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

First Chapter, First Paragraph

First chapterEvery 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.

I’m just about to start reading Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. It won the Booker Prize in 1987.

It begins:

I’m writing a history of the world.’ she says. And the hands of the nurse are arrested for a moment; she looks down at this old woman, this ill old woman. ‘Well, my goodness, the nurse says. ‘That’s quite a thing to be doing, isn’t it?’ And then she becomes busy again, she heaves and tucks and smooths – ‘Upsy a bit, dear, that’s a good girl – then we’ll get you a cup of tea.’

Synopsis:

Claudia Hampton – beautiful, famous, independent, dying.

But she remains defiant to the last, telling her nurses that she will write a ‘history of the world . . . and in the process, my own’. And it is her story from a childhood just after the First World War through the Second and beyond. But Claudia’s life is entwined with others and she must allow those who knew her, loved her, the chance to speak, to put across their point of view. There is Gordon, brother and adversary; Jasper, her untrustworthy lover and father of Lisa, her cool conventional daughter; and then there is Tom, her one great love, found and lost in wartime Egypt.

What do you think?

Would you keep reading?

My Friday Post

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week’s book is Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear, the 10th Maisie Dobbs novel. It begins:

Prologue – London, July 1933

Edith Billings – Mrs Edith Billings, that is, proprietor of Billings’ Bakery – watched as the dark woman walked past the shop window, her black head with its oiled ebony hair appearing to bob up and down between the top shelf of cottage loaves and the middle shelf of fancy cakes as she made her way along with a confidence to her step.

Blurb:

London, 1933. Some two months after an Indian woman, Usha Pramal, is found murdered in a South London canal, her brother turns to Maisie Dobbs to find the truth about her death. Not only has Scotland Yard made no arrests, but evidence indicates they failed to conduct a full and thorough investigation. Before her death, Usha was staying at an ayah’s hostel, a refuge for Indian women whose British employers had turned them out. As Maisie learns, Usha was different from the hostel’s other lodgers. But with this discovery comes new danger – soon another Indian woman who was close to Usha is found murdered before she can speak out. As Maisie is pulled deeper into an unfamiliar yet alluring subculture, her investigation becomes clouded by the unfinished business of a previous case. And at the same time her lover, James Compton, gives her an ultimatum she cannot ignore …

Friday 56Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

Maisie felt her skin prickle when she read the more common name for the Camberwell Beauty: the Mourning Cloak. It was not a clue, not an element of great import of her investigation, but there was something in the picture before her that touched her heart. That something beautiful was so bold, yet at once so fragile.

I’ve read a few of the Maisie Dobbs books and like them. I’ve read just the first chapter of this book so far and it promises to be as good as the others. I don’t know the significance of the Camberwell Beauty butterfly but I know it under that name – not as the Mourning Cloak. It’s a rare butterfly here in the UK.

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.

Books Read in June

I read seven books in June, all of them ones that I’d included on my 20 Books of Summer Challenge, six of them books that qualify for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge (ie books I’ve owned prior to 1st January 2016). And I’ve managed to write about six of them – see the links to the books listed below.

  1. High Rising by Angela Thirkell (TBR) – an entertaining and witty social comedy, set in the 1930s.
  2. Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham (TBR) – crime fiction introducing DC Fiona Griffiths, one of the most original fictional detectives I’ve come across.
  3. Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine (TBR) – a murder mystery, a missing child, a question of identity and overarching it all are the stories of two families – the Westerbys and the Ropers. A brilliant book.
  4. A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey (TBR) – 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.
  5. The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (TBR) – a gripping novel that had me on tenterhooks as well as being a beautifully written book, set in a Europe at war and its aftermath. I loved it.
  6. Heat Wave by Penelope Lively (TBR) – 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.
  7. Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin by W J Burley – a search for a missing person turns into a murder case. (My post on this book to come later.)

During June I continued reading Andrew Marr’s A History of Modern Britain, which has reminded me of all the difficult times we have lived through in the years after the Second World War and continue to experience.

I’ve been reading some excellent fiction and my favourite book has to be Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine:

closely followed by The Glass Room by Simon Mawer:

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.

Library Loot

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. 

I’m trying to reduce my TBRs, but I can’t resist borrowing library books, especially when the mobile library van stops down the road, which it did last week. I was quite restrained though and only borrowed three books. They are all books in different series, that I’m reading totally out of order:

Library bks June 2016

  • The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This is part of a cycle of novels set in the literary universe of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books of which The Shadow of the Wind, which I read before I began this blog, and The Angel’s Game, which I have not read, are the first two instalments. I wondered whether it would matter that I haven’t read The Angel’s Game but a note at the beginning of The Prisoner of Heaven assures me that the cycle of books can be read in any order as each work presents an independent, self-contained tale, connected through characters and storylines, creating thematic and narrative links.

Blurb from Amazon:

It begins just before Christmas in Barcelona in 1957, one year after Daniel and Bea from THE SHADOW OF THE WIND have married. They now have a son, Julian, and are living with Daniel’s father at Sempere & Sons. Fermin still works with them and is busy preparing for his wedding to Bernarda in the New Year. However something appears to be bothering him.

Daniel is alone in the shop one morning when a mysterious figure with a pronounced limp enters. He spots one of their most precious volumes that is kept locked in a glass cabinet, a beautiful and unique illustrated edition of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. Despite the fact that the stranger seems to care little for books, he wants to buy this expensive edition. Then, to Daniel’s surprise, the man inscribes the book with the words ‘To Fermin Romero de Torres, who came back from the dead and who holds the key to the future’. This visit leads back to a story of imprisonment, betrayal and the return of a deadly rival …

From the back cover:

London, 1933. Two months after Usha Pramal, is found murdered in a South London canal, her brother turns to Maisie Dobbs to find the truth about her death, as Scotland Yard have failed to conduct a proper investigation.

Before her murder, Usha was staying at an ayah’s hostel, a refuge for Indian women whose British employers had turned them out. But nothing is as it seems and soon another Indian woman is killed before she can speak out. As Maisie is pulled deeper into an unfamiliar yet alluring subculture, her investigation becomes clouded by the unfinished business of a previous case. And at the same time her lover, James Compton, gives her an ultimatum she cannot ignore …

  • Pray for the Dying by Quintin Jardine, a Bob Skinner Mystery. There are 26 books in the series set in Edinburgh and previously I’ve read just one – Fallen Gods, the 13th book. Pray for the Dying is the 23rd. I’d been meaning to read more of these books before now as I did enjoy Fallen Gods, but quite simply other books got in the way, as they do …

Blurb:

‘After what happened, none of us can be sure we’re going to see tomorrow.’

The killing was an expert hit. Three shots through the head, as the lights dimmed at a celebrity concert in Glasgow. A most public crime, and Edinburgh Chief Constable Bob Skinner is right in the centre of the storm. The shooters were killed at the scene, but who sent them? The crisis finds Skinner taking a step that he had sworn he never would. Tasked with the investigation of the outrage, he finds himself uncovering some very murky deeds…The trail leads to London, and a confrontation that seems too much, even for him. Can the Chief solve the most challenging mystery of his career…or will failure end it?

And now I just need to find time to read them.

The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

I’m currently reading The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, so I’m delighted to see that he has won the £25,000 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction for his novel Tightrope.


Tightrope follows Marian Sutro, who has survived Ravensbruck and is back in dreary London trying to pick up the pieces of her post-War life. It is Simon Mawer’s tenth novel; his seventh,The Glass Room, was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize in 2010.

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

My Friday Post: The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week’s book is The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, which I’ve just begun to read. It begins:

Oh yes, we’re here.

She knew after all these years. Something about the slope of the road, the way the trajectory of the car began to curve upwards, a perception of shape and motion that, despite being unused for thirty years, was still engraved on her mind, to be reawakened by the subtle coincidence of movement and inclination.

Friday 56

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

Her eyes were blue, so pale that they gave the curious illusion of transparency, as though you were looking through them and seeing the sky.

He fumbled for his lighter and watched as she bent towards the flame. She wore a grey cloche hat and her hair was dark and cut short, not cropped as severely as Liesel’s and her friends’, but short enough to be a statement that she was a modern woman. A Slav he fancied.

It looks from the opening sentences and the extract from page 56 that this is going to be a detailed, descriptive book. I like that.

Synopsis from Goodreads:

High on a Czechoslovak hill, the Landauer House has been built for newlyweds Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a Jew married to a gentile. But, when the storm clouds of WW2 gather, the family must flee, accompanied by Viktor’s lover and her child. But the house’s story is far from over, as it passes from hand to hand, from Czech to Russian.

This is a work of fiction, but the house in Prague is real. Mawer follows it through all of the upheavals of 20th century Czech history.

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.

Short Story Sunday: Hans Christian Andersen

I’ve been reading some of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales as part of Carl’s Once Upon A Time event, specifically in the Short Story Quest. So far I’ve written about The Rose Elf, The Shepherdess and the Sweep, and The Snow Queen.

I’ve been disappointed in some of the other stories, some are gruesome and moralistic.  I don’t remember feeling that about them when I first read them as a child, which shows, I suppose, the different approach children have to such tales, or maybe it’s just me.

In my descriptions of today’s stories I have not concealed the endings. It’s difficult to write meaningfully without doing so or to decide what should not be revealed in these stories and anyway they are well known and have been told or retold in one form or another. But if you don’t want to know how they end please be aware that there are spoilers in what follows.

First, The Red Shoes, in which a little girl, Karen, longs to have a pair of shiny red shoes, even though the old lady who had adopted her told her that the shoes were very wrong and unbecoming. Karen disobeys her and wears the red shoes to go to church. But they are magic shoes and they compel her to dance, won’t come off her feet and take her dancing where she doesn’t want to go. The result is just awful.

An angel tells her she must dance until she dies, so that children will see the consequence of pride and vanity. In desperation she begs the executioner to cut off her feet along with the shoes, which then go dancing away by themselves and she is left a cripple with wooden feet. She begs for God’s mercy, is taken into service by a clergyman and eventually dies, ‘her heart was so filled with sunshine, peace and joy that it broke. Her soul took its flight up to heaven.’

