Monday, 23 August 2010

Unholy Disorders by Edmund Crispin

On his knees in a corner was a tall, lanky man. In one hand he held a large glass of whisky, in the other a walking stick, with which he prodded at some small, mobile object hovering above the floor. This was shortly revealed to be a common housefly, avoiding the attacks with ease and evident enjoyment. How long this scene might have continued it is impossible to say, But the fly, tiring of the amusement, presently took wing and prepared to depart. Its assailant, plainly maddened by this unexpected manoeuvre, aimed the contents of his glass at it, and missed. The fly flew at top speed towards his nose, made impact, went into reverse, and then with what even to the unimaginative was manifestly a shriek of delight, made off through the window.
Thus is Gervase Fen, the undoubted star of Unholy Disorders, introduced to the reader. Of its author, Edmund Crispin, Philip Larkin said, “Beneath a formidable exterior he had unsuspected depths of frivolity.” My OH, who has no sense of humour at all when it comes to mystery novels, doesn’t much like Crispin, but then he doesn’t like Michael Innes either, whereas I love them both. I like characters who play silly games or discuss church music, and the more they toss obscure literary references around, the happier I am (funnily enough, I don’t much like Dr Who these days, and OH watches it when I’m not there – you’d think it would be the other way round.)

The story is told from the point of view of Geoffrey Vintner, a musician, who is sent for by his old college contemporary Fen to fill in as organist in a West Country cathedral city. The summons arrives in the form of a lengthy but uninformative telegram (its tone, Geoffrey notes, being one of callous hilarity) instructing him to arrive with butterfly net. Geoffrey, who’s a bit conscious that he’s becoming an old stuck-in-the-mud bachelor-with-cat, decides that he will go, and sets off, stopping en route to the station to purchase said net. Almost immediately after receiving the telegram he is threatened, and an all-out attack follows hard on its heels. Happily he is rescued by a young man called Henry Fielding. Of course, when he reaches Tolnbridge, Fen isn’t even there to meet him and they have to set off for the local pub, which rejoices in the name the Whale and Coffin, to find him.

The small cathedral town atmosphere is delightfully done, the story implausible in the extreme, but great fun. I realised as I finished that I should have worked out the mechanism of one murder, which has distinct overtones of that famously overlooked Edwardian mystery, The Nebuly Coat (John Meade Falkner), which also features  a west-country cathedral. I picked up the crucial clue, and worked out who, but not how – in all honesty, the how is pretty unlikely, but I’m happy to suspend disbelief when I’m  so entertained.

One of the things I really enjoy about Crispin is his occasional toppling of the fourth wall – there are some sly footnotes, and a delicious bit when the police inspector says they’ll probably bring in the Yard and Fen says, oh not, not bloody Appleby, or words to that effect. And there’s some splendid silliness about a raven, that would make my OH get distinctly po-faced, so I’m not giving it to him. I haven’t read any Crispin for years, and I’m quite delighted to find him every bit as good as I remembered, and even more pleased that Vintage Books have reissued them.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Library haul

Younger son went in to the library to collect some books that I had on order - seven all at once is a record. "The librarian said, There's quite a pile," he reported, "so I told her, She's started book blogging. Ah, she said..."

Started - huh! "I began in August 2007!" I retorted in great indignation. "In the life of the internet," he replied, "you've just started". I couldn't reply that I'd been using the interwebz since he was a squalling bundle, because he's always been more technically able than me, even when he was rather small.

Indignation notwithstanding, it's a pretty satisfying haul. I was a bit disappointed with the last Jasper Fforde book I read, but Shades of Grey seems to have been well-received. Nicola Slade's Murder Most Welcome is in the nature of a prequel for me, since she very kindly sent me Murder is the Cure last year - so I know I'm going to enjoy it.

I'm rather ashamed to say that I've never read Alan Garner's Thursbitch, an omission I've been meaning to rectify for some time. The delay was largely due to my (mostly unsuccessful) attempts to limit my bookbuying. Stephen Hunt's Rise of the Iron Moon is the third in a series that I've been enjoying immensely, so I'm dying to get started on it.

I've had Guy Gavriel Kay's Ysabel on order at the library for months - I think the original copy may have fallen victim to the floods that hit Morpeth in 2008, so this is a pristine copy, bought at my behest. And nicely in time for the Fourth Canadian Book Challenge, I think! The two Kate Ellis books turned up while I was searching for Canadian murder mysteries; instead, I happened on a series which takes place in South Devon, so I thought I would have to try them. She writes two series, and I have one of each here - the other is set in York (Seeking the Dead). Off to London in the morning, for three days, and I have three books with me. You never know, I may have a sleepless night!

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery

Warning: plot spoilers!

One of the things I like about L.M. Montgomery's writing is that she didn't make any attempt to protect her readers from death and sadness. Emily of New Moon begins with the decline and death of her much loved father and, because Emily's mother was more or less disowned by her family on her marriage, none of the relatives is much inclined to take on an eight-year-old, especially when they are all quite certain that the disapprove of her. Admittedly, Emily, who is what we would today call under-socialised, doesn't do much to improve the family's first impression of her - she's too proud and reserved to grieve in front of them and, horrified by their coldness towards her in deciding her fate, she hides under the table to hear what will become of her. This proves to them, of course, that she is sly as well as unfeeling and they fix upon a draw as the only way to decide. The only person who is really pleased with the outcome is Cousin Jimmy, but he isn't all there, so his opinion doesn't carry any weight. Aunt Elizabeth will be responsible for Emily in future, but it's done grudgingly.

All is not quite as bad as it seems, since Aunt Laura is there too, and she is much kinder and more affectionate; Cousin Jimmy seems a little strange, but shares Emily's views on the importance of poetry, and the house and farm at New Moon are simply to be fallen in love with. Gradually, Emily makes her place, both at home and in the community, her indomitable spirit refusing to bow under Aunt Elizabeth's restrictions.

All this is very similar in tone to Anne of Green Gables, and events and characters are familiar if you've read the Anne books, but Emily's development as a writer dominates this series and I know that a lot of bookish readers prefer it for that reason. I came late to the Anne books (though I'd read AGG several times as a child), reading most of them last year, and I was agreeably surprised by how much I enjoyed them, but I think I too feel that Emily's early literary endeavours lend a particular charm - perhaps it's because we recognise the agonies of youthful creativity, especially those juvenile gothic epics!

I wonder how young modern readers respond, though, to the developing relationship between Emily and Dean Priest? If I'd read Emily of New Moon when I was twelve or thirteen, I don't think it would have seemed at all strange to me - I was one of those rather isolated children who got on better with adults than with my contemporaries. But we live now in a suspicious world where such relationships are actively discouraged and most men I know are now extremely wary of being left in the sole company of a child of either sex, perhaps even if they are related to them. Most families now would require Dean's interest in Emily as unhealthy, if not dangerous. Might such changing circumstances spoil the story for young readers?

This reader, however, is eager to move on to the next, Emily's Climb, and to know what Emily did next!

Monday, 9 August 2010

Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson

Yesterday I had two separate discussions with family members about Moomintroll (partly because the New Scientist had published this picture of a marmoset, which reminded me of the Dweller Under the Sink), and by bedtime I felt a need to immerse myself in the quiet of Moominvalley for a while. I promptly picked out Moominpappa at Sea, which is only about Moominvalley at a remove - it's a book which leaves one filled with strange yearnings, and by the time I finished it this morning I was feeling distinctly wistful.

At the start of the book it is Moominpappa who is feeling strange yearnings. He's also feeling disgruntled, because the family aren't according him the respect he feels is his due - they even put out a forest fire without consulting him! His real strength, he decides, lies in his deep understanding of the sea, so they will set sail for the island where he knows his lighthouse stands, and everything will fall into its allotted place again. Moominmamma is, as ever, indulgent and understanding, and for Pappa's sake she is prepared to forsake the valley she loves. Moomintroll and Little My are quite prepared to set off just for the sake of adventure, so Pappa's boat, the Adventure, is loaded up and they set sail at dusk (because that's when events of such significance ought to happen). What they don't know is that someone has followed them...

Anyone who hadn't met the Moomins might think that these stories about small, stout Finnish trolls were for small children. In fact they are amongst the most poignant and expressive in European literature, on the face of it simple little stories about the not-very-exciting daily round of these small creatures and their friends, but which reach deep into the uncertainties and insecurities we all carry around with us. In Moominpappa at Sea, Moomintroll and his parents must face the anguish of displacement, Moomintroll and his mother dealing with the physical loss of the valley, Moominpappa with the loss of his role as head of the family, as the others make their own accommodations. "Don't you do anything," he keeps telling Mamma, as he constrains her ever more tightly in a coccoon of protectiveness, which only serves to further aggravate her sense of loss. 

The restricted set of characters - unlike in most of the books where there is both extended family and a wide assortment of Rabbit-type friends-and-relations - serves to underline the claustrophobia of the tiny island, battered on all sides by a not-entirely-amenable Sea. Moomintroll's own sadness is made worse by an unattainable love, which can't be articulated to anyone else. Only Little My is untroubled, rising above her circumstances with all the aplomb (if not actual callousness) that readers will remember from earlier books:
"I'm not saying anything about some mothers and fathers," drawled Little My. "If I do, the first thing you'll say is that they're never silly. They're up to something, those two. I'd eat a bushel of sand if I knew what it was." "You're not supposed to know," said Moomintroll sharply. "They know perfectly well why they're behaving a little oddly. Some people think they're so superior and have to know everything just because they've been adopted!"
All my adult life I've had Moominmamma in the back of my mind as a role model - always unruffled, understanding, warm and kind, bottle of raspberry syrup at the ready. I was glad to find that, determined to create a garden in the scattered rocks of the island, she's as sensibly practical as ever: "Moominmamma pushed the dirty dishes under the bed to make the room look tidier, and then she went out to look for soil." On this reading, though, it's her unhappiness which most deeply affects me, her uprootedness that is continually exacerbated by the failure of her rose plants to grow in inhospitable soil. Her homesickness must be dealt with quietly and discreetly, without impinging on the rest of the family - Moominpappa, of course, is much too wrapped up in his own concerns, as the sea resists his efforts to comprehend its moods.

The end of the book, typically of Tove Jansson, is low-key - fortunately, her adult readers, at least, probably know better than to expect a "story-book" happy ending. There's a resolution of sorts, and for one character, at least, things turn out better than we might have expected. But, as I said at the outset, the end leaves one more wistful than anything else - really, you have to wait for the end of the next (and final) book, Moominvalley in November, for the end of this one. All the Moomin books are ideal for reading aloud to children, but I remember finding that more and more discussion was needed with the later books. For adult readers, however, they are perfect for autumnal days of indulgent melancholia, to be savoured alone and at leisure.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Death of a Red Heroine by Qui Xiaolong

I originally posted this review on Cat Musings in October 2007. As I am going to review a second of Qui Xiaolong's books shortly, I thought it might be interesting to go back to the original post first.

Death of a Red Heroine by Qui Xiaolong is set in China in the 1990s. It's a long book and I'm only part way through it, but there's a lot to think about while reading and I decided to start writing about it now.

The author teaches literature in the US, where he was studying at the time of the Tiananmen riots. He decided to stay, and was successful in bringing his wife from China. This was his first novel, and features Chief Inspector Chen Cao, a policeman with poetic leanings. Chen, who has been "fast-tracked" into promotion as the result of new government policy, is called upon to investigate the murder of National Model Worker Guan Hongying. Guan, like Chen, is a cadre, a Party member, an exemplar of loyalty to the Party and its values. It gradually becomes evident, however, that this young woman whose glowing public life contrasts with an apparently hermit-like private existence, might not be all she seems.

Set in Shanghai, part of the fascination of this book is its evocation of a completely different world. Its slow pace allows time for descriptions of places and circumstance; for instance, of Chen's "spacious" new apartment - a room with a gas stove in the corridor and a toilet cubicle with a coldwater shower - and to contrast it with Guan's dormitory, where she shares a floor with eleven families and is resented for her aloofness and for having a private room all to herself. Chen regards himself as immensely fortunate to have been allocated the apartment, as the housing shortages at the time meant that single people were usually given rooms in dorms on a temporary basis, yet would find themselves still there many years later. The privations are not only physical: Chen's subordinate, Yu and his wife Pienqin, were young teenagers towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, and were sent with the other "educated youth" to distant country regions to be re-educated by the peasants. While there they lived together but did not marry, since only single people were permitted to return to the cities: if they married in the country, they would be expected to settle down there.

A brief but particularly bleak scene depicts Chen's visit to Guan's mother, an Alzheimer's sufferer who is, unusually, resident in a nursing home. The author sketches her background succinctly but poignantly:
The old woman's life had been a tough one, as he had learned from the file. An arranged marriage in her childhood, and then for years her husband had worked as a high-school teacher in Chengdu, while she was a worker in Shanghai Number 6 Textile Mill. The distance between the two required more than two days' travel by train. Once a year was all he could have afforded to visit her. In the fifties, job relocation was out of the question for either of them.
He insisted on helping her back to her room. The room, holding a dozen iron beds, appeared congested. The aisle between them was so narrow that one could only stand sideways. . . . A period to a life story. One of the ordinary Chinese people, working hard, getting little, not complaining, and suffering a lot.
I know that things are changing in China, some of them very fast. But there are still areas, at least according to programmes I have seen on television, where people work very hard, for very little reward, where the comforts we take for granted are, ironically, what they see on television. I find myself, too, pondering the Party system, about which I infer we will learn much in the course of Chen's investigations. Guan's efforts as a National Model Worker have been so tireless that she has met Den Xioaping, has attended conferences and seminars, has - according to her manager and co-workers - worked without cease on behalf of the other staff in the First Department Store where she ran the cosmetics department. What, though, has this cost her? One of her neighbours, a retired model teacher, observes, "Once you're a role model, you're model-shaped [. . .] Back in the dorm, why should she continue to play her role and serve her neighbors the way she served her customers? She was just too tired to mix with her neighbors. That could have caused her unpopularity."

Chen also interviews a old man who supplements his pension by working for the Residents' Committee in Guan's dorm. This committee, we are told, organises activity outside work: weekly political study, daycare, distributing ration coupons and allocating birth permits, and so on, but their most important role is to report on the residents to the local police department. This is a system which formalises voluntary work so that it becomes mandatory. All that is generous and spontaneous about helping others becomes, rather, obligation. I don't doubt for a moment that Chinese people can be kind and generous, but I fear that those who are, out of love for their fellows, are also those who most risk being labelled "decadent". Similarly, in this novel, we observe how ideology constrains creativity, since Chen is content that what poetry he has published will be politically correct, rather than risk a career which, we are given to understand, would not have been his first choice.

What makes a society function as a cohesive and supportive unit is a fascinating subject, and Qiu Xiaolong is drawing an absorbing picture of what happens when particular ideologies are followed too rigidly. Later books, I gather, follow Chen on investigations to the US and, if Death of a Red Heroine lives up to its promise, I shall follow his career with interest.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The Sting of Justice by Cora Harrison

What a delight this book is! A firm recommendation for all you lovers of cosy crime out there, and especially for anyone who likes Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma series but hasn’t yet discovered this one. Cora Harrison has set her novels in sixteenth century Ireland, in the region known as the Burren. It’s one of the places in the world I would most like to go, an area of limestone pavement which is famous for its superb and unique spring flowers, as the cracks (grykes) in the limestone create tiny micro-climates where alpine treasures nestle. The karst plateau looks bleak from a distance, it’s an environment for lovers of detail, one I only know from a similar area in northern England which is much less spectacular but still wondrous.

Like the Sister Fidelma books, these focus on an aspect of Ireland’s history, its ancient legal system. The main character, Mara, is a brehon, a legal expert who is called on to deal with everyday judicial matters within the kingdom. She also runs a small law school, with six pupils, thus providing her with a selection of acolytes with whom to discuss the niceties of brehon law as opposed to canon law, and so on, so there is plenty of explanation for the reader without it becoming laboured. In fact, I think Harrison is very good at getting on with the story straight away – this was the third in a series, and I haven’t read 1 and 2, but I could follow everything immediately, with none of that sense of “something missing” that can assail you when you start reading something mid way. And in Mara she has created a character who you want to spend time getting to know, because she is strong, warm, sympathetic and intelligent. (Actually, she’s gentler than Sister Fidelma, softer and more rounded in a literary as well as physical sense.)

Bees feature largely in the story, and the whole book is redolent, somehow, with their buzzing, and the scent of flowers, grass and honey. There’s nothing very startling in the whodunnit sense: it’s all much more about people and motives, and good judgment of character, than intricacies of plotting and investigating. The young students are enthusiastic helpers in deduction, happy to avoid their everyday studies in pursuit of a murderer when an unpopular silversmith is stung to death by bees. Both his family and his employees appear to have strong motives for murder, and Mara must beware of her ready sympathy for his victims. With her young scholars and her wolfhound, Bran, she sets out for the victim’s silver mine to look for clues and discovers that the man was even more loathsome than she first thought.

Each chapter is prefaced with an extract from recorded Brehon law, which sets the scene most effectively – I thought the notion of “bee trespass” was fascinating. I don’t think these books should be restricted to lovers of mystery novels, they would stand up just as well in the historical genre. The first in the series is on order at the library, and I’m confident that I’m going to enjoy it just as much, because The Sting of Justice is just one of those books that make you feel good about the world.  

 Flowers in the Burren, from Wikipedia

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

Well, here’s a book that has split opinion in the reading world! If anything, more people seem to have hated than loved it, and there have been a number of truly vitriolic reviews, which is perhaps inevitable when a non-Jewish author takes on a subject like the Holocaust. Frequent complaints seem to be that people feel that their emotions are being manipulated, that Martel oversimplifies complex situations, that it’s offensive that he equates animals with Jews, that he makes the reader feel grubby. A further charge is that he said that there isn’t any fiction  about the Holocaust.

On the latter charge, I think what he was actually saying was that works about the Holocaust have been largely concerned with historical realism, and that the field is dominated by accounts by historians and a small percentage of survivors. Novelists have tended to emulate this approach, not least because there is the very difficult and sensitive question of ownership to overcome. One of the most characteristic features of traumatic events is the way in which it separates survivors from everyone else: people feel that only their fellow victims truly understand the experience and can become angry and defensive about depictions of both event and trauma. There’s an unintended elitism in this, and it’s not helped by insensitivity on the part of the wider public, who have their own lives to get on with and forget how long emotional scars can persist. In Beatrice and Virgil Martel talks about the need to define a means “to talk-about so that we might live-with” and to find a label – “the Horrors” – which act both to locate the past within everyday language but at the same time to function as a memorial. His exploration, through the endearingly innocent Beatrice and Virgil, of how we might create everyday signifiers, a sewing kit to stitch life back together again, is entirely pertinent. The survivor of trauma soon learns that he or she will, before much time has passed, meet with either prurience or ennui: the world is busy with its own concerns and has neither time nor inclination to worry about bleeding hearts. So they are offended when they read the torture scene near the end of Beatrice and Virgil, and angry that they have been made to feel complicit – but we are complicit, because while I write this, and you read it, someone somewhere is being tortured, and what are we doing about it? We’re thinking about something else as fast as we can. Oh, and on another level, we are every minute of every day compounding the greatest ecological disaster imaginable, and frankly I have no compunction in comparing the wholesale slaughter and extinction of other species to the Holocaust. If we spent a bit more time remembering the evils humanity has perpetuated, we might not be so ready to feel superior to the animals we share the planet with. Over-simplification? Or looking for the essential truth?

I don’t think it’s surprising to find that Martel –  an author who has spent two years gently berating the Canadian prime minister over his personal and political lack of interest in the world of ideas – has written a moral book, and moral books can be hard to read. Not heavy in the words-on-a-page sense, it has much in common with a short story rather than a novel, including its length (around 200 pages); no, if you allow it to be, it is challenging and upsetting, and I think much of the vitriol which has been levelled at it comes from denial. It would be impossible to say that I enjoyed it, and I shan’t want to read it again (although I may have to remind myself of parts of it from time to time). It’s a big mistake to go in expecting another Life of Pi, though I think it’s a perfectly natural follow-on from a writer who blurs the boundaries between philosophy and literature – a Brechtian parable for a disaffected world. It’s also a courageous attempt to deal with one of the most difficult periods in our recent past and, if you are open to its challenges, I believe you will find it rewarding.

Postscript: it's interesting that while I was reading the book and writing this post, Radio 4 has been trailing a programme about Auschwitz, which is apparently in great need of attention as its fabric crumbles. How to preserve it? Does it lose its essential nature if it is "repaired"? Does "restoration" detract from its authenticity? And what kind of memorial does it provide for different nations?

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Sleep While I Sing by L.R.Wright

My second book set in BC in July, this time on the Sunshine Coast:  Sleep While I Sing is the second of the Karl Alberg mysteries. I couldn’t get the first here in the UK, but I don’t seem to have missed too much plot setting. I’ve gathered that Sergeant Alberg is an incomer to the area, a man who is contented with his lack of ambition, preferring to police a small community and get to know its members. In the first book he’s obviously been attracted to the local librarian, Cassandra, and she might have had a deeper relationship with him if not for the arrival of Roger Galbraith, an actor whose moment of glory (at least as far as the Sunshine Coast community is concerned) when he had a small part in the Rockford Files, a long-running American series which is still being shown in the afternoons, and which many readers will remember.  Roger is vain and shallow and not entirely nice, and it’s a bit hard to see why Cassandra likes him – he enjoys the company of women, though, and is attentive (you feel, as long as it suits him, at any rate; once he got bored he would be off like a shot).

A young woman has been found dead in a clearing off the highway, amongst the salal (which, thanks to last year’s reading, I know is the green, glossy foliage that florists use to set off their arrangements). Alberg’s first suspect is, naturally, the man who found her, who hasn’t been entirely forthcoming about reporting it. A history of some sort is clearly involved, but Alberg isn’t inclined to jump to conclusions, and his first concern is to get the an artist’s impression made so that the woman can be identified. Galbraith, too, comes under suspicion, creating tension between Karl and Cassandra.

The small-town atmosphere is well done – there’s a good deal of sitting around drinking coffee, and more talk than action. It rains a lot, which is how I remember the BC coast from my brief visit there. The plotting is good, and the suspense builds nicely to the end, and it is clear that there is lots of potential for both characters and settings to develop as the series continues. There seems to be a total of  11 books in this good solid, traditional murder mystery series , following first Alberg and then Eddie Henderson, his successor in Sechelt, written between 1985 and L.R. Wright’s death in 2001.