A – Z of TBRs: G, H and I

I have been neglecting my TBRs this year and have been reading mainly new books and library books.So here is the third instalment of my A – Z of TBRs, a series of posts in which I take a fresh look at some of my TBRs to inspire me to read more of them by the end of the year. These TBRs are all physical books – I’ve not included e-books.

I’m enjoying searching my shelves – finding books I’d forgotten were there (the disadvantage of shelving books behind others).

a-z tbrs ghi P1020304

 

G is for The Girl Next Door by Ruth Rendella book I’ve had for just over a year. When a new house is being built a long buried secret is uncovered – a tin box is found in an earthen tunnel. It contained two skeletal hands, one male and one female.

Their garden was not beautiful. It had no flowering trees, no roses, no perfumed herbs. Tunnels, they called it at first. The word ‘qanat’, an impossible word, was found by Daphne Jones and adopted by the rest of them. It meant, apparently, a subterranean passage for carrying water in some oriental language. They liked it because it started with a q without a u. Their scholteachers had taught them that no word could ever start with a q unless it was followed by u, so Daphne’s idea appealed to them and the tunnels became qanats. In time to come the qanats became their secret garden. (pages 14 -15)

HHamlet, Revenge! by Michael Innes (on my TBR shelves since May 2015). This is a green Vintage Penguin, first published in 1937, and in this edition in 1961, about a murder planned to take place in the middle of a private performance of Hamlet.

It had begun as a family frolic. And now, although it would not be publicly reported, the dramatic critics were coming down as if to an important festival. Professors were coming to shake learned respectable bald heads over a fellow-scholar’s conception of an Elizabethan stage. Aged royalty  was coming to be politely bewildered. Most alarming of all, ‘everybody’ was coming – for the purpose no doubt, of being where ‘everybody’ was. And even if it was a select and serious everybody – a known set before whom a Lord Chancellor might mime without misgiving – it was still a crowd, and its actions were unpredictable. (page 28)

IThe Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, a book I’ve had for just over 10 years! It won the Man Booker Prize in 2006. This is set in India, in a dilapidated mansion high in the Himalayas, the home of three people each dreaming of another time – a retired judge, Sai, his granddaughter and a cook.

In Kalimpong, high in the northeastern Himalayas where they lived – the retired judge and his cook, Sai and Mutt – there was a report of new dissatisfaction in the hills, gathering insurgency, men and guns. It was the Indian Nepalese this time, fed up with being treated like the minority in a place where they were the majority. They wanted their own country, or at least their own state, in which to manage their own affairs. Here, where India blurred into Bhutan and Sikkim, and the army did pull-ups and push-ups, maintaining the tanks with khaki paint in case the Chinese grew hungry for more territory than Tibet, it had always been a messy map. The papers sounded resigned. A great amount of warring, betraying, bartering had occurred; between Nepal, England, Tibet, India, Sikkim, Bhutan; Darjeeling stolen from here, Kalimpong plucked from there – despite, ah, despite the mist charging down like a dragon, dissolving, undoing, making ridiculous the drawing of border. (page 9)

What do you think? Do you fancy any of them? 

One reason I haven’t read these books yet is that they’re all in such a small font!

No Man’s Nightingale by Ruth Rendell

Last month I read books from my own shelves for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge (books owned before 1 January 2016) and the 20 Books of Summer Challenge, but then the urge to read other books took over, mainly because I’ve been adding books to my shelves. For the time being I won’t be reading for the Mount TBR Challenge as I have several books that I’ve acquired this year that I want to read first.

One of them is Ruth Rendell’s No Man’s Nightingale.

Blurb:

The woman vicar of St Peter’s Church may not be popular among the community of Kingsmarkham. But it still comes as a profound shock when she is found strangled in her vicarage.

Inspector Wexford is retired, but he retains a relish for solving mysteries especially when they are as close to home as this one is. So when he’s asked whether he will assist on the case, he readily agrees.

But why did the vicar die? And is anyone else in Kingsmarkham in danger? What Wexford doesn’t know is that the killer is far closer than he, or anyone else, thinks.

My thoughts:

I like Wexford, so I was predisposed to like this book (who in my mind looks like George Baker in the TV Wexford series) and I did enjoy it, although not as much as some of her other books.

