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Witness for the Prosecution and Selected Plays

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Title: Witness for the Prosecution and Selected Plays

Author: Agatha Christie

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pages: 348

Format Read: Paperback

Agatha Christie needs no introduction really. Her books and plays are immensely popular and she is, quite deservedly, the queen of crime fiction. I’ve enjoyed the books by her that I’ve read (although I’m a long long way from reading them all!). Her easy to read style has a natural flow  that really brings suspense to life.

Coming to the book I had in mind for this post…this is a collection of four of her plays. The volume I have has Witness for the Prosecution, Towards Zero, Verdict, and Go Back for Murder. I rather think I enjoy her plays more than the novels.

Witness for the Prosecution is arguably the most famous, and the play that led me to purchase this book many years ago. There’s a murder trial in progress. The wife of a man accused of murder, Romaine, has a few tricks up her sleeve when she testifies against him. But then again, tricks sometimes go awry…

Towards Zero was a novel that was adapted into a play by Christie herself in 1956. This one deals with a murder, a man caught between two women, jealousy, and mystery, all during a gathering at Gull’s Point. It raises a lot of questions about who did what and is a study in suspense and psychology.

In Verdict, the professor Karl Hendryk is a carer to his wife Anya, an invalid. Much tension follows as someone else, a young woman named Lisa, enters the picture. Lisa is, purportedly, here to look after Anya and perhaps help the professor out. And then there’s another young woman, Helen, who seeks private lessons with the professor. Passions simmer.

Go Back to Murder is the last play in this collection, and this one started out as a novel as well titled Five Little Pigs, with Hercule Poirot in it. The play differs a little I think. Caroline is in jail for murdering her husband. Her daughter, Carla, finds a letter from her mother declaring her innocence…and the letter leads her to investigate what really happened to her father.

To sum up…I greatly enjoyed these plays. There’s suspense and a study of human emotions and its impact on rational and irrational behaviour. Fascinatingly written plays that really make you think, and it is, I believe, exactly what made them stay on in my memory after so many years.

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The Poky Little Puppy

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Title: The Poky Little Puppy

Author: Janette Sebring Lowrey, illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren

Publisher: Little Golden Books

Pages: 24

Format Read: Hardback

Rummaging through old boxes sometimes reveals the most surprising books – and old favourites! One book I recently got merrily reacquainted with was The Poky Little Puppy, written by Janette Sebring Lowrey and illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. It was originally published by Little Golden Books in 1942.

It was one of my absolute favourite books as a child, and rereading it now reminded me why. Four little puppies are terribly naughty, dig their way out to the wide wide world, and miss out on desserts. One little puppy is too clever by half. You can guess how that goes. The illustrations are adorable, the puppies even more so – although I’m a bit surprised by all the lavish desserts!

There’s a lot of magic in this slim book, and the style of writing is rhythmic – and just enough to capture a child’s imagination and teach them a few things (without being obvious or preachy about it!) at the same time. The puppies are curious characters. They’re babies after all. And they’re captivated by the world that is so new to their young lives. They’re innocent even in their naughtiness, an endearing trait that brings them to life.

As for the star of the book, the Poky Little Puppy…he is innocent, and sweet, and much smarter than his siblings. A bit too smart for his own good, and too smart puppies usually lack that bit of sense that keeps the others in line. Until, of course, the dénouement.

It is a charmingly told story, beautifully illustrated, and I still recall lines from the tale by heart. There is a reason, I think, that The Poky Little Puppy has remained popular. Reading it now brings back the same thrill that I felt as a child.

A childhood favourite that I am still fascinated by, is The Poky Little Puppy.

 

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Ivanhoe

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Title: Ivanhoe

Author: Sir Walter Scott

Publisher: Tor

Pages: 531

Format Read: Paperback, Mass Market

Some books, for inexplicably inexplicable reasons, stay on with you for years. Ivanhoe, for me, is one such book. The first time I read it was many years ago and it has stayed with me since – that story of knighthood and jousting and romance and its intricately immersive medieval world that was fascinating . And frankly, the story of Wilfred of Ivanhoe’s redemption was an exciting one.

You follow the feuds and rivalry between the Normans and the Saxons in Ivanhoe. The evil prince John of England wants to crown himself king in the absence of the righteous Richard. And Richard returns from the Crusades, discovers the plot, and must defend his throne. Only he needs allies, and he finds one in Wilfred of Ivanhoe.

The story is pretty fast paced and full of adventure, although I confess I had to read a few pages to really get used to the style. It is a little archaic but eminently readable. Once you do get going though, you’re plunged into a world of bloody feuds and battles, knights and outlaws and a dash of romance. Ivanhoe, that fallen hero, holds strong in his darkest moments and his quest to reclaim his lost glory is as engrossing as it is exciting.

The characters are very well defined, from the tragic heroine Rebecca and the intrepid Richard to the fiery Rowena. As for Ivanhoe, he is a typical knight – chivalrous and loyal and righteous and sometimes infuriating in his steadfast, almost zealous devotion to knightly honour.

And perhaps that is one reason, and the main one, that really hooked me to Ivanhoe – you experience a range of emotions reading the work. The characters (and the events of the story) exasperate, sadden, and draw your sympathy. Some events cheer you up, others not so much.

Through it all, Ivanhoe remains an exciting tale that I enjoy rereading. And that, I think, is what makes this book so very likeable and a classic.

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The First Book of Lankhmar

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Title: The First Book of Lankhmar

Author: Fritz Leiber

Publisher: Gollancz (Fantasy Masterworks)

Pages: 762

Format Read: Paperback

The First Book of Lankhmar is actually a bind-up edition of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories. Not all of them, because there’s also a Second Book of Lankhmar. I’d like to talk about the first bind-up edition in this review.

Basically, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are mercenaries from the world of Newhon. Their tales were written over a period of decades, from the 1930s to the 1980s. The First Book of Lankhmar introduces these two with origin stories and includes many of their escapades in classic sword and sorcery style. There’s adventure and derring-do and a whole lot of scrapes.

Fafhrd is a barbarian warrior from the icily cold and aptly named Cold Corner. He is something of a rebel and he leaves his clan with a seductive stage performer and thief named Vlana. The Mouser is an orphaned wizard’s apprentice who is framed by a duke. He too escapes, with the duke’s daughter.

In ‘Ill Met in Lankhmar,’ the third story in the book, the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser meet in the foggy, decadent city of Lankhmar. They become fast friends, and from then on, adventure follows adventure.

Each of the stories in The First Book of Lankhmar is distinct and only loosely connected with the others. The mercenaries find underwater cities, are recruited by the apparently all-knowing mages Sheelba and Ningauble, and deal with tragedy and death, a misogynistic guild of thieves and shrines to dark powers. They also travel to parallel dimensions and find themselves in ancient Greece. The story I found especially intriguing in this collection is ‘The Bazaar of the Bizarre.’ There’s a play of illusion and greed, and creatures from other worlds selling glittering objects that are not what they seem.

As far as characterization goes, well, it is rather basic. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are unique but a lot more emphasis is laid on their adventures. Also…there aren’t many female characters here, and if they do make an appearance, they are usually unidimensional. The stories are only loosely connected to each other, and sometimes the past adventures of these two heroes are described in a sentence.

The book is divided into sections, but there should have been a table of contents at the beginning. Or an index at the end. The edition I have has neither, although the sections have their contents listed.

Even so, these stories are very entertaining and fast paced in an action packed, old world style.

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Christine of the Fourth

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Title: Christine of the Fourth  

Author:  W.E. Eastways

Publisher: Retro Press (Retro Classics)

Pages: 190

Format Read: Hardcover

Basically, ‘Christine of the Fourth’ is a school story. Originally published in 1949, ‘Christine of the Fourth’ is, I understand, part of a series of books set in a boarding school called Greycourt. Now I haven’t read the other books in the series (I have never found them), but I do have ‘Christine…’ and although this story is a continuation of events from the previous books, I did not have trouble following its narrative.

