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!

Friday, 1 August 2008

July round up

I would have to admit that the past month's reading hasn't been hugely demanding, although some has certainly been very pleasant. The highlights were re-reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, for the Cornflower book club, a book whose relatively few pages contain prose dense with significance, and My Grandmothers and I, Diana Holman-Hunt's memoir of the two women who dominated her rather uncomfortable childhood. This last is one of the new Slightly Foxed Pocket Editions, and is a beautifully-produced little book that nestles comfortably into the hand and stays open to be read like a proper book should. The deep blue cloth cover with the fox colophon stamped on the front, and the rows of tiny gold foxes on the spine complete the experience. Both it and its predecessor, Rosemary Sutcliffe's Blue Remembered Hills have been given pride of place on my bookshelves.

A brief digression: for anyone who hasn't yet come across Slightly Foxed, this quarterly magazine with its vulpine covers is packed with excellent writing and is a mine of information for those of us who love old books. I knew it was for me when I read the flyer which begins: "Do you carry elderly Penguins in your pockets?" The most recent issue included articles about Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, Jeremy Todd on W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn and Dervla Murphy on Nicholas Bouvier's journey through Afghanistan. When my copy arrives I know I mustn't unwrap it until I've got time to spare, because the briefest peek is like a sunbeam to a cat – I am transfixed - and I don't let it of my sight until I've read it cover to cover.

I'm glad that I've read Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day before the film comes out; I think on the read first/see first debate I come down pretty firmly on read first, but this delightful book ought to be approached without preconceptions, while a good adaptation to film will only add to the pleasure of a well-wrought story.

Of the three Andre Norton books I've read this month, the best was The Crystal Gryphon. As I read I began to note resonances of another work, Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy. Norton's book predates Hobb by some 25 years, and I assume that I'm not the first to spot similarities – however, Hobb's world is hugely more complex and multilayered than Norton's and I was simply amused to look for similarities, such as that Kerovan in The Crystal Gryphon is described as a farseer. I'm hoping to find more of this series. The Mark of the Cat and The Year of the Rat were novel and sequel separated by several years and, while the first of the better book, the action is left hanging, with the increasing dominance of the man-rats over their deadly cousins on the Plains of Desolation, so the second was satisfactory in that it rounded off the story. However, it was poorly copyedited, which always irritates, and would have benefited from a thorough re-write: the multiple voices made it very episodic and "bitty" and character development was fairly rudimentary. Having said that, I did stay up until 3am to finish it!

Skulduggery Pleasant, about a skeletal private investigator and his young sidekick, is just plain fun! Not without its scary moments, it's nonetheless more children's book than Young Adult, if such a distinction can be made. The younger end of the Harry Potter audience should love it, but there is amusement for older readers too. I hope that, like the HP series, as his heroine Stephanie grows up the books will gain complexity and substance.

I've written about L'Engle's An Acceptable Time already this month, where I mentioned The Young Unicorns, the third book in the series that begins with Meet the Austins. In this latter it's not only the reader who is introduced to the Austin family, but also Maggy, whose pilot father has just died in a plane crash. A spoilt brat par excellence, Maggy's arrival to live with the family and her disruptive presence is described by Vicky Austin, the second eldest of four children. Vicky is coming to terms with her own grief, as the plane's other pilot was her uncle, and she resents Maggy's seeming indifference to the loss of her father, a man she hardly knew since she had only recently moved to live with him. The Austin children are wonderfully normal, as prone to naughtiness as any, and Vicky is a disarmingly honest chronicler. At first aware that the writing felt very much of its period (it was first published in 1960), I was by the end completely won over and sorry when it finished. More on the Austins anon, since I have three books left to read in this series. I'm also about to start reading L'Engle's Crosswicks Journals, and it should be interesting to compare fact and fiction.

Vis-à-vis Challenges, I have a post to write on my Obscure Book choice, The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne, while I've hardly embarked on the Second Canadian Book Challenge (I've started Fugitive Pieces by Ann Michaels, and then neglected it in favour of frivolous reading matter). Writing about five books at once (The Time Quintet) brought me almost up to date on the Young Adult Challenge, but short stories have been dreadfully neglected. I've read and enjoyed quite a few, but failed to write about them. I enjoyed another Agatha Christie, though, with a Dartmoor setting, which was the subject of yesterday's post.

Here are July's books:
  • The Year of the Rat by Andre Norton
  • An Acceptable Time by Madeleine l'Engle
  • Bridle Paths by A.F. Tschiffely
  • The Mark of the Cat by Andre Norton
  • Miss Bunting by Angela Thirkell
  • Meet the Austins by Madeleine L'Engle
  • Black Plumes by Margery Allingham
  • The Crystal Gryphon by Andre Norton
  • The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie
  • My Grandmothers and I by Diana Holman-Hunt
  • I Am a Cat by Soseki Natsume
  • Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy
  • Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark