Snowdrift and Other Stories by Georgette Heyer

I always love spending time in Georgette Heyer’s world; with duels, masked balls, elopements, high-stakes card games and lively period slang, her novels provide perfect escapism – and based on this collection, so do her short stories. Originally published as Pistols for Two in 1960, Snowdrift and Other Stories contains eleven of Heyer’s tales of Regency romance and adventure plus three additional stories not included in the earlier book.

I found these stories so enjoyable and so much fun, it was tempting to read them all at once, but instead I decided to just dip in and out, reading one or two at a time over the course of a few weeks. This was probably a good idea as many of the stories in the book are very similar, so better in smaller doses, I think! In particular, there are several that deal with young couples eloping with various family members in pursuit and a series of misunderstandings ensuing along the way – and also several involving duels, fought with either pistols or swords, and never quite going according to plan. Most of the stories have a twist or two, which are usually easy for the reader to predict, but come as a complete surprise to the characters!

I don’t want to discuss all fourteen stories here, but I can honestly say that I liked all of them – some more than others, of course. Some of my favourites included Bath Miss, in which a gentleman agrees to escort the daughter of a family friend home from school in Bath, but finds that the girl is not quite what he’d expected; The Duel, which follows a young lady who goes in search of the disreputable Lord Rotherfield to beg him not to shoot her brother; and Hazard, where a nobleman ‘wins’ a friend’s sister in a drunken game of dice and is horrified when he wakes up the next day and finds himself on the way to Gretna Green. Another which stood out, although it wasn’t one I particularly loved, was Night at the Inn. Unlike the others, which are all romances of various types, this one is more of a suspense story in which three guests arrive at a lonely inn one dark, foggy night.

As for the three extra stories – Pursuit, Runaway Match and Incident on the Bath Road (all from the 1930s, I think) – they are very entertaining too, although they suffered slightly from being placed at the end. Speaking as someone who is not usually a fan of short stories, I did really enjoy this book. I prefer her full length novels but, as I’ve said, if you just want a small dose of Heyer – or maybe if you’ve never read her before and don’t want to commit to anything longer – I would recommend giving Snowdrift a try.

Thanks to Sourcebooks for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

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Hemmed In edited by M.R. Nelson

This is another collection of classic short stories edited by M.R. Nelson. I have previously read two of her others – Love and Other Happy Endings and Small and Spooky – and enjoyed them both, so I was looking forward to finding out what was in store this time! Nelson calls her collections ‘taster flights’ because they give us a taste of each author’s writing; this particular book contains only one author (Willa Cather) whose work I have previously read – the other five were new to me. Although the stories are very different, they are all linked by a common theme. The title, Hemmed In, should be a clue as to what that theme is!

The opening story is A Jury of Her Peers (1917) by Susan Glaspell, in which a sheriff and a witness are accompanied by their wives on a visit to a house where, it appears, a woman has murdered her husband. This is a cleverly written story, showing how men and women can perceive the same situation differently. The two wives in the story pick up on things that their husbands would never have noticed and are able to use their own knowledge and experience to understand the misery and oppression that may have led the accused woman to commit murder. I have never read anything by Susan Glaspell before but I’m aware that two of her novels have been published by Persephone and now I’ll have to consider reading them.

Kate Chopin’s A Pair of Silk Stockings (1897) appears next and follows the story of Mrs Sommers, who unexpectedly finds herself in possession of fifteen dollars and the luxury of deciding what to spend the money on. She knows she should be sensible and buy things for her children, but when a pair of beautiful silk stockings catches her eye, she finds it hard to resist. Despite being so short, this is a powerful story about how a woman reacts when given the chance to escape her responsibilities and have just one day to herself.

The next story – probably the most famous of the six – is one that I’ve wanted to read for a while and I’m pleased that I’ve finally had the opportunity. It’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in which a woman is prescribed a rest cure for a ‘nervous complaint’. Spending hour after hour alone in a room at the top of the house, the narrator becomes obsessed with the patterns on the yellow wallpaper because she has nothing else to stimulate her mind. This is a disturbing and unsettling story, but also a fascinating one and I can see why it is considered a feminist classic.

In Little Selves (1916) by Mary Lerner we meet Margaret O’Brien, an elderly woman who is dying and looking back on her earlier life. Not having had any children, she thinks instead about the little girls who were her own younger selves and laments the fact that ‘there’s all those poor dear lasses there’s nobody but me left to remember, and soon there’ll not even be that’. This is an interesting and unusual story by an author I’ve never come across before.

