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: Dead Man’s Folly by Agatha Christie #BritishCrimeClassicsChallenge

In this, the thirty-third Poirot mystery, Poirot receives a request for help from mystery-writer Ariadne Oliver. Mrs Oliver has been down at Nasse House, Nassecombe, Devon, where a village fête is to be held and one attraction is a ‘murder hunt’ on the lines of a treasure hunt which she is in charge of organising. (Poirot is to be present in the guise of giving out the prizes.) While the plans are going along well, Mrs Oliver is certain that she senses something wrong, perhaps that someone has been getting her to alter things ever so slightly, a small detail here and there, though she can’t point her finger to who or what, and what exactly might go wrong. Nasse House is owned by Sir George Stubbs whose wife Hattie (Lady Stubbs), originally from the West Indies, is simple minded. His efficient secretary Miss Brewis, Mrs Folliat whose family originally owned the house, and other residents at the village are all enthusiastically organising and contributing to the fête—Sally Legge (who is staying for a few months at the village with her husband Alec) for instance is to tell people’s futures as Madame Zuleika. Meanwhile, it seems that a cousin of Hattie Stubbs, Etienne De Sousa, whom she hasn’t seen for years (since she was a child, in fact) wants to look her up, and will arrive on the day of the fête. On the day of the fête, Mrs Oliver’s fears prove real and the young schoolgirl who was to play the ‘body’ in the murder hunt is found actually murdered while Hattie Stubbs has vanished entirely with no clue to where she could be and no body found. Where could she have gotten to? Had she been killed? And what reason would anyone have for killing Marlene Tucker, a harmless schoolgirl? This is a puzzle that baffles not only the police who are glad of Poirot’s presence on the scene but also Poirot who can’t solve the case quite as fast (or easily) as he usually does.

This was once again an enjoyable mystery from Christie, who (as another reviewer on Goodreads has also said) certainly has the best puzzles. She doesn’t leave us without clues—in fact here too, if one pays attention to even casual conversations Poirot has with various persons present, one might actually catch on to what was really going on (though one almost always never does, and some observations might be interpreted more than one way). This time since I was rereading, I did pick up some at least of these, a hint here, a clue there—and this was fun though I would say that may be compared to some other mysteries of hers, the clues/hints in this one weren’t perhaps as clear; yet everything and everyone, even if they seemed to be just a background or unconnected feature had a purpose.

Compared to his usual adventures, Poirot perhaps also took a touch longer to solve this one having to go back ‘defeated’ for a bit before he returns for another visit and set of conversations and can finally solve the case. Nonetheless, it is him and his grey cells alone that can put things together eventually, not only solving the mystery but also locating the evidence.

Mrs Oliver does not spare him over the time he takes, telling him when he calls her nearly a month after the events that it was about time he did see things. She is here in all her glory, with her rather fantastical hairstyles, and jumble of thoughts (from which she does manage to produce fairly complicated plots, and an equally complicated murder game) adding a bit of fun to the gravity of the murder and the other more serious storylines. In this one, she doesn’t have her usual struggles with her Finnish detective (reflecting Christie herself), but her one of her reader’s misconceptions about her add a few further comic moments as well.

As with Christie’s other books, this one too has other storylines moving alongside the mystery thread—some turn out connected while others simply throw one off course. But all the characters we are introduced to are also well developed—each with their individual personality and story.

An enjoyable revisit, and one where from cover onwards, everything gives you a clue!

Review: The Glory of Patan by K.M. Munshi

The Glory of Patan is the first of a historical fiction trilogy, set in Patan during the reign of Siddharaj Jaisingh, of the Chaulukya or Solanki dynasty in 11th–12th Century Gujarat. The series was written in Gujarati the 1910’s—this first one being published in 1916, and the translation I read is a recent one by Rita and Abhijit Kothari published in 2017. The introduction of course says that while this is historical fiction, the author has taken some liberties with the romances and relationships and such.

