Saturday, 30 December 2017

The Pickwick Papers

In March 2016 I signed up for a Read-Along organised by On Bookes to read The Pickwick Papers in instalments as the book was meant to be read.  The challenge celebrated the 180th anniversary of the first instalment of The Pickwick Papers.  The challenge lasted until November 2017 and, although  I did finish the book, I was unable to keep up with the reading schedule and didn't manage a blog post for each instalment.  I did find it hard to remember what had happened in the previous instalment although people reading the book at the time probably discussed each instalment with their friends and family during the month in the same way as TV soaps are discussed today. 

I first read this book as a student many years ago but couldn't remember much about the story.  The Pickwick Papers consists of a number of separate incidents involving Mr Pickwick and his friends as they travel around England.  Early in the book Mr Pickwick employs Sam Weller as his servant.   Sam is very streetwise and helps rescue Mr Pickwick from many scrapes.  Although some of the incidents are very funny I found much of the book silly.  I certainly didn't like it as much as Dickens' later books but this could be due to the format which makes it difficult to develop characters in any depth.

What I liked about the book:-
  • the descriptions
  • the character of Sam Weller
  • some of the funny incidents
  • the description of the prison
  • the happy ending
  • the illustrations
What I disliked about the book:-
  • the additional stories which were added presumably to make some instalments longer - I felt that most of these added nothing to the book
  • the characters of Bob Sawyer and Ben Allen who seemed very irresponsible and I was glad when they went abroad and got yellow fever!
Dickens does introduce some themes in this book which he develops in later novels such as industrialisation, debt, poverty and the law.

I would like to thank On Bookes for organising this Read-Along and for providing additional information about what was happening at the time when each instalment was written.  It was certainly an interesting experience to read a Victorian novel in this way and I may consider doing this again.
Picture below shows Mr Bob Sawyer's mode of travelling
I will conclude this review with the final words from the book - "Mr Pickwick is somewhat infirm now; but he retains all his former juvenility of spirit, and may still be frequently seen, contemplating the pictures in Dulwich Gallery, or enjoying a walk about the pleasant neighbourhood on a fine day.  He is known by all the poor people about, who never fail to take their hats off, as he passes, with great respect.  The children idolise him, and so indeed does the whole neighbourhood.  Evert year, he repairs to a large family merry-making at Mr Wardle's; on this, as on all other occasions, he is invariably attended by the faithful Sam, between whom and his master there exists a steady and reciprocal attachment which nothing but death will terminate."

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Back to the Classics 2018

The books I have chosen to read for the Back to the Classics 2018 Challenge are as follows:-

A 19th century classic - Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

A 20th century classic - The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

A classic by a woman author - Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

A children's classic - The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley

A classic travel or journey narrative - 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

A classic with a single word title - Emma by Jane Austen

A classic with a colour in the title - Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

Re-read a favourite classic - A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

I think I was too ambitious in choosing 8 books for this challenge as I only managed to read half of them.  However I did enjoy these - see my reviews on these books.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indriðason


The Shadow District is the first book in a new series by the Icelandic author Arnaldur Indriðason. This book is set in Reykjavik and shifts between the present day and the Second World War when Iceland was occupied by US military forces.  A 90 year old man is found dead in his flat and it turns out that he has been murdered.  Kónrad, a retired police detective investigates the case and finds some newspaper cuttings in the murdered man's flat about the murder of a young woman in Reykjavik during the Second World War.  We then find out how this murder was investigated by an Icelandic detective Flóvent and a Canadian military police officer who can speak Icelandic.  

Although the book goes between the two time periods and there are no clues at the top of the chapters, I did not find it difficult to work out which time the chapter was describing.  Thanks to dogged police work, Kónrad finds the link between both cases, solving the cold case in the process.
I liked:-
  • Finding out more about the impact of the invasion of the US military on the small island of Iceland. Although this improved the economy there were tensions between the two communities.  Women who fraternised with the US service men were frowned upon.
  • I thought the characters were believable and well drawn.
  • The plot was clever - I like books which go between two different time periods and felt the author did this well.
  • This is a police procedural novel with a difference as Konrad is retired
  • As I am currently doing a Viking Studies course I enjoyed reading about Icelandic folklore - this theme goes through the novel.
I really enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more in the series. I can also recommend Arnaldur's earlier books featuring the detectives Erlundur and Sigurdur Óli. These usually have two stories too - a modern crime and a cold case involving a missing person.


Friday, 8 December 2017

Dickens in December

Thanks to the Once Lost Wanderer blog I have found another Dickens challenge! This is the Dickens in December challenge which is hosted by Fanda Classiclit.  I am planning to read The Chimes from a collection of Dickens' Christmas stories and if I have time I will read more of these.

A number of years ago the Shetland Library set up a "Lunch with Dickens" book group which meets weekly to discuss 19th century novels.  The year always starts with a book by Dickens and the book for 2018 is Little Dorrit

Thursday, 7 December 2017

A Literary Christmas Challenge 2017

I was delighted to find out that A Literary Christmas Challenge organised by In the Bookcase is running again this year - I took part last year and thoroughly enjoyed it.  This year I am going to read the following short stories

The Chimes by Charles Dickens

The Mistletoe Murder by P D James

Christmas Stories by George Mackay Brown

I chose the first two books as I enjoy reading crime fiction and Victorian novels.  The third book is by one of my favourite authors -  George Mackay Brown whose writing was influenced by Orkney where he lived all his life.


Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Agnes Grey was the first novel written by Anne Bronte.  It was published in 1847 in a collection with two other novels written by her sisters - Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. The main character in Agnes Grey is the daughter of an impoverished clergyman who, at eighteen, decides to leave home to seek employment as a governess.  Her family laugh at this suggestion as Agnes has been spoilt by them and not allowed to help with the household chores. However Agnes does gain a position with the Bloomfield family being in charge of  teaching the three children ranging in age from two to seven.

Agnes is very naïve, looking forward to her new position where she thinks she can "train the tender plants, and watch their buds unfolding day by day!"  She very quickly realises that her task is not an easy one - made harder by the lack of any support from the children's mother.  The theme of how to discipline children runs throughout this book and is still topical today as teachers frequently debate the best methods of disciplining their pupils.  Agnes states, "The name of governess, I soon found, was a mere mockery as applied to me; my pupils had no more notion of obedience than a wild, unbroken colt."  The description of Tom's cruelty to animals and birds is quite disturbing, as is his father's encouragement of his cruel practices.  Tom is only seven years old and sets traps for birds which he then kills.  When he does this, his uncle says "he is a fine boy."

After being dismissed from the Bloomfield family Agnes goes home to the parsonage. However sshe is still keen to gain a position and so after a few months, she finds one with the Murray family where she is to be governess to two girls - Matilda who is 14 and Rosalie who is 16.  There are also two younger boys who are sent away to school shortly after Agnes arrives. This position proves to be as difficult as Agnes's previous one although the girls present different challenges.  Matilda is a tomboy who prefers spending her time in the stables rather than in the schoolroom. "As an animal, Matilda was all right, full of life, vigour, and activity; as an intelligent being, she was barbarously ignorant, indocile, careless, and irrational, and consequently very distressing to one who had the task of cultivating her understanding, reforming her manners, and aiding those ornamental attainments which, unlike her sister, she despised as much as the rest."  Her older sister spends her time flirting with young men whilst getting Agnes to act as chaperone.  She seems determined to enjoy herself before she is forced into an arranged marriage with Sir Thomas Ashby whom her mother has decided she will marry.

Agnes's position is quite a lonely one as she has no friends explaining to Mr Weston, the curate, that in her present position she is unlikely to make any friends.  Like the author, Agnes is very religious and so when Agnes becomes attracted to Mr Weston she feels the tension between religious and romantic love.  Agnes says "it is not the man I love, it is his goodness I love."  Unfortunately for Agnes, Rosalie decides that Mr Weston will be her next victim pursuing him relentlessly until she marries Sir Thomas.  The remainder of the book describes Agnes's pain at having to return home on the death of her father and not being able to see Mr Weston. 
The position of a governess in Victorian England was not an easy one and their plight was highlighted by The Governesses Benevolent Society in their reports.  Although entrusted with the children and expected to eat her meals with the family, the governess's position was a difficult one being neither a member of the family nor a servant.  Agnes obviously believed she was the family's equal and disliked being ignored and made to walk behind them on their way back from church.

This is quite a short book and relatively easy to read so would make a good introduction to reading Victorian novels.  I enjoyed this book although I had expected more about the problems facing governesses in the 19th century. Although Agnes Grey is not as dramatic as Jane Eyre, it certainly opens a window on the plight of the governess in Victorian times.  As Sally Shuttleworth says in the introduction to the book, "the 'quiet virtues' of Agnes Grey are deceptive. It possesses an inner intensity which belies its outer form."

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The Pickwick Papers chapters 33-34

It is now the 13th of February, the day before Mr Pickwick’s trial, and Sam receives a note from his father saying he wants to see him in the Blue Boar at 6pm.  As Sam is early he wanders along the streets pausing at a stationer’s to look in the window.  Seeing some pictures on display he says, “If it hadn’t been for this, I should ha’ forgot all about it, until it was too late.”  The picture was a valentine so Sam goes into the shop and buys some gilt-edged letter paper and a hard-nibbed pen and continues on his way to the Blue Boar.  As he has plenty of time he asks for some brandy and water and an inkstand and proceeds to write his own valentine.  Mr Weller is not impressed by this, saying he thought that Sam should have enough sense not to get involved with women and that “it would be a trial to see Sam married.”  Sam is unsure how he should sign his valentine, but his father advises he should sign it “Pickvick” as “it’s a werry good name, and a easy one to spell.”  Sam addresses the valentine to “Mary, Housemaid, at Mr Nupkin’s Mayor’s, Ipswich, Suffolk.”  I wonder if this is going to cause more trouble for Mr Pickwick?
The remainder of the chapter is taken up with a description of a meeting of the Brick Lane Branch of the United Grand Junction Ebenezer Temperance Association which Sam and his father attend.  This meeting was held in an upstairs room accessed by a ladder and seemed to involve a lot of tea drinking and the reporting of converts to the temperance movement.  After some time, the chairman announces to the gathering that Brother Stiggins has arrived below.  This is the deputy shepherd, otherwise known as the red-nosed man who visits Mrs Weller.  “The little door flew open, and brother Tadger appeared, closely followed by the reverend Mr Stiggins, who no sooner entered, than there was a great clapping of hands, and stamping of feet, and flourishing of handkerchiefs; to all of which manifestations of delight, Brother Stiggins returned no other acknowledgement  than staring with a wild eye, and a fixed smile, at the extreme top of the wick of the candle on the table: swaying his body to and fro, meanwhile, in a very unsteady and uncertain manner.”  Mr Stiggins suggests loudly that the meeting is drunk and pushes Brother Tadger who falls down the ladder.  As the meeting deteriorates into chaos Mr Weller starts taking off his coat while telling Sam to go out and find a watchman.  Mr Weller then attacks Mr Stiggins until he is eventually dragged away by Sam while Mr Stiggins is removed to strong lodgings for the night.

