Book Review: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washinton Irving

sleepySleepy Hollow is a strange little place… some say bewitched. Some talk of its haunted valleys and streams, the ghostly woman in white, eerie midnight shrieks and howls, but most of all they talk of the Headless Horseman. A huge, shadowy soldier who rides headless through the night, terrifying unlucky travelers. Schoolteacher Ichabod Crane is fascinated by these stories…. Until late one night, walking home through Wiley’s swamp, he finds that maybe they’re not just stories. What is that dark, menacing figure riding behind him on a horse? And what does it have in its hands? And why wasn’t schoolteacher Crane ever seen in Sleepy Hollow again?

Listened to the free Librivox recording, and the narrator was well suited to the story.

I’ve always meant to read this and I’m not sure what I was expecting to happen. I thought that perhaps the headless horseman appeared more often, but this was pitched just right. In Sleepy Hollow, not long after the War of Independance, when many lives were lost, ghost stories have been built up around what happened.

Ichibod Crane, the school teacher, has been courting one of the local women, much to the dismay of others who would like to also court her. He has become aware of the local war stories – both the British and the Americans came past nearby – and these stories are repeated at a local party thrown by the father of his beau. Once the party finishes, he stays behind to talk to the girl but gets turfed out with a flea in his ear not long after – Irving not going into detail. He has to ride his horse through the haunted area, only to be chased by the headless horseman.

Crane is never to be seen again, and rumours abound for a while about what happened and whether he is still alive

Good haunting story, and well suited for a reading on a dark and stormy night…..

Book Review: Dancers In Mourning by Margaret Allingham

dancersinmourningJimmy Sutane, London’s favourite song-and-dance man, headlines at the Argosy Theatre, where someone plays increasingly nasty pranks. Albert Campion offers to poke around, but finds explosive egos, including a brooding musician and melodramatic young actress. Campion needs some fancy footwork of his own to evade danger.

Listened to as an audiobook from Audible. Not entirely convinced by the narrator (David Thorpe), who did a good enough job, but there was just *something* I couldnt put my finger on, especially at the beginning. Perhaps it’s simply that I am now too used to James Saxon reading Ngaio Marsh books that I’m used to a certain timbre of voice doing a reading.

Anyway, onto the story. Campion gets involved with a theatre group, who believe themselves to be at the receiving end of more and more “pranks”, ranging from delivery of offensive flowers behind the scenes to stalking in the country house retreat. The success of the current show, and the pressure of bringing in a second show on time, budget etc is making things worse, and is making people crack under the strain.  Jimmy is out driving one evening, only for a recent addition to the show to fall off the bridge in front of him and under the wheels of his car. Initially everyone is convinced that it’s suicide, but as time goes by, people become convinced that it’s murder, and the first of several.

Campion has another problem: he has fallen in love with Sutane’s wife (and maybe she’s in love with him), and finds himself paralysed in what needs to happen next, especially when the body count starts mounting up.

Now I dont know whether it’s an issue with the story, or the delivery, or something else, but I have already forgotten much of what went on in this book now that I’ve come to write the review.  Was fairly engrossing at the time, but didnt remain with me long enough to write a decent review – may have to listen to it again

Book Review: The Scarlet Kimono by Christina Courtenay

scarletkimonoThe Scarlet Kimono by Christina Courtenay

Abducted by a Samurai warlord in 17th-century Japan – what happens when fear turns to love?

England, 1611, and young Hannah Marston envies her brother’s adventurous life. But when she stows away on a merchant ship, her powers of endurance are stretched to their limit. Then they reach Japan and all her suffering seems worthwhile – until she is abducted by Taro Kumashiro’s warriors.

In the far north of the country, samurai warlord Kumashiro is intrigued to learn more about the girl who he has been warned about by a seer. There’s a clash of cultures and wills, but they’re also fighting an instant attraction to each other.

With her brother desperate to find her and the jealous Lady Reiko equally desperate to kill her, Hannah faces the greatest adventure of her life. And Kumashiro has to choose between love and compromising his honour

Purchased from Audible as an audiobook, narrator Julia Franklin does a decent turn, managing to get voices that are different enough, especially for the men, as well as pronouncing (correctly I hope) the Japanese words in the text.

This book is broken up into several parts: the teenage Hannah, brought up in a privileged city atmosphere, head strong but understanding little of the world of men.  Attracted by the apparently romantic sea faring men, she is horrified by her parents arranging her betrothal to a man who fondles her during a town party.

The second portion of the book tells of when she escapes on a boat, spending the next 18 months travelling to the newly opened Japan. Having thought the boat she sneaked onto was captained by her brother, she is shocked to find that the captain is some one else, who is less than the romantic ideal she thought he was. She keeps herself hidden in the bowels of the ship, along with the Japanese cook, learning more about Japanese culture and how  to speak Japanese.

Trapped in a marriage she didnt want (to protect her reputation), she finds herself in Japan, kidnapped by a man who is fascinated by her thick red hair whose Sensei had predicted her arrival.

The next part of the book is dedicated to their developing relationship as she learns more about Japanese culture and the strength behind a Shogun and his daiymo. Their relationship is threatened on several occasions, particularly by Taro’s sister-in-law, who wishes to be Taro’s next wife, to the point where she is prepared to kill Hannah to get what she wants.

Finally, the disconnect between the western and eastern worlds comes to a head and both Hannah and Taro need to decide what’s important to them.

Ultimately this is a standard romance story, in the standard format. There is the usual “threat to split the couple up” near the end, but the couple are finally reunited with all impediments neatly dealt with to make it easier for the couple to remain together. Once Hannah is on the ship, she spares no thought for her family (apart from her brother who she thinks is on the ship).  Her parents and her siblings are never given a second thought, with no concerns as to what her disappearance could mean to the people back in England.There is an assumption that the reader knows the basics about Japanese culture so, for example, tatami mats covering the floors are not explained.   The narrative switches between intense detail during a particular scene and “meanwhile, 3 weeks later…..this happens”.

Reading back the above implies that I didnt like the book. Whilst I didnt hate it, I didnt adore it either. It was a nice book to listen to, it was a setting different to normal historical romances, and the author didnt treat the reader like a complete idiot. There’s some adult situations, but described appropriately, so only the most sensitive will be offended.

Book Review: Black Plumes By Margeret Allingham

blackplumes

The slashing of a valuable painting at the renowned Ivory Gallery in London, followed by the murder of the proprietor’s son-in-law, Robert, sets the stage for another finely tuned Allingham mystery. The proprietor’s mother, 90-year-old Gabrielle Ivory, holds the key to the web of intrigue and danger that permeates the gallery.

Downloaded from Audible, read by Francis Matthews.

This is the first non Campion book I’ve read/listened to. For once it’s told from the point of view of one of the witnesses, which allows for noone to know what the police know, and we are not included in much of what goes on in the investigation itself.

In 1930s London, there are two adjacent houses, one house is the private residence of the Ivory family; their painting gallery business is housed next door. The story starts with Frances standing in front of her formidable grandmother Gabrielle, with the complaint that her brother-in-law, Roger (who is married to her rather unstable half sister Phillida), wants her to marry his unspeakable business partner. Lucar seems to have some unknown hold over Roger after a trip to Tibet which went horribly wrong, and which Lucar and Roger were the only survivors.

In the absence of her father, who’s out in China on a long business trip, Frances fears she will be forced to marry Lucar. Getting no help from her grandmother – who is as imperious but as dotty as possible,  Frances confides her fears to David Field, who immediately proposes a fake engagement so that Roger and Lucar will stop pestering her. Then Roger disappears, to be found murdered a week later.  At the funeral, the third person on the Tibetan trip – whom everyone thought dead – reappears. Lucar – on his way to the US and therefore a prime candidate for the death of Roger, rapidly returns, attempts to blackmail all in the house – only to turn up dead too minutes later

There are plenty of herrings littered about the place – red or otherwise – which makes you suspect most of the characters at some point or another.  Frances – who realises that she is in fact in love with David (who painted her portrait when she was 14) – has to face the fact that he might be a killer.

So secret passages, international travel (China to England by plane taking “only” about a week!), blackmail, murder, romance, mysteries….what more could you want?

 

 

Book Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

senseofending

Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they would navigate the girl-less sixth form together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they all swore to stay friends for life.

Now Tony is in middle age. He’s had a career and a single marriage, a calm divorce. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove

Audiobook from Audible

Written in the first person by a middle aged  Tony Webster who we find out is a rather unreliable narrator. The first part of the book is about his friendship in senior-school with the much more intelligent Adrian, and Tony’s relationship with Veronika who ultimately dumps him and hitches up with Adrian. A few years later, with Tony estranged from both Adrian and Veronika and Tony hears that Adrian has committed suicide.

Cut through to middle age, and Tony has married (and divorced) and is on reasonable terms with both his daughter and ex-wife. The other friends from school are not heard of again. A solicitor gets in contact to advise that Tony has been bequeathed £500 and Adrian’s diary by Veronika’s mother – a women he only met once on a rather disastrous weekend.