This introductory book in the series opens with the king of Patan, Karndev on his deathbed. The queen, Minaldevi and minister Munjal Mehta are holding the state together, while the heir Jaysingh is too young to rule. At this point, Patan is a powerful state in name only—the fiefdoms that pay tribute to it wield a high degree of power, and there is danger that one of the powerful Mandeleswars (heads of the fiefs) might attack and take over. But queen Minaldevi begins to want to assert her own power, and rule as absolute regent, no longer taking the advice of Mehta. Instead she begins to take advice and support from a jain monk, Anandsuri who has come from the city of Chandravati (where Minaldevi was from) to spread the influence of his religion (and his own power). But this step or rather misstep by the queen leads to some difficult consequences for herself and her young son, as the people of Patan, with great pride in their nation and people, are not ones to give in meekly; while on the other side, many others are making moves of their own, on different scales to gain power for themselves. Will Patan fall or will Jaysingh manage to gain the throne? And will the glory of Patan be restored? Alongside we also follow the story of Devprasad, a powerful mandeleswar who happens to be the king’s nephew, and who with his young son, Tribhuvanpal arrive at Patan, the former to see his uncle before he dies and the latter to meet his beloved. They learn many secrets and face many challenges that change their lives completely.

This was an interesting opening to the series, with the action taking place more in terms of politics and power games rather than on the battlefield—in fact apart from one attack on Devprasad, who has been the target of Minaldevi’s conspiracies in the past, and another small attack on Tribhuvanpal, there is really no bloodshed or major fight. Alongside the political games playing out, conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, the book also explores the idea of pride in one’s nation, in being a people; when Patan’s very existence seems to fall into danger, its people (who seemed docile and peaceful to the queen) unhesitatingly stand up, ready to stand up for their kingdom, to defend it.

But I felt somehow that we didn’t get to see enough of some of the main characters—we hear of Munjal Mehta’s shrewdness, his intelligence, and while we get to see something of him, and understand his ambitions (not for himself but for Patan), learn a little about his life, we don’t really get to see him—perhaps this may be because the events of this book are more focused on one small event or set of events immediately following the death of Karnadev. Minaldevi is a strong character which was nice to see, as was her nice Prasann (Tribhuvanpal’s beloved)—these were ladies willing to take action, to think and stand up for themselves, though Minaldevi has to finally acknowledge her feelings and her mistakes.

Overall, this was a good read for me, though I think I enjoyed the other book I read by the author Prithvi Vallabh (review here) a little more, but that could well be to do with the fact that this one is simply part of a series while that was a complete story in itself.   

The cover image as always is from Goodreads

Books, Cats, Puns!

We love books, and so many of us also love cats! And perhaps also combinations of the two–cats in books, or books with cats in the title–like these.

And then there can be puns–book titles to be specific and that’s what this post is about–a light one (once again since I haven’t finished the books I was planning to review this week). Some years ago a friend and I started making up some cat pun book titles–I know there are plenty around and lots of people do them, but I remember we went on back and forth for weeks (most likely on Shelfari), and had pages and pages of them–great fun to come up with, and hard once we ran out of obvious ones. I somehow thought of them again, and while I don’t remember all that we did (nor can I seem to find any of our lists), here are a few that came to mind–mew mew! (These are no particular order, by the way.)

  • Purride and Purrejudice
  • Romeow and Julicat
  • Harry Pawter and the Purrisoner of Ascatban
  • The Great Catsby
  • The Meower of Catterbridge
  • What Catty Did
  • The Little Purrincess
  • The Purrfect Mewder
  • The Three Mewsketeers
  • Purrcy Jackson and the Sea of Mewnsters
  • Purricles
  • Purrsuasion
  • Mewder in Mewsipawtamia
  • Mewtilda
  • The Feline Comewdy
  • Purry Mewson mysteries
  • The Purrisoner of Zenda
  • The Taming of the Mew
  • The Mewnstone
  • Dracmewla

Hope you enjoyed these! And hope everyone is doing as well as can be in lockdown.

All cover images are from Goodreads as always, and the cat from pexels.

