The Ghost It Was by Richard Hull – #RIPXV

I’ve enjoyed several of Richard Hull’s novels over the last few years – particularly The Murder of My Aunt and Left-Handed Death – and with Halloween quickly approaching, The Ghost It Was (first published in 1936) sounded like a good one to read next.

The novel begins with aspiring journalist Gregory Spring-Benson trying to get a job as a newspaper reporter. Having failed to impress the editor, Gregory is given new hope when he comes across a badly written article about James Warrenton’s purchase of the supposedly haunted Amberhurst Place. James Warrenton happens to be his uncle – his very rich uncle – and perhaps if Gregory goes to visit him in his new home he will be able to gather material for a much more interesting article that will help to launch his career in journalism. If he can also persuade Uncle James to leave him as much money as possible in his will, even better!

On his arrival, however, Gregory finds that he is not the only one hoping to secure his inheritance; three other nephews and a niece have also descended upon the house in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with their uncle. But while the cousins are busy plotting and scheming against each other, the ghost of Amberhurst Place makes an appearance at the top of a tower. Deaths soon follow, but is the ghost responsible or is there a human culprit?

Although all of the books I’ve read by Richard Hull so far have been very different, unlikeable characters seem to be the one thing they have in common! This worked very well in The Murder of My Aunt, where the characters were so horrible they were funny, but in this book they are just thoroughly unpleasant and not much fun to spend time with at all. I could easily have believed that almost any of them was the murderer and didn’t really care which of them was. It didn’t help that after a strong opening, introducing us to Gregory Spring-Benson and describing his ordeals at the newspaper office, the narrative then jumps around between the other cousins, the butler, a clergyman and some Scotland Yard investigators. We barely see Gregory after this and I felt that the novel lost focus through trying to involve too many different characters at once.

The ghost story aspect of the novel is well done – not at all scary, but it adds some atmosphere and makes it more difficult to work out exactly how the murders are being carried out. Despite the unpleasant characters and the lack of focus I’ve mentioned, it’s quite an enjoyable mystery to try to solve and the denouement, when it comes, is unusual and unexpected. Instead of tying everything up for the reader, Hull leaves us to make up our own minds and to decide whether we’ve correctly interpreted what we have been told. Not a favourite Hull novel, then, but still worth reading and I will continue to explore his other books.

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

This is my second book read for this year’s R.I.P. Challenge.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton – #RIPXV

I loved Stuart Turton’s first novel, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which I thought was one of the most original and unusual mystery novels I’ve ever read, so I had high hopes for his new book, The Devil and the Dark Water. However, although this is another complex and cleverly plotted novel, it has a very different structure, setting and feel, and didn’t impress me as much as the previous book did.

The Devil and the Dark Water opens in 1634 in Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia), an outpost of the United East India Company. The Dutch ship Saardam is about to set sail for Amsterdam, carrying a cargo of spices, a mysterious object known as The Folly – and a prisoner, Sammy Pipps, the world’s greatest detective. Nobody knows what crime Sammy is supposed to have committed, but his friend and bodyguard, Lieutenant Arent Hayes, has vowed to protect him during the journey and to prove him innocent if possible. As the passengers and crew prepare to embark, a leper wrapped in blood-stained rags appears on the dock and has time to place a curse on the ship before his body is consumed by flames.

The curse appears to set in motion a chain of eerie, unexplained events which begin to occur as soon as the ship sails out to sea. Is the Saardam really being haunted by the devil, Old Tom, or is a human being behind these sinister occurrences? With Sammy locked in a cell, it falls to Arent to investigate…but he is not the only person on the ship who is trying to solve the mystery. Sara Wessel, wife of the Governor General, is also determined to uncover the truth, with the help of her daughter, Lia, and her husband’s mistress, Creesjie.

