Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Remarks on Recent Reads: Mystery and Suspense

Happy Tuesday, friends! I wanted to pop in and share with you the mysteries I've been reading in the last couple of months. Of course, it should come as no surprise that these are books from my own bookshelves that I've read for A Century of Books, hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book.

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay (1935) takes place at Persephone College, a women's college at Oxford, and begins with a group of girls having a secret meeting down by the boathouse, only to discover a canoe floating past with the drowned body of the college's bursar. The girls decide to conduct their own investigation into who killed the woman. This is a light mystery but one I enjoyed, but I've liked the mysteries I've read so far from the British Library Crime Classics series.

Murder on Safari by Elspeth Huxley (1938) gives some insight as to how the rich went on safari. Inspector Vachell is asked to investigate the case of Lady Baradale's missing jewels. The group on safari has tents fitted up with electricity and all kinds of little luxuries, so much so that it doesn't appear that these people are roughing it all. Soon after Inspector Vachell arrives at the camp site, Lady Baradale is murdered.  The mystery has an interesting twist, but what I loved most about this novel was the wonderful writing that describes the African landscape. From my reading about Beryl Markham and the British colony in Kenya of the 1930s, it was obvious that the characters in Murder on Safari are based on several of those people.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (1939) is a reminder of what a great mystery writer Agatha Christie was. This is just a cracking good mystery in which a group of characters, each individually invited to a remote island for different reasons, all have something in common. They've all committed offenses but managed to stay outside the law, and the time has come to pay for their crimes. This novel is filled with suspense and there is a quality about it that still feels contemporary. I loved And Then There Were None

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart (1965) moves from England to Austria when Vanessa March, who has been married for two years, plans to meet her husband in Stockholm. Her plans change when she sees her husband on the screen in a newsreel in Austria at the scene of a deadly fire. This novel has many elements of what makes Mary Stewart a great writer, but it isn't my favorite novel of hers.

Maigret and the Killer by Georges Simenon (1969) is a taut mystery in which Maigret gets involved in solving the murder of a young man who's favorite pastime is recording conversations on that old fashioned device, the tape recorder. The young man walks around Paris with a tape recording hanging around his neck. The murder was witnessed by a man and his wife and a woman in a building across the street. This was my first Maigret novel, and I liked it enough to read more in the series.

Little Tales of Misogyny by Patricia Highsmith (1975) is a slim volume of short stories, many of them vignettes or character sketches. As is Highsmith's way, she has created stories that are strange and just plain weird in which she targets women, but she makes the men look just as bad. It's a strange little book. 

Have you read any of these? What are you reading this week?

Saturday, October 13, 2018

#ReadingMuriel2018: A Look at Symposium by Muriel Spark

I had the opportunity to read Symposium by Muriel Spark (1990) for Phase 5 of #ReadingMuriel2018, hosted by heavenali. It's hard to believe we're in the midst of Phase 5! 

Symposium opens with a dinner party at the home of American artist Hurley Reed and his companion, the wealthy Australian widow, Chris Donovan. From all accounts, their parties are the kind of affairs for which invitations are much sought after.

Spark introduces the cast of ten characters at the dinner party right away, and I have to admit, it took me awhile to get the different people straight. The talk of the evening is the burglary at the home of Lord and Lady Suzy. Lord Suzy can't seem to stop going on about it. Other conversations take place, which on the face of them don't seem to mean much, but in Spark's writing, everything matters. 

Then there's the expectation of a late arrival at the party, the mother of William Damien, who's a good friend of Chris Donovan. William and his wife, Margaret, have returned from their honeymoon in Venice and are at the dinner party. Much of Symposium deals with how William and Margaret's relationship began with a chance meeting. Or was it a chance meeting?

Spark tells the story of Symposium in flashbacks that untangle the complicated relationships among this set of acquaintances. These flashbacks also reveal the work of a sophisticated ring of thieves who target some of the circle of people at the party. Also occurring on this evening is a murder involving one of the guests and the mystery that follows.

I found Symposium to be a page turner. The characters are interesting, and once again, I liked those elements that Spark uses of mystery and revealing at the beginning of the story exactly what's going to happen. The fun of reading Symposium is seeing how everything unfolds. I always like those unexpected twists and turns in Spark's writing, and I highly recommend Symposium.

Have you read Symposium?   

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Fall, Leaves, Fall

"Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day:
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree."
--Emily Brontë

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Frost in May by Antonia White

It's been about a month since I read Frost in May by Antonia White (1933), and I've struggled with how best to talk about the novel. When I started Frost in May, I found myself a bit skeptical about how someone could write an engaging novel of life in a convent school. This complex story snuck up on me, and I couldn't put the book down. 

Frost in May takes place during the time of pre-World War I when Nanda Grey, nine years of age, begins her time at a convent school. Her father is a recent convert to Catholicism, and she's anxious to please him. Nanda's an only child, and while her mother doesn't seem so sure about Nanda going to a Catholic school, Nanda and her father ignore what she says.

The convent school is a world unto itself with its rigorous schedule and strange customs. The nuns are a constant presence, there to make sure that each child falls in line. In the evenings, the girls must arrange their stockings to form a cross. Bathing must be done wearing a smock to hide one's nakedness. The correct way to sleep is lying on one's back with the arms crossed over one's chest. Letters home are censored as are books in the school's library. 

Then, there's an emphasis on self-sacrifice and much frowning upon enjoying oneself. For example, one of the students displays her ability in the starring role in the school play. Her obvious enjoyment of her talent and passion about the play causes the student to lose the role to someone far inferior.

I first saw the nuns as the villains of Frost in May. It's easy to do because cruelty comes so easily to them. As I read on, it became apparent that although they view their jobs as "cruel to be kind," these nuns feel that they're doing God's work. They see their jobs as building the characters of these girls, but unfortunately, they have to break them down first.

Through the years, Nanda watches what goes on around her, and to some extent assimilates into the school. She dislikes much of what goes on, but at the same time, she finds that she loves the school, her friends, and the routine, even missing the school when she's at home on holiday. 

By the nuns' standards, Nanda comes close but never quite measures up although she tries hard to be worthy of God. Eventually, Nanda has her own spectacular but inevitable fall for which the nuns have been watching and waiting. 

Frost in May is an autobiographical novel of White's own experiences in convent school. The writing is lovely, subtle, and powerful. The story is unforgettable; that's what makes Frost in May one of my favorite books of the year.

Have you read Frost in May?

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros: In the Woods by Tana French

Happy Tuesday! I'm taking part in First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, hosted by I'd Rather Be At the Beach, and previously hosted by Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea, where bloggers share a bit about what they're reading or planning to read soon.

An upcoming read of mine is Tana French's debut novel, In the Woods

From the back cover:

"In Tana French's powerful debut thriller, three children leave their small Dublin neighborhood to play in the surrounding woods. Hours later, their mothers' calls go unanswered. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children, gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers, and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours.

Twenty years later, Detective Rob Ryan--the found boy, who has kept his past a secret--and his partner Cassie Maddox, investigate the murder of a twelve-year-old girl in the same woods. Now, with only snippets of long-buried memories to guide him, Ryan has the chance to uncover both the mystery of the case before him, and that of his own shadowy past."

The opening paragraph of Chapter 1:

"What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with the truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception. The truth is the most desirable woman in the world and we are the most jealous lovers, reflexively denying anyone else the slightest glimpse of her. We betray her routinely, spending hours and days stupor-deep in lies, and then, turn back to her holding out the lover's ultimate Möbius strip: But I only did it because I love you so much."

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

Friday, October 5, 2018

Thursday, October 4, 2018

#ReadingMuriel2018: Ghost Stories

This is a belated post for Phase 4 of #ReadingMuriel2018, hosted by Heavenali, in which I wanted to say a bit about Ghost Stories. The collection consists of eight short stories which can also be found in the larger collection of Muriel Spark's Complete Short Stories

After the dark atmosphere Muriel Spark evoked in Not to Disturb, I expected something similar in Ghost Stories. The cover of the book suggests something scary is coming. Instead, I found a hodgepodge of not very scary stories. 

My favorite story of the bunch is "The Portobello Road," which takes place in England and Africa, and is about four friends with a history. The story contains a murder mystery and a wandering ghost in between planes, haunting friends as they shop in Portobello Road. 

I liked "The Girl I Left Behind Me" which had such a surprising twist at the end. I had to read the story again to see if I missed some sort of foreshadowing. 

"The Leaf Sweeper" was also a standout which had a bit of humor along with a pesky ghostly being who has challenges dealing with the Christmas holiday.

In Ghost Stories, I'd expected stories that had an element of the gothic or macabre, but there's none of that here. They're stories that are readable enough, but other than the ones mentioned, I wasn't dazzled. And I wanted to be. Muriel Spark does such creative things in her novels, and I wanted more of that in this group of stories. 

I've moved on to Phase 5 and am enjoying reading Spark's novels of the 1980s and 1990s. I look forward to talking about them here soon.

Have you read any of Muriel Spark's ghost stories?

I hope that you are having a wonderful week of reading!