In his introduction, Mike Ashley reminds us that there have always been monsters, from the Hydra and Minotaur of the Greeks, through the giants and ogres of fairy tales, to the more futuristic monsters of our own generation. This anthology contains fourteen stories mostly from the first half of the twentieth century, ranging from the evolution-inspired monsters left in remote places of the earth from the dinosaur era, to the monsters emerging from the unexplored ocean deeps, to the aliens from other worlds wandering among us, as friend or foe. No supernatural monsters here – these are all “real” monsters; that is, theoretically they were all possible at least at the time the stories were written.
Menace of the Monster edited by Mike Ashley
Monsters are not my favourite form of either science fiction or horror fiction so it’s perhaps not surprising that I didn’t enjoy this anthology quite as much as some of the others I’ve been reading recently. It is, however, a nicely varied selection with some intriguing inclusions, such as an abridged version of The War of the Worlds written by HG Wells himself for a magazine, and the story of King Kong, produced as an abridgement of the movie and credited to Edgar Wallace although it’s not clear how much he actually contributed. As stories I didn’t rate either of these highly, but I still enjoyed reading them as interesting bits of sci-fi history. Overall I gave about half of the stories either 4 or 5 stars, while the rest rated pretty low for me, I’m afraid. But they may well work better for people who enjoy monsters more.
Here’s a brief idea of some of the ones I enjoyed most:
De Profundis by Coutts Brisbane – a nicely scary story about killer ants which I used in a previous Tuesday Terror! post.
Discord in Scarlet by AE van Vogt – a longer story, about 40 pages, this tells of an alien space being that encounters a human space ship far from Earth. At first the humans are thrilled to find a new life form but it soon turns out that the alien is not looking to make new friends! This is very well done, and reminded me very much of an episode of Star Trek – not specifically, but in style.
Resident Physician by James White – space again, but this time set in a galactic hospital which caters for all kinds of life forms, as both staff and patients. A new patient has arrived – a form of life the staff have never before encountered. It is unconscious and is thought to have eaten its only ship-mate! The physician must find a way to treat it, while the authorities must determine whether eating a ship-mate is a crime, or maybe a normal part of this alien’s culture. Very well written and imaginative, this one is also highly entertaining, while gently examining the question of how to legislate for cultural differences.
Personal Monster by Idris Seabright – a little girl has discovered a monster living in the ash-pit in her yard. The monster is only small as yet, but it’s growing, and it forces the little girl to feed it. She’s scared of it, but she’s also too scared to tell her parents about it because they’re very strict and she’s a bit scared of them too. I loved this story – the author very quickly made me care about the girl and it all gets pretty creepy. The description of the monster is also rather vague, which makes it even scarier. I’d rather battle King Kong than deal with this one!
So some real gems in the collection which made it well worth the reading time invested. Having pulled together my favourites, I see the ones I liked best are mostly the space alien stories and I think that shows that my personal preference is definitely weighting my ratings here, since I’ve always preferred that kind of monster to the monster from the deep or the dinosaur. But there’s plenty of variety for people who prefer more earth-based monsters too. And as always, the introduction is an added bonus – well written, informative and entertaining.
Little Green Men Rating:
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
Amy Kellogg and her friend Wilma are on holiday in Mexico City but it’s turning out to be a fraught time. Wilma, always moody and overbearing, is behaving even worse than usual following her second divorce. She’s drinking to excess and arguing with Amy on the slightest provocation. Then, following a drinking session, Wilma dies in a fall from the hotel balcony. Her depressed and emotional state leads the authorities to rule it as a suicide. Amy’s husband, Rupert, rushes to his shocked wife’s side, but when he returns home to San Francisco a week later, he returns alone. Amy, he tells her family, needed time to herself and has gone off to New York. But Amy’s brother Gill doesn’t believe his adored little sister would have gone off without telling him herself, and as time passes with no word from her, his suspicions grow…
Well, this is a little gem! Told in the third person, Millar lets us glimpse inside the heads of all the characters in turn but only giving us enough to tantalise our suspicions. We know that Rupert isn’t telling all he knows but we don’t know what he’s hiding. Is he a wife murderer as Gill suspects? If so, why would he have killed the woman he apparently loved? Gill suspects the age-old story of another woman and has his suspicions of who that woman might be. But if Rupert hasn’t killed her, where is Amy? It’s entirely out of character for her to have gone off on her own, this woman who has always seemed so dependant on others and so meekly subservient to the stronger characters she is surrounded by – her brother, her husband, Wilma. Increasingly desperate, Gill turns to a private detective, Elmer Dodd, and we follow him as he tries to find the truth.
The plotting is great, full of little twists that kept me puzzling over what had happened until the very last page. It’s more of a psychological mystery than a whodunit – the clues are all in the personalities and the things they do that seem out of character. The characterisation is brilliant – done with a light touch but no less astute for that. There’s Rupert’s secretary, nursing a crush for Rupert so secret she’s not even fully aware of it herself. Gill’s wife, long tired of Gill’s almost obsessively over-protective love for his little sister, is trying hard not to be glad that Amy has gone and is fighting against her instinctive hope that she never returns. The maid in the hotel in Mexico, she who listens through the walls of the title, might be a little stereotyped, but her greed and petty criminality are believable, her contempt for the rich Americans who stay in the hotel adds a good deal of humour, and her superstitions are used to give an air of real unease to some parts of the story. Elmer Dodd is excellent too. He’s a man who wants to know the truth but he’s not ruthless about it. He has sympathy for the weaknesses of human nature, and has a kind of warmth that makes people trust him.
This was my introduction to Margaret Millar after having seen her praised by various vintage crime fans around the blogosphere, and I’m very glad to have met her. A darkly twisted story, tightly plotted and lifted by some affectionately humorous character portraits and observations of society, not a word is wasted as Millar leads the reader through a labyrinth of suspicion and doubt. Great fun, and highly recommended – another author to add to my growing list of vintage crime favourites!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Vertigo.
(Yes, I know it’s Sunday but I’m so behind with postings that I’ll be reading books before I’ve included them on TBR posts soon, and I simply can’t cope with the mental and emotional discombobulation that would cause me!)
So, the first batch for 2020 for this challenge includes a couple of well-known names and a couple who are new to me…
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
This will be a re-read of the very first Christie novel. However it’s many, many years since I last read it, so I’ve pretty much forgotten it completely, including the crucial question of whodunit…
The Blurb says: Who poisoned the wealthy Emily Inglethorpe, and how did the murderer penetrate and escape from her locked bedroom? Suspects abound in the quaint village of Styles St. Mary–from the heiress’s fawning new husband to her two stepsons, her volatile housekeeper, and a pretty nurse who works in a hospital dispensary. Making his unforgettable debut, the brilliant Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is on the case. The key to the success of this style of detective novel lies in how the author deals with both the clues and the red herrings, and it has to be said that no one bettered Agatha Christie at this game.
Book No: 18
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1920
Martin Edwards says: “Christie blends a rich variety of ingredients, including floor plans, facsimile documents, an inheritance tangle, impersonation, forgery and courtroom drama. The originality of her approach lay in the way she prioritised the springing of a surprise solution ahead of everything else…“
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Trent’s Last Case by EC Bentley
I don’t remember ever reading anything by Bentley before so this is unknown territory…
The Blurb says: On Wall Street, the mere mention of the name Sigsbee Manderson is enough to send a stock soaring—or bring it tumbling back to earth. Feared but not loved, Manderson has no one to mourn him when the gardener at his British country estate finds him facedown in the dirt, a bullet buried in his brain. There are bruises on his wrist and blood on his clothes, but no clue that will lead the police to the murderer. It will take an amateur to—inadvertently—show them the way.
Cheerful, charming, and always eager for a mystery, portrait artist and gentleman sleuth Philip Trent leaps into the Manderson affair with all the passion of the autodidact. Simply by reading the newspapers, he discovers overlooked details of the crime. Not all of his reasoning is sound, and his romantic interests are suspect, to say the least, but Trent’s dedication to the art of detection soon uncovers what no one expected him to find: the truth.
Book No: 12
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1913
Edwards says: “The book opens with a scathing denunciation of the ruthless American magnate Sigsbee Manderson. More than a century after the book was published, this passage retains its power, and reminds us that there is nothing new about the unpopularity of financiers…“
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The Innocence of Father Brown by GK Chesterton
I’ve never been a fan of GK Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, so this one will be more of a duty than a pleasure… unless he manages to win me over this time!
The Blurb says: In thrilling tales such as “The Blue Cross,” “The Secret Garden,” and “The Hammer of God,” G. K. Chesterton’s immortal priest-detective applies his extraordinary intuition to the most intricate of mysteries. No corner of the human soul is too dark for Father Brown, no villain too ingenious. The Innocence of Father Brown is a testament to the power of faith and the pleasure of a story well told.
Book No: 7
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1911
Edwards says: “Chesterton took a real-life friend, a Bradford priest, as his model, ‘knocking him about; beating his hat and umbrella shapeless, untidying his clothes, punching his intelligent countenance into a condition of pudding-faced fatuity, and generally disguising Father O’Connor as Father Brown.’“
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The Crime at Diana’s Poolby Victor L Whitechurch
I’m sure I’ve read and enjoyed a short story from Whitechurch in one of the BL’s anthologies, though I may be mistaken since I can’t find any reference to it on the blog. Anyway, this is certainly my first novel by him…
The Blurb says: The Reverend Harry Westerman was “an energetic, capable parish priest, a good organiser, and a plain, sensible preacher” and “a particularly shrewd and capable man. It was no idle boast of his that he had made a habit of observation – many of his parishioners little guessed how closely and clearly he had summed them up by observing those ordinary idiosyncrasies which escape the notice of most people. He was also a man who could be deeply interested in many things quite apart from his professional calling, and chiefly in problems which concerned humanity.” Attending the garden party of a newcomer to the parish of Coppleswick he makes a discovery that leads to a long and complicated investigation with sinister connections to past events.
Book No: 37
Subject Heading: Murder at the Manor
Publication Year: 1927
Edwards says: “As Dorothy L Sayers complained, he did not put the reader ‘on an equal footing with the detective himself, as regards all clues and discoveries’. For her, this was a throwback to ‘the naughty tradition’, but she acknowledged that the novel was otherwise excellent.”
In the summer of 1900, young Leo Colston is invited by his school friend, Marcus Maudsley, to spend a few weeks with Marcus’ family at Brandham Hall. Many years later, in 1952, Leo comes across his diary of this year, and as he reads it, he gradually begins to remember the events of that summer, memories that his mind has suppressed throughout all the intervening time. The story he tells us is one of subtle gradations of class and social convention, of sexual awakening and the loss of innocence, and over it all is an air of unease created by the older Leo’s knowledge of the horrors of the wars which would soon engulf the 20th century, changing this enchanted world of privilege for ever.
