Any Human Heart- and some of Boyd’s other books

In that gap between Christmas and New Year when I often feel that I should be doing something but am not sure what, I thought that I would pop in a post that is a bit overdue, even with the joys of watching tv on the internet. So, Happy New Year and all that.

Todays’ book is Any Human Heart by William Boyd.

This is the Boyd novel recently dramatised on Channel Four. I really enjoyed the Matthew Macfaden sections, but found the old man sections which the tv version kept cutting to rather distracting. The novel is in the form of several journals kept by the fictional Logan Mountstuart, though throughout his long life he encounters many real characters.  This format means that the narrative does not really flow as well as it could. It is also quite a narrow perspective on the events of his life and the people he meets, but an intensely  personal record of his rather robust attitudes and outlook on life. The gaps ‘between’ his journals mean that only the major historical or personal events are covered, and many of these are tragic.

I read the book while the series was running. This did mean that I did have the picture of each character dominated by the tv versions, but I could also complare the way that the story was presented. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were particularly memorable, and  the tragedy of Logan’s family in the war was more direct, more understandable. I think that the tv version did simplify the novel sympathetically and worked well, apart from the continuous references to the final section of Logan’s life. The book works because the reader is alongside Logan in discovering what is going on around him, rather than musing on what has been, which seems to be the emphasis of the tv version. The book kept me reading, even if I knew what was about to happen, and despite the fact that I did not always sympathize with the characters. Boyd keeps the tension going well, and says a lot about obsessions and fixations. The book is more complex than the series in many ways, and in a way is more interesting. I would compare it with Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time which deals with much the same historical experience, but at twelve volumes is a much longer read ( been there, done that). Boyd is a later writer compiling an historical fiction compared with Powell as a contemporary to many of the events he depicts in his novel. Both books/sets of books are work as narrative rather than climatic novels, but both carry the reader through a male dominated story. For a more female based, action novel, I remember reading Boyd’s Restless


which is a thriller of wartime espionage written from a woman’s point of view. I really enjoyed this book, and it proves that Boyd can write in a far more taut, exciting way. I have started his latest Ordinary Thunderstorms, but cannot seem to progress with it. Maybe I’ll try again in the new year…



A fairly local author – and managing in the snow

First, the not so good news.. more snow sticking from yesterday lunchtime onwards. This led to Son One’s interview being cancelled, despite some fancy driving on his part. Local town inaccessible, but got to the Metro (and found a parking space with our name on it). We staggered round the shops (quite busy) and then went to see TRON. Yes, I know it’s a bit of a boys’ film, but IMAX and 3D meant an involving story, with even the floor shaking. Was Michael Sheen it in for the art, or the money!?!

More snow means more time for books, in theory at least. Or is that just buying/receiving/moving more books? Either way, I have just finished Death of a Radical by Rebecca Jenkins (An FR Jarrett Mystery)

Husband heard this lady speak at the Sage in November, and I found out my copy of the first book in this series, The Duke’s Agent. I found that book in a bargain bookshop, thus in hardback, and found it an interesting, if confusing read.

This book is very similiar in that it features Raif Jarrett, the agent of the Duke of Penrith, and is set in 1812. The character of Jarrett is sympathetically and well drawn, pulling no punches in the depiction of his consummated attraction to an actress and an admiration of a local young lady. As in the first novel, he is pulled into a local murder as he suspects foul play in the seemingly natural death of a cloth merchant. Local tensions surrounding the advent of weaving machines and their effect on employment culminate in the murder of a young innocent. I found this the most difficult part of the book. Most murder mystery writers do not linger on the victim’s personality or relationship with the detective so that he or she can be dispassionate about the investigation, as can the reader. In this instance we feel the loss throughout the second part of the book (sorry if this is becoming a bit of a spoiler) and the desperation to solve the situation becomes very personal.

This is not a romanticised version of the period; it is factual and informative without being boring, careful in its characterisation and setting. The thought processes of the main character are reasonable, with no impossible leaps of intuition not shared by the reader.The snow and mud feel real, the emotions of all the characters understandable. There were times when I was getting confused between characters, but that may be because I was inconsistent in my reading rather than Jenkins’ writing  of plot. It feels realistic, with disappointed hero worship and self interested attachments. I enjoyed this book more than the first in this series, if only because there was less pressure to establish character and setting. It is currently my favourite historical period in fiction and this novel contrasts favourably with the costume dramas of Laurens and Heyer. It is a bit like the difference between  Midsummer Murders and something like Lewis; both in fairly modern settings, but with a different emphasis in characterisation and sheer grimness. I would recommend both this book and its predecessor, not just because of their local setting but also because they are just very good reads.

