Monday 28 September 2009

The Cruellest Journey and N-F Five wrap-up

I suddenly realised that the finishing date for the Non-Fiction Five challenge, being hosted by Trish's Reading Nook, was rapidly approaching and I still only had four books read. So I took a quick look at the pile and chose The Cruellest Journey by Kira Salak to read.

Kira Salak is an American woman who apparently likes to go on crazy journeys. Her friends and family all think she's mad and even she admits to being a little bit insane. This book sees her deciding to follow in the footsteps of Mungo Park who, in 1795, set out on the first of his two journeys to chart the course of the river Niger in West Africa. Her plan is to do the bit from Ségou to Timbuktu in Mali, a trip of about 600 miles, by kayak. She knows full well how dangerous this journey will be. She's a white woman travelling alone in a Muslim country where, if the truth be known, things haven't changed much since Park undertook his trip. Added to that she has a pathological fear of hippos, of which there are a great many on this river.

Interesting stuff this one. I love a good travel book and this was a good one *except* I did wonder at times whether she wasn't just a trifle foolhardy. As she travels up river the various tribes she encounters become less and less friendly. Men seem to make a beeline for her, either for money or other, rather more obvious, reasons. She sees young men sporting T shirts bearing the image of Osama Bin Laden and it dawns on her that this is not just for fun. I understand wanting a challenge but to willingly put yourself into so much danger seems strange. Towards the end of the journey she makes this observation:

I decide to ignore the man and paddle as hard as I can. He runs after me for a while but finally gives up. So much for my fifteen minutes of in-the-moment bliss. The fear is back, sitting like a bad meal in my gut. Every time the river curves, I look ahead for sight of men lying in wait for me in canoes, the river getting more and more narrow. I realise, but without surprise, that I've lived with constant fear on this trip. Fear of being chased, assaulted, robbed. Fear of bad weather and waves that might capsize my boat. Lots of fear. Fear of the wind, of harsh storms. Fear of hippos, crocodiles. Fear of being harassed by young men in passing boats, or of having my things stolen if I stop at villages. Endless fear.

I understand the fascination with parts of Africa that are still a mystery but to put up with the things she did for not much of a reason, and not to even get much enjoyment or satisfaction out of it - I find that questionable. She did redeem herself at the end with certain actions and I did find her stance on the treatment of women and slaves in Mali laudable. I learnt a fair bit and I must say that the writing was beautiful. It was an interesting book all told, and I own Travels in the Interior of Africa by Mungo Park and plan to read that at some stage because Salak's book has made me curious about it. Plus Salak has written another travel book: Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea although, judging by one of the Amazon reviews, she was just as foolhardy on that trip too! I'll probably see if the library has that.

So, that was my fifth and final book for the Non-Fiction Five challenge. The books I read were:

Birds, Beasts and Relatives by Gerald Durrell (memoirs, nat. history)
Solomon Time by Will Randall (travel)
Trains and Buttered Toast by John Betjeman (essays)
On Hitler's Mountain by Irmgard Hunt (memoirs, history)
The Cruellest Journey by Kira Salak (travel)

I've enjoyed each and every one but if I had to choose a favourite it would be On Hitler's Mountain by Irmgard Hunt. Many thanks to Trish of Trish's Reading Nook for hosting the challenge and making me read some non-fiction!

Saturday 26 September 2009

Reading bliss

A cup of tea
A quiet nook
A cookie and
A picture book
A lump of sugar
On my spoon -
Now that's a perfect afternoon.

~~Eileen Spinelli~~

Sounds good to me... well maybe not the lump of sugar and I'm about to start The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield rather than a picture book... but still the essence of a nice quiet afternoon is in those words. Our grandson is spending the night with us tonight but until he arrives at five, I'm off for my 'perfect afternoon'.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Uncle Montague and Inspector Ghote

For the last week I've been reading two books along side each other, so it's only fitting that they be reviewed together, especially as I enjoyed both equally.

First up, it's Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror by Chris Priestly. I saw this in the library some months ago but at the time was not in the mood for 'spooky' and promptly forgot all about it. It was only when I saw this post of Carl's at Stainless Steel Droppings that I was reminded of the book and decided to get hold of it to read for Carl's R.I.P. IV challenge.

