Sunday, 29 June 2008

Parker Pyne Investigates by Agatha Christie


Thus reads the advertisement in the personal column of the morning paper. This slim collection of twelve short stories was completely new to me. Some of the later stories follow the expected Agatha Christie detective format – client arrives with mystery to be solved, famous detective finds the solution – while in others, such as in the opening "Case of the Middle-Aged Wife", Mr Parker Pyne offers to provide changes for the better. On payment of an advance fee, fantasy may become reality, and a discontented wife may find romance, or a retired major, adventure, while an apparently much-distressed young lady just may meet her come-uppance, since solutions are never entirely straightforward.

Mr Parker Pyne has a clear-sighted understanding of human nature and, even when the reader fears he may finally have been wrong-footed, psychology will prevail. However, the mild-mannered philanthropist lacks the quirkiness of Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, or the engaging wit of some of Christie's other characters, and is, as a consequence, less memorable, which no doubt explains why these stories are less familiar. Christie aficionados, though, will recognise the efficient Miss Lemon, who also worked for Poirot.

This was another read for the Anything Agatha Challenge – I may have only managed to read three books, but it's been great fun, so I shan't be consulting Mr Parker Pyne myself. Thank you, Joy!

Friday, 27 June 2008

The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson

This is a book which alternates between two viewpoints: the first, in the 1950s, belongs to Ian Christopherson, son of the doctor in Struan, northern Ontario, who is in love with the wife of a local farmer, Arthur Dunn. The other viewpoint is Arthur's, in the 1930s, and relates the story of his relationship with his younger brother, Jake. Jake, born after a stillbirth and considered frail by his mother is sensitive, intelligent and difficult, while Arthur is stolid and dull. Unusually, the author chooses to focus on the plodding but reliable brother, drawing us into Arthur's struggles to overcome his resentment of his younger brother, who has a talent for getting him into trouble, and this is one of the compelling aspects of the novel. While we can't help but empathise with Arthur, we see through his eyes the frustration felt by the younger brother, Jake's desire for education and experience, at all times constrained, despite his mother's favouritism and support, by the needs of the farm: "Farming's important." His father says, "Work's important. Time he knew what matters and what doesn't." Arthur knows, all he wants to do is leave school and get on with working on the farm, although it takes catastrophe to bring it about.

Running parallel to Arthur's story is Ian's. Growing up in a small town, he is constantly aware of the expectation that he will follow in his father's profession, and it rankles. He, too, desires experience in the wider world, although he rejects an opportunity to leave. He takes a Saturday job on Arthur's farm, not because he is interested in agriculture, but to be near Laura, Arthur's wife. Like Arthur, Ian will face desertion and loss, and will have to shape his life accordingly.

Mary Lawson creates a convincing and compelling portrait of a community, depicting the complex relationships, both loving and destructive, of ordinary people, with a painstaking and absorbing conviction. Often painful, it is utterly enthralling, and on my second reading I find myself as completely caught up in events which seem as fresh and immediate as they were the first time through. Her characters are minutely detailed and true. I can't recommend this, my last contribution for the Canadian Book Challenge, too highly. Even better than her first book, Crow Lake.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

I think I'd better come clean at the outset and say that I am fairly ambivalent about Atwood (though, after much patience with their website, I've got a ticket to see her at the Edinburgh Book Festival, which I'm rather pleased about). I have several friends who write very knowledgeably about her work, and make me aware how much I miss so that, while I hate The Handmaid's Tale, I know that it's a tremendously well-written book. The last of her books that I really enjoyed was The Robber Bride. Oh, and I enjoyed Strange Things, the volume of lectures that she gave at Oxford, though it's the worst piece of copy-editing I've ever come across. One of my problems is that her distinctive whine-y voice comes through in every book, however well constructed it is.

So I'm happy to report that I enjoyed The Penelopiad and, although the Voice is there very strongly, it feels true to The Odyssey at the same time as it subverts it. Atwood's research on Penelope usefully brings together the stories about her birth and family, neglected by Homer, but probably familiar to his audience in a way that it no longer is for a modern audience. I was less keen on the modern references in Penelope's "long view" – it is told in the present day by her ghost, a conceit I found a little contrived, although it allows her to brood on the different ways in which she and her vampish cousin Helen (of Trojan fame) are remembered today. As a one-time student of Greek theatre (I played Antigone's lesser-known sister, which makes me rather sympathise with Penelope) I found the chorus of maids, providing ironic commentary on the events, effective and dramatically-pleasing, especially in their indictment of Odysseus, with its allusions to Robert Graves' The White Goddess.

To the reader familiar with the works of Graves and J.G. Frazer there is nothing very new in Atwood's "feminist" re-working of Penelope's story, but to our celebrity-obsessed world it offers a witty and ironic exploration of the very nature of mythologisation. As part of Canongate's Myths series it is a worthy contribution, and should be high on the reading list of anyone interested in...oh, almost anything really: mythology, religion, the history of western culture, the way people think...The Penelopiad reminds us how much our life now is grounded upon the stories we invented long ago to explain the world around us and that, however much our material circumstances may change, people don't.

My father was King Icarius of Sparta. My mother was a Naiad. Daughters of Naiads were a dime a dozen in those days: the place was crawling with them. Nevertheless, it never hurts to be of semi-divine birth. Or it never hurts immediately.
Reading this work helped me to make up my mind about what to tackle for John's Second Canadian Book Challenge: I'm going for the McClung, and Atwood will be represented in my choices. The Penelopiad, however, makes a belated addition to the first challenge; it was also one of my choices for the One Upon a Time II Challenge but, although I completed reading it in time, I was too late to post about it there.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Yellowknife by Steve Zipp

First, huge thanks to Steve for sending me a copy of his book to read for the Canadian Book Challenge. It's a beautifully produced volume that was a great pleasure to receive, and is one to which I shall be returning when I've lent it to both sons. I recommend it to participants in the second challenge.

This is not so much a book to read as to inhabit. You take up residence with a motley crew of characters and watch as their lives happen around you. And you don't necessarily enjoy what you find: I got distinctly squeamish about Danny's preference for dogfood, and began to hallucinate the smell of Winalot every time I picked the book up.

"Hallucinatory" is apt for a book where the reader seems to be on shifting ice. The explorer Franklin, famous mostly for getting lost, puts in an appearance, though there is not much use in asking for directions, of course. At first I thought I was on firm ground: after all, I may not be Canadian, but I knew about Ekati and Diavik (diamond mines) and about "pipes" (ahead of Danny there), and that on 1 April 1999 part of northern Canada would become Nunavut (I even organised a seminar to mark the event), but the further I got into the book the more I was adrift. I hoped for sightings of Neptune, the dog, or even of the missing caribou herd, thinking that they might offer a toehold. Eventually, although I felt that I was missing a lot that a Canadian reader might recognise, I tried to let the book just happen around me, and to accept that people would come and go. After all, Danny's efforts as a private investigator weren't yielding much wisdom, while Brassclick's northern mole was just plain red herring.

One night an arctic front moved in, having somehow given weather satellites the slip. The bay froze over and Nora began sleeping on her couch in the basement of the Carboniferous Building. The gurgling pipes and the wheezing ducts kept her awake at first, along with the sound of the custodian stoking the furnace from a coal seam. In the darkness she imagined his squat frame outlined by orange fire, and the hissing lumps of coal being compressed to a hard white brilliance.

What isn't in doubt is the quality of the writing. Yellowknife itself and its community of eccentrics are tangible. Nora's exasperation with the "talpid project" and Danny's attempts to learn to be an investigator by watching the detective channel feel immediate, and their confusions, as they try to make sense of an environment that threatens to transform into a mythological landscape, become the reader's. The multiplicity of characters, some of whom appear only fleetingly (I wanted more of Mr and Mrs Cavity), adds to the sense of a real community; even though the novel ends, you feel that Zipp's Yellowknife remains, and that there are more stories to be told. And once you do let go of the idea of a linear plot, it's an enjoyable meander, full of unlikely events which nonetheless feel like the kind of things which happen.

The mythologies are both specific to the north and to First Nations world-stories, and universal, so that I had trouble unpicking them. Where does the Odyssey end and Ol' Slavey begin? Ultimately, of course, it doesn't matter, but I like my allusions footnoted and fully referenced, and felt that I would have liked an annotated copy. I suppose I'll have to create my own. I am left, though, with a pleasing bit of serendipity – ever since I read Aritha van Herk's No Fixed Address, I have been left with an indelible impression of Arachne Manteia's knickers scattered across the Canadian North. With Suzi's destruction of the canoeists' cairn, however, I felt that the landscape is once again pristine.

This book was also reviewed by

Gautami at My Own Little Reading Room
Corey Redekop

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

This book, which I read for Joy's Anything Agatha challenge, is described on the cover as "Miss Marple's Last Case" and is a good solid example of its genre. The Reeds are recently married; Gwenda, originally from England but having lived most of her life in New Zealand, arrives in advance of her husband to buy a house, and falls in love with both Dillmouth, a town on the south coast, and the house she discovers there. From the start, however, the house and its garden seem oddly familiar, and when she dreams of witnessing a murder there, she enlists the help of Miss Marple. Ever wise, Miss Marple urges the young couple to forget all about it, but they ignore her advice, and before long they are in pursuit of Gwenda's own past and the dreadful deed she believes she may have witnessed as a child. Fearing the worst, Miss Marple persuades her doctor that she needs a restful holiday visiting Dillmouth, where at least she can keep a watchful eye on events: "My life," she tells the young people, "has so few excitements. I hope you won't think me very inquisitive, if I ask you to let me know how you progress?"

