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Adventure Christmas PuddingAfter three murderous mysteries, it was delightful to discover this festive and Christmassy caper.

“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” reads like Agatha Christie’s ode to the traditional English Christmas. Hercule Poirot is invited to experience “an old-fashioned Christmas in the English countryside” at Kings Lacey, a grand manor house that dates from the fourteenth century.

However, the finicky Poirot reisists at first, put off by fears of cold stone and large drafty rooms. Instead he finds King Lacy full of warmth (central heating set at 68°) and cheer, with charming hosts and excited children.

Of course, there are suspicious characters and rather curious doings, but the bulk of this longer short story focuses on the ritual of Christmas in a country house: crackling fires, holly and mistletoe, midnight mass, a feast with all the trimmings, plum pudding, and plenty of Christmas cheer.

This is certainly the coziest Christie I have read. She wraps it up nicely with some unexpected fun on Boxing Day. Indeed, Poirot tells himself, “he had a very good Christmas,” as did I along with him—so much so that I plan to make this story a part of my own Christmas tradition each year.

Double Sin“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” is an extended version of a story called “Christmas Adventure” which first appeared in the Sunday Dispatch in 1928. This longer version debuted in a collection of short stories also called The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding that was released only in the U.K. in 1960. This story was also published in several other collections as “The Theft of the Royal Ruby,” which is the title of the story I read in Double Sin and Other Stories.

Under either name this is a most enjoyable and highly recommended holiday read.

 

Agatha Christmas: A Reading of Christie’s Holiday Classics

agatha christmas logo

4:50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie

A Christmas Tragedy by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

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Christmas Tragedy“A Christmas Tragedy” is a short story in The Thirteen Problems collection, which was also published under the title The Tuesday Club Murders. I particularly like the setup, in which the different stories are told by a group of friends gathered together to discuss mysteries.

Sir Henry Clithering presses Miss Marple for a mystery that has happened to her. She recalls an incident, which she quickly redefines as a “tragedy.” Indeed, I found this one of Christie’s more chilling stories. While Christmas serves a bit as a plot device, this is not a “Christmas story.”

Miss Marple recounts a visit to a spa for the holiday, but she recalls “a curiously eerie feeling in the air. There seemed to be something weighing on us all. A feeling of misfortune.”

Upon seeing a fellow guest, Mr. Sanders, she immediately knew that he planned to kill his wife. Miss Marple had no proof, however, just gut instinct.

13 ProblemsThe narrative progresses with tension and a sense of impending doom. Some of the characters are shocked by the happenings and some seem to take a “positively ghoulish” delight in it all.

Miss Marple holds it together though, offering one of her classic dictums: “a gentlewoman should always be able to control herself in public, however much she may give way in private.”

So while it’s not a cheery holiday fable, “A Christmas Tragedy” is a typical Christie whodunit—a fast read that ends with one of her trademark inverted plot twists.

 

Agatha Christmas: A Reading of Christie’s Holiday Classics

agatha christmas logo

4:50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

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4 50 from Paddington lgAgatha Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington opens amid the pre-Christmas rush in London. There is all the excitement of holiday crowds at the shops and jostling along train platforms. Christie, always so deft with her descriptions of rail travel, brings the reader right into the moment as one train passes closely by another and Elspeth McGillicuddy witnesses a murder.

This is the original The Girl on the Train (another book I highly recommend). Elspeth does not seem to be able to get anyone (the porter, the local police) to take her story seriously. No one believes her, except her friend Miss Jane Marple …

There are some cozy scenes in St Mary Mead with cameos of favorite characters. But my one complaint is that—while Miss Marple has been invited to Christmas dinner at the vicarage—Christie offers us no glimpse into that gathering. We get a passing update on the vicar’s family, but I wanted more, having gotten to know them so well in The Murder at the Vicarage.

There is also quite a bit of train travel early on, but ultimately this is one of Christie’s “country house” mysteries. Miss Marple sends the plucky Lucy Eyelesbarrow (who seems a sort of younger version of the aged sleuth) to infiltrate the household of Rutherford Hall and snoop around for evidence.

Unlike some of Christie’s more luxurious manor house settings, Rutherford Hall is menacing. “A long winding drive led through large gloomy clumps of rhododendrons up to … a kind of miniature Windsor Castle. The stone steps in front of the door could have done with a bit of attention and the gravel sweep was green with neglected weeds.” Indeed, this turned out to be one of Christie’s scarier and more suspenseful novels, as I feared for Lucy as well as for some of the inhabitants of the hall. Danger looms.

