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

Reading progress update: I've read 48%.

Murder of a Lady - Anthony Wynne

“As a psychologist,” Barley assured him, “you cannot but be aware of the demoralizing effect of fear even on the strongest characters. It corrodes, as rust corrodes iron. It demoralizes. Fear is one of the nursing mothers of crime. Like greed. Like jealousy. McDonald was afraid; Mrs. Eoghan was afraid. They were mice in the presence of the cat. The time was approaching when the cat would pounce…”

He threw himself back with staring eyes and open mouth. His thoughts seemed to coil round his head like smoke.

As "rust corrodes iron"? Erm, ... what?


I'm generally not fond of a psychologist having a part in a mystery. (Except, for Mrs Bradley. But then she's different.) Ironically, tho, in this one the psychologist doesn't go about using his profession as a substitute for old-fashioned sleuthing. 


All the psycho-babble seems to come from the police...

Reading progress update: I've read 30%.

Murder of a Lady - Anthony Wynne

“We know very little of Miss Gregor’s character, but there’s no doubt that she was a self-centred woman with a highly developed faculty of domination. People, and especially women, of that type arouse strong opposition. That takes various forms. Weak natures tend to flatter and be subservient; stronger natures are exasperated; still stronger natures resist actively. But though these types of behaviour differ, they have the same first cause, namely, dislike. The subservient flatterer is an enemy at heart and understands perfectly the feelings of the violent opponent. In other words, everybody in this house hated Miss Gregor.”

Hm, ... This is a leisurely meander down the twists and turns of Argyll. Enjoyable, but we still don't know that much about the whoo, what, and wherefore of the murder.

Reading progress update: I've read 53%.

Where Angels Fear To Tread - E.M. Forster

Philip made her look out of the window because it was Virgil’s birthplace, and a smut flew in her eye, and Harriet with a smut in her eye was notorious. At Bologna they stopped twenty-four hours to rest. It was a festa, and children blew bladder whistles night and day. “What a religion!” said Harriet. The hotel smelt, two puppies were asleep on her bed, and her bedroom window looked into a belfry, which saluted her slumbering form every quarter of an hour. Philip left his walking-stick, his socks and the Baedeker at Bologna; she only left her sponge-bag. Next day they crossed the Apennines with a train-sick child and a hot lady who told them that never, never before had she sweated so profusely. “Foreigners are a filthy nation,” said Harriet. “I don’t care if there are tunnels; open the window.” He obeyed, and she got another smut in her eye.

I can totally see how this is an early novel: it lacks the focus on pressing the point or plot ahead that the later novels have. Instead, we have a ton of characters thrown on the pages, trying to figure out who they are, while we try to figure out why they are there. 


However, I can see small hints of Forster's bite, too. 

Reading progress update: I've read 12%.

Murder of a Lady - Anthony Wynne

“Very good. Now we can come to the servants. That was your butler, I take it, who admitted me.”

“My piper, Angus MacDonald.”

“Acting in the capacity of butler.”

“Forgive me, Mr. Dundas, but you appear to be but ill-informed about Highland custom. Angus is first and foremost my friend, the friend of my family. He was piper to my father, the late Duchlan, who held his friendship an honour; should I predecease him, I pray God that he may serve my son. Our pipers stand remote from the class of domestic servants; but in these difficult times we are compelled to ask from them an extended range of service.”

“Isn’t it six of one and half a dozen of the other, sir?” Dundas remarked coolly. “I mean, piper or no piper, the old man is in fact acting as butler?”



Oh, this is rather good so far. The description of the murder and crime scene was a bit graphic (for my tastes) but the depth of the characters and dialogue so far has made up for it. 

Sometimes, Sundays are just for not doing much at all. Happy Sunday everyone. 

Reading progress update: I've read 90 out of 160 pages.

Roger Moore: À Bientôt . . . - Roger Moore, Deborah Dash Moore

I had a bit of fun communicating with my son Christian when he was based in LA. With the time difference it wasn't always easy to talk on the phone, so I'd send him notes and updates on family life - though I'd often Tipp-Ex out every few words, so all he received were four words and five blanks per line. Oh, what fun!


