The Sunday Salon – Reader Satisfaction

I’m in the middle of two very different books – Going Into a Dark House, a book of short stories by Jane Gardam and Messenger of Truth, a Maisie Dobbs mystery by Jacqueline Winspear. Both are giving me a lot of reader satisfaction; they take me out of myself and into their worlds, peopled by believable characters, set in realistic locations, and with plots that are detailed and complicated enough to keep me wondering how everything will turn out and hoping for a sequel.

I’ve only recently begun to appreciate short stories and still prefer the longer short stories in preference to those of just a few pages. The plus factor is reading short stories is that you can read one in just one session, making it a complete experience. Going Into a Dark House is a collection of eight short stories, all long enough to satisfy my requirements. The title story, which I haven’t read yet is the longest and is in three parts. Death figures quite a lot in these stories, in different guises and also reflections on age, youth and nostalgia. The first story is Blue Poppies which begins: “My mother died with her hand in the hand of the Duchess.” You know at the start that there is a death; the rest of the story leads up to this death and its effect on the daughter.  I like the way Jane Gardam writes, conjuring such vivid images that it seems as those I’m actually witnessing the scene. For example the blue poppies are

… just like Cadbury’s chocolate papers crumpled up under the tall black trees in a sweep, the exact colour, lying about among their pale hairy leaves in the muddy earth, raindrops scattering them with a papery noise. 

Zoo-Zoo is a strange little tale about a dying nun who is taken by two of her fellow nuns to a nursing home to end her days. She is not as senile as they suppose. My favourite story so far in this collection is Dead Children, which I think is absolutely brilliant. How Jane Gardam can write twelve pages about such a deceptively simple meeting of a mother and her two children and infuse them with such depth of meaning and emotion is just beyond me.  The twist at the end makes an ordinary everyday event amazingly extraordinary.

Messenger of Truth is a much longer book and my reading has been spread out over a few sessions already. It is a detective story set in 1930/1 in England. The artist Nick Bassington-Hope has fallen to his death from the scaffolding whilst installing his work at an art gallery. The police believe it is an accident, but his twin sister Georgina isn’t convinced and hires Maisie Dobbs to investigate his death. Along with Nick’s death there is also the mystery of the missing piece of art work that was to be the centre of the exhibition.

I’m just over half-way through this novel and I think I’m going to have to abandon other books I have on the go in order to finish it. Maisie’s methods of investigation take her to the art gallery, to Dungeness where Nick lived in a converted railway carriage and to visit his family at their home near Tenterden. After questioning his friends and seeing Nick’s paintings she becomes convinced the mystery of his death is related to the missing painting and that this is connected to Nick’s experiences as a war artist during the First World War.

I like the way the mystery is set in the cultural and social setting of this period, between the two World Wars. England is a place where there is a great divide between the wealthy and the poor. Maisie’s assistant Billy Beale is struggling to accept that people have money to spend on artwork when others can’t afford food and medicine. The realities of life are highlighted when Billy’s family catch diphtheria and his two year old baby, Lizzie is taken into hospital. The lingering effects of the war are starkly and shockingly described in Georgina’s reminiscences about the treatment during the war of men suffering from shell-shock.

 Maisie is a an independent woman living on her own, working out her relationship with Andrew Dene, who hoped to marry her. Their relationship is floundering as she is absorbed in her work and doesn’t want to give it up and conform to the accepted role of being a doctor’s wife. She is discontent and is seeking a quality out of life that she cannot quite define. She finds the thrill of investigation outweighs her desire to help others. It is the search for truth that motivates and thrills her.

Both books are immensely satisfying.

A Good Hanging by Ian Rankin


Happy Birthday to Ian Rankin. My choice for the Celebrate the Author Challenge in April is A Good Hanging by Ian Rankin whose birthday is today 28 April.

A Good Hanging is a collection of twelve short stories featuring Inspector John Rebus, set in Edinburgh. All the stories are concise and I think convey the character of Rebus; he is cynical and analytical, a lone worker, who drinks and smokes too much. None of the stories pose complex mysteries and are seemingly easily solved by Rebus. I did enjoy the book but it is less satisfying for me than a full length novel. I have several other Rebus books in line including Black and Blue, which promises to be ‘a first-rate and gripping novel’, according to the Sunday Times.

First published in 1992 it’s one of the earlier Rebus books. The first story in this book is called ‘Playback‘. Rebus is impressed by being able to phone your home phone ‘from the car-phone’ to get ‘the answering machine to play back any messages.’ You can tell from this that it’s rather different from current crime detection fiction. As the title indicates, solving the crime in this story hinges on phone messages. The police receive a phone call from the murderer confessing his crime. He panics and tries to flee, only to be caught as the police arrive on the scene of the crime. He then insists on his innocence. Rebus disentangles the puzzle even though this seems to be ‘the perfect murder’.

