Friday, 27 March 2009

Agatha Raisin and the Love from Hell

Reading M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin books has become like listening to The Archers – I don’t really like any of the characters and I don’t much enjoy the way it’s told, but it’s become a habit. For me they’ve proved effective “no-brain” books, engaging just enough of my attention at the beginning, and containing just enough “whodunnit” to continue to hold it at a time when I don’t want to take on anything which needs too much thought, or which ought to be savoured.
For such a long series, the characters remain consistently two-dimensional, and this is not entirely helped by the serialisation on Radio 4 which sees Penelope Keith (Margot in The Good Life) playing Agatha. Keith has a remarkably distinctive voice, and one which instantly conjures a picture of the actress which is completely at odds with the book’s description of a short, round-faced woman in her 40s. This clash means that I can’t picture Agatha at all, but then I don’t really have more success with anyone else. Similarly, the Cotswold landscape is barely evoked.

There are by now nearly twenty Agatha Raisin books, which must say a good deal about how popular they are, and the couple of copies I’ve listed on Bookmooch have been snapped up eagerly. I’m inclined nevertheless to think the radio serialisation is more successful, mellowing Agatha’s personality a little, and fleshing out the other players. This particular episode sees a slightly chastened Agath investigating the murder of a local woman, in the company of her friend Sir Charles. Both Agatha and her long-term neighbour (and love interest) James Lacey are initially suspects, and to Agatha’s chagrin, James has disappeared without trace.

As ever I found the relationships rather unconvincing, although I suppose that Agatha is such a prickly individual that she is never going to exist in harmony with many of her fellow villagers. There is, however, a balance between baldly telling the reader what a character thinks, and following a Joycean stream of consciousness that this author has yet to find.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Pride and Prescience by Carrie Bebris

At first glance this seemed quite a creditable attempt at Regency idion, but before long I grew impatient with inaccuracies. I understand that there may be a blancing act between use of language familiar to the readership and historical accuracy, but this is billed as a “sequel” to Pride and Prejudice, and US reders seem to have little difficulty in understanding Austen’s own writing, so I think it incumbent on the a sequel writer to conduct meticulous research. I wish, too, that American authors who are writing in Regency style would be encouraged to seek a copy-editor both familiar with the language of the time and a speaker of UK English. I have yet to find an American writer who entirely “gets” idiomatic British speech (I’m sure the converse is also true, I’m not claiming any uniqueness for UK English – but that aphorism about Britain and the US being divided by a common language is apt) and, after a while, errors such as “come sit down” for “come and sit down” or “will you write me?” for “will you write to me?” begin to grate, although not as much as the English lord who begins his sentences “Say – “ as opposed to “I say”. Admittedly, I debated over “snicker”, which is much used: it’s early enough, but it’s of Dutch origin and, unlike the US, we don’t have many words from that source. I’d be more comfortable with “snigger”, the more common UK variant, but it probably derives from “snicker”, and I think that I would rather have gone for “smirk”, of Old English origin.

Here, however, it’s not just American, rather than British (or Regency) English that irritates, but anachronisms, as in the maid who is brought “a pair of Wellingtons” from the stables. Now, the Duke of Wellington did indeed have a pair of boots made specially, an adaptation of the Hessian boot, and dandies emulated their hero and called their stylish new footwear the Wellington boot – but these were gentlemen’s boots, not something to be found kicking around the stables. A “pair of Wellingtons” in the sense used here didn’t appear until the 1850s, when the first pairs were made of rubber. All the swearing is wrong: a well-brought up young woman of the period would never have said “bloody”, even with the intention of shocking, nor “he damn well better”; “winds up dead” is at least ten years too early, and “envision” isn’t recorded until 1921. The final straw came on page 247, where this exchange can be found:

“Mrs Nicholls, fire me if you want, but I won’t do it! I won’t be in there with her by myself - not with her cutting up her husband with that ring he gave her! Her sister sat with us yesterday while I did her toilette […] Not with all the goings-on round here and her acting so crazy!”
Elizabeth paused at the top of the stairs, surprised to find the housekeeper and Caroline’s maid openly arguing in a public part of the house. They stood in the corridor that led to the new family quarters. Though they did not shout, their voices carried in the empty hallway.
“Nan, I can’t spare anyone else right now just to-” Mrs Nicholls broke off as she spotted their audience.

