I Would Prefer Not To by Herman Melville

I’ve never read anything by Herman Melville – I know I should have read Moby Dick by now, but it has never sounded appealing to me – so when I spotted this new collection of Melville short stories from Pushkin Press it seemed a good opportunity to experience some of his work without having to commit to a 600+ page novel.

I Would Prefer Not To contains four stories, although the final one takes up more than half the book and is probably better described as a novella. My favourite was the first story, Bartleby the Scrivener, which was first published in Putnam’s Magazine in 1853. The narrator is an elderly Wall Street lawyer who employs two clerks, or ‘scriveners’ – Turkey and Nippers – whose job is to make copies of legal documents, and one office boy, Ginger Nut. An increase in work leads the lawyer to look for a third scrivener and, as he has been having difficulties with the temperamental natures of the other two, he decides to hire Bartleby, a quiet man whom he hopes will be a good influence on the others.

At first Bartleby works hard at his copying, but when the lawyer asks him to proofread a copied document, he replies with, “I would prefer not to”. Over the following days, he refuses to do more and more of the tasks that are requested of him – never giving an angry or rude response; always just those same five words: “I would prefer not to”. As the lawyer decides how to deal with this unexpected problem, the reader wonders what is wrong with Bartleby and what has caused his unusual behaviour. I enjoyed the story, but it left me very confused and I didn’t really understand what Melville was trying to say. However, after turning to Google for help, it seems that the meaning of the story was deliberately ambiguous and it can be interpreted in many ways, which made me feel a lot better about not understanding it!

Next is The Lightning-Rod Man, a short and intriguing tale of a salesman who arrives at the narrator’s house in Albania during a thunderstorm and tries to sell him a lightning-rod. The narrator is sceptical and says he will trust God to keep him safe, but the salesman won’t take no for an answer. Again, the meaning is not immediately obvious, but it’s an entertaining story and reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe. The third story, John Marr, is the weakest in the book, in my opinion. The title character is a retired sailor trying to adjust to a life on land, in a remote community on the American prairies. Feeling isolated and out of place, he remembers his seafaring days through songs and poems. The piece included in this collection is taken from John Marr and Other Sailors, a volume of poetry published in 1888, so maybe it would have worked better if read in the context of the original book.

Finally, we have the novella Benito Cereno, in which an American sea captain sailing off the coast of Chile encounters a Spanish slave ship in distress. Boarding the ship to see if he can help, he meets the Spanish captain, Benito Cereno, who tells him how the ship came to be in trouble. As he observes the behaviour of Benito Cereno and his slaves, he begins to wonder whether there is more to this than meets the eye. This was another interesting story, but I felt that it was much too long and too easy to guess the twist; we see things only through the eyes of the narrator, who is frustratingly oblivious to what is really happening on the Spanish ship. It was also another difficult one to interpret: was it a racist, pro-slavery story or an anti-racist, anti-slavery story? It could be either and it can’t be assumed that the views of the narrator reflect the views of the author.

So, now that I’ve had my introduction to Herman Melville, will I be reading Moby Dick? At the moment I think I would prefer not to, but maybe I’ll be ready to tackle it one day in the future!

Thanks to Pushkin Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Classics Club Spin #28: The result

The result of the latest Classics Club Spin has been revealed today.

The idea of the Spin was to list twenty books from my Classics Club list, number them 1 to 20, and the number announced by the Classics Club represents the book I have to read before 12th December. The number that has been selected is…

12

And this means the book I need to read is…

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B Hughes

It’s carnival time in Santa Fe, and three out-of-town visitors are drawn together in the heat, the smells and the colour of the festival…

Sailor, a hood from Chicago, is there to confront his boss, Sen, a crooked politician, to try to get money for what he knows about the murder of Sen’s wife, killed supposedly during a robbery gone wrong.

Following them both is Mac, a man from the same side of the tracks as Sailor, but who has made very different choices. He’s a cop now, and wants Sailor to testify against Sen and put him away.

The three strangers collide, retreat and advance through the streets of New Mexico, moving ever closer to a charged and unexpected outcome…

~

I’m happy with this result! It’s not a book I would normally have chosen to read based on the description, but The Expendable Man was one of my favourite books read last year and I’ve been looking forward to reading more by Dorothy B Hughes. It’s also one of the shorter books on my list so I should easily be able to finish it by the deadline.

