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.

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!

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

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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

The Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters

It’s been years since I last read an Amelia Peabody mystery and when I picked up The Mummy Case, the third in the series, I was concerned that I had left too big a gap between books. Luckily, this seems to be a series you can easily return to after a long absence as each book, at least so far, has worked as a standalone mystery.

The Mummy Case is set in 1894 and opens with married Egyptologists Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson at home in England planning their next trip to Egypt. Amelia dreams of exploring the pyramids of Dahshoor on this visit, but her hopes are shattered with the discovery that her husband has left it too late to submit their application and permission has already been granted to another archaeologist. Amelia and Emerson are offered Mazghunah instead – a barren and uninspiring site believed to be of little historical significance – and they reluctantly accept.

Despite their lack of enthusiasm, the expedition proves to be much more exciting than either of them had expected. Before they even reach their destination, they become caught up in the murder of an antiquities dealer in Cairo who is found dead in his own shop – and when they eventually arrive at Mazghunah, Amelia becomes convinced that somebody connected with the murder has followed them there. When a scrap of papyrus is stolen from their camp and an entire mummy case belonging to a visiting tourist also disappears, even Emerson has to agree that they have stumbled onto the trail of a clever and ruthless Master Criminal!

Unlike their first two mysteries (described in Crocodile on the Sandbank and The Curse of the Pharaohs), Amelia and Emerson have help in solving this one. For the first time, their young son Ramses has accompanied them on a dig and while he often proves to be more of a hindrance, getting into trouble at every opportunity, he also manages to appear at several crucial moments to save the day. Described as ‘catastrophically precocious’ by Amelia, he sounds more like a seventy-year-old professor with a speech impediment than a seven-year-old child and although I’ve been told that he improves as a character later in the series, in this book I found him extremely irritating. However, he’s clearly not meant to be taken too seriously – and to be fair, Amelia finds him irritating too:

The old woman’s cacodemonic laughter broke out again…”The wisdom of the Prophet is yours, great lady. Accept an old woman’s blessing. May you have many sons – many, many sons…”

The idea was so appalling I think I turned pale.

I enjoyed this book, despite Ramses, but I don’t think it was as strong as the previous two in the series. The plot seemed to meander all over the place and it was easy to lose sight of what the central mystery was that the characters were trying to solve. I do still love Amelia and Emerson, though – their good-natured bickering is always entertaining! It was also interesting to learn a little bit about Mazghunah and its disappointingly incomplete ‘pyramids’ and to meet the real-life archaeologist Jacques de Morgan – although seeing him only through Amelia’s eyes gives us a slightly biased impression as he is their rival and the man who is excavating the much more attractive site of Dahshoor!

I am looking forward to continuing with the fourth book in the series, Lion in the Valley.

Book 43/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 2 read for R.I.P. XVI

Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu

My first book for this year’s RIP challenge is Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic vampire novella, Carmilla. First published in 1872, it is thought to have influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which came more than twenty years later, and is one of the earliest examples of vampire fiction (although John Polidori’s The Vampyre and Byron’s Fragment of a Novel were written earlier still).

My previous experience with Le Fanu has been limited to his Victorian Gothic novel, Uncle Silas, and one of his short stories, Laura Silver Bell, both of which I read ten years ago. I’ve always intended to read more of his work, so when I saw Carmilla available through NetGalley (a new Deluxe Edition is being published by Pushkin Press this week) it seemed the perfect opportunity.

The story is narrated by nineteen-year-old Laura, who lives in a lonely castle in Styria, Austria, with only her father and governesses for company. Laura longs for a friend her own age and it seems she may get her wish when a young woman is injured in a carriage accident near the castle. Her name is Carmilla and her mother, who is desperate to continue on her journey, asks Laura’s father to take care of her daughter until she returns. Laura is delighted to have Carmilla staying with them, but also feels uneasy, because she has seen Carmilla before – in a dream that has haunted her since her childhood.

As this is a very short book, if I say much more I will be giving away the entire plot – and anyway, as I’ve already said that this is a vampire novel, you can probably guess what Carmilla really is and how the rest of the story will unfold. For the modern day reader there are no big surprises here, although I’m sure that at the time when it was published, as one of the first of its kind, it would have felt much more original and shocking. However, there are still plenty of things that make this book an entertaining and worthwhile read.

First of all, it’s interesting to read Carmilla while keeping in mind its place in history and its influence on later vampire fiction – there are some very obvious similarities with Dracula and Anne Rice has cited it as an inspiration for her Vampire Chronicles. It can also be read as an early example of a lesbian romance; although the constraints of 19th century fiction prevent Le Fanu from being too explicit, the relationship between Laura and Carmilla is clearly based upon physical attraction and we learn that Carmilla always chooses young women as her prey. Finally, with its sinister atmosphere, remote castle setting and other elements of classic Gothic literature, it’s the perfect choice if you’re taking part in the RIP event or just looking for something dark and spooky to read as we head towards Halloween!

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

Book 1 read for R.I.P XVI

A Corruption of Blood by Ambrose Parry

This is the third book in Ambrose Parry’s historical mystery series featuring Dr Will Raven and Sarah Fisher. The first two are The Way of All Flesh and The Art of Dying, but if you haven’t read either of those it shouldn’t be a problem – although I would still recommend reading them in order if possible so that you can understand the background of the relationship between Will and Sarah.

Ambrose Parry is a pseudonym used by husband and wife team Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman; Brookmyre is an experienced crime novelist while Haetzman is an anaesthetist and medical historian, which explains why the 19th century world of murder and medicine portrayed in the books feels so real and convincing.

At the beginning of A Corruption of Blood, Sarah travels to Paris and Gräfenberg hoping for a meeting with Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to obtain a medical degree in America and become a doctor. Sarah has an interest in medicine herself and is sure that she could achieve the same as Dr Blackwell if given the chance, but things don’t go as planned and Sarah goes back to Edinburgh feeling disillusioned and frustrated. On returning home, she receives more bad news when she learns that Dr Will Raven has just become engaged to another woman, Eugenie Todd. Sarah has always resented Will for being able to take advantage of the opportunities that have been denied to her because of her gender, but recently they have been on friendlier terms and she is disappointed to hear of his engagement.

Meanwhile, Will is having problems of his own. Through his work with the famous Scottish obstetrician Dr James Simpson, he has become used to witnessing the trauma of childbirth and, sadly, the deaths of children – however, even he is not prepared for the sight of a dead baby wrapped in a parcel being fished out of the river. Soon after this, Will’s new fiancée asks for his help; her friend Gideon has been accused of murdering his father, Sir Ainsley Douglas, and she wants to prove that he is innocent. Will knows and dislikes Gideon from his student days, but agrees to investigate. Could both deaths somehow be connected?

This is such an interesting series, not so much because of the murder mystery aspect (which I don’t think is particularly strong) but because of the Victorian Edinburgh setting and all of the information we are given on the medical science of the period, as well as the challenges faced by women like Sarah and Dr Blackwell who wanted to make a career for themselves in a field dominated by men. This particular novel also includes a storyline involving the unpleasant, distressing but sadly quite common practice of baby farming, where unwanted or illegitimate children were sold to a ‘baby farmer’, who in theory would look after the child in return for a payment, although it was often more profitable for the baby farmer if the child conveniently died while in her care.

It took me a while to get into this book; the pace is very slow at the beginning and it takes a while for the plot to take shape and the different threads of the story to start coming together. Things improve in the second half, though, and there are a few surprises and plot twists that I hadn’t really expected. The relationship between Sarah and Will continues to develop, with the way each of them feels about Eugenie adding some extra interest, and I will look forward to seeing how this progresses in the next book. I hope there is going to be a next book and I hope we don’t have to wait too long for it!

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

Book 11/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Book 39/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

I enjoyed Elizabeth Macneal’s first novel, The Doll Factory, so was looking forward to reading her new one, Circus of Wonders.

Beginning in the year 1866, Circus of Wonders tells the story of Nell, a young woman who has always been made to feel like an outsider in her small village on the south coast of England. The unusual birthmarks which cover her skin set her apart from the rest of the community and although her brother does his best to protect her, Nell knows she will never fit in. When Jasper Jupiter’s travelling circus arrives in the village, Nell is horrified to learn that her father has sold her to Jasper, who is looking for a new ‘curiosity’ to draw in the crowds. Once she settles into her new life, however, she begins to think that joining Jasper’s show is the best thing that could have happened to her. Her performance as ‘the Queen of the Moon and Stars’ proves to be a huge success, but how will Jasper feel if she becomes a bigger star than he is himself?

Nell’s story alternates with chapters written from the perspectives of two other characters, Jasper and his brother Toby. There’s a strong bond between the brothers, but they are two very different men. Jasper is very much the leader, an ambitious and ruthless businessman who sees the exploitation of other people as his way to fame and fortune. Toby, who helps him to run the circus, is a gentle, compassionate man desperate to find a way out from his brother’s shadow, but still haunted by his experiences as a photographer in the recent Crimean War. As the novel progresses we learn more about all three main characters as each of them tries to find their place in the world.

Although this is not always a very comfortable book to read, I think Macneal handles a sensitive topic very well. Nell and the other ‘circus attractions’ are treated as commodities to be bought and sold by collectors and showmen, but they are all presented as fully developed characters who, despite their unusual appearances, are normal human beings like anyone else. I have read a few other novels that deal with the same subject, so I was pleased to come across references to Charles Stratton, who appears in The Autobiography of Mrs Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin and Julia Pastrana from Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch. Unlike Stratton and Pastrana, who both really existed, Nell is a fictional character but her story is no less moving and believable. I was also interested in the flashbacks to the Crimean War, where we gradually find out what really happened to Jasper and Toby, shaping them into the men they are when we meet them at the beginning of the novel.

Of Elizabeth Macneal’s two books, I think I preferred The Doll Factory, but I enjoyed both and will be looking out for whatever she writes next.

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

Book 25/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain

I’ve found this a difficult book to write about because, although it is undoubtedly very well written and has a lot of the elements I would usually find interesting, for some reason I just didn’t like it very much and have struggled to explain why. It was particularly disappointing as I’ve enjoyed the other Rose Tremain books I’ve read – Restoration, Merivel and The Gustav Sonata – so I had high hopes for this one too.

Anyway, Islands of Mercy begins in 1865 in Bath, ‘a place where very many rich people assembled, to take the waters, or simply to take their leisure’. Jane Adeane is the twenty-four-year-old daughter of a renowned Bath surgeon and works with him as a nurse, gaining a reputation for herself as The Angel of the Baths. She has caught the eye of her father’s fellow doctor and business partner, Dr Valentine Ross, but his attentions are unwelcome to her and she decides to go to London for a while to stay with her Aunt Emmeline, an artist. Here she meets one of Emmeline’s friends, the beautiful Julietta Sims, and feels an instant attraction to her. Soon, Jane finds that she is falling in love with Julietta, and when she returns to Bath she must decide whether she wants the security that marriage to Dr Ross could give her or whether she would prefer to be free to pursue her relationship with Julietta.

Jane’s story alternates with that of Sir Ralph Savage, an eccentric Englishman who lives on the island of Borneo with his servant and lover, Leon, and calls himself ‘the Rajah of the South Sadong Territories’. Leon is an ambitious and resourceful young man who is always coming up with new money-making schemes, but he is also a jealous man and is not at all happy when Edmund Ross, a naturalist who has come to Borneo in search of new species, arrives on Sir Ralph’s estate.

Edmund is the younger brother of Valentine Ross and this provides a link between the two storylines – however, it is a very weak link and for most of the novel they seem like two completely different, unconnected stories. Borneo is certainly a fascinating and unusual setting, but I didn’t have any interest in Sir Ralph and Leon and felt that their chapters could probably have been left out entirely as they added very little to the overall plot of the novel. This made the whole experience of reading this book feel disjointed and every time the narrative switched to Borneo I couldn’t wait for it to return to Bath again.

Although I found Jane’s chapters much more compelling, I was disappointed by the character arc Valentine Ross goes through; I did have some sympathy for him at first after Jane’s initial rejection of him, but he quickly becomes so unpleasant and controlling that he feels like a stereotypical villain rather than a believably flawed character. I didn’t doubt Jane’s love for Julietta, so I don’t really think it was necessary to make Valentine so needlessly cruel and selfish – in fact, I think it would have been more interesting if Jane had faced a choice between the woman she loved and a man whom she at least liked.

There is a third thread to the novel that I haven’t mentioned yet and this follows the story of Clorinda Morrissey, a woman from Dublin who opens a tea shop in Bath, where she gets to know Jane and her father. Clorinda was the one character in the book I really liked and would have been happy to visit for a cup of tea and a cake! I wished we had spent more time with her rather than some of the other less engaging characters.

I will continue to read Rose Tremain’s books as it’s only this one so far that I haven’t enjoyed. Luckily there are plenty of her earlier novels left for me to explore.

Book 2/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.