A mixed bag

Some great, many good, two absolute stinkers.

Ngaio Marsh, Grave Mistake

I have no memory of ever reading this, yet it’s got a record in my reading diary from thirteen years ago so I’m obviously getting old and forgetful. It’s VERY good: a classic whodunnit set in the 1970s in an English country village and its grand houses, with at least five red herring suspects. No character comes out of it looking good except the middle-aged female playwright who narrates us through the startling events of social shaming and being taken advantage of. Two very nasty male pieces of work divide our impulse to hope that they did it, and there is an excellent exhumation scene. Also a touch of xenophobia that neatly places the reader in an awkward position of not wanting to seem racist for disliking X, but, honestly, X is just appalling. Or is he?

T E Carhart, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank

I really liked this. An American ex pat living in Paris with his wife and child in the 1980s discovers an atelier that sells and refurbishes pianos, and discovers a new world of musicianship. His account is a bit heavy on the technical aspects of how a piano works, but it’s a fascinating read, learning about a world of abstruse craftsmanship, and how the French exclude and welcome people into their different social strata, and how to get it right, if you can, as a foreigner. Music does away with a lot of the national barriers. We learn about Parisian piano culture, how people learn to play an instrument and the trade in pianos. After finishing this I went downstairs to look again at our piano (a Danemann, very traditional mid-20thC British), which is hardly ever played now but which I cannot see my husband ever parting with. And now I understand why. (I am not a musician.)

Philip Hoare, Albert and the Whale

This narrative about Albrecht Durer, he of the astounding timeless engravings from 800 years ago, could have been so good, and did start well. I liked the way quotations from Durer’s own writing were blended into an invented narrative voice, and the jumping around in time and place seemed manageable, as Durer travelled about Germany and the Low Countries looking for the corpses of whales. Then either my mood changed or my toleration vanished. I did not want to read an artfully referential and non-linear multi-period cherrypicking of useful elements from the vast sweep of European history. There is no validity, no measure, no context to cling onto. It might as well all be invented and I cannot be bothered waiting to work it out.

Do women write bad post-modernist novels too?

Laura Knight. A Panoramic View, (eds) Fay Blanchard and Anthony Spira

This was on my Christmas list for two years before someone took pity on me. It’s a beautifully produced collection of Knight’s paintings and drawings, taking us through her development as an artist and the subjects and themes she painted throughout her life. The sense of patronage from Knight’s great-nephew, who controls her estate, lies heavily on this book, and having had some experience of communicating with him I am not surprised. But he doesn’t seem to interfere much. The book includes a selection of essays by random artists which occasionally add insight to looking at her work. The most surprising and rewarding essay is by Monster Chetwynd, because it isn’t hagiographic and takes a different line about Knight and her art compared to the other essays. Another very good one points out the painful dichotomy of Knight taking the trouble to paint honest portraits of Black and Romany women with their permission and with artistic integrity, compared to the language she uses, unthinkingly, when writing about them. Was this just because this was the vocabulary of her day? Surely someone would have thought that the words used to describe these people were simply horrible, and could have chosen not to use them? But perhaps people don’t think much about words: I am sure that we’ve all caught ourselves up for using words that should never be spoken nowadays for their connotations as well as literal meaning. But aside from that, the paintings are glorious and can be looked at for hours. She was a great artist.

John Lewis-Stempel, Nightwalking

A neat little hardback sold at under a tenner, with a skimpy text consisting of four short essays about what it’s like to walk in the countryside at night in the four seasons, each followed by a series of diary entries from his own farm in Herefordshire and from a farm in France. ‘Potboiler’ isn’t quite the right word: ‘patchwork’ might be a better one, patches from his diaries, and I hope they are lucrative ones. I do wonder how a farmer with young children and stock to keep an eye on every day can also write so much and so consistently well. Here his writing is a bit overcooked. This little book is clearly published for his Country Life fans who adore his writing there and want to give him as a present to friends.

Alice Roberts, The Incredible Human Journey

Normally I would avoid any book with ‘incredible’ in the title, but I bought this on impulse because I’ve just discovered how blazingly good Alice Roberts is as a TV presenter who also happens to be a medical doctor and a university lecturer in anatomy, and wanted to read her in more depth. Belatedly, I realised that this book is fifteen years old, so the palaeology has undoubtedly been superceded, but the findings are still jolly interesting. She travels to the places where the earliest human fossils have been found (including the ‘Hobbit’ in Indonesia), to trace the routes used by ancient humans over the land and sea, and looks at traditional practices in those places to see how ancient proto-humans would have coped with the terrain, the climate, the natural resources to hand, and so on. Roberts is a very good narrator and explainer, and uses her science knowledge across disciplines to teach and inform, but not to obfuscate or show off. She keeps her private life and emotions out of sight (this TV series took her away from home and work for a year), but she’s open about experiencing joy, fear, embarassment and guilt. She’s also not shy about criticising the experts she arranges to meet to discuss their theories and work: some are plainly out on a limb in scientific terms, but their research demands attention, and she gives it. How she examines their interpretation of the new finds (stones and bones, mainly) is a cunning way to give context for what we see on the screen, and we get a strong sense of new theories about the origins of human society emerging from the chaos of the evidence. Strongly recommended.

Katherine Addison, The Grief of Stones

At last, a third volume to follow The Goblin Emperor and The Witness for the Dead! I gobbled this up, with a slightly slowing pace, as I tried to work out what she’s doing with the monkish detective who can speak to the recently dead in a highly stratified fantasy society. Near the end I was feeling overwhelmed by the high body count (as before, most of them are women), and then came the lovely passage about the stones grieving for the bodies that were falling on them, uninterested in who they were or why they were dying, just that they had died. The detective is Celahar, a prelate in the service of Ulis, and his cold logic is that murderers have to die because they show no mercy to their victims. This felt uncomfortable to me, as if mercy had been forgotten, which is partly why this series is so attractive: the world-building is phenomenal. We want to enter it but it feels truly alien in many small but stabby ways. Here Celahar has an assistant who is just beginning to learn her new skill of listening to the dead, a neat way for us to learn more about this process that the previous novels just presented on a plate with little background. We learn more about how the supernatural preys upon the living, and we are introduced to the bizarre photography industry which seems to have been used only for pornography, a fascinating take on how social norms become fixed. I think Addison has pruned away too many of the formal niceties that shaped the culture of this society: far fewer of Celahar’s conversations use the formal greetings and leave-takings that shaped so much of the interpersonal politics. There is also a major tonal shift in a graveyard with a schoolful of girls left guarded by a psychopath. I think this needed a stronger edit. As one of Addison’s clamouring fans I feel rather at fault for not being more patient.

Liz Williams, Embertide

This is book three of Williams’ Fallow sisters series, with one more to go to finish the final season in the year. The first novel, Comet Weather, was terrific. Blackthorn Winter was quite long and a touch baggy, though the story was compelling enough. This one is less baggy but the story has got totally out of control, as if Williams has decided to shake all her pagan playing pieces onto the table and use whatever she bloomin’ well wants to to take the Fallow sisters and their unearthly mother Alys on a journey that spins into and out of time, space and mythologies. I sense a lack of overall structure, and a great deal of world-building pleasure.

I would also like to know where the money comes from. Serena makes boho couture clothes for funky rich people, and Stella is a DJ and does private sets for rich people: that seems clear and is clever. Luna, normally travelling with Sam in their horse-drawn van, is expecting a baby so they are now living with Bee in the family home while Sam works in a neighbour’s stables (that kind of neighbour must be lovely to have), but I can’t recall how Luna earns her income in normal times. Bee keeps the house near Glastonbury, but what on? I have a vague feeling that she’s an editor or librarian, but work is simply not part of her daily life. So that bothers me. Even fantasy characters need to pay for the bread and cheese.

Selby Wynn Schwartz, After Sappho

I was given this as a gift for doing a talk, which was very kind of the bookshop because they were giving me a book that they loved. I did not love it. I couldn’t finish it. It is derivative, and highly disappointing if you’ve read any lesbian or feminist history or biography from the 20th century in Italy, Greece, England [not Britain because unknown Welsh lesbian feminists, for example, apparently didn’t exist], France [actually, Paris] and the USA, because everything in this book is pulled from that. The concept is interesting: short paragraphs headed with a note about who the paragraph is about, and a date. It’s mildly but not consistently linear. The paras repeat and combine themes overlying the idea of Sappho’s lesbian community living again in early 20th-century Paris, and elsewhere. The rich lesbian famous names you might expect from 1920s Paris are all featured: check, check, check, yawn. I liked the inclusion of Nora from A Doll’s House and the rending of the extraordinary patriarchal laws of Italy. But it goes on and on and on. I got about four-fifths of the way through by skimming from the halfway mark and could not be bothered to finish it.

Answer to question posed above: yes.

Christopher de Hamel, The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscript Club

I have one of de Hamel’s earlier books, another massive brick about medieval manuscripts with stunning photographs and I absolutely love it. I saw him at a local indie bookshop giving a talk with slides about this one and was so completely seduced by his stories about collectors and medieval Italian booksellers that I bought a signed hardback copy, heavens forgive me. It is EXCELLENT. Packed with story and history and theory and top tips about how to keep your parchment from curling. The colour images from manuscripts are just gorgeous, I could look at them for hours, peering at details and looking at letter forms. The footnotes were a delightful surprise, practically a parallel inside story as to how the book was written. Requires a small cushion on the lap to rest the book on, and bring it closer to the eyes for proper study. Or perhaps a book rest. Or a small lectern? It’s a wonderful book.

For more reports on what I’ve (mostly) enjoyed, look here.


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