LoL. That's almost inspired!

Reading progress update: I've read 99%.

Howards End - E.M. Forster

“Meg, is or isn't he ill? I can't make out.”

“Not ill. Eternally tired. He has worked very hard all his life, and noticed nothing. Those are the people who collapse when they do notice a thing.”


Finally, Henry is close to making a connection.

Reading progress update: I've read 83%.

Howards End - E.M. Forster

Henry began to grow serious. Ill-health was to him something perfectly definite. Generally well himself, he could not realize that we sink to it by slow gradations. The sick had no rights; they were outside the pale; one could lie to them remorselessly. When his first wife was seized, he had promised to take her down into Hertfordshire, but meanwhile arranged with a nursing-home instead. Helen, too, was ill. And the plan that he sketched out for her capture, clever and well-meaning as it was, drew its ethics from the wolf-pack.

Henry Wilcox could give Everard Wemyss (see here and here) a run for his money, and because we know that Wemyss was based on a real person (von Arnim's husband and also Bertrand Russel's older brother) we also know that these people existed. And scarier still, they still exist.


Why Meg? WHY?!?!?


Reading progress update: I've read 67%.

Howards End - E.M. Forster

It was the reward of her tact and devotion through the day. Now she understood why some women prefer influence to rights. Mrs. Plynlimmon, when condemning suffragettes, had said: “The woman who can't influence her husband to vote the way she wants ought to be ashamed of herself.” Margaret had winced, but she was influencing Henry now, and though pleased at her little victory, she knew that she had won it by the methods of the harem.

...I'm still puzzled by what might have possessed Margaret. I mean, I get it, but for crying out loud... Henry?!


Margaret certainly is the most complex character in this one.


This is what happens...

...when I'm on my library's website and am not paying attention. Instead of "save to my wishlist", I may have clicked the wrong button. It probably was the "I WANT THEM ALL AND I WANT THEM NOW!" button. I'm sure you all know which one I mean...or maybe that is a secret button that I have just found?



Anyway, the two librarians who handed me this lovely little pile weren't even trying to suppress their smirking, so I had no choice: I surely couldn't hand the books back and admit to accidentally ordering them. I simply had to pretend the erroneous mouse action never happened and I needed all of these lovely books right away...and on purpose.


The moral of the tale, my good people, is that ... well, there is no moral, but I'm giving you a heads up that most of my near-future-reading will be about Sir Roger, and more Bond, and stuff.


So, yeah, not much change from the regular programme.

Reading progress update: I've read 41%.

Howards End - E.M. Forster

Financial institutions haven't changed much, have they?

To him, as to the British public, the Porphyrion was the Porphyrion of the advertisement—a giant, in the classical style, but draped sufficiently, who held in one hand a burning torch, and pointed with the other to St. Paul's and Windsor Castle. A large sum of money was inscribed below, and you drew your own conclusions. This giant caused Leonard to do arithmetic and write letters, to explain the regulations to new clients, and re-explain them to old ones. A giant was of an impulsive morality—one knew that much. He would pay for Mrs. Munt's hearth-rug with ostentatious haste, a large claim he would repudiate quietly, and fight court by court. But his true fighting weight, his antecedents, his amours with other members of the commercial Pantheon—all these were as uncertain to ordinary mortals as were the escapades of Zeus. While the gods are powerful, we learn little about them. It is only in the days of their decadence that a strong light beats into heaven.

Reading progress update: I've read 30%.

Howards End - E.M. Forster

A curious seeker, she stood for a while at the verge of the sea that tells so little, but tells a little, and watched the outgoing of this last tremendous tide. Her friend had vanished in agony, but not, she believed, in degradation. Her withdrawal had hinted at other things besides disease and pain. Some leave our life with tears, others with an insane frigidity; Mrs. Wilcox had taken the middle course, which only rarer natures can pursue. She had kept proportion. She had told a little of her grim secret to her friends, but not too much; she had shut up her heart—almost, but not entirely. It is thus, if there is any rule, that we ought to die—neither as victim nor as fanatic, but as the seafarer who can greet with an equal eye the deep that he is entering, and the shore that he must leave.

