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

Careless talk costs lives…

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

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

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

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

Hugh Fraser

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

Audible UK Link

Heartstone (Matthew Shardlake 5) by CJ Sansom

Who guards the guardians?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steven Crossley

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

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

Audible UK Link

The Wreck of the Mary Deare by Hammond Innes

Worse things happen at sea…

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The little sailing boat Sea Witch is crossing the Channel one night, when suddenly a large ship looms out of the darkness and nearly rams her. The crew of the Sea Witch are planning to start a new business venture as salvagers and when they realise the ship may have been abandoned the skipper, John Sands, who is also our narrator, sees this as a possible salvage opportunity. So despite the fact that a storm is approaching, he decides to board the ship, the Mary Deare, to see whether they can bring it to harbour. But when he gets aboard, he finds the badly damaged ship is not completely abandoned – its captain, Gideon Patch, is there, exhausted and drunk and on the point of giving up hope. The storm hits, and Sands is unable to get back to the Sea Witch, so he and Patch are left to try to prevent the Mary Deare from sinking before help arrives. But what has caused the damage to the Mary Deare? And why has her crew, all but Patch, abandoned her? Sands finds himself caught up in a mystery as well as an adventure…

Hammond Innes was a big name in adventure writing in the last century, with a long career spanning from the 1930s to the 1990s. I’m sure I probably read some in my youth, but if so they’ve long faded from my mind. This one dates from 1956. The entire plot involves sailing – both big and small ships – and is full of nautical terminology and information about sea conditions, tides, and so on. Innes was apparently a keen sailor himself and clearly knows his stuff, and has the happy knack of not dumbing his knowledge down but still managing to keep the unknowledgable reader, like me, following in his wake. The story takes place mostly in the Minquiers, a cluster of reefs, rocks and tiny islets off the shores of the Channel Islands.

The story is divided into three parts, roughly speaking, with the first and last being adventures on the sea and aboard the Mary Deare, while the middle section involves the official court inquiry into what happened aboard. The adventures are exciting, though I did wonder if even strong experienced men could really have survived some of the physical ordeals Hammond puts them through.

The court case is what gives the adventure its plot. The Mary Deare has had a run of bad luck, firstly with the captain dying unexpectedly, so that Patch, who had only joined the ship in its last port, is thrust into the role of captain. A man is missing, a representative of the ship’s owners, and it is presumed he must have fallen overboard. Then there’s a fire which cuts off ship-to-shore communications, and finally an explosion in the cargo hold, breaching the hull. But are these things all accidents, or is there a nefarious plan afoot? The crew claim Patch ordered them to take to the lifeboats and make for shore, but Patch denies this, counter-claiming that they effectively mutinied under the direction of another crewman, Higgins. Then there are rumours that something dodgy went on the last time the ship was in harbour – that the supposed cargo of aero-engines had been secretly transferred to another ship. Patch, whose career and reputation are on the line, believes the only thing to do is to salvage the wreck and examine the cargo, and he ropes in Sands and the Sea Witch to help him.

The writing is perfectly attuned to the style of the story, with great descriptions of the sea and the storms, the conditions aboard the Mary Deare, how Patch and Sands go about trying to get the engines going again, and so on. The adventure sections have a real atmosphere of tension for the most part, though I felt the final section went on a bit too long – by that stage I was ready for the plot to be brought to its conclusion.

Hammond Innes

The courtroom scenes are slower, but I enjoyed the way Innes laid out all the conflicting evidence and gave us contrasting pictures of the various crew members. We see it all through the eyes of John Sands, who, like the reader, has no knowledge of any of these men other than what they themselves tell us. Therefore, like us, Sands has to make a judgment as to whether Patch is the victim of a conspiracy or is himself the saboteur.

I listened to the audio book version, narrated by Bill Wallis, and for the most part it’s excellent. The exception is when Patch is drunk and Wallis acts this out, slurring his words. This made it very difficult for me to make out what Patch was saying, and several times I had to rewind and listen twice or three times to the same sentence. Happily Patch sobers up eventually and the problem went away. But I do wish narrators would remember that clarity is the prime essential in audiobooks, however much they may want to show off their acting skills.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this sea adventure and I’m looking forward to checking out some more of Innes’ books in the future, either in audio or print.

Audible UK Link

Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen by PG Wodehouse

The Maiden Eggesford horror…

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When Bertie Wooster wakes one morning to find he has developed pink spots on his chest, his doctor orders him off to the country to rest. Aunt Dahlia finds him a little cottage, Wee Nooke, in the village of Maiden Eggesford, where she herself is visiting at Eggesford Hall. Needless to say, idyllic though the setting is, there’s no rest to be found for poor Bertie! Not only does Aunt Dahlia want him to help her nobble a horse in the big local race, but old flame Vanessa Cook has decided that she will marry Bertie, much to his horror. Not only is she the type of girl who expects him to give up smoking and cocktails, but she also feels he would be improved by reading more poetry. And Orlo Porter, who loves Vanessa and has been spurned by her, is on the warpath.

….“Lord Chesterfield said that since he had had the full use of his reason nobody had heard him laugh. I don’t suppose you have read Lord Chesterfield’s ‘Letters To His Son’?”
….Well, of course I hadn’t. Bertram Wooster does not read other people’s letters. If I were employed in the post office I wouldn’t even read the postcards.

This was the last novel PG Wodehouse finished before his death, and it’s in the nature of a reprise of all his greatest hits. All the plots in the Jeeves and Wooster books are fundamentally the same, and that’s a large part of their charm. You know exactly what to expect and Wodehouse never fails to deliver. He repeats jokes from book to book, and yet they seem fresh every time because he’s such a master of the witty turn of phrase and his use of language is delicious.

If she ever turned into a werewolf, it would be one of those jolly breezy werewolves whom it is a pleasure to know.

The books with Aunt Dahlia in them are always my favourites. In this one, she intends to nobble Potato Chip, the racehorse owned by Vanessa’s father, because she has bet her all on Simla, owned by her host at Eggesford Hall. To achieve her aim, she arranges to steal a cat to which Potato Chip has become so deeply attached he refuses to train unless the cat is with him, and of course where better to hide a stolen cat than in Bertie’s cottage! Bertie tries to point out how ungentlemanly nobbling racehorses is, but Aunt Dahlia simply doesn’t see it that way. As Bertie has come to realise, aunts aren’t gentlemen. Mr Cook is on the warpath…

He was a red-headed chap, and my experience of the red-headed is that you can always expect high blood pressure from them in times of stress. The first Queen Elizabeth had red hair, and look what she did to Mary Queen of Scots.

PG Wodehouse

Of course, things get progressively more tangled, until the inimitable Jeeves saves the day with his usual display of inspired brilliance. Despite this having been written when Wodehouse was in his nineties, it’s right up there amongst his best. I chuckled my way through it, safe in the knowledge that all would be well. Jonathan Cecil is the perfect narrator for these books, and they are guaranteed to bring sunshine into the greyest day. It’s time they made Wodehouse available on the NHS!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Christie Week: Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

A menagerie of murderers…

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Mr Shaitana loves to collect things – jewels, weapons, Egyptian artefacts, objects from the mysterious Far East, etc. One of his stranger collections is of uncaught murderers and when he meets the famous detective Hercule Poirot, he can’t stop himself from boasting about them. Almost against his better judgement Poirot is intrigued, so when Shaitana invites him to a little party to meet his murderers, he accepts. When he arrives, he finds there are eight guests including himself, three of whom he knows – Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard, Colonel Race, whose career included intelligence work, and Ariadne Oliver, detective novelist, who believes that more crimes would be solved if only there were a woman at the head of Scotland Yard. [FF muses: Hmm! Wonder what she’d have thought of Cressida Dick! 😉 ]. It’s obvious, then, that the other four guests must be Shaitana’s murderers. And when later in the evening Shaitana is stabbed to death, it’s equally obvious that one of these four must have done the deed. It’s up to Poirot and the other three detectives to work out whodunit, but first they must look into the backgrounds of the four suspects to find out if Shaitana was right that they had each successfully committed a murder before…

….“He played the part of the devil too successfully. But he was not the devil. Au fond, he was a stupid man. And so – he died.”
….“Because he was stupid?”
….“It is the sin that is never forgiven and always punished, madame.”

I love this one but I have two tiny reservations, so let me get them out of the way first. There are some unfortunate racial slurs in this and some attitudes to foreigners which were perfectly normal back then, but which may jar today. My other issue is that Christie assumes that her readers will understand the intricacies of the card game of bridge, which the suspects were playing at the time of the murder. Poirot uses the bidding and scores as a method to understand the personalities of the four players. Back then I’d imagine the vast majority of her readers did play bridge, or at least knew the rules. I, however, only have the sketchiest understanding of it so most of that was lost on me and I found my eyes glazing over during some of the rather lengthy dissections of the game.

However, there’s so much good stuff in it that these small points don’t spoil the overall enjoyment. Ariadne Oliver is always a favourite of mine when she turns up in a Poirot mystery, and in this one she’s especially fun as she explains to another star-struck character what being a mystery novelist is like – the hard work that comes between thinking up a plot and having a finished book, the pressure of publishing deadlines, and so on. She also discusses with Poirot how it’s possible to re-use plots so long as you disguise them well enough. I always feel Mrs Oliver gives us a real insight to Christie’s own writing life, and she does it with so much humour and such a complete lack of pomposity that it makes me like her even more!

“As a matter of fact I don’t care two pins about accuracy. Who is accurate? Nobody nowadays. If a reporter writes that a beautiful girl of twenty-two dies by turning on the gas after looking out over the sea and kissing her favourite Labrador, Bob, goodbye, does anybody make a fuss because the girl was twenty-six, the room faced inland, and the dog was a Sealyham terrier called Bonnie? If a journalist can do that sort of thing I don’t see that it matters if I mix up police ranks and say a revolver when I mean an automatic and a dictograph when I mean a phonograph, and use a poison that just allows you to gasp one dying sentence and no more. What really matters is plenty of bodies! If the thing’s getting a little dull, some more blood cheers it up.”

Zoe Wanamaker as Ariadne Oliver in the Suchet adaptation

Superintendent Battle and Colonel Race are occasional recurring characters too so it’s fun to have all of them working together. The four suspects each provide interesting stories. Young Anne Meredith (called after one of Christie’s fellow mystery novelists) seems too naive and innocent to be a murderer, but is she what she seems? Dr Roberts has all the opportunities given to him by his profession – has he bumped off one or two patients in his career? Major Despard has had an adventurous life in some of the far-flung corners of Empire, where dark deeds (and dead bodies) can easily be buried. And Mrs Lorrimer – she’s an enigma: ultra-respectable, it seems, and lives for her bridge. Can she possibly have murdered anyone? Shaitana thought so. Each of the four detectives brings their different expertise to bear – Poirot working on the psychology of the suspects, Race using his intelligence contacts to learn about Despard’s career, Mrs Oliver gossiping with Anne Meredith and her friend Rhoda, and Superintendent Battle doing all the painstaking police work. And each of them contributes valuable information, although of course it will be up to Poirot to solve the case in the end.

….“But I don’t doubt it will be essentially the same type of crime. The details may be different, but the essentials underlying them will be the same. It’s odd, but a criminal gives himself away every time by that. Man is an unoriginal animal,” said Hercule Poirot.
….“Women,” said Mrs. Oliver, ” are capable of infinite variation. I should never commit the same type of murder twice running.”
….“Don’t you ever write the same plot twice running?” asked Battle.”

The solution is particularly good, with Christie misdirecting the poor reader (and most of the detectives) all over the place. It is fair play, I’d say, but with each of the suspects being suspected of other murders there’s the added element of solving all those mysteries too, and that adds hugely to the interest. One of her best, I think – one of many!

I listened to Hugh Fraser narrating the audiobook and as always he does a wonderful job of giving each of the characters their own voice and persona.

Audible UK Link

Hope you enjoyed Christie Week – I’ve loved chatting Christie with you all!

Christie Week: Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie

Best days of our lives?

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(These Christie audiobooks narrated by either Joan Hickson or Hugh Fraser have become my stress relievers, and as we all know, life has been pretty stressful recently! I usually hold my reviews of them back, to have something to post when I run out of other reviews. But that hasn’t happened for ages, and some of the unposted Christie reviews are getting so old they’re going yellow round the edges. So join me for Christie week! A whole week of posts about the unrivalled Queen of Crime! 😀 Just a word on star ratings: for favourite authors – Christie, Dickens, Austen, Hill – I only rate them against their own best work, not other people’s. So a four-star Christie is still head and shoulders above most five-stars from other people. I know, it doesn’t make sense, but there’s no law says it has to… 😉 )

Cat Among the PigeonsIt is the start of term and parents are arriving to drop their daughters off at the elite Meadowbank school, where the headmistress, Miss Bulstrode, has built a reputation for excellence. There are several new girls: Jennifer and Julia who are destined to become best friends, and Princess Shaista, a member of the ruling family in Ramat, a middle-Eastern nation that has just undergone a coup. Flashback a few weeks to Ramat, and we meet Bob Rawlinson, friend to Prince Ali Yusuf, the soon to be deposed ruler. Ali, aware of his likely fate, entrusts something of immense value to Bob and asks him to get it out of the kingdom. These two very different scenarios will soon cross into each other, bringing murder to the ultra-respectable Meadowbank.

Although this has never been one of my top favourite Poirots, it has lots of good things that place it high in the second tier. When I was younger Meadowbank seemed like a wonderful place, though now I find I hate the elitism of it and see no real signs of why it should be considered so remarkable – the girls we get to know seem a rather mediocre bunch on the whole, and are there exclusively because of their parents’ wealth and social position. Christie does address this through a conversation between a couple of her characters, but not convincingly.

The characterisation of the teachers is very well done. Miss Bulstrode is an inspirational leader (though she doesn’t seem terribly good at selecting staff!) while her long-time friend, Miss Chadwick, is one of these rather pitiable characters Christie does so well – a little lonely, loyal to a fault, often overlooked by stronger personalities. She reminds me of Bunny in A Murder is Announced. Miss Vansittart is the one considered likely to succeed Miss Bulstrode when she retires, although Miss Bulstrode is having doubts about her suitability. There are some new members of staff this term, each of whom may or may not be what she seems. It is one of these, Miss Springer the gamesmistress, who turns up dead in the new Sports Pavilion.

(FF muses: Hugh Fraser pronounces Miss Vansittart with the emphasis on “sit”. In my head it’s always had the emphasis on ‘Van’ – to rhyme with Fancy Tart. Hmm, that should pile the views in from Google searches from men who will be very disappointed to discover that my Fancy Tart is not at all what they’re searching for… 😉 )

The two girls we get to know best are fun. Jennifer is an unimaginative and unobservant child, devoted to her tennis, while Julia is quite the reverse – sensible, but curious and with lots of intelligence and initiative. As happens often in Christie novels, the children are far less fazed by the murder and mayhem going on around them than the adults. She shows them as partly excited and partly too self-absorbed in their own affairs to be frightened. Personally I find this more credible than if they were all having screaming hysterics all the time.

agatha_christie
Agatha Christie

There are a few reasons I don’t rate this quite as highly as some of the other Poirots, but none of these should be seen as major criticisms, simply observations. Poirot doesn’t appear until very late in the novel, and I miss him! Written quite late in Christie’s career, 1959, it shows a little of the weakness in plotting that became a feature of some of her final books. Well, perhaps not in plotting exactly, but in the presentation of the plot to the reader – I don’t think it could quite be classed as fair play, and Poirot seems to rather pluck the solution out of the air rather than build up to it by solid investigation. I’m never so keen on Christie’s occasional ventures into the world of international espionage – I don’t think she does it nearly as believably as her more domestic plots, and it does tend to mean there’s an awful lot of that British superciliousness towards foreigners that grates more with each passing year, although it’s clear from this one that Christie had herself moved on quite a bit from the worst of the colonial attitudes she showed in some of her earliest books.

(FF muses: One of the things I always remember about it from my first reading long, long ago is that, while all this is happening at Meadowbank, Julia’s mother is travelling to Anatolia on a bus, which seemed so exotic and adventurous to young FF, especially since I had no idea where Anatolia is. Now I know, and I also know we could get there in a few hours by plane and meet the 5 zillion other British tourists who’d all gone there too, and we could all pop out and have a Big Mac if we wanted, and I wonder if all our advances haven’t simply taken the romance out of life… but I digress!)

Despite my minor criticisms, this is a very enjoyable read, and as always Hugh Fraser’s narration is excellent. A great way to spend a few hours!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Review-Along! Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

A Novel Without a Hero, but…

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(Spoiler-filled from beginning to end – you have been warned!)

