“Gone with the Windsors” by Laurie Graham
This is a dreadfully dull book unless you have a particular interest in Wallis Simpson. I haven’t.
“A Traveller in Time” by Alison Uttley
My godson bought me this as a birthday present. I thought that his childish hand had been guided by his father but his father, when asked, said, “No, he chose it because he liked the cover”. In fact, as we all know, you can usually judge a book by its cover and he made an excellent choice. This is a children’s book about a house and a place. The heroine slips between early 20th century England and 16th century England. In the 16th century she is involved in the Babington plot to free Mary Queen of Scots. This is really quite unimportant when compared with the wonderful sense of place. My mother always says (a little gloomily as this is a problem of hers as well as of mine), “never fall in love with bricks and mortar”. The author is passionately in love with this house. The house, which is the lynchpin of the story is a real house. I am indebted to Wikipedia for alerting me to its existence and I was charmed to see that it is now a B&B. Maybe, I will be whisked off there for a wedding anniversary at some point (tum, ti tum, ti tum, just thinking aloud really). I loved this book and am only sorry that I didn’t first encounter it at 10 rather than at 40. But better late than never.
“The Reluctant Widow” by Georgette Heyer
I reread a lot of books. I don’t normally cover books I’m re-reading here (I like to give you all new material) but I thought I would give this a quick mention. It was one of the first grown-up books I read. My parents had brought it on holidays with us when I was 12 or 13 and I remember reading it while pumping up air mattresses and sneaking around to the back of the tent to peruse it in the ditch where I wouldn’t be disturbed and asked to do any of the many tasks which seemed to me to be doled out with displeasing frequency. I still remember my surprise when the hero proposed to the heroine and she accepted him. “She hated him”. It was my first encounter with romantic fiction. It’s perhaps not one of Georgette Heyer’s best works but I have a fondness for it. As I picked it up for the umpteenth time since that first reading, I knew that there would be no surprises in the plot and very few new insights in the text but it was warmly reassuring and held my interest sufficiently to make me sit on the stairs at one in the morning to finish it off [this often happens to me - Mr. Waffle does not approve of reading in bed after 11 - he is a morning person; so I come up from downstairs determined to go to bed and I read my book as I wash my teeth in the bathroom and convince myself that I will shortly put it down - I keep reading as I walk up the stairs and can't bear to put down my book so I sit on the top step, hot water bottle at my feet, book in hand and polish it off before I go to bed]. When I see my little girl sitting up in bed reading, as she has lately started to do, I feel a distinct thrill. I read her three chapters of the first secret seven short story (they wear buttons with SS sewn on them – really in 1948 what was Enid Blyton thinking?) and she was so curious she read the rest of it on her own. My parents maintain that Enid Blyton helped me to read with fluency because they couldn’t bear to read her aloud. By way of riposte I would say two things: 1. My father never read anything to us anyway as he detests reading aloud and 2. As someone who thoroughly enjoyed “The Girls of the Veldt Farm” which is so out of print that I can’t find a reference to it on the internet, my mother is in no position to be superior.
“Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman” and “The Royal Game” by Stefan Zweig
My friend D recommended these two novellas which are sold together. I distrust my friend D’s recommendation as she likes hard books. She is a big fan of “Austerlitz” by Sebald, for example. She read a biography of Hildegard of Bingen. For fun. She continues to maintain that it was a fascinating read.
“Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman” confirmed my worst fears. It is an Edwardian melodrama by an, until recently out of print, Austrian author who, with his wife, died in Brazil in an “apparent double suicide”. You can see why I might be nervous. I didn’t like it much. It’s about a middle aged woman who has a “coup de foudre” when she meets a young gambler. Underwhelming and overwrought.
Under these circumstances, you can readily imagine, the low levels of enthusiasm with which I started the second novella but I very much enjoyed “The Royal Game”. I note that the novellas were translated by different people and I wonder if that made a difference. Whereas I found the first pretty dull, the second was very, very exciting and I was completely engaged by the plot and the story from the very beginning. It was clever and it was interesting. It’s about chess, which I have only the haziest idea how to play; my ignorance was no barrier to enjoyment. Perhaps I will attempt some more Mr. Zweig.
“Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing with Fire” and “Skulduggery Pleasant: The Faceless Ones” by Derek Landy
Yes, I read a lot of books for children. Your point? These are not as good as the Artemis Fowl books, their natural comparator but they are entertaining. It is also great to see contemporary Dublin in this kind of novel. Very good. Volume 4 next year, apparently.
