TBR Thursday 149…

Episode 149…

A tiny drop in the TBR since I last confessed – down 1 to 223. But it’s the beginning of a massive fall, I’m certain. Any day now…

Here are a few more that will soon bounce to the top…

Factual

Courtesy of Duke University Press via NetGalley. There was a time not so long ago when I believed America had begun to escape from its racially divided past. Recent events have disabused me of that notion. So unfortunately this feels quite timely…

The Blurb says: One August night in 1931, on a secluded mountain ridge overlooking Birmingham, Alabama, three young white women were brutally attacked. The sole survivor, Nell Williams, 18, said a black man had held the women captive for four hours before shooting them and disappearing into the woods. That same night, a reign of terror was unleashed on Birmingham’s black community: black businesses were set ablaze, posses of armed white men roamed the streets, and dozens of black men were arrested in the largest manhunt in Jefferson County history. Weeks later, Nell identified Willie Peterson as the attacker who killed her sister Augusta and their friend Jenny Wood. With the exception of being black, Peterson bore little resemblance to the description Nell gave the police. An all-white jury convicted Peterson of murder and sentenced him to death.

In Murder on Shades Mountain, Melanie S. Morrison tells the gripping and tragic story of the attack and its aftermath—events that shook Birmingham to its core. Having first heard the story from her father—who dated Nell’s youngest sister when he was a teenager—Morrison scoured the historical archives and documented the black-led campaigns that sought to overturn Peterson’s unjust conviction, spearheaded by the NAACP and the Communist Party. The travesty of justice suffered by Peterson reveals how the judicial system could function as a lynch mob in the Jim Crow South. Murder on Shades Mountain also sheds new light on the struggle for justice in Depression-era Birmingham. This riveting narrative is a testament to the courageous predecessors of present-day movements that demand an end to racial profiling, police brutality, and the criminalization of black men.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley. Colin Watson’s Flaxborough series was one of the great joys of my youth, and it’s shameful that he’s never made an appearance on my blog to date. (It’s so tragic to think that my youth now counts as ‘vintage’, but moving swiftly on…) For a long time they’ve been quite hard to get hold of, so I’m delighted to see that Farrago are issuing Kindle versions of some of them – I hope maybe all of them eventually. This is one I haven’t re-read in a long time…

The Blurb says: Tuesday nights have suddenly turned quite ridiculously noisy in the country town of Chalmsbury, where the good folk are outraged at having their rest disturbed. It begins with a drinking fountain being blown to smithereens – next the statue of a local worthy loses his head, and the following week a giant glass eye is exploded. Despite the soft-soled sleuthing of cub reporter Len Leaper, the crime spate grows alarming. Sheer vandalism is bad enough, but when a life is lost the amiable Inspector Purbright, called in from nearby Flaxborough to assist in enquiries, finds he must delve deep into the seamier side of this quiet town’s goings on.

Witty and a little wicked, Colin Watson’s tales offer a mordantly entertaining cast of characters and laugh-out-loud wordplay.

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Scottish Classic

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. This is one of the books on my Classics Club list, so I was delighted to be given the chance to read it in the OWC edition – the introductions are always great for helping to put these classics in their literary and historical contexts. It goes without saying that I’m ashamed that I’ve never read this one before…

The Blurb says: One of the supreme masterpieces of Romantic fiction and Scottish literature, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a terrifying tale of murder and amorality, and of one man’s descent into madness and despair. James Hogg’s sardonic novel follows a young man who, falling under the spell of a mysterious stranger who bears an uncanny likeness to himself, embarks on a career as a serial murderer. The memoirs are presented by a narrator whose attempts to explain the story only succeed in intensifying its more baffling and bizarre aspects. Is the young man the victim of a psychotic delusion, or has he been tempted by the devil to wage war against God’s enemies? The authoritative and lively introduction by Ian Duncan covers the full range of historical and religious themes and contexts, offers a richer and more accurate consideration of the novel’s relation to Romantic fiction than found elsewhere, and sheds new light on the novel’s treatment of fanaticism. Copious notes identify the novel’s historical, biblical, theological, and literary allusions.

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Pop Science on Audio

The first, I believe, of this style of book that attempts to explain the complex science of the universe in ways that are accessible to the non-scientists among us. It was written to go with Sagan’s famous TV series of the same name, which I’ve never seen – my fascination with this subject is of fairly recent date. As a plus, one of the narrators is LeVar Burton, the lovely Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation

The Blurb says: Cosmos is one of the bestselling science books of all time. In clear-eyed prose, Sagan reveals a jewel-like blue world inhabited by a life form that is just beginning to discover its own identity and to venture into the vast ocean of space. Featuring a new Introduction by Sagan’s collaborator, Ann Druyan, and a new Foreword by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos retraces the fourteen billion years of cosmic evolution that have transformed matter into consciousness, exploring such topics as the origin of life, the human brain, Egyptian hieroglyphics, spacecraft missions, the death of the Sun, the evolution of galaxies, and the forces and individuals who helped to shape modern science.

Includes introductory music: Heaven and Hell by Vangelis from Cosmos: A Personal Voyage used with permission from Druyan-Sagan Associates, Inc. 

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible.

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

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Endurance by Alfred Lansing

True heroism…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a straightforward, factual telling of the story of Ernest Shackleton and his crew, and their failed 1914 bid to cross the Antarctic on foot from west to east. It’s also one of the most stirring and emotionally turbulent books I’ve ever read. These were the days of the great explorers, making crazy expeditions in the name of scientific discovery, but just as much for national pride and for the sheer glory of being the first. Shackleton’s expedition was at least in part to wipe out Britain’s humiliation at being beaten to the South Pole by Norway’s Roald Amundsen.

If by any chance you don’t know whether Shackleton and his men survived, I urge you not to look it up before reading this one. I was extremely vague on the whole thing and as a result found myself totally caught up, willing them on, crying over each new disaster, celebrating with them over any small triumph. Talk about emotional rollercoaster! As it got towards the end, my tension levels were going through the roof, just as they would have been had these men been personal friends – indeed, after the long journey I’d made in their company, I truly felt they were.

The crew as the voyage begins

Having set the scene for the expedition, Lansing introduces us to Shackleton the man – rather self-aggrandizing, hoping to enrich himself, but also a great leader, loyal to his men and capable of inspiring great loyalty from them – and from the reader. I didn’t totally like him, but if I’m ever trapped in a life or death situation, I hope Shackleton is my leader. Gradually, Lansing then brings each of the men to life, using extracts from journals and other records to show us how they worked together as a team, and played together to keep their spirits up and fend off boredom even when in extreme situations. We are made privy to their jokes, their foibles, their little rivalries, and most of all to their truly heroic will to survive. When you read old adventure stories, like Rider Haggard or Conan Doyle, sometimes the heroes can seem too good to be true. But the men of the Endurance are real, and they are as great as any fictional heroes – the stronger looking out for the weaker, no disloyalty, no factions emerging, no blame being cast around when things go wrong. Working together, finding ways to overcome every hurdle, never giving up hope… oh no! I’m going to start sobbing again any minute now…

Trapped in the ice during the long polar night…

Anyway! It all goes wrong early on, when the Endurance becomes trapped in the ice. There’s nothing the crew can do except wait, and hope that the ice drifts in the direction they want to go, or breaks up enough to allow them to get back to open water. But the great pressure of the ice on the hull eventually proves too much for the brave ship, and the men find themselves out on the ice with only what they could salvage before she went to her doom. From there on, it’s a battle between man and nature, with nature holding all the cards. Having said don’t look it up, I won’t spoil it by telling you what happens, but there are moments of drama, tragedy, hope, despair and even occasionally laughter.

Frank Wild (left) and Ernest Shackleton with the crushed Endurance

Lansing presents all this in a rather understated way. The book is full of facts – like the compass position of the men each time they are able to take a measurement, or exactly what food rations they were allowed each day. He doesn’t give a running commentary on either people or events – he simply presents them to the reader, often using the crew members’ own words as recorded contemporaneously in their journals. Lansing’s language is wonderfully descriptive, but not full of overly poetic flourishes. This rather plain style, however, works beautifully – the events are so thrilling and the men are such heroes that they don’t need any great fanfares or flowery flourishes to enhance their story. And he makes us hear each crack of the ice, each groan of the ship’s timbers. We feel the bitter cold and the perpetually soaked clothing and bedding. And we are shown the men’s hunger so vividly that we too begin to see each passing seal as food…

Making camp on an ice floe…

Shackleton came to no. 5 tent, just at breakfast time, to inform Macklin that he had decided against the trip. It was a crushing disappointment, coming as it did on the heels of a miserable night of wet, misty weather during which nobody had slept much. Shackleton had hardly left when Macklin turned on Clark for some feeble reason, and the two men were almost immediately shouting at one another. The tension spread to Orde-Lees and Worsley and triggered a blasphemous exchange between them. In the midst of it, Greenstreet upset his powdered milk. He whirled on Clark, cursing him for causing the accident, because Clark had called his attention for a moment. Clark tried to protest, but Greenstreet shouted him down. Then Greenstreet paused to get his breath, and in that instant his anger was spent and he suddenly fell silent. Everyone else in the tent became quiet too and looked at Greenstreet, shaggy-haired, bearded and filthy with blubber-soot, holding his empty mug in his hand and looking helplessly down into the snow that had thirstily soaked up his precious milk. The loss was so tragic, he seemed almost on the point of weeping. Without speaking, Clark reached out and poured some of his milk into Greenstreet’s mug, then Worsley, then Macklin, and Rickinson and Kerr, Orde-Lees and finally Blackborow. They finished in silence.

I listened to the audio version narrated by Simon Prebble, and he does a fabulous job. The crew were a diverse group, with Irish, Scots, Australians, New Zealanders, etc., alongside the Englishmen who made up the majority, and Prebble gives each a distinctive voice and personality, complete with appropriate accent. This added to the feeling of getting to know them as real living individuals rather than simply as historical characters on the page.

A wonderfully emotive journey that shows the human spirit at its very best – I can’t recommend this one highly enough! I was a sobbing, traumatised wreck by the end – but was the ending tragedy or triumph? If you don’t already know, you’ll have to read it to find out… or better still, listen to the audiobook.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

Paganism and Victorian shenanigans…

First published in 1890, this is the title story in the new Oxford World’s Classics collection, The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories. It’s considered to be a classic of the genre, influential on later writers from HP Lovecraft to Stephen King. So I prodded the porpentine awake, and we sat down ready to be horrified, in this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2The Great God Pan
by Arthur Machen

Arthur Machen

‘I have heard myself called quack, and charlatan and impostor, but all the while I knew I was on the right path. Five years ago I reached the goal, and since then every day has been a preparation for what we shall do tonight.’

