Home

An exploration of memory – @OneworldNews @shinynewbooks

Leave a comment

Well, you know me – I can’t resist a chunky piece of Russian fiction, old or new; so when I had the chance to review a new volume for Shiny New Books I really couldn’t resist!

The Aviator by Eugene Vodolazkin, translated by Lisa Hayden and published by Oneworld, is a marvellous new book that is eminently readable and utterly memorable whilst taking on big topics like the tricks of memory, survival in the harshest conditions and the compromises we make in order to make life bearable. It also has much to say about the endurance of love as well as humankind’s cruelty to itself, and it’s a stunning read.

So this is another new book I can’t recommend highly enough – check out my review on Shiny here, and if you’re going to read this (and I really urge you to do so), try not to find out too much about the plot in advance… 😁

 

Advertisements

The Case of the Grumpy Detective…

18 Comments

Maigret Loses His Temper by Simenon
Translated by Robert Eglesfield

There’s no accounting for reading whims, is there? I may be awash with new books, review books and charity shop finds, but if I suddenly get an urge to read an old Maigret that’s been knocking around the house for years, well that’s what I’m going to do. And I did… I was trying to remember the impetus for picking this one up, and then recalled it was thanks to an article on LitHub which listed some quintessential Parisian fictions. This one apparently featured Père Lachaise cemetery – well, not exactly, and I think the article was a bit disingenuous. Nevertheless, I *did* thoroughly enjoy this particular Maigret!

“Maigret Loses His Temper” is a slightly later adventure of the great detective, first published in 1963. The story is set in a Paris which is sweltering in a heatwave. Maigret is by now a chief inspector, and currently drowning in a sea of paperwork; not the kind of setting the detective prefers, and so when a body is found, Maigret jumps at the chance to escape from his boring desk-work and get involved in sleuthing instead. However, the case is an odd sort of one; the victim is a night-club owner, who owns a string of businesses which, despite their seedy nature, he runs so honestly that he’s known as “the grocer”. Even more strangely, the body appears to be have been stored for a couple of days before being dumped outside Père Lachaise, which in a heatwave isn’t really that sensible a thing to do… The victim’s family appear to be uninvolved; gang warfare is ruled out; and so it’s left to Maigret to dig deep into the heart of the case and find the complex story behind a seemingly simple murder.

Without hurrying, he strolled through the few streets which constituted the former steward’s world, and, as the hours went by, these changed in appearance. First there were the neon signs which became more numerous, and then there were the uniformed commissionaires who appeared outside the doors. Not only did the jazz, coming out through the night-clubs’ doors, give a different vibration to the air, but the passers-by were different and the night taxis began to spill out their passengers, while a new fauna moved backwards and forwards between the light and shade.

As always, Simenon’s writing oozes atmosphere, and he captures the city beautifully; the seedy clubland, the neon and the strip joints, are brilliantly conjured in his spare yet effective prose. And the group of detective, that familiar ensemble cast he has around Maigret, make their reassuring appearances supporting their chief. However, the star of the book is, as ever, Maigret; what a really wonderful creation he was. He almost seems to mooch through the case; smoking his pipe fiercely, popping into the local bars for a drink and a meal; but that distracted air hides the thought processes going on behind the scenes. Some kind of detecting instinct sends him in the right direction, and he tracks down the criminal despite all the odds, revealing some surprising twists and an unexpectedly nasty murderer.

By Jac. de Nijs / Anefo (Nationaal Archief) [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Simenon wrote so many Maigrets that there *is* the danger that if you’ve read a lot they tend to merge a little bit; and in fact I keep a checklist so that I can be sure of what I own and don’t, as well as which ones I’ve read. However, this is a particularly strong entry in the series: the mystery is clever, the atmosphere is marvellous and Maigret’s persistence very much on show. Simenon at one point allows himself to insert a meditation on Maigret’s handling of cases and this adds a fascinating element to the book (as well as painting an image of Maigret like a spider in the middle of a web, with his minions spread out all around him while he directs events from the centre).

