17.7.18

Unnatural Death

Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter Wimsey (BBC)
The Dorothy L Sayers binge-fest continues with Unnatural Death, the final book in my omnibus with the horrible cover. Ridiculously, though it's the last book in the volume, it was written first, and introduces the character of Miss Climpson, who also appeared in Strong Poison. No Harriet Vane in this one, either.

Miss Climpson is nearly as good as Harriet Vane, though, being brave and resourceful and not as foolish as she appears (not unlike Wimsey himself, come to think of it). And this one features a ruthless and cunning murderess -- not a spoiler, as she is suspected from the first page, it's just that they can't prove that she has actually committed murder. Sadly, and thanks principally to Wimsey's interference by the way, the body count goes up before the proof can be acquired, which makes you wonder if he shouldn't have just minded his own bloody business.

No I only have Busman's Honeymoon in my cupboard, but I think I need to read Gaudy Night first. I just have to get my hands on it.

10.7.18

Holes

I have to admit I wasn't really looking forward to reading Louis Sachar's school reading circle staple, Holes. I don't find desert books especially appealing, particularly American desert books. Also Daughter No 2 had read this at primary school (in one of those aforementioned literature circles) and found it dull.

So I was pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up enjoying it. After a rather grinding start, the story picked up pace for me once the historical back story was introduced -- I would have liked more about the outlaw Kissin' Kate Barlow, and less about the brutality of the camp. Perhaps it's just my tender Australian sensibilities but I was quite shocked by the casual violence and the nonchalant firing of guns  -- why are the 'counsellors' even carrying guns, in a juvenile facility in the middle of nowhere? Anyway, the details of the historical story and the events of the present day dovetailed with satisfying neatness, and issues of race, courage and loyalty were handled with a degree of subtlety.

I was planning to jettison this one after reading it, but I think I'll award a place on the permanent bookshelf after all.

6.7.18

Strong Poison

Can you believe this cover? Both hideous and inappropriate. Clearly the designer had never read the novels or even cast a cursory glance over them. I have taken the liberty of stripping off the dust jacket and hurling it into the nearest wastepaper basket (actually the recycling bin). (Perhaps the war on plastic will result in a revival of the art and craft of basketry? I hope so.)

This omnibus volume (which I picked up in a local secondhand bookshop) contains Strong Poison, Have His Carcase (so I've doubled up there) and Unnatural Death. Annoyingly, they are presented out of order, so that a significant character featured in Strong Poison is actually introduced in Unnatural Death. This character is Miss Climpson, who is a smart, shrewd, observant, middle-aged woman who is nevertheless capable of appearing to be a mere harmless gossip... I suspect Miss Climpson may have provided the template for Miss Marple? In fact they first appeared in 1927, with Miss Marple making her debut in December of that year. Hmm. I guess we will never know.

Strong Poison is however, most notable for the introduction of Harriet Vane, wrongly accused of murder. I was a bit disappointed that Lord Peter seems to fall for her at first sight rather than gradually coming to appreciate her qualities, which are pretty subdued here -- no wonder, since she's sitting on Death Row for the entire book. In her brief appearances, though, she is clearly both intelligent and the owner of a sense of humour, which bodes well for their future.

Apparently Sayers based some of this book on her own experience of an unhappy love affair with a bohemian author. Must have been so satisfying to kill him off!

5.7.18

Behind the Sofa

Well, this is a funny little book for a niche audience -- I doubt it was even published in Australia. But it turned up on Brotherhood Books and, Doctor Who geek that I am, I couldn't resist. The subtitle of Behind the Sofa is Celebrity Memories of Doctor Who, edited by Steve Berry as a fundraiser for Alzheimer's Research UK.

Berry has collected anecdotes and memories from writers, actors, broadcasters and comedians -- some have worked on the show, some are just fans. Most discovered the show as children, and they each have their 'own' Doctor -- it tends to be the first one you saw, and the show has been going for so long that there are loyalists from William Hartnell right through to Matt Smith (the book was published before Peter Capaldi took over, and well before Jodie Whittaker was announced as the first female Doctor).

This was a diverting addition to my collection of Doctor Who books (they live in a drawer).