Chapter 34 “is wholly devoted to a full and faithful Report of the memorable Trial of Bardell against Pickwick.”  The chapter begins with a description of the court and the swearing in of the jury.  A chemist complains that he cannot serve on the jury as he has no-one to leave in charge of his business except a boy who does not know the difference between Epsom salts and syrup of senna!  Mr Pickwick is represented by Serjeant Snubbin and Mr Phunky and Mrs Bardell by Serjeant Buzfuz and Mr Skimpton.

Serjeant Buzfuz opens the case by saying, “You have heard from my learned friend, gentlemen, that this is an action for a breach of promise of marriage, in which the damages are laid at £1,500.  But you have not hear from my learned friend, inasmuch as it did not come within my learned friend’s province to tell you, what are the facts and circumstances of the case.  Those facts and circumstances, gentlemen, you shall hear detailed by me, and proved by the unimpeachable female whom I will place in that box before you.”  Serjeant Buzfuz goes on to describe how Mrs Bardell has been left a widow after her husband “was knocked on the head with a quart-pot in a public-house cellar” leaving Mrs Bardell to bring up her son on her own.  His description of Mr Pickwick suggests that he is guilty of “systematic villany”.  He concludes by saying that he will show the jury that Mr Pickwick offered Mrs Bardell marriage and that he was discovered holding her in his arms.  He offers two notes as evidence.  In one of these, Mr Pickwick writes to Mrs Bardell “Dear Mrs B, I shall not be at home till to-morrow.  Slow coach.”  Followed by “Don’t trouble yourself about the warming-pan.”  Serjeant Buzfuz makes a lot out of this note ending his submission by saying that “Pickwick still rears his head with unblushing effrontery, and gazes without a sigh on the ruin he has made.  Damages, gentlemen – heavy damages – is the only punishment with which you can visit him; the only recompense you can award to my client.”
Witnesses are then called including the four Pickwickians who do not help Mr Pickwick’s case.  Mr Winkle describes how he found Mrs Bardell in Mr Pickwick’s arms. The author writes, “Lawyers hold that there are two kinds of particularly bad witnesses: a reluctant witness, and a too-willing witness; it was Mr Winkle’s fate to figure in both characters.” Mr Winkle goes on to describe another occasion when Mr Pickwick’s behaviour was less than gentlemanly – the time he found himself in a lady’s bedroom at midnight. 

Sam is called too and describes the occasion when he visited Mrs Bardell to pay the rent.  Two of her friends were there discussing the case.  Sam reports that they said it was very generous of the lawyers Dodson and Fogg to take on the case “on spec and to charge nothing at all for costs, unless they got ‘em out of Mr Pickwick.”  This sounds very similar to the modern day practice of firms advertising “no win, no fee”.
The jury reached their decision in a very short time finding Mr Pickwick guilty with damages set at £750.  Mr Pickwick is adamant that he is going to contest the case and will not pay a farthing of damages or costs. Mr Weller’s final comment to his son was “Oh, Sammy, Sammy, vy worn’t there a alleybi!”






Monday, 29 May 2017

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

For the last few years I have attended a weekly book group entitled Lunch with Dickens which starts each year with a Dickens’ novel – this year’s book was The Old Curiosity Shop which was published in 1841.  This is also the 19th century classic on my Back to the Classics Challenge.  The Old Curiosity Shop was Dickens’ fourth novel after the Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby and was first serialised in Master Humphrey’s Clock during 1840-41.

The Old Curiosity Shop tells the story of Little Nell and her grandfather who leave London as they are in debt to the dwarf Quilp and set out on a journey without any clear destination. “Forth from the city, while it yet slumbered, went the two poor adventurers, wandering they knew not whither.”  Nell is very idealistic about leaving London seeing this as an escape and “relief from the gloomy solitude in which she had lived, an escape from the heartless people by whom she had been surrounded in her late time of trial, the restoration of the old man’s health and peace, and a life of tranquil happiness.  Sun, and stream, and meadow, and summer days, shone brightly in her view, and there was no dark tint in all the sparkling picture.”  However the travellers find out that not everyone they meet is kind and helpful and that there are some unsavoury characters in the countryside too. 
When we first meet Nell she is described as a child and it is only later in the book that we find out that she is in fact 14. At times she seems very naïve and then at other times quite mature and sensible and able to deal with quite difficult situations.  In particular, Nell tries to stop her grandfather from gambling.  Dickens portrays this very well showing how this addiction has taken hold of the old man.  The old man says at one point, “If I could have gone on a little longer, only a little longer, the luck would have turned on my side.  Yes, it’s as plain as the marks upon the cards.” 

The descriptions in the book are excellent – the example of the industrial town providing a powerful contrast to the images of the countryside and showing how the industrial revolution affected ordinary people in the Victorian age. When Nell and her grandfather arrive in an industrial town they are helped by a man who takes them to the foundry to spend the night.  “In a large and lofty building, supported by pillars of iron, with great black apertures in the upper walls, open to the external air; echoing to the roof with the beating of hammers and roar of furnaces, mingled with the hissing of red-hot metal plunged in water, and a hundred strange unearthly noises never heard elsewhere; in the gloomy place, moving like demons among the flame and smoke, dimly and fitfully seen, flushed and tormented by the burning fires, and wielding great weapons, a faulty blow from any one of which must have crushed some workman’s skull, a number of men laboured like giants.”

