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review 2018-04-07 23:22
A Wasted Opportunity
The Lake District Murder - John Bude
The Lake District Murder - John Bude,Gordon Griffin

John Bude, Martin Edwards writes in The History of Classic Crime in 100 Books, deliberately set his first three books in picturesque real life locations -- which then also appeared in the books' respective titles -- to set a counterpoint to the golden age mystery trope of concocting fictional country house settings at more or less remote distances from London.  If that truly was Bude's intention, then in The Lake District Murder, his second mystery and the first one featurling Inspector / Superintendent Meredith, he egregiously wasted a magnificent opportunity.  The Lake District is indisputably one of England's most striking regions, with its stark, towering fells (= hills / mountains), huge shimmering lakes, deep isolated valleys and ragged coastline.  Yet, although if Edwards is to be believed Bude was deeply familiar with the area -- and deliberately even chose its less touristy part as his setting -- none of this, nor any of the region's other characteristics, is invoked by way of setting the scene.  Even about nearby Carlisle, seat of the district police headquarters, we only learn that it's an "ancient walled city"; never mind the town's manifold charms, which you'd have to be blind to miss even as the most casual of visitors. -- Obviously, Bude wasn't writing a tourist brochure, but damnit, setting and atmosphere matter in fiction, and there are plenty of novels that skillfully exploit the austere beauty of the Lake District (and of its less touristy parts, at that) in setting their scene.

 

Bude's novels are in the tradition created by Freeman Wills Crofts in his Inspector French mysteries; i.e., they painstakingly "play fair" with the reader, which may result on occasion -- and certainly does here -- in an excessively detailed description of the steps undertaken by the protagonist investigator, to the point of getting bogged down with schedules, time frames, and the technical detail of machinery that, at least as far as I am concerned, tends to go straight over my head (in the present instance, even though I had some previous knowledge of the workings of at least part of the machinery involved).  Add to this a murder investigation that, not even 1/4 of the way into the book, gets seriously derailed by an investigation into a related criminal conspiracy (related, hence ultimately relevant also for the resolution of the murder, however completely sidelining the murder in terms of focus for the majority of the book) -- which ancillary investigation, in turn, likewise takes a huge detour before finally moving onto the right track -- as well as investigative methods that must make the fingernails of any modern reader with even the most marginal familiarity with real police work and criminal law roll up all the way to their cuticles in pain, and you've got ... well, let's just say a book that would have hugely benefitted from an unafraid editor's honest pruning but which, as it is, only ever impinged on my reading brain whenever the results of the past 100 or so pages' (or 3 hours') worth of painstaking investigation were summed up for another character's benefit.

 

I like Budes understated sense of humor, and I like Meredith -- or rather, I liked him until a comment (albeit from the authorial, not the character's perspective: not that that makes it any better if course) towards the very end of this book playing into the cliché according to which it is in woman's nature to respond to any profound shock by fainting (for perspective: we're talking about a very young housemaid who opens the door in the middle of the night to find a score of middle-aged policemen -- emphasis: men; emphasis: in uniform; emphasis: armed -- on the doorstep, who in turn, with nary a "by your leave", proceed to enter her employer's, and hence also her home, intent on arresting said employer, who thereupon instantly shoots himself).  So anyway, I will probably give Bude's writing another chance at some point.  But it's likely not going to be anytime soon, and the more books I read of the variety that define "playing fair by the reader" as holding back the protagonist sleuth's investigation so as to make it patently easy for the reader to follow along every step of the way, the more I am convinced that this is not "my" type of mystery.  There may be situations, even in the most ingeniously crafted mysteries, where such a thing may be necessary (think: Dorothy L. Sayers's Nine Tailors and Five Red Herrings), but by and large ... give me Hercule Poirot's "little grey cells", Sherlock Holmes's "observation of trifles", and a rousing surprise finale any day of the week.

 

I read this for chapter / square 6 of the Detection Club Bingo ("Serpents in Eden").

 

In the Lake Dsitrict:

On the road from Ambleside to Coniston / Castlerigg Stone Circle

 

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text 2018-04-06 19:11
Reading progress update: I've read 27%.
Howards End - Mary Gordon,E.M. Forster

Really enjoying this. 

 

I enjoy the writing. I can relate to Margaret, the elder of the two sisters.  Sometimes she makes impulsive decisions, reacting with emotion and then with a clearer head does a 180. When she's wrong she wants to fix it immediately. She's unpredictable. It makes for good reading.

 

Helen, the younger sister, is an idealist and grates on my nerves a bit. She seems to get lost in her own thoughts to the exclusion of good sense. Though I enjoyed the chapter about Beethoven's Fifth and how she read into the interpretation of the music.  Really shows the power music can have in determining your mood.

 

All this talk about England and the Continent is really interesting when you realize this book was written in 1910, four years before The Great War. 

 

I always find it interesting when men write female characters because I am female  - whether or not it will feel authentic. I don't know if male readers have the same thoughts when a female writes male characters or writes from their point of view. Right now I find it authentic. There was a point where Mrs. Wilcox asks Margaret whether or not she forgets she's a girl and I couldn't decide if this was done for a plot point or so you forgive Foster if you don't find it to be authentic...or both. 

 

Just my ramblings as I read this. 

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text 2018-04-04 17:18
Reading progress update: I've read 3%.
Howards End - Mary Gordon,E.M. Forster

Reading in preparation for the mini-series.

 

I remember seeing the movie years ago but don't remember too many details. I never read the book.

 

The beginning had me hooked.  It opens with Margaret receiving a letter from her sister saying she is in love. Margaret wants to run to her sister to find out what is going on being they don't know the family or the young man that well but, alas, their brother is sick. So their Aunt offers to go,  offering to make inquiries and well... meddle. She says she isn't. But she reads like she will.  Margaret puts the Aunt on a train after making her promise to behave and then is handed this telegram from her sister:

 

"All over.  Wish I had never written. Tell no one."

 

And I thought, "Nononononoooooooooooooooooo!!!"  But the Aunt is gone. 

 

*Chapter ends*

 

 

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review 2018-04-02 21:17
My KYD Reads ... or: Harry Potter, and What Else I read in March 2018
Harry Potter Box Set: The Complete Collection - J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Gryffindor Edition - ROWLING J.K.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J.K. Rowling,Stephen Fry
The Hog's Back Mystery - Freeman Wills Crofts,Gordon Griffin
The Red Queen - Margaret Drabble
A Red Death: An Easy Rawlins Mystery - Walter Mosley,Michael Boatman
Imperium - Robert Harris
The Distant Echo - Val McDermid,Tom Cotcher
Unterleuten: Roman - Juli Zeh
"A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels" by George North: A Newly Uncovered Manuscript Source for Shakespeare's Plays - Dennis McCarthy,June Schlueter

A big thank you to Moonlight Reader for yet another fun, inventive BookLikes game!  I had a wonderful time, while also advancing -- though with decidedly fewer new reads than I'd origianlly been planning -- my two main reading goals for this year (classic crime fiction and books written by women).

 

Harry Potter - The Complete Series

This was a long-overdue revisit and obviously, there isn't anything I could possibly say about the books that hasn't been said a million times before by others.  But I've gladly let the magic of Hogwarts and Harry's world capture me all over again ... to the point of giving in to book fandom far enough to treat myself to the gorgeous hardcover book set released in 2014 and, in addition, the even more gorgeous Gryffindor and Ravenclaw anniversary editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

 

 

That said, particular kudos must also go to Stephen Fry for his magnificent audio narration of the books, which played a huge role in pulling me right back into to books, to the point that I'd carry my phone wherever I went while I was listening to them.

 

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - J.K. Rowling, Stephen Fry Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - J.K. Rowling, Stephen Fry Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - J.K. Rowling, Stephen Fry Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - J.K. Rowling, Stephen FryHarry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - J.K. Rowling, Stephen Fry Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - J.K. Rowling, Stephen Fry Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J.K. Rowling, Stephen Fry

 

 

As for the rest of my KYD books ... roughly in the order in which I read them:

 

Ngaio Marsh: Death at the Dolphin (aka Killer Dolphin)

Killer Dolphin - Ngaio Marsh Death at the Dolphin - Ngaio Marsh

Also a revisit: One of my favorite installments in Marsh's Roderick Alleyn series, not only because it is set in the world of the theatre -- always one of Marsh's particular fortes, as she herself was a veteran Shakespearean director and considered that her primary occupation, while writing mysteries to her was merely a sideline -- but because this one, in fact, does deal with a(n alleged) Shakespearean relic and a play based on Shakespeare's life, inspired by that relic.

 

 

The Hog's Back Mystery - Freeman Wills Crofts, Gordon Griffin

Freeman Wills Crofts:
The Hog's Back Mystery

 Part of Crofts's Inspector French series and my first book by Crofts, who was known for his painstaking attempts to "play fair" with the reader; which here, I'm afraid, hampered the development of the story a bit, in producing a fair bit of dialogue at the beginning that might have been better summed up from the third person narrator's point of view in the interest of easing along the flow of the story, and in holding French back even at points where a reasonably alert reader would have developed suspicions calling for a particular turn of the investigation.  But I like French as a character, and as for all I'm hearing this is very likely not the series's strongest installment, I'll happily give another book a try later.

 

 

Unnatural Death: A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery - Dorothy L. Sayers, Ian Carmichael

Dorothy L. Sayers: Unnatural Death

Not my favorite Lord Peter Wimsey book by Sayers, but virtually the only one I haven't revisited on audio recently -- and as always, I greatly enjoyed the narration by Ian Carmichael.  That said, here again Sayers proves herself head and shoulders above her contemporaries, in devising a particularly fiendish, virtually untraceable method of murder (well, untraceable by the medical state of the art of her day at least), and perhaps even more so by hinting fairly obviously at two women's living together in what would seem to be a lesbian relationship.

 

 

The Red Queen - Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble: The Red Queen

Ummm ... decidedly NOT my favorite read of the month.  'Nuff said: next!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Red Death: An Easy Rawlins Mystery - Walter Mosley, Michael Boatman

Walter Mosley: A Red Death

I'd long been wanting to return to the world of Easy Rawlins' mid-20th century Los Angeles, so what with Mosley's fiction making for various entries in the KYD cards, including at least one book by him in my reading plans for the game seemed only fitting (... even if I ended up using this one for a "Dr. Watson" victim guess!). -- This, the second installment of the series, deals with the political hysteria brought about by the McCarthy probes and also makes a number of pertinent points on racial discrimination and xenophobia, which make it decidedly uncomfortable reading in today's political climate.

 

 

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe - Hugh Fraser, Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie: One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

Another revisit, and in no small part courtesy of Hugh Fraser's narration, I liked the book a good deal better than I had done originally.  This is one of several entries in the Poirot canon where we learn about Poirot's phobia of dentist's visits, which obviously makes for the high point of the book's humour ... and of course it doesn't exactly help that it's Poirot's dentist, of all people, who turns out the murder victim. -- The plot features several clever slights of hand, and you have to play a really long shot to get the solution right in its entirety (even if strictly speaking Christie does play fair).  Well, that's what we have Monsieur Poirot's little grey cells for, I suppose!

 

 

Imperium - Robert Harris

Robert Harris: Imperium

The first part of Harris's Cicero trilogy, and both a truly fast-paced and a well-researched piece of historical writing; covering Cicero's ascent from young Senator to Praetorian and, eventually (and against all the odds), Consul. 

 

The first part of the book deals at length with one of Cicero's most famous legal cases, the prosecution of the corrupt Sicilian governor Verres, and Harris shows how Cicero employed that case in order to advance his own political career.  Notably, Cicero quite ingeniously also ignored established Roman trial practice in favor of what would very much resemble modern common law practice, by making a (by the standards of the day) comparatively short opening statement -- albeit a supremely argumentative one -- and immediately thereafter examining his witnesses, instead of, as procedural custom would have dictated, engaging in a lengthy battle of speeches with defending counsel first.  As a result of this manoeuver, Verres was as good as convicted and fled from Rome in the space of the 9 days allotted to Cicero as prosecuting counsel to make his case. 

 

The second part of the book examines Cicero's unlikely but eventually victorious campaign for consulship, and his exposure of a conspiracy involving Catiline, generally believed to be the most likely victor of that year's consular elections, who later came to be involved of conspiracies on an even greater scale, and whose condemnation in Cicero's most famous speeches -- collectively known as In Catilinam (On, or Against Catiline) -- would go a great way towards securing both Cicero's political success in his own lifetime and his lasting fame as a skilled orator.

 

 

Murder is Easy - Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie: Murder Is Easy

Another Christie revisit, and I regret to say for the most part I'm down to my less favorite books now.  This isn't a bad book, and the ending in particular is quite dark ... but the middle part, much as I'm sorry to have to say this, simply drags.

 

 

 

 

The Distant Echo - Val McDermid, Tom Cotcher

Val McDermid: The Distant Echo

Holy moly, how did I ever miss this book until now?!  Even more so since the Karen Pirie series is actually my favorite series by Val McDermid ... OK, Pirie herself has little more than a walk-on role here; we're talking absolute beginning of her career, and the focus is decidedly not on her but on her boss and  on a quartet of suspects involved in a 25-year-old murder case -- in fact, the whole first half of the book is set 25 years in the past, too, describing the immediate aftermath of the murder and its consequences for the four main suspects, chiefly from their perspective.  But still!  Well, I sure am glad I finally caught up with it at last ... definitely one of the best things McDermid ever wrote.

 

 

Unterleuten: Roman - Juli Zeh

Juli Zeh: Unterleuten

A scathing satire on village life, on post-Berlin Wall German society, on greed, on the commercialization of ideals ... and most of all, on people's inability to communicate: Everyone in this book essentially lives inside their own head, and in a world created only from the bits they themselves want to see -- with predictably disastrous consequences.  The whole thing is brilliantly observed and deftly written; yet, the lack of characters that I found I could like or empathize with began to grate after a while ... in a shorter book I might not have minded quite so much, but in a 600+ page brick I'd have needed a few more characters who actually spoke to me to get all the way through and still be raving with enthusiasm.  If you don't mind watching a bunch of thoroughly dislikeable people self-destruct in slow motion, though, you're bound to have a lot of fun with this book.

 

 

Von Köln zum Meer: Schifffahrt auf dem Niederrhein - Werner Böcking

Werner Böcking: Von Köln zum Meer

Local history, a read inspired by conversations with a visiting friend on the history of shipping and travel by boat on the Rhine. -- A richly illustrated book focusing chiefly on the 19th and 20th centuries, and the mid-19th-centuriy changes brought about by diesel engines and the resulting disappearance of sailing vessels (which, before the advent of engines, were pulled by horses when going up the river, against the current): undoubtedly the biggest change not only in land but also in river travel and transportation, with a profound effect on large sectors of the economy of the adjoining regions and communities.

 

 

And last but not least ...

 

 

Dennis McCarthy & June Schlueter: "A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels" by George North -- A Newly Uncovered Manuscript Source for Shakespeare's Plays

The lastest in Shakespearean research, also a read inspired by conversations with the above-mentioned visiting friend, and a February 7, 2018 New York Times article on a possible new source text for passages contained in no less than 11 of Shakespeare's plays.  The story of the discovery itself is fascinating; the research methods applied are in synch with modern Shakesperean scholarship ... and yet, for all the astonishing textual concordance, unless and until someone proves that Shakespeare not only had the opportunity to see this document but actually did (at least: overwhelmingly likely) see it, I'm not going to cry "hooray" just yet.  According to the authors' own timeline, Shakespeare would have been about 11 years old when this text was written, it was kept in a private collection even then, and there is no record that the Bard ever visited the manor housing that very collection -- which collection in turn, if the authors are to be believed, the text very likely at least did not ever leave during Shakespeare's lifetime (though it was undoubtedly moved at a later point in time).  And Shakespearean research, as we all know, has been prone to a boatload of dead-end streets and conspiracy theories pretty much ever since its inception ...

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review 2018-03-08 14:42
Brief biographies of fascinating women, ideal to dip in and be inspired to learn more.
Bad Girls from History: Wicked or Misunderstood? - Dee Gordon

Thanks to Alex and the whole team at Pen & Sword for providing me a paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

Although totally unplanned, I find myself writing this review on the International Women’s Day 2018. One can’t help but wonder about the title of the book, not so much the wicked or misunderstood part (some definitely seem to fall into one of the two categories, while many share characteristics of both, although that depends on the point of view), but the Bad Girls. In my opinion, it makes perfect sense for the argument of the book, as the expression bad woman has a certain meaning and connotations attached to it (very moralistic and misogynistic), while perhaps bad girl allows for a more playful and varied reading. And it has nothing to do with age (the catalogue of historical figures examined by the author includes a large number of women who died quite young, but there are others who lived to ripe old ages as well). It is, ultimately, a matter of self-definition. But I digress.

This book shares a collection of brief biographies (the vast majority are under a couple of pages long), of women, organised in a number of chapters that group women in several categories (although some overlap and the author has to make a choice as to which group a particular figure belongs to). These chapters are: 1) Courtesans and Mistresses; 2) Madams, Prostitutes, and Adulterers; 3) Serial Killers; 4) ‘One-Off’ Killers; 5) Gangsters, Thieves and Con-Artists; 6) The Rebel Collection – Pirates, Witches, Megalomaniacs, Exhibitionists. The book also contains a brief bibliography (I guess otherwise a second volume would have been necessary just to include all the sources), and there are pictures of the women (portraits, photographs, illustrations), and also documents, newspaper cuttings, letters…

Although I was familiar with quite a few of the women featured (in the case of Mata Hari, for example, I had read a book about her not long ago, although in many others I still discovered things I didn’t know) there were also quite a number that I had heard the names of but didn’t know much about, and others that were completely new to me. I have no doubt that most people reading this book will think about other women they would have added to the collection, but I would say all of the women included deserve to be there. This is not a judgment of character though, as that is not what this book is about. The author’s style is engaging and, despite the briefness of the vignettes, she manages to make these women compelling (and horrifying in some cases), and she is at pains to try and paint as balanced a picture as possible, rather than just present them according to the prevalent morality of their time. Reality and legend are sometimes difficult to tell apart, but the author, tries (and at times acknowledges defeat and provides the most interesting versions of a woman’s story available).  

Among the many women in the book, I was particularly intrigued by Jane Digby (1807-1881), a lover of travel and an adventurer who also had a talent for choosing interesting men, Enriqueta Martí (1868-1913), who lived in Barcelona and who, according to recent research might not have been guilty of the horrific crimes she was accused of (I won’t talk about it in detail, but let’s say that, if it was true, she was not called The Vampire of Barcelona for nothing), Princess Caraboo (aka Mary Baker: 1791-1864), who knew how to come up with a good story, or Georgia Tann (1891-1950), that I felt intrigued by when I read that Joan Crawford (who has featured in one of my recent reads) had been one of her clients. But there are many others, and of course, this is a book that will inspire readers to do further research and look into the lives of some of these women (or even write about them).

The women in each chapter are organised in alphabetical order, and that means we jump from historical period to historical period, backward and forward, but there is enough information to allow us to get a sense of how society saw these women and how class, patronage, social status, money… influenced the way they were treated. There are personal comments by the author, but she is non-judgemental and it is impossible to read this book, especially some of the chapters, without thinking about the lot of women, about how times have changed (but not as much as we would like to think, as evidenced by recent developments and campaigns), and about how behaviours that from a modern perspective might show strength of character, intelligence, and independence, at the time could condemn a woman in the eyes of society, ruining her reputation and/or destroying her life.

A book to dip in to learn about social history and the role of women, and also one that will inspire readers to read more about some of these women (and others) that, for better or worse, have left a mark. A great starting point for further research into the topic, and a book that will make us reflect about the role of women then and now.

 

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