If I'd been asked for a contribution, I might have talked about my gang in Year 8 who all worshipped the fourth Doctor and Romana. My friend Fiona even looked like Lalla Ward. We especially adored the Paris-set story, The City of Death, and adopted the bumbling policeman Duggan as our mascot. We even developed a clapping game (yes, we were thirteen!) which involved chanting 'K-9, Duggan, Romana, Doctor...'

I might also add the story of Peter Davison's visit to Melbourne, where as earnest environmentalists at the height of the Franklin Dam controversy, we lined up to gift him a copy of the single 'Let the Franklin Flow' by Goanna. (We were 17 by this stage.) I was wearing my Fair Isle vest as a tribute to his character in All Creatures Great and Small. Lord knows what he made of it, poor guy!

29.6.18

Sophie's World

I think I first bought and read Jostein Gaarder's bestselling book about philosophy for young people, Sophie's World, when it was first published in English (translated from the original Norwegian) back in the early 1990s. I revisited it for the Convent Book Group's Philosophy theme this month.

I did recall some elements of the book, but not the central twist (though I saw that coming). And alas, I had forgotten most of the actual philosophy information which was the whole point of the novel. I have to admit that this time around, I found those sections fairly hard-going -- talk about info-dump! But when the actual mystery/twist part of the book ramps up, I found myself more engaged, and the interplay between the philosophical debates and Sophie's personal situation is cleverly plotted.

I'd be interested to know if any young people actually read this book these days. It's a useful primer on the history of (Western) philosophy and much more fun than the textbooks I had to plough through at uni doing Philosophy 101 -- though that's not setting the bar very high!

28.6.18

Have His Carcase

Once again, unable to find a picture of my own copy of Dorothy L Sayers' Have His Carcase, I've stolen an image from the  BBC series, which surely shows Lord Peter and Harriet Vane looking for clues on the beach, the scene of the crime. I'd really love to have seen this series, this is exactly how I imagine Peter and Harriet.

Have His Carcase comes before The Nine Tailors, but I forgot it was tucked away on my shelves. Now this one I remember well -- I must have re-read it a few times, and I remembered the twist at the end perfectly. The series does catch a new lease of life once Harriet Vane appears, and I really enjoy the interactions between her and Peter. The key is that they WORK together so well; they respect each other's intellect as well as fancying each other, and they obviously just enjoy each other's company -- not a bad romantic model. (This from someone who married her boss -- ahem!) I love the way Peter clearly adores Harriet ('By the way, will you marry me?'), and she briskly fobs him off ('No, thank you'), though there is a lot of angst under the surface which we are only allowed to briefly glimpse -- no wallowing here! (Peter has previously rescued Harriet from a false charge of murder, thereby saving her life.) Of course Harriet is a stand-in for Sayers herself (a novelist of detective fiction, no less) but who cares.

Lots of confusing stuff about ciphers and alibis, which is slightly better than train timetables, but it's the relationship between the sleuths that holds this one together.

25.6.18

The Anxiety Book

One of my most memorable panic attacks struck on my first day alone in Paris. I was staying in the back two rooms of an apartment kindly lent by a family friend, in an otherwise deserted house, and a seemingly deserted suburb (everyone in Paris had departed for summer holidays). It was hot, I couldn't speak French, I was tired and under-nourished and scared. I ended up sitting on the bathroom floor (I couldn't open the shutters in the only other room), eating tinned peas with my fingers and drinking orange juice.

Sometimes I tell this story on school visits, and I do my best to make it amusing. I threw up peas through my nose! And the moral of the story is, no matter what a crappy experience you're enduring, you can always use it in your writing. But at the time, it wasn't funny at all. I was terrified.

I didn't tough it out. The next day, I fled back on the ferry to England and the safety of my aunt's house. Instead of tramping the youth hostel circuit, I went camping in Wales with my cousins, and waited to do the backpacking thing until a friend arrived from Australia to keep me company, and hold the anxiety at bay.

Looking back, I see that I've suffered from anxiety all my life. All the signs were there, I just didn't put them together until recently. I vomited before every exam and elocution performance. I felt sick before every major decision. Under stress, I always threw up or sometimes fainted: twice in hospital rooms where my loved ones were under threat. When I realised that the sick feeling, the formless dread, was there in the pit of my stomach every single day, I started medication. I took up yoga, and knitting, and piano. Things are better now.

Anxiety and depression run through both sides of our family. Four out of five members of my household are currently taking some kind of medication to suppress it (and it's probably just a matter of time for the fifth). So reading Elisa Black's memoir of her own struggles with "phobias, flashbacks and freak-outs" covered some very familiar ground. Black's book switches between her own personal journey and a chatty, accessible account of the latest treatment options and stories of others' experiences. In the end, the message is one of hope and encouragement. Black's demons haven't entirely disappeared, but she has them pretty well under control these days. With help, therapy, medication, meditation, exercise -- whatever works for you -- you and I can get better, too.

18.6.18

The Little Prince

Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince is one of those classic children's books that is probably more popular with adults. Its romantic allure is enhanced by the fact that the author, a fighter pilot, was killed in action during WWII, not long after writing it. Saint-Exupery was primarily an essayist and writer for adults, but The Little Prince has proved to be his enduring legacy, with an animated series and countless translations. We are reading it for the Convent Book Group, under the theme of Philosophy.

Can I make a confession? Not really a fan. I won a copy, picked up cheap at a library book sale, because it is a classic and I felt I ought to have it. But it just doesn't do it for me. Twee. Sentimental. Vaguely misogynist. I find the illustrations just badly drawn rather than naively charming. Him and his devotion to his bloody rose and his volcanoes and his boababs. It's all a bit try-hard for me. It comes across as a book written to order, by a publisher who said, hey, Antoine, why don't you write something for kids, mate? Something whimsical yet profound? Which is exactly how it happened.

Not for me, thanks.

12.6.18

Love in a Cold Climate

One of my favourite books of all time, I've read Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate (and its predecessor, The Pursuit of Love) so many times that the pages have acquired a soft, worn texture, almost like cloth.

I haven't read them for a long time, though. I decided that A might enjoy a dose of Mitford, as I was about her age when I fell in love with her books, so I started reading her The Pursuit of Love. But she found Davey Warbeck irritating, and when she realised that the children grew up and married, and didn't spend the whole book being hunted across country by their father, she lost interest. However, she has required my company while she studies from time to time lately (it's the SAC time of year), so I took the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the story of beautiful Polly, terrifying Lady Montdore, creepy Boy (aka the Lecherous Lecturer) and flamboyant Cedric.

Reader, I remembered almost every word. It was like sinking into a deliciously scented, decadent warm bath with a bottle of champagne and a box of chocolates on the side: pure, slightly guilty delight. I know from reading her letters that Nancy Mitford worked hard on her novels, but they read as if they were effortless, like an amusing, politically incorrect friend telling you an endlessly entertaining story. Mitford might be an acquired taste, but she has sunk into my reading DNA and I doubt I will ever be able to dig her out.

11.6.18

The Nine Tailors

Photo from kidbucketlist
Now this is a good Lord Peter Wimsey novel -- I read this several times in high school (though I still couldn't remember whodunnit!) As Lawrie Marlow says when she finds her twin reading this novel, 'Sewing?' To which Nicola replies, 'No -- bell-ringing,' which leaves Lawrie more perplexed than before.*

When I last read Dorothy L Sayers' The Nine Tailors, I had no idea what the art of change-ringing was, and happily allowed all the novel's complicated references and descriptions sail over my head. These days, thanks to Google, I was better able to inform myself. Change-ringing involves ringing a set of bells in an ever-changing sequence -- it's more to do with mathematics than music, running through every possible permutation of the order in which they can be rung. To me, the ringing of church bells is one of the most glorious sounds in the world: I cherish the memory of hearing bells ring out on a cloudless autumn's day in Avignon. But apparently change-ringing is a particularly English obsession!

This is perhaps the ultimate 'cosy' English mystery, centred on a country church in the fens of East Anglia. (As an aside, I note that Kevin Crossley-Holland's Waterslain Angels, which also featured cherubim on -- along? under? -- a church roof, was likewise set in the Fens. Is this a peculiarity of East Anglian churches? Google has thus far been unable to answer this question.) Several volumes in to the series, Lord Peter has thankfully shed most of his annoying mannerisms and become good company, though he has acquired yet another improbable skill to his repertoire -- he is an accomplished (though rusty) bell-ringer, as well as an amazing cricketer, expert on old books etc etc. But I forgive him.

No Harriet Vane in this book, though she first appeared several novels ago in Strong Poison. I don't think we had Strong Poison in our school library, though I certainly remember Gaudy Night (from which book, along with Brideshead Revisited, I formed all my ideas about life in Oxford. Oh dear.)

I think I must get my hands on Strong Poison. Perhaps Harriet Vane has already mellowed him? Also I want to read Murder Must Advertise, which has a cricket match in it. Lots of catching up to do!


*The nine tailors, or nine single strokes of the bell, are tolled to mark the death of a man. For a woman, it's six.

4.6.18

The Five Red Herrings

Photo from UK Rivers Guidebook
Another Dorothy L Sayers title from my Peter Wimsey omnibus, The Five Red Herrings is set in Scotland, and we are never allowed to forget it for a moment! This is a picture of the river where the body is discovered, the Minnoch, where the unfortunate victim seems to have tumbled down a bank while painting the scenery. But it soon transpires that foul play is afoot, and the presence of a half-finished painting on the easel suggests that the murder could only have been performed by a fellow artist. The five red herrings of the title refer to the six other artists in this little community, all with motive, opportunity and wonky alibis (of course, one of them is no red herring, but the real deal).

I must admit I struggled with this novel at first -- I've only read it once before, as a teenager, and I remember feeling inordinately proud of myself for spotting the first vital clue, thus proving myself to be the 'intelligent reader' referred to by Miss Sayers, who would guess what was missing from the crime scene.

I do adore Scotland, but the constant rendering of dialogue in dialect became a little distracting. "She's troubled in her mind aboot Mr Farren. And nae wonder, wi' him mekkin' a' that disturbance and gaeing aff that gate an' never comin' back for twa nichts." Eventually I relaxed into it, but it took quite an effort at first! And in the first third of the novel, there was a LOT of guff about bicycles and train tickets and timetables that I frankly couldn't be bothered to keep track of, though it was significant in the end. I also (dear me!) had trouble telling our six suspects apart.

So, not my favourite Wimsey, despite the alluring Scottish setting. But it did come home with a rush, and a most entertaining re-enactment sequence, which made up for its other shortcomings.

31.5.18

Marianne Dreams; Marianne and Mark


How thick am I? I was about a quarter of the way through Marianne and Mark before I twigged that Marianne was the same character as the central figure in Catherine Storr's creepy classic, Marianne Dreams. So I went back to the first book and re-read that before finishing Marianne and Mark.

In some ways I don't blame myself for not connecting the two, because they are very different books. Marianne Dreams haunted me and I only read it once as a child because I found it so unsettling. Re-reading as an adult, I think it's utterly brilliant. Marianne, ill in bed for months, finds that the drawings she makes in the daytime come to life in her dreams. This is all very well when she draws a crooked house and a boy inside to let her in (Mark, a real boy, also ill with polio and sharing her tutor), but not when she loses her temper, scribbles over the windows and draws rocks with eyes to keep watch over him. THEY are truly frightening, and the psychological depth of the story is finely drawn (pardon the pun).

Marianne and Mark is set several years later and is a more realist story, though it does have subtle fantasy elements, and discussions of fate, magic and destiny. Mark himself doesn't appear until quite late in the piece, and when he does he is almost too alpha male: intelligent and respectful, but definitely taking charge and at times condescending. However, for most of the novel, Marianne is on her own, wandering through Brighton on an enforced holiday, striking up casual friendships with unsuitable people (there is an unspoken class divide at play here). 

Storr, herself a psychiatrist, has some fun with the character of Marianne's psychiatrist uncle, who relentlessly analyses his niece and allows her more freedom than she is really comfortable with. If I'd discovered this book as an adolescent, I would have found it incredibly comforting. Marianne is worried, at fifteen, that she's not normal because she doesn't have a boyfriend; she feels naive, self-conscious, unattractive, doesn't understand the rules, and when a boy does come along (not Mark), she finds herself miserably out of her depth. That was me -- only for me, those feelings lasted till I was about twenty-five!

