Sunday, June 23, 2024

Not In Love - Ali Hazelwood

My reading is all over the place at the moment, it's also included a lot of advance review copies and I'm never quite sure what the etiquette is for those - do review when I've read them, in this case a month or more before they come out, or do I wait as I did with Cairn? I think I wait, which means my head is full of Jen Hadfield's extraordinary biography about her life in Shetland, but I'm looking at Not in Love which I read a couple of weeks ago pre-funeral when I was in a totally different mood.

Ali Hazelwood continues to be my favourite contemporary romance writer - and as I've given up dabbling much in that pool that'#s unlikely to change anytime soon. She has a note at the beginning to say this book is less romantic comedy and more erotic romance - which is sort of true although I'm not a hundred percent convinced it's markedly more erotic than her previous books. The mood is slightly different though and her plotting and characterisation improves with each book so I'm not complaining.

You know what you're getting with a book like this, and you definitely know what you're getting with Ali Hazelwood - is the heroine an intelligent and able scientist with her life mostly together but some personal issues - yes she is. Is the hero equally smart and capable in his daily life but emotionally flawed - yep. Do they work it out together - they certainly do.

This one skirts around kinks, is more sex-positive than some of the earlier books in that the characters unapologetically enjoy hookups (in this it's a more explicit take on Mallory's character in Check and Mate) but has the same enthusiasm for consent that previous books have. Consent is sexy so that's a plus in y reading. 

I liked that the villain here (SPOILER) was a not much more senior female scientist and the setting is industry rather than academia - not a huge difference at the end of the day, but with Hazelwood, it's the background details of the workplace and the associated politics that make her books stand out. Basically this does exactly what it says on the tin, it's intelligent and funny romance with a convincingly happy ending. 

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Cairn - Kathleen Jamie

The last few weeks have been busy, a funeral followed by working at a book festival interspersed with normal work with the now traditional skeleton staff and all the problems that brings with it. It's been exhausting but I think the worst is over now and I can work on getting back to something normal. 

I read Kathleen Jamie's Cairn a couple of weeks ago after getting an advance copy through work, it blew me away (though how publication date has worked around so quickly is frankly frightening). It's a slim book that could be read in a couple of hours, though that would not be the best way to approach it - this is one to dip in and out of and consider at pleasure. 

Jamie has collected her thoughts here - sometimes just a paragraph at a time, and used them to build a marker of turning 60. She considers grieving the loss of her parents, seeing her children embark on independent adult life, how the climate crisis has developed - it's been a recurring theme in her writing. How it feels to get older and a hundred other things. It's a contemplative little miracle of a book that came to me at exactly the point I needed to read it - 50 and caught up with my own grief. 

I have loved Jamies's writing since I discovered her (late) in 2012, I don't know if this is her best book - maybe not, but the right book at the right time is a powerful thing. There is a Shetland word - meid, that refers to prominent landmarks, such as a hilltop cairn, seen from the sea. Line up 2 or 3 of these and they tell you exactly where you are, and help you maintain a fixed point at sea - generally a favoured fishing spot. This summer Cairn, and Jen Hadfield's Storm Pegs are the literary equivalent of meid's for me. Between them I've found a place of calm in uncertain times.

I read somewhere that this book really pushes the line between poetry and prose - I take the point and can't really argue with it, but I might be more inclined to say that for Jamie here there is no line to blur or cross. Anyway, it's a beautiful, meditative, book that says much about the experience of being well into middle age without trying to impart any particular wisdom, and for that last point I'm especially grateful. 

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Queen Macbeth - Val McDermid

It's been a long couple of weeks, but it's time to look forward again and get organised. I've read and am reading some remarkable things, and whilst I'm trying not to be over hopeful I'm keeping everything crossed for an election that brings a certain amount of change with it. 

I think Val McDermid's Queen Macbeth is the 5th book in Polygon's Darkland tales series (I've checked, it is), and what an excellent series it's turning into, even if not all the books are for everyone. I didn't dislike Alan Warner's 'Nothing Left to Fear From Hell' but I doubt I'll revisit it. Equally, I still feel a little nagging guilt that Ginny Jones disliked Columba's Bones which will probably be one of my best books of the year. But dissent and discussion are a good thing and hopefully, she will forgive me/still more or less trust my judgment. 

Lady Macbeth is having quite a moment - there are 3 reasonably high profile feminist retellings of her story around at the moment. This book, Ava Reid's 'Lady Macbeth', and Isabelle Schuler's Lady MacBethad. And there is of course Shakespeare's play overshadowing all of them. Mcdermid departs quite quickly from Shakespeare's version of Gruoch, though she does keep the witches and I like the way she does it. 

This version relies more on a history that doesn't need to flatter a Stuart king and interestingly she has Gruoch betray her first husband to conceive her child with Macbeth himself. It's maybe another swipe at Shakespeare who conspicuously makes his Lord Macbeth incapable of fathering a child (last time I saw the play this seemed a key point in it to me). 

In this version, Gruoch and her closest companions have been in exile after the apparent loss of Macbeth in battle, and now the loss of her son before he could secure the Scottish crown. This Macbeth and his Lady have ruled the country well for some years, they have friends and loyal subjects as well as political enemies, but the tide has turned on them. Gruoch is a danger to Malcolm, the next man to claim the kingdom - there's enough support for her that she might prove a rallying point. We meet them as they're about to be discovered and be forced to flee.

What follows is a tense journey full of danger and heartbreaking loss set beside Gruoch's memories of his this all came to be. There's an unexpected twist at the end and a clever resolution - and as definitely the shortest of the 3 Lady Macbeth's around at the moment is a very good place to start with her. MacDermid's take is thought provoking and smart. If the Darkland series excels at one thing (it excels at a few) it's in getting a lot into a novella. This Gruoch is compellingly human and less morally grey than some depictions, less supernatural too - though again, the way prophecy is handled here is interesting. It's fun to see MacDermid writing ina  different genre too. 

Monday, June 3, 2024

How many books are you reading right now?

Way back when I started blogging one of the things it helped me do was focus my reading - one book at a time. It worked for years and then it all fell apart, a process accelerated by getting a job in a bookshop where the tempatation and the proofs are constant. Somebody somewhere, probably Twitter, was asking if they were the only person to have an upstairs and a downstairs book. 

Obviously, they were not. I live in a one-bedroom flat so I don't even have the excuse of stairs being an effort to justify the state I'm in here. So these are the books I have on the go. There is the bedroom reading - Storms' Edge is currently on the left hand side of the bed, Godkiller, which I started months ago, and was really enjoying but somehow never finished is on the right along with Silver Birch which has been my intended next book for a while but keeps getting pushed down the pile on the right hand side.

I'm not sure these really count, but they probably do - my collection of Slightly Foxed quarterlies live in the bathroom. It's ideal for reading in the bath if you want to avoid turning into a chilled prune whilst the water cools but you need to read one more page.

In the kitchen there's Greekish and Sebze which I'm cooking from extensively at the moment, Sebze is an interesting read as well if like me you don't really know much about Turkish food or culture. 

I'm behind on reading Rosie Andrews Puzzle Wood - again, a very promising start, it is currently my bag book, the one that leaves the house with me.

In my sitting room there is the chair book that I didn't mean to start the other day but which was so compelling that a quick glance was all it took to find myself 30 pages in. 

There's the floor book for the jumper I'm knitting - it's by the sofa, and got moved because I started reading the sofa book, also very promising. I bought this one based on the comparison to Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood - that's an intriguing combination if accurate.

My desk gives as good an indication as any of the amount of books around read as well as unread at any one time.

I could pretend that the other chair didn't have its own book - The Penguin Book of Murder Mysteries, the books on the floor here mostly function as a useful place to balance a cup of tea with the added bonus of occasionally throwing out a forgotten gem.

And finally, there's the book I'm truly thinking of myself as reading at the moment - an arc of Jen Hadfield's Storm Pegs which I'm enjoying very much, I only hope I can find the focus to finish it in a timely fashion. 

What are you reading at the moment?

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Notes From an Island - Tove Jansson & Tuulikki Pietilä

It's been an emotional week. Last Monday my father-in-law went into hospital, he was released back to his care home on Tuesday as it was clear he didn't have long left. He passed away on Sunday, he would have been 98 next week, had an adventure and achievement filled life, and was an absolute gentleman. His last days were as peaceful and painless as possible with excellent care, his sons and grandchildren had time to say goodbye. It's as much as an any of us can ask for in the end I think, but it does not diminish the gap he leaves behind him in the world. 

I don't know what he would have made of this book - he might have thought, as I do, that it's a little slight - not much more than a collection of notes and images that celebrate life on a tiny island in a Finnish archipelago, but he would have been in entire sympathy with Tove and Tooti's love of solitude and independence. He might well have recognised the feelings expressed in the last few pages of the books and Tove's final essay which together make this something special.

After decades of happy isolation life on the island becomes untenable, the island itself changes from a refuge to a sort of prison, with the sea and weather a constant threat. Ageing limbs are no longer capable of jumping in and out of boats easily, or stormproofing a cabin. I grew up on a somewhat larger island with a few more obvious comforts (stone walls, running water, a phone line) but not so very many, we left it for good when I was 18 but I absolutely recognise that feeling of disquiet. 

I recognise it further from dad's consternation at running aground on an underwater bar one night, of mum's feelings of isolation after I was born in the middle of winter when it was more or less impossible for her to get off safely with me until I was around 3 months old - there was only dad for company in that time. The people who bought the island from us sold it just over a year ago when age and health issues caught up with them. They would recognise those feelings too. In truth any of us who have ever found our bodies won't quite manage what's required in the moment and are left considering what that might mean will feel the truth of Tove's words and feel her and Tooti's loss.

It's a beautiful book, a first celebratory and then elegiac meditation on a beloved place in the world, combining Tove's writing, their friend Brunström's log book entries - he helped them build their cabin and set up their life there, and Tuulikki Pietilä's (Tooti) aquatints. I found it helpful in a difficult week, you might find comfort here too if you need it. 

Monday, May 20, 2024

Fear Stalks the Village - Ethel Lina White

I picked this book up off the top of the nearest pile a couple of days ago, and absolutely loved it - it's a slightly tongue-in-cheek examination of what is on the surface a picture-perfect village full of entirely admirable and apparently happily married gentry.

The architecture is a pleasing mix of Tudor, Queen Anne, and Georgian, there's no train line to bring day trippers, all of the old families have adequate private incomes. And yet can anything really be so perfect? No, it can not, and a poison pen letter is proof that something is rotten underneath all the surface glitter. There are rumours, and social distance, more letters bring more fear as neighbours start to distrust each other and want to guard their own secrets more closely. 

There are clear hints about the over all culprit early on in the book, along with some splendid red herrings, but the overall point is to examine how a hint of blackmail and the pursuit of social power corrupts good people, and how the appearance of goodness matters more than the real thing for many. It's clever, amusing, and not very murdery and I highly recommend it for a lazy afternoon. 

What really interested me though is that it's the third or fourth book I've picked up recently that is thematically similar - all by chance, there hasn't been a reading plan. Oscar Jensen's Hell and Death (big fan) and Jill Johnson's Devil's Breath play with some of the same ideas, and so did Susan Stokes Chapman's 'The Shadow Key' in a different direction. On a dark and stormy night in January (storm Isha in the Borders to be specific) we were amusing ourselves by plotting a murder mystery along the same lines.