To my mind’s eye, my buried memories of Brandham Hall are like effects of chiaroscuro, patches of light and dark: it is only with effort that I see them in terms of colour. There are things I know, though I don’t know how I know them, and things that I remember. Certain things are established in my mind as facts, but no picture attaches to them; on the other hand there are pictures unverified by any fact which recur obsessively, like the landscape of a dream.
Leo is twelve when the story begins, with the complete ignorance of all matters relating to sex which was commonplace for children in those days. His interior world, beautifully brought to life, is one where adults are mysterious beings who don’t seem to act in accordance with the unbreakable codes of the public schoolboy. The adults at Brandham, so far above middle-class Leo in social standing, so confident in their superiority, seem to him god-like, and he compares them to the images of the zodiac which are printed in his diary. So when Marian, the daughter of the house, chooses Leo to be her postman, carrying secret messages to a neighbouring farmer, Ted Burgess, he feels honoured. He is old enough to be enthralled by Marian’s beauty and capricious behaviour, but young enough not to recognise his feelings as sexual. She is a goddess, he her willing worshipper and slave. To serve her, to gain her recognition, is all he desires – and to avoid her wrath.
Book 58 of 90
His feelings about Ted are more complicated. Even Leo’s lowly class is higher than that of a mere farmer and so Leo can feel socially superior, condescending even, but Ted has an overpowering physical masculinity that elevates him too to god status in the fatherless Leo’s eyes.
Believing himself to be unseen by other bathers, he gave himself up to being alone with his body. He wriggled his toes, breathed hard through his nose, twisted his brown moustache where some drops of water still clung, and looked himself critically all over. The scrutiny seemed to satisfy him, as well as it might. I, whose only acquaintance was with bodies and minds developing, was suddenly confronted by maturity in its most undeniable form; and I wondered, what must it feel like to be him, master of those limbs which have passed beyond the need of gym and playing field, and exist for their own beauty and strength? What can they do, I thought, to be conscious of themselves?
To play Mercury to these superior beings is at first a delight to Leo but, as the summer wears on, gradually he becomes uncomfortable, vaguely realising that somehow – he’s not sure how – Marian and Ted are transgressing sacrosanct codes of behaviour which he is becoming aware of without fully understanding. In this society where adults and children inhabit separate worlds, there is no one whom he can consult, and so he must try to find his own way through the moral maze in which he finds himself, and must somehow save his gods and goddesses from the path of self-destruction he begins to believe they’re on.
The writing is beautiful with every word perfectly placed, and emotional truth pours from every page. There is an air of nostalgia for a golden age, but below the surface brilliance the reader is aware of the rot of a rigid social code that restricts most the very people who superficially seem most privileged. The role of women as pawns in the marriage game is shown clearly through Marian, brought up to do her duty by making a socially advantageous match regardless of personal inclination. The ambiguity around Marian is brilliantly portrayed – she is victim of her class and gender, but she can also be cold and cruel, a harsh goddess who brooks no dissent. Is it possible to break the heart of someone so utterly selfish? Or does she exist simply to break the hearts of her adoring subjects? As a person, I’m ambivalent about her; as a character, she is a wonderful, unforgettable creation.
Still, whose fault was it? ‘Nothing is ever a lady’s fault,’ Lord Trimingham had said, thereby ruling Marian out, and I was glad, for now I had no wish to inculpate her. He had not said, ‘Nothing is ever a lord’s fault,’ but no one could hold him to blame: he had done nothing that he shouldn’t: I was clear about that. Nor had he said, ‘Nothing is ever a farmer’s fault,’ and lacking the benefit of this saving clause the fault, if fault there were, must lie with Ted. Ted had enticed Marian into his parlour, his kitchen, and bewitched her. He had cast a spell on her. That spell I would now break – as much for his sake as for hers.
Behind the story of these characters is the darker story of a century that started in war and became a long horror of loss. Hugh, the man whom Marian is expected to marry, has been badly scarred in the Boer War but still believes that it is the duty of every patriotic Englishman to fight for his country. He is the 9th Viscount Trimingham, a title that thrills young Leo, elevating Hugh too to his triumvirate of deities. For Leo, the idea of the new century excites him – a blank page on which he expects glories and wonders to be written. In this summer of 1900 the rare event of a long heatwave descends on England, seeming to Leo to signify the beginning of this new golden age, and he becomes obsessed by the daily temperatures, longing for new records to be broken. The unrelenting heat gives a kind of mystical air to the summer, as of a long pause when normal rules don’t apply. But when the dazzling summer darkens to tragedy, Leo loses not just his innocence but his optimism. The end of the summer heralds the end of hope for the century, and this small personal tragedy seems to presage the much greater tragedies that were soon to follow on an unprecedented scale.
A wonderful book which I’m glad to say affected me just as much on this re-reading as when I first read it decades ago. If you’ve never read it, give your soul a treat and do so now…
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Because we all had this on our Classics Club spin a couple of months ago and it didn’t come up, Rose and Sandra and I all decided we’d read it anyway (we’re such rebels!) and review it on the same day – Wednesday! Unfortunately the internet gods had different plans and blew up my system again on Tuesday. Now with a new router and a promise or threat that if it goes down again they will have to do “extensive work”, whatever that means, so fingers crossed. Apologies to anyone who was concerned at my sudden disappearance, and especially to Sandra and Rose! As the poet Burns would say, the best laid plans of mice and bloggers gang aft agley…
Anyway, links below to their reviews, which I haven’t yet read but can’t wait to! I’m hoping my non-blogging blog buddy Alyson may have read it with us too, and will add her views on it in the comments below… and anyone else, of course! I should warn you, if anyone says they hated it I fully intend to splat them with a giant custard pie… 😀
I came across William Hope Hodgson for the first time last year when I read one of his stories, The Derelict, in another anthology and thought it was wonderfully weird and truly horrific. So I was thrilled when the British Library brought out this collection of ten of his stories, giving me an opportunity to get to know him better. I’m happy to report that he has lived up to my hopes – I thoroughly enjoyed every story in the collection, with the majority getting the full five stars.
I’m still fairly new to weird fiction, so certainly no expert. But the authors of whom I’ve read most seem each to develop a kind of overarching mythology in which they set most of their tales. The most famous of these is HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, full of ancient forces, Elder Gods and sometimes alien beings. It seems to me that Hodgson, writing a decade or two earlier, must have had some influence on Lovecraft, and the usual informative introduction, this time by Xavier Aldana Reyes, tells us that Lovecraft described him as ‘second only to Algernon Blackwood in his serious treatment of unreality’. I haven’t read enough Blackwood to confirm or argue with that, but my limited reading would put Hodgson third in the ranks of the weird greats, not far behind Lovecraft himself and Arthur Machen. Hodgson’s use of language isn’t nearly as lavishly spectacular as Lovecraft’s, but he does have one advantage as far as I’m concerned, in that he’s mastered the art of being succinct!
The stories collected here fall into two main categories. Many of them are set on the sea, making full use of the forces of nature, the isolation of the wide expanses of the oceans, and man’s ignorance, especially over a century ago, of what may be lurking in the deeps. Some of these use ‘natural’ horrors, such as monstrous squids or sea-serpents, while others have a supernatural element of the ghostly apparition variety, and yet others cross over into definite ‘weird’ territory. (Reyes defines ‘weird’ fiction as ‘a subgenre of speculative fiction concerned with the limits of human experience and the unknowability of the natural world that brings together elements of the horror, science fiction and fantasy literary traditions’.)
Hodgson’s own ‘mythos’ seems to be of forces beyond the understanding of puny humanity (puny humanity is a definite feature of weird fiction) which can channel themselves into inanimate matter, making it animate. He develops this more clearly in his second category of stories: those about Carnacki, a psychic investigator, who tackles all kinds of strange occurrences using the knowledge he has gained from the study of ancient texts (another recurring feature of weird). Carnacki talks of the ‘Outer Monstrosities’, psychic forces held in gases circling the planet far away which sometimes come to Earth to generally wreak havoc. The Carnacki stories take the form of him recounting his adventures to a group of friends as a kind of after-dinner entertainment. There’s quite a lot of repetition in how Carnacki goes about his work – lots of gadgets and harnessing of the powers of pentagrams and stuff – but there is a lot of originality in the horrors he faces, from a haunting by a horse, to an evil hog-like creature, to a mysteriously terrifying whistling room.
I often look at other reviews on Goodreads, and it seems as if I’m more enthusiastic about Hodgson than many of the other reviewers. Reading more closely, this often seems to be because the reviewer is comparing him unfavourably to Lovecraft, the undoubted master of the genre. I have mixed feelings about Lovecraft’s weirdest stuff, sometimes loving it but sometimes finding it too long and repetitive, and getting totally annoyed with his repeated assertion that the horrors his characters face are ‘indescribable’. Happily for me, Hodgson describes his horrors, perhaps with fewer adjectives but certainly with more clarity. So as always, it’s all subjective. Subjectively, here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:
The Horse of the Invisible – a Carnacki story. An old family legend has it that the first-born daughter will be haunted by a horse on announcing her betrothal. Carnacki is called in when it seems to be coming true for the current daughter of the house, A nice blend of human wickedness and supernatural evil in this one.
The Derelict – blown off course by a wild storm, the narrator’s ship comes across an ancient derelict ship and he and a couple of others go aboard her just out of interest. Bad move! This one is an introduction to Hodgson’s theme that there is a life force that can give inanimate objects a kind of intelligence. Some fantastic horror imagery, and I liked that the hero turns out to be the uneducated Captain, using his skills and experience when the brains and nerves of his ‘intellectual superiors’ fail.
The Riven Night – another sea story, this time of a strange light that appears in the starless darkness of night and draws the ship towards it. There’s a kind of mystical, almost religious edge to this one, as each man sees something different in the light according to his own experiences. Again, excellent imagery, and perhaps more thought-provoking than some of the other stories.
The Whistling Room – another Carnacki tale. A man buys an old Irish castle, not believing the rumours that one of the rooms is haunted by a mysterious whistling. Bad move! This is a kind of mash-up between a straight haunting and Hodgson’s running weird theme, and works very well. It also has an explanation for the haunting which many of the stories don’t – an intriguing tale of revenge. Very well told, despite the rather mystical babble in which Carnacki sometimes indulges.
Great stuff! I do hope the BL continues to do for ‘forgotten’ horror what they’ve done so well for vintage crime.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
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The porpy found some of these stories pretty scary!
Ken Clarke has been a fixture in the UK Parliament since 1970, so the entire period in which I’ve been politically aware. He has stood down at this election, having been thrown out of the Conservative Party of which he has been a member all these years over his support for remaining in the EU. Not that he will care, I imagine – the personality I’ve spent so long with in this 24 hour audiobook is one who will always believe he is right and everyone else is wrong, and will happily sail off into the sunset with his sense of his innate superiority undented.
Long familiarity with a politician can breed a kind of affection, especially when he remains in parliament long after his ministerial days are over. There is a tradition in the UK, not so much of elder statesmen, but of cuddly uncles – men who pepper their speeches with rambling accounts of how things used to be back in the days of Harold Wilson or Margaret Thatcher, like the old relative in the corner at family gatherings who will insist on talking about the war. (I’m not being unconsciously sexist here – it really is a male thing since we haven’t had enough long-serving women MPs for there to be many female octogenarians shuffling around the corridors of power yet… give it another couple of decades.) For older people, like me, who remember Wilson and Thatcher, this gives a curious sense of stability and continuity. Younger people, I imagine, simply roll their eyes and switch off. Over the last couple of decades, Clarke has become one of those cuddly uncles, known for his love of jazz, his cigar-smoking bon viveur personality, his jovial demeanour, and his endearingly crumpled appearance…
…which explains why I’d managed to sort of forget that he was responsible for overseeing some of the most Thatcherite policies of the Thatcher era! As a cabinet minister in those days he served as Health Secretary as the first tentative steps were taken to make the NHS more “efficient” (i.e., cheaper) by introducing the ‘internal market’ – a way of making hospitals compete against each other for patients; for ‘contracting out’ ancillary services – a way of making cleaners, canteen staff and so on work longer for less money and fewer employment rights; and for making GPs ‘fundholders’, taking decisions on where patients should be treated on the basis of budgets rather than quality of care. Then, having destroyed standards and morale in the NHS, he spent a couple of years trying to wreck – I mean, improve – education, in much the same way.
So “successful” was he in these roles that Thatcher’s successor, John Major, promoted him to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer. How you rate him in this role really depends on your political leanings. The economy improved under his oversight, but the disparity between rich and poor grew. Unemployment went down, but it could be argued that it was Thatcher’s policies that had made it rise to such alarming rates in the first place. Interest rates, driven through the roof by the government’s mishandling of the whole question of the ERM and the single European currency, came back down to bearable levels. All of this gave him a reputation for competence and I won’t argue with that except to say that every chancellor’s reputation rests to some degree on the competence or otherwise of his predecessor and successor. Clarke succeeded to a shambles – it would have been hard for him to make things worse.
The book is well written, full of anecdotes and personality sketches that stop it from being a dry read about policies. I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Clarke himself and he has an attractive speaking voice, making it a pleasant listening experience. But although I listened very hard, I can’t remember him once in the whole 24 hours ever expressing any concern for the weaker or more vulnerable members of our society. I got the distinct impression that to Clarke politics is an intellectual game, with victory being judged by statistics and honours rather than by outcomes for actual people. Even his much vaunted support for the EU, which in recent years has made many Remainers feel that he’s much cuddlier than most Conservatives, really seems to be about the free flow of workers providing a limitless pool of cheap labour from the poorer countries in Europe with which to boost profits for the rich while depressing the pay and conditions of those Brits already at the bottom of the economic ladder.
As is often the case with political memoirs, Clarke only really talks about the events in which he was directly involved, which is understandable but often gives a rather patchy view of a period. For instance, there’s barely a mention of the Falklands War, which played a huge role in why the Thatcher government was re-elected. He does talk about the miners’ strike, but again on a purely political level. There is no doubt that the rights and wrongs of the strike are debatable, but most people, I think, have some sympathy for the suffering that the mining communities went through during and after the strike. I didn’t catch a whiff of that from Clarke – to him, it was solely a question of economics and political power.
I often find my view of a politician changes when I read their memoirs, which is why I do it. Usually I come out feeling that I may disagree with them politically but that I’ve gained an appreciation of their good intentions. In this case the reverse happened. I rather liked Cuddly Uncle Ken before I listened to this, but now I see him as smug and self-satisfied, a man who throughout his life has been far more interested in his own comfort and reputation than in trying to improve the lives of the people he serves. I was sorry to see him thrown out of his party after a lifetime in it, but now… well, somehow I don’t much care. He says himself frequently that he’s not the type of person who lets anything bother him. I would have liked him to be bothered by inequality, child poverty, the marginalised and the forgotten. Is that too much to ask of a politician? As a book, though, I do recommend it as a well written memoir that casts light on the politics of the last fifty years.
A schoolgirl is missing. She left behind a note saying she was going off to London in pursuit of her teen idol, film star Bobby Hambro, but her father is insistent she wouldn’t have done this and must have been abducted or lured away. When Edgar Stephens, now a Superintendent, begins to investigate he finds very little, but fortunately there a few women on hand to help all the feckless males out. There’s his wife, Emma, once a police officer but now a bored and disgruntled housewife and mother. There’s Sam, the newspaper reporter, bored and disgruntled because her sexist boss seems to think she should be satisfied to make the tea for the male journalists. New WPC Meg is bored and disgruntled because she’s expected to stay behind in the station and type reports while the male police officers get all the exciting jobs. And there’s Astarte, the mystic fortune-teller, who happily is not bored and disgruntled, but did I mention she’s a mystic? Useful for moving the plot along with a bit of woo-woo whenever it gets stuck…
I know it doesn’t sound like it from that opening paragraph, but overall I quite enjoyed this although I think it’s much weaker than the earlier books in the series, most of which I’ve thought were excellent. The book starts as all the regulars come together for the funeral of Diablo who, like Edgar and Max, had been one of the Mystery Men during the war, a small Army outfit who used their skills in illusion to confuse the enemy forces. His death symbolises a break from the past. Eleven years have passed since the last book, so we’re now in Brighton in the early ‘60s, the time of mods and rockers fighting on the beach and the beginning of an era of great social change. Variety shows are no longer fashionable and Max Mephisto is now a famous film star. This means we’re no longer in the seedy world of theatres and theatrical boarding houses, and stage magic no longer plays a role in the plot. Rather a strange decision, I felt, since that was really this series’ unique selling point.
However, Griffiths handles the change quite well, quickly filling us in on what’s happened to all the recurring characters in the meantime. I didn’t think she brought the ‘60s to life as well as she had done with the ‘50s in the earlier books, but there were enough references to the changing social attitudes of the time to keep it interesting. As always, I became somewhat bored and disgruntled myself at the insistence which all crime writers currently have of ticking off all the political correctness boxes whether the plot calls for it or not, and I felt Griffiths handled this particularly clumsily. It was as if at the end she went back to a tick-list and shoe-horned in any compulsory issues she’d omitted – sexism? Tick. Feminism? Tick. Gay character? Tick. Black character? Tick. And of course all her main characters have liberal attitudes at least twenty, if not fifty, years ahead of their time.
As the plot develops, it becomes clear that more than one girl is missing, and then a body turns up. Now the race is on to find the other girls before any more of them are killed. I don’t want to tread too far into spoiler territory here, so I will simply say that I also get a little bored when recurring characters become potential victims and that happens not once, but twice in this book. It’s entirely unrealistic and is a lazy way to try to increase the tension. And the motivation of the abductor was flimsy at best.
Sometimes writing a review clarifies the thoughts a little too much and this has turned out to be more critical than I intended. While reading, I found it an enjoyable story, well written as Griffiths’ books always are, and although I felt it fell over the credibility cliff at a relatively early point, I was still intrigued enough to see how it all worked out. I did however feel that the ending was rushed and anti-climactic, and the hints that Griffiths gives at the end as to how the series is likely to progress in the future didn’t inspire me with confidence. I rather wish Griffiths would stick to standalones or perhaps trilogies or short series – somehow I always feel she runs out of steam with regards to what to do with her characters in longer-running series. I’d be happier for their personal lives to take a back seat and for the crime to be the major focus. However, I’ll probably stick around for the next one – I’m interested to see if she can make the signalled changes work.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.
So the first TBR Thursday of the year and the first report since I set my annual target to reduce the TBR by 40. Hmm. Well, I’m rushing to do this before the postman arrives because I fear the situation is going to deteriorate badly when he does. At this precise moment it’s up by 1 to 206. Could be worse… let’s face it, WILL be worse…
Here are a few that are at the top of the heap…
Grey Granite by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
The winner of the last Classics Club Spin is this, the third volume of A Scots Quair trilogy. I loved the first one, Sunset Song, and found the second, Cloud Howe, disappointing, so anything could happen with this one… fingers crossed!
The Blurb says: Chris Guthrie and her son, Ewan, have come to the industrial town of Duncairn, where life is as hard as the granite of the buildings all around them. These are the Depression years of the 1930s, and Chris is far from the fields of her youth in Sunset Song. In a society of factory owners, shopkeepers, policemen, petty clerks and industrial labourers, “Chris Caledonia” must make her living as bets she can by working in Ma Cleghorn’s boarding house. Ewan finds employment in a steel foundry and tries to lead a peaceful strike against the manufacture of armaments. In the face of violence and police brutality, his socialist idealism is forged into something harder and fiercer as he becomes a communist activist ready to sacrifice himself, his girlfriend, and even the truth itself, for the cause. Grey Granite is the last and grimmest volume of the Scots Quair trilogy. Chris Guthrie is one of the great characters in Scottish Literature and no reader of Sunset Song and Cloud Howe should miss this last rich chapter in her tale.
* * * * *
The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar
Courtesy of Pushkin Vertigo. I’ve seen Margaret Millar mentioned by various vintage crime fans around the blogosphere, so am looking forward to trying her for myself…
The Blurb says: Amy Kellogg is not having a pleasant vacation in Mexico. She’s been arguing nonstop with her friend and traveling companion, Wilma, and she wants nothing more than to go home to California. But their holiday takes a nightmarish turn when Wilma is found dead on the street below their room-an apparent suicide.
Rupert Kellogg has just returned from seeing his wife Amy through the difficulties surrounding the apparent suicide of her friend in Mexico. But Rupert is returning alone-which worries Amy’s brother. Amy was traumatized by the suicide, Rupert explains, and has taken a holiday in New York City to settle her nerves. But as gone girl Amy’s absence drags on for weeks and then months, the sense of unease among her family changes to suspicion and eventual allegations.
* * * * *
Braised Pork by An Yu
Courtesy of Harville Secker via NetGalley. I know nothing about either book or author but I thought it sounded intriguingly strange…
The Blurb says: One morning in autumn, Jia Jia walks into the bathroom of her Beijing apartment to find her husband – with whom she had been breakfasting barely an hour before – dead in the bathtub. Next to him a piece of paper unfolds like the wings of a butterfly, and on it is an image that Jia Jia can’t forget.
Profoundly troubled by what she has seen, even while she is abruptly released from a marriage that had constrained her, Jia Jia embarks on a journey to discover the truth of the sketch. Starting at her neighbourhood bar, with its brandy and vinyl, and fuelled by anger, bewilderment, curiosity and love, Jia Jia travels deep into her past in order to arrive at her future.
