Reviews & Rants - Blogging about books, authors, and generally 


The Mortal Storm

The Mortal Storm - Phyllis Bottome

I continue my exploration of Phyllis Bottome's work with the book that she's known for best - The Mortal Storm - which was turned into a film starring James Stewart in 1940, and supposedly was the first MGM production to openly criticise the Nazis (according to Pam Hirsch's biography of Bottome).  


Let me say this right away, stylistically the book was pretty bad: characters were endlessly delivering monologues about political philosophy and this was supposed to be understood as "dialogue". It was grating. It was repetitive. It was so obviously driving an agenda that it was just painful to read. 


The book was published in 1937, just one year after Murder in the Bud, which suffered from similar issues with the dialogue and which was just hilariously bad. 


And yet, I would gladly recommend The Mortal Storm. On some level, I would even say that it is an important book that records first-hand an era in history that is now so often used as a backdrop for historical fiction. 


Bottome was a daring author. She and her husband travelled a lot, but they lived in Munich in the early 1930s. They frequented the same cafes as rising Nazi figure heads, including Hitler. They witnessed first-hand how the regime infiltrated society. 

By May 1933, Bottome and her husband felt they could no longer safely stay in Munich.


The rise of Nazism and the expulsion from society of anyone who opposed the new regime is at the heart of The Mortal Storm. It may have taken Bottome another four years to write the book, but she had involved herself in efforts to warn people in Europe and America about the dangers of the Nazis. Given how its narration drums on about the wickedness and lack of reason of the new regime, it is easy to imagine that The Mortal Storm may have been written as a moral piece, a teaching aid, something that may reach an unassuming reader in simple terms. 


The Mortal Storm is a book with a definite agenda  - to warn about the rise of politicians that pander to popular fears. I applaud Bottome for her efforts in this.



And still, there is much more to love in this book. 


The book's main character is a young woman, Freya, who is a year away from becoming a medical doctor. Her father is Jewish, her mother and step-brothers are not. In fact, her step-brothers are fully signed up party members. This causes a lot of friction between the characters but also leads to some interesting developments throughout the book. 


The book actually starts with a jarring scene, where Freya seeks to spend her birthday skiing and takes a trip to a nearby mountain slope. On the way, she witnesses a group of desperate peasants try to kill a rabbit for food and she intervenes to save the creature. The men turn on her and threaten to assault her. 

It's a startling start to the story, and not one that I remember seeing described to graphically in other books of the same time. 


Freya is rescued by a young man, also a peasant, who is of a very modern outlook, believes in equality of social classes, does not believe that women are the inferior/weaker sex, and calls himself a communist. 


Again, the writing is not great here and we learn a lot about the characters through mostly info-dumps, but my point is that it is utterly brilliant to reads of mindsets that are so incredibly liberal in a book written in 1937. 1937!


It is not just the whole treatment of violence against women here that is astounding either. Bottome weaves in several sub-plots about militarism, about feminism, about people committing crimes and having the capacity to change their outlook, about people finding a kind of strength to stand up for something.


Bottome also calls out the Nazis as cowards. There are two important scenes in the book that clearly describe what is going on right in public view: the first event is that opponents of the regime, Jews, communists, others...disappear and die. Freya's father disappears as a prisoner and later dies, which causes the rest of the family to consider emigration.


The second scene describes how the young man, Hans, who rescued Freya at the start is being hunted by one of her brothers and her former fiancee, both of whom are enlisted to guard the border to Austria. Hans manages to cross the border but is shot, even though neither of the guard had any right/jurisdiction to do this. 


Again, let us not forget that this was written in 1937, at a time when Appeasement was still something that people considered an option. 


That's pretty daring. Books have been burned for less, people died for less.


Incidentally, the book ends on a quietly hopeful note, but reading this with the benefit of knowing what happened post-1937, the tragedy of the story stands out as more than just the fate of a handful of fictional characters.

The 2018 Mt. TBR Project - March Update

My March reading was somewhat derailed by the Kill Your Darlings Game - and what a pleasant derailment it was - but I only read 1 (!) book off my MT. TBR stacks. One.

However, at the time of writing this post, I have several on my currently reading shelf. Hopefully, I get to finish them in April.


End of March Mt. TBR:


End of February Mt. TBR:



End of January Mt. TBR:



Start of the Year Mt. TBR:


The Stats:


Books read this month: 14

Mt. TBR Books read this month: 1(!)