Edna Ferber is yet another author I’ve never read until now and although her story The Leading Lady (1912) is probably my least favourite in this collection, I did still enjoy it. The main character is an actress on tour with a small company and suffering from loneliness and boredom. Like the woman in Kate Chopin’s story, she jumps at the chance to break out and do something different for the day.

Finally, we have a story by Willa Cather, The Bohemian Girl (1912). This one feels slightly different from the previous five as it features a male protagonist, Nils Ericson, who is returning to his hometown after an absence of many years. However, once his sister-in-law Clara Vavrika arrives on the scene and we learn a little bit about her life, I could see why this story had been included along with the others. It’s the longest and most developed story in the book – more of a novella, I would say – and I found it very reminiscent of My Ántonia.

I loved reading Hemmed In. It contains a great selection of stories, all six of which could be considered important works of feminist literature. Of course, I could have read them at any time as they have all been published in other books or are in the public domain and available online, but I wouldn’t have read them all together and that’s what makes M.R. Nelson’s anthologies so good. It’s always interesting to read her thoughts at the back of the book on why she chose each particular story and how it fits with the overall theme. Best of all, I have now been introduced to five new authors, all of whom I would like to explore further!

Miraculous Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

A train that disappears without trace. A haunted chapel containing a dagger with a mind of its own. An entire crime scene which vanishes overnight. A series of unexplained deaths in a museum. A house suddenly abandoned like the Mary Celeste. These are just a few of the puzzles to be solved in Miraculous Mysteries, the latest of the British Library Crime Classics anthologies edited by Martin Edwards.

There are sixteen stories in the collection and they each deal with a different locked room murder or ‘impossible crime’. These are often my favourite types of mysteries – crimes which at first appear to have no rational explanation but with solutions which are either completely ingenious or so simple the reader is left wondering how they could possibly have been fooled! For that reason, I’m not going to discuss the individual stories in any detail but will just give each one a brief mention.

Many of the authors whose stories are featured in Miraculous Mysteries were new to me (although some of them may already be familiar to those of you who have read other books from the Crime Classics series) and I appreciated the biographical information Martin Edwards provides before every story. I was particularly impressed by Christopher St John Sprigg’s Death at 8:30 in which the exact time of a man’s death is predicted, and Nicholas Olde’s The Invisible Weapon, a short but perfectly paced mystery which I felt that I should have been able to solve, but didn’t quite manage it!

Although many of the stories in the book feature a crime committed in an actual locked room (Too Clever by Half by husband and wife team G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, Locked In by E. Charles Vivian and The Aluminium Dagger by R. Austin Freeman are three examples), there are others which don’t. Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost Special is the disappearing train story I mentioned in my opening paragraph – it’s not a Sherlock Holmes mystery, but it does include a letter written by an anonymous person I would like to think might be Holmes! The Sands of Thyme by Michael Innes – the first time I’ve had the pleasure of reading Innes – is set outside in the open air but the principles are the same as in a locked room mystery, with the crime taking place in a seemingly impossible location.

The Music Room by Sapper (better known for his series of Bulldog Drummond crime thrillers) is another good one. By the time I came to this story I was halfway through the book and took a moment to reflect on how rarely, when it comes to stories like these, we are given access to the detective’s own thought processes. The authors included in this collection find a variety of different approaches to take – the detective entertaining a friend with an account of an old case; a passive narrator observing the actions of his detective companion; anything to make the mystery more difficult to solve and to keep ‘obvious’ clues obscured from the reader until the end of the story.

What else is there? Well, there’s The Thing Invisible, a gothic, ghostly mystery by William Hope Hodgson, The Diary of Death by Marten Cumberland, about a killer who appears to be using a diary for inspiration, and The Broadcast Murder by Grenville Robbins, which is set in a radio studio. We also meet detectives ranging from the obscure – such as Sax Rohmer’s Moris Klaw, who investigates The Case of the Tragedies in the Greek Room – to the better known, such as G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, who appears in The Miracle of Moon Crescent. And it was good to be reacquainted with Gervase Fen, Oxford Professor of English Language and Literature, in Beware of the Trains by Edmund Crispin. I was hoping for something more fun and quirky from Crispin (remembering The Moving Toyshop, which I read last year), but still, this was quite an enjoyable story about a missing train driver.

Two of my favourite stories, though, were The Haunted Policeman by Dorothy L. Sayers, a Lord Peter Wimsey story which offers an intriguing twist on the locked room mystery, and The Villa Marie Celeste by Margery Allingham, in which a family disappear from their home – but have they been murdered or is something else going on? This last story is an Albert Campion mystery and I think I actually enjoyed it more than the full-length Campion novel I read last year!

Although the quality varied from story to story, none of them disappointed me, and on the whole I thought this book was a great read. I’ll definitely consider reading more of Martin Edwards’ British Library Crime Classics anthologies.

I received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley.

Fireside Gothic by Andrew Taylor

fireside-gothic Having read and enjoyed some of Andrew Taylor’s historical crime novels, I was immediately intrigued when I heard about Fireside Gothic, a hardback collection of three novellas which had originally been published separately in ebook form as ‘Kindle Singles’.  The stories are all quite different but, as Taylor says in his author’s note, they do share some common themes.

Broken Voices, the first of the three, has the feel of a classic Christmas ghost story. Set in an English cathedral city just before the First World War, it follows the adventures of two schoolboys whose circumstances mean they have to stay at school in the care of a retired teacher over the Christmas holidays. After listening to the teacher’s tales of mysterious happenings in the nearby cathedral, one of the boys begins to hear ghostly music and persuades his friend to sneak into the cathedral with him late one night to investigate.

Broken Voices gets the collection off to a good start.  Although I would describe it as an eerie story rather than a scary one, with its haunting atmosphere, winter setting and vivid descriptions of the deserted cathedral, this is the most obviously ‘gothic’ of the stories in the book.

The second story, The Leper House, is my favourite. Set in the modern day this time, our narrator is driving home from his sister’s funeral when his car breaks down on a lonely country road near the Suffolk coast. Setting off through the rain and wind in search of help, he manages to find shelter for the night and during his stay he has a brief but unforgettable encounter with a woman who lives in a neighbouring cottage. In the morning, he discovers that both the woman and the cottage have disappeared – and becomes obsessed with finding an explanation for his strange experience.

I can’t say too much, but the story then goes in a direction which was completely unexpected and which I loved. It raises a lot of fascinating questions and some of them are still unanswered at the end. There are some ideas here which I would have liked to have seen developed further; this story has all the ingredients of a full-length novel and I was sorry it had to come to an end so soon!

The collection finishes with The Scratch, another contemporary story. Unlike the first two, this one is narrated by a woman. Her name is Clare and she lives in the Forest of Dean with her husband, Gerald, and their pet cat. At the beginning of the story, their orphaned nephew, Jack, comes to stay with them on his return from fighting in Afghanistan. Jack’s time in the army has left him with a fear of cats, a dislike of enclosed spaces and a scratch on his arm which won’t seem to heal.

This is an interesting story, but the focus is mainly on the complicated relationships between Clare, Gerald and Jack, so the supernatural elements are much more subtle than in the other novellas. This is my least favourite of the three, although there are some clever little twists at the end which took me by surprise!

Fireside Gothic is an entertaining and unusual collection. The title and cover had led me to expect something slightly different – something spookier and, well, more gothic – but I did still enjoy these three novellas, particularly the middle one.  While it’s still winter, this would be an ideal time to get yourself a copy of this book and spend a cold, dark evening reading it by the fire.

Thanks to HarperCollins for providing a review copy of Fireside Gothic.

Small and Spooky, edited by M.R. Nelson

small-and-spooky As it’s Halloween on Monday, I thought today would be a good time to tell you about the wonderful collection of classic ghost stories I’ve just had the pleasure of reading. It’s called Small and Spooky and the six stories it contains were selected by M.R. Nelson, editor of two other short story collections (she refers to them as ‘taster flights’), one of which – Love and Other Happy Endings – I read and enjoyed earlier in the year.

Three of the stories in this collection are by authors I already know and love, while the other three are by authors who were new to me. All six share a common theme – they all feature a child or the ghost of a child – but otherwise they’re all quite different. It’s difficult to know how much you can say about short stories without spoiling them, so I’m just going to give a brief overview of each one.

The first is The Marble Child (1918) by E. Nesbit, a favourite childhood author of mine. I remember loving her children’s novels The Railway Children and The Phoenix and the Carpet, but had no idea until recently that she had also written ghost stories. This story about a little boy who is fascinated by the marble child he sees in the church gets the collection off to a good start. Part of the story is written from the boy’s perspective and part from an adult’s which, as the editor points out in her notes, makes this story a sort of bridge between children’s and adult fiction.

The next story is a great one: The Wind in the Rose-Bush (1903) by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, an American author I had never heard of until now. The story follows Rebecca Flint as she travels to a small, remote town hoping to see her young niece, who has been living with her stepmother since her parents died. From the moment Rebecca arrives and sees a rosebush moving when there’s no wind, she knows something is wrong. I found it easy to guess what was going on in this story, but Rebecca didn’t know and I could really feel her growing sense of unease and confusion as the truth began to unfold.

Next is Their Dear Little Ghost (1890) by Elia Wilkinson Peattie (also another new author for me), which as you might guess from the title is not a scary ghost story at all. It’s actually quite a sweet and moving little story about a child who dies just before Christmas and her godmother’s love for her even in death. I found this one of the weakest stories in the book, but I still liked it and thought it made a nice contrast to the previous one, which was quite creepy!

The following story, Morella (1835), is by Edgar Allan Poe. Poe is another author I love and I was already familiar with Morella (I think I read nearly all of his short stories and poems years ago when I was given his complete works as a Christmas present). This tale of reincarnation is not one of his scariest and I don’t think it’s one of his best either, but I can see why it was chosen for this collection as it does fit the theme.

The fifth story is another strong one: The Old Nurse’s Story (1852) by Elizabeth Gaskell. I was convinced I had read this one before – it appears in Gaskell’s Gothic Tales which I borrowed from the library a few years ago – but when I started to read, I didn’t remember it at all. In this atmospheric story set in winter, a ghostly child haunts the Northumberland countryside. I love Gaskell’s writing and this is an excellent example of a Victorian ghost story.

Finally, we have The Doll’s Ghost (1911) by F. Marion Crawford, another author I’ve never read before. This is an unusual story about a child’s doll which is broken and given to a dolls’ hospital to repair. Although I found this story a bit eerie, the ghost was a nice ghost, which meant the collection finished on an uplifting note! I would be happy to read more by this author.

These are six very enjoyable stories and perfect for those readers who, like me, prefer their ghost stories to be spooky but not terrifying! It was good to revisit Nesbit, Gaskell and Poe – and also to be introduced to three new authors, all of whom I’m now interested in exploring further.

Thanks to M.R. Nelson for providing a copy of Small and Spooky for review.

Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

This is a land of sand. The earth hereabouts is nothing but; it’s a wonder anything grows in it at all.

Sandlands Sandlands is a beautifully written collection of sixteen short stories, all of which share a common setting: a small English village on the coast of Suffolk. I’m not usually a reader of short stories (my blog title should be a clue) but I do enjoy them from time to time – and I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed reading this particular collection. The problem I sometimes have with short stories is that they tend to lack the plot development and depth of character I look for in full-length novels. I often find them unsatisfying and…well, too short.

Sandlands is not like that. The stories are the perfect length – not too long and not too short – and each one feels complete. Although they share some similar themes such as the beauty of nature and the relationships people have with the area in which they live, the stories are also quite varied. Some are written in the first person and some in the third, some are set entirely in the present and some take us into the past, some are sad and some are funny. I’m not going to comment on all sixteen of them here, but will pick out a few which I found particularly interesting.

One of my favourites was All the Flowers Gone, a poignant story which explores the bond between three generations of women: Poppy, a botanist who finds a rare flower growing at a disused air base; her mother, Rosa, who campaigned against nuclear weapons at the same base in the 1980s; and finally, her grandmother, Lilian, who worked there during the 1940s and fell in love with a bomber pilot. I loved the way the lives of these three women were linked not only to each other but also to one specific location and to the flowers which grew there.

Another story in which the past begins to merge with the present is The Witch Bottle, a tale of love and revenge which unfolds when a woman moves into an old house and discovers a connection with Patience Spall, a girl accused of witchcraft in the seventeenth century. Like many of the stories in the book, this one has a touch of the supernatural. While I wouldn’t describe Sandlands as a book of ghost stories in the traditional sense, some do have a ghostly atmosphere and a sense that more is going on than meets the eye.

