Thursday, 22 December 2016

Mystery in white by J Jefferson Farjeon

Mystery in White was written by J Jefferson Farjeon who is little-known today but was an important writer during the Golden Age of murder between the two world wars.  The book was first published in 1937 and subtitled A Christmas Crime Story. Farjeon published more than 20 novels including No 17 which was made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock who called it Number Seventeen.

The story starts on Christmas Eve when the 11.37 train leaves Euston Station in London during a snowstorm.  The train eventually comes to a halt and a group of passengers decide to leave the train to walk to a nearby village.  Eventually they come to a house with lights shining from the windows.  The door is unlocked so they go inside to find fires burning and a table set for tea.  This is a disparate group consisting of a chorus girl, a clerk, an elderly bore, Mr Maltby from the Royal Psychical society and a brother and sister. The characters are well drawn and develop during the book.  Tensions arise as the book progresses and the characters realise that something awful has happened near the house. As the book is set in the 1930s the lack of modern technology adds to the feeling of being completely cut off from the outside world. The characters cannot get any help and so must fend for themselves.

I enjoyed this book - it was well written and I was fascinated how Mr Maltby managed to put all the various clues together to solve the mystery.   If you enjoy books by Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers you will enjoy this book.

This is one of the books I am reading for A Literary Christmas Challenge.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott wrote Kenilworth in 1821 but the novel is set in Elizabethan England. According to Alexander's introduction to my 1999 copy, "Kenilworth is the most satisfyingly constructed of the Waverley Novels" because of the successful organisation of the 3 volumes of the novel by Scott.

It tells the story of Amy Robsart who was secretly married to the Earl of Leicester who kept her a virtual prisoner because he did not want Queen Elizabeth to find out about his marriage.  The Earl of Leicester and the Earl of Sussex were competing for the queen's favour. The author describes this novel as A Romance and the theme of love is certainly important but other themes also feature including ambition, greed, loyalty and religion.

Scott certainly captures the essence of the age and so at times this novel reads like a Shakespearean play. Much of the novel takes place at Kenilworth Castle which is the setting for various entertainments laid on for the queen and her court. At times it seems as if all the characters are actors in a pageant. There are a number of interesting characters in the book including courtiers, nobles, servants, Wayland the Smith and Alasco the alchemist.  The famous incident involving Raleigh and his cloak is included in the novel.  I particularly liked the character of Wayland the Smith who provided an important link throughout the book.

Although I found the novel quite hard to get into, it is worth persevering as the story is well told and the author's descriptions of life in Elizabethan England are excellent.   I particularly liked the descriptions of court life as the courtiers all vie for the queen's favour.  As Alexander says in the introduction,  "most (readers) will probably be content to take away from this novel an unforgettable picture of a brilliant society with a 'melancholy tale' at it rotten heart."

Sunday, 11 December 2016

The 39 Steps by John Buchan

The 39 Steps was written by the Scottish author John Buchan (1875 - 1940) and is set in May and June of 1914 just before the outbreak of the First World War.  It was first published in Blackwood's Magazine in 1915 and was so successful it was later published as a book.

The story is a classic spy story which involves a murder and an exciting chase through the hills of Southern Scotland as the hero tries to escape from both the police and the murderers.  The hero of the book is Richard Hannay who has arrived back in Britain after working in Africa.  He is finding London very boring when he meets a stranger who says he is fearful of his life.  This man explains he is a spy and that he is following a group of German spies called the Black Stone.  Hannay allows this man to stay in his flat but a few days later returns home to find him dead. Hannay finds the man's notebook which is written in code. Realising that he might be in danger, and be accused of murder, Hannay leaves London thinking it might be safer to go into hiding in Scotland. Whilst staying in an inn, Hannay manages to decipher the code in the notebook which mentions the Black Stone and the 39 steps.

The description of the chase through the hills is exciting and the author obviously knows this area well as the couple of quotes from the book demonstrate.

"The station, when I reached it, proved to be ideal for my purpose.  The moor surged up around it and left room only for the single line, the slender siding, a waiting-room, an office, the station-master's cottage, and a tiny yard of gooseberries and sweet-william.  There seemed no road to it from anywhere, and to increase the desolation the waves of a tarn lapped on their grey granite beach half a mile away."

"The land was so deep in peace that I could scarcely believe that somewhere behind me were those who sought my life: ay, and that in a month's time, unless I had the almightiest of luck, these round country faces would be pinched and staring and men would be lying dead in English fields".
Initially Hannay is fortunate in the people he meets in the hills who all help him - however his luck runs out when he is caught by the spies and locked up in a storeroom.  Luckily he finds some dynamite and uses this to blast his way out.  He reaches London and goes to the Foreign Office where he meets Sir Walter Bullivant, a relative of one of the people who had helped him in Scotland. Hannay is let into some military secrets and ends up taking charge of a police operation and successfully works out that the 39 steps refer to the steps at a coastal site.  The spies are caught before they can reach their yacht moored at the bottom of the 39 steps.  

This is a story very much of its time - some of the attitudes portrayed would not be tolerated today, being regarded as racist and chauvinistic now.   There are no women characters of any note in the book which differed from the film version I had seen where the hero and a woman are pursued across the hills!  Buchan admitted he didn't do female characters!  The book was quite fast moving especially in the beginning but there were a lot of rather unbelievable co-incidences - especially when the hero takes charge of the police operation!   I felt the last few chapters disappointing - I had no idea what the 39 steps were but did expect something more exciting than a flight of steps down to a beach.

Although I was glad I had read this book, as it is regarded as a classic, I doubt if I will read any more books by this author.



Cloak and Dagger Reading Challenge

I've found a reading challenge for crime fiction - you can find details of this challenge on the Books, Movies, Reviews! Oh My! blog.  I have signed up to read between 5-15 books next year which should be manageable.  I have no difficulty reading the books but find writing the reviews takes time.

Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie (Jan 2017)
Murder at the Old Vicarage by Jill McGown (Jan 2017)
Mystery in White by J Jefferson Farjeon (Jan 2017)
Blind Goddess by Anne Holt (Jan 2017)
In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward (Feb 2017)
The Man who went up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and  Per Wahlöö (Feb 2017)
The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indriðason (Nov 2017)


Wednesday, 30 November 2016

A Literary Christmas 2016

I've found a new challenge for Christmas - A Literary Christmas organised by The Girl in the Bookcase.  The challenge lasts from 25 November until 31 December.  I have decided to read the following 5 books for this challenge:-

A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
The Snow Queen - Hans Christian Andersen
Hercule Poirot's Christmas - Agatha Christie
Mystery in White - J Jefferson Farjeon, Martin Edwards

I'm looking forward to having some time to relax with a good book over the festive season and I think these books will not be too taxing!  I loved The Snow Queen as a child so I plan to borrow a nice copy from my local library.

If you want some ideas of books for Christmas there are some lists on Good Reads.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Pickwick Papers chapters 18-20

At the beginning of chapter 18 the Pickwickians are still waiting to hear from their revered leader.  Mr Winkle is staying in Mr Pott's house and is able "to devote his time to the companionship of his amiable lady."  On coming down to breakfast, Mr Winkle is met by a very irate Mr Pott who has been angered by an article in the Independent, relating to his private life, quoted below. 

"Oh Pott! if you'd known
How false she'd have grown,
When you heard the marriage bells tinkle;
You'd have done then, I vow,
What you cannot help now,
 And handed her over to W*****"
Just as Mr Pott is asking Mr Winkle what rhymes with tinkle, his wife appears and provides the answer quite oblivious to what is going on. Once Mrs Pott reads the offending article, she goes into hysterics. Mr Winkle decides to leave the Potts to sort out their marital differences, saying he has received a letter from Mr Pickwick who is expecting him at Bury.
"The breakfast passed off in silence, for each member of the party was brooding over his, or her, own personal grievances.  Mrs Pott was regretting the loss of a beau; Mr Pott his rash pledge to horse-whip the Independent; Mr Winkle his having innocently placed himself in so awkward a situation."
This chapter ends with the Pickwickians gathered together at Bury St Edmunds when Sam brings Mr Pickwick a letter.  This is from Dodson and Fogg, solicitors in London who are acting on behalf of Mrs Bardell.  She is suing Mr Pickwick for fifteen hundred pounds for "breach of promise of marriage".  Mr Pickwick decides to go to London to see these solicitors in a few days time.
Chapter 19 starts with a lovely description of the September morning which has been set aside for the shoot.  "The sky was cloudless; the sun shone out bright and warm; the songs of birds, and hum of myriads of summer insects, filled the air; and the cottage gardens, crowded with flowers of every rich and beautiful tint, sparked, in the heavy dew, like beds of glittering jewels.  Everything bore the stamp of summer, and none of its beautiful colours had yet faded from the dye."
The rest of the chapter is very funny as Dickens describes the Pickwickians on the shoot with Mr Wardle.  As Mr Pickwick still has difficulty walking it is decided that Sam will push him in a wheelbarrow.  Neither Mr Tupman nor Mr Winkle know anything about shooting and it is amazing that they do not do injure one of the party.  Early on in the shoot, Mr Winkle asks why the dogs are standing in an unusual fashion.  When he is informed that they are "pointing" he says, "Making a point! What are they pointing at?"

Lunch is taken on land which belongs to a neighbour and includes punch and beer.  Mr Pickwick partakes liberally of the punch with the result he is left sleeping in the wheelbarrow as the others go back to the shoot.  Unfortunately for Mr Pickwick the owner of the land arrives with his gardeners and is very annoyed by the trespasser whom he demands should be taken to the animal pound where the local boys throw vegetables at him.

In chapter 20 Mr Pickwick goes to London with Sam to speak to the solicitors, Dodson and Fogg.  Here Dickens is back in familiar territory and his description of the solicitors' office is excellent.   "The clerks' office of Messrs Dodson and Fogg was a dark, mouldy, earthy-smelling room, with a high wainscotted partition to screen the clerks from the vulgar gaze: a couple of old wooden chairs: a very loud-ticking clock: an almanac, an umbrella-stand, a row of hap-pegs, and a few shelves, on which were deposited several ticketed bundles of dirty papers, some old deal boxes with paper labels, and sundry decayed stone ink bottles of various shapes and sizes." 

Eventually Mr Pickwick gets to meet Dodson and Fogg and asks them if they are going to proceed with the action.  On hearing that they are and that the damages are set at £1,500, Mr Pickwick leaves saying they will be hearing from his solicitor.  Luckily Sam intervenes just before Mr Pickwick is about to hit Mr Fogg who had been antagonising him.  They go to a nearby inn as Mr Pickwick needs a reviving glass of brandy and water.  Here they meet Sam's father, Mr Weller, otherwise known as "the old 'un".  Sam's father recognises Jingle from his son's description and knows where he is - he is in Ipswich.  Mr Pickwick decides to change his plans and go there.  However before he does he needs to speak to his solicitor, Mr Perker.  As this gentleman is not in his office, Mr Pickwick sets off to the Magpie and Stump in search of his clerk, Mr Lowten.  The chapter ends with Mr Pickwick settling down to listen to a story told by an old man about the Inns of Court.  We will have to wait until the next instalment to find out what the story is about.


Friday, 11 November 2016

Roseanna by Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall

Roseanna is a detective novel written by the Swedish husband and wife team Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall.  The story, which is the first in a series, is set in Sweden and was published in 1968.  The story opens when the naked body of a woman is dredged from a canal leading to a long investigation to find out the identity of the woman and how and where she was killed. Detective Inspector Martin Beck, from Stockholm, is drafted in to assist in the investigation.  The case is complicated by the fact no-one matching the woman's description had been reported missing.

This is not a book for anyone looking for a fast moving, action packed story.  In fact the book shows how much detective work is very boring and painstaking and takes a long time.  It was also interesting that the detectives find out who the dead woman was and manage to solve the case without the benefit of modern technology.

I enjoyed the book and in particular liked the character of Martin Beck with all his ailments and unhappy home life. He comes across as an ordinary hard-working police officer.  He is not a demonstrative character - in fact he seems to be able to disappear into the background. "Martin Beck had a way of slinking through a door which irritated a number of people.  Someone once said that he was able to slip into a room and close the door behind him so quickly that it seemed as if he were still knocking on the outside."

Time is a theme running through the book and we are constantly reminded about the lack of progress in the case by the changing weather and seasons.  It takes months before the body is identified as an American tourist who had been on holiday in Sweden.  The detectives find out that Roseanna had been on a ship when she disappeared.  As her fellow passengers came from all the world, it was a huge undertaking to interview them all. At this point, "the case had reached a point where it was going on its own pretty much at the same time as it was spreading itself all over the globe."  However Martin is determined to find out who had killed Roseanna as "he felt sorry for the girl whom no one had missed."   Eventually after more determined detective work, the murderer is caught.

According to the reviews,  Wahlöö and Sjöwall were influential in development of the crime fiction genre which is so popular nearly fifty years later.   Henning Mankell says in the introduction to the book that "it still holds up today.  It's lively, stylistically taut, and the unfolding of the story is skilfully planned."  He describes it as a modern classic.

I certainly plan to read more books in the Martin Beck series.


Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Iceland Noir 2016

I'm getting excited as I'm going to Iceland Noir in a few weeks time!  I was at Shetland Noir last year and really enjoyed it so decided to go to Iceland as I've never been there before.  I've been trying to read some of the books by the visiting authors before I go.  The main authors this year are Val McDermid, Leena Lehtolainen, Viveca Sten and Sara Blædel but lots of others will be taking part in discussions.  You can see the full programme on the website.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Lorna Doone by R D Blackmore

Lorna Doone was written by R D Blackmore and published in 1869.  Although Blackmore wrote a number of novels, this is the only one still in print.  It is set in Exmoor in the 17th century during the reign of Charles II and tells the story of John Ridd who falls in love with Lorna Doone, a member of a notorious band of outlaws.  The introduction to my copy said, "Blackmore has done for Exmoor what Scott has done for the Highlands, Hardy for Wessex or Crockett for Galloway."  It is a historical novel and deals with the Monmouth Rebellion, a period of history I know nothing about.

