Speed reading of books…

Yes, belonging to two book groups is a challenge, and I still haven’t finished The Children’s Book that I wrote about last time. I do have an excuse; one of the book groups is run in our wonderful local library and the Library service provide a set of books for members to borrow so that it is completely free to join in. Horray! What with one thing and another there were insufficient copies of the book to go round this month, so I did borrow one and speed re read it so that I could return it for another member to have lots of time. If I ever wondered why I do these things, I remember the literature courses that I have done during the day over the years which required reading things like Middlemarch instantly. I was talking to someone earlier who was tackling Mill on the Floss for a group. I read that for a course and was depressed for days! Despite both of us coming from the Midlands, I think that the latter tome was not one of Eliot’s best.

But I digress…

The book that I did speed re read was Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear. This is a very early Maisie Dobbs mystery and one which features a lot (too much?) of her ability to feel atmosphere and emotions.

It is very good on the after effects of World War one, and is a good murder mystery in its own right. It is a good idea to have the same detective and her associates in each book as it saves a lot of time in reexplaining motivations, abilities and emotions, provided of course it is able to stand alone for someone who hasn’t read the earlier books. If I had picked this one up without reading the previous novel I may have been a bit confused, but equally there is a lot of wallowing in past challenges in this book.

Maisie is drawn into seeking a lost woman and cannot avoid becoming involved in a murder mystery. There is a bit of deliberate concealing of relevant facts which is not quite within the rules of crime writing, but this is still a fascinating read. I have written about one of her later books in this series, which became bogged down in Windspear’s evident research on Gypsies. I think that she has a tendency to hang each book on a topic and become a bit obsessed. Overall I like the Maisie Dobbs books and would definitely borrow more in the series. I think that I would invest in the complete set if I saw them going cheap; certainly my experience of rereading this one shows that I spotted other aspects of the novel and picked up on other themes this time through. I don’t usually re read books that I am not studying, but at least I read it quickly!

Quote of the week- and nearly finished…The Children’s Book

It is a truth universally acknowledged… that I like the odd literary quote. Here is one supplied by Husband, which is especially useful when I have had a blog gap due to not actually finishing reading any books:

“If you cannot read all your books, at any rate fondle them, peer into them, let them fall open where they will, set them back on the shelf with your own hands”

Winston Churchill

Yes people, books need to be loved… another thing that you can’t do with a Kindle.

Anyway, one of the reasons that I haven’t managed many books recently is that I’ve been tackling a ‘big’ book, which has been straining my reading muscles. I have owned this book for a long time, but it was only when it came up at one of my book groups that I started to read it.

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt is a big book in terms of ambition, subject matter and sheer number of characters. Apparently it is her first book for a while, and it almost seems as if she was keen to shove every possible bit of research in that she had compiled. Dealing with the period from the last days of the Victorian era to the First World war, it is at once a book reflecting the limitations of society and expectations for one’s life as well as the opening of opportunities and the discovery of true self. There is romance, adultery, questioned parentage, cruelty, absence both real and spiritual, and the late Arts and Crafts movement in all its glory. In a way it is about a family, and explores what that means, and what it really means to be a parent.

The books are written for the children, as one of the central characters, Olive, writes amazing fantasy stories for her children, and earns her living (and that of her family) by producing books. She lives in a fantasy world, supported by her sister Violet. She is distant from her children, often only communicating with them through writing their own story. These are not light fluffy fairy tales, but dark, frightening fantasies of danger and discovery. It adds to the demands of reading this book; they break into the narrative and comment on the action. This is a book about the role of women in a time of change, when it is no longer possible, if desirable, to merely sit and wait to be married. Elsie, one of the characters who can see more clearly, ponders that if a woman is lifted from work in the kitchen by education, another scullery maid will have to be found.

This is a book that it is quite an undertaking to read, but I am finding it fascinating. It requires concentration, and is dark in tone, but is a really detailed appreciation of a time through the eyes of many characters who are carefully drawn. Read this book, when and if you get some uninterrupted time. It can’t be rushed!

Safely back from murder writer encounter!

You may remember from my last blog that I was going to hear Ann Cleeves speak about her novels, and indeed her new tv series Vera to begin on ITV shortly.  Well, there were 50+ of us all eager to hear her, and she was excellent. I’m very glad that I had read some of The Crow Trap to get an idea of her style. I found it very involving, and to my surprise I am keen to read on. I’m not usually a great reader of modern crime, but her books seem quite approachable, as indeed she is in person. She read a little from Hidden Depths, which sounded good, even if a drowned son would not be my first choice of subject matter.

She also gave us many insights into her process of writing. That she starts a book with a scene, as dramatic as possible (like the Swedish writer of Wallander) and doesn’t actually know what will happen next, even who the murderer is, and works it out as she goes along like the reader must. She wanted to create a woman detective who was middle aged and not attractive or superhuman, and Vera Stanhope  is easily the most realistic I have ever heard about.  Ann likes to write about the Shetland islands, and I have bought the first of her quartet set there. She revealed that she is set to write more in this series, and would like the divine David (Tennant) to play the hero.

My neighbour did not agree! Raven Black was eventually agreed to be the first in the series.

The tv series appears to have come about because the Producer Elaine Collins found a copy of The Crow Trap in an Oxfam shop. We gained many insights about the production from novel to screen, and I was impressed when she told us that many local actors and crew were locally recruited. So the answer is  when it comes on tv in the Spring, watch and be impressed!

My new prized possession is a signed first edition of the new book, due to be officially launched next week.

Silent Voices (Vera Stanhope 4)

Silent Voices is the new Vera Stanhope novel. So the plan is now finish The Crow Trap, the two intervening novels, and then this. Son One also bought me the new Val McDermid paperback Trick of the Dark.


Not sure what I’ll make of it, but apparently she is also local and therefore may make an appearance at something like the Hexham Book Festival. This book is about an Oxford college, so we will see…

A Moving Toyshop – and a Murder Writer Live!

Excitement builds hereabouts for the local library Ann Cleeves evening. I managed to get one of the very last tickets; despite receiving plenty of prior notice Husband finally decided that I was not going to be enjoying the delights of Manchester or Sheffield so I scooted over there to get ticket 48 of 50!

I must confess that I’m not really well up on Ann Cleeves’ writing. I have to be feeling strong to cope with modern day crime writing; Agatha, Margary, Susanna (Gregory) and of course CJ Samson can be brutal, sad or a bit depressing but at least they have the advantage of historical distance. When I have a go at writing murder mysteries, I usually take the easy route of setting them in the past, which at least means that I don’t need exhaustive knowledge of CSI! I have shown willing though by buying The Crow Trap.

so that I will not be completely taken by surprise! Apparently it’s the first in the Vera Stanhope series, soon to be televised. Friend HR tells me that she attended an evening with Ann Cleeves which involved actually setting up a mystery! Will  I become addicted? Watch this space!

Today’s book that I have actually read is The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispen.

My copy is modern reprint of this old edition, but it’s not the Crime element which is so interesting about this book. The hero is Gervase Fen, a Professor of English at Oxford. I don’t know the city well, beyond a couple of competitive visits in the early eighties, but this book is full of hair raising  trips in a sports car, moving shops, a dastardly and complex plot that I enjoyed greatly. It is a very funny book, with poetry being quoted, tiddly professors, woman – charming undergraduates, confused moments locked in cupboards etc. It does differ from most of the female writers of the 40s and 50s which I normally read in that the men take the lead and women can be charmed, murdered and generally a bit confused. But it is very funny. Not sure about the plot; it is outrageously complex, but that is probably part of this book’s undeniable charm. It is definitely a period piece, dated and a little sexist, but clever, funny and charming. Research suggests that there are others in this series; not doubt a great antidote to more serious minded murder mysteries (or you could try The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy by James Anderson, but that’s another post…)

Postmistress and some Remarkable Creatures (again)

It seems a long time since last July when I started this blog and I mentioned it, but I’ve just reread ( for a Book Group) Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Remarkable Creatures

I really enjoyed this book when I read it about a year ago, and have enjoyed re reading it. I actually listened to the first four chapters on a “Playaway” a pre loaded MP3 player borrowed from the library. It is good listening to a book, and this was an unabridged version. On the other hand, 9 hours is a long time to listen with headphones, so I read the rest very fast.

