Aurora Floyd – M. E. Braddon (1863)

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Mary Elizabeth (M. E.) Braddon was a prolific writer (approx. 90 (!) books between 1860 and 1915) and her output consisted of plays, poetry, essays, novels and a number of literary magazines. She had also been an actress in her earlier days, an experience which is said to have helped with her sensation novels published later. (Both Lady Audley’s Secret [1862] and Aurora Floyd [1863] were wildly popular, so much so that certain groups were threatened by her writing and she was criticized as a “purveyor of immoral fiction.”)

Sensation novels were a literary trend in Victorian times usually characterized by mystery, strong passions and opinions (unseemly at the Victorian time) and intricate plotting, all of which are there in large quantities during Aurora Floyd. (See here for a review of her earlier novel, Lady Audley’s Secret.) If you know to expect over-the-top everything going in, it’s a great ride for the reader. It’s a roller coaster ride which speeds along and then ambles in places, but it’s always enjoyable.

The novel spins its tale of murder, intrigue and family over three volumes (at least in my Kindle copy) – this sounds long, but it’s a fast experience as a reader. It’s a fun tale of Gothic romance, incredible coincidences and massive amounts of overwriting, but it worked.

The plot involves the titular Aurora Floyd, the young beautiful daughter of a rich widower in northern England who married a ne’er-do-well husband in her early years, a decision that comes back to haunt her and that involves blackmail, secret-keeping, and loads of money. (You can just feel the frisson that was felt by well-bred Victorian ladies reading this behind their fans in the drawing room on a rainy Monday while their husbands checked the Stock Exchange numbers.)

Typical of sensation novels, Braddon runs a lot of different lines of plot throughout this read, but as each string is added one after another and then linked back, it’s surprisingly easy to keep track of who is doing what to whom. (“Dickensian” was the way that I’d describe this although this was much more Mills and Boon without delving into the hard-hitting social issues quite so much at all.)

ME Braddon in her younger years

I enjoyed it also as a look into the world of domestic life slap in the middle of Victorian times, for a look at rural vs city life, and also to see how slow and difficult murder investigations must have been before the inventions of cars, telephones, forensic evidence and the internet.*

It’s a fun read, and one that I kept returning to before, during, and after vacation, so it obviously kept my attention and interest. If you’re in the mood for anything Gothic, murder, fainting heroines, black mail, and dastardly husbands, you would probably enjoy this. It’s nothing too deep, but it’s a fun read and I recommend it.

(*Slightly relevant historical side note: The concept of professional police (as opposed to private paying for whoever was willing to do it) was officially introduced in England by Sir Robert Peel when he became Home Secretary in 1822. His work led to the Metropolitan Police Act 1829 which established a full-time professional and centrally-organized police force for greater London are known as Metropolitan Police. By the 1850’s, police forces were established nationally across England, Scotland and Wales.

Peel had this philosophy based on “The police are the public and the public are police” (or “policing by consent” as it’s known in UK circles). These “Peelian Principles”, as they are known and upon which an ethical police force are based, are as follows:

  • Every police officer should be issued an identification number to assure accountability for his/her actions
  • Whether the police are effective is not measured on the number of arrests, but on the lack of crime
  • Above all else, an effective authority figure knows trust and accountability are paramount (thus the idea of “policing through consent”)

(Interesting aside #1: UK police used to have a height requirement for all applicants: at least 5 ft. 10 inches until 1960. [Ah-ha: That’s why Dixon of Dock Green was so imposing…] This was not removed until 1990 when minimum height requirements were dropped. The shortest recorded UK police officer is PC Sue Day of Wiltshire Police at 4 ft. 10 inches.)

Well then. Now you know these things….

(One more slightly interesting aside #2, this time related to the book: There is a 1912 American silent movie of Aurora Floyd which was quickly followed by another US version in 1915. And if you were alive in 1863, you could have seen a stage version in London whilst BBC Radio 4 did a radio version with Colin Firth called A Cold Embrace in 2009 if anyone caught that. Luckily, no one has attempted to do a version only doing mime just yet.)

DixonofDockGreen (Above) This is Dixon, of the TV show “Dixon on Dock Green” which was on the BBC from 1955-1976 and featured the daily life at a London police station.

Library Haul Update

I seem to have a little more time with job projects now that I’ve got some more experience under my belt, and as I love going to the library and looking at the shelves, I did just that on Saturday. I don’t know if I’m going to have all the time to read these titles, but I had fun choosing them. No matter – it’s the fun that counts in this case!

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Top to bottom:

  • The Witness to Prosecution – Agatha Christie (F mystery)
  • The Lake of Darkness – Ruth Rendell (F mystery)
  • Here is Where: Discovering America’s Forgotten History – Andrew Carroll (NF travel)
  • Our Hearts Young and Gay – Cornelia Otis Skinner (F) – giant large print as that’s all the library had… at least I won’t need my reading glasses!
  • The Empathy Exams – Leslie Jamison (NF personal essays)
  • MaddAdam – Margaret Atwood (F – speculative)
  • Chinatown: A Portrait of an Unseen Society – Gwen Kinkead (NF-travel/sociological)

Any suggestions to start with?

And I’ve just finished a couple of crackin’ good novels – reviews to come!

Aaah. It’s good to be a reader.

Catch-Up Time

catch_upSo, it’s time to catch up with some things… I’ve been having some good reading lately, but only a few have been stand-out titles which trigger big and deep thoughts (as evidenced in my posts. HA!) Thus, some micro-reviews are in order:

book209Blueprint for Disaster: Get Fuzzy – Darby Conley

A collection of strip cartoons (or sequential art if you want to be posh) about a mixed species household of human Rob Wilco, a bachelor who shares his space with Bucky Katt (a smarty-pants Siamese cat) and Satchel, a sweet mix of Shar-Pei and Labrador. Drawn by Darby Conley (and probably lived by him as well), this cartoon was syndicated in the late 1990’s, and no wonder as it is spot on its depictions of life with feline and canine pets. Satchel the dog is really sweet but not.. umm… very *quick* (shall we say?) and roommate Bucky Katt is fast thinking and quick witted, but with a slightly naughty streak in him. This combination leads to some very entertaining reading. It’s been a long time since I’ve indulged in some Get Fuzzy, and it’s still as funny and on target as it was during the 1990’s when I first read it. It just makes me smile.

And then we have this funny read (the Get Fuzzy) compared with the rather harrowing short stories of Alan Sillitoe in “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”. More on this later, but great contrast between Get Fuzzy and the protagonists of Sillitoe’s stories, along with lots to think about.

Agatha_ChristieAnd then I emerged myself for the first time in Agatha Christie. Don’t have a lot of experience in the mystery genre, so just picked a random title off the Agatha Christie shelf at the library (“4:50 from Paddington”) which I loved, and so then exchanged that title with another one (can’t remember which one right now). Looking forward to more Miss Marple, but will need to research whether they need to be read in a particular order or if they are stand-alones. (I know about the two series of Miss Marple and Poirot, but not the details.)

book206Mary Roach is one of my writing heroes (and I wish we could be friends) – she has a new release out now called “Gulp: An Adventure down the Alimentary Canal” which is hysterically funny and smart. (Thus the dream that we could be friends.) Roach is a science writer with a great sense of humor and I have enjoyed all that she has written. This is another good one, and will have its own post in time. Just saying.

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And then watched a couple of really good movies (been lucky):  one was a psychological thriller called “Fallen” which has an ending which will make you fall out of your chair. (Good boy movie if you need one.)

The other was “Robot and Frank”  about a retired cat burglar who is getting ill with Alzheimer’s so his caring family get him a robot butler to help with his life… Very good. And at the real-life movies, looking forward to Ironman 3 (in Imax) and also The Great Gatsby. I have a feeling that the film will be better than the book… for once!

PLUS – I found out that I am not going to be laid off from my job so that helps to make everything good!

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The Return of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1903-1904)

A collection of more Sherlock Holmes stories, although this anthology features the resurrection of Holmes after Doyle had tried to kill him off in his earlier book. Due to such a public outcry from the fans of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle was forced to bring him back to life and the first story handles that, although it’s not graceful in any way. (Kinda fumbles it, if you ask me, but there may have been reasons for that on Doyle’s side of things.)

Doyle had been writing Sherlock Holmes stories for a while, and although that character was amazingly well liked (and almost a celebrity in his own right), Doyle had got fed up with him and wanted to move on to other projects. However, when Holmes was “killed” in an earlier story, there was a huge public outcry and Doyle felt that he had to bring him back from the dead. This was easier to do than would be expected, as the story wherein Holmes dies is a bit wish-washy about the details of his death, and so it wasn’t that hard to provide details that would prove he was alive in other ways.

