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)

The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

I decided to re-read the fairy story The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen for the Literary Christmas Challenge.  The original story was published in New Fairy Tales in December 1844.  I loved this story as a child and I found a copy in my local library with beautiful illustrations by P J Lynch.  I have a fascination with the culture and traditions of the Far North so this book seemed to be very appropriate.

The story in my book was retold from the original English version by Caroline Peachey.  The structure of the story is simple but effective following Gerda in her search for her friend Kay.  The illustrations are superb especially the drawings of the Snow Queen showing her as beautiful but cold and terrifying.  I particularly liked the picture of Gerda riding through the forest on the back of the reindeer with the sky illuminated by the Northern Lights.

The Snow Queen contains all the ingredients of a traditional fairy story. There are two children, one of whom is captured by a wicked queen.  The other child goes in search of her friend, being helped along the journey by animals and birds who can speak. She meets an enchantress in a forest and is captured by robbers but helped to escape by the robber-maiden. This is a story of good and evil - the love of Gerda for her friend overcoming the evil which lodged in his heart when it was pierced by a splinter from a magic mirror.  The story has a happy ending as Kay and Gerda return home to find they are now grown up but are "yet children at heart - and it was summer, beautiful warm summer".
I didn't realise there was such an overtly religious dimension to this story with a refrain which is repeated throughout the book
"Our roses bloom and fad away,
Our infant Lord abides alway;
May we be blessed His face to see,
And ever little children be."

I'm sure it is possible to analyse this story in greater depth but I think I will leave it there - I enjoyed being transported back to a favourite tale of my childhood.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime, wrote 66 crime novels and 14 short story collections, many featuring the detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.

I chose to read Hercule Poirot's Christmas, which was published in 1938, for the Literary Christmas Challenge as it seemed very appropriate for the time of year.  In a letter at the beginning of the book, Christie writes to her brother-in-law that she hoped he liked the book as he had complained that her murders were becoming too refined and he wanted "a good violent murder with lots of blood!"  There is certainly plenty of blood in this novel both in the literal sense and in the ties which bind the family together.

The story takes place in a country house where a family has gathered for Christmas.  The house belongs to an elderly man, Simeon Lee, who lives there with his son Alfred and his wife Lydia.  Simeon has invited the rest of the family for Christmas including his son George who is an MP with his wife Magdalen and his other son David and his wife.  David has been estranged from his father after the death of his mother. The arrival of Harry, the eldest son and black sheep of the family surprises the family as does the arrival of  Pilar Estravados, Simeon's grand-daughter from Spain and Stephen Farr the son of Simeon's old partner from South Africa.

Simeon is not a nice man  - in his younger days he was a womaniser who treated his wife badly. The family gathering was going to be very tense as Simeon's sons, with the exception of Alfred, did not get on with their father.  On Christmas Eve, an awful scream is heard coming from Simeon's room - the door is locked from the inside and when it is broken down Simeon is found brutally murdered. Luckily Poirot is on holiday in the area and is able to help the police in their investigation.  The reader is provided with various clues, the significance of which Poirot explains at the end of the book.

I really enjoyed this "locked room mystery" and had no idea who the murderer was! The plotting was cleverly done and the characters were clearly portrayed - any one of them had a motive for killing Simeon Lee.

This was a most enjoyable read for the time of year.  Although I read a number of Agatha Christie novels many years ago, I am tempted to start reading them again.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was published in December 1843 by which time Dickens was already a successful author.  My copy was a Book Club edition which contained the original illustrations by John Leech.  The story of A Christmas Carol is very well-known with numerous film and TV adaptations being made.  Although I knew the story I had never read the original book.

The main character is the miser Scrooge who is described as "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" and "as solitary as an oyster."  The story starts on Christmas Eve but Scrooge does not enter into the spirit of Christmas saying "I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry."  When he gets home from work he is visited by the ghost of Marley, his former partner, who tell him he will be haunted by three spirits.  During the night these spirits come one at a time and show him his past, his present and what might happen in the future.  As we know, Scrooge was much moved by what he saw and determined to change his life saying, "I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all year."

Dickens' descriptions in this book are excellent with the cold and fog adding to the ghostly atmosphere.

"The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms."

"The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slyly down at Scrooge out a gothic window in the wall, became invisible, with tremulous vibrations afterwards, as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there.  The cold became intense."

A Christmas Carol was one of the books I decided to read for the Literary Christmas Challenge and was an excellent read for this time of year.  This book would be a good introduction to Dickens' novels for anyone who is put off by his longer books.  However I would encourage you to persevere as Dickens' books are well worth the effort.  If you are interested in finding out more about Charles Dickens a good website is David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page.