Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my recent reading in quotes…

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

~ The Dark by Sharon Bolton

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

~ Guy Mannering by Sir Walter Scott

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

~ The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

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

~ The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

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So… are you tempted?

The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham

Adultery in the time of cholera…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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

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

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

Book 6 of 80

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

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

W Somerset Maugham

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

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

Book 6 of 12

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

Amazon UK Link

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

Careless talk costs lives…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

Book 3 of 20

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

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

Hugh Fraser

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

Audible UK Link

TBR Thursday 336 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 336

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

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

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Fiction

Jazz by Toni Morrison

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

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

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Fiction

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

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

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

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

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Fiction

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

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

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

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

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Historical Fiction

Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Murder Rule by Dervla McTiernan

A question of guilt…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

Dervla McTiernan

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link

Looking forward to…

Episode 6

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

Let’s see then…

The Blinded Man by Arne Dahl

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

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

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Close to the Bone by Stuart MacBride

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

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

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Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru

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

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

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Death in a Scarlet Gown by Lexie Conyngham

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

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

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

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

Heartstone (Matthew Shardlake 5) by CJ Sansom

Who guards the guardians?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

Book 2 of 20

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

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

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

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

Steven Crossley

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

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

Audible UK Link

The Flemish House (Maigret 14) by Georges Simenon

Culture clash…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Maigret has been approached by a young woman, Anna Peeters, who wants his help. Her family is suspected of having killed another young woman, the lover of Joseph, Anna’s brother, and the mother of his child. Anna fears the local police are about to arrest them and wants Maigret to investigate separately. Since Anna has been introduced to him by an old friend, Maigret agrees, and heads to the small town of Givet on the Belgian border to look into the matter in an unofficial capacity.

This is a short one even by Maigret standards, coming in at just 132 pages, or 3 hours for the audiobook. It gives an interesting picture of a border town, looking in two directions and split between French and Belgian cultures. Simenon was Belgian by birth, although he moved to France as a young man. Here he shows how the French people in Givet look down on the Flemish residents, and because the Peeters family have done well for themselves they also meet with a lot of resentment, of the kind that suggests they are aiming above their station as members of a “lower” culture.

The Peeters themselves behave as if they think they are something special. The missing girl is a young French girl called Germaine Piedbouef and the Peeters see her as too common to marry their precious Joseph, who anyway is more or less betrothed to his cousin Marguerite. Germaine was last seen when she visited the Peeters’ house, looking for the monthly allowance that Joseph paid her for the maintenance of the child. Although no body has been found, the local police are assuming that she has been murdered and that the Peeters must have been involved, either having committed the murder as a group or at the least covering up for whichever one of them did the deed.

Book 1 of 20

Maigret is less sure – perhaps the girl has simply given up hope that Joseph will marry her and run away to Paris, or perhaps despair has caused her to take her own life. And so he wanders around Givet talking to people, drinking plenty of the local Flemish drink of choice, genever (a kind of gin, apparently), and waiting for the local police to find Germaine, dead or alive. He becomes increasingly fascinated by the Peeters family. To him Joseph seems an unremarkable, rather weak young man, but his mother, sisters and cousin Marguerite all adore him immoderately and see him as the centre of their world. Anna particularly intrigues Maigret – she seems so sure of herself, so unemotional, but determined. He realises she is the true centre of the family, the person who holds them together and gives them strength.

Gareth Armstrong

Maigret does more actual detection in this one than is sometimes the case, and as always his setting is very well portrayed, with the added interest of the mixed culture. The dynamics within the Peeters family is also shown very believably, from a time when men were seen as the most important members of a family due largely to their greater opportunities to have a career and a place in the public sphere. The ending is a little odd in that it left me wondering why Maigret decided to do what he did – vague to avoid spoilers, sorry – but it added an interesting element to his character. A good one, and as usual the excellent narration by Gareth Armstrong added to my enjoyment.

Audible UK Link

TBR Thursday 335…

Episode 335

Another major drop in the TBR this time – down 3 to 174! I suspect this might be the last drop for a while – concentrating on audiobooks for #20BooksOfSummer means I’m falling way behind with my usual reading. And since I’ve never admitted to my audiobook stash in my TBR, they don’t count as drops when I read them! What a tangled web we weave…

TRIGGER WARNING!
MAJOR ARACHNOPHOBIA ALERT!

OOPS! SORRY! TOO LATE…

Here are a few more that should be scuttling my way soon…

Fiction

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

I loved Daniel Mason’s collection of short stories, A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth, so added this to my TBR. It sounds very different but just as interesting, and it might even tick one of the elusive final boxes for my Wanderlust challenge

The Blurb says: One misty London afternoon in 1886, piano tuner Edgar Drake receives an unusual request from the War Office: he must leave his quiet life and travel to the jungles of Burma to repair a rare grand piano owned by an enigmatic army surgeon. So begins an extraordinary journey across Europe, the Red Sea, India and onwards, accompanied by an enchanting yet elusive woman. Edgar is at first captivated, then unnerved, as he begins to question the true motive behind his summons and whether he will return home unchanged to the wife who awaits him. . .

An instant bestseller, Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner has been published in 27 countries. Exquisitely told, this classic is a richly sensuous story of adventure, discovery, and how we confront our most deeply held fears and desires.

Thriller

Confidence by Denise Mina

Courtesy of Random House Vintage via NetGalley. I enjoyed the first book in this series, Conviction, although at the time I had no idea it was going to be the first book in a series! It was lighter than the other Denise Minas I’ve read, so I’m hoping this one too will be a fast-paced entertaining thriller…

The Blurb says: When Lisa Lee, a vulnerable young woman, vanishes from a pretty Scottish seaside town Anna and Fin find themselves at the centre of an internet frenzy to find her.

But Lisa may not be the hapless victim her father thinks. She had an unsuccessful YouTube channel and her last film showed her breaking into an abandoned French Chateau with other UrbExers and stumbling across a priceless Roman silver casket. One day after Lisa vanishes that casket gets listed for auction in Paris, reserve price fifty million euro and a catalogue entry that could challenge the fundamental principles of a major world religion.

On a thrilling chase across Europe, Anna and Fin are caught up in a world of international art smuggling, billionaire con artists and religious zealotry.

* * * * *

Capote on Audio

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote read by Michael C. Hall

A little splurge of shorter audiobooks to keep me going with the #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer challenge, starting with this classic which I’ve not only never read, but have also never seen the movie! 

The Blurb says: Golden Globe-winning actor Michael C. Hall (Six Feet Under) performs Truman Capote’s provocative, naturalistic masterstroke about a young writer’s charmed fascination with his unorthodox neighbor, the “American geisha” Holly Golightly. Holly – a World War II-era society girl in her late teens – survives via socialization, attending parties and restaurants with men from the wealthy upper class who also provide her with money and expensive gifts. Over the course of the novella, the seemingly shallow Holly slowly opens up to the curious protagonist, who eventually gets tossed away as her deepening character emerges. 

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote’s most beloved work of fiction, introduced an independent and complex character who challenged audiences, revived Audrey Hepburn’s flagging career in the 1961 film version, and whose name and style has remained in the national idiom since publication. Hall uses his diligent attention to character to bring our unnamed narrator’s emotional vulnerability to the forefront of this American classic.

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Greene on Audio

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene read by Andrew Sachs

This was the first Greene I read, back when we were given it as a set text in school when I was around 14 or 15, I think. While being forced to analyse books to death was often enough to put me off an author for life, in this case it was the beginning of a life-long love affair…

The Blurb says: In a poor Mexican state in the 1930s, the Red Shirts have viciously persecuted the clergy and murdered many priests. Yet one remains – the ‘whisky priest’ who believes he’s lost his soul. On the run and with the police closing in, his routes of escape are being shut off, his chances getting fewer. But compassion and humanity force him along the road to his destiny…

Andrew Sachs reads Graham Greene’s powerful novel about a worldly Roman Catholic priest and his quest for penitence and dignity.

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Austen on Audio

Mansfield Park (Full Cast Dramatization) adapted from Jane Austen starring Billie Piper

I’ve had this kicking around for ages, but wanted to re-read the book before I listened to it – which I have recently done. Sounds like fun – I’ve enjoyed a few of these full cast dramatizations from Audible… 

The Blurb says: Adopted into the household of her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, Fanny Price grows up a meek outsider among her cousins in the unaccustomed elegance of Mansfield Park. Soon after Sir Thomas absents himself on business, Mary Crawford and her brother Henry arrive at Mansfield, bringing with them London glamour and the seductive taste for flirtation and theatre that precipitates a crisis.

Directed by Tamsin Collison. With Matt Addis, Lucy Briers, James Corrigan, Scarlett Courtney, Rosalind Eleazar, Jennifer English, Emma Fielding, Ash Hunter, Joel MacCormack, Harry Myers, Esme Scarborough, Lucy Scott, Bert Seymour and Natalie Simpson.

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Lost in a labyrinth…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Barcelona, 1945. Young Daniel Sempere is the son of an antiquarian book dealer, struggling to scrape a living in a city not yet recovered from the ravages of civil war. Daniel’s mother died when he was very young, and on the day that he suddenly discovers he can no longer remember her face, his father, as a kind of distraction, takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books – a mysterious place full of labyrinthine corridors where rare and banned books are piled randomly on shelves. There, Daniel is told he should select a book and it will then be his responsibility to ensure that his chosen book survives. Daniel selects a book called The Shadow of the Wind by a forgotten author called Julián Carax. That night he reads the book…

Under the warm light cast by the reading lamp, I was plunged into a new world of images and sensations peopled by characters who seemed as real to me as my surroundings. Page after page I let the spell of the story and its world take me over, until the breath of dawn touched my window and my tired eyes slid over the last page. I lay in the bluish half-light with the book on my chest and listened to the murmur of the sleeping city. My eyes began to close, but I resisted. I did not want to lose the story’s spell or bid farewell to its characters just yet.

And that almost precisely describes my reaction to this book, with the one proviso that it took me considerably longer than one night to read! It crept up on me gradually and for a while I wasn’t sure whether I was going to love it, but right from the beginning I found the writing compelling and intensely more-ish. And then the story began to darken and deepen, and I found myself lost, wandering the gloomy streets of Barcelona, past the decaying old houses deserted by those who had lost their wealth in the war, past the walls still pock-marked by bullets, searching with Daniel for the truth about what had happened to Julián Carax…

Book 10

It transpires that there is a man – no one knows who he is – who is bent on destroying all remaining copies of Carax’s books – no one knows why. When Daniel is threatened by this man, he decides he must find out what happened to Carax, who fled Barcelona for Paris and subsequently disappeared. It is said that he returned during the confusion of the war and, like so many others, met a violent death on the streets of Barcelona. But was this random chance? Or was Carax’s death deliberate, and if so, what was the motive? As Daniel searches, he finds that his own life seems to have many parallels to Julián’s – will Julián’s tragedy become his too?

There’s a whole bunch of great characters – Daniel himself, whom we see grow from boy to man over the course of the story; his best friend, Fermín Romero de Torres, a beggar whom Daniel and his father befriend, giving him a job in the bookshop, and who provides a good deal of humour along the way; the evil Fumero, now a police inspector, a man who used the war as an excuse to practice his sadism, and is still corrupt and still feared by the people of the city. There’s the mysterious man who wants to burn all Carax’s books – a man so strange and frightening that Daniel is not sure if he is human or devil. And then there’s the story within the story – Julián’s story – where we meet his friends and family, all of whom play a role in the mystery of his life. Two parallel love stories run through the book – Julián’s long-ago, passionate, forbidden love for Penélope, which is at the heart of the mystery; and Daniel’s new, equally passionate, forbidden love for Beatriz. In both cases, the girls’ families see the men as beneath their class, unsuitable for their daughters. (The female characters are not nearly as well drawn as the men, but I’m not in the mood to criticise!)

Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The whole tone is Gothic, full of crumbling buildings, labyrinths, exalted love and melodramatic tragedy. And it’s wonderfully done. This is not a sunny fiesta city – this Barcelona is a place where it rains endlessly, where people are poor and afraid, where the scars of war show on the buildings, and on the bodies and in the souls of the inhabitants. Zafón does a wonderful job of depicting a city in the aftermath of civil war, where so many small and large tragedies have happened, and where now people must put old enmities away and find some way to live together again. Fear and death stalk the streets, with the authorities and some individuals still taking revenge against those they see as enemies. And the people who should be symbols of safety – the police – are the most vengeful and vicious of all, led by Fumero, a man who uses torture and death to further his own aims.

But in reality the war aftermath is all an aside – an interesting setting to set up the Gothic tone. First and foremost, this is simply a great story, wonderfully told. And as it slowly, very slowly, unfolds, it becomes mesmeric – every word seems perfectly designed to lead us to the next. By the halfway point I was completely absorbed in the labyrinthine plot – lost, at that stage, but with total confidence that I was in the hands of a master who would lead me eventually to the centre where the truth would be revealed. And when it was, I found it completely satisfying – both stories brought to wonderfully believable, emotive conclusions.

I avoided this book for years because it received so much hype, but for once this is one that fully deserves all the praise lavished on it. If you are one of the two remaining people in the world who haven’t read it, then I highly recommend you do! Marvellous!

