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Another year of reading flashes by…

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…and truly I don’t quite know where 2016 has gone but it many ways I’m not sorry to see the back of it. Despite the political shenanigans and the sad departures plus the ever-shifting world situation, I *have* managed to read a lot, which has helped me keep on an even keel. It’s very hard to pick favourites, but I thought I would run through a few highlights from the books and authors I’ve spent time with in 2016.

Golden Age Crime

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I’ve read quite a bit of this type of book in 2016, and it *is* one of my long-term favourite genres. I started the year with a particularly wonderful example, “Trent’s Last Case” by E.C.Β  Bentley which was a real treat; and ended 2016 dipping into some wonderful British Library Crime Classics. In many ways, there’s never been a better time for rediscovering past and lost Golden Age Crime treasures and I expect to encounter more lovely titles in 2017.

M Train by Patti Smith

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Smith is another long-term obsession of mine, and reading her memoir “M Train” at the start of the year was wonderful. An inspirational woman and artist, she weaves tales out of her life experience, writing about the loss of her husband, her return to performing, her everyday rituals and routines, the act of creation and the writers and artists important to her. A fabulous book.

The Embezzlers by Valentin Kataev

My copy does not, alas, have this lovely dustjacket...

My copy does not, alas, have this lovely dustjacket…

Another recent discovery is this Russian author, and I’ve read several of works over the last year or so – short stories, a memoir and this wonderful satirical novel from the 1920s. That decade was a good one for Soviet writing, before the iron grip of Soviet Realism took hold, and this book tells a madcap story of a pair of accidental embezzlers and their drunken progress around Russia. It’s very funny, but like all satire is subtly critical of the regime and the Russian people. Kataev’s a much neglected author in my view, and I intend to read more of his work in 2017.

The Testament of Vida Tremayne/The Gingerbread Wife by Sarah Vincent

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I am notoriously picky when it comes to modern writing, but I had some good experiences with new works this year, and pretty much all with books written by women authors. Special mention needs to go to Sarah Vincent as her two books are definitely among my favourites this year. “The Testament of Vida Tremayne” was a gripping and intriguing take on the mother-daughter dynamic – with a puma thrown in for good measure! It was one of those unputdownable reads, and her short story collection “The Gingerbread Wife” was a very strong one, with each story memorable and individual. Her women characters are believable, her plots and stories excellent, and I highly recommend her!

The 1938 and 1947 Clubs

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Simon at Stuck in a Book came up last year with the wonderful idea of us co-hosting a week of reading books from a particular year, and we’ve done three so far – all getting increasingly popular and throwing up a wonderful variety of works! The two years we read from in 2016, 1938 and 1947, had some particularly good novels and I haven’t read a dud in either week I think. We’re going to focus on 1951 next time, so be sure to join in! πŸ™‚

Virginia Woolf

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Thanks to the prompting of HeavenAli’s wonderful #Woolfalong, I have returned to reading Virginia Woolf big time this year and it’s been a fabulous and rewarding experience. I was able to re-read “Between the Acts”, “Orlando” and “Jacob’s Room”, all of which I hadn’t picked up for nearly 35 years. I also read for the first time “Recollections of Virginia Woolf”, a wonderful collection of reminiscences of the author, which became quite an emotional experience. I’ve always felt a really strong connection with Woolf and returning to her works this year has been really special. Let’s hope I can keep the impetus up next year.

Sci Fi (particularly Soviet!)

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I have been dipping back into science fiction this year; starting with an excellent collection of M. John Harrison short stories early on, as well as some fascinating works by Stanislaw Lem, “Aelita” and a variety of short stories by Soviet women authors. It’s a long time since I’ve read so much sci fi (I was a much bigger consumer of the genre in my younger years) and I’ve enjoyed all of the thought-provoking pieces I’ve read. Again this is a type of reading I want to continue in the new year (and I do have another Lem lurking on the TBR!)

Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson

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I’ve read a few thrillers this year, and the stand out is probably this recently rediscovered title. The fact that much of the action was set in Siberia could well have been a bit of a draw, but the book was a great read; exciting, action packed and full of twists and turns, it was another one of those titles I just couldn’t put down. I enjoyed Eric Ambler very much too, and fortunately have his “Mask of Dimitrios” lurking as well!

Victor Serge

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I *have* read a lot of Russians this year, of course – so what’s new, you might ask? Well, my discovery of the work of Victor Serge has been something rather special. I first read his “Conquered City” back in 2012 and it was mentioned in my round up of that year. It took me until 2016 to return to his work, and I was knocked out by “The Case of Comrade Tulayev” and “Midnight in the Century”. Serge had a fascinating life, and as I felt compelled to pick up several of his books on a visit to London, I still have plenty left on the TBR.

Other Russians

1917Yes, I *have* read a lot of Russians – and honourable mentions must go to Teffi, Dostoevsky, Babel, the 1917 Anthology, Saltykov-Shchredrin, Sergei Dovlatov, Kirill Bulychev, Nabokov, Mayakovsky, Gaito Gazdanov… Well, I could go on and on, couldn’t I? (and thank goodness for translators…)

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Those are some of the highlights of the year, but I need to mention one undertaking from 2016 about which I have mixed feelings. I set out to re-read Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” sequence in the company of several ladies from the Virago Modern Classics LibraryThing group. I had high expectations for the read, as I had good memories from my first experience with them decades ago. However, I have fallen behind with the books, and I find myself having a different and perhaps more critical reaction. I think I *do* read more deeply nowadays, which may have coloured my view; but I’m finding that, although there are passages of great beauty and insight in the books, there are also frustrations. Certainly Richardson makes few concessions to her reader, and I think that’s a problem at the end of the day – if you don’t communicate, you kind of lose the point of your writing, and there are plenty of times when all of us reading Richardson have been very lost. So I *will* finish the books in the new year, but my admiration of Dorothy Richardson’s writing is now tempered with a lot more criticism…

Putting that aside, I *have* had a very wonderful reading year – here’s to a 2017 full of books of all shapes and sizes and varieties and subjects! πŸ™‚

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A few seasonal bookish arrivals (well, OK – more than a few…)

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December is a time of year when I can expect bookish arrivals – not only do I have a birthday mid-month, but there is of course Christmas and the family are fairly well-trained when it comes to perusing my wishlist and choosing some suitable items. There are, fortunately, always a few unexpected treats too, and so I though I would share some of the arrivals with you!

On the birthday front, the Offspring behaved nicely and came up with the following treats:

bd-manguelEldest Child picked an Alberto Manguel title off the wishlist – I’ve read one of his books and enjoyed it, and this one comes highly recommended!

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Middle Child went for an arty-crafty book I’ve been after – I like to dabble in the spare moments when I’m not reading and this is one that’s again highly recommended by many of the YouTube crafters I spend too much time watching…

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Youngest Child plumped for an OuLiPo collection which I’ve been eyeing up for ages. I have the Perec story elsewhere, but basically other OuLiPo members take his story and riff on it – sounds absolutely fascinating!

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And my Little Brother treated me to Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities – again a title I’ve been keen to read for ages so it’s nice to finally have a copy!

With birthday out of the way, Santa also came laden with books this year. Firstly, my Virago Secret Santa (the lovely Trish from Australia) gifted me some amazing things. These first three books were from my Virago wishlist:

vss-1All are books I was very, very keen to have so were wonderful to receive. But Trish also send a separate package with two other lovely items:

vss-2Thea Astley is an Australian author who’s slipped onto my radar recently. and I’m very keen to read her and also about her, so this lovely book is very welcome – as are the Australian Wildflower notecards!

Finally we get to a slew of books from OH who improvised madly and came up with some lovely surprises!

