The Casino by Margaret Bonham

The Casino cover

The Casino by Margaret Bonham is a collection of short stories published by Persephone Books. I had never read anything by the author before. I’m not averse to short stories, I think they’re especially good for bedtime reading, but I wasn’t too impressed with this collection, although I think towards the end of the book the quality of the writing improved.

To me the earlier stories were mainly uninteresting, verging on the boring or meh as they say nowadays. I have no idea when any of the stories were written but I’m assuming that the later ones were written when she had more experience as they are better.

I read the preface which is by Cary Bazalgette, the author’s eldest daughter. It is a mini biography of her mother and she paints such a ghastly portrait of her that I think I was really put off. Margaret Bonham was one of those women who abandon one husband and family to run off with a man and start up another family – only to repeat her actions again. That and her eight bottles of gin a week habit that didn’t ever stop her from driving – I found rather off-putting. I KNOW, very judgemental of me – but there you go, or there I am. On the other hand, some of her stories are quite entertaining.

Good Evening, Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes

 Good Evening, Mrs Craven cover

For a week now our home has been a bit of a centre of misery as we’ve both had rotten colds. Jack got it first and generously passed it on to me – share and share alike! With explosive sneezing bouts occurring frequently we’ve both been too exhausted to do anything much, but when I’ve had the energy I’ve been reading.

But decisions, decisions – what should I read? I tried The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s on my list of Scottish books to read for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge. But I only got a couple of pages into it before realising that my brain was not going to cope with the medieval style of English that it seems to be written in. I gave it up intending to go back to it when I’m back to normal.

I then picked up A.J. Cronin’s The Citadel, but the subject matter of medicine and Harley Street doesn’t appeal to me at the moment. So I put it down again.

I couldn’t find my copy of The Young Pattullo by J.I.M. Stewart – so opted to start reading Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. It had just dropped through our letterbox a few days before. It turned out that these short stories – often very short were just perfect for my mood.

They were originally published in The New Yorker magazine, giving people in America a flavour of what life was like for women in wartime Britain. There’s a date at the beginning of each story, presumably when it was originally published, the first one being 14 October 1939, so just a month or so into the war. The early stories are quite light-hearted and amusing but towards the end of the book nerves are getting frayed as food shortages and changes in life-styles begin to bite.

This is the first book by Mollie Panter-Downes (I can’t help it but her name always makes me smile) that I’ve read, and I’ll definitely be reading more. This one just hit the spot exactly.

I know that a lot of people prefer the original plain grey Persephone covers but I was particularly pleased that this one has as a cover which is one of my favourite World War 2 paintings, capturing what must have been the reality for people, women in particular, standing in queues for hours on end in an effort to get enough food to feed their family. The painting is by Evelyn Dunbar.

Evelyn Dunbar

Murder Under the Christmas Tree – short stories

 Murder Under the Christmas Tree cover

Murder Under the Christmas Tree is a compilation of short stories by well known authors, all set around about Christmas – as you would expect.

The first story is The Necklace of Pearls by Dorothy L. Sayers. I’m quite a fan of Sayers but I have to admit that I was a wee bit disappointed with this one as I guessed the solution fairly quickly.

The other contributers are Ian Rankin, Margery Allingham, Arthur Conan Doyle, Val McDermid, Ellis Peters, Edmund Crispin, G.K. Chesterton, Carter Dickson and Ngaio Marsh. The sleuths include Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, Cadfael, Father Brown, Rebus and others you will recognise.

It’s quite a collection of authors and I’m sure there’s something for everyone here, well everyone who enjoys a good murder around the festive season – as I do!

I read this book for the Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher  cover

I read The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher when it was first published in the Guardian. It’s the last short story in the Hilary Mantel anthology of the same name. At the time I thought that the title story was very good, a sort of wishful thinking tale, a what if… the sort of thing we all indulge in, but the rest of us don’t write them up as short stories, we get no further than a lovely dream. Believe me, if you were lucky enough not to have been an adult when Thatcher was inflicting her damnedest on the UK then you probably don’t realise how hated she was by so many of the population, eventually of course that feeling extended itself to her own work colleagues.

