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

Monday Night Goals

As the evenings are getting dark again, there's nothing better than tea, book, and some awesome soundtrack.


Reading progress update: I've read 48 out of 426 pages.

Josephine Tey: A Life - Jennifer Morag Henderson

So far, this book is fascinating. Henderson does not just give us the family history, but also provides a full picture of life in Inverness at the beginning of the 20th century, and does not shy away from criticising some of the "romanticised" versions of life in the north of Scotland at that time:

"The education given at the IRA [= Inverness Royal Academy] was rigorous and to a high standard and there is evidence throughout all of Beth’s later writing of this excellent academic grounding, from her thorough knowledge of history and religious education to her use of French and her wide-ranging and open-minded interest in a variety of subjects. When she is interested in a topic, she explores it thoroughly, reading up on its background and asking for help from those who know more. In The Singing Sands when Grant wants to know more about the Hebrides, he immediately goes to a library, where he peruses a selection of books and asks the librarian for advice. In The Daughter of Time, Grant sifts through historical evidence using both primary and secondary sources, and is able to argue from cause to effect, rather than repeating a series of facts. Girls like Beth MacKintosh and Mairi MacDonald expected this sort of education – questioning, rigorous and encouraging private study – as standard, and the image of the ill-educated Highland girl – or the exception fighting against the rule – shown in some contemporary early twentieth-century literature (e.g. by Lewis Grassic Gibbon) is just plain wrong. It was a stereotype Beth MacKintosh would fight in both her private life and in her writing. The popular idea that in the 1900s girls maybe learnt a bit of drawing, French and music was simply not true in Scotland."

Halloween Bingo: My last Bingo square...

Josephine Tey: A Life - Jennifer Morag Henderson

is the Free / Raven square.


Would it be too tenuous to allocate Henderson's biography of Josephine Tey for this square?


Strictly speaking, there is no murder, romantic suspense (although who knows?), no vampires (a more definite nope than romantic suspense), etc. Tey did spend a lot of time in London, but I would not call her haunts "dark". Her other home, Inverness, is a smallish town, but is actually the biggest city in the region, ... while her fictional alter ego in Nicola Upson's books is an amateur sleuth, I have my doubts that the real Josephine Tey was.


I would say, if we accept Christie and Sayers for the Terrifying Women category, Tey would fit, too, but...this is a biography not a book with a thrilling plot.


I am probably over-thinking this, but I do want to find a justification that may fit.

What I do know about Tey so far is that she is a woman shrouded in mystery. She used several aliases (even "Josephine Tey" is an alias), never combined her professional and private lives, and even her friends did not know much about her.


What are your thoughts? Does the biography fit the square?


(Btw, I haven't started the book, yet. It's just been hanging out on my currently reading shelf to remind me that I have this from the library...)


Speedy Death

Speedy Death - Gladys Mitchell

Alastair Bing’s guests gather around his dining table at Chaynings, a charming country manor. But one seat, belonging to the legendary explorer Everard Mountjoy, remains empty.

I have been reading this series out of order and only now got around to reading the first boks, Speedy Death. I am not convinced it is necessary to read the series in order, but to get a better understanding of the main character, the unconventioal Mrs Bradley, you need to read Speedy Death. Much of the rest of the series will appear in a different light. 

At least, it does for me now.

Mostly, because I did not expect the turns that Speedy Death took - especially towards the end. 

‘By heavens, Brenner,’ said the Chief Constable, slapping his knee, ‘some intelligence has been used here!’

I am not going to reveal many plot details as I found it hugely enjoyable to know very little about the story - even if basically EVERY book description gave away at least one of the twists. (Seriously, I'd advise you not to look at blurbs or GR or Amazon descriptions.)


Mitchell had fun writing this series and it absolutely show. I have been chuckling all the way through this book, and I could not help but wonder whether Mitchell deliberately created the character of Mrs Bradley as what I can only describe as the Anti-Marple!


