January 2020 Reading

January turned out a bit of a roller coaster in RL, continuing the course things had already taken in December: not quite whiplash-inducing, but with several sickness-prone twists and turns (for however much I’d expected them to materialize) surrounding one major glorious event (which was, however, truly glorious; even if this, too, was something I’d had every reason to expect).

So my January books mostly were comfort reading in one form or another.  Other than the three Golden Age mysteries (or in one case, a mystery radio play collection) that I (re)visited — Agatha Christie’s 12 Radio Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh’s Scales of Justice, and my carryover from 2019, Gladys Mitchell’s Death Comes at Christmas — and two contemporary mystery short story collections I read / listened to, I burned through all four volumes of Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet in the space of a week (well, they are fairly short books), read four books of historical fiction (two of which also qualify as historical mysteries), and more books falling into the sci-fi / fantasy / speculative fiction subset, with classics and nonfiction bringing up the rear, with one book each.

For all that, 14 of those 18 books were by women (and one an anthology, Mystery Writers of America Presents: Vengeance, featuring both male and female authors), and I’ve added two new countries to my “Around the World” challenge — Antigua and Iceland –; even if, with two of my first three books of February (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists and Mia Alvar’s short story collection In the Country), I’m already doing more for the Caucasian / non-Caucasian balance in my reading than in all of January.

 


Looking at my January books individually, clearly last month’s reading highlight was the buddy read with Moonlight Reader, BrokenTune and Lillelara of the first volume of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, The Game of Kings; a tour de force piece of historical fiction set in the mid-16th century, during the reign of England’s boy king Edward VI (the son of Henry VIII) — or rather, his guardian Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, who goverend England in his stead — and Marie de Guise, the widow of Scottish king James V, who ruled Scotland in lieu of her infant daughter Mary (Stuart).

Francis Crawford of Lymond, ostensibly the book’s (and the series’s) central character, is essentially Rob Roy and Robin Hood rolled into one, with a bit of Edmond Dantes thrown in for good measure, as well as just about every other hero of historical fiction seeking to recapture the position and estate taken from him by the connivance of his enemies. For the longest time, he wasn’t even my favorite character in the book — those honors clearly went to virtually every major female character, all of whom are fully rounded, three-dimensional and very much their own women; strong, intelligent, and more than capable of holding their own in a society dominated by men.  Yet, I have to say that Lymond considerably grew on me in the final episode of the novel.

In terms of pacing, although the book took its sweet time establishing the characters and their place in the era and events of the history of Scotland during which it is set (while assuming its readers to either be familiar with that period in history or treating them as adult enough to read up on it themselves, without having to be taught by the author in setting up the novel), once it took off … it really took off, and I whizzed through the last big chunk in almost a single sitting (pausing once more only before the final episode), all of which literally left me breathless by the time I was done.  I can absolutely see myself continuing the series, though as a first read, these aren’t the kinds of books I can seamlessly tie together one right after the other; so it may be a while before I’ll start the next book.

 

Among the month’s other highlights was the second book of Tony Riches’s Tudor Trilogy, Jasper — the volume I’d been looking forward to the least, as it essentially covers the War of the Roses from the Lancastrian POV, which is a tale of many woes and few moments of glory, even if it culminates in Henry of Richmond’s (Henry VII-to-be) victory at Bosworth. But I still enjoyed the narrative voice, empathy for all the characters, and the obviously painstaking historical research going into the writing.

 

After the disappointment that virtually every bit of YA fantasy I read last year had turned out to be, a somewhat unexpected third highlight was Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet.  But I was won over by Alanna (the main character)’s personality and by the fact that Pierce’s approach to creating a fantasy world where it is possible for a woman to beat the odds and assert herself without actually glorying in violence (looking at you, Jennifer Estep); in fact, Alanna learns to use her magical powers as a healer more than as a fighter, and to employ them in order to offset some of the damage and pain she causes as a knight.

Obviously, the idea of a girl masquerading as a boy in order to be trained as a knight, and surviving years of training without ever being discovered by the vast majority of the people at court (except for a select few trusted friends), takes a bit of suspension of disbelief; particularly in the second book, where Alanna and her friends are in puberty and, if nothing else, her voice should be breaking if she were a boy (so the lack of change there, if nothing else, should unmask her — bound chest or not).  This, and the equally unlikely notion of a pseudo-Arab tribe of desert nomads firmly rooted in pseudo-Muslim principles of society being swiftly brought around to accepting women as self-determined agents of their own fate solely by their encounter with Alanna in book 3 of the series, were a bit much to take without reducing my rating somewhat.

But overall I still enjoyed the series quite a bit more than I had expected.  (Indeed, I hadn’t even really expected to progress beyond book 1 to begin with.)  I also truly enjoyed Pierce’s no-nonsense approach to not in out-Tolkien-ing Tolkien — proper names are almost without exception from our world (John, Gary, Alan(na), Tom, etc.), and there are no attempts at giving dodgy half-baked names to animals and inanimate things, either, which is something that hugely annoys me in many a fantasy series I’ve come across lately (particularly, again, YA).

 

Radio Girls, the book I began this year with (as picked by the bibliomancy dreidel in 24 Festive Tasks) started out strong, and I truly enjoyed the author’s exploration of the early days of the BBC.  Unfortunately, she couldn’t resist the temptation of bringing in the (real life) spy background of one of the book’s characters (Hilda Matheson, director of BBC Talks), as a result of which it felt like the book couldn’t really make up its mind whether it wanted to be about the BBC, about pre-WWII Nazi activities in Britain, or about women’s rights (especially general suffrage and women’s (in)equality in the workplace).  Less would definitely have been more here.  Still, overall the book was enjoyable enough.

 

Another pleasant surprise, in terms of the book itself at least, was Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s The Legacy, the first book of a series of mysteries / crime novels focusing on the so-called “Children’s House”, the (real) institution that processes children involved in Icelandic court cases (murder trials, custody suits, prosecutions for child abuse, etc.).  I liked Sigurðardóttir’s assured writing and well-informed approach to child (and child witness) psychology, and — mostly — also the characters she created.  After having finished the book, however, I listened to the interview she gave in the Audible Sessions series, where (somewhat to my surprise) she comes across as a bit condescending, which in turn rather dampened my enthusiasm for quickly  following up with another book by her.  But I do think I’ll give her books another try eventually.

 

Most of the remainder of my reading this past month was an exercise in Mt. TBR reduction:

By far the best (audio)book of this bunch was the first installment of the BBC’s McLevy series, which is based on the real life diaries of Victorian Edinburgh police inspector named, you guessed it, James McLevy.  It features a great cast (with Brian Cox starring in the title role), great atmosphere, and several intelligently-plotted episode-length cases, and I can already see myself coming back for more again and again.

 

Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora presents an interesting approach to speculative fiction, somewhere on the borderline between fantasy and steampunk, with an exciting plot and well-rounded characters: enough to make me at least contemplate also reading the next books of the Gentleman Bastard series.  However, this seems to be another series featuring excessive amounts of violence (at least judging by book 1), and its installments aren’t exactly short, either — at the end of this book, I felt similarly drained as after Dunnett’s Game of Kings — so this probably won’t be a high and early priority.  Still, I’m not unhappy that I’ve finally read it.

 

Martha Wells’s All Systems Red is intelligently conceived and redolent with edgy humor, satire, and questions about the nature of consciousness, individuality and, ultimately, the thing that we call a soul: if science fiction is your thing (and if you’ve been living under a rock or for any other reason haven’t read it long before I did), it’s definitely a book — and a series — that I’d recommend.  Personally, though I enjoyed Wells’s exploration of the inner life of a semi-humanoid AI security unit (aka “murderbot”) that has hacked and disabled its own main governor module, and would much rather watch soap operas than look after inept human research teams on alien planets, I won’t be continuing the series.  For one thing, if it comes to tropes, I just prefer those of the mystery genre to those of science fiction (and it seemed like every single sci-fi trope is present here); and then, I also think the pricing of the books in this series is a huge money grab on the part of the publisher (and Audible / Amazon) that I am simply not willing to support; beyond satisfying my curiosity about book 1, that is.

 

E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady was to the 1930s what Bridget Jones’s Diary is to us: Roll up Angela Thirkell’s High Rising, Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary into one, shake thoroughly, season with a pinch or three of Emma Thompson’s character (the Duchess d’Antan) from the movie Impromptu, and with the perpetual financial woes of the landed gentry, and this (albeit largely autobiographical) book is pretty much what you should get as a result.

Delafield, one of those prolific early 20th century writers who thoroughly dropped off the radar after WWII, went on to write several more installments of the Diary: I got curious about her because of Martin Edwards’s speculation, in The Golden Age of Murder, about a possible relationship between her and Anthony Berkeley, but having read this book by her and several books by him, I can’t see more than the friendship between them that is known to actually have existed.  Quite frankly (and quite apart from the fact that they were both married to other people to begin with), judging by her writing, she strikes me as way too shrewdly intelligent to ever have been interested in him as anything other than a friend.

 

Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, finally, is a short, brutal, angry dismanteling of any naive and romantic perceptions that white North American and European conceivably might be holding about her island home of Antigua.  Frankly, since I never held any such perceptions, she was pretty much barking up the wrong tree with me, and though I can empathize with her anger, I wonder whether, skilled writer that she is, she wouldn’t have served her purpose better by exchanging the verbal claymore that she insists on wielding for a foil (or at most an epée) — i.e., keep the razor sharp verbal blade, but allow for a less heavy-handed approach.  Though I’ll readily concede that probably this is a facile position to take for someone who hasn’t had to do battle with the “Caribbean island paradise” cliché all her life to begin with.

 

To round things off, my mystery comfort reading consisted of:

* Agatha Christie: 12 Radio Mysteries (BBC adaptations of 12 of Christie’s short stories, which I loved and which incidentally proved that Christie’s writing has not only stood the test of time but is also easily amenable to being transferred to a modern setting without losing any of its punch);

* Ngaio Marsh: Scales of Justice (one of my all-time favorite entries in the Roderick Alleyn series and, it occurred to me while listening to the new unabridged audio recording published a few years ago, also a good book to start the series with for anyone curious about it — PS: it even features a cat in a pivotal role);

* Gladys Mitchell’s Death Comes at Christmas (aka Dead Men’s Morris) (decidedly not a favorite installment in the Mrs. Bradley series);

* Elizabeth George’s I, Richard (another reread, which I liked a whole lot better than when I had first read it; not only for the final / titular story, which has a contemporary setting but a historic background, namely Richard III’s final hours before the Battle at Bosworth — the true standout here is the story immediately preceding it, Remember I’ll Always Love You, where a young widow confronts the aftermath of her husband’s spontaneous suicide); and finally:

* Mystery Writers of America Presents: Vengeance (the mixed bag that such anthologies usually are, with overall better writing than I had expected, though, some of the best pieces of which were from the pens of the lesser-known contributors rather than the big-name authors).

 

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/2048220/january-2020-reading

Halloween Bingo 2019: Tracking Post — Blackout! (And bingos Nos. 12 and 13.)

 

Many thanks to Moonlight Reader and Obsidian Blue for hosting this game for the fourth year in a row, bigger and better than ever before!

Witih today’s call, I’ve blacked out my card, in addition to collecting my final bingos (nos. 12 and 13).

Somewhat to my surprise, after completing my books for my official bingo card at the end of September, I even managed to read enough extra books to put together a supplemental inofficial card throughout the month of October, so this year’s game has really exceeded my wildest expectations in every conceivable way!

 

My Official 2019 Bingo Card:

Weekly Status Updates and Reviews:

First Week
Second Week
Third Week
Fourth Week

 

The Books:

International Woman of Mystery: Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments – finished September 29, 2019.
Locked Room Mystery: Clayton Rawson: Death from a Top Hat – finished September 23, 2019.
Murder Most Foul: Michael Gilbert: Smallbone Deceased – finished September 13, 2019.
Psych: Sofi Oksanen: Fegefeuer (The Purge) – finished September 17, 2019.
Read by Flashlight or Candle Light: The Lady Detectives: Four BBC Radio 4 Crime Dramatisations – finished September 20, 2019.

DeadLands: Terry Pratchett: Monstrous Regiment – finished September 26, 2019.
Fear the Drowning Deep: Delia Owens: Where the Crawdads Sing – finished September 25, 2019.
Relics and Curiosities: Patricia Wentworth: Eternity Ring – finished September 10, 2019.
Dark Academia: James Hilton: Was It Murder? – finished September 1, 2019.
Modern Noir: Joy Ellis: The Guilty Ones – finished September 21, 2019.

Ghost Stories: Nina Blazon: Siebengeschichten – finished September 1, 2019.
Gothic: Peter Ackroyd: Hawksmoor – finished September 9, 2019.
Free (Raven) Space: Agatha Christie: The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories – finished September 7, 2019.
Truly Terrifying: Bob Berman: Earth-Shattering – finished September 12, 2019.
Amateur Sleuth: Priscilla Royal: Wine of Violence – finished September 5, 2019.

Cryptozoologist: Terry Pratchett: Guards! Guards! – finished September 18, 2019.
Diverse Voices: Toni Morrison: Beloved – finished September 22, 2019.
Black Cat: Jim Butcher: The Aeronaut’s Windlass – finished September 16, 2019.
Creepy Crawlies: Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Gods of Jade and Shadow – finished September 7, 2019.
Country House Mystery: Anthony Rolls: Scarweather – finished September 14, 2019.

Spellbound: Zen Cho: Sorcerer to the Crown – finished September 6, 2019.
A Grimm Tale: Ellen Datlow & Terry Windling (eds.): The Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales – finished September 4, 2019.
Creepy Carnivals: Fredric Brown: The Dead Ringer – finished September 12, 2019.
Paint It Black: Trudi Canavan: The Magicians’ Guild – finished September 20, 2019.
Cozy Mysteries: Margery Allingham: The White Cottage Mystery – finished September 19, 2019.

 

My Square Markers

 

Called but not read

Read but not called

Read and Called

Center Square: Read and Called

 

The Extra Squares / Card and Books:

13: Rex Stout: And Be a Villain
Supernatural: Jennifer Estep: Kill the Queen
New Release: Sara Collins: The Confessions of Frannie Langton
Genre: Mystery: Catherine Louisa Pirkis: The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective
Romantic Suspense: Georgette Heyer: The Unfinished Clue
Terror in a Small Town: Ann Cleeves: Raven Black
Halloween: Agatha Christie: Hallowe’en Party
Monsters: Terry Pratchett: Pyramids
Shifters: Joan D. Vinge: Ladyhawke
Sleepy Hollow: Dennis Lehane: The Given Day
Film at 11: J.B. Priestley: An Inspector Calls
In the Dark, Dark Woods: Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness
Free (Raven) Square: Various Authors: The Rivals: Tales of Sherlock Holmes’ Rival Detectives
Grave or Graveyard: Kathy Reichs: Grave Secrets
Genre: Suspense: Tony Medawar (ed.) & Various Authors: Bodies from the Library 2
Southern Gothic: Sharyn McCrumb: The Unquiet Grave
Baker Street Irregulars: Joanne Harris: Gentlemen & Players
Darkest London: J.V. Turner: Below the Clock
Magical Realism: Joanne Harris: Chocolat
It was a dark and stormy night: Peter May: The Lewis Man
Full Moon: Edmund Crispin: Glimpses of the Moon
King of Fear: John Le Carré: Absolute Friends
Serial / Spree Killer: Steven Kramer, Paul Holes & Jim Clemente: Evil Has a Name
Classic Noir: Patricia Highsmith: Strangers on a Train
Classic Horror: Matthew G. Lewis: The Monk

Note: With regard to the extra squares, I added the image for the relevant square for every book completed (= “read”); and I am using my “called” markers for the main card to indicate “called and read”.

 

My Spreadsheet:

My Book Preselections Post: HERE

 

My Transfiguration Spells

Not used.

 

My “Virgin” Bingo Card:

Posted for ease of tracking and comparison.

 

 

Original post:
http://themisathena.booklikes.com/post/1942220/halloween-bingo-2019-tracking-post

Halloween Bingo 2019: The Fourth Week

Reading blackout before the end of the first bingo month and two more completed bingos in week 4 for a total of three bingos so far — if anybody had told me this going in, I’d have questioned their sanity.  Not least because I had a major project to complete this month, which I knew was going to involve a lot of meetings and time in the car — but all that time spent driving, and waiting for meetings to begin, turned out a blessing in disguise.  Either way, I’ll take it!  Especially since my final reads for my card turned out really, really great as well.

Now that I’ve completed my books for the squares on my card, I’m going to move on to a couple of the squares not on my card — first and foremost those from which I’d have picked my options for my three transfiguration spells if I had needed them.  I’ll be posting my progress with those on my bingo master tracking post.

 

The Books

Clayton Rawson: Death from a Top Hat

My first book of the week was another excursion into the world of Golden Age mysteries; this time one set in the U.S.; the first book of Clayton Rawson’s Great Merlini series, focusing on a famous magician who, instead of resting on his laurels, has opened a magic shop and, as a sideline, agrees to help the police solving crimes set in his milieu.

Like most locked room mysteries, this book is best enjoyed in print — or if as an audiobook, at least with the print edition not too far away, as the print edition includes images of the crime scenes (yes, there are several) as well as other diagrams, all of which are darned near indispensable to following the plot, let alone trying to solve the mystery.  As you’d expect in any book with a magician at its center, slights of hand, trap doors and other instances of misdirection play a huge part here, and although they are not all visual, being able to trace them on the scene of crime images helps a lot.

What I particularly enjoyed in this book, though, were its manifold hattips to virtually all the great authors and detectives of Golden Age crime fiction — Rawson’s contemporaries as well as those of prior decades.  There is a long paragraph right at the beginning of the book, and many more references throughout; some (from a modern reader’s POV) a bit veiled, some less so — although doubtlessly all of them would have made instant sense to Rawson’s contemporary readers.  Rawson truly treasured the great mystery authors of his own time, and in turn, John Dickson Carr considered him one of the masters of the locked room genre and one of the six best mystery writers of the era: One may or may not agree with the second part of that compliment, but there is no doubt about the truth of the first part, and I am glad that, once more, Martin Edwards (in his two nonfiction books on the Golden Age) and Otto Penzler (by republishing this particular book) have collectively brought him to my attention.

 

Delia Owens: Where the Crawdads Sing

A wonderfully atmospheric book set in the marshes on the North Carolina coast; the story of Kya Clark, who is successively abandoned by her entire family while still a child, manages to survive in the derelict family home with the help of a few well-meaning friends, autodidactically (though jump-started by a former friend of her elder brother’s, who eventually becomes her friend as well) turns herself into a marshland biologist, ecologist and science writer of considerable renown — and yet finally has to face up to her community’s lifelong prejudice arising from her unusual lifestyle, over an accusation with potentially catastrophic consequences.

The bulk of the book is told in two parallel timelines; one following Kya from childhood to adult life; the other set during her young adult age and dealing with the event that will eventually threaten to bring her very life and existence under threat.  (It is at this latter point that both timelines merge into one.)  Kya is a heroine impossible not to root for, and Owens’s writing, particularly in the first half of the book, is richly lyrical and emotive (without ever overstepping the boundaries towards facile emotionality), taking you right into the Carolina marshes, and into Kya’s person.   In the second part, I could have done with a somewhat less extensive exploration of the courtroom scenario — which may sound weird, coming from me, as I do enjoy courtroom scenes a lot in mysteries (and of course courtrooms also feature rather largely in my day job); however, even though Owens was obviously using the sterile, formalistic operations of the state justice system as a deliberately jarring contrast with the freedom of Kya’s life in the marshes and her intimacy with nature, I felt that part of the book could have done with a bit of streamlining.  Overall, though, this was a wonderful discovery and definitely one of the highlights among this year’s bingo reads.

 

Terry Pratchett: Monstrous Regiment

I had initially been planning to read Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids (also the Discworld group’s October group read) for this square, but given that I was ready for the square before October had rolled around and I still want to do the Discworld group read in any event, a quick switch to another one of Pratchett’s (de facto) standalone Discworld novels was called for; the justification for being applied to the “Deadlands” square being provided, in this particular instance, by a vampire named Maladict (who has managed to switch his craving for blood into a craving for coffee) and a few, albeit minor appearances by Ankh-Morpork Night Watch member Reg Shoe, who is a zombie.

As the title indicates, Monstrous Regiment is an exploration of the role of women and their fitness for positions within the official power structure of the state; and Pratchett wouldn’t be Pratchett if he didn’t take the phrase literally and set the whole thing in the context of the military — and not in peace time either, but in war.  (John Knox’s original treatise, from whose title the book’s name derives — The First Blast of the Trumpet against the monstrous regiment of Women — was a polemic against female monarchs.)  Moreover, it also served as a fitting run-up to my final bingo books, Margaret Atwood’s Gilead duology (The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments), as the core of the action is set in a country that is modeled on states with an extremely restrictive, religion-based attitude towards women … as well as the warmongering craze of the Nazis.  As a satirical exploration of society and what makes it tick, it isn’t quite as polished and on point as Guards! Guards! (which I only read last week), but that is really nitpicking — it’s still easily one of Terry Pratchett’s best offerings … outside the Witches subseries, that is.

 

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments

See separate post HERE.

 

The Card

… as of today; with my “virgin” card below for reference:

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1960788/halloween-bingo-2019-the-fourth-week

Halloween Bingo 2019: Tracking Post — Bingo No. 3 and Reading Blackout

* Triple Bingo Happy Dance *

Well, that went by much faster than I had anticipated … Many thanks to Moonlight Reader and Obsidian Blue for hosting this game for the fourth year in a row, bigger and better than ever before!

I’ll continue tracking my bingos of course — and since we now have so many more great squares than can possibly fit on one person’s card, I’ll just continue reading for a few of the extra squares that didn’t make it onto mine.

And I hope everybody else is going to continue / start collecting bingos soon as well!

 

Weekly Status Updates and Reviews:

First Week
Second Week
Third Week

 

The Books:

International Woman of Mystery: Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments – finished September 29, 2019.
Locked Room Mystery: Clayton Rawson: Death from a Top Hat – finished September 23, 2019.
Murder Most Foul: Michael Gilbert: Smallbone Deceased – finished September 13, 2019.
Psych: Sofi Oksanen: Fegefeuer (The Purge) – finished September 17, 2019.
Read by Flashlight or Candle Light: The Lady Detectives: Four BBC Radio 4 Crime Dramatisations – finished September 20, 2019.

DeadLands: Terry Pratchett: Monstrous Regiment – finished September 26, 2019.
Fear the Drowning Deep: Delia Owens: Where the Crawdads Sing – finished September 25, 2019.
Relics and Curiosities: Patricia Wentworth: Eternity Ring – finished September 10, 2019.
Dark Academia: James Hilton: Was It Murder? – finished September 1, 2019.
Modern Noir: Joy Ellis: The Guilty Ones – finished September 21, 2019.

Ghost Stories: Nina Blazon: Siebengeschichten – finished September 1, 2019.
Gothic: Peter Ackroyd: Hawksmoor – finished September 9, 2019.
Free (Raven) Space: Agatha Christie: The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories – finished September 7, 2019.
Truly Terrifying: Bob Berman: Earth-Shattering – finished September 12, 2019.
Amateur Sleuth: Priscilla Royal: Wine of Violence – finished September 5, 2019.

Cryptozoologist: Terry Pratchett: Guards! Guards! – finished September 18, 2019.
Diverse Voices: Toni Morrison: Beloved – finished September 22, 2019.
Black Cat: Jim Butcher: The Aeronaut’s Windlass – finished September 16, 2019.
Creepy Crawlies: Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Gods of Jade and Shadow – finished September 7, 2019.
Country House Mystery: Anthony Rolls: Scarweather – finished September 14, 2019.

Spellbound: Zen Cho: Sorcerer to the Crown – finished September 6, 2019.
A Grimm Tale: Ellen Datlow & Terry Windling (eds.): The Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales – finished September 4, 2019.
Creepy Carnivals: Fredric Brown: The Dead Ringer – finished September 12, 2019.
Paint It Black: Trudi Canavan: The Magicians’ Guild – finished September 20, 2019.
Cozy Mysteries: Margery Allingham: The White Cottage Mystery – finished September 19, 2019.

 

My Square Markers

 

Called but not read

Read but not called

Read and Called

Center Square: Read and Called

 

My Spreadsheet:

My Book Preselections Post: HERE

 

My Transfiguration Spells

Not used.

 

My “Virgin” Bingo Card:

Posted for ease of tracking and comparison.

 

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1942220/halloween-bingo-2019-tracking-post-bingo-no-3-and-reading-blackout

Halloween Bingo 2019 PreParty — Question for 08/01 (Day 1): Mystery or Horror?

 

Mystery, definitely.

For one thing, I’m a total chicken — I can’t look at blood (not even, or rather, especially not my own, e.g. in medical procedures); and anything shocking, spooky, or otherwise unnaturally unsettling just has me running for the rafters.  That’s particularly true at night — which is when I’m doing a good deal of my reading — but basically, it applies 24/7.  So that not only rules out slashers and other forms of gory horror, but pretty much any and all forms of psychological horror as well.  The only stories typically classified as “horror” that I can go near are classics where I essentially know what’s going to happen from the word “go” (e.g., Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), or ghost stories (mostly classics as well) where the appearance of the ghost(s) is (1) in itself not overly unsettling, at least not in the way in which it is presented to the reader, and / or (2) tied to a larger point that the author is trying to make.  (E.g.  most of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories, Charles Dickens’s The Signalman and — of course — A Christmas Carol and The Chimes, and Oscar Wilde’s hilarious send-up of the genre, The Canterville Ghost.)  Edgar Allan Poe is a special case … I do love some of his writing (e.g., The Masque of the Red Death and The Raven), but The Tell-Tale Heart creeped the hell out of me way back in high school, and that cat story (which shall remain unnamed in this post) … well, let’s just say once was once too often.

And then — well, I became a mystery reader all the way back in elementary school, and that was probably the most formative reading experience of my entire life.  It started with a series of books specifically targeting elementary school kids, whose (idiomatic) title went straight to my little smarta$$ jugular, challenging me to demonstrate I had what it took to solve them.  From there, it was practically guaranteed I’d move on to and love the Three Investigators series — by which time my mom had caught on once and for all, too, and in short order presented me with my first Agatha Christie — After the Funeral, which for that reason alone will always be one of my personal favorites.  And the rest, as they say, is history!

I’ve long stopped looking “just” for clever puzzles in mysteries, although that is still at least one of the things I want to see — it takes a lot of other things in a book to work well for me if I’ve solved the mystery early on and still end up liking the book.  But on the other hand, I’ll be just as unhappy if I can’t connect, on some level or other, with the main character (or if not them, at least an important supporting character) — or if I’m presented with shallowly drawn, cardboard or just flat out boring characters, or if the plot just ties one trope onto the next or is otherwise devoid of originality.  In other words, a mystery that works for me will always be more than merely the hunt for a killer (or other criminal, as the case may be) — it will be a complex blend of well-drawn, individual characters and an intelligent plot, and ideally the characters will also have some other (e.g., personal) challenges to deal with on their journey to the mystery’s solution.

Since I also love historical fiction (and nonfiction), historical mysteries are a particular favorite — provided they’re well-researched, such as Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael series (a long-time favorite) and C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series (my most recent “must-read” series) –, but I’ve never lost my love for the Golden Age classics — next to Christie, in particular Sherlock Holmes and everything Dorothy L. Sayers, as probably everybody here knows — and am thrilled to also see Golden Age crime fiction above and beyond the eternal great ones making such a huge comeback in recent years.  Martin Edwards, the current president (and chief archivist) of both the Detection Club and the Crime Writers’ Association, may not be everybody’s cup of tea personally, but there’s no denying that his lobbying for the revival of Golden and Silver Age crime fiction has a lot to do with this, and I think he deserves huge plaudits on those grounds alone.  That said, P.D. James’s writing (and her Inspector Dalgliesh) also has had a special place in my heart for longer than I can remember … and I’m inordinately happy to have discovered many more great women crime writers and women detectives in recent years; most recently, Joy Ellis’s Jackman and Evans series (*waves to Jennifer*).

Oh, and for the record, the “I can’t look at blood” thing applies to mysteries as well, of course — which is one of the reasons why as a rule I don’t read serial killer books; nor any other mysteries where I know, going in, that the corpse or the crime scene will be described in gratuitously graphic terms.   [She said, side-eying J.K. Rowling for the second Cormoran Strike book, which definitely should come with a warning label attached.]  However, I am not at all opposed to grit and grime in a mystery’s setting — in fact, I particularly enjoy both classic noir crime fiction (with Raymond Chandler a particular favorite) and modern crime fiction that takes a look at the state of society, such as Michael Connelly’s and Ian Rankin’s books.

 

 

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Martin Edwards (ed.) & Various Authors: The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories (BLCC)

24 Festive Tasks: Door 20 – Christmas, Book


The third annual edition of the British Library’s anthologies of unjustifiedly-buried Golden Age Christmas mystery short stories, again edited by Martin Edwards.  Great fun and a great way to segue into the holiday season, one story at a time.

I’m using it as my book for, guess what, the Christmas square of 24 Festive Tasks.

 

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24 Festive Tasks: Door 8 – Penance Day, Task 1 (Comfort Reads)

The Complete Sherlock Holmes -  Arthur Conan Doyle Poirot: The Complete Battles of Hastings, Vol. 1 - Agatha Christie Poirot: The Complete Battles of Hastings, Vol. 2 - Agatha Christie Gaudy Night - Dorothy L. Sayers A Man Lay Dead / Enter a Murderer / The Nursing Home Murder (The Ngaio Marsh Collection) - Ngaio Marsh The Clock Strikes Twelve  - Patricia Wentworth Envious Casca - Georgette Heyer Margery Allingham Omnibus: Includes Sweet Danger, The Case of the Late Pig, The Tiger in the Smoke - Margery Allingham The Great Detectives - JULIAN SYMONS, TOM ADAMS The Golden Age of Murder - Martin Edwards

It’s probably no secret that my comfort reads are Golden Age mysteries — I’m slowly making my way through the works of the members of the Detection Club, including the forgotten and recently republished ones, but most of all, I keep coming back to, again and again:

 

Arthur Conan Doyle / Sherlock Holmes: Still the grand master — both the detective and his creator — that no serious reader of mysteries can or should even try to side-step.  I’ve read, own, and have reread countless times all 4 novels and 56 short stories constituting the Sherlock Holmes canon, and am now making my way through some of the better-known /-reputed Holmes pastiches (only to find — not exactly to my surprise — that none of them can hold a candle to the original), as well as Conan Doyle’s “non-Holmes” fiction.

 

And, of course —

 

The Golden Age Queens of Crime

Agatha Christie: Like Sherlock Holmes, part of my personal canon from very early on.  I’ve read and, in many cases, reread more than once and own (largely as part of a series of anniversary omnibus editions published by HarperCollins some 10 years ago) all of Agatha Christie’s novels and short stories published under this name, as well as her autobiography, with only those of her books published under other names (e.g., the Mary Westmacott romances) left to read.

 

Dorothy L. Sayers: My mom turned me onto Sayers when I was in my teens, and I have never looked back.  I’ve read all of her Lord Peter Wimsey novels and short stories, volume 1 of her collected letters (which covers her correspondence from childhood to the end of her career as a mystery writer), and some of her non-Wimsey short stories and essays.  Gaudy Night and the two addresses jointly published under the title Are Women Human? are among my all-time favorite books; not least because they address women’s position in society decades before feminism even became a mass movement to be reckoned with, and with a validity vastly transcending both Sayers’s own lifetime and our own. — Next steps: The remainder of Sayers’s non-Wimsey stories and of her essays, as well as her plays.

 

Ngaio Marsh: A somewhat later entry into my personal canon, but definitely a fixture now.  I’ve read all of her Inspector Alleyn books and short stories and reread many of them.  Still on my TBR: her autobiography (which happily is contained in the last installments of the series of 3-book-each omnibus volumes I own).

 

Patricia Wentworth: Of the Golden Age Queens of Crime, the most recent entry into my personal canon.  I’d read two books by her a few years ago and liked one a lot, the other one considerably less, but Tigus expertly steered the resident mystery fans on Booklikes to all the best entries in the Miss Silver series, which I’m now very much looking forward to completing — along with some of Wentworth’s other fiction.

 

Georgette Heyer: I’m not a romance reader, so I doubt that I’ll ever go anywhere near her Regency romances.  But I’m becoming more and more of a fan of her mysteries; if for no other reason than that nobody, not even Agatha Christie, did viciously bickering families as well as her.

 

Margery Allingham: I’m actually more of a fan of Albert Campion as portrayed by Peter Davison in the TV adaptations of some of Allingham’s mysteries than of her Campion books as such, but I like at least some of those well enough to eventually want to complete the series — God knows I’ve read enough of them at this point for the completist in me to have kicked in long ago.  I’ve also got Allingham’s very first novel, Blackerchief Dick (non-Campion; historical fiction involving pirates) sitting on my audio TBR.

 

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2018 Halloween Bingo: The Books So Far

… in the order in which they’re appearing on my card (not the order in which they’ve read them).

Soooo … in this year’s twist on RL doing its best trying to throw a spanner in the works of Halloween Bingo fun, I’ve been spending the better part of the month either sitting around in conference rooms or glued to some piece of writing on my computer screen (or both).  Fortunately this has so far involved a fair amount of driving, too, so I’ve largely been able to shift my bingo reads to audiobooks … without, however, also having a whole lot of time to write reviews.  Looks like right now is one of those moments where I might have a shot at catching up — so let’s give this a try, shall we?

In other words: Halloween Bingo 2018: the (mostly) audiobook version.

 


Georgette Heyer: Penhallow

On the face of it, your classic country house mystery, country estate and horse farm in Cornwall and all; but Heyer wrote this as a contract breaker, and boy, does it ever show.  Neither seekers after romance and after knights in shiny armour nor seekers of a genteel country house atmosphere need apply here, and what might be termed “a somewhat crotchety original” in any other book (including but not limited to Heyer’s own), here is styled as a crass, meanspirited old family tyrant who likes nothing better than bullying each and every member of his vast and long-suffering family into submission and downright terror.  With the exception of two creations by Agatha Christie (Simeon Lee in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and Mrs. Boynton in Appointment with Death), I can’t think of any character in another mystery, Golden Age or not, who is so totally devoid of redeeming qualities.  However, while both of Christie’s two infamous bullies — who clearly come from he same mold as old Penhallow — meet their ends fairly early on in the respective books and thus relieve both the reader and their families of their continued presence, we (and Penhallow’s harassed household) have to suffer until almost the 65% mark of this book until someone’s nerves finally snap once and for all.  We actually get to witness the murder, so there’s no great mystery as to whodunnit — although I admit that for the longest time I kept hoping for a Christie-esque twist, but that was not to be.

(Also, though this is a far cry from George R.R. Martin, be careful which of the other characters you invest your sympathies in … though God knows, few enough of them deserve any empathy to begin with; but then, with old man Penhallow around, it’s hard to see how any of them could have grown both a spine and halfway decent manners at all.)

There’s some ambivalence as to the book’s two LGBT characters — one son of Penhallow’s who is obviously modeled on Oscar Wilde and who, apart from a few witticisms, comes across rather negatively and as checking off pretty much every anti-gay cliché in the book, and a daughter who, apart from being a bit “bossy”, is one of the few members of the younger generation endowed with a brain, a healthy dose of common sense, and the gumption to stand up to her father (albeit helped, no doubt, by the fact that she is also one of the few family members not financially dependent on the old man).

All in all, a far cry from your typical Heyer (or at least, from her mysteries — can’t speak to her Regency romances) — I’m not sorry I read it, but as far as grumpy old patriarchs and bickering families go, I vastly prefer one of her Inspector Hemingway mysteries, Envious Casca (republished as A Christmas Party).

Reading Progress Update: 120 of 833 Minutes

 


Patricia McKillip: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

My first book by McKillip; a short(ish) fantasy tale substantially in the traditional mold with a strong female heroine — a sorceress living on a mountainside high above the fighting human empires down in the plain; alone but for the company of a number of magical beasts.  At the risk of sounding jaded, the basic plotline (and the type of ending) is pretty much telegraphed from the very beginning; still, the characters are emphatically drawn, there are enough twists and turns over the course of the story to always ensure that the book held my attention, and I’m definitely interested in reading more books by McKillip in the future.

 


Mary Roberts Rinehart: Locked Doors

The second of Rinehart’s “Nurse Hilda Adams” stories; in terms of setup, of the “woman in peril” kind of tale that Rinehart specialized in — and which I’m usually not a fan of, but I’ll gladly make an exception here.  Nurse Hilda is the epitome of what is called a “feisty” young woman in certain types of fiction: especially taking into account that this story was written shortly after the turn of the last century (published in 1914), she is independent (and independently-minded) and able to take care of herself to an extraordinary degree, and thus makes for an admirable protagonist.

Here she takes a position in a stately home where, as she soon finds out, bedroom doors are locked at night, beloved pets go missing, all the servants have recently left or been let go, and there seems to be a strange, slithering presence on the stairway at night and a mystery madwoman (or invalid) in, you guessed it, the attic — but before you cry “Gothic cliché”, beware … just like Nurse Hilda, Rinehart actually had her feet planted firmly on the ground, and was also very much up to date with the state of medical knowledge and research, which in an unexpected way made this story an enjoyable companion read / listen to Jennifer Wright’s decidedly less enjoyable Get Well Soon.

I guess at some point I should also read Rinehart’s Circular Staircase, which I’m still not entirely sold on however, but I’ll definitely read more of her Nurse Hilda stories.

 


Joy Ellis: Their Lost Daughters

Why, oh why did anybody think that this book’s title (!!) needed an appendage such as “a gripping crime thriller with a huge twist” on Amazon (and likely thus also on every other site that draws its feed from Amazon and where there aren’t any librarians to do away with this sort of nonsense) in order to generate proper sales?!  That sort of hype is, ordinarily, a sure fire turn-off for me, and it almost would have been here, too, had Their Lost Daughters not been reviewed favorably by friends whose opinions I trust (and, cough, I admit the fact that the audio version is narrated by Richard Armitage helped as well).  As a result, I’d almost have missed out on one of the best books I read all year … and that makes me even madder at whoever was the eejit that came up with that super-hypey tag line.

Beyond the fact that this begins as a “missing girls” investigation, there is little I can say in terms of plot description that wouldn’t be a huge spoiler, so let’s just stick with the fact that Ellis draws the sombre, downright oppressing Fenlands setting very, very astutely and expressively, and her team of detectives (led by DI Rowan Jackman and DS Marie Evans) are among the most likeable, rounded, and overall believable investigators that have appeared on the mystery scene in recent years — and I also very much like Marie’s (Welsh) mother, who I hope is going to be a continued presence in the series, too.  That all said, and much as it pains me to admit it, the “huge twist” thing from Amazon’s abominable tagline is actually true: even if you think you sort of see part of the solution coming, you don’t clue into how it all hangs together until it’s unraveled right under your very nose.  (And lest anyone say the solution is too outlandish to be true, there are several real life cases published in the past couple of years that featured decidedly more gruesome facts, and which may easily have inspired this book’s solution; or at least, certain parts of it.)

 


Angela Carter: The Bloody Chamber

Reviewed separately HERE.

 


Anthony Berkeley: The Wychford Poisoning Case

The fifth time, this year alone, that I’ve found myself running into a fictional incarnation of the (in)famous real life case of Florence Maybrick, the American-born Liverpool housewife convicted, in 1889, of having murdered her husband by administering to him a dose of arsenic obtained by soaking flypaper in water — allegedly in aid of concocting a beauty cream.  Mrs. Maybrick’s method, if indeed this was how her husband found his premature end, may have engendered several real-life copycats (including, most famously, just after the turn of the 20th century, Frederick Seddon and Herbert Rowse Armstrong … if the medical evidence given at their respective trials is to be believed, that is), and British mystery writers have downright flocked to her footsteps ever since in fiction as well.  Agatha Christie used a variation of the Maybrick case as a basis for Crooked House; Anthony Rolls based Family Matters on pretty much every salient detail of the Maybrick story except for the flypaper bit; which in turn, however, makes a starring appearance in P.D. James’s short story Great Aunt Ally’s Flypaper (later republished as The Boxdale Inheritance), which features a very young Sergeant (Inspector-to-be) Dalgliesh and is included in my very first read of this year, the P.D. James short story collection The Mistletoe Murder (as the title indicates, a “holdover” from my 2017 Christmas reads), as well as in the Detection Club anthology Verdict of 13, which I read for this year’s Halloween Bingo (see mini-review below).  Finally, also in that latter anthology, Christianna Brand has the real-life Mrs. Maybrick meet two other alleged, famous 19th century women poisoners in a story aptly entitled Cloud Nine.

No wonder, then, that Anthony Berkeley, like his fellow Detection Club members acutely aware of the criminal causes celèbres of his own and of bygone eras, would also seek inspiration in Mrs. Maybrick’s legacy.  Martin Edwards makes the case, in The Golden Age of Murder, that Berkeley’s books offer clues — perhaps more so than the books of his fellow Golden Age mystery novelists — to his own personality, experience, and outlook on life.  I haven’t read enough books by Berkeley yet to make up my mind how much I think there is to this theory, but if The Wychford Poisoning Case is any indication indeed, Mr. Berkeley (despite his reportedly boisterous persona) was, deep down, a very reticent and private man … and supremely uncomfortable around women, who are either “high” or “low”, either vamp, stupid chicken, naughty girl, mother, MissMarpleSilverBradleyVane incarnate, or grand dame, and only in the last-mentioned cases accorded a halfway rounded, three-dimensional, individual personality (with some allowances made in favor of girls from a decent background, who have the makings of turning either into true ladies / grand dames, or into women detectives or fiction writers, or even into all of the above, later in life).  There are passages in this book that are redolent with blatant misogyny, and yet, I hesitate to append this label wholesale … more than anything, it seems to me that Berkeley very much wanted to, but simply didn’t “get” women and, consequently finding himself rejected and dissatisfied (none of his several marriages were happy), resorted to the stereotype prevalent in his era anyway; essentially, the “sinner or saint” dichotomy.

That all being said, the mystery itself is cleverly constructed, and notably this is not the only book where Berkeley’s series detective, Roger Sheringham, comes into the case on the side of the accused woman and with the express intention to exonerate her from what he considers a rash and unjustified charge.  And while the true facts of the Maybrick case will almost certainly never be unraveled, it is just conceivable that Berkeley did, in fact, hit on the one solution that was closest to the historic truth.

 


Jennifer Wright: Get Well Soon

Reviewed separately HERE.  Also a Flat Book Society read.

 


The Detection Club: Verdict of 13

An anthology published by the 1970s’ incarnation of the Detection Club, edited by its then-president Julian Symons, featuring 13 short stories all premised, in a very loose sense, on the concept of a jury (even if it’s only a jury of one).  Contributors include — in addition to Symons — P.D. James and Christianna Brand (see above and The Wychford Poisoning Case / comments re: Florence Maybrick), Gwendoline Butler, Dick Francis, Michael Gilbert, Michael Innes, Patricia Highsmith, Celia Fremlin, H.R.F. Keating, Michael Underwood, Ngaio Marsh, and Peter Dickinson.

The stand-out stories, to me, are P.D. James’s Florence Maybrick-inspired look at an early moment in Inspector (then-Sergeant) Dalgliesh’s career (see comments above) and Michael Gilbert’s Verdict of Three, a cleverly constructed public-school-morphing-into-public-service combined update of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Adventure of the Second Stain, The Naval Treaty, and The Bruce-Partington Plans, told from the perspective of the person who, in a Sherlock Holmes story, would be Holmes’s client (except that Holmes, here, has contrived to be part of the jury).  “Place” and “show” honors go jointly and equally to Ngaio Marsh’s Morpork (which I’d also read before, but long ago; a story set in the wilds of her native New Zealand); as well as Dick Francis’s  Twenty-One Good Men and True (involving race track betting), Gwendoline Butler’s The Rogue’s Twist (in which dogs are, depending how you look at it, either part of the jury or part of the prosecution), and Michael Underwood’s Murder at St. Oswald’s (as the title indicates, another story set in a public school; here, involving a bullying teacher).

 


Mavis Doriel Hay: Murder Underground

Hay’s first of the only three mysteries she ever wrote, but the last one I read.  Of the three, I’d rate it the middle entry — it’s not anywhere near as enjoyable as The Santa Klaus Murder (Hay’s final book and one of the highlights of my 2017 Christmas reads), but I liked it quite a bit better than Death on the Cherwell.  Oddly, the titular murder is completely taken as a fait accompli here: we’re not even in on the discovery of the body, never mind meeting the victim-to-be in the flesh and seeing her interact with the suspects-to-be (all of them, residents of the same North London longterm-accommodation hotel as herself; two, in addition, young relatives of hers and her presumptive heirs).

As a result, I needed quite a bit of time to find my way into the story and connect with the characters, only few of whom I ultimately ended up liking (though I will say it was refreshing to see a male TSTL character for a change).  Still, even though I had a suspicion as to the murderer early on, which turned out to be correct, it was a fun, light, if somewhat chatty read.  Hay could write, and she’d definitely found her stride by the time she got to The Santa Klaus Murder — it’s a shame she stopped just when she’d gotten going for good.

 


Sharyn McCrumb: The Ballad of Frankie Silver

Holy hell St. Maloney, what a book.  Part of McCrumb’s Ballad series set in the Appalachian Mountains, this is the story of two executions — and the convicts sentenced to death in each case, as well as their (purported) crimes and the lawmen called upon to witness their executions.  In modern times, Sheriff Spencer Arrowood (one of the Ballad series’s central characters) is called upon to witness the execution of a man whom he himself had helped convict of murder when he was young and comparatively inexperienced, but all the more cocksure to make up for his lack of experience.  Recuperating from an injury sustained on the job and thus with some spare time on his hands, he decides to take a fresh look at the case … and comes away dismayed and disillusioned.  He also sees parallels to the (real life) case of Frankie Silver, an 18 year old girl hanged for the murder of her husband in Burke County, NC, in 1833; probably the first white woman to be executed in that county.

Frankie’s story makes up the bulk of the book: we’re learning it chiefly from the (fictional) diary of the 1832 Clerk of the Court, Burgess Gaither, who witnessed both her trial and the execution of her death sentence; interspersed with some passages in Frankie’s own voice.  Her story stayed alive and became a local legend on account of the girl’s ethereal beauty and meak, yet diginfied persona, as much as on account of the fact that she was very likely innocent of the crime of which she was convicted and went to her death in order to protect the real culprit; all of which also contributed to (alas, futile) efforts by prominent citizens of the community to obtain a gubernatorial pardon.  This is not an easy book to digest — it does not flinch from a close-up view of all aspects of the death penalty, as administered both then and now; and it asks hard questions about justice, equality, and the judicial process.  Yet, precisely for this gut-punch quality, and for Sharyn McCrumb’s spellbinding writing, it makes for an absolutely unforgettable experience.

One additional word on the audio version, which is narrated by McCrumb herself: Though by far not all authors excel at reading their own books, Sharyn McCrumb is one of the truly happy exceptions, and listening to the story read in her own voice greatly contributed to the lasting impression of this particular audiobook experience.  Even among the many excellent narrations I’ve had the pleasure of listening to this month so far, Sharyn McCrumb’s performance is a stand-out experience … singing of the titular Ballad of Frankie Silver included as the icing on the cake!

 


Alan Bradley: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Sigh.  There is a lot to like in this book: the writing, the setting and the atmosphere, the underlying historic research (including appropriate pop culture references as much as a sensitive treatment of post-war PTSD), the opening nod to Jane Eyre, the bickering sisters, the fact that Flavia has given her bike a name and treats it as if it were a horse, and, well, the mystery as such.  Unfortunately, the one character I’m having a problem with is Flavia herself.  Oh, I get it — she’s intelligent and beyond precocious, she loves books, and she spends a lot of time alone and she has decided to turn vice into virtue (“if nobody else loves me, I have to love myself” — remarkable insight to be expressed by an 11-year-old in pretty much these terms).

But that’s exactly where my issues begin … despite the odd age-appropriate behavior towards others, by and large both her mental processes and many of her emotional responses come across as way too adult.  I’ll even grant her love of chemistry — Graham Young was obsessed with chemistry from an early age, too, and knew enough about poisons to murder his stepmother, after almost having succeeded in killing his sister, at the tender age of 15 — and nearly get away with it, too.  But leaving aside that going from age 11 to age 15 is still a virtual quantum leap in the development of a child: (1) knowledge of chemistry doesn’t equal medical knowledge, and Flavia seems to dispose of an unreasonable amount of highly specific medical knowledge along with her knowledge of chemistry, including certain rare medical conditions (and don’t get me started on how she could (not) have read about all of that in Gray’s Anatomy); (2) book knowledge doesn’t equal experience, and more often than not Flavia’s analysis, actions and responses are not explicable by book knowledge, but only by the insight and reflections generated by a life experience far above and beyond even the most precocious 11-year-old child (this is particularly true in the final scene — actually that whole scene is ridiculously implausible on pretty much every single level, but Flavia’s age-inappropriate responses had started to bother me right at the beginning, with her discovery of the dying man); and (3) similarly (and on a related point), the grown ups’ treatment of Flavia is way too “eye level” to be believable.  Kudos to her dad for taking her seriously and trusting her with the full, tragic back story of the events, but for anybody else, let alone a policeman, to take an 11-year-old girl entirely seriously and communicate with her essentially like they would with an adult is just simply not realistic.

Maybe I’ve simply outgrown “child investigator” books — I used to love the Three Investigators series and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Baker Street Irregulars” make me smile to this very day.  But even the “Irregulars”, for however streetsmart they are, don’t display any age-inappropriate behavior or reasoning; ACD knew as well as Enid Blyton and the Three Investigators authors that adults tend not to take children seriously, and even more importantly, they all understood that even fictional children get to outfox the police only if the policemen in question are just plain too dumb to solve the case on their own.  But Inspector Hewitt doesn’t strike me like that at all.

So, sorry for spoiling everybody else’s party; I know I’m the odd one out here.  Don’t mind me — just go on enjoying Flavia’s adventures.  I simply won’t be along for the ride.

 


Angela Carter: Nights at the Circus

You know that scene in Amadeus where the Austrian emperor comments on Mozart’s music that it contains “too many notes”?  That’s how I began to feel after a while about the individual episodes, destinies, and narrative detours making up the sum total of this book — they simply started to run into each other.  Adjoa Andoh, who reads the audio version, said in an Audible interview about Nights at the Circus that Angela Carter is “generous” with her use of words (and towards her characters) … which I don’t necessarily mind; in fact, I’ve been known to downright revel in exuberant prose, but I confess that Carter has tested even my limits here.

Based on a simple premise — journalist interviews “human swan” trapeze artist in the attempt to show her up as a fraud, instead falls in love with her, and ends up joining her circus as a clown so as to follow her to Russia –, this is an exploration of the world of Victorian carneys, circuses, and freak shows, of the divisions of class and culture(s), and of the exploitation of women and of the disabled (especially those perceived as freaks).  If, going in, you have any misconceptions about the nature of Nights at the Circus based on its title and setting, or based on the fact that it is frequently described as “magic realism”, at least in the audio version Adjoa Andoh’s earthy reading will disabuse you of any such notions literally from the first word on: there is no question that Fevvers, the book’s protagonist, is cockney to the bone; and more generally speaking, between them Carter and Andoh leave no doubt about the fact there is (or was) nothing remotely glorious or magical about the behind-the-scenes world of Victorian carneys — nor about the previous lives of most carney artists, or the destiny awaiting them once they were too old to be able to perform.  While pulling off enough of the veil for the reader / spectator to understand that much of what (s)he sees is an illusion, the lines are occasionally blurred, and not all is revealed to the naked eye — and even where Carter applies her exuberance to the plainly ridiculous, never once does she lose an ounce of respect for her characters (nor, for that matter, does Andoh’s narration).  Yet, this is one book where I’ll likely want to revisit the printed version at some point in the future, because Andoh’s performance, splendid as it is, is so dominant that I couldn’t help wondering sometimes if the characters — first and foremost Fevvers herself, but others as well — would have sounded exactly the same in my head without anybody else’s intervening interpretation.

In the meantime, though, give me Fellini’s La Strada (and The Clowns) any day of the week …

 


Daphne du Maurier: Frenchman’s Creek

If it weren’t for du Maurier’s indisputable gifts as a writer, and for the splendid things that are Rebecca and The Birds, my most recent reads of hers, between them, would have seriously made me doubt if she is for me at all, had these been my only introduction to her writing.  While Jamaica Inn at least excels in terms of creating a truly oppressive and spooky atmosphere (and since I read it primarily for that, I was willing to give du Maurier considerable slack in terms of the plotline … until I got to the beyond-eyeroll-worthy ending, that is), Frenchman’s Creek lost me even before it really had started to get going and never recaptured my attention.

That being said, it’s the sort of totally implausible, romantic pirate adventure that would have riveted me in my early teens.  Problem is, I’m not a teenager anymore, I expect people (both fictional and in real life) to act with at least a minimal amount of rationality — and book characters to be at least substantially self-consistent (and consistent with their station in life) –, and I no longer believe in insta-love.  So I’m just going to say thank you to Ms. du Maurier for once more taking me to 19th century Cornwall, which comes across as decidedly more lovely here than it does in Jamaica Inn (but then it would, this being a romance at heart), and thank you to John Nettles for giving his utmost to make this a captivating audiobook experience.  But for once, I was glad to have contented myself with an abbreviated version … and I don’t think anything will tempt me to revisit this novel anytime soon (even though here, too, I actually own a print edition as well).

 


Edith Wharton: Ghosts: Edith Wharton’s Gothic Tales

As the title says, a selection of audio narrations taken from Edith Wharton’s collection of ghost stories: big on atmosphere and on Wharton’s lovely, insightful, empathetic writing; negligible to nonexistent on blood and gore.  This is how I like my gothic fiction!  As in her novels, Wharton relies entirely on subtle means of psychology; on our innate fear of the unknown, on our need to empathize, on uncertainties — about the right way, about another person, or the accuracy of ancient writings and legends, or how far to trust our own senses; on changes of light, visions barred, sounds more devined than actually heard, and ethereal smells wafting by but impossible to source.  There is room for delicate humor here as well as for compassion; my favorite stories being, probably, Mr. Jones and Kerfol (warning, however: the dog dies.  Or rather, the dogs die — several of them in short succession.  But they get their revenge in the end) … though, really, it’s difficult for me to pick any clear favorites at all.

 


Terry Pratchett: The Colour of Magic

“The discworld offers sights far more impressive than those found in universes built by Creators with less imagination but more mechanical aptitude.”

Aaah … Sir Terry.  What would Halloween Bingo possibly be without you?  Especially this year, what with Wyrd Sisters being the official bingo group readand having inspired Booklikes’s very own Discworld group, which very properly decided to read all the books in the order of publication.  So, another Halloween Bingo with no less than two Pratchett books — yey!

Before I started to explore the Discworld universe, people told me to just dive in anywhere, it didn’t matter with which book I started; and that’s just what I did.  But after going a-roving here and there, it’s been pure joy to come back to the very beginning and see where it all started.  The Colour of Magic is a hilarious romp through 1980s fantasy (and to a lesser extent, science fiction) conventions; Big Bang turtle theory, imagine-dragons, magic sword, hero lore, staffless wizard (Rincewind), naive tourist and all.  The tourist (Twoflower: an inn-sewer-ants agent by trade with a reckless disregard for his own and Rincewind’s personal safety) has even brought a precursor of the glorious Hex, as it were; an iconograph (“device for taking pictures quickly”) with a demon inside who will sketch a perfect likeness of you in anywhere from 30 seconds upwards.  And then, of course, there is The Luggage … can there possibly be a more apt application of the “Relics and Curiosities” bingo square?  All the essentials of what makes Discworld — well — Discworld are in place here already, even if Pratchett may have further fine-tuned his style in the subsequent books (many of which, as a result, are even funnier).  I was glued to my speakers from the first second of Nigel Planer’s hilarious, spot-on narration, and I also have to say that I liked The Colour of Magic quite a bit better than Equal Rights, the first Witches book (and overall, Discworld #3).

“This tourist is a thing that is out of place.  After acceding to his master’s wishes Nine Turning Mirrors would, I am quite sure, make his own arrangements with a view to ensuring that one wanderer would not be allowed to return home bringing, perhaps, the disease of dissatisfaction.  The Empire likes people to stay where it puts them.”

 

 

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Edmund Crispin: The Moving Toyshop & Alan Melville: Quick Curtain

A murder is committed — and hilarity ensues

Both Edmund Crispin’s Moving Toyshop and Alan Melville’s Quick Curtain are mentioned in the “Making Fun of Murder” chapter of Martin Edwards’s Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.  Both are excellent examples of writers taking something as horrific as murder and turning it right around and into a farce, albeit (as Dorothy L. Sayers remarked in her review of Melville’s book) at the expense of a realistic description of proper police procedure.  But then, a surfeit of realism isn’t necessarily what either of these authors was aiming for.

Which doesn’t mean that their observations on society, or the segment thereof being portrayed (academia in Crispin’s case, the world of showbiz and the theatre in Melville’s) aren’t spot on satire.  In fact, if read in that spirit, they are, in many respects, as timely today as they were when originally written:

“Tuesday, June 18th, you will have noticed, was the great day [of the musical company’s London opening].  On Sunday, June 16th, when most of the Blue Music company were still in Manchester […], seven grim females parked seven rickety campstools outside the gallery entrance of the Grosvenor Theatre.

They were joined a little later in the evening by four more females and a lone male.  They unpacked sandwiches and munched.  They uncorked thermos flasks and drank hot coffee out of the aluminium tops of the flasks.  They discussed with one another Mr. Douglas, Miss Astle, Mr. Baker, Mr. Douglas’s past successes, Miss Astle’s last divorce, Mr. Baker’s profile — both the port and the starboard view.  They half slept.  They suffered endless agonies on their stupid, unreliable campstools; they each contracted stiff necks and shooting pains in the lower reaches of the spine; they were photographed for their pains by a man in a dirty waterproof and appeared on the back page of the Daily Post under the title ‘Gallery Enthusiasts’ Three-Day Wait for New Douglas Show.’  They were still there on Tuesday morning, proudly in the van of a fair-sized queue.”

(Alan Melville, Quick Curtain)

Harry Potter and Apple gadgets, anyone?

 


Edmund Crispin’s Moving Toyshop concerns the temporary metamorphosis of a grocer’s shop into (you guessed it) a toyshop for purposes of the concealment of the scene of a murder; a plan that goes haywire when one of the book’s two protagonists, a poet friend of Oxford don (and star of this book series) Gervase Fen, accidentally stumbles into the temporarily morphed shop, shortly after the dastardly deed has been committed.  Crispin’s particular forte were hilarious chase scenes, of which this book contains several, perhaps the most notable being the two amateur sleuths’ chase after a young woman in the midst of the Oxford Händel Society’s rehearsal of Brahms’s Schicksalslied in the Sheldonian Theatre:

“The girl with the blue eyes and the golden hair was embedded in the very middle of the altos, and there was no way to get near her except through the basses, who stood nearby, behind the orchestra.  Accordingly, they hacked out a path between the instrumentalists, under the envenomed gaze of Dr Artemus Rains [the conductor].  The second horn, a sandy, undersized man, went quite out of tune with indignation.  Brahms thundered and trumpeted about their ears. ‘Blindly,’ the chorus roared, ‘blindly from one dread hour to another.’  They knocked over the music-stand of the tympanist, sweating with the efford of counting bars, so that he failed to come in at his last entry.

The haven of the basses achieved at last, a number of further difficulties presented themselves.  The Sheldonian is not particularly spacious, and the members of the large choir have to be herded together in conditions not unreminiscent of the Black Hole of Calcutta.  When Fen and Cadogan, pushing, perspiring, and creating a great deal of localized pother, had penetrated the basses to a certain distance (Cadogan shedding wicker basket, bootlaces, and dog-collar broadcast as he went) the could literally get no farther; they were wedged, and even the avenue by which they had come was now irrevocably closed and sealed. […]

Dr. Rains leaned his spidery form forwards across the rostrum. ‘Professor Fen –‘ he began in a silky voice.

But he was not allowed to finish.  The girl with the blue eyes, profiting by this sudden focusing of attention, had pushed her way through the altos and was now heading at a brisk pace towards the door.  Unnerved by this fresh interruption, Dr Rains swung round to glare at her.  Fen and Cadogan got on the move again with alacrity, clawing their way back through the basses and the orchestra without ceremony or restraint.  But this process delayed them, and the girl had been out of the hall at least half a minute by the time they reached open ground.  Dr. Rains watched them go with a theatrical expression of sardonic interst.

‘Now that the English Faculty has left us,’ Cadogan heard him say, ‘we will go back to the letter L.’ The rehearsal started afresh.”

I’ve yet to see the BBC TV adaptation of this, but if handled well, this is not the only scene that would have made for much hilarity, never mind the novel’s otherwise somewhat thin plot.

 


Alan Melville’s Quick Curtain is, as shown already in the excerpt further above, a satire on the world of 1930s theatre and showbiz, where a murder occurring at the focal point of a bestselling new musical comedy is investigated (with many quips and witty asides) by a policeman and his journalist son.  Obviously, this premise in and of itself is more than merely a little preposterous, even for the 1930s, but if you’re able to get past this point (Ms. Sayers obviously wasn’t) and past the fact that the central plot device has been used about a million times since, there is much to enjoy here — and Melville, who knew the world he was describing inside out, certainly doesn’t mince words when it comes to the characterization of the chief players who, like those of another theatre insider turned mystery writer of the day, Ngaio Marsh, are thinly veiled take-downs on several real life stars — yet Melville (like Marsh) kept the allusions just on the right side of the generic and light-hearted, without ever descending into outright character assassination.  (Well, he was making a living in that very world himself, after all.)  And he also managed to maintain his light, almost absurdist approach right until the end: Think a Golden Age mystery always ends with a pat and neat solution?  Think again.  Even if there is such a thing as the standard-issue conclave in the 23:45th-ish hour …

 

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