24 August 2016

Review: Death on a Silver Tray by Rosemary Stevens

Genre: Historical detective fiction, murder mystery, cosy mystery.
Themes: Murder, social reputations, unhappy marriages,

I have chosen the third book in the Beau Brummell mysteries as the book with an item of clothing in the title for the What's in a Name Challenge. However, I prefer, whenever possible, to read series books in the correct reading order, so I decided to read this, the first book in the series, as a preliminary to The Bloodied Cravat.

This is quite a frothy mystery in the historical/cosy sub-genre. A loathsome old aristocratic woman is murdered by adding poison to her nightly drink of warm milk and the prime suspect is her lady's companion, a young gentlewoman recommended to her by the Duchess of York. Brummell is in love with the Duchess and will do just about anything she asks of him, but as she is married to a member of the royal family and a scandal could destroy them both, they keep it on a platonic level. However, a scandal is looming because if the young lady is found guilty, it will have dire social consequences for the Duchess, and when Brummell declares his conviction of the young woman's innocence in public, he puts his own reputation - a much flimsier affair than that of the Duchess - on the line as well, so there is no backing out of his promise to the Duchess to find the real killer. And so he does, aided by his faithful valet, Robinson, with occasional input from a Bow Street detective, Mr. Lavender.

Brummell makes any number of mistakes one would expect from a novice detective, something I heartily approve of. It would have been very wrong to have him do brilliant deductions right off the bat while investigating his first case, and as a matter of fact, it's a couple of comments dropped by people in conversation that advance the case towards its solution.

I think I prefer this cover to the other one.
I have written elsewhere about how I loathe it when real people are commandeered by authors and made into characters in novels, especially when they are made to behave in ways that would be out of character for them. It's one of the reasons I have never read any of the Jane Austen mysteries, for example. But here we have a very famous historical gentleman being made into a sleuth.To my surprise I found I didn't really mind, perhaps because I know quite little about Beau Brummell other than that he was a celebrity in the modern sense, famous for his dress sense and good taste, and for his friendship with the Prince of Wales. I am also used to seeing him as a supporting character in any number of historical novels written about the era, so I suppose I see him more as a fictional character than a real one.

The character seems to be based, as far as personality goes, on Hercule Poirot. Both are conceited and self-assured dandies, but the difference is that we only ever really get to see Poirot from the outside, as seen by either a partially omniscient third person narrator, or by Hastings, who isn't exactly a reliable narrator. The Beau Brummell books, on the other hand, are narrated in the first person by the Beau himself, and so we get to see his self-doubt and insecurities, which makes him a more likeable and human character.

And then there's the cat. I hope this isn't going to turn into a series with a cat as the Watson.

The story is, as I stated above, frothy and light, but does touch on serious subjects apart from murder, e.g. the social conditions of servants and the problems faced by servant girls who find themselves in the family way, something that would generally result in them being let go from their positions without a reference - often by the very men who impregnated them - a terrible thing in those days.

This was an entertaining read, but I don't think I'll be keeping the book. In the cull box it goes, and then to the charity shop for someone else to buy and enjoy.

Readers: Have you read the other books in the series and would you recommend any title in particular?

Update: Terminology glossary

I have updated my terminology glossary, removed some dead links and added four new entries.

23 August 2016

Reading status

Image found on www.freestockphotos.biz
Title: The Affair of the Mutilated Mink
By: James Anderson
Challenge: What's in a Name 2016
Challenge category: A book with an item of clothing in the title.
The fourth of six books in this challenge

Did Not Finish:
Title: The Bloodied Cravat
By: Rosemary Stevens
Challenge: What's in a Name 2016

Was to have become the fourth of six books in this challenge

Also reading:  
Title: Show Me the Magic: Travels Round Benin by Taxi
 By: Annie Caulfield
Challenge: What's in a Name 2016 OR The Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2016 (Haven't decided which yet).
Challenge category: A book with a country in the title (What's in a Name).

Recently read with reviews coming soon:

Title: April Lady
By: Georgette Heyer
Challenge: What's in a Name 2016
Challenge category: A book with a month of the year in the title.
Second of six books in this challenge

Title: Cards on the Table
By: Agatha Christie
Challenge: What's in a Name 2016
Challenge category: A book with an item of furniture in the title.
Third of six books in this challenge

Recently read - haven't decided if I'll review:

Title: Death on a Silver Tray
By: Rosemary Stevens
Challenge: None

Title: Lord Edgware Dies, AKA Thirteen at Dinner
By: Agatha Christie
Challenge: None

To be read soon: 

(kinda, sorta) Review: Thirteen at Dinner by Agatha Christie

Alternative title:  Lord Edgware Dies (original British title)

Genre: Detective fiction, murder mystery.
Themes: Murder, identity switch, sociopathy.

When I finished reading Cards on the Table I realised I only had one book left to finish the five-novel Poirot omnibus it is in, so I sat down and read Thirteen at Dinner in order to finish the book. 

The plot (if you aren't already familiar with it, from book or film) revolves around a murder apparently committed by a woman who has no fewer than 12 witnesses to give her an alibi, and yet was seen at the scene of the crime at the same time. Poirot, having already become involved before the crime was committed, is commissioned by Inspector Japp of the Scotland Yard to investigate, and does so, aided by his friend Hastings and the police.

I love the noir feel to these covers.
When I called Cards on the Table a proper mystery I was, of course, referring to the fact that I haven't touched a pure mystery novel in ages. Sure, I've read thrillers, romantic suspense, and even romances with mystery side plots, but not a single book in which the mystery was the main thing.  

Thirteen at Dinner is a proper mystery, and quite a good mystery as well, even if it does rely on a coincidence to bring out the final solution. It is fortunately not a deus ex machina solution, but merely that Poirot overhears a chance comment in the street that enables him to make the final connection and catch the murderer. (I'm not giving anything away, BTW, since Hastings, who is the narrator and one of two Watsons in the story, states as much in the opening chapter). 

It's not the best Christie I've read, but it's among the better ones, and since it is included in the same volume as Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express, two of my favourite Christie novels, I'm keeping it.


Would you read the book based on this review? 


22 August 2016

Weekly Monday round-up (including the week's haul of books)

This is my first, but hopefully not last, time participating in this meme. The week before last I relaunched my book blog by signing up for two reading challenges, and I have started with a bang. It remains to be seen how long I can keep it up this time around.

 Books I finished reading last  week:
A Parrot in the Pepper Tree by Chris Stewart 
Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie. 
Thirteen at Dinner by Agatha Christie 
Death on a Silver Tray by Rosemary Stevens (scheduled to post on Wednesday)
April Lady by Georgette Heyer. (scheduled to post on Thursday)

Reviews posted about earlier reads:

Books I started reading last week but haven't finished:
The Bloodied Cravat by Rosemary Stevens
Show me the Magic: Travels Round Benin by Taxi by Annie Caulfield

Books I bought last week:
All of these, plus Two years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, jr.


Other things on the agenda:
Planning to go and pick bilberries and crowberries if the weather stays dry. The former to eat straight away and the latter to make crowberry jelly. I might even find some wild strawberries (yum!)

Review: Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

Genre: Detective fiction, murder mystery.
Themes: Murder, secrets. 
Reading challenge: What's in a Name 2016
Challenge book no.: 2/6, a book with a type of furniture in the title.

It's been ages since I read a proper mystery, and this is definitely one of those.  

It begins, like several of Christie's other stories, with a dinner party that ends in murder. 

This is a murder-magnet tale, i.e. one of those Poirot books where he is present, or as good as, when a murder takes place and the police ask him to assist in solving it, but he is still the principal detective (of course). 

What's interesting about this story is that Poirot has no fewer than three Watsons to assist him, or rather: they work together to solve the case, with facts found out by each contributing to Poirot being able to work out the truth. Two of those Watsons, Colonel Race and Superintendent Battle, are also Christie detectives in their own right (the former in Sparkling Cyanide and the latter in The Secret of Chimneys, The Seven Dials Mystery and Towards Zero). The third is the delightful Ariadne Oliver, whom Christie partly based on herself.

I have never hidden my dislike of Hercule Poirot, but here he is almost likeable, or maybe it's just that I haven't read any Poirot novels in several years and have forgotten what it was about him that annoyed me so much. 

The story unfolds with various viewpoints being shown, and Poirot being his pompous self. There are the inevitable red herrings and plot twists, some unexpected, some not so much, and it is, all in all, an enjoyable detective story. However, I have no desire to read it again, but I am keeping it because it's in an omnibus volume with four other Christie novels, two of which are among my favourites of her books.

I'm thinking about perhaps setting out to finish reading the Poirot books, but it's just an idea at the moment. For now, I plan to concentrate on the two reading challenges I have entered, and keep at it until they are finished.

21 August 2016

TBR Status report

I‘ve had a little clean-up of my „TBR-owned“ list and removed about 30 books. Some I had forgotten to remove when I finished reading them, some were books I culled and forgot to purge off the list and the rest were books of a kind I don‘t read from cover to cover and I had added accidentally. The last are reference books and certain types of cookbooks, i.e. ones that are pure recipe collections. 

This means that the TBR tally is once more under 800 books – 786 to be precise and that‘s where I hope to keep it. If all goes well and I continue on the reading streak I‘m on now, it might even dip below 700 by the end of new year. 

One can always hope.

20 August 2016

Review: Blood River by Tim Butcher

Full title: Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart
Genre: Travel
Subjects: Africa, the Congo river, Democratic Republic of the Congo, colonialism, history, adventure, exploitation, war.
Reading challenge:  The 2016 Nonfiction Reading Challenge, hosted by The Introverted Reader
Challenge tally: 3 books.

“I was travelling through a country with more past than future, a place where the hands of the clock spin not forwards, but backwards.”

This is the realisation that came to author Tim Butcher when he was about halfway through his foolhardy mission to follow the Congo river from it’s source all the way to the sea. Butcher had became fascinated with the Congo, especially the part played by Henry Morton Stanley in opening it up to European exploration and exploitation, and decided to follow Stanley’s route along the river as best he could. On the way he met all sorts of people: officials, both corrupt and otherwise, missionaries, aid workers and their African helpers, and Congolese people who were just trying to scrape a living in this dangerous country.

“‘But the Congo people. They don’t want to make money for themselves. They just want to take money from others.’”

This quotation came from an outsider whom Butcher believes put his finger on the Congo’s biggest problem: greed. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a country rich in both minerals and natural resources, but the harsh conditions of the Belgian colonial rule broke down the age-old tribal system and when the Belgians left, the country was taken over by people who just wanted to exploit it for their own gain. Butcher calls it a kleptocracy. The result was that the good things that came from the Belgian rule, such as roads, railways, electrical systems, hospitals, schools, and other infrastructure, were left to moulder through lack of funds which all got skimmed into various pockets, while parts of the unfair bureaucracy system seem to have been retained.

He reports grinding poverty, formerly grand towns in ruins, roads and railway tracks being eaten by the jungle, decimated wildlife because the people have to rely on bush meat in the absence of domestic animals, malnutrition because the only crop people are interested in growing is fast-growing and belly-filling but nutrition-poor cassava, and the constant threat to towns and villages of raids by various militias and rebel groups. He draws a clear and unflinching picture of a society that has descended into lawlessness, anomy and anarchy.

While Butcher lays out the possible reasons for the situation, he offers no solutions, just lays out the facts, allowing the readers to draw their own conclusions. This is perhaps wise, since the problems of Africa are so vast that one single solution doesn't exist. He also carefully avoids criticising anyone too much. I suppose it’s not a good idea for a journalist on the Africa beat to be too critical of the regimes he writes about - it might make it impossible for him to visit the country again and do his job, but I would have liked to have seen some opinions from him.

The book is well written and it's good to be able to read about the things they don’t tell you in the news reports, but one can’t help but wonder about Butcher’s motivations for doing the trip.

But then why does anyone make a trip like this? He calls it ordeal travel, and he’s right: this is not a trip one makes for fun or for the adventure. He faced scorching heat and the attendant risks of hyperthermia and dehydration, the threat of malaria and other tropical diseases, danger of accidents during road travel, and the constant danger from bad people kept him moving as fast as he could. He may not have travelled armed and with hundreds of bearers like Stanley, but he had the help of natives, missionaries and aid-workers he encountered on the way, which is, in my mind, much more sensible than trying to struggle it alone.

This is a dark book about bad things, but it does explain, even if it’s only in passing, some of the problems faced by this war-torn country. It is also, despite Butcher’s assertion that it was ordeal travel and not an adventure, a cracking adventure read.
If you have read it and liked it for the travel aspect, I’d like to recommend The Places in Between by Rory Stewart, which is about another of those journeys that make one question the sanity and motives of the person who did them. It describes a walk across Afghanistan in winter. Like Blood River, it also describes a war-torn country where there has been a breakdown of law and order.

Final thoughts:
This is a book that makes one angry and sad. Angry at the colonial powers for their exploitation and terrible treatment of the native people in the past, and even angrier at the natives who then took charge and treated their own people even more atrociously. Sad for knowing that it is a helpless anger because it doesn’t matter how much effort and money outsiders like the UN and various NGOs pour into the country - it’s like putting tiny sticking plasters on a gaping wound and hoping they will heal it. Nothing is going to happen for the better until there is willingness among the majority of the people themselves to fins solutions to the problems. 

Right now, it looks like there is a tenuous peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and I hope it will hold and develop into something good.