Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dead Man's Chest - Kerry Greenwood

Phryne Fisher, private detective, is taking her family (companion Dot Williams, adopted daughters Ruth & Jane & dog, Molly) to Queenscliff for the summer holidays. She arrives at the house loaned to her by anthropologist, Mr Thomas, to find the house shut up, the Johnsons (cook & butler) missing & the house ransacked. This is not the relaxing holiday Phryne had planned. However, nothing daunts Phryne Fisher. Beautiful, elegant, rich, intelligent & always beautifully dressed, Phryne is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. Along the way, she also has to discover the identity of a phantom hair slasher, who cuts off the plaits of unsuspecting women & maybe find the treasure of Benito, the pirate rumoured to have hidden his treasure in one of the many caves on the coast near Queenscliff. Phryne also helps Detective Hugh Collins (Dot’s fiancé) from Melbourne break up a rum & tobacco smuggling operation, attends a party hosted by the local Surrealists & gives us a glimpse of Australia’s early film industry.

Phryne is the perfect fantasy figure. The series is set in 1920s Melbourne, apart from this excursion to the coast, & Phryne is the woman who has everything. She grew up poor & inherited wealth as a young woman so she appreciates what she has. She’s the perfect clothes horse, slim, elegantly proportioned with green eyes & a black Lulu bob. She drives her Hispano-Suiza with dash & handles her Beretta with deadly accuracy when required. She can also eat whatever she wants & never put on weight. She’s kind, practical, non-judgmental but doesn’t suffer fools gladly & is ruthless with evildoers.

Kerry Greenwood’s research on the period is impeccable. She wrote a thesis about the Melbourne dock workers strike in the 1920s & then used the research for the Phryne books. I’ve been on a walk through 1920s Melbourne with Kerry at a Melbourne Writers Festival some years ago & her knowledge of the architecture & history of the period is terrific. There’s still a lot of 1920s Melbourne left, the 1960s developers didn’t knock it all down. You can see most of it by just looking up above the awnings of current buildings to see the facades of the original buildings still intact. The walk ended with afternoon tea at the Windsor Hotel, which will surprise no one who’s ever read a Phryne Fisher mystery! Actually, the food is one of the great pleasures of reading Kerry Greenwood. Phryne’s adopted daughter, Ruth, wants to be a cook & is given the chance to try her skills as the Johnsons have disappeared. She’s working her way through Mrs Leyel’s The Gentle Art of Cookery & so we’re treated to luscious descriptions of egg & bacon pie, roast lamb & chutney sandwiches, strawberry gateau & impossible pie (recipe at the back of the book).

Kerry Greenwood also writes another series of mysteries set in contemporary Melbourne. Corinna Chapman is a baker who lives in an Art Deco building above her bakery, Earthly Delights. The tenants of the building, Corinna’s apprentice (who’s trying to create the perfect muffin), her cats & gorgeous lover Daniel, all bring mysteries to her door. The emphasis on food & cats makes this series even more fun, along with the familiarity of Melbourne. Corinna also hates the heat of summer & the commercialism of Christmas, so she’s a woman after my own heart! Kerry’s books have been published in the US by Poisoned Pen Press & I’d recommend them to anyone who loves a good mystery with style, elegance, cats & food.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Library Latest

So many terrific books have arrived at work all at once that I don’t quite know what to read first. I shared the results of my recent splurge at the Book Depository here just a couple of weeks ago & I also have groaning tbr shelves as you can see below (I took these photos a few months ago. It’s too dull this morning to take a decent photo, but I’m sure you get the general idea!). And, it’s almost November so I’ll be choosing some Remembrance reading from the tbr shelves as I do every year. Luckily I have a week’s holiday coming up in the middle of the month & I’m looking forward to getting lots of reading done then, as well as my Christmas baking & some gardening if the weather is fine. Here’s what I’ve brought home from my library over the past couple of weeks,

The Small Hand – Susan Hill. This is her new ghost story & I always enjoy these. Nothing has ever scared me as much as The Woman in Black but I love a good ghost story.
The Attenbury Emeralds – Jill Paton Walsh. A new Lord Peter Wimsey story is a real treat. Jill Paton Walsh completed a couple of Dorothy L Sayers’s manuscripts some years ago & now she’s written a wholly original story. The theft of the Attenbury emeralds was Wimsey’s first case & there have been recent developments that send Wimsey, his wife Harriet & Bunter off on the hunt again.
The Magnificent Spilsbury and the case of the Brides in the Bath – Jane Robins. Edwardian true crime about the famous forensic scientist & the case that made his name.
All the hopeful lovers – William Nicholson. Dani at A Work In Progress has reviewed another of Nicholson's novels & it sounded enticing so I've now borrowed both of them from the library.
A Royal Passion – Katie Whitaker. A biography of Charles I & Henrietta Maria, concentrating on their relationship. The author found a cache of their passionate letters to each other, written when they were separated during the Civil War.
And furthermore – Judi Dench. I started flipping through this the other night & I could hear Dame Judi’s voice as I read. Lots of familiar stories but I love her work & I’m looking forward to more of her stories of stage, screen & famous co-stars.
Romantic Moderns – Alexandra Harris. The subtitle is English writers, artists & the imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper. A beautifully illustrated & produced book from Thames & Hudson about that between the wars period I love.
Revealing King Arthur – Christopher Gidlow. Arthur is another of my passions. This book combines history & archaeology to look at the evidence for Arthur.
Domestic soldiers – Jennifer Purcell. Women on the Home Front during WWII. The book uses the Mass Observation diaries of five women (including Nella Last) to tell the Home Front story in a very personal way.
Margaret Beaufort – Elizabeth Norton. Mother of Henry VII & a woman who led a fascinating life. Married & a mother by the age of 13, Margaret Beaufort was an ambitious woman who spent her whole life scheming to put her son on the throne of England.

At the moment I’m reading Kerry Greenwood’s new Phryne Fisher mystery, Dead Man’s Chest, but, after that, my choices are infinite.

Friday, October 29, 2010

William - E H Young

I’ve always believed that there’s a right time to read a book. I read Pride & Prejudice when I was 13 & I just didn’t get it. It made no sense to me at all. I didn’t begin to appreciate Jane Austen until I read Mansfield Park at university in my 20s. Everything just clicked & since then I’ve been a passionate Janeite & read all her novels several times & biographies & criticism etc etc. Although not such a revelatory moment as my discovery of Jane, this week I’ve read E H Young’s novel, William, after being inspired by Harriet Devine’s review. I’d started reading William several times over the past 25 years – yes, that’s how long he’s been languishing unread on my shelves. Reading Harriet’s review inspired me to get past the first few pages & get involved with the characters. This is why I never apologise for my overflowing tbr shelves. One day I will read all of those books. Every book (like dogs) will have its day. William had been unread longer than most because it was part of a set of facsimile Penguins I bought in 1985 to celebrate Penguin’s 50th anniversary.

The boxset was quite a bargain as I waited until the celebrations were over & it had been reduced by over 50% of the original price before I bought it. So, the box was shelved under P & almost forgotten. I love these old Penguins. Such soft, floppy covers & the original, fatter Penguin on the cover. But, there’s no blurb on the books. So, unless I knew the author – like Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers – I didn’t have much incentive to pick up the other books in the box. I’d already read the Sayers & Christie as well as Andre Maurois’s Ariel, a biography of Shelley. Hemingway I’ve tried & failed with time & again. I think A Farewell to Arms will remain unread – for now, at least.

Since 1985, I’ve read some of the other books, mostly in the last few years as I’ve discovered the middlebrow novel. I’ve read Madame Claire & Beverley Nichols’s autobiography, Twenty-Five. And now, William.

E H Young was an interesting woman (you can see her in the middle of the bottom row in this picture of all the authors in the Penguin boxset). Born in 1880, she married a solicitor who was killed at Ypres during WWI. She moved to London & lived in a ménage a trois with her lover, Ralph Henderson & his wife. Henderson was a headmaster at a well-known school in Dulwich & I have to wonder how they managed to keep the relationship a secret in such a hothouse atmosphere. The mind boggles! After Henderson’s retirement, they lived together in Bradford-on Avon until Young’s death in 1949.

William is the story of a conventional family & the emotional fallout when one of the daughters causes a scandal. William Nesbitt is a successful ship owner in Radstowe. He’s worked his way up from being a sailor to owning & building the ships. He’s an affectionate husband to Kate & a fond father to all his children although he recognizes that he loves some more than others. His only son, Walter, works with him in the business & is married to Violet. His daughters’ marriages have been less successful. Dora is married to Herbert, an unattractive, overbearing man but she stays for the sake of her children. Dora is a kind, caring woman, stifled in a miserable marriage.

Mabel is married to self-righteous, pompous John. She has three sons who she has named Cromwell, Gladstone & Hampden, after John’s heroes. When I first read this, I thought they had been named Oliver, William & John but no, their Christian names are Cromwell, Gladstone & Hampden.  Poor boys! Mabel is one of those irritating women who is forever saying she can’t afford this or that & acts the martyr in front of her well-off family trying to make them feel guilty. She runs from place to place to avoid paying for taxis, wears unattractive shoes because she’s too proud of her thrift to buy nice ones & mollycoddles her sensitive sons but also boasts of their intelligence & strength. Mabel is the one character in the book that no one else ever shows any real affection for. Even her mother is exasperated by her deliberate dowdiness & self-pity.

Janet, the youngest daughter, is still at home. Quiet, moody, & fancying herself in love with her brother-in-law, Oliver, Janet is the daughter that William wants to encourage to blossom. Lydia, married to Oliver, is the rebel daughter. William’s favourite, Lydia has married Oliver & moved to London, where they live a Bohemian life. Too many parties, late nights & unsuitable friends, according to Kate. Lydia leaves Oliver to live in the country with Henry Wyatt, a novelist, & causes a scandal that causes rifts within the Nesbitt family.

Kate’s response is anger & shame at the scandal. William wants Lydia to be happy & reluctantly faces the fact that he & Kate will never agree about Lydia. Dora is Lydia’s champion & defies her husband to visit her. Mabel is suitably shocked & appalled & Janet is miserable at the thought of Oliver’s unhappiness. This is a novel of relationships & E H Young is very good at illuminating these, especially the relationship of father & daughter. William is an immensely sympathetic character. His partiality for Lydia doesn’t blind him to the fact that she’s a very difficult person to live with. She found Oliver too compliant, too unchallenging but once she’s left him for Henry, she’s not entirely satisfied with her new lover either. William also tries to encourage Janet to fly the nest & meet new people away from her rather narrow life at home with her parents. I enjoyed William very much & I’m so grateful to Harriet for reminding me of E H Young & inspiring me to pick up one of her novels.

Now what next from the Penguin boxset? I'm listening to Compton Mackenzie's Monarch of the Glen on audio at the moment (read beautifully by David Rintoul) so maybe his Carnival? Or Mary Webb. Margaret at BooksPlease has been rereading Gone to Earth & I've always been curious about Webb because she's one of the authors mocked by Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm, one of my favourite books. I blogged about it here. I really should be reading a few of the huge stack of library books I have at the moment. More about them later...

Abby's Friday morning

It's a lovely warm, sunny morning & Abby has found a new spot to soak up the sun. These photos were taken about 9am & it was already getting a little too warm & Ab was about to make a move further into the undergrowth. I rushed about this morning getting all the laundry done because the prediction is for nearly 50mm of rain over the weekend. Practically the whole month's average rainfall in a couple of days. It sounds extreme but we've had some very heavy falls lately with low pressure systems combining with tropical rain systems from the north so it will probably happen. It's so wonderful to think our dams are nearly 50% full after so many years of drought. The garden is green & lovely, all the geraniums & lavender I planted in the autumn are looking beautiful, the hebe & daisies are blooming & my water tanks are full. Bring on the rain!

On more bookish matters, I've almost finished reading William by E H Young. I picked this up from the tbr shelves after reading Harriet Devine's enthusiastic review last week. I also have a toppling pile of library books to share over the weekend. And the new Persephones have arrived, including the first Persephone Diary which is too beautiful to use & will therefore sit with my Persephones as part of the collection.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Not at all like Jane Eyre...

Mildred Lathbury is my heroine. Sensible, ironic, independent, with a self-deprecating sense of humour,

Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.

Mildred lives in a block of flats in “this shabby part of London, so very much the ‘wrong’ side of Victoria Station, so definitely not Belgravia,” & works part time for a charitable society helping distressed gentlewomen. It’s the late 1940s, that dreary period of post-war inertia & restraint. Mildred is about to meet her new neighbours, Helena & Rocky Napier. Rocky has just been demobbed from the Navy where he was “the most glamorous Flags in the Med”. He spent the war mixing cocktails & organising the social engagements in the Admiral’s villa in Naples.  Helena is an anthropologist, just back from working in the field in Africa with the enigmatic Everard Bone. The Napier’s marriage was a product of the war & it may not survive the peace. Mildred’s calm routine of work & church activities is about to be turned upside down.

Mildred is the daughter of a country clergyman & his wife, now both dead, & her best friends are the vicar of her London Parish, Julian Malory & his sister, Winifred. Julian is an absent-minded, ascetic man in his forties. Winifred is older, badly dressed in the rejects from church jumble sales, kind, enthusiastic but rather innocent & ineffectual. When the Malorys decide to convert their attic into a flat & take in a lodger, Mildred imagines a nurse or social worker or an Anglo-Catholic widow. Imagine her surprise when Allegra Gray, a clergyman’s widow but a very glamorous one, arrives on the scene. It’s not long before Mrs Gray has beguiled Julian into giving her his hearthrug & is remaking Winifred’s wardrobe. But it’s when Mildred & her friend, Dora Caldicote, catch sight of Julian & the widow holding hands in the park that the upsets really begin.

Excellent Women is my favourite Barbara Pym novel. I’ve read it many times, I even have three copies of it, including this lovely Folio Society edition. That's Helena & Mildred on the title page. It’s full of acute observations & so many ironic & funny lines. Mildred finds herself taken out of her comfort zone by her friendship with the Napiers.  As well as experiencing the horror of meeting by the dustbins in the basement & having to share a bathroom, she goes to a meeting at the Learned Society to hear Helena & Everard Bone give a paper. She & Rocky observe the anthropologists, looking at the books on the shelves with titles like Five Years with the Congo Cannibals & With Camera & Pen in Northern Nigeria. Of course, being an excellent woman, “holy fowl” as Helena describes Mildred & her fellow churchgoers, Mildred also finds herself taken advantage of by the Napiers, becoming the go-between in their arguments & left to supervise the removalists when Helena goes home to her mother.

Through her friendship with the Napiers, Mildred meets Everard Bone, an Anglican convert whose mother is obsessed with birds (she collects newspaper clippings proving that birds are planning to take over the world. I wonder what she would think of Daphne Du Maurier’s story!?) & woodworm. One of my favourite scenes is when Everard meets Mildred as she leaves work one afternoon in the middle of summer,

I was thinking of hurrying past him as I was not very well dressed that day – I had had a ‘lapse’ and was hatless and stockingless in an old cotton dress and a cardigan. Mrs Bonner would have been horrified at the idea of meeting a man in such an outfit. One should always start the day suitably dressed for anything, she had often told me... Although I agreed with her in theory I found it difficult to remember this every morning when I dressed, especially in the summer.

As well as her sloppy clothes, Mildred is also carrying a string bag containing a loaf of bread & a biography of Cardinal Newman. Such a Pymmish detail. Mildred has an annual lunch with Dora Caldicote’s brother, William, who is a civil servant in the City. He takes her back to his office & she meets his colleagues, obsessed with being first to the tea trolley & spending their time looking longingly across at the opposite building that they call the Ministry of Desire. William also shows a more whimsical side of his rather stuffy personality by confessing to feeding the pigeons every day.

...I had not known about William’s fondness for pigeons and there was something unexpected and endearing about it. He seemed so completely absorbed in them, calling them by names, encouraging this one to come forward and telling that one not to be greedy, that I decided he’d forgotten all about me and it was time to go home.

William is upset to be moved to a new office where “Different pigeons come to the window.” It’s this kind of observation that I find so funny. When Mildred can’t sleep, she reaches for one of the books she keeps just for that purpose on her bedside table. Although she thinks Religio Medici would be appropriate she’s quite relieved when she picks up Chinese Cookery instead & drifts off to sleep. On Bank Holiday Mondays, Mildred cleans out the pigeonholes of her desk but, as she always becomes distracted by looking at old shopping lists, she rarely finishes the job. This book has become so much a part of the background of my thoughts that I always add extra cheese when I’m making macaroni cheese after Mildred’s experience of dining with the Malorys,

Not enough salt, or perhaps no salt, I thought, as I ate the macaroni. And not really enough cheese.

And when I clean the bath, I think of Mildred scrubbing away, thinking to herself how difficult it was to properly clean a bath & how she sometimes felt herself to have been found unworthy to have a bathroom of her own as she’s always had to share.

Excellent Women is one of my favourite comfort reads. It always makes me laugh. I love the middlebrow Englishness of Mildred’s life with her distressed gentlewomen, church jumble sales & Lent sermons. I love her awareness of the ridiculousness of everyday life. As I said at the beginning of this post, Mildred Lathbury is my heroine. There's a copy of Excellent Women (the Folio Society edition, as it happens), and many other books by Barbara Pym, available at Anglophile Books.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Peking Picnic - Ann Bridge

Peking Picnic is a story of another time & place. Published in 1932, it is set in 1920s China. The main characters are diplomats, mostly from the British legation in Peking. The legation represents a little piece of Britain among the vastness of China, a little piece of familiarity among the exotic strangeness of a country so far from home. This is still the China of the Boxer Rebellion rather than the Republican China of the mid 20th century. The diplomats & their families live a very comfortable life. Big houses, lots of servants, a restricted but adequate social round of dinners, picnics & tennis parties.

Laura Leroy is the wife of the Commercial & Oriental Attache to the British Legation. Henry is a rather remote figure, absorbed in his scholarly writing & his polo ponies. Laura is torn in two, desperately missing her children at school in England, & homesick for Oxford, but also fascinated by China. She has learned to speak the language, is interested in the politics & the culture & appreciates the beauty of the country. She has her nieces, Lilah, a calm, statuesque beauty, & Judith, enthusiastic & eager for new experiences, staying with her for a visit. Judith has become involved with Derek Fitzmaurice, who works at the Legation & is known for his many love affairs.

The Military Attache, General Nevil & his wife, Nina, plan an expedition, a long weekend travelling to a famous shrine, Chieh Tái Ssu, to see the blossom & picnic among the hills. The Neviles have a guest from Cambridge, Professor Vinstead, & they want to show him something of the countryside. Laura Leroy & her nieces are invited, the Nevile’s niece, Annette, American novelist Miss Hande, Derek Fitzmaurice, Major La Touche & Henri Delache, an attaché from the French Legation.

The first half of the novel slowly introduces all these characters & assembles the party for the picnic. There are rumours of feuding warlords & armies on the move that threaten to postpone the trip but, eventually, they set off for Chieh Tái Ssu. They travel up into the hills, mostly on foot & then by donkey up to the first shrine where they stay overnight. This reminded me of the way travellers in medieval Europe would travel from one monastery to the next on a journey, taking advantage of the basic but adequate accommodation. Of course, the Neviles are not content with the basic provisions provided by the monks.

When Professor Vinstead was first told by the Neviles that he was to go to the Hills on a weekend picnic, his mind immediately conjured up those rather unpleasing visions of sandwiches, sardines and ruined coffee in thermos flasks with which the word is usually associated in English minds, prolonged over three painful days and nights. It was, therefore, with some surprise that he found himself sitting down at a table correctly spread with linen, glass, and a profusion of silver, being offered sherry by one white-robed manservant, and clear soup with a pigeon’s egg in it by another. How such things were produced in the heart of the hills, twenty miles from anywhere, was a mystery which his mind, dulled by fatigue and hours spent in the open air, refused to grapple for the moment. It was sufficiently astonishing to be dining in such a place.

The next day they move on to Chieh Tái Ssu. The tension really builds from this point. Glimpses of dishevelled groups of tai pings, deserting soldiers, roaming the hills are followed a full-scale attack of bandits at a temple where half the group have gone to admire the views. A monk is killed & the British party are held captive by an increasingly unruly group of soldiers. Laura Leroy, with her knowledge of Chinese & understanding of the Chinese character, is thrust into the position of leader. She manages to impose some level of authority on the soldiers, demanding to see their leader & threatening all sorts of dire punishment if they dare to hurt British & American citizens. Their eventual rescue comes from an unexpected source after some pretty tense moments of threatened violence.

For all this excitement & tension though, Peking Picnic is really a study of character & relationships. Several romances blossom on the trip, most interestingly between Laura & Professor Vinstead. They feel an immediate bond & Vinstead becomes more intrigued & attracted to Laura as the trip progresses. Laura is a very cool, detached character. Although we see most of the story from her point of view, she’s not easy to know. Her homesickness & desire to see her children is often evoked, triggered by letters or memories. She’s a very practical woman, always prepared for any emergency, & consulted almost as an oracle by the young lovers in the party. Her detachment isn’t always likeable but her good manners mean that she seldom displays any impatience with the demands others put upon her. Peking Picnic was Ann Bridge’s first novel. She was a diplomat’s wife who used the experiences & settings of her husband’s postings in her novels. I do wonder if she was anything like Laura Leroy.

Those four days had been a period of accelerated growth, of swift subtle modification for several of the weekenders who had set out so lightheartedly on their picnic. Derek, Judith, Annette, Laura, Vinstead – even Miss Hande perhaps, as to her theories about the Chinese – had been confronted, not fruitlessly, up at Chieh Tái Ssu, with the ancient wisdom and the blossoming tree. A copy of this book is available from Anglophile Books.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

New arrivals - Part 2

I've been pretty good this year about not adding to the tbr shelves. Not nearly as disciplined as Simon from Stuck In A Book with his Project 24, but compared to last year, I've been the picture of restraint. But, the exchange rate is so good at the moment that I've had a splurge at the Book Depository, 11 books for only $150. Really10 books & a diary for next year. I've bought some lovely diaries for work in the last few years. I have a British Library Jane Austen one this year & last year I had a beautiful Hebrides diary by Mairi Hedderwick with lots of her paintings of the islands in it. I was tempted by that one again for next year but I've bought the National Gallery of Ireland's diary. It's always a bit of a gamble buying a diary online when you can't see it but the description said it had 52 paintings from the Gallery's collection so how bad can it be? Then, when the year is over, I tear out my favourite pictures for my postcard wall near my desk. I’m also a big fan of Lesley Anne Ivory’s Ivory Cats & I already have her 2011 calendar & pocket diary.

I received some preorders, including two Hesperus Press books that I’d given up on entirely. The release dates changed so often I assumed they would never be published at all. However, I was surprised & delighted to get an email telling me they were available & ready for dispatch & they arrived.

Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Girl – Jenny Wren. This was written in response to Jerome K Jerome’s Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by an author using the pseudonym Jenny Wren. Short, humourous satires on everyday life.

The Highland Widow - Sir Walter Scott. I loved the Bride of Lammermoor & I want to read some more Scott. This story was originally published as part of the Chronicles of the Canongate.

Nella Last in the 1950s. The third volume of Nella’s diaries. I have been waiting for this to be published for months. Definitely heading for the top of the tbr pile. I read Nella Last’s Peace earlier this year.

Helen, Belinda & The Absentee - Maria Edgeworth. I’d read reviews of Helen by Vintage Reads & Belinda by Desperate Reader & wanted to read one of Jane Austen’s contemporaries. I was also tempted by the lovely new edition of Helen published by Sort Of Books.

Lady Margaret's Mirror & The Antiquary - Sir Walter Scott. Lady Margaret’s Mirror is connected to the original story that Scott heard from his mother’s family & based The Bride of Lammermoor on.

Hide & Seek, My Lady's Money & the OUP Authors in Context volume on Wilkie Collins. I just needed to read more Wilkie after loving Man & Wife & some of his short stories & novellas this year.

The Convenient Marriage – Georgette Heyer
Aunts aren't Gentlemen – P G Wodehouse. These were both recent recommendations in my online reading group from two of my new favourite authors.

2011 National Gallery of Ireland Diary. I tried to take some photos of the pictures in the diary but the paper's too shiny. There are gorgeous paintings by Vermeer, Zoffany & also lots of Irish artists I havem't heard of. Considering I bought it sight unseen, I'm very happy.

Well, this little lot will kepp me happy for some time. I don't anticipate another splurge for a while - unless, that is, the surging Australian dollar tempts me back to The Book Depository. I'm saving these books up for a rainy day, after all. The sort of rainy day when the exchange rate is terrible.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

When Last I Died - Gladys Mitchell

Mrs Beatrice Bradley, psychologist & sleuth, is visiting a reform school for boys, trying out her theories on the new Warden of the Institution. The Warden is more concerned about the disappearance of two of the boys & of the similar incident some years before that cost his predecessor his job. This time, the boys are quickly found & brought back but the two boys, Piggy & Alec, who filed through the bars on their windows to escape in the earlier incident, were never heard of again. Mrs Bradley rents a house in the neighbourhood, hoping to convince the Warden that a holiday for some of the boys in her care would help in their rehabilitation, but he’s not enthusiastic about the idea.

Mrs Bradley’s grandson comes to stay & finds a diary written by Bella Foxley, a woman who was once housekeeper at the Institution but who, sensationally, was suspected of murdering her elderly aunt, acquitted of murdering her cousin &, a year later, committed suicide. After reading the diary, Mrs Bradley feels compelled to investigate. Bella was an unhappy woman. She hated her job & was only waiting for her aunt to die so she could inherit her money & leave work. When Aunt Flora seems to finally be on her death bed after a fall, Bella gives notice & goes to her bedside. Her cousin, Tom & his much younger wife, Muriel, are also there although they have no expectations from the will. Aunt Flora seems to be recovering until, according to Bella, she suddenly asks for some grated carrot. She chokes on the carrot & dies. Suspicion falls on Bella as there’s only her word that her aunt asked for the carrot, something she had never eaten before. However, there’s no real evidence & the doctor signs the death certificate, Bella inherits & Tom & Muriel go home.

Tom is a psychical researcher who rents haunted houses so that he can write up his experiences. He’s not well off so when Bella goes to stay with them, she offers to become a paying guest. She becomes quite involved in Tom’s work & there’s certainly plenty to work on in their latest home. The house has always had a reputation for being haunted by a headless horseman but when Tom & Muriel move in, suddenly footsteps are heard walking past doorways at night, bells ring for no reason, ghostly music is heard, writing appears on the walls & objects are thrown through the air. Muriel becomes so frightened by the phenomena that she & Bella move out & take a room at the local inn. Bella goes to the house one night to check on Tom after Muriel has become nervous & sees a shadowy figure behind him as he stands at the bedroom window. Next morning, he’s found on the ground beneath the window. Was he pushed or did he jump?

Tom survives this accident but is found dead in exactly the same position shortly afterwards. Bella is arrested & tried for his murder after Muriel claims that Bella had been blackmailed by Tom because he suspected that she had murdered Aunt Flora. Bella is acquitted of the murder, mainly because the jury believed her (although they didn’t like her) & were repelled by Muriel’s hatred & spite towards the prisoner. Bella moved to a small village & asked her sister, Tessa, to come & live with her. Inevitably, someone found out who she was & where she was living & the anonymous letters began to arrive. Bella was found drowned in the village pond & the verdict at the inquest was suicide.

However, the discovery of the diary throws doubt on all these facts. Is the diary genuine? Mrs Bradley discovers several discrepancies between the diary & the recollections of other witnesses. What happened to Piggy & Alec, the boys who disappeared from the Institution just before Bella resigned? Mrs Bradley is initially convinced that Bella murdered her aunt but is she right? This is a wonderful Golden Age mystery. The atmosphere of the haunted house with its mysterious poltergeist activities is truly spooky but that may be because it’s compared with Borley Rectory, a notorious case of poltergeist activity that led to Borley being known as the most haunted house in England. I’ve always been frightened by the idea of Borley after reading an account of the story in a Reader’s Digest book in my childhood. I think poltergeists throwing objects around & writing messages on the walls is more frightening to me than spectral nuns floating through convent ruins. Gladys Mitchell often used occult themes in her novels & she creates an atmosphere of dread & misery in this book.

None of the characters are wholly sympathetic. Mrs Bradley does quite a lot of cackling but I found her much more interesting & sympathetic character than I did in The Saltmarsh Murders, an earlier book in the series that I read last summer. I’ve decided that Mrs Bradley just does a lot of cackling & clutching at people with a yellow claw of a hand. I suppose it became as much a trademark as Poirot’s constant references to his little grey cells or Miss Silver’s knitting. We also meet Mrs Bradley’s son, Ferdinand & his family in theis book which humanises her quite a bit. Her relationship with her grandson, Derek, is lovely. When Last I Died was the perfect book to read on this cold, wet weekend – even though the haunted house meant that I couldn’t read it last thing at night!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Pelican at Blandings - P G Wodehouse

It’s an odd thing about Blandings Castle, it seems to attract imposters as catnip attracts cats. They make a beeline for the place. When two or three imposters are gathered together, it’s only a question of time before they’re saying “Let’s all go round to Blandings”, and along they come. It shakes one. I’ve sometimes asked myself if Connie is really Connie. How can we be certain that she’s not an international spy cunningly made up as Connie? The only one of the local fauna I feel really sure about is Beach. He seems to be genuine.

Blandings Castle certainly does attract imposters. I’ve only read two Blandings novels but imposters play a big part in both of them. The pelican of the title is Galahad Threepwood, brother of Lord Emsworth, the dottiest peer of the realm, & former member of the Pelican Club. The Pelican Club had been a bohemian club for the rich & idle in Gally’s youth & all he’s left with after its demise is a fund of good stories & several godsons, children of his old companions. One of these godsons, John Halliday, is a barrister, in love with Linda Gilpin, niece of Alaric, Duke of Dunstable, a really unpleasant man. John has just proposed to Linda & calls on Gally to tell him his news. Gally is surprised to take a phone call from his brother, Emsworth, asking for his advice because Dunstable has decided to visit Blandings with his niece. Even worse for such a timid, unsociable man as Lord Emsworth, his sister Connie has arrived unannounced from America with a female friend she met on the boat, so Emsworth will have a house full of undesirable & uninvited guests. He’s especially frightened of Connie, a really awful woman who has always bullied him. Galahad, on the other hand, is frightened of no one, least of all his sister, & he agrees to go down to Blandings to help out.

All Lord Emsworth wants to do is spend his days scratching the back of his prize sow, the Empress of Blandings. His favourite comfort reading is books on the raising of pigs. The only time he feels real concern for any creature is when he thinks the Empress is sickening for something. There’s already one uninvited guest at the castle, a friend of Emsworth’s son, Freddie (now working at a dog biscuit factory in New York), who arrived from America with a letter of introduction. Emsworth contrives to avoid Mr Howard Chesney by taking his meals in his room & spending the rest of the day with the Empress. Avoiding Connie will not be so easy.

In the train on the way to Blandings, Gally meets the Duke of Dunstable & discovers the reason for his sudden desire to visit Blandings. He has bought a picture (coincidentally from a gallery partly owned by Johnny Halliday). This is surprising enough as Dunstable hasn’t an artistic bone in his body. He bought it because a rich American, Wilbur Trout, had his heart set on it as he thinks the figure looks just like his latest wife, who’s just divorced him & left him heartbroken. Dunstable thinks he can ask Trout to pay any price for it & make a huge profit. Gally finds himself with several problems to solve. How to get rid of Connie & Dunstable? He has an unexpected visit from Johnny Halliday, distraught because Linda has broken their engagement. She was a witness in a motor accident case that Johnny was prosecuting & he had had to try to discredit her evidence. He succeeded all too well & now she won’t speak to him at all.

Then, it’s been discovered that the nude picture by a famous French artist bought by Dunstable, is a fake. Johnny begs Gally to help him swop the fake, now on display in the Blandings Portrait Gallery, for the real article & find a way to get Linda back. Luckily, Gally is a resourceful man & sets about his task with gusto. Especially as he enjoys wrongfooting Connie & irritating the horrible Duke of Dunstable.

This is a wonderful book with so many funny scenes. Lord Emsworth mistakes the subject of the nude picture for a pig & thinks it’s a wonderful likeness of the Empress. Emsworth visits the Empress in the middle of the night when he can’t sleep &, when he’s locked out, has to creep through Dunstable’s rooms to get back to bed. Startled by a cat, he upsets a table holding a clock, a bowl of roses, another bowl of potpourri, a calendar, an ashtray & a wedding photograph of Lady Constance & her American husband, James Schoonmaker. This intrusion only confirms Dunstable’s view of Emsworth as completely potty. Gally is triumphant in the end, of course, & the good end happily & the bad unhappily, with imposters unmasked & lovers reunited. Very satisfying, indeed.

Friday, October 15, 2010

New arrivals - Part 1

It's a grey, rainy day in Melbourne. Hard to believe that last weekend it was warm, sunny, spring weather. Today has been a return to winter. I love the rain so I'm not complaining, it's just confusing. It's my day off &  Abby was due to go to the vet for her flu injection & to have her nails clipped. I don't know how she knew that this was on the agenda but, instead of settling down on the couch this morning after breakfast for a good long sleep (which is what she does every other morning of the year), she decided to go outside through the rain & under the back steps to huddle in the damp & cold instead. So, I had to go outside, through the rain & crawl under the back steps to get her when it was time for her appointment. I'm sure she's psychic. I hadn't even got the cat carrier out of the cupboard.

Look at her. Butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, but she knows what she wants & a visit to the vet is never on her list of favourite treats.

I've had a bit of a book splurge lately. I have a lovely pile of books from the Book Depository, including some long-awaited preorders, but I'll wait until they've all arrived before sharing those. I also ordered some books from my favourite remainders bookshop, Clouston & Hall, & they arrived earlier this week. I haven't read any Fanny Trollope but she was a very well-regarded novelist in her day so I couldn't resist these Nonsuch Classics editions of two of her novels, Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy & Jessie Phillips as well as her scandalous book about her trip to America, Domestic Manners of the Americans. This book was banned in the US for many years as the Americans were incensed at her portrait of them. Of course, it was also a bestseller in Britain! Michael Armstrong was one of the first of the Condition of England novels published in the 1840s to draw attention to the plight of workers in the industrial factories. Other more famous novels include Hard Times by Dickens & North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell.

The Penguin Book of Ghosts by Westwood & Simpson is a series of extracts from their much larger book, The Lore of the Land. I have a copy of this but it's very large & very heavy & very awkward to hold up with Abby on my lap, which is how most of my reading is done. I love English ghost stories whether fiction or, like these, legends about real places. This is a much better size for comfortable reading. It's times like this that I'm tempted by an e-book reader. I'm also very interested in the origin of the Christmas customs that have evolved over the centuries. The Making of the Modern Christmas by J M Golby & A W Perdue is a beautifully illustrated book about these customs. From mistletoe & the Christian appropriation of a lot of pagan customs to the Victorian Christmas & Christmas through the 20th century, it's all here.

I'm in one of those states of reading restlessness at the moment. I've finished another Wodehouse novel last night, A Pelican at Blandings, & I'll review that tomorrow. I'm halfway through The Sorrows of Young Werther with my 19th century book group & I'm listening to the last CD of Henrietta Howard by Tracy Borman which I reviewed here at the halfway mark. I'm about to start a group read in weekly instalments of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall with my online reading group. So, what to start next?

I've just picked up Gladys Mitchell's When Last I Died. Gladys is being reprinted by Vintage & I reviewed one of these elegant new reprints, The Saltmarsh Murders, earlier this year. Although I had some reservations about the book, I enjoyed it & want to read more. The rain has put me in the mood for an English murder, so I'm off to make settle down with Gladys, Abby & a cup of tea.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Rejecting Tonypandy

It’s not often that you can pinpoint the beginning of an obsession. My obsession with Richard III began in around 1978 in the library at Lalor North High School in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. I picked up a detective novel by an author I’d just discovered. But, this was no ordinary detective novel. This was The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. Since then, I’ve read the book at least a dozen times, it’s become one of my favourite comfort reads. I’ve gone on to read many other books about Richard III, the Wars of the Roses & medieval history, both fiction & non fiction. I’ve joined the Richard III Society. All this because I read a slim book about a detective, stuck in a hospital bed after injuring his back chasing after a criminal, who relieves his boredom by investigating one of the greatest crimes in history – the murder of the Princes in the Tower.

Inspector Alan Grant features in most of Josephine Tey’s detective novels. He’s a detective in the style of Alleyn & Campion – urbane, civilised, handsome & intelligent. Lying in his hospital bed, bored with the pile of novels given to him by well-meaning friends, he’s visited by Marta Hallard, an actress who became a friend after Grant retrieved her emeralds from a thief.  She brings him a pile of prints, portraits of famous historical figures who were the principals in classic mysteries. Grant can’t do any physical detecting but why shouldn’t he exercise his brain on a classic historical mystery instead?

Grant has made a study of faces, becoming an expert at separating the villains from the good guys by the way they look. When he picks up a portrait of a man in 15th century dress, he thinks he must be a great judge or noble because of the expression of nobility & suffering in the man’s face. He is shocked to discover that this is a portrait of Richard III, the wicked uncle of horror stories. The man who not only murdered his nephews but old, mad Henry VI, Henry’s son Edward, poisoned his own wife & scandalously wanted to marry his niece. How could Grant have got it so wrong? He begins by getting hold of Nurse Darroll’s schoolbooks, then Marta gets him a copy of Thomas More's History of Richard III & his colleague, Sergeant Williams, brings him a stodgy history of England & a historical novel about Richard’s mother, the Rose of Raby. Thoroughly confused by now, Marta introduces Grant to Brent Carradine, a young American doing research at the British Museum as a way of staying in England to be with his girlfriend, an actress in Marta’s company. As Brent says when they start the investigation,

Look, Mr Grant, let’s you and I start at the very beginning of this thing. Without history books, or modern versions or anyone’s opinion about anything. Truth isn’t in accounts but in account books.

Brent goes back to the original sources & they discover that most of the stories told about Richard were written to please the Tudor dynasty after Henry Tudor defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. History is written by the victors & Thomas More’s account of events he was too young to have witnessed influenced Shakespeare who wrote the play that has defined mainstream opinion of Richard as a traitorous hunchbacked murderer of innocents ever since. Grant & Carradine realise that much of the history they learnt at school is just wrong, manipulated by the victors & accepted as fact, which is where Tonypandy comes in.

Tonypandy is a village in Wales where government troops were said to have shot striking miners in 1910. The facts were quite different & Tonypandy becomes shorthand for every falsehood written down in history books & taught in school as gospel truth hundreds of years after the fact. The result of their research is that Grant & Brent conclude that Richard had nothing to do with the Princes’s deaths & that they probably survived him & were murdered by order of Henry VII. Josephine Tey paints such a heroic picture of Richard & such a dastardly one of Henry that thousands of readers have been convinced of Richard’s innocence on the strength of this one book. Many people cite the novel as the beginning of their fascination with Richard & it leads many to join the Richard III Society.

Of course, The Daughter of Time is fiction. It was published in 1952 & research has uncovered a lot more information about the period since then. Vital contemporary sources such as Dominic Mancini’s account of life in London at the crucial period when Richard assumed the throne weren’t discovered until after the book was published. The “white” version of Richard’s story promoted by early Ricardians to counteract the extremely “black” version of More & Shakespeare is just as biased. After reading The Daughter of Time, Richard was my hero. I believed that he was a noble, kind, wise, generous man who would never have killed his own nephews & who only took the throne because he believed he was the only legitimate heir.

Over the last 30 years, I’ve read dozens of books & articles about Richard & I lean more towards a “grey” version of the legend now. The 15th century was a brutal period when violence was often seen as a solution to a dispute & power was the ultimate goal. Richard was no different & probably no more scrupulous than any other prince of his time. I don’t believe there will ever be a definitive account of the death of the Princes now but the fact that they were never seen alive after about August 1483 (two months after Richard’s accession) is a damning fact that does not go away, no matter how many books I read that paint Richard as more sinned against than sinning.

However, the fact that my feelings about the historical Richard have changed can’t diminish my enjoyment of this wonderful novel. I still read it at least once a year, for the nostalgic picture of London in the 1950s, to read about the excitement of research & to visit Alan Grant in his comfortable hospital bed, eating rissoles & rhubarb, rewriting history in the most entertaining detective novel ever written.

Monday, October 11, 2010

NYRB Reading Week - November 7-13

Mrs B at The Literary Stew has come up with a great idea, the NYRB Reading Week. You can find all the details here. I try not to get involved in too many reading challenges as I find I have enough to do with my 19th century reading group & the occasional group read in my online reading group. I’ve also committed myself to Team Tolstoy at Dovegreyreader where we’re going to be reading War & Peace over the next year, & I enjoyed Persephone Reading Week very much. But, I’m a big fan of the NYRB imprint, & as I have three of their books on the tbr shelves, it won’t involve buying any more books. It's also relatively stress-free. Just read one or more NYRB books & review them on your blog. If you don't have a blog, you can send your review to Mrs B or Honey from Coffeespoons, who's co-hosting the challenge. You can see the three NYRB books I own above.

I think I’m going to read Anglo-Saxon Attitudes by Angus Wilson. I’ve never read any of his books but I’ve always loved the title (it’s a quote from Through the Looking Glass) & it’s been sitting on my shelves for a few years now. I need an excuse to take it down & read it. There was also a TV series made of the book with Douglas Hodge, Elizabeth Spriggs & Dorothy Tutin that I vaguely remember. So, if I enjoy the book it may send me off to watch the series again as well. There’s a link to the NYRB website at The Literary Stew, so if you like what you see there or if you have unread NYRBs on your shelves, why not join us?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Portmahomack : monastery of the Picts - Martin Carver

Dark Age Scotland is even more impenetrable than the rest of Dark Age Britain.  So, the discovery of a Pictish monastery at Portmahomack on the north-east coast of Scotland was a very big deal indeed. I’ve been reading Martin Carver’s fascinating, accessible account of the dig. I knew of Martin Carver as the archaeologist who worked on the Sutton Hoo ship burial. I’d read his book about Sutton Hoo & knew that his writing is scholarly but also understandable by the general reader.

This book on Portmahomack is an account of the dig & its results. It’s an interim account; the full scholarly write-up with all the scientific results won’t be published for at least a decade. The book is divided into three sections. The first chapters describe how the expedition was designed. I found this fascinating. Archaeologists can’t just come across a likely field & start digging trenches. Portmahomack was identified as the likely site of a monastery and church by the many stone monuments that had been discovered there. There has also been a church at Portmahomack for centuries but no one knew how many churches had been on the site. The expedition was based around these questions.

However, there were many stakeholders who had to be consulted & every one of the groups involved seemed to have different expectations of what the dig would produce & what the outcomes should be. An incredible amount of work had to be done before the first trench was dug. All the historical accounts of the area were collated along with records of archaeological finds over the centuries. Preliminary work was done using non-invasive methods of exploration to determine the extent of the site. Local sensitivities & concerns had to be addressed as part of the site was a churchyard & people were not happy at the prospect of their family’s graves being disturbed. All this was done & a detailed plan was drawn up. Funding had to be obtained for the work to be done at all. A local historical society, the Tarbat Historic Trust, were involved in fundraising & also applying for funding from other bodies. The University of York took on the dig as a research project. Work finally began in 1996.

The story of Portmahomack began in the mid 6th century when a small monastery was built. The real flowering of the site took place about 100 years later when the monastery was greatly expanded & activities such as producing vellum for creating manuscripts & metal working took place. Then, a catastrophic raid took place in the late 8th- early 9th century that destroyed the monastery. In the following 200 years, some of the industrial processes like metal working continued but there was no monastery. The workers had new masters, maybe Norse or Moray raiders & their families. By the 12th century, farming had taken over from industry & a new parish church was built. The long history of Portmahomack as a parish began with several buildings being constructed & expanded on the same site right up to the present day.

The most interesting part of the book for me was the way that the archaeologists could take fragments of carved stone & speculate about the monument or stone cross it was once a part of. The stone monuments were very beautiful, with the Pictish elements of the decoration including strange animals & beautiful decorative scrolls & borders.  The different types of graves, from cist burials (the corpse is surrounded by stone slabs) to burials with stone slabs just around the head of the deceased, to burials without stone at all. The different types of burial & where the graves are located denotes the status of the person. The grave markers that were reused in rebuilding the church over the centuries. The interpretation of these clues can be argued over among the experts for years. The age & sex of the burials at different periods gives clues to the site. For instance, the predominance of middle-aged male burials dated to the 7th & 8th centuries point to the fact that this was a monastery. Later groups of burials with men, women & children point to a farming community.

Martin Carver ends his book with a look at the history of St Colman’s church (as it became in the 12th century) from the medieval period to the present. The archaeologists may have completed the dig but many questions remain about Portmahomack & its history. What kind of Christian rule did the monastery follow? Was the monastery founded by St Columba of Iona? Why is there so little evidence of trade with Europe when the site is on the North Sea? A dig like this can throw up as many questions as it answers. Here’s a link to the website of the Tarbat Discovery Program at the University of York where you can see more images from the dig.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

My Brother Michael - Mary Stewart

Camilla Haven is sitting in a cafe in Athens writing to a friend. “Nothing ever happens to me” she complains. Famous last words for any heroine in a novel by one of the best writers of romantic suspense, Mary Stewart. Camilla is mistaken for a girl who has hired a car to take to Monsieur Simon in Delphi on “a matter of life & death”. She tries to discover who hired the car or where it was hired but when she’s unsuccessful, she decides to drive the car to Delphi herself. She wanted to visit the temple anyway & her money for bus fare is running low.  She also feels concerned about this Monsieur Simon & the peril he might be in. So, she sets off on a hair-raising drive on perilous roads to deliver the car to a stranger.

When she becomes stuck on a narrow village road, unable to reverse the car or go forward & surrounded by superior Greek men laughing at her predicament, who should come to her rescue but the very Monsieur Simon to whom she is delivering the car. To Camilla’s surprise, he’s English, a teacher on a pilgrimage to Greece to visit the place where his brother Michael died during the war. Simon knows nothing about the car or the girl who hired it but he takes over the driving & they set off for Delphi. Michael Lester worked for the British intelligence service during the war & was posted to Greece to help local resistance groups during the German occupation. He was living with a local family in a small village, Arachova, when he was discovered by soldiers. The son of the family was shot & Michael escaped to the hills to prevent anyone else suffering the same fate, even though he had been wounded. His family heard that he was missing & it wasn’t until some time later that they heard that he had been killed during his attempt to evade the Germans & was buried at Delphi.

Simon was much younger than Michael & he & his father were devastated by the news of his death. Now, fourteen years later, Simon’s father has died, &, among his papers, Simon has found Michael’s last letter among his papers, along with three gold sovereigns. The letter is full of excitement & Simon thinks Michael had discovered something important on Mt Parnassus, where he died. The letter is cautious, because of the tortuous path it will have to take to be delivered, but the ending makes it clear that Michael has found something,

...I’m seeing a man I can trust tomorrow, and I’ll tell him, come what may. And all being well, this’ll be over some day soon, and we’ll come back here together to the bright citadel, and I can show you then – and little brother Simon too. How is he? Give him my love. Till the day – and what a day it’ll be!

Simon & Camilla visit  Stephanos & his family in Arachova to find out where Michael died. Simon is shocked to discover that Michael wasn’t killed by the Germans but by a man who lived in the village, Angelos. He was a villain, working against his own people in the complicated political situation of resistance fighters & collaborators. Angelos disappeared not long after Michael’s death & is thought to have died in Yugoslavia. His cousin, Dimitrios, has returned to the village & claims to have seen Angelos – or his spirit – roaming the hills.  Simon is determined to find out why Michael was killed & what it was that he was so excited about just before his death.  

My Brother Michael is a terrific adventure story with lots of atmosphere & romance. Mary Stewart’s heroines are rarely passive & Camilla is a resourceful woman who feels an immediate connection with Simon & is drawn into his quest to find the truth about his brother’s death. Simon is a wonderful hero. Handsome, amusing, he treats Camilla as an equal, something her fiancé, Philip, never did. Camilla is searching for something too, a sense of herself, after a long engagement to a man who treated her like a doll. There’s a wonderful scene when they explore the ruins of the Temple at Delphi by moonlight & Simon quotes Ancient Greek verse from the stage of the amphitheatre.

Mary Stewart loved to set her books in exotic locations & you can feel the heat & dust of Greece on every page of this book. The references to the ancient world add to the atmosphere of danger & revenge but there are some very real, ugly villains in the book. The suspense as Simon & Camilla explore the mountain & find a cave & its hidden glory is very real. The dangers they face are real, too. I liked the fact that the romance is there from their first meeting but it never overwhelms the exciting, suspenseful story.

I read all of Mary Stewart’s books when I was a teenager, along with other favourite authors of the genre like Victoria Holt & Catherine Gaskin.  Chicago Review Press have recently reprinted some of Mary Stewart’s novels in the US & Hodder & Stoughton have many of her titles in print in the UK. I intend to revisit more of her books. There’s a sense of nostalgia because they were written mostly in the 50s & 60s & also because they remind me of my teenage years. But that wouldn’t be enough to make me want to reread them if they weren’t also suspenseful, romantic stories of adventure that keep me up until the small hours to read just one more chapter. Mary Stewart fans might want to have a look at this website & blog maintained by some avid fans of her work.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Gentlemen, Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature...

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff is another of my favourite comfort reads. I’ve read it many times since I first discovered it over 20 years ago. It’s the story of the correspondence between Helene Hanff, a writer living in New York after WWII & Frank Doel, a bookseller working at Marks & Co, a bookshop in the Charing Cross Road in London. The correspondence begins in 1949,

Your ad in the
Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books. The phrase “antiquarian bookseller” scares me somewhat as I equate ‘antique’ with expensive. I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions... I enclose a list of my most pressing problems. If you have clean secondhand copies of any of the books on the list for no more than $5 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?
Very truly yours,
Helene Hanff

Helene Hanff’s taste in literature was formed by reading Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s lectures on English literature (a journey she describes in Q’s legacy). She had grown up in Philadelphia & moved to New York to be a playwright. She wrote plays, TV scripts & also worked as a script reader as well. She lived frugally in a one-bedroom apartment but her one luxury was books. She wanted to read essays by Robert Louis Stevenson, Leigh Hunt & Walter Savage Landor. She wanted to read John Donne’s Complete Sermons & George Bernard Shaw’s letters to Ellen Terry. She didn’t want to read fiction because, “ I never can get interested in things that didn’t happen to people who never lived.” Helene is a sassy New Yorker, not shy in venting her wrath from 20,000 miles away,

All I have to say to YOU, Frank Doel, is we live in depraved, destructive and degenerate times when a bookshop = a BOOKSHOP – starts tearing up beautiful old books to use as wrapping paper... You tore that book up in the middle of a major battle & I don’t even know which war it was.

Then there was the incident of the Pepys’ Diary,

This is not pepys’ diary, this is some busybody editor’s miserable collection of EXCERPTS from pepys’ diary may he rot. I could just spit. Where is jan.12 1668, where his wife chased him out of bed and round the bedroom with a red-hot poker? ... i will make do with this thing till you find me a real Pepys. THEN i will rip up this ersatz book, page by page, AND WRAP THINGS IN IT.

Frank is more reserved at first, but finally decides to drop the formality of Miss Hanff after three years of correspondence & she also received letters from the other staff at the bookshop & from Frank’s wife, Nora.

Helene found a kindred spirit in Frank Doel & the other employees at Marks & Co. She sent them food parcels when she discovered the meagre rations the British were surviving on after the war. They sent her a book of Elizabethan poetry & a beautifully embroidered linen tablecloth. They became friends even though they had never met. Helene’s plans to visit England for Elizabeth II’s coronation were foiled by her need to have a lot of very expensive dental work. By the time she was able to get there, in the 1970s, Frank had died & the shop was closed. Helene wrote about her trip to England, paid for by the book, in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, where she was amazed by the generosity of so many strangers who had read & loved 84 Charing Cross Road. The letters were written with no thought of publication but after Frank’s death, an editor who heard about the letters, encouraged her to make a book of them. The book was an immediate success, a Cult Book as Helene calls it, & has been made into a play & a film.

This is another example of a film being as good as the book. Anne Bancroft’s husband, Mel Brooks, bought her the film rights as a gift because he knew how much she loved it. Anne Bancroft & Anthony Hopkins are just perfect in the film along with a cast of wonderful actors in minor roles. Maurice Denham never fails to move me in his few brief scenes along with Ian McNeice & Judi Dench. I also have the audio book read by Juliet Stevenson & John Nettles.

The beautiful illustrations are from my Folio Society edition & are by Natacha Ledwidge. I love her work. She also illustrated the Folio Society editions of Dorothy L Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey books.

Helene’s enthusiasm & love for English literature is what makes this book so special. Her voice is so distinctive & her passion for books is so strong that book lovers everywhere can identify with her love of learning & her desire to read the great writers. Anglophiles everywhere love this book & I’m happy to be one of them.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

All's well that ends with cake

Well, the great boiled fruit cake experiment seems to have been pretty successful. It only took 2 hours to bake not 3 as the manual recommended but I checked it after 2 hours & took it out. I probably could have left it in for a bit longer. When I cut it, it was a little crumbly as you can see, but I'm sure it will taste fine &, for my friends at work, that's the main thing.

Abby's Sunday morning

Spring Sunday mornings in Melbourne bring out the lawn mowers & the car washers. The clocks went forward last night & daylight saving has begun. Only six months until we turn them back again & say a grateful hello to autumn! I don't want to wish my life away but I don't enjoy summer. However, I could hardly complain about the weather at the moment. This morning was glorious & I was out washing the car bright & early, well supervised by Abby. Once she realised splashing water was involved, she left me to it & retreated to her favourite spot under the hebes where she could make sure I didn’t miss any dirty spots but not get wet. Then, I did a little weeding, feeding & tidying up overhanging branches around the garden & took a few more pictures of spring in the garden. 

This is one of the Don Alphonso tulips I planted in the autumn. They've just started blooming this weekend.

Red geranium in bright sunshine near the front fence.

I don't know what these flowers are. A friend gave me two beautiful blue pots when I moved in five years ago & these lovely bulbs blossom every spring.The photo's not very good but they're the most delicate pale blue.

Finally, this is the climber, Snowbell, just about ready to break out into lovely creamy blossoms near the back door.

I’m also trying out my new oven by baking a fruit cake. I’m very excited about the oven as I’ve never had a new one before, just whatever was in the houses I’ve lived in. It’s a gas stove & I’ve only had electric in the past. But, we had a gas oven in my parents’ house & I’ve always preferred cooking with gas, it’s so much easier to control the temperature for simmering. I’m still learning the finer points of simmering with this stove though as the fruit caught when I was boiling it for the cake & it took a lot of scrubbing to clean the saucepan. I’m also a bit worried about the cooking time & temperature recommended by the manual. It’s a fan assisted oven & the manual suggests 130 degrees for 3 hours. This seems too long & too low a temperature to me but I’ll give it a go, keep my fingers crossed & post a photo later if it works out. Maybe I’ll still post a photo even if it’s a disaster! 

I can’t resist posting one more photo of Abby just because she looks so lovely. I took this yesterday afternoon on the back step. I hope you’re enjoying your Sunday wherever you are.