Women / Men / Team*: 61% / 32% / 7%

Fiction / Non-fiction*: 76% / 24%

% of original Mt. TBR read: 31%

% of live Mt. TBR read: 26%


(* - of all books read since 01 January 2018)


Link to the original Mt. TBR (2018) post.

Link to the original Mt TBR (2018) Reading List.


Rules - same as previously - are that I picked a stack of physical books off my shelves at home which I would try to read over the course of the year. Any new purchases are added to the pile. If I pick another physical book of my shelves, I get to take one off the pile and put it on the shelf - as a swap.


I hope everyone had a lovely weekend, with or without bunny rabbits and chocolate eggs. 


Spring has definitely sprung in these parts and I had the unexplainable urge to tidy my home and do some de-cluttering. It may not sound like the most exciting way to spend the weekend but I needed a relaxing time out before the upcoming week. Also, I will be away for a few days from Friday, so I needed to spend some time planning and organising.


Anyway, I passed on the chocolate this weekend but did finally manage to try the soup recipe that's been on my mind for a couple of weeks. 


The recipe is for this Sweetcorn Soup with Chili. It turned out well and I am sure I'll make it again some time - preferably with the addition of a dollop of cream and some coriander, which I forgot to buy...again.


Reading progress update: I've read 60%.

The Blunderer - Patricia Highsmith

‘I mind. I mind the privacy of my house being invaded.’

‘I’m afraid there’s nothing you can do about it, Kimmel.’

‘You’d better get out of this house, unless you’d rather be thrown out. I’ve some important work to do.’

‘What’s more important, Kimmel? My work or yours? What are you doing tonight – reading the Marquis de Sade’s Memoirs?’

Kimmel looked Corby’s reedy body up and down. What could Corby know of such a book.

I'm sorry but ... Bwahahaha. 

Reading progress update: I've read 51%.

The Blunderer - Patricia Highsmith

Besides, he loved his shop better than his house, and here on Sundays he could browse among his own books undisturbed, eat his lunch, doze, and answer at length some of the correspondence, erudite and whimsical, he received from people he had never seen but whom he felt he knew well. Booklovers: if you knew the kind of books a man wanted, you knew the man.

A little bit of context:

This paragraph is about a character who is a cold-blooded murderer. He's not been found out. What is more, he appears to be taking an interest in our idiot main character, Walter.

(show spoiler)


This last line has never been so chilling.


Seriously, I need to make some tea and find some biscuits. This story is really tense.

Reading progress update: I've read 33%.

The Blunderer - Patricia Highsmith

‘I love you too much – do you understand? I shouldn’t even tell you that, should I? I love even being near you – being near you – geographically. And that’s all I am now.



That's not just insta-love and insta-lust, that's insta-insanity. 


Apart from Jeff, is there any sane, sensible character in this?


Btw, I bet Highsmith had fun writing this line: “I love even being near you – being near you – geographically. ”
I can just picture her rolling her eyes at the line, taking a swig of something, and typing it out.

Reading progress update: I've read 10%.

The Blunderer - Patricia Highsmith

Chad had recommended him more highly than he deserved to a legal advisory firm known as Cross, Martinson and Buchman. Chad was a good friend of Martinson. The firm paid Walter a senior lawyer’s salary, though Walter was only thirty. If not for Chad, Walter thought, they wouldn’t be sitting in the Lobster Pot drinking imported Riesling at that moment. Walter supposed he would have to ask Chad to lunch some time in Manhattan. Or lie to Clara and spend an evening with him. Or maybe not lie to her, just tell her.

Walter drew on his cigarette.

‘Smoking in the middle of your meal?’ The food had arrived.

Walter put the cigarette out, with deliberate calm, in the ashtray.

‘Don’t you agree he owes us something? A bunch of flowers, at least?’

‘All right, Clara, it’s all – right.’

‘But why that horrid tone?’

‘Because I like Chad, and if we keep on boycotting him the logical result is that we’ll lose him as a friend. Just as we lost the Whitneys.’

‘We have not lost the Whitneys. You seem to think you’ve got to lick people’s boots and take all their insults to keep them as friends. I’ve never seen anybody so concerned with whether every Tom, Dick and Harry likes you or not!’


Ok, Walter and Clara strike me as equally messed up as the couple, Frank and April Wheeler, in Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road.

Loving the 1950s feel of this.


Many thanks to Lillelara for inspiring me to start this. I had been looking for an audiobook to enjoy while doing household chores today, and this one seemed to be engaging enough to make me not think about the monotony of dusting etc. too much.



Reading progress update: I've read 59 out of 256 pages.

The Mortal Storm - Phyllis Bottome

I didn't get to read much yesterday as I kept falling asleep, but I am rather intrigued by The Mortal Storm so far.


Just as a bit of background:


We have a young female main character, who:


- lives in Munich in the 1930s

- is on the way to becoming a doctor of medicine

- has a Jewish background

- has two stepbrothers who adore the Nazis

- got herself into a bad situation on a ski trip and was rescued by a farmer who is also dabbling in communism


So far, all the characters and tropes read like they are off a checklist for writing a novel set in the 1930s, BUT ... this was actually published in 1937. 

I have no doubt that Bottome wanted to show and warn about - without any subtlety whatsoever - how messed up things were. So, I understand why she's using a lot of simple terms and simple concepts.


I also have a lot of questions:


- Did Bottome still live in Germany/Austria at the time she wrote it? (Her husband was a Britsh agent...working undercover.)

- Where was this book published? Just in the UK?

- Even if it was published in the UK/US only at the time, did the outright attack on the regime affect Bottome and her husband (I'm almost sure they lived somewhere on the continent at the time, not in the UK.)


I didn't have the energy yesterday to look up any of these points in the Bottome bio that I'm trying to read at the moment, but this is the sort of fun research that I look forward to this week.

Reading progress update: I've read 6 out of 256 pages.

The Mortal Storm - Phyllis Bottome

I'm having an under-the-weather paracetamol & duvet day. 


The Mortal Storm (1937) is meant to be Bottome's most important work. It is off to a good start but if it takes a very bleak turn I may switch to Devil's Due, which has a character based on Ian Fleming in it. :D


Magic - William Goldman

Corky continued to breathe heavily.

“You can talk now, say whatever you want, as long as I want you to, when I’m bored, we’ll play some more.”


“—I’m bored, let’s play, get the knives.”


“The Duker’s, go get ’em.”

Corky went to the kitchenette, brought out the knives.

“What do you think we ought to do with ’em?” Fats said.

“Want me to whittle something?”


I vividly remember watching the 1978 film based on this book starring Anthony Hopkins for the first time in the 1990s, and the second time about ten years later, and it is incredible that it has taken me this long to read the actual book. 


There is something odd about the book. It is as creepy and gripping as the film, but I can't say that I enjoyed the writing. The writing seemed somewhat choppy. However, this is a pulp fiction novel and it does fit in with my expectations of what a mid-1970s pulp thriller / horror novel would read like. It would be interesting to read Goldman's Marathon Man at some point just to find out if his style varies in a different story of a similar genre.


Still, despite the disjointed narration, it was a pleasant surprise to find that Peggy, the "love interest", was an interesting character that had more to her than physical attraction. I liked how she got a voice in the book, even tho she was not the focus of the story. 

“Get this please: I’m leaving, and you’re leaving, so it happens we’ll go together but I’m not running out on Duke because he’s at the bottom, I’m going because I’m at the bottom, so it happens by coincidence that you and I are heading the same direction, out, and if it works that we stay headed that same direction, terrific, but if it doesn’t, the world’s not ending for me, which is what I was afraid of, going off and leaving one guy and then getting dumped by another and not having the first one around to take me back but that’s no problem, not anymore, ’cause if I get dumped, I’m not coming back.”

I am not even sure why I was so surprised to find that her character had a mind of her own. Maybe it was my bias with respect to books written in the 70s, maybe something else, but I enjoyed the little sub-plot that Peggy's thoughts created.

“… huh …?”

“… it was you all the time …”

“… you sure …?”

“… trust me for a while …”




Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Final Problem

Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection -  Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen Fry

It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write these the last words in which I shall ever record the singular gifts by which my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes was distinguished. In an incoherent and, as I deeply feel, an entirely inadequate fashion, I have endeavored to give some account of my strange experiences in his company from the chance which first brought us together at the period of the “Study in Scarlet,” up to the time of his interference in the matter of the “Naval Treaty”--an interference which had the unquestionable effect of preventing a serious international complication. It was my intention to have stopped there, and to have said nothing of that event which has created a void in my life which the lapse of two years has done little to fill.

The Final Problem was published in 1893 and was meant to be ACD's last Holmes story. The author had grown tired of the Consulting Detective taking up all of his focus as a professional author, and tried to free up his time and his mind for more worthy projects. 

