Monday 30 August 2021

Crawling Horror: Creeping Tales of the Insect Weird

The end of August is almost nigh and with Crawling Horror: Creeping Tales of the Insect Weird, edited by Daisy Butcher and Janette Leaf, I seem to have anticipated the general autumnal bent for ghostly, weird stories. (Which I fully intend to indulge in as well.) Truthfully, it feels more like autumn than summer anyway, as there's a real nip in the air in the mornings now and the evenings are really drawing in.

Anyway, the book. (It was sent to me by the British Library publishing people for a free but fair review.)

As will be surmised by the title, this is a volume of weird stories concerning insects. The title makes it sound more grisly than it actually is because these are 'vintage' stories after all and emphasis tends more towards creating an impact with good story telling and writing rather than endless descriptions of blood and gore.

1. The Sphinx - Edgar A. Poe is a New York based story, set during a cholera epidemic. The narrator thinks he can see a monstrous insect crawling over the countryside but no one else can see it. An effective story with an amusing twist at the end.

2. The Blue Beetle by A.G. Gray, Jun. This recounts the story of a scientist, researching the origins of life, who is staying in Northumberland and finds a book in the library that enables him to create a poisonous scarab. 

3. The Mummy's Soul by 'Anon' is a 'tomb-raider who has a vision in the tomb' sort of story. Not such a huge fan of these kinds of Egyptian yarns these days. I don't know why.

4. After Three Thousand Years by Jane G. Austin is another tomb-raider story concerning the necklace of an ancient Egyptian princess.

5. A Dream of Wild Bees by Olive Shreiner is rather a strange dream story about bees and an unborn child. Not quite sure I understood it.

6. The Moth by H.G. Wells is, as you would expect, a very well written story about two obsessed entomology professors in a constant battle for supremacy. One dies and gets revenge for the destruction of his scientific reputation.

7. The Captivity of the Professor by A. Lincoln Green... he or she is one those authors that no one know who they are and they only wrote two stories, that are known about, anyway. And what a shame as this mad yarn about a professor who goes up the Amazon to study leaf-cutter ants is hugely entertaining... completely and utterly bonkers... but great stuff!

8. The Dream of the Akinosuk√© and Butterflies by Lafadio Hearn. The first story is one of those 'man taken away, lives half a lifetime somewhere, comes back and no time has passed' yarns. The second is a Japanese mythical story about death and butterflies. 

9. Caterpillers by E.F. Benson... one of my favourite writers of ghost stories and weird fiction. Cracking story set in an Italian villa that the narrator feels is 'wrong' the minute he arrives. But of course he still can't resist wandering around in the middle of the night...

10. An Egyptian Hornet by Algernon Blackwood, another favourite of mine. There's a vicar living in Egpyt, preaching to the resident English:

' And he was thoroughly pleased with himself, for he was a sleek, vain, pompous, well-advertised personality, but mean as a rat.'

Tells you all you need to know, fabulous writing. Anyway, said vicar finds a hornet in the bathroom and Egyptian hornets are apparently not small...

11. The Blue Cockroach by Christpher Blayre tells of a man who goes searching for bananas for his spoilt nieces. He does eventually manage to track some down (I think this must've been wartime) but the bunch is hiding an insect. This didn't really work for me, too muddled in the last few pages.

12. The Wicked Flea  by J.U. Giesy. This is apparently one of a series of stories about a Professor Zapt. Mad as bag of ferrets, he decides, against the wishes of his daughter and her fianc√©, to grow the biggest living flea. Naturally, it gets loose...

13. The Miracle of the Lily by Clare Winger Harris. Not heard of this author before but this is another cracking story. Insects have become so numerous that they've eaten all the crops that humans have grown for themselves. Humans fight back over many years, lots of history etc., including early interplanetary communications. Clever twist at the end which I didn't see coming until a page or two from the end when I suddenly thought, 'Oh crikey, I wonder...'

14. Warning Wings by Arlton Eadie. This one is one of those 'persons retelling a weird experience to interested party' stories, in this case a sailor. Recounted because the narrator is about to kill a moth. It's also a 'crossing the Atlantic' tale which is very much my kind of thing. Interesting info about the mechanics of sailing across that ocean in a liner, northern routes and southern routes etc. Nice one.

15. Beyond the Star Curtain by Garth Bentley is actually a science fiction story. Two insterstellar travellers return from travelling into another dimension or universe only to find Earth completely changed. Not bad. Atmospheric.

16. Leiningen Versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson. The 'weirdness' in this story is not supernatural at all but is represented by a plague of ants and their 'natural' behaviour. A plantation owner in Brazil is warned to clear out as a plague of ants is on the way, but decides to stay and fight. It reminded me a bit of that long scene in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, only much more melodramatic and macho. Entertaining though... it was made into a film starring Charlton Heston entitled, The Naked Jungle.

What I love in these collections is the sheer lunacy of the some of the goings on. Mad professors, tomb raiders, people who are TSTL (too stupid to live), vindictive vicars, all human life is here. And the excellent writing of course. They all knew how to write such beautifully lyrical and descriptive narratives back then and it's rather rare these days to see it. (It's also why I like the BLCC vintage crime books.) Anyway. This is a good collection. There were a few that didn't do anything for me but that's par for the course with any collection. (Well most, occasionally you do get a fantastic anthology such as Minnie's Room by Mollie Panter-Downes which is superb from start to finish, but that's rare.) There were a handful of really good stories included in Crawling Horror, my favourites being, The Captivity of the Professor by A Lincoln-Green, Warning Wings by Arlton Eadie, Caterpillers by E.F. Benson and The Miracle of the Lily by Clare Winger Harris. 

So pleased to have four or five more of these collections to read and enjoy.

Wednesday 25 August 2021

Catching up and currently reading

I seem to do more 'catching up' than anything else these days! The garden is the main culprit - picking courgettes, tomatoes, raspberries, courgettes, runner beans, French beans, caterpillers off the kale and sprouts, did I mention courgettes? And tomorrow we're changing our ISP provider so who knows how much joy and merriment we have in store with that. Best to get a quick post in while I can...

First up, The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman.

Irene works for the Invisible Library as an agent who searches out books. This library collects books from alternate universes, important books that can somehow affect reality and that shouldn't fall into the wrong hands.This time she's been sent to a version of Victorian London but not as we know it. It's full of 'chaos' so there are fae and vampires added to the glorious soup that London was at that time. The book Irene is searching for is an edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales and helping her is Kai who has been foisted upon her and clearly has secrets of his own. When they cross over they discover the book's been stolen and naturally the whole mission is far more complicated than they could ever imagine. I quite enjoyed this slightly steampunk Victorian themed novel. It even had it's own version of Sherlock Holmes to help solve a murder and there was a lot of quirkiness about it to enjoy. Kai is intriguing and you discover what he is towards the end. Books don't feature quite as much as I would have liked but I suspect that will change as the series progresses, plus we'll get more about the fae and so on. A promising start to a series that's now seven books long with the eighth book due out in December. 

Next, Through Siberia by Accident by Dervla Murphy.

This non-fiction travelogue charts the author's trip to Siberia in the early 2000s. It doesn't start well. Murphy had planned a cycling holiday but an accident damaged her knee and that changed everything. Unable to even walk properly the injury was going to take weeks to heal, but she was lucky. People in the Lake Baikal region of Russia were thrilled to have a western writer among them and could not have been kinder. She was offered accommodation wherever she went and people wanted to talk to her, delighted to have some relief from the monotony of their lives. She did manage to explore, only not the way she had planned. Instead she took busses, boats and trains and reading about the people she encouuntered was fascinating. I found the historical explanations dragged a bit but Russian history has never been my thing. What has stuck with me is the kindness she met with almost everywhere (one or two officials, not so much). She was put up by strangers, fed, accompanied to awkward places, never abandoned and talked to about everything as people had never seen a westerner and wanted to hear real opinions from her. And the region around Lake Baikal sounded utterly stunning although, as always, it's suffering from the usual suspects - developers and horrendous historical pollution. A good read but for some reason Dervla Murphy is not my favourite travel writer and I'm not sure why. 

I'm currently reading these two books in the manner that sometimes books take ages to read and you get a bit antsy to start something new. 

Crawling Horror: Creeping Tales of the Insect World edited by Daisy Butcher and Janette Leaf is not as horrifying as it sounds. The stories are vintage and 'weird' and thus well written, but vary a bit in quality. 

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor is pretty interesting in parts but again varies a bit and is slightly worrying because the author suggests we're all breathing incorrectly and it's not good for us. Oh.

Is anyone else busy making plans for autumn reading? I know I am. More on that next week providing I ever get the internet back after tomorrow. *Fingers crossed*

Wednesday 11 August 2021

Catching up and currently reading

Rather busy at the moment so not a lot of time for blogging and although I'm trying to keep up with my favourite blogs, I can't help but feel I'm failing miserably. Hopefully in a few weeks things will settle down and I can get back to commenting regularly.

In the meantime a bit of a catch-up post... two crime yarns that could not really be more different.

First, The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. I read this after reading Sam's excellent review.

It's the early 1950s and Lou Ford is a deputy sheriff in the Texan town of Central City. He's 'Mr. Nice Guy', not necessarily the brightest bulb in the pack but honest, reliable, genuine. But is he? The title of this book answers that question in a pretty blunt manner, what it doesn't tell you is how chilling this tale is. Told in the first person, Lou relates how he sets about deciding that various people who are complicating his life will have to be disposed of. Plus, he feels that his brother was probably murdered and plans to revenge said murder. It's a tangled web and even the story of his brother is not as straightforward as it sounds. This is a twisted little tale and made all the more chilling by the matter-of-fact manner in which the narrator tells his story. I had to have frequent breaks from this one as it is very cold-blooded and no one in it is very pleasant. But my goodness it's incredibly well written and by an author I'd not previously heard of. And that's the joy of blogging in a nutshell, if I hadn't seen Sam's review I would never have read this superb book. Plus, it's my second entry for 'Texas' in my US States challenge, the first being Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr... perhaps my next 'Texas' book ought to be something that isn't all about psychotic serial killers or snakes in a tent?

Next up, something more humorous and gentle - In the Market for Murder by T.E. Kinsey, book 2 in his 'Lady Hardcastle' historical crime series.

Lady Hardcastle and her maid/companion, Florence, are asked by an over-burdened with work Inspector Sunderland to look into the death of a farmer in a local pub. Apparently he was alive one minute, face-down in his pie the next. Unfortunately all too many people loathed Farmer Carradine, who was the epitome of a miserable git. The two investigators can find no one with a good word to say for him. Add to this being asked to look into some thefts at the local rugby club and a mystery concerning a visiting clairvoyant and the two suddenly have their work cut out. There's a great deal of excellent banter and humour in this series. Lady Hardcastle and Flo have a lot of history together and there are hints of spying which they have apparently retired from and taken up sleuthing instead. It's all extremely unlikely but massive fun, not to be taken at all seriously and I like that a lot. I nabbed every book (7) for my Kindle at the bargain price of a quid each which I considered an absolute steal. (I think they're still available at that price too.)


So I'm currently reading Through Siberia by Accident by Dervla Murphy.

This is my 11th. book for the 20 Books of Summer challenge and will also complete a line for my Book Bingo virtual card, so it's quite an important book. I wish I could say I was thrilled with it but at the moment it's feeling a bit pedestrian. I'm pretty sure it's the writing. I wasn't mad about her book about Ethiopia so perhaps Dervla Murphy isn't for me despite her being one of the most famous travel writers of the genre.

Hope your summer is going well!

Sunday 1 August 2021

Books read in July

I have no idea where July went or how it's suddenly August but there you go, and suddenly it's become rather autumnal here in the UK. We've already had Storm Evert and it just feels like that was the first of the autumn storms... at the end of July! Very strange.

Anyway, seven books read this month and these are they:

49. The Searcher by Tana French 

50. Swansong by Damien Boyd 

51. Deep Waters: Mysteries on the Waves edited by Martin Edwards 

52. Sicilian Carousel by Lawrence Durrell. Back in the 1970s the author did the Sicilian Carousel which is a tour of the island taking in all the major historical sites. He did it via a coach trip and the book is a delightful mixture of observations about his fellow passengers, history of the sites, and various thoughts on this, that and the other. His more famous works include the Alexandria Quartet and he has written a fair bit of travel-writing type non-fiction. The author is of course the brother of Gerald Durrell the naturalist and there's a TV series about the family living on Corfu. I shall read more by Lawrence Durrell.

53. Chasing the Dream - A New Life Abroad edited by Alyson Sheldrake 

54. The Mauritius Command by Patrick O'Brian. Book 4 in the author's famous Aubrey/Maturin series of books in which Jack Aubrey is put in command of several ships and sent off to the island of Mauritius to stop the French intercepting our East India company trading vessels. I thought this instalment dragged a bit, too many naval engagements and battles for my taste but it was still a good book.

55. One Summer in Crete by Nadia Marks.

Calli is half Cretan on her mother's side but living and working in London. She's been with James for ten years and when the relationship disintegrates for reasons I won't go into (spoilers) she heads to the Greek island of Ikaria on a journalistic assignment. Various adventures later and she's off to Crete to catch up with her relatives. Her mother's sister, Froso, still lives there but something is wrong and Calli wants to know what exactly. Froso, it turns out, has secrets she wants Calli to know about, things that happened way back in the past just after the war, but only when she's ready to talk. In the meantime there's the island of Crete to refamiliarize herself with and new friends to make. The best part of this for me was the depictions of the island. Sadly, I've not been to Crete but judging by this book it really is a very beautiful place. The plot was fairly predictable but fun, I didn't see the point of the whole 'Ikaria' section of the book, but that's just me. I felt the book really began when Calli got to Crete. A light summer read for armchair travellers who like islands in The Med. 

So, a fun reading month. Three crime reads, two travel-writing non-fictions, and a couple of general fiction reads. I travelled to Ireland, Sicily, Ikaria, Crete, Mauritius in the Indian Ocean and all around the world with people who had decided to settle somewhere other than where they had been born. Great fun.

So August is with us and I have no idea what I'm going to read this month! Although I am currently reading this:

It's quite interesting but isn't really grabbing me as I thought it would, despite that wonderful cover. Hopefully it'll pick up a bit.

This is the final month of the 20 Books of Summer challenge. So far I've read 10 so it doesn't look like I'll complete that, but there are options for 10 or 15 so that's probably the number I'll achieve, which is fine.

Happy August reading!