The Marriage Lie by Kimberley Belle

When I read the publishers’ blurb I thought I’d like The Marriage Lie by Kimberley Belle:

Iris and Will have been married for seven years, have bought their dream house and have begun trying for a family.  But on the morning Will flies out for a business trip to Florida, Iris’s perfect life comes crashing down around her: another plane headed for Seattle has crashed into a field, killing everyone on board and, according to the airline, Will was one of the passengers.

Grief stricken and confused, Iris is convinced it all must be a huge misunderstanding. Why did Will lie about where he was going? And what else has he lied about? As she sets off on a desperate quest to uncover what her husband was keeping from her, she begins to unravel a hidden identity behind the man she thought she knew better than herself, and the truth shocks her to the core.

It exceeded my expectations and I loved it. The Marriage Lie is one of those books that gripped me and kept me guessing all the way through. Once I began reading I just didn’t want to put the book down and I raced through it, anxious to know what happened next. And plenty did happen in one of the most convoluted and complex plots I’ve read in a while. The pace is terrific and the tension just builds and builds in this psychological thriller.

Iris thought she had the perfect marriage, with the perfect husband. But the more she tries to discover why he was on a plane to Seattle when he’d told her her was going to Orlando, the more lies she uncovers. Grief-stricken and terrified she doesn’t know who she can trust and she is devastated as the truth is finally uncovered.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, so all I can say is that through all the twists and turns of this novel, the characters are convincing and although I’d partly anticipated the outcome I was taken by surprise at the final twist as the book reaches its dramatic climax!

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy of The Marriage Lie. It’s due to be published on 29 December 2016.

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: HQ (29 Dec. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1848456646
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848456648

A Life Like Other People’s by Alan Bennett

A Life Like Other People's

Alan Bennett’s A Life Like Other People’s is a poignant family memoir offering a portrait of his parents’ marriage and recalling his Leeds childhood, Christmases with Grandma Peel, and the lives, loves and deaths of his unforgettable aunties Kathleen and Myra. Bennett’s powerful account of his mother’s descent into depression and later dementia comes hand in hand with the uncovering of a long-held tragic secret. A heartrending and at times irresistibly funny work of autobiography by one of the best-loved English writers alive today. (Amazon)

I really like Alan Bennett’s work and was pleased to find this little book in the mobile library recently. It’s a beautifully written book taken from his collection Untold Stories and illustrated with black and white photographs. There is drama in this memoir, but written with clarity and keen observation in quiet tones about lives that are anything but ordinary. It is a completely absorbing book as Bennett recalls his childhood. He writes about his family including his two aunties, Kathleen and Myra, two very different characters from their sister, his mother. They saw themselves as ‘dashing, adventuresome creatures, good sports and always on for what they see as a lark.‘ They wore scent and camiknickers, and had the occasional drink and smoked.

He writes of mother’s fears – ‘of being spied on, listened to, shamed and detected‘ of her dread of being ‘the centrepiece‘ especially at her wedding. His parents didn’t like ‘splother‘, his father’s word for ‘the preening and fuss invariably attendant on the presence of the aunties.‘ Then there are the sad facts about his mother’s depression and subsequent dementia as she descended into delusion, her stays in hospital and the effect that had on the family.

There are revelations of family secrets and many touching and sad (but never sentimental) episodes, for example the futile search for Aunty Kathleen, suffering from a condition similar to Alzheimer’s, after she just walked out of her hospital ward. She was found several days later in drenched undergrowth in a wood near the M6.

It is a sad book but also a heart-warming story – the love of his parents and family shines throughout the book.

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber; Main edition (3 Sept. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571248128
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571248124
  • Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 2.3 x 17.5 cm
  • Source: Library

Where Dead Men Meet by Mark Mills

I’ve been reading books so quickly this month that I am now far behind with writing about them, so this is just a short post about an excellent new book by Mark Mills, published on 17 November.

I’ve been meaning to read more of Mark Mills’ books ever since I read The Savage Garden in 2008, a book I enjoyed very much, so I was keen to read his latest book, Where Dead Men Meet. It is historical fiction set in 1937 in pre-Second World War Europe, with a fast-moving plot as Luke Hamilton, an intelligence officer at the British Embassy in Paris, tries to discover why someone wants him dead, why Sister Agnes, the nun who had been his mentor and guide at the orphanage for the first seven years of his life had been bludgeoned to death, and who his real parents were.

Although the war in Europe is imminent it is by no means the main focus of this book, but forms an excellent backdrop as the action moves from Paris across the continent. At first he assumes that the assassin has mistaken him for someone else, but the tension builds as Luke realises that he is not the victim of a mistaken identity, but that someone is determined to kill him. He finds himself on the run, helped by a number of people, including the first man who tried to kill him. It seems the answers lie in his past. It is a complicated story that had me unsure of who Luke could trust and whether he would ever escape, or find out about his real family.

I thoroughly enjoyed this brilliant book with its interesting characters and a convincing plot full of mystery and intrigue. I shall now look out for more books by Mark Mills.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, for review.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 972 KB
  • Print Length: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Review (17 Nov. 2016)

The Spy by Paulo Coelho

 

The Spy

Synopsis:

When Mata Hari arrived in Paris she was penniless.

Soon she was feted as the most elegant woman in the city.

A dancer who shocked and delighted audiences; a confidant and courtesan who bewitched the era’s richest and most powerful men.

But as paranoia consumed a country at war, Mata Hari’s lifestyle brought her under suspicion. Until, in 1917 she was arrested in her hotel room on the Champs Elysees and accused of espionage.

Told through Mata’s final letter, THE SPY tells the unforgettable story of a woman who dared to break the conventions of her time, and paid the price.

My thoughts:

Before I read this book I didn’t know much about Mata Hari, beyond the facts that she was an exotic dancer and that she was executed as a spy during the First World War, so I was interested to know more.

The Spy is a gripping tale and one I read quickly, fascinated by the story of Mata Hari, whose real name was Margaretha Zella, a name she detested. The book begins with a prologue describing the execution of Mata Hari in Paris on 15 October 1917. It is quite remarkable; she was calm, taking care with dressing herself and with her appearance and choosing to face the firing squad neither bound nor blindfolded.

It continues with her life story told through letters and news clippings and illustrated with photographs. She was accused of being a double agent, but claimed she was innocent and the evidence against her was indeed flimsy. The whole procedure was based on deductions, extrapolations and assumptions. Whatever the truth about her innocence, she comes across as a strong-minded, independent and arrogant woman, who believed she could use her beauty and charm to allure any man to get what she wanted.

I always like to know when I’m reading fictionalised biographies how much is based on fact and what has been fictionalised, so I appreciated the author’s explanatory note at the end of the book. Coelho writes that he had based his novel on facts, but he had created some dialogue, merged certain scenes, changed the order of a few events and left out anything he thought wasn’t relative to the narrative. His opening pages, for example are from a report for the International News Service by Henry G Wales in Paris and dated October 15, 1917 and he has borrowed some verbatim language from the report. He has used various sources such as the British Intelligence Service file on Mata Hari.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 3598 KB
  • Print Length: 220 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1524732060
  • Publisher: Cornerstone Digital; 01 edition (22 Nov. 2016)

Many thanks to NetGalley for a review copy of this book.

Another Day Gone by Eliza Graham

 

Another Day Gone

In 2007 I read Eliza Graham’s debut novel, Playing with the Moon and loved it. I fully intended to read more of her books, but although I have her fifth book, The One I Was, I somehow missed the other three! So when I saw her latest book, Another Day Gone was available I was delighted to receive an advance copy through NetGalley.

I wasn’t disappointed – in fact I think it’s amongst the best books I’ve read this year.

It’s historical fiction, one of my favourite genres, beginning in 1939 just before the outbreak of the Second World War when a bomb went off in Coventry, killing some people and injuring many others. One of those injured was a girl who had seen a man prop a bicycle outside a store just before the bomb exploded. Her description led to his conviction and execution.

The action then moves forward to 1992 with Sara and her older sister Polly living in their family home in Oxfordshire on the banks of the Thames, with their grandfather and housekeeper (formerly their childhood nanny). The sisters’ parents had been killed in a car crash when they were very young. Polly is eighteen and is just about to leave home for university. All is not well and Polly hints that she knows a secret that she is not telling Sara – and then goes away with Michael, Bridie’s nephew, without saying where they are going or for how long.

Years later, in 2005 Sara returns to her family home, taking refuge from the London 7/7 bombings. Polly has now been missing for 13 years, their grandfather has died and Bridie is in a care home. The family secrets are still buried – until Polly returns!

Another Day Gone is a book about families, relationships and realising and living with the consequences of your actions. I loved the structure of this book with its different strands and time periods and all the twists and turns that kept me guessing about the nature of the secret that had remained hidden for so many years. I particularly liked the way it is only revealed drip by drip that meant I had changed my mind about what it was several times until fairly near the end of the book. The characters are so well drawn and sympathetically portrayed that I felt I knew them as people. It’s the type of book that I can get so involved with and whilst wanting to discover its secrets I just don’t want it to end.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 2182 KB
  • Print Length: 322 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1503940039
  • Publisher: Lake Union Publishing (22 Nov. 2016)
  • Source: review copy via NetGalley

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

Blurb:

Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester receives the commission of a lifetime when he is charged to navigate Alaska’s hitherto impassable Wolverine River, with only a small group of men. The Wolverine is the key to opening up Alaska and its rich natural resources to the outside world, but previous attempts have ended in tragedy.

Forrester leaves behind his young wife, Sophie, newly pregnant with the child he had never expected to have. Adventurous in spirit, Sophie does not relish the prospect of a year in a military barracks while her husband carves a path through the wilderness. What she does not anticipate is that their year apart will demand every ounce of courage and fortitude of her that it does of her husband.

My thoughts:

I didn’t really know what to expect when I began reading To the Bright Edge of the World as I hadn’t read anything by Eowyn Ivey before (I see she has also written The Snow Child a Sunday Times bestseller and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize). I knew it was fiction but even so at first I wondered if it could be history, because it seemed so real with extracts from the reports, letters and journals of Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester, about his journey in 1885 from Perkins Island up the Wolverine River in Alaska. But the Author’s note reveals that the book was inspired by a historical military expedition and that all of the characters and many places in the story are fictionalised including the Wolverine River.

This is a lovely book, narrated through the journals not only of Allen Forrester, but also the diaries of his wife, Sophie. It begins with correspondence between Allen’s great nephew Walt (Walter) Forrester and Joshua Stone, the Exhibits Curator of the Alpine Historical Museum in Alaska about donating the writings and other material and artifacts to the museum. From then on these three strands of the book are interwoven and I was completely absorbed by each one – Allen’s expedition, Sophie’s life, pregnant and left on her own at Vancouver Barracks in Washington Territory and the letters between Walt and Joshua discussing the Forrester family history, the artifacts, and how life in Alaska changed after the expedition had opened up the area.

The facts of their lives make fascinating reading, demonstrating the difficulties and dangers of such a hazardous enterprise through unmapped and hostile territory as Allen travelled along the Wolverine River. Sophie’s story is equally fraught with difficulties left to cope with boredom and loneliness, the dangers of pregnancy and the antagonism of other women when she upset their social conventions. She takes up photography and I loved all the details of the early techniques of taking and developing photographs in the 1880s. As I read of her attempts to capture photos of birds, and especially a humming bird, I thought of the contrast between then and now – how we take digital photos with instant results and of wildlife programmes where the intimate life of birds is captured on film.

I also loved the mystic elements, the supernatural events that both Allen and Sophie experience, such as the raven and the mysterious old Indian man, the connection to folklore and the beautiful descriptions of the landscape. There are almost spiritual events that Ivey records without explanation that left me puzzling over what actually had happened and what they all meant.

And it is a book full of love, the love of Allen and Sophie and the love of the country, the landscape and its people. Although I said there are three strands to the book, as I read I moved between each one effortlessly, enjoying each one equally and from thinking it read like history, I soon realised it was a fictional story of great beauty, complete and whole, backed up by fact and elevated by Eowyn Ivey’s writing. I loved it.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 6490 KB
  • Print Length: 433 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0316242853
  • Publisher: Tinder Press (2 Aug. 2016)

I received a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

His Name was David Freeman by Ruth Kipnis

When I saw His Name was David Freeman by Ruth Kipnis in NetGalley’s Read Now section I thought it looked interesting and different from most of the other books I read. And it has an unusual cover.

Blurb:

With the sudden death of his father, seventeen-year-old David is forced to leave the security of the estate his father managed in Prussia in search of an uncle living near Kiev in the Ukraine. Carrying with him the dream of owning a grand farm of his own someday. Fate plays into his hands as he’s given the opportunity to immigrate to America taking with him his new bride. In telling his story to his granddaughter he relives the joys, the sorrows and the hardships of raising a family in a world strange to him.

Bewildered as the first generation rejects the old world customs and assimilates into the cultural, the story traces David’s family through the second and third generations from the 1880’s of the Russian Czars to 1960’s in America.

Biography

Raised in Northern California, Ruth developed a love for horses at an early age. She and her husband raised their family in Woodside, California where they participated in the local horse activities from horse shows to fox hunting.

Through a twist of fate they turned a hobby into a thriving business when they added a Thoroughbred Training Center to their already growing Thoroughbred broodmare operation.

After retiring Ruth and her husband spent two years aboard their boat, the Paradigm, sailing the waters of Mexico. Settling in Puerto Vallarta they returned to the States seven years later for medical reasons. They purchased a farm in South Carolina filling it with ex-race horses.

Writing came late in her varied career. Ruth believes all of us have some secret desire, be it to ride a bike, play a guitar, paint a picture, or in her case write a novel. Age should not dissuade anyone from the joy of following one’s bliss.

Seeing her stories in print, knowing people are enjoying what she has written she says is reward enough. All proceeds from the book are donated to charity.

My thoughts:

Overall it is an enjoyable book – it’s a love story and a family drama.

In the author’s note Ruth Kipnis clarifies that this is a novel based on the author’s research into her family history. Her story mirrors the stories of so many impoverished and poorly educated farmers who had left the Ukraine in the late 1880s during the brutal reign of Czar Alexander III. ‘Whilst some failed, most by sheer will and hard work created a better, richer life than they had ever known.’

I loved the first part in which David tells his granddaughter Maya the story of his life. He was born in Prussia (later Poland) where his father worked on the estate of Count Frederic Von Zoransky. After his father’s death he went to live with his uncle in Grodov, a Shtetl (a small village) near Kiev in the Ukraine before emigrating to America in the late 1880s.

The details of his early life, the horrors of the voyage to America and the difficulties the immigrants encountered are vividly described, bringing the story to life. The family’s struggles against anti-semitism, prejudice and hardship are fascinating. When he and Miriam, his wife, arrived at Ellis Island he gave his name as ‘David Freeman’ because he couldn’t chance using his real name in case he was identified as an Army deserter. He’d made it to America as a free man.

I loved the descriptions of all the places in the book – I could see the hustle and bustle of Kiev, with its wide streets crowded with people and filled with fine horse drawn carriages. Similarly the farm in Connecticut that eventually David was able to buy with a loan from the Jewish Agricultural Society is described in fine detail.

Whilst I did like the second part of the book in which Maya brings the story of her family up to date through the Second World War and upto the 1960s, I didn’t find that it had the same level of drama and appeal as the first part. There are also a number of grammatical and typing errors throughout the book.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 666 KB
  • Print Length: 263 pages
  • First published 15 September 2016
  • Publisher: First Edition Design Publishing
  • Source: my thanks to NetGalley for my copy

Sweet William by Beryl Bainbridge

 Sweet William by Beryl Bainbridge was first published in 1975. My thanks to the publishers, Open Road Media for a copy of this ebook edition, featuring an illustrated biography of Beryl Bainbridge including rare images from the author’s estate. It’s due to be released in the US on 29 November 2016.

Blurb:

Romantic comedy meets social satire in this delirious novel about sexual freedom versus British tradition in swinging 1960s London.

When dull professor Gerald leaves London for the United States, his fiancée, Ann, is a bit afraid and sad to see him go—never has he looked so handsome and masculine as when he’s about to board the plane. But a few days later at a religious service, Ann is beckoned to sit next to a stranger with yellow curls and a nose like a prizefighter’s. Her heart inexplicably begins to race; she feels like she has the flu. This stranger, William McClusky, tells Ann in his Scottish accent that he is a playwright who will be interviewed on TV the very next day. Furthermore, he promises to have a television dropped by her house so she can watch him! From this first bizarre seduction, Ann is infatuated, and in the days following, William begins to take over her life.

In the throes of the affair, Ann gives up her BBC job, helps a friend get an abortion, encourages adultery, and writes a break-up letter to her fiancé. Her engagement to Gerald had been rushed, after all, and was designed to serve her mother’s desires more than her own. With William, on the other hand, everything feels different. But is this new man really who he says he is? Is he a genius or a fraud, a compassionate soul or a cheater? Perhaps William is simply a means by which Ann can play out her dangerous fantasies and finally take part in the swinging sixties. Only one thing is certain: Now that she’s with him, there’s no turning back.

An ironic investigation into the art of self-deception and the repercussions of sexual freedom, this blend of black comedy and social satire showcases the wit of award-winning author Beryl Bainbridge, and affirms her status as a mainstay in twentieth-century British literature.

My thoughts:

I really enjoyed this story of Ann, a young woman whose mother doesn’t approve of her permissive life-style. Ann left her claustrophobic home in Brighton to live in a rented flat in London. Soon after her fiance, Gerald, left for America, she meets William and falls in love with him. But William is fickle and married and Ann can’t resist him, he wraps her round his little finger and does just want he wants. Ann tries to get rid of him but although she knows he is a liar and a cheat, just like the other women in his life she is besotted with him.

It’s a simple story, simply told and immensely readable. I wanted Ann to come to her senses and see William for what he was and whilst I soon realised how it would end, I kept hoping that I was wrong. An emotional story that kept me glued to my Kindle, it’s clever, witty and most enjoyable.

  • File Size: 4973 KB
  • Print Length: 136 pages
  • Publisher: Open Road Media (November 29, 2016)
  • Publication Date: November 29, 2016
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B01LXDSTWF

Amazon USA link

Highlanders’ Revenge by Paul Tors

Today is Remembrance Sunday, the closest Sunday to 11 November (Armistice Day), marking the anniversary of the end of the First World War in 1918. Remembrance Sunday is held to commemorate those who served the country in two world wars and in more recent conflicts. There will be the traditional two-minute silence at the Cenotaph on Whitehall at 11am today.

I think I should know more about the two world wars. There are many books and I’ve read some, mostly novels about the Second World War, but I haven’t read any military histories that go into the detail of the battles and the conditions the forces experienced. So when Victoria Richman emailed and asked me whether I would like to read Highlanders’ Revenge, a book that combines historical fiction and military history I accepted her offer. She is the co-author with her uncle, Paul Richman, writing under the pen name of ‘Paul Tors’.  Paul is a retired business man with a passion for military history and Victoria, also known as Tors, is a Creative Writing graduate who worked on a number of magazines before becoming a freelance writer.

Highlanders' Revenge

Blurb:

Highlanders’ Revenge combines a riotous story of battle and life during World War Two with an insight into the world of a little known, but fierce fighting unit; the 5th Camerons. This fast-paced historical novel will appeal to fans of military fiction who also appreciate historical accuracy.

Highlanders’ Revenge tells the story of Mash, the nickname Highland soldiers give to an Englishman in their ranks. Scarred both from the retreat before the Blitzkrieg advance across France and from the murder of his first love, Mash has to integrate himself into a new section that is wary of the sullen and secretive ‘Mash Man’.

Together they journey to Egypt where they encounter a way of life that tests them to their limits as they prepare for one of the greatest battles of the Second World War; El Alamein. Scorched by day, frozen by night and plagued by insects, they have to learn how to live and fight in the desert as they prepare for one of the greatest battles of the Second World War. They are then cast into the thick of the fighting at El Alamein and the Allies’ tumultuous battle to break through the Axis defenses.

My thoughts:

Highlanders’ Revenge is a meticulously researched and very detailed historical novel, about ‘Mash’, an Englishman in a Highland regiment, first as he fought with the 4th Camerons at St Valery in June 1940 during the Battle of France and then in the 5th Camerons at the second Battle of El Alamein between 23 October and 4 November 1942.

This novel vividly portrays the horror of war. I think it combines historical fiction and military history well and there is an extensive glossary at the end of the book that explains a lot of the terms that I hadn’t come across before. I learnt a great deal about World War Two, particularly about the second Battle of El Alamein. It brought home to me the devastating conditions that the troops encountered, not just the reality of war but the physical presence of the heat, the multitude of insects, the dust and the sand, and the almost constant dysentery.

There is an excellent Author’s Note explaining where the novel diverges from the historical record. The central characters are fictional, but the book is based on real events. There are also maps, a bibliography and as I mentioned an extensive glossary.

Highlanders’ Revenge is the first step in a journey that will take Mash through North Africa and the invasion of Sicily, onto the D-Day landings, the battles around Caen before the liberation of the Low Countries, the Battle of the Bulge and the crossing of the Rhine before ending the war in Bremen.

My thanks to the authors for a digital copy, via NetGalley.

  • Format: Kindle Edition – also available in paperback
  • File Size: 2747 KB
  • Print Length: 369 pages
  • Publisher: Troubador (14 July 2016)

Amazon UK link

Amazon US link

The Malice of Waves by Mark Douglas-Hume

The Malice of Waves (The Sea Detective) by [Douglas-Home, Mark]Blurb (from the back cover):

Investigator Cal McGill uses his knowledge of tides, winds and currents to solve mysteries no-one else can.

Five years ago, fourteen-year-old Max Wheeler disappeared from a remote Scottish island. None of the six police and private investigations since have shed any light on what happened.

Unable to let go, Max’s family call in Call McGill. Known as The Sea Detective  – hoping he’ll force the sea to give up its secrets. Yet Cal finds he is an outsider to a broken family, and an unwelcome stranger to a village that has endured years of suspicion.

Cal knows that a violent storm is approaching. But what he doesn’t know is that when it cuts off the island a killer will see their chance …

My thoughts:

The Malice of Waves is the third book in Mark Douglas-Hume’s The Sea Detective Mystery series and I think it is my favourite. It has an interesting opening scene as Cal sinks a dead pig into the sea off Priest’s Island (a fictional island) to try to work out where the tides, underwater currents and eddies might have taken Max’s body. It’s really a cold case enquiry and there is no new evidence to help him discover the truth. Each year on the anniversary of Max’s disappearance, his family hold a memorial service on the island. His father is convinced that the villagers are complicit in his son’s murder.

The Malice of Waves is just as much a story of the villagers as it is of the Wheeler family and the setting of Priest’s Island, beautifully described by Douglas-Hume, is also a major part of the book. The location came to life as I read the book, making it easy to visualise the scenes. It’s well written and easy to read, leading me effortlessly into the mystery. The police are also present on the island as DS Helen Jamieson is staying undercover in the village, helping Cal with his investigations. I like the insight into Helen’s unspoken feelings for Cal. Both her and Cal are strong, independent characters and the other characters are well depicted too.

Interwoven into the main story is ‘Pinkie’ Pyke’s story. He is a collector of birds’ eggs, but his interest is into rare erythristic bird eggs, those with pink or reddish colouring and there is a raven’s’ nest on the island.

The Malice of Waves is a fascinating book, not only an engrossing mystery, but also a study of the sea, of birds’ eggs (I had never heard of erythristic eggs before), of obsessions and of the way people cope, or don’t cope with grief. I loved it.

Reading challenges: Read Scotland – Mark Douglas-Hume is a Scottish author.

Landscapes: John Berger on Art

Landscapes : John Berger on Art, edited by Tom Overton is a collection of essays by art critic, novelist, poet, and artist John Berger written over the past 60 plus years. However both the title and the cover art – a painting of a landscape – led me to think it would discuss landscapes. But I should have taken more note of this sentence in the blurb-‘Landscapes offers a tour of the history of art, but not as you know it.‘ It is definitely not art as I know it but it is a “landscape” of Berger’s thoughts on his life, on people and ideas that have influenced him, artists and authors that he liked and disliked, with very little in it about landscapes. There are essays on his life, people, ideology, philosophy and on art history and theory about the nature and meaning of art.

Having said that there are sections that I liked and enjoyed, such as the chapters on The Ideal Critic and the Fighting Critic and on Cubism. Knowing next to nothing about cubism and not liking the cubist paintings I have seen, I think I now understand what the artists were attempting, moving away from art that imitated nature to their representation of reality on a two dimensional plane to portray a more complex image of reality.

I am obviously not the target audience for this book!

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1131 KB
  • Print Length: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Verso (1 Nov. 2016)

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley.

Arrowood by Laura McHugh

ArrowoodArrowood promised a lot – a mystery set in a creepy old house, called Arrowood, in Keokuk, Iowa, one of the grand houses that line the Mississippi River. Arden Arrowood’s little twin sisters had disappeared from the house when Arden was eight and they were four. Arden had last seen them in the back of a gold coloured car driven away from the house. But their bodies had never been found and no evidence had been found to convict the owner of the car, Harold Singer. Seventeen years after her grandfather’s death Arden inherits the family home and returns, determined to discover what had actually happened to her sisters.

It had all the elements that should have made this story very spooky and full of psychological suspense – ghostly sounds, creaky floorboards, voices coming from the walls and bath water seeping from under the bath. But yet, I didn’t find it scary. As the family secrets are slowly revealed, drip fed through flashbacks, and the unreliability of memory surfaced I felt the tension ooze out of the book.

It’s a shame because at first the tension is great, the atmosphere convincing and the characters clearly formed. I like the historical aspects – the connection with the Underground Railway (used in the 19th century by slaves escaping from the southern states) – and the descriptive writing about the setting in Iowa, together with the sense of nostalgia for the time and place Arden had left behind. As a character study it worked very well but as a psychological and suspense filled novel it fell short for me. An enjoyable read nevertheless.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 2294 KB
  • Print Length: 278 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1780891938
  • Publisher: Cornerstone Digital (11 Aug. 2016)
  • Source: review copy

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for giving me access to an advance copy.

The Blood Card by Elly Griffiths

The Blood Card (DI Stephens & Max Mephisto, #3)The Blood Card by Elly Griffiths is the third in the DI Stephens and Max Mephisto series. Known as the ‘Magic Men’ they had been part of a top-secret espionage unit during the War.

This book captures the atmosphere of 1953 – a time of great change and optimism. Britain is looking forward with eager anticipation to the new Queen’s coronation. The newspapers and newsreels are full of it and more than half the homes in the country have bought a television in order to watch the coronation live- it was the first British coronation to be broadcast on television, a momentous occasion. But there are fears that an anarchist group is plotting to disrupt the coronation.

Max, a magician, and his daughter Ruby, also a magician, are preparing for a TV Coronation Variety show, whilst Edgar is leading the investigation into death of Madame Zabini, a gypsy fortune teller, on Brighton pier.  However, when their former war-time commander is murdered both Edgar and Max are instructed to investigate his death. A playing card, the ace of hearts had been found on his body, next to the knife still in his chest. Magicians call it the ‘blood card‘.

Whilst Max investigates the show business connection, Edgar flies to the States to interview a witness who has links to an anarchist group, leaving Sergeant Emma Holmes to look into Madame Zabini’s death. At first it looked as though she had committed suicide when her body had been found washed up near the Palace Pier but Emma suspects it was not an accident or suicide. As the investigations progress it appears there may be a connection between the two deaths and also links to the plot to disrupt the coronation.,

I loved the way this book is so firmly set in 1953, and conveys the public’s excitement about the new Queen and the coronation, especially as it was being broadcast live on television. I enjoyed the insight into the history of television as Max is sceptical about performing magic on TV thinking the ‘smug grey box’ will be the death of the days of music hall, that magic tricks needed to be performed on stage not in close up with a camera over his shoulder. But he is persuaded to take part in a new show after the coronation – Those were the Days ( that is The Good Old Days). And I also liked the character progression as Edgar and Max continue their friendship. Edgar is engaged to Ruby, although Max is not too happy about it. And Edgar appears to be unaware of Emma’s feelings for him. How this will end is yet to be resolved.

The Blood Card is a most entertaining book, with a convincing cast of characters. The mystery is expertly handled, with plenty of suspense and lots of twists and turns as the separate plot strands are intricately woven together. I loved it.

Thanks Quercus Books and Netgalley for an advance review copy of this book ahead of publication on 3rd November.

Amazon UK link

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble’s latest book, The Dark Flood Rises explores the ending of life, the nature of aging, and life and death. But it is by no means depressing or morbid. It’s told from a number of viewpoints, centring around Fran (Francesca) Stubbs, set against a backdrop of rising floods in Britain and in the Canaries, both of the influx of immigrants arriving by boat to the Canaries from Africa and of the effect of the tremor off the small Canary Island of El Hierro on the tides.The ‘dark flood ‘ is also used to refer to the approach of death.

Fran, now in her seventies, is an expert on housing for the elderly. She keeps herself very busy, acting as a carer of sorts and cooking meals for her ex-husband Claude, and travelling around the country attending conferences on care for the elderly. She visits old friends and her daughter in the West Country. She keeps in touch with her son, Christopher, as he deals with the sudden death of Sara, his girlfriend, and is visiting friends in Lanzarote.

But this book is not plot-focused – it ponders the questions of what is a ‘good’ or even an ‘heroic’ death, the morality of suicide and in contrast the desire for the human race to go on living at all costs. It focuses on personal relationships, on love, on the vagaries of memory, on the ordinary, everyday aspects of life and on the ‘heroism’ needed for old age.

I liked it very much. It’s densely layered, thought provoking and moving. It’s a book to re-read.

And, incidentally I was intrigued to find that the pop artist, Pauline Boty who is mentioned in the last book I read, Autumn by Ali Smith, is also mentioned in The Dark Flood Rises when Sara’s death reminds Christopher of Boty who had died at the early age of twenty-eight.

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher, Canongate Books, for letting me have an advance copy. The Dark Flood Rises is due to be published on 3 November 2016.

Amazon UK link

Autumn by Ali Smith

autumn-smith

Autumn is the first of Ali Smith’s books I’ve read and at first I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The blurb attracted me – it describes it as ‘a breathtakingly inventive new novel, a meditation on a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, on what harvest means.‘ I didn’t find it ‘breathtaking’ but I did enjoy it.

I liked the beginning which begins with a stream of consciousness as Daniel Gluck, a very old man, ponders his life and his approaching death. The main focus of Autumn is the relationship between Daniel and Elisabeth Demand who first met when Elisabeth was a child and moved into the house next door to Daniel’s. We see their friendship at various stages in their lives throughout the book.

As I expected from the blurb Autumn is not a straightforward story, so whilst I wanted to know more about the Daniel and Elisabeth story I was quite happy to diverge from their story through the different sections about a variety of different themes from death, aging, love and of course autumn.

I liked the wordplay and references to many other books from Dickens to Shakespeare, the details about Christine Keeler and the Profumo Affair, the life, work and death of the pop artist Pauline Boty, and the accurate and amusing accounts of the frustrations of everyday life such as those describing Elisabeth’s attempts to renew her passport.

It’s both poignant and cutting in its look at modern life, how we got to where we are, and the mood of the country post-Brexit (that word is never mentioned) – the confusion and the misery and rejoicing, the insanity, and the division. It’s a remarkable book.

Autumn is the first installment in Ali Smith’s novel quartet Seasonal: four standalone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as the seasons are), exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative.

Ali Smith was born in Inverness in 1962. She is the author of Free Love and Other Stories, Like, Other Stories and Other Stories, Hotel World, The Whole Story and Other Stories, The Accidental, Girl Meets Boy, The First Person and Other Stories, There but for the, Artful, How to be both, and Public library and other stories. Hotel World was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize and The Accidental was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Orange Prize. How to be both won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Goldsmiths Prize and the Costa Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Folio Prize. Ali Smith lives in Cambridge.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 5464 KB
  • Print Length: 243 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0241207010
  • Publisher: Penguin (20 Oct. 2016)

I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, for review.

The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland

The Plague Charmer

Karen Maitland is a great storyteller.

The Plague Charmer is a fascinating medieval tale full of atmosphere and superstition. It’s a long but an unputdownable book, bringing the medieval world to life in all its brutality and hardship. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I received an uncorrected proof copy of this, her latest novel, from Lovereading. The book is set in Porlock Weir in 1361 where a village is isolated by the plague when the Black Death spreads once more across England.  Following an eclipse of the sun, as a storm rages along the coast, a ship is blown ashore bringing a dark stranger, Janiveer, to the village. She warns the villagers that the plague, raging in other parts of the country will soon spread to their village and offers to save them – but for a terrible price.

It’s a complex story, told from different characters’ perspectives, following the lives of Will, a ‘fake’ dwarf, Sara, a packhorse man’s wife and her family, Matilda, a religious zealot, and Christina at nearby Porlock Manor amongst others. It’s a tale of folklore, black magic, superstition, violence, torture, murder, and an apocalyptic cult – and also of love. As the plague spreads and more horrendous deaths pile up bringing  fear and hysteria, families are broken up, and hostilities surface as the village is isolated, left to fend alone.

I thought Will a fascinating character. He was not born a dwarf, but was subjected to horrific treatment as a baby, strapped into an iron bridle, compressed and deformed as he grew to form a squat little dwarf. He is remarkably free of bitterness and capable of more humanity than most of the other characters. Sara, too shows strength of character as she perseveres in her search for her two missing sons.

I like the Historical Notes, providing more detailed information about the period, the people and the location, as well as the legends, and the answers to the medieval riddles that head Will’s chapters. I particularly like the information about the plague and the various religious cults of the period. The Glossary is also invaluable, helping to flesh out the detail.

The Plague Charmer is a superb combination of historical fact and fiction. I really enjoyed reading this detailed and chillingly dark atmospheric book. It’s a memorable story with a colourful cast of characters, full of suspense and drama.

My thanks to Headline for also providing a proof copy via NetGalley.

  • Hardcover: 576 pages (also as an e-book)
  • Publisher: Headline Review (20 Oct. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1472235827
  • ISBN-13: 978-1472235824

Amazon UK link

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin

The Songlines by [Chatwin, Bruce]

As I loved On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin I was keen to read The Songlines when the publishers, Open Road Integrated Media, asked if I’d like to read and review this e-book edition. It includes an illustrated biography of Bruce Chatwin including rare images and never-before-seen documents from the author’s estate. The Songlines was originally published in 1987.

It’s set in Australia exploring the ‘Songlines’, the labyrinth of invisible pathways which cross and re-cross Australia, ‘known to Europeans as ‘Dreaming-tracks’ or ‘Songlines’; to the Aboriginals as the Footprints of the Ancestors’ or the ‘Way of the Law’.

On the one hand this is a fascinating account of Chatwin’s visit to Australia to find out about the Songlines and the myths of the legendary totemic beings who sang the world into existence as they wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime. It’s an account of Chatwin’s exploration of the Songlines, in the company of a Russian, Arkady Volchek who was mapping these sacred sites for a railway company so that they could work round the Songlines rather than obliterating them with the railroad.

On the other hand it is much more than that – and this is where I found the book a bit difficult – in the middle of his account of his travels Chatwin throws in a whole hodge-podge of ideas, quotations from numerous writers and philosophers, travel notes, speculations on the origins of life and anecdotes all thrown into the mix before he gets back to writing about his travels and the people he met. I marked lots of passages in the section ‘From the Notebooks‘, particularly on the subject of walking – for example:

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it … but by sitting still, and the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill … Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.

Søren Kierkegaarde, letter to Jette (1847)

and on nomads and the nomadic life:

Psychiatrists, politicians, tyrants are forever assuring us that the wandering life is an aberrant form of behaviour; a neurosis; a form of unfulfilled sexual longing; a sickness which, in the interests of civilisation must be suppressed. …

Yet in the East, they still preserve the once universal concept: that wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe.

The Songlines contains beautiful descriptions of the Australian landscape such as this:

A pair of rainbows hung across the valley between the two mountains. The cliffs of the escarpment, which had been a dry red were now a purplish-black and striped like a zebra, with vertical chutes of white water. The cloud seemed even denser than the earth, and beneath its lower rim, the last of the sun broke through, flooding the spinifex with shafts of pale light.

I really don’t know whether this book fits into any particular genre. Chatwin was an author, a novelist and a travel writer – a skilled storyteller. It seems to me that this book combines all these forms of writing. I enjoyed both the account of Chatwin’s experiences in Australia and the long and loosely connected middle section of the book, but would have preferred these to stand on their own rather than be combined in one book.

My thanks to Open Road Integrated Media for a review copy via NetGalley.

  • File Size: 6061 KB
  • Print Length: 281 pages
  • Publisher: Open Road Media (October 18, 2016)
  • Publication Date: October 18, 2016
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B01K6GBLVY

Amazon US link

The Black Caravel by Harry Nicholson

The Black Caravel by Harry Nicholson is his second novel about Tom Fleck: a Novel of Cleveland and Flodden, which I reviewed in 2011.

Blurb:

This story follows the struggles of a farm labourer in North-East England. The series began with the novel, ‘Tom Fleck’, in which we followed Tom’s adventures, loves, and troubles in the year 1513, the year of the Battle of Flodden. The present book re-enters his life twenty-three years later in 1536, in the dark year of the dissolution of the monasteries and the subsequent rebellion known as ‘The Pilgrimage of Grace’. Tom is on a journey with his wife and blind daughter and must travel through the chaos.

My view:

Once again I was transported back to the 16th century with Tom Fleck and his family, this time it is 1536. He now has grown-up sons, Francis and Isaac, both at sea, part of the crew of the Plenty under Captain Ben Hood, a daughter of seventeen, Kate, who is blind and twins aged 15. Tom is now a farmer, living for the past twenty years at Crimond Hall on the Durham coast. As Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries begins Tom and Rachel, his wife, together with their daughter Kate set out for London to visit a lawyer as Rachel has been bequeathed five hundred gold sovereigns in her father’s friend’s will.

As the blurb indicates their journey is not without danger, bringing them into contact with the rebels led by Robert Aske (a real historical character who led the Pilgrimage of Grace protest). Tom’s sons, Francis and Isaac are also in trouble as the Plenty runs aground on the Goodwin Sands in the Dover Straits, encounters a ‘plague ship’, a grounded Portuguese caravel with just one man and a dog left on on board, and engages battle with Barbary pirates from North Africa.

The Black Caravel is a fascinating story about ordinary people set against the background of national affairs and how it affects their lives, for example one character refers to ‘poor Anne Boleyn what’s got no head‘ and he thinks that Richard of York was the true King, not Henry VIII. I was immersed in the time and place – the landscape, the bird sounds, the plants and animals, the towns and the seascape are all beautifully described; for example this passage describing the scene as the fog over the Goodwins lifted:

The fog shifted. Then swirled. Driven before a freshening breeze the murk swept away to the northeast. The shore boat approached the grounded Plenty in bright noon sun. In the shallows around her, the sea was a burnished duck-egg green. Farther out, the surface glowed steel-bright and sparkled with a million ripples. The drying sandbanks threw back white light, fierce to the eyes.

An urgent shout came from the Plenty. The rowers bent harder. A hoard of dark shapes undulated across the sandbank. The seals bugled in alarm while they jostled to plunge into the sea. A flock of pied birds lifted in panic before the approach of men who ran full tilt armed with crossbows and spears. The oystercatchers flew overhead, bleating. Urgent hands reached over the side to heave the heavy captain onto the deck of the cog.(page 59)

There is so much packed in this short novel, reflecting the way of life and the attitudes of the times such as the religious fervour as England broke away from Rome, the ways of treating illness (Kate is blind as a result of a blow to her head) and the anti-semitism that prevailed. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

My thanks to Harry Nicholson for sending me a copy to read and review.

  • Paperback: 188 pages
  • Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (30 Aug. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1535378085
  • ISBN-13: 978-1535378086
  • Source: Review copy from the author

Accidents Happen by Louise Millar

Accidents Happen is one of my TBR e-books that I’ve had for a couple of years. It’s described as a ‘gripping psychological thriller where one woman’s streak of bad luck may be something far more sinister’, so I thought it would be just the right sort of book to read for this year’s R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XI.

It begins well with a strange, scary episode about a child waking up to the sight of something slithering, full of threat, not sure what it was but terrified as it was angry with a gaping mouth revealing a tiny white spot, where the poison came from.

Episodes like this are interspersed between the chapters of the story, each one more terrifying than the rest. These are actually much more scary than the main story, which is about Kate, a widow and her young son Jack.

Blurb:

Kate Parker has had so much bad luck in her life, she’s convinced she’s cursed. But when she tries to do her best to keep herself and her son safe, people tell her she’s being anxious and obsessive.

Just when her life starts to spin completely out of control, an Oxford professor she meets offers to help. But his methods are not conventional. If she wants to live her life again, he will expect her to take risks.

When a mysterious neighbour starts to take more than a passing interest in her, Kate tries to stay rational and ignore it.

Maybe this, however, is the one time Kate should be worried.

My thoughts:

Kate’s husband had died 5 years before the book starts and Kate is obsessed with statistics, so much so that they are now ruling her life – statistics about all the things that go wrong, or could go wrong. And this is preventing her from living a normal life – the lengths she goes to are extreme and they are affecting her Jack, her son. As readers we know that some of Kate’s fears are real, but she doesn’t focus on those, although they do bother her. I began to feel something was wrong. And when she met Jago, an Oxford professor my feelings intensified – there was definitely something suspicious going on. Why was he getting her to take such risks and putting herself into such strange situations?

At first I was enjoying this book – it’s very readable, although the concentration on Kate’s fears got a bit repetitive – but increasingly as I read on I just couldn’t believe what was happening. For me the tension that had been building up just disappeared. I didn’t think it was plausible and I couldn’t suspend my disbelief.

I think I’m in the minority about this book as it has more favourable reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge and R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XI.

Joyland by Stephen King

I’m so glad I read Joyland by Stephen King – it’s so good.

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I nearly didn’t buy it, put off by the cover (you should never judge a book by its cover!) and by the publishers, Hard Case Crime – it was the word ‘hard‘ that really made me pause, especially when I looked at their site and saw they publish ‘the best in hardboiled crime fiction‘. Not being quite sure just what ‘hard boiled crime fiction‘ is, I looked it up. This is Encyclopædia Britannica‘s definition:

Hard-boiled fiction, a tough, unsentimental style of American crime writing that brought a new tone of earthy realism or naturalism to the field of detective fiction. Hard-boiled fiction used graphic sex and violence, vivid but often sordid urban backgrounds, and fast-paced, slangy dialogue.

Not my sort of book, at all! But it’s by Stephen King and I like his books, so I did buy it. It’s not ‘hard boiled fiction‘ as defined above. The only way it fits that definition is that there is a lot of slang in it – ‘carny’ slang, which King explains in his Author’s Note is what he calls in this book ‘the Talk‘. It is ‘carnival lingo, an argot both rich and humorous’. So not ‘hard boiled’ at all!

Joyland is a ghost story, a love story, a story of loss and heartbreak. It’s also a murder mystery and utterly compelling to read.

It’s narrated by Devin Jones, looking back forty years at the time he was a student, suffering from a broken heart, as his girlfriend had just rejected him and he spent a summer working at Joyland, in North Carolina, an amusement park with ‘a little of the old-time carny flavor‘.

Along with various rides, ‘Happy Hounds’, and a palm-reader, there is the Horror House, a ‘spook’ house which is said to be haunted by the ghost of Linda Gray, whose boyfriend cut her throat in the Horror House. The boyfriend had not been found and it appears he may be a serial killer as there had been four other similar murders in Georgia and the Carolinas.

It’s also a story of friendship, of Tom and Erin, of children with the ‘sight’, a young boy in a wheelchair and his mother, and Dev’s search for the killer.

I loved the setting of the funfair, Dev’s nostalgia for his youth, his sensitivity, and the images the story evokes – it’s not just the story but the way King tells his tale, with just a touch of horror and the supernatural.

Who knows – maybe I should read some more of Hard Case Crime’s publications!

Reading ChallengesReaders.Imbibing.Peril XI.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

I previously enjoyed The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz, so when I saw Magpie Murders  on NetGalley I was keen to read it and delighted when I received an uncorrected proof. I think it is an outstanding book by a master story-teller, with a wonderfully intricate plot. It’s a prime example of a puzzle-type of crime fiction combining elements of the vintage-style golden age crime novel with word-play and cryptic clues and allusions to Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s also a novel within a novel, with mystery piled upon mystery. I loved it.

The outer story and the contemporary mystery is that of Alan Conway, the author of the Atticus Pünd Mysteries. His editor, Susan Ryeland is reading a manuscript of his latest novel Magpie Murders, expecting to enjoy it as much as his earlier books, even though she really couldn’t stand Conway himself. What she wasn’t prepared for is that this book would change her life.

The inner story, that told in Conway’s novel is a whodunnit, a murder mystery full of twists and turns with plenty of red herrings. I was enjoying it as much as Susan as she read of the death of Mary Blakiston in the little village of Saxby-on-Avon in 1955. Mary was an unpleasant character. She had been found dead at the bottom of the stairs at Pye Hall where she was the cleaner for the owner, Sir Magnus Pye. It appeared that she had tripped and fallen down the stairs.Then Magnus is also found dead, but this was obviously murder as he had been beheaded.

So back to the outer story. When Susan came to the end of the manuscript she found it wasn’t finished – there was no denouement. And she couldn’t contact Conway to get the final chapters of the book and then she discovered that he was dead. So, she sets out to find the missing chapters and in so doing discovers even more mysteries – was Conway’s death an accident, suicide or murder? Like Mary Blakiston in his novel, he was not a popular man, and there are a number of other parallels between his novel and his real life.

Magpie Murders is a really satisfying read, with believable characters, set in beautifully described locations, tantalisingly mysterious and so, so readable. I also particularly liked the use of the rhyme of ‘One for Sorrow’ in the chapter headings of Conway’s novel in the same way that Agatha Christie used ryhmes in some of her books. It’s quite long, but the pages sped by as I was drawn into both stories and keen to find the answers to all the questions all the mysteries it had posed.

Many thanks to NetGalley and the publishers Orion Books for an ARC.

The Black Friar by S G MacLean

 

The Black Friar by S G MacLean is one of those books that has the power to transport me to another time and place. I was totally absorbed, convinced I was back in England in the 17th century.

It is the second book in the Damian Seeker series, historical crime fiction set in 1655 during the Interregnum under Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector. Damian Seeker, Captain of Cromwell’s Guard, works for Thurloe, Cromwell’s Chief Secretary and spy master, in charge of the security of the regime. It’s a complex mystery, particularly as there are various factions and religious sects plotting rebellion against Cromwell.

A body, presumed by his black robe to be that of a Dominican friar, is found bricked up in a wall in Blackfriars, once a monastery and now a derelict building gradually falling into the River Fleet. But this was no friar, as Seeker recognised him as Carter Blyth one of Thurloe’s undercover agents, who had been working in the Netherlands, observing the Royalists colluding with foreign powers. As far as Seeker knew he had been killed in Delft three months earlier. Seeker’s task is to find why he had been killed and who killed him. He discovers that Blyth under Thurloe’s orders had in fact infiltrated a group of Fifth Monarchists who wanted to overthrow Cromwell and had been living with the Crowe family, members of the group, under the name of Gideon Fell.

It’s a complicated and intricate tale as Seeker, helped by Nathaniel Crowe, tries to discover what Blyth had been doing, and what trail he was following. There are missing children, whose whereabouts Blyth had been investigating, and plots to overthrow Cromwell as well as plots to reinstate Charles Stuart as King.

Although The Black Friar is the second book in the series, (the first is The Seeker, which I haven’t read) I think it works well as a stand-alone book. The characterisation is strong and I particularly like Damian Seeker, a man both respected and feared, and a man to trust.

I also like the way S G MacLean has based her book on solid historical research (she has an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Aberdeen) and weaves real historical figures into the story, such as the poet John Milton, now an old blind man, the Secretary of Foreign Tongues and the diarist Samuel Pepys, an Exchequer clerk, who though very personable was ‘prone to drink and some lewdness.’ It all brings to life the atmosphere and tenor of the 1650s. I loved it.

My thanks to Netgalley and Quercus books for my copy of this book. It is due to be published on 6 October.

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

I’ve recently read The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge and I enjoyed it immensely.

It is the story of two unlikely friends, Freda and Brenda. Their relationship is the central focus of this book – it’s basically a friendship of convenience as they are complete opposites. Their backgrounds and personalities are very different. They met by chance in a butcher’s shop, where Brenda having left her drunken brute of a husband and a mad mother-in-law was in floods of tears. They share a room and work together in an Italian wine factory in London, gluing labels onto the bottles. Freda is sixteen stone, with blonde hair and blue eyes, Brenda has reddish shoulder-length stringy hair, with a long thin face and short sighted eyes who never looks properly at people. The difference between them is epitomised in Bainbridge’s description,

At night when they prepared for bed Freda removed all her clothes and lay like a great fretful baby, majestically dimpled and curved. Brenda wore her pyjamas and her underwear and a tweed coat.

Brenda desperately tries to escape the the amorous attentions of Rossi, the factory manager – as Freda says Brenda is a born victim, who’s asking for trouble. But it’s not just Brenda who runs into trouble. Freda, who is in love with Vittorio, the trainee manager and nephew of the factory owner, organises a factory outing in the hope that she can seduce him, but the outing goes from bad to worse.The van arranged to take them to a stately home fails to turn up so only those who can fit into two cars set off, then there are fights at Windsor Castle, and a bizarre visit to a safari park. Passions rise, tempers flare, barrels of wine are consumed and it ends in violence and tragedy.

The book begins as a comedy, but then continues with an uneasy undercurrent as the outing gets under way before descending into a dark tragedy that is surreal and farcical and also desperately sad.  Beryl Bainbridge’s writing, so easily readable, is rich in descriptions. The book is superbly paced; the tension rises in an atmosphere of seediness, and frustration, before reaching an unbelievable and grotesque climax.  I had no idea how Bainbridge could draw this story to an end and was completely taken by surprise at the bizarre twist at the end, which I thought was brilliant. It’s savagely funny, full of pathos, touching moments, frustrations, shame, stress and unhappiness, all combining to make this a most entertaining book.

Beryl Bainbridge (1932 – 2010) was made a Dame in 2000. She wrote 18 novels, three of which were filmed, two collections of short stories, several plays for stage and television, and many articles, essays, columns and reviews. Five of her novels were nominated for the Booker Prize, but none of them won it. Years ago before I began writing BooksPlease I read two of her books, historical novels, one being According to Queenie, published in 1999, a novel about the life of Samuel Johnson as seen through the eyes of Queeney, Mrs Thrale, and the other Master Georgie, published in 1998, set in the Crimean War telling the story of George Hardy, a surgeon.

Since then I have read three more of her books and loved each one –  A Quiet Life, published in 1976, a semi-autobiographical novel, using her own childhood and background as source material; An Awfully Big Adventure, another semi-autobiographical novel set in 1950, based on Beryl Bainbridge’s own experience as an assistant stage manager in a Liverpool theatre, published in 1989 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize; and The Birthday Boys, a novel about Captain Scott’s last Antarctic Expedition, published in 1991.

The Bottle Factory was inspired by Beryl Bainbridge’s experience working part time in a bottle factory in 1959. It was first published in 1974 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in that year.

Thanks to the publishers, Open Road Integrated Media, via NetGalley for my copy of this ebook edition, featuring an illustrated biography of Beryl Bainbridge including rare images from the author’s estate. It’s due to be released in the US on 4 October.

Amazon US link

Sunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith

I’ve read a few of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie books, which I enjoyed – but not any of his 44 Scotland Street novels. So when I saw Sunshine on Scotland Street in the library, going off the blurb on the back cover, I thought it would be a change from the crime fiction and historical novels I’ve been reading recently.

From the back cover:

Scotland Street witnesses the wedding of the century of Angus Lordie to Domenica Macdonald, but as the newlyweds depart on honeymoon Edinburgh is in disarray. Recovering from the trauma of being best man, Matthew is taken up by a Dane called Bo, while Cyril eludes his dog-sitter and embarks on an odyssey involving fox-holes and the official residence of a cardinal. Narcissist Bruce meets his match in the form of a sinister doppelganger; Bertie, set up by his mother for fresh embarrassment at school, yearns for freedom; and Big Lou goes viral. But the residents of Scotland Street rally, and order – and Cyril – is restored by the combined effects of understanding, kindness, and, most of all, friendship.

My thoughts:

Even though I haven’t read the seven books before this one I had no difficulty in following the storylines, although it is obvious that the characters all have backstories and previous relationships that are hinted at in this book. In a way it’s very like the Isabel Dalhousie books as the action is interspersed with McCall Smith’s philosophical and ethical musings, his thoughts about human nature and relationships, which in general I liked more than the story.

It begins with an amusing account of the preparations for Angus and Domenica’s wedding, which Angus seems to think will just happen without much preparation by him – a hole in his kilt, his lack of a ring, and he has given no thought at all about where to go for thier honeymoon. But his bestman, Matthew helps him sort out the kilt and ring problem and Domenica has arranged both the reception and the honeymoon.

After that Angus and Domenica disappear from the book until the last chapter, leaving Cyril, Angus’s dog in the care of the Pollock family, the insufferable Irene, her long-suffering husband, Stuart, 6 year-old son Bertie and baby Ulysses. Cyril and Bertie are my favourite characters in the book and their ‘adventures’ caused me much concern, as Irene does not like Cyril and stifles both Bertie and Stuart. In fact I wasn’t too bothered about any of the other characters, apart from Bertie’s spindly-legged friend from cub scouts, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson and his mother who has no difficulty in putting Irene firmly in her place.

This is an easy read, meandering from one character to the next. It has a light, humorous tone that I enjoyed, along with thoughts about friendship, religion, spirituality and happiness. At the end as Angus looks round the group of people gathered for their homecoming party it strikes him that they are an ‘infinitely precious band of souls’:

And this realisation that he had was not specifically religious – although it could easily and appropriately be that. It was, rather, a spiritual notion – the idea that each of us, even the least of us, has a rich hinterland of value behind us: the lives we have led, the thoughts we have had, the love we have given and received – the little things of our lives that may not mean much to others unless and until they are granted the insight that brings love into the heart, sudden, exalting love. To see another as a soul was to acknowledge the magnifcent, epic course that life is for each of us, and to experience sympathy for the other in his or her negotiation of that course. It was quite different from seeing others simply as people. (pages 294 – 295)

Reading challenges: Read Scotland and What’s In a Name, in the category of a book with a country in the title.

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Abacus (18 July 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0349139164
  • ISBN-13: 978-0349139166
  • Source: Library book

Agatha Christie’s Short Stories: The Mysterious Mr Quin

Agatha Christie blogathon

This post is my contribution to  Little Bits of Classics and and Christina Wehner‘s Agatha Christie Blogathon in honour of Agatha Christie’s 126th birthday on the 15th of September.

Agatha Christie is one of my favourite authors. I first began reading her books when I was in my teens but it was in 2008 when Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise launched the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge that I began to read my way through all her books. There are 66 mystery and detective novels and numerous collections of short stories. In February of this year I completed my reading of her 66 mystery and detective novels and some but not all of her short stories.

The Short Stories

There is some confusion over how many short stories Agatha Christie wrote. The Agatha Christie website records that she wrote 150 stories, whereas Wikipedia records that she wrote 153 short stories, published in 14 collections in the UK and in the US. By my reckoning she wrote 157 short stories, published in a number of collections, but I may have included duplications  as some stories were published under different names in the US Collections. I’m hoping that as I read the stories the actual number will become clear. For my list of her short stories see my Agatha Christie Short Stories Page.

But whatever the real total may be there can be no doubt that it is an impressive collection of stories originally published in several magazines and then in a number of collections. They do vary in quality, some are very short, almost skeletal, with the puzzle element given greater emphasis than characterisation.The first collection of her short stories, Poirot Investigates was published in 1924, when Agatha Christie was 34.

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Agatha Christie in 1926

As today’s topic in this Blogathon is dedicated to anything about or by Agatha Christie not related either to Poirot or Miss Marple this post is about one collection of short stories:

The Mysterious Mr Quin

The Mysterious Mr Quin First Edition Cover 1930.jpg

The Mysterious Mr Quin First Edition Cover

This was first published in 1930 featuring Mr Harley Quin and Mr Satterthwaite. This is my favourite of her collections, containing some of her very best short stories.

In her Autobiography Agatha Christie said these stories were her favourites too. The stories were not written as a series, but one at a time at intervals of three or four months or longer and were first published in magazines. They are set in the 1920s and have a paranormal element to them, as well as a touch of romance. I found them all most entertaining.

In the Foreword she describes Mr Quin as:

… a figure invisible except when he chose, not quite human, yet concerned with the affairs of human beings and particularly of lovers. He is also the advocate for the dead.

Mr Satterthwaite, who was in his sixties, a little man, with an elf-like face, is Mr Quin’s friend:

Mr Satterthwaite, the gossip, the looker-on at life, the little man who without ever touching the depths of joy and sorrow himself, recognizes drama when he sees it, and is conscious that he has a part to play.

The titles are

1. The Coming of Mr. Quin
2. The Shadow on the Glass
3. At the “Bells and Motley”
4. The Sign in the Sky
5. The Soul of the Croupier
6. The Man from the Sea
7. The Voice in the Dark
8. The Face of Helen
9. The Dead Harlequin
10. The Bird with the Broken Wing
11. The World’s End
12. Harlequin’s Lane

In the opening story, The Coming of Mr Quin, Mr Satterthwaite first meets him on New Year’s Eve, at a house party when talk had turned to the suicide of Mr Capel, the man who had originally owned the house. The enigmatic Mr Quin, a tall, slender man, appears in the doorway.  The light shining through the stained glass above the door makes it appear that he is dressed in every colour of the rainbow but when he moves the effect fades and Mr Satterthwaite can see that he is  dressed conventionally. Whenever he appears in the stories, some trick of the light initially produces the same effect. Mr Quin subtly steers Mr Satterthwaite into discovering the truth behind Mr Capel’s suicide.

In the following eleven stories Harley Quin always appears unexpectedly and suddenly, and then just as suddenly disappears, having influenced Mr Satterthwaite to change people’s lives, and solve mysteries by producing clues and asking pointed questions, making the solution obvious. He is, without doubt, the most mysterious and unusual character in all of Agatha Christie’s books.

One of my favourite stories is The Man From The Sea. Mr Satterthwaite, who is a wealthy man, althought the source of his wealth is not revealed, is on a Mediterranean island. Walking along the cliffs he meets Anthony Cosden, about to leap to his death. He’d been planning to do so the previous evening but had been prevented when he’d met someone else at the edge of the cliff – a mysterious man in fancy dress, ‘ a kind of Harlequin rig‘. Anthony reveals he only had six months to live and doesn’t want a lingering end and in any case he has no one in the world belonging to him – if only he had a son …

Mr Satterthwaite next meets a woman in black in the quiet garden of what seems to be an empty house. The woman asks him if he would like to see inside the house and clearly needs someone to talk to, someone to hear the tragic story of her life. It’s a touching story of remorse and the desire to make amends.

Mr Quin’s role in this and in other stories is to help Mr Satterthwaite to see beneath the surface, to see things in a different light. At the end he takes his leave, and all Mr Satterthwaite see is his friend walking towards the edge of the cliff.

The final story, Harlequin’s Lane is another bittersweet tale of lost love and fate and rather eerie. Mr Satterthwaite goes to visit a married couple, the Denmans, who live at Ashmead, on Harlequin’s Lane. Mrs Denman is a Russian refugee whom John Denman had married after escaping Russia on the outbreak of the revolution.

They are out when he arrives and he takes a walk down the Lane, wondering about its name and was not surprised when he meets his elusive friend, Harley Quin, who tells him the Lane belongs to him; it’s a Lovers’ Lane. It ends at waste ground covered with a rubbish heap where they meet Molly  who is to be Pierrette in the masquerade the Denmans have planned for the weekend. A car accident interrupts the arrangments injuring some of the dancers, until Mr Satterthwaite intervenes, but still tragedy strikes. Mr Quin, seems to have cast a magical air of unreality over Mr Satterthwaite:

Mr Satterthwaite quailed. Mr Quin seemed to have loomed to enormous proportions … Mr Satterthwaite had a vista of something at once menacing and terrifying … Joy, Sorrow, Despair.

And his comfortable little soul shrank back appalled.

Truly a mystifying collection of stories. I enjoyed it immensely.

Reading Challenges: Agatha Christie Reading Challenge, Mount TBR Reading Challenge, R.I.P. Challenge and the Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt in the category of a ‘performer’.

The current paperback edition:

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; Masterpiece Ed edition (2 Jun. 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007154844
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007154845

Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie

Tommy and Tuppence Beresford first appeared in Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary (first published in 1922) when they had just met up after World War One, both in their twenties. Their next appearance is in Partners in Crime, a collection of short stories, first published in 1929.

Life has become a little dull, especially for Tuppence. Tommy works for the Secret Service but wants to see more action, so when Tommy’s boss Mr Carter offers them both a new assignment they jump at the opportunity. It’s to take over for six months the running of the International Detective Agency under the name of Mr Theodore Blunt. It had been a front for Bolshevist-spying activity and in particular they were to look out for blue letters with a Russian stamp on them. They were also free to undertake any other detective work that comes their way.

All of the stories first appeared in magazines between 1923 and 1928 and they are parodies of fictional detectives of the period, some of whom I recognised and some I didn’t. When she came to write her autobiography many years later, even Agatha Christie couldn’t recognise some of them, noting that whilst some had become household names, others had ‘more or less perished in oblivion. Those I recognised include Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, The Old Man in the Corner, and Hercule Poirot, himself.

Most of the stories are self-contained adventures. They are slight and brief, and not really taxing or difficult to solve. I enjoyed reading them, because they are written with a light touch, and a sense of humour and fun. Tommy and Tuppence are likeable characters; Tommy is not as dizzy as David Walliams played him in the recent TV series. I’ve now read all the Tommy and Tuppence stories. There are four full length novels as well as Partners in Crime (Tommy and Tuppence 2) and unlike Poirot and Miss Marple Tommy and Tuppence age with each book:

  1. 1922 The Secret Adversary (Tommy and Tuppence 1)
  2. 1941 N or M? (Tommy and Tuppence 3)
  3. 1968 By the Pricking of My Thumbs (Tommy and Tuppence 4)
  4. 1973 Postern of Fate (Tommy and Tuppence 5)

Reading Challenges: the Agatha Christie Reading ChallengeMount TBR Reading Challenge, and the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt.

My copy is the current edition with this cover:

 

The first UK edition, however, has this cover, which I prefer.


So I’m choosing this cover for the Vintage Scavenger Hunt, in the category of a book showing a Shadowy Figure on its cover.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins has won a lot of awards and is a very popular book. It has good reviews, Stephen King for example describes it as a “Really great suspense novel. Kept me up most of the night. The alcoholic narrator is dead perfect.”

I thought it sounded good, so I decided to read it. But it didn’t live up to the hype for me. I wasn’t enthralled.

It began well with Rachel on the train each morning looking out at the houses on the road where she used to live before she was divorced. As the train stops at the same signal each day she enviously watches a young couple who are living the perfect life, or so she imagines. Then something happens that shocks her and everything changes and she begins to get involved in their lives, with disastrous results.

But I couldn’t easily distinguish between the three main characters, Rachel, Anna and Megan. Each one is an unreliable narrator and not very likeable. I had to keep referring to the chapter headings and dates to remind myself who was who and what happened when. I didn’t find it chilling or thrilling and any suspense rapidly disappeared with the repetition of Rachel being drunk, then being sorry, but unable to stop drinking. Then there are all the phone calls, text messages and emails that she sends when she is drunk. She has blackouts and can’t remember what happened, or what she said. Added to that she dreams and is unable to distinguish between them and reality. Overall it’s dreary and depressing.

So after a good start, the narrative lost impetus and dragged on to its conclusion, which by comparison seemed rushed, with a twist right at the end that took me by surprise. I suppose it is a ‘page-turner’ as I did want to know what what going to happen, but it left me feeling unsatisfied, irritated and rather out of sorts.

I’ve seen this book compared to Gone Girl, another book I have sitting waiting to be read. Now, I’m wondering if I’ll find that one disappointing as well. Do let me know your views on both or either of these books.

Reading challenges: Bev’s Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2016, 20 Books of Summer 2016 and although I didn’t find this book particularly perilous, Carl’s RIP XI (Readers Imbibing Peril), because plenty of other people have.

The Wench is Dead by Colin Dexter

An Inspector Morse book, The Wench is Dead is the 8th in the series, first published in 1989. This is a bit different from the other Morse books in that it is historical crime fiction – no current cases are investigated.

The wench is dead

Morse is in hospital being treated for a perforated ulcer. Whilst recovering he is given a book called Murder on the Oxford Canal by the wife of a recently deceased patient at the hospital. It’s an account of the investigation and trial that followed the death of Joanna Franks in 1859. She had been found at Duke’s Cut on the Oxford Canal. As he reads, Morse becomes convinced that the two boatmen hanged for her murder and a third man who had been transported to Australia were innocent.

Dexter based his book on an account of a Victorian murder in 1839, that of 37-year-old Christina Collins as she travelled the Trent and Mersey Canal atRugeley, Staffordshire, on the Staffordshire Knot en route to London. It reminded me of Josephine Tey’s novel, The Daughter of Time in which Inspector Alan Grant, also recovering in hospital, investigates the murder of the Princes in the Tower.

Morse enlists the help of Sergeant Lewis as well as that of Christine Greenaway, the beautiful daughter of one of the other patients. She works as a librarian at the Bodleian Library. So he is able to study original source material as well as the account in the published book. Morse finds it an absorbing puzzle, like a tricky cryptic crossword, and the more he read and thought about it the more questions came to his mind. He was not satisfied that the conclusions drawn at the trial about the forensic and pathological evidence were right. He felt uneasy about reported conversations between the various people involved:

… all of it was wrong somehow. Wrong if they were guilty. It was if some inexperienced playwright had been given a murder-plot, and then had proceeded to write page after page of inappropriate, misleading and occasionally contradictory dialogue. (page 133)

I thought it was ingenious and compelling reading, very well constructed and very clever. By the time he leaves the hospital Morse is convinced that he has solved the mystery. It’s a tale of  intrigue, lust and deception, with more than a few twists and turns.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge, 20 Books of Summer 2016 , Vintage Cover Silver Age Scavenger Hunt: in the category of a Building (not a house) – the front cover of my copy shows the Hertford Bridge, popularly known as the Bridge of Sighs, which joins two parts of Hertford College over New College Lane in Oxford.

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner: Paperback Publication

I first posted this review of Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner last December prior to its publication in hardback. I loved this gripping and intense crime thriller and it’s out in paperback today!

I was a bit doubtful that I would like Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner as it’s written in the present tense, which I usually find irritating. But I needn’t have been concerned because it wasn’t long before I’d completely forgotten the tense and I was totally immersed in the story. And I loved it.

Missing, Presumed is crime fiction, investigating the disappearance of Edith Hind, a beautiful Cambridge post-grad.  Her boyfriend, Will Carter had returned to their flat to find the front door open, coats in disarray and a spatter of blood on the kitchen floor. It’s told from different characters’ viewpoint, each one individually distinct, beginning with DS Manon Bradshaw on the Major Incident Team (her name means ‘bitter’ in Hebrew, but I thought it was Welsh), a lonely disillusioned single woman approaching forty, who overcomes her insomnia by listening to the low murmurings of police reports on her radio.

Edith’s mother, Miriam, Lady Hind, is distraught, wondering if somehow this is fault, her daughter the centre of a drama. Sir Ian Hind, a successful doctor, physician to the Royal Family and a friend of the Home Secretary adds to the pressure the police are under to find Edith. Edith’s friend, Helena comes under suspicion and known offenders are interviewed, but after the first 72 hours she is still missing. The team’s urgency is cooling  as the possibility that Edith is still alive diminishes. Then a dog walker finds a body in the Ouse, near Ely; is it Edith? The search for the killer is intensified.

This has all the ingredients of a successful crime novel for me. My only criticism of the book is that I didn’t think the final section, ‘One Year Later‘ in which the ends are tied up , was necessary. But apart from that I found it gripping and intense. I was intrigued by the multi-layered plot, and thought the characters were fully rounded, believable people, explored with psychological depth – in particular Manon Bradshaw stands out. And, best of all, it is beautifully written.

The Author

Susie Steiner began her writing career as a news reporter first on local papers, then on the Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph and The Times. In 2001 she joined The Guardian, where she worked as a commissioning editor on Weekend Magazine for 11 years. For more information see her website, susiesteiner.co.uk.

Missing, Presumed is Susie Steiner’s second book – her first is Homecoming.

A Game of Thrones by George R R Martin

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”

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When we began watching the HBO TV series, A Game of Thrones, I was hooked and once we finished watching I immediately wanted to read the series, A Song of Fire and Ice. I’d just read The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman, about the Wars of the Roses and had noticed the similarities between that and A Game of Thrones, the battles between the Houses of York and Lancaster paralleled by those between the Houses of Stark and Lancaster for example.

I don’t often read a book after seeing an adaptation, but in this case it proved ideal – the actors and scenery were perfect for my reading of the book, although there are some differences (the ages of the Stark children for example). I loved both the book and the TV series.

Blurb:

Summers span decades. Winter can last a lifetime. And the struggle for the Iron Throne has begun.

As Warden of the north, Lord Eddard Stark counts it a curse when King Robert bestows on him the office of the Hand. His honour weighs him down at court where a true man does what he will, not what he must … and a dead enemy is a thing of beauty.

The old gods have no power in the south, Stark’s family is split and there is treachery at court. Worse, the vengeance-mad heir of the deposed Dragon King has grown to maturity in exile in the Free Cities. He claims the Iron Throne.

I was completely immersed in this world inhabited by numerous characters and set in different locations (Seven Kingdoms), all portrayed in meticulous detail and expertly constructed so that all the fantastic creations are credible, and complete with back stories and histories. Beginning with a Prologue the book is then narrated through different characters’ points of view – each chapter is headed by that character’s name making the plotlines easy to follow:

  • Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark, Warden of the North and Lord of Winterfell, Hand of the King.
  • Lady Catelyn Stark, of House Tully, wife of Eddard Stark.
  • Sansa Stark, elder daughter of Eddard and Catelyn Stark.
  • Arya Stark, younger daughter of Eddard and Catelyn Stark.
  • Bran Stark, second-youngest son of Eddard and Catelyn Stark.
  • Jon Snow, illegitimate son of Eddard Stark, mother unknown.
  • Tyrion Lannister, son of Lord Tywin Lannister, called the Imp, a dwarf, brother of the twins, the beautiful and ruthless Queen Cersei and Ser Jaime, called the Kingslayer,
  • Daenerys Targaryen, Stormborn, the Princess of Dragonstone, sister of Prince Viserys, the last of the Targaryens.

Other characters include:

  • King Robert of the House Baratheon, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, Eddard Stark’s oldest friend, married to Queen Cersei, his son Joffrey, spoiled and wilful with an unchecked temper, heir to the Iron Throne.
  • Robb Stark, oldest true born son of Eddard Stark. He remained at Winterfell when Eddard became the Hand of the King.
  • Tywin Lannister, Lord of Casterly Rock, Warden of the West, Shield of Lannisport.
  • Khal Drogo – a powerful warlord of the Dothraki people on the continent of Essos, a very tall man with hair black as midnight braided and hung with bells.

Locations:

GOT Map1

  • Winterfell: the ancestral castle of House Stark.
  • The Wall: built of stone, ice and magic, on the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms, guarded by the Night’s Watch to protect the Kingdoms from the dangers behind the huge wall from ‘the Others’ and the Wildings.
  • Beyond the Wall: the first book begins Beyond the Wall with members of the Night’s Watch on the track of a band of Wildling raiders.
  • King’s Landing: a walled city, the capital of the continent of Westeros and of the Seven Kingdoms.
  • Essos: across the Narrow Sea from Westeros, includes the grassland known as the Dothraki Sea.

This article in The Telegraph lists the locations used in the TV series.

This is no fairy tale – it’s set in a grim and violent world full of tragedy, betrayals and battles; a tale of good versus evil in which family, duty, and honour are in conflict, the multiple viewpoints giving a rounded view of the conflicts the characters face. It’s a love story too. There are knights, soldiers and sorcerers, priests, direwolves, giants, assassins and bastards.  It’s complex and multifaceted, and it’s full of stories and legends – here for example Maester Luwin tells young Bran Stark about the children of the forest:

“They were people of the Dawn Age, the very first before kings and kingdoms,” he said. “In those days there were no castles or holdfasts, no cities, not so much as a market town to be found between here and the sea of Dorne. There were no men at all. Only the children of the forest dwelt in the lands we now call the Seven Kingdoms.

“They were a people dark and beautiful, small of stature, no taller than children even when grown to manhood. They lived in the depths of the wood, in caves and crannogs and secret tree towns. Slight as they were, the children were quick and graceful. Male and female hunted together, with weirwood bows and flying snares. Their gods were the gods of the forest, stream and stone, the old gods whose names are secret. Their wisemen were called greenseers and carved strange faces in the weirwoods to keep watch on the woods. (page 713)

I shall be reading the next book in the series soon, A Clash of Kings. The other books are A Storm of SwordsA Feast for Crows, and A Dance with Dragons.

I read the Kindle Edition:

  • File Size: 8515 KB
  • Print Length: 819 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0007448031
  • Publisher: Harper Voyager (23 Dec. 2010)

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge  – a book I’ve had since October 2015, and the What’s In a Name Challenge – in the category of a book with a piece of furniture in the title.

The Girl in the Cellar by Patricia Wentworth

I’m falling behind with reading for my 20 Books of Summer Challenge as I didn’t read any of them in July. I decided to read one of the shorter books to get back into the swing of the challenge and chose The Girl in the Cellar, a Miss Silver Mystery first published in 1961, by Patricia Wentworth (1878 – 1961). I wrote about the opening paragraph in this First Chapter, First Paragraph post.

It begins well as the main character finds herself in the dark in a cellar, not knowing who she is or how she got there. She is standing on the cellar steps and there is a dead girl lying at the bottom of the steps. She doesn’t recognise the dead girl either. She finds a bag beside her on the steps, which she doesn’t think is hers, but takes it with her as she escapes from the house and finds herself standing at the end of a road. She gets on a bus where she meets Miss Silver, who seeing how confused and frightened she is, takes her for a cup of tea and offers to help her. A letter in the handbag is addressed to Mrs James Fancourt and it seems that her name is Anne and she is to stay with her husband’s two aunts.

I think the opening of the book is the best part, setting up a scene of suspense and mystery. For most of the book Anne is suffering from amnesia but there is so much repetition of what little facts Anne knows that it became tedious reading, because it’s not just Anne who goes over and over what has happened but other characters too. I think the repetition lessened the sense of suspense, and overall, I thought the book was odd and not very convincing. There are too many coincidences, improbabilities, and loose ends.

This is the last of the Miss Silver Mysteries, published in the year Patricia Wentworth died. The first in the series was published in 1928. Miss Maud Silver is a retired governess who became a private investigator. She likes to help young lovers in distress – in The Girl on the Cellar, a ‘damsel in distress’ and she loves to knit and is a very sympathetic listener. I’ve only previously read one of the Miss Silver books, The Brading Collection, which is a much more convincing book.

As well as the 20 Books of Summer Challenge, this book qualifies for  Bev’s Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt in the category, ‘Damsel in Distress’.

The Woman Who Walked into the Sea by Mark Douglas-Home

Earlier this year I read and loved The Sea Detective, the first Cal McGill book. Cal is an oceanographer using his skills in tracking human bodies and sea-borne objects. So I was really looking forward to reading the second book, The Woman Who Walked into the Sea. Maybe my expectations were too high because I was a bit disappointed – that’s not to say I didn’t like it because I did, but it lacked the pace and complexity of the first book and just didn’t grip my imagination in the same way. Cal is really a secondary character and there is very little sea detection in the story.

Set in an imaginary coastal village of Poltown in the north of Scotland, the story revolves around the main character,Violet who had been abandoned as a new-born baby. An anonymous letter to a social worker reveals that her mother, Megan Bates, had last been seen walking into the sea. Her body had never been found and it had been assumed after her bag and hat had drifted ashore that she had drowned herself. Cal helps Violet with details of the tides and currents which convinces Megan had not committed suicide. She is determined to discover what had happened.

I liked the mystery surrounding Megan and the local people, most of whom have problems/secrets and then there is the ‘local’ mafia and a controversial wind farm proposal. But the appeal of The Sea Detective for me was not just the detective elements but Cal himself and his expertise in the marine environment, the mystery of how the ocean currents and wind speeds affect where things get washed ashore and tracking back to find where they originated.  And I thought this second book was unevenly paced, the action slowed down by long descriptive passages so that the suspense that had been built up drained away and my attention drifted.

So, even though I liked this book, I don’t think it quite lived up to The Sea Detective. There is a third book, The Malice of Waves and I hope that the focus is more on Cal and his sea detective work.

Reading Challenges: Read Scotland 2016 – by a Scottish author and set in Scotland.

The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman

Richard III (1452 – 1485), that controversial king – what was the truth about him? Did he murder his nephews, the ‘Princes in the Tower’, was he deformed, with a withered arm, a hunch back and a limp as Shakespeare portrayed him, was he a cold-blooded, evil villain? Or has he been maligned and been turned into a  monster who killed his brother’s sons in order to take the Crown?

I remembered merely the brief details about the Wars of the Roses, the conflict between the house of York and Lancaster for the throne of England,  from my school history lessons and only became interested in Richard III years later when I read Alison Weir’s non-fictional The Princes in the Tower, which examined the available evidence and came to the conclusion that Richard III was responsible for their deaths. Some years later I read Josephine Tey’s novel The Daughter of Time, which also investigates his role in the death of his nephews and his own death at the Battle of Bosworth and concluded that Richard hadn’t murdered his nephews.

The discovery of his skeleton buried beneath a car park in Leicester in 2012 revealed that although ‘the curved spine on the skeleton does show he had Scoliosis, he did not have a withered arm or other details attributed to him in some characterisations’ (see the Incredible Discovery at the King Richard III Visitor Centre ).

But it wasn’t the discovery of his skeleton that nudged me into reading  The Sunne in Splendour, Sharon Penman’s detailed historical novel, first published in 1982. It was watching A Game of Thrones, which is based in part on the Wars of the Roses – Stark and Lannister/York and Lancaster etc.

The Sunne in Splendour is a fascinating novel about his life from his childhood to his death at Bosworth Field in 1485. Much has been written about Richard, from the time of his death onwards, that Sharon Penman points out has to be considered in the light of the writers’ bias, stating in her Author’s Note at the end of the book:

I once came upon the definition of history as ‘the process by which complex truths are transformed into simplified falsehoods’. That is particularly true in the case of Richard III, where the normal medieval proclivity for moralizing and partisanship was further complicated by deliberate distortion to suit Tudor political needs.’ (page 884)

She states that she had tried to be as accurate as possible, drawing upon facts that are not in dispute, relying on contemporary chroniclers, and when dealing with conflicting accounts ‘to choose the one most in accord with what we know of the people involved.’ 

I think this is one of the best historical novels that I’ve read. It is full of detail, but her research sits very lightly in this book, none of it feels like a history lesson, and it all brings Richard’s world to life. Penman portrays a very likeable Richard, from his childhood onwards he comes across as a kind, generous and brave man, a skilled leader on the battlefield, a loving husband to his wife, Anne, and devoted and loyal to his brother, Edward IV, who was by no means a saint. I particularly liked the way Penman showed his relationship with his family, especially with his brothers Edward and George, the Duke of Clarence.

I could easily visualise the battle scenes, that eventually brought the Wars of the Roses to an end and was fascinated by the view of Henry Tudor (Henry VII) – I’d like to know more about him. It’s his view of Richard that prevailed after his accession to the throne. During his life Richard he had a good reputation and was loved, particularly in the North of England. But he fell victim to treachery and intrigue.

One of the drawbacks of reading historical fiction is that if you have any knowledge of the period you know the eventual outcome. Penman’s skill is such that even though I knew Richard was killed at the battle of Bosworth Field I kept hoping he would survive and defeat Henry Tudor.

As for her solution to who killed the princes, that is one spoiler I’m not going to reveal – I was convinced though by her version of events. I think The Sunne in Splendour is a brilliant book, I was absolutely gripped by it and was sad when I came to the end. It’s a long book, nearly 900 pages and it took me a while to read it, but never once did I think it was too long, or needed editing. I loved it.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge – a book I’ve left too long unread as it’s been on my shelves for 5 years!

The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling

For me the book chosen for the current Classics Club Spin is The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling. It’s a novella, just 60 pages, which first appeared in The Phantom Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales, published in 1888.

Set in India and narrated by a journalist this is a story of two ruffianly-looking adventurers, wanderers and vagabonds, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, who announce that they are off to Kafiristan in the mountains of Afghanistan to make themselves Kings. They tell the journalist that when they have got their kingdom ‘in going order’ they will let him know and that he can then come and help them govern it.

But some two years later, on a hot summer’s night, what was left of Carnehan crept into the journalist’s office,

He was bent into a circle, his head was sunk between his shoulders, and he moved his feet one over the other like a bear. I could hardly see whether he walked or crawled- this rag-wrapped, whining cripple who addressed me by name, crying that he was come back. (page 24)

And he had a sorry tale to tell.

I was a bit disappointed with it, mainly because for a novella it took such a long time to set the scene and the opening section was confusing, with references I didn’t understand. After the slow beginning the story picks up when it gets to relating what happened to Dravot and Carnehan. The Kipling Society website (where you can read the story, which is also free on Amazon) has some notes that helped me understand more – Masonic, Biblical and other references and details about the places and people mentioned.

The Kipling Society also gives details of the background to the story and some critical responses to it. Overall the responses are good – that it is a memorable, fantastic tale, some believing it to be a masterpiece, but Kingley Amis stated it was a ‘grossly overrated long tale‘. I was also interested that Edmund Wilson is quoted as stating that the story is “…surely a parable of what might happen to the English if they should forfeit their moral authority.”[Edmund Wilson “The Kipling that Nobody Read”, in Kipling’s Mind and Art ed. Andrew Rutherford, Oliver & Boyd, 1964.]

There was a film adaptation in 1975, starring Sean Connery as Dravot and Michael Caine as Carnehan with Christopher Plummer as Kipling, which according to some is much better than the story itself.

Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay in 1865 and lived there until he was five when he was taken to live in England, returning to India in 1882, where he worked as a journalist. As well as short stories he also wrote poems, including If, and novels, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907.

My copy is an e-book, which I’ve had for several years, so it counts towards my Mount TBR Reading Challenge.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

I’ve recently read John le Carré’s biography by Adam Sisman and inevitably it made me want to read le Carré’s books. I decided to start with his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, first published in 1963.

Blurb:

a gripping story of love and betrayal at the height of the Cold War. This Penguin Modern Classics edition includes an afterword by the author and an introduction by William Boyd, author of Any Human Heart.

Alex Leamas is tired. It’s the 1960s, he’s been out in the cold for years, spying in the shadow of the Berlin Wall for his British masters. He has seen too many good agents murdered for their troubles. Now Control wants to bring him in at last – but only after one final assignment. He must travel deep into the heart of Communist Germany and betray his country, a job that he will do with his usual cynical professionalism. But when George Smiley tries to help a young woman Leamas has befriended, Leamas’s mission may prove to be the worst thing he could ever have done. In le Carré’s breakthrough work of 1963, the spy story is reborn as a gritty and terrible tale of men who are caught up in politics beyond their imagining.

My view:

This is a dark, tense book and quite short, just 252 pages. It’s complicated and although the language le Carré uses is clear and straight forward at times I wasn’t sure just what was going on, what lay behind the scenes – just what was Leamas up to, amidst the various deceptions and subterfuges? George Smiley does appear briefly in the book, but is there throughout in that he is masterminding Leamas’ mission.

Back from Berlin where he had seen his last agent killed whilst trying to cross the Berlin Wall, Leamas is apparently no longer useful. He goes to seed whilst working out his contact in the Banking Section, transforming into a drunken wreck no longer of use to the Secret Services, left without any money or a job until he finds work as a helper in a library for Psychical Research. Here he meets Liz Gold, who then unwittingly gets drawn into Smiley’s plan.

The atmosphere throughout is of secrecy, manipulation, of human frailty and its duplicitous nature. As the German, Fiedler says for a secret agent:

… deception is first a matter of self-defence. He must protect himself not only from without, but also from within, and against the most natural of impulses; though he earns a fortune, his role may forbid him the use of a razor, though he  be erudite, it can befall him to mumble nothing but banalities; though he be an affectionate husband and father, he must under all circumstances withhold himself from those in whom he should naturally confide. (page 143)

By the end of the book Leamas is in despair as his mission seems to have failed,. Liz can’t work out which side he is on and he says:

What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. (page 243)

I hate it; I hate it all; I’m tired. But it’s the world, it’s mankind that’s gone mad. We’re a tiny price to pay … but everywhere’s the same, people cheated and misled, whole lives thrown away, people shot and in prison, whole groups and classes of men, written off for nothing. (pages 244-5)

But then again did his mission fail? This is one of those books that I find so hard to write about without giving away too much of the plot – the introduction by William Boyd begins with this statement, ‘New readers are advised that this Introduction makes details of the plot explicit.‘ And indeed it does. I was glad I read it after reading the book, though, as it also gives an interpretation that I found helpful – in particular just what Boyd thought was meant by ‘coming in from the cold‘.

This fulfils the “Broken Object” category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

SandlandsSandlands is a beautiful collection of short stories that held me spellbound from start to finish. This is all the more extraordinary as I am not a great fan of short story collections. I often find that they leave me feeling that something is missing – either the storyline is not developed enough, or the characters are not convincing, or that they are just too trite or banal. In other words that they are disappointing.

Not so with Sandlands – I think this is a special collection of well written stories set in the Suffolk landscape, describing real people, and containing well- researched detail into myths and folklore, wildlife, and environmental changes that slips seamlessly into the fiction. They are just the right length for me, perfect little cameos each one complete and satisfying – that’s not to say that all the ends are neatly tied up, as some, such as Nightingale’s Return, about an Italian visiting the farm where his father had worked  as a prisoner of war, end leaving me wondering what happened next, or rather just what had happened in the past.

The individual stories are varied, some looking back to the past, some are sad leaving me with tears in my eyes, and some have a supernatural element. I loved all of them, but a few are outstanding, for example, Curlew Call in which a teenager spends time during her gap year living in an old house overlooking the the salt marshes, as a companion to Agnes, an old lady who is wheel-chair bound. She is fascinated by the landscape and the wildlife, in particular the curlews, calling out across the reed beds each evening, before she goes to sleep:

You wonder what they’re doing out there in the dark, sleepless and crying like that. And if you lie still and listen – really  listen – there’s something so pitiful about the sound, it could nearly break your heart. like someone whistling hopelessly over and over for a dog that’s lost. (pages 220 – 221)

Agnes paints, but not the usual East Anglian landscape of sky and clouds with a low horizon. I was really taken with the descriptions of her paintings, nearly all foreground, with reeds at the top and the rest of the painting taken up with the mudflats, showing the swirls and squiggles left by the tide. And the colours she’d used held my attention:

You think that mud is only grey and brown but when you look properly, the way Agnes had, you can see she’s right, and that it’s also the blackest black, and pure white, and it holds glints of red and gold and ochry yellow, and reflected blues and greens, and deep, imperial purple. (page 226)

As the story unfolds, so does the story of Agnes’ life.

And I finished reading the final story, Mackerel, with tears in my eyes when I came to the last paragraph, even though I had begun to realise what was inevitably the outcome. This is the story of a grandmother and her granddaughter, Hattie, set in a fishing village near the Suffolk sea. Ganny, as Hattie calls her has lived all her eighty nine years in the same place and is expert at handling and cooking fish.

Hattie, by way of contrast has an honours degree in marine ecology, has travelled the world, but also loves the Suffolk landscape and the world of her grandparents – the sights, smells and Ganny’s cooking, kippers, fish pie and above all the mackerel. This story is filled with images of Ganny filleting the mackerel, coating them in oatmeal to fry in butter, or to bake in greaseproof sprinkled with lemon or cider in a tight parcel. It made my mouth water reading about it.

As in Curlew Call, Ganny’s life unfolds and this story too is full of colour, this time of the sand instead of the mudflats:

This is a land of sand. The earth hereabouts is nothing but; it’s a wonder anything grows in it at all. On the common it’s a powder grey, soft as ash and lifted by the the slightest breeze, but on the roads it’s as golden yellow as any treasure island beach.

… You could almost fancy it the work of strange secret tides which rise in the night to cover the fields and lanes, then slip away before daylight to leave new spits and spars like a signature on the landscape. A land with the imprint of the sea. (page 256)

It’s impossible for me to do justice to these stories. If you like strong, atmospheric stories, stories that bring to life the world of the past, tying them to the present, stories of family life, of the natural world, of folklore and the mystery and wonder of it all then you’ll love this book as much as I did.

With grateful thanks to Rosy Thornton for sending me this lovely book to review. It’s published tomorrow. And she has also written full length novels that captivated as much as this collection – do read them. For more details see her website.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Sandstone Press Ltd (21 July 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 191098504X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1910985045

No Man’s Nightingale by Ruth Rendell

Last month I read books from my own shelves for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge (books owned before 1 January 2016) and the 20 Books of Summer Challenge, but then the urge to read other books took over, mainly because I’ve been adding books to my shelves. For the time being I won’t be reading for the Mount TBR Challenge as I have several books that I’ve acquired this year that I want to read first.

One of them is Ruth Rendell’s No Man’s Nightingale.

Blurb:

The woman vicar of St Peter’s Church may not be popular among the community of Kingsmarkham. But it still comes as a profound shock when she is found strangled in her vicarage.

Inspector Wexford is retired, but he retains a relish for solving mysteries especially when they are as close to home as this one is. So when he’s asked whether he will assist on the case, he readily agrees.

But why did the vicar die? And is anyone else in Kingsmarkham in danger? What Wexford doesn’t know is that the killer is far closer than he, or anyone else, thinks.

My thoughts:

I like Wexford, so I was predisposed to like this book (who in my mind looks like George Baker in the TV Wexford series) and I did enjoy it, although not as much as some of her other books.

Maxine Sams has several cleaning jobs, including cleaning for Reg and Dora Wexford – she talks all the time and regales Wexford with stories about her family, interrupting his reading of Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which she thinks is a holiday guide to Rome. One of Maxine’s clients is the Reverend Sarah Hussain – and it is Maxine who finds her body, lying on the living room floor. She had been strangled.

Wexford, although enjoying his retirement, is pleased when Detective Superintendent Mike Burden asks if he would like to be involved as a consultant in the investigation into Sarah’s murder. It’s interesting to see how Wexford approaches this as he does not agree with Burden’s methods, thinking he has too many team meetings and ignores things Wexford would have concentrated on, nor can he express his opinions openly. And he isn’t sure just what he should or should not report back to Burden. As most of the book is written from Wexford’s point of view we can see how his mind works and the way he views his former colleagues and society in general and I was glad to see that as a retired person he is portrayed with an agile and observant mind.

There are plenty of red herrings and sub-plots that had me wondering as I read. At times it was rather confusing and I noticed a few continuity problems. Various issues are raised, not just the position of the elderly in society, but also questions of race and gender, religious intolerance, rape, single mothers and family relationships. I liked Wexford’s thoughts on The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, his musings on religion – he is a’committed atheist’ ( I don’t remember that from earlier books) and the self-doubt he reveals. I also liked the comic elements as Wexford tries to escape from Maxine’s non-stop chatter.

Overall I enjoyed the book, but think I prefer Ruth Rendell’s standalone books and those she wrote under the name of Barbara Vine.

Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin by W J Burley

It’s that time of year again when I have less time for blogging – summer when the grass and the weeds grow in abundance. So what with that and a host of other things this post is shorter than I would like it to be.

I like W J Burley’s Wycliffe books. I’ve read several of them up to now and enjoyed each one. Set in Cornwall, they have a strong sense of place, and Wycliffe is a quiet, thoughtful detective.

In Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin Chief Superintendent Wycliffe is staying with a Penzance lawyer, Ernest Bishop and his family for a few days over Christmas at the Bishops’ hill-top house. With his wife away in Kenya, Wycliffe is not looking forward to Christmas, and the welcome from the family is polite rather than welcoming. The situation only gets worse when a young girl goes missing after playing the part of the Virgin Mary in the local nativity play, and then her father also goes missing and her mother is found dead in their cottage. Wycliffe moves out of the Bishops’ house as it appears they may be suspects.

What follows is Wycliffe’s investigation which goes back to a crime committed five years earlier, involving many twists and turns. It was a quick and entertaining read with a lot of characters, but all are clearly distinguishable. The plot is complex and it was only as I was getting near the end that I began to have an inkling about the identity of the murderer.

W J Burley (1914 – 2002) lived near Newquay in Cornwall and was a teacher until he retired to concentrate on his writing. He wrote 22 Wycliffe novels. Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin was the 13th, first published in 1986 and as such fits into Bev’s Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt in the Silver Age (Vintage Mysteries first published any time from 1960 to 1989) in the category of ‘Spooky/House’ on its cover. It is also one of my 20 Books of Summer 2016.

Heat Wave by Penelope Lively

I’ve read quite a lot of Penelope Lively’s books and have found them full of interest, easily readable, peopled with believable characters and covering various philosophical and moral issues that make me think. Heat Wave (first published in 1996) is no different in that it is about relationships, the connections between the past and the present, love, marriage and adultery, jealousy, anger, grief and loss.

However, I groaned when I began reading it because it is in the present tense and I’m not that keen on that. But as I read on, my irritation with the tense began to fade away as I became engrossed in the story. It’s quite a simple one really, the strength of the book, I think, coming from the characterisation, the increasing tension and the oppressive atmosphere of a blazing hot summer.

Pauline, a freelance copy-editor, is spending the summer at her cottage, somewhere in the middle of England. Her daughter, Teresa, grandson, Luke and son-in-law Maurice are next door in the adjoining cottage, whilst Maurice concentrates on finishing the book he is writing. They are visited by James and Carol, who accompany them on visits to tourist attractions to help with the research for his book. As Pauline sees the relationship between Teresa and Maurice change, apparently following the same pattern of her own failed marriage, she becomes increasingly anxious and angry, unable to intervene.

In just 184 pages, Penelope Lively builds an in depth study of angst, frustration and conflict, set against the changing landscape of the countryside, the effect of the heat on the land, the crops and the people. Interspersed are her trips to London, her long-standing and now platonic friendship with Hugh, her conversations with one of the authors whose book she is editing and who is also struggling with his marriage, and the family’s visits to tourist attractions as part of Maurice’s research for his book. So alongside the personal relationships Heat Wave also looks at the countryside, how it is changing, our relationship to nature and how farming has changed because of industrialisation and tourism.

I love the descriptions of the countryside that Pauline sees through her window, just one example:

A light wind ruffles the field – shadows course across the young wheat. The whole place is an exercise in colour, as it races into growth. The trees are green flames and the hedges billow brilliantly across the landscape. The old hedgerow at the bottom of the garden has a palette that runs from cream through lemon yellow and all the greens to apricot, russet and a vivid crimson. Each burst of new leaf adds some subtle difference to the range. For a couple of weeks the whole world glows. (page 24)

But this is not just an idealised view of the countryside; she also notes the unnatural discordant sight of fields of dead grass as a result of the policy of set-aside, the industrialisation of agriculture, and the nasty, glaring yellow of oil-seed rape seen by some as an intrusive blight.

What irritated me when I began reading the book, paled into insignificance as the tension between the characters grew, culminating in an inevitable climax as the hot weather ended and a violent thunder storm broke over the cottages. I ended up loving this book.

Heat Wave is my 28th book for Bev’s Mount TBR 2016 challenge and the 6th book for the  20 Books of Summer Challenge.

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer 

Synopsis from Amazon:

Cool. Balanced. Modern. The precisions of science, the wild variance of lust, the catharsis of confession and the fear of failure – these are things that happen in The Glass Room.

High on a Czechoslovak hill, the Landauer House shines as a wonder of steel and glass and onyx built specially for newlyweds Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a Jew married to a gentile. But the radiant honesty of 1930 that the house, with its unique Glass Room, seems to engender quickly tarnishes as the storm clouds of WW2 gather, and eventually the family must flee, accompanied by Viktor’s lover and her child.

But the house’s story is far from over, and as it passes from hand to hand, from Czech to Russian, both the best and the worst of the history of Eastern Europe becomes somehow embodied and perhaps emboldened within the beautiful and austere surfaces and planes so carefully designed, until events become full-circle.

The house and its setting are not fictional, but are based on the Tugendhat House, Brno in the Czech Republic. A few of the characters are non-fictional but the rest are imaginary and their story has no basis in fact. In his introduction to the Abacus edition of the book, published in 2013, Simon Mawer describes his first visit to the house, which was then a museum. He hadn’t planned to write a novel centred on the house. To him is not a museum, but ‘vibrant and alive’, and the novel was born.

I found it a gripping novel that had me on tenterhooks as I was reading. It is, as the synopsis relates, the story of a house, the Landauer House, and specifically of a room within that house called the ‘Glass Room’.

Liesel and Viktor stood and marvelled at it [the Glass Room]. It had become a palace of light, light bouncing off the chrome pillars, light refulgent on the walls, light glistening on the dew in the gardens, light reverberating from the glass. It was as though they stood inside a crystal of salt. Isn’t it wonderful,’ she exclaimed, looking round with an expression of amazement. ‘You feel so free, so unconstrained. The sensation of space, of all things being possible. Don’t you think it is wonderful, Viktor? Don’t you think that Rainer has created a masterpiece for us?’ (pages 64-5)

The whole wall of the lower ground floor is plate glass. The room is a huge space, white walls, furnished with little decoration beyond a piano, specially designed chairs in the sitting area in front of an onyx wall veined with amber and honey, polished to a mirror-like gloss, reflecting the light, and a circular dining table in the dining area enclosed in a semicircle partition of Macassar wood.

But it was the story of the people who lived/worked in the house that captivated me and made me so anxious for them and about what would happen to them as the events of the Second World War and beyond overtook their lives. It’s not only a gripping novel, but also a beautifully written book with interesting and likeable characters, set in a Europe at war and its aftermath; and a book about architecture, ideas, about love and loss, about prejudice and persecution. A deeply moving and haunting book.

I’ve read two of Simon Mawer’s earlier books, The Gospel of Judas (2000) and The Fall (2003), both of which I also thoroughly enjoyed. He has also written:

Chimera (1989)
The Bitter Cross (1992)
A Place in Italy (1992)
A Jealous God (1996)
Mendel’s Dwarf (1997)
Swimming to Ithaca (2006)
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (2012)
aka Trapeze
Tightrope (2015)

For more details see his website.

The Glass Room is my 27th book for Bev’s Mount TBR 2016 challenge and the 5th book I’ve read in the 20 Books of Summer Challenge.

A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey

A Shilling for Candles, is the fourth book by Josephine Tey that I’ve read. It was first published in 1936 and is the second book in her Inspector Grant series. I enjoyed it but I have to admit that I don’t think it’s as good as the other books by her that I’ve read, namely:

  • The Daughter of Time, first published in 1951, a fascinating novel in which Inspector Alan Grant is in hospital and to keep his mind occupied he decides to discover whether Richard III really did murder his nephews – the Princes in the Tower;
  • Miss Pym Disposes, first published in 1946, a psychological study of characters and motives, in which Miss Pym investigates the death of a student at a physical training college; and
  • The Franchise Affair, first published in 1948, set in a post Second World War England reflecting the social attitudes of its time and based on a real case from the 18th century of a girl who went missing and later claimed she had been kidnapped.

Inspector Alan Grant investigates the apparent suicide of a young and beautiful film star, Christine Clay, who was found dead beneath the cliffs of the south coast. But he soon discovers that was in fact murder as a coat button was found twisted in her hair and he suspects a young man, Robin Tisdall who had been staying with Christine in a remote cottage near the beach, especially when it is revealed that she has named him as a beneficiary in her will. Tisdall has lost his coat and so the search is on to find it to prove either his innocence or guilt.

But it is not so straight forward and Grant has other suspects – Christine’s aristocratic and wealthy husband, an American songwriter, and her estranged brother to whom she had left the gift of ‘ a shilling for candles’. Then there are her friends, including the actress Marta Hart, a leading lady, Judy Sellers, who played dumb blondes and Lydia Keats, an astrologer who casts horoscopes for the movie stars.

Other characters include my favourite in the book, Erica Burgoyne, the Chief Constable’s 17 year old daughter, a quirky character who proves to be most resourceful.

I enjoyed it but thought that overall it was a bit messy, a bit all over the place, as Grant dashed about the south coast and London. It’s definitely a book of its time with several casual anti-Semitic references and Tey has used a lot of slang and idioms that aren’t so recognisable today. There are red herrings and plenty of twists and turns, all of which meant that although at first I identified the culprit, by the end I had no idea who it was. What I thought was more interesting is the way she wrote about the destructive nature of celebrity and the lengths to which the stars went to keep some privacy in their lives – not so different from today.

This book fits into several of the challenges I’m doing this year – the 20 Books of Summer, Mount TBR Reading Challenge, the Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt (in the category of a cover showing a body of water) and the Read Scotland Challenge, because Josephine Tey, whose real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh (1896 – 1952). She was a Scottish author who wrote mainly mystery novels.

Josephine Tey’s books:

Alan Grant
The Man in the Queue (1929) aka Killer in the Crowd
A Shilling for Candles (1936) (the basis of Hitchcock’s 1937 movie Young and Innocent)
The Franchise Affair (1948) 
To Love and Be Wise (1950)
The Daughter of Time (1951)
The Singing Sands (1952)

Novels
Kif: an Unvarnished History (1929) (writing as Gordon Daviot)
The Expensive Halo (1931)
Miss Pym Disposes (1946)
Brat Farrar (1949) aka Come and Kill Me
The Privateer (1952)
Non-Fiction

Claverhouse (1937) (writing as Gordon Daviot) A biography of John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee (1648 – 1689), known as “Bonnie Dundee” after leading the Jacobites to victory at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689, in which he lost his life.

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Arrow; First Thus edition (3 Feb. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099556685
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099556688
  • Source: I bought my copy

Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine

What an amazing book is Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine*. It was published as Anna’s Book in the USA. I loved A Dark Adapted Eye, A Fatal Inversion and The House of Stairs, but Asta’s Book tops all those.  I think it’s brilliant!

It’s a book that demanded all my attention and I just didn’t want to put it down. There’s a murder, a missing child, a question of identity and overarching it all are the stories of two families – the Westerbys and the Ropers and all the people connected to them. So many characters, so many red herrings, so many incidents that at first did not appear to be of any or of much importance that turned out to have great relevance.

It had me going backwards and forward and placing so many markers in the book to try and keep track of it all. How did Barbara Vine handle so much material in such a clever way? It is so intricately plotted and the portrayal of so many characters is so skilfully handled.

It begins in 1905 when Asta Westerby and her husband Rasmus have come to East London from Denmark with their two little boys and their servant Hansine. With Rasmus constantly away on business, Asta keeps loneliness and isolation at bay by writing a diary in her native tongue of Danish. The story is not told chronologically, but switches backwards and forwards between Asta’s diaries, beginning in 1905 when she was pregnant and hoping the new baby would be a daughter, and the present day after Asta’s death. The diaries had been translated and published by her daughter Swanny (Swanhilde), and along with details of the family’s life reveal clues to an unsolved murder and to the mystery of a missing child. After Swanny died Asta’s granddaughter Ann became involved in searching for the truth about these facts. Additional material is also related through a trial transcript and various accounts of events by different people.

The book kept me guessing all the way throughout the various mysteries it threw up. I was very tempted to peek at the end of the book for the answers, but managed not to and I’m glad I didn’t as it would have ruined the suspense. I was so impressed at how it all hung together, with no extraneous material – all those minor incidents and characters are completely necessary.

As in other books by Barbara Vine it is not only the characters and the mystery that are enthralling, it is also the atmosphere and the settings. Houses in her books take on characters of their own and in this one there are several, maybe the most dominant is Devon Villa where Lizzie Roper was murdered, her mother also died of a heart attack and Lizzie’s daughter, Edith was last seen as she climbed the stairs up to her mother’s bedroom. And then there is the doll’s house that Rasmus made for his daughter, Marie, replicating Padanaram, the Westerbys’ second house in Shepherd’s Hill, Highgate.

*Barbara Vine is the pseudonym of Ruth Rendell, who was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of many thrillers and psychological murder mysteries . She died in 2015 at the age of 85. Her mother was born in Sweden and brought up in Denmark; her father, Arthur Grasemann, was English. As a result of spending Christmas and other holidays in Scandinavia, Rendell learned Swedish and Danish.

Asta’s Book is my third book for the 20 books of Summer Challenge and the 25th for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge. Definitely a book I’d love to re-read.

Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham

I think DC Fiona Griffiths must be one of the most original fictional detectives I’ve come across. She is the creation of Harry Bingham in Talking to the Dead. She is Welsh, single and at the start of the book is aged 26, being interviewed for a job with the South Wales Police in Cardiff. She had a degree from Cambridge where she studied philosophy (a prize winning student). However, there is a problem as she has a two year gap in her CV around the time of her A Levels and she doesn’t want to talk about it. But as Human Resources have passed her OK, she gets a job.

But is she really OK? I soon began to have doubts about that. Four years later she is a detective constable, mainly working on routine details. However, Fiona does not play by the rules and when she is asked to help on the investigation of the brutal murders of Janet Mancini, a part-time prostitute, and April, Janet’s 6 year old daughter she doesn’t hesitate to use her initiative. Her colleagues and her boss think she is odd, although very smart and a quick worker. She is dedicated to her job and whereas DCI Jackson likes the ‘good DC Griffiths’, he’s not so keen on the other one:

The one I ask to do something and that something never seems to get done. Or done after fifteen reminders. Or done in a way that breaks the rules, causes complaints or pisses off your fellow officers. The Griffiths who decides that if something is boring her, she’s going to make a mess of it until she’s moved to something else. (page 52)

Even worse she gets obsessed, throws herself into finding out the truth with no regard for her own safety and without calling for backup, or referring to senior officers. And she’s clearly still suffering from whatever it was that caused the gap in her CV. But on the other hand she is a brilliant researcher and has great instincts and intuition. She focuses on the credit card found at the scene of the murders, fascinated by the fact that it had belonged to a millionaire who had been presumed dead after a plane crash over the sea (his body had never been recovered), convinced it is a vital clue.

There are two strands to the mystery, as alongside the Mancini murders Fiona is investigating ex policeman Brian Penry, a bursar at a Roman Catholic boys’ school, who had stolen money from the school. And there is also a mystery surrounding Fiona and her family, which is only partly revealed at the end of the book.

I really should not have liked this book as much as I did as it’s written in the present tense, solely from Fiona’s viewpoint. But I loved it and in this book was completely at ease with the present tense. It’s also quite strange in parts as we see further into Fiona’s mind; she has difficulty connecting with her feelings and with other people and some of her thoughts and actions are strange and disturbing. Whilst it is not an overtly violent book it is a dark book in places and there is an amount of gruesomeness involved (but I didn’t have to avert my eyes, as it were, or skim read any of the book). I had an idea about Fiona’s trauma, as I’d come across a similar case in another crime fiction novel, but I don’t want to spoil the book for others by saying what it is.

I will most certainly look out for the next book in the series – there are now 5 Fiona Griffiths books and I think these are books that should definitely be read in sequence. The locations are well grounded, there is a definite ‘Welsh’ feel and atmosphere and the characters are well defined. See Harry Bingham’s website for more information about him and his books – he’s written others as well as the Fiona Griffiths books.

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Orion (28 Mar. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1409137228
  • ISBN-13: 978-1409137221
  • Source: I bought the book

Talking to the Dead is my second book for the 20 Books of Summer Challenge and the 24th for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge, completing the second level.

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

This is the first book I’ve read for the 20 Books of Summer Challenge 2016 – and it’s a good one. High Rising by Angela Thirkell has been on my TBR list for 2 years so it also counts for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge. It’s an entertaining and witty social comedy, set in the fictional county of Barsetshire, borrowed from Trollope, in the 1930s, and originally published in 1933.

Laura Morland is a widow with four sons, who supports herself by writing novels, which she knows are not ‘in any sense of the word, literature‘ but which have appeal. She lives at High Rising and her friend, also an author, George Knox and his daughter Sybil live at nearby Low Rising. Her youngest son, Tony, an exasperating character, who talks non-stop about his passion for trains, is still at boarding school, where Laura’s friend, Amy Birkett is the headmaster’s wife. The other main characters are Adrian Coates, Laura’s publisher, Anne Todd, Laura’s part-time secretary, Dr Ford, and Miss Grey, George’s new secretary. Their comfortable lives are disrupted by Miss Grey, who having no relatives she can go to, is on the lookout for a husband.

It began slowly for me and I wondered if I was going to like this book, thinking maybe it would only be a 2, or possibly a 3 star book on the Goodreads rating scale. But it grew on me as I became drawn into the 1930s world of rural England, with its servants and social structure, where everybody knew their place. As Alexander McCall Smith in his introduction writes this is not in ‘Wodehouse territory – Thirkell’s characters do have jobs and they do not spend their time in an endless whirl of silliness.’ By the middle of the book I began to think it was a 4 star book and by the end, even that it was maybe worth a 4.5 star.

As McCall Smith writes:

Affection for social comedy is not something we should have to apologise for, even if that sort of thing is eschewed in the contemporary novel. Such matters may seem unimportant, but they say a lot about human nature. Above all, though, we do not read Angela Thirkell for profundity of emotional experience; we read her for the pleasure of escape – and there is a perfectly defensible niche for escapist fiction in a balance literary diet.

The emphasis is mine – and I like the description:  ‘a balanced literary diet‘, another way of saying that my reading tastes are eclectic.

There are many passages I could quote, but I’ve chosen just a few to give a flavour of the book:

George: If there is one  pleasure on earth which surpasses all others, it is leaving a play before the end. I might perhaps except the joy of taking tickets for a play, dining well, sitting on after dinner, and finally not going at all. That, of course, is very heaven. (page 196)

The sun shone, the cuckoo bellowed from a copse hard by, other birds less easy to recognise made suitable bird noises. In the little wood primroses grew in vulgar profusion, a drift of blue mist showed that bluebells were on the way, glades were still white with wind-flowers. All the trees that come out early were brilliant green, while those that come out later were, not unnaturally still brown, thus forming an agreeable contrast. A stream bordered with kingcups made a gentle bubbling noise like sausages in a frying pan. Nature, in fact, was at it; and when she chooses Nature can do it. (page 211)

(I particularly like the sentence I’ve marked in bold.)

… Adrian proudly explained that if there were more women like Sybil, who knew they couldn’t write, the world would be a better place. (page 220)

This is the first of Angela Thirkell’s books that I’ve read and shall certainly search out more of hers to read. She wrote nearly thirty Barsetshire novels as well as other works of fiction and non-fiction. For more information about her see the Angela Thirkell Society (UK) and the Angela Thirkell Society of North America.

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Virago; Reissue edition (22 Nov. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1844088839
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844088836
  • Source: I bought the book

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

The Watchmaker of Filigree StreetNatasha Pulley’s first novel made a great impact on me from the start of the book. It is one of those books that I enjoyed very much, but don’t feel that I can really do it justice in a blog post. Even after a second reading I’m not at all sure I understand some of it. It’s long, complicated, packed with detail and an awful lot happens in it.

So instead of me trying to write something coherent about it I’ve copied the synopsis from the inside cover:

In 1883, Thaniel Steepleton returns to his tiny flat to find a gold pocketwatch on his pillow. But he has worse fears than generous burglars; he is a telegraphist at the Home Office, which has just received a threat for what could be the largest-scale Fenian bombing in history.

When the watch saves Thaniel’s life in a blast that destroys Scotland Yard, he goes in search of its maker, Keita Mori – a kind, lonely immigrant who sweeps him into a new world of clockwork and music. Although Mori seems harmless at first, a chain of unexpected slips soon proves that he must be hiding something.

Meanwhile, Grace Carrow is sneaking into an Oxford library dressed as a man. A theoretical physicist, she is desperate to prove the existence of the luminiferous ether before her mother can force her to marry.

As the lives of these three characters become entwined, events spiral out of control until Thaniel is torn between loyalties, futures and opposing geniuses.

Utterly beguiling, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street blends historical events with dazzling flights of fancy to plunge readers into a strange and magical past, where time, destiny, genius – and a clockwork octopus – collide.

My thoughts:

These are just a few thoughts that struck me both as I was reading the book and later thinking about it. It’s a mixture of historical fact and fantasy set in Victorian times, both in London and Japan, following the lives of the main characters, Thaniel Stapleton, Keita Mori and Grace Carrow. I like to know what is historical fact and what is the author’s own creation. So I was pleased to read in her Acknowledgements, that Natasha Pulley explains that there is some historical accuracy and cites Lee Jackson’s Dictionary of Victorian London for resources on the early days of the London Underground, the Knightsbridge Japanese show village, the bombing of Scotland Yard and numerous other interesting things.  (As I read the book I was very tempted to leave the story to find out more about these topics, but the story drew me on and I left them for later.)

I was completely convinced by the setting in a different time in a world that was familiar and yet so different. I  liked the writing style, although in parts it’s a bit ‘clunky’ and the use of ‘he’, ‘him’ and ‘they’ or ‘them’ made it a bit difficult to follow, but this is only a minor quibble. I also liked the characterisation and how the characters’ history was revealed and how their personalities were developed. Keita Mori is an interesting character and as I read my opinion of him kept changing – just who is he? He is an enigma, why is he living in London, is he the bomb maker, does he in fact know what is going to happen, is he a magician? He baffled and confused me as much as he baffled and confused the other characters.

Equally fascinating are the sections set in Japan; Grace’s story, her research into luminiferous ether (a bit hard to follow), her relationship with Akira Matsumoto, the elegant son of a Japanese nobleman; the Japanese show village in Hyde Park where Gilbert and Sullivan went to research for the Mikado; the early days of the London Underground; and of course the clockwork inventions, in particular Katsu, the clockwork octopus.

There is so much in this book, so many passages I underlined in my e-book, so many intertwining stories and lines that I have not mentioned – politics, the Fenians, bombs, the workings of the Home and Foreign Offices, suffragettes, racism, and class snobbery – I could go on and on. It may seem that this is a hotch-potch of a book, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. In fact I loved it both for its historical settings and for its ingenuity, producing a fantastical tale that occupied my mind during and after my reading.

I reserved The Watchmaker of Filigree Street at the library but before it was available the e-book was on offer on Amazon, so I ended up reading from both editions. And in doing so, I can now see the benefits of both – I can underline in an e-book and make notes without any damage to the book and as it has X-Ray it’s easy to find passages about the characters and places etc. But the physical book is a joy to read – the text is set in Bell, originally cut for John Bell in 1788, and the cover is beautiful.

A close-up of the hard back front cover showing the cut-out of the watch face

A close-up of the hard back front cover showing the cut-out of the watch face

and the inside cover has this map:

The Watchmaker map P1020045

This book also fits so well into the Once Upon a Time Challenge in the Fantasy Genre. I’ve seen it described as ‘steampunk’ but I’m not at all sure what that is – to me it’s historical fantasy.

Short Story Sunday: The Snow Queen

Short story questI’m taking part in Carl’s Once Upon a Time event, specifically in the Short Story Quest, which involves the reading of one or more short stories that fit within at least one of the four genres of Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, during the course of any weekend, or weekends, during the challenge. Ideally, posting about your short story readings on Sundays or Mondays, but this is not strictly necessary.

I’m reading some of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales – I first read a lot of the tales as a child in my mother’s book: P1010936Andersen was a Danish author, born in 1805 in Odense. He was a prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, as well as fairy tales. Some of his most famous fairy tales include The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, and many more. He died in 1875.

The Snow Queen was one of my favourite stories as a child and I read it many times. So, I have been holding back from reading it now in case I found that the magical experience was no longer there. However, I felt I really wanted to read it this week and told myself that I would stop if it wasn’t as entrancing as before. Of course I read all of it and if it wasn’t quite as magical it was still entrancing.

I wasn’t surprised that I’d forgotten some of the details, but my memories of the way evil came into the world when the magic looking-glass was shattered were vivid and correct. The pieces let loose in the world distorted whatever was reflected in it, so that whatever was good and beautiful dwindled to almost nothing and whatever was worthless stood out boldly. They entered into men’s eyes, so that they saw only evil, or into their hearts, turning them to lumps of ice. Some were made into panes of window glass and some into spectacles. Some are still flying about in the air even today.

I remembered well the two main characters, the childhood friends, Kay and Gerda, and how Kay was changed when his heart and eyes were pierced by pieces of the magic glass  and how he followed  the beautiful Snow Queen and was whisked away to her ice palace.  I also remembered Gerda’s search for him, but not all the detail of how she was enchanted by a strange old woman, who took her into her strange little house, and how the roses and other flowers brought back her memories.

I had forgotten about the Prince and Princess and the Ravens who helped her on her way to look for Kay and the Lapland Woman and the Finland Woman who also helped her. More memorable was The Little Robber Girl who stopped her robber-mother from killing and eating Gerda.

It was the chapter on Kay in the Snow Palace that was most vivid in my memories and it didn’t disappoint me. Kay’s heart was by then just like a lump of ice and he was almost black with the cold and he didn’t recognise Gerda until her tears penetrated his heart, melted the ice and dissolved the broken glass and washed all the pieces of glass from his eyes. It was Gerda’s love that saved him. As the Finland Woman says:

I cannot give her greater power than she already possesses, and do you not see how great that is? Do you not see that men and beasts must serve her, and how barefooted as she is, she has got on so well in the world. She cannot receive power from us, that is in her own heart, and consists in her being a good, innocent child.

What I hadn’t noticed as a child was that this is not only a story of good against evil but also about love versus reason and logic. At first when the ice has entered Kay’s heart and eyes he becomes focussed on science, looking at the snow flakes through a magnifying glass to see their structure and as the Snow Queen lures him from home he couldn’t pray but could only recite his multiplication tables; he could say how many square miles were in the country as well as the number of inhabitants.

The task the Snow Queen gave him whilst she was away from the Palace was the ice-game of understanding to fit together large pieces of ice to make figures of ‘the highest importance’. But he was unable to make the word ‘Eternity’, which the Snow Queen had promised she would give him the whole world if he succeeded. He thought and thought about it until his brain almost cracked. It was only when the ice had melted from his heart and out of his eyes that the pieces of ice danced and formed the letters of the word so that he was able to leave the palace.

Short Story Sunday: The Shepherdess and the Sweep

Short story questI’m taking part in Carl’s Once Upon a Time event, specifically in the Short Story Quest, which involves the reading of one or more short stories that fit within at least one of the four genres of Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, during the course of any weekend, or weekends, during the challenge. Ideally, posting about your short story readings on Sundays or Mondays, but this is not strictly necessary.

This will be a weekly event for me, until the end of the event on 21 June. I’m reading some of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales – I first read a lot of the tales as a child. Andersen was a Danish author, born in 1805 in Odense. He was a prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, as well as fairy tales. Some of his most famous fairy tales include The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, and many more. He died in 1875.

I’m reading from my mother’s book: P1010936This week it’s another fairy tale that I don’t remember reading before – The Shepherdess and the Sweep.

Unlike The Rose Elf, the story I read last week, The Shepherdess and the Sweep is not a gruesome story, but a story of love, romance, and bravery.

The Shepherdess and the Sweep are two china figures who fall in love but their love is threatened by a strange looking carved satyr the children called the Goatsleg-Highadjutant-general-militarycommandant, as he had goat’s legs, short horns and a long beard and was constantly grinning. He stood on top of a very old wooden cabinet, looking down on the beautiful Shepherdess on the table opposite and wanted her for his wife. There is also a bigger china figure than the little couple – a big old Chinese, who could nod his head. He claims authority over the Shepherdess and says she will marry the satyr that night.

So the two little china figures decide to leave the table and venture out into the wide world. In their desperation to escape they decide to climb the chimney, but when they get to the top the Shepherdess is overcome with fear and cries “This is too much” she sobbed, “That I can never bear. The world is too large; oh, were I but back again on the table under the looking glass!”

Illustration from “Fairy Tales, 1850” by Vilhelm Pedersen, Andersen’s first illustrator (from Wikipedia)

Spoiler follows – don’t read the next paragraph if you don’t want to know how this story ends.

The sweep can’t console her and so they climb back down even though he thought it was foolish. But they find that the Chinese figure in his attempt to follow them had fallen and broken into three pieces. The family mended him but his head, which had rolled far off into a corner of the room had to be riveted onto his neck, so that he could no longer nod. He was too proud to tell the Satyr and so when he asked if he were to have the Shepherdess or not, the Chinese figure was silent. And the little couple remained together. So, a happy ending for this tale.

Inside of Me by Hazel McHaffie

I’ve read one of Hazel McHaffie’s books in the past – Over My Dead Body and was impressed by the way she weaves facts into her fiction so seamlessly that it doesn’t detract from the story. So, when she asked if I would like to read Inside of Me I didn’t hesitate to say yes please. And I wasn’t disappointed. I think this is an excellent book and once I started reading it I didn’t want to stop, keen to find out what was going to happen next.

Hazel McHaffie’s novels all cover medical ethics issues and the issues in Inside of Me concern body image, in particular, but not exclusively, about anorexia; identity, and relationships. There is also a mystery – teenage girls are going missing, the latest one being Maria aged sixteen, last seen walking alone along Regent’s Park Canal. Tonya Grayson is worried, no terrified is a better description, that her missing husband, Victor, could be involved. But the police are convinced he is dead; his clothes were found neatly folded in a beach, although his body was never found. India, their daughter, who was eight at the time, believes, even after seven years, that he is still alive, reinforced by hearing his voice in a crowded London station, the day after Maria was reported missing.

The narrative, told in the first person, switches between Tonya and India living in Scotland, and Chris, who works in a florist shop in London, mourning the loss of a daughter. Chris, after reading the newspaper report about the missing teenager, spots Maria at a local car boot sale, offers to help and ends up taking her home, anxious about her safety.

India is anorexic, but won’t accept the truth, either that her father is dead or that she has a weight problem. Tonya tries to help her but cannot get through to her and for most of the book seems completely out of her depth, unable to move forward herself. She is plagued with doubts about Victor and his relationship with India, which had been very close. India’s best friend, Mercedes is also obsessed with her weight and encourages India both to find her father and to take even more drastic ways to gain her target weight.

Hazel McHaffie has got right inside each character’s mind, making this a compelling and convincing story. And it is a gripping story, easy to read, but by no means a comfortable read, in turns emotional and troubling. It conveys the complex dilemmas of living with eating disorders, problems with body image and difficult family relationships, issues with control and coping with emotional disturbance, obsessions and compulsive behaviour. Added to all this there is the mystery of what happened to Victor – his pile of clothes on the beach reminded me of Reginald Perrin (from the TV series  in the 1970s). I think it is a wonderful book and I don’t think I’ve read another novel like it. I’ve only touched its surface in this post!

  • Paperback: 242 pages
  • Publisher: VelvetEthics Press (5 Mar. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 099262312X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0992623128
  • Source: Review copy from the author

Hazel McHaffie is a Scottish author. For details of her background and qualifications as a nurse, midwife, PhD in Social Sciences and Research Fellow in Medical Ethics see her website, where she also lists her awards, life changing experiences, and more personal stuff such as her character traits, addictions (including good books), and hobbies. She also writes a most interesting blog.

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill (published in 2015) contains memories, thoughts and reflections on her life as she approaches her 100th year (she was born in 1917). I quoted the opening paragraph of this book and a teaser paragraph in an earlier post, First Chapter, First Paragraph.

It’s only a short book (168 pages), but it covers a wide range of Diana Athill’s memories, many images of beautiful places, and the friends and lovers she has known. The chapters follow on chronologically but are unconnected except for the fact that they demonstrate her love of life.

She writes about her Great Grandfather’s garden at Ditchingham Hall in Norfolk, which she used to love visiting in the 1920s and 1930s, when her grandparents lived there. Her writing is so clear and precise, describing in detail its exact layout and expressing her delight in her memories of it.

In other chapters she describes post-war life and her visits to Florence, and in particular the Club Méditerranée in Corfu in the 1950s; her experiences in Trinidad and Tobago, where she was struck by the disparity between the local people and the tourists/incomers; and the miscarriage when she was in her early 40s, when she nearly died. It was heart breaking to read this remarkably candid account both about what happened and how she felt, her detachment, her resentment that she had lost the baby, even her relief, and finally her gratitude that she was still alive, and her love of life:

‘I AM ALIVE.’ 

It was enough.

It was everything. It was filling me to the brim with pure and absolute joy, a feeling more intense than any I had known before. (page 87)

It is this love of life that is evident in her writing that makes it such a remarkable book. She writes about her decision to move into a home, persuaded by a friend who lived there and about how much she enjoys living there. And her main luxury now is her wheelchair, which she finds has unexpected benefits, such as when she was at an art exhibition – the crowds fell away from her in her wheelchair and she was able to lounge in perfect comfort in front of Matisse’s red Dance.

Of course, she writes about death and dying, as ‘death is no longer something in the distance, but might well be encountered any time now.’ She doesn’t find this alarming, and remembers when she was close to death after her miscarriage that her feelings were of acceptance: ‘Oh well, if I die, I die‘. Death is not something she fears, although she has some degree of anxiety at the process of dying and recognises that whereas it’s ‘unwise to expect an easy death, it is not unreasonable to hope for one.

This book has given me much to think about, including this paragraph:

Looking at things is never time wasted. If your children want to stand and stare, let them. When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But there it has remained, tucked away in hidden bits of my mind, and now it comes out, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman’s idle days pleasant instead of boring. (pages 5 – 6)

I loved it.

The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers

Once more I am behind with writing about the books I’ve read, so this is a short post with brief thoughts on The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers. I enjoyed it immensely.
This is a beautiful book, beautifully written, with the character of Agnès Morel at its centre. Agnès was found as a baby in a straw shopping basket, wrapped in a white tablecloth, with just a single turquoise earring in the bottom of the basket that may or may not indicate her parentage. She was brought up by the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy at Evreux. It tells of how Agnes became the cleaner of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres, in central France, north of Paris, and not only of the cathedral but also a cleaner for other residents of the town.

So, there is a mystery about her origins and also about her life before she arrived in Chartres. Moving between the past and the present, the details are slowly revealed. There are many characters, some likeable people including the Abbé Paul, Professor Jones, who teaches Agnes to read, Philippe Nevers, and Alain Fleury, who works on the cathedral restoration and some unlikeable characters such as Madame Beck and Sister (later Mother) Veronique whose interfering ways cause Agnes such a lot of trouble. All are convincing characters with depth.

I liked it all, the slow build up as Agnes’s history unfolds, the interaction of the characters and the description and history of the cathedral also added to my enjoyment of the book.

Short Story Sunday: The Rose Elf

Short story questI’m taking part in Carl’s Once Upon a Time event, specifically in the Short Story Quest, which involves the reading of one or more short stories that fit within at least one of the four genres of Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, during the course of any weekend, or weekends, during the challenge. Ideally, posting about your short story readings on Sundays or Mondays, but this is not strictly necessary.

I’m beginning this Sunday, with what I hope will be a weekly event for me, until the end of the event on 21 June. I’ll be reading some of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales – I first read a lot of the tales as a child. Andersen was a Danish author, born in 1805 in Odense. He was a prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, as well as fairy tales. Some of his most famous fairy tales include The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, and many more. He died in 1875.

I’m reading from my mother’s book: P1010936

beginning with The Rose-Elf.

I don’t remember reading this story before – and I think I would if I had read it, because it’s such a gruesome story. The Rose-Elf is very short and surprised me by the horror of the events it unfolds.

It begins by describing the Rose-Elf, who is so small he can’t be seen by human eyes. He is a beautiful creature, with two transparent wings reaching from his shoulders to the soles of his feet, making him look like an angel. He lives, as you would suppose in a rose tree, having little rooms behind each rose petal:

‘… what delicious scent filled all his apartments, and how beautifully clear and bright were the walls, for they were the delicate, pale red rose leaves themselves.’

He danced on the wings of butterflies, walked along the veins of leaves, which he looked upon as roads. But one day the weather grew cold and the leaves closed before he could get back inside the roses, so he flew to a honeysuckle for shelter and here he came across a pair of young lovers – a handsome young man and a charming girl. It’s at this point that the story moves from a cosy fairy tale that you would be happy to read to very small children into something dark and chilling. For the girl has a jealous, wicked brother who plots to get rid of the young man and kills him.

The girl is heartbroken and the Rose-Elf who witnesses the murder of her lover, does what he can to help her but this is a tragedy. It’s not an ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ ending. The horror is not in the actual killing but in what happens to the corpse afterwards.

The Queen of the bees hums her praise of the Rose-Elf saying ‘how beneath the smallest leaf dwells one who can expose and avenge crime.’

Crystal Nights by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen

I recently read Crystal Nights: a Scandinavian mystery by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen, who kindly sent me an e-version of the ARC of her book. The Danish edition of the book, Krystalnætter, won a national competition in 2013.

Once I started reading Crystal Nights I was hooked. It begins with an extract from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, a fairy tale about the struggle between good and evil, when a magic mirror was smashed into many pieces, which then entered the eyes, hearts and minds of people infecting them with evil.

Crystal Nights moves between events in Germany in 1938 to Kalum, a fictional village in Denmark, in the 1960s. In Berlin in 1938 Jewish families, including the Stein family, Simon, his wife Sara, and Miriam and Isaac, their two young children flee from the events of Krystallnacht, the “night of broken glass”.  Their journey doesn’t get them to safety though and ends with Sara desperate as her son becomes dangerously ill and Simon refuses to get medical help.

Moving on to the 1960s in Kalum, the story divides into the years 1963 and 1967. In 1963 a middle-aged smallholder from Brook Farm, north of Kalum is killed in a road accident. The relevance of this death only becomes apparent towards the end of the book. In 1967 a young boy, Lars-Ole disappears. His mother believes he had gone to stay with his father, but eventually everybody except for his friend Niels, assumes he is dead although his body has not been found. Niels finds Lars-Ole’s notebook, in which he had written some coded messages and sets out to discover what has happened to him, putting himself into great danger.

I particularly liked the comparison between Andersen’s fairy tale and the events of Krystallnicht and I think the characters of both Lars-Ole and Niels are well-drawn, with the village setting in the 1960s particularly convincing. I was carried away by the story, a story of how evil touched so many lives with such terrible consequences and how by patience and perseverance the truth was revealed.

You can see photos and maps showing the area in this picture companion to the book.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 820 KB
  • Print Length: 187 pages
  • Publisher: Candied Crime; 1 edition (6 May 2015)
  • Source: Review copy from the author

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2016

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

The idea for March and April in HeavenAli’s Virginia Woolf Read-a-long was to read one or more of: The Voyage Out, Night and Day (Virginia Woolf’s first and second novels) or Between the Acts which was her final novel. This was just the reminder I needed to get The Voyage Out down from my bookshelves where it’s been sitting unread for years.

This post is far too long, but one reason for writing this blog is to record what I think of a book and what I want to remember about it – this post only touches on that even at this length! There is so much more to be said about it.

I’ve not written much about the plot. This is the Synopsis from the back cover of my copy (published by Penguin in 1992):

The Voyage Out opens with a party of English people aboard the Euphrosyne, bound for South America. Among them is Rachel Vinrace, a young girl, innocent and wholly ignorant of the world of politics and society, books, sex, love and marriage. She is a free spirit half-caught, momentarily and passionately, by Terence Hewet, an aspiring writer met in Santa Marina. But their engagement is to end abruptly, and tragically.

Background to the novel:

In 1913 Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) had been suffering ill health for some time – depression,  nervous breakdowns and anorexia – when her half-brother George Duckworth published The Voyage Out in 1915. She had started writing it years earlier and had revised it several times before finalising it in 1912 and 1913.

I don’t like to read the introduction of a book first as often it gives away elements of the plot that I’d rather not know in advance, but I think that this paragraph does help to explain much that I wondered about as I read the book. But if you don’t want to know just skip this next paragraph.

In the introduction to the book, Jane Wheare wrote:

A knowledge of Woolf’s life will certainly deepen our response to all her work. Amongst many other details from the young Virginia Woolf’s experience that appear in fictional form in The Voyage Out one can single out her bouts of mental illness, on which she drew for the description of Rachel’s  fever; the voyage which she made to Spain and Portugal with her brother Adrian in the spring of 1905, her sister Vanessa’s illness and her brother Thoby’s death from typhoid in 1906; and her interest on feminism. (page xiii)

My thoughts:

I finished reading it a short time ago, but have found it difficult to write about it. It is an intriguing book, beginning in a leisurely fashion as Mr and Mrs Ambrose (Rachel’s aunt and uncle) stroll down the Strand to the Embankment on their way to board the ship, Euphrosyne  and yet there is tension in the air and Mrs Ambrose has tears rolling down her face. This tension and sense of underlying trouble and anxiety continues throughout the book.

