Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Ngaio Marsh -

Back when I was in my late teens, intoxicated by having wages (which in those days came as a fold of crisp notes in a little purple packet made of what looked like grease proof paper but with all the mad swirls on the inside so you couldn’t see through) I started branching out and reading crime writers who were not Agatha Christie or Conan Doyle. Michael Innes, Margery Allingham, Leslie Charteris (does he count?) P D James, Ruth Rendell, Ellis Peters and, of course, Ngaio Marsh.

Marsh was my favourite new discovery at the time, and I fully intended to read them all, not relying on serendipity to pick them up second hand but buying them in the new brightly coloured paperbacks, ordering one and then the next so that I read them more or less in order.  But somehow I dropped off, frustrated by the not especially helpful bookshop in Covent Garden I may have mentioned before (I read a short story by the owner later in life and wondered if the problem was just that he wasn’t a bookshop owner, but a frustrated author doing the next best thing) but also because I was getting less out of them as I went along.

At the time I wasn’t sure why – I didn’t blog, I wasn’t writing essays, and I wasn’t in the habit of analysing a text too closely. I just accepted that I wasn't enjoying them anymore, and I stopped.

Reading The PassingTramp on Marsh made me wonder again what I would think of those books now. Did I just fall out of love with them? Or did they get progressively less enjoyable? Was it the snobbery and sexism? If so why should Christie’s be just a little irritating to me but Marsh’s really objectionable? 

So while on holiday in Siracusa I downloaded and read two that I had absolutely not been enamoured of the first time round. Spinsters in Jeopardy and False Scent.

Well, Spinsters in Jeopardy is not as bad as I remembered. I remember the Alleyns' young son as being deeply annoying. Actually he’s alright, as children in adults books go. Neither too twee and unbelievable or a miniature adult. The mystery is just plain odd, with it’s themes of cults and drugs and bringing a child anywhere near where this was happening, which you absolutely would not do and your superiors would rightly give you hell for doing. Spadework is done to make it clear this wasn’t the plan and yet, somehow, it happens, but even then I cannot believe either parent would go along with it or worse, having done it, take their eye off him for a second once the bad guys know what he looks like. Even the younger me knew that kidnapped children do not normally turn up safe and sound and just a bit tearful, and the confidence of the police and Alleyn and to a lesser extent Troy was ludicrous.

Other than that it’s a daft but entertaining story of drugs and Satanism and stabbings and some of the supporting characters were excellent, so maybe a 6.5/10 - were it not a Marsh I would probably be more generous.

False Scent on the other hand made me very uncomfortable. I barely remember this one at all, although I did remember the murderer and the motive, which made me even more uncomfortable this time round, and raised flesh-creeping questions about the value of women as people instead of some kind of bauble to look at that is worthless once it’s flawed.

SPOILERS whited out beneath.… please highlight to read:

I could have stomached if the admittedly deeply unpleasant victim had been killed for money or freedom, but she has actually been killed because she’s no longer pretty and nice. And no longer is the correct phrase – the interviews her nearest and dearest have with the police show that she’s been getting worse, which presumably means she’s having some sort of mental or emotional crisis. And instead of support she gets zapped like a bug. Lovely.

So – will I read more? I did also download Grave Mistake a little while ago, and it was a nice workmanlike job of a mystery - but even after a second reading it didn’t really stick. I remember that the most interesting characters were the cleaning lady and the victim’s daughter, but the motive has dropped totally out of my head. I have read Singing in the Shrouds within the last few years (and reviewed briefly) and again it wasn’t as bad as I remembered, but I didn’t love it. I have regularly reread my two favourites Death in a White Tie (mentioned here) and Artists in Crime, (which I absolutely should review at some point). In Death at the Dolphin, on the other hand, I really like the set up but can take or leave the murder. A tale of exasperated management, tiresome intrigues between the cast and the revival of a beautiful old theatre would have done me. 

Others I can't remember at all, and so a reread and filling in of gaps is clearly indicated, and although I'm reluctant to over-commit myself (my course starts in May and I still haven’t finished the Dark Tower series), surely I could commit to a Marsh I don't remember a month? 

Second of the Month, every month. One Marsh. Starting with The Nursing Home Murder, with a little background about A Man Lay Dead and Enter a Murderer, just for context.. 

And I will, I will, I will get the Dark Tower finished.. Maybe I should do my dissertation on it. King is very clear that it was at least inspired by Lord of the Rings, and of course the poem that starts 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came..' which line originally came from King Lear, so there's the whole intertextuality thing going on.

And I'd have to finish it then.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Fashion on the Ration - Julie Summers

I have to give credit to someone on the money saving expert forums (or fora, as a former boss of mine in the passport service HR who thought being erudite was more important that being comprehensible, used to insist) for this one. I’m a long term lurker over on the old style board, in particular on the decluttering thread, which I creepily haunted without registering all last year (if you’re wondering how decluttering is moneysaving it is because a) it’s quicker, easier and cheaper to clean what you have if you have less and b) when you are about to buy something you think ‘do I want to give this houseroom’ which I find a bigger deterrent than cost, strangely enough.  Also you don’t buy duplicates of things you already have (tights, sellotape, ink cartridges) because you mostly know what you have and where you’ve left it.

Anyway that’s a tangent. Over the last year I’ve read Stuffocation and Marie Kondo and Tara Button and am not, and never will be a minimalist (I have 5 handbags and must own 3000 books, for example) but I have moved much of my crockery and cutlery into another cupboard (forcing me to wash up before it feels like an impossible mountain) and I do have a system for shifting out books I’ve read rather than defaulting to putting them back on the shelves (Kondo has her oddities but one thing she is right about is that a lot of this is psychological. I’ve been hanging onto books I’ll never read again, or glanced into and didn’t fancy, simply because I like having a mass of books. That’s fine, but not past the point where the shelves are full to bursting.)   

Fashion on the Ration is not a minimalist book – the frugality of wartime was plain necessity rather than preference. The book covers clothes rationing, of course, but also what Vogue was doing in the war years (cut off from its parent paper in the states), the amount of cloth saved through banning things like turn ups, how Barbara Cartland sourced second hand wedding dresses for women in the forces to borrow for their wedding day, and a great deal more besides. Summers is particularly good at mixing hard stats and personalities and letting the women and men who lived through these times speak for themselves, whether through diaries and letters and articles written at the time or later interviews. And she doesn’t dramatise or fall into the trap – which is a particular hate of mine – of rosy tinted nostalgia for what must have been very difficult circumstances.  

I'm now halfway through another of her books - Jambusters - and am finding it just a little less engaging, but no less fascinating. I may have to seek out more. 

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Bonne Année de Londres

Well that was the year that was. Some are much of a muchness and others you know will stick in the memory. 
2018, with it's mix of brilliant sunshine and stormy politics, will be one that sticks, so fingers crossed that we've all landed safely and know where we are by this time next year. It's the moving of goalposts that seems so unfair.

But I'm here to talk about books. 
I'll get onto favourites later but here is the more or less complete alphabetical list of all the books I read in 2018 (feel free to scroll past, I mostly put this here so I can erase all the titles in my sidebar): 

A is for Alibi - Sue Grafton
A Blunt Instrument - Georgette Heyer
A Few Green Leaves - Barbara Pym
A Life Less Throwaway - Tara Button
A Year in Provence - Peter Mayle
Absolutely On Music - Murakami and Ozawa
Affluenza - Oliver James
An Education - Lynn Barber
Ariel - A Literary Life of Jan Morris - Derek Johns
Artists in Crime - Ngaio Marsh
B is For Burglar - Sue Grafton
Bats in the Belfry - E C R Lorac
Behold, Here's Poison - Georgette Heyer
Bliss - Peter Carey
Bond Street Story - Norman Collins
Browse. The World in Bookshops - edited by Henry Hitchings
Calamity in Kent - John Rowland
Coast to Coast - Jan Morris
Confabulations - John Berger
Confessions of a Ghostwriter - Andrew Crofts
Death at the Dolphin - Ngaio Marsh
Death in a White Tie - Ngaio Marsh
Death Makes a Prophet - John Bude
Death of a Busybody - George Bellairs
Death of a Ghost - Margery Allingham
Death of a Gossip - M C Beaton
Death of Anton - Alan Melville
Death-Watch - John Dickson Carr
Don Among the Dead Men - C E Vuillamy
Envious Casca - Georgette Heyer
Eva Trout - Elizabeth Bowen
Every Eye - Isobel English
Fruit in Season - Anthony Thorne
Grave Mistake - Ngaio Marsh
Green for Danger - Christianna Brand
If on a Winter's Night a Traveller - Italo Calvino
Inside the Nudge Unit - David Halpern
Lament for Leto - Gladys Mitchell
Landscapes After the Battle - Juan Goytisolo
Life, the Universe, and Everything - Douglas Adams
London, A Traveller's Reader - Thomas Wright & Peter Ackroyd
Maigret in New York - Georges Simenon
Man vs Money - Stewart Cowley
Messy - Tim Harford
Metroland - Julian Barnes
Municipal Dreams - John Boughton
Murder at the Vicarage - Agatha Christie
Murder in the Museum - John Rowland
Murder on Christmas Eve - Ellis Peters, Julian Symonds, et al
Mysogynies - Joan Smith
Nest of Vipers - Gladys Mitchell
On Photography - Susan Sontag
One, Two, Buckle My Shoe - Agatha Christie
Ordeal by Innocence - Agatha Christie
Patrick Butler for the Defence - John Dickson Carr
Plan Now, Retire Happy - Alvin Hall
Poirot and Me - David Suchet
Put on by Cunning - Ruth Rendell
Quick Curtain - Alan Melville
Rain - Four Walks in English Weather - Melissa Harrison
Saplings - Noel Streatfeild
Sick Heart River - John Buchan
Singing in the Shrouds - Ngaio Marsh
Slade House - David Mitchell
Sober as a Judge - Henry Cecil
Stuffocation - James Wallman
Summer at Gaglow - Esther Freud
The Beckoning Lady - Gladys Mitchell
The Black Stage - Anthony Gilbert
The Blind Watchmaker - Richard Dawkins
The Bridge - Geert Mak
The Camomile Lawn - Mary Wesley
The Dark Tower I - IV Stephen King
The Disinformer - Peter Ustinov
The Division Bell Mystery - Ellen Wilkinson
The Flaneur - Edmund White
The Grand Babylon Hotel - Arnold Bennett
The Heretic's Guide to Global Finance - Brett Scott
The Inevitable Gift Shop - Will Eaves
The Last Station - Ben Aaronovitch
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - C S Lewis
The Lost Continent - Bill Bryson
The Mitfords, Letters Between Six Sisters - Charlotte Mosley
The Notting Hill Mystery - Charles Felix
The Secret Lives of Colour - Kassia St Clair
The Songlines - Bruce Chatwin
The Swimming Pool Library - Alan Hollinghurst
The Theory and Practice of Lunch - Keith Waterhouse
The Venetian Empire - Jan Morris
The Woman in Black - Susan Hill
Things - Georges Perec
Trent's Last Case - E C Bentley
Utz - Bruce Chatwin
Verdict of Twelve - Raymond Postgate
Ways of Escape - Graham Greene
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running - Haruki Murakami
Who Moved my Cheese? - Dr Spencer Johnson
Working with Structuralism - David Lodge

The first thing that jumps out at me is the amount of titles starting with 'Death' - of 102 books read fully 38 were crime. Many were authors new to me, which I'm quite pleased about. Some I loved (Verdict of Twelve, Green for Danger, Death of a Ghost) some I found distinctly odd (A Blunt Instrument, Lament for Leto) and some slipped down like ice cream and left no impression at all. 

Some stats: At 102 books (I'm counting the 4 Stephen King's separately, but only put them once in the list as it's all the same story) I'm up almost a quarter on last year's total - but again my non-fiction reading has barely altered - 34 this year, as against 32 last. 
That leaves 64 fiction works (counting SK as one this time). Men well ahead of women this year - 59 books by men and 38 by women, and one by a mixed group. 

5 books in translation, which I'm cautiously pleased about. Usually it's none. 

Five Favourites

1) Bond Street Story by Norman Collins, which was delightful, although there was a slight subtext of  'stay with us so as you'll be looked after' which made me uneasy. My brother lost his job when Arding and Hobbs went under - hard enough for him as a junior manager, but for those who'd had a lifetime of loyalty to the company and whose pensions and social life were all wrapped up in it (as they are in Rammell's Department Store in this tale), it was absolutely catastrophic.  You could see, in Bond Street Story, how people in the 50s - especially working men - thought they had a job for life, a social contract, that has largely been reneged on. Small wonder some are angry. 

*coffs* but, as I said, I'm here to talk about books. 

2) A close second favourite is The Mitfords, Letters Between Six Sisters. They really did know everyone didn't they? In a way it was a bit of a curse - if they hadn't been who they were they wouldn't have been right at the epicentre when the second world war broke out. That they did mostly manage to keep in touch was a marvel of sisterly solidarity.

3) Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham. I did review this briefly here, so I won't repeat myself.

4) The Songlines - Bruce Chatwin. Which I also reviewed as part of my 'Reading the 80s' project at this link here.

5) The Flaneur - Edmund White. Again, there's a link here

And What will I read in 2019

I should be resuming my OU course this Spring, so I suspect my reading will dip again. I hope to finish the Dark Tower series - although King can be a bit grim, so I really do have to be in the mood to enjoy them - and I'd definitely like to read more Bruce Chatwin, who I basically discovered this year. 
Sadly there isn't that much more to read because he died in his 40s, and so I'm torn between reading the lot or holding off and eking it out.  

What I don't think I'll be doing is diving much further into the British Library Crime Classics (and if my reading is going to drop that seems the sensible thing to drop) but I would like to read more Christianna Brand. 

I'd quite like to read Trent's Own Case - the sequel written over 20 years after Trent's Last Case by E C Bentley. 

I was tempted to do 'reading the 80s' for a second year, but I don't think taking on even a nice easy project like that is going to fit well with work and the OU, so perhaps I'll come back to it 2020.

And I'll leave you with this lovely thing from the library in Liverpool, where I went for the punk exhibition and then the Bonfire Night fireworks (a short holiday that also took in Chester, Flint Castle and Port Sunlight), and with my best wishes for 2019 and beyond.


Thursday, 15 November 2018

Reading the 80s - 1989

Peter Mayle - A Year in Provence

I've said elsewhere that I get why this caught the imagination in late 80s Britain. The proper field to plate, hand reared, hand killed food, the buildings built to last, the wine bought straight from the vineyard, must have seemed a welcome contrast to all the synthetic colours and tastes - shell suits, funny face lollies, food pinged in the microwave, dayglo socks - that the 80s made mainstream.

That said there's really not much to the book. It's just a light, entertaining, well but not brilliantly written journal. Mayle does have a knack for focussing in on the things that make people interesting, and if I were a gourmet I think the food descriptions would be getting the juices flowing, but it's written very simply, a chapter a month, and there's nothing too deep, nothing too analytical.

It's a read once and pass on book, and there's nothing wrong with that. I enjoyed it.

The Disinformer - Peter Ustinov

This is actually a book with two short stories in it.

In the first a retired ex-spy who never cared much about his job while he was in it but is now bored and perhaps quite bitter invents a fake terrorist cell in order to entrap another cell, all at arm's length until it goes wrong..

In the second a young woman rebels against the intellectual and traditional life her parents are bringing her up in.

Both stories left me a bit cold. The spy playing God, wanting to watch the finale without considering that people might die, the young woman understandably rebellious but also quite unpleasantly ruthless in her pursuit of being who she wants to be - and yet I didn't dislike these people actively enough to want things to go wrong for them either.

Also in the second one I could see the 'twist' coming a mile off. Maybe I was meant to?

Bill Bryson - The Lost Continent

This is the one I've read before - not that long after it came out. Not as young as 16 I don't think, but not a great deal older. 

One thing that dates it enormously - that really struck me and didn't last time - is his sporadic comments about fat women, or nubile young women. It's the most old-fashioned thing in the book, this assumption that just because he's a man (who, to be fair to him admits he's no Adonis himself) his opinion on women's looks has some sort of authority or validity.

I wondered as well that Bryson never seems to consciously connect it with something else he notices about many of the places he goes to on his drive around America. That there are so many drive-thru and drive to places, none of which you can travel between on foot, and that often the downtown is dying or dead. 

Hindsight is 20/20 of course, and that lightbulb didn't go off for me either - and yet it seems so obvious now (nearly 30 years on) that the reason Bill is noticing how large women in America are getting in '89 is because they have constant access to fast food, and often nowhere pleasant to walk. You can talk about personal responsibility until you're blue in the face, but the dice have already been loaded.

Moving on from those issues -  as a travel book Bryson does a nice job of taking in the various States, describing the places he visited and giving you small snippets of history, neither sugarcoating or judging too harshly. If I used to find him funnier than I do now - well times change and I've changed, that's all. I probably will hang onto this one, and I will probably read it again in a decade or three.

So.. a bit of a fizzle out for 1989 to be honest. Maybe I should have given Booker winning Ishiguro a go.
This has nothing to do with the above, but I was in Liverpool recently
and this rather attractive plaque is in the library.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Green for Danger - Christianna Brand (for the 1944 club)

This is rather a tragic little story.

On the night of an air raid Higgins, a former postman (now in the rescue squad) is brought into hospital, badly injured after being dug out of a bombed building. The next day, when he's in a state to be operated on, he dies under the anaesthetic.

Inspector Cockrill in comes as a favour, mostly to lay rumours to rest - no-one really thinks Higgins has been murdered (in fact going over the apparatus it looks impossible that he could have been) but one of the medical staff has been accused of making an error before and Mrs Higgins is upset and talking a bit wildly perhaps.

Yet, another night - and another air-raid keeping Cockrill there - and someone else is also dead.

One of the things that struck me about the story - one of it's odd strengths in fact - was that all of the six people who knew Higgins was in the hospital and might have been in a position to harm him are, to a greater or lesser extent, friends. The three women share quarters and help each other out and make sure the others have things like the comfort of a hot water bottle when they come back from a shift. Two of the three men worked together long before the war.
The last, who is strangely (and to his own bafflement and faint disgust) attractive to women, was the one person I wouldn't have minded being the murderer.

They, however, don't want it to be any one of them, and when Inspector Cockrill starts a kind of war of attrition, stationing police officers to follow their every move and restricting them to hospital grounds, it drives them together as a group, not apart.

(The Inspector does not cover himself with glory in this one, frankly. Not only does he have to do all that to smoke out the murderer, but he very nearly gets another patient killed before he works out the how. His re-enactment at the end goes right off the skids too.)

In the background to the murder as well, rumbling on and never quite flaring into drama, are the war time conditions and the reactions to them - disturbingly matter of fact decisions made about whether to go down to the shelter after an exhausting shift in the middle of an air raid, or risk being chased out of bed in your night things and made to go, whether to carry your gas mask when going for a run in the car. Whether to admit to the Inspector that you all keep a grain of morphia on you at all times, just in case you're crushed under a building and need something for the pain.

Yet it's all so undramatic. Brand is recording these facts in the same way she's detailing  how the hospital runs, all the routines and medications and men and nurses, the table down the middle of the ward with it's mismatched vases of flowers, the green paint of the operating theatre, the prunes and rice pudding without syrup or cream. There's a vivid sense of place here, and of six mismatched but well formed characters, and - going back to the actual plot of the thing - I have to admit Brand completely diddled me about the murderer, I hadn't expected it to be that person at all, and yet it made so much sense when it was explained.

As always, with thanks to Simon and Karen for the club and the logo. You can find more 1944 (and other years) books on their blogs.