Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Wicked Go To Hell - Frédéric Dard

I've been putting off reading this for a while now, mostly because I loved Bird in a Cage so much, and was half afraid that nothing else would measure up to it (it's that nerve racking moment when you have to find out if you love the writer or the book). Also because the plot; " At one of France's toughest prisons, an undercover cop is attempting to trap an enemy spy by posing as a fellow inmate. So Frank and Hal find themselves holed up together in a grimy, rat infested cell, each warily eyeing the other. As they plan a daring escape, an unexpected friendship ensues - but which is the cop and which is the spy?" isn't the sort of thing that normally appeals to me.

I didn't like this as much as 'Bird in a Cage', it's much more violent and because it's dealing almost exclusively with a relationship between two men bought together by violence I found it hard to relate to. The way Dard leaves us guessing about which man is the criminal, which the policeman, until the end is clever and effective, it did make me think about the nature of duty, loyalty, conscience, and deception. He doesn't get bogged down in morals, and the exact nature of the relationship between the two men is fascinating.

It's not friendship, but something more binding born out of shared experience, hatred, and distrust, which strips everything else away. In the end there are no good or bad men, just men. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say there are no good men, just men doing what they do.

I don't mind the moral ambiguity of it all, could accept the fairly extreme violence, but wasn't particularly moved by the bond that grows between Frank and Hal (because it really was all to macho for me) though I can see that another reader would be. That said, I was interested enough to not only finish this book, but to read it in a day (instead of picking it up and putting it down over a week), had I really disliked it, or even just found it dull I would quite happily have stuck it straight on the charity shop pile.

It's also confirmed my opinion of Dard as a really interesting writer, and this time it won't take me 9 months to get to the next one I have ('Crush'). It's good to be taken out of my comfort zone, and given my love of the feminine middlebrow, particularly good to read something so at odds with that.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Murder in the Museum - John Rowland

Yesterday's trip to the beach already feels like it happened weeks ago. A wet, and cold again, Monday at work would have been quite enough to bring me back down to earth anyway, but the other big event yesterday was a call from the decorater. This is related to the annoying (now evicted) upstairs neighbour who persistently flooded my flat last summer. After months of trying to coordinate with the approved decorater (I finally managed to get hold of him in January after he got back from the Caribbean) he disappeared again to work out a quote, and I heard nothing until last night when he phoned to say the work had to be gone this week and could he have a key.

I'm not paying for this so I suppose I can't be to snotty about it, but a little bit more notice would have been helpful. As it is I've had a fun evening rushing home to give the keys of my flat to a virtual stranger, with expensive shoes, who makes the Scarlet Pimpernel look easy to find. I'm sure it'll be fine. I've also had to clear anything breakable or previous put of my bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom so he can deal with the ceilings. It means the sitting room looks like a junk shop, I won't be able to find anything, and I've been half choked by dust. His 'don't worry about the pictures, love emulsion will scrape right off those' has not filled me with confidence. But it'll probably be fine?

At least 'Murder in the Museum' was reliable. I'd been saving it for a rainy day - murders in the British Museum/library don't come along every day (at least, I sincerely hope not) - and as there have been a few of those recently the time seemed right.

I'll be honest, it's not the best murder mystery I've read, but that really didn't matter. The joy of this book is in its premise. Henry Fairhurst, a meek and mild man, is quietly researching the life of an obscure 17th century French courtesan in the reading room when his peace is disturbed by a loud snore. When he try's to wake the snorer the man, Professor Arnell (an expert on some of the more obscure Elizabethan dramatists), falls to the floor, quite dead. The plot thickens when it turns out that he's not the first expert on Elizabethan dramatists to have died suddenly in the reading room.

Just what is going on? Does somebody have it in for academics who specialise in the Elizabethens, or is it because both men had money to leave? When a third scholar meets the same end the police have their work cut out.

The plot relies heavily on coincidence, and doesn't bear a great deal of scrutiny in places, but I liked Rowlands sense of humour more than enough to make up for that. It's not a book to be taken seriously, but as light entertainment it works very well indeed. I happily read through it in a couple of hours and now I've finished moving stuff for the decorater I'm off to dig out another Rowland as a reward for good behaviour.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Happy Birthday, Tally

Humour me with this, but Tally is my mother's dog, and today is her birthday. She's two, and since she came into our lives (which will be two years ago in about eight weeks) she's been a godsend. D jokes (it's probably a joke) that I love the dog more than him, I don't, but when she launched herself onto me and my bed at 5 am this morning to lick me awake, before demanding to be let out, I thought it was endearing. If a D had done that I would have sworn at him.

The thing with dogs generally is their wholehearted enthusiasm for people they like, and for life in general, always makes me feel better. It doesn't matter how bad a time I've been having, Tally cheers me up, and when I was struggling with stress a while back spending time with her really helped.

Anyway the dog's birthday has been an excuse for a family outing to the seaside (a 200 mile round trip, so no small undertaking, and as my sister pointed out she's been asking for a birthday trip to the beach for years and never got one). Tally had never seen the sea before, and at first she wasn't at all convinced that it was a good thing, but then she met a much smaller dog who jumped right in so she decided to try it, then spent an age wallowing around like a porpoise whilst trying to catch kite surfers. (She didn't get close).

It's not always easy to find the time for days like today, or even remember how important it is to do so whilst we can, but it's been great, so thanks to the dog for giving us a reason to do it.

We went to Old Hunstanton in Norfolk, it came well recommend as a dog friendly beach, a recommendation I heartily endorse. All the many dogs there were well behaved, the beach was clean, and there's an equally dog friendly cafe by the car park.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Bodies of Water - V. H. Leslie

I'm trying to have a bit of a spring clean at the moment (so far I've regretfully thrown away two mugs with cracked handles, and put aside an unused storage jar and jug for oxfam. It could be going better) and part of that is to read through some of the towering piles of books that are currently everywhere. Quite a lot of them are short, so theoretically won't take long...

V. H. Leslie's 'Bodies of Water' had been hanging around ignored for far to long and seemed like a good place to start. There are two timelines linked by a building, Wakewater house, and the river Thames. In Victorian London we have Evelyn, who has been ministering to fallen women, after a love affair ends badly she has a nervous break down and ends up at Wakewater House for the water cure. Back in the present day Wakewater is in the process of being converted into modern flats, and Kirsten moves in fresh from a painful break up. There is only one other resident, Manon, an archivist who starts to tell Kirsten about the murky past of the river and the women who turned to it as a solution to their problems.

The two stories start to touch each other as Evelyn unravels further, and Kirsten starts to see mysterious women at the waters e
dge as she gets to know Wakewater better. There is also the water that randomly pours into her flat and then dries up again (after my experiences with being repeatedly flooded by my upstairs neighbor last year that touched a nerve).

Leslie borrows from the Slavic tradition of Rusalka (the more malevolent nineteenth century versions) as well as referencing all sorts of Victorian paintings (including George Frederick Watt's 'Found Drowned' which is the sort of moralising melodramatic Victoriana I find particularly appealing) to create a very watery gothic ghost story.

Everything about the story is slippery, and by the time I finished I was slightly more rattled by it than I might have liked. This is maybe because I live next to a river where sadly drownings have not been uncommon, so it felt a bit close to home. Otherwise it's a clever, provocative, and genuinely chilling, book that ratchets up the tension all the way through. I wouldn't particularly recommend reading it after dark, or with a tap dripping.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Sealskin - Su Bristow

There are a few Selkie myths around, but I think the best known one will be some version of the story of the fisherman who finds himself watching as a group of seals come ashore, shed their skins, and in the form of beautiful young women start to dance. He steals the skin of one of them so she cannot return to the sea with her sisters, takes her home, marries her, and for a while all seems well. There are children, and a settled life - then one day her young son finds her lost skin and with that she's gone.

I couldn't say if it was because this was the first Selkie story I really remember, or if it's because of the ambiguous ending, but it's always been my favourite. I guess it's Su Bristow's favourite too because it's the one she's chosen to tell in Sealskin, taking those bare bones and turning them into something magical.

Donald, the fisherman who's about to catch more than he bargained for, is an awkward outsider in his own community. Out checking his creels he the seal maidens dancing, on the spur of the moment he hides one of the skins, and then rapes it's owner before taking her home to his mother. Despite his prevarications she knows exactly what he's done and makes it clear what the consequences will be.

Donald himself is appalled by both his actions and their implications, and this is where Bristow goes to town. Why is Donald's mother so determined to take the Selkie into her family, how will the close knit community accept this particularly strange stranger, and what if they don't? What are the implications of the truth being revealed? Can Donald find any kind of forgiveness for what he's done either from himself, or from the woman he's taken?

Meanwhile it's not just Mairhi (the seal girl) who's been changed, it's Donald too as he starts to take responsibility for what he's done. One reason the original story has stuck with me is that because the Selkie leaves her children behind it doesn't feel like an entirely happy ending when she returns to the sea, even though I'm always glad for her that she can no back. This time I sort of want her to stay even though I know she won't (which is new, I've never liked the fisherman before).

I don't want to give any more of the details away, but this book deserves the praise that's been heaped on it, not least because Bristow keeps all the uncomfortable ambiguity of the original fairy tale. I saw it recommended when it was 99p for a kindle version (I see a paperback in my future) so took a chance on it, and am glad I did.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Scottish Traditional Tales edited by A J Bruford and D A MacDonald

One of the things I love about bookshops in Scotland is that they always seem to have a Scottish books section (Irish bookshops I've been in do the same, and I assume Welsh bookshops do too - the local interest section that English bookshops sometimes have is not quite the same thing) where I almost always find something interesting. In Edinburgh at New Year I found 'Scottish Traditional Tales' which looked like it would be an excellent addition to my growing folk and fairy tales collection. It is, and I've been dipping in and out of it ever since.

This book represents fifty years of research from the school of Scottish studies at Edinburgh university, and contains almost a hundred stories. They've come from a variety of sources including the Hebridean Gaelic tradition, Lowland cairds (travelling people), Shetland, Orkney - and basically all over Scotland. It was the Shetland stories that made this a book I had to take home with me there and then, but my particular local interest aside it's a proper treasure trove of interesting things.

The stories are arranged thematically, starting with children's tales. There are only eight the editors think were specifically meant for young children, the rest would have been shared with an older audience wherever people gathered together and going late into the night. Other categories include fortune tales, hero tales, trickster tales, 'other cleverness, stupidity, and nonsense', fate morals and religion, origin and didactic legends, ghost stories, fairies and sea folk, witchcraft, and robbers and clan feuds. Some of these, specifically the clan feuds and the origin legends are truly local, but many are variations on folk tales that span the world and can be traced in one form or another across thousands of years.

Stories from Shetland and the Hebrides are particularly well represented thanks to the tradition of gathering together in people's houses of an evening to work and tell stories surviving rather longer there than in other parts of the country. Curiously it's a custom that seems to have died out in Orkney sometime before it did in Shetland where it seems to have been common practice at least until the Second World War. Even after that the flavour of these stories is familiar to me from my early childhood in the 1970's, but by then they were definitely stories to entertain children with and maybe told in a different way.

There's something particularly fascinating in the way that stories evolve as they move from place to place, but also in the details that don't change. For example, however Scottish the hero may be in any tale that involves a giant, the giant always smells the blood of an English man. However, a story from Barra called 'The Fox and The Wolf and the Butter' itself a variation of a European tale which features a Bear and a Wolf, becomes 'The Cats and the Christening' in Shetland (where neither wolves, foxes, or bears feature in the local fauna).

There's an excellent and interesting introduction, and thorough notes for each story at the back of the book (something I appreciated, footnotes would have been distracting). There's also an effort to retain the voice of the story tellers, either by sticking to the dialect they spoke, or in the case of the translated Gaelic tales by trying to keep the rhythm of the them in the English version.

And that's the joy of the Scottish books section - it allowed me to find something that might otherwise have lurked in the relative obscurity of social history, or similar, where I am not in the habit of generally browsing.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Into the Southern Ocean: The Perilous Voyages of the Elsi Arrub- Andrew Halcrow

Andrew Halcrow's 'Into The Southern Ocean' has thoroughly dominated the last week. I had it to review for a Shetland based magazine (60 North) who also wanted an author Q&A. I like doing these reviews because they push me a little bit out of my comfort zone and demand more discipline then I exercise here. In this case I would probably never have picked this book up if I hadn't been asked to, and that would have been my loss.

Back in 1987, Andrew, then in his twenties decided to build a yacht he could sail around the world in. He'd trained as a blacksmith and knew that he had the neccesary skills to make one out of steel, and that's just what he did. In 1988 he, and at the last minute, his brother set off on a 5 year trip during which they sailed and worked their way around the world, mostly in the tropics. They sent articles back to the Shetland Times, so Elsi became something of a household name (there's footage of their return in 1993 on you tube which shows how big an event this was locally). 

In 2005, Alyson, Andrews wife, was diagnosed with MS - and this is one of the things that make this book so engaging and inspiring - she deals with it by deciding she has to give her husband the chance to follow his dream whilst she can support him. The dream is a single handed, non stop, circumnavigation. (I didn't really grasp what a big deal this was until D explained it to me). 

What's so impressive about what Alyson does is that this isn't just moral support. Even when the preparation for the trip was done she was still going to be juggling family, farming, her own job, and providing continuous shore based support via HF radio in the way of weather reports and more. It's easy to pay lip service to those who stay behind to make adventures possible, but it's much more than that here and I've come away with a sense of a really amazing woman, which is an unexpected bonus in what could have been a much more boys own style story. 

The first attempt has to be abandoned when Andrew's appendix bursts and he develops septicaemia. Not a good thing to happen out in the Southern Ocean, he's rescued just in time by a passing cargo ship that diverts to pick him up, but Elsi has to be abandoned. This is genuine edge of the seat stuff - even though I knew what happened next - because by now I really cared about what happened to Elsi. 

Almost miraculously she's recovered a couple of months later, a bit battered but essentially in good shape, and is transported back from Australia to Shetland. Then in 2013 another attempt is made. This time Elsi is dismasted in a storm off the Patagonian coast, Andrew is airlifted off, and she really is lost. 

That's the basic story but there's a lot more going on than that. For someone with no particular interest in sailing I found the details of how to prepare for a trip like this, and the rhythm of life at sea, fascinating. There's time to explore a few corners of maritime history, to look at the ocean, and for the reader time to think about how important it is to try. 

I expected to find this book mildly interesting, I had no idea I'd enjoy it as much as I did (D pinched it off me before I got a chance to even open it, then read it in a day because he couldn't put it down). If you've ever so much as looked at a boat I wholeheartedly recommend it. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Bookshops in the News.

I've been a bit quiet here, mostly because when I've not been at work or asleep I've been preparing book reviews for other places. I'm sure there used to be more hours in the day...

Meanwhile it's been a week with a couple of interesting stories about bookshops in the news, both of which have got me thinking. There's Susan Hill's odd spat with The Book Hive in Norwich (her Spectator article is Here, a Guardian article about it Here, and the bookshops response is Here). If you've missed this, it seems like Susan Hill pulled out of a bookshop event, her PR people saying it was for undisclosed personal reasons, meanwhile she wrote an article about it saying her decision was based on what she perceived as censorship, and anti Trump politics, on the part of the bookshop (they've been handing out copies of 1984 and The Handmaids Tale which had been provided by a local book group). In turn The Book Hive came forward to basically say that's us, and what the hell?

I find it interesting not so much for Hill's accusations, though I do think they're odd, but for her idea of what a bookshop, and especially an independent bookshops should be. In this case, "To my mind, a bookshop is like a library — the only difference is that you buy the books, you don’t borrow them. But both have a duty to provide books (space and budgets allowing) reflecting a wide range — as wide as possible — of interests, reading tastes, subjects and points of view. Walk into one of either and there are the thoughts and feelings, beliefs and dreams and creations and discoveries of many men and women, and that is part of their never-ending excitement." 

Assuming she actually means that, you have to ask why she thinks a bookshop should be like a library. Bookshops exist to sell books, if they don't sell enough books they won't exist for very long, but what do they really have a duty to provide? If it's anything at all I'd be inclined to say it's enthusiasm for the stock they choose to sell, and that's about it. 

The other story floating around concerns Waterstones and their 'secret' shops; three branches that have been opened in picturesque small towns that look and behave like independents (more Here.) I haven't visited one any of them, though if I get the chance I will. The one in Southwold is called Southwold books, there is a sign in the window that indicates they are part of the Waterstones chain, but it's not clear to me if they run the same offers or if it works rather more like Hatchards with different offers and no loyalty card cross over (I do love my Waterstones loyalty card, which has been extremely effective in keeping me loyal). 

Essentially this is another storm in a tea cup. Waterstones staff may view this differently (retail jobs are hard work and not generally as well paid as they probably should be) but I'm not aware of them being a big corporate monster. Talk of them having an unfair advantage when it gives to the imminent rise in business rates sounds like nonsense to me as well. Yes, they might have the money behind them to pay the higher bills, but my experience of bigger companies is that they can afford to, and will, walk away if the profit margin isn't there. Independent's tread a finer line and don't always have the luxury of doing that. But again it does raise the question of what a bookshop, and a high street, should look like.

If Waterstones are finding that small shops in small towns are working for them that's interesting. I'm assuming that these 3 branches are moving even further away from discounting than the branded stores are, and I think that's good news too. We're lucky in this country that books are relatively cheap, but they also represent a lot of work by a number of people all of who need to make a living, deep discounting doesn't really do anybody any favours, not even the customer if it means that all we get are the sure bets that can be relied on to shift a massive number of units at rock bottom price. 

My local Waterstones is quite small, it's something that often frustrates me when I want to browse - Nottingham is the closest really big branch - so this has made me wonder how I'd feel about it if it wasn't branded. The answer is probably more positive, rather than thinking wistfully of what other branches have I'd probably be more focused on the really excellent staff and the very good service they provide. It's something to remember next time I go in. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire - Carol Dyhouse

Despite what they say about judging books by their covers I was instantly smitten with this one - I haven't managed to determine if the image is lifted from a vintage romance or if it was created for this book, either way it's perfect.

Inside the cover is a survey of the history of women and popular objects of desire (from Byron to One Direction via the Duke of Wellington, Rudolph Valentino, Liberace, and David Cassidy - amongst others) which is both informative and exceptionally readable. 

As someone with a slightly guilty relationship with romance novels (out and proud love of Georgette Heyer, quite happy to admit to the occasional bonk buster in the Jilly Cooper mould, less comfortable owning up to a Mills and Boon habit in times of stress) I was initially particularly interested in Dyhouses take on written objects of desire.

Dyhouse however wouldn't let me get away with picking out a single strand like that, because of course that's not how it works. Musicians, actors, public figures of all sorts have always been objects of desire. I wonder after reading this which causes the most disquiet; very public and vocal expressions of desire such as Beatlemania, or the more private escape from reality that comes from burying yourself in a book (an activity that can't even be unwillingly shared) in the relative privacy of the home?

What is clear is that women's desires and fantasies are still viewed with suspicion and fear, otherwise why would romance as a genre still be so easily belittled? It's also interesting to see how an appetite for mass market romance is dismissed along class lines - as shop girl romances - as well as being categorised as particularly low brow (hence that vague feeling of guilt if I choose to spend an afternoon with a cup of tea and a Mills and Boon instead of doing something more worthy or productive. I feel no such guilt if I'm lucky enough to find an old Gainsborough film on television though).

There are interesting revelations - for instance, it had never occurred to me to wonder what men thought of Mr Darcy - it seems they're generally unimpressed (what they think of Lizzie Bennet isn't recorded). Having given it some thought it's not surprising, in many ways he's a blank canvas. I also found the discussion of rape fantasies particularly useful. It's a theme I've always been uncomfortable with whilst begrudgingly understanding the have your cake and eat it aspect of the thing. Again though, what I hadn't really considered is that because it's a fantasy, ultimately the woman imagining it stays in control - which is marginally less creepy.

It's tempting at this point to just keep on picking out things I found interesting, but it's a long, long, list. There's a lot to consider here, and it's a book that I can't recommend highly enough. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Knitting again

Just after the sub zero temperatures have been swapped for an unseasonably balmy foray into double figures I've managed to finish knitting a hot water bottle cover (the sort of thing that people airily declare will be a nice quick project, and which actually took me a month).

On Boxing Day I bought a new rug in a sale, I didn't need a new rug, and more than that arguably didn'thave space for another rug - but it was love. So much love that I spent some time turning the rug pattern into a knitting pattern. It's the first time I've tried doing this and I can't say it was 100% successful, but it's an adequate work in progress.

I made up the pattern for the hot water bottle case too - with the same results. There are things I need to change if I'm to knit another one, but on the whole I'm pleased with it as a first attempt at designing something that's entirely my own. The important thing is that it kept the hot water in the bottle hot, stopped me from burning my feet (hot water bottles with decent covers are the best, and not at all the juggle between to hot and freezing that I remember from childhood), and felt nice against bare skin. As it's going to spend most of its life under a duvet it's flaws will be well hidden.
The original rug