It begins mid-stream, as it were, with little background at first about the characters or about why the people are on board the Euphrosyne. It is only when the ship arrives at Santa Marina (a fictional place) that Woolf explains why they are going there; and their relationships are slowly revealed through their conversations and actions. The Dalloways make a brief appearance in the book when they spend a short time aboard the ship, leaving before the ship reaches Santa Marina.

I was surprised at just how naive Rachel is for a young woman of 24, even though she had been brought up by her two aunts. Helen Ambrose is shocked, writing about her niece in a letter to a friend, criticising the current methods of education:

This girl, though twenty-four, had never heard that men desired women, and until I explained it did not know how children were born. (page 59)

In some ways this is a coming-of -age novel and Rachel’s actions and reactions are the focus of the book. In it Woolf explores the nature of Rachel’s mind, her obsessions and beliefs and through it her own thoughts about depression, suicide, death and the meaning of life. It’s a huge subject, at times celebrating the wonder and beauty of life and at other times plunging down into the hopelessness and despair that some of the characters experience.

I knew from the book’s description that it ends in tragedy and I wondered as I read what form it would take. But even so, I was taken aback at the desperate sadness of it – it was draining!

Some quotations:

On religion: Mrs Dalloway is talking to Helen Ambrose – “I always think religion’s like collecting beetles,” she said, summing up the discussion as she went up the stairs with Helen. “One person has a passion for black beetles; another hasn’t; it’s no good arguing about it.” (Page 33)

On politics: Mr Dalloway (a politician) talking about a suffragette sitting outside the house (House of Commons): “My good creature, you’re only in the way where you are. You’re hindering me, and you’re doing no good to yourself.” And later in the conversation he says: “Nobody can condemn the utter folly and futility of such behaviour more than I do: and as for the whole agitation, well! may I be in my grave before a woman has a right to vote in England! That’s all I say.” (page 24)

Mr Ambrose replies: “I don’t care a fig one way or t’other. If any creature is so deluded as to think that a vote does him or her any good, let him have it. He’ll soon learn better.”

On women:  St. John Hirst speaking, “Just consider: it’s the beginning of the twentieth century, and until a few years ago no woman had ever come out by herself and said things at all.” …

It’s the man’s view that’s represented, you see. Think of a railway train: fifteen carriages for men who want to smoke. Doesn’t it make your blood boil? If I were a woman I’d blow someone’s brains out. Don’t you laugh at us a great deal? Don’t you think it’s all humbug? (page 139)

There is much more I could quote on women’s suffrage in this book.

On England in June – an example of Woolf’s descriptive writing: The thought of England was delightful, for they would see the old things freshly; it would be England in June, and there would be June nights in the country; and the nightingales singing in the lanes, into which they would steal when the room grew hot; and there would be English meadows gleaming with water and set with stolid cows, and clouds dipping low and trailing across the green hills.

and comparing it with South America:

… “Lord, how good it is to think of lanes, muddy lanes, with brambles and nettle, you know, and real grass fields, and farmyards with pigs and cows, and men walking beside carts with pitchforks – there’s nothing to compare with that here – look at the stony red earth, and the bright blue sea, and the glaring white houses – how tired one gets of it! And the air without a stain or a wrinkle. I’d give anything for a sea mist.” (pages 138-9)

A note about the cover

I think the cover is striking. It’s from a painting by Roger Fry – Roquebrune and Monte Carlo from Palm Beach, in the City of Glasgow Art Gallery.

Roger Eliot Fry (14 December 1866 – 9 September 1934) was an English painter and critic, and a member of the Bloomsbury Group. Establishing his reputation as a scholar of the Old Masters, he became an advocate of more recent developments in French painting, to which he gave the name Post-Impressionism. He was the first figure to raise public awareness of modern art in Britain, and emphasised the formal properties of paintings over the “associated ideas” conjured in the viewer by their representational content. He was described by the art historian Kenneth Clark as “incomparably the greatest influence on taste since Ruskin … In so far as taste can be changed by one man, it was changed by Roger Fry”.[1] The taste Fry influenced was primarily that of theAnglophone world, and his success lay largely in alerting an educated public to a compelling version of recent artistic developments of the Parisian avant-garde. (from wikipedia)

Fry, who for a while had an affair with Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, was a friend of Virginia’s. She wrote three books subtitled ‘A Biography‘ – her biography of Roger Fry is one of them, first published in 1940.

For more information on Roger Fry see Art UK.

Needless to say – I enjoyed this book and it has encouraged me to read more of Virginia Woolf’s books (I’ve already read Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Flush, all before I began my blog, and Death of a Moth and Other Essays – see also this post.)

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

I was pleased when the Classics Club Spin number came up as 8, because for me that was The Mill on the Floss, a book I’ve had for years, so it was time I read it. I think one of the reasons I hadn’t read it is the size of the font – it’s small. But then I realised that there is a free e-book, so I read it on my Kindle as I could increase the font size.

Description (from my paperback copy of the Penguin Popular Classics 1994 edition, shown above):

George Eliot drew on her own anguished childhood when she depicted the stormy relationship between Maggie and Tom Tulliver. Maggie’s often tormented battle to do her duty and belong on the one hand, and to be  herself, wild and natural, on the other, propels her from one crisis to another. As the Tulliver fortunes decline and fall, the rift between Maggie and her family becomes almost irreconcilable. But Maggie’s biggest mistake of all is to fall in love with Stephen Guest who is engaged to another woman.

Both a sharp and observant picture of English rural life and a profoundly convincing analysis of a woman’s psychology, The Mill on the Floss is a novel that tackles the complexities of morality versus desire.

My thoughts:

The Mill on the Floss was first published in 1860. The story begins in the late 1820s, when Maggie, who is ‘big for her age, gone nine‘ and her brother, Tom aged about twelve are living at Dorlcote Mill on the banks of the river Floss near the town of St Oggs. Their father is anxious that Tom should have a good education so that he can go into business – he does not want him to be a miller. But it is Maggie who is the keen reader, enjoying books like The History of the Devil by Daniel Defoe, Aesop’s Fables and the Pilgrim’s Progress.

I enjoyed parts of the book more than other parts. The first part of this book, covering Maggie and Tom’s childhood for example is fascinating and a study of early 19th century rural life and education. Tom goes away from home to study under a tutor, Mr Stelling and meets Philip Wakem, whose father is a lawyer, Mr Tulliver’s opponent in a lawsuit. Maggie and Tom’s relationship is difficult, although she professes she ‘loves him better than anyone else in the world’, even when he rebukes her. Meanwhile Maggie becomes more friendly with Philip than Tom and her family like.

There are some lovely scenes, for example Maggie’s escapade when she leaves home to live with the gypsies. And I liked all the scenes with Mrs Tulliver’s sisters, who look down on her for marrying a miller and criticise Maggie’s appearance and behaviour, for Maggie is full of high spirits and energy. The sisters also provide comic relief, at times being miserly and self-centred, with a strong sense of their own importance. But things go from bad to worse for the Tullivers, when Mr Tulliver loses the lawsuit and eventually loses the mill.

In other places, between scenes there are long, rambling passages, that I found too wordy and philosophical and I waited impatiently to get back to the story. But overall I liked the book, more than I liked Adam Bede, but not as much as I remember liking Middlemarch, which I read long before I began this blog.

The Mill on the Floss is an epic novel encompassing various themes such as love, marriage, family loyalty, the social conventions of the times, and the struggle to survive. Feminism, education, and the role of women in society are to the fore, as Maggie is torn between two men who love her and is judged harshly for her behaviour.

It is a character driven plot; the river Floss plays a major part in the story, running through a wide plain, hurrying on to the sea, laden with ships. It’s a noisy place with Dorlcote Mill is on its banks near a stone bridge and the rush of the water is deafening, along with the ‘thunder of the huge covered wagon coming home with sacks of grain‘.

And it is the Floss that provides the huge climax which took me by surprise. It’s a dramatic ending and yet I found it rather unsatisfactory, not sure that I could believe what I had read, and shocked by such a sad ending. Looking back after I finished the book I realised that it had been foreshadowed almost from the start and I had missed it.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR 2016 and The Classics Club.

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

If I don’t write about a book as soon as I’ve finished it the details begin to fade. I finished reading  Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, The Bean Trees a few weeks ago. So this is a short post on the book, which doesn’t really do justice to it!

My thoughts:

I loved this book. Barbara Kingsolver writes in such a way that I can easily visualise the scenes, beginning with the opening paragraph in which she describes a tractor tire blowing up, flinging a man up in the air and throwing him over the top of a Standard Oil sign. Taylor (originally called Marietta/Missy) grew up in rural Kentucky. She left home when she had saved enough to buy a car, an old VW. She changed her name to Taylor after the first place where she ran out of petrol, which just happened to be Taylorville. She drove on until the car broke down in the middle of nowhere, on land owned by the Cherokee tribe. And it was there at a garage that an Indian woman abandoned a baby girl in Taylor’s car – she called the baby, Turtle.

They travel on to Tucson, where she settled for a while, living with Lou Ann, a mother whose husband, Angel Ruiz left before their son was born, and working for Mattie at ‘Jesus Is Lord Used Tires’. Mattie, however, is also involved in an underground railway moving illegal Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrants to safe houses. She talks of the obligation under the United Nations ‘something or other’ ‘to take in people whose lives are in danger’. And Taylor becomes involved in helping her.

There are several themes running throughout this short, but well written book – both political and social including family relationships, particularly mother/child, sexual and physical abuse of small children, the integration of cultures, as well as the always current issue of refugees and illegal immigrants. I thought it was all thought-provoking as well as fascinating reading.

I have read some of Barbara Kingsolver’s later books, including The Poisonwood Bible, a longer and much more complex book, which I’ve read twice and loved. There is a sequel to The Bean Trees that I really want to read now – Pigs In Heaven.

Reading Challenges: What’s In a Name? in the category of a book with the word ‘tree’ in the title.

The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home

Lovereading.co.uk  sent me a copy of  The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home for review in advance of the publication of the third title in the series The Malice of Waves on 19 May and I’m glad to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It’s one of those books that grabbed my attention right from the start when two young teenage girls from India are sold into the sex trafficking trade, completely unaware of the dangers and terror that awaits them. Then, Edinburgh-based oceanographer, Cal McGill is caught on camera planting a rare wild flower in the garden of the Scottish Environment Minister in a campaign to make politicians aware of the dangers of climate change. Detective Inspector Ryan wants to charge him with vandalism but the minister’s wife wants to keep the plant!

From then on the story gets complicated. It’s more of an investigative story than crime fiction, with several strands to the story, but it’s so well told that I had no difficulty in following all of them: a story of unsolved mysteries both from the present day and from the Second World War, and of two Indian girls, sold into the sex trafficking trade. It’s set mainly in Scotland with a strong sense of place throughout.

The main characters are all fully rounded and complex – Cal McGill works for environmental organisations tracking oil spills using wind speeds and data on ocean currents; DI David Ryan and DC Helen Jamieson are investigating the appearance of severed feet in trainers that had been washed on shore on islands miles apart – tests had revealed that they belonged to the same body; and Basanti, one of the Indian girls, whose resourcefulness saved her life. I especially liked Helen Jamieson, the overweight policewoman, whose boss, Ryan mistakenly thinks is stupid, and the way she deals with him.

The strand that interested me most concerns Cal’s grandfather, from the (fictional) island of Eilean Iasgaich. He had died during the Second World War, washed overboard during a storm, whilst their trawler was patrolling the sea around Norway, one of seven men who had died – and yet his name had not been included in the island’s war memorial. Cal eventually discovers the truth about what actually happened and how his grandfather met his death.

It’s a gripping and emotional story. I loved it.

The Sea Detective is Mark Douglas-Home’s first book. Before writing books he was the editor of Scotland’s leading daily newspaper, The Herald, and The Sunday Times Scotland. He is the nephew of the late Sir Alec Douglas-Home who was Prime Minister of the UK from October 1963 to October 1964. He lives in Edinburgh.

I’m looking forward to reading his second book, The Woman who Walked into the Sea as well as his third, The Malice of Waves.

Reading Challenges: Read Scotland 2016 – by a Scottish author and set in Scotland.

Bones and Silence by Reginald Hill

I found a lot to enjoy in Bones and Silence, Reginald Hill’s 11th book in his Dalziel and Pascoe series, first published in 1990.

Blurb (from the back cover):

When Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel witnesses a bizarre murder across the street from his own back garden, he is quite sure who the culprit is. After all, he’s got to believe in what he sees with his own eyes. But what exactly does he see? And is he mistaken? Peter Pascoe thinks so.

Dalziel senses the doubters around him, which only strengthens his resolve. To make matters worse, he’s being pestered by an anonymous letter-writer threatening suicide. Worse still, Pascoe seems intent on reminding him of the fact.

Meanwhile the effervescent Eileen Chung is directing the Mystery Plays. And who does she have in mind for God? Dalziel of course. He shouldn’t have too much difficulty in acting the part …

My thoughts:

I liked all the complications of plot and sub-plots in this book and the interplay of the characters. It’s full of interesting characters and humour, but it is the plot that takes precedence. It is so tricky, with numerous red herrings and plot twists. Dalziel is positive that he saw Philip Swain shoot his wife; shooting her at close range, destroying much of her face and removing the top of her head. But Swain insists it was an accident – he was trying to stop her from killing herself and the gun went off. The only other witness, Greg Waterson, backs up Swain’s story – and then disappears.

My image of Dalziel comes from Warren Clark’s portrayal of him in the TV series because I watched the programmes before I read any of Hill’s books. To me Warren Clarke is Dalziel, just as David Suchet is Poirot. Dalziel is a larger than life character, speaks his mind and is never politically correct. He is is positive in his belief in Swain’s guilt even when everyone else thinks his wife’s death was an accident:

Andrew Dalziel, despite what his friends said, was no paranoiac. He did not believe himself to be infallibly perfect or unjustly persecuted. His great strength was that he walked away from his mistakes like a horse from its droppings, and as he himself once remarked, if you leave crap on people’s carpets, you’ve got to expect a bit of persecution.

But when he believed himself right, he did not readily accept evidence that he might be wrong, not while there was any stone left unturned. (page 242)

But it doesn’t help that Swain has been cast in the role of the devil opposite Dalziel’s God in the mystery play and the two are constantly sparring. The whole sub-plot of the mystery play is brilliant. Each Part of the book is headed by a quotation from the York Cycle of Mystery Plays, each one relevant to the events that follow. And the vision of Dalziel as God is so funny, especially when the fat man has to climb a narrow ladder up the back of a triple decker stage mounted on a flat car. Dalziel has to sit on a tiny platform over the upper deck, perched above polystyrene clouds.

Pascoe has recently returned to work after a period of sick leave, following an accident and, impatient to find evidence against Swain, Dalziel delegates the anonymous letters to Pascoe to discover who has been sending them. This sub-plot about the identity of the letter writer is the only part of the book that I’m not sure about. I had several thoughts about who it could be, but I was wrong and in the end when the author was revealed I wasn’t completely convinced that that character could have known all the information given in the letters. Still, it makes a dramatic conclusion to the book and came as a complete surprise to me.

Although Bones and Silence is a long book (524 pages) I read it quite quickly, completely absorbed in its mysteries and impressed both with the ingenuity of the plot and the quality of the writing. I really mustn’t leave it very long before I read some more of Reginald Hill’s books.

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (25 Jun. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007313128
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007313129
  • Source: I bought the book

Reginald Charles Hill FRSL (3 April 1936 – 12 January 2012) was an English crime writer, and the winner in 1995 of the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2016 – a book I’ve owned for four years.

Before the Fact by Francis Iles

On the face of it Before the Fact is a straight forward story. It tells the tale of wealthy, intelligent but plain Lina McLaidlaw whose family are against her marriage to the handsome, charming and fascinating Johnnie Aysgarth; Lina’s father tells her Johnnie is a ‘rotter’. But right from the opening paragraph it’s obvious that Lina’s father is right. In fact Johnnie is much worse than her father realised:

Some women give birth to murderers, some go to bed with them, and some marry them. Lina Aysgarth had lived with her husband for nearly eight years before she realized that she was married to a murderer.

First published in 1932 by Francis Iles (* see below*), Before the Fact is a Golden Age crime fiction novel that is a psychological character study of its two main characters, Lina and Johnnie. It’s cleverly written. Lina slowly realises Johnnie’s true nature – that of a compulsive liar and gambler, a manipulative scoundrel who thinks nothing of being unfaithful, even of arranging a murder, or two.  But still she stays with him, trying to control and change him, believing his lies until she has to accept him for what he is, with disastrous consequences.

As Lina’s eyes are slowly opened I became exasperated at her naiveté, her acceptance of what she she has discovered about Johnnie. She comes across as a fool besotted by him and desperate for his love and attention, and even though her suspicions are aroused she still deliberately ignored all the warning signs, descending from panic, terror, horror and despair into passivity. She is maddening, a born victim and I began to wonder how it could possibly end. It was even more chilling than I had imagined.

*About the Author (copied from the publishers):

Frances Iles was a pseudonym of Anthony Berkeley Cox, who was born in 1893 in Watford. After serving in the army during the First World War, Berkeley worked as a journalist for many years before his first foray into the crime genre with The Layton Court Mystery (1925).

His two primary non-de-plumes were Francis Iles and Anthony Berkeley. As the former, he was a master of the psychological suspense genre, always with a wry humorous tenor to his writing; as the latter he acted as a trailblazer in the classic ‘Golden Age’ of crime and detective novels.

An intensely private man who always shunned publicity, Berkeley died in 1971.

As I read I marked a few passages that although not directly connected with the story I found interesting:

About artistic criticism – in particular female criticism:

If one did not happen to like a certain book, picture, or piece of music, one took it for granted that the book, picture, or piece of music was just bad; and the people who thought it was good, were, quite simply and plainly, mistaken. It never occurred to any female critic that a book might possibly be above her own level of intelligence (the men of course read only detective stories). (page 42)

on artists:

‘Aren’t artists intelligent?’ Lina asked innocently.

‘Of course they’re not. Most of them haven’t got the brains of a mouse. They just have this odd knack of being able to put things on canvas, and that’s all. They are the dullest of all the creators. Musicians are the nicest: you never hear a musician talk about himself at all. Then the really good authors. They don’t thrust their work down one’s throat; they’ve no need to. Then the second-rate authors, who do, and have. And then the painters, a long way bottom.’ (page 125)

I wonder who he was referring to?

And on murder:

When you incite a person to do something which both of you know will probably kill him – is that legally murder or not? (page 177)

Lina discusses this point with Isobel Sedbusk (based on Dorothy L Sayers), a writer of detective stories, thinking that it wasn’t ‘real murder, like giving the man poison, or shooting him, or anything like that.’ Isobel replies:

‘No, I’m inclined to doubt whether it would be murder, from the legal point of view. The legal definition of murder is ‘to kill with malice aforethought’. Still, you’ve got the malice aforethought all right. And if he knowingly incited the man to commit an act which would result in his death …’

Malice Aforethought – another novel by Francis Iles (published in 1931) begins with revealing the identity of the murderer. I shall have to read that one soon.

Reading Challenges:

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

When I began reading People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks I wondered why I’d left it nearly eight years on my book shelves before I  got round to reading it. I loved it; it’s a real gem! It has joined the ranks of my favourite books and is definitely a book for keeping and (I hope) for re-reading.

How could I not love a book about books, in particular an ancient book, one that was thought to be lost or destroyed, a book that escaped burning by the Inquisition and the Nazis, a book that survived shelling during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, a book known as the priceless Sarajevo Haggadah – a medieval Jewish prayer book containing the illustrated traditional text of the Passover Haggadah which accompanies the Feast of Passover.

In Geraldine Brooks’ Afterword she explains that People of the Book is fiction, inspired by the true story of the Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Some of the facts are true to the haggadah’s known history but most of the plot and all of the characters are imaginary. She then goes on to define what is true and what is fictional, which I think is the best way of presenting historical fiction.

Australian Hanna Heath is a rare-book restorer and it’s not only the content of the haggadah that interests her, it is the hidden history of the book that captured her imagination and also mine. She finds tiny clues to its history as she restores the book – a fragment of an insect’s wing, wine stains, salt crystals and a tiny white hair – clues to unlock its mysteries. The story of the book is told in reverse chronological order beginning in 1996 and working back to 1480. Interwoven with each story is Hanna’s own story as she too discovers her roots. It’s a story too of love and war, of family relationships, of Anti-Semitism and of historical religious conflicts as the haggadah survived disaster after disaster. It’s also a novel about preserving the past, its culture and history for future generations. It has depth and breadth and is beautifully written. I was irresistibly engrossed in this book and full of wonder at its stories, reaching back in time from Sarajevo to Vienna, Venice, Tarragona to Seville in 1480 and also Hanna’s story from 1996 to 2002.

There are many descriptions of the haggadah throughout the book, all of which made me eager to know more about it. This is just one example from the chapter on wine stains set in Venice in 1609:

Aryeh released the catches, admiring the work of the silversmith. Each clasp, closed, was in the form of a pair of wings. As the delicate catch released – still smoothly after more than a century – the wings opened to reveal a rosette enfolded within. Aryeh saw at once that the book was a haggadah, but unlike any he had seen before. The gold leaf, the pigments … he stared at the illuminations, opening each page eagerly. He was delighted, yet a little disturbed, to see Jewish stories told in an art so like that of the Christians’ prayer books. (page 163)

And here, by way of contrast, is a description of Arnhem Land in the north east corner of Australia’s Northern Territory, where Hanna is working in the caves studying the Aboriginal rock art to document and preserve it before the uranium or bauxite companies blasted it into rubble:

I stepped out of the cave and blinked in the bright daylight. The sun was a big disc of brilliant madder, reddening the stripes of ore that ran through the sheer black-and-ocher rock face. Down below, the first shoots of new spear grass washed the plain in vivid green. Light silvered the sheets of water left behind by the previous night’s downpour. We’d moved into Gunumeleng – one of six seasons the Aborigines identified in a year that whites simply divided into Wet and Dry. Gunumeleng brought the first storms. In another month, the entire plain would be flooded. The so-called road, which was actually virtually a marginal dirt track, would be impassable. (pages 339-340)

I just had to know more about the Sarajevo Haggadah and found these illustrations (see Wikimedia Commons for more illustrations and these sites for more information –  WikipediaThe Times of Israel and About Haggadah:

Copies of Sarajevo Haggadah in parliament building – from Wikimedia Commons

The Sarejevo Haggadah, 15th century Spain – from Wikimedia Commons

Reading challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2016

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Mary Beard is a Professor of Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge and is the Classics editor of the TLS. She is a fellow of the British Academy and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And she writes a blog – A Don’s Life, which appears in The Times. I’ve enjoyed watching her TV programmes and so it doesn’t surprise me at all  that SPQR is just as entertaining and informative as the programmes – and very readable, even for someone, like me, who only has a smattering of knowledge about Roman history.

I took my time reading SPQR; some of it covered familiar ground and some was new to me. It’s a fascinating account of how Rome grew and sustained its position for so long, covering the period from the fourth century BCE when Rome was expanding from a small village, up to the moment in 212 CE when the emperor Caracalla made every free inhabitant of the Roman Empire a full Roman citizen.

The title, SPQR, is taken from the Roman catchphrase, Senatus Populusque Romanus meaning the Senate and People of Rome and it is on these two elements – the Senate and the People that Mary Beard concentrates, focussing on the city of Rome, on Roman Italy and also looking at Rome from the outside, from the point of view of those living in the wider territories of the Roman empire.

The book is not strictly chronological and begins with an event I know a bit about through reading Robert Harris’ Lustrum. It’s the Catiline conspiracy in 63 BC, which concerned a plot, or so it was rumoured to overthrow the Roman Empire and Cicero’s part in uncovering the plot and saving the state. Mary Beard begins with this event, because:

it is only in the first century BCE that we can start to explore Rome, close up and in vivid detail through contemporary eyes. An extraordinary wealth of words survives from this period: from private letters to public speeches, from philosophy to poetry – epic and erotic, scholarly and straight from the street.’ (location 143)

She highlights the effect Cicero had, not just on the politics of his own time but also on the language of modern politics. And it is from Cicero’s speeches, essays, letters, jokes and poetry and other Roman writers that we see the Roman world not just in 63 BCE but throughout the city’s history.

For the earlier period however, there are no contemporary accounts and so the early years of the city and of the earliest Romans has to be reconstructed  from individual pieces of evidence from fragments of pottery or letters inscribed on stone.

There are also, of course the myths and stories as well and Beard refers to these, such as the story of Romulus and Remus, who are said to have founded the city, told by Livy and several other Roman writers. Tradition has it that Romulus and his tiny community fought against their neighbours, the Sabines, and erected a temple on the site of the battle, which later became the Forum, but there is no archaeological evidence to identify the remains of this temple. Archaeology, in fact, only sketches what Rome in the earliest period was like and it is very different from the myths. Later Roman writers and modern historians alike have debated intensely the stories of Romulus and Remus, raising the questions of what it was to be Roman. And Beard states:

There is often a fuzzy boundary between myth and history … and … Rome is one of those cultures where the boundary is particularly blurred. … For a start there was almost certainly no such thing as a founding moment of the city of Rome. … Although Romans usually assumed that he [Romulus] had lent his name to his newly established city, we are now fairly confident that the opposite was the case: ‘Romulus’ was an imaginative construction out of ‘Roma’. ‘Romulus was the archetypal ‘Mr Rome.’ (locations 844 – 850)

From that point Beard goes on to discuss the basics of Roman culture, including the nature of Roman marriage, Roman slaves, the Republican system, the principle of freedom, or ‘libertas’, the changing definition of what it meant to be ‘Roman’, Roman domination of the Mediterranean, dictatorship, civil war, taxation, the modern Western system of timekeeping, the emperors and their imperial successes and military victories and the army – and so much more!

SPQR is an immense  achievement, covering 1,000 years of the history of Ancient Rome, and not only the history but also explaining Roman values, what they thought about themselves, and the way of life of both the People and the Senate.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 22379 KB
  • Print Length: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books; Main edition (20 Oct. 2015)
  • Source: I bought it

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR 2016 – an e-book I’ve owned since November 2015

The Secret Hangman by Peter Lovesey

The Secret Hangman is the first book I’ve read by Peter Lovesey and as it’s the 9th in his Peter Diamond series I was hoping it would read OK as a stand alone book – it does. Peter Diamond is a Detective Superintendent with the Bath police.

Blurb:

Peter Diamond, the Bath detective, is having woman trouble. His boss wants him to find a missing person, the daughter of one of her friends in the choir. He is not enthusiastic. Another woman, who calls herself his Secret Admirer, wants to set up a meeting in a local pub. He tries ignoring her. Then there is sexy Ingeborg Smith, the ex-journo detective constable, distracting the murder squad from their duties. No one ignores Ingeborg.

Murder becomes a possibility when a woman’s body is found hanging from a playground swing in Sydney Gardens and a suspicious second ligature mark is found around her neck. Diamond investigates the victim’s colourful past. More hangings are discovered and soon he is certain that a secret hangman is at work in the city . . .

My thoughts:

Diamond’s wife had died three years earlier – as I haven’t read the earlier books I suppose this is a spoiler, but it is important to know this from the start of this book, because he is now beginning to recover from his grief and becomes rather too involved with an attractive woman he met by chance in a carpark. The story of their relationship runs parallel to the investigations into the hangings and the series of ram raids his boss wants him to investigate.

At first there doesn’t appear that there is any connection between the victims and the motive for killing them only becomes clear quite late on in the book. The only similarities are that the victims are all couples – the wives are killed first, followed a few days later by their husbands, and all the bodies are found in public places as though the killer wanted their deaths to be discovered and publicised.

It takes a while before Diamond cottons on to the identity of the killer – and I was there some time before him, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book. Diamond is not a brilliant detective. He is rather old-school, not above a bit of threatening behaviour (and more) to suspects, not bothered about upsetting his boss, nor is he comfortable with technology. But he is determined and thorough – I liked him and want to read more from the series.

Peter Lovesey is a British writer of historical and contemporary crime novels and short stories. He has written many books, not just the Peter Diamond series, but also a series of books featuring Sergeant Cribb, a Victorian-era police detective based in London – the full list of his books is on his website – there are plenty to read!

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Reading challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge – a book I’ve owned for 7 years, and one I should have read ages ago, but well worth the wait.

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark

I quoted an extract from the opening paragraph of The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark in an earlier post, whilst I was in the middle of the book. I finished reading it a few days ago and have been wondering what to write about it ever since. It’s one of those books that has received a mixed reception with some reviewers thinking it’s a well written book whereas others think it isn’t. I enjoyed it very much.

It’s a story centred on the lives of two women – Elizabeth Pringle and Martha Morrison. Elizabeth has lived all her life on the Isle of Arran and knowing that she is dying and has no living relatives, leaves her house, Holmlea in Lamlash, to Anna Morrison, a woman she had seen years before, pushing her daughter’s pram down the road outside. Anna Morrison, had fallen in love with the house and written to Elizabeth asking her to get in touch if she ever thought of selling it. But Anna is now suffering from dementia and it is her daughter, Martha who goes to Arran to see the house on her mother’s behalf.

What follows is a dual narrative moving between Elizabeth’s account in her own words of her life up to the present day and Martha’s current situation, told in the third person, as she meets the people Elizabeth knew, in particular, Saul, a Buddhist, Niall, a young man who is passionate about gardening, and Catriona his sister who runs a hotel on the island. It’s a deceptive book in that it appears that not much happens and it is gentle and leisurely paced, but it is actually packed with events, some of them dramatic and devastating in their effect on the characters’ lives. And it has a vivid sense of place and of Arran’s history, which I loved.

I much preferred Elizabeth’s story beginning when she was just four and her father went off to fight in the First World War; her relationship with her mother; her life as a teacher and her love life. I found the ending of her life very moving. Martha’s story seems rather pat, everything falls into place a bit too easily – especially her relationship with her mother and sister and the instant friendships she makes on the island.

It’s a book about family, relationships, especially mother/daughter/sister relationships, about happiness, love and heartbreak, old age, memories and the contrast between life in the early part of the twentieth century and the present. It’s strong on description, which is important to me as I like to visualise the locations – and I had no difficulty at all with that in this book.

All in all, I was captivated by this story.

Kirsty Wark is a journalist, broadcaster and writer who hosts a variety of BBC programmes. Her home has always been Scotland and her family’s connection to Arran goes back over many years.

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Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge – a book I’ve had for two years, and Read Scotland 2016 – a book by a Scottish author and set in Scotland.

The Madness of July by James Naughtie

When I began reading The Madness of July I was immediately drawn into the story. I used many markers as I read it because it has such a complicated plot. It’s a political thriller set in London in the mid 1970s one sweltering July as Will Flemyng the foreign office minister and former spy finds himself drawn back into the world of espionage, a world of deception, manipulation and diplomacy. It’s the Cold War period and Will discovers politics can be just as dangerous as espionage.

I really wasn’t sure what was going on at first, not sure what was relevant for me to remember and understand, not even sure who was who as the narrative switched between London, New York, Washington and the Highlands of Scotland. So there were times when I had to backtrack when I came across a character or an event, that turned out to be important to the story, which I hadn’t realised earlier on. The characters know what has gone before, know each other, know what they are talking about – but we don’t.

In a different book this would be a major drawback – in this book it is necessary. It’s as though we’re peering through the fog, until gradually the fog lifts and things become clearer. Or it’s like beginning a cryptic crossword where you have all the clues and no idea about the answers. Anyway, I loved it. If the content isn’t too clear at first the writing is, Naughtie uses beautiful imagery and the characters are vividly drawn, in particular the part set in Scotland at Altnabuie, the Flemyngs Highland estate:

At Altnabuie, they woke to a trembling dawn. Flemyng had raised his bedroom window before turning in, and when he opened his eyes, very early, he could smell the highlands. There was a edge to the warmth and the damp, and the tang of tree and field lured him on. He looked towards the loch and saw swirls of mist rising up in thin pillars, like the guilty secrets of hidden smokers, leaving a thin topping of white cotton on the water that crept over the surface and was beginning to disperse here and there with the coming of a soft breeze. It would be gone within the hour. The herons were on their favourite stone, prim and still like a pair of disapproving clerks. The crows cawed in the woods beyond, and behind him, on the eastern side of the house where the sun was already giving life to the place, he could hear the cockerel at work. Everything was crisp and clean, the stifling urban fog a world away. (page 173)

The events that July take place over just 6 days. An American, Joe Manson dies, apparently of an overdose and is found in a store cupboard (it was a large one full of boxes and all sorts of spare objects) in the House of Commons – except that as the House is technically a royal palace deaths are not allowed and bodies have to be discreetly removed and ‘expire’ elsewhere. And thus begins a political crisis – who was Manson, how did he die, what did he know, what had he said – and to whom? And there is a letter on House of Commons notepaper that Will found on the photocopier – an anonymous letter that is puzzling him, a letter from someone who is desperate and who feels he/she is being driven insane.

A secondary plot, but to my mind just as interesting, maybe even more so, concerns Will and his family. He has two brothers, an older on, Mungo who lives at Altnabuie, and a younger one, Abel, who goes by the name of Grauber, their mother’s maiden name, and lives in New York. Mungo has been researching their family history and has discovered a secret about their mother that he finds disconcerting, even frightening.

And the madness? At one point Flemyng, talking about politics says that the rules of the game mean that you have to behave irrationally. A point is reached where you invited destruction, he’d said, as if it were inevitable. ‘Maybe madness isn’t an aberration, but the natural end to our game.’ Everyone aspired to it in politics, even if they didn’t recognise it for what it was. (page 110)

Madness has been haunting Flemyng: Because in these corridors – balance and rational though we believe ourselves to be – there’s madness on the loose. (page 326)

If you like a quick easy read, then The Madness of July is not the book for you. It, however, like me, you like a book that makes you think, that keeps you on your toes as you read, that both puzzles and entertains you, then you’ll probably enjoy it as much as I did.

James Naughtie (pronounced Nochtee, or – /ˈnɔːxti/ as it is given in Wikipedia, which doesn’t mean anything to me) is a British radio and news presenter for the BBC. From 1994 until 2015 he was one of the main presenters of Radio 4’s Today programme. He is now a ‘Special Correspondent’ with ‘responsibility for charting the course of the constitutional changes at the heart of the UK political debate’, as well as the BBC News’s Books Editor, contributing a book review to the Saturday morning editions of Today. The Madness of July is his first novel. He has also written books on politics and music. He was born in Aberdeenshire and lives in Edinburgh and London.

His second novel, Paris Spring, also featuring Will Flemyng, is due to be published in April this year.

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Reading Challenge: Read Scotland 2016 and What’s in  Name? 2016 – in the category of a book with a month of the year in the title.

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey was a pseudonym for Elizabeth Mackintosh(1896 – 1952). She was a Scottish author who wrote mainly mystery novels (see the list at the end of this post). I read The Daughter of Time some years ago and thought it was an excellent book, a mix of historical research and detective work. Inspector Alan Grant is in hospital and to keep his mind occupied he decides to discover whether Richard III really did murder his nephews – the Princes in the Tower. I’ve also read The Franchise Affair, which I thought was also an excellent book.

I bought Miss Pym Disposes at the local village hall when I went to vote  in the European Election in June 2014. There was a table full of books for sale – nothing to do with the election, but a bonus for me! Based on the other two books I’d read by Tey I thought it would be a good buy. And it was. It is set in the 1940s and was first published in 1946.

I knew from the synopsis that Miss Pym was pleased and flattered to be invited to Leys Physical Training College to give a lecture on psychology. But then there was a’nasty accident‘.

So I was wondering about that ‘nasty accident’ as I began reading the book – who has the accident and is it really an accident, and if so who was responsible for the accident? It all seemed to be plain sailing until something happened that nobody expected and it was that that triggered the ‘accident’. It was intriguing and very cleverly written.

There is a long build up to the accident.  Miss Pym had been a French teacher at a girls’ High School until she inherited some money, left teaching and wrote a best-selling psychology book. She was invited to Leys by her old school friend, Henrietta Hodge, the college Principal and stayed on there for a few days, that extended into two weeks as she got to know and like the students and the staff. However, she realises that all is not as perfect at the college as she had thought, alerted to that fact that when one of the students, Teresa Desterro, tells her that everyone is just a little bit insane in this last week of term – ‘It is not a normal life they lead. You cannot expect them to be normal.‘ Miss Pym observes how strenuous their studies are and the stress and anxiety the senior students go through in their final exams and learn where Henrietta has found jobs for them, or if she has found jobs for them.

This is not a conventional crime fiction novel. It’s a psychological study focussing on the characters, their motivation and analysis of facial characteristics. It looks at the consequences of what people do and say and, as Miss Pym discovers who she thinks is responsible, it also looks at how much a person should intervene, or as one of the characters tells her, ‘Do the obvious right thing, and let God dispose.’ Miss Pym agonises over her decision, was she really going to condemn someone to death?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, such a delight to read, a book that is beautifully written. I thought the slow build up to the ‘accident’ was perfect and I kept changing my mind about who would be involved – and it has such a good twist at the end.

It is the ideal book for these challenges: Bev’s Mount TBR Reading Challenge, her Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt in the category ‘More Than Two people’, and Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland Challenge.

Josephine Tey’s books:

Alan Grant
The Man in the Queue (1929) aka Killer in the Crowd
A Shilling for Candles (1936) (the basis of Hitchcock’s 1937 movie Young and Innocent)
The Franchise Affair (1948) (my review)
To Love and Be Wise (1950)
The Daughter of Time (1951)
The Singing Sands (1952)

Novels
Kif: an Unvarnished History (1929) (writing as Gordon Daviot)
The Expensive Halo (1931)
Miss Pym Disposes (1946)
Brat Farrar (1949) aka Come and Kill Me
The Privateer (1952)
Non-Fiction

Claverhouse (1937) (writing as Gordon Daviot) A biography of John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee (1648 – 1689), known as “Bonnie Dundee” after leading the Jacobites to victory at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689, in which he lost his life.

Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope

I’ve recently read Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne, which I’d meant to read about a year ago after I finished Barchester Towers! I enjoyed it, although I think it’s a bit too drawn out – I could see where the plot was going very early in the book. The conclusion is predictable.

But that didn’t matter as it’s a book about mid nineteenth-century prosperous country life and the traditional attitudes towards the accepted codes of conduct, of the importance of birth, of wealth and above all about money, class and power. It’s about human relationships and the strength of the novel is in the portraits of its characters and their responses to matters of principle in the face of upper class idiocy and snobbishness. Trollope uses gentle satire in this novel, emphasising the absurdities of the class divisions in society and poking fun at the professions, with the names of doctors, such as Dr Fillgrave, whose name wouldn’t inspire me with confidence, parliamentary agents such as Mr Nearthewind and Mr Closerstil and lawyers called Messrs Slow and Bideawhile.

Doctor Thorne is the third in Trollope’s Barchester Towers books – the first one not set in Barchester, but in Greshambury in East Barsetshire, where the Gresham family and Doctor Thorne and his niece Mary live. As the novel opens nothing is going well for the Gresham family, they are in financial difficulties, the estate is mortgaged and they are heavily in debt. It is imperative that Frank, the son and heir to Greshambury Park and its estate, should marry money – indeed, his mother, Lady Arabella, the sister of the Earl de Courcy insists ‘He must marry money‘, a refrain that is repeated throughout the novel. But Frank has fallen in love with Mary, who has neither money or rank, and is illegitimate and as the story proceeds she is increasingly ostracised by the Gresham family, egged on by their rich relations the De Courcys.

Although the book is called Doctor Thorne, the main character to my mind is Mary Thorne, who shows great strength of character throughout. Mary had been adopted by Doctor Thorne, after her father, his brother had been murdered by her mother’s brother. Her mother had left England for America, where she had married and had a family. The brother, meanwhile had done well for himself after he left prison and made a fortune. Mary knows nothing of her background.

I particularly liked Miss Dunstable, the daughter of ‘the ointment of Lebanon man‘, who had inherited £200,000 when he had died recently. The Gresham family, or rather Lady Arabella, instruct Frank that he is to ask her to marry him – her wealth over-riding the fact that her father was a tradesman.

My only criticism of this book is that the discussions about whether Frank and Mary should or should not be allowed to marry are too drawn out and slowed down the plot too much for my liking. Apart from that I thought it was good, Trollope’s authorial comments were interesting, the dialogue was realistic and lively and the main characters came over as real people. An entertaining novel and now I’m keen to read the next Barchester Towers book, Framley Parsonage; Doctor Thorne also appears in this book!

In his Autobiography Trollope wrote that he had been trying to think up a new plot and he asked his brother to sketch one for him, which he did! He thought it was a good plot and the book was, he believed, the most popular book he had written. He was surprised by its success.

After I finished reading Doctor Thorne I realised that it was a perfect choice for the What’s in a Name? Challenge in the category of a book with a profession in the title. It’s a book I’ve had since before 1 January 2016 and fits into the Mount TRB Reading Challenge too and it’s also a book I identified for the Classics Club Challenge.

I wanted to read Doctor Thorne before the three-part adaptation of the book that starts tonight on ITV at 9 pm, so that my reaction to it wouldn’t be influenced. Now that I have read it I’m not at all sure I’ll watch the adaptation. If there are too many changes I know it will irritate me.

Slade House by David Mitchell

I was in the middle of reading two books on my Kindle, Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope and SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard, when the battery died and I know I could still have continued reading whilst it was re-charging, but I didn’t. Instead I picked up Slade House by David Mitchell, a book I’d been thinking of reading soon and once I started it I didn’t want to stop. It’s not long, just 233 pages and they just whizzed past my eyes in no time.

Apparently it began as a short story on Twitter – but I didn’t know that – and is a sort of sequel to The Bone Clocks – but I haven’t read that, and there is a character near the end who also appears in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – but I haven’t read that yet either!

None of that mattered. I suppose it’s the sort of book to read at Hallowe’en, but that doesn’t matter either, because I read it, devoured it I could say, yesterday and was thoroughly entertained. It’s a mixture of a ghost story, science fiction and horror. Something nasty happens every nine years at the end of October at Slade House. I read it as a fantasy, something that I couldn’t believe could ever happen (or at least, I hope not) – but that didn’t stop me enjoying it immensely.

It’s not easy to find Slade House. It’s down Slade Alley, which doesn’t normally exist and it only appears to those who have been invited, or are drawn to it. There is a door set into the right hand wall of the alley, a small black iron door with no handle or keyhole, that opens if you’re meant to enter. There you meet a stranger, are invited into the House, and find yourself in a strange and dangerous situation, and there is no way out – eventually you find yourself in a long attic at the top of the stairs – where something terrible happens to you.

The stories begin in 1979 (although in fact it begins much earlier than that) and ends in a strange and mystifying way in 2015. Each story is complete in itself; the people who enter Slade House do not seem to be connected in anyway – a young teenage boy and his mother, a recently divorced Detective Inspector, students on a Paranormal Society field trip, and then the sister of one of the students. The connection is the House and the brother and sister who occupy it – and to say what they were would be to reveal too much. Needless to say that I was hoping each time that the victims would escape their fate. I was gripped both by the individual stories and by Slade House itself, enchanting and darkly sinister. The sense of menace just grew as each victim succumbed and yet tried to warn those who followed.

Now, I’m keen to read both The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which I bought a few years ago and is still sitting in my TBR piles and The Bone Clocks, which I haven’t got yet. It just shows how reading one book can seriously disrupt whatever reading plans I had!

A House Divided by Margaret Skea

One of the best historical fiction books I read last year was Margaret Skea’s debut novel, Turn of the Tide, which captivated me completely transporting me  back in time to 16th century Scotland.  So I approached its sequel, A House Divided, hoping it would be just as good, and it is. Indeed it’s even better. Once more I was whisked back to the world of the feuding clans of Cunninghame and Montgomerie. It is the most gripping story of warring factions in Scotland, the French Wars of Religion, superstition and horrific witchcraft trials.

It’s now 1597, six years after the events in Turn of the Tide. The Munro family are believed to have died in a fire at their home, Broomelaw but Kate Munro and her three children are living at Braidstane in Ayrshire under the protection of the Montgomerie family. They have the assumed the name of ‘Grant’, in hiding from the Cunninghame family, particularly from William Cunninghame, the son of the Earl of Glencairn, head of the Cunninghame clan. Kate’s husband is in France, fighting with the Scots Gardes for the French Henri IV. Meanwhile William Cunninghame has taken possession of Broomelaw and is rebuilding the tower house. And it’s becoming more difficult and dangerous to keep their identity secret; the children are asking questions and the eldest, Robbie, wants to go to join his father in France.

Kate, who has gained a reputation as a ‘wise woman’ from her knowledge and skill in the use of herbs and plants for healing and as a midwife, is called to help Margaret Maxwell, the wife of Patrick, a Cunninghame supporter, with the birth of her baby. When Patrick meets Kate and her daughter, Maggie, he is suspicious. thinking they look familiar, reminding him of Munro’s wife, and so the danger begins. And it increases as Kate’s reputation grows and she is summoned to the Scottish court as Queen Anne (James VI’s wife), having heard of Kate’s expertise, needs her advice in carrying a baby to full-term.  She had been advised to try a number of methods to avoid a miscarriage:

I have eaten crushed orchid leaves, powdered fox’s lungs and crab’s eyes; drunk wolf oil and tincture of foxglove; been bled and leeched till I think I have little blood left; told to lie on my side and on my stomach, even upside down. Few treatments convenient and none effective. (location 3242)

It’s no wonder they failed and a wonder she survived!

There is so much I loved in this book – first of all the story itself, expertly narrated, full of tension and surprise, and then the characters, some based on real historical figures and others fictitious, such as the Munro family. The story is well grounded in research and based on facts – James VI, whilst waiting to inherit the English crown, wanted to bring peace to Scotland and to put an end to the wars between the clans. His interest in, or rather his obsession with witchcraft comes to the fore in this novel as Kate is accused as a witch and brought to trial as part of the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597. Also historically accurate is the Scots involvement in France as under the terms of the ‘Auld Alliance’ they had citizenship rights in France as well as trading agreements and the Scots Gardes were an elite Scottish regiment whose duties included the provision of a personal bodyguard to the French King.

But it’s the personal touches that brought home to me what life was like in the 16th century, what their houses were like, the food they ate, the dangers that faced them in their daily lives, as well as the growing interest in science and medicine as opposed to superstition and religious bigotry and fervour.

This is an excellent book, one of the best I’ve read this year. Not only is the story absolutely fascinating, but it is also well written and well paced. The historical facts all blend seamlessly into the narrative, with beautiful descriptive passages not just of the landscape and the Scottish Court, but also of the grim details of warfare, of the horrors of the witch trials and of sickness, typhoid and plague, of wounds, of childbirth and of death. It’s strong, compelling reading, a book that made me keen to find out what would happen next and at the same time one I didn’t want to end.

  • Format: Kindle Edition – also available as a paperback
  • File Size: 1017 KB
  • Print Length: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Sanderling Books; 1 edition (15 Oct. 2015)
  • Author’s website: Margaret Skea, Writing yesterday, today

Margaret Skea is currently working on her third novel – I’m looking forward to reading it!

Reading Challenges: Read Scotland 2016

Styx and Stones by Carola Dunn

I always intend to write about the books I read soon after I’ve finished them, whilst the details and my reaction are fresh in my mind.  But recently I haven’t managed to do so and now have four books to review. I can deal with one of them quickly because I don’t have much to say about it – Styx and Stones by Carola Dunn. This is the seventh book in the Daisy Dalrymple Mystery series (there are 22 in total so far). I’ve read the first three and have been waiting to find the fourth to read them in order, but gave in when I saw this secondhand copy.

Set in the 1920s this is a cosy mystery that doesn’t tax the brain too much. Daisy’s brother-in-law, Lord John Frobisher, asks her to investigate a series of poison pen letters that many of the local villagers including himself have been receiving. So Daisy and her step-daughter, Belinda, go to stay with her sister and brother-in-law. Lord John is anxious to avoid a scandal, but when a murder is committed the local police have to be informed about the letters. Daisy’s fiancé, Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher of Scotland Yard is concerned about Daisy and Belinda, so he gets involved informally, all the time trying to keep Daisy out of danger. The village is a hotbed of gossip, intrigue and resentment, with plenty of people with possible cause to commit murder. I liked the interaction of the members of the WI, bossed by the vicar’s wife and the way Daisy managed to get each of them to talk to her.

Styx and Stones is a quick and easy read, (although I didn’t guess the identity of the murderer until quite near the end) with the focus on Daisy and Alec’s relationship as well as on the poison pen and murder mysteries.

Too Soon a Death by Janet O’Kane

Janet O’Kane’s second book Too Soon a Death follows on from No Stranger to Death, set in a fictional village in the Scottish Borders and continues the story of Doctor Zoe Moreland, a widow and one of the doctors at the local health centre. A boy’s body is discovered on the banks of the River Tweed, near the Chain Bridge, linking Scotland and England and Zoe is asked to help identify the body because he had a note in his clothing giving the health centre’s address and phone number – but he was not one of their patients.

Zoe is not without her own problems. I think this book reads well as a stand alone book, but it certainly helps to have read the previous book, which explains her current condition. At the beginning of Too Soon a Death she is still recovering from a vicious attack (details in No Stranger to Death) and is heavily pregnant.

As the events unfold, she receives anonymous phone calls and is followed by someone in a blue car, who at one point almost runs her down. Added to that her best friend Kate Mackenzie, a deaf genealogist, is having problems both with her ex-husband and a client, with disastrous results. Can Zoe trust a new acquaintance, the vet Patrick Dunin – she wonders who it is that keeps phoning him claiming his attention? A large, vicious looking dog attacks Zoe’s own dog and is savaging sheep. Where has he come from? And that is not all – Zoe has secrets in her own past that are finally revealed in this book.

In some respects Too Soon a Murder has a Midsomer Murders atmosphere, and a general ‘cosy’ feel, but it is not without violence. Its main focus, however, is on Zoe, how she is coping with her pregnancy, her plans for Keeper’s Cottage, which she has bought from Kate’s brother and her hopes to become a partner in the health centre. The crimes are investigated by DCI Erskine Mathers and Sergeant Trent, with Zoe’s assistance, although there are things she can’t tell the police because of patient confidentiality. It has a great sense of location (this may be helped because I know the area a little bit, living a few miles away on the English side of the Border), and the characters are well grounded and believable people, even the minor characters such as Margaret Howie, the practice receptionist, comes across as a character in her own right.

My thanks to Janet O’Kane for providing me with a copy to read and review. I’m looking forward to reading her third book, which she is currently writing.

Reading challenges: My first book for the Read Scotland Challenge –  a book set in Scotland.

The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie

In The Secret of Chimneys, Anthony Cade is drawn into a deadly conspiracy when he agrees to carry out an errand for his old friend, Jimmy McGrath. He has to deliver the manuscript memoir of Count Stylptich of Herzoslovakia to a firm of London publishers and to return a packet of letters to a blackmail victim.

It’s one of Agatha Christie’s early ‘thrillers’, first published in 1925. It is also the last full length crime novel of hers that I had left to read. I really thought I had read it but I think I was getting it mixed up with The Seven Dials Mystery, which features some of the same characters and is also set at Chimneys, a large country house, the home of Lord Caterham. The Secret of Chimneys is the first book in which Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard appears. He is an intelligent officer, outwardly impassive and stolid, but who reaches his conclusions applying common sense. Later he appeared in four more of her novels – The Seven Dials Mystery, Cards on the Table, Murder is Easy and Towards Zero.

Agatha Christie declines to describe Chimneys, other than to say it is a ‘venerable pile‘ and that descriptions of it can be found in any guidebook. ‘It is also No. 3 in Historic Homes of England, price 21s. On Thursdays coaches come over from Middleham and view those portions of it which are open to the public. In view of all these facilities, to describe Chimneys would be superfluous.‘ (page 128)

The 1920s upper class life style is evident in the lavish breakfast that is laid on at Chimneys, set out on ‘half a score of heavy silver dishes, ingeniously kept hot by patent arrangements. Omelet, said Lord Caterham, lifting each lid in turn. Eggs and bacon, kidneys, devilled bird, haddock, cold ham, cold pheasant.’ (page 134)

I’m not going to attempt to summarise the plot of this book, other than to say that it revolves around political events in the fictitious Balkan state of Herzoslovakia, with attempts to reinstate its royal family, and also international crime concerning the theft of jewellery  by a thief known in Europe as ‘King Victor’. It reminds me of P G Wodehouse’s books, written in the same light and humorous style.  It is sheer escapism and although it is not one of my favourite of her books, it is an entertaining book.

Reading Challenges: Agatha Christie Reading Challenge, Mount TBR challenge and Golden Vintage Mystery Cover Challenge: Bloodstains

Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie

Sparkling cyanideSparkling Cyanide (published as Remembered Death in America) was first published in 1945. It is a novel in which a crime is investigated a year after it was committed.

Rosemary, the wife of wealthy George Barton dies suddenly at her birthday party at a West End Restaurant, the Luxembourg, after drinking a glass of champagne laced with cyanide. Rosemary had been in a depressed and unhappy state of mind after having a bout of influenza.The official verdict was that she had committed suicide but a year on George, having received anonymous letters stating her death wasn’t suicide, is convinced that she was murdered. He arranges another party, this time for Iris, Rosemary’s younger sister, inviting the same guests, hoping to identify the murderer. But his plan goes awry, as after drinking a toast to Rosemary’s remembrance the party ends with yet another death.

Rosemary was a wealthy heiress in her own right and after her death her inheritance had passed to Iris. George had invited Colonel Race* to both parties, but he had been absent both times. He had known George since his boyhood but had only once met Rosemary, who he thought of as ‘a singularly lovely nit-wit – but certainly not a melancholic type‘. He helps Chief Inspector Kemp of Scotland Yard to investigate both deaths. As well as Iris and George the guests at the party were Ruth Lessing, George’s efficient secretary, and Rosemary’s friends, Anthony Browne, a man with a dubious past and a politician Stephen Farraday and his wife Sandra.

In a series of flashbacks Agatha Christie highlights each person and their relationships with Rosemary and it appears that each one, including George and Iris had a motive for killing her. I was convinced quite early on that one particular character had to be the murderer, but reading further on I began to have doubts, switching from one person to another. As it turned out I was right about my first suspect – Agatha Christie was expert at writing things that could be taken two ways. If I was right about the ‘who’ I couldn’t work out the ‘how’, particularly for the second death, but knew that where everyone sat at the round table was significant. When that was revealed I thought it was difficult to believe, which is why I don’t place it among her best books – but it’s still a very enjoyable read. And it was popular with the public achieving sales of thirty thousand in the first year of publication.

*Colonel Race – first appeared in The Man in the Brown Suit, also in Cards on the Table and Death on the Nile. His appearance in Sparkling Cyanide was his last. He was an agent working for the British Secret Service, often sent on difficult or sensitive missions. In this book he is over sixty, described as ‘a tall, erect, military figure with sunburnt face, closely cropped iron-grey hair, and shrewd dark eyes‘.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge and Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt for the Golden Age in the category of ‘Bottle/Glass for drinking’.

Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie

In 1945 Agatha Christie published two novels, Death Comes as the End and Sparkling Cyanide, neither of them featuring Hercule Poirot or Miss Jane Marple. By chance these two books are the last full length crime fiction novels by Agatha Christie that I had left to read. There are plenty of short stories of hers that I still have to read and her Mary Westmacott novels as well as her plays, so it is not the end of my reading of her work.

Death Comes as the End

The idea to write a detective story set in Ancient Egypt came from a friend, Professor Stephen Glanville – Death Comes as the End was the result. It is set on the West bank of the Nile at Thebes in about 2000 BC. But in her Authors Note Agatha Christie explained that both time and place are incidental and any other time or place would have served as well. She based her characters and plot on some letters from a Ka priest in the 11th Dynasty:

The letters painted to perfection the picture of a living family: the father fussy, opinionated, annoyed with his sons who did not do as he said; the sons, one obedient but not obviously bright, and the other sharp-tempered, showy, and extravagant. The letters the father wrote to his two sons were about how he must take care of a certain middle-aged woman, obviously one of those poor relations who all through the ages live with families, to whom the heads of families are always kindly, whereas the children usually grow up disliking them because they are often sycophants and makers of mischief. (Agatha Christie’s Autobiography page 514)

From these letters she constructed her story, adding Renisenb, a daughter, Nofret, a concubine for Imhotep, the father, a spoilt younger son and a greedy but shrewd grandmother. He is besotted by Nofret who antagonises the family, setting Imhotep against them. Things come to a head after Nofret has manipulated Imhotep to disinherit his sons and marry her and she is found dead, apparently having fallen from a cliff. More deaths follow.

The mystery in this book is actually not too puzzling. For me, its interest lay in the setting and period details. Agatha Christie, according to her Autobiography had done a lot of reading from books lent to her by Glanville and had also bombarded him with questions about daily life and customs in the 11th Dynasty – such as what food did they eat, how did they cook it, did men and women eat together, what sort of rooms did they sleep in, where did they keep their linen, what sort of houses did they have, and so on?

The end result for me was of authenticity – it all came over as real, the characters were individuals, their relationships were convincing and although Agatha Christie wasn’t happy with the ending, which she changed on Glanville’s suggestion, I thought it was fine. And just as she had pleasure in writing it I had pleasure in reading it.

Reading Challenges: Agatha Christie Reading Challenge, Mount TBR Reading ChallengeVintage Cover Scavenger Hunt for the Golden Age in the category ‘A Green Object’.

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

I had no great expectations when I began reading Agatha Christie’s Destination Unknown (first published in 1954) because I’ve not been keen on her stand-alone international intrigue/spy mysteries. But I thought it started very well and I was soon drawn into the story.

It’s the early 1950s and a number of scientists have disappeared, amongst them is Thomas Betterton, a brilliant nuclear scientist, who had discovered ZE Fission. The British Secret Service suspect that he and the other missing scientists have gone beyond the Iron Curtain, either kidnapped, or tempted by money or by the dream of an ideal world, working for the good of humanity. His wife, Olive, has no idea where he is, but sets off for Morocco, ostensibly on medical advice for a complete rest. However, the plane crashes and she is killed before she gets to her destination.

Hilary Craven, whose abundant red hair is similar to Olive’s, is intent on taking her own life, but she is recruited by Jessop, a British Secret Service Agent who persuades her that if she wants to kill herself she could help her country at the same time by impersonating Olive and thus trace Betterton. In doing so it leads her to a secret scientific complex hidden in the High Atlas mountains and a terrifying discovery.

It went over the top with a string of disasters, involving a faked air disaster, radio-active pearls, a leper colony, and secret laboratories all part of a vast organisation masterminded by a wealthy and powerful fanatic. And added to the international intrigue there is also a murder which is only revealed right at the end of the book. If the plot is bizarre and rather weak, and some of the characters are stereotypes, Hilary’s character is more convincing. And as in her other spy thrillers, Agatha Christie uses it as a vehicle for her own concerns about the state of the post-war world, decrying what she saw as the attempt to impose a world order and discipline, where individuality is suppressed. Hilary thinks she:

would rather have a world of kindly, faulty human beings, than a world of superior robots who’ve said goodbye to pity and understanding and sympathy. (page 102)

It’s a dangerous world where

Once you have got into that state of mind where the taking of human lives no longer counts, then if it is simpler to put a little explosive package under a seat in a plane than to wait about at the corner on a dark night and stick a knife in someone, then the package will be left and the fact that six other people will die also is not even considered. (pages 143-144)

Just as true today as in the 1950s!

I am nearing the end of reading Agatha Christie’s full length novels and now have just 2 left to read. Although Destination Unknown is not one of my favourites I did enjoy reading it – it moves quickly and kept me interested in its twists and turns. There’s a lot going on and it’s not easy to know who is telling the truth and who to trust.

****

Added on 15th January 2016:

The edition of Destination Unknown that I read has this cover, fulfilling the cigarette/pipe category on the Golden Age Vintage Mystery Hunt card, as well as the Mount TBR Reading Challenge:

In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward

I’ve made a great start to 2016 with the first book I’ve read this year. In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward is her debut novel and it is excellent. I’ve been enjoying her book blog, Crimepieces, for a while now, so when I saw that she had published a book, I knew I had to read it. It will certainly be on my list of favourite books at the end of the year.

This is just the sort of book I love – excellent storytelling, moving smoothly between the past and the present as the secrets from the past gradually emerge, great characterisation and a superb location in the Derbyshire Peak District that Sarah Ward obviously knows very well. It is also a complex and puzzling mystery that kept me glued to the book.

In January 1978 two eight-year old girls, Rachel Jones and Sophie Jenkins were walking to school together when a strange woman offered them a lift in her car. Rachel is later found in Truscott Woods but Sophie was never found.  Move forward 30 years when Sophie’s mother commits suicide. Troubled by Yvonne Jenkin’s suicide, the police reopen the case – Superintendent Llewellyn who was on the original team asks DI Francis Sadler and his team, DC Connie Childs and DS Damian Palmer to see if there was anything that had been missed in 1978.

Rachel has very little memory of the kidnapping as she was drugged and she has nothing to add to the statement she made as a child. But prompted by Yvonne’s suicide she tries to remember what had happened and as she is a genealogist her research into her own family history proves to be invaluable. The questions are which child was the target, why was Rachel the only one to escape and what is the significance of her missing socks? The tension and mystery ramp up with a modern day murder, when Mrs Lander, one of the teachers at the girls’ school is found dead in the woods where Rachel was discovered 30 years earlier.

As I read I jotted down a few points that I thought were relevant. These were socks, illegitimacy, missing fathers and was Mrs Lander’s murder connected to the kidnapping and Yvonne’s suicide? It was only near the end of the book that I worked out why these points were relevant.

Connie was my favourite police officer and I liked the relationship between her and Sadler and the competition between her Sergeant Damian Palmer. I also liked the fact that although there are violent deaths in this book they are not described graphically. The weather gets colder and colder as the chilling events unfold and the devastating family secrets are revealed.

This is a powerful and well written crime fiction novel, one that I enjoyed immensely. I’m glad that there is to be a sequel, A Fragile Spring, which will be published later this year. I’m definitely looking forward to reading it.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

I thoroughly enjoyed Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, but with
Christmas and New Year just a few days away this is just a brief post to record a few of my thoughts before they fade from my mind.

This is the Blurb:

In the company of his friend Stephen Katz (last seen in the bestselling Neither Here nor There), Bill Bryson set off to hike the Appalachian Trail, the longest continuous footpath in the world. Ahead lay almost 2,200 miles of remote mountain wilderness filled with bears, moose, bobcats, rattlesnakes, poisonous plants, disease-bearing tics, the occasional chuckling murderer and – perhaps most alarming of all – people whose favourite pastime is discussing the relative merits of the external-frame backpack.

Facing savage weather, merciless insects, unreliable maps and a fickle companion whose profoundest wish was to go to a motel and watch The X-Files, Bryson gamely struggled through the wilderness to achieve a lifetime’s ambition – not to die outdoors.

And here’s what I thought:

I was fascinated by it all from the details of the Appalachian Trail itself stretching from Georgia to Maine, to Bryson’s observations about the people he met, the difficulties of walking with a huge backpack, and his relationship with Katz, who struggled to keep up with him. I know what that feels like, hiking with people fitter than you and seeing them march off in front of you, waiting for you to catch up and then setting off again – I felt sorry for Katz.

I can’t say that it made me want to go out and walk for days along a long distance trail, but I did enjoy reading about his experiences and his descriptions of the trail and of the places he visited off the trail. Some of the route sounds very dangerous, such as this for example as Bryson and Katz walked through a snow storm:

… we came to a narrow ledge of path along a wall of rock called Big Butt Mountain.

Even in ideal circumstances the path around Big Butt would have required delicacy and care. It was like a window ledge of path on a skyscraper, no more than fourteen or sixteen inches wide, and crumbling in places, a sharp drop on one side of perhaps 80 feet and long, looming stretches of vertical granite on the other. Once or twice I nudged foot-sized rocks over the side and watched with faint horror as they crashed and tumbled to improbably remote resting places. (pages 100-101)

What? He watched with ‘faint horror’? It terrifies me just to think of being on a path like that! He goes on to say that all the way along this ledge they were half blinded by snow and jostled with wind. It wasn’t a blizzard, it was a tempest and at one point Katz lost his footing and ended up hugging a tree, his ‘feet skating, his expression bug-eyed and fearful’. Oh, no that is definitely not for me.

I liked all the facts about the flora and fauna, and the history of the Trail and indeed about the history connected to the landscape.  Bryson’s descriptions set the scene so vividly I could easily imagine myself there – too easily in the hard places, but also in the beautiful locations, such as this in the Shenandoah Valley:

… a spacious, sun-dappled dell, tucked into a bowl of small hills, which gave it an enchanted secretive feel. Everything you might ask of a woodland scene was there – musical brook, carpet of lush ferns, elegant well-spaced trees … (page 204)

I wished it had an index and that the map of the Trail was more detailed, oh and some photos would have been good. I shall have to wait until I see the film to really see what the Trail is like.

I set out to write just a brief post! But there is so much more that I could have written that really it is just a brief post.

Imperium by Robert Harris

With not many days left until Christmas and the New Year I’ve just about got time to write a bit about two books I’ve read this month from my to-be-read books. I’ll be writing about the second book in a later post.

The first one is Imperium by Robert Harris, the first in his Cicero Trilogy.

I love historical fiction and over the years I’ve read quite a lot of it, including novels set in Ancient Rome, so I’m familiar with the characters in this book, but not about all the details that Robert Harris has packed into Imperium.

Beginning in 79 BC, this book set in the Republican era is a fictional biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero by Tiro, his slave secretary. Tiro was a real person who did write a biography of Cicero, which has since been lost in the collapse of the Roman Empire. Tiro is credited with the invention of shorthand. Harris has based Imperium on, among other sources, Cicero’s letters, which Tiro had recorded, successfully interweaving Cicero’s own words with his own imagination.  It is basically a political history, a story filled with intrigue, scheming and treachery in the search for political power as Cicero, a senator, works his way to power as one of Rome’s two consuls.

The first part of the book (and I think the best part) covers the trial of Verres, a corrupt governor of Sicily. I found this gripping as it was by no means obvious that Verres would be found guilty. Cicero builds the case against him and the resulting trial is a dramatic showdown.

After that the book dragged just a little bit for me as it moved on to describing a complicated struggle to change Rome’s government from a Republic to having an Emperor as absolute ruler. But it picked up again towards the end and overall I thought this was a very good book and I’m keen to read the second in the trilogy, Lustrum.

In such a short post as this is I cannot go into much detail – and the novel is very detailed. I marked many passages that struck me as interesting and felt much of the struggle for power applies as much today as it did in Ancient Rome. I’ll finish this post with one quotation (there are plenty of others I could have chosen):

You can always spot a fool, for he is the man who will tell you he knows who is going to win an election. But an election is a living thing – you might almost say, the most vigorously alive thing there is – with thousands upon thousands of brains and limbs and eyes and thoughts and desires, and it will wriggle and turn and run off in directions no one ever predicted, sometimes just for the joy of proving the wiseacres wrong. (page 471)

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming has been on my TBR shelves since 2011 and is one of the books I listed to read as part of the To Be Read Pile Challenge 2015.

This is the edition I read

I’ve seen most of the James Bond films but never read any of the books before. It was not as action packed as I expected but full of quite lengthy descriptions of what the characters looked like and the clothes they wore, and about gambling and horse racing. I like description but this got a bit tedious, although I did like Fleming’s descriptions of the locations from the African desert to Hatton Garden jewellers and the casinos of Las Vegas. Here for example is a description of the view from the plane taking Bond to New York, as the sun came up

… over the rim of the world and bathed the cabin in blood.

Slowly with the dawn, the plane came alive. Twenty thousand feet below, the houses began to show like grains of sugar spilt across a brown carpet. Nothing moved on the earth’s surface except a thin worm of smoke from a train, the straight white feather of a fishing boat’s wake across an inlet, and the glint of chromium from a toy motor car caught in the sun; but Bond could almost see the sleeping humps under the bedclothes beginning to stir and, where there was a wisp of smoke rising into the still morning air, he could smell coffee brewing in the kitchens. (page 62)

There is very little action until about half way through the book. It is easy to read and moves at a decent place, once it gets going and despite all the descriptive passages. The plot is quite simple – Bond is assigned to infiltrate and close down a diamond smuggling operation, run by the Spangled Mob, operating from Africa to the UK and the USA. It’s run by a couple of American gangsters, the Spang brothers, and the mysterious character known as ABC.

He meets Tiffany Case, a beautiful blonde, an intelligent and resourceful woman, who was gang-raped as a teenager. By the end of the book she and Bond have fallen in love and survived almost impossibly dangerous situations. Also helping Bond is the American Felix Leiter now no longer working for the CIA,  having lost an arm and a leg in a shark attack, but as a private detective employed by the Pinkerton  Detective Agency.

The James Bond in this book is not quite the James Bond of the movies, but still a very likeable character, with obstinate eyes in a lean brown face – Bond is maybe the one character in this book with not much description. The villains are not as evil and sinister as the movie villains – for example, there’s no Blofeld, or Rosa Kleb or Goldfinger. The Spang brothers are Jack and Serrafimo, who owns a western ranch and ghost town called Spectreville. Then there are a couple of thugs, Wint and Kidd, who come across as caricatures, but they are a serious threat to Bond, who gets quite a severe beating (no gory descriptions), when he is captured, only to  escape with Tiffany, ending in a wild chase across the western desert.

So, overall I think this is an entertaining if not a mind-stretching book. I enjoyed it.

Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard

Nagasaki: Life after Nuclear War by Susan Southard is an amazing, heart-wrenching book.

The facts are horrendous – on August 9th 1945, two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, a five-ton plutonium bomb was dropped on the small coastal town of Nagasaki. The effects were cataclysmic.

This must be one of the most devastatingly sad and depressing books I’ve read and yet also one of the most uplifting, detailing the dropping of the bomb, which killed 74,000 people and injured another 75,000. As the subtitle indicates this book is not just about the events of 9 August 1945 but it follows the lives of five of the survivors from then to the present day. And it is their accounts which make this such an emotive and uplifting book, as it shows their bravery, how they survived, and how they were eventually able to tell others about their experiences. Along with all the facts about the after effects of the bombing, the destruction, and radiation, it exposes the true horror of atomic warfare, making it an impressive and most compelling account of pain, fear, bravery and compassion.

Throughout the book the black and white photos illustrate the true horror of the effects of the bomb – photos of Nagasaki both before and after the bomb was dropped, of five survivors – Wada Kohi (aged 18 in August 1945), a street car operator; Nagano Etsuko (aged 16), who worked on a production line in a Mitsubishi airplane parts factory;  Taniguchi Sumiteru (aged 16), who worked at Minchino-o Post Office; Yoshida Katsuji (aged 13), a student at Nagasaki Prefecture Technical School on a ship building course; and Do-oh Mineko (aged 15), formerly a student at Keiho Girls High School, working at the Mitsubishi Arms Factory Onashi Plant. There are also maps showing Japan today and of Nagasaki 1945 showing the Scope of Atomic Bomb Damage.

Susan Southard’s ten years of research has resulted in this impressive book as she reveals what happened in particular to these five survivors, their immediate injuries, the radiation-related cancers and illnesses they have suffered, and their difficulties of daily living still in pain both physical and emotional.

In addition to all that Nagasaki ‘reveals the censorship that kept the suffering endured by the hibakusha [atomic bomb-affected people] hidden around the world. For years after the bombings news reports and scientific research were censored by U.S. occupation forces and the U.S. government led an efficient campaign to justify the necessity and morality of dropping the bombs’ (from the jacket sleeve).

I knew a bit about Hiroshima and Nagasaki before I read this book but it has opened my eyes to the true horror of nuclear war and the need to prevent anything like this happening again.

Many thanks to Souvenir Press Ltd for sending me a complimentary copy for review.

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Souvenir Press Ltd (2 Nov. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0285643274
  • ISBN-13: 978-0285643277

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

Ingenious! That’s what I thought when I’d finished reading The Murder at the Vicarage. Although Agatha Christie had written short stories featuring Miss Marple this is the first full length Miss Marple story, published in 1930.

I’ve been reading my way through Agatha Christie’s crime fiction for a few years now, totally out of order, which is why I’ve only just got round to reading The Murder at the Vicarage. I’d picked up along the way on the fact that Miss Marple uses her knowledge of people to help her solve the mysteries she investigates. And it is in this book that her use of analogy is made absolutely explicit, as she considers who could have killed Colonel Prothero, the unpopular churchwarden, found in the vicar’s study shot through the head. She comes up with seven suspects, all based on examples of human behaviour she has observed in the past.

Miss Marple is not the popular figure she appears in the later books as not everybody likes her. The vicar does, liking her sense of humour, and describing her as ‘a white-haired old lady with a gentle appealing manner’, whereas his wife describes her as ‘the worst cat in the village. And she always knows everything that happens – and draws the worst inference from it.

But it is very helpful to know what is going on in St Mary Mead, about Dr Stone, a well-known archaeologist superintending the excavation of a barrow on Colonel Protheroe’s land and about Mrs Lestrange, a mysterious woman who has recently moved to the village and also about who was coming and going to the vicarage and when.

It’s also helpful to have a a plan of St Mary Mead, showing where the main characters live, and plans of the layout of the vicarage and the vicar’s study, where the murder occurred.

After one of the suspects confesses to the murder Inspector Slack, who shows his contempt for Miss Marple, thinks the case is closed, but Miss Marple is puzzled – the facts seem to her to be wrong. The Murder at the Vicarage has an intricate plot, is full of red herrings and was impossible for me to unravel, but Miss Marple with her knowledge of ‘Human Nature’ solves the mystery.

I enjoyed this book very much, but Agatha Christie writing her Autobiography years later, wasn’t all that pleased with it. She thought it had too many characters and too many sub-plots; she is probably right. But she thought that the main plot was sound and that the village was as real to her as it could be. It’s real to me too.

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

I was a bit doubtful that I would like Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner as it’s written in the present tense, which I usually find irritating. But I needn’t have been concerned because it wasn’t long before I’d completely forgotten the tense and I was totally immersed in the story. And I loved it.

Missing, Presumed is crime fiction, investigating the disappearance of Edith Hind, a beautiful Cambridge post-grad.  Her boyfriend, Will Carter had returned to their flat to find the front door open, coats in disarray and a spatter of blood on the kitchen floor. It’s told from different characters’ viewpoint, each one individually distinct, beginning with DS Manon Bradshaw on the Major Incident Team (her name means ‘bitter’ in Hebrew, but I thought it was Welsh), a lonely disillusioned single woman approaching forty, who overcomes her insomnia by listening to the low murmurings of police reports on her radio.

Edith’s mother, Miriam, Lady Hind, is distraught, wondering if somehow this is fault, her daughter the centre of a drama. Sir Ian Hind, a successful doctor, physician to the Royal Family and a friend of the Home Secretary adds to the pressure the police are under to find Edith. Edith’s friend, Helena comes under suspicion and known offenders are interviewed, but after the first 72 hours she is still missing. The team’s urgency is cooling  as the possibility that Edith is still alive diminishes. Then a dog walker finds a body in the Ouse, near Ely; is it Edith? The search for the killer is intensified.

This has all the ingredients of a successful crime novel for me. My only criticism of the book is that I didn’t think the final section, ‘One Year Later‘ in which the ends are tied up , was necessary. But apart from that I found it gripping and intense. I was intrigued by the multi-layered plot, and thought the characters were fully rounded, believable people, explored with psychological depth – in particular Manon Bradshaw stands out. And, best of all, it is beautifully written.

The Author

Susie Steiner is a novelist and freelance journalist. She began her writing career as a news reporter first on local papers, then on the Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph and The Times. In 2001 she joined The Guardian, where she worked as a commissioning editor for 11 years. For more information see her website, susiesteiner.co.uk

My thanks to Lovereading for providing an advance proof of this novel, due to be published in February 2016. Missing, Presumed is Susie Steiner’s second book – the first is Homecoming, which I really must read.

And I do hope she will write more about DS Manon Bradshaw.

The Abbess of Whitby by Jill Dalladay

The Abbess of Whitby is subtitled A Novel of Hild of Northumbria. As Jill Dalloway explains in her Author’s Note at the end of the book what we know about Hild (St Hilda) comes from the Jarrow monk Bede’s  A History of the English Church and People written 40 years after her death. He gave no information about her between the ages of 13 and 33, so Jill Dalloway has based her fictional account of her life up to the age of 33 on the works of various modern scholars, assuming that like other royal girls of the time she was married for dynastic or political purposes. The major characters are historical, with a few exceptions and Hild’s husband and son are fictional. Hild was born in 614 and died in 680.

Knowing very little about the historical background to the story I found this a fascinating book, but could not have followed it very easily without the list of characters, the family tree of the royal families of Northumbria and the maps showing the Peoples of 7th Century Britain and of Hild’s Northumbria. I was surprised by how much people travelled in the 7th century. It spurred me on to find out more and I am now reading The King in the North: the Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria by Max Adams. I would also like to read Edwin: High King of Britain and Oswald: Return of the King both by Edoardo Albert.

About two thirds of the book covers Hild’s early life, from the time she was chosen to lead the handmaidens of the fertility goddess  Eostre. It’s a time of transition as people are gradually being converted to Christianity, although at first it appears to be a matter of politics rather than of faith. Her marriage to Cerdic of the Goddodin tribe took her to Din Edin (Edinburgh). When home and family are lost in Oswy’s sack of Edinburgh, she finds herself in enemy hands, but meets the charismatic Aidan (St Aidan of Lindisfarne). The final part of the book covers her life as she helped establish various chapels and finally settled in Whitby as the Abbess there, involved in resolving the Easter dispute at the Synod of Whitby in 664. This settled that the calculations to establish the date of Easter would be according to the customs of Rome, rather than the Celtic customs practised by Irish monks at Iona and also to observe the monastic tonsure.

For me the first two thirds  of the book, showing the disputes between the separate kingdoms in Britain in the 7th century, the  transition from pagan to Christian beliefs and the harsh conditions and plague people had to endure, came to life more successfully than the later chapters.

I received this book for review from the publishers via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program.

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Lion Fiction; 1st New edition (21 Aug. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1782641548
  • ISBN-13: 978-1782641544

Jill Dalloway is a classicist, historian and former head teacher who pioneered the Cambridge Latin Course. She lives in Whitby.

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas

I really enjoyed The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. It’s full of  eccentric and quirky characters, an intriguing mystery beginning with the death of an old woman, killed with breadcrumbs, then a car is burnt out with someone inside, and a pigeon is found with its legs tied together so it can’t fly.

But the main mystery Commissaire* Adamsberg has to solve is the strange tale a woman from Ordebec, a little village in Normandy, presents to him.

Blurb:

‘People will die,’ says the panic-stricken woman outside police headquarters.

She refuses to speak to anyone besides Commissaire Adamsberg. Her daughter has seen a vision: ghostly horsemen who target the most nefarious characters in Normandy. Since the middle ages there have been stories of murderers, rapists, those with serious crimes on their conscience, meeting a grisly end following a visitation by the riders.

Soon after the young woman’s vision a notoriously vicious and cruel man disappears. Although the case is far outside his jurisdiction, Adamsberg agrees to investigate the strange happenings in a village terrorised by wild rumours and ancient feuds.

My thoughts:

This is the 8th book in Fred Vargas’ series of Commissaire Adamsberg books. I’ve previously read two, so I’ve a bit of catching up to do. But although there are obviously events that I don’t know about (the appearance of a son, aged 28, that he hadn’t known about, for one thing) this doesn’t detract from the story. I loved all the strange characters – not just the odd people living in Ordebec, but also Adamsberg’s fellow police officers whom he describes as:

 … a hypersomniac who goes to sleep without warning, a zoologist whose speciality is fish, freshwater fish in particular, a woman with bulimia who keeps disappearing in search of food, an old heron who knows a lot of myths and legends, a walking encyclopaedia who drinks white wine non-stop — and the rest to match.” (page 67)

And I also loved the medieval myths and legends forming the basis of the plot: the ghostly army that gallops along the Chemin de Bonneval, led by the terrifying Lord Hellequin.

Adamsberg is a thinker – but a vague thinker – he works mainly on intuition, and in this book his intuition and deductive reasoning have to work overtime. I was thoroughly immersed in this book, enjoying the humour as well as the mystery, intrigued to see how the crimes came together and how the pigeon was rescued. It’s original, and maybe not altogether plausible, but most definitely a treat to read.

Fred Vargas is the pseudonym of the French historian, archaeologist and writer Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau.

*Commissaire is roughly the equivalent of a British Superintendent. His colleagues’ ranks in descending order are commandant, lieutenant and brigadier.

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes has been on my radar for a few years now and I’ve seen a few other bloggers have been reading it recently – Cath for one at Read Warbler.

From the back cover:

After the death of her adored father, Laura ‘Lolly’ Willowes settles into her role of the ‘indispensable’ maiden aunt of the family, wholly dependent, an unpaid nanny and housekeeper. Two decades pass; the children are grown, and Lolly unexpectedly moves to a village, alone. Here, happy and unfettered, she revels in a new existence, nagged only by the sense of a secret she has yet to discover.

And here is what I thought about it.

Published in 1926, Lolly Willowes is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s first novel. In the Introduction to this edition by Sarah Waters she states that it was an instant hit  with readers and critics and I can see why. On the surface it’s a gentle fantasy, but it’s not at all whimsical, and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing is beautiful, lovely lyrical descriptions of both town and country. It’s a book of two parts – the first about Lolly’s existence with her brother’s family in London, where she becomes increasingly disquiet and finds her self indulging in day dreaming about being

‘in the country, at dusk, and alone, and strangely at peace. … Her mind was groping after something that eluded her experience, a something that was shadowy and menacing, yet in some way congenial, a something that lurked in waste places, that was hinted at by the sound of water gurgling through deep channels and by the voices of birds of ill-omen. (page 67)

There’s a bit of a spoiler in this next paragraph.

The second part about her life in the little village of Great Mop, in the Chilterns in the Buckinghamshire countryside is in direct contrast, as she gradually regains the peaceful happy existence she had had growing up. But Great Mop is not just a sleepy backwater because as Laura discovers there are unusual forces at large and she finds herself with her neighbours at a night-time gathering dancing in a continual flux. Her life is changed forever as she meets Satan, who turns out to have a happy relationship with his servants and she enters into a new independence.

So this is a somewhat magical, mystical book and underlying the text is the changing position of women in society in the 1920s,  especially single women financially dependent on their male relatives, who previously were expected to remain within the family looking after elderly relatives, or as in Lolly’s case helping with looking after the children and the running of the household.  In moving away from her family Lolly asserts her independence and enjoys her single life as part of the village community.

So, it’s a book I really enjoyed, for its content, the characters and setting and last but not least Sylvia Townsend Warner’s style of writing. She went on to write more books and poetry, including these novels:

Lolly Willowes (1926)
Mr Fortune’s Maggot (1927)
The True Heart (1929)
This Our Brother (1930)
Summer Will Show (1936)
After the Death of Don Juan (1939)
The Corner That Held Them (1948)
The Barnards of Loseby (1954)
The Flint Anchor (1954)
The Cat’s Cradle (1960)

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is the cover of my copy of the book

A rather strange book; its ambiguous content left me wondering just what had happened and how to interpret it.

On the surface this is simply the story of a widow, Etsuko living in Britain, as she reminisces about her past life in Japan shortly after the war, living at the edge of the wasteland of Nagasaki. She is haunted by the past and by the suicide of her daughter, Keiko, who was never happy living in Britain. Her younger daughter, Niki, visits her and it is during this visit that Etsuko remembers a friendship she had had briefly with a mysterious woman, Saicho, once wealthy but now reduced to poverty, and her little daughter, Mariko.  Saicho often leaves Mariko to fend for herself, seemingly unconcerned about what she does and where she is, which troubles Etsuko, who is expecting her first daughter who I assume is Keiko.

There are parallels between Saicho and Etsuko. Just as Saicho is hoping to leave Japan with Frank, her American friend, so Etsuko (without her Japanese husband, Jiro; what happened to him is not explained) left Japan to live in Britain with her British husband. Their daughters are disturbed characters, unhappy, solitary and distant from their mothers.

As I read I began to wonder about Etsuko, especially when she says:

Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing; often it is heavily coloured by the circumstances in which one remembers, and no doubt this applies to certain of the recollections I have gathered here. (page 156)

To say much more would reveal too much of the story, but when I came to a sentence where the pronoun changes I was even more unsure just what was meant and what actually happened. This is a book I need to re-read in the light of its ambiguity.

However the events play out this is a beautifully written book, describing the countryside around and in Nagasaki after the Second World War, referring to life before the war, and how not only the landscape but also the people and traditions were altered in the aftermath of the atomic bomb. There is an awful lot packed within its 183 pages. It’s a fascinating story of loss, grief, guilt and shame.

A Pale View of Hills is Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel. It won the 1982 Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize.

Mrs Jordan’s Profession by Claire Tomalin

Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Actress and the Prince

I loved Mrs Jordan’s Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a King, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dora Jordan. It is both well researched and well written making it easy to read despite being packed with information, brilliantly bringing the late 18th and early 19th centuries to life as she tells the story of Dora and her relationship with the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV .  It’s based on material in the Royal Archives at Windsor; letters from Dora held at the Huntingdon Library, San Merino, California; various private family papers, letters and memorabilia, as well as numerous secondary sources from national and local libraries.  The resulting biography took her several years to complete.

Much of the information about Dora is taken from her own letters, written over 25 years, to her children and friends and many hundreds of those to the Duke of Clarence, the father of ten of her children (the FitzClarences) have survived. She was a remarkably strong character and an incomparable actress.

William, the Duke of Clarence and Dora Jordan were born into very different families – born in 1765 he was the third son of George III and Queen Charlotte,  and she was born in 1761, the daughter of Francis and Grace who although not legally married lived together as Mr and Mrs Bland.  He was not expected to succeed to the throne and as a boy served in the navy, later he was given a dukedom, an income and an estate. She became an actress, known as ‘Mrs Jordan’, although there was never a Mr Jordan. She made her stage debut in 1777 at the age of 15 and her first Drury Lane appearance in 1785. The two met and she became his mistress in 1790, eventually living together at Bushy House in Middlesex. Their relationship was a happy one until, as the years went by, William was put under pressure to find a suitable wife and, of course, marriage to Dora was out of the question. They separated in 1811 and she was heart broken.

There is so much in this book that fascinated me. The attacks in the press on their relationship were vicious and there were storms of abuse – as an actress and a prince they could not have private lives and the journalists and cartoonists were savage in their portrayal of the couple. The cartoons in particular amazed me. ‘Jordan’ was a common term for a chamber-pot, so her name came in very handily, and became an instantly recognisable visual symbol:

Sometimes it was put over the Duke’s head; sometimes he was shown standing in it, with her prettily draped round the edge, naked and mermaid-like. In other drawings the pot reverted to its domestic function under the bed; the words ‘Public jordan open to all parties’ were written round one of these. The most effective and cruellest was Gillray’s simple picture showing Dora as a giant chamber-pot, cracked and with a vagina-shaped hole into which the figure of William is disappearing, giving a nautical shout of pleasure as he does so. His braided coat is hanging on a peg to one side and her ankles and feet in dainty slippers appear below the pot. The caption reads ‘The Lubber’s Hole, alias the Cracked Jordan’, (page 123)

Dora comes across as a very likeable person, hard working, and devoted to her family. She was a talented and probably  the most popular actress of the time in Britain, based at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and also appearing in theatres throughout the country, acting throughout her pregnancies and often taking a baby with her on tour. Claire Tomalin writes

She was the best-loved and most admired comic actress of her time, hailed by fellow actors, critics and public alike as a uniquely gifted performer, fully the equal in comedy to Mrs Siddons in tragedy: for several decades they were generally referred to as the Muses of Comedy and tragedy. (page 3)

After she and the Duke separated the debts incurred by a son-in-law drawn on her account forced her to live abroad until they could be cleared, but she sank into illness and despair and died near Paris in 1816.

William succeeded to the throne in 1830, after the death of his older brother, George IV. One of the first acts of his reign was to commission a sculpture – he wanted a life-size representation of Dora, She had been dead for  fifteen years, so Francis Chantrey, the sculptor worked from portraits, finishing it in 1834. William’s intention was to place the statue in Westminster Abbey, but the Dean of Westminster refused to allow it and it remained in Chantrey’s studio. Eventually, after passing through several hands, the fifth Earl of Munster bequeathed it to the Queen and it is now in Buckingham Palace among the portraits of kings and queens in the Picture Gallery.

Like all good biographies Mrs Jordan’s Profession has an extensive bibliography, additional notes and an index. There are several photographs, family trees of and an appendix of Mrs Jordan’s Roles.

  • Paperback: 422 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin 1995
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140159233
  • Source: I bought the book

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2015, Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2015, TBR Pile Challenge 2015.

Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin

In Ian Rankin’s previous book Saints of the Shadow Bible Rebus was back on the police force, the rules on retirement age having changed. Now, two years later in Even Dogs In the Wild Rebus is on his second retirement – well almost. It seems they can’t do without him and when someone takes a potshot at retired gangster, Big Ger Cafferty DI Siobhan Clarke suggests they ask him to act in a ‘consultative capacity’ albeit not as a cop and with no warrant card or real powers and with no pay. Cafferty refuses to let the police in to talk to him – he’ll only speak to Rebus. That suits Rebus as he’s bored with being retired, each day the same as the one before.

It seems this is connected to the killing of David Menzies Lord Minton, a former Lord Advocate, who had been found beaten around the head and throttled. He had received a note: I’M GOING TO KILL YOU FOR WHAT YOU DID – as had Cafferty.

A second strand of the story concerns the warfare between two gangs, one from Glasgow, headed by Joe Stark, who have arrived in Edinburgh looking for a guy called Hamish Wright and whatever it is he has stolen from them, and the other from Edinburgh, headed up by Darrell Christie, Cafferty’s successor. DI Malcolm Fox, no longer in Professional Standards, is seconded to the team of undercover cops from Glasgow, surveilling Stark and his men.

And so a complicated scenario unfolds, with more deaths, and so many twists and turns that my mind was in a whirl as I tried to sort out all the characters. After a dramatic scene set in woods in the Fife countryside some years earlier, the story gathered pace and tension as the various elements came together. Who is the murderer, what connection does Cafferty have with Lord Minton, how does the gang warfare fit into the murders, who is the mole in the Glasgow gang, and what happened years ago in Acorn House, an assessment centre for children in care,  a sort of remand home?

It was intriguing to see Rebus and Cafferty working together, although never fully confiding in each other. They have had a complex relationship in the past, aggressive and hostile and yet at times they have worked together before.  Rankin, as usual, successfully combines all the elements of the crime mystery with the personal lives of the main characters and at the same time highlighting various current political and social issues, such as the involvement of public figures in child abuse cases and the effect this has on the individuals concerned and their families.

The title comes from The Associates song of the same name, released in 1982:

Even dogs in the wild
Could do better than this
Even dogs in the wild
Will care for
Whatever means most to them

It’s also interesting to look back over the Rebus books which I began reading eight years ago (to the month!). They cover his life as a detective beginning with Knots and Crosses, first published in 1987. Rebus, ex-army, SAS was then a Detective  Sergeant, aged 42. He was divorced and smoked and drank too much.  By the time of Even Dogs in the Wild in some respects he hasn’t changed much – still a loner, still drinking and smoking, but so much has happened that he has changed, both in his personal and professional life. I’ve read all the books, but I’ve not written about all of them and some of my posts are quite short. At one time I began summarising the books, listing the characters and crimes, but I didn’t get very far – maybe I’ll finish it one day.

I like the series as a whole and think this latest book stands well with the best of them.  The first Rebus book I read was Set in Darkness, the 11th book in the series. It was obvious that this featured characters that had been in the earlier books but I didn’t find it difficult to follow who was who and their relationships. Even so I decided I needed to start at the beginning and read them in sequence. And I think, for me at least, that works best, in order to fully understand the background and how the characters interacted and evolved.

Has Rebus had his day? He tells Fox

‘It feels like the end of a long song though – men like Cafferty and Joe Stark … and me too, come to that … we’re on our last legs. Our way of thinking seems … I don’t know.’

‘Last century?’

‘Aye, maybe.’ (p 243)

We’ll see. One nice touch throughout the book is the little dog, Brillo who seems to have adopted Rebus – but will Rebus settle for walks in the country with Brillo, and being a granddad?

Silver Lies by Ann Parker

From out of the black hole that is my Kindle came Silver Lies by Ann Parker, a new-to-me author. Books have been known to disappear for ever in there and this one had been languishing down in the depths for three years, so I thought it was time to read it. It looked as though it would be a bit different from other books I’ve been reading this year. Apart from True Grit I don’t think I’ve read any westerns for years and actually this one is not a typical western. It’s not a Cowboys and Indians type western at all but is set in 1879/80 in the silver-mining town of Leadville, Colarado in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. It probably fits in more with the crime fiction genre than with westerns, but it was the setting  that attracted me to it.

It’s a really good story beginning when Joe Rose, a silver assayer, facing a bleak future as the last of his money has gone and the hope of making his fortune in silver has disappeared, is found dead in Tiger Alley propped up behind the Silver Queen saloon. Inez Stannert’s husband Mark had won the saloon in a poker game and eight months before the story begins he had left her and their friend and business partner, Abe Jackson to run it on their own. Inez has no idea where he is and whether he’ll ever return.

Joe’s death is just the start of the mystery – was his death an accident or was he murdered and if so why?  Inez sets out to discover the truth and although his wife Emma has asked her to settle his affairs for her what is she keeping from Inez? Where is Mark and why did he leave? There is a new Reverend in town. Inez falls for his charms but is he to be trusted? She had him pegged as a gambler rather than a man of the cloth. And she doesn’t trust the new marshall either – ‘a thin man with the look of a hungry rattlesnake’. Inez knows he is ‘just a two-bit gunslinger from Texas’ hired by the ‘silver barons to keep the peace after last month’s lynching’. So it’s no wonder that she uncovers a web of deceit, counterfeit, blackmail and murder.

With plenty of memorable characters I could easily imagine I was in the silver rush town, a town where:

People rush in – from the East, from the West – and collide at the top of the Rockies. They’re looking for riches or looking to escape. And running. Everyone’s either from their past or running toward some elusive vision of the future. (location 5896)

Leadville was a colourful place, a boom-town, bustling with life -everything is there – the Silver Queen saloon and the Crystal Belle Saloon, Leadville’s leading parlor house, a brick built opera house, whose patrons ‘swelled the after-midnight crowds’ in the Silver Queen saloon, five banks and a small white church with a steeple.

Silver Lies won the Willa Award for Historical Fiction and the Colorado Gold Award and was chosen as best mystery of the year by Publishers Weekly and The Chicago Tribune.  For more information about Ann Parker and her books see her website.

I was completely engrossed in this book with its multi-layered and intricate plot that kept me guessing all the way through.  I hope to read more of this series:
  1. Silver Lies (2003)
  2. Iron Ties (2006)
  3. Leaden Skies (2009)
  4. Mercury’s Rise (2011)

Reading challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2015Historical Fiction Reading ChallengeColor Coded Challenge

The Monocled Mutineer by John Fairley & William Allison

When I was asked if I would read and review a revised edition of The Monocled Mutineer by John Fairley and William Allison, the book on which the 1986 BBC TV series was based I was immediately interested as I had watched the TV series.

Description from the Press Release:

In 1917 British, New Zealand and Australian troops stationed at the Étaples Training Camp in northern France protested against the inhuman conditions and the protest erupted into mutiny. Private Percy Toplis was named by the authorities as a leader of this mutiny. While several of the mutineers were executed in its aftermath, Toplis escaped and remained at large for three years. The Army immediately covered up the mutiny, thousands of the participants died shortly afterwards in the Passchendaele offensive while the survivors remained silent for over fifty years. After three years as Britain’s most wanted man Percy Toplis was killed in 1920 by a policeman.

My thoughts:

This is the 2nd and updated edition of The Monocled Mutineer, which  includes a new introduction and epilogue that expand on newly discovered information about the events of the mutiny and the government’s response to it. It is primarily based on interviews and correspondence with survivors of the First World War nearly sixty years after the events they describe. In 1976 the authors advertised in newspapers asking whether any veterans from the First World War had recollections of the events in Étaples in September 1917. They received many replies containing:

  … sharp, bitter accounts of events long ago, but far from forgotten. Inevitably they were careful handwritten stories in old men’s script, teased out without any other prompting than the brief enquiry in their local paper. (page 2)

In addition to the anecdotal evidence the authors have used other sources including the published personal reminiscences of Edwin Woodhall,  Detective and Service Days and Lady Angela Forbes. Memories and Base Details; journalists’ accounts in various periodicals; and have drawn background material from records about the First World War in the  Imperial War Museum, The Public Record Office and the British Newspaper Library.

Not many contemporary records have survived that relate to the mutiny. One of the surviving records is the war diary of the Commandant at the Étaples Camp,  Brigadier-General Andrew Graham Thomson. Thompson describes what happened as a ‘disturbance’ and as ‘riots’ and ‘breakouts’:

Disturbance in Reinforcement Camp between military police and troops, Corporal Wood, 4th Gordons being accidentally shot … a crowd of about 1,000 gathered at Étaples town, and about 7.30 pm tried to break into the Sevigne cafe where two policemen were hiding. (page 1)

But in 1978, after the publication of the 1st edition and the BBC dramatisation, the British government admitted that the events that took place at Étaples had been a mutiny and also that  it was probable that the records relating to the board of inquiry into the events had been destroyed many years ago. The files on the mutiny and Percy Toplis’ military records are closed until 2017.

Historical accuracy is never easy to obtain, especially where records have been lost and where there is a limited number of sources to compare one against the other. In this case the main sources of information are the personal accounts from the veterans as they remembered them many years later.

And the picture they paint is a most remarkable and shocking one of the brutal and inhuman conditions which were in operation at the camp. As for Toplis’ part in the mutiny, the letters from the veterans occasionally mentioned him and whilst some thought he was the main ringleader, few thought he was the only one, but that there were a number of soldiers involved. One remembered Toplis’ name on a wanted poster and wrote:

If he was a villain then he was not the only one around Étaples. Maybe he too was tired of being humiliated, deprived, brutalized and treated like a dog. We had all got tired of being treated with less consideration than that given to horses. (page 91)

Another reported that Toplis, heading a mob of about 1,000 deserters confronted Thompson, surrounding his car. Toplis climbed on the running board and dictated the terms for ending the mutiny (page 93). After the mutiny ended, whilst some of the ringleaders were executed, Toplis escaped. Others were killed in the battle for Passchendale which began on 20th September.

Maybe more information will be available in 2017 when the files are opened and a fuller picture of what happened will emerge.

The Monocled Mutineer also goes into detail about Percy Toplis’ life before and after the war. Coming from a working-class background, by the age of eleven he was already a con artist and a thief. He must have been a charismatic character, able to both charm and deceive people, successfully impersonating officers, able to melt into the background deserting and then rejoining the army seemingly at will, not sentenced to execution by the firing squad (the penalty for desertion). But after the war ended in 1920 his luck ran out as he was accused of murdering a taxi-driver. The inquest held that he was guilty in his absence. Toplis fled, evading capture for six weeks and he was eventually shot down in a police ambush near Plumpton in Cumberland.

