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More Sparkly New Lovelies from Hesperus Press!

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Hot on the heels of their lovely new edition of “Mapp and Lucia”, Hesperus Press are launching today two new Hesperus Classics – and both are really rather wonderful! They are, of course, the publisher’s usual quality paperbacks with French flaps and around 100 pages long (so ideal for quick, bite-sized reads). The first is:

The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde

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This is a collection of three short works by Wilde – the title story, “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” and “The Sphinx Without a Secret”. Now I regard myself as a lover of Wilde’s prose, and I’ve read “Dorian Gray” plus some other works, but I actually don’t think I’d ever read any of these stories – which is shocking, because they’re absolutely wonderful! “Canterville” of course is very famous and has been filmed. It tells the story of the American Otis family who buy Canterville Chase, an old English stately home. They are warned that the house comes with its own ghost, but being rational people from the new world, they don’t believe in such spookery, and take the house regardless. It isn’t long before the titular ghost makes his appearance, but unfortunately the Otises are not to be easily rattled – unlike the ghost’s chains, the squeaking of which is met with a request for him to oil him! Likewise, the bloodstain on the floor every morning is removed with a patent cleaner, and if that wasn’t bad enough the young Otises start to play tricks on the ghost, frightening him more than he can possibly hope to do to them! However, this being Oscar, there is a slightly more serious story behind things. Young Virginia, the 15-year old daughter of the Otis family, befriends the sad ghost and finds out the story behind his haunting. Can she help him and free the house at the same time?

“Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” is equally brilliant, telling the tale of the eponymous noble, an upstanding young man preparing to marry the woman of his dreams. However, a chance encounter with a palm-reader at Lady Windermere’s party convinces him that he is to commit a murder, and being a practical man he decides to get this crime tidily out of the way before his marriage. However, things don’t quite go as he plans…

The last story is a slighter tale about a woman with a seeming mystery around her which turns out not to be the kind that you might expect. These three stories are just wonderful, and proof of Wilde’s great talent. They have a lovely mixture of the playful and the profound; even though they’re witty and enjoyable, there’s always a little message there from Oscar. There is a subtle pathos in the plight of the Canterville ghost, and we can’t help but end up sympathising with him; Lord Arthur’s goodness overcomes all, and the story has a wonderful twist; and likewise the Sphinx of the last story has a touch of tragedy about her. These tales are beautifully written with telling little touches that give you the plot details without battering you over the head with them. Wonderful stuff from Wilde, and well done Hesperus for reprinting them and hopefully bringing them to a new audience.

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

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The second new Hesperus book comes with quite a pedigree, as it’s usually reckoned to be the first proper Gothic novel, which sparkled interest in the genre and was so popular it led to everything else that followed which featured spooky castles, noblewomen in peril, candles in dungeons, the whole works! And it’s surprising to realise that this genre has become so familiar and embedded in our cultural psyche that in some ways it’s hard not to read “Castle” as a parody of the Gothic – except that it came first!

The House of Otranto is led by Manfred, who it is hinted from the start may not have come into his title and lands honourably. His sickly son Conrad is about to marry the beautiful Isabella when he is suddenly crushed by a giant helmet which somehow has come adrift from the statue of the good Alfonso, transported itself into the castle and squashed the heir! Manfred decides, as you do, that he’ll divorce his wife and marry Isabella himself, which causes great consternation amongst the local religious community, and to Manfred’s wife and daughter also! However, Isabella makes for the catacombs, aided by a handsome peasant called Theodore. There follows a frantic tale of knights in armour, love, deceit, lost heirs, heaving bosoms, giant limbs appearing around the castle, ghosts, ancient prophecies, portents of doom and Manfred’s madness. All is resolved eventually, but not before there is much drama and histrionics!

It would be easy to mock “Castle” if read by modern standards (or maybe not, when you consider what tosh is published nowadays!) but actually it’s remarkably groundbreaking. Published in 1764, during a century when books tended to be much, MUCH longer, this is short, punchy and quick to read, and must have been very exciting for the public at the time. Instead of spending hours (and pages) introducing his characters, Walpole gets right on with the story, filling in the background details as he goes, never letting the excitement drop. The female characters are allowed plenty of space and are surprisingly feisty for the genre. There are plenty of hints at stifled desire and Walpole really packs a huge amount into 100 pages.

If you’ve any interest at all in Gothic writings or spooky stories or dramatic deeds or feisty and fainting heroines, this is definitely for you!

(Books kindly provided for review by the publishers, for which many thanks!)

Sparkly new Mapp and Lucia from Hesperus Press!

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Unless  you’ve been hiding away under a non-bookish rock somewhere, you’re probably aware that the BBC are reviving E.F. Benson’s absolutely wonderful “Mapp and Lucia” for a new series this autumn. I confess to being a devotee of the original 1980s adaptation, so I may be approaching this new version a little nervously….

