Friday, 28 December 2012

A quick round-up post

I suppose it's inevitable in trying to read a book from every year of the twentieth century to find a few I don't have a great deal to say about. This isn't necessarily because I didn't enjoy them -- I think the only book I've actively disliked so far is Hugh Walpole's Portrait of a Man with Red Hair. Otherwise it's been a happy experience thus far, and I'm now about half-way through, which is what I'd planned, as I gave myself two years to complete the task. Okay, to the books!

Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton (1953): The only reason that I don't have much to say about this one is that Simon has already said it more than adequately, and it was through him that I heard about it anyway. I enjoyed it very much indeed, and it's not going to do anyone any good if I rave about it, because readers of Stuck-in-a-Book seem to have bought up the entire supply of secondhand copies! It reminded me rather of The Brontës Went to Woolworths, which is another of those books I didn't quite get round to talking about, because everyone else had read it before me. I liked that, too. There is something very appealing about coming-of-age novels from the mid-twentieth century.

Cousin Harriet by Susan Tweedsmuir (1957): I read this ages ago, but when I came to write about it, I found I had mislaid my copy in the tottering piles of books. It only turned up quite recently and I promptly lost it again! I'd read, and liked, one of this author's books on the Edwardian country house. As wife of the novelist John Buchan, the Governor General of Canada, and a member of the aristocracy in her own right, she knew whereof she spoke on the country house, and wrote delightfully on it (good source material for the likes of Downton!) and I thought it all boded well for a novel by her. Cousin Harriet has a late Victorian setting and mostly takes the form of the diary and letters of Lady Harriet Waveney, who lives quietly with her father and runs his household. When a young relative asks to come and visit Harriet is rather reluctant to agree, thinking that Charlotte will need entertaining, but she soon discovers that Charlotte is actually in the worst kind of trouble. Helping her young cousin will involve her in much that is unwelcome and require her to examine her own moral codes. This is a subject which it would have been difficult for a Victorian writer to tackle sympathetically, but Lacy Tweedsmuir was able to allow the mores of the society in which she grew up to inform her writing, while suggesting that opprobrium was not the only possible response. That was a message which still very relevant in the late 1950s.

Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (1911): I ought to be able to write screeds about this book, which was very much a gem of its time, as fantastical as anything by Ronald Firbank but more focused on its targets. Zuleika, an erstwhile governess and now a conjuror, arrives in Oxford where she almost immediately has a devastating effect on the entire undergraduate body. She herself has been untouched by love, believing that only a man able to resist her allure could meet her ideal. The Duke of Dorset decides that he will die for love of her, and then finds that all the other young men in Oxford are determined to emulate him.

Zuleika is interesting in the light of today's obsession with celebrity, in that she has achieved her status largely without effort on her own part. She is described as not exactly beautiful in conventional terms, but nonetheless irresistibly attractive; I believe (though I can't find evidence to back it up) that she was based on Firbank's sister, Heather, a celebrated society beauty who did very little other than dress exquisitely and exceedingly expensively. Anyway, things end badly for the student body, who despite their privileges are incapable of thinking sensibly, and Zuleika leaves for Cambridge, where she will presumably wreak equal havoc:
You cannot make a man by standing a sheep on its hind-legs. But by standing a flock of sheep in that position you can make a crowd of men. If man were not a gregarious animal, the world might have achieved, by this time, some real progress towards civilisation. Segregate him, and he is no fool. But let him loose among his fellows, and he is lost--he becomes just an unit in unreason... A crowd, proportionately to its size, magnifies all that in its units pertains to the emotions, and diminishes all that in them pertains to thought.
For anyone who wants to know more, there is a profile of the book on Book Drum. Some editions of the book include Beerbohm's own illustrations.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

A Diary Without Dates by Enid Bagnold

 Enid Bagnold in 1918 (picture source)
Again and again I realize, "A nation in arms...." 
Watchmakers, jewellers, station-masters, dress-designers, actors, travellers in underwear, bank clerks ... they come here in uniforms and we put them into pyjamas and nurse them; and they lie in bed or hobble about the ward, watching us as we move, accepting each other with the unquestioning faith of children. The outside world has faded since I have been in the hospital.

Their world is often near me--their mud and trenches, things they say when they come in wounded.
I read this book, first published in 1918, much earlier in the year, and found it very moving.  It relates the time spent by the author as a VAD during the First World War, nursing wounded soldiers. It has caused me problems to write about it, largely because there was so much that I wanted to share -- the simple, matter-of-fact way in which so much that is appalling is related, the bleakness of the situation of the men in hospital which is so often faced with courage and humour. However, Bagnold's opinion of the hospital administration was so critical that she was dismissed (she went on to be a volunteer driver in France):
In the bus yesterday I came down from London sitting beside a Sister from another ward, who held her hand to her ear and shifted in her seat. 
She told me she had earache, and I felt sorry for her. 
As she had earache we didn't talk, and I sat huddled in my corner and watched the names of the shops, thinking, as I was more or less forced to do by her movements, of her earache. 
What struck me was her own angry bewilderment before the fact of her pain. "But it hurts.... You've no idea how it hurts!" She was surprised. 
Many times a day she hears the words, "Sister, you're hurtin' me.... Couldn't you shift my heel? It's like a toothache," and similar sentences. I hear them in our ward all the time. One can't pass down the ward without some such request falling on one's ears. 
She is astonished at her earache; she is astonished at what pain can be; it is unexpected. She is ready to be angry with herself, with her pain, with her ear. It is monstrous, she thinks.... 
The pain of one creature cannot continue to have a meaning for another. It is almost impossible to nurse a man well whose pain you do not imagine. A deadlock!
The Mess went vilely to-night. Sister adds up on her fingers, and that's fatal, so all the numbers were out, and the chef sent in forty-five meats instead of fifty-one. I blushed with horror and responsibility, standing there watching six hungry men pretending to be philosophers.
There is a sense, though, that Bagnold is too tired to be angry much of the time, and there may have been other motives, besides, for her dismissal -- one patient became too fond of her, and it is obvious that she was not entirely trusted to behave "appropriately". But she had been a racy, Bohemian young woman (she describes in her autobiography how she lost her virginity to the very scurrilous Frank Harris: '"Sex," said Frank Harris, "is the gateway to life." So I went through the gateway in an upper room in the Cafe Royal.') -- she may have been an inconvenience too far.

The book has a number of associations which please me: the author lived at North End House in Rottingdean, which had been the home of Angela Thirkell's grandfather, Edward Burne-Jones, and which AT writes about so wonderfully in her memoir Three Houses. Bagnold herself wrote a play inspired by the garden at North End House, The Chalk Garden, which supplied one of the pieces I learnt for my audition for drama school, and which I love. (I am less inspired by the knowledge that she wrote National Velvet, and even less so by the discovery, while checking on my information for this post, that her great granddaughter is Samantha Cameron.) The Chalk Garden is a very mannered piece or writing, reminiscent of the style of Ivy Compton-Burnett or the plays of T.S. Eliot where well-bred people bemoan the servant situation and agonise over the kind of minutiae that ordinary people don't have time to waste on, but is nonetheless about three tremendously strong women.

Diary Without Dates is a fairly short work and, given its subject matter, often surprisingly lyrical, which makes it all the more poignant because one can identify with the writer so readily. Bagnold expresses how we would expect to feel in such circumstances and demonstrates the strange mixture of detachment and empathy which can result from working in extreme circumstances. She followed the Diary with a novelised version (I think) of her experiences as a driver, which should also be interesting to read.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Dragonwyck by Anya Seton

When I found a copy of Dragonwyck in a bookshop the other day I couldn't resist re-reading to see what I thought of something last seen in my early teens, when it was one of those must-reads passed around at school. It's funny, but in the late '60s there was no sense that this book, first published in 1945, was in any sense dated, but the rate of change was slower in those days, certainly in a small town in the Scottish Highlands, where my scarlet tights were looked at askance when I walked down the High Street, even though they were much more seemly than the gap of cold blue flesh that showed above other people's stocking tops (my father, used to dancers from his theatrical days, couldn't understand why tights took so long to catch on there!) But there was nothing especially provincial about our reading matter and schoolgirls at the time existed on a diet of Victoria Holt, Jean Plaidy, Margaret Irwin, Mary Stewart, Anya Seton -- all to be found in both school and local libraries. We may not have known who were the parties in the Treaty of Versailles, but we could produce a lengthy list of kings' mistresses and we knew that Lucrezia Borgia was more likely to be a political pawn than a hardened poisoner.