Amazon UK Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my recent reading in quotes…

….Kitty was lively; she was willing to chatter all day long and she laughed easily. His silence disconcerted her. He had a way which exasperated her of returning no answer to some casual remark of hers. It was true that it needed no answer, but an answer all the same would have been pleasant. If it was raining and she said: “It’s raining cats and dogs,” she would have liked him to say: “Yes, isn’t it?” He remained silent. Sometimes she would have liked to shake him.
….“I said it was raining cats and dogs,” she repeated.
….“I heard you,” he answered, with his affectionate smile.
….It showed that he had not meant to be offensive. He did not speak because he had nothing to say. But if nobody spoke unless he had something to say, Kitty reflected, with a smile, the human race would very soon lose the use of speech.

~ The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham

* * * * *

….Wednesday of the third week following the Inquest was appointed for the magisterial inquiry, and during the interval Sergeant Ridgway was busily occupied, presumably in accumulating and piecing together various evidence. Of what it consisted no one but himself knew, nor did it appear whether or not its trend on the whole was favourable or disastrous to the unhappy prisoner, at the expense possibly of Cleghorn, or possibly to the complete exculpation of that injured man. The detective kept his own counsel, after the manner of his kind; and if any had thought to extract from the cover of that sealed book a hint of its contents, no reassuring message at least could have been gathered from its unlettered sombreness. But nobody asked, fearful of being thought to profane the majestic muteness of the oracle; and the labouring atmosphere lowered unenlightened as the days went on.

~ The Mystery of the Skeleton Key by Bernard Capes

* * * * *

….In the sumptuously decorated Privy chamber, four richly dressed maids-in-waiting with the Queen’s badge on their hoods sat sewing by the window. Outside were the palace gardens, patterned flowerbeds and fishponds and statues of heraldic beasts. All the women rose and nodded briefly as I bowed to them.
….Queen Catherine Parr sat in the centre of the room, on a red velvet chair under a crimson cloth of state. Beside her a girl of about eleven knelt stroking a spaniel. She had a pale face and long auburn hair, and wore a green silken dress and a rope of pearls. I realised this was the Lady Elizabeth, the King’s younger daughter, by Anne Boleyn. I knew the King had restored Elizabeth and her half-sister Mary, Catherine of Aragon’s daughter, to the succession the year before, it was said at the Queen’s urging. But their status as bastards remained; they were still ladies, not princesses. And though Mary, now in her twenties, was a major figure at court and second in line to the throne after young Prince Edward, Elizabeth, despised and rejected by her father, was hardly ever seen in public.

~ Heartstone by CJ Sansom

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. . . we have all a chance of meeting with some pity, some tenderness, some charity, when we are dead: it is the living only who cannot be forgiven – the living only from whom men’s indulgence and reverence are held off, like the rain by the hard east wind. While the heart beats, bruise it – it is your only opportunity; while the eye can still turn towards you with moist timid entreaty, freeze it with an icy unanswering gaze; while the ear, that delicate messenger to the inmost sanctuary of the soul, can still take in the tones of kindness, put it off with hard civility, or sneering compliment, or envious affectation of indifference; while the creative brain can still throb with the sense of injustice, with the yearning for brotherly recognition – make haste – oppress it with your ill-considered judgments, your trivial comparisons, your careless misrepresentations. The heart will by-and-by be still – ubi saeva indignatio ulterius cor lacerare nequit; the eye will cease to entreat; the ear will be deaf; the brain will have ceased from all wants as well as from all work. Then your charitable speeches may find vent; then you may remember and pity the toil and struggle and the failure; then you may give due honour to the work achieved; then you may find extenuation for errors, and may consent to bury them.

From The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

~ The Origins of Science Fiction edited by Michael Newton

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So… are you tempted?

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney

Living on the margins…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s seven years since Rose Janko went missing, and finally, following his wife’s death, her father Leon Wood wants to find her. Rose was married to Ivo Janko in an arranged match, a traditional part of her Romany Gypsy heritage. But rumour has it she ran away with a gorjio (non-Romany) not long after the birth of a son, a little boy called Christo who had inherited the mysterious disease that seems to be the curse of Janko men, leaving them weak and underdeveloped and often dying before they reach adulthood. Knowing that Gypsies would not welcome a gorjio investigating their affairs, Leon hires Ray Lovell, himself half-Gypsy on his father’s side although he was brought up gorjio style – living in a house rather than travelling. Ray soon finds that the mystery of Rose’s disappearance is stranger and darker than it first appears, and finds himself deeply involved in the Janko family’s lives.

The book is told by two different narrators – Ray, the detective, and JJ, a 14-year-old boy who is one of the Jankos. Ray is somewhat in the tradition of noir gumshoe narrators – world-weary and with his own sorrows to bear. However, oddly I found Ray too well-developed to stay in that box – he is given more of a background than noir detectives usually are, and one feels his world-weariness is probably a temporary state brought on by his recent marital break-up. His position as the son of a Gypsy gives him the entrée to the Jankos’ world, but his gorjio upbringing puts him firmly on the margins – not fully accepted.

JJ is also on the margins for different reasons. Brought up in the world of travellers, he is nevertheless constrained by law to go to school, where he learns how different his lifestyle is to kids living in houses, but also knows that they’re more alike than otherwise – sharing tastes in music, food, films, etc., and feeling all the same pains of adolescence. Penney doesn’t make the point overtly, but it’s clear how compulsory education impacts the Traveller communities, partly by forcing them to remain static during school terms, and partly by introducing their children at an early age to the majority culture. JJ is a bright kid, probably destined for college if he chooses, after which he will have career options that may take him far from the traditional Gypsy life. Penney handles his voice excellently, with only a very occasional blip when he uses language that makes him sound too adult or too well educated.

As Ray begins to dig into the past to find out what happened to Rose, we learn about the Jankos’ way of life and the things that are important to them. Their story is one of tragedy, with the males of the family being afflicted by a disease that has gradually killed off the younger generations. Their hesitancy towards civic authorities makes them reluctant to seek medical help, while their traditions and superstitions mean they tend to think in terms of a curse rather than an illness. Ray, straddling the divide, wants to help Christo – the last of the Janko line, and becoming more frail by the day. But we see how getting involved in “the system” presents a threat to a culture of which the state disapproves, sometimes openly, sometimes tacitly. Penney published the book in 2011 but set it in the 1980s – I was left wondering if we’re better now at offering help to marginal communities without demanding they give up their traditions and become part of the mainstream. I expect not, and to be truthful, as part of that mainstream, I’m quite ambivalent about how far we should go to accommodate different sub-cultures, especially if their traditions impinge on the health or educational opportunities of their children. (To be clear, that’s my thought – Penney is not in any way taking a polemical stance for or against Gypsy culture.)