Now, this is badly wrong. For a start the language: it’s “dismiss”, not “fire” (1885, US), and I’m not happy about “acting crazy” but that may be because Heyer would have had “acting like a zany”. What’s worse is the social situation – Caroline’s maid is not subject to the jurisdiction of Mr Bingley’s housekeeper, who has no power to dismiss her. Further, Mrs Nicholls calls her “Nan”, but a lady’s maid employed by someone as conscious of haut ton as Caroline Bingley would be well aware that she was a person of some status within the servant’s hall, would probably expect a degree of deference from even the housekeeper and would be within her rights to insist on being addressed as “Miss ---“. (I will allow that an exception might be made for Mrs Darcy’s Lucy, since Lizzie might well choose to bring on a young girl as her maid, but not the pretentious Miss Bingley.) The point is, anyway, that Caroline Bingley would not be employing a country girl as her lady’s maid, so both language and social standing are wrong.

After all this carping, you may be surprised to learn that I think that at times the writing does succeed in catching the spirit of the period – some of the exchanges between the Darcys are wittily handled, with Elizabeth in particular evincing some of the sparkle she has in Pride and Prejudice. Plot devices sometimes gave me pause – Caroline’s hasty marriage would lead to unwelcome comment if not actual scandal, and emerging explanations for such speed remain somewhat unconvincing – but the introduction of elements that would not have been dreamt of in Mr Darcy’s philosophy has both interest and relevance. The Age of Enlightenment, with the increasing dominance of reason over superstition, gives legitimacy to an exploration of this clash. Bebris introduces the comparatively new science of archaeology, which had begun to pique an interest in pagan and “primitive” beliefs among the leisured classes, who yet coexisted with a stratum of society where superstition was still rife. Their fascination led to the rise of the gothic novel, of which this is a rather fluffy example.

All in all, I think this is a novel written with love and enthusiasm for its subject, and some skill. Not all readers are as pernickety as I am. I had wrongly hoped that the gothic elements would go no further than reference to phenomena as yet unexplained in Regency times but, if you can bear the juxtaposition of the Darcys and the supernatural, you may enjoy this book.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Still Life by Louise Penny

There's an added dimension to a crime novel when it has a real sense of place - here in the UK, Ian Rankin does well it for Edinburgh and, of course, Morse is Oxford - so I was immediately tempted by a series set in rural Quebec. This province puts in a guest appearance in Kathy Reichs' series about forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan but to me it always seemed that Reichs is much more interested in how it feels to stand up to your ankles in gore, than in where a crime occurs. Not so Louise Penny, whose evocation of the village of Three Pines* is convincing in all its details, with a fine feel for the pettiness and local politics which will be familiar to anyone who has lived in such a community.

Still Life starts with the death of Jane Neal, retired school teacher and universally popular local character. The only odd thing about Jane is that she has never invited any of her friends beyond her mudroom (I like this term – we have one of those, albeit unofficially!), but they are all prepared to forgive this eccentricity. It looks like an accident – the murder weapon is an old-fashioned hunting bow – and the police are cautiously disposed to treat it as such. And this is where the real strength of the book lies, because Penny has created a homicide squad of real characters, people you just know are going to grow in complexity as the series continues. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is a gentle, thoughtful man, a team leader whose style is quiet observation, while his colleague Jean Guy Beauvoir presents an efficient and unruffled front to the world. Rookie team member Yvette Nichol is all prickly edges and defensiveness, an aggressive and unattractive young woman, but we know that some of the problem is her uncertainty, and that, with the right guidance, she could turn into a valuable member of the squad. Whether she will is another matter. The villagers, too, are fleshed out characters, people you quickly come to care about, and the writing is measured and thoughtful.

This is a first novel and, as such, it isn’t perfect. A second reading persuaded me that what I thought were loose ends in the depiction of the murderer could be justified, though a slight clumsiness remains. However, the modus operandi of both murderer and police are explained with clarity often missing in novels by more experienced writers, and I am excited at the prospect of reading more by this author, and especially by renewing my acquaintance with Inspector Gamache, who may, in time, come to stand beside Maigret in the ranks of great detectives. I can just see him played on British television played by Michael Gambon, who played Maigret memorably; I hasten to add, though, that I am sure he might be played equally memorably by a Québécois actor, it’s just we might be less likely to see it here! Since Branagh has taken to our screens in Wallander, perhaps the wonderful Robert Lepage would like to play Gamache?

I read this for John's Second Canadian Book Challenge - the first of my thirteen that I've managed to post about, though I have actually read nine books!

*Edited later because I had a brainstorm and wrote Trois Rivières rather than Three Pines - bizarre!

Thursday, 5 March 2009

What do you mean, you haven't read...?

I wandered over to Carl's website, because there's always plenty there to read about, and found myself joining him back in January when he was considering The Guardian's list of 124 scifi and fantasy books everyone should read. Well, you all know I like lists, and I was curious to know how many I had read myself, so although everyone else is long finished thinking about it, I decided to go ahead and play.

I haven't included books I started but didn't finish, which would include Barker's Darkmans, which I couldn't get on with but, like Carl, I have italicised a few books that are on the TBR. There are several authors I have read other books by, but not the one listed here: Auster, Lessing, Moorcock, Vonnegut...The Wasp Factory is the only Iain Banks I haven't read, because I didn't like it (yes, I really did finish Complicity). But 66 out of 124 - well, not too bad, I guess, it's just over half. And one of the books that persuaded me to go ahead with this is Michael Marshall Smith's Only Forward, which I very much want to read again, because I thought it was really original - if you don't know it, give it a try. Similarly, Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker is a book which repays a bit of patience.

There are a couple of real favourites here, one of them being Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, in which the denouement made me laugh for hours afterwards - I still smile when I think of it. I also loved Douglas Coupland's Girlfriend in a Coma, and China Miéville's The Scar (his best, I thought). Mervyn Peake, T.H. White and Sylvia Townsend Warner are all wonderful authors, but where was Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn? Or Garth Nix's Sabriel? Or Pullman, for heaven's sake? Actually, I think that the list isn't bad on scifi, but fantasy is seriously under-represented.

1. Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
2. Brian W Aldiss: Non-Stop (1958)
3. Isaac Asimov: Foundation (1951)
4. Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin (2000)
5. Paul Auster: In the Country of Last Things (1987)
6. Iain Banks: The Wasp Factory (1984)
7. Iain M Banks: Consider Phlebas (1987)
8. Clive Barker: Weaveworld (1987)
9. Nicola Barker: Darkmans (2007)
10. Stephen Baxter: The Time Ships (1995)
11. Greg Bear: Darwin’s Radio (1999)
12. Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination (1956)
13. Poppy Z Brite: Lost Souls (1992)
14. Algis Budrys: Rogue Moon (1960)
15. Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita (1966)
16. Edward Bulwer-Lytton: The Coming Race (1871)
17. Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange (1960)
18. Anthony Burgess: The End of the World News (1982)
19. Edgar Rice Burroughs: A Princess of Mars (1912)
20. William Burroughs: Naked Lunch (1959)
21. Octavia Butler: Kindred (1979)
22. Samuel Butler: Erewhon (1872)
23. Italo Calvino: The Baron in the Trees (1957)
24. Ramsey Campbell: The Influence (1988)
25. Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
26. Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)
27. Angela Carter: Nights at the Circus (1984)
28. Michael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000)
29. Arthur C Clarke: Childhood’s End (1953)
30. GK Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)
31. Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004)
32. Michael G Coney: Hello Summer, Goodbye (1975)
33. Douglas Coupland: Girlfriend in a Coma (1998)
34. Mark Danielewski: House of Leaves (2000)
35. Marie Darrieussecq: Pig Tales (1996)
36. Samuel R Delaney: The Einstein Intersection (1967)
37. Philip K Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
38. Philip K Dick: The Man in the High Castle (1962)
39. Umberto Eco: Foucault’s Pendulum (1988)
40. Michel Faber: Under the Skin (2000)
41. John Fowles: The Magus (1966)
42. Neil Gaiman: American Gods (2001)
43. Alan Garner: Red Shift (1973)
44. William Gibson: Neuromancer (1984)
45. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland (1915)
46. William Golding: Lord of the Flies (1954)
47. Joe Haldeman: The Forever War (1974)
48. M John Harrison: Light (2002)
49. Robert A Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)
50. Frank Herbert: Dune (1965)
51. Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game (1943)
52. Russell Hoban: Riddley Walker (1980)
53. James Hogg: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)
54. Michel Houellebecq: Atomised (1998)
55. Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (1932)
56. Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled (1995)
57. Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
58. Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (1898)
59. PD James: The Children of Men (1992)
60. Richard Jefferies: After London; Or, Wild England (1885)
61. Gwyneth Jones: Bold as Love (2001)
62. Franz Kafka: The Trial (1925)
63. Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon (1966)
64. Stephen King: The Shining (1977)
65. Marghanita Laski: The Victorian Chaise-longue (1953)
66. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: Uncle Silas (1864)
67. Stanislaw Lem: Solaris (1961)
68. Doris Lessing: Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)
69. David Lindsay: A Voyage to Arcturus (1920)
70. Ken MacLeod: The Night Sessions (2008)
71. Hilary Mantel: Beyond Black (2005)
72. Michael Marshall Smith: Only Forward (1994)
73. Richard Matheson: I Am Legend (1954)
74. Charles Maturin: Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)
75. Patrick McCabe: The Butcher Boy (1992)
76. Cormac McCarthy: The Road (2006)
77. Jed Mercurio: Ascent (2007)
78. China Miéville: The Scar (2002)
79. Andrew Miller: Ingenious Pain (1997)
80. Walter M Miller Jr: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)
81. David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas (2004)
82. Michael Moorcock: Mother London (1988)
83. William Morris: News From Nowhere (1890)
84. Toni Morrison: Beloved (1987)
85. Haruki Murakami: The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1995)
86. Vladimir Nabokov: Ada or Ardor (1969)
87. Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003)
88. Larry Niven: Ringworld (1970)
89. Jeff Noon: Vurt (1993)
90. Flann O’Brien: The Third Policeman (1967)
91. Ben Okri: The Famished Road (1991)
92. Chuck Palahniuk: Fight Club (1996)
93. Thomas Love Peacock: Nightmare Abbey (1818)
94. Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan (1946)
95. John Cowper Powys: A Glastonbury Romance (1932)
96. Christopher Priest: The Prestige (1995)
97. François Rabelais: Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-34)
98. Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)
99. Alastair Reynolds: Revelation Space (2000)
100. Kim Stanley Robinson: The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)
101. JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
102. Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses (1988)
103. Antoine de Sainte-Exupéry: The Little Prince (1943)
104. José Saramago: Blindness (1995)
105. Will Self: How the Dead Live (2000)
106. Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (1818)
107. Dan Simmons: Hyperion (1989)
108. Olaf Stapledon: Star Maker (1937)
109. Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash (1992)
110. Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
111. Bram Stoker: Dracula (1897)
112. Rupert Thomson: The Insult (1996)
113. Mark Twain: A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court (1889)
114. Kurt Vonnegut: Sirens of Titan (1959)
115. Robert Walser: Institute Benjamenta (1909)
116. Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes (1926)
117. Sarah Waters: Affinity (1999)
118. HG Wells: The Time Machine (1895)
119. HG Wells: The War of the Worlds (1898)
120. TH White: The Sword in the Stone (1938)
121. Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun (1980-83)
122. John Wyndham: Day of the Triffids (1951)
123. John Wyndham: The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)
124. Yevgeny Zamyatin: We (1924)

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

February’s books

The Innkeeper's Song by Peter S. Beagle - re-read
The Oxford Book of Oxford by Jan Morris
100 Days on Holy Island by Peter Mortimer
A Boy of Good Breeding by Miriam Toews
A Second Legacy by Caroline Harvey
A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr
So Fair a House by Robert Neill
Rainbow Valley by L.M. Montgomery
The Borrowers Afield by Mary Norton
County Chronicle by Angela Thirkell
The Arsenic Labyrinth by Martin Edwards (L)
Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn
Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

In my corner of the field, Piglet, the period between January and April is hopeless for serious reading, I am simply too busy. And if it’s bad for reading it’s even worse for blogging. Visiting other blogs, too, has been severely curtailed in the last few weeks, what with power cuts during the snowy weather, travelling, and working longer hours. With the beginning of March I’m lapsing into the comfort of re-reads, without apology – I simply don’t have the energy or the brain to embark on fresh stuff, especially at 5am when I’m reading because otherwise I lie and fret.

Still, there’s some food for comment amongst last month’s books, which began with the excellent Beyond Black. The library hasn’t managed to provide me with Martin Edwards’ entertaining Lake District crime novels in order, so I jumped from the first to the third; The Arsenic Labyrinth was even better than The Coffin Trail and, after an abortive attempt to read a “regional” crime novel by another writer, I particularly appreciated the way he works the local landscape - its history, geology and industrial archaeology - into the novels in ways which enhance the plot. Relationships between the characters are developing, too, so that I want to know what will happen to them next. More please, Martin!

County Chronicle is relatively late Thirkell, quite a long book which, until about two-thirds of the way through, doesn’t really have much plot: it really is a chronicle, with lots of characters from earlier books putting in appearances, some of them quite brief, and quite a lot of tying up of loose ends (or unmarrieds, as is her wont). I got very involved in the story of Mrs Brandon – Thirkell does write women I like, and whose faults and failings I can empathise with. Unlike some, I am not greatly troubled by her politics, or her very non-PC comments about the lower classes and foreigners: I don’t agree with them now and I wouldn’t have agreed with them then, but I find far more to amuse than detract in her writing. For newcomers, though, early books are definitely best.

I re-read J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country for the Cornflower Book Club, and enjoyed it as much as I did the first time. The film is good too, I recall. I tracked down Robert Neill’s So Fair a House out of interest, having never heard of it until I read a bibliography of his work. I was curious to see how he would tackle a modern novel (his famous book is Mist Over Pendle, the story of the Lancashire Witches, and he’s not bad on Regency, too – The Shocking Miss Anstey is a great romp!). Not really worth the effort, was my conclusion, a competent ghost story without many thrills and several characters that you want to slap some sense into.

For anyone who doesn’t know Mary Norton’s series for children about the Borrowers, those tiny people who live in proximity with us but are rarely seen, they are a joy. Written mainly in the fifties, they depict the English countryside of my early childhood, and like the little girl in the stories, I was desperate to believe that a missing bodkin (and there’s a word from the time) could make a weapon for Pod, or a lost hankie be greeted with delight by poor, harassed Homily:
[A]s Arietty helped her mother over the rough places in the ditch…she felt closer to Homily than she had for years; more like a sister, as she put it. ‘Oh, look,’ cried Homily, when they saw a scarlet pimpernel; she stooped and picked it up by its hair-thin stalk. ‘Int it lovely?’ she said in a tender voice; touching the fragile petals with a work-worn finger, she tucked it into the opening of her blouse. Arietty found a pale-blue counterpart in the delicate bird’s-eye, and put it in her hair; and suddenly the day began to feel like a holiday. ‘Flowers made for borrowers,’ she thought.
Isn’t that enchanting? I first read The Innkeeper’s Song by Peter S. Beagle a couple of years ago; on re-reading, I enjoyed it even more. I had thought that there was a little patchiness in construction, but it stood up even better on a second reading. The story is told from multiple viewpoints, occasionally by very minor characters, and perhaps overall there is a little too much even-ness of voice, but the innkeeper and the fox, locked in mutual loathing, are tremendous, while the three women who descend on the country inn, dragging mayhem in their wake, are every bit as mysterious and entrancing as the innkeeper’s boy finds them; I wanted to know more of their histories.

The surprise of the month, and the book I couldn’t put down, was 100 Days on Holy Island by Peter Mortimer. Admittedly, our proximity to Lindisfarne makes it a reasonable bet that I was going to find something of interest inside, but this is a book that I want to write about at more leisure and, indeed, when I’ve thought more about what it has to say. So it will have to wait until after the end of this month, I suspect, but if you happen across a copy, as I did, then it’s a thought-provoking read.