Just a quick post with a not-terribly-good photo of the new bookcase that Mr Litlove has made me. It’s in Arts & Crafts style for those of you who like to know such things. I was just very pleased indeed to have such a handsome home for my hardback books. The volumes on top were quite modest, until yesterday’s post brought me the shortlist for this year’s Booker prize. The Book People are selling all six volumes for £30, or in my case given they had an extra promotion going on the day I ordered, £27. I’d heard reports that the 2013 list was the best in a decade, and whilst that is probably marketing hype, I was happy to go along with it. It’s more usual for journalists to knock the books in whatever way they can, and this year’s head judge is Robert Macfarlane, who seems to have the Midas touch, so… Oh, who cares about justification, it was just book lust, okay?
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.
I 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.
Martin 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.
If 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.
My son has just done the draw for the giveaway copies of Kate Pullinger’s Mistress of Nothing and the winners are ds and the Fugitive!
But then I so wished I could send something to everyone, that it occurred to me that I could add my own copy to the giveaway pile – I read very neatly and it still looks like new. So I got my son to pull out another name and that was: Stefanie!
So, I’d be very grateful if you could all email a posting address to me at litlove1 at yahoodotcodotuk.
Congratulations to the winners and I do love doing giveaways – I’ll come up with another one soon.
This will be my last post before next Tuesday as this weekend, as well as being Easter, is my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday party, an occasion significant enough to warrant a marquee and caterers. My husband’s siblings are arriving from Toronto and Brussels (and Sheffield) and about 40 of my mother-in-law’s local friends are expected. It will be very nice to catch up with all the family, but given that I am not a party animal, and consider the optimum socializing time to be about an hour and a half, I have to admit to some quiet apprehension. It’s not that I don’t love my family, only that I have trouble spending more than three hours in any noisy, sociable environment. Still, I have a plan to get me through the party itself. We’ve started a family news blog for my mother-in-law as a kind of present, and I was going to go round her friends at the party asking what memories they had of the first time they met her. I’ll post the responses up on the blog, which might later win me some quiet, relaxing time with a keyboard if I’m lucky. We’ll see how it all goes.
I’ve also got quite a reading project to sneak off with, should a tempting dark corner lure me into it. A little while ago I decided to bite the bullet and join the parents’ reading group that convenes at my son’s school. The choices for the meeting that takes place a bit later this month are Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which I received for Christmas and have been looking forward to in any case, and Wilkie Collins’ No Name. It was surprising enough that a group should have two books to discuss, not just one. And then No Name arrived in the post yesterday and lo and behold, it is a monster chunkster, weighing in at 741 pages. So altogether, the members had assigned themselves over a thousand pages to read. ‘What are the people at your school on?’ I asked my son, who replied somewhat drily, ‘I’m glad to see they expect as much from the parents as they do the pupils.’ Anyway, knowing my time over the weekend would be restricted, I’ve made it through 169 pages so far, and it is at least a very good story and most enjoyable. British 19th century isn’t my favourite era, but Wilkie Collins knows how to reel the reader in and keep the pages turning. Before No Name jumped the queue, I was having a lovely time with Mary S. Lovell’s entertaining biography, The Mitford Girls, which was no slim volume itself (529 pages). So when I turn up with both of these it’s going to look less like I’m expecting a weekend party than a siege.
Finally, I conducted the draw for the book giveaway. People came up with completely brilliant suggestions and I was truly sorry I didn’t have a prize for everyone. I promise you, if I’d had more doubles of any kind, I’d have given out more prizes. Anyway, there were so many wonderful contenders that I was scrupulously correct in doing the draw (names on scraps of paper from which I chose with eyes shut, no penguins on this occasion) and the winners are: Verbivore, Pete and JB. People, if you could let me know a postal address to which you would like your books sent, by emailing me at litlove1 at yahoo dot co dot uk, that would be splendid.
Have a wonderful, peaceful Easter, my blogging friends, and I’ll be back next week with reviews of Francine Prose’s Blue Angel and Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip.