Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Wrong Box - Robert Louis Stevenson

It took me an unbelievably long time to read this not very long book, I have no idea why, or what caused the block because it's funny, charming, and generally engaging in every way. At least I got there in the end. 'The Wrong Box' was co written with Stevenson's son in law, Lloyd Osbourne and first published in 1889 when the two had been traveling together in the Pacific. I like to think 'The Wrong Box' was principally written for their joint entertainment rather than for money - simply because it has an irresistible silliness about it which suggests fun rather than work.

The starting point is a Tontine into which Joseph and Masterman Finsbury are entered by their we'll to do father. Some decades past and of the original 37 only Joseph and Masterman survive, the brother left will come into something really handsome.

This makes Joseph, who has been a poor business man, an extremely valuable asset to his nephews, who he may accidentally have defrauded, or allowed to be defrauded, of £7,800 when they were but poor orphans in his care. The elder nephew, Morris, is obsessed with that £7,800 and intent in keeping uncle Joseph in good shape so that he can inherit the Tontine.

In the best, and most sensational, Victorian tradition there is a train crash, uncle Joseph is lost in it, but there's a body, and if it can just be concealed long enough maybe everything will come out alright. But concealing a body isn't that easy, transporting it to a point of concealment even harder, and should the labels on a series of packing boxes get mixed up...

It's bad enough having a corpse you want to conceal, worse to have a corpse turn up on your doorstep unannounced, and an absolute nightmare to try and retrieve a missing corps from points unknown. The body makes an interesting, if accidental tour of the countryside whilst all the characters involved try and work out exactly what's happened and how to profit from it.

It's a truly funny black comedy (not quite as macabre as I might have made it sound, and almost certainly a lot better). The plot is almost incidental to a series of jokes and observation which is probably why it took so long to read, it's delicious whilst you are reading I, but there's no particular urge to see what happens next once you put it down. It was also Stevenson in a mood I've never met him in before, I'm used to high adventure, rather than out and out comedy. More investigation is clearly called for.

I really recommend this one, it's a triumph from Stevenson, Osborne, and Hesperus for bringing it back into print. Apparently a film version was made in the 1960's - I'm torn between wanting to see it and trying to imagine what the 1960's would have made of this.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther - Elizabeth Von Arnim

When I first read Elizabeth Von Arnim, it was 'Elizabeth and her German Garden' followed by 'The Enchanted April', I loved her - well who could fail to? I really liked 'All the Dogs of my Life' too, then found 'Vera' deeply unsettling but powerful. All was good until I read 'The Caravaners', which was funny but in a way that made me mildly dislike the author - there was no kindness behind her humour. Somerset Maugham's account of her (excellent company, but malicious) in 'The Vagrant Mood' confirmed the faint prejudice.

That's a round about way of saying that I didn't love 'Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther', although every other review I could find if it seems extremely positive. There isn't a plot as such so I'm not giving much away when if I describe it. Rose-Marie Schmidt is the daughter of a German academic who's income is based on the annuity left by his first wife, the little money his second wife has, and anything bought in by boarding students. Mr Anstruther has been one of these students learning German before sitting exams for entry to the foreign office. At the end of his year he proposes to Rose-Marie and is joyfully accepted. She starts writing to him even as his train leaves, but within a month of his return to England he's thrown her over for a rather better connected, and much better off young woman. After a couple of months letters resume.

It's these letters, and only Rose-Marie's letters, which make up the novel. We're obviously meant to see her as the back blurb describes her - "funny, intelligent, brave and gifted with an irrepressible talent for happiness." but I think she shares Von Arnim's love of malice to an extent that makes me sympathise with Mr Anstruther more than I'm meant to.

It's Mr Anstruther who (as would be proper) starts writing again, at which point we can assume engagement number two isn't going so well. It's not entirely clear why Rose-Marie doesn't dismiss his overtures of friendship out of hand (except that the book would come to an abrupt end if she did), instead she enters into a long, time consuming, and intimate exchange of letters over the course of the next year. Von Arnim is amusing, her descriptions of vegetarianism are very funny, as are her observations on German customs and habits. Rose-Marie's accounts of the scenery, her personal philosophies, and her accounts of the struggle to make ends meet are variously beautiful or touching, but there's another undercurrent to the letters.