All in all, there are a few digs at the detective stories, shilling shockers, and the conventions of "good society" that just cracked me up such as: 

The leading counsel for the Crown, in a booming, plum-like voice which associated well with his girth, commenced his opening speech. It dealt chiefly with Mrs Bradley’s past life, and she learned some things which surprised her. ‘This man will make me blush in a minute,’ she thought, as the learned counsel referred to her for the fourth time as this ‘deservedly famous woman.’


The prisoner next went into the witness-box. The exquisite courtesy of Ferdinand to the accused made its impression on the jury, although they themselves were unaware of the fact.

‘I am not going to defend myself,’ said Mrs Bradley, as much at her ease as though she were addressing a mothers’ meeting on the subject of birth control, in the arguments for which she was extraordinarily well-versed.



You see, the bother with people of this class is that you can’t bully them as you would the cottagers. They are too well-educated, and too well-balanced, and they know that the police are hedged in and hampered and red-taped until it is a wonder we can do any work at all in the detection of criminals.



This was a fun read. It was twisted, it had red herrings, it had drama. I was guessing to the end (because I could not remember the story from the Diana Rigg tv series, and I can't even remember if the story had been changed). So, when the ending came, I was shocked (in a good way), had to laugh, and then went back to see if the clues were there. And, yes, they were. 


Mitchell is no longer known among readers of mysteries. She is said to once have been as prominent as Christie and Sayers, but Mitchell's work has fallen out of publication for the most part, which is a shame because her characters and her stories had a certain sparkle, even if some of the plots of later novels are quite convoluted.

‘Hum! And if I weren’t convinced that you are not the murderer, I should be equally convinced that you are, you extraordinary woman,’ he said under his breath. ‘I wonder whether you are trying to lead me up the garden with your hints and insinuations, or whether you are trying to make me see something which, left to myself, I should overlook.'

Reading progress update: I've read 84%.

Speedy Death - Gladys Mitchell

Oh, Mrs Bradley, such fun...but not at all sympathetic to anyone, ...

‘Good Lord indeed!’ said Mrs Bradley, with spirit. ‘I shall find myself in the dock before many weeks are out. You mark my words!’

Carstairs made sympathetic noises, but, as usual, could think of no adequate reply.

‘I shall plead not guilty,’ said Mrs Bradley firmly, ‘and I shall get Ferdinand Lestrange to conduct my case.’

‘He is a very young man, isn’t he?’ said Carstairs doubtfully.

‘He is thirty-nine, and was born on my eighteenth birthday,’ Mrs Bradley promptly replied. ‘Oxford 1908 to 1911, called to the bar in 1914, Great War 1914 to 1917. Invalided out in June, 1917. Now a K.C.’

‘You seem to have followed his career with some minuteness,’ said Carstairs, amused. ‘Well, he is my son,’ was Mrs Bradley’s somewhat startling reply.

...not even towards her own son:

She glanced round the court again. She was pleased to see a full house!

Ferdinand Lestrange, her son, the leading counsel for the defence, looked distinguished, she thought. Nobody there knew she was his mother. Ferdinand wouldn’t care a hang whether she were convicted or not, except in so far as his professional reputation was concerned, but he would take care not to let that suffer!


Reading progress update: I've read 52%.

Speedy Death - Gladys Mitchell

Messing with them policemen:

‘Well, now, Mr Carstairs, who killed Mountjoy?’

‘To the best of my knowledge,’ said Carstairs, in his precise, dry way, ‘Mountjoy was the victim of an accident.’

‘Is that really your opinion?’ said the inspector.

‘It is— now,’ replied Carstairs quietly.

The two policemen looked at him, but Carstairs merely smiled at them urbanely, and volunteered no further statement.

‘Hum! Thank you, Mr Carstairs,’ said the Chief Constable, hiding his disappointment. Carstairs rose to go.

‘And yet, Mr Carstairs,’ said the inspector, ‘I could swear that yesterday you thought very differently.’