As two young girls leave school together for the last time, their prospects couldn’t be more different. Sweet little Amelia – Emmy – pretty but brainless, is the pampered daughter of a wealthy man and has her future mapped out for her, including marriage to the son of her father’s friend, the handsome and dashing George Osborne. Becky Sharp – ah, Becky! Left like an unwanted parcel at the school years before by her feckless, drunken father, she has no fortune and no family, and she will have to make her own future in a world where matrimony is a woman’s only route to success – at least, respectable success. Fortunately Becky is fairly flexible about her definition of respectability…

This massive satire on every aspect of the English gentility in the years during and after the Napoleonic Wars is one of those very rare beasts – a satire that is actually funny. While Thackeray is brutal to all of the poor puppets in his play, his clear affection for them keeps the tone light even during the darkest parts of the story. There are really only two of the main characters to whom I felt he didn’t give much in the way of redemptive qualities – Emmy’s lover and later husband, George Osborne, and George’s father, who plays the role of villain. All the rest are variously flawed, weak, fickle, vain, but they are too recognisably people we might know (or be!) to be wholly unsympathetic. Thackeray, in his role as omniscient narrator, isn’t afraid to remind his readers frequently that they share the flaws of his characters and that theirs is the society he is mocking.

By the time Thackeray was publishing this in serial form in 1847-8, the Victorian reader had been treated to a variety of Dickens’ heroines, mostly drooping, pretty, tiny, passive, saccharin nonentities and therefore worthy of the love of the novel’s hero. I wonder if Victorian girls felt as nauseated by Dora Copperfield as any modern reader is almost bound to be? If so, what fun to meet Becky Sharp only a year or so later! All those girls who couldn’t be sweet all the time – who didn’t want to be sweet all the time – must have loved Becky from the moment she threw Dr Johnson’s Dictionary out of the coach as she drove away from school! As Emmy dripped and sighed over her worthless lover, and forgave him and forgave him, and wept, and wept, and wept, were the Victorian girls as relieved as I to turn to Becky, to see her demand her own share of the pleasures and vanities of life? Did they feel, as I did, that it was worth the inevitable crash and burn to have had a few years of excitement and fun? Did they laugh heartlessly, as I did and as Thackeray did, at poor Emmy’s years of pathetic fidelity to her long-dead and unlamentable husband? I bet they did!

Sir Pitt the Elder proposes

Of course, Becky is not a good person. But that’s her charm! She is a terrible mother who doesn’t see why having a child should turn a woman into a stay-at-home domestic goddess, giving up her own life to bring up a child who will doubtless turn into a brat like all the men around him, and end up being horridly condescending to his doting mamma (like Emmy’s revolting sprog Georgy). All the unmaternal Victorian girls must have been secretly cheering her on as she left her husband to the drudgery of child-rearing while she went off to parties, bedecked in silks and diamonds she couldn’t afford but managed to acquire anyway. OK, she stole poor Miss Briggs’ small fortune, but does anyone really think that Briggs would have had more fun in a tiny, bare room in a boarding house all alone, eating gruel and darning her stockings, than hobnobbing with the risqué but dazzling guests in Becky’s drawing room? And whether Becky killed her faithful swain Jos deliberately or simply accidentally by allowing him to over-indulge, be honest – wouldn’t his life have been empty and dull indeed if she had not fanned the flames of his passion? Were not his proudest moments when she allowed him to strut along the street as the favoured beau of the most scandalous woman in town?

1855 daguerreotype of William Makepeace Thackeray by Jesse Harrison Whitehurst

Meantime Amelia lives the life of the perfect Victorian heroine, doting on her child, acting as nurse to her elderly and rather selfish parents, steadfastly faithful to the memory of the man whose fidelity to her lasted no longer than about two weeks after the wedding. The only good thing that happens to Emmy is George’s death, but could she see it? No, she weeps and wails and wails and weeps, until even Dickens might have been tempted to tell her to put a sock in it. I’m sure every Victorian girl who had been told repeatedly that she should be more womanly – i.e., weep more and swoon occasionally – must have loved Thackeray’s delicious torturing of poor Emmy’s over-active tear-ducts. Becky may have been a devil and Emmy an angel, but there’s no doubt which one Thackeray liked best. Who among us didn’t cheer when Dobbin, faithful old Dobbin, finally told Emmy she was a worthless, brain-dead, whimpering doll not fit to be his wife? (I paraphrase, but only slightly.) And was I the only one who was a bit disappointed when he came running back to her after all? The last we see of Emmy is her sighing over the fact that Dobbin loves their daughter more than her – no doubt she had a good weep over it when they got home…

Guess which one is Emmy?

There’s far too much in this book to write a real review in any kind of reasonable length for a blog post, so as you can see I haven’t tried. Instead I’ve been inspired by Thackeray’s choice of subtitle. He may rightly have called it “A Novel Without a Hero” – poor Dobbin is too pathetic, poor Rawdon is too weak, poor Jos is too silly, poor Sir Pitt the Younger is too righteous, poor Sir Pitt the Elder is too vulgar and Lord Steyne is too evil (but not poor). But I contend it is “A Novel With a Heroine” – not snivelling Emmy with her perpetually damp handkerchiefs, but our Becky Sharp, leading the way for women everywhere to behave as badly as men and have just as much fun as they do! Go, Becky!

(PS I enjoyed Georgina Sutton’s narration very much, although because of my own slowness at listening to audiobooks I swapped over to a Kindle version in the second half.)

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

* * * * *

Several of us have been reading Vanity Fair as a Review-Along, and I’ll put links to the other posts here as they appear. Please also come back and check the comments below, where our non-blogging buddies Christine and Alyson will be sharing their opinions. I do hope everyone had as much fun reading this one as I had. Thanks to Rose for suggesting it!

Rose’s Review

Madame Bibilophile’s Review

Jane’s Review

Loulou’s review

Sandra’s review

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

There and back again…

😀 😀 😀 😀 

Bilbo Baggins leads a respectable life, as befits a hobbit approaching middle-age. He loves his hobbit hole, has plenty of money so doesn’t need to work, and would rather dream of tea and cakes than adventure. But for some reason the wizard Gandalf the Grey decides that he would make a perfect thief for an expedition that a group of dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield, intend to undertake to regain the treasure of their forefathers, stolen years ago by the great dragon, Smaug. And despite feeling that he’s not at all suited to the task, Bilbo soon finds himself setting off on the journey, without even a handkerchief to remind him of homely things.

When I first read this, I think I was too old to lose myself wholly in the adventures as a child would, but not yet old enough to appreciate it as an adult. As a result, it has never held a deep place in my affections, unlike its big brother, The Lord of the Rings. So I haven’t re-read it for many years, but when I saw that Audible had a new audio version, narrated by Gollum himself, Andy Serkis, I felt this was the time to try it again. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those lucky people who still, as adults, get a great deal of pleasure from children’s books, unless they are ones, like Anne of Green Gables, which I loved so much and read so often as a child that they instantly take me back to those far-off times. So while I enjoyed my re-read of this, I still didn’t fall wholeheartedly in love with it.

Andy Serkis’ performance is great. He throws himself into it with gusto, using a whole range of British regional accents for all the various characters, especially the dwarves, which helps to distinguish them from each other. He sings all the songs – I don’t know whether he made up the tunes himself or if they are taken from the movie, which I haven’t seen, but he does them brilliantly, using different voices and characters appropriate to the singers, be it dwarves, elves or trolls. His Gollum, unsurprisingly, sounds exactly like Gollum from the films! He very definitely gets five stars.

I’m now going to get a bit critical (and probably a bit spoilery), so people who love the book or haven’t yet read it may want to look away now…

Gollum and Andy Serkis (but which is which?)

There were two things that stopped me loving it wholeheartedly. Firstly, I found I didn’t really like most of the characters, especially the dwarves, but also the elves and the humans. Bilbo himself is fine, but he’s no Frodo. He does indeed steal the ring from Gollum, which I had rather forgotten. I know that in LOTR we learn that Gollum himself stole it and also that the ring probably exerted its influence over Bilbo to take it out of the caverns where Gollum had kept it for so long. But we don’t know that in The Hobbit, so it just leaves Bilbo as a thief, stealing Gollum’s one precioussss possession. I’ve always had difficulty with heroes who aren’t any more morally upstanding than the villains, especially in children’s literature.

The second issue came as a big shock to me, and that is that the dwarves are given many of the negative characteristics associated with anti-Semitic tropes – their physical appearance of small stature and long beards, their essential cowardice, their love beyond reason for gold and jewels, their miserliness. I certainly didn’t pick up on this when I was young, and was so gobsmacked by it this time that I wondered if I was inventing connections that didn’t exist. So I googled, only to discover that there is a wealth of academic writing on the subject. I am not, repeat not, suggesting that Tolkien was anti-Semitic – simply that to modern eyes (mine, at least) the portrayal of the dwarves in this way leads to a rather uncomfortable reading experience, somewhat like trying to see Shylock through the eyes of Shakespeare’s contemporaries rather than our own. It wouldn’t have surprised me in the least if Thorin had suddenly started wailing “O, my daughter! O, my ducats!”, if only he had had a daughter.

I also couldn’t help feeling rather sorry for Smaug. (As a side note, Serkis pronounces it Smowg, to rhyme with now, whereas I’ve always thought of it as Smog, to rhyme with dog, so I found that a bit disconcerting.) It appeared to me Smaug was no less moral and no more obsessed with treasure than the dwarves, so it was difficult for me to feel they were the good guys and he the bad. As I say, I don’t think I’m very good at reading children’s literature!

JRR Tolkien

However, there are lots of fun episodes, like the trolls (I felt a bit sorry for them too, admittedly – they were just doing what trolls do), and the eagles, and all the stuff in Mirkwood is wonderfully scary, especially the spiders. Poor old Bombur provides a good deal of comic relief (despite the fat-shaming! Oh good lord, I’ve been brainwashed by the Woke!) and I felt Fili and Kili (always my favourite dwarves) redeemed the dwarves’ reputation a little by their heroism at the end.

Overall, a book I’m sure I would have loved far more if only I’d first read it when I was a couple of years younger. Maybe in my next life…

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Cécile is Dead (Maigret 20) by Georges Simenon

Maigret’s lapse…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Cecile is DeadCécile Pardon had become a regular visitor to Inspector Maigret at his office in the Police Judiciaire building in Paris. A spinster who lived with her elderly widowed aunt, Cécile had become convinced that someone was coming in to their apartment at night while they slept. Maigret had made a superficial gesture towards investigating, but everyone thought she was imagining things. And worse, everyone was teasing Maigret that she kept visiting because she had a crush on him. So on this morning, when Maigret saw her sitting patiently in the waiting room he left her there and got on with other things. When eventually he went to collect her, she was gone. Later, the body of her aunt is found in the apartment, strangled, and Cécile is nowhere to be found. The title gives a clue as to her fate.

Realising the aunt must already have been dead when Cécile came to see him, Maigret suspects that she knew who the murderer was and wanted to tell him directly rather than report it to the local police. He feels that if he had only taken the time to speak to her, Cécile may not have been killed. Maigret is too sensible and too experienced to blame himself for her death – he’s quite clear in his own mind that the murderer is fully responsible for that – but nevertheless his slight lapse makes him even more determined than usual to see that justice is done.

This one has quite a complicated plot for a Maigret novel, with several suspects and possible motives. Mostly it’s set in the apartment block in Bourg-la-Reine that Cécile and her aunt lived in – a block that the aunt also owned. For it turns out that she was a rich old woman, but miserly, always convinced that her relatives were scrounging from her. She was also unpleasant, treating poor Cécile like an unpaid servant, being unwilling to assist her nephew even though he was out of a job and his wife was about to have a baby, and so on. She played her many relatives off against each other, hinting to each that they would be the one to inherit when she died. But these aren’t the only suspects – rumour has it that she kept large sums of money in the apartment since she didn’t trust banks, so anyone may have decided to break in, kill her and steal the money. However, the apartment has a concierge who controls entry to the building, so that if this was what happened, it must have been one of the other tenants, or the concierge herself.

Later in the book, Maigret finds himself being accompanied on his investigations by a visiting American criminologist, Spencer Oates, who has been given the opportunity to study the great man’s method. But Maigret, as he has said in other books, doesn’t have what he thinks of as “a method” – he simply speaks to the people involved, learns as much as he can about the victim, studies the location and the timings, thinks himself into the mind of the murderer, and uses his intelligence and experience to work out what must have happened. So he uses Oates as a kind of sounding board as he develops his theory, thus allowing the reader to follow his thinking too.

There’s a sub-plot about a man, one of the tenants, who has previously been jailed for his inappropriate behaviour with young girls. Some aspects of this might jar with modern readers, as girls are shown both as vulnerable and predatory. Although it’s an unfashionable viewpoint now, I find this much more realistic than the idea that girls remain innocent angels until the day they are legally adult, so I felt this was an accurate if unflattering portrayal of adolescent girls, and also that Simenon gave a contrast in Maigret and the ex-prisoner of the response of the good man and the bad – one resisting temptation, the other preying on vulnerability.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Gareth Armstrong, and as always he did an excellent job of creating distinctive voices for Maigret and all the other characters.

georges-simenon
Georges Simenon

Overall, I think this is one of the best of the Maigrets I’ve read so far. Simenon’s portrayal of the unglamorous side of Paris is as excellent as always, but this one is better plotted than some, and the themes and characterisation have more depth. And I always enjoy when the solution manages to surprise me but still feel credible. Quite a bleak story, but Maigret’s fundamental decency and integrity and his happy home life always stop these stories from becoming too depressingly noir. Highly recommended.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Tuesday ‘Tec! The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Holmes is alive!

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Return of Sherlock HolmesThis is the third volume of Holmes short stories, and in my opinion the weakest overall, although it still has several good stories in it. Forced by popular sentiment and commercial realities to resuscitate Holmes after the unfortunate drowning incident at the Reichenbach Falls, I always have the feeling that Conan Doyle’s heart wasn’t really in it at this stage – some of these are a bit bland in terms of plot. In the later volumes I feel he got back into his stride and came up with more imaginative and dramatic scenarios – some so imaginative, admittedly, that they test credibility to the breaking point, but more exciting on the whole.

That rather negative introduction shouldn’t put new readers off though – even the weaker Holmes stories are always well worth reading, simply for ACD’s easy, flowing writing style which makes anything he writes a pleasure to read. And the relationship between Holmes and his admiring friend Watson is always a joy.

Tuesday Tec2

The first story, and the worst of all the Holmes stories for me, is The Adventure of The Empty House in which Holmes returns from the grave, startling Watson into a fainting fit. It’s full of plot holes and the explanation for why Holmes has left his old friend grieving for him for several years makes Holmes seem even colder and more heartless than usual. During this period Watson lost his beloved wife, Mary, and Holmes, having sent no word of comfort at the time, barely bothers to condole with him even now. But the real weakness is that the reason for Holmes’ long absence makes no sense. Supposedly staying presumed dead so that he can work quietly to destroy the remnants of Moriarty’s organisation, we quickly discover that Moriarty’s number two, Colonel Moran, saw Holmes escape from the Reichenbach incident. So everyone – Moriarty’s people and the police – all knew Holmes was alive, but he still didn’t tell dear old Watson. If I’d been Watson, I’d have punched him! Watson, being much sweeter than I, instead welcomes him back with open arms and an open heart. I love Watson…

dr watsonThe Dr Watson

Anyway, after that frankly disappointing start, the collection reverts to the usual format of individual cases often brought to Holmes by the baffled police. Lestrade (my favourite bumbling policeman) appears in several, as does Stanley Hopkins, of whom for some reason Holmes thinks highly, although he always seems just as befuddled as poor Lestrade to me! There are missing rugby players, mysterious ciphers, blackmailers, abusive husbands, imperilled women, Russian nihilists, stolen government plans, etc., etc., and we also have Holmes saving the world from war (as he does a few times over his career) in the final story, The Adventure of the Second Stain.

blood-spatter

Here’s a flavour of a few of my favourites:

The Adventure of the Dancing Men – Hilton Cubitt approaches Holmes because he is finding little drawings of dancing men around his property and they seem to be terrifying his wife. Actually this is one of Holmes’ major failures in that he fails to solve the dancing men cipher in time to prevent the tragedy that the messages foretell, but I love those dancing men! Sadly I’ve read it so often now I know what the messages mean, but the first time(s) I read it I had great fun trying and failing to crack the code.

Elementary, my dear Watson!

(bonus points if you crack the code – clue: the first letter is E)

The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist – A woman in peril story, as Miss Violet Smith becomes the target of evil men for nefarious reasons that only become clear at the end. I enjoy Miss Smith’s feisty independence and courage, even if she does have a (justifiable) fit of the vapours at the climax of the story. And there’s something very creepy about the way ACD describes her being followed as she cycles along deserted country roads. This is another it’s important not to analyse too deeply because frankly the climax ignores minor details like how the law works in the England of the time, but it’s fun anyway.

The Solitary Cyclist

The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton – Milverton is a notorious blackmailer who preys on society ladies who have been indiscreet. Holmes is asked for help by one such lady, and both he and Watson are at their chivalrous best, even going so far as to break the law in an attempt to get back the lady’s letters. This one tootles along at a steady pace and then suddenly blows up into a spectacular climax! A real “I did not see that coming!” moment, and brilliantly done!

Charles Augustus Milverton (2)

The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez – Inspector Stanley Hopkins asks for Holmes’ help in a puzzling case involving the murder of the secretary of Professor Coram at Yoxley Old Place. I love this for three major reasons: I love the name Yoxley Old Place – it sounds so deliciously Gothic; this is where I first heard of pince-nez and the idea of them tickled young FF’s fancy; and mostly, I love the brilliant way Holmes uses cigarettes to solve the case, much to Watson’s baffled disgust!

Golden Pince Nez

The second-best Holmes

So, much to enjoy even in this relatively weaker collection. I listened to Derek Jacobi narrating them, and he really is the perfect Watson, as well as creating a full range of voices and personalities for all the other many characters who cross the pages.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

A masterclass in ambiguity…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Gillespie and IElderly Harriet Baxter sits in her London home, thinking back to when she was a young woman, visiting Glasgow for the International Exhibition of 1888. There, she fell in with the Gillespie family, and became involved in an incident that was to impact both her and them for the rest of their lives. She slowly tells the reader the tale…

Slowly being the operative word. If this book had been half its length it would have been wonderful. Instead, it crawls along at a toe-curlingly slow pace, with every moment of every day described in excessive detail. I was listening to the audiobook, which had the unfortunate effect that I couldn’t skim read as I think I tend to do when reading over-detailed print books. With audio, each word is given equal weight and this, for me, really highlights when an author has fallen self-indulgently in love with her own creation and has forgotten that the poor reader might prefer the story to move along at a speed slightly above the glacial. There! That’s my complaint over, so now on to the good points, of which there are many.

Harriet is a wonderful narrator, unreliable in the extreme, not terribly likeable, but compellingly ambiguous. Although it takes a long time to get there, we learn from foreshadowing that at some point there will be a trial in the story, although we don’t know who will be tried or for what, or whether whoever it is will be found guilty. But we do know that the outcome of the trial left Harriet notorious, and that she is now telling her version of events as a counter to a book which has come out making her out to be some kind of villainous monster.

Ned is a young painter, scraping a living out of his art but yet to really make his name. Harris has set her book at the time of the “Glasgow School” – a period when Glasgow was for a few decades a major artistic hub in the fields of painting and architecture particularly. Ned and his fellow artists are not in the first rank of this movement – rather they are shown as a kind of wider, secondary grouping inspired by the artistic buzz around the city. Harris doesn’t go into the art of the period in any detail, but uses it to provide a very authentic background to her group of artists and hangers-on, and Ned’s work is clearly influenced by the realism that was a feature of the real painters of the movement.

Taking tea at The Glasgow Exhibition, 1888 by Sir John Lavery, a painter of the Glasgow School

Harriet, although she would never admit it, is clearly obsessed by Ned, and jealous of Annie and their children for taking up so much of his time and attention. Harriet would claim that it’s Ned’s work that interests her – her belief that he has the talent to become one of the major artists of his day, with a little help from an altruistic friend. The reader suspects her feelings towards him might be little less lofty – a little more earthy, in fact. She soon becomes an intimate friend of the family, though one suspects that the family may be less thrilled by this than Harriet is.

Harriet’s voice is excellent, and Anna Bentinck’s first-rate performance does the character full justice (along with all the other characters, to whom she gives a myriad of authentic-sounding Scottish accents). As a single lady past the first flush of youth in the Victorian era, Harriet is of course outwardly prim and proper, but her inward thoughts allow us to know her mind is not quite as pure as a young lady’s should be! She is often very funny, usually unintentionally, and Harris is fabulous at letting the reader read between the lines of the picture of innocent kindliness Harriet is trying to paint of herself. The other characters are all presented through Harriet’s biased eyes, so that we can’t be sure if poor Annie is as ineffective a mother as we see, or if Sybil, the eldest child, is really as monstrously badly behaved as she seems. We can’t even be sure if Ned has any real talent. What we do know for certain is that Harriet is lonely and alone, and desperately seeking some kind of human relationship that will allow her to feel she has a place in the world. This means that even when she’s at her most manipulative, we can’t help having some level of sympathy for her circumstances. It’s all a masterclass in ambiguity, and even by the end I couldn’t decide if I loved Harriet or hated her, wanted to give her a comforting hug or throw stones at her. I’m very, very glad she’s not my (mythical) husband’s friend though…

Jane Harris
Jane Harris

When the story proper finally begins, well into the book, it becomes quite dark. Up to that point, Harriet has been at worst a little pitiable – a woman repressed by her society who is desperately seeking some way to validate her existence, even if only to herself. From there on (and I’m deliberately being vague to avoid spoilers) the reader has to decide if she is a monster or a victim. The beauty of the way Harris plays it is that it’s quite possible to believe she is both. Older Harriet, whose story we learn in short segments throughout the book, is a rather heart-breaking picture of the loneliness of a spinster, somewhat shunned by the world partly because of her notoriety but also simply because of her age.

So a wonderful portrait of an ambiguous character set against an authentic background of the Glasgow art movement – had it not been for the truly excessive, even though well written, padding, this would undoubtedly have been a five star read. As it is, four stars, and a plea for editors to take a stronger line with authors who fall too much in love with their own wordsmithery.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie

Slàinte mhath!

🙂 🙂 🙂

Whisky GaloreDespite their remote location, the Hebridean islands of Great Todday and Little Todday are not untouched by the ongoing Second World War. Some of the islands’ sons are far away serving in the forces, while various servicemen are stationed around the various islands. Rationing is in force, although the islanders always have their livestock and fishing to fall back on. But when there’s a prolonged shortage of whisky, things begin to get serious! When, after a few weeks of drought, a cargo ship full of whisky is shipwrecked just off one the islands, the temptation to steal the whisky before the authorities get there is overwhelming.

Humour is one of those things that is entirely subjective. Many people, according to the Goodreads reviews, found this hilarious. I’m afraid I found it occasionally mildly amusing, but mostly repetitive and rather dull. It takes about half the book before the shipwreck happens, and for most of that time we are introduced to a variety of quirky caricatures – an English writer’s affectionate idea of what Hebridean islanders should be like – and listen while they tell each other how awful life is because they have no whisky. I grant you that alcohol plays a large role in Scottish social life, and even more in our anti-social life, but not to the extent of it being the sole subject of conversation. I tired of it long before the ship hove into view.

There are a couple of other strands, both regarding romances. One is of an English soldier who has returned to the islands to claim the girl he proposed to a few years earlier, before he was posted abroad. But before they get married, they must have the ritual rèiteach – a kind of pre-wedding party. This leads to the running joke that I swear must have been repeated at least fifty times – that the Englishman can’t pronounce the Gaelic word rèiteach. He’s not alone – nor can I, but nonetheless the humour wore thin after the first dozen times he attempted it and failed. The islanders can’t imagine a rèiteach without whisky though, and so the couple can’t wed till the drought is over.

classics club logo 2Book 75 of 90

The other couple are both islanders, and the joke here is that the man is completely under his mother’s thumb, so much so that he’s afraid to tell her that he’s got himself engaged. He needs whisky to give him courage. (Mild spoiler: personally I felt the girl should be warned that the meek and mild model of sobriety she thinks she’s marrying turns into a bullying monster when he has a drink in him, but I think Mackenzie thought his drunken behaviour towards his admittedly irritating mother was admirable. Maybe that’s how men saw things back in those days…)

Mackenzie paints a picture of the lives of the islanders in which his characters seem to have endless amounts of free time and to do very little work, and, while he touches on the religious divides that have plagued Scotland for centuries, he does so in a way that makes them seem playful – I wish! However, despite its lack of realism it’s all in keeping with the cosy tone of the book.

Compton Mackenzie
Compton Mackenzie

I listened to the audiobook narrated by David Rintoul, who does an excellent job with the accents, and I assume also with the Gaelic pronunciations – I fear my ignorance of Gaelic means I wouldn’t know. There’s a fair amount of Gaelic sprinkled through it, which I would probably have found less annoying in a paper book with a glossary. But in an audiobook, not only did I not understand the words, I couldn’t work out how they would be spelled so that I could google them – it took me ages even to find the word rèiteach, despite it having been repeated umpteen times. Like a lot of Gaelic it is not pronounced how it looks! (My post title Slàinte mhath!, for example, is pronounced roughly slan-ja-va and means Cheers!)

Overall, then, a reasonably entertaining read, mildly amusing but, for me, not funny enough to make up for the lack of substance underneath. It could have made a great novella, but at full novel length there feels like far too much repetitive padding. Maybe I should have read it after a few drams of Glenfiddich…

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

Murder in St Loo…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Hercule Poirot is making one of his periodic attempts at retirement, and has gone for a little break in St. Loo with his old friend Captain Hastings, home from the Argentine. But wherever that pesky man goes, murder is sure to follow! As he sits on the hotel terrace with Hastings, something whizzes past his head – not a pebble, as he first thinks, but a bullet, apparently having just missed its target, a young woman called Nick Buckley who lives in the End House of the title. Once Poirot has introduced himself to Nick, he discovers this is the latest in a series of what appear to be attempts on her life, and he takes on the task of finding the would-be murderer before he or she succeeds…

This has always been one of my favourite Poirots, which never seems to get quite the love I feel it deserves. I love the solution – one of Christie’s cleverest, I think – and the way that you can see in retrospect that she gave you all the clues and even drew attention to some of them along the way, and yet still left you – well, me, anyway – completely baffled right up to the reveal.

Nick seems to be a popular young woman, without an enemy in the world, and with no worldly wealth to provide a motive. But the attacks on her suggest that it must be someone close to her who is trying to kill her, so her little group of friends and neighbours come under suspicion. Poirot will have to find which of them has a reason to want her dead. But when someone else is killed in mistake for Nick, he feels guilty for having been unable to prevent that murder, and still fears Nick will be the next victim.

Although the story is quite serious and Nick’s friends are a motley and mostly unlikeable crew, there’s a lot of humour in this one in the banter between Poirot and Hastings. Poor old Hastings – Poirot really is extremely rude about his intellectual abilities! Nonetheless it’s often Hastings’ simplistic way of looking at things that puts Poirot on the right track. Sometimes Hastings bites back, but Poirot always gets the last word…

“Do you suppose I’d have made a success of my ranch out in the Argentine if I were the kind of credulous fool you make out?”
“Do not enrage yourself, mon ami. You have made a great success of it—you and your wife.”
“Bella,” I said, “always goes by my judgement.”
“She is as wise as she is charming,” said Poirot.

I listened to it again this time with the wonderful Hugh Fraser narrating – these Agatha Christie audiobooks have become a major source of relaxation to me during the last few months, always entertaining even when I know the stories so well. Fortunately I still have many more to go…

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Under World (Dalziel and Pascoe 10) by Reginald Hill

Digging deep…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Colin Farr is an angry young man. When young Tracy Pedley vanished some years earlier in the woods around the Yorkshire mining town of Burrthorpe, the townspeople held Colin’s father responsible. Some felt he must have killed her, others that his carelessness led to her disappearance – he had taken the little girl out for a walk and his story was that he then let her return the last part of the journey alone, and she was never seen again. The police, however, blamed a different man but that didn’t stop the gossip, and Colin’s father died in an accident that may or may not have been suicide. Now the cop who was in charge of the case back then has retired and is serialising his memoirs in the local paper, bringing the old story back to the surface and Colin’s anger back to boiling point. And then someone dies down the mine…

The story is set a couple of years after the Miner’s Strike of 1984, while memories are fresh and scars not yet healed. The miners hate the bosses and the feeling is mutual, and those who scabbed during the strike have not been forgiven. But the biggest divide is between the miners and the police, who were used by a heavy-handed government to break the strike, often violently. Hill works all these resentments through his plot, giving the book a real feel for the period and for how devastating the strike and its aftermath were for the mining communities. Although the mine at Burrthorpe is still working, the writing is on the wall for the whole British mining industry and the miners know their way of life is coming to an end. Not that it’s a good way of life – the work is hard and dangerous, and many men who manage to avoid accidents are still struck down by the deadly lung diseases that come with breathing in coal-dust down the pits. But it’s a life that has developed strong ties of community, where trust is an essential component of the job – one careless worker could put everyone in danger.

Another aspect of the strike that Hill uses very effectively is the coming together of the women – the miners’ wives and mothers, struggling to hold their families together with no income, taking on the role of breadwinner sometimes, dealing with the mental health problems and domestic violence that grew in correlation with the desperation (and, in their own eyes, emasculation) of the men. The women built support networks, campaigned for their men and begged for their children, and showed a level of strength and resilience that fed into the wider story of women’s demands to be treated as equals.

As is often the case with Hill, the plot is somewhat secondary to the social aspects and to the further development of the recurring characters in his team. Although it’s a bleak story, Dalziel always adds an element of humour, and his rough uncouthness appeals much more to the miners than Pascoe’s sympathetic attempts to understand their point of view. Dalziel is of them, so understands them naturally, and they him.

Ellie Pascoe, still struggling to finish her novel, takes a part-time job giving classes to the miners and finds herself drawn to the troubled Colin, partly because he shows he has an intelligence she, in her middle-class way, doesn’t expect to find in a miner, and partly becoming attracted to his overt physical masculinity despite her feminist disdain. Ellie doesn’t come out of this novel well – she behaves like a spoilt privileged child and becomes intensely annoying, to the point where it’s hard to understand what Peter Pascoe could possibly like about her. She settles back down a little in future books, but this is not one of her better outings. However, later in the book she comes to know the women of the Burrthorpe support group and has enough self-awareness to recognise that they roll up their sleeves and do what needs to be done, rather than pontificating about women’s rights from a lofty academic height. What always redeems Ellie is her willingness to recognise her own faults.

Reginald Hill

Hill gives a very authentic feel to what it was like to work in a mine at that time – the physical demands, the danger, the safety protocols, the reliance on each other. He also shows the do-gooder element of society, visiting the mine in order to get a vicarious thrill, so they can then go off and make political points in their nice clean safe council chambers and middle-class restaurants. The climax of the novel happens below ground, in a tense and thrilling finale which more than makes up for the rather too obvious solution to the central mystery.

Another fine outing for Dalziel and Pascoe, and one of the most realistic pictures of the post-strike-era mining communities I’ve come across in fiction. I listened to the audiobook with Colin Buchanan reading, and now that I’ve got used to his voices for the characters, I enjoy his narrations.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link – sorry, doesn’t seem to be available on the US site. Here’s a link to the Kindle version instead.

Sovereign (Matthew Shardlake 3) by CJ Sansom

Conspiracy theories…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When King Henry VIII is progressing to York with his young wife Catherine Howard, Archbishop Cranmer appoints Matthew Shardlake to go there to assist in dealing with the petitions the locals will be making to the King. But Cranmer has another task for Shardlake while he’s there. Sir Edward Broderick is imprisoned in York, suspected of taking part in a conspiracy against the King, and Cranmer wants him brought safely back to London so he can be questioned by the Tower’s skilled torturers. Shardlake is reluctant – the idea of torture appals him – but when Cranmer gives an order it’s unwise to disobey. So accompanied by his assistant, Jack Barak, Shardlake goes. And it’s not long before he witnesses a man dying, perhaps by accident, but perhaps by murder. Soon Shardlake is sucked into a plot involving politics, the murky past of the Royal line, and the future of the Realm. And he’s in danger…

I loved reading this series and now I’m enjoying them just as much again as audiobooks. Steven Crossley does a great job again – his Shardlake is now how I imagine him sounding, and I’ve grown used to his Barak, though he sounds a bit older and gruffer than he did in my mind while reading. In this one there are lots of Yorkshire characters, and Crossley does them just as well. As always, there’s a huge cast, but he gives each one a distinct voice and manner of speaking, which I find a great help in remembering who is who when listening rather than reading. First rate narrations – a real pleasure to listen to.

Shardlake is now thoroughly disillusioned with Reform, having seen that the new regime seems just as cruel and unfair as life ever was when England was part of the Roman Catholic church. His faith has been shaken to the point where he’s not sure if he still believes in God at all, and he, like most of his countrymen, now sees Henry as a tyrant to be feared rather than a monarch to be loved. So his feelings about the prisoner are ambivalent – he doesn’t support the conspirators, but he understands their hatred of the King.

Meanwhile, Barak’s attraction to one of Queen Catherine’s servants means he and Shardlake are around the Queen’s retinue quite often, seeing things that Matthew finds deeply worrying. The young Queen is behaving foolishly, and that is a dangerous thing for a Queen of Henry’s to do. And a third strand is that Shardlake befriends an old lawyer who has had a falling out with his only remaining relative, and wishes to make up with him before he dies, which his physician has told him will be soon. Shardlake agrees to take the old man back to London with him and help him find his nephew.

As always with these books, it is long and slow, going deep into the way people lived in Henry’s England – both those at the top and those in the ranks below. The secret at the heart of the book, the one which causes all the trouble and puts Shardlake in danger, is based on a real rumour current at the time, muddied by a real prophecy which many believed (even though it was originally fictional). I won’t go into it any more deeply than that since that would take me into spoiler territory, but it gives the book a feeling of authenticity, which is what I always like about this series. Sansom, a historian himself, never produces a plot that feels anachronistic or as if it couldn’t have happened. And the blend between the historical characters and the fictional ones is so seamless I often have to check who really existed and who didn’t. That’s the one downside of the audiobooks – they don’t include the explanation Sansom usually gives as an end note, clarifying what is real and what he’s invented.

CJ Sansom

An excellent book, which again deepens our knowledge of Shardlake and our respect for him, and in this one we get to know Barak better and meet Tamasin, who will become a major character in the series as it goes on. It could be argued that the books get too long and could do with an edit, and I’d usually be arguing that myself, but I love the way Sansom shows us all sorts of stuff along the way that may not move the plot along, but builds up a full and fascinating picture of the time. In this case, the King’s progress takes centre stage and we learn all about the massive organisation that went into it – not as an info dump, but naturally, as Shardlake himself learns about it. And we are given a gruesome glimpse into some of the torture methods Henry’s henchmen employed – it’ll be a while before I make another dental appointment, for sure.

Great stuff – highly recommended, both book and audiobook.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Confession time…

…aka The TBL List…

Whenever I mention that I don’t include audiobooks on my TBR list, some of my dear blog buddies respond with derision, pointed fingers and accusations of cheating. And, do you know, I do think they have a point! I tend to go through little spates of listening to audiobooks, very slowly, and then I get fed up and stop for a while. I suspect when I originally created my notorious TBR spreadsheet I was in one of these off-periods, so it simply didn’t occur to me to include them.

Also, I don’t really think of listening to audiobooks as reading, as such. It’s a different art form for me, more akin to films or TV, where the performance of the narrator is at least as important as the text they’re narrating. This is why I so often listen to audio versions of books I already know well and love, because the art of a good narrator gives them back some of the freshness that repeated re-readings may have staled. It’s also why I abandon audiobooks very quickly if the narrator and I don’t gel – in those circumstances, I’d far rather be reading a paper book.

However, a (joking) comment from Sandra questioning the fairness of me omitting audiobooks from my TBR but including them towards achievement of my various targets and challenges got me thinking. I don’t think I’m ready to put my unlistened-to audiobooks into my TBR, but I should probably confess to being the proud possessor of a To-Be-Listened-to spreadsheet to complement the To-Be-Read one.

Over the years, I’ve taken out and cancelled an Audible subscription several times, as the slow speed at which I get through audiobooks means that even at the most basic level of subscription I quickly build up a backlog of books and unused credits, especially since I tend to pick up loads of the Daily Deals while I’m a member. I’m in the middle of a subscription period at the moment so the TBL is rising exponentially! The current figure is…

47

That may not sound too bad until you consider that I rarely listen to more than maybe ten or twelve books in a whole year.

So what’s on the list? Primarily lots of classics, mostly ones I’ve read before, where the narrator appeals. I still have several Joan Hickson readings of Miss Marple books but have run short of Hugh Fraser’s readings of the Poirots so have to restock on them. I have quite a few of Jonathan Cecil’s versions of the Jeeves and Wooster books, which are a standby for grey days. I also have a few contemporary novels, but these rarely work as well for me in this format, so I try to avoid giving in to temptation.

The Longest

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy read by David Horovitch – 38 hours. Added on 25/8/2012 and frankly may remain on the list for a good while yet!

The Shortest

The Tales of Max Carrados by Ernest Bramagh narrated by Stephen Fry – 1½ hours. Added 16/12/2015. I think there are only four stories in this short audiobook. I believe the written version contains more and coincidentally is on my Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge list, so I’ll listen to these ones while reading the others.

The Oldest

Right Ho, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse narrated by Jonathan Cecil – 7 hours. Added 16/10/11. I’ve listened to this one before, but put it back on the list for a re-listen because I love it so much!

The Newest

The last two I’ve acquired kinda work as a pair…

Dracula by Bram Stoker narrated by Greg Wise with Saskia Reeves. 18 hours. The reviews rave about Wise’s narration and I’ve been meaning to re-read this for ages. One for spooky season, I think!

Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor narrated by Barry McGovern with Anna Chancellor.

The blurb says: Shadowplay explores the characters whose loves and lives inspired Dracula.

1878. The Lyceum Theatre, London. Three extraordinary people begin their life together. Henry Irving, the Chief, is the volcanic leading man and impresario; Ellen Terry is the most lauded and desired actress of her generation; and ever following along behind them in the shadows is the unremarkable theatre manager, Bram Stoker.

This turned up as a Daily Deal just after I’d acquired Dracula, so seemed too serendipitous to be resisted!

Other highlights

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy narrated by Alan Rickman. 15 hours. Alan Rickman! Need I say more?

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome narrated by Ian Carmichael. 6 hours. Carmichael, who used to be my favourite TV Bertie Wooster till Hugh Laurie stole that honour, seems perfect for this book.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë narrated by Patricia Routledge. 14 hours. Routledge, however, seems totally wrong for this one, but the reviews overwhelmingly rave about her performance, so I’m more than ready to be won over!

Just started

Dark Fire by CJ Sansom narrated by Steven Crossley. 19 hours. The second book in the Shardlake series, my favourite historical fiction series of all time. Having loved Crossley’s narration of the first book, Dissolution, I’m proposing to listen to the entire series, although, since each book is longer than the last, this could well take some time!

The Blurb says: It is 1540 and the hottest summer of the 16th century. Matthew Shardlake, believing himself out of favour with Thomas Cromwell, is busy trying to maintain his legal practice and keep a low profile. But his involvement with a murder case, defending a girl accused of brutally murdering her young cousin, brings him once again into contact with the king’s chief ministerand a new assignment.

The secret of Greek Fire, the legendary substance with which the Byzantines destroyed the Arab navies, has been lost for centuries. Now an official of the Court of Augmentations has discovered the formula in the library of a dissolved London monastery. When Shardlake is sent to recover it, he finds the official and his alchemist brother brutally murderedthe formula has disappeared. Now Shardlake must follow the trail of Greek Fire across Tudor London, while trying at the same time to prove his young client’s innocence. But very soon he discovers nothing is as it seems…

So there it is – the TBL!

Are you a fan of audiobooks?
Do any of the ones on my list take your fancy?

The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie

The perfect dinner guest…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

A group of friends meet regularly for dinner and one night the conversation turns to mysteries. They agree that over the next few weeks they will each take turns at telling of a mystery they were involved in, but before they reveal the solution they will let the group see if they can solve it. They are a diverse group, well positioned to understand the depths to which human nature can descend – a policeman, a lawyer, a clergyman, an artist and a novelist. The sixth is less likely to have much insight, or so her friends assume, being an old maid who has spent her entire life in the quiet backwater of an idyllic English village. Her name is Miss Jane Marple…

I listened to this collection narrated by the wonderful Joan Hickson and as always she does a superb job. Each story comes in at roughly half an hour long, so they’re the perfect length for a bedtime listen, or for more active people, for the evening walk! I’d come across one or two of the stories before in anthologies, but I thought they actually worked better collected in this way, since you begin to get a feel for the personalities of the regular diners. Miss Marple, of course, takes centre stage, waiting each time for everyone else to get it wrong or confess themselves baffled, before drawing on her experience of life or village parallels to reveal the true solution. Halfway through, the diners change although the format remains the same – now we are in the company of Colonel and Mrs Bantry back in Miss Marple’s home village of St Mary Mead. Since Mrs Bantry is one of my favourite occasional characters in the novels, it was an added bonus having her in a few of the stories here.

The quality varies as is usually the case in short story collections, but I enjoyed them all, and thought some of them were excellent. Sometimes it’s possible to see how Christie used the kernel of one of these stories later, turning it into the basis of the plot of a novel, and that’s fun for the Christie geeks among us. Here’s a flavour of some of the ones I most enjoyed:

The Blood-Stained Pavement – this is told by Jane, the artist in the group. It’s set in Rathole in Cornwall, which is clearly based on the real Mousehole, then as now a magnet for tourists. Christie builds up a wonderfully creepy atmosphere by telling of the village’s many legends of the days of Spanish invasions. In the present day, Jane sees blood dripping from a hotel balcony to the pavement beneath, and describes how that became a clue in a murder mystery. This has a lot of similarity to the murder method in Evil Under the Sun, which meant I solved it for once! But it’s different enough to still have its own interest.

Ingots of Gold – another Cornish story, this time related by Raymond, novelist and Miss Marple’s nephew. It has to do with shipwrecks and missing gold, and the fun of it is in the way poor Raymond, who always has a tendency to patronise his old Aunt Jane, is brought down to size by her insight.

The Idol-House of Astarte – told by Dr Pender, the clergyman in the group. The members of a house party decide to have a costume party in a grove near the house, known as the Grove of Astarte. The story here is decidedly second to the spine-chillingly spooky atmosphere Christie conjures up – she really is excellent at horror writing when she wants to be. Dr Pender feels evil in the air and is inclined to put it down to supernatural causes, but Miss Marple knows that the supernatural can’t compete with the evil humans do to each other…

The Blue Geranium – told by Colonel Bantry. Another one that has a spooky feel to it, this tells of Mrs Pritchard, the wife of a friend of the colonel’s. She’s a cantankerous invalid who has a succession of nurses to look after her. She also enjoys fortune-tellers, until one day, a mysterious mystic tells her to beware of the blue geranium, which causes death. This seems to make no sense at first, but when the flowers on Mrs Pritchard’s bedroom wallpaper begin slowly to turn blue one by one, her terror grows. This has a really unique solution, based on Christie’s knowledge of poisons and chemistry, but it’s the atmosphere of impending doom that makes it so good. Again this reminded me in some ways of one of the novels but I can’t for the life of me remember which one… anyone?

I’m not always as keen on Christie’s short stories as her novels but I really enjoyed this collection, I think because Hickson’s narration brought out all the humour and spookiness in the stories so well. A perfect partnership of author and narrator!

 

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

A Caribbean Mystery (Miss Marple) by Agatha Christie narrated by Joan Hickson

You can take the woman out of the village…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Miss Marple’s kind nephew Raymond has sent her on a vacation to St Honoré to soak up some sunshine after she’s been unwell. She’s staying at the Golden Palm resort, filled with visitors from around the world though the plot sticks pretty much to the Brits and Americans. One visitor, Major Palgrave, likes to tell long rambling stories of his colonial days and Miss Marple makes the perfect audience. As a genteel lady of a certain age, she has perfected the art of making gentlemen believe she’s listening avidly while in reality she’s pursuing her own thoughts or counting the stitches in her knitting. But when Major Palgrave suddenly dies, Miss Marple is convinced that it’s connected to a story he was telling her about how he once met a murderer. If only she’d been paying more attention! Struggling to recall the details and also feeling a little out of her element so far from home, Miss Marple realises that she can still use village parallels even amongst these strangers – human nature, she finds, is the same everywhere…

While I don’t consider this to be one of Christie’s very best, it’s still a very entertaining mystery and the exotic setting gives it an added interest, although (like many tourists) Miss Marple never sets foot outside the resort so we get very little feel for what life for the real islanders may be like. Another of the residents is Mr Rafiel, an elderly invalid with a grumpy temper. At first inclined to dismiss Miss Marple as a gossipy old woman, he finds she stands up to him more than most people and comes to respect her insight, so that gradually they begin to work together to find the truth. The other residents, including Mr Rafiel’s staff, become the pool of suspects and Miss Marple knows that her only investigatory tool is the art of drawing people out through conversation. Happily people do love to gossip so she soon has plenty of background on the potential suspects, although she has to sift through conflicting stories to get to the truth.

Agatha Christie was long before political correctness, of course, and I see from other reviews that some people think her portrayal of the islanders is racist. I don’t, but that may be because of my age. It seems to me that Christie speaks as respectfully of the black characters as of the white – her dialect sounds a bit clunky, perhaps, and she comments, though not disparagingly, on different customs, but surely we can still do that, can’t we? Mind you, I’ve also seen reviews calling the Miss Marple books ageist – baffled – and sexist – baffled again. She was merely reflecting the society in which she lived. (I am glad I’ve lived most of my life in an era when people weren’t scrutinising every word and expression looking for reasons to be perpetually outraged. It must be so exhausting.)

This time I listened to the audiobook narrated by Joan Hickson, whose portrayal of Miss Marple I love. However, it must be said that she can’t do Caribbean accents at all and her islanders therefore come over as kind of caricatures and rather off-putting to modern ears. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been an issue when she recorded the book but I think modern listeners would expect something that sounded a little more authentic. This is one case where reluctantly I’d definitely recommend reading rather than listening.

Agatha Christie

An enjoyable book, particularly for readers who have been disappointed previously to find that Miss Marple doesn’t always have a big role in the books she’s in. In this one, she’s very definitely the central character and we’re given access to her inner thoughts, not just about the crime, but about ageing and about life in general. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always seen Miss Marple as Ms Christie’s alter-ego in these later books (it was published in 1964, when Christie would herself have been 74), and so I always feel we’re getting a bit of insight into her view of modern society – not always “woke”, I grant you, but always true to her age and time.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Kind of Blue by Ken Clarke

Cuddly Uncle Ken…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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.

Trigger warning: Thatcher and her merry men. Ken is the one in the middle at the back. The other three are Ken Baker, Malcolm Rifkind and, at the front, Nigel Lawson.

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.

Image: BBC

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.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Tuesday Terror! Ghost Stories, Vol. 1 by MR James narrated by Derek Jacobi

Five spooky tales…

This shortish audiobook (2 hours 37 minutes) contains five ghost stories from the pen of MR James, narrated by the always wonderful Derek Jacobi. I do admire James’ writing style and usually find his stories enjoyable even although I rarely find them scary. I think it’s because he often tells them at a remove – a narrator tells us of something that once happened rather than us being put there while it’s actually happening, which prevents them from building any kind of atmosphere of tension. Quite often, in fact, we are told the end before we’re given the story. I’ve still read relatively few of his stories, though, so maybe I just haven’t come across the really spooky ones yet.

Since there are only five stories in this volume, here’s a brief idea of each:

The View from the Hill – an antiquary, Mr Fanshawe, visits his friend Squire Richards in the country. Fanshawe borrows a set of binoculars from his friend, but when he looks through them, he sees things that aren’t there, such as church spires that once existed but are long gone. Richards acquired the binoculars when he bought up some of the possessions of a man named Baxter after his death. It culminates with Richards’ old servant telling the two friends the story of Baxter and the experiments he carried out. It’s well told, but knowing in advance that Baxter died kinda spoils the tension, and nothing terribly bad happens in the present. I gave this one four stars.

Rats – A story that, oddly, isn’t about rats. A man is staying as the only guest at an inn. Out of nosiness, one day when the landlord is out, he decides to take a look into the other empty rooms on his floor. One is locked, but he finds a key that will open it. Inside, he sees something that scares him and swiftly retreats. But his curiosity is too strong – on his last day, he goes to the room again, and this time he sees… well, of course I’m not going to tell you! This one is lighter in tone and quite fun, but again not scary. Another 4 star read.

MR James

A School Story – two men are discussing the tradition of ghost story telling in public (i.e. posh) schools, and then one tells the other a real ghost story which happened when he was a schoolboy. The haunting concerns a teacher, Mr Sampson, who begins to receive odd messages in Latin, either via the boys or in notes. The messages seem to imply that if he won’t go to the sender, then the sender will come to him. And then one day the teacher disappears… Again, well told, but there is our narrator, safe and sound and old, so we know whatever happened he clearly wasn’t harmed by it. Four stars again.

The Ash Tree – ah, this was much spookier! Starting back in the late 17th century, Mrs Mothersole is condemned as a witch and swears revenge on the man who gave evidence against her, Sir Matthew Fell. He later dies mysteriously, as if from some kind of poison. For years, the room in which he died lies empty out of superstition. But now his grandson decides to sleep in the room, even although the window is shaded by an ash tree growing just outside, and despite being warned that folklore says that sleeping near an ash tree is unwise… I think the reason this works better is because it’s told in the third person and therefore there’s no foreknowledge as to what happens to the grandson. There’s also lots of nicely scary imagery and old superstitions and stuff. This one got the full five stars!

Artwork: Jowita Kaminska

The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance – Told as a series of letters from a man to his brother and set at Christmastime. The letter-writer’s uncle, a rector, has disappeared and our narrator has gone to his uncle’s town to try to find out what has happened to him. I must say that I really had no idea what was going on in this one. It’s full of really quite effective stuff about a Punch and Judy show – a form of entertainment I’ve always found quite scary in itself – but if there’s a coherent story in there, I missed it. This is possibly because I was listening rather than reading – sometimes I don’t seem to concentrate as well in that format. I thought the imagery was excellent and there was a definite sense of dread and oddness about the whole thing, but I found it too unexplained to be satisfying. Jacobi’s performance was great though – he really shines best when the stories get darker. Five stars for him, but just three for the story, though I may read a print version one day.

* * * * *

Overall, this is an enjoyable listen – not harrowing, and the inclusion of what is apparently James’ only story set at Christmastime makes it perfect for this time of year. The shortest story is about 15 minutes and the longest around 45, so it can be easily split over several short sessions or binge-listened in one evening. MR James is undoubtedly the ideal choice for people who like their horror to be of the mildest variety, and Jacobi as narrator is always a treat. Recommended.

The porpentine was fairly relaxed during this one…

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😮 😮

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀

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