Did you take part in the spin? Are you pleased with your result?

Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass

The final decade of the 18th century is a time of revolution and political upheaval; in 1794, the year in which Black Drop is set, Britain is both at war with France – a country still in the grip of the Reign of Terror – and trying to negotiate a treaty with the recently independent America. Our narrator, Laurence Jago, is a London clerk working in the Foreign Office and facing the difficult task of trying to advance in his career while also hiding a secret that, if discovered, would lead to accusations of treason.

When details of Britain’s military plans are leaked to the press, suspicion falls at first on Jago – but then the blame shifts to another clerk, Will Bates, who is found to have hanged himself in his room. Was Will really the traitor or is he being used as a convenient scapegoat? Jago is sure he was innocent and that his death was actually murder rather than suicide so, with the help of his friend, the journalist William Philpott, he sets out to discover the truth.

I enjoyed this book, although it was more political thriller than murder mystery and I occasionally felt that the plot was becoming more complicated than it really needed to be; I struggled to keep track of all the characters, their roles within the government and which of them may or may not be a spy. Overall, though, it was a fascinating period to read about, with so much going on in the world at that time – not only the French Revolutionary Wars and American treaty mentioned above, but also the fight for political reform led by the British shoemaker Thomas Hardy (not to be confused with the author of the same name!) and the growing debate over slavery and abolition.

Laurence Jago is a great character and the sort of flawed hero I love. The ‘Black Drop’ of the title refers to the laudanum Jago depends upon to get through the day and to ease the fear of his secrets being discovered. As his addiction worsens, it begins to affect the way he judges people and situations and leads the reader to question whether or not everything he is telling us is completely reliable. Despite this, I liked him very much and connected with his narrative style immediately. Jago is one of several fictional characters in the novel whom we see interacting with real historical figures such as Thomas Hardy, Lord Grenville, the Foreign Secretary, and John Jay, the American envoy. I knew nothing about any of these people before reading this book; it’s always good to learn something new!

Black Drop is Leonora Nattrass’ first novel. The way this one ended made me think there could be a sequel, but if not I will be happy to read whatever she writes next.

Thanks to Viper for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 46/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 7 for R.I.P. XVI

Castle Barebane by Joan Aiken – #1976Club

Since reading some of Jane Aiken Hodge’s books, I’ve been interested in trying something by her sister and fellow author, Joan Aiken. Maybe it would have been more sensible to start with the classic children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, for which she’s most famous, but her adult novels appealed to me more and when I saw that Castle Barebane was published in 1976, I decided to read it for this week’s 1976 Club hosted by Karen and Simon. I loved it, so it turned out to be a perfect choice!

The novel is set towards the end of the 19th century and opens with Val Montgomery, a New York journalist, at a party to celebrate her engagement to Benet Allerton. The party is not an enjoyable experience for Val – she feels awkward and out of place around Benet’s wealthy, fashionable relatives and can sense their disapproval of her clothes, her family and the fact that she works for a living. When she discovers that she will be expected to give up her career once she becomes Benet’s wife, she begins to have second thoughts about the marriage.

As luck would have it, Val returns home from the party later that night to find that her half-brother Nils has just arrived from England and when she tells him that she is having doubts about Benet, he persuades her to come and stay with him in London for a while to give herself time to think. However, the next day Nils disappears, leaving a note saying he has been called back to England urgently. Val follows on another ship a few days later, but by the time she reaches London, she discovers that her brother’s house has been abandoned, there’s no sign of Nils or his Scottish wife Kirstie, and their two young children are staying with a cruel and negligent servant. Desperate to know what has happened – and wanting to find someone more suitable to care for little Pieter and Jannie before she goes home to America – Val takes the children and boards a train for Scotland and Kirstie’s old family estate.

The rest of the novel is set at Ardnacarrig, nicknamed Castle Barebane because of its derelict, neglected state. This is where the gothic elements of the story emerge, with descriptions of underground passages, dangerous rocks and treacherous quicksand and tales of at least two resident ghosts who haunt the upper floors of the house at night. Val, who is too practical to believe in ghosts, suspects that if the house is haunted at all, it is haunted by the misery and unhappiness of the people who have lived there. As we – and Val – wait for the truth behind Nils’ and Kirstie’s disappearances to be revealed, the poignant stories of other characters unfold: the elderly housekeeper Elspie and her lost lover Mungo; local doctor David Ramsay and his dying mother; and six-year-old Pieter and his little sister Jannie, who is not like other children.