Christie offers up some memorable characters at Rutherford Hall and, like Lucy, I was confounded a bit trying to guess who the killer was. The plot takes several clever turns, including an ingenious twist in the actual reveal of the murderer at the end. Also, there are satisfying resolutions to some of the sub-plots.

Overall, 4:50 from Paddington brought together several of my favorite aspects of Christie: Miss Marple, the inherent intrigue of train travel, the closed-circle of suspects, and the happy ending for some of the characters. It’s hard to pick a favorite Christie, but this is definitely one of mine. Highly recommended.

 

Agatha Christmas: A Reading of Christie’s Holiday Classics

agatha christmas logo

A Christmas Tragedy by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

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Rival Queens LGIf Shonda Rhimes were to write a book about Renaissance France, it would likely resemble The Rival Queens—a dramatic and almost soapy page-turner by Nancy Goldstone. I don’t mean this as a knock, but more as another case of truth being stranger than fiction.

The court of the Valois Kings was a treacherous place, rife with scheming, betrayals, love affairs, and murder. G.R.R. Martin has cited this era in France as a source of inspiration, and fans of his books (or of the Game of Thrones TV series) will recognize parallels and at least one major plot development.

The Rival Queens are Catherine de’ Medici and her daughter, Marguerite de Valois—two singular and fascinating women who both were queens of France. Their fractious relationship was par for the course in the House of Valois, which seemed to have nurtured few familial bonds. Catherine pitted her children against each other to the extent that they were, at times, in greater danger from one another than from their professed enemies.

Her oldest son, Francis I, was sickly and died not long after marrying Mary Queen of Scots. The younger brothers schemed and connived as they competed for the throne. Two of them succeeded to the crown, and Marguerite was married off to become Queen of Navarre. However, this made her position even more tenuous, and she had some close and harrowing escapes from assassins and kidnappers sent by her mother and her brother, King Henri III.

Goldstone felt that historians had been unkind to Marguerite and wanted to tell her story in a more sympathetic light. I must say that I came away with a real respect for this woman who thought fast under pressure, maneuvered through relentless threats, and somehow managed to survive. Also, unlike her mother, she was very popular with the French people who called her “Queen Margot.”

Goldstone zooms out to show how European rivalries and the rise of Protestantism fueled the wars at court. In addition to Mary Queen of Scots, both Elizabeth I of England and Phillip II of Spain appear as significant influences on French politics and diplomacy.

The book offers historical detail and insights into daily life, but its salacious tone reads more like a Philippa Gregory novel than a scholarly biography. Not that there’s anything wrong with reading Gregory. I enjoy her novels, but I know they are fiction. I find it disturbing, though, when “nonfiction” veers into unfounded supposition and sensationalism.

For example, without any cited source Goldstone credits Nostradamus as predicting “the tragic death of Princess Diana” and “the horror of 9/11.” Seriously? Which prophecies and which translations? This feels rather spurious and hokey. In particular, the 9/11 claim has repeatedly been proven to be a hoax—here I cite Snopes and LiveScience.

Goldstone is capable of much better than that and seems to have gotten a bit swept up by the melodrama of her material. I actually preferred her earlier work, Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe, as that felt more weighty and academic, while still being so readable. However, I think that readers will take to this fictionesque style of writing—The Rival Queens really is hard to put down.

Overall, I recommend this book. It’s a riveting account of two extraordinary queens and of the machinations of a dynasty that is just as intriguing as the Tudors but has gotten much less attention.

Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe by Nancy Goldstone

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Village School Miss Read LGI’ve been curious about the Miss Read books and was so pleased when Village School was lucky number #5 on my Classics Club Spin List. It tells the story of the small village of Fairacre, England, as narrated by the school mistress of the local, two-room elementary school, aka “Miss Read”.

Set right after World War II, the book begins on the first day of school with all the anticipation and excitement felt by the two teachers and their students. The story unwinds in a series of slice-of-life vignettes that follow the school year. Miss Read has a knack for creating evanescent moments: children making straw bunches for the harvest festival; strained conversation while drinking tea in a dusty sitting room; an evening of skating on the local pond lit up by a farmer’s lorry (truck) headlights.

Throughout the book I had that wistful feeling of the passing of time, for example this lovely summer afternoon:

“We were disposed at the edge of the half-cut field under the elm trees’ shade. The air was murmurous with the noise of the distant cutter and with myriads of small insects. Far away the downs shimmered in the heat, and little blue chalk butterflies hovered about us … the children sat or lay in the grass with their books propped before them. Some read avidly … But others lay on their stomachs, legs undulating, with their eyes fixed dreamily on the view before them, a grass between their lips, and eternity before them. … When these boys and girls are old and look back to their childhood, it is the brightest hours that they will remember. This is one of those golden days to lay up as a treasure for the future, I told myself, excusing our general idleness.”

The author, whose real name is Dora Jessie Saint, taught school for many years, and the Fairacre novels are fictionalizations of her own experiences—much like James Herriot’s books.

Village School is a delightful, cosy, and relaxed read. That’s not to say that it is sugar-coated. The thatched cottages look pretty, but inside they are dark and damp, with no plumbing or drainage. Likewise the narrative touches on difficulties such as a drunkard father, a boy who has no dinner (lunch) money, and the formidable test that decides the educational fate of 11-year-olds. Miss Read empathizes with her students and neighbors, especially the grubby but beguiling Joseph Coggs. Overall, however, the book is upbeat and highlights the charm of village life. The school janitor (who has laid out all the courses) has a role of prominence at the summer sports day, walking about in a blue serge suit with the vicar.

My one serious complaint is that the “n-word” jumped off page 135, which was shocking and, honestly, somewhat horrifying. Miss Read uses it to describe how hard one of her students is studying. This was especially jarring given the comforting cadence of the prose.

Back in 1939, Agatha Christie had a book with the “n-word” in its title, although when it was released the next year in the U.S., the title was changed to And Then There Were None. The UK version adopted the latter title by the 1980s. Village School was published in 1955, and my edition was reissued in 2001. So it seems even more egregious that this has not been addressed.

That aside, I found this a charming book, and I think the many Fairacre sequels will be perfect reading for cold winter nights by the fire with a cup of tea.

Our Classics ClubTo read other reviews from this CC Spin, check out @ourclassicsclub or #ccspin on twitter.  Why not join us in the next Classics Club Spin?

My Classics Club Spin #10 Reading List

The Classics Club Homepage

The Classics Club Spin Challenge

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Jane's Fame LGIn 1820, three years after her death, Jane Austen’s publisher remaindered all copies of her books. She sunk into obscurity “out of print, out of demand, and almost out of mind.” Today, of course, Austen is a worldwide phenomenon.

Claire Harman offers an engrossing account of the erratic and somewhat inexorable rise of Austen’s popularity in Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. Harman flavors her narrative with diverting bits of trivia, for example Rudyard Kipling was a fervent Janeite! He considered Austen’s gravesite at Winchester Cathedral to be the second holiest place in England after Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford.

Harman begins with a look at Jane the author. In particular, I was fascinated to learn that Austen devised a proto cut-and-paste approach to revision by pinning small paper cutouts with new wording over sections of a working draft.

Austen struggled, however, to get her works published. Ultimately she sold both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice at somewhat bargain rates just to see them in print. The success of these books allowed her to get a better deal for Mansfield Park, which financially was her most successful work, earning her £30 a year. Emma, however, sold the most copies on its initial run.

Tragically, it was just as Austen was gaining success and recognition—albeit anonymously as her works were published by “a Lady”—that she died. Her tombstone made no mention of her as an author.

 

An 1816 first edition of Emma.

An 1816 first edition of Emma.

During the nearly 13 years her books were out of print, copies were treasured and traded by a niche of faithful readers, including several luminaries of the literary world. Sir Walter Scott had the full set and read Pride and Prejudice at least three times. Other admirers included Robert Southey, Maria Edgeworth, Benjamin Disreali, Lord Tennyson, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge—but not William Wordsworth because, according to Coleridge’s daughter, he had no sense of humor.

Both English and pirated translations of Austen’s novels were read in France, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and even in America. I was gobsmacked to learn that James Fenimore Cooper’s first novel was actually a reworking of Persuasion titled Precaution, which flopped.

In 1833, Austen’s books were reissued as part of low-cost series, Standard Novels, sort of the Penguin Classics of the day. These editions began to sell steadily, gaining steam as the Victorian age took hold. Interest in Austen the author also grew steadily, erupting by the 1870s into the cult of the “Divine Jane.” Noted literary critic Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf, lampooned this as “Austenolatry”—a riff on “Bardolatry” the cult of Shakespeare. Not long after, another critic named George Saintsbury coined the term “Janeite,” still so popular today. At Winchester Cathedral, so many visitors turned up looking for Austen that her nephew and biographer James Edward Austen-Leigh erected a memorial plaque.

