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!

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Mostly crime...

A round-up post today, of more books that don't count towards the Century and that, therefore, I didn't ought to be reading right now...

First, I finished An Unsuitable Day for Murder (see earlier post), in which Dandy goes to Dunfermline to investigate the disappearance of a young woman. I enjoyed it so much that I thought we'd have another quote from it, this time the opening paragraphs:
Whatever I was expecting when I decided to take a turn around Dunfermline — I was early for my appointment and it was a particularly pleasant day — it was not this air of jubilance. Indeed, if one were taxed with naming five jubilant towns and ran out of inspiration after Paris, Barcelona, New Orleans and Rio one would not search for the fifth in Scotland's gazetteer. (And if one were taxed with naming five jubilant towns in Scotland and did not, for some reason, face the facts and pay the forfeit right away, I daresay Dunfermline would still not spring to mind.) 

Yet I could not help but notice that, today at least, the whole town effervesced in the most remarkable way. The whole city, I should properly say, for — as Hugh never tires of reminding me with much retelling of the glories of King Robert and the shenanigans of Malcolm Canmore — Dunfermline is a city and one groaning with history too: the birthplace of Charles I and more lately (not to mention more beneficially to the world at large) Andrew Carnegie. Indeed, I was passing the Carnegie library now, thinking how generous it was of him to endow it, since here was one place he might have expected to get a library named after him anyway.
Dandy finds herself embroiled in a feud between two prominent families in the town, and a peculiarly Scottish version of Romeo and Juliet. Though practical and resourceful as ever, she's often hard put to untangle the threads when neither family will be open with her, and when every new clue seems to lead back to something they aren't telling her. A hostile police inspector complicates matters even further. A warning: if you haven't read any of the Dandy Gilver, this is not the best place to start. It's the most tortuous of McPherson's plots, and you are going to need that family tree at the start!

A digression from crime: I recently read Straight Up, by Catriona McCloud, which is McPherson writing under another name. It's a novel set in Hollywood, about a florist who has written a novel to help her deal with the break-up of her marriage. To make herself feel better, she casts her husband as a mountaineer who dies alone on a expedition, and then finds herself trapped in an absolute deluge of deceit when it gets picked up by a film industry scout who thinks that it's a true life story, a misapprehension Verity never feels quite able to correct. At first I thought it was too chicklit, but the characters really grew on me, including, to my surprise, the Hollywood ones, and by the end I was completely won over. Sadly, I can't quote from it because it's gone back to the library - that was very shortsighted of me - but if your needs run to bits of fluff to tuck into your luggage as you set off on holiday, then this is perfect for the purpose.

And finally, back to crime with The Complaints by Ian Rankin. Not a Rebus novel, but starring a new character, Malcolm Fox, who works in the Professional Standards Unit within the Complaints and Conduct Department of the Lothian and Borders Police. His job is investigating his fellow officers when corruption is suspected and, at the start, he's just winding up the paperwork on a job when he's asked by Child Protection to look at an officer who may be downloading illegal pornography.  He's hardly begun, though, when a murder occurs which brings Fox into contact with the cop in question. It's very much Rebus territory still - single, grumpy, middle-aged policeman unpopular with his peers - but even when things go badly wrong Fox isn't as irascible, nor as self-destructive, as Rebus, and the book feels fresh enough to grab your attention fast. As usual, Rankin's Edinburgh is immediately recognisable - and I don't mean just its streets and landmarks, but also its people and atmosphere, the way power is wielded in the capital and its relationship to Scotland's other cities. It was very, very hard to put down and I'll be reading the next, The Impossible Dead, just as soon as I can get hold of it.

I've got another book I want to talk about, a historical mystery set in 18th-century Northumberland, but this post is long enough, I think, so I'll save it for another day.