Seton wrote a number of well-regarded historical novels, such as Katherine and My Theodosia, focusing on real people and events, as well as romantic novels with a historical setting, such as The Turquoise and Dragonwyck which owe a good deal to the full-blown gothic novel, but aren't as dark. Actually, Dragonwyck was rather less dark than I had remembered it (it turned out to be a poor candidate for an RIP read, with very little chance that it would raise as much as a shiver), despite the back-cover blurb which begins:
Dragonwyck is waiting for you, as eerie and splendid as when Miranda came up from the country in 1843, expecting fairytale happiness.
Growing up on the family farm, seventeen-year-old Miranda dreams of romance and the distant glories of New York, but she can't see any prospect of leaving home. Her parents expect her to marry a local farmer and settle down to having a family, just like her younger sister is about to do. But when a letter arrives from her mother's cousin, Nicholas van Ryn, inviting one of the girls for a visit, Miranda is determined to go. And her first impression of Dragonwyck lives up to her hopes:
She stared at the fantastic silhouette which loomed dark against the eastern sky, the spires and  and gables and chimneys dominated in the centre by one high tower; and it was as though the good and the evil, the happiness and tragedy, which she was to experience under that roof materialized into physical force and struck across the quiet river into her soul.
So you see, we know from the very start that things aren't going to go smoothly, and when she arrives at the house, Miranda finds that her handsome cousin has a grossly fat wife who immediately takes against the beautiful girl. Johanna expects Miranda to act as governess to the unprepossessing Katrine, who it is obvious will grow up just like her mother. Nicholas, meanwhile, pays erratic attention to Miranda, including her in social occasions but ignoring her much of the time. Nonetheless, she becomes aware of a growing attraction to him.

The story happens against a background of real-life events. Update New York at this period had a complicated system of land ownership dating back to the Dutch control of the area, and which was leading to growing resentment amongst tenant farmers. Like the Rebecca Riots in Wales, disaffected farmers dressed up, in this case as "Indians", in order to disguise themselves while they attacked the Dutch patroons. The landowning families around the van Ryns are real ones: the van Rensselaers, the Astors, and so on, and literary figures appear as well. One of the more truly gothic moments is a visit to the bedside of Edgar Allen Poe and his dying young wife.

So, how did Dragonwyck fare 40-something years from my first reading? Well, it's a very quick and easy read -- I'm sure that if it had been written today it would have been much longer. For a start, more would have been made of the old retainer, Zélie, and her predictions, and Katrine, and even Johanna, would have been more fully-developed characters, too. I say "written today", but I found myself wondering what Dragonwyck would have been in the hands of, say, Daphne du Maurier -- much more brooding and oppressive, with a real screwing-up of tension before the first death occurs, and then to the subsequent events. I'd remembered Seton as a more consciously gothic writer, but it's much more that she evokes a portrait of the gothic. There's a lack of the self-indulgence which tends to characterise the genre, an absence of the purely histrionic. Seton's rather benign humour keeps creeping in, so that the reader is all too aware of the nice healthy young Dr Turner, where there should be a morbid fascination with Nicholas van Ryn.

Part of the problem comes from Miranda herself. She's no Jane Eyre, nor a fainting young heroine from a sheltered background, she's a resourceful farmer's daughter, capable of killing a chicken even if she doesn't like to do it. So, even at her most isolated within the household, she is too practical to be completely overpowered by Nicholas. The other problem is the occasional foray into Nicholas's point of view, which simply doesn't work -- and shouldn't: we need no more information about him than Miranda can infer for herself. This isn't a major flaw, though, as it's abandoned quite early.

All in all, it's very suitable reading for teenage girls looking for a first "grown-up" novel -- much easier reading than the aforementioned Jane Eyre, which so many people come to too young. This time round I found the interest lay in the history on offer, which took me off to explore Wikipedia -- riverboats figure largely, too, and turned out to be quite interesting, and I spent some time retracing Miranda's route to Dragonwyck. I'm glad to have ventured on a re-read, though, and would quite happily return to some of Seton's other novels, although I doubt if I'll actively seek them out.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

Excitement this week with the republication of the first two of Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire novels by Virago Modern Classics: High Rising and Wild Strawberries. There's a lovely review of High Rising by Claire at The Captive Reader, so I won't talk about that here, except to say that the cover is lovely, amd to warn you that Claire does talk about the whole book, so if you want to avoid spoilers, save it until later. I shall try not to give too much away about Wild Strawberries here.

You could argue, of course, that since nothing very much happens in AT's books, spoilers don't really matter too much, and most people who enjoy them re-read them endlessly - there are groups on both Yahoo and FaceBook who are working their way through in chronological order and, once the end is reached, we all go back to the beginning again. At a book a month it takes 2 and a half years to get through them and I find that's too infrequently to revisit some of my favourites. And the moment I start talking to other enthusiasts I realise how woefully inadequate my knowledge of the books is, so I have to rush back to whichever was under discussion. There are societies both here and in the US, by the way -- just one of the advantages of being a member, in the UK at any rate, is the secondhand booklist circulated to members. Some of my treasured AT collection came from there.

On to Wild Strawberries itself. Rushwater House (whose "only outward merit is that it might have been worse than it was") is home to the Leslies, and sees lots of coming and going amongst the extended family, all lovingly and exhaustingly overseen by Lady Emily. The family is first seen arriving at church, where the long-suffering vicar is waiting to begin the service, and knowing that not only will they be late, but that chaos will ensue with their arrival. The family party consists of Lady Emily herself, her husband Mr Leslie, their surviving sons John and David, their daughter Agnes Graham with her three children, Emmy, James and Clarissa, their grandson, Martin whose father was killed in the Great War and, of course, Nannie and Ivy, in attendance on the small children. To that number will shortly be added young Mary Preston, Agnes's niece by marriage, on an extended visit while her mother goes abroad for health reasons. Unfortunately, another arrival coincides with Mary's, that of the disagreeable Mr Holt, who has invited himself to see  over the garden. Mr Leslie is furious, because Mr Holt is crashingly dull, sycophantic yet demanding, not only arriving with the minimum of notice but expecting to be driven to his next destination whether it's convenient or not. In his youth he had been much more popular, as something of an expert on horticulture, but illness has made him deaf and irritable, so that Mrs Thirkell tells us:  "It would be easy to be sorry for Mr Holt in his unhonoured old age; but he is so conceited and irritating that compassion melts to bored anger." On this occasion, Mr Holt is not to be allowed the occasion to demonstrate his knowledge -- he's thwarted at every attempt by Lady Emily, who needs to rest after lunch, and Agnes, who is much too preoccupied, in her vague and placid way, with her children.

As the summer begins the vicarage is let to a French family, with whom Martin is to take lessons. Mary, meanwhile, has been enjoying herself doing very little beyond going for long walks with David when he comes down from Town -- which he does frequently, being a charming wastrel with no occupation and no ambition. If he's aware at all that Mary is rather beginning to fall in love with him, he pays it no heed, but it provides the opportunity for a wonderfully funny lunch date in which Mary and another young woman are at daggers drawn over the self-absorbed David:
David mentioned a ballet which Mary hadn't seen. Joan had seen it in Paris. David mentioned a symphony which Joan hadn't heard. Mary had heard Toscanini conduct it, though she omitted to say it was on a gramophone. Joan mentioned a banned book. David knew a man who had bought fifty copies in France and smuggled them over on an aeroplane, but Mary was here inspired to say that she had read it in typescript and found it simply dull...
I might add here that David is one of my least favourite characters in the Barsetshire books, and I'm always delighted to see his ego dented, not that it ever is for long. If ever anyone was born with a silver spoon in his mouth it's David. Mind you, in real life Lady Emily too would drive me to fury in about five minutes flat, as she sheds scarves and possessions, disrupts everyone's plans and interrupts all conversations. But although it can almost be a relief to turn to the broader comedy offered by Nannie and the housekeeper vying for supremacy, or the infuriatingly bossy Madame Boulle, for whom everything English is inferior to what may be obtained in France (which is, as we all know, just plain ridiculous!), there is just so much to enjoy here.

Finally, VMC has issued both books for Kindle, as well as the lovely print editions. In  addition, Wild Strawberries and Pomfret Towers are available as very affordable and beautifully read audiobooks in mp3 format, from Rockethouse Publishing, and High Rising will be released later this year -- if you prefer to buy them on CD they are available from Amazon.

Later: I hadn't really finished this when it published itself, and I had another link I wanted to add. Readers of High Rising who are curious about the quotations and "relusions" they find within the text may enjoy the list of them compiled by members of the Angela Thirkell Society. There are Relusions for a further eighteen books on the website. I find them immensely useful -- I may spot references to Dickens fairly reliably (though I'm not always sure which book, or if it's misquoted) but there's one in High Rising to a character by Meredith, and I can't imagine I would ever have got round to tracking that one down!

Monday, 19 November 2012

Rosslyn Castle

This time eight years ago we spent a weekend at Rosslyn Castle, south of Edinburgh, and right beside the wonderful Rosslyn Chapel, which featured, I gather, in That Book...but this post is about the Castle, which dates back to the 14th century. The castle was destroyed during one of those typical bits of Scottish history, known as the Rough Wooing, which was a euphemism for something else entirely, and the ruins which are there today are mostly those of the rebuilt castle, although there is one stretch of 14th-century wall remaining. In 1622 the building was renovated, and an attractive Renaissance house incorporated within the walls, though it got bashed about again by Cromwell's lot. Despite that, it has been almost continuously habitable throughout its history, though I've heard that it got pretty dilapidated before its most recent restoration began in 1982 - there were stories that people used to drive down from Edinburgh to hold illicit parties in the big lower rooms (popularly referred to as "dungeons", which they weren't). Sadly, no one ever invited me, but I was probably too law-abiding, though I believe that at one time there was an eremitical caretaker who might have facilitated such events, probably in return for a bottle or two of whisky. At any rate, both castle and chapel became objects of desire in my student days, for their romantic settings, for their associations with the Knights Templar, and the chapel for one of the most remarkable interiors I've ever seen, with a proliferation of Green Men who peer from every nook and cranny. So when I discovered that the castle was now managed as a holiday let by the Landmark Trust (who do tremendous work in restoring and making wonderful buildings accessible), I was determined that I was going to stay there one day. My 50th birthday seemed like the perfect occasion.

The castle sits on a rocky promontory. It was originally approached by a drawbridge, but later a breach was made in the rock to create a chasm across which a narrow stone bridge with an alarmingly low parapet was built - I wasn't at all sure that my son's car would fit crossing the bridge and breathed in sharply!

The bridge safely negotiated, the house lies ahead of you - actually, we arrived after dark, which was a strange sensation. Would the key work? Could we find the light switches? Did we remember which box the dogfood was in? Unpack first, and then explore!

We quickly discovered, to the enormous delight of the two dogs, that there were two staircases, an elegant main one (I loved the figures in the hallway):

and a spiral stair in the little tower (which you can see on the left-hand-side in the picture of the house). The dogs did happy circuits until we firmly closed the door to the tower and unpacked their food. The tower was the exclusive retreat of younger son for our stay. The fireplace in his room had some interesting original stonework in it - a rainspout, perhaps:

The house is very modestly sized, with just two main rooms downstairs, dining room and drawing room. We cooked elaborately in the minuscule kitchen (both OH and elder son arrived with a battery of cooks' knives, knowing holiday lets of old!), which opens out onto a minuscule private garden, within the curtain walls, which would be perfect for picnics in warmer weather.

Did I mention weather? That weekend was the start of a real cold snap, the sharpest there had been that year. That fire was more than cosmetic, it was vital! If you peer at the right side of the fireplace, you can see the most splendid chainmail fire curtain. There's a guest book in the drawing room which makes very entertaining reading, but one thing which stands out is that everyone who has been there in winter has commented on how icily cold the house is. Some speculate about ghosts. I put it down to this:

Photograph by supergolden

That's the drawing room and dining room, with the big windows. Below them are three floors of nothing, with little or no window glass -- those are the so-called dungeons, actually the original kitchen and more service rooms, but pretty grisly nonetheless. And cold. Because you may remember from the first picture of the house that it's only two storeys high. It's actually perched on the edge of the promontory, and the lower floors descend into the glen below, a drop of 60 feet. This is the kitchen, where those parties used to be held. There was a single lightbulb in the centre of the ceiling at this level, and no incentive to linger. Reluctantly, because it seems very pathetic at this remove, this was as far as I got. Well, someone had to stay with the dogs, and there was no way I was letting them carry on down to the unlit depths.

A floor down, another kitchen and another enormous fireplace. And no electricity. Good thing we'd brought torches for taking the dogs out last thing.

We wondered what lived here. Judging from the heap of sticks on the floor they had been in residence for a long time. Owls? Ravens?

Someone else who'd been in residence for a long time. Younger son said this was the biggest spider he'd ever seen. There were obviously going to be a lot more of them, judging by the size of the bundle of eggs she was guarding.

At the end of the day there was a very sleepy puppy (don't tell the Landmark Trust! but we did take lots of blankets to protect the sofas). It was a pity she needed to go out at 3am -- as I stood on the frost-rimed lawn in my nightie and greatcoat, I was horribly conscious of all those ruins around me, the yawning gulf beneath my feet, the ghosts -- including a ghastly hound who bays. Do spectral hounds have the same habits as living ones? In which case, my two girls were going to be like magnets...but actually, the only howling likely to be heard that night was mine, as I recalled the 3-storey nursery for giant spiders!

Only OH was truly unmoved by the possibility of ghosts, I think, he has no imagination at all. Possibly he was preoccupied with trying not to die of exposure and add to their number, as were we all. I have never been so cold in my life. It was a mistake, too, to underestimate my fear of heights. The bridge terrified me, and I found it hard to trust to the dogs' good sense after hearing that the river in the glen has claimed a number who fell in. The Bolter was only a puppy, and not misnamed, although unlikely to take off in strange surroundings. In retrospect, I'm not quite sure whether it was a magical experience or a nightmare -- perhaps it was as magical as our family does! It certainly offered some insight into the life in a country house in, say, the 18th century, though thankfully, we didn't have to manage with candles as well. OH would have been glad, I think, of a television, but he did have the most awful cold. Actually, the most 18th-century bit was that we all rushed for the shower the minute we got home -- it had been too cold to shed any garments in order to wash while we were there. The castle did have a shower, at the top of the stone steps down to the basement kitchen! But even the "proper" bathroom was arctic.

 Rosslyn Castle by Vic Sharp

One of the things we did during our stay, of course, was to visit the chapel. This was during the period when work was being done on the roof, so we didn't take views of the outside, but we did go up on the scaffolding for a very different view of the building:

Sadly, photography is no longer allowed inside the chapel -- I would love to be able to spend hours in there with a camera, although it always seems to be busy now, even on the gloomiest of days. Even busy, I think it's the most remarkable church I know, and it's no wonder that so many stories have grown up around it. The castle, too, is a wonderfully romantic place, and it's gratifying to stay in such a building and know that while doing so you are helping to preserve it. And honestly, they are not always freezing - we were unlucky with a weekend when the frost on the ground didn't melt all day but just sharpened with each night. But I'd certainly recommend hotwater bottles, just in case!

