The Courts of Idleness by Dornford Yates

The Courts of Idleness cover

The Courts of Idleness by Dornford Yates is a collection of short stories originally published in 1920 but my copy is a reprint from 2008. The author’s real name was William Mercer but he chose to use both his grandmothers’ maiden names as his pseudonym. Writing was obviously in his blood as his elder cousin was Hector Hugh Munro, better known as Saki.

I enjoyed these stories which are similar to Wodehouse in that the characters are ‘bright young things’ all such fun and silliness, but every now and again there’s a teeny reference to the men’s previous experiences as officers at the front during World War 1. To me they bubble with the near hysterical personality of survivors. It’s authentic too as Dornford Yates was a Second Lieutenant in the London Yeomanry.

There are five short stories which are mainly fun, interrupted by a wartime ‘Interlude’ which is anything but fun, then another six short stories of the amusing silliness, verging on the sort of thing that I remember from sketches in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The stories are linked as the characters travel from Madeira to Macedonia.

One story called As Rome Does begins: Solemnly we regarded the Colosseum. “Reminds me of the Albert Hall with the lid off,” said Berry. “But it does want doing up. Glad I haven’t got it on a full repairing lease.”

“Is anything sacred to you?” demanded Daphne.

“Yes” said her husband. “My appetite. That is why I venture for the second time to suggest that we should leave this relic of barbarity without delay, Besides, it revives painful memories.”

“When were you here before?” said Jonah.

“In a previous existence. Joan of Arc was by no means my first incarnation. In AD 77 I was a comic gladiator. Used to fight with gorgonzolas which had been previously maddened by having Schiller read to them in the original tongue. They used to call me ‘Sticking Plaster,’ because I was always coming off.”

The blurb on the back says: ‘Mr Yates can be recommended to anyone who thinks the British take themselves too seriously’ PUNCH.

I’ll read more by Dornford Yates whose books seemed to haunt me for a long time as there were shelves full of them wherever I went, but I knew nothing about him then – they all disappeared for ages before some surfaced again in my recent trip to Edinburgh bookshops with Jenny and Celia.

Resorting to Murder edited by Martin Edwards

 Resorting to Murder cover

Resorting to Murder edited by Martin Edwards is subtitled Holiday Mysteries and it’s a collection of short stories all of which take place at holiday locations of some sort. and of course it’s published by British Library Crime Classics.

The stories are:

The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot by Arthur Conan Doyle
A Schoolmaster Abroad by E.W. Hornung
Murder! by Arnold Bennett
The Murder on the Golf Links by M. McDonnell Bodkin
The Finger Stone by G.K. Chesterton
The Vanishing of Mrs Fraser by Basil Thomson
A Mystery of the Sand-Hills by R.Austin Freeman
The Hazel Ice by H.C. Bailey
Razor Edge by Anthony Berkeley
Holiday Task by Leo Bruce
A Posteriori by Helen Simpson
Where is Mr Manetot by Phyllis Bentley
The House of Screams by Gerald Findler
Cousin Once Removed by Michael Gilbert

This collection has quite a few stories by authors that I’ve never read before. I’ve never been a big fan of Sherlock Holmes and sure enough – The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot wasn’t a favourite of mine.

I particularly liked the stories by R. Austin Freeman, Anthony Berkeley, Leo Bruce, Helen Simpson and Michael Gilbert.

The design for the cover of this book has been taken from a vintage railway poster for Colwyn Bay.

Transformation by Mary Shelley – 3 short stories

 Embers of War cover

Transformation by Mary Shelley is a quick read at only 101 pages. It contains three short stories by Mary Shelley. I had only read her Frankenstein before and I had put off reading that for years as I didn’t think it would be my kind of thing, but I was agreeably surprised by it.

Transformation, first written in 1831 is set mainly in in Genoa and it’s an account told by Guido who is a young man who had been promised to Juliet since childhood. But Guido had grown into a reckless spendthrift and over the years he has lost all of the land and property left to him by his father. Eventually Juliet’s father decides he doesn’t want his daughter to be married to Guido and Guido is sent away. It’s an enjoyable gothic morality tale.

The Mortal Immortal was first published in 1834 and as you would expect is about the pitfalls of living forever.

The Evil Eye was first published in 1830 and I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the others. The setting is Greece and Albania and features child abduction.

None of the stories are exactly ground breaking and wouldn’t even have been back when they were first published, but they’re still entertaining.

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019.

Widdershins by Oliver Onions

Widdershins cover

Widdershins by Oliver Onions is a book of eight short stories which was published in 1911 and it’s a collection of ghost stories. Oliver Onions was born in Bradford, Yorkshire in 1873, and he had a very long writing career. I don’t read short story collections all that often but I’ve inadvertently read two in a row now, I was under the impression this was a novel to begin with.

Ghost stories aren’t really my thing but Onions was definitely a good writer. The first short story The Beckoning Fair One is 81 pages long so is really a novella, and that is the one that I liked least. A man moves into an old house which has been lying empty for years and he seems to be taken over by a jealous malevolent spirit. It was a bit odd to be honest, but that’s probably the way of all ghost stories. This is apparently one of his best known and compares well with The Turn of the Screw.

