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.