At least, ACD created a fitting final appearance for Holmes. He goes out in style. 


The Final Problem is a tough story to review. It's a story that hits home hard for any fan of the series, not just because of the ending, but also because we see Holmes pushed to the edge. He's showing cracks - Watson notices his looking run down. He's been beaten up, and Holmes himself remarks upon his mental state:

“Yes, I have been using myself up rather too freely,” he remarked, in answer to my look rather than to my words; “I have been a little pressed of late. Have you any objection to my closing your shutters?”

The reason for this is that Holmes has met his match. 

“He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized. Is there a crime to be done, a paper to be abstracted, we will say, a house to be rifled, a man to be removed--the word is passed to the Professor, the matter is organized and carried out. The agent may be caught. In that case money is found for his bail or his defence. But the central power which uses the agent is never caught--never so much as suspected. This was the organization which I deduced, Watson, and which I devoted my whole energy to exposing and breaking up."

In trying to expose Professor Moriarty, Holmes exhausts himself bringing down his organisation bit by bit, and at the same Holmes time is being hunted.



The final problem arises while Holmes and Watson are seeking respite in Switzerland. They are pursued even there, and the hunt is forced to its crisis at the now famous Reichenbach Falls: 

It is indeed, a fearful place. The torrent, swollen by the melting snow, plunges into a tremendous abyss, from which the spray rolls up like the smoke from a burning house. The shaft into which the river hurls itself is an immense chasm, lined by glistening coal-black rock, and narrowing into a creaming, boiling pit of incalculable depth, which brims over and shoots the stream onward over its jagged lip. The long sweep of green water roaring forever down, and the thick flickering curtain of spray hissing forever upward, turn a man giddy with their constant whirl and clamor. We stood near the edge peering down at the gleam of the breaking water far below us against the black rocks, and listening to the half-human shout which came booming up with the spray out of the abyss.


And then all that Watson is left with, all the we are left with, is one of the most gut-wrenching letters in literary history:

"I am pleased to think that I shall be able to free society from any further effects of his presence, though I fear that it is at a cost which will give pain to my friends, and especially, my dear Watson, to you."

That letter gets me every time. ACD could hardly have chosen a more dramatic ending to the series at the high time of Holmes' success.

How shocking it must have been to read this story as a follower of the series at the time it was written, at a time when this really did seem like the end for Holmes and Watson.

Of course, we now know that there are more stories, but at the time, the public reaction to this story was so strong that ACD was eventually persuaded to continue the series after all. 


But what about the story itself?


Apart from the high drama and the ultimate proof of the friendship between Holmes and Watson, and incidentally, the reassurance that Holmes, contrary to popular belief, does care about the other people in his life - including Mary Watson, there is another aspect of The Final Problem that I always ponder on. It is this one, the first ever meeting between Holmes and his nemesis, Professor Moriarty: 

“‘ You evidently don’t know me,’ said he. 
“‘ On the contrary,’ I answered, ‘I think it is fairly evident that I do. Pray take a chair. I can spare you five minutes if you have anything to say.’ 
“‘ All that I have to say has already crossed your mind,’ said he. 
“‘ Then possibly my answer has crossed yours,’ I replied. 
“‘ You stand fast?’ 
“‘ Absolutely.’
To me this is one of the most beautiful depictions of the duality of the human mind/spirit/whatever. It's the Jekyll/Hide, the ultimate light/dark side stand-off, and it is happening in a sitting room. While the focus of this story is often described as the altercation at the Reichenbach Falls, the more interesting challenge is fought at the first face off where Holmes and Moriarty could almost be two sides of the same coin - they would even complete each other's sentences except they don't even need to exchange statements at all because they already know what the other is thinking!
To me this is one of the great scenes in the canon.
I also love that he chose the Reichenbach Falls as the setting. However, it is a choice of location that in my reading may also carry a more personal connection for the author.
I'll need to resort to another ACD biography for back-up but from the horrible one I finished last week (Andrew Norman's Arthur Conan Doyle: Beyond Sherlock Holmes) it appears that the trip to Switzerland was an ad hoc trip on account of his wife having been diagnosed with tuberculosis. Like so many other sufferers, they believed that the Alpine air was a cure for the illness, and they stayed for quite some time (I believe she also returned there), but to no avail. She eventually died from tuberculosis a few years later.
So when reading this story, I was wondering of course if ACD, with his medical knowledge, had some inkling about whether his wife would recover.
No antibiotics at the time meant that 50-60% of TB patients died within 5 years.  

In many ways, The Final Problem is one of the saddest stories in the canon but also one of the most beautiful because it shows off so much about the human side of the characters, their friendship, their failings, their vulnerability. Of all of the stories, this one haunts the fictional world of 221 Baker Street like no other. 


Reading progress update: I've read 3%.

Magic - William Goldman

"Trust me for a while."

What an opening line!


I started this last night to bleach away the ending of The Man in the Brown Suit. It's been sitting on my kindle for ages and I am very excited to finally read this book. 


One thing I have noticed before dropping off to sleep last night is that I cannot read this without hearing Hopkins' voice in my head. 

That is not a bad thing at all.


Also, I need to find the film again.


Reading progress update: I've read 77%.

The Man in the Brown Suit - Agatha Christie

I just made it through the "romance" part.




Reading progress update: I've read 47%.

The Man in the Brown Suit - Agatha Christie

I am so very glad that Dame Agatha decided on writing murder mysteries, not travel guides:

"By the way, I should like to make clear here and now that this story will not be a story of South Africa. I guarantee no genuine local colour—you know the sort of thing—half a dozen words in italics on every page. I admire it very much, but I can’t do it. In South Sea Islands, of course, you make an immediate reference to bêche-de-mer. I don’t know what bêche-de-mer is, I have never known, I probably never shall know. I’ve guessed once or twice and guessed wrong. In South Africa I know you at once begin to talk about a stoep—I do know what a stoep is—it’s the thing round a house and you sit on it. In various other parts of the world you call it a veranda, a piazza, and a ha-ha. Then again, there are pawpaws. I had often read of pawpaws. I discovered at once what they were, because I had one plumped down in front of me for breakfast. I thought at first that it was a melon gone bad. The Dutch waitress enlightened me, and persuaded me to use lemon juice and sugar and try again. I was very pleased to meet a pawpaw. I had always vaguely associated it with a hula-hula, which, I believe, though I may be wrong, is a kind of straw skirt that Hawaiian girls dance in. No, I think I am wrong—that is a lava-lava.

At any rate, all these things are very cheering after England. I can’t help thinking that it would brighten our cold Island life if one could have a breakfast of bacon-bacon, and then go out clad in a jumper-jumper to pay the books."

KYD: Yellow Game - Claims for various cards

As we are closing in on the Yellow Game and all elements have been identified, I claim two more cards:


# 1 - COD: Beaten in a Dark Alley:


I am using The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to collect this card. It was written in 1926 and satisfies the "written or set between 1925 and 1975" task.


# 2 - Crime Scene: Green Dragon Pub:


The task I'm choosing to complete with Unterleuten is a book with "green in the text". 


Two of the people who moved to the village of Unterleuten, Gerhard and Jule (both referred to as "the bird conservationists" by the other villagers) chose their new home because they fell in love with the house that was made of red bricks and green window shutters.

"Mit Jule war er sich schnell einig gewesen. Auch ihr hatte der einstöckige Ziegelbau mit grünen Fensterläden und großem Dach sofort gefallen."


Reading progress update: I've read 24%.

The Man in the Brown Suit - Agatha Christie

‘You’re to have No. 28 on the port side,’ said the steward. ‘A very good cabin, sir.’

‘I am afraid that I must insist. No. 17 was the cabin promised to me.’

We had come to an impasse. Each one of us was determined not to give way. Strictly speaking, I, at any rate, might have retired from the contest and eased matters by offering to accept Cabin 28. So long as I did not have 13 it was immaterial to me what other cabin I had. But my blood was up. I had not the least intention of being the first to give way.

And I disliked Chichester. He had false teeth that clicked when he ate. Many men have been hated for less.

I'm really enjoying this one. Anne Beddingfeld seems like a heroine that I wish Christie had written another story for. 


I only hope that she doesn't do anything completely daft by the end of the book that would spoil my current image of her.

Currently reading

The Summer Book by Thomas Teal, Tove Jansson
Progress: 53%
A Talent for Murder: A Novel by Andrew Wilson
Progress: 83/380pages
The Love Boat and Other Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Constant Liberal: The Life and Work of Phyllis Bottome by Pam Hirsch
Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist by Sharman Apt Russell
Progress: 25/256pages
Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection by Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen Fry
Progress: 39%