Christianna Brand: Fog of Doubt


Brand’s fifth Inspector Cockrill mystery, and of all the books by her that I have read (all of them this year), second only to Green for Danger, which remains my favorite among all of her novels. Brand specialized in closed circle mysteries, and apart from the traditional country house settings so prevalent in Golden Age mysteries, she also came up with a number of truly unusual circumstances creating that closed circle: whereas in Green for Danger it’s a WWII military hospital, here it is a house — in fact, her own Maida Vale home, as she explains in the preface — where a murder happens during a particularly vicious example of a London “pea-souper” (aka “London Particular”, which in fact was the book’s original title).  Brand’s plotting is superb, and when — like here — she doesn’t try to serve populist cliché, she has a knack for creating characters that easily draw you into the story (even if I could seriously do without the blonde ingenues that seem to be a fixture in many of her books, never mind that this particular story’s ingenue is decidedly less naïve and innocent than some of the other ones).  I only have few books by Brand left to read, and while I didn’t like all of them equally well, by and large she is one of my more notable Golden Age / Detection Club discoveries.

Halloween Bingo 2020: The Second Week (+1 Day)

Posting this on Monday instead of Sunday again … oh well.

I guess after a near-phenomenal first bingo week it was only to be expected that the second week would not be quite as fabulous. Mind you, I’m not complaining — my card is coming together nicely, and none of the books I read this past week was a real dud; even if only some of them could compare with the first week’s reads (which, however, in some instances is also a “YMMV” kind of thing; i.e., it’s not the book, it’s me).

 

My “Week 2” Bingo Books:


Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Beatrice Malleson, aka Anne Meredith): Death in Fancy Dress

A carry-over from week 1, best described as “Golden Age country house mystery meets Wuthering Heights“. Lucy Beatrice Malleson was a member of the Detection Club who wrote under several pen names, including Anne Meredith and Anthony Gilbert, and reading her books almost a century after they were first published, it is hard to believe that they should have failed to attain widespread popularity, as both in Portrait of a Murderer (written as by Anne Meredith) and in this book she clearly shows herself to be a cut above many of her contemporaries.

Death in Fancy Dress concerns two young friends (one a budding solicitor, one an adventurer and “gentleman of leisure”) who are urgently called to the remote country home of the young solicitor’s — the narrator’s — extended family, which seems to be in the grip of a ruthless gang of blackmailers who have already driven a number of society figures to suicide in the face of impending scandal. (And no, this is not just a recap of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Charles Augustus Milverton.)  As indicated by the book’s title, murder ensues in short order after the two young amateur sleuths’ arrival, during a fancy dress ball no less.

Martin Edwards, in his introduction, cites Dorothy L. Sayers’s review, which highlights that one of this book’s great merits is not to leave any doubt about the fact that there is nothing cozy about this particular country house party; beginning right with the moment of the two young gentlemen’s arrival: during a storm, with the daughter of the house missing and feared in grave peril — even though she is an otherwise independent young lady, who ordinarily would easily be able to take care of herself.  Yet, right now the fact that her hand in marriage is coveted by several men would seem to be one of her lesser worries, if it weren’t also so obviously tied in with the blackmail threat. (Her suitors include one of our young sleuths, another guest who happens to be a professional detective, as well as her cousin, the local squire, who is a sort of blend of Rudolph Valentino, your quintessential dark, brooding rogue, and a sane and calculating version of Heathcliff.)  And indeed, atmosphere is big in this novel, with the squire’s (the antagonist’s) “Heathcliff” / dark, brooding rogue touch not the only Wuthering Heights overtones — the action is also set near a (fictional) moor, several hours from London: honi soit qui Yorkshire n’y pense. (Well, OK, or Exmoor, Bodmin or Dartmoor — but then we’re in Lorna Doone / Jamaica Inn / Hound of the Baskervilles territory; take your pick.)  All in all, definitely one of the highlights among the second bingo week’s books.

 


Marie-Elena John: Unburnable

This is a book from my Around the World project / reading list: the story of Lillian, a young woman of Caribbean descent who returns to her home island of Dominica in order to lay to rest the ghosts of her family history, which has been troubled ever since her grandmother — rumored to be a witch — was convicted for murder, after the unexplained disappearance of her male companion / common law husband, as well as the discovery of several skeletons near her remote mountainside village. Lillian believes the words that have been construed as her grandmother’s confession of guilt (“yes, I am responsible for those deaths”) to have been coerced;, and she bullies her ex-boyfriend, who still carries a torch for her and who is a lawyer specializing in overturning unjust convictions, to join her on a trip to Dominica to clear her grandmother’s name.

