Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

Vintage Digital/ 2010/ e-book/ Print length: 216 pages/ My own copy/ 4*

Stamboul Train was first published in the UK in 1932 and was renamed Orient Express when it was published in the USA. My copy is an e-book, with an Introduction by Christopher Hitchins.

I read it in February and didn’t find time to write about it then, so this is just a mini review that really only skates over the surface of the novel. I enjoyed it, set in the early 1930s, about a three day journey on the luxurious Orient Express travelling from Ostend to Constantinople (Instanbul or Stamboul), via Cologne, Vienna and Belgrade.

Greene weaves a web of subterfuge, murder and politics around his characters, including Carleton Myatt, a Jewish businessman, who trades in currants; Coral Musker, a dancer, a chorus girl on her way to join the Dunn’s Babies dance troupe in Constantinople; a journalist, Mabel Warren, a lesbian who drinks too much; Dr Czinner, a Yugoslavian on his own mission of revolution (as Hutchins describes it), a dissident communist leader, travelling under the name of schoolteacher Richard John – Mabel has recognised him as Dr Czinner and is after a scoop from him for her newspaper; and Josef Grünlich, a murdurous burglar. .

It’s a dismal book in some respects. Written in 1931, it reflects the anti-Semitism of the period, although I think Greene’s description of Myatt’s generosity towards Coral in giving her his berth in a first-class sleeping compartment shows some sympathy towards Jews. Having said that, I also think the characters as a whole are stereotypical, but the tension that he builds around them is palpable.

Greene’s storytelling saved the book for me, with descriptions of the train itself and the glimpses of the countryside as the train speeds along – as well as Myatt’s dramatic car journey through the snow-laden countryside to and from the railway station at Subotica on the Yugoslavian border. Written just as the Nazi party was preparing to take power in Germany there is a sense of unease throughout the novel.

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Quote Freebie

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and now hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. For the rules see her blog.

The topic this week is a Book Quote Freebie (Share your favorite book quotes that fit a theme of your choosing! These could be quotes about books/reading, or quotes from books. Some examples are: quotes for book lovers, quotes that prove reading is the best thing ever, funny things characters have said, romantic declarations, pretty scenery descriptions, witty snippets of dialogue, etc.)

These are from Agatha Christie’s An Autobiography:

About creating the character of Hercule Poirot:

Why not make my detective a Belgian? I thought. There were all types of refugees. How about a refugee police officer? A retired police officer. Not too young a one. What a mistake I made there. The result is that my fictional detective must be well over a hundred by now.

Anyway, I settled on a Belgian detective. I allowed him to grow slowly into his part. He should have been an inspector, so that he would have a certain knowledge of crime. He would be meticulous, very tidy, I thought to myself, as I cleared away a good many untidy odds and ends in my own bedroom. A tidy little man. (page 263)

About Miss Marple, who was about 65 -70 years old when she first appeared in The Murder at the Vicarage in 1930. Agatha envisaged her as 

‘the sort of old lady who would have been rather like some of my grandmother’s Ealing cronies’. But she was not like Agatha’s grandmother at all – being ‘far more fussy and spinsterish‘.

In The Murder at the Vicarage Miss Marple is not the popular figure she appears in the later books as not everybody likes her. The vicar does, liking her sense of humour, and describing her as 

‘a white-haired old lady with a gentle appealing manner’, whereas his wife describes her as ‘the worst cat in the village. And she always knows everything that happens – and draws the worst inference from it.

People suggested that Miss Marple and Poirot should meet, but Agatha dismissed that idea because she didn’t think they would enjoy it at all and wouldn’t be at home in each other’s world.

In one way Miss Marple was like her grandmother:

…I endowed my Miss Marple with something of Grannie’s powers of prophecy. There was no unkindness in Miss Marple, she just did not trust people. Though she expected the worst, she often accepted people kindly in spite of what they were. (pages 447 -50)

On Writing. Throughout her autobiography Agatha writes about writing, how she wrote, where she wrote and so on. Here are just two examples:

If I could write like Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Sparl or Graham Greene, I should jump to high heaven with delight, but I know that I can’t, and it would never have occurred to me to attempt to copy them. I have learnt that I am me, that I can do the things that, as one might put it, me can do, but I cannot do the things that me would like to do. (page 422)

And:

… I knew that writing was my steady, solid profession. I could go on inventing my plots and writing my books until I went gaga.

There is always, of course, that terrible three weeks, or a month, which you have to get through when you are trying to get started on a book. There is no agony like it. You sit in a room, biting pencils, looking at a typewriter, walking about, or casting yourself on a sofa, feeling you want to cry your head off. (page 490)

On Writing Detective Stories:

One of the pleasures of writing detective stories is that there are so many types to choose from: the light hearted thriller, which is particularly pleasant to do; the intricate detective story with an involved plot which is technically interesting and requires a great deal of work, but is always rewarding; and then what I can only describe as the detective story that has a kind of passion behind it – that passion being to help save innocence. Because it is innocence that matters, not guilt. (page 453)

On Writing Short Stories:

I think myself that the right length for a novel is 50,000 words. I know this is considered by publishers as too short. Possibly readers feel themselves cheated if they pay their money and only get 50, 000 – so 60,000 or 70,000 are more acceptable. If your book runs to more than that I think you will usually find that it would have been better if it had been shorter. 20,000 words for a long short story is an excellent length for a thriller. Unfortunately there is less and less market for stories of that size and authors tend not to be particularly well paid. One feels therefore that one would do better to continue the story, and expand it to a full length novel. The short story technique, I think, is not really suited to the detective story at all. A thriller, possibly – but a detective story no. (page 352) (my highlighting)

I’m not a great fan of short stories, but I think that Agatha Christie’s collection of stories in The Mysterious Mr Quin contains some of her very best short stories. They were her favourites too. They are set in the 1920s and have a paranormal element to them, as well as a touch of romance. I found them all most entertaining. She describes Mr Quin as

… a figure who just entered into a story – a catalyst no more – his mere presence affected human beings. There would be some little fact, some apparently irrelevant phrase, to point him out for what he was: a man shown in a harlequin-coloured light that fell on him through a glass window; a sudden appearance or disappearance. Always he stood for the same thing: he was a friend of lovers, and connected with death. (page 447)

On living :

I like living. I have sometimes been wildly despairing, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing. (page 11)

The Chapel in the Woods by Dolores Gordon-Smith

Severn House| 1 March 2022| 256 pages| e-book| Review copy| 3*

The Chapel in the Woods is the 11th Jack Haldean Murder Mystery, set in the 1920s.

Major Jack Haldean, a former World War I pilot, is a detective story writer. He and his wife Betty are visiting his cousin Isabelle and her husband Arthur in the hamlet of Croxton Abbas in Sussex. The neighbouring estate, Birchen Bower, had recently been bought by Canadian Tom Jago and his wife Rosalind. A fortnight earlier he had sent Derek Martin and his wife, Jean, in advance to open up the house and unpack their belongings, but when the Jagos arrive they discover the house open and that most of their things including Rosalind’s diamonds had been stolen. And the Martins have disappeared. But Jago can’t believe that Martin is the thief, maintaining he is perfectly honest. Jack has formerly helped his friend Detective Superintendent Ashley of the Sussex Police with a number of cases and as he is staying locally he gets involved in the police investigations.

Jago is renovating the 17th century house, built around 1620, by William Cayden, set in woodland. The chapel in the woods contains the tomb of Anna, Cayden’s wife who was a native of Peru. Her tomb, a box tomb, is decorated with an elaborately carved leaping jaguar – hence the legend of the Jaguar Princess who haunts the chapel and grounds taking the form of a jaguar.

It gets more and more complicated. In the Victorian period Josiah Cayden, an explorer and big game hunter had imported wild animals from South America, wanting to recreate a piece of the Amazon in the grounds. And now the locals are convinced that there is something in the woods that shouldn’t be there. There have been stories about dead and mutilated animals being found around Birchen Bower woods, and every so often dogs and ponies go missing. So, when Jago hosts the village fete, the local residents throng to the estate, some keen to follow the path into the woods to visit the chapel, only to find a dead body, apparently mauled by a jaguar.

And then there is another body … Is there really a jaguar roaming the woods, or is something supernatural going on? And who stole the diamonds, was it Derek Martin or someone else? Where is Derek Martin? What is the truth about the legend of the Jaguar Princess?

It is entertaining, with a mysterious, even supernatural atmosphere in parts, but it all seems to me too unlikely and fanciful and too convoluted. I liked the setting, the scenes in the woodlands and the historical aspects. But, there is too much repetition of the events and too much discussion about the various possibilities. I lost interest and just wanted to know how the mystery was resolved. It all gets sorted out and ends as Jack explains how he uncovered what had really happened.

My thanks to Severn House for a review copy via NetGalley.

Book Beginnings & The Friday 56: The Fellowship of the Ring by J R R Tolkein

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

I’m currently reading The Fellowship of the Ring by J R R Tolkein, the first book in The Lord of the Rings, one of the few books I’ve previously read several times. I first came across it at the library when I was a teenager and I loved it so much that I decided I needed to buy my own copy for myself. It contains all three books, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

The Book begins with a Prologue: Concerning Hobbits

Hobbits are an unobtrusive but very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today; for they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside was their favourite haunt.

Chapter 1: A Long-Expected Party

When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag-End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice, where you grab a book and turn to page 56 (or 56% of an eBook), find one or more interesting sentences (no spoilers), and post them.

Page 56:

Frodo took the envelope from the mantelpiece, and glanced at it, but did not open it.

‘You’ll find his will and all the other documents in there, I think,’ said the wizard. ‘You are the master of Bag-End now. And also, I fancy, you’ll find a golden ring.’

‘The ring!’ exclaimed Frodo. ‘Has he left me that? I wonder why. Still it may be useful.’

‘It may, and it may not,’ said Gandalf. ‘I should not make use of it, if I were you. But keep it secret, and keep it safe! Now I am going to bed.’

Synopsis from Goodreads

Sauron, the Dark Lord, has gathered to him all the Rings of Power – the means by which he intends to rule Middle-earth. All he lacks in his plans for dominion is the One Ring – the ring that rules them all – which has fallen into the hands of the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins.

In a sleepy village in the Shire, young Frodo Baggins finds himself faced with an immense task, as the Ring is entrusted to his care. He must leave his home and make a perilous journey across the realms of Middle-earth to the Crack of Doom, deep inside the territories of the Dark Lord. There he must destroy the Ring forever and foil the Dark Lord in his evil purpose.

~~~~~

Re-reading it now, it has lost none of the magic I found the first time. It is one of my all time favourite books

Shelf Control

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration hosted by Lisa @ Bookshelf Fantasies, of the unread books on our shelves. Lisa says: “Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.”

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

This is my first time doing this. I’ve been looking at my TBRs recently and making lists of ones to read before too long. This book is one of the oldest on my shelves.

I remembered I have a copy of Birthright by Nora Roberts when I read Cath’s post about the books she has been reading and one of them was by Nora Roberts. I bought it in September 2008 along with three other books from the book stall at the Charnock Richard service station on the M6 and it has remained unread on my bookshelves ever since. I’ve read two of the other books I bought and enjoyed them.

Blurb from Goodreads:

When five-thousand-year-old human bones are found at a construction site in the small town of Woodsboro, the news draws archaeologist Callie Dunbrook out of her sabbatical and into a whirlwind of adventure, danger, and romance.

While overseeing the dig, she must try to make sense of a cloud of death and misfortune that hangs over the project-fueling rumors that the site is cursed. And she must cope with the presence of her irritating-but irresistible-ex-husband, Jake. Furthermore, when a stranger claims to know a secret about her privileged Boston childhood, she is forced to question her own past as well.

A rich, thrilling, suspenseful tale, Birthright follows an inspiring heroine, an intriguing hero, and a cast of fascinating characters whose intertwined lives remind us that there is much more going on under the surface than meets the eye. 

Why I bought it:

I liked the sound of it from the blurb – an archaeological dig when five-thousand-year-old human bones are found, a sense of death and misfortune combined with a mystery about the archaeologist Callie Dunbrook’s past. According to the author’s information inside the book Nora Roberts is “indisputably the most celebrated and beloved women’s writer today.” Sorry, but I’d never heard of her before or read any of her more than 100 books. I thought I’d better remedy that.

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments to Lisa’s latest post, or link back from your own post, so Lisa can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

What do you think? Have you read this book? Do you think I’ll enjoy it? Or shouldn’t I bother reading it?

Eight Books I Was SO EXCITED to Get, but Still Haven’t Read 

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and now hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. For the rules see her blog.

The topic this week is Books I Was SO EXCITED to Get, but Still Haven’t Read. Years ago I didn’t have had any books I hadn’t read – as soon as I bought or borrowed a book I read it. I didn’t have a backlog! Now I have so many that I have to prioritise, which means that books like these I’ve listed below keep being left on the shelves even though I was really excited to read them when I bought them. It’s comforting to know I have books ready to read, but it was also great when I could buy and read a book straight away.

There are two books listed on my LibraryThing catalogue that I’ve owned since 4 February 2007 – A Dead Language by Peter Rushforth and Thomas Hardy: The Time-torn Man by Claire Tomalin. I did start to read both of them years ago, but put them aside for a while – and that’s where they still are. I bought the Rushforth book as I’d loved his first book, Pinkerton’s Sister, but A Dead Language doesn’t have the same appeal, although I can’t bring myself to the point of actually abandoning it. Whereas I still really want to read the Hardy biography …

I have two novels about Troy –The Song of Troy by Colleen McCullough and Helen of Troy by Margaret George – both bought because I love historical fiction and have enjoyed books by both authors. I devoured McCullough’s Rome series and expected to be able to immerse myself in The Song of Troy but the book is in such a small font that I haven’t got very far reading it. I loved Mary, Called Magdalene by Margaret George years ago so I was really keen to read Helen of Troy, but it is such a big thick book of over 750 pages that it is so unwieldy, hard to hold and so tightly bound I can hardly open it.

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone is a book I’ve been longing to read for years. It’s a biographical novel about Michelangelo. The copy I had was impossible to read as it was falling apart so I bought a new copy – but it’s still sitting waiting to be read. Why? Well because I have so many other books I really want to read …

Another book I’ve had since 2007, still waiting to be read for the same reason is 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro. 1599 was the year the Globe Theatre was built and that Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar, Henry V, As You Like It and Hamlet. it’s full of detail, not just about Shakespeare, his plays and the theatre, but also about the events of his life and times!

Two more books I really wanted to read before now are The Children’s Book by A S Byatt and Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally.

When I bought The Children’s Book I was in the middle of reading Wolf Hall and I couldn’t cope with two such long and complicated books, so I temporarily put down The Children’s Book to read later – then other books got in the way.

I was really excited to read Schindler’s List when I bought it as I’d recently watched the film, Schindler’s List for a second time and was very moved by it – it had me in tears. It was first published as Schindler’s Ark. It recreates the story of Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi party, who risked his life to protect Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland. He rescued more than a thousand Jews from the death camps.

The Honourable Schoolboy by John Le Carré

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, the first book in John le Carré’s Karla trilogy, a long time ago and I remember enjoying it very much. The story continues in the second book, The Honourable Schoolboy, which I think is brilliant. First published in 1977, it won the Gold Dagger award for the best crime novel of the year and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

It’s wide ranging, set in 1974 in London, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Phnom Pen (Cambodia), Vientiane (the capital and largest city of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic) Laos. My paperback copy has a map which is on such a small scale and is so detailed that it’s hardly legible. But, at least I could just about make out the main locations!

To say this has a complicated plot is a huge understatement. The amount of detail is staggering and for a while I was rather confused about what was happening. It certainly isn’t a book to read when you’re tired – you need to read it with a clear mind and be prepared to let yourself get fully immersed in the story. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ends as George Smiley unmasks the identity of the ‘mole’, recruited by Karla, his Russian counterpart, as a spy within the British Secret Service. So, if you haven’t read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy you may want to read it before reading The Honourable Schoolboy because le Carré reveals the identity of that ‘mole’ in the first paragraph.

He then goes on to tell what happened afterwards as Smiley set about dealing with the consequences of that mole’s betrayal. He is appointed as a caretaker chief of the British Secret Service, known as ‘the Circus’, the name derived from the address of that organisation’s secret headquarters, Cambridge Circle. Smiley has Karla’s photo on his wall, determined to chase him down in revenge. Safe houses were closed and spies were recalled from abroad. In his search for Karla, Smiley sends Jerry Westerby, the eponymous Honourable Schoolboy to Hong King, undercover as a reporter, where he discovers a money laundering operation run by Moscow Intelligence and also an opium smuggling operation.

There are many characters and the action moves rapidly between Smiley in London and Westerby as he travels all over the various locations in the Far East. Le Carré’s style is clear and straight forward, the spy jargon, with the defined interwoven into the narrative, moving rapidly from one set of characters, all fully developed, to the next. Smiley, although the controlling character, is not present in much of the book. He is an enigmatic character, a lonely man, a ‘round little man in a raincoat’, as he walks alone in the evenings around the byways of London, immersed in his thoughts crammed with images, always ending in front of his own house where his estranged wife Ann lives.

From a slow start the pace steadily rose until the finale. It was gripped, eager to know how it would end. It was so much better than I thought when I began it and it’s definitely a book I’d like to re-read as I’m sure that I missed a lot in this first reading. But not right now as I’m keen to get on with the next book in the trilogy, Smiley’s People.

20 Books of Summer

Cathy at 746 Books is hosting her 20 Books of Summer Challenge again this year. The challenge runs from June through August. There are options to read 10 or 15 books instead of the full 20. And you can swap a book, or change the list half way through if you want.

You can sign up here.

During previous summers I’ve taken part in this challenge and never managed to read the books I’ve listed, although I’ve read over 20 books during the summer months. It seems that listing books I want to read somehow takes away my desire to read them – or it maybe that other books demand to be read when the time comes. The solution seems to be don’t list the books – but that’s not the challenge!

For now these are 20 books I want to read this summer, subject to change. I’ll be pleased if I read 10 of them:

  1. Winter Garden by Beryl Bainbridge
  2. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
  3. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  4. In Too Deep by Bea Davenport
  5. The Riddle of the Third Mile by Colin Dexter
  6. Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn
  7. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
  8. Killing the Lawyers by Reginald Hill
  9. A Tapping at My Door by David Jackson
  10. Death in Berlin by M M Kaye
  11. The Hiding Place by Simon Lelic
  12. The Children Act by Ian McEwan
  13. I’ll Never Be Young Again by Daphne du Maurier
  14. Undercurrent by Barney Norris
  15. Maigret and the Ghost by Georges Simenon
  16. Spoon-Fed by Tim Spector
  17. King Solomon’s Carpet by Barbara Vine
  18. The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown
  19. The Invisible Man by H G Wells
  20. The Reason Why by Cecil Woodham-Smith

What will you be reading?

TopTen Tuesdays: Bookish Characters

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and now hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. For the rules see her blog.

The topic this week is Bookish Characters (these could be readers, writers, authors, librarians, professors, etc.). There are some Top Ten Tuesday topics that I think I’d struggle to find ten books – not so with this one. It’s a no-brainer as I’ve read plenty of books with bookish characters, most of them librarians. These are just ten of them:

  1. The Serpent Pool by Martin Edwards, Marc Amos, a rare book dealer
  2. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Liesel Meminger, who loves books
  3. The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett, Peter Byerly, an antiquarian bookseller and Bartholomew Harbottle in the Elizabethan/Stuart period and the Victorian Benjamin Mayhew 
  4. The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse, Bernard Joubert, a bookseller
  5. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, Mr Hutchings, Westminster travelling librarian
  6. The Wench is Dead by Colin Dexter – Christine Greenaway, a librarian at the Bodleian Library.
  7. The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles, Odile Souchet at the American Library in Paris
  8. Crucible of Secrets by S G Maclean, Robert Sim, the college librarian (it was called Crucible when I read it)
  9. Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake, Sourdust, the Gormenghast librarian
  10. The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken, Peggy Cort, an introverted librarian

Traitor in the Ice by K J Maitland

Headline Review| 31 March 2022| 461 pages| e-book| Review copy| 2*

I don’t have very much to say about Traitor in the Ice, the second Daniel Pursglove book, by K J Maitland. It is set during the Great Frost of 1607-8 in England, when the Thames and many other rivers were frozen solid, but the countryside was the hardest hit. I preferred the first Daniel Pursglove book, The Drowned City.

It is a dark historical novel, describing life in England under the new king, James I of England and VI of Scotland. Daniel is continuing his search for the mysterious Spero Pettingar, suspected of plotting another conspiracy to kill James and reinstate a Catholic monarch and is sent by the Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, to Battle Abbey, near Hastings, in Sussex, a Catholic household, suspected of sheltering Catholic priests.

Daniel is an interesting character, needing all his determination and courage to discover what has been going on at Battle Abbey. It’s made even more difficult as it seems that everyone has something to hide, not just their politics and religious dissent, but also murder. A little bit more of his background is revealed in this second book, but he still remains a mysterious figure. And Spero Pettingar is an even more mysterious character, who is he – is he hiding at Battle Abbey? And will Daniel uncover all the secrets concealed within the Abbey?

But I enjoyed K J Maitland’s Author’s Note and information she gives in ‘Behind the Scenes of this Novel’ more than the novel. The details of her historical research are fascinating, with information about the real people behind her characters, such as Lady Magdalen, Viscountess Montague who did live at Battle Abbey. And the Glossary at the end of the book is also most helpful explaining a lot of the terms in the book I hadn’t come across before.

However, the book failed to hold my interest throughout as the wealth of detail she has put into the novel slows the action down and took away much of the suspense and tension – I felt like I was drowning in description. And at times I wasn’t really sure what was happening, especially at the end of the book – the Epilogue is mystifying.

My thanks to Headline Review for a review copy via NetGalley