 

The strange thing is that I didn’t remember what happened at the end! So I either stopped reading when the horrible bit began, or have blanked it out of my memory. The moral of the story is to point out the consequences of pride and disobedience.

The next one I read is The Brave Tin Soldier, a bitter-sweet tale that also ends in disaster. I suppose this one is about the dangers of pride too. He is one of twenty five tin soldiers, but he has only one leg as he had been cast last when there was not enough tin left to complete him. He wants to marry the cardboard ballet dancer, standing in the middle of a looking glass lake as it appears that she too has only one leg as she balances with one leg lifted raised so high the soldier can’t see it.

At midnight the Jack-in-a-box opens and the little black imp inside warns the soldier to keep his eyes to himself. The soldier ignores his warning and the imp tells him to just wait until the morning. Morning comes and a draught from the window (or is it the imp’s doing) knocks the soldier off the window and down into the street. He is too proud to call attention to himself when the little by who owns him looks for him and he is swept away down the gutter and ends up in a canal, threatened by a large water rat and is then eaten by a fish. The fish is caught and cooked, whereupon the soldier is saved. But that is not the end as one of the little boys throws him into the fire, a door is opened and the draught carries away the little dancer also into the fire. She blazes up and the tin soldier is melted down, leaving only a tin heart.

It’s true he was brave, but he was also too passive or too proud and so fails to save himself. But I do remember liking this story as a child, but maybe that was because I just accepted his fate.

Much more encouraging is the tale of The Ugly Duckling – a famous story about the duckling who was different from the other ducklings, mocked and picked on by the other birds. I remember seeing this story in the film with Danny Kaye as Hans Christian Andersen and the song: There Once Was an Ugly Duckling – quack, get out, get out of town. Of course the ugly duckling is not a duck at all! I thought of this story whilst watching Springwatch this week when the poor bedraggled blue tit was worn to a frazzle feeding her babies that were actually great tits, not blue tits!

And another story that has a happy ending is The Nightingale -one of my favourites as a child, so I’m pleased I still like it. It’s about a nightingale whose beautiful singing captivates all who hear her, including the Chinese Emperor. She agrees to come to his palace and sing for him, living in a cage but still allowed to fly twice a day. The Japanese Emperor sends him a mechanical bird, decked in rich jewels, which when wound up imitates the nightingale’s song. Everyone loves the artificial bird and the real nightingale flies away.

But eventually the artificial bird’s mechanism became worn out and it could no longer sing. The Emperor was heart broken when the real bird cannot be found and he collapsed close to death. But the live nightingale comes to his rescue and sings to give him hope and consolation and his death is averted. He wants her to return to the palace but she refuses as she can’t live inside, but agrees to come and sing for him in his garden.

It is a beautiful story contrasting art, technology and nature and one that is full of optimism about the joys of life.

I think this will probably be my last post for the Short Story Quest, which I have enjoyed even though some of the stories failed to live up to my memories.

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.

My Week in Books: 8 June 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

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A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.


Now:
 I’ve just started Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham, his first book featuring British detective Fiona Griffiths.

Blurb:

A young girl is found dead. A prostitute is murdered. And the strangest, youngest detective in the South Wales Major Crimes Unit is about to face the fiercest test of her short career.

A woman and her six-year-old daughter are killed with chilling brutality in a dingy flat. The only clue: the platinum bank card of a long-dead tycoon, found amidst the squalor.

DC Griffiths has already proved herself dedicated to the job, but there’s another side to her she is less keen to reveal. Something to do with a mysterious two-year gap in her CV, her strange inability to cry – and a disconcerting familiarity with corpses.

Fiona is desperate to put the past behind her but as more gruesome killings follow, the case leads her inexorably back into those dark places in her own mind where another dead girl is waiting to be found.

I’m still reading Andrew Marr’s A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr, basically Britain after the end of the Second World War up to 2006, with an added introduction in the paperback edition written in 2008. I’ve read up to page 152 so far out of 672 pages. It will be a while  before I finish this book – I don’t read non-fiction quickly!

Then:The last book I read was High Rising by Angela Thirkell. See this post for my review.

Next: It  will most likely be one of the books on my 20 Books of Summer list, probably Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine.

Blurb:

Asta and her husband Rasmus have come to east London from Denmark with their two sons. With Rasmus constantly away on business, Asta keeps loneliness and isolation at bay by writing her diary. These diaries reveal themselves to be more than a journal, for they seem to hold the key to an unsolved murder.

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

Classics Club Spin: the Result

and it is … number 15, which for me is

The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling, a novella. That’s fine – I should be able to slot that into my Summer reading without any difficulties before 1 August.

I’ve read some of Kipling’s books before, including The Just So Stories, Kim, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and his poem If. Then there is, of course, The Jungle Book (seen the film and may have read the book).

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

Books Read in May 2016

May was another good reading month for me. I read seven novels and one book of memoirs.

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf – a book I’ve owned for years. Virginia Woolf’s first novel about a young woman’s search for life, love and the world, an intriguing book.  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. A sad book.

Crystal Nights by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen, crime fiction that moves between events in Germany in 1938 to Kalum, a fictional village in Denmark, in the 1960s. a story of how evil touched so many lives with such terrible consequences and how by patience and perseverance the truth was revealed. I was carried away by the story.

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill – memories, thoughts and reflections on her life as she approaches her 100th year (she was born in 1917). Her love of life shines through this remarkable book. I loved it.

The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers (LB) – a beautiful book that I enjoyed immensely, beautifully written, with the character of Agnès Morel at its centre. There is a mystery about her origins and also about her life before she arrived in Chartres.

Inside of Me by Hazel McHaffie – an excellent book. Hazel McHaffie’s novels 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 concerning missing teenage girls.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley – a mixture of historical fact and fantasy set in Victorian times, both in London and Japan. Bombs, clockwork inventions, the London Underground, Gilbert and Sullivan and much more more make up this fantastical tale. I loved it both for its historical settings and for its ingenuity.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson – the story of Ruth and Lucille, orphans growing up in the small desolate town of Fingerbone in the vast northwest of America. I found this a melancholy tale about a dysfunctional family, a story of loneliness, loss, suicide, death, and transience. I liked it but it’s probably the least enjoyable book I read in May.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini – I loved this amazing book, not an easy read emotionally, but one that will live in my memory as one of the most devastating and heartbreaking stories I’ve read. Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are two women brought jarringly together by war, by loss and by fate. As they endure the ever escalating dangers around them—in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul—they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation. (Goodreads summary)

My favourite books of the month are:

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini

Impossible to choose between them!

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.

My Friday Post: Housekeeping

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week’s book is Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

It begins:

My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs Sylvia Foster, and then when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled of her daughter, Mrs Sylvia Fisher.

Friday 56

A sad opening, I thought. Two young children passed from pillar to post.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

Sylvie put her hands in her pockets. “I think I should stay for a while,” she said. The aunts are too old. I think it’s best for now, at least.”

See my previous post for the synopsis.

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.

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.)

Adding to the TBRs

As usual I am behind with writing about the books I’ve read, with four to do. I’m in the middle of writing about The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf, but it is taking me longer than I’d hoped and I haven’t finished my post yet.

So, here’s a post about the four books I’ve added to my TBRs this week:

STSmall

Stacking The Shelves is all about sharing the books you are adding to your shelves. This means you can include ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ books (ie physical and ebooks) you’ve bought, books you’ve borrowed from friends or the library, review books, and gifts.

I’ve added one paperback and three e-books:

  • The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley. A friend recommended this book to me and I was delighted to see that it is one of the Kindle Daily Deals this morning. It’s steam-punk, a genre completely new to me! It is described as:

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.

I hope I’ll like it as much as my friend did!

  • John Le Carré: the Biography by Adam Sisman, because I want to know more about the author of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Night Manager and his other espionage books. During the 1950s and the 1960s, he worked for the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service, and began writing novels under a pen name. This is the definitive biography of a major writer, described by Ian McEwan as ‘perhaps the most significant novelist of the second half of the twentieth century in Britain’.
  • Time Heals No Wounds: a Baltic Sea crime novel by Hendrick Falkenberg. This is one of the free books for Amazon Prime members in May. German author Hendrik Falkenberg studied sports management and works in sports broadcasting. The magical allure that the sea holds for him comes alive in his stories, which are set on the north German coast. His first book, Die Zeit heilt keine Wunden (Time Heals No Wounds), was a #1 Kindle bestseller in Germany and has been translated for the first time into English.
  • And lastly, HeavenAli held a draw to give away some of Virginia Woolf’s books and I’m delighted that I won Orlando in the giveaway.

Orlando tells the tale of an extraordinary individual who lives through centuries of English history, first as a man, then as a woman; of his/her encounters with queens, kings, novelists, playwrights, and poets, and of his/her struggle to find fame and immortality not through actions, but through the written word. At its heart are the life and works of Woolf’s friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West, and Knole, the historic home of the Sackvilles. But as well as being a love letter to Vita, Orlando mocks the conventions of biography and history, teases the pretensions of contemporary men of letters, and wryly examines sexual double standards.

I’m looking forward to reading these books in the coming months!

First Chapter, First Paragraph: The Silver Pigs

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.

This week I’m featuring The Silver Pigs by Lindsay Davis, a book that I started reading last night. Whilst this is a new-to-me series, The Silver Pigs was first published in 1989 and there are now 20 books in the series. Lindsey Davis also writes the Favia Alba Mystery series. She has won many literary awards, and was honorary president of the Classical Association from 1997 to 1998.

It begins:

When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes.

It was late summer. Rome frizzled like a pancake on a griddleplate. People unlaced their shoes but had to keep them on; not even an elephant could cross the street unshod. People flopped on stools in shadowed doorways, bare knees apart, naked to the waist – and in the backstreets of Aventine Sector where I lived, that was just the women.

This is historical crime fiction, the first of the Marcus Didius Falco novels. Set in Rome in 70AD, Vespasian is the new Roman emperor and Falco is a private informer, or private eye. In this first book he and his partner Helena Justina rescue a young girl in trouble. He is then catapulted into a dangerous game involving stolen imperial ingots, a dark political plot and, most hazardous of all, a senator’s daughter connected to the traitors Falco has sworn to expose.

My copy has an introduction by Lindsey Davis in which she tells of how she began to write historical fiction, setting a typical private eye figure in Rome two thousand years ago. It has maps and a Dramatis Personae.

And I do like the cover.

 

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.

My Reginald Hill Reading Project

Inspired by reading Reginald Hill’s Bones and Silence recently I decided I want to read more of his books and I’ve made a page to record my progress. When I visited two secondhand bookshops this last week I stocked up on as many of his books that were on the shelves that I haven’t read:

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They are all Dalziel and Pascoe novels, apart from The Collaborators, which is a standalone novel set in 1945 in Paris. From the top down they are (synopses from Amazon, essentially the blurbs on the back covers) :

  • Dialogues of the Dead: A man drowns. Another dies in a motorbike crash. Two accidents … yet in a pair of so-called Dialogues sent to the Mid-Yorkshire Gazette as entries in a short story competition, someone seems to be taking responsibility for the deaths.In Mid-Yorkshire CID these claims are greeted with disbelief. But when the story is leaked to television and a third indisputable murder takes place, Dalziel and Pascoe find themselves playing a game no one knows the rules of against an opponent known only as the Wordman.
  • The Collaborators:Paris, 1945. In the aftermath of the French liberation, Janine Simonian stands accused of passing secret information to the Nazis.She is dragged from her cell before jeering crowds, to face a jury of former Resistance members who are out for her blood. Standing bravely in court, Janine pleads guilty to all charges.Why did Janine betray, not just her country, but her own husband? Why did so many French men and women collaborate with the Nazis, while others gave their lives in resistance?What follows is a story of conscience and sacrifice that portrays the impossible choice between personal and national loyalty during the Nazi occupation.
  • Child’s Play:When Geraldine Lomas dies, her huge fortune is left to an animal rights organization, a fascist front and a services benevolent fund. But at her funeral a middle-aged man steps forward, claiming to be her long-lost son and rightful heir.He is later found shot dead in the police car park, leaving behind a multitude of suspects. And Superintendent Dalziel and Peter Pascoe find themselves plunged into an investigation that makes most of their previous cases look like child’s play…
  • On Beulah Height:Fifteen years ago they moved everyone out of Dendale. They needed a new reservoir and an old community seemed a cheap price to pay. But four inhabitants of the valley could not be moved, for nobody knew where they were: three little girls who had gone missing, and the prime suspect in their disappearance, Benny Lightfoot.This was Andy Dalziel’s worst case and now he looks set to relive it. Another child goes missing in the next valley, and old fears arise as someone sprays the deadly message on Danby bridge: BENNY’S BACK!
  • Midnight Fugue:Gina Wolfe is searching for her missing husband, believed dead, and hopes Superintendent Andy Dalziel can help. What neither realize is that there are others on the same trail. A tabloid hack with some awkward enquiries about an ambitious MP’s father. The politician’s secretary who shares his suspicions. The ruthless entrepreneur in question – and the two henchmen out to make sure the past stays in the past.Four stories, two mismatched detectives trying to figure it all out, and 24 hours in which to do it: Dalziel and Pascoe are about to learn the hard way exactly how much difference a day makes…

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:

Classics Club Check-In April 2016

Classics Club check inIt’s time for a Classics Club Check-In. Three years ago (next week) I joined The Classics Club, signing up to read and write about at least 50 classic books in at most five years. This is the first time I’ve taken part in a Check-In, although I have joined in with the Classics Club Spins, which I enjoy.

The list is not a fixed list and I have changed it since I started in 2013.This is my current list. I’ve listed the books in a-z author order. I’ve read 18 books, shown in bold, so I’m behind if I’m going to meet my target in the next two years. Currently I’m reading The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (my current Spin book).

It’s hard to pick a favourite. These books stand out in my mind – Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens.

  1. Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon by Jane Austen – finished 24 August 2015
  2. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – finished 29 June 2014
  3. The Old Wives Tale by Arnold Bennett
  4. Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by R D Blackmore
  5. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (a re-read) – read in November 2014
  6. The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchanfinished 21 February 2014
  7. My Antonia by Willa Cather – finished 26 September 2013
  8. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
  9. The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins – finished 30 September 2015
  10. No Name by Wilkie Collins
  11. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
  12. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
  13. Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens – finished 29 June 2013
  14. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
  15. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
  16. Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens
  17. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens – finished 10 October 2015
  18. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  19. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
  20. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  21. Adam Bede by George Eliot – finished 18 September 2015
  22. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  23. Romola by George Eliot
  24. Silas Marner by George Eliot
  25. Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
  26. The Forsyte Saga (1-3) by John Galsworthy
  27. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
  28. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  29. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
  30. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
  31. The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
  32. Washington Square by Henry James – finished 17 December 2013
  33. The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling
  34. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – finished 16 July 2013
  35. The Call of the Wild by Jack London – finished 10 December 2014
  36. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  37. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  38. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – finished 20 November 2013
  39. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck – finished 20 September 2015
  40. Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson
  41. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  42. Barchester Towers (Barsetshire Chronicles, #2) by Anthony Trollope – finished 22 February 2015
  43. Doctor Thorne (Barsetshire Chronicles, #3) by Anthony Trollope – finished 3 March 2016
  44. Framley Parsonage (Barsetshire Chronicles, #4) by Anthony Trollope
  45.  The Small House at Allington (Barsetshire Chronicles, #5) by Anthony Trollope
  46. The Last Chronicle of Barset (Barsetshire Chronicles, #6) by Anthony Trollope
  47. The Time Machine by H G Wells – finished 29 March 2014
  48. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  49. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton – finished 22 February 2014
  50. The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

My Week in Books: 13 April 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

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A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Now: Currently I’m reading three books, because I like to vary my reading. So, I have a classic, a crime fiction and a non-fiction book on the go:

Blurb:

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.

  • Bones and Silence by Reginald Hill – a Dalziel and Pascoe crime fiction novel. It’s book 11 in the series, which I’m reading totally out of order (there are over 20 in the series) and it is really good.

Blurb:

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 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? Daziel, of course. He shouldn’t have too much difficulty acting the part…

  • L S Lowry: A Life by Shelley Rohde. Lowry is one of my favourite artists, well known for his urban paintings of industrial towns but his work covers a wide range of themes and subjects, from landscapes and seascapes to portraits. This biography is based on collections of private papers held in The Lowry, Salford Quays.
  • Then: I’ve recently finished The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, her first novel. I’ve read some of her other books –  loved The Poisonwood Bible which I’ve read a few times, and Homeland, a book of short stories, but wasn’t so taken with The Lacuna. I thoroughly enjoyed The Bean Trees – my review will follow shortly:

Blurb:

Plucky Taylor Greer grows up poor in rural Kentucky with two goals: to avoid pregnancy and to get away. She succeeds on both counts when she buys an old car and heads west. But midway across the country motherhood catches up with her when she becomes the guardian of an abandoned baby girl she calls Turtle. In Tuscon they encounter an extraordinary array of people, and with their help, Taylor builds herself and her sweet, stunned child a life.

Next: I really don’t know.

What about you? What are you reading this week?

Stacking the Shelves: 9 April 2016

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Stacking The Shelves is all about sharing the books you are adding to your shelves. This means you can include ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ books (ie physical and ebooks) you’ve bought, books you’ve borrowed from friends or the library, review books, and gifts.

I’ve borrowed three library books this week, books by authors whose books I’ve read in the past and enjoyed:

  • The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers – I borrowed this because I’ve some of Salley Vickers’ books and loved them, in particular Miss Garnet’s Angel and Mr Golightly’s Holiday and Where Three Roads Meet, so I’m hoping I’ll love this one too.

Blurb:

There is something special about the ancient cathedral of Chartres, with its mismatched spires, astonishing stained glass and strange labyrinth. And there is something special too about Agnès Morel, the mysterious woman who is to be found cleaning it each morning.

No one quite knows where she came from – not the diffident Abbé Paul, who discovered her one morning twenty years ago, sleeping in the north porch; nor lonely Professor Jones, whose chaotic existence she helps to organise; nor Philippe Nevers, whose neurotic sister and newborn child she cares for; nor even the irreverent young restorer, Alain Fleury, who works alongside her each day and whose attention she catches with her tawny eyes, her colourful clothes and elusive manner. And yet everyone she encounters would surely agree that she is subtly transforming their lives, even if they couldn’t quite say how.

But with a chance meeting in the cathedral one day, the spectre of Agnès’ past returns, provoking malicious rumours from the prejudiced Madame Beck and her gossipy companion Madame Picot. As the hearsay grows uglier, Agnès is forced to confront her history, and the mystery of her origins finally unfolds.

Blurb:

Reading Gaol’s most famous prisoner is pitted against a ruthless and fiendishly clever serial killer. ‘Intelligent, amusing and entertaining’ Alexander McCall Smith It is 1897, Dieppe. Oscar Wilde, poet, playwright, novelist, raconteur and ex-convict, has fled the country after his release from Reading Gaol. Tonight he is sharing a drink and the story of his cruel imprisonment with a mysterious stranger. He has endured a harsh regime: the treadmill, solitary confinement, censored letters, no writing materials. Yet even in the midst of such deprivation, Oscar’s astonishing detective powers remain undiminished – and when first a brutal warder and then the prison chaplain are found murdered, who else should the governor turn to for help other than Reading Gaol’s most celebrated inmate?
In this, the latest novel in his acclaimed Oscar Wilde murder mystery series, Gyles Brandreth takes us deep into the dark heart of Wilde’s cruel incarceration.

Blurb:

Charlie Howard – struggling crime-writer by day, talented thief by night – has gone straight. But holing himself up in a crumbling palazzo in Venice in an attempt to concentrate on his next novel hasn’t got rid of the itch in his fingers. And to make matters worse, a striking Italian beauty has just broken into his apartment and made off with his most prized possession, leaving a puzzling calling card in its place.

It looks as though kicking the habit of a lifetime will be much more of a challenge than Charlie thought.

Sneaking out into Venice’s maze of murky canals, Charlie’s attempts to tame a cat burglar embroil him in a plot that is far bigger and more explosive than he could ever have imagined.

We should treasure our libraries.

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

Stacking the Shelves: 2 April 2016

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Stacking The Shelves is all about sharing the books you are adding to your shelves. This means you can include ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ books (ie physical and ebooks) you’ve bought, books you’ve borrowed from friends or the library, review books, and gifts.

I bought three books this week.

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I loved watching The Night Manager, adapted from John le Carré’s novel, so when I went to Main Street Trading on Tuesday I hoped they would have a copy. They didn’t – but they did have Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a book I’ve wanted to read ever since I watched the BBC adaptation many years ago (Alec Guinness was George Smiley).

Blurb:

George Smiley, who is a troubled man of infinite compassion, is also a single-mindedly ruthless adversary as a spy.

The scene which he enters is a Cold War landscape of moles and lamplighters, scalp-hunters and pavement artists, where men are turned, burned or bought for stock. Smiley’s mission is to catch a Moscow Centre mole burrowed thirty years deep into the Circus itself.

Yesterday I went shopping and passing Berrydin in Books I had to go in and, of course, I had to buy a book – well two actually. First another book that I was prompted to read by a TV adaptation in 2012 – Birdsong by Sebastian Foulks.

Blurb:

A novel of overwhelming emotional power, Birdsong is a story of love, death, sex and survival. Stephen Wraysford, a young Englishman, arrives in Amiens in northern France in 1910 to stay with the Azaire family, and falls in love with unhappily married Isabelle. But, with the world on the brink of war, the relationship falters, and Stephen volunteers to fight on the Western Front. His love for Isabelle forever engraved on his heart, he experiences the unprecedented horrors of that conflict – from which neither he nor any reader of this book can emerge unchanged.

And also Citadel by Kate Mosse, because I like time-slip books. The main story is set in 1942-44 in Nazi-occupied  Carcassonne in France and moves back in time to 342, with a monk, Arinus trying to find a hiding place for a forbidden Codex.

Blurb:

1942, Nazi-occupied France. Sandrine, a spirited and courageous nineteen-year-old, finds herself drawn into a Resistance group in Carcassonne – codenamed ‘Citadel’ – made up of ordinary women who are prepared to risk everything for what is right.

And when she meets Raoul, they discover a shared passion for the cause, for their homeland, and for each other.

But in a world where the enemy now lies in every shadow – where neighbour informs on neighbour; where friends disappear without warning and often without trace – love can demand the highest price of all…

As soon as I read some of my TBR books (6 in March) it seems I just have to find more – at least it’s only three this time.

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.

Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen by Alison Weir

I received a proof copy of Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen as a member of the reader review panel for Lovereading.co.uk. It’s the first book in a series of novels about Henry VIII’s Queens and is due to be published in May 2016.

This is fictional biography at its most straight forward, written in an uncomplicated style. Told from Katherine’s point of view it follows her life from the time she arrived in England at the age of sixteen to marry Prince Arthur, the elder of Henry VII’s two sons, to her death in 1536.

I knew the brief facts about Katherine, the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, married first to Prince Arthur and then to his brother Henry after a papal dispensation allowing the marriage after Arthur’s death; her subsequent failure to produce a living male heir, suffering a series of miscarriages; the only baby to survive was a daughter, Mary; and her divorce in 1533 from Henry VIII, who was by then besotted with Anne Boleyn.

This novel fills in the facts in great detail including the question of whether her first marriage was consummated. Katherine maintained it wasn’t and based on research Weir takes her word as the truth. In her Author’s Note she refers to recent research by Giles Tremlett and Patrick Williams that shows ‘we can be fairly certain that Katherine’s marriage to Prince Arthur was not consummated and that he died of tuberculosis.’  She cites the basis of her account of Arthur’s illnesss on Dr. Alcaraz’s testimony, given on 1531 at Zaragoza. She portrays Katherine as a determined woman who never ceased loving Henry and above all who did everything she could to protect the legitimacy of her daughter.

Katherine is portrayed as a woman of her time – obedient to her parents and her husband, conscientious about doing her duty  and active in maintaining an alliance between England and Spain. But even so, she resisted Henry in his demands for an annulment of their marriage. She was heart-broken both at her failure to produce a living male heir and to keep Henry’s love – because they were in love at the beginning – and maintained that she was the true queen right up to her death. I tend to forget the length of their marriage, glibly remembering the mnemonic ‘Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived‘. Katherine and Henry were married for over 20 years. I did get tired of the account of their endless wrangling, going over and over the same arguments, never getting anywhere – but then I suppose that was how it was for them both.

Overall I enjoyed this book. It’s a long and comprehensive study, which has increased my knowledge and understanding of Katherine of Aragon and the early 1500s. It is obviously based on extensive research and written with great attention to historical accuracy, but in places this made it tedious and too drawn out.

  • Hardcover: 624 pages – also available as a Kindle edition
  • Publisher: Headline Review (5 May 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1472227476
  • ISBN-13: 978-1472227478
  • Product Dimensions: 15.3 x 5.6 x 23.4 cm
  • Source: Review copy

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.

My Friday Post: Book Beginnings & The Friday 56

Friday is book excerpts day on two blogs:

Book Beginnings ButtonBook Beginnings on Fridays hosted by Rose City Reader, where bloggers share the first sentence or more of a current read, as well as initial thoughts about the sentence(s), impressions of the book, or anything else that the opening inspires.  Friday 56

The Friday 56 hosted by Freda’s Voice, where you grab a book and turn to page 56 (or 56% of an ebook), find one or more sentences (no spoilers), and post them.

I’m currently reading The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark. (See this post for the synopsis)

It begins with a letter dated 1 January 2006:

Holmlea, 20 Shore Road, Lamlash, Isle of Arran

Dear Mrs Morrison,

A long time ago, almost thirty-four years past, you wrote to me requesting that I contact you should I ever wish to leave my home. I knew then that I would never live anywhere else, and so there was no point in my replying to you. I have lived in this house since I was eight years old but I am what people these days describe as ‘ancient’ and somewhat frail, and although I have managed perfectly well on my own until now, I know I am not long for this world. I have told my doctor I will move to a small nursing home as I realise it will be less trouble for him, and I have finally locked up the house.

My family such as it was, is long dead. There is no one alive but me.

I am instructing my solicitor to write to you at the address on your letter. Holmlea is yours if you still wish it.

Page 54 (pages 55 and 56 are blank pages)

It was Mary who raced to Benkiln that fateful September of 1918 clutching a newspaper from France. I have read the cutting so often I know it by heart. ‘Arran gunner in brave attack on the Hun. Sergeant James Allan Pringle showed conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during an attack north of Bray-sur-Somme on 22 August. 

My thoughts

There were several things that caught my attention when I saw this book on display in the bookshop – first of all the cover, with its delicate colours, of a young woman entering a door, then the title with its hint of a past to be revealed, and thirdly the opening letter with its offer of a house on the Isle of Arran if Mrs Morrison still wished it. It’s a poignant letter, which saddened me a little with that sentence – There is no one alive but me. 

I’ve now read just over half of the book, which tells Elizabeth’s story along with that of Martha, Mrs Morrison’s daughter. I’ve never been to Arran, an island off the north-west coast of Scotland, but Kirsty Wark’s description is making me eager to see it for myself. The book has a quiet, gentle atmosphere, which is also very compelling reading, packed with the events of both Elizabeth’s and Martha’s lives.

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.

February’s Books 2016

I finished reading six books in February and am in the middle of two more, both long books. Just one book from my TBR shelves this month, and no non-fiction. My unfinished books are SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard and Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope – a three part adaptation of this novel begins on ITV on 6 March.

The six books I finished are:

  1. Too Soon a Death by Janet O’Kane (review book) – crime fiction set in the Scottish Borders featuring Dr. Kate Moreland as she is once more involved in solving a murder mystery.
  2. Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen by Alison Weir (review book) – as the title indicates historical fiction about Henry VIII’s first wife. A detailed fictional biography. My review is to follow.
  3. A House Divided by Margaret Skea – historical fiction set in 1597 in Scotland and France, this is the most gripping story of the feuding clans of Cunninghame and Montgomerie. The historical facts blend seamlessly into the narrative, with beautiful descriptive passages.
  4. Styx and Stones by Carola Dunn – ‘cosy’ crime fiction in the Daisy Dalrymple series set in England in the 1920s – an entertaining book.
  5. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (TBR) – fiction of a different style from the other books I read this month, one to make me think. Set in Gilead, Iowa in 1956 this is the Reverend John Ames letter to his young son.
  6. Slade House by David Mitchell (library book) – a mixture of a ghost story, science fiction and horror. Something nasty happens every nine years at the end of October at Slade House. Once I started I had to read to the end.

Although I enjoyed all the books I read in February and was fascinated by Slade House I have absolutely no doubt about my choice of book of the month – it’s the brilliant

A House Divided by Margaret Skea.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

This is another short post as I am still trying to catch up with writing about the books I’ve read in February. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is one of them. It is narrated by the Reverend John Ames as he nears the end of his life. Set in Gilead, Iowa in 1956 John Ames is 76, dying of heart disease, and writing a letter to his young son aged 7 telling him the things he would have told him if he had lived to see him grow up. A letter for his son to read when he is an adult.

Ames writes stories of his brother, and his father and grandfather, including tales of what had happened in Gilead, such as the story of the horse that sank into the ground into one of the tunnels the inhabitants had made and the lengths they had gone to get it out and fill in the hole. He also wrote about his beliefs and his relationship with his friend, also a preacher, Boughton and Boughton’s son, Jack. There is a mystery surrounding Jack, what is the ‘great sin’ he committed, why he had left home, what happened to him and why he had come back. Jack is named after John, who struggles to forgive and understand Jack.

In parts I found this a bit rambling and repetitive, reflecting the fact that Ames wrote over a period of time and probably forgot he’d mentioned things before, or because he was emphasising their importance – such as the first time he met his wife, who is a lot younger than him.

I took my time reading because you do have to concentrate and not rush to find out what happened. I enjoyed it and think I would probably get even more out of it on a second reading, especially for the philosophical and religious ideas.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge ( a book I’ve owned for about 8 years).

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.

Lustrum and Dictator by Robert Harris

I’d enjoyed the first book in Robert Harris’ Cicero Trilogy, Imperium. So I’d been looking forward to reading Lustrum, the second in the trilogy (published as Conspirata in the US and Italy) . It didn’t fail to live up to my expectations – it surpassed them. I think it’s historical fiction at its best. I immediately went on to read Dictator, the third book in the trilogy, which I also enjoyed very much, but I think Lustrum is the outstanding book of the three.

I had intended to write a more detailed post about Lustrum and Dictator but life and medical issues decided otherwise, so this is just a short post on both books.

Lustrum begins where Imperium finished in 63 BC with a dramatic scene, as the body of a child is pulled from the River Tiber, a child who had been killed as a human sacrifice, grotesquely mutilated. What follows is an account of the five year period (a lustrum) of Cicero’s consulship and the battle for power between him, Julius Caesar, Pompey the republic’s greatest general, Crassus its richest man, Cato a political fanatic, Catilina a psychopath, and Clodius an ambitious playboy. It ends with his exile from Rome.

Once I began reading I was immediately drawn into the world of Cicero. The story is once again narrated by his secretary, the slave Tiro, giving access to Cicero’s thoughts and feelings. Tiro is an interesting character in his own right – he is reported to be the first man to record a speech in the senate verbatim and some of the symbols in his shorthand system are still in use today, such as &, etc, ie, and eg. As in Imperium and in the third book, Dictator, Harris has used Cicero’s actual words, adding to the books’ authenticity. Harris states that he hopes it is not necessary to read the books in order but I think it adds much to the enjoyment if you do.

Dictator covers the last 15 years of Cicero’s life when he was no longer a dominant political figure in Rome. The book begins with Cicero in exile, separated from his wife and children and in constant danger of losing his life. Apart from the first part of the book when Cicero is working towards returning to Rome, I didn’t find it as exciting or as compelling as the first two books. This is mainly because there is so much happening such as the civil war and the downfall of the republic from which Cicero is excluded first because on his return to Rome he is sidelined, and then retired.

All three books are based on extensive research but Harris is such a good story teller that they don’t read like text books. Roman history has always fascinated me and reading this trilogy has revived my interest, so much so that I am now reading Mary Beard’s book, SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome, that goes right back to the beginning describing how Rome grew and became such a dominant power.

When I saw Catilina’s Riddle by Steven Saylor sitting in the mobile library shelves I just had to borrow it. It’s historical crime fiction in which Gordianius the Finder gets involved in the Catilina conspiracy to overthrow the republic.

And I would also like to re-read Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series to compare with Harris’ trilogy, or at least some of the books involving Cicero and Caesar. Oh for more time to read!

Lustrum is one of my Mount TBR Mountain Challenge 2016 books (ie books I’ve owned before 1 January 2016) .

My Week in Books: 10 February 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

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A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Currently I’m reading two books:

Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen by Alison Weir, a proof copy – expected publication 5 May 2016. This is the first novel of the Six Tudor Queens series.

Blurb:

A Spanish princess. Raised to be modest, obedient and devout. Destined to be an English Queen. Six weeks from home across treacherous seas, everything is different: the language, the food, the weather. And for her there is no comfort in any of it. At sixteen years-old, Catalina is alone among strangers. She misses her mother. She mourns her lost brother. She cannot trust even those assigned to her protection.

Acclaimed, bestselling historian Alison Weir has based her enthralling account of Henry VIII’s first wife on extensive research and new theories. She reveals a strong, spirited woman determined to fight for her rights and the rightful place of her daughter. A woman who believed that to be the wife of a King was her destiny.

History tells us how she died. This captivating novel shows us how she lived.

I’m also reading SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard, the Kindle edition.

Blurb:

Ancient Rome matters. Its history of empire, conquest, cruelty and excess is something against which we still judge ourselves. Its myths and stories – from Romulus and Remus to the Rape of Lucretia – still strike a chord with us. And its debates about citizenship, security and the rights of the individual still influence our own debates on civil liberty today. 

SPQR is a new look at Roman history from one of the world’s foremost classicists. It explores not only how Rome grew from an insignificant village in central Italy to a power that controlled territory from Spain to Syria, but also how the Romans thought about themselves and their achievements, and why they are still important to us.

Covering 1,000 years of history, and casting fresh light on the basics of Roman culture from slavery to running water, as well as exploring democracy, migration, religious controversy, social mobility and exploitation in the larger context of the empire, this is a definitive history of ancient Rome.

SPQR is the Romans’ own abbreviation for their state: Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome’.

I’ve recently finished Too Soon a Death by Janet O’Kane, crime fiction set in the Scottish Borders.

You can read my thoughts on this book in my previous post.

And next I’ll be reading Slade House by David Mitchell, or at least I think I’ll be reading this next. When the time comes I could fancy something completely different.

Blurb:

Born out of the short story David Mitchell published on Twitter in 2014 and inhabiting the same universe as his latest bestselling novel The Bone Clocks, this is the perfect book to curl up with on a dark and stormy night.

Turn down Slade Alley – narrow, dank and easy to miss, even when you’re looking for it. Find the small black iron door set into the right-hand wall. No handle, no keyhole, but at your touch it swings open. Enter the sunlit garden of an old house that doesn’t quite make sense; too grand for the shabby neighbourhood, too large for the space it occupies.

A stranger greets you by name and invites you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t.

This unnerving, taut and intricately woven tale by one of our most original and bewitching writers begins in 1979 and reaches its turbulent conclusion around Hallowe’en, 2015. Because every nine years, on the last Saturday of October, a ‘guest’ is summoned to Slade House. But why has that person been chosen, by whom and for what purpose? The answers lie waiting in the long attic, at the top of the stairs…

What have you been reading this week and what have got in mind to read next?

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.

First Chapter, First Paragraph: Runaway

First chapterEvery 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.

Runaway by Peter May is one of the books I’m thinking of reading this month. I’ve read some of his other books, the Lewis Trilogy and Entry Island and thoroughly enjoyed them, real page-turners. So I’m hoping that Runaway will be just as good.

It begins with a Prologue:

London

He wakes in a cold sweat from a dream pervaded by darkness and blood. And after a lifetime of being someone else in another land, he wonders who he is now. This man, who, he knows, is fading all too soon. A life squandered for a love lost. A life that seems to have passed in the blink of an eye.

and moves on to Chapter One in 2015:

Glasgow

Jack stepped down from the bus almost at the end of Battlefield Road and raised his head towards the darkening sky with a sense of foreboding. He took in the brooding silhouette of the smoke-stained Victoria Infirmary that climbed the hill above the field of battle where Mary, Queen of Scots, was once defeated by James VI, and felt as if someone had just walked over his grave.

Now, reading this, I am keen to read on. Flicking through the book I can see that it alternates between 1965 and 2015.

The back cover reveals that in 1965, five teenage friends fled Glasgow for London to pursue their dream of musical stardom. Yet before year’s end three returned, and returned damaged. In 2015, a brutal murder forces those three men, now in their sixties, to journey back to London and finally confront the dark truth they have run from for five decades.

 What do you think?

Would you keep reading?

First Chapter, First Paragraph: Dictator

First chapterEvery 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. I’m currently reading Dictator by Robert Harris, the third in his Cicero trilogy.

Dictator

It begins:

I remember the cries of Caesar’s war-horns chasing us over the darkened fields of Latium – their yearning, keening howls, like animals on heat – and how when they stopped there was only the slither of our shoes on the icy road and the urgent panting of our breath.

It was not enough for the immortal gods that Cicero should be spat at and reviled by his fellow citizens; not enough that in the middle of the night he be driven from the hearths and altars of his family and ancestors; not enough even that as we fled from Rome on foot he should look back and see his house in flames. To all these torments they deemed it necessary to add one further refinement: that he should be forced to hear his enemy’s army striking camp on the Field of Mars.

Blurb:

‘Laws are silent in times of war.’
Cicero

There was a time when Cicero held Caesar’s life in the palm of his hand. But now Caesar is the dominant figure and Cicero’s life is in ruins. Exiled, separated from his wife and children, his possessions confiscated, his life constantly in danger, Cicero is tormented by the knowledge that he has sacrificed power for the sake of his principles.

His comeback requires wit, skill and courage – and for a brief and glorious period, the legendary orator is once more the supreme senator in Rome. But politics is never static and no statesman, however cunning, can safeguard against the ambition and corruption of others.

Riveting and tumultuous, DICTATOR encompasses some of the most epic events in human history yet is also an intimate portrait of a brilliant, flawed, frequently fearful yet ultimately brave man – a hero for his time and for ours. This is an unforgettable tour de force from a master storyteller.

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I read in The Guardian that this last part of the trilogy marks the culmination of 12 years work. The trilogy as a whole has transported me back into the first century BC when Rome was engulfed in intrigue, conspiracies and civil war as the Roman Republic began to collapse and move into dictatorship and empire.  I’m loving the whole experience. Just as when I was reading the first two books, Imperium and Lustrum, I can’t wait to get back to it each time I have to stop reading.

Stacking the Shelves: 23 January 2016

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Stacking The Shelves is all about sharing the books you are adding to your shelves. This means you can include ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ books (ie physical and ebooks) you’ve bought, books you’ve borrowed from friends or the library, review books, and gifts.

Last night I finished reading Lustrum by Robert Harris, the second in his Cicero Trilogy (the first is Imperium). It ends as Cicero goes into exile and so this morning I had to buy the third book, Dictator, which covers the last fifteen years of his life.

Dictator

There was a time when Cicero held Caesar’s life in the palm of his hand. But now Caesar is the dominant figure and Cicero’s life is in ruins. Exiled, separated from his wife and children…

I’ve also borrowed these books from the library. My summaries are adapted from the blurbs.

Library bks Jan 2016

From top to bottom they are

  • Blue Genes by Val McDermid – I was put off reading her books several years ago when I just couldn’t stomach watching the violence and torture scenes in the TV series of The Wire. This sounds a bit different as it is a Kate Brannigan mystery, set in Manchester. The back cover reveals that Kate is having a bad week – her boyfriend has died, her plan to capture a team of fraudsters is in disarray and a neo-punk band wants her to find out who’s trashing their flyposters. It delves into the world of medical experimentation – I’m hoping it won’t be too gory!
  • Hunting Season by Andrea Camilleri – I’ve read a few of his Inspector Montalbano mysteries, but this is historical crime fiction set in Vigàta in Sicily in 1880, when a young man arrives in town and opens a pharmacy – then death arrives an the town and its most noble family will never be the same again …
  • Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg – he is one of my favourite authors. This novel is about memory and the slow fading of the mind as John visits his mother in a nursing home and finds that most of all she is longing for her mother, Grace, the mother she barely knew. Reaching from the late 19th century to the present, this becomes a deeply moving, reflective elegy on three generations linked by a chain of love, loss, and courage.
  • No Man’s Nightingale by Ruth Rendell, another favourite author. This is the 24th Inspector Wexford novel. 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.

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’.

A Month in the Country by J L Carr

A Month in the Country (Penguin Modern…‘Ah, those days … for many years afterwards their happiness haunted me. Sometimes listening to music, I drift back and nothing has changed. The long end of summer. Day after day of warm weather, voices calling as night came on and lighted windows pricked the darkness and, at day-break, the murmur of corn and the warm smell of fields ripe for harvest. And being young.

As an old man Tom Birkin is looking back to the summer of 1920 when he was asked to uncover a huge medieval wall-painting in the village church of Oxgodby in Yorkshire. J L Carr’s A Month in the Country is a beautifully written little book of just 85 pages, set in the aftermath of World War I. Tom, his ‘nerves shot to pieces, wife gone, dead broke‘,  is still suffering from shell shock after the battle of Passchendaele. Living in the church bell tower, he begins to uncover the painting, excited and engrossed in his work.

Another war veteran, Charles Moon is also in Oxgodby, an archaeologist, camping in a meadow next to the church, whilst he looks for a lost 14th century grave. There are also two more people who are relatively new to the village – the vicar and his beautiful wife, Arthur and Alice Keach. Tom and Moon decide their marriage is an ‘outrage’ and Tom finds her enchanting – reminding him of Botticelli’s Primavera.

I loved this quiet novel, in which not a lot happens and yet so much happens as Tom describes the events of that summer – his relationships with the local people as well as with Moon and Arthur and Alice Keach. There’s the unforgettable Sunday School outing and a visit to Ripon with the Wesleyans looking for an American organ to replace the harmonium in their chapel. It’s during this visit Tom learns more about Moon.

I loved the detail of the wall-painting – the original methods of painting, the colours, the people in the painting. It’s a masterpiece, a Doom, a Christ in Judgement painting. Tom wonders about the original artist, the nameless man and why the painting had been covered and as he uncovers more of the painting thinks that he has lived with a great artist and had shared with the unknown man the ‘great spread of colour’ and feels ‘the old tingling excitement’.

But above all it is the writing that I loved the most – words that took me back in time to that glorious summer in Oxgodby. At the end Tom looks back at that summer with nostalgia for the things that have disappeared, contemplating that

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

I wanted to read A Month in the Country because years ago I’d watched a TV adaptation of the book and loved it. So after I finished reading it I thought I’d look for the film and watch it again. But the film was lost for years and the only available copies now are rare and expensive. So, I won’t be watching it and thinking about it I realise that it would be a mistake to watch it – as I enjoyed the book so much. But it would be good to see the wall-painting …

Reading challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge and maybe What’s In a Name? in the ‘Month of the Year’ category if I don’t read a book naming a month of the year!

Vintage Crime Fiction

I’ve been thinking about joining Bev’s Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt, but I didn’t think I had enough books in the Vintage Mystery genre to attempt it.

BUT, the Scavenger Hunt idea appeals to me and so I thought I would have a look at my own books, just to see exactly how many books I do have that match Bev’s definition of ‘Vintage Mystery’, which is:

* All books must be from the mystery category (crime fiction, detective fiction, espionage, etc.). The mystery/crime must be the primary feature of the book–ghost stories, paranormal, romance, humor, etc are all welcome as ingredients, but must not be the primary category under which these books would be labeled at the library or bookstore. 

*For the purposes of this challenge, the Golden Age Vintage Mysteries must have been first published before 1960. Golden Age short story collections (whether published pre-1960 or not) are permissible provided all of the stories included in the collection were originally written pre-1960.  Silver Age Vintage Mysteries may be first published any time from 1960 to 1989 (inclusive).  Again, Silver Age short story collections published later than 1989 are permissible as long as they include no stories first published later than 1989. 

And to my surprise, when I went to my shelves – instead of looking at my list in LibraryThing – I found I actually have 14 books first published pre-1960 and 7 first published between 1960 and 1989 (inclusive). My LibraryThing catalogue is certainly not complete!

So, in theory I do have enough books to attempt the Scavenger Hunt for both eras, provided that the covers show the objects listed for the Hunt! And as I do want to read all these books, it’s a no-brainer, so I’m going to do it. And I’m going in for both Eras!

The idea is  to find as many objects on the scavenger hunt list as possible on the covers of the mystery books you read. The minimum number of items to complete the challenge is six items from the covers of books read from a single Vintage Mystery Era.

These are my books in the Golden Age Vintage era. Some are Penguin books with no pictures on the covers and so I’ll look for alternative covers.

Vintage gold

And these are my books from the Silver Age Vintage era.

Vintage silver

The Challenge runs from January 1, 2016 to December 31, 2016. Sign up any time between now and November 1, 2016.  Any books read from January 1 on may count regardless of your sign-up date.

And “On the cover” may apply to either the front or the back cover of the book. For example, if you need a map or a chart for your scavenger hunt list, then Dell Mapbacks are perfect–with the map in question on the back cover. Also, the item should be found on the cover of the edition that you read. If at all possible either post a picture showing the item on the cover or provide a link to a page showing us. Exception:  If the edition you read has no picture whatsoever (hardbacks that have no dust jacket or e-copies, for example), then you may go on another scavenger hunt online to find a cover image–again, please provide a link to the edition used.

This is the list for the Golden Age Era there are 75 items!!! (The Silver Age Era lists the same items.)Scavenger Hunt1

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:

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)

Stacking the Shelves: 19 December 2015

STSmall

Stacking The Shelves is all about sharing the books you are adding to your shelves. This means you can include ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ books (ie physical and ebooks) you’ve bought, books you’ve borrowed from friends or the library, review books, and gifts.

I’ve added just one book to my Kindle this week:

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries: The Most Complete Collection of Yuletide Whodunits Ever Assembled

Blurb

Here, for your yuletide reading pleasure, are the collected crimes of Christmases Past and Present: sixty classic Christmas crime stories gathered together in the largest anthology of its kind ever assembled. And its an all-star line-up: Sherlock Holmes, Brother Cadfael, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Ellery Queen, Rumpole of the Bailey, Inspector Morse, Inspector Ghote, A.J. Raffles, Nero Wolfe and many, many more of the world’s favourite detectives and crime fighters face unscrupulous Santas, festive felonies, deadly puddings, and misdemeanors under the mistletoe. Almost any kind of mystery you’re in the mood for – suspense, pure detection, humour, cozy, private eye, or police procedural – can be found within these pages.

Includes stories from (many of which are difficult or nearly impossible to find anywhere else): Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, Isaac Asimov, Sara Paretsky, Ed McBain, Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters, Mary Higgins Clark, H.F Keating, Donald E. Westlake and John Mortimer and more.

I couldn’t resist getting it! Some of the authors are familiar to me, some I’ve heard of and some are completely new-to-me. I hope to read some before Christmas.

I’ve also borrowed two from the library this week, which I’ll probably leave until after New Year. They are:

Blurb

A promise made to a dying man leads forensics ace Enzo Macleod, a Scot who’s been teaching in France for many years, to the study which the man’s heir has preserved for nearly twenty years. The dead man left several clues there designed to reveal the killer’s identity to the man’s son, but ironically the son died soon after the father.

So begins the fourth of seven cold cases written up in a bestselling book by Parisian journalist Roger Raffin that Enzo rashly boasted he could solve (he’s been successful with the first three). It takes Enzo to a tiny island off the coast of Brittany in France, where he must confront the hostility of locals who have no desire to see the infamous murder back in the headlines. An attractive widow, a man charged but acquitted of the murder–but still the viable suspect, a crime scene frozen in time, a dangerous hell hole by the cliffs, and a collection of impenetrable messages, make this one of Enzo’s most difficult cases.

I’ve enjoyed Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy. I hope this works well as a stand alone book as it’s the fourth Enzo Macleod book and I haven’t read the first three.

And

Blurb

This charming series of Victorian murder mysteries features mild-mannered Inspector Witherspoon of Scotland Yard and, more importantly, Mrs Jeffries, his housekeeper. A policeman’s widow herself, her quick wits allow her to nudge the Inspector in the right direction to solve the crime.

When a doctor is discovered dead in his own office, Mrs Jeffries is on the look-out for a prescription for murder, determined to discover the culprit, despite how her employer feels about interviewing suspects . . . “He hated questioning people. He could never tell whether or not someone was actually lying to him, and he knew, shocking as it was, that there were some people who lied to the police on a regular basis.”

Emily Brightwell is a new-to-me author. I thought I’d see what this one is like.

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.

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.

Classics Club Spin Result

The Spin number is 19, which for me is The Color Purple by Alice Walker – to be read by 1 February 2016.

‘One of the most haunting books you could ever wish to read … it is stunning – moving, exciting, and wonderful’, Lenny Henry.

I’m looking forward to reading it. I watched the film starring Whoopi Goldberg many years ago, which I thought was an excellent film.

Did you take part in the Classics Spin? What will you be reading?

Five of the Best for November 2011-2015

This was originally Cleo’s idea (Cleopatra Loves Books). It’s to look back over your reviews of the past five years and pick out your favourite books for each month from 2011 – 2015. I like it so much it inspired me to do the same.

I really enjoy looking back over the books I’ve loved reading. These are some of my favourite books for each November from 2011 to 2015 (click on the titles/covers to see my original reviews). November is apparently the month where the crime fiction books I’ve read have been my favourite reads.

Three of the five books are Ian Rankin’s Rebus books – November is the month he’s published his latest books and November is the month I read them.  Ian Rankin is one of my favourite authors and his Rebus books never fail to impress me both with their ingenuity and the quality of their plots and characterisations.

2011

White Nights by Ann Cleeves – the second in her Shetland Quartet, featuring Detective Jimmy Perez, set mainly in Biddista, a fictional village of a few houses, a shop, an art gallery and restaurant called the Herring House, and an old Manse. A man’s body is found, hanging in the hut where the boat owners of the village of Biddista keep their lines and pots. Perez recognises the dead man – he’s the mystery man who had caused a scene the previous evening at the opening of Bella Sinclair’s and Fran Hunter’s art exhibition.

This book is not only full of believable characters, each one an individual in their own right, it also has a nicely complicated plot and a great sense of location. It’s the place, itself, that for me conveyed the most powerful aspects of the book. The ‘white nights’ are the summer nights when the sun never really goes down. They call it the ‘summer dim’, the dusk lasts all night, and in contrast to the bleak, black winters, fills people with ‘a kind of frenzy‘.

2012

Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin. This is the first book after Rebus’s retirement in which he is working for SCRU – the Serious Crime Review Unit, a Cold Case unit of retired police officers, investigating the disappearance of a young woman missing since 1999, and linking it with later cases of missing women all in the vicinity of the A9. He also clashes with Malcolm Fox of Edinburgh’s internal affairs unit – their dislike is mutual.

I  was gripped by this book and liked the way Rankin included characters from earlier books, such as Big Ger Caffety, Siobhan Clarke, now a DI, and in particular Malcolm Fox.

2013

Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin. I think this is one of his best – a realistic and completely baffling mystery. a complex, multi-layered case, linking back to one of Rebus’s early cases on the force as a young Detective Constable. Rebus is now back on the force, the rules on retirement age having changed, but as a Detective Sergeant. Once more he is under scrutiny by Malcolm Fox. There are suspicions that Rebus and his colleagues, who called themselves ‘The Saints of the Shadow Bible’ were involved in covering up a crime, allowing a murderer to go free.

The interaction between Rebus and Fox is one of the joys of this book. Beneath his controlled exterior Fox is just as much a loose cannon as Rebus, he’s not a team player either and it is fascinating to see how Rebus gets under his skin and reveals Fox’s true nature.

2014

And now for a different author, but still crime fiction:

Blue Heaven by C J Box. I loved this book, the first one of C J Box’s books that I’ve read. The action takes place over four days in North Idaho one spring. It’s a story about two children, Annie and William who decide to go fishing without telling their mother, Monica, and witness a murder in the woods. One of the killers sees them and they run for their lives.

I loved the writing style – straightforward storytelling, with good descriptions of locality and characters; characters that are both likeable and downright nasty, but not caricatures. It’s a book that got right inside my mind so that I found myself thinking about when I wasn’t reading it and keen to get back to it. And the ending was what I hoped, and also dreaded it would be.

2015

Back to Rebus – although I also loved Claire Tomalin’s Mrs Jordan’s Profession.

Even Dogs in the Wild –  Now, two years later on from The Saints of the Shadow Bible Rebus is on his second retirement, working in a ‘consultative capacity’, albeit not as a cop and with no warrant card or real powers and with no pay. Once more this is a complicated plot, involving Malcolm Fox now seconded to the team of undercover cops from Glasgow, gang warfare, and Big Ger Cafferty. There are so many deaths and twists and turns that my mind was in a whirl as I tried to sort out all the characters.

Rankin, as usual, successfully combined 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.

Is this the last we’ll see of Rebus? Only time and Ian Rankin will tell.

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.

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Update

agatha_christie_rcIt’s been a while since I’ve written about where I’m up to in reading my way through Agatha Christie’s crime fiction novels and short stories.  In fact it’s been months since I last read an Agatha Christie book!

The list of the books I’ve already read is on this page. I still have many of the short stories to read but just four novels!!

I’m aiming to read these four remaining novels by the end of this year:

  1. The Murder at the Vicarage – (Miss Marple)
  2. Death Comes as the End
  3. Sparkling Cyanide (Colonel Race)
  4. Destination Unknown

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.

A Fear of Dark Water by Craig Russell

Once more I’m trying to catch up writing about the books I’ve read recently so this is just a short post about A Fear of Dark Water by Craig Russell. It’s the sixth book in the series featuring Jan Fabel, the head of Hamburg’s Murder Commission, but it’s only the second one that I’ve read (I previously read the seventh book, The Ghosts of Altona). Craig Russell has now joined my list of favourite authors and I think Fabel now equals Rebus as one of my favourite police detectives.

In A Fear of Dark Water a massive storm hits Hamburg, flooding the city, just as a major environmental summit is about to start.  A serial rapist and murderer is still at large in the city and when the flood waters recede a headless torso is found washed up. Initially it’s thought to be another victim of the killer, who had dumped his victims’ bodies in waterways around the city.

But there’s more to it than that as Fabel’s investigations dig up a secret environmental organisation/cult called ‘Pharos’, that demands its members hand over all their wealth to it, and with an aggressive and hostile approach to criticism. Fabel is drawn into the high-tech world of cyberspace, particularly the Virtual Dimension site, where people create personalities who only exist in cybre-space and who only interact through the internet – a world unfamiliar to Fabel, who denies he is technophobic, insisting he is a traditionalist.

This is a fast paced and complex, multi-layered crime novel that I thoroughly enjoyed and that kept me guessing right to the end.

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.

In addition to his Jan Fabel books Craig Russell also writes the Lennox thrillers set in 1950s Glasgow and I hope to get round to reading those too.

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

Five of the Best October 2011 – 2015

This was originally Cleo’s idea (Cleopatra Loves Books). It’s to look back over your reviews of the past five years and pick out your favourite books for each month from 2011 – 2015. I like it so much it inspired me to do the same.

I really enjoy looking back over the books I’ve loved reading. These are some of my favourite books for each October from 2011 to 2015 (click on the titles/covers to see my original reviews).

2011

The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine – It is a most remarkable book, in that it turns a murder mystery upside down, as it were. It is clear from the start that there has been a murder and the murderer is known – she has just been released from prison. But who did she murder? Why, where, when and how? The other characters all know – but not the reader. The House of Stairs is so called because it’s a big house on five floors with a staircase of 106 stairs.

The crime is only revealed very gradually, building up the suspense and tension in a series of flashbacks, as you realise the how, the where and the when, but only by inference. As for the identity of the victim, I kept changing my mind, only finally deciding it must be this person, just a few pages before the dénouement.

2012

The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas – this is a very cleverly constructed and quirky mystery with a twist at the end which took me totally by surprise. Strange blue chalk circles start appearing on the pavements of Paris and then the body of a woman with her throat savagely cut is found in one of them.

This is the first of her Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg novels. Adamsberg just doesn’t fit the usual detective profile – well, he is a loner, so that’s pretty standard, but apart from that he stands out  – an outsider from the Pyrenees, newly appointed to Paris as Commissaire of police headquarters in the 5th arrondissement. His colleagues don’t understand him, especially Inspector Danglard, who likes a drink and isn’t too reliable after about four in the afternoon. A most enjoyable read!

2013

The Shining by Stephen King tells the story of Jack Torrance and his family as they move into the Overlook Hotel in the Colorada Rockies. The Overlook is closed for the winter and Jack, a recovering alcoholic is the caretaker. Just what impels him towards murder is horrifyingly revealed as the winter weather closes in on the hotel and they are cut off from the rest of the world.

The characters are so well-drawn and so distinct. Their vulnerability, coupled with the way King gets inside each person’s head, increases the element of fear. There’s the horror of the father who has monsters inside his head, who still loves his son, but demands he should ‘take his medicine’; the evil is palpable. It’s an excellent choice to read at Halloween.

2014

I read so many brilliant books in October 2014! I’ve picked just one for this post – the others are listed in this post.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel. I enjoyed this collection of stories,  which are brooding, somewhat melancholic, dark, disturbing and full of sharp and penetrating observations. One of my favourite stories was Sorry to Disturb, which describes the dilemma of a British woman living in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia when she finds herself befriended by a young Pakistani businessman – a situation that was ‘ripe for misunderstanding‘. It has a claustrophobic atmosphere.

Overall this is a compelling book, brilliantly written, keenly observed, with the power to chill and shock me.

2015

House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick – a time-slip novel with each strand of the story clearly defined, each 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.

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. Once I started reading the House of Shadows I didn’t want to stop as the history of the crystal mirror and the Sistrin pearl, a jewel of rare beauty and price unfolds.

R.I.P.X – Completed

This year (the 10th anniversary) the annual R.I.P event was hosted by Andi and Heather of The Estella Society. It ran from September 1st to October 31st.

It involved reading books that fitted into one or more of the following categories:

Mystery
Suspense
Thriller
Dark Fantasy
Gothic
Horror
Supernatural

There are several levels, depending on how many books you read. I initially thought I’d aim low with just one book. But I actually read eight, more than enough for –

Peril the First – to read four books.

ripnineperilfirst

This is what I read:

  1. Dead Scared by Sharon Bolton
  2. Like This, For Ever by Sharon Bolton
  3. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  4. The Ghosts of Altona by Craig Russell
  5. The Moth Catcher by Ann Cleeves
  6. A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton
  7. The Devil’s Promise by David Stuart Davies
  8. Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton

Just two were from my initial list and the others just turned up, as it were! I still have these books I want to read/reread:

  • The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
  • A Song of Stone by Iain Banks
  • Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie
  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen – I read this so many years ago that it will be like reading it for the first time. It was one of the set books at school and I don’t think I appreciated it then.
  • Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham
  • The Rottweiler by Ruth Rendell

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.

Blue Mercy by Orna Ross

This is a short post giving the synopsis of Blue Mercy by Orna Ross and my thoughts about the book.

Synopsis from Amazon:

A literary family drama, with a murder at its heart, full of emotional twists and surprises
~~~
Will you side with mother or daughter? When Mercy Mulcahy was 40 years old, she was accused of killing her elderly and tyrannical father. Now, at the end of her life, she has written a book about what really happened on that fateful night of Christmas Eve, 1989. The tragic and beautiful Mercy has devoted her life to protecting Star, especially from the father whose behavior so blighted her own life. Yet Star vehemently resists reading her manuscript. Why? What is Mercy hiding? Was her father’s death, as many believe, an assisted suicide? Or something even more sinister?

In this book, nothing is what it seems on the surface and everywhere there are emotional twists and surprises. (“Breathtaking, and I mean literally — actual gasps will happen” said one reader review).

Set in Ireland and California, Blue Mercy is a compelling novel that combines lyrical description with a page-turning style to create an enthralling tale of love, loss and the ever-present possibility of redemption.

My thoughts:

Blue Mercy has had a lot of 4 and 5 star reviews on Amazon and on Goodreads, so I am definitely in the minority in not being swept away by it. I enjoyed some of it, thought some parts were OK and didn’t like other parts, but I didn’t find it compelling or enthralling and I certainly did not gasp at the revelation that Mercy had been lying to her daughter and to the reader. It confirmed my suspicion that she was not a reliable narrator in writing about her life.

I thought the setting in Ireland was vivid and came to life. However, although there is a mystery about how Mercy’s father died and what had happened to Star’s father, the plot is definitely secondary to the various themes running through this book – such as family relationships, particularly but not solely the mother/daughter relationship, abuse and assisted dying. But there is also so much detail about feelings, personal development, women’s studies, childhood and teenage problems, eating disorders, and exploration of Mercy and Star’s psyches and perceptions, that the characters and plot were almost drowned in emotion, pain and angst.

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.

Five of the Best: September 2011-2015

This was originally Cleo’s idea (Cleopatra Loves Books). It’s to look back over your reviews of the past five years and pick out your favourite books for each month from 2011 – 2015. I like it so much it inspired me to do the same.

I really enjoy looking back over the books I’ve loved reading. These are some of my favourite books for each September from 2011 to 2015 (click on the titles/covers to see my original reviews). These are all crime fiction, mostly dark scary books, because each September and October I take part in the R.I.P. Challenge, that is hosted this year by The Estella Society.

2011

Blood Harvest by Sharon Bolton.  I can’t quite believe that it’s four years ago that I read this book as I can still remember the tension, terror and suspense within its pages.  It’s a dark, scary book, set in the fictional town of Heptonclough in Lancashire.There are two churches, the ancient ruined Abbey Church and standing next to it the ‘new’ church of St Barnabas. The Fletchers have just moved into a new house built on the land right next to the boundary wall of the churchyard. But this is not a safe place for children, three little girls have died over the past ten years, and when the Fletcher children start to hear voices in the graveyard more disturbing events unfold.

2012

The Sixth Lamentation by William Brodrick, the first Father Anselm book. This is historical fiction and it’s also a mystery. It looks back  to the Second World War in occupied France, telling a dramatic tale of love and betrayal, full of suspense, and interwoven stories, with accurate details of life in Paris during the Occupation and the subsequent war trials. William Brodrick has also drawn on his own personal experience. He was formerly in religious life but left before his final vows.

2013

Relics of the Dead by Ariana Franklin, the third book in her Mistress of the Art of Death series. The date is 1176, the setting is Glastonbury where the monks, after a fire had destroyed their monastery, discovered two skeletons buried in their graveyard. The question is  – are these the remains of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere? Henry II needs evidence that they are not and sends Adelia Aguilar, the anatomist, to examine the bones for evidence. I’ve always liked the stories about King Arthur, about his life and death, about Excalibur (which does feature in this book), about Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot,  and the Holy Grail (which do not).

2014

The Brimstone WeddingBrimstone wedding by Barbara Vine. This is one of the best of Barbara Vine’s books that I’ve read – nearly as good as A Dark-Adapted Eye and writing under her real name, Ruth Rendell, A Judgement in Stone. it’s not horrific in the overblown graphic sense, but in a sinister, psychological way that really is ‘chilling’ and inexpressibly sad. The atmosphere is mysterious, a house isolated in the fens, seems to hold the key to the past. Stella, who is dying of lung cancer,  never mentions her husband or her past life, but gradually she confides in Jenny, a carer at the retirement home where Stella lives, telling her things she has never said to her son and daughter – things about her life she doesn’t want them to know.

2015

This September I’m spoilt for choice as I read several excellent books – The Ghosts of Altona by Craig Russell is just one of them. This is his 7th book featuring Jan Fabel, the head of Hamburg’s Murder Commission, a very cleverly plotted book, multi-layered and complex and I loved it.

A murder mystery combining a cold case and present day murders combined with great storytelling, rich descriptions, interwoven with details of near-death experiences, the Gothic, mental and personality disorders makes this most definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.

I must also mention three of Sharon Bolton’s Lacey Flint books that I read this September – all excellent books.

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):

First Chapter, First Paragraph: The Ghosts of Altona

First chapterEvery 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.

I started reading The Ghosts of Altona by Craig Russell yesterday.

It begins:

The sky that day, he would later remember, had been the colour of pewter. When he thought back on it, that was what he would remember, the lack of colour in the sky, the lack of colour in everything. And he hadn’t noticed at the time.

Winter had been half-hearted that day.

‘So why, exactly, are we talking to this guy more than any other neighbours?’ asked Anna Wolff as she and Fabel got out of the unmarked police BMW. ‘Schalthoff has no record … never been so much as a suspect for anything and has no dodgy connections that we can find. I just don’t get why you get a vibe from him. What is it – some kind of hunch?

This book won the 2015 Bloody Scotland Crime Novel of the Year. It’s the first book by Craig Russell’s that I’ve noticed. How could I have missed the others? This is his seventh Jan Fabel book!

Blurb:

Jan Fabel is a changed man. Head of the Polizei Hamburg’s Murder Commission, Fabel has dealt with the dead for nearly two decades, but when a routine enquiry becomes a life-threatening – and life-altering – experience, he finds himself on much closer terms with death than ever before.

Fabel’s first case at the Murder Commission comes back to haunt him: Monika Krone’s body is found at last, fifteen years after she went missing. Monika – ethereally beautiful, intelligent, cruel – was the centre of a group of students obsessed with the gothic. Fabel re-opens the case. What happened that night, when Monika left a party and disappeared into thin air?

Meanwhile, Hamburg’s most dangerous serial rapist has escaped from high-security prison. Fabel is convinced he had outside help, but from whom? His suspicions that the escape is connected to the discovery of Monika’s body seem to lead to nothing when there are no sightings of the fugitive, but little can he imagine the real purpose for which this monster has been unleashed.

When men involved with Monika start turning up dead, the crime scenes full of gothic symbolism, Fabel realizes he is looking for a killer with both a hunger for vengeance and a terrifying taste for the macabre. A true gothic demon is stalking the streets of Hamburg…

I’m enjoying what I’ve read so far. What do you think – have you read any of Craig Russell’s books? Would you read on?

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.

THE CLASSICS SPIN RESULT …

… it’s NUMBER 5

which on my list is The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens.

I have until October 23, 2015 to read it  – but it could easily take me much longer than that as in the mean time I have George Eliot’s Adam Bede to read for my local book group for our next meeting at the end of September. I can see that my reading is going to be a lot slower than normal.

I have started reading Adam Bede, but each time I’ve picked it up I’ve nodded off to sleep (and it wasn’t even bedtime!) I just hope The Old Curiosity Shop won’t have the same effect on me. I have a feeling that I might find it a bit too sentimental for my liking – this is the book in which Little Nell suffers a melodramatic death. And that’s as much as I know about it.

If you’re in the Spin too which book did you get?

The Classics Spin: My List

The Classics ClubThe Classics Club has been so quiet for a while now that I was beginning to think it had folded – but no!

It’s time for another Classics Spin for any who are interested. By next Monday, August 24, list your choice of any twenty books you’ve left to read from your Classics Club list — in a separate post. Next Monday morning, The Classics Club will announce a number and that is the book for you to read by October 23.

This is my list:

  1. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
  2. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
  3. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
  4. Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens
  5. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
  6. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  7. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  8. Romola by George Eliot
  9. Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
  10. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
  11. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  12. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
  13. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
  14. The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
  15. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  16. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  17. Doctor Thorne  (Barsetshire Chronicles, #3) by Anthony Trollope
  18. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  19. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  20. The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

I don’t mind which one of these comes up in the Spin, but I’m half hoping it will be one of the Hardy books and I’m not sure about reading The Voyage Out as I’ve started this in the past and put it back on the shelf unfinished.

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.

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.