TBR Thursday 366 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 366

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

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OK, People, time for another batch of four, all from 2021. I like to run three months ahead with these polls, so the winner will be an April read. Mystery at Lynden Sands by JJ Connington is one for my Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge. I added The Brownie of Bodsbeck after enjoying James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Graham Greene’s two-novella volume, The Third Man and The Fallen Idol, is on my Classics Club list. And I added Hemingway’s Complete Short Stories because it came up as a Kindle sale! It’s a strange batch this time, I think!

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Vintage Crime

Mystery at Lynden Sands by JJ Connington

Added 19th April 2021. 88 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.08 average rating. 294 pages.

The Blurb says: In the fourth Sir Clinton Driffield mystery, the detective finds himself up against a missing heir, an accidental bigamist, a series of secret marriages and impersonations and an ingenious scientific murder. Aided by his wit and powers of reasoning, as well as Wendover, his very own Watson, Sir Clinton once again succeeds in piecing together a solution as the novel reaches its thrilling climax.

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Fiction

The Brownie of Bodsbeck by James Hogg

Added 22nd May 2021. 7 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.29 average. 203 pages.

The Blurb says: “Walter’s blood curdled within him at this relation. He was superstitious, but he always affected to disbelieve the existence of the Brownie, though the evidences were so strong as not to admit of any doubt; but this double assurance, that his only daughter, whom he loved above all the world besides, was leagued with evil spirits, utterly confounded him.” (Extract)

(FF says: I can’t find a proper blurb for this one, but apparently it’s about the persecution of the Covenanters by the Royalists led by Claverhouse in late 17th century Scotland, if that means anything to you!)

James Hogg (1770-1835) was a Scottish poet, novelist and essayist who wrote in both Scots and English. As a young man he worked as a shepherd and farmhand, and was largely self-educated through reading. He was a friend of many of the great writers of his day, including Sir Walter Scott, of whom he later wrote an unauthorized biography.

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Fiction

The Third Man and The Fallen Idol by Graham Greene

Added 6th June 2021. 2,750 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.74 average. 146 pages.

The Blurb says: The Third Man is Graham Greene’s brilliant recreation of post-war Vienna, a ‘smashed dreary city’ occupied by the four Allied powers. Rollo Martins, a second-rate novelist, arrives penniless to visit his friend and hero, Harry Lime. But Harry has died in suspicious circumstances, and the police are closing in on his associates…

The Fallen Idol is the chilling story of a small boy caught up in the games that adults play. Left in the care of the butler and his wife whilst his parents go on a fortnight’s holiday, Philip realises too late the danger of lies and deceit. But the truth is even deadlier.

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Short Stories

Complete Short Stories by Ernest Hemingway

Added 27th June 2021. 35,296 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.29 average. 676 pages. 

The Blurb says: This stunning collection of short stories by Nobel Prize­–winning author, Ernest Hemingway, contains a lifetime of work—ranging from fan favorites to several stories only available in this compilation.

In this definitive collection of short stories, you will delight in Ernest Hemingway’s most beloved classics such as “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” and discover seven new tales published for the first time in this collection. For Hemingway fans The Complete Short Stories is an invaluable treasury.

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

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VOTE NOW!

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

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TBR Thursday 363 and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

I usually include a summary of how I’m progressing (or not) towards the targets I set myself for the year, but since I’ll be looking at my New Year’s Resolutions old and new tomorrow, I’ll leave that for then. So just a round-up of the books I’ve read and reviewed for my various ongoing challenges this time.

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The Classics Club

I’ve read another two from my list this quarter, but haven’t reviewed either of them yet. And I had three still to review from the quarter before and have reviewed just one of them! So four outstanding – must do better…

10. The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler – This ‘thriller’ completely failed to thrill, becoming bogged down in turgid descriptions of obscure Eastern European politics that may have interested a contemporary audience but didn’t interest me. I said “Have never been quite so bored in my entire life, except possibly during the whale classification sections of Moby Dick.” Abandoned at 30%. 1 star.

Oh dear! A pity, since I enjoyed all four of the ones I haven’t reviewed! 😉

10 down, 70 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve read four for this challenge this quarter and had another two left still to review from the quarter before, and have reviewed five, so just one left outstanding…

54. Calamity Town by Ellery Queen. A slightly weak plot, perhaps, and could have done with some trimming of the length. But the depiction of the town and the characterisation of the family and townspeople are excellently done and the writing is great. 5 stars.

55. Max Carrados by Ernest Bramah. A collection of short stories about blind amateur detective Max Carrados. The stories are well written and some of the plots are interesting, though others are pretty dull, but I tired very quickly of Carrados’ superhuman compensating sensory abilities. 3 stars.

56. Israel Rank by Roy Horniman. I could probably have tolerated the anti-Semitism as of its time, but I found the book dull and overlong, and eventually abandoned it halfway through. It’s the book that the film Kind Hearts and Coronets is based on, and my advice is forget the book and watch the film! 2 stars

57. The Nursing Home Murder by Ngaio Marsh. A revisit to an old favourite series, which happily I found has stood the test of time well despite some of the usual Golden Age snobbery. Alleyn is quite a cheerful detective, who enjoys his job and has a keen sense of justice, so the books fall neatly into that sweet spot that is neither too cosy nor too grim. 4 stars.

58. Death on the Down Beat by Sebastian Farr. The murder of a conductor mid-performance provides a unique little puzzle that’s told almost entirely through letters and documents related to the case, including newspaper clippings,  a chart of the orchestra and even four pages of the score of the relevant part of the music being played at the time of the victim’s demise! I loved the sheer fun and novelty of the musical clues, which allowed me to overlook the book’s other weaknesses. 5 stars.

As has been the case throughout this challenge, a mixed bunch, but more good than bad this time!

58 down, 44 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I read and reviewed the final two books for this challenge, and posted my wrap post yesterday…

12. The Gate of the Sun by Derek Lambert. This is a long book which covers the years from the early stages of the war, 1937, by which time the International Brigades were active, to 1975, the year of Franco’s death. Lambert’s desire to paint a panoramic picture of Spain’s development over forty years sometimes took him too far from the personal stories which turn history into novels. But for the most part I found the book absorbing, very well written and deeply insightful about the war-time conditions, its aftermath and the impact on some of the people caught up in events. 4 for the novel, 5 for the accuracy of and insight into the historical setting, so overall 4½ stars.

13. Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom. 1940, and four people, all British, play out their own drama in a Madrid still wrecked and reeling, its people starving and afraid. Well written as any book by Sansom is, grounded in accurate history but seen through an obvious left-wing lens, and more of a slow thoughtful look at the period than a fast-paced political or action thriller. 4 stars.

Two good books to finish off this challenge triumphantly!

13 down, 0 to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I read three this quarter and had two still to review form the quarter before. I’ve reviewed all five and am up-to-date! So did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

August – The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler. Sadly it fared no better as a People’s Choice than it did as a Classic! 😉 1 star.

September – Cloudstreet by Tim Winton. While willing to accept that this is probably a good depiction of a time and a place, I fear I never get along with plotless novels, and by 20% of this long book no plot had begun to emerge. Abandoned. 2 stars.

October – Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Probably best described as a literary science fiction set in a dystopian world but in our own recent past, this is not about a struggle against injustice, a battle for rights – it is a portrait of brainwashing, and of a society that has learned how to look the other way. I found it thought-provoking and quietly devastating, and sadly all too relevant to the world we live in. 5 stars.

NovemberThe Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson. A raid by Barbary pirates results in a group of Icelanders being taken to a life of slavery in Algiers. The historical aspects are interesting and, I assume, accurate. But I found the central romance between slave and slave-owner outdated and rather nauseating. 2 stars.

DecemberThe Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie. Poirot and Hastings on the trail of a murderer in France. An early one from when Christie was still developing her characters and her style, but already her trademark plotting skills are evident in this entertaining mystery. 4½ stars.

So a mixed bag to finish the year, but the couple of great books well outweighed the rather less stellar ones. Good work, People! Possibly my favourite challenge since I never know what You will choose! Let’s do it all again next year!

12 down, 0 to go!

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So a few duds this quarter, but many really excellent books too! I’m still a mile behind with reviews, especially of Classics, but hopefully I’ll get on top of the backlog in the New Year. Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

The Murder on the Links (Poirot) by Agatha Christie

Poirot and the foxhound…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

On his way home from Paris, the ever-susceptible Hastings is charmed by a girl who shares his carriage on the train to Calais. As they part he asks her name and, laughing, she replies “Cinderella”. He never expects to see her again, but of course he does! The next day Poirot receives a letter begging him to come to Merlinville-sur-Mer, a small resort midway between Boulogne and Calais, to look into an urgent matter for a M. Renauld. Renauld says he is in imminent fear for his life, and though Poirot and Hastings travel there as quickly as they can, alas, too late! Renauld is dead, stabbed in the back and tipped into a shallow open grave on the golf course that borders his property. Poirot feels he owes it to his would-be client to work with the French authorities to find his killer…

Christie’s third book and only the second Poirot novel, she still at this stage hasn’t quite settled into the style that would eventually become her trademark, but in terms of plotting this is a big step up from her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Hastings too has settled into the character with which we are familiar. Poirot is still rather different – he’s much more physically active than in the later books, and although there are mentions of things like his passion for order, his eccentricities are not yet so much in evidence. There are odd little things that stand out, like his moustache being described as “military” rather than the later “luxurious” and so on, but he’s closer to his final characterisation than he was in Styles. His relationship with the French police detective, Giraud, is much more of a rivalry than the collaborative approach he has with the police inspectors he works with in later books – his attitude to Giraud, and Giraud’s to him, reminded me much more of Holmes’ sarcastic superiority than Poirot’s later affectionate mockery.

The plot is nicely complicated, with plenty of shifts and twists along the way. On the night before Poirot and Hastings arrive, Renauld and his wife were woken in the night by two masked men, who proceeded to tie up and gag Mme Renauld, and then demanded that Renauld tell them the “secret”. When he refused, they dragged him out of the room, and he wasn’t seen alive again. What was the secret they were after? Renauld had mentioned Santiago in his letter to Poirot, and it transpired he had business dealings there. His son, Jack, was about to set off to Santiago on his father’s instructions, but M Renauld hadn’t told him why, simply that he would send further instructions later. But there are odd things closer to home too. Why has Renauld had several meetings with a neighbour, Mme Daubreuil? Were they having an affair? Why does Mme Daubreuil’s lovely daughter Marthe have anxious eyes? Who is the mysterious Bella Duveen, a letter from whom is found in Renauld’s overcoat pocket? And what has Cinderella to do with the whole thing? And just when things seem complicated enough, another dead body is found…

Agatha Christie

Giraud is the “foxhound” style of detective, minutely poring over the ground in search of physical clues, like the match that appears to be of a kind more common in South America. Poirot is more thoughtfully observant, as likely to spot what should be there but isn’t as to obsess about what is there. While Giraud hides behind bushes to eavesdrop, Poirot simply listens to what people tell him, and uses his little grey cells to spot the tiny inconsistencies that will lead him to the truth. I did work out part of the howdunit aspect of the plot, but was still taken by surprise by the solution to the whodunit.

My memory of this was that it was quite a weak one which is why it’s so long since I revisited it. But I was wrong – it’s a good plot, an interesting story and there’s plenty of fun along the way, plus a touch of romance for our Hastings. It’s also enjoyable for seeing how Christie was continuing to develop her style and her characters. Not one of her very best, but as always with Christie, even her second tier novels are better than most people’s best. Well worth reading!

Book 12 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for December. You were very kind, People, to pick me a Christie – always a sure-fire winner! 😀

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 362 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 362

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

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OK, People, time for another batch of four, all from 2021. I’m early this month because Santa will be here soon! Again these are all ones I really want to read from authors I’ve previously enjoyed, so you can’t go wrong whichever one you vote for. I like to run three months ahead with these polls, so the winner will be a March read. I added See You in September by Charity Norman after enjoying her later book, The Secrets of Strangers. Philip Roth’s The Human Stain will complete my re-read of Roth’s brilliant American Trilogy. ECR Lorac is one of my favourite vintage mystery writers, which is why I acquired Rope’s End, Rogue’s End. And I added Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede to my Classics Club list after enjoying Black Narcissus.

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Thriller

See You in September by Charity Norman

Added 1st February 2021. 2,870 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.24 average rating. 413 pages.

The Blurb says: It was supposed to be a short trip – a break in New Zealand before her best friend’s wedding. But when Cassy waved goodbye to her parents, they never dreamed that it would be years before they’d see her again.

Having broken up with her boyfriend, Cassy accepts an invitation to stay in an idyllic farming collective. Overcome by the peace and beauty of the valley and swept up in the charisma of Justin, the community’s leader, Cassy becomes convinced that she has to stay.

As Cassy becomes more and more entrenched in the group’s rituals and beliefs, her frantic parents fight to bring her home – before Justin’s prophesied Last Day can come to pass.

A powerful story of family, faith and finding yourself, See You in September is an unputdownable new novel from this hugely compelling author.

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Fiction

The Human Stain by Philip Roth

Added 3rd February 2021. 38,416 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.90 average. 361 pages.

The Blurb says: The American psyche is channelled into the gripping story of one man. This is the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Philip Roth at his very best.

It is 1998, the year America is plunged into a frenzy of prurience by the impeachment of a president. In a small New England town a distinguished professor, Coleman Silk, is forced to retire when his colleagues allege that he is a racist. The charge is unfounded, the persecution needless, but the truth about Silk would astonish even his most virulent accuser. Coleman Silk has a secret that he has kept for fifty years. This is the conclusion to Roth’s brilliant trilogy of post-war America – a story of seismic shifts in American history and a personal search for renewal and regeneration.

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Vintage Crime

Rope’s End, Rogue’s End by ECR Lorac

Added 18th February 2021. 364 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.06 average. 192 pages.

The Blurb says: Wulfstane Manor, a rambling old country house with many unused rooms, winding staircases and a maze of cellars, had been bequeathed to Veronica Mallowood and her brother Martin. The last time the large family of Mallowoods had all foregathered under the ancestral roof was on the occasion of their father’s funeral, and there had been one of those unholy rows which not infrequently follow the reading of a will. That was some years ago, and as Veronica found it increasingly difficult to go on paying for the upkeep of Wulfstane, she summoned another family conference – a conference in which Death took a hand.  Rope’s End, Rogue’s End  is, of course, an Inspector MacDonald case, in which that popular detective plays a brilliant part.

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Classic Fiction

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden

Added 2nd March 2021. 5,461 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.34 average. 392 pages. 

The Blurb says: ‘The motto was Pax but the word was set in a circle of thorns. Peace, but what a strange peace, made of unremitting toil and effort . . .’

Bruised by tragedy, Philippa Talbot leaves behind a successful career with the civil service for a new calling: to join an enclosed order of Benedictine nuns. In this small community of fewer than one hundred women, she soon discovers all the human frailties: jealousy, love, despair. But each crisis of heart and conscience is guided by the compassion and intelligence of the Abbess and by the Sisters’ shared bond of faith and ritual. Away from the world, and yet at one with it, Philippa must learn to forgive and forget her past.

A vivid and exceedingly insightful portrait of religious community, In This House of Brede is the second instalment in Godden’s acclaimed ‘convent novels.’

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

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VOTE NOW!

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

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The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

Slavery, Mills and Boon style…

😐 😐

It is 1627 when a horde of Barbary pirates raid the Westman Islands off the coast of Iceland and carry off 400 people to be sold into slavery in Algiers. Among them is Ásta, a married woman pregnant with her fourth child. Two of her children are with her while the third was left behind in Iceland. She, her children and her husband, Ólafur, will all have different experiences that will change them for ever…

That is, they will once we’ve gone through sixty pages of labour aboard a slave ship in which we are gifted descriptions of every contraction, finally followed by the usual bloody and traumatic birthing beloved of fiction writers, but not beloved by yours truly who finds that when you’ve read about one harrowing childbirth you’ve pretty much read about them all.

On arrival in Algiers, Ásta and her now three children are sold into slavery, with Ásta and the two youngest bought by a rich Muslim called Cilleby, and Ásta becomes one of the women in his harem. Meantime Ólafur, a Christian pastor, is sent back to Iceland to negotiate ransom for the captives from the King. The King is not keen to pay out, though, so the slaves’ captivity stretches out to many years. Some are luckier than others. While Ásta and some of the younger women are kept in harems in a luxury they have never known before, older women and men become forced labour, many of them underfed and cruelly treated. As time goes on, more and more of them die, while others, usually the children and younger ones, reconcile themselves to their new country, forsake their Christianity for the Muslim faith, and are freed to become citizens and make new lives for themselves.

Although I didn’t love this book while I was reading it, I didn’t hate it either, at least not till quite late on. The historical aspects are interesting and, I assume, accurate, and Magnusson writes well, although unfortunately in the tedious present tense. The religious element of the slaves having to decide whether to remain Christian or adapt to Islam is handled reasonably well. Those who hold onto their Christian faith also hold onto the hope that one day they will be ransomed and return home. In the meantime, though, they will continue as slaves. Those who feel less of a pull to Iceland are more willing to convert if it means that they can become free citizens of a country filled with warmth and luxuries they had never before encountered. But if they convert, they will never be welcome back in Christian Iceland, even if the ransom ever finally shows up. Magnusson doesn’t take a side which is politically correct of her, but leaves the story rather flat. If no one is right or wrong, then where’s the emotion? The book is also incredibly slow – those endless contractions in the beginning just the start of a story told with far too much repetition and not enough pace.

But what eventually led me to actively dislike the book is Ásta’s story. It turns into a nice cosy love story where the male love interest just happens to be a slave owner and the female is his slave. But fear not! He’s terribly civil, and instead of forcing his unwanted sexual attentions on her (but are they unwanted?) he listens while she fends him off by telling him the Icelandic sagas she learned as a child. It reads like a cross between a Mills and Boon romance and a remake of The King and I, with elements of One Thousand and One Nights thrown in for good measure.

Sally Magnusson

Books where women are seduced by cruel, masterful types are fine by me if they were written a hundred years ago, but not so much if they’re written now unless they have considerably more psychological depth than this has. Do I believe that female slaves had willing sex with their masters to keep themselves and their children safe and maybe gain a bit of luxury? Yes, I do. Do I believe it’s possible for a slave-owner and a slave to genuinely fall in love despite power imbalances and cultural and religious differences? Yes, I do. However, do I believe female slaves slept with their slave-owners because they were overwhelmed with love and desire to the extent that even their children mattered less than a bit of exotic rumpy-pumpy? Er, no. Well, maybe, but if so don’t look for my sympathy – it’s gone AWOL. Do I believe that slave-owning men who want a bit of rumpy-pumpy with a slave would be willing to listen to Icelandic sagas night after night for years instead? Now my credulity has eloped with my sympathy…

So in the end my general lack of enthusiasm turned to active distaste. A pity – the premise is interesting and Magnusson seems to know her history. But the hackneyed romanticisation of the master/slave story used to tie it together left me feeling rather nauseated. In the end the lack of a decent plot led me to think that she would have been better to write the story of this episode as a non-fiction.

Book 11 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for November – a choice I was pleased about since I expected to enjoy it much more than I did in the end, so all blame is mine!

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 359 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 359

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

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OK, People, time for another batch of four – ending 2020 and moving into 2021. At this stage I was obviously making a determined effort to stop adding random books on a whim, so most of these are books I’m really keen to read. I like to run three months ahead with these polls, so the winner will be a February read. I’ve read lots of Robert Harris and loved most of them, so added Archangel to my list. With John le Carré, I’ve only read one before, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, and also loved it, so added Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I haven’t read any James Robertson which is a real omission since he’s one of the major contemporary Scottish authors. I’ve acquired a couple of his books, and Joseph Knight is the first. Over Her Dead Body is the exception – I don’t know AB Morgan at all and can’t remember why I added this one. Perhaps it was a Kindle deal? Sounds like it could be fun though.

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Thriller

Archangel by Robert Harris

Added 1st December 2020. 10,773 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.81 average rating. 438 pages.

The Blurb says: Deadly secrets lurk beneath the Russian ice.

Historian Fluke Kelso is in Moscow, attending a conference on recently unclassified Soviet papers, when an old veteran of the Soviet secret police visits his hotel room in the dead of night. He tells Kelso about a secret notebook belonging to Josef Stalin, stolen on the night of his death.

Though Kelso expects little, he agrees to investigate. But in the new Russia, swirling with dark money and falling into the grip of anonymous oligarchs, a man seeking the truth is a dangerous quantity. Eyes are turning his way.

Kelso must survive the violent political intrigue and decadence of Moscow before he can venture to the icy north. There, in the vast forests surrounding the White Sea port of Archangel, Kelso’s quest soon becomes a terrifying encounter with Russia’s unburied past – and Stalin’s last secret.

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Spy Fiction

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carré

Added 12th December 2020. 86,643 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.05 average. 416 pages.

The Blurb says: The first part of John le Carré’s acclaimed Karla Trilogy, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy sees the beginning of the stealthy Cold War cat-and-mouse game between the taciturn, dogged George Smiley and his wily Soviet counterpart.

A mole, implanted by Moscow Centre, has infiltrated the highest ranks of the British Intelligence Service, almost destroying it in the process. And so former spymaster George Smiley has been brought out of retirement in order to hunt down the traitor at the very heart of the Circus – even though it may be one of those closest to him.

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Historical Fiction

Joseph Knight by James Robertson

Added 29th December 2020. 417 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.07 average. 372 pages.

The Blurb says: Exiled to Jamaica after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, Sir John Wedderburn made a fortune, alongside his three brothers, as a faux surgeon and sugar planter. In the 1770s, he returned to Scotland to marry and re-establish the family name. He brought with him Joseph Knight, a black slave and a token of his years in the Caribbean.

Now, in 1802, Sir John Wedderburn is settling his estate, and has hired a solicitor’s agent, Archibald Jamieson, to search for his former slave. The past has haunted Wedderburn ever since Culloden, and ever since he last saw Knight, in court twenty-four years ago, in a case that went to the heart of Scottish society, pitting master against slave, white against black, and rich against poor.

As long as Knight is missing, Wedderburn will never be able to escape the past. Yet what will he do if Jamieson’s search is successful? And what effect will this re-opening of old wounds have on those around him? Meanwhile, as Jamieson tries to unravel the true story of Joseph Knight he begins to question his own motivation. How can he possibly find a man who does not want to be found?

James Robertson’s second novel is a tour de force, the gripping story of a search for a life that stretches over sixty years and moves from battlefields to the plantations of Jamaica, from Enlightenment Edinburgh to the back streets of Dundee. It is a moving narrative of history, identity and ideas, that dramatically retells a fascinating but forgotten episode of Scottish history.

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Mystery Thriller

Over Her Dead Body by AB Morgan

Added 6th January 2021. 101 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.40 average. 356 pages. 

The Blurb says: Gabby Dixon is dead. That’s news to her…

Recently divorced and bereaved, Gabby Dixon is trying to start a new chapter in her life. As her new life begins, it ends. On paper at least. But Gabby is still very much alive. As a woman who likes to be in control, this situation is deeply unsettling.

She has two crucial questions: who would want her dead, and why?

Enter Peddyr and Connie Quirk. husband-and-wife private investigators. Gabby needs their help to find out who is behind her sudden death.

The truth is a lot more sinister than a simple case of stolen identity.

Over Her Dead Body is a ‘what if’ tale full of brilliantly drawn characters, quirky humour and dark plot twists.

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

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VOTE NOW!

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

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Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Best days of our lives…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Kathy H, at the age of thirty-one, is coming to the end of her career as a carer and looks back at her life, especially her time at Hailsham, the school where she lived throughout her childhood, and the friends she made there. Even as children they all knew Hailsham was a special place and that they too were special, marked out to be carers first, and then donors. But it is only in the last few years that Kathy has come to question that path, and to wonder, along with her best friends Ruth and Tommy, if anyone is ever allowed to deviate from it…

Coming to this book so late it feels almost pointless to avoid spoilers, since I expect almost everyone already knows what the book is about. But I’ll try anyway! It’s probably best described as a literary science fiction set in a dystopian world but in our own recent past – the late 20th century, that is. The core subject is one that has been done many times before and since in science fiction, but is no less powerful for that. The first thing that made it feel different for me is that the narrator, though she sometimes questions things, is ultimately accepting of the life that is mapped out for her. This is not about a struggle against injustice, a battle for rights – it is a portrait of brainwashing, and of a society that has learned how to look the other way.

Secondly, until very near the end we only meet the students of Hailsham and other schools of the same kind, and later when they’re grown up, the carers and donors they become. The other side of society, where the “normal” people live – the ones we’d be in this world – is left almost completely blank, which I found made the book unsettling and rather ambiguous. What happened to this society? A past war is mentioned, but just once in passing. But the roads that Kathy drives along as she moves between the donors under her care are usually empty and the world seems as if it has been somehow depopulated. Are they, the normal people, rich? Poor? Do they have residual health problems from whatever event led to the depopulation? Do they struggle with the morality of what is being done in these isolated schools? Or do they perhaps not know? Or not care?

I felt it was easy to work out pretty early on what was going on with regards to the carers and donors, and I think that’s deliberate. The central mystery is more to do with why Hailsham is seen as special even among the students of the other schools. At Hailsham a great emphasis is placed on art and creativity, and a mysterious Madame visits occasionally and takes away the best of the students’ artworks. The rumour among the children is that Madame runs a Gallery where this art is shown to the public, but when they reach adulthood this explanation seems less satisfactory, and Kathy’s friends have another theory, which they will eventually set out to prove or disprove.

Kazuo Ishiguro

Kathy is a wonderful narrative voice and I grew to care about her very much. Her changing relationships over the years with her two closest friends, Ruth and Tommy, are beautifully portrayed, and while Kathy doesn’t spend much time emoting, nevertheless the book is deeply emotional. She looks back at the three of them in childhood with an adult eye, and can therefore evaluate their interactions more objectively in retrospect. She knows their weaknesses and her own, and sometimes their friendship is strained almost to breaking point, but those early experiences hold them in a kind of web of their own making, a web that may feel like a trap sometimes but is fundamentally spun from love. In Hailsham, no families visit, there are no vacations or interaction with the outside world, so the children there are all each other have. They are not treated cruelly; they are simply trained and conditioned to accept the role for which society has destined them.

I don’t think I can say much more about the story without getting into spoiler territory. It’s a quietly devastating book that shows how easily mankind can create “others” and then treat those others as lesser. And more than that, it also shows how those others can be taught to think of themselves that way too, and to accept the injustices they are shown as normal, even right. It’s a continuation of the science fiction tradition of “mad science”, only here we spend our time not with the mad scientists but with the results of their experiments. It is the bastard child of Frankenstein and Dr Moreau, but here the monsters look just like us, and act like us, and think like us. So the question is, why then are they not us?

Book 10 of 12

This was The People’s Choice for October, and a wonderful choice for which I thank you, People! Keep up the good work!

Amazon UK Link

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

The mystery of the missing plot…

😐 😐

Having been left a rambling, dilapidated old house on Cloud Street and being badly in need of money, Sam Pickles divides the house and rents the other half to the Lamb family. So the two families live side by side and…

And what? They simply live side by side. And Winton drifts through the dividing walls, dipping into the lives of one family and then into the lives of the other family. There is no plot, no story arc, no real character development. In fact, at least half of the characters have no character at all to develop – they are simply names. I’m afraid I found it empty, as if the blank paper underneath had seeped up through the words printed on it.

Clearly I’m missing something. The book is an Australian classic, admired by hordes of people. Maybe you have to be Australian to “get” it? I know I sometimes feel a book is too Scottish to easily recommend to non-Scots. Maybe recognition of the places or the slang gives enough pleasure to make up for the lack of a story? I admit there were whole passages where I wasn’t sure what was happening because some of the words conveyed no meaning to me, and weren’t in the Kindle dictionary. I could have googled each time, but I learned how tedious that was with another book full of dialect and slang, and swore I’d never do it again. So my laziness as a reader is definitely a part of the reason this didn’t work for me.

Oddly the first couple of chapters, where we’re introduced first to the Pickles and then to the Lambs, are wonderful – a lot conveyed in very few words, and I actually felt the characters were more clearly evoked then than later – they seemed to fade or recede as the book went on. Also, each family had the beginnings of an interesting story – Sam Pickles being injured in an accident at work that left him a ‘crip’ with a ‘crook’ hand; Fish Lamb nearly drowning in a different accident and his return to life being seen by his family as some kind of miracle. But then it all collapses into the mundane details of daily life.

Tim Winton

Reviews rave about the descriptions of the Australian landscape. That must come later (I’m abandoning it at 21%) because we haven’t moved out of the house since the moment the families moved in. All the conversations take place round one or another of the tables of the families, where they talk, without quotation marks obviously because that would be too easy, about nothing. We hear about Sam’s new job because he tells us about it – we don’t get to go with him. Same applies to Lester Lamb and his band practice – we’re left at home as he leaves the house to go out for a bit of fun. I began to feel as if I were imprisoned in the house, desperate just to go for a simple walk round the neighbourhood or a bus-ride into town.

So I’ve given up. I’m reluctant to one-star it as I usually do with abandoned books because I suspect it’s mostly a case of mismatch between reader and book, and I did enjoy those first couple of chapters. But it took me three weeks to read as far as I did, and it was inducing a major reading slump since increasingly I couldn’t face picking it up. Sorry to everyone who loves it, and my apologies to Australia!

Book 9 of 12

This was The People’s Choice winner for September, so apologies to You, the People, too! Onwards and upwards – hopefully I’ll get on better with October’s choice…

Amazon UK Link

The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler

That demned elusive Dimitrios…

😦

Latimer, a novelist, becomes fascinated, for reasons so obscure that even he doesn’t know what they are, by a criminal he has just been told was found dead. This criminal, Dimitrios, appears to have been a multitasker, involved in every crime across Eastern Europe for at least a decade – from theft and murder, to drug smuggling, to political assassination. They sought him here, they sought him there, the police of several countries sought him everywhere, but to no avail. Now our intrepid, though immensely dull, hero intends to follow the trail backwards with a view to – I don’t know – find out who the real Dimitrios was, or something. He will do this by meeting people in various underdescribed and unevoked locations across several countries, listening while they tell him lengthy stories about political events that may or may not be based on reality – don’t know, don’t care. Have never been quite so bored in my entire life, except possibly during the whale classification sections of Moby Dick. Since I am refusing to read past the 30% mark this is not a spoiler, but I assure you with 100% confidence the twist is going to be that the corpse turns out not to have been that demned elusive Dimitrios after all…

Book 11 of 80

Loads of people love this book, though why is a mystery to me. Let me give you an example – if you find this paragraph thrilling, then you’ll probably find the whole book fascinating. However, if, like me, you feel a discombobulating sensation as of braincells masochistically imploding one by one, then you probably won’t…

From the start, Stambulisky’s policy towards the Yugoslav Government had been one of appeasement and conciliation. Relations between the two countries had been improving rapidly. But an objection to this improvement came from the Macedonian Autonomists, represented by the notorious Macedonian Revolutionary Committee, which operated both in Yugoslavia and in Bulgaria. Fearing that friendly relations between the two countries might lead to joint action against them, the Macedonians set to work systematically to poison those relations and to destroy their enemy Stambulisky. The attacks of the comitadji and the theatre incident inaugurated a period of organised terrorism. On 8th March, Stambulisky played his trump card by announcing that the Narodno Sobranie would be dissolved on the thirteenth and that new elections would be held in April.

Book 8 of 12

This was The People’s Choice for August. Sorry, People – I don’t hold you in any way responsible for my misery. Not only was I fooled into buying this book but I even added it to my Classics Club list. If anyone other than myself is to blame, it’s the people who gave it five stars on Goodreads. I can only assume they are part of a dastardly conspiracy (probably led by Dimitrios himself) to trap the unwary…

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 354 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 354

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

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OK, People, time for another batch of four – still in 2020, and a mixed bunch, though mostly from the lighter end. I like to run three months ahead with these polls, so the winner will be a January read. Georgette Heyer is comfort reading for me but I don’t know why Arabella specifically made it onto my TBR! The Master and Margarita is on my Classics Club list – I loved Bulgakov’s The White Guard but feel this one may veer too much into fantasy for my taste. I pick up any Simenons that turn up as Kindle deals, hence Maigret and the Informer. And In a Lonely Place is also on my Classics Club list, due to many enticing reviews of Dorothy B Hughes’ work around the blogosphere over the years.

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Historical Romance

Arabella by Georgette Heyer

Added 1st May 2020. 18,619 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.08 average rating. 322 pages.

The Blurb says: A dashing and thrilling romance from one of our best-known and most beloved historical novelists.

An enchanting debutante and the eldest daughter of an impoverished country parson, Arabella embarks on her first London season. Armed with beauty, virtue and a benevolent godmother (as well as a notoriously impetuous temper) she quickly runs afoul of Robert Beaumaris, the most eligible Nonpareil of the day. When he accuses her of being yet another pretty female after his wealth, Arabella allows herself to be provoked – into a deceitful charade that might have quite unexpected consequences…

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Fiction

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Added 2nd June 2020. 300,325 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.30 average. 464 pages.

The Blurb says: Nothing in the whole of literature compares with The Master and Margarita. One spring afternoon, the Devil, trailing fire and chaos in his wake, weaves himself out of the shadows and into Moscow. Mikhail Bulgakov’s fantastical, funny, and devastating satire of Soviet life combines two distinct yet interwoven parts, one set in contemporary Moscow, the other in ancient Jerusalem, each brimming with historical, imaginary, frightful, and wonderful characters. Written during the darkest days of Stalin’s reign, and finally published in 1966 and 1967, The Master and Margarita became a literary phenomenon, signalling artistic and spiritual freedom for Russians everywhere.

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Vintage Crime

Maigret and the Informer by Georges Simenon

Added 18th July 2020. 504 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.76 average. 162 pages.

The Blurb says: The body of a well-known Parisian restaurateur turns up on Avenue Junot in Montmartre, seemingly having been killed elsewhere. Inspector Maigret is on the case, and soon discovers that the murder may be gang-related after a colleague working in the red-light district receives a tip from an anonymous informer.

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Classic Noir

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B Hughes

Added 18th September 2020. 5,593 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.11 average. 192 pages. 

The Blurb says: Dix Steele is back in town, and ‘town’ is post-war LA. His best friend Brub is on the force of the LAPD, and as the two meet in country clubs and beach bars, they discuss the latest case: a strangler is preying on young women in the dark. Dix listens with interest as Brub describes their top suspect, as yet unnamed. Dix loves the dark and women in equal measure, so he knows enough to watch his step, though when he meets the luscious Laurel Gray, something begins to crack. The American Dream is showing its seamy underside.

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

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TBR Thursday (on a Wednesday) 351 and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. I’ve been reading up a storm over the summer months but my reviewing is woefully behind, Maybe I need to start having reviewing targets as well as reading ones! Aarghh!! Anyway…

Here goes, then – the third check-in of the year…

Well, I’m beginning to fall behind on a couple, especially the Reginald Hill books and books I already owned at the start of the year, but overall I’m doing pretty well this year. I might miss several of the targets by a book or two, but it all looks as if it’s heading in the right direction for once!

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The Classics Club

I’m still racing through my new Classics Club list, though that will slow down a lot in the last quarter as I try to catch up with review books, not to mention reviews! I’ve read five this quarter but so far have only reviewed two of them…

8. Silas Marner by George Eliot – This tale, of a man who adopts a young child and through her finds a kind of redemption, has what, for me, Middlemarch lacked – a strong plot. Its brevity is undoubtedly another point in its favour! 5 stars.

9. Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith – Set during the Highland Clearances, the glaring historical inaccuracies in this prevented me from being fully won over by what was otherwise an interesting and well written story of an elderly woman faced with eviction. 3½ stars.

One unexpectedly great, one unexpectedly disappointing – story of my reading life and what makes it so much fun!

9 down, 71 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve only read two for this challenge this quarter and had another two left still to review from the quarter before, but I’ve only reviewed two. Two reviews outstanding – one of them dating back to January – hope I took extensive notes… 😉

52. The Mystery of the Skeleton Key by Bernard Capes. I couldn’t decide which was worse in this one – the writing or the plotting. Together they made for a painfully bad read. 1 generous star.

53. Background for Murder by Shelley Smith. Dull and pedestrian, shallow and cheap, shabby, and justifiably forgotten are just some of the words I used in my review of this one. Another disappointment in this increasingly disappointing challenge. 2 stars.

Fortunately one of the unreviewed books was very good, so maybe things will get better.

53 down, 49 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I’ve read just one for this challenge this quarter…

11. Homage to Caledonia by Daniel Gray. And another disappointment! Interesting enough if what you want are anecdotes about the Scots who went to war, but not a serious contribution to the history of the period, and not in any way comparable to the Orwell book it homages in its title. Just 2 stars.

Surely one of the last two books for the challenge will be good. Surely…

11 down, 2 to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I’m falling behind a bit on this challenge at the moment. I’ve read three and but have only reviewed one – told you I was in a reviewing crisis! I promise I’ll catch up with these ones very soon! So did You, The People, pick me a good one…?

July – Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton. A “locked room” mystery set in a carriage of a moving train. Though well written and with likeable lead characters, impossible crimes are never my favourite style of mystery. One for the puzzle-solvers, though! 3½ stars.

Hopefully five reviews next time, so plenty of chances for you to find me some good ones, People! Keep up the good work! 😉

7 down, 5 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

I’ve read the last three books for this challenge this quarter but have only reviewed two. The review of the final one and a challenge round-up will appear soon! Or possibly soon-ish!! The blue boxes are books from previous quarters, and the orange are the ones I’m adding this quarter. If you click on the bingo card you should get a larger version.

Vietnam – The Quiet American by Graham Greene – 5 stars. Greene’s second appearance in this challenge with this wonderful critique of old and new style colonialism written just a year or two before the Vietnam War got properly underway. A perfect fit for the Southeast Asia slot.

An unnamed country that is probably Peru – At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón – 5 stars.  A wonderful book about a touring company putting on a revival of a play that had marked them as dissidents during the recent civil war. Loved every word of this one! It fills the South America box.

Two brilliant books this quarter which have reinspired me to keep travelling – have I the strength of will to do this challenge all over again? Maybe…

24 down, 1 to go!

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A very mixed quarter this time, which surprised me since I feel I’ve been reading loads of great books recently – must just not have been challenge books! But overall there were enough wonderful ones to outshine the dismal failures, and I’m continuing to make progress. Just need to catch up with reviews! Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

TBR Thursday (on a Friday) 350 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 350

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

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OK, People, time for another batch of four – still in 2020, and all from authors I’d previously enjoyed and want to read more of. I like to run three months ahead with these polls, so the winner will be a December read. Rodney Stone is on the list because I keep meaning to read more Conan Doyle beyond the Holmes stories. After I re-read Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, I briefly thought it would be fun to re-read all her books in order – the idea only lasted about ten seconds, but long enough to add her second book, The Murder on the Links, to my TBR! I randomly pick up any Maigrets that turn up as Kindle deals, which is why Maigret and Monsieur Charles got onto my list. And I thoroughly enjoyed the first part of Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo trilogy, Palace Walk, so added the second part, Palace of Desire.

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Fiction

Rodney Stone by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Added 28th February 2020. 219 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.63 average rating. 264 pages.

The Blurb says: Rodney Stone and his best friend, Jim Harrison—the relative of a blacksmith and former boxer—have always been drawn to dark and dangerous places. When they wander into Cliffe Royale, an old, deserted mansion that was the scene of a gruesome murder fifteen years earlier, they’re both frightened and strangely excited to cross paths with a ghostly figure.

Before they can identify who the ghost is and what it wants, Rodney’s wealthy uncle, Sir Charles Tregellis, arrives in Brighton and leaves later with Rodney in tow. Rodney soon learns that Tregellis, a typical dandy, is connected to just about everyone in London and has focused his attention on an upcoming boxing match to be witnessed by thirty thousand spectators. If Tregellis’ unnamed challenger wins the fight, it could mean grave trouble for Tregellis and everyone he’s associated with—including Rodney.

Distracted by the upcoming fight, Rodney almost forgets about the chilling discovery he made at Cliffe Royale with Jim—until the past comes back to haunt them all.

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Vintage Crime

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

Added 20th March 2020. 72,630 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.86 average. 220 pages.

The Blurb says: Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is summoned to France after receiving a distressing letter with a urgent cry for help. Upon his arrival in Merlinville-sur-Mer, the investigator finds the man who penned the letter, the South American millionaire Monsieur Renauld, stabbed to death and his body flung into a freshly dug open grave on the golf course adjoining the property. Meanwhile the millionaire’s wife is found bound and gagged in her room. Apparently, it seems that Renauld and his wife were victims of a failed break-in, resulting in Renauld’s kidnapping and death.

There’s no lack of suspects: his wife, whose dagger served as the weapon; his embittered son, who would have killed for independence; and his mistress, who refused to be ignored – and each felt deserving of the dead man’s fortune. The police think they’ve found the culprit. But Poirot has his doubts. Why is the dead man wearing an overcoat that is too big for him? And who was the impassioned love-letter in the pocket for? Before Poirot can answer these questions, the case is turned upside down by the discovery of a second, identically murdered corpse…

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Vintage Crime

Maigret and Monsieur Charles by Georges Simenon

Added 19th April 2020. 628 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.88 average. 167 pages.

The Blurb says: When an elegant but nervous woman appears in Inspector Maigret’s office and reports her rich and successful husband missing, Maigret and Lapointe find themselves on the trail of a man leading a double life: a prominent Parisian solicitor by day, a playboy known as “Monsieur Charles” by night.

In Simenon’s final novel featuring Inspector Maigret, the famous detective reaches a pivotal moment in his career, contemplating his past and future as he delves into the Paris underworld one last time, to investigate the case of a missing lawyer.

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Historical Fiction

Palace of Desire by Naguib Mahfouz

Added 27th April 2020. 9,109 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.24 average. 432 pages. 

The Blurb says: The sensual and provocative second volume in the Cairo Trilogy, Palace Of Desire follows the Al Jawad family into the awakening world of the 1920’s and the sometimes violent clash between Islamic ideals, personal dreams and modern realities.

Having given up his vices after his son’s death, ageing patriarch Al-Sayyid Ahmad pursues an arousing lute-player – only to find she has married his eldest son. His rebellious children struggle to move beyond his domination as they test the loosening reins of societal and parental control. And Ahmad’s youngest son, in an unforgettable portrayal of unrequited love, ardently courts the sophisticated daughter of a rich Europeanised family.

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

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VOTE NOW!

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TBR Thursday (on a Tuesday) 345 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 345

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

* * * * *

OK, People, time for another batch of four – still in 2020, and a rather odd selection this month, all historical fiction but very different from each other. I like to run three months ahead with these polls, so the winner will be a November read. I picked up The Sealwoman’s Gift in a charity shop on impulse, mainly because I used to like the author’s father when he presented Mastermind on TV! I also bought Cold Mountain there on the same day, but it was on my wishlist since I’d previously enjoyed another of his books, Nightwoods. I loved Neil Munro’s The New Road, so acquired Doom Castle and it’s now on my Classics Club list. A Suitable Boy is one I’ve long wanted to read but its excessive length means it keeps getting shoved aside.

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Historical Fiction

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

Added 11th January 2020. 5,160 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.16 average rating. 365 pages.

The Blurb says: In 1627 Barbary pirates raided the coast of Iceland and abducted some 400 of its people, including 250 from a tiny island off the mainland. Among the captives sold into slavery in Algiers were the island pastor, his wife and their three children. Although the raid itself is well documented, little is known about what happened to the women and children afterwards. It was a time when women everywhere were largely silent.

In this brilliant reimagining, Sally Magnusson gives a voice to Ásta, the pastor’s wife. Enslaved in an alien Arab culture Ásta meets the loss of both her freedom and her children with the one thing she has brought from home: the stories in her head. Steeped in the sagas and folk tales of her northern homeland, she finds herself experiencing not just the separations and agonies of captivity, but the reassessments that come in any age when intelligent eyes are opened to other lives, other cultures and other kinds of loving.

The Sealwoman’s Gift is about the eternal power of storytelling to help us survive. The novel is full of stories – Icelandic ones told to fend off a slave-owner’s advances, Arabian ones to help an old man die. And there are others, too: the stories we tell ourselves to protect our minds from what cannot otherwise be borne, the stories we need to make us happy.

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Historical Fiction

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

Added 11th January 2020. 234,132 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.88 average. 449 pages.

The Blurb says: Based on local history & family stories passed down by Frazier’s great-great-grandfather, Cold Mountain is the tale of a wounded Confederate soldier, Inman, who walks away from the ravages of the war & back home to his prewar sweetheart, Ada. His odyssey thru the devastated landscape of the soon-to-be-defeated South interweaves with Ada’s struggle to revive her father’s farm, with the help of an intrepid young drifter named Ruby. As their long-separated lives begin to converge at the close of the war, Inman & Ada confront the vastly transformed world they’ve been delivered.

Frazier reveals insight into human relations with the land & the dangers of solitude. He also shares with the great 19th century novelists a keen observation of a society undergoing change. Cold Mountain recreates a world gone by that speaks to our time.

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Historical Fiction

Doom Castle by Neil Munro

Added 26th January 2020. 31 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.48 average. 360 pages.

The Blurb says: “No pomp, no pleasant amenities; the place seemed to jut into the sea, defying man’s oldest and most bitter enemy, its gable ends and one crenellated bastion or turret betraying its sinister relation to its age, its whole aspect arrogant and unfriendly, essential of war. Caught suddenly by the vision that swept the fretted curve of the coast, it seemed blackly to perpetuate the spirit of the land, its silence, its solitude and terrors.”

This was the Count Victor’s fist sight of Castle Doom. His mission to Scotland from France in 1755 brought him into this wild land of danger and mystery, where he met the haunting Count Doom, the lovely Olivia, the dastardly Simon MacTaggart – and gothic jeopardy armed with claymores, dirks, and bagpipes.

Here is the most unusual historical novel you will ever read, by a Scot worthy to sit at the right hand of the throne of Sir Walter Scott!

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Historical Fiction

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

Added 29th January 2020. 45,879 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.12 average. 1553 pages. 

The Blurb says: Vikram Seth’s novel is, at its core, a love story: Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, are both trying to find—through love or through exacting maternal appraisal—a suitable boy for Lata to marry. Set in the early 1950s, in an India newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis, A Suitable Boy takes us into the richly imagined world of four large extended families and spins a compulsively readable tale of their lives and loves. A sweeping panoramic portrait of a complex, multi-ethnic society in flux, A Suitable Boy remains the story of ordinary people caught up in a web of love and ambition, humour and sadness, prejudice and reconciliation, the most delicate social etiquette and the most appalling violence.

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

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VOTE NOW!

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Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton

A locked train carriage mystery…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Sir Wilfred Saxonby is found dead in a locked carriage in a train, it looks like it must have been suicide, for how could a murderer have got onto and then off a moving train? But Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard can find no evidence that Sir Wilfred had been suicidal, and those who know him find it impossible to believe. And there are one or two odd things – like the mysterious red light that caused the train driver to slow down while the train was passing through Blackdown Tunnel, or the fact that Sir Wilfred apparently used an unlicensed gun even though he owned several licensed ones. Arnold can make no sense of it, so consults his old friend Desmond Merrion, a man with a gift of imagination that sometimes enables him to make sense of the seemingly senseless…

Although there’s a slight whodunit aspect to this, mostly it’s a howdunit, with the mystery revolving around various aspects of how the crime could have been committed, and who had alibis and who didn’t. It starts out well – the point about the red light and slowing train is intriguing, and the solution to that aspect, which comes quite early on, is fun. But then it kind of collapses into a morass of ever more complicated, and ever less interesting, speculation as to how the unnamed murderer or murderers did the deed, with Arnold and Merrion each spouting theory after theory, only for the next fact to come along and change everything.

This felt very different in style to the only other Merrion book I’ve read, The Secret of High Eldersham. That one had a wonderfully creepy atmosphere and aspects of a thriller, in that Merrion and others were put in peril. Merrion also had an enjoyable sidekick in it. This one had none of that – it is a cerebral puzzle with no peril and therefore very little atmosphere. Whoever turned out to be the culprit, I feel I’d have met it with a mental shrug, since none of the suspects were developed in a way to make me care about them. Having said that, Merrion himself is likeable and not nearly as insufferable as some of these brilliant amateur ‘tecs, and Arnold too is quite fun, even if he’s not exactly the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

Miles Burton

Although it’s well written and will probably appeal to the puzzle-orientated reader, I gradually found myself losing interest. I had decided on the most likely suspect fairly early on, and found it odd that neither Merrion nor Arnold seemed to be spotting what seemed like fairly obvious indicators. But I had no idea why the crime had been committed, and was disappointed that when all was revealed it was clear that the reader had had no chance to work that out, since the required information was withheld until very close to the end.

Overall, then, I found the plotting rather dull despite its “impossible” cleverness, and felt too much emphasis was given to the puzzle aspect at the expense of developing any sense of atmosphere or tension. However, it’s redeemed a little by the quality of the writing and the likeability of the two leads, Merrion and Arnold.

