Review: Queen Lucia by Edward Frederic Benson #Humour

Queen Lucia, the first of Edward Frederic Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books, turns a 100 this year, and so I thought I should revisit. The stories centre around Emmeline Lucas (‘Lucia’) and Miss Elizabeth Mapp who battle for social supremacy in the village of Tilling (based on Rye where Benson himself lived).

The first book, Queen Lucia, which introduces us to Lucia (the second introduces us to Miss Mapp) has a different setting—the village of Riseholme (from where Lucia moves to Tilling in book 4), where Lucia is undisputed Queen of all things social—she organises garden parties, entertainments like tableaux, plays the piano and pronounces what music is the thing to be played (the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata is a favourite), and generally directs the cultural life of the village. (Her husband Peppino/Philip, a former lawyer, has also published two volumes of poetry). Others, like her right-hand man Georgie Pillson, and neighbour Daisy Quantock (who takes up a new fad every other day) usually simply follow, for attempts at Bolshevism (seeds of which creep up in them every so often) are often crushed rather ruthlessly (but with flair) by the Queen. Others like Lady Ambermere must be kept in good humour of course, but Lucia manages to ‘direct’ her as well to fall in with her plans much of the time. But things begin to change for Lucia’s ‘perfect’ life in Riseholme when Olga Braceley, the prima donna first visits and then moves into Riseholme. Olga is a good-natured and good-hearted character who almost instantly wins Georgie Pillson’s heart (and loyalty), but her interactions with Lucia don’t quite turn out right, for while Olga doesn’t intend it, she accidentally exposes Lucia’s pretensions (her reputation as a judge of good music, or her and her husband Pepino’s ability to converse in Italian, for instance) one after another, almost taking her ‘kingdom’ from her. But her kind heart means she is more than ready to restore it as well.

This was a fun read as always, and I found myself (like Olga) feeling a touch sorry for Lucia seeing all that she had created for herself slipping from right under her feet, even though Lucia can be rather spiteful (but even so, I find her more ‘likeable’ than Miss Mapp—by comparison, only of course). Daisy Quantock with her ever changing fads (which invariably end not just in disappointment but as cons) is a fun character—always excited when she picks up a new one, and then struggling to cover her tracks (or rather, the fiasco) when the inevitable happens; she is one of the few in Riseholme who attempt to rebel, yet there is little or no spite in her. Olga Braceley is perhaps my favourite in the book—she is fun, likeable, thoroughly straight-forward, and good-natured—trying to help and be kind to all, even Lucia who she knows has been nothing but rude and spiteful. She is also rather perceptive, able to see instantly what others don’t and able to bring others happiness rather than only accolades for herself. The other characters—Lady Ambemere with her mousy companion/assistant Miss Lyall and pug, Mrs Weston and Col. Boucher, ‘Piggie’ and ‘Goosie’ Antrobus—are also fun, though some we get to see more of than others perhaps. (Benson’s The Freaks of Mayfair, by the way, had prototypes of some of these characters.)  

When I compare the two villages in these initial books, I find life at Riseholme far more interesting than at Tilling where there might be battles for social one-upmanship, card parties, and even visits by the Prince, but which are not anywhere as much fun as Daisy Quantock and her yoga ‘Guru’ holding classes or Sybil séances or her many other fads or even the tableaux that Lucia plans and holds—life seems richer here in some ways and more fun. Like Olga Bracely says at one point, ‘Oh, it’s all so delicious!’…‘I never knew before how terribly interesting little things were. It’s all wildly exciting, and there are fifty things going on just as exciting.’ 

Each connected episode is a great deal of fun, and one certainly laughs or has a smile on ones face as one watches things unfold, and even as Lucia gets more and more into trouble (mean of us perhaps), and each fad or pretension is burst. I thoroughly enjoyed my revisit, and am moving on to Mapp and Lucia (book 4) now (I just read Miss Mapp before this), to see how the meeting between the two formidable ladies plays out.

Have you read this one, or others by Benson? Which ones and How did you like them? Looking forward to your thoughts!

Shelf Control #92: The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham #GoldenAge #Mystery #TBR

Wednesday, the 27th of May–time for Shelf Control once again! Shelf Control is a weekly feature hosted by Lisa at Bookshelf Fantasies, and celebrates the books waiting to be read on your TBR piles/mountains. To participate, all you do is pick a book from your TBR pile, and write a post about it–what its about, why you want to read it, and such. If you participate, link back to Lisa’s page, and do also leave your links in the comments below as I’d love to check out your picks!

This week, I’ve once again picked something from one of my favourite genres, murder mysteries, and a Golden Age one at that–The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham. The book, first published in 1937, is the eighth in the Albert Campion series by the author. Albert Campion is a gentleman detective, born into a prominent British aristocratic family, and educated at Rugby and Cambridge. He first appeared in 1929, in the Crime at Black Dudley, and went on to appear in a total of nineteen books by Allingham. There are additional books completed or written by other authors (initially by her husband, Philip Youngman Carter, who completed her final work and wrote a couple of further mysteries on his own).

In the Case of the Late Pig, Campion is summoned to the village of Kepesake, where a rather nasty death has taken place. He finds that the body is that of Rowland ‘Pig’ Peters, his nemesis from school. But Campion had attended Peters’ funeral already–five months ago! Peters’ body goes missing and other corpses are found. Thus begins Campion’s search for the killer–which involves among other things a grisly scarecrow, a bit of romance, and Campion’s own ‘unglamorous past’. This is the only Campion mystery written in first person.

The author: Born in 1904, British author Margery Allingham is best remembered for her gentleman sleuth, Albert Campion, who was initially thought to be a parody of Lord Peter Wimsey, but soon emerged into an adventurer and detective in his own right. Allingham’s parents were both writers and her childhood was immersed in literature. She wrote her first novel at nineteen, and also contributed short stories articles for magazines including The Strand Magazine, and contributed Sexton Blake stories as well.

Albert Campion is a Golden Age detective, I’ve heard about often but not read so far so I was looking forward to trying the books out. This one, with its elements of past and present seemed like it would be an interesting introduction to the author and the detective. This is also a relatively short book.

Have you read any of the Campion stories before? Which ones and how did you find them?Looking forward to your thoughts and recommendations!

Cover image, as always is from Goodreads; Info on the book is from Goodreads (here) and wikipedia (here); on Campion, wikipedia (here); and the author Wikipedia (here)

Squares, Bears, and Some Gentle Fun #Poetry #AAMilne

Bears–cute teddy bears to scary grizzlies–often make an appearance in children’s stories–from Goldilocks who came upon the three bears’ house in the forest (subject of a topsy turvy version by Roald Dahl) to Baloo in the Jungle Book, to Winnie-the-Pooh, and their relationship with ‘literary children’ has been described as rather ‘ambivalent’.* Some are friendly like Pooh and Baloo, but others well kept at a distance. One such instance, where bears’ ‘scary’ image is relied on is A.A. Milne’s poem, ‘Lines and Squares’, which ‘tries to make a poetic game map onto a child’s game, and vice versa’.* The poem first appeared in his collection When We Were Young, published in 1924, and illustrated (or rather, ‘decorated’) by E.H. Shepard. This book also has another famous poem ‘Teddy Bear’, said to be the first appearance of his most famous creation, Winnie-the-Pooh.

In the poem, Milne plays with the children’s game of walking in squares without stepping on the lines. As one does in the game of hopscotch, where one must jump through the shapes, and recover the stone or other object thrown inside without, among other things, stepping on a line, in which case you end up losing your turn.

Hopscotch

But in Milne’s poem, stepping on a line or across a square doesn’t simply put you ‘out’ of the game, for here, at the edges of the squares, lurk ‘masses of bears’ lying in wait ‘all ready to eat’, who else but ‘the sillies who tread on the lines of the street’. But our narrator (I don’t think it is Christopher Robin in Shepard’s illustration), knows better and tells the bears, ‘Just see how I’m walking in all the squares’. The bears here are cunning, and pretend that all they’re doing is ‘looking for a friend’, and don’t care in the least whether you step on a line or don’t walk within a square. But of course, they’re only growling to each other, of which of them will get him when he steps on a line. Our narrator isn’t fooled though, unlike the ‘sillies’ who might believe what the creatures say, and tells the bears, that they can ‘just watch [him] walking in all the squares’!

This is a sweet little poem, reminding one of the games one played as children, but of course adding a gentle touch of fun (well, may not that gentle since it does involve the possibility of getting eaten by bears). A lovely little read!

Have you read this one before? What did you think of it? Looking forward to your thoughts!

  • *James Williams, ‘Children’s Poetry at Play’, in Katherine Wakeley-Mulroney and Louise Joy (eds), The Aesthetics of Children’s Poetry: A Study of Children’s verse in English (Routeledge, 2018).
  • When We Were Young, Wikipedia (here)
  • The Three Bears Image via Wikimedia Commons (here)
  • Hopscotch Image via Wikimedia Commons (here)
  • Full poem here

At Bertram’s Hotel: Some Tidbits

Lately, I have been re-reading Agatha Christie mysteries, which are comfortable cosies always fun to come back to when when is not in the mood for anything else. The latest in the list is not a Poirot like the last couple, but Miss Marple, At Bertram’s Hotel, which was a ‘buddy read’ with Rekha from the Book Decoder (here). This book (published in 1965), one of later Marple books, is set in Bertram’s, a hotel in London, which has managed to keep up its Edwardian facade, charm, and service, even many years after the war. Miss Marple is staying there as a treat, as always sent by her nephew Raymond West and his wife Joan (now themselves in their fifties). Almost as soon as she arrives, she begins to see red flags, and things not quite right, while the police (alongside) are investigating a string of daring robberies. When I last read this book (2017, as part of a Miss Marple Challenge on Goodreads), I wrote a full-length review (on Goodreads here), so this time, rather than writing another review (which will sounds pretty much the same), I’m just pointing out a few things that stood out to me on this read, or which I hadn’t picked up in my review last time. (Oh, and these aren’t really connected or in any particular order.)

  • Popular culture: While I’ve noticed references to books in Christie’s works often (like Postern of Fate where she reminisces about a lot of her childhood books, or Cranford mentioned in Bertram’s as well as E.M. Hull’s The Sheik referred to in The Secret of Chimneys), but not much so other elements of popular culture, but this one mentioned a film (which Canon Pennyfather ends up watching), The Walls of Jericho (1948), and also the Beatles (who Colonel Luscombe disapproves of).
  • Food: Usually when I think of food in books, I think of Enid Blyton, but Christie has her fair share too (take a look here), and Bertram’s is one where there is a lot of it, in the first part especially. Part of the hotel’s impeccable service is its food, which includes seed cake and muffins (real ones, not ‘American’ versions), doughnuts oozing real strawberry jam, and breakfast with beautifully poached eggs, creamy milk, and ‘a good sized round of butter’.
  • ‘Air-station’: The word ‘air-station’ when I looked it up now seems to be used in the context of military/naval bases but in this book, it is used interchangeably with ‘air-port’. I haven’t looked it up yet, but it would be interesting to see how the usage changed, or whether both terms were always used simultaneously as in this book.
  • Chesterton’s absent-mindedness: One of the characters in the book is Canon Pennyfather, absent-minded to the point of not knowing where he is or ought to be at any given time; In his context, Christie also brings up Chesterton’s absent-mindedness, which I found on looking up to be true; apparently he did often forget where he was supposed to be and telegraphed his wife to find out where he ought to be (wikipedia here).
  • Age: Something I’ve been noticing in both Poirot and Marple, but largely the latter is how Miss Marple uses her age to her advantage since people don’t think her a threat in any way; in Bertram’s, Chief Inspector Davy too faces some age-related prejudice when his junior Inspector Campbell thinks that he was possibly ‘all right in his day’ (and wonders how he got to the position he is in); in the Chief Inspector’s case, his looks–‘large, heavy, bovine face’ and being as if he was just ‘up from the country’ serve to the astute man’s advantage.
  • Plastic: Or rather the lack thereof–at the hotel, Miss Marple observes approvingly, ‘Not a bit of plastic in the place!’ but this (she knows) is part of the hotel’s attempt to preserve its Edwardian charm; today, of course it is everywhere, and a place with no plastic at all seems like a dream space, far in the future perhaps (and yet, a return to the past).

Re-reading, mysteries and especially Christie (but other books too), gives one an opportunity to pick up so many little things that one didn’t notice on previous reads or noticed but forgot all about. These were a few that I noticed on this visit to Bertram’s!

While this isn’t among my favourite Miss Marple books (favourites here), it was still a fun revisit!

Shelf Control#91: The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

Wednesday, the 20th of May–time once again for Shelf Control! Shelf Control is a weekly feature hosted by Lisa at Bookshelf Fantasies, and celebrates the books waiting to be read on your TBR piles/mountains. To participate, all you do is pick a book from your TBR pile, and write a post about it–what its about, why you want to read it, and such. If you participate, link back to Lisa’s page, and do also leave your links in the comments below as I’d love to check out your picks!

Today my pick is a historical mystery, The Hangman’s Daughter (2008) by Oliver Pötzsch. This is the first of a series of eight books, and was published in German in 2008 and translated into English in 2010 by Lee Chadeayne and Sabine Maric. What I have on my TBR is the kindle edition of the book.

The story is set in 1659 in Germany after the end of the Thirty-Years War. After a drowning and a gruesomely injured boy, fingers are pointed at a midwife Martha Stechlin, accusing her of witchcraft. On the other side, we have Magdalena, the daughter of Jakob Kuisl, a hangman, but one with unusual wisdom and empathy. They live outside the village walls. Magdalena is destined to be married to the son of another hangman but another young man, the son of the town’s physician, is in love with her. Kuisl, Magdalena’s father is entrusted with the job of extracting a confession from Martha Stechlin. Magdalena, her father, and her suitor (he physician’s son) believe Martha to be innocent and attempt solve the mystery, while another orphan is found dead.

The author: Oliver Pötzsch is a German author and filmmaker, and author of among other books, The Hangman’s Daughter series. He studied journalism in Munich and has worked in radio and television. He has also studied his own family history–he is the descendant of a famous line of executioners in Schongau. According to wikipedia, he was one of the first writers to achieve bestselling status from the publication of e-books.

Mysteries and historical fiction are among my favourites genres, and obviously I also enjoy combinations of the two like the Brother Cadfael mysteries, or the Matthew Shardlake ones. So I think, this should be one I would enjoy as well–the historical setting, mysterious deaths, witchcraft–well perhaps there are some gruesome elements which I may not like that much, but if the story is engrossing, and the mystery complicated, I know I will like it, even if, as reviewers say, the pacing is a little slow.

Have you read this one or any others in this series? Which ones and how did you find them? Any other historical mysteries in other languages that you’ve enjoyed? Looking forward to your thoughts and recommendations!

Book image from Goodreads as always, description (here), author image and information from Goodreads (here) and wikipedia (here)

Review: Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie #Mystery #Review #BritishCrimeClassicsChallenge

The twenty-fourth Poirot mystery—I’ve been randomly reading books from my Agatha Christie shelf lately. Evil Under the Sun (1940) is set on a beach resort, the Jolly Roger Hotel, run by one Mrs Castle, and has as many Goodreads reviewers have commented, appeared in a short story form prior to this—that was probably a prototype, and on similar lines though not identical. Anyway, Poirot is among the guests staying at the Jolly Roger as is a young couple the Redferns—Patrick and Christine, an older American couple, the Gardners, Miss Emily Brewster, Rosamund Darnley, owner of a successful dressmaking business in London, Major Barry, Rev Stephen Lane, a preacher, and Horace Blatt, a rich man who spends his time sailing his yacht. As the story opens, we learn that the guests have recently been joined by the Marshall family, the serious Kenneth Marshall, Linda, his daughter from his first marriage, and his current wife, an actress, Arlena (Stuart) Marshall, beautiful and attractive but also a femme fatale—young Partrick Redfern is her newest conquest, much to the dismay of his wife. One morning Arlena sets off sunbathing on her own, and when Patrick Redfern, accompanied by Miss Brewster, set off to find her, he finds that she is dead—strangled! Arlena has plenty of enemies, but it would seem all of them were (or were expected to be women). Christine Redfern obviously has a grouse against her; her stepdaughter Linda disliked her; as did Rosamund Darnley who’s known Kenneth Marshall from childhood and clearly cares about him. But the evidence, the strength the crime would have required seems to point to a man. The police arrive to investigate and Inspector Colgate is pleased to have Poirot at hand to help.

This was once again a re-read for me so I remembered roughly the basic story and plot, but all the same all the little details, clues, and some parts of the side plots I didn’t remember so I enjoyed reading the book. The puzzle was, as most of hers are, complicated, and one I certainly didn’t see coming the first time around (I found and read the prototype short story only much later), and if you haven’t read either, I’m sure you will enjoy the denouement as well. She does give us clues, not ones that might directly point you to the answer, but perhaps ones you can piece together to reach it—as I wrote in my review of Dead Man’s Folly recently (here), pretty much every little thing, a happening, an object, a conversation has a purpose, and if one manages to pick up on that one could possible piece it together. But on the other hand, if you simply want a relaxing read, and not to tax your mind too much, you can simply read on and enjoy the surprise as well.

Usually one tends to think of Poirot and Miss Marple as very different from each other—Poirot has been in the police before, and uses his ‘little grey cells’ to solve his cases while Miss Marple relies on her human connections—people themselves and her knowledge of human nature, keenly observed in her little village of St Mary Mead to solve her mysteries, but reading Evil Under the Sun, I found one little point of similarity which was their age. Miss Marple is often thought of a fluffy, lacey, frail, and an old lady who one wouldn’t usually take too seriously (other than those who know her, that is), and this was the case with Poirot too in this one—No I don’t mean people think of him as an old lady—but that because of his age, some like Rosamund Darnley are apt to think of him as old and ‘practically gaga’ until he solves the mystery, perhaps stumping them. Poirot of course is also looked at differently by different characters we encounter here, such as Mrs Gardner who is always trying to understand the methods he uses to reach his answers, but the point was that both of them face a certain prejudice because of their age, but at the same time, this serves to their advantage as well since people would tend not to take them seriously.  

The characters once again have plenty of ‘meat’ to them—each one with a well-developed personality, and more than one with a secret. And it is only when most of these secrets are revealed or reached, rather, and these additional threads can be separated, that we reach the real answer.

Great fun yet again, as her cosies are!

*The film version with Peter Ustinov had plenty of changes (not the basic plot, though) but changed Emily Brewster to a man Rex Brewster (I didn’t understand why), and Rosamund Darnley was done away with changing Kenneth Marshall’s love interest to Mrs Castle (again, made little sense). There were also other changes giving others’ motive (perhaps to draw in viewers further), but it was enjoyable all the same.

Have you read this one? How did you find it? Have you watched any adaptations of this? Which one/s and how did you like it/them? Looking forward to your thoughts!

Cover image as always is from Goodreads!

Review: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

This was a revisit, read in serial with the Victorians group on Goodreads. North and South (1854–55) is Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–65)’s fourth novel, and one of her best known ones, also adapted for TV three times, most recently a BBC series in 2004. As the story opens, eighteen-year-old Margaret Hale who has been brought up mostly in London by her aunt Mrs Shaw, is preparing to return home after her cousin’s wedding. Home is Helstone, a small rural parsonage in the South where her parents live and her father serves as vicar. When she returns, she finds the rural idyll she had remembered, at least as far as the place is concerned, but inside her home, things are a little different. Her parents don’t seem to be getting along as they should though they do love each other, and quite soon after settling in, she finds her father is giving up the living because of doubts about the church, and they must relocate to Milton Northern, a dusty, grey, smoky industrial town in the north (based on Manchester), where life is busy, fast, and completely opposite to the peace and calm of Helstone. Here Mr Hale is to tutor pupils in the classics. Among these is a much older pupil, a millowner, John Thornton who had to give up his education to support his family, and now having made a success of his business wishes to start again. Margaret when she arrives has no high opinion of tradespeople, or of Milton in general.

Both these things change as we move along in the story following two sets of threads, one involving Margaret’s personal opinions and relationships, both with Mr Thornton who begins to admire and love her (a thread that moves somewhat similarly to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy’s story in Pride and Prejudice), and the Higginses, a family of workpeople who Margaret befriends, and through whom she begins to get a better idea of life in Milton. Nicholas Higgins and his daughter Bessy both work in factories, and Bessy is suffering a fatal illness as a result of the fluff in the factories which most millowners have not taken precautions to address. Through these relationships and interactions, we move into the social threads of the story which explore working conditions in factories, wages and strikes, but most importantly relations between millowner and workmen who each need and rely on each other, and yet seem to think that their interests are at odds with each other. Margaret plays a role in these threads of the story too, being in a position to hear both sides of the story, the millowners concerns and genuine problems (such as cheaper goods becoming available) that the workmen don’t see, and the workpeople’s plight—from living and working conditions and wages, to lack of a voice at the workplace.

As the novel moves on, Margaret begins to see the merits and demerits of life in industrial Milton and rural Helstone and to realise that neither is entirely better or worse than the other, going from one who was critical of Milton, to one who can defend its ways. Alongside, Mr Thornton and Higgins—millowner and workman—begin to understand each other a little better, Mrs Gaskell making the point that both in personal relationships, or matters of work, understanding the other side and communication are key—these can mitigate even if not resolve many a situation.

Though difference, between north and south, scholar and industrialist, millowner and workman, etc is central in the book, it isn’t the only theme, other threads, of personal relationships, the Hale family’s own difficulties—Margaret’s brother Frederick’s story, the Shaws and Lennoxes’ (Margaret’s cousin has married Captain Lennox) stories and lives are also part of the book, and bring in both anxious and lighter moments.

Margaret is a strong young woman, and in much of the book finds herself having to bear a lot of responsibility and burden which she does very well; but she has to face her own prejudices, overcome them in order to become a better person. Mr Thornton too, a self-made man has his flaws, in the way he sees his workmen particularly, and changes too as things move along. Nicholas Higgins shows that perhaps we end up applying stereotypes when considering workmen. The other characters, Mr and Mrs Hale, and Mrs Thornton might give us a lot to fault them for (the latter only her harshness, perhaps, but that too is understandable), but are well drawn out characters, as are most of the others.

The ending of the book is a touch rushed, and one might feel like there was room for more, but overall, this is a really good read, one I’ve enjoyed each time I’ve read it!

Shelf Control #90: Holiday House by Enid Blyton #TBR #Mystery #Children’sLiterature

Wednesday, the 13th of May–time once again for Shelf Control! Shelf Control is a weekly feature hosted by Lisa at Bookshelf Fantasies, and celebrates the books waiting to be read on your TBR piles/mountains. To participate, all you do is pick a book from your TBR pile, and write a post about it–what its about, why you want to read it, and such. If you participate, link back to Lisa’s page, and do also leave your links in the comments below as I’d love to check out your picks!

Today my pick is an Enid Blyton–Holiday House, first published in 1955. Blyton is of course one of my favourite authors (has been since my childhood) but with over 700 books to her credit, there are still many I haven’t read (and some I don’t even know of). This of course is one such. In fact, I only came across it very recently.

Holiday House is a standalone and one with a mystery element. Twins Patrick and Mary have been ill and are sent down by their parents to Holiday House in Devon by the sea. At the seaside, they set out to explore, and in the process find a secret passage and a derelict house, and of course, a mystery on their hands. What secrets do the passage and house hold? This book has been repackaged as part of the ‘Young Adventurers’ series with (from what I can see) different characters (Katie and Nick), but luckily I have the original version from fadedpage.com.

Enid Blyton’s mysteries, whether standalone or parts of series, are usually great fun–the findouters mysteries for instance have rather unique solutions in many of the stories, and the others even if they they have common elements like caves and hidden passages, are very enjoyable to read–the excitement of going down a passage through the caves, what one might find at the end of it, and the fear of the villains coming up on one, what a fun way of experiencing it all. So I am certainly looking forward to reading this one, soon.

Have you read this one? The original or repackaged edition? Did you enjoy it? Do you enjoy reading or revisiting children’s adventure stories or mysteries? Which ones are some favourites? Looking forward to your thoughts and recommendations!

The cover image and description are from the Enid Blyton Society page (here)