed it I had already read a couple of the following books, and said “For me, this one is the weakest in terms of plotting but the setting and historical context make it well worth reading.” I fully intended to continue with the series… but did I?

I did! Well, for a while anyway. I read and thoroughly enjoyed the first five books. And then, at the end of the sixth, the author did something to one of the characters (can’t explain – spoiler!) that would seriously affect the direction of future books. I hated it, so much so that I commented that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue with the series as a result. And I didn’t. However, doing this post has reminded me of how much I enjoyed Conyngham’s writing, and I see she’s branched out into a new series now, starring Hyppolyta Napier, a crime-busting doctor’s wife in the Scottish town of Ballater in the 1820s, so it’s time to put her back on my wishlist!

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So, one author I probably won’t read more of, one I’m ambivalent about but might, one who’s a firm favourite and a fixture on my list, and one I’d fallen out with over character differences but am now prepared to forgive, forget and move on!

Have you read any of these authors?
Are they on your “looking forward to” list?

Heartstone (Matthew Shardlake 5) by CJ Sansom

Who guards the guardians?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Queen Catherine Parr’s old servant comes to her with a legal problem, the Queen naturally turns to her old friend, Matthew Shardlake. The servant’s son had been tutor to two children until their parents died in one of the waves of sweating sickness that swept the country. The children, Hugh and Emma, had been given into the guardianship of an old family friend, Master Hobbey. Unfortunately smallpox ravaged the Hobbey family shortly after, killing Emma and leaving Hugh badly scarred. Some years later the tutor had visited Hugh, and had become outraged by something he saw as a monstrous wrong. He had placed a complaint with the Court of Wards, but before he could explain his concerns, he was found hanged. The verdict was suicide, but his mother finds that hard to believe. The Queen wishes Matthew to take up the case, with a view to finding out what it was that had so horrified the tutor, and to ensuring the well-being of Hugh. This will involve Matthew in making a trip to Master Hobbey’s home, Hoyland Priory, not far from Portsmouth, where the English army and fleet are massing to defend the country from an expected invasion by France.

Meantime, the story of Ellen Fettiplace continues from the previous novel. She is a woman Matthew met when he was dealing with a case that involved him visiting Bedlam, the lunatic asylum, where Ellen has been incarcerated for nineteen years. She has come to depend on Matthew, and he fears she has fallen in love with him. There is a mystery as to why she is in Bedlam and, since she came from a village in the same area as Hoyland Priory, Matthew decides to investigate while he’s there.

Book 2 of 20

The Shardlake books are so monumental in size and complexity that frankly it’s very hard to summarise what they’re about. The plots are always interesting and there are always several strands going on simultaneously, and at the same time Sansom fills in the historical background, gives a good deal of social history, and doesn’t forget to keep us up to date with the lives of all the regular characters. Here, we see the outcome of Henry VIII’s hubris in warring with France. Men are being conscripted into the army, huge warships are being built, vast expenditure on military preparations is causing high taxes on the wealthy and a devaluation in the coinage which is further impoverishing the poor; and in general England is suffering for Henry’s ego.

In Portsmouth, Henry’s favourite ship, the Mary Rose, has been refitted in preparation for the coming battle, and she plays her part in the plot too. Sansom manages to impart a ton of historical information interestingly, so we learn all about the ship and what it would have been like to serve aboard her, and we see how she fares when the battle commences. Shardlake and Barak travel south with a company of archers heading for Portsmouth, so we also learn about this aspect of warfare. And of course, Matthew as usual finds his cases leading back to the skulduggery of Henry’s court, so that we get an insight into the high politics of the day too. On top of all this, there’s lots of info about how wardship and guardianship worked, about the enclosure of common land, and about the legal system of the day. As I’ve said before, I’ve learned far more about the Tudor period from Sansom than from all the mighty history books I’ve ploughed through in my lifetime, with the added bonus that Sansom makes it interesting and enjoyable!

The Mary Rose
by Geoff Hunt, PPRSMA
via http://www.maryrose.org

Meantime, on the personal level, Jack is irritated to have to go away from London at this time, since Tamasin is heavily pregnant. Although Jack is still officially Matthew’s assistant, the two men are now close friends, almost family; and Jack, always loyal, is also able to be honest when he feels Matthew is making bad decisions. Guy is staying with Matthew after his shop was attacked, and Shardlake has a new steward who is not working out very well, and is giving Matthew yet another problem to solve.

Steven Crossley

Steven Crossley is again the narrator for this one, and his performance is really wonderful. It’s great having the same narrator for the whole series, since the recurring characters have the same voices each time, and I would find it very hard now to imagine the three major characters, Matthew, Jack and Guy, with different voices. But there’s always a cast of thousands (approximately) in a Shardlake novel, and Crossley does an amazing job of making each character distinct and individual, and immediately recognisable, which makes the listening experience so much easier and more enjoyable. He even does the women well, which is not always the case with male narrators. If the rumour is true that there’s a new Shardlake novel in the publishing pipeline, then I sincerely hope someone has already booked Crossley for the audio version!

You could certainly read this as a standalone in terms of plot, but to develop the emotional connection with the regulars it’s definitely better to read the series in order. And since each one is a masterpiece, that would certainly be no hardship – many, many hours of reading or listening pleasure!

Audible UK Link