I have a lot of books, and so it's fair to say there will be a book for every mood, but they're not well organised and I wonder how it is that these books are finding me at the moment - it could almost feel like they were following their own algorithm - serendipity is a weird thing. I'm also a very big fan of the current publishing trend (is it a trend yet? I feel like it is) for crime books which go low on crime, big on mystery. If this sounds like your thing Fear Stalks the Village is a fabulous starting point. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

The House of Silence - E Nesbit

I've been a big fan of Handheld books so was sorry to hear they had decided to wind up business and move on to new projects but also thought fair enough, publishing and bookselling are hard work and it's admirable to know when you've had enough. Reading 'The House of Silence' whilst I was away last week has really underlined what made Handheld so special though, and made me a great deal sadder that there won't be more gems like this to come.

E Nesbit is probably best known for her children's stories, unless you like weird/ghost stories in which case she's probably best known for Man Size in Marble which crops up in a lot of anthologies, including this one. it's very good so that's not surprising. I see I read the Greyladies Nesbit Collection on a previous Borders trip, it's a nice selection but only had 7, rather than the 18 tales gathered here. Handheld have always been excellent value.

'The House of Silence' feels like a comprehensive selection and covers a range of moods from the definitely scary to amusing romance. Much of Nesbit's charm comes from her sense of humour and the way she uses it to turn a phrase. The Haunted Inheritance only very loosely qualifies to be in a weird collection, but it's such a delightful thing that it might well be my favourite here, definitely a story to read when I'm feeling a little low. The Shadow by contrast is smartly unsettling, not terrifying, but a clever mix of suggestions that would make me hesitate to cross a dark room immediately after reading it, which I consider the best sort of ghost story.

The Pavillion is another favourite - on the surface it's as frothy as the crinoline gowns its heroines wear, then Nesbit goes deep into what love is or can be in a few elegant words and properly got me on the hook. Altogether there isn't a dud story, it's a book I've wanted for a long time (a decent Nesbit collection) and the reality of it more than lived up to the expectations - again, no duds here and I suppose there could have been. 

Buy this and indeed all or any of Handheld's weird collections whilst they're still available!

Monday, May 13, 2024

Away in Scotland

It was my husbands birthday last week which meant the traditional getaway to Scotland - we did go to Switzerland one year which was amazing, but Scotland in May is lush and a tradition that we're both happy with. There were challenges this time - 2 punctured back tires discovered Saturday night on a bank holiday weekend before a projected early morning departure on the Sunday. Fortunatley we got the tires changed on Monday so only lost a day and a half, still made it to Corbridge in time for an early dinner at The Angel, then on to the Borders in time for a sunset. 

We've had a good run at the Scottish borders so far this year, and both love it a little bit more every time we visit. We went to Abbotsford to enthuse about architecture and Sir Walter Scott, Edinburgh for a lecture and a couple of exhibitions, Hawick for gin and Hawick Balls, Melrose for an exceptionally good hot chocolate, the garden of the flat we were staying in for relaxing and an exceptional view of the Northern lights, and generally had a pretty good time of it with plenty of tea, cake, reading, and art. 

One of the things I love so much about the area is how rich in wildlife it is - I didn't see the stat which is meant to have taken up residence in the garden, but I saw a lot of hares, a dipper, tree creepers, bullfinches, goldfinches, wrens, swallows, swifts and martins, heard owls, woodpeckers, and cuckoos, for to appreciate the cherry blossom all over again (it's a week or so behind Leicester) along with all the apple blossom in the hedges. It's a really beautiful part of Britain. 

The aurora was one of the best I've ever seen - taking shaky photos of it on my phone is a mixed blessing. the camera picks up more colours than the eye does - the pinks and purples especially were not as pronounced, but then all the outlines were crisp, and you could see the whole thing so if the pictures aren't an entirely accurate record of what I saw, they do overall catch the spirit of the experience. 