Clarke has been asked by his friend Dr Raymond to witness an experiment in his laboratory in far away Wales (Machen’s native land), the culmination of the work of years. He proposes to carry out a brain operation on his young ward, Mary, which, he claims, will allow her to look into the spiritual world closed off to our normal brains – to see the Great God Pan, as he puts it. Clarke isn’t so sure the whole thing is a good idea…

“Consider the matter well, Raymond. It’s a great responsibility. Something might go wrong; you would be a miserable man for the rest of your days.”
“No, I think not, even if the worst happened. As you know, I rescued Mary from the gutter, and from almost certain starvation, when she was a child; I think her life is mine, to use as I see fit.”

Crikey! I’m betting Mary’s thinking pretty nostalgically about that gutter round about now! Anyway, needless to say, it all goes horribly wrong…

…suddenly her eyes opened. Clarke quailed before them. They shone with an awful light, looking far away, and a great wonder fell upon her face, and her hands stretched out as if to touch what was invisible; but in an instant the wonder faded, and gave place to the most awful terror.

Le Faune by Carlos Schwabe.
Musées d’art et d’histoire in Geneva.

Poor Mary collapses, shrieking. When Clarke sees her next, three days later, she is lying in her bed, grinning vacantly. Fortunately, Dr Raymond manages to be quite philosophical about the whole thing…

“Yes,” said the doctor, still quite cool, “it is a great pity; she is a hopeless idiot. However, it could not be helped; and, after all, she has seen the Great God Pan.”

Oh, well, that’s all right then! This is all in the nature of a prologue. The story then jumps forward some twenty years or so and the scene shifts to London. Clarke has remained interested in the occult and makes a habit of gathering strange stories. These stories are relayed to the reader as a series of snippets or brief sketches with a variety of narrators. To the people involved these incidents seem entirely random at first. But after a while, Clarke begins to see a pattern emerging. His subsequent investigations take him into the dark belly of London’s seamy underworld, on the trail of a mysterious woman who has been connected to some of the strange and horrible events…

“I should be wrong in saying that she found her level in going to this particular quarter, or associating with these people, for from what I was told, I should think the worst den in London far too good for her. The person from whom I got my information, as you may suppose, no great Puritan, shuddered and grew sick in telling me of the nameless infamies which were laid to her charge…”

Fabulous illustration by sandpaperdaisy at deviantart.com

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While the porpy and I weren’t exactly terrified, we thought this was a jolly good story. Mad science, that great love of Victorian horror and science fiction writers, mingled with paganism and a good deal of hinting at immoral and quite possibly unnatural sexual shenanigans, there’s also plenty of typically Victorian, fine descriptive writing, both of nature in the countryside and of the dark and gloomy streets of London at night. The Great God Pan is no cuddly pipe-playing faun in this one – he’s satanic, possibly in fact Satan, and we all know what happens to innocent young girls who fall in the path of that old cloven-hoofed goat. Being Victorian, we are spared the details, but Machen manages to get his meaning across. Of course, the woman is the one who succumbs to the dark pagan powers – but then the men succumb to the equally dark force of female sexuality. (They’re called Victorian attitudes for a reason…)

Combine that with Clarke’s familiarity with the seamy side of London life, where he cheerfully admits, with no attempt at concealment, “I have always been fond of diving into Queer Street for my amusement, and I found my knowledge of that locality and its inhabitants very useful.” Even worse, that he is there on the trail of a society lady who also likes to head to the lower levels to take her pleasure. No wonder it was considered pretty shocking at the time! (So disgusted were the morally upstanding Victorians, in fact, that it apparently shot to the top of the best-sellers list…)

Guillermo del Toro acknowledges the influence of the story on his film, Pan’s Labyrinth

It might be a little less shocking now, but it’s well told and one can easily see its place in the chain that links horror writers of different generations. It’s almost like a bridging link from the older ones, – the Gothic style of Poe, for example – through his contemporaries – his dark London having much of the feel of Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde – and onto those who followed, like Lovecraft, who acknowledged his debt to Machen. Great stuff, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the collection…

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

More of a ramble than a review…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When young Nicholas Nickleby’s father dies leaving him penniless, he, his mother and his sister, Kate, must throw themselves on the charity of their uncle, Ralph Nickleby. Though rich, Ralph is a cold, unfeeling man who sees no reason why he should be responsible for the welfare of his feckless brother’s family. He seems to take delight in finding the worst position he can for young Nicholas, as assistant to Wackford Squeers, proprietor and headmaster of Dotheboys Hall school for boys. This post will take Nicholas far from his family to distant Yorkshire, leaving his sister to the doubtful protection of their uncle…

I have a tendency to decide each time I read a Dickens book that it’s one of his very best, leaving me to wonder which ones aren’t! But this really IS one of his best, showcasing everything that makes Dickens one of the few writers who can present a 900-page novel and leave the reader wishing it was a little longer.

As tends to be the case in his major books, there is a mix of underlying plot with a series of episodes that stand almost on their own. So we see Nicholas first in Dotheboys Hall, where unloving parents abandon their young sons, or often stepsons, to the negligent and cruel care of Squeers and his equally horrible wife. Dickens uses this to provide a pointed commentary on this kind of legalised child abandonment, and to show the physical and emotional damage it causes. But he leavens it with some humour, often rather cruel, especially when directed at Squeers’ son and daughter (who, one could argue, are as much victims of their parents’ over-indulgence as the pupils are of their neglect).

Then there’s the wonderful section when Nicholas falls in with the travelling company of actors under the headship of actor-manager and all-round ham, Vincent Crummles. Who could ever forget the Infant Phenomenon, she of uncertain age who has been playing child roles for longer than is perhaps chronologically plausible? Dickens is at his most humorous here, with his affectionately caricatured portraits of the various actors and a few side-swipes at the practice of plagiarism which he suggests was the norm at a time when “new” plays were required each week. I love how Crummles demands that each play is written to a formula, to include all the things his actors are noted for – there must be a sword fight, the Infant Phenomenon must get to dance, there must be a romance for Miss Snevellicci, etc.

The Infant Phenomenon…

Nicholas’ third section is back in London when he is employed by the charitable Cheeryble brothers, whose main motivation in life is to do good to others. Dickens manages to avoid mawkishness in this novel (something he doesn’t always achieve) and the Cheerybles are less caricatured than my memory from earlier reads, or perhaps TV adaptations, suggested. Although the ultimate in kindliness, the brothers also have cores of steel that prevent them being taken advantage of, and allow them to act decisively when they see wrong being done. Their characterisation is undoubtedly more nuanced than many of Dickens’ “good” characters, but he still manages to use them to show that good deeds done with truly charitable hearts are repaid ten-fold by the affection and loyalty of the recipients.

Nicholas is also more complex than most of Dickens’ young heroes. At heart he is naturally good, but he’s hot-tempered, can have a wicked sense of humour at times, is not above poking fun at the dreadful Miss Fanny Squeers, and even flirts outrageously with Miss Snevellicci. He’s tougher too – although he gets help along the way, one feels Nicholas would have been perfectly capable of making his own way in life if he had to. And he’s kind and fiercely loyal – his friendship with Smike, one of the boys from Dotheboys, is beautifully portrayed, and always has me sobbing buckets. If I was forced to fall in love with a Dickens hero, Nicholas would be the one…

Nicholas gets a little hot-tempered…

I love Kate, too. She’s so different from his usual drooping, dim-witted heroines! Society makes it tough for women to stand on their own two feet at that time, but one feels that if any woman could do it, Kate could. She stands up to her uncle, she supports her mother, and she provides a stabilising influence on the more volatile Nicholas. She has her own story too, running separately from Nicholas’. Her job in Mantolini’s milliner’s shop provides another arena for Dickens’ humour, this time at the expense of the ‘macaroni’, the foppishly fashionable man-about-town, and the silly women who fall for them. Mantolini himself (real name Alfred Muntle) is pure comedy joy. But Dickens has a point to make too about the intolerable working conditions for women, working 12 or 14 hours a day and never seeing sunshine, all for a pittance barely enough to keep body and soul together.

Mantolini gets a little over-dramatic…

Through Kate, and later through Nicholas’ love interest, Dickens shows how women were so much at the mercy of men, to be treated kindly or cruelly at their whim, with very little recourse. Lord Frederick Verisopht, despite the typically silly name, is another complex character who grows and changes during the course of the book, first behaving as a predator towards Kate, driven on by the uniformly evil Sir Mulberry Hawk, but gradually realising the wrong that is being done to her. I have a very soft spot for Sir Frederick. (Sorry! I should have tried harder to resist that…)

Of course, there’s a whole batch of quirkier characters too. Vain and empty-headed Mrs Nickleby is a comic gem who had me laughing at her (affectionately, mostly) many times. Newman Noggs and John Browdie, though very different, are each the kind of loyal friend who pop up often in Dickens to help the young hero along the way. The story of the Kenwigs, Mr Lillyvick and Miss Petowker is a delightful little satire on class and cupidity. And the late-blossoming romance of dear little Miss La Creevy is guaranteed to melt the hardest heart.

The greatest writer the world has ever known…

For me, though, the most intriguing character in the book has to be Uncle Ralph, the villain of the piece. Again, he’s much more subtly drawn than Dickens’ villains sometimes are. We get a hint as to why he may have turned out as he did, and though we’re hoping throughout for him to get his comeuppance, when it comes it seems particularly harsh, leaving this reader at least feeling somewhat torn. He deserves to pay for his behaviour to the young Nicklebys and others, for sure, but the price is cruelly high. I always remember the old RSC adaptation (which I may re-watch and review separately) where the role was played superbly by John Woodvine, and I remember how he made me feel that Ralph demanded a little pity too… just a little, but perhaps enough to keep us all human.

More of a ramble than a review, but in summary – one of Dickens’ very best, and since he’s without question the greatest writer the world has ever known, then that’s pretty spectacular…

Book 20 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 148…

A third batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

Well, the TBR has leapt up this week by a massive 8 to 224! It’s not as bad as it seems though – in fact, it’s great! It happened because I found a website http://www.fadedpage.com which has downloadable versions of several of the vintage crime books for this challenge that I hadn’t yet obtained. So nine books moved from my wishlist to the TBR. Therefore, as the mathematicians among you will have realised, the underlying trend is down…

And coincidentally I’ve just about finished all the books from the second batch of MMM books, so here goes for the third batch…

The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne

This one was actually already on my TBR long before I started the challenge – put there following an excellent review from Helen at She Reads Novels

The Blurb says: Milne takes readers to the Red House, a comfortable residence in the placid English countryside that is the bachelor home of Mr. Mark Ablett. While visiting this cosy retreat, amateur detective Anthony Gillingham and his chum, Bill Beverley, investigate their genial host’s disappearance and its connection with a mysterious shooting. Was the victim, whose body was found after a heated exchange with the host, shot in an act of self-defence? If so, why did the host flee, and if not, what drove him to murder?

Challenge details

Book No: 17

Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age 

Publication Year: 1922

Martin Edwards says: “A.A. Milne is now so closely associated with Winnie-the-Pooh and children’s fiction that it comes as a surprise to many readers to learn that. . . he wrote an immensely popular detective novel. The Red House Mystery is a country-house mystery, so deftly written that it achieved widespread acclaim.”

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The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

Impossible theories, a baffled policeman and a gifted amateur detective. And as if that’s not enough, a touch of romance…

The Blurb says: Samuel Whitehead, the new landlord of the Rose and Crown, is a stranger in the lonely East Anglian village of High Eldersham. When the newcomer is stabbed to death in his pub, and Scotland Yard are called to the scene, it seems that the veil dividing High Eldersham from the outside world is about to be lifted.

Detective-Inspector Young forms a theory about the case so utterly impossible that merely entertaining the suspicion makes him doubt his own sanity. Surrounded by sinister forces beyond his understanding, and feeling the need of rational assistance, he calls on a brilliant amateur and ‘living encyclopaedia’, Desmond Merrion. Soon Merrion falls for the charms of a young woman in the village, Mavis Owerton. But does Mavis know more about the secrets of the village than she is willing to admit?

Challenge details

Book No: 33

Subject Heading: Serpents in Eden

Publication Year: 1930

Edwards says: “…Barzun and Taylor argued that Miles Burton was working in the Gothic tradition of Ann Radcliffe, author of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and was the first of ‘the moderns’ to do so in the detective genre.”

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Bats in the Belfry by E.C.R. Lorac

Courtesy of the British Library. There’s no place quite like foggy old London as a setting for vintage crime… 

The Blurb says: Bruce Attleton dazzled London’s literary scene with his first two novels but his early promise did not bear fruit. His wife Sybilla is a glittering actress, unforgiving of Bruce’s failure, and the couple lead separate lives in their house at Regent’s Park. When Bruce is called away on a sudden trip to Paris, he vanishes completely until his suitcase and passport are found in a sinister artist’s studio, the Belfry, in a crumbling house in Notting Hill. Inspector Macdonald must uncover Bruce’s secrets, and find out the identity of his mysterious blackmailer. This intricate mystery from a classic writer is set in a superbly evoked London of the 1930s.

Challenge details

Book No: 42

Subject Heading: Capital Crimes

Publication Year: 1937

Edwards says: “The plot is elaborate, the characterisation crisp and the atmosphere of the dark London streets well evoked.

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The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett

I’ve read and enjoyed a Continental Op short story before so am intrigued to see how well the character works in a full-length novel…

The Blurb says: Everything about the Leggett diamond heist indicated to the Continental Op that it was an inside job. From the stray diamond found in the yard to the eyewitness accounts of a “strange man” casing the house, everything was just too pat. Gabrielle Dain-Leggett has enough secrets to fill a closet, and when she disappears shortly after the robbery, she becomes the Op’s prime suspect. But her father, Edgar Leggett, keeps some strange company himself and has a dark side the moon would envy. Before he can solve the riddle of the diamond theft, the Continental Op must first solve the mystery of this strange family.

Challenge details

Book No: 91

Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic

Publication Year: 1929

Edwards says: “His execution of the concept is artistically flawed, but although the story is eccentric and melodramatic, it is also oddly compelling.”

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads. 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? Do any of these tempt you?

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PS I’ve fallen badly behind with blog reading, review writing, reading and life in general so I’m taking a little break. Back soon! Don’t get up to anything exciting while my back’s turned…

In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson

Blood, bloody, bloodier, bloodiest…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1980. Travis Stillwell lives life on the road, travelling from small town to small town in Texas, running from the memories of his earlier life, seeking something lost. Some nights he’ll pick up a woman in a honky-tonk bar, but not for love – these women are victims, killed almost as a sacrifice to those demons he can’t shake off. But one night he picks up Rue, a beautiful young woman who is more evil than even the horrors in his own mind – a woman searching for her own kind of mate, who will change him in ways he could never have imagined even in his worst nightmares. When he wakes up the next day, he is wounded, bloodied, and prey to a strange and terrible hunger – a hunger he must satisfy so that he and Rue can live.

OK, so it’s a vampire novel. Let’s get that out of the way straight off. It has scenes of the bloodiest horror written in language so vividly, viscerally descriptive that I may never be able to wash my mind clean of them. But the odd thing is, I’m not sure I want to…

“Travis lay the knife on the floor and shuffled forward on his knees like a man about to perform a tender act. He put his face between the girl’s white legs and touched his lips to her wound, and his mouth filled instantly and he was forced to spit.
EAT!
But there was something else now too, wasn’t there? A warmth. A kindling.
He put his lips against the wound again and this time swallowed when his mouth had filled and the horror and revulsion he had imagined were not the things he felt. He felt only a bright relief as the blood slicked his throat and struck the furnace of his gut and its heat spread, and before all of this had even happened he had swallowed again, and again. . .
Take it all, Rue said. Take it all.”

…because the book is so, so much more than that. Part examination of the hard-scrabble life of rural Texans and part-metaphor for the lasting shockwaves of the traumas visited on America, and its young men in particular, by the Vietnam war, it’s right up there with the best of American fiction writing. I’ve seen it being compared to McCarthy and McMurtry which makes me want to go and read both those authors straight away. The prose is gorgeous, moving seamlessly between melancholy beauty and savage brutality and creating indelible images in both. I could see the landscape and the sky; feel the dust, the burning sun, the rain; smell the stale beer and cigarette smoke and the all-pervasive stench of blood and death.

The characterisation is intense and flawless, so that we come to know and care about each individual. Travis stops at a run-down motel, where young widow Annabelle ekes out a precarious existence and does her best to help her young son Sandy deal with the death of his father. Her kindness to this stranger, who is indeed strange, leads her into mortal peril, at the same time as it awakens in Travis a kind of longing that tears his dual nature apart. Meantime, Travis is being pursued by veteran detective Reader for his earlier, human crimes. Dogged and determined, Reader has seen too much horror already in his life and is haunted by his own personal tragedy, but he’s a good man – a moral man, who provides a rock of decency for us to cling to, a promise of hope amid the darkness.

Remarkably, the author makes us care too for Travis, serial killer turned vampire, as he gradually reveals the experiences that have formed him, first as the child of a stern, forbidding father and a pleasure-loving mother, and later, in Vietnam, a time which branded him physically and mentally. Even Rue, the disgusting, monstrously evil thing that gives the novel its truest horror, has her own back-story. Perhaps it’s too hard to sympathise with Rue, but Davidson makes us understand her, and oh, how we feel her hunger! For blood. For love.

Andy Davidson

To me, the vampire thing felt very much like an allegory for the rot and horror of Vietnam, for these men who returned to no hero’s welcome, whose stories were left untold for too long, left to fester in the darkness of silence. For most of the novel I wasn’t even sure whether the vampire aspect was real or a kind of figment of Travis’ tortured imagination. A part of me wishes Davidson had left it fully ambiguous, because inside here is a great American novel and I fear it may be sidelined into genre fiction. And at the same time, although the horror is handled superbly with some fabulously gory imagery, it may be too slow and too literary in style for many dedicated horror fans.

Certainly, the vampire element would have ensured I’d never have read it, had I not been sent a copy by the publisher. Even then I started it with reluctance, expecting to read a few chapters and then abandon it. But these are not the vampires of modern fiction – sexy heroes who seduce as they suck the blood of their victims. There is more of the original Dracula or Carmilla perhaps, lust and insatiable hunger, but much darker, more brutal – bloodier. But even nightmares are bearable when they are revealed with integrity and meaning and relayed in such astonishing language and imagery. There are scenes I will never forget – scenes of utter brutality that made me cry for the sorrows of the world. Nor will I forget the people – the desperate search for humanity and love that we see in each character, however distorted. And the writing! Ah, the writing!

“He watched her go, thinking of the children they had been when they were married. He eighteen, she seventeen. She a half-breed, he a white Texan boy, theirs a romance, Reader had always thought, befitting the romance of the land itself, the wide open spaces and faraway horizons, where the hearts of the young were as big and green as the vast sweep of the eastern grasslands, and the land and the courses of the lives lived on it moved and rolled in ways no man could ever predict, as though the breath of giants were easing over them, shaping them, turning them.”

Do I recommend it? I hope I’ve made it clear how graphically horrific some parts are, and also how exceptional I think it is, how it transcends horror to become something altogether more profound and strangely beautiful. The decision has to be yours. Personally, I am so glad to have read it.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….He bought a can of Pearl with the last two dollars he had, then dropped a quarter in the Wurlitzer. He punched a number and settled down at a table and tipped his chair back against the wall and put his boots up. He set his hat over his eyes and drifted in the peaceful dark of not being on the road.
….The man in the box began to sing.
….The music rose and fell.
….Out of the darkness came her scent of lemon and vanilla, the curve of a white calf beneath the hem of a pale blue cotton dress, her shape an hourglass, like time itself slipping away. She, before the picture window that looked out on the mimosa dropping its pink petals on the grass. Her slow smile spreading beneath a pair of eyes as blue as cobalt glass. Water sheeting in the window and casting its shadow like a spell of memory on the wall behind. Her little red suitcase turntable scratching out a song beneath the window and he, a boy, with his bare feet on hers as she held his hands and the record turned and they danced.
….Their private, sad melody unspooling in his heart forever.

* * * * * * * * *

….Cusps are often the central features of a stability problem. A classic example is the Euler column, a simple model that explains why steel columns buckle when they reach a critical load. The key objects that underlie this are two smooth but rather abstract surfaces: the energy surface and the equilibrium surface.
….At any given value of the axial load, we can calculate how the total potential energy stored in the column varies as we increase the central lateral deflection. For small loads, the energy graph (plotting energy against central deflection) is usually a U-shape, with a single stable equilibrium at the base of the U. That is where the system will stay, happily and safely.

