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

Reading progress update: I've read 138 out of 502 pages.

Gaudy Night - Dorothy L. Sayers

Now, this is how to write undergraduates ... and I am sure there is a bit of Sayers in all of them:

Miss Millbanks had her room in Queen Elizabeth, and had furnished it with a good deal of taste. She was a tall, elegant girl, obviously well-to-do, much better dressed than the majority of the students, and carrying her intellectual attainments easily. She held a minor scholarship without emoluments, declaring publicly that she was only a scholar because she would not be seen dead in the ridiculous short gown of a commoner. As alternatives to coffee, she offered Harriet the choice of madeira or a cocktail, politely regretting that the inadequacy of college arrangements made it impossible to provide ice for the shaker.    Harriet, who disliked cocktails after dinner, and had consumed madeira and sherry on an almost wearisome number of occasions since her arrival in Oxford, accepted the coffee, and chuckled as cups and glasses were filled.

   Miss Millbanks inquired courteously what the joke was.

“Only,” said Harriet, “that I gathered the other day from an article in the Morning Star that ‘undergraduettes,’ in the journalist’s disgusting phrase, lived entirely on cocoa.”

   “Journalists,” said Miss Millbanks, condescendingly, “are always thirty years behind the times. Have you ever seen cocoa in College, Miss Fowler?”

   “Oh, yes,” said Miss Fowler. She was a dark, thick-set Third Year, dressed in a very grubby sweater which, as she had previously explained, she had not had time to change, having been afflicted with an essay up to the moment of attending Harriet’s talk. “Yes, I’ve seen it in dons’ rooms. Occasionally. But I always looked on that as a kind of infantilism.”

Not to mention this absolute beauty about the poison pen letters:

“I had one too,” said Miss Layton. “A beauty—about there being a reward hell for women who went my way. So, acting on the suggestion given, I forwarded it to my future address by way of the fireplace.”

So, yeah, either Death on the Cherwell got it entirely wrong or Somerville (Sayers' college) was far more fun than St. Hilda's (which Hay's Death on the Cherwell seemed to have been based on). 

The Reign of King Edward the Third

The Complete Works (Oxford Shakespeare) - William Shakespeare, John Jowett, Gary Taylor

What an odd play. 


From the introduction contained in the Oxford edition (Wells, Taylor, et. al.) of the Complete Works I gather that this play was a more recent addition to the Works and that only Scenes 2, 3, 12, and perhaps 13 may have been written by the Bard, with the rest having other authors who are not known. 


What makes this an odd play is that this was - supposedly - written after Shakespeare's play about Richard III (which I skipped in the re-read project because it's still relatively fresh in my memory). However, while Richard III had a clear storyline, a dramatic development, and some gloriously fleshed-out characters - which Richard himself growing ever more into the sniveling creature that RIII has so often been portrayed at - Edward III seems to lack all of this. I would even go so far as to say EIII seems to lack a clear train of thought. 


Was the intent to create a biography of EIII? Or to create a character study of him? Was it meant to be a romance - between EIII and the Countess of Salisbury? Was it meant to be a morality play (as the proposed preposterous murders planned by EIII and the Countess were averted at the last minute)?

Was it merely a play about the glory of England when faced with war (with both the Scots and the French this time...oh, and the king of Bohemia,...whatever)?


In short, what the fuck did I just read?


It also didn't help that I couldn't find any key points in the play that were of interest ... no fabulous speeches along the lines of "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious...", no interesting ideas, no interesting characters even...and, no, I cannot see anything interesting in the proposal of EIII and the Countess to kill their respective spouses so they can be together... I may have rolled my eyes at this. A lot. 

I even had to acknowledge that this would have been infinitely improved if this had taken a Strangers on a Train turn. It didn't.


I would have loved to have accompanied this reading with a performance of the play. However, the one that I found online seemed to struggle with the verse and the pacing and made following the plot (was there one?) not just difficult but also deeply unpleasant.


So, Shakespeare may have contributed parts to this play, but they aren't enough to salvage the play as a whole. 




Reading progress update: I've read 69 out of 502 pages.

Gaudy Night - Dorothy L. Sayers

So, I decided to re-read Gaudy Night for the BL-Opoly "classics" task. It's classic Sayers at its best.

“More of your scattered belongings?” said Wimsey, as she took the postcard; then, seeing her flush and frown of disgust, “What is it?”

“Nothing,” said Harriet, pushing the ugly scrawl into her bag.

He looked at her.



Murder of Lydia

Murder of Lydia: A Mr. Moh Mystery - Joan A. Cowdroy

Whitesands Bay reflected on its rippled surface the cool sunlight of early morning which filtered through from skies veiled as yet in haze that promised heat.

Mr. Moh sat on the end of a wooden groyne and surveyed the scene, shining waters, and smooth, unsullied sand uncovered by the tide, which had magnanimously washed away all traces of careless humanity in a spirit of deep content.

Murder of Lydia is another title that was originally written in the 1930s but was re-released recently in the wave of Golden Age mystery re-discoveries. 


Apparently, Joan A. Cowdroy wrote a series of detective novels that starred Mr. Moh, a Chinese-born gardener who may or may not have been affiliated with the San Francisco Police Department before moving to England. 


Anyway, Murder of Lydia introduces Mr. Moh and his family: his wife, daughter, and staunch xenophobic in-laws. 

When starting the book I was afraid that Mr. Moh would end up as yet another cliche character, but actually, despite Cowdroy lumbering Mr. Moh with a speech-pattern straight out of the Mr. Moto movies, Mr. Moh is a great character, who observes the characters around him, and through whom we get to really know them. 


The problem is that there is nowhere near enough of Mr. Moh in this story. A short way into the murder mystery, Inspector Gorham takes over, and Mr. Moh is pushed to the sidelines.

This is a shame.  I would have loved to have seen him take part more in the investigation. 

On the other hand, this probably would not have worked either because I would have been the first to complain about why a random gardener was part of a police inquiry.


Anyway, as the story plods on - drags a bit - while we lay blame at the door of a woman who doesn't fit society's expectations of portrayal of feminine emotions, the story is not all that extraordinary, except that Cowdroy clearly meant to ruffle some feathers with her portrayal of the main suspect and final plot twist that made me smile. 


I'm really keen to read the other book by Cowdroy that is currently available - Death Has No Tongue. I think she may have been on to something slightly unconventional and delightfully quirky that made her books stand out from the bulk of "re-discovered" Golden Age mysteries. 

Reading progress update: I've read 11%.

Blackwater: The Complete Saga - Michael McDowell, Matt Godfrey

Elinor and Oscar and James sat down for a hurried dinner at twelve o’clock, joined by Annie Bell Driver. Elinor had been in town almost a year now, but was close really to no one but James and Grace and Oscar. Outside the Caskey family and the children at the school, Elinor saw no one, with the exception of Annie Bell Driver, who would stop for a quarter-hour or so when she drove her wagon past James Caskey’s house and saw Miss Elinor sitting on the porch. Elinor and the female preacher were by no means intimate, but Annie Bell knew Mary-Love and knew what Mary-Love thought of the engagement of her son to Miss Elinor. So Oscar had asked Annie Bell to perform the wedding ceremony not only because of her friendship with Elinor, but also because no other preacher in town would risk Mary-Love’s displeasure. 

LoL. Yeah, this sounds like a promising start to family relationships.

But then, Mary-Love may be in for a surprise.

Booklikes-Opoly! - Roll & Book Selection

It's a new roll day:


You rolled 2 dice:

2 2

Timestamp: 2019-06-21 23:01:42 UTC

(BST is 1 hour ahead of UTC)


... which takes me to:


29. Scottie dog: Post a list or poll of 4 books, and ask your fellow players/followers to "fetch" you a book.


So, I pocket the card and roll again:


You rolled 2 dice:

5 6

Timestamp: 2019-06-21 23:03:18 UTC


...which takes me past Go! to:


3. However, by the end of the summer, I was usually bored out of my mind, and ready to go back to school (and I'm sure my mom was ready to send me back to school, too).
Read a book set in a school or college, or that is considered a "classic," (using any criteria that you want) or that is frequently banned.


Erm, how did I end up on this one again?


Part of me wants to re-read Gaudy Night just because... and part of me wants to use the opportunity to read another classic that's been on my shelf for ages.


This is a hard choice. I'll give it some thought overnight.

Wild Strawberries

Wild Strawberries - Angela Thirkell

Wild Strawberries was my first foray into the works of Thirkell and I believe I'll return to her work whenever I have a need for some fluffy interwar comfort read now that I've run out of E.F. Benson. 


This was a sweet story of a family that can only be described as ... chaotic. I guess, eccentric would be a hit, too, but as there was no plot to the story as such this book is more of a portrait of delightful chaos in the same vein as P.G. Wodehouse's Wooster novels - but without the plot. And this brings me to the main issue I had with the book - I am one of those pesky readers that prefers, nay needs, a plot, however so thin it might be. It's what makes the book memorable for me. Without this, the only thing that has remained with me even only days after finishing the book is the glorious scene of Gudgeon and the Gong: 


Mr Leslie had abolished the use of the gong.

‘’Er ladyship is just ze same,’ said Conk. ‘She never ’ear ze gong. If she was in ’er bedroom she often say to me, “Conque, ’as ze gong gone?”’

Gudgeon pondered these remarks. One day he ventured to sound the gong, gently and for a short space, for lunch. After a day or two, finding that no one checked him, he sounded it for tea, then for dinner, but always with brevity and restraint.

Finally, taking advantage of the absence of Mr Leslie in town, he liberated his soul in tocsins, alarms, fanfares of booming sound.

At the end of the week when Mr Leslie returned, Lady Emily remarked at dinner:

‘Gudgeon, did you sound the gong tonight? I never heard it.’

‘Yes, my lady,’ said Gudgeon, ‘but I can sound it a little longer in future if your ladyship wishes.’

‘Yes, do,’ said Lady Emily. Mr Leslie, occupied with Mr Macpherson about the matter of mending the cricket pavilion roof, did not hear this conversation, and being at the time absorbed in a cattle show at which Rushwater Robert was like to do well, he never noticed that the gong had begun again.

To see Gudgeon sounding the gong for dinner was to see an artist at work. Taking the gong-stick, its round end well padded with wash-leather, which it was his pride to replace with his own hands from time to time, he would execute one or two preliminary flourishes in the manner of a drum-major, or a lion lashing itself to a frenzy with the fabled claw in its tail. Then he let the padded end fall upon the exact centre of the gong, drawing out a low ringing note. With increasing force he sounded it, the end of his stick moving in ever-widening circles upon the dark, pitted surface of the gong, till the sound filled the whole house, booming through corridors, vibrating in every beam, thrilling and pleasantly alarming Agnes’s children in bed upstairs, making David in his bath say, ‘Damn that gong; I thought I had five minutes more,’ making Mr Leslie, in the drawing-room, say, ‘Everybody late again as usual, I suppose,’ making Lady Emily say as Conk pinned up her hair, ‘Has the gong gone yet, Conque?’

Today the last ripples of its booming had hardly died away when Mr Leslie came in with Mr Macpherson, the agent, and Mr Banister. Agnes, with James, who came down to Sunday lunch, David and Martin followed close behind.

‘We shan’t wait, Gudgeon,’ said Mr Leslie. ‘Her ladyship will be late.’

‘Very good, sir,’ said Gudgeon pityingly.

The Butchering Art

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine - Lindsey Fitzharris

Upon inquiring after the welfare of one of his patients, a surgeon at Guy’s Hospital in London was informed by his assistant that the man in question had died. The surgeon, who had become inured to this kind of news, replied, “Oh, very well!” He moved on to the next ward to ask about another patient. Again, the answer came, “Dead, sir.” The surgeon paused a moment. Frustrated, he cried, “Why, they’re not all dead?” To this, his assistant responded, “Yes, sir, they are.”

Scenes like this were playing out all over Britain. Mortality rates within hospitals had reached an all-time high by the 1860s. Efforts to clean up the wards had made little impact on incidences of hospitalism. What’s more, in the past several years there had been growing disagreement within the medical community over prevailing disease theories.


The Butchering Art is a fascinating history of surgery combined with the biography of Joseph Lister, the first surgeon in Britain to introduce a regime of deep cleaning hospital wards and revolutionising wound dressing. 


It is amazing to read about the fatality statistics in surgery during Lister's lifetime and how these statistics changed because of his discoveries and that of his contemporaries. While the book focuses on Lister, many other surgeons and scientists are also featured together with a broad overview of "office politics" of the Victorian medical establishment, and how different attitudes of university hospital boards hindered or promoted the advancement of hospital care.


This was an exciting read, but given the subject matter also made me wince at times, even tho none of the descriptions were gratuitous. It's just that I don't have a high threshold for blood and guts, even if the author took care to make light of the situation where it was appropriate (where it wasn't the tone of the author's description was suitably serious and respectful to the patients).   


I am planning a visit to the Surgeons Hall Museum in Edinburgh later this year, which was very much the centre of Lister's groundbreaking work, and I hope to find some of the tools like the carbolic spray pump and other examples of Lister's work there. I'm really curious to see one in person and find out more about the mechanics of how it worked. It's always exciting to see some of the things we read about and geek out on a field trip.

This time I hope that I'll be able to meet up with the fellow geek enthusiast who's recommended the book to me in the first place. ;)

Liston could remove a leg in less than thirty seconds, and in order to keep both hands free, he often clasped the bloody knife between his teeth while working. Liston’s speed was both a gift and a curse. Once, he accidentally sliced off a patient’s testicle along with the leg he was amputating. His most famous (and possibly apocryphal) mishap involved an operation during which he worked so rapidly that he took off three of his assistant’s fingers and, while switching blades, slashed a spectator’s coat. Both the assistant and the patient died later of gangrene, and the unfortunate bystander expired on the spot from fright. It is the only surgery in history said to have had a 300 percent fatality rate.

Who Spoke Last?

Who Spoke Last?: An Amos Petrie Mystery (Black Heath Classic Crime) - Turner Publishing Company

“I can see that you, too, have suffered,” she exclaimed.

“My God!” thought Amos, “this is going to be another marriage on another bond of grief!”

He introduced a sterner note as he threw the woman off her estimate of his unhappy life.

“I’ve never had a miserable moment in my life,” he said. Then he blushed at the sound of the lie and hastened to add, “Except, of course, for the day, that most unhappy day, when I lost Mary Ann.”

“I knew it,” said the woman.

“Yes,” continued the little man, dreamily, “Mary Ann was the best——”

“So were both my husbands,” she interjected.

“Fishing rod I’ve ever had,” completed Amos.

Mrs. Gertrude Jane Crawley Bedlay clutched her bag, and rose from the chair. She was now in agreement with those who thought Amos could readily be certified—that his freedom was a slight on the Board of Control.

After reading Turner's Below the Clock recently, I simply had to pick up another book by the author. I loved Below the Clock and was delighted to find another delightful mystery starring Amos Petrie, the eccentric and crumpled solicitor in the Public Prosecutor's Department. 


Unlike Below the Clock which was set in Westminster, Who Spoke Last? was set amongst the stock-brokers of the City of London, which was just as nefarious a setting.


I loved the discussion of the different potential motives, especially the way that several suspects are basically left to stab each other in the back before the real culprit - tho none of the suspects are without fault - is revealed. I really loved the structure of the mystery as much as the way that Turner used the book to poke fun at the pretense of respectability and how crooks are also bested by crooks.


Loved it.


Death Must Have Laughed - TBR

Who Spoke Last? - 4*

Amos Petrie's Puzzle - TBR

Murder - Nine and Out - TBR

Death Joins the Party - TBR

Homicide Haven - TBR

Below the Clock - 4*

Death on the Cherwell

Death on the Cherwell - Mavis Doriel Hay

So much unfulfilled potential. 


An Oxford setting, a mysterious death, college intrigue, and an underlying issue that is worthy of discussion and that would still have been a taboo at the time of writing. Seriously, there was so much in this book that should have been the foundation of an excellent book. 


However, the potential was spoiled by TSTL characters that dominated the first half of the book for no reason - absolutely none! - and was made worse by (if that is possible with TSTL characters) by pretty explicit racism. I know, I know, it was acceptable at the time...yadda, yadda.

But here is the contributed absolutely nothing to the story. What was the point? It only made the characters more stupid than they were already. Tho, granted, that was a feat on the part of the author that I had not expected.


It doesn't help, of course, that the book was published in the same year and has a very similar setting to Gaudy Night, which is one of the best books I have read this year and is now firmly placed on the list of my all-time favourite books. 

Where Sayers showed us how to write a Golden Age mystery set in Oxford, Hay showed us how not to do it. 


If it had not been for familiarity with Oxford from either personal experience or other sources, I am not sure that Oxford setting really came to the fore in Hay's book. Sure, we have punting, a river, and a fairly nondescript college, but where is the description of the city? Where is the atmosphere? The closest I found to an Oxford description was when two of the students discuss Blackwell's bookshop. That was all.  


Just as ubiquitous yellow fog does not create a Victorian London setting, there is more to Oxford than Blackwell's and punting. 

I expected more.


There are issues with the mystery, too. 


Again, the main characters were too immature - childish even - to pass for first-year students. The police were too all-knowing and presumptive to pass for detectives. 


The real issue I have, however, is that the actual interesting plot twist is left to the last chapters of the book and is not actually used to discuss the intricacies of the deficiencies in the mores of the time. Sure, it would have been a topic that was unmentionable at the time, but if the author didn't want to discuss it and the hypocrisy around it, why would she use it as the underlying reason for the entire story?


I expected more. Much more.

Reading progress update: I've read 339 out of 502 pages.

Wedlock: How Georgian Britain's Worst Husband Met His Match - Wendy Moore

A siege. We have a castle siege!

(show spoiler)

Reading progress update: I've read 310 out of 502 pages.

Wedlock: How Georgian Britain's Worst Husband Met His Match - Wendy Moore

Damn. Moore's description of the divorce case is fab. And I am also reminded to pick up a book on Lord Mansfield.


And @Moonlight Reader, we have a book-crossover:

Just like the fictional Jarndyce v Jarndyce case in Dickens’s Bleak House, Bowes v Bowes would drag on almost interminably, run up immense costs and blight the lives of scores of innocent descendants and dependants. Affecting the farms, homes and livelihoods of the many servants, tenants and miners whose families had been reliant on the Bowes estate for centuries, just as in Bleak House, children would be born into the suit, marry into it and die out of it. And although the Chancery caseload had not yet approached the mountainous heights or its deliberations the ponderous lengths of the early nineteenth century as lampooned by Dickens, those affected by the Bowes cause would doubtless have echoed the author’s description that, ‘it’s being ground to bits in a slow mill; it’s being roasted at a slow fire; it’s being stung to death by single bees; it’s being drowned by drops; it’s going mad by grains’.

It's not just that Moore refers to Bleak House but I believe Lord Eldon, who played a part in the Bowes case, is one of the figures that Dickens makes fun of in Bleak House, too. 


I'm almost tempted to re-read Bleak House. Almost.

Reading progress update: I've read 254 out of 502 pages.

Wedlock: How Georgian Britain's Worst Husband Met His Match - Wendy Moore

And then into her life walked Mary Morgan.

Oh, thank goodness.

Stoney needs to go down. Hard.

Reading progress update: I've read 209 out of 502 pages.

Wedlock: How Georgian Britain's Worst Husband Met His Match - Wendy Moore

Studiously keeping his vices private, Bowes maintained the image of public virtue. The ostentatious displays of civic generosity and exotic gifts to powerful neighbours proved fruitful. Early in 1780 Bowes succeeded in getting himself elected High Sheriff of Northumberland, one of the most prestigious posts in the country, which brought with it important judicial responsibilities as well as further expenses. Heavily in debt, holding his sister prisoner, regularly abusing his wife and fathering illegitimate children, the new High Sheriff was expected to work with local judges and justices of the peace, organise hue-and-cry chases and attend executions as a pillar of legal rectitude.

Please, somebody tell me that Stoney (a.k.a. Bowes ... because he had to take his wife's name as part of the conditions of marriage) will be clubbed to death by either Mary Eleanor or his sister. What a vile, vile piece of ...

Reading progress update: I've read 3%.

Blackwater: The Complete Saga - Michael McDowell, Matt Godfrey

Bray stiffened with his paddle in the water.

The boat rammed against the brick wall, and the black man and the white man rocked backward and forward with the shock.

“I have waited and waited,” said the young woman standing in the open window.

She was tall, thin, pale, erect, and handsome. Her hair was a kind of muddy red, thick, and wound in a loose coil. She wore a black skirt and a white blouse. There was a rectangular gold-and-jet brooch at her throat.

“Who are you?” said Oscar in wonder.

“Elinor Dammert.”

“I mean,” said Oscar, “why are you here?”

“In the hotel?”


“I was caught by the flood. I couldn’t get away.”

“Ever’body got out of the hotel,” said Bray. “They got out or they took ’em out. Last Wednesday.”

“They forgot me,” said Elinor.

Well, hellooo, Elinor. 

And with that we are off.

I'm unsettled.

Thanks, Char.


Blackwater: The Complete Saga - Michael McDowell, Matt Godfrey

I don't have enough long, epic books on my currently reading shelf as it is, ... *sighs* ... but I really want to finally make a start on The Blackwater Saga and Char's list of her favourite books just prompted me again.


So, I'm not setting BL-Opoly aside, but I am slowing the game down to fit in one other audiobook that's been on my TBR for far too long. 

Currently reading

Agatha Christie’s Complete Secret Notebooks by Agatha Christie, John Curran, David Suchet
Progress: 649/784pages
Skeletons: The Frame of Life by Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams
Progress: 109/320pages
Woza Shakespeare!: Titus Andronicus In South Africa by Gregory Doran, Antony Sher
Progress: 23/303pages
The Complete Works (Oxford Shakespeare) by William Shakespeare, John Jowett, Gary Taylor
Progress: 307/1344pages
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, H.M. Parshley, Deirdre Bair