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First up, the complete poems of Walt Whitman. I’ve wanted to read Whitman for absolutely ages, so I reckon OH has been doing a bit of mind-reading!

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Next up, a Tolstoy I don’t have which contains several shorter works – lovely!

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Bearing in mind that I’ve just been rabbiting on about Anthony Berkeley (Cox) who was also Francis Iles, this is a really timely arrival and another good choice by OH!

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This one is a *very* interesting choice. I can’t bring anything particular to mind about Cortazar, but I just feel that I know he’s an author I want to read – watch this space!

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And finally, a pretty pre-loved copy of a book I’ve wanted to read for absolutely *ages*. I mentioned it in a recent conversation we were having about Piers Paul Read and so it happened to turn up on Christmas day – such are the joys of Christmas book arrivals!

These aren’t the only books I’ve received over the festive period, but I thought I’d share just a few with you. I really have been gifted with some wonderful books and the TBR is now, of course, groaning under the strain. And as usual, the difficult thing will be choosing what to read next! I hope you all had bookish festive seasons too – do share anything particularly lovely you received! πŸ™‚

A very Merry Christmas from the Ramblings!

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Just a quick post to wish you all a very merry yuletide season wherever you are! I shall be off grid for a little while, celebrating with the family, but I’ll no doubt be back soon with pictures of festive book gifts….. πŸ™‚

Murder in the depths of winter

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Crimson Snow, edited by Martin Edwards

I really am getting into the groove with my Golden Age crime reading at the moment. It seems particularly suited to this time of year, and the new collection of short stories, “Crimson Snow”, is absolutely perfect, featuring as it does crimes that take place in the dead of winter! I’ve read a few of the BL short story collections which have all been fantastic, and this one is again in the more than capable editorial hands of Martin Edwards.

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“Crimson Snow” collects together 11 stories set in the middle of the coldest of the seasons, and of course the concept of a snowed in country house lends itself well to a murder mystery; in fact several of the stories do take place in that kind of setting, and some do have a hint of supernatural thrown in to add a frisson, even if that’s eventually debunked. The stories are presented chronologically, starting with Fergus Hulme’s “The Ghost’s Touch” and ending with Josephine Bell’s “Carol Singers”, and there are a wide variety of authors. Interestingly, the majority of the authors were ones I hadn’t read before so it was really good to be able to explore new writers. In fact, as far as I can recall I’ve only read Allingham before, so this was a real voyage of discovery!

When reviewing short stories I’m never quite sure how much detail to go into, so I think I’ll touch on favourites and give some general thoughts. “The Chopham Affair” by Edgar Wallace was very enjoyable – he was astonishingly prolific and although this is probably pulp, it was great fun. The Fergus Hulme had a bit of scariness thrown in, as did “Death in December” by Victor Gunn. This latter, one of the longer pieces, was very memorable; there was plenty of spookiness and wicked deeds, and Gunn’s regular detective, Chief Inspector “Ironsides” Cromwell, was great fun.

Another treat was in the form of “Mr. Cork’s Secret” by Macdonald Hastings. Cork is the head of Anchor Insurance company, and ends up spending his festive season investigating a murder and jewel theft at a luxury hotel. It’s a satisfying mystery which ends up with the reader being challenged to find out what Cork’s secret actually is – and the solution is given at the end. Margery Allingham’s “The Man with the Suit” is of course a standout, being a wonderful tale featuring Mr. Campion; it’s reproduced here in its original, longer form and has the classic, snowy country house setting. Campion himself is a joy and reading this made me even keener to revisit more of Allingham’s work.

snowy-house

Even the later stories could be described as Golden Age, except for one slightly anachronistic tale in the form of Bell’s “Carol Singers”. This brings us into the more modern world, closing the collection on a downbeat note and a leaving a slightly bitter taste. An old lady living on her own is preyed upon by young hoodlums, and it’s a sad story; although the guilty are tracked down, it still takes us away from the slightly less realistic atmosphere of GA crime.

So, another wonderful book from the British Library Crime Classics, and perfect for festive reading. I particular enjoyed getting to know some new authors, and I think I’ll definitely follow up some of the names featured here to see what else of theirs is available – always happy to find new writers to read! πŸ™‚

(Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!)

A post-modern detective story?

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The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

I’ve often thought how rubbish I’d be on a jury, as whenever I’ve watched fictional court scenes I’ve been swayed back and forth by the arguments of the opposing counsels until I don’t know who to believe. And I’m even more convinced having read Anthony Berkeley’s “The Poisoned Chocolates Case”, a recent addition to the very wonderful British Library Crime Classics series.

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Berkeley is a most unjustly neglected author, as my experiences of reading his work have been wonderful. Under this pseudonym (his real one was Anthony Berkeley Cox) he created the detective Roger Sheringham, a most entertaining sleuth. Another nom de plume was Francis Iles, and under this one he produced the very highly regarded “Malice Aforethought”. Iles was later reinvented as a critic; this book, however, is his most famous one as Berkeley, and it’s really very special – certainly one of the BL titles I was most keen to read.

As usual, the book features an excellent introduction by the redoubtable Martin Edwards, giving an outline of Berkeley’s career. And the story itself is a fascinating read, and a most unusual one. Roger Sheringham has set up a Crimes Circle, a group of notables with an interest in crime and criminals – and most obviously this is a tongue-in-cheek parody of the Detection Club, which Berkeley was instrumental in forming. There is the famous barrister Sir Charles Wildman; dramatist Miss Fielder-Flemming; novelist Alicia Dammers; crime fiction author Morton Harrogate Bradley; and Mr. Ambrose Chitterwick, a diffident man about whom little is said.. On the evening in question, as the book opens, they are joined by Chief Inspector Moresby of Scotland Yard, a friend of Sheringham, as the latter, being the Circle’s president, has a proposal to put to the members.

A murder has taken place, that of Joan Bendix, who’s been poisoned by a doctored box of chocolates. The twist is that the sweets in question had been sent to one Sir Eustace Pennefather at his club, purporting to be a free sample from the company that produces them. Pennefather dismisses the promotional stunt angrily; and as Graham Bendix, who happens to be nearby, mentions that he owes his wife Joan a box of chocolates after losing a bet, Pennefather gladly hands them on to him. The chocolates are duly delivered to Mrs. Bendix, who reports that they taste rather unpleasant; Graham Bendix tries a couple and agrees, and so when the poison takes hold it only makes him ill as he ate so few; for Joan Bendix, who ate a good number, it proves fatal.

This is the pretty and knotty problem facing the Crime Circle; who tried to kill Sir Eustace and why? There are few clues, as the box was posted on evening in the middle of London, and there are no fingerprints on the wrapping or anything else to give a hint as to the killer. Scotland Yard are baffled and so Roger Sheringham proposes that each member does a little sleuthing, presenting their findings at later meetings to see if the amateurs can outdo the professionals. Of course, Sheringham himself wants to be the one who finds the solution and we do see some of the detecting from his point of view.

So the various members go off to do their investigating; and what’s fascinating is how each turns out to have some individual knowledge of the people involved in the murder. Sir Charles, for example, has a hatred of Pennefather, who is revealed to be something of a womanizer and who’s been chasing his daughter with a view to marriage for money. Several members know the Bendixes, and reports of the temperament of Joan, the happiness or not of their marriage and each partner’s peccadilloes vary. As I read on, each subsequent explanation was totally convincing, proving how easy it is to twist facts to meet theories – I ended up really not knowing who was the guilty party! It’s a tribute to Berkeley’s skill as an author that each individual explanation has a completely different angle and interpretation of the characters and events, and that each is utterly believable.

