Monday, October 31, 2011

{one book, two books... redux}

I loved Simon's quiz on Stuck in a Book the first time, back in May. Let's have another go:

1. The book I'm currently reading.
I have a lot of books on the go at once, but I'm closest to finishing (one in my study and one in the loo) these two rather different books: The Complete Book of Aunts by Rupert Christiansen (2006) and Pierre Frei's Berlin (2005).


They are different in genre (commonplace book/anthology vs. crime fiction) and other things (e.g., Berlin is a translation from German), but their biggest difference is quality: Berlin is a unputdownable story of a series of murders set in immediate post-war Berlin. It offers an interesting twist by tracing the lives of the victims from roughly ten years before the crime up to the circumstances that led to their being in that particular place at that specific time. It is an excellent and intelligent thriller.

The Complete Book of Aunts, which seemed so promisingly amusing when I saw it in a secondhand store, achieved the fate of relegation to the bathroom, where books go to die force me to finish them in the absence of anything else to read. It is superficial and pretty sloppy in content. It needed a good editor and it certainly is not "The Complete Book of Aunts", given that the author claims very early on that there is no adjectival equivalent of 'avuncular' for aunts. Um, yes there is: materteral. Wouldn't you at least Google if you were interested in auntly completeness? It also contains sentences that should never have made it into print, such as: "After she died, Virginia wrote a memoir of Caroline Emelia..." Clever woman, Virgina Woolf, writing from beyond the grave... As I said, s-l-o-p-p-y.
 
2. The last book I finished:


The last book I finished was very enjoyable: Tess Gerritsen's The Silent Girl (2011). It was a crime novel too (I seem to be wallowing in crime at the moment) and the current last in the Rizzoli/Isles police procedurals by Tess Gerritsen. I had read none of her books before I read the other Simon's review of Keeping the Dead. Next thing I knew I had consumed the entire series in two weeks and was living in fear that even locked doors and windows won't keep out a serial killer who wanted nothing more than to mummify me for posterity. OK, I exaggerate a little, but these books are totally addictive, well-written and full of moments that are so frightening you will need to go and turn on all the lights and hide under the bed. For some reason there was always a gruesome autopsy scene just when I wanted to have dinner. I haven't read much along these lines since I gave up with Patricia Cornwell when her plots and characters got so ridiculous they made me laugh instead of tremble in fear, but I thoroughly recommend Gerritsen if you want to be scared out of your wits. My only quibble is that why is it generally women who meet gruesome and graphically described ends (and from women writers)? This article gave me pause for thought (and somewhere recently I've read something else about book jackets on these books always featuring anonymous chunks of naked women, but I can't find the link; I don't think it was this). Of course, Gerritsen does provide balance with her strong female protagonists who defy victimization.

3. The next book(s) I want to read:


Non-fiction? Rosemary Auchmuty's A World of Women: Growing Up in the Girls' School Story (1999). Why? I enjoyed her first book on this theme, about the elaborate worlds created in girls' stories set in schools.
Fiction?  Mary Wesley's The Camomile Lawn (1984). Why? Love books set in the 1930s/Second World War.
Crime-fiction? Imogen Robertson's Anatomy of Murder (2011) - I enjoyed the first one in the series.

4. The last book I bought:


Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book (2008). Yes, I'm about two (and the rest) years behind on what everyone else has read. I like it that way.

5. The last book I was given:


As I was leaving work one day, a lady in the lobby was handing out the Friendly Street Poetry Reader 26 (eds. Ioana Petrescu and David Adès, 2002). Many passersby looked a little suspicious that someone was giving away (a) anything and (b) poetry and (c) something not involving enrolment in a religious cult or pyramid selling scheme. There was a lot of Don't Make Eye Contact going on. But the Friendly Street Poets are an Adelaide institution: a poetry collective established way back in 1975. They hold poetry readings, open mike nights and so on, and publish anthologies of their members' work. Poetry is food for the soul, so here's a taste:
To be a moth, once more, at the lamp
of a woman's eyes; seeking that flame
in the knowledge of cinders; and the
darkness when the lamp is turned away...
(excerpt from David Adès, 'To Hazard This')

Saturday, October 29, 2011

{weekend words}

Yet must we rate him as very foolish, that living thus with a fox, which beast has the same reputation for deceitfulness, craft and cunning, in all countries, all ages, and amongst all races of mankind, he should expect this fox to be as candid and honest with him in all things as the country girl he had married.
David Garnett (1922)


