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In which I become somewhat irked…

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…despite some wonderful book bargains in town!

I suppose I should start with the positive which is the *big* book bargain; I have had my eye on this title for a while because it combines several things that interest me (Russia! Shostakovich! Leningrad! Modern History!) But it’s a big chunky hardback and not cheap so I was considering putting it on my Christmas list until I just happened to stumble into The Works at the weekend…

And there it was! “Leningrad: Siege and Symphony” by Brian Moynahan for £5.99 instead of £25. Well, would you have resisted?? I didn’t….

I didn’t go into many of the charity shops yesterday, and those I did also irked me, for reasons I’ll get to! But “Crack On!” (yes, the shop really *is* called that) had a basket of 10p and 20p books outside, including this rather fragile old classic version of “Le Grand Meulnes”.

This happens to be a book I read a while back, but I think I didn’t really get – having disposed of my Penguin version a while ago, I decided that this 20p bargain would do for a revisit to see if I get more out of it second time round! And the cover, despite the damage, is very pretty.

Other arrivals have a German theme, which ties in well with the fact that November is German Literature Month – I may even be able to participate! The first was from an online swap site:

I’ve read quite a lot about Herta Muller, particularly on Stu’s site, so I’m looking forward to reading her work. And lastly, a library book:

I’ve had this on reserve for months, so it’s arrived at an opportune time! I’m not sure how comfortable I feel with reading it – but I think that might be the point…

As for what irked me – well, “The Forsyte Saga”, to be blunt – or lack of it. I’ve been circling this for a long time, thinking I should read it, and there was a copy of the first volume in the house owing to Elder or Middle Child studying it at university. Alas, in the Summer Purge it went to one of the charity shops and it shouldn’t have because I now really want to read it. I trotted round the charity shops that might have a copy and none of them did (grrrrr.) I even went into Waterstones, thinking I might splurge out on a new book (as I’ve had issues with online sellers recently and have received some real tatty stinkers with bad foxing).

And thereby hangs another irksome tale. My local Waterstones has moved its adult fiction section to upstairs and slimmed it down dramatically. Quite how do they expect to compete with online sellers if they don’t stock a wide range of books and they’re tucked away upstairs?? Yes, they could order it for me, but that doesn’t let me browse through it, compare editions, see which typeface suits me best…. I’m obviously in need of a visit to Foyles!

I had a moan about this to OH, who sensibly pointed out that I could get a penny copy online. I don’t have to be encouraged much, do I? So penny copies of all three Forsyte volumes are on their way to me now…! :) Grump over!

In which I wonder… just why *is* my memory so hopeless?????

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You might wonder what prompted that thought – and I’ve never prided myself on having a particularly great memory – but the story goes like this!

Whilst having a rummage around notebooks, as you do, trying to find just the right one to jot down notes, or comments on books I’m reading, I stumbled across one that I briefly kept in the early 2000s. In some ways you could say it was a primitive form of this blog – I simply noted the date I’d finished a book and *very* brief details of what I thought of it. It was quite fascinating to look through and see what I was reading at the time (a *lot* of Mishima for a start), but also quite revelatory in that I knew I’d read these books, I’d obviously loved them but I couldn’t for the life of me remember anything about the plot or characters!

If I’m honest, that’s one of the reasons I started blogging; apart from wanting to share my feelings about the books I read and love, it’s a way of recording in more detail what they were about and which bits I responded to. And writing here has helped with this (along with keeping a spreadsheet of reading and books bought!) However, I was totally flummoxed by a few entries when I was reading Truman Capote. I knew I’d read “Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood” way back, but apparently I also read “Music for Chameleons” and was mightily impressed – which surprised me somewhat as not only couldn’t I remember that, I also didn’t think I owned it….

music-for-chameleons

A serious rummage through the stacks (and it took a while, because I’d moved the Capotes and some others from where they’d always lived on the shelves) revealed that I did indeed own the book – so I obviously *did* love it back in the 2000s!

I guess the solution will be eventually to get my whole collection onto LibraryThing or some very big spreadsheet – and also to knock the shelves into some kind of logical order. Then I might have a chance of remembering what books I own, where to find them and whether I’ve read them.

Or maybe it’s just my age! :)

More Sparkly New Lovelies from Hesperus Press!

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Hot on the heels of their lovely new edition of “Mapp and Lucia”, Hesperus Press are launching today two new Hesperus Classics – and both are really rather wonderful! They are, of course, the publisher’s usual quality paperbacks with French flaps and around 100 pages long (so ideal for quick, bite-sized reads). The first is:

The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde

canterville
This is a collection of three short works by Wilde – the title story, “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” and “The Sphinx Without a Secret”. Now I regard myself as a lover of Wilde’s prose, and I’ve read “Dorian Gray” plus some other works, but I actually don’t think I’d ever read any of these stories – which is shocking, because they’re absolutely wonderful! “Canterville” of course is very famous and has been filmed. It tells the story of the American Otis family who buy Canterville Chase, an old English stately home. They are warned that the house comes with its own ghost, but being rational people from the new world, they don’t believe in such spookery, and take the house regardless. It isn’t long before the titular ghost makes his appearance, but unfortunately the Otises are not to be easily rattled – unlike the ghost’s chains, the squeaking of which is met with a request for him to oil him! Likewise, the bloodstain on the floor every morning is removed with a patent cleaner, and if that wasn’t bad enough the young Otises start to play tricks on the ghost, frightening him more than he can possibly hope to do to them! However, this being Oscar, there is a slightly more serious story behind things. Young Virginia, the 15-year old daughter of the Otis family, befriends the sad ghost and finds out the story behind his haunting. Can she help him and free the house at the same time?

“Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” is equally brilliant, telling the tale of the eponymous noble, an upstanding young man preparing to marry the woman of his dreams. However, a chance encounter with a palm-reader at Lady Windermere’s party convinces him that he is to commit a murder, and being a practical man he decides to get this crime tidily out of the way before his marriage. However, things don’t quite go as he plans…

The last story is a slighter tale about a woman with a seeming mystery around her which turns out not to be the kind that you might expect. These three stories are just wonderful, and proof of Wilde’s great talent. They have a lovely mixture of the playful and the profound; even though they’re witty and enjoyable, there’s always a little message there from Oscar. There is a subtle pathos in the plight of the Canterville ghost, and we can’t help but end up sympathising with him; Lord Arthur’s goodness overcomes all, and the story has a wonderful twist; and likewise the Sphinx of the last story has a touch of tragedy about her. These tales are beautifully written with telling little touches that give you the plot details without battering you over the head with them. Wonderful stuff from Wilde, and well done Hesperus for reprinting them and hopefully bringing them to a new audience.

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

ortranto

The second new Hesperus book comes with quite a pedigree, as it’s usually reckoned to be the first proper Gothic novel, which sparkled interest in the genre and was so popular it led to everything else that followed which featured spooky castles, noblewomen in peril, candles in dungeons, the whole works! And it’s surprising to realise that this genre has become so familiar and embedded in our cultural psyche that in some ways it’s hard not to read “Castle” as a parody of the Gothic – except that it came first!

The House of Otranto is led by Manfred, who it is hinted from the start may not have come into his title and lands honourably. His sickly son Conrad is about to marry the beautiful Isabella when he is suddenly crushed by a giant helmet which somehow has come adrift from the statue of the good Alfonso, transported itself into the castle and squashed the heir! Manfred decides, as you do, that he’ll divorce his wife and marry Isabella himself, which causes great consternation amongst the local religious community, and to Manfred’s wife and daughter also! However, Isabella makes for the catacombs, aided by a handsome peasant called Theodore. There follows a frantic tale of knights in armour, love, deceit, lost heirs, heaving bosoms, giant limbs appearing around the castle, ghosts, ancient prophecies, portents of doom and Manfred’s madness. All is resolved eventually, but not before there is much drama and histrionics!

It would be easy to mock “Castle” if read by modern standards (or maybe not, when you consider what tosh is published nowadays!) but actually it’s remarkably groundbreaking. Published in 1764, during a century when books tended to be much, MUCH longer, this is short, punchy and quick to read, and must have been very exciting for the public at the time. Instead of spending hours (and pages) introducing his characters, Walpole gets right on with the story, filling in the background details as he goes, never letting the excitement drop. The female characters are allowed plenty of space and are surprisingly feisty for the genre. There are plenty of hints at stifled desire and Walpole really packs a huge amount into 100 pages.

If you’ve any interest at all in Gothic writings or spooky stories or dramatic deeds or feisty and fainting heroines, this is definitely for you!

(Books kindly provided for review by the publishers, for which many thanks!)

Getting to the heart of the hills

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The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

I seem to be on something of a Scottish kick at the moment, what with “Lanark” and then the lovely Mary Stewart set on Skye! I picked up “The Living Mountain” quite a while back, following my reading of Robert MacFarlane’s “The Old Ways”. The latter was full of praise for Shepherd and her book, which made me very keen to read it.

Wikipedia says of Shepherd: Nan (Anna) Shepherd (11 February 1893 – 23 February 1981) was a Scottish novelist and poet. She was an early Scottish Modernist writer, who wrote three standalone novels set in small, fictional, communities in North Scotland. The Scottish landscape and weather played a major role in her novels and were the focus of her poetry. Shepherd also wrote one non-fiction book on hill walking, based on her experiences walking in the Cairngorms. Shepherd was a lecturer of English at the Aberdeen College of Education for most of her working life.

