THE THIRY-NINE STEPS by John Buchan

the-thirty-nine-stepsThe Thirty-Nine Steps is something of a thriller written in 1915.  It is about a young man, Richard Hannay,  who comes to England from his life in South Africa, with money and bored.  One day, as he arrives home, he is met by a man who has a fantastic story about the proposed assassination of a world figure that will set off a major war, and only he, the stranger, can stop it, because he knows all the details. Our protagonist allows him to hide out in his apartment, but comes home to find him stabbed to death.  He locates the little black book that the stranger had been scribbling in, and set off himself to finish the job of the murdered man.

OK, it was all kind of hokey, and never felt quite like today’s thrillers, especially because providential things kept happening to save his bacon after the unlikely events happened to put his bacon in danger.

The title of the book comes from the location where the baddies are to meet the boat that will take them out of England.   Apparently, on some seacliffs, there are a number of stairs cut into the rock leading down to the river.   And one set has 39 steps, which is where the boat is to be met.

Buchan’s son later wrote that the name of the book originated when the author’s daughter was counting the stairs at a private nursing home  where Buchan was convalescing. “There was a wooden staircase leading down to the beach. My sister, who was about six, and who had just learnt to count properly, went down them and gleefully announced: there are 39 steps.” Some time later the house was demolished and a section of the stairs, complete with a brass plaque, was sent to Buchan.

This book is considered to be  one of the earliest examples of the ‘man-on-the-run’ thriller archetype.  Richard Hannay is supposed to be an example to his readers of an ordinary man who puts his country’s interests before his own safety.  However, I found it more that he was doing what he was doing because it was an adventure and he had been bored, not so much because he wanted to serve his country in some way.

There have been a number of film adaptations of the book, I think six of them, the first was in 1935, and the latest was 2008, when it was made into a TV drama by the BBC.

There are five volumes in the series about Hennay.  I have two more in my digital possession, and will try the next in the series to see how it goes.  The first was a quick and easy read,  good for a pre-bedtime read when the mind is not awake enough to digest anything heavier.

 

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MURDER AT THE ROCKS by Jill Paterson

murder at the rocksA Fitzjohn Mystery, the second in the series.  The others which I have read are The Celtic Dagger, which is the first of the series, and Once Upon A Lie,  which introduces us once again to the redoubtable Detective Chief Inspector Alistair Fitzjohn, of New South Wales.

Fitzjohn putters with his orchids, a legacy of his deceased wife, and tries to stave off the unwanted help of his domineering sister, who means well, but, you know….

In this mystery case, we have a couple of brothers who have a very prosperous jewelry business, and who hate each other — and not cordially, either.   The older one dies of an illness before he could make contact with his estranged son, a geo-something-or-other Phd.  He leaves his entire estate, including his share of the jewelry business, to the son.  The surviving brother is enraged, and swears to do all in his power to break the will.

But alas and alack, he is found dead in the alley behind the building which houses the business, and oh dear, he has argued with just everyone! and is mean as catcrap  anything, so we have a boatload of possible suspects.   Half the world benefits from having him now a former person, and the other half is just glad to get rid of him, the nasty son of a gun.

I do so like a murderee that no one likes, and who has seemed to have achieved his just desserts.  So satisfying, don’t you think?

So anyway, Fitzjohn and his partner Betts do their detecting, and the suspects do their suspicious stuff, and all is as it should be in a decent detective murder mystery.

You probably already know that ‘just deserts’  comes from an obsolete meaning of desert—namely, something that is deserved or merited.  Yeah, it has nothing to do with pumpkin pie or baked Alaska,  Phooey.

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Mark Haddon

the-curious-incident-dog-in-night-time-Mark-HaddonFunny, sad, heartbreakingly poignant, (and when was the last time you could say THAT about something you have read?), this life-bites-you-in-the-butt story is told in a first-person narrative of 15-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone,  autistic, terrified of social situations, other people, who are truly hell for him, being touched, and having to use bathrooms that strangers have used before him.

On the plus side, he knows all the countries of the world and their capitals, and every prime number up to 7,057.  I’m not even sure what a prime number is.  He is a genius with numbers, and is preparing to sit for his A Levels in Maths, which is a really big deal.  He plans on being an astronaut.   And he relates well to animals, like his pet white rate Toby, and his neighbor’s dog, Wellington.

Christopher lives with his dad in Swinton, England, his mother having died ten years ago.  Dad does his best to deal with Christopher’s eccentricities, like his food can’t touch other food on his plate, and he won’t eat anything yellow or brown, or have anything to do with anything yellow or brown, and like how he screams when touched, so they use fingertip touch of one hand as a stand-in for a hug,  and like how when he is overwhelmed, Christopher puts his head in his hands, and groans, and sometimes curls into a fetal position and groans.

He likes to roam around outdoors at night, looking at the stars, and on one of his nighttime rambles, he comes across Mrs. Shearer’s dog, Wellington, dead, having been stabbed by a garden fork.  He decides to do some detective work and learn who killed the dog.   This leads to his deciding to write a book about it.  A detective mystery.

As he gets further into his investigation, he finds out things he would rather not have known, and something he is glad to know.  And throughout his investigation and book authorship, he serves up  an ongoing stream-of-consciousness airing of the thoughts in his mind about the cosmos, about how life and social niceties work, about advanced math, about school, about animals, about whatever comes to his mind.

It is a delightful mashup of what goes through the head of an autistic person and how they cope.  I am sure there will be plenty of autistic people who will criticize the handling of the material, but I found it wonderful and engaging.   Christopher is reaching for the stars,  and I have no doubt he will reach them.

 

 

OTHER COPENHAGENS AND OTHER STORIES by Edmund Jorgensen

copenhagensEdmund Jorgensen is the author of the book, Speculation, which I absolutely loved, so I was looking forward with great anticipation to see what he came up with in his latest offering, a book of stories primarily about alternate universes or other dimensions, and our participation or involvement in them.

First off, let me say that I am not the best person to be talking about a story collection.  I usually don’t care for the story form;  it is too short for my taste, and so many of them seem truncated and oddly paced.  But that is just me.  My husband reads primarily short stories — that form is the perfect length for him.  So having said that,  this is what I think about Other Copenhagens.

For me — and keep in mind this is just ME and my Never So Humble Opinion — I thought three of the five stories in the collection, though interesting and with some offbeat premises, could have benefited from a longer form — a book length for each, although even a novella would have improved things.  I found too much ‘telling and not enough showing’, as the how-to-write-fiction manuals ramble on about.  The tales seemed to be uncompleted (non-completed?  incompleted?  oh, you know what I mean) ideas, drafts for a longer work.   It felt like the author had this index card file of great book ideas and either didn’t know where to go with the storylines, or lost interest in them for a book length work, so hacked these plotlines into suitable lengths for the short story form, put them together in one volume and called it done.

In the first story, The Art of Losing, a woman seems to have a doppleganger, but by the time I could wrap my mind around what was going on, boom! — the story ended.  Hey!  I was just getting into the whole idea.

The second story, And Not Your Yellow Hair, had possibilities, but was just too short to develop those possibilities, and so the ending felt like:  “and then, and then and then, and finally”.  Everything in that story happened way too fast, and every character was some kind of trope or metaphor as supporting structure for the main character.

Future Perfect brings back some of the characters from the first story, and it was OK but too short, too abrupt.

Now the third story, Slices of Pi, was delightful, and felt just the right length.  Much longer and the whole phraseology of it would have become too tedious to bear.  Kind of like a Saturday Night Live skit that goes on way past the point where you are still chuckling.

And the final, and title story of the collection, Other Copenhagens, was also just about right.  Well, no, perhaps a longer version or a novella length might have improved the pacing just a smidge.  It takes its title from a chunk of quantum mechanics:

Werner Heisenberg, [a German theoretical physicist working in the early part of the 20th century, put forth a theory of] quantum uncertainty about whether the electron’s spin is up or down; he says it is not an uncertainty in the nature of the universe, but in the measurement of the universe.  Observations at quantum scale are just so difficult that they can only be described as probabilities.  This is the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation, named for the city in which Heisenberg proposed it.

So if you are guessing that uncertainty has a part to play in this final story, you would be right.  At least in this world.  Perhaps in another world, you would be totally wrong.  And just how many other worlds are there?  Perhaps an infinite number of them.  Perhaps not.  Perhaps only one other world.  Perhaps when you make a choice, it splits the universe, and one set of consequences of your choice play out in this world  — you die, say,–  and a totally different set of consequences play out in the split off universe.  So suppose in that other world where you don’t die as a result of your choice, you chose again, and again the universe splits and again you die in one of the universes.  And on and on and on.  You keep making a choice and you keep dying.  Quantum suicide.

This is a thought experiment developed independently by Hans Moravec in 1987 and then Bruno Marchal in 1988.  It all has to do with attempts to distinguish between the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics and the Everett many-worlds interpretation by means of a variation of the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, from the cat’s point of view.    See?  Cats.  Kittehs.  I knew you would like it.

In that all of the stories have something to do with quantum mechanics/physics and lots of woo-woo quantum speculation, I loved them.   I am such a sucker for quantum fiction.  You remember when I talked about quantum fiction, right?  HERE.   Just to refresh your fading memory.  Or maybe actually you remember it quite well in another universe.  It is only in this universe that you are scratching your head, muttering, “What the heck is she rabbiting on about?”

One last observation:  although I was disappointed in the collection because I didn’t feel the work  lived up to the author’s promising potential evidenced in Speculation, he still gets full marks for pushing the boundaries of what the average reader might be willing to deal with.  Stories are easy.  Ideas are hard.   And these stories are all about Ideas.  Difficult to grasp ideas.

In order to be absolutely fair, I asked my husband — the Short Story Guy — to give it a read.  He loved it.  So there.  Don’t pay any attention to me.

 

 

FINGERSMITH by Sarah Waters

fingersmithA band of Victorian-era London thieves, (pickpockets, house robbers, you know that kind of Dickens thief,) the London underbelly, and a wild plot to make a pile by marrying somebody.  Make money by marrying somebody you say?  Pffft, you say?  What’s so unique about that?  Happens all the time.  Yeah, you remember Anna Nicole Smith and whatshisface, the old guy, J. Howard Marshall.     Suuuuure she married him for love.   Suuuuure she did.  Well, as my blessed mother used to tell me, you can love a rich one as easily as you can love a poor one.   So true.  Funny how when they’re rich their glaring faults become small niggling little concerns.  But I digress.

Sue, 17 years old, the daughter of a woman hanged for …. well, I forget for what, but Sue could see the gallows and the hanging from her window.  Egad, but those were tough times.

She has been brought up by a woman who runs a baby farm.  She takes in orphan infants and sells them to couples wanting a child.  There is never a lack of these babies.  Also part of the ‘family’ is Mr. Ibbs, who is a receiver of stolen goods, who then removes identifying emblems, initials, etc. from metals, and the stitching from fine ladies handkerchiefs before passing on the goods along the chain of the underground economy.

The family friend, Gentleman, who claims to be of high birth but can’t stand the restraints imposed by such a life, comes to them with a plot, and what a plot it is.  Forty miles out into the countryside, in an old, isolated gloomy house, lives a man, who is a book collector of a specialized nature, who needs help with his index he is compiling.  Once there, Gentleman discovers the man has a niece, heir to a huge fortune, which she will only receive when she marries.  But she is underage, and the uncle will never agree to her marrying.   So he plots to have her fall in love with him, so he can spirit her away, get married on the Q.T., then after a week, claim she is mad, have some tame doctors look her over and then have her committed to a madhouse.  Whereupon he would then get all her money.

But he needs help, which is where Sue comes in.  She is to go there to be a lady’s maid to the young woman and help the plot along, for which she will receive 3,000, a princely sum to her.

Seems straight forward enough, no?  No.  It is not.  It is twisty, and complicated, and who lands up in the madhouse, and who suffers further at the hands of the London woman, and who gets murdered, who gets hung, and oh my goodness, the surprises that keep on coming.

The first section is told in the first person by Sue.  The second section is told in first person by the young lady of the manor, and I admit to finding some of it a bit dull because it basically is everything from the first section but told from her viewpoint.  The third section is all about life in the madhouse, and frankly, I could have done without all that nastiness and cruelty, what with my sensitive nature and all.

There is no honor among thieves.  So it would seem.  Or among pretty much anyone else, for that matter.  Let me tell you, you think you know somebody.  Well.  I swan.  I don’t think so.

I will leave you with just one word:  the love that dares not speak it’s name.   That’s all.  My lips are sealed.

 

 

THE BURNT HOUSE by Faye Kellerman

burnt house kellermanAn airliner has trouble on its takeoff and never quite gains its full altitude when it takes a nosedive and crashes into an apartment building in Lieutenant Peter Decker’s baliwick.  One of the people supposedly on board was a flight attendant, but not working, and not ticketed.  Grabbing a flight back from San Jose?   The husband wants her declared dead so he can collected the insurance money, honey.  Her parents want her declared dead because they are sure the husband killed her and used the accident as a way to cover it up.  But we have no body, no teeth, no effects, no nuttin’.

I love the title of this book because of the many layers involved.  Not only is the house or apartment building burnt, but in Jerusalem, as Rina tells her husband Peter, is an archeological find called Burnt House.  It is an excavated house from the Second Temple period situated six metres below current street level in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. The Burnt House is believed to have been set on fire during the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. According to Josephus, Jerusalem’s Upper City was known for its wealth. It was located close to the Temple and inhabited by priestly families who served in the temple.

Also found in the house was a round stone weight, 10 cm in diameter, and on it, in square Aramaic script was a Hebrew inscription indicating that the house belonged to the Kathros family.  According to the Talmud, the Kathros family was a priestly family that had abused its position in the Temple. Retribution is an ongoing theme in the biblical and Torah references.

Because of the underground find in Jerusalem, Rina reminds Peter to look below, in a basement or crawl space for evidence, for just as evidence of the Kathros house appeared far below what was expected, so, too, might he find evidence further down in the rubble, where he might also find evidence of a retribution of sorts.

And in addition, Burnt house could very well serve as a metaphor for a marriage gone awry, )that of the missing flight attendant and her spouse), as well as a physical house.

This volume in the series has less about the personal and religious life of the Deckers.  However, his grown daughter Cindy, now married to her Ethiopian Jewish young man, are in the throes of planning a large renovation and addition to their tiny home,  which brings in a retired cop now operating a construction business populated mostly by retired guys.  Decker finds this guy can be helpful in the missing flight attendant situation, and adds him as an ad hoc temp to the investigating team.   All in all, a lovely satisfying mystery.

Burnt House in Jerusalem

Burnt House in Jerusalem

This is the last Decker/Lazarus book I will be reading for a while.  I have succumbed to Series Burnout, and it’s time to turn to other books, which are piling up alarmingly, (if an electronic list on one’s Kindle can be said to pile up.)  The list is growing, and I am now anxious to embark on new voyages, discover new shores, and hopefully come up with some better cliches.

cliches

 

 

 

 

 

HOW I LIVE NOW by Meg Rosoff

how i live now This Young Adult Dystopian book was written in 2004, and won the British Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the American Printz Award for young-adult literature.   Hmmmm.   Well, no accounting for taste.

I don’t know how I ended up with this book.  I generally don’t read YA stuff unless it is considered to be a classic, and I NEVER read dystopian stories, because I am much too much of a PollyAnna to want to consider the disgusting, horrific, scary and awful possible ways our world is going to hell in a Longaberger basket.   Daisies.  Hillsides.  Sound of Music.  Alps.  Blue skies.  Gentle zephyrs.  Yep, that’s me, dear ones.

OH!  I remember now.  My husband recommended it.  Well, he is a fan of dystopia, so that answers THAT.

Fifteen year old Daisy, whose mother died in Daisy’s childbirth, and who dislikes greatly her stepmother, who is now preggers, and has found a wonderful course of revenge on her father by developing a severe eating disorder, is sent by the folks to her aunt, (her mother’s sister) in England to stay for a while.   When Daisy arrives at the airport, she finds only her 12-year-old chain-smoking cousin Edmund, who apparently drove to the airport himself to pick her up.

This is her introduction to the cousins,which consist of  an odd and clingy fey child of nine, Piper,  and Edmund’s twin, Isaac, who talks only to animals, and the eldest, Osbert, the only one even within shouting distance of normal.  Aunt Penn is nowhere to be seen, somewhere off at her work.  She makes a brief appearance, only to whisk off again to Oslo for a conference, never to be seen again.   Daisy and cousin Edmund, who by the way also is telepathic,  embark on an intense incestuous sexual relationship, and pardon me all to hell, but I don’t care how poetically and lyrically it is all described, it’s still inappropriate incestuous underage sex, and I am too old and set in my ways to think it is beautiful or OK or anything else, especially for a young adult audience.  I can’t imagine how it got that Children’s Fiction Prize.

It is narrated in first person by Daisy, who speaks in Capitalized Words A Lot, which starts off being Cute and Nifty, and ends up being Tedious and Just Too Precious for Words.

The Missing Mum Situation is thought to be a boon by the kids, leaving them with money in the bank, and no adult to boss them around.   Peter Pan without the pirates.  Until the war starts.  Yep.  A terrorist attack in London seems far away and nothing to do with them, as they live far out in the country on their small farm.  But gradually it is clear that this is war, it is world wide, and the shortages begin, and so does the tough stuff.  They are forced out of their house by the army, and the book then becomes All About Survival.  Which is EXACTLY why I don’t read Dystopian Novels.

And just when it seems that All Is Lost, guess what!  She makes it back to the abandoned house, where, miracle of miracles, THE PHONE RINGS!!!, and it is her dad calling from America.  And guess another what!   He can pull strings and get her removed from this horrendous land and brought back home, where she spends a bit of time in a shrinkatorium, then moves out on her own.

Five years later, she returns to a Recovering Britain, and the house and the cousins, who are all Doing Fairly Well except for Edmund, who is a basket case after  working his disastrous way home only to find that She Had Gone Back to America and Left Him.  So she Determines To Stay and Make the Best of It, gradually Bringing Him Back to the Present, gradually Healing His Mind.   It’s How She Lives Now.

Oh, please.