Short Story Reviews: Ghost Stories by M.R. James

Like last year, I read a few short spooky stories by M.R. James for my Halloween read for 2021.

These are what I read: Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book and The Uncommon Prayer-Book. Although both were good, they did not unseat my favourite M.R. James ghost story which I’ve read to date: The Mezzotint (see my review of that from last year here).

In Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book we are given an atmospheric description of an old church and the strange “…hunted and oppressed air…” of it’s caretaker. In this tale, it is first the place and then the behaviour of the people in the story, which causes the tension to rise. And when an offer of a silver crucifix and chain is made as a gift, you can’t help but wonder who or what the main character might need protecting from…

Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book – 3 / 5

In The Uncommon Prayer-Book, the artefact in question is a rare edition of a Book of Common Prayer, which is kept in an out-of-the-way little church affixed to an old manor house, in an out-of-the-way little village. The book was commissioned by an elderly woman with a hatred of Oliver Cromwell, and who purportedly haunts the book, which I find both wonderful and chilling all at once! But when the book is stolen, you just know the story isn’t going to end well…

The Uncommon Prayer-Book – 4 / 5

Book Review: Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

February’s Book for The Very Informal Classic Reads Book Club Challenge 2021…


Quick Review (read on for full review)

An enjoyable, entertaining tale full of twists and turns. Gothic, atmospheric and melodramatic, it kept my attention from beginning to end.  4 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

Bigamy, child abandonment, deception, theft, murder, and insanity all take part of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel. Her over-the-top drama was one of the most popular novels of the mid-1800s and provides an interesting portrayal of both class- and gender issues as they intersect within the domestic sphere.

Favourite Quote

I always find it harder to pick favourite quotes from ebooks and audiobooks than I do from physical books, and so I sought out the list of quotes from Lady Audley’s Secret on Goodreads and picked my favourite, and I think it’s a smashing one…

“Surely a pretty woman never looks prettier than when making tea.”

(From Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon)

Review

This was a very enjoyable read, and, given its age, not at all dry.  In fact, it was very readable.

Although the story was very much over-the-top in pretty much every aspect of the story, it made for an unpredictable tale. With so many twists and turns I had no idea what was going to happen next, and that ensured the story remained engaging from beginning to end. The gothic atmosphere of the setting really came through, and the detailed descriptions helped to create a clear image of where the story was taking place and what time of year it was. 

Robert was an interesting main character. Depicted as laidback and often idle, with a love of books and pipe-smoking, it’s not until he is faced with a personal loss that we the reader and the other characters that surround him, get see just how clever and determined he can be. Naturally, for heightened dramatic effect, there were a few times I found myself thinking a few of his choices were unwise but that is par for the course for a sensation novel. My favourite character was probably the astute Alicia Audley, stepdaughter of Lady Audley.

Is Lady Audley a sympathetic character? Can her motivations be justified? The character is constructed in such a way as the reader can have very little sympathy with her, even if at one brief point in her story it is possible to feel sorry for her, but I’ll not go into further detail for fear of spoilers. She is in effect the Victorian arch-villainess as whatever a bad woman in Victorian society could be accused of being, she was.

The ending was a little soppy and too perfect my liking, but there is an element of poking fun at itself there too, which helped make it more palatable. The only other downside to the book was its length, and that’s where it a lost a star in my rating of it. In my personal opinion, it felt overly long for the story, yet at the same time I can’t really point to any part of it and say it was unnecessary to move the story forward.

If you don’t like melodrama in your fiction, you may not like this, but if you can see pass it for the fun it is, I think you will enjoy it.

Rating


March’s Book for The Very Informal Classic Reads Book Club Challenge 2021 – The Last Of The Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

Book Review: The Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells

January’s Book for The Very Informal Classic Reads Book Club Challenge 2021…


Quick Review (read on for full review)

A thought-provoking read which poses questions still relevant today. 4 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

Ranked among the classic novels of the English language and the inspiration for several unforgettable movies, this early work of H. G. Wells was greeted in 1896 by howls of protest from reviewers, who found it horrifying and blasphemous. They wanted to know more about the wondrous possibilities of science shown in his first book, The Time Machine, not its potential for misuse and terror. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, a shipwrecked gentleman named Edward Prendick, stranded on a Pacific island lorded over by the notorious Dr. Moreau, confronts dark secrets, strange creatures, and a reason to run for his life.

While this riveting tale was intended to be a commentary on evolution, divine creation, and the tension between human nature and culture, modern readers familiar with genetic engineering will marvel at Wells’s prediction of the ethical issues raised by producing “smarter” human beings or bringing back extinct species. These levels of interpretation add a richness to Prendick’s adventures on Dr. Moreau’s island of lost souls without distracting from what is still a rip-roaring good read.

Favourite Quote

‘I hope, or I could not live.’

(From The Island of Dr Moreau by H. G. Wells, page 142)

Review

As I read The Island of Dr Moreau, I couldn’t help but think H.G.Wells was ahead of his time, and I came away with the over-riding view that this story was a cautionary tale whose message is: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

This is not a story of science at its most exciting and awe-inspiring, but rather at its most strange and horrifying. And, the most terrifying aspect of the book is not the strange creatures of the island, but rather the scientist behind them, a man who thinks it is perfectly acceptable to do what he does.  Yet, the fact that he has to do it on an island miles away from any other human being because he’s been shunned by his own community should have given him a clue as to why he shouldn’t be doing it.

The book poses some very interesting questions, ones which still are relevant today, regarding the ethics of science and the experimentation on other sentient beings. If I had known the story was going to deal with issues such as these, I’m not sure I would have chosen it, as prior to reading, all I knew about it was that it was a Victorian horror story.  And, I’m not sure I would read this one again. That being said, I’m glad I read it the once. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but it was interesting and it did keep me gripped.

Rating


February’s Book for The Very Informal Classic Reads Book Club Challenge 2021 – Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon…

Book Review: What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge

Quick Review (read on for full review)

I thought I would enjoy this book so much more than I did, but alas, I didn’t.  If I’d read it as a child, which I hadn’t, I wonder if I might have enjoyed it a little more…1 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

Katy Carr intends to be beautiful and beloved and as sweet as an angel one day. For now, though, her hair is forever in a tangle, her dress is always torn and she doesn’t care at all for being called ‘good’. But then a terrible accident happens and Katy must find the courage to remember her daydreams and the delightful plans she once schemed; for when she is grown up she wants to do something grand…

Favourite Quote

“To-morrow I will begin,” thought Katy, as she dropped asleep that night. How often we all do so! And what a pity it is that when morning comes and to-morrow is to-day, we so frequently wake up feeling quite differently; careless or impatient, and not a bit inclined to do the fine things we planned overnight.”

(From What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge)

Review

I’ve not got many good things to say about this book, and I’m quite disappointed by that, especially after liking my revisit of The Secret Garden. I had high hopes for this, given its popularity.  Growing up, I recall it was a favourite of a number of friends, and I was often encouraged to read it by family and friends and teachers but I was too preoccupied with other books of my own choosing to do so.  I preferred mysteries, horror and crime stories, even then. 😉

The main problem I found was it came across as a little dated. It’s very much a product of its time and lacks the timelessness of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in comparison (which, is another book I’m hoping to re-read soon).   Little girls should be good, pretty, obedient, well-presented…you get the idea.  There were also a few troubling passages in the book that I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable with, such as views on disability and what it is to be a good person.

It didn’t help that I didn’t like Katy very much. I found her annoying and frustrating.  At one point in the story, I actually gasped in shock at something she had done – I’ll not mention here for fear of spoilers, though I’ll happily discuss it in the comments, should anyone wish to.  The only words to describe it: terrible and harrowing.

I felt a lot of sympathy towards Aunt Izzy, though I can imagine, reading this as a child, I too would have seen her as the enemy of all things fun.  The perspective of age here plays its part.

I do wonder if I had read it as a child – and if I had liked it then – I might have enjoyed it more now.  Revisiting it with fond recollections might have made me more amenable to Katy and better able to tolerate the things about her that I didn’t like.   Of course, it is worth pointing out it’s a children’s story and not being a child, I am not the intended target audience for this book.

Only after writing the first draft of my review did I learn, on reading other reviews on Goodreads, that the title of the book is in fact a play on the name of a family of insects (katydid).  Which explains the opening of the story, something I did not get at all at the time.  So I come away from this book having learned something – always good!

Will I be reading more from the Carr series of story by Susan Coolidge? The next book is What Katy Did At School.  My answer: Not any time soon…

Just a note: I listened to an audio dramatization of this book from LibreVox.  The dramatization was well done, but it was the story itself that I didn’t like – I just want to make that clear.  As I mentioned when reviewing The Secret Garden, finding favourite quotes is harder to do for an audiobook compared to having the text in front of you.  So I cheated a little and searched the ones listed on Goodreads, but only picked one that I could actually recall.

Rating

 


Sammi Loves Books Reading Challenge 2019 – I’ve chosen this book for challenge #20 in the list: a book written by an author that has the same initials as you

Book Review: The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

Quick review (read on for full review)

The War of The Worlds is an important book, given its publication at the start of the science fiction genre. For that reason alone it is worth a read. But there are other reasons to read this book: to get a glimpse into how different people react in a crisis, for its criticism of colonialism and because it raises questions of humanity and morality. 5 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

‘For countless centuries Mars has been the star of war’

The night after a shooting star is seen streaking through the sky from Mars, a cylinder is discovered on Horsell Common near London. At first, naive locals approach the cylinder armed just with a white flag – only to be quickly killed by an all-destroying heat-ray as terrifying tentacled invaders emerge. Soon the whole of human civilization is under threat, as powerful Martians build gigantic killing machines, destroy all in their path with black gas and burning rays, and feast on the warm blood of trapped, still-living human prey. The forces of the Earth, however, may prove harder to beat than they at first appear.

The first modern tale of alien invasion, The War of the Worlds remains one of the most influential of all science-fiction works. Part of a brand-new Penguin series of H.G. Wells’s works, this edition includes a newly established text, a full biographical essay on Wells, a further reading list and detailed notes. The introduction, by Brian Aldiss, considers the novel’s view of religion and society.

Favourite Quote

‘It’s a pity they make themselves so unapproachable,’ he said. ‘It would be curious to know how they live on another planet; we might learn a thing or two.’

(From The War of The Worlds by H.G. Wells, page 38)

Review

After watching the recent BBC adaptation of this story, I thought it was high time I got around to actually reading it as I had yet to.  And I wasn’t disappointed…not at all.  And I must say, that although seeing the TV dramatization was the driving force behind me picking up the book, the book was so much better.  Not necessarily because I didn’t enjoy the adaptation – I didn’t think it was that bad – but the original story was fantastic.

Part of the reason it came across as fantastic is, I think, due to the context in which it was written.  First published in 1898, many things we consider “science” and “technology” had not been invented yet, or if it had, was still in its infancy.  So to read descriptions of alien spaceships and weapons where the author had little-to-no point of reference illustrates the power of the imagination.

If this book was written today, I think it would look quite different.  The story would be told from the POV of a reluctant hero who would some how manage to beat the aliens and save Earth. It would be a battle and we would win.  It would be a triumph of good over evil.  But this isn’t the story H.G. Wells wrote.  Rather it is, for the most part, a first-hand account of an alien invasion and how ordinary people react to this sudden and terrible event.  And, against a technologically superior foe, this response is limited.

This allows us to see what the main character sees: the aliens, the landing craft, their weapons, the desolation of settlements turned to ruins (a foreshadowing of the horrors of modern warfare, less than two decades away…), the panic-filled people not knowing what to do or where to go…

As the main character meets other people on his journey, we get to see how different personalities respond to this immense stress.  An artilleryman searching for order in the chaos, a curate who struggles with his faith, an astronomer whose curiosity is piqued, but there are others too.  The disbelief of those who had not seen first-hand what had happened clinging on to normality. The abject terror and then hope of those on a paddle-steamer heading for the continent, when a navy ironclad decides to attack three Martians that are following them.

A number of references are made throughout the book that almost suggest that mankind, at least the colonial powers, do not have a justified right to complain at being on the sharp end of things for once.  And, it’s hard not to see where the author is coming from with these remarks, given species extinction through human activity and the decimation – or worse – of native populations through expansion and colonialism, both of which the author mentions, before posing the question:

Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

(The War of The Worlds by H.G. Wells, page 9)

The War of The Worlds is an important book, given its publication at the start of the science fiction genre.  For that reason alone it is worth a read.  But there are other reasons to read this book: to get a glimpse into how different people react in a crisis, for its criticism of colonialism and because it raises questions of humanity and morality.

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: The Adventure of The Speckled Band by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventure of The Speckled Band in the eighth short story in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Summary

Helen Stoner goes to visit Sherlock Holmes as she fears her life is in danger.  She believes her stepfather, Dr Roylott might try to kill her, as her sister died in strange circumstances two years previously, shortly before she was to be married.  Now Helen is to be married, she is scared of suffering the same fate. Since her sister’s death, her final words, spoken in terror, have haunted Helen, “The speckled band!”  But she has not been able to work out what they mean.  The question is, can Sherlock Holmes, before Dr Roylott is able to do away with his remaining step-daughter?

Favourite Quote

I had no keener pleasure than in following Holmes in his professional investigations, and in admiring the rapid deductions, as swift as intuitions, and yet always founded on a logical basis with which he unravelled the problems which were submitted to him.

Review

This was a great little mystery and so very imaginative.  There are so many clues and red herrings littered throughout the story that you find it difficult to pinpoint the truth of the matter, until of course, everything falls neatly into place.

The Adventure of The Speckled Band is one of my favourite Sherlock Holmes mysteries.  It has everything a late Victorian story should; exotic wild animals that are free to roam, a suspect band of gypsies who keep company with the guilty party, and a damsel in distress at the mercy of her strange and greedy stepfather.  Fabulous stuff!  It kept me guessing until the very end.

Rating

4.5 / 5

Short Story Review: The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle is the seventh short story in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Summary

Christmas has just passed when Dr Watson goes to Baker Street to see Sherlock Holmes.  On his arrival he finds his friend thinking over a battered hat brought to him by a commissionaire named Peterson.  It came into his possession when Peterson witnessed a scuffle in the street; the victim dropped both his hat and his Christmas goose.  He has brought them to Sherlock Holmes so that they might be returned to their owner as Peterson has no clue as to work out his identity for the man fled after the attack.

However, Holmes thinks it unlikely that the owner will be found, and sends Peterson home to cook the goose, but the man returns and produces the blue carbuncle, claiming that it was found inside the bird.  Naturally, Holmes realises that there is a larger mystery here and sets off to discover what it is.

Favourite Quote

“One of those little incidents which will happen when you have four million human beings all jostling each other within the space of a few square miles.  Amid the action and reaction of so dense a swarm of humanity, every possible combination of events may be expected to take place, and many a little problem will be presented which may be striking and bizarre without being criminal.” 

Review

This was an intriguing and engaging short story, and in terms of enjoyment, sits around the middle of the stories I’ve read so far from The Adventures of the Sherlock Holmes.  It just so happened that I reached this story in the collection in time for my Festive Reads Fortnight reading challenge, which was a stroke of luck.

Sherlock’s analysis of the hat is interesting.  Here we hear him discussing such things as phrenology and how much the hat owner’s wife loves her husband.

This is a great Christmas read with a good message.  It’s nice to see that Sherlock Holmes, who often appears cold and aloof, can be compassionate and merciful.

Rating

3.5 / 5

 

Book Review: Under the Dragon’s Tail by Maureen Jennings

under-the-dragons-tail-front-coverUnder the Dragon’s Tail is the second of The Murdoch Mysteries by Maureen Jennings.

Summary:

Toronto, July 1895.  When a midwife and abortionist is murdered, Detective William Murdoch investigates.  Although the dead woman, Dolly Merishaw, seems to have kept quiet about the clients that had used her services, it transpires that she kept a record book as protection, should she need it, or, for a spot of blackmail.  Fallen on hard times, it seemed that she tried to get some money out of one of these old clients.  But which one?  And did they resort to murder?

Dolly wasn’t very much liked and there are no shortage of suspects.  But when one of the young boys in Dolly’s care turns up dead on the kitchen floor, Murdoch must work quickly to uncover the murderer, before any other children are hurt.

Favourite Quote:

“…The wicked shall get their due.”

That didn’t sound quite right to Murdoch but maybe it was a Methodist saying.

Review:

As I mentioned when I reviewed the first book in The Murdoch Mysteries series, Except the Dying, I am a big fan of the television series.  The first book was brilliant, and the second didn’t disappoint either.  I like the fact that the books and the TV series are so different, and I love them both.  The books are far more grittier than the cosy mystery series we see on the TV, and there is a place for each.

The author easily captures the time period and brings it to life with ease.  As I’ve already mentioned, there is a grittiness to the story, but then life was gritty, hard and dark for most people at the end of the nineteenth century, and that clearly comes through.

The pace is good and there were enough twists and turns in the story to keep me guessing.  Murdoch is a fabulous main character and is very likeable and realistic.  I was pleased to see Dr Julia Ogden make a small appearance in this instalment, and I’m hoping that there will be more later in the series.

I can’t recommend this book and series highly enough, and am looking forward to reading the third Murdoch Mystery, Poor Tom is Cold, soon.

Rating:

five-stars