Braised Pork is a cinematic, often dreamlike evocation of nocturnal Beijing and the high plains of Tibet, and an exploration of myth-making, loss, and a world beyond words, which ultimately sees a young woman find a new and deeper sense of herself.
* * * * *
Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin
This has been languishing on my TBR since September 2016, which is odd since I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the couple of books I’ve previously read from this author. This is the first in a quartet, of which I’ve already read the last one – yeah, must stop doing that! This will take me to one of my last Around the World destinations, I hope…
The Blurb says: ‘Can you ever come to terms with a missing child?’ Julia Davidsson has not. Her five-year-old son disappeared twenty years previously on the Swedish island of Oland. No trace of him has ever been found.
Until his shoe arrives in the post. It has been sent to Julia’s father, a retired sea-captain still living on the island. Soon he and Julia are piecing together fragments of the past: fragments that point inexorably to a local man called Nils Kant, known to delight in the pain of others. But Nils Kant died during the 1960s. So who is the stranger seen wandering across the fields as darkness falls?
It soon becomes clear that someone wants to stop Julia’s search for the truth. And that he’s much, much closer than she thinks…
* * * * *
NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
The Spanish Civil War is one of those periods of history about which I am embarrassingly ignorant despite the fact that it inspired so many writers at the time and afterwards. Sometimes ignorance becomes self-reinforcing – when I see a book about the Spanish Civil War, I avoid it because I feel I don’t know enough about the history to understand the book, and therefore I never learn about it. But having enjoyed my Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge a couple of years ago, I feel inspired to finally read myself into this period of history in the same way.
I’m going for a mix of fact and fiction, and am hoping to read a selection that will show me the war through the eyes of contemporaries and also retrospectively, through history and novels. As well as books by British authors, I’ll be trying to read some Spanish writers, though unfortunately I’ll be restricted to those which are available in English. I’ll be hoping to mix some lighter, action reads in with the heavier stuff as I go along. I expect my initial list will expand and change as one book leads to another.
I’m already conscious that the books I’ve selected seem to be heavily weighted to the Republican side, so if anyone knows of any good fiction from the perspective of the Nationalists, or indeed other good books from the Republican perspective, I’ll be grateful for recommendations. It seems to have been the accepted position of most British writers of the time that we should be on the side of the Republicans, but I have no real view on the matter as yet, not being a fan of either fascists or communists as a general rule, so I’ll be starting at least with an impartial eye.
High in the pine forests of the Spanish Sierra, a guerrilla band prepares to blow up a vital bridge. Robert Jordan, a young American volunteer, has been sent to handle the dynamiting. There, in the mountains, he finds the dangers and the intense comradeship of war. And there he discovers Maria, a young woman who has escaped from Franco’s rebels…
The Battle for Spain by Anthony Beevor (history)
With new material gleaned from the Russian archives and numerous other sources, this brisk and accessible book (Spain’s #1 bestseller for twelve weeks), provides a balanced and penetrating perspective, explaining the tensions that led to this terrible overture to World War II and affording new insights into the war – its causes, course, and consequences.
In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda (fiction)
Natalia is hesitant when a stranger asks her to dance at the fiesta in Diamond Square in Barcelona. But Joe is charming and forceful, and she takes his hand. They marry and soon have two children; for Natalia it is an awakening, both good and bad. Then the Spanish Civil War erupts, and lays waste to the city and to their simple existence…
The Frozen Heart by Almudena Grandes (fiction)
Alvaro discovers an old folder with letters sent to his father in Russia, faded photos of people he never met, and a locked grey metal box. From the provincial heartlands of Spain to the battlefields of Russia, this is a mesmerizing journey through a war that tore families apart, pitting fathers against sons, brothers against brothers, and wives against husbands…
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee (memoirs)
Young Laurie Lee walks to London, and makes a living labouring and playing the violin. But, deciding to travel further afield, he heads for Spain. With just a blanket to sleep under and his trusty violin, he spends a year crossing Spain, from Vigo in the north to the southern coast. Only the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War puts an end to his extraordinary peregrinations…
Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom (fiction)
Madrid: Sept., 1940. Enter British spy Harry Brett, sent to win the confidence of a shadowy Madrid businessman. Meanwhile, ex-Red Cross nurse Barbara Clare is engaged in a secret mission of her own—to find her former lover, whose passion for the Communist cause led him into the International Brigades and who vanished on the bloody battlefields of the Jarama.
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (memoirs)
“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism…” Thus wrote Orwell following his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Here he brings to bear the force of his humanity, passion, and clarity, describing with bitter intensity the hopes and betrayals of that chaotic episode.
Homage to Caledonia by Daniel Grey (history)
Thirty-five thousand people from across the world volunteered to join the armed resistance in a war on fascism. More people, proportionately, went from Scotland than any other country, and the nation was gripped by the conflict. What drove so many ordinary Scots to volunteer in a foreign war? Here, their stories are powerfully and honestly told, often in their own words.
¡España una, grande, libre! Spain, one, great and free!
This is a collection of twelve stories from some of the greatest writers of Gothic, all first published in the 1890s. Many of them are very well known – indeed, several of them have already been highlighted in my Tuesday Terror! slot – and I suspect that most or all of them are probably available to read online. But the joy of an anthology like this one is the expert guidance provided by the editor, first in selecting and organising the stories in a way that allows the reader to see how the genre connects and flows, and then in providing an informative introduction and notes.
The editor of this one is Roger Luckhurst, whom I first encountered as the editor of a Lovecraft collection a few years ago, sparking my interest in Lovecraft in particular and weird fiction in general. I was later happy to encounter him again as the editor of HG Wells’ The Time Machine, when his introduction put that book into its literary and historical context for me, adding a great deal to my understanding and enjoyment of it. So I knew I’d be in safe hands with this collection.
Luckhurst tells us that there have been three main waves of Gothic writing, in the 18th century, then again in the late Victorian period, and now, with the likes of Stephen King reviving the genre. Each wave made it anew, though, influenced by contemporary concerns as well as by other styles and movements in the literary world of their time. He talks about the crossover in the late Victorian era between the styles of Gothic and Decadence, and about the influence on the genre of anxieties over colonialism, the growth of science and pseudo-sciences, spiritualism and psychic research, and so on. All of this means that the stories in a sense stop being merely individual entertainments and instead become part of something larger: part of the contemporary literature that casts light on its society and in turn influences it. As always, I found his introduction both informative and enjoyable, happily free of the academic jargon that can sometimes infest these things and therefore accessible to any interested reader.
But what of the stories, I hear you ask? I gave five of them five stars, another five got four stars, and the remaining two got 3½ each, so a very high standard overall. As it should be, given that most of them are from top tier writers. There’s Henry James and Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Machen and Oscar Wilde, and two from my old friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Then there are several names that were new to me, though I gather from the intro that they would be familiar to real aficionados – Vernon Lee, BM Croker, Grant Allen and MP Shiels. A further two from Jean Lorrain take us over to France and into the heart of the Decadent style. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most – the titles link through to my earlier TT posts, where applicable:
Lot No. 249 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – A story about a mummy brought back to life, with lots of Gothic features and some genuinely creepy moments, and of course ACD’s wonderfully easy writing style. Did you know he was the first person to create a story about a mummy being brought back to life for evil purposes? No, neither did I…
The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen – Mad science, that great love of Victorian horror and science fiction writers, mingled with paganism and a good deal of hinting at immoral and quite possibly unnatural sexual shenanigans, there’s also plenty of typically Victorian, fine descriptive writing, both of nature in the countryside and of the dark and gloomy streets of London at night. A kind of bridging link between traditional Gothic and the later weird horror of the likes of Lovecraft.
The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor by BM Croker – a fairly standard ghost story, but given added interest by its setting in colonial India and two delightfully refreshing heroines in Nellie and Julia. No swooning damsels these – they enjoy their lives, they don’t fear this vast, strange land, assuming that their British superiority will protect them from all dangers, and they’re ripe for adventure. But they’re not expecting ghostly visions in the middle of the night – that’s a little too much even for them!
Magic Lantern by Jean Lorrain – a fin-de-siècle Decadent story from France. This is a satire on society, quite funny and very well done. Two men at the opera – one accusing the other, a scientist, of removing all the fantasy from the world, including Gothic horror. The scientist then tells the first man tales of the audience members around them, showing that humanity can be as horrific as anything in the supernatural…
Sir Edmund Orme by Henry James – Our narrator becomes fascinated by a mother and daughter, Mrs Marden and Charlotte, because of what he feels is their peculiarly strong concern for each other. Then, as he finds himself falling in love with Charlotte, the narrator begins to see a strange man, who never speaks, and his appearances seem to coincide with Mrs Marden’s “episodes”. A strange and unsettling story, and I found aspects of it rather cruel, but it’s certainly effective.
An excellent collection, especially for a relative newcomer to the genre since it includes some of the very best, but the introduction and notes make it a great choice too for people who may already know some of the stories but would like to know more about their context. Highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.
Æneas Macmaster is the son of a man who turned out for the Jacobites in 1715 and was killed. Now in 1733, Æneas is tutor to the nephew of the powerful Campbell of Argyll and to Margaret, the daughter of Alexander Duncanson, who is now laird of Æneas’ father’s estate of Drimdorran. When Æneas covers up for an escapade of Margaret’s he is dismissed by the furious Drimdorran, and his uncle, a merchant, sends him north on General Wade’s New Road to forge trade links with the Highland clans. Ninian Campbell, the agent of Campbell of Argyll, is also heading north, so the two men decide to travel together. Gradually they will discover that there is a mystery surrounding the circumstances of the death of Æneas’ father, and they will have many adventures as they set about finding the truth…
This was an odd one for me, in that I started out really struggling with it and gradually grew to love it. I found the first section quite confusing, despite having a reasonable familiarity with this period of Scottish history. The language, especially the dialogue, has a healthy sprinkling of archaic Scots plus occasional Gaelic words. It takes a while for the story to emerge – at first there’s a lot of Ninian and Æneas rambling around the countryside, seemingly aimlessly. There’s also the issue of all the characters having several different names – for instance, Campbell of Argyll is also called Inveraray, Duncanson is interchangeably known by the name of his estate, Drimdorran, and Ninian is a Macgregor of the clan Campbell, and so on. But once my “ear” got tuned into the language and I worked out who all the characters were and how they were connected, it became a much easier and therefore more enjoyable read. In fact, I admired and loved the language more and more as it went on – it’s wonderfully done with beautiful rhythm, and feels completely authentic to both time and place.
Not life, nor living dangers in these glooms compelled him to stand still a moment, half-inclined to turn, but something very old and rediscovered in himself; forgotten dreads of boyhood in wild winter wastes of midnight, and his people breaking from some thicket under moon to see before them spread unfriendly straths and hear the wind in perished heather. The mist it was they cherished – not the moon who made their progress visible; too often had she brought calamity to old Clan Alpine trailing through the snow, a broken and a hunted band, with children whimpering.