If you like foxy tales, 
you should read Dylan Meconis' 
graphic story 'Outfoxed' here.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

{lit link} a few bookish links

Image source: via library_mistress via letterology

Curtis White "The Late Word" (Laphams Quarterly - as Arts & Letters Daily summarizes: "Take a clear-eyed look at the book biz. Only two major players, Amazon and Google, are still standing. Everyone else is looking for the best way to go bankrupt..."):
Even allowing for the possibility that Amazon will be a benign monopoly and will encourage or at least tolerate the continued unruly flowering of this thing we have known as literature, if you thought it was hard to find a book spine out at a superstore, try finding that book of poetry that changes your life and that you didn’t know you were looking for in the web’s ether, “in the cloud,” as the techno-hip say. You’d have better luck finding a speck of gold in a bucket of sand.
Now, through word of mouth and blog site recommendations, some will find that book of poetry, although those folk will be, I suspect, mostly poets themselves... But the population of people interested in finding that transforming book will become ever smaller. Literature requires a culture, a book culture, and the ebook and the web, for all of their wizardry, will forever be solipsistic.
Hitchbock Blonde (Molly Flatt): "Should Authors be Shadows or Stars?" (BookDiva):
Might it actually be more effective, in terms of both word count and book sales, to defy our current craving for ‘transparency’? Writers that are reclusive, anti-social or simply unwilling to play the personal branding game do intrigue us; especially when, like J.D. Salinger, John Fowles or Cormac McCarthy, their reticence chimes so well with the spirit of their books. Perhaps the idea that the true artist prefers the ivory tower still carries cultural currency. Perhaps knowing that our favourite author loves Katy Perry makes us suspect their depth of insight into the human condition. Or perhaps the lone wolves are simply cool.
Jeri's Organising & Decluttering News ("It's OK to give up on a book") would like us to give up on "bad books", whether they be bad because the font is awful or bad because, for instance, someone's lent it to you because they know you read books and you'll LOVE this one...

"Will the E-Book kill the Footnote?" by Alexandra Horowitz (New York Times 7/10/11) contains my favourite quotation of the week:
Noël Coward reputedly said that “having to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love.”

Monday, October 24, 2011

{review} the naked civil servant

Quentin Crisp The Naked Civil Servant (1968)

 
It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile, 
Be yourself no matter what they say. 
(Sting, 'Englishman in New York', 1987)
When, in preparation for his move to America, he was asked at the US Embassy if he were a practising homosexual, he replied, "I didn't practise. I was already perfect." (source)
I was surprised by my melancholic reaction to this book. Quentin Crisp - "one of the stately homos of England" - was responsible for some of the wittiest turns of phrase ('Crisperanto') of the twentieth century but this book is by no means a barrel of laughs. Crisp (born Denis Pratt in Surrey in 1908) lived through nearly a century of openly - and often violently - expressed homophobia in a country where 'homosexual offences' were only partially decriminalised in 1967 (the year before The Naked Civil Servant was published).
From the dawn of my history I was so disfigured by the characteristics of a certain kind of homosexual person that, when I grew up, I realised that I could not ignore my predicament... I became not merely a self-confessed homosexual but a self-evident one.
Crisp achieved no more than local prominence until The Naked Civil Servant was turned into a TV drama, starring John Hurt in the early 1970s. At that point Crisp became a celebrity who could sell out theatres with his one-man show, part of which involved his offering spontaneous answers to questions taken randomly from the audience. In 1981, after living 40 years in the same London bed-sit ("There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn't get any worse"), he moved to New York (thus Sting's lyrics, above). He died, still touring, near Manchester in 1999, at the ripe old age of 90.
At work I never once understood what I was doing. In theory I was employed as an engineer's tracer. This was one of the many kinds of work at which I could never hope to become proficient. Accuracy is alien to my nature. Many years later a woman asked me what a 'point' was. When I told her it was a seventy-second part of an inch, she said, 'But there isn't such a thing, really. Is there?' That is what I have always secretly thought. When I was given plans to trace, I copied the mistakes as well as the revisions and neither of them properly; when I was told to transfer the positions of electric pylons from one map to another, I did so with such a jolly laugh that construction men telephoned from distant shires to ask what on earth was going on at head office.
Crisp's most successful and long-term job was as an artist's model, which obviously granted his narcissistic tendencies full rein. He was, he writes, hooked on exhibitionism, "taking doses so massive that they would have killed a novice." He sported dyed red hair (which he changed to blue when he hit his 40s, "my blue period"), long polished nails, sandals and a mincing gait that wore out the knees of his trousers. 

"When war was declared I went out and bought two pounds of henna". When he went to sign up,
 ...a young man appeared holding at arm's length, as though he were about to read a proclamation, a sheaf of papers which he tore up with a flourish: 'You'll never be wanted,' he said and thrust at me a smaller piece of paper. This described me as being incapable of being graded in grades A, B, etc. because I suffered from sexual perversion. When the story of my disgrace became one of the contemporary fables of Chelsea, a certain Miss Marshall said, 'I don't much care for the expression "suffering from". Shouldn't it be "glorying in"?'
As he writes, "Many of my friends were able to find work in camouflage. This seemed an unlikely way for me to earn a living." One consequence of being loose on the streets of London during the second world war was Crisp's exposure to the sexually and financially generous American invaders, whom he loved: "Never in the history of sex was so much offered to so many by so few." He also found his effeminate persona fitted in better on these streets where so many women were wearing trousers. And the streets themselves had become so much darker: "As soon as bombs started to fall, the city became like a paved double bed." Circumstances favoured the sexually provoking flâneur: "though some of the buildings had been ruined, most of the people had been improved."

It's an odd memoir: the structure maintains a sort of life-time time-line, but the repetition of events (boring jobs, beatings, café life, people dropping in and out, the endless walking walking walking of the streets with hennaed hair and painted toe-nails) gives the narrative a strangely syncopated rhythm, as though it doesn't really matter when an event occurred. This is perhaps a marker of a long life, as well as a not overly tight narrative.

Crisp is an mix of exceedingly brave (or bold) and physically cowardly; narcissist and agoraphobic, masochist and hmmm... whatever the vanilla-ish opposite of that might be. His attitude to homosexuality seems sometimes to border on an enculturated disgust.
If there is a heaven for homosexuals, which doesn't seem very likely, it will be very poorly lit and full of people they can feel pretty confident they will never have to meet again.
He positively cultivates his ability to rub everyone up the wrong way ("I discovered that my great gift was for unpopularity") and he is a failure at emotional intimacy: "Living with him was the practical part of an examination in the theoretical section of which I had already done badly. In the second half I scored no marks at all." He is in love with death, yet lives to 90, almost in spite of himself. This is an unabashedly brutal memoir with very little face-saving:
I clearly see that my life was only an imprudent dash between the cradle and the tomb across open country and under fire. Yet I find it hard to take a prolonged look back and not attempt to excuse results by rearranging causes. Though intelligence is powerless to modify character, it is a dab hand at finding euphemisms for its weakness.
Rating: 8/10.

If you liked this... the Quentin Crisp Archive (Crisperanto) is well worth exploring.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

{weekend words}

Absence

I visited the place where we last met.
Nothing has changed, the gardens were well-tended,
The fountains sprayed their usual steady jet;
There was no sign that anything had ended
And nothing to instruct me to forget.

The thoughtless birds that shook out of the trees,
Singing an ecstasy I could not share,
Played cunning in my thoughts. Surely in these
Pleasures there could not be a pain to bear
Or any discord shake the level breeze.

It was because the place was just the same
That made your absence seem a savage force,
For under all the gentleness there came
An earthquake tremor: fountain, birds and grass
Were shaken by my thinking of your name.

Elizabeth Jennings (2002)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

{review} two in the western isles

Mabel Esther Allan, Two in the Western Isles (1956)


Mabel Esther Allan wrote 130 books for children/young adults (wiki) but has pretty much sunk without a trace nowadays. I fell in love with her It Happened in Arles {REVIEW}, many many years ago but have only got around to reading another of her works more recently. Her books evoke a kinder time in which to be young, especially, as in Two in the Western Isles, if you happen to have been carted off to a freezing island in the Outer Hebrides (the Western Isles) away from the strains of modern life.

Tory and Jess are carted off to Milvanaig by their parents who seek a sea-change rather more drastic than the girls had envisaged:
"Oh, well, I don't suppose we'll go far. We'll be able to come in for the day and our friends can come out and visit us. I expect it'll be Bucks or perhaps Oxfordshire. Anyway, whatever we feel about it we'll have to look as though we like it."
"I know," agreed Tory, signing. "After all, it will be wonderful for Father and Mother. Father was told years ago that if only he could give more time to painting he'd be famous quite soon, but he wouldn't risk making it his career because of us. And Mother's awfully bored with writing tripey novels, though they do so well. I shouldn't be surprised if 'Sylvie Forrest' died for a time and she wrote something quite different; the sort of book she's dreamed about."
As you can see, they are a pair of plucky girls with a strong streak of moral good sense. These are the girls in whom Mabel Esther Allan specialised.

Once stuck on Milvanaig they discover that the previous owner was not at all popular with the locals and they are treated with suspicion as English interlopers. As is typical of books of this sort, the girls find themselves a local mystery (involving folk song!), save a life and wind up with half the island's inhabitants in their living room during a ferocious storm - ensuring that everyone lives happily ever after.

You know, it's just a nice little book. Sometimes that's enough.

Rating: 6/10.

If you liked this... well there's those other 129 Mabel Esther Allan books. Some have been reprinted by Fidra Books. I Prefer Reading has reviewed Allan's only adult book (Murder at the Flood) here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

{review} a surfeit of lampreys

Ngaio Marsh A Surfeit of Lampreys (1940)

Nanny came in. She was the quintessence of all nannies, opinionated, faithful, illogical, exasperating, and admirable. She stood just inside the door and said: ‘Good evening, m’lady. Patricia, Michael. Come along.’
‘Oh Nanny,’ said Patch and Mike. ‘It’s not time. Oh Nanny!’
Lady Charles said: ‘Look what Lady Katherine has sent me, Nanny. It’s a hat.’
‘It’s a hot-water bottle cover, m’lady,’ said Nanny. ‘Patricia and Michael, say goodnight and come along.’
I was very excited to see Ngaio Marsh's books being reissued for the Kindle since, while I own a number of her books as real books (tree-books), they are packed away somewhere and I really can't face finding them when the need for a familiar comfort read (with murder) strikes. This is the trap of giving a lazy person 1-Click access to e-books, and I can see that I will eventually have bought two copies of everything I've ever enjoyed just because I can't be bothered going out to the shed.

Of course it would have been even more delightful to read A Surfeit of Lampreys on the Kindle if it had not been for typos such as 'Chariot' replacing 'Charlot' for someone's name. Don't real people read e-proofs?   

Anyway, A Surfeit of Lampreys [also published as Death of a Peer] is my favourite Ngaio Marsh mystery, I think, although there are a couple of other crackers (The Nursing Home Murder is very clever; and Artists in Crime, where Inspector Alleyn meets his wife-to-be, is rather lovely too, for different reasons).

There are a couple of reasons why A Surfeit of Lampreys stands out for me: (1) even when I re-read it, I couldn't figure out whodunnit; (2) the characterisation of the rather large cast of eccentric aristocrats gone to seed is spectacularly, wittily well drawn; (3) the heroine - a most sympathetic heroine - is a colonial fish-out-of-water in big scary London (something to which this reader could relate); (4) the era - the late 1930s - is one of my favourites; and (5) Marsh writes angelically well. There are also some things which I am less keen on - the snobbishness; the attention to class difference; the infallibility of Inspector 'Handsome' Alleyn - but in A Surfeit of Lampreys these things become in themselves rather significant factors in the unravelling of the case. And 'Handsome' Alleyn is given a real run for his money by the wildly eccentric Lamprey family as he attempts to uncover which one of them dispatched their rich uncle with a kitchen skewer in the elevator.
‘Two of their friends have already explained them this evening,’ said Alleyn. ‘Their descriptions tallied fairly well. Boiled down to a few unsympathetic adjectives they came to this: “Charming. Irresponsible. Unscrupulous about money. Good-natured. Lazy. Amusing. Enormously popular.” Do you agree?’
Incidentally, Alleyn "smelt pleasantly. Something like a new book in a good binding..."

Rating: comfort read, 7/10.

If you liked this... Inspector Alleyn is a bit like Josephine Tey's Inspector Grant (and there are many connections with the theatrical world in both Marsh and Tey) crossed with a rather less sensitive Lord Peter Wimsey. But I'd read Agatha Christie's Murder at the Vicarage if I wanted a really good cosy mystery.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

{weekend words}

Kitty broke off and examined the heel of her shoe carefully on both sides.
"I told Joseph I thought he would play a ukulele beautifully," she added, "and that I couldn't imagine him ever being ashamed of his love for a woman, -- well! I don't think he would be. Oh, well -- but he shot me up and became quite ratty for some reason, and began telling me: 'You must know, Kitty, that I don't at all care for all this snobbish Continental talk of yours about foreigners, love, poetry, and ukuleles. You must understand that there are still some of us left who don't appreciate that attitude in our womenfolk. We aren't accustomed to it, and we don't want it. It's un-English. My own aim is still the clean-limbed, dirty-minded, thorough English gentleman, and I still have hopes of being one. Yes, I hope to achieve great things,' and all the rest of it."
Kitty stamped her foot and turned pink. "I loathe you all when you start to talk in this way!. . . An English gentleman is not dirty-minded, I tell you! He may lack poetry and be a bit pm the stiff side, certainly, but dirty-minded is just what he is not!"
Julia Strachey (1932)


Thursday, October 13, 2011

{wishlist}

I have a bit of a thing about pineapples, so...


Fran Beauman (2005)

I'm assuming it does for pineapples 
what Salt and Cod and Nathaniel's Nutmeg 
did for, um... salt, cod and nutmeg.

Monday, October 10, 2011

{review} last curtsey


 

'It was such a peculiar thing to have done', as one ex-debutante recently remarked to me. Peculiar indeed: both in terms of the elaborate social rituals that lingered through the post-war years and in the underlying concepts of elegance, good manners, belief in protocol, love and respect for the monarchy, deference towards your betters, courage, kindness and idealism, qualities which before long appeared impossibly old-fashioned.
I made the mistake of taking this book on a 'plane without a pencil. By the time I returned to Adelaide I had almost dog-eared every page. It's that sort of book.

Fiona MacCarthy was a debutante in the final year of the 'presentations' to the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 1958. The world was changing, and the debutante lifestyle - where women were defined by their success in catching a husband during the Season - was on the wane. As the last proper Season, it was a bumper year: 1400 girls curtseying to the Queen over three days, and all presented by a relative who had herself passed through this initiatory ritual (MacCarthy's mother in 1925). It was a combination of the utterly arcane with an "old-time beauty context". MacCarthy notes Jessica Mitford's comment that the procession of [mostly] virgins was "the specific, upper-class version of the puberty rite" (Hons and Rebels).
The decorative elements of the presentation ceremony masked its serious, even ruthless, raison d'être in the stratification of society. By the mid-nineteenth century the annual presentation had gradually become the key event in a formalised connection of the monarch and the court with the Season and society. Presentation acquired an important role in the regulation of society in Britain. It became a kind of bulwark, defending an elite inner circle and securing the channels to power, influence and wealth. To put it at its crudest, the curtseyers were in, the non-curtseyers excluded from the myriad royal enclosures, members' tents and other well-defended spaces in which the well bred were separated from the riff-raff. 
Why did it end? As far back as the 1860s there had been complaints that the ritual was being debased by the presentation of those whom the elite considered vulgar interlopers: new peers with industrial wealth, cashed up Americans, etc. In Princess Margaret's words, "Ever tart in London was getting in." (!) It's a complex question of anthropological interest, to be sure.

This is a fascinating book, and very well written. MacCarthy (whose family, the McAlpines, owned the Dorchester but whose mother was in the uncomfortable situation of being kept on a short financial rope by her trustees) is an insider in this world of curtseying schools, dress-makers, Scottish dance instructors, endless Coronation Chicken lunches, cocktail parties, balls, weekends in decaying country-houses, horse-races in Ireland, and young men classed as "Not Safe In Taxis" (NSIT; or "VVSITPQ: Very Very Safe In Taxis Probably Queer").

I really enjoyed this dip into the end of an era: MacCarthy writes with a nostalgia for a type of society that would be swept away in the 1960s, but she is well aware that nostalgia can cover up many imperfections (in particular, the constrained roles granted to women). 

Rating:  10/10. Gorgeous.

If you liked this... MacCarthy's memories of the decaying country-houses in which she stayed during the Season reminded me of James Lees-Milne's stories of his visits to similar stately homes in the 1940s, in his wonderful Some Country Houses and Their Owners {REVIEW}.


Saturday, October 8, 2011

{weekend words}

"Oh, well, I don't suppose we'll go far. We'll be able to come in for the day and our friends can come out and visit us. I expect it'll be Bucks or perhaps Oxfordshire. Anyway, whatever we feel about it we'll have to look as though we like it."
"I know," agreed Tory, signing. "After all, it will be wonderful for Father and Mother. Father was told years ago that if only he could give more time to painting he'd be famous quite soon, but he wouldn't risk making it his career because of us. And Mother's awfully bored with writing tripey novels, though they do so well. I shouldn't be surprised if 'Sylvie Forrest' died for a time and she wrote something quite different; the sort of book she's dreamed about."
Mabel Esther Allan (1956)
Two in the Western Isles


Thursday, October 6, 2011

{review} india black & the widow of windsor



Ah the miracle that is a pre-ordered book, about which one has entirely forgotten, popping onto the Kindle on its day of release. I really enjoyed the first India Black mystery {REVIEW} and the second proved to be a pretty good follow up.

India - the brothel madam with a secret past - and the mysterious French are dispatched by Disraeli to Balmoral where Queen Victoria has been persuaded to spend Christmas. She was persuaded by a spirit message from the dead Albert, which is the first hint that Carr's Queen Victoria is going to be characterised by most of her least attractive traits - "In any other family, Her Majesty’s eccentricities would have meant a locked room in the attic and a lifetime of meals on trays" - such as gluttony and her ill-considered relationship with Mr Brown. 

But the Queen has other problems than mere eccentricity: Scottish nationalists are plotting to assassinate her in Scotland, and India and French must go undercover to discover the assassins. In India's case, she must pretend to be a lady's maid to a wildly eccentric Marchioness with a snuff habit and - more worryingly - a habit of sniffing out India's secrets. This "snuff-dipping, narcoleptic bibliophile" makes for some of the funniest moments in the book.

India Black & the Widow of Windsor is a satisfying 'cosy' mystery with an acceptably historical enough set of trappings (I frowned at the housekeeper being a 'Miss': aren't Victorian housekeepers granted an honorary 'Mrs'? Or have I got that wrong?). The sexual tension between India and French continues to grow, albeit slowly, and the little hints at India's past tantalise the reader. Some of the minor characters are also very amusing, notably 'Bertie', Queen Vicky's naughty heir. 

Rating: 7/10. An easy frolic. There were a couple of odd typos: wretch (for 'retch'); broach (for 'brooch'). Eek.

If you liked this... the Lady Julia Grey mysteries by Deanna Raybourn are an obvious parallel.


Monday, October 3, 2011

{review} touch not the cat

Mary Stewart Touch Not The Cat (1976)
I saw the tiny smile at the corners of Rob’s mouth again, and thought suddenly, ‘My God, I’ve married him. Rob Granger, the garden-boy.’ The mixture of strangeness, tenderness, and sheer sexual excitement took away the power of coherent thought and struck me silent.
I think when we look back we will say, "Oh September and October 2011, that was when we were ALL reading Mary Stewart." I'm thoroughly enjoying the Mary Stewart revival which is keeping me away from the heavier and more sober things I have on the TBR. So far I've read:


[I would just like to say that I HATE THESE COVERS but they represent the editions I read. Touch Not The Cat, for instance, is set in the 1970s but you'd never pick it from its 1950s' milkmaidish cover]

This Rough Magic (1964): sparkling romance with a not too arduous mystery, set on beautiful Corfu with much interweaving from The Tempest.  


My Brother Michael (1959): sparkling romance with a not too arduous mystery, set in beautiful Delphi with much interweaving from The Oresteia.


The Moonspinners (1962): sparking romance with not too arduous mystery, set on beautiful Crete with much interweaving of Greek folk-tale.


Madam, Will You Talk (1955): sparkling romance with a not too arduous mystery, set amid the beautiful Roman remains in the South of France, with much interweaving from (?) old French troubadour lyric.


Nine Coaches Waiting (1958): a bit darker on the romance and the mystery front - a touch of gothic - for which I blame the less sunny setting of a chateau in the gloomy Savoy. An orphan/Cinderella story. Oh, yes, interweavings of Jacobean revenge drama with Macbeth and a sprinkling of Paradise Lost. I've never been wildly keen on the Jacobeans, sorry Ben Jonson, and this book was a bit overwrought and long for what it was.


Thunder on the Right (1957): sparkling romance with a good deal of pent up sexual frustration from wannabe nuns with flashing dark Spanish eyes, and many others, with a dead obvious mystery, set amid the beautiful Pyrenées, with much interweaving of classical music vocab.

It's not difficult to pick Stewart's successful formula: in a gorgeous warm European holiday setting, a lovely young woman of uncompromising virtue, stubborness and impetuosity - with instant recall of any Shakespearean/classical/medieval French poetic literary allusion - encounters a cultured but manly man of action (despite being musical) with uncanny ability to finish all her quotations. The baddies get what's coming, the goodies triumph, a child is generally rescued, a lot of the heroine's clothes are reduced to becoming linen rags in raging torrents and we all get a crash course in figuring out all those half-remembered bits of school Shakespeare. Everyone drinks a tremendous number of aperitifs and smokes like a chimney. The meals are extraordinary and I spend my reading time dreaming about food. I don't think these are great books, by any means, but they are so, so satisfying and the heroines are, in general, smart and accomplished and not prone to too much unnecessary screaming. The plots are, I confess, flimsy.
 
The six titles above were all deliberate selections based on where they were set: Greece and France (particularly southern France). These are settings which I particularly enjoy in any book, but find 100% magical in this genre ('romantic suspense'?). 


Touch Not the Cat was selected purely for its title. I had a cat like that. His name was Bertie. But to the book: this was a slightly odd one especially if you're not keen on semi-magical themes. There's a romantic setting (ruined old castle in the Malvern hills) for a romantic heroine, orphaned under mysterious circumstances and surrounded by male cousins who look identical and who may not have her best interests at heart. This is complicated further by the heroine's inheritance of a kind of telepathic connection to someone whom she suspects must be one of the cousins, and whom she believes is her One True Love. But which man...? [I just find cousins as romantic partners rather icky, myself]. Mazes, dodgy weirs, disappearing Tang dynasty ceramics, louche young American women in trousers, and a host of problems for star-cross'd lovers (yes, this is a heavy-quotation-from-Romeo and Juliet book). The class issues have dated badly (which is good, I guess).

In sum: I'm enjoying Mary Stewart. The writing is excellent and there are lovely turns of phrase (e.g., the heroine who "nibbled the bitter crusts of commonsense"!) and plenty of vocab broadeners (telephones 'thresh', 'pleached' trees are 'pollarded', etc.). I think I prefer the earlier 1950s' ones. Her ability to combine mystery and romance reminds me of Helen MacInnes, but I think Helen MacInnes does it better in the meatier plot line. How about a reissue of Helen MacInnes' oeuvre?

{READ IN 2017}

  • APRIL
  • 37.
  • 36.
  • 35. A Scream in Soho - John G. Brandon
  • 34. A Murder is Arranged - Basil Thomson
  • 33. The Milliner's Hat Mystery - Basil Thomson
  • 32. Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? - Basil Thomson
  • 31. The Dartmoor Enigma - Basil Thomson
  • 30. The Case of the Dead Diplomat - Basil Thomson
  • 29. The Case of Naomi Clynes - Basil Thomson
  • 28. Richardson Scores Again - Basil Thomson
  • 27. A Deadly Thaw - Sarah Ward
  • MARCH
  • 26. The Spy Paramount - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 25. The Great Impersonation - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 24. Ragdoll - Daniel Cole
  • 23. The Case of Sir Adam Braid - Molly Thynne
  • 22. The Ministry of Fear - Graham Greene
  • 21. The Draycott Murder Mystery - Molly Thynne
  • 20. The Murder on the Enriqueta - Molly Thynne
  • 19. The Nowhere Man - Gregg Hurwitz
  • 18. He Dies and Makes No Sign - Molly Thynne
  • FEBRUARY
  • 17. Death in the Dentist's Chair - Molly Thynne
  • 16. The Crime at the 'Noah's Ark' - Molly Thynne
  • 15. Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh
  • 14. Night School - Lee Child
  • 13. The Dancing Bear - Frances Faviell
  • 12. The Reluctant Cannibals - Ian Flitcroft
  • 11. Fear Stalks the Village - Ethel Lina White
  • 10. The Plot - Irving Wallace
  • JANUARY
  • 9. Understood Betsy - Dorothy Canfield Fisher
  • 8. Give the Devil his Due - Sulari Gentill
  • 7. A Murder Unmentioned - Sulari Gentill
  • 6. Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris
  • 5. Gentlemen Formerly Dressed - Sulari Gentill
  • 4. While She Sleeps - Ethel Lina White
  • 3. A Chelsea Concerto - Frances Faviell
  • 2. Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul - H. G. Wells
  • 1. Heft - Liz Moore

{READ IN 2016}

  • (K = Kindle; rr = re-read)
  • DECEMBER
  • 92. Richardson's First Case - Basil Thomson [K]
  • 91. The Alington Inheritance - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 90. Orphan X - Gregg Hurwitz [K]
  • 89. The House of Godwinsson [Bobby Owen 24] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 88. Music Tells All [Bobby Owen 24] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 87. Helen Passes By [Bobby Owen 23] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • NOVEMBER
  • 86. It Might Lead Anywhere [Bobby Owen 22] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 85. There's a Reason for Everything [Bobby Owen 21] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 84. Secrets Can't Be Kept [Bobby Owen 20] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • OCTOBER
  • 83. Night's Cloak [Bobby Owen 19] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 82. The Conqueror Inn [Bobby Owen 18] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 81. The Diabolic Candelabra [Bobby Owen 17] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 80. The Dark Garden [Bobby Owen 16] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • SEPTEMBER
  • 79. Picture Miss Seeton - Heron Carvic [K]
  • 78. Down Under (Benbow Smith 4) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 77. Walk with Care (Benbow Smith 3) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 76. Danger Calling (Benbow Smith 2) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 75. Fool Errant (Benbow Smith 1) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 74. The Annam Jewel - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 73. Mr Zero - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 72. Will o' the Wisp - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 71. Red Shadow - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 70. Pursuit of a Parcel (Lamb 3) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 69. Who Pays the Piper (Lamb 2) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 68. The Blind Side (Lamb 1) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 67. Outrageous Fortune - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 66. The Amazing Chance - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 65. Red Stefan - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • AUGUST
  • 64. The Coldstone - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 63. Anne Belinda - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 62. The Black Cabinet - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 61. Hue & Cry - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 60. The Skin Collector - Jeffery Deaver [K]
  • 59. The Kill Room - Jeffery Deaver [K]
  • 58. Nothing Venture - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 57. Kingdom Lost - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 56. Beggar's Choice - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 55. Hole and Corner - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 54. Touch and Go - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 53. The Red Lacquer Case - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 52. Run! - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 51. Fear by Night - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • JULY
  • 50. The Dower House Mystery - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 49. The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 48. Weekend with Death - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 47. Blindfold - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 46. Silence in Court - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 45. Acts of the Assassins - Richard Beard [K]
  • JUNE
  • 44. Hack - Kieran Crowley [K]
  • 43. The Portable Veblen - Elizabeth McKenzie [K]
  • 42. The Spirit Murder Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • MAY
  • 41. The Ginger Cat Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 40. The Pleasure Cruise Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 39. The Polo Ground Murder - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • APRIL
  • 38. The Outsider - Jason Dean [K]
  • 37. The Hunter's Oath - Jason Dean [K]
  • 36. Missing or Murdered - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 35. The Beetle - Richard Marsh [K]
  • MARCH
  • 34. A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell 1) - Deanna Raybourn [K]
  • 33. The Chimera Vector - Nathan M. Farrugia [K]
  • 32. An Infamous Army - Georgette Heyer [K]
  • 31. Mr Bazalgette's Agent - Leonard Merrick
  • 30. Don't Tell - Karen Rose [K]
  • 29. Say Goodbye - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 28. Gone - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 27. The Killing Hour - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 26. The Next Accident - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 25. The Third Victim - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • FEBRUARY
  • 24. The Perfect Husband - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 23. Find Her - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 22. Fear Nothing - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 21. Catch Me - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 20. Love You More - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 19. Live to Tell - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 18. The Neighbour - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 17. Hide - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 16. Alone - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 15. The Humans - Matt Haig [K]
  • 14. Utopian Man - Lisa Lang
  • 13. Love Insurance - Earl Derr Biggers [K]
  • JANUARY
  • 12. The Ignition Effect - Viv Ronnebeck [K]
  • 11. My Brilliant Career - Miles Franklin [K]
  • 10. Dangerous & Unseemly - K. B. Owen [K]
  • 9. In Bitter Chill - Sarah Ward [K[
  • 8. Half a Crown - Jo Walton [K]
  • 7. Ha'penny - Jo Walton [K]
  • 6. Hilda Wade: A Woman with Tenacity of Purpose - Grant Allen [K]
  • 5. The Case of William Smith - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 4. Blue Murder - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 3. Bleeding Hooks - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 2. Knock, Murderer, Knock! - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 1. Ten Star Clues [Bobby Owen 15] - E. R. Punshon [K]