I am the Mask Maker and other stories by Rhiannon Lewis

I enjoyed Rhiannon Lewis’ My Beautiful Imperial, a fascinating novel set in 19th century Wales and Chile, so I was pleased to receive a copy of her new book, I am the Mask Maker and other stories. This is a collection of eleven short stories, some of which have previously been shortlisted or won prizes in literary competitions and been published in other anthologies. The stories are very varied (apart from two which work together as a pair and provide opposite perspectives on the same event). The settings range from a farm in 1960s Wales and a nursing home for the elderly to a bookshop in London and a version of heaven where the angels have decommissioned their halos and are getting ready to leave. Some of the stories are funny and uplifting; others are more poignant, but every one of them left me with a lot to think about.

I find it difficult to write about the individual stories in collections like this without giving away too many of the surprises that each one contains, so I will just briefly highlight a few that I thought were particularly impressive. These include Piano Solo, the story of an unhappy, middle-aged school teacher whose life takes on new meaning when he sits down at his piano, and Being Bob, in which an Oscar-winning actor takes the place of his driver, Bob, for the day – with unexpected results. But I think my favourite story was The Significance of Swans, an eerie tale of disappearances following the sighting of seven flying swans. I was so intrigued by this one and wished it had been longer!

The final story in the collection, I am the Mask Maker, also deserves a mention. When I first saw the title it made me think of the masks many of us have been wearing throughout the pandemic, but this is a story set in Renaissance Venice where our young narrator dreams of learning to make the beautiful decorative masks for which the city is famous. However, halfway through the story it becomes obvious that it’s much more timely than it appeared to be at first.

I’m not always a fan of short stories as I prefer fiction in its longer form, but I found these eleven stories entertaining, original and thought-provoking – and the perfect length for dipping into as a break from my other current reads. It’s also nice to be able to support a small independent publisher like Victorina Press. The book ends with a short piece by the artist David Hopkins describing his artwork which appears on the cover of the book. The painting is called Javi and fits the ‘mask’ theme of the book. I found it very interesting to read about the background to the painting and how he came to create it!

Thanks to Rhiannon Lewis and Victorina Press for providing a copy of this book for review.

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.

The Allingham Minibus by Margery Allingham

I have read and enjoyed several of the Margery Allingham short story collections which have been reissued by Agora Books recently; The Allingham Minibus is the latest and my favourite so far.

This collection was first published posthumously in 1973 and has also appeared under the title Mr Campion’s Lucky Day. However, that title would be quite misleading as there are eighteen stories in the book and only three of them actually feature Allingham’s famous detective, Albert Campion. Of these, I have already read the Christmas-themed The Man in the Sack (which was included in Campion at Christmas), but the other two were new to me and I particularly enjoyed The Unseen Door, a locked room mystery with a simple but clever solution.

The rest of the stories in the book cover a range of genres, not just the crime fiction with which Allingham is usually associated. Many of them are ghost stories or have a supernatural element of some sort and all of these were excellent; they were the perfect kind of supernatural stories for me – unsettling and unusual, without being too creepy. I won’t talk about all of them here, but three that stood out for me were Bird Thou Never Wert, about a woman who buys a haunted bird cage, She Heard It On the Radio, in which a lonely old lady develops an obsession with listening to the radio, and He Was Asking After You, where a man who betrays his best friend finds himself unable to escape his friend’s vengeance.

One of my favourite stories in the collection was The Pioneers, the story of a married couple who both meet someone else and decide to get divorced. On their last evening together, while they prepare to go their separate ways forever, some friends come to visit, with unexpected results. I loved this one! Actually, the only story in this book that I didn’t like was A Quarter of a Million, a crime thriller which should really be described as a novella rather than a short story as it was more than twice as long as most of the others. The length, and the fact that it seemed less tightly plotted than the rest, made it feel out of place in this collection.

With the exception of that one novella, then, I really enjoyed The Allingham Minibus – and the introduction by Agatha Christie was a nice little bonus.

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

The Doll: Short Stories by Daphne du Maurier

This week Ali is hosting a Daphne du Maurier Reading Week and as du Maurier is one of my favourite authors, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to read one of the few remaining books of hers that I still haven’t read. As I’ve enjoyed some of du Maurier’s short story collections in the past, I decided to read The Doll, her book of ‘lost short stories’, most of which were written very early in her writing career (mainly between 1926 and 1932) but not published until more recently. My expectations for this book weren’t too high as I thought there might be a reason why these particular stories had been forgotten for so long, but actually I was pleasantly surprised by it. Although some of the stories in the collection feel too short and incomplete, there are some great ones amongst them too.

