Sunday, 15 July 2018

Reading the 80s - 1985

Well I had every intention to read Eve's Story by Penelope Farmer, but that went west. In fact I'm collecting a tidy pile of books that I intended to read for this challenge and didn't, and am considering some sort of amnesty period at the end of the year.

In the meantime here are the two books I did read:

Death of a Gossip - M C Beaton

This was Beaton's first book and it's a cosy little murder mystery starring her original series detective Hamish Macbeth, the local constable in the small fictional town of Lochdubh, where a couple of the English run fishing holidays. Unfortunately one of their guests first makes herself thoroughly obnoxious to all and sundry, and then gets herself killed.

As I say, it's cosy. The victim is so horrible there's no distress about her death, the setting is idyllic, and the resolution improbable. It also has a scene at the end where Macbeth (who is not even supposed to be on the case but leaving it to the more senior lot who've been drafted in) gets all the possible murderers in the same room and.. well you know the drill, surely?

There's also a kind of unromantic romance bubbling away which reminded me of other books I've read in this experiment, specifically the way one of the younger female characters whose point of view we spend a lot of time with is defining herself by her relationships with men, more focused on pleasing or impressing them, or what everyone else will think if she makes a good match, than figuring out what she wants.

Beaton even says at one point something like: 'Women's lib has a long way to go before it gets into the heads of girls like X' well yes, clearly it did. Macbeth as well, although a gentle and lazy charmer, has his moments of M C Piggery.

But despite being reminded (again) that the 80s are further away than we sometimes think, I did thoroughly enjoy the book and would seek out the next. It's a gentle comedy as well as a murder mystery, and the setting of Lochdubh is beautifully described.

B is for Burglar - Sue Grafton

More crime, of a different pace. I'm not sure what age I was when I started reading Grafton's Kinsey Milhone series but would make a guess at 13 or 14. At that time they were new and it was easy to read them in order.

In B is for Burglar Kinsey is hired to try to track down a missing sister. Not because her family care or are worried, but because they need her to sign a legal document and she's not answering calls. Kinsey ferrets in a tidy sort of way - contacts the apartment building, checks that out, contacts the other apartment the woman had, checks through bills, talks to neighbours.. and finally turns up a very nasty crime indeed.

The main thing that held my attention though - both when I first read it and again now - are the details. She describes clothes and hair and houses and restaurants and she goes jogging and does her laundry and keeps a gun alternately in her glove compartment and filing cabinet (which doesn't seem sufficiently secure to me, to be honest) and listens to other people's marital insanities (squabbles is not a strong enough word for at least two of the couples in this book) and shrugs and concludes she's better off alone in the tiny apartment she likes exactly because it is tiny. The unravelling of what happens is what keeps the book moving, but the real interest is Kinsey herself, just walking round noticing things.

Anyway - on to 1986. I have no clear plans for '86, so will have to think.

The ones that got away.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Reading the 80s - 1984

I've only read one book for this self-imposed challenge this time:

The Camomile Lawn - Mary Wesley

Although I didn't watch it, I remember the TV series of this book coming out - in the early 90s I think. There seemed to be a lot of noise about it at the time and 2 very different things stick in my head.

The first is The Mary Whitehouse Experience drawing attention to all the sex in it and asking who could sit through all that, and Hugh Dennis in his character of dodgy overcoat and sour milk loving man Mr Strange saying it was his favourite show.

The other was a gardening program (possibly Gardeners' World, but I wouldn't want to take bets) explaining the (im)practicalities of trying to grow a Camomile Lawn, which the series had clearly made people want to do.

Having now read the book I'm not sure how it translated onto the screen. It works very much because the situation that all the cousins and aunts and uncles and friends and other protagonists are in, from their first definite knowledge that war is coming on that hot summer night out on the Camomile Lawn, is slowly explained, through people's thoughts, and the frank but slightly oblique conversations the family all have - believable conversations, where often things aren't so much spelt out as acknowledged between people who have known each other all their lives and grown up together, and which make less sense without having the thoughts as well.

There are reasons behind the sex - none of which is explicit or detailed (which again the show must have struggled with) - that is so large a part of this book, but the book is not about sex. If anything I think it's more about relationships, and how they shift and restructure, and how family units expand
and hold together and members trust and interpret one another when under attack from outside.

Wesley also, after the first few pages, has a wonderful knack of making you care about the characters, and keeping them all distinct. Even moving back and forth between the past and the present, using the device of a funeral to explain these stirred up memories and why the family is converging again, the same people are the same - or still enough the same - that you don't get muddled.

(Although I did stop trying to work out who had slept with who after a bit).

Onwards to 1985..

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Some Small Crime Fiction Reviews..

First is The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett.
It’s tempting to describe this as a very funny and original book at the beginning and end, but a disappointingly predictable thriller in the middle. I’m conscious that’s probably not fair, because it’s predictable only from my having read Leslie Charteris and been exposed to various books and films along ‘Perils of Pamela’ lines, all of which came later. Bennett’s plucky young heroine and the things she gets herself into were undoubtedly more original when he was writing in 1902, but a modern reader of thrillers is going to be able to see the next thing coming, and very possibly much of the ending, a long, long way off. 

Nest of Vipers – Gladys Mitchell.
I don’t know if it’s just coincidence but this is about the third or fourth book I’ve read* where it’s implied that Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley intends to let a murderer off. It’s also the first one where I wholeheartedly agree with her. 

Mitchell is never scrupulously fair author – there’s a definite lack of omnipotence in her narration, and new elements can suddenly be introduced two thirds of the way into the narrative in the most frustrating way. It’s also not unknown for Dame Beatrice to take leaps in her logic which don’t seem to be anything to do with what she’s learned, and her attitudes can be controversial and extraordinary. But these aren’t meant to be Ellery-Queenesque puzzles, and when she pulls it off as a story – as she does here – none of that matters.

* (full disclosure – I’ve read about 8 of Mitchell’s books, in no particular order, all reprinted by Vintage and all borrowed from various libraries)

Singing in the Shrouds – Ngaio Marsh
I’ve read this one before and don’t think I cared for it much. Not as much as Artists in Crime or Death in a White Tie or A Surfeit of Lampreys or Death at the Dolphin (I had a serious Marsh binge in the early to mid 90s, and read almost all her books, getting them on order from a specialist crime fiction shop in Central London run by a man with no concept of customer service or basic admin or any of the other things you need to, you know, run an actual shop. Which meant that I stopped, ridiculously, with about 4 unread books left.)

Having decided to give Shrouds another go I found a competent story, not at all undermined by the fact I’d read it before. It's set on a sea going ship and Marsh does a good job of making many of her passengers a little odd and repressed in different ways - ways that wouldn't matter, really, if it weren't for the fact that there's a serial killer on board the boat, and so those quirks and oddities take on a much more sinister aspect.

I don't feel that Alleyn covers himself with glory in this one, and the decision of the captain not to tell 'the ladies' what is going on, even though they're the ones in danger, is frankly ludicrous. He should have been arrested at the end of the book alongside the murderer.

Death of a Ghost – Margery Allingham
With some authors you know what you’re getting before you open a book. But apart from Albert Campion, that amiable cipher, and probably (although not always) some perfectly competent police officers, Allingham likes to ring the changes each time.

If follows, therefore, that some of her books I really enjoy and some of them leave me cold.
This was one I really enjoyed. I liked the small family of mostly unrelated people who had carried on in the same unfashionable house after the death of the painter Lafcadio (the thing that had brought them together in the first place), and who celebrated his legacy every year with the unveiling and sale of one of the pictures he had left for the purpose. 

I even liked the murderer – although the second murder is a real tragedy. A small, pathetic tragedy but all the sadder for that.   

Thursday, 31 May 2018


This is the best sketch of the Alhambra I did in the end and I'm reasonably but not completely happy with it. Reasonably happy because I'd got out of the habit of drawing and painting real things and took an art course in January to get my eye back in, which has clearly worked; but not completely happy because there is absolutely no sense of the scale and monumentality of the buildings in this picture. 

And this is an ongoing theme: as you can see here in my sketch of the torso of Michelangelo's David (done in the V&A as part of that drawing class with the Art Academy):

I am roughly the height of the plinth that David stands on, and the statue is of course enormous. But I seem to have drawn it as though I were looking at it straight on, rather than up at an angle.  Which would be a neat trick if it was on purpose, I suppose, but it isn't, and it throws the perspective off. 

So at least I know what I need to work on. 

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Reading the 80s - 1983

Second person singular (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller – Italo Calvino).

First published in English in 1983 (Italian 1980), this book is so experimental it should, by rights, be annoying. That it isn’t is a tribute to both Italo Calvino and William Weaver, who has translated the text into English. 

A very large amount of it is written in second person singular, and the bits that aren’t are mostly first chapters  - fifteen or ten, or six or seven pages – of different books that the ‘You’ that Calvino is addressing gets to read before something goes awry and reading gets interrupted and in searching for a complete version of his lost book 'You' find another book and the process begins again.

There are also a number of characters – other readers – who pop up from time to time to describe what they want from a book, or how they read, or various shenanigans around censorship and so on, and although these are all supposedly different people that forms a kind of dialogue which holds the many different stories that you get to start (but not finish) together.    

In less talented hands this would all be quite unbearable. With Calvino there’s a feeling that he isn’t just doing it to be difficult. That there is a reason, and that he can hold your interest even with such an complicated and unpromising premise. 

It is the loosest of holds though. I said in an earlier post that I put this book down about halfway through before and just didn’t pick it up again, not because I didn’t enjoy it but because it’s an easy book to do that with. There are any number of stopping places, and I found the ‘what happens next’ drive didn’t kick in for me until very near the end.

As a book from the 80s? I don't think it is particularly, although perhaps I'd need a better knowledge of the literature of Cuba (where Calvino was born) or Italy (where he grew up and wrote) before I could judge. The main ‘You’ is a man, which was occasionally disorientating, but there is also a parallel and balancing female reader, and often I got the sense it was her that the author was really writing for – frustrated that he could not read her mind well enough to understand what it is she really wanted to read. Perhaps because she doesn’t know herself until she picks a book up. That’s just the kind of reader she is. 

Susan Hill – The Woman in Black

I don't feel like I gave this book a fair chance. Reading it in the sunshine in the park, and then on public transport, was not at all conducive to letting a ghost story give me the appropriate chills.

Pluses include; that it's very well written and paced and held my attention, and the attitude and internal dialogue of the central character is entirely believable. The other characters are at least as fleshed out as needed for such a short story.

But I didn't believe in the ghost and I predicted the end. So although I could appreciate the book as a lovely piece of craft, and thoroughly enjoyed it as such, it didn't quite deliver for me.  

Next year up is 1984, about which I said 'Anything but The Wasp Factory' and still haven't made up my mind. To get a real flavour of the year it should probably be Jeffrey Archer, who I have never actually read, Deathtrap Dungeon, which I have, Brother in the Land (which I haven't read since I was 11 or 12 and don't really want to read again because it's depressing) and The One Minute Manager.  

Or perhaps I should stop thinking about what I remember the flavour of 1984 being (mostly findus crispy pancakes and blue slush puppies, if memory serves), and go completely random, pulling books off the shelves of second hand bookshops and libraries until I find something I never knew I wanted to read. 

Calvino would approve, I think.

As ever if any of the very small amount of people who read this want to join in, please feel free to link/post your own reviews below. I will be back in 1984 on the 15th of next month. 

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Obligatory shots of the Alhambra

I have also tried to draw it, but luckily I haven't got a scanner with me, so I don't have to post it until I've had another go. Or six.