I felt that the other seven stories were more successful though so this ended up being a good read.

The others are titled:
Phantas
Rooum
Benlian
Io
The Accident
The Cigarette Case
Hic Jacet

I would like to know how the title of the book was decided but we’ll never know I suppose. Widdershins or Withershins as it is sometimes spelled is the Scottish word for anti-clockwise, although I believe that the word is also used in astronomy.

Commonplace by Christina Rossetti

Commonplace cover

Commonplace by Christina Rossetti is one of the books that I bought at the Christian Aid book sale in Edinburgh back in May. I must admit that until then I had thought that Christina only wrote poetry but this slim volume contains five of her short stories, although the first one is quite long at 60 pages. There’s a foreword by Andrew Motion.

I quite enjoyed the novella Commonplace, she was obviously influenced by Jane Austen and the problems that women had then. I think this one is the best.

The second one, called The Lost Titian, is her imagining the loss of a Titian painting.

The last three short stories I found to be too sentimental, maudlin and heavily saturated in Christian teachings – not my sort of thing at all.

I’ll give this book a 3 on Goodreads I think – and that’s me being quite generous.

Christmas at High Rising by Angela Thirkell

Christmas at High Rising cover

Christmas at High Rising by Angela Thirkell is a collection of her short stories which appeared in various magazines such as Cornhill Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar ranging in date from 1928 to 1942.

I was slightly disappointed with this collection because due to the title I had been under the impression that the stories were all Barsetshire related – but they aren’t. The ones that are mainly feature the Morlands and George Knox. Although Knox is a character that Thirkell was obviously having a bit of a laugh at as a typical know-it-all poser and bore, she generally takes him just a wee bit too far ending in him being a bit too tedious as far as I’m concerned.

The stories feature such things as a trip to a pantomime, an arty one involving people at a private view and some children who live in London with their parents and a nanny who is very much in control – compared with the mother anyway.

If you’re a fan of Thirkell you’ll probably want to read this book as we all tend to want to read whatever of hers is available – unless of course George Knox drives you round the bend!

Crimson Snow edited by Martin Edwards

Crimson Snow cover

Crimson Snow winter mysteries is a collection of vintage crime short stories edited by Martin Edwards. Reading this book gave me an opportunity to read a lot of vintage crime authors that I hadn’t read before.

The contributors are: Fergus Hume, Edgar Wallace, Margery Allingham, S.C. Roberts, Victor Gunn, Christopher Bush, Ianthe Jerrold, Macdonald Hastings, Julian Symons, Michael Gilbert and Josephine Bell.

Most of the stories are fairly short but the one by Victor Gunn is about seventy pages long so it’s really a novella and I don’t know if it’s because that one is longer – but I think it’s my favourite story. I’ll definitely be looking for more books by Victor Gunn anyway. I’ve seen a lot of his books on my travels but had no idea what they would be like and didn’t give them a go. No doubt now I won’t see any of his books in shops for yonks. That’s what happened to me with Dornford Yates, he was all over the place until Valerie said some of his books were good – and now they’ve disappeared after me being just about haunted by them previously.

I enjoyed this collection of short stories which are all set around winter/Christmas celebrations although the stories that I liked least were the ones by authors that I’ve read most. Margery Allingham and Macdonald Hastings disappointed me, maybe I just expected too much of them.

Published by British Library Crime Classics of course and the cover is taken from a vintage St Moritz travel poster. There’s a wee biography of each writer on the page before their story begins, which was interesting but I would have liked it if they had also added the date the story was originally published and which magazine it first appeared in. That’s me nit-picking though. This was perfect Christmas bedtime reading, why is murder and Christmas such a good combination?!

Snowdrift and other stories by Georgette Heyer

This blogging malarkey is having a desperate effect on the to-be-read books in my house, it grows and grows, mainly because of book recommendations from fellow bloggers – not that I’m complaining really as I’ve found so many great reads that way.

 Memory of Water cover

It was Helen @ She Reads Novels who made me decide to request Snowdrift by Georgette Heyer from the library. You can see what she thought of it here.

I hadn’t read any Heyer short stories before although I’ve read quite a few of her novels, historical and crime/mystery fiction.

These short stories are like slipping into a warm bath, pure comfort, not that I’ve been reading them in the bath as I can’t do that for some reason. If you’re looking for escapism (which of us isn’t at the moment?!) then this one might fit the bill.

Snowdrift contains fourteen short stories and the last three haven’t been published before. For me they’re perfect bedtime reading, for when I’m not able to concentrate on anything too heavy. As you would expect quite a few of the stories feature Gretna Green as elopements and rumours of elopement are a fairly frequent theme.

As always I learned new words when reading her Regency romances, to me a domino is a games piece with dots on it, but apparently in Regency times it was a silk hood. There’s always a scattering of Regency slang words which have fairly obvious meanings from the context. I did look up a few of them in my dictionary just to see if they were real and not just made up – and they were real apparently. Unfortunately I can’t remember what any of them were now!

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