In some ways, Greycourt is reminiscent of Enid Blyton’s St.Claire’s. Both are boarding schools for girls, and both have an intriguing cast of characters.

Sheila of ‘Christine of the Fourth’ has just returned to the boarding school when the book opens after spending a year away from it, and re-joins her peers in the fourth form. And that is where she meets the impossible, rude, and quick witted Christine her classmates cannot stand. Sheila takes it upon herself to befriend Christine and bring out the best in her, much to everybody else’s amusement and irritation.

As far as protagonists go, ‘Christine of the Fourth’ alternates between Sheila and Christine. Sheila is the quintessential do-gooder with infinite patience. She puts up with Christine’s barbs and insults and veiled attacks and that confuses Christine.

Christine, on the other hand, in a complex character. She resents her school; her father is in jail for a crime she thinks he did not commit; she feels her classmates are snooty and she longs to be back with a group of people she had lived with prior to joining the school. She despises her benefactor, the young and gentle Mrs. Cameron for reasons only she understands.

As the story moves on, Christine goes from being defiant and rude, to confused, to defiant again, and then…the girl discovers that there is more to the world than her narrow, rigid view of it.

‘Christine of the Fourth’ is focused on its characters, especially Christine, and her doubts, and hopes, and fears as she navigates the comfortable and cheerful life at Greycourt. The story does lag a little towards the end and events are paced very slow. However, this is a tale of hope and redemption and happiness that is charmingly old-world.

It makes me want to read the prequels…if only I could find them.

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The Mill on the Floss  

Title: The Mill on the Floss  

Author:  George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)

Publisher: Marshall Cavendish (The Great Writers Library, 1986)

Pages: 511

Format Read: Hardcover

Basically, The Mill on the Floss is the story of a brother and sister told in five segments. The novel was written by Mary Ann Evans aka George Eliot and originally published in 1860.

Tom and Maggie Tulliver are the siblings in question. They are residents of Dorlcote Mill on the banks of the river Floss, and in Boy and Girl, the first section of the novel, they’re children. Maggie is the younger – emotional, impetuous, and always looking for her brother’s approval.

Tom, the elder, is a bit of a bully. He cares for his sister but is stubborn, and his father fears he is not exactly bright.

Maggie on the other hand, is physically darker than the rest her family. They comment on that often. She’s also impulsive. Obviously they think her very strange.

You are introduced to Tom and Maggie’s seemingly peaceful life in Boy and Girl, but there is an undercurrent of tension running through the story. For one, their father has started making an enemy in Wakem. And then there is the problem of Mrs. Tulliver’s bossy, judgemental family. Her sisters are clannish and do not approve of her marriage. They approve even less of Maggie. Girls are not supposed to be impulsive. Or dark haired, it seemed.

Some of their snobbishness rubs Mr. Tulliver the wrong way although the man is too obstinate to admit it. He sends Tom to Rev. Stelling for tutoring. Except that Stelling also allows another student to join him – the son of Wakem, Philip. He is described as a hunchback.

The story is told slowly. As the segments progress, Mr. Tulliver’s obstinacy and tactless dealings leave him in dire straits. Tom and Maggie are thrown into financial difficulties.

I thought the premise was fairly simple, however, there is a lot, and I do mean a lot, of philosophical musings in The Mill on the Floss and the text is fairly verbose. Not exactly an easy read, and the text moves from philosophy to the story and back to philosophy again.

Characterization though is spot on, especially of the she-who-looks-down-her-nose-at-everybody Mrs. Glegg. Tom and Maggie’s relationship is complex but realistic. Maggie’s romantic interest was…strange? I didn’t get it. Probably because Maggie confused herself as much as she did me.

