Saturday, 28 December 2013

Entry Island by Peter May

I haven’t read anything else by Peter May so I don’t know if the dual timeline is characteristic of his work, but it is used here to add depth and interest to what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward detective novel about an apparently domestic murder: when  the Québec Sureté are called to a remote island to investigate the murder of one of the inhabitants, it seems immediately clear that his wife must be the killer. Sime Mackenzie (pronounced “Sheem”; it’s Gaelic) isn’t so sure, though, because he feels oddly drawn to Kirsty Cowell, the woman who is likely to be arrested. Is his feeling that he has met her before real, or is it a product of the prolonged sleeplessness that has followed the break-up of his marriage?

The Magdalen Islands are an archipelago in the Gulf of St Lawrence with a population of French, Scots, English and Acadians, and part of the province of Quebec; Entry Island, however, is English-speaking, and that is why Sime has been sent as part of the investigation team – to conduct interviews in English. With him he takes the baggage of his own Scots descent, distant memories of the brutal Highland Clearances which uprooted thousands of impoverished Highlanders, often putting them straight onto emigration ships bound for Canada, where those who survived the journey must make a life for themselves in the young colony. Thanks to his grandmother, Sime has grown up with the stories of his ancestry on the Isle of Lewis, but his rediscovery of that history as an adult, reading the diaries of an earlier Sime Mackenzie -- extracts provide the second timeline I referred to above -- is woven throughout his investigation of the present-day murder:

The first time I strayed further from our village than Sgagarstaigh, or Ard Mor […] I was amazed at the size of our island. Once you left the sea behind you, you could walk all day without ever seeing it again. But the land was pitted with wee lochs reflecting the sky, and it broke up the monotony of the landscape.
The thing that amazed me most, though, was the size of the sky. It was enormous. You saw much more of it than ever you did at Baile Mhanais. And it was always changing with the wind.

When I first saw Atlantic Canada (from the air only, sadly; I’ve never been able to visit properly), I was struck by how familiar a landscape it must have looked to the homeless Highlanders, an impression further reinforced by the writings of Alistair MacLeod, that wonderful chronicler of Nova Scotia. Here, too, the parallels between Hebridean Lewis and the Canadian Entry Island are drawn, and the Highlanders’ forced displacement juxtaposed against that of Kirsty, who refuses to leave the island where she grew up.

A haunting story of exile and loss, Entry Island will stay with you long after you finish reading.

Note: My review copy came courtesy of

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Postal Challenge 2014

This year Melwyk at The Indextrious Reader hosted a postal challenge to draw attention to the decline in letter-writing in recent years, something which we should all deplore. I was sorely tempted to join in but neither reading nor blogging were going particularly well at the time, so I was sensible.

This year, though, Melwyk is hosting the challenge again, and I'm determined to join in. I'm delighted to find that there were some epistolary novels already on the TBR pile, and I've been able to draw up a list which looks more like unadulterated pleasure than hard work.

What's involved? Here's what Melwyk has to say on her blog:
What is the Challenge?

The key is to read and review books with a postal theme. These can be non-fiction on the subject of letter writing, collections of real letters, or epistolary fiction of any era. Be creative! Review each one and link back to the challenge -- there will be quarterly roundup posts for you to link reviews and posts to as you create them.

The challenge runs from January 1st, 2014 to December 31st, 2014.  You can sign up ANY TIME throughout the year.

Any books chosen can overlap with any other challenge, and rereads are allowed. Just remember to review them somewhere online in order for them to count toward the challenge. Lists don't have to be made in advance, though feel free to share your choices and inspire other readers if you wish! I always think that making lists is half the fun :)
How do I join in?

There are a few ways to participate in this challenge. 

Postcard Level:   Read and review books with a postal theme.

Snail Mail Level:   Read and review 8 books with a postal theme.

Parcel Post Level: Read and review 12 books with a postal theme.

Air Mail Express Level:   Read and review 12 books with a postal theme AND commit to sending more old fashioned letters this year. At least 12 pieces of mail (or more!), and you can share numbers or even images of your mail art in the quarterly roundups.

Anyone who completes the challenge at any level will have their names thrown into a draw to win some letter-related goodies at the end of the year. In addition, if you complete the Air Mail Express Level, you'll get a chance to win a lifetime membership to (and some goodies from) the Letter Writers Alliance!
Need ideas about what to read? Check out the links at last year's sign-up post, or scroll through some of the epistolary titles that were reviewed in 2013.
To join in, just go to Melwyk's blog and sign up, either with your introductory post or just with your blog's name. You don't even have to have a blog to join.