Review: The Great Passage by Shion Miura #JapaneseLitChallenge13

The Great Passage is a Japanese book first published in 2011 and translated in English in 2017 by Juliet Winters Carpenter. The dictionary department of Gembu Books is undertaking a new mammoth dictionary project, The Great Passage—but the one capable full-time employee, Kohei Araki (whose interest in words was piqued at a young age) is about to retire (and thus can come in only part time), and the only other employee, Nishioka is not a really committed lexicographer. But on Nishioka’s recommendation, Araki poaches from another department, a young man, Mitsuya Majime who has a similar interest, even though he doesn’t initially seem confident of his abilities. Together, Araki and Majime, along with Professor Matsumoto, their editor, begin on a journey to compile their ambitious project—with them is their assistant Mrs Sasaki, and along the way others including a new employee, Midori Kashibe, and endless students and collaborators. The dictionary takes a long time coming—over a decade—in which time the department finds itself having to devote attention away from it and to other projects like revising previous dictionaries and putting together an encyclopaedia on a popular anime series. Alongside we also follow the lives of the characters—the people associated with the department—their lives, interests, and romances—and also how being associated with dictionaries, and words specifically changes their view of things.

This was a rather interesting read for me—the opening, learning Araki’s story and how he became interested in words reminded me very much of another Japanese title I read recently, The Forest of Wool and Steel (review here). The whole process of dictionary making and the level of effort, and indeed time it takes was something that really came across to me in this book—also the nuances of the language itself (This is something I’d noticed before in a travel programme I watch where the hosts are also at times confused with the various characters in place names and not clear as to the exact meaning of the word.) Collecting definitions of words from different contributors, making certain they meet standards, and even that the illustrations are not misrepresenting the word they are associated with, besides going through several proofs makes the task a labour of love indeed. From the nature and thickness of the paper to of course each word included (or left out), every aspect consumes time and attention.

I also enjoyed following the personal stories of the different characters as well—Nishioka brings in a lot of humour (though he isn’t the only source) and improves as the story goes on (initially he was a little obnoxious I guess), and sees the project through the way he can, besides supporting Majime and others (in a fun way). Majime finds love (he and his wife suit each other’s temperaments rather well—and both are somewhat eccentric), as does Miss Kishibe. Professor Matsumoto too is eccentric in his own way, obsessed with words, and wanting to use every opportunity to truly understand the meaning of words—his idea is that one can define it best if one experiences it. Since the journey is a long one, one witnesses life’s ups and downs too—the happy moments and sad. The story doesn’t move continuously in time–there are jumps in two or three places.

I also loved how the actual interactions with words, learning new meanings, or just understanding what words meant specifically impacted the characters’ lives as well—giving expression to their vision or simply helping them understand or interpret things in a specific way. Even Nishioka who is mechanical in his approach to his work compared to others begins to feel for the project, and Midori Kishibe who previous worked in the fashion magazine department and becomes associated with it begins to understand what dictionary-making is all about and becomes committed to the task. The end is bittersweet and also realistic.

I enjoyed this one a lot (and yes, Majime’s endless collection of books seemed like a place I’ll find myself at some point—and I loved that there were two cats in the story too!)

Have you read this one before? How did you find it? Looking forward to your thoughts!

Cover image: Goodreads

I have featured this book in a Shelf Control post previously (here)

Arthur Hailey: Interesting Facts on his 100th

Arthur Hailey, British-Canadian novelist, was born on 5 April 1920, and turns 100 today. An only child, he was born in Luton, Bedfordshire, and began writing stories and poems at an early age; he was also an avid reader. He left school at the age of 14 because his parents lacked the money to pay for his further education, and he failed to win the scholarship he needed. His writing career began in 1955 with a script Flight into Danger, which was purchased by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and went on to be a great hit. He went on to write for several shows. In 1959, he adapted his teleplay and brought out his first novel, Final Diagnosis. He went on to write 11 novels in all (10 in the wikipedia list). Not a critical favourite, he described himself as a story-teller. Most of his works have been adapted for the screen, as films, or miniseries. Here are some interesting facts about Hailey.

  • Hailey started his career as an office worker. (His mother had encouraged him to learn typing and short-hand.
  • He served in the RAF, which he joined in 1939, eventually rising to the rank of Flight-lieutenant.
  • He is known for his extensively researched books, each usually set around a particular industry. He is said to have spent three years on each book, spending a year on research, half a year on organising his notes, and the rest of the time writing.
  • His research for Hotel included reading 27 books, and for The Evening News, he even tracked rebel guerrillas in Peru.
  • His fourth book, Airport brought him international fame, spending 30 weeks as number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. The film adaptation of Airport starting Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin was nominated for 10 Academy awards.
  • He moved to Canada in 1947 because of red tape in England, later to the United States, and again to the Bahamas (after the success of Airport) to avoid taxes.
  • His books have been translated into 38 languages and have sold 160 million copies (170 according to Wikipedia).

Have you read any books by Hailey? Which ones and how did you like them? Looking forward to your thoughts!

My Shelf Control post this week also featured one of his books (here).

Pretty in Blue: Some Favourite Book Covers

A lighter post today–more pictures than writing. Last year, I had done a post on some book covers in black that are favourites (here), both ones I had read and ones I was (and in some cases am) yet to read, but essentially those that stood out to me or that I liked simply for the way they looked. Today’s post is pretty much the same, but the colour of choice today is blue–randomly picked, though I happen to be wearing a blue shirt at the moment 🙂 These aren’t perhaps all as striking as some of the ones the picked in black, but nonetheless pretty in themselves.

To start off with, Strange the Dreamer which I read recently and really enjoyed: I love this deep blue cover with the illustration (of one of Sarai’s moths? or is it one of the creatures described in the second book?). This isn’t the cover that I have on my edition, though. Syren by Angie Sage (book 5 in the Septimus Heap series) also has a very pretty cover–in the image here though, the bits in gold, the title and lines, and the designs at the bottom are not standing out so well, but in the physical copy they do.

Next is this cover of The Little Prince, again, not the edition that I have but I think it’s a rather cute one–the prince standing at the edge of his planet, perhaps, or may the the story of the one that was so small that you could see the sun rise and set many many times in a short while. Not only is this a wonderful book, I also like the original art very much.

And still on cute covers, is this one–Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend. This is a first in series of a fantasy, children’s adventure series, in which Morrigan Crow, a little girl is cursed to die at midnight on her eleventh birthday. But one day, a remarkable man called Jupiter North appears and gives her an opportunity to enter trials to join the wondrous society. The challenges are not easy nor are all the competitors fair. There Morrigan herself on the cover, and Jupiter North (leprechaun-like in green) in the background, and of course, a starry sky!

Two of the books in the Folk of the Air series by Holly Black too have shades of blue in their covers–The Wicked King, and the Queen of Nothing–and I picked these also to feature in this post. Queen of Nothing looks more white than blue in this image, but the physical copy I have is more pale-ish blue.

Next I picked The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling, a fun collection (I especially enjoyed the annotations by Dumbledore), and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky–this Bantam edition has this subdued, yet lovely painting on the cover. This is the one I have, for a change.

Half the Night is Gone by Amitaba Bagchi is the story of a Hindi novelist who has recently suffered the loss of his son, and follows both his story, and the story that he is creating in the book that he’s writing. This is one I’ve been wanting to read, and it also happens to have a nice blue cover.

Finally, and perhaps more purple than blue, is this one–The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie. In this one, a dying woman makes her confession to Father Gorman, who is troubled by it, and while he scribbles a list of names that she’s given him, he never makes it back home, having been killed in the fog. Author Mark Easterbrook becomes involved through some coincidences and investigates the matter. Christie regular Ariadne Oliver plays a part, though this one isn’t part of any particular series. I love the image of the starry sky with a full moon in the background with the Pale Horse sign in front.

Have you read any of these books? Which ones and how did you like them? Which are some of your favourite book covers in blue? Looking forward to your thoughts!

All cover images are as always from Goodreads.