Book 7 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for July, and it was more enjoyable than not, so we’ll call that a success, People! 😉

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday (on a Tuesday) 340 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 340

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

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OK, People, time for another batch of four – moving in to 2020, and a reasonably varied bunch this month though heavy on crime. I like to run three months ahead with these polls, so the winner will be an October read. I loved the first book I read by William Shaw and abandoned the second, so Salt Lane could go either way. I acquired The Charing Cross Mystery because I’d enjoyed Fletcher’s The Middle Temple Murder. For some reason I’ve read very little Kazuo Ishiguro, so bought Never Let Me Go in a bid to correct that. And Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper is on the TBR and on my Classics Club list because I loved Henderson’s A Voice Like Velvet. These all have the potential to be great reads, I think… 

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Crime

Salt Lane by William Shaw

Added 1st January 2020. 2,233 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.02 average rating. 452 pages.

The Blurb says: DS Alexandra Cupidi has done it again. She should have learnt to keep her big mouth shut, after the scandal that sent her packing – resentful teenager in tow – from the London Met to the lonely Kent coastline. Even murder looks different in this landscape of fens, ditches and stark beaches, shadowed by the towers of Dungeness power station. Murder looks a lot less pretty.

The man drowned in the slurry pit had been herded there like an animal. He was North African, like many of the fruit pickers that work the fields. The more Cupidi discovers, the more she wants to ask – but these people are suspicious of questions.

It will take an understanding of this strange place – its old ways and new crimes – to uncover the dark conspiracy behind the murder. Cupidi is not afraid to travel that road. But she should be. She should, by now, have learnt.

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Vintage Crime

The Charing Cross Mystery by JS Fletcher

Added 1st January 2020. 185 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.56 average. 268 pages.

The Blurb says: When a retired police inspector suddenly drops dead in a train carriage arriving at Charing Cross station, young London barrister Hetherwick finds himself the key witness to the murder. Thrust into the centre of this terrifying mystery, Hetherwick must unveil the disturbing truths of the case and locate the nefarious culprit. Fans of ‘Sherlock Holmes’ will be enthralled by this 20th century crime classic, a gripping tale of mystery and suspense that will have them on the edge of their seats till the very end.

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Fiction

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Added 10th January 2020. 578,195 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.84 average. 275 pages. 

The Blurb says: Hailsham seems like a pleasant English boarding school, far from the influences of the city. Its students are well tended and supported, trained in art and literature, and become just the sort of people the world wants them to be. But, curiously, they are taught nothing of the outside world and are allowed little contact with it.

Within the grounds of Hailsham, Kathy grows from schoolgirl to young woman, but it’s only when she and her friends Ruth and Tommy leave the safe grounds of the school (as they always knew they would) that they realize the full truth of what Hailsham is.

Never Let Me Go breaks through the boundaries of the literary novel. It is a gripping mystery, a beautiful love story, and also a scathing critique of human arrogance and a moral examination of how we treat the vulnerable and different in our society. In exploring the themes of memory and the impact of the past, Ishiguro takes on the idea of a possible future to create his most moving and powerful book to date.

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Vintage Crime

Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper by Donald Henderson

Added 10th January 2020. 338 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.55 average. 215 pages.

The Blurb says: In Raymond Chandler’s favourite novel, Mr Bowling buys the newspapers only to find out what the latest is on the murders he’s just committed…

Mr Bowling is getting away with murder. On each occasion he buys a newspaper to see whether anyone suspects him. But there is a war on, and the clues he leaves are going unnoticed. Which is a shame, because Mr Bowling is not a conventional serial killer: he wants to get caught so that his torment can end. How many more newspapers must he buy before the police finally catch up with him?

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

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VOTE NOW!

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

There’s a problem with the poll, as you’ve probably discovered! However the votes are being recorded at Crowdsignal, the poll host, even if it shows as still buffering. Thanks for voting and sorry for the problem – hopefully I’ll be able to work out the winner from the Crowdsignal records, and if not I’ll base it on the preferences in the comments. So if your vote doesn’t seem to record, please also tell me your choice in the comments. UPDATE: Problem now resolved and the poll is working normally.

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TBR Thursday (on a Tuesday) 338 and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. I’ve been reading up a storm recently (Editor’s note: I wrote this before Wimbledon crashed my reading to zero) and have banned myself from acquiring books from NetGalley for a few months (Editor’s note: I wrote this before acquiring two books from NetGalley this week) to catch up with all my other reading. Has it worked?

Here goes, then – the second check-in of the year…

Woohoo! I don’t think I’ve ever been this much on target halfway through the year! I have reduced the target for the Spanish Civil War challenge – see below – and the Wanderlust challenge is still wandering on, six months after the original deadline. But overall I’m happy with these figures.

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The Classics Club

I’ve been racing through my new Classics Club list so far, partly because a couple of the recent People’s Choices have been CC books. I’ve read five this quarter and had three left still to review at the end of last quarter, including the final two for my first list. I’m finally up to date with CC reviews, for the first time in ages…

First List

89. Children of the Dead End by Patrick MacGill – Ugh! I abandoned this misogynistic fictionalised memoir halfway through. Mr MacGill dislikes women nearly as much as I dislike him. 1 star.

90. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – I saved this re-read of a favourite as a treat for myself for finishing the first list, and a treat it certainly was! 5 stars.

90 down, 0 to go!

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Second List

2. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay – A deliciously ambiguous story of missing girls, that manages to be entertaining and unsettling in equal parts. 5 stars.

3. Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo – After way too much architectural detail in the first half, the thrilling story in the second half won me over! I also enjoyed reading this along with fellow bloggers in a Review-Along. 5 stars.

4. Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth – This satire on Anglo-Irish landowners is a rather slight novella, mildly entertaining, but I felt it didn’t live up to its reputation. 3 stars.

5. Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens – although this re-read was my annual Christmas Dickens, I didn’t get around to reviewing it until May! As always, a great read, even though it’s not quite in Dickens’ top rank. 4 Dickensian stars, which glow brighter than normal stars.

6. The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham –  Set in colonial Hong Kong, this tells the story of initially empty-headed Kitty Fane when her husband drags her into a cholera zone in China. Well-written and thought-provoking. 4½ stars.

7. Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar – dark but not quite noir, this is well written, and alongside the murder mystery element takes a thoughtful look at the shame of a respectable woman succumbing to alcoholism in her later life. 4 stars.

One or two duds, but mostly some great reading in this quarter’s classics reading!

7 down, 73 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve read three for this challenge this quarter and had two left still to review from the quarter before. I’ve reviewed three and still have another two not yet reviewed…

49. The Z Murders by J Jefferson Farjeon. More a thriller than a mystery, involving a chase across England in pursuit of a lurid serial killer. Fast-paced and entertaining. 4 stars.

50. The Grell Mystery by Frank Froest. Written by a genuine ex-top cop, this has too much of a feel of being a memoir for it to work well as a mystery novel. Interesting rather than entertaining. 3 stars.

51. The House by the River by AP Herbert. A great little story about the psychological effects of murder on the murderer and his loyal friend, unfortunately buried in a mass of description and digression. 2½ stars.

Still very much a mixed bag, this challenge, and I’m considering giving it up once I’ve read the remaining books I’ve already acquired for it.

51 down, 51 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I’ve started plenty of books for this challenge, but most of them have ended up on the abandoned heap pretty quickly. I finished just one…

10. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Zafón does a wonderful job of depicting a city in the aftermath of civil war, but first and foremost this is a great story, wonderfully told. 5 stars.

As a result of my increasing disappointment and irritation with many of my choices for this challenge, I’ve decided to read the remaining three books I already own, cancel the other ones from my wishlist, and then draw a line under it.

10 down, 3 to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I’ve read three and reviewed three – hurrah, I’m still on track with this challenge! So did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

April – Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay. Plenty of layers in this ambiguous tale – mild horror, some humour, and a true mystery at its heart. 5 stars.

May – The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton – A book that follows the plot of Vanity Fair remarkably closely – very remarkably closely – and yet fails to duplicate any of the humour or insightful satire of the original. A generous 2 stars.

JuneThe Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham. An excellent character study combined with a colonial setting in this tale of a woman who traps herself in marriage to a man she doesn’t love. 4½ stars.

Two out of three ain’t bad! Well done, People – you did great! Keep up the good work! 😉

6 down, 6 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

I’ve read three books for this challenge this quarter and had one still to review from the previous quarter. I’ve reviewed three, with one still to come. The blue boxes are books from previous quarters, and the orange are the ones I’m adding this quarter. If you click on the bingo card you should get a larger version.

GibraltarKilling Rock by Robert Daws – 5 stars. The unique setting of this last outpost of Empire provides an added level of interest to this police procedural series. I’ve slotted it into the Free Square.

Sahara/North Africa – Biggles Defends the Desert by Capt WE Johns – 5 stars.  A WW2 adventure for flying ace Biggles and his squadron, as they fight to ensure the safety of Allied planes crossing the desert. Unsurprisingly, I’m slotting it into the Desert box!

Hong Kong/China – The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham – 4½ stars. The colonial backdrop of Hong Kong provides the initial setting while the meat of the story takes place in the Chinese interior, so a perfect fit for the Far East box.

Three excellent books this quarter but this challenge is cursed! I keep picking interesting looking books that turn out to be duds. So I’m dropping my initial plan to fill all the boxes only with books I recommend or I could still be trying to fill the last three boxes sometime in the next millennium!

22 down, 3 to go!

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Overall, a great quarter and I’ve made some progress on all my challenges – hurrah! Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham

Adultery in the time of cholera…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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

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

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

Book 6 of 80

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

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

W Somerset Maugham

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

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

Book 6 of 12

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

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 336 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 336

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

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

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Fiction

Jazz by Toni Morrison

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

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

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Fiction

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

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

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

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

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Fiction

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

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

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

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

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Historical Fiction

Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom

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

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

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

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

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

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VOTE NOW!

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

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TBR Thursday 331 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 331

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

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OK, People, time for another batch of four! Still in 2019, and an interesting mix this time, I think. I like to run three months ahead with these polls, so the winner will be an August read. A recent Rebus novel, In a House of Lies  by Ian Rankin slipped through my net when it was released and has been lingering ever since. I added Home by Marilynne Robinson because I loved Gilead a few years ago – it’s still the only one of hers I’ve read. Similarly, The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo was added because I loved her later The Night Tiger.  I acquired The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler on the recommendation of a blogger who later disappeared from the blogosphere – I’ve included it on my new Classics Club list.   I’ll be quite happy to read any of these, so you really can’t go wrong… 😉

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Crime

In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin

Added 23rd March 2019. 13,972 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.11 average rating. 370 pages.

The Blurb says: Everyone has something to hide
A missing private investigator is found, locked in a car hidden deep in the woods. Worse still – both for his family and the police – is that his body was in an area that had already been searched.

Everyone has secrets
Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke is part of a new inquiry, combing through the mistakes of the original case. There were always suspicions over how the investigation was handled and now – after a decade without answers – it’s time for the truth.

Nobody is innocent
Every officer involved must be questioned, and it seems everyone on the case has something to hide, and everything to lose. But there is one man who knows where the trail may lead – and that it could be the end of him: John Rebus.

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Fiction

Home by Marilynne Robinson

Added 27th April 2019. 24,611 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.03 average. 325 pages.

The Blurb says: Jack Boughton – prodigal son – has been gone twenty years. He returns home seeking refuge and to make peace with the past. A bad boy from childhood, an alcoholic who cannot hold down a job, Jack is perpetually at odds with his surroundings and with his traditionalist father, though he remains Boughton’s most beloved child. His sister Glory has also returned, fleeing her own mistakes, to care for their dying father. A moving book about families, about love and death and faith, Home is unforgettable. It is a masterpiece.

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Fantasy

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

Added 23rd August 2019. 28,329 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.80 average. 368 pages. 

The Blurb says: Seventeen-year-old Li Lan lives in 1890s Malaya with her quietly-ruined father, who returns one evening with a proposition – the fabulously wealthy Lim family want Li Lan to marry their son. The only problem is, he’s dead. After a fateful visit to the Lim mansion, Li Lan finds herself haunted not only by her ghostly would-be suitor, but also her desire for the Lims’ handsome new heir. At night she is drawn into the Chinese afterlife – a world of ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, monstrous bureaucracy and vengeful spirits. Enlisting the help of mysterious Er Lang (a dragon turned clerk) Li Lan must uncover the secrets of the ghost world – before she becomes trapped there forever.

Drawing on traditional Malayan folklore and superstition, The Ghost Bride is a haunting, exotic and romantic read perfect for fans of Empress Orchid and Memoirs of a Geisha.

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Spy Thriller

The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler

Added 8th October 2019. 8,827 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.92 average. 244 pages.

The Blurb says: English crime novelist Charles Latimer is travelling in Istanbul when he makes the acquaintance of Turkish police inspector Colonel Haki. It is from him that he first hears of the mysterious Dimitrios – an infamous master criminal, long wanted by the law, whose body has just been fished out of the Bosphorus. Fascinated by the story, Latimer decides to retrace Dimitrios’ steps across Europe to gather material for a new book. But, as he gradually discovers more about his subject’s shadowy history, fascination tips over into obsession. And, in entering Dimitrios’ criminal underworld, Latimer realizes that his own life may be on the line.

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

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VOTE NOW!

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

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The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

She ain’t no Becky Sharp…

😐 😐

Undine Spragg has been spoiled by her pathetic parents to the point of becoming barely functional as a human being. Greedy, shallow, brain-dead, common as muck, amazingly men fall for her because she has red hair. Because, let’s face it, the men are all shallow and brain-dead too, though far too classy to be greedy or common. No, the men are quite contented to amble pointlessly through life, living off the wealth of their relatives. Undine always wants something she can’t have – baubles, mainly, and bangles and beads. And admiration. And when she can’t have it she throws a tantrum because she has the mental capacity of a not very bright two-year-old. Surprisingly this behaviour appears to work, and people give her whatever she wants simply to shut her up, much in the way a stressed mother might shove a dummy in the mouth of a screaming child. And yet men love her…

This dismal, tedious tome is touted as a brilliant satire of American high society at the beginning of the twentieth century. “Brilliant” is a subjective term, so I’ll confine myself to subjectively disagreeing, wholeheartedly. “Satire”, however, has a specific meaning…

Satire: A poem or (in later use) a novel, film, or other work of art which uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immorality or foolishness, esp. as a form of social or political commentary.

~ Oxford English Dictionary

The problem with the book is that there is no humour in it, no irony, not much exaggeration that I could see, and the very occasional attempt at ridicule doesn’t come off because they’re all such tedious people – not even worthy of ridicule. Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair) is a brilliantly drawn central figure in a satire, because she is witty, intelligent, manipulative and determined, and because she starts with nothing, making the reader have more sympathy for her than for the immoral, feckless snobs she makes her victims. Undine, on the other hand is dull, stupid and talentless, and comes from a background where her every whim has been met. Why would anyone sympathise with her?

Becky’s victims are indeed exaggerated, often to the point of caricature. Who can forget the awfulness of miserly, lascivious Sir Pitt the elder, or the sanctimonious hypocrisy of Sir Pitt the younger, or the gullible vanity of poor Jos Sedley? Simpering, snivelling Amelia is the Victorian heroine taken to extremes, and Thackeray’s demolition of the reader’s initial sympathy for her is masterly. And so on.

Undine’s victims are typical, unexaggerated society wastrels, living on inherited wealth and contributing nothing of either good or ill to the society they infest. They are dull in themselves, and therefore dull for the reader to spend time with. Can one ridicule someone with no outstanding characteristics? I guess it’s possible, but there are few signs of it happening here. Ridicule should surely make you laugh at the object, or perhaps if you’re a nicer person than I, wince in sympathy. It shouldn’t make you curl your lip disparagingly while trying to stifle a yawn…

Edith Wharton

I seriously considered abandoning the book halfway through on the grounds that I have sworn an oath that, whatever I die of, it won’t be boredom. But I decided to struggle on in the hope that perhaps there would be a whole marvellous cast of caricatured eccentrics waiting on the later pages, and maybe Undine would become deliciously wicked rather than depressingly selfish, and all the humour might have been saved for the later chapters. But sadly not, despite her following Becky Sharp’s career closely. Remarkably closely, actually, up to the very latter stages, which is why I have chosen to compare the books. I think the major difference is Becky enjoyed her life, so we enjoyed it with her, and despite her treatment of them she brought some fun and excitement into the lives of her victims – Undine is miserable pretty much all the time, empty and miserable, and she brings nothing but emptiness and misery into anyone’s life, including this reader’s. She sure ain’t no Becky Sharp, though it felt clear to me from the plagiarising mirroring of the plot that Wharton intended her to be.

Book 5 of 12

This was the People’s Choice winner for May – sorry, People! Never mind – it’s the first loser this year, and next month’s looks great… 😀

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