In ‘The Dean Curse‘ Rebus is reading Hammett’s novel ‘The Dain Curse‘, which he tosses up into the air disgusted by how far-fetched and melodramatic that book was, piling on coincidence after coincidence ‘corpse following corpse like something off an assembly line’, when he receives a phone call with news of a car bomb that had just gone off in Edinburgh. He cannot believe it has happened. It seems as though this is the work of terrorists, the bomb having all the hallmarks of an IRA bomb and it had gone off seconds after the car had been stolen. It seems to Rebus as if the coincidences in the Hammett story have nothing on his case. But there is more to this case than at first meets the eye.

My favourite in the book is the title story ‘Good Hanging‘ in which Rebus solves the crime through his knowledge of ‘Twelfth Night‘. It’s set during the Edinburgh Festival period, when the city is full of young people, theatrical people. A Fringe group, comprising a number of students are staging a play called ‘Scenes from a Hanging’ promising a live hanging on stage. The story starts with the discovery of a young man found hanging from the stage scaffold in Parliament Square. It appears to be suicide according to the note in his pocket ‘Pity it wasn’t Twelfth Night’. Rebus investigates and finds that all is not as it seems.

The other stories involve the discovery of a skeleton buried beneath a concrete floor, a Peeping Tom, and blackmailers. One story I particularly like is ‘Being Frank‘ about a tramp who overhears two men talking about a war that’s coming. He is well known for making up stories and informing the police of numerous conspiracies so they just laugh at him. But fearing the end of the world Frank confides in Rebus who eventually begins to suspect that this time Frank is not lying.

I see on Ian Rankin’s website that he has written the final Rebus book Exit Music. Another book to add to the book mountain.

The Sidmouth Letters by Jane Gardam

The Sidmouth Letters

The Sidmouth Letters is a collection of eleven short stories. It’s a short book of just under 150 pages, so it doesn’t take long to read the whole book. With a collection of short stories I tend not to read from the start to the end, picking and choosing which ones to read, but with this one I read the stories in the order they are in the book. I was glad I did as I think the last one is the best. The stories are nicely varied in style and content with convincing and authentic characters. I liked some more than others.

The first story is ‘The Tribute’, a perceptive and amusing study of a trio of Kensington widows exposing their small-minded attitude to a former nanny, when they receive news of her death.

I wasn’t too keen on ‘Lychees for Tone’. It is written in the present tense, which I find irritating. A lonely mother lives with her son. As she waits for him to bring home a new girlfriend she ponders what she will be like and her isolation and prejudices become apparent. I thought the ending was disappointing with a predictable play on words.

‘The Great, Grand, Soap-Water Kick’ is a story about a tramp, Horsa looking for a house in which he can have a bath, which only happens every second year or so. You can imagine the state he is in and the state of the house by the time he has finished. I liked the idea and the structure of the story. Although I liked the imagery and the style of writing does reflect the character, I found it jarring and disjointed. But then I don’t think you’re actually meant to like Horsa.

Up steps smelly Horsa.
Rings bell no answer.
Ringsgain no answer.
Ringsgainturns look updown. Not living soul. Not motor car. Not bike. Only cat gatepost watch through yellow slits. Cat stands, stretches on four fat sixpences, turns round, curls upgain, goes sleep.

In ‘Hetty Sleeping’ a married woman on holiday with her two children meets a former lover, and wonders what her life could have been like.

In ‘Transit Passengers’ two young students are leaving Greece and go their separate ways. Will their love survive, or is it as transitory as their journey?

‘The Dickies’ are a married couple. Mrs Dickie is neurotic and has to suffer her husband’s infidelities. All is not as it seems, however.

I particularly liked ‘A Spot of Gothic’. A young army wife living in the remote countryside is driving home alone late one night when she encounters a woman standing in her garden waving to her. It’s the loneliest part of the road and she is shaken and frightened at the sight. She wonders if she saw a ghost. When she returns to the road the next day she feels she is being watched and sees a woman who asks her the time and walks away, leaving the young wife feeling terrified: ‘The dreadful sense of loss, the melancholy, were so thick in the air that there was almost a smell, a sick smell of them.’ Who has she seen?

The last story ‘The Sidmouth Letters’ deals imaginatively with Jane Austen’s love life. Annie meets a former professor who had claimed credit for her work when she was a student. He has discovered that love letters, supposedly written by Jane Austen have been found and he sends Annie off to Sidmouth with instructions to buy the letters. The story reveals how Annie gets her own back on the professor. The question is – did Jane Austen write the Sidmouth letters? This story was the reason that I read the book and it didn’t disappoint.

Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke and illustrated by Charles Vess


I started the R.I.P. Challenge II aiming to read just one book. It’s now nearly the end of the challenge and I have exceeded my target. I have read Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott, several short stories from Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, from the Great Ghost Stories collection published by the Chancellor Press and today I finished reading The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke. I’m glad I took this challenge as it has made me read Poe’s Tales after years of wondering what they are like, but I am a little disappointed that they are not as spooky as I imagined them to be and I don’t like the gory elements and Poe’s fascination with premature burials. I’m probably in a minority on this.

Ghostwalk was to my mind a much more satisfying read and I’m pleased that The Ladies of Grace and Adieu was as fantastical as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (also by Susanna Clarke), which I read about two years ago. I was entranced by Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which is set in a parallel nineteenth century England and tells the story of two magicians, full of mystery, magic, fantasy and faerie tales and The Ladies, although much shorter, is another book full of fantasy stories.

As a child I read all the fairytale books I could find and The Ladies collection takes me back to the magical world of those stories. They are full of deep dark woods, paths leading to houses that seemingly move locations, ladies who are never what they appear to be, princesses, owls, and above all fairies, including the Raven King.

The stories are all captivating and strange and set up echoes in my mind of such fairytales, as Rumpelstiltskin (in On Lickerish Hill). My favourite stories are The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Mrs Mabb, and The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse. The Ladies explains why Jonathan Strange prevented his clergyman brother-in-law from an engagement with Cassandra Parbringer as Strange discovers that his magic is no match for Cassandra and her two friends, the three bewitching ladies of Grace Adieu.

Mrs Mabb is a fascinating story in which the heroine, Venetia Moore contends with the mysterious Mrs Mabb who has stolen away Venetia’s fiancé. Whichever path she takes to get to Mrs Mabb’s house she cannot find it, although she catches sight of the house and wonders at the smallness of it. She is surprised to realise that she remembers little of what has happened to her after she is found in a state of confusion, with her clothes in tatters. On another occasion after trying to get to the house she dances all night until her feet are bleeding, and finally she is attacked by what seems to be a great crowd of people with glittering swords. This reminded me of a book my mother used to have full of strange and wonderful stories and poems, one of which was about Queen Mab. I wish I still had that book. I have tried to find what the poem could be – as I remember it, Queen Mab was a fairy queen, full of malice and mischief, who turned out to be not what she seems. I think the poem I read must have been from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in Mercutio’s speech in Act 1 scene iv:

O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider’s web,
The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,

Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.

The story I enjoyed the most was The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse. I have not read any of Neil Gaiman’s books, but I think I really should. The story of the Duke’s horse is set in Wall, a village in the world created by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess, where there is an actual wall dividing our world and the world of Faerie, guarded by burly villagers with cudgels. The proud Duke, the Nation’s Hero, passes unchallenged by the intimidated villagers into Faerie, in pursuit of his horse. His fate is then seemingly set in stitches in a magnificent piece of embroidery in exquisite pictures. I wonder if the creator of Heroes has read this story – there are similarities with the painter, Isaac, who has the ability to paint the future? The Duke’s fate depends on whether he can alter the future shown in the embroidery. The ending has a satisfying twist.

I have enjoyed this Challenge and although it ends on 31 October I shall carry on reading “R.I.P.” books. I have Susan Hill’s The Man in the Picture and Raold Dahl’s Completely Unexpected Tales waiting in line.

 

Ghost Stories R.I.P.Challenge II


Great Ghost Stories

This is a collection of ghost stories by different authors including G.K. Chesterton, Walter De La Mare, O. Henry, Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, R.L.Stevenson, and H.G. Wells. So far I have read just a few of them and I’m looking forward to reading the rest. It’s a good book to dip into from time to time.

Berenice by Edgar Allen Poe
Keeping His Promise by Algernon Blackwood
Honolulu by Somerset Maugham
The Hostelry by Guy de Maupassant
The Murder of the Mandarin by Arnold Bennett

Berenice is not included in Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. According to Wikipedia it was first published in the Southern Literary Messenger in March 1835 and due to public outcry an edited version was published in 1840.

The opening sentence sets the scene ‘Misery is manifold.’ From then on you know that this is another of Poe’s tales of unrelieved tragedy. There is no escaping it. The narrator is Egaeus, an obsessive intellectual who falls in love with his cousin, Berenice. She is his opposite, beautiful, agile, healthy and full of energy. His obsession is monomania; he is fixated on objects to the exclusion of everything else around him. Alas, disease befell Berenice and she wasted away until all that was unchanged were her teeth. Egaeus as you would expect is devastated, but is totally obsessed with her perfect teeth and he sees them everywhere. She dies. He comes to as though ‘awakened from a confused and exciting dream’ to an horrific discovery ‘.

This story is very much what I’ve come to expect from Poe and repeats a number of themes he uses in other stories – death, burial and mental illness. To me they lack suspense, maybe because they are so short. When he revised Berenice Poe wrote in a letter to the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger on April 30, 1835: “I allow that it approaches the very verge of bad taste — but I will not sin quite so egregiously again.” I not sure that he succeeded.

Keeping His Promise by Algernon Blackwood is a story with a supernatural twist; he builds up a tale of gradually increasing tension. Marriott is a student at Edinburgh University studying for his exams. He is disturbed in his room by the arrival of Field, who appeared to be starving, thin as a skeleton, exhausted and under the influence of drugs. Marriott gave him a whisky and they had supper together before Field dropped with exhaustion on Marriott’s bed where he slept the night. Marriott could hear his heavy deep breathing in the next room as he resumed his studies. When morning came there was no sign of Field and Marriott feels a sensation of fear, his left arm throbs violently and he trembles from head to foot. There is the impress of a body on the bed and Marriott can still hear the breathing.

The pain in his arm is caused by a scar on his wrist and he realises that it is now bleeding. Then he remembers how the scar had been made and why, which leads him to discover the truth about his nightmare experience. Had Field really been there? Marriott had fed him and seen him eat and drink – but in the morning the food was untouched, although he could still hear the breathing…

In contrast Honolulu is an amusing but sinister tale of a little fat sea captain, who tells of the strange events that had overtaken him whilst sailing in the South Seas between Honolulu and various small islands. An enjoyable tale of love, betrayal and voodoo.

The Hostelry by Guy de Maupassant is set in the High Alps in the depth of winter. The Schwarenbach Inn is left in the care of two mountain men as the family descend to the village below. De Maupassant’s description of the freezing conditions as the snow falls and the two men are isolated on the mountain sets the scene for the events that follow. When one of the men goes out hunting and doesn’t return the other is alone in the inn. He can’t get out because something is trying to get in!

The Murder of the Mandarin by Arnold Bennett tells the story of a young wife with an unimaginative and controlling husband, set in one of the Pottery towns in Staffordshire. She wants a belt to enhance her ball dress, which leads her to a strange experience connected (or is it?) to the death of a mandarin in China. This is not a scary story. It’s a study of how an ordinary situation can become seemingly extraordinary through the power of imagination.

R.I.P. Challenge Tales of Mystery & Imagination

I found the unexpected when I started to read Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales. I was disappointed. They had built up I my mind as scary, creepy tales, partly as a result of my mother saying not to read her copy of Tales when I was a child. Of course I got it out of the bookcase when she wasn’t around and had a peek inside and was scared and put it back quickly before she caught me. I hadn’t looked at the book since.

The first one I read, William Wilson, just wasn’t scary at all. I didn’t find it mysterious, or very imaginative either. I read this a few days ago and on reflection it wasn’t as bad as I first thought. It’s about the nature of personality and how we can’t see or come to terms with our own nature.

If you don’t want to know the story then you’d better not read any further, but I did find it predictable and so there was no suspense or shivery feelings for me in this tale.

William Wilson, not his real name, meets another William Wilson, not his real name either, at school and becomes convinced that his namesake is making himself into a perfect imitation, which he detests and he left school to get away from him. Three years of ‘folly’ follow and then at Eton during an evening of ‘debaucheries’ when the wine flowed freely at a ‘party of the most dissolute students’ he re-encounters his double. He continues in this vein whilst at Oxford University descending to yet greater depths of depravity, and then flees to Paris, Vienna, Berlin and Moscow in attempts to shake off the presence of his tormentor, all the time demanding, ‘Who is he? – whence came he? – and what are his objects?’

Finally in Rome, having ‘indulged more freely than usual in the excesses of the wine-table’ he determines to confront him ‘Scoundrel! Impostor! Accursed villain! You shall not – you shall not dog me unto death! Follow me, or I will stab you where you stand!’ They struggle – he stabs him. Then, and this is where I think the tale is so predictable and I had seen it coming from way back, he sees a large mirror and the reflection of his antagonist who whispers ‘In me didst thou exist – and in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.’

So I thought I’d try one I’d heard of and read The Fall of the House of Usher, having a vague memory of seeing an old black and white movie with Boris Karloff opening a huge, ancient door, covered in cobwebs and creaking loudly on its hinges, at the dead of night. I’ll write about what I made of this in another post.