Saturday, 3 November 2012

My Life in Books

I was very flattered to be asked by Simon at Stuck in a Book to take part in My Life in Books, it's such a lovely idea and I've so enjoyed reading the responses in the first two series. I had great fun doing it and trying to guess what sort of reader my fellow participant, Laura, is. Our answers are here.

I was struck by how often Jane Eyre comes up in the answers to Simon's question about first "grown-up" books - I'd wondered whether to include it myself. I then went off into a long mental ramble about whether we divide into two groups: those who'd chose JE and those who'd pick Wuthering Heights. It seems to be one of those genuine either/or questions, and I've met relatively few people who adored both, with the Eyre-ites loathing WH and the Heightists heaping scorn on the Jane lovers. I thought about it again as I irritably turned off a radio dramatisation on WH at 4-ish this morning, so I thought I'd mention in here...

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Another round-up

 I've been neglecting both the Bookshelf and Hurlyburlybuss recently - today's post, on the excellent The Way to Sattin Shore can be found on the latter.

Meanwhile, I've been reading my way through a heap of books, mainly crime. Here is the briefest of roundups, on books that I won't post about otherwise.

Appleby's Answer by Michael Innes (1973): A spinster-ish writer of detective fiction is propositioned by man on a train. For £500, will she advise him on the writing of a crime novel? Sir John Appleby finds his curiosity aroused when he hears the story. Quite what crime is contemplated he isn't sure, but his instinct tells him that something is amiss and, reluctant wife in tow, he proceeds to investigate over the course of a somewhat hysterical afternoon. Fun if you like Appleby, but by no means one of the best.

News from Thrush Green by Miss Read (1970): A gentle tale about a troubled young woman who arrives in Thrush Green with her small son, causing a ripple of interest amongst the villagers and some mildly heightened pulses among the men. Village characters abound, and homes are sought for kittens. I'd have one.

The Family Trade by Charles Stross (2007): I much preferred The Atrocity Archives, but this story of parallel worlds holds the attention enough to make me want to read the next in the series. Moving between worlds turns out to be a good way to conduct a "family" business. Don't tell that Italian bunch.

A Woman of Consequence by Miss Anna Dean (2011): The third of the Dido Kent mysteries, set in Regency England. I haven't read 1 and 2, but it didn't seem to matter much. Dido is living with her brother and his wife -- the latter regards an unmarried sister as a useful addition insofar as she can take over a number of tasks and ought to be grateful enough to be entirely at the disposal of her family, a view Dido doesn't agree with, having had some success in solving mysteries already. When a body is found on a neighbour's estate, Dido agrees to investigate in order to prove that the death wasn't a suicide. There is some musing on the role of women at the time -- readable but unmemorable.

The Day is Dark by Yrsa Siggurdardottir (2012): Thoroughly enjoyed this, although I was a little troubled by the number of holes that seemed to be cropping up. These were resolved far enough to make the ending work, and ignorable enough not to spoil my enjoyment, though I can imagine some pickier readers might find it more difficult. The atmosphere was terrific and it reminded me very much of Michelle Paver's Dark Matter. On a Greenland mining station three people have disappeared and the Icelandic workforce refuses to return. A team is sent to investigate the circumstances and prevent a possible insurance claim: as a lawyer, Thora joins the team led by her partner Matthew, to consider contractual issues. A doctor and a rescue worker accompany them, along with two erstwhile members of the workforce who clearly loathe each other. The deserted mining base is claustrophobic and the telephone lines are down. There's a mysterious shaman, a tragic history and lots of alcoholism. Despite my reservations about the plot I liked this best of this author's books.

Some "proper" reviews to follow, including one of Dragonwyck, by Anya Seton, which I reacquainted myself with this week. When I was a teenager, everyone read it. Have you, or has it gone out of fashion?

Saturday, 29 September 2012

A potpourri of murders

I'm so behind on blogging at the moment that I thought I'd better do one of those round-up posts, before I try to make my brain function properly long enough to do last month's Alan Garner reading justice. This month's reading has mainly involved murder - it's the time of year, both in that R.I.P.VII is running until Hallowe'en, and the darkening nights seem to predispose one to drawn curtains and delicious frights. So here goes:

Dead Harvest by Chris F. Holm: the librarian recommended this when I returned Moon Over Soho (which is very nearly as good as Rivers of London, I'm glad to say). Our protagonist is a Collector, sent to harvest the souls of evildoers. Despite the fact that he does this because he made his own pact with the dark side, he's not entirely irredeemable. For a start he doesn't much like taking over living people when he needs a body in which to carry out his orders, preferring to find someone as recently dead as possible, and when his next victim is someone he's pretty sure is innocent of the crimes she's been accused of, he starts to wonder whether there is something going on. Conflict with both demons and angels ensues and of course we learn how Sam got to be a Collector in the first place. This is gripping stuff: there are plenty of bodies, lots of haring around the streets of New York, some excitement with a helicopter and the start of a series.

Skulduggery by William Marshall: I love Marshall and his Hong Kong detectives, and this one gets into my Century of Books, being published in 1981). As usual in the Yellowthread books there is more than one crime under investigation: Auden is in an apartment block trying to catch a mugger who attacks people who arrive on the third floor, despite the fact that the elevator doors won't open on that floor. Spencer is staking out Mr Fan's shop, mostly to the irritation of Mr Fan the money changer, who doesn't think he's much use. Inspector Christopher O'Yee is holding the fort in the Detectives' Room of the Yellowthread Street Police Station, and battling the cold with his Exploding Radiator, when a call comes in to say that a body has been found floating on a raft in Hong Bay, a 20-year-old skeleton with a hole in its skull and a set of false teeth. DCI Harry Feiffer, aided and abetted by the pathologist who examines the skeleton, is determined that this is not going to be shelved as an unsolvable crime. Will the dead fish which accompanied the skeleton on the raft prove to be a red herring? Auden and the elevator provide one of the most delectable subplots I know (this was a re-read).

Jerusalem Inn by Martha Grimes (1984): the Richard Jury series is slightly odd in that they are set in England but written by an American. They are quite enjoyable, though, and all named for pubs (some of them very exotically so, viz. I Am the Only Running Footman). This one was set in the north-east, suitably snow-bound, though some of the local detail made me raise an eyebrow. I don't think buttered beer has seen the light of day in Britain for some years (fifty or so?), and I've never heard of "bunty sandwiches". Did she mean "butty"? They are certainly popular up here being essentially something nice and unhealthy (chips - french fries, nice thick ones - or bacon), between two slices of white bread, and they are indeed very good for keeping the cold out. Perhaps some northerner could enlighten me, if there's a local delicacy that I've somehow managed to miss. Anyhow, nice Mr Jury meets nice woman at Washington Old Hall while he's visiting his cousin in Newcastle, but then there's a death and he's itching to get involved. Fortunately the local constabulary is amenable. His friend Melrose Plant turns up too, for a chilly country weekend, with ghastly hanger-on Aunt Agatha inevitably in tow. She can't bear that Melrose has renounced his title and is provided with lots of opportunity to loudly bewail his decision when they meet a young man who'd really rather not be a marquess. Good clean fun, as they say.

I think that's enough for now. More shortly. These count towards R.I.P.VII as well.