(Does it surprise you to know that I abandoned the book at this point – page 18? And frankly I think I deserve a Perseverance in the Face of Extraordinary Gibberish Award for getting that far. However, I highly recommend it to mathematicians who want to build a bridge while looking at pictures of nudes…)

* * * * * * * * *

….What is this love, this profound and absolute attachment I feel for Scotland? Why do these mottled rising green-brown hills, these humped fields, this river, even the familiar cast of the houses, feel so right and move me so? Lesley accepts that she is English, but it is not a defining fact for her, any more than being right-handed or blue-eyed. Whereas she can see that for me being Scottish is fundamental to who I am.
….As I turn off at the Tore roundabout onto the A835 to Ullapool, drive on past scattered villages where the valley pushes a green wedge between the hills on either side, I’m thinking of one of MacCaig’s shortest poems, Patriot.

My only country
is six feet high
and whether I love it or not
I’ll die
for its independence.

….The idea of patriotism was abhorrent to him. He’d seen enough of what it led to. He could not love an abstraction. But he loved – my God how he loved! – things that were solid, concrete, particular: some people, dogs, frogs, rivers, mountains, toads, a wild rose bush, so many kinds of birds. His vision was earthly, corporeal.

* * * * * * * * *

….While I was getting out my pouch, I looked up in the direction of the houses, and as I looked I felt my breath caught back, and my teeth began to chatter, and the stick I had in one hand snapped in two with the grip I gave it. It was as if I had had an electric current down my spine, and yet for some moment of time which seemed long, but which must have been very short, I caught myself wondering what on earth was the matter. Then I knew what had made my very heart shudder and my bones grind together in an agony. As I glanced up I had looked straight towards the last house in the row before me, and in an upper window of that house I had seen for some short fraction of a second a face. It was the face of a woman, and yet it was not human. You and I, Salisbury, we have heard in our time, as we sat in our seats in church in sober English fashion, of a lust that cannot be satiated and of a fire that is unquenchable, but few of us have any notion what these words mean. I hope you never may, for as I saw that face at the window, with the blue sky above me and the warm air playing in gusts about me, I knew I had looked into another world – looked through the window of a commonplace, brand-new house, and seen hell open before me.

From The Inmost Light

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So…are you tempted?

Quick Curtain by Alan Melville

Define “witty”…

😦 😦

It’s the opening night of the new show at the Grosvenor Theatre – Blue Music, produced by the great theatre impresario Douglas B Douglas and starring perennial juvenile lead and heart-throb Brandon Baker, a combination designed to guarantee box office success. The theatre is filled with the great and the good in the dear seats, and the members of the Brandon Baker Gallery Club in the cheap ones. The scene where Brandon Baker is shot takes on an unexpectedly dramatic twist when it turns out the bullet was real, and he collapses onto the stage, dead. Fortunately Inspector Wilson of the Yard is in the audience, along with his journalist son Derek, so the pair are in prime position to investigate the murder.

This is billed as being “witty”. Wit can wear very thin very quickly if it’s not done well. It’s not done well. The Wilsons must have a claim on the title of most annoying crime fighting duo in history. Perhaps if they spent less time being “funny”, they might have been better detectives. I found myself speculating as to the mysterious lack of a Mrs Wilson – I concluded that if I were married to one of these and the mother of the other, I’d probably have run off to a different continent leaving no forwarding address, but perhaps the poor lady simply died of tedium after having to listen to them do their cross-talk act at breakfast once too often.

Realism simply doesn’t exist in this novel. Inspector Wilson acts like an amateur detective, using his son as his sidekick. They don’t interview any suspects or do any real investigation. They simply come up with a theory and then mangle the “facts” to fit. “Facts” is a term that must be used loosely in regard to this novel, since there are glaring continuity errors throughout, such as a man having a wife and children at one appearance and then being an unmarried loner next time he’s discussed. One feels that some editor at some point in the 80-odd years since it was first published would have picked up on these issues, but perhaps they were all laughing too hysterically to concentrate.

Challenge details:
Book: 47
Subject Heading: Making Fun of Murder
Publication Year: 1934

To be fair, it starts out quite well with some gentle lampooning of the whole business of putting on light musicals. Stars, producers, theatre critics and fans all come in for their share of mockery, but it’s done quite affectionately. In his introduction, Martin Edwards tells us that Melville was himself a successful playwright and this shows through in his credible, if caricatured, portrayal of the life of theatricals. It’s really the arrival of the Wilson duo that brings the whole thing down – in fact, it’s the attempt to make it into a crime novel that fails badly. Had Melville written some other kind of theatre based froth, then it may have come off better, but a crime novel really requires at least some pretence at a proper plot and investigation or it becomes nonsensical – and not in a good way. Edwards tells us that Dorothy L Sayers, a regular reviewer of the work of her contemporaries, had similar reservations as my own, saying Inspector Wilson “does all his detecting from his private house with the sole aid of his journalist son. Light entertainment is Mr Melville’s aim, and a fig for procedure!”

Alan Melville

So I guess it comes down to whether the reader finds this kind of arch humour entertaining. Some will, I’m sure, and will therefore be better able to overlook the major flaws in the plot and structure. Sadly I found myself getting progressively more irritated and bored as it went along and was frankly delighted to make it to the deeply unsatisfactory and rather silly end. Not an author I will be pursuing further, I’m afraid. Sometimes authors become “forgotten” for a reason…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace

Surprisingly contemporary…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When the British Foreign Secretary decides to push through a law which will allow the enforced return of political refugees to their countries of origin, he becomes a target of the Four Just Men – a group of vigilantes who set out to right what they perceive as wrongs that the normal systems of justice can’t touch. The story is a kind of cat-and-mouse game where the reader, along with the entire British public, waits to see if the Four Just Men succeed in carrying out their threat to assassinate the Foreign Secretary.

This was a rather odd read for me, in that I hated the premise – vigilantes are not my cup of tea – and yet found the storytelling compelling enough that I found myself racing through it. It’s well written and the pacing is excellent. Wallace sits on the fence himself as to the rights and wrongs of it – he shows both sides, but doesn’t take too strong a stance in favour of either. I believe in later books he chose cases that weren’t quite so murky, where it was clearer that the victims of the Just Men deserved their fate, and I suspect I might prefer those.

This one, however, despite having been published way back in 1905, has a surprisingly relevant plot. The purpose of the legislation is to prevent political agitators from using the safety of foreign countries to stir up revolutions back in their own nation. With my recent Russian Revolution reading, it made me think very much of those Russians, like Lenin, who spent their time in the safety of exile encouraging their countrymen back home to commit acts of terrorism against the state. But I also couldn’t help thinking of the West’s current moral struggle over the question of allowing in refugees at a time when the fear of terrorism is high, or the difficulty of expelling people even when it’s known they are attempting to radicalise others.

Challenge details:
Book: 2
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1905

It’s a quick read – somewhere between a long novella and a short novel. There is a mystery of sorts over how the Just Men plan to carry out the assassination. Martin Edwards tells us in the introduction that, as an advertising ploy, Wallace offered cash prizes to readers who could work out the solution. Apparently, so many did that it nearly bankrupted him. I wish I’d been around at the time, because I thought it was blindingly obvious. I suspect, though, that might be because the key is more commonplace now than it would have been back then. Forgive the vagueness, but to say more would be a major spoiler.

The rest of the plotting works much more effectively. There is a real sense of the building tension as the deadline approaches. The Foreign Secretary is not physically brave, but shows a good deal of moral courage in the end. The police are shown as competent and vigilant, good men determined to protect the Secretary even at the expense of their own lives, if necessary. The press get involved and we see their dilemma of being ordinary good people who don’t want to see murder done but also journalists who do want a huge front page story! Wallace handles all these ethical questions well and believably, I thought. The Just Men themselves are more shadowy, with no real background given as to why they’ve set themselves up as judge and executioner or how they got together. I found them far less credible. But I was pulled along in the need to know whether the Secretary would survive.

An intriguing read that provoked more thought than I was anticipating. I don’t think I’m sufficiently enthusiastic to want to read more of the adventures of the Four Just Men, but overall I found this one interesting and entertaining enough to be glad to have read it, and to recognise its claim to be a classic of the genre. And, on that basis, recommended.

No Amazon links, since I downloaded this from wikisource.

TBR Thursday 147…

Episode 147…

You see, the thing is, it’s not my fault! No, really, it isn’t! I haven’t bought any books this week, nor requested any from NetGalley – I’ve been good! And yet, still my TBR has gone up again – by 2, to 216. This strange phenomenon is as a result of publishers forming a conspiracy to break my legendary willpower by sending me unsolicited books and too, too tempting catalogues. What’s a girl to do?? And meantime my reading has dropped off because I’ve been distracted…

(Poor Rafa – retired injured again. So sad!)

So anyway, looks like I better get some reading done…

Factual

Continuing my bid to read some of the books that have been on my TBR for longest, I bought this one in June 2013. Still sounds interesting! Fortunately it’s a Kindle version so at least the pages won’t have turned yellow…

The Blurb says: Paris and London have long held a mutual fascination, and never more so than in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when they both vied to be the world’s greatest city. Each city has been the focus of many books, yet here Jonathan Conlin uncovers the intriguing relationship between them for the first time. It is a history of surprises: Sherlock Holmes was actually French, the can-can was English and the first restaurant served English food in Paris.

Tales of Two Cities examines and compares six urban spaces – the street, the cemetery, the apartment, the restaurant, the music hall and the nocturnal underworld. The citizens of Paris and London were the first to create these landmarks of the modern cityscape. By borrowing, imitating and learning from each other they invented the modern metropolis and so defined urban living for us all.

* * * * *

Classic Horror

Courtesy of the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. This is part of a newish hardcover range from OWC. I haven’t had time to look at the inside properly yet but the outside is much more gorgeous than the picture makes it look. The Great God Pan was recommended to me on one of my horror posts by fellow blogger Grass and Vanilla, so this seemed like the ideal opportunity to read it, along with many other stories by Arthur Machen…

The Blurb says: Perhaps no figure better embodies the transition from the Gothic tradition to modern horror than Arthur Machen. In the final decade of the nineteenth century, the Welsh writer produced a seminal body of tales of occult horror, spiritual and physical corruption, and malignant survivals from the primeval past which horrified and scandalized late-Victorian readers. Machen’s “weird fiction” has influenced generations of storytellers, from H. P. Lovecraft to Guillermo Del Toro – and it remains no less unsettling today. This new collection, which includes the complete novel The Three Impostors as well as such celebrated tales as The Great God Pan and The White People, constitutes the most comprehensive critical edition of Machen yet to appear. In addition to the core late-Victorian horror classics, a selection of lesser-known prose poems and later tales helps to present a fuller picture of the development of Machen’s weird vision. The edition’s introduction and notes contextualize the life and work of this foundational figure in the history of horror.

* * * * *

Vintage Crime

This is one of the books for my Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge. I thoroughly enjoyed Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins, so I have high hopes for this one…

The Blurb says: Also published as The Spiral Staircase. Helen Capel is hired as a live-in lady-help to the Warren family in the countryside. She enjoys the eccentric household and her duties, but her peaceful and simple life is soon disturbed by a series of mysterious murders in the isolated community.

As Helen’s employer, Professor Sebastian Warren, battens down the hatches and locks all the doors of their remote country house, the eight residents begin to feel safe. But somewhere out there lurks a murderer of young girls. As the murders crawl closer to home, Helen starts to wonder if there really is safety in numbers—and what happens when those numbers start to dwindle?

* * * * *

Fiction

For the Reading the Russian Revolution challenge. Ken Kalfus lived in Russia for some years and the Soviet Union appears in quite a lot of his work. I love his writing, so I’m looking forward to this one…

The Blurb says: Ken Kalfus’s mesmerising first novel is about two events that become milestones in the history of the modern media: the death of Tolstoy and the murder of Lenin. One young filmmaker was there. The story begins in 1910, as Leo Tolstoy lies dying in Astapovo, a railway station in provincial Russia. Members of the press from around the world have descended upon this sleepy hamlet to record his passing for a public suddenly ravenous for celebrity news. Cinema is the newcomer, and Nikolai Gribshin arrives to capture the extraordinary scene and learn how to wield his camera as a political tool. At this historic moment, he comes across two men – the scientist, Professor Vorobev, and the revolutionist, Joseph Stalin – who have radical, mysterious plans for the future. Soon they will accompany him on a long, cold march through an era of brutality and absurdity, as science struggles with superstition. Brimming with intellect, humour, and rich, inventive storytelling, The Commissariat of Enlightenment is a novel of ideas that brilliantly evokes the tragi-comic world of revolutionary Russia as well as the birth of today’s image-based society. 

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

The Country House Library by Mark Purcell

Books, books, glorious books!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This beautifully produced and gorgeously, lavishly illustrated publication is far more than a coffee table book. It’s a comprehensive history of British bookishness from its beginning to the present day. The main thrust of it covers the 17th to 19th centuries – the period when the country house came into its own and wealthy people saw Libraries as an essential feature of their homes. Mark Purcell looks at both the books and the rooms they were stored in, and differentiates between them by calling the book collections ‘libraries’ with a small ‘l’ and the rooms ‘Libraries’ with a capital ‘L’, and I’m going to stick with that for this review.

There’s so much in the book that I’ll only be able to give a flavour of it. Purcell has clearly had a ball prying into the bookshelves and book catalogues of centuries’ worth of bibliophiles, and his enthusiasm is matched by deep knowledge, backed up with an immense amount of research. This results in a phenomenal amount of detail, which in the early chapters overwhelmed me a little and made the reading heavy going. Purcell doesn’t simplify by explaining bookish vocabulary which may be unfamiliar to the general reader (like me!), so at first I found myself doing a bit of googling.

The Great Library at Cassiobury Park

But I found that I gradually became fascinated, especially when I realised that the bookshelves of the rich – who, of course, were also the powerful – cast an interesting sidelight on many famous historical personages and the societies in which they lived. Because Purcell tells us as much about the storage of books as the books themselves, it also becomes an architectural history, and a history of the lifestyles, interests and leisure pursuits of these people – an aspect often not covered in standard histories which tend to be concentrated on politics and power.

Eighth century book storage

Purcell follows a fairly linear timeline throughout. He starts with the speculation that the tradition of libraries in Britain began in Roman villas, with scrolls, and discusses in depth what kind of books would have been read. In the next few chapters, he covers the period up to and through medieval times, showing that there was a considerable level of scholarship amongst the nobility. He also discusses how books were stored before Libraries became a feature – in chests or flat on shelves in small studies or closets set aside purely for the purpose of reading and study. Not unnaturally, the main focus is on the English since they comprise by far the largest population, but happily he ranges out to Scotland, Ireland and Wales too throughout the book, which I found tended to bring together the histories of those nations, showing a common Britishness that often doesn’t come through in histories or biographies of a particular subject.

Medieval study

He then goes on to discuss the foundations (and fates) of the great libraries of the late 17th and 18th centuries, some of which would later form the basis of many of our great national and public collections today (and some of America’s and even Australia’s too). By now, some of the collectors were including lighter, more entertaining books amongst the great classics and heavy religious texts – novels, but also lots of informative books, like cookery books, books on animal husbandry, etc. English was by now more common than Latin and Greek, and books in modern languages were beginning to appear on the shelves of the well-travelled. Illustrated books of things like foreign flora and fauna made me feel that this illustrated book is part of a long tradition, and while wikipedia and Google are fabulous alternatives for those of us with modest homes, I lusted for the libraries of the 19th century in particular.

Alnswick Castle

I also lusted for their Libraries! From the illustrations, the earliest ones look rather bare and functional – huge half-empty rooms surrounded by shelving. But by the 19th century, Libraries had become living spaces where people spent part of their leisure time. Railways had allowed for the tradition of the weekend house party to begin, and Libraries were becoming part of the attractions of the country house, sometimes even including billiard tables, or being situated next door to the billiard room. Comfy seats appear – and footstools, card tables, open fires and reading lamps. The nouveau riche in particular went for comfort and novels, and I found myself longing to either be a nouveau riche 19th or early 20th century country house owner, or at the very least to be invited to one of their house parties. Another place to be added to my ‘where to go when they invent a time machine’ list.

Purcell is a bit saddened by book collectors who had old books rebound – personally I think they’re gorgeous!

In the major houses, books regularly outgrew the space in the main Library, (don’t we all recognise that problem!), so that other rooms would gradually be co-opted into use as secondary Libraries. Purcell shows that many of the householders provided books and even occasionally specific Libraries for their servants, and some of the libraries gradually began to operate almost like public lending libraries for people in the surrounding countryside.

On the right: Vita Sackville-West’s tower room library

Purcell finishes by discussing the 20th century, when many of these libraries were sold off or donated, sometimes as a method of paying off swingeing inheritance taxes. He himself works with the National Trust, the body that has taken over responsibility for maintaining many of these great country houses on behalf of the nation, and he tells how they’ve gradually realised the bookish treasures they’ve acquired along with the houses. A sad and also happy end – the passing of a great tradition, but hopefully these rooms and books will be maintained and made available to scholars and the public for years to come, even if we’re not allowed to actually read them.

As you can hopefully tell, I loved this – it might have been heavy going in places, but I learned lots about a subject dear to my bookish heart. And those illustrations are to die for…

Chatsworth: Darcy’s Library!!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm. It was having to stop at smaller and more frequent stations, where it would wait impatiently for a moment, then attack the prairie again. But progress was imperceptible. The prairie only undulated, like a vast, pink-tan blanket being casually shaken. The faster the train went, the more buoyant and taunting the undulations.
Guy took his eyes from the window and hitched himself back against the seat.
Miriam would delay the divorce at best, he thought. She might not even want a divorce, only money. Would there ever really be a divorce from her?
Hate had begun to paralyse his thinking, he realised, to make little blind alleys of the roads that logic had pointed out to him in New York. He could sense Miriam ahead of him, not much farther now, pink and tan-freckled, and radiating a kind of unhealthful heat, like the prairie out the window. Sullen and cruel.

* * * * * * * * *

The Graduate appeared in movie houses just as we young Americans were discovering how badly we wanted to distance ourselves from the world of our parents. It was not that the film dealt directly with racial unrest, campus protests, or an overseas war. Benjamin Braddock’s story was never intended as an accurate picture of the late sixties. Its makers had casually imagined their tale as set in 1962, the year in which Charles Webb wrote his original novel. (That’s why Ben, lounging in his family backyard, has no fear of receiving that “Greetings” letter from his draft board.) Still, The Graduate‘s prescience about matters of grave concern to the Baby Boom generation gave it a life of its own. If we young Americans were anxious about parental pressure, or about sex (and our lack thereof), or about marriage, or about the temptations posed by plastics, it was all visible for us on the movie screen. Today The Graduate continues to serve as a touchstone of that pivotal moment just before some of us began morphing into angry war protesters and spaced-out hippies.

* * * * * * * * *

Then, at just about two o’clock, they saw where they were. A quirk of wind tore the clouds apart, and two wicked peaks loomed above a line of cliffs and the perpendicular faces of glaciers that dropped sheer into the sea. The coastline looked to be about a mile away, perhaps a little more. But vastly more important, in that single glimpse, they saw to their terror that they were only a short distance outside the line of breakers, the point at which the seas ceased to behave like swells and became combers instead, rushing faster and faster towards their own destruction against the land. As each swell passed under them, they could feel it tugging momentarily at the boat, trying to get hold of her and hurl her toward the beach. It seemed now that everything, the wind, the current and even the sea itself, were united in a single determined purpose, once and for all to annihilate this tiny boat which thus far had defied all their efforts to destroy it.

* * * * * * * * *

Dear Mr Macfarlane

You call yourself a banker, you sad little man. Worse, you call yourself a ‘personal’ banker and yet you hide and cower behind the faceless law. As a banker you are meant to offer fiscal support – not withdraw it. And to send a writ, like that, with no warning . . . It defies belief. Or rather it doesn’t defy belief – a second’s thought makes one realize that it is the nasty little bureaucrats, the creepy apparatchiks of the financial state like yourself, who are the true enemies of people like me. People with ambitions, with dreams – artists, in other words. Someone, some worm like you, some vile money-lender in Renaissance Italy, would have closed da Vinci’s line of credit. I herewith terminate my account with your bank. I herewith counter-sue you for incompetence and negligence. I herewith warn you that I will write to every consumer website on the planet and inform them of –

From the story Unsent Letters

* * * * * * * * *

From the Archives…

“…I did what the Color Master had asked, and went for blue, then black, and I was incredibly slow, but for one moment I felt something as I hovered over the bins of blue. Just a tug of guidance from the white of the dress that led my hand to the middle blue. It felt, for a second, like harmonizing in a choir, the moment when the voice sinks into the chord structure and the sound grows, becomes more layered and full than before. So that was the right choice.”

* * * * *

“As she unlaced her blouse, he touched fingertips to her trembling bare shoulders and explained in his low gravel that he only ate human beings he did not know. I know your name now, he murmured. I know your travels. You’re safe.”

(Click for full review)

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So…are you tempted?

The Mystery of Briony Lodge by David Bagchi

Say nothing of the dog…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a client turns up at Baker Street, she is accidentally shown to 221d by mistake – the room upstairs from the famous consulting detective Sherlock Holmes. This room is occupied by J. Yes, that J. The one from Three Men in a Boat. He’s there that day with Harris and George, to say nothing of the dog, Montmorency. And when the lovely Miss Briony Lodge appeals for his help over some mysterious letters she’s been receiving, he’s so taken with her that he decides to play along with her belief that he is Holmes and investigate the mystery himself, with the rather dubious help of his friends.

So begins this mash-up pastiche of two of my favourite bookish delights of all time. When I was offered a copy of this my first impulse was to shudder violently and issue a haughty thanks but no thanks – regulars will know nothing is more guaranteed to make me froth at the mouth than people messing with my literary idols. However something made me glance at the ‘look inside’ feature on Amazon. The first line made me laugh out loud…

“To Montmorency she is always the woman.”

One good line doesn’t necessarily mean the whole thing will be good though, so I read on…

“Young men such as ourselves, with active minds (naturally I excuse you from this generalisation, George) and active bodies (forgive me, Harris, I don’t mean you, of course) do not need rest. Rest for us is the mere counterfeit of death. There will be time enough for rest when the Grim Reaper taps us on the shoulder and asks to see our ticket.”

This is followed by a delightfully silly argument between the three men on the subject of how many servants a knight of yore would have had as he went off to “try his valour against all manner of foe”

By now I was sold! And I’m happy to say that the entire book lives up to the promise of these first few pages. Bagchi clearly knows the originals inside out and loves them, and he replicates J.’s voice with impressive accuracy and warm affection. Holmes himself is an off-page presence, but there are zillions of references to the stories and it’s great fun trying to spot them all. I’m pretty sure Bagchi must also be a Wodehouse fan, because there are occasional touches of his kind of humour in there too.

The plot is a mash-up of several of the Holmes stories combined with a trip down the Thames to some of the places that appear in Three Men in a Boat. If I have a criticism, it’s that occasionally Bagchi veers too close to the original – such as in J.’s musings on the mysterious workings of the British railway system. But for the vast majority he achieves that difficult balance of staying true to the source while stamping his own originality on top, and the story all hangs together very well.

It’s mostly told by J. in the first person, but it turns out that by coincidence Holmes has sent Watson to follow a chap who happens to be involved in the mystery too (being deliberately vague here). So, in the manner of The Hound of the Baskervilles, we get to read Watson’s reports to Holmes along with extracts from his personal journal, and Bagchi has totally nailed Watson’s style too.

My dear Holmes,
Today’s proceedings have been as full of incident as we could have wished or feared. I only hope that my pen can do justice to the high drama of the day.

Deliciously, even the chapter headings match the style of the originals. Here’s Chapter 2, a J. chapter…

Of the power of female beauty upon the male brain—A decorated ceiling—On the supernatural abilities of dogs—The railway guide a threat to public morality—On the glorious freedom of God’s special creation, the locomotive—Harris has an idea—The moral degeneracy of the downstream man.

David Bagchi

It’s 155 pages – long enough to be satisfying without reaching the point of outstaying its welcome. I’ve said snootily in past rips of dreadful pastiches and follow-on novels that writers shouldn’t set themselves up for comparison with the greats unless the quality of their own writing is up to standard. Bagchi’s is – there are bits which, if taken out of context, I’m sure would fool most of us into thinking they had genuinely been penned by either Jerome or Conan Doyle. I enjoyed every minute of the couple of hours it took me to read, laughing out loud many times along the way. Highly recommended – a better cure for the blues than cocaine, liver pills or clumps on the side of the head…

Oh, and, Mr Bagchi… I think there’s plenty of room for a sequel…

NB This book was provided for review by the author.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Rasputin: The Biography by Douglas Smith

Saint or sinner…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Douglas Smith starts his biography of Rasputin by laying out the two competing claims about him that were current during his life and still rumble on today: that he was the ‘mad monk’, the ‘holy devil’, debauched and wicked, practising profane religious rites, and with an unhealthy grip on the Tsar; or, that he was a true holy man and visionary, so much so that some groups within the Orthodox church are attempting to have him made a saint.

He begins by telling us what little is known of Rasputin’s early years in a peasant village in Siberia. Smith shows how difficult it is to sift through the layers of later accounts to get to the truth, especially about someone who lived in a largely illiterate milieu. Some accounts describe him as dirty and uncouth, a thief and a horse-thief, but Smith says the original records don’t support these claims. What is true is that he married and had several children, of whom many died. In his late twenties, he took to going off on pilgrimages, apparently a common occurrence in the Russia of that time. However, he looked after his family in financial terms and continued to return to his home village throughout his life. He gradually acquired a reputation as a starets, a kind of religious elder sought out for spiritual guidance.

At this early stage, the book is very well written. Notes are kept out of the way at the back, so that the main text maintains a good flow without too many digressions into the minutiae of sources.

Smith then takes the tale to the Romanov court, giving the background to the marriage and relationship of Nicholas and Alexandra. He gives a fascinating picture of the various strange religious sects that grew up in late 19th century Russia, and how susceptible the Romanovs and high society in general were to the latest ‘holy man’ to come along. Rasputin was not the first visionary to be taken up by the Royal couple. But because of the timing, when the state was already cracking, war was on its way and revolutionary fervour was building, he became a focus of much of what people despised about the ruling class.

Rasputin with Tsarina Alexandra and children

Unfortunately, once these excellent introductory chapters are out of the way, the rest of the book gets bogged down in a morass of rather repetitive detail. It tends to take the format of Smith telling us about reports of some unsavoury episode in Rasputin’s life, and then going back over it to show that either it couldn’t be true or that it can’t be proven. As is always a problem with this period of Russian history, there’s a constantly changing cast of characters near the throne, so that names came and went without me feeling I was getting to know much about them. When the book concentrates specifically on the Romanovs it feels focused, and I did get a good impression of how detached they were from the Russian people’s opinion of them, especially Alexandra. But Rasputin himself felt ever vaguer as every story about him was shown to be at best misleading and at worst untrue. I felt I learned far more about who Rasputin wasn’t than about who he was. Maybe that was the point, but it made for unsatisfactory reading from my perspective.

There is a lot of information about the various efforts to persuade the Romanovs to give Rasputin up. For years he was under investigation and being tracked by the authorities, while the newspapers were printing ever more salacious details about his alleged debauchery. Again Smith goes into far too much detail; for example, on one occasion actually listing the names of the eight secret service men who were detailed to monitor him – information that surely should have been relegated to the notes if it is indeed required at all. And again, far more time is spent debunking false newspaper stories than detailing the true facts.

I found this a frustrating read. Smith’s research is obviously immense and the book does create a real impression of the strange, brittle society at the top of Russia and its desperate search for some kind of spiritual meaning or revelation. But the same clarity doesn’t apply to Rasputin – I felt no nearer knowing the true character of the man at the end as at the beginning; if anything, I felt he had become even more obscure. Smith often seems like something of an apologist for him, although he never openly says so. But when, for example, he treats seriously the question of whether Rasputin was actually a genuine faith healer, then I fear the book began to lose credibility with me. The question of whether Rasputin was a debauched lecher living off his rich patrons or a holy man sent by God to save Russia seemed relatively easy to answer, and I found the book tended to overcomplicate the issue in an attempt to portray both sides equally. A bit like giving equal prominence to climate change deniers as to the 97% of scientists who know it to be true.

Rasputin with his (mostly female) aristocratic acolytes

The book has won awards, so clearly other people have been more impressed by it than I was. I do think it’s an interesting if over-long read, but more for what it tells us about the last days of the Romanovs than for what it reveals about Rasputin. For me, the definitive biography of this uniquely intriguing life remains to be written.

Amazon UK Link
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TBR Thursday 146…

Episode 146…

The Big Drop has begun! The TBR has fallen by a massive two this week, to 214. Told you! You just wait… you’re going to be stunned at how fast it comes down…

Here are a few more that have their skis on…

Nature

This has been on my TBR since September 2013, so it’s probably time to get around to reading it! It comes highly recommended by my oldest* blog buddy, Lady Fancifull.

(*oldest in the sense of going furthest back – like myself, she’s eternally youthful…)

The Blurb says: For many years Andrew Greig saw the poet Norman MacCaig as a father figure. Months before his death, MacCaig’s enigmatic final request to Greig was that he fish for him at the Loch of the Green Corrie; the location, even the real name of his destination was more mysterious still. His search took in days of outdoor living, meetings, and fishing with friends in the remote hill lochs of far North-West Scotland. It led, finally, to the waters of the Green Corrie, which would come to reflect Greig’s own life, his thoughts on poetry, geology and land ownership in the Highlands and the ambiguous roles of whisky, love and male friendship.

At the Loch of the Green Corrie is a richly atmospheric narrative, a celebration of losing and recovering oneself in a unique landscape, the consideration of a particular culture, and a homage to a remarkable poet and his world.

* * * * *

Crime

Who knew actor Robert Daws writes books? Certainly not me, till I read about it on The Quiet Geordie’s excellent blog. Since I love his acting, I was intrigued, so entered The Quiet Geordie’s giveaway – and won! The prize was two of his books, of which this is the first…

The Blurb says: The Rock. Gibraltar. 1966. In a fading colonial house the dead body of a beautiful woman lays dripping in blood. The Rock. Present day. Detective Sergeant Tamara Sullivan arrives on The Rock on a three-month secondment from the London Metropolitan Police Service. Her reasons for being here are not happy ones, and she braces herself for a tedious 12 weeks in the sun. After all, murders are rare on the small, prosperous and sun-kissed Rock of Gibraltar and catching murderers is what Sullivan does best. It is a talent Sullivan shares with her new boss, Chief Inspector Gus Broderick of the Royal Gibraltar Police Force. He’s an old-fashioned cop who regards his new colleague with mild disdain. But when a young police constable is found hanging from the ceiling of his apartment, Sullivan and Broderick begin to unravel a dark and dangerous secret that will test their skills and working relationship to the limit.

* * * * *

Crime

Courtesy of Endeavour Press via MidasPR. No little story behind this one – I just thought the blurb sounded intriguing…

The Blurb says: Chris Peters loves his work in a multi-national bank: the excitement of the trading floor, the impossible deadlines and the constant challenge of the superfast computers in his care. And he loves his beautiful wife, Olivia. But over time, the dream turns sour. His systems crash, the traders turn on him, and Olivia becomes angry and disillusioned. So much bad luck.

Or is it? A natural detective, Chris finds evidence of something sinister in the mysterious meltdown of a US datacentre. A new kind of terrorist. But can he get anyone to believe him? His obsessive search leads him to a jihadist website, filled with violent images; a man beaten to a pulp in a Dubai carpark; and a woman in a gold sari dancing in the flames of her own destruction. Slowly, a tragic story from decades ago in Yemen emerges.

Too late, Chris understands the nature of the treachery, so close to him. His adversary knows every move and is ready to strike. Even his boss agrees: if this program is run, it will destroy this bank as surely as a neutron bomb. And Chris Peters has 48 hours to figure it out…

* * * * *

Mythology on Audio

I picked this up as one of Audible’s Daily Deals. (In case anyone doesn’t already know, each day they reduce the price of one of their titles to a pound or two, and you don’t need a membership to buy them. I’ve snaffled some great sounding books over the last few months, including this.) I’m not so sure about the reading outside on a freezing night – I’m more of a comfy sofa, blanket and hot chocolate kind of girl…

The Blurb says: Norse mythology forms the delicate backbone of countless modern stories. Fascinating, dramatic and deliberate, with a gripping tension and vitality, the best-selling author of American Gods brings these Norse tales to life.

The great Norse myths are woven into the fabric of our storytelling – from Tolkien, Alan Garner and Rosemary Sutcliff to Game of Thrones and Marvel Comics. They are also an inspiration for Neil Gaiman’s own award-bedecked, best-selling fiction. Now he reaches back through time to the original source stories in a thrilling and vivid rendition of the great Norse tales. Gaiman’s gods are thoroughly alive – irascible, visceral, playful and passionate – and the tales carry us from the beginning of everything to Ragnarök and the twilight of the gods. Galvanised by Gaiman’s prose, Thor, Loki, Odin and Freya are irresistible forces for modern listeners, and the crackling, brilliant writing demands to be heard around an open fire on a freezing, starlit night.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

The Linking Rings (Eli Marks 4) by John Gaspard

“To see oursels as ithers see us…”

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When his uncle Harry is invited to perform at the Magic Circle in London, Eli Marks takes the opportunity of turning the trip into a holiday for himself and his girlfriend, Megan. But things take a dramatic turn when one of the magicians slated to appear with Harry dies on stage – killed by a “magic” contraption. As Harry falls under suspicion, Eli and some of Harry’s magician friends must try to find out what happened…

I love this series so approached this book with high expectations and it has a lot of the elements that make the series so enjoyable. Eli is a first person narrator (past tense) and it’s always fun to listen in on his thoughts about the people he meets. Gaspard always presents the stage magic interestingly, without breaking the magician’s code of not revealing how tricks are done. I love the interaction between Eli and his elderly uncle and, by extension, the older generation of stage magicians he knows from the days when stage magic was still bigger than TV magic.

But the transplanting of the characters to London didn’t work so well for me. Thankfully Gaspard doesn’t go the funny accent route, but he does keep suggesting that perfectly commonplace English expressions are actually American in origin and therefore hard for us old-fashioned throwbacks to use confidently. And when Eli began to refer to his hotel as Fawlty Towers, it set my teeth on edge somewhat. It’s such a cliché. I also can’t help but get picky about factual or cultural inaccuracies that could have been sorted by a little research: for example, the suggestion that magistrates are responsible for charging people with crimes, or a police officer using the term ‘capital crime’ in a country that abolished capital punishment back when the Beatles still had short hair. Irritating errors like these, and there were several more of them, tend to throw me out of the flow of the story. I strongly suggest that if American authors want to write books based in Britain and publish them in Britain, they should hire a British editor to give them a final look over before sending the proofs to the printers.

However, I doubt any of these things would annoy American readers, who will make up the bulk of Gaspard’s audience, so hey ho! But I personally will be glad when Eli returns to Minnesota for his next adventure.

John Gaspard

Otherwise, the plot itself is quite fun with its origins back in Harry’s past, leading to enjoyable reminiscing among the entertaining group of magicians who’ve assembled for the performances at the Magic Circle. It seemed to me to cross the credibility line more than is usual in this series, and perhaps not to be quite as “fair play”. But there’s plenty of humour in it and Eli is as likeable a hero as always.

I know this review has been quite critical but I did enjoy reading the book overall, although it certainly isn’t my favourite in the series. However, it was good to see the personal stories of the main characters move forward, and I look forward to meeting up with them all again in their next outing.

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

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Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

“It’s a weakness in our family,” said Mrs Nickleby, “so, of course, I can’t be blamed for it. Your grandmama, Kate, was exactly the same – precisely. The least excitement, the slightest surprise – she fainted away directly. I have heard her say, often and often, that when she was a young lady, and before she was married, she was turning a corner into Oxford Street one day, when she ran against her own hairdresser, who, it seems, was escaping from a bear;– the mere suddenness of the encounter made her faint away directly. Wait, though,” added Mrs Nickleby, pausing to consider. “Let me be sure I’m right. Was it her hairdresser who had escaped from a bear, or was it a bear who had escaped from her hairdresser’s? I declare I can’t remember just now, but the hairdresser was a very handsome man, I know, and quite a gentleman in his manners; so that it has nothing to do with the point of the story.”

* * * * * * * * *

By contrast, John Rylands’s library was a middlebrow mix of piety and practicality. The son of a draper from St Helen’s, Manchester’s first multi-millionaire lived from 1857 at Longford Hall, an Italianate mansion which he had built in the nearby village of Stretford. The house was unpretentious, and the library, of some 1,808 volumes, could hardly have been less like the library which Mrs Rylands later founded in her husband’s memory. Entirely devoid of antique or rare books, it included volumes of light reading (Dickens and Walter Scott) but also many religious books, as Rylands was a devout Congregationalist. [ . . .] Other books, like a Boy’s own Book of Boats (1868) seem somewhat more unexpected, while Scott’s Practical Cotton Spinner, and Manufacturer (Preston, 1840) and Etiquette for Gentlemen (1854) provoke interesting and perhaps rather moving reflections on the life story of a self-made man.

* * * * * * * * *

“Have I ever told you that I think you’re a stunningly attractive woman?”
She turned her knowing brown eyes on him.
“You have, actually. Many times.”
“I’d love to kiss you. Properly, I mean.”
It nearly always worked, It was a simple wish expressed – heartfelt, genuine – and one hard to be offended by. It was a compliment, of sorts, though risqué. Sometimes the women said, “Well, thank you, but no thanks.” Or else, “Not here, not now.” Sometimes they looked at him, smiled, said nothing, and moved away. But, mostly, they were intrigued, and soon, after a while, after some more conversation, they found a way and a location and a time where the kiss could take place.
“You’ve already kissed me,” Suki said, sardonically. “If I recall.”

* * * * * * * * *

(The crew have been stranded on an ice floe for weeks, food is running out and they are on strict, tiny rations, facing starvation. All they are allowed for breakfast is some powdered milk and a lump of sugar. They had hoped to go back to their original camp that day to get food supplies that had been left there…)

Shackleton came to no. 5 tent, just at breakfast time, to inform Macklin that he had decided against the trip. It was a crushing disappointment, coming as it did on the heels of a miserable night of wet, misty weather during which nobody had slept much. Shackleton had hardly left when Macklin turned on Clark for some feeble reason, and the two men were almost immediately shouting at one another. The tension spread to Orde-Lees and Worsley and triggered a blasphemous exchange between them. In the midst of it, Greenstreet upset his powdered milk. He whirled on Clark, cursing him for causing the accident, because Clark had called his attention for a moment. Clark tried to protest, but Greenstreet shouted him down. Then Greenstreet paused to get his breath, and in that instant his anger was spent and he suddenly fell silent. Everyone else in the tent became quiet too and looked at Greenstreet, shaggy-haired, bearded and filthy with blubber-soot, holding his empty mug in his hand and looking helplessly down into the snow that had thirstily soaked up his precious milk. The loss was so tragic, he seemed almost on the point of weeping. Without speaking, Clark reached out and poured some of his milk into Greenstreet’s mug, then Worsley, then Macklin, and Rickinson and Kerr, Orde-Lees and finally Blackborow. They finished in silence.

* * * * * * * * *

From the Archives…

Once their tears had dried, or before, they began naming roads and bridges, tunnels, highways and buildings for him, creating a grief-stricken empire of asphalt, mortar, brick, and bronze so extensive that if you extinguished every light on earth except those illuminating something named for him, astronauts launched from the Kennedy Space Center would have seen a web of lights stretching across Europe and North America, and others scattered through Africa and Asia…

(Click for full review)

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So…are you tempted?

The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

The Martians are coming!!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

London, at the tail-end of the nineteenth century, is the largest city on Earth, the centre of the world’s greatest empire; indeed, the centre of the world. As its population grows, its tentacles are spreading out to incorporate the various towns and villages around it into suburbs for the middle classes. A vast swarm of humanity, scurrying busily to and fro, like ants around an ant-heap. A tempting eat-all-you-want buffet for hungry aliens…

The story of The War of the Worlds is so well known that it requires very little in the way of blurb. Martians invade and use their vastly superior technology to destroy everything and everyone in their path. The only question is – will they ultimately win, or will they be defeated? On the remote chance that anyone doesn’t know the answer, I won’t say.

The book is far more interesting for what it says about Wells’ world than for the story itself. The unnamed narrator is on the spot when the first Martian spacecraft lands. He sees the creatures emerge and watches as they fiddle about with equipment. Then he’s as surprised and shocked as everyone else when it turns out they’re not here with peaceful intentions and have no desire to communicate with humans. Instead, they set off on a course of massive destruction. The British Army – the greatest army in the world, the army that has defeated and massacred untold thousands of people in its imperial triumphs around the world – is crushed, its best weapons as ineffective against the Martians’ as a native spear against a machine gun. As the narrator wanders the countryside trying to find his wife from whom he’s become separated, he describes the horror of this invasion – death and destruction only the beginning of the Martians’ terrible plan for the inhabitants of earth…

From the 2005 movie

Britain’s psychological relationship with its empire never ceases to fascinate me. When Wells was writing this, the Empire was at its height, seemingly invincible. But already there were signs of cracks appearing – uprisings, demands for self-rule. Plus there was the question of its moral justification, beginning to be debated. Were we bringing civilisation to the barbarian, or exploiting him? Could we even be sure he was a barbarian? Was victory in war still glorious when one side had weapons the other side had never even dreamt of?

Wells turns the whole question on its head by doing the unthinkable – he makes London the centre of the invasion rather than the home of the invaders. He brings onto our village greens, our city streets, our familiar landmarks, the kind of destruction Britain itself had been perpetrating around the world. Invasion! Perhaps Britain’s biggest fear and biggest boast. This tiny island nation with its massive navy, supreme in its confidence that it was able to defend itself against all comers. No invader had set foot on British soil in almost a thousand years. Our naval supremacy was our protection and our pride. But the Martians don’t come across the sea… they come from above. Was it coincidence that Wells was writing at the time that man was about to successfully take to the skies, creating a new threat that would lead eventually to the massive destruction rained down on us in the middle of the twentieth century?

Schiaparelli’s Map of Mars

To us, the idea of invasion from space is almost laughable. We know there’s no life on Mars, or if there is it’s not of the kind that builds spacecraft; and distance alone makes the likelihood of invasion from other solar systems seem negligible. But to the late Victorians, the idea of life on Mars was real. Schiaparelli had seen the ‘canals’ and some scientists believed they were a sign of a technologically advanced species, trying to harness what little water remained on a dying planet. What more likely than that a species who could do that could build spacecraft? And that, seeing the lush blue and green of planet Earth, they would want to colonise it, exploit it, as we exploited other nations?

The whole idea of evolution, Darwinism, was also at the forefront of the late Victorian consciousness. Suddenly it isn’t quite so clear that humanity is the ultimate species, born to dominate all others. Maybe, just maybe, there are other species out there that have evolved further, or faster. And who’s to say they’ll necessarily be peaceful? Evolution is a recurring theme in Wells’ books – he’d already addressed it extensively in both The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. In this one, he makes the double suggestion that there may be more evolved species out there in space, and also that ultimately man may not be the most resilient form of life here on earth. Scary stuff for a society that had been so sure of its mastery of all it surveyed!

HG Wells

As a story, I might only rate this one as 3 or 4 stars. It tends to be more description than action and the ending is somewhat anti-climactic for modern tastes. But for what it says about the British psyche of its time it fully deserves its place as a classic and the maximum 5. And I haven’t even talked about how influential it’s been on science fiction in books and films over the last century.

I read the new Oxford World’s Classics edition which includes an interesting and informative foreword and notes by Darryl Jones, who is the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity College Dublin. He goes into much more depth on the themes I’ve mentioned and more, and puts the book into its historical and literary context. I highly recommend these OWC editions – I find the forewords, without being overly long, pack in a lot of information and add a huge amount to my appreciation of the books.

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

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I’ll Keep You Safe by Peter May

Back to the island…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Niamh and Ruairidh Macfarlane are the owners of Ranish Tweed, a successful cloth manufacturer. They are in Paris for a trade show, when Niamh receives an anonymous email accusing her beloved husband Ruairidh of having an affair. She finds herself torn. Part of her can’t believe it, but when she sees Ruairidh with the woman, Irina, she follows them. Suddenly to her shock and horror the car they are in explodes, killing both occupants instantly. The police quickly determine that this is no act of random terrorism, but premeditated murder. Niamh returns to her home on the Isle of Lewis, grief-stricken and lost. Who could have had a serious enough grudge against Ruairidh to commit this awful crime? The answer must lie somewhere in the past…

Beginning of Lengthy and Completely Unnecessary Digression on May’s Work
 (Readers are respectfully advised that they may want to skip ahead… 😉 )

I have been a fan of Peter May’s writing for more decades than I care to remember. But for all that I love his books in general and think he’s one of the best thriller writers of his time, I have found in recent years that when he writes about his home country of Scotland and particularly the islands of the Hebrides, his writing takes on a beauty and depth that transcends any of his other work. His language is wonderfully descriptive, filled with colour and texture, so that the reader sees the harsh loveliness of the landscape, feels the never-ending rain and wind, knows the towns and harbours and the people who live and work in them.

As May has reached his middle years, I’ve found that some of his books have taken on a reflective tone, a kind of nostalgic retelling of what feels very much like fictionalised autobiography. This was perhaps most evident in Runaway, which May based around an incident in his own early life. But I felt it strongly again in this one, though I have no way of knowing whether I’m correct in that assumption. When he does this, it seems to me it has two results – the books are deeper, more emotional, with the feel of contemporary or literary fiction, and contain his truest characterisations; and, conversely, the crime story is weaker, less important and feels rather tacked on. I can understand why some readers might find that a little frustrating but, since what I love most about him is his superb descriptive writing and his ability to create a rich sense of place, the relative downplaying of the crime aspect doesn’t bother me too much. Part of me wishes he’d go the whole hog sometime and write a William Boyd-style literary novel.

I’m sure partly my reaction is because when May is writing about his own country, his own people and his own past, he’s also writing about mine. There’s a profound Scottishness in these Lewis books. Though his style is very different to William McIlvanney’s, I find the same kind of clear-sighted truthfulness in them – he doesn’t gloss over the darker aspects of our society but writes with a warm affection for both place and people. There is a tendency amongst some writers to show life in Scotland as either tartan and twee, or all drugs, drunks and foul-mouthed violence – both aspects that exist on the edges, for sure. But May instead shows what life is like for the majority of us – a mix of old and new, the modern emerging, more slowly, perhaps, in these remote island communities, from the restrictions and harsh traditions of the past.

End of Lengthy Digression

Old Loom – New Tweed. Weaver Kenny Maclennan from Breaseclete treading the Hattersley loom at the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, Isle of Lewis

Anyway, enough of these musings! To the book! It’s written mostly in the third person, past tense, with some sections in the past told in Niamh’s first-person voice, also past tense. (Regulars will know how happy I am not to be forced to read present tense, even if May does do it better than most.) The bulk of the book is telling us the long history of Niamh’s and Ruairidh’s relationship, from their early childhood through to the present day. We know that some incident happened that has led their families to be at odds with each other, but we don’t find out what till late on. Once married, they set up Ranish Tweed – a variation on the real Harris Tweed which is woven exclusively on the island. Again, May’s research and descriptive skill come into play here, never info-dumping, but showing how this old traditional industry has had new life breathed into it in recent years through clever marketing, becoming a niche couture item for the rich. Through this strand we also get a look at the fashion industry in general and how designers and manufacturers are crucial to each other’s success or failure.

Meantime, the crime is being investigated by Sylvie Braque of the French police, and we learn a little of her life as she struggles to balance single parenthood with the demands of the job. When she comes to Lewis as part of her investigation, she is assisted by local Sergeant George Gunn, who is becoming something of a regular feature in May’s various Lewis novels, making them feel loosely tied together and reminding us that each of the stories form one part that together make up the whole of this community. I’m a big fan of Sergeant Gunn, so was delighted that he got a rather larger role than usual in this one. For the most part, the story is a relatively slow meander through Niamh’s life, but it builds up to a typical May thriller ending which, though I’d guessed part of the solution, still managed to shock me.

As a crime novel, I might only have rated this as 4 stars – there’s no doubt it loses focus on the crime for a long section in the middle. But frankly, I’ll happily ramble round Lewis for as long as May is willing to be my guide, so I was in no hurry to get to the solution. If you haven’t already guessed, highly recommended!

Peter May

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus, via MidasPR.

Amazon UK Link
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TBR Thursday 145…

Episode 145…

OK, well, the TBR has increased by 2 this week to 216. But I’m pretty sure the underlying trend is down. It’s simply all depends on how you look at it…

Here are the next ones that will add to the massive reduction…

Crime

This book was shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel (2017). Our resident crime expert Margot Kinberg from Confessions of a Mystery Novelist was on the award panel and spotlighted each of the nominees on her fine blog. This was the book that appealed to me most, but there’s no sign of a UK publication date for it yet. After I bemoaned this fact, Margot very kindly sent me her own copy – thank you, Margot! This will take me to New Zealand for the Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

The Blurb says: When a woman’s body is discovered frozen in the ice of a river near the alpine resort of Queenstown, Detective Sergeant Malcolm Buchan faces both a mystery and a moral dilemma. The identity of the nude woman is critical to the motives and manner of her murder, and Buchan is personally involved. So are a number of locals, from ski bums to multi-millionaire businessman. Newly appointed to head CIB in the Southern Lakes district, Buchan hunts the killer through the entanglements of corruption and abuse that lie barely below the surface of the tourist towns.

The assistance of a woman traffic sergeant is critical to the hunt but she brings her own dilemmas. The community is practised at keeping its secrets, and finding the truth comes at a price.

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Classic Fiction

To celebrate the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth, time to re-read this, perhaps her best-known novel. It’s from my Classics Club list, and will also be a great excuse to watch the wonderful film again…

The Blurb says: At the staid Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh, Scotland, teacher extraordinaire Miss Jean Brodie is unmistakably, and outspokenly, in her prime. She is passionate in the application of her unorthodox teaching methods and strives to bring out the best in each one of her students. Determined to instill in them independence, passion, and ambition, Miss Brodie advises them, “Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first. Follow me.” And they do–but one of them will betray her.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of Poisoned Pen Press via NetGalley. Another anthology of vintage crime short stories from the great combo of the British Library and Martin Edwards. This time the focus is on early “police procedurals”…

The Blurb says: In classic British crime fiction, dazzling detective work is often the province of a brilliant amateur – whereas the humble police detective cuts a hapless figure. The twelve stories collected here strike a blow for the professionals, with teasing mysteries to challenge hard-working police officers’ persistence and scrupulous attention to detail. As in his previous anthologies for the British Library Crime Classics series, Martin Edwards introduces readers to fascinating neglected gems of British crime writing as well as uncovering lesser-known stories by the great novelists of the golden age.

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Fiction on Audio

I tried listening to this a couple of years ago but failed. It wasn’t that I wasn’t enjoying the book – I was simply struggling to concentrate on the audio format. However, I’ve been training myself to listen to audiobooks since then, so time to give this one another chance. It might also count towards the Around the World in 80 Books Challenge… 

The Blurb says: There are six homesteads on Blackåsen Mountain. A day’s journey away lies the empty town. It comes to life just once, in winter, when the church summons her people through the snows. Then even the oldest enemies will gather.

But now it is summer, and new settlers are come. It is their two young daughters who find the dead man not half an hour’s walk from their cottage. The father is away. And whether stubborn or stupid or scared for her girls, the mother will not let it rest.

To the wife who is not concerned when her husband does not come home for three days to the man who laughs when he hears his brother is dead to the priest who doesn’t care, she asks and asks her questions, digging at the secrets of the mountain. They say a wolf made those wounds. But what wild animal cuts a body so clean?

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible.

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

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