Janes Fame pb

During World War I, Austen’s novels were a favorite among British soldiers and were well stocked in the trenches. They were also prescribed reading material to the wounded for their soothing and “salubrious” effects. By the 1920s, a “Janeite cabal” ran the Royal Society of Literature which would brook no criticism of the author. Beyond these hallowed halls, Austen had also exploded into the mainstream, via magazine articles, compilations, decorative special editions, and Austenalia: sequels and continuations of her novels. There was also a clamor for her letters, juvenilia, portraits, and any other related memorabilia, all of which were unearthed and published.

Jane had her share of detractors, though. Ralph Waldo Emerson had found her to be without genius or wit—a startling and somewhat paradoxical appraisal, but then he was rather severe. Surprisingly, Henry James felt she was overrated. Mark Twain’s derision of Austen has long been celebrated by her detractors, but what I didn’t know is that Twain repeatedly tried to read her works.

Still, Austen continued to gather fans: W.H. Auden, G.K. Chesterton, E.M. Forster, Katherine Mansfield, Rebecca West, and even the crotchety Winston Churchill. Another unlikely candidate, Aldous Huxley, wrote the screenplay for the first film adaption of Pride and Prejudice in 1940.

Memorial plaque honoring Austen at Winchester Cathedral.

Memorial tablet honoring Jane Austen at Winchester Cathedral.

There are so many other delicious tidbits, as Harman takes us through different film adaptations and pop-culture trends to the current online zeitgeist of fansites and blogs. But I don’t want to give away the too much of the book, which I highly recommend. Throughout, Harman manages to keep Jane very much in the present with anecdotes, family memories, quotes, and a clever musings as to how Austen would react to all this. Indeed, we all wonder and that’s part of what drives our Janeite mania.

Even after reading her novels, her letters, various biographies, and, yes, many of the Austenalia takeoffs—we still thirst for more of Jane Austen.

As Harman quotes Katherine Mansfield:

“The truth is that every true admirer of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone—reading between the lines—has become the secret friend of their author.”

I read this book as part of the Austen in August annual reading event hosted by Roof Beam Reader. #AusteninAugustRBR

Worn Out With Civility at Mansfield Park

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How Did I Not Know About Marvel’s Pride & Prejudice?

Kate Middleton Decried as Jane Austen Character

When Pride and Prejudice Clicks, from Boring to Brilliant

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Ocean at the End of the Lane lgPhantasmagorical is how I would describe Neil Gaiman’s novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

That is not to say this is a book of pure fantasy. Gaiman grounds his story in the ordinary, as told from the viewpoint of a seven-year old, unnamed boy. His father burns the toast each morning, his sister annoys him, and his great excitement is the weekly arrival of the new SMASH! comic.

This story feels real even as it veers off into the fantastic. The monsters are both human (his father, the opal miner) and supernatural (Ursula Monkton), and the shadows that lurk are predatory. There’s also a clever and creepy-crawly twist on the space-time theory of wormholes. All of this becomes plausible via Gaiman’s dark magical realism.

However, it is the emotional pull that gives this book its heft. Gaiman really taps into the fears of childhood, whether it’s the need for a hall light at bedtime or the helplessness of being in the grip of a menacing adult. The reader feels how important a kitten, or a new friend, can be to an awkward, bookish boy.

The whole story is permeated with a sense of loss—the loss of childhood, the loss of familiar things, the loss of loved ones. We first meet the narrator as a middle-aged adult, returning to his boyhood home for a funeral. The house is gone, replaced by tract housing, and most of the area is beyond recognition.

This particularly resonated with me, as I too went back to my childhood home to find that all the places once sacred to us kids were gone. The forest, where we believed a witch lived; the apple grove, where we climbed trees; and the tiny fish pond—all scraped and replaced by new houses with manicured gardens.

Though most of the novel takes place when the narrator is seven, this is not a children’s book. There are some very mature and disturbing themes. The bathtub scene, in particular, really rattled me, and my one complaint is that Gaiman never fully resolves this. I think best for parents to read first.

Early on, the young hero tells us that he “liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories.” This seems to be exactly what Gaiman is aiming for with The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It is a mythical, frightening, and mostly satisfying read.

This would be perfect pick for a gift for Neil Gaiman’s own #AllHallowsRead or as a scary read for the Halloween meme #Mx3 at Jenn’s Bookshelves.

Halloween Reads on Word Hits:

Join Us for a Readalong of 11/22/63 by Stephen King

Death in the City of Light by David King

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Give a BOO-k for All Hallow’s Read

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