R.I.P.VII: Down on the Farm by Charles Stross

After years as a lowly technical support officer, Bob Howard is newly-qualified as a field operative at The Laundry, "that branch of the British secret state tasked with defending the realm from the scum of the multiverse, using the tools of applied computational demonology". He's been sent to investigate "something odd" which is going on at the Funny Farm, aka St Hilda of Grantham’s Home For Disgruntled Waifs And Strays, aka the place where Laundry employees who couldn't take the heat any more end up. In their incarceration, the asylum's patients remain a dangerous bunch:
The thing is, magic is a branch of applied mathematics, and the inmates here are not only mad: they’re computer science graduates. That’s why they came to the attention of the Laundry in the first place, and it’s also why they ultimately ended up in the Farm, where we can keep them away from sharp pointy things and diagrams with the wrong sort of angles. But it’s difficult to make sure they’re safe. You can solve theorems with a blackboard if you have to, after all, or in your head, if you dare. Green crayon on the walls of a padded cell takes on a whole different level of menace in the Funny Farm: in fact, many of the inmates aren’t allowed writing implements, and blank paper is carefully controlled — never mind electronic devices of any kind.
I'd love to tell you about Matron and the Sisters, but it would be spoiling the pleasure of the story for you. But you can read "Down on the Farm" for yourself on the Tor website - if you enjoy it, you'll find the first of Bob's adventures in The Atrocity Archive, which comes bound with novella The Concrete Jungle, and which pretty much follows on from it. If you're allergic to techspeak and computer nerd jokes they may not be for you, so this story is an excellent way to see if you'll like it. Yes, there are some jokes/references in the story you won't get if you haven't read the books, but it stands on its own as an introduction both to Stross's sense of humour and an approach to story-telling which stands somewhere between Len Deighton and H.P. Lovecraft (both influences the author acknowledges). The writing style is very much the former, though I think Bob is a little more appealing that the narrator of The Ipcress Files (but that may be just me); the monsters are definitely from the latter. Stross is clearly a Neal Stephenson fan too, but then, what computer geek isn't?

In a postscript to The Atrocity Archives (plural for the book, singular for the novel - still with me?) Stross has some interesting things to say about spy fiction, inspired by the Cold War, and horror fiction, which took off rather earlier, and the possible role of the computer nerd in both as a trickster character. The Laundry Files themselves date back to the very end of the last century (talk of palmtop computers may make you snigger) placing them at the beginning of a wave of urban fantasy that's become very fashionable (think Ben Aaronovitch, for instance), and I like them, and this story, for their slightly clunky feel, and their glorious ragbag of technology. There's something very British about them.

Read for R.I.P.VII.

Friday, 31 August 2012

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII

If anything were to console me for the rapid decline of this non-summer into damp autumn, it's the prospect of RIP VII. Every year, Carl's readership eagerly awaits the post that kicks it off - many of us have been planning avidly through the final days of August, hoarding books until it begins. So, although the days dawn damp and dreich, and there was almost a nip of frost in the air last night, I don't care! Let it be autumn (or fall, if you prefer) -- I'm going to welcome it!

Yesterday was an auspicious day for perilous books, too, because it was the publication day for Boneland, Alan Garner's conclusion to the series that began with the Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which celebrated its fiftieth-birthday in 2010. It, and the book which followed, The Moon of Gomrath, have long been amongst my favourites; the 50th-anniversary edition of Weirdstone opens with comments by some of the best-known present-day writers of fantasy, including Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Susan Cooper and Garth Nix -- with authors like that singing his praises and acknowledging their debt to him, you'd know that Garner must be something special, even if you haven't heard of him.

So, I'm starting RIP this year by reading straight through the three books. I spent last night breathlessly accompanying Colin and Susan through the ancient copper mines beneath Alderley Edge - and it was every bit as intensely claustrophobic and terrifying as I remembered it! Then I plan to move slightly further south to the Welsh borderlands and the second of Phil Rickman's series about exorcist Merrily Watkins, Midwinter of the Spirit. That will fulfil the requirements for Peril the First, but I hope to continue reading for RIP after that, because it fits well with much of what I have planned for my Century of Books, where I have found myself rather focusing on crime and mystery -- largely because I enjoy them so much, but it's interesting to see, in an entirely ad hoc way, how the genre develops over the course of the twentieth century. I'm also hoping to join in the group read again, which this time is Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book (you know I can't resist a Gaiman read!)

One of the pleasures of RIP is the wonderful artwork that goes with it, this year by Gothicrow.  If you enjoy gothic images it's well worth following the link for a browse. Meanwhile, I have to see what my fellow Readers are planning, at great risk to personal safety (well, my bank balance's, at any rate)!

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Upside-Down; or, Love Among the Ruins by Denis Mackail

Miss Mary Jesmond was one who on the whole avoided self-analysis. Certainly she thought, and certainly, since she was human, there were many moments when she thought about herself. But she did this simply. Though she had played a very considerable number of different -- or at any rate slightly different -- parts on the stage, in private life she had never considered herself as more than one character. She thought of this character's clothes and food, of her engagements and occupations, and undoubtedly of her responsibilities to others as well. But she had seldom if ever concerned herself with what one might call the character's psychology. She had given little or no time to the contemplation of how an actress must always be living at least two lives.
Today was my 5-year blogging anniversary and I can honestly say that I'd never have thought in 2007 that I'd still be here after 5 years. I have to add that financially it's been ruinous -- so many recommendations, so much good, informed book chat, such groaning bookshelves -- but a huge thank you is due nevertheless to everyone who visits here, and to all the friends I've made, for your comments and your valued company.

To celebrate, I'm in Thirkell mood, but with a difference. Angela Thirkell's brother Denis Mackail was also a novelist, though it's been suggested that there was a degree of rivalry between them. Anyway, like his sister, he was writing throughout the war, and indeed was nearly as prolific as she was, producing thirty-six books between 1920 and 1950. His 1943 book, Upside-Down; or, Love Among the Ruins, was set against the background of London as the Blitz was coming to an end in 1941; and it's interesting that its subtitle was to be used 5 years  later by Angela for one of the more low-key novels in her Barsetshire series (and there's an excellent discussion of that book this week at The Captive Reader).

The heroine of Upside-Down is Miss Mary Jesmond, actress, who may never have "soared" to the classics, but who has had a very successful career on the West-End stage, always in leading roles. Now in her early forties (albeit four years older than her entry in The Dramatic Directory) she has a slightly uneasy feeling that her career might be flagging just a little. Her last run was a mere eight weeks, and there's nothing new to look forward to, unless the rather unreliable Roy Vincent can be persuaded to write a new comedy for her. Meanwhile, her daughter Laura (because the Miss is as misleading as her age: Mary is actually a widow), of whom she had considerable hopes, has abandoned what might have been a promising future on the stage for war work. Mary had rather expected that she might live on vicariously in Laura's career, and is rather disappointed, but she's determined to remain in London with Laura, taking rooms ("with a fine view of the balloon-barrage") in a rather unprepossessing block of flats when their home is rendered unsafe by the bombing.

If some of the characters seem rather flat when compared with those of Angela Thirkell, that's partly because the theatrical types in Upside-Down are appropriately rather shallow. No-one, not even Mary, has quite the warmth and vivacity of the celebrated Jessica Dean of AT's later books, though Laura comes closest to it. The most engaging scenes are between Laura and her boss at P.S.3, Humphrey Knowles (incidentally, AT would never have given a government department as nondescript a name as P.S.3) and Mary and Laura's visit to the country with Humphrey is a delight. At first, Laura's relationship with Mr Knowles is shy and rather restrained, on both parts, but after Laura brings him home during an air-raid, he finds himself gravitating more and more in the direction of Cadwallader Close. When his mother comes up to town for the day he asks Laura about a good place for lunch, and she recommends the Evergreen Club, popular with the theatrical set. Of course, when they all happen to meet up, entirely by coincidence, Mrs Knowles and Mary and Laura take to each other immediately and an invitation is issued.