This brings Tony back in contact with Veronika who has Adrian’s diary – apparently. A series of all the more irritating encounters with Veronika in an attempt to get the diary (which she admits to having burnt part way through the narrative) leaves Tony – and the reader – wondering what’s going on. Finally a number of events, and Tony’s hanging round certain shops, pubs  and people (despite his assertion that he’s “not wasting my time”) allows him to make a conclusion which Veronika yet again has to point out “you just dont get it”.

Tony is rather an unreliable narrator – he has convinced himself (and tries to convince us) that he was a nice upper-middle-class boy, who handled his apparent betrayal by Adrian and Veronika with graceful aplomb. Veronika proves him otherwise however, and he is apparently stunned at the venom he displayed at the time.

Whilst he sees himself as dealing with Veronika the same way as you deal with banks and utility companies, you begin to realise that perhaps he’s a little more annoying and underhand that his banality implies.

The narrator of the audiobook reminded me much of Matthew Parris from Radio 4, and was a soothing voice to listen to, even when swear words were required. I listened to this over several weeks and suspect that I may have to listen to again based on the ending I heard the first time round – it’s implied, rather than stated outright, and I need to check that I understood it corretly.

Book Review: The Fashion in Shrouds by Margaret Allingham

fashionshroudsThe Fashion in Shrouds by Margaret Allingham

Detective Albert Campion has a talented dress designer sister with celebrated clients. Georgia Wells is a glamorous actress who exemplifies the 1930s femme fatale. Vain, stupid, and selfish, she attracts men like moths to a flame. When these men die, Albert suspects Georgia is more deliberately fatale than alluring.
Purchased from Audible.  Narrated by Francis Matthews
Published in the late 1930s, this is a book much of it’s time – there’s language and ideas in here that some modern readers might find offensive, so should be avoided if the reader is one likely to jump to indignation.
Richard Portland-Smith disappeared without a trace three years previously. Albert Campion has recently found his skeleton in some woods, with a bullet in the remains. The investigation of his apparent suicide, which turns out to be murder, leads to Richard’s former fiancée, the actress Georgia Wells, and onto a further series of deaths. Albert Campion’s involvement is more than just professional this time, because the case involves his sister Valentine, Georgia’s dress designer and occasional friend.
Georgia’s 2nd husband (3rd fiancée after Richard), is due to depart on a diplomatic mission to some Colonial Island State, but whilst his wife flirts with the chief aeronautical designer, the husband is found dead in the plane about to take him off. It’s then for Campion and friends to work out whodunnit.
The book is published 20 years after WWI, and just before WWII.  A lot can be said about how working women are portrayed – one of the women is a well thought of engineer – but considering this was published in the year proceeding WWII, there is no indication that anything is wrong in Europe. In fact the only people that could be considering trouble are the Colonial foreigners!
So, on the whole a decent crime novel with plenty of twists and turns. A few scenes and characters that had me twitching (but which I cant talk about without giving away some spoilers.  Only tip is that you need to pay attention to *everyone*!

Book Review: Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

mollflanders
Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Written by Defoe in 1722 under a pseudonym so his readers would think it an actual journal of the ribald fortunes and misfortunes of a woman in eighteenth-century London, the book remains a picaresque novel of astonishing vitality. From her birth in Newgate Prison to her ascent to a position of wealth and stature, Moll Flanders demonstrates both a mercantile spirit and an indomitable will. This vivid saga of an irresistible and notorious heroine –her high misdemeanors and delinquencies, her varied careers as a prostitute, a charming and faithful wife, a thief, and a convict– endures today as one of the liveliest, most candid records of a woman’s progress through the hypocritical labyrinth of society ever recorded.

Listened to as an Audiobook on CD. Book was written detailing the adventures of Moll Flanders, who lives by her wits and her body. Her fortune is made several times by herself, but is lost again, mostly due to her poor choice in men (drunks, womanisers, already married etc).

The narrative is bawdy, jolly etc. and it can easily be appreciated how it caused a stir when it was published (and therefore also rather saught after). 

It is both a serious (about a world where a woman can rarely survive on her own and with few rights to even her own money) and not-serious tale (she goes through husbands with almost every chapter). As a result of these dalliances, she has plenty of children, of which little is heard off once they are packed off somewhere else, to ensure that Moll isn’t hindered by a flock of children following her. I dont know if a woman would really do this, or whether this is Defoe’s “wishful thinking” of fertile women not actually having children in tow.

Overall an enjoyable lighthearted 18th century romp that is the source of many a TV adaptation, that are often considered bawdy by contemporary standards.