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Souvenir Press Ltd; 2nd Revised edition edition (7 Sept. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 028564310X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0285643109
  • Source: review copy from the publisher

House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick

Nicola Cornick is a new-to-me author, but she is by no means a new author. She has written many books – see her website for more details. Not having read any of her books I wasn’t sure I’d like House of Shadows, her latest book due to be published on 5 November,  but the publishers’ press release persuaded me to read and review an uncorrected proof copy. I’m glad I did as I thoroughly enjoyed House of Shadows.

Press Release synopsis:

One House, Three Women. And a lie that will change history.

February 1662

On the eve of her death Elizabeth Stuart hands her faithful cavalier William Craven an ancient pearl with magical properties to be kept safe for her rightful heir. Craven, distraught with grief, builds Ashdown Estate in Elizabeth’s memory and places the pearl at the centre.

February 1801

Notorious Regency courtesan Lavinia Flyte is brought to Ashdown House with her protector, Lord Evershot, who is intent on uncovering the Winter Queen’s treasures. Evershot’s greedy pillage of the ancient house will unleash a dark power which has lain dormant for a hundred and fifty years.

February 2014

Holly Ansell’s brother has gone missing. As Holly retraces his footsteps, she discovers that her brother was researching the mystery of Elizabeth Stuart and her alleged affair with William Craven. A battered mirror and the diary of a Regency courtesan are the only clues she has, but Holly is determined to discover the truth: Where is the fabled pearl that Elizabeth gave to William Craven? What happened to Lavinia Flyte? And who is the Winter Queen’s rightful heir?

My thoughts:

This is a successful time-slip novel as I had no difficulty in following each strand of the story. And each is set firmly in its historical context. It’s a fascinating mix of factual history combined with historical interpretation/imagination to fill in the gaps in the records. Elizabeth Stuart, known as the Winter Queen, the daughter of James I of England and VI of Scotland was married to Frederick V, briefly the King of Bohemia, before his lands were taken from him after the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. There are rumours from 1660 onwards, but no proof, that Elizabeth either had an affair or secretly married William, the first Earl of Craven.

Once I started reading the House of Shadows I didn’t want to stop as the history of crystal mirror and the Sistrin pearl, a jewel of rare beauty and price unfolds. Both were inherited by Elizabeth from her godmother Elizabeth I. They had previously belonged to Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth Stuart’s grandmother. They were said to hold great magic – the mirror was said to have the power to destroy its enemies by fire, whilst the ring was supposedly a talisman for good. It was reported that Frederick was involved with the Knights of the Rosy Cross and the legend is that the Knights used the mirror and the pearl together in their necromancy to create firewater in which they could both see and transform the future.

There is so much I loved in this book – the history, all the storylines,  the characters, and the settings against the backdrop of years from the 16th to the 21st centuries. It has mystery, elements of the supernatural as well as being a love story, not just the story of Elizabeth and William in the 17th century, but also of Lavinia in the early 19th century and Holly in the 21st. I loved the details of each period and in particular of Ashdown House, a real house in Oxfordshire that was built by William Craven for Elizabeth. It’s now owned by the National Trust, where Nicola Cornick has been a volunteer guide and historian for the last fourteen years. She has certainly done her research very well and incorporated it seamlessly into her book. The house shown on the front cover is Ashdown House

I also loved the details of Holly’s family history which her brother Ben had been researching before he went missing and how it all linked in to each time line. It’s the sort of thing you hope you be able to would find if you did your own family history.

It is a fascinating book. There is so much packed into its pages, a real page turner in each timeline, making me eager to find out what happened next. If this is representative of Nicola Cornick’s books there are plenty of others that I’m going to enjoy.

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: MIRA; First edition edition (5 Nov. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1848454163
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848454163
  • Source: Uncorrected Proof Copy

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes contains twelve short stories first published between 1921 and 1927. In the Preface Conan Doyle  wrote that he hoped his Sherlock Holmes stories had provided

that distraction from the worries of life and stimulating change of thought that can only be found in the fairy kingdom of romance.

In this post I’m only writing about three of them for The 1924 Club; stories that were first published in 1924 (for more details about The I924 Club click on this link). They do indeed, provide both a distraction and a stimulating change of thought. The narrator in these three stories is Dr Watson.

The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire – this was first published in the January 1924 issues of The Strand Magazine in London and Hearst’s International Magazine in New York.

As Sherlock Holmes says when he first heard about a case concerning vampires,‘we seem to have been switched on to a Grimm’s fairy tale.‘ He tells Watson they cannot take it seriously:

Rubbish Watson, rubbish! What have we to do with walking corpses who can only be held in their grave by stakes driven through their hearts? It’s pure lunacy!

But he takes on the case for two reasons – one, he’s interested in the house in Essex belonging to Mr Ferguson where his wife is suspected of being a vampire, and two, Ferguson had known Watson when they played rugby together for Blackheath. His Peruvian wife had been seen attacking his son from a previous marriage and also leaning over her own baby and biting his neck. She refused to explain herself. Holmes solves the mystery, indeed he had reached his conclusion even before arrived in at the house, based on his conviction that the idea of a vampire was absurd. I enjoyed this tale, mainly because Holmes used logic and deduction in coming to his conclusion, overriding the supernatural.

The Adventure of the Three Garridebs – first published in October 1924 in Collier’s Weekly and then in The Strand Magazine in January 1925.

I think this is a rather strange and artificial story, Dr Watson says it may have been a comedy or a tragedy. It led to him being shot in the leg and yet there was certainly an element of comedy. It’s about a man with the unusual name of Garridebs, ostensibly looking for two other men with the same name  to inherit five  million dollars each. Of course, that is not his real reason and the man is none other than a  known murderer.  It shows, however, the depth of Holmes’ feeling for Watson, as he says:

It was worth a wound – it was worth many wounds – to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaken. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of service culminated in that moment of revelation.

It’s in this story too that Watson reveals that Holmes had refused a knighthood.

The Adventure of the Illustrious Client – first published in Collier’s Weekly in November 1924.

At the request of an unnamed but illustrious client, Holmes and Watson investigate the case concerning Violet de Merville, young, rich and beautiful who has fallen under the spell of the notorious Baron Gruner. Her father, General de Merville wants to prevent them from marrying.  Gruner is known as a violent murderer and Holmes is keen to meet a man who may be more dangerous even than the late Professor Moriarty. But he has to enlist the help of one of Gruner’s past mistresses to open Violet’s eyes to the true nature of the man she thought she loved.

I like the personal touches in this story, the opening scene for example shows Holmes and Watson in the drying-room of a Turkish Bath, lying in an isolated corner on two couches, side by side, smoking in a state of lassitude. Watson says that it is where he finds Holmes less reticent and more human than anywhere else. Watson knows that although he was nearer to Holmes than anyone else he was always conscious of the gap between them – Holmes leaves his closest friend guessing what his exact plans may be.

These three stories all illustrate Holmes’ deductive powers and seemingly cold nature but also reveal the depth of feeling between him and Watson. Bur I’m not sure that they reflect anything in particular about what was being published in 1924.

I shall write about the remaining stories in the Case-Book at a later date.

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

Note: I’ve found this hard to write about without giving away some spoilers.

I’d listed The Old Curiosity Shop in my Classics Club Spin,  but was really hoping to get one of Thomas Hardy’s books. Without this push from the Classics Club this book would have stayed on my TBR list for a long time because all I knew about it was that it’s the book in which Little Nell suffers a melodramatic death and I feared it would be too sentimental for my liking. And much to my surprise I have finished it in time for the deadline for reading our Spin book this Friday, even though it’s such a long book.

Well, it was and it wasn’t. It’s not just a sentimental, melodramatic story. It’s also full of weird, grotesque and comic characters, a mix of everyday people and characters of fantasy. It has elements of folklore and myth, as Nell and her grandfather, go on an epic journey, fleeing from the terrifying dwarf, Daniel Quilp and travelling through a variety of scenes, meeting different groups of people on their journey. There are numerous allusions to the Bible, Shakespeare and popular songs of the day. There are long passages where Nell doesn’t feature and is hardly mentioned, so it’s by no means a totally sentimental tale.

Several of the characters stand out for me, Quilp is an obvious choice. He takes delight in inflicting pain and suffering on others. He’s scarcely human, grossly wicked, hideous in appearance, full of lust, ferocious, cunning, and malicious. A fiend who

… ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with heads and tails  on, chewed tobacco and water-cresses at the same time and with extraordinary greediness, drank boiling tea without winking, bit his fork and spoon until they bent again, and in short performed so many horrifying and uncommon acts that the women were nearly frightened out of their wits, and began to doubt if he were really a human creature. (page 47)

Other characters who stood out are Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness. Dick at first appears as a profligate friend of Nell’s brother, Fred but takes on a larger role later in the book. Working in a law office for Mr Brass and his sister, Sally Brass, he befriends the small, half-starved girl who is a servant locked in the basement, calling her the Marchioness. He rescues her and also Kit, Nell’s friend, when he is wrongly accused of robbery.

There are many more I could mention, including the people Nell and her grandfather meet on their travels – wonderful scenes  of the travelling Punch and Judy show; Mrs Jarley’s wax-work figures, over a hundred of them that she takes around the countryside in a caravan; the gypsies who take advantage of Nell’s grandfather’s addiction to gambling; the poor schoolteacher who take in Nell and her grandfather; and the Bachelor who they meet at the end of their journey.

I also liked the description of the landscape as Nell leaves London, the change from town to countryside, then later through the industrial Midlands with its factories, furnaces and roaring steam-engines where people worked in terrible conditions. Nell and her grandfather spend a night in one of the furnaces, sleeping on a heap of ashes.

In a large and lofty building, supported by pillars of iron, with great black apertures in the upper walls, open to the external air; echoing to the roof with the beating of hammers and roar of furnaces, mingled with the hissing of red-hot metal plunged in water, and a hundred strange unearthly noises never heard elsewhere; in this gloomy place, moving like demons among the flame and smoke, dimly and fitfully seen, flushed and tormented by the burning fires, and wielding great weapons, a faulty blow from any one of which must have crushed some workman’s skull, a number of men laboured like giants. (pages 334-5)

Nell, herself, is a sweet, self-effacing and innocent character, who is left to look after her grandfather as he fails to overcome his gambling addiction. She goes into a decline and her slow death is, I suppose inevitable, although thankfully it is not described by Dickens. Child death is one of the themes of The Old Curiosity Shop as Nell’s death is not the only one.

The Old Curiosity Shop was written in 1840 – 1841 and serialised weekly in Master Humphrey’s Clock beginning on 4 April 1840 and ending on 6 February 1841. During this period the circulation of the periodical rose to a staggering figure of 100,000. It was Dickens’ fourth novel, influenced by the early death of his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, in 1837, which had profoundly shocked him. His work on The Old Curiosity Shop, particularly as he came to writing the end, revived the anguish he had experienced on her death.

The Old Curiosity Shop

The Old Curiosity Shop

I read the Penguin Classics e-book which has the original illustrations by George Cattermole, Hablot K Browne (‘Phiz’), Daniel
Maclise and Samuel Williams.

TOCShop furnace

The furnace

Despite the sentimentality I did enjoy reading The Old Curiosity Shop and it has made me keen to read more of Dickens’ books.

As well as being my Classics Club Spin, this book also qualifies for the Mount To Be Read Challenge and the Victorian Bingo Challenge.

Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton

You can tell from the title what to expect from this book – lies, black lies, but they’re not little lies, they are whopping great big lies. The story is narrated by three of the main characters, Catrin, Callum and Rachel, all unreliable narrators either self deceptive, delusional or manipulative. They are all damaged characters.

Three years before the story begins Catrin’s two sons died in an accident caused by her then best friend Rachel. She has never got over it; they have haunted her ever since and she has not spoken to Rachel since then, determined to take revenge as the third anniversary of their death approaches. A year after their deaths Fred Harper went missing and was never found, then another boy, Jimmy Brown disappeared. As the story begins yet another boy, Archie West is missing. The nightmare continues with the disappearance of Peter, Rachel’s third and youngest son.

Little Black Lies is set in the Falkland Islands in 1994, twelve years after the war and Sharon Bolton’s descriptions of the islands paint a vivid picture of the isolation, the close knit community and war scarred landscape.

But there are a few things about this book that mean whilst I enjoyed the descriptive writing, the sense of place and the opening section very much I didn’t really like it. I began reading it with high expectations as it has received much praise and I’ve enjoyed everything else by Sharon Bolton that I’ve read. And although I was dismayed when I found it was written in the present tense (which is not my favourite style) I thought it was very promising and read on eagerly.

But when I finished it I gave it 3 stars on Goodreads, rounded up from 2.5 (Goodreads doesn’t have half marks!). I wasn’t keen on the focus on missing/dead children which so many books seem to have had recently. And it was a combination of the present tense and the way the plot descended into more of a farce with several twists and turns, particularly as the book draws to an end, one after the other that I just didn’t think was credible. The final  twist at the end came out of the blue for me, although thinking back it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. But I felt a bit cheated. In fact I’m rather annoyed with myself as I’d totally forgotten FictionFan had reviewed this book and I’d thought then that it was one that didn’t appeal to me – at least I was right!

A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton: Mini Review

I finished reading A Dark and Twisted Tide, the 4th in the Lacey Flint series, at the end of September, but never got round to writing about it, so now this is just a mini review.

Synopsis from the back cover:

Police Constable Lacey Flint thins she’s safe. Living on the river, swimming in the river, she’s never been happier. It can’t last. Because Lacey has secrets. And when the first body floats, it’s only a matter of time before her fragile life falls apart. And the river is the last place she should be ..,

This is such a terrifying novel, particularly if like me, you have a fear of drowning. No longer a detective, Lacey is now a police constable with the Metropolitan Police’s Marine Unit on the River Thames, living on a houseboat (actually a vintage sailing yacht) in Deptford Creek and wanting a quieter and safer life whilst trying to recover from the terrifying events of her last cases. Unlike me, Lacey loves swimming and is perfectly at home in water, so much so that she wild-swims in the Thames as often as tide and conditions allow, loving it so much that she feels she has become part of the river. But even she experiences the terror of being drawn down into the water ‘within a frantic gasp of drowning‘.

A Dark and Twisted Tide is a multi-layered book, told from different characters’ perspectives, complex and chilling as it weaves its way through murders, people trafficking, a mysterious character called ‘the swimmer’, more details about Lacey’s background and the ongoing saga of her relationship with Mark Joesbury. It’s a grim tale with a great sense of foreboding and mystery – a book I read far too quickly, making me think at some point I’ll read it again more slowly as I’m sure there’s a lot I missed. An excellent read for RIP X!

The Devil’s Promise by David Stuart Davies

The full title of this book is The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Promise.

From the back cover:

The discovery of a corpse on a deserted beach is just the first in a series of mysterious and terrifying events that threaten Sherlock Holmes. While investigating the death, Holmes and Watson attract unwanted attention from the strange inhabitants of the nearby village, and are viciously attacked. Watson wakes to discover that months have passed and his friend is not the man he remembers. What has transpired during those lost days? And is it connected to the notorious “Devil’s Companion” whose descendants live nearby?

A book for RIP X, and one I had high hopes of when I read the Foreword by Mark Gatiss – an English actor, comedian, screenwriter and novelist, writing for Doctor Who and the co-creator of Sherlock. He wrote:

I think that Sherlock Holmes is imperishable, a brilliant British icon – indeed a worldwide icon. He represents the best of us. He is as clever as we would all like to be. He is surprising, capricious, slightly dangerous, strangely elegant, dashing, Byronic and the best and wisest man any of us will ever know.

I believe he lasts because we all want to be Sherlock Holmes and we all want to believe there are people like Sherlock Holmes out there, instead of the universe being completely chaotic, which is actually the truth.

This fabulous character is the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle who, in my opinion, was a writer of genius. No wonder many of us wish to tread in his footsteps. Sherlock now lives in other people’s stories too, as he does in The Devil’s Promise, penned by the great Davies, whose Sherlock Holmes writings have brought me hours of pleasure.

Holmes and Watson are staying in an isolated cottage in Devon when they they find themselves caught up in a nightmare scenario of a puzzling surreal nature they cannot understand. After Holmes discovers the body on the beach weird images appear on the door of the cottage, they are attacked by villagers, and meet a brother and his strange sister who warns them to leave or they will be killed.

But I was a little disappointed; it began well but later became repetitive – the dead body disappears and reappears and Watson keeps getting into fights, being hit on the head and losing consciousness. It has elements of suspense, as Holmes is coerced to take part in a ceremony to raise the Devil. But I began to think it was all very predictable – maybe it’s the cynic in me but I found myself reading just to see how it ended and whether it was as predictable as I thought it was. And it was, apart from the very last three sentences.

The Ghosts of Altona by Craig Russell

Last week I quoted the opening paragraphs and the description of The Ghosts of Altona by Craig Russell, a novel, which won this year’s Bloody Scotland Crime Novel of the YearIt’s an outstanding book, one of the best I’ve read this year. I suppose it can be called a modern Gothic tale as well as being a crime thriller. Russell is a new author to me, but by no means is he a new author, The Ghosts of Altona being his 7th book featuring Jan Fabel, the head of Hamburg’s Murder Commission. However, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment that I’d jumped into the series right at the end. And in a way it didn’t matter at all as in the first chapter Jan has a near-death experience when he is shot by a suspected child killer, which has a profound effect on his life and the way he views death.

Two years later his first case as a detective is resurrected when the body of Monika Krone is found under a car park, fifteen years after she disappeared. The prime suspect at that time was Jochen Hubner, a serial rapist, christened ‘Frankenstein’ by the press because of his monstrous appearance, but there was no conclusive evidence to connect him to her disappearance. Monika, beautiful, intelligent and cruel had been the centre of a group of students obsessed with the Gothic. Then ‘Frankenstein’ escapes from prison and there are more murders which Fabel thinks are linked to the discovery of Monika’s remains, all of men who were in the same Gothic set at university.

There are many allusions to the Gothic tradition and symbolism, the killings being reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre tales, as well as philosophising on the nature of near-death experiences, Schrödinger’s cat, Cotard’s Delusion (in which sufferers believe themselves to be dead), and the intertwining of the hallucinogenic, the psychedelic, the spiritual and the macabre. All absolutely fascinating and incorporated seamlessly into the crime investigation so that I was turning the pages as fast as possible to get to the solution. It’s all very cleverly plotted, multi-layered and complex and I loved it.

As well as the story and the characters I loved the setting – Hamburg, a city I knew very little about before reading The Ghosts of Altona, the second largest city in Germany, a member of the medieval Hanseatic League. It’s a city of water with two lakes and the river Elbe running through it and it has more canals than Amsterdam and Venice combined. Altona, one of the city boroughs had been under Danish administration for over two centuries.

The Author

Born in Fife, Craig Russell served for several years as a police officer in Scotland, before becoming an advertising copywriter and later creative director. His Fabel novels were inspired by his long-standing interest in the language, culture and people of Germany. He has been translated into 23 languages, and his Lennox and Jan Fabel series have both been highly acclaimed. For more information see his website.

His Jan Fabel books (from Fantastic Fiction):


His  Lennox books

 

My Reading Challenges (although I didn’t read this book, or any book, specifically for any of the Reading Challenges I’m taking part in):

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I had little idea what to expect before I began reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel The Buried Giant, except,  that is, that I had enjoyed the other three books by him that I’ve read. They are The Remains of the Day, a brilliant book, a beautiful portrait of both personality and  social class, set in an England that no longer exists,  a story of hopeless and repressed love; Never Let Me Go, a love story that both shocked and horrified me; and Nocturnes a book of five short stories in which Ishiguro explores ideas of love, music and the passing of time, with a touch of nostalgia and a sense of loss for what has gone or what could have been.

I knew that there have been mixed reviews of The Buried Giant and was keen to see for myself what it is like. I loved it. It is different from his other books, but still has some of the same themes I loved in them –   the themes of love and the sense of a time long gone. It is also about the passing of time, old age, the fallibility of memory and much more besides, in particular ethnic conflict and the devastating effect of vengeance and hatred. It is set in Britain after the death of the legendary King Arthur, after the Romans have left, and the wars between Saxons and Britons have ceased. But it is a cursed land swathed in a mist of forgetfulness.

Attempting to remember their lives together, an elderly couple, Beatrice and Axl, leave their village setting out on a journey to visit their son, who they barely remember. They encounter many hazards, strange and other-worldly. They meet a boatman in a ruined Roman villa, who ferries people to an island. He is under a duty to question those who wish to cross and will only allow a couple to travel together if they can demonstrate their abiding love for each other. But Axl and Beatrice are haunted by a dread that because of their memory loss they would fail such a test, and be separated for ever. How can they prove their love for each other when they can’t remember the past they’ve shared?

There are ogres, deadly pixies,  evil monks who keep a dreadful beast underground, Saxons – Wistan, a warrior and a young boy, and Sir Gawain entrusted by King Arthur to slay Querig, a she-dragon roaming the land, who by her breath has spread the mist of forgetfulness.

It is also shocking, as it reveals the hatred that works within people to make them want to destroy others.  Wistan urges the young boy, Edwin to hate all Britons because it was Britons under Arthur who  had slaughtered the invading Saxons:

We’ve a duty to hate every man, woman and child of their blood. So promise me this. Should I fall before I pass to you my skills, promise me you’ll tend well this hatred within your heart. And should it ever flicker or threaten to die, shield it with care till the flame holds again. (page 264)

It is this hatred that still drives people to commit atrocities, bringing out the worst in human nature. Whilst the past is forgotten, Wistan realises that the old wounds can’t heal whilst ‘maggots linger so richly‘, nor can ‘peace hold for ever built on slaughter and a magician’s trickery‘.

It has elements of fantasy, myth and legend, of allegory and adventure and the perils of a quest. It is mysterious, beguiling and slippery, hard to pin down in parts and startlingly clear in others. From a somewhat slow start it gripped my imagination and made me think, trying to pin down just what was happening as the prose is clear and yet ambiguous, in the same way that the mist obscuring the past at times lifted and dispersed a little before returning. Beatrice and Axl are the dominant characters, and I found their confusion as they realise they have forgotten their past and their distress as they contemplate spending eternity apart deeply moving. It is extraordinary and mesmerising! I think it is a book I’ll have to re-read!

This may not be the usual book of ghostly, gothic or classic horror of the categories for the R.I.P. X challenge, but it is certainly a fantastic book full of peril, mystery and suspense.

Two Lacey Flint books by Sharon Bolton

I’ve recently read Dead Scared, Sharon Bolton’s  second Lacey Flint book and Like This, For Ever, the third book in the series:

Bolton bks

Synopses from Sharon Bolton’s website:

Dead Scared

Someone is watching you…

When a Cambridge university student dramatically attempts to take her own life, DI Mark Joesbury realizes that the university has developed an unhealthy record of young people committing suicide in extraordinary ways.

Despite huge personal misgivings, Joesbury sends young policewoman DC Lacey Flint to Cambridge with a brief to work undercover, posing as a vulnerable, depression-prone student.

Psychiatrist Evi Oliver is the only person in Cambridge who knows who Lacey really is – or so they both hope. But as the two women dig deeper into the darker side of university life, they discover a terrifying trend…

And when Lacey starts experiencing the same disturbing nightmares reported by the dead girls, she knows that she is next.

Like This, For Ever (published as Lost in the US)

Twelve-year-old Barney Roberts is obsessed with a series of murders. He knows the victims are all boys, just like him. He knows the bodies were found on river banks nearby. And he’s sure the killer will strike again soon. But there’s something else, a secret he’d rather not know, a secret he is too scared to share . . .  And who would believe a twelve-year-old boy anyway?

Like This, For Ever is a twisty, addictive, up-all-night thriller from a writer who loves nothing more than to play with your mind.

Two perfect books for the RIP Challenge. they are both totally absorbing murder mysteries – maybe Like This, for Ever is even better than Dead Scared. I did have an inkling quite early on who was pulling Lacey’s strings in Dead Scared, but I just didn’t know how it was being done – nightmares, hallucinations, bizarre suicides and vulnerable students. It is terrifying in parts.

With Like This, For Ever I had no idea until very near the end who the killer was. It’s so full of red herrings and twists (more than in Dead Secret) that I swung from believing it could be this person to that, or thinking it can’t possibly be that person, or I do hope it’s not that one. It was one of the people I thought maybe it’s that one, but I quickly dismissed that idea.

Both books are full of believable and individual characters, plus there is the ongoing story of Lacey, her boss Mark Joesbury and psychiatrist Evi Oliver. I’d love to read the next book in the series soon – A Dark and Twisted Tide.

I first read Sharon Bolton’s books when she was writing under the name SJ Bolton, and I wondered why the name change.  The answer is here in this post on her blog . It’s long, so I’ll summarise – ‘SJ Bolton’ was the name her publishers suggested in 2006 in the manner of PD James and JK Rowling and she went along with it, the thinking being that men don’t buy books by a woman author. But she doesn’t have a middle name and chose ‘J’, confusing for people who knew her personally , and then more SJs appeared on the book shelves and she felt lost in the crowd. There was also the issue around the name ‘Sharon’, a name that can conjure up images of Pauline Quirke slouching around Chigwell in a shell suit. So  she now writes as Sharon Bolton and I for one am glad she does – it’s less anonymous as well as being a much more memorable name.

As well as being perfect for the RIP challenge, Dead Scared is a book I’ve owned for a while and so qualifies for the Mount To Be Read Challenge.

The Robber Bride

It took me several days to read Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. It’s a intricately woven book, long and detailed. At times I thought it was too detailed and I just wanted to get on with the story. But overall I thought it was very good, and in parts excellent.

It begins with Zenia – and Zenia is dead. She died five years earlier and Tony, Roz and Charis went to her funeral. These three women all had cause to be thankful she was dead; Zenia, beautiful, smart and greedy, had deceived all three, wrecking their relationships, taking their money and self-esteem.  Although they met regularly they hadn’t talked about her since they’d buried her and their lives are turned upside down again when, lunching at the Toxique, Zenia walks back into their lives.

The rest of the book tells what had happened in each of their lives, told from each woman’s point of view and moving backwards and forwards in time – a bit confusing sometimes, you have to concentrate.  Tony, is a small woman, an academic specialising in military history, with a habit of pronouncing words backwards; Charis is described as ‘what Ophelia would have looked like if she’d lived‘, who thinks she has healing powers; and  Roz is a successful business woman, whose husband is a serial womaniser. Zenia, who never tells her story, is a consummate liar and presents a different version of herself to each of the three women and she remains a mystery and a dark malevolence throughout the book.

The Robber Bride is inspired by “The Robber Bridegroom,” a  tale from the Brothers Grimm in which an evil groom lures three maidens into his lair and devours them, one by one. But it’s much more than that – it’s about power and the struggle between good and evil. It’s also about women’s friendship, and about the relationship between men and women.

This is one of the books I’ve listed for the TBR Pile Challenge, so it also meets the criteria for the Mount TBR Challenge too – a book I’ve had on my shelves for several years now.

Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon by Jane Austen

Adam@Roof Beam Reader’s Austen in August event reminded me to read Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon.

Jane Austen has long been one of my favourite authors, ever since I read my mother’s copy of Pride and Prejudice  and since then I have re-read it several times and her other full length novels too. But I’ve never read Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon before. In fact it was only reading Carol Shields’ biography of Jane Austen quite some years ago now that I discovered that she had written these books, none of which were published in her lifetime. Lady Susan is a finished novella, whereas The Watsons and Sanditon are two unfinished fragments. Lady Susan and The Watsons were first published in 1871 by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh in his Memoir of Jane Austen, including an account of  Sanditon . The full text of Sanditon wasn’t published until 1925.

Lady Susan

According to Margaret Drabble’s introduction to my Penguin Classics edition there is some evidence that Lady Susan was probably written between 1793-4, when Jane Austen was about 20 years old. Drabble thinks this is the least satisfactory of the three stories, but I can’t agree with her view. I was completely taken with it.

Told in a series of letters, Lady Susan is the  story of an unscrupulous widow who plans to force her daughter into a marriage against her wishes. Lady Susan is an attractive and entertaining and totally wicked character, who nevertheless almost manages to fool people for some of the time at least. She is also trying to captivate her sister-in-law’s brother, whilst still holding on to the affections of a previous lover.

As I was reading Lady Susan it reminded of Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, not just because both are epistolary but also the content – manipulative and evil characters without any moral scruples, who delight in their power to seduce others. I wondered if it was possible that Jane Austen had known of this book. It was published in 1782, so it is possible that she knew of it, even if she had not actually read it.

To my mind Lady Susan is unique in Jane Austen’s works and I was delighted to read it. It’s written with style, confidence and humour convincingly illustrating 18th century morals and manners.

The Watsons

Jane Austen began writing this in 1804, her father died in 1805 and she never finished it. Its main character is Emma Watson who after fourteen years of absence returns to her father’s house after being brought up by a wealthy aunt. She had grown up in an affluent household and until her aunt had remarried she’d had expectations of an inheritance. She joins her three unmarried sisters, living with their invalid father  and looking for husbands whilst struggling for money. Mr Watson is a clergyman, so on his death they will lose their home. Maybe it was the parallel with Jane and Cassandra Austen’s own situation that caused Jane to abandon the novel when her own father died.

In some ways it is a little like Pride and Prejudice with its account of a ball and Emma Watson has a spirited nature similar to Elizabeth Bennet’s.  Women without money were often obliged to marry for money, but Emma doesn’t want to. Her sister Elizabeth points out that it is ‘very bad to grow old and be poor and laughed at‘, whereas Emma thinks she would ‘rather be a teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like.’

I liked The Watsons but with just this fragment to go off it is a bit basic and does seem rather similar to Pride and Prejudice. I wished she had finished it.

Sanditon

I thoroughly enjoyed Sanditon, even in its unfinished state. It’s the last fiction that Jane Austen wrote, beginning it in January 1817, the year she died. She was ill and the subject of health is one of its themes, but not in a serious or gloomy way. It has a lively, bright and humorous tone, with three of the characters being hypochondriacs, wonderfully satirised by Jane Austen.

The other theme is change in the form of the development of a seaside resort at Sanditon. It conveys the spirit of change of the times as  Sanditon is developed by two of the landowners, Mr Parker and Lady Denham from ‘a quiet village of no pretensions‘ into ‘a fashionable bathing place‘. The two of them, realising its potential of becoming profitable ‘had engaged in it, and planned and built, and praised and puffed, and raised it to a something of young renown – and Mr Parker could think of nothing else.

It extols the benefits of sea air and sea bathing, Lady Denham decries the need for a doctor saying it would only encourage the servants and the poor to imagine they were ill – and pronouncing that  if her husband had never seen a doctor he would still have been alive, ‘Ten fees, one after the other, did the man take who sent him out of the world. – I beseech you Mr Parker, no doctors here.

Sanditon contrasts the old world with the new upcoming world. Mr Parker has moved from his old comfortable family house set in a sheltered dip two miles from the sea to a new elegant house, which he has named Trafalgar House, not far from a cliff  from which there is a descent to the sea and the bathing machines. Granted it has all the ‘grandeur of storms’, which rocked their bed whilst the wind rages around the house.

There is so much more in these stories than I can write about here (this post is far too long anyway).  I shall enjoy re-reading them in the future. They are so different from each other, probably reflecting the different periods of her life when they were written. And I can’t decide between Lady Susan and Sanditon which one I like best.

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death, set in the Middle East was first published in 1938 after her final pre-war visit to the area. It seemed right to read this book straight after I’d finished reading Come, Tell Me How You Live in which Agatha Christie wrote about her life on archaeological expeditions in Syria with her husband Max Mallowan.

The novel begins in Jerusalem where the Boyton family are sightseeing. There are two stepsons, one is married, a daughter and a step daughter. Mrs Boynton is a malignant and malicious tyrant who enjoyed exercising her power over her family, who all hated and yet obeyed her. Dr Gerard, a French psychologist, also a tourist remarks that

… she rejoices in the infliction of pain – mental pain, mind you, not physical. That is very much rarer and very much more difficult to deal with. She likes to have control of other human beings and she likes to make them suffer.

The Boyntons and Dr Gerard travel on through the Judean desert to Petra. Also in the group are Jonathan Cope, a family friend, Sarah King, a newly qualified doctor, Lady Westholme, a member of Parliament and Miss Annabel Pierce, a former nursery governess. The beginning of the book is taken up with relating their journey to Petra and the complicated relationships between the characters. It comes to a climax when Mrs Boynton is found dead.

The remainder of the book covers the investigation into her death. Colonel Carbury is in charge and although it appears that Mrs Boynton, who suffered from heart trouble had died overcome by the heat and strain of travelling, he is not satisfied and he has an idea that the family killed her. He enlists the help of Hercule Poirot, who was also in Jerusalem at the same time as the Boyntons and had overheard part of a conversation, ‘You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed.’ He was sure he would recognise that voice again – and he did.

Poirot is his usual confident (arrogant) self, convinced he can solve the mystery and he does through questions, analysis and psychological reasoning. I didn’t work it out myself though.

This is a quick, easy read, with a lot of dialogue in a relatively short book (less than 200 pages). I enjoyed it, although it’s not one of my favourite Agatha Christie books.

I’m including it in Bev’s Color Coded Challenge as the main colour of the cover of my copy is brown. It’s one of the remaining few novels I have left to read for Kerrie’s Agatha Christie Reading Challenge.