As is often the case when you read an author’s early work, it’s possible to see the seeds of du Maurier’s later work being planted and future themes and ideas being experimented with. The title story, The Doll, written when the author was twenty years old, follows a man who falls in love with a violinist by the name of Rebecca. As his love turns into obsession, he discovers that he has a rival in the form of a life-sized doll called Julio. This is a dark and creepy story and the name of the character makes it difficult not to think of du Maurier’s most famous novel Rebecca (especially as there are some similarities between the two Rebeccas).

The Happy Valley also foreshadows Rebecca in some ways and involves a woman who has recurring dreams of a house in a place she calls the Happy Valley. With its ghostly undertones and supernatural twist, this was one of the stories that particularly impressed me. It also has the strong sense of place and beautiful descriptive writing I associate with du Maurier’s work, as does another of the stories – East Wind – in which the wind changes direction and blows a boat full of sailors ashore on a remote island. The arrival of the newcomers brings a great deal of excitement to the isolated island community, but temptation and evil have also come in with the tide and will leave their mark when the wind changes again.

It was almost as if there were no such place, as if the island were a dream, a phantom creation of a sailor’s brain, something rising out of the sea at midnight as a challenge to reality, then vanishing in surf and mist to be forgotten, to be half-consciously remembered years later, flickering for a bewildered second in a dusty brain as a dead thought. Yet to the people of St Hilda’s the island was reality, the ships that came and went were their phantoms.

Another story that stood out for me was Tame Cat, a disturbing tale of an innocent young girl referred to only as Baby who returns home from a long absence in France and is reunited with her mother and the man she calls Uncle John. Baby has always thought of Uncle John as being like a tame cat, but now that she is growing up and becoming a woman she finds that his position in the family is not quite as she’d always assumed.

Some of the topics that seem to come up again and again throughout this collection are young couples falling in and out of love and husbands and wives growing disillusioned with their marriages. Sometimes du Maurier treats this in a humorous way, such as in Frustration, where a newly married couple embark on their honeymoon and everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and Week-End, where another couple go away for the weekend believing themselves to be madly in love, but gradually discover that they don’t even like each other – something which comes as a relief when they realise they won’t have to speak to each other using ridiculous baby talk anymore! Other stories are more poignant; I loved Nothing Hurts for Long, a sad story about a woman preparing to welcome her husband home after three months in Germany. When a friend tells her about the disintegration of her own marriage, she is sympathetic but convinced that the same thing couldn’t possibly happen to her…

She went and stood before the looking-glass. Perhaps he would creep in suddenly and stand behind her, and put his hands on her shoulders, and lean his face against hers.

She closed her eyes. Darling! Was that a taxi? No – nothing. ‘This wasn’t how I imagined it at all,’ she thought.

There are thirteen stories in the collection so I’m not going to discuss all of them here, but there were only one or two that I didn’t like very much. The overall quality is not as good as some of the other du Maurier collections I’ve read, Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, The Birds and Other Stories or The Breaking Point: Short Stories, and I don’t think I would recommend this book as a starting point for readers who are new to du Maurier’s work, but if you’re already a fan I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.

The Return of Mr Campion by Margery Allingham

This collection of thirteen short stories by Margery Allingham was originally published in 1989 and has been reissued by Agora Books this month. The title is maybe slightly misleading as Allingham’s famous detective Albert Campion only appears in half of the stories, but I actually found that some of the non-Campion stories were amongst my favourites from the collection.

Of the stories featuring Campion, I thought the best were The Black Tent, in which Albert catches a girl stealing a package from a desk during a party and The Case is Altered, where he stumbles upon a case of espionage while spending Christmas with friends. I was less impressed with the other Campion stories in the book, but I thought these two were just the right length, were well plotted and had satisfying conclusions. There’s also an essay, My Friend Mr Campion, where Allingham describes how she created the character of Albert Campion (or rather, how he created himself) and later in the book, in What to Do with an Ageing Detective, she imagines herself coming face to face with an elderly Campion and his servant Magersfontein Lugg. I found the first of these pieces interesting, but I think the second is really just for true Campion fans – which I can’t say that I am yet, having so far only read one full-length novel (Mystery Mile) and a few short stories.

The rest of the stories – the ones which don’t involve Campion and are not necessarily mysteries either – cover a mixture of subjects and genres. I loved Sweet and Low, in which two women who have nothing in common apart from a love of horse riding compete for the attentions of the same man. The horse called ‘Sweet and Low’ has a personality of his own and is the real star of the show in this one! The Wind Glass, about a young girl who rejects a marriage proposal from a Japanese man and receives a rather sinister gift in return, is another one that stood out due to the genuinely eerie atmosphere Allingham creates, although it was difficult to ignore the overt racism which did unfortunately spoil that particular story for me. On a more light-hearted note, I think The Kernel of Truth also deserves a mention. A man prepares a recipe for punch and adds one very special ingredient – but his wife won’t be very pleased if she finds out what it is. This is an entertaining little story that you won’t fully appreciate until you read the final paragraph!

Considering that I’m not usually a lover of the short story format, I enjoyed almost all of the tales in this collection, with only one or two exceptions. I’ll have to try more of the full-length Albert Campion mysteries soon!

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

The Breaking Point: Short Stories by Daphne du Maurier

Having enjoyed some of Daphne du Maurier’s other short story collections – The Birds and Other Stories, The Rendezvous and Other Stories and Don’t Look Now and Other Stories – I’ve been looking forward to reading this one. Originally published in 1959 and written at a time when du Maurier herself said she had been close to a nervous breakdown, the eight stories in this collection are particularly dark and unsettling.

There is a paragraph just before the introduction in my Virago edition of the book which gives an idea of the common theme linking the stories and why the title The Breaking Point was chosen:

There comes a moment in the life of every individual when reality must be faced. When this happens, it is as though a link between emotion and reason is stretched to the limit of endurance, and sometimes snaps. In this collection of stories, men, women, children and a nation are brought to the breaking-point. Whether the link survives or snaps, the reader must judge for himself.

I enjoyed this book, but I found the first three stories by far the strongest and some of the others slightly disappointing in comparison. For this reason, I preferred The Birds and Don’t Look Now, which I felt were more even in quality. Anyway, the first story in the book, The Alibi, gets the collection off to a great start. A man, bored with his life, his marriage and his daily routine, makes an impulsive decision to rent a room in a house chosen at random. Adopting a new identity, soon he is spending every spare moment at the house, but what is his real motive for doing this? This is a creepy and disturbing story; the suspense builds and builds as we wait to see whether it will end in the way we hope it won’t!

The Blue Lenses is a very strange story about Marda West, a woman who has been having eye surgery. When her bandages are removed and she is fitted with a new pair of lenses, she finds that the people around her look very unusual – in fact, you could say that she is finally seeing them for what they really are. I can’t say much more without completely spoiling the story, but Marda’s situation is both frightening and fascinating. I loved this story and thought the twist at the end was perfect.

The next one, Ganymede, reminded me of Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, both in setting and in plot. A man is visiting Venice for a relaxing October break when a young man working in a restaurant catches his eye. As the days go by, he becomes more and more obsessed with the young waiter, whom he thinks of as ‘Ganymede’. This is another very suspenseful story, as it quickly becomes obvious that things are not going to go smoothly for our narrator – and in du Maurier’s hands, Venice becomes an eerie and sinister setting where we know some sort of tragedy is going to happen.

In the next story, The Pool, we meet Deborah and Roger, two children staying at their grandparents’ house for the summer. One day Deborah escapes from her younger brother and enters the woods nearby, where she discovers a pool which seems to lead into a secret world. I didn’t like this story as much as the first three – although, as always, du Maurier’s descriptions are beautiful and vivid. The Archduchess, which follows, is an account of a revolution in a fictional European country called Ronda. This was the only story in the collection that actually bored me – there seemed to be a huge amount of world-building and scene-setting, with very little plot or depth of character – but it’s possible that I didn’t fully understand what she was trying to say.

I wasn’t sure what to make of The Menace either. It seemed like a science fiction story at first, about a new filming technology known as ‘feelies’ where actors are wired up to a machine powered by their own life-force. This aspect of the story is never really explained, but I did enjoy getting to know actor Barry Jeans as we follow him through a twenty-four-hour period and I loved the ending. The Chamois is another of the weaker stories in the collection, but still an interesting one. A woman travels to Greece with her husband so that he can hunt chamois, but as they climb further into the mountains, the cracks in their marriage start to show and the woman’s deepest fears become exposed.

Finally, The Lordly Ones is a great story to finish with. Ben is a young mute boy who feels neglected and unloved by his parents. When the family move to a new house in the countryside, he escapes to the moors one night and for the first time in his life feels welcomed and cared for by another family he thinks of as The Lordly Ones. This is a very short story with a clever twist at the end that made me want to go back to the beginning and read it again!

Overall, I do recommend The Breaking Point but if you’re new to du Maurier’s short stories, I would suggest reading The Birds or Don’t Look Now collections first as I thought they were stronger. I still have The Doll, her collection of ‘lost’ stories to read, and will try to get to that book soon.

Don’t Look Now and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite authors and I now only have one of her novels left to read (Castle Dor, which was partly written by Arthur Quiller-Couch). However, I also still need to read several of her short story collections, having previously only read The Birds and The Rendezvous, so I decided to put this one, Don’t Look Now and Other Stories on my 20 Books of Summer list.

This particular collection is from 1971 and has been published as both Don’t Look Now and Not After Midnight. It contains five stories which are all about fifty or sixty pages long – the perfect length, in my opinion, as it means they are long enough to allow for some development of characters and plot, while still being short enough to read in one or two sittings.

The title story, the dark and atmospheric Don’t Look Now, is a strong opening to the book. John and his wife Laura are on holiday in Venice following the recent death of their young daughter, Christine. John has been doing his best to move on, but Laura is still grieving and, when they meet a pair of elderly twin sisters in a restaurant one evening, it comforts her to be told that one of the twins, who claims to be psychic, can ‘see’ Christine sitting beside her parents. When more strange occurrences follow – including the sighting of a little girl in a red hood jumping over the boats moored in a canal – it seems that something sinister is going on. Could he and Laura be in danger? This is a great story, and if you haven’t read it perhaps you have seen the 1973 film with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland?

Not After Midnight comes next and is another good one. Our narrator, schoolmaster and artist Timothy Grey, is visiting Crete where he hopes to find some inspiration for his paintings. Staying in a little chalet in a picturesque resort by the sea, Timothy is enjoying the peace and quiet – until he encounters an American couple, the Stolls, who are staying in one of the nearby chalets. The couple invite him to visit them in their chalet – as long as it’s ‘not after midnight’ – but Timothy feels uneasy. Why do the Stolls spend so much time out at sea, supposedly fishing? And what really happened to the last occupant of Timothy’s chalet? This is another dark and suspenseful story and I really enjoyed it – until I reached the ending, which I’ll confess to not really understanding at all.

I think the middle story, A Border-Line Case, was my favourite. A nineteen-year-old actress, Shelagh Money, has just lost her beloved father and heads to Ireland to track down his old friend, Nick. The two men had lost contact years earlier after Nick was injured in a car accident and became a recluse, living on an island in the middle of an Irish lough. On her arrival at Nick’s island home, Shelagh begins to feel uneasy and decides not to admit who she is or why she is there…but Nick is hiding a secret of his own – and not the sort of secret either I or Shelagh was expecting. Although I didn’t see that particular twist coming, there is another twist at the end which I found much more predictable, but I still found this the most enjoyable of the five stories.

I didn’t like The Way of the Cross quite as much as the first three stories. It’s about a group of people from the same little village who are on a tour of Jersualem, led by the Rev. Edward Babcock. Babcock has stepped in at the last minute to replace another vicar who has fallen ill, and he doesn’t know – or particularly like – any of the people in the group. They include a retired colonel and his self-obsessed wife, a young newly married couple, a wealthy middle-aged couple, an elderly spinster, and a precocious nine-year-old boy who is enjoying showing off his knowledge of the historical and religious sites they are visiting. Unlike the previous stories, there is nothing dark, supernatural or shocking about this one – the focus is on the tourists and the discoveries they make about themselves and their companions.

The last story, The Breakthrough, was my least favourite in the book. It’s a science fiction story which explores some of the ethical questions surrounding scientific progress and whether there should be a limit to how far it should go. The narrator, Stephen Saunders, is a scientist who has been transferred to a research facility in rural England where the eccentric Mac and his assistants are working on an experiment so controversial it must be kept completely secret. This is a disturbing story with the sort of unsettling atmosphere du Maurier is so good at creating. It wasn’t entirely to my taste, as I’m not much of a science fiction fan, but it is still an interesting story to bring the collection to an end.

Five very different stories with very different settings. I enjoyed reading all of them, some more than others, and I’m looking forward to reading the other du Maurier short story collections on my TBR: The Doll and The Breaking Point.

This is book 8/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

It is also book 7/50 from my second Classics Club list.