Maxine Sams has several cleaning jobs, including cleaning for Reg and Dora Wexford – she talks all the time and regales Wexford with stories about her family, interrupting his reading of Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which she thinks is a holiday guide to Rome. One of Maxine’s clients is the Reverend Sarah Hussain – and it is Maxine who finds her body, lying on the living room floor. She had been strangled.

Wexford, although enjoying his retirement, is pleased when Detective Superintendent Mike Burden asks if he would like to be involved as a consultant in the investigation into Sarah’s murder. It’s interesting to see how Wexford approaches this as he does not agree with Burden’s methods, thinking he has too many team meetings and ignores things Wexford would have concentrated on, nor can he express his opinions openly. And he isn’t sure just what he should or should not report back to Burden. As most of the book is written from Wexford’s point of view we can see how his mind works and the way he views his former colleagues and society in general and I was glad to see that as a retired person he is portrayed with an agile and observant mind.

There are plenty of red herrings and sub-plots that had me wondering as I read. At times it was rather confusing and I noticed a few continuity problems. Various issues are raised, not just the position of the elderly in society, but also questions of race and gender, religious intolerance, rape, single mothers and family relationships. I liked Wexford’s thoughts on The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, his musings on religion – he is a’committed atheist’ ( I don’t remember that from earlier books) and the self-doubt he reveals. I also liked the comic elements as Wexford tries to escape from Maxine’s non-stop chatter.

Overall I enjoyed the book, but think I prefer Ruth Rendell’s standalone books and those she wrote under the name of Barbara Vine.

The Brimstone Wedding by Barbara Vine

I’ve had The Brimstone Wedding by Barbara Vine sitting on my unread shelves for a while and when the R.I.P. IX Challenge came up I thought it would be a good book to include in the challenge, because the cover blurbs describe it as a ‘horrifying mystery’, ‘chilling’ and with a ‘horrible climax’.

Brimstone wedding My copy is a second-hand paperback, which is no longer in print, but The Brimstone Wedding is available as an e-book.

Jenny Warner is a carer at a retirement home, Middleton Hall where she meets Stella Newland, who is dying of lung cancer. At first Stella never mentions her husband or her past life, but gradually she confides in Jenny, telling her things she has never said to her son and daughter – things about her life she doesn’t want them to know. 

Their stories intertwine, some narrated by Jenny and some by Stella as she records events in her life on a tape recorder which she leaves to Jenny.  They have more in common than Jenny initially thought and as Stella slowly reveals her past the tension in the book begins to mount.

The atmosphere is mysterious, a house isolated in the fens, seems to hold the key to the past. The description of the house is superb, set in an overgrown garden, with clothes still hanging in the wardrobe, food and champagne still sitting in the fridge and a red Ford Anglia locked in the garage. It’s all very subtle at first with tantalising hints about what had really happened in Stella’s past, but the full horror is left to the end, which by that time I was itching to find out if it was what I suspected it was. I was not disappointed; it’s not horrific in the overblown graphic sense, but in a sinister, psychological way that really is ‘chilling’ and inexpressibly sad.

Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, writes beautifully and powerfully yet in a controlled manner, nothing is left out but there are no superfluous characters or sub-plots. Everything ties in well and the subtle horror of what I was reading gripped me. It is indeed a ‘chilling’ book. It’s about love, hate and indifference, about relationships between couples and families, and about obsession, deceit and betrayal.

Here are just a few quotations that I noted as I read. The opening sentences, set the scene and illustrate Jenny’s superstitious nature. Throughout the book there are numerous examples of her beliefs:

The clothes of the dead don’t wear long. They fret for the person who owned them. Stella laughed when I said that. She threw back her head and laughed in the surprisingly girlish way she had. I was telling her Edith Webster had died in the night and left cupboards full of clothes behind her, and she laughed and said she’d never known anyone as superstitious as me. (page 3)

and

When you deceive people you make fools of them. You make them act stupidly, act as if things which are aren’t and things which aren’t are. And that’s what fools do or people who are mentally disturbed and we look down on them for it or if we’re unkind we laugh at them. (page 17)

She is also aware of ill omens – a bird dying in your hand means your hands will shake for ever, it also means a death in the family and red and white flowers mixed are the worst possible omen at a funeral meaning there will be another death. I was wondering what significance the title has: Jenny has been married for thirteen years, which according to her mother is a ‘Brimstone Wedding’ anniversary. Jenny thinks:

Maybe because it’s explosive or because it’s hard and dark like a burning stone, which is what brimstone means. (page 231)

I think The Brimstone Wedding is one of the best of Barbara Vine’s books that I’ve read – nearly as good as A Dark-Adapted Eye and writing under her real name, Ruth Rendell, A Judgement in Stone. It certainly qualifies not only for the R.I.P. Challenge, but also for the Mount TBR Challenge 2014 and the My Kind of Mystery Challenge.

