Review 2091: Final Acts: Theatrical Mysteries

British Library Crime Classics’ latest collection of mystery short stories has some connection to the theater. Some stories are only peripherally connected—feature an opera singer, perhaps—while others are set there and show a deep knowledge of that environment. As usual, the stories are ordered chronologically, beginning with a 1905 story by Baroness Orczy and ending with one from 1958 by Christianna Brand.

Baroness Orzcy’s “The Affair at the Novelty Theater” is a complicated story about the disappearance of some priceless pearls.

“The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel” by A. E. W. Mason is one of the super-complicated crime stories common in the earlier years involving people in costumes, a robbery, and a burglary.

“In View of the Audience” by Margarite Steen is a creepy one about a young man who gets on the wrong train and ends up accompanying a strange man to a derelict theater, where he hears about an old unsolved murder.

“Blood Sacrifice” by Dorothy Sayers leaves the reader to decide if there is a crime or not. Young playwright John Scales is furious with Mr. Drury, who has bastardized Scales’s play to make it a success. Then an accident places Drury in Scales’s power. This is the first story in the book in which characterization plays much of a role.

“The Blind Spot” by Barry Perowne is about a playwright who had a brilliant idea for a locked room mystery when he was drunk but can’t remember it sober.

“I Can Find My Way Out” by Ngaio Marsh probably shows the most knowledge of the theater, as a leading man is murdered in his dressing room.

“The Lady Who Laughed” by Roy Vickers is a strange story about a clown who murders his wife for finding him funny.

I enjoyed the satisfying surprise ending of “The Thirteenth Knife” by Bernard J. Farmer.

In “Credit to William Shakespeare” a poisoning onstage is solved through a man’s knowledge of Hamlet.

I think my favorite story was “After the Event” by Christianna Brand, where her detective, Inspector Cockrill, ruins the Great Detective’s favorite story by explaining how he got it wrong.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 2083: Heads of the Colored People

I read Heads of the Colored People for my James Tait Black project. It is a collection of short stories, many linked by common characters, that explore black identity in the middle class, a hyper-aware Californian middle class.

In “Heads of the Colored People,” what starts out as a somewhat comic clash at Comicon ends up as headlines because of Fighting While Black.

In “The Necessary Changes Have Been Made,” Randolph, one of the few black professors at an HBUC, learns that the problems he has had with his office mate are probably race-related.

In “Belles Lettres,” two highly educated black mothers duke it out by letter over their two schoolgirls.

In “The Body’s Defense Against Itself,” Fatima, one of the schoolgirls now grown, sees a woman in her yoga class who reminds her of her old arch-enemy. This makes her remember her years of body self-hatred.

In “Fatima the Biloquist: A Transformation Story,” Fatima, now a teenager, feels too white, as one of only two black children in her school. She meets Violet, an albino black girl. who offers to teach her how to be black.

And so on.

Some of the stories are funny but usually with a bite, such as “Suicide, Watch,” about a woman so obsessed with social media that she hints at suicide just to see if her numbers go up.

Some of theses stories verge on the bizarre, but I think most people can find something to relate to in them. They are insightful and original.

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Review 2066: The Candy House

The Candy House is billed as a follow-up to A Visit from the Goon Squad, but at first, aside from its structure as linked short stories, I wasn’t sure why. Bix, a wealthy high-tech entrepreneur, is not one of the characters from the original novel, I don’t think, nor is Alfred Nollander, whose quest for authenticity leads him to scream in public just so he can see the expressions on people’s faces. (Although later I realized he was a child in the first book.)

However, as I continued reading, I encountered familiar names and realized I was dealing mostly with descendants and connections of the original characters. A lot of the novel deals with social media run amok, a world where it is common for people to upload their unconsciousness to the internet using the software provided by Bix’s company, Mandala, and the opposition to this and other such practices by the company formed by Chris Salazar, the son of Benny of the previous book.

The novel doesn’t seem as experimental in form as the original, although there is a chapter constructed in Instant Messages and another of a recorded manual, but that’s really because Egan’s approach, which was unusual when the previous novel was published, is more common now. Set from the 1990s to roughly the 2030s, the novel is more futuristic.

Although I wasn’t blown away by this book as I was by its predecessor, I was happy to revisit the lives of its characters, all of whom eventually reappear, even those from the ridiculous tale that parodied the P. R. field. Another good one for Egan.

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Review 2032: The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime

The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime is the latest British Library collection of crime short stories, edited by Martin Edwards. These stories are either set in Scotland or written by Scottish writers, like the first, “Markheim,” by Robert Louis Stevenson. They are arranged in chronological order by publication date, ranging from 1885 to 1974.

Some of the stories, like “The Field Bazaar” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, are simple puzzles. In this one, Sherlock Holmes explains to Watson how he knows what is in the letter he just received. Others, like “The Running of the Deer” by P. M. Hubbard, are about the supposition of crime. “Madame Ville d’Aubier” by Josephine Tey tells the story of the heavy atmosphere emanating from a woman at a bakery and how later this woman murdered her sons and husband. In “Footsteps” by Anthony Wynne, a man figures out the connection between apparently ghostly footsteps and an attempted murder.

I liked some of the stories more than others, but they altogether make an enjoyable collection for an escapist evening.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 2031: Attrib. and Other Stories

I found Attrib. and Other Stories, which I read for my James Tait Black prize project, a little intimidating, as I find reading poetry. That’s because, although I enjoy language, I use and understand it more straightforwardly.

Williams, on the other hand, clearly loves to play with language while also understanding the moments when it fails you. Two of the stories demonstrate this: “Alphabet,” in which a sufferer from aphasia is forgetting her words along with her lover, and “Spins,” where the narrator contemplates her inability to find the right word as her lover stomps out the door.

“Smote,” subtitled “(or when I find I cannot Kiss You in Front of a Print by Bridget Riley)” was a bit much for me in the verbal gymnastics department, but then its ending was so simple. The most straightforward story and the one that affected me most was “Spines,” about a family on vacation that can’t be bothered to remove a drowning hedgehog from the swimming pool.

Williams is playful and imaginative in her writing. Most of the stories (all except “Spines”) are written in the first person and feel very personal.

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Review 2022: Literary Wives! Red Island House

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs.

Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

My Review

It seems I’ve been reading books set on islands lately—Greenland, Manhattan, and now Madagascar. Like Madagascar, Red Island House is lush and mysterious, the story of a disintegrating marriage.

Shay comes to the Red House newly married to Senna. They seem an inexplicable couple. She is an American of mixed race, educated, thoughtful, tall, and beautiful. He is much older, short, white, Italian, uneducated, and self-made wealthy, also loud and impulsive. On impulse, he has bought this oceanfront property on a small island off Madagascar. He has built an overpowering but beautiful house, which will be the Senna’s summer home.

In this novel constructed of short stories, Lee tells the story of the Sennas’ marriage in terms of their relationship to the house. Shay feels sympathy for the Malagasy people, and is torn by the feeling that her situation in this huge house waited on by many servants in one of the poorest nations in the world is not very far from colonialism. Thus, from the first, she has an ambivalent relationship with her own role as mistress of the house.

The novel begins with Shay’s understanding that the man Senna has hired to manage the house, Kristos, is her enemy. When the Sennas are in the house, her husband spends a lot of time with Kristos, off fishing and probably carousing, and after Senna has been around Kristos for a while, he snaps and shouts at Shay. Shay is conscious of disappearing goods and money, but when she tries to talk to Senna, he is rude and dismissive. On the surface polite, Kristos undercuts her.

Shay learns from the housekeeper, Bertine, that Kristos, who has contacts in bad places, is using magic against her. So, Bertine takes Shay to see the Neighbor.

As in each story Lee explores some colorful character or incident, the novel covers 30 years in the Sennas’ marriage. Shay’s relationship with the island gains ambivalence after the couple converts the Red House into a bed and breakfast, and it slowly becomes the haunt of Senna’s male friends, who shift their focus from fishing to teenage sex workers as they age.

The novel is gorgeously exotic, serious, and eloquent. It’s about race, class, hope, betrayal, and the couple’s finally divisive approaches to moral problems.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Lee uses Shay’s relationship to the Red House as a symbol for the Sennas’ marriage. In the beginning of the novel, the couple goes to see its foundation on their honeymoon, and at the end of the novel, she makes a last visit to it to say goodbye to it and her marriage, and I think to meet its inheritor, her husband’s illegitimate son by a Malagasy prostitute.

I find Shay and Senna an inexplicable couple from the beginning. They are such opposites that it’s hard to believe they would even like each other, let alone love each other, but we are informed that they do. And they remain married quite a long time, although Shay has to overlook a lot.

Lee tracks the relationship to the house in one insightful chapter at the end, where she takes it through the newness of the honeymoon period through the burgeoning of having children and farther until it becomes a fantasy playhouse for a bunch of pathetic, randy old men—Senna being one of them.

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Shay’s relationship to Senna also varies as she considers the role she has taken at the Red House. She is too informed about her family’s and race’s past heritage in slavery to feel comfortable in what she sees as a colonial role in Madagascar. Although she feels she can’t understand the country, she understands it much better than Senna, who views it as a place of fantasy. As he spends more time there, she spends less.

Shay is an independent woman, so it beats me why she doesn’t leave Senna earlier. We are told she has been coached by her Italian friends to accept his infidelities, but it isn’t until she has that burst of hurt and jealousy toward the end of the novel that we understand there is still a lot of feeling there.

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Review 1893: The Sidmouth Letters

I have a relatively uneasy relationship with short stories. They often leave me unsatisfied. However, I found most of the stories in The Sidmouth Letters fascinating. And, of course, since they’re written by Jane Gardam, they’re elegant.

