• 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.