This is such a hard part to read. Not because of the writing but because we get to know the Wilcoxes as they really are ... and knowing how the story will develop ... well, you just want to shake some of the characters...and hit others with a shovel...or a sword...

Charles and his father sometimes disagreed. But they always parted with an increased regard for one another, and each desired no doughtier comrade when it was necessary to voyage for a little past the emotions. So the sailors of Ulysses voyaged past the Sirens, having first stopped one another's ears with wool.

Reading progress update: I've read 13%.

Howards End - E.M. Forster

“That reminds me, Margaret. We might have taken that young man into the dining-room, at all events. Only the majolica plate—and that is so firmly set in the wall. I am really distressed that he had no tea.”

For that little incident had impressed the three women more than might be supposed. It remained as a goblin football, as a hint that all is not for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and that beneath these superstructures of wealth and art there wanders an ill-fed boy, who has recovered his umbrella indeed, but who has left no address behind him, and no name.

This book is so quotable. You should see my kindle screen - nearly every second page is covered in highlights and notes. 

I'll try not to go overboard with posting all of them on the dashboard feed... I'll try...


Howards End was my first introduction to Forster and is still my favourite. It is very much "personal canon" material.

Reading progress update: I've read 5%.

Howards End - E.M. Forster

“If I were a man, Mr. Wilcox, for that last remark I'd box your ears. You're not fit to clean my niece's boots, to sit in the same room with her, and you dare—you actually dare—I decline to argue with such a person.”

“All I know is, she's spread the thing and he hasn't, and my father's away and I—”

“And all that I know is—”

“Might I finish my sentence, please?”


Charles clenched his teeth and sent the motor swerving all over the lane.

She screamed.


Gotta love Aunt Juley.

It's been brewing ...

Howards End - E.M. Forster

for a couple of weeks now, but I just need some Forster in my life right now.


Time to re-read an old favourite.


"What do you think of the Wilcoxes? Are they our sort? Are they likely people? Could they appreciate Helen, who is to my mind a very special sort of person? Do they care about Literature and Art? That is most important when you come to think of it. Literature and Art. Most important. "


The Moneypenny Diaries

The Moneypenny Diaries: Final Fling - Kate Westbrook, Samantha Weinberg The Moneypenny Diaries: Secret Servant - Kate Westbrook, Samantha Weinberg The Moneypenny Diaries: Guardian Angel - Kate Westbrook, Samantha Weinberg

I was angry with my aunt for almost a year after receiving the diaries, as I oscillated between the version of history I taught and thought I knew, to that recorded on their pale-blue pages. Almost automatically, I worked at the same time to authenticate them, to verify, to the best of my ability, that they were a true and accurate depiction of the events she described. As far as I could determine, they were. They are. I wrestled with what I should do with her unusual – and, in some senses, unwelcome – legacy.

I decided they had to be published and with that decision came emotional release. It was as if my resentment of my aunt’s subterfuge was liberated by the realisation that she had sent the diaries to me for a purpose. She had wanted me to have them; she had wanted me to know. As I delved deeper into her secret world, I came to understand the constraints she was living under: the reasons why she could not reveal the true nature of her world. It was not just the diktat of the Official Secrets Act. Jane

Moneypenny knew so much about the inner workings of the SIS that it became a liability. It made her an attractive target for enemy officers, looking to penetrate further the London headquarters. Her knowledge was also dangerous in itself; what would happen if she found out more than she should?


I first read this trilogy in early 2013, not that long after I joined Goodreads and started this whole book blogging adventure. I wish I had written a review of the three books back then, but I had probably not yet gotten around to figuring out what I wanted to review and how I wanted to do it.


It’s a pity, because I distinctly remember that I liked the books so much that I read them in quick succession, but then forgot what the plots were about or why I liked them.


This time around, I have been a more mindful reader. A more observant reader.


This time around, I noticed also that I have become an altogether different reader. Life, books and discussions with other people do that to you. I’m delighted with this. Who really wants to stay the same person?


This time around, I read The Moneypenny Diaries as a reader who is quite familiar with Ian Fleming, James Bond, with the history of espionage during the Cold War, with the works of other ex-spies like Greene and Le Carre. And what can I say, I enjoyed the books so much more for it than even on my first read.


Don’t get me wrong, the books are not perfect.  There are a few loose ends, a couple of anachronisms (over the three books, which is not a bad average), and a few things at the end that I'm not sure are logical. Despite all that, these three were so much fun to read and it was so satisfying to find a decent spy thriller in the Bond universe that did not try to emulate Fleming's writing. The original characters were all there, just with more depth and much better setting into the historical background.


But what about the actual stories?


In Guardian Angel, we are introduced to the story of Dr Kate Westbrook, a Cambridge historian, who has inherited her aunt’s diaries. Her aunt was Jane Moneypenny. Reading her aunts diaries, Kate discovers that her aunt was working for the Secret Service, and had a life that was completely unknown to her family.

Her aunt chose Kate as the recipient of the completely unauthorised diaries because she needed someone she trusted to become the holder of the information and make a decision of what to do with the diaries.


Kate decides to publish the diaries and the following storylines emerge:


- The Bond stories. This is where Moneypenny's story follows the Bond novels.

- The niece’s story - This is the setup of the series. Moneypenny's niece inherits her secret diaries and decides to publish them - which puts her at odds with the Official Secrets Act. She also tries to investigate some of the loose ends in Moneypenney's life.

- Moneypenny's father: In her diaries, Moneypenny is trying to find out what really happened to him. (Incidentally, this weaves in another real life sub-plot about Colditz Castle...)

- Moneypenny's own story – her personal life and her life in the Firm as set against the events of world history.


Sounds convoluted? It isn't. The author really carries this off quite well. 


The author, by the way, is Samantha Weinberg, but the books were originally published under the name of Kate Westbrook.


Guardian Angel is set against the background of the Cuban Missile Crisis and despite a, not slow, but rather subdued start, one of the agents that Moneypenny works with is getting into trouble.


The agent we are talking about is, of course, Bond. James Bond. Moneypenny carries a torch for him but knows full well that this is not a relationship she wants to pursue. They have fun flirting but are much better friends than to start off anything else.


I love the way that Weinberg wrote this relationship. There was no swooning, no Bond worship, no patronising comments from Bond, just genuine care for each other.


There is another guy in this story who is Moneypenny’s romantic interest but part of the thrill of this story is that we get to get a feel for the difficulty of the characters situation – they cannot know who to trust.


We also get a good feel for Moneypenny as a woman in a male-dominated environment. She’s not an agent, but she is also not “just a typist”. Weinberg was spot on in her writing about the time and the place and the roles of the characters. It was one of the aspects that immediately drew me in.


As the story develops, Moneypenny takes on more of an assertive role, but we cannot compare her to Bond in any way. Nor should we.


In the second book, Secret Servant, we get to follow her as M becomes more confident in her abilities as an agent. Tragedy has struck by this time and we get to see Moneypenny facing her demons by taking on a task for the Firm: to travel to East Berlin and Moscow and extract Kim Philby and his wife Eleanor back to the UK.


I am quite familiar with the story of Kim Philby and some of the places Moneypenny travels to, and I was delighted to read that Weinberg had put in a lot of research to have the story follow the historical and geographical facts here. I also loved some of the quips:


Thursday, 27th February

We leave in three nights. The plans are nearly set. Philby insisted we travel overland, by train to Leningrad and then north to the Finnish border. He says that’s our only chance. We leave on the midnight train and should not be missed until mid-morning the next day, if all goes as we hope. To give us an extra few hours, Eleanor will stay in their flat that night. The next morning, she has made an appointment at the American Embassy to discuss her forthcoming planned trip home to see her daughter. Sergei knows she is going; it should not cause suspicion. Not until she fails to leave the Embassy compound, by which time we should be almost at the border.

I have the address of a safe house in Leningrad. A taxi-driver will meet us at the station and take us there. Agent 859 will be waiting to escort us to the meeting-point just this side of the border, in the woods near Vyborg. Head of S insists it will work like clockwork, but I don’t think even he believes that. Still, if we can trust Philby – and I suppose we have to, though there are times when a look of uncertainty crosses his face – it is our best chance of escape.

If we can trust Philby.

This is suspense writing as it should be.


If you know the story of the Cambridge Spies, Kim Philby could not be trusted, but could he be in the context of this story?

I loved it. Almost every time that I thought I had figured out the plot and characters, I had to question everything because it was just not clear which character could be trusted.


This culminated in the third book, Final Fling: Moneypenny’s boss, M, suspects that there is a mole in the organisation which puts the whole organisation not only on edge but also at risk from interference by other government departments.


In a way, there were some similarities to the film Spectre, which has really nothing to recommend itself for (imo) other than portraying the close bond of loyalty between the main characters: M, Bond, Moneypenny, and Bill Tanner.


At the height of this crisis, the plot was so gripping that I literally had to finish the book in one sitting.

Friday, 23rd October 

My world is going mad, and I fear I am not far behind. Everything I thought I knew is being turned upside down, and I’m not even sure whose side I’m on any more. As I arrived at the Office this morning, James was being marched out, flanked by two large men in ill-fitting suits who had about them the look of retired policemen. He wasn’t struggling, but was clearly unhappy about the situation. 

Events snowball out of control.

Is anyone after me? It seems increasingly like a game from which I’ve managed momentarily to step away. The more time I am here, the more ridiculous that game appears to be. I no longer think it’s worth it. I couldn’t even tell my sister where I was going. I have no one to confide in. I don’t trust my closest friend. I think the KGB might want to kill me. Is that a life? I have four more days here in which to make my decision: whether to stay at the Office, or to go. If I stay, then I have to discover the identity of the Sieve; if I opt to leave, it will be a wrench, separating me from what has been the major part of my life for over a decade, and from the people who have become almost family, and whose friendship I know I’ll lose. If every day I walk from one side of the island to the other, I don’t think I’ll come up with a clear answer. Whatever I do, it will be with regret.

I will leave off commenting on the plot that follows from this, other than to say that Moneypenny’s niece is drawn into her aunts affairs much more than she bargained for, and even years after her aunts death, there is still a threat that needs to be stopped.


This was a gripping tale. One that appealed to lover of history, the lover of mystery, and the lover of spy novels in me. Most of all, the re-read also made me think about the use of historical facts in fiction, the use of fiction as historical fact – and most of all about the labels we seem to dish out.


As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the reasons for the re-read was that I saw this trilogy labelled as “Chick-Lit”. Wtf?

Sure, there are a few stories about relationships in these three books. Sure, the book focuses on the lives of two thirty-something women. Sure, some aspects of the stories were less intellectually challenging than others. So what??? Does this make this “Chick-Lit”? If so, what about the original Bond novels?

The only difference between The Moneypenny Diaries and the Bond novels is that Weinstein’s books focus on two female main characters. To slap a “Chick-Lit” label on them and an “adventure”, “spy thriller”, or similar label on the other is just plain wrong.


Furthermore, thinking about the whole label of “Chick-Lit” and how basically any book that is about a woman of a certain age and features aspects of that character that involve deliberations of relationships with anyone, could be classed as chick-lit really annoyed me. Why isn’t that just “lit”? And why isn’t there a label for inconsequential novels with a male protagonist ? Or is there?


Having used the term “Chick-Lit” quite a few times in this review, I think I’m done with it. For good.

That "chick-lit" label can go and set fire to itself.

Currently reading

Devil's Due by Phyllis Bottome
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