Category Archives: reading

In which I’m reading nostalgically

Back when I was a romantic slip of a thing, so roughly the dawn of time, I discovered that Jilly Cooper had written a whole series of books with girls’ names as titles. They’re all short romances and I galloped through the lot of them. They are literary Fondant Fancies – pretty, sweet but too many at once and you feel sick. Still, they seem to have been republished since last time I looked, and so I gave in and bought Harriet.

The eponymous Harriet is almost too naive to be true, but for the fact that I wasn’t far short of being precisely that sort of idiot when I was her age and first at university. In short order, Harriet gets seduced and then knocked up by a generic university golden boy bastard. He then promptly kicks her out and dumps her when his real, glamorous girlfriend comes back, and Harriet goes to pieces. Of course, she’s pregnant.

Golden boy bastard writes a cheque and pops her off to the doctor where he sends all his pregnant women. You get the impression that one more stamp on his loyalty card and the next woman will get a freebie. Harriet decides to cash the cheque and keep the baby.

Cue the hero, a grumpy writer whose vile-but-beautiful actress wife has just left him and their children. He needs a nanny, Harriet needs a job and a home. Of course, in the end the grumpy writer realises that Harriet is really the woman for him and, presumably, they all live happily ever after.

Obviously this is total nonsense, but Jilly Cooper’s style is perfect for it and she does have some nice touches. She was also one of the first writers I read who really dealt with some of young women’s reality: washing your tights in the sink, washing your hair with washing up liquid when you’re broke, scrabbling through a wardrobe of misfit items desperately trying to put something together that will reveal you as the elegant sophisticate you want to be as long as no one notices that you cut your leg when shaving with a dodgy old razor. In this one, when grumpy writer is being extra grumpy one morning, Harriet turns the waste disposal on so she can’t hear him. I do like novels in which people behave like people.

So hurrah for Jilly Cooper.

I also re-read Daughter of the Empire, by Raymond Feist and Janny Wurtz. It’s the first of a fantasy trilogy set on the world of Midkemia, which featured previously in Feist’s Magician trilogy.

So, Mara is the young daughter of a noble house, about to enter a religious order.  At the last minute, messengers arrive to announce her father and brother have both died in battle, and she’s now head of the house.

Midkemian politics, the ‘Great Game’ is of the intricate, bloody sort that makes Tory party backstabbing look like spring lambs gambolling in a field. Mara is immediately vulnerable, as a near miss assassination attempt makes clear, so she has no option but to become a skilled player very quickly. And that’s basically what she does in this book, surviving a brutal marriage, and a couple more attacks on her life to end up triumphant.

What strikes me this time round is how fast things move and how sketched in it all is. No wonder Game of Thrones was such a sensation, with its cast of thousands, protracted timescales and plot lines that are impossible to predict. I really hope GRRRR Thompson finishes the set because I haven’t watched the TV series and have no clue how he’s going to bring it all together.

But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Daughter of the Empire. I read it almost overnight, and I remembered more than I’d expected to. It was like watching a rerun of an old movie that you know isn’t that great but have residual fondness for anyway.

In which I fail the TBR dare. And buy books. And then read them.

So. Two blog posts ago, I excitedly signed up to the TBR dare and dug out the books that have been kicking around for a while unread.

In January, I re-read three books, faffed around online, paced the house and felt generally restless and ill at ease. The unread books remained steadfastly unread, and instead loomed at me accusingly from the window ledge.

Turns out that there’s a reason why they’re unread. It’s not that I never want to read them, it’s just that I especially don’t want to read them when they’re my only choice. But not reading anything makes me stressed and miserable and aimless.

So I did the only sensible thing and hit Blackwell’s, waving my account card triumphantly and to hell with the bill. (Which won’t turn up for a couple of months anyway because one of the endearing quirks of the account card is it runs so far in arrears and the statements are so impenetrable that I  basically never have a clue how much I’ve spent or when the amount will leave my bank account. As a result of which, I don’t bother checking.)