Facts were very dear to Sir Charles. More, they were meat and drink to him. His income of roughly thirty thousand pounds a year was derived entirely from the masterful way in which he was able to handle facts. There was no one at the bar who could so convincingly distort an honest but awkward fact into carrying an entirely different interpretation from that which any ordinary person (counsel for the prosecution, for instance) would have put upon it. He could take that fact, look it boldly in the face, twist it round, read a message from the back of its neck, turn it inside out and detect auguries in its entrails, dance triumphantly on its corpse, pulverise it completely, re-mould it if necessary into an utterly different shape, and finally, if the fact still had the temerity to retain any vestige of its primary aspect, bellow at it in the most terrifying manner. If that failed he was quite prepared to weep at it in open court.

This book really could be described as post-modern in that it actually deconstructs many of the tropes and conventions of detective stories. The Circle members are quite happy to discuss the tricks that authors use to bamboozle the reader, and how easy it is to draw erroneous conclusions and make a convincing argument for almost anyone being the murderer! Berkeley playfully pokes fun at the genre, but always in an affectionate way and this doesn’t interfere with the joy of following the mystery and the deduction; it’s also very funny! And the book finishes in a wonderfully open-ended way, with the reader pretty much free to agree with any of the conclusions reached or none of them.

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“The Poisoned Chocolates Case” comes with some excellent extras in the form of an additional chapter with a solution by noted author Christianna Brand, first published in 1977; and a rather wonderful subsequent one by Martin Edwards, written especially for this edition. I didn’t think Brand’s piece gelled particularly well, but that by Edwards was just wonderful. He captures brilliantly Berkeley’s style and his solution is ingenious and believable with a marvellous twist on the last page – so make sure you don’t read that by mistake!

I have to say that the British Library Crime Classics are one of the joys of the modern publishing world; I love Golden Age crime anyway, and reading these rediscovered classics is such a pleasure. “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” is definitely going to be up there among my favourites of genre; it’s perfect reading for those who just want a brilliant Golden Age read, or for those who want something that delves a little into the whole business of classic crime writing. Highly recommended!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!)

Exploring my Library: Soviet Sci Fi Short Stories (a niche collection…)

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I realise that Soviet Sci Fi short stories are a bit of a niche read – and certainly my recent guest post about that kind of story by women writers was even more obscure, as it was quite a task to track down any in translation! This set me digging around in my collection of Russian short story books, and I though it might be interesting to share the ones I have.

The first collection I ever acquired was “The Ultimate Threshold”. Translated by the esteemed Mirra Ginsburg, I think it’s probably one of the better known anthologies, and in fact it did contain one of the stories I read for my post.

ultimate-threshold-cover

As you can see from the contents below, the stories are all from the 1960s, which is interesting in itself. This was mainly the Brezhnev era, when there were attempts at dΓ©tente between the east and the west, so maybe the book’s appearance reflects this. I don’t think I’d heard of any of the authors before obtaining the book, which is even more exciting. I’ve only read the Larionova so far, and it’s excellent, which bodes well for the rest of the book.

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“World’s Spring” is a more recent acquisition, and one I got hold of when I was in search of stories by Kirill Bulychev, who has two works featured. Both were wonderful reads, and the book itself has a wide range of titles, split according to general theme. I also found one of my women’s stories in this volume, and I think it’s another highly regarded anthology.

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My old friend J, picking up on my interest in Soviet Sci Fi, procured these for me from a bookseller friend of hers! I was of course attracted to the first by the fact that the Strugatskys were featured…

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The second has another Strugatsky, plus a further selection of new-to-me names!

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“Destination: Amaltheia” is the book I tracked down to be able to read “The Astronaut” for my guest post, and I’m so glad I did. It was a wonderful tale and one of the most moving sci-fi stories I’ve read. Plus the book is very beautiful…

amalthiea

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I’m including this final anthology, although it isn’t strictly speaking a sci-fi one, because from reading the foreword it seems that at least one title is a science fiction story. It’s one I acquired for the Kataev story it contains, but there are a number of other authors I know of included so again there are plenty of riches to be explored!

