Saturday, 27 December 2008

Christmas - what Christmas?

I was all set up to get up early on Christmas morning and gladden your hearts with a Christmassy post. However, as I went to bed on Christmas Eve I was conscious of a raspy throat and an irritating cough and I'm afraid much of the last two days passed in something of a blur. An indignant blur, at that - two days in bed and I couldn't read! 

Happily for me, by 7pm last night the shivering was replaced by a somewhat hectic warm glow which banished the aches which were making me so miserable, and over the course of the next few hours I demolished Alexander McCall Smith's The Comfort of Saturdays with a mixture of relief and relish. Never mind that the family were eating Peking Goose (yes, really) without me - I could read again. 

I'm not sure that I am up to sustained thought on the subject of the book, but I think many of you are familiar with the Isabel Dalhousie novels, and my recommendation is superfluous. Enough to say that Isabel is, as usual, enmeshed in questions of truth and falsehood and in the subtleties of communication between both close friends and partners and our more distant acquaintances. McCall Smith's sly and teasing wit is directed at pretension, at moral dishonesty, and at all the petty foibles that make up the average person (including Isabel who, while not a saint, at least tries hard). 

There isn't enough humorous writing about the world of philosophy, in my opinion, but McCall Smith does much to redress that lack; I also enjoy the irritations of Isabel's role as the Editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, a nicely observed theme throughout the series (in this book she composes a quite deliciously malicious letter to a contributor) and can hardly help but envy her new role as the Review's owner. And the scrupulous care with which she conducts her relationships is something we should all emulate. 

While these are certainly books which fall quite comfortably within the cosy crime genre, Applied Ethics is very much the mainstay of this series, and anyone seeking dramatic murder is likely to be disappointed (although never fear, Rebus was beavering away in the seedier side of Edinburgh until very recently, though I doubt if he and Isabel met at many parties). Ethical discussion is handled with a considered delicacy and lack of jargon which must surely make it readily accessible, and acceptable to a much wider readership. For lovers of Edinburgh, of course, they are a gift, keeping firmly to the "couthy" parts of the city where a lady of a certain age can safely walk alone.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

November's book summary

Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham - reread
Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery
St Mungo's Robin by Pat McIntosh
The Silent Killer by Hazel Holt
Chorister's Cake by William Mayne - reread
The Coffin Trail by Martin Edwards
Street of the Five Moons by Elizabeth Peters
Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin
What Katy Did Next by Susan Coolidge
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Scuba Dancing by Nicola Slade
Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh
Anne of Windy Willows by L.M. Montgomery
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Sweet Danger by Margery Allingham - reread

The murder theme continued throughout November, with more Allingham re-reads and a Ngaio Marsh. After a comment on, I think, Life Must Be Filled Up, I was watching to see on what page Alleyn finally turned up in
Opening Night: it was page 108. Once he was there he was quite forceful, and it was a good story, I thought, with the young heroine arriving in England from New Zealand penniless because she's been robbed on the ship. Determined not to take advantage of her connections, but to make her way in her own merit, she finds herself forced to take a job as a dresser, but on the opening night of a new play, a murder takes place. The theatrical detail, as always with Marsh, is meticulously done, and made me nostalgic for the days of repertory in provincial theatres: though I only observed them from a child's point of view, it was a world I was thoroughly at home in, and loved. My mother might be persuaded to rediscover Marsh for this one, although she doesn't normally read novels.

St Mungo's Robin was a new discovery. Not the first in the series, which might have been a disadvantage, but I don't think that was the reason for my disoriented feeling at the beginning; the problem, I believe, was the host of new characters introduced within a very few pages, most of whom had similar names (the inhabitants of a Scottish almshouse, they were all called Maister Something); also the author frequently fails to attribute direct speech for long passages when several people are speaking at once. This very effectively gives the impression of babble, but leaves the reader somewhat adrift at times, because the main characters don't necessarily have distinctive enough voices. Some speech should be distinguishable by different dialect (for instance, one old man is from Aberdeen, and everyone complains that they can't understand him). I had a feeling that non-Scottish readers might find too much of the dialogue incomprehensible – however, McIntosh deals with this well, usually offering the translation of a "new" word within a line or two. The 1493 setting is Dorothy Dunnett territory (that is, the Niccolo series) – McIntosh isn't up to Dunnett's standard in research or plotting, but now that there is no more from that splendid storyteller, McIntosh will more than do. I'm now reading the first in the series, The Harper's Quine, and for those readers who share my love of cosy crime, I urge you to give them a try (the fully-certified Geranium Cat translation service is available to anyone who gets stuck; a "quine", by the way, is a young woman).

Thanks to Bookmooch I have managed to acquire all six of L.M. Montgomery's Anne books, so that I embarked on a real binge, and am nearly ready to write about them for the Second Canadian Book Challenge. Thanks to a chance comment in someone else's blog (I'm sorry, I've forgotten whose), I learnt that there is now a "prequel", written by Canadian author Budge Wilson.
Before Green Gables tells the story of Anne's life before she sails into the lives of Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, and promises to explain how, despite her neglected state, she discovered the world of words and imagination. That should take my score in the challenge from 0 to 7 in one fell swoop!

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Murder and mayhem

As I said in a previous post, I've been bingeing on murder. Something to do with the time of year, I think - long dark evenings demand dark deeds. The first book that I had been going to write about is The Coffin Trail by Martin Edwards, but Nan has recently reviewed it so beautifully that I don't think there is anything I can add, except to say that I too enjoyed it, and am about to seek out the next in the series. Maybe I'll write about that instead, but I wouldn't be surprised if Nan beats me to it (I think she is better organised than I am!)

Next in my pile of spoils after a recent trip to the library was
Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin. This is a book I'd seen reviewed a number of times, and thought looked interesting – in fact, I searched the library catalogue for it last year, without success, I recall. And then recently a revelation: this isn't a new writer at all, but another name for Diana Norman, an old favourite. I heard her talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival some years ago, along with another writer I admire, Margaret Elphinstone, and they were very entertaining. So, first of all, I recommend Diana Norman's books to anyone who hasn't read them, they are great fun, whizzing you along at a splendid pace and with great period detail. And second, I couldn't put Mistress of the Art of Death down, reading with bated breath from start to finish and hoping that Adelia Aguilar is not the only character to return in subsequent books.

The setting is Cambridge in the 12th century, during the reign of Henry II – in fact, not long after the horrifying death of the now-canonised Thomas Becket. England has only recently emerged from the shadows of the dreadful civil war in which the supporters of Stephen and Matilda ravaged the country and the feeling that peace is all-too precarious is well conveyed; the Jews of Cambridge are all but besieged in the castle after the death of a local child, and the disappearance of two more. Adelia, a 12th-century forensic pathologist (almost too fashionable a heroine, my dears!) has been sent by the King of Sicily to investigate, the economy of much of Europe being dependent on the financial acumen of the Jews. Adelia, though much given to seeing "the skull beneath the skin", is a caring doctor, and is soon ministering to the poor of the city while she conducts her investigation. Her self-appointed protector, Prior Geoffrey, provides her with several new members of her entourage, including the redoubtable Gyltha and her young son, Ulf. The household shown here reminds me of a recent discussion on the radio (possibly on Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time?) about the ways in which the family has changed over time, since Adelia's servants rapidly achieve family status, a reflection of a time when extended families were the norm and members were not necessarily related.

I've talked before about an author's "feel" for period, and I think Franklin writes effectively about this and, indeed, most periods she turns her attention to. However, she has acquired something of a reputation for good research, and this is a subject where I have slightly ambivalent feelings – on the one hand, I think a good novel is a good novel and accuracy isn't the most important thing in the world, but on the other, I think her research isn't as good as it's cracked up to be. She admits that it's nearly impossible to avoid anachronisms when writing historical novels, and I was happy to make allowances, but only up to a point - please, please, please, Ariana, don't write another description of social dance in 12th-century England.

The final verdict, though, is good fun, good characterisation, and a pretty convincing portrait of Henry II.

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.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Tamsin by Peter S. Beagle

Isn't it lovely when you find a book that you like so much that you know you'll return to it over and over? I've loved Peter S. Beagle's writing since I read The Last Unicorn in the far-distant past when it was new and I was still a schoolgirl – I devoured it alongside George MacDonald's Phantastes and William Morris's The Wood Beyond the World, and it was Beagle who became my enduring favourite. A few years later I happened across A Fine and Private Place in the library, and was enchanted, but then there was a long silence. There was a showing on television of the animated version of The Last Unicorn, which I found quite charming because I knew the original, but which failed to "take" with the sons in the way that Watership Down or Charlotte's Web had done.

More recently, however, something made me search for information about Beagle – it may have been because I found my copy of The Last Unicorn on a bottom shelf and enjoyed its Thurber-esque handling of fairy tales all over again. And, joy of joys, it looked as though there might be – in a very limited output in the intervening years, what has the man been doing? – two more novels to track down via Abebooks, now that having books sent from the other side of the world has become wickedly cheap and easy. I started with The Innkeeper's Song, which looked to be the more solid read, and mentioned it briefly it here – not as good as the Unicorn, but certainly worth the trouble I'd gone to in getting it (I'm beginning to look forward to re-acquainting myself with it already). I wasn't in a hurry to read Tamsin – I thought it looked, from the descriptions, amiable but possibly slight.

In the last year, though, I've read several reviews of Tamsin by other bloggers, people such as Chris and Nymeth whose posts I read because I respect their opinions (to the detriment of my book-buying budget), and for a while now I've had it on my TBR pile. The R.I.P. III Challenge seemed to offer the perfect opportunity, particularly when I saw that Susan also planned to read it. So, last weekend, I began reading.

Oh dreadful, blissful dilemma, a book I couldn't put down while at the same time I couldn't bear to finish it. Now, Tamsin is a ghost story - it isn't a weighty book, nor even an especially scary one but I was quickly immersed, even during the opening, set in New York, when our heroine Jenny Gluckstein is a being a whiny, self-absorbed teenager. Jenny is bright, sassy and pretty streetwise, and she is happy and at home in her urban jungle, and is frankly appalled when her mother Sally decides to remarry and drag her off to England, to a new family, Evan and his two sons, Tony and Julian. To make matters worse, they are destined not for London, as originally promised, but to a ancient and crumbling farm in Dorset, and her beloved Mister Cat will have to endure six months' quarantine.

The family – if they can be described as such, with Jenny prickling at every little irritation – struggle at first to settle in the near-derelict manor, hampered by the house's apparent rejection of them and their improvements. It's infested by small snickering creatures, the top floor remains shut off and unexplored, and the farmland is sour and unproductive. When Mister Cat finally arrives he has midnight battles with things with too many legs, but it is his forays into the upper floor which lead to Jenny's discovery of their ghostly neighbours, Tamsin Willoughby and Miss Sophia Brown.

Beagle has a genuine feel for British folklore, I think. There are other North American writers who incorporate themes, motifs and characters into their work (Charles de Lint comes to mind) but it always seems to me that the expansiveness of the New World isn't quite right for the essentially domestic nature of our fairies and monsters. (Neil Gaiman handles this well in American Gods, I think, not only drawing on a tradition from the European continent – expansive in itself - rather than Britain, but in depicting his old gods as suffering from displacement and loss of belief; but then, Gaiman has the advantage of a foot in both worlds, Old and New.) Even that most terrifying of British phenomena, the Wild Hunt, in Beagle's hands becomes – for a moment – a football crowd bent on rather dangerous fun, while by far the most frightening moments come from "real" British history.

Tamsin isn't a book entirely without fault – I did feel that it could have moved at a slightly more leisurely pace (or was that just my greed, and not wanting it to end?) and one or two of the characters could have borne just a shade more development. Jenny herself can be a bit too whiny but then, she is writing with hindsight, and acknowledges that her younger self was a brat. Oh, and the "University of Dorchester" made me splutter with amusement, even allowing for some very strange institutions to have sprung up in the last few years. These are the merest quibbles, however, and my pleasure was enhanced by having spent some time in that part of Dorset – in fact, I read with a particular manor house in mind, and thought readers might enjoy this link to some pictures of
Great Houses in Dorset. There isn't a picture of the one I was imagining, but if you scroll down the page to Sandford Orcas Manor you'll see the sort of house I had in mind - although this Tudor building is too early for Beagle's Stourhead Manor, I feel it is a better match for his description than the grander Jacobean houses.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Postcards from the edge

Some time ago, Cornflower asked on her blog what people did with all those cards that are much too lovely to throw away. A number of people, as I recall, replied that they used them as bookmarks, and I have a feeling that I may have bemoaned the loss of an enormous cork board that I had in my old office, which I added to regularly to make a wonderful collage of postcards, book covers, scans and even conference flyers, if they were attractive enough to merit inclusion. Now that I share an office, this is no longer possible, and at home the walls in the room where I work all support shelves, with almost no space for pictures. There's no room to display photos, either, which is why it was something of a revelation when my son gave me a digital picture frame last Christmas. This is a rectangular frame which you plug in (bit of an issue that, there aren't many plugs spare once printer, laptop, phone charger, answering machine, wireless and so on are all running, but the phone charger, at least, doesn't need to be on all the time.