All the while Mr Anstruther is being encouraged by a woman who knows how to attract him. When he's thrown over by fiancée number two and his attentions become more marked Rose-Marie does nothing to put a stop to it, and when eventually he proposes again he's dismissed as an object of pity, someone she doesn't trust, doesn't love, can't worship.

I find this a problem because I'm not clear why a woman so poor would have wasted so much money on stamps for a man she has such a low opinion of (that's not flippant, daily letters between Germany and England running to several pages a time would decimate my income) unless it was with revenge in mind. Revenge is fine, but when it takes the form of leading someone to the point where they ask for your hand so that you can humiliate them with a detailed 'No', I'm not convinced it's funny, brave, or compatible with a talent for irrepressible happiness. I'm not convinced by an initial love that can't allow for the weaknesses of character we all have either - surely nobody can safely sit in a pedestal forever?

But then there are questions - where do the letters come from? Has Mr Anstruther returned them to Rose-Marie? Could we assume he's showing them to us to vindicate his own opinion that he might have been treated rather shabbily? And if he's turned up in person would Rose-Marie be as indifferent as she claims? (She's very reluctant to meet him again, so I don't think she would be indifferent.)

In the end this book doesn't really come together for me. It's neither the light romance or comedy of the Von Arnim's I've loved, or the merciless hatchet job that is Vera (which is horribly compelling), but another Caravaners which leaves me out of sympathy with her.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Warner Edwards Rhubarb Gin

this was going to be a book post, but it's been a long day at work and I've started researching vintage cocktails for a future project. From there it wasn't much of a leap to thinking an actual gin drink of some sort would be the way to go, and after that plans for anything really productive went to pot.

The Rhubarb Gin, of which I sell a lot and really like, is the sort of spirit I'm never very sure of what to do with. I don't especially want to drink it neat, though would consider it as a very dry martini (I'm not sure vermouth would do it many favours). It works with tonic but seems a waste of the rhubarb flavour, and is good with ginger ale, if you like ginger ale - I'm so so about it. Also, whilst that's a great winter drink, it doesn't say summer to me.

Which has left me looking at something along the Ricky, or Collins, line. A gin Ricky is a beautiful thing, and having finally discovered it I don't understand why it isn't a bigger thing. Basically gin, ice,  the juice of half a lime along with its shell, and soda or sparkling mineral water, all served in a high ball glass. Refreshing crisp flavours, none of the sugar that tonic is laced with, and very good.

I thought pink grapefruit might make a good substitute for the lime in this one, but it lacks a certain bite. When Seville oranges are in season again I'm going to try it with those (both Rhubarb Gin and also Chase's Seville orange gin). Meanwhile what I have in hand is a pleasantly citrusy drink that allows the Rhubarb Gin to play its part.

Looking at a Tom Collins style version (Gin with lemon juice, sugar syrup, and soda water plus plenty of ice) I used M&S still raspberry lemonade which certainly has the sour bite I wanted, as well as enough sugar to act as a syrup too (efficient). I squeezed in more grapefruit, and dispensed with the soda water - my glass was already full. The result was very pink, very drinkable, probably not the classiest thing I could have made, and went down in five minutes flat (along with my good intentions). The only fault with it was that it doesn't really let the Rhubarb Gin shine (the problem with this sort of research is that it can quickly get messy) I need to try it with a standard London dry to compare. It was very summery though, and little bit trashy or not, I'll probably be drinking a lot of this.

Meanwhile, there will be no rest until I can really, truly, satisfactorily answer the question of how to serve this Gin.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Island of Doctor Moreau - H. G. Wells

After finally reading some Wells ('The Invisible Man') instead of just assuming I had, it seemed like a good idea to read more. I was right. 'The Island of Doctor Moreau' is straight horror after the comedy of (with a tinge of horror) of 'The Invisible Man' but it's tremendously effective.

A shipwrecked Edward Prendick finds himself an unwelcome guest on a less than satisfactory ship. The captain is drunk, the crew surly, his fellow passengers a little odd, and the cargo not quite what might be expected. After a tow with the captain he finds himself set adrift until Doctor Moreau reluctantly agrees to give him shelter in his remote island.

For Prendick it's a case of out of the frying pan into the fire, because the island's other inhabitants are deeply disturbing, his host intent on his own experiments, and his situation in every way precarious. I doubt it's much of a spoiler to say that the Doctor has been carrying out experiments on animals, vivisecting and generally mutilating them to create creatures that have a semblance of humanity in some cases, in others just to appeal to his sense of whimsy. He maintains his rule over them with the threat of pain. He is a vengeful god.

There is also a hint that all of it might be the product of nightmarish hallucinations as when Prendick finally makes his way back to civilisation he's once again found out at sea in a small boat on the very edge of life. Not that the element of doubt makes his story any less nightmarish, or real - either to the character of Prendick, or to the reader.

If the science of Doctor Moreau no longer stands up, the absolute horror of what he's done is still as vivid as ever, it also chimes with current fears about genetic modification - and if Doctor Moreau is a direct descendent of Frankenstein, his influence on popular imagination is certainly as influential as his ancestors.

The ethical questions Wells asks about whether we should do what science can let us do are also as pertinent as ever. What it asks us about the nature of God is interesting as well, but that this exploration of what it is that makes us human is both a gripping book that it's a struggle to put down, and not the sort of thing I'd like to read late at night, is what really makes me a fan. It really is a case of better late than never with me and Wells.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Bodies From The Library 2017

It is horribly hot in my flat tonight (hovering around 30 degrees, I can't begin to tell you how much I wish I was in Shetland right now where it's sunny, but a much more manageable 12 degrees with a light breeze. Soon.) I'm torn between throwing the towel in and trying to sleep, or watching two students rescue a green woodpecker from the car park below my window (it can't seem to fly, but limped up to them looking hopeful about twenty minutes ago, they have found a box for it and are doing the bedside thing, presumably until expert help arrives, it's oddly gripping).

What I'm gong to do is write about the excellent Bodies from the Library conference at the British Library that I went to on Saturday before it all seems to long ago. This is a celebration of Golden Age crime fiction, and a really good event. It sounded like it would be run again next year and I'd wholeheartedly recommend it to anybody with an interest in the genre.

The organisation is excellent (adequate tea and coffee opportunities, doesn't over run, chance to buy the books being discussed). This year the post lunch slot was taken by a vintage recording of a Dorothy L. Sayers story, a sensible concession to the mid afternoon slump that must make speaking in that slot a somewhat disheartening experience.

(Just a quick update, security have come to take a look at the woodpecker.)

What I particularly like about this event is how friendly it feels, how enthusiastic everyone is, and the general feel of being part of a conversation (rather than in a lecture). All the speakers were good (very good) but if anyone gets the chance to hear Tony Medawar, Dolores Gordon-Smith, Dr John Curran, or Martin Edwards talk than go and hear what they have to say.

The opening panel on the continuing popularity of the golden age was particularly interesting, throwing out things I hadn't considered before. Martin Edwards new book 'The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books', officially out in 2 weeks time, but available at the event, is looking very good (I'm enjoying it very much at the moment, much more to follow on this). I spent quite a lot of a sleepless (far to hot) Saturday night cross referencing between The Story of Classic Crime, and 'Taking Detective Stories Seriously' (the collected reviews of Dorothy L. Sayers) and had a very nice time doing it.

I'm also particularly excited by the sound of an October release in the crime classics series - 'Foreign Bodies' which is a collection of golden age era stories in translation from as far afield as Japan, Russia, Mexico, and India, many of them in English for the first time. I have high hopes for this. One of the things I love about older books are the insight they give into how people used to think (common prejudices, ambitions, attitudes - that sort of thing), stepping out of the relatively familier British settings, and point of view, should be all sorts of interesting.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Taking Detective Stories Seriously - The collected crime reviews of Dorothy L. Sayers

Its been another week of horrific images in the news, the sort that make it difficult to concentrate on anything else, so I've mainly been knitting (obviously the perfect occupation for the hottest weather of the year so far) and getting into pointless arguments about politics (it's like picking a scab). 

Today however I'm back on the books and freshly enthused after the British Library's 'Bodies From The Library' classic crime conference- which was brilliant, if they run it again next year it's absolutely worth going to. I'll write more about it soon but am so very pleased with this particular book purchase I couldn't wait to share.

'Taking Detective Stories Seriously' is a collection of the crime reviews that Dorothy L. Sayers wrote for the Sunday Times between 1933 and 1935 (there's a scant handful of later ones too). I have yet to read the introduction and commentary by Martin Edwards (surely the busiest man in crime fiction?) but am very much looking forward to it. What I did do was spend the train journey home reading what Sayers had to say about all the books I'd read. 

She must have worked every bit as hard as Martin Edwards does because along with writing her own books she was reviewing 3 or 4 crime novels a week which means we have a fairly comprehensive overview here of crime fiction over those years. 

I loved Sayers when I was in my teens and susceptible to the romantic allure of Lord Peter, rather less   when I realised how susceptible Sayers was to the same allure (there's something uncomfortable about reading that, as if she's inadvertently exposing something that should be private). And then there was 'Ask a Policeman' that was great fun, but has since made it quite hard to take any of the featured detectives at face value again. 

Anyway, what I'm getting round to saying is that the Dorothy of these reviews is a delight. She's funny, honest in her criticisms, generous with praise, and altogether com s across as a woman you would love to sit down and talk about books with. 

Crucially we're in perfect accord regarding Georgette Heyer (unremarkable plots, but with enough charm for it not to matter) which is my personal litmus test, and from there I found I broadly agreed with her view on most of the books I'd read. I liked Alan Melville's 'Quick Curtain' (a British Library Crime Classic) rather more than she did, but then he's not sending up my chosen work. 

It will mostly be a book for dipping in and out of, but it made me laugh out loud several times in the train, which probably annoyed the man trying to sleep next to me, but made a very hot journey altogether more enjoyable than expected. I had absolutely no idea that Dorothy (the books made me think of her as Dorothy, rather than Sayers) could be so much fun, or funny. For anyone with even a passing interest in either Sayers, or Golden age crime fiction, this book should be a must buy. I am beyond delighted with it. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Miraculous Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

Locked room murders and other similarly impossible crimes are one of the sub genres I particularly enjoy in golden age, and older, mysteries so You can imagine how pleased I am that there's a whole collection of them here. Sixteen impossible crimes, to be specific, including contributions from Dorothy L. Sayers, Arthur Conan Doyle, Margery Allingham, R. Austin Freeman, Edmund Crispin, and Michael Innes amongst others (oh how I do love this series).

I've always found the puzzle element the most appealing thing about older crime fiction - so much less disturbing than forensic detail. (Anthony Wynne's 'Murder of a Lady' is a particularly enjoyable, and delightfully far fetched, example - also from the British Library Crime Classics series - where I would defy anyone to work out the solution before the end.) In 'Miraculous Mysteries' the solution to more than one apparent murder is that there wasn't ever any crime - it's all about the problem, and they're especially satisfying, not least because they give the impression that the authors are having more than the usual amount of fun devising them.

In his introduction Martin Edwards argues, convincingly, that the locked room mystery has been a feature of the literary landscape for a good two hundred years (starting with E.T.A Hoffman's 'Mademoiselle de Scuderi' in 1818 before moving on via Sheridan Le Fanu, and Edgar Allan Poe). Despite being less popular than in their pre war heyday the locked room mystery has never really gone away either (shows like 'Jonathan Creek' offer classic examples of impossible mysteries) because who doesn't love a good puzzle?

Martin Edwards, who clearly loves his subject, as well as having an encyclopaedic knowledge of it, also appears to be having more than the usual amount of fun selecting these particular stories (every time I think about these books 'fun' is the word I keep coming back to). It's so good to have an anthology that covers a good number of unfamiliar stories by familiar authors (the only story I was previously acquainted with was Dorothy L. Sayers 'The Haunted Policeman') as well as presenting some truly obscure ones. The end result is a decently comprehensive survey of impossible crimes over a roughly fifty year period, each one featuring an ingenious solution to the problem it presents.

I would dearly love to discuss particular stories, but as I can think of no other format which is quite so easy to ruin with an inadvertent spoiler, I'm not going to. What I can say is that I think the collection is worth the cover price for the gem that is Michael Innes 'The Sands of Thyme' alone (and not just because I love the pun). There's not much I find more satisfying than a really entertaining collection of short stories, they genuinely make me happy.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Woman Who Did - Grant Allen

The Woman Who Did - Grant Allen

"But surely no woman would ever dare to do so," said my friend.
"I knew a woman who did", said I; "and this is he story."

I like to have a kindle app on my phone, I mostly ignore it because it's an awful way to read a book, but sometimes it's useful, setting it up on my new phone last week was a reminder of all the odd stuff sitting on there, including 'The Woman Who Did' by Grant Allen.

It was almost certainly a free download (probably made in the first flush of enthusiasm when the last phone was new). I really enjoyed 'An African Millionare' and 'Miss Cayley's Adventures' (which takes a happier view of the New Woman than this book does) and it's always a pleasure to find one of Allen's stories in an anthology. Free ebooks are more of a gamble, I also suspect I chose this purely for the title.

'The Woman Who Did', which Allen says in his dedication he wrote "for the first time in my life wholly and solely to satisfy my own taste and my own conscience" is interesting but it isn't his most entertaining work.

The woman who did is Herminia Barton, daughter of the Dean of Dunwich, and introduced as 'SUCH a nice girl too', and what she does is follow her principles in the hope of striking a blow for the emancipation of women. Particularly when it comes to marriage, which she views as a form of slavery. When she meets Alan Merrick and they fall in love, she refuses to marry him, but persuades him to become her lover anyway. He agrees with her principles, but has his doubts about the social consequences of their actions. Doubts which are fully justified when he unfortunately dies intestate whilst Herminia is pregnant.

Allen is at pains to point out throughout the book how pure in mind and deed Herminia is, driven purely by principle, and the mantra that truth will set you free. She is prepared, and happy, to earn her own living in her search for equality and freedom, prepared and happy to be shunned by society if by doing so she can set a better example for the women who follow her. What she doesn't bargain for is losing the man she loves, and being left penniless whilst she's least able to earn her living. Still, despite the warnings, she perseveres.

The situation Allen creates is a peach in its beautifully thought out unfairness. The impeccable social connections which initially make Herminia's unorthodox behaviour acceptable (in so far as going to Girton, taking a job as a teacher, living alone, and a taste for William Morris prints and lose clothing is unorthodox) in society, but once she's known to have taken a lover she's gone to far. It's also a scandal that we can surmise will hurt her fathers career within the church - and this is where I'm unsure of just how exactly Allen feels about his heroines decisions.

The sacrifices Herminia is prepared to make for what she believes in are one thing, but she's forcing the consequences of her actions on her father who simply can't be seen to condone his daughters behaviour, and can't really be expected to share her views privately either. Had Alan lived he would have had some stiff questions to answer on the topic of seducing Dean's daughters, and would have been cut off from his own family. There is also the question of where this all leaves Herminia's child in an age when being illegitimate still carried a considerable stigma. All the prejudices against Herminia's decisions might well be rank hypocrisy, but they're still real prejudices.

It's therefore not surprising when the daughter thoroughly rejects her mother's principles, finds herself utterly appalled and disgusted by the truth of what Herminia has done, and considers that her life has been ruined. At this point, in the best tradition, Herminia does away with herself (leaving a worryingly passive aggressive note for her teenage daughter).
One of the things that makes it interesting is that when Lynne Reid Banks wrote 'The L Shaped Room' almost 70 years later (1960) attitudes hadn't really moved on, or that having a baby outside of marriage would still raise eyebrows in the 1980's. Even now, the kind of open relationship that Herminia suggests looks unusual. Allen does such a good job of listing all the double standards and hypocrisies society exercises towards women, not all of which have been resolved, that it becomes compelling reading to see just what injustice he's going to heap on his heroine next. And if sometimes I wanted to shake her for her decisions, or questioned the precise nature of Allen's own convictions and conclusions on the questions he raises, this book has certainly made me fonder of him as a writer

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Bousta Beanie (more knitting)

I had a long list of jobs to do today (I should be reading Zola, writing about some classic crime, hoovering, and so on) but I can't concentrate on anything much thanks to the distraction that is the general election. I can't ever remember caring so much about the result, and am currently well on my way to being a nervous wreck. On the whole it seems like a good time to think about knitting instead.