Some of the stories are very satisfying:

  • In “The Tribute,” some women are trying to arrange a tribute for a deceased nanny who, their conversations reveal, was never paid, never left a pension, and not helped when her niece asked for assistance. One of her old charges has a surprise for them.
  • In “The Sidmouth Letters,” a woman gets a chance for revenge against her old professor who stole one of her papers to publish after granting her a poor degree.

Others provide unusual insight into relationships:

  • In “Hetty Sleeping,” Hetty finally wakes up from her infatuation with an old lover.
  • In “Transit Passengers,” a young man who thought he was in love loses interest.
  • The narrator in “For He Heard the Loud Bassoon,” a witness to a wedding, is left in an awkward situation.
  • “A Spot of Gothic” is an unexpected ghost story.

The only story I didn’t like very much was “The Great, Grand Soapwater Kick,” about a homeless woman who decides to take a bath.

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Review 1885: Travelers

When I first began reading Travelers, I thought I would be disappointed in it, because the bio said Habila had won several awards for his writing, but I found a misplaced modifier in the first few pages. Can’t help it—I’m a grammar nerd. However, I soon found the novel compelling.

It is structured as six novellas, which are linked by the presence or acquaintance with the unnamed narrator. He is a Nigerian student who is supposed to be finishing his dissertation in Washington when his American artist wife receives a fellowship in Berlin. Their marriage has been suffering since she had a miscarriage, and they see the move as an opportunity for a new start, but while his wife works hard, the narrator seems to be aimless, wandering around Berlin and ignoring his work. He becomes interested in a group of activists living in a squat and taking part in demonstrations. Several of them are refugees from Africa, including Mark, a transgender artist.

In this first novella, we meet Manu, who we learn about in the second novella. As Manu’s family crossed the Mediterranean in a derelict boat, the boat sank and he lost track of his wife and baby son. Every Sunday, he and his daughter search the area around Checkpoint Charlie for his wife and son.

In the third story, Portia, a Zambian studying in England, has traveled to Basel to meet Katharina, who used to be married to her brother David. She has gone there to understand her brother better, a man who always seemed to want to leave home, but also, at her mother’s behest, to find out why Katharina killed him.

In the fourth story, after meeting Portia and traveling with her to Basel, the narrator listens to the tale of a Somalian whom he meets on a train. This man and his son have suffered unimaginable hardships trying to find a place for themselves and their family. However, in a moment of confusion, the narrator loses his identity papers and finds himself incarcerated in a refugee camp.

This novel examines the state of many east and west African countries and the plight of African refugees in Europe. Habila is a master at quickly involving readers in the lives of its many often incidentally encountered characters. I read Travelers for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1863: Not the End of the World

I was fairly sure I had read everything by Kate Atkinson, but I couldn’t remember Not the End of the World. So, I decided to revisit it.

This collection of stories is a relatively early book. Some of the stories are apocalyptic or macabre, some have an element of magical realism, some are whimsical, some capture a moment in ordinary life. Although the stories stand alone, some of them are linked by recurring characters or by more subtle means. I suspect, if you were very attentive, you could find many links. For example, in the first story, “Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping,” the two have a conversation about wedding favors that is repeated in “Wedding Favors” between two different characters. And is the accident driven past by a character in one story the one that kills another character in another story?

Atkinson’s prose is, as always, witty and vivid. I found a few of the characters, like the battling teenage siblings in “Dissonance,” irritating but realistic. On the other hand, a boy who looks like a fish turns out to be the son of Triton. A bold girl removes a cloak from an old lady and the old lady disintegrates. A dead woman tries to get back her life. An adopted alley cat grows bigger and bigger and bigger.

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Review 1781: Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

A woman feels as if some evacuees have taken over her home. The Red Cross sewing party is enlivened by arguments between the good-natured Mrs. Peters and the bloodthirsty Mrs. Twistle. A woman bravely faces her husband’s deployment and then is devastated to find he hasn’t left yet and she has to face it all over again. A couple finally gets rid of their evacuees only to have an acquaintance ask for room in their house. A man who has been working in a ministry feels guilty about not joining up.

These are a few of the stories about ordinary people during World War II that Mollie Panter-Downes published in the New Yorker. They are slice-of-life stories, although most of them have an upper-class perspective, of changing social conditions, of changes in everyday life, of people keeping a stiff upper lip.

I was surprised to learn from the Afterword that Panter-Downes, a prolific British journalist, short story writer, and novelist, was much better known in the United States than in Britain because she published almost everything in the New Yorker. So, even though she wrote hundreds of short stories, her legacy was almost lost in her native country.

Ordered by when they were written, this collection provides an insightful look, beautifully written, at the lives of ordinary people during the war.

One Fine Day

My Husband Simon

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