Edgar is a young boy who doesn't really gel that well with his mother and father. The only member of his family he feels any connection with is his Uncle Montague. He visits him regularly when he's not at school, having to endure a spooky walk through the woods in order to get to his uncle's even spookier house. Once there and settled in front of the fire with tea and biscuits, Uncle Montague regales the boy with tales of the macabre that always seem to be connected to some object in the room. A picture frame, a pair of binoculars, a wierd looking carved bench end and so forth. Slowly but surely Edgar begins to realise that there's some secret behind the tales that he can't quite grasp at...

Chris Priestley apparently wrote this book as a homage to ghost story writer, M.R. James ('Montague' was his christian name). It is in fact a book of short stories linked by a common theme, so short stories... but not exactly. Having read quite a lot of tales by M.R James I can say with all honesty that the 'homage' is a splendid one. Priestly has captured James's academic, ghostly writings perfectly and done what I would not have believed possible - turned them into a book for young adults. All the spookiness is there in spades but written in a very readable form. On the back cover of my copy is a small footnote, ' This is a seriously scary book - younger readers be warned!' And I would agree with that. My nine year old grandaughter could read this easily but I wouldn't give it to her for another three or four years as it's too frightening. Even I, sitting up in bed at midnight reading it, found myself looking around the room at times, and listening to noises after I'd turned out the light. Brilliant. And I don't say that lightly. And beautifully illustrated by David Roberts too. At the same time as I sent for this I also sent for Priestly's second book, Tales of Terror from the Black Ship and I'm finding it really, really hard to leave it alone and get on with other reading I need to do. If ever a book was calling to me...

Next up, Inspector Ghote's First Case by H.R.F. Keating. This was a random grab from the library; I was attracted by the idea of a crime book set in India. When I got home and checked FantasticFiction I discovered that the book I'd picked up was in fact book 25 in what is a very long series indeed.

Assistant Inspector Ghote of the Bombay police force and his wife, Protima, are expecting their first baby when a letter arrives informing him that he has been promted to Inspector. He is given a couple of weeks off before taking up his post but is all of a sudden summoned to the house of Sir Rustom Engineer, the first Indian after Independence to be made head of the police in India. Sir Rustom has received a letter from an old acquaintance, Robert Dawkins. It seems Dawkins' wife has committed suicide and he's desperate to find out why. He begs the help of Sir Rustom and Sir Rustom decides to send the newly promoted Inspector Ghote to Mahableshwar, in the foothills of the Himalayas, to investigate. Ghote discovers that Dawkins' house is called Primrose Cottage but there are no primroses, and the head manservant has far too many turbans than is strictly decent. And what does the gardener's boy know... and why has the local police inspector - a bully known to Ghote from police college days - closed the case so quickly? Things are not at all what they seem and Ghote has his work cut out in doing this favour for Sir Rustom.

The setting for this book is early sixties India and you get a real flavour of India at the time and the way in which Indians taking over from the British in key jobs were treated by Brits who decided to stay on. In a nutshell - not very well, by some of them at least. Keating's Inspector Ghote doesn't let this get to him though, he's a methodical man, if somewhat indecisive, destined by the sound of it to be a very good policeman. I found him charming and realistic, I could 'hear' his voice loud and clear throughout the book and loved his very human characteristics. It didn't matter at all that this was book 25 in the series, in a way I suspect this might be a good grounding to continue with the rest of the books, a sort of prequel if you like. Because, yes, I will continue with this series; I liked this book tremendously, it was charming and atmospheric and beautifully written and I can well see why H.R.F. Keating was a recipient of the CWA Diamond Dagger Award. Superb.

Inspector Ghote's First case is book 20 for my Support Your Local Library challenge which is being hosted by J. Kaye.

Friday 18 September 2009

North coast photos

It was a beautiful day yesterday and we weren't on grandson duty so my husband and I took off for the day. Our first port of call was the market at South Molton where we picked up local cheeses, new season's garlic, fruit and so on. I always look at the books there but this time found nothing I wanted. Not wanting to go straight home we picked up some sandwiches, bought sausage rolls from the WI stall and headed off to the North Devon coast for a picnic on the beach. We ended up at Northam Burrows which is just next to the town of Westward Ho! We sat here:

And this was the view of Hartland Point:

After a brief stroll we decided to visit Bideford, a town we haven't been to since we'd lived in North Devon from 1987 to 1995. When we got there however they were expecting the Round Britain bike race, had roads closed off and the traffic was chaotic so we made a swift exit! Drove down the coast for 40 minutes and ended up (it was one of those 'follow your nose' sort of days) in Bude in North Cornwall. We grabbed ice-creams from the café and discovered the coastal path up onto the downs, which we didn't know was there. That's the nice thing about Bude... the town itself is a bit unprepossessing, but the coast is full of nooks and cranies and there's always something new to be discovered.

At the top of the hill:

The town itself:

Looking west, down the coast. I'm not completely certain but I think the very last headland is probably King Arthur's castle at Tintagel. This pic puts me strongly in mind of Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper:

In this photo the communications satelites at Morwenstow are clearly visible on the far hill. The village itself is in such a beautiful wooded valley.

Always love photos of fishing boats...

Blackberries in the hedgerows.

More fishing boats!

Back along the canal to the carpark:

The Cornish flag flying high.

Looking back the way we'd come... over the lock gate etc.

Definitely one of the nicest days out we've had in a long time. And we definitely plan to go back again soon. A good windy day when the sea is up would be just perfect. The plan is to start in Bude next time and work our way down the coast to Boscastle (where they had the awful flood several years ago) and Tintagel.

Book giveaway

I've just been sorting out some books to go to the charity shop. Yes, I know, this in itself is worthy of a post all of its own. What am I thinking??? *cackle* And even then I ended up deciding to keep half a dozen that I'd put aside. I'm pathetic. There are a few books though, that I don't want to send to the charity shop and I was wondering if anyone who reads this blog would like them? These are the books:

The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding (YA horror)
The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri (Italian crime)
Crossed Wires by Rosy Thornton (modern fiction)
Mr Timothy by Louis Bayard (Victorian historical crime sort of thing)

They're free to a good home and I will post anywhere. All in good condition, read only once or twice and all, in my opinion anyway, good reads. Crossed Wires was a review copy from the author so I would like to pass it on to someone else who will read and review it too. Leave a comment saying which one you would like and if more than one person wants a specific book then I'll do a draw.

Wednesday 16 September 2009

Two non-fictions

Time for a post that isn't connected with the RIP IV challenge. LOL. I've been kind of wrapped up in that for several weeks now but I have been reading other things as well. Two non-fiction books for a start - both for the Non-fiction challenge which is being hosted by Trish at Trish's Reading Nook.

First up, Birds, Beasts and Relatives by Gerald Durrell.
This one is actually the second book in Durrell's so called 'Corfu' trilogy and he wrote it because his family, after reading the first book and recovering from their outrage, told him that he'd left out all the best bits. So this book covers the same time period as My Family and other Animals but tells us a bit more. We get a lot more about Gerry's obsession with collecting all kinds of animals and insects and driving his family mad with them; much more about the eccentrics that members of the family, especially Laurence, seem to attract who turn up for a visit at two in the morning completely drunk; and more about the beauty of the island and the locals and their traditions.

For my money though the best chapter is the first where Durrell describes how his sister, Margot, is sent to London to cure her acne. She stays with the two least eccentric (this being relative term in the Durrell family) relations, Cousin Prue and Great Aunt Fan. Unfortunately Margot gets in with the wrong crowd and discovers spiritualism. A medium, Mrs. Haddock, attaches herself to the girl, and so does an Indian spirit guide known as Mawake. Thoroughly alarmed, 'Mother' and Gerald set off for London to save Margot from herself. This whole chapter is extremely funny and makes me think the world of fiction missed something when Gerald Durrell settled for writing mainly non-fiction, natural history books - wonderful as those are.

As always with Durrell, this is a thoroughly charming book, very much of its time and place. Beautiful... and I adore that cover. I must make it a priority this winter to read Douglas Botting's biography.

'Lulled by the wine and the throbbing heart of the boat's engine, lulled by the warm night and the singing, I fell asleep while the boat carried us back across the warm, smooth waters to our island and the brilliant days that were not to be.'

The war loomed of course, which brings me neatly on to, On Hitler's Mountain, by Irmgard Hunt.

At this time of year my thoughts tend to veer towards two things. One is of course, creepy books for Carl's challenge, but the other is books about the two world wars. Armistice Day in November prompts this but this year it was also prompted by the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of WW2 a couple of weeks ago. The BBC had a weeklong feature of documentaries and news items and long may they continue to do this kind of thing, especially as the last serving British 'Tommy' from WW1 has recently died and there is always the danger that people might now begin to forget.

Anyway, I've had On Hitler's Mountain on my tbr pile for a couple of years and what with the non-fiction challenge and the time of year, it was time to read it.

Irmgard Paul was born on the 28th. May 1934 on Saltberg (Salt Mountain) in the Alpine village of Berchtesgaden in Germany. She was the eldest daughter of parents, Max and Albine Paul, Max a painter and Albine a housewife. Adolf Hitler was already Chancellor of Germany and Irmgard's parents were delighted with Hitler's success and pleased with the direction their country was going in. After the years of rampant inflation it seemed like their country was at last a place to be proud of once again.

The first few years of Irmgard's life were idyllic. The family were not well off but village life in the Alps was happy, everyone knew and supported each other, the surroundings were stunning - hiking in the mountains a commonplace activity. And life was made more interesting by one rather startling fact - Hitler's mountain retreat, the Berghof, was on their mountain: they were neighbours.

At three Irmgard earned herself a name by being the child Hitler put on his knee:

'he crouched down, waved to me, and said, "Komm nur her, mein Boppele," (Come here, my little doll). Suddenly I felt scared and shy. I hid behind my mother's skirt until she coaxed me firmly to approach him. He pulled me onto his knee while his photographer prepared to take pictures. The strange man with the sharp, hypnotic eyes and dark mustache held me stiffly, not at all like my father would have, and I wanted to cry and run away. But my parents were waving at me to sit still and smile. Adolf Hitler, the great man they so admired, had singled me out, and in their eyes I was a star. As the crowd applauded, I saw my grandfather turn away and strike the air angrily with his cane.'

Irmgard's grandfather loathed and despised the Nazis and, in future years, had to be protected from himself as he was not backward in coming forward with his opinions. The danger obvious when, while at school temporarily in her grandparents town of Selb in Northern Germany, a teacher tried to get Irmgard to inform on her own grandfather. And this was the problem after war broke out. Max and Apline, although supporters of Hitler and the war, were not fanatical Nazis. And your dealings with neighbours in the village now depended on who was and who wasn't a true Nazi. You could be bullied or informed on for not doing your bit to support the cause. Not only that, Hitler's child euthanasia programme meant that disabled children were at risk. One family had two such children, one, severely disabled, was removed to an asylum and 'died of a cold' as the family were later informed. The second child, who had learning difficulties but was not quite as disabled, became a child protected by the whole village, not attending school or hospitals, to all intents and purposes a 'non-child' and hidden away until the end of the war.

After Irmgard's father, Max, was drafted and sent to France, life became much harder for the family. And as everyone in the village was in the same boat everyone came together to survive. Tragically, Max became of one the early casualties of the war, killed, they suspected, by the French resistance. Once again it gave the family a certain notoriety in the village, the inference being that they should be proud of the sacrifice. Of course what it meant in reality was more hardship, but complaining was not an option, that would make you a traitor to the German cause.

I could go on and on about this book until I've retold the whole thing. Truthfully, it needs to be read for yourself. It's a book that is on the one hand quite frightening - a warning as to how a country can come under the influence of an evil regime without realising it has happened. Or rather, they 'knew' but they just weren't told the full extent, obviously, of the deceit. On the other hand there's an uplifting feel to this story. A feeling that whatever happens, however bad things get, human beings are resourceful and will cope one way or another.

The Jewish question hardly impinged on their lives. They had some idea of what was happening but there were no Jews in the valley and their own lives were so hard that they didn't give it much thought. That part of it I found disquieting, as though somehow they 'should' have known and cared. That's probably unfair of me. What cheered me up was hearing how a minority opposed Hitler. When the bombs were falling and people cursed the Allies, someone, I forget who, shouted that this was not the Allies' fault, it was Hitler's. On another occasion an anti-Nazi neighbour took hold of a globe atlas, pointed out all countries arrayed against Germany and their size, and asked if anyone had shown this to Hitler lately.

It was interesting too, to read about the time after the war. When American cigarettes became the currency of Germany, how the country was partitioned and people were glad not to be in the Russian sector, and how the villagers invaded the Berghof and found the hoarded food, enough to feed a starving village for a year. The full extent of the treachory was then apparent and fanatical Nazis hung themselves rather than face the Nuremburg trials.

I think this is probably the best book I've read about the war years from the German point of view. It's told in a very matter-of-fact and honest manner, which makes it all the more chilling really. At the same time it's also a very beautiful book. The author's love of this part of Bavaria shines out of her words and, despite the awful subject matter, reminded me of every book I've ever read about the Alps and made me want to go there. I hope lots of people will go out and get this book - it should be read for many many reasons but most of all because it's a fantastic read.

There's an interesting website here that shows then (Nazi occupied) and now photos of the village of Berchtesgaden.

Sunday 13 September 2009

RIP IV - short stories - women

Time for another short story weekend for Carl's RIP IV challenge!

Rougement castle ruins - Exeter. (Taken by me Oct. 2008)

'My dear.' said Mrs. McArthur to me - it was in the early days of table-moving, when young folk ridiculed and elder folk were shocked at the notion of calling up one's departed ancestors into one's dinner-table, and learning the wonders of the angelic world by the bobbings of a hat or the twirlings of a plate, - 'My dear,' continued the old lady, 'I do not like playing at ghosts.'
~~Dinah Mulock

I was planning to do railway ghost stories today but, partly, I ended up with less time than I thought this weekend and not much time to be photographing books, but also I decided I rather fancied reading some ghostly/macabre stories by women instead. It has to be said that male authors get most of the publicity when it come to well known ghost stories, but, the fact is that 'women' were, and still are, among the best writers of supernatural tales and more than hold their own in the genre.

So, I dug out my copy of Victorian Ghost Stories edited by Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert, and went for something early - The Last House in C-- Street by Dinah Mulock (Mrs. Craik), written in 1856.

This one starts with the narrator professing not to believe in ghosts but also suggesting that an open mind should be kept as she relates a story told to her by an elderly friend, Mrs. McArthur. The story dates back to the late 18th. century when she was a young girl, in love with a Mr. Everest, and in London with her parents so that she could be with him for a few weeks. Her mother is just a few weeks away from giving birth and suddenly decides she has to return home. The girl wants to stay and Mr. Everest persuades her father to stay with the girl for a further few days. A mistake as it turns out...

Writing as 'Mrs. Craik', Dinah Mulock (1826 - 1887) is best known for the novel, John Halifax, Gentleman but the book I own by her is An Unsentimental Journey Through Cornwall, which I absolutely love. There's no doubt about it, she was a superb writer and this short ghost story proves it. It's not that the story is terribly frightening, it's not, the joy here is in the journey and the dialogue and the lovely way she captures an old woman's rambling reminiscences. Delightful... and the story is here if anyone would like to read it.

Then I turned to The Virago Book of Ghost Stories edited by Richard Dalby.

The first story I chose from this one was The Shadowy Third by Ellen Glasgow, written in 1916. The narrator of this American story is a newly qualified nurse. She is called upon by a surgeon that she idolises to become night nurse to his wife of one year. Not knowing why his wife is bed-ridden she packs her bags and goes to the surgeon's house. While waiting to be received a young girl comes into the room chasing a ball and the nurse sees her again as she's being shown into the invalid's room. It soon becomes apparent that the household think the wife is losing her mind, but the nurse knows full well that this is not the case...

Ellen Glasgow (1873 - 1945), an author unknown to me, was apparently one of the foremost female American writers of her time, along with Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. This excellent story proves why - its air of menace is quite disturbing, especially as you, along with the nurse, know exactly what's going on. A nicely written piece and here if anyone wants to read it.

Next up, Sophy Mason Comes Back by E.M. Delafield, written in 1930. This one tells the story if a young English girl, Sophy Mason, who works for a French family in France, looking after the children. Sophy starts an affair with a neighbouring farmer's son and to her horror falls pregnant. She begs the son to marry her but he won't. What happens next is only discovered many years later when one of the children is grown and married and the narrator of the story (retelling it to a group of women) goes to stay with him in the holiday home where the events of the story happened.

I wanted to read this one because I'd enjoyed E.M. Delafield's novel, The Diary of a Provincial Lady, so much and was curious to read something else by her. And this one doesn't disappoint, it being part ghost story, part mystery, part commentary on the human condition. It works very well and I liked it very much.

On No Account, My Love by Elizabeth Jenkins, written in 1955, is really about the passing down of family characteristics from one generation to another. It seems the narrator's great-grandmother, widowed and left with several children, opened a girls' boarding school. Family legend has it that she was a real tyrant and made everyone's life a misery. The narrator, Elizabeth, has prejudged the issue but is forced to think again when an incident occurs with a medium who gets messages in the night and writes them down.

Odd little story this. Beautifully written, poignant, interesting. Not particularly scary, though it could be if you thought about it too much. The author, Elizabeth Jenkins, was apparently most famous for her biographies of people such as Lady Caroline Lamb and Jane Austen.

I then thought I'd try a few modern 'scary stories' by women to see how they compare. I don't own very many (if any) modern anthologies so had to nab one from the library. Gathering the Bones edited by Ramsey Campbell, Jack Dann and Dennis Etchison was the one I chose and I'll be honest... it was because of this wonderful cover!

The first story I chose was Finishing School by Cherry Wilder. Magda Lucia y Flores Kalman is a member of a vampire family. But these are educated, modern vampires with a taste for books and films - civilised in other words. Magda is off to Finishing School for vampires and doesn't really see the point of it - for good reason.

The Raptures of the Deep by Rosaleen Love is a story about deep sea exploration. The narrator is a crytozoologist, he studies the animals of folklore and specialises in the creatures of the deep; when someone brings something up from the ocean that they don't recognise, he's called in. In the middle of a dive in a submersible they are hit by something and then find themselves the target of a kind of underwater meteor shower of burning rocks. Who's throwing them?

The Mistress of Marwood Hagg by Sara Douglass (Axis series, The Wayfarer Redemption, The Crucible etc.) is an historical supernatural yarn. A battle has just taken place and the victor, the Earl of Henley, murders the loser, the Earl of Chelmsford, on the battlefield in front of several of his men. Chelmsford's wife is deeply suspicious when Henley returns the body to her, as there are no battle scars, and puts a curse on Henley... and his future family.

Of these three the first was 'so-so', the second and third not bad. Truthfully, the conclusion I've reached is that I prefer older supernatural short stories to newer ones. This is purely a matter of taste - I just prefer the older style writing with more detail and depth, and probably the older settings. Women writing in the 19th. and early 20th. centuries were particularly good at this it seems to me.


There is no credulity more blind, no ignorance more childish, than that of the sage who tries to measure 'heaven and earth and the things under the earth', with the small two-foot rule of his own brain. Dare we presume to argue concerning any mystery of the universe, 'It is inexplicable, and therefore impossible?'
~~Dinah Mulock


Wednesday 9 September 2009

Endless Night

It's years since I read any Agatha Christie - I could even have been a teenager - so memories of it are a bit murky; what I do remember was that I liked her books but was never crazy about them as I was some authors. So here I am in my mid-fifties, gradually becoming a bit of a crime fan, reading other people's Christie reviews and wondering if I should try a few of her books. So I did. I nabbed Endless Night from the library because it sounded like an interesting plot and also rather spooky, so I thought it might make a reasonable read for Carl's RIP IV challenge.

Michael Rogers is a bit of drifter. He drifts in and out of jobs, in and out of relationships, in and out of countries. He's working as a chauffeur when he meets American, Fenella Goodman, known to all as 'Ellie'. Ellie, it turns out, is an heiress about to turn twenty one and thus coming into her fortune. They meet in a village somewhere on the coast in the south west of England, and both of them fall for a plot of land just outside the village. Not only that, they fall for each other and decide to marry. They do it in secret because Ellie's step-mother and friends back in America would be bound to object to her marrying a penniless man of a much lower class.

Throughout all of this there are various murmurings in the village. Ellie buys the land they wanted and her and Mike hire an architect friend of his to build them the house of their dreams. But it seems the land was once claimed by gypsies and one village woman in particular is full of dire warnings about what happens to people who try to live there. They don't live long basically... the land is cursed. Needless to say she is proved right. I'm not going into who dies or how because that would spoil the plot completely for anyone intending to read the book.

So what did I think of my first Agatha Christie in about forty years? Well, I think I ought to come clean and say that, personally, I prefer Christie's work dramatised on TV. I adore Poirot and Miss Marple (the Joan Hickson version) and watch them over and over when they're repeated. My opinion of her actual writing doesn't seem to have changed much. I like her books but I don't love them and I think it's because I don't feel involved with the characters and the writing; they're easy reads that I don't seem to connect with all that much.

All that said, Endless Night was not a bad read. It was written in the first person, which I like, and Christie got quite nicely inside the head of her main character, Mike. All through there was quite a sense of menace, of secrets untold, and a claustrophobic, spooky atmosphere. The ending genuinely surprised me. I had considered that possibility briefly but dismissed it as highly unlikely. Nice to be surprised like that. A good sense of place too, I'm not sure where exactly the village was intended to be but my guess is down on the south Devon coast, somewhere beyond Brixham where Agatha Christie did in fact have a home - Greenway.

(Photo from the National Trust website - Andrea Jones.)

Will I read more Agatha Christie? Yes probably. Believe it or not I don't think I've ever read any of the Poirot or Miss Marple books so I feel I really should before settling on a concrete opinion of her work.

This book not only qualifies for Carl's RIP challenge, it also qualifies for the Support your Local Libray challenge being hosted by J.Kaye - book 19 of 25 in my case.

Monday 7 September 2009

RIP - short stories

I didn't have as much time to read this weekend as last, so only three stories for Carl's RIP IV short story weekend, this time. I chose the three from the two books in the photo below:

The little red book is entitled, To Be Read By Candlelight. It was given to me several years ago as a Christmas gift and it contains just two ghost stories by Edith Wharton - The Triumph of Night and The Eyes. A thoroughly lovely little gift, imo.

The story I chose to read was The Triumph of Night. This one begins at a railway station, in a snow storm, in the depths of New Hampshire. George Faxon has just arrived to take up a post as secretary come assistant to an elderly woman in one the local big houses. But it seems she has forgotten to arrange for him to be met and when a young man turns up to meet two other arrivals and offers him a lift and a bed for the night, Faxon gratefully accepts. He is thus transported to another big house. The young man is Frank Rainer, nephew and heir to the wealthy John Lavington, and ill with TB. Faxon is welcomed to the house but the uncle is cold and a bit strange... as is the atmosphere in the house. Mistaking it for the dining room, Faxon comes upon Frank, his uncle, and the two other visitors at a will signing and is asked to be a witness. But there is another man present that none of the others seem to notice. Why is he regarding the sick Frank Rainer with an expression of pure evil?

Nicely written this one. Good sense of place and atmosphere but maybe slightly lacking in the 'scary' department, and the twist rather predictable. But overall not at all bad - nothing by Edith Wharton could be really bad after all.

The other book is The Wordsworth book of Classic Horror Stories and, bearing in mind that I own quite a few thick volumes along the same lines, it seems odd that I should buy this slim little book. The reason was that it contained one of my favourite ghost stories ever and that is, Tarnhelm by Hugh Walpole.

An eleven year old boy (I don't think we're ever told his name as it's written in the first person) whose parents are in India has to spend his school holidays in England with various relatives. None of them want him for Christmas so for the first time he is sent north to his two uncles, Robert and Constance, who live in Faildyke Hall in the Lake District. The area is bleak but beautiful and the young boy, bookish and a bit delicate, is immediately smitten. He makes friends with an adult employee, Bob Armstrong, and gets along fine with Uncle Constance, but Uncle Robert is another matter entirely. The man is quite frightening and lives alone in a building in the garden called The Tower. What goes on there is something that alarms the staff who never seem to stay very long. The boy is full of curiosity and is dying to see inside this building - until the day he is actually invited in...

I first read this story in a library book many years ago. I liked it so much I wanted to own a copy and spent many years searching for it until I found it in this little book. Back then I remember being completely creeped out by it; this time I was much more struck by the sense of place Walpole creates. I've been to the part of the Lake District where it's set and he has the scenery and atmosphere spot on. It's still one of my favourite supernatural stories ever, but now I appreciate the writing and the atmosphere as much as the story itself.

Aylmer Vance and the Vampire by A. and C. Askew, also in this volume of stories, is a traditional sort of vampire yarn. Vance and his assistant, Dexter, who investigate the supernatural, are visited by Paul Devenant, a man well known in society as a keen polo player, very fit and athletic. The two men are shocked to find him a shadow of his former self. It seems he has recently married Jessica, a woman whose family have a rather strange history, the men in particular who marry wives who die young. Davenant was recently persuaded by his wife to go and live in Blackwick Castle, in Scotland, her family's seat. And it is here that Paul's problems of ill health seem to have begun. Vance and Dexter travel north to investigate.

It will come as no surprise that this reminded me quite strongly of a Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson mystery. I've no idea who authors, A. and C. Askew, were; they're not mentioned in the introduction and I've not come across them before. But the story was well told, nicely written and nicely atmospheric in its setting. That I found it slightly ordinary is probably more to do with the amount of vampire yarns I've read. A better and more unusual story, imo, is Mrs. Amworth by E.F. Benson.

ETA: I googled 'Aylmer Vance' and found this short article on the ghost-seer and the authors, here.


Dartmoor. October 2008 taken by me.

Thursday 3 September 2009

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, plus photos

Leaving aside my short story weekend for Carl's RIP IV challenge, this is my first proper read for it. I always try to start with a shortish book that's not a difficult read and, judging by other blog reviews, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson was just about right for that niche.

Mary Katherine Blackwood, 'Merricat', is eighteen and lives with her sister, Constance, and Uncle Julian in a large house on the outskirts of the town:

"I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had."

The family are hated and despised by the people of the town and Mary, when she goes on her regular shopping expeditions, has to run the gauntlet of nasty comments from adults and taunting from the town's children. It soom becomes apparent that the town's hatred is based upon a court case that took place some years before. Constance was accused of putting arsenic it the sugar and thereby bringing about the deaths of her parents, an aunt, and a brother. She was aquitted of this crime but the family's notoriety has forced them into a reclusive lifestyle and Constance has not stepped outside their fenced in land since the trial. The girls' uncle is very elderly and his mind is wandering.

Into this mix wanders cousin Charles, banging on the door until he's reluctantly allowed in.

"He knocked, quietly at first and then firmly, and I leaned against the door, feeling the knocks hit at me, knowing how close he was. I knew already that he was one of the bad ones; I had seen his face briefly and he was one of the bad ones, who go around and around the house, trying to get in, looking in the windows, pulling and poking and stealing souvenirs."

Mary hates him on sight but Constance is much more willing to allow him to stay for a while. Slowly but surely he ingratiates himself with Constance, while slyly revealing his nasty side only to Mary. The girls' quiet, ordered life is destroyed; something will have to be done...

Well, this was an interesting little book. I have to say upfront that I didn't love it. I liked it, but somehow or other it didn't quite deliver for me. The writing was superb, I will say that, beautifully written in the first person, the author got right inside Mary Katherine's head. And a very confusing place it was! In that respect it was a very clever novel. I think the problem for me was that I guessed the secret of the story straightaway and was really expecting a further twist which never materialised. But that was my only complaint really.

The atmosphere in the book is genuinely creepy, even malicious in places, and very claustrophobic. I don't think I've read anything quite like it to be honest, partly because I don't think Shirley Jackson is a well known author in the UK and I've just never been exposed to her writing. I'd only really come across her more recently as the author of The Lottery a story to which Danielle of A Work in Progress directed her readers to some months ago. What a huge body of work, from all over the world, us pre-internet folk were denied all those years ago! But anyway, that's a whole 'nother story as they say. I enjoyed my first book for the RIP IV challenge and am looking forward to more now.

And because my trip to Stourhead on Monday resulted in some photos that are misty, rather autumnal and thus quite RIP-ish in atmosphere, I shall put them in this post rather than make a separate post of them.

The National Trust gardens of Stourhead in Wiltshire: