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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-09-21 13:50
2018 Halloween Bingo: The Books So Far
Penhallow - Georgette Heyer,Ulli Birvé
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld - Patricia A. McKillip,Dina Pearlman
Their Lost Daughters - Joy Ellis,Richard Armitage
The Wychford Poisoning Case - Anthony Berkeley,Mike Grady
Verdict of 13: A Detection Club Anthology - Ngaio Marsh,The Detection Club,Gwendoline Butler,Julian Symons
The Ballad of Frankie Silver - Sharyn McCrumb
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - Alan Bradley, Emilia Fox
Nights At The Circus - Angela Carter,Adjoa Andoh
Ghosts: Edith Wharton's Gothic Tales - Edith Wharton,Corinna May,Tod Randolph,Jonathan Epstein,Alison Larkin,Jim Frangione
The Colour of Magic - Terry Pratchett,Nigel Planer

... 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 harrassed 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.)

(spoiler show)

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 Christsmas Party).

 

 


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 mysogyny, 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" dychotomy.

 

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 comments above, re: The Wychford Poisoning Case / 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 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)

(spoiler show)

... 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 read --and 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 dissatifaction.  The Empire likes people to stay where it puts them."

 

 

 

 

 

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-09-07 20:20
Summer of Spies - Terminated
The Scarlet Pimpernel - Stephen Crossly,Emmuska Orczy
Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of MI5 - Stella Rimington
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - John le Carré
They Came to Baghdad - Agatha Christie
Berlin Game - Len Deighton,James Lailey
Night Soldiers - Alan Furst
Our Man in Havana - Graham Greene,Jeremy Northam
Above Suspicion - Helen MacInnes
Black Roses - Jane Thynne,Julie Teal
The Moneypenny Diaries: Guardian Angel - Kate Westbrook

Memorial Day Weekend -- Labor Day 2018

 

The Books:

Fiction

Eric Ambler: The Mask of Dimitrios (new / print) ****

Phyllis Bottome: The Lifeline (new / ebook-to-printed-PDF) ***1/2

John le Carré: The Tailor of Panama (revisited on audio, narrated by the author) ****1/2

Agatha Christie: N or M? (revisited on audio, narrated by Samantha Bond) ***

Agatha Christie: They Came to Baghdad (new / audio, narrated by Emilia Fox) ***1/2

Paulo Coelho: The Spy (new / English print version + German audio, narrated by Luise Helm and Sven Görtz) ***1/2

Len Deighton: Berlin Game (new / audio, narrated by James Lailey) ****

David Downing: Zoo Station (new / print) ****

Alan Furst: Night Soldiers (new / audio, narrated by George Guidall) ****1/2

Graham Greene: Our Man in Havana (audio, narrated by Jeremy Northam) ****1/2

Graham Greene: The Captain and the Enemy (audio, narrated by Kenneth Branagh) ***1/2

Rosalie Knecht: Who Is Vera Kelly? (new / audio, narrated by Elisabeth Rodgers) ***1/2

Helen MacInnes: Above Suspicion (new / print) ****1/2

Francine Mathews: The Cutout (new / audio, narrated by Trini Alvarado) **1/2

Valerie Plame Wilson, Sarah Lovett: Blowback (new / audio, narrated by Negin Farsad) ***

Jane Thynne: Black Roses (new / audio, narrated by Julie Teal) ****

Patricia Wentworth: The Traveller Returns (new / print) ****

Kate Westbrook: Guardian Angel (new / audio, narrated by Eleanor Bron) ***1/2

 

 

Emmuska Orczy: Adventures of The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel (revisited on audio, narrated by Stephen Crossly) ****1/2

I Will Repay (new / audio, narrated by Johanna Ward) ****

 

 

John Le Carré: George Smiley Cycle

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (revisited on audio, narrated by the author) *****

The Looking Glass War (new / audio, narrated by Michael Jayston) ***1/2

Smiley's People (revisited on audio, narrated by Michael Jayston) *****

 

 

Stella Rimington: Liz Carlyle Series

Secret Asset (new / audio, narrated by Rosalyn Landor) ****

Illegal Action (new / audio, narrated by Emma Fielding) ****

 

 

Ian Fleming: James Bond Series

Quantum of Solace (short story only; new / audio, narrated by David Rintoul) *1/2

Dr. No (new / audio, narrated by Rufus Sewell) ***

 

 

Nonfiction

Stella Rimington: Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of MI5 (new / print edition) ****

Peter Finn & Petra Couvée: The Zhivago Affair (new / audio, narrated by Simon Vance) **1/2

Valerie Plame Wilson: Fair Game: How a Top CIA Agent Was Betrayed by Her Own Government  (new / audio, narrated by the author) ****

 

 

 

 

Mission Assessment:

Loads of fun; thanks to Moonlight Reader Madness and Wanda for coming up with the idea!  In addition to advancing my "Women Writers" project because of a certain focus on the Women of Intelligence, I've discovered several new writers and series to take a closer look at, reconnected with some "old familiars", got to take a trip down memory lane to Cold War-era Berlin, got to travel the world and back in history -- from revolutionary France to WWII era (plus pre- and post-WWII) Iraq, Turkey, the Balkans, Russia, Spain, France, Britain, Austria, and Germany, and post-WWII as well as more recent Latin America and the Caribbean -- and I've seen some of my literary prejudices pleasantly upended (looking at you, Dame Agatha and They Came to Baghdad); even if others were, however, unfortunately confirmed (looking at you, Mr. Fleming).

 

Side note: My personal library now needs a new, separate "espionage" shelf: Lumping in spy books with mysteries, thrillers, and other suspense fiction clearly won't do any longer ... they've just grown too numerous for that sort of approach.  Ah, well.  A serious reorganization is overdue anyway -- I've only got to find the time for it ...

 

 

The Hits:

* Emmuska Orczy's Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel.  The first book was a revisit, but I finally got around to reading book 2, which -- though not chiefly focused on Sir Percy and much more overtly a romance than book 1 -- confirms why this whole series has a loyal following to this day.  And of course, it gets kicked onto yet another level once Sir Percy makes his appearance.  I'm sort of familiar with some of the later entries in the series, but I'm now going to make a concerted effort to read the whole thing in order.

 

* John le Carré's Smiley Cycle and Tailor of Panama.  This was largely a revisit, too, but I just can't help it -- nobody writes spy fiction like Mr. Cornwell.  Even Stella Rimington, the ex-"K" (head of MI5) herself, acknowledges that he gets it right ... and although he does have the odd duds, when he hits the spot, he's second to none.

 

* Stella Rimington's autobiography and Liz Carlyle series.  Speaking of "K" (also likely the inspiration for Judi Dench's "M" in the Bond movies), even though her autobiography is necessarily short on detail as far as actual secret service operations and policy are concerned, it gives great insights not only into her personal history but also into the actual work done by MI5 (and to a lesser extent, MI6, and secret service organizations in general), particularly in the final four decades of the 20th century.  Moreover, like le Carré, she has very successfully capitalized on her experience and translated it to fiction.  Rimington can write -- both fiction and nonfiction -- and her autobiography and fictional series nicely complement each other in providing an even greater understanding of "the business of spying" in days past and present.  (In the first Liz Carlyle book, At Risk, which I read -- and liked -- a few years ago, she was maybe still in the final stage of finding her voice, but both Secret Asset and Illegal Action, Liz Carlyle books 2 and 3, are fine examples of mature writing that clearly draw on Rimington's personal experience.)

 

* Helen MacInnes: Where has this author been in my life until now?  Once more thank you to Moonlight for bringing her to my attention.  I immensely enjoyed the one book by her that I read during the Summer of Spies -- Above Suspicion -- and have already ordered several more (the three Colin Grant books plus Accident in Place).  Great historical and political insight and characters that you can easily (and very much want to) empathize with, all built into a suspenseful narrative arc -- what more can you possibly ask for?

 

* Len Deighton: Between his Berlin Game and le Carré's Smiley books, man, what a trip down memory lane to Cold War Berlin.  And Deighton, like le Carré, gets it exactly right, down to individual Berlin locations and settings (I was tempted to compile a post just on those at one point), life style, attitudes, you name it.  Another author I'm definitely going to follow up on in the future.