This is a wonderfully atmospheric book, with a real sense of evil and foreboding, beginning in the first chapter with the leper’s curse – ‘Know that my master sails aboard the Saardam. He is the lord of hidden things; all desperate and dark things…’ – and continuing to build throughout the novel, with strange symbols appearing on the sails, a lantern that shines out at sea where no lantern should be, stories of witchfinders and burning villages, and a series of ‘unholy miracles’. I found it genuinely spooky and although the plot itself seemed to move along very slowly at times (I read it on my Kindle and hadn’t really appreciated what a long book it was), the atmosphere more than made up for it. The revelations at the end of the book also took me by surprise; I’d had my suspicions about one of the characters, but I certainly didn’t guess everything correctly!

There were things I liked, then, but the main problem I had with the book was that I never at any point felt fully immersed in the seventeenth century. There’s no real attempt to use language appropriate to the period, Sara and Lia are both modern women with modern attitudes, and the depiction of Sammy Pipps as a sort of Sherlock Holmes character whose cases had been written about (by Arent) for all the world to read seemed completely implausible. To be fair, Stuart Turton acknowledges in an author’s note at the end of the book that he ‘did his research, then threw away the bits that hindered the story’, but I personally prefer a story set in the past to actually feel historical – otherwise, why bother setting it in the past at all? If you’re not too bothered about historical accuracy and are just looking for a dark and atmospheric mystery novel, I’m sure you’ll find a lot to enjoy here, but I don’t think I was the right reader for this book.

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

I am counting this book towards this year’s R.I.P. Challenge.

Beau Sabreur by PC Wren

I loved PC Wren’s 1924 classic Beau Geste and when I discovered that it was the first in a trilogy I knew I would have to read the other two. It has taken me more than five years, but a few weeks ago I finally got around to picking up the second book, Beau Sabreur, which was first published in 1926. Although this is a sequel to Beau Geste and features a few of the same characters, it’s not really a direct continuation of the story so would probably work as a standalone; however, some parts of the plot will make more sense if you have already read the previous book.

Beau Sabreur is divided into two sections and really is a book of two very distinct and different halves! The first half, Failure: The Making of a Beau Sabreur, is narrated by Major Henri de Beaujolais, whom you may remember as the French army officer who discovered the eerie abandoned fort at the beginning of Beau Geste. Henri’s narrative follows his early days with his regiment, the friends and enemies he makes, each of whom will have an impact on his future career, and the challenges he faces in settling into army life.

After completing his training, Henri is sent to North Africa with the cavalry where he has a series of adventures that wouldn’t be out of place in Lawrence of Arabia: camel rides across the desert; encounters with bands of Touareg robbers; and negotiations with Emirs and Viziers. It is here in the Sahara that Henri meets the beautiful Mary Vanbrugh, a guest of the colonel of the French-occupied city of Zaguig, who is ‘doing Algeria and seeing something of the desert’ with her brother and her maid-companion, Maudie. Henri is captivated by Miss Vanbrugh, but when the city comes under attack, he must decide whether she is more important to him than his duty to France.

I really enjoyed the first section of the book. Henri de Beaujolais is an engaging narrator and although his story encompasses serious themes of love, honour and duty, it is told with a lot of humour; I found the part where he visits a tailor to be fitted with his army uniform particularly funny. Bearing in mind that this is a novel written in the 1920s and some of the views on race and gender would be considered problematic today, I was pleased to find that Mary Vanbrugh is depicted as a courageous, independent and intelligent woman with a mind of her own (although Maudie, who dreams of being carried off on horseback by a handsome Sheikh, is less so). This first half comes to an end with a surprising plot twist that I hadn’t seen coming, before the whole style and tone of the novel changes entirely as we enter Part Two – Success: The Making of a Monarch.

The second half of the novel, sadly, didn’t live up to the promise of the first half. The focus moved away from Henri to concentrate on two of the characters from Beau Geste whom I liked in that book but didn’t care for in this one. The dry wit of Henri’s narrative was replaced by a much less subtle humour and I found the story in Part Two became quite tedious after the excitement and drama of Part One. I was still interested enough to keep reading to the end and I was rewarded with several more plot twists which made me glad I had persevered, but the abrupt change in the middle of the book didn’t work for me at all. I will probably still try the third book, Beau Ideal, and will hope for something more consistent from that one!

Every Eye by Isobel English – #1956Club

This week Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon from Stuck in a Book are hosting another of their club events, where we all read and write about books published in a chosen year. This time the year is 1956, which seems to have been a fantastic year for publishing! There were a lot of books that sounded very appealing to me, but there were only two already on my TBR and I decided on this one, Every Eye by Isobel English. This short novella, published by Persephone, has fewer than 150 pages (including the preface by Neville Braybrooke), so was perfect for me at the moment when I’m struggling to concentrate on longer books; my usual reading patterns seem to have been disrupted all year and I don’t know when they will get back to normal.

Anyway, Every Eye is narrated by Hatty, a woman in her thirties who is married to Stephen, a younger man. At the beginning of the book, she and Stephen are preparing to go on a belated honeymoon to Ibiza, when she receives the news that Cynthia has died. Who is Cynthia? Well, she’s the woman who married Hatty’s Uncle Otway many years earlier and who was to become one of the most influential figures in her young life. As Hatty and Stephen travel by train across France and Spain, the story moves back and forth between past and present as Hatty reflects on her childhood and her memories of Cynthia, Uncle Otway – and the older man, Jasper, with whom she had her first romantic relationship.

The book is structured in a way that I would often have found irritating; one continuous narrative with no chapter breaks and sudden jumps between past and present tense as Hatty alternates between telling the story of her trip to Ibiza and reminiscing about episodes from her past. Here, though, the structure works very well and, perhaps because the book is so short, it doesn’t have time to become annoying or confusing. And Isobel English writes beautifully! I am in the habit now of looking out for interesting, inspiring or thought-provoking passages to quote in my monthly Commonplace Book posts; with some books I struggle to find any, but with Every Eye there was a line or a paragraph worthy of being quoted on almost every page. There’s a lovely sense of place too; the descriptions of the scenery through which Hatty and Stephen pass on their journey across Europe are gorgeous and vivid:

Trailing banks of giant blue convolvulus, purple bougainvillea twisted into the formal intricacy of black wrought iron – all hang downward toward the sea. Lemons in the hotel garden, still green but ripening in patches, and below the shelving gardens, the wilder unfenced land parceled into small plots, sloping away to the sea’s edge: everywhere the stunted grey of the olive trees. With our small rationed vision we are like greedy children looking everywhere for more and more; we stare into the brilliance like seers, seeking an unsimple and deeper quality; when we do not find it, we call it surfeit.

The title of the book refers to Hatty’s ‘lazy eye’, which gives her the appearance of not looking straight ahead. She considers this to be a deformity – something that makes her unattractive and undesirable – and even after having an operation to correct it, it still has an impact on her self-confidence. Sight and vision are important themes in the novel, not just in the sense of Hatty having eye problems, but also in how we see other people and how they see us. For example:

After the first six months of our knowing each other, I found it impossible to carry within my mind a clear picture of myself in relation to Jasper. My vision was blurred, because I had outwardly accepted the state.

Or this:

I thought always before the operation on my eye that the source of discordancy between myself and other people lay in the distortion of my own vision; I did not know then as I do now that this outward sign was only the visible proof of inward impediment.

Despite her problems with vision, or maybe because of them, it seems that by the end of the story Hatty can see things more clearly than anyone else. I had heard that this book had one of those amazing last lines that make you catch your breath, so I was expecting something special – and yes, it was worth waiting for (but not quite as powerful as the last sentence of another Persephone, Little Boy Lost). This is a beautiful, atmospheric book and although it’s not one of my absolute favourite Persephones, it’s certainly one I’m glad I read and a great choice for 1956 Club!

Here are some other books from 1956, previously reviewed here on my blog:

Death in Cyprus by MM Kaye
Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer
Death on a Quiet Day by Michael Innes
Mary of Carisbrooke by Margaret Campbell Barnes

Six Degrees of Separation: From The Turn of the Screw to The Turn of the Key

It’s the first Saturday of the month which means it’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is that Kate chooses a book to use as a starting point and then we have to link it to six other books of our choice to form a chain. A book doesn’t have to be connected to all of the others on the list – only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we are starting with a book that I have actually read – not something that happens very often! The book is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and if you haven’t read it, here is the blurb from Goodreads:

In what Henry James called a ‘trap for the unwary’, The Turn of the Screw tells of a nameless young governess sent to a country house to take charge of two orphans, Miles and Flora. Unsettled by a dark foreboding of menace within the house, she soon comes to believe that something malevolent is stalking the children in her care. But is the threat to her young charges really a malign and ghostly presence or something else entirely?

John Harding’s Florence and Giles (1), a Gothic novel about two children who believe their lives are in danger after the arrival of a sinister governess, is inspired by The Turn of the Screw (as you might have guessed from the very similar names of the characters: Florence and Giles, and Flora and Miles).  I loved it, although I hadn’t actually read The Turn of the Screw at the time, so didn’t fully appreciate the extent to which it was a homage to that other book.     

Another book with lots of ghostly and Gothic elements and a plot involving a governess with two young charges is This House is Haunted by John Boyne (2).  The influence of The Turn of the Screw is clear here too, although the story probably owes as much to Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins as it does to Henry James.  It was the first John Boyne novel I’ve read and still one of my favourites.

Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic novel, Uncle Silas (3), also features a governess – an evil and villainous one called Madame de la Rougierre, who arrives at the Ruthyn family estate of Knowl to become a companion to Maud Ruthyn. A very entertaining tale of “gloomy, eerie mansions, graveyards, laudanum addiction, an evil governess, locked rooms and locked cabinets, poison and family secrets.” 

Not all governesses are as evil as Madame de la Rougierre!  Linda Martin in Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart (4) is a governess and she is the heroine of the novel. As soon as Linda arrives at the de Valmy family chateau in France to become governess to young Philippe de Valmy, she is convinced that something is wrong and the tension builds and builds until the truth is revealed. I’ve read most of Stewart’s novels and this is probably my favourite; it’s certainly the most exciting and atmospheric. 

Nine Coaches Waiting shares some plot elements with Jane Eyre, as does Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye (5).  Jane Steele herself is a fan of the Charlotte Bronte classic and becomes aware of some of the parallels between her own life and Jane Eyre’s.  After her unhappy schooldays come to an end, Jane returns to her childhood home, Highgate House, to take up a position as governess to Sahjara, the young ward of the house’s new master, Mr Thornfield.  Mystery, romance and suspense follow!

It’s not often that I am able to link the last book in one of my chains back to the first, but as soon as I saw that we were beginning this month with The Turn of the Screw I knew I would have to end with The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware (6).  Not quite a governess, but a ‘live-in nanny’, our narrator Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House in Scotland to find that she is just the latest in a long string of nannies in a very short time period. Could the ghostly occurrences taking place in the house be the reason?

~

Well, that’s my chain for October. I usually try to link each book to the one before in a different way each time, but this month I’ve kept it very simple: all of the books in my chain include a governess, children and a house that is either haunted or hiding secrets of some sort.

For November’s starting point, we can use a book with which we’ve ended a previous chain and continue from there.

My Commonplace Book: September 2020

A selection of words and pictures to represent September’s reading:

commonplace book
noun
a book into which notable extracts from other works are copied for personal use.

~

It was the better part of wartime, how easily one made friends. It had been the same from the first day of her basic training. Women you would never normally have spent five minutes with became as close as family. Adversity bred intimacy. She was already starting to feel she had known them for years.

V2 by Robert Harris (2020)

~

Illustration from The Black Arrow

He saw, through tears, the poor old man, bemused with liquor and sorrow, go shambling away, with bowed head, across the snow, and the unnoticed dog whimpering at his heels, and for the first time began to understand the desperate game that we play in life; and how a thing once done is not to be changed or remedied, by any penitence.

The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson (1888)

~

Some Fiction is much stranger than Truth…

Beau Sabreur by PC Wren (1926)

~

Portrait of Raphael

I’ve often asked myself how some men seem unable to let go of the chains that tied them once, clinging on to the rusty links as if they were a part of them, allowing them to weigh their minds and bodies down for all eternity; whereas others manage to shake them off and fly away high into the heavens. I’ve pondered the problem much but I still cannot fathom it. I’ve often asked myself too how some men can be generous-spirited even to those who would act against them while others bear a grudge that they can never let go. That too will always remain a puzzle to me.

The Woman in the Painting by Kerry Postle (2020)

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Favourite book read in September:

V2

New authors read in September:

Kerry Postle

Countries visited in my September reading:

England, Italy, Morocco, Belgium, the Netherlands

~

Have you read any of these books? Which books did you enjoy reading in September?

The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson

This was the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin and for once, I have managed to read it and post my review by the deadline, which is today!

I have had mixed results with Robert Louis Stevenson in the past: I loved The Master of Ballantrae, liked Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, couldn’t finish Kidnapped and can hardly remember Treasure Island, which I read as a child. I hoped The Black Arrow would be another good one; it sounded as though it should be fun, at least, and the setting – 15th century England, during the Wars of the Roses – appealed to me. Originally published as a serial in 1883, then as a novel in 1888, it is often labelled a ‘children’s novel’, but apart from the fact that the hero and heroine are in their teens, I think it’s a book that could be equally enjoyed by older and younger readers. It’s probably too old fashioned for a lot of children today, but any who do like reading classic adventure stories should find this one entertaining.

The Black Arrow tells the story of seventeen-year-old Dick Shelton, an orphan who comes to believe that his guardian, Sir Daniel Brackley, was responsible for the murder of his father. Setting out to discover the truth and obtain justice for his father, Dick joins a company of outlaws known as the fellowship of The Black Arrow who also have reasons for wanting to take revenge on Sir Daniel. Meanwhile Dick falls in love with Joanna Sedley, a young heiress kidnapped by Sir Daniel so that he can arrange a marriage for her to his own advantage. And while all of this is taking place, the Wars of the Roses plays out in the background and Dick must decide whether his loyalties lie with York or Lancaster.

The novel is written in a sort of pseudo-medieval style, with archaic words and phrases like ‘ye’, ‘methinks’, ‘forsooth’, ‘cometh’ and ‘goeth’ – common in older historical fiction, but not usually used today, so could take a while to get used to if you don’t read a lot of books like this. In many ways it reminded me of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, particularly once the band of Robin Hood-like outlaws appeared, and I think readers who enjoy one book will probably enjoy the other.

Despite the historical setting, you won’t really learn a lot of accurate history from this book. Throughout the first half, at least, the focus is on Dick’s mission to avenge his father’s death and rescue Joanna from Sir Daniel’s clutches. We hear of battles taking place but don’t see much of the action until the second half of the novel when Dick is drawn into the fictitious Battle of Shoreby and meets Richard ‘Crookback’, Duke of Gloucester – the future Richard III. As the events of the novel are taking place in 1460-61, Richard would actually have been about eight years old at that time (not the adult man we see in the story) and not yet Duke of Gloucester, but Stevenson does admit to this in a footnote!

I can’t really say that I loved this book – although I was entertained at first by the spying and intrigue, the disguises and daring escapes, the shipwrecks and secret passages, I felt that the story and the characters lacked depth and eventually it all started to become slightly tedious. Apparently Stevenson himself didn’t rate The Black Arrow very highly and described it as “a whole tale of tushery” (tushery referring to the archaic language). I still think it was worth reading and I preferred it to Kidnapped – although, to be fair, I should probably try Kidnapped again as I didn’t get very far with it. For now, I’m just pleased to have finally read another book from my Classics Club list as I’ve been making very little progress with it this year!

This is book 18/50 read from my second Classics Club list.