However, what is lovely is that Hesperus Press, one of my favourite publishing houses, has brought out a gorgeous new edition of the book and this is what it looks like:

Mapp & Lucia

It’s the usual quality Hesperus production, complete with French flaps (I do love French flaps on paperbacks!) and has replaced my rather tired Penguin volume which has gone off to the charity shop. I re-read and loved and reviewed “Mapp and Lucia” here – and if you haven’t yet had the pleasure, I suggest rushing out the nearest book emporium and picking up this lovely edition. I wonder if they will put any more of the series? 🙂

Bookish Karma….

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….or, what goes around comes around!

In bookish terms, I guess I mean that the Cull is paying off – Youngest Child and I took about 16 books into the charity shops today (we couldn’t carry any more – it was just too hot) and there are boxes and piles more to go. I am actually finding it something of a relief to be looking candidly at my shelves and saying to a book, “No, I loved you and read you one, but I shan’t ever need to read you again”. Paring down to the essentials is cathartic, that’s for sure. (It’s not only books that are going, btw – general clutter is going too, which is lovely).

However, I haven’t embargoed the obtaining of books; I’m just being strict with myself and only buying volumes (or accepting as review copies) things I really do want to read and hope to read quite soon. Thus it was that three books came home with me today (so the ratio is still good!) and these are they:

Quite wonderful finds, and all charity shop bargains. The Forster (a Hesperus!!) was in the Samaritans Book Cave, where we were donating – in beautiful condition and only ÂŁ1.50! The Michael Arlen was from the Oxfam at ÂŁ2.49, and again is in great nick and will go with my lovely Capuchin edition of The Green Hat!

The final book was unexpected: we were in the library picking up text books for Youngest Child to absorb over the summer, and trying to avoid the loud noise of the multi-cultural festival which was going on (though the bagpipes were wonderful, if a little incongruous in a library) – anyway, I had a quick look at the books for sale and there was the Maclaren-Ross collection of Selected Stories for 40p! Library sales are the best….

And Youngest Child was happy as she found a proof copy of one of her favourite authors/novels in the RSPCA for 95p! So obviously we had good Book Karma today because we donated – we’ll just have to keep giving! 🙂

(Forgot to mention the lovely review copy that arrived today from Hesperus – thank you! – now isn’t that an appealing looking set of spines?!)

Hesperus Book Club – Spring Tide by Cilla and Rolf Börjlind

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Some years back, I went through quite a phase of reading Swedish crime novels. If I can recall the chronology correctly, it started when I came across a copy of Henning Mankell’s second Wallander book, “The Dogs of Riga”, in a charity shop and liked the sound of it. I was pretty quickly hooked by the combination of great characters and plotting, and started to explore the other titles. Then OH treated me that Christmas to a lovely matching paperback set of the Martin Beck novels – a series of ten volumes written by the husband and wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, which I reckon are the progenitors of the current glut of Scandinavian crime, and are probably the best. I loved these to bits, and was interested to see that Mankell wrote the introduction to one volume, kind of acknowledging his debt to these books.

To date I’ve read all the Becks, all the Wallanders and all the Inspector Irene Huss titles by Helene Tursten that have been translated so far. However, the craze for all things Swedish crime started to pall for me a little around the time of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. I found the book nasty and infuriating – the violence was just too graphic and horrible, and the book overlong and severely in need of editing. I personally felt that if it had concentrated on the mystery alone it would have been a better book, but for whatever reason Larsson stuffed it with the politics and the business and the abuse of Lisbeth Salander and I struggled to the end and didn’t even bother with the other two books. In fact *whispers* I didn’t like Salander at all, or find her at all believable. I tried a Jo Nesbo and gave up on that also, as the violence against women was so sick and extreme I just couldn’t take it.

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So I guess I had pretty much given up on Scandinavian crime until I read about the latest new names on the block, Cilla and Rolf Börjlind. They have a bit of a pedigree as their press blurb reveals:

Cilla and Rolf Börjlind are not only Sweden’s most praised script writers for crime and thrillers, they are also bestselling authors. Their books are characterized by charismatic characters and the stories depict Sweden, full of social conflicts. The routine from script writing is reflected in the ability to create tension and twisted plots. Everything is tied together, elegantly and sometimes surprisingly. In the Börjlind world people are driven by a passion for social justice. Another characteristic is the typical Börjlind surrealistic humor. The couple have written 26 Martin Beck films for movie theater and TV and most recently the manuscripts for the Arne Dahl’s A-group series. In 2004 and 2009 Swedish television showed their long crime series The Grave and The Murders, written directly for SVT. The series became an immediate successes, among the critics as well as with the audience.

