I, Richard by Elizabeth George

Book description:
Hailed by The New York Times as “a master of the British mystery,” award-winning author Elizabeth George is one of our most distinguished writers, cherished by readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Her first collection of short stories is an extraordinary offering that deftly explores the dark side of everyday people—and the lengths to which they will go to get what they want most…

In these five tantalizing and original tales, George plumbs the depths of human nature—and human weakness—as only she can. From the chilling tale of a marriage built on an appalling set of lies that only death can reveal, to the final, title story about a penniless schoolteacher whose ambition turns murderous, I, Richard is filled with page-turning drama, danger, and unmatched suspense.

Whether the setting is urban or suburban, affluent or middle class, no one is safe from menace. Thanks to Inspector Thomas Lynley, a squabbling group of Anglophiles discovers a killer in its midst. But little help is on hand when a picture-perfect town is shattered by an eccentric new resident’s horrifying pet project. And when a wealthy husband is haunted by suspicions about his much-younger wife, it becomes clear that a man’s imagination can be his own worst enemy…

Well. That was different! And not, I’m afraid, in a terribly good way. I’ve furnished ample avidence of my admiration for George’s mystery novels in the past (and intend to read more of them in future), but I wasn’t too enamored of these short stories, primarily because most are variations on the theme of “things go wrong for the unsympathetic protagonist.” And that is not my favorite theme upon which to dwell. But let us forge onward into specifics!

“Exposure” is a rewrite of an earlier story, “The Evidence Exposed.” It concerns a group of Americans taking a summer course in The History of British Architecture who have come to Abinger Manor, residence of Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley’s aunt, for a tour. The characters are the highlight of this one, and though the crime is rather silly and the culprit’s motive murky, I still rather liked some of the quick portraits painted of those enrolled in the class. Lynley doesn’t get much to do, though, and poor Helen is relegated to being charming without actually, if I recall rightly, having a line of dialogue.

“The Surprise of His Life” is, ironically, possessed of an utterly predictable conclusion. After a lengthy introduction, in which George reveals drawing inspiration from the alleged crimes of O. J. Simpson, we meet a wealthy businessman who has begun seeing a psychic. She warns him to expect an external shock, so he goes off into all these flights of fancy about his wife having an affair and hires a private investigator who takes pictures of her with another man and… it’s just so obvious what’s going to happen that waiting for it to actually occur is maddening.

“Good Fences Aren’t Always Enough” is a weird little tale about the residents of Napier Lane, who are striving to be designated as one of their town’s Perfect Places to Live, and the small, grey, Russian immigrant whose overgrown, rat-infested yard stands in their way. Willow McKenna, a former foster child now obsessed with the idea of a big family and cozy community, is a fairly likeable lead and this, at least, didn’t end like I thought it was going to. It was a lot more… ordinary, in the end.

“Remember I’ll Always Love You” is the second story to feature a couple’s life ruined by extreme suspicion. Charlie Lawton’s husband, Eric, has just died at the age of 42. As she seeks out his parents, Charlie begins to realize that Eric was keeping a lot of things from her. A lot of really, really major things that are so out-of-left-field that she’s left reeling. This story is sort of admirably constructed in terms of what you think you know that it turns out you didn’t really know, but it feels flat somehow.

Lastly we have the title story, “I, Richard,” which contained both the high points and low points of the collection for me. I intensely disliked Malcolm Cousins, the ambitious would-be historian who has been engaged in an affair with the wife of a friend with the express purpose of coming into possession of a prized artifact when that friend should finally succumb to a weak heart. Malcolm is a sleazy git who gets what he deserves, but George uses him as a mouthpiece for some exonerating theories in support of Richard III, and that part I liked. The challenge is, of course, writing a modern-day story concerned with Richard III and not having it be too much like Josephine Tey’s marvelous The Daughter of Time, and George succeeds in that regard, I suppose.

Ultimately, this isn’t essential reading for fans of the Lynley/Havers mystery series. Lynley appears briefly in a story, but does very little, and there’s absolutely no bearing on anything that happens in other books. I’m not sure if I’m glad I read it or not, but I know for sure that I’ll not be doing so again.

Crimson Snow by Hori Tomoki

I reviewed Crimson Snow, a BL short story collection from BLU Manga, for this month’s BL Bookrack column. Despite the yakuza connection, the three-part title story is quiet and compelling and well worth the price of admission all on its own.

You can find that review here.

Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham: A

Book description:
When war broke out in 1914, Somerset Maugham was dispatched by the British Secret Service to Switzerland under the guise of completing a play. Multilingual, knowledgeable about many European countries and a celebrated writer, Maugham had the perfect cover, and the assignment appealed to his love of romance, and of the ridiculous. The stories collected in Ashenden are rooted in Maugham’s own experiences as an agent, reflecting the ruthlessness and brutality of espionage, its intrigue and treachery, as well as its absurdity.

I have only read two books by W. Somerset Maugham, of which this is the second, and I can already proclaim without a shred of doubt that he’s one of my favorite writers. Everything about the way he writes appeals to me. He’s wry and keenly observant, with a knack for creating vivid portraits of his characters while wasting not a single word.

Here’s an example, taken from the story “A Chance Acquaintance.”

Mr. Harrington was devoted to his wife and he told Ashenden at unbelievable length how cultivated and what a perfect mother she was. She had delicate health and had undergone a great number of operations, all of which he described in detail. He had had two operations himself, one of his tonsils and one to remove his appendix, and he took Ashenden day by day through his experiences. All his friends had had operations and his knowledge of surgery was encyclopedic. He had two sons, both at school, and he was seriously considering whether he would not be well-advised to have them operated on.

Maugham’s writing is so wonderful that if I learned he’d penned a six-volume ode to cole slaw, I would grab it because I could be certain that it would be witty and somehow make me think of cole slaw in a way I never had before. The fact that the stories in Ashenden are actually excellent, therefore, is just icing on the proverbial cake.

Instead of being utterly disconnected, the stories here function as a string of vignettes in the life of Ashenden, a writer who’s been drafted as an agent of the British Intelligence Department during World War I. They’re at least partly based on Maugham’s own experiences in this capacity, though he hastens to impress upon the reader that this is a work of fiction.

Ashenden is recruited by a Colonel known to him only as R., and sent on a variety of missions that include playing escort to an eccentric Mexican assassin, arranging for a traveling dancer to betray her revolutionary Indian lover, ascertaining whether an Englishman spying for Germany might be recruited as a double agent, attempting to prevent the Bolshevik revolution, and more. Sometimes he succeeds, frequently with bittersweet results, and sometimes he fails. Occasionally his objective or the outcome is not known to the reader, since Maugham is more interested in describing the people Ashenden meets than in the specifics of his efforts.

It’s impossible to pick a favorite story, as each has its share of indelible moments to recommend it. Since the tales featuring the voluble Mr. Harrington are at the end of the collection and I have read them most recently, I feel a soft spot for those in particular, though “The Traitor” and “Giulia Lazzari” are each unforgettable.

If you’ve a particular interest in war-time Europe, Ashenden ought not be missed. Really, it ought not be missed in any case, but if the subject matter holds special appeal for you then you’ve really got no excuse!

My Man Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse: B-

Book description:
My Man Jeeves, first published in 1919, introduced the world to affable, indolent Bertie Wooster and his precise, capable valet, Jeeves. Some of the finest examples of humorous writing found in English literature are woven around the relationship between these two men of very different classes and temperaments. Where Bertie is impetuous and feeble, Jeeves is cool-headed and poised. This collection, the first book of Jeeves and Wooster stories, includes “Leave it to Jeeves,” “Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest,” “Jeeves and the Hard-Boiled Egg,” “Absent Treatment,” “Helping Freddie,” “Rallying Round Old George,” “Doing Clarence a Bit of Good,” and “The Aunt and the Sluggard.”

It grieves me to award a relatively low grade to My Man Jeeves, because I truly did want to like it, but the trouble is, if I may be allowed to borrow Bertie’s manner of speech for a moment, that the stories it contains are “dashed repetitive, don’t you know?” In fact, you too can write a story just like the ones in this book! Make a selection at each parenthetical prompt and you’re halfway there!

A friend of (Reggie Pepper/Bertie Wooster) is having trouble with a (rich aunt or uncle/woman) and is despondent because said person has threatened to (cut off his allowance/break off their engagement). (Reggie/Jeeves) comes up with a kooky idea to achieve the friend’s desired result and hijinks ensue.

The outcomes of the stories are all different, of course, and usually at least somewhat amusing. The story that varies the most from the formula above is “Doing Clarence a Bit of Good,” in which Reggie is summoned to the home of his former sweetheart, who has manipulated him thither with tales of an excellent golf course nearby but who really wants him to steal an ugly painting by her husband’s father. I probably should’ve seen the end result coming, but didn’t.

The relationship between Jeeves and Wooster is also enjoyable, with Wooster being terribly impressed by the “devilish brainy” Jeeves and occasionally rewarding him for his achievements by casting off ties, hats, or mustaches that have offended Jeeves’s delicate sensibilities. I’m a little sad that Jeeves’s intellect is used primarily for schemes of deception, though, and hope that won’t always be the case. There are a couple of occasions where he quietly works a solution of his own while Bertie is away, and I found those better examples of his cleverness than simply advising someone to pretend to have written a book on birds in order to appeal to a rich uncle with an ornithological bent.

There’s actually one story featuring Bertie and Jeeves that is even older than those collected here. “Extricating Young Gussie,” first published in 1915 and included in The Man with Two Left Feet in 1917, finds Bertie tasked with preventing the marriage of his cousin to a chorus girl. I had thought it was safe to save this ’til later, since Jeeves’s part is extremely small, but Bertie mentioned it a couple of times here so I’ll probably go ahead and tackle that one next.

Complete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde: A

From the back cover:
A celebrated playwright and poet, Oscar Wilde also penned incomparable nonfiction and fiction—and lovely gem-like fairy tales. Filled with princes and nightingales, mermaids, giants, and kings, his tales carry the mark of his signature irony and subtle eroticism. This volume brings together all the stories found in Wilde’s two collections, The Happy Prince and Other Tales and A House of Pomegranates. Published here alongside their evocative original illustrations, these fairy tales, as Wilde himself explained, were written “partly for children, and partly for those who have kept the childlike faculties of wonder and joy.”

I was first made aware of the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde by Stephen Fry, whose recording of six of the stories is nothing short of delightful. This print edition has its charms, too, including three additional tales as well as illustrations and a great introduction that acquaints readers with not only the tragedies of Wilde’s life but with the fond recollections of his friends. I’d say it’s worthwhile to invest in both.

Wilde published two collections of children’s stories and both, obviously, are included here. On one level, the stories are amusing and imaginative, featuring a bevy of talking animals—whom Wilde often uses for satirical purposes, as with the mother duck in “The Devoted Friend” who frets that her children will never be in “the best society” unless they can stand on their heads—and even a sentient firework with delusions of grandeur. Often, though, a surprising degree of darkness is also present, as various characters die, realize the suffering they have caused others, commit valiant acts of self-sacrifice for ultimately no purpose whatsoever, and persist in their misguided ways despite the best attempts of others to show them the light.

In these stories, Wilde mingles the fantastic with the quotidian and the heartwarming with the bittersweet in a way that really appeals to me. Here are my three favorite examples (spoilers ahead):

In “The Nightingale and the Rose,” a nightingale overhears a student bewailing his plight: the woman he loves has agreed to dance with him at an upcoming event if he brings her a red rose. Alas, there are no red roses in his garden. The bird, believing him to be the very embodiment of true love, which she is always singing about, tries everything in her power to procure such a flower for him, ultimately deciding that it’s worth sacrificing her own life for the sake of love. And what is the recipient’s reaction to the rose when it is presented to her? “I’m afraid it will not go with my dress.” It ends up in the street and is promptly run over by a cart. The end.

A similarly awesome ending can be found in “The Star-Child.” One winter, a pair of poor woodcutters are returning to their homes when they see what appears to be a falling star land nearby. When they get there, they find a baby, and one of the men takes it home. The boy grows up fair and comely and becomes vain and cruel because he is convinced of his own lofty origins. One day, a beggar woman shows up to claim him as her son, but he rejects her. This action renders him ugly, and he spends the next three years in search of the woman to beg her forgiveness, learning mercy and pity along the way and sincerely repenting of his former actions. A happy ending seems imminent when he not only gets his looks back but is revealed to be a prince, but Wilde concludes the story (and A House of Pomegranates as a whole) with the following paragraph:

Yet ruled he not long, so great had been his suffering, and so bitter the fire of his testing, for after the space of three years he died. And he who came after him ruled evilly.

The end. Is that not amazing?

My very, very favorite story, though, is “The Happy Prince.” Once upon a time there was a prince, and he was happy while he lived in his isolated palace and remained ignorant of the world outside. After his death, the townspeople erected a beautiful, gilded statue in his honor and set it on a tall column, from where he can see (with his sapphire eyes) all the misery in the city that he could not see before. One day, a swallow—delayed in departing for warmer climes because of his devotion to a fickle reed (“It is a ridiculous attachment,” twittered the other swallows. “She has no money and far too many relations.”)—lands near his feet and becomes the messenger for the Happy Prince, plucking out his jewels and stripping off his gold and delivering them to the poor and needy.

The swallow eventually succumbs to the cold, but not before sharing a kiss with the statue he loves. The mayor, once he notices how shabby the statue has become, decides that one of himself would do much better and pulls it down. Here, instead of a wholly sad ending, Wilde offers up a sweeter alternative that sees both the statue and the bird rewarded for their benevolence. It’s an immensely satisfying tale that also portrays pure love between two males, though they be not human; I like it immensely.

The one author of whom I was reminded while reading these stories is Neil Gaiman. I’m now convinced he was at least partly inspired by Wilde, so, if you’re a fan of his short stories, you might like these as well!

When the Heavens Smile by Aki Senoo: B+

Book description:
Takagi, a rather cute and innocent guy, is best friends and classmates with Kumoi, a tall, intellectual guy. One day, Takagi is stunned to find a pencil sketch of a man between Kumoi’s notebook pages that resembles his older brother… who passed away six years ago! Could Kumoi have possibly known his brother?

I’ll admit that what initially appealed to me the most about When the Heavens Smile was its pretty, muted cover. It was quite a pleasant surprise to find that all eight of the stories within are quite good.

A common theme for the collection seems to be “friends in love,” though this isn’t true for all stories. “Fragment,” for example, is the tale of two students who meet, feel a connection, and give in to their impulses before they even learn each other’s names. “Absolute Condition” is about gentle-seeming Kusaka who turns out to be a closet mole fetishist and “Sirens” is about a high-school student and his relationship with an older man (though it’s clear that it was the student who made the first move). The first two are particularly good and both feature a take-charge uke.

The first of the “friends in love” stories is “I Love Strawberries the Most, Followed By My Dad,” which is a very sweet story with another take-charge uke. I love how the boys compare their affection for each other to how much they love various fruits. “Fever Mark” features another pair of friends becoming more, and “That Which Falls From Heaven” and “That Which is Still Here” are about Takagi and Kumoi who share a chaste love while being watched over by the ghost of Takagi’s elder brother.

My very favorite story in the collection concerns men rather than boys and is called “I Can’t Remember Now.” Midori works in a bar, and his friend Katsuhiro comes in constantly and gets plastered. Every time, Katsuhiro professes his love to Midori and tries to grope him, and all the other employees just assume they are a couple. Alas, Katsuhiro remembers nothing the next morning, which is painful for Midori since he does have feelings for his friend. Eventually, Midori can’t take it anymore and puts some distance between them. When a tipsy Katsuhiro tracks him down, Midori forces him to sober up before they can talk and, of course, they end up happily in bed with Katsuhiro comically uncertain if that was their first time or not.

Senoo’s art suits the stories well and there were several panels I had to pause and admire, even though the style is simple and backgrounds largely nonexistent. I like the character designs, and too I liked that none of the sex scenes (all of which are consensual, incidentally) are explicit. They’re plenty sexy as they are, without the need for details and slurpy sound effects, because the characters are interesting and their connections meaningful.

On the whole, this was exactly the sort of BL I like most; I hope more of Aki Senoo’s work is licensed in the future.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Scarlet by Hiro Madarame: B+

When I reviewed Madarame’s Cute Devil, I mentioned that I wanted to see what she’d achieve with more likable characters. Well, Scarlet provides the answer. The title story is somewhat disturbing, but that makes it interesting, and I really liked the tale of a one night stand between two coworkers.

You can find my full review in the latest BL Bookrack column at Manga Bookshelf.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Midnight Bloom by Rico Fukiyama: C-

What a disappointment! I usually like books in DMP’s DokiDoki imprint, but aside from a blandly cute title story, this one’s full of shallow stories and off-putting relationships, including a particularly ick-inducing student-teacher romance.

You can find that review here.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Don’t Say Any More, Darling by Fumi Yoshinaga: B

I reviewed this collection of short stories, some BL and some not, for the inaugural edition of a new feature at Manga Bookshelf called BL Bookrack. A couple of the stories are really quite weird, but I truly loved the final story, “The Pianist,” about an aging musician who has convinced himself he’s a “debauched fallen genius” rather than someone who simply didn’t have the talent to succeed.

You can find that review here.

Striding Folly by Dorothy L. Sayers: A-

Book description:
Lord Peter Wimsey’s last three baffling cases all demonstrate his unique detection skills at their most spectacular. The enigma of a house numbered thirteen in a street of even numbers. An indignant child accused of theft. A dream about a game of chess that uncovers the true story behind a violent death. Each of the stories introduces a different side of the twentieth century’s most ingenious detective hero.

Short as it is, Striding Folly is still, by far, my very favorite of the Lord Peter short story collections.

Of the three stories collected herein, the title story is of the least consequence. It’s chiefly about a country gentleman who is suspected of killing a neighbor who planned to sell his land to developers. Lord Peter comes in at the end and prevents a miscarriage of justice. The title, incidentally, refers to the more tangible sort of folly, that is “a whimsical or extravagant structure built to serve as a conversation piece [or] lend interest to a view.” This one happens to be located on a property known as Striding. I had always thought it referred to a bit of foolishness engaged in while ambling about.

In “The Haunted Policeman” we get our first glimpse of Lord Peter since the events of Busman’s Honeymoon. It’s just over a year since his marriage to Harriet, and Peter has just passed a sleepless night while his wife gives birth to their first son. Once all is declared well, his spirits are high and he desires some conversation, even though it’s three in the morning. A passing policeman fits the bill and tells Peter the story of how he came to be accused of drunkenness by his sergeant. The tale involves a murdered man inside a house numbered thirteen on a street with only even-numbered residences. Again, Lord Peter serves as a force of vindication. Though the solution to the mystery is fairly ridiculous, the depiction of Peter is really excellent. I love the notion that, when fretting especially about Harriet, he takes solace in the company of the servants, who allow him to polish the silver.

The second charmer in the collection is “Talboys.” A further six years have passed since the previous story and Peter and Harriet’s family has grown to contain three sons. The eldest, Bredon, confesses at the outset to having stolen two peaches from a neighbor. Peter punishes him and the matter is considered closed until the following morning, when all of the peaches are discovered missing. A visiting houseguest—friend to Peter’s notoriously censorious sister-in-law—persists in suspecting Bredon while Peter rather easily proves his innocence. Again, the mystery is not really the point here. Instead we get a truly wonderful portrait of Peter as father—always willing to have a roll with the dog, let his children clamber all over him, and participate in mischief. I might wish for more emphasis on Harriet in this situation, but her happiness is never in doubt.

Of all the Lord Peter stories, only these last two have ever tempted me to come back and read them again. I had wondered how any short story could provide a sense of closure to the Wimsey series, but in fact it works perfectly, since little time and effort need be expended upon a mystery which is only of secondary importance. I will probably end up reading Thrones, Dominations in the near future but I certainly see the rationale behind stopping here, too.