Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn

"Sublimely funny" says the back cover of this book, first published in 1967, and reissued with an introduction by the author. Hmm. It didn't really do it for me, and I'm brooding about why I wasn't very amused. Its age shouldn't really be a problem, since my regular reading matter covers most of the last 150 years in a fairly indiscriminate way. And in the late 1960s I was something of a fan of Frayn's Guardian articles, which certainly did make me laugh out loud - somewhere upstairs there is a collection of them. Towards the End of the Morning is set in a Fleet Street newspaper office, not very loosely based on the Guardian and Observer offices, in the Nature Notes and Crossword department. Nature Notes is an obvious nod to Waugh's Scoop, in which William Boot is a nature columnist for The Daily Beast ("Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole"), but all we discover about the production of "The Country Day by Day" is that columnists are remarkably recalcitrant when it comes to filing their copy; "In Years Gone By", originating from the same office, fares rather better with the arrival of a new and ambitious trainee.

"We mostly worked at a rather gentlemanly pace," says Frayn in the introduction, and long, liquid lunches are certainly in evidence. In fact, over the course of this short novel, not very much happens - even the attempted sacking of the Picture Editor is something of a non-event, as he first refuses to believe the letter of dismissal is real, and then decides that if he ignores it, it will all "simmer down". John Dyson, head of the Nature Notes office, is keen to get into television and, despite his cringemaking first appearance, it looks as if he may be successful, until he finds himself trapped in Ljubliana as his next engagement draws ever closer. Meanwhile his junior colleague, Bob, struggling to fend off an older colleague's wife, finds himself entangled in an engagement he's not quite sure about. All of this is faintly reminiscent of Kingsley Amis of a decade before, though Frayn's characters have nothing like the crassness or destructiveness of Jim Dixon: they are a gentler and more wistful breed.

Reflecting on my lack of real enthusiasm for this novel, I find myself returning to
Lucky Jim, a book which I dislike but have read several times (as with most of Amis's work). Frayn's characters mostly compare well with those of Amis, who are generally loathsome, and the situations in which they find themselves are less frenetically hilarious or catastrophic. They are more readily sympathetic and should be more believable, and Frayn is a witty and elegant writer. Yet, despite my distaste, I am more drawn to the bravura of Amis's writing: somehow, his cast of horrible men, with all their lies and drinking and lechery, have more immediacy and reality than Frayn's surprisingly civilised journalists. I suspect that when it was first published, Frayn's book appealed to many of its readers because they knew (or thought they knew) the Fleet Street people it portrayed; forty-odd years later, they mean little to me. Having decided not to clutter my bookshelves with something I'm unlikely to read again, however, I listed it on Bookmooch, and there was a request within 24 hours; I hope its new owner will enjoy it.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

In Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel takes the experience of a not entirely happy childhood and turns it into something extraordinary. "One of the greatest ghost stories in the language" declares Phillip Pullman on the cover of my copy - well, yes and no, I know why he describes it so, but I don't entirely agree. The book is certainly full of ghosts, but if ever anyone demonstrates that life is just a stage on the journey, as the spiritualists might say, then it is Mantel. Her characters live in a world where it takes an educated eye to be sure who is a ghost and who is living. After a telephone conversation with her dead mother-in-law Colette is not at all certain, although she comes to resent the dead fiercely in her job as PA to medium Alison Hart. Alison doesn't resent them, but she often wishes they would leave her alone, particularly her spirit guide, Morris, who likes to go off down the pub and brings his disreputable friends back to torment the neighbours.

Colette joined Alison in those days when the comet Hale-Bopp, like God's shuttlecock, blazed over the market towns and dormitory suburbs, over the playing fields of Eton, over the shopping malls of Oxford, over the traffic-crazed towns of Woking and Maidenhead...
As Alison works her way round the towns within reach of the M25, visiting "crumbling civic buildings" and nasty hotels, Mantel mercilessly anatomises the spiritual paucity of the late twentieth century. Both women have a troubled relationship with food, Colette seeking to control diet as a means of controlling both their lives, overweight Alison meanwhile seeking comfort from her memories and her more immediate persecution by Morris and his friends, the "Fiends" as she calls them. Prompted by Colette, the story of Alison's appalling childhood gradually unfolds, recorded on cassette tapes that acquire extra voices in the background, regurgitated as painfully as fake ectoplasm at a Victorian seance. Rather than drawing the women together, as you might expect, the revelations seem to alienate them, their early expectations that a degree of mutual support will be possible within the employer/assistant relationship deteriorating into bickering as Colette grows more and more assertive, while Alison lapses into inertia.

