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


  1. I haven't read the Norton, but it sounds like it might be my sort of thing. And how come I've missed out on 'Blue Remembered Hills'? I live just a few miles away from where Housman wrote the lines about those hills and every summer we have a music festival on the very spot. When the weather's clear you can really understand what it was that caught him. I would say that I'd order all these from the library, but I now have so many books on order that they won't let me ask for any more until some of them have come. can't life be hard!!!

  2. Oh, I hope you'll like the Crosswicks journals. The first one is one of my favourite reads ever. And I love Vicky Austin!

  3. TT, I think you would like the Norton, and Blue Remembered Hills too.

    Melanie, I've started the first of the journals and I like it very much. Madeleine sounds like a grown-up Vicky, doesn't she?

  4. I was so glad to have read Miss Pettigrew before I saw the film. I read it just days before, and it was so fresh in my mind, and I was able to notice when the dialogue matched the book exactly, and where the storyline veered. I hope you enjoy the film!