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The Return of Vintage Crime Shorts!

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Yes, I have got a little behind with my reading of the short pieces collected in “Dead Witness”, but they were the ideal thing recently when I was between books and unsure of what I was actually going to read next. And the four tales I read were really varied – quite fascinating how different the short story can be.

Though in truth, they’re not all short stories, as the first piece is an extract from novel – the one in which we meet arguably the most famous detective of all time, Sherlock Holmes!

The Science of Deduction by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle (an extract from A Study in Scarlet)

Reading Sherlock Holmes nowadays is never going to be the same experience as his first readers; so much of his image has permeated our culture that even if you’re not a fan, you know who Holmes is. And if I’m honest, Holmes didn’t really catch fire until the first short stories started appearing. Nevertheless, editor Michael Sims has decided to feature the initial meeting between Holmes and Watson, which sees them setting up in Baker Street and also Holmes establishing his character and early signs of his deductive powers, so from that point of view it’s a good choice.

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It’s quite obvious that we’re in the presence of a great storyteller and great character, even in this early work, and I must admit that reading this had the effect of making me want to pick up my Sherlock Holmes short story collections and get lost in the world of Victorian crime. Truly, Holmes is the definitive detective!

The Whitechapel Mystery by Anonymous

This section is a whole different kettle of fish, as they say. It consists of a selection of rather gruesome newspaper reports of the Ripper cases which were actually so graphic that I ended up skipping over some of the descriptions! It’s quite an eye-opener to see how the gutter press hasn’t changed that much, although this was probably one of my least favourite shorts in the book.

The Assassin’s Natal Autograph by Mark Twain

Mark Twain is of course best for writing about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but this extract comes from his work “Pudd’nhead Wilson”. The featured story concerns a court case and has a very early exposition of the science of fingerprinting which proves a clincher in case of proving guilt. Twain was ahead of his time as this was first published in 1894, well in advance of the first use of fingerprint evidence in 1902. The extract was excellent, but should have come with a spoiler alert if you were thinking of reading the book…

Murder at Troyte’s Hall by C.L. Pirkis

The final story of the batch was a much more substantial and satisfying tale, write by Catherine Pirkis who was the first woman writer to create a woman detective – Loveday Brooke. Employed by an agency who can see the sense in having one of their number who can easily infiltrate big houses and the like, Loveday is sent to Troyte’s Hall to investigate the murder of old Sandy, the Cravens’ family retainer who lives in the lodge. The family itself is an odd one, with a reclusive patriarchal figure who spends all his time working, a daughter who has conveniently gone off to stay with a friend and a suspicious son who could well be the guilty party. Needless to say, Loveday manages to unravel things before the local policemen, although putting herself in danger in the process. But this is great stuff with proper detecting and quite exciting though maybe a little predictable!

I’m now about two-thirds of the way through this book and it’s ideal for dipping into when you want a classic crime fix but haven’t got the time to invest in a novel – great stuff!!

On Roads – A Giveaway!

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The more I think about Joe Moran’s “On Roads” (reviewed here) the more I love it and want to share it with others! So I thought I would do a little giveaway!

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I have one brand new copy of the book to give to an interested reader. Names will be pulled out of a hat randomly and if you’re interested leave a comment to enter – all I ask is that you recommend me a really good non-fiction read you think I might like!

I’ll close entries in a week’s time and see if I can persuade OH to do the draw as Youngest Child is no longer on hand – good luck! :)

More Russian Lovelies from the Wonderful Alma Classics!

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Alma Books has long been one of my favourite publishers (you can find plenty of my praise on this site) and I was very pleased to hear that they’re issuing more wonderful Russians!

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Just published is a lovely collection of Chekhov’s short stories “In the Twilight”, which has been rendered readable for us Anglophones by one of my favourite translators, Hugh Aplin. As well as being in a sparkly new translation, the book features the usual excellent Alma extra material in the form of photos and biographical material.

This is a particularly interesting collection of Chekhov’s work as it was the third collection of his work published, and it was put together by the author himself (unlike many modern collections which are selected by publishers and translators). So we have the advantage of reading a work in the form in which Chekhov wanted us to see it.

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Chekhov’s Dacha in Yalta, courtesy Cornucopia magazine

Additionally, as Aplin points out in his interesting introduction, this set of stories catches Chekhov at an intriguing point in his development; here the author is making the transition from his earlier, more humorous pieces, written very much with a view to making a living, to the more serious works for which he would become known.

I’m looking forward to reading this very much, and a review will follow! Kudos to Alma, though, for bringing out this work in a lovely new edition.

Evergreen version of The Gambler - isn't it lovely?

Evergreen version of The Gambler – isn’t it lovely?

If you haven’t explored many Russian classics before, Alma’s Evergreen imprint is a good way to start, as this budget price set of books includes several titles from that country’s great authors. Gogol’s “Petersburg Tales”, Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” and “Notes from Underground” and “The Gambler” (my favourite!), plus Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” are some of the titles available, and at £4.99 you can’t go wrong.

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Finally, I was so excited to find out that Alma are issuing a new collection of some of Bulgakov’s stories under the title “Notes from a Cuff”. These are primarily early pieces, composed when the author was working as a doctor during the Russian civil war; and the best bit is that the book also contains some new works translated into English for the first time!

“Notes on a Cuff” is due out in November – and I’m very much looking forward to reading it! :)

A Secret History of Motorways – and the future we never had…

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On Roads: A Hidden History by Joe Moran

It’s been a little while since I read any non-fiction – I’ve really been submerged in various types of fiction lately, haven’t I? – but I stumbled across Joe Moran’s “On Roads” in The Works at a bargain £1.99 and it sounded too good to resist!

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Moran is a social and cultural historian who currently lectures at Liverpool’s John Moores University and has authored several other books apart from this one – and according to Wikipedia he’s influenced by my beloved Georges Perec among others, so that can’t be bad! “On Roads” tells the story of British roads post-WW2, which sounds though it might be boring – but actually is quite unputdownable! This is not about how roads were dug and concrete poured (although elements of that are discussed); instead, Moran covers a wide range of aspects including the planning and building of motorways, the evolution of service stations, the introduction of speed limits and breathalysers, anti-motorway protesting and a remarkably wide-ranging cultural look at how roads have influenced and shaped our country. We learn about how the road numbering was influenced by Napoleon; how traffic jams form and unform; how the Little Chef developed; the political waves which influenced motorway building; and the wonderful fact that 2.5 million Mills and Boons books are supporting the M6 toll road!

“The M6 Toll Road used up two-and-a-half million old Mills and Boons novels, romantic dreams crushed daily by juggernauts. So thank you, reader, for saving this book from being buried under one of the new lanes on the M1. Mind you, if I had to be pulped I can think of worse fates. Having your unread books vanish into the authorless anonymity of a road feels pleasingly melancholic, like having your ashes scattered in a vast ocean.”

This is cultural history at its best, and Moran’s sweeping range of knowledge is impressive – in fact, his erudition reminded a little of Iain Sinclair’s “London Orbital” but without the mysticism and with a little more of a left-wing bias (although he never lets his political beliefs get in the way of telling a good story and dropping in another fascinating fact). He’ll reference anything from the old band “Hatfield and the North” to J.G. Ballard via Swampy and Greenham Common and fog on the motorway, and the book is never less than engrossing. It’s also very drily funny!

Much of this book stirred memories, too. I’m old enough to remember travelling in the early days of motorways and at a time when there were no facilities such as the current motorway services to stop for the so-called ‘comfort break’ (it was behind the nearest bush when I was a child). I can recall the early Forte service stations and how modern they seemed at the time, and how wonderfully retro they would look now, and this book triggered many long-lost images. There was one particular Forte break we stopped in whilst travelling from Hampshire to Northants and I wish I could identify it….!

We’re often plagued nowadays by thoughts of the future we were predicted we would have, which is nothing like the one we got – “Nostalgia for an age yet to come” as Buzzcocks put it so well. This book brilliantly captures the feeling of anticipation experienced during the 20th century, when progress was seen as a sparkly, bright new future where all would be equal and everyone would have a wonderful life with gadgets to make life easier, and a modern cars and roads to get about on. Moran charts the changing views as the century progressed and attitudes shifted as environmental concerns came to the fore, and it’s sobering to see how quickly viewpoints altered as oil ran low and the car was no longer the be-all and end-all.

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This is an exceptionally good book – readable, enjoyable, informative, funny and thought-provoking. Why it ended up in The Works I don’t know, as I very much agreed with the quote on the front from the Sunday Times: “A beautifully written masterpiece”. I urge you all to go out and buy a copy – now!!!

In which “Books are my Bag” reaches Suffolk….

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and a day that starts badly ends up well!

Yes, I have been a tad grumpy lately – mainly because of bad quality second-hand books – and additional grief was caused by the fact that a planned visit to London yesterday to hang around Foyles with J. during Books are my Bag events had to be cancelled owing to OH being a bit poorly.

So I was pleased to find that BAMB was actually going to be celebrated by the local Waterstones branch (although I only heard the night before thanks to an email from Caboodle – nothing was showing up on the BAMB website). I intended to make an early visit in case events started promptly and all the bags went, but things went pear-shaped as we had to make an unintended visit to the local hospital with 92-year old mother-in-law….. Turned out that there was nothing wrong with her and the visit was a false alarm, but I hit town at midday convinced there would be nothing left in Waterstones.

Frankly, if I’m honest, you wouldn’t even know BAMB existed if you looked at the front of the shop. No displays or bags in the window or events or anything. I wandered upstairs to the fiction section and enquired rather feebly about the bags and the guy said “Oh yes!” and opened a plastic bag containing them – apparently I was the *first* person to ask!!

I had a little chat with him and pointed out that a little publicity might help; they didn’t show up as doing anything on the BAMB website and I’d only found out the night before, and that a window display might help (maybe I should be running the branch…) Anyway, what was nice was that, having been given a free bag, I felt inclined to explore the fiction shelves a bit and having dissed the store a few weeks ago, I have to withdraw my comments a little. Despite having moved their fiction into a smaller area, there was actually quite a good selection – particularly of smaller presses which I hadn’t expected. So well done Waterstones, Ipswich for being a little more adventurous with what you stock!

In the end I bought one *brand new* book in honour of the day – to add to the few second-hand volumes I’d found – and this is what came home with me:

The infamous bag – not a Tracy Emin one, but I don’t mind that at all! Plus the new book I bought which is this:

My first Pereine Press book – yes, Waterstones really *do* stock some of the good smaller presses! “Chasing the King of Hearts” chimes in with the kind of stuff I’m reading at the moment, so it was the obvious choice.

As for some of the second-hand bargains, these first two came from the local library old stock shelves, for 40p each:

I’ve picked up a number of decent books this way, and often in better condition than some of the second-hand books I buy online. And for 40p each! I’m determined to read Trollope soon and have heard good things about this. As for Francis Wyndham, I know I’ve read about him on a blog but I can’t remember where. But I will give his short stories a go!

And finally some charity shop finds:

This was from the Oxfam – again I’ve read about Claudel online (I think on Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and it sounded intriguing. And last but not least from the Crack On charity shop:

I’d never heard of it but the blurb says it’s a mix of travelogue and family history and I’m intrigued enough to risk 75p on it!

So not a bad day in the end – not the one I had planned, but nevertheless with some lovely bookishness. How did you celebrate Books are my Bag? :)

Reading the Forsyte Saga – a Challenge for 2015!

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You might have noticed I’ve been muttering on about “The Forsyte Saga” recently, having conceived an interest in reading the books and picking up a set of interesting (and not so interesting!) Penguin copies:

Whilst the chattering was going on, Ali at HeavenAli came up with the ideal of having “The Forsyte Saga” as a read-along for 2015 – which I thought was a great idea, because it gives us 9 months for 9 books and plenty of catch up time if we get behind!

Ali has mentioned this in her post here, and if anyone wants to read along with us – please join in! The more the merrier! :)

Remembrance of things past….

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Mary by Vladimir Nabokov

Well, I *did* end up visiting another Nabokov quite soon, didn’t I? To be honest, I’ve been eyeing up this volume for a while – part of my Penguin Great Loves little box set, “Mary” was Nabokov’s first novel, written in Russian in Berlin soon after his marriage in 1925. My version is translated by Michael Glenny in collaboration with Nabokov – which is fascinating because Glenny’s translated many of the Russian books I’ve read and obviously was considered good enough by Nabokov which is praise indeed!

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The book comes with the byline “Love can be rewritten” and that’s a good point at which to start considering “Mary”. The protagonist is a Russian émigré by the name of Ganin, lodging in a dirty Berlin pension with a varied selection of fellow exiles – the old poet Podtyagin, Klara the typist, Alfyorov, plus the two ballet dancers Kolin and Gornotsvetov. The book opens idiosyncratically enough with Ganin and Alfyorov temporarily trapped in the old lift, though they are soon free – but the meeting will have consequences. We learn very little of substance about Ganin’s current life apart from the fact that he has had many and varied jobs while in exile, he has a girlfriend (Klara’s best friend Lyudmila) and his money is running out. The strange little pension is positioned next to a main train line and Ganin’s wanderlust is constantly kindled as he hears the trains thundering by. He plans to leave soon, which Alfyorov announces will be wonderful as the latter’s wife Mary is due to arrive in Berlin. He shows a picture of her to Ganin which is a revelation – because this Mary is the love of Ganin’s life and he has not seen her for many years, since before the revolution in Russia.

As what Ganin calls his shadow life in Berlin carries on around him, he slips mentally into reminiscence where memory of his early life in Russia is stronger and more real than the current one. He recalls vividly his young life, his meeting with Mary and the progress of their affair. His poignant and often painful memories are strong and when he does come back into real life it is to plan that he will meet Mary on her arrival in Berlin, they will be together and in effect run off into the romantic sunlight. Meanwhile, he splits up with his girlfriend, tries to help Podtyagin get a visa to go to Paris and ignores the fact that Klara is in love with him. But will Mary really arrive, will she be *his* Mary and will she still love him?

This wonderful little novella is about much more than just a love affair, however. Although the narrator’s love of Mary is never in doubt, the book is about memory, and is also a kind of lament for a lost Russia and an elegy for the Russian émigrés and what they had lost by leaving their country and losing a whole way of life. Ganin has lost his past and therefore feels homeless and unsettled; his constant restlessness and the feeling he wants to leave are exacerbated by the continual rumbling of the trains, reminding him of places he hasn’t seen:

“Meanwhile nostalgia in reverse, the longing for yet another strange land, grew especially strong in spring. His window looked out onto the railway tracks, so that the chance of getting away never ceased to entice him. Every five minutes a subdued rumble would start to move through the house, followed by a huge cloud of smoke billowing outside the window and blotting out the white Berlin daylight. then it would slow dissolve again, revealing the fan of the railway tracks that narrowed in the distance between the black, sliced-off backs of houses, all under a sky as pale as almond milk.”

I wonder if Nabokov had been reading Proust when he wrote “Mary”, because although it’s a fraction of the size of the Frenchman’s epic work, it’s a powerful evocation of how strong memory can be and how things remembered can be more real than current reality itself.

“Ganin now tried to recapture that scent again, mixed with the fresh smells of the autumnal park, but, as we know, memory can restore to life everything except smells, although nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.”

For Proust it was the taste of a Madeleine, but smell is just as strong a sense and I know that certain perfumes recall certain times and people for me.

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“Mary” is a beautiful little book – full of poignant memories of Russia before its changes, of lost loves and a lost world, and a wonderful portrait of a microcosmic émigré community surviving as best it can. I feel as if Nabokov’s first novel gives us a little more of a glimpse of the author than some of his other fictions do, as I imagine Ganin’s feelings of loss were mirrored by his author. The end of the book is unexpected in some ways, yet once you’ve assimilated it, the best way for the book to end. Ganin has been recreating and carrying on a relationship with Mary in his mind, and to rediscover her in reality simply wouldn’t work. If you haven’t read any Nabokov, this would be a good place to start; if you have, but have not read “Mary”, you have a treat in store!

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