Regency murders

ratcliffe_poster

P D James and T A Critchley
The Maul and the Pear Tree:
the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811

Faber & Faber 2010

I deliberately began reading The Maul and the Pear Tree exactly two hundred years to the day that the horrific killing spree known as the Ratcliffe Highway murders began, on December 7th 1811. Four innocent people, including a babe in arms, were butchered in London’s East End that first night, stretching the rudimentary resources of the parish, the local magistrates and the Thames police based in Wapping. It inaugurated a period of terror, suspicion and xenophobia in St George’s and the neighbouring parishes and, through the medium of the press, a few weeks of morbid fascination in the public at large. It also led to questions in Parliament on the adequacy of current policing by neighbourhood watchmen, with a scornful analysis by the playwright Sheridan on the floor of the House of Commons.

Panic really set in when, twelve days later, a second attack resulting in three more horrific murders took place, also around the witching hour of midnight.

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Sighs, pie charts and statistics

1: LT author cloud

Many of you booklovers may well be familiar with LibraryThing, one of many sites available for cataloguing books you’ve read or that are in your library — plus all the other interaction expected on social media sites. Most if not all have useful facilities for examining your bookish stats, and LT is no exception. I like to occasionally peruse these to see what patterns and trends, if any, seem to be emerging.

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London is the hero

China Miéville Kraken: an Anatomy
Pan 2010

Welcome to London
and an underground of cults,
cops, criminals, squid.

There has been precious little discussion about the significance, if any, of Kraken’s subtitle. Anatomy, which now means the science of body structure, derives from Greek roots implying cutting open and, particularly, apart (what we’d now call an autopsy). I suggest that Kraken is not just about a giant squid specimen in the Natural History Museum (or rather, for most of the book, out of the Museum) but about how it is used to cut open the underbelly of an arcane and corrupt London and expose its putrefying innards.

Ultimately this urban fantasy is about the power of words. Continue reading “London is the hero”

A worm in the bud

Conrad Gesner and Edward Topsell: Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes and Serpents (1658)

Marie Brennan: A Natural History of Dragons:
a memoir by Lady Trent
Titan Books 2014 (2013)

I’ve had my eye on this for some time and for a number of reasons, but despite the delay in my reading there’s no denying the praise and esteem it has garnered from the start. The ‘Lady Trent’ of the title must be a close fit or at least parallel of author Bryn Neuenschwander (who writes under the Marie Brennan nom de plume): her background in anthropology, archaeology and folklore overlaps that of the fictional writer of this memoir. Certainly that same passion and expertise comes through strongly in the text of this fantasy, not failing to enthuse the sympathetic reader. And dragons: what heart can’t beat a little bit faster on reading this word?

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High five

WordPress have just informed me that it has been five years since I began this blog by registering it. Back in 2012 I had no real ambitions other than to post a few reviews and hopefully engage with a few likeminded bloggers. Now, in 2017, that remains the core ambition. I have nothing to sell, only ideas to share; I aim to receive no remuneration except informative dialogue and virtual friendship.

I’d like to thank all current followers of Calmgrove for remaining active and for sharing thoughts and adding ‘likes’ where appropriate. I myself follow sixty-odd blogs, not on a follow4follow basis but because they have interesting things to say or wonderfully crafted visual and wordy creations to share. If I am sometimes remiss in engaging it’s because of time and opportunity, not because I’m dismissive of your inspiring efforts.

I promised to rejuvenate my photoblog MyNewShy and my creating writing outlet Zenrinji — all that is ongoing and will emerge in due course — but for the moment I’m focusing on this literary blog, attempting a sensible regular schedule. I don’t intend to stop reading, so there’s every chance I shall be still here in five years’ time doing what I set out to do in a rather more optimistic era: exploring the world of ideas through books. I hope you’ll continue to join me in that exploration!

Not so young grasshopper

Credit: http://thegraphicsfairy.com/vintage-grasshopper-label-image/

I finally decided to take a long hard look at the pile of books on my bedside table. I’d just finished Marie Brennan’s rip-roaring A Natural History of Dragons and was considering what to go for next. On that pile were

  • Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, the first of those titles I’ve stalled on. Or — as I prefer to think of it — a title that I’m deliberating over. The fact is, where I’ve got to in ICHH is in many ways so close a parallel to what has occurred so far with Trump’s presidency that I find it too depressing to go on, for now at least.
  • Daphne Du Maurier’s Castle Dor. This time it’s the pedestrian pace adopted by Arthur Quiller-Couch that is fazing me. Maybe when I finally get to Du Maurier’s continuation things will pick up. At the moment it dulls the heart.
  • Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Storyteller of Marrakesh should be right up my street. Story-telling, mystery, a narrative about narration — I should be wallowing in the metafiction of it all. But maybe I wasn’t in the mood for it, having started in the depths (or rather mid-shallows) of the British winter. It will stay by my beside until summer is nigh.
  • After I read Emma I had a look at a commentary on it in A Brief Guide to Jane Austen, a commentary I’d avoided when I first read Charles Jennings’ discussion of all things Austen. My eye then was drawn by his section of Persuasion, but I stopped until I had too much of a preview of Austen’s last great novel. It’ll stay until I read that novel.
  • And that takes us to Persuasion itself, which I began immediately after finishing Emma, having been *ahem* persuaded it was more satisfying. But then I was distracted again, this time by a study I’d stalled on  been ‘deliberating’ over last year. This was …
  • Irene Collins’ Jane Austen and the Clergy which is a fascinating and detailed account of the author’s attitude to and treatment of clergymen in her fiction and in real life. Given that she was a clergyman’s daughter, the sister of two others and the cousin of four more, this study is already enlightening me, revealing how realistically she treats religious figures in her novels, whether Mr Collins or Mr Elton, Edmund Bertram or Mr Tilney.

And that takes me to now. Having just finished Marie Brennan’s fantasy — a wonderful romp which I shall be reviewing (soon, I hope) — I alighted on Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton. I really wanted to read some James (any James in fact) in 2016, the centenary year of his death; but you can’t do everything, and so it is that this year will mark my first belated sniff at this author’s work.

That’s a typical snapshot of my grasshopper mind, a state that’s when it comes to reading hasn’t changed much since my childhood. Patience, young grasshopper is a injunction that could have applied to me then and, with a change of adjective, still applies now. And you? Do you have a pile of books in different stages of completion, which you’re deliberating over? Or do you finish what you start, with your equivalent of a bedside table relatively free of clutter?


April is nearly over, and like April showers it doesn’t seem to have lasted very long. In that time I’ve reviewed only three books: Jane Austen’s Emma, Joan Aiken’s A Bundle of Nerves and Glenda Leeming’s Who’s Who in Jane Austen and the Brontës (though of course I’ve only dipped into this last title, as it’s primarily a reference book). Poor show. But I have marked April Fool’s Day, Easter, St George’s Day and World Book Night — all in a bookish way — discussed Emma in a series of posts and signalled my progress on demolishing my pile of to-be-read books. So it hasn’t been too inactive a month.

To savour, and to save

The Human Eye (credit: http://thegraphicsfairy.com/vintage-clip-art-eye-diagram/)

Joan Aiken: A Bundle of Nerves:
stories of horror, suspense and fantasy

Cover illustration Peter Goodfellow
Peacock (Penguin) Books 1978 (1976)

Nineteen short stories are collected here, the majority originally appearing in Argosy — a British magazine which appeared between 1926 and 1974 and for which Joan Aiken was Features Editor (from 1955 to 1960). They are indeed ‘stories of horror, suspense and fantasy’, and though rather mild — if occasionally racy — by today’s tastes they were, and still are, perfect for the young teenage readership the collection aims at.

Continue reading “To savour, and to save”