Saturday, July 29, 2023

The Mysterious Mr. Badman - W. F. Harvey

This is the second bibliomystery of the summer from the British Library crime classics series and I particularly enjoyed this one. Athelstan Digby, who is big in the blanket industry, is on holiday in Yorkshire near his nephew Jim. His lodgings are part of the local bookshop and one day to help out his host and hostess he agrees to look after the shop while they're out. It turns into a fateful decision.

Three separate customers come in asking for a copy of John Bunyan's 'The Life and Death of Mr. Badman' - a vicar, a chauffeur, and an out-of-town stranger. It isn't in stock until late in the day when a young boy turns up with it in a bundle of books to sell. Mr Digby does what any right-minded soul would do - he buys it for himself and starts reading.

Before he's finished the thing he foils one burglary and still manages to lose the book. He also finds a dead body and damages his ankle. There are plots within plots from this point; murder, blackmail, politics, love, kidnap, and golden age Dutch art. Throughout all the adventures Mr Digby is a delight of a character. An older wiser man with an inquiring mind and a fine taste in art. He's assisted here by his nephew Jim, and between them, they meet plenty of disasters before managing to resolve everything satisfactorily.

It's fast-paced, gently funny, and I particularly enjoyed the slow reveals of Mr Digby's full and splendid character. A successful career in business and srt collecting has honed a sharp intellect and observational eye into something truly formidable for the criminal mastermind he finds himself up against. The biggest mystery would be why this book has been so rare until this reprint. 

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Strange Journey - Maud Cairnes

I have a backlog of basically everything to get through right now, but specifically the British Library Women Writers series, I have at last made a start with Maud Cairnes 'Strange Journey', an enjoyable body swap comedy of manners first published in 1935. 

Polly Wilkinson admire a luxurious car caught in traffic on her street one day, then a few weeks later finds herself unexpectedly catapulted into the body of Lady Elizabeth, the woman she eventually realises was sitting in that car. These translations one to the other continue to happen for increasingly long periods much to Polly's distress (especially when she comes round to find herself on the back of a horse mid way through a hunt) until eventually the women meet in real life and start to find a way to control what's been happening to them.

It's a charming book, told mostly from Polly's point of view, though Maud Cairnes - or to give her her full name, Lady Maud Kathleen Cairnes Plantagenet Hastings Curzon-Herrick was definitely from the Lady Elizabeth end of the social scale. I can't think of another body swap comedy which takes class as it's central theme as this one does, but it works remarkably well.

Polly makes a number of social faux pas but it's obvious that Cairns is mocking the artificial sophistication of her own set rather than the more natural manners of Polly's lower middle class circle. Polly comes to enjoy aspects of her time as Lady Elizabeth, notably her clothes and jewelry but her own marriage is altogether happier, her discontents more easily addressed.

Lady Elizabeth's husband sounds like a bit of a cad and although they manage to negotiate a new start in their marriage thanks to Polly's prodding their happy ending seems almost more unlikely than the body swap element, or at least it does if you have a dim view of infidelity). Polly's biggest issue is that her life is so hemmed in that she has very little privacy, but it's entirely probable that after her time as Lady Elizabeth she will find ways to carve out some space for herself.

The point of 'Strange Journey' though is it's charm which none of this conveys. It's a good natured, funny, book with female solidarity at it's heart. It doesn't take itself too seriously, and neither should we, but it's entirely enjoyable with an added pathos for the modern reader because we know that war isn't far away and have a good idea of how it'll upset the world for all the Polly's and Lady Elizabeth's.  

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Two Hats

About three years ago (which seems impossible) I saved one of Anna Koska's photographs on Instagram - honeysuckle taken in very low morning light. I really liked it and the colours have sat at the back of my mind ever since. Eventually, I decided to use them in a hat - the matches aren't perfect, but overall I'm happy with them. 

Hat number one has already been given to a workmate who's off to somewhere cold this coming winter, Her hat was experimental to try and catch the mood as well as the colours of the initial image - it was almost what I wanted but I thought it could do with a couple of tweaks. The second hat uses exactly the same colours and motifs but put together in a slightly different way and I changed the crown from dots to stripes - I don't think I have a preference for this, but overall hat number two works better for me in terms of hitting the mood I was looking for.

Balancing that, hat number one reminded me of some Victorian embroidery (crewel work possibly, on green baize) that I saw once and really liked and I'm very tempted to keep on playing with these specific colours - maybe making one of the pinks or yellows my main colour next time and seeing where that goes. One of the most fun things about Fair Isle knitting is in the seemingly endless variations you can get from relatively small changes.

The second hat doesn't yet have a home but I'd quite like to exchange it for a donation to Loros, the hospice that cared for my late friend in her last weeks - so if anybody wants to acquire a winter hat in the middle of summer please let me know and we can perhaps arrange something. 

Hat 2, yellow tassel

Hat 1 with Red Pottage in a classic Green VMC cover - another mood match!

Thursday, July 13, 2023

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London - Garth Nix

My reading, and in this case listening, is still skewing towards easy/comforting. I've looked at this Garth Nix title a couple of times at work and wondered if I'd enjoy it which made it a perfect audible choice. As far as I'm concerned it remained a perfect audible choice in that I liked it well enough to think I'll listen to it again, but also suspect I'd have got a bit bored with it as a book. 

Garth Nix is better known for his young adult books - this one is technically for adults, though as is often the case I can't honestly see what the difference would be. The protagonists are in their late teens and there's nothing objectionable, or particularly emotionally difficult, in the content, though it is at least a book that I could definitely enjoy as a middle-aged woman - mostly because of the many excellent literary jokes and references (some of which may go over the heads of younger readers). 

The Booksellers are a shadowy group of semi-supernatural beings whose job it is to protect the public from ancient and mythical powers whilst also selling a few books. The left-handed booksellers are the hands-on fighting types, the right-handed booksellers are the thinkers. 

Susan Arkshaw moves to London a few months before she's due to start at the Slade (in an alternate 1983) with the intention of finding her father armed with the few clues her mother, who apparently took too much acid in the 60s and can't really remember any details, has to his possible identity. Strange things start to happen almost immediately and then she meets Merlin (left-handed) and his sister Vivian (right-handed) who are investigating their mother's murder in their spare time.

Merlin and Susan quickly hit it off, the three of them go on an epic quest, and the booksellers prevail. There are dogs, jokes, and lots of literary allusions, and the audible version has an excellent narrator. It's what I think of as perfect holiday reading - a book that I think most people could pick up and more or less enjoy if they like fiction, so easily sharable. There's a sequel (The Sinister Booksellers of Bath) which I'll probably listen to as well at some point but beyond that, there's not much to say about it except maybe that it's the kind of reading I need right now. 

Friday, July 7, 2023

The Proof In The Pudding - Rosemary Shrager

As the temperature around here creeps up closer to 30 degrees, there are various warnings for thunderstorms, and the flying ants have emerged I've spent my day looking at the Booksellers round-up of autumn releases including all sorts of Christmas-related books - which is where we're at in retail. Rosemary Shrager's The Proof In The Pudding came out in February and I'm assuming will be in paperback in time for Christmas (I checked - it is) which is more or less when it's set.

I was sent a review copy, possibly back in February - I'm seriously losing track, and obviously waited for a heat wave to start reading. I liked The Last Super, and this one is very much more of the same. I like Prudence Bulstrode, National Treasure and one time celebrity TV cook now semi-retired and doing the private catering circuit whilst occasionally solving a murder, I like the character of Suki, her assistant and granddaughter, and there are plenty of plot elements that work well. there are some more that don't. 

Prudence's age isn't specifically discussed but kitchen work is hard work and the general impression is that she's somewhere in her early 60s (which makes her quite, but not impossibly, young to have a 17 year old granddaughter) but her attitude towards any kind of technology belongs to a much older woman. Rosemary Shrager will know better smartphones have been around for a while now, and I can't quite believe that Prudence wouldn't have any idea of how to operate one.

I had hoped for a little bit more character development too, and maybe some evolution of the writing style from book one - neither really happen. On the other hand, if you want some easy reading, an undemanding mystery, and a lot of fun food details you won't be disappointed. 

It's the food details that make these books for me. I have a lot of respect for the observational skills of professional cooks. Back in my wine days I was on a training course where the tutors consistently used confusion as a tactic - tasting white rum, vodka, gin, and silver tequila blind side by side to try and tell which was which (harder than it perhaps sounds) or tasting the same wine blind with 3 sets of notes and then having to vote for which was the best. The only person who wasn't fooled by the last one was an ex-chef. As well-trained as the rest of us were, we were also infinitely more suggestible when it came to taste and smell. 

That power of observation and the ability to rely on more than just what you can see and hear seems like an excellent skill for a detective. There's also the added delight of the menu planning and Pru's various reminiscences of old TV shows that she's done - these are the moments that lift the book and make it worth picking up. Look out for the paperback this autumn if for some jolly seasonal reading. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Legends and Lattes - Travis Baldree

I read a proof of Bookshops and Bonedust (excellent) which comes out in November and liked it so much that I went and bought Legends and Lattes. In a slightly confusing twist, Bookshops and Bonedust is a prequel to Legends and Lattes and both work perfectly as stand-alones so it doesn't much matter anyway. The key thing with both books is that, as the tagline says, they're high fantasy low stakes. 

In Legends and Lattes Viv, an orc who has been working as a mercenary for the last 20-odd years has decided to hang up her sword and try civilian life. She has discovered coffee on her travels and her retirement plan is to open a coffee shop. Along the way, she makes a bunch of friends, finds a girlfriend, negotiates with the local gangsters, and sees off an old adversary. It's sweet, funny, and overall comforting.

It's got a similar vibe to the recent Dungeons and Dragons film - a lot of affection for the fantasy genre, but in no way inclined to take it overly seriously. It's also been a bit of a Book-tok hit and I can absolutely see why. In a world that sometimes looks very much like it's falling apart a book that dwells at length on the glory of a cup of coffee and a cinnamon bun is a welcome bit of escapism. 

From the little I've read about Travis Baldree, he has a background in games development and has narrated several audiobooks - it's been an excellent grounding for writing his own books. He reminds me of early Terry Pratchett when he was more about the jokes and less about the politics - which I think is a good thing. I'm not sure about the category of cozy fantasy, or cozy anything. It's a word I think should be kept for duvets and scarves. Possibly wooly socks. On the other hand, I am definitely in the market for low-stakes good quality fiction whatever you want to call it.

It'll be interesting to see where Baldree goes next, it feels like there's more mileage in the world he's created, the characters, especially Viv are thoroughly engaging, the jokes are gentle, the world-building is excellent, and the quest to make good coffee seems like a noble one. Good quality escapism is welcome at the moment and something as light-hearted and joyful as this even more so. 

Monday, July 3, 2023

Uncle Paul - Celia Fremlin

It looks like Celia Fremlin's moment for a revival has finally arrived - 'Uncle Paul' isn't the first attempt that Faber & Faber have made; The Long Shadow and the Hours Before Dawn are also available though I managed to miss these promising-sounding reprints back in 2017 and 18 respectively. It does at least mean that I've got more to look forward to now.

Uncle Paul is narrated from the point of view of Meg, youngest of 3 sisters. The oldest sibling is Mildred now somewhere around 40 and almost 20 years older than Meg, is half-sister to her and Isobel, she bought them up after their mother's death. She was briefly married to the Uncle Paul of the title - until he was arrested for the murder of his first wife. Now 15 years later he's due for release. 

Isabel summons her younger sister to the south coast where she's enduring a caravan holiday with her two sons and new husband to help calm Mildred who is thoroughly worked up. Meg is leaving behind a promising love affair in London for the doubtful pleasures of a family beach holiday, and arrives to find that Isabel is possibly in more of a state than Mildred, with something seemingly very wrong between her and her husband.

The strong points here are firstly in the relationships between the sisters, Meg who is young, carefree, and pretty. Isabel, exhausted by balancing the needs of 2 young children against those of her older husband - a man who has spent most of his life in the army and is ill at ease with the disorder she creates and young children. Then there's Mildred, now married to a rich if inattentive man, a little bored, highly strung, and aware that she's aging. All three women have a reckoning to come to over Paul's fate - they all adored him, but did they betray him?

After that, there's the way Fremlin perfectly captures how awful a British caravan holiday can be, especially when it rains. How cramped everything is, the tedious games that very young children need everyone to play, the conventional civilities to be shared with neighbours, the rigidity of social structures, and how here at least for a mother it's no holiday at all. 

And finally - it's a funny book, there's a delicious streak of dark humour running all the way through it - I can't give my favorite quote as it's a spoiler, but the humour both heightens and balances the tension as the book reaches it's a conclusion with a twist I honestly didn't expect. This is a thoroughly absorbing mystery that earns its comparison to Patricia Highsmith.