Monday, 22 January 2018

Reading the 80s..

Over at Stuck in a Book last year I sort of set myself the challenge to 'read the 80s'. The background to this is the club Simon and Karen host. Every six months or so a particular year in a decade is voted on and then anyone who'd like to reads and reviews a book (any book) from that year, and Simon and Karen link all the reviews on their own blogs so we can find them easily and get a broad overview of the year chosen.

However after 1977 (which will probably be in April) they intend to loop back to the 20s again as the 1980s seem too recent.

To be honest I'm inclined to agree with that. I don't think we're far enough from the 80s for it to be viewed in the same sort of way the other decades could be. In a little while maybe we'll be able to look at the decade from a historical perspective, and judge if (for example) Ben Elton's Stark was really an accurate reflection of the way the world was going, or be surprised at how forward (or backward) thinking some writers in the early 80s were. Right now I don't think we're there.

However I do quite like the idea of reading the 80s myself. It was the decade I went from 7 to 17, so obviously I spent it mostly reading children's books. Kipling, Enid Blyton, Nesbit, Judy Blume, Nina Bawden, Douglas Hill, and so on.

And since then I seem to have read a lot of books from well before I was born, and quite a lot published since I became an adult, but in the middle there's a largish gap with very little but Kinsey Millhone, Punch magazines and the occasional David Lodge in it.

However (again) Since the whole point of me taking a year off my Open University MA was to give myself some breathing space I'm not looking to commit to anything that's going to eat up a lot of time. So these are my rules:

1) Ideally I want to read a few books from each year, including rereads, so I'll split the year up and read in order. So 1980, which I'm starting today, will take me to February. I've decided to make Valentines Day (inclusive) the cut off for no reason at all except I'll remember it, and that is the day I will review.

2) Each month should contain at least one book I haven't read before. This should be relatively easy.

3) All books read for this challenge must be reviewed. At least a paragraph per book. This is the bit I will struggle with.

4) Go through my own shelves first.

5) This isn't really a rule, but if anyone wants to read along or link their own reviews for the appropriate year when my post goes up you're very welcome to. Just leave it as a comment. Similarly if you want to do the whole challenge drop me a line and I'll maybe do a wrap up at the end of the year.

In preparation I've already been through my shelves and thrown up the following

For 1980:

The Venetian Empire - Jan Morris. This appeals to me most at the moment but I'm sure I've read it, so it will have to wait until I've read Barnes below.

Metroland - Julian Barnes. I definitely haven't read this one so will start it tonight.

Ways of Escape - Graham Greene. From memory these are small pieces of travel writing.  I'd like to reread if I have time

David Attenborough's Life on Earth - I'm sure I meant to read it. I may have read it, but I suspect I didn't actually.

Sadly 1981 is a gaping great hole, and so is 1982. There are a couple of rereads I wouldn't mind doing - The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, A is for Alibi, Light Thickens by Ngaio Marsh, The Demon Headmaster (all 1982 I think) and a few I definitely don't want to reread (Pet Sematary, The House of the Spirits). Of the books I can see on Wikipedia and Goodreads nothing is screaming 'read me'. Maybe Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark. Or Midnight's Children, which I once read the first page of and put straight back on the shelf.


If On a Winter's Night a Traveller - Italo Calvino. I actually really loved this book but because the narrative doesn't have an arc as such it's very easy not to come back to once you put it down. I will have to read from the beginning if I pick it up again, because it's been ages.

Third Helpings - Calvin Trillin. Trillin and Jay Rayner are the two writers who can somehow communicate their excitement about food to me, even though I'd happily live off chips, tea, and marmite sandwiches myself (assuming that were a healthy thing to do).

The fact both above are rereads means I need a book I haven't read from 1983. I've been meaning to read The Woman in Black by Susan Hill for ages, so it will probably be that.

1984 - another gaping hole. Not The Wasp Factory, anyway.


Last Letters from Hav - Jan Morris. Hav is Morris' fictional city, used as a microcosm to tell the European story and showcase the variety and interest of it. I have read this recently, so probably won't again, but it's a great book.

Eve, Her Story - Penelope Farmer. I've never read this one, and have just realised that it's by the author of Charlotte Sometimes, so am very pleased about that.


The Blind Watchmaker - Richard Dawkins. Another one I may or may not have finished. can't remember. It's a wodge of a book, and I seem to remember it being a little humourless, so I'll have to be in the mood for it I think.

I need to find another I definitely haven't read.


The Songlines - Bruce Chatwin. I haven't read this and it looks good.


Thornyhold - Mary Stewart. Read and reread many times. It's a charming book, but I'm not sure it would have appealed to me so much if it hadn't had a little magic in it, and a description of someone cleaning up an old house, and I hadn't been about 15 when I got hold of it. Not that it's badly written just - well, lightish? A great comfort read.

Keith Waterhouse - The Theory and Practice of Lunch. Hmm. I can see this being either very interesting or very, very annoying. Anyway I haven't read it and by that late in the year I may be glad it's slim.

Winston Churchill's Afternoon Nap. This was all about circadian rhythms, and one of the first popular science books I really enjoyed. I think I've had it since I was about 19, which would explain why it's been highlighted to distraction in red ink.


Red Dwarf - Grant Naylor (Rob Grant and Doug Naylor in fact). Like Thornyhold, this is what I was actually reading at the time. And it's good fun, which is why I still have it. Darker than the program but not too dark. (Some of the later ones got pretty grim - as if it's not already depressing enough being the last human being alive, you have to have horrible androids with a whole room full of instruments of torture and heroes getting their heads squished in for good measure).

Misogynies -Joan Smith. I only bought this on Saturday and read it already, so I've missed a trick not holding it back. I'm glad I read it though, it's fascinating, and reading it in 2018 does demonstrate a) how far we've come and b) how far we still have to go.

Which still leaves me with another unread book to find of course..

In closing, I also have the Complete Yes Minister and Complete Yes Prime Minister by Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay, which I might include either as extras in the relevant years or perhaps read all at once at the end of the year if time allows.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

No more champagne, and the fireworks are through...

Although I didn't notice myself it looks like doing an MA in English Literature has actually led, a little ironically, to my reading slightly less than last year. Here is the list:

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived - Adam Rutherford
A life in Letters – George Orwell.
A Month in the Country – J L Carr
A Preface to Paradise Lost - C S Lewis
A Woman Surgeon – L Martindale
Aliens – edited by Jim Al Khalili
Apple of my Eye – Helene Hanff
Ask a Policeman - Members of the Detection Club circa '33
Breakfast at Sothebys – Philip Hook
Chronicles on Our Troubled Times - Thomas Piketty
Coriolanus - Livy
Coriolanus -  William Shakespeare
Death at the Opera - Gladys Mitchell
Death on the Riviera - John Bude
Doreen - Barbara Noble
Dumb Witness - Agatha Christie
Estuary - Rachel Lichtenstein
Foe - Coetzee
Good Parcel of English Soil - Richard Mabey
Goodbye to all Cats - PG Wodehouse
Goodbye to Berlin – Christopher Isherwood
How to Live on 24 Hours a Day - Arnold Bennett
Jacob's Room is full of Books - Susan Hill
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
Kim - Rudyard Kipling
Kinsey and Me – Sue Grafton
Letter From New York - Helene Hanff
Lives in Writing – David Lodge
London Belongs to Me - Norman Collins
Lost Children - Edith Pargeter
Making it Up as I go Along - Marian Keyes
Memoirs of a Novelist - Virginia Woolf
Murder Underground - Mavis Doriel Hay
Music – Andrew Gant
Mystery in White – J Jefferson Farjeon
Paradise Lost - John Milton
Pax Britannica - Jan Morris
Resorting to Murder - Detection Club Members
Respectable – Lynsey Hanley
Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
Silent Nights - Detection Club Members
Silent Witness - Agatha Christie
Smile - Oliver Burkeman
Something Fresh - P G Wodehouse
Sounds and Sweet Airs - Anna Beer
Summer Lightning - P G Wodehouse
Talking About Detective Fiction - P D James
The Awakening – Kate Chopin
The British Museum is Falling Down - David Lodge
The Cat Inside - William S Burroughs
The Cornish Coast Murder - John Bude
The Crime at Black Dudley - Margery Allingham
The Devil at Saxon Wall - Gladys Mitchell
The Devils Elbow – Gladys Mitchell
The Ghost Network - Catie Disabato
The Hanging Tree – Ben Aaronovitch
The Life Changing Magic of Tidying - Marie Kondo
The Persuaders - The Hidden Industry that Wants to Change your Mind - James Garvey
The Philosophy of Andy Warhol
The Plague and I - Betty MacDonald
The Rebecca Notebook and other Memories - Daphne duMaurier
The Santa Klaus Murder - Mavis Doriel Hay
The Scoop and Behind the Screen - Dorothy L Sayers, Christie, Berkeley and others
The Secret House of Death - Ruth Rendell
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 books - Martin Edwards
The Waxworks Murder - John Dickson Carr
The World in the Evening - Christopher Isherwood
The Year of the Ladybird - Graham Joyce
Thirteen Guests - J Jefferson Farjeon
Three Act Tragedy - Agatha Christie
Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere - Jan Morris
Underfoot in Show Business – Helene Hanff
Ways of Seeing – John Berger
When Last I died – Gladys Mitchell
Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no-one can afford to pay John Lanchester
Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys

Which is 76 books in comparison to last years 110. I think part of the explanation is that a) I haven't included text books because I don't read them in full and b) last year I reread a lot of Agatha Christie, which tends to go down quick.

The Agatha Christie effect probably also accounts for the men catching up the women this year. In fact they overtook. 37 book by men to 34 by women, with 5 by a joint team or group.

32 on the list were non fiction and 44 fiction, which means that my non fiction reading has dropped very little compared to my fiction reading. It's also the year - thanks to reading Sounds and Sweet Airs, that I discovered Fanny Hensel (nee Mendelssohn) and Barbara Strozzi.  

Favourite book of 2017?  London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins.

Happy New Year Everyone. 

Sunday, 24 December 2017

False Starts

Last week I started, and abandoned, King Solomon's Carpet by Barbara Vine, and Murder in Piccadilly by Charles Kingston. Both started with quite intriguing setups. Carpet with a young rather privileged woman with something a little wrong with her heart, who doesn't have to work and takes taxis everywhere, deciding to take the tube as an adventure. She goes wrong, gets caught up in the rush hour, has to stand, and her heart gives out. Cut to a youngish man who inherited a big old empty school building by a tube line and who's obsessed with the underground, living in two rooms in his school and renting a few others out while writing the occasional article so he can buy tickets to other cities with underground systems and travel on them.

Piccadilly is older – 1930s – and starts with a young man, also rather privileged and apparently able bodied, who one day stands to inherit the ancestral estate currently held by his uncle (his father, the younger son, died in the first world war). Meanwhile he lives off his mother who lives off the allowance the uncle makes her, and resents the uncle for getting in the way of 'his' inheritance. He's also in love with a nightclub dancer, who he's told all about his inheritance but not that his uncle might live for years, or indeed marry and sire an heir of his own.

And that was where my problems with the book started. Dancer is legitimately cross that golden boy has made out the situation to be a bit different from what it is, but the book portrays her as a nasty little gold digger. No allowance has been made for the fact she's been working since she was 14 (possibly younger, but we hear about her career at 14) and this hulking great man child is only now approaching the uncle for a job because he wants to get married. 

Were I that 19-year-old dancer’s mother or older sister my unpleasant suspicion would be that this lazy toff was trying to trick her into compromising herself so she’ll have to marry him (this possibility is not even mooted. Obviously the upper classes are naturally chivalrous and young girls ought not to suspect them). Even possibly, if uncle falls through, he thinks he can live off her. 

Then golden boy goes down to his uncle’s country place as a guest to discuss possible future employment, spends much of his time thinking ‘all this should be mine really’ and finally sneaks into his uncle's room late at night with a gun, no real plan and (as his uncle acidly points out after he's caught him) a high probability of getting get nothing out of it but a broken neck from the hangman.

We are meant to dislike his uncle for despising him and yet Uncle is clearly right to despise him.
Nephew is a waste of space. Not even an amusing what-ho-fellow-well-met waste of space like a character in Wodehouse. Those eggs and beans at the Drones may have bitten the ears of wealthy uncles and borrowed fivers from Wooster, but they did occasionally have a crack at a job, and best of all they knew (in Wodehouse’s words) that they were silly asses and hoped you wouldn't mind. Certainly none of them would ever have dreamt of murder. This chap's lack of self awareness and maddening sense of entitlement has me hoping someone shoots him. 

Unfortunately my distaste for that character infected the other book and my ability to feel sympathy for the young man who inherited the empty school (who to be fair isn’t complaining about anything and enjoys his life) and the young woman who collapsed (which is especially undeserved, because she wasn’t well) took a knock.

So both of those were set aside, to be resumed at some indefinite point, and I picked up Christopher Isherwood’s The World in the Evening. Another well to do young man in the 30s, but a different sort of book. A more generous and self-aware protagonist.

And of course because I really liked it, I don’t have that much to say about it. Maddening. 

Monday, 4 December 2017

Book Haul (aka I'm Buying Again)

Earlier in the year I bought a new bookcase, had a couple of smallish culls and have tried to stick to the libraries (I belong to libraries in my home borough of Merton, and my work borough of Kensington) but now I’m bringing books in faster than I can read them again. Given that my new bookcase was immediately filled with the double shelved books I had to move just to see what was behind them, I’m busily trying to read and discard the newbies before I get too attached.  

Here then is the latest influx…


I've just discovered that the charity shop in Tooting near the railway station sells Penguins for a pound. They don't have a lot of the greens, but I did find The Waxworks Murder by John Dickson Carr. On the whole I would have to file this book under worthwhile but strange. I think it was meant to be creepy too, but somehow the unnerving atmosphere of the waxworks and the mephistophelian character of Bencolin weren’t quite doing what I could sense they were meant to.  The narrator kept telling us he was creeped out (not in those words, it was the 30s) but I never really suspended my disbelief long enough to feel it.

I also recently read (courtesy of Copperfields in Wimbledon, which keeps its old Penguins on a bookshelf in the doorway, apparently indifferent to Elizabeth Von Arnim's stricture that what is meat for roses is poison for books) The Plague and I by Betty MacDonald, which is about her spell in a sanatorium for TB.

Apart from her sense of humour – which is what carries you through the book despite the talk of collapsed lungs, death, ice cold beds and so on - what came through for me most strongly in this one was the frustration of both patients and nurses.

Patients because of course TB mostly struck down the young and healthy, people who found it hard to keep still all day for months on end, or go home and not go straight back to former habits. People who, like Betty herself, were of working age and who lost their jobs when they became ill, and needed to find work again. Or who were primary care givers reduced to seeing their children once a month for 10 minutes and desperate to get back to them.

Nurses because complete compliance with the bedrest treatment was the only known cure for TB at the time, and almost impossible to ensure. A sympathetic nurse, one who turned a blind eye to a patient sitting up when she was not meant to, might contribute to a relapse, even haemorrhage and death. So they distanced themselves and clung to the rules, and separated patients who insisted on talking.  

The Great Port – Jan Morris

My copy of this comes from Oxford Polytechnic Library, it’s a battered, coverless, dusty blue hardback with ‘withdrawn’ stamped across the title page, and Morris’ old name on the spine. Let others talk of pristine pages and unbroken spines - I do love a well thumbed book.

As far as the text goes it’s interesting but not grabbing me. The places aren’t coming alive and the characters aren’t either. Maybe it’s because I recently read Helene Hanff’s Apple of my Eye, and she was a New Yorker, or maybe it’s because I’ve also recently read Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere by Morris, which is so much more in every way.

Or perhaps it’s simply the wrong book at the wrong time. I’ll set it aside for now.

Then there is Marian Keyes Making it up as I go Along (on the Kindle, or more accurately, on my phone and mostly while I’m on the tube)

At first I wasn’t sure there was really a book here, to be honest. It starts with a selection of her make up articles, all of which are amusing – she doesn’t take it too seriously and she’s not trying to sell you things - but which are definitely at their best in short bites. There’s an ‘I’m a bit of an eejit and get overexcited about silly things and have to call my Mam’ schtick which started to annoy after the third consecutive chapter. (Which is fair enough, because of course they’re not chapters – they’re short pieces of writing which were never intended to be read in a lump).

Gradually though that eases off and you pick up on the fact that you are reading someone who is genuinely ill, on medication for that, and doing her damnedest to keep well and count her blessings and get on with her life.

I still don’t think it was a good idea to create longer chapters out of posts or articles on similar subjects though. Some sort of mixing it up or maybe a note at the beginning which would free the reader to mix it up would be a boon. There’s plenty here to pick and choose from – and she’s very, very funny.* 

Incidentally I’ve not actually read any of Marian Keyes fiction, probably because it seems to be packaged as chick lit, which isn’t my downtime reading of choice (that would be vintage crime). On the other hand the thing she loses points for on Amazon is (shock horror!) having characters her readers don’t like, which quite piques my interest. Maybe I’ll get round to it.  

* edit to the above: I didn't read the introduction. There is indeed a bit telling you to read it in any order you like. 

The Mitfords – Letters between Six Sisters. I’ve barely started this one, but I’m sure a fellow blogger put me on to it. I wish I could remember who.

Goodbye to all Cats – P G Wodehouse. This actually contains 3 short stories, of which Goodbye to all Cats is only the first. For the record my sympathies are with Dahlia. Anyone who throws a cat out of a window just because it lays on their evening clothes deserves to have their engagement broken off. This is quite a slight book and probably not really worth the £4.99 I spent on it. I fancied a little light Wodehouse though, and it did hit the spot. 

and lastly.. Games People Play – Eric Berne M.D. One of the one pound penguins. It’s about the psychology of human relationships, and even if some of it is a little out of date (it was published in the 60s and I’m sure psychology and society have shifted somewhat since then) it looks interesting. 

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Ask a Policeman - Book Review

I’ve been reading Ask a Policeman – which I thought I’d read before but am now convinced that I just thought I had. Possibly I conflated it with Six Against the Yard.

Either way, it’s a republished 1930s book by five or six members of the ‘Detection Club’, a crime writers club founded in the 30s and still going strong today (if anyone is curious about the club – which included A A Milne, Dorothy Sayers, Christie and Chesterton as well as a number of fascinating characters I’d never heard of – I can highly recommend The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards).

In Ask a Policemen, as with Scoop and The Floating Admiral - which I do remember reading and reviewing - each writer takes a chapter of a murder mystery. Unlike Admiral though, and just to make it harder, each one also takes on the portrayal of another author’s detective, and produces an alternative solution to the crime.   

Since the crime is the shooting of a newspaper magnate no-one, but no-one, is sorry to see dead - the kind whose papers print nothing but negativity and scandal and bile, whose attitude to women is morally dubious, and who bullies and throws tantrums at his staff – this is a purely intellectual puzzle, and in fact, a bit of a romp.

The story begins with letters, or supposed letters, between John Rhode and Milward Kennedy, deliberately breaking the fourth wall, there are footnotes purportedly by Peter Wimsey, and others by Sayers commenting on her fellow author Berkeley. Within the story itself a bishop, a cabinet minister and an assistant commissioner of police all just happen to visit the house on the morning in question without appointment, are admitted, and have motives. Then the Home Secretary orders the police not to investigate, and gives the amateurs 48 hours to solve the crime. 

It’s clearly meant to be a romp, a colossal in-joke deliberately written for the amusement of their known audience, sending each other up and flexing their literary muscles, deliberately breaking some of their own rules, and as that it works extremely well and was great fun.

I did wonder how well it would work as a straight crime novel for a non-aficionado though. I think, actually, it might be quite confusing and off-putting to have this ridiculous set-up, and a change of detective in each chapter, and every solution knocked down and superseded by the next.

On the whole then great fun if you're familiar with the genre, but not a good place to start.  

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Pax Britannica - Jan Morris (for the 1968 club)

This is a substantial book – over 500 pages – and the second in a 3-part series exploring the ‘rise and fall’ of the British Empire. 

I haven't actually read either of the other two but probably will now I've read this one. It is beautifully written, the prose pulling you into the period with great enthusiasm

It's also a very ambiguous book. Morris moves rapidly and repeatedly between awe at the achievement and splendour and romance of the whole vast enterprise, to criticism of the details and arrogance that underpinned it. The way that perfectly good motives were bedded in bullish assumptions about Britain’s place in the world and our supposed ‘burden’ (and other motives, as is made clear, which were less moral and entirely profit based). Nor does she disguise the violence, both military and casual, that the British felt justified in using.

However, if you go into this book hoping for answers to vexed questions about whether the whole thing did more harm than good you won’t really get them. The job Morris has performed here is to record history – and it’s for the reader to draw their own conclusions.

It is a book of its time. Some of the ways in which different ‘races’ are described are, definitely, out of date. Not exactly offensive, but perhaps borderline. This includes the use of sweeping generalisations to describe whole populations. A kind of ‘lascars are like this, and this group of people are like this’ that I do actually remember from the 70s, but which feels very odd to me now in 2017. In a way this is actually a strength. Morris is able to give a flavour of how the colonists would have thought, because people were still thinking that way in '68.

From a literary perspective one of the more impressive achievements is the seemingly effortless way in which Morris moves between the detail and the broader sweep of history and back again, focussing in on parts of the Empire as case studies. Giving us not only places but the names and functions of individuals, humanising them and engaging our interest. But it’s noticeable that it's always the white individuals who are getting this treatment, and it's generally the white population's point of view that's shared with us. 

There is even a bit of this when talking about a) women and b) the working classes. Morris suggests (twice) that the hoi polloi loved the idea and pomp of Empire and the educated were more level-headed – but it struck me that it wasn’t the working class who were making the decisions that led to the Empire's existence, it wasn’t the working class, by and large, who benefited from it, and it wasn't the working class who wrote the jingoistic poetry that Morris quotes. 

Similarly, at one point there’s an implication that women went out into the Empire and spoiled the boys’ fun, and the thought did cross my mind that those women weren’t shipping themselves out – again each decision would have been made by a white well-off man, and the women would simply be making the best of it. 

In conclusion then: although the book is an impressive achievement (and even more so when you consider that it's one of three) it is very much a history of Empire from the point of view of the people who were in charge. Not blinking what they did, or the possibility that it was misguided, but also not seeking those alternative voices and giving them a chance to speak for themselves. 

Thanks again to Karen and Simon, who host this reading-the-year club every six months. 
The full list of other reviews is here

Friday, 3 November 2017

A Ruth Rendell for the 1968 Club

My first completed read for the 1968 club is Ruth Rendell’s The Secret House of Death. A slightly hyperbolic title which conceals the fact that the secret house in question is a detached suburban villa in a pleasantly leafy, gossipy, rather dull, suburb. 

Susan Townsend, from whose vantage point a lot of this book is written, lives in one of those roads where privacy is impossible. There is a large dog which barks whenever a stranger goes past, and small children, friends, neighbours, cleaning ladies, duck in and out of each other’s back doors as a matter of course. It’s clear that Susan’s ex, Julian, hasn’t just divorced her but a whole way of life; the suburb, the house, the family unit and the (to him) dreary ordinariness of it all.

In her own way Susan would like to do the same thing. Not to hold herself aloof exactly, but being still a little raw from the collapse of her marriage, and busy with her young son and some typing work she's taken on, she's not eager to be drawn into the gossip about the troubles next door at the Norths'. 

But it's impossible not to hear the talk that's going round about the central heating salesman who drops in regularly when Mr North is out at work – and how nobody believes he’s really there to sell central heating. She's thankful to at least escape being used as the wife’s confidante.

Or at least it seems like an escape until she drops in next door and finds the bodies…

This isn’t a fast paced thriller of a book. There’s no brilliant detective making amazing deductions, no car chase, no dramatic denouement at the end. Just a well-paced untangling of the facts (Rendell plays fair, relevant clues to what is going on are there to be found if you look), and a reminder that perhaps it’s dangerous to over-identify with someone just because they appear to be in similar circumstances to you. 

As always, thanks to Simon and Karen for hosting, and encouraging us all to read more widely!