More Ava Lee

The third Ava Lee novel, The Wild Beasts of Wuhan, finally turned up and I guess I have not to mind it took so long since it came from California. So then I read that and The Red Pole of Macau in 24 hours and now I’m back to ‘what am I going to read?’ You’d think I would learn.

They were both very different, which is something I’m appreciating about this series. In The Wild Beasts of Wuhan, Ava is tracking down art forgers to recoup the money for her clients. That takes her from China to Europe to the Faroe Islands and back again; the amount of time she spends on ‘planes is exhausting just to read about. It’s a fairly complicated puzzle to unravel but of course, Ava does. That is not a foregone conclusion, though and I wonder if there’s a future novel where it all does go wrong?

The back story is also building across the novels, and in The Red Pole of Macau it’s that which is the starting point. Ava is Chinese-Canadian, the daughter of Marcus Lee and his second wife, Jennie. Marcus also has a third wife who lives in Australia with her children. Although all the families know of each other, they remain separate.

Marcus asks Ava to help Michael, his son with his first wife, and this draws Ava into a family financial mess. Michael is also heir and future head of the family, who will pick up the responsibility for looking after all three families when Marcus dies. Although, based on the evidence of this novel, Michael is no kind of business man and they’re SOL if that happens. Anyway, when it transpires he’s gotten into a very dubious investment with what turn out to be gangsters, Ava feels she has no choice but to get the money back. The alternative is that Marcus will bail him out and the entire extended family will suffer.

In effect, a couple of idiot men have screwed things up and a couple of smart women will have to sort it all out. And that’s what they do. Michael’s dumb ass business parter gets kidnapped and Ava spins Michael a line about how she’s going to get the ransom money together, all the while planning a nice, set piece rescue. For this, she gets help from May Ling, her client from the previous novel and a woman with an enormous amount of contacts and influence.

There’s not more violence in this book, but it’s of a different sort and it starts to take Ava down a different path. She always refers to herself as an accountant, although acknowledging that if the people from whom she is trying to reclaim money are recalcitrant, she’s prepared to have their fingers chopped off to help persuade them otherwise. But the action in this book leads to an execution.

There are 8 further novels so far, and copies of those are all probably in California as well. So I’m interested to see how Ava’s character development goes.

In audio land, I’m spending a lot of time in Wyoming, with Sheriff Walt Longmire. This is doing nothing to put me off the idea of going to Wyoming. Big, open country full of no-one, you say? Huh. Now that I’ve finally upgraded my OS again and have AppleTV, well boy howdy, I get access to the TV show too. And therein rings the death knell of Netflix again.


Bank Holiday reading

It was such a relief to feel normal again when the migraine finally lifted. Friday I felt as tired as though I was convalescing after a long illness, but I was fully recovered on Saturday.  And so commenced the weekend’s reading.

The Complete Tales of Earthsea – Ursula LeGuin

I bought myself the 1000+ page hardback, with illustrations by Charles Vess and a ribbon marker. I read the whole thing through over Saturday and Sunday and while some was pleasingly familiar, the fifth and sixth volumes were completely new to me. I don’t remember how old I was when I first encountered the trilogy but I’ve always found them dark. The shadow that Ged unleashes when he tries to summon a spirit of the dead, the darkness of the Labyrinth, the misery of Ged and Lebannen’s journey to the Wall and struggle back to life. And yet, I read and re-read them in my teens and again in my 20s when Tehanu was published.

I absolutely didn’t know that LeGuin was doing something new with fantasy when she wrote A Wizard of Earthsea, and I definitely didn’t appreciate Tehanu. Like thousands of other readers, perhaps, I wanted more stories of the heroic mage. This encounter had all the joy of familiarity, but I appreciated the continuation of Tenar’s story and I realised she is the heroine of The Tombs of Atuan. I had thought Ged saved her, but first and then last, she has to save him.

