The Black Mountain by Kate Mosse #NovNov22

Week 4 in Novellas in November is Contemporary novellas (post 1980)

The Black Mountain by Kate Mosse (136 pages) 3*

This is a Quick Reads publication – a series of short books by bestselling authors and celebrities. They are designed to encourage adults who do not read often, or find reading difficult, to discover the joy of books. I like the long novels Kate Mosse writes, so I wondered what this short novel would be like.

It is historical fiction set in May 1706 on the northern part of the island of Tenerife, where Ana and her family live in the shadow of a volcano, known locally as the Black Mountain. It’s also a murder mystery – Ana’s father Tomas had apparently committed suicide, but Anna just can’t accept that and reading the letter he’d left she is convinced it was murder. She is determined to find out the truth.

Legend says the mountain has the devil living inside it and when the devil was angry he sent fire and rocks up into the sky. However, there has been no eruption for thousands of years and no one believes it is a threat. Sometimes the earth trembled and shook but the sky never turned red. Until, that is two days after Tomas’ death. He had seen the signs that the mountain was about to erupt and had tried to warn people – but they didn’t want to know. When more tremors occur, and grey ash starts falling Ana realises the danger signs are increasing and she needs to warn people that they must flee before the volcano erupts and destroys their world.

I enjoyed this novella, reading it quickly, feeling almost as though I was also in danger as the Black Mountain threatens to erupt and wondering if Ana would discover the truth about her father’s death in time for her to escape.

The Black Mountain is based on a real historical event. The town of Garachio erupted from May 4 to 5, 1706, which was disastrous not only for the town but also for the entire archipelago. Its port concentrated a large part of the international trade that linked the island with Europe, Africa and America.

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I’ve read a few of the Quick Reads. Here’s a list of all the available titles.

Talking About Detective Fiction by P D James #NovNov22

Week 3 in Novellas in November is Short Nonfiction.

Faber & Faber| 2010| 160 pages| Paperback|My Own Copy| 4*

From the birth of crime writing with Wilkie Collins and Dostoevsky, through Conan Doyle to the golden age of crime, with the rise of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham, P. D. James brings a lifetime of reading and writing crime fiction to bear on this personal history of the genre. There are chapters on great American crime writers – the likes of Patricia Highsmith, Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett. James also discusses many of her favourite famous detectives, from Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe.

P.D. James, the bestselling author of Death Comes to Pemberley, Children of Men and The Murder Room, presents a brief history of detective fiction and explores the literary techniques behind history’s best crime writing.

I do like reading books about books and as crime fiction is one of my favourite genres I wanted to read Talking About Detective Fiction by P D James. In December 2006 she was asked to write the book by the Bodleian Publishing House, in aid of the Library. It’s a personal account and being a short book doesn’t go into much detail about any of the writers. It’s an overview of mostly British authors, with just one chapter, entitled Soft-centred and Hard-boiled in which she writes about the differences between the hard-boiled school of American fiction and some of the Golden Age writers.

I’m familiar with the work of most of the authors in this book, but there are some James mentions I haven’t read, such as Dashiell Hammett, who wrote short stories featuring the Continental Op and Sam Spade, who also appears in one full-length novel, The Maltese Falcon. James’ favourite of the hard-boiled writers was Kenneth Millar, who wrote under the pseudonym of Ross Macdonald, novels featuring private detective Lew Archer. But she didn’t give the details of any of his books.

The structure of the book is rather loose and meandering. Although it is divided into eight chapters, the works of some, such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers appear in several chapters spread across the book as a whole. The book needs an index to draw the separate entries together! I think the parts I enjoyed the most are those in which James writes about her own methods of working, and the chapter on Telling the Story: Setting, Viewpoint and People.

There is a short bibliography and list of suggested reading at the end of the book. Throughout the book there are several cartoons, which add an amusing touch.

Finally, you need to be aware if you haven’t read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd that without any warning, she gives away not just a little spoiler, but the identity of the murderer! I was amazed!

Maigret’s Memoirs by Georges Simenon Translated by Howard Curtis

Week 2 in Novellas in November is Novellas in translation and a Maigret book is an obvious choice for me. But Maigret’s Memoirs is not your usual Maigret mystery. This a memoir written by Simenon writing as his fictional character, Maigret.

