TBR Thursday 165… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…

A spectacular reduction in the overall figure! Bet you’re gobsmacked! This is because, apart from review copies, I’ve been restricting myself to only acquiring books that are already on my wishlist, and I’m being brutally ruthless about culling that wishlist at the end of every month. If a book doesn’t sparkle brightly and sing my name, it gets thrown back in the pond. I’m a TBR Champion!

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in March, and I’ve had another exciting three months of travel since then…

I had lots of interesting detours again, starting with a trip to Toronto, Canada, where I spent some time with immigrants from Trinidad in David Chariandy’s wonderful Brother. In Appointment with Death, I accompanied Agatha Christie, Poirot and a group of deeply suspicious characters on a trip to the Rose Red City of Petra in Jordan. Damon Galgut took me to visit a disillusioned post-apartheid South Africa where I met The Good Doctor. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Lebanon where Najla Jraissaty Khoury regaled me with a host of traditional folk tales in Pearls on a Branch. I had a rather disappointing trip to Colombia with Juan Gabriel Vasquez streaming his consciousness and a lot of Colombian history at me in The Shape of the Ruins. And finally I visited one of the destinations on my Main Journey in the company of Valeria Vescina, whose wonderful story of the intensity of first love, That Summer in Puglia, took me to Brindisi and other locations in the beautiful heel of Italy.

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

This is a map showing the countries I’ve visited so far. Some pretty big gaps there! Must start being selective…

52 down, 28 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve read seven from my Classics Club list this quarter, but so far only reviewed five. Still a little behind, but I’m slowly catching up…

24. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg – 5 stars for this great Scottish classic, an entertaining mix of humour and horror, with some excellently satirical characterisation.

25. The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells – 5 stars for this science fiction classic. A great read with lots of humour and imagination,  and enough depth to make it interesting without feeling heavy – hugely entertaining.

26. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – unfortunately, this one didn’t work for me at all, and I abandoned it fairly early on. Just 1 star, I’m afraid.

27. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman – sadly, the anti-man type of feminism I most dislike and, even more sadly, she forgot to put a plot in. 2 generous stars for this one.

28. The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett – 4 stars for this entertaining if somewhat silly and almost entirely incomprehensible novel, that is saved by the relentless pace and the snappy, hardboiled style.

I’ve also made a couple of changes to my list:

  • After the Gone with the Wind debacle, I decided to stop reading books with a race element, written by white American authors long ago. So I’ve replaced Uncle Tom’s Cabin with Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin.
  • Having been gifted a Scottish classic I wasn’t aware of when I made my list, I’ve removed one of my re-reads to make room for it. So Annals of the Parish is out, and Marriage by Susan Ferrier is in.

28 down, 62 to go!

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Reading the Russian Revolution

I’ve read the final three books for this challenge but have still to post my review of the last one. So just two this quarter.

15. The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus – a great book from one of my favourite authors, this is an examination of the birth of the art of propaganda and myth-making, told with a great mix of light and shade. 5 stars.

16. And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov – the story of a Cossack family before and during the Revolution and the Civil War, showing how their way of life would be altered forever. This is a wonderful novel, one that fully deserves its reputation as a great classic of the Revolution, and of literature in general. 5 stars.

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

This quarter I’ve read four books for this one, but so far only reviewed three. Fewer than I intended – I need to stop being distracted by all the other vintage crime I’ve been reading, and focus! To see the full challenge, click here.

15.  Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White – an insane serial killer is rampaging the countryside, murdering young women. Unfortunately the plotting in this one gets a bit silly and it’s too long for its content. Just 3 stars.

16.  The Red House Mystery by AA Milne – lots of humour and two likeable protagonists for this take on a locked room mystery. Well written, pleasingly devious, and above all, entertaining! 5 stars.

17.  The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett – despite the fact that the plot is nonsensical, episodic, and barely hangs together, this is oddly entertaining, largely due to the snappy, hardboiled style of the writing and the relentless pace. 4 stars.

17 down, 85 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

I’ve been struggling to fit this challenge in, though it should be easier now the Russian one’s coming to an end. But just one so far…

1. Fatherland by Robert Harris – In a world where Nazi Germany won World War Two, Hitler still rules and the people of Germany and the lands they conquered are in the grip of a totalitarian regime, Detective Xavier March must investigate a mysterious death. Great plotting in this excellent example of an alternative history novel. 5 stars.


1 down, 24 to go!

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A good quarter’s reading! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

I’m taking some time off now to watch Wimbledon and stuff, so don’t do anything exciting while I’m…

 

The Clocks by Agatha Christie

Time for murder…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Sheila Webb is sent out by the secretarial agency for which she works to the home of a blind lady, Miss Pebmarsh, to take some dictation, she is not expecting to find the corpse of a dead man in a room filled with clocks of different styles, but all pointing to the same time – 4:13. In a state of shock, she runs screaming from the house, straight into the arms of Colin Lamb, who is in the street on secret business of his own. Colin is involved in the spy business, and will get together with Inspector Hardcastle to try to discover the identity of the dead man and of his murderer. And along the way, Colin will seek the help of an old friend of his father, a certain M. Hercule Poirot…

This is one of Agatha Christie’s later books, written in 1963. Although nearly all of her books are well worth reading, there’s no doubt that by this period she was no longer producing novels of the same standard as in her own Golden Age, roughly the late ’20s to the end of the ’50s. In this one, which I hadn’t re-read for many years, I found I enjoyed the journey considerably more than the destination.

The set-up is great – the idea of the clocks is a suitably baffling clue, and the scene of the discovery of the body, where blind Miss Pebmarsh nearly steps on it by accident sending poor Sheila into a state of hysterical shock, is done with all Christie’s skill. There’s all the usual fun of interviews of the neighbours, and Christie creates a bunch of credible and varied characters, who each add to the enjoyment of the story. We also get to see life in the secretarial agency, a career that I assume has more or less died out now, certainly in the sense of girls being sent out on brief assignments to take dictation and so on.

It’s also a pleasure when Poirot becomes involved, though that doesn’t happen till almost halfway through the book. Poirot is elderly by now, so doesn’t take an active part in the investigation, instead relying on Colin bringing him information. It works quite well, and Colin is a likeable character, but my preference is for the books where Poirot is more directly involved. There’s a nice little section when Poirot lectures Colin on detective fiction, referencing a mix of real and fictional authors. I suspect Poirot’s views give an insight into what Christie herself though of the various styles.

Perhaps it was because I was listening rather than reading, but I didn’t find this one as fair-play as her earlier books – it seemed to me rather as if Poirot summoned up the solution based on instinct rather than evidence, leaving me rather unconvinced in the end. It feels as if Christie ran out of steam somewhat, and having thought up an intriguing premise, couldn’t quite find an ending that lived up to it. The ending left me feeling a bit let down but, as I say, I enjoyed the process of getting there.

Agatha Christie

What worked less well was the secondary story – Colin’s search for some kind of spy. Again some of this is down to preference – I’ve never been so keen on Christie’s occasional forays into spy stories as her straight mysteries. But I also again felt that Colin reached his solution out of the blue, and the tying together of the two plots contained too much coincidence for it all to feel wholly credible.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Hugh Fraser, who does his usual excellent job of giving all the characters subtly different voices and suitable accents, without distracting from the story by overacting any of them – i.e., no falsetto women, etc.

Overall, then, not one of Christie’s best, but still well worth a read or re-read for fans. It wouldn’t be one I would suggest as a starter to her work, though – there are glimpses of the old magic, but it doesn’t show her off as the genius of plotting she undoubtedly was in her prime.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Educated for the sole purpose of forming a brilliant establishment, of catching the eye, and captivating the senses, the cultivation of her mind, or the correction of her temper, had formed no part of the system by which that aim was to be accomplished. Under the auspices of a fashionable mother, and an obsequious governess, the froward petulance of childhood, fostered and strengthened by indulgence and submission, had gradually ripened into that selfishness and caprice which now, in youth, formed the prominent features of her character. The earl was too much engrossed by affairs of importance, to pay much attention to anything so perfectly insignificant as the mind of his daughter. Her person he had predetermined should be entirely at his disposal, and he therefore contemplated with delight the uncommon beauty which already distinguished it; not with the fond partiality of parental love, but with the heartless satisfaction of a crafty politician.

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…Mrs Gessler went to work. She pinned Mildred’s dress up, so it was a sort of sash around her hips, with a foot of white slip showing. Then she put on the galoshes, over the gold shoes. Then she put on the evening coat, and pulled the trench coat over it. Then she found a kerchief, and bound it tightly around Mildred’s head. Mildred, suddenly transformed into something that looked like Topsy, sweetly said goodbye to them all. Then she went to the kitchen door, reached out into the wet, and pulled open the car door. Then she hopped in. Then she started the motor. Then she started the wiper. Then she tucked the robe around her. Then, waving gaily to the three anxious faces at the door, she started the car, and went backing down to the street.

(Then FF screamed. Then she gnashed her teeth a bit. Then she threw her Kindle at the wall. Then she vented on Twitter. Then she had some medicinal chocolate. Then she felt much better.)

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….“The truth is, Mrs Forrester, that Mr Lester made a provision for you in his will.”
….“For me?”
….“But why?” asks Clifford. “Who was this Mr Lester to my wife?”
….He emphasizes the last two words as if establishing ownership. Eve feels a pinprick of irritation, though why that should be so she does not know. When they were first married, nearly two years before, she used to invent excuses to drop the phrase “my husband” into conversation, and thrill at hearing Clifford describe her as his wife. It occurs to her now that she hasn’t heard him say it in quite a long time.

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….I have said that the cage had a top as well as a front, and this top was left standing when the front was wound through the slot in the wall. It consisted of bars at a few inches’ interval, with stout wire netting between, and it rested upon a strong stanchion at each end. It stood now as a great barred canopy over the crouching figure in the corner. The space between this iron shelf and the roof may have been from two or three feet. If I could only get up there, squeezed in between bars and ceiling, I should have only one vulnerable side. I should be safe from below, from behind, and from each side. Only on the open face of it could I be attacked. There, it is true, I had no protection whatever; but at least, I should be out of the brute’s path when he began to pace about his den. He would have to come out of his way to reach me. It was now or never, for if once the light were out it would be impossible. With a gulp in my throat I sprang up, seized the iron edge of the top, and swung myself panting on to it. I writhed in face downwards, and found myself looking straight into the terrible eyes and yawning jaws of the cat. Its fetid breath came up into my face like the steam from some foul pot.

(From The Brazilian Cat. It amuses me that the cat in question is called Tommy, as is my own sweet little boy-cat. Must say, temperament-wise, he sounds more like my girl Tuppence though… 😉 )

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So…are you tempted?

Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit Fox

“…however improbable, must be the truth…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

Quite often with this kind of book I avoid mentioning the eventual outcome as, even though it’s a true crime, it can be fun for people who don’t know the story to read it as a kind of suspense thriller. However, Fox reveals all in her introductory chapter, so I shall say now that Slater’s conviction was finally quashed, but not until he had spent nearly twenty years in Peterhead, Scotland’s most notorious prison. As the book shows, there is no doubt about his innocence, and Fox makes no attempt to pin the crime on the real culprit – that’s not her purpose. Instead, she uses the case to examine the social factors that led to the false conviction, together with the state of the science of detection and ACD’s influence on it.

Fox starts with a description of the murder and the vague and contradictory eyewitness accounts of a man, or perhaps two men, seen near the scene. The police were immediately under pressure to find the murderer, so they were delighted when they were told that Slater had pawned a brooch similar to the one which had been stolen. Slater was perfect as a villain – German, Jewish, a man who made his living from gambling and who lived with a woman suspected of loose morals, possibly a prostitute. So even although they quickly discovered that the brooch he had pawned was not the one stolen from Miss Gilchrist, they decided not to let this little fact get in the way. Instead, they carefully selected all evidence that made Slater look guilty and suppressed anything that proved his innocence – and there was plenty, including an eyewitness account from a respectable neighbour who saw him elsewhere at the time.

Fox discusses the growing anti-Semitism of the period in Scotland, and the more general fear of foreigners. While Scotland hadn’t been quite as anti-Semitic as England in the past, massively increased immigration was leading to an upsurge, especially since many of the Jews arriving were poor, thus existing on the margins. They became associated in the public mind with crime. Also, new modes of transport and the requirements of an industrialised economy meant that people were more mobile than in the past, so that people didn’t necessarily know who their neighbours were, leading to a kind of fear of the stranger. So Slater was an ideal scapegoat, given that the police had no idea of the identity of the real murderer.

Conan Doyle became interested in the case early on. Fox runs through those parts of his biography that are relevant to him becoming a kind of consultant on cases of wrongful conviction, such as his early exposure to the work of Dr Joseph Bell, the man who inspired Sherlock Holmes. Much of this was already known to me, but Fox keeps it tightly focused so that it never feels like padding. She coins the phrase “diagnostic imagination” to describe ACD’s methods, suggesting that his early medical training of conjecturing from symptom back to diagnosis was the basis for his technique of what we would now think of as forensic detection – using physical clues to work backwards to the crime. Fox discusses very interestingly how at this period the pseudoscience of “criminal anthropology” was still influencing detection in Scotland and elsewhere: a belief that one could determine criminal tendencies by certain physical hallmarks – a system “that sought to cloak racial, ethnic and class stereotypes in turn-of-the-20th-century scientific garb”. This was giving way to the more forensic methods promoted by ACD, but not quickly enough to save Slater.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Fox continues the stories of both men turn and turn about, along the way providing a pretty damning indictment of the Scottish police and criminal justice system of the time. She personalises it by allowing us to read some of Slater’s correspondence with his loving parents and family, some of which is quite moving as they gradually age and his expectations of ever seeing them again grow fainter. During the war, no communication was allowed with Germany, so for years he went with no news of family at all. He wasn’t a particularly pleasant man, Slater, but the punishment he underwent for a crime of which he was innocent was cruel indeed.

Margalit Fox
Photo: Ivan Farkas

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett

Bodies galore!

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Edgar Leggett’s home is broken into and some not particularly valuable diamonds go missing, his insurance company send along their operative to investigate – enter the Continental Op, the only name we are given for the first-person narrator. The CO soon decides that there’s been some kind of inside job, and that there’s more to the case than a simple burglary. Leggett has a wife and a weird, strange-looking but oddly attractive daughter, Gabrielle. The plot is entirely incomprehensible so that’s as much of a summary as I’ll give. Suffice it to say, the thing soon turns bloody, with more corpses than you could shake a stick at, supposing you would want to do such a thing. Gabrielle, who seems to be thought of by some as a femme fatale but seems to me way too pathetic to be such a thing, is at the centre of all the mysterious happenings and comes to believe she is cursed. It’s up to the CO to solve whatever it is that’s going on, and amazingly, he does.

Oddly, despite the fact that the plot is nonsensical, episodic, and barely hangs together, I still found the book entertaining. This is largely due to the snappy, hardboiled style of the writing and the relentless pace, which doesn’t give the reader much time to ponder the basic absurdity of the storyline. Plus, in the middle of it there is a passage of very effective horror writing, as the CO battles an evil apparition that may be real or may be the product of hallucination, or is possibly a combination of both. I forgave a lot of the book’s weaknesses for my enjoyment of that piece of writing.

Through the thing’s transparent flesh I could see my hands clenched in the center of its damp body. I opened them, struck up and down inside it with stiff crooked fingers, trying to gouge it open; and I could see it being torn apart, could see it flowing together after my clawing fingers had passed; but all I could feel was its dampness.

Challenge details:
Book: 91
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1929

It also gives a snapshot of aspects of Californian life at the time of writing – the late 1920s. Inevitably, this involves some pretty strong racist language, but I felt this was an accurate reflection of the time (built-in and possibly incorrect assumption in that phrase that things have improved since) and in fact Hammett treated his non-white characters no worse than his white ones, so at least he was pretty even-handed in that sense. We also get to see that guns were as ubiquitous then as they still are now. In fact, as I write this, I’m realising that it could as easily have been written today – weird religious cults, casual drug-taking, addiction, money-is-the-root-of-all-evil… Prohibition might be the only thing that has really receded into the past, though I liked that he touched on the idea of moral degeneracy showing as a physical thing, identifiable by physical features – a concept that pops up in true crime cases around the turn of the century and also appears in quite a lot of late Victorian horror writing. (Hammett references Arthur Machen in the text and I felt his influence could be seen both in this concept and in the piece of horror writing in the middle of the book.) Another touch I enjoyed is Hammett’s inclusion of a character who is a novelist, which gives him the chance to include some humorously self-deprecating dialogue…

“Are you – who make your living snooping – sneering at my curiosity about people and my attempts to satisfy it?”
“We’re different,” I said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in jail, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”
“That’s not different,” he said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in books, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”
“Yeah, but what good does that do?”
“God knows. What good does putting them in jail do?”
“Relieves congestion,” I said. “Put enough people in jail, and cities wouldn’t have traffic problems.”

Dashiell Hammett

I feel I should have more to say about this one, but I don’t. It’s quite fun, so long as you can get past the silliness of the plot. But in truth I’m not sure why it would be considered a classic any more than most other books of the era. For me, it’s doesn’t even come close to the only other Hammett I’ve read, The Maltese Falcon, which unlike this one is tightly plotted and has a wonderful femme fatale worthy of the title. I suspect that if it hadn’t been for that later one, this one may have been forgotten along with most of the pulp fiction of the time. According to Martin Edwards in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Hammett himself later described this book as “a silly story… all style”, and I’m forced to agree with him. Still, that style covers a whole lot of weaknesses meaning that I found it an entertaining read overall, and that’s the most important thing…

Book 28 of 90

Amazon UK Link
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TBR Thursday 164…

Episode 164…

Woohoo! After the recent horrific rises in the TBR, a massive drop this week! Down FOUR to 221! (Three read, one abandoned, NONE added!) A definite dive!

Here are a few more that should fall off soon…

Fiction

This has been on my TBR since January 2013, so it’s probably about time I got around to reading it! I don’t understand why I haven’t before now, because the blurb still appeals to me as much now as it did then…

The Blurb says: Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. The enigmatic and powerful man known only as the Commodore has ordered it, and his henchmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, will make sure of it. Though Eli doesn’t share his brother’s appetite for whiskey and killing, he’s never known anything else. But their prey isn’t an easy mark, and on the road from Oregon City to Warm’s gold-mining claim outside Sacramento, Eli begins to question what he does for a living – and whom he does it for.

With The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt pays homage to the classic Western, transforming it into an unforgettable comic tour de force. Filled with a remarkable cast of characters – losers, cheaters, and ne’er-do-wells from all stripes of life – and told by a complex and compelling narrator, it is a violent, lustful odyssey through the underworld of the 1850s frontier that beautifully captures the humor, melancholy, and grit of the Old West and two brothers bound by blood, violence, and love.

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Fiction

Courtesy of Penguin Classics via Amazon Vine. l’m not having a huge amount of success with the South American leg of my Around the World tour – I think it’s the style of writing that doesn’t work for me. However, again, this blurb sounds great, so fingers crossed this one might be a winner…

The Blurb says: Santiago is trapped. Taken political prisoner in Montevideo after a brutal military coup, he can do nothing but write letters to his family, and try to stay sane.

Far away, his nine-year-old daughter Beatrice wonders at the marvels of 1970s Buenos Aires, but her grandpa and mother – Santiago’s beautiful, careworn wife, Graciela – struggle to adjust to a life in exile. Graciela fights to retain the fiery passion that suffused her marriage, her politics, her whole life, as day by day Santiago edges closer to freedom. But Santiago’s rakish, reckless best friend is a constant, brooding presence in the exiles’ lives, and Graciela finds herself drawn irresistibly towards him.

A lucid, heart-wrenching saga of a family torn apart by the forces of history, Springtime in a Broken Mirror tells with tenderness and fury of the indelible imprint politics leaves on individual lives. Generous and unflinching, it asks whether the broken bonds of family and history can ever truly be mended.

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Crime Re-Read

Last year I embarked on a re-read of what is undoubtedly my favourite crime series of all time, Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe, and sprinted through the first three. And then I got side-tracked! Time to get back on track with no. 4…

The Blurb says: Superintendent Andy Dalziel’s holiday runs into trouble when he gets marooned by flood water. Rescued and taken to nearby Lake House, he discovers all is not well: the owner has just died tragically and the family fortunes are in decline. He also finds himself drawn to attractive widow, Bonnie Fielding.

But several more deaths are to follow. And by the time Pascoe gets involved, it looks like the normally hard-headed Dalziel might have compromised himself beyond redemption.

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Classic Thriller

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. This is one of those books I’m 99% sure I’ve read but have a seed of doubt that maybe I’ve just seen a million adaptations. Either way, I’m looking forward to it. It’s one of the ones from my Classics Club list…

The Blurb says: Adventurer Richard Hannay, just returned from South Africa, is thoroughly bored with London life – until he is accosted by a mysterious American, who warns him of an assassination plot that could completely destabalise the fragile political balance of Europe. Initially sceptical, Hannay nonetheless harbours the man – but one day returns home to find him murdered…

An obvious suspect, Hannay flees to his native Scotland, pursued by both the police and a cunning, ruthless enemy. His life and the security of Britain are in grave peril, and everything rests on the solution to a baffling enigma: what are the ‘thirty nine steps’?

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

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

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Death on Dartmoor (Dan Hellier 2) by Bernie Steadman

The bodies in the bog…

😀 😀 😀 😀

DI Dan Hellier thought life in Devon would be quieter than his old job in the Met, but suddenly he finds he’s running two major cases simultaneously. First, enthusiastic amateur archaeologist Elspeth Price fulfils her lifetime ambition by discovering a body in one of Dartmoor’s bogs. But when the forensic expert checks it out, it turns out it’s two bodies and they’re fairly recent. And the fact that they have no heads or hands makes the deaths look a little suspicious! At the same time, some young lads buy some drugs to take at a party. The effect of the drugs is not what it should be though, and instead of getting high, the boys become seriously ill, and one dies. It’s up to Dan and his team to find who’s making and distributing the drugs before some other young person suffers the same fate…

This is a straight police procedural with an authentic feel to it. Dan is the main character but we get to know all of his team through the course of the book, including his superior officer. To my joy, they are likeable, professional and understand the need for teamwork – not a maverick to be seen! We get to know about Dan’s personal life and newish relationship with Claire, whom, as far as I gathered, he met during his last case; and we also get occasional glimpses into the lives of some of the other team members. But the vast majority of the book concentrates on the investigations and I can’t tell you how refreshing I find that after so many books where the crime comes a poor second to the traumas, addictions and abuses of the unrealistic detectives.

The bodies in the bog storyline provides the central mystery. Before they can start working on whodunit, first the team have to find out who the victims were. Steadman shows the painstaking process of checking old missing person reports, using forensic clues, and sifting through the many tips received from the public. The reader is given a clue early on about a connection the police don’t make till much later, which I found a little odd – it rather took away some of the surprise element at the end. However, on thinking back afterwards, I felt that again it made the thing feel more authentic – a sudden twist out of nowhere at the end can often leave me feeling that everything is just a little too convenient.

The second storyline, about the drugs, is less of a mystery. We know pretty quickly the main thrust of who’s running the operation, as do the police, so this part concentrates on how they go about getting the evidence to make charges. Occasionally I felt we got a little too much detail here – again authentic, but it perhaps slows the story down too much. However, there’s still a lot of interest in it, as Steadman shows how vulnerable people can be sucked into criminality against their will and then be unable to find a way out.

The story centres around an animal rescue centre where some of the major characters work, so just a quick reassurance to my fellow squeamish people – no animals are harmed in the making of this book. They’re not even put in peril, so I had no problems with reading about this aspect at all. In fact, there are a couple of fun scenes regarding one of the cats which brought a smile to my feline-loving heart.

Bernie Steadman

The book is told in the third person, past tense, has, if I recall correctly, no swearing whatsoever, and although there is some fairly strong violence, it’s not gruesomely graphic and fits with the story. All of which proves, if proof were needed, that it’s perfectly possible to tell a gritty story without disgusting or offending your audience, or normalising language that would make a docker blush.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it would have undoubtedly got the full five stars from me had the pace not got bogged down from time to time by including a little too much detail on procedures. It’s somewhat gentler in style than much of contemporary crime, but far too gritty and realistic in plotting to fall into cosy territory, all of which works well for me. Dan is an excellent lead character, his team are likeable and well enough drawn to develop their own individuality, and there’s a good deal of gentle humour in their interactions which helps to lift the tone and keep the book entertaining. I shall certainly be looking forward to seeing how this series progresses.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Smoke and Ashes (Sam Wyndham 3) by Abir Mukherjee

Murder in the Raj…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

This series goes from strength to strength with each new instalment. I thoroughly enjoyed the previous two, but really think this one is the best yet.

Set in the early 1920s, the dying days of the Raj when the Indian Independence movement was well under way, Mukherjee always manages to work the political situation into his stories without allowing it to overwhelm them or feeling like a history lesson. In this one, after months of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance movement, the city authorities are struggling to maintain order. Many Indians have resigned from Government positions, leaving the police short-staffed and with the extra problem that those Indians who have remained have divided loyalties. Britain has decided to send the Prince of Wales, Prince Edward (later briefly Edward VIII) over to steady the nerves and rally the loyalty of the populace to the Empire, but Gandhi’s local representative is planning a major demonstration to coincide with the Prince’s visit.

The murders look as if they may have something to do with the heightened political tensions, especially since Section H – the secret service – are involved. But Sam is determined he won’t be sidelined from the investigation, and along with his loyal Sergeant, Surrender-not Banerjee, sets out to discover what links the victims…

Prince Edward’s visit to India in 1921 – he’s the small one in the middle who looks like he’s doing a Charlie Chaplin impersonation while wearing a lampshade…

I love Mukherjee’s depiction of Calcutta – it always feels entirely authentic to me. Mukherjee treats both sides with empathy – although he shows the evils of some aspects of the Raj as a form of government, he depicts his British characters largely as good people trying to do their best in difficult circumstances, and he manages to do this without making them feel anachronistic in their attitudes. Equally, while his sympathies might lie with the idea of independence, he doesn’t portray the Indians as uniformly saintly either. The Indian sergeant, Surrender-not (the nickname given to him by the Brits who can’t pronounce his real name, Surendranath), provides a kind of bridge that allows the reader to move between the two cultures, as we see him negotiate his often clashing duties to his family and his job.

The historical background too is always sound and Mukherjee brings real people into his stories in ways that feel accurate to their real lives. In this one, as well as Prince Edward, we meet Deshbandhu, a leader of the Independence movement in Bengal, and his young follower Subhas Chandra Bose, who would go on to be a major, if controversial, player in the events that finally led to the achievement of Independence.

As always, though, the plot is founded much more on human nature than on politics. I feel this is his strongest plot so far, which unfortunately I can say very little about for fear of spoilers. But it takes us into some dark episodes in the dealings between the Raj and their subjects – Mukherjee’s notes at the end show that, while he has fictionalised dates and people, the fundamental basis of the story comes from real events. There’s a good deal of moral ambiguity in there, and some excellently complex characterisation to carry it off. And it all builds to a first-rate, entirely credible thriller finale that I found fully satisfying.

I love the characters of Sam and Surrender-not, and the historical setting Mukherjee has chosen for the series. Top-quality historical crime fiction – highly recommended. But if you’re new to the series, do read them in order, starting with the excellent A Rising Man.

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

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Heart of Darkness and Other Tales by Joseph Conrad

The other tales…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

(I’ve been putting off writing a review of this for ages because I couldn’t see how to keep it down to anything approaching a reasonable length, since, although Heart of Darkness is by far the most famous of the four stories in the collection and is the one on my Classics Club list, the other three deserve more than a passing mention too. So I’ve decided in the end to review those briefly in this post and then to review Heart of Darkness itself more fully in a later post.)

This collection from Oxford World’s Classics includes four of Conrad’s stories, each of which deals with the subject of empire and colonialism in one way or another. It also has an introduction and notes by Cedric Watts, Professor of English at the University of Sussex – a Conrad expert. While the notes are very useful, unfortunately, unlike in the other OWC books I’ve read, the introduction is written in the kind of academic jargonese that I hate – the kind that for non-academics needs another introduction to explain the introduction…

An important political aspect of this theme is displayed by the tale’s demonstration that there is an imperialism of discourse which both licenses and conceals the excesses of economic exploitation.

Hmm! So I abandoned the introduction and hurried swiftly on…

Fortunately, the stories are not nearly as intimidating or difficult to understand as the introduction had led me to fear. I’m sure there’s loads of nuance I’ve missed (I missed the bit about the “imperialism of discourse”, for sure), but my own view is that all stories should stand or fall on their own merit as stories, and should not rely on a reader catching all the references or undertones, though they may be enhanced by it. These stories more than stand on their own – in fact, three of the four are up there amongst the best I’ve ever read.

An Outpost of Progress – Two men, Kayerts and Carlier, are dropped off to run a Company trading post in the Belgian Congo. They are basically incompetent, relying on their black agent and workers to do the work of trading for the precious ivory for which they are there. However, events spiral out of their control and they are left running low on resources and increasingly scared of the, to them, incomprehensible and savage people in this wild land. And then the boat that was due to relieve them is delayed…

This starts off with a good deal of humour, full of irony and sarcasm as Conrad turns the prevailing ideas about the superiority of the white man on their head. We see how quickly the veneer of “civilisation” falls away when men are isolated in a vastly different culture they don’t understand. Gradually the story darkens, until it reaches a powerfully dark and dramatic ending of true horror. The writing is wonderful, full of lush descriptions that create an ominously threatening environment, with enough vagueness so that we, like the characters, fear what may be lurking just outside. And his depiction of the downward spiral of his characters into moral weakness and eventual terror is done brilliantly. A great story.

Youth: A Narrative – This tells of Marlow, who will appear again in Heart of Darkness, as a twenty-year-old in his first voyage as second mate on an ill-fated sea trip in the rickety old ship Judea. A series of disasters leads to the ship constantly having to return to port for repairs, and things don’t improve once they finally get off on their journey. It’s quite funny and is apparently a fairly accurate record of Conrad’s own voyage as a young man aboard the equally doomed Palestine. It’s about the vigour and optimism of youth – how even disasters can seem like exciting adventures before age and experience make us jaded and fearful. It’s enjoyable, but a little too long for its content, and with nothing like the depth of the other stories in the collection.

Karain: A Memory – The narrator is one of three adventurers, smuggling arms into the Malay Archipelago. They come to know Karain, the headman of a small land which he and his followers have invaded and occupied. Karain is a haunted man, perhaps literally, perhaps superstitiously. He turns to his white friends for protection…

From the deck of our schooner, anchored in the middle of the bay, he indicated by a theatrical sweep of his arm along the jagged outline of the hills the whole of his domain; and the ample movement seemed to drive back its limits, augmenting it suddenly into something so immense and vague that for a moment it appeared to be bounded only by the sky. And really, looking at that place, landlocked from the sea and shut off from the land by the precipitous slopes of mountains, it was difficult to believe in the existence of any neighbourhood. It was still, complete, unknown, and full of a life that went on stealthily with a troubling effect of solitude; of a life that seemed unaccountably empty of anything that would stir the thought, touch the heart, give a hint of the ominous sequence of days. It appeared to us a land without memories, regrets, and hopes; a land where nothing could survive the coming of the night, and where each sunrise, like a dazzling act of special creation, was disconnected from the eve and the morrow.

The story in this one, although good, is somewhat secondary to the wonderfully descriptive and insightful writing. The prose in the first two or three pages is sublime, as Conrad swiftly creates a place, a country, a man and a people, all with a level of lyricism and mysticism that places the reader there, already unsettled before the tale begins. Conrad shows how colonialism disrupts and corrupts long-held traditions and ways of life, but how old beliefs nonetheless endure. And lest the reader should wish to mock the superstitions of the natives, Conrad forestalls this by reminding us with brutal irony that many of our own cherished traditions and beliefs arise out of superstition too. He also shows that, when white and black meet not as master and slave but in a kind of equality, the possibility for friendship exists, even when their cultures are so different. I loved this story.

Joseph Conrad

Conrad gets a bad rap in some quarters these days for what some see as racist portrayals of other cultures, and there’s no doubt that the stories include a lot of words we would now consider derogatory, along with depictions of native customs – god worship, cannibalism, human sacrifice – that our current rewriting of the past to suit political correctness makes problematic. But, of course, these things did happen so is it really racist to write about them? And the language he uses is of its time. Plus, in moral terms, he’s far more derogatory about the white men and the evils of empire. I give him a pass – since he was so clearly writing from an anti-colonialist stance, I feel to hang him for use of the n-word is to trivialise the importance of what he was saying.

Reading these three stories first gave me an appreciation for Conrad’s style and view of colonialism, which I’m sure eased and enhanced my reading of Heart of Darkness itself. I thoroughly enjoyed the collection and, despite my disappointment with the style of the introduction, there’s no doubt the notes aided my understanding and gave some interesting background information, making it an accessible entry-point to new readers of Conrad’s work.

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

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Space Odyssey: The Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

Caution: Geniuses at Work

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the masterpiece science fiction film that grew out of a collaboration between two creative geniuses, Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. In this book, Michael Benson tells the story of that collaboration, and of the making of the film, its release and its impact at the time and since.

A couple of years ago, I had the amazing experience of reading Clarke’s book and then immediately watching Kubrick’s film, and discovering how wonderfully they enhance each other. Until then, I hadn’t realised they arose out of a joint venture – I had assumed Clarke had written the book first and then Kubrick had decided to turn it into a film. Benson starts by telling the story of how Kubrick wanted to make the first “really good” science fiction movie and, as research, immersed himself in the SF literature of the day, including reading Clarke’s Childhood’s End. This led him to approach Clarke with a view to them working together. At that stage, the plan was to make a kind of future history of man’s experiences in space. Throughout his book, Benson shows how this initial plan grew and altered stage by stage until it became the book and film that were ultimately released, and gives a fascinating picture of two creative giants working together, mostly in harmony, each inspiring the other so that the end results were greater than either could have achieved alone.

Kubrick and Clarke on set

Benson is clearly a huge admirer of the film and of both men, but he’s not so starry-eyed as to be uncritical when it’s deserved. Clarke was struggling financially as the project began, while Kubrick was riding high on the back of the success of his previous film, Dr Strangelove. This meant Kubrick had disproportionate power in the making of the deal between them, and he wasn’t hesitant in making sure the lion’s share of all profits and credit would come his way. He also retained control over every aspect, including when Clarke would be allowed to release the book. Since the making of the film fell years behind schedule, this caused Clarke considerable financial woe. But Benson also shows that the two men managed to survive this kind of friction without it dimming their appreciation of each other’s genius. Benson’s book is a warm-hearted portrayal of both men and it seems to me he tries hard, and succeeds, in giving due credit to both.

The book is an excellently balanced mix of the technical geekery of film-making with the human creativity behind it. Not just Clarke and Kubrick, but all of the major members of the crew come to life, as Benson illustrates their personalities with well-timed and well-told anecdotes about life on the set. The quality of Benson’s writing is first-rate, and I loved that he would break up the more technical side of the story by introducing “voices” for some of the people to whom he introduces us. For example, when a young lad looking for his first break in movie-making goes off to meet Kubrick, Benson tells the story in a kind of Holden Caulfield voice, while the filming of the scene of Kubrick’s little daughter talking to her on-screen daddy is told charmingly, as if from her six-year-old perspective.

Kubrick and his daughter Vivian

Clarke fades a little from the story once his book is more or less written, although the two men continued to consult and communicate throughout the project. But once the filming gets underway, Benson concentrates more on Kubrick and his crew. He shows the innovative techniques they developed as they went along to create not only the special effects but an entire overarching style. Kubrick is shown as demanding, a perfectionist, always pushing a little further than his crew believed they could go until they discovered that they could go further after all. Although he had his faults – a willingness to risk his actors’ and crew’s safety in pursuit of his art, for example – the impression comes through strongly that the people around him admired, respected and even loved him. Benson gives generous praise to each of the other creatives who contributed to the movie, detailing each innovative technique and who was involved in achieving it. As he describes it, it felt to me like an orchestra full of individually brilliant musicians, with Kubrick as the genius conductor melding their talents into a wonderfully harmonious whole.

Kubrick setting up a shot

In the final section, Benson describes the release of the movie, initially panned by all the middle-aged men (and occasionally women) in suits in movie world, from studio chiefs to movie critics. He explains how Kubrick watched audience reaction minute by minute to see what worked and what didn’t, eventually cutting nineteen minutes from the original running time. But he and others also noticed that young people in the audience seemed to “get” it in a way that the movie professionals didn’t at first. Despite the critics, audience figures gave an indication that word of mouth was making the movie a success. Gradually, even the original critics mostly came round, and admitted that on second and third viewing they “got” it too. The film’s success was crowned with a raft of Oscar nominations, though in an extremely competitive year that included Oliver! and The Lion in Winter amongst others, eventually it took only one, rather fittingly for Best Special Visual Effects.

I haven’t even touched on a lot of what is included in this comprehensive book, such as how Kubrick decided on the music for the film, or how the man-apes were conceived and created. The quality of the writing and research together with Benson’s great storytelling ability make this not only informative but a real pleasure to read – as much a masterpiece of its kind as the original film and book are of theirs. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

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TBR Thursday 163…

Episode 163…

Oh, for goodness sake! The TBR has reached a new all time high of 225 – up 2 since last week! But it’s not my fault! Can I help it if books keep arriving when I’m not ready for them??

Here’s a few more that should be ready for kick-off soon…

Fantasy

I read this not long after it was first published in 1973, in my teens, and loved it even though I wasn’t at all sure that I fully understood it. I’ve always been a bit reluctant to revisit it in case it doesn’t work so well for my more critical adult self, but in the intervening years it has come to be seen as a real classic. It’s been on my TBR for a re-read since 2014, so it’s time to bite the bullet…

The Blurb says: A disturbing exploration of the inevitability of life.

Under Orion’s stars, bluesilver visions torment Tom, Macey and Thomas as they struggle with age-old forces. Distanced from each other in time, and isolated from those they live among, they are yet inextricably bound together by the sacred power of the moon’s axe and each seek their own refuge at Mow Cop.

Can those they love so intensely keep them clinging to reality? Or is the future evermore destined to reflect the past?

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the British Library. l loved the other ECR Lorac book currently in the BL’s Crime Classics series, Bats in the Belfry, so I have high hopes for this one…

The Blurb says: The Second World War is drawing to a close. Nicholas Vaughan, released from the army after an accident, takes refuge in Devon renting a thatched cottage in the beautiful countryside at Mallory Fitzjohn. Vaughan sets to work farming the land, rearing geese and renovating the cottage. Hard work and rural peace seem to make this a happy bachelor life. On a nearby farm lives the bored, flirtatious June St Cyres, an exile from London while her husband is a Japanese POW. June’s presence attracts fashionable visitors of dubious character, and threatens to spoil Vaughan’s prized seclusion. When Little Thatch is destroyed in a blaze, all Vaughan’s work goes up in smoke and Inspector Macdonald is drafted in to uncover a motive for murder.

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Classic Scottish Fiction

This one isn’t on my Classics Club challenge because I hadn’t heard of it when I prepared my list, but I think I might swap it in. Is this another example of how Scottish culture has become invisible in the shade of the dominant member of the United Kingdom, England? Apparently Ferrier outsold her contemporary Jane Austen at the time their books were published. Since then, Austen has taken over the world, while Ferrier has been all but forgotten. Time to see for myself if that’s to do with the quality of the books…

The Blurb says: Understanding that the purpose of marriage is to further her family, Lady Juliana nevertheless rejects the ageing and unattractive – though appropriately wealthy – suitor of her father’s choice. She elopes, instead, with a handsome, penniless soldier and goes to Scotland to live at Glenfarn Castle, his paternal home. But Lady Juliana finds life in the Scottish highlands dreary and bleak, hastily repenting of following her heart.

After giving birth to twin daughters, Lady Juliana leaves Mary to the care of her sister-in-law, while she returns to England with Adelaide. Sixteen years later, Mary is thoughtful, wise and kind, in comparison to her foolish mother and vain sister.

Following two generations of women, Marriage, first published in 1818, is a shrewdly observant and humorous novel by one of Scotland’s greatest writers.

* * * * *

Thriller

Courtesy of Picador. Just to prove I do still read some new releases! I love Megan Abbott’s dark and twisted stories about the hormone-laden angstiness of being a teenage girl, so I’m looking forward to this one, which seems to start there and then visit the characters again as adults…

The Blurb says: Kit Owens harbored only modest ambitions for herself when the mysterious Diane Fleming appeared in her high school chemistry class. But Diane’s academic brilliance lit a fire in Kit, and the two developed an unlikely friendship. Until Diane shared a secret that changed everything between them.

More than a decade later, Kit thinks she’s put Diane behind her forever and she’s begun to fulfill the scientific dreams Diane awakened in her. But the past comes roaring back when she discovers that Diane is her competition for a position both women covet, taking part in groundbreaking new research led by their idol. Soon enough, the two former friends find themselves locked in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse that threatens to destroy them both.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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

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That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina

The quality of sunlight…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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

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

The story is slow to unfold, with many digressions into Tommaso’s memories of his childhood. But these are interesting in themselves for what they tell us about the way of life in this quiet, tradition-bound area and all serve to add depth to our understanding of his character. He is not entirely likeable, but the telling of his story so many years later seems to allow him to reassess the events and his reaction to them, so that he appears to grow in self-awareness as the book progresses. The falling in love aspect is done beautifully, with that intensity which only happens with early first love, and although some of the later events might have seemed extreme had they been placed in a contemporary setting, Vescina’s careful re-creation of this moment in the culture, so recent and yet so rooted in the traditions of the past, make them entirely credible.

Ostuni, Puglia

There were a couple of weaknesses for me, although minor. The framing device of Tommaso telling his story to the PI led to some occasional clunkiness in the use of second person as Tommaso occasionally breaks off from his narrative to talk to his interlocutor, whose questions and remarks are relayed to the reader only second-hand through Tommaso’s responses. However this only happens for a couple of paragraphs at the beginning of an occasional chapter, so it doesn’t break the flow too much. There is a section after the events of the summer and before the final dénouement where we learn of Tommaso’s life between then and now, and, while the quality of the writing still makes this very readable, I felt it was too long and added very little to the story, merely delaying the ending.

However, neither of these significantly impacted my enjoyment of the book. The story and characters kept me fully absorbed as I read this book over one long, lazy day and Vescina’s wonderful descriptive writing transported me to Puglia – a place I have never visited in real life but now feel I can visualise as if from actual memories. I was attracted to the book partly because Puglia is one of the places on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge, and I couldn’t have picked a better one. From the narrow, winding streets in the medieval Old Town of Ostuni to the groves of fig and olive trees, from the quality of the sunlight to the smell of the local tomatoes, from the colours of the buildings to the ingredients of the traditional meals – everything is given a lush richness that engages all the senses. Vescina also has a great sense of the history of the region – her own birthplace – and has the skill to dole out her knowledge sparingly as an integral part of the story.

The trail snaked through the vegetation, skirting tufts of ammofila – ‘sand lover’, or, more prosaically, marram grass – and shrubs. Now and then, the track ushered us into small clearings where we struggled to make out its continuation. L’albero magico – our magic tree, as we later called it – materialised before us. It was a squat oak – not of the kind familiar in Britain, but a distant cousin rooted in arid earth – whose branches arched downwards, forming a dark-green canopy over a bed of fine sand. It called to mind an apparition out of one of those fairy tales in which nature shields hero and heroine from the villains in pursuit, throwing obstacles – from brambles to boulders – in their way, while offering sanctuary and sustenance to the fugitives.

As you’ll have gathered, I loved this book, becoming totally immersed in both story and place, and was reluctant to leave Puglia when it ended. It’s Vescina’s début, but is written with a sure-footedness and level of assurance that many a more experienced writer might envy. I’m looking forward with great anticipation to reading more from this gifted storyteller in the future.

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

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Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Half an hour elapsed before Merrion heard anything further. Then there was a sound of rapid footsteps, and a shadowy form, of which he could not see the outline, entered the open space in the centre of the grove. Others followed at intervals, until the turf was covered by a strange, silent multitude. They uttered no word, but Merrion could hear their quick breathing, the rustle of their garments as they swayed rhythmically upon their feet, occasionally an hysterical sob, quickly repressed. They stood there waiting, their eyes within the depths of their hoods staring intently towards the altar, hidden under the shadow of the trees.
….Then Merrion became conscious of slow and majestic footsteps advancing through the gloom. They approached the grove, but ceased before they reached the open space. And, as they did so, a queer wailing cry broke from the assembled worshippers. Merrion, staring intently from his hiding-place, could see nothing. But he guessed that the devil, the mysterious president of the ceremonies, had taken up his position in the deep gloom behind the altar.

* * * * * * * * *

….The oleanders on the terrace of Villa Emma came into bloom. So did the ones in the oversized amphorae in the alleys and squares of the Old Town. Their clusters of white, pink and fuchsia flowers burst out of the dark-green foliage. From the contadini’s doorways, cases of juicy nespole released their sweet but slightly acrid fragrance onto the streets. It blended with the grassy scents of fresh fava beans consumed at kitchen tables now that the warm days of May were rolling into one another.
….On those afternoons, Anna and I enjoyed conservations brimming with mutual discoveries. You’d be amazed at how everyday actions bring those memories to mind. For example, Anna observed that olive oil linked us to our ancestors and to our land. ‘Liquid gold trickling down the slope of history’, she called it. Apulians’ modern obsession with olive oil was a remnant of how central it had once been, she said. Hadn’t it accompanied people every day? From baptism to the last rites, via their dining table, their soap, their lamps and much more? That reflection may not strike you as momentous. Yet now and then, while drizzling oil onto my food, I still picture Anna sharing the thought with me as we sat on the steps of an abandoned house, its flaking wall overrun by an early-blooming scarlet bougainvillea, watching two children walk by with slices of pane, olio e sale – bread, oil and salt.

* * * * * * * * *

….Elspeth walked a little further towards the River Swincombe. Brown water seeped up towards the top of her boots. Finally, she struggled up a small incline and perched on a hummock of sphagnum moss. She poked at the peat directly in front of her with her stick, pushing the creeping moss aside. ‘Ahh,’ she said, with satisfaction, ‘I think we have our find. Look, Doctor Pargeter, look!’
….Neil craned over her shoulder. The water was shallow here, and brown with peat. He stared hard at the spot she indicated, seeing nothing except sphagnum moss, water and soft peat. Then, once he’d got his eye in, he yelped. ‘There, I see it!’ Crouching beside a jubilant Elspeth Price, oblivious to the water seeping into his boots, he leaned over as far as he dared and peered into the mossy pit. It looked like a bone. Two bones to be precise. In the shape of what could be a human elbow. He felt faint. ‘Oh my God. Oh my God, Elspeth, I think you’re right. I think we’ve got ourselves a body in the bog!’

* * * * * * * * *

….But this is the life – out of the dim dressing room and towards the brightly lit stage comes the chorus. Joe is at the top of the stairs, checking the line for dirty fingernails, too much greasepaint, visible track marks. Then later he’s at the stage door, crowded with fans and young griffins eager to escort the showgirls to one of the Yu Yuen Road cabaret bars round the corner. It’s hopeless; the girls have better places to go, older, better-heeled patrons to spend time with. The swells offer dinner at Ciro’s with white-uniformed waiters and young boys serving tea, or late-night cocktails at Victor Sassoon’s brand-spanking-new Tower Club at the top of the Cathay Hotel. For the Peaches, the trick is to get dinner, go dancing, snag a little treat or two they can pawn later or some cash, all without giving it up. Late-night motorcar rides round the circular Rubicon Road, a shady back table at the Black Cat cabaret in Frenchtown, tableside at the private roulette wheels illicitly spinning in the suites of the Burlington Hotel courtesy of old-time Brit gangster Bill Hawkins, Sasha Vertinsky’s late-night Russian cabaret with the bad boys at the Gardenia on Great Western Road, champagne and Viennese torch songs courtesy of Lily Flohr at the Elite Bar on Medhurst Road – then always the fumble, the grope, the wandering hands.

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So…are you tempted?

The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

All in the family…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Edward Powell is an unhappy young man. He lives with his annoying Aunt Mildred who, as his guardian and trustee of his inheritance, holds the purse-strings, rather too tightly in Edward’s opinion. To make matters worse, he’s forced to live in the family home in a small village in Wales, surrounded by landscape and hills and sheep and all that awful stuff, when he should be mingling with artists and bright young things in one of the fashionable hotspots of the world. Really it’s too much to bear. So he decides there’s only one thing to be done…

It’s not often a book has me laughing out loud before I even get through the first page, but this one did! The book is narrated for the most part by Edward, taken from the journal he keeps as events unfold. It begins with his disgust at living in a place which he insists is impossible to pronounce, Llyll, – it takes him three (hilarious) paragraphs to explain how one is supposed to say it. He then describes his surroundings, not in the idyllic terms we’ve come to expect of descriptions of picturesque countryside…

I see I spoke of “sodden woods”. That was the right adjective. Never, never does it stop raining here, except in the winter when it snows. They say that is why we grow such wonderful trees here which provided the oaks from which Rodney’s and Nelson’s fleets were built. Well, no one makes ships out of wood nowadays, so that that is no longer useful, and it seems to me that one tree is much like another. I’d rather see less rain, less trees and more men and women. “Oh, Solitude, where are the charms?” Exactly so.

The title gives a broad hint, so it’s not a spoiler to say that the book is about Edward’s plan to murder his aunt. Now I’m a bit like Hercule Poirot in that I don’t approve of murder, but in Edward’s defence I have to admit that Aunt Mildred really asks for it – she finds fault with everything Edward does (with some justification), nags him constantly and is not averse to shaming him in public. All of which makes the thing far more entertaining than if she’d been a sweet old soul. This is a battle of two people who are opposites in every way except for their desire to come out on top.

Edward’s voice is what makes the book so special. The writing is fantastic, so that Hull manages to let the reader see both the truth and Edward’s unreliable interpretation of it simultaneously. One couldn’t possibly like Edward, and in real life one would pretty quickly want to hit him over the head with a brick, but his journal is a joy to read. It’s a brilliant portrait of a man obsessed with his own comforts, utterly selfish, and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. He’s also delightfully effeminate, a total contrast to rugged old Aunt Mildred who’s a hardy daughter of the soil.

Richard Hull

Written in 1934, it’s hard for modern audiences to know whether Hull intended Edward to be read as gay or just effeminate, but he would certainly be seen as stereotypically gay now, with his finicky desire to have all his clothes flamboyantly colour-matched, his eye for interior decoration, his little Pekinese dog, and so on. But if it’s deliberate, it’s done in a way that seemed to me affectionate, even though we’re supposed to laugh at him. Seeing him as gay also adds an element of humour to the fact that Aunt Mildred (who I’m quite sure has never even heard of homosexuality!) is constantly accusing him of trying to seduce the maid. I wondered if I was reading too much “gayness” into the character, so was rather pleased to read in Martin Edwards’ introduction (which of course I read as an afterword) that ‘Anthony Slide, in Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century (2013) has argued that the book is “the best, and by far the most entertaining, of the early English mystery novels with a gay angle.”’ From my limited experience, I can’t argue with that!

But that’s only one aspect of Edward’s character and not the most important one. It’s his self-obsession and grouchy, distorted view of the world that makes him so enjoyable. I don’t want to say any more about the plot because the suspense element comes from not knowing whether Edward’s plans will succeed. I found it compulsively readable and while it isn’t laugh-out-loud all the way, it’s consistently funny, in a wicked, subversive way, full of lightly black humour. Loved it! One of the gems of the BL’s Crime Classics collection for me.

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

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Lonelyheart 4122 (Flaxborough Chronicles 4) by Colin Watson

Time for Teatime…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Arthur Spain notices that his widowed sister-in-law, Lil, hasn’t been around recently, he pops round to visit her, but his worry increases when he finds a row of full milk bottles outside her door, some curdled, suggesting she hasn’t been home for a couple of weeks. So he reports her missing and soon Inspector Purbright is worrying too, because Lil’s disappearance reminds him of another one from a few months back. Could the two missing women be connected in some way? A bit of investigation shows that both had recently signed on as clients of Handclasp House, a local dating agency…

This is the 4th entry in Watson’s Flaxborough Chronicles and the series is well into its stride by now. As always, it’s full of rather wicked humour about the weaknesses of human nature and those who exploit them. Inspector Purbright is his usual unflappable self, a detective as free from angst as even I could wish for, and with a nice line in mild sarcasm, but never cruelly employed. His sidekick, Sergeant Sid Love, hides a mind like a sink behind a cherubic countenance. And Chief Constable Harcourt Chubb remains the perfect figurehead for the force, a pillar of respectability, stolid and unimaginative…

… the chief constable had the sort of mind which, because it was so static, aided reflection. By dropping facts, like pebbles, into it and watching the ripples of pretended sapience spread over its calm surface, Purbright was enabled somehow to form ideas that might not otherwise have occurred to him.

A new client has just signed up with the dating agency. Miss Lucilla Edith Cavell Teatime is exactly the type of woman an unscrupulous man might prey on – single and new to the area, therefore without friends or family to look out for her, middle-aged and lonely, and so naive and utterly respectable herself that she’s unable to imagine unworthy motives in others. Or at least that’s how she seems on the outside, and Purbright is worried she might be the next victim. But the reader sees much of the story from Miss Teatime’s perspective, so we soon learn she’s not quite as innocent as she likes to appear.

She had just sat sown after looping back the curtain when the girl from the reception office arrived with a glass of whisky and a newspaper. Miss Teatime noted approvingly that the whisky was a double.
“Did you feel faint after the journey, madam?” The girl held the glass like a medicine measure.
“Not a bit of it! Cheers!”
The girl withdrew, looking slightly bewildered.

As Miss Teatime begins to correspond with a gentleman also looking for love, Purbright and Sid have to balance their investigation of the previous disappearances with their desire to prevent her from becoming the next victim. But Miss Teatime has plans of her own…

I love these books and am delighted that Farrago are re-releasing all twelve of them for Kindle. It’s the first time for years they’ve been available at reasonable prices, and that’s a necessity since once you’ve read the first one (Coffin Scarcely Used), you will almost certainly want to binge-read the rest. Although they’re all very good, the ones in the middle are undoubtedly the best, once Watson had established all the regulars. Often humorous crime books are let down by the plotting, but each of these has a strong story and a proper investigation, so they’re satisfying on both levels. They are wickedly perceptive about middle-class English society of the ‘50s, with Watson letting the reader see through the veneer of dull respectability to the skulduggery and jiggery-pokery going on beneath. Mildly subversive, but affectionately so, they form a kind of bridge between the Golden Age and more modern crime novels, with the same class divides as in the earlier era but with the irreverence about them that came fully to the fore in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

But mostly what they are is hugely entertaining, and that’s why you should read them. And if you’ve already read them, give yourself a treat and read them all again. Highly recommended!

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

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TBR Thursday 162…

Episode 162…

Oh dear! There’s been a big jump in the TBR since I last reported – up 3 to 222. It’s not my fault! First, tennis. Second, loads of my favourite authors seem to be releasing their new books all at the same time. What’s a girl to do?? I try not to let it stress me though…

Better get reading, I think! Here’s the next batch…

Classic Fiction

One of my Classics Club books. I’m particularly intrigued by this since the blurb makes it sound like a women’s-lit melodrama, but it’s written by James M Cain, whom I think of as a noir crime writer. In fact, he’s one of only three authors who appear more than once on in my list, and his other entry is certainly classic noir – The Postman Always Rings Twice.

The Blurb says: Mildred Pierce had gorgeous legs, a way with a skillet, and a bone-deep core of toughness. She used those attributes to survive a divorce and poverty and to claw her way out of the lower middle class. But Mildred also had two weaknesses: a yen for shiftless men, and an unreasoning devotion to a monstrous daughter.

Out of these elements, Cain creates a novel of acute social observation and devastating emotional violence, with a heroine whose ambitions and sufferings are never less than recognizable.

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Biography

This one has been on my TBR since December 2012! Because it’s huge and will probably take me a couple of months to read, I keep putting it off for review copies, but the time has finally come! (Unless any nice review copies arrive before I begin…) It won the Pulitzer for Biography and has excellent reviews, though, so I’m looking forward to it.

The Blurb says: Against the monumental canvas of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe and Russia, unfolds the magnificent story of Peter the Great, crowned at the age of 10. A barbarous, volatile feudal tsar with a taste for torture; a progressive and enlightened reformer of government and science; a statesman of vision and colossal significance: Peter the Great embodied the greatest strengths and weaknesses of Russia while being at the very forefront of her development.

Robert K. Massie delves deep into the life of this captivating historical figure, chronicling the pivotal events that shaped a boy into a legend – including his ‘incognito’ travels in Europe, his unquenchable curiosity about Western ways, his obsession with the sea and establishment of the stupendous Russian navy, his creation of an unbeatable army, and his relationships with those he loved most: Catherine, his loving mistress, wife, and successor; and Menshikov, the charming, unscrupulous prince who rose to power through Peter’s friendship. Impetuous and stubborn, generous and cruel, a man of enormous energy and complexity, Peter the Great is brought fully to life.

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Historical Crime

Courtesy of Harvill Secker. The third in the Sam Wyndham series of historical crime novels set in India in the last days of the Raj. I’ve loved the previous books, so this is a must-read for me, though I’m a bit concerned that Sam seems to be becoming more of an opium addict in each book…

The Blurb says: India, 1921. Haunted by his memories of the Great War, Captain Sam Wyndham is battling a serious addiction to opium that he must keep secret from his superiors in the Calcutta police force.

When Sam is summoned to investigate a grisly murder, he is stunned at the sight of the body: he’s seen this before. Last night, in a drug addled haze, he stumbled across a corpse with the same ritualistic injuries. It seems like there’s a deranged killer on the loose. Unfortunately for Sam, the corpse was in an opium den and revealing his presence there could cost him his career.

With the aid of his quick-witted Indian Sergeant, Surrender-not Banerjee, Sam must try to solve the two murders, all the while keeping his personal demons secret, before somebody else turns up dead.

* * * * *

More Historical Crime

Courtesy of Random House Transworld via NetGalley. I enjoyed Rachel Rhys’ last book, A Dangerous Crossing, very much, so I’m looking forward to this one…

The Blurb says: 1948: Eve Forrester is trapped in a loveless marriage, in a gloomy house, in a grey London suburb. Then, out of the blue, she receives a solicitor’s letter. A wealthy stranger has left her a mystery inheritance. And to find out more, she must to travel to the glittering French Riviera.

There Eve discovers that her legacy is an enchanting pale pink villa overlooking the Mediterranean sea. Suddenly her life could not be more glamorous. But while she rubs shoulders with film-stars and famous writers, under the heat of the golden sun, rivals to her unexplained fortune begin to emerge. Rivals who want her out of the way.

Alone in this beguiling paradise, Eve must unlock the story behind her surprise bequest – before events turn deadly…

Reminiscent of a Golden Age mystery, Fatal Inheritance is an intoxicating story of dysfunctional families and long-hidden secrets, set against the razzle-dazzle and decadence of the French Riviera.

* * * * *

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

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

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The Old Religion by Martyn Waites

Strange marketing…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Tom Kilgannon has come to the run-down Cornish town of St Petroc to hide. That’s not his real name – he has taken on a new identity and it’s quickly clear that he’s in some kind of witness protection scheme or similar. Lila is a young girl living in a surfer commune on the edge of town – a surfer commune that is run more like a cult, with the rather nasty Noah at its head. As the book begins, Lila has been instrumental in abducting a young man on Noah’s instructions, and now she’s afraid of the consequences. When Tom and Lila meet, their lives quickly become mixed up with each other, and each puts the other in even greater danger. In the meantime, the mysterious Morrigan seems to hold an almost occult power over the townspeople, all in the name of the Old Religion…

This book is billed as being for fans of Peter May. I wonder why? I don’t remember Peter May ever writing anything with an occult storyline, nor using so much foul language including repeated use of the “c”-word, nor being unable to determine when to use “who” and “whom” correctly, nor filling his books with repeated episodes of violence, including rape, every few pages. Odd! Had I been trying to attract people who might enjoy this, I’d have been more inclined to mention Mo Hayder, or one of the other authors who specialise in violence and nastiness. There’s a market out there for this kind of book undoubtedly, but I’m not sure Peter May fans would be a big part of that market. This one sure isn’t, anyway.

It’s well written, apart from the too frequent grammatical errors, but I was reading an ARC so perhaps they’ll be sorted before the final version is printed. The characterisation is very good, especially of Lila. She left home young, and has no-one to look out for her. Having drifted into a bad situation she’s now trying to find a way out, and Waites does a good job of portraying her as a mix of vulnerability and strength. Tom is also done reasonably well, though with more of the stereotypical elements of the routine thriller hero – a troubled past, in danger in the present, well able to handle himself physically, but with a complete inability to fend off the women who find him irresistible. Uh-huh, well, not all women, obviously.

But everyone is unlikeable, even Lila, whom (or perhaps in the spirit of the book, I should say who) I really wanted to like. She’s quite willing to be just as horrible to everyone around her as they are to her – credible, undoubtedly, given her background, but it meant my sympathy for her situation wore off after a bit. Apart from Tom, all the men are drug-pushers or losers, violent and cruel, or occasionally weak and pathetic, and potential or actual rapists. There are very few women in it, at least up to the point where I abandoned it – around the 60% mark, and other than Lila they don’t play a significant role. I flicked ahead to the end and got the impression that may change later in the book.

Martyn Waites

At that 60% mark the three stories were still trailing along without us being any closer to finding out how they were connected – Tom’s past, the young man’s abduction, the mysterious Morrigan – with Lila providing some kind of vague link. I admit I was bored waiting, but it was really the constant episodes of violence that annoyed me – not in a squeamish way, they’re not overly graphic, but just because it all became repetitive and made the tone unrelentingly miserable. I prefer even crime novels to have some light and shade in them.

Despite abandoning it, I’m giving the book three stars. It’s not to my taste but I think it’s pretty well done for all that, and I’m sure people who like this sort of thing will enjoy it. In fact, it’s considerably better than the one Mo Hayder book through which I had the misfortune to wade. But as for Peter May fans, well, I’d suggest we all sit back and wait for the next Peter May book instead. Why do publishers do that?

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

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Classics Club Meet and Greet…

The Classics Club Meme – June 2018

The Classics Club meme for June encourages us all to get to know each other better. Here’s the task…

We want you to mingle. Go to our member list and select a fellow classics clubber you’d like to feature on your blog. This can be someone who is active within the Classics Club, someone quiet who inspires with his/her posts, someone new to the club or scarce whom you’d like the club to meet. S/he can be a friend of yours, or someone you’ve never met. Tell readers why you value this club member. Highlight at least one post from his/her blog.

I must say firstly, I think this is a great idea and secondly, it made me feel quite guilty for not making more effort to seek out new CC members and introduce myself. In my defence, I’m not sure what the best way to find new members is – not everyone uses the introduction page. If any other members have found a good way of spotting new members, please let me know.

For the purposes of this month’s meme, I decided to highlight a couple of my existing blog buddies who’ve joined up recently, and then I also followed the suggestion and visited the member list, where I looked for people who have joined recently and whom I haven’t “met” before. Not only was this fun to do, but I’m hoping I’ve made at least one new blog buddy!

So here they are. Please meet, greet and visit…

Cleopatra Loves Books

I’m pretty certain nearly all of you will already know the lovely Cleo and her great, enthusiastic reviews, but I wanted to include her because I was so pleased she decided to join the Classics Club, and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying her classics reviews to date. I’m also delighted that her list includes some classic crime along with the more traditional classics, and that she’s included some of the books I’ve reviewed (or nagged her about 😉 ), including The Gowk Storm (a book everyone should read) and an actual science fiction classic, Chocky by John Wyndham – I’ve been trying to get her to read a sci-fi book for about five years now, so I can’t wait for her review of that one!

Here’s a link to her Classics Club list – click here.

And here’s one of her CC reviews I particularly enjoyed…

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

…mainly because this book is also on my TBR so I was delighted that it got the Cleo five-star seal of approval.

* * * * *

Big Reading Life

Laila is also an existing blog buddy of mine whom I’m sure lots of you already know and follow. She joined the club in February and I’ve been enjoying her reviews and also enjoying her throwing herself into the club by participating in the spins, etc. Laila’s list has lots of my favourite authors and books on it (Dickens, Conan Doyle, HG Wells, etc), so I can’t wait to hear what she thinks of them. And I’m still on my little ego-trip, because Laila has also included The Gowk Storm on my recommendation. Hurrah! (Did I mention it’s a book everyone should read?)

Here’s a link to her Classics Club list – click here.

And here’s one of her CC reviews I particularly enjoyed…

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

…even though she admitted to not enjoying the film of the book, which I adore. Still, it just means I’ll have to pester her until she re-watches it often enough to learn to love it… 😉

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Books by the Cup

I’m excited to introduce Books by the Cup to you, since I’ve only just met her myself! She joined the Classics Club in March this year, just one month after she began blogging! Her list has lots of Austen and lots of Dickens so I know we’re going to get along. And it’s got Moby Dick on it! My regulars will all know exactly how I feel about that particular “classic”! Rumour has it that she’ll be reviewing it soon – can’t wait to compare notes. She doesn’t have The Gowk Storm on her list, but she probably just doesn’t know yet that it’s a book everyone should read… 😉

Welcome to the club, Books by the Cup!

Here’s a link to her Classics Club list – click here.

And here’s one of her CC reviews that I particularly enjoyed…

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

…mainly because it’s a great review of the Austen novel which I think is the best (although I enjoy P&P most). Books by the Cup says “Is this my favorite Austen? No. Did I like it? Yes. Did I laugh and hold my breath in anticipation of what was to come? Yes. However, as was the case with Pride and Prejudice, I might appreciate it better the second time around…” and anybody who wants to re-read Austen is clearly a kindred spirit!

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If you don’t already know any of these excellent bloggers, I’m delighted to recommend them to you.

HAVE A CLASSIC DAY! 😀

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

A world without Darcy…

😐 😐

Three young men are part of an expedition in some obscure unexplored corner of the planet when they hear rumours of a country where all the inhabitants are women. They don’t believe this, of course. Firstly, they’ve heard all about the birds and the bees and they know such a society couldn’t exist for more than one generation. But more importantly, they know that women are too silly and incompetent to run a whole country on their own. If the country exists at all, they decide, the men must live elsewhere and visit for… ahem… a bit of the old nuptials every now and again. However, the prospect is tantalising – all those women must be pretty desperate for a bit of male company, what? So they decide to investigate…

The book starts off quite well, rather in the broad wink-wink tone of my introduction, full of male stereotypes of females, and incidentally managing to stereotype the three males pretty heavily at the same time. Then, unfortunately, they arrive in the country they dub Herland. And from there on in it’s an utterly tedious description of how this all-female society operates. Gilman even remarks at one point, in the voice of the male narrator, that nothing much actually happened to them during their stay, so presumably she was well aware of the narrative deficiencies of the book as a novel. Pity she felt a glancing reference to them was sufficient.

And odd! Because what I learned from this book is that women are perfect in every single way, excel at everything they do, and the only thing that causes misery, disease or turmoil in the world is men! Horrible men. Gosh, don’t you just hate them all? With their cruelty and their grubbiness and their greed, and all that nasty, nasty sex business. Women build nicer houses in beautifully clean, well-ordered cities, and they never fight or quarrel or get unhappy. They are naturally far, far better than men, because their capacity for motherhood makes them want to make the world a better place for their children. Unlike nasty men, who only see children as an unfortunate by-product of sex.

The unfortunate thing about some strands of feminism, this included, is the tendency to go well beyond the desire for equality and harmony, towards replacing a world where women are subject to men with one where men are disparaged and despised by women. I’m more of a happy-medium kind of girl myself. At risk of being drummed out of the sisterhood once and for all, I’ll admit my guilty, shameful secret. I like men. Not all of them, obviously – Trump, Hitler and Harvey Weinstein wouldn’t be my idea of a fun night down the pub – but then, Thatcher, Kellyanne Conway and Myra Hindley wouldn’t be my first choices for dinner guests either. But on the whole, I think most men are just bumbling along, behaving the way society has taught them, and most women are doing much the same. And most of us, of both genders, are trying to do better.

The idea of a world with no men in it (or no women) is my idea of hell. Most of our art and ninety percent of our literature is in some way about the interaction of the sexes, even going back past Shakespeare and on to the Bible. Flirting is fun, as is the whole falling in love thing. I’ve even heard the occasional woman admit to enjoying sex! Motherhood is brilliant and for some women it is indeed the most important thing in their lives (just as fatherhood is the most important thing for some men) but it’s not the only or even necessarily the ultimate ambition for womankind. In fact, I thought part of feminism was to get us away from the idea that women are incapable of thinking about anything except having babies and bringing them up, important roles though those are.

So some feminists may see this as a great feminist tract. I saw it as adding fuel to the worst of feminism – the kind that aims to replace patriarchy with matriarchy, where women rule and men become the subjects. Of the three men in the book, one is utterly convinced of male superiority and that women are primarily sex toys; one wants to worship at the feet of femininity; and the third is shown as rational, considering both sides of every argument. (Not that women ever argue, of course, because we’re all lovely when we’re not being jealous over silly men.) He, the rational one, becomes convinced along the way of the innate superiority of women and realises that what all men really want to do is surrender to a mother figure. And that that’s what all women aspire to be. Yeah.

(I have never wanted to be Darcy’s mother…)

But apart from the inanity of the ideas expressed in the book, which I try to forgive because I’m sure Gilman must have had some bad experiences to have become quite so misandristic, it commits the even worse sin of being almost entirely dull. It’s like reading a Rough Guide to Herland, without the humour and the photographs. I kept expecting her to tell me how much I should tip restaurant staff. Interesting, if you want to have nightmares about a world with no quarrelling, no disputes, no politics, no ambition beyond motherhood and child-rearing; and worse – no Anne and Gilbert, no Jane and Mr Rochester, no Cathy and Heathcliff, no flirting, no sex, no dancing, and no Darcy! Me, I’ll stay in this world and just keep striving for equality, thanks very much. I’d rather be driven up the wall by pesky men than bored to death by these unrealistically idealised Herland women.

Book 27 of 90

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Snap by Belinda Bauer

Curate’s egg…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When eleven-year-old Jack and his two younger sisters are left in their broken-down car while their mother goes off to phone for help, Jack is left in charge. This is a responsibility that will weigh heavily on him over the next few years when first his mother never returns and then later his father too disappears. Meantime Catherine While, heavily pregnant with her first child, is terrified when a burglar leaves a knife beside her pillow with a note that says simply: I could have killed you. For reasons of her own, Catherine decides to tell neither her husband Adam nor the police about this episode – a decision she will learn to regret.

Following the outcome of his last case, The Shut Eye, DCI Marvel has been shunted out of the Met, and isn’t best pleased when he ends up in the countryside – not his natural habitat. He’s even more annoyed when the first case that’s handed to him is to investigate a series of burglaries by a perpetrator codenamed Goldilocks. Marvel sees himself as a murder detective and feels his talents are being wasted. But he gets his wish anyway, as he is soon involved in investigating the unsolved murder of Jack’s mother…

I suspect my reading of lots of compact, tightly plotted classic crime recently has made me even less tolerant than before of the over-padding of much contemporary crime fiction. This book unfortunately takes about half its length to reveal what it’s going to be about, and as soon as it does the whodunit along with the how become pretty obvious, so that the second half is mostly spent waiting to see how Bauer is going to handle the ending. The motive is still left to be uncovered which means that it maintains some suspense, though, and there are some little side mysteries along the way that add interest; and Bauer’s writing is always laced with a nice mixture of dark and light so that in the pacier parts it’s an entertaining read. But I found that I was skipping entire pages at about the thirdway point – never a good sign! – because I was tired of the endless, rather repetitive setting up and wanted to get to the bit where the two threads finally came together as it was obvious they would, and we found out what the book was actually going to be about.

Belinda Bauer

Unfortunately I also found I had lots of credibility issues with too many aspects of the book, from the idea of Jack managing to hold his family together in the way he does, to Catherine’s reasons for not saying anything about the threats she’s receiving, to Marvel’s policing methods. I tried my best, though, to switch off my disbelief and go with the flow. And, happily, from about halfway through when the two stories finally begin to converge, it becomes a more interesting read, and I found that finally I was turning pages quickly for the right reasons. The pace improves and there’s quite a lot of Bauer’s usual humour in the interactions between the various police officers on the case. Bauer is always great at making her child characters feel believable, and she does here too with Jack, even though I found his actions less than credible. While the main storyline itself heads on a straight line to exactly where one expects, there’s an intriguing subplot in the second half that kept my interest. But, unfortunately, the thrillerish ending fell off the credibility tightrope again.

So, although there are some enjoyable aspects of the book once it picks up speed, the slowness of the first half combined with the requirement to suspend disbelief more than I could manage left me feeling that it’s not really close to her best.

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

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