The actual mystery is rather secondary to the more interesting examination of modern Gypsy life. This is just as well, since I felt it was fairly obvious from about halfway through what had happened. I still felt the slow way that Penney revealed it to her characters was very well done, as was her depiction of their reactions when they learned the truth, and I found it understandable that it took them longer to see that truth than the reader. There are elements in it that give it an air of unease, especially in the middle. I’m finding it hard to put my finger on exactly why that happens – I think it’s a combination of the mysterious illness and of some rather hallucinatory scenes involving Ray, which I won’t go into further for fear of spoilers.

Stef Penney

Overall, I found this completely absorbing. It’s a long read, and I found it slow but not in the sense of dragging – more that there’s a lot packed in alongside the central mystery. I’ve seen other reviewers expressing irritation with the pace and with the final reveal which seems to have crossed many people’s credulity line. I must say I found it quite believable, because of the excellence of the characterisation and the quality of so much of the story taking place in marginal spaces, where lines of behaviour and cultural norms are blurred. There are a couple of loose ends I’d have liked to see tied off more neatly, but on the whole I found the conclusion satisfying. And I appreciated the insight Penney provided into this community, now so often lumped in with other traveller groups but still clinging to their own distinct traditions and culture, even as many of them give up the travelling life and become house-dwellers.

Amazon UK Link

Classics Club Spin #30 – result!

It’s number…

It’s from the Scottish section…

It’s set in Sutherland…

It’s about the Highland Clearances…

Its title is a Bible quote…

It’s 160 pages…

It’s…

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

The Blurb says: When she rose in the morning the house at first seemed to be the same. The sun shone through the curtains of her window. On the floor it turned to minute particles like water dancing. Nevertheless, she felt uneasy…

What had the girl said? Something about the ‘burning of houses’. They just couldn’t put people out of their houses, and then burn the houses down. No one had ever heard of that before. Not in the country…”

In this modern classic, from one of Scotland’s greatest writers, Consider the Lilies captures the thoughts and memories of an old woman who has lived all her life within the narrow confines of her community during one of the cruellest episodes of Scottish history – the Highland Clearances.

Written with compassion, in spare, simple prose, Consider the Lilies is a moving testament to the enduring qualities which enable the oppressed to triumph in defeat.

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Thanks, Spin Gods!

Shorts & Abandonments June 2022…

A Bunch of Minis…

I’m still running far behind with reviews, so here’s another batch of minis to help me catch up – two abandonments and two I loved…

Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda

Unpleasant twaddle…

😦

We meet our narrator on the day his father who is not his father dies by having concrete poured ritually down his gullet, as you do. Our narrator, who is either a madman in an asylum or should be, then recounts at what seems like great length but is only a novella the customs in his insanely imagined village, which he presents as if it were real and where all is cruelty and fever-dream horror.

I gave up at 45%. This book is either so profound it’s far beyond my meagre intellectual powers to grasp, or it’s a load of nonsense. It might be an allegory (of something), or it might just be an author dumping bits of her unfortunate imagination all over the unsuspecting reader. Some thoughts are better left unexpressed.

In short, not recommended unless you want to read about horrible people being horrible to other people and to animals and insects, in a story that isn’t a story about a village that doesn’t exist.

(This was supposed to be for my Spanish Civil War Challenge but I refuse to add it to my list.)

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A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine

Hanged by the neck…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Vera Hillyard was hanged for murder. Many years later her niece, Faith, is approached by a journalist who is planning to write a book about Vera’s crime and punishment, and wants Faith to tell him what she remembers of the events, and of the people who were involved. Faith takes the reader back to when she was a young girl and sent to live with Vera and her sister to escape the bombing of London. From that point, she gradually leads us through her own coming of age, and we see how her perceptions of her aunts change as she matures. Slowly the looming tragedy unfolds, and now, as an adult looking back, Faith realises the meaning of things her younger self had not understood, so that she comes to comprehend why Vera did what she did…

I loved this, but it got caught up in my backlog with the result that I’ve left it too long to be able to write a full review – bookish details don’t remain in my memory for long, I fear! However it kept me fully absorbed throughout, aided by the narration of the wonderful Harriet Walter. It was my first Barbara Vine and I’ll certainly go on to read more of her books, and highly recommend this one if you are one of the three people left in the world who haven’t already read it!

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A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

Badly written twaddle…

😦

I look at the many thousands of glowing reviews for this and can only assume there are two versions of the book, and unfortunately I got the bad one. The writing would shame a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl – short, simplistic sentences one after the other, all tell, tell, tell with no show. The characterisation is terrible – she gives us little potted biographies of each in turn, rather than allowing them to reveal themselves. On the rare occasions her characters are allowed to act or speak they do so with complete banality, or behave in ways that nothing we know about them makes credible. The historical “facts”, which again are dumped on the reader rather than woven into the story, sound as if they are quoted straight from a middle-grade history book – a bad one, that thinks the Republicans were actually a properly constituted democratic government, and the Nationalists were evil rebels staging a coup. No nuance, no suggestion that the situation may have been considerably more complex and less clear-cut than that. It’s more like propaganda than historical fiction.

I chose the book because I was interested in learning more about the Chilean part of the story – the Allende regime, and so on. But given my contempt for her biased, unnuanced picture of the Spanish Civil War, how could I trust her to give anything approaching a balanced picture of a period of history which touches her even more closely? And how could I put up with more of her truly abysmal writing style? My first experience of Allende, and my last – abandoned at 20%.

(Another failure for my SCW Challenge – it is not going well!)

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Three-Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie

All very dramatic, darlings!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright gives a dinner party, one of the guests dies suddenly after drinking a cocktail. Hercule Poirot is there that evening, and of course suspects foul play. But no poison is found in the glass and it appears that no one could have had a reason to murder the dead man. Then a few months later another death occurs in very similar circumstances, at another dinner party where many of the same people are guests. Poirot sets out to investigate, and so does Sir Charles and his young friend Egg.

This isn’t one of Christie’s very best plots, though it has plenty of points of interest and a very original motive for the first murder. However I find it one of her most enjoyable books because I’m very fond of young Egg as a character, and I like the way Christie portrays the May-to-December romance developing between her and the considerably older Sir Charles. Mr Satterthwaite is also involved – a character who turns up occasionally in the Poirot novels and also in the Harley Quinn stories. I prefer him in Poirot where his rather dry lawyerly approach to investigations makes him an excellent sidekick for Poirot, though I still miss Hastings who isn’t in this one. To a large extent Poirot takes a back seat, and allows Sir Charles and Egg to do most of the detecting, but of course it’s Poirot’s little grey cells that work it all out in the end!

Great fun and, as always, enhanced by Hugh Fraser’s wonderful narration.

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Half fab, half flop – pretty much the story of my life! 😉

Have a Great Weekend!

