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!

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Estuary - Rachel Lichtenstein

I wasn't very polite about this book in my last post so I need to qualify it a bit. Once you get well in and leave London behind it's actually fascinating - all the bit through Essex, the interviews with fishermen, the facts about Tilbury and Canvey Island and sunken ships and WW2. The river really comes alive as a place in it's own right.

Only right at the end does the book drop off again, and I wondered if the author (or her editors) felt they needed to keep the London connection in to sell the book. A pity if so.

This is not a photo from the book. It's from my walk on Tuesday through Rainham Marshes.
The ones in the book are black and white and don't do the subject justice at all. 

Wednesday, 18 October 2017


I took this one walking back down the hill to the station, which is now a heritage line running a limited number of trains a day. 

I can recommend the train, but it gave me a false sense of how connected Haworth was to the wider world in the Brontes' time. Although Branwell had ideas of investing in the railway they came to nothing and the line wasn't built until the 1860s. It closed 100 years later. The house itself is well worth a visit, and we did the trip in a day from London - a long day, leaving Kings Cross at 7am and back by 11, but that also allowed us to see Saltaire and a bit of Leeds. 

Apparently there's a beautiful cafe in this town hall but we were just too late for it. Another time.