It took me a while to get into this book; it was very slow at the beginning and I felt that more time was spent on Benet and his family than was necessary, considering that they don’t really feature in the story after the first few chapters. Once Val arrived in London to find her brother missing, though, it became much more compelling. Val is a great character; although I didn’t find her particularly likeable at first – and I don’t think she was intended to be – I admired her dedication to her work and desire for independence when it would have been easier to just marry Benet and conform to society’s expectations. After she breaks free from Benet it’s fascinating to watch her grow and flourish as a character while doing all she can to help the people around her, even when it seems that they don’t really want to be helped. There’s also a new romance for Val, which I liked, but we didn’t see enough of her love interest for me to feel fully invested in their relationship.

Most of the action in the book is packed into the final few chapters; there’s definitely a problem with the pacing and also a bit of needless violence which I wasn’t expecting and felt that the story would have worked just as well without. But despite the novel’s many flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it – both the domestic parts and the gothic adventure parts. The atmosphere is wonderful, there’s a suitably sinister villain and I loved the remote setting (and was impressed by the Scottish dialect which seemed quite accurate, although I’m not an expert). I’m certainly planning to read more of Joan Aiken’s books and am hoping they’re all as good as this one!

~

I’m also counting this book towards the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the R.I.P. XVI event!

~

1976 books previously read and reviewed on my blog:

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie
Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart
Dark Quartet by Lynne Reid Banks
Some Touch of Pity by Rhoda Edwards
The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor

Classics Club Spin #28: My List

It’s time for another Classics Club Spin! I’m looking forward to taking part in this one – Spin 28 – as I feel I haven’t been reading as many classics as usual this year.

If you’re not sure what a Classics Spin is, here’s a reminder:

The rules for Spin #28:

* List any twenty books you have left to read from your Classics Club list.
* Number them from 1 to 20.
* On Sunday 17th October the Classics Club will announce a number.
* This is the book you need to read by 12th December 2021.

And here is my list:

1. A Laodicean by Thomas Hardy
2. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
3. Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault
4. Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden
5. The Fifth Queen by Ford Madox Ford
6. Claudius the God by Robert Graves
7. Nightmare in Berlin by Hans Fallada
8. Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
9. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
10. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute
11. Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
12. Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B Hughes
13. La Reine Margot by Alexandre Dumas
14. Moonfleet by John Meade Falkner
15. Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey
16. The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins
17. Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym
18. The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov
19. The Trumpet-Major by Thomas Hardy
20. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

~

I don’t really mind which of these I get, but Black Narcissus would be nice as Brona is hosting a Rumer Godden Reading Week in December.

Are you taking part in the spin this time? Which number do you think I should be hoping for?

Death of a Tin God by George Bellairs

This is the fourth book I’ve read from George Bellairs’ Inspector Littlejohn series and although I haven’t been reading them in order, it doesn’t seem to matter at all. Each novel works as a standalone mystery and there’s very little focus on Littlejohn’s personal life so you can easily jump around from an early book to a later one and back again without feeling that you’ve missed anything important.

Death of a Tin God was first published in 1961 and begins with Thomas Littlejohn (now a Superintendent rather than an Inspector) flying from Dublin to the Isle of Man to visit his friend, Caesar Kinrade, the Archdeacon of Man. Littlejohn is looking forward to a quiet break, but his arrival coincides with the death of Hal Vale, a Hollywood star who has been filming on the island. Hal is found electrocuted in the bath in his hotel room and the circumstances suggest that it was not an accident. Littlejohn finds himself assisting the local police with their investigations and as the mystery deepens, he travels to the South of France to look for the answers.

I enjoyed this book but found the solution a bit predictable as the murderer turned out to be the person I had suspected from the beginning. There were some clever twists and red herrings along the way that did put some doubt into my mind, but I still wasn’t at all surprised when the truth was revealed. However, I very rarely manage to solve a mystery before the detective does, so I don’t mind too much when it occasionally happens! And I do like spending time with Littlejohn and watching him carry out his investigations; he’s not the most memorable of fictional detectives, but that means the focus stays firmly on the plot without his own personality getting in the way. His usual sidekick Sergeant Cromwell is absent for most of the book, but instead he teams up with Inspector Knell of the Manx police and Inspector Dorange in Nice who I believe are also recurring characters in the series and have good working relationships with Littlejohn.

One of the things I’ve loved about the other Bellairs novels I’ve read is the way he creates such a strong cast of supporting characters and suspects. In Dead March for Penelope Blow and A Knife for Harry Dodd in particular, there are some very colourful, larger than life characters who could almost have jumped straight out of the pages of a Dickens novel. In this book, I found the characterisation more bland and less interesting, but maybe that was a reflection of the shallow, vapid celebrity world Bellairs has chosen as the setting for this particular novel. Littlejohn is described several times as feeling slightly out of his depth amongst this assortment of glamorous film stars, ruthless publicity agents and millionaire bankers with yachts, so perhaps the reader is intended to feel the same.

I liked the idea of the book being set on the Isle of Man, as it’s not a common setting for mystery novels (or fiction in general), but it turned out that half of the story actually took place in Aix-en-Provence in France – and neither setting was described as vividly as I would have liked. I know Bellairs set some of the other Littlejohn books on the Isle of Man too, so maybe some of those have more local colour than this one. Although this is not one of my favourite books in the series so far, I’m still looking forward to reading more of them.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 5 for R.I.P. XVI

The Grey King by Susan Cooper

This is the fourth book in Susan Cooper’s five-volume sequence, The Dark is Rising, and I feel as though things are starting to fall nicely into place ahead of the fifth and final book, Silver on the Tree. I’m beginning to form a better understanding of the opposing forces of the Light and the Dark and how the various characters and elements of the series have their roots in Arthurian legend and British folklore. However, this book also raises new questions and explores issues and topics not yet touched upon in the earlier novels, so there’s still a long way to go before the end!

The Grey King begins with Will Stanton, the eleven-year-old boy – and ‘Old One’ – we met in The Dark is Rising and Greenwitch, going to stay with an aunt and uncle in Wales while recuperating from hepatitis. His parents hope it will be a nice, relaxing break for him, but it turns out to be just the opposite! During Will’s illness, he has forgotten the details of the quest begun in the previous novels, but as his memories slowly return he remembers that his next task is to find the golden harp that will awaken six sleepers who will join the final battle between Dark and Light.

The three Drew children, who played such important roles in Over Sea, Under Stone and Greenwitch, don’t appear in this book, but Will receives help this time from a new friend, Bran, a boy he meets in the Welsh hills. With his white hair and pale skin, as well as a mystery surrounding the disappearance of his mother, Bran has never fitted in with other children and leads a lonely, solitary life with only his beloved dog, Cafall, for company. When Will learns that Bran is ready to help him with the next stage of the quest, a bond forms between the two and they set out together to find the harp and wake the sleepers.

The villain this time is the Brenin Llwyd, or the ‘Grey King’, an ancient and powerful Lord of the Dark who lives high in the mountains, his breath forming a ragged grey mist that can be seen for miles around. Although Will and Bran have little direct contact with the Grey King for most of the book, they are aware of his presence all around them and of the work of his agents, the bitter and spiteful farmer, Caradog Prichard, and the powerful grey foxes known as the Milgwn. Like the other books in the series, this one is wonderfully eerie and atmospheric, and while the Dark continues to feel evil and malevolent, we are again made to question how ‘good’ the Light really is:

Those men who know anything at all about the Light also know that there is a fierceness to its power, like the bare sword of the law, or the white burning of the sun…Other things, like humanity, and mercy, and charity, that most good men hold more precious than all else, they do not come first for the Light…At the centre of the Light there is a cold white flame, just as at the centre of the Dark there is a great black pit bottomless as the Universe.

As with The Dark is Rising, I felt that the mission was completed much too easily (I was particularly disappointed with a game of riddles, as very little effort went into solving them). The tasks that have faced the Drew children seem to be more difficult and dangerous somehow, maybe because they are ‘ordinary’ children and don’t have the powers that Will has. However, the quest is only one aspect of the novel and there are other elements that interested me as much or more. I particularly loved the Welsh setting – and was grateful for the lesson in Welsh pronunciation Will receives early in the novel! I also enjoyed getting to know Bran and discovering how he fits into the overall story.

I’m looking forward to reading Silver on the Tree and finding out how it all ends!

Book 4 for R.I.P. XVI