Monday, 24 November 2008

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

I'm beginning to think that I should avoid books which other people rave about. This is the second time recently that I've been disappointed, first by Ghostwalk (Rebecca Stott), and now by Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. I was looking forward to the promised layered, gothic tale – elderly writer sends for relatively unknown biographer, with the promise that she will divulge the story of her life as long as the biographer asks no questions, country house destroyed by fire, wild child etc. Reading the prologue, I wondered whether I would get through it all, since the narrator's voice and that of the elderly writer seemed to be identical, and both given to an annoying trait of high-flown literary generalisation which seems to be creeping in to more and more modern novels, as here:
My gripe is not with lovers of truth but with truth herself. What succour, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story? What good is truth, as midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney? When the lightning strikes shadows on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with its long fingernails?
Now, I admit there is nothing really wrong with this per se, but you can have too much of it, and there is certainly too much in the opening pages of this book. Fortunately, Setterfield then embarks fairly briskly on the story, though I found myself skipping some purplish passages. Thus I came rapidly to my second problem with it – as the story unfolds, I simply do not believe in the character of Vida Winter. I don't want to explain why, since that would give away too much, but all the characters are stereotypes, lacking development and individuality. I should have loved a narrator whose life was completely built upon books but sadly, I didn't care. The Thirteenth Tale is strewn with references to other works such as Jane Eyre, Sherlock Holmes, The Castle of Otranto - if you want to immerse yourself in gothic atmosphere try Lady Audley's Secret or The Monk; this one is really train reading, in my opinion.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

101 today!

101! oh no, that's posts on this blog. I'm not quite that old - 54 doesn't sound quite so bad if you compare it to 101.

And what, in a perfect world, would I like for my birthday? Hmm, well, there is something:

I didn't even know this book existed until recently, and I would dearly love to find a copy. It's the fourth in a series which started with A Swarm in May, about the Choir School at Canterbury Cathedral, and based on Mayne's own time there. Mayne is a wonderful writer, an endlessly inventive manipulator of words. Here is the opening of Chorister's Cake, the second book:

'Sometime Dean of this Cathedral', said the two lines of carved letters just below Peter Sandwells' eyes and between the next boy's feet. Whoever had put them there had not thought that one day the Cathedral choirboys would be standing on it during their PT lesson. Standing was not the right word: Peter Sandwell had both heels on it, and so had Meedwell just in front, but their knees were wide apart and their heads were between their knees: they were waiting for the football to be rolled along through the arches of legs, so that it could be raced round to the front of the team again.

Meedwell felt Sandwell's head butt against his seat, so he sat as much as anyone can sit who looks for the time being like the two legs of a wishbone. Sandwell resisted the weight, but his head was pushed lower and lower. 'Sometime Dean of this Cathedral' slid out of sight. He found he was looking at the rest of the sometime Dean's inscription, reading a Latin verse from above.
Having decided to quote those two paragraphs, I had to keep reading. In some ways, this is my least favourite of the three that I've been able to read - although they are all witty and fun, both A Swarm in May and Cathedral Wednesday have a slightly more whimsical quality that increases their charm, but all are concerned with the acceptance of responsibility, and here the story revolves around Sandwell's chafing against the demands of membership of the choir.

Sandy is one of the choir school's older boys and, while he is aware that seniority should bring respect from the younger boys, he is at the same time more interested in flouting school rules and being the successful instigator of "chizzes" (jokes) than in being promoted from singing boy to chorister. An attempt to play an elaborate practical joke goes badly wrong for Sandy, and he finds himself persona non grata with the rest of the school. In two superb chapters, 'A Proud Walker' and 'In the Wilderness', his small boy's arrogance, first, won't even allow him to see that he is being ostracised and then, denies to himself that he cares. Mayne's depiction of Sandy's internal world is compelling: the stories he tells himself help to externalise his predicament, and even when he is doing the right thing he is concerned with how much esteem will be gained. The reader, meanwhile, has to walk to a fine line between identification and judgment, especially when Sandy refuses help that is offered.

The illustrations by C. Walter Hodges which accompany the story are beautifully judged, and the one showing the outcome of Sandy's joke integrates into the text in a way which makes my toes curl with pleasure. But, sadly, I think it is the exceptional modern child who would enjoy this series.
Mayne makes small concession concerning the intricacies of a chorister's world, and while only a smattering of musical theory is necessary for understanding, few children nowadays have the knowledge of church music required to fully enjoy some of the jokes made by precocious choirboys. It's been claimed all along that children don't enjoy Mayne as much as adults; this isn't entirely true, since I loved his work from the moment I discovered it, but many of his books didn't appear until I was grown up, and my husband, who read some of them to his classes of Cumbrian 8- and 9-year-olds, felt that much more discussion was needed for Mayne: Peter Dickinson's Annerton Pit, for instance, went down better than Mayne's Ravensgill, although both are demanding books. For an adult audience, though, Mayne's idiosyncratic voice is a delight, often requiring close attention from the reader to interpret his elliptic dialogue and offbeat view of everyday events, where even the serving of cocoa becomes a vehicle for a subtle demonstration of the complex relationships between the choirboys and their teachers. The denouement is both funny and poetic, closing on a perfect moment.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Support your local library

