Monday, 30 September 2019

Seven in September

I read seven books this month. Some memoir, some crime, some Anne Tyler …

Drawn from Memory by Ernest H. Shepard
Delightfully written, and of course delightfully illustrated, by the artist best known for his Winnie-the-Pooh drawings. This is an account of his childhood (b. 1879) in St John’s Wood, London – happy, albeit blighted by his mother’s untimely death and the family’s financial precariousness. His talent for art was encouraged from an early age and he had a large quantity of splendid Victorian aunts.

Drawn from Life by Ernest H. Shepard
The young artist is now grown up and has fallen in love with a fellow art student but he has not yet made a name for himself. Wish there had been a third volume. I learned though on the Internet that he lived to be ninety-seven and that he eventually came to resent ‘that silly old bear’, feeling it overshadowed his other work.

These are books we’ve had in the house for years. They were bought in a second-hand bookshop, a present to Mr B in the early days of our acquaintance (I know – how nice of me!); although they are such lovely old editions it’s a shame I spoilt them with an inscription and an affectionate message …
Both titles have been recently been made available again by the wonderful Slightly Foxed .

Postern of Fate by Agatha Christie
As youngsters, my sister and I read and reread our ‘Agathas’. We had every single title and when the parental home was downsized we divided the collection between us – we tossed a coin and the ‘winner’ got the first/third/fifth etc book on the long shelf.  We’re not inclined to fall out so I wasn't mad – honestly – when our mutual favourite, a one-off called The Man in the Brown Suit, fell to her.

When I was staying with her this month I picked up The Postern of Fate to read one evening. It’s a Tommy and Tuppence story (the last one, after The Secret Adversary, N or M, By the Pricking of my Thumbs and Partners in Crime, all reread fairly recently, all enjoyable). I must have read Postern of Fate before but this time round I could hardly bear to finish it. The plot (insofar as it is understandable) and its rather feeble resolution are only part of the problem. It’s the exposition in the interminable conversations – T and T have been married for many years so why do they need to tell each other things they know already? eg ‘Betty, our adopted daughter, went to Africa,’ said Tommy. ‘Remember when we had our own business, the detective agency,’ said Tuppence.’
To be fair, the Queen of Crime was eighty-three when she wrote it but I think her publishers could have done her a favour and kept it in the bottom drawer.

The Midnight Line by Lee Child
Charity shop buy. Spotting a ring in a junk shop window sends Jack Reacher off on a chase to find the owner – because he know it’s a ring hard won, awarded from the same military academy that he went to himself. It’s small so he surmises it belonged to a woman who must be in dire straits to need to sell it. And indeed when he finds her in the wilds of Wyoming she is in need of all kinds of help. His best, in my opinion.

Past Tense by Lee Child
Charity shop buy. The latest one, great title. Our hero helps a young Canadian couple who have got themselves into a life-threatening pickle. Oh, and he has a delve into his father’s history.

As always, after reading a Jack Reacher, I wonder if it is possible to live the itinerant life he does but not look (and smell) like you do. His only luggage is his toothbrush (no mention of toothpaste). Every so often he buys a new shirt and jeans, discarding the old ones, but there is no mention of, ahem, unmentionables. When he has a shower he uses a ‘whole bar of soap’, but that’s the other thing – he always has enough money for a meal, to pay for a motel room, ‘quarters’ to make phone calls, but we never hear of him going to a bank or an ATM. Can you even have a bank account without a permanent address? Can you pay for motel rooms in cash these days?

I don’t want such details to hold up the action but, you know, I worry about these things.

The Seagull by Ann Cleeves
The latest Vera – one of my favourite fictional detectives. (Since you ask, my number one favourite is Inspector Wexford in the Ruth Rendell novels.) As in other titles in the series, there is a crime which has its roots in the past, back to Vera’s father’s shady world of birds’-egg-collecting and raptor-stealing.

A Slipping Down Life by Anne Tyler
Charity shop buy. One of her earliest titles, published in 1969, and one I’ve never read before. 

Evie Decker is a rather lumpy schoolgirl who has a crush on Bertram 'Drumstrings' Casey, a local musician, so much so that she etches his name on her forehead with a nail scissors (please don’t try this at home). This has the unexpected effect of raising his profile and popularity for a while and a relationship between the two of them ensues. 

I thought Drum’s song-writing technique was pretty neat (as they say in the US) – among the lyrics are short, random phrases/sentences that he’s overheard; these he speaks rather than sings. Unfortunately for him, the punters at the Unicorn get fed up with his original style. His star falls and Evie, who’s had to do some fast growing up, moves on.

Monday, 2 September 2019

Eight in August

I read eight books in August.

When I went to the launch at Waterstones in Princes Street earlier in the year there was such a large crowd they ran out of copies. Before that, in March 2018, Catherine Simpson was a speaker and adjudicator at the Scottish Association of Writers’ Conference and when I heard her read from what was then an unpublished book I knew I wanted to read it. (And I was delighted when she placed my story third in the competition she was judging … ) Anyway, I finally got my hands on a copy and got it signed after her talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

It’s a rich, raw memoir of her family, generations of Lancashire farmers, and in particular her younger sister who took her own life aged forty-six. That situation is, of course, heartbreaking but this is not a depressing read (I don’t do misery memoirs); in fact it is laugh-out-loud in some places because Catherine Simpson is such a good writer, has an eye for the absurd and has a role call of relatives as fascinating as those in any novel. (One reviewer described her mother as ‘a northern matriarch who might have been created by Alan Bennett for a League of Gentlemen spin-off.’)

In her immediate and extended family, though, there was little communication beyond the day-to-day stuff, as indicated in the sub-title; maybe things might have turned out otherwise had that not been the case.

The latest Anne Tyler. Love her, loved this. There is no other writer who can make me feel so completely as if I’d crawled into someone else’s skin. Sixty-something Willa, sinking into retirement in a golf resort in Tucson, Arizona (she doesn’t play but Peter, her second husband, does), gets a phone call from a stranger. As a consequence, she finds herself flying to Baltimore to look after a child she has never met and living in a neighbourhood much more colourful than her own.

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple
Charity shop find. I read and enjoyed a previous book by this author, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, which has now been made into a film. This one (which will be an HBO TV series starring Julia Roberts apparently) is also about a dysfunctional family of parents and their only child. Animator Eleanor Flood’s plans for the day go awry in so many ways (a situation we can all sympathise with although personally, and thankfully, I haven’t had a day that went quite so pear-shaped). 

There are some funny set pieces including flashbacks to how she came to be estranged from her sister (I will be interested to know who plays her grotesque brother-in-law if we ever get to see the series here). Not the easiest book to get into but worth it in the end.

Katharine Fortitude by Margaret Skea
The story of Katharina von Bora’s marriage to Martin Luther (whose actions changed the course of Western history) – a period I was unfamiliar with (Germany, early 1600s). Margaret Skea puts flesh on the bones and makes the characters and the times come alive.

She has built up a picture of a very believable Katharina, from the little that is known about her. It is, however, on record that Frau Luther was outspoken (even, shock, horror, when she was the only woman in male company), something that was disapproved of by many – but not her husband. Their highly controversial marriage would appear to have been a very happy one.

PT is probably my favourite travel writer; I’ve read all his books about his epic train journeys. I didn’t know until I read this about his kayaking exploits – round his own part of the east coast of the United States and in the Pacific. Other chapters include: a visit to a bomb crater on Christmas Island, the making of the film of his novel Mosquito Coast, his professional relationships with other writers, and some book reviews.

Still Me by Jojo Moyes
Sorry to say goodbye to lovely Lou Clarke (Still Me follows Me Before You (or, as it’s known in our house, ‘the film that made your father cry’) and After You). As a consolation though this book has one of my favourite settings, New York, and a great cast of completely new characters.

Following on from her rather unhappy childhood in post-war Edinburgh when it was assumed that she join the family business, the Copper Kettle Café, Anne Pia has fought, and succeeded, not to conform; today she is a successful poet and academic writer. The happy legacy of the Italian side of her family is her love of good food and there are some mouth-watering descriptions, and pasta-cooking tips.

Uncle George and the Cacti and other stories by Gillean Somerville-Arjat
This is a veritable feast of short stories. Includes: a Moroccan woman, a recent emigrant to Spain, worries about what will become of her family; a woman of a certain age encounters a street poet in Lisbon; three mysteries/crimes set in Scotland; retellings of classical stories; a relationship goes very wrong between an aunt and her nephews; a young woman forced into prostitution in 19th-century Venice; and the title story, about a schoolgirl’s wonderful and elusive Uncle George and the presents he handed over … ‘as he descended from an overnight bus from London, bearing yet another bowl like a sacred offering.’