Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Still Waters by John Moss

I wanted so much to love this book: the combination of Canada, koi carp and crime seemed the perfect offering, and I remembered an article about the Canadian north by the same author which suggested that here would be a crime novelist worth reading. Sadly, though, I found a number of things got in the way of my enjoyment. The subject matter – exploitative sex crime – didn’t help, especially as it led to the two principal characters dwelling on their own experience in a way that I found slightly unconvincing. My main problem, though, was that I found it all over-written, both in plot and description; I thought of giving an example here but, in fact, the individual passages are fine, it’s the cumulative effect that makes me feel I’m reading through treacle. In the same way, the nerdish-ness of the male detective, Morgan, means that the details pile up, information about Kurdish carpets bumping up against fish-y factoids until you long for a bit of old-fashioned action. Actually, I’m surprised Morgan and his partner, Miranda, ever get a result, they spend so much time sitting around thinking.

Not surprisingly, the sense of place is good – Rosedale, Toronto, and rural Ontario are much harder to evoke than, say, Louise Penny’s Three Pines, but Moss does it well. I fear, however, that the author is too much in love with both his creations – not an uncommon failing in crime novelists, but it can become intrusive. Things may settle down in the later books – this is the first of a series – but I’m not sure that I’ll be giving it a second chance, unless someone can persuade me otherwise. The fish were fun, though.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Happy Christmas!

From Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford

Lady Bobbin was always most particular that the feast of Christmas should be kept by herself, her family and her dependents at Compton Bobbin, in what she was pleased to call "good old-fashioned style". In her mind, always a rather muddled organ, this entailed a fusion of the Christmas customs brought to his adopted country by the late Prince Consort with those which have been invented by the modern Roman Catholic school of Sussex Humorists in a desperate attempt to revive what they suppose to have been the merrieness of England as it was before she came to be ruled by sour Protestants. And this was odd, because Germans and Roman Catholics were usually regarded by Lady Bobbin with wild abhorrence. Nothing, however, could deter her from being an ardent and convinced Merrie Englander. The maypole on the village green, or more usually, on account of pouring rain, in the village hall; nocturnal
expeditions to the local Druid stones to see the sun rise over the Altar Stone, a feat which it was seldom obliging enough to perform; masques in the summer, madrigals in the winter and Morris Dances all the year round were organized and led by Lady Bobbin with an energy which might well have been devoted to some better cause. ...

But although each season of the year had its own merrie little rite it was at Christmas time that Lady Bobbin and her disciples in the neighbourhood really cam into their own, the activities which she promoted during the rest of the year merely paving the way for an orgy of merrieness at Yule....

[E]very year at Compton Bobbin the German and Sussex customs were made to play their appointed parts. Thus the Christmas Tree, Christmas stockings and other activities of Santa Claus, and the exchange through the post of endless cards and calendars (German); the mistletoe and holly decorations, the turkeys, the boar's head, and the succession of carol singers and mummers (Sussex Roman Catholic); and the unlimited opportunity to over-eat on every sort of unwholesome food washed down with honest beer, which forms the groundwork for both schools of thought, combined to provide the ingredients of Lady Bobbin's Christmas Pudding.

Is there anything as delicious as Mitford? Christmas Day at Compton Bobbin is unrelentingly gruesome, the weather failing to live up to its allotted role by being wet and foggy, though the festive meal is enlivened by an apparent bomb threat. This is a witty froth of a book, one of her earliest, with a slender, though wholly satisfying, plot and a cast of amusing and endearing characters. One for winter reading - in front of the fire, if possible!

Monday, 30 November 2009

After my long absence

I can hardly believe that it is a whole month since I had time to post anything here! It wasn't intended to be such a long absence, I have just been constantly busy, though I didn't quite realise for how long. The house is in terminal chaos, the chicken run needs mending, I have barely even thought about Christmas and a Devon/London trip looms. This evening, though, I have just sent a piece of typesetting off to the publishers and I have an hour when it's not worth starting something new - how nice.

I have managed a little reading in the course of the month - there have been a few godsends which have kept me going in the middle of the night, when my brain wouldn't stop, so I did put in a very quick visit to the library mid-month (well, I had to go in because they had some books for me). Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing was a huge pleasure, describing her year of "reading from home", which I considered emulating, since the house of full of books whch no-one is reading, and the TBR piles threaten to take over. However, in the past I have spent quite long periods relying on what was to hand so I decided to wait until it was a forced choice. Susan Hill was good company while I read her book - I didn't always agree with her choices (at the end of the book she includes a list of 40 books she couldn't do without), but her reasons were cogent, and I enjoyed the arguments which took place in my head. Lovely cover, too. I followed up with the third of her Serrailler novels, The Risk of Darkness - rather than a series of standalone books on unrelated crimes, her books should be read in order (and for once, I am doing so). They started out very well, and are getting better. Serrailler is a convincingly fallible hero, attractive but flawed.

At the opposite end of the crime spectrum were Alexander McCall Smith's The Careful Use of Compliments and Catriona MacPherson's The Burry Man's Day. I thought I had read former, but happily I got it out of the library anyway (it would be a soothing re-read, I reasoned) and was delighted to find that it was new to me. I am not at all sure I agreed with Isabel's actions when her job as Editor of The Review of Applied Ethics was threatened, but I certainly sympathised with them. Then I settled down to the second Dandy Gilver mystery full of eager anticipation, and I wasn't disappointed - I love the setting, Scotland in the 1920s, and Dandy's mix of aristocratic arrogance, sound common sense and a sense of humour, much as if Nancy Mitford had taken to detective stories. They are great fun - I'm about to embark on the third.

The last Angela Thirkell, Threescore and Ten, was a bit of a curate's egg - the first half of the story, written when she was old and ill, lags distinctly, the "divagations" for which she was famous being not so much digressions as quagmires. She left it unfinished on her death, and her friend C.A. Lejeune took over and completed it at a much brisker pace.

I knew of Sarah Quigley as a poet, so when her name caught my eye on the library shelf my interest was piqued. Shot tells the story of Lena Domanski, a comedian from San Francisco, whose world disintegrates when she is accidentally shot. Her body recovers but her sense of self is fragmented and she no longer wishes to earn her living by being funny; her interest in in loss, both her own and that of other people. Eventually she sets off to Alaska with a camera, and finds both tragedy and fulfillment. Finally, A Bit of Earth by Rebecca Smith is another story of loss: a botany lecturer loses his wife in an accident and is left alone with their small son, to muddle along in a state of abstraction and distress. Young Felix Misselthwaite (nice Secret Garden reference), isolated and unhappy, is saved by his love of the university's neglected botanic garden, where he finds friends animal and human. These two books are about loss and fragmentation, approaching personal disasters from very different angles, but they are also about the redemptive power of the human spirit. I recommend both.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Book memories meme

I'm nursing a cold and preparing for a London trip, so have neither time nor inclination for "proper" writing today. Juxtabook mentioned that the IBooknet blog has been revamped, so I went to have a look (very nice, guys!) and found this meme there.

The book that’s been on your shelves the longest
Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne – I don’t think there has been a time in my life when I haven’t had a copy close by. The House at Pooh Corner is there too, of course, and the two collections of poems, and I find bits of all of them running through my head in the most unlikely places.

A book that reminds you of something specific in your life (a person, a place, a time)
Beside my bed I have a copy of Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome, which my father gave me when I passed the 11+ exam that was the bane of children’s lives in those days. We had a dragon of a teacher, so it was also a reward for surviving her, I think! It is a lovely book, and although my interest in mythology didn’t start there, it certainly fuelled the fire.

A book you acquired in some interesting way
Because I found this meme on the IBooknet blog, it immediately made me think of a book I didn’t acquire. One of my regular visits when I’m in London is to Cecil Court, home of a number of secondhand bookshops, where a couple of years ago I saw a familiar cover in the window of one of them. It was a children’s book by a well-known author and illustrator, and a note on the cover said that it was an unusual copy because it was signed by the author with a message to a young boy, probably a family friend I was pretty sure I knew who this was and went in and asked to look at the book – and yes, it had been given to my stepbrother when he was about 5 years old; I recognised it because he had been named after the author’s most famous character, so that the inscription made the book unique. Unfortunately, the book had been stolen from his flat some years ago, and sadly, my stepbrother died in 2003. It would have been lovely if I could have bought it back (having no proof, some 20 years on from the theft, of my somewhat odd story), but even though the bookseller suggested that we might discuss the price (!) it was completely out of my league. I wonder, though, if its provenance was enhanced by my story.

The book that’s been with you to the most places
Well, Winnie the Pooh, along with a small collection of other children's books, has been with me in every place I’ve ever lived, but the book that has covered the greatest mileage is probably a short collection of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, which was slim enough to fit in the smallest shoulder bag so that I carried it everywhere. If I finished my book because the train was late, there was Hopkins to fill the gap, and he did it admirably. When I'm not reciting A.A. Milne in my head, Hopkins is next choice. You can easily spot me on the East Coast line, beating out the sprung rhythm of The Wreck of the Deutschland, and muttering when I can't remember the next line.

Your current read, your last read and the book you’ll read next
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman was the last book I finished – I’d been saving it up for Hallowe’en week and it was worth it. Current reading is patchy: I’m dipping into some of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories, and reading Cucumber Sandwiches, a collection of a novella and three short stories by J.I.M. Stewart, who also wrote as Michael Innes. My next book is Kept: A Victorian Mystery by D.J. Taylor – a fellow blogger (I’m afraid I can’t remember who) recommended another of his books, I think, but the library didn’t have it, and I liked the sound of this one. Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The Mythago Cycle by Robert Holdstock

I’m in two minds as to how I feel about these two books, Mythago Wood and Lavondyss. On one hand I think that they are a brave and inspired attempt to write imaginatively about the ways in which myths and legends continue to have impact on modern life, while on the other hand I’m not sure how much I actually enjoyed them. Every now and one reads a book that gets everything right, and there is an almost physical reaction to that rightness, a response I think of as visceral. Probably the first time I ever felt it was reading Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen; a little later I certainly felt the same way about Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, a book which has never been more than a few feet from my bedside since I read it in my teens.

Holdstock has certainly aimed for that reaction, and occasionally he gets close, but for me, he's not quite there. Part of the problem may be that he decided he was free to make up his own mythologies, very much as his characters do in his books; and although his invented stories are logically consistent with what we know of the origins of the British, they are not the ones I would have told. Actually, I think Holdstock knows his sources considerably better than I, and that it is me who is at fault in a purely academic sense, but these are works of fiction, so cavilling is permitted.

Both books are set in the period not long after WW2, in Herefordshire, on the edge of the ancient Ryhope Wood. This woodland is a remnant of primeval forest, and its apparent extent (about 6 miles) belies its true nature as a limitless forest where time is distorted and people may disappear. From these woodlands, too, mythagos appear, manifestations of archetypal heroes called into being by the interactions of the imagination and the earth energies concentrated there. This theory is lent weight by reference to Arthur Watkins’ book The Old Straight Track - a book which does supply some of that visceral response I talked about - a wonderful, scholarly piece of nonsense about ley lines that feels "true" (to the extent that there are still lots of people out there who spend their weekends happily hunting leys). Mythago Wood, the first in this Cycle, introduces the Huxley brothers, whose father had written up his observations and theories about the forest, coining the word mythago (from myth-imago) and has died, weakened by his attempt to call into being the most primeval mythago, the Urscumug. Oak Lodge, where the brothers live on the edge of the wood, is visited by a number of mythagos, among them Guiwenneth, with whom, in separate manifestations, each of the brothers falls in love. Both brothers are drawn to the wood, and after the disappearance of one, the other goes in after him, in the company of Harry Keeton, a pilot, who has encountered a similar woodland in France.

The second book, Lavondyss, tells the story of Keeton's younger sister, Tallis, who has grown up on the outskirts of this forest, and who is particularly sensitive to the presence of the mythagos. While still a small girl she begins to make masks which allow her to see in different ways, and she creates / re-discovers the nature of the countryside where she lives, giving the landscape its true names. She, too, is drawn into the wood, journeying in search of her brother in the company of mythagos. As she travels she learns more of the nature of the interactions between humans and mythagos, and the dangers inherent in changing stories.

You may have gathered by now that I am deeply interested in the ideas behind these books, but less impressed by the stories themselves. There are further works in the Cycle - not sequels, Holdstock says, but re-visitations - which should prove interesting to look at, but I found Lavondyss a bit rambling, perhaps because the adult Tallis never entirely caught my sympathy, although the first part of the novel, in which child Tallis traverses the landscape in the company of Ralph Vaughan Williams, is very well done, perhaps the best writing of the cycle so far. What worked here was the constraint placed by the domestic setting: the need to imbue the landscape with mystery while maintaining the sense of the familiar; when Holdstock ranges into purely imaginary landscapes the lack of such constraint shows in the length of some of his sustained passages, to their detriment. I hope that the later works may be a little more disciplined, but fear they may not, since for many years a measure of 'good' fantasy literature equates with a volume’s ability to act as a reliable doorstop in a high wind. (This was the second 600-page book I'd read this month - my hands hurt from holding them!)

I'm going to end yet another R.I.P.IV review by saying that this a book is for those interested in the workings of fantasy, and only secondarily for its merits as storytelling. Holdstock uses some of the same ideas and themes in the unconnected Merlin Codex, where I feel they work rather better, but I do like the fact that he attempted to impose an imaginative, yet believable, structure on our continued fascination with mythology, and I consider that in itself to be a good reason to read these books. I predict that they will last long beyond their less difficult and more popular doorstop cousins.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Supernatural Tales by John Buchan

Sadly, I have had to abandon my copy of Buchan’s Supernatural Tales in Devon, too bulky to carry home after three weeks’ absence, during which I didn’t find time to blog about it. My memory isn’t good enough to write in detail about individual stories, but I can give a flavour of it here.

I found myself labelling it “sub-Lovecraft”; in fact, if you had asked me, I would have guessed that the title of the first story in the collection, 'The Watcher by the Door', actually referred to a Lovecraft story. On checking, though, Buchan’s story is – as I had at first supposed – earlier than anything by Lovecraft, who was only 11 when Buchan’s collection was published. The story deals with the apparent possession of Robert Ladlaw, a landowner in the coal-mining area of southern Scotland, a land which was once, according to the narrator, the ancient Pictish kingdom of Manann. Ladlaw has become convinced that he has an alter ego, an ever-present watcher by his side, an alter ego which dogs his footsteps. His nerves are badly affected, and when he finds an account of a similar occurrence in the life of the Emperor Justinian, he is certain that “some devilish occult force, lingering through the ages, had come to life after a long sleep…a deadly legacy from Pict and Roman”. His visiting friend, the narrator of the story, is gradually persuaded of the reality of this possession, since Ladlaw seems to have acquired knowledge of the area’s past that he can only have come by through some sort of direct experience. Verisimilitude is lent here, as in others of Buchan’s stories, by reference to classical authors such as Ausonius. Eventually the local vicar proves susceptible to the elemental/demon, and it moves on.

Another story, 'The Kings of Orion', focuses on a classical legend that tells how the kings of Orion were expelled from their home and came to earth, where their lineage can occasionally be seen in people with exceptional qualities. In a story with a similar theme, 'Tendebant Manus', an insignificant politician suddenly and remarkably becomes an able statesman on the death of his brother.

These last two show that a theme Buchan returns to in his supernatural stories is that of the psychology of the individual, a theme also prominent in novels such as Sickheart River. Indeed, some of his regular characters appear in the stories, a device which helps to anchor his speculation about the supernatural nature of some phenomena more firmly in the real world. Other stories hark back to classical sources, as often feature the sacred grove of legend, suggesting that Buchan probably read J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

If you are looking for the frights evoked by Lovecraft, or the great British exponent of the ghost story, M.R. James, then you may be disappointed by Buchan, although you will find some similar explorations of the tensions between the rational and the subconscious that interested the intelligentsia of the day. For Halloween reading, the novel Witchwood is the better choice. Buchan is a good storyteller (though some of his prejudices may rankle with the modern reader) and for anyone interested in the development of fantasy literature, both stories and novel make an interesting foray into the mind of the late Victorian rationalist intent on explaining the inexplicable.

A collection of Buchan's supernatural tales published as The Moon Endureth can be read on Project Gutenberg.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

After the Armistice Ball by Catriona McPherson

Some detective stories unfold clue by clue, so that the process of detection is, for both investigator and reader, a linear one. They can make entertaining reading, especially when accompanied by good characterisation or a heightening sense of tension, and are often the sort that end with a life or death situation: a hunt for a missing person, perhaps. Then there are the more old-fashioned kind, the successors to the Golden Age novels, where the detective has to come to grips with a really knotty puzzle – the locked room being the classic – and the sharp reader has the pleasure of being a step ahead . . . or the frustration of being a step behind. Sometimes the plot hinges on a crucial fact, as in Dorothy Sayers' Have His Carcass, that the ordinary reader will probably be unable to guess, even though the clues are there for anyone with the necessary knowledge – irritatingly so, in some cases, such as the novel I recently read which depended on an obscure point of law.

I’m delighted to say that After the Armistice Ball falls mainly into the puzzle category. It was recommended by Juxtabook, who made Catriona (pronounced Katreena, by the way) McPherson’s first book in the Dandy Gilver series sound eminently readable and fun. It’s set in Perthshire not long after World War I, where Dandy is the bored wife of a country landowner; with two young sons at prep school she has little to do beyond dealing with her correspondence and walking her purely ornamental (i.e., not a gundog, to her husband’s chagrin) Dalmatian. An intrigue over some stolen diamonds, evidently purloined during a houseparty given by her friend Daisy Esslemont, offers a much-needed diversion, but things become much more serious when a pretty young acquaintance meets a shocking death in a seaside cottage. Summoned to the scene by the young woman’s family, Dandy* senses that there is something amiss, and determines to investigate, aided, and sometimes distracted, by the victim’s fiancé.

Attention to period detail is loving – the author has obviously steeped herself in the literature of the 1920s, and knows her way round a country house, both upstairs and downstairs (more evidence of this can be seen on the Dandy Gilver website). The research is handled lightly, though – we’ve all met those books where every last detail is crammed in, in the hope that somehow the right atmosphere will be created – and Dandy’s light, inconsequential voice (she finds life more comfortable, she informs us, if she remains firmly on the surface) rattles on about the divide between the classes, the losses incurred in the war, human and financial, or the sheer boredom of country life. Her staunch avoidance of sentimentality – of overt displays of maternal affection, for instance – serve as a reminder that here are different times, different customs, while her chatty style ensures that modern sensibility isn’t offended.

I think I detect all sorts of favourite people from other books who have provided inspiration for her characters: Lady Montdore from Love in a Cold Climate, for instance, or Robert, husband of the Provincial Lady, who I’m sure lurks behind Dandy’s husband Hugh, while the Galloway setting for the seaside cottage calls Five Red Herrings very much to mind. The knowledge that this is a series, and that several more books already exist to be enjoyed, fills me with a sense of pleased anticipation, if also with concern for my personal finances, since I think these are going to stand the re-reading test. I’ve already thought of several friends and relatives who might like After the Armistice Ball for Christmas, too. My only complaint, in fact, is that I couldn’t put it down, and thus, it went far too fast.

*Amended to correct silly typo - sorry, guys!

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Pigeons at dawn

I thought that, as I have been so neglecting the Bookshelf, that I would post a quick catch-up. As some of you will know, I have been in Devon looking after Aged Parents, and far too busy fetching and carrying to attend to my blog. By bedtime I was too tired for much reading, so I found an old copy of Arthur Ransome's Pigeon Post, which kept me going longer than you could imagine. It was very comforting, a story of prospecting for gold on the Cumbrian fells. The characters are familiar from Swallows and Amazons, with the addition of Dick and Dorothea Callum. Nancy is determined to find gold before Captain Flint gets home from foreign climes, although plans are initially frustrated by Mrs Blackett's refusal to let them camp on the fells because a drought means that there is no water anywhere. How the problem is overcome is too good to spoil, so I'm not going to tell it here.

Much ingenuity is exercised in devising a communication system with homing pigeons - Mrs Blackett is remarkably tolerant about the final arrangement which involves a loudly clanging bell whenever a pigeon deigns to return to its home (the dilatory and unreliable Sappho comes home at 5am). And the long-awaited arrival of the armadillo, Timothy, is delightful.

I wasn't a huge fan of Ransome's books when I was a child, but I am making up for it now, partly, I suppose, because it makes me rather nostalgic for the days when children had freedom to go off with a tent and quantities of revolting things in tins, without the feeling that adults were peering over their shoulders all day. I felt especially wistful at the idea that a group of children would amuse themselves far into the night by singing campfire songs. The sun used to shine in those days, too.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be by Farley Mowat

Mutt, by Paul Galdone

I was thinking that my reading for the Canadian Book Challenge wasn’t going to progress much during my lengthy absence from home – for instance, I feel it would be cheating to count any John Buchan writing not set in Canada – but I was only able to carry a limited number of books on the train, and choices had to be made. So I was pleased to rediscover a stalwart of the Canadian canon, The Dog Who Wouldn't Be, on the dining table from at least two visits ago (in my parents’ house books and newspapers adorn every possible surface, in piles); I think my mother found it in the charity shop, and she can’t resist anything with a dog in the title.

The Dog in question is Mutt, accidentally acquired by the Mowat family during a search for a hunting dog. Passed off to hunting friends as a “Prince Albert Retriever”, Mutt is initially a disaster in the field, but gradually begins to acquire his own methods, eventually becoming legendary as a dog who can retrieve even out of season. The learning process is full of incident – Mutt is enthusiastic about chasing cows – and difficulty, as Saskatoon is on the dry side for duck hunting, and Mutt’s methods eccentric: he doesn’t always wait for ducks to be shot, but retrieves a swimming bird from underneath. He’s an avid cat chaser, too, and from an early start with ladders, becomes a sure-footed mountaineer, although none of the family share his interest, and are usually to be found waiting impatiently at the foot of the precipice, anxious to continue their holiday:
This mountain climbing passion was an infernal nuisance to the rest of us, for he would sneak away whenever we stopped, and would appear high on the face of some sheer cliff, working his way steadily upward, and deaf to our commands that he return to us.
Mutt is not the only animal to share the Mowat home; the young Farley’s early interest in nature leads to an extensive collection of creatures which share his bedroom (owing to some misplaced advice by his amateur naturalist uncle that the way to learn about animals is to live with them). Two horned owls prove even more of a terror to the local cat population than Mutt.

As a British child I grew up on the writing of Gerald Durrell (there’s a feel of My Family and Other Animals to The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be – the same harassed mother and neighbours, for a start); I would have loved this book then, and would have gone on to read others by the author (and still will, I hope). I gather there is some question of the authenticity of his writing on both animal and human inhabitants of the Arctic – reading this memoir, I must admit to having doubted the total veracity of some events, but this book at least is none the worse for that. And all narrators are to some extent unreliable.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

A delightful new acquaintance

Searching our library catalogue for the next Cornflower book group read, I failed to find what I was looking for, but spotted Elizabeth Jenkins' memoir, The View from Downshire Hill. Well, I thought . . . why not have a little background about this author, who is completely new to me. It arrived this week and at bedtime last night I picked it up for a quick browse. I reluctantly stopped reading two delightful hours later. Elizabeth Jenkins is witty, but self-deprecating, with the occasional touch of asperity (as in her comments on the designer, Erno Goldfinger, whose views on London’s elegant Georgian houses she rightly disapproved of.

Here she is, early on, talking about her brief time as a pupil at the Modern School, Letchworth:
By this time it was felt at home that I was not really benefiting by the school’s advantages, so I was taken away at the end of my second term. This was not the last of my contacts with [the headmistress] Miss Cartwright, however. When my first novel was published she very kindly wrote to me, congratulating me on getting my work published and adding that she was sure I would not write for ‘self-glorification’. I replied as politely as I was able, but her letter raised a curious point: how does one write for ‘self-glorification’? If I knew, I would be at it all the time. I dare say many of us would.
Her book is not an autobiography, but a collection of reminiscences and observations about things, and people, from her life that she regards as being of interest. On leaving Newnham College Cambridge (where she once invited Edith Sitwell to be a speaker and wanted to ask her to wear all of her distinctive wardrobe) she moved to Bloomsbury, where she was taken up, and then rather painfully dropped, by the Woolfs, took tea with the Stracheys, and worked on her first novel and her biography of Lady Caroline Lamb in the Reading Room of the British Museum.

Her interest in London’s Georgian architecture is evident from the outset: during the war she worked first at 1 Montague Place, next to the British Museum, where she enjoyed exploring rooms left unused; later she worked for the famous translator of Japanese poetry, Arthur Waley at the Ministry of Information in what is now the University of London's Senate House. By this time her father had bought her a house at Downshire Hill, where she lived until old age and infirmity necessitated the move to a flat. Like Denis Severs later at 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfield, she furnished her house as well as she could afford, replacing the Edwardian furniture her father originally provided with late Georgian, as early Georgian to match the house with its elegant Gothic-arched window panes (you can just see them on the book's cover), was beyond her means.

Elizabeth Jenkins is a delightful writer, her prose elegant yet conversational and her comments on her own writing shrewd and insightful. I am very pleased to have made her acquaintance. My copy of The Tortoise and the Hare awaits my return from London.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Gathering the Water by Robert Edric

"If brief enthusiasms can make independent booksellers seem fickle, some redemption may be found in our loyalty to individual authors. We often have longer memories than both chain retailers and publishers, and our customers’ support depends on our taste as much as our efficiency. Hot news quickly cools, but the favourites abide: Shirley Hazzard, Javier Marías, Robert Edric, William Maxwell, Penelope Fitzgerald."
So begins an article in the most recent issue of Slightly Foxed (no. 22) on an author I have long enjoyed, Barry Unsworth. Reading the article last weekend, though, I was struck by the coincidence that I had on my last library visit chosen a book by a writer hitherto unknown to me, Robert Edric, and there he was being recommended by John de Falbe.

In Gathering the Water, set in 1847, the narrator, Charles Weightman, is so alienated by grief at the death of his fiancée that he regards moving to a Yorkshire valley to oversee its flooding as an acceptable “new start”. Here, regarded with hostility by the villagers whose eviction he is to superintend, he forms an alliance of sorts with another outsider, a woman caring for her mad sister. Actually, Mary Latimer isn’t really an outsider in the literal sense – she was brought up in the valley but moved away, and has only recently returned. Her alienation is every bit as great, though, since with the loss of their already crumbling home, she will be forced to send her sister to an asylum. She and Charles do not become friends, they are simply bound by their isolation and by the weight of their pasts.

This is, in all sorts of ways, a difficult book. For a start, it is 250 pages of unrelenting oppression, not a single moment of lightness or warmth that I can recall. The writing is sparse, there is no grandiose description such as you might expect from a historical novel, no set pieces to indicate place or community. Dialogue is elliptical and indeterminate. I wasn’t entirely sure what Weightman was there to do, and neither, I think, was anyone else. This is writing that conveys more in the absences than in what is there: here are events which seem to have significance, yet are never explained, relying instead on the weight (there is that word again) of impression to convey a brooding sense of tragedy. Again subverting the historical novel, there is nothing epic about this tragedy, but rather dirt and ordinariness and inevitability, the villagers’ realistic expectation of inadequate compensation, Charles’s uncertainty about the real remit laid upon him by his indifferent Board. All conversation turns to loss. This is a novel, not of purification by grief and adversity, but of bathos.

All this might suggest that there is no pleasure in reading Gathering the Water, but that is not the case. While it is evident that Edric is an author who expects work from his readers, there is no lack of generosity here – you are not left, as in some books, with an aggrieved feeling that you haven’t been given enough information. Where meaning seems unclear it is not that the narrator is wilfully withholding what you want to know, it is rather that it is too painful to address, or that he has failed to penetrate the murk himself. Moreover, there is grace and precision in the writing, and always a sense that the writer is in control, with a narrow focus on the task in hand – no unnecessary flourish, nothing of the baroque. The language and imagery reflect the setting:
I asked them their names. Most of the people here shared the same ten or a dozen Christian and surnames. As in all other things, there was no superfluity here, no exotic flowering amid the grasses and reeds. There were Riggs and Cloughs, Lumbs and Cleggs and Scales, all of which might just as likely have been the names of the features around them; thus were the two – people and place – bred into each other.
Edric has written a number of other novels with historical settings, as well as a trilogy of detective stories set in Hull.

Friday, 28 August 2009


The days are getting cooler, the nights are drawing in and oh, goody! It’s time for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril again, absolutely my favourite challenge of the year. Oh wait, I said that about the Once Upon a Time Challenge – oh what the hell, I just love Carl’s challenges. This year the banners are really lovely, too.

Now - to the reading pool (I love this bit): first of all, I am determined to join in with the Short Stories Peril again, to which end I have just demanded that my son hand over my copy of John Buchan’s Supernatural Tales, which he has had for ages. Years ago I read Buchan’s Witch Wood, and it was deliciously spooky – in fact, I “inherited” the library copy of it, because I left it beside the bed one night, and the puppy chewed it. There are fifteen stories, which I think should see me through!

As usual, I shall be over-ambitious and go for Peril the First, four books of any of the following subgenres: Mystery; Suspense; Thriller; Dark Fantasy; Gothic; Horror; Supernatural. Last year I wanted to read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, as everyone else was doing, but my copy didn’t arrive until after the challenge had finished, since when it’s been on the TBR pile. I thought about starting it during OUT3, but secretly I wanted to save it for the autumn, so this year it’s back on the pile with the definite intention of reading it. I decided, too, that Ian Rankin’s Rebus series counts as dark – some of the television series (with John Hannah as Rebus) is being re-shown at the moment and you would think Edinburgh never actually sees daylight! To celebrate RIP IV I started A Question of Blood last night and read for much longer than I meant to.

So, that’s my first three chosen. I read a review of Agatha Christie’s supernatural stories at BooksPlease, so I’ve added that to the list, and I have The Children’s Book on order with the library – for those who don’t know, it’s about a teller of stories and, from what I can gather, quite dark enough to be included here. The rest of the reading pool will offer some choice for those last-minute changes of mind. As Carl says, it’s more fun with a list to choose from.

Ian Rankin, A Question of Blood
John Buchan, Supernatural Tales (SS)
Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book
Stephen Hunt, The Rise of the Iron Moon
A.S. Byatt, The Children’s Book
Patricia McKillip, The Book of Atrix Wolfe
Agatha Christie, The Hound of Death (SS) – if I can find a copy
Mark Z. Danielowski, House of Leaves

Later additions:
Robert Holdstock, The Mythago Cycle

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Brother and Sister by Joanna Trollope

Two years ago I thought I might not read another of Joanna Trollope’s novels, after I’d been rather disappointed by this one. On a recent library trip, though, I wanted something for immediate reading and, since her books are at the very least reliably easy to get into, I picked up Brothers and Sisters. In common with several of her other books, it turns on the repercussions that a decision has, not only on the person who makes it, but all of those around her, the ever-widening ripples caused by throwing quite a small pebble into the water. Nathalie, worried about her small daughter’s ear trouble, inflates her anxiety until it becomes a preoccupation with finding her birth mother, and establishing her origins. Unfortunately, she insists that her brother David, also adopted, must take part in the quest and since he has always been under Nathalie’s thumb, he agrees, despite the disquiet of his wife Marnie.

Emotional upheaval ensues, not only for Nathalie and David, but for their families and even for the employees of the business run by Nathalie’s husband. Nathalie is only concerned, too, with finding the two women who gave birth to unwanted babies – she lacks the imagination to foresee the possible destruction which she may be bringing down on them, and their own families. Yes, emotional growth may be possible, but does Nathalie have the right to choose it for everyone else?

This isn’t a subtle book, and it gives the issues a pretty cursory trot round the block. As usual, you want to give the main character, Nathalie, a good shake, and tell her to take a good look at what she has, but Trollope knows (and we know too) that people just don’t work like that. It’s a quick read, with just about enough depth to satisfy at the time (though some of the statements about adoption are trite enough to make you scream), but I couldn’t remember much about it within a couple of days of finishing it.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Star Gazing by Linda Gillard

The day before I started Star Gazing I spent some time surfing sites with pictures of the place where I spent wonderful holidays as a child, the Ardnamurchan peninsula. Part of the pleasure of those holidays was the very long drive from the Central Highlands – up the Great North Road over the Drumochter Pass to Dalwhinnie, then turning westwards towards Spean Bridge and Fort William, before catching the Corran ferry. Once we had crossed Loch Linnhe it was still a long journey – a couple of hours to drive a little over 50 miles along a single track road, but at every bend the views were indescribably beautiful, especially the unforgettable first sight of the islands in the distance. Circumstance has dictated that I have only been back once as an adult, but I dream of seeing it again one day.

The route I describe is a little further south than the one undertaken by Marianne and Keir in Star Gazing, when he takes her to Skye to show her his home, but my own experience lent piquancy to their journey – such beauty, which Marianne can only see in Keir’s description, because she is blind. Much of his attraction for her is in the way in which he creates pictures out of the other senses, the tangible ones of sound and smell and touch, but important also is his awareness of intangible senses, like the location of the body in space. Much of the story is told in Marianne’s voice, and we become aware of her reliance on these other senses to maintain her independence, while her refusal to use a stick is a means of holding to a psychological independence, since she is doubly vulnerable, first by nature of her blindness and second by the early death of her husband.

One of the things that I liked about Marianne is that she isn’t entirely likeable – she’s prickly and sharp-tongued, “crabbit” as Keir says, and her relationship with her older sister Louisa is at times scratchy. Louisa’s is the other main voice telling the story, and her protectiveness and occasional impatience are entirely convincing. Their days are spent in the douce surroundings of Edinburgh, with visits to concerts and to the “Botanics”, so that the events which unfold during Marianne’s visit to Skye are a shock to them both, causing each to retreat defensively into her shell while she considers the future. The sense of the two women treading carefully round each other is well caught. The portrayal of these three characters, Marianne, Louisa and Keir, is delicate and sensitive – Gillard’s instincts about the ways in which people work are finely-tuned - which makes the contrast with Louisa’s assistant, Garth the Goth, all the more joyous – despite his Goth make-up he is down-to-earth and just plain fun.

I really don’t want to say too much more about the plot – this is one of those books which will absorb you completely (I read it in a day), and will stay with you long afterwards. The lingering image I have from it is the one I mentioned earlier – the body’s location in space, an image heightened by the involvement of other senses than sight and which recurs throughout the novel. Keir’s dream of his friend Mac falling from a rig platform is one such image, the isolated cottage on Skye another. It’s a book, too, with a strong spirit of place, with Edinburgh, Skye and briefly, Aberdeen, clearer for the the counted paces, the reliance on sound and touch. Which makes it all the more pleasing to be able to add that Star Gazing has been shortlisted for the first Robin Jenkins Literary Award which promotes writing inspired by Scotland's landscape. The winner will be announced on 24 August at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Friday, 7 August 2009

A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil by Christopher Brookmyre

It’s a while since I read a book by this author. When his first novel – Quite Ugly One Morning - came out, my son passed it on to me, saying that it was black and funny and edgy, and I enjoyed it, with the odd reservation. Later, it was made into a TV series, with James Nesbitt in the role of Jack Parlabane, and again, I thought it worked well, but I didn’t feel a great deal of inclination to read any more of what I think turned into a series involving the same investigative journalist. The other week in the library I thought I might give him another try, and chose what seemed to be a standalone book with a very long title.

The opening was excellent – simply two voices discussing, in somewhat hapless fashion, what on earth they are going to do with a couple of bodies. You get the impression that they probably aren’t responsible but have somehow been lumbered with the bodies to dispose of, but it’s not clear, although when one of the two is later arrested by the police (or rather, the polis, since almost all the dialogue is written in Scots of what may be varying opacity) he denies responsibility for the murder, and demands that an old school friend, now a corporate lawyer, is sent for. Thereafter, the book alternates between the police investigation, under the direction of another contemporary from school, and the past, starting with the first day at primary school for a disparate bunch of children. It’s a significant day for all of them, establishing the beginnings of friendships and enmities that will re-emerge twenty years later.

Although much of the black and scabrous humour appealed to me, I did find the pace lagging. This may be because, although I found the adult characters amusing, the school episodes – accurate to a fault - reminded me much too painfully of my own schooldays in a small Highland town, where an English accent ensured your permanent alienation from the rest of the human race. Not to mention the shock of outside lavatories and the dread of the “belt”, a peculiarly vicious instrument of torture - boys vied with each other to be punished in order to prove how hard they were, and in Brookmyre’s enlightened school it wasn’t used to punish girls, apparently, but my schooldays were longer ago and corporal punishment was inflicted on girls as young as six. Anyway, Brookmyre gets the mix of sadistic teachers and mindless cruelty amongst children – funny though individual situations may be – about right, and I found it heavy going.

The children themselves were somewhat lacking in characterisation – I found it hard to tell the small boys apart, especially once they had all gained nicknames. Also, there’s not much detective work, the necessary process being that of remembering, and the wrapping up at the end is perhaps just a little too disingenuous, although the histories of the various children did succeed in coalescing into a whole. There is a glossary (!) for those who need it, and many words will be evident from context – if in doubt, assume the meaning is scatological and you won’t go far wrong. And if that’s something you object to, then I’d steer clear of this author altogether. Otherwise, it's okay, and I wouldn't entirely rule out reading another.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The Cat Who Had Sixty Whiskers and not much else to recommend him

If the plots in The Cat Who… books became over time a little thin, this one is positively marginal! The Cat Who Had Sixty Whiskers is the 29th in the series, and the Wikipedia page on its author suggests that there is some doubt over the 30th, which is perhaps not surprising as she was born in 1913.

I suspect that there is in fact more than a little doubt over the next book, as I found myself seriously wondering how much of this one had been written by Braun herself. It has the air of something patched up by an amanuensis who knows the author’s style well and has some idea of her intentions, but doesn’t like to take liberties. It’s been true for a while that murder victims in this series have been minor characters, as though Ms Braun was beginning to feel serious intimations of imminent mortality and didn’t want to kill off anyone her ageing (?) readers might be attached to, but here we have barely met the victim. It’s just as well we don’t care about the young woman, because we don’t really find out what happened to her, in any coherent sense.

Until lately the series' “same-iness” has been part of its charm, but here we just have repetition. Yes, there are events which will have a huge impact on Qwilleran’s life, but they are unresolved at the end. I think this is because the intention was to tie at least some of the loose ends up in the next back (the projected title at least suggests so), but I shall be extremely surprised if it appears. The author had been turning out a book a year, and the 30th is now well overdue. And the quality of the last one does nothing to raise hopes. Even the cats seem to have lost their verve.

Frankly, unless you are a hopeless The Cat Who… addict, I wouldn’t bother.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

'They were alone again “in the land of feast and famine”. Nothing for so long, and then abundance, and then nothing again, but a nothing haunted by the previous abundance.'

In Late Nights on Air, four people, two men and two women, from the local radio station in Yellowknife set out on a canoe trip into the “Barren land”. Their plan is to follow in the footsteps of the ill-fated explorer, John Hornby, who died of starvation on the Thelon River in 1926, fifty years earlier. The previous summer, one of the four, Gwen, had arrived in Yellowknife, bruised and vulnerable, but determined on a new start and keen to work in radio “in the background”, only to find herself thrust into newsreading by Harry, the world-weary old hand in charge. Despite her nervousness she begins to find her feet on the late night show, making friends as she does so - her tentative friendship with Lorna Dargabble, who is desperate for classical music and who later disappears, is delicately drawn, while her spiky relationship with the elegant Dido has real veracity. With Eleanor, the station receptionist, and Ralph, the book reviewer, and with Harry himself, she is more comfortable and as these friendships grow, so does Gwen’s confidence.

Their interest in John Hornby is something they share: Gwen has heard a radio drama about him which caught her imagination as a child, and after the station staff listen to it, Harry casually remarks that he would like to see where Hornby died, “casually setting in motion the events of the following summer”. From this point onwards, these events are foreshadowed, creating a sense of premonition in the reader, a sense heightened by various events, such as the disappearance of Mrs Dargabble, and by a series of losses experienced by Harry.

All this is set against the background of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, an investigation into the proposal to run a gas pipeline from Alaska, described at the time as “the biggest project in the history of free enterprise” and one which promised to have massive environmental and ecological impact, threatening vulnerable species and potentially destroying the way of life of the First Nations people who lived in its path. The inquiry is both explained and explored in the book, not as a history lesson, but as an undertaking of vital importance to the characters: to Dido and Eddy, incomers but activists in the cause, to Teresa, whose grandmother is a village Elder and who will give evidence about the effect the pipeline would have on her people and their way of life, and on the wildlife. Hay’s book incidentally celebrates the inclusivity achieved in this inquiry (and others in Canada, at least from the viewpoint of a non-Canadian) and it’s an important backdrop, the larger community of the north being reflected in the microcosm of the radio station.

I had been going to describe Late Nights on Air as a rambling book, because its shape defies convention, but that would suggest that there were digressions, or that it wasn’t tightly constructed, and that would be untrue. In his review, John Mutford described its shape as being like that under a bell curve – an inspired description, which exactly catches the way in which the long, tailing-off ending is still an intrinsic part of the story. There’s a strong sense that the characters came from real lives before the book starts, and continue afterwards, just as there were historical events which preceded the pipeline inquiry and present-day developments arising from Judge Berger’s recommendations.

In 2007, Late Nights on Air won Canada’s Giller Prize, which may be one of the reasons why so many people read and reviewed it in the first and second Canadian Book Challenges. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive, and this year I decided that I had to read it for myself for the Third. I’m glad I did, it’s a book that is going to stay with me and one I’ll read again.

Friday, 17 July 2009

The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys

Look at this! It’s only 17 July, that’s less than 3 weeks into the Third Canadian Book Challenge and here I am posting my first review! In reality, it was entirely serendipitous – I was whizzing round the library choosing a few books to keep me going over the weekend, mostly crime novels, when I spotted a plain white spine with the title, The Lost Garden. I hadn’t heard of the author, Helen Humpreys, but the blurb sounded promising: a young woman leaves London and the Blitz to run a garden in Devon manor, part of the Dig for Victory campaign to provide Britain with sufficient homegrown produce. There she meets a young Canadian soldier who will soon be posted to the front. Sounds like my kind of book, I thought, and added it to the pile.

What I hadn’t expected, when I opened it at home and flicked to the inside back cover to look at the author description (something I always do), was that the author would turn out to be Canadian novelist and poet, and so provide me with the first of my books for the challenge. It proved to be a good start, too. Humphreys based her third novel on her own family history: her paternal grandfather, who was in the RAF, disappeared during the war, while her mother’s father had in old age restored a lost garden, and she weaves these two threads through the story of her shy young horticulturalist, Gwen, to create not a ghost story, as such, but a story peopled by ghosts, from the white apparition which may or may not be responsible for the theft of Gwen’s chickens, to the lingering ghost of Virginia Woolf, once glimpsed walking in the dusk through Tavistock Square, and now missing from home and feared dead. Gwen, alienated from the Land Girls in her charge by her feelings of social inadequacy, writes letters in her head to Woolf, while she sleeps under another heavyweight literary treasure, The Genus Rosa, by Ellen Wilmott, a rare and precious book then as today.

This is a slender novel, only 182 pages, and it reminded me a little of the book we read last year in the Cornflower Book Group, A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr. Both bring an intensity and immediacy to a distant event, although they eschew the epic sweep of the war novel to focus, in this case, on those who wait: for orders, for the missing, for love.

The Lost Garden was a Canada Reads finalist for 2003, deservedly, I think. I’m adding a 2009 finalist to my list for the Challenge, a book I have wanted to read for years – watch this space to see which it is.

Rosa eglanteria by Ellen Wilmott

Here, Gwen is talking about the difficulty Wilmott had with the classification of roses, while at the same time celebrating the lyrical beauty of their names:
The language of roses shifts like sand under our feet. It blows in and out like the wind. It carries the fragrance of the flower and then it is gone. Rugosa. Canina. Arvensis. It is how we learn to speak about something that is disappearing as we say its name. It is a trick, a false comfort. Humilis. It is what we think we need to know and how we think it needs to be known. Involuta. It is where we want to go, this name, and stay there, safely held forever. Inodora. Alba. Sancta.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Amberwell by D.E. Stevenson

This author is noted for her comfortable and well-told stories, and Amberwell is a typical example of her output. Set in Scotland, it tells of the Ayrtons and their family home – the Amberwell of the title – up to and during World War II (the book itself dates from the early 1950s). It’s not a family saga – the first two centuries of the house’s existence are dealt with at a gentle pace in Chapter One: a leisurely description of the choice of site, the building and subsequent amendments to the house, and its grounds, introduces the family members by way of their discussion over the latest plan to enhance the garden. The extended household includes the cook, Mrs Duff, Mr Gray the gardener, the redoubtable Nannie amd various underlings. Mr Ayrton has married twice, his first wife dying after producing the two boys, Roger and Tom. Her successor, despite her determination to give her husband another son, has “only” managed three girls, and is so disappointed by the arrival of Anne, the third, that she disengages her interest from the nursery altogether, and the three youngest children are left, not untypically for the time, entirely in Nannie’s charge.

Their childhood is uneventful – unencumbered by school, the extent of the girl’s world is Amberwell, its inhabitants and their nearest neighbours, with the occasional incursion of the boys, home from school, or a visit from the dreaded Aunt Beatrice, who is almost universally disliked for her bossy and interfering ways. Nevertheless, it is Beatrice who eventually offers the chance of wider horizons to sixteen-year-old Anne, in the form of an extended visit to Edinburgh.

The eldest of the sisters, Connie, has recently married the son of a neighbouring family, and middle daughter Nell is left alone at Amberwell with her parents, entirely under her mother’s thumb, and with no expectations save those of becoming that object of pity, the unmarried daughter, unvalued companion to her mother and perhaps later, unappreciated aunt to her sister’s children. The advent of war, however, changes the comfortable existence of Amberwell, and provides a focus for the story.

This is a quiet book, not especially memorable or notable for deep characterisation, but satisfying even so. It’s one of those stories where the setting becomes an intrinsic part of its character, and Amberwell will remain as much in the reader’s memory as its denizens, a lingering recollection of gracious lawns and the gentle climate where Mr Ayrton’s ridiculous palm trees thrive.

D.E. Stevenson has a renewed audience now that Persephone Books have “rediscovered” her, and published Miss Buncle’s Book, but she was quite a prolific writer, and Amberwell is a reminder that good libraries, secondhand bookshops and the Internet may yield other titles to the diligent searcher.

Friday, 10 July 2009

The Merchant’s Mark by Pat McIntosh

I regard this series as something of a personal discovery, since I haven’t come across many reviews among the book bloggers I read, which is a pity – the series, set in medieval Glasgow, makes an original and worthy contribution to the ranks of historical crime fiction.

Our hero, Gil Cunningham, is a rather earnest young man at the start of his career – when we first meet him he is resigning himself, with great reluctance, to following his uncle David into a life in the Church. Gil is very aware that the world is an interesting and exciting place, but his family has lost its influence with the Scottish court (a small matter of being on the wrong side during one of those minor domestic skirmishes that so characterised the House of Stewart (in this case, the battle of Sauchieburn, which saw the death of James III at the hands of a rebel army led – in name, at least - by his son, James IV).

James IV of Scotland

The setting for series is Glasgow in 1492 – at this time the city, with a population of some 2000 by the end of the century, had a university and grammar school, and a cathedral dedicated to St Mungo (known outside Scotland as St Kentigern); importantly, this was the year in which the Pope made the See of Glasgow an archdiocese, thus granting considerable power to Robert Blacader, the new Archbishop, who is to play an important part in Gil’s life.

So much for the history lesson, now to The Merchant’s Mark, the third book in the series. It begins with Gil and his friend, the merchant Augie Morison, eagerly awaiting the opening of a barrel containing books from the Low Countries – printing didn’t arrive in Scotland until 1508. Unfortunately, the barrel turns out not to contain books, but a severed head and a saddlebag of money and Augie, who has collected the barrel from Linlithgow as part of a regular shipment, and travelled with it Glasgow, finds himself arrested for murder of the unknown victim. Gil, however, has achieved something of a reputation for his successful murder investigations of murder, so he is soon on the road, hoping to establish the dead man’s identity and to prove his friend’s innocence. His travels take him across southern Scotland to Stirling and Linlithgow, and finally to Roslin.

It was fun to recognise in this last location an experience that the author and I must have shared. In 1997 a massive conservation project began at the famous Rosslyn Chapel, and a canopy was erected over the roof, to allow it to dry out. While the canopy spoils the appearance of the Chapel, it has one important advantage for the visitor, in that it has allowed access to a walkway around the roof, offering an intimate and unusual view of the building. I am sure that Pat McIntosh, like me, found this irresistible, and that she was quick to make the imaginative link to another time when this building was shrouded in scaffolding, that of its construction.

A view of Rosslyn Chapel under its canopy, November 2004
The door of the church opened quietly when Gil lifted the latch. They stepped in, and it swung shut behind them with a boom which reverberated in what seemed like a vast, draughty space smelling of incense and pine resin. The floor was flagged; when Gil held his lantern up the vault of the aisle glowed in the dim light, but beyond the pillars the nave vanished upwards into darkness, with a faint, distant hint of high scaffolding. How do the poles stay up there? wondered Gil.
McIntosh brings this distant past to vivid life, its customs, its people, its language, with a warmth and attention to detail which should put her at the forefront of the genre. Her research – which is clearly a labour of love – is impeccable, and as the series has progressed her writing and her characters have both matured. Her influences are clear to see - Ellis Peters and Lindsay Davies are clearly there in the careful period detail, the characterisation and the humour, but even more important is the debt owed to Dorothy Dunnett: these books sit comfortably between the worlds of Nicholas de Fleury and Francis Lymond, and Gil shares the scholarship of these two men, if not their propensity for mayhem. Less ambitious in scope than Dunnett’s two series, the research is less obtrusive – these are books which can be read without a concordance (though we may recall that Dunnett also wrote a detective series, a somewhat heady mix of Jilly Cooper and James Bond!)

In my review of the fourth in the series, St Mungo’s Robin, last year, I voiced the concern that the writing could be a little confusing, although I wondered if I might be doing the author a disservice by reading them out of order. I now think that beginning with the first, The Harper’s Quine, is indeed the best way (no, really?) – a debut novel, it introduces both characters and setting at a slight more leisurely pace than the later ones. Of course, I am persisting in reading them as they appear on the library shelf, but Scottish history is familiar territory, as are language and landscape (James IV, a young man at the time of these stories, met his end not 10 miles from where I’m sitting - the last British monarch to die in battle), so despite my disordered approach, I am becoming an eager advocate on their behalf. It occurred to me as I reached the end on The Merchant’s Mark that the word which best summed them up is good-heartedness – both in the main characters, and in the author’s handling of them. There are five in the series at present, but I see that 6 and 7 are listed on the publisher’s website, which is good news. My favourite character so far is Gil’s sister, Kate, and I hope she will put in further appearances – apparently, the author likes her too, so the chances are good. Oh, and the dog, Socrates…

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

June’s books

Unless by Carol Shields
by D.E. Stevenson
The Rosemary Tree
by Elizabeth Goudge
The Fashion in Shrouds
by Margery Allingham - re-read
The Grim Reaper
by Bernard Knight
Last Rituals
by Yrsa Sigurdsdottir
The Children Who Lived in a Barn
by Eleanor Graham
The Uncommon Reader
by Alan Bennett
Thy Servant a Dog by Rudyard Kipling
by Monica Dickens
Havana Bay
by Martin Cruz Smith

Oh dear, not a single library book among these, as I didn’t have time to go to Berwick to choose any. Only eleven books in total, too – the month started with a Devon visit, where I read the Kipling and Bennett books while it rained outside, but it cleared long enough for a visit to the wonderful Hill House Nursery, where I took pictures for Cat Musings.

It was back to London mid-month, and to the unpleasant experience of minor, but miserable dental surgery so that, instead of spending the evening listening to music at St John’s Smith Square, I retired to my hotel room and spent a wretchedly sleepless night feeling sorry for myself. The next two days were a whirl of meetings and trains and, although I promised myself that I would do nothing more demanding than reading, I didn’t get through much. I had taken Unless with me to London, but it was too serious for my debilitated state, so at the station I bought The Grim Reaper by Bernard Knight, thinking that a straightforward medieval murder mystery would be preferable. A few pages in to this book, which is set in Exeter in 1195, this caught my attention:
De Wolfe was well aware of the Cornishman’s antipathy to religion, though. . . he had never discovered the cause of Gwyn’s phobia for the Church.
It was too much of an anachronism for me – the same thought could have been better expressed in language more appropriate to the setting. I enjoyed the Exeter setting – De Wolfe’s house is opposite a building where I used to work on the edge of the Cathedral Close (and, now I think of it, under another!) and, although Exeter was heavily bombed during the war, remnants of the medieval city are still there in its street names and churches, so I could follow the characters around in my mind’s eye. While not being terribly impressed by this series, I do like books about places I know, so it kept my mind off my troubles until I got home, where I embarked on a bit of serious comfort reading.

I’m still on my marathon read through the Campion novels, and The Fashion in Shrouds was a re-read to keep the order more or less correct. It’s notable for the very welcome return of Amanda from Sweet Danger, who cheerfully appointed herself Campion’s sidekick in the earlier book, and is equally determined on the role in this one. We learn just a little more about Campion’s background in this one (which is set in the fashion house where his sister Val works) mainly through a chilling letter from his mother.

The Monica Dickens book felt like a bit of an oddity. She is mostly remembered for three splendidly funny books about her early work experience: One Pair of Hands, which describes a period “in service” working as a cook general, One Paid of Feet, in which she was working as a nurse, and My Turn to Make the Tea, about being a junior reporter on a local paper. Her novels, both for adults and children, are often concerned with social issues, so that An Angel in the Corner, about a young woman who marries “out of her class” is a fairly sombre read. Enchantment, despite its title, is another such, about a young man of no great ability or intelligence, and bullied by his father, who escapes from his dreary life as a junior counter assistant in a department store by spinning stories in which he is hero. His spare time is spent on role-playing by correspondence (this is before the days of computer games), and his increasing difficulty in maintaining a boundary between gaming and real life brings him into contact with someone who might just be seriously dangerous. Dickens seems to be genuinely interested in the “little” people she writes about, and they are convincing even when unsympathetic. I couldn’t like Tim – in fact, I often wanted to give him a good shaking – but he held my attention to the end.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

The Third Canadian Book Challenge

And off we go again! For the first challenge, 415 books were read and reviewed. For the second it was an amazing 1137, and I’m trawling the list looking for interesting things to read for the forthcoming year.

For the second challenge I read only books by women, but I’m not going to limit myself this time. I did wonder about only reading books on dystopian futures, but I decided that I might not be able to find everything I wanted, so I plan to focus particularly on books I’ve been waiting to read. That provides me with a couple of certainties: William Gibson’s Spook City, which has been on the TBR pile for a while, and Douglas Coupland’s new book, Generation A. I’m going to hear him talk about this book at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, though I’m not sure it will be out here until September. Gibson and Coupland are two of my favourite authors and a new book by either is always an eagerly anticipated pleasure.

My reading will have to be limited to what I can get here in the UK, I can’t afford to buy any more books from Canada, so it will focus largely on authors who are well-known internationally. So Atwood and Munro will almost certainly feature – it’s time I got round to attempting Oryx and Crake again.

Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, which has had some excellent reviews, is another book that’s on the shelf waiting; in my early teens I was very attached to an enormous Victorian book on poisons that my father had picked up at an auction; he liked it too, and now that he’s gone – without my assistance, I hasten to add – it sits happily amongst my own collection, so I think Flavia de Luce and I will get on very well.

I seem to have read quite a favourable few reviews of Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air over the two challenges, so I think it’s a must, but the one I really like the sound of will have to wait until I can find someone to bring a copy back for me – Shelf Monkey, by fellow challenge reviewer Corey Redekop sounds just my kind of book (oh, hang on, son’s best friend works in Staples so he must have access to padded bags, and last time he was over here I gave him my copy of The Gum Thief, so he owes me a favour!)

One of my recent re-reading binges was The Salterton Trilogy by Robertson Davies. If I could have found my copy of The Rebel Angels I would have read that too, but as it is, it can go on the list, and we’ll just have to hope it turns up somewhere at the back of all those double-stacked books. Another book that’s been waiting for a while is No Great Mischief by Alistair Mcleod.

Finally, I’d like to read some non-fiction, and first choice is What Species of Creature by Sharon Kirsch, a book with a glorious cover and lovely illustrations. More on this one soon.

That leaves me with four books to scour the library/raid the bookshelves for; at the moment, the list looks like this:

William Gibson, Spook City
Douglas Coupland, Generation A
Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake
Alan Bradley, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Elizabeth Hay, Late Nights on Air
Corey Redekop, Shelf Monkey
Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels
Alistair Mcleod, No Great Mischief
Sharon Kirsch, What Species of Creature

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The Second Canadian Book Challenge

The Second Canadian Book Challenge finishes on Canada Day, and there are still two books I haven’t reviewed for this challenge; this is partly a reflection on my feelings about them but, for the sake of completeness, I shall sum up my impressions here.

Dead Cold by Louise Penny was the second book about Inspector Gamache. I talked enthusiastically about the first, Still Life, earlier in the year, taking pleasure in its sense of place and characterisation. I enjoyed the second less, feeling that it suffered slightly from leaving a too much unresolved in order to set up subsequent books in the series, leaving me with the sensation of being cheated, rather that of eager anticipation. Penny is a new writer, and there’s a lack of balance here between open-endedness and the closure necessary to each episode in a series. The story itself moves along at a good pace, reintroducing all the favourite characters first encountered in Still Life, and Gamache himself develops nicely, though I thought his wife helping out with his unsolved cases smacked more of plot device than reality. The victim is a really unpleasant individual, and I think more subtlety is needed -– Penny likes to paint portraits of horrible people, but she does it with rather a heavy hand. I shall read the next one, but the community I enjoyed so much in the first is beginning to feel a little claustrophobic.

A Boy of Good Breeding by Miriam Toews was also a slight disappointment. As I read, I found myself comparing it with one of last year’s choices, Steve Zipp’s Yellowknife; to me, as a British reader, they have a similar sense of expansiveness and open space which contrasts with the more enclosed space of small communities, but for reasons I can’t quite define I preferred the less well-known Yellowknife. They share a quirky sense of humour and, if Toews doesn’t quite go down Zipp’s magic realist route, there are nods in that direction. She has a lightness of touch as a writer and I can see the quality there, but it doesn’t quite work for me. I couldn’t engage with any of the characters, and I found myself rushing the end. I’m interested to see that some of the other reviewers who talked about Toews’ books seemed to have similar reactions. I think I'd like to try The Flying Troutmans, though.

This completes the second challenge, and I did indeed only read books by women. I didn’t manage to finish the first, only reviewing 7 books for it, but that’s 20 Canadian books in two years, and I went to hear Margaret Atwood speak at the Edinburgh Book Festival last August. I shall certainly be taking part of the third challenge and will post about the choice of books soon!

Books read: