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

Reading progress update: I've read 1%.

Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - Kathryn Harkup

I don't usually anticipate the release of a new book, but this one I have been looking for. I really loved the author's A is for Arsenic (currently in the running for our Flat Book Society read in May), and I am confident that this new one will be equally as enlightening (ha!), fun, and just a little bit ... dramatic.


Here's the opening to the book:

On 4 November 1818, a scientist stood in front of the corpse of an athletic, muscular man. Behind him his electrical equipment was primed and fizzing with energy. The scientist was ready to conduct a momentous scientific experiment.

The final preparations were made to the cadaver – a few cuts and incisions to expose key nerves. No blood ran from the wounds. At that moment the thing on the table in front of the young scientist was just flesh and bone, from which all life had been extinguished. Then the corpse was carefully connected to the electrical equipment.

Immediately every muscle was thrown into powerful convulsions, as though the body was violently shuddering from cold. A few adjustments were made and the machine connected a second time. Now full, laborious breathing commenced. The belly distended, the chest rose and fell. With the final application of electricity the fingers of the right hand started to twitch as though playing the violin. Then, one finger extended and appeared to point.

The images conjured up by this account may seem familiar. Perhaps you have seen them on the silver screen when Boris Karloff’s iconic creature twitched and stumbled into life. Or maybe you have read something like this in the pages of a novel written by the teenage Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. But the description above is not fiction. It happened. Two experimenters, Aldini and Ure, made the dead move using electrical devices. 


Reading progress update: I've read 44%.

Her Royal Spyness - Rhys Bowen

I had never actually seen a dead body before and I stared at him in fascination. He can’t really be dead, I told myself. It’s some kind of macabre French joke, or he’s trying to frighten me. Or maybe he’s sleeping. But his eyes were open and staring vacantly at the ceiling.

Sleeping? He's submerged in a bathtub. Fully clothed. And in cold water as the author has already told us that no one knows how to light the boiler.


I was just about ready to throw in the towel when we finally had some movement in the plot. Not great, and I am not convinced the whole mystery can be developed and solved within little more than half the book, which is all that is left.


Also, this is decidedly more "chick lit" than mystery, at least in my book.


Still why is the book called "Her Royal Spyness"? No spying has occurred. Charring, dusting, disguising, but no spying. :(

Reading progress update: I've read 40%.

Her Royal Spyness - Rhys Bowen

‘Splendid. That’s wonderful. I do hope Boy has not been – getting in your way.’ The look she gave implied that he had got in the way of a great many females.

Ok, a bit bored by the setting and the cads and bounders and Binky and the snobs.

When is the mystery making an appearance?

Reading progress update: I've read 27%.

Her Royal Spyness - Rhys Bowen

‘I suppose so,’ I said, ‘but I don’t think I plan on doing it again. Too hair-raising. There were people who knew me.’

‘Like that twerp Hautbois?’ Darcy said scathingly.

‘You know Tristram, then?’ ‘I can’t say I actually socialize with him these days. We were at school together. At least, I was a couple of years above him. He snitched to the masters and got me a beating once.’

Ok, I turned to this on the recommendation that it was a light and funny read. And that it is. It is also quite interesting as it is based on the characters of the real Royal Family at the time - which is quite funny and satisfying the history nerd in me in a weird way.


Alas, there hasn't been any spying, yet. I hope it does make an appearance soon and distracts the plot from the developing Darcy farce-y romance.


It's certainly a light and fun read, tho. :D


Is anyone else having problems with notifications?

I don't seem to get any.

Does anyone have suggestions?

I'm enjoying my current reads - but they are all a bit serious and depressing.


Does anyone have any suggestions for some frivolous and fun reads that would lighten up my current reading?


Preferably not chick lit, paranormal , or SF.


I have light reads - mostly mysteries - but I don't seem to have a lot of "funny" books.

Reading progress update: I've read 25 out of 328 pages.

No Surrender - Constance Maud

Oh, goody, only 300 more pages of Maud's polemics. 


Don't get me wrong, this is an important book, but the delivery of Maud's argument is as elegant as cracking an egg with an ice axe.


At least the beauty of my Persephone copy of this book makes up for some of the lack of quality in the writing. 



Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day - Winifred Watson

Saccharine fluffy story dating back to 1938 and showing its age - a couple of racist comments and the insistence that woman's main goal in life is to marry...


The dated comments weren't actually what hindered my enjoyment of the book. It was the insipid story more than anything.  

For WhiskeyInTheJar...

A Menu Monday tribute:


The chili what had gone wrong-ish somehow. Well, the left-overs...



It worked quite well as a pasta topper yesterday and it is nowhere near as runny today as it was when I made it. So, I managed to have it in mini tortilla boats today. Oh, and despair not, there is grated cheese at the it can melt properly.