Anyway. I bought a lovely stack of books and I have read:

Watch Her Disappear by Eva Dolan. This is the fourth in the Zigic and Ferreira series and deals with the murder of a transgender woman. I like the concept of the Hate Crimes Unit, it’s a nice device for Dolan to explore less ordinary murders. This one explores the trans community a bit, sympathetically overall and without reduction to stereotypes. The perspective on the murdered woman, Corinne, shifts around as well. Of course she’s a victim, but as more information comes to light and the witness interviews mount up, it becomes clear that she could be very unpleasant.

Since the last book, Zigic’s wife has had another baby, and Ferreira has moved into what appears to be a grotty flat and is having an affair with a superior. But by the end of the novel, the Hate Crimes Unit is closing  – is this the end of Zigic & Ferreira?

Real Tigers by Mick Herron. In which someone has kidnapped Catherine Standish to try to get the Slow Horses to steal some files from MI5 in return for her release. As ever with the internal machinations of MI5, there are wheels within wheels and the double-crosses come thick and fast.  In this one, the body count went up a bit as well, with a splendid shoot out. On balance, I think you’d want Jackson Lamb on your side. Just not close enough to be able to smell him or let him steal your food. He does get all the best lines, though: ‘Mind like a razor. Disposable’.

Daughter of the Wolf by Victoria Whitworth. This got onto my list after a glowing review in The Sunday Times, so I was very pleased to find it. I really hope it’s the start of a series, because it felt like a story that had further to go and I found it absolutely engrossing. The premise isn’t that unusual – local lord goes away leaving untried daughter to rule for him – but the setting is pre-Norman England so the historical elements are really interesting.

And some others.

Finally, as I said to Mr W, I’ve struck audiobook gold with A Dance to the Music of Time, narrated by Simon Vance. It’s been years since I read the quartet, but I’m finding it pleasantly familiar. I may swap back and forth between print and audio for the rest, although it’s a great accompaniment to the business miles and means no risk of accidentally hearing any news on the radio. I find Simon Vance’s dry tone is perfect for Nick Jenkins. But ugh. Widmerpool.

In which I’m still employed

And that’s about all I want to say about it. The company is in the early stages of the consultation process, and a horrible thing it is too. I’m getting off lightly compared to colleagues whose jobs really are on the line. It has been stressful, and continues to be difficult.

I totally failed to do anything productive for a couple of weeks, other than obsessively check LinkedIn for jobs. I’m still waiting to hear back on a couple, but I’m not particularly hopeful. I think I’m at an awkward stage, because I jumped careers and now my experience doesn’t look as though it stacks up for the roles I’m going for. So I’m not minded to stop looking just yet – a backup plan ain’t a backup plan unless you know it’s going to work, and if I’m not getting interviews then something’s not right.

On the plus side, I’ve just clawed my concentration back and managed to read novels. After almost dry January, I started drinking wine again (it was the ‘Hey! You might be losing your job, but we’ll tell you in two weeks, ok?’ message that did it) but I think I’m about ready to stop again for a while longer. The next step is some exercise. I don’t know how I’m going to pick that back up this time round, especially as I swore I wouldn’t do another 10k. But without some kind of goal, it’s too easy to walk right past the gym and come home.

Life doesn’t get any easier, does it? But, hey. The immediate pressure is off. It’s almost spring. I have vacation booked for March. I made a banana cake and some coconut macaroons yesterday. My boyfriend starts his new job tomorrow, and that’s pretty exciting for him. The cats are healthy, I’m healthy and my sister just bought me this mug as a gift. Life may not get any easier, but at least it keeps flowing along and you can’t cross the same river twice.

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A literary tour with Peter Wimsey

I sent Mr W Kai Lung’s Golden Hours for his birthday, and he asked me how I discovered Ernest Bramah. It’s another one of those examples of books leading to books. In this case, the starting point was Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers. This is the book in which Peter first meets Harriet, not in the best circumstances given that she’s on trial for her life, accused of having murdered her lover. Peter attends the trial and decides she’s innocent, that he’ll help with her defence and that he’ll marry her when the trial is all over. Of course, true love doesn’t run anywhere near that smoothly. Harriet, badly emotionally battered by her previous relationship, ashamed and truculent, has no value for herself; Peter has much ground to make up for his early, ill-timed proposal, when, by saving Harriet’s life, he’s put her under an obligation to him that she feels can never be repaid. Their spiky, difficult relationship that is yet a meeting of minds, plays out through several of the novels until Gaudy Night.

But back to Strong Poison. In Peter’s first interview with Harriet, she quotes ‘but however entrancing it is to wander unchecked through a garden of bright images, are we not enticing your mind from a subject of almost equal importance?’, to which Peter responds, ‘And if you can quote Kai Lung we should certainly get on together.’

I was always charmed by the way Peter and Harriet delighted in language and swapped literary references, and the name Kai Lung was odd enough to capture my attention. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read all of Sayers’ Wimsey books (I don’t like her Montague Egg stories), her books fall right into the comfort read category for me. Over the years, as references have gradually dropped into place, it feels as though I’ve decoded their private conversation. We did Donne at school, so there’s Peter’s major love covered, but one year mention of a Forsythe fell into place, then Religio Medici (in Gaudy Night, Harriet discovers a copy in Peter’s pocket when he’s fallen asleep while they are punting on the Cherwell, and takes it to read until he wakes up).

I haven’t searched anything out deliberately, so it was only last year that I came across an old Penguin copy of Kai Lung’s Golden Hours. I had no idea what to expect, but the eponymous Kai Lung is a storyteller who, imprisoned on some trumped up charge, manages first to prolong his life and finally to save it through his clever telling of stories. They are sly and charming, with much of the humour in the language itself, and having read them adds another layer to the characters of both Peter and Harriet. I haven’t re-read Strong Poison since Kai Lung, but I wonder what else is there to be discovered?

2015 reading plans

Not that I ever stick to a plan, but this is what’s on the TBR shelves at the moment. As well, there are assorted Thrush Green novels but I’ve only read the first and I don’t have the second, and of course I have to read them in order.

  1. Nos4R2 – Joe Hill – I started this over Christmas but I’m not really enjoying it. I can’t tell if that’s down to the pick up, put down way I was reading, the fact that I was ill, or that the story isn’t working for me. It’s reminding me of Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls, which I also disliked, so that’s not helping.
  2. The Financial Lives of the Poets – Jess Walters. There’s a bookmark sticking out of the very middle of this. I was finding the narrative voice a bit full on and unappealing, and also characters doing any kinds of drugs and describing the effects on them gives me the major snores. Unless it’s de Quincey. I’ll give it another go because I really liked Beautiful Ruins.
  3. Number 9 Dreams – David Mitchell. Bought on recommendation from Zool at Blackwells, and supposed to be Christmas reading until Christmas was hijacked by the never-ending cold.
  4. The Old Wives Tale – Arnold Bennett. Heard about Bennett on that R4 book programme and tracked this down.
  5. The Goshawk – T.H. White. Bought after I finished reading H is for Hawk. Like everyone else last year.
  6. Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel. Marcy raved about this to me and I’d never heard of it. Since then, of course, I’ve read at least a couple of great reviews and wondered how I missed it. Hat tip to Marcy!
  7. Mrs Hemingway – Naomi Wood. This has been kicking around on the edges of my notice ever since Naomi Wood was at Stories Aloud.
  8. Tom Jones – Henry Fielding. One of my Blackwell’s monthly books that is as yet untouched.
  9. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy – Laurence Sterne. Ditto.
  10. Slowly Down the Ganges – Eric Newby. Found at a second hand book stall on a terribly rainy Bank Holiday weekend.

Did I ever finish The Faerie Queen? No, I did not. Going on holiday in September delayed progress, and then I reorganized a few shelves and couldn’t find it for a bit. By which time, I’d lost momentum. I still really want to read it, though, so I’ll aim to get back to my ‘as many quartos as I can at the weekend’ approach. Maybe my new year’s morning weekend ritual can be: make ginger tea, 10 minutes meditation, a bit of The Faerie Queen.

Then there’s Proust, the perpetual elephant in the room. Sigh. In fact, I’m giving up making any commitment to Proust, while I try to figure out my own peculiar reluctance  to vol 3 when vols 1 and 2 were great. It’s either that, or book a weekend in which that’s all I do, in the aim of cracking vol 3… which is actually not a bad idea… hmmm.

So that’s, what, Jan and a bit of Feb taken care of? I shall try not to buy any new books until I’ve finished these (Proust excepted), then I can go on a major binge in February. I win!

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

Due small print, I got a proof copy from Transworld by asking nicely on Twitter.

Rachel is the girl on the train, and she’s an unemployed, recently divorced alcoholic who is getting the train because she used to work in London and that’s what she does. The whole framework of her life has collapsed and she has no idea how to put it back together again, and this is her way of treading water. Rather than paying attention to her own life, she creates a story around the lives of a couple whose house the train passes, and who coincidentally live on the street where Rachel used to live with her ex-husband. I think anyone who has ever commuted regularly will know the idle speculation that goes on as you become familiar with snapshots of other people’s lives, so this way into the story really appealed.

And then the woman from the couple, Megan, disappears, and Rachel thinks she has information relevant to the investigation because one morning, as the train passed Megan’s house, she saw her kissing a man who was not her husband.

But, Rachel is a thoroughly unreliable narrator. Not only does she have blackouts after drinking, but she’s been behaving a bit crazily towards her ex-husband,Tom, and his new wife, Anna. The police have multiple reasons not to trust her, but Rachel is a bit obsessed with Megan and she won’t give up. It’s as if she wants to protect the fantasy life she’s created for her, so she starts her own investigation.

There are some good twists, so I’ll avoid spoilers. I like this as a thriller and also as a character study of someone who has fallen pretty far down the ladder and might just be on her way back up. Rachel isn’t entirely sympathetic but somehow, Megan’s disappearance gives her something to seize onto. Seeing it through offers her some sort of redemption, even as she continues to screw up any remaining friendships along the way. She’s also not the only unreliable narrator; pretty much all of the characters are hiding something and so the reader’s understanding shifts as Rachel starts to piece together the truth and her own part in it.

In which I embark on reading projects

 

Update: I’ve started with the Faerie Queen and I’ve read the Nabokov. Oh yes.

The recent run of summery weather must be over-heating my brain and making me lazy. After all, it surely can’t be the early evening gin & tonic or Pimm’s that is wrecking my concentration and making me disinclined to read anything more demanding than chicklit. Yet, with a TBR shelf that isn’t doing too badly at the moment, I don’t have anything I want to read. But as I’ve just bought a new, and horrifically expensive car, I’m feeling too guilty to go and buy a stock of book shaped mind snacks as well.

Instead, it’s time to crack on with some of the titles that have been hanging around for far too long as it is. Maybe this will be the summer in which I finish vol 3 of Proust? (I can see Mr W laughing out loud at that one). Well, maybe not, but a little more discipline wouldn’t go amiss.

So, here’s a summer reading list. It’s not complete because it’ll doubtless get interspersed with ad hoc choices and the monthly delivery from Blackwell’s. And first, I need to clear the decks and finish No Harm, but then it’s full steam ahead!

  1. The Faerie Queen – Edmund Spenser. This has been sitting on a shelf for five years. Five years! I know, because when I opened it up I found, firstly, a bookmark at the end of the first canto (oh well done me, tremendous effort that); and secondly, a receipt from a bookshop in Amherst. I’m thinking, one canto per day. It’ll be a bit pathetic if I can’t manage that. I might see if I can get it on audio as well, then I can switch back and forth.
  2. Family Life – David Kynaston. This has been sitting around for so long that Kynaston has delivered volume 3. I almost bought it as a matter of course before remembering that I hadn’t got anywhere with vol 2. Sigh.
  3. Speak, Memory – Vladimir Nabokov. I’ve absolutely no idea where this came from. It’s a US copy but that isn’t to say I didn’t pick it up last year on the grounds that I’d read it at some point. Anyway, I was quite surprised when I found it on the bookcase, and moved it to TBR at once.
  4. A High Wind in Jamaica – Richard Hughes. I actually only acquired this one a couple of weeks ago, but I do know my own tendency to go off the idea the longer a book lies around unread. Unfortunately, I just abandoned Hughes’ A Fox in the Attic. On the plus side, A High Wind in Jamaica has pirates and morally challenged children.
  5. The Story: Love, Loss and the Lives of Women – Victoria Hislop (ed.). I keep telling myself that as this is short stories, one can just dip in and out at whim. Which is true, but very little dipping is happening and it is too beautiful a volume to be neglected.

There you have it, kids. You may all mock me as being a namby-pamby, illiterate lightweight if I don’t make it.