Short Story Review: A Strange Christmas Game by Charlotte Riddell

I could find no relevant book cover to go with this review so I thought I would share a glimpse of Bedfordshire woodland…

Summary

Brother and sister John and Clare Lester inherit an old spooky house in the country. But when they start to hear strange noises, it sets them on a path to discover a terrible secret…

Favourite Quote

‘You pooh-pooh the existence of ghosts, and “only wish you could find a haunted house in which to spend a night,” which is all very brave and praiseworthy, but wait till you are left in a dreary, desolate old country mansion, filled with the most unaccountable sounds, without a servant, with none save an old caretaker and his wife, who, living at the the extremest end of the building, heard nothing of the tramp, tramp, bang, bang, going on at all hours of the night.’

(From A Strange Christmas Game by Charlotte Riddell)

Review

This short story was read as part of Festive Reads Fortnight 2020 at Sammi Loves Books.

I hadn’t read any of Charlotte Riddell’s work until this one, and only then did I learn that she published her writing under her husband’s name, J.H. Riddell. Hence why sometimes her works are attributed to that name.

Atmospheric, this story falls into the category of traditional or old fashioned ghost story. It’s not terribly scary, but it is interesting to read how John and Clare discover the secret of Martingdale, and then solve the secret.  The character of Clare is cleverly written.  She is very astute, though she also fulfils the role Victorians would have expected of a woman, by which I mean she screams on occasion and drops a glass in fright. 😉

It’s a very quick read, but certainly well-worth a look, especially if you like your ghost stories to be horror-free.

This short story wins ‘local interest points’ from me, as it is set in part in my home county of Bedfordshire.

Rating


Sammi Loves Books Reading Challenge 2019 – I’ve chosen this book for challenge #3 in the list: a book set in a place you’ve lived / visited

Short Story Review: The Gift of The Magi by O. Henry

Quick Review (read on for full review)

Poignant and heart-warming, this story is hard to forget. 4 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

One dollar and eight-seven cents is all the money Della has in the world to buy her beloved husband a Christmas present. She has nothing to sell except her only treasure — her long, beautiful brown hair. Set in New York at the turn of the twentieth century, this classic piece of American literature tells the story of a young couple and the sacrifices each must make to buy the other a gift.

Favourite Quote

“…life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.”

(From The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry)

Review

I read this story for Festive Reads Fortnight 2019 but never got around to posting the review, so I waited a whole year so that I could as I thought it would seem quite out of season to do anything but.

The Gift of The Magi is a sweet and sentimental read. It’s also very short, so short I happily read it online at my PC.  Poignant and heart-warming, it tells of the unselfish love between Della and Jim.  Money is tight but they go to extraordinary lengths to buy each other a present for Christmas.

It’s a lovely tale for Christmas, which reminds us that when it comes to gift-giving, it’s not the quantity of gifts which is important. This story is hard to forget…

Rating

Short Story Review: A Selection of Ghost Stories by M.R. James

For my Halloween Reads 2020, I read four spooky short stories by M.R. James, and although I am going to review each one separately – and briefly – I thought a single post was a more efficient use of time and blog space 😉

Count Magnus

Summary – Mr Wraxhall, a travel-writer, goes to Sweden, where he comes across the interesting character of Count Magnus in the local history. But interest quickly turns into something far more deadly…

Favourite Quote – “…and found myself (as before) turning in at the churchyard gate, and, I believe, singing or chanting some such words as, ‘Are you awake, Count Magnus? Are you asleep, Count Magnus?’…”

Review – It took me a little while to get into this story, but when I did I found the sense of place that M.R. James conjured was captivating.  As the story progressed, it gained momentum and the tension certainly increased. Although there are certainly horror elements to the tale, I think it’s the psychological element of this one that makes it memorable.

Rating

The Mezzotint

Summary – The story of a picture that is so much more than it seems at first glance…

Favourite Quote – “What he saw made him very nearly drop the candle on the floor, and he declares now that if he had been left in the dark at that moment he would have had a fit.”

Review – The Mezzotint was my favourite of the four short stories I read.  It was tense, atmospheric and dramatic. Some paintings do have eerie qualities to them, so for this one to achieve what it did and tell such a sinister story…all I can say is that it was the perfect Halloween Read! Chilling. Highly recommended!

Rating

‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’

Summary – A college professor takes a short holiday on the East Coast, and is asked by a colleague to check out a site for an archaeological dig. But he finds so much more than he expects…

Favourite Quote – “Few people can resist the temptation to try a little amateur research in a department quite outside their own, if only for the satisfaction of showing how successful they would have been had they only taken it up seriously.”

Review – This story took a little while to get going, but once it did, my! As I mentioned in the previous two reviews, the tension builds quite dramatically, and I must confess, unexpectedly, because at first, I wasn’t quite sure I was that hooked into the story.  There’s an almost nightmarish quality to this one, so if like me, you feel the beginning is too slow, stick with it. I wasn’t disappointed, and I hope neither will you be.

Rating

Casting the Runes

Summary – Mr Karswell writes books on esoteric subjects, but good luck to the reviewer whose finds his writing less than remarkable…

Favourite Quote – “Why, my dear, just as present Mr Karswell is a very angry man.  But I don’t know much about him otherwise, except that he is a person of wealth, his address is Lufford Abbey, Warwickshire, and he’s an alchemist, apparently, and wants to tell us all about…”

Review – My least favourite of the four stories, this one felt it took a great deal of time to get going, and probably suffered for being the last one I read.  I thought it more of a mystery with an almost fantasy bent to it than a truly ghostly read like the other three. The story was interesting, and I was keen to see how the tale was resolved, but I wasn’t particularly drawn to the characters. The locations were interesting too, but unfortunately, this probably wasn’t a good choice on my part for a Halloween Read.

Rating

Book Review: We All Die In The End by Elizabeth Merry

My first review for Indie Only Month 2020 is Elizabeth Merry’s collection of interconnected tales, We All Die In The End. My thanks to Elizabeth for providing me with a copy of the collection in return for an honest review. 

 

You can find my Afternoon Tea interview with Elizabeth Merry here.  We All Die In The End can be found on Amazon and Goodreads.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

Perfect summer reading if you enjoy real-life styled tales, some light, some dark, all compelling, evocative and well-written. A fantastic read. 5 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

This is a diverse collection of interlinked stories set in a small, seaside town in Ireland. Some of them verge on the macabre; others deal with abusive relationships and many of them are grim. But there is humour here too – although it is dark humour.

There’s Sadie, avoiding her mother’s advice:
“Sadie said nothing. She trimmed the fat off the kidneys and the liver, her fingers curling away from the soft, red slither and she held her breath against the faint smell of blood. Madge lifted her walking-stick and rattled it against the leg of the table.”

And poor, wee Andy, struggling with a teenage girlfriend and their baby daughter:
“Andy felt the unhappiness grow in his chest again. It was heavy and he fought against it. No, he said to himself. No. He held his arms up and out in front of him and made soft, crooning, engine noises.”

And then there is recovering alcoholic, Arthur:
“So, I watched Lydia and waited for some bloody nuisance of a child to come screeching after her but no child came. Well, that didn’t make any sense but then Lydia stopped and I saw her speak to the doll. Oho, Arthur, I said to myself and I threw down the cigarette. Oho, I said, what’s this? What have we here?”

Just a couple of the strange and interesting characters in this ebook available on Amazon Kindle.

Favourite Quote

What does it matter?  What does any of it matter?  We all die in the end.

(From We All Die In The End by Elizabeth Merry)

Review

I really enjoyed reading this collection of nineteen interconnected short stories. I loved how a mention of one character in one story sets up another story, in a very loose, roundabout sort of way as the stories themselves are all separate.  It gave great fluidity to the book, and once I started reading I found it very difficult to stop.  The stories were compelling and addictive, and the characters so well-devised that I found myself gripped, wondering where the next story was going to go. The connections between the characters come in the form of family ties, friends, neighbours and work colleagues, giving a cross-section of the population of a small Irish coastal town.

A wide variety of topics and themes are covered: infidelity, the struggles of young parents, crime, mental health issues, religion and spiritualism, dreams and first kisses, sadness, manipulation, regret, guilt, love, fear…There’s a little bit of violence in a handful of the stories, and adult themes and bad language gets a mention a few times as well, but there is nothing graphic and it’s not overused.  It adds to the stories rather than detracts from them, and I think it is always worth pointing that out.

As I’ve already said, all the characters have depth and authenticity.  It doesn’t take long for the author to present the reader with fully-fleshed people, and it is the thoughts and emotions of these people that bring these stories to life.  The author has a great grasp of people and captures wonderfully the two faces of an individual – the one they show to the world and their real self.  And it is the secret side of themselves, what they think, what goes on in their homes once their doors are locked and curtains closed that ensure the reader keeps reading.  Not everyone we meet is likeable, not everyone we meet is nice.  There are characters with ugly personalities and brutal ways, but there are others just trying to make it through the day or realise their dreams.

