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G R Collia (Somerset, UK)

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Forge 56 x 58mm Mortice Knob Set with Brass Finish
Forge 56 x 58mm Mortice Knob Set with Brass Finish
Price: £9.46

1.0 out of 5 stars Awful packaging... and the knobs aren't much better, 8 Oct. 2015
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Before I say anything about the knobs themselves, I just want to say that the packaging for these is absolutely awful. The rigid plastic packing goes right inside the hole where the mortice bar is supposed to be fitted, and it took me ages to separate the knobs from their packing. I'm sure it's supposed to pull right out in theory, but the plastic snapped, leaving part of it inside that hole. I fiddled with the knobs for ages, poking at the inside with an art knife, until I finally got the plastic out. Then I attempted to fit them - the screws were useless, so I had to buy better ones. The protective film wouldn't come off the knobs, so I picked at it... and the brass colour came off. Finally, I got the knobs onto the doors. I thought I'd test one. One little turn... a collision with my wedding ring... and there's a scratch right across the brand new knob. I took them all back off the doors and they've gone in the bin. What a complete waste of time.

Portrait Of A Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed
Portrait Of A Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed
by Patricia Cornwell
Edition: Paperback

14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed?, 18 Sept. 2012
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I decided to read Patricia Cornwell's book 'Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed' because I have an interest in Walter Sickert. I continued to read the book, despite the fact that it was by far the most absurd book I've ever read, because I assumed at the turn of every page that it couldn't get any sillier. At some point, I thought, Cornwell would have to present solid evidence that connected Walter Sickert to the Ripper murders. After all, you can't go around accusing people of murder left, right and centre when you have no proof, can you? Apparently, you can.

According to Ms Cornwell, she began to wonder about Walter Sickert being Jack the Ripper when she was flipping through a book of his art and came across his 1887 painting of Ada Lundberg performing at the Marylebone Music Hall. When Cornwell looked at that painting, she didn't see a performer singing for an audience, she saw a woman screaming as menacing men looked on. `I am sure there are artistic explanations for all of Sickert's works,' Cornwell writes, `but what I see when I look at them is morbidity, violence, and a hatred of women.'

Well, you can find all sorts of things in paintings, if you're determined to see them, and Ms Cornwell certainly was determined. A good researcher examines the information available and uses it to form a theory; Cornwell, on the other hand, proceeded from the firm conviction that Sickert was her man and set about constructing an argument that would produce her desired conclusion.

To be fair, Ms Cornwell is not the first person to construct a ridiculous theory regarding the true identity of Jack the Ripper that involves Walter Sickert. It was in the 1970s that his name was first linked with that of the famous Whitechapel murderer, and I'll now attempt to give a brief synopsis of how that came about.

In the late 1960s, a fellow by the name of Joseph Gorman turned up claiming to be Walter Sickert's illegitimate grandson. He then amended his story and claimed that Sickert was not his grandfather, he was in actual fact his father; his grandfather, he claimed at that point, was the eldest son of Edward VII, Prince Albert Victor. Gorman adopted a new name, HRH Joseph Sickert, to go with his imaginatively fabricated identity. He claimed that his grandmother, a shop girl by the name of Annie Crook, had married Prince Albert Victor in secret and had given birth to a daughter, Alice (Joseph Sickert's mother). Mary Jane Kelly, a friend of Crook's, knew about this marriage, as did several of her prostitute pals and was set to blackmail the British government. To avert a scandal that might have brought down the British monarchy, the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, persuaded the Royal Physician, Sir William Gull, to go off on a murder spree with two fellow Freemasons and do away with the troublesome women. Little Alice Crook, having been spirited away to France, later became Walter Sickert's mistress. Walter Sickert knew the truth behind the Ripper murders, Joseph Sickert claimed, but had not been involved in them. Joseph Sickert, who later claimed that he regularly had tea with the Queen, had a furtive imagination.

