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.

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Review 1779: Sudden Traveler

I enjoyed Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, so I was looking forward to reading her Sudden Traveler for my James Tait Black project. I sometimes have an uneasy relationship with short stories, though.

This thin book is a collection of seven stories. Some of them are slices of life, but others are more fantastic.

In “M,” a woman who was raped as a child transforms into a powerful creature that disposes of men who prey on the helpless.

In “The Woman the Book Read,” a man spots a woman he knew as a little girl on the beach in Turkey. He remembers how much he cared for her when he was engaged to her mother.

In “The Grotesques,” Dilly witnesses the humiliation of a local drunk.

“Who Pays” is quite mystical. Set in the Middle East, it is about village women who figure out a way to circumvent another war.

In “Orton,” a woman decides to disable her pacemaker in the town of her childhood.

“Sudden Traveler” is about a young mother burying her own mother.

I found some of the stories perplexing and “Live That You May Live” is one of them. It’s about a mother telling a terrifying story to her little girl.

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Review 1758: Too Good To Be True

In looking for more to read by Ann Cleeves, I wasn’t aware that I had ordered something between a short story and a novella, packaged under the name of Quick Reads. This little volume cost almost as much as a regular paperback and took about a half hour to read.

At the request of his ex-wife Sarah, Jimmy Perez travels to the border town of Stonebridge. Here a young teacher, Anna Blackwell, has been found dead, an apparent suicide. Sarah is concerned because the village rumor mill is alleging that her husband Tom was having an affair with Anna. Sarah hasn’t helped the situation by heading a drive to remove her from her position.

When Jimmy investigates the crime scene, he finds some evidence to indicate that Anna may have been murdered. Also, a mysterious stranger seems to be following him.

I am not really a fan of mystery short stories, because I enjoy all the things that the short story in that genre has little time for, character development, atmosphere, and so on. As it turns out, the motive for this murder seems unbelievably flimsy. I don’t think I’ll be purchasing any more of these Quick Reads.

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Review 1552: The Beadworkers

The Beadworkers is a collection of short stories but also some poems and a play about the experience of American indigenous peoples in the Northwest, past and present. These works provide insight into religion, thinking, and beliefs of these peoples. Most of the stories are set in Oregon.

Many of the stories center around feasts. The first entries, a poem called “Feast I” and a story called “Feast II,” are about the importance of water. “Feast III” is about Mae, a woman who has decided to become a migrant laborer after the death of her husband.

“The News of the Day” is set in 19th century Boston, where Charles and his roommate are studying. On the same day, they receive news of family deaths, Marcel’s father from illness in Paris, Charles’s family in a battle of the Indian Wars.

In “Fish Wars,” set in the 1970’s, a schoolgirl fears her parents are getting a divorce. In actuality, her father is fishing and getting arrested for it in hopes of winning rights to fish in ancestral waters.

One of my favorites was “Beading Lesson,” in which an aunt instructs her niece in how to make beaded earrings, all the while mildly regretting that her sister, the girl’s mother, never learned to bead. In “wIndin!” an artistic young woman designs a Native American version of monopoly and tells about her relationship with Trevor, a Yakama gay man. Another favorite is “Katydid,” about the relationship between two young women, one who has abandoned her family because of their brutality, the other who has been abandoned by them.

Many of the stories evoke a sense of loss, as in “Falling Crows,” about the family’s reaction to a young man returned maimed from war, but most of them end in affirmation of some kind.

These stories are powerful and sparely written. Except for the final play, a reworking of “Antigone,” I really enjoyed them.

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