Some of what makes this book remarkable is the sheer
ordinariness of the spirit world, the petty concerns and confusions of the dead. As a reader one doesn't question the reality of Alison's experience with her vicious tormentors and, in a sense, there is no need to do so: if the ghosts that haunt us are our own constructs, they have sufficient reality to destroy all but the most resilient. Despite its horrors - and be warned, they are a constant presence - Beyond Black is an absorbing read; Alison, though demanding company, becomes a person who holds the attention. Mantel's ear for dialogue is finely-tuned, and the set pieces of her performances as a medium are tremendous writing. This isn't a ghost story for curling up with in front of the fire, but it is the most real I have ever read.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Books read in 2008

Here, at last, is my list of last year's books: 162 in all. Here are a few statistics (pinched from Simon's End of the Year Meme):

Non-fiction [NF]: only 14, but these tend to be read over a longer period, and not recorded until they are finished, so quite a few are still underway.

Male authors 52, female 109 (more male authors than I expected!)

Non-fiction: Panther Soup by John Gimlette (an unusual choice for me, as it's about World War II) but I enjoyed all fourteen NF.

Fiction: very, very difficult choice, and I decided I would limit myself to one, because it was taking so long to choose. August Folly by Angela Thirkell (I have the orange Penguin version, but I like this cover,
and I read it twice during the course of the year.

Least favourite: Marcus Zsusak, The Book Thief – not even on the list, as I abandoned it part way through!

Oldest book read? One of the re-reads, What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge, published in 1872

Newest? Waiting for Coyote's Call by – a review copy from LibraryThing

Longest book title? The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Shortest title? Salal by Laurie Ricou
How many re-reads? Only 21!

Most books read by one author this year? 12 Campion books by Marjorie Allingham, mostly re-reads, followed by 8 by Madeleine L'Engle.

Any in translation? I Am a Cat by Soseki Natsume; Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami; Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai (one of the year's two graphic novels); and Selected Tales by Jacques Ferron.

How many of this year's books were from the library? 27: I had a long-ish spell during the summer when I wasn't visiting the library very often. I shall have to do better this year.

In summary: a pretty good year, there were very few books that I didn't enjoy, so not many that I gave up on. And in July, I compiled my list of 101 Children's Books, 1840-1975, that I thought shouldn't be missed, and I was quite pleased with it. I feel that it's still a work in progress, and may well grow during the course of this year to 150 books. I've had a number of recommendations from people, including the suggestion that I should read Victor Watson's Reading Series Fiction, which I found very interesting. Since then I have amassed a small and diverting collection of books on children's literature.

Last year's books were:

Waiting for Coyote's Call by Jerry Wilson [NF]
2. Greenery Street by Denis McKail

The Comfort of Saturdays by Alexander McCall Smith
4. Making Money by Terry Pratchett

5. Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

6. The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower
7. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

8. The Harper's Quine by Pat McIntosh

9. Anne's House of Dreams by L.M. Montgomery

10. The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham - re-read

11. Dancers in Mourning by Margery Allingham - re-read

12. The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens

13. The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham – re-read

14. Ten-Second Staircase by Christopher Fowler

15. Skeleton Man by Tony Hillerman

16. The Chorister at the Abbey by Lis Howell

17. Death in Practice by Hazel Holt

18. Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham - reread

19. Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery

St Mungo's Robin by Pat McIntosh
21. The Silent Killer by Hazel Holt

Chorister's Cake by William Mayne - reread
23. The Coffin Trail by Martin Edwards

24. Street of the Five Moons by Elizabeth Peters

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin
26. What Katy Did Next by Susan Coolidge

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Scuba Dancing by Nicola Slade
29. Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh

30. Anne of Windy Willows by L.M. Montgomery

31. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
32. Sweet Danger by Margery Allingham – reread

33. By the Pricking of my Thumbs by Agatha Christie

34. Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery

35. Stranger at Green Knowe by L.M. Boston

36. Growing Up by Angela Thirkell

Tamsin by Peter S. Beagle
No Cure for Death by Hazel Holt
39. Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott

40. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham - re-read

41. Dragons in the Waters by Madeleine l'Engle
Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton
43. Women, Celebrity and Literary Culture Between the Wars by
Faye Hammill [NF]
44. Look to the Lady by Margery Allingham - re-read

Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome
Great Northern? by Arthur Ransome
47. Panther Soup by John Gimlette [NF]
48. Summer Lightning by P.G. Wodehouse

49. Thrones, Dominations by Jill Paton Walsh and Dorothy Sayers

50. I Leap Over the Wall by Monica Baldwin [NF]

51. Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham - reread

The Autumn Castle by Kim Wilkins
53. The Scent of the Night by Andrea Camilleri

54. Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham - reread

55. The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham - reread

56. Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L'Engle
58. The Towers of Trebizond by Rose McCaulay

59. Witchfire at Lammas by Robert Neill

Reading Series Fiction by Victor Watson [NF]
61. Old School by Tobias Wolff

62. Scar Night by Alan Campbell

63. The Beckoning Lady by Margery Allingham - reread

64. Blood Trail by Tanya Huff

65. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett - reread

66. What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge - reread

67. Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

68. Vintage Murder by Ngaio Marsh
69. The Dig by John Preston

Stoneheart by Charlie Fletcher
A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle [NF]
72. The Moon By Night by Madeleine L'Engle

And Both Were Young by Madeleine L'Engle
74. Still Life by Louise Penny

75. The Year of the Rat by Andre Norton

An Acceptable Time by Madeleine l'Engle
77. Bridle Paths by A.F. Tschiffely [NF]

The Mark of the Cat by Andre Norton
79. Miss Bunting by Angela Thirkell
Meet the Austins by Madeleine L'Engle
81. Black Plumes by Margery Allingham

The Crystal Gryphon by Andre Norton
83. The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie
84. My Grandmothers and I by Diana Holman-Hunt [NF]

85. I Am a Cat by Soseki Natsume

Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy
87. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

88. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

89. My Turn to Make the Tea by Monica Dickens
90. The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland

91. The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith

The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
94. Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

95. Pond Lane and Paris by Susie Vereker
96. Zoology by Ben Dolnick

97. Pelagia and the White Bulldog by Boris Akunin

98. The Good Good Pig by Sy Montgomery
99. The Tomb of the Golden Bird by Elizabeth Peters

100. The Remains of an Altar by Phil Rickman

101. Love on the Borders by Martin Bax

102. Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

Yellowknife by Steve Zipp
104. Salal by Laurie Ricou [NF]

105. A Death in the Family by Hazel Holt

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee by Rebecca Miller
107. The River at Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston

108. The House of Arden by E. Nesbit

109. A Dubious Legacy by Mary Wesley -re-read

110. Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

111. The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse

Before Lunch by Angela Thirkell
113. The Angel in the Corner by Monica Dickens

114. Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson – re-read

115. Speaking of Love by Angela Young

Parker Pyne Investigates by Agatha Christie
117. The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin Jr

118. Treasure at Green Knowe by L.M. Boston

119. Harnessing Peacocks by Mary Wesley - re-read

120. Voyage by Adele Geras

Many Waters by Madeleine L'Engle
Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie
123. Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton

124. Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge

125. Because I Know You Don't Read the Newspapers (The Boondocks) by Aaron McGruder

126. The Beckoning Lady by Margery Allingham

127. The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston

128. Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym - re-read

129. A Tale of Time City by Diana Wynne Jones

130. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

131. Debs at War by Anne de Courcey [NF]

132. Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh

133. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

134. The Ladies of Lyndon by Margaret Kennedy

Why Didn't They Ask Evans? by Agatha Christie
136. Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford – re-read
137. Lady Friday by Garth Nix

138. Thurber Carnival by James Thurber - re-read

The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt
Selected Tales by Jacques Ferron
141. The Book of Lyonne by Burgess Drake - re-read

142. They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell

143. August Folly by Angela Thirkell

144. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

145. Journey into Spring by Winston Clewes – re-read

146. To Let by John Galsworthy

147. The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

148. Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai

149. Hamlet, Revenge! by Michael Innes

150. The Man Who Knew Too Much by G.K. Chesterton

151. Blade of the Immortal by Hiroaki Samura

152. The Children of Shallowford by Henry Williamson - re-read [NF]

153. The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill

The Last Guardian of Everness by John C. Wright
The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
156. The Traitor's Sword by Amanda Hemingway

157. Dream Angus by Alexander McCall Smith

Dark Companion by Andre Norton
159. Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons by Diana Henry [NF]

160. The Whole Beast by Fergus Henderson [NF]

161. More Ghost Trails of Northumbria by Clive Kristen [NF - ?]

The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Library loot

Despite the weather I managed to get out last week to attend the sale at the local library. I don’t entirely approve of selling off book stocks, but then modern libraries don’t carry the sort of stocks they used to (they have to make room for the computers) and I am not going to stand on my principles if books are being sold for 50p (unless standing on them means I can reach past the person in front of me!) The trouble with buying old library books is that they are all immense - I don’t really have anywhere to put them, and they will be expensive to post if I later want to list them on Bookmooch but, for now at any rate, I am rather pleased with my haul, which includes a Rebus omnibus. My husband isn’t a big Rankin fan, but I noticed he was quick to snap that one up! He also got two random thrillers, which I haven’t pictured here because I am not in the least interested in them, and Poirot’s Early Cases, which I shall nab later. I think he may like Sovereign, too – he hasn’t read any of this series by C.J. Samson about his 16th century investigator, Matthew Shardlake, but he used to enjoy Cadfael, and I think these are rather better written.

There are a couple I have reservations about: I can’t see much sign that the Henning Mankell novel, Depths, has been read, it’s in excellent condition – not one of the Wallander series, which may explain the lack of interest. I’m beginning to think I might have at least started The Malpas Legacy by Sam Llewellyn, because the blurb sounds familiar. DeKok and the Geese of Death (great title) is a second attempt at this series: normally I would greet a novel set in Amsterdam, a city I like very much, with huge enthusiasm, but the translation of the last made me squirm (oh how I miss Janwillem van der Wetering and his wonderful Amsterdam detectives De Gier and Grijpstra).

The Cat Who… books can quite safely be read out of order, I find, and are good for those occasions when you need something undemanding. The Nicholas Feast by Pat McIntosh is second in her series about Gil Cunningham, set in Glasgow in 1492 – historical detective novels are very variable in quality, ranging from a select few thate are excellent, as in the Shardlake series, to a majority which, if not downright awful, are at best mediocre. McIntosh has created an attractive cast of characters in an interesting setting, and her research and feel for period seem sound.

The last in my haul is an interesting oddity: 100 Days on Holy Island, A Writer’s Exile by Peter Mortimer tells how the author decided to spend a winter on Lindisfarne, starting in 2001. The blurb begins “It was the worst winter in a decade, the winter of foot-and-mouth, when island power cuts ran for up to 72 hours”. It wasn’t much fun over here on the mainland, either. More on this book anon, I suspect.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Traitor's Purse by Marjory Allingham

Hastily grabbing books for the regular monthly train journeys, yesterday, a last-minute impulse was to continue my reading of all the Campion books by crime-writer Marjory Allingham, which meant firing up the desktop to check where on the list I am. I have the Marjory Allingham Society website bookmarked, so it was a matter of moments to whizz through and find that officially the next on the list would be The Fashion in Shrouds, which I read fairly recently. I'll re-read it, but I didn't want to take it away with me when I had one of the relatively few unread books to hand, so Traitor's Purse was safely stashed in my bag when I set off. It remained there for the first half of the journey, at which point I succumbed, and I am sorry to report that last night I stayed up until I finished it (quite conveniently, as my hotel neighbour came in late and ran a very loud bath). The main reason, though, was that I simply couldn't put it down.

It's not an easy book to write about without giving too much away. It opens with a hospital patient, who is clearly suffering from concussion, hearing a nurse and policeman outside his door discussing the death of a policeman and the capture of his assailant; although he has no recollection of how he has come to be there, it dawns on the patient he must be the murderer, and that he must escape because, what ever he has done, he has a sense that something of immense importance remains to be done. Faithful Campion fans, of course, are immediately aware that the amnesiac is Campion himself, and the poignancy of the moment when we recognise Lady Amanda Fitton, and he fails to, creates a real

The relationship between Campion and Amanda (first encountered in
Sweet Danger) is under strain in this novel, and this is one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much. Between them lies a minefield of potential misunderstanding, and each must tread delicately if they are not to destroy the easy camaraderie that they both treasure. Allingham handles this with great skill, and there are some lovely - and plausible - moments where Campion faces an unpalatable future with less than his usual aplomb. Interestingly - and appropriately for the character - although the story is told in the third person, we gain much greater insight into Campion's personality than in an earlier novel and (I think) some of the stories which are told by the man himself.

Traitor's Purse may well prove to be a contender for my favourite Campion. I wish I'd managed to spin it out for a further, pleasurable day (and it's left me with a book crisis which I shall have to address in the next 24 hours). It does rather remind me, too, that I don't have very many left to read now - especially since I haven't tried yet to find the short story collections - so that it won't be long before Campion has to be set aside for a year or two. Before that, though, there is at least a reacquaintance with the television series, for which I have always had a sneaking affection, and which, with my usual altruism where bookish things are concerned, I bought my husband for Christmas.