I agree with Melwyk that lists are half the fun, so here's mine:

  1. Jean Webster, Daddy-long-legs: I've been meaning to re-read this childhood favourite again. It's available on Project Gutenberg and in various print editions. I may well read the sequel, Dear Enemy, too.
  2. Nina Stibbe, Love Nina: Despatches from Family Life: Annabel has just reviewed this and I liked the sound of it, so I'd already ordered it from the library. How convenient!
  3. Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society: I'm the only person who hasn't read this, it seems. What a good opportunity to set that right.
  4. Joyce Dennys, Henrietta's War: Ditto. It's been sitting on the Kindle waiting for a couple of months.
  5. Helene Hanffe, 84 Charing Cross Road: I have read this one, but it seems like a good time for a re-read.
  6. Sarah Caudwell, The Shortest Way to Hades: Loved the first in this series, Thus Was Adonis Murdered. I'm pretty sure that the epistolary passages continue into the second book -- indeed, I can't see how they wouldn't. Should be a real treat!
  7. Jessica Brockmole, Letters from Skye: This was on several people's lists for the 2013 challenge, I think, and I like the sound of it. The library has it.
  8. Rosie Thornton, More Than Love Letters: Okay, this is a re-read, but I remember enjoying it very much.
  9. The letters of Jane Austen: Something to dip into throughout the year? I have the edition of her letters published by Lord Brabourne on my Kindle -- not complete, about 2/3 of them -- but I also have various collections with extracts, including My Dear Cassandra, which has lovely illustrations to complement them.
  10. Caroline Stevermer and Patricia Wrede, The Mislaid Magician or Ten Years After: This series/trilogy started with Sorcery and Cecelia, or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, and is just fun. And is the only one I might need to buy.
  11. The sequel to Daddy-long-legs is Dear Enemy. I haven't read it.
  12. To round off the year, I may go for another re-read, one based on Jane Austen's letters and another real favourite, Hazel Holt's My Dear Charlotte. This is described as a detective novel in letters, by the author of the splendid Mrs Malory series.
There! It should be entirely possible to add new titles during the course of the year, too, with quarterly summaries to look forward to. Twelve books puts me at the AirMail Express Level, which means I have to commit to sending at least 12 pieces of mail, too (I don't suppose 50 Christmas cards is going to count, is it?) Well, I do like both sending and receiving mail -- usually cards -- so I don't think this will be too much of a hardship. My card collection is nearly as extensive as my TBR pile, in fact - perhaps this will deplete it a little. At any rate, it's beginning to look like a year of unalloyed pleasure!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Two murder mysteries

I seem to have missed the instalment before Susan Hill's A Question of Identity (number 7 in the Serrailler series), but it didn't affect the investigation into the apparently random killings of little old ladies. Susan Hill is not going to let her readers off when it comes to victims, you are going to be sympathising with them before they get bumped off, so you'll feel personally affronted by the crime when it happens. Our hero, Simon Serrailler, may be intelligent and good-looking, but he's a flake when it comes to his personal life, and can be pretty irritating. Of course, we understand why, but it doesn't stop you wanting to shout at him sometimes. Fortunately, he's not so bad at being an uncle, which is just as well because his sister Cat's family is having a difficult time. So, too, is their stepmother Judith, whose marriage to their cold and distant father is beginning to look shaky, although she won't talk about it.

What really makes this series compelling is the Serrailler family. The crime element would be enough on its own to make the books readable -- Hill does them very well, cranking up the reader's anxiety for her victims. Grit is provided by the occasional first person viewpoint of the murderer, reinforcing motive without quite giving away their identity. But the author really excels at portraying the Serrailler men in their family setting: reserved and complicated, even brooding, they guard their own interests at the expense of those around them. This is family saga in the guise of crime novel, and very effective it is too. But it does mean that they are better read on order.

The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards is the sixth Lake District Mystery involving historian Daniel Kind and DCI Hannah Scarlett. As in the Serrailler story, a murder has happened which seems to echo others from the past -- but how can they possibly be connected when the killers are dead? The coincidence is enough for Hannah to be drawn into the investigation, where she finds not only Daniel but her own closest friend involved.

I didn't plan in advance to review these two books together, but it occurs to me that they are an interesting pairing. For a start, in The Frozen Shroud Edwards encroaches on Hill's territory with its lakes and mists and obscured identities -- there are moments of high gothic worthy of The Woman in Black. Unlike the Serrailler series, though, The Frozen Shroud could stand on its own as a mystery -- while the previous instalments provide background about the main characters, and some events are dependent on the recent past dealt with in the earlier books, the puzzle of the three, possibly connected, murders is at its core in the way that the Serraillers are at the heart of Hill's series. This may be due in part to the Lake District setting, which emerges powerfully in Edwards' writing in a way that Serrailler's Lafferton fails to. Susan Hill has apparently mentioned both Salisbury and Exeter as models for Lafferton; I've lived in Exeter and, sadly, Lafferton has no resonances of that city for me. Maybe Salisbury is a better fit? I don't know... but honestly, Lafferton doesn't really feel like anywhere very distinct. I've also lived on the edge of the Lakes, and that's one of the reasons I enjoy Martin Edwards' books so much. By fictionalising a real and recognisable place, he brings his obvious feelings for that landscape into play, and grounds his characters within it; part of his work is then done, and he can focus on the plot, while Hill's nebulous Lafferton almost impedes development. When Hannah sits down in her office it's the same one where she sat in the last book, and the book before that -- Simon's office is just a line of print on the page.