Penguin Classics| 2016| 160 pages| My Own Copy| 4*

I can still see Simenon coming into my office the next day, pleased with himself, displaying even more self-confidence, if possible, than before, but nevertheless with a touch of anxiety in his eyes.’

Maigret sets the record straight and tells the story of his own life, giving a rare glimpse into the mind of the great inspector – and the writer who would immortalise him.

‘One of the greatest writers of the twentieth century . . . Simenon was unequalled at making us look inside, though the ability was masked by his brilliance at absorbing us obsessively in his stories’ Guardian

‘A supreme writer . . . unforgettable vividness’ Independent

The original French version of Maigret’s MemoirsLes Mémoires de Maigret, was first published in 1950. An English translation was later published in Great Britain in 1963. It is unlike any of the other Maigret novels. It’s a fictional autobiography by Georges Simenon writing as Maigret, beginning in 1927 or 1928 when Maigret and Simenon, calling himself Georges Sim, first ‘met’. I don’t recommend reading if you haven’t read some of the Maigret mysteries.

I enjoyed it – it’s a quick entertaining read as Maigret looks back to his first ‘meeting’ with Sim. He fills in some of the background of his early life and talks about his father and how he first met his wife, Louise. Simenon had written 34 Maigret novels before this one and Maigret took this opportunity to correct some of Simenon’s inaccuracies. I recognised some of the books – I’ve read 11 of his first 34 books.

One of the things that irritated Maigret the most was Simenon’s habit of mixing up dates, of putting at the beginning of his career investigations that had taken place later and vice versa. He’d kept press cuttings that his wife had collected and he had thought of using them to make a chronology of the main cases in which he’d been involved. And he also considered some details his wife had noted – concerning their apartment on Boulevard Richard Lenoir, pointing out that in several books Simenon had them living on Place des Vosges without explaining why. There were also times when he retired Maigret even though he was still several years away from retirement. Madame Maigret was also bothered by inaccuracies concerning other characters in the books and by Simenon’s description of a bottle of sloe gin that was always on the dresser in their apartment – that was in actual fact not sloe gin but raspberry liqueur given to them every year by her sister-in-law from Alsace.

Simenon drops facts and information piecemeal in his Maigret books and one thing I particularly like in Maigret’s Memoirs is that it is all about Maigret, but I did miss not having a mystery to solve.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding: a Mini Review of a Short Classic

The first weekly theme for Novellas in November is short classics and I read Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s 1954 novel about a group of boys stranded on a desert island. It was his first novel and it certainly packs a punch. It was described as ‘A post-apocalyptic, dystopian survivor-fantasy … [A novel] for all time … A cult classic.’ Guardian. It’s a quick read of just 183 pages.

What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages? What’s grown-ups going to think? Going off-hunting pigs-letting fires out-and now!

A plane crashes on a desert island. The only survivors are a group of schoolboys. By day, they explore the dazzling beaches, gorging fruit, seeking shelter, and ripping off their uniforms to swim in the lagoon. At night, in the darkness of the jungle, they are haunted by nightmares of a primitive beast. Orphaned by society, they must forge their own; but it isn’t long before their innocent games devolve into a murderous hunt …

I thought I’d read this book years ago. But as soon as I began reading I realised I hadn’t read it – it’s one of those books you think you’ve read because you know the basic outline of what happens.

It is frighteningly believable. What at first seemed to the boys as a great adventure – stranded on a desert island, leaving them free to play all day without any annoying interference from adults, soon descended into a sinister nightmare scenario. They elected a leader, Ralph who initially made friends with Jack, the leader of a group of choirboys. But soon the two fell out as Jack, disappointed at not being chosen as leader, tried to take over – and a battle for power followed.

Ralph wanted to make sure they were seen if a ship passed the island and organised the boys to keep a fire going as a smoke signal. But when one of the younger boys thought he saw a beast in the jungle panic set in. Jack made himself the leader of the hunters, promising to hunt and kill the beast band the boys let the fire go out as they joined the hunt. Things got completely out of hand ending in chaos. It is absolutely gripping and very dark, showing the savage side of human nature.

Novellas in November 2022

Novellas in November is being hosted once more by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck, running from 1-30 November 2022. They suggest 150–200 pages as the upper limit for a novella.

Here’s the schedule:

1–7 November: Short classics (pre 1980) (Rebecca)

8–14 November: Novellas in translation (Cathy)

15–21 November: Short nonfiction (Rebecca)

22–28 November: Contemporary novellas (post 1980) (Cathy)

29–30 November: You might like to post a “New to my TBR” or “My NovNov Month” roundup.

There is also one overall buddy read. Claire Keegan has experienced a resurgence of attention thanks to the Booker Prize shortlisting of Small Things Like These (which I have read – review to follow). Foster is a modern Irish classic that comes in at under 90 pages, and, in its original version, is free to read on the New Yorker website. You can find that here. (Or whet your appetite with Cathy’s review.)

Keegan describes Foster as a “long short story” rather than a novella, but it was published as a standalone volume by Faber in 2010. A new edition will be released by Grove Press in the USA on November 1st, and the book is widely available for Kindle. It is also the source material for the recent record-breaking Irish-language film The Quiet Girl, so there are several ways for you to encounter this story.

I’m aiming to read Foster during November.

I won’t be taking part every week, as there are other books I want to read. But I’m going to pick a few novellas from this pile. They are a mix of fiction and nonfiction.

And I’ll choose one or more from this selection of novellas on my Kindle:

Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Signal Moon by Kate Quinn
North to Paradise by Ousman Umar
Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to Happiness
The Ardent Swarm by Yamen Manai
Silent Kill by Jane Casey

Novellas in November: Ethan Frome

I intended to post this review of Ethan Frome at the weekend, but Storm Arwen stopped that. We were without power from last Friday afternoon until yesterday (Monday) afternoon! It was a cold, dark weekend. So this post about Edith Wharton’s short classic (120 pages) and the ‘buddy’ read is overdue!

I first read it seven years ago and although I remembered that it was a beautifully told tale I didn’t remember all the details. So I loved it all over again when I re-read it. What follows is a revised version of my original review.

It’s a tragedy, signalled right from the beginning of the book, when the unnamed narrator first saw Ethan Frome and was told he had been disfigured and crippled in a ‘smash up’, twenty four years earlier. Life had not been good to him:

Sickness and trouble: that’s what Ethan’s had his plate full up with ever since the very first helping.

Even though Ethan Frome is a tragedy there is light to contrast the darkness, and there is love and hope set against repression and misery. It’s a short book and deceptively simple to read, but there is so much packed into it. As well as striking and memorable characters the setting is  beautifully described – a ‘mute and melancholy landscape, an incarceration of frozen woe‘, in the isolated village of Starkfield (a fictional New England village).

Trapped in an unhappy marriage, Ethan’s life had changed when his father died and he had had to give up his studies to work on the farm. His wife Zeena had always been ill and needing help in the house, which was why her cousin Mattie came to live with them. At first it worked out quite well, but Ethan can’t shrug off a sense of dread, even though he could

… imagine that peace reigned in his house.

There was really even now, no tangible evidence to the contrary; but since the previous night a vague dread had hung on the sky-line. It was formed of Zeena’s obstinate silence, of Mattie’s sudden look of warning, of the memory of just such fleeting imperceptible signs as those which told him, on certain stainless mornings, that before night there would be rain.

His dread was so strong that, man-like, he sought to postpone certainty.

As I said I didn’t remember the details of the tragedy and had thought that the outcome was different, so I was surprised by it. I think that made it even more tragic than I’d thought. I’m glad that I re-read it.

Edith Wharton (1862 – 1937) was an American author. Ethan Frome was first published in 1911 and is in contrast to some of her other books about the New York society of the 1870s to 1920s. It’s a rural tragedy of inevitable suffering and sadness that reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s books.

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It was first published in 1967 and has since been republished a few times. The copy I read was published by Vintage in 1998. It’s a novella of 189 pages, with a list of characters at the beginning followed by a note, that indicates the truth of the story it tells is in question:

Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction the readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.

On St Valentine’s Day in 1900, a party of nineteen girls accompanied by two schoolmistresses sets off from the elite Appleyard College for Young Ladies, for a day’s outing at the spectacular volcanic mass called Hanging Rock. The picnic, which begins innocently and happily, ends in explicable terror, and some of the party never returned. What happened to them remains a mystery.