‘A scientist,’ said Carstairs, with his hand on the doorknob, ‘hardly ever thinks exactly alike two days running.’ He nodded cheerfully to them and went out.


Hehe. :D


Eleven - Patricia Highsmith

She is a writer who has created a world of her own – a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger, with the head half turned over the shoulder, even with a certain reluctance, for these are cruel pleasures we are going to experience, until somewhere about the third chapter the frontier is closed behind us, we cannot retreat, we are doomed to live till the story’s end with another of her long series of wanted men.

Graham Greene hit the nail on the head with his observation about Highsmith's stories. They are not comfortable, not predictable, not following the scripts of the ordinary. 


As with all collections of short stories, some works are stronger than others. It is the same with Eleven. Adding to that, the collection starts off with the remarkably weird story of The Snail Watcher, and is followed by a handful of gripping stories full of suspense and, well, weirdness. 


The second half of the collection is not quite as high on octane as the first half, but still shows Highsmith's ability to write well-plotted stories.


The Snail Watcher - 5*
The Birds Poised to Fly - 4*
The Terrapin - 5* (This one was horrific, and yet, I loved it. Stay clear if you have issues with descriptions of food preparation that involves animals.)
When the Fleet was In at Mobile - 5* (Dark, dark, but quite moving.)
The Quest for Blank Claveringi - 5* (Awesome. Gotta love the idea of man-eating snails.)
The Cries of Love - 2*
Mrs Afton, Among Thy Green Braes - 3*
The Heroine - 3.5*
Another Bridge to Cross - 3.5*
The Barbarians - 4*
The Empty Bird House - 3*


Graham Greene called Highsmith "the poet of apprehension rather than fear", and each one of these stories shows how he arrived at this conclusion. You just never know what to expect. 

Halloween Bingo - Country House Mystery

Speedy Death - Gladys Mitchell

Two squares to go. My next read will be for the Country House Mystery, and I am going with Gladys Mitchell's first Mrs. Bradley mystery Speedy Death.


"Alastair Bing’s guests gather around his dining table at Chaynings, a charming country manor. But one seat, belonging to the legendary explorer Everard Mountjoy, remains empty."


Reading progress update: The Terrapin

Eleven - Patricia Highsmith

Victor heard the elevator door open, his mother’s quick footsteps in the hall, and he flipped his book shut. He shoved it under the sofa pillow out of sight, and winced as he heard it slip between sofa and wall to the floor with a thud. Her key was in the lock.

‘Hello, Vee-ector-r!’ she cried, raising one arm in the air. Her other arm circled a brown paper bag, her hand held a cluster of little bags.

I started reading The Terrapin this morning before going to work and got through the first, rather unremarkable, part of the story before I had to leave. Still, something just kept niggling me about the characters and the slow reveal of what seemed to be a dysfunction in the characters' relationship.

So, I did what I seldom do and finished reading this short story over lunch.



The slow build and slow reveal of the narration quickly escalated to a level of messed up that was off the scale. 


I am still traumatised.

Please send chocolate.

Halloween Bingo - Terrifying Women

Eleven - Patricia Highsmith

As I am closing in on my last three squares for Halloween Bingo, I feel like I saved a few good ones for last. First off, the Terrifying Women square which - for me - has to be a Highsmith.


I'll turn to her first collection of short stories for this, which starts off with one of her most famous stories: The Snail Watcher.


Highsmith had a particular fondness for gastropods. The Snail Watcher is as much an homage to the creatures as it is a freakishly creepy story of obsession.


It's one of the two stories I know in this collection. There are eleven in total (hence the title) and I have no doubt each one of them will be masterfully crafted.


As an added bonus, the introduction was written by another favourite - Graham Greene. Highsmith originally hired him to write it, but they became mutual admirers of each other's work later on.



Arguably: Selected Essays - Christopher Hitchens

I miss Hitch.


I may not agree with everything he wrote, but I really miss reading his reviews and articles. There have been few other columnists that made me start lists of other books to look out for while reading the review for a new book release.


Hitchens was to the point, but always got there by intelligent discussion which sometimes brought out aspects that may not have been apparent from the start. 


Arguably is a well chosen selection of his book reviews and opinion pieces. Some may now seem a bit dated, but I rather enjoyed reading (or, in some cases, re-reading) his thoughts about current affairs of the time.


I really miss his columns.

Halloween Bingo - Murder Most Foul

Problem at Pollensa Bay - Agatha Christie

Well, I picked this up on a whim (because I was on location for the title story) and am now half-way through the book but I really wanted to write a brief update on how this collection of short stories will fit into the Halloween Bingo:


It completely changes my plans for the Murder Most Foul Square. Instead of Christie's 4:50 From Paddington, Problem at Pollensa Bay will now cover that square.


The title story is a Parker Pyne mystery and does not actually include any murder. However, the subsequent three stories (of what I have read so far!) all have murder at heart.


The Second Gong is a locked room mystery about a potential suicide.

The Yellow Iris describes a delicious (attempted) murder mystery at a restaurant.

The Harlequin Tea Set had Mr Satterthwaite (he of Three Act Tragedy) investigate a family murder mystery with a supernatural twist. 





Hotel Quadriga

The Hotel Quadriga. - Jenny Glanfield

If, upon my return from the beach, I still had a copy of the book, or if I had been able to borrow it from somewhere, I would have finished reading this. 


But the thing is, I don't have the book anymore, and I am not keen enough to buy it.


Hotel Quadriga tells the story of a young man who dreams of bettering his situation and succeeds in establishing what becomes one of the finest hotels in Europe.


Based on the story of the Adlon in Berlin, the story tells of both the hotel and German history between 1871 and 1933 in an easy to follow manner. I have no idea how much of the story of the Adlon has been used for Quadriga, but the historical details that have been woven into the story certainly hit all the highlights as far as I could tell. 


It's been the perfect beach read. And while it made for a much better written story than Follett's Fall of Giants, it was not gripping enough to make care about the characters (all of whom seemed to fall in love at the drop of a hat!) or realistic enough to entice me to choose this book over a non-fiction account of Berlin during the same period.


Had I finished the book, I would have probably liked it enough for 3* or 3.5*.


I have my first Bingo!





Which is this row:



I just got home and I'm still catching up with reading updates, and reviews will probably come this weekend.


I finished Rebecca and am close to finishing The ABC Murders and Problem at Pollensa Bay. If my book had not dropped under the seat on the plane (where I could not reach it), I would have finished The ABC Murders this afternoon.

MIA... Update

We went exploring yesterday and found ourselves on a bus to the north coast - Port de Pollenca to be exact. 


We had planned the trip but it was not until we got there that it occurred to me that there is an Agatha Christie story called Problem at Pollensa Bay. As it turns out, the story is set in Port de Pollenca (tho, Dame Agatha just calls it Pollensa) and it was great fun reading this short Parker Pyne story on location.


Unlike, Mr. Parker Pyne, we had great weather. No mist in sight. 


Reading progress update: I've read 251 out of 621 pages.

The Hotel Quadriga. - Jenny Glanfield

Went to spend the day at the beach today and forgot to bring my book. Ugh!


So, I borrowed this one and have since been held hostage by an utterly predictable story of historical fiction set in Berlin between 1871 and 1933 that strongly reminds me of Follett's Fall of Giants (man, how I hated that book!) but with slightly better writing (it's not hard!).


I think I'll finish the book over the next two days, just to find out if my predictions are right. I am sure they will be. 

I am sure they will be. 

Currently reading

Everest: Expedition to the Ultimate by Reinhold Messner
Progress: 17%
Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection by Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen Fry
Progress: 15%
Das Wunder des Baums by Annemarie Schwarzenbach
Progress: 21/295pages