Hmm... I think I may be feeling my way towards saying that actually, the strength in Hill's series is the female characters, and that I find Serrailler himself a bit ephemeral. I don't mean to imply that he's unconvincing, but perhaps his portrayal leans too heavily on what the author tells us about him rather than what we discover. Looking back, I realise that my interest always quickens when the women appear -- Cat and Judith are warm and vital and decisive, and seem real. In the Lake District mysteries, Daniel and Hannah, too, have reason to be guarded in their relationships, but if they choose inaction, it is for caution rather than calculation.

The Frozen Shroud and A Question of Identity are both excellent examples of how British crime novels have evolved from Golden Age detective fiction: one is essentially a police procedural while the other riffs on the classic country house mystery, but both are driven by plot and character in equal measure. Both would make excellent last-minute Christmas presents for the connoisseur, or why not start at the beginning with both series?

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

Crocodile on a Sandbank, first published in 1975

I've always known that the first encounter between Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson must have been an almighty clash of personalities, but for some reason I'd never read the first of Elizabeth Peters' books. When I discovered (some time ago) a cheap Kindle deal on the first four, I snapped it up, but have only now got round to reading it (there are still good deals, incidentally - as I write, this first is on Amazon UK for 99p).

Much of the character of Emerson is based on Flinders Petrie, as is the research - Petrie was the first Egyptologist to systematically categorise his finds, realising that where other dating methods were impossible, pottery - for instance - could be identified by its stage of development, so he meticulously recorded each piece, building up a historical record. Much information had been lost through haphazard "research" and straightforward looting, but Petrie's methodical approach makes early twentieth-century archaeology a fascinating field, and Peters' series is a wonderfully rendered and spirited recreation of that period. Amelia Peabody has all the characteristics that made early lady explorers indomitable - she travels in comfort because it would be irrational not to do so, rather than because she is afraid of discomfort:
Emerson grumbled at all the unnecessary luxury. I myself have no objection to comfort so long as it does not interfere with more important activities. (From Curse of the Pharaohs)
She despises the squalor and poverty in which most of the Egyptians live, but alleviates these conditions wherever she can, travelling with a collection of eye ointments and other paraphernalia, and she makes lifelong friends of many of their workers.

Inevitably, Amelia's meeting with Emerson is the scene of immediate conflict, since both are opinionated and emphatically convinced of their own correctness in everything. It is Emerson's younger brother Walter, and Amelia's companion Evelyn, at once attracted to each other, who contrive further meetings. The Emerson brothers are digging at the site of the heretic king Akhenaten's temple, but they are beset by problems caused by the superstition of the workers and their own chronic lack of funding. In fact, when the women arrive, Emerson is seriously ill and Amelia must at once set to work to save him. When he recovers, the willingness of both women to approach archaeology with care and academic rigour rapidly establishes the quartet as a team so effective that even the reluctant Emerson must admit it.

Peters treads the line between Amelia's self-awareness and self-deception with great skill (and considerable glee) even in this first of the series. Amelia is always so certain of her own rationality and rightness -- and much of the time, the reader will agree that her decisiveness and proposals are most sensible. Indeed, her obtuseness at times can look like wilful self-deception and, if it is, it's as plausible a trait as any other she shows. The reader simultaneously concurs with the other characters and colludes with Peabody in overcoming their objections to the course she proposes, but no decision ever proceeds without much wrangling:
Only Evelyn’s intervention prevented a full-scale battle at breakfast, and it was she who insisted that we all get some sleep before discussing the matter again. All our tempers were strained by fatigue, she said; we could not think clearly. This was, of course, Evelyn’s tact; her temper was never strained, and I am rational under all circumstances. It was Emerson who needed rest in order to be sensible, although I doubted that sleep would improve his disposition very much.
In case you've never read anything by Elizabeth Peters (I guess there may still be the odd soul out there who hasn't), this series isn't just about archaeology -- all the novels have a mystery at their heart. In Crocodile on a Sandbank someone is apparently trying to sabotage the dig -- the mummy of a long-dead priest of Amon appears to be haunting the site and there are numerous unexplained accidents. In fact, this is a running theme throughout the series, trading on the competitive and sometimes cut-throat nature of early Egyptology. And, of course, there's the Curse of the Pharaoh...

I can imagine that for some, Amelia Peabody might just be too much, I suspect you are either going to love her or hate her. Her admiration (privately expressed) for her husband can be a bit irritating at times, but it's entirely in character. She feels like a real person; I adore her.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

A quick round-up

Time for a quick round-up of recent reading, while I get myself organised for a proper post.

Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood: The first of the Phryne Fisher series, set in 20s Australia, which is rather refreshing. The heroine is a wealthy young member of the British aristocracy who nevertheless had poor beginnings, so she's managed to acquire lots of street-smarts. The trouble is, she is also too smart for the sort of suitors her family want her to marry, so they are quite relieved when she takes herself off to Australia where she's been asked to investigate whether all is well in the marriage of another young lady. She quickly acquires a couple of sidekicks and finds herself enmeshed in all sorts of skulduggery involving bathhouses and ballet dancers. Fun.

A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E by Penny Dolan: An atmospheric Victorian mystery about the young heir to a fortune whose uncle wants him out of the way (another one! I seem to be picking them at the moment.) Mouse is living happily on a farm with the woman he thinks is his "Ma" when the creepy Mr Button turns up and he is suddenly sent away to a school which could easily be Dotheboys Hall. The headmaster calls him Vermin and sends him to work in the kitchen. Eventually, Mouse escapes and set off to look for his Ma, a journey which takes him into the world of Victorian theatre. Mr Button, though, and wicked Uncle Scrope are on his trail. A charming and captivating book for young readers, full of wonderfully Dickensian characters.

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny: An Inspector Gamache novel is always a pleasure. This has a particularly appealing setting -- a mysterious monastery in the wilds of Quebec, where a murder has taken place. Gamache investigates with his usual thoughtfulness and care, but Beauvoir is troubled by events in his own recent past. This is how I imagined the monastery, except in more isolated surroundings:

Abbaye Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, Quebec

Belinda Goes to Bath by M.C. Beaton: amiable fluff, this one, and the second in a series about Miss Hannah Pym, a Regency-period housekeeper who has been left enough money to keep her in reasonable comfort for life. Hannah has an irrepressible sense of adventure, and decides to use the money to go travelling. Her first trip (and the first book) takes her to Exeter; in this one she refuses to be daunted by winter weather and sets off for Bath. On the way, the stagecoach is overturned in a snowstorm. Fortunately the grim but dashing Marquis of Fenton is at hand... what makes these fun is that Hannah is sensible, bossy, organised, and if she sees a charming young lady in a dreadful plight, you can be sure that she'll take charge. Happily, the charming young ladies have plenty of character too!

Bryant and May and the Invisible Code by Christopher Fowler: I was a tiny bit adrift here, because this is quite a late episode in the very splendid Bryant and May series and I've missed an awful lot. It was also ages since I've read one, and I'm slightly vague about some of the details. Arthur Bryant is a policeman who ought to have retired years ago, but is now a member of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, assisted by John May. This one involves a woman who thinks that there are witches after her; there are secret codes to be broken, rumours of nefarious goings-on at Porton Down, and curses. This series is tremendous fun.

Real Murders by Charlaine Harris: Another first in a series. Charlaine Harris is the author of the Sookie Stackhouse books (that became True Blood on TV), but she also writes more conventional cosy crime, set in small-town America. Aurora Teagarden (Roe) is a librarian, and a member of a club called Real Murders, a group of crime buffs who research and discuss historical crimes. When she finds a body it is quickly apparent that not only is the killer staging past murders, but must also be a club member -- and a very cold-blooded and ruthless one at that. Roe doesn't exactly rush into investigating the murders, but she is curious... I may have to start a star rating for books I only want to talk about briefly. This would be a good three stars (out of five).

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

A Ram in the Well: A Welsh Homecoming by June Knox-Mawer

This has to be a quick post because I must start work, but I wanted to share this book with you straight away. I finished it, in bed with my morning tea (OH is splendid about that - he's an early riser, I'm not).

Why am I so eager to write about a fairly simple memoir about buying a house in north-east Wales? Well, for a start it's very well-written. June Knox-Mawer was a presenter on Woman's Hour for many years; she started her career as a journalist on the Chester Chronicle, and wrote both non-fiction and fiction. In the 70s she and her barrister husband came back to the UK after years abroad, and they began to feel the pull of the country of their childhoods -- somewhere within reach of a train so that they could travel to London easily, June to the BBC and R, her husband, to court. But it wasn't to be a mere weekend cottage -- she would plan to spend quite long periods there, with R joining her frequently. And it must be affordable, since they would need a flat in London.

After much searching she found Hafod, "wedged tight into the steep angle of the land so that it looked like part of the mountain itself, as firmly rooted as the oaks and the rocks and the yellow gorse around it." They bought it without ever going inside and June first saw the interior on the day she and their possessions moved in -- an echo of all those childhood stories like The Railway Children which fed an early fascination with plunging into the unknown. Life in Fiji and Arabia must have been an excellent preparation for such adventures, of course, and June proves to be undaunted by the arcana of spring-fed water supplies, the long uphill walk for the bus (called the Why-Walk) to town, dead mice in the bath, and even the middle bedroom that has no staircase to reach it.

The family -- there are two grown-up children -- make friends readily with the farmers around them, no doubt helped by the fact that they aren't typical incomers but both have roots -- and families -- in nearby Wrexham. Travelling to Llangollen on the Why-Walk along with the farmers' wives must have helped, too, though we never learn whether she did join the WI as predicted on her first excursion.

In the late 70s rural Wales was still full of "characters" and many of them appear here, but there is none of that phenomenon that was a feature of books of the Year in Provence ilk, where you felt that the author was parading the locals for your amusement, rather than asking you to join in friendship with them. Perhaps the most endearing of these characters is the last Squire of Erddig, Philip Yorke. I remember the excitement in the 70s when the National Trust was negotiating the acquisition of Erddig, a 17th-century manor house on the outskirts of Wrexham which was in a unique state of preservation, being more or less untouched since its last refurbishment in 1720. Philip Yorke was living amongst the accumulated possessions of seven generations, and passed it to the Trust with the proviso that nothing was to be removed. He became a delightful friend to the Knox-Mawers, and the portrait of him, and of Erddig, in the pre-Trust days is one of the greatest pleasures of this charming book.

June Knox-Mawer brings a novelist's touch to the story of the early days at Hafod, along with the experienced interviewer's interest in other people and the detail of their lives. Her feel for local history, too, brings the area to life for the reader -- as is the way of the very best books, she makes you want to know more about subjects she touches on. Mention of the remarkable George Borrow, for instance, makes me long to go back to his book Wild Wales, written in 1862.

I'll close -- as I must, it's time to feed the various birds -- with the briefest of extracts. It amused me to be reading this exchange on board June's local library van as I read my copy gleaned from the shelves of our own "Mobile":
"You could do with an assistant," I told him, as he stamped a hasty choice of mine.
"I did have one," he told me. "Mair Prytherch from Corwen. Only lasted a week, though. Said the motion made her seasick, even four Kwells first thing didn't help. Worse than the Holyhead ferry, she said it was."
I reached for the handrail. With the rain lashing down and the wind gusting across us from side to side there was certainly a nautical feeling about the Mobile even when stationary. I felt some sympathy for Miss Prytherch.
"Mind you, it's worse in bad weather," Eifion added.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Library Loot

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. To participate, just write up your post and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

I thought that it might be fun, now I've started using our mobile library service, to join in with Library Loot. The library van has been pulling up on alternate weeks in the yard for years, but I've been away so much I've never used it. Now I'm self-employed it seemed the right time to start. The selection of books is, of course, much smaller, and my choice accordingly more random, but I can still make requests online and the van will deliver the books to me when it comes out. It may encourage me to look for non-fiction. Here is this week's haul:

The Lindisfarne Gospels were recently on display in Durham - sadly, I didn't manage to get there, but I have seen them in the British Library. I've been looking at illumination recently with a view to making cards so I thought this book, which sets the Gospels in their proper context, would be worth requesting. It looks as if it might be hard to give back!

I remember June Knox-Mawr as a presenter on Woman's Hour, I think, so her book, A Ram in the Well, about returning to Wales, her childhood home, should be well-written. The title bodes well for silliness, too.

Four crime novels, by authors who'll need no introduction here. I've only read Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason (and saw the excellent film), so I'm really looking forward to it. The Flavia de Luce has been on my TBR list for ages, I really want to own them all but I am trying hard not to buy books. Louise Penny is a favourite, Jacqueline Winspear less so, but still readable. Finally a children's book by an author I don't know. I'll report on that in due course.

Apparently there's a new biography of Penelope Fitzgerald (by Hermione Lee) out next month - that will be the next request...

Monday, 21 October 2013

Let's Kill Uncle by Rohan O'Grady

The Bloomsbury Group's reissues are almost always must-reads and this -- one I'd never heard of -- turned out to be pure delight.

The S.S. Haida Prince is arriving at a island on the west of Canada with two children on board:
The deck steward, an ex-fighter with sloping, powerful shoulders, approached them.
"Excuse me, sir," he said. "Do you know anything that will dissolve chewing gum? Something that won't dissolve a dog?"
The first mate and the purser exchanged glances.
"Them?" asked the first mate.
"Yes, sir. One of the border collies in the hold. Its muzzle is glued together. They just thought he'd like a wad of gum, the little bastards."
Although the island looks idyllic, one of the sailors describes how it is cursed:
"In two world wars thirty-three men have left to fight for their country. Only one has come back alive. See that Mountie on the dock? He's the fellow. All the rest killed, down to the last man. If there such a thing as a dead island, this is it."
The island has no idea what's going to hit it. The children, who are nothing to do with each other, are exceedingly unprepossessing. The girl, Christie, has come to board on the island for the summer to give her a holiday from her single mother, while Barnaby is supposed to be holidaying with his uncle, but the uncle hasn't turned up. Fortunately, Mr and Mrs Brooks at the store volunteer to look after the boy while his uncle is contacted. But things start badly because on the boat trip the children have decided they are sworn enemies. Of course the adults don't realise this and next morning Barnaby sent to play with Christie in the expectation that it will be nice for them both. Mayhem ensues, and the Mountie has to intervene.

It is Christie, however, who finally learns why Barnaby is so troubled - heir to a large fortune, he is certain that the uncle who appears so kindly to everyone else is actually out to kill him. Whenever he tries to explain this, Uncle says sadly what a wicked and deluded little boy he is. Once Christie is persuaded that the danger is real, she comes up with a solution: they must kill Uncle first. In this, they are unwillingly assisted by a battered, one-eyed cougar who is, to his annoyance and humiliation, befriended by the children. Hence the adorable Edward Gorey cover which graced the original edition:

The children and their troubles are real and immediate, their bickering and ingratitude a very plausible reaction to their bewildering new circumstances. Christie finds herself unwittingly echoing that earlier exile, Heidi, with her bed in the attic of the goat-lady's house. Barnaby, meanwhile, becomes an instant substitute for the Brooks boy who went off to war -- expected to eat Dickie's favourite supper of bread-and-milk he throws the bowl in fury at the wall. Fortunately, the goat-lady, Mrs Neilson, and Sergeant Coulter know how to set some boundaries. Not necessarily any consolation to the long-suffering border collies though.

This gothic little gem is just itching to be turned into a film by Wes Anderson and if, like me, you adored Moonrise Kingdom, you will love it. In fact, it's rather similar in tone and setting and even, to some extent, plot (I wonder if Anderson has read it? I hasten to add, it's only reminiscent of Anderson's film, there's no actual connection that would in any way spoil it for the reader). It was, apparently, made into a horror film in 1966, and I found a copy of the poster:

I suspect that the rather joky appearance is an indication that the film will clumsily eradicate the subtlety of the writing -- although the humour is black, it is gently so, and if Uncle may be something of a comic-book villain, his intended victims belie it. The other adults, in contrast to Uncle, are thoughtfully portrayed, especially the Mountie who, as the only one to make it back from the war, has his own poignant story -- not at all the stuff of horror films.

It's not intended to be a children's book, but young adults would find much to enjoy and, as you must have gathered reading this blog, I'll have no truck with adults who think books with child protagonists beneath them. But anyway, the wit and originality of Let's Kill Uncle should be enough to charm the hardest of hearts.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope

What would be a fun and lasting way to celebrate Jane Austen? HarperCollins thought that pairing six contemporary authors with the the six novels would show her much her work is still relevant today and The Austen Project takes off in October with Joanna Trollope's version of Sense and Sensibility:
From their windows – their high, generous Georgian windows – the view was, they all agreed, spectacular. It was a remarkable view of Sussex parkland, designed and largely planted two hundred years before to give the fortunate occupants of Norland Park the very best of what nature could offer when tamed by the civilising hand of man. There were gently undulating sweeps of green; there were romantic but manageable stretches of water; there were magnificent stands of ancient trees under which sheep and deer decoratively grazed. Add to that the occasional architectural punctuation of graceful lengths of park railing and the prospect was, to the Dashwood family, gathered sombrely in their kitchen, gazing out, perfection.
'And now,' their mother said, flinging an arm out theatrically in the direction of the open kitchen window, 'we have to leave all this. This – this paradise.' She paused, and then she added, in a lower voice but with distinct emphasis, 'Because of her.'
Trollope, who will be forever associated with the genre term "aga saga" is the ideal person to tackle this novel, with one of the most melodramatic of Austen plots. The loss of the exceedingly  comfortable  and gracious Norland, family home to the Dashwoods, puts us straight into Trollopian territory right from the beginning. And Sense and Sensibility is a fairly straightforward retelling in terms of plot - if you know Austen's work, and I'm assuming that you will, there are no surprises here either. What we have is two authors where you know what to expect.

If there's a surprise, then, it's how convincingly Trollope takes a story which must strike the modern reader as very old-fashioned – three women of reasonable intelligence with virtually no resources to fall back on – and constructs an entertaining and plausible novel around it. One device is to make Marianne not just over-sensitive but asthmatic, her emotional vulnerability in part the result of her physical frailty. Both Marianne and her mother, Belle, rely excessively on the eldest daughter, Elinor, but the whole family has been devastated by the sudden death of the father of the three girls (Margaret, the youngest, is as joyous a character as she is in the original book: forceful, opinionated, infuriating and, one suspects, very much like Jane Austen herself was as a girl). To add weight to everyone's fears for Marianne, her father Henry Dashwood died during an asthma attack.

Oddly (you would think, for such well-trodden ground), I don't want to say too much about the plot, because seeing how Trollope makes it work is part of the fun. What I can say, however, is that it's all done with her usual skill and aplomb: in a fine Austen tradition, there are some characters who make you positively writhe with loathing, while the old debate about whether Edward Ferrars is weak, spineless and unworthy of Elinor, or a young man of integrity and sensitivity, will find plenty to fuel it. Re-interpretations worthy of mention, I think, are Sir John Middleton, young Margaret and, of course, Elinor herself. And I can still see Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon (grin!)

Trollope is well-known for the delicacy with which she can handle extremes of emotion in her characters. It's an area where it's all too easy to descend into bathos, but even the most melodramatic of scenes – Marianne's reaction on seeing Willoughby in London – is convincingly dealt with.

The Austen Project continues next year with Val McDermid's version of Northanger Abbey - I can hardly wait!

Sense and Sensibility will published on 24 October. My review copy came from Lovereading, where you can read lots of reviews of this and many other books.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

A-Z meme

This survey was started by Jamie at the Perpetual Page Turner, but I found it through two of my absolute favourite bloggers, kindred spirits both, Susan at You Can Never Have Too Many Books and Cath at Read-Warbler. I shall returning from the Angela Thirkell Society AGM on Saturday, and there won't be much opportunity for blogging. So I'm scheduling this one to appear in my absence.

Author I've Read The Most Books From:  I think this has to be Pratchett, there seem to be 39 Discworld books (read 38) plus the three Tiffany Aching books, plus half of Good Omens (he wrote it with Neil Gaiman), plus The Amazing Maurice, plus the graphic versions… followed by Angela Thirkell (30-odd) and Georgette Heyer. Oh no, I’ve just counted, Heyer wins hands down! Ask me again in ten years time and the winner might be Carola Dunn though.

Best Sequel Ever: Ooh, this one’s tough and it’s only B! I could think of lots of contenders, but then I decided it had to be something that I’ve gone back to more than once and loved as much as ever. In which case, I think it is Cathedral Wednesday by William Mayne. Closely followed by Lawrence Durrell’s Balthazar, third in the Alexandria Quartet, which I adored because it was in that book that I finally began to work out what was going on in this long roman à fleuve.

Currently ReadingGlimpses of the Moon by Edmund Crispin and Servants by Lucy Lethbridge.

Drink of Choice While Reading: Tea, I guess – but if I could make proper lattes at home, they would win.

E-Reader or Physical Book: I love books with my all my heart and soul, but e-reader is beginning to win the argument, not only because I can take an enormous library with me everywhere I go but because I often find holding books very painful now. If I can read on my tablet and save my hands for typing/drawing/sewing/whatever, then I’ll forgo the pleasure of “real” books. 

Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Dated in High School: No doubt at all, Francis Lymond of Crawford.  He would have scared me out of my wits, but oh, irresistible… Lord Titus Groan, 77th Earl of Gormenghast, would have run him a very close second, but he wasn’t as well-read.

Glad You Gave This Book A Chance:   So many books that I picked up in the wrong sort of mood and later discovered were wonderful. Perhaps the one I am gladdest I went back to is William Gibson’s Neuromancer. First time round I must have been reading with only a quarter of my brain working – how could I not have seen how superb it was?

Hidden Gem Book:  Diary Without Dates by Enid Bagnold, which I found on Project Gutenberg. I’m happy to say it’s not just me who admires Bagnold’s writing – Persephone Books are about to reissue her novel The Squire later this month. Look out for a review here very soon.

Important Moment in Your Reading Life:  Starting my blog: as I’ve said here before, I had started to feel very isolated because I had no-one to talk books with. I didn’t have a lot of time to spend browsing in the library and I simply wasn’t finding the books I wanted to read. Once I started blogging and sharing books with other people I discovered loads of authors I had missed out on during the years of child-rearing.

Just Finished:  Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell. Well, not quite finished actually, as I have to write a summary of Chapter 7 for a group read, so I’m re-reading bits.

Kind of Books I Won't Read:  I can’t bear steamy romance, it makes me cringe. 

Longest Book I've Read: Really not at all sure – OH used to joke that I gauged the readability of a book by whether you could use it as a doorstop – but Amazon tells me that Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx has 1248 pages, so that may be it. Good  book and very useful in a gale.

Major Book Hangover Because:  The number of out-of-print books I want to read that are too difficult/expensive to find. The ones I mind most about are those that are still in copyright in the UK so can’t be found on Project Gutenberg. The upside is the number of books I despaired of that are now being reprinted by Persephone, Greyladies, Girls Gone By , to name but a few.

umber of Bookcases I own: 
 Hard to count because some are entire walls – 19 or 20, I suppose. But on most of them the books are double-stacked.  Those of you who know me on LibraryThing, my library there really only represents the books in my room.

One Book I have Read Multiple Times:  In my case it would almost be harder to name a book I haven’t read multiple times – as far as I’m concerned a good book always rewards re-reading. Which makes it hard to part with them.

Preferred Place to Read: Bed. If not in it, on it. Preferably with at least one dog.

Quote That Inspires You/Gives You All the Feels From a Book You've Read: I felt very stuck on this one – I guess I’ll find something perfect as soon is this post goes live, but I just couldn’t think of anything which quite meets the requirement. What I do remember, and maybe this is as good a reason to include it as any, is a fragment of poetry which thrilled me when I first read it, means something different to me depending on my mood when I encounter it, and conjures up the most vivid of pictures – in short, just sums of the wonder and mystery of poetry. It’s from Ash Wednesday, by T.S. Eliot: “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day, having fed to satiety.”

Reading Regret:  Not having discovered Angela Thirkell earlier.

eries You Started and Need To Finish (All the books are out in the series): 
The Hilary Tamar books by Sarah Caudwell. This is one of those situations where I own all four of the books but have only read the first because I can’t bear to use them all up.

Three of Your All-Time Favourite Books:  The list goes on for ever (I’m a very loyal reader) so I’ll see if I can come up with three that I haven’t singled out before! Um… Linnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge. Pashazade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (first of the Arabesk Trilogy). Appleby’s End by Michael Innes.

Unapologetic Fangirl For:  Oh dear – Neil Gaiman. And Angela Thirkell.

Very Excited For This Release More Than All The Others: The third in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, still on listed on Amazon UK as “Untitled Rothfuss 3 of 3” – but I’ve seen it elsewhere as The Doors of Stone. Its release date is given there as August 2015. Agony. If it doesn’t come out until then I will have to re-read the first two. Well, I'll probably do that anyway.

Worst Bookish Habit:  Starting a new book before I’ve finished the last, and then not going back to the first.

X Marks The Spot: Start at the Top Left of Your Shelf and pick the 27th Book:  E.F. Benson, Lucia Rising.

our Latest Book Purchase:
   The Bookshop by Deborah Meyler – because a fellow Thirkellite recommended it on FaceBook.

ZZZ-Snatcher Book- Book That Kept You Up WAY Too Late: Any book I’m enjoying, about once a fortnight – actually more likely to be something frivolous than a serious read. The last still-going-after-2am that I can remember was City of Dragons by Robin Hobb. I usually find her books pretty hard to put down.

Monday, 30 September 2013

September round-up

A quick summary of recent reading. I’m trying to get back to regular posting here, I promise, but being self-employed is horribly time-consuming – whyever did I think it would be preferable to having a “proper” job where you could come home at 5pm and do whatever you want? No doubt one day I will achieve some sort of routine but, being me, I complicated things by deciding I would try to develop a creative life as well as an everyday one. So now there’s always a choice when I have any free time – do I blog, or do I draw? For the moment, the latter has been winning, but I want a better balance. We shall see…

Another change is that I’ve been using our mobile library instead of going to into town. We’re very, very lucky to have this service (particularly since our branch libraries are about to go self-service), and I’m pleased to be at home reliably enough to support it, but the choice of books is inevitably more limited, at least until I get my requests organised. Since the TBR pile has reached epic proportions, this really shouldn’t matter, but it does tip the genres in favour of crime rather than fantasy/scifi for now – I’m afraid stay-at-home readers don’t appear to be fans of the likes of John Scalzi and Jim Butcher!

Anyway, to the books themselves – a selection of the last month’s reading:

Silent Voices by Ann Cleeves: Vera Stanhope has such a strong voice, I can hear Brenda Blethyn all the time I’m reading. I’ve seen the television adaptation of this one, but I never mind that. Vera finds a woman dead at the local health club she’s attending – her irritation at the possibility of having to kick off a murder investigation while still in her swimming cozzy is superb. The dead woman turns out to be a social worker and there may be ties to a child abuse case. The north-eastern setting is great: it feels familiar, and Cleeves seems to have a real knack for expressing the parochialism that becomes more distinctive the further you get from London. There's a lovely balance, too, between Vera's gruffness and her empathy for the people involved in the investigation.

The Cadaver Game by Kate Ellis: Another writer I read because she deals with familiar territory, this time the South Hams in Devon. Ellis isn’t anything like as good at it as Cleeves, though, I can’t help feeling that this could be anywhere. Nothing really picks it out as Devon except the thinly disguised placenames. I persist, however, in the hope that she’ll crack it someday. The plots, featuring police inspector Wesley Patterson, are always liked to historical events: in this case to two 18th-century stories, the first that of a mysterious “princess” who turned up apparently speaking a language that no-one could recognise, the second that of a local squire who conducted manhunts on his land for entertainment. The local archaeologist, and Wesley’s best friend, should be banned from all digs as he is guaranteed to find a recent body wherever he puts his trowel. 

Home to Roost by Tessa Hainsworth: I never know how to categorise books like this – ostensibly true accounts of country life which must, at the very least, have various names and situations disguised. At worst (best?) I assume a good deal of license has been taken with the “facts”. Perhaps this is relatively true to life, since I notice that there is almost no reference to the couple’s children; indeed, I wasn’t sure of they had any until quite late in the book. Tessa and her husband are incomers to Cornwall, but have been there long enough to settle into their village reasonably happily. Tessa is a postwoman, her partner – an actor – helps out at a local café. New neighbours, who don’t fit in so well, disrupt village life, but the book’s mostly about very everyday events. Sort of Miss Read de nos jours. It does have some flavour, but it’s a bit like the Walls version of Cornish ice cream.

Death of a Witch by M.C. Beaton: I quite like Beaton’s Agatha Raisin books, although I find her habit of giving me information rather than letting me discover it for myself rather irritating. Until now I’ve avoided the Hamish Macbeth books because I feared the West Highland setting and characters wouldn’t work, but I thought it came off quite well. One of the things that rang true was just how much time people have to spend driving out of the Highlands, since most of Scotland’s population lives further south. Hamish always seems to be whizzing off to Perth or Inverness. But the roads have improved since my childhood, when Perth, 27 miles south, was a day trip.

The Boy Who Could See Demons by Carolyn Jess-Cooke: I was supposed to read this for a Goodreads North-East group read – my apologies to others in the group, but everyday life intervened and I hadn’t even started it by the end-date. I thought at first it was too  much like Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, which I read a month earlier, but a second narrative strand took it in a rather different direction. The story of a young boy who may be schizophrenic and his psychiatrist, it is set in Northern Ireland and depicts some of the appalling effects on children which the Troubles was inevitably responsible for. Despite its grim background, it’s a sensitive portrayal of grief and guilt and could be a good starting point for discussion of mental health issues and/or terrorism with young people.

Jane Austen Stole My Boyfriend by Cora Harrison: this author’s historical crime series featuring a woman legal expert in the sixteenth century (the Burren series) is one I pounce on when I find it. This YA novel was okay but rather instantly forgettable. I liked the inclusion of the court case against JA’s aunt, Mrs Leigh-Perrot, though. It might intrigue a young reader enough to get them to try one of the many excellent biographies of Jane Austen.

Wycliffe in Paul's Court by W.J. Burley: I haven’t read a Wycliffe for years. OH and I used to love the series on television, with Jack Shepherd scowling and Kersey being bumbling and Cornish, we watched all of them at least three times, I think, and I rather miss them – TV crime is so gritty these days! The books themselves are good workmanlike examples of the genre, not great art but good entertainment.