The pursued- C S Forester 

I picked this book up at random from the library just before Christmas and I’ve only just got round to reading it. I’ve read a few of Forester’s Hornblower books, but because I never enjoyed them as much as Alexander Kent’s Bolitho series I never really made an effort to seek his books out.

This one caught my attention because it wasn’t a Hornblower book. I wasn’t aware that Forester had written several crime novels. This one was referred to as his ‘lost novel’ as a variety of circumstances meant it wasn’t published until 2011, a good many years after it was first written in 1935.

It’s quite a brutal, chilling novel. Marjorie arrives home to find her sister dead’ apparently it’s a suicide. But their mother suspects differently and eventually they realise Marjorie’s husband is responsible. The book chronicles how they deal with this.

The storytelling is interesting, in that whilst it’s told through Marjorie’s point of view it’s actually the story of her mother that you are reading.

This is not for the feint hearted, there are some quite disturbing scenes in the book. However it’s a fascinating read and an interesting glimpse into middle class life in the 1930s.

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The methods of Sergeant Cluff – Gil North

I am a big fan of the British Library crime classics and so this one sort of fell into my shopping bag the other day, via the till to pay I should point out, despite the fact I’ve bought so many books already this month I really should stop.

Its thinner than most of them, although it is priced slightly lower, which is good to note. It’s actually the second Sergeant Cluff story they have published and I hadn’t read the first, but decided it probably didn’t matter.

After reading it I think it might have mattered. The first story is referred to several times, and there does seem to be an assumption that the reader will have read it. Possibly if I had done certain things might have been a bit less incomprehensible.

As a vivid description of a northern farming area turned mill town its excellent. North really brings the town and the inhabitants to life, and from that perspective its an excellent read, giving a glimpse into a different lifestyle.

As a detective/crime novel its slightly lacking though. Much of the dialogue is confusing, its hard to tell who is talking to who, and the scene may cut to two totally different characters suddenly so the last sentence is spoken by someone else entirely.

Cluff doesn’t really do any detecting. He seems to wander around, sleeping in random places, and waiting for people to come to him. There is a decent plot twist at the end, but it’s mostly a twist because Cluff doesn’t have a clue.

Will I go back and read the first one? Possibly. It reads almost in the second like Cluff is suffering from depression from the first book so it might be interesting to see why. And for the descriptions of the places and the people of the time its worth reading, plus who doesn’t love a good detectives dog, possibly the best character in the book.

 

Cotillion – Georgette Heyer

This was picked at random out of a collection of Georgette Heyer’s when I was rush out the other day and needed a book in my handbag as a just in case book. As it happened I didn’t need it (we seemed to be plagued to sit in traffic jams last year and I got a bit frustrated the second time in a week when I didn’t have a book with me.

When I got home I decided to re read it anyway. This has never been one of my favourite Georgette Heyer’s and when I re read it I couldn’t think why. For some reason this time, and it’s probably  about the 7th time I’ve read it, I’ve suddenly realised how good it is.

There’s no strong dashing hero for the heroine to fall in love with, Freddie is considered a bit of a fool by his family. Jack, who could be a strong dashing hero is instead a bit of a cad.

Whilst Kitty, whilst determined, lacks some of the strong minded independent streak that some of my favorites Heyer heroines have, such as the grand Sophy, or Fredricia.

However I like the slow build in this story, the gradual romance. There’s less dictatorial passion and a more protective kindness. The resulting couple would be a blaze of glory, but actually this is one of Heyer’s pairings that I could really see resulting in longstanding happiness.

So this quieter, but rather charming book, has inched its way up the list into one of my favourite Heyer’s, one of the ones I’ll reach for when I’m ill or in need of a comforting pick me up.

The subtle knife – Philip Pullman 

This is the second instalment in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, and I enjoyed it far less than the first. In fact once I finished it I remembered that I never actually bothered with the third one as a child.

I didn’t mind the change of point of view from Lyra to Will, and I enjoyed seeing things from other secondary characters points of view. But there are too many characters to keep track of easily, I prefer David Eddings who usually keeps his numbers down to 5 or 6 in the main group.

There were also several new worlds introduced in this book and at times it what hard to remember who was doing what in each world.

The motivations behind the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides are vast and a bit incomprehensible. The whole thing is turning into a theological debate and I think I should have read some Milton first.

I will try to persevere this time and read the third book, just to see what happens, but I hope it recovers the charm, consistency and direction of the first instalment. This one seemed to go everywhere at once and achieve very little.

Silent nights – edited by Martin Edwards

I came across the British Library Crime classics a few months ago and since then have bought about 8 or so, there three of them recently as they are Christmas themed in one way or another.

These Books, being republished by the British Library, were all written in ‘The golden age of crime writing’ around the 1920s and 1930s, and whilst it would be rather odd to match my reading to my favourite furniture, also of that era, apparently that’s what I’ve been subconsciously doing recently between these and F Scott Fitzgerald.

Some of the books in the series are better than others but I haven’t found any I don’t like at all. This one is made up of short stories, starting with a Sherlock Holmes one, and like all collections of short stories it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

The stories included are:

  • The blue carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Parlour tricks by Ralph Plummer
  • A happy solution by Raymond Allen
  • The flying stars by G.K. Chesterton
  • Stuffing by Edgar Wallace
  • The unknown murderer by H.C. Bailey
  • The absconding treasurer by J. Jefferson Farjeon
  • The necklace of pearls by Dorothy L. Sayers
  • The case is altered by Margery Allingham
  • Waxworks by Ethel Lina White
  • Cambric tea by Marjorie Bowen
  • The Chinese apple by Joseph Shearling
  • A problem in white by Nicholas Blake
  • The name on the window by Edmund Crispin
  • Beef for Christmas by Leo Bruce

Rather than go into all the stories in detail I am just going to say a bit more about my top three favourites and my least favourite.

My top three favourites are:

Waxworks – there isn’t a clever crime in this one, but it does build an amazing amount of tension and suspense for such a short story. A reporter staying the night in a seemingly deserted waxwork museum. Is her mind playing tricks on her or is one of the waxworks really someone out to kill her?

The unknown murderer – this story cleverly links three apparently unconnected murders and does it in an elegant way. Whilst I did have a suspicion who the murderer was going to be it was nevertheless a good read.

A problem in white – a train journey goes wrong when snow on the line halts the train and a man is murdered. It seems like practically all the characters mentioned could have been responsible for the murder, and in fact the story itself doesn’t tell you who did it, although there is a solution in the back if you can’t work it out. It wasn’t an obvious answer and I couldn’t guess it from the start. Skillfully written.

My least favourite story is:

A happy solution – I have a feeling this story is a lot cleverer than I realise, but not being a chess player most of the subtlety and intrigue is lost on me. It’s still worth a read as a non chess player but its frustrating to not be able to quite get the point.

I find short story collections a but hard to get into sometime. Just as I’m developing a feel for a character and really starting to get into a story it stops and I have to start all over again. I tend to have to push myself to finish books of short stories and this was no exception but that’s not to discredit the book, just an indication of my tastes.

Whilst the stories are all round Christmas in one way or another, its importance varies throughout the book as do the setting and types of crime stories. It’s a well thought out collection and has introduced me to a few new (to me) authors I would like to read more of.

Winter Holiday – Arthur Ransome 

This was my own choice for January reading and it was a bit of light relief after The Power.

This was also the first time since childhood that I have read one of Arthur Ransome’s books and I remembered how much I enjoyed them as a child. Winter Holiday never came my way before, so the story was new to me, although of course some of the characters weren’t.

At 484 pages this is not a young child’s book although there is a strong feel of the famous five about it at times. Children going off and having adventures by themselves, or in this case sometimes with Captain Flint, and getting into all sorts of trouble.

Like the famous five it is very much a book of its time with a certain amount of innate sexism (the girls are there to do the cooking etc) bit less so I think than the famous five.

I don’t think this would be my favourite book of the series, although Dick’s character’s fun, I’m less fond of Dorothea, it almost seems like she was added to the story to show what real ‘little girls’ are like, to highlight how much better Susan, Nancy etc are.

There’s also quite a lot of hanging around in the book. Whilst they do get up to some excitement in the meantime the main part of the adventure is all in the last few chapters, and the tests consists of them waiting for it to happen. This is mostly due to a rogue case of mumps, but does slow the book down a bit.

Despite all this I found the story thoroughly enjoyable and it awakened my love of Swallows and Amazon’s. At some point soon I need to read the series again and discover the few books I didn’t read the first time around.

It does help that I’ve seen some of the books with the most beautiful covers. Whilst I try not to judge a book by its cover it’s hard not to want to read one that looks like this:

The Power – Naomi Alderman

This is the Mumsnet book club’s fiction choice for January. I started reading it without knowing what it was going to be about although I had a vague idea that it was a dystopian book of some kind.

It tells the story of four people, three women and one man, over several years when women develop “the power” which gives them a physical advantage over men and totally changes the balance of political and personal power in the world.

The first half is easy to get behind, reading about women who have been trafficked  as sex slaves using their power against the men who imprison them, or teenage girls using it to push away boys trying it on a little bit to far with them. You feel like getting behind them, and believing in what they are doing.

Then slowly everything gets darker, more violent. Seen through the eyes of the male journalist who is initially a strong supporter of these women but who discovers that being an attractive man in a world where women have all the power is not always a good thing, his views echo the path the book takes.

This is well written in most places, although I found the emails on the end pages a bit clunky and obvious, and the writing got a bit chaotic and lost steam towards the end almost as if the author did the same. This may have been for effect, for the story, but I wasn’t a fan of that part.

What the book did do well was leave me feeling confused, disturbed and even a little angry, not at the book, or the author or myself, just angry. It’s thought provoking and terrifying and as a woman really makes you think very hard about yourself deep down. There have been, and still are, countless atrocities against women simply because men have greater physical power. There is still an imbalance in society as a whole no matter how hard we work towards equality. The book makes you question though whether if women suddenly got a greater physical power would we be better leaders? Would we be less violent, more nurturing, more peaceful. Or would we in fact commit as many attrocities on men as we could, simply because we could.

I don’t know whether the book got the answer to that right. Lets face it, no one has the answer. After reading it though I feel less sure of my own views on this. This is one hell of a thought provoking book. At the end there is a footnote/comment about a couple of archeological finds mentioned in the book, this to sums up a lot about equality, and where we stand with it at the moment:

The book refers to an archeological find of a soapstone head as the Serving boy and a bronze female figure as the Priestess Queen. These are based on real archeological finds from a society which was probably fairly equal for men and women. The author writes:

despite the lack of  context, the archeologists who unearthed them called the soapstone head illustrated ‘Priest King’ while they named the bronze female figure ‘Dancing girl’. They’re still called by those names. Sometimes I think the whole of this book could be communicated with just this set of facts and illustrations.’

I think she’s right, but I’m still glad she wrote the book instead.

 

Northern lights – Philip Pullman

No, I didn’t start this one before the New Year but I might not have done much except for read this morning…

Northern Lights is about a young girl called Lyra, who runs wild at a University where she has been left by her Uncle. Her childhood starts off seemingly innocently enough but her strange, slightly wild, upbringing drags her into a situation where she sees someone try to poison her uncle.

Saving him sets a train of events in motion, acting as a catalyst to throw Lyra from her comfortable safe environment of a University in Oxford all the way up North to Alaska, and at the end of the book, to beyond.

The story has a habit of unfurling slowly, even though its action packed, its starts off seeming like each event is dependant on the previous one, and that they are seemingly coincidental, yet as the book progresses it seems destiny rather than free will is the winner.

The story is set in a world that seems familiar and at the same time very different, its Oxford, yet not as we know it. It also left me wishing it was possible for us to have a daemon (a creature/animal which is separate to the human but also part of them, almost like an external soul). I’m sure life would be more interesting if my cat could come everywhere with me, although I have a feeling its my tortoise I resemble more!

The writing is clean, although a little too descriptive for my taste occasionally. The book tells us that Lyra is one thing, but her actions show her to be slightly different sometimes, but overall it didn’t let down my childhood memory of it. In fact the first thing I did when I finished was by the second in the series, The subtle knife. If I finish all my January reading this fast I might squeeze this one in too.

January reading

I have a list of five books lined up for January currently:

Work book club -a group of us in my work place recently set up a bookclub and Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman was chosen out of a hat (M&S extra strong mint tin). I have read this once before but as a child and I don’t remember the story, although I do remember being engrossed by it at the time so I am looking forward to revisiting this one.

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I am joining in with the Mumsnet book club this year for the first time ever, reading the books at least, I always seem to have problems logging in to talk on their forums. This is their fiction book for January, I have no idea what its about, I didn’t even read the blurb, I just decided to go in with an open mind.

thepower

This is the Mumsnet non fiction book for January. I’m not really a non fiction reader but I figured there was no harm in giving this one a go. I have heard of it and its sounds less out there than the Kondo does an item give you joy stuff thats out there, personally my ironing board does not give me joy, but I’m not sure that’s good grounds to get rid of it! I’ll see if this is any more useful, although in fairness I am a fairly neat organised person anyway, but its always good to pick up a few extra tips and tricks.

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I’ve found a few websites with prompts for this year, and I’ve combined several to create a list of 12, some challenging, some easier for me to follow this year. January’s is to read a book you like the cover of, and as I have been collecting the Penguin F scott Fitzgerald books recently, and this one is on its way to me courtesy of my annual Waterstones voucher off my Mil (one of my favorite Chrsitmas presents as always) I am going with This side of paradise. I am hoping to do a collection review on this set soon, I only have one more to buy, but I need to finish some of the others first. If you haven’t seen this Penguin collection it’s worth looking them up, the covers are simply beautiful, some of the nicest books I have in my collection.

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Finally I am going to try to throw in a wild card/own choice book each month, and January’s is going to be Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome. I recently had a bundle of Christmas books turn up from the Book People and this was in here. I know Christmas will be properly over and done with by the time I get chance to read this but I am looking forward to it. This is one of my favorite childhood authors so I am pretty sure I will at least enjoy this book out of my January reading, and its probably going to be the light relief thats needed!

I’m planning on using this set up to read five books a month this year, which is 60 books guaranteed, although I tend to read more like 100-150 a year, but I might not review everything I read, some will be old, well read favourites.

Is anyone else planning their book club reading this year, or following along with Mumsnet or a book prompt?

More Christmas books

I’ve been reading more Christmas books over the holiday, starting with the rest of the collection from last time:

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This one begins with one of my favorite chapters out of Little Women, and then goes on with some short stories from this author, one of my childhood favorites, that I hadn’t read before. These are all simple stories, well told, with sweet morals and full of old fashioned charm. They might not appeal so much to everyone nowadays but they brought back a childhood Christmas nostalgia for me and I found it a very enjoyable read.

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This is the ‘real’ story of the night before Christmas apparently, and whilst these books are aimed at children, this one is less sweetly old fashioned and innocent than some of the others. It’s a familiar story, poor b0y meets rich girl, falls in love, then throw in a prostitute, the devil and a fabulous pair of shoes, and have a happy Christmas eve! Despite not being what I expected I possibly found this the most enjoyable of the books, but I would vet it first if you plan on giving it to younger children.

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Whilst I have seen the ballet (Moscow City Ballet years ago) I’d never actually read the story of the nutcracker before. This was an enjoyable read although a bit preoccupied by peoples looks and I could never quite tell if all the people in the book were in fact toys. I enjoyed it but its probably my least favorite out of the set, I think I preferred the ballet version.

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This is a charming story, all about the ‘real’ Santa Claus. Its a nice easy read, suitable for younger ones and ready to make us all believe in Santa again. I found it slightly slow starting, but a quick read once it got going.

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I definitely enjoyed some of the stories more than others in this collection, not that any of them dragged, but some flew by, especially the title story. This one seemed aimed at slightly older children, and has more involved stories that were less sweet and simple, but very interesting and varied. A good read although not my favorite.

So there you go some of my Christmas reading, there was more and not all of it was children’s books I promise! I did really enjoy the chance to read some old favorites and make some new ones though. This set is very aesthetically pleasing to read and has a good, quite random, selection of Christmas stories. Definitely worth the purchase and ones I will probably re read each Christms time.