Sunday, 31 January 2010

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

One Fine Day was a re-read. I first met it some years ago in the library and ever since it has been on the list of books to acquire if I happened across it - with something of a hiatus when I realised that I had forgotten what it was called. Later, I recognised it from, I think, a review by Margaret at BooksPlease, so it was with a sense of real pleasure and anticipation that I opened a parcel to find a copy, a hand-me-down from one aunt to her elder sister and thence to me.

Like quite a few others I can think of, my reading over the last couple of years has circled around the pre- and post- war period, as we discover what a wealth of good storytelling we’d been neglecting. Thanks originally to Virago, and now to publishers like Persephone and Bloomsbury and GreyLadies, we are becoming reacquainted with some wonderful writing, fluent, witty and graceful, and this book is a perfect example.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Eleven year-old Flavia de Luce has a single overriding passion: chemistry. Happily her ancestral home happens to have a well-stocked laboratory to hand (thanks to eccentric Uncle Tarquin), so that when she discovers a body in the cucumber patch, she is immediately able to embark on an investigation.
What starts as an effort to put the senior police officer in his place (he has asked her to rustle up some tea for his team, a demand which quite naturally puts her back up) becomes more urgent when her father is arrested for murder.

Alan Bradley's debut crime novel is a lovely piece of work. From the first page, Flavia's voice is sharp and precocious, and flashes of pure 11 year-old malice vie with the wisdom acquired through an extensive self-education. With her older sisters she's a near monster, but her position as youngest sibling in a motherless family has taught her survival, and her sangfroid born out of their shared reluctance to acknowledge familial affection stands her in good stead when she falls into the hands of a ruthless murderer. Her prickly relationship with Inspector Hewitt is straight from the Golden Age of crime fiction, while her deduction of the murder method - necessary because the Inspector sees no need to share the post mortem findings with a small girl, adds a nice touch. So too the choice of murder weapon, very much of its period. As for the chapter at the end, the one-where-all is-explained, both atmosphere and exposition were worthy of Agatha Christie.

A couple of minor quibbles, I suppose: there are a few Canadian idioms sprinkled through the text, which as a copy editor I would have wanted to winkle out before publication, but there aren't enough such pinpricks to irritate. I had doubts about a simile involving hamsters: not common as pets in 1950, and the hamster wheel had only just been invented (first recorded 1949; this is the sort of thing watchers of period drama love to write to the BBC about!) Oh, and I rather doubt that poison ivy would be found in a garden in northern England, but there are ornamental plants that would achieve a similar effect, so Flavia wouldn’t have had to look far to accomplish her purpose.

Overall, though, this is sheer delight - as a first read for 2010 it sets such an unbelievably high standard that I fear things can only go downhill from here. A final thought: don't be fooled by the age of the protagonist into thinking this is a children's book. Yes, lots of young adults will love it, and it fits excellently into the now fashionable crossover category, but this is essentially an adult novel which happens to have a young narrator. I just can’t wait for the next one; due out later this year (15 April in the UK) it is to be called The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, and I have to admit that, against all resolve not to buy too many books, I have pre-ordered it.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Death is the Cure by Nicola Slade

Nicola Slade does atmosphere well; a short way into Death is the Cure I became aware that she had caught the buzz of the Pump Rooms in Bath exactly, and I was there with Charlotte Richmond and her friends as they tried the (revolting) spa waters. Charlotte, a young widow, has accompanied her dear friend Elaine to Bath while she undergoes a Faraday cure, latest in the fashionable Victorian flirtation with electrical treatments. While Elaine is busy “sizzling”, as she puts it, Charlotte is at liberty, guidebook in hand, to explore the town – not so elegant as it had been in Jane Austen’s day, but especially interesting as she hopes there may be clues to her own background. For Charlotte is not quite the quiet and grieving widow she appears to be, but the daughter of a young woman transported to Australia and, while she would like to trace her mother’s origins, she is less than keen that they should be widely known. And she’s not alone – several of her fellow guests at the respectable Bath establishment where they are staying look uncomfortable when the sharp and inquisitive Mr Jonas Tibbins seems to suggest that they might have secrets. Before long, Charlotte stumbles across a body…

Charlotte is a very believable heroine – she is warm, practical, prone to giggles, and thoroughly good company. She’s not above considering her own interests when indulging in a bit of matchmaking, and quite prepared to admit that there are people she doesn’t like; indeed, she is thoroughly pragmatic about the other guests (inmates, as she drily thinks of them) and tolerant of – if amused by – their foibles. She and Elaine are quick to see the funny side, so that you know their company would be readily sought by the other guests – indeed, there is much of Jane Austen about these two women, in their intelligence and humour, but Charlotte is necessarily more modern and resourceful than Lizzy Bennet, used to living by her wits…hmm, perhaps more than a touch of the Heyer heroines, too?

This is the second time Charlotte has appeared – the first was in Murder Most Welcome – and I really look forward to her next foray into detection. With her independent spirit I can see her doing a good deal more travelling, her status as a widow giving her leeway to investigate all kinds of skulduggery, and you can be sure she’ll find allies (and readers!) wherever she goes.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat

This was a great find, tucked away on the top shelf in our local secondhand bookshop, alongside a tempting selection of Gerald Durrell. I’d enjoyed The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be (reviewed earlier) so much and knew that anything else by the same author was going to be a quick and entertaining read. I’d commented in my review, though, that I knew there was some controversy over Mowat’s writing, and this was one of the books that caused it. This leaves me in something of a quandary about what to make of it – it is ostensibly an account of an expedition into the Canadian Arctic to study wolves, who were suffering something of a bad press at the time. Mowat’s remit, as described by him, was not to redress the balance but to provide a justification for continued slaughter, on the grounds that wolves were decimating the caribou population.

Never Cry Wolf is an entertaining story about a naturalist studying a family of wolves in the wild. As such, it romps along at a pretty rollicking pace, full of amusing anecdotes, both human and animal. It’s also an impassioned plea for a re-evaluation of the wolf’s role as a top predator, suggesting that, rather than being a wasteful and profligate killer of healthy caribou, wolves serve a purpose in keeping herds healthy by picking off sickly and failing animals, and that for most of the year, they exist largely on a diet of smaller animals, including mice. This has been strongly denied by other wolf experts, and I suspect that the truth is somewhere in the middle. It would surprise me if small animals didn’t make up quite a large component on a wolf’s diet, particularly when I watch the ease with which my dogs catch and eat quite large numbers of small creatures, expending far less energy for a decent meal of mice than if they chase a hare. Mowat’s writing persuades me that there is some good observation of wolves here, whether it is his own or that of First Nations hunters that he consulted. The book played a significant part in creating public sympathy for wolves, and in that I can’t fault it – they certainly needed someone on their side in 1963, when the book was published and even now can ill afford to lose an advocate (see the current, often highly emotional debate on the reintroduction of wolves to Scotland and over their re-establishment in France).

My worry with Never Cry Wolf is that Mowat risked causing considerable harm by presenting his observation as scientific research. If he and the wolves got away with it, it was more by luck than judgement, and a fictionalised account should always be clearly indicated as such. The risk of Mowat’s avowed policy of never letting the truth get in the way of a story is that, every once in a while, the truth may just turn round and bite you. As fiction, though, it’s a fun read and Mowat is good company.