A Book Blog.

Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey

Ms Tey certainly didn’t write mystery novels by the numbers. There is a mystery in this one, but it’s not really the main part of the book. Brat, his name is from Bartholomew, is an orphan rolling around the world, working here and working there. In his first days back in England, he meets Alec Loding, a fading actor, who mistakes him for someone else. That someone being Simon Ashby, Alec’s neighbour, about to turn 21 and take over his parents’ legacy. Simon had had a twin brother, Patrick, who supposedly killed himself at the age of 13 soon after their parents died in a plane crash. That twin would have inherited the House and the Stables, but for his untimely death. The similarity is uncanny, and Brat’s new friend can sense a money-maker. There is no mystery about whether or not Brat is Patrick. That is covered at the beginning. But as Brat-Patrick gets to know the Ashby family and care about them, he realises that there is something dark and evil lurking underneath them and he sets about discovering what that is. Even if it puts his own life in danger. The world-be con man has a heart of gold.

20 books for summer

I’ve decided to do the “20 books for summer” challenge at 746 Books. 20 books? Piece of cake! The idea is to read books on one’s TBR pile, and I love the idea, given that I loathe and detest the summer. So having a challenge will hopefully take my mind off the horrible heat we’re bound to have. Something to do while I hibernate.

So far I’ve come up with the following list of books that are on my TBR pile:

The Little Stranger Sarah Waters
The Anatomy of Ghosts Andrew Taylor
The Stone Circle Elly Griffiths
Cutting Edge ed. Joyce Carol Oates
How To Be Both Ali Smith
A God In Every Stone Kamila Shamsie
A Spool of Blue Thread Anne Tyler
The Lie Tree Frances Hardinge
The Hours Michael Cunningham
The House by the Churchyard Sheridan le Fanu
Give The Devil His Due Sulari Gentill
A Dangerous Language Sulari Gentill
All The Tears In China Sulari Gentill

Yes, I know that’s only 13 but I’ll have a scout round my overstocked bookshelves and see what else I can find. They’re not all the same genre, some of them are books I bought because they were all the rage at the time. You know, on Waterstones’ “buy two get one free” tables. I’m also intending to actually write reviews of the books; the sort of thing I told myself I would do when I got this blog.

More books to be added when I find them!

Odd Girl Out by Barbara Fawcett

This might be classed as a “Girl’s Own” novel; perhaps one for older girls/teens. Bearing in mind that girls in 1952, when the book was published, may have left school and be working at the age of 14 to 16. There is a light romance, a thwarted love affair and some small homilies on the importance of girls’ independence. All while another girl’s reputation is in danger of being lost when her name is linked with that of a known philanderer. Some things never change.

Belinda Travers is 25 and the family maid-of-all-work. Her father prefers his club to family life, mother is delicate (or so she says), older sister is trying to land a wealthy husband, and her older brother is a feckless wastrel. There is only her younger brother who is at all sympathetic with Belinda’s plight. But he is no use as he is merely a schoolboy working for his matric. But the worm turns, and Belinda is fed up of being at everyone’s beck and call, and only having 10 shillings a week to her name. So being an enterprising girl, she finds a Job. To her lower-middle-class mother, working as a baker in a cake shop is a dreadful come down, but happily Mr. Travers is shaken out of his complacency by realising he has shamefully neglected his children. The road to a happy family life is not an easy one. But eventually all is well, and Belinda lands a respectable proposal from a respectable young man.

The background characters are perhaps the most interesting. The cake shop’s opening is supervised by a spinster lady who runs a domestic science college. She gives Belinda a lot of very good advice the double standards that applied to the behaviour of women.

If I have a niggle about “Odd Girl Out” it is that someone was not doing their editing duties properly. At the beginning there is an old relative, Mrs Bellingham, a widow and older sister of Mr Travers. But in the last chapter she is referred to as Miss Bellingham, though still Mr Travers’ sister. Otherwise its a gentle story but with plenty for the young female reader to think about.

They Both Liked Dogs by Elinor Brent Dyer

“They Both Liked Dogs” is about two cousins, both named Frederica. One has grown up in Burma and the other in Tasmania, after moving around the world a great deal. Having reached the age of 14, both girls are in need of a home in England so that they can go to school. Their young aunt Mollie offers to take them in. The girls are very different: one is spoilt and selfish, and the other is really rather too old and responsible for her age. Mollie has a German Shepherd dog and the girls react differently to him, according to their personalities. Ms Brent Dyer makes it clear that girls who are afraid of big dogs are really rather silly!

The Burmese Frederica, also known as Erica, is given a wire-hair terrier, while the other Frederica, also known as Freddie, is given an Alsation pup. (Ms Brent Dyer refers to the breed as Alsation rather than German Shepherd). The girls go to school and do well, in varying degrees, and Freddie takes up showing dogs as a hobby. There are a number of adventures: including two yobs trying to rob the house and being “dissuaded” by Mollie’s dog, and school adventures. Until Erica learns not to be so self-centred and Freddie learns that people’s characters are not all black-and-white. And Mollie? Well, Mollie meets a very nice young man. And shock horrors to anyone who has read the Chalet School books, he is not a doctor! I really enjoyed the book. It was published in 1938 and re-published in 2012 by Girls Gone By Press and is still in print.

The Devil’s Hunt by P C Doherty

PC Doherty, according to the “blurb” on the book jacket, studied the reign of King Edward II for his doctorate and now he is putting what he learned to good use! The novel is one of an on-going series, set in medieval England, not far removed from Ellis Peters’ better known Cadfael series. Though it concerns a slightly different era; the 14th century rather than the 12th.  As with the Cadfael books, there is a civil war going on in the background, which gives the murders an interesting context.

Doherty’s detective is Sir Hugh Corbett, a minor Norman landowner and the former clerk of the King’s Secret Seal. While he would far rather stay at home to govern his people, watch his small daughter grow up and take care of his pregnant wife, the King commands him to solve some mysterious deaths in the academic world of Oxford University. There is also the matter of the “Bellman”, an anonymous dissident who writes treasonous letters and pins them on the church door. Oxford is a filthy, dangerous place to live in, where the students wear rags and carry daggers and the merchants carry swords. Sir Corbett faces peril on all sides as he clashes with a contingent of Welsh students keen to rake up past grievances, and he is threatened by the Bellman.

PC Doherty’s style is perhaps less rich in period detail than it could be; a cut-price Ellis Peters. Yet he can tell a good story. The one unconvincing note is the seemingly sudden conversion of Corbett’s bodyguard Ranulf from a swaggering bully-boy to a possible candidate for the priesthood. Perhaps the groundwork for this was laid in previous novels, but it seemed to come on rather suddenly and without reason, more than halfway through the story. It takes the attention away from the mail plot, which is perhaps the author’s intention. But it is not very convincing and the novel would have been just as good without the addition of this piece.

“The Devil’s Hunt” is not always as satisfying as some other detective fiction, and Ellis Peters is still the better medieval murder writer, but it is enjoyable. A page turner!

Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

This novel has the distinction of being the only book I have been unable to finish for quite some years. I didn’t even get past chapter three, it’s that bad. I’m not a great fan of “chick lit” nor of the sub genres that are meant to be aimed at women. I was attracted to buy this book by it’s enigmatic cover (of a dead crow surrounded by leaves) and by the brief reviews on the back cover. Sadly, I forgot that one should not judge a book by it’s cover! What I found was a dire, dirge like list of grievances. To begin with the first chapter goes on at great length about rain falling on some ordinary English suburb. So, it’s raining. So what else is new? But that chapter goes on and on, detailing the depressing effect of the rain on the streets. For heaven’s sake, this is England! It is always raining!

I am a feminist: let’s get that out of the way straight away. And yes, there is a place for novels about a woman’s place in the world and the difficulties she faces. But this was just lousy with moaning and complaining! Middle class women, driving their children in “Chelsea tractors”, having coffee, moaning to themselves about how their horrible husbands have trapped them. They are obsessed with housework, with making a good impression on the neighbours, about who their neighbours are even. I just could not read on, it was just boring and depressing. I found myself quickly losing interest in even the first character who walks on-stage before her chapter was finished. That is not a good sign; if the reader finds the first characters boring. So, I consigned it to the bin, to be off-loaded on Oxfam, poor souls. Maybe someone else will love this book; someone should even if it is only the author.

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones by Alexander McCall Smith

I am a fan of Mr McCall Smith’s books, especially the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Of his other series’, the44 Scotland Street is one I particularly enjoy. The books are about the residents of the house, who live in flats in the building. But this one is, sadly, the least of them. Matthew from the art gallery gets married to Elspeth Harmony, and has an amusing close brush with death while honeymooning in Australia. Little 6-year-old Bertie gains a victory over his overbearing mother when his father unusually stands up to her to allow his son to join the Cub Scouts. Big Lou’s new beau is a rabid Jacobite and leaves her when his beloved Pretender arrives from Belgium. Various interesting and/or amusing things to happen to the other residents, which are usual for this series.

However: I have the feeling that the series is a little tired. No one seems to have moved on at all, despite this being the fifth book. Matthew could be said to have changed in that he is now married, but he doesn’t seem to feature very much in the general story. Also, the artist Angus Lordie’s dog Cyril fathers six puppies, which are left to Angus to look after. He manages to offload all six onto a strange man he meets in the park one evening. The man lifts each puppy up, weighing them speculatively. Angus thinks that this means that the man is being caring about the puppies’ welfare. At several points in the story, characters mention the rumour that puppies are being stolen and sold to restaurants, but nothing is made of it. By the end of the book, we are not told what has actually happened to them. It is as if, having introduced the idea of Cyril having puppies, Mr McCall Smith is no longer interested in them. And the scones make an appearance towards the end, in a throwaway segment that would seem to exist only to allow the cute title.

The problem is, if there is a problem, that the 44 Scotland Street stories are serialised daily in “The Scotsman”. So each chapter is a brief look at one or two characters. That would be no bad thing, except that Mr McCall Smith seems to be loosing the threads. Instead of tying them neatly off at the end of each book, he leaves some of them dangling, which is very unsatisfactory.  Despite this, I did enjoy reading it, though not as much as I enjoyed the other four.

An Alien Light by Nancy Kress

Humans are at war with the Ged, a species which is appalled by their enemy’s aggression. To defeat them, the Ged must learn to understand them. So they go toQom, where a lost Muslim colony from Earth has spread degenerated into the dark ages. TheQomhave split into two groups: the treacherous, artisan Delysian, and the honour bound Spartan-like Jelite; and are constantly at war with each other. The Ged collect six hundred Delysians and Jelites by promising them knowledge of science and weapons. The captive Humans are then placed in a walled city and denied contact with the outside, while the Ged watch the results.  At first, the Humans stick their cultural boundaries and only a few attempt to learn from the Ged. Gradually order breaks down as old resentments rise to the surface and the level of violence threatens to destroy the experiment. A small band of Humans from both sides manage to cut through ingrained prejudices and join together as it becomes obvious that the Ged are not as benevolent as the appear to be.

Science fiction is often accused of not being realistic enough, of being nothing but an escape from reality. Popular films such as “Star Wars” or “Terminator” have done little to refute that opinion, and yet there is more to the genre than spaceship battles and kidnapped princesses. There is a war being waged out in space in “An Alien Light”, but the reader is not bothered with the details of it. The story is concerned with the human “condition”, about why it is that we seem to be determined to find reasons to hate each other. We are forever excluding this group or that one from our definition of what it is to be human. Yet there are a few who try to cross the barriers.

Maggie The Mechanic by Jaime Hernandez

In the 1980’s, the Hernandez brothers produced a comic book series called “Love & Rockets”. Jaime Hernandez’s half was called “Las Locas”, the story of Maggie and Hopey. They were two Mexican-American women, just starting out in life on their own. Hopey was a rebel who aspired to be a famous puink rock guitarist, while Maggie was a more gentle, sweet girl who worked as a mechanic, sometimes. They had lots of adventures, fell in and out of love, lost jobs and found new ones, and never lost sight of who they were. But Maggie and Hopey’s world was not ours. Their was a world in which superheroes, robots, rockets and aliens were commonplace. In which the biggest celebrities were mechanics and detectives, not film stars. Where multi-billionaires bought islands and competed to see who could control the most toys, without being toppled by rebels.

“Los Locas” is still being published with a grown up set of crazy friends. But the early issues are being reprinted in complete stories. This first volume is about how Maggie goes to work with Rand Race, the prosolar mechanic and falls in love with him. She has adventures with dinosaurs, strange native peoples, and almost dies in a revolution. While Hopey stays at home, playing her guitar and waiting for Maggie to come back. It’s a great introduction to their strange world. The artwork is lovely and the stories are great fun.

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

If it were not for a forthcoming Open University course on children’s literature, I would probably not read “Swallows and Amazons”. I have glanced it once or twice, out of curiosity: after all, I do love children’s books. But I think it is important to have an interest in sailing to really appreciate the book and the series which came after it.

The story so far: the Walkerchildren; John, Susan, Titty and Roger are on holiday in the Lake District. Being as their father is a sailor, in the Royal Navy and their mother grew up in SydneyHarbourin Australia, they are a boat-mad family. After consultation with their father by post, as he is away in the ChinaSeas, the children are allowed to take their boat Swallow and camp on an island in the lake. Their mother has made their tents and they sail across the lake every morning to buy milk and other essentials from a farm. As if it were not enough of an adventure on it’s own, they think of themselves as the crew of a sailing ship, with the people on the shore being the Natives.

The camp was invaded by pirates: two girls named Nancyand Peggy, who sail a little boat called Amazon. The girls have declared war on their unsympathetic uncle, who really only wants a little space and quiet in which to write a book. After an encounter with the grumpy uncle, henceforth known as Captain Flint, a retired pirate, the Walker children have also declared war on the poor man. They have signed an agreement to form a combined war party, but to be free to attack each other whenever they can. I’ve got as far as the Walkers sailing off, leaving Titty behind as a lookout, while they attempt to capture the Amazon. All the while, knowing that the Amazon pirates are probably embarking on a mission to capture Swallow.

It’s all good fun and I am enjoying the book. However, there are a lot of nautical terms and it seems to be assumed that the reader is as mad about boats as the Walkers. The Arthur Ransome society started up a club to encourage his fans to go off on adventures of their own. I can understand the appeal of it all, but it is not for me.

This book is a welcome change from today’s “issue” books. In Swallows and Amazons, the only issue is over the mystery of why Captain Flint dislikes the children. Thank heavens for books written in 1930!

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