I also enjoyed the final two stories in the collection. Curlew Call is written from the perspective of a young woman who decides to spend a year working as a companion to Agnes, an artist who is confined to a wheelchair. The narrator loves nature and is captivated by the Suffolk landscape with its salt marshes, mudflats and reed beds and the distinctive sound of the curlews calling. As she settles into her new job and home, she makes some surprising discoveries about her elderly employer. The following story, Mackerel, also looks at the relationship between two women, this time a grandmother and granddaughter: Hattie, in her twenties, who has a degree and has travelled across Europe, and eighty-nine-year-old Ganny (as she is known) who has spent her whole life living in a small fishing village and knows everything there is to know about mackerel.

These are just some of the wonderful stories to be found in Sandlands. Others that stand out include Whispers, the story of Dr Whybrow, an academic who buys a Martello tower on the coast, and The Watcher of Souls, where an owl guards a secret stash of love letters hidden in the woods. I wish I could tell you about the rest of the stories as well, as I found something to enjoy and admire in every one of them, but this review is already long enough and I need to leave something for other readers to discover for themselves!

I have previously read and enjoyed one of Rosy Thornton’s other books, The Tapestry of Love, so I was delighted to be offered a copy of Sandlands by the author for review. Many thanks, Rosy!

Love and Other Happy Endings, edited by M. R. Nelson

This is a collection of five classic short stories from five very different authors: Katherine Mansfield, L.M. Montgomery, Wilkie Collins, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Oliver Curwood. The title given to the collection by its editor, M.R. Nelson, means that we know before we begin that each story will have a happy ending of some sort, but I can assure you that this doesn’t spoil the pleasure of reading them. The interest is in seeing how each happy ending is reached and how the conflicts or problems in each story are resolved.

Love and Other Happy Endings First is The Singing Lesson by Katherine Mansfield, a story which appeared in her 1922 collection, The Garden Party and Other Stories. This is a very short story, but Mansfield (a new author for me) manages to pack a lot of meaning into it. The story follows Miss Meadows, a singing teacher, who has had some bad news and begins the day “With despair — cold, sharp despair — buried deep in her heart like a wicked knife”. We see how Miss Meadows’ state of mind affects not only herself but the girls in her class; she is someone who brings her personal troubles into work with her. Later in the day, something happens to change the teacher’s mood and the way she perceives the world is suddenly quite different.

Story two is Akin to Love by L.M. Montgomery, best known for her Anne of Green Gables series. I read her Anne novels (or most of them anyway) as a child, but this is the first time I’ve read any of her other work. Akin to Love is from her 1909-1922 collection of short stories. It’s a simple tale of two single people, Josephine Elliott and David Hartley, who are friends and neighbours. David has proposed to Josephine many times over the last eighteen years and she has turned him down every time. Eventually Josephine begins to experience a feeling akin to love, but will she act on her feelings?

The third story, Mr Lismore and the Widow is by Wilkie Collins, who has long been one of my favourite Victorian authors, so it’s not surprising that this was one of the stories I enjoyed most from this collection. Originally published in 1883, it’s the story of a man in need of money and a woman in need of a husband. It’s easy to predict what will happen – or is it? This is a tale with a twist…a slightly implausible twist, but a fun one!

Next is Head and Shoulders, a story from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Flappers and Philosophers (1920). It’s a great story, again with a twist, about Horace Tarbox, a clever, intellectual student and Marcia Meadow, a dancer (a philosopher and a flapper?). Despite being complete opposites, the two fall in love, but their relationship does not follow the course you might expect. I’m not really a fan of Fitzgerald, but this is a bright, witty story which really stands out from the others in the book.

The final story is The Other Man’s Wife, taken from the 1920 collection Back to God’s Country and Other Stories by James Oliver Curwood, another author I have never read before. In this story we meet a man who has taken refuge in the wilderness because he needs some time away from the woman he loves – and from her husband, whom he describes as “a scoundrel, a brute, who came home from his club drunk, a cheap money-spender, a man who wasn’t fit to wipe the mud from her little feet, much less call her wife.” This is another very short story, and I found it easy to guess how it would end, but that didn’t make it any less satisfying to read.

Reading these five stories one after the other encouraged me to look for common themes and ideas and to think about the ways in which different authors tackle the subject of love. I wondered why, out of all the short stories in the world, Nelson chose these particular five, so I was interested to read her notes at the end explaining her choices. I really enjoyed this little collection and am pleased to be able to give this review a happy ending!

Thanks to M.R. Nelson for providing a copy of Love and Other Happy Endings for review.