TBR Thursday 334…

A thirteenth batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

This is a challenge to read all 102 (102? Yes, 102) books listed in Martin Edwards’ guide to vintage crime, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. (100? Yes, 100.) Because of all the other great vintage crime being republished at the moment, I’m going very slowly with this challenge and they’ve proved to be a bit of a mixed bag so far, though with more winners than losers. Here’s the second batch for 2022 and the thirteenth overall…

Calamity Town by Ellery Queen

This one just failed to win a recent People’s Choice poll, but here it is getting its day in the sun anyway. I read a few Ellery Queens back in the previous millennium, and liked rather than loved them. It’s been a long time though, so I’m keen to see how they strike me now… 

The Blurb says: Looking for trouble, Ellery Queen descends on a small town.

At the tail end of the long summer of 1940, there is nowhere in the country more charming than Wrightsville. The Depression has abated, and for the first time in years the city is booming. There is hope in Wrightsville, but Ellery Queen has come looking for death.

The mystery author is hoping for fodder for a novel, and he senses the corruption that lurks beneath the apple pie façade. He rents a house owned by the town’s first family, whose three daughters star in most of the local gossip. One is fragile, left at the altar three years ago and never recovered. Another is engaged to the city’s rising political star, an upright man who’s already boring her. And then there’s Lola, the divorced, bohemian black sheep. Together, they make a volatile combination. Once he sees the ugliness in Wrightsville, Queen sits back — waiting for the crime to come to him.

Challenge details

Book No: 93

Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic

Publication Year: 1942

Martin Edwards says: “Wrightsville life, and the passions swirling within its troubled first family, are splendidly evoked, and the literary quality and style of the novel meant that it represented a landmark in the long series of mysteries written by and starring Ellery Queen.”

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Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman

A new author to me, but not a new story – apparently this is the book that became the classic Ealing comedy film, Kind Hearts and Coronets…

The Blurb says: Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal is a 1907 darkly comic novel written by Roy Horniman, telling the tale of the eponymous anti-hero’s campaign to cut back his family tree and inherit the aristocratic status of his hated relatives.

Told from his condemned cell, the story charts – in surprisingly lurid detail – how Rank goes from the status of poor relation, to advancing in life by killing off the six relatives standing in the way of him succeeding to his family seat.

Set against a backdrop of Edwardian snobbery, upper-class ritual, and casual antisemitism, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal is darker than the film it went on to inspire.

It is also a fast-paced, engaging, and beautifully-rendered thriller – both disturbing and funny in equal measure.

Challenge details

Book No: 5

Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns

Publication Year: 1907

Edwards says: “Horniman devoted much of his life to vigorous campaigns for unpopular causes, and overall, it seems fair to regard his book as a condemnation of anti-Semitism, rather than some form of endorsement of it, while there is something quite modern about the book’s flourishes of irony.

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The Floating Admiral by The Detection Club

This collaborative effort sounds like it could easily be a hot mess, but it has pretty high ratings on Goodreads and I’m hoping for a lot of fun seeing how each author approaches it…

The Blurb says: Inspector Rudge does not encounter many cases of murder in the sleepy seaside town of Whynmouth. But when an old sailor lands a rowing boat containing a fresh corpse with a stab wound to the chest, the Inspector’s investigation immediately comes up against several obstacles. The vicar, whose boat the body was found in, is clearly withholding information, and the victim’s niece has disappeared. There is clearly more to this case than meets the eye – even the identity of the victim is called into doubt. Inspector Rudge begins to wonder just how many people have contributed to this extraordinary crime and whether he will ever unravel it…

In 1931, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and ten other crime writers from the newly-formed ‘Detection Club’ collaborated in publishing a unique crime novel. In a literary game of consequences, each author would write one chapter, leaving G.K. Chesterton to write a typically paradoxical prologue and Anthony Berkeley to tie up all the loose ends. In addition, each of the authors provided their own solution in a sealed envelope, all of which appeared at the end of the book, with Agatha Christie’s ingenious conclusion acknowledged at the time to be ‘enough to make the book worth buying on its own’.

The authors of this novel are: G. K. Chesterton, Canon Victor Whitechurch, G. D. H. Cole and Margaret Cole, Henry Wade, Agatha Christie, John Rhode, Milward Kennedy, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ronald Knox, Freeman Wills Crofts, Edgar Jepson, Clemence Dane and Anthony Berkeley.

Challenge details

Book No: 27

Subject Heading: Play Up! Play Up! and Play the Game!

Publication Year: 1931

Edwards says: “In her introduction, Sayers explained the authors approach: “Here, the problem was made to approach as closely as possible to a problem of real detection. Except in the case of Mr Chesterton’s picturesque Prologue, which was written last, each contributor tackled the mystery presented to him in the preceding chapters without having slightest idea what solution or solutions the previous authors had in mind. 

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The Medbury Fort Murder by George Limnelius

Another author I don’t know at all! Sounds a bit grim…

The Blurb says: The Medbury Fort Murder, first published in 1929 for the Crime Club, is a ‘golden-age’ murder mystery involving the killing of an unpopular British Army officer stationed at an out-of-the way post in England. Loathsome Lt. Lepean is found with his throat cut and his head nearly severed from his body in a locked room at the isolated Medbury Fort situated on the Thames. Lepean was not at all admired among his fellow soldiers. The arrogant, sneering soldier was a known user of women and is revealed early on to be a ruthless blackmailer. There are at least four men who had very good reason to kill Lepean, two of them were being blackmailed. Was it one of them who slew the soldier or someone else?

Challenge details

Book No: 30

Subject Heading: Miraculous Murders

Publication Year: 1929

Edwards says: “The cast of suspects is small, but Limnelius handles his narrative with aplomb, engaging the reader’s sympathy with both the hunters and the hunted. His no-nonsense treatment of sex and violence is hardly in keeping with the lazily conventional view of Golden Age fiction as ‘cosy’, and the attention he pays to characterisation is equally striking.”

* * * * *

All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
The quotes from Martin Edwards are from his book,
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Classics Club Spin #30

Rien ne va plus…

The Classics Club is holding its 30th Spin, and my 13th. The idea is to list 20 of the books on your Classics Club list before next Sunday, 12th June. On that day, the Classics Club will post the winning number. The challenge is to read and review whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List by 7th August, 2022.

Here’s my list. Some of these are monsters but I’m sure those kind Spin Gods will find me a nice short one… *coughs*

* * * * *

The Scottish Section

1)   The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson

2)   Doom Castle by Neil Munro

3)   The Quarry Wood by Nan Shepherd

4)   The Land of the Leal by James Barke

5)   Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

The English Section

6)   The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

7)   Evelina by Frances Burney

8)   The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

9)   The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

10) In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden

The Foreign Section

11) The Story of a New Zealand River by Jane Mander

12) The Walls of Jericho by Rudolph Fisher

13) The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki

14) The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

15) Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

The Genre Section

16) The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs

17) The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett

18) Laura by Vera Caspary

19) The Guns of Navarone by Alastair MacLean

20) The Chill by Ross MacDonald

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Which one would you like to see win?