The wartime atmosphere, as you'd expect from a novel actually written during that period, is vivid -- nights camping out in the shelter with cushions and drinks, the anxiety that undermines relationships when no one knows where they'll be stationed next, let alone whether they'll survive:
In this sort of uncertainty it soon seemed that another twenty-four hours had passed, bringing, of course, its fresh anxieties and irritations, so that no individual could ever catch up with what was happening, and again, perhaps, the immediate foreground was all with which one could hope to deal. Had there ever been peace? Or would there ever be peace again?
As with AT's wartime books, there's little, really, to assuage the anxiety at the end, although there's a resolution of sorts. My copy contains this logo on the frontispiece

and I found myself thinking about its war-weary readers, settling down with a book about how fictional people were coping with the very real circumstances that those readers were experiencing daily. It must have been both comforting -- the feeling that you weren't alone -- and sustaining, a reassurance that everyone was getting on with things despite the difficulties. Yet this book also contains, at almost its mid-point, a genuine -- if very British -- exchange about the bombing itself. It takes place between two of the less lovable characters, both of whom, one feels, are almost equally misguided, but nonetheless there is a very clear, humane message behind the mild hilarity with which it's treated. I don't think Mackail can equal his sister at her sparkling best -- although Greenery Street (reprinted in 2002 by Persephone Books) is well-thought of, and a very pleasant read -- but for Thirkell lovers there's a lot to like in Upside-Down, and it displays much quiet wisdom and humour about rather ordinary people. Sadly, I think there's little hope of it being reprinted, and it probably doesn't really merit it, even as social history, but Mackail's work is certainly worth looking out for in charity and secondhand book shops.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Angels and Men by Catherine Fox

Published 1995
The City is a galleon sailing on the river. Listen to the wind thrumming in the trees and singing round the chimney pots. High on the crow's nest of the cathedral hear the ping-ping-ping of rope against flagpole. This is where the angels pass by. These are the angel paths, the windy walkways. They are clothed with polished air and their faces are the faces of statues, bright as sunlight off water. No one sees them.
I'm going to file this under Northumbrian Books - okay, I know it's not, it's Durham, but I said I was going to apply the category loosely. And, to be fair, I found it during my hunt for books set in Northumberland, so it occupies that place in my mind. And I am so glad I found it, because it is terrific!

Mara is a postgraduate at Durham University, researching women in cults for her Master's -- a topic she's chosen because she had a disturbing experience with a sect which sucked in both her and her twin sister. It quickly becomes evident that she was emotionally frail anyway, but is now deeply scarred, and she's arrived at university determined to stay aloof from her fellow students and to concentrate on her work. Her detachment is read as contempt by those around her, particularly by her neighbour in her hall of residence, whom she has immediately named "the polecat". Two of the undergrads, however, May and Maddy, both, like Mara, clergy daughters, refuse to be put off by by her manners, and set out to befriend her. In their wake are clean-cut Rupert and local boy Johnny, both ordinands, both wildly attractive, and the disturbingly insidious Joanna, whose religion is of the charismatic kind. Mara finds herself, albeit against her will, caught up in college life and struggling to maintain the defences she's built to protect herself from further damage.

Does this sound oppressive? Well, it might be, except that Mara is cursed -- for someone who wants to stay angry all the time -- with a sense of humour. She can be disarmed by wit. The story as it unfolds is by turns funny and painful, but always compelling, and even when she's accused of histrionics, Mara's pain is plausible and convincing. Despite her prickliness, though, it's clear to the reader that she is capable of the active process of healing, however reluctantly she embarks on it. The other students both help and hinder, of course.

The intensity of college life is wonderfully depicted against the background of cathedral and castle -- Fox's portrait of the city reminds me a little of Elizabeth Goudge's portrayal of Ely and Wells, perhaps in the way that they both linger on rock and stone, the cathedrals rooted in the earth but soaring upwards. The river runs a constant course through the novel too, while behind the massive city sprawl the industrial wastelands of Johnny's birthplace.

I ache for a sequel to Angels and Men. Fox has written two other books which I'll be reading just as soon as I get my paws on them (warning: the third, Love for the Lost, is hard to find if you get hooked, and expensive). Meantime, I shall be busily imagining futures for all the characters...

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

I'm a bit wary of post-apocalypse books. I've had The Road on my bookshelf for some time, courtesy of elder son, and I can't quite make myself read it. So when I was offered something that seemed to be along those lines by the publisher, my response was a little tentative. I certainly wasn't about to commit myself to finishing a book if I didn't like it -- on the other hand, the American reviews sounded favourable and suggested that a little effort might be in order.

And it wasn't an effort at all. Peter Heller's book The Dog Stars is about an essentially cultured man forced into an alien role when most of the population has been wiped out by some sort of plague. Only infected people and marauding gangs remain. On the Colorado airfield to which he's retreated (and from which he still flies his two-seater plane), Hig will do what he has to to survive, but he's not going to seek out trouble for its own sake. As he tells his story, often terse and sometimes contemplative, we learn that, although by necessity capable of self-defence, he's no tough, unimaginative outdoors survivalist and he is unapologetic about his affection for his dog, Jasper, who is a much better and more appreciated companion than the man he shares the airfield with. Bangley is a survivalist, weaponed up and ruthless, but he and Hig each gain from having someone else to watch their backs and have weathered a number of attacks. Hig is haunted, though, by a faint message that suggests there are other healthy survivors, and he sometimes wonders whether he'll settle Jasper on his special quilt in the front of the Cessna and set out to look for them. But mostly he's as content as it's possible to be with the day-to-day routines of his life, growing vegetables, lying out under the stars at night, and flying, which offers detachment from the "sticky details" of everyday existence. Until something happens to spur him into action...

In this very plausible depiction of post-apocalyptic America, the action alternates with lyricism to make something much more than a run-of-the-mill adventure story. There are echoes of Saint-Exupery, not just in the transformative nature of flight but in an essential innocence in the hero. Even while aware of the need to be mistrustful of other people, Hig can still feel warmth towards them, and he grieves for the animals that are gone, and the trout he used to catch. In Hig's relationship with the world that is left, the author's love of the outdoors is palpable -- here is no imagined wilderness, but one that is real and intimately known. And hope remains. If this is a parable of our impending and self-inflicted apocalypse, Heller is telling us that it's not yet time to give up.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim

First published 1905. Here is a selection of covers...I like the castle:


Elizabeth von Arnim is rather noted for the enchantingness of her books. Elizabeth and Her German Garden is one that stays with you despite its overtones of unhappiness - for the protagonist and, by implication, the author -  in the writing, and Enchanted April is just beguiling. At the start, Princess Priscilla has a fairytale quality. It reminded me, with its middle European setting, of Thackeray's The Rose and the Ring, or Andrew Lang's varicoloured Fairy Books. Lothen-Kunitz is in the fairytale heart of Europe - not the lands of great forests and lakes, but a soft, flower-filled haven where no one is ever unhappy. Or, at least, that ought to be the case, but Princess Priscilla is deeply unsatisfied. The youngest of three sisters, she's received a better education than princesses usually have. This isn't intentional - her father thinks she's studying the ladylike accomplishments of music and drawing, but his librarian, Fritzing, adores young Priscilla and her reading list is more appropriate for a young prince, a person for whom action will be paired with study. So it's not exactly surprising when her life of luxury and inaction begins to pall. When her father announces that it's time for her to marry an entirely suitable prince, a cousin from a neighbouring kingdom, she decides that she will put up with it no longer and instructs Fritzing, who can deny her nothing, to set in train her plans for running away.

Posing as uncle and niece, the pair flee to England, whose virtues Fritzing has extolled to his pupil.  Here they will take up the simple life, in a country cottage. Unfortunately, neither is suited to such an existence - Fritzing's experience of the English countryside is of getting himself around as a single and comfortably-off young man on a walking tour - and their descent on the Somerset village of Stymford rapidly becomes little short of disastrous.

From the start the reader can see that it's very unlikely to work out - Priscilla hasn't the knack of relating to people on an ordinary level and she deals with her new acquaintances with a combination of warmth and imperiousness which makes both friends and enemies. The most implacable of the latter is Mrs Morrison, the vicar's wife, who thinks she's a designing hussy. Mrs Morrison's son Robin, on the other hand, falls instantly in love, as does the young lord of the manor. Confusion ensues, especially as Priscilla and Fritzing have forgotten to agree some of the most basic elements of their story, such as their pseudonames.

Von Arnim's style is chatty and discursive, an ever-present authorial voice observing, interpreting and even disapproving. "I shall chronicle," she says, "and not comment. I shall try to, that is, for comments are very dear to me." And she embarks on a fresh paragraph of moralising. Later she says, "And now I come to a part of my story that I would much rather not write." Priscilla is the erring child of her heart.