Anyway, I bought the book quite a wee while ago and having read all of the stories now I think that the ‘Assassination’ story is by far the best in the collection.

Jack always takes a while over reading short stories as he likes to think about each story when he gets to the end of it. I really don’t think that that is necessary with these ones as for me most of the stories aren’t saying anything particularly profound, as far as I’m concerned anyway, although some of the stories seem quite autobiographical, worryingly so in fact, still – it’s an entertaining read.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke

 The Ladies of Grace Adieu cover

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories by Susanna Clarke has been in my bedroom for years, waiting for me to pick it up and start reading it. I know I mentioned it on ‘pining’ yonks ago and Michelle from In the Silver Room wondered what I would think of it as she had read the book. But I have no idea what Michelle thought of it, Jack read it before I did, it’s more his sort of thing really – a bit weird. But as it happens he wasn’t a big fan either. It’s fantasy – which he isn’t as keen on as compared to Science Fiction.

If you watched Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell on the TV recently you’ll get an idea of what this book is like. The blurb on the back from the Spectator says “These tales read as if Jane Austen had rewritten the Brothers Grimm…. wonderful”

Each to their own but for me these stories don’t really have anything particularly magical about them. I like fairy tales, they’re usually about warnings of how to stay safe and avoid the bad guys, but I obviously prefer things to be more traditional with proper fairies including wands and wishes, the ones in these stories don’t really seem to be much different from the humans. However, it’s about a week since I finished reading the book and I have to say that none of it has stuck in my mind, so I think it’s fair to say that it just wasn’t for me, but it might be just the thing for you – you never know!

Have you read anything by Susanna Clarke, if so what did you think of it and has the story stayed with you?

Two Quick Reads

I’m rounding off July’s blogposts with what were two very quick reads. The first one is The Perfect Murder by Peter James and it was one of the books chosen to be given away on World Book Night 2014. It’s one of those books which is actually titled Quick Reads, I think they are supposed to encourage non-readers to take up reading, which is I suppose a good idea.

I hadn’t read anything by Peter James before although I believe he is very popular. The Perfect Murder subtitled Marriage Can Be Murder seemed like an apt read for me at he moment as we will be celebrating our 39th wedding anniversary on Sunday!

Anyway, to the book – Victor Smiley and his wife Joan have been married for nearly 20 years. It’s fair to say that they’re driving each other mad. Joan wakes up every night with Victor seemingly in training to be the world’s loudest snorer, he argues with everyone and embarrasses Joan all the time. He has been a disappointment, not even able to father any children.

Victor hates Joan and spends his time at home watching old Morse and Poirot episodes, in fact any old detective shows, and they give him ideas. Unknown to him Joan also has similar ideas. It’ll end in tears all round, you just know it.

In fact for me The Perfect Murder was just mildly entertaining, an okay-ish read, but if like me you read a lot of crime/detective books then you’ll find it very predictable.

The other quick read was Susan Hill’s The Boy Who Taught the Beekeeper to Read. I bought this one at a local library where they were selling off some old books. I didn’t realise when I bought it that it was a collection of short stories and the pages in the front with the vital information had been torn out by the library folks.

So I was a bit perplexed when the first story ended and I went on to what I thought was the next chapter, only to quickly realise it was nothing to do with the first chapter, which must have been a short story. That was disappointing because I thought the first story could have been written up into something much more interesting than it was, as it just ended abruptly on what was a really low note.

But the same could be said for all of the short stories really, especially Father Father, about two young women, still living at home with their parents and when the mother dies the father replaces her very quickly with a new wife barely older than they are. An old story which we’ve probably all witnessed, hopefully at a bit of a distance.

There’s nothing uplifting about most of the stories in this book, if you’re susceptible to depression it could put you on a right downer!

Rumpole a La Carte

Rumpole a La Carte by John Mortimer is a collection of six short stories featuring of course Rumpole barrister-at-law and his wife Hilda, more often known as She Who Must Be Obeyed. I think most, if not all of these stories have been dramatised for TV and I loved them when they were on during the 1980s. They were/are very faithful to the stories and I think that they were very well cast. Hilda fondly refers to Rumpole as being a character but the Law Chambers is full of odd characters.

John Mortimer was himself a barrister and he wrote with wit about what he knew – the BEnglish justice system and the people who frequent it.

Have a peek at the You Tube Rumpole episode below. It’s preceded by a clip of John Mortimer talking about his creation.

Problem at Pollensa Bay by Agatha Christie

Problem at Pollensa Bay is a collection of eight short stories by Agatha Christie. They were written between the years 1925 up to 1971 and they feature Poirot and Parker Pyne as detectives. As you would expect, they’re all entertaining and for me anyway this book made perfect bedtime reading.

The eight stories are:

Problem at Pollensa Bay (1936)
The Second Gong (1932)
Yellow Iris (1936)
The Harlequin Teaset (1971)
The Regatta Mystery (1936)
The Love Detectives (1926)
Next to a Dog (1929)
Magnolia Blossom (1925)

Yellow Iris, which was first published in Strand Magazine was expanded into the novel Sparkling Cyanide in 1945. I’ve seen it umpteen times on TV with Poirot as the detective, but I think it would still be interesting to read it, just to see how Christie went about padding it out into novel size. Also the blurb says that the book doesn’t feature Poirot, so now I’m intrigued. I plan to read that one sometime anyway.

Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl

Kiss Kiss cover

This is a collection of short stories by Roald Dahl, first published in 1953. I often read short stories at bedtime but that was a bit of a mistake with this book, I should have known that it wouldn’t be good bedtime reading because although I had never read any Dahl books for adults before, I did watch those TV programmes which were on, in the 1970s I think – Tales of the Unexpected. I’ll never forget a frozen joint of lamb being used as a murder weapon, then being consumed so there was no evidence of it!

There were a couple of stories which were very chilling, not what you want to read before trying to get to sleep, but having said that, Dahl was such a great and imaginative writer so these stories are well worth reading.

When I finished the book I turned to the front to see when it was published and it was only then that I read:

In this wonderfully weird assortment of bizarre, not for bedtime tales, Roald Dahl masterfully demonstrates his superb skill for cleverly combining the humorous with the macabre, the obvious with the outrageous.

Each story will be reread, remembered and retold, for each is a riddle, as tantalizing as a lingering, lethal kiss.

I can only agree. As you can see my book is an old American copy which I’m pretty sure I bought in Castle Books in Berwick-on- Tweed. Castle Books is a lovely secondhand bookshop and well worth a visit if you find yourself around that area of the Scottish/English Border country.

The Doll by Daphne du Maurier

The Doll by Daphne du Maurier is a compilation of short stories, I know that a lot of people don’t like reading short stories but du Maurier is one of the best at them I think, and if you’re a du Maurier fan then you’ll definitely want to read them. The stories are:

East Wind
The Doll
And Now to God the Father
A Difference in Temperament
Frustration
Piccadilly
Tame Cat
Mazie
Nothing Hurts for Long
Week-End
The Happy Valley
And Her Letters Grew Colder
The Limpet

There’s an introduction by Polly Samson, she says – Within these stories – some good , some less so but all fascinating – are the preoccupations which would possess Daphne du Maurier for a lifetime. The psychological insight that she would later exercise while inhabiting the characters of her novels and biographies is here, but out in the open and turned much more obviously on herself.

Like many writers Daphne du Maurier was obviously drawn to particular themes again and again and it’s interesting to read what turned out to be the kernel of an idea which she returned to in later books.