The descriptions of the countryside, the seasons and the farming activities are excellent.  I liked the descriptions of the very long hard winter in chapter 42.  Here is what the author says about the snowstorm which was covering everything.  "This great drift was rolling and curling beneath the violent blast, tufting and combing with rustling swirls, and carved (as in patterns of cornice) where the grooving chisel of the wind swept round.  Ever and again, the tempest snatched little whiffs from the channelled edges, twirled then round, and made them dance over the chine of the monster pile, then let them lie like herring-bones, or the seams of sand where the tide has been.  And all the while from the smothering sky, more and more fiercely at every blast, came the pelting pitiless arrows, winged with murky white, and pointed with the barbs of frost."
I did find this book quite difficult in parts and felt it would have benefitted from some judicious editing. I was also irritated by the narrator's sentimental language when he was describing "his Lorna".  I didn't like some of the narrator's comments about women and had to keep reminding myself that this book was written in the 19th century.  At one point John Ridd says, "I always think that women, of whatever mind, are best when least they meddle with the things that appertain to men."
I was glad I had perservered with Lorna Doone as it is one of the classics.  I have downloaded another one by Blackmore entitled The Maid of Sker which is available as an e-book.  This book is set at the end of the 18th century, and the narrator is an old fisherman. The story tells of a two-year-old girl who drifts in a boat onto a beach in Glamorganshire in the calm before a storm.  It will be interesting to see how this compares to Lorna Doone.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The Pickwick Papers chapters 15 - 17

In chapter 15 Mr Pickwick and his friends are invited to a public breakfast being given by Mrs Leo Hunter, the celebrated author of the poem, "Ode to an Expiring Frog" which had created quite a sensation when it was published.  Although this event is a fancy dress affair, Mr Pickwick is allowed to attend in his usual attire while his friends are dressed by Mr Solomon Lucas, "the Jew in the High Street".  I found this chapter quite humorous especially the description of Mrs Hunter with her daughters who were dressed "in very juvenile costumes - whether to make them look young, or their mamma younger - Mr Pickwick does not distinctly inform us."  The guests were just making their way into breakfast when Mr Leo Hunter announces that Mr Charles Fitz-Marshall has arrived.

"Mr Pickwick's knife and fork fell from his hand.  He stared across the table at Mr Tupman, who had dropped his knife and fork, and was looking as if he were about to sink into the ground without further notice."

The new arrival, of course, is Mr Jingle who leaves hastily on being presented to the Pickwickians. The chapter ends with Mr Pickwick and Sam pursuing Mr Jingle to Bury St Edmunds where he is staying.  Mr Pickwick says, "How do we know whom he is deceiving there?  He deceived a worthy man once, and we were the innocent cause.  He should not do it again, if I can help it: I'll expose him!"

Chapter 16 is described as being "too full of adventure to be briefly described".   The chapter starts by extolling the virtues of the month of August.  "A mellow softness appears to hang over the whole earth; the influence of the season seems to extend itself to the very waggon, whose slow motion across the well-reaped field, is perceptible only to the eye, but strikes with no harsh sound upon the ear."

Mr Pickwick and Sam arrive at the inn where Mr Jingle is staying.  In the morning, Sam strikes up a conversation with Mr Jingle's manservant, Job Trotter who confides to Sam that his master is planning to run away with a rich heiress from a local boarding school.  As Trotter feels that the lady would not believe what anyone said about her lover, a plan is drawn up to stop the couple eloping.  Mr Pickwick is to arrive at the school at half past eleven and knock on the kitchen door which will be opened by Trotter. 

Everything that could go wrong does go wrong - Mr Pickwick has to be pushed over the wall by Sam ending up amongst gooseberry bushes.  There is a thunder-storm and Mr Pickwick is concerned that he is in a dangerous situation being surrounded by trees. He tries to get back over the wall but "the only effect of his struggles was to inflict a variety of very unpleasant gratings on his knees and shins, and to throw him into a state of the most profuse perspiration." 

He knocks at the kitchen door which opens to reveal the teachers and boarders of the school.  Mr Pickwick comes out of his hiding place and tried to explain why he is there.  The women take him for a robber or a lunatic and lock him in a cupboard!  Eventually Mr Pickwick is rescued by Sam and Mr Wardle who happens to be in the area for some shooting.  The chapter ends with Mr Pickwick stating that whenever he meets Jingle again he will "inflict personal chastisement on him, in addition to the exposure he so richly merits."

Mr Pickwick's exertions result in an attack of rheumatism which confines him to bed for a few days.  However  he is not idle and spends his time writing a tale entitled "A Tale of True Love" which forms most of chapter 17.  I am still not convinced that these tales add anything to the book.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The Pickwick Papers chapters 12 - 14

In chapter 12 we find out about Mr Pickwick's abode in London.  "Mr Pickwick's apartments in Goswell Street, although on a limited scale, were not only of a very neat and comfortable description, but peculiarly adapted for the residence of a man of his genius and observation."  These apartments seemed to suit Mr Pickwick as there are no children, no servants and no fowls.  Much of this chapter is concerned with a misunderstanding between Mr Pickwick and his landlady, Mrs Bardell.  He tries to tell her that he is planning to employ a manservant but Mrs Bardell thinks he is proposing marriage.  She faints in his arms just as the other Pickwickians arrive.

"Mr Pickwick was struck motionless and speechless.  He stood with his lovely burden in his arms, gazing vacantly on the countenances of his friends, without the slightest attempt at recognition or explanation.  They, in their turn, stared at him; and Master Bardell, in his turn, stared at everybody."

Mrs Bardell is escorted downstairs by Mr Tupman just as another man enters.  This is Sam Weller whom Pickwick decides to employ.  Sam is happy to leave his present employment at the White Hart Inn although he is a little confused about what his new role will be when he is given his new clothes.  "Well," said that suddenly-transformed individual, as he took his seat on the outside of the Eatanswill coach next morning; "I wonder whether I'm meant to be a footman, or a groom, or a gamekeeper, or a seedsman.  I looks like a sort of compo of every one on 'em.  Never mind; there's change of air, plenty to see, and little to do; and all this suits my complaint uncommon; so long life to the Pickvicks, says I!"

Chapter 13 consists of a humorous account of an election for the Member of Parliament to represent the borough of Eatanswill.  There were two candidates involved in this election - Samuel Slumkey representing the Blues and Mr Fizkin, the Buffs. The Pickwickians arrive in Eatanswill to find the town buzzing with election fever.  They decide to align themselves to the Blues as Mr Perker, the lawyer, is the agent for Slumkey.   The election seemed to involve a lot of buying of votes including parasols for the ladies "at seven and sixpence a piece".  Slumkey was expected to shake hands with "washed men" and pat children on the head.  His agent wanted him to "kiss one of them as it would produce a great impression on the crowd."  Politicians are still keen to be photographed with children - however bribing women with parasols no longer happens!

Most of chapter 14 consists of a strange tale entitled The Bagman's Story which is told by a bagman (a commercial traveller).   This is the tale of another bagman, Tom Smart, who stops at an inn where he takes a fancy to the landlady who is a widow.  However he believes that another man is also keen to make the landlady his wife.  Tom is quite annoyed about this but thinks he can do nothing about it so goes to bed. In the bedroom there is "a strange, grim looking chair" which Tom cannot take his eyes off.  Tom dozes off and wakes with a start to see that a change had come over the chair and that it now looked like an old gentleman.  The chair/gentleman is able to speak and proceeds to give Tom information about the landlady and about how he can win her hand in marriage.

A strange ghost story but one which has a happy ending!

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Pickwick Papers chapters 9-11

Chapter 9 opens with the discovery that both Jingle and Rachael are missing, having run away together.  Mr Tupman is horrified that Jingle has swindled him out of his ten pounds.  Mr Wardle and Mr Pickwick give chase throughout the night.  "Fields, trees and hedges, seemed to rush past them with the velocity of a whirlwind, so rapid was the pace at which they tore along.  They were close by the side of the first chaise.  Jingle's voice could be plainly heard, even above the din of the wheels, urging on the boys.  Old Mr Wardle foamed with rage and excitement.  He roared out scoundrels and villains by the dozen, clenched his fist and shook it expressively at the object of his indignation; but Mr Jingle only answered with a contemptuous smile, and replied to his menaces by a shout of triumph, as his horses, answering the increased application of whip and spur, broke into a faster gallop, and left the pursuers behind."

Dickens' description is excellent and the reader is carried along at full pelt until the chaise crashes and Mr Jingle once again escapes leaving Mr Wardle and Mr Pickwick continuing their pursuit on foot.
The action moves to London in chapter 10 which opens with a description of the White Hart Inn where Sam Weller, a boot boy, is employed.  Dickens provides the reader with a number of clues about two guests and the reason for their stay in London.  These guests, of course, are Jingle and Rachael who are to be married in the morning. 

Mr Wardle, Mr Pickwick and Mr Perker (a lawyer) arrive at the inn to find out if Rachael and Jingle are there.  There is a funny account as Sam recognises the guests by their footwear.  When he says that "there's a pair of Wellingtons a good deal worn and a pair o'lady's shoes, in number five" Mr Wardle exclaims "By Heavens, we've found them."  Sam shows them to the room where Jingle has just returned with the licence.  Mr Wardle is furious with Jingle while the lawyer tries to calm things down.  Mr Wardle then turns on his sister saying "And you, Rachael, at a time of life when you ought to know better, what do you mean by running away with a vagabond, disgracing your family, and making yourself miserable."  Eventually Jingle agrees to call off the marriage on payment of £120 and makes his escape.  The chapter ends on a sad note as the friends set off for home.  "Slowly and sadly did the two friends and the deserted lady, return next day in the Muggleton heavy coach.  Dimly and darkly had the sombre shadows of a summer's night fallen upon all around, when they again reached Dingly Dell, and stood within the entrance to Manor Farm."

In Chapter 11 Mr Pickwick discovers that Mr Tupman has left Manor Farm.  He has left a note suggesting that he is bereft at the loss of Rachael and that "life has become insupportable to him."  Mr Pickwick and his fiends leave immediately to follow their friend whom they find at an ale-house enjoying a hearty meal and showing little sign of distress. 

On walking near the inn, Mr Pickwick finds an old stone with the following inscription:-

S. M.
Mr Pickwick is delighted with his find - "he had discovered a strange and curious inscription of unquestionable antiquity, which had wholly escaped the observation of the many learned men who had preceded him."  Later in the chapter we learn that another Pickwickian, Mr Blotton, had worked out that the inscription was not ancient but said BILL STUMPS, HIS MARK.  Unfortunately The Pickwick Club did not accept this interpretation and expelled Mr Blotton from the club.  Dickens  uses humour here to demonstrate how academics often hold onto their own interpretations despite there being evidence to the contrary.

This chapter also includes a short story entitled A Madman's Manuscript, which was given to Mr Pickwick by an old clergyman.  This is a moving, gothic tale which is quite horrific in parts.  However I am undecided whether these short stories add anything to the book.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

The Men of Ness by Eric Linklater

The Men of Ness was written by the Orcadian author Eric Linklater in 1932.  The copy I read was the Orkney Edition, reprinted in 1960 which I borrowed from the Kirkwall Library while on a recent visit to Orkney.  This book is one of the 50 classics I plan to read over the next few years.  It also counts for the Read Scotland challenge as the author was Scottish and the book is set mainly in Scotland.

The Men of Ness tells the story of the Orkney Vikings who lived at the same time as Harald Fairhair, who was king of Norway during the 9th century.  The main characters in the story are Thorlief Coalbiter and his sons Grim, later called Skallagrim, and Kol.  Thorlief is a peace loving man who prefers to stay at home and farm his lands in Orkney to going off raiding in other parts of Britain.  He is mocked about this by his wife Signy but proves to be a wise and fair ruler.  Signy encourages her sons to seek out the man who killed her first husband in order to gain atonement for his death.  Signy says, "Blood that is spilt will not dry clean away like water."  Eventually Skallagrim, Kol and their brother-in-law Erling set out in two ships to go a-Viking despite Thorlief advising them to postpone their voyage for another year.  As they prepare to leave, Thorlief again suggests they should wait for a few days as a storm is coming.  However the ships set sail and, as foretold by Thorlief, are caught in a fierce storm in the Pentland Firth.  The descriptions of the ships battling against the wind and the sea are vivid and the language poetic.  "The wind shrieked in the rigging and howled overhead.  Sometimes in the trough of a wave the sail hung flat.  Then with a great bang the wind would fill it again, and the Skua reach forward with a lurch."

The book is written in the style of a Viking saga describing the hardships and violence of the times in a stark and understated way.  There are references to the beliefs of the Vikings - their belief in fate, in the spirit world and the afterlife.  The story of Gauk's wife coming back to haunt him provides some light relief in the book though not to Gauk! 

I really enjoyed this book and found the characters were well written.  Despite using very few words, Linklater creates clear pictures of the main characters.  For example, Thorlief Coalbiter got his name "because he sat by the fire and would not go outdoors.  He was a good lawyer, and though he spoke in a mild voice there was often great wisdom in his words."  His wife Signy is described as "a very handsome woman, cheerful, hard-tempered, and rather greedy."

The action moves out from Orkney to other parts of Britain emphasising that the Vikings of this time were farmers and traders as well as being fierce warriors.  The character of Gauk provides continuity in the story as he survives the fighting to return to Orkney and relate what happened to his companions.   Gauk provides a contrast to the Vikings as he is a peace loving Orcadian farmer who does not want to be a hero.

As I am currently doing a course on the Vikings with the Centre for Nordic Studies, I found Linklater's description of life in Viking times to be historically accurate providing a balanced account of the period.  He successfully weaves real historical events, many taken from The Orkneyinga Saga, into the story.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Dead Men’s Bones by James Oswald

Dead Men’s Bones is the fourth book in the series featuring DI Tony McLean written by the Scottish author James Oswald who combines a successful writing career with farming. 
The book begins with the discovery of a naked body in a river outside Edinburgh – the body is male and covered with tattoos.  DI McLean hardly has time to start investigating this suspicious death when he is sent to the home of an MSP who has been found shot in the grounds of his house in Fife.  Inside the house the police find the bodies of the MSP’s wife and two young daughters. It looks like the MSP killed his family before committing suicide.
It appears that DI McLean has been allocated this case because it is political hot potato and his superiors do not want to be associated with it.  He has a reputation for being a bit of a maverick who can be dispensed with should he discover anything which would reflect unfavourably on the government. 
Like all the books in this series, this is a police procedural story but with a supernatural twist at the end which makes these books different from most current crime novels.
What I particularly enjoyed about this book:-
·       The development of the characters during the series – I especially like DI McLean who comes across as very human – his strong sense of justice drives him to solve cases even if he annoys his superiors in the process; he is a good team leader who cares about the members of his team as people; he also cares about the less fortunate members of society as his treatment of the homeless ex-soldier demonstrated
·         I liked the descriptions of Edinburgh and the surrounding area – having lived in the city for 8 years I could picture the various locations in the book
·         McLean’s relationship with his superior Duguid seems to be slightly better in this book – I did find that their constant battles were becoming a little boring and repetitive
·        The ending was very exciting when DI McLean realises that his team are in danger and goes to check on them
·        The story was cleverly plotted with various layers including the involvement of a mysterious man from the Special Branch who encouraged McLean to keep on investigating the case of the MSP

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Silas Marner by George Eliot

I read Silas Marner by George Eliot with  my local book group recently – this book was written by Eliot, whose real name was Mary Anne Evans, in 1861.  This is quite a short book and an easy read.  The book tells the story of Silas Marner, a linen-weaver, who is uprooted from the town where he works because he is falsely accused of stealing money from the minister of the religious community where he worships.  Marner moves to the country settling in the small village of Raveloe.  He does not mix with the local folk here and is thought to be eccentric.  As Eliot explains at the beginning of the book, weavers were regarded with some suspicion by the country folk as they possessed skills which they regarded as almost magical. “In this way it came to pass that those scattered linen-weavers – emigrants from the town into the country – were to the last regarded as aliens by their rustic neighbours, and usually contracted the eccentric habits which belong to a state of loneliness.”

Silas Marner is obviously a very good weaver as he makes plenty of money – this he hoards, keeping the guineas in two leather bags which he counts every evening.  “He thought fondly of the guineas that were only half-earned by the work in his loom, as if they had been unborn children – thought of the guineas that were coming slowly through the coming years, through all his life, which spread far away before him, the end quite hidden by countless days of weaving.”

The years pass by uneventfully, until one evening when Silas leaves his door unlocked to go out on an errand, a thief enters who steals his gold.  Silas is devastated by the loss of his gold but this event serves to make him more acceptable to his neighbours who now feel some pity for him. Shortly afterwards another event happens in Silas life which restores him to life – this is the appearance of a young girl in his cottage one snowy night.  Silas is so captivated by the child, whom he names Eppie, that he decides to adopt her and this action helps even further to integrate him into village society.  “That softening of feeling towards him which dated from his misfortune, that merging of suspicion and dislike in a rather contemptuous pity for him as lone and crazy, was now accompanied with a more active sympathy, especially amongst the women.”  One of his neighbours in particular, Dolly Winthrop, provides a great deal of help and advice in bringing up Eppie. 

At the end of the book, Eppie’s real father makes himself known to her and suggests that she come and live with him and his wife.  However I am not going to disclose the ending – if you want to find out you will need to read the book!

I really enjoyed Silas Marner which like all good novels can be read on many levels. In the book Eliot investigates the relations between the individual and the society in which they live.  The characters are all real and believable.  The story moves along at a good pace and all the various strands come together at the end in a satisfactory manner.  It touches on the effects of industrialisation.  It can be read as a moral tale – the good people are rewarded while the bad ones get their just deserts.

I will let R T Jones have the last word “but if, by the time we reach the end of the novel, we have a suspicion that George Eliot is not always as straightforward as she seems, we may be left with some doubts about the apparent conclusiveness of that fairy-tale ending.” (from the introduction to The Wordsworth Classic edition)


Portrait of the author aged 30 by the Swiss artist Alexandre Louis François d'Albert Durade (1804–86)



Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto

The Hummingbird is the debut novel by the Finnish writer, Kati Hiekkapelto.  It features the detective Anna Fekete who moved to Finland with her family as a child from war torn Yugoslavia.  She has recently moved back to a northern Finnish coastal town where her brother Ákos also lives.  Anna and her brother are very different – she can speak 6 languages whereas Ákos doesn’t work and has a drink problem.  He hasn’t integrated well into Finland.

Anna finds that her new partner, Esko, is a rascist who says very provocative things about immigrants. However the relationship between Anna and Esko improves as the book progresses and they learn more about each other.

The book starts with the murder of a jogger who is found with an Aztec pendant.  More murders follow and the police struggle to find links between them.  The victims all have this pendant - what is their significance?  

There is a second story running through the book about a Kurdish girl who phones the police for help but then asserts this was a mistake.  Anna is so concerned about this girl that she watches the family home in her free time.  I liked the technique used by the author where some chapters are written in the first person so we find out what is really happening to the Kurdish girl.

Language is a very important theme running throughout the book which includes excerpts of Anna’s own language – like many readers I was unable to read these as there was no translation provided.  Perhaps the author was making a point here by making the reader feel frustrated so s/he could understand how immigrants must feel when they first arrive in a new country unable to speak the language.  It was very interesting to find out more about the experience of immigrants in Finland.

This book dealt with the themes of

·         Home – what do we mean by “home”?  Where is your home?  Anna is torn between her life in Finland and her life back in Hungary where her family live

·         Integration and belonging

I enjoyed the book as I like to find out about other countries and I know nothing about Finland.  The author captured the landscape and the climate well especially the changing seasons.  “It seemed that summer had finally come to an end, though the skin yearned to cling to the warmth and the touch of seawater for just a moment longer.”

On the whole I thought this was a very good debut novel and I am looking forward to reading the sequel entitled The Defenceless.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indriðason

Hypothermia is the 6th book in the Erlendur series by the Icelandic author Arnaldur Indriðason.  The book starts with the suicide of a woman at her summer cottage near Lake Thingvellir.  Although there are no suspicious circumstances, Erlendur starts to investigate this death.  It seems that the woman has been very depressed since the death of her mother two years previously.  Her father had drowned in this lake when she was a young child.

Running alongside this investigation, Erlendur is also trying to find out what happened to two young people who disappeared many years earlier leaving no trace.  Erlendur’s obsession with these missing person cases seems to stem from the loss of his brother in a snow storm when they were both children.  In this book we learn more about this incident and the promise he made to his dying mother to find out what happened to his brother, Bergur.  This helps to explain Erlendur’s character which is described as “gloomy and withdrawn” by an author who wrote about the incident.  Erlendur describes the day the family left their farm to move to Reykjavik.  “On the last day we walked from room to room and I felt a strange emptiness that has stayed with me ever since.”

We also find out more about Erlendur’s failed marriage and meet his ex-wife, Halldóra.  Their daughter Eva is keen for her parents to meet but the meeting is unsuccessful as Halldóra is still very bitter towards Erlendur blaming him for everything as he walked out on her, leaving her with two children to bring up on her own.  Erlendur tries to explain why he did this but Halldóra is unwilling to listen.

There are a number of themes running through this book:-

·         Ghosts and guilty secrets

·         Lakes, cold water and hypothermia

·         Missing persons

I really enjoyed this book and feel that I now have a much better understanding of Erlendur as a person.  I like Erlendur’s ability to speak to people and get them to open up and disclose secrets which have been kept buried for many years.  In this way he finds out a great deal about people and is able to work out links between the past and the present.  The descriptions of the Icelandic landscape are excellent contributing to the overall dark mood of the novel.  I am certainly looking forward to reading more of the Erlendur series.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Sir Nigel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I read Sir Nigel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle recently at my “Lunch with Dickens” book group and it is also one of my 50 books to read for the Classics Club book challenge.  Sir Nigel was written in 1906 and is a historical novel.  It is set between 1350 and 1356 during the Hundred Years War and describes the early life of a young English squire, Nigel Loring, up to the time when he is knighted.  It is the prequel to the White Company although at the end of Sir Nigel we find out what happens in his later life.

Nigel becomes a squire to Sir John Chandon and goes off to fight in France.  Before leaving he promises Lady Mary that he will perform three deeds of honour so that he can be worthy of her hand in marriage.

I enjoyed the book which was well written – the use of use of medieval words and phrases give a flavour of the times but without posing any problems to understanding the story. 
The book was fast moving and funny in parts.  Sir Nigel was an honest, brave young man who wanted to do his best for his king and for Mary.  It was interesting to find out about the strict rules knights had to follow.  I enjoyed the description of the English sneaking into the castle of the Butcher of La Brohinière through the tunnel. Parts of the story were quite bloodthirsty especially the descriptions of how the dead were treated and how the archers went around gathering back their arrows from the battlefield.  However, life was very different in the 14th century. 
Here are some quotes which give a flavour of the book.
"Over the winding river, across the green meadows, rose the short square tower and the high grey walls of the grim Abbey, with its bell tolling by day and night, a voice of menace and of dread to the little household."
"There are two seasons of colour in those parts: the yellow, when the countryside is flaming with the gorse-blossoms, and the crimson, when all the long slopes are smouldering with the heather."
"The visors had been closed, and every man was now cased in metal from head to foot, some few glowing in brass, the greater number shining in steel.  Only their fierce eyes could be seen smouldering in the dark shadow of their helmets.  So for an instant they stood glaring and crouching."
Sir Nigel is very different from the Sherlock Holmes novels but Conan Doyle thought his historical books were some of his best work.  I will certainly read The White Company sometime.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle