Friday, December 20, 2013
What I've been reading
Hard Going is the latest Bill Slider mystery from Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. This is one of my favourite series. It's witty & very funny as well as being a good, traditional police procedural with lots of investigative legwork.Slider & his team are investigating the murder of retired solicitor Lionel Bygod. He's found in his study by his cleaner, his head bashed in. Bygod seems to have been a philanthropist, helping anyone who asked for legal advice yet his small circle of friends knew nothing about his life before he moved to Shepherd's Bush. Slider's investigations lead to a scandal in Bygod's past that may have had far-reaching consequences. The personal lives of the team are as interesting for me as the investigation. Slider & his wife, Joanna, are expecting their second child & considering the changes a new baby will bring. Slider's father, George, lives with them & is happy to babysit but he has a new lady friend & Joanna fears that she'll be the one to give up her career as a musician if childcare becomes a problem. Commitment-phobic Jim Atherton had finally settled down with Emily but their relationship has hit a rough patch & Slider is concerned. Detective Superintendent Porson is as full of malapropisms as ever. "Don't want any excuse for Mr Wetherspoon to cast nasturtiums on our efficiency."
The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett was the choice of my 19th century bookgroup & another excellent choice it was. This was my first Bennett although he's been on my radar for a while & I'd like to read more of his books. Sophia & Constance Baines live in Bursley, one of the Five Towns where Bennett set much of his fiction. Their parents run a drapery shop although their father has been incapacitated for years. The story is about the different choices the sisters make. Constance lives in Bursley, in the same house all her life, marrying Samuel Povey, the head shop assistant, taking over the shop when her father dies & spoiling her only child, Cyril. Sophia elopes with Gerald Scales, a commercial traveller, & ends up in Paris, living through the siege of 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War & becoming the owner of a pension. The sisters are reunited at the end of their lives & are able to reflect on the paths they chose. I loved this book. Reading it in instalments was a good way to read it because each section is so complete. The sisters are together at the beginning & the end of the book but we first follow Constance over twenty years & then go back to Sophia's elopement & follow her life. The story is full of humour & quiet moments of revelation & I knew these women & sympathised with the choices they made - even if I couldn't always agree!
Mrs Griffin Sends her Love & other stories is the last book by Miss Read. It's a collection of short stories & essays she wrote, mainly for magazines like Country Life & The Lady throughout her career. I especially enjoyed reading about how Miss Read (a pseudonym for Dora Saint) came into being, "Miss Read was born fully clothed in sensible garments and aged about forty. She was born, in fact, when I was struggling to write my first book and needed a village schoolmistress as the narrator." After writing several of the Fairacre books, Mrs Saint decided she needed a change & created the village of Thrush Green. These books were in the third person & afforded more scope to investigate village life. Both series have been extremely popular & the illustrations of John Goodall have been a key factor in this. Unlike some authors & illustrators, this partnership seems to have been a happy one from the beginning & Miss Read pays tribute to their partnership in an essay called "The Author & the Artist". I also enjoyed the very funny stories about teaching, the funny things that children say & the joys & trials of being a supply teacher. This is a lovely book that can be dipped into or read straight through as I did.
Round the Christmas Fire is a collection of stories from Vintage Classics. There are some old favourites here such as an extract from A Christmas Carol by Dickens (which I'm listening to again on CD read by the wonderful Miriam Margolyes), Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons & Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales. I especially enjoyed rereading Edith Wharton's ghost story, Afterward, which is one of my favourite stories where a young married woman sees a ghost but doesn't recognize it as such until long afterwards when her husband has disappeared & the significance of the date of the encounter becomes clear. There's a wonderful story by P G Wodehouse, Jeeves & the Yuletide Spirit, where Bertie falls foul of Sir Roderick Glossop, who becomes even more convinced that Bertie is a certified lunatic. There are also extracts from Nancy Mitford's Christmas Pudding (which I still haven't read) & Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie. I read a story a day which was the perfect way to read this anthology.
The Assassination of the Archduke by Greg King & Sue Woolmans tells the tragic story of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand & his wife, Sophie. Their murder in Sarajevo in June 1914 was the spark that led to the outbreak of WWI. However, the book is much more about their love story which was remarkable. Franz Ferdinand became the heir to the Hapsburg throne after the death of Crown Prince Rudolf at Mayerling (he murdered his mistress, Marie Vetsera, & then killed himself). Franz Ferdinand never got on well with his uncle, Emperor Franz Josef & his decision to marry Countess Sophie Chotek didn't improve their relationship. The Imperial Court was one of the most rigid & hidebound in Europe &, although Sophie was from an aristocratic family, she wasn't considered a suitable bride. Eventually, they were married morganatically which meant that Sophie couldn't share Franz Ferdinand's rank & their children would have no rights of inheritance to the throne. Their marriage & family life was blissfully happy although it was continually blighted by the petty, malicious attitude of the royal family, the aristocracy & Court officials who used the strict rules of etiquette & precedence to snub Sophie at every turn. She bore all the insults with grace & polite calm but Franz Ferdinand was furious & it only led to a greater estrangement from his uncle & the establishment. He wrote to his stepmother, one of the few people who supported the couple,
The wisest thing I've done in my life is to marry my Soph. She's my everything: wife, adviser, doctor, friend - in a word, my entire happiness... We love each other just as much as on our first day of marriage and nothing has marred our happiness for a single second.
The visit to Sarajevo in June 1914 was mismanaged from the beginning. The security arrangements were totally inadequate. The Habsburgs were hated in Serbia & the visit was to take place on St Vitus's Day, a significant Serbian national holiday. Franz Ferdinand was reluctant to go at all as he feared assassination & was well aware of the tensions in the Balkans. The couple were murdered by Gavrilo Princip, a member of a radical group called The Black Hand. The consequences for Europe were devastating but the consequences for the couple's three orphaned children were also immense. The story of what happened to the children, Sophie, Max & Ernst, makes for sobering reading. They suffered merely for being the children of the Archduke & were persecuted by both the Imperial regime & the Nazis during WWII. This is an excellent book which tells a little-known story very well. The authors have had the co-operation of Franz Ferdinand & Sophie's descendants, eager to tell the true story of their ancestors & correct some of the rumours & lies about Franz Ferdinand, whose life has been long overshadowed by the manner of his death.
I've also been reading some short stories on my Kindle by Katie Fforde, Laura Lippman, Deborah Moggach & Joanne Phillips. I think I'd better write a separate post about those as this post is already too long!
Now, what's next? I've been listening to some excellent podcasts lately. I've just discovered (with some help from my friend, P) how to connect my iPad to my car's speakers with a thingamajig that plugs into the cigarette lighter. So, I've been able to listen to some of the podcasts I'd downloaded as I drive to work as a change from audio books. I'm a big fan of the BBC History magazine podcasts & the BBC also have podcasts available from Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time series (just listened to a great discussion about the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066) as well as the Book Club, Open Book, Desert Island Discs & Women's Hour. This week, I've listened to Margaret Drabble talking about her new book, The Pure Gold Baby, & a discussion on A Good Read about Antonia Fraser's book about her life with Harold Pinter, Must You Go? Libraries are wonderful things so I've downloaded the Drabble from our ebook collection & the Fraser will be waiting for me on my desk when I get in on Monday. I'm also about to start reading Penelope Lively's new memoir, Ammonites & Leaping Fish, & the latest Open Book podcast features an interview with Lively about the book. Perfect!