The descriptions of the town, especially down by the sea (the beach, the pier, the harbour) and the pub, are so clear and evocative that I could easily imagine them as I worked my way through each story.  Indeed, the whole town felt very real, I could picture the different houses and flats, and the different rooms within each, quite clearly.

The tension of some of the situations some of the characters find themselves in is palpable, and some of the twists that unfurl aren’t predictable but make perfect sense for the characters they happen to.  In essence, these stories are about people; they’re not real, but they could very easily be, and they serve to remind us, we don’t really know other people as well as we sometimes think.  A fantastic read.

Rating

Short Story Review: The Adventure of the Illustrious Client by Arthur Conan Doyle

* This review may contain spoilers *

The Adventure of The Illustrious Client is a Sherlock Holmes short story by Arthur Conan Doyle.  It is the first story in the collection, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A good, gripping story with an interesting mystery and unexpected ending. 4 / 5

Summary

Sir James Damery seeks out Sherlock Holmes on behalf of an un-named yet illustrious client.  The case is a delicate one.  Violet de Merville has fallen madly in love with Baron Gruner, a highly intelligent man, believed by both Sir James and Sherlock Holmes to be a murderer.  Violet is determined to marry the Baron, no matter what anyone says about him and even after the man himself apparently lays bare his chequered past.  Can anything be done to make Violet realise what she refuses to see?

Favourite Quote

I couldn’t decide between these two:

‘Johnson is on the prowl,’ said he. ‘He may pick up some garbage in the darker recesses of the underworld for it is down there, amid the black roots of crime, that we must hunt for this man’s secrets.’

(From The Adventure of The Illustrious Client by Arthur Conan Doyle, page 15)

*

‘Woman’s heart and mind are insoluble puzzles to the male. Murder might be condoned or explained, and yet some smaller offence might rankle.’

(From The Adventure of The Illustrious Client by Arthur Conan Doyle, page 16)

Review

I am slowly making my way through the Sherlock Holmes stories, although not in chronological order.  Currently, I am moving back and forth between the short story collections, The Return of Sherlock Holmes and The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, and having just recently finished the short novel A Study in Scarlet (you can read my review here), plan to start the next Sherlock novel, The Sign of Four, soon.

The Adventure of The Illustrious Client was a good story.  The storytelling ensured the tale was gripping and the mystery itself was certainly an interesting one.  As for the ending, it was certainly unexpected.

Out of all the Sherlock Holmes stories I have read so far, this one, I think, has the most interesting and memorable characters.

Kitty Winters was probably chief amongst them.  I would love to have known more of her back story.  One of my favourite descriptions from this story is that of her and Violet being like fire and ice.

The Baron made for a very engaging antagonist; a dangerous rogue but well-educated, with a niche interest in Chinese pottery.  He was also very brazen and sure of himself, admitting to Sherlock that yes, it’s all true but there is nothing you can do about it!

An entertaining read, indeed!

Rating

Short Story Review: Eveline’s Visitant by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

I found the short story Eveline’s Visitant by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, in Anthology of Fear: 20 Haunting Stories for Winter Nights (Marshall Cavendish Ltd.)

Quick Review (read on for full review)

An enjoyable, atmospheric quick read with an unexpected ending. Highly recommended for reading on a cold, dark winter’s night. 4 / 5

Summary

Two cousins, Hector and André de Brissac, quarrel over a woman.  André is the cousin favoured by Fortune; women love him and the family money and lands have gone to him.  By contrast, Hector is considered “a rough soldier” and “mannerless boor”.  The quarrel escalates and a challenge to duel is issued, with fatal consequences for André.

But, with his dying breath, André does his best to ensure that Hector does not enjoy his victory nor his inheritance…He claims their quarrel is not yet over.  Hector, however, does not believe in such things…

Favourite Quote

I will come to you when your life seems brightest. I will come between you and all that you hold fairest and dearest. My ghostly hand shall drop a poison in your cup of joy.

(From Eveline’s Visitant by Mary Elizabeth Braddon)

Review

I’m a little late completing and posting this review, seeing as though I read the story as one of my Halloween Reads for 2019!

As part of the same reading challenge, I read The Cold Embrace, another short story by the Mary Elizabeth Braddon (you can find that review here).  I noted then that I really liked the author’s writing style and ability to create the most atmospheric and unexpected twists in the story.  So I went into reading Eveline’s Visitant with high expectations and was not disappointed.  Once again the story was atmospheric and the unusual plot twists came as a surprise. Although I would like to go into detail about what was so special about these twists, I won’t for fear of giving too much away.  But I will say this: the ending came as a complete surprise.

My copy was no more than twelve pages long, so it’s a quick read, but for all that, there is no lack of story.  The setting is richly described, both Paris and the inherited estate, and there are enough details of the main characters to make them appear whole and believable.

If you enjoy reading ghost stories on dark nights by candlelight, I recommend you give this a read.  There’s a creepiness to it, a pervading sense of the sinister…

I plan to read more by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and have added her first novel, published in 1862 – a sensational melodrama – Lady Audley’s Secret, to my TBR list.

Rating

 

 

Short Story Review: The Cold Embrace by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

I read The Cold Embrace by Mary Braddon in Anthology of Fear: 20 Haunting Stories for Winter Nights (Marshall Cavendish Ltd).

Quick Review

Atmospheric and unexpected…a fantastic Gothic read for Halloween or a cold, dark winter’s night. 4 / 5

Summary

A German artist, orphaned at an early age, is raised in his uncle’s household where he forms an attachment to his cousin, Gertrude.  They become close and secretly become engaged, only Uncle Wilhelm has high expectations of finding a rich suitor for his daughter…

When the artist is of an age, he travels across Europe undertaking commissions for rich patrons, in the hope of finding fame and fortune.  But what of Gertrude?   She is quickly forgotten…but her retribution at his betrayal cannot be…

Favourite Quote

The date seems burnt into her brain.

The date, written in fire, dances forever before her eyes.

The date, shrieked by the Furies, sounds continually in her ears.

(from The Cold Embrace by Mary Elizabeth Braddon)

Review

I read The Cold Embrace as part of my Halloween Reads challenge for 2019.

Mary Braddon is an author I had not read before, prior to undertaking this year’s Halloween Reads.  Yet it is clear, as soon as I started reading The Cold Embrace, I had been missing something.  This was a great read and I enjoyed the author’s writing style very much.

The Cold Embrace is one of the best Victorian Gothic ghost stories I’ve read.  Full of atmosphere and rich in description, once started, I had to read to the end (it isn’t a particularly long read).  It had just the right amount of creepiness to it without being gory, which is how I prefer my ghost stories.

There is a sadness to the story that cannot be avoided due to the tragic subject matter, but the author doesn’t dwell too heavily on it.  Rather, a clever response, beautifully written, sees the fiancée get her retribution.  Although the storyline is predictable, I don’t believe its execution was.

I read a second story by this author for my Halloween Reading challenge, Eveline’s Visitant, so keep an eye out for that forthcoming review.  It was another good story 😉

I expect that I will be reading many more stories by Mary Braddon in the future, because I certainly enjoyed this one.  It was perfect for the Halloween challenge and equally suited to reading on a cold, dark winter’s night. Recommended!

Rating

Short Story Review: A Pair of Hands by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A quick, atmospheric read, set in an interesting location, and peopled with interesting characters. 3.5 / 5

Summary

Miss Petyt is staying with a friend, when the topic of ghosts arises in conversation, thanks to her host’s daughters.  When Miss Petyt explains that she once lived in a haunted house, the young women are interested to hear her tale.  And so she relates to them of the time she lived in a quaint but isolated house on the Cornish coast, with no-one for company but the housekeeper, Mrs Carkeek…

Favourite Quote

‘…but I was young enough to be romantic and wise enough to like independence,

and this word “secluded” took my fancy.’

(From A Pair of Hands by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch)

Review

A Pair of Hands was the final story in the anthology of Great Crime Stories, first published by Chancellor Press in 1936; an anthology that I enjoy flicking through and picking out stories at random from time to time.  So I was surprised that this didn’t appear to be a crime story at all…

Perhaps best known today for the phrase, “murder your darlings”, this is the first story I have read solely authored by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.  Many years ago I read Castle Dor, a story left unfinished upon his death which was completed by Daphne du Maurier.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch was from Cornwall and his knowledge and love of the Cornish landscape is clearly evident in the descriptions of the area in which the house, Tresillack, is situated.  Set in an idyllic location, this short story centres on a puzzle that Miss Petyt won’t let go of it until she has solved it.

There is a gentleness to this story, rather than an overbearing sense of horror or fear, given the house’s isolation.  The atmosphere and tension instead comes from the determination of Miss Petyt and the personality of Mrs Carkeek, with the location setting the mood for the tale.

Overall, a nice story, in a nice setting, but I was left feeling perplexed, wondering as to why it was included in a book of crime stories.  It is, if anything, more of a light mystery, in my opinion.  An enjoyable, quick read, that kept my interest; definitely worth a read.

Rating

3.5 / 5

Short Story Review: They Never Get Caught by Margery Allingham


This short story was found in Great Crime Stories first published by Chancellor Press in 1936.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

An interesting, engaging read from the ‘golden age’ of crime writing with a great twist at the end. 4 / 5

Summary

Harold Brownrigg is a chemist with a few money problems and a wandering eye.  His wife, Millie, is just dull and stupid, nothing like some of the pretty girls that come into his shop.  But none are so captivating as Phyllis, a young woman half his age.

However, Phyllis feels guilty about what they are doing even if he does not, and so decides to end it.  This is too much for Harold, especially when he hears that Phyllis has been seen about town with a younger chap in a flashy car.  It is becoming more and more obvious for Harold that Millie is just a problem he needs to get rid of.  Once he has got rid of her, not only will it clear the way for him to be with Phyllis but he will also be able to get his hands on the money left to Millie by her father.

And so begins the intricate planning of a murder.

Favourite Quote

Over-dark, round, hot eyes had Mr Brownrigg; not at all the sort of eyes for a little, plump, middle-aged chemist with a placid wife like Millie.

(From They Never Get Caught by Margery Allingham)

Review

They Never Get Caught was an interesting, engaging read.  Written by one of the queens of golden age crime writing, this is the first story I have read by Margery Allingham (and as of 2019, I have read it twice), though I have a number of Campion novels sitting on my bookshelf.

I felt very sorry for poor Millie as I moved through the story.  Harold was extremely cold, even when he felt unnerved by what he was trying to do.

The story was cleverly written, and the number of characters and points of view from which we see what is going on, is handled very well given the story is told in under twenty pages.  The main POV is from Harold himself, though glimpses are provided by Millie and the errand boy Bill Perry.

The twist in the tale – which I won’t mention – was very good.  I didn’t expect it, probably because I was too preoccupied by the callous nature of Harold.

A short, satisfying read, if you like ‘golden age’ crime stories, then I would recommend They Never Get Caught to you.

Rating


Re-read and review updated in March 2019.  Originally read and reviewed in October 2014.

Short Story Review: This Year It Will Be Different by Maeve Binchy

This Year It Will Be Different is from the short story collection of the same name by Maeve Binchy.  I listened to an audiobook version of this story, read by Kate Binchy.  (Book cover above from Goodreads)

Summary (my own)

A middle-aged woman, Ethel, is not looking forward to Christmas.  She’s reached a point where Christmas seems like too much hard work because her family has come to expect her to do everything for them (as well as go out to work), without offering to help.  But when her family realise that something’s amiss, they promise “this year it will be different”…

Favourite Quote

If she saw one more picture of a 47 year old woman, smiling at her out of magazine, with the body of an 18 year old, gleaming skin, 56 even teeth and shining hair, Ethel was going to go after her with a carving knife.

Review

I’ve not read (or listened) to any Maeve Binchy before.  These types of stories are not the usual type I’m drawn to, but I thought it would be interesting to give one of these Christmas stories a go.

There is so much involved with preparing the “perfect” family Christmas and if the work load falls only to one person, it’s no wonder that they become fatigued just thinking about it.  Listening to the story, I really felt for Ethel.  Her family has a selfish streak, which she accepts responsibility for, which I think is sad – and is probably one of the reasons she finds herself in this state of apathy.  After all, people don’t often know there is a problem unless they are told or made to taken responsibility for it.

When the family make their promise of, “this year it will be different”, on noticing that Ethel’s not her usual self, their solution was not one I expected.  And, it highlights the undercurrent of expectation that moves through their house.

The story was a short listen, at just under twenty minutes, but in that time, we are given a clear and crisp glimpse into Ethel’s character, as well as the personalities of the other family members.  It’s not a cheery Christmas story, but with the weight of expectation associated with this time of year, I think for some it is a realistic one.

Rating