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Although I’ve only read a few of the stories from these collections, each one has been a gem and I’m very excited at the prospect of having such wonderful delightsto dip into. Maybe I’ll find time over the Christmas break to indulge a little…. πŸ™‚

Seriously funny!

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After Supper Ghost Stories by Jerome K. Jerome

One of the funniest books I’ve ever read, a title that makes me laugh every time I read it and which I’d take with me to a desert island, is Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat”. It’s the title for which he’s best known, and I’ve read it several times; but although I’ve tried several other books by him (including “Three Men on the Bummel” and “Diary of a Pilgrimage”), I’ve never found that any match up to “Three Men…” However, one thing I didn’t know he wrote was ghost stories and so when I heard that Alma Classics were issuing a new edition of “After Supper Ghost Stories”, I was very keen to read it.

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A slim volume with a beautiful cover design (in that almost plasticky texture that so many paperbacks have nowadays), the book contains a number of short pieces. The first group is the titular collection, and the introduction was enough to have me smirking as the narrator explains the habits of English ghosts and how they only work on Christmas Eve. Set in his Uncle’s house, there is plenty of alcohol flowing as the guests relate their scary stories, trying to outdo each other. But our narrator is somewhat unreliable, gradually getting more and more confused as the alcohol takes hold, until the final story has him behaving very badly and blaming on a local spook!

Whenever give or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories. Nothing satisfied us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.

Jerome is obviously poking fun at the whole genre of Christmas fireside ghost stories and it’s great fun: not really scary, but very funny and enjoyable and full of Jerome’s trademark wit. You won’t get the shivers from reading these tales, but you will get a laugh!

The rest of the volume is made up of miscellaneous pieces which make fascinating reading. It’s difficult often to pin down what they’re actually about as they’re wonderfully random pieces that are all over the place! “Evergreen”, for example, which begins with Jerome lauding those ordinary, regular, stolid everyday people, ends with a screamingly funny sequence about a woman with a bulldog under her crinoline which had me laughing like a drain! “The New Utopia”, a strange tale which visualises an impersonal and regimented future, celebrates human life with all its ups and downs, its good and bad.

Similarly, in “Dreams”, Jerome looks forward and foresees his unhappy grandchildren growing to “loathe electricity. Electricity is going to light them, warm them, carry them, doctor them, cook for them, execute them if necessary. They are going to be weaned on electricity, ruled and regulated and guided by electricity, buried by electricity. I may be wrong, but I rather think they are going to be hatched by electricity.” Now, while I wouldn’t want to be without electricity, when I think of how dependent people are nowadays on their electrically powered gadgets, I think he may have a point…

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I often feel that JKJ was fighting his natural tendency towards humour in an attempt to produce serious works, and often struggled to decide quite what he wanted to do with his writing. Sometimes he seemed to be finding it difficult in his works to get in the right levels of humour and serious material, and although I like his funny writing he certainly has some more weighty points to make about humans and the world they live in which are still relevant today.

Truth and fact are old-fashioned and out of date, my friends, fit only for the dull and vulgar to live by. Appearance, not reality, is what the clever dog grasps at in these clever days. We spurn the dull-brown solid earth; we build our lives and homes in the fair-seeming rainbow land of shadow and chimera.

With “Three Men and a Boat” Jerome got the balance right, and in many of the pieces here too his words of wisdom are tempered with some wonderful humour. “After Supper Ghost Stories” is a lovely little collection, ideal reading for the long winter nights when you want something to lift the spirits and make you think. So kudos to Alma for reissuing the book which goes a long way towards proving that Jerome K. Jerome had more to him than just his most famous title!

Review copy kindly provided by Alma Classics, for which many thanks!

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