I thought the Caribbean / Dominican setting was well-executed; it’s obvious that John was writing from personal knowledge there — including, too, the cross-references between certain African and Caribbean cultures and belief systems.  What I liked decidedly less was the way the book was set up in what easily amounted to its entire first quarter, with apparently disconnected chapters tracing the histories of our protagonist, her mother, grandmother, as well as several other (also mostly female) characters important to the plot, and whose stories really only come together towards the end. This narrative technique is hit or miss with me, with “hits” occurring chiefly if I’m quickly drawn into each (apparently) separate character’s story, and if I can at least vaguely discern how the various strands are going to come together eventually. That wasn’t the case here, and things weren’t exactly helped by the fact that, especially at the beginning, John cuts a few corners by instances telling instead of showing, even though far be it from me to accuse her of doing this all the time (in fact, on the other end of the spectrum, there are also scenes that depict violence (by and) against women in a downright viscerally graphic manner). — Lastly, the plot fell apart for me towards the end, when it becomes clear that although Lillian (and her now-on-again boyfriend) find out what really happened all those decades ago, this is by no means the solution they have hoped for. (I do realize the depiction of Lillian’s falling apart instead of healing in Dominica is deliberate and is intended to be key to the novel, but John lost me in the way she went about depicting it.)

 


Aimee and David Thurlo: Second Sunrise

Native American police procedural meets vampires, witches and werewolves.  To give the authors their due, I guess with skinwalkers being a key part of Navajo mythology, it’s a proximate thought to capitalize on the past decade(s)’ vampire craze and go full tilt supernatural / paranormal, and the sequence of events that turns our protagonist into a (half-)vampire is / are well-enough executed.  Also, the Thurlos’ love for “their” Navajo country easily translates onto the page, and their prose and plot construction is assured and workmanlike (in a positive sense) enough for me to consider this reading experience encouragement to take a look at their “non-supernatural” Ella Clah Navajo cop series (which has actually been on my TBR longer than this particular book).  I guess I’m over vampires once and for all, though (unless they’re created by Terry Pratchett, that is) — and quite frankly, the antagonist’s back story is risible and shows that, supernatural elements aside, the authors really are only interested in giving a credible and true portrayal of Navajo Country, not also in researching the historical and political background of their plot in other respects, where instead they are quite happy to settle for hyperbole and cliché. So as I said, I guess based on their portrayal of Navajo Country (and culture) I’m still going to give them the benefit of the doubt and take a look at their Ella Clah series, but if that series should display similar downsides in its approach to the non-Navajo characters’ back stories, I won’t become a fan, however well-executed the Native American aspects of their books may be.

 


Christianna Brand: Fog of Doubt

Brand’s fifth Inspector Cockrill mystery, and of all the books by her that I have read (all of them this year), second only to Green for Danger, which remains my favorite among all of her novels. Brand specialized in closed circle mysteries, and apart from the traditional country house settings so prevalent in Golden Age mysteries, she also came up with a number of truly unusual circumstances creating that closed circle: whereas in Green for Danger it’s a WWII military hospital, here it is a house — in fact, her own Maida Vale home, as she explains in the preface — where a murder happens during a particularly vicious example of a London “pea-souper” (aka “London Particular”, which in fact was the book’s original title).  Brand’s plotting is superb, and when — like here — she doesn’t try to serve populist cliché, she has a knack for creating characters that easily draw you into the story (even if I could seriously do without the blonde ingenues that seem to be a fixture in many of her books, never mind that this particular story’s ingenue is decidedly less naïve and innocent than some of the other ones).  I only have few books by Brand left to read, and while I didn’t like all of them equally well, by and large she is one of my more notable Golden Age / Detection Club discoveries.

 


Kathryn Harkup: Death by Shakespeare

Hmmm.  After having read and liked — though not loved — Harkup’s book on Agatha Christie’s use of poisons in her mysteries (A Is for Arsenic), it took the Shakespeare fan in me about a millisecond to snatch up this third book of hers when I came across it earlier this year … only to then decide, almost as quickly, to save it for the “Truly Terrifying” (or alternatively, “Paint It Black”) Halloween Bingo squares.  And as is so often the case, anticipation built over a period of time in the end doesn’t quite deliver the hoped-for bundle of goods.

My main bit of gripe is that Harkup doesn’t seem to have had a very clear picture for which audience she was writing this book.  On the one hand, she spends (I’m tempted to say, wastes) several chapters giving an abbreviated biography of Shakespeare and describing the London and the theatrical world in which he moved — NONE of which will be new to anyone even remotely familiar with the Bard and his life, time, and works (and all of which, thus, can only be of any use to a complete newbie to Shakespeare’s works) … and ALL of which I’ve seen discussed better, in greater detail and with a better-informed historical perspective by both Shakespearean scholars (most notably Stanley Wells) and general historians writing for a non-scholarly audience (e.g., Ian Mortimer and Liza Picard). (At least she doesn’t give any credence to the identity conspiracy theorists, but that still doesn’t stop her from using bits of unfounded speculation on the Bard’s life experience later in the book whenever she considers it expedient for a specific purpose.)  Similar things can be said for her comments on medicine in the Elizabethan age, which on the one hand is pretty much a staple in historical fiction set in the Plantagenet and Tudor eras; on the other hand, the details that I didn’t already know as historical fiction background, I’ve learned in greater depth by visiting Hall’s Croft, the home of Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna and her husband Dr. John Hall, who was a medical doctor (incidentally with rather advanced and well-informed views, compared to many of his contemporaries), who is widely believed to have provided his father in law with the requisite background knowledge for a plethora of deaths occurring in his plays, and whose professional equipment and records form part of the permanent exhibition on Elizabethan-era medicine that can now be visited in his former home in Stratford-upon-Avon.