It seems appropriate to follow yesterday's post on library books with news of a challenge to encourage people to support their local library. In the last couple of weeks I've been thinking quite hard about the need to stop buying so many books: not only do I spend too much on books, but the storage problems are becoming acute - we seem to be living in ever-decreasing circles and, while some extra shelves may help, they will quickly fill up.

The challenge runs throughout 2009, and is to read 12, 25 or 50 books from the local library. I usually take out at least 6 books at a time so, to encourage me to visit the library regularly, I guess I should go for the full 50. I'm only planning to take on short-term challenges otherwise, so this should be feasible. I shall post the list here, throughout the year.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

A good start to the weekend...

The local library rang on Friday afternoon to say they had got a book for me, so Saturday morning was taken up by a dog walk on the dunes - much enjoyed by all although The Bolter was a bit nervous and whiny because it was later than usual and there were more Big Threatening Dogs (that is, two springer spaniels) around - followed by a quick whizz into the library to stock up with crime fiction.

Library staff are being very apologetic about lack of stock at the moment. Their headquarters are in Morpeth, scene of serious flooding in September, and the library was very seriously affected. Since Morpeth Library held stocks for the whole county, all the Northumberland libraries havel suffered as a result. Despite this, I have recently had a little more luck in following up recommendations from fellow bloggers, and have just finished Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death, a title missing from the catalogue earlier in the year, while Needle in the Blood (Sarah Bowers) is at last in transit from somewhere in the county.

In the circumstances, that isn't a bad haul, I think. Another Hazel Holt to look forward to - I'm reading them all in the wrong order, but I don't think it's decreasing my enjoyment. I've wanted to read Martin Edwards' The Coffin Trail for a while - it was the book the library rang about - since I've lived in the Lake District. Tony Hillerman (and yes, there really are 3 LLLs in his name on the spine - oh dear!) is an old favourite. It's probably very non-PC of me to like his books about the Native American policeman Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, but I think they are well-researched and sensitive, and I'm afraid it's hard to get books by aboriginal writers here in the UK.

Being a longterm devotee of anything to do with the Cathars, I snapped up Kate Mosse's Labyrinth when it first came out. I'm not a wholesale fan (she's a bit too prone to the "here's a dark and spooky place and I'm on my own - why don't I go in, all alone, and have a look round?" syndrome) but it was a good enough romp and I'll give Sepulchre a try. Pat McIntosh is entirely new to me, but fresh from my excursion into the twelfth century with Ariana Franklin, I decided to see what it's like. Last, I'm back to safe ground with Elizabeth Peters - or am I? Vicky Bliss is another heroine with a tendency to head off into dark and spooky places, though I recall from the first I read in this series that she does it with a certain amount of aplomb and humour. Actually, I had trouble chossing between this book and one of the Amelia Peabody series: I decided to spend a little longer next visit working out which of Amelia's adventures I still need to catch up on. Unfortunately, I couldn't remember the other name Peters writes under, and the librarian didn't know, so I couldn't look for other books by her (gothic romances, I think, which would be a real wallow, lovely and frovilous for Christmas) as I had planned. Now, of course, I've Googled her, and it's Barbara Michaels. I think a catalogue search is called for!

Friday, 14 November 2008

Scuba Dancing by Nicola Slade

At the end of a tiring week in London, I was in the mood for some undemanding company, and I found it amongst The Gang in Nicola Slade's first book, Scuba Dancing (scuba dancing?, said the librarian as she renewed it, and I giggled because, of course, it's an in-joke in the book). As with my newly found favourite Sleuth, Mrs Malory, The Gang are people you could imagine making friends with – none of them are spring chickens and have all known painful episodes in their lives, and they are comfortable together not playing bingo. I think I identified most with Delia, the old bat who has decorated her house almost entirely in pink and who likes to be outrageous, but all of them have a charm and vivacity which make you want to settle down in their company with a nice cup of tea.

Our protagonist, Finn, has escaped from an unhappy relationship – memo, never fall in love with your boss – to live with her older sister. Instead of finding a "proper" job she finds herself talking herself into a job as assistant to Hedgehog, proprietor of a shop which sells tarot cards and crystals, and even filling in as occasional clairvoyant. Meanwhile, her sister Julia and the other Gang members are fundraising, in slightly riotous fashion, for the holiday of a lifetime.