    It had happened several times, indeed quite often, but never in such a clear, characteristic way. You work in a given direction, all the more stubbornly in that you are less sure of yourself and have less data to hand.
    You tell yourself that you remain free, when the time comes, to turn round and search in another direction.
    You send inspectors right and left. You think you are marking time, and then you discover a new clue and you start moving cautiously forward.
    And all of a sudden, just when you least expect it, the case slips out of your grasp. You cease to be in control of it. It is events which are in command and which force you to take measures which you have not foreseen, and for which you were not prepared.

I devoured “Maigret Loses His Temper” in a couple of sittings, and it was the perfect book at the perfect time. Sometimes you just need the safety of a reliable read: a series you love, a writer and characters you’re familiar with – and I’ve very rarely been disappointed with a Maigret!

….in which an unexpected volume of poetry speaks to me… @saltpublishing

12 Comments

If you’re on social media, you might have noticed a recent flurry of mad book buying in support of the lovely indie publisher, Salt. I was happy to pitch in to their #justonebook initiative because I love indie publishers – they’re friendly, approachable, produce wonderful books, are happy to deal with bloggers and keep the mainstream publishers on their toes by always taking risks and publishing works that might not end up in print elsewhere.

When I whizzed onto their site, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to pick up, as there’s such a wonderful selection of works. I’m quite awash with fiction at the moment, so I had a browse through their poetry section to see if there was anything which caught my eye. For some reason, Tim Cockburn’s “Appearances in the Bentinck Hotel” (first published in 2011) appealed – I can’t remember now if it was the cover, or a quote, or what – but I like slim volumes of poetry and so this one was the one I went for.

Cockburn is a completely new poet to me, and I haven’t been able to find out much about him online; in fact, this may be the only volume he’s published, although his works have featured in a number of journals, such as “Five Dials”. If that’s actually the case, it’s a great shame because I really did connect very strongly with his writing.

My tenderness has trodden on a three-pin plug.

The book contains 18 poems which range over the usual subjects such as life, love and loss; Cockburn is realistic yet romantic, and his works often touch an unexpected nerve despite what appears a deceptive simplicity.

I wondered whether I had such an empathy with the words because Cockburn often seems to be channelling his inner Philip Larkin – and of course I do love the latter’s poetry very much. Although his voice ranges far and wide (and “Immediately on Waking”,  a father’s dream about his grown-up daughters, was a particular stand-out) he often returns to Larkin as a touchstone; the last work in the book, entitled “A Girl in Winter” (after Philip’s novel) is very poignant.

So my Salty purchase turned out to be an excellent choice. Cockburn’s verses are still lodged in my brain quite a while after reading, and this collection has earned its place on my-ever growing poetry shelf. If Cockburn hasn’t published another collection I’m sorry about that, though I’m going to have a bit of an online dig – and I think I might well be exploring the Salt poetry books as well…

(I *have* managed to find a short, shaky video of Cockburn reading some of his poetry on YouTube, but nothing else really. A great shame – I like his work here a lot!)

The perfect frothy caper novel!

26 Comments

Four Days’ Wonder by A.A. Milne

Way back in the mists of time (well – 2012!) I stumbled across a rather lovely Golden Age crime novel by A.A. Milne (who I’d previously only really known as the creator of Pooh, Tigger and co). “The Red House Mystery” turned out to be Great Fun, and I was keen to explore of Milne’s adult works (and in fact do have volumes of it knocking around the house somewhere…) However, one title I really wanted to read and which proved elusive was “Four Day’s Wonder”, a spoof of the genre, and I couldn’t find a copy at the time so it lurked on the back burner of the mental wishlist for years.

Fast forward six years and I was browsing on The Book People’s website, as they would keep sending me nagging emails reminding me that I had book points to spend, and I can never resist the idea of a free book…. Well, it transpired that they had a lovely set of 5 of Milne’s adult books for a Very Reasonable Price, and that set included “Four Days’ Wonder”. The inevitable happened (and I know I’m not the only one who succumbed – stand up, HeavenAli!) – and I decided to read the book straight away because after all, I’d wanted it for ages! 🙂

“Four Days’ Wonder” is indeed set over four days in the life of Jenny Windell; a naive 18 year old orphan (how much more worldly would most 18-year-old girls be nowadays!!), she revisits her old home whilst in a bit of a dream, and stumbles across the dead body of her wild aunt Jane, whom she hasn’t seen for ages. Jane, an actress, seems to have been the black sheep of the family, with scandalous rumours doing the rounds about her drug taking and playing the harp naked.

So what does a sensible girl do? Instead of calling the police, she makes the mistake of tampering with the evidence and then decides to go on the run. With the aid of her best friend Nancy (a fellow fantasist), she changes her identity, hikes off into the country, and attempts to evade the law. Meanwhile, the wonderfully named and wonderfully inept Inspector Marigold attempts to solve his first murder case, focusing initially on the Parracots, the tenants of Jenny’s old house who discover the body. The sequences where the Inspector is first interviewing Mr. Parracot sparkle with wit, and that’s repeated throughout the book.

Mrs. Watterson sighed and said nothing. She had been married for fifty years, and knew that men would always go on being children. This accounted for War and Politics and Sport, and so many things.

Meanwhile, Jenny has various encounters in the countryside, including one Derek Fenton; she and Derek are instantly taken with each other, and Derek takes the runaway under his wing. Coincidentally, Nancy is working as secretary to Derek’s elder brother, Archibald, a successful (if corpulent) novelist. All the various parties become embroiled in the murder and as the plot strands come together it remains to be seen if Inspector Marigold will solve the murder, if Derek is in love with Jenny or Nancy, and who exactly did kill Aunt Jane!

Caroline was twenty-three, but not beautiful. The General looked over The Times at her across the breakfast-table, and felt uneasily that her face was familiar in some damn way; as indeed it was, for he had shaved something like it every morning for years.

“Four Days’ Wonder” turned out to be a wonderful, fizzy read, full of witty dialogue, humorous situations – perfect for a light reading at this time of year and reminiscent of many a 1930s screwball comedy film. Milne is beautifully tongue in cheek, sending up the detective genre in the form of Inspector Marigold; the girl adventurer in Jenny and Nancy’s intriguing to cover their tracks; and even the romance novel comes in for a little bit of spoofing.

Archibald Fenton, too, is a wonderful creation and Milne is not averse to having a pop at the character of the author! However, the book does have the occasional harder edge, and is oddly touching at times; Jenny is obviously suffering from the lack of parents, having conversations in her head with her ‘Hussar’ (her deceased father whom she’d never known), and I did think that perhaps the older Derek (30 to her 18) was not only a potential partner but also something of an authority figure replacement.

But that’s by the by; “Four Days’ Wonder” has so much to recommend it. Yes, it’s frothy and light; yes, the coincidences are perhaps a little unlikely; but you just need to suspend disbelief and love the book for what it is – a funny, entertaining and utterly enjoyable distraction from the horrors of the modern world. And what’s lovely is that I have another four Milnes standing by when reality just gets to be too much…

Rediscovering Julian Barnes – #manbooker50 @shiny new books

23 Comments

There’s been a lot of publicity about the celebration of 50 years of the (Man) Booker prize, and the lovely Shiny New Books is focusing on each of the winners during this week. Today sees the site covering the final decade of books, with capsule reviews by a number of bloggers, and I was pleased to join in with my thoughts of “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes.

Despite having had the book on my shelves for years (after a fortuitous charity shop find) I’d never actually got round to reading it. Which was a bit silly, really, because I read his work in the 1980s and loved it, but I’d kind of lose touch with him. However, my Eldest Child rated the book very highly, and when I enjoyed Barnes’ “The Noise of Time” so much recently, it definitely seemed the right time to reconnect with the author. So when the SNB editors asked for contributors, I thought “Sense” would be the one for me – which it was!

I absolutely loved the book: Barnes’ prose is just wonderful and it’s a novel that lingers in the mind. You can read my (brief) thoughts on it here, and if you haven’t read the book I can highly recommend it. I’m not a person who follows book awards much any more, and I kind of lost touch with the Booker after Margaret Atwood won it (I can remember being *so* excited!) And looking through the list of titles, I would *definitely* choose a different “Golden Booker” selection than the ones chosen!

Nevertheless, I’m so glad to have been prodded into reading “The Sense of an Ending” which I do feel was a really worthy winner. I’d highly recommended popping over to Shiny New Books and checking out all the fabulous posts – you just might find an idea for your next read! 🙂

Three Things… #2 – documentaries, and the price of books…

42 Comments

I quite enjoyed my first go at this nice little meme, thought up by Paula, where we post about what we’re Reading, Looking and Thinking. So I thought I would share again where I am – a little snapshot of my state of mind today, you might say!

Reading

Choices, choices…

I’m dipping into a number of books at the moment, mostly shorter ones after the epic, mammoth, involving and wonderful read that was “The Aviator”. There are the next couple of Penguin Moderns and a pair of lovely review classics from Ampersand. Also on the immediate TBR is “Flights” and a very interesting-sounding British Library Crime Classic, “The Division Bell”. As well as books, I’m trying to catch up on the issues of the London Review of Books which have been massing on the coffee table, along with copies of the TLS (a Russian special) and the latest “Happy Reader”. Plenty to keep the avid bibliophile amused….

Looking

Great excitement chez the Ramblings, as BBC4 (finally!) decide to repeat one of the Documentaries that Distracted last year – and probably my favourite. The three-part “Utopia: In Search of the Dream”, written and presented by Professor Richard Clay, was one my viewing highlights of 2017, so I’m glad to see it getting another airing. The series was a bracing and eclectic mix, looking at utopias, dystopias, repressive regimes (from both sides of the politic divide), architecture, art, music et al – very broad indeed. I’d recommend catching the series while you can if you have access to BBC4 or the iPlayer – thought-provoking stuff!

Which obliquely leads on to…

Thinking

A topic vexing my mind lately has been the cost of books. Not just ordinary new books, which do of course vary according to where you buy them, and in what format; but older, out of print or rarer titles that seem to fluctuate madly according to the day of the week.

Of course, we all know that a certain big river store’s prices are often slashed wildly and that real bookshops struggle to compete. There’s the issue also of local shops not always stocking what you want, but as they now all seem to be able to order in quickly I’m finding myself drawn back to Waterstones and the like, and if I have to order online I tend to go for Wordery nowadays who seem quite a decent lot.

The iconoclasm books continue to breed…. =:o

However, old or rare books are a different kettle of (vegan) fish. It was the “Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the Transformation of Signs” book by the aforementioned Richard Clay which got me thinking about values. As I’ve posted about on here before, I had been unable to find this one at a sensible price anywhere, so I resorted to getting Youngest Child to borrow it from her University library over Christmas. With second-hand copies going at over £1,000, I wasn’t going to be owning a copy any time soon.

But I set up alerts on a number of online booksellers and one morning, ping! A load of messages starting to come in with Reasonably Priced and Brand New copies available at under £100. So as I’ve posted, I picked up a copy and was dead chuffed. However, the interesting follow-up to this is that I never got round to cancelling all the alerts and messages are still rolling in with copies for sale – and the price since I bought my copy has been gradually creeping up and up, until a recent email dropped in offering a second-hand version for an eye-watering £8,792.58…. Yes, really…. And it seems to keep going up…

One of my rarer Viragos…

So WHY is it that some book prices vary so intensely and what sets the value? I know this one is an academic book, published in limited quantities by a smaller publisher, but is it simply the rarity value? It’s not only academic books that can have rare prices – I know Jane at Beyond Eden Rock has written about Margery Sharp’s “Rhododendron Pie” which is almost impossible to find at a decent price; and when I first wanted to read A.A. Milne’s “Four Days’ Wonder” it was prohibitively priced so I didn’t bother. I guess it’s some kind of complex calculation of the rarity of the book vs the amount of people who want to read it; when Simon at Stuck in a Book first blogged about “Guard Your Daughters”, the price of second-hand copies rocketed; and Anne Bridge’s “Illyrian Spring”, long sought after by Virago devotees, commanded silly prices before its reprint by Daunt Books.

I guess the moral is simple: if you want a book, and you see it at a price you’re prepared to pay, grab it. Certainly, I’m very glad I got hold of my iconoclasm book when I did – because there’s no way I could afford getting on for nine grand!!!!

*****

So there’s a snapshot of where my head is at the moment – full of books, magazines, documentaries and iconoclasm – the usual rambling and eclectic mix! 🙂

“Misfortune had stricken them into a strange apathy” – dark deeds from @AmpersandPubLtd

18 Comments

The Sisters by an unknown author

I rambled recently about some lovely little lost classics which had been republished by the independent press, Ampersand. I have a couple more of these lurking in the TBR, to which I’m very much looking forward; but I was also intrigued to see the variety of subjects they cover, from new fiction through pulp, politics, crime and art, plus much more. One particular range which caught my eye was entitled ‘Lost and Found’ – there is only one book so far under this heading, and it’s a novella/short story which doesn’t appear to have seen the light of day since its original publication in 1829. “The Sisters” was published anonymously in “The Literary Souvenir” and it’s a 47 page long slice of dramatic Gothic which definitely deserves its republication.

The book is set in the North of the country (bringing instantly, of course, images of the Yorkshire Moors to mind), and as the story opens we are told of the collapse and decay of two great estates. The rest of the tale is how that decay was brought about, and how love of the sisters of the title led to the destruction of lives and locations. The sisters are Marion and Edith; the latter is younger and livelier, but the elder has depths and attracts the love of two local young men. Vibert is penniless but honest and true; Marcus is a proto-Heathcliff, dark and brooding and damaged. As my Offspring used to say, End Well It Will Not….

“The Sisters” is a dark and dramatic piece of writing, a fascinating transitional work which bridges the gap between Austen and the Brontes. It’s worth remembering that Gothic romances had been so popular in the 18th century (from Anne Radcliffe and the like) that Austen was able to spoof them in “Northanger Abbey” (written in 1803 but not published until 1817) That kind of Gothic work drew heavily on the apparent supernatural, and perhaps the genre reached its peak of notoriety with the controversial “The Monk”. However, as the world moved on towards Victorian times, a work like “Wuthering Heights” (published in 1847) had a different focus; there was still the hint of the supernatural but the book was much bleaker, more about dark human behaviour. “The Sisters” sits in that divide and reflects the shift in society’s behaviour and the changes to come.

By Edmund Morison Wimperis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The excellent introduction by Joan Passey expands on this aspect of the story, and puts the work very much in context. She sees society on a cusp, and the decay and destruction which is prevalent in the story is a reflection of the differing social expectations; almost as if an old way of life was crumbling just as much as the old country houses. It all makes fascinating reading (and thankfully Passey sensibly warns against reading her introduction before the story).

But apart from its historical significance, “The Sisters” is also a great little read; gripping and dark, it’s worthy of sitting alongside its more famous siblings. Ampersand has published it as a very pretty little hardback, with their trademark, very nice on the eye, off-white paper and a lovely atmospheric cover image. I’m greatly enjoying exploring the publisher’s catalogue and I’m very keen to see what comes up next in the ‘Lost and Found’ section! 🙂

Review copy kindly provided by Ampersand, for which many thanks!

%d bloggers like this: