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.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal

The Exiles Return: endpapers taken from a roller-printed rayon furnishing fabric

I must be one of the few people who hasn't read The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, though one of my reasons for not having done so has to be that it was written this century and I've been reading a lot from the last one. When I was asked if I'd be interested in reviewing one of the most recent Persephones, though, the description made me leap at the chance. It's a previously unpublished novel about five people returning to Vienna in the early 1950s, and there was every indication that it was going to be one of those rather quiet, uneventful novels that I like so much and that Persephone Books do so well. The author is Elisabeth de Waal, grandmother of Edmund, and herself an exile from Vienna, which she left in 1939. This book is her "return" to the city where she grew up.

I wasn't disappointed in my expectations, unless it was because it seemed to be over so quickly. That's not to say there was anything rushed about it, just that I was so absorbed in the life of the characters that I wanted more of them. When Professor Kuno Adler decides to return to Vienna, his wife is appalled. She has made a success of their life in America and the promise of reinstatement to his old job has no absolutely appeal for her, so he goes alone. "Reinstatement" turns out to be a bit of a misnomer, and there is awkwardness with former friends who had stayed throughout the war, but there is some small pleasure in rediscovering the city, and the surrounding areas. Kanakis, on the other hand, wants to recreate the life he had before the war, and is looking for "a pavilion of graceful eighteenth century proportions...a little palais" such as he thinks he might have heard of once, and which just might have survived the conflict. While he's looking for his perfect house he meets the rather louche "Bimbo" Grein, a pleasure-loving but penniless young prince who will, sooner or later, be hanging out for a rich bride, and Bimbo's serious older sister Nina.

The remaining exile is the beautiful Resi, daughter of one of the Princesses Altmandorff, who has grown up in America but really doesn't fit in there. Her parents, unsure what they can do for the best, send her to stay with her aunt on the family estate, and the scene is set for the intertwining of the lives of all our characters. At first Resi is absolutely content at Wald; lazing in the garden, helping with the flowers, "she floated on the broad unruffled stream of life". The idyll is interrupted, though, by the arrival of cousins and friends, including Nina Grein, who unwittingly ousts her from the position she's happily fallen into as her aunt's companion, setting her adrift again.

The lives of these returning exiles become intertwined, providing the focus for the second half of the book. And it's here that I have some reservations about the overall shape, since it felt a little like two separate books stuck together. Professor Adler, who is in some ways the most interesting and fully-rounded character, fades into the background for a long section, so much so that I wondered whether he was ever going to reappear! Resi, on the other hand, is of interest mostly because she's a misfit - she's actually rather young and dull, and given to melodrama, and she didn't emerge sharply enough from the pages for me to feel much patience with her. However, the eventual contrast between two people searching for a place to feel at home, the faltering Resi, and the quiet Professor Adler, aware as he is of so much about the recent war that is unspoken, becomes a compelling study of identity.

In the end, I felt that this was very nearly a wonderful novel. But its minor flaws are more than compensated for by its interest as a remarkable piece of social history, one which offers a rare insight into postwar Vienna. It's certainly an excellent addition to the Persephone canon.