Stephen Knight, author of 'Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution' (published in 1978) went further and, based on Joseph Sickert's claims about the masonic Ripper plot, concluded that Walter Sickert must have been a co-conspirator in it. In the same year, Joseph Sickert, whilst maintaining that he was the illegitimate son of Walter Sickert and the grandson of Prince Albert Victor, told the Sunday Times that the story about the Ripper conspiracy had in fact been a hoax. This didn't prevent Jean Overton Fuller from publishing a book in 1990 which claimed that Walter Sickert was the actual perpetrator of the crimes, rather than a co-conspirator. Nor did it prevent Melvyn Fairclough from regurgitating Joseph Sickert's masonic-royal-Ripper plot nonsense one year later.

But let's be clear about this, during Sickert's lifetime he was never a suspect in the Ripper murders. Were it not for HRH Joseph Sickert's absurd conspiracy claims, which he later admitted were a fabrication, nobody would ever have suggested Walter Sickert as a possible Ripper suspect.

Anyway, getting back to Cornwell's theory (though she considers it to be a matter of fact). Having decided that the Ripper was a sexually dysfunctional psychopath with a severe hatred of women, Cornwell's mind was made up from the outset that Sickert was an impotent woman-hater. According to Cornwell, 'Sickert was dependent on women and loathed them'. But Sickert did not hate women; at times he liked them rather too much. He was never faithful to his first wife, Ellen. Regarding Sickert's marriage to Ellen, Cornwell claims that 'it is possible the brotherly and sisterly couple never undressed in front of each other or attempted sex'. Based on what evidence?

'Sickert was born,' Cornwell asserts, 'with a deformity of his penis requiring operations when he was a toddler that would have left him disfigured if not mutilated'. She goes on to suggest that he may not have had much of a penis at all and it was 'quite possible that he had to squat like a woman to urinate'. Sickert did undergo an operation when he was an infant; that much is true. He was treated for an anal fistula at St. Mark's Hospital. Cornwell herself admits that Sickert's doctor's specialities 'were the treatment of rectal and venereal diseases,' and that 'no search of his published writings or other literature unearthed any mention of his treating so-called fistulas of the penis.' Nonetheless, she concludes that it was Sickert's penis that was the problem. Why? Because Jack the Ripper had to be impotent, so Sickert had to be impotent, and an anal fistula does not produce impotency! If it looks like an apple and tastes like an apple, but Cornwell wants an orange... it's an orange.

I shall now provide you with a sampling of the nonsense that passes for 'evidence' in the mind of Patricia Cornwell:

1. Martha Tabran was seen with a soldier before her murder. The murderer of Martha Tabran was therefore Walter Sickert dressed up as a soldier. `Walter Sickert was familiar with uniforms,' Cornwell explains, and as a boy he 'frequently sketched men in uniforms and armor'. Heavens to Betsy, a male child who draws soldiers... a sure sign of early-onset homicidal psychopathy.

2. Jack the Ripper liked to call people fools in his letters; Walter Sickert called people fools.

3. A witness saw a man with a black Gladstone bag after Elizabeth Stride was murdered; Sickert had a Gladstone bag.

4. During the Ripper murders, bloody knives started turning up all over the place. A coconut dealer by the name of Thomas Coram was leaving a friend's house in Whitechapel when he noticed a knife at the bottom of steps leading into a laundry. The knife was later described by a local constable as the sort a baker or chef might use. `Sickert was an excellent cook,' Cornwell writes, 'and often dressed as a chef to entertain his friends'.

5. (And this is my personal favourite) One of the Ripper letters included the address `Punch & Judy St.'; Cornwell points out: 'Sickert would have been familiar with Punch and Judy'.

Cornwell, unlike most Ripperologists and the police who investigated the Ripper murders, believes that most of the Ripper letters sent to police and the local press (from all over the place, with several posted on the same day from distant locations) came from Jack the Ripper himself. The letters are central to her claim that Sickert was the Ripper. The fact that the handwriting of the numerous Ripper letters doesn't resemble Sickert's does nothing to deter Cornwell from asserting that he did write them; the difference in handwriting simply proves that he was an incredibly devious little psychopath. She points out that Sickert could even write backwards. So could Leonardo da Vinci, but I don't think she's about to pin the murders on him (though we shouldn't rule that out entirely). For that matter, I can write backwards; do I need an alibi?

As for the doodles on the Ripper letters, Cornwell claims that most, if not all, were penned by a skilled artist, namely Walter Sickert. Anna Gruetzner Robins, author of 'Walter Sickert: Drawings', supports this claim, though she doesn't believe that Sickert was the actual Ripper. Matthew Sturgiss, author of 'Walter Sickert: A Life', remains unconvinced about the claims of Cornwell and Robins. Sickert expert Wendy Baron has also dismissed the claims, having found nothing in the doodles to suggest that Sickert was the person responsible for them. But even if it were proved that Sickert was responsible for some of the letters (and that's a big if), it would simply show that he was a Ripper letter hoaxer. That is a far cry from being a slayer of East End prostitutes.

Several Ripper letters mentioned horse racing and gave the police betting tips. 'Sickert painted pictures of horse racing', Cornwell points out, 'and was quite knowledgeable about the sport'. 'While I have no evidence that Sickert bet on horse races,' she goes on, 'I don't have any fact to say he didn't.' According to Cornwell's logic, the absence of proof passes for proof in itself. When trying to determine if the artist was in London at the time of a particular murder, she points out that she has no proof that he was not in London. Well, there's no proof that I wasn't in Madagascar yesterday evening; I guess I must have been there.

In actual fact, Walter Sickert was abroad for most of the late summer of 1888, when Jack the Ripper was murdering prostitutes in London. Two days before the murder of Annie Chapman, Sickert's mother wrote to a friend that she and her family (including Walter) were all having a happy time in France. Whilst Cornwell does refer to Sickert's mother's letter, and to a letter written by Sickert's wife, Ellen, about him being in France with 'his people', which Cornwell incorrectly assumes are his arty friends in Dieppe rather than his family, she dismisses the importance of such evidence of his absence from London. After all, even if he had been in France, he could have hopped on a steamer to scoot across the English Channel, then caught an express train to London in order to do away with an East End tart (presumably because a French tart wouldn't do) before dashing back to France in time for dinner without anyone noticing he'd gone. I imagine he managed to fit in posting several Ripper letters from Liverpool, London and Lille (in northern France) while he was at it.

Having gone to great trouble to demonstrate that Sickert was a crazed killer who couldn't even holiday in France without rushing back to the East End to assassinate a prostitute, how does she explain the fact that the Ripper murders came to an abrupt end following the slaying of Mary Jane Kelly on 9th November 1888, even though Sickert lived for another fifty-four years? What did he do, take up fishing or stamp collecting to fill his time? Well, apparently he didn't stop murdering people... he went on going. Sickert wasn't just Jack the Ripper, he was responsible for the Thames Torso Murders of 1887-89 too, and he committed the Camden Town Murder in 1907. He may even have murdered a widow named Madame Francois at Pont-à-Mousson, in north-eastern France, in 1889, and another French woman in the same area. He was a busy fellow.

Ms Cornwell provides no evidence that links Walter Sickert to the Whitechapel murders. She seems to believe that by her simply asserting that he was guilty we'll all be daft enough to believe her. In places, the book seems to be more about her than Sickert or Jack the Ripper anyway. About a quarter of the way through the book she writes: `I had been a police reporter for the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina and was no coward when it came to dashing off to crime scenes.' Then she tells us that she had a moment of enlightenment (something I strongly doubt) whilst in Aspen with her family, in a condo at the base of Ajax Mountain. In what way are these details, or reminiscences of her days working in the medical examiner's office, relevant to the Whitechapel murders? There's a lot that seems to be there just to fill the book out. Chapter Thirteen gives a history of the British coroner from the reign of Richard I. And what's the point of giving the reader an explanation of how the Ripper murders would have been investigated in present day Virginia? Do I need to know that `the US has never had a national standard of death investigation'?

This may be the longest book review I will ever write. But a short one just wouldn't have done justice to the astounding absurdity of this book.'
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 29, 2013 10:17 PM GMT

Gillespie and I
Gillespie and I
by Jane Harris
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clever and Compelling, 16 Aug. 2012
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This review is from: Gillespie and I (Hardcover)
'It would appear that I am to be the first to write a book on Gillespie. Who, if not me, was dealt that hand? Indeed, one might say, who else is left to tell the tale? Ned Gillespie: artist, innovator, and forgotten genius; my dear friend and soul mate.'

And so begins Miss Harriet Baxter's memoir of the forgotten artist Ned Gillespie. It is 1933 and forty years have passed since the artist burned almost all of his paintings and committed suicide, at the young age of thirty-six. Harriet's rapport with the artist, she informs us at the outset, was profound; so intimate was their friendship that she learned to understand him through his merest glance. His family, on the other hand, was 'a group of persons who, sadly, were a burdemsome factor in his life'. Then we are presented with a glimpse of what is to come, as Harriet refers in passing to 'all that white-slavery business and the trial'.

Harriet begins her tale with her arrival in Glasgow in the spring of 1888. A young unmarried woman of independent means (with, I might add, a biting sense of humour), she has made the journey to visit the first Glasgow International Exhibition, in search of distraction following the death of her aunt, who she nursed in London through the previous autumn and winter. Soon after her arrival she encounters, and saves the life of, Elspeth Gillespie, who has collapsed in the street and is in danger of choking on her own false teeth. Harriet quickly becomes a close friend of the family, which consists primarily of Elspeth Gillespie, her son Ned (a moderately successful artist), his wife Annie (who is an aspiring artist), and their two daughters Rose and Sibyl.

Harriet is eager to be of assistance to the family which, while it is not poor (Ned and Annie do employ a maid), is not terribly well off, so she commissions Annie to paint a portrait of her. During her visits, which become frequent to the point where she is practically part of the household furniture, she observes the daily habits and most intimate moments of this seemingly happy family. 'On the surface,' she explains, 'the Gillespies did seem like a fairly stable family. However, ere long, I began to see beneath the façade, and to realise that, particularly with regard to Sibyl, cracks were beginning to show'. Sibyl turns out to be a very troubled child, Ned's brother's behaviour threatens to cause a scandal that will destroy the entire family, and then there's that sensational trial on the horizon that Harriet has already alluded to... a trial in which she will play a very significant part.

Though set predmoninantly in Glasgow in the 1880s, we are frequently given a glimpse of Harriet's current life in 1930s London. She lives in an apartment in Bloomsbury with two caged finches, Layla and Majnum, and is convinced that her companion, Sarah, is an imposter who is out to do her harm. It is, in part, these glimpses into Harriet's present that cast her past is a somewhat different light. All is not what it seems, and Harriet is not exactly a reliable narrator. We begin to wonder if we are being manipulated...

This is a book that, in order to really do justice to it in a review, I'd have to reveal too much of the twisty-turny plot, which I won't do as it will spoil your enjoyment. It's quite a long book, being over five hundred pages in length, but every one of those pages is necessary. I could not put this book down. I stayed up until half past four this morning to get it finished; that's how gripped I was. This is a tale that makes you think, work, question everything. It is only when the story has reached its conclusion, and you acquire the benefit of hindsight, that the real significance and nature of events truly unfold.

I enjoyed this book so much that I'm giving it five stars. I'm also going to go and get Jane Harris' first book, 'The Observations'.

The Père-Lachaise Mystery: The Victor Legris Mysteries 2: A Victor Legris Mystery
The Père-Lachaise Mystery: The Victor Legris Mysteries 2: A Victor Legris Mystery
by Claude Izner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fin-de-siècle Paris is conjured up wonderfully, 29 May 2012
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It is 1890, and Odette de Valois, ex-lover of Left Bank bookseller and amateur sleuth Victor Legris, has disappeared whilst visiting her husband's grave at Père-Lachaise cemetery. Her maid, Denise, fears the worst and, in a dreadful state and knowing not a soul in Paris who can help her aside from her mistress' ex-lover, enlists Victor's help. At first reluctant to become involved, believing that Odette has probably gone off to some romantic assignation with her current lover, Victor tries to reassure Denise and pays little attention to her claims. However, when Denise's body is pulled out of the Seine the bookseller becomes determined to discover the truth about Odette's disappearance and the young maid's death, this time with the help of his assistant, Joseph, and the hunt for the killer begins in earnest.

Once again the atmosphere of fin-de-siècle Paris is conjured up wonderfully. A little darker than the first book in the series, it is equally suspenseful, just as fast-paced, and no easier to put down than its predecessor. I did manage to uncover the identity of the killer before Monsieur Legris, during the final quarter of the book, though I couldn't for the life of me figure out the motive.

A well-researched, suspenseful and tightly plotted mystery, and an immensely enjoyable read that I just couldn't put down. I'm very much looking forward to reading the next book in the series and following the adventures of Victor Legris and his book-loving comrades.

Murder on the Eiffel Tower: The Victor Legris Mysteries 1: A Victor Legris Mystery
Murder on the Eiffel Tower: The Victor Legris Mysteries 1: A Victor Legris Mystery
by Claude Izner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 19th century Paris is conjured up wonderfully, 29 May 2012
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As a Francophile who once sold antiquarian books, I was probably predisposed to like this one, but even I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did.

The brand new Eiffel Tower, standing 300 metres high, towers above the many pavilions of the fourth Paris Universal Exposition, which opened on 6th May 1889. People are flocking to it in their droves, eager to sign the visitors' Golden Book and to visit the Le Figaro Pavilion on the second platform to collect their personalised copy of the special edition of the newspaper. Among them is Eugénie Patinot who, one sunny afternoon in June, in the company of her niece and two nephews, collapses on the second platform of the tower and dies.

Also on the tower is Monsieur Victor Legris, Parisian bookseller and photographer, who is there to meet Marius Bonnet, a friend who wants him to contribute a column to the newspaper he has just started - Le Passe-partout. The police are satisfied that Eugénie Patinot has died as the result of being stung by a bee, but Victor and his newspaper friends are not so convinced and, as the death count subsequently rises, the bookseller-turned-amateur-sleuth finds himself searching for clues all over Paris in a bid to uncover the truth and identify the man or woman responsible for what he comes to believe are murders.

The period is conjured up wonderfully. From the moment I began reading, I felt I had been transported back in time to the cobbled streets of nineteenth century Paris in the middle of summer; its heady air filled with the smell of honeysuckle and horse dung and the overwhelming buzz of excitement of thousands of men, women and children as they flocked to climb the towering iron structure and visit the numerous pavilions, with their displays of cameras, printing machines, anatomical mouldings, and curiosities from all over the world.

I did manage to solve the case before Victor, using the snippets of information included strategically throughout the book that the bookseller seemed to miss as a result of being too closely involved with the case. Victor's anxiety, as he pursues his suspects and manages to get things completely wrong a number of times, pushes the story along at quite a pace, and consistently so; I found it very difficult to put the book down as I was so eager to find out what was going to happen next, and there was no part of the book that allowed for a brief respite.

This one left me wanting to hop on a flight to Paris the moment I put it down, to climb the Eiffel Tower, and sit in a café sipping something cold before rummaging amongst the dusty tomes of the city's second-hand bookshops. It also left me wanting to read the next in the series as soon as possible.

A very enjoyable read that I just couldn't put down.

The Snake That Bowed
The Snake That Bowed
by Edward Seidensticker
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Distorted, disjointed and dull, 29 May 2012
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This review is from: The Snake That Bowed (Paperback)
Hanshichi, the mid 19th century sleuth, was originally created by the renowned Japanese writer Okamoto Kid'o. He first appeared in print in January 1917, in the monthly magazine Bungei kurabu (Literature Club), and by the time of Kido''s death, in 1939, Hanshichi had featured in sixty-nine short stories. A couple of years ago I read a translation of eleven of those stories, published together as The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi, and thoroughly enjoyed them. I enjoyed that compilation so much that I decided to read The Snake that Bowed, which is based on Kido''s work.

In the original stories, Hanshichi, now over seventy years of age, recounts the events of his career as a master sleuth to the young narrator of each tale. The retired policeman's reminiscences hark back to the days before Japan's modernisation, to a time when people still believed in water sprites, goblins, demons and shapeshifters, and in each one there is a great sense of nostaliga for a time almost completely lost. That nostalgia is one of the key elements of each of the stories.

In The Snake that Bowed, Edward Seidensticker has taken three of the original Hanshichi short stories and woven them together to create one novel. To do this, he has taken three tales set in different years and moved them all to 1861, so that Hanshichi can investigate the three cases from those tales at the same time. The pace of the original short stories is lost, which is the first major flaw in this book. The second is that he has removed the young narrator of the original tales. Hanshichi isn't recounting his exploits for an eager young listener, for whom the past is a distant land shrouded in mystery. In The Snake that Bowed, Hanshichi is in his prime; there is no harking back, no sense of nostalgia. A key element of Kido''s originals has been removed entirely.

The characters of Kido''s stories were larger than life; Seidensticker's are flat. Kido''s wry humour is missing from Seidensticker's book; there are constant attempts at humour, but they simply don't hit the spot. And it is very difficult to remain interested in a story when the main protagonist, Hanshichi himself, doesn't seem all that interested in what's going on around him.

The writing style is so decidedly stiff, which makes it a difficult book to read. This is an example of one of the passages from Seidensticker's book. Note, the repeated sentence about the hair is not a mistake on my part - this is how the passage appears in the book:

'The corpse lay on summer matting. The hair was somewhat disordered A light coverlet had been pushed to the legs. The hair was somewhat disordered. It lay diagonally across the matting, from which the head protruded. The pillow had been shoved to one side. There was a frown on the face, the lips were twisted, a whitish tongue showed itself.'

Here's the description of the same scene in Ian Macdonald's translation of the original short story in The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi:

'Kameju had laid a sleeping mat on top of her futon, and a thin cotton blanket had been pushed down toward the edge of the mattress. She had been sleeping facing south and her pillow was shoved over to one side. The body lay face up as though she had been about to get out of bed. Her braided hair was disheveled as though someone had been tearing at it. In death, the traces of her last agonizing moments were clearly inscribed upon her face - the furrowed brow, the contorted lips, the protruding white tongue.'

I really don't like posting negative reviews, but in this case I feel that I really have a duty to Okamoto Kido' and Inspector Hanshichi to do so. I would hate for anyone to think that The Snake that Bowed is indicative of Kido''s writing talent and sense of humour, or Hanshichi's character and charm. Seidensticker has transformed the detective into a disinterested wise arse who seems to care more about bedding a snaggle-toothed prostitute than solving crime.

I loved The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi and was really looking forward to meeting up with old Hanshichi again in The Snake that Bowed. Unfortunately, Edward Seidensticker's distorted, disjointed and dull novel was extremely disappointing.

The Old Man Mad About Drawing: A Tale of Hokusai
The Old Man Mad About Drawing: A Tale of Hokusai
by Francois Place
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoroughly Enchanting, 29 May 2012
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I've just finished reading 'The Old Man Mad About Drawing: A Tale of Hokusai' by Francois Place, and I have to say that it is one of the most charming books I've read in a long while. It is a book for young readers, but it is such a lovely volume that I think adults will also find it enchanting... I certainly did. It tells the story of Tojiro, a nine year old orphan who sells rice cakes in nineteenth century Edo, and his relationship with one of his customers, a grumpy old artist... Hokusai. Hokusai takes a shine to the boy, who he affectionately refers to as 'Sparrow,' and soon takes him on as his assistant. The artist teaches him to read, introduces him to the process of woodblock printing, and little Sparrow learns all about Hokusai's earlier works. The relationship between artist and pupil is most endearing and there is a great deal of humour and warmth in the text. On each and every page there is an illustration... either a reproduction of one of Hokusai's designs (when it is relevant to the text), or one of Place's fantastic sketches of Hokusai and his little apprentice or of nineteenth century Edo and its colourful inhabitants. If you want to introduce a young reader, or an adult beginner for that matter, to Japanese prints then this is the book to do it with.

The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi: Detective Stories of Old Edo
The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi: Detective Stories of Old Edo
by Okamoto Kido
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Trip to 19th Century Japan, 29 May 2012
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'The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi' is comprised of fourteen tales, all but one (the first) recounted by the retired Inspector Hanshichi himself (by this time, purported to be well over seventy years old), and retold to us by the young narrator. The first tale begins in the 1880s, when the narrator, then a boy of ten, hears of the elderly Inspector Hanshichi for the first time from his Uncle K, with the following thirteen stories being told to the narrator, ten years later, by the detective himself.

'I have managed to fill an entire notebook with these detective stories of Hanshichi's. I have chosen those I find most compelling, and I hereby put them before my readers, though not necessarily in chronological order.'

After the first story, each one follows a set pattern, beginning with the young narrator paying a visit to the elderly Hanshichi who, we are told, always served 'the choicest tea and most delicious cakes'. Following this brief introduction, the old man begins his tale, and at its conclusion he generally comments on how things have changed since he was a young man.

Hanshichi himself is often likened to Sherlock Holmes, and there's no doubt that there are similarities (and Kido' was an admirer of Conan Doyle's work), but there are a greater number of differences between the two detectives. To begin with, unlike Holmes, who has science and technology to aid in solving a crime, Hanshichi relies more on instinct, and in many instances simple luck. Holmes is rational to a fault, whereas Hanshichi, though inclined not to believe that people can be spirited away by gods or demons, is willing to entertain the idea in the absence of any other explanation. Hanshichi is a man of his times, and of his city.

The tales themselves are filled with numerous references to sprites, gods, demons, monsters, ghosts, and even vicious river otters and shape-shifting cats. They are infused with insights into the beliefs, manners, and customs of an old, superstitious, and decidedly feudal Edo (now Tokyo) that, by the time Hanshichi reached old age, were becoming as strange and unfamiliar to the people of the city (by then, opened to the West and rapidly undergoing change) as the customs of some far off distant and never-visited land.

It is Kido''s ability to transport the reader to mid-nineteenth century Edo with such ease that, for me at least, makes this collection of stories so appealing. The countless references to plays and stories that were popular at the time and Kido''s impressive geographical knowledge of the city as it was, added to his understanding of customs amongst the feudal and common classes of the time, conjure up an Edo that is three-dimensional and, though creepy and at times shockingly dangerous, also incredibly charming and very real. It is a colourful city inhabited by greedy merchants, lecherous monks, duplicitous mistresses, gamblers, vagabonds, and possibly several kappa (water sprites) who are likely to steal your children.

The only bad thing about the book... it ended.

The Meaning of Night
The Meaning of Night
by Michael Cox
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Simply wonderful, 29 May 2012
This review is from: The Meaning of Night (Hardcover)
'After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn's for an oyster supper.'

And so begins the confession of Edward Glyver (also known as Edward Glapthorn or Duport, or sometimes Ernest Geddington), scholar, bibliophile, opium taker, frequent visitor to brothels, and murderer. Set predominantly in mid-nineteenth century London, The Meaning of Night is a tale of betrayal, treachery, thwarted ambition, obsession and revenge.

We learn from the preface, written by the fictional editor, J. J. Antrobus, Professor of Post-Authentic Victorian Fiction at the University of Cambridge, that the handwritten confession (bound in dark-red morocco) was given to the university in 1948 as part of an anonymous bequest. Antrobus is also responsible for the great number of scholarly footnotes that appear throughout the book (which I thought were a wonderful touch).

The opening sentence (and who could fail to be intrigued by it?) refers to Glyver's cold-blooded murder of a complete stranger on Threadneedle Street; a practise run in his quest to do away with his adversary, the celebrated poet Phoebus Rainsford Daunt. Daunt, we are told, is responsible for Glyver's expulsion from Eton and for robbing him of his rightful place as the heir to Evenwood, a stately home (with a marvellous library) in Northamptonshire, and the fortune that would have gone with it. He is also Glyver's rival for the affections of Miss Emily Carteret.

Phoebus Daunt is a rather shadowy character, rarely seen or heard from; we are told that he is a con man who seems able to charm the birds from the trees whilst thwarting Glyver's every attempt to get back what is rightfully his. He is, according to Glyver, a 'deep-dyed sharp: a practised chizzler'. But as the story unfolds, you find yourself wondering if Glyver's version of events can really be trusted. He has, after all, murdered an innocent man just to see if he can do it; his sense of morality is questionable, so why not his sanity? And Daunt's shadowy character provides few clues to begin with to help us decide whether or not he really is the evil villain that Glyver describes. I was, for some time, torn between believing that Glyver was a few slices short of a loaf and wanting to do away with Phoebus Rainsford Daunt myself.

I don't want to give too much away, so I'll say no more about the plot. What I will say is that I was utterly incapable of putting this book down once I'd picked it up. I was transported back to the foggy streets of mid Victorian London (and the 'faery splendor' of Evenwood) and I was perfectly happy to stay there and not come back. The intrigues, twists and turns had me gripped; I was absolutely enthralled. I loved the character names, such as Simeon Shakeshaft and Josiah Pluckrose... wonderful. And, cold-blooded murderer or not, I couldn't help warming to poor old Edward Glyver; we bibliophiles must stick together, as I'm sure he would have agreed.

The Pleasures of Men
The Pleasures of Men
by Kate Williams
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Slow and ultimately disappointing, 29 May 2012
This review is from: The Pleasures of Men (Paperback)
It is 1840 and a serial-killer, christened The Man of Crows by the newspapers, is stalking the dark, grimy streets of London, ripping open the chests of young girls and stuffing their hair into their mouths to resemble a beak.

Catherine Sorgeiul, an orphan who lives with her rather quirky uncle in Spitalfields in London's East End, is tormented by her past, part of which was spent in a lunatic asylum called Lavenderfields. Possessing a vivid imagination and having very little to occupy her time, she becomes fascinated by The Man of Crows. Convinced that she attracts evil, and that this gives her a special insight into the killer's mind, she takes to walking the seedier streets of London at night, trying to track him down.

It's a tale full of low-class prostitutes, muck-filled streets, impoverished screaming babies, gin drinkers and bored, frustrated young women who amuse themselves by sexually tormenting their maids.

The publishers promised a thrilling plot; I reached the end of chapter six and was still waiting for some sign that one would unfold in the not too distant future. There was a lengthy description of a tea party and I was well acquainted with Catherine's uncle's furniture, but I definitely wasn't feeling thrilled yet. The book didn't pick up until about two thirds of the way through, but I did at that point become more interested in the story. I found myself wondering, however, why Catherine, a young Victorian woman who would have been wholly familiar with the age she lived in, would spend so much time explaining habits and practices of the time or describing events of the day, as though she were giving me a guided tour of Victorian London.

Despite the slow pace of the book, and the fact that Catherine's 'guide to Victorian London for 21st century readers' threw me a bit, I did enjoy parts of the book. The episode at the Egyptian theatre, though rather predictable, was entertaining. And I was curious to find out who The Man of Crows would turn out to be. But I felt utterly let down when the killer's identity was finally revealed. Aside from anything else, the reveal felt rushed, as though the writer had run out of steam and just slung it in there. The way everything fitted together just wasn't convincing, and the scene prior to the killer's identity being uncovered, when Catherine goes back to her childhood home in Richmond, seemed utterly ridiculous to me.

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