Winner and Mini Reviews

And the winner of William Boyd’s Waiting for Sunrise is: Ruthiella!

I was very unscientific – I wrote all the names on slips of paper and pulled one out of a bag. I’m terribly impressed by the bloggers who know how to do that random number generator thing, but it is quite beyond me. Ruthiella, if you could email me with your address, I’ll pop the book in the post for you.

Well, I struggle along here, still plagued by anxiety but practising, practising ways to live with it. I am as fastidious as a cat over my emotional life, it seems, and I do not appreciate the current state of messiness. But still, I’ve been reading Harriet Lerner’s excellent book, The Dance of Fear, which I warmly recommend to other anxiety sufferers. She suggests we bring as much patience, curiosity and good humour as possible to bear on the situation, and I liked that list of qualities. I’m also reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking and finding it almost painful in its accuracy. But I’ll review that properly another day. And finally, I’m listening to The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope, which after a slow start I’m loving. So much plotting and manipulating, so many schemes and intrigues! I think the literature of the 19th century was designed to be listened to.

a mind to murderI realised there were a few books I’d read in recent weeks that I should review in brief: First off, P. D. James’ A Mind to Murder. Adam Dalgliesh is managing to survive the publication party for his latest book of poems when he’s called away to investigate a murder at the psychiatric clinic over the road. The office manager, an overbearing spinster with a stiffly starched code of morals, has been found stabbed through the heart. This is a very classic crime novel, in which we are introduced to a selection of suspicious folk connected to the clinic as doctors, nurses and administrators, whilst Dalgleish does his thing with the usual elegance and panache (though he makes a fair few mistakes in this one). I find I read P. D. James for the excellent ordinariness of her prose. She is not a lyric writer, nor a quirky one, nor one with an eye for a felicious turn of phrase. But every sentence is neatly turned and well crafted, the events follow one another with satisfying causality, characters are evoked with precision and insight and the whole zips along on its well-oiled rails with pleasing orderliness. I was surprised to note how old this novel is – first published 1963 – as it doesn’t feel it, apart perhaps from a few rather old-fashioned treatments at the clinic. Another advantage of that resolute ordinariness may be this timeless quality.

the year after 2Martin Davies’ The Year After is a very recent publication, although it harks back in time to the end of WW1. It’s Christmas, 1919 and Tom Allen has just been demobbed. Uncertain what to do with himself in a mournful London, he accepts an invitation to visit Hannesford Court, the home of the Stansbury family with whom he was very friendly before the war broke out. The Stansbury clan were one of those starry families, rich, sociable, blessed. Tom had fancied himself in love with the oldest daughter, Margot, although he had not been in the charmed circle surrounding the eldest son, Harry. He had been a hanger-on, a marginalized member of the happy-go-lucky group, invited for his reliable good manners. Now, Harry is dead, as is his best friend, Julian, who was Margot’s husband. The eldest surviving son, Reggie, a difficult, temperamental young man, is in a convalescent home with horrific injuries. So the Hannesford Court that Tom returns to is, inevitably, not the same as before, even if making valiant attempts to resemble its former glory. This is partly a romance, and partly a mystery story, as Tom tries to find out what happened to a German guest at the Summer Ball before the start of the war. I thought this sounded just the ticket when I picked it up – country house novel, family secrets, hidden crimes – but the elements fail to cohere. It suffers from being not quite enough of anything, and the mystery in particular is a bit limp, given that Tom is returning from the horrors of the First World War against which a small domestic incident pales somewhat. It is quite a nice meditation on the difficulties of picking up life again, after the trauma of the war, and Martin Davies is a very good evocative writer. But it was all a bit meh, alas.

the high windowIf you want to write a first person narrative, then look no further than Raymond Chandler. The High Window was the first Philip Marlowe novel I read and Chandler is every bit as brilliant as people say. Marlowe is called to the home of Elizabeth Murdock, a bitter and contemptuous old woman who is still trying to call the shots in her wayward family. It turns out that an heirloom has gone missing, a very valuable coin called the Brasher Dubloon, and Mrs Murdock suspects the nightclub-singer wife of her son, a starlet who rejoices in the name of Linda Conquest. This is a very convenient suspicion, as Linda has recently separated from her husband and disappeared, and it suits Mrs Murdock to throw the blame outside the walls of the family fortress. But of course, as soon as Marlowe goes digging, the bodies pile up and the quarry comes ever closer to home. It’s not just that the prose is fantastic – and it is – it’s what Chandler does with it that’s so clever. Every sentence moves the story along, adds to the characterisation of Marlowe, and says something about the action and the time. I loved the way that this supposedly badass private eye is shown to be so tender in his human sympathies by the way he reacts to the people he comes across. There’s a fine ethical conscience at work, sifting the bad guys from the unlucky ones. Well, they’re called modern classics for a reason, and if there isn’t such a term as Golden Age Noir, there ought to be, and Chandler could wear the crown and the sash.

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26 thoughts on “Winner and Mini Reviews

  1. I’m so interested to read your reaction to The Year After! I too picked it up looking for a relaxing novel with, as you say, a country house setting, family secrets and so on, and more than half way through I put it aside, and abandoning a book is something I almost never do. I found it curiously bland and slow and not worth pursuing – not a bad book but a very flat one, I thought!
    Looking forward to hearing more about Quiet.

    • Oh I am so glad that you had the same reaction! Well, not for Martin Davies’ sake, but you know what I mean… I nearly abandoned it myself in the middle, wondering if anything would ever happen again. I pushed on to the end, but you didn’t miss much. Describing it as ‘flat’ is perfect, I think. Quiet, on the other hand, is very, very interesting.

    • Oh yes!! Do! I think audio books are fantastic for travel, and I’ll bet The Moonstone would see you very nearly there and back! Mr Litlove subscribed to audible for me before Christmas and I’m loving it. Audio books have to be either classics or classic crime for me. They just work when read out loud.

  2. I have heard of Cain through her Ted talk (in fact, I have heard her talk there, more precisely) and it was amazing, so I gather that her book must be good too. And Chandler, oh, that was adapted by BBC 4 extra last summer and it was such a treat! You’re obviously in good hands for your recovery ;)

    • Quiet is very good, very intriguing. Definitely will need a full post for that one! And I heard the Chandler before I started reading them. Toby Stephens is very good as Marlowe, don’t you think? Once I can read a bit and listen to books a bit, I do start to feel more human! :)

      • At first I’d thought Toby Stephen was a strange casting choice (quintessencially British in my mind), but then he’s so talented that he fitted right into the character

  3. I noticed Quiet in your sidebar a week or two ago and have been anticipating your thoughts on it. You know, I’ve never read Chandler. He’s on my authors I’d like to read one day list. Unfortunately that list always seems to get longer and longer! sigh.

    • Stef, I’ve been agonising over the Slaves list, as I have two I’m trying to decide between – one a list of comforting fiction reads (including Chandler) and one a list of amusing memoirs. I just don’t know which to pick! But Quiet is really interesting – a book that I think you’d probably like too.

  4. I am interested in The Dance of Fear. I’m going to go see if I can find it on Amazon now. Nice to see you are reading and getting by.

    • I think all her books are good – there’s a ‘dance of’ series, including fear and anger and some others. I’d love to know what you think of it if you get hold of it!

  5. Glad you are back to reading and telling us about it once more. Love to hear your views of Susan Cain as I thought her TED presentation excellent. Worth a look if you haven’t seen it already. I am a big fan of audio books and have a lot of titles. Many are lengthy classics so I’ve a backlog, but that seems inescapable in bookland. Did i see Ali Smith’s lectures in your sidebar? I hope to get to them sometime ‘soon’ [really!].

    • Dear Bookboxed, Ali’s book is definitely up near the top of the pile, as soon as I have the brain for it. Mr Litlove has watched Susan Cain’s talk and found it very interesting (and very good), so I must get around to it, too. As for audio books, they are a special pleasure of mine although some books are far better than others for listening. Lengthy classics are great, but I agree that finding the time can sometimes be hard!

  6. I have never read Trollope but I heard the adaptation on Radio 4 a few weeks ago and loved it. Is it too terrible to say that I think someone like John Major said Trollope was his favourite, I assumed I wouldn’t like him? I am thinking about audible.com for weighty tomes but I am worried that it’s not real reading!
    I hope you continue to feel better. There are good things to be found in times like this but I always feel that I’d rather find good things feeling well.

    • Lol!I know just what you mean – I had a very unfair bias against Richard and Judy’s book club for years! I think you can put any worries about listening not being real reading out of your mind. The narrator of my audio Trollope is Timothy West and he is such a splendid actor that I am getting far more out of the book than if I’d just sat down with a huge tome. And your final words are great. I couldn’t agree more!

    • Juhi, audio books are a particular pleasure, I think. The most pampering form of reading there is. And I hope you like Chandler if you read him. Bless you for your kind message.

  7. Messy situations and dependency are thw worst for anxiety. Hang in there. You’ll find a way out eventually.
    Chandler is one of my top 10 favourite writers. His novels are all excellent but The Long Goodbye stands out. It’s the one he meant to be more literary and it is. Farewell, My Lovely was the funniest I thought.

    • I have all those Chandler novels, since I own the Penguin classic omnibuses of his work, so yay! I am really looking forward to reading more by him. And thank you for the encouragement. It does help!

  8. Glad to hear books are starting to be more of a comfort or at least a good distraction! That’s always good in times of stress. When I worked at the bookstore I remember the Lerner book was very popular and it sounds like it is still a classic sort of go to book–I should check it out myself. I definitely would like to read Quiet sometime and more Chandler and James for sure. Too bad about the Davies as I have it on my own reading pile, but as I won’t get to it anytime soon–maybe just as well as it wasn’t quite what you hoped it would be. Have a great weekend, Litlove!

    • The Davies was okay, and if you are in the mood for a very gentle read with nothing too upsetting happening, then it is good for that. I am a strong believer in all books having their prime moment! And oh I so agree about how good it is when it’s possible to use books as a barricade against stress. I really hate it when I can’t read. I feel all wrong with the world! I think you’d like Quiet, and I am sure that Chandler and James are right up your mystery street. Would love to know what you think of all of them.

      • I definitely will give Chandler a go this year–I have only read one or two of his books and most definitely need to read more. Will keep the Davies in mind with those reservations in mind. Sometimes you just want something gentle and undemanding–well, I know I do (probably more than is good for me! :) ).

  9. Yippee and many thanks! I will email you my address asap. I read a lot of James’ Dalgliesh mysteries in the 80’s and re-read A Shroud for a Nightingale a couple of years ago and enjoyed it just as much as the first time around (It helped too that I couldn’t remember who done it).

    I agree that 19th century novels are wonderful on audio. I have only listened to a few Dickens’ novels so far, but it has been wonderful. Of course, the narrator has a lot to do with it as well, but when I finished listening to Bleak House (on CD), I wanted to put in the first disk and start right over again. I wonder if these novels (Trollop, Gaskell, Dickens, Collins, etc.) were read aloud when they were first published. I always imagine a father or an older child reading the latest installment to the family as they sit around the fire…

    • I think just like you, that the 19th century novels that were published in installments definitely had a read-aloud quality which may well have suited the sort of cozy family setting you describe (in which many of the family members probably couldn’t read very well at all, so relied on one educated person). I could never get on with Dickens and a friend of mine suggested I listen to the novels instead of read them as the experience was so different. It really worked for me. I often don’t have the heart to read 700 pages but I can certainly listen to them! And yay, so glad you are pleased. Drop me a note just when you can.

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