LeGuin wrote what eventually turned into six volumes over the course of 33 years, from 1968 to 2001. It’s a master work of world building, dismantling and rebuilding that also deliberately redefines some of the tropes of fantasy as it goes. I loved reading it and that was 20 or so hours very well spent.

1984 – George Orwell

Why did I do this to myself? Why? But, unsurprisingly, 1984 has come up in conversation a couple of times recently and seemed due a re-read. Ugh. Contemporary parallels oozed unpleasantly off the pages: fabrication of news, doublethink, Newspeak, the existence of a (probably fake) state-sponsored enemy. The Two Minute Hate is just the obverse of a 1 Minute Clap for the NHS or whoever is in favour this week. Don’t forget to dob your neighbours in if they don’t clap!

I was also reminded of one of the narratives in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which I now can’t find on the shelves but in which I’m pretty sure there’s a fake rebel group, created by the government as a focus for any malcontents.

What’s more worrying is that I don’t believe Trump is intelligent enough to pick up any novel and use it like a playbook. But Johnson could, and apparently is, and if you aren’t genuinely scared then you aren’t paying attention.

Red, White and Royal Blue – Casey McQuiston

I needed a mental sorbet after 1984, so I bounced over to this again. And it did the trick nicely. It’s a great romance, the twist being that the eventually happy couple are the first son of the (female) US President and a handsome UK prince. So, not modelled on any of our actual princes.

Invitation to the Waltz – Rosamond Lehmann

Trawling through Backlisted Podcast’s backlist, I found an episode on The Weather in the Streets, also by Rosamond Lehmann. So I listened, and it discussed both books and I was reminded of how after I first encountered Lehmann I gradually tracked down all her novels. Invitation to the Waltz was her second novel and it tells a very simple story of one young girl’s preparation to attend a dance. I’ve never read anything else as good on the awkwardness and misery of attending a social event and it just not working for you.(Which is still my experience of all parties or group events where there are a lot of new people and is why I desperately avoid them.)

Olivia Curtis is 17 on the day with which the book opens, an unfinished, naive girl who is somewhat in the shadow of her more savvy older sister, Kate. Kate has wafted effortlessly through her preparations for the dance, from making herself a beautiful dress to manicuring her nails, and once arrived she is fortuitously introduced to the man she most wants to meet.

Olivia has simply not figured it out. The local dressmaker has botched her dress so it’s badly cut and ill-fitting, and various unfortunate partners are found for her so that she at least gets a few dances. She suffers a series of difficult conversations, because she has no idea what to say and isn’t pretty enough to be charmingly gauche. Her only positive interaction is when she escapes onto the terrace and meets Rollo Spencer, glamorous, older son of the house.

It’s not a coming of age story, because Olivia is just starting on that journey. But it’s a beautifully drawn family story, it’s insightful about class distinctions and the relationship between the sisters as well. Lehmann was hugely successful and critically acclaimed in her day: my copy is a US first edition and includes  a review that compares her with Tarkington (clearly still well enough known at the time not to need his full name). This novel is an accomplishment of literary legerdemain.

The Weather in the Streets – Rosamond Lehmann

Which picks up Olivia’s story some 10 years later, by which time she has drifted apart from an unsatisfactory husband. On the train home from London to see her father, who is suffering from pneumonia, she meets Rollo Spencer again. He is married, seemingly unhappily, and they quickly embark on an affair. The books charts the course of that affair, the dark restaurants and borrowed rooms, not-quite-successful weekends away and one bitter occasion when Olivia goes to Rollo’s home.

Of course Rollo maintains that he’s not sleeping with his wife. And, of course, he is, so the affair is fractured when he leaves Olivia in Austria on the pretext that he’s been called home on business. In fact, his wife is pregnant but Olivia doesn’t find that out until what seems to be the definitive break point.

The discussion on Backlisted concluded that Rollo and Olivia are kind to each other, and that Rollo isn’t a cad. They are for the most part, kind to each other. But while the narrative switches from first person to third person for Olivia, it’s always third person for Rollo. Olivia hides nothing from the reader, but Rollo is hiding some of the facts from both Olivia and the reader.  When the revelations come, they cast a different light on stages of the affair and on Rollo’s past and present behaviour, and motivations.

The quote on the cover of my Virago Modern Classic edition is Carmen Callill saying ‘The Weather in the Streets was our Bridget Jones’s Diary‘. I was a big fan of Bridget and maybe the quote serves to make the book seem friendlier, but… no. That is to overstate Bridget Jones and underplay Lehmann.


The important things in life

Which are, of course, biscuits, cats, tea and books. Hitherto, biscuits probably wouldn’t have made it onto my list, but now that I’m working from home, I’m finding the 10.30am chocolate digestive is a key element to a successful working day. Plus, I’ve realised that the 80p per day I was chucking into a vending machine for one Cadbury’s Snack! bar was a total rip off, when you get can get 2 packets of choc digestives for £2.


Belle remains my good cat and desk kitten. She has allocated desk space, demarcated by a folded blanket, and usually curls up there or on the window ledge. She only very occasionally interrupts a video call, but I presume that just helps someone win their current game of Video Call Bingo, so I don’t discourage her.

Charlie, on the other hand, although He Is a Good Kitten Really, has been wreaking havoc among the local young rabbit population. I saved one small bunny from his claws last week, and put it in the field over the road. It had hopped away when I went back to check later, so I hope that means it’s off for a long and happy life and was not the poor unfortunate that Charlie was snacking on a day later. I cleared up a lot of rabbit pieces from outside my back door this weekend and it was disgusting.


Another side benefit of working from home, is that I’m less dehydrated. If only to get a break from my screen, I switch some of my calls to phone only, which means I can wander downstairs and make a cup of tea. There hasn’t been room on the desk for a pot of tea, but that might be the solution for mid-afternoons now that I’ve reorganised a bit.  Anyway, lots more tea in my future, I hope, as I cling desperately to the idea of working from home for the long term and bat away the anxiety provoked by the thought of having to leave the house on a regular basis. And, breathe.


I’ve done a very poor job of tracking what I’m reading this year, but I’ve got the TBR shelf down to a single layer. My bookcases are all full, though, and I don’t have any room for the rapidly expanding number of Greek textbooks. There is one more wall where a half height bookcase could fit, but it’s an awkward width so will need to be made to measure. The list of ‘things to be done when people can come to the house and do them’ is gradually extending.

In more exciting book news, the Backlisted podcast is back, and they kicked off with Excellent Women by Barbara Pym so I shall re-read that over the next couple of days. I’ve still got some Reachers on the way from Blackwell’s and now I have another order building as books I’ve been waiting for start to hit paperback, and as I realise I don’t still have copies of books I used to own or thought I owned:

  • Earthsea trilogy – Ursula K Leguin. But now I remember I went looking for this in February and decided the lovely hardback was too unwieldy. What I really want are the 70s Puffin copies I first read from the school library.
  • Herodotus Histories – how do I not have this? How do I have Travels with Herodotus but not actually Herodotus? Where did it go?
  • Quartet in Autumn – Barbara Pym. Backlisted referenced it and I can visualise the cover but I can’t find it. So annoying.
  • A Thousand Ships – Natalie Haynes. Obvs.
  • Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell.
  • On Chapel Sands – Laura Cumming.
  • A Wreath for the Enemy – Emily Frankau (out of print)
  • The Mabinogi – Matthew Francis. Which includes the story of Blodeuedd, the woman made of flowers, which is of course the story used in The Owl Service by Alan Garner. So then I could re-read that again as well.

It’s such a shame that now when you put in a big book order, they’re delivered in dribs and drabs. I want one box with all of them in one go, so that I get the full excitement of lots of new books at once. Really I want them all in a sort of packing case, hand wrapped in brown paper and string as well, but that’s probably a bit too Charing Cross Road for these benighted times. Bloody progress.