If Miss Marple were not an expert in the art of dissembling, she would long since have been despatched by one of the murderers she tracks down. It is her mildness, even her dodderiness, which makes her such a compelling character, and we are always aware that it is the person who sits in the background and keeps quiet, who sees most. One of the joys of Christie's writing of her detective is the sparing use of words – Miss Marple is not given to long speeches, but her words are always telling, and precise, and the nuance delicate. This book is a must for all who hold Miss Marple dear.

(The picture, by the way, is of the 1991 TV production of Sleeping Murder, starring Joan Hickson - the definitive version, as far as I am concerned.)

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones


I bought this book thinking I knew what to expect. A year or two ago I read an article which discussed it, along with Elidor by Alan Garner (one of my favourite books growing up), as examples of British myths retold with a contemporary setting. I can't find the article now, but I remember it left me with an impression of a re-telling, based on the Scottish ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer), that was as gritty as Garner's treatment of the Mabinogion. I was interested, but there was no sense of urgency about reading it, particularly since I couldn't find a copy for sale in the UK. The Once Upon a Time II Challenge, though, spurred me to search again and, this time, patience was rewarded and I found an affordable copy which was soon winging its way across the Atlantic (I can't imagine why it's so hard to get here).

And boy, was patience ever rewarded! Now, I readily admit to being an easy target (my second son was named for Tam Lin – a dangerous move, I realise in retrospect, you shouldn't dangle a tempting treat under Queen Mab's nose like that, and I once considered buying a dreadful house in Earlston simply because the town was the birthplace of Thomas the Rhymer) but I have found a book to enjoy re-reading for years to come.

Nineteen-year-old Polly is reading a book of modern fairy stories when she begins to recall echoes of a set of memories about the childhood friend who gave her books of folktales and myths. How have the memories of this person, and the events of her childhood, been suppressed? She sets out to retrace these events, gradually recalling her meeting with Tom Lynn at a funeral, the beginnings of their friendship, and their joint creation of the heroes Tan Coul and his assistant, Hero, whose adventures come true, after a fashion, for Polly and Tom.

Early in the book I found myself intrigued by the way in which the lives of Polly and Tom were being gradually interwoven by the author, in parallel to the way in which they weave their tales, often at a distance. The reader is caught up almost as the third strand of the plait, much in the way that the interaction between storyteller and listener was an intrinsic part of the telling of ballads. Like Polly, we can see that some of the characters are not necessarily what they seem, but can only guess at their reality based on their words and actions and, as her memories begin to unfold, it is as if we share the experience through the process of reading them. We have embarked, with Polly, on a journey of rediscovery, which will lead to a riddle to solve; and like Janet, in the ballad, all her resolve and tenacity will be tested.

For the young adult reader there are hints of the relevance of fairytales and myths to the present day, albeit a more mundane world than the one in which Polly finds herself. And the truth which Polly must uncover is universal. This is a wonderful story, age-old but superbly reinterpreted, which should be available to a new generation of readers.

Monday, 9 June 2008

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee by Rebecca Miller

This book came to me through Library Thing's Early Reviewers, though I must admit that, thanks to both work and family, I am rather late in getting round to writing about it.

When Pippa Lee moves to a retirement community with the much older husband to whom she is devoted, she finds herself out of step with the other residents and, increasingly, with her chosen life. Suspecting that her husband is showing signs of senility, instead she discovers that she is reacting to her new circumstances by sleepwalking. Faced with the revelation that her subconscious is rebelling against the life she has chosen, she finds herself reviewing her past, her childhood, and the circumstances which led to marriage and motherhood.

Although events are seen from Pippa's point of view throughout, the narration alternates between first and third person, permitting access to her thoughts while events are moved along within an occasionally more distanced framework. I'm not sure that this achieves a great deal, as it offers neither a more privileged insight into Pippa's moods and motives nor, mostly, any knowledge of those of the other characters, except in two brief interludes; however, the book doesn't lack pace as a result, and Pippa is an interesting and attractive protagonist, despite her troubled youth. This latter caused me a greater problem, in that I found the disjunct between troubled youth and contented marriage the least convincing element in the story – yes, so much was buried that it was bound to resurface later, and the move in her fifties to the retirement community, for which her husband might be ready, but she certainly is not, is a plausible trigger, but I'm not entirely persuaded that she could have quashed it so thoroughly. Of course, it emerges that there were signs of strain even within the contented marriage but, nonetheless, Pippa seems to have believed the myth along with everyone else.

I felt, in some sense that I can't pin down, that Pippa's voice was younger than her years. The immediacy of her exploration of her younger years, while attracting the reader's attention and empathy, both lacks contrast with her mature voice and offers no feeling of reflection on the past – it is a little too immediate. I also felt that the character of the husband required more depth.

Despite these reservations this was an entertaining book. A brisk read, it reminded me a little of Updike in its considered analysis of a modern American marriage. Not profound, nor even especially thought-provoking, but absorbing enough, and the author's handling of Pippa's emotional life has a clear-sighted quality which lends a feeling of veracity. Nicely produced by Canongate, too, which always adds to the pleasure.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Another satisfying pile of new books, even larger than it should have been thanks to The Book People, who very kindly sell the Myths boxed set at the ridiculous price of £7.99 – how could I resist, particularly as I wanted the Atwood (The Penelopiad) for a challenge? Re-tellings of myths are very much my "thing", so I shall find them interesting reading. In those few minutes when I'm not doing anything else I'm keen to look in more depth at myths and fairy tales: I think I may have to learn to hoover while listening to an iPod! There has to be a way I can cram more into the day.

Thinking of which, I have some catching up on Jon Courtenay Grimwood to do: I now have 3 of his books to read, having bought End of the World Blues on a 3 for 2 offer at Waterstones, with the two Persephone books. The latter have been recommended widely by fellow bloggers, amd I think I need to read Miss Pettigrew... soon, before the film swims into view.

I heard Simon Armitage talking about his translation of Sir Gawain on Radio 4 recently, and he was so engagingly enthusiastic that I succumbed. Now, of course, I shall have to get a copy of the Tolkien translation for comparison, as it's many years since I read it.

The Nancy Mitford biography turned up serendipitously on Bookmooch; as some of you may recall, I've been re-reading her novels, and this will complement both them, as well as the recently read Debs at War. After that I mean to progress to the letters between the Mitford sisters, which I know others have been enjoying.

The final two are review books. I've written briefly about Salal here, and will post about this intriguing book at greater length. The fish book is rather fat, I'd better start reading it.

Monday, 2 June 2008


I've been tagged for a meme by Angela at Writing, Life and the Universe. I'm afraid any regular readers are going to find my answers a little repetitive but, hey, we're all obsessives here, aren't we?

1. Who’s your all-time favourite author, and why?

This is a the sort of question that send me into agonies of indecision. Jane Austen. No, Elizabeth Goudge. Can I have both? Jane's qualities are obvious, and I don't think I need to explain why she heads the list but, while quite a few people know Goudge for The Little White Horse, her books for adults are rather less well known. I find them inspirational, and they are books I turn to in dark moments. Sometimes the inner demons with which her characters battle are brought about by conflict and war, as in her novel about the Civil War, The White Witch; at other times they are relatively small and personal - perhaps the constant pain of arthritis, or even a simple clinging to vanity - but to both she brings insight from her own experience, understanding the physical misery and lassitude which accompanies psychological struggle. Shining through her writing is a conviction that pain and doubt can be overcome and that faith will be rewarded. Her animal characters are good too.

2. Who was your first favourite author, and why? Do you still consider him or her among your favourites?

T.H. White. At the age of eleven or twelve White's Once and Future King introduced me to the joys of Arthurian legend, medieval history, falconry and romantic love; the second book, The Queen of Air and Darkness contained the single most shocking image of dark sexuality – appropriately to result in the birth of Mordred - I had ever met at that tender age. Still a favourite? Absolutely, I'm nothing if not loyal. The conversation between the hawks in the castle mews is superb, and later I read The Goshawk, his wonderful book about training a hawk.

3. Who’s the most recent addition to your list of favourite authors, and why?

Angela Thirkell, on the basis of August Folly and Before Lunch. I have two more waiting to be read, but I love her writing so much that I am saving them up. She writes that cosy middle-class world in which I know I'm most comfortable; her characters are attractive but flawed, and the way in which their foibles are visited – often inadvertently - on others are familiar from the worlds of Pym and Austen. I admit she doesn't challenge but, for me, her books are pleasure from first page to last. More good animals, too, in August Folly, with Gunther the cat and Modestine the donkey. I'm very happy to know that there are another 26 to go when I've read the two I already have.

4. If someone asked you who your favourite authors were right now, which authors would first pop out of your mouth? Are there any you’d add on a moment of further reflection?

Apart from the Misses Austen and Goudge? Well, actually, there are quite a few: Barbara Pym, Joyce Windsor, Victoria Clayton, Georgette Heyer. Then we head off into the darker realms of fantasy: Mervyn Peake, William Gibson, Neil Gaiman, Alan Garner, Iain M. Banks. William Mayne, who wrote a trilogy for children about Canterbury Choir School, bridges the gap between the two worlds with his own take on the Arthurian legends in Earthfasts. Not so many animals here, but in his Culture novels Banks writes splendid artificial intelligences, especially in Excession, where you can listen in on spaceships bickering!

I'm not going to tag anyone else but, if you haven't done it, and you'd like to, please play along.