On the other hand, when Harkup does finally get around to discussing Shakespeare’s portrayal of death and killings in his plays, she gives very little context to the majority of scenes she discusses, so anyone not intimately familiar with those plays (particularly the “histories”, which probably feature most widely overall in her book — and chiefly among these, the two “Henriads”) is soon going to be utterly lost as to the significance and context of the scene(s) under discussion.

Moreover, in at least one instance (Richard III and “The Princes in the Tower”) Harkup, while paying lip service to the idea that RIII perhaps “wasn’t quite as bad a tyrant as Shakespeare makes him out to be”, nevertheless falls into the very trap for which she poo-poos the medical analysis that established the bones found in the Tower in the early 20th century as those of “The Princes”, namely to reason from the desired result instead of dispassionately looking at the available evidence and letting the chips fall where they may.  This review isn’t the place for this particular bit of historical discussion, so let me just say that I am unable to take seriously any writer who, like Harkup, blandly describes the reign of Henry VII as “a new era of hope and peace for England” (or words to that effect), in either blissful ignorance or blissful disregard of, to name but a few examples,

(1) the cruelty of “Morton’s Fork”,
(2) Henry VII’s (and later his son’s) ruthless and systematic annihilation of the remaining representatives of the House of York (most notably, the execution — on demonstrably trumped-up charges — of his own closest rival for the throne, who at the time was a teenager, imprisoned in the Tower on Henry VII’s orders since his early childhood), or
(3) the fact that Henry VII (a) purposefully dated his reign from the day before his victory at Bosworth, which in one single stroke of the pen made every single combatant on Richard’s side a traitor to the crown, and (b) only crowned his wife Elizabeth queen a year after he himself had well and truly secured the crown, never mind that she had a much greater claim to the crown than he himself did to begin with.

(And let’s not even get into the inconvenient little detail that BOTH Richard III and Henry VII had their fans and detractors among the eminent writers, politicians and diplomats of the time, depending on who you were listening to and whom they were writing for, which is precisely one of the reasons why it’s so hard to determine what is self-servicing Tudor propaganda when it comes to Richard III and what is credible historical testimony.  Or the fact that Harkup blithely buys in virtually all of the things now actually known to be Tudor propaganda and hence, inherently unreliable …)

Anyway.  For what it is in terms of the actual discussion of Shakespeare’s use of death in his plays, it’s an interesting read. Unfortunately, way too much of that discussion gets lost in superfluous and, in part, downright irritating “white noise”.

 


Patricia Moyes: The Sunken Sailor

I read Moyes’s first Henry & Emmy Tibbett book (Dead Men Don’t Ski) earlier this year and liked it a lot.  While I still liked most of book 2 as well, The Sunken Sailor (aka Down Among the Dead Men) suffers from a bit of a sophomore slump: Moyes first does a great job establishing the characters and atmosphere of the tiny Suffolk harbor community where the Tibbetts go to spend a sailing holiday with friends.  However, inexplicably, somewhere before the book’s halfway point, Henry Tibbett of all people, the man whose “nose” for crime is proverbial at Scotland Yard, after having duly “nosed out” the suspicious circumstances of the death lurking in the recent past of that seaside community, decides to let unexplained bygones be unexplained bygones … and for the worst (and in terms of his character, most unbelievable) of all reasons — as a result of being vamped by a woman (moreover, a woman who herself is one of several suspects and, even if not guilty, just might have reasons aplenty for not wanting the truth to come out).  A less convincing instance of throwing a spanner in the plot works just so as to be able to produce yet another avoidable death (as well as a belated solution) I’ve rarely come across, and based on her first book, I seriously would have expected better from Moyes.  (I also found few of the characters in thei book as likeable as Moyes obviously intends them to be.)  This isn’t an awful book, and I’m still going to continue reading this series, but I do hope we’re talking sophomore slump here and I trust I haven’t already seen the best of the bunch when I read book 1.

(In terms of bingo squares, the book just scrapes within the definition of “Dark and Stormy Night” and I’m counting it for that square as Christine expressly confirmed that it counts.  It would obviously also qualify for “Fear the Drowning Deep” — which however isn’t on my card — and, the edition I own, also for “Full Moon”, as that’s what the white dot on the cover actually is.)

 

Currently Reading


Naomi Novik: Spinning Silver

Rumpelstiltskin goes Eastern Europe and fairyland.  I’m using it for “Spellbound” (the fairy king — Rumpelstiltskin in the fairy tale — has already cast the story’s first spell,  and “fairy silver” with magic proportions has also made numerous appearances already), but it would of course also qualify for “A Grimm Tale” or “Supernatural”.

 

The State of the Card

Master Update Post: HERE

 

My Markers


Read             Called                   Read & Called   Read = Called

Margery Allingham: More Work for the Undertaker


The thirteenth book in the Campion series; one of the few I hadn’t read yet and thus, a proximate choice for the “13” bingo square.  In tone, I find that the post-WWII stories are markedly darker than the series’s very first entries, which by and large is all to the good, however; even if they don’t quite reach the heights of The Case of the Late Pig, Police at the Funeral, or Death of a Ghost.  The story is typically wacky and also a typical entry in the series in other respects (characters, setting, etc.) nevertheless, culminating in a rather outré / macabre chase (the clue is in the title) … and introducing a character who will feature as a light in other post-WWII episodes as well (now that Stanislaus Oates has made it all the way to the top of the apple tree), the theatrically / oratorically-gifted D.I. Charlie Luke.

 

Halloween Bingo 2020: The First Week (+1 Day)

This year’s Halloween Bingo started a lot more promising than last year’s with a strong joint entry in Michael Connelly’s Bosch and Ballard series, and in fact, not one of the books I read earned less than a four-star rating — with the standout being Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, which turned out to be a perfect choice for the “Psych” square.

 

The “Week 1” Books


Michael Connelly: The Night Fire

My bingo pre-read and a very welcome return to Los Angeles — or at least, the version thereof that constitutes the world of Connelly’s characters, which however only ends up making the city a major character of its own in addition to the humans living in it.

Harry Bosch may not officially be a cold case investigator any longer, but that doesn’t stop him from seeking justice for those who died without their murderers ever having been brought to justice; particularly if he is handed the relevant file by the widow of his own recently-deceased mentor.  He ropes in Ballard, and I loved seeing that it was she who was first to tumble to what was wrong with that long-dead investigation.  (I’m also relieved that, for the time being at least, Connelly doesn’t seem to be planning to make a couple out of them.)  Two other investigations keep our two protagonists busy at the same time, both concerned with more recent deaths.  The ending relies a bit too much on coincidence for my liking (for however much Connelly may be protesting that there is no such thing — and of course, in his writer’s mind there isn’t, since he’s the one who plotted the whole thing out to begin with, but from the characters’ / from inside the story’s perspective, it still remains a case of protesting too much); yet, by and large, a more than solid entry in the series.  It also would seem to explain, incidentally, why Connelly decided to focus on Jack McEvoy for a change again for his next book (Fair Warning), as there are recent developments in Bosch’s (and potentially Mickey Haller’s and Maddie’s) lives that he’ll likely will want to take some time developing.

 


Joy Ellis: They Disappeared

Before starting this book, I’d said I hoped Ellis was done with the serial killer plots, as I had a feeling she was at risk of turning into a one trick pony that way — well, let’s say I both did and didn’t get my wish.  (Several gruesome deaths, yes, but not a mentally diseased mind behind them.)  I loved that Ellis had the courage to give us a fresh perspective on IT whiz Orla Cracken: There’s always a risk associated with making a character heretofore so unapproachable and shrouded in secrecy as her more accessible, but Ellis pulled it of very well for the most part … even though I’m only half convinced by the part of “Orac”‘s past that is explored most in depth here: surely, based on the feats we’ve seen her perform in the past (and based on what we now know about her training), this should be a mystery that Orac herself should have been able to solve long ago — and on her own?  Be that as it may, though, it was interesting to see another character being included in this particular series’s sweep of Ellis’s authorial focus.  I also liked the setting she picked for this book — “urban exploration” — which seems almost tailor-made for her sort of books; even if her protagonists (who are all cops, after all) have a somewhat too tolerant (if not, downright gushing) attitude to that occupation, which is prohibited for a reason, after all.

Big spoiler warning for a previous non-series book, however: While I think it’s fair to say that any reader reading the Jackman & Evans series as such out of order does so at their peril (and this is true for this particular book, too, as it provides — or would seem to provide — a definite ending for one of the past several books’ major narrative strands, so it should definitely be read after everything from The Guilty Ones onwards by anyone wanting to avoid spoilers in that regard), I’m still a bit miffed to see this book also containing a major spoiler for a recent stand-alone by Ellis, which I haven’t read yet and had been planning to get to later this year (Guide Star).  I’m fine with authors setting all of their various series in the same universe (Michael Connelly does the same thing, after all), and as long as this merely meant swapping supporting characters (like Dr. Wilkinson) or cross-references in dialogue, I haven’t had a problem with this  sort of thing in Ellis’s case so far, either.  But the main characters from Guide Star have, it would seem, fully been integrated into the Jackman & Evans series, and Ellis apparently couldn’t find a way of doing that without giving away that other book’s conclusion, as it constitutes a major premise of the events in They Disappeared.  Shame.

 


Margery Allingham: More Work for the Undertaker

The thirteenth book in the Campion series; one of the few I hadn’t read yet and thus, a proximate choice for the “13” bingo square.  In tone, I find that the post-WWII stories are markedly darker than the series’s very first entries, which by and large is all to the good, however; even if they don’t quite reach the heights of The Case of the Late Pig, Police at the Funeral, or Death of a Ghost.  The story is typically wacky and also a typical entry in the series in other respects (characters, setting, etc.) nevertheless, culminating in a rather outré / macabre chase (the clue is in the title) … and introducing a character who will feature as a light in other post-WWII episodes as well (now that Stanislaus Oates has made it all the way to the top of the apple tree), the theatrically / oratorically-gifted D.I. Charlie Luke.

 


Nicholas Blake: The Beast Must Die

Wow. What a stunner. Blake (aka Cecil Day Lewis) messes with the reader’s mind literally from page 1, and being fully aware of the fact still doesn’t mean you’ll be up to what he is doing — or at least not all of it.  Even to begin talking about the plot would mean giving away half  the twists, so let’s just say it concerns a writer’s search for the reckless driver who mowed down his little son a few months earlier, as well as a family dominated by a bullying patriarch (and his equally bullying mother).  And from outright suggestions of lunacy to characters deliberately disguising their identities — or their innermost nature and / or intentions — to a myriad other ways in which Blake indulges in his cat-and-mouse game with the reader’s mind (authorial / narrative perspective, sequencing — the whole kit and caboodle), this is one big screwed-up joy ride … for those of us who like this sort of thing every so often, that is.

Side note 1: If you’ve read any of Blake’s other Nigel Strangeways books before (particularly any of the early ones), forget everything you’ve seen there.  Even though this book features both the Strangeways couple (Nick and Georgina) and Inspector Blunt, it is anything but a typical entry in the series (and all the better for it).

Side note 2: If you are interested in sailing, you may particularly enjoy this story.  It also probably helps to be familiar with the lingo  — which I am not, but I could follow along nevertheless, and during the one crucial scene set on a boat, I was just too glued to my speakers to pause listening in order to embark on an online search for the meaning of individual terms.

 


Agatha Christie: The Thirteen Problems

Audio revisit courtesy of Joan Hickson’s narration, both for Halloween Bingo and as part of the Agatha Christie Centennary celebration of her first novel (The Mysterious Affair at Styles) — and I find I’m drawn to these stories more and more with every time I’m revisiting them. Review HERE.

 

Currently Reading


Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Beatrice Malleson, aka Anne Meredith): Death in Fancy Dress

Country house mystery meets Wuthering Heights, with rather enjoyable effects (though more for the reader than for the main characters).  I’ll probably finish this either tonight or tomorrow morning.

 

The State of the Card

Master Update Post: HERE

 

My Markers


Read             Called                   Read & Called   Read = Called

Pete Brown: Shakespeare’s Local


This is one of those books that I’ve owned way too long before I finally get around to reading them: The discursive — in the best sense –, rollicking tale of one London (or rather, Southwark) pub from its earliest days in the Middle Ages to the 21st century, telling the history of Southwark, London, public houses, and their patrons along the way.  The title is glorious conjecture and based on little more than the fact that the pub is near the location of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (combined with the equally demonstrable fact that Shakespeare loved a good ale and what today we’d call a pub crawl) … so it’s highly likely that, like many another celebrity over the centuries, he’d have had the occasional pint at this particular inn, the George, as well.

Highly recommended for history fans, pub crawlers and aficionados of London alike.

2019: The Books I’ve Been Most Thankful For

24 Festive Tasks: Door 11 – Thanksgiving: Task 2

With another full month to go in the year, it may be a bit early to do this task, but a substantial number of the books I’m going to be reading in December will be Christmas rereads, so here we go.

The books / authors I am most thankful for having (re)discovered are, working backwards in the order in which I’ve read them (and with links to my reviews or status updates, if any, in the titles):

 

Margaret Atwood, The Testaments and The Handmaid’s Tale:
Atwood’s Gilead novels were my final reads of this year’s Halloween Bingo, and the game couldn’t have ended on a bigger exclamation point (though The Handmaid’s Tale was a reread).  The Testaments not only takes us back to Gilead and provides answers to some of the questions remaining open at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, more importantly it is also a timely reminder of what exactly is at stake once a democracy’s foundations are allowed to weaken — as we’re seeing in more than one country around the world at the moment.  One of the hardest reading double bills I ever imposed on myself, but I’m very glad that I did.

As a side note and for something very different, I also truly enjoyed Atwood’s Hag-Seed, a novelization of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which I read earlier this year.

 

Toni Morrison, Beloved:
Another soul-drenching and profoundly devastating reading experience, and yet another one that I’m truly thankful for.  Morrison deserved the Literature Nobel Prize for this book alone, and while her literary legacy has hopefully made her voice immortal, among the many great authors we have lost this year, she stands head and shoulders above all the rest.  Her contributions to the literary and social discourse will well and truly be missed.

 

Guards! Guards! - Terry PratchettTerry Pratchett, Guards, Guards:
One of the Discworld series’s stand-out books and in many ways a perfect companion book for those by Atwood and Morrison as it, too, deals with the undermining of democracy by the forces of evil.  Trust me, this is one dragon you don’t want to encounter … (unless, of course, you happen to be able to bring the perfect antidote).

Reminder for the Discworld group: This is our bimonthly group read for this coming December.  And it’s highly recommended!

 

Danger! - Arthur Conan DoyleArthur Conan Doyle: Danger:
Speaking of timely reads, this was yet another one: Much more than “merely” the author of the Sherlock Holmes books, Conan Doyle was an astute observer of the politics of his time, and he did not shy away from speaking his mind, even if that meant offending the highest in the land.  Danger is a short story that he wrote shortly before WWI to warn the leadership of the Admiralty of the dangers of a submarine war, for which he considered Britain woefully unprepared.  And if Conan Doyle’s words struck a cautionary note a century ago (turns out the Admiralty took his warning seriously, and it was a good thing for Britain that they did), they should do so even more in the context of Brexit, which carries its very own significant risks of cutting off or curtailing Britain’s trade routes.  Alas, I very much doubt that’s the case.

 

Thomas Cromwell: A Life - Diarmaid MacCullochDiarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cromwell
Simply put, the Cromwell biography to end all Cromwell biographies.  In his research for this book, MacCulloch took a fresh look at virtually every single document on which Cromwell’s vast legacy is based, and the resulting biography is a masterpiece of historical analysis which does away with many an often-repeated myth (beginning right at the beginning of Cromwell’s life, with the role of his father), and which shines a light on Cromwell’s many innovations and achievements and on the inner workings of his meteoric rise from humble tradesman’s son to Henry VIII’s chief minister.  In the process, MacCulloch reevaluates everything from the foreign merchant experience that Cromwell gained early in life, to his work as Cardinal Wolsey’s assistant and, finally, his growing preeminence and his seminal policy as the power behind Henry VIII’s throne.  What emerges from MacCulloch’s analysis is the picture of a highly complex and intelligent man, difficult to deal with even for friends, fierce and ruthless as an enemy — but always with England’s well-being and advancement (as well as the advancement of its institutions) at his heart; the one man who, in the space of a single short decade, emerged as the single most important politician of the entire Tudor Age (short of, just possibly, Elizabeth I), whose legacy (and the legacy of his innovations and reforms, far above and beyond the well-known Acts of Parliament which he initiated) reaches down the centuries all the way to the present date.  If you’re even the slightest bit interested in the Tudor Age or in constitutional history, run, don’t walk to acquire this book.

 

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo - Tom ReissTom Reiss, The Black Count:
Another highly fascinating biography: We’ve come to think of Alexandre Dumas père and fils as the two writers, but did you know that Dumas père’s father (also called Alexandre) — the son of a black Haitian slave and a French count — was a general in the French revolutionary army and, in his own time, much more important than his son and grandson ever were in theirs?  Reiss’s book not only tells the story of his life; it also places General Dumas’s life into the wider context of his era and examines, inter alia, how equal the budding colonial power’s black sons and daughters actually were in the motherland of “Liberté – Egalité – Fraternité” (spoiler: they weren’t).  The picture emerging from Reiss’s research is that of a man of great personal courage, intelligence and ambition, as well as sheer enormous physical presence, whose life was cut tragically short as a result of the side effects of being caught up in the European and French power struggle of his time — and in case you ever had any doubts, yes, General Dumas was the model for one of his son’s greatest heroes, the Count of Monte Cristo … and D’Artagnan’s famous friendship-building duel with all three Musqueteers at the beginning of their acquaintance does have a basis in reality as well.

 

The Raven Tower - Ann LeckieAnn Leckie, The Raven Tower:
Truly original worldbuilding, a powerful story, evocative writing and a knockout, totally unique narrative perspective: In a literary scene that seems to be dominated more and more by sameness and formula (both in adult and YA fantasy), with barely skin-deep layers of seeming originality, this book was my reading year’s one saving grace that singlehandedly restored my faith in the idea that there are at least a few fantasy writers out there who are still capable of compelling creations that are entirely their own and unlike anything else already out there.

 

The Memory of Love - Aminatta FornaAminatta Forna, The Memory of Love:
Last year, it was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun that provided insight and a new perspective on the history of one particular African country (Nigeria); this year, Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love did the same and then some for Sierra Leone.  A devastating tale of love, loss, and the many ways in which a person can be broken, in a country variously slipping into and emerging out of decades of a devastating civil war.

 

Interventions: A Life in War and Peace - Kofi AnnanKofi Annan, Interventions: A Life in War and Peace:
Mr. Annan was far and away the most influential and important Secretary General of the United Nations in its more recent history; his memoirs set forth with great passion and understanding how the experience of a lifetime, from growing up in post-WWII Ghana all the way to serving as Under-Secretary for Peacekeeping under Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and his first-hand insight into conflicts like those in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Somalia, Israel / Palestine, Iraq, and Somalia, shaped his conviction about the necessity of an “interventionist” United Nations policy; one that does not stay on the sidelines of genocide and war crimes but takes seriously its mandate to act on behalf of the peoples of the world.  A simply riveting read.

 

The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologist's Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo - Clea KoffClea Koff, The Bone Woman:
This one hit home, because it touched more or less directly on some of my own past work — but even if you don’t have any personal inroads into the investigation of human rights violations, it’s a great introduction to the subject and, more importantly, does great legwork in conveying both the psychological trauma and the physical wounds suffered by the victims of such abuses … as well as the toll that the field work of the subsequent investigation takes from the investigators.  A truly memorable read.

 

An Accidental Death: A DC Smith Investigation Series, Book 1 - Peter Grainger, Gildart JacksonPeter Grainger, An Accidental Death:
One of the year’s early and totally unexpected, great discoveries.  A great location (the Norfolk coast), pithy and insightful writing, an unusual, profoundly contemplative detective — a formerly high-ranking officer who has chosen to be knocked back to the rank of sergeant so as to be able to keep doing hands-on police work instead of being mired in administration and pushing paper … and thanks to the main character’s hobby, there is even a bluesy background note.  Who could ask for more?

 

Becoming - Michelle ObamaMichelle Obama, Becoming:
Mrs. Obama may have chosen to focus on her charity work and on political education instead of seeking a career in party politics now that she and her husband have left the White House (and who could possibly blame her?), but I am very glad she also decided to give us her deeply personal perspective on her own and Barack Obama’s path all the way to the end of 2016.  It’s a spirited narrative that manages to build an immediate connection with the reader, and which made me regret the end of the Obama presidency even more than I had done before.  I can only hope the Obamas are going to continue to seek and find ways to make their mark on the political discourse, in America and beyond — not only Barack but also Michelle Obama, who in her own right is clearly at least as important a voice as her husband.

 

The Girl with Seven Names - Hyeonseo Lee, John David MannHyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names:
A riveting read and proof positive of the old adage that truth is vastly stranger than fiction: the true story of a young woman who defected from North Korea to China “by accident” right before her 18th birthday and, after ten years of trials and tribulations, eventually ended up in South Korea and, later, in the U.S., where she testified about her experience, and more generally on the topic of dictatorial regimes and human rights abuses, before various bodies of the U.S. government and the United Nations.  At times her story is so heartstoppingly riveting that you want to doubt whether all this truly happened, but apparently it did — and the book is worth a read for her unquestionably personal and in-depth inside perspective on Norh Korea and China alone.

 

The Good Women of China - XinranXinran, The Good Women of China:
My first read of 2019, and with it, the year started well and truly with a bang: the true stories of a number of Chinese women whom Xinran — then a radio presenter in Nanking — encountered as a journalist, but whose stories she was not able to tell while still subject to state censorship.  In equal parts eye-opening and heartbreaking; by no means easy to digest but an absolute must-read, and my reading year couldn’t have begun in a better way.

 

 The Murderer's Son - Richard Armitage, Joy Ellis Their Lost Daughters - Joy Ellis, Richard Armitage The Fourth Friend - Joy Ellis, Richard Armitage The Guilty Ones: A Jackman and Evans Thriller - Joy Ellis, Richard Armitage The Stolen Boys - Joy Ellis, Richard Armitage
Beware the Past - Joy Ellis, Antony Ferguson Five Bloody Hearts - Joy Ellis, Matthew Lloyd Davies

Joy Ellis, Jackman & Evans series and Beware the Past:
As a new discovery, this is actually a carry-over from 2018, when Ellis’s Their Lost Daughters completely knocked me sideways during Halloween Bingo.  I’ve since read her entire Jackman & Evans series — my favorite entries still being Their Lost Daughters as well as, coming very close, book 4 of the series, The Guilty Ones — and I have continued my adventures in Ellis’s Fenlands world of detection with an encounter with DCI Matt Ballard in Beware the Past, the conclusion of which managed to knock me sideways yet again (though warning: this is definitely not a tale for the faint of heart).  And the good news is that the second book of the Matt Ballard series (Five Bloody Hearts) is already available as well, so I’m not done with the Fenlands by a long shot …

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

(Task: Tell us: Of the books that you read this year, which are you most thankful for, OR was there one that turned out to be full of “stuffing”? Alternatively, which (one) book that you read anytime at all changed your life for the better?”)

 

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Halloween Bingo 2019 PreParty — Question for 08/14 (Day 14): Halloween Bingo Reading Snacks and Drinks?

I don’t know how much reading I’ll be able to get done at home during this year’s bingo, and doubtlessly part of it will be in bed before going to sleep, where I don’t eat anything (and the only drink allowed is mineral water).

That said, as we established last year, tea is kind of a biggie in this household, and it’s definitely my drink of choice while reading.  Especially now that I have such a nice mug to go with it … thanks to BT’s gift of earlier this year!

 

As a matter of fact, since a number of my (up to now) “go to” tea brands are English, and since I’m in absolutely no mood to pay the taxes that are looking ever more likely if the Bozo version of Brexit becomes a reality, a while ago I placed orders with my favorite British purveyors to tide me over for the foreseeable future, so now I’m right back to that “good grief, where do I store all this stuff?” situation.

As for food, there currently are no snacks in my home, but I’ll have to go down to Frankfurt later this month, and I’ll do my level  best to make time to swing by that store … where I’ll doubtlessly find a few extra delicious and not altogether too spooky treats to go with my tea!

 

 

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Antonia Hodgson: The Devil in the Marshalsea


Well, if this doesn’t count for “Darkest London,” then I don’t know what will.  Our narrator is tossed into the Marshalsea prison for being in debt to the tune of several months’ salary — a bit more than £20.00, which would have been a year’s salary or more to the poorer classes, but our Tom is an academic (albeit one without a degree, having been thrown out of Oxford for disorderly behaviour), so he’d have reached higher … instead of which, however, he has managed to drink and gamble it all away and then get himself robbed off the spoils when trying to win it back by turning a lucky card.  Even though Tom, being perceived as a gentleman, is spared the ultimate humiliation of being locked away on the Common Side of the prison (where conditions are sub-human and jail fever or some other form of death would be his certain fate in a matter of days or weeks; months at best), even the so-called “Master’s Side” — where Tom ends up — is a cut-throat place ruled by the diabolical whims of the prison governor and his brutal turnkeys, where your life and health is only worth as much as you are able to pay for them, and where you’ll find yourself deprived of either quicker than you can count to three if you’re stupid enough to trust even a single person.

To top it all off, Tom is given a choice of sharing either a putrid cell with a man dying of the pox for a cell-mate or occupying the bed of a recently-murdered man and sharing a cell with the man perceived as the most dangerous of all the inmates on the “Master’s Side,” nicknamed “the Devil” by the other prisoners … only to be then clandestinely tasked in short order to investigate the murder of the former occupant of his bed as a price for being released from prison.

Antonia Hodgson certainly has a way with words and with building the atmosphere of a place, and I do believe she has done her research thoroughly.  I nevertheless didn’t take to this book wholeheartedly; in no small part because — aside from Kitty, a kitchen maid whom Tom meets in the Marshalsea — I didn’t find anybody I could truly empathize with; and that most definitely includes Tom himself.

I also disliked the ending, which was (a) incredibly rushed and (b) a pronounced case of the solution being jammed up the investigator’s nose without him having managed to uncover any significant clue on his own, so he hardly deserves any credit for it, and for a series that is billed as a historical P.I. series beginning with Tom’s first “successful” investigation in the Marshalsea, that is simply not a very auspicious beginning.

I’ve got the next two books of the series on my TBR and I’m going to leave them there for the time being — I won’t rule out that I am going to return to them at a later point after all.  It likely will not be anytime soon, however.

 

Halloween Bingo: For Those Looking to Fill Mystery Squares …

… without necessarily going the whole hog of a novel, or who are looking for a taste of several different things:

The British Library recently published several Golden Age mystery short story anthologies, all edited by Martin Edwards, four of which exactly match the bingo squares created by Moonlight Reader and Obsidian Blue.  They are:

Miraculous Mysteries: Locked-room murders and other impossible crimes
Capital Crimes: London mysteries
Murder at the Manor: Country house mysteries
Serpents in Eden: Rural / village / small town crimes — for the “Terror in a Small Town” square.

They’ve all been out just about long enough to hopefully be available via library loan (or ILL) — though I’ve been able to snatch used copies online at very reasonable prices, too.

 

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