I enjoyed it immensely. I love the detailed descriptions of the Australian countryside and the picture it paints of society in 1900, with the snobbery and class divisions of the period. It’s a hot day, the picnic at the base of Hanging Rock shaded from the heat by two or three spreading gums was going well, and while some of the party dozed in the sunshine four of the girls walked to the Rock to get a closer view. As they walked up to the pinnacles and crags the plain below came into sight, but infinitely vague and distant and a rather curious sound was coming up from the plain, like the beating of far off drums. They neared a monolith rising up in front of them and:

Suddenly overcome by an overpowering lassitude, all four girls flung themselves down on the gently sloping rock in the shelter of the monolith, and there fell into a sleep so deep that a horned lizard emerged from a crack to lie without fear in the hollow of Miranda’s outflung arm.

Nobody had noticed that one of the teacher had also left the picnic. The day ended dramatically when one of the girls ran screaming down to the plain, back to the picnic grounds. She had left the other three girls ‘somewhere up there’, but she had no idea where that was. Despite lengthy searches only one girl was found and she couldn’t remember what had happened. It was all very strange. There’s an eerie feeling hanging over the whole event – during the picnic two of the adults found that their watches had stopped at twelve o’clock and they had no idea of the time. It was as though time had been suspended.

It’s a deceptively simple story, but with so many layers and undercurrents, making this mysteriously compelling reading. All the characters are believable people, each with their own backstories, and all their lives are affected and changed by the events of that one day. There’s a dreamlike quality to the mystery and a suspicion of the supernatural surrounding it. I loved the ambiguity of it all.

This is a Novella in November contribution and also qualifies as an entry for AusReading Month 2021.

Short Classics: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

It’s the last week of Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca, and the final theme is short classics. The buddy read this week is Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton and I’ll post my thoughts later this week. Today my short classic is The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, which won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.In 1954 Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 1954 for his mastery of the art of narrative and for the influence that he had exerted on contemporary style.

Synopsis – This is the story of an old Cuban fisherman and his supreme ordeal: a relentless, agonizing battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. Using the simple, powerful language of a fable, Hemingway takes the timeless themes of courage in the face of defeat and personal triumph won from loss and transforms them into a magnificent twentieth-century classic.

My thoughts:

A simple story on the surface, told in a few pages, yet full of depth. Hemingway’s language is direct and deceptively simple too, but I was drawn into his descriptive writing, almost a stream of consciousness in placea. I felt the exhaustion of the old man as he struggled to catch the enormous marlin and then to return to the shore with his catch.

It’s one of those books that I find so difficult to write about, a well known story that has received much praise and also a lot of criticism as some people find it boring.. There’s this old man alone on the sea pondering about life and death, what he has achieved and also his failures. He is at the end of his strength and yet he endures. He has perseverance and determination and pride. Pride in his ability and in his way of life. The matter of sin occupies his mind and he thinks it was a sin to kill the fish, even though he did it to keep himself alive and feed many people. Then he thought he was born to be a fisherman:

You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?

So, yes this is a simple tale and well told – it is more than just a fishing story and it gave me much to ponder.

Novellas in November: Translation Week: Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon, Translated by David Bellos

This week’s  Novellas in November is Translation Week and I’ve chosen Georges Simenon’s Pietr the Latvian, translated by David Bellos (165 pages). It is officially the first Maigret book, although it was originally published in instalments in the magazine Ric et Rac between July and October 1930.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Jules Maigret is a Detective Chief Inspector of the Flying Squad in Paris and we get a really detailed description of him – he was a broad heavy man, aged forty-five:

His clothes were well cut and made of fairly light worsted. He shaved every day and looked after his hands.

But his frame was proletarian. He was a big bony man. Iron muscles shaped his jacket sleeves and quickly wore through new trousers.

He had a way of imposing himself just by standing there. His assertive presence had often irked many of his own colleagues.

It was something more than self-confidence but less than pride. He would turn up and stand like a rock with his feet wide apart. On that rock all would shatter, whether Maigret moved forward or stayed exactly where he was.

His pipe was nailed to his jawbone. (page 21)

He has received messages that Pietr the Latvian, an international criminal, is en route by train from the Netherlands to Paris. He has a description of Pietr and went immediately to the Gare du Nord to intercept him. But on spotting him he had to let him go because a man had been murdered on the train – and that man also matched Pietr’s description. From that point on. I became increasingly confused. Who is Pietr the Latvian? Was he the man who got off the train or the man who was murdered?

There are many characters and for quite a lot of the book I struggled to work out who was who. Maigret spends his time going from place to place and interviewing many people and I really had little idea of what was going on. The question of identity plays a major part. Pietr was thought to be the head of a major international ring mainly involved in fraud, counterfeit money and forged documents and his known associates seem to be mainly British and American. The setting in the 1930s is a mix of glamorous hotels and bars in Paris, seedy back streets, and the seaside town of Fécamp in Normandy. The book does feel dated now along with the anti-antisemitism some of the characters voiced.

If you haven’t read any of the Maigret books I suggest you start with one of the later books, which are much better. What I liked about it is that it establishes Maigret’s character and appearance right from the beginning. He feels like a real person with solidity and presence. He’s also tough, carrying on chasing around after Pietr even after he’s been shot. I think it’s an interesting story, in which a lot happens and even if I was mystified at first it did become clearer as I read on and I was pleased to find that I had worked out Pietr’s identity before it was revealed.

Pietr the Latvian is included in the Inspector Maigret Omnibus 1. The four titles are Pietr the Latvian, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, The Carter of ‘La Providence’, The Grand Banks Café.

Previously I’ve read:

and

Short Nonfiction: Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke

Little, Brown Book Group| 26 January 2021| 154 pages| 4*

Novellas in November is hosted by Cathy and Rebecca. This week the focus is on short nonfiction.

I’ve watched TV programmes about Covid-19, seeing what it was like in a number of hospitals as the virus took hold in the UK, so a lot of the information in Rachel Clarke’s book, Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic wasn’t new to me. But, I wanted to read this book to get an inside perspective on what it was like working in the NHS during the pandemic.

There have been so many fears that the NHS would be overwhelmed and reports criticising the way the government has dealt with the situation – and this is still the case now as winter approaches and the number of daily confirmed cases of coronavirus is still high, whilst hospital waiting lists for non-Covid-19 treatment remain high. Add to this there are now reports that doctors are saying that casualty departments are on the ‘edge of a precipice’, leading to dangerous levels of handover delays with patients forced to wait in ambulances for up to 11 hours outside hospitals. On TV I’ve seen the enormous queues of ambulances outside hospitals waiting to admit patients!

Rachel Clarke is a palliative care doctor and her book recounts her experiences during the first four months of 2020, when she worked on the Covid-19 wards in the Oxford University Hospitals system. Taken from her diary that she kept at the time it has an immediacy as she records her insomnia, her fears for her family and also the tremendous resilience, courage and empathy that she and the rest of the hospital staff had.

She tells the now familiar story about the PPE shortages, the lack of funding they experienced and criticises the government for their failure to act quickly enough – which I echo. Although it is a grim account, as I expected, it is also uplifting to know the care they took of their patients and the attentiveness to their patients’ needs despite the fact that many of the staff were not trained in intensive care and had never dealt with anything like this before.The way they had to prioritise patients is shocking, but I suppose inevitable given the lack of resources and staff.

She found that being a pandemic doctor was revelatory:

The crisis has undeniably revealed sweeping truths about social and economic inequalities, class divisions, global interconnectedness and the fact that our society’s most vital key workers were, and remain, among the lowest paid and the least empowered. Historians will dissect the issues for years to come. My revelations were about people. I learned from ward to ward, from bedside to bedside, paying meticulous attention to one human being and then another. I discovered how to distinguish what we absolutely cannot do without from what is really in the end, superfluous. (page 18)

This book is a snapshot, written at the time:

It depicts life and death, hope, fear, medicine at its most impotent and also at its finest, the courage of patients in enormous adversity, the stress of being torn between helping those patients and endangering your spouse and children, the long, fretful nights ruminating over whether the PPE you wear fits the science or the size of the government stockpile. I needed, I think, to take a stand with my pen and simply say: I was there. I have seen it, from the inside. I know what it was like. Here, with all its flaws and its inherent subjectivity, is my testimony. Make of it what you will. (pages 18-19)

Breathtaking records the compassion and kindness of numerous people, and pays tribute to both NHS staff and volunteers in dealing with such a distressing and immensely horrific situation.