Overall, a slow paced and unexpectedly interesting book with plenty of interspersed and realistic human interactions.

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Lud-in-the-Mist

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Title: Lud-in-the-Mist  

Author: Hope Mirrlees

Publisher: Prologue Fantasy

Pages: 290

Format Read:  Kindle

“To the imaginative, it is always something of an adventure to walk down a pleached alley. You enter boldly enough, but soon you find yourself wishing you had stayed outside…”

– Hope Mirrlees in ‘Lud-in-the-Mist’

Originally published in 1926, Lud-in-the-Mist is a delightful novel set in the mysterious Dorimare, with its capital Lud-in-the-Mist. This is a charming, well ordered place, with noble families and strange physicians, magic in the air, and secrets.

For Lud-in-the-Mist is closer to fairyland than the inhabitants would like to admit, and the presence of the fairy folk startles them, and even frightens them – to the point of not speaking about them. Fairy fruit is anathema, because it induces strange dreams and a longing for that moonlit land beyond the realm of the mundane. And, as Master Nathaniel Chanticleer, mayor of Dorimare of the prestigious Chanticleer family discovers, fairy magic also comes in the form of music. Or, in this case, with a haunting note from a certain musical instrument he had tried to learn in his childhood.

For the citizens for Dorimare, the world of Faerie is a world to be avoided. It is the centre of magic and the supernatural and all things unseen. Whereas in Dorimare, logic, reason, and the prosaic everyday form the basis of existence. But magic will not be shut out so easily. It seeps into their lives and the suspense builds up as more and more folks slip into its fold.

And for Nathaniel Chanticleer, the note almost drives him mad. And then, his son is affected by that peculiar malaise drawing him to Faerie.

‘Lud-in-the-Mist’ reads much like a fairy tale, with beautiful prose and lyrical descriptions. The tension is palpable as the rational minds of Dorimare struggle to deal with the supernatural. And they try to deny its presence by ignoring it. Which does more harm than good.

This is a slow moving, elegantly crafted novel.

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The Sundial

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Title: The Sundial

Author: Shirley Jackson

Publisher: Penguin (Modern Classics)

Pages: 222

Format Read: Paperback

I enjoyed this book. Mrs. Halloran inherits Halloran House with its peculiar past on account of her son’s death. Naturally, her daughter-in-law is upset, and that much is made clear right at the beginning of the novel.

And her daughter-in-law is the least of Mrs. Halloran’s problems. Her husband isn’t in the best of health, and her sister-in-law has begun to have visions of her dear departed father. So much so that she has declared herself a prophetess of doom (all while wearing her mother’s diamonds, of course. You can’t be a prophetess without the diamonds.)

But what is the book about, exactly? It seems to be about the house itself, and its history. Then it seems to be about the visions Aunt Fanny (the prophetess sister-in-law) talks about. There’s also a doomsday cult thrown in for good measure.

Most of all, though, I found the novel a fascinating interplay of characters in an odd setting trying to make sense of looming uncertainty, even insanity. There’s an undercurrent of wry humour, a sense of dread. Nobody is quite sane in the book, and Aunt Fanny’s nightmare wanderings in the garden are eerie. Tying the story together is that odd sundial in the garden with its inscription ‘WHAT IS THIS WORLD?’

Added to the fracas are visitors, employees, and Mrs. Halloran’s creepy little granddaughter Fancy. A strange novel, to be sure, and difficult to describe, but a lot of fun to read.

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The Blue Castle

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Title: The Blue Castle

Author: Lucy Maud Montgomery

Publisher: e-artnow

Pages: 235

Format Read: Kindle

L.M. Montgomery is best known for “Anne of the Green Gables” – the story of that redheaded, talkative, imaginative child called Anne (whose name is spelt with an ‘e’). This was a book I read and really, really enjoyed. Montgomery’s writing was beautiful, and Anne was a spirited little girl with her head full of dreams and magic stories. It was hard not to like her. “Anne…” was originally published in 1908.

“The Blue Castle,” published first in 1926, introduces a grown-up protagonist, Valancy Stirling. Valancy is twenty nine, socially awkward, and low in self-confidence, and, in what is considered quite scandalous, unmarried. She is unattractive, her bossy mother likes to remind her. She is strange, her aunt and cousins like to tell her. There is also, much to Valancy’s chagrin, a younger, exquisitely beautiful cousin called Olive who is graceful and articulate and engaged to a wealthy young man.

As an escape, Valancy conjures up a ‘blue castle’ in her mind, where she is the lady of the house. A place where everybody likes her and she has an endless stream of suitors.

The atmosphere at home is oppressive, and Valancy, in a shocking revelation, is told that she has a fatal heart condition. The doctor’s terse letter explaining her illness to her shakes Valancy up – and she finds courage that she never knew she had. She moves out of her home (ignoring her family’s hysterics) and takes up residence with the terminally ill Cissy Gay and her father.

With Valancy’s new found independence also comes a romance with the notorious Barney Snaith. Naturally, Valancy’s family is scandalized, and to their shock, Valancy just does not care. That she is now as notorious as her husband in the little town of Deerwood does not concern her at all.

The fictitious town of Deerwood is beautifully described – you can almost see the beauty of the landscape through Montgomery’s lyrical use of prose. The author also makes some astute observations on human nature. Valancy is a relatable, flawed heroine, a young woman who manages to break free from those who constantly tell her she can never, ever succeed. And her happiness, she discovers, is entirely of her own making, without the shackles of negativity that dogged her throughout her life.

An inspiring, gentle story of self-discovery that is masterfully told.

 

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Collected Poems (W.B. Yeats)

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Title: Collected Poems

Author: W.B. Yeats

Publisher: Macmillan Popular Classics

Pages: 476

Format Read: Paperback

“Come round me, little childer;

There, don’t fling stones at me

Because I mutter as I go;

But pity Moll Magee.”

–  ‘The Ballad of Moll Magee’ by W.B. Yeats, in “Collected Poems”

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) wrote poetry and plays and prose pieces that were lush in imagery and mysticism, and myth – with themes ranging from mythology and folklore and romance to politics and war and the world around him. “Collected Poems” is a beautifully compiled volume of Yeats’s poetry, and since the book is over 400 pages long, there are a great many poems dealing with a variety of themes.

Sometimes, there are moments when I would like to disengage from the chaos of the world around me, and dive straight into a poem rich in symbolism. And Yeats’s poetry gives me exactly that, an escape, a reprieve. There is a dream-like quality to the poems in ‘Collected Poems.’ Personally, I prefer the works that touch upon mythology and folk tales, poems with a hint of otherworldly magic.

It is difficult to choose a few from such a large selection of poetry, especially when there are classics in here like ‘Sailing to Byzantium.’

‘Anashuya and Vijaya’ (page 7) is particularly intriguing. This one has an ancient Indian feel to it, like looking past a gauzy veil into a sunlit colonnade. ‘Anashuya and Vijaya’ is a romance – Anashuya is a priestess, and she suspects Vijaya of seeing another woman. What follows is quite the lyrical confrontation.

‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ (page 173) is the soliloquy of a pilot during the First World War. At a time of turmoil, the pilot sees himself perishing for his cause – and he finds hope in his country, and his people, and the place of his birth, Ireland. This is a short poem, and very heartfelt. ‘Easter 1916’ (page 234) again deals with Ireland’s uprising against the British in the Easter Rising of April 1916. It is a political poem that uses powerful imagery – peaceful pastoral scenes and the fire of an uprising, and then, finally, sorrow for the dead.

Overall, “Collected Poems” is a lovely, well indexed compilation that makes Yeats’s poetry that much more accessible.

“Those that I fight I do not hate,

Those that I guard I do not love;

My country is Kiltartan Cross,

My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor…”

–  ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ by W.B. Yeats, in “Collected Poems”