A Difficult Problem: The Staircase at the Heart’s Delight & Other Stories

A Difficult Problem, The Staircase at the Heart's Delight and Other ProblemsA Difficult Problem, The Staircase at the Heart's Delight and Other Problems
by Anna Katherine Green
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1900
Pages: 344
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: F.M. Lupton

This is a compilation of half a dozen stories, first collected in this form in 1900 by F. M. Lupton. The stories were originally published between 1894 and 1900.


It was time for some Anna Katherine Green.  I discovered her writing several years ago, and enjoy it so much I have made it my long-term goal to acquire and read everything she published.  She’s sometimes called the “mother of the detective novel”, but she also writes ripping good suspense, gothic, and with The Circular Staircase, originally published in 1900, arguably some amazing early science fiction.

This is my second collection of her short stories; the first one, a collection of the Violet Strange mysteries, failed to thrill me; my first exposure to Violet Strange as a Holmesian private investigator gave me high hopes, but this collection of stories just failed to meet them.  Hence, A Difficult Problem: The Staircase at the Heart’s Delight & Other Stories sat on my TBR for a long time.

This collection, however, turned out to be a delightful mish-mash of varying types, and even the weakest one was good enough to keep me turning the page.

In order of appearance:

A Difficult Problem (4.5 stars):  A mystery, first published in 1900, and Green turns the gender tables, crafting a murder plot that hinges on the deranged need to inflict suffering and revenge at any cost, even to the murderer.  The unveiling of the killer in itself is diabolically clever.  The story is amongst the shortest in the collection, so the psychological impact is necessarily blunted by the truncated length, but short though it may be, it’s also sharply written.

The Grey Madam (4.5 3.5 stars): I rated this one high mostly because it starts out as a ghost story that the narrator is determined to debunk.  It’s not a complicated plot by any stretch, and really no suspense involved once the investigation begins. Actually, the ending is anti-climatic, and a bit of a letdown, really.  So, while I’m remembering it fondly, I’m not sure why I gave it 4.5 stars.  Still, a very well written snippet.

The Bronze Hand (4.5 stars): This one fascinated me.  It’s a well-written tale of secret societies and the whole time I was reading it, I was thinking Green must have read The Valley of Fear.  No, she hadn’t, as it turns out, because she published this in 1897, and the Valley of Fear was published in 1915.  So now I have to wonder, did ACD read The Bronze Hand?  There’s a heavy thread of romance through this story, but otherwise the similarity between the two stories was unmistakable.

Midnight on Beauchamp Row (4.5 stars): Another short, sharp story, but this one was a tad melodramatic with the female acting more “female” according to the stereotype of the day, and Green plays on racial stereotypes too, but the ending made it an entirely different kind of story for me, and that ending bumped the rating up considerably.  I wish I could ask her if she intended her ending to be ironical; I like to think that is was.

The Staircase at the Heart’s Delight (3 stars): This one left me conflicted on a superficial level.  It was a well plotted, and used a fiendishly clever method of murder, but on a deeper, moral level it really disappointed me because of the anti-semitism inherent in the construction of the story.  I just could not enjoy this one, even though academically it’s well-written enough.

The Hermit of –– Street (4 stars): First, let me say, the convention of em dashes instead of names in early stories is really REALLY irritating.  Now that I’ve got that off my chest, this one is pure romantic drivel, but it’s gripping romantic-suspense drivel.  Completely implausible, with a main character that is only saved from being too stilly and frivolous to live by the fact that the writing takes place after the fact, with the narrator looking back and calling out her own naiveté and stupidity.  But still, the plot was, in its way, riveting.  There’s a tiny touch of Brontë here, and I have to wonder if later authors like Whitney, Holt, etc. read Green’s work and were inspired by it.  The ending was complete twaddle though.

As a whole, the book delighted more than the individual stories did.  If I’m being completely objective, some of this might have to do with my edition being published in 1900 – if I bought this collection in a modern binding, as a reprint, I’m not sure I’d have viewed it and its stories as favourably.  There’s something about reading old stories from an old book that softens the critical lens – perhaps the old pages and bindings offer a silent context, reminding the reader sub-consciously that standards and expectations of the day were different, making it easier to judge the author’s efforts from a simpler point of view.  I don’t know, but overall, it’s a solid collection of short stories from an amazing and undervalued writer.

Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green GablesAnne of Green Gables
by L.M. Montgomery
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 99582643
Series: Anne of Green Gables #1
Publication Date: September 1, 2013
Pages: 468
Genre: Children's Fiction

Yes, this is my first time reading it.  I was book shopping back in January with my 9 year old niece and she was pressuring me to read Little Women, which isn’t going to happen, and in a panic, I volunteered to read Anne of Green Gables instead.

Keeping in mind that I’m 40 years beyond the target audience for this book, omg, it’s so twee.  468 pages and about 368 of them so twee and precious I almost gave up and dnf’d it.  Suffice it to say, I identified most strongly with Marilla.  But if I skimmed the gratuitous expository narrative, there was a charming story that kept me going (after a 3 month hiatus).  And as Anne grew up, the story got progressively easier to read.  That part of the story earned it the extra half star.

The reasons this book is a classic are clear, though I’m confident I wouldn’t have been much more enamoured of this book when I was in its target audience; even as a child I lacked the requisite imagination to feel like Anne was a kindred spirit, and Heidi pretty much killed the orphan sub-genre for me anyway.  But I have one niece for whom this book might be a perfect fit, and I’ll be holding in on my shelf for her next visit, assuming that happens before she’s old enough to drive, given current border closures.  Or maybe I’ll just send it to her in the post.

Persuasion

PersuasionPersuasion
by Jane Austen
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781435127432
Publication Date: January 1, 2012
Pages: 228
Genre: Fiction, Literature
Publisher: Barnes and Noble

 

Well, this is where I wish I paid more attention in my English Lit. classes.  Then I could use this review to wax lyrical (or at least literate) about the exposition, the rising action, the climax and the ultimate resolution of Anne Elliot’s story in Persuasion.  Unfortunately, I didn’t pay attention in class (or attend class very often) so here I am floundering for a way to adequately discuss one of Jane Austen’s finest.  (Does this make me a cautionary tale?)

I’m going to start by saying I still like Pride & Prejudice better.  I’ve heard many people describe Persuasion as Austen’s most mature work – which makes sense because it was also her last – and I can definitely see the truth in that.  But Persuasion lacks the humour, the lightness, of her earlier works, although it still retains all of the bite.

If Miss Austen wrote from life she lacked any positive parental role models.  In every book of hers I’ve read, at least one parent was vapid, shallow, vain, neurotic, dyspeptic, a hypochondriac or a combination of any of the aforementioned.  I’d argue it’s the single uniting factor in all her work (although I’ve yet to read her juvenilia or Sanditon).  Anne Elliot gets the rawest deal of all of JA’s MC’s – her family has no affection for her at all.  She is the Cinderella in their lives: useful only for propping them up when they’re down, being the person applied to for attentiveness, while never receiving any attention or affection in return.

Thank goodness for Lady Russell; only Lady Russell persuaded Anne to cut off her engagement to the man she loved 8 1/2 years ago because his prospects were not guaranteed.  Now that man is back and he’s rich.  He might also be a tiny bit bitter about having his heart broken all those years ago.

I enjoyed the story; I definitely liked it more than Emma (sorry mom) and probably more than Northanger Abbey.  Maybe.  It’s a more staid, more serious work than the others.  What little frivolity there is ends in disaster and is used to illustrate a defect in character.  As I prefer characters who ‘dearly love to laugh’, Elizabeth Bennett holds pride of place on my favorite Austen list – but Persuasion and Anne Elliot aren’t far behind.

 

(NB: While the edition information is correct for this review, the cover is not.  And I hate not having the correct cover on my reviews.)