Talking Classics…

The Classics Club Meme – May 2018

The Classics Club has reintroduced its monthly meme feature, and the question for this month is:

What is your favourite classic book? Why?

In truth, I’ve answered this question so often in various tags and memes, I can’t think of much new to say about my favourite book, which is Bleak House by Charles Dickens. So here’s a link to my previous post explaining why I love it.

Instead, I thought I’d adapt the question to looking at which of the books that I’ve read from my Classics Club list is my favourite so far. There are plenty of contenders even though I’m not a third of the way through yet. My list is split into five sections:

The American Section is not going well in truth, with some seriously disappointing reads so far. However, I enjoyed my re-read of To Kill a Mockingbird. But I’m giving the prize for this section to:

Passing by Nella Larsen, a book that is as much about marriage and status as it is about race. It tells the story of two women who meet up by accident after many years apart, and renew their childhood friendship. But their lives are wildly different now and soon each becomes a danger to the other’s security. It takes place in Harlem in the 1920s, and is an excellent book that gives real insight into this small section of black society at a moment in time.

The English Section is faring much better, with several five star reads so far. That’s partly because this section is packed with lots of re-reads so I knew in advance I already loved them. The prize goes to:

Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. No introduction needed for this one, but I had forgotten just how good it is and how much it had to say about so many concerns of its time. Also, Derek Jacobi’s narration is wonderful – the power of his delivery of the monster’s story in particular moved me to tears and anger, and even literally raised the hairs on the back of my neck at points.

The Scottish Section has been a delight for me. I’m always ashamed at my lack of knowledge of the classics of my own country, so have been thrilled to enjoy nearly every one I’ve read so far. But the prize must go to:

The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison. This is fundamentally a book about young women seeking the men they will eventually marry but it’s also much more than that. It portrays the society of a particular place at a moment in time and does so brilliantly, showing the subtle social stratifications that limit the lives and suitable marriage prospects of these moderately privileged girls still further. Wonderfully written, with some beautiful descriptions of the wild landscape and weather of the Scottish Highlands.

The Crime Section has been great fun to date, with some hugely enjoyable reads and re-reads. I deliberately went for lighter choices on the whole, to provide some relief from the heavier books in the fiction sections. The prize goes to:

Cop Hater by Ed McBain – a re-read from long, long ago, this is the first book in the long-running 87th Precinct series. Set in the 1950s in a fictionalised New York, it’s part hardboiled, part modern police procedural with a touch of noir thrown in for good measure. Writing, setting, atmosphere and characterisation are all superb and, while some of the attitudes are obviously a bit dated, the storytelling isn’t at all.

The Science Fiction Section has been a mixed bag, with a couple of great ones and a couple that feel too dated now. It has set me off reading all of HG Wells sci-fi classics though, so for that reason the winner has to be:

The Island of Dr. Moreau by HG Wells – by far the grimmest of Wells’ classics, this has some horrific imagery and some scenes of real animal cruelty. But through the story he tells, Wells looks at some of the important themes of his time: the dangers of science without ethical controls, social structures and the new political theories, evolution past and future. Superbly written, I found the depth of the ideas it contained vastly outweighed the horror of the imagery.

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So those are the top contenders for favourite from my Classics Club list and, gosh, I’m finding it hard to pick just one to be the overall winner. But it must be done.

The winner is…

THE GOWK STORM

And I’m going to keep going on about it till everyone reads it, so you might as well just give in and get it over with… 😉

So… what do you think of my choices?

FictionFan Awards 2017 – Vintage Crime Fiction/Thriller

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2017.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2016 and October 2017 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction/Thriller

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2017

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

VINTAGE
CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

This category is taking the place of genre fiction this year. My growing obsession with vintage crime fiction has left me with little time to read either sci-fi or horror, and these older books have been some of the most enjoyable reads of the year for me.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White

A young Englishwoman, Iris Carr, is travelling home alone from an unspecified European country. Suffering from sunstroke, she nearly misses her train but a helpful porter shoves her into a carriage at the last moment. The people in the carriage clearly resent her presence – all except one, that is. Miss Froy, another Englishwoman, takes Iris under her wing and carries her off to have tea in the dining carriage. When they return, Iris sleeps for a while. When she awakes, Miss Froy has gone, and the other passengers deny all knowledge of there having ever been another Englishwoman in the carriage…

White’s writing is excellent and, although the motive for the plot is a bit weak, the way she handles the story builds up some great tension. She’s insightful and slightly wicked about the English abroad and about attitudes to women, both of which add touches of humour to lift the tone. And she rather unusually includes sections about Miss Froy’s elderly parents happily anticipating the return of their beloved only child, which gives the thing more emotional depth than I’d have expected in a thriller of this era. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

Click to see the full review

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Verdict of Twelve by Raymond Postgate

A trial is about to commence and the jury is being sworn in. A death has occurred in unusual circumstances and a woman has been charged with murder. But the evidence is largely circumstantial so it will be up to the jury (and the reader) to decide whether the prosecution has proved its case. The book has an unusual format, almost like three separate acts. As each jury member is called to take the oath, we are given background information on them; sometimes a simple character sketch, at others what amounts to a short story telling of events in their lives that have made them what they are. These introductions take up more than a third of the book before we even find out who has been murdered and who is on trial. When the trial begins, the reader is whisked out of the courtroom to see the crime unfold. Finally we see the evidence as it is presented at the trial and then follow the jury members as they deliberate.

Excellent writing, great characterisation, insightful about society, lots of interesting stories within the main story, and a realistic if somewhat cynical look at the strengths and shortcomings of the process of trial by jury. It’s easy to see why this one is considered a classic.

Click to see the full review

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The Golden Sabre by Jon Cleary

Matthew Martin Cabell has been in the Eastern Urals carrying out a survey for the oil company he works for, and now wants to go home to America. But Russia is in the midst of the Civil War that followed the Revolution, and the local leader of the Whites, General Bronevich, sees an American citizen as a good opportunity to make some easy money. Eden Penfold is an English governess looking after the children of a local Prince who has gone to fight in the war. Eden has received a message from the children’s mother that she should bring the young Prince and Princess to her in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), but Eden is worried how she will make the journey safely in these dangerous times. When Bronevich attempts to rape Eden, Cabell kills him – and suddenly Matthew, Eden and the children are on the run through Russia in the Prince’s Rolls Royce… pursued by a dwarf!

Despite some cringe-makingly out-dated language and non-politically correct attitudes towards women and gay men, this is a hugely enjoyable rip-roaring adventure yarn, full of excitement and danger, and with a nice light romance thrown in for good measure. Well written and with likeable lead characters, the pace never lets up – a truly wild ride!

Click to see the full review

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Cop Hater by Ed McBain

When a cop is shot down in the street one night, the squad from the 87th Precinct in Isola swing into action. At first the reason for the shooting isn’t known. Was it random? Was it personal? But when another cop from the precinct is killed in the same way it begins to look like there’s a cop hater on the loose. Now Detective Steve Carella and his colleagues have two reasons to find the killer quickly – to get justice for their fellow officers and to stop the perpetrator before he kills again…

First published in 1956, this is the first in the long-running, successful and influential 87th Precinct series. Writing, setting, atmosphere, characterisation – all superb. While some of the attitudes are obviously a bit dated, the storytelling isn’t at all, and the vices and weaknesses of the human animal haven’t changed much over the years. Excellent stuff – definitely a classic of the genre – a realistic police procedural with an edge of noir.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2017

for

BEST VINTAGE CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Good though the shorlisted books are, in the end this was an easy decision. The Lodger stands out as one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read – what today we would call a psychological thriller.

Mr and Mrs Bunting are becoming desperate. Having left domestic service to run their own lodging house, they’ve had a run of bad luck and are now down to their last few shillings with no way to earn more unless they can find a lodger for their empty rooms. So when a gentleman turns up at their door offering to pay a month’s rent in advance, they are so relieved they overlook the odd facts that Mr Sleuth has no luggage and asks them not to take up references. Meantime, London is agog over a series of horrific murders, all of drunken women. The murderer leaves his calling card on the bodies – a triangular slip of paper pinned to their clothes with the words “The Avenger” written on it…

What Lowndes does so well is show the dilemma in which Mrs Bunting in particular finds herself. It’s not long before she begins to suspect her lodger of being The Avenger. But, on the other hand, there’s nothing definite to say he’s the killer, and Mrs Bunting rather likes him. And, just as importantly, the Buntings rely totally on the rent he pays. It really is brilliantly done – great characterisation and totally credible psychologically. No wonder Hitchcock used this as the basis for his first big success back in the silent movie era. A great classic and a worthy winner indeed!

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Factual

Cop Hater (87th Precinct 1) by Ed McBain

A real classic…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a cop is shot down in the street one night, the squad from the 87th Precinct in Isola swing into action. At first the reason for the shooting isn’t known. Was it random? Was it personal? But when another cop from the precinct is killed in the same way it begins to look like there’s a cop hater on the loose. Now Detective Steve Carella and his colleagues have two reasons to find the killer quickly – to get justice for their fellow officers and to stop the perpetrator before he kills again…

First published in 1956, this is the first in the long-running, successful and influential 87th Precinct series. I read many of them in my teens, but this is the first time I’ve revisited the Precinct in decades. I have no memory of the individual plots, but vividly remember the setting and several of the characters – a testimony to how well drawn they are. In this one Steve Carella is the main focus but as the series progressed McBain developed an entire group of detectives who took their turn in the spotlight, which is why the series is known by the name of the squad rather than any one detective. Carella stays at the forefront more than the other detectives overall, though, throughout the series. The books are based in Isola, an area of a major city which is clearly a fictionalised New York. The various boroughs have been given different names but are apparently recognisable to people who know the city (which I only do through books and TV or movies – I suspect my first impressions of New York may in fact have come from this series).

Apparently the series was made into a TV show. I had no idea – I wonder if it wasn’t shown on this side of the pond…

The style seems to me like a kind of crossover point between the hardboiled fiction of Hammett, Chandler and their generation, and the more modern police procedural that would come to the fore and perhaps dominate crime fiction over the next few decades. (I hasten to add I’m no expert and not particularly widely-read, especially in American crime fiction, so this is just my own impression – perhaps other writers had been making the transition before McBain got there.) When he writes about the city – the soaring skylines, the dazzling lights, the display of wealth and glamour barely hiding the crime, corruption and violence down on the streets – it reads like pure noir; and in this one there’s a femme fatale who equals any of the greats, oozing sexuality and confidence in her power over men.

But when he writes about Carella and the squad his tone is warmer, less hard-edged. While hardboiled and noir detectives always seem to be loners, rather mysterious men without much in the way of backstory, McBain’s police officers are real humans, who joke and watch sports, who have wives and children. Personally I prefer that mix to pure noir – McBain’s detectives aren’t always wholly likeable, but they’re human enough to allow me to care about them. Also, because he uses an entire squad as his protagonist, each individual is more expendable than the single hero or partnership of many other authors, so there’s always an air of real suspense as to whether they will come through dangerous situations. They don’t always…

The plot is excellent – I won’t give any spoilers, but I will say that it was only just before the reveal that I really got any idea of where it was heading. McBain creates great atmosphere with his writing, which actually is of much higher quality than I remembered. Some of the scenes had me on the edge of my seat and he left me shocked more than once, but without ever stepping over the credibility line. In fact, realism is at the heart of the book – these detectives have to rely on doing the legwork, using informants and hoping for lucky breaks. There’s a fair amount of casual police brutality, with the impression that this was the norm back then, and rather approved of than otherwise, both within the service and by society in general (and, I suspect, by McBain himself). Times change – depictions of casual and repeated brutality by police protagonists in contemporary British crime fiction annoy me because it wouldn’t be considered acceptable here today and so jars as unrealistic. But it feels right in this book, and isn’t over-emphasised; it’s just part of the job.

Ed McBain
Copyright: Getty Images

There’s also a strand about the relationship between the police and the press, with an irresponsible journalist creating problems for the investigation. This is handled very well, with the reader put firmly on the side of the police. They may not always be nice guys, but McBain leaves us in no doubt that they’re the good guys. And yes, I do mean guys – no women yet in this detective squad. Women are strictly either femmes fatales or loving wives and girlfriends. Well, it was the ’50s!

The ending has aspects of the thriller and again reverts to a more noir-ish feel as we discover the motivation behind the crimes.

I was expecting to like this but perhaps to find it a bit dated. In fact, I loved it. Writing, setting, atmosphere, characterisation – all superb. While some of the attitudes are obviously a bit dated, the storytelling isn’t at all, and the vices and weaknesses of the human animal haven’t changed much over the years. Excellent stuff – definitely a classic of the genre, and highly recommended to anyone who enjoys a realistic police procedural with an edge of noir. I was intending to read this as a one-off as part of my Classics Club challenge, but I’ll certainly be revisiting the 87th Precinct again.

Book 13 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….…at night, coming down the River Highway, you were caught in a dazzling galaxy of brilliant suns, a web of lights strung out from the river and then south to capture the city in a brilliant display of electrical wizardry. The highway lights glistened close and glistened farther as they skirted the city and reflected in the dark waters of the river. The windows of the buildings climbed in brilliant rectangular luminosity, climbed to the stars and joined the wash of red and green and yellow and orange neon which tinted the sky. The traffic lights blinked their gaudy eyes and along the stem, the incandescent display tangled in a riot of color and eye-aching splash.
….The city lay like a sparkling nest of rare gems, shimmering in layer upon layer of pulsating intensity.
….The buildings were a stage set.
….They faced the river, and they glowed with man-made brilliance, and you stared up at them in awe, and you caught your breath.
….Behind the buildings, behind the lights, were the streets.
….There was garbage in the streets.

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December 25, 1942… Our division no. 333 of the 56th Army occupied an elevation on the approach to Stalingrad. The enemy decided to take it back at all costs. A battle began. Tanks attacked us, but our artillery stopped them. The Germans rolled back, and a wounded lieutenant, the artillerist Kostia Khudov, was left in no-man’s land. The orderlies who tried to bring him back were killed. Two first-aid sheepdogs (this was the first time I saw them) crept toward him, but were also killed. And then I took off my flap-eared hat, stood up tall, and began to sing our favourite pre-war song: “I saw you off to a great deed,” first softly, then more and more loudly. Everything became hushed on both sides – ours and the Germans’. I went up to Kostia, bent down, put him on a sledge, and took him to our side. I walked and thought: “Only not in the back, better let them shoot me in the head.” So, right now… right now… The last minutes of my life… Right now! Interesting: will I feel the pain or not? How frightening, mama dear! But not a single shot was fired…

Maria Petrovna Smirnova, Medical Assistant

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….He had steeled himself just a little for the Jump through hyper-space, a phenomenon one did not experience in simple interplanetary trips. The Jump remained, and would probably remain forever, the only practical method of travelling between the stars. Travel through ordinary space could proceed at no rate more rapid than that of ordinary light (a bit of scientific knowledge that belonged among the items known since the forgotten dawn of human history), and that would have meant years of travel between even the nearest of inhabited systems. Through hyper-space, that unimaginable region that was neither space nor time, matter nor energy, something nor nothing, one could traverse the length of the Galaxy in the interval between two neighboring instants of time.
….Gaal had waited for the first of those Jumps with a little dread curled gently in his stomach, and it ended in nothing more than a trifling jar, a little internal kick which ceased an instant before he could be sure he had felt it. That was all.

* * * * * * * * *

….Time passed. I acquired a girlfriend, lost her, acquired another, lost her as well. My secret movie script, my most demanding lover, disliked my attempts at these misconceived relationships with human beings, and sulked, and refused to yield up its secrets. My Late Twenties were steaming toward me, and I like a swooning nickelodeon hero lay helpless across the tracks. (My literary parents would no doubt have preferred that I refer, instead, to the climactic railway-tracks scene in Forster’s The Longest Journey.) The Gardens were my microcosm, and every day I saw the creatures of my imagination staring back at me from the windows of houses on both Macdougal and Sullivan, hollow-eyed, pleading to be born. I had pieces of them all but the shape of the work eluded me. At #XX Sullivan Street, on the first floor, with garden access, I had placed my Burmese – I should say Myanmaran – diplomat, U Lnu Fnu of the United Nations, his professional heart broken by his defeat in the longest-ever battle for the post of Secretary-General, twenty-nine consecutive rounds of voting without a winner, and in the thirtieth round he lost to the South Korean.

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….“…they call me Barbecue.”
….“Barbecue? Why’s that?”
….“Oh, you don’t want to hear. It’s a sad story . . . we’d barely rounded that great jut on the French coast when we got shipwrecked. On the island of Ushant, hiding in all them jagged barren rocks from the French troops, having to fend for ourselves on starvation rations till we could hail the next British ship sailing by. What food we had was running low and so, Jim, what could I do but make a sacrifice for my own shipmates?”
….“A… a sacrifice?”
….“We’d saved from the wreck some of my cooking equipment, including a great chopping knife – like this one here. And with the edge of that knife, why, I sawed off my own leg.”
….“S…sawed…?”
….“What else could I do? And then I cooked it.”
….“Cooked…?”
….“The flesh off my calves made a fine pair of fillet steaks. The blood I drained for a kind of sauce. I screwed the marrow out of the bones to make a brand of paté, and I even boiled my bony old foot for soup. And I said to my starving shipmates ‘Take! Eat! This is my body. This is my blood. Which I ask you to eat and drink in remembrance, should I not survive, of your old shipmate John Silver. And d’ye know what happened next, Jim?”
….“What?”
….“Why, they all choked to death on that rotten meat and I got all the good grub to myself. Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha-a-a! I’m joking! Jim! Joking! Storifying!”

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 131…

Episode 131…

Woohoo! The TBR has dropped down another 1 to 194! Admittedly this is mainly due to abandoning books rather than reading them – I’m spending so much time staring at the news like a rabbit at a snake that my reading is down to almost nil at the moment. As is my reviewing – I have such a backlog of unwritten reviews that I may have to disappear for a bit soon till I have something ready for posting.

Talking of abandoning things, I’ve finally abandoned the 20 Books of Summer challenge. Since I abandoned five out of the first ten books, I guess my list wasn’t as much fun as I anticipated, and I’m now so far behind on it I can’t be bothered even trying to catch up. I’ll still be reading the other books but… no deadlines! I hope my fellow participants are doing better!

Here are a few that should get to the top of the heap soon, if I ever get back to my normal reading patterns…

Factual

For the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge, this is apparently a highly biased eye-witness accounts of events as recorded by a British journalist…

The Blurb says: This first-person chronicle by John Reed, a legendary journalist who was present at the flash point of the Russian Revolution in 1917, provides an intense and informative eyewitness account of one of the greatest events of the twentieth century.

Capturing the spirit of those heady days of excitement and idealism, Reed’s true-to-life account follows many of the prominent Bolshevik leaders, as well as vividly capturing the mood of the masses. Verbatim reports of speeches by leaders, and comments of bystanders — set against an idealized backdrop of the proletariat united with soldiers, sailors, and peasants — are balanced by passionate narratives describing the fall of the provisional government, the assault on the Winter Palace, and Lenin’s seizure of power.

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Sci-Fi

For the Classics Club. This is a re-read, but from so many years ago I have only the vaguest memory of it. If the blurb sounds like a million other sci-fi/fantasy books, that’s because they’ve all copied this one…

The Blurb says: For twelve thousand years the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. But only Hari Sheldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future–to a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years. To preserve knowledge and save mankind, Seldon gathers the best minds in the Empire–both scientists and scholars–and brings them to a bleak planet at the edge of the Galaxy to serve as a beacon of hope for a fututre generations. He calls his sanctuary the Foundation.

But soon the fledgling Foundation finds itself at the mercy of corrupt warlords rising in the wake of the receding Empire. Mankind’s last best hope is faced with an agonizing choice: submit to the barbarians and be overrun–or fight them and be destroyed.

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Crime

Another one for the Classics Club and another re-read. I don’t read much American police-based crime because the obsession with guns bores me – give me an obscure South American poison any day! (Well, not literally, you understand…!) But I remember enjoying this series long ago, so hope it might live up to my memories…

The Blurb says: As a cop with the city’s famed 87th Precinct, Steve Carella has seen it all. Or so he thinks. Because nothing can prepare him for the sight that greets him on a sweltering July night: fellow detective Mike Reardon’s dead body splayed across the sidewalk, his face blown away by a .45.

Days later, Reardon’s partner is found dead, a .45-caliber bullet buried deep in his chest. Only a fool would call it a coincidence, and Carella’s no fool. He chalks the whole ugly mess up to a grudge killing…until a third murder shoots that theory to hell. Armed with only a single clue, Carella delves deep into the city’s underbelly, launching a grim search for answers that will lead him from a notorious brothel to the lair of a beautiful, dangerous widow. He won’t stop until he finds the truth—or until the next bullet finds him.

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Adventure

Something a bit lighter for the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge. This comes high up on the Goodreads list of books set during those events…

The Blurb says: THE GOLDEN SABRE is a 1981 novel written by award-winning Australian author Jon Cleary. During the Russian Revolution of 1917, an American mining engineer and English governess flee across country.

In the Russia of 1917 Matthew Cabell, an American oil prospector, befriends a Russian Prince and Princess and their English governess. Their journey across Russia to the Caspian Sea, in the family Rolls Royce, is full of wild adventure and narrow escapes.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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

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