This is a strictly non-serious and comfy book, which recognises nonetheless the kind of difficulties which can go with increasing age – frail or difficult parents, financial insecurity, loneliness (the author, who looks positively slender in her photographs on the web, considerably underestimates the agonies of the expanding waistline, but this is my only criticism). There's a great deal to be said for spending time with people you like, whether you are a character in a novel or a reader, and Ursula's golden-eyed angel is worthy of a sequel in his own right. Meanwhile, I'm off to look for Nicola Slade's second book,
Murder Most Welcome. For anyone who would like a taster, Nicola has posted a couple of short stories on her website, where you can also see some of her beautiful paintings.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

October's book round up

October's books were:
  • By the Pricking of my Thumbs by Agatha Christie
  • Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery
  • Stranger at Green Knowe by L.M. Boston
  • Growing Up by Angela Thirkell
  • Tamsin by Peter S. Beagle
  • No Cure for Death by Hazel Holt
  • Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott
  • Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham - re-read
  • Dragons in the Waters by Madeleine l'Engle
  • Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton
  • Look to the Lady by Margery Allingham - re-read
  • Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome
  • Great Northern? by Arthur Ransome
  • Panther Soup by John Gimlette
  • Summer Lightning by P.G. Wodehouse
Better late than never, I am finally getting to October's book summary. A certain repetitive strain here, I feel, you'll notice that you've seen most of the authors' names in previous lists. I'll concentrate on those who are new here.

First, Panther Soup by John Gimlette. Not having this to hand, I can't say a great deal about it. I
gave it to my stepfather, with some trepidation, for his birthday and, as soon as he finished it, he insisted I take it to read. Rather soon afterwards, he insisted I give it back, as he wanted to re-read it, so I am afraid I raced through much more quickly than it deserved, because it is full of fascination. It tells how Gimlette retraced the route of the American invasion force that landed off Marseille in 1945, at times in company with one of the veterans, Putnam Flint. Gimlette is a travel writer with a real feel for writing history, and Panther Soup is full of digressions into the pasts of France and Germany, and surprisingly full of humour. I chose it as a birthday gift because we had both read and enjoyed Gimlette's earlier book, Theatre of Fish, in which he traced the journey of a forebear to Newfoundland (although I am unlikely to forgive him for what his ancestor did to his dogs). Harrowing and funny by turns, Panther Soup ought to be required reading for anyone who didn't live through the War. The reason for my anxiety about my choice of gift, of course, is that my stepfather did, and he had a far greater acquaintance with the mud through which Putnam Flint slogged in 1945 than I can even begin to imagine – I know he found it painful, but was glad nonetheless that the story was so well-told.

From Gimlette, and in need of some light relief, I turned immediately to Arthur Ransome, and to two of his later books which I had never read. Both these volumes, with the distinctive covers I always associate with this series, were rescued from my stepbrother's shelves after his death, and had belonged to him since childhood, so they are doubly precious. I particularly love the maps as endpapers. Winter Holiday is set in the Lake District, an area I know well as we lived on its margins for some years (my husband's socialist leanings wouldn't allow us to live in the Lakes – and we probably couldn't have afforded it – but we were permitted to live in hideously depressed West Cumberland where the coal mines had all closed, and half of his pupils didn't have indoor bathrooms, but we could get to the Lakes in half an hour). It tells how Dick and Dorothea, on holiday in the Lakes, meet the Swallows and Amazons and join them in the expedition to discover the North Pole. They almost don't have time to make it, because it simply won't snow, but then Nancy comes down with mumps and they are all quarantined and can't return to school. The children commandeer the absent Captain Flint's houseboat (to his indignation when he returns unexpectedly), where they make snowshoes and bearskin coats for the expedition. It's all jolly good fun, and genuinely gripping when Dick and Dorothea start out for the Pole too soon.

Great Northern? too, appealed to me more than the earlier Swallows and Amazons stories, with its setting amongst the Scottish Islands, perhaps the most beautiful part of the British Isles. Keen birdwatcher, Dick, is longing to see either of the indigenous divers (red- and black-throated) during their sailing holiday, so he is both disbelieving and immensely excited when he believes he has seen a great northern diver, not listed as a British breeding bird, apparently sitting on a clutch of eggs. Dick wants to photograph the bird, so that it will be included in the breeding records, but he has inadvertently given away its location to an egg collector. The children and Uncle Jim must act quickly if they are to save the bird. One of my most precious memories is waking to the sound of a nearby red-throated diver – I've never seen the great northern, alas. I recommend both books to anyone who hasn't read them.

I'd read several reviews of Ghostwalk, by Rebecca Stott, and looked forward to it. I have to admit to being a bit disappointed, I didn't think the plot really stood up, and I got pretty irritated with the main characters. One to get out of the library, I think. Finally, since I'm restricting myself to authors I haven't written about before, Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton. This is a gem. Beautifully written, it tells the intertwined stories of two families, both wealthy, both headed by women. The two matriarchs are convincingly portrayed – the moment when Helen tells Mrs Fowler that she will no longer call her "mother" because that name must henceforth be reserved for her mother-in-law is exquisitely cringe-making. Mrs Fowler – the meek Milly to her family, but Millicent in her innermost, and somewhat more acerbic, thoughts, is a type of woman becoming familiar to me from several novels dating from around the same period, and it is Millicent's small struggle for survival that makes this such a good book. Mrs Willoughby, meanwhile, is recognisable from an earlier generation of authors, the rigid and unbending woman whose rule is benign only if not crossed. All the events take place firmly within the domestic sphere, but the reader is entirely caught up with these small lives; not all the characters are likeable, but they are what is more important, believable, and I found myself anxious to see whether Peter will escape from the dreadful Belle, or Cynthia from becoming yet another put-upon maiden aunt. Published by Persephone Books, with exquisite endpapers, Family Roundabout is certain
ly one to buy.

Monday, 3 November 2008

A late September book round-up!

September's books were:
  • Thrones, Dominations by Jill Paton Walsh and Dorothy Sayers
  • I Leap Over the Wall by Monica Baldwin
  • Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham - reread
  • The Autumn Castle by Kim Wilkins
  • The Scent of the Night by Andrea Camilleri
  • Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham - reread
  • The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham - reread
  • Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
  • A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L'Engle
  • The Towers of Trebizond by Rose McCaulay
  • Witchfire at Lammas by Robert Neill
  • Old School by Tobias Wolff
  • Scar Night by Alan Campbell
  • The Beckoning Lady by Margery Allingham - reread
Very late getting to this, but I don't want to ignore it altogether so I am going to squeeze it in before the October round up. There is only space to write about some of September's reading, I fear. The Allingham project – reading all of her Campion novels – is something I shall return to later, and you've heard a lot about Madeleine L'Engle from me in recent months. Tobias Wolff's Old School was discussed at some length by the Cornflower book club, so I shan't say more here, while The Towers of Trebizond is worthy of proper consideration, so I shall save it for later.

Dorothy Sayers never finished her last Wimsey novel, Thrones, Dominations but, not only did Jill Paton Walsh do an excellent job in completing it, she went on to write a sequel. Here, with the threat of war ever in the background, we have a portrait of two marriages, that of theatrical angel Lawrence Harwell and his wife Rosamund, constantly in the public eye and noted for their open adoration of each other, and that of Harriet and Peter, newly wed and full of careful consideration for each other's sensibilities. The first ends in disaster and murder, whereas Harriet and Peter, for whom love is something never to be worn on a sleeve, reach an understanding of the abiding depths of their passion.

During the later days of World War II, Monica Baldwin, niece to Sir Stanley Baldwin and cousin of novelists Denis McPhail and Angela Thirkell, left the convent where she had spent 28 years and set about trying to earn her living and contribute to the war effort. She documented the resulting struggle in I Leap Over the Wall. Convent life left her reluctant to resign herself to teaching in a girls' school, the only thing she was really qualified to do, but her efforts as a land girl were doomed by poor health and despite her determination she spent months moving between relatives and friends, fitting in nowhere, while life around her moved at a pace which left her baffled. Don't imagine that this is the sort of book Monica Dickens would have written, full of cheerful disaster and making do – Baldwin is carefully rational about her choices to enter, and then to leave, the convent, and much of the book focuses on the rationale for, and the exigencies of, monastic life.

Finally, I managed to read three books for Carl's R.I.P. III Challenge, though I only wrote about two of them: Tamsin by Peter S. Beagle and The Autumn Castle by Kim Wilkins. My third book was Witchfire at Lammas by Robert Neill, which I happened across for 99p in one of those bins outside a bookseller's. Neill's best-known work was Mist Over Pendle, written in 1951 and one of those books that mothers pass on to their daughters to read (though my best friend's mother passed it on to him). I remember getting it out of the library when I was about 13, and "discovering" the Lancashire Witches. There's a wonderful picture of Pendle Hill over at Juxtabook, with a list of the witches who were hanged. Witchfire at Lammas returns to the same territory in 1715, the year of the first Jacobite rising in Scotland, when supporters of the Old Pretender were canvassing on his behalf south of the border. Neill's portrait of a rural society riven by suspicion of witchcraft rings true, I think, although it's gentler than I expected, perhaps slightly too much so (but I was grateful for a relaxing, rather than harrowing, read). I'd like to know more about this writer, but have been unable to find any information about him, although I know his books span two centuries or so of English history, and include a wonderful Regency novel called The Shocking Miss Anstey, a spiced-up Heyer-style romance.

The next post will be on October's reading – soon, I hope, but a week of London meetings may intervene, even though I'd rather be writing about books.