My borrowed, 1905 copy of Princess Priscilla came from the deepest vaults of the library service, it seemed, a first edition purchased in 1949 as part of a gift to commemorate the end of the war, since when it has been loaned out a total of 12 times. It's in good condition for a book more than 100 years old, and it seems rather sad that it probably hasn't seen daylight for more of the last 50 (someone did borrow it in 2009). I'm amazed that it hasn't gone the way of most of the older books in the library system, and can only suppose that being a bequest saved it.  It's exactly the sort of thing I pounced on in my local library when I was growing up, and I'm sorry that it's so obviously a casualty of the compulsion to restock the shelves regularly with chick lit and thrillers and only emerges when someone takes the trouble to trawl the catalogue looking for antiques. Because it's worth reading, and not only as a curiosity - it's witty and diverting and has something to say - lightly, charmingly - about impossible quests and the follies of youth and age. Ardent princesses and old men in ivory towers take note!

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Wimping out on The Extinction Club

Is it possibly to recommend a book you haven't read? Not as a rule, in my opinion, which leaves me with a dilemma over Jeffrey Moore's The Extinction Club. Because I wanted to read it - it was just that I wimped out. I couldn't finish it. In fact, I didn't get very far with it, maybe about a third of the way in. After that, I was feeling too ill.

Here's what Penguin Canada had to say about it:
Nile Nightingale is on the run—from what he’s not exactly sure. For he suffers from a pharmaceutical backlog, after-sensations from the drugs and alcohol of his youth and anti-depressants of adulthood. Put simply, he sees things that aren’t there. Including extinct animals.
Enter fourteen-year-old Céleste Jonquères, a near-genius ‘spitfire’ who sees things all too clearly, things she wished she’d never seen. Including some atrocious acts of cruelty to animals in Quebec’s Laurentian forests. When Nile finds her bleeding body in a sack dumped in a half-frozen churchyard swamp, bound with red Christmas ribbon, he naturally tries to save her. After all, he did go to med school, and his father was a famous doctor… But what does he do about the local hunters who want her dead? And the images and voices he’s starting to see and hear inside his head?
The Extinction Club is a magic spell of a book—phantasmagoric, multilayered, full of singular characters, plot twists and neon dialogue. It is also a darkly comic tale, a compassionate ‘new noir’ in which a middle-aged American stamp collector and a teenaged Canadian brainiac share their views on life and death, love and loss.
My problem, as you can perhaps guess, came with Céleste's descriptions of what has been done to the animals she finds, and what she knows about the international trafficking of animal parts. In theory, I know this stuff already, I've read it elsewhere, or winced at videos I don't want to be watching. It's ridiculous that I can read about bad things happening to people (admittedly in a limited sort of way - no Girls with Dragon Tattoos here) and then turn into a wreck over bad things happening to animals, but I just can't bear it.

So I've given up on what seemed like a very good, moral book. I love the cover. I liked the writing, I was interested in the two main characters. I want to know about Nile's past, and whether he and Céleste can overcome formidable odds. I want to know more about the cat. Hell, I want to know more about the stamp collection. But I can't read any further. I can't even skip the bad bits. I ought to be brave, and informed. But I can't even leave the spine of the library book facing out on the shelf, because it will remind me of what I'm avoiding. I brought it home from the library because I know that Jeffrey Moore is a good writer and a nice guy (I organised a conference at which he was a speaker), but the sooner it gets returned, the better.

If you have stronger nerves than me, there's an excellent book there, I think ... I'll read one of his others.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Broken Harmony by Roz Southey

"I am talking to a dead man, trying to persuade him to give up the name of his murderer. Trying to persuade him that justice is more than a private matter. And getting nowhere."
This is a bit of an oddity, but none the worse for that. Broken Harmony is a mystery set in the 1730s in Newcastle, and it's written by a musicologist, so you can be assured that the occupation of the main characters is going to be convincing. Charles Patterson is a harpsichord player (though he's proficient on other instruments too) who aspires to lead the city's small chamber orchestra, a position he thinks should be his by right: in those days it was quite usual for an ensemble to be led from the harpsichord, something, indeed, which we often see today. However, Patterson has an arch rival, first violin Henri Le Sac, and it is he who leads - and, as Patterson grudgingly admits, is a virtuoso player, dextrous and showy, to the frequent delight of audiences. Patterson himself, meanwhile, is proficient and an excellent leader, but unexciting. The two men vie for pupils, as well, as teaching provides an important supplementary income, and it only exacerbates their antagonism that each has a friend who is a dancing master. Indeed, if anything, Demsey and Nichols hate each other even more than the two musicians.

The oddity is that there is a supernatural element to the story. We quickly learn that hauntings are a part of everyday existence - spirits, it seems, usually take a hundred years before they leave the place where death occurred. Patterson's landlady, Mrs Foxton, is still running her establishment with a firm word despite her incorporeality, while on stormy nights the ghosts make the streets an eerily frightening place:
The Key was a river of smoke, eddying and drifting in a wind that dragged at my clothes and hair. As the smoke swirled, it covered everything in a pall of dark grey, then tugged itself apart again, offering glimpses of cobbles, bundles of charcoal, ballast stones abandoned in huge hillocks. The scream of seagulls echoed as if from a great distance; faintly I heard shouting - confused and alarmed, frightened even - as if some calamity had occurred. A man stumbled out of the smoke, coughing and retching - a collier by his clothes and the ingrained black lines on his hands and face. He pushed past me, swearing through his coughing, and stumbled on.

At last I understood. No seagulls made those unearthly noises but the spirits of drowned sailors, calling from the water for assistance, pleading to be lifted from the river, crying out for rescue. Sailors who had fallen from the keels, or cast down by wreck, or thrown over by drink or malice or the impenetrable workings of fate. Each of them tormented, crying for help.
The grimy, ghost-ridden streets, and Patterson's glimpses of a house in Caroline Square which only seems to be there at certain moments, tease and chill the reader: there's a sense that you don't quite know where firm ground is. Patterson is so matter of fact, except when he sees the strange house, but you do begin to wonder who of the characters can be trusted. Is there something odd about the the two women who patronise the musicians? One of them is certainly playing games, apparently with little care for the safety of her pawns.

I imagine that some readers will feel uncomfortable with the notion that ghosts, if they can be found, can reveal the identity of their murderers, but there are constraints on the ways this can happen. And after all, we're dealing with a period when most methods of investigation that we take for granted now are not available. No DNA, no mobile phone tracing, not even any fingerprints. So a little leeway can surely be granted. And anyway, there's something about the 18th-century world which is amenable to the paranormal, perhaps because it's the one which gave birth to the gothic. I found that I quickly accepted the spirits almost as part of the period detail - which, not surprisingly, is excellent, since the author's own research area is 18th-century music-making. She evokes Newcastle of the time, a provincial city surrounded by by coalmines, to great effect, persuading me that it's every bit as fascinating as London or Edinburgh. And I intend to read the next in the series, Chords and Discords, while listening to the music of Newcastle's very own 18th-century composer, Charles Avison. The perfect accompaniment!

Monday, 9 July 2012

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

First of all, if you haven't yet read A Discovery of Witches, you shouldn't be here. Go away. Shoo. Nothing to see here. Now we've got that over, and established that only bona fide followers of Matthew and Diana's adventures are reading this while eagerly awaiting delivery of your copies of Shadow of Night (because it's not published until tomorrow, 10 July), let me assure you that from here on I'll be careful what I say because I really don't want to spoil any of the fun for you.

So, we all knew that this installment was going to follow Diana and Matthew back to his house in Woodstock in 1590, where they are going to find Matthew's friends - some of the most prominent thinkers of their age are going to put in appearances, human, daemons and vampires (here called wearhs, because the word vampire didn't appear until much later). They are seeking a witch who can help Diana discover and control her newly emerging powers, creating for themselves a breathing space before they deal with members of the Congregation in their present-day lives, and hoping that they might find the manuscript Ashmole 782 that brought them together in the first place and is now lost again in the depths of the Bodleian library. They really need some safe time together as well, unthreatened by creatures like the vampire Juliette, who nearly proved to be their downfall before they left the present. But there are unknowns - Diana has been warned that, back among his closest friends, Matthew may become more an Elizabethan than a modern man: if vampires are already predisposed to autocratic behaviour, what will happen when they are living in a society where woman have little control over their lives? And how will those companions, members of the group known as the School of Night, take to a woman as strong-minded as Diana? Moreover, she won't be able to hide from them - or not from all of them - that she's a witch and, while England under Elizabeth wasn't the time of the most fervent witchhunts, they were still feared and reviled. So Diana is at risk, both as a result of her proscribed relationship with Matthew and because of her witchcraft.

All this offers the author a wonderful opportunity to explore her characters within a different setting, and at the same time to pen portraits of real people such as George Chapman, the gentle Henry Percy, the volatile and devious Christopher Marlowe (here a daemon) and the ever-fascinating John Dee. With her historian's eye for detail, Harkness also gives us a picture of daily life in 16th-century England - I must admit to absolutely lapping up the domestic minutiae, the shopping for cabbages and complaints about the laundry bills and could happily have had more of it, though I wish people would stay away from dance, because they always get it wrong! Oh, and while I'm nitpicking ever so slightly, I'm not comfortable with the use of the word "feisty" in a historical setting. Even if it's Diana's translation of Matthew's description of her (as well as Elizabethan English, she is called on to try to communicate in French, Latin, Spanish, Occitàn and German at times), it feels wrong - not only is it not a 16th-century word, it's not a 16th-century concept, and would only convey a negative to others; "shrew" would probably be closest. Not flattering.

Anyway, even in this time, present-day anxieties intrude: the Congregation exists in both timeframes, as does the covenant that forbids their relationship. It's difficult to know whom amongst the creatures to trust, and the humans pursue their own ends. Just as the Congregation's reach extends throughout Europe, so Diana and Matthew find themselves caught up in political intrigue and machination. There are domestic difficulties too, within their own, suddenly enlarged, household - privacy was almost unheard of in Elizabethan England - but Diana has modern sensibilities, even if Matthew is more used to living with an extended family and entourage, and new marriages require space for people to adapt to living together. The vampire's need to protect and control is an inevitable cause of conflict, especially as Diana becomes more confident in her new setting - for the first time she can explore alchemy on a practical level, and she must learn more about her magic to survive. There's an awareness, too, that they can't be entirely hidden from the modern Congregation even in the past.

Considering that the death of the novel is confidently predicted almost daily, there have been a surprising number of these high-end fantasies about intelligent women of late. I've read several, and I started to wonder what it is that makes this one so successful. While its non-human characters make it very much of its time - caring vampires are so 21st century! - in many ways the All Souls trilogy reminds me most of Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond and Niccoló chronicles. These are less complex but share some of the brio of those works and the sense of the author's involvement with the period and her extensive research - though in Harkness's case it has a rather narrower focus, on the histories of science and magic. The characterisation is a strength too, and the gradual revealing of personal secrets. There's also a quiet humour in the writing - no laugh-out-loud moments, or broad comedy, no grand set pieces that turn from hilarity to tragedy in a moment, à la Dunnett, but amusement at foibles and a gentle playfulness between certain of the characters that amuses and lends a sense of reality - that sort of humour, between rather than about, doesn't always work in novels; it can feel very contrived, but here it seems natural and unforced.

One thing I can tell you about Shadow of Night: you are going to want to put everything on hold while you read it, it's every bit as compelling as A Discovery of Witches, and you are going to resent every minute you spend doing something else. Now I've finished it, Part 3 seems a very long way off!

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Some more catching up

I've got very behind with reviews for my Century of Books, so here are some short ones:

Portrait of a Man with Red Hair by Hugh Walpole (1925).  It's funny, but I thought I remembered rather liking the once-fashionable Hugh Walpole in my schooldays. If I did, it wasn't for this gothic romance - when I picked it up I'd an idea I had read it before, but I quickly realised I had no recollection of it. I suppose it's a very early version of the psychological novel - you can see similarities between it and some of Buchan's writing, or even Chesterton's, but it has none of the appeal. In fact, I loathed it, and it made me feel rather grubby, although there is nothing overtly unpleasant. The man with red hair is a sadist who fancies himself a master criminal, but all the characters are cardboard cutouts, from the not-terribly-heroic hero to the ill-fated lovers that he meets while on a walking holiday. I really can't recommend it at all - Daphne du Maurier did this sort of thing so much better that you'd be much wiser to choose any of her novels. It's taken me ages to get round to writing about it because I can't think of anything to say except "yuck".

Diplomatic Baggage by James Melville (1994). This felt like a book from an earlier time - perhaps the 60s. It's a piece of fluff about a young-ish diplomat with something of a reputation for getting embroiled in (unspecified) trouble, who is posted to Hungary in 1982 as a cultural attaché ( a post the author himself once held, so you know there's going to be a degree of plausibility about the mayhem). Once he gets to Budapest Ben Lazenby initially seems to settle in fairly well - he's an easy-going type, with enough of a sense of humour to find negotiating the intricacies of diplomacy in the later stages of the Cold War to be faintly ridiculous, at best, and downright farcical at worst. And predictably, worst is what it becomes, when he is sent to escort two lorries containing an exhibition of British art to their next destination. Before long, one of the lorries is missing,  and Ben finds himself lumbered with an attractive journalist in possession of secrets and apparently haunted by two gipsy children who keep turning up in unexpected places. It was described as the start of a "sparkling new series" but only seems to have been followed by one sequel, suggesting that I wasn't the only one who found it, if reasonably enjoyable, a bit lacking in actual sparkle. Sad, because the author was responsible for an excellent crime series about Superintendent Tetsuo Otani which gave a real sense of life in modern Japan - at least to this reader - and contributed to a series about an art teacher called Miss Seeton, which sound fun. Here's a bit from Diplomatic Baggage - Ben has been wining and dining a recent arrival, academic Emma Jarvis, who has a teaching appointment at the University:
Just in time he remembered to hand over the plastic bag he had brought for her. It contained two boxes of Kleenex, a jar of Nescafé, a tin of Band-Aids and a plastic bottle each of Stergene and Squezy washing-up liquid from the Embassy staff shop. Joanna Crockett had recommended these items as more than acceptable gifts for a young British lady living on her own in the Hungarian provinces, and contributed a rectangular package wrapped in brown paper and a letter from herself. Lazenby thought he could guess what was in the package and thought Emma would be grateful for this token of sisterly thoughtfulness; but was astounded when she positively crooned over the bottle of Squezy, tears of gratitude brimming in her eyes.
Watson's Choice by Gladys Mitchell (1955). I didn't mean to read two books by Mitchell, but the library produced this one for me, for a year I hadn't completed. Her writing career spanned the years 1929 to 1984, so this one comes from about midway, though I don't think there's much difference in Mrs Bradley from the 1941 novel I reviewed earlier - she's described as old in both, she definitely cackled in the earlier one (suggestive of age, I think?) and George the invaluable chauffeur seems much the same in both. In this book a rather unlikeable friend of Mrs Bradley's, Sir Bohun Chantrey, has insisted, despite fears for his safety which she considers to be reasonably well-founded, on giving a Sherlock Homes party for his immediate household and a few friends. Everyone attending is expected to dress up as one of Conan Doyle's characters, and to demonstrate their familiarity with the stories during a treasure hunt. The evening doesn't go entirely to plan and, in its later stages, a large dog turns up, rather badly painted to look like the famous Hound... Mrs B., her secretary Laura, and Laura's policeman fiancé are concerned enough to look into the events at the party and no-one is terribly surprised when one of the household turns up dead.

Mrs Bradley books are held, by those who know, to be variable in quality, and this is one of those chosen by Vintage for its recent reprinting, but I didn't think it as good as When Last I Died: despite the badly-painted dog, it was short on the eccentricity of the earlier book. I like Mrs B.'s affinity for young people and I find it very comforting that there's more than 60 Mrs B. books still to read - most series are a little on the short side, in my opinion. Finding them all would be quite another matter, however, and could prove very expensive!