First published in 1914, Munro is clearly setting out to drag some realism back into the narrative of the Jacobite era, in contrast to the gradual romanticisation that took place during the 19th century both of the risings and of Highland society in general. The whole Jacobite thing has tended to be co-opted by all of Scotland now as a heroic part of our long struggle against England, but this was never the case. In fact, most lowland Scots and even some of the Highland clans were on the other side, against the deposed Stuarts. The Campbells have become the legendary villains as the clan that took the lead against the Jacobites, and later in playing a major role in “pacifying” the Highlands on behalf of the government. But Munro shows the other side, with the Campbells as the bringers of civilisation and the Jacobite Highland chiefs as little more than lawless bandits. The New Road, built by the military under General Wade, was one of the main tools of pacification, allowing faster military response to possible future rebellions, but also opening the Highlands up to the more peaceful world of trade and commerce that had become the norm in the rest of the country. So a hated symbol of oppression if you were pro-Jacobite, or a welcome modernisation if you weren’t.
….He drew Grey Colin with a flourish from the scabbard, and the clotted blood of him that he had struck was on it: with a Gaelic utterance he laid it lightly on the young man’s head. The flesh of Æneas grewed; he retched at such an accolade. ….“What, man! are ye sick?” asked Ninian. ….“Yes!” said he, “I’m sick!” and broke into a furious condemnation of this wretched country. ….“What in Heaven’s name did ye expect?” asked Ninian. “Dancing?” ….“Everything’s destroyed for me!” cried out the lad. “The stories have been lies, and we have aye been beasts, and cloak it up in poetry.” ….“We are what God has made us!” said his friend. “And we must make the best of it.”
In fact, Æneas and Ninian spend very little time on the New Road, choosing to travel across country instead on their journey to Inverness. This allows Munro to give some great descriptions of the landscapes and of the way of life of the inhabitants at this moment just before great social change arrived. Once away from the relatively law-abiding environs of Campbell country the two men have a series of increasingly dangerous and exciting adventures, and these are great fun. It’s all a bit reminiscent of Kidnapped, I suspect intentionally, but while Stevenson’s clansmen are dirt-poor and scrabbling for existence, Munro’s are wild and lawless – I have no idea which is the more accurate depiction but I enjoyed Munro’s considerably more. There’s a lot of humour in it as well as drama and thrills and, while Æneas is the romantic lead, Ninian emerges as the real hero – crafty and practical, with a deep knowledge of the land and its people and politics. His investigation technique is entertaining as he uses a kind of sly, cunning guile to divine the truth behind local legends and tales.
….They were among a concourse of the hills, whose scarps were glistening in a sun that gave the air at noon a blandness, though some snow was on the bens. The river linked through crags and roared at linns; all rusty-red and gold the breckans burned about them; still came like incense from the gale-sprig perfume. They sat, those two young people, by the fire, demure and blate at first, to find themselves alone. From where they sat they could perceive down to the south the wrecks of Comyn fortresses; the Road still red and new was like a raw wound on the heather, ugly to the gaze, although it took them home. Apart from it, and higher on the slope, a drove-track ran, bright green, with here and there on it bleached stones worn by the feet of by-past generations. They saw them both – the Old Road and the New – twine far down through the valley into Badenoch, and melt into the vapours of the noon. And something in the prospect brought the tears to Janet’s eyes. ….“For why should I be sad?” she asked him suddenly, “to see that old track of the people and the herd, and this new highway boasting—boasting——?”
Book 57 of 90
I’m not going to pretend this one’s for everyone. A basic understanding of the historical setting (at least as much as I’ve given above) is essential, I think, and, although the main body of the text is standard English overlaid with Scots rhythms and is wonderfully done, I found some of the language quite demanding despite being an archaic Scot myself. But if it takes your fancy, then I highly recommend it. It’s a great combination of being half-nostalgic for the loss of those wild days but also clear-sighted about the culture of greed and lawlessness that lay beneath the later romanticisation of the Highland clan chiefs. And after a slow and rather tricky start, it becomes a fast-paced and exciting adventure story, complete with deadly peril and a touch of romance. Truly deserving of its reputation as a great Scottish classic!
Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before. This month’s starting book is…
Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Haven’t read this one but here’s what the blurb tells us…
Daisy is a girl coming of age in L.A. in the late sixties, sneaking into clubs on the Sunset Strip, sleeping with rock stars, and dreaming of singing at the Whisky a Go Go. The sex and drugs are thrilling, but it’s the rock ‘n’ roll she loves most. By the time she’s twenty, her voice is getting noticed, and she has the kind of heedless beauty that makes people do crazy things.
Doesn’t appeal to me, I’m afraid, despite the many glowing reviews I’ve read of it. However, it made me think of…
Daisy in Chains by Sharon Bolton. Hamish Wolfe is a prisoner, convicted of the murders of three young women. Maggie Rose is a defence barrister and author of several books regarding possible miscarriages of justice, some of which have resulted in the convicted men being released. Hamish and his little group of supporters on the outside are keen to get Maggie to take on his case. A deliciously twisted thriller from the pen of one of the best of the current crop of writers.
The anti-hero of this one is in prison, as is the hero of the next one…
Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert. It’s 1943, and the British officers held in a prisoner-of-war camp in north Italy take their duty to escape seriously, so the camp is riddled with tunnels. The biggest and most hopeful of these is under Hut C, elaborately hidden under a trapdoor that takes several men to open. So when a body turns up in the tunnel the question is not only how did he die but also how did he get into the tunnel? One of the best of the British Library Crime Classics, this has a good mystery plot but the real interest is the unique setting.
Another book set in Italy is…
That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina. When a PI tracks Tommaso down in London to give him the news that he has been left a large legacy, Tommaso tells him he doesn’t want it and pleads that his whereabouts should not be revealed. To make the PI understand why his anonymity is so important to him, Tommaso agrees to tell him the story of why he left Italy – the story of his last summer in Puglia. That was the summer, long ago when Tommaso was young, that he met and fell in love with Anna. An excellent début with a great sense of place.
The next is another début from an author worth watching…
Goblin by Ever Dundas. Goblin is an old lady now, working as a Reader in an Edinburgh library. But when the newspapers report that a strange pile of objects have been unearthed – bones, bits of a doll, a shrew head and a camera – she is thrust back into memories of her early life as a street urchin in wartime London. The camera still works and when the police develop the pictures they determine they could only have been taken by a child. A strange book, dark in places and with some truly disturbing aspects, but because of the beautifully drawn central character it has a warmth and humanity that helps the reader to get through the tougher parts.
Goblin won the Saltire Society Literary Award for First Book of the Year (2017). The next one was shortlisted for the Saltire History Book of the Year in 2015 (and should have won!)
John Knox by Jane Dawson. In Scotland, John Knox is thought of as a misogynistic, hellfire-and-damnation preaching, old killjoy, who is responsible for the fairly joyless version of Protestantism that has blighted our country for hundreds of years. Well, that’s how I think of him anyway! Father of the Scottish Reformation, he is notorious for being the author of ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’. In this great biography, Jane Dawson sets out, not so much to overturn this impression of Knox, but to show that there was more to him than this.
John Knox liked to think of himself (modestly) as “God’s Watchman”. Which made me think of…
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. The time is just after the Supreme Court decision that led to desegregation of schools in the South, when the NAACP were fighting for equality for blacks and the whites were resisting. Jean Louise is shocked to discover that her father, Atticus, and lover, Hank, are part of that white resistance. This is the book Harper Lee wanted to write, until her editor persuaded her to go off in the different direction which led to To Kill a Mockingbird. A pity – I’d have liked to see this one given the polish and care it deserved.
* * * * *
So Reid to Lee, via Daisy, prison, Italy, débuts, the Saltire Prize and watchmen!
Old Robert Garth rules his family with a rod of iron and, although he’s a fair landlord, he stands no nonsense from the tenant farmers on his land. A man who, in his eighties, still can put in a long day’s physical work, he has no time for those he sees as weaklings. So when he’s found murdered, there are plenty of people who might have done the foul deed, each with differing motives. But when it’s discovered that his eldest and long-estranged son, Richard, has been seen around the district, he naturally becomes the prime suspect. It’s up to Inspector MacDonald, called in from Scotland Yard to help the overstretched local police, to find Richard, and to decide whether he, or some other person, is the guilty party…
One of ECR Lorac’s greatest strengths is the way she makes her settings central to her stories, whether in the alleys of London or, as in this case, in the farming community of the Lune Valley, a place she apparently knew well. Her descriptions of the landscape are wonderful, showing the rugged beauty of the dales and fells, the unpredictable weather and the way the land has been shaped and formed by the generations who have farmed it. She is clear-eyed about the hard labour involved in farming but shows her characters as having a strong bond to their land and a love of their way of life.
Set towards the end of the Second World War, she also gives us intriguing glimpses of how war affected farming, partly by removing so many men from the labour force and bringing more women on to the land, and partly through government pressure to adopt more intensified farming methods, such as ploughing up traditional pasture land to allow for more planting of vegetable crops to feed a hungry populace no longer able to import food as easily as before the war. She shows too the additional tasks that have fallen on the police to oversee the new war-time regulations – black-out rules, rationing of goods and petrol, licensing and control of all kinds of things that used to be left up to suppliers and consumers – all leaving them under pressure when required to investigate the normal criminal activities that continue regardless of war.
The local Superintendent is a townie with little understanding of the ways of the farmers and a kind of disdain for them, and so he hits a brick wall in getting them to talk openly to him. But Inspector MacDonald is a different breed – he may be a London policeman now, but he’s a Scot by birth and has lived in rural communities before. He understands the land and secretly rather wishes he could take up farming himself. This all helps him to find ways to break down the rural resistance to outsiders and to grasp at motives that a townsman may not think of. It’s not long before he has a good idea of what happened to old Garth – now all he has to do is prove it.
Another excellent entry in the series – of the ones I’ve read so far, I find the books written around the time of WW2 seem to show her at the peak of her considerable talent in terms of plotting and, while I have enjoyed all of her settings, especially wartime London in Murder by Matchlight, the countryside ones always impress me with their affectionate but entirely unromanticised portrayals of rural communities.
As a little bonus, there’s an extra short story at the end of the volume, Live Wire. It’s only a few pages long – a tale of a criminal attempting to steal gold bullion from a train – but it’s very well done, darkly funny and highly entertaining, with a deliciously twisted ending. I usually forget to mention that there’s quite often a short story tucked in at the end of the BL releases, I assume when the page count of the novel is slightly shorter than the norm. It’s a bit like finding there’s still one chocolate left in the box when you think you’ve already eaten them all…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
It has become an annual tradition at this time each year that I look back at the bookish resolutions I made last year, confess just how badly I failed, and then, nothing daunted, set some more targets for me to fail at next year. So, let’s begin!
The 2019 Results
Last year I did something I’d never tried before. Here’s what I said:
“Basically, I’ve planned my whole year’s reading in advance, leaving just 30 spaces for new releases, re-reads and random temptations. The idea is this will stop me adding gazillions of books I’ll never find time to read, and ensure I’m reading loads of the books I already own. It should also mean I’ll make progress on my challenges. So my resolutions this year are strictly a numbers game and there’s lots of crossover among the categories…”
While of course I didn’t absolutely stick to the plan, overall it did help me to think more about which books to take for review or buy on a passing whim. But did it help me achieve my targets? Let’s find out!
1) Reading Resolutions
I planned to read:
a) 88 books that I already owned as at 1st Jan 2019.
The Result: I read 60. Although this is way below the target, it’s significantly up on the previous year, when I only read 49.
b) 25 books for the Around the World challenge.
The Result: I read 17. I had hoped to finish this challenge this year, but I had a couple that I didn’t like well enough to include and otherwise generally just… didn’t!
c) 25 books from my Classics Club list.
The Result: Ooh, so close! I read 22, and in my defence some of them were chunky! However, that means I’m more or less back on track with this five-year challenge, so I’m happy with this result.
d) 10 books from my sadly neglected 5 x 5 challenge.
The Result: I read a dismal 6 but on the upside I’ve decided to banish John Steinbeck from my TBR for ever, so that reduces the books on the challenge by another three! Overall, I’m really not enjoying this challenge, so will read the books I’ve already acquired for it this year, and then quietly abandon the whole thing.
e) 12 books for the Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge.
The result: I read 12! I set the target low last year because I anticipated getting lots of vintage crime for review from the British Library, and indeed I did. For the same reason I’m going to set it low again this year – it might take me years to finish it, if ever, but I’m OK with that.
f) 24 books first published in 2019 (minimum).
The Result: I only read (to the end) 20 new releases this year. Admittedly I also abandoned an astonishing 14 – mostly crime and some from authors I’ve previously enjoyed. I’m completely out of love with contemporary crime at the moment so will be concentrating more on general fiction for new releases this year.
2) Reduce the TBR
I aimed for an overall reduction of 40 books last year. So…
Target for TBR (i.e., books I own): 185
Target for combined TBR/wishlist (which is a truer picture): 324.
WOOHOO!!! You weren’t expecting that, were you?? Although the Books I Own figure is still above target, this is because I’ve acquired loads that were already on my wishlist at the beginning of the year. But I’ve been practicising iron self-control to limit additions to the wishlist, with the result that it’s way down.
Overall I read 126 books, which is the highest for a few years, mainly because vintage crime books don’t include the 100 pages of compulsory padding that every contemporary crime book has. But my page count was also up according to Goodreads, reflecting the fact, I think, that I’ve taken more blogging breaks than usual this year.
I didn’t set a specific target for review copies, but I took a total of 76, which is higher than I intended but lower than the 98 I took last year and, because I was more selective, way more enjoyable! The number of unread review books at the end of the year has dropped from 30 last year to 24 this year.
So despite missing most of the individual targets by a little each, the overall effect of planning the year ahead was a big success, not only in terms of reducing the TBR/wishlist but, more importantly, in my having one of my most enjoyable and varied reading years for ages.
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Resolutions for 2020
So since I found I liked the whole planning ahead thing, that’s what I’m going to do again this year. There’s a lot of crossover in these targets…
1) Reading Resolutions
I plan to read:
a) 88 books that I already own as at today. Like last year I probably won’t achieve this, but preparing a list of the interesting books I already own will deter me from randomly acquiring new ones, in theory. Lots of the books below are included in this figure, so it’s not as bad as it seems…
b) 8 books for the Around the World challenge. Only eight left to go in this challenge, which I’ve loved. I should finish it by April or May.
c) 22 books from my Classics Club list. Ambitious, especially since a lot of the books left on my list are chunky, but I’m thoroughly enjoying my classics reading, so I think it’s doable.
d) 6 books in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series. I’ve been trying to re-read this series for three years now and have only read five! So setting a target and including them in my plan should concentrate my mind.
e) 7 books in a brand new mini-challenge to be announced shortly!
f) 12 books for the Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge.Going low again in the hopes that I’ll also get lots of other vintage crime for review during the year.
g) 24 books first published in 2020 (minimum). I do feel that I’m losing touch with new releases because of all these classics and vintage books I’m reading, so I’m going to try to read at least two a month.
2) Reduce the TBR
Again I’m going for an overall reduction of 40 books this year. So…
Target for TBR: 165
Target for combined TBR/wishlist (which is a truer picture): 282.
If I stick to my reading resolutions, it should be easy…
I usually include a summary of how I’m progressing (or not) towards the targets I set myself for the year, but since I’ll be looking at my New Year’s Resolutions old and new tomorrow, I’ll leave that for then. So just a round-up of the books I’ve read and reviewed for my various ongoing challenges this time. I’ve read loads but due to my recent break, I’m way behind with reviews…
(Reminds me of my postman throwing books at me…)
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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge
Last check-in was in September, and this quarter I’ve been to three destinations…
On the Main Journey (made by the characters in Around the World in 80 Days) I took my time machine back to Omaha to visit the World Fair of 1898 in Timothy Schaffert’s surprisingly enjoyable The Swan Gondola. Then Joseph Conrad and Lord Jim took me on a revealing trip around various parts of the British Empire, including a harrowing voyage across another compulsory destination, the Arabian Sea.
I finished my quarter’s travels with a detour to visit the Igbo clan in colonial-era Nigeriain Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.
72 down, 8 to go!
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The Classics Club
I’ve read an astonishing eight from my Classics Club list this quarter and had another still to review from the previous quarter. So far I’ve only reviewed five of these nine though, so have four still to review…
52. Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence – The story of young Paul Morel, the son of a Nottingham miner and alter-ego of the author, as he grows through childhood into manhood, and of the three women who vie for his love. This stood up very well to re-reading after many years, to my delight since it was one of the formative novels of my own adolescence. 5 stars
53. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey – New patient Randle P McMurphy arrives on the mental ward and is soon challenging Nurse Ratched for supremacy, geeing the Acutes up to rebel against the institution’s rules. Another re-read, of a book I found disappointing when I first read it many years ago too close to watching the movie, but this time around thought was brilliant. 5 stars.
54. Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – This second part of A Scots Quair trilogy follows the further life of Chris Guthrie, now married to a minister and having moved from her farm to the small town of Segget. Unfortunately I didn’t think it was anywhere near to Sunset Song in terms of the writing, structure or in what it has to say about society, though it tries. Just 3 stars.
55. Wild Harbour by Ian Macpherson – Billed as sci-fi, this is really more of an alternative history set in the then near future, in a Britain at war. The main protagonist doesn’t believe in killing so takes to the hills of Scotland with his wife, to live in a cave and wait for the war to be over. A bleak survivalist adventure that becomes dystopian in the end, that I found compelling despite my distaste for the premise. 4 stars.
56. East of Eden by John Steinbeck – The story of how two generations of an extended family live their lives in misery and strife, and then die, usually horribly. My last Steinbeck – I’ve had far too much of his utterly depressing view of humanity. A generous 2 stars.
I’m nearly back on track with this challenge and have several more lined up for the next quarter, including the winner of the latest Classics Club Spin, Grey Granite, the third book in A Scots Quair.
56 down, 34 to go!
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Murder Mystery Mayhem
I haven’t read any for this challenge this quarter since I’d already met my target for the year. However I still had three reviews pending from the quarter before. To see the full challenge, click here.
32. Family Matters by Anthony Rolls – Robert and Bertha Kewdingham live in a state of constant quarrelling, tired of each other, dissatisfied with their lives but unable to change. It’s a pity that Bertha is attractive to other men, and that Robert keeps a pharmacy-size stock of poisons readily to hand to treat his rampaging hypochondria. Things are bound to get nasty… Excellent characterisation and a lot of fun. 4½ stars.
33. Payment Deferred by CS Forester – Not really a mystery, this one. The murder happens right at the beginning, and the book is actually about the impact it has on the murderer’s psychology. We watch as guilt and fear eat away at him, destroying his already weak character. It’s very well written and psychologically convincing but, oh my, it’s depressing! Just 3 stars.
34. The Curious Mr Tarrant by C. Daly King – A collection of eight stories. Tarrant is an amateur detective, but his interest is purely in the bizarre. He investigates for the intellectual thrill, and has no particular interest in achieving justice. I gave a couple of the early stories 5 stars and another 4. But the rest ranged from mediocre to dire, getting progressively worse as they went along. A disappointing 2 stars overall.
34 down, 68 to go!
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5 x 5 Challenge
Just one reviewed for this challenge this quarter. Struggling badly to motivate myself to continue with this since several of the books have been disappointing. But I’ll keep going for a little longer, although I’m dropping one of my five authors…
8. East of Eden by John Steinbeck. As I said above in the Classics Club section, I’m done with Steinbeck now. There’s not enough chocolate in the world to compensate for the miasma of misery that hovers around him. A generous and final 2 stars.
8 down, 3 Steinbecks removed from list, 14 to go!
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A mixed quarter’s reading as far as challenge books have gone, but still with some gems among them! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…
(At the end of 2016 and again in 2017, I created stories – if they could be dignified by that name – using the titles of all the books I’d reviewed in the year… in the order I reviewed them! I missed last year, but couldn’t resist seeing if I could do it again this year. As you will see, I’ve been reading an awful lot of vintage crime…)
But once the police are involved it’s inevitable that the dead shall be raised from their tomb for a post-mortem. For the local constabulary, investigating the murder of a quacking duck provided a welcome break from their only other case – trying to track down the night tiger that, locals claimed, roamed the shore, leaving strange-looking pawprints on the beach. But enough of the riddle of the sands! We shall leave that mystery for another day.
The murder in the bookshop became more baffling when the police dug up the spot where the duck was rumoured to be buried, and found nothing! Now they had no body and no idea what their suspect looked like, since Tarzan wasn’t one for selfies. The police knew nothing about the man with no face except that during his time in America he had survived even the Dakota winters in only a loincloth, suggesting he had either superhuman endurance or really bad fashion sense.
The fourth man, Dunstan Redmayne, was mostly known for the cruel acts he had carried out against the American heiress who once inexplicably loved him. But she had screamed blue murder and threatened to spearhead the clouds of witnesses against him when she learned of his part in the affair of the fair maid of Perth, a well known communist heroine. Following these critical incidents, Dunstan had trapped the heiress in a disused kiln and left her to die. But a brave young airman found her in time and rescued her, sadly then tumbling down into the kiln himself and breaking his neck. The death of an airman has never been more tragic.
The town had three churches and Pip arranged to meet Sanditon outside the middle temple. Murderon the beach was what he feared had happened to the poor little duck – a mercy if it had been quick and painless. He shuddered as he remembered the case of Miss Elliot who had been brutally killed during a robbery at her home. Seven men of less than average stature had given the pearl they stole to the leader of their gang, an albino whose skin was snow white. And other tales came back to him too, all showing the infinite variety in the art of murder. In the mill-race at the edge of the village, the water frothed and churned. Too turbulent for ducks, Pip thought as he passed by.
Pip asked the barman to put their drinks on the slate, then, payment deferred, made his weary way to his hotel. In the bathroom he gazed at the face in the glass, thinking he looked old and wondering whether he might soon be meeting up with St. Peter. Looking out of his window, he saw that the river was busy despite the hour – as well as the swan, gondolas containing lovesick romantics were punting up and down. He also saw old Mr Tarrant looking curiously around him in the evening light. The curious Mr Tarrant spotted him too and shouted “Hey, Mister Pip! Did I hear you were looking for a duck? One flew over the cuckoo’s nest in the trees there just fifteen minutes ago and landed in the deep waters of the village pond.”
While Pip was still mulling over this piece of hopeful news, a text arrived from Constable Sanditon. “Just received a Christmas card from Roger Ackroyd, signed on behalf of Clinker and the gang. It’s one of the stolen cards!” Suddenly everything was clear! Next day Clinker, Redmayne and Smallbone were arrested and charged with burglary. “Lucky for you” said Pip “that we believe the duck may have escaped so I can’t charge you with the murder.” Of Roger Ackroyd, however, nothing more was heard except a rumour that he had fled to the far north and joined a strange cult led by the notoriously deranged mystic, Enoch Powell.
Pip and Sanditon were congratulated by the Chief Constable, Lord Jim Campbell. Rachel and Tarzan returned to the lovely Belting Hall, leaving a darker domain in the French backstreet where they’d been living under a cloud. However, Rachel never forgets the woman in black who gave them lodgings when they most needed it in the wild harbour of Marseilles, and every year she sends her a bottle of the Christmas eggnog she has specially made. Tarzan and Rachel are so happy together they changed the name of the Hall, and now the school buildings are just east of Eden Place. But in the old deserted wing sometimes things fall apart and strange yodelling noises can be heard. Rachel tries not to listen to the old ghost stories the servants sometimes tell…
Oh yes, the duck! Well, having tasted freedom when it flew out through the broken shop window, it decided never to go back, and now it spends its days dabbling in the village pond. But sometimes, when the moon is full and the tide is out, it walks by night on the beach, leaving strange marks that, to a superstitious villager, might be taken for the pawprints of a tiger…
A few months ago I did this tag concentrating mainly on Scottish fiction as my examples. Since now ‘tis the season to be jolly, and nothing could be jollier than Dickens at Christmastime, I thought I’d resurrect it and see how wonderfully the Great Man shines in all aspects of the art of literary fiction. Join me for a bit of…
1. How do you define literary fiction?
Last time I said “I’m looking for great writing – and by that I don’t mean creative writing, I mean writing that uses a vocabulary that stimulates the brain without baffling, that reads effortlessly and that creates wonderful images of places or people, or both, with beautiful descriptive prose. I want emotional truth – the characters might be realistic or exaggerated and even caricatured but they must fundamentally act in ways people would act. If it’s historical fiction, it must be true to the time in which it’s set. If it’s genre fiction, it must transcend the genre but must never forget its roots in its desire to be literary. If it’s contemporary fiction, it must say something intelligent and preferably profound about society, culture and/or the human condition.” Dickens meets all these criteria, and I suspect is the man who has been most influential in forming my opinion of what literary fiction should be.
2. Name a literary fiction novel with a brilliant character study.
Little Dorrit – of course Dickens is famous for his dazzling array of unique characters, but the character I’m choosing is less well known than some of the others: Flora Finching. She was the hero Arthur’s first love, but their parents prevented them from marrying. Now Flora is a widow and is no longer quite the beautiful young girl of whom Arthur once dreamed. But she flirts with him dreadfully, calling up all the silly, romantic things they said and did as young lovers and behaving as if she’s still a young girl, and she’s very, very funny. It could so easily have been a cruel portrayal, especially since she was inspired by Dickens re-meeting his own youthful first love in middle life to discover she had become old, fat and dull, and determined to flirt with him as if they were still lovers. But Flora’s character is actually done with a real degree of warmth – more warmth than Dickens showed to the original, I fear.
“Oh good gracious me I hope you never kept yourself a bachelor so long on my account!” tittered Flora; “but of course you never did why should you, pray don’t answer, I don’t know where I’m running to, oh do tell me something about the Chinese ladies whether their eyes are really so long and narrow always putting me in mind of mother-of-pearl fish at cards and do they really wear tails down their back and plaited too or is it only the men, and when they pull their hair so very tight off their foreheads don’t they hurt themselves, and why do they stick little bells all over their bridges and temples and hats and things or don’t they really do it?” Flora gave him another of her old glances.
Frivolous Flora and her elderly aunt-in-law
3. Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing.
Bleak House – Dickens here shifts between a first person narrator, the young heroine Esther Summerson, and a third-person omniscient narrator, and also between present and past tenses. This may not seem like such a major thing now, when so many authors try to use present tense and shift between narrators, but it was innovative and experimental at the time and gives the book an essentially modern feel. Plus, Dickens being Dickens, he’s great at it, using present tense effectively and appropriately, which sadly is rarely the case with lesser beings…
Through the stir and motion of the commoner streets; through the roar and jar of many vehicles, many feet, many voices; with the blazing shop-lights lighting him on, the west wind blowing him on, and the crowd pressing him on, he is pitilessly urged upon his way, and nothing meets him murmuring, “Don’t go home!” Arrived at last in his dull room to light his candles, and look round and up, and see the Roman pointing from the ceiling, there is no new significance in the Roman’s hand tonight or in the flutter of the attendant groups to give him the late warning, “Don’t come here!”
Mr Tulkinghorn’s Roman
4. Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure.
Martin Chuzzlewit – In the middle of this one, Dickens suddenly transports Martin and his faithful servant Mark Tapley to America, and has them have a complete story there before returning them to the main story back in England. Dickens’ method of writing for serialisation meant that he often reacted to how early instalments were received by his public, and this book is a major example of that. While he clearly had the main arc of the story mapped out, apparently the decision to send young Martin off to America was made mid-way through in order to revive flagging sales. While I’m not convinced it was a great decision, it provides a good deal of opportunity for some of Dickens’ fine satire as well as some wonderful descriptive writing. Dickens’ picture of the newly independent United States is either deeply insightful and brutally funny (if you’re British) or rude and deeply offensive (if you’re American). Fortunately I’m British…
It was hastily resolved that a piece of plate should be presented to a certain constitutional Judge, who had laid down from the Bench the noble principle, that it was lawful for any white mob to murder any black man: and that another piece of plate, of similar value, should be presented to a certain Patriot, who had declared from his high place in the Legislature, that he and his friends would hang, without trial, any Abolitionist who might pay them a visit. For the surplus, it was agreed that it should be devoted to aiding the enforcement of those free and equal laws, which render it incalculably more criminal and dangerous to teach a negro to read and write, than to roast him alive in a public city.
The inaptly named Eden, young Martin’s American home.
5. Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes.
A Tale of Two Cities – every novel Dickens wrote explores social themes, but he never conveys his anger more effectively than in this book about the Terror following the French Revolution. We talk endlessly now of the dangers of the rise of populism in response to the inequality in our societies and then we smugly wrap ourselves back up in our warm and comfortable cloak of social privilege, and dismiss as ignorant anyone who disagrees with our world view. Dickens was warning his contemporaries of this way back then, showing how the Revolution arose out of the failure of the rich and powerful elite to respond to the growing discontent of the disadvantaged and ignored in society, and showing further and with immense power how once violence is unleashed in a society it feeds on itself, growing until it becomes a monster – the mob…
“Patriots and friends, we are ready! The Bastille!” With a roar that sounded as if all the breath in France had been shaped into the detested word, the living sea rose, wave on wave, depth on depth, and overflowed the city to that point. Alarm-bells ringing, drums beating, the sea raging and thundering on its new beach, the attack began. *** “To me, women!” cried madame his wife. “What! We can kill as well as the men when the place is taken!” And to her, with a shrill thirsty cry, trooping women variously armed, but all armed alike in hunger and revenge.
6. Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition.
Great Expectations – I was trying to stick to books I’ve reviewed on the blog, but really I think that perhaps his best exploration of that nebulous thing we call the “human condition” appears in my least favourite of his novels. Miss Havisham blighted by disappointment and betrayal; simple Joe Gargery’s generosity and fidelity; Estella’s nature deliberately warped from childhood so she can act as an instrument of Miss Havisham’s revenge: all of these are brilliant examples of how circumstance and nature collide to make us what we are. But Pip himself stands out – following him from an early age into manhood allows us to see how his character is formed by experience, shaped by the material expectations he’s told he has and by the social and emotional expectations of his family and friends. Ultimately, with two possible endings, there’s ambiguity around whether Pip’s original nature is stunted for ever, or is simply dormant, ready to put forth fresh shoots if the sun shines on him.
“But you said to me,” returned Estella, very earnestly, “‘God bless you, God forgive you!’ And if you could say that to me then, you will not hesitate to say that to me now—now, when suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape. Be as considerate and good to me as you were, and tell me we are friends.” “We are friends,” said I, rising and bending over her, as she rose from the bench.
Pip and Estella
7. Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel.
A Christmas Carol – Dickens brilliantly uses the format of a ghost story to explore the true meaning of Christmas as a time for family and joy, of course, but also for reflection on greed, generosity and the inequality that existed in extremes in his society and sadly still pervades our own. A chilling tale, warning his readers not to look away, not to become so concerned with their own narrow concerns that they cease to notice the plight of those less fortunate, not to impoverish their souls in pursuit of material wealth. The wonderfully redemptive ending is pure Dickens as he shows how material and spiritual generosity enrich the giver as much as the recipient. Dickens suggests we can begin to enjoy our rewards here on earth, and lessen the harsh judgement that may otherwise await us in the hereafter.
“It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”
The Ghost of Jacob Marley
8. What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?
The joy of Dickens, and a lesson I wish many contemporary writers would learn, is that he saw no reason to limit himself to a single style or single subject, even within a single book. Each contains elements of social themes, human condition, romance, crime and horror – each is a microcosm of all that it is to be and to experience in this ugly, complicated, glorious world, and each shows the intelligence, insight and profound empathy that make him the greatest writer the world has ever known.
…and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!
Young Jeff Marle has been summoned to Paris by an old friend of his father: the legendary detective Henri Bencolin, director of the Paris police. Bencolin has a peculiar case on his hands and feels Jeff may be interested in observing his methods. So Jeff becomes our “Watson”, and it’s through his eyes that we see the great detective at work. The case involves a madman – perhaps these days we would say psychopath – Alexandre Laurent, who was locked up after trying to kill his young and beautiful wife, Louise. That wife, her first marriage annulled, is now about to get married again, to the famous all-round sporting legend, Raoul de Saligny. But Laurent has escaped and rumour has it that he may have visited a plastic surgeon to change his appearance. He has sent a letter warning Raoul not to marry Louise and Bencolin fears that he will turn up in Paris, bent on killing Raoul and possibly Louise too. On the night of their wedding day, Raoul, Louise and the wedding party go to a fashionable gambling house, and Bencolin has his men there in force to guard them. But Laurent has the true cunning intelligence of the madman…
This is Carr’s first mystery novel, and my first introduction to his work. I thought it was totally marvellous! There are a couple of plots weaknesses, some moments where you have to take a deep breath and just let your suspension of disbelief have full rein, and it occasionally goes over the top into high melodrama. But the writing is great, and Carr creates a wonderfully creepy, almost hallucinatory atmosphere of horror and tension. In fact, it seemed to me draw as much, if not more, on the tradition of the Decadent horror writing of the fin de siècle period as on the mystery conventions of the Golden Age.
Published in 1930 and set in Paris, it offers a darker take on the “lost generation” of that time – of those living after one devastating war and seeing the approaching inevitability of another on the horizon. There is a great sense of amorality, of sensuous egoism, of a kind of cruelty of empty friendships and brutal infidelities. Drugs and drink play their part in the glittering hopelessness of the characters’ lives, and even in Jeff’s observations. One scene, where he has dinner with a young woman caught up in the case, is a masterpiece of fear heightened by the befuddling effects of alcohol – Poe-like in its creation of an atmosphere of impending horror. Grand Guignol was in my mind for much of it, since there’s no holding back in the gruesome bloodiness of the crimes, nor the pointless cruelty of them.
As a mystery, I do think it’s just about fair play, although one has to be willing to let one’s imagination run riot a bit. There’s a locked room aspect to it, and as usual I failed to get that at all and frankly felt the solution to that part of the mystery was a bit too contrived. But in terms of the whodunit aspects – in this case, the who-is-Laurent aspect – I spotted several of the clues without realising that that’s what they were; in fact, I had sort of thought they were accidental inconsistencies rather than clues until all was explained at the end. But when the solution comes it’s wonderfully twisted, carrying the atmosphere of decadent horror right through to the end.
I’m aware that part of the reason I loved it so much is because of the horror aspects and that this may not appeal to all Golden Age mystery fans as much as it does to me. But the mystery aspect is good too and while Bencolin can be a bit too full of himself, as many of the great detectives are, Jeff is a wonderfully original creation as Watsons go, becoming deeply involved not just in the investigation but in the characters’ lives and the playing out of the plot. Wonderful stuff, and I can’t wait now to read more Carr – no wonder he’s considered one of the greats.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.
Having far too much time on my hands, I decided to see if I could find a book on my TBR for every letter of my blog name: my TBR being books I already own but haven’t yet read. I’m sure I’ve seen this as a tag around the blogosphere but don’t know where it originated, so apologies for not name-checking whoever created it. It’s a fun way of reminding myself of some of the many great-sounding books lingering unread on my Kindle or bookshelves…
Let’s go then!
FFell Murder by ECR Lorac II Married a Communist by Philip Roth CCloudstreet by Tim Winton TTyll by Daniel Kehlmann IIn Diamond Square by Merce Rodoreda OOn the Road by Jack Kerouac NNine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart F Ford County by John Grisham A At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarçon N No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy S Sula by Toni Morrison
B Braised Pork by An Yu O The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman O The Old Buzzard Had It Coming by Donis Casey K Knock, Murderer, Knock! by Harriet Rutland
R Rupture by Ragnar Jonasson E Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin V The Vegetarian by Han Kang I In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin E Execution by SJ Parris W We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver S The Siege by Helen Dunmore
The ease with which I could do this proves that I own way too many unread books! Of course the real challenge would be if I said I’d read them all in 2020… hmm…
Which ones take your fancy?
Can you do it? I tag you…
I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!
(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)
For the runners-up!
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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in
Like last year, I’ve been reading so many classics this year it hasn’t left room for an awful lot of modern literary fiction, and I don’t include classics in these awards. However, being forced to be choosier means I’ve thoroughly enjoyed most of the books I have read. I gave eleven books the full five stars, so the choice was not easy. And two of these could really share top spot, but since I’m not the Booker committee I’ll actually make a decision!
The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
In 1930s Malaya, young Ren was the houseboy of Dr McPherson until the doctor’s death. Before he died, the doctor gave Ren two instructions – firstly, that he should go into the employment of another doctor, William Abbott, and secondly, that he should find Dr McPherson’s severed finger and bury it alongside him in his grave. Ren has 49 days to complete this second task; if he fails, Dr McPherson’s soul will remain wandering the earth for ever. Meantime, Ji Lin is working as a dance-hall hostess, and when one of her customers becomes overly amorous he drops something – a preserved and blackened finger in a vial. And suddenly strange things begin to happen around Ji Lin – unexplained deaths and vivid dreams that seem to impinge on her waking life…
While there is on one level a relatively straightforward crime and mystery element to this, it’s shrouded in the folklore of the Chinese inhabitants of colonial Malaya (now Malaysia), especially as regards the mythology surrounding death rituals and the legend of the weretiger. I enjoyed every word of it – the characterisation, the descriptions of the society, the perspective on colonialism, the elements of humour and romance, the folklore, the eerieness and the darkness – great stuff!
After years of unsuccessful IVF treatment, Meg and Nate have given up their attempt to have a child, leaving Meg especially feeling that a vital part of her remains empty and unfulfilled. Her older sister Anna is home in Australia after spending several years working for various aid agencies in Thailand and Cambodia. At lunch one day, Anna introduces Meg to some friends who have just become parents via commercial surrogacy in Thailand. Suddenly Meg feels the hope she thought she had stifled come to life again. Anna is horrified at first but she comes to recognise Meg’s desperation and agrees to use her knowledge of the language and customs of Thailand to help her sister and brother-in-law navigate their way through the difficult path they have chosen.
Savage brings a balanced impartiality to the moral questions around the issue of paid surrogacy. I’m always afraid when a book is so clearly based around a moral issue that the author will slip into polemics, forcing her view on the reader. Savage avoids this by having her characters have very different opinions on the subject and letting them speak for themselves. An “issues” book where the author trusts the reader to think for herself, very well written, deeply emotional and, in my opinion, a very fine novel indeed.
Fleeing from her hometown of Glasgow in search of a better life, young Bessy Buckley finds herself more or less accidentally taking a job as maid at Castel Haivers, the home of Arabella Reid and her husband James, halfway along the road to Edinburgh. Arabella is young, beautiful and kind, and the affection-starved Bessy is soon devoted to her new mistress. But soon Bessy finds she’s not the first maid to whom Arabella has shown peculiar attention; in particular there was a girl named Nora, who died in circumstances that seem to cast a dark shadow over the household…
This is a take on the Victorian sensation novel complete with touches of Gothic horror, insanity, shocking deaths and so on. But what makes it special is Bessy, our narrator. She’s both feisty and vulnerable, strong but sometimes unsure of herself, devoted to but clear-sighted about the flaws of her mistress. However, it’s Bessy’s voice that is so special – a real tour-de-force from Harris in recreating an entirely credible dialect and slang for that place and time. Bessy is Irish originally, as were so many Glaswegians, and I loved the way Harris managed to give her language an authentic touch of Glasgow-Irish at points. Great characters, lots of humour, nicely spooky at points – a great read!
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak
Tequila Leila’s body is dead, but as her consciousness slowly fades, she finds herself drifting through memories of her life – the childhood that made her the woman she would become, her family, her loves, her friends. And along the way, we are given a picture of the underbelly of Istanbul, of those on the margins finding ways to live in a society that rejects them.
Despite the fact that the main character is dead, this is a wonderfully uplifting, life-affirming story. Time ticks down minute by minute for Leila, each marked by an episode from her life, often triggered by a memory of an aroma or a taste, such as the lemons the women used to make the wax for their legs, or the cardamom coffee that Leila loved. And as we follow Leila through her memories, we learn about the people who have had the greatest impact on her life. Her father, hoping always for a son. Her mother, a second wife married as little more than a child to provide that son that the first wife has failed to give. Her uncle, a man who will disrupt her childhood and change her possible futures irrevocably. And most of all her friends – five people she meets along the way who become bound together closer than any family, through ties of love and mutual support in a world that has made them outsiders. Beautifully written, a wonderful book that moved me to tears and laughter, that angered me and comforted me and, most of all, that made me love these characters with all their quirks and flaws and generosity of spirit. Could so easily have been my winner…
A former surgeon now acts as a general doctor in a small run-down clinic serving a population of rural villagers. Frustrated with the way his life has turned out, the surgeon is in a near perpetual state of disappointment and ill-temper. Then, one night after a long day when he has been giving all the local children their polio vaccinations, he is approached by three very strange patients, each with terrible wounds. They are a husband, wife and young son who were attacked in the street, robbed, stabbed and left to die. Which indeed they did. Now they have been given the chance to return from the afterlife, but before they come alive at dawn the next day, they must have their wounds treated or they will die again…
A beautifully written fable which, while it can be read on one level simply as a unique, interesting and very human story, has layer upon layer of depth, dealing with the big questions of life, death, faith, and the place of medicine in all of these. The whole question of the unknowableness of God’s plan and of the place of faith in determining how to act underlies every decision the characters are forced to make and, in the end, their humanity is all they have to guide them. Paralkar also shows the skills we take for granted in our surgeons – the near miracles we expect them to perform, and our readiness to criticise and blame if they fail. The underlying suggestion seems to be that we’re near to a point of refusing to accept death as inevitable, and what does that do to questions of faith?
Paralkar has achieved the perfect balance of giving a satisfying and thought-provoking story without telling the reader what to think, and as a result this is one that each reader will make unique to herself. One of the most original novels I’ve read in years.
(And yet… it seems to have sunk almost without trace, having garnered only 172 ratings on Goodreads as compared to Elif Shafak’s 5113. Suggesting that a Booker nomination is more influential than an FF Award – surely not! Get out there, people, read it, review it and force it on everyone you know… for my sake! 😉 )
An extremely difficult choice this year – both Furious Hours and 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World would have been worthy winners too. But this book just edged ahead in the final furlong – its originality, its profound humanity, and the fact that several months after reading it I still often find myself pondering over the questions it raises. One that I will undoubtedly read again – the highest accolade I can give to any book – and I’m looking forward with great anticipation to seeing what Paralkar gives us in the future.
Thanks to all of you who’ve joined me for this year’s awards feature.
I hope you’ve enjoyed it – I’ve enjoyed your company!