This novel is good however you treat it. It has conflict between classes, gender expectations and religious/creationist beliefs. It explores the frustrations of women who do not expect to marry and therefore lack a role. It also looks at the class and gender distinctions which mean that the first person to dig up the fossils gets the least credit for them. There is a little romance, but really this is about the struggles of two very different women to be taken seriously. It is a sad book, but also a triumphant book as the whole scientific world is rocked by a girl who cannot represent herself. It is a much more satisfactory book than the others I have read by this author, and is fascinating even for those with no scientific background.

My other book for today is The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.

I first mentioned this book a while ago. It is a good book, harrowing in parts, sad, but also very interesting. I think its strongest section is the broadcasting from London in the Blitz by a fictional (though apparently based on fact) Frankie Bard, a female journalist who becomes very involved in the lives of many others by her broadcasts, her journeys and her eventual  return to America. The character of Frankie is well drawn, reflecting the problems of a woman in a place where war is so close, so personal. I thought that these sections are really well written. What really lets this book down, in my opinion,  is the American angle, which is where the novel becomes a very mournful book. I think that Blake’s descriptions of the Blitz and the displaced persons are excellent, and well written. The American sections are sad, sentimental and so slow. I know that this is an American writer, and it is a valid view of the War as it affected most of the world, but I found that it lacked the insight, the interesting drama of the rest of the book. I think that there are times when it slides into melodrama, which is disappointing.

What do you think?

Memories- but not a starring role

Still gazing happily at my copy of What  Every Woman should know, and now it’s joined by another mainly picture book, Women who Write by Stefan Bollmann.

Women Who Write

This book features pictures of women through the centuries who write, or wrote. There are some fascinating pictures here, arranged by themes as well as broadly chronologically. Sadly there is no list of the authors featured, and I must confess to not recognising some non British authors, which is a reflection of my reading inhibitions rather than their obscurity.These (often) photographs are accompanied by a page of information about the writer, which extends beyond a list of best known works (strangely absent)to a discussion of the themes. A good starting point for exploring female writers; it is a useful book for me who only briefly touched  on feminist theory in my literature MA.

The other book today is one I recently finished, having enjoyed it overall. The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry is the latest volume of autobiography by this clever, funny and bewildering man.

I have enjoyed many of his tv programmes, especially Jeeves and Wooster partly owing to my Wodehouse obsession. I was put off some of his other books by the language, but my copy of his book on poetry has disappeared in this house somewhere…another Fry fan.

The real reason that I did buy this book is to read about his Cambridge experience. Because, gentle reader, we overlapped. While he, and Hugh Laurie (actually at the same college as me) Emma Thompson and their contemporaries led Footlights into “The Cellar Tapes”

in their triumphant third year Revue, I was a nervous first year law student…Unsurprisingly I cannot claim acquaintance, but did see the Revue both in Cambridge and Edinburgh. Apparently it was on the tv as well, but in those days we didn’t see a television set for months on end, so I cannot comment. But it was very, very funny.

This book is not so funny, but it does record that I wasn’t the only Undergraduate who wondered how I had got there.  Fry enjoys life, in the small things as well as the large financial comfort he has achieved, and which he seems grateful and amazed by.He is also painfully aware of so much of his self destructive behaviour, and the uncertainty it produces. Yes he name drops (his account of Douglas Adams being most enjoyable) but in a natural way as he has actually worked with these people. There are many interesting anecdotes, including the development of  Blackadder and other tv programmes.

This is an interesting book, obviously really written by Fry, of a life which has been generally fortunate. But it is also honest, thoughtful and very interesting for all those who hit their twenties in the last decades of the century, and have the faintest link with this extraordinary group of actors.