Friday, 31 December 2010

The year's books

What have I read this year?
  • 177 read
  • 9 non-fiction
  • 10 Kindle (since late September when Quoodle-the-Kindle arrived)
  • 28 re-reads
  • and 1 graphic novel
  • 112 by women; 65 by men*
At least 94 of the above involved violent death or murder! The ratio of fiction to non-fiction looked dreadful, until I thought about it: not included here are the books I have read, often several times over, because I have been copy editing or typesetting them. In the course of the year I've worked on various books on the Middle East, on literature and, most satisfying, landscape photography. Since I have another job for four days a week, and freelance in my "spare" time, that's a lot of non-fiction reading, and it occurs to me that I don't really need to feel guilty - as I had been - for doing so little "serious" reading. So 2011 is going to be guilt-free as far as books are concerned and  if, at the end of a day spent poring over a work written by someone for whom English is not a first language and trying to reconstruct their sometimes tortured sentences into elegant prose, I can only face nefarious doings in rural settings, that's okay.  (That was a pretty tortured sentence of my own, for which I apologise - and some of my authors write very well, and just need a bit of tidying up, it's the subject matter which is grim.)

The finds of the year have been:
  • Elly Griffiths, with her series about archaeologist Ruth Galloway - I'm really looking forward to the next one;
  • Alan Bradley - I read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie at the beginning of the year and fell for Flavia de Luce, and I'm just finishing The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag, which had been sitting on the TBR pile for months because I couldn't bear to read it yet;
  • and thanks to Callmemadam, O Douglas - she sent me Priorsford, which I loved, though I haven't found time to write about (perhaps on the next reading) and since then, I have added a couple more to the waiting pile, including two, I think, on Quoodle. Not new, but new-to-me.
The year's other find has been Quoodle itself. Along with everyone else I know who has bought a Kindle this year, I shall still be buying books, but in three months it has effected a small transformation and is one of the best birthday presents I've ever had. I won't go so far as to say that travel has become a pleasure, but it's wonderful to be able to carry such a choice of books with me and to suit my reading to my mood. 
    My "best of year" list is limited to five, only one of which I've managed to write about here, sadly (memo to self: must do better next year). These are ranked (!) - number 5 being my book of the year:
    1. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. I didn't like the much-vaunted The Time Traveller's Wife, and approached this book with some trepidation.
    2. Dark Angels by Katherine Langrish - this was  a delight, I ordered it from the library and liked it so much that I've bought it, and also the first in a series, Troll Fell. I promise a review when I've read both.
    3. Thursbitch by Alan Garner.
    4. The Android's Dream by John Scalzi - a birthday present, and another wonderful discovery, this book reminded me of several other authors, including Connie Willis. Scalzi's another I shall be reading more of during the year.
    5. The City and the City by China Miéville - this was wonderful. Again, it was a library book, but I bought it for younger son for Christmas (and his more recent Kraken for elder son), and I'll be reading it again soon. It  just squeaks ahead of Scalzi on the grounds of technical fireworks.

      Honourable mentions to Rosy Thornton's Tapestry of Love, for sheer pleasure, Helen Grant's young adult novel The Glass Demon and Nick Lake's The Secret Ministry of Frost. The last gets my award for best cover.

      Finally, I've also had lots of fun reading along with the Angela Thirkell group on Yahoo (mostly composed of members of the Angela Thirkell Society from both the UK and the US), where we read a book a month. The year started not with her Barsetshire novels, but with Ankle Deep, a loosely autobiographical work, then moved on to her delightful memoir Three Houses, about her childhood homes. I haven't managed to keep up completely but, along with these two and Margot Strickland's biography, Portrait of a Lady Novelist, I've read/re-read six of the Barsetshire books. The group spends quite a lot of time off-topic (we are much exercised by the weather, as befits Thirkellites!) but it's an excellent source of recommendations, since we're not only interested in reading around the subject but also tend to like a range of similar authors, old and new.

      The list of the year's books is here, for anyone who is interested. I'll try to put in links to reviews at some point. I update the list at the end of each month, so I now have a constant record of the year's reading, instead of having to go back through the monthly round-ups. Tonight I'll finish The Weed that Strings... and then it's on to a whole new year's reading.  I hope it's as good as this one has been.

      Happy New Year everyone!

      * Edited later to add this information

      Wednesday, 29 December 2010

      See Delphi and Die by Lindsay Davis

      The same weekend that I read Relics of the Dead saw me racing through a comparatively recent instalment of the Falco mysteries, Lindsay Davis's splendid evocations of life under the Emperor Vespasian. See Delphi and Die takes Falco and his wife off on the tourist trail to investigate the unexplained deaths of two young women. We know of old that Falco is an indefatigable, if complaining, traveller, and it's easy to believe in the miseries of sea voyages, the poor food, the vermin and the infuriating tour guides as described by our narrator (if he's unreliable, he'd be quick to, point out that it's endemic to informers). His journeyings would, of course, be much more wretched without the redoubtable Helena Justina to smooth the way. This time the family party consists of Falco and his wife, their adopted daughter Albia, Falco's nephews Gaius and Cornelius and Young Glaucus, aspiring Olympic athlete. Oh, not forgetting Nux, the dog. The family are travelling light, but there's a wonderful passage in which the accoutrements of a Roman touring party are described: mattress overlays, cooking utensils, even food, logistics by the unappealing Phineus and Polystratus, efficient but increasingly unpleasant. One of Helena's brothers is also in Greece - you can't help feeling just a little sorry for Helena's mother, Julia Justa, who disapproves of Falco but has to see all her children suborned by him. Falco is frequently scathing about Helena's brothers, but I rather like them.

      I think my favourite Falco novel is the one I am reading at the time, and See Delphi and Die is certainly up to Davis's usual high standard. She has certainly coloured my view of ancient Rome and its history, which is otherwise a compilation of bits of Pliny and Julius Caesar from school Latin lessons and Graves'  I, Claudius (or, as it seems to be known to all of us of a certain age, I, Clavdivs), with perhaps a less welcome addition of bits I can't erase from my mind from Satyricon (both book and film). There's slightly less poison around in Davis's version, which is restful, but there's always a diverting mix of pleasant and unpleasant people and, in the course of twenty books, some truly heart-stopping moments.

      I complained recently about the lack of a map in an otherwise excellent book. We do, here, have a map of the Pelopponese, but the author informs us, rather severely, that maps of the various cities visited - Delphi, Athens, etc - are readily available elsewhere, and difficult to reproduce at a suitable scale. That's fine, I'm a reasonable person. I can accept that. How about a portrait of the dog instead?

      Sunday, 19 December 2010

      Relics of the Dead by Ariana Franklin

      Relics of the Dead picks up fairly soon after the second in Franklin's series about Adelia Aguilar, The Death Maze, left off.* Adelia's friends are anxious to move her from the Cambridgeshire fens, where her medical practice has begun to attract unwelcome attention, and neither she nor Mansur are safe. Fortunately, her friend Emma  - Lady Wolvercote - is about to set off for Somerset, to her mother-in-law's house, and it is clearly expedient for Adelia to accompany her. As they approach their destination, though, a messenger from King Henry arrives to demand Adelia's presence - his mistress of the art of death is needed again, this time to determine whether two skeletons dug up at Glastonbury are those of King Arthur and Guinevere. Henry wants to scotch the story that Arthur is not dead but merely sleeping, in order to keep the rebellious Welsh under control. Adelia knows that it is virtually impossible for her to prove that the skeletons are Arthur and his wife Guinevere but, recognising that she has little choice in the matter, agrees to examine them.

      In Glastonbury she meets with hostility, as well as the unwelcome news that Emma has failed to arrive at her mother-in-law's Somerset manor, although she had only a short journey remaining when Adelia left her. Enquiries meet only with denial - she and her entourage seem to have disappeared without trace.

      Although Ariana Franklin makes a reasonable case for her female doctor, you have to suspend a good deal of disbelief with these books. That said, there are plenty of rewards for doing so. You can't help but admire Adelia, for all her obstinacy, so that the loyalty of her friends, and even Henry's determination to keep her at his disposal, is convincing. All the characters, including Henry, continue to grow and develop - in the case of the king there are further insights into his ruthlessness, a necessary part of his desire to govern well. An element that caught my sympathy in this third book, already to some extent touched on in the first two, but developed and explored here, is that parallel between the fictitious Rowley, Bishop of St Albans, and the real Thomas Becket, murdered at Henry's instigation when he refused, once he became Archbishop, to defer to Henry's power. The very real dilemma of king's law versus church law makes Rowley's efforts to be a good churchman into a strong theme, although you wonder whether Henry would have been willing to risk creating another Becket. On the other hand, as depicted here, perhaps he couldn't afford not to. Incidentally, Franklin provides Henry with these strong, domestic - but fictitious - allies, without too much risk of changing the course of history. They were interesting times.

      * I reviewed the first, Mistress of the Art of Death, here.

      Tuesday, 14 December 2010

      The Woods of Windri by Violet Needham

      I meant (but forgot, and it's in Devon) to scan an image from this book to show you – I used to love the illustrations so. I managed to find the original cover on the website of the Violet Needham Society, so I’m afraid that will have to suffice for now. I was pleased, though, to see that it’s still available on Amazon.

      I first read Violet Needham while staying with my grandmother and aunt – according to my mother all the books were hers and my aunt had ruthlessly appropriated them. As a schoolgirl, my mother adapted The Changeling of Monte Lucio and the class at her  convent school performed it, with her in the starring role as the unpopular Changeling, spitting cherry stones out of the window while her “brother” lay on his death bed. You can tell that high drama was involved and as the next generation along, I adored them too.  My favourite was The Horn of Merlyns, one of my two most wanted books ever – and oh bliss! the wonderful Girls Gone By has reprinted it recently and my copy is on the shelf by my bed, waiting to be a Christmas read. I have a Boxing Day appointment with it, a box of chocolates and a warm dog.

      Back to The Woods of Windri, and more high drama. Roger, Lord of Windri has two daughters and a properly feudal attitude to their disposition. When he receives an offer for the hand of Phillippa, the elder, from the Count of Monte Lucio, he is pleased that an alliance will be politically advantageous, even though Phillippa is so unhappy about marriage to a man she has never met that she declares she will enter a nunnery. Her younger sister Magdalen is unhappy too, but it doesn’t stop her going out in the woods where she meets a runaway boy. Apparently a foundling, he has escaped from the Abbey where he was destined to be a monk, and where he was ill-treated. Fortunately Magdalen’s father takes a liking to the boy, whose name is Theodore Felix Amadeus, and decides to employ him as a page – there is no love lost between Roger and the Abbot and besides, there are some doubts about young Theo’s origins – there’s the little matter of a distinctive birthmark, for a start. With the arrival of Phillippa’s suitor, the Count - that's him you can see on the cover - events are put in train which will demand that Theo risks his life and faces his greatest enemy. With a little help from Magdalen, of course.

      Revisiting this book after some 40 years (it was a regular read until my mid-teens) , I was fascinated to see what a cavalier approach Needham had to the Catholic Church – there is scarcely a good cleric to be seen. She has a robust attitude, too, to her villains, cheerfully consigning one to be “put to the question”. I don’t mean to imply that authors in the 1940s should be mealy-mouthed about such things – these books are supposed to be set in a period when nasty things happened – but just to note that it feels rather surprising in these days of political correctness in children’s books. Heaven forbid that we should upset the little dears, or mention anything which might cause a sleepless moment. Actually, I do remember a growing impression that Needham's Stormy Petrel series was maybe just a trifle right-wing, although I can’t recall that it spoilt my enjoyment much.

      One of the fascinations about Violet Needham’s books was that they didn’t feel entirely English, and this seems to be borne out by her life – her mother was a Dutch heiress and she spent some time in Europe. Her books combine the exoticism of mid-European or Ruritanian locations with a Baden-Powell quality to her young heroes which brings them firmly back onto familiar territory, melodrama notwithstanding. Yes, it’s dated and no, I probably wouldn’t give it to a young reader, without a caveat, but oh, it was fun to explore the Woods of Windri again.

      Thursday, 9 December 2010

      Virtual Advent Tour

      Welcome to the Virtual Advent Tour, Day 9! The Virtual Advent Tour is hosted by Kailana from The Written World and Marg from Adventures of an Intrepid Reader and is a way for bloggers to share gifts and memories with each other about our holiday seasons - a sort of grown-up advent calendar.

      Other posts today:

      Gretchen @ Scarlets Letters
      Darcy @ Foxed

      With grown-up sons and no family nearby, our Christmases are pretty quiet, so I wondered what I might write about for today. Then I realised that I could share with you my major interests - books and folklore - with a Christmas extract that relates to folk customs or traditions. So, here is Kenneth Allsop on gathering the holly to decorate the house:

      "So off through the frost-crackling mud my children and their friends went to bring back the bounty, and I made for the coppice to see about the trunk section that I had ear-marked as being a likely looking Yule log when I had been picking up lighter stuff. Sloshing through the pulpy leaves I came to it. Just what was needed. That would have roasting flames roaring up the chimney. But I was lacking one minor essential: a horse team and chains. Perhaps I should have dished out the tasks differently, seen to the holly myself and left the hauling of the log to all those restless young muscles.

      I slunk back to the house and applied myself to the urgent reading of a review book at the fireside. It was considerate of me, I decided, to let the children get the holly. As they sorted it out in the crowded kitchen, plaiting a garland for the brass knocker and hanging it over the fire's cross-beam, they would be enacting fun and mystery as 'the rising of the sun and the running of the deer'.

      Those words of The Holly and the Ivy were first recorded by folklorist Cecil Sharp in Gloucestershire; other versions were found in Somerset. It was sung in English villages long before it became a carol - perhaps long before Christ's birth, although holly leaves came to represent his crown of thorns. The word holly merged with 'holegn' and then the 'holm' which occurs in so many place names.

      The original pagan symbolism was the entwining of the masculine holly with the feminine ivy, and the wreaths were hung where young men and girls danced at this pause when the sun is at its farthest point from the equator.

      When the ice-armoured earth seemed dead, this was the sacrament to life continuing and rebirth in spring.

      I heard the youthful voices returning across the field and looked out of the window. Across the lattice of bare branches in the afternoon's deepening iron light I saw our commonest evergreen shining scarlet, a lamp held up bright through the darkness of the winter solstice."

      There is another tree in England which is associated with Christmas: the Glastonbury thorn, crataegus monogyna Biflora. The original tree is said to have originated when Joseph of Arimathea visited Britain after the death of Jesus. In the isle of Avalon, at what is now Glastonbury, he rested, and stuck his staff in the ground. By morning it had rooted, and ever afterwards it flowered at Christmas. In 1752 the villagers gathered around the thorn on Christmas Eve to see if it would bloom - when it didn't, they took that as proof that the recent Act of Parliament, when Britain switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and lost 11 days in the process, was against nature - "Perliment didn't change t'seasons when they changed t'day o' the month" - and many people refused to go to church on the new Christmas Day. It took over 100 years for everyone to accept the new calendar, and although Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany, is mostly celebrated in the UK simply as the day on which we take down the Christmas decorations, "Old Christmas Day" has greater significance in Atlantic Canada, and many customs which have faded here survive more strongly there.

      Monday, 6 December 2010

      Hue and Cry by Shirley McKay

      I get an inordinate amount of pleasure from discovering a new mystery series. I’m not absolutely certain why this is: something to do with the way in which the reader is drawn quickly into the story and the knowledge that it will end with the necessary ends tied up neatly, but enough left loose to provide a way into the next one, perhaps? However, after I’d read my way through Brother Cadfael by the mid-1990s, library visits always began by returning a batch of imitations which had been found wanting.

      Until recently, the only series I’d found which came anywhere close to satisfying were Fidelis Morgan’s – which started with Unnatural Fire and recounted the riotous adventures of Anatasia Ashby de la Zouche, Baroness Penge, Countess of Clapham and her maid Alpiew – and the famous one by Lindsay Davis starring M. Didius Falco, informer to the Emperor Vespasian and harassed paterfamilias. The library shelves offered more, but most of them left me disappointed, usually because I felt that setting and characterisation were lacking. So recent riches please me enormously and Catriona McPherson, Carola Dunn, Cora Harrison and Pat McIntosh all more than meet my requirements and I can imagine few greater treats than to settle down with a new book by any of those authors. (Nicola Upson and Jacqueline Winspear should get an honourable mention here.)

      Hue and Cry, Shirley McKay’s first book about sixteenth-century St Andrews and lawyer Hew Cullan is another gem. In 1579 Hew has just returned to his home town from France, and he’s concerned to find his friend Nicholas not only ill but accused of murdering a student. In the small community that comprises town and gown Hew of course sets out to investigate, with the very necessary help of his sister Meg and physician Giles Locke, only to find that they are all at risk of bringing down the wrath of the Kirk on their heads.

      What we have here is good plotting and characterisation, with the added interest of the technicalities of Scottish law which require extra ingenuity on the part of the author. There’s a leavening of humour (generally centring around the intractable horse Duns Scottis), and some period colour in the shape of James VI, just 14 here, but later notable for his views on, amongst other things, witchcraft. Language is used beautifully – there’s no requirement to understand dialect but the use of metre captivated me: the flow of dialogue often falling apparently naturally into the rhythm of the common metre which was to become the characteristic of the Scottish Psalter 50 years later. I thought, too, that McKay handled the thorny issue of modern sensibilities in period characters with great deftness

      My only criticism? No map. I want a map. That apart, a stunning debut, and one to read again. The second book, Fate and Fortune is also out, with a third on its way.

      Friday, 3 December 2010

      Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge 2011

      Magemanda at Floor to Ceiling Books has just announced the Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge 2011. Okay, so I told myself I wasn't going to sign up to any new challenges for next year, but just keep going with the ones I always do, but I don't have to change any reading habits for this one. In fact, it looks like a good way to make some dents in the TBR pile, and some of the books can be shared with other challenges, so I'm ignoring the possibility that my impulse is borne of cabin fever because I haven't been able to get out since last Friday (when actually, I got in - just), and taking my mind of the duvet of snow outside by making that old favourite, a book list.

      The challenge lasts throughout the year and all that's required is to read and post about 12 books which fit within the speculative fiction heading - surely even I can manage a post a month! There are several likely contenders for the challenge. These include Spook City by William Gibson which I've had for ages, but I love Gibson so much (I may have mentioned this before, like, ad nauseam?) that I can't quite bear to read it. When I do get to it, I'll probably read Zero History too. End of the World Blues by Jon Courtenay Grimwood is another that I've had for a while. Like Gibson, I tend to stockpile his books, because they're so good. Older son has just finished it and was raving about it.

      Player One by Douglas Coupland  - have a feeling I might struggle with this, but I want to read it. I like the idea of turning the Massey Lectures into a 5-hour, real-time novel, but I've read reviews that say it gets a bit bogged down. Hmm, we shall see. Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood) has been on the horizon for quite a time too. Started it once and it really is time I finished it. I feel there's an end-of-the-world kind of theme developing here.

      Changing tack a little, there's also Old Man's War by John Scalzi - I've just discovered Scalzi, as younger son bought me The Android's Dream for my birthday last month. I needed something really gripping to distract me from my cold and it was the perfect choice, I loved it. Finally, Kraken by China Miéville has been on the wishlist since I read The City and the City earlier this year (another superb book).

      Okay, that gives me seven probables, so there's plenty of room for impulse buys (memo to self: remember financial constraints i.e. impending poverty), library books and, if I'm lucky, the odd review copy. The only problem now is quelling the urge to get started this minute.