It was probably the mention of Martin Beck that caught my eye initially, but the fact that Hesperus Press are publishing the book too attracted my attention, and I was pleased that they were offering proof copies through their Hesperus Book Club blog so I could get an early look at the new crime thriller.

“Spring Tide” is the first book in a new series and opens with a fairly grim murder of a pregnant woman on a beach in 1987 (I skipped through that a bit…) Cutting to present-day Sweden, there has been a spate of attacks on homeless people, which are filmed and put up online. Two seemingly unrelated events – but are they? We then meet Olivia Rönning, a student police officer, who is following in her late father’s footsteps. As term at police college ends for the summer, the students are invited to study a cold case over the holidays and Olivia picks the unsolved beach murder, as her father worked on it. It’s a particularly difficult case to study, as most of the people involved seem to have disappeared, particularly the officer who was investigating, one Tom Stilton. Olivia is intrigued by the case and visits the beach and the area where the murder took place – and soon starts to run into difficulties. She starts to pick away at the past, trying to track down people related to the case, and starts to dig up stuff that shouldn’t be disturbed. In the meantime, more homeless people are attacked, there are criminal shenanigans in the halls of big business, there is some mysterious and nasty fighting going on among youngsters, Olivia and her cat Elvis come under threat and a whole wonderful cast of characters take part in an absorbing, clever, involving mystery.

That’s just a light sketch of the story, because I would hate to spoil it for anyone. As you might have picked up, I *loved* this book to pieces and it’s really rekindled my faith in Swedish crime novels! Olivia is a believable. likeable heroine – a bit damaged, a bit solitary, reasonably tough but human instead of superhuman: at one point, when she is being threatened, the authors quite knowingly point out that she is no Lisbeth Salander! But although she is the main protagonist, the rest of the characters are strong and well-drawn, particularly the elusive and also damaged Tom Stilton, who doesn’t reveal himself until well into the book. Then there is Bertil Magnuson, the big cheese in MWM, a company with very dodgy corporate policies; Nils Wendt, his late partner; Detective superintendent Mette Olsater and her wonderfully colourful and lovable family; Eva Carlsen, a bitter investigative journalist; Jackie Berglund, who has a raunchy history but manages to keep her salacious clientele secret and satisfied; One-Eyed Vera, Arvo Part and Jelle, plus their homeless companions; Mink the ‘tightrope walker’ and Abbas the knifeman; and Ovette and her young son Acke. This is what I love in crime novels, an ensemble cast, of which I hope many will turn up in future books.

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The writing of “Spring Tide” is excellent – it’s so well plotted, full of twists and turns I didn’t see coming at all (which is lovely for an old hand like me – I get fed of anticipating the twists in books!). The are numerous plot strands and you just know that the authors will pull them all together, but you can’t possibly see how and it’s majorly impressive when they do. I was wrong-footed on several occasions and their audacity had me laughing and gasping out loud.

Are the influenced by the authors that have come before them? In a way, it’s slightly insulting to even consider this as there’s such skill and good writing in this book. But I can see slight shadows of the authors of Beck and Wallander here and there – the ensemble cast, the damaged detective, the wider political and business context. However, this never detracts from the book’s originality, and in many ways they handle certain factors better than say Mankell does – I often though his external elements and the foreign influences were ever-so-slightly fantastic. But the Börjlinds share Sjöwall/Wahlöö and Mankell’s concern for Sweden and the way that society has corrupted and deteriorated. They and their characters *do* have a strong concern for social justice and it’s reflected in this book.

I galloped through this book faster than I’ve read a new book for a long time, gripped by the action and involved with the fate of the various characters, really desperate to get to the solution – which is the mark of any good thriller! I have to add the small caveat about the murders in modern novels – they have become increasingly nasty and the one here *is* pretty unpleasant. I guess the books are reflecting the modern world, but I just feel that books don’t have to be quite so graphic about things to make the point that rotten criminals are about and need to be caught. Having said that, ST’s graphic stuff is considerably less than most recent crime novels I’ve veered away from, so that’s something.

When I looked up the Börjlinds online, I was delighted to find out this is the first book in a series about Olivia Rönning and Tom Stilton, and frankly I can’t wait for the next as I sensed several loose ends that may need to be tied up. I’m so pleased that I was able to receive a review copy of this book as I personally think it’s *whispers* better than “Dragon Tattoo” by miles! I’m pleased to have made the acquaintance of Olivia, Tom and their friends and colleagues and friends – roll on the next book!

In Praise of Independent Publishers

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One of my favourite things as a reader (and blogger) is coming across an obscure or lost book that I’ve never heard of before. I’ve rapidly come to the conclusion that 20th century writing is my favourite era, but alas in these modern days of mass-produced best-sellers, a lot of the type of books I like have disappeared from the shelves and are hard to track down.

So it’s always delightful to follow the current trend of smaller publishers who are bringing back into print lost classics or just lost quirky, individual works! I’ve ranted on a lot about Hesperus here, as they have some wonderful books in their Classic imprint, but also excel in bringing new works to light. They have a book club here, if anyone is interested, and the current book is a new and intriguing sounding Scandinavian crime novel which I’ll be reviewing here at some point.

However, I was very pleased her hear about a new reprint publisher, Michael Walmer, who was featured on Simon’s Stuck in a Book blog recently. Michael is based in Australia and as his site states “Michael Walmer has set about publishing a list where the main ingredient is quality. Authors will be sourced from all over the world, with a love of erudition, be it elegant or rough-edged, simple or complex, poetic or blunt, or all of these!, as the enlivening and guiding principle.” Certainly, the titles published so far are intriguing – wit is celebrated, in the form of authors like Saki and Max Beerbohm, but there are also writers like George Sand and Mary Webb – so an eclectic mix!

Michael has been kind enough to provide me with a review copy of a book I’ve been keen to read for a while – Ronald Firbank’s first novel “Vainglory”. Firbank is possibly something of a forgotten name, but I enjoyed his “Valmouth” very much when I read it many years ago and he’s an author I wanted to explore a little more.

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As Simon points out, the books are POD, which is actually the way a lot of reprint publishers are going nowadays – Bello Books for example – and this could well be a positive way to use POD, bringing back to life books that the big boys in publishing wouldn’t see as commercially viable but which many of us would love to read. And if “Vainglory” is any guide, these are beautifully put together books with very striking and individual covers – I love the Aubrey Beardsley design.

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So do give Michael’s site a look and see if there are any titles that grab you. I believe the books are available from The Book Depository, which could be the easiest way to get hold of them – let’s support another independent publisher!

Andrew Lang’s Red and Blue Fairy Books

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Just a quick reminder that these two lovely books:

the-red-fairy-book-final-with-white-author-name the-blue-fairy-book-final-with-white-author-name

are published today by Hesperus – more information here:

http://hesperuspress.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/publishing-today-the-fairy-books/

Hesperus Book Club: The Best Book in the World by Peter Stjernström

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“The Best Book in the World” is the second volume to be part of the Hesperus Book Club, and they have been kind enough to provide proof copies for interested readers (of which I am one!) There seems to be a wealth of good fiction coming out of Sweden at the moment – not just crime novels – and this story is in complete contrast to last month’s featured book, “The Merman”.

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BBITW, as you might infer from the title, is a satire, taking pot-shots at the literary world and the conceits of authors, publishers, agents and the media. Our hero, if he can be called such, is Titus Jensen, a washed-up, past-it author who hasn’t written anything worthwhile for years and who has sunk into a permanent alcohol-and-cigarette fuelled haze. He is reduced to reading improbable books (“Handbook for a Volvo 245”, anyone?)) in a theatrical manner at festivals and the like to make a living, a way of life that is beginning to pall. At one such festival, hanging around afterwards in drunken haze, he encounters the younger poet Eddie X, who also appears at these events fronting a bizarre band called the Tourettes. In their rather wild and random conversation they hatch the idea of the BBITW – a book that will top every bestseller list, somehow encompassing every genre from cookery to crime. But there can only be one such book and so a race develops between the two authors – who will get the book done first?

This book is a real hoot (to use an old-fashioned phrase!) Titus is a dreadful and yet endearing character and you really want him to succeed in writing something serious again. His agent provides him with a rather bizarre computer that is somehow combined with a breathalyser and will only let him write when he’s sober! Will the drive to write the book overcome his addictions and dependencies? The contrast between Titus, staggering about all dressed in black, and romantic poet Eddie, who wafts about in silk pyjamas and the like, is very funny and well observed, as are the changes that take place in them as the book progresses – I shall say no more…

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Author photo courtesy nybookreviews.com

The roller-coaster ride takes in all sorts of shenanigans, including kidnappings, more alcohol and cigarettes, Titus’s publishers who are of course looking for a big-bucks earning book, and of course the bizarre Tourettes, a band which features Lenny (who really does have Tourette’s). There are extracts from Titus’s writings and of course the lines are blurred between author(s) and characters at several points in a clever way. The end is very satisfying and maybe a little surprising (I don’t want to give too much away) and there are plenty of laughs to be had along the way.

If I had any gripes with this book (and it would only be a tiny one) it would be on a stylistic level – the book is written in the present tense, which is not a format I tend to read much, although it works well for this tale; and the book does reflect the modern trend for shorter sentences. However, this is only a very minor issue and didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the book. BBITW is a fun, enjoyable read with a bit of a dark side and highly recommended – another winner from Hesperus!

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