The-living-mountain

Published by the rather wonderful Edinburgh-based publisher Canongate, “The Living Mountain” is a slim volume of poetic beauty. Written shortly after WW2, Shepherd distills the essence of her experience on the Cairngorms into a beguiling book which wasn’t actually published until 1977. However, the prose had lost none of its beauty and we can only be thankful that Canongate actually put it out. Each chapter covers a particular facet of the mountains (Water, The Plants or Sleep, for example) and so by coming at her subject from a number of angles, Shepherd provides an unusual view of the landscape. This is a non-traditional approach – Shepherd is not concerned with conquering the mountain range, but instead in experiencing all its aspects.

Is this a particularly female approach? I don’t think so, though I can’t say I’ve read widely enough on mountains to be sure! But it’s very effective, bringing you to the heart of what it feels like to live alongside such a huge mountain range, experiencing them in all their different states, knowing them for better or worse. And this is a harsh world, where the climate can suddenly change and bring down deadly fog; or snow and ice can mislead the amateur climber. Truly, the Cairngorms are not for the feeble-hearted. Yet there is beauty here, particularly on the plateau to which Shepherd often returns, where the wildlife flourishes and beautiful hardy plants grow in impossible conditions.

Nan Shepherd - photo c. The Estate of Nan Shepherd

Nan Shepherd – photo c. The Estate of Nan Shepherd

Shepherd obviously had a deeply personal relationship with the landscape which colours her writing about it. Her thoughtful, meditative viewpoint encourages a different way of looking at the world, one I found myself in sympathy with; I remember as a child walking round the house looking into a mirror held under my chin, imagining the house was upside down. The changed perspective made the whole world look strange. Nan Shepherd’s prose has this effect, really makes you look at things deeply, and anew.

“This changing of focus in the eye, moving the eye itself when looking at things that do not move, deepens one’s sense of outer reality. Then static things may be caught in the very act of becoming. By so simple a matter, too, as altering the position of one’s head, a different kind of world may be made to appear. Lay the head down, or better still, face away from what you look at, and bend with straddled legs till you see your world upside down. How new it has become!”

“The Living Mountain” is a beautiful little tome; lyrical, descriptive and unlike any other nature book I’ve read. In fact, reflecting on the fact the Shepherd was a poet, this volume does seem more like a prose poem than anything else. If you want to be transported to the cold heights of the Scottish mountains in all their beauty and glory, this is definitely the book for you.

Peril on the Isle of Skye – Mary Stewart Reading Week

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Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart

I am notoriously rubbish at keeping up with reading challenges, and have virtually given up committing to anything that requires a schedule as I always fail. However, delightfully enough, Mary Stewart Reading Week drifted back into my line of vision just before it started and when I was in a position to pick up any book I fancied – so a Mary Stewart it was, and I’ve at last taken part successfully in a reading challenge! Fingers crossed for Margaret Kennedy later in the year!

wildfire

I chose “Wildfire at Midnight” for no particular reason other than I had it on my shelf and it kind of fitted in with the Scottish mood I’m in at the moment, being set on the Isle of Skye. It’s Stewart’s second novel, published in 1956, and is narrated by Gianetta Brooke, a young divorcee from a sheltered upbringing who now makes a living as a model in London. Feeling somewhat burnt out after a painful divorce from her author husband, Nicholas Drury, she sets off for a break on Skye, to literally get away from it all. On the boat crossing, she meets an intriguing gent by the name of Roderick Grant, a lover of mountains and climbing, who tells her about the peaks. However, both he and the ferryman are reluctant to discuss one mountain, Blaven, and there is a similar reticence at the hotel.

Needless to say, there are a very mixed bunch staying on Skye, including Grant; Mr. and Mrs. Corrigan, there for the fishing; Marcia Maling, a London actress; Alastair Braine, an acquaintance of Gianetta who’s in advertising; Ronald Beagle, a famous climber; Marion and Roberta, a pair of teachers; and last, but certainly not least, Gianetta’s ex-husband. So it’s kind of the country house setting of a classic murder mystery, but transplanted to a hotel on Skye, and there certainly has been murder done – and more follows.

The murder has taken place on Blaven, and the victim was a local girl, killed in an almost sacrificial manner. The local inspector is flummoxed, and the hotel is full of tension, as the murdered girl was rumoured to have been spending time with a ‘gentleman from London’ – so obviously all the men in the hotel are under suspicion. What follows involves fishing, mountain climbing, scary dark hotels at night, murder, threat, confusion and plenty of drama! Needless to say, there is a satisfying resolution and all loose ends are neatly tied up.

mary stewart

Mary Stewart’s novels, including this one, are described as ‘gothic romances’ which frankly is a little odd for this book. It’s actually a slightly spooky murder mystery with plenty of romance chucked in, but there’s nothing gothic about it! What sets Stewart apart from run-of-the-mill romance writing is the quality of her prose; she’s an excellent writer, and her descriptions of the Skye landscape and mountains are atmospheric; and she creates a wonderful tension at several points in the story when Gianetta or other characters are being menaced. Gianetta herself is a pleasing mixture of feisty and vulnerable, and you’re with her all the way, whether she’s scrambling up mountains or creeping round darkened hotel corridors or lost in mist and bogs. I confess I guessed the murderer quite early on, but that was no great problem as the fun was watching the story play out and see how Stewart would resolve it.

“Wildfire at Midnight” was the first Stewart I’ve read since my teens and I really enjoyed it. We’re not talking great literature here, but an enjoyable, compelling, unputdownable murder/romance; one of those lovely comfort reading books that keep you up all night and are pure, self-indulgent pleasure. Many thanks to Anbolyn at Gudrun’s Tights for hosting the Mary Stewart Reading Week – I had a ball with this one! :)

Sparkly new Mapp and Lucia from Hesperus Press!

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Unless  you’ve been hiding away under a non-bookish rock somewhere, you’re probably aware that the BBC are reviving E.F. Benson’s absolutely wonderful “Mapp and Lucia” for a new series this autumn. I confess to being a devotee of the original 1980s adaptation, so I may be approaching this new version a little nervously….

However, what is lovely is that Hesperus Press, one of my favourite publishing houses, has brought out a gorgeous new edition of the book and this is what it looks like:

Mapp & Lucia

It’s the usual quality Hesperus production, complete with French flaps (I do love French flaps on paperbacks!) and has replaced my rather tired Penguin volume which has gone off to the charity shop. I re-read and loved and reviewed “Mapp and Lucia” here – and if you haven’t yet had the pleasure, I suggest rushing out the nearest book emporium and picking up this lovely edition. I wonder if they will put any more of the series? :)

Murder in the West Country

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The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude

Well, thanks to my lovely local library, I have reached the 5th and final British Library Crime Classic volume they ordered in at my suggestion – “The Cornish Coast Murder” by John Bude. This was the first of his murder mysteries (I reviewed “The Lake District Murder” here) and in many ways I think it might be the best of the batch I’ve read.

Cornish-Coast

The book is set in the quiet Cornish village of Boscawen. Here lives the Reverend Dodd, who likes nothing more than spending a happy evening in front of his fire reading a murder mystery, then discussing it over a meal with his friend. the local doctor Pendrill. However, one stormy night his neighbour, Julius Tregarthen, is found shot. The latter is a grumpy and unpopular local landlord and Magistrate, living alone with his niece Ruth. But who could have wanted him dead? There are only a few suspects – Ruth herself; Ronald Hardy, a shell-shocked author living locally who is keen on Ruth (and vice versa!); and a local poacher seen arguing with Julius earlier on the day of the murder. Unfortunately the local police are stumped, despite coming up with several theories – and Hardy has done a runner, which confuses the issue completely.

Fortunately, the Rev Dodd has imbibed much criminal expertise from his reading of crime novels, and is happy to put this into practice, joining the local Inspector in his investigations. He has the advantage of local knowledge, of course, being the Vicar and party to everyone’s problems and comings and goings. So while the hapless Inspector Bigswell runs around trying to find clues, evidence and checking out hypotheses, Dodd sits in his chair and comes up with an intuitive solution.

This was *such* a lovely read – full of atmosphere and humour, but plenty of drama as well. Bude’s other novel was very much a police procedural, but this one had much more to it. Dodd made an appealing detective, and his sparring with Pendrill and Bigswell was lovely. The plot was beautifully twisty and turny and I didn’t guess the end, which is always a delight nowadays. The scene where Dodd and Pendrill discuss the latest novels they’re going to read, name-dropping such notables as Sayers, Freeman Wills Croft and “my old friend, my very dear old friend, Mrs. Agatha Christie. New adventures of that illimitable chap Poirot, I hope” was a hoot and signposted the whole tenor of the novel – because the ‘little grey cells’ are very much how Dodd solves the mystery. The denouement was much more effective in this novel too – some of the others I’ve read have been slightly anticlimactic.

I’ve had a ball reading the British Library Crime Classics, and I hope they keep reissue these lost authors – on the evidence of those I’ve read so far, they certainly don’t deserve to be forgotten!

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