Put On By Cunning by Ruth Rendell

book cover of </p><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
<p>Put On By Cunning </p><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
<p>Put On By Cunning, aka in America as Death Notes is another book off my to-be-read shelves, an enjoyable read. It was first published in 1981.

The epigraph indicates just what is to follow:

So shall you hear €¦
Of deaths put on by cunning and forc’d cause;
Fall’n on th’inventors’ heads €“ all this can I
Truly deliver.

Hamlet

It is a tale of great complexity, a tale of murder and conspiracy to murder. A wealthy old man, Sir Manuel Camargue, one of greatest flautists of his time is found dead. Ankle deap in snow he had lost his footing in the dark and slipped into an icy lake and became trapped. His heiress, his daughter Natalie, had only recently been reunited with him after an absence of nineteen years. Although it seems a straight forward death, Camargue’s much younger fiancée, puts doubts in Chief Inspector Wexford’s mind when she tells him that Camargue had said that the woman who presented herself as Natalie was an imposter.

As is Wexford’s way he becomes obsessed with finding the truth and wonders if Camargue’s death was actually murder, despite the Chief Constable’s insistence that he forgets about it as the evidence all points to his death being an accident. Indeed, the verdict of the inquest is ‘Misadventure’. Wexford, however, is persistent in his doubts and convinced Natalie is an imposter, he is determined to investigate, which leads him to both California and France.

There is much I enjoyed in this, the eleventh Wexford book. It begins well, Ruth Rendell sets an excellent scene, and I could easily visualise the locations and characters, with beautiful descriptive passages. Inevitably, as both Wexford and Inspector Burden, begin to unravel the mystery more and more characters are implicated, until it really does seem a complex case becoming even more complicated, with too many coincidences and characters.

I thought that Wexford was keeping far too much to himself – leaving both Burden and me too much in the dark. The ending came as somewhat of an anti-climax as Wexford explained what had really happened and revealed all the false leads. Still, it kept me guessing to the end and I wondered (as I often do) just what clues I had missed along the way.

And now I’m wondering if I could attempt a ‘Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine Reading Challenge’, along the lines of the ‘Agatha  Christie Reading Challenge’, ie to read all her books. I’ve read several already.

Book Beginning: A Sight for Sore Eyes by Ruth Rendell

The library van came round this week and I borrowed another Ruth Rendell book: A Sight for Sore Eyes, first published in 1998. I don’t really check what the book is about when it’s one by Ruth Rendell, as I usually enjoy her books. This one begins:

They were to hold hands and look at one another. Deeply, into each other’s eyes.

‘It’s not a sitting,’ she said, ‘it’s a standing. Why can’t I sit on his knee?’

He laughed. Everything she said amused him or delighted him, everything about her captivated him from her dark-red curly hair to her small white feet. The painter’s instructions were that he should look at her as if in love and she at him as if enthralled. This was easy, this was to act naturally.

This could be the opening to a love story, but this is a Ruth Rendell book and I’m expecting it to be something darker and more mysterious. Indeed, the information on the back cover warns that this is ‘Masterfully spooky. Don’t read this alone.’

For more Book Beginnings see Gilion’s blog Rose City Reader.

The Saint Zita Society by Ruth Rendell

When I began to read The Saint Zita Society I could not remember all the characters, so many were introduced one after the other. So, I wrote them all down together with where they lived. In the first 30 pages I counted 28 characters. It helped to write their names down, and eventually their relationships and characteristics became familiar to me. There were just a few of the initial characters who did not play a large part later in the book.

I’d borrowed the book from the library and had totally missed the fact that the book’s endpapers contain a plan of Hexham Place with the names of the people who live at each house! It was partly my own fault that I missed this, not looking properly and skipping over straight away to the first chapter, but it was also because the library had covered up the front endpaper with labels and had sealed the book jacket to both the front and back endpapers! It would really have helped if I’d seen this when I started to read the book!

This is not a who-done-it, nor a why-done-it, but is really a character study of the people who live and work at Hexham Place in Pimlico and a ‘will-they get away with it’ mystery. To that extent I found it entertaining, if predictable. As usual with Ruth Rendell’s books the characters are a mix of odd personalities, with even the most ‘normal’ ones, revealing their idiosyncrasies – a reflection of real society, I suppose!

The Saint Zita Society is the brainchild of June (78 years old and the paid companion of the wealthy Princess Susan Hapsburg, 82 years old) who lives at No. 6 Hexham Place, along with Gussie the dog). As June explains Saint Zita is the patron saint of domestic servants, who gave food and clothes to the poor. The Society doesn’t function well, mainly because the members (cleaners, drivers, gardeners, and home helps – a nanny and an au pair) use it to air their grievances with little hope of resolving them. On the fringes of the Society is Dex, a strange man who keeps to himself, sees evil spirits and talks to Peach, his ‘god’, on his mobile. The others are uneasy around Dex, especially when they’re told that he had  tried to kill his mother and had spent time in a place for the criminally insane, but he is now cured and working as a gardener for Dr Jefferson at No.3 Hexham Place

After about a third of the book there is a death and an attempt to cover it up. And from that point on the action spirals to its predictable conclusion and even what I think was meant as an unexpected twist near the end was also rather obvious.

Overall, not a taxing mystery, but a look at the interaction between a group of disparate characters. I enjoyed it even though it lacked suspense and it ends rather abruptly (a bit like this post!). Just be careful next time you’re out shopping in a crowd or are out jogging on your own!

Kissing the Gunner's Daughter by Ruth Rendell

I’ve read only a few of Ruth Rendell’s Detective Chief Inspector Wexford books, although I must have watched all the TV dramatisations, with George Baker playing the part of Wexford. The books are set in Kingsmarkham, a fictional English town. The first of these, From Doon with Death, is also her first novel and was published in 1964. The full list of her books is on Fantastic Fiction.

Kissing the Gunner's Daughter

Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter (first published in 1992) is the fifteenth book in the series. It begins with the shooting of Sergeant Martin of Kingsmarkham CID whilst he was standing in a queue at the local bank. This seemed to trigger a chain of more murders as a few months later Wexford and Burden are faced with solving the brutal murders of author Davina Flory, her husband and daughter, shot dead at Tancred House. Only Daisy, her granddaughter survived, and wounded in the shoulder she had crawled to the phone to call for help. Her account of what happened is understandably confused. They had all been eating their dinner when they heard noises of someone upstairs. She only saw one of the intruders:

‘He came in …’ Her voice went dead, automatic machine tones. ‘Davina was still sitting there. She never got up, she just sat there but with her head turned towards the door. He shot her in the head, I think. He shot my mother. I don’t know what I did. It was so terrible, it was like nothing you could imagine, madness, horror, it wasn’t real, only it was – oh, I don’t know … I tried to get on to the floor. I heard the other one getting a car started outside. The one in there, the one with the gun, he shot me and I don’t know, I don’t remember … (page 70)

I had my suspicions quite early on in the book about the murder, but it was only intuition – I couldn’t put my finger on the reason for my thoughts. As I read on I thought I was wrong, as Ruth Rendell added more and more detail, and I was lost in all the red herrings she introduced. But then I began to suspect that I might have been right after all.This is an excellent book, both for the mystery element and for the characterisation, even the lesser characters stand out as real people.

I like Wexford, a detective with a happy marriage, although his relationship with his daughters, especially the younger daughter, Sheila is not so good. He hates her fiancé, author Augustine Casey, and this forms an interesting sub plot in which Rendell expresses her views on literary scene poseurs and post-modernist literature. Casey is an ‘extreme post-modernist‘ who ‘had already written at least one work of fiction without characters.‘ (page 97) Dora says that Casey is a very clever man, perhaps a genius and Wexford responds:

God help us if you’re going to call everyone who was shortlisted for the Booker prize a genius. (page 95)

I did not want to put this book down and just wish that it hadn’t sat unread on my bookshelves for about 20 years (including being hidden away for a few years due to being double shelved). But then I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of reading it now – I think it’s much better than some of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine’s later books.

A note on the title:

Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter’ is a phrase derived from a tradition in the Royal Navy, as Wexford explains:

It means being flogged. When they were going to flog a man in the Royal Navy they first tied him to a cannon on deck. Kissing the gunner’s daughter was therefore a dangerous enterprise. (page 340)

A dangerous enterprise indeed not only for the victims but also for the culprits, one of whom took enormous risks. (And my intuition proved partly right in the end.)