Classics Club Round-Up 5 – Scottish

When I joined the Classics Club back in June 2016, I created a list of 90 books which I planned to read and review during the next five years. I divided the original list into five sections: American, English, Scottish, Crime and Science Fiction. So rather than trying to summarise the whole thing in one post, I’ve decided to give each section a post to itself as I complete it. Here’s the fifth and final…

THE SCOTTISH SECTION

As I’ve said many times, I’m ashamed of how few Scottish classics I’ve read, partly because we were mainly taught English literature in our education system and so English classics have always been my comfort zone. But this isn’t a good enough excuse to cover the several decades since I left school! So I was keen to have a Scottish section on my CC list – 20 books, some of which are well known and many others I’d never heard of, selected from various Best Of lists or from the recommendations of family and fellow bloggers. As well as reading the novels, I’ve read a little along the way about the history of Scottish fiction and its characteristics, and learned the meaning of the wonderful phrase “Caledonian antisyzygy” – “the existence of duelling polarities within one entity” or, more simply, duality or opposites – which features in different forms throughout Scottish fiction and, indeed, life: Jekyll and Hyde, good and evil twins or siblings, Highlander/Lowlander, Jacobite/Hanoverian, Protestant/Catholic, nationalist/unionist, etc., etc.

Starting with the bad and working up towards the good then – the quotes are from my reviews or, in the case of abandoned books, from my notes on Goodreads:

ABANDONED AND REPLACED

Annals of the Parish by John Galt – removed from the list to make room for one I acquired and wanted to include, Marriage.

Grey Granite by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – “I wonder what happened to Lewis Grassic Gibbon? Sunset Song is undoubtedly great, Cloud Howe is mediocre and dull, and this one is dreadful. Did he only write the other two to cash in on the success of the first?” Replaced by The White Bird Passes.

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett – I know loads of people love Dunnett, but I hated her writing style, and gave up on this one at a very early stage. Replaced by The Silver Darlings.

THE BAD ONES

Bad is, of course, a subjective term…

Children of the Dead End by Patrick MacGill – “It wasn’t long after this point that I decided I’d had enough of the adventures of Mr Misogyny and his dog-kicking boots.”

The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison – “It has its good points, but it fails in the major criterion of what makes a good novel – it has no plot to speak of, certainly not one that builds any suspense or tension, or makes the reader care about the outcome.”

THE MIDDLING ONES

Marriage by Susan Ferrier – “One can tell Emily’s opinion of Mary’s constant moralising and rejection of fun is rather similar to my own – i.e., one suspects she often wants to slap Mary with a wet fish. But for some reason, despite this, Emily grows to love Mary and indeed, (to my horror), even occasionally wonders if she should emulate her.”

The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown – “Well, I’m willing to bet Brown would have got on well with my old friend John Steinbeck. They could have had misanthropy competitions to see who could be the most miserable. I’m tempted to suggest that Brown might have won.”

Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – “There’s a lot of drunkenness which would certainly have been true of Scottish society, but a lack of warmth and generosity of spirit, which doesn’t ring true to me and seems in direct contrast to the feeling of community in Sunset Song.”

Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie – “It takes about half the book before the shipwreck happens, and for most of that time we are introduced to a variety of quirky caricatures . . . and listen while they tell each other how awful life is because they have no whisky.”

The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins – “…religious symbolism abounds in an Old Testament, Garden of Eden corrupted by nasty humanity kind of way, but it’s all a bit simplistic – the good people are so very innocent, and the bad people are hissably dastardly villains.”

THE GOOD ONES

Flemington by Violet Jacob – “Jacob takes us from high society to low, into the drawing-rooms of Edinburgh in the company of the self-important Lord Balnillo and his friends, and into the world of intrigue carried out in inns and back streets under cover of night…”

Imagined Corners by Willa Muir – “As Ned descends into madness, and William wrings his hands helplessly and looks unavailingly to his God for help, their sister, Sarah, rolls up her sleeves and gets on with the job of trying to hold all their lives together. It’s not made explicit, but Muir clearly implies that, in a crisis, forget God and man – it’ll all end up on the shoulders of the womenfolk.”

No Mean City by Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long – “Its brutal, violent depiction of gang culture is in a large measure responsible for the persistent reputation of Glasgow as the city of gangs – a reputation still exploited by many contemporary Glaswegian crime writers…”

The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn – “His portrayal of the sea as a heartless mistress, dealing out wealth and death arbitrarily, is wonderful, and the sailing scenes are some of the best parts of the book.”

THE GREAT ONES

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett – “To Matthew, Bath is a dreadful place, full of riff-raff and the nouveau riche, and he is deeply concerned about the unsanitary conditions prevailing in the famous spas where people drink the waters for their health.”

The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott – “Rothsay’s followers include some great baddies – Ramorny, who has a personal reason to want vengeance against Henry; Bonthron, Ramorny’s beast-like assassin; and the marvellous Henbane Dwining, a skilled physician who uses his arts for evil as well as for good and is deliciously sinister and manipulative.”

Catherine and Ramorny in the dungeon

The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson – “When Bonnie Prince Charlie arrives in Scotland in 1745 to reclaim the lost Stuart crown, the Durie family of Durrisdeer must decide where their loyalties lie. If they make the wrong choice, they could lose everything, but pick the winning side and their future is secure.”

The New Road by Neil Munro – “First published in 1914, Munro is clearly setting out to drag some realism back into the narrative of the Jacobite era, in contrast to the gradual romanticisation that took place during the 19th century both of the risings and of Highland society in general.”

The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – “The background story takes us to the Pennsylvanian coal-mines of the 1870s, where we meet Jack McMurdo, an Irishman who has just arrived there after fleeing justice in Chicago. He quickly becomes involved in the Scowrers, a gang of unscrupulous and violent men who control the valley through fear, intimidation and murder.”

The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison – “The quality of the writing and characterisation; the beautiful descriptions of the wild landscape and weather of the Highlands; the delicately nuanced portrayal of the position of women within this small, rather isolated society; the story that manages tragedy without melodrama and hope without implausibility – all of these mean it richly merits its status as a Scottish classic.”

The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson – “…allowing the reader to find amusement, along with Janie herself, in the scrabbling existence of the women of the Lane and the hardships of Janie’s life. And Janie’s uncomplicated love for her neglectful, inadequate mother makes the reader see her with sympathetic eyes too, for, whatever Liza’s flaws may be, she loves her daughter.”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark – “Spark skewers this Edinburgh society with its fixation on class, its soul-destroying respectability, still suffering from the blight of Calvin’s and Knox’s self-righteous, unforgiving Protestantism, obsessed by immorality and sin.”

The wonderful Maggie Smith in her prime…

THE BEST ONE

Oh, this was a tough decision! The Gowk Storm, The Master of Ballantrae, The New Road, The White Bird Passes – all wonderful books, all eminently Scottish. But my winner has to be the most Scottish of all, full of that Caledonian antisyzygy stuff! It’s a satire on the idea of predestination, an examination of the origins of the sectarianism which still disfigures Scotland today, a tale of sibling rivalry, a story of madness, murder and the devil. And surprisingly, it’s also full of humour…

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg – “The justified sinner of the title is the younger brother, Robert. Abandoned by the man the law says is his father, and subjected to the religious fanaticism of his guardian and his mother, it’s perhaps not surprising that the boy grows up to be somewhat twisted and jealous of his elder brother, who seems to have a golden life. But Robert’s problems really begin when Reverend Wringhim informs him that God has decided Robert should be one of the elect, predestined for salvation. The question the book satirises is – if one is predestined for salvation, does that mean one can sin free of consequences? In fact, is it possible for the elect to sin at all or, by virtue of their exalted status, do things that would be sinful if done by one of the damned cease to be sins when done by one of the elect? The book is not an attack on religious faith in general, but Hogg has a lot of fun with all the gradations of extremity within this particularly elitist little piece of dogma.”

Portrait of James Hogg by Sir John Watson Gordon

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In summary, then, too many Jacobites in the historical fiction, too many miserable drunks in the 20th century batch. But also loads of great reads and it’s been a thrill seeing a few of my fellow bloggers read some of the books I’ve loved, and mostly loving them too. I also enjoyed doing a review-along of one of the books on the list, The Silver Darlings, which surprisingly my fellow review-alongers enjoyed even more than I did. I still wouldn’t count myself as well-read in Scottish classics, but I’m better than I was!

And that, as they say, is a wrap for my first Classics Club list!

Thanks for your company on my journey!

Biggles Defends the Desert by Capt. W.E. Johns

Those magnificent men…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

World War 2, the Sahara Desert. British planes carrying supplies, dispatches and important officials have been going missing en route over the desert, so Squadron-Leader James Bigglesworth – Biggles to his friends – has been despatched with his squad to an oasis halfway across the desert, partly to protect planes as they pass the danger zone, and partly to get to the root of the mysterious disappearances. Biggles is an ace fighter pilot, having made his name in WW1 and now back fighting the same enemy twenty years later. His old companions are still with him – Ginger and Algy – supplemented by some new faces, all skilled pilots too. They have their trusty Spitfires and endless heroism to carry them through.

I used to love the Biggles books as a child and wondered if the old magic would still be there. I’m happy to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my revisit to these old friends. Although they’re written in rather more simple language than an adult book would be, and occasionally Capt. Johns takes a detour to give a little life lesson – on how to plan things, or the qualities required of a leader, etc. – the story itself is certainly enough to hold the interest of grown-ups as well as children. The edition I read, from the Random House Children’s Publishing range, has a helpful notes section which explains some of the terms and jargon that the characters use, which have since fallen out of common knowledge.

Biggles and the squad soon discover that the planes are being diverted by a nefarious Nazi plot to mess with their compasses, taking them off their route. The squad responsible for this is led by the German fighter ace, von Zoyton, and his team of Messerschmitt pilots. So Biggles’ first task is to destroy the equipment that is sending out dodgy signals, and then to drive the Germans out of this sector of the desert to make the route safe again. This will involve sneaky plots, thrilling dogfights, desert survival and even camel rides! It all happens at a fast pace with no long dull passages, but there’s plenty of description that gives a real feel, if a little sanitised, of what it would have been like out there, far from the main action of war but performing a vital task.

The men are heroes, and all are brave and good. However they do make mistakes and misjudgements sometimes, even Biggles, which keeps them human. Both Brits and Germans show respect for their counterparts – they may be at war and they may be forced to kill each other, but they recognise that the enemy is simply doing his job, as they are doing theirs. First published in 1942 (under the title Biggles Sweeps the Desert), Capt. Johns already differentiates between German servicemen, for whom he has clear respect and no particular ill-will, and Nazi fanatics, who are the baddies. I think this is why the books still feel quite comfortable to read – there is no sense of racialised anti-German hatred, only anti-Nazi, and we can still all get on board with that, I think. There’s also a sense of them simply doing a necessary job – there’s no unseemly celebration over the deaths of enemy pilots on either side, while enemy prisoners are granted respect and decent treatment, by both sides.

Capt. W.E. Johns

I was pleased that Random House have chosen not to update the text as far as I can see. This means there’s an awful lot of smoking, seen as a Good Thing, which I feared they might have felt inclined to edit out. The British also often refer to the Germans as “the Hun”, now seen as somewhat derogatory, but back then, as Capt. Johns himself points out in a short note presumably added years later, “The word Hun used in this book was the generic term for anything belonging to the German enemy. It was used in a familiar sense, rather than derogatory.” By leaving this kind of thing in, the book keeps an air of authenticity and will give young readers a truer picture of the habits and language current at the time.

So a happy reunion with my old heroes for me, and I’d be quite happy to recommend Biggles for a new generation of readers, young or old – they feel more like a glorification of heroism and decency than of war itself, and they are respectful towards the enemy, showing that they too are heroic and decent men (except the Nazis). Plus, and more importantly, the adventures are still thrilling!

Amazon UK Link

The House by the River by A.P. Herbert

Murder and waffle…

🙂 🙂 😐

Fashionable poet Stephen Byrne lives with his wife in Hammerton Close, in a lovely house overlooking his beloved Thames. When he’s not poeting, he’s to be found out on the river, paddling his rowing boat over to the island opposite the house, or going further afield in his motor boat. Often he’s accompanied by his best friend, John Egerton. So when Stephen “accidentally” strangles his maid to death when she unaccountably resists his attempts to seduce her while his wife is out, it’s to John he turns for assistance in disposing of the body, and where better than in the river? But submerged bodies have a habit of rising to the surface…

There’s actually a great little story hidden in here, but it’s surrounded by so much waffle that I had to exercise maximum willpower to stick it out to the end, and even then I eventually began to skip past the endless descriptions and digressions.

When the inquest is held, circumstances arise that throw suspicion on John, though there’s not enough evidence for the police to arrest him. So what we have are two competing moral dilemmas, and two contrasting characters. Stephen is selfish and egotistical, easily able to find reasons why everything is always someone else’s fault. His belief in himself as a great poet means he feels he is more valuable than all the ordinary people in the world. John, on the other hand, is loyal to a fault, ready to accept a sacrifice of his own reputation to save Stephen and, more chivalrously, Stephen’s wife from the consequences of Stephen’s guilt. But if it looks as if John will be arrested, will Stephen allow him to take the rap even if it means John will be hanged? And will John’s loyalty take him all the way to the gallows?

Challenge details:
Book:
73
Subject Heading: The Psychology of Crime
Publication Year: 1920

The book is quite short, so I felt that it could easily be filled by these dilemmas and the impact of them on the two men and the wider community. Instead, Herbert fills the pages with extraneous waffle – a lengthy description of the new styles of dancing, endless descriptions of the river and its human inhabitants, jocular character portraits of people who play no real part in the plot. The entire extent of the police investigation is that they turn up when the body is found, ask the two men if they know anything and accept their assurances that they don’t. We never hear another word about the police – they interview no one, search no houses, make no effort to find if the maid had any personal relationships, etc. Herbert could have got some drama into it by having the police net slowly tighten around the guilty men, but instead he prefers to describe the river again and again.

AP Herbert

Then there’s the treatment of the maid. No one in the Close is bothered about her having been murdered. It doesn’t even make them fear that there might be a madman on the loose. Even those who suspect John merely seem to rather disapprove of murdering maids, mostly because good maids aren’t easy to get. The girl’s parents don’t appear to care either – they see it as a money-making opportunity, demanding that John pay them compensation. It’s all too unrealistic, even for this era.

And yet those central dilemmas are interesting and Herbert handles them well, when he’s paying attention to them. The sections where we are allowed inside the minds of the two men are excellent, and both feel psychologically believable in how they act and then react as time passes. The denouement is very good, with some of the tension that I felt should have been there all along. And the ending is quite satisfying, though marred by another lengthy, supposedly humorous digression between the climax and the last pages. As a novella, this could have been great. As a novel, the story is strangled by digressions, smothered by descriptions, and drowned in the endless river.

I downloaded this one from Project Gutenberg.

TBR Thursday 333…

Episode 333

After last week’s dramatic rise, the TBR has had an equally dramatic fall this week, partly due to some quick reads aided by an abandonment or two! Down 5 to 177! That’s better!

So sorry I’m behind with answering your lovely comments and reading your lovelier posts. Blame Rafa and his pals! I’ll catch up soon, promise!

Anyway, here are a few more I should get to once the tennis is over… a crime week this week!

Crime

The Truth Will Out by Rosemary Hennigan

Courtesy of Orion via NetGalley. No particular reason for this one – I just liked the sound of the blurb. Plus I always enjoy reading an occasional debut novel in the hopes of finding a new favourite author…

The Blurb says: Dara Gaffney is fresh out of drama school when she lands the leading role in the revival of Eabha de Lacey’s hugely successful yet controversial play.

Based on the true story of the death of Cillian Butler, many claim that Eabha had an ulterior motive when she penned it. Cillian’s death remains a mystery to this day, and Eabha and her brother, Austin, the only witnesses.

As the media storm builds and the opening night draws closer, the cast find it harder and harder to separate themselves from the characters.

As the truth of Cillian’s fate becomes clear, Dara’s loyalty to her role will be irrevocably questioned as the terrible history starts to repeat itself…

Crime

The Dark by Sharon Bolton

Courtesy of Orion via NetGalley. So excited to see the return of Lacey Flint, one of my favourite detectives! Can’t wait to snuggle down with this one! 

The Blurb says: When a baby is snatched from its pram and cast into the river Thames, off-duty police officer Lacey Flint is there to prevent disaster. But who would want to hurt a child?

DCI Mark Joesbury has been expecting this. Monitoring a complex network of dark web sites, Joesbury and his team have spotted a new terrorist threat from the extremist, women-hating, group known as ‘incels’ or ‘involuntary celibates.’ Joesbury’s team are trying to infiltrate the ring of power at its core, but the dark web is built for anonymity, and the incel army is vast.

Pressure builds when the team learn the snatched child was just the first in a series of violent attacks designed to terrorise women. Worse, the leaders of the movement seem to have singled out Lacey as the embodiment of everything they hate, placing her in terrible danger…

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Vintage Crime Short Stories

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

Courtesy of the British Library. Isn’t it nice of Martin Edwards to put together an anthology of Scottish stories just for me? 😉 I thought the BL had dumped me since it’s been a while since I received a parcel from them, so I was doubly delighted when this one popped through the letter-box!

The Blurb says: From the dramatic Highlands to bustling cities and remote islands in wild seas, the unique landscapes and locales of Scotland have enthralled and shaped generations of mystery writers. This new collection presents seventeen classic stories, spanning a period from the 1880s to the 1970s, by a host of Scottish authors alongside writers from south of the border inspired by the history and majesty of the storied country.

Featuring vintage tales by Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson and Baroness Orczy together with mid-twentieth-century mini-masterpieces by Margot Bennett, Michael Innes and Cyril Hare, this anthology also includes a rare Josephine Tey short story, reprinted for the first time since 1930.

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Maigret on Audio

The Flemish House by Georges Simenon read by Gareth Armstrong

For some reason the Maigret novels seem to me to work particularly well as audiobooks, perhaps because of the short length, and certainly because of the excellent narrations by Gareth Armstrong. I pick them up randomly when they turn up in Audible sales, so there’s no logic to my reading order. This is no. 14 in the series according to Audible, no. 15 according to Goodreads. Take your pick! #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer

The Blurb says: A new translation, by David Bellos, of this chilling novel, set on the Belgian border.

“She wasn’t an ordinary supplicant. She didn’t lower her eyes. There was nothing humble about her bearing. She spoke frankly, looking straight ahead, as if to claim what was rightfully hers. ‘If you don’t agree to look at our case, my parents and I will be lost, and it will be the most hateful legal error….'”

Maigret is asked to the windswept, rainy border town of Givet by a young woman desperate to clear her family of murder. But their well-kept shop, the sleepy community, and its raging river all hide their own mysteries. 

* * * * *

Shardlake on Audio

Heartstone by CJ Sansom read by Steven Crossley

An extra one this week to kick off #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer. This is the longest one on my list so I’ll get it out of the way while my enthusiasm is high(ish)! A re-read of a favourite, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Steven Crossley’s narrations of this series so far…

The Blurb says: Summer, 1545. England is at war, and Matthew Shardlake is about to encounter the most politically dangerous case of his career. While a massive French fleet prepares to attack, every able-bodied man is being pressed into military service. Meanwhile, an old servant of Queen Catherine Parr asks Shardlake to investigate claims of “monstrous wrongs” committed against a young ward of the court. Shardlake’s inquiries take him and his loyal assistant, Jack Barak, to Hoyland Priory and Portsmouth, where the English fleet is gathering. There they uncover a startling link between the ward and a woman incarcerated in Bedlam. With a fantastic backdrop of wartime intrigue and a dramatic finale onboard one of Henry VIII’s great warships, Heartstone is certain to catapult this internationally bestselling series to greater prominence.

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?