I made a hat, specifically Gudrun Johnston's Bousta Beanie (the pattern can be downloaded Here where it's currently free). She is patron of this years Shetland Wool Week, a hat pattern has become a traditional part of the event, and it's been fun seeing all the personal variations each knitter brings to them over the last few years (what kind of a world was it before Instagram?).

This one is intended for D, who might even wear it, and will match the cowl I finished a couple of weeks ago. I love everything about Johnston's design - which is simple enough for even a very amateur knitter, such as myself, to follow without trouble. Love it so much I've already started another one for another friend.

Simple as it is, it's still a breakthrough for me (actually, just following a pattern is a bit of a breakthrough). One which will let me look at more ambitious projects with a bit more of a can do attitude, so a big thank you to Gudrun Johnston and the Shetland Wool Week team for providing such a confidence building project.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Salomé - Oscar Wilde

It's all about Rome this season at the RSC, which I'm not particularly enthusiastic about - at least neither R or I have found ourselves enthusiastic enough to commit to organising times, tickets, travel etc - but we've been missing Stratford trips so we decided we would see Salomé.

The last time I saw Salomé performed it was in Leicester, it's the only time I've ever managed to get D into a theatre, and it was the worst (that includes an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet) production I've ever seen. He has point blank refused to make a second attempt to see anything, which is a shame, but it was so bad it's almost understandable.

This time was better, but R and I still have some doubts about it.

For me the problem is that when I read Salomé what I find interesting about it is that Wilde has a young girl first of all expressing her desires, and when she's denied exacting a terrible revenge. It's still relevant because on the whole I don't see much evidence to suggest that as a society we're terribly comfortable with women, especially young women, expressing their desires or sexuality as blatantly as this. Salomé's demand for the head of John the Baptist is still shocking because it's really not how we expect women to behave.

This production particularly wants to look at the play through a gay lense, its marking 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, and it casts a young man as Salomé. The director, Owen Horsley, explains this decision:

"The figure of Salomé is a taboo as she transgresses the boundaries of both male and female sexuality. I wanted to focus on that ambiguity of gender and, as I am approaching this from the perspective of male sexuality, I wanted a man to play the role. Salomé will - through costume and actions - continually juxtapose male and female conceptions, remaining fluid throughout. When a man expresses fluidity with their sexuality, there is still a chaos and anger in respond to that. A gay man who doesn't feminise or masculinise his sexuality still faces problems in a society that can't understand or accept that ambiguity."

All of which is fair enough except that watching/listening to a man express his sexual desire, and then reacting with such violence when he's denied didn't feel transgressive, it felt depressingly normal. I also found Matthew Tennyson's Salomé mostly asexual rather than fluid. He was most convincing when he was briefly naked (and excellent in the last scene with the bloody head of Iokanaan cradled in his lap).

Basically it didn't really work for us, but then both R, and I would have been much more interested in a play that explicitly explored why we're still so uncomfortable with female sexuality and identity, so we weren't the most sympathetic audience.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Ten Books

Simon at Stuck In A Book has redone his ten random books meme (choose ten books at random of the shelf and talk about them, and yourself a little bit in the process). I enjoyed this last time (though how can it be so many years ago?), love nosing around other peoples books, and perhaps love rooting through my own books even more, where I can be guaranteed to find pleasant surprises.

The chance to find book treasures I might have forgotten I had seemed like far the best way to spend a few hours on a Sunday otherwise overshadowed by yesterday's attacks in London, especially as the rest of the day has been dominated by getting and setting up a new phone. (Obviously I'd forgotten all my passwords, and the very patient young woman in the shop might as well have been speaking a different language, it is clearly a sign of getting older when a new gadget raises dread rather than enthusiasm).

Back to the books; I'm currently overwhelmed by piles of unread books everywhere, so I thought I'd pick ten of them from out of various heaps before they (hopefully) find more permanent homes. It definitely seemed like a good way to find a few overlooked gems.

Zola's 'The Sin of Abbé Mouret' came easily to hand, it's only been in my flat for a week or so, was at the top of the closest pile, and is the next book I'll read. I'm slowly working my way through the Rougon-Macquart cycle, it's taking years, but there's no hurry. This one came to me as a review copy, and it's next on the pile because I've promised it to Shiny New Books. I'm looking forward to it after really enjoying 'The Conquest of Plassans' (to which it acts as a direct sequel) but I'm also wary of Zola after the excesses of 'Earth', it'll be interesting to see what mood he's in this time.

Robert Merle's 'City of Wisdom and Blood' is part of another epic French cycle (the fortunes of France, apparently Merle is a sort of modern day Dumas) this time passer blushed by Pushkin Press. I have the first 3 in the series (this is number 2), each of them makes me feel a little bit guilty. The problem is that they're quite long books (this one is over 500 pages) it's the same reason I have an armful of unread Dumas titles, there just never seems to be time to read them. There used to be time, I used to love long books, but somewhere in the last 3 or 4 years things have changed and I'm not quite sure what to do about it.

When I saw that Vintage had reprinted 'Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther' ibwas really pleased to see something other than 'The Enchanted April' or 'Elizabeth and her German Garden', then really surprised when I realised I didn't have a copy, I thought I'd collected all the old green Virago editions.  My enthusiasm for Von Arnim waned a little after reading Somerset Maugham lay into her (he made one fair points) but it's been a while and I'm ready to have another go. I want to read this one soon.

This particularly beautiful cloth bound edition of 'The Iliad' is another review copy. It's also a prod to remind me that having read, and loved, 'The Odyssey' when I was 17, it's basically been on a mental to do list for 26 years. It's taken me longer to get round to than it took Odysseus to get back home, and he took long enough over that. These editions from Oxford World's Classics are so very handsome, so very much the sort of book I look at and want to read, that maybe it won't be much longer...

I think it was Miranda Mills who recommended Eva Ibbotson's 'Madensky Square' a while ago. I'd read one previous Ibbotson for a book group, and thought this might make for some light reading to have on standby against the sort of week when nothing else will do. That week hasn't come yet, but when it does I'm prepared for it. I'm assuming this is the kind of book that will hit the same sort of spot that Georgette Heyer does. It might also be just what I need to balance Zola with.

I have a small collection (very small) of vintage Penguins. Some have been chosen for their titles, others for their authors. T. H. White is someone I keep collecting, but (again) haven't actually read much of. 'Farewell Victoria' is apparently a sort of overview of the Victorian era seen through the eyes of Mundy, as we follow him from childhood to old age when he's a still a groom, amongst an army of chauffeurs in an almost unrecognisable world. I need a rainy day and an absence of other commitments to get on with this one, it's exactly the sort of book I forget I have and feel excited about every time I turn it up.

'Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platnov' is another half forgotten treasure, I found it in a wine box that's enjoying a new life as a bookshelf on a windowsill behind blinds I never draw (because I have delicate watercolours hanging in my bedroom which can't cope with direct sunlight). I love fairy tales, myths, and legends, and am building up a reasonable library of them. The more I read them the more links between them emerge and the more interested I get.

Frédéric Dard's 'Crush' is a Pushkin Vertigo, I have a few in this series now, the ones I've read have all been excellent (Dard's 'Bird in a Cage' has the best twist I think I've ever read). I've been in a bit of a reading slump for the last few weeks, but just looking at this book is lifting it (Zola first). I wonder if it's better to have beautiful bookshelves with plenty of space where you can find everything, or to live in the equivalent of a second hand book shop with no discernible system but where you keep finding great stuff ? (The first probably, but chaos has its compensations).

'Long Live Great Bardfield: The Autobiography of Tirzah Garwood' represents my love for Persephone books (I've met some wonderful people thanks to Persephone books), and for the artists she associated with, as well as the artist Tirzah was herself. It's also another very long book, and somehow there's always something else to do before I can sit down with something like this.

'Arsene Lupin Vs Sherlock Holmes' by Maurice Leblanc published by Alma classics is sadly dust covered. I think I've read Leblanc before (I've certainly got more Lupin stories, but maybe unread). It sounds fun, slightly irreverent on the subject of Holmes, and I should have read it ages ago. At least it's dust free now.