So Holmes arrives back in London to meet his friend and business partner Dr. Watson, and then the typical high jinks ensure. As always, a fun read with lots of clues and red herrings sprinkled throughout to make the cases each alluring to the reader to work out. I also noticed that Holmes is starting to get bit more openly grumpy in this book: he snaps at Watson, uses sarcasm and is generally a bit snarky. (You know, he reminded me of Doc Martin in the BBC TV series of the same name. And also House, MD, which of course takes us back to Holmes.)

This bad-tempered side of Holmes comes out more clearly and more defined in this anthology, and I am wondering if it’s because Doyle was grumpy about having to resurrect him when he had thought he was done with that character. (Doyle was an interesting person, in and of himself, but I’ll travel down that rabbit hole another day. In the meantime, here is the official website of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Literary Estate… )

An interesting parallel to this is that another book that I am currently reading (“The Devil and Sherlock Holmes” by David Grann) is non-fiction and one of its chapters details the curious tale of how one of the world’s foremost scholars of Sherlock Holmes died a suspicious death after he started to get involved in the large stash of Doyle’s personal papers which was supposed to go to the British Museum, but somehow (through family machinations) ended up on the auction block at Sothebys. (The papers – the important ones, at least – did get to the British Museum in the end, but it was a lengthy journey.) So – even after Doyle is long dead and his characters are historical icons, there is still mystery surrounding the whole topic.

I made a list of all the Sherlock Holmes works that Doyle produced, and thought it might be a fun project to work my way through them in a laid-back non anal-retentive way (if I can). Here is the list so far, working by date of publication. Crossed out titles means that I have already read them.

Sherlock Holmes Novels:

  • A Study in Scarlet (1997)
  • The Sign of Four (1890)
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-1902)
  • The Valley of Fear (1914-1915)

Collections of Sherlock Holmes short stories:

  • Adventures of SH (1981-1892)
  • Memoirs of SH (1892-1893)
  • Return of SH (1903-1904)
  • Reminiscences of SH (including His Last Bow) (1908-1913 and 1917)
  • Case Book of SH (1921-1927)

Am I missing any titles that you may know of? I am going to read them in chronological order of publication to see how the characters develop and if SH gets even more grumpy over time (which will be quite funny if he does)…

I am Half-Sick of Shadows – Alan Bradley

Catching up with some book blog reading last week, I came across a (surprise to me) announcement of the release of another volume of the Flavia de Luce mysteries which happen to be one of my favorite guilty pleasures. Although they are written by a man from Canada, the protagonist is an eleven year old girl who lives in a dilapidated country house in 1950’s England. The author does succeed in translating his voice into the voice of a precocious young girl, surrounded by horrible older sisters who like to verbally torture her and a distant father. (Her mother has been killed in a climbing accident in Tibet when she was a baby.)

So this was the fourth volume of the series and features a Christmas-time mystery surrounding the murder of an aging film star who was working on a film being shot at the dilapidated country manse where the de Luce family lives.  Along this lies another parallel story of how Flavia is planning to trap Father Christmas to see if he really exists. Oh, and there is a never-ending snow storm that also helps to set up the scenes and the characters. (It is very close to being a traditional English country house dinner party murder set up.)

Another point to remember about Flavia, the heroine, is that she is obsessed with chemistry (particularly the world of poisons) and so there are plenty of layperson-friendly chemistry references strewn throughout the novel. (I assume that most of these references have been checked by someone who is far more knowledgeable about these things than I am. They sounded right, anyway.) This was a nice foil for us as well, as we have been engaging in another chemistry-related visual feast of season four of “Breaking Bad” (about a high school chemistry teacher who has an unusual second job).

The characters, some of whom were brought forward from the earlier novels and some being new, were well described, and they were very clear in my mind who each looked like. (All in black and white like a 1950’s film…!) Flavia is a charming person, endlessly curious and dealing with two older sisters who only view her as an ongoing pest unless she can help them out in some way. A favorite reoccurring character was Dogger, a shell-shocked former prisoner of war who was in battle with Flavia’s father and who he has hired an a general handyman. His PTSD from the war zone is very well done and is this story, a  few more details about his background story were added which were good.

As mentioned, I am not a huge mystery reader, but do like to indulge with these Flavia books every now and then, as they are very “Jolly Hockey Sticks” English and contain lots of references to an old England that I grew up through the reading of Enid Blyton and similar. The mysteries in each of the books are also very cleverly designed to be hard to crack, despite there being lots of clues spread around.

A fun very light-hearted read to kick off the Christmas season for 2011.