Having found a spare socket, you turn the frame on and upload your photographs, so that it can play a soothing slideshow while you are working. Lovely, the dogs and chickens flick past at a leisurely rate, and offer a distraction from work and a chance to rest the eyes for a few minutes. I don't use it a great deal, but it complements my discovery that the digital camera was made for a person with shaky paws and, now that I can take the odd photo without it being a total blur, I can enjoy the fruits of my labour whenever I feel like it. Cornflower's question, though, made me think, could this be the answer to the missing cork board? I scan book jackets for my Library Thing catalogue - why not scan my favourite cards and enjoy them in the same way? So I have done a few, like this, and not only can I watch them on the digital frame, but I've put some of them in a screensaver album, and when I brood for too long over a choice of words, or can't remember how something works, I suddenly find myself enjoying a variety of old photographs and postcards.

Made with Slideshow Embed Tool

Sunday, 19 October 2008

No Cure for Death by Hazel Holt

There was a low murmur of conversation, but then I heard Alec McDonald's voice rising and saying, "It's quite impossible! I've spoken to him about it and told him it's the very last thing the practice needs just now." His voice dropped again and, as I was straining to hear more, Sandra came and called me in to see Mr Wheeler.
Yesterday I was in need of a bit of comfort reading, and when I encountered the above paragraph on page 6 I knew I'd come to the right place. Hazel Holt has been described as the Queen of Cosy Crime, a title which sums up her novels perfectly. Sheila Malory is a retired academic living in the seaside town of Taviscombe (based on Minehead, in Somerset). In none of her books is there a great deal of "sleuthing", but there are lots of cups of tea and a great deal of gossip, some of which offers up the odd red herring, but which ultimately leads to the solution to the crime. Taviscombe is one of those towns where everybody knows everyone else's business, but they all get fed up with the influx of tourists at the beginning of the season.

For a woman of my age, at least, Sheila is easy to identify with – her immediate concerns are about her animals (dog and demanding cat), her son and his family, her friends. She is a practical woman, if easily put-upon by the dreadful Anthea, who always needs a cohort of (unwilling) helpers for coffee mornings, and has that curiousity about complete strangers which seems to come more easily with age – there's definitely more in common with the old-fashioned Miss Marple than with Sheila's closer contemporary, Isabel Dalhousie. Frankly, I think Sheila would find Isabel pleasant but perhaps a bit too earnest, too nicely scrupulous. Not that Sheila isn't scrupulous herself, but her more practical nature allows her to deal with it with less anguish. Reading this book you are always aware that this is a sensible woman.

Returning to the quote with which I began, it was the line "straining to hear more" which particularly pleased me – you know you're in Marple-territory with a line like that. Later there is a digression while Sheila describes a visit to the Theatre Royal at Bath, one of my own favourite – if rare – excursions. My only complaint about this, or any other of the series, is that they are only two cups of tea's worth - I finished this the same afternoon and was left hunting for a substitute. But, if you want a nice quite 2-hour read, I do recommend them – oh, and you'll want a nice biscuit, too, a Bath Oliver perhaps.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

The Autumn Castle by Kim Wilkins

I hadn't planned to read this book for the R.I.P. III Challenge – the author is new to me - but I picked it up at the library before leaving for London recently, and had read a couple of pages in my hotel room the other night when it occurred to me that it was a good candidate. The setting is Berlin, and the stories of the Brothers Grimm provide a background. Christine Starlight, daughter of pop singers who died in a car crash, has returned to live in the city with her artist boyfriend, while he benefits from a grant endowed by the distinctly creepy Immanuel Zweigler, known as Mandy Z. At the outset we learn that Mandy Z has a secret – he likes to murder fairies. In Hotel Mandy Z, where he houses the beneficiaries of his grants, he has, like Bluebeard, a secret chamber where he keeps his Bonewife, a sculpture fashioned from the bones of his victims.

Christine, injured in the crash which killed her parents, suffers from chronic back pain. When what should have been a relatively minor injury triggers a severe bout of pain, she finds herself in a world which temporarily connects with her own, a land of faery caught for ever in a medieval society. Here she finds a childhood friend, stolen by the faeries some twenty years before. Of course all is not entirely well in this faery idyll, and the Queen, Mayfridh, determines that she will follow her friend back into the land of humans, and it isn't long before Mandy Z realises that he has a faery living in his house. Mayfridh and her kingdom are now in grave danger.

I enjoyed this story, which uses its Grimm motifs effectively, while creating a band of likeable characters. However, although I liked them, and romped through the book at a rapid pace, I felt its grisly themes weren't fully realised. Mandy Z was creepy, yes, but not terrifying, the witch Hexebart nasty but not the stuff of nightmares. The original works from which the stories are drawn are much more frightening, even though they lack the real world setting which ought to make this book much more scary. Nonetheless, although it fails to live up to its promise, I'd recommend it as an amusing piece of froth, good for those autumn evenings when you want something atmospheric but don't want to be scared out of your wits.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Hotel world

So, another trip to the Great Wen, and now I'm sitting here in my rather drab hotel room with a view of backs-of-buildings and the small hotel garden where I had a lunchtime glass of wine on Saturday, managing despite the setting to do a bit of luxuriating in the unexpected sun. From time to time someone in our organisation makes an effort to find somewhere else to stay, and our current President hankers after a neighbouring institution whose rates nearly doubled overnight after a refit. At her instigation I investigated a number of alternatives, small, family hotels that she thought looked pleasant from the outside – I'm glad to say I resisted booking any of them until I had done a bit of research, because I quickly came up against horror stories about bedbugs and grubby sheets. We may, as a very small charity, be on a tight budget, but there is a limit to what can be tholed (good Scottish word that, inadequately translated as "put up with"). So I remain a regular at this dreary establishment, which at least provides clean sheets, adequate space for working, and hot water, as well as the worst coffee I have ever tasted. Good thing I'm a tea drinker.

To be fair, the view this visit from one of the top floors was a little more diverting, since it included the dome of the Reading Room at the British Museum, and the sinuous glass roof which covers the Great Court. By contrast, I also discovered that by leaving a crack in the curtains to allow some cooler air in, I could see the illuminated top of Centre Point while I lay in bed. For those who don't know it, this is alternately an icon of '60s architecture or a carbuncle which lay empty for years after completion. I lean towards the carbuncle school myself. Also in the view are both the BT Tower and Senate House, pictured below. Senate House, which houses the University of London Library, is a building that never fails to amaze me, making an assertively un-British statement at odds with our predisposition to classicism or to the historical vernacular which Prince Charles would prefer us to celebrate. Not surprisingly, it is much used in film and television: v
iewers of Jeeves and Wooster may recall it as Stuyvesant Towers, where Bertie lived in Manhattan, and it was effectively used as the London Tower in the 1980s' serialisation of The Day of the Triffids, the latter very much in keeping with the claim that Hitler planned to make his base there following a successful invasion of Britain; it is also supposed to have provided the inspiration for Room 101 in Orwell's 1984. After dark, with the frontage lit up, it is admittedly very striking, but to me it still looks like a paean to facism.

Photo: An Siarach

Monday, 15 September 2008

Happy Birthday, Agatha

Today is the anniversary of Agatha Christie's birth in 1890 and, although I've got a little sidetracked by Allingham, I am still reading my way through her books; I shall have to try launching a raid on the library shortly, as I only have one or two left on my TBR pile. Reading several in short succession, I've realised what a good writer she was – her dialogue in particular in excellent, and is often funny. And as I've said before, I am a huge fan of Miss Marple, who was apparently based on Christie's grandmother.

This morning it was announced on Radio 4 that Christie's grandson has found a collection of 27 half-hour tapes, made while she was working on her autobiography, in which she talks about her writing. And last night there was a new episode in the long-running ITV series with David Suchet, an adaptation of Mrs McGinty's Dead. I still have that to watch, as we were actually watching a 2006 episode last night, Taken at the Flood; it was high melodrama, quite dark and rather good – Poirot is without any of his usual sidekicks, although the local inspector is delighted to play that role. The house party that Poirot attends is a delightful collection of grotesques, with Celia Imrie relishing her part as one of the grasping family. Most of the Poirot novels and stories have now been televised with Suchet as the detective, with the likelihood of the set being completed in the future – there is only a handful of novels and a collection of short stories left now. It took me a while to warm to Suchet as Poirot but, now that I have, I find myself eagerly looking forward to them.

Sunday, 14 September 2008


I'm afraid another of my obsessions has crept over me. It's something of a family failing, since both sons are afflicted as well – once we get hold of an idea we pursue it doggedly until something else takes over. The internet feeds it, of course, since one can do so much research without ever leaving the comfort of home.

Actually this is something of a sub-obsession, since it falls within the category Books, which is one of my two major lifetime obsessions (the other is folklore, but I dip in and out of that, and anyway it could be considered a subset of Books – or possibly, vice-versa) and it is running parallel to the various other pursuits which currently
exercise my mind; these include reading my way through my 101 Children's Books and trying to extricate myself from an unhappy work situation, both of which require a good deal of research, since they keep sending me off in different directions (this is why I become agitated when studying history: I always need to go just a little further back to find out why a particular situation arose, so that I eventually find myself in a cul-de-sac indulging in wild speculation about the origins of society).

Short-lived obsessions tend to be reasonably manageable, and it's more pleasant to go with the flow than to try to overcome it. They are, however, time-consuming, and that's ultimately what kills them off; the need to spend time on more pressing matters finally trumps the satisfaction of following up the current interest. Where books are concerned it can prove expensive, however – novels at a penny on Amazon Marketplace aren't quite a
s cheap as they seem when you add on the £2.75 postage charge, and OH is inclined to point out that Bookmooch isn't quite the economy I claim (note to self: don't ask him again to post 3 books to the USA in the same week!). Bookmooch also necessitates actually parting with books, and that's very difficult, even though I'm now reduced to piling them on the floor because there is no more room on the shelves. But it's been useful for collecting children's books I no longer own, and has in the past week provided fuel for the current craze.

Today, however, will be spent catching up on everything I've been ignoring of late, garden, baking, housework, preparing for a London week and, oh dear, overdue book reviews; and instead of sitting here metaphorically sharpening my pencils I'd better get on with it.

Oh, and the nature of the current obsession? Margery Allingham – I am determined to read my way through all the Campion novels in order.

Friday, 5 September 2008

August round up

August began with good intentions about writing lots of posts and really getting myself up to date but ended in failure, and with me seriously in need of cheering up, so I've signed up for the RIP Challenge (see my last post) in the hope that I can persuade myself to celebrate the arrival of autumn rather than mourn the loss of summer (what summer?). I'm sitting here watching yet another downpour, there is a soggy patch in the middle of my duvet where The Bolter, having come in from a game of ball in the rain, flung herself down, and I'm freezing because the mosquito bites on my shoulder (unwelcome legacy of our non-summer) overheat if I wear a sweater. And it's long past time for summing up August's books:
  • Blood Trail by Tanya Huff
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett - reread
  • What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge - reread
  • Fool Moon by Jim Butcher
  • Vintage Murder by Ngaio Marsh
  • The Dig by John Preston
  • Stoneheart by Charlie Fletcher
  • A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle
  • The Moon By Night by Madeleine L'Engle
  • And Both Were Young by Madeleine L'Engle
  • Still Life by Louise Penny
There's something of a L'Engle preoccupation here – I have been enjoying her books immensely; even when she isn't writing her own brand of science fiction I like her, and the first volume of her diaries, A Circle of Quiet, is thoughtful, candid and engaging. Much of her fiction is unashamedly drawn from her own life and she clearly identifies strongly with her young characters, particularly Vicky in the Austins series, or Flip in And Both Were Young. This last is set in a boarding school in Switzerland, reminding me immediately of the Chalet School stories and indeed, the young Flip goes through the same sort of transformation I remember as characteristic of Brent-Dyer's books, and the reason why I liked them. L'Engle complains in her diaries about her tendency to state the obvious, but I think it can take courage and conviction to do so, and it seems to me that much of the appeal of her writing is her willingness to do just that, to talk about those qualities that have become unfashionable – humility, compassion and charity (in its original sense). L'Engle was a Christian, and I'm not, but I find her universalism marries well with my woolly neo-Aristotelianism, and I spend a good deal of time staring into space thinking about what she has to say; it even prompts me, as I write this, to look at the rich shades of green outside the window, rather than the rain, and to notice that there is much coming and going of small birds in the ash tree opposite, and the swallows are wheeling against a grey sky.

I re-read What Katy Did and The Secret Garden so that I can start recording my thoughts about the individual books on my list of children's writing, so posts on both will follow. I found myself wanting very much to follow Katy Carr's later adventures in just the same way I did when younger. Next on this particular reading list, however, is Little House on the Prairie.

Ann at Table Talk recommended John Preston's The Dig, and wrote about it here, much better than I should do. It left me wanting to read up on the Sutton Hoo excavations, and grateful for the variety of information available on the web to satisfy these dilettante-ish wishes. I read Louise Penny's Still Life for the Second Canadian Book Challenge, so it will be the subject of a future post (must do it soon!). The first in a series of detective stories set in rural Quebec, and I'm looking forward to the next one.

Finally, Stoneheart by Charlie Fletcher, was another book that set me searching the Internet, this time for photos and locations of the statues who come to life in this first of a series. This book seems to have had a somewhat mixed reception when it was published a couple of years ago but it was nominated for the Carnegie medal, and I enjoyed it. It may be more fun if you know London a little: there's a good map at the start but, in the old days it might have been illustrated by someone like Charles Keeping, who would have provided wonderfully muscular images. The descriptive writing is good, though, and the multi-layered un-London, with its history which is accessible to Edie, because she is special – a "glint" – should spark curiosity among the book's readers. The first depiction that I remember of London's frost fairs was in Woolf's Orlando (where it rather took second place to my worries about the ambivalent sexuality of the protagonist – I was much too young to be reading it); here the event is chilling in every sense. Because Fletcher's London is simultaneously Dickensian, Elizabethan and modern the sense of place and timelessness is strong, while the impression of temporal dislocation is reflected in the insecurities of the two children, George and Edie, who are forced into premature independence by their dysfunctional backgrounds, and by the events George unwittingly triggers when he breaks a carving at the Natural History Museum. The book's conclusion is subdued, with the promise of an even scarier sequel. Apparently the film rights have been sold: in the right hands this could be a splendidly terrifying film.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

RIP III Challenge

Last year I discovered Carl's R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril Challenge too late to join it, but determined that I would do so this year. And here it is. It runs from 1 September to 31 October and all that is required is to read from the following categories:

Dark Fantasy.

As Autumn officially starts tomorrow, and it's practically dark outside at 4pm, I'm really in the mood for some suitably snuggle-up-with-something-nasty reading, and there was no difficulty in compiling a list from the TBR pile. I'm hoping to achieve Peril the First, which is to read four books from my list, but if I manage to read and blog about one, I shall be perfectly content. Here are the books I shall be choosing from:

Peter S. Beagle, Tamsin
Jim Butcher, Grave Peril (a nicely appropriate title!)
Garth Nix, The Fall
Robert Neill, Witchfire at Lammas
Alan Campbell, Scar Night
Neil Gaiman, Fragile Things (I would have loved to have chosen The Graveyard Book, but it's not published here until 31 October)

And I've just bought a reading copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales (though it's still too heavy to cart around), so I thought I'd dip into some of the less well-known of these.

I'm looking forward to reading posts by the other people in the challenge, and absolutely dreading the effect it's bound to have on my future book buying – after the Once Upon a Time Challenge my books-I-must-have list grew to alarming proportions.

Now to get reading. Pumpkin, anyone?

Thursday, 21 August 2008

The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer

Such a good idea, Becky has set up a perpetual challenge for readers of Georgette Heyer's works, ideal for those of us who can't survive too long without a Heyer fix. Here is my first contribution.
Lady Winwood being denied, the morning caller inquired with some anxiety for Miss Winwood, or, in fact, for any of the young ladies.
For many, Heyer IS Regency, but this novel is set a little earlier, towards the end of the eighteenth century (1775 to be precise), when ladies of quality were wearing hoop
ed skirts and hair was dressed elaborately high with padding. Mrs Maulfrey, seen arriving at the home of Lady Winwood in the opening sentence, is wearing paniers à coudes wide enough to brush the banisters as she climbs the stairs. We can immediately tell that Mrs Maulfrey only thinks she is the height of fashion, since by that time such large paniers would not be normal day dress. A further example of the way in which Heyer judges her writing to a nicety is that the actual heroine, Horatio Winwood, is the last of the Winwood daughters to be introduced to the reader, in keeping with her position as the youngest, and barely out of the schoolroom. Miss Winwood – Elizabeth – is a Beauty, Charlotte is a bit of a termagant and Horatia (named for Mr Walpole) is almost plain (think Viola Bonham-Carter in a polonaise).

The plot is as follows: the Earl of Rule, urged on by his sister, who thinks at thirty-five it is time he got married, ha
s offered for the hand of Miss Winwood, who is greatly enamoured of the penniless (well, comparatively!) Mr Heron, a soldier. Turning him down is not to be thought of, however – the fortunes of the family are at stake, since the only son suffers from the Family Failing: his gambling debts are crippling, but a Good Marriage will save them. Miss Charlotte might do for a bride at a pinch, but she insists she will not leave Mama. No one would seriously consider Horatia, who is only seventeen. Nonetheless, she decides on the best course of action, and sets off (with her maid, you'll be relieved to hear, she isn't entirely reckless) to inform Lord Rule accordingly. She is candid about her failings – her lack of years, her eyebrows that won't arch (though she does have the family nose) and her stammer – but ventures that she is thought to be sensible, and she thinks they might get on if they don't interfere with each other.

It's unfortunate for Horry that Rule has a mistress, an old enemy, and an heir who would like to preserve his inheritance. Her brother Pelham, though well-meaning, has a knack of creating scandal rather than suppressing it, and Horry is soon enmeshed in a tangle which will bring her husband's disapproval down upon her head, and her attempts to extricate herself only seem to make matters worse. It is no help that Horry herself has rather succumbed to the family failing, and is an enthusiastic card player.

The Convenient Marriage dates from 1934, before Heyer
had entirely got into her stride, I feel. Horry isn't such a rounded character, or quite as much fun as, say, Sophia Stanton-Lacy in The Grand Sophy, or my own joint favourites, Frederica and Arabella, and the story lacks the delicious mayhem of these later books. This is not to detract from a thoroughly amusing read, with particularly good period detail in the wardrobe department – there are some lovely descriptions of the macaroni, Mr Drelincourt, while Pelham's friend Sir Roland Pommeroy sets the mould for some splendid best friends in later novels (notably Gil, Ferdy and George in Friday's Child, for which it serves as something of a dry run). It's not Heyer at the height of her abilities but, if you already love her work and haven't read it, do!

Finally, this picture by Louis Rolland Trinquesse dates from 1776, and shows costume of the period, although my Arrow edition of The Convenient Marriage (above) has well-chosen cover artwork,
a portrait of Penelope Lee Acton by George Romney, which nicely depicts the kind of dresses the Misses Winwood were wearing in the opening chapter: "morning toilets of worked muslin over slight hoops, with Tiffany sashes round their waists. Countrified, thought Mrs Maulfrey..."

Cross-posted at the Georgette Heyer Challenge.

Friday, 8 August 2008

The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne

I thought John's idea of reading obscure books by wellknown authors was a fantastic one, even more so when my hunt for a suitable work turned up a detective story by the writer of Winnie-the-Pooh. The introduction to my edition tells me that this is the only crime novel Milne wrote, suggesting he fancied trying out the genre and, having cracked it, turned his thoughts elsewhere.

This is a classic country house murder, with houseparty assembled, garrulous servants and a murder behind a locked door. At breakfast the owner of the house, Mark Ablett, patron of the arts, announces the arrival that day of his brother from Australia, a ne'er do well who left for the colonies many years previously. Sending his guests off to play golf, he awaits his brother's arrival; shortly afterwards, the silence of a sultry summer's afternoon is broken by a gunshot, and Mark's cousin Cayley can be heard hammering on the locked door demanding that it should be opened.

Into this scenes strolls Anthony Gillingham, "an attractive gentleman" and friend of Bill Beverley, one of the guests at the Red House. Gillingham is something of a paradox, a hardworking dilettante, rich enough to please himself, he has moved from job to job, applying his intelligence to whatever takes his fancy and gaining experience in the ways of the world. When he and Cayley discover the body of Mark's brother they also find that there is no sign of Mark himself – he has disappeared apparently without trace.

Anthony and his friend Bill – an eager young man – set to with the intention of solving the mystery, Anthony explaining that, if they are to do the job properly, Bill must fulfill the proper role:
"Are you prepared to be the complete Watson?" he asked.
"Watson?" [Bill] asked.
"Do-you-follow-me-Watson; that one. Are you prepared to have quite obvious things explained to you, to ask futile questions, to give me chances of scoring off you, to make brilliant discoveries of your own two or three days after I have made them myself – all that kind of thing? Because it all helps."
"My dear Tony," said Bill delightedly, "need you ask?" Antony said nothing and Bill went on happily to himself, "I perceive from the strawberry-mark on your shirt-front that you had strawberries for dessert. Holmes, you astonish me. Tut, tut, you know my methods. Where is the tobacco? The tobacco is in the Persian slipper. Can I leave my practice for a week? I can."
Now, if you don't like this sort of exchange, then The Red House Mystery is not for you. If Margery Allingham, Michael Innes or Dorothy Sayers are meat and drink to you, then you will love it for the little gem it is. As it says in the Introduction, it's as if Christopher Robin had grown up and become a detective. And Pooh has come along to help. I, of course, am desolated that Milne didn't start a series, as Tony and Bill could comfortably have taken their place alongside Lord Peter and Albert Campion.

Although The Red House Mystery is obscure it is by no means unobtainable. There is a nice edition by Dover Publications (I saw a copy in Waterstones recently so you won't have to order it from the US, as I did) and it is soon to be reissued by Vintage Classics. Do try it!

Cross-posted at Hey Jude, Don't Be So Obscure!