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