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. 

Thursday, May 2, 2024

The Shadow Key - Susan Stokes-Chapman

I really loved Susan Stokes-Champman's debut, 'Pandora', it felt like a book that couldn't do a thing wrong for me, so I've been looking forward to whatever she wrote next with a great deal of anticipation. I'm not sure that The Shadow Key quite met my very high hopes for it, but I did enjoy it a lot, and I am recommending it to anyone who likes a nice bit of gothic fiction with just a hint of the supernatural.

This one takes place in Wales, it starts with an old man waking on a dark night hearing some odd sounds and then a light in his library where no light should be. From there we follow young Henry Talbot, a disgraced London surgeon on his way to Wales to take a post as a private family physician and village doctor. It's been an uncomfortable journey, the people he meets are unaccountably hostile, and when he reaches his destination the family he's meant to tend to are odder than he expected.

The owner of the estate is a young woman (Linette) who dresses in her long dead fathers clothes, her mother seems to be insane, and the uncle who gave Henry the job is mendacious at best, and there's an odd smell of sulphur that keeps cropping up. The villagers,with the exception of the local minister and a very beautiful young herbalist called Rowena, are more hostile than ever and there's a concerted effort to scare Henry away. 

Meanwhile Henry begins to suspect that the previous Doctor, the elderly man from the prologue, didn't die from natural causes, that there are some very strange features to Lady Gwen's supposed madness and there's a lot Linette isn't telling him. There's stories about hellfire clubs, and a lot of welsh folklore added to the brew as well. It's not the biggest spoiler to say (though skip past this bit if you want) that there's the suggestion of Devil worship and unnatural forces at play.

The last is where Susan Stokes-Chapman is especially good. She's expert at treading the line where one can believe what one wants - that there is a demon somewhere under the mountain, that there's an entirely logical and scientific explanation for everything, or both are true at once. It's a neat trick to be able to pull off and she does it brilliantly. 

Where I feel the book goes awry is in the very tight time scale - everything seems to happen in little more that a week, but it reads as if it's longer and it would make more sense if it was. the author talks about how long she went over deadline with this book and how many revisions she made to it - at times I'd say it feels overworked. Relationships become unfeasibly close after a couple of meetings, getting from Wales to London by boat in the 1780s with time to transact business whilst away takes barely a week, which is surely unlikely. Henry becomes a proficient rider after sitting on a horse once.  A flintlock pistol is described as working like a revolver. 

In Pandora a convincing 18th century London is created with a few broad brushstrokes and no labouring the point. 18th century Wales feels like a more nebulous projection, and maybe because of the speed at which everything happens like it belongs in the 19th century with all the advantages of steam power (and revolvers). That Henry manages to overcome an almost murderous hostility in barely a week seems optimistic too, although Linette's reasoning for why anyone English is hated quite as much as they are feels weak too.

Better is Lady Gwen who turns out to be an interestingly problematic character for her daughter to understand and nicely complicated for the reader - so overall it's an enjoyable and atmospheric book with a lot to offer even if I didn't fall in love with it the way I did Pandora.