Short Stories on Sunday

Today I’ve read one of the short stories from Agatha Christie’s collection Miss Marple and Mystery .

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This collection contains 55 stories, 20 of them featuring Miss Marple. I’ve read some of these in other short story collections but there are still many I haven’t read. There is an Short Story Chronology in the Appendix with a table aiming to present all Agatha Christie’s short stories published between 1923 and 1971, listed in order of traced first publication date.

Counting how many there are in total is a difficult task – some stories that first appeared in weekly or monthly magazines were later  re-worked and became chapters in a larger work, some in Partners in Crime were sub-divided into smaller chapters, 13 were re-worked into the episodic novel, The Big Four, and some were rewritten so substantially that they appear separately in different books!

Manx Gold has also been published as an e-book. It was first published in the Manchester Daily Dispatch between 23-28 May 1930, and as a booklet distributed throughout the island, as a treasure hunt to promote tourism in the Isle of Man. She received a fee of £65 (in today’s money over £4,000!)

Cousins, who are engaged, Fenella and Juan are left an intriguing puzzle by their uncle who lived in the Isle of Man – to find four ‘ treasure chests’, not gold ingots or coins, but actually snuff boxes. In addition there are two more relatives also search for the ‘gold’.

I thought it sounded good, but I have to say that I was rather disappointed by the slightness of this short story. Their uncle has left cryptic clues leading to the ‘chests’ and a couple of sketch maps to guide them to the treasure. But I had no idea what the clues mean and could only read Fenella’s exclamations when they work it out and find the little snuff boxes. Oh, there is also a murder – one of the other relatives is bashed on the head by the other one and left to die.

It’s quite an entertaining little story, but I much prefer Agatha Christie’s full length books.

My Friday Post: The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

On Fridays I often join in with two book memes:

Book Beginnings on Fridays hosted by Rose City Reader, where bloggers share the first sentence or more of a current read, as well as initial thoughts about the sentence(s), impressions of the book, or anything else that the opening inspires. 

This week I’m featuring The Radium Girls: They paid with their lives. Their final fight was for justice by Kate Moore, one of my TBRs. It’s the true story about dial-painters, girls and women who painted the numbers on clocks, watches and other instruments using radium-infused luminous paint in the 1920s and 1930s. The girls shone brightly in the dark, covered head to toe in dust from the paint. 

The scientist had forgotten all about the radium. It was tucked discreetly within the folds of his waistcoat pocket, enclosed in a slim glass tube in such a small quantity that he could not feel its weight.

Also on a Friday The Friday 56 is hosted by 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.

56%:

‘Every week there seemed to be some emergency order that required an extra pair of hands. Then Catherine would slip her brush between her lips, dip it in the powder and paint; the girls all still did it that way at Radium Dial, for their instructions were never changed.

Books from the Mobile Library

The mobile library came here this week and for the first time since the first lockdown we could go on board the van! I borrowed just three books this time.

The Seal King Murders by Alanna Knight – an Inspector Faro Mystery. Set in 1861 in Orkney, this is the second casebook of Constable Faro, looking back to his earlier career. A champion swimmer, has drowned in mysterious circumstances and Faro is met with rumours of missing artifacts, the myth of the seal king, a dead body under the floor of Scarthbreck, his first love, and a mother who is determined to find him a wife. 

Faro later had an illustrious career as Chief Inspector in the Edinburgh City Police and personal detective to Her Majesty Queen Victoria at Balmoral. I haven’t read any of the Inspector Faro mysteries, so I think this could be a good place to start.

Alanna Knight had more than seventy books published in an impressive writing career spanning over fifty years. She was a founding member and Honorary Vice President of the Scottish Association of Writers, Honorary President of the Edinburgh Writers’ Club and member of the Scottish Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association. Alanna was awarded an MBE in 2014 for services to literature. Born and educated in Tyneside, she lived in Edinburgh until she passed away in 2020.

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman. Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, which harvests fiction from different realities. And along with her enigmatic assistant Kai, she’s posted to an alternative London. Their mission – to retrieve a dangerous book. This is fantasy in a world that is chaos-infested – the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic. It is the first of 8 books in the Invisible Library series.

Genevieve Cogman got started on Tolkien and Sherlock Holmes at an early age, and has never looked back. But on a perhaps more prosaic note, she has an MSC in Statistics with Medical Applications and has wielded this in an assortment of jobs: clinical coder, data analyst and classifications specialist. Although The Invisible Library is her debut novel, she has also previously worked as a freelance roleplaying game writer. Genevieve Cogman’s hobbies include patchwork, beading, knitting and gaming, and she lives in the north of England.

A Bespoke Murder by Edward Marston, book 1 in the Home Front Detective series. Set in 1915 with thousands of Britons away in the trenches, a severely depleted police force remains behind to keep the Home Front safe and continue the fight against crime, espionage, and military desertion. Detective Inspector Harvey Marmion and Sergeant Joe Keedy investigate the murder of Jacob Stein, a Jewish tailor, a victim of anti-German riots after the sinking of the Lusitania. His shop is set ablaze, his daughter is raped and he is murdered

Edward Marston is a pseudonym used by Keith Miles, an English author, who writes under his own name and also historical fiction and mystery novels under the pseudonym Edward Marston. He is known for his mysteries set in the world of Elizabethan theatre. He has also written a series of novels based on events in the Domesday Book, a series of The Railway Detective and a series of The Home Front Detective.

I’ve read one of Alanna Knight’s books and one by Edward Marston, but none of Genevieve Cogman’s. Have you read any of these books? Are you tempted?

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

Picador| 13 May 2021| 384 pages|Review copy| 4*

Description

1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell’s world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea.

But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Her father has sold her, promising Jasper Jupiter his very own leopard girl. It is the greatest betrayal of Nell’s life, but as her fame grows, and she finds friendship with the other performers and Jasper’s gentle brother Toby, she begins to wonder if joining the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her.

In London, newspapers describe Nell as the eighth wonder of the world. Figurines are cast in her image, and crowds rush to watch her soar through the air. But who gets to tell Nell’s story? What happens when her fame threatens to eclipse that of the showman who bought her? And as she falls in love with Toby, can he detach himself from his past and the terrible secret that binds him to his brother.

Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.

I loved Elizabeth Macneal’s first book, The Doll Factory, so I was keen to read her second, Circus of Wonders, set in 1866. I liked the circus setting and the variety of characters. The main character is Nell, the ‘leopard girl’, who is both shunned and ridiculed by the people in her village because of the birthmarks on her face and all over her body. When the travelling circus visits the village her father sells her to Jasper Jupiter’s ‘Circus of Wonders‘ as it includes a ‘freak show’, highlighting the very different attitudes of the times from those of the present day. This makes for uncomfortable reading at times, as Stella, the bearded lady, Brunette, the Welsh Giantess, and Peggy the dwarf who drives a miniature carriage are treated as objects of curiosities, acts to be bought and sold, just as Nell was sold.

It’s narrated from the perspectives of the three main characters, Nell, who became a star as ‘Nellie Moon’ flying high above the circus ring suspended beneath a balloon, Jasper, the ambitious circus owner and Toby his younger, gentler brother. Jasper is the driving force as he is forever looking for new acts to draw the crowds. His ambition is to gain a pitch in London, hoping the Queen might hear of him and want to see his show. He knows that the queen is the ‘freak-fancier par excellence, who has summoned Aztecs, pinheaded people and dwarves to her Palace’.

The brothers had both taken part in the Crimean War, Jasper as a soldier and Toby as a photographer. Toby is haunted by memories of the war and in particular of what happened to Dash, Jasper’s friend, during the siege of Sevastopol. The horror of the war has never left him. Although the circus is the main focus of the novel, it is the mystery of what happened in the Crimea and the relationships between Jasper, Toby and Dash that interested me the most and made me want to read on.

This is a novel that transported me back to the Victorian period, full of the atmosphere of both the circus and of war. It reveals the insecurities, fears and isolation that the characters suffer. It emphasises the exploitation of ‘freaks of nature’, who draw the crowds and the power of illusions. I like the mix of fact and fiction and the way that Macneal interweaves the details of the Crimean War with the circus narrative. However, I don’t think it’s quite as good as The Doll Factory, which totally captivated me with its dark tale of obsession, pulsing with drama, intrigue and suspense.

With thanks to NetGalley and especially to Pan McMillan, Picador for my review copy.

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Titles That Are Complete Sentences

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 Book Titles That Are Complete Sentences.

These are all books I’ve read.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Come Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie – a memoir about what life was like when she accompanied her husband Max Malloran on his excavations in Syria and Iraq in the 1930s.

Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie – a detective story set in on the West bank of the Nile at Thebes in about 2000 BC. 

Death Comes to Pemberley by P D James, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice set in 1803, when Elizabeth and Darcy have been married for six years. 

Did You See Melody? by Sophie Hannah – Melody was seven when she disappeared and although her body had not been discovered her parents were tried and found guilty of murdering her. What really happened to her?

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey – Maud has dementia – but she knows her friend Elizabeth is missing. I enjoyed the TV adaption with Glenda Jackson as Maud much more than the book.

Jacob’s End is on the Landing by Susan Hill – describing the books she read, reread, or returned to the shelves over the course of a year, as well as her thoughts on a whole variety of topics. It’s fascinating, rambling and chatty.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré – a story of love and betrayal at the height of the Cold War. Back from Berlin where he had seen his last agent killed whilst trying to cross the Berlin Wall, Leamas is apparently no longer useful. 

They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie – set in 1950 this is a story about international espionage and conspiracy. The heads of the ‘great powers‘ are secretly meeting in Baghdad.

 When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson. The 3rd Jackson Brodie book – in a quiet corner of rural Devon, a six-year-old girl witnesses an appalling crime. Thirty years later the man convicted of the crime is released from prison.

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. 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!

So here are 20 books that I might read this summer. They’re a mix of NetGalley books, books for various other challenges I’m doing and books from my TBRs that came to mind as I made the list.

I’ve included The Killing Kind by Jane Casey, but maybe I shouldn’t count this one as after I made the list I started reading it – I made the mistake of ‘just looking’ and couldn’t stop reading on. So I’ve listed 21 books.

  1. The Railway Children by E Nesbit
  2. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.
  3. Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K Jerome
  4. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.
  5. Sing, Jess, Sing by Tricia Coxon
  6. Blue Moon by Lee Child
  7. Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi
  8. The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge
  9. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
  10. The Killing Kind by Jane Casey
  11. The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jónasson
  12. True Crime Story by Joseph Knox
  13. Just Like the Other Girls by Claire Douglas
  14. The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles
  15. Coming Up for Air by Sarah Leipciger
  16. The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles
  17. Loch Down Abbey by Beth Cowan-Erskine
  18. A Corruption of Blood by Ambrose Parry
  19. The Rose Code by Kate Quinn
  20. : Katheryn Howard, The Tainted Queen by Alison Weir
  21. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Wish me luck!

Inland by Téa Obreht

Weidenfeld & Nicolson| 13 August 2019| 386 pages| Review copy| 3*

Nora is an unflinching frontierswoman awaiting the return of the men in her life, biding her time with her youngest son – who is convinced that a mysterious beast is stalking the land around their home – and her husband’s seventeen-year-old cousin, who communes with spirits.

Lurie is a former outlaw and a man haunted by ghosts. He sees lost souls who want something from him, and he finds reprieve from their longing in an unexpected relationship that inspires a momentous expedition across the West.

Mythical, lyrical, and sweeping in scope, Inland is grounded in true but little-known history. It showcases all of Téa Obreht’s talents as a writer, as she subverts and reimagines the myths of the American West, making them entirely – and unforgettably – her own.

My thoughts:

Inland by Téa Obreht has had many accolades, including being named one of the best books of the year by The Guardian, Time, Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, Esquire, Good Housekeeping, and The New York Public Library. I love the cover and the description made me keen to read it. It’s a book that has been on my NetGalley shelf for far too long, I’m sorry to say, mainly because each time I began reading it I struggled to understand what was going on.

It is a book of two halves really, alternating between the two storylines as the blurb outlines. I found the Lurie narrative difficult to follow at first. It’s vague – at times I didn’t know who was who, who was talking, who was a camel and who was a person. I did work it out eventually! Lurie is a former outlaw, who sees and talks to the dead. He is haunted by the spirit of Hobb, a kid of four or five. But Lurie’s story is slow and meanders. I was losing interest, and often the location was unclear as he moved from place to place. However as I got further into his story I did form a clearer picture of his life as he joined the Camel Corps and became a cameleer. (I was fascinated to discover that camels were used in the American West as pack animals.)

But it’s the second story of Nora Lark and her family, which is much clearer and easier for me to understand. It saved the book for me and made me keen to read on. They are living in Arizona in a homestead. There’s been no rain for months and their water supply is nearly exhausted. Emmett, her husband has gone to get more water and has not returned . Her two sons have gone to look for him, and Nora is left at home with her youngest son, Toby, who is terrified by a mysterious beast he sees around their house at night, and Josie, her husband’s seventeen year old ward and cousin, who see spirits. Nora’s daughter, Evelyn died before her sons were born, under mysterious circumstances, and she is constantly in Nora’s mind as she imagines her growing up and having conversations with her.

Several times as the narrative turned from Nora back to Lurie, I was about to give up on the book, but I wanted to know what happened to the Larks and to find out how the two strands would interlink, or if indeed they ever did interlink (they do). As I read on I began to understand more about Lurie and his life, but it was hard work. If I re-read it I think I would enjoy it more, but I don’t feel inclined to right now. But I really liked Nora’s story and the depiction of life in the American West during the mid-to-late 19th century.

In her acknowledgements Téa Obreht explains that Inland is a work of imagination based in part on the journals, letters and reports of the men who were part of at least one aspect of this history and on the work of the historians of the American West.

My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my review copy, with apologies for taking so long to read the book.

My Friday Post: The King’s Justice by E M Powell

On Fridays I often join in with two book memes:

Book Beginnings on Fridays hosted by Rose City Reader, where bloggers share the first sentence or more of a current read, as well as initial thoughts about the sentence(s), impressions of the book, or anything else that the opening inspires. 

This week I’m featuring The King’s Justice by E M Powell one of my TBRs. It’s the first in her Stanton and Barling medieval murder mystery series, set during the reign of Henry II. Aelred Barling is a senior clerk to the justices of King Henry II, and Hugo Stanton, his assistant are sent to investigate a brutal murder in a village outside York.

The City of York, 12 June 1176

Pit or punishment: Hugo Stanton couldn’t tell which excited the folk of these hot, crammed streets more.

Three men accused of vicious murder but who would not confess. Innocent, they’d claimed to King Henry’s travelling justices, sitting in the court in the high keep of the city’s castle.

The men were to be judged by water: lowered into a pit of water if they sank they were innocent, if they floated they were guilty and strung up on the gallows to die.

Also on a Friday The Friday 56 is hosted by 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:

‘The glow of the setting sun fell on his face. A glorious evening, one for lying in the long grass with his lost, beautiful love. Not standing facing a circle of angry, shouting people, people who wanted to take a man’s life. And wanted to take it now.

A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson

Chatto & Windus| 18 February 2021| 294 pages| Review copy| 5*

It was a complete pleasure to read A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson. I loved the clarity of the narrative, focused on three main characters, each perfectly distinct and finely described and the sense of location in a small town is excellent.

It’s set in 1972, but looks back to events thirty years earlier when Elizabeth Orchard first met Liam who was then a small boy of 3 when he and his family lived in the house next door. The last time she saw him he was still only 4 years old. It was not a happy time for either of them, and thirty years later, when she is dying she wants to make amends and gives him her house.

Clara lives next door to Elizabeth, who she loves, and she is alarmed when she sees Liam moving into Elizabeth’s house. Elizabeth had given her a key and she goes in every day to feed Moses, Elizabeth’s cat. She has no idea that Elizabeth is dying and is furious when she discovers that Liam is moving Elizabeth’s things and packing them in boxes. Her life is in turmoil in any case as she is devastated that Rose, her 16 year old sister has gone missing.

The narration moves between these three people, seeing events through their eyes. Elizabeth, in hospital looks back over her life, remembering her despair at not having a child of her own, and her love for little Liam that ended badly, despite her good intentions. Clara spends the time before and after school at the window looking out for Rose’s return and Liam, whilst remembering his sad childhood, is trying to rebuild his life after his marriage ended in divorce.

I loved this book. It’s about families, the things that go wrong, about memories and about friendships and the care that people have for each other. It’s moving and sad, but also filled with hope. And it’s beautifully written.

Many thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my review copy.

Back to Barter Books!

On Tuesday I went Barter Books in Alnwick (this is a secondhand bookshop where you can ‘swap’ books for credit that you can then use to get more books from the Barter Books shelves). The last time I went there was in January 2020. Since the pandemic began I’ve only been out to a few places and not been around many people at all, so I was a bit nervous.

These are the books I got (the descriptions are from Amazon):

After the Crash by Michel Bussi – because I’d enjoyed reading Time is a Killer by Bussi a couple of years ago.

On the night of 22 December 1980, a plane crashes on the Franco-Swiss border and is engulfed in flames. 168 out of 169 passengers are killed instantly. The miraculous sole survivor is a three-month-old baby girl. Two families, one rich, the other poor, step forward to claim her, sparking an investigation that will last for almost two decades. Is she Lyse-Rose or Emilie?

Eighteen years later, having failed to discover the truth, private detective Crédule Grand-Duc plans to take his own life, but not before placing an account of his investigation in the girl’s hands. But, as he sits at his desk about to pull the trigger, he uncovers a secret that changes everything – then is killed before he can breathe a word of it to anyone . . .

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay – this has been on my wishlist for years!

It was a cloudless summer day in the year nineteen hundred.

Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three of the girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of Hanging Rock. Further, higher, till at last they disappeared.

They never returned.

Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction the reader must decide for themselves.

Fire by L C Tyler – I’ve never read any of his books. I chose it because I like historical fiction and I’m interested in the Restoration period, having read Andrew Taylor’s Marwood and Lovett series also set in the same period. Fire is the fourth book in the John Grey Historical Mystery series.

1666. London has been destroyed by fire and its citizens are looking for somebody, preferable foreign, to blame. Only the royal Court, with its strong Catholic sympathies, is trying to dampen down the post-conflaguration hysteria. Then, inconveniently, a Frenchman admits to having started it together with an accomplice, whom he says he has subsequently killed.

John Grey is tasked by Secretary of State, Lord Arlington, with proving conclusively that the self-confessed fire-raiser is lying. Though Grey agrees with Arlington that the Frenchman must be mad, he is increasingly perplexed at how much he knows. And a body has been discovered that appears in every way to match the description of the dead accomplice.

Grey’s investigations take him and his companion, Lady Pole, into the dangerous and still smoking ruins of the old City. And somebody out there – somebody at the very centre of power in England – would prefer it if they didn’t live long enough to conclude their work…

The Librarian by Salley Vickers – I’ve read a few of Salley Vickers’ books and enjoyed them, especially  Miss Garnet’s Angel and Mr Golightly’s Holiday, which I read before I began this blog.

In 1958, Sylvia Blackwell, fresh from one of the new post-war Library Schools, takes up a job as children’s librarian in a run down library in the market town of East Mole.

Her mission is to fire the enthusiasm of the children of East Mole for reading. But her love affair with the local married GP, and her befriending of his precious daughter, her neighbour’s son and her landlady’s neglected grandchild, ignite the prejudices of the town, threatening her job and the very existence of the library with dramatic consequences for them all.

The Librarian is a moving testament to the joy of reading and the power of books to change and inspire us all.

There was a queue outside when I got there as entry to the bookshop is limited to a maximum of about sixty people at a time to ensure enough space for social distancing. Although I was pleased to be able to go to Barter Books again, there were too many people there for me, especially around the counter and the crime fiction bookcases near the counter. So I didn’t linger and went to back of the main hall, which is the largest room in the shop where there were only a few people browsing the shelves. Even so I felt nervous, so once I’d found four books I decided it was time for me to leave. I’ve never been comfortable in crowds, even before the pandemic.