 

* The group read of Agatha Christie's They Came to Baghdad. What a fun group read that turned out to be!  I'm not the biggest fan of Christie's spy fiction (most of it -- especially the books where she actually "means it" -- range between somewhat unrealistic and completely over-the-top-and-out-there preposterous), but if, like here and in The Secret Adversary (as well as some of the stories in Partners in Crime), she decides to poke fun at the genre, she can be very entertaining indeed.  At one point I thought the plot of They Came to Baghdad was going to veer off in the same direction as that of Destination Unknown, which has to be one of her worst books ever, albeit not counting those she wrote in the last years of her life, but fortunately my fears were unfounded.  If only she'd written more spy books like this one!

 

* Patricia Wentworth's The Traveller Returns.  Speaking of Golden Age mystery novelists trying their hands at spy fiction, I'm tempted to point to Ms. Wentworth's contribution to the genre and tell the rest of them -- the whole lot, from Christie to Marsh, Allingham and beyond: "See: This is how you do it!"  For the first half or so, the book looks like a simple variation on the Martin Guerre theme, which I confess is not one of my favorites, but just when I thought I was going to be somewhat underwhelmed, the spy element kicked in and we were off to a whole lot of fun.  So, many thanks to Tigus for yet another great "Miss Silver" recommendation!

 

* Jane Thynne's Clara Vine series.  A huge shout-out to Mike Finn for mentioning this -- yet another series I have every intention to follow up on after having read the first book (Black Roses).  Extremely well-researched and well-written; easily on par with David Downing's much more acclaimed Zoo Station (which is likewise chiefly set in Nazi-era Berlin).  Now if only they'd picked an audio narrator who had actually put some effort into finding out how to pronounce the multiple German words and place names figuring in the story ...

 

* The Carribbean and Latin American setting.  I confess I'm not particularly drawn to Greene's African fiction and only a minority of those books of his set in England, but I have a soft spot for his fiction set in the Carribbean and in Latin America.  In part, surely, that's because I have a penchant for that part of the world anyway, but those particular books by Greene also have more of a pull on me topically -- I suppose I'm just more interested in reading about the morality and choices associated with politics and the economy (read: corruption) than with the morality of purely personal choices (read: religion) ... at least where it comes to Greene's writing.  (It certainly also helps that the particular Carribbean branch of this easily lends itself to satire -- it's not a coincidence that le Carré's Tailor of Panama covers large parts of the same ground as Our Man in Havana, and from a very similar writerly perspective, too.) -- Rosalie Knecht's Who Is Vera Kelly? provided for an interesting and well-written additional side light in its focus on Argentina and the Malvinas / Falklands, from the point of view of a heroine who is coming to terms with her personal history at the same time as she is trying to decipher what is happening in the country where she has been sent. (Another shout-out to Mike Finn for finding this one.)

 

* The Bond Connection.  By which I don't mean Fleming's books themselves, but those books (all written by women) unearthed by BrokenTune -- one more shout-out! -- as tangentially related to Ian Fleming and his super-spy, all of which turned out vastly more engaging and entertaining than Fleming's own: Phyllis Bottome's The Lifeline, the book that is said to have inspired the creation of James Bond's character (and which incidentally bears a certain superficial topical likeness to Helen MacInnes's Above Suspicion, in likewise featuring its English protagonist's involvement with an underground resistance network in Nazi-occupied Austria), and Kate Westbrook's Moneypenny Diaries, which intelligently use both Ian Fleming's real biography and the plots of some of his James Bond novels for a series of three spinoffs interweaving a look back from present-day England to what might have happened if Jane Moneypenny had been more than M's faithful secretary ... and eternally, fruitlessly infatuated with Bond.

 

* The "Eastern Theatre".  Since most spy fiction (well, at least most spy fiction published in English or German) focuses on what, post-WWII, would be considered a Western perspective, I made a certain point to also include books -- albeit written by Western writers -- set in pre-WWII Russia, the Balkans, and Turkey (in addition to Christie's They Came to Baghdad, that is).  Although I am familiar with the general interwar history of those countries (and areas), Eric Ambler's Mask of Dimitrios and Alan Furst's Night Soldiers filled a lot of gaps, and I also liked the fact that both of them deliberately chose organizations other than a Western intelligence service as their focal point.  Plus, both of them include extended sections in Paris / France (as well as Civil War Spain, in Night Soldiers) -- the city of cities when it comes to WWII intrigue (with the possible exception of Lisbon).

 

* Valerie Plame Wilson: Fair Game.  The subtitle of Plame Wilson's memoir ("How a Top CIA Agent Was Betrayed by Her Own Government") sounds more than a bit sensationalist, but in fact, in the current crazy political climate her experience seems more on point than ever and serves as a healthy reminder that the power structures currently at play didn't fall from the sky in January 2017: at their core, they were already in place in the early 2000s, and it's certainly not a coincidence that one of the first persons to be pardoned post-2016 was Scooter Libby.

 

The Misses:

* Ian Fleming.  Not that this one was unexpected; the early Bond movies alone (and in particular), for however great liberties they may be taking with the plotlines, make it clear that the books are bound to brim with casual and not-so-casual sexism and racism.  Both of these are innately written into Bond's character.  Fleming was a talented writer; I'd just wish he'd employed his talents somewhat differently.

 

Peter Finn & Petra Couvée: The Zhivago Affair. Oh, I had so much higher hopes for this one.  A look at how the CIA used Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago in their subversive activities in Russia in the 1960s and 1970s and at the American and Russian inforwars of the day -- what's not to like, right?  Except that ... the vast majority of this book actually consists in a biography of Boris Pasternak and an extended work history of Dr. Zhivago, with a detailed analysis how Pasternak drew on his personal life experience (and the real life people in his life) in creating the novel.  Only in the second half of The Zhivago Affair do we even get to the CIA's involvement (the actual story how the manuscript was smuggled into the West occupies a mere few pages of the preface) -- and even there, while the Russian-American infowars are covered in some detail, the better part of the focus still seems to be on Pasternak himself, and on how the Russian government treated him as a result of the publication.  Also, while the authors do seem to have had access to (and cite in the annex) certain previously unpublished sources, the vast majority of the material they're using is not only not new, it's easily accessible in major libraries and online.  All in all NOT, therefore, the new and unprecedented focused analysis of the CIA's activities and the Cold War infowars promised in the book's subtitle ("The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book") and in its advertising. -- As a side note, my enjoyment might at least have been marginally enhanced if the audio narrator had been anyone other than Simon Vance.

 

Francine Matthews's The Cutout.  A fairly ludicrous plot, set in Germany and various Eastern European countries and written by an American author who seems to have spent her entire time in the region concerned among Americans.  The name-dropping of streets, tourist attractions and other random geographical features replaces the genuine building of atmosphere and setting, and "the locals'" actions, reactions and attitudes are built straight from cookie cutter cliché -- if Mattews ever had any in-depth conversations with anybody in the areas where she was posted as an agent, she obivously learned nothing at all from them (or she is completely unable to translate what she learned onto the page).  This is a shame, because her book (published in the early 2000s) actually has an interesting and timely premise: A Germany and Eastern Europe where the neonazis are on the rise.

 

Valerie Plame Wilson & Sarah Lovett: Blowback.  Plame Wilson shows in her autobiography that she clearly can write, but either (unlike Stella Rimington) she had trouble translating that ability into fiction writing or she was talked into some pretty nonsensical plot and character choices by her co-author Sarah Lovett (or by an editor).  I'd almost DNF'd by the time the book finally gained a sense of direction and of "self" -- and I was brought to thinking about quitting not least when I hit a big boo-boo that Plame Wilson, as an ex-CIA agent, really ought to know better. 

(There is a character clearly modelled on Stella Rimington, down to the fact that this character is the [fictional] director of MI5 ... only trouble is, this character gets involved, on the British side, with a CIA operation against a foreign government and on the ground in that foreign [Middle Eastern] country -- i.e., an operation that is neither within the remit of domestic intelligence in Britain nor in America, and which would therefore have to be handled by MI6 in the UK, not by MI5.  Since Rimington's autobiography was one of the books I'd just recently finished by the time I got to Blowback, this authorial snafu was impossible for me to miss, and it instantly made me question what other inaccuracies might be contained in Plame Wilson's & Lovett's book.)

(spoiler show)

  Still, Blowback did find its feet towards the end at least in terms of the thriller element, so I at least won't entirely rule out reading its sequel -- maybe it simply took Plame Wilson a while to translate her nonfiction writing skills to fiction.  I just hope I won't run into any more errors of the kind that she really should know better.

 

All in all, though, the number of my Summer of Spies "misses" is infinitesimally small compared to its many hits.  So I'm going to declare this project a rousing success and right on target!

 

 

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review 2018-08-31 20:42
The Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault meet the Creatures of the Night
The Bloody Chamber - Angela Carter, Emilia Fox,Richard Armitage

 

What a great early start to this year's Halloween Bingo.

 

I confess I didn't care so much for the first (i.e., the titular) story -- leaving aside the obvious similarities to Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho, it feels like I've read essentially this very story a few times too often already, because pretty much every update of Bluebeard's Castle seems to run along similar lines.  Maybe I have indeed even read this exact same version before (if not, the most recent incarnation I read was most likely something by either Neil Gaiman or Susanna Clarke), but anyway ... let's just say I was happy to move on when I could.

 

That said, the other stories were a sheer delight, and so is the collection as a whole -- and its narration by Emilia Fox and Richard Armitage, who take turns in reading the various tales.  My favorites by far were the second, third, and fourth entries (The Courtship of Mr Lyon, The Tiger's Bride, and Puss-in-Boots) -- the second and third being variations on Beauty and the Beast; both more melancholy than terrifying -- but especially so the fourth one, not least to Richard Armitage's rendition which had me howling with laughter ... and overlooking entirely that it actually is included in this collection for a reason

(after all, clever Puss and his lady help Puss's master to a rich bride by contriving the permanent, um, removal of said bride's present husband).

(spoiler show)

 

And now ... is it September 1 yet?

 

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review 2018-06-01 17:54
Do-It-Yourself Crime Solving from the Golden Age of Mysteries
File on Fenton & Farr - Q. Patrick
Murder Off Miami - Dennis Wheatley
Who Killed Robert Prentice? - Dennis Wheatley
The Malinsay Massacre - Dennis Wheatley
Herewith the Clues - Dennis Wheatley

You'd think that I get to read more than enough files (though not typically crime files) in my day job -- but gluttons for punishment that some of us mystery lovers are, there's nothing we like better than tracking down the murderer ourselves, instead of just reading about some super sleuth doing it for us ... or so the makers of the 1930s' Crime Dossiers / Crime Files series figured, and of course they were dead on target.

 

The idea was first conceived by English authors Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links, whose Murder off Miami (aka File on Bolitho Blane) was such a raging success on both sides of the Atlantic that it inspired follow-ups in both the U.S. and in the UK: in the latter case, three more "Crime Dossiers" by Messrs. Wheatley and Links; in the U.S., Helen Reilly's File on Rufus Ray (Crime File No. 2), as well as File on Fenton and Far, and File on Claudia Cragge by Q. Patrick (aka Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Wheeler) (Crime Files Nos. 3 and 4).

 

While the American "Crime Files" Nos. 2 and 4 (Rufus Ray and Claudia Cragge) are true collectors' items that continue to elude me for the moment, I've now read all four "Crime Dossiers" created by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links, as well as Q. Patrick's File on Fenton and Farr, and I'm in awe at the amount of ingenuity that has gone into creating these books.  They really are extremely close to the real thing -- you get correspondence (including cablegrams) and file entries by the investigators as well as witness statements, handwritten documents, crime scene and witness photographs, entire newspapers containing reports on the crime (not merely individual reports but actually entire broadsheets!), and even honest-to-God tactile evidence such as blood-stained pieces of cloth, strands of hair, tubes of lipstick, and other items found at the crime scene or in a witness's possession.  One can only guess at the amount of time and effort that must have gone into the creation of each and everyone of these books -- and they must have been tremendously expensive to produce, too; so no wonder that many of them (and all the originals from the 1930s) are rare collectors' items these days.  Crimes scenes range from a yacht off the Florida coast to an English village not far from London, a castle on a remote Scottish island, small-town New Jersey, and a London night club; and the cast of characters -- in each book as well as in all of them taken together -- is as diverse as any that you might expect to find in the best of crime fiction.

 

This all being said, obviously you can't like all books equally well, however lovingly they are put together; and so far my favorites are Wheatley / J.G. Links's sophomore effort, Who Killed Robert Prentice? (which has downright fiendish elements; it is, however, solvable on the basis of the evidence provided) and Q. Patrick's File on Fenton and Farr ... the latter, if only for the fact that the authors even managed to work a funny-sweet romance between one of the detectives and the police chief's precocious secretary into the file.  (Obviously it also helped that I managed to solve both of these cases substantially (Robert Prentice) / partly (Fenton & Farr) correctly, even if I reserve the right to quibble with some of the evidence in Fenton & Farr.

 

The weakest of the lot is, IMHO, The Malinsay Massacre; not so much because it consists very largely of correspondence but because the solution just plain doesn't make sense to me and some of the conclusions allegedly "forcing" themselves on the reader from individual pieces of evidence are implausible beyond belief.  (OK, sour grapes, I admit.  Still ...) -- Herewith the Clues, the final Wheatley / Links outing, is generally decried as weak as well; however, I actually prefer it to Malinsay -- it does present a genuine puzzle, and even if some of the clues / proposed deductions are maybe a bit far-fetched, a fair amount of them actually do serve a logical purpose in eliminating innocent suspects on the one hand and nailing down the murderer on the other hand.  (Besides, the sheer number of fellow writers and society celebrities of their era that the authors managed to rope in for purposes of posing for "suspect" photos for Herewith the Clues is mind-boggling in and of itself -- in fact, this is the only volume where the true identities of the persons portrayed in the photographs are unveiled -- not least as this is a story dealing with IRA terrorism and some of the suspect biographies also point to Nazi Germany ... surely, in 1937, not exactly connections that many well-known Brits would have welcomed to see associated with their names; however much in a fictional context and with a disclaimer reading "the particulars regarding [name of fictional suspect] which are given in the script have, of course, no reference whatever to [real name of person portrayed], who very kindly posed for this photograph.")

 

Now, if only I could get my hands on at least halfway affordable copies of the File on Rufus Ray and the File on Claudia Cragge ...

 

In the interim, File on Fenton and Farr gets me another square in the Detection Club bingo -- "Across the Atlantic" (chapter 22), which at the same time completes bingo no. 4 ( all 4 corners + center square).

 

Individual ratings:

File on Fenton & Farr - 4 stars

Murder off Miami - 4 stars

Who Killed Robert Prentice? - 4.5 stars

The Malinsay Massacre - 3 stars

Herewith the Clues - 3,5 stars

 

 

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review 2018-05-27 20:50
"They seek him here, they seek him there ..."
The Scarlet Pimpernel - Emmuska Orczy,Gary Hoppenstand
The Scarlet Pimpernel - Stephen Crossly,Emmuska Orczy

Oh, what a glorious prelude to the 2018 Summer of Spies.

 

Maybe not a "spy" novel in a narrower sense, but writing in 1902 and leagues ahead of her time, Orczy created the first book of what would become a series of perfect swashbucklers, starring a power couple in which the heroine is every bit her partner's equal and then some.

 

Indeed, cleverly Orczy even tells this book's story chiefly from Marguerite's point of view, which not only has the benefit of keeping the first-time reader (though ... is there such a creature, in this day and age, when it comes to this particular novel?) unaware of the Scarlet Pimpernel's identity as long as possible, but also gives Marguerite an added reason to hurtle all the way to France in Sir Percy's pursuit once she has cottoned onto (1) his alias, and (2) the fact that Chauvelin has unmasked him as well and is now hunting for him in turn.  After all, the narrative perspective would go to hell in a handbasket if Marguerite were to just stay at home and gnash her teeth, anxiously awaiting her husband's safe return -- whereas this way, Orczy is able to present her as a woman of action ... even if, for the most part, it looks like the much-touted "cleverest woman in Europe" is stumbling blindly after her husband and Chauvelin in their respective tracks and comes darned close to ruining Sir Percy's whole enterprise, not to mention imperiling the life of her beloved brother Armand, to whose assistance Sir Percy had rushed off to begin with (well, that and in order to finish the job of getting the de Tournay family safely across the Channel).

 

No wonder, in any event, that the reading public soon demanded a sequel -- and Marguerite  and Sir Percy would soon also find their way onto the silver screen.  The rest, as they've never said more truly than here, is history ...

 

 

My "Summer of Spies meets Women Writers Project" reading list:

Women of Intelligence

(http://booklikes.com/apps/reading-lists/897/women-of-intelligence)

 

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