Monday, May 6, 2024

Devil's Breath - Jill Johnson

At least all this waiting for new tires is giving me time to catch up with book posts... I'd been eyeing up Jill Johnson's 'Devil's Breath' for a couple of weeks - it's a lovely cover and I liked the Nish Kumar quote that summarised it as 'Sherlock Holmes meets Gardeners' Question Time.' Then I met Jill Johnson at a book event in Nottingham where she was talking about book number two - 'Hell's Bells', out in July. She was great so next morning I bought Devil's Breath and read it in a couple of sittings.

I have mixed feelings about contemporary crime, a lot of it is too violent for me, I'm not overly keen on the amount of violence committed against women either, there's plenty that I do enjoy, but it's not a given. I loved this book. It's smart, I didn't want to stop reading it, the characters are spikey and occasionally difficult, and the mystery kept on getting deeper. 

Eustacia Rose is a Professor of Botanical Toxicology, she lives alone, she no longer has her job, her life is her poisonous plants, there have clearly been difficulties in her past, and in her self isolation she's taken to spying on the neighbours who she wouldn't dream of talking too.

One neighbour in particular has caught her attention, a beautiful young woman who she's well on her way to being obsessed with - and then she hears a scream. Eustacia's life becomes bound up with Simone's and the 4 men who visit her, one of whom is oddly familiar to her. Then her garden is destroyed with plants stolen, someone dies, possibly killed by toxins from one of her plants and her simple life is very complicated.

Eustacia is a wonderful character, I won't give spoilers because learning about her and her history is really the central mystery to this book. The death is almost peripheral, although it may turn out to be significant in later books, and the ending is pleasingly ambiguous. We know there's a lot more to come. 

Altogether it's a quirky, slightly gothic, crime thriller with unusual characters that feels a little bit different from most of the things around at the moment. I feel Agatha Christie would have loved the poison element, and maybe there's a touch of Poirot in some of Professor Rose's habits, or at least a nod in his direction, even if only just. The Sherlock Holmes comparison is really apt too, as is the Gardener's Question Time comparison. This was a lot of fun, and promises much for the series to come. 

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Three Fires - Denise Mina

As I write this we should have been halfway to Scotland, but a misplaced screw in the car tire has changed plans - at least the sun is shining, the company is good, and we're safely at home rather than enjoying the full joys of a blow out somewhere on the M1. Missing the projected lunch at The Angel in Corbridge is a wrench, but a little Tesco picnic is far preferable to sitting for hours on a hard shoulder. New tires tomorrow and hopefully plans will be resumed. 

On to 'Three Fires', I loved Mina's 'Rizzio', the opening book in Polygon's Darklands series, and was excited to see that she's returned to both the novella format and historical fiction with this account of the rise and fall of Savonarola in Renaissance Florence. 'Three Fires' has a lot in common with 'Rizzio', the same narrative style complete with asides, the same punchy attitude and pacing, and the same ability to give complicated personalities the nuance they deserve even in so short a space.

The story opens at Savonarola's trial and conviction in 1498, then skips back to Ferrara in 1470 where the younger Savonarola is about to suffer a disappointment in love. Mina casts him as something of an incel who turns to the church. It's also a turbulent and violent time in Ferrara, and this too leaves it's mark on the young man.

The church doesn't seem to know what to do with its priest, he's charismatic but also confrontational - slowly he hones his skills as a preacher, and then he truly lights a fire of zealotry amongst the people. It's really not what the church wanted. Mina also draws a direct line between Savonarolla and the populists of today, right down to his ploy of blaming the Jews, the homosexuals, the women, for the damned state of society. It's not a subtle point but it's done well.

As the action reaches a climax and Savonarola starts to lose his grip on the populace he becomes a somewhat more sympathetic character, or maybe we just see more of the complexity of the man - after all, nobody had to listen to him or act on his exhortations. Whatever he got wrong, the price paid for it is high - not just death, but weeks of torture first. Things, as we know, can so very quickly spin out of control.

A short and powerful book with a threat of dark humour running alongside an anger that we never seem to learn. I really liked this one.