An interesting character is Dick Swiveller who is a friend of Nell’s brother, Frederick who suggests that Dick might marry Nell when she is older as he believes she will come into a lot of money.  Quilp too thinks Dick might be useful to him so gets him employment with the lawyer, Sampson Brass.  I was pleased that Dick turns out to be better than I had expected although he doesn’t pay his bills. He enters in a little book the names of the streets that he can't go down while the shops are open. He says, "the roads are closing so fast in every direction, that in about a month's time, unless my aunt sends me a remittance, I shall have to go three or four miles out of town to get over the way."  This was funny but sad for the small shopkeepers who also had bills to pay.  Dick takes pity on the little housemaid employed by the lawyer who is mistreated by his sister Sally.  Dick calls this little maid the Marchioness and she is an interesting character.  However as Claire Tomalin points out in her biography of Dickens, “he abandoned her halfway through her history, perhaps because Little Nell had to hold centre stage or because he did not know how to develop the Marchioness.” 

Overall, I enjoyed the book which has an interesting story line – the reader has to keep reading to find out what happens at the end especially as Quilp is on the chase getting nearer to Nell and her grandfather.  There are some interesting characters although some of them seem to be caricatures rather than being real people - this is especially true of the women in the story.   
Some of the writing was oversentimental, for example the description of the death of the schoolboy.  “He was a very young boy; quite a little child.  His hair still hung in curls about his face, and his eyes were very bright; but their light was of Heaven, not earth.” 

This is a dark and complex novel which deals with a number of themes including poverty, addiction, the abuse of women and death. I was glad that I read The Old Curiosity Shop but I would not class this as one of Dickens' best books.


Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien

Brona's Books has an interesting readalong this year - to read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings

I first read The Hobbit many years ago when I was a student, encouraged by my boyfriend (now my hubby) and then re-read it before going to see the films - this was not a good idea as the films are very different from the book!  I am certainly enjoying reading The Hobbit again although I must admit that I now imagine some of the characters as they appeared in the film! 

The copy I am reading is a very old paperback edition which contains some lovely illustrations by the author which I have reproduced here. 

The story starts in Hobbiton where Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, lives a very quiet life enjoying good food and company.  One day he gets a visit from the wizard Gandalf, followed shortly after by a group of dwarves.  They want him to accompany them on an adventure to reclaim some stolen treasure from the dragon, Smaug who lives in the Lonely Mountain.  For some reason they believe Bilbo to be an excellent burglar.

This illustration shows the Lonely Mountain, their final destination. "They knew that they were drawing near to the end of their journey, and that it might be a very horrible end.  The land about them grew bleak and barren, though once, as Thorin told them, it had been green and fair.  There was little grass, and before long there was neither bush not tree, and only broken and blackened stumps to speak of ones long vanished.  They were come to the Desolation of the Dragon, and they were come at the waning of the year."

Although this is a children's book it is beautifully written.  It is also a very good adventure story which keeps the reader's attention throughout.  During the course of the tale Bilbo develops becoming braver and more clever justifying Gandalf's faith in him although he is reminded by Gandalf at the end of the story that "he is only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!"  To which Bilbo replies, "Thank goodness!"

As I am currently doing a course on the Vikings, I enjoyed working out what the runes said and also looking for other influences which Tolkien borrowed from Old Norse.

I have thoroughly enjoyed re-reading The Hobbit for Brona's Challenge and look forward to re-reading The Lord of the Rings Trilogy at some point in the future. 

Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Man who Went up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

The Man who Went up in Smoke is the second book in the Martin Beck series written by husband and wife team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.  The couple planned the 10 books in the series and then wrote them together.  This book was published in 1969 and was very different from the other crime novels of the time.  Beck does not operate on his own but relies on his team to help him solve the cases.  He is not a handsome hero but an ordinary police officer whose marriage disintegrates as the series progresses.  To quote Val McDermid's introduction to the book, "the Swedish duo demonstrated that there was a different way to write about murder.  Through the eyes of Martin Beck and his colleagues, they held a mirror up to Swedish society at a time when the ideals of the welfare state were beginning to buckle under the realities of everyday life."

Beck is on holiday on an island when he gets a phone call from his chief asking him to investigate the disappearance of a Swedish journalist, Alf Matsson, in Budapest.  Beck agrees to sacrifice his family holiday to go to Hungary to investigate this case.  At this time Hungary is behind the Iron Curtain. The title of the book comes from a comment made by an official from the Foreign Office who says that the man has disappeared "but he can't have just gone up in smoke".  This story is different from Roseanna where there is a body although it takes some time to identify.  In this book there is not even a body.

I really enjoyed this book - there are so many twists and turns to the story that the reader is kept guessing until the end.  Of course, by this time Martin Beck has worked out what has happened to the journalist.  The descriptions of Budapest were so evocative that it is now on my list of cities to visit.  "The Danube was flowing past him on its calm, even course from north to south, not especially blue, but wide and majestic and indubitably very beautiful. On the other side of the river rose two softly curved hills crowned by a monument and a walled fortress."

Although Beck is on his own in Budapest, he does get help from the local police officer, Szluka. This proves to be invaluable as Beck uncovers a drug ring in which Matsson was involved.  Beck returns to Sweden without having found Matsson although he has found his passport, luggage and his hotel key.  He does not seem very keen to go back to the island to complete his family holiday and when his wife asks how he is, he replies "not well."

I am certainly planning to read the rest of the Martin Beck series if I can track down the books.  The next book in the series is The Man on the Balcony.


Sunday, 5 February 2017

In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward

In Bitter Chill is the debut novel by Sarah Ward and was published in 2015.  It is set in the Derbyshire Peak District and features Detective Inspector Francis Sadler and his team. The story begins with the suicide of a woman in a local hotel in Bampton.  It turns out that the woman's daughter Sophie was kidnapped, along with her friend Rachel Jones, in 1978.  Although Rachel managed to escape, her friend was never found.  Rachel only has vague reminiscences of the kidnapping and has tried to put the event behind her. She now works as a genealogist having done her university dissertation on the female line of her family.

The detectives start investigating the cold case but are taken off this when a woman's body is discovered in Truscott woods. She has been murdered and Sadler is convinced that this murder is linked both to the kidnapping and also to earlier events.

The plotting was very clever and I liked the way that the two stories were intertwined.  I also liked the structure of the book which allowed us to understand what Rachel was feeling as well as following the police as they tried to unravel all the various strands.  The characters are well drawn and believable - Sadler is a relatively normal police officer but we feel he does have a hidden side to him. 

The title of the book was very apt as the descriptions of the weather added to the atmosphere.  "Sadler glanced at the clouds moving quickly across the sky, mimicking the speeded-up images you sometimes saw on television.  No need for artificial trickery in the Derbyshire Peak District though.  That spine of rolling hills and gritstone edges that traversed the middle of England ended in Derbyshire, in a landscape of heart-stopping beauty.  When you could see it, that was."

This is a story of family secrets and what happens both while they are kept hidden and when they are revealed.  This was an excellent first novel and I am looking forward to reading Sarah's second book, A Deadly Thaw, which was published in 2016 and features the same police officers.

I have heard Sarah Ward speak at both Shetland Noir and Iceland Noir where she made very interesting contributions to the panel discussions.   She has a blog called Crimepieces where she reviews crime fiction.   

Thursday, 2 February 2017

The Pickwick Papers chapters 30 - 32

We have now read half of The Pickwick Papers so here is the reading schedule for the remainder of the book. More information about this Read-Along can be found on the Behold the Stars Blog.

XI – January 2017 (chapters 30–32)
XII – February 2017 (chapters 33–34)
XIII – March 2017 (chapters 35–37)
XIV – April 2017 (chapters 38–40)
XV – June 2017 (chapters 41–43)
XVI – July 2017 (chapters 44–46)
XVII – August 2017 (chapters 47-49)
XVIII – September 2017 (chapters 50–52)
XIX – October 2017 (chapters 53–55)
XX - November 2017 (chapters 56–57)

N.B. There's no Pickwick Papers for May 2017: in May 1837 Charles Dickens missed a deadline as he was in mourning for his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth.

Chapter 30 opens on Christmas morning with Sam informing Mr Pickwick that there are a couple of Sawbones downstairs.  Mr Pickwick was not quite certain whether a "sawbone" was a live animal or something to eat.  Sam enlightens him by explaining that these are surgeons whom Mr Pickwick is introduced to at breakfast.  Mr Benjamin Allen and Mr Bob Sawyer are actually medical students who proceed to discuss medical procedures over breakfast. 

After lunch the party decide to go skating as the weather continues to be fine and frosty.  Mr Winkle is persuaded to put on a pair of skates but needs Sam's help to get going as he can't skate.  Mr Pickwick calls to Sam that he wants him so "with a violent effort, Mr Weller disengaged himself from the grasp of the agonised Pickwickian, and in so doing, administered a considerable impetus to the unhappy Mr Winkle.  With an accuracy which no degree of dexterity or practice could have insured, that unfortunate gentleman bore swiftly down into the centre of the reel, at the very moment when Mr Bob Sawyer was performing a flourish of unparalleled beauty.  Mr Winkle struck wildly against him, and with a loud crash they both fell heavily down."  Mr Pickwick instructed to take Mr Winkle's skates off, calling him "a humbug."

The comedy continues as Mr Pickwick joins the others in going down a slide. "The sport was at its height, the sliding was at the quickest, the laughter was at the loudest, when a sharp smart crack was heard.  There was a quick rush towards the bank, a wild scream from the ladies, and a shout from Mr Tupman.  A large mass of ice disappeared; the water bubbled up over it; Mr Pickwick's hat, gloves, and handkerchief were floating on the surface; and this was all of Mr Pickwick that anyone could see."  Fortunately, the water is not too deep, so Mr Pickwick is able to get back onto dry land. 
The party broke up the next day with Mr Sawyer issuing an invitation to Mr Pickwick and his friends to visit him at his lodgings in London.

Chapter 31"is all about the law".  In this chapter Mr Pickwick's friends are given subpoenas by Mr Jackson from Dodson and Fogg.  Mr Pickwick asks Jackson is "it is the intention of your employers to seek to criminate me upon the testimony of my own friends."  Jackson does not reply.  Sam too is served with a subpoena but not before asking what that is in English.
The next day Mr Pickwick and Sam set off for Gray's Inn Square.  Sam points out that the 14th
of February, the day set for the court case, is a "reg'lar good day for a breach o' promise trial" as it is Valentine's Day.  Mr Pickwick does not think this is funny! Mr Pickwick tries to assure his lawyer, Mr Perker, of his innocence but Perker asks "who is to prove this?"  It becomes clear that Sam has been called to prove that Mr Pickwick was trying to make some offer to Mrs Bardell.  However Mr Perker does not think that "many counsel could get a great deal out of Sam."  Mr Pickwick is horrified to find out that if the action goes against him he will have to pay damages.  He says, "I beg to announce to you, my unalterable determination to pay no damages whatever."  The chapter ends with Mr Pickwick demanding to see Serjeant Snubbin who is going to defend him in court. The Serjeant does not seem particularly interested in Mr Pickwick's case, dismissing him "and was once more deeply immersed in the case before him: which arose out of an interminable lawsuit, originating in the act of an individual, deceased a century or so ago, who had stopped up a pathway leading from some place which nobody every came from, to some other place which nobody every went to."
Chapter 32 describes "a Bachelor's Party, given by Mr Bob Sawyer at his Lodgings".  These lodgings are in Lant Street which Dickens describes as follows: "the chief features of the still life of this street are green shutters, lodging-bills, brass door-plates, and bell-handles; the principal specimens of animated nature, the pot-boy, the muffin youth, and the baked-potato man.  The population is migratory, usually disappearing on the verge of quarter-day, and generally by night.  His Majesty's revenues are seldom collected in the happy valley; the rents are dubious; and the water communication is very frequently cut off."

As has already been hinted at, many people living in this street are in debt and often do not pay their debts.  Mr Sawyer is in debt to his landlady, Mrs Raddle who becomes upset when his friend calls her "an unreasonable woman" when she asks for the rent.  At this point Mr Pickwick and his friends arrive, followed by some other visitors.  There is drinking and card playing and the company become more and more boisterous as the evening progresses until the landlady tells Mr Sawyer to "turn them wretches out".  On seeing Mr Pickwick, she informs him that he was old enough to be his grand-father and was worse than any of them.    
Although this is a funny chapter, it also highlights the common practice in Victorian times of living "on tick" with no regard to how this affected the tradespeople who also had bills to pay.  This instalment introduces two themes which were to feature frequently in Dickens' later writing - the law, especially the time many cases took to be resolved, and the problem of debt.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Death of the Demon by Anne Holt

Death of the Demon is the third book in the Hanne Wilhemsen series featuring the Norwegian detective.  Hanne has now been promoted to Chief Inspector but seems to have difficulty delegating tasks and keeping her whole team involved.  She is reprimanded by her superior and seems to accept his criticism. However she doesn't seem to change as she gives the two young detectives tedious work to do while she pursues other leads with Billy T, who has now left the drug squad to join her team. Hanne seem to be missing Hakon, the police attorney who worked with her in the previous books.

In this book the director of a children's home has been murdered and there are lot of suspects including her husband, her lover, members of staff and one of the children, Olav who has gone missing.  In addition to the investigation of the murder, we also find out quite a lot about Olav who has special needs and his mother's difficulties with him.  Although she wanted help, she was unhappy when Olav was taken away from her.  I thought the problem of their relationship was well described and I liked like the technique of giving a voice to the mother so we begin to understand the challenges of bringing up a child with special needs.  Olav is also given a voice so we can begin to understand his difficulties.
In this book we find out a little more about Hanne's relationship with her long term partner, Cecilie and that Cecilie wants them to have a child but Hanne is against this proposal but we don't know why.  
I felt the ending was ambiguous and I was left wondering who actually committed the murder although this did not detract from my enjoyment of the book.  I won't spoil this for people who haven't read the book yet.  I like the way Hanne is developing as a character in this series but Billy T is my favourite!  I am certainly planning to read more books in this series.


The Pickwick Papers chapters 27-29

We have now reached the half-way point in The Pickwick Papers and I am finally enjoying the book.  Perhaps this is because I am now getting to know the characters or simply accepting that this book is different from Dickens' later novels.   

It is now nearly Christmas and Mr Pickwick and his friends are preparing to go to Dingley Dell for the wedding.  Before going there Sam asks Mr Pickwick's permission to go to Dorking to visit his father and step-mother (called his mother-in-law in the book).  When he arrives at The Marquis of Granby Sam finds his step-mother seated beside the fire in the bar with "a red-nosed man, with a long, thin countenance, and a semi-rattlesnake sort of eye".  Sam suspects that this man is the deputy shepherd of whom his father had spoken.

Mr Weller arrives and enjoys a drink and a smoke with his son.  The main topic of their conversation is the red-nosed man who seems to be very good at extracting money from women on the pretext of sending handkerchiefs to little children in Africa.  He frequently borrows money which he does not pay back.  As Mr Weller states, "The worst o' these here shepherds is, my boy, that they reg' larly turns the heads of all the young ladies, about here."

Chapter 28 is described as "a good-humoured Christmas Chapter, containing an account of a Wedding, and some other sports beside."  This is indeed a lovely read for this time of year.  As Dickens says, "Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fire-side and his quiet home!"

Mr Wardle's servant "the fat boy" is still as fat and lazy as ever although Sam tries to warn him about what will happen if he does not curb his eating by telling him a
moral tale about a fat man who gets his watch stolen.

The marriage of Isabella Wardle to Mr Trundle goes off successfully and Mr Pickwick's name can still be seen in the register.  The wedding party return to Manor Farm where they enjoy a hearty wedding breakfast at the end of which Mr Pickwick proposes a toast to the happy couple and to Mr Wardle whom he describes as "a kind, excellent, independent-spirited, fine-hearted, hospitable, liberal man" at which there is enthusiastic applause from the poor relations!

The celebrations continue on Christmas Eve with a party for the whole household held in the kitchen.  "From the centre of the ceiling of this kitchen, old Wardle had just suspended, with his own hands, a huge branch of mistletoe, and this same branch of mistletoe instantaneously gave rise to a scene of general and most delightful struggling and confusion; in the midst of which, Mr Pickwick, with a gallantry that would have done honour to a descendant of Lady Tollimglower herself, took the old lady by the hand, led her beneath the mystic branch, and saluted her in all courtesy and decorum."

The party continued with stories and songs around the fire which leads us to the next chapter - The Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton.  There are many similarities between this story and A Christmas Carol which Dickens wrote a few years later.   Gabriel Grub is a grave-digger and sexton who is "a morose and lonely man, who consorted with nobody but himself, and an old wicker bottle which fitted into his large deep waistcoat pocket."  He is going to dig a grave on Christmas Eve and feeling particularly low walking through the village with "the cheerful light of the blazing fires" shining from the houses as he passes.  He sits down on an old tombstone to take a drink from his bottle when he hears a voice nearby.  The description of the graveyard is excellent.  "The cold hoar-frost  glistened on the tombstones, and sparkled like rows of gems, among the stone carvings of the old church.  The snow lay hard and crisp upon the ground; and spread over the thickly-strewn mounds of earth, so white and smooth a cover, that it seems as if corpses lay there, hidden only by their winding sheets."  The voice belongs to a strange creature whom Gabriel realises does not belong to this world.  "The goblin looked as if he has sat on the same tombstone very comfortably, for two or three hundred years." 

The king of the goblins showed Gabriel pictures of how other people lived - the pictures of the poor family are very similar to the those shown to Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.  As the night wore on, Gabriel "saw that men like himself, who snarled at the mirth and cheerfulness of others, were the foulest weeds on the fair surface of the earth; and setting all the good of the world against the evil, he came to the conclusion that it was a very decent and respectable sort of world after all."  Following his meeting with the goblins, Gabriel was a changed man but decided he could not stay in the village but went away only returning when he was an old man.  Not everyone believed the tale he told of how he met the goblins on Christmas Eve.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

The Pickwick Papers chapters 24-26

In chapter 24 Mr Magnus successfully proposes to his lady friend having followed Mr Pickwick's advice.  Mr Magnus takes Mr Pickwick to meet his betrothed - she is the middle aged lady in the yellow curl-papers!  She screams when she recognises Mr Pickwick but neither would explain how they knew each other.  Mr Magnus becomes jealous and an argument ensues.  The lady decides to go to the local magistrate and informs him that the two men are going to fight a duel.  Mr Pickwick and Mr Trotter are arrested but Mr Pickwick "resolutely protested against making his appearance in the public streets" so they are taken to the magistrate in a sedan chair which provides some entertainment for the local inhabitants.  "In this order they reached the magistrate's house; the chairmen trotting, the prisoners following, Mr Pickwick oratorising, and the crowd shouting."

Chapter 25 describes the meeting with the magistrate. The procession stops at the green gate from which Job Trotter had emerged earlier.  This was the house of the magistrate, Mr Nupkins.  With Sam's intervention the matter is quickly settled. Mr Pickwick asks to speak to the magistrate privately and warns him about Captain Fitz-Marshall who has befriended the magistrate's wife and daughter explaining that this is the scoundrel Jingle.  Mr Pickwick and his friends are invited to stay for dinner to ascertain if this man is Jingle. Meanwhile Sam is making friends with the servants below stairs.  Finally Jingle and Trotter are thrown out of the house while Sam takes some time to find his hat needing some help from the pretty housemaid to find it.

Chapter 26 is a short one in which Sam goes to visit Mrs Bardell to pay Mr Pickwick's outstanding rent and collect his belongings.  Mrs Bardell is entertaining two friends who worry that Sam will be invited to stay for supper.  Sam learns that the court action will be going ahead in February or March. "Mr Pickwick was fain to prepare for his Christmas visit to Dingley Dell, with the pleasant anticipation that some two or three months afterwards, an action brought against him for damages sustained by reason of a breach of promise of marriage, would be publicly tried in the Court of Common Pleas; the plaintiff having all the advantages derivable, not only from the force of circumstances, but from the sharp practice of Dodson and Fogg to boot."

The Pickwick Papers chapters 21-23

The last chapter ended with Mr Pickwick settling down to hear about the Inns of Court.  At the beginning of chapter 21 he says, "I was observing what singular old places they are."  The old man says contemptuously, "What do you know of the time when young men shut themselves up in those lonely rooms, and read and read, hour after hour, and night after night, till their reason wandered beneath their midnight studies; till their mental powers were exhausted; till morning's light brought no freshness or health to them; and they sank beneath unnatural elevation of their youthful energies to their dry old bones?"

The old man then continues with a Tale about the Queer Client.  This is a sad story about a man who has ended up in the debtors' prison, Marshalsea.  Every day he is visited by his young wife and child. Time passes and his child becomes ill and dies.  "It was plain to those who looked upon the mother's altered face that death must soon follow the scene of her adversity and trial."  After his wife dies, the man promises to revenge those who have caused the deaths of his wife and child.  When he gets out of prison he keeps his promise.  The tone of this chapter was much more serious than previous ones showing Dickens as a social commentator, a role he would develop further in his later books.

Chapter 22 provides some light relief as Pickwick continues his journey to Ipswich on the trail of Jingle.  Pickwick makes the acquaintance of Mr Peter Magnus who worries constantly about his luggage.  The gentlemen stop at an inn which is "known far and wide by the appellation of the great White Horse, rendered the more conspicuous by a stone statue of some rapacious animal with flowing mane and tail, distantly resembling an insane cart horse, which is elevated above the principal door." 

Mr Magnus confides to Mr Pickwick that he is going to Ipswich to propose to a lady in the morning. After enjoying a convivial meal with his new friend, Mr Pickwick decides to go to bed.  However, before retiring for the night, he discovers he has left his watch downstairs.  The inn is very old and has numerous twisting corridors.  Eventually Mr Pickwick finds his watch but has some difficulty finding his way back to his bedroom.  "A dozen times did he softly turn the handle of some bedroom door which resembled his own, when a gruff cry from within of  'Who the devil's that?' or 'What do you want here?' caused him to steal away, on tiptoe, with a perfectly marvellous celerity." Finally he reaches his own bedroom and is getting ready for bed when he realises another person has entered the room.  This is a middle aged lady in yellow curl-papers.  What ensues is really funny as Pickwick beats a swift retreat.  Luckily Sam finds him and takes him back to his own room saying, "You rayther want somebody to look arter you, sir, wen your judgement goes out a wisitin'."

In chapter 23 Sam goes out for an early morning walk in the vicinity of the inn "when the green gate of a garden at the bottom of the yard, opened, and a man having emerged therefrom, closed the green gate very carefully after him, and walked briskly towards the very spot where Mr Weller was standing."  When the man sees Sam, he starts to contort his face "into the most fearful and astonishing grimaces."  However Sam still recognises the man as Job Trotter whom he had met previously in Jingle's company.  Trotter does not give any information about his master but does divulge that he has been visiting the cook at the house with the green gate.  Sam and Trotter agree to meet at the Great White Horse at 8 o'clock that evening.  Sam returns to the inn and informs Mr Pickwick that he has found them -  "that 'ere queer customer, and the melan-cholly chap with the black hair." Sam outlines his plan but we need to wait for the next instalment to find out what happens.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Blind Goddess by Anne Holt

Blind Goddess is the first book in the series featuring detective Hanne Wilhelmsen and Håkon Sand, police attorney.  This book was published in Norway in 1993 but only translated into English in 2012. 

Karen Borg, a commercial lawyer, finds a body in an Oslo park when she is out running with her dog. When the police arrest the suspect, a young Dutchman, he asks for Karen to represent him regardless of the fact that she is not a criminal lawyer.  As the story unfolds we find out that there is corruption at the highest levels of Norwegian society.

Although the book was written in an age before mobile phones and computers, this did not detract from the story.  In fact it showed how much police work is very mundane and boring and dependent on human intuition and ability.  The book illustrated some differences between the Norwegian legal system and the British one.

I liked the character of Hanne – she seemed to be very efficient but also caring.  She is quite a mystery to the rest of her colleagues who know nothing about her private life and Hanne is keen to keep it that way.  None of her colleagues know that her partner is a woman.  The author provides very little personal information about Hanne except that she has a pink Harley-Davidson motor bike.  I look forward to finding out more about Hanne as the series progresses.
Although the book was a little slow in the middle section, the pace speeded up towards the end as Hanne and Håkon rush out to the country to get to Karen before the murderer does.

The title comes from the statuette of Lady Justitia which stands on the Commissioner’s desk.  At the end of the book Håkon gets a present of a similar statuette from Karen and the final words in the book are, “The Goddess of Justice had peeped out from behind her thick blindfold.  She had gazed straight at him with one eye, and he could swear that for a split second she had winked.  And smiled.  A wry, enigmatic smile.”  An interesting ending!


Thursday, 12 January 2017

Murder at the Old Vicarage by Jill McGown

Murder at the Old Vicarage by Jill McGown was the January read for the Saturday Slaughters book group at the Orkney Library.  The group became famous on social media recently as J K Rowling surprised the group by joining them for the discussion of one of her books.

This book is the second book in the series featuring the duo of police officers - Chief Inspector Lloyd and Sergeant Judy Hill.  The book was published in 1988 under the title Redemption and re-released in 2008. My copy was published by Pan Heritage Classics Books in 2015.  According to the publisher's information this book is "Jill McGown's classic homage to Agatha Christie, with a decidedly uncosy twist."

The setting is a vicarage in a small English village at Christmas time.  The inhabitants of the vicarage are the vicar, George Wheeler, his wife Marion and their daughter Joanna who has recently left her husband.  The vicar is suffering from a crisis of faith and is also having doubts about his marriage as he has become infatuated with a woman who has recently moved into the village.  On Christmas Eve the family return to the vicarage to find the body of Joanna's husband in a bedroom.  He has been brutally murdered and the family are all suspects. 

What I liked about the book:-
  • The character of DCI Lloyd - he was an ordinary man unlike many fictional detectives nowadays
  • The story was well plotted with lots of false trails 
  • There were only a few characters which made the story easy to follow
  • It was not too bloodthirsty 
I did find the timings a little complicated although essential to solving the murder.  I found Judy Hill annoying at times as she seemed to be unable to make any decision about her relationship with Lloyd. Perhaps this is resolved in later books.

The author died in 2007 having written 13 Lloyd and Hill novels.  I enjoyed this book, which was an excellent read for the time of year, and I will certainly read more in the series.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Back to the Classics Challenge 2017

I have decided to enter the Back to the Classics Challenge this year which is organised by Karen from the Books and Chocolate blog.  Here are the books I am planning to read for this challenge - list updated in October.

A 19th century classic – The Old Curiosity Shop by CharlesDickens

A 20th century classic – A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

A classic by a woman authorAgnes Grey by Anne Bronte

A classic in translation
The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov

A classic published before 1800Hamlet by William Shakespeare

A romance classic Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte 

A Gothic or horror classic – Lois the Witch by Elizabeth Gaskell

A classic with a number in the title – Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennet 

A classic about an animal or which includes the name of an animal in the title – Lord of the Flies  by William Golding

A classic set in a place you'd like to visit - Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

An award-winning classic – A Passage to India by E M Foster (James Black Tait Award 1924)

A Russian classicThree Sisters by Anton Chekhov (2017 will be the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution)