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.

A Medal for Murder by Frances Brody

Last year I read and enjoyed Dying in the Wool, the first of Frances Brody’s series of historical crime fiction books set in 1920s Yorkshire and featuring Kate Shackleton. The second book, A Medal for Murder is even better and I was thoroughly immersed in the mystery.

A pawn shop robbery brings Kate and her assistant Jim Sykes, an ex-policeman,  their second case. It leads on to her discovery of a dead body, that of Lawrence Milner, outside a Harrogate theatre where Kate had been watching a production of a dramatisation of Arnold Bennett’s novel, Anna of the Five Towns. Then Captain Wolfendale, a Boer War veteran asks Kate to find his granddaughter, Lucy, who had starred in the play, as she has disappeared and he had received a ransom note. The murder  brings Kate into contact again with Inspector Marcus Charles of Scotland Yard (she had first met him in Dying in the Wool).

The book is told from the different characters’ perspective, but mainly from Kate’s, with flashbacks to the Boer War at the turn of the century. This is a detailed, complex plot which kept me guessing almost to the end about the identity of the murderer.  What is Captain Wolfendale hiding in his attic that he doesn’t want Kate to see? Just what is his relationship with Lawrence Milner who had also fought in the Boer War? How/is the pawn shop robbery connected to the murder? Will Lucy be rescued? And why doesn’t Dan Root, a watch maker, who also rents a room in the Captain’s house want to Kate to see inside his workroom?

There is so much going on in this book, and yet it was easy to read and each sub-plot fitted in so well with the main mystery that I didn’t get confused – I just couldn’t see who could have killed Milner. I had several suspects, all of whom turned out to be innocent of the crime. I liked the historical setting and the characters rang true. I’m left wondering whether Kate’s relationship with Inspector Charles will develop further, and whether she will ever hear what happened to her husband, reported missing in the 1914-18 War.

These are the books in the Kate Shackleton Mystery series:

1. Dying in the Wool (2009)
2. A Medal For Murder (2010)
3. Murder in the Afternoon (2011)
4. A Woman Unknown (2012)
5. Murder on a Summer’s Day (2013)
6. Death of an Avid Reader (2014)
7. A Death in the Dales (2015) to be published 1 October 2015

For more information about the author and her books see Frances Brody’s blog and website.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge, 10 Books of Summer, Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Come, Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan

Agatha Christie had visited the Middle East in 1929 travelling on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on to Damascus and Baghdad. She visited the excavations at Ur and returned there the following spring where she met archaeologist Max Mallowan – by the end of the summer they had decided to marry, which they did on 11 September 1930. 

Come Tell Me How You Live: an archaeological memoir is her answer to her friends’ questions about what life was like when she accompanied Max on his excavations in Syria and Iraq in the 1930s.

She began writing it before the Second World War and then laid it aside. After four years of the war she picked it up again, using her notes and diaries to complete this memoir, writing about her life with  Max Mallowan and his team excavating the ancient sites at Chagar Bazar, Tell Brak and other sites in the Habur and Jaghjagha region in what was then north western Syria. This map shows the area they were working in:

Syria 1930s

She wrote in the Epilogue  (written in 1944) that in remembering and recording that time it had been

… not a task, but a labour of love. Not an escape to something that was, but the bringing into the hard work and sorrow of today of something imperishable that one not only had but still has!

For I love that fertile country and its simple people, who know how to laugh and how to enjoy life, who are idle and gay, and who have dignity, good manners, and a great sense of humour, and to whom death is not terrible.

Inshallah, I shall go there again, and the things that I love shall not have perished from this earth.

With regard to her statement about death earlier in the book Agatha Christie had explained the difference between the Western and Oriental attitudes to life and death:

Accustomed as we are to our Western ideas of the importance of life, it is difficult to adjust our thoughts to a different scale of values. And yet to the Oriental mind it is simple enough. Death is bound to come – it is as inevitable as birth; whether it comes early or late is entirely at the will of Allah. And that belief, that acquiescence, does away with what has become the curse of our modern day world – anxiety. (page 96)

The emphasis in the book is on the everyday life on a dig and Agatha took an active part, helping to catalogue, label and clean the items they found as well as taking photographs and developing them. She also found time to spend on writing her books. So, although she gives a detailed account of how they worked, how they employed workmen for the excavations and servants who looked after Max and his team of archaeologists, there is not much about what they found.

Although she described the local people in her Epilogue as people, who know how to laugh and how to enjoy life, who are idle and gay, and who have dignity, good manners, and a great sense of humour, she also recorded their disputes:

Quarrelling is, in any case, almost continuous. All our workmen have hot tempers, and all carry with them the means of expressing themselves – large knives, bludgeons, and a kind of mace or knobkerry. Heads are cut open, and furious figures are entangled with each other in fierce struggles … page 86

And she also recorded this chilling statement:

We come to the question of religions generally – a very vexed question in this particular part of the world, for Syria is full of fiercely fanatical sects of all kinds, all willing to cut each other’s throats for the good cause! (page 166)

How sad and horrified she would be if she could see Syria today, but in the light of the extract above I don’t think she would have been too surprised! And sadly the places she loved are no longer the same. Here is her description of the shrine Sheikh ‘Ada near Mosul

There  can be, I think, no spot in the world so beautiful  or so peaceful. You wind far up into the hills through oak trees and pomegranites (sic), following a mountain stream. The air is fresh and clear and pure. …

And then suddenly, you come to the white spires of the Shrine. All is calm and gentle and peaceful there. Gentle-faced custodians bring you refreshments and you sit in perfect peace, sipping tea. (page 109)

Compare that with the description in The Guardian last August of the area as ‘hell on earth‘.

This book is written with love and humour – for example Agatha’s description of buying clothes for her visit to Syria because her last year’s summer clothes  are Shrunk, Faded and Peculiar – and too tight everywhere.  In the Foreword she stated that it is a book full of everyday doings and happenings with ‘no beautiful descriptions of scenery, no treating of economic problems, no racial reflections, no history.‘ I think she was under estimating her writing, because this little book has all that and more. I loved it.

A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel

A Change of Climate is one of Hilary Mantel’s early books, first published in 1994 and  described on the back cover as ‘a literary family saga’ and ‘a first rate thriller’.

I quoted from the beginning of this book in this post. I noted that at the end of the book there is an About the Author section, which I’d just glanced over. In answer to one of the interviewer’s questions about the theme of the book, Hilary Mantel replied that there is a central secret, an enormous destructive secret. I didn’t want to spoil the book for myself so I didn’t read any more of her answers. And I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else so I’m not saying what that secret is in this post.

The ‘enormous destructive secret‘ Hilary Mantel referred to is revealed just over halfway into the book. But the book abounds in secrets and it’s also about family, trust, disillusionment and tragedy, about bereavement and loss of faith, as one character observes, ‘faith is something people chase after, simply to give life meaning‘.

Hilary Mantel writes a compelling story, subtly mixing the past and the present, moving seamlessly between the Eldred family’s current life (in the 1980s) in Norfolk, with their earlier life in Africa in the 1950s. I like her writing very much, never drawing attention to its style and drawing me in effortlessly into both time frames and places.

It’s a family saga (most definitely not an Aga Saga) about Ralph and Anna Eldred, their four children and Ralph’s sister Emma. Ralph and Anna devote their lives to charity, filling their house with ‘Visitors’, described as either ‘Good Souls’ or ‘ Sad Cases’. Just after they were married Ralph and Anna went to South Africa as missionaries and under the system of apartheid there they ran up against the authorities, then moved to Beuchuanaland (Botswana) where a terrible and horrific event occurred and they returned to England.  However, their memories of these traumatic events refused to remain buried, eventually bringing their lives and those of their children into terrible turmoil.

There are many issues raised in this book – chief among them the struggle between good and evil. Ralph thinks:

If we are not to be mere animals, or babies, we must always choose, and choose to do good. In choosing evil we collude with the principal of decay, we become mere vehicles of chaos, we become subject to the laws of a universe which tends back towards dissolution, the universe the devil owns. In choosing to do good we show we have free will, that we are God-designed creatures who stand against all such laws.

So I will be good, Ralph thought. That is all I have to do. (page 235)

But he discovered that it’s not that simple, as the rest of the book goes on to relate. Ralph and Anna can’t escape their past, Anna in particular cannot come to terms with what happened. The book explores questions about forgiveness and tragedy, as well as how to cope with grief.

Hilary Mantel states in the About the Author section that she found it the most difficult of her books to write – the secret just resisted being told:

I found that I was going round and round the point, yet I couldn’t put it on the page. I remember really struggling with it; it was like a wild animal that had to be civilised somehow, and in the end I just wrestled it on to the page by saying to myself, ‘Look, you’ve done this before and you can do it again’. Writing this book stands out as one of the most difficult times of my writing life.

A great book on all counts, characters and locations beautifully described and a well constructed and convincing plot, powerful and challenging on several levels.

The Remorseful Day by Colin Dexter

Chief Inspector Morse is one of my favourite fictional detectives (maybe even the favourite). I first ‘met’ him years ago in the ITV series Inspector Morse and so, just as Joan Hickson is forever in my mind as Miss Marple and David Suchet is Poirot, John Thaw is Morse. The series was first broadcast in 1987, but I don’t intend to write about the books versus the TV adaptations – I’ve enjoyed both. This post is just about the last book in the series – The Remorseful Day.

I’ve delayed reading this for so long (I watched the TV version when it was first broadcast, which was 15 years ago!) because it’s the last of the Morse books and sadly the end of Morse too. So if you’ve not read any of the Morse books I suggest that you don’t start with this one.

Needless to say that I loved it. The plot is detailed, complex and as usual with Morse a puzzle type murder mystery with plenty of challenging clues. Sergeant Lewis is left to investigate the murder of nurse Yvonne Harrison that had remained unsolved for a year – Morse initially refused to work on the case, despite Chief Superintendent Strange’s wishes. Sergeant Lewis is concerned as this looks just the sort of puzzle Morse excels in solving … and Morse’s behaviour has been worrying Lewis recently.  Lewis can’t believe that Morse could have a personal reason to keep out of the investigation. And when Morse phones to say he is feeling unwell Lewis is most concerned – Morse seldom mentioned his health, what is wrong with him?

The plot is complex, but the real focus of the book is on Morse and how he copes with his illness and his drinking habits and it becomes obvious just how alone he is in the world and how devastating his situation is to Lewis. The novel also reveals more about Strange’s character and also about his understanding of Morse. I found it both a most satisfying book and a very sad one.

There are only 13 Morse books. The links are to my posts on the books – I read some before I began to write this blog and I’m hoping to re-read those in due course.

  1. Last Bus to Woodstock (1975)
  2. Last Seen Wearing (1976)
  3. The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1977)
  4. Service of All the Dead (1979)
  5. The Dead of Jericho (1981)
  6. The Riddle of the Third Mile (1983)
  7. The Secret of Annexe 3 (1986)
  8. The Wench is Dead (1989)
  9. The Jewel That Was Ours (1991)
  10. The Way Through the Woods (1992)
  11. The Daughters of Cain (1994)
  12. Death is Now My Neighbour (1996)
  13. The Remorseful Day (1999)

As The Remorseful Day has sat unread on my shelves for so long it obviously qualifies for the Mount TBR Challenge 2015. I also included it as one of My 10 Books of Summer, which brings my total to 5.

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

Although I read a lot of crime fiction my knowledge of the authors and their books written during the ‘Golden Age’ so far has been limited to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Michael Innes so when I saw that Martin Edwards had written The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story I thought it would be the ideal book to find out more. And I was absolutely right and the works of a whole host of authors has been opened up to me.

This is the story of the writers who formed the Detection Club between the two World Wars. Edwards sets the authors and their works in context – that period when Britain was recovering from the horrors of the First World War, living through an age of austerity as unemployment grew, the cost of living soared leading to the General Strike whilst the rich partied and saw the beginnings of the end of the British Empire. But the writers and the works although well grounded in their own time and culture have a lasting appeal and influence on current story telling and film and television.

The Club grew out of the dinners Anthony Berkeley and his wife Peggy hosted at their home in the late 1920s, attended by people including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Douglas and Margaret Cole, Ronald Knox, Henry Wade, H C Bailey and John Rhode. Eventually the Club was formed, with Rules and a Constitution and a Committee. The members benefited in various ways, meeting fellow detective novelists, discussing ideas, supporting each other and even working together on collaborative writing projects – such as The Floating Admiral, in which a dozen writers each wrote one chapter. The main aim of the Club was to encourage and maintain a high standard of work in writing detective novels.

I was fascinated by the number of real crimes that influenced the writers, both current at the time and crimes from the past. Their interest as they discussed these cases, such as Dr Crippen’s poisoning of his wife, in turn inspired them not only to write but also to play the detective themselves. Indeed, Edwards shows that the image of the Golden Age as ‘cosy’ murder mysteries is false:

Their novels are often sneered at as ‘cosy’, and the claim that their characters were made from cardboard has become a lazy critical cliché. The very idea that detective fiction between the wars represented a ‘Golden Age’ seems like a misty-eyed nostalgia of an aged romantic hankering after a past that never existed.

The best detective novels of the Thirties

were exhilarating, innovative and unforgettable. They explored miscarriages of justice, forensic pathology and serial killings long before these topics became fashionable (and before the term’serial killer’ was invented). …

The climax of one of Berkeley’s novels was so shocking that when Alfred Hitchcock came to film it, even the legendary master of suspense, the man who would direct Psycho, lost his nerve. He substituted a final scene that was a feeble cop-out in comparison to Berkeley’s dark and horrific vision. (page 9)

There is no way I can do justice to this book in a short post; it is simply a tour de force, comprehensive, crammed full of fascinating information about the period and the authors.

Martin Edwards’ love of Golden Age fiction shines throughout the book, (skilfully writing about books without giving away any spoilers) and has spurred me on to read more books from this period.

Zen There Was Murder by H. R. F. Keating

I don’t think I’ve read anything like Zen There Was Murder, a mixture of Zen Buddhism and murder. It was the second book H R F Keating wrote, first published in 1960 and then published in 1963 by Penguin Books in their green Penguin Crime series. (This cover is much more appropriate than the Bloomsbury Reader e-book cover showing guns)

It was the Zen Buddhist setting that made it difficult for me to get to grips with the murder. In fact it is practically halfway into the book before the murder actually takes place. The first half is taken up with introducing the characters, gathered together for a course on Zen Buddhism.  There is a schoolteacher, Alasdair Stuart, a clergyman, the Rev. Cyprian Applecheek, Miss Olive Rohan, Miss Flaveen Mills, Honor Brentt, a jounalist and her husband, Gerry Manvers, and Jim Henderson, an Irishman from Ulster.

None of them know anything about Zen and much time is spent with them trying to understand what it is. Mr Utamaro, the lecturer comes out with various sentences, such as ‘Books about Zen are legs on a snake‘, saying you cannot understand Zen by reading a book about it and applying the principles of logic to what you read, and tweaking Alasdair’s nose saying, ‘this is Zen‘, as well as using koans, such as ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?‘ But they fail to understand, saying it is nonsense. Mr Utamaro agrees.

Mr Utamaro shows them a sword, locked in a glass showcase. The sword, a wakizashi, is one of pair used by samurai for hari-kiri, and on the evening of the first day Mr Utamaro discovers that the sword has been taken from the case, leaving it intact and without setting off the alarm. And then Flaveen is found dead, the sword driven into her body up to the hilt.

The clue to discovering the identity of the murderer is in solving who is telling lies  and why.  For most of the time I was completely bamboozled and kept wondering just how the two German girls employed to make the beds and do the cooking fitted into the mystery. Their conversations regularly interrupt the narrative as they comment on the characters and the events taking place.

All in all this book has a surreal feel about it. It’s not just a puzzle type of murder mystery but as Keating explained in an interview with Dale Salwek in Mystery Voices: Interviews with British Crime Writers it is also making a point about something you believed:

And the thing I believed in, one of the things that bugged me most, was the subject of telling lies, which is fine for a detective story. And that was how I came to write my second, Zen There Was Murder, which is really more about telling lies than about Zen.

When writing the second book, I thought I could say something about telling lies. At that time, too, Zen Buddhism was a fad over here, and so for the background of the book, I took Zen, which does reflect very much on lies. I found I could say things about lies by giving each of the characters a different viewpoint on telling lies – ranging from one of those people who absolutely objects to lying in any way to the sort of pathological liar. And I made the whole book turn on that. (pages 64-65)

H R F Keating (1926 – 2011) was chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) (1970–71), chairman of the Society of Authors (1983–84) and president of the Detection Club (1985–2000). He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.  His most famous novels are the Inspector Ghote books (I have just one on my TBR shelves – Inspector Ghote’s Good Crusade, the second in the series).  For more information about Keating see this article by Martin Edwards.

I’ve had this book for about three years, so it qualifies for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2015 and it is also one of the books I listed for the 10 Books of Summer Challenge, and the TBR Pile Challenge.

The Outcast by Sadie Jones: Book and TV

The Outcast

As I wrote earlier The Outcast by Sadie Jones is a book that has sat unread on my shelves for seven years until I noticed that it was being broadcast as a TV drama. I read half the book before the first episode and finished it before the second episode was broadcast.

First of all the blurb from Goodreads:

1957, and Lewis Aldridge is travelling back to his home in the South of England. He is straight out of jail and nineteen years old. His return will trigger the implosion not just of his family, but of a whole community. A decade earlier, his father’s homecoming casts a different shape. The war is over and Gilbert has recently been demobbed. He reverts easily to suburban life – cocktails at six thirty, church on Sundays – but his wife and young son resist the stuffy routine. Lewis and his mother escape to the woods for picnics, just as they did in wartime days. Nobody is surprised that Gilbert’s wife counters convention, but they are all shocked when, after one of their jaunts, Lewis comes back without her. Not far away, Kit Carmichael keeps watch. She has always understood more than most, not least from what she has been dealt by her own father’s hand. Lewis’s grief and burgeoning rage are all too plain, and Kit makes a private vow to help. But in her attempts to set them both free, she fails to predict the painful and horrifying secrets that must first be forced into the open. As menacing as it is beautiful, The Outcast is a devastating portrait of small-town hypocrisy from an astonishing new voice.

The TV adaptation, also written by Sadie Jones is faithful to the book, so for once I could enjoy them both – although maybe enjoy isn’t quite the right word. The TV drama is, of course a condensed version and whilst the cast was good the characters didn’t, of course, match up to my mental image of them whilst reading the book. I thought the boy (Finn Elliot) playing the young Lewis was excellent, whereas the adult Lewis (George MacKay) just didn’t seem to be right physically in episode one. However, he was much more convincing in the second episode. Overall, the themes of the book and the drama are relentlessly depressing, in post-war Britain, the men all maintaining a stiff upper lip, emotions securely repressed. Lewis witnessing his mother’s drowning is unable to express his grief and things just go from bad to worse as he resorts to self-harm.

Meanwhile, the Carmichael family, not fully portrayed in episode one, have a secret, again closely guarded in a world where child abuse is just not acknowledged. In episode two the secret comes out in a dramatic scene, which I thought was really well done. Nathaniel Parker as Dicky Carmichael made a terrifying bully and Jessica Barden as the teenager, Kit was impressive.

The book is written in the passive 3rd person narrative, which I wasn’t keen on. I didn’t like most of the characters, I didn’t like what happened to them and I’m not sure the ending is believable – it left me wondering what really happened next. But the descriptive passages are good, the characters of Lewis and Kit are well-defined, emotions are racked up high and it is truly tragic.

I’m glad I read the book before watching the drama – and I’m glad I watched it, the scenery is beautiful and the repressed and yet emotional atmosphere came over better than in the book.  I did have to watch behind my fingers at some scenes, which I was able to read without visualising them completely, but when it’s there in front of you on the screen it’s not so easy to cast a blind eye. Although you get an insight into Lewis’ mind and feelings when you read a description of him cutting his arm, it’s not as real as seeing it happen.

So, a powerful story, which compelled me to read on and also to watch. This was Sadie Jones’ debut novel. She has since written Small Wars (2009), The Uninvited Guests (2012) and Fallout (2014). I have Small Wars amongst my TBRs – I must dig that one out soon.

Reading challenges: Mount TBR 2015 and the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2015.

The Day of the Lie by William Brodrick

William Brodrick’s books are meaty, books that make me think. Nothing is straight forward, they’re layered books, delving into the past, uncovering secrets and revealing crimes. They are well researched, bringing the past to life.

In The Day of the Lie (the 4th Father Anselm book) the past in question is post Second World War Poland, covering  the early 1950s, the early 1980s and the present day.

Blurb from the back cover of my paperback copy:

In present day Cambridge, Father Anselm receives a visit from an old friend with a dangerous story to tell – the story of a woman in Eastern Europe in the icy grip of the Cold War. She was brave, brilliant … and betrayed by someone close to her – someone still unknown. What became of this woman and the dark secret she kept?

No one can be trusted. Nothing is as it seems. Before more blood is spilt, Anselm must peel back years of history, decades of secrets and a half-century of lies in order to expose a secret so shocking that some would rather die than see it revealed.

Father Anselm’s old friend John has asked him to investigate who had betrayed  Roza Mojeska. She had been part of an underground resistance movement, had been arrested and tortured by the secret police, in particular by Otto Brack, in order to uncover the identity of the Shoemaker, the author of a dissident newspaper, Freedom and Independence.

Never explicitly graphic, Brodrick conveys the horror of the torture chamber and as Anselm’s Prior warns him he had to enter ‘the world of Otto Brack, this frightening man who learned how to bring about evil by exploiting someone who is good, laying – in part – the evil at their door.‘ (page 75-6) It’s a world where ‘twisted people lead twisted lives and the roads they build around them are never straight and true.’

My knowledge of the period is limited, so I found the historical setting quite difficult to follow, as the narrative switches between the time periods, but once I had sorted out the relationships between the characters (or I thought I had) it became clearer. But there is also the problem of working out who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’, just who is telling the truth, whose recollection of the past is ‘correct’? I thought I knew, but then there was a shift and I wasn’t sure right up to the end of the book.

Looking back on the book now (I finished reading it over a week ago) I can say I did enjoy it, but it was hard work in parts.

William Brodrick became a barrister, having been an Augustinian monk for six years (the other way round from his fictional character, Father Anselm). After 10 years at the Bar, his interest in writing led him to writing the Father Anselm books.

The Father Anselm books (with links to my posts) are:

  1. The Sixth Lamentation (2003)
  2. The Gardens of the Dead (2006)
  3. A Whispered Name (2008) – the best one in my opinion
  4. The Day of the Lie (2012)
  5. The Discourtesy of Death (2013)

And the latest book has just been published:

The Silent Ones by William Brodrick published 2 July 2015.

The Day of the Lie fits into the Mount TBR Challenge and is also a book I identified as one for the 10 Books of Summer Challenge.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

This is a book that really captured my imagination. I loved everything about it – the descriptive passages, the mystery, the secrets and the people involved. It was all real to me. It’s one of the best books, if not the best book, I’ve read this year.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton has been sitting unread for two years on my bookshelves, but if I’d read it earlier I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of reading it now – it was well worth the wait!

It begins on a summer’s day in 1961 in Suffolk when sixteen-year old Laurel is shocked when she sees her mother stabbing a stranger who had come to their farm. Fast forward 50 years Laurel and her three sisters and brother are coming to terms with the fact that their mother, Dorothy is moving closer to the end of her life. Laurel realises that there is so much she doesn’t know about Dorothy’s life and when they find a photograph of Dorothy and a friend, Vivien, in a book of the play Peter Pan, it arouses old and ugly memories for Laurel – images of her mother’s frightened face as she confronted the stranger. Who was Vivien and who was the stranger? Why was Dorothy so scared? Laurel is determined to find out.

It’s a story moving between time periods from 2011, back to the 1960s and also to the 1940s when Dorothy first met and fell in love with Jimmy, a war photographer, and also became friends with the wealthy and beautiful Vivien, married to a successful novelist.  Laurel, with the help of her brother, Gerry, tracks down records throwing light on Dorothy’s and Vivian’s past, back to war-time England and pre-war Australia.

It’s not a straight forward story. By that I don’t mean it’s difficult to read, because each time period is clearly headed and the characters are clearly defined. But there are so many twists and turns – I thought several times I’d got things clear and knew where the story was heading only a bit later on to realise that not all the clues had been revealed and I had to revise my thoughts. It’s so cleverly written and so well plotted that it was only near the end that I had an inkling of Dorothy’s relationship with Vivien and what had really happened to them all. It really is a book I didn’t want to put down and also a book I wanted to enjoy as long as possible. By the end, though, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough!

Kate Morton’s next book, The Lake House is due to be published in October 2015. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Note: as well as being my 17th book for the Mount TBR Challenge 2015 this is my 3rd book for the TBR Pile Challenge 2015. And the 9th book for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2015.

A Game For All the Family by Sophie Hannah

I’ve recently finished reading A Game For All the Family by Sophie Hannah, a standalone book, described as ‘ a literary puzzle to unlock the dark side of the mind.’

Publishers’ blurb:

Justine thought she knew who she was, until an anonymous caller seemed to know better…

After escaping London and a career that nearly destroyed her, Justine plans to spend her days doing as little as possible in her beautiful home in Devon.

But soon after the move, her daughter Ellen starts to withdraw when her new best friend, George, is unfairly expelled from school. Justine begs the head teacher to reconsider, only to be told that nobody’s been expelled – there is, and was, no George.

Then the anonymous calls start: a stranger, making threats that suggest she and Justine share a traumatic past and a guilty secret – yet Justine doesn’t recognise her voice. When the caller starts to talk about three graves – two big and one small, to fit a child – Justine fears for her family’s safety.

If the police can’t help, she’ll have to eliminate the danger herself, but first she must work out who she’s supposed to be…

Practically from the start I had my doubts about Justine. Was she an unreliable narrator? Could I believe her story, told in the third person but revealing what was going through her mind? Or was her daughter Ellen right when she told her mother that she was a ‘nutter‘? That sense of distrust pervaded my reading. Obviously something had happened to make Justine give up her job in TV drama production and want to ‘do Nothing’, something traumatic and life-changing – had it affected her mental stability or had it happened because she was mentally unstable? I couldn’t decide.

What I can say is that it’s a book about the truth – just who is telling the truth, just who is who they purport to be, and most of all about identity. Who is real, who is making it all up (well Sophie Hannah, obviously).

It is described as a ‘chilling ‘ novel, but I didn’t find it spine tingling, or scary, because it came over to me as artificial, and contrived. It’s also long-winded and mostly completely unbelievable, which made it lose any sense of tension or suspense. But it is a cleverly complicated plot, with stories within stories, – it’s just not chilling.

As well as the anonymous threatening phone calls, and the head teacher’s denial that George had not been expelled and indeed her insistence that he had never even been at the school, Justine is also puzzled by the story that Ellen is writing for her creative writing homework – a story set in their house about a strange family who had lived there in the past and a murder that had taken place there. Where did Ellen get this story, is it based on fact? Ellen simply won’t tell her. Are the phone calls connected to this story and to George?

Maybe it’s too complicated, because at times I just wished the endless questions that went through Justine’s mind would come to an end. They did of course and by the time I did get to the end I still couldn’t decide whether Ellen was right – is Justine a nutter and as I suspect an unreliable narrator, or not?

I didn’t love this book, but it certainly filled my mind and made me think both whilst I was reading it and for days afterwards – and I like that about a book. If Justine is a reliable narrator and was telling the truth all along then she is still a nutter, because if what she described actually happened at the end of the story it was terrible and she was mentally ill and in that case, definitely a chilling ending. I just can’t decide! It is an extraordinary and weird book.

My thanks to Lovereading for sending me an uncorrected proof copy of this book that has had me puzzling for days. A Game For All the Family is due to be published on 13 August 2015 by Hodder & Stoughton.

Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie

Sad Cypress, first published in 1940, is a most satisfying mystery, in which Hercule Poirot discovers that almost everyone he talks to is lying. Only the doctor, Peter Lord, believes that Elinor Carlisle did not kill Mary Gerrard, her rival in love, despite the fact that it seems that only Elinor had the motive, the opportunity and the means to poison Mary with morphine hydrochloride. Peter, who is in love with Elinor, appeals to Poirot to prove that she is innocent.

Sad Cypress has a clever and most complicated plot, as is usual in an Agatha Christie book, and it kept me guessing right to the end. Her portrayal of Elinor is excellent – on the surface a calm, almost detached character underneath she is in turmoil, full of repressed passion and unrequited love as it becomes obvious to her that Roddy, her fiancé does not in fact love her and this leads her into actions that seem to point to her guilt.

Then there are the social and cultural themes that always interest me in Agatha Christie’s books. There is the clear distinction between the classes, knowing one’s place in society shown in the relationships between Elinor and Mary, and the almost comic depiction of the two nurses, Nurse O’Brien and Nurse Hopkins, with their gossip over cups of tea. Other themes are the nature of love, and the basis for a happy marriage, the damage caused by family secrets, the ethics of euthanasia, and the difference between thinking about murder and actually committing murder.

This book, if not the best of Agatha Christie’s books, is easily one of my favourites.  I quoted the opening paragraph of Sad Cypress in My Friday Post earlier this month.

The cover photo shown above is my own copy. Details of the latest edition are:

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins (21 May 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0008129576
  • ISBN-13: 978-0008129576

This is the first of my books for the 10 Books of Summer 2015 Challenge.

The Stranger You Know by Jane Casey

For once I’m reading a series in the order it was published -Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan books – which is just as well as each one reveals facts from the earlier books. it also means that I can follow the characters as they develop and their changing relationships instead of trying to work out what had happened before.

The Stranger You Know is the fourth Maeve Kerrigan book and it’s just as fast-paced and compelling reading as the earlier books – so tightly plotted that I just had to keep on reading to get to the end of the book.

Three women have been murdered in their own homes – strangled and mutilated. There were no signs of a break-in – the women had obviously known and trusted their killer. One of the officers investigating the case voices the unthinkable – there are no leads, no DNA, no CCTV, no parking tickets, ‘it’s like he’s one of us‘. Suspicion lands on Maeve’s boss, DI Josh Derwent, who it turns out had been accused of murder as a teenager. His girlfriend, Angela Poole had been murdered in much the same way as the current victims and he had been the prime suspect.

The focus is squarely on Derwent in this book and he is kept off the investigating team, leaving Maeve to work closely with Chief Superintendent Charles Godley and DCI Una Burt – who hates Derwent. But Maeve cannot believe he could be a killer and disobeys orders not to let him see the evidence. And as Maeve’s boyfriend, Rob is away in America, training with the FBI, the focus is also on the relationship between Josh and Maeve – her loyalty to him as she interviews the people involved in Angela’s murder – Josh’s friends and the police inspector in charge of the case.

It is such a complicated plot and I kept changing my mind about the killer – was it Josh (surely not), was it Angela’s brother or one of the other teenage friends, or were the current murders the result of a copy cat  killer?

I like Maeve, although I do wonder why she is still a DC as she is so good at her job, ferreting out information from the slenderest of clues.  I like Derwent, despite his difficult personality – the spiky relationship between the two of them provides such much needed comic relief in the book. There is a secret in his background that we, the readers, now know along with Maeve – and I’m wondering how long it will be until she tells him, although if he looks on Facebook as she did he’d soon find out. I hope he does – I’d love to see his reaction.

It all comes to a dramatic and thrilling climax as Maeve, once again, comes face to face with the killer – and I’d had a sneaking feeling quite early one who it was, but had dismissed the possibility.

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Ebury Press (Fiction) (7 Nov. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0091948363
  • ISBN-13: 978-0091948368
  • Source: library book

I’m currently reading the next book, The Kill and the sixth book, After the Fire is due to be published on the 18 June.

Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves

I first ‘met’ Vera Stanhope in the TV dramatisations of Ann Cleeves’ novels, which I enjoyed. But once I began reading Ann Cleeves’ books I discovered that they are even better than the TV versions! The latest one I’ve read is Harbour Street, the sixth book in the Vera series – it’s fantastic. If you’ve watched On Harbour Street, the TV adaptation broadcast last year, you’ll find that it didn’t strictly follow the book much at all – and you won’t know who the murderer is – it’s a different person in the book!

Harbour Street

This is what I wrote last year about The Glass Room, the fifth Vera book and my thoughts about Harbour Street are just the same:

It’s going to be a contender for my best book of the year, because I loved it. It has everything I like in a crime fiction novel – setting, characters and a cleverly constructed plot. I didn’t guess who the murderer was but realised afterwards that all the clues had been there, skilfully woven into the narrative, hidden among the dead-ends and red herrings, so that I’d read on without realising their significance.

It’s ten days before Christmas, the Newcastle Metro is packed with shoppers, babies screaming, office workers merry after pre-Christmas parties, teenagers kissing. But when the  train has to stop because of the snow they all pile off the train – except for one old lady, Margaret Krukowski, who was fatally stabbed. No one saw the murder take place even though, or maybe because the train was packed with people, including Detective Joe Ashworth travelling home with his daughter, Jessie, from carol singing in Newcastle Cathedral.

Margaret had lived in a guest house on Harbour Street in Mardle, a coastal town in South Northumberland and it is here that Vera concentrates their investigation with the occupants of the guest house, the Coble, the pub opposite and the Haven, a hostel for homeless women, where Margaret had been a volunteer. It soon becomes obvious that Margaret was a woman with many secrets in her past – stemming from 1970 when her Polish husband Pawel Krukowski had left her.  Then a second murder occurs and an earlier crime comes to light – but who is the killer?

Ann Cleeves is a superb storyteller. Her descriptions get right inside my brain; she has the skill to make the scenes materialise,  in front of my eyes, and not because I’ve seen the TV adaptation which was filmed at a different time of year and in a different place from the location of Mardle in the book. Her characters are fully formed with emotions and feelings, backgrounds and complicated relationships, just as in real life, with all the sights, sounds, sensations and smells. Her dialogue is authentic, never awkward and you are never left wondering who is talking. Her books are deceptively easy to read,  moving swiftly along as the tension rises. They are layered, cleverly plotted and above all convincing. As in her other books I had several suspects in mind but hadn’t realised just how much wool had been pulled over my eyes until Margaret’s killer was revealed.

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Pan; Reprints edition (31 July 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1447202090
  • ISBN-13: 978-1447202097
  • Source: my local library

Poirot and Me by David Suchet and Geoffrey Wansell

Prologue

It is a damp, chill Friday morning in November and I am feeling old, very old; so old, indeed, that I am on the brink of death. I have lost two stone in weight, my face is the colour of aged parchment, and my hands are gnarled  like human claws.

I must have watched nearly all, if not all, of David Suchet’s performances as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. For me he was the perfect Poirot, so it was a given that I would read his autobiography, Poirot and Me, written with the help of his friend Geoffrey Wansell. And it really lives up to its title, as the main subject is David Suchet’s role as Poirot. His first performance as Poirot was in 1988. Over the intervening twenty five years he played the part in every one of the seventy Poirot stories that Agatha Christie wrote, with the exception of a tiny short story called The Lemesurier Inheritance (a story in Poirot’s Early Cases and in The Under Dog).

When I started watching the TV dramas it had been years since I’d read any of Agatha Christie’s books and I wasn’t aware that the early shows were based on her short stories – actually I didn’t even know then that she had written any short stories at all. I’ve read nearly all of her full length novels, but only a few of her short stories so far.

I think Poirot and Me may not appeal to people who are not readers of Agatha Christie’s books as it consists largely of Suchet’s summaries of the stories and how he went about analysing Poirot’s character and how he played the part. He began by compiling a list of Poirot’s characteristics, then considering his voice and his appearance. He made 92 ‘character points’ and his original list is reproduced in the book, along with photos of locations, the cast and crew.

He was most concerned that his portrayal of Poirot should be faithful to the character that Agatha Christie had created. He immersed himself so completely in the character that at times he didn’t know where Poirot ended and he began! Even so, some of the dramatisations are not strictly faithful to the original stories, for various reasons; additional characters are included and some of the plots are expanded versions, especially where the original short stories were slight. Or, for example, as in the case of the collection of short stories that make up The Twelve Labours of Hercules, the stories are so diverse that the screenwriter created an almost entirely new story, though using some of the characters.

At the end of each of the Poirot series, David Suchet didn’t know if any more were in the pipeline and he continued to play other parts in film,  on TV and on the stage. I found this just as interesting as the sections on his role as Poirot and it emphasises his qualities as an actor –  he is a ‘character’ actor, a Shakespearean actor and with the exception of Poirot his roles have been pretty dark and menacing parts. I particularly remember him in Blott on the Landscape, in which he played the malevolent gardener and in The Way We Live Now as the sinister financier Melmotte.

He thinks the charm of the Poirot stories is that

… they reveal a world where manners and morals are quite different from today. There are no overt or unnecessary sex scenes, no alcoholic, haunted detectives in Poirot’s world. He lives in a simpler, some would say more human, era; a lost England, seen through the admiring eyes of this foreigner, this little Belgian detective. For me, that makes the stories all the more appealing, for although the days he lives in seem far away, they are all the more enchanting because of it. (page 64 in the hardback edition)

I think so too – and I think the same charm and appeal can be found in the Miss Marple stories.

David Suchet wrote that when Hercule Poirot died on that late November afternoon in 2012 (as he filmed Curtain) a part of him died, but for me and doubtless for many others, Poirot lives on not just in Agatha Christie’s stories but also in David Suchet’s wonderful performances as his ‘cher ami‘, Hercule Poirot.

  • Hardcover: 320 pages (also available in paperback and on Kindle)
  • Publisher: Headline; 1st edition (7 Nov. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0755364198
  • ISBN-13: 978-0755364190
  • Source: my local library

Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

I read Nothing To be Frightened Of over several weeks, reading short sections at a time. This book is described on the back cover by Penelope Lively as:

A maverick form of family memoir that is mainly an extended reflection on the fear of death and on that great consolation, religious belief … it is entertaining, intriguing, absorbing … an inventive and invigorating slant on what is nowadays called “life writing”.

It is a collection of thoughts centred around Barnes’s fear of death and so inevitably he considers the question of religion and especially God – in fact he begins his book with this statement: I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.

Later, he writes, Missing God is rather like Being English, a feeling aroused mainly by attack. When my country is abused, a dormant, if not to say narcoleptic, patriotism stirs. And when it comes to God, I find myself more provoked by atheistic absolutism than by, say, the often bland, tentative hopefulness of the Church of England. (page 77)

His agnosticism doesn’t help him with his fear of dying, but then, again, he thinks that faith does not necessarily remove the fear of death anyway – there are those who fear death among those who have faith as well as among the irreligious.

But this is more than a book about dying because interwoven with his thoughts about his agnosticism and death are anecdotes about his family and himself, thoughts on literature (particularly French literature) and it’s relationship to life. I found it all fascinating,  but it’s his autobiographical passages that I found the most interesting, sharing details about his family’s beliefs and the deaths of his parents and grandparents, of the rivalry between him and his brother, his mother’s solipsism and manipulative behaviour, his father’s seemingly passive approach to life and the difficulties of really knowing a person.

He states that it is easier with fiction than with life – fictional characters are easier to see, whereas in real life ‘the better you know someone , the less well often you see them. … They may be so close as to be out of focus … Often when we talk about someone very familiar, we are referring back to the time when we first properly saw them, when they were held in the most useful -and flattering light – light at the correct focal distance.’ (page 157)

He and his brother have different memories of their parents and grandparents and of their own early relationship, which shows how unreliable memory can be. I suppose I agree more with his brother, the philosopher Jonathan Barnes, who thinks that memories are often false and not to be trusted without external support, rather than Julian, who says he is more trusting, or self deluding, so shall continue as all my memories are true.

This is by no means a gloomy, pessimistic book.  It’s written in an informal tone, almost as though he is talking to the reader, and not being divided into chapters adds to that sense of being involved in a conversation. But is far from being a simple read – there is an awful lot packed into this book, an intensely personal book that reflects the complexity of our views of life and death. It gave me much to think about and even made me chuckle in parts.

And finally thinking about being remembered/forgotten after his death, Barnes considers who will be his last reader because with that reader he will finally be forgotten – and then he reflects that your last reader is, by definition, someone who didn’t recommend your books to anyone else. You bastard! Not good enough, eh? (page 226)

I think it extremely unlikely that I’ll be his last reader!

Reading Challenge: Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2015. This is only the 5th non fiction book I’ve read so far this year!

Gently North West by Alan Hunter

I first came across Inspector George Gently through the TV drama with Martin Shaw as Gently. There are 46 books in Alan Hinter’s Gently series and I’ve  read the first two , Gently Does It and Gently by the Shore and now the 14th book, Gently North West (first published in 1967). The full list of the Gently books is on Fantastic Fiction.  In the TV version Gently is based in Northumberland, whereas the books are mainly set in Norfolk.

Summary (Amazon)

There’s blood in the heather and a murderer on the loose when Gently pays a quiet visit to the Highlands of Scotland. Had Brenda Merryn not been such a strong-willed woman and had she not been so much in love with George Gently, driving all the way to Scotland for a holiday with Gently’s sister and brother-in-law might have been a bit of a challenge. Spying on a heavily armed private army of nationalists, being held at gunpoint on the hillside, being held prisoner in a filthy outhouse and becoming involved in a murder would be unthinkable. For Gently, it’s all in a day’s work and his holiday is put on hold while he stalks a murderer in the mountains, with Brenda by his side.

My view:

Gently North West is set in the fictitious village of Strathtudlem in Scotland in 1967 where Gently is on holiday with his friend, Barbara Merryn and his sister, Bridget and her husband. There is quite a lot of detailed descriptions not only of the Scottish Highlands but also of the route of Gently’s journey from London to Scotland. On their journey a man with a red beard nearly crashes into Gently’s car.

Then on their first evening in the Highlands, Gently and Brenda go for a walk and see the same man, standing high on a crag above the glen, peering at them through his binoculars.  The next morning, the body of Donnie Dunglass is found, stabbed in the back, face down on the heather near where Gently had seen the man with the red beard. He feels it is his duty to inform the local constabulary about the man he saw and so becomes involved in the search for the killer.

In this book there are several references that set the book firmly in the late 1960s with reference to the Scottish Nationalists ‘ activities during that time and even to Mary Quant. But what particularly interested me about Gently North West is not the actual murder mystery which I think is rather far-fetched, but the fact that Gently is no longer an Inspector working in Norfolk but is living in London, a Chief Superintendent with Scotland Yard. Obviously since the events in the second book Gently had been promoted several times!

Now I’m wondering if I want to read all the books to find out more about Alan Hunter’s Gently.

Alan Hunter was born in Hoveton, Norfolk in 1922. He left school at the age of fourteen to work on his father’s farm, spending his spare time sailing on the Norfolk Broads and writing nature notes for the Eastern Evening News. He also wrote poetry, some of which was published while he was in the RAF during the Second World War. By 1950, he was running his own book shop in Norwich and in 1955, the first of what would become a series of forty-six George Gently novels was published.  He died in 2005, aged eighty-two.

He dedicated Gently North West to his mother, Isabella Hunter, nee Andrews, who was from Culsalmond in Aberdeenshire. In his own words she ‘contrived to possess her son with an indelible prejudice for the land of heroes and poets. Rest her well where she lies and greetings to my unknown Scottish cousins.

Reading Challenge: this is the fifth book I’ve read that qualifies for the Read Scotland Challenge 2015.

The Lost Garden by Katharine Swartz

The Lost Garden is  an emotionally intense novel of love, loss and grief, set in both the past and the present day, in a small village on the Cumbrian coast.

In 1919 Eleanor, the daughter of the vicar of Goswell, is struggling to adjust to the loss of her brother, Walter who died just before the Armistice was declared and in the present day half-sisters Marin and Rebecca are coming to terms with the death of their father and his wife.

The link between the two stories centres around the walled garden at the back of the Bower House, a small house next to the church. It was said to have been the herb garden for the monastery before the Reformation.

In 1919 the garden is covered in brambles and Eleanor decides she wants to make it into a garden of remembrance, a place to just be, to remember or to forget as much as you need. And she begins to restore it with the help of the church gardener, Jack. As they do so the garden begins to blossom as winter moves into spring and summer, but the mood of both the family and the country remains sombre as they come to terms with the aftermath of the First World War.

In the present day, Marin has bought the Bower House, not knowing its history. Rebecca discovers the walled garden once more overgrown with brambles and weeds and it captures her imagination. And when Marin she sees a photo of a young woman in the garden, thought to have been taken around 1920 she is determined to find out more – just who was the young woman and what is underneath the brambles. With the help of the local gardener, Joss, she begins to restore the garden and in doing so they discover secrets about both the past and the present.

The Lost Garden is a gentle story, well told and an enjoyable read, switching between the past and the present. The differences in attitudes and social conventions of the times provide a distinct contrast and highlights the parallels between the two stories. I liked the story-lines for both Marin and Eleanor, both have difficult relationships with their sisters and both are coming to terms with their grief, but on the whole I was more interested in Eleanor’s story, set against the backdrop of the post First World War.

My thanks to Lovereading for providing an advance proof of this novel, due to be published 15 May 2015. The Lost Garden is the second book in Katharine Swartz’s Tales from Goswell series – the first is The Vicar’s Wife.

Gray Mountain by John Grisham

Years ago, well before I began this blog, I read many of John Grisham’s books and loved them. Then, somehow, he went off my radar, but when I saw Gray Mountain on display in the library I remembered how much I used to enjoy his books and borrowed it.

Gray Mountain

I don’t think he has changed much – this book is just as much a campaign against injustice and the misuse of power, about the good little guys against the big bad guys as his earlier books are. In this case it’s the big coal companies that come under the microscope, companies that are  ruining the environment by strip-mining in the Appalachian mountains. I was amazed to read the details – clear-felling the forests, scalping the earth and then blasting away the mountain tops to get at the coal. All the trees, topsoil and rocks are then dumped into the valleys, wiping out the vegetation, wildlife and streams. Gray Mountain is one of the mountains destroyed in this way.

But this is running ahead in the book. It begins in 2008 when Samantha Kofer has lost her job as a highly paid third-year associate with New York’s largest law firm following the bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers bank. One of the options open to her is to work for free for twelve months as an intern at the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in Brady, Virginia, run by Mattie Wyatt.  After that there is the possibility that she could get her old job back.

Up until then Samantha had only worked in corporate law and had never been in a courtroom, but she soon became immersed in a variety of  cases, including meths dealers and people suffering from black lung disease.

Gray Mountain is owned by Mattie’s nephew, Donovan Gray, also a lawyer, who is taking on cases against the Big Coal companies.  One of the cases involves the Tate family, two little boys who were killed when a boulder from the rock clearance crashed into the trailer where they were sleeping.  Although Samantha is horrified by the situation and wants to help Donovan and his brother Jeff in their search for justice, she feels reluctant to get involved as Donovan’s  methods are sometimes not strictly legal – and she doesn’t feel she belongs in Brady. And there is still the opportunity for her to work in New York, when a former colleague offers her a job.

But she gets emotionally involved with the people and their problems and begins to like litigation:

This was the rush, the high, the narcotic that pushed trial lawyers to the brink. This was the thrill that Donovan sought when he refused to settle for cash on the table. This was the overdose of testosterone that inspired men like her father to dash around the world chasing cases. (page 197)

She has to decide whether to stay with the Clinic or take the job in New York, and she loves the city life. It’s not an easy decision, and it is not revealed until right at the very end of the book.

Although Gray Mountain doesn’t quite match up to my memories of Grisham’s earlier books, I still enjoyed it. At first I thought he was introducing too much detail about the coal companies’ mining practices, but I soon realised how essential it is to understanding the issues. At times it’s like reading a series of short stories, but the main theme is well maintained. I liked the view of the small town community, the mountain scenery, the legal cases large and small and the tension created by the danger of opposing the big coal companies.

Reading Challenge: Color Coded Reading Challenge, with the word ‘Gray’ in the title and the cover being mainly grey in colour it qualifies for the category a book with “Black” or any shade of black in the title/on the cover.

Have His Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers

Have His Carcase, first published in 1932, is another brilliant book – completely different from the last book I wrote about (see my previous post) but just as fascinating and absorbing. It’s crime fiction from the **Golden Age (see the note below), that is between the First and Second World Wars, and is the second of Dorothy L Sayer’s books featuring Harriet Vane, a crime fiction writer, and the seventh featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. They first met in Strong Poison, in which Harriet was on trial charged with the murder of her former lover.

In Have His Carcase Harriet is on a walking holiday when she comes across a dead man, his throat cut from ear to ear, lying on the top of a rock, called locally the Flat-Iron, on a deserted beach. Fortunately she has her camera with her and takes several photos, which come in very useful as by the time that she can alert the police the body has been washed out to sea. It appears that he committed suicide. Wimsey arrives soon after and he and Harriet they set out first of all to identify the body and then to prove that it was murder.

It is an example of the puzzle type of crime fiction – incredibly complicated and seemingly impossible to solve. It involves numerous characters who are not who they first appear, complete with alibis, disguises and false trails. Sayers, helpfully included a schedule of things that Harriet and Wimsey noted about the victim and the suspects, which I found useful as this is a long novel that took me several days to read; with so much information I just couldn’t remember it all as I read the book.

It all hinges on the timing of the discovery of the body and the movement of the tides. As in The Nine Tailors (and in fact in all the books by Dorothy L Sayers that I’ve read) there is a lot of detail, all of which is essential to the plot; detail about the body, how it was found, how the throat was cut , and what the blood was like when Harriet found the body. In the hands of another writer this could have been too graphic for me, but I had no difficulty reading such detail at all!

Also added into the mix are Bolsheviks, rumours of aristocratic connections, spies and a secret code to be deciphered. There are jealous lovers, itinerant hairdressers, a schoolteacher with Communist sympathies, taciturn locals, an antagonistic future son-in-law and  gigolos and dagos. (Written in the early 1930s this is not a politically correct novel.)

An underlying theme is the relationship between Harriet and Wimsey as he is constantly proposing marriage and she rejects him each time. Although at one point, as they walked along the beach together in search of clues, it did look briefly that her resolve was weakening:

She suddenly saw Wimsey in a new light. She knew him to be intelligent, clean, courteous, wealthy, well-read, amusing and enamoured, but he had not so far produced in her that crushing sense of utter inferiority which leads to prostration and hero-worship. But she now realised that there was, after all, something godlike about him. (pages 213-4)

and then she came to her senses and laughed. Earlier she had noted his physique as they inspected the Flat-Iron in the sea:

‘And he strips better than I should have expected,’ she admitted candidly to herself. ‘Better shoulders than I realised, and, thank Heaven, calves to his legs,’ (page 104)

Here are some more of my favourite quotations:

I question this first one!:

To be tried for murder is a fairly good advertisement for a writer of detective fiction. (page 1)

and on seeing what appears to be a man asleep Harriet says:

Now, if I had any luck, he’d be a corpse, and I should report him and get my name in the papers. That would be something like publicity. “Well-known Woman Detective-Writer Finds Mystery Corpse on Lonely Shore.” But these things never happy to authors. (page 7)

Well, she got her wish.

Next, here is Wimsey remarking on his use of quotations, which he does throughout the book:

I always have a quotation for everything – it saves original thinking. (page 58)

and Wimsey to Harriet after she apologised for being ‘a rotten dancer’:

Darling if you danced like an elderly elephant with arthritis, I would dance the sun and moon into the sea with you. I have waited a thousand years to see you dance in that frock. (page 157)

I loved the complexity, the details, and the various solutions Wimsey and Harriet considered. It kept me guessing throughout the book right from the start – just who was the victim, even when he was identified there was more to it, who murdered him, why was he murdered and above all just how and when was he murdered. It’s brilliant!

**Note: I must get a copy of Martin Edwards’ new book The Golden Age of Murderinvestigating how Agatha Christie and colleagues in the Detection Club transformed crime fiction, writing books casting new light on unsolved murders whilst hiding clues to their authors’ darkest secrets.

It’s due to be published on 7 May.

Dacre’s War by Rosemary Goring

Dacre’s War is compelling reading, a  thoroughly absorbing and beautifully written novel set in the Scottish and English Borders and London between 1523 – 1525 some ten years after the events described in Rosemary Goring’s earlier book, After Flodden. I wondered as I began reading whether it could equal After Flodden, a book I loved when I read it two years ago – it did. I think it even surpasses it.

I loved Dacre’s War and keen as I was to read to the end I didn’t want to leave the characters. Once again I was swept away by the story, re-living the scenes through Rosemary Goring’s vivid descriptions and the drama of the characters’ lives, people who came to life in the pages of this book.

Dacre’s War describes how Adam Crozier, the head of his clan, plots to take revenge on Lord Thomas Dacre, the Warden General of the English Marches and the Keeper of Carlisle, who had brought about the death of Adam’s father. Ten years after the Battle of Flodden, Dacre is the most powerful man in the north of England, but the Marches are a constant battlefield, dangerously out of control, and a hotbed of thieves and killers in thrall to the Warden. Without him Henry VIII believes the situation would be much worse.

It is against this background that Crozier forms an alliance with Dacre’s enemies, both English and Scots to inform Henry of Dacre’s crimes and bring about his downfall.

There are some remarkable scenes in this book, and amongst them are the scenes in the Star Chamber where Dacre is brought to answer the charges against him in front of Cardinal Wolsey and his imprisonment in the Fleet Prison. I felt as though I was there, watching, breathing the same air – not a pleasant experience. Similarly with Crozier, I could visualise his home, Crozier’s Keep, sense the tension and fear as his wife, Louise, is left at home, pregnant and in danger of losing the baby.

There is so much packed in this book, political intrigue, personal conflict and vengeance, and spies, manipulators and double crossers abound. It is impossible to write more without revealing the plot and the eventual ending. It’s a brilliant book.

Dacre’s War is due to be published in June 2015. My copy is a pre-publication review copy courtesy of www.lovereading.co.uk.

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Polygon (16 June 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1846973112
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846973116

Rosemary Goring was born in Dunbar and studied social and economic history at the University of St Andrews; and, after graduation, worked at W&R Chambers as a reference editor. Rosemary was the literary editor of Scotland on Sunday, followed by a brief spell as editor of Life & Work, the Church of Scotland’s magazine, before returning to newspapers as literary editor of the Herald, and later also of the Sunday Herald. In 2007 she published Scotland: The Autobiography: 2000 Years of Scottish History By Those Who Saw it Happen, which has since been published in America and Russia.

Reading Challenges: Read Scotland, Historical Fiction Challenge.

The Last Girl by Jane Casey

I liked the first two Maeve Kerrigan books by Jane Casey, The Burning and The Reckoning and the third, The Last Girl is just as good. I liked it mainly because Maeve is such an interesting character, and the book is fast paced and well written, with a multi-layered plot.

Maeve, a detective constable, is the youngest member of the Met Murder Squad investigating the murders of Vita Kennford and her daughter, Laura, age 14.  Lydia , Laura’s twin sister had found their bodies. Philip her father had walked in on the killer, received a blow to the head and was unconscious.  There are no clues at the scene of the crime and as Lydia was outside swimming at the time she neither saw nor heard anything. Philip is a defence QC known for getting his clients off even if they are guilty and at first Maeve and her boss D I Josh Derwent concentrate their investigations on people who hold a grudge against him. Any one of them seems to have good cause to have taken revenge on his family.

Unlike the earlier books, The Last Girl is narrated throughout by Maeve, so we see the events unfolding entirely through her perspective. Much of the novel centres on the Kennfords and their relationships. They are not a happy family.  Philip is an unreliable husband, regularly  unfaithful, not the sort who liked to be tied down to one woman. He is estranged from Savannah, his daughter from his first marriage. She refuses to speak to him and  Lydia seems withdrawn, reluctant to speak to anyone. Maeve is sure they are all keeping secrets.

And there is a sub-plot that harks back to the second book, The Reckoning,  as the team is also investigating a number of gangland murders. Although this book does stand well on its own I think it helps if you read them in order particularly to follow the development of  Maeve’s relationship with her boyfriend, Rob, also a policeman, now working in a different section – things between them are not going very smoothly and Maeve is having doubts. Meanwhile her working relationships with Derwent and Superintendent Godley are beginning to change as Derwent, a male chauvinist shows his softer side and she challenges Godley’s methods.

Maeve has her suspicions about the culprit, but after a while I began to think she could be  on the wrong lines as I had my doubts about the truthfulness of one particular character. And then it was fairly easy to work out who the culprit was.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and am looking forward to the next one in the series, The Stranger You Know.

Dreamwalker: The Ballad of Sir Benfro Book 1

 

DreamwalkerI read  Dreamwalker: The Ballad of Sir Benfro by James Oswald on my Kindle.  It has since been published by Penguin as Dreamwalker by J D Oswald.

So far there are three books in the series and there will eventually be five books published by Penguin. See James Oswald’s website for more information.

Synopsis from Amazon UK:

In a small village, miles from the great cities of the Twin Kingdoms, a young boy called Errol tries to find his way in the world. He’s an outsider – he looks different from other children and has never known his father. No one, not even himself, has any knowledge of his true lineage.

Deep in the forest, Benfro, the young male dragon begins his training in the subtle arts. Like his mother, Morgwm the Green, he is destined to be a great Mage. No one could imagine that the future of all life in the Twin Kingdoms rests in the hands of these two unlikely heroes.

But it is a destiny that will change the lives of boy and dragon forever …

My view:

I enjoyed this book, inspired by Welsh folklore. It’s very readable, each time I picked it up I just wanted to carry on reading this magical tale of the young dragon, Benfro and the young boy, Errol, born on the same day. I was drawn into their fantasy world.

But I wasn’t prepared for the ending – when you get to the end of the book it is not the end – it’s only the end of the first instalment! The tension builds throughout the book as both Benfro and Errol approach their fourteenth birthdays, Benfro in the dragon community, learning their magical powers and Errol,growing up thinking his mother was the village healer and then taken from his home by Melyn, the Inquisitor to train to be one of the warrior priest. Then there is the wicked Princess Beaulah, who is keeping her father the king alive until she reaches her 21st birthday.

And as the tension built I was eager to find out how it would end, only to be faced with the words ‘To be continued in The Ballad of Sir Benfro -Volume Two‘. I was so frustrated, as it just came to a full stop after a catastrophic event, that I couldn’t really believe had happened – a real cliff-hanger! I wish I’d realised before so that I’d been prepared – it was a complete let-down. So, if you are going to read it be warned!

Dreamwalker is followed by The Rose Cord and The Golden Cage. J. D. Oswald is also the author of the Detective Inspector McLean series of crime novels under the name James Oswald. In his spare time James runs a 350-acre livestock farm in North East Fife, where he raises pedigree Highland Cattle and New Zealand Romney Sheep.

Read more about Dreamwalker on the Penguin website.

Reading ChallengesDreamwalker is the perfect choice for Once Upon a Time IX. As it’s been on my Kindle since 2012 it’s also perfect for the Mount To Be Read Challenge and as James Oswald lives in Scotland it fits into the Read Scotland Challenge too.

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

I was looking forward to reading The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld. It had sat on my shelves for nearly 8 years and I decided it was time to read it this year, including it in my TBR Pile Challenge list of books. It’s historical fiction – a mixture of murder mystery and psychoanalysis with an interpretation of ‘Hamlet‘ thrown in.

It began well as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung arrived in New York in 1909 to give a series of lectures and to receive an honorary degree from Clark University. That much is fact, but this book is a work of fiction as Rubenfeld makes clear in his Author’s Note and most of the characters are fictional.

There are some things that I did think were well done, for example the descriptions of New York as the city grew, its architecture and streets, the building of the Manhattan Bridge; and as I mentioned earlier the interpretation of ‘Hamlet‘. But as I read on I began to lose interest and at times I felt it was slowed down too much by psychological exposition and debate. Rubenfeld is no doubt well grounded in Freud – as a Princeton undergraduate he wrote his senior thesis on Freud – and also in Shakespeare, which he studied at the Juilliard School of Drama. I found his ideas on interpreting ‘Hamlet‘ most interesting. But I was less enamoured with the dialogue between Freud and Jung, which as Rubenfeld explained is drawn from their own letters, essays and statements, which whilst being factually accurate, doesn’t come across as real conversation.

I thought the murder mystery was unconvincing and too convoluted. Briefly, the morning after Freud’s arrival a young woman is found brutally murdered and later a second, Nora Acton, is attacked in a similar fashion but she survives, although unable to speak. Freud is asked to help by psychoanalysing Nora and asks his young American colleague, Dr Stratham Younger to carry out the analysis. To cut a long story short Younger is helped in his investigations by Detective Jimmy Littlemore and together they discover what really happened.

Maybe I was expecting too much from this book, which is described in the blurb as’Spectacular … fiendishly clever‘, and a ‘thrilling heart-in-the-mouth read … Once you start reading, it’s impossible to put down.’  It jumps about a bit too much for my liking, between narrators and sub-plots, some of the characters came over a bit flat and I didn’t find it either ‘fiendishly clever‘ or ‘impossible to put down‘.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been on my shelves for a few years and as I’m taking part in the Once Upon a Time event hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings I decided it was time I read it. It’s a complete change of genre for me as I rarely read children’s books.

It was first published in 1900, made into a Broadway Musical in 1902 and a film in 1939. I’ve seen the film and also a stage version in a local amateur dramatic society production some years ago.

I enjoyed this entertaining story, pure escapism, which I would have loved as a child, following Dorothy’s adventures in the Land of Oz after the cyclone whisked her house high in the air out of Kansas and set it down on top of the Wicked Witch of the East, thus killing her. Dorothy and her little dog, Toto, are very anxious to get back home to Kansas and they set out on the yellow brick road leading to the Emerald City to ask the Wizard of Oz to help them. On the way she meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, who go with her as they want the Wizard to give them brains, a heart and courage respectively.

Their journey is interrupted in various places and by a variety of creatures, some very dangerous indeed; as in most fairy tales, there is a fair amount of violence in the book, as Dorothy and her friends combat the Wicked Witch of the East. I was fascinated by the Winged Monkeys, who can grant three wishes, the Fighting Trees, the Dainty China Country and its pretty little, fragile people and by the Quadlings with their flat hammer heads.

There are several interpretations* of the story that I’ve come across, but the simple message of the story is, of course, that you have to use your brains yourself, after all the Scarecrow can think, he just doesn’t realise that he can and he came up with lots of ingenious ideas along the way; courage comes from facing danger even when you are afraid – it comes from within and the Lion does that without realising he already has courage. As for the Tin Man, again he truly did have a heart – his desire for one shows his kindness and goodness.

And by the way Dorothy’s shoes are silver and not red as in the film.

*On Goodreads there are several reviews that draw parallels with the economics of America in the late 19th century and the political climate of the time.

And I found this interesting article in The New York Times Scarecrow, Lion, Tin Man and Freud, Too by Janet Maslin discussing this book: The Real Wizard of Oz, The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum by Rebecca Loncraine. Baum apparently drew on his own experiences in writing his book – images of the Civil War amputees led to the Tin Man, bizarre sights such as displayed by PT Barnum, the Chicago World Fair and so on. It sounds a fascinating book! I am constantly finding reading one book leads on to wanting to read yet more books – and I hadn’t realised before that there are more Oz books that Baum wrote!

Dorothy L Sayers: Strong Poison & Gaudy Night

I’m no longer attempting  to write about every book I read but I do want to record a few of my thoughts on two of Dorothy L Sayers’ books that I’ve read recently because they are both such good books. However, I doubt very much that I can do justice to either of these books.

Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893-1957) was born at Christchurch Cathedral School, Oxford, where her father was the headmaster. She learned Latin and French at the age of seven, went to Somerville College, Oxford and in 1915 she graduated with a first class honours degree in modern languages. She is best known as the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, but as well as writing crime fiction she also wrote poems, plays, essays, books on religion and was a translator – most notably of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The two of her books I’ve read recently are Strong Poison (first published in 1930) and Gaudy Night (first published in 1935), both featuring Harriet Vane, a crime fiction novelist, and her relationship with Lord Peter Wimsey, the aristocratic amateur detective.

The two first meet in Strong Poison, when Harriet is on trial for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. Wimsey, attending the trial, is convinced she is innocent and sets out to prove it … and falls in love with her.

From the back cover:

The Crown’s case is watertight. The police are adamant that the right person is on trial. The judge’s summing up is also clear. Harriet Vane is guilty of killing her lover and Harriet Vane must hang. But the jury disagrees.

Well, actually one member of the jury won’t agree that she is guilty – that is Miss Climpson, an elderly spinster, who just happens to run what Wimsey calls ‘My Cattery’, ostensibly a typing bureau, but actually an amateur detective/enquiry agency. Wimsey decides that Harriet is innocent, Boyes, who died poisoned by arsenic, either committed suicide or was murdered by someone else. It is Miss Climpson and her employees, mainly spinsters with small fixed incomes, or no incomes, widows without families, or women deserted by their husband, who do the investigations. This involves Miss Climpson posing as a medium and Miss Murchison learning how to pick a lock.

To sum up – this is a delightful book, full of strong characters, a mystery to solve, superbly written with humour as well as ingenuity.

And then there is Gaudy Night, which is even better than Strong Poison. I loved the setting in this book – Shrewsbury College, a fictional all female college, at Oxford University (based on Somerville College, Sayers’ own college). The action of the book takes place in 1935, five years after Harriet’s trial in Strong Poison. During those five years Harriet and Wimsey have had an ongoing ‘relationship’ in which he annually asks her to marry him and she refuses. They had also worked together on a murder at Wilvercombe, as told in Have His Carcase, a book I have yet to read.

Gaudy Night begins as Harriet decides to go back to Shrewsbury College to attend the Shrewsbury Gaudy (a college reunion involving a celebratory dinner), not sure she can face meeting her fellow students and the dons. It doesn’t go well – there are poison pen letters, nasty graffiti and vandalism causing mayhem and upset. Harriet is asked to investigate, under pretence of helping one of the dons to rewrite her manuscript that had been destroyed in one of the nightly attacks and researching the life and works of Sheridan Lefanu. Struggling to discover the culprit and afraid it will end in murder she asks Wimsey for help.

This is a complex novel, with many characters, some of whom I found difficult to visualise, whereas others were vividly depicted, their thoughts, actions and feelings clearly evident. I had no idea who the writer of the poison pen letters etc could be and I was completely absorbed in the mystery.

But what gives both books so much depth is the portrayal of life between the two world wars, the exploration of the role of women in society, particularly with regard to education and marriage and the importance of truth and honesty; not forgetting, the ongoing relationship between Harriet and Lord Peter Wimsey. Of the two books I preferred Gaudy Night, but both are excellent and a pleasure to read.

Catching the Eagle by Karen Charlton

I wanted to read a novel by a local author so I checked the library website for North East writers, where I found Catching the Eagle by Karen Charlton.

Summary from the book cover:

Easter Monday, 1809: Kirkley Hall manor house is mysteriously burgled. When suspicion falls on Jamie Charlton, he and his family face a desperate battle to save him from the gallows.

When 1,157 rent money is stolen from Kirkley Hall, it is the biggest robbery Northumberland has ever known. The owner sends for Stephen Lavender, a principal officer with the Bow Street magistrate’s court in London, to investigate the crime. Suspicion soon falls on impoverished farm labourer, Jamie Charlton, and the unpopular steward, Michael Aynsley.

Jamie Charlton is a loving family man but he is hot-tempered and careless. As the case grows against him, it seems that only his young brother, William, can save him from an impending miscarriage of justice.

But William is struggling with demons of his own–he is falling in love with Jamie’s wife.’Catching the Eagle’, the first novel in the Regency Reivers series, is a fictionalized account of a trial that devastated a family and divided a community.

This is not just by a local author, and set in Northumberland, it is also based on a true story –  that of Karen Charlton’s husband’s ancestors.

I liked the opening of Catching the Eagle beginning with a Prologue, setting the scene as an eagle soared over the Northumberland landscape:

… its huge shadow caressed the ruined walls of crumbling castles and the creaking rotting stumps of ancient gibbets.The eagle plucked unsuspecting prey from the bleak, snow-covered fells and drank from remote rocky waterfalls dripping with golden daggers.

It landed in a tree above a labourer’s cottage where Jamie Charlton lived with his wife Priscilla and their children. I like Karen Charlton’s leisurely descriptive style of writing and found the whole book to be fascinating.  She has written an even-handed account of the robbery and the subsequent trials, so much so that I began to wonder whether Jamie Charlton was innocent or guilty, although you know from the outset that he was transported as a convicted felon to New South Wales. Did he or did he not steal the money? And what will happen to the eagle?

This is the type of historical fiction that I like. The characters come across as real people, with real problems in a real time and place (Northumberland 1809 – 1811). It highlights the social and cultural setting. Jamie was without influence or money behind him up against a judicial system run by people with power who needed to find a culprit. His family suffered along with him as he languished in goal in squalor, where he was caged as he awaited trial – not once, but twice.

I wondered whether Stephen Lavender, the detective employed by  Nathaniel Ogle, the owner of Kirkley Hall was also a real historical figure. Karen Charlton has also written Seeking Our Eagle, another fascinating book, an account of how she came to write Catching the Eagle whilst researching her husband’s family history.  And yes, Stephen Lavender did exist and he was a detective. He later became the Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester after the formation of the police force by Sir Robert Peel.

Indeed reading Catching the Eagle reminded me of The Suspicions of Samuel Whicher by Kate Summerscale, featuring Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher of Scotland Yard, the book that won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2008.

Karen Charlton has done her research very well and has written a novel full of intrigue, tension and realism that kept me captivated from start to finish. See her website, Karen Charlton, to read more about Karen and her books.

She has also written The Heiress of Linn Hagh, a spin-off novel from Catching the Eagle, which features Detective Stephen Lavender and his sidekick, Constable Woods. And there are more Detective Lavender Series books on the way!

Catching the Eagle:

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Famelton Publishing; 1 edition (19 July 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 0992803640
  • ISBN-13: 978-0992803643
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 1.8 x 22.9 cm
  • Source: Library book

Seeking the Eagle:

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1969 KB
  • Print Length: 166 pages
  • Publisher: Famelton Publishing; 1st edition (7 Aug. 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B008UZYOR2
  • Source: I bought it

As always I didn’t read either book just for any Reading Challenges, but Catching the Eagle does fit very well into a couple – the 2015  Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the What’s in a Name Challenge, in the book with an animal in the title category and Seeking Our Eagle into the Nonfiction Reading Challenge.

Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie

Three Act Tragedy 001I’ve been working my way through Agatha Christie’s books over the past few years and I have just a few left to read. Three Act Tragedy is one of them. It was first published in 1935 (as Murder in Three Acts in America).

As the title indicates the book is divided into three acts, or rather parts, First Act – Suspicion, Second Act – Certainty and Third Act – Discovery. It begins as though it were a theatre programme:

Directed by

SIR CHARLES CARTWRIGHT

Assistant Directors
MR SATTERTHWAITE
MISS HERMIONE LYTTON GORE

Clothes by
AMBROSINE LTD

Illumination by
HERCULE POIROT

Summary from the back cover:

Sir Charles Cartwright, the distinguished actor, was giving a party. Around him his guests stood talking and drinking. The Reverend Stephen Babbington sipped his cocktail and pulled a wry face. the chatter continued all around. Suddenly Mr Babbington clutched at his throat and swayed …

The beginning of the drama …

Sir Charles suspects that Mr Babbington was murdered but Hercule Poirot, one of the guests, disagrees and there is nothing to show that his death was by any other than natural causes and besides who could possible have cause to kill him! However, later when Sir Bartholomew Strange, a distinguished Harley Street doctor who was also a guest at Sir Charles’ party, drops dead after sipping a glass of port at another party with some of the original guests, it becomes clear that this is murder by poisoning.

This is one of those cases where Poirot plays a secondary role, preferring to think rather than act and it is Mr Satterthwaite and Sir Charles who investigate the deaths. Mr Satterthwaite is an interesting character – ‘ a  dried-up little pipkin of a man’, ‘ a patron of art and drama, a determined but pleasant snob’ and ‘a man of considerable intelligence and a very shrewd observer of people and things.’ An ideal partner in investigation for Poirot.

(This is Mr Satterthwaite’s first appearance outside a Harley Quin story – I have yet to read the Harley Quin stories.)

As for the other characters, some fade into the background, whilst others like Sir Charles and Hermione Lytton Gore, known affectionately as Egg are in the spotlight. This is one of Agatha Christie’s earlier books and is full of baffling clues, conjuring tricks, clues concealed in conversations, with larger than life personalities, and above all with puzzles to be solved. I really enjoyed it.

In this book Hercule Poirot reveals a little of his history, coming from a large and poor family he had worked hard in the Belgian police force, made a name for himself and an international reputation. He was injured in the First World War and came to England as a refugee, eventually becoming a private inquiry agent. He displays his usual vanity and egotism when talking to Mr Satterthwaite, who had realised that he might have accidentally have drunk the poisoned cocktail, by saying:

‘There is an even more terrible possibility that you have not considered. … It might have been ME.

First Chapter First Paragraph: The Zig Zag Girl

Every Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

My choice this week is: The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths, a book I have just finished reading.

It begins:

 ‘Looks as if someone’s sliced her into three,’ said Solomon Carter, the police surgeon chattily. ‘We’re just missing the middle bit.’

I must not be sick, thought Edgar Stephens. That’s what he wants. Stay calm and professional at all times. You’re the policeman, after all.

What do you think? Would you read on?

I did. I’m a squeamish reader and don’t like anything too graphically gory and you might think this opening would put me off. But it didn’t – for one thing, it doesn’t go into detail about how the body got cut into three. Well, yes later down the page there’s mention of ‘clotted blood and smell of decaying flesh‘, but that’s it, it’s all secondhand, no scenes where the murderer is described doing the terrible act, no dwelling on what he/she was doing to the other person.

Blurb from the inside flap:

Brighton, 1950 – a post-war world of rationing, austerity, pea-souper fogs and seedy seaside resorts. When the body of a girl is found, cut into three, DI Edgar Stephens recalls a magic trick that he saw as a boy. The illusion is called the Zig Zag Girl and its inventor, Max Mephisto, is an old friend of his. They served together in the war as part of a shadowy unit called the Magic Men, formed to use stage trickery to confuse the enemy.

Edgar tracks down Max and asks for his help. Max is still on the circuit, touring seaside towns in the company of ventriloquists, sword-swallowers and dancing girls. Max is reluctant to get involved but the changes his mind when the dead girl turns out to be his former stage assistant. Another death follows, again gruesomely staged to resemble a magic trick, the Sword Cabinet.

Edgar and Max become convinced that the answer to the murders lies back in their army days and the antics of the Magic Men.

When Edgar receives a letter warning of another ‘trick’, he knows that they are all in danger. The Wolf Trap is the deadliest illusion of all, but who will be the next victim?

I’ve read some of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist, crime novels, which I have enjoyed despite wishing they weren’t written in the present tense. So it was with relief that I came to The Zig Zag Girl and found it’s written in the past tense.

I enjoyed it in several ways – for its characters, particularly Edgar Stephens and its setting, recalling the atmosphere of the 1950s and how times were changing. The theatrical elements are fascinating – life on the variety circuit was not all glitz and glamour; and the activities of the  Magic Men unit during the war had of course an immense effect on all their lives. I worked out quite early on who the murderer was – but not why, which only dawned on me at the end of the book.

I don’t know if this is going to be the start of a new series – I’d read more if it is.

Spilling the Beans by Clarissa Dickson Wright

I’ve left it a bit too long to write about Spilling the Beans, Clarissa Dickson Wright’s autobiography because I’ve now forgotten much of the detail.  It’s a book I really enjoyed, but I finished it nearly two weeks ago! I’ve  been feeling a bit under the weather recently with a rotten cold and although I have been reading I haven’t been able to summon up enough mental energy to write much!

I quoted from the opening of the book in this post, with these details about Clarissa:

Clarissa Dickson Wright was an English celebrity chef – one of the Two Fat Ladies, a television personality, writer, businesswoman, and former barrister. She died last year on 15 March in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Clarissa was a huge character in more than her size! Her autobiography is fascinating, coming from a privileged and wealthy background she had a difficult childhood- her father, a well respected surgeon was also an alcoholic who beat his wife and Clarissa.

After her mother died she took comfort from alcohol and at the mid point of the book she was as she described it ‘sunk in gin’ and homeless. I am looking forward to reading about her road to recovery.

In the rest of the book she described her period of homelessness, sleeping on benches in the Victoria Coach Station for two nights, but spending the rest of the time staying with friends, until she took jobs in domestic service, where she learned to cook. I liked her attitude to being a servant:

I have never understood the aversion to domestic service … I am not sufficiently bourgeoise to worry about my place in the class system and if you don’t understand this, well, that’s your problem. I had no sense of downshifting; maybe I should have had but pragmatism is the saving of many an alcoholic. (page 154)

She then went on to tell about her ‘dark night of the soul’ and her time at addiction centres, the treatment and her eventual recovery. All this took years and she was very honest and open.

She also wrote about her bookselling experience – all totally news to me – her time at ‘Cooks for Books’ changed her life and later after she had moved to Scotland in the late 1980s  she ran the Cook’s Bookshop in Edinburgh near the Grassmarket. She was declared bankrupt three times, was rector of Aberdeen University for six years. And then, of course, there were her TV shows – Two Fat Ladies, with Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa and The Countryman with Johnny Scott. She was a staunch supporter of the Countryside Alliance, against the ban on foxhunting .

Despite all her difficulties and her alcoholism this is an upbeat autobiography, ending on a positive note: “Believe me on one thing: I have a splendidly enjoyable life”. And believe me this is  a ‘splendidly enjoyable’ autobiography.

My copy is a hardback book, which I bought, but it is also available in paperback and ebook.

Note: I didn’t read this book to meet any challenges, but it does:

There is a spot just by the Scots Border at Berwick-upon-Tweed, where the train passes a stretch of the sea coast. Looking out of the window I felt, Oh it’s so lovely to be home, and if it’s home, I thought, I’d better stay and I have been here ever since. (page 225)

For another review see Cath’s blog Read Warbler.