Looking for a cover image to post here, I was startled to find a second hand copy of Marianne and Mark listed for over a thousand pounds! If anyone really wants it, I'd be happy to sell for considerably less than that. Or maybe I'll just keep it!

24.5.18

Brave

In prehistoric times, a feisty girl and a clever boy join forces to survive together, away from the protection of their tribe, and undertake a perilous journey... Hang on, have I read this somewhere before? I guess there are only so many plot lines possible in a children's book set in prehistoric times!

Wendy Constance's Brave was written a few years before Tarin of the Mammoths, and I think any similarities are pure coincidence -- but at times they did tread the same territory. Dangerous encounters with wild creatures, being swept away by a raging river, escape from hostile warriors, appeals to the nameless Spirits, all appear in both books.

Brave is aimed at a slightly older audience and contains a hint of romance. There's also a pretty high body count, which is realistic. I appreciated that the frequent hunting scenes glossed over the most gory aspects! But I think coming hot on the heels of Tarin, it was an overload of prehistoric adventure for this reader.

23.5.18

Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading

Books about childhood reading habits are my catnip (Francis Spufford's The Child That Books Built; The Book That Made Me, edited by Judith Ridge (note the very similar cover...) No sooner had I read a brief review of Lucy Mangan's Bookworm in The Week than I was on the Kindle, downloading it. Bang! No sooner had I downloaded it than I was gobbling it down. Bang! Day and a half, tops. Loved it. (Suzanne, I think you will love it too.)

If Lucy Mangan and I ever meet, we will become friends. I know this because we read and adored exactly the same books as children (albeit about a decade apart). Like me, she identified with clever Kate from The Family From One End Street; like me, she struggled to come to grips with Tolkein; like me, she worships at the altar of Antonia Forest, wished herself into Narnia, and inhaled Noel Streatfeild. The Railway Children -- check. What Katy Did at School -- check. Tom's Midnight bloody Garden -- double check! There was a bad moment when I thought she was going to hate Anne of Green Gables, but luckily, she saw the light on re-reading. Phew.

Our paths diverge when it came to teenage reading (she had more choices). And she doesn't seem to have read Susan Cooper or discovered When Marnie Was There. But otherwise we are totally simpatico. Which means that I really need to check out The Summer of My German Soldier and Fireweed, because if Lucy loved them, I'm pretty sure I will love them too.

One very minor quibble -- I think she has misremembered Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming as Dicey's Song, which is a different book in the same series. Otherwise, top marks. If you're ever in Melbourne, Lucy, come round for a cuppa. We've got lots to talk about.

21.5.18

You're Wearing That?

As a mother of daughters and sharing a house with my own mother, and as a long time guilty fan of pop psych hand books, how could I resist You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation by Deborah Tannen when it appeared on Brotherhood Books?

All my life, if things were going right or if they were going wrong, it's been my mother I'd long to talk to about stuff. As this book points out, who else is going to be equally interested in your new pair of socks or your broken heart? Now we live together and our paths cross daily, it's even more important to carve out time for conversation (I like to sit down for a morning coffee with Mum before our days begin). Luckily for me, the three contentious issues that often arise between mothers and daughters, according to Tannen, namely hair, clothes and weight, have never posed a problem for us. My mother is smart enough to know when to keep her mouth shut -- mostly.

The only time I didn't really tell my mother in excruciating detail what was happening in my life was as a young adult, partly to safeguard my new-found independence, partly because I didn't want to worry her. I can already see my own daughters' impulse to protect me from concern. And honestly, perhaps there are things I would rather not know.

The chief source of conversational conflict between mothers and daughters is a contradictory pull between control and connection. This makes a lot of sense to me. Mothers tend to underestimate their own power over their daughters -- maybe not to actually influence their behaviour, but certainly to affect how they feel. At the end of the day, most daughters are seeking their mother's praise, acceptance and approval -- not their advice, no matter how sensible, and not their unvarnished opinions! I think I would be wise to remember that.