“The Other Hand” by Chris Cleave
This is a book about two women written by a man. A man who is a Guardian columnist to boot. While it at no point plummets the depths of Tony Parson’s “Man and Boy” (what could, we ask ourselves), there is, it seems to me, something similar in the smug, all-knowing authorial tone that hovers over both texts.
He is annoyed about how refugees are treated and he uses his book to explore this fictionally. I found the two female characters unconvincing. At first I thought it was because they were written by a man (what kind of a woman asks whether her tights match her shoes, seriously?) but then I encountered his male character Lawrence and found him unconvincing too. I think it may be because he is using them to make a point about the system rather than treating them as real people. Sarah is from Surrey and this is pretty much all we get on her background and we are to assume that she is a typical product of a happy marriage in the home counties but no one is like that and that kind of shorthand is lazy and undermines any appreciation of who the character is. Andrew, her husband, is Irish or of Irish extraction, it’s never really made clear and you might say it doesn’t matter but I think it does. The most successful character is Sarah’s little boy, Charlie. I did find him believeable. I looked on the author’s website and he says that he drew Charlie from his own little boy. He spent a week at home noting down what his son said and it shows. The engaging vitality of this little character highlights the lack of depth of the others.
The story trots along at a brisk pace and it is, on the whole, a very readable book. There are, however, long passages where, if you ask me, he lets himself get a bit carried away and loses momentum. Here is one of our heroines describing what oil taken from Africa is used for in the West:
“The heaviest fraction, the wisdom of our grandparents, was used to tar your roads. The middle fractions, the careful savings of our mothers from the small coins they put aside after the harvest time, these were used to power your cars. And the lightest fraction of all – the fantastical dreams of us children in the stillest hours of full-moon nights, – well, that came off as a gas that you bottled and stored for winter.”
If these little aperçus appeal to you, then this is the book for you. For me they struck a false note in the character (insofar as she is coherent and not a cipher used to exemplify the author’s – worthy – concerns) and slowed up the pace for a very contrived literary effect.
In my view, the problem of conscience and how to deal with plenty in a world of want is addressed far more more successfully in Nick Hornby’s “How to be Good.”
“Death of a Celebrity” by M.C. Beaton
My sister gave me this to read on the train. It’s that kind of book. A somewhat twee detective story set in a small Scottish village. By far the most startling thing about it was the fact that it had been turned into a television series where Robert Carlyle starred as Hamish Macbeth the local mild mannered policeman. Cast against type, I must say. It makes me think, though, that the television series must have been a lot better than the book as Robert Carlyle is good in everything.
“Dracula” by Bram Stoker
I am very susceptible to the power of advertising. If I see an ad for honey roasted ham at the bus stop, then I will not rest nor will the sword sleep in my hand until I have consumed some honey roasted ham. The disappointment is always huge, of course, when honey roasted ham, or whatever it is, turns out not to be the nectar of the gods.
In April, Dublin City Council runs an initiative called “One City, One Book”. The idea is to encourage everyone in Dublin to read the same book which is connected to the city in some way. “Dracula” was the chosen book for this year and every flag and leaflet in the city encouraged the citizenry to read it. Inevitably, I succumbed. Although the author is from Dublin, it does not feature in the text although St. Michan’s crypt (which the Princess and I recently graced with our presence before going to see justice dispensed in the Four Courts – it was a very educational day) apparently inspired the crypt where our anti hero lies during the hours of daylight.
I found the novel slow going at the start: lots of scenery in the Carpathian mountains and that. For a modern reader, the problem is that much of the suspense is removed. What might have been shocking in Gothic in 1897 is pretty well known to everyone today. Dracula’s eyes are red, he becomes alarming at the sight of blood, he has no reflection: these may well have been exciting new tricks 110 years ago but hardly now.
However, from about 100 pages in and the arrival of Dracula’s nemesis Van Helsing (who does not speak like a Dutchman – had the author ever even met a Dutchman we ask ourselves), things start to pick up. Nevertheless, I scare easy and I can say that this book is not scary. The writing style is hilarious and, if you were told it was pastiche, you would accept it willingly. The men are manly, the women are womanly and the vampires are, well, vampirely. And male vampires only go for females and vice versa though children are fair game for anyone. Harmless but dated and, I suspect, saved from oblivion by the fickle hand of Hollywood.