Oh no! More Snow… and some easy reads

Well, we were down to only having snow where it had been heaped up, although some of the mounds stood taller than good self. Just as I was getting used to being independently mobile once more, lo it stared to snow again. Ho hum! So why the gap in posts, you may be wondering. No good excuse, except celebrating the festive season and Son One’s 21st birthday. I will try to do better, and actually finish a book or two. Well, I have finished painting half life sized nativity figures, and even found the knitted sets. What a job… Son Two has just returned from University, and claims that it is colder here. Or is it just the change in size of rooms? As I type, a friend (MHH) is en route from the South. I hope he has packed his thermals.

Just a few words about my current reading. Does anyone else have easy reads that they are not keen on admitting to in polite society? I suppose mine would be Stephanie Laurens (shock horror!) which I got onto from Georgette Heyer, who I started reading after rereading Austen many times. I got onto Austen during a period when I needed comfort reading in which virtually no one dies and any crisis is solved by the end of the novel. I eventually reached a stage when I was rereading Heyer, so became lured onto Laurens by the desperate hunt for a new book (which did not involve the librarian disappearing into the book stock for twenty minutes)

Laurens is not as good as Heyer. That is self evident. She is far more racy as well, and her heroes are often far more rakish in every respect. Her plots tend to be less complex, and her characters less well drawn, at least in my limited experience. Her facts seem to be sound as to clothes and manners; certainly more than other Regency romances I have tried. There is a lot more premarital seduction in Laurens, so do not be shocked!

So, easy, historical reads. If you like Austen, try Georgette Heyer. A good satisfying read is The Grand Sophy

but every Heyer fan probably has their own favourite.  An Infamous Army deals with romance leading up to a really impressive account of the battle of Waterloo, reknowned for its accuracy.

An Infamous Army

Stephanie Laurens is far stronger on relationships within dynasties and indeed writes series of novels centred on a particular family or group. I have enjoyed the Lester series, beginning with The Reasons for Marriage

The Reasons for Marriage (MIRA)

which deals with a girl who does not want to be married, despite her impressive domestic organisational abilities.  I enjoyed the first two of this four part series as unchallenging reads, which while being predictable were definitely the literary equivalent of comfort food. Just what you need in snowy weather, if you can get it delivered (from 1p from a certain internet site) or available in many bookshops. Just wallow!



At Home…and not just because of the snow

Snow Report: still here, still deep, even on hedges, fences and especially on the pavements.  Icicles still hang from roofs and despite the promised slightly higher temperatures promised for the next few days, this snow doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. If you can get to a car, if it works, you can get somewhere. Though it’s still very, very cold.

Which means that today’s book is ideal for staying in and reading. Daughter worked with the author for a while promoting a transplant awareness charity, which is now (more or less) called “Live Life and Give Life”, which seeks to ensure that everyone signs up as a potential organ donor. It makes a difference, gentle reader!

Off the soapbox, and knowing first hand that Mr Bryson is quite a character, I was really keen to read Bill Bryson: At Home, A Short History of Private Life.

I have read other Bryson books, but had forgotten just how readable they are. He takes a theme, asks a question then goes in every direction revealing fascinating facts and stories en route. Thus in this book he travels round an old Rectory in Norfolk, room by room, and gives an account of the history of that room, whether it be the the kitchen or bedroom. He looks at the Nursery and the attitudes to children over the years, the Fusebox and the history of electricity in the home.A mysterious alcove inspires an account of the telephone, while the Study digresses into mousetrap design. There is an itch inspiring section on bugs in the home, and the construction of the home itself as the fashions and availability of materials such as brick is discussed.

This makes the book sound a bit boring, but it turns out to be so readable because of the way in which the topics are discussed, as if thoughts have just struck the writer and he has gone off and investigated. Certainly the Bibliography, references and index prove that a great deal of research has gone into this book, and that you could use it as the basis for following up one of the many topics tackled. I have not read “A Short History of Nearly everything” but will try to find in on the shelves now.

I enjoy Bryson’s writing style, and would recommend this book to everyone. Only one or two quibbles: the whole idea of having books and writing anything in the home was not really dealt within any detail, which seemed a bit sad especially given that the nature of the Rectory in this period would suggest both would be important. Also, given that Bryson is an American it’s not surprising, but I struggled with the amount of U.S history in this book which perhaps presupposes  more knowledge than I have. I was a bit lost amongst the Presidents building houses (or did they just have the same name?) and men who failed to get effective patents. Surprisingly given the number of females presumably spending more time than men ‘At Home’, not many women feature in this book, so despite the title it is not a woman’s history book in any real sense, unless it is the negative statement that women have not invented much, or developed many good ideas. Maybe given a suitable research resource, it would be possible to produce a book with a different emphasis, but I suppose that there is a scarcity of female recorded history and maybe it would be rather ambitious to tackle such a broad history from a feminist point of view. My suggestion is, read this book, and see what you think. I think you’ll find it fascinating.

Some more excellent women-far away from the Frozen North

Your Frozen North weather report: Still Frozen. Activities include, sitting in a pub in front of a roaring fire watching icicles drip outside the window. The weather is freezing (literally) and although we haven’t had any more snow for the last few days, it is still about a foot deep outside. Everywhere is made narrower and more inaccessible by piles and mounts of snow everywhere. So, still cabin feverish, but beginning to get out more now.  Thank you wonderful local library for renewing all my books. While running out of books in this house is not imminent, we are not getting postal deliveries so buying books online isn’t really working. And any dedicated bibliophile knows that it’s all about getting your hands on different books, no matter how many you have already lying around.My book clubs have been postponed so storing up great thoughts about great books!

Today’s two books are both by Barbara Pym, who wrote Excellent Women that I posted on some months ago. Jane and Prudence, and A Glass of Blessings are both as good in their way, the idiosyncratic style of describing women and their lives being an acquired taste.

These books are both set in the 1950s, they feature women who live undramatic lives, and no great events challenge the follow of the narrative. So far, so Austen? These do remind me of Austen inasmuch that I cannot easily say what happens in a hugely dramatic way, and indeed in many ways are less significant than Austen in terms of the protagonists carrying on with their lives at the end of the novels more or less as they began.

To see these books in a negative light is too easy and not really fair. They are cleverly written intense perspectives on the lives of women. They are financially well off, but there is something essentially missing in their lives. Easily the most painfully accurate characterisation ( at least in my eyes) is Jane. She is a vicar’s wife with no ability to cook, no dress sense and not really very effective with the parishioners. Ouch! Happily she has a daughter who knows where the kitchen is,  a’woman who obliges’, and her husband  seems blissfully ignorant of the domestic  world collapsing around him. It’s only when she tries to matchmake her Oxford friend that confusion breaks out. Prudence is twenty nine and sorely in need of help. The problem is that Vicar’s wives in this generation were not necessarily the best at romantic assistance. This is very enjoyable for those who revel in nuance, detail, setting, clothing and all those small things that make this writing memorable. I found it painfully funny, not in a laugh out loud way but gently amusing and not challenging.

Equally A Glassful of Blessings is a careful, gentle portrait of a bored wife, Wilmet. She has no money worries, her husband is generous to a fault, even her home and social life is organised for her. She becomes attracted by the clergy and people of a local Anglo-Catholic church, and gets embroiled in their concerns and lives. She also becomes involved with Piers, brother of a friend, and what he is really involved in. I found this an interesting, if rather slow moving book, nicely detailed and perceptive of motives. Wilmet is an unsympathetic character but means well, and her innocent observations are gently amusing. I think that this book is for the Pym devotee, rather than someone new to the author. I like these books, but I’m not convinced that they have dated well. Jane and Prudence is the more interesting but both are ideal for something a bit different and quite restful.

Three books, an absorbing read…but not wildly exciting

Yes, It’s still snowing. And freezing. And snow is falling from the roof. Which makes the stuff already lying around really deep.For once the thuds and bangs heard round here are not things being knocked over, but the falling of large amounts of snow. Ho hum! I am not quite suffering from cabin fever, yet, partly because of Son One’s Harry Potter outing. Things are getting bad when I’m even making mince pies and washing up.

The time has come to write about some books that I have been reading for a few months. They are not for everyone, I can imagine, and not wildly exciting, but I enjoyed reading them.

Nella Last was the subject of Victoria Wood’s “Housewife 49” film that has been repeated frequently on ITV. I actually watched most of it under difficult circumstances last January, but despite this I was keen to read the first (and best) book of the trio, which deals with Nella’s wartime experience.

Nella was a housewife who responded to the appeal of Mass Observation to record her daily observations on her life.Over the decades which she wrote her diary she must have written many thousands, if not millions of words. She sent them off without editing or revising, and the difficulties of getting paper and expense of postage must have tested her dedication at times. She records her use of rationed food, financial planning, voluntary work and relationships with her husband and two sons. She writes about her memories of her childhood, the challenges of her in laws and those who she works alongside. Her friends and neighbours are also acutely observed, especially in their griefs and challenges. She is a careful recorder of food bought, eaten and stored. This is accurate social history regarding what food was available throughout the forties and early thirties, as a proportion of total housekeeping costs and what was actually available legally. She comments on clothes, furniture, decorating, even the costs of running a car.

Nella is probably most acute in her studies of people, especially her husband. By the time of the 1950s he is very challenging in his behaviour and receiving medical help. Such is Nella’s skill in describing him that the reader is feeling her frustration as so very real.  There are sad pieces,such as when war deaths but also local emergencies dominate her writing. There are also more cheerful episodes when the reader agrees with Nella’s reactions to a situation.  Overall these books represent a real chronicle of a life carefully recorded.

These books are a tribute to the skill of the editors, Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming, and Patricia and Robert Malcolmson. It is thought that nobody has read the entire set of Nella Last’s diaries, as they are so voluminous, so discovering and editing these records  is quite an achievement. If you felt tempted to read these, I suggest you start with Nella Last’s War. If you get hooked, at least you have plenty to read…