It was yummy.

Wallace Intervenes

Wallace Intervenes (Wallace of the Secret Service) - Alexander Wilson





Book # 8 in the Wallace series (written in 1939) sees the MC, a secret service agent, pimp himself out for King and country - with an inner monologue that reminds me of Bond's thoughts in From Russia with Love. I still hate that book.


Maybe it is a mood thing, maybe I could read this at another time, but right now reading this isn't working for me.

Wallace at Bay

Wallace at Bay (Wallace of the Secret Service) - Alexander Wilson

Wallace at Bay was my first encounter with Wallace, chief of the Secret Service, and it was not great. Maybe I should have started at the beginning of the series, but I somehow doubt that this would have changed anything because my issues with the book are not about the lack of background or setting, my issues are simply that the overtones of xenophobia and nationalism spoiled the book to an extent that I would even prefer a James Bond romp to this one. 

"Of course I don't know the district very well," Carter told her, "but it has struck me whenever I've been round this way, that the first house on this side - the one next door to the school - is about the most decayed of the lot. I suppose it is owned by the same landlord, isn't it?"

"Lord bless you, no! There's umpteen landlords own these houses and, if you ask me, they're all as bad as one another. Letting the places go to rack and ruin, that's what they're doing, but I don't suppose they care as long as they get their rent."

"Still," persisted Carter, "tidy tenants can improve even dilapidated houses by growing flowers in the front, banging up clean curtains and that sort of thing. The people in the house of which I am speaking don't seem to have any of what you might describe as home pride."

"Home pride!" snorted the lady behind the bar. "I should think not indeed. Do you know who live in that house?"

He smiled. "No, I'm afraid I don't."

"Foreigners, all the blesses lot of them. And what can you expect from foreigners?"

This is not the only instance - when the officials raid the house to arrest a bunch of "anarchists", the flat is described as a filthy hovel, but what else could one expect? 


There are other issues, too:


The "anarchists". This book was written in 1938. It does not seem to make sense to have "anarchists" as villains. To me this plot would have made more sense if it had been set pre-WWI, but it clearly isn't because the Cenotaph features in the plot.
In the second half of the book, Wilson seems to equate "anarchism" with "Bolshevism", which is not strictly true either. It would make more sense if he had focused on "Bolshies", but then why would their efforts be limited to the assassination of royalty? 

Of course, all of the villains, all of the "anarchists", are "foreigners" and the general description of the generalised "foreigners" is pretty harsh, and just ...stupid, including the made up accents, which seem to be all the same.


Wallace of the Secret Service is a pretentious snob, who is portrayed as the adored hero of all his underlings and the personal enemy of all villains everywhere. This is again ... ill-conceived.

Wallace does lead the operation but the actual story follows Carter, an agent who is at the forefront of all the action. Wallace hardly does anything in this book. It makes no sense for Carter or anyone else to focus on the amazing Wallace, when they're the ones solving all the puzzles. Holy sycophantic hero worship, Batman!


It all read like a boy's own adventure story - which it was. Literally. Apart from the two women discussing foreigners with Carter, there is only one mention of another. She doesn't even feature in the story, she is only mentioned! And in that mention, Carter, Wallace and the boys question her ... morals? ... for having a child by the evil chief villain ... who is a dwarf. 


I originally gave this story 2* but that was generous. It may been motivated by a sense of curiosity of whether Ian Fleming was aware of this series, because he also loved to display his villains as ugly, degenerate, perverted, or otherwise ... different.


In all earnest, tho, I cannot wait to remove the book from my shelves.

Additions to Mt. TBR

I knew the dent in Mt. TBR would not last long as I'd been expecting some bookish mail. It arrived today, and with it came these 4 additions to Mt. TBR:


The Lifeline

The Lifeline - Phyllis Bottome

Mark Chalmers was, as far as he knew, exactly the kind of man he wanted to be. He earned enough money for his tasks; he had done nothing discreditable; women admired him; boys obeyed him; and men of his own age definitely disliked him, unless they had been more successful still; and then they thought that he was a very nice fellow and might go far. But he would not go far because he was already thirty-six.

The kind of job Mark was on was not greatly to his taste; but his friend Reggie at the Foreign Office was urgent about it, and had offered to pay his holiday expenses if he would undertake it.

Do you remember a few weeks ago when I discussed Phyllis Bottome's Murder in the Bud - the hilariously ridiculous book by the author that inspired Ian Fleming to start a career in writing? If you do, you may remember that I was looking to get my mitts on another book of hers - a book that Fleming is alleged to have copied from when he wrote his first James Bond novel - Casino Royale


Well, The Lifeline is that very book. 


When a trip to Edinburgh came up, I took the opportunity to seek out a copy at the National Library of Scotland and spend a few hours in the rather impressive reading room today to satisfy my curiosity about this book. It's totally geeky, I know, but it had to be done. 


From here on there will be spoilers of both The Lifeline and Casino Royale - I'm not using spoiler tags. Be warned.


Edit (03.Feb.18): Many thanks to TA for finding out this morning that the book is available online here.


The Lifeline - What's the book about?


Bottome wrote The Lifeline in 1946, but the story is set in Austria, 1938. Austria had been annexed by Germany and the story starts with the introduction of Mark Chalmers, a Brit who loves Austria and who is feels a sense of loss at the political situation.

“Well yes,” Mark admitted a little warily, because emotion always made him feel wary, and he really felt the loss of Austria deeply. “I am bound to say I am attached to this country. This sudden occupation of Hitler’s is like seeing a friend strangled by some ghastly thug! Yes, I do dislike the Nazis very much – I think – I may as well say – that we as a people think this whole absurd set-up here, or in Italy, an atrocious nuisance.”

Mark  promised a friend at the Foreign Office that he deliver a message to a contact in Nazi-occupied Austria. Unbeknown to Mark, this favour will set him off on his own adventure in as an intelligence officer.


While on holiday, Chalmers meets his contact in Austria and delivers the message. When he does, he learns about the precarious situation that his contacts friends are in and is persuaded to take some action. As a result Chalmers agrees to return to Austria under a false identity, that of a patient at a mental hospital and the brother of a famous artist.


The hospital is run by Dr. Ida Eichhorn, also a member of the underground, who enables Chalmers to come and leave the grounds as he requires to gather and pass on intelligence to his other contacts. 


One of these contacts is Lisa, a young Austrian woman living on a farm, who starts to care for Chalmers. They literally steal horses together. Well, not steal but smuggle. They smuggle Lippizaners (think Spanish Riding School) out of the country to rescue them from being killed by the Nazis. 

“The Third Reich thought that horses of such an unutilitarian character were an insult to the Intelligence of the New Man. The New Man, you see, is not to think and a horse that thinks might remind him of a former occupation of his own.”

(Note: I cannot find any sources that might support this claim as a fact, but would be curious to learn more. All I can find is that the horses were smuggled out at the end of the war for fear that they may be used for food by the advancing Russian army.)


One night, things go wrong. Chalmers is detected and tries to make a run for it. In the process, Lisa is killed by a raging bull named Franz Josef.  - Yes, I know, but please bear with me, because this is not the most laugh out loud part of the book: there is also a twist involving a mad aristocrat who is kept at the hospital that puts a Bronte-like twist on things and that was hilarious. 


Chalmers is caught and tortured by the Gestapo. He is then transferred to a mental institution for detention - and it turns out that this is the same place that he used as a cover. Dr. Eichhorn and his friend Father Martin, a Jesuit priest, nurse him back to health - one focusing on his physical recovery, and one addressing his mental one. 


Chalmers recovers, realises that he is in love with Dr. Ida Eichhorn (whom he previously didn't like), and both are married by Father Martin before Chalmers returns to England.

The End.



The Lifeline - How was it?


Honestly, I had very low expectations of this book after my experience with Murder in the Bud, but as I read through the first few chapters of the story,  I changed my mind and started to really enjoy it. 


For the purposes of this little project, I was not at first looking to read the complete story. I was looking to learn about Chalmers and in which ways he may or may not compare with James Bond. As it turns out, I had to keep reading to find out what happened to Chalmers and Ida and Father Martin. I cared, which, incidentally, is not something I have ever said about a Bond novel.


Where Murder in the Bud was lacking action and gushed forth with theories about psychology, The Lifeline was packed with action and only used reflection sparingly - but when Bottome did discuss a point, she cut straight to it. I liked that. 


For example, Chalmers is considering politics and how they affect personal integrity. Chalmers is a man who has been brought up with certain values such as that man must take action and that taking action is a sign of courage and honour. But in a post-WWI world this is not necessarily true. How far removed were courage and honour in a battlefield? And, if honour and courage derived from action alone, then surely an enemy is just as honorable and courageous as one's own side. And does the separation of "us and them" really exist? 


So, when Chalmers states an old adage that “A man must keep his honour by his courage.”, he is quickly drawn into a more complex consideration by Father Martin:

“Something quite new is happening,” Father Martin said slowly, looking away from Martin, out of the dusty window, into the darkening summer air. “There used to be that way of keeping honour by courage. But courage has ceased now, to be by itself, a virtue. It has to be connected up with other qualities to-day!”


Bottome wrote this in 1946. She had the benefit of experience and hindsight. Bottome herself was connected to the secret service. Her husband was a section head in various locations in Europe, and yet, she chose to focus not on Chalmers as a hero of the story but on the collaboration between Chalmers and the other characters. 


I am bringing this up because this is very different to what Fleming would do with Bond. It is also very different to what other authors, such as Alexander Wilson, would do - both authors would portray their secret service personnel as the unquestioned and, more importantly, unquestioning heroes, whose nationalism oozes off the page. 


Not so Bottome, and I found this refreshing. A spy thriller, that is action-packed and sensitive to the complexities of international politics. I was impressed, and not even some of the silly plot elements - Chalmers' love interest being killed by a raging bull in a meadow! - could detract from that. 


So, did Fleming copy from Bottome?


Some of the plot of Casino Royale closely follows that of The Lifeline. This cannot be denied. Both Chalmers and Bond go under-cover, both are tasked to work with a woman they don't like at first fall in love with at the end.

“A cat”, she observed with a friendly grin, “may look at a king – nothing that the king does can prevent it – but is it worth the cat’s while to do it since it is no answer? That is left to the king! I read in your eyes “I despise you, my good woman”, but that I knew already. And I must assert that as long as I have not done anything for which to despise myself I can quite easily bear it.”

Mark’s armour still held. “I beg your pardon,” he said in his most dispassionate and distinguished manner, “but I am afraid that your extreme skill in understanding other human beings sometimes carries you off too far – or not far enough. I am not quite sure which – in either what we think of each other is rather beside the point.”

Both get captured, are tortured, rescued at the last minute, and are sent to a hospital to recuperate. 

The last part is the most similar on both books - where Chalmers is nursed back to health by Ida and Father Martin, Bond experiences the same setup with Vesper Lynd and Rene Mathis. In fact, the first page of that particular chapter sounded a lot like the text in Casino Royale.

“The days slipped past slowly into weeks before Mark realized that he was mending outwardly but not inwardly. His broken body had knit; his bruises had healed; physically he could be a man again; but his heart would not heal. Every day when Ida came he locked her out of it. He did not want her to find the hollowness within. It was easy to shut her out, for she demanded nothing from him.


He simply felt that he had nothing more to offer. The Gestapo had cleared him out. At the very core of his being there was nothing now but panic and emptiness. He was without courage, and without dignity”

However, while Fleming may have used some of the same plot elements, his characters and his whole outlook are entirely different. Having read both books now, I am a little sad that Fleming's books have endured for such a long time, while Bottome has been largely forgotten. Not just forgotten, but her books have been out of print for a long time, too. 

The fact that I had to specifically seek out a copy of The Lifeline at a National Library, which involved quite a bit of effort, and that her books - especially this one - have not been reprinted - despite the connection with the cultural icon that is James Bond! - just makes me wonder which other gems we are missing out on. 


I'll leave with this, which is the essence of Bottome's attitude, and which is something you'd never find in a stereotype-loving Bond novel:

“Evil is a individual as good,” Father Martin objected, “as long as there is a less bitter way can you not take it? It is a man’s choice that proves life good or evil.”

Reading progress update: I've read 31%.

Lord Edgware Dies  - Agatha Christie

‘Surely, Poirot, that has got no connection with this business.’

‘You are blind, Hastings, blind and wilfully obtuse. Do you not see that the whole thing makes a pattern? A pattern confused at present but which will gradually become clear…’

I felt Poirot was being over-optimistic. I did not feel that anything would ever become clear. My brain was frankly reeling.

Oh, Hastings, you magnificent, long-suffering soul.

I'm loving this book. It is a lot of fun.

Reading progress update: I've read 186 out of 316 pages.

Wallace at Bay (Wallace of the Secret Service) - Alexander Wilson

This is a lot like an Ian Fleming novel - without the sexism so far, but with added xenophobia. Yes, I believe that is possible.


There is even an American counterpart to the field agent.


I don't think I will be a fan of this series even if the covers of the books are just too fabulous for words.


There are two other books in this series on my Mt. TBR, which means that Wilson has two more chances to prove my first impression wrong. 



Reading progress update: I've read 15%.

Lord Edgware Dies  - Agatha Christie

‘You refuse, then?’

‘Refuse? Certainly not.’

Whatever else Poirot had expected, he had not expected this. It is seldom that I have seen my friend utterly taken aback, but I did on this occasion. His appearance was ludicrous. His mouth fell open, his hands flew out, his eyebrows rose. He looked like a cartoon in a comic paper.

LoL. I love this scene. Poirot being stumped doesn't happen that often. I bet Dame Agatha had fun writing this.



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