Monthly Archives: April 2015

A little outburst about favourite books and authors

As far as books are concerned I don’t do favourites. I couldn’t tell you about my favourite book and I don’t have a favourite author. The very concept of ‘favourite’ makes me churn. I risk being thought pedantic, again, but read my 5 reasons about why I dislike the idea so much and see if you agree.

171 heart.svg

  1. The idea of favourites is more appropriately applied to colours or animals or even numbers when you are six years old and trying to understand the vast and various world in which you find yourself.
  2. A favourite is claimed as if it were a personal whim – almost random and certainly something to be proud of. It’s to do with making a statement about one-self, not about the qualities of the books/authors. ‘I don’t know why, but I just love anything by John Smith.’ You’ve heard that kind of thing?
  3. To have a favourite book or author is to approach it with a lack of discernment, judgement and it values sameness above all. What does one expect from a favourite except the same again? As a child I read every Enid Blyton book going. Judith Lovell was ill and had left her entire collection in our dorm while she recovered in Dar es Salaam. We devoured them until we began to realise they were so much the same that they bored us. Formulaic was not a word we used at the time, but that’s what we thought of them. We invented a workshop where Enid Blyton gave the ideas to elves and they concocted books to her recipes. And then we gave up reading Enid Blyton and moved on to Malcolm Saville. That’s what you hope to get from favourites – more of the same.

    Blyton Bookshelf by Blytonite at en.wikipedia

    Blyton Bookshelf by Blytonite at en.wikipedia

  4. Having favourites is encouraged by Twitter, with its ‘favourite’ button. I expect lots of twits (as a friend calls us), use it to save the tweet for later, as I do. It’s as easy as ‘like’ on FaceBook. Which leads to difficult verbs such as ‘unfavourite’, ‘unlike’ or the dreaded (and dreadful) ‘unfriend’.
  5. 171 star.svgOn the other hand, to say ‘one of my favourites’ is okay. I don’t think I’m being inconsistent here. One of my favourite novelists is Anne Tyler, but there are so many good writers it would be silly to say she was the one above all others, especially as her many books are of variable quality. Yes really. All good, and some very good indeed. And one of my favourite books is Pride and Prejudice, another is H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and another A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki and Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman and Middlemarch by George Eliot and … One of my favourites means this is a book/author I recommend.

So, do you agree with me – fixing on favourite authors and books does not encourage bold readers?

 

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Lady Susan by Jane Austen

I came late to Jane Austen. While everyone else was reading Pride and Prejudice for O Level I was with a group who were fast tracked, avoiding O Level English Literature, to use the time to read more. I wasn’t much impressed with the MGM 1940 film they watched of P&P: the young girls all seemed to giggle a lot and were dressed like shepherdesses. In the event I didn’t do A Level English Literature either. Jane Austen had to wait.

She had to wait until my adult reading years. I have read both P&P and Persuasion several times and her other novels at least twice. And biographies: Jane Austen, a life by Claire Tomalin and The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne. This second biography, despite its questionable title, is interestingly organised around objects in the author’s life.

170 Lady s coverBut I had never read her ‘other works’, those novels or fragments that were not published in her lifetime: Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon. And then finally I couldn’t resist the temptation of a new Jane Austen.

I needed something to clear my palate after a rather dark novel recently and so I picked up Lady Susan. It is an early work, never published in her lifetime, although she did make a fair copy as if at some point she was preparing it for publication. It is an epistolary novel, told through 41 letters and a postscript in just 60 pages.

The story

The story is somewhat racy, featuring a woman of questionable morals, a coquette. Not only is she sexually active with several men, but quite ruthless in her pursuit and use of them. Lady Susan is extremely lively and attractive and recently widowed, but she needs to leave the house of the Manwarings’ in a hurry. We learn from the opening letters that not only has she seduced Mr Manwaring but also a visitor intended for the Manwarings’ daughter. Lady Susan has plans for her own neglected daughter to marry him. She goes to stay with her deceased husband’s brother, where she is already in disfavour because some years before she tried to prevent his marriage.

For sport, and perhaps to keep her hand in, she ensures that the wife’s brother, Reginald de Courcy, becomes her intimate friend. It is testament to her powers that she succeeds in this when he already knew about her disgraceful reputation and when the mores of the time would usually prevent any intimacy between them. Her plans are ultimately thwarted, but not before we have been shown her full range of skills with men and women and her bullying cruelty to her daughter, Frederica.

Reading Lady Susan

It is a challenge to read a novel formed by letters. At first it was really hard to work out who all these people were, and their relationships. I solved my problem by making a chart. I had the same problem with Evelina, by Fanny Burney. In her introduction in the Penguin edition, Margaret Drabble suggests that epistolary novels were more popular in the late 18th early 19th centuries, for women in particular spent a great deal of time writing letters to family members and friends. Jane Austen herself was a voluminous correspondent. It’s how we know so much about her life.

Writing Lady Susan

Jane Austen's writing desk

Jane Austen’s writing desk

In the introduction Margaret Drabble discusses the limits of the epistolary form. It was also the original idea for Sense and Sensibility and you can trace this in its plot. The author must introduce to the reader the correspondents and their social circle who are known to each other, but not to the reader. For the novel to be authentic every letter writer is, to some extent, unreliable, and at least self-serving.

The first letter is from Lady Susan, and shows Jane Austen’s skill in alerting the reader to something not quite right:

My dear brother,

I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profiting by your kind invitation when we last parted of spending some weeks with you at Churchill, and therefore if quite convenient to you and Mrs Vernon to receive me at present, I shall hope within a few days to be introduced to a sister whom I have so long desired to be acquainted with. (p43, letter 1)

So why does Lady Susan need a new place to stay so urgently, and why has she not previously met her sister-in-law? The answers to both these questions are revealed in letters between different correspondents and reflect no good upon Lady Susan.

The second challenge of the form is the frequent changes of point of view. The first letter is short, the second (also from Lady Susan, but to her confidante) gives us a different view of the events. The third is from the sister-in-law to her mother (hope you are still with me) giving her account of the inconvenience of the impending visit and some background and responses to Lady Susan.

And every letter must add something to the story, move it on, reveal something about the writer, its recipient and about Lady Susan. Again, it is a remarkable skill in one so young that Jane Austen achieves this.

At the end of the novel after 41 letters, Jane Austen gives up the letters and summarises the final events. Lady Susan gets her comeuppance, the dim but rich young man she selected for her daughter.

It is also a challenge to write a novel (in any form) in which the main character is evil, difficult to like or sympathise with. There are some – Lolita by Nabokov, Money by Martin Amis for example. They are both written in the first person, which may or may not be relevant. Lady Susan is reviled by all the letter-writers, except herself and her confidante. And they get plenty of opportunity to show this. Again, it is Jane Austen’s skill to make Lady Susan a real person, rather than a cipher for badness. Nice young women in challenging circumstances are much more sympathetic characters. It is surprising that a young woman of 20 was skilled enough to make such a good job of it.

But Lady Susan does provide us with the pleasures of a bad person justifying themselves and revealing their darker side in unguarded prose. Here is Lady Susan planning her attack on her sister-in-law’s brother, Reginald de Courcy. She has been complaining to her confidante about being bored at her brother’s residence.

There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority. I have disconcerted him already with my calm reserve; and it shall be my endeavour to humble the pride of these de Courcies still lower, to convince Mrs Vernon that her sisterly cautions have been bestowed in vain, and to persuade Reginald that she has scandalously belied me. This project will serve at least to amuse me, and prevent my feeling so acutely this dreadful separation from you and all whom I love. (p52 letter 7)

But the risqué subject matter was not to the taste of the new century, according to Margaret Drabble, which might have influenced Jane Austen’s decision never to publish. The terrors of the French Revolution and anxieties of the wars with France, together with reaction to the excesses of the Georgian period resulted in a changed view of morality, the introduction of what we have come to see as Victorian attitudes. People thought it was better to hide vice, along with ankles and sex generally, rather than explore it in novels.

170 CassandraAusten-JaneAusten_(c.1810)I look forward to reading her other unpublished works.

A review can be found that considers Lady Susan alongside Jane Austen’s other novels, on Australian Whispering Gums here.

An interesting look at 2013 as a celebration of Jane Austen and associated events from the Los Angeles Review of Books in January 2014, Jane Austen, Feminist Icon by Devoney Looser.

Lady Susan by Jane Austen, in Penguin Classics series; included in the same volume are The Watsons and Sanditon. pp200

 

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World Book Night 2015

It’s nearly here. Thursday 23rd April is World Book Night 2015. It’s the time to celebrate and promote books and reading.

169 World Book Night logoThousands of books from the list (see below) are given away on the night to encourage the 35% of people who do not read regularly. The list therefore includes lots of different kinds of books, so there is something that will appeal everyone. World Book Night seems to be fading in other countries, but in the UK we have the Reading Agency to keep it strong.

Members and staff of the Society of Authors is taking part in an event at Shelter from the Storm, a free London homeless shelter.

Here is the list of books for World Book Night 2015:

  1. After the Fall by Charity Norman (Allen and Unwin)
  2. Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death by M. C. Beaton (Constable, Little, Brown)
  3. Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb (HarperCollins)
  4. Chickenfeed by Minette Walters (Pan Macmillan)
  5. Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts by Mary Gibson (Head of Zeus)
  6. Dead Man Talking by Roddy Doyle (Quick Read) (Vintage)
  7. Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden (Pan Macmillan)
  8. Essential Poems from the Staying Alive Trilogy, ed Neil Astley (Bloodaxe)
  9. Honour by Elif Shafak (Penguin)
  10. My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher (Orion / Hachette Children’s)
  11. Prime Suspect by Lynda La Plante (Simon & Schuster)
  12. Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle (Michael Joseph, Penguin Random House)
  13. Skellig by David Almond (Hachette Children’s)
  14. Spring Tide by Cilla and Rolf Börjlind (Hesperus)
  15. Street Cat Bob by James Bowen(Quick Read) (Hodder)
  16. The Martian by Andy Weir (Penguin)
  17. The Moaning of Life by Karl Pilkington (Canongate)
  18. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Penguin)
  19. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (John Murray)
  20. When God Was A Rabbit by Sarah Winman (Headline)
Three children reading a book together in a village in Nepal, April 2011. Photo by Nirmal Dulal via wikicommons

Three children reading a book together in a village in Nepal, April 2011. Photo by Nirmal Dulal via wikicommons

What can you do for World Book Night?

Visit the World Book Night 2015 web page.

Read a book from the list.

Aim to read the whole list before World Book Night 2016.

Give a friend a book from the list.

Give two friends two books from the list.

Buy all the listed books that you don’t already own.

Girl Reading by Homer Winslow

Girl Reading by Homer Winslow

Suggest reading a book from the list in your reading group.

Make a donation to support World Book Night.

Leave a book from the list on a train, in a café or in some other public place to be found by a stranger.

Read a book from the list that you wouldn’t have read if it wasn’t included.

Send the link to this post by Twitter to all your followers.

Read all the books on the list by women (the proportion has increased from previous years, according to #readwomen2014).

La Lecon by Renoir

La Lecon by Renoir

I first blogged about World Book Night 2015 last December. You can read that blogpost here.

Tell us what you will do for World Book Night. Tell what you have done for WBN.

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Learning about Ageing from Mrs Palfrey

Mrs Palfrey is the main character in Elizabeth Taylor’s 1971 novel – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. She featured in the very first post about older women in fiction on this blog, which considered how an older woman was represented in fiction. Here I want to explore what we can learn from Mrs Palfrey about how older people are treated.

mrspalfrey green

The story

Mrs Palfrey is a widow, whose daughter does not want her to share her life in Scotland. Mrs Palfrey finds an advert for residential accommodation in the Claremont Hotel, Cromwell Road, London. When she arrives she finds that a group of similarly aged people are already in residence. They share no connection beyond the hotel, but they have loneliness, reduced economic resources and declining physical capacities in common.

External contacts feature large in the social life of the older people at the Claremont, and Mrs Palfrey is pleased to have a grandson working at the British Museum, and she confidently expects an early visit. Not only will this provide her with company but also enhance her status in the residents’ small world.

When Desmond fails to visit she encourages Ludo to stand in for him. Ludo rescued Mrs Palfrey when she fell outside his bedsitter, and he willingly agrees to act as her grandson. Inevitably le vrai Desmond appears and confusions abound. Much of the narrative is concerned with Mrs Palfrey’s relationship with Ludo.

This novel offers a stark reminder of what it is to be old, and especially how the old are treated. But it is not depressing. There are cheerful spirits, warmth and enjoyment to be experienced.

Let us count the ways old people are treated.

  1. Family neglect

None of the old people would live in the Claremont if their families had taken them in. They all rely on their families for visits, trips out and material for social interactions. But the families for the most part see the old people as a duty.

Mrs Post is waiting anxiously for a cousin, but it is raining.

A summer’s evening drive had been promised, with a picnic. It was a yearly occurrence, and gave the cousin, who was ten years younger than Mrs Post, a sense of duty done which might last her, with any luck, for the following twelve months. [Mrs Post said] ‘As one gets older life becomes all take and no give. One relies on other people for the treats and things. It’s like being an infant again.’ (129-130)

Mrs Arbuthnot leaves the Claremont for alternative accommodation ‘Her indefatigable sisters had found it for her, and much humiliation she had borne while they were doing so.’ (102). She needs a place where ‘someone must be paid to dry up after her’ for she has wet her bed on several occasions.

When her grandson does not turn up at the Claremont Mrs Palfrey makes unsuccessful attempts to invite old friends who find excuses not to visit her.

  1. Economic exploitation

Choosing to provide care for the elderly as a commercial enterprise does not guarantee the quality of the care, or attention to needs. The management of the Claremont barely welcomes the older people, treating them as an inconvenience rather than guests.

The receptionist was coldly kind, as if she were working in a nursing-home, and one for deranged patients at that. (2)

Mrs Palfrey considers the outlook from the room she has been allocated.

From the window she could see – could see only – a white brick wall down which dirty rain slithered, and a cast-iron fire-escape which was rather graceful. She tried to see it that it was graceful. The outlook – especially on this darkening afternoon – was daunting; but the backs of hotels, which are kept for indigent ladies, can’t be expected to provide a view, she knew. The best is kept for honeymooners, though God alone knew why they should require it. (3)

And of course, the quality of the food, served in a three week menu rotation, is very poor, despite mealtimes being important markers in the institutional day.

And when Mrs Palfrey falls just outside the hotel, the manager Mr Wilkins wants her out of sight, more concerned to remove this embarrassment from the pavement than with her best interests.

  1. Regard them as Eccentric

It can be dismaying to consider the darker side of old age, the loneliness, physical decline, neglect and ultimate death. To distance themselves from these aspects of age many of the reviews of this book on other blogs describe the residents as eccentric. They are not.

Mrs Arbuthnot is malicious, spikey and unkind. She is also crippled with pain from arthritis, and suffering the humiliation of incontinence.

Mrs Post is anxious, always out of her depth, especially beyond the walls of the hotel, getting the right library books for Mrs Arbuthnot, or dealing with sharing the fare for a taxi.

Mr Osmond tells dirty jokes in a loud whisper to any man he can buttonhole, and likes to hold himself aloof from the ladies. He writes complaining letters to the Daily Mail of the ‘It would never have happened in former times …’ He is hopelessly out of his depth in dealing with slight acquaintances at a Masonic dinner and in his expectations of Mrs Palfrey.

Lady Swayne makes the most appalling prejudiced and bigoted announcements, prefacing them with ‘I’m afraid …’

I’m afraid I don’t smoke. I’m afraid I’m just common-or-garden Church of England. I’m afraid I’d like to see the Prime Minister hanged, drawn and quartered. I’m afraid I think the fox revels in it. I’m afraid I don’t think that’s awfully funny. (81)

Mrs Burton who loves to drink with her brother-in-law, or without him.

These people are all trying to cope with the difficulties of ageing. And while we might not condone some responses, they can hardly be described as eccentric – that is unusual or strange. Elizabeth Taylor’s craft is in revealing why they behave in these ways.

The film adaptation (2006) locates the story in the early 21st century, makes much less of the privations of age, and rather encourages the idea of eccentricity. I didn’t like it at all.

  1. Having respect

The delightful Ludo is respectful, attentive and helpful to Mrs Palfrey in a way that none of her family manages.

Mrs Palfrey grey

Learning from Mrs Palfrey

Despite all this, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is both a funny and an uplifting book. There is plenty of comedy narrated in Elizabeth Taylor’s controlled and wry style.

Mrs Palfrey has a three-part code of behaviour:

Be independent; never give way to melancholy; never touch capital. (9)

She struggles with all three and frequently has a word with herself when she begins to feel down. To be old and alone may be difficult, suggests Elizabeth Taylor, but there is dignity and new experiences to be had at any age.

In this delightful novel Elizabeth Taylor does a great job of respecting older people and sympathetically revealing the challenges they face. She doesn’t lump all older people together, shows us individuals coping in the face of difficulties. She uses wit and humour to point up how people respond to each other to protect themselves from these difficulties.

168 AgeUKWriting 40 years ago she identified an enduring feature of old age. Loneliness is still a killer for old people, even in a busy city like London. (God bless the Freedom Pass). There is a campaign end loneliness and AgeUK has also highlighted the issue.

Elizabeth Taylor did not live to be old herself, she died of breast cancer aged 63, her family still close to her. Yet she knew what it was to be treated with disdain, impatience, contempt and neglect in old age. We see all of these in this book.

§§§

I must thank my book group for enhancing my understanding of this book.

I have reviewed all of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels on this website. You can access them by clicking on the category Novels by Elizabeth Taylor or Elizabeth Taylor in the Tags.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was the first book to be reviewed in the older women in fiction series. You can see the complete list here.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor published by Virago Modern Classics 206pp

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Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction Shortlist 2015

BWPFF 2015 logoAnnounced on Monday 13th April 2015, here is the shortlist for the Baileys Prize.

  • Rachel Cusk: Outline
  • Laline Paull: The Bees
  • Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone
  • Ali Smith: How to be Both
  • Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread
  • Sarah Waters: The Paying Guests

160 How to be bothThe winner will be announced on Wednesday 3rd June.

These books were on the longlist:

  • Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart
  • Patricia Ferguson: Aren’t We Sisters?
  • Xiaolu Guo: I Am China
  • Samantha Harvey: Dear Thief
  • Emma Healey: Elizabeth is Missing
  • Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven
  • Grace McCleen: The Offering
  • Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star
  • Heather O’Neil: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night
  • Marie Phillips: The Table of Less Valued Knights
  • Rachel Seiffert: The Walk Home
  • Sara Taylor: The Shore
  • Jemma Wayne: After Before
  • PP Wong: The Life of a Banana

151 E missiing cover 3

And here’s the shadow shortlist from The Writes of Women blog:

  • Samantha Harvey    Dear Thief
  • Sandra Newman      Ice Cream Star
  • Ali Smith                    How to be Both
  • Sara Taylor                The Shore
  • Anne Tyler                A Spool of Blue Thread
  • Sarah Waters           The Paying Guests

 

Never mind the winner, here’s lots of lovely reading for us all!

 

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Buying Books or In praise of the Independent Bookshop

Reading books, the whole blog is about books. Organising books, I’ve blogged about that too. And about decluttering books. And about publishing our own book. But I haven’t yet blogged about buying books. So here goes.

Second Hand Bookshops

166 Mr WestonI love exploring these. I get tempted by the old orange penguin books (which must be why I have got two copies of Mr Weston’s Good Wine by TF Powys. Some people would argue that you can’t have too many copies of Mr Weston’s Good Wine. And indeed it is a very intriguing and original book.) I love picking up copies of books I should have read but have passed me by, or even books that I read from the library and now want my own copy.

I like the idea that other people have read them, although I recently came across a reference to baking books from Boots Circulating Library in the oven to remove ‘other people’s germs’. And sometimes I find bookmarks between the pages, or pencil notes in the margins indicating someone else’s interest.

Occasionally I buy second hand books on-line, but this is not as enjoyable as browsing through the shelves of the local Oxfam shop. The chief attraction of second hand books is the serendipity, finding that book. I found several novels by Elizabeth Bowen in this way, and my copy of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock was (to coin a quite dreadful phrase) pre-read. It also means I sometimes obtain a copy of a book I think I really should have, only to get it home and find I went through the same process about 3 months previously. There is the second copy already on the shelves!

I make contributions to these second hand bookstores as well. It’s part of helping books go round.

Bookshops

166 Perseph bppkshop intHow bookshops have changed. For a start there are fewer of them (fewer than 1000 independent shops in the UK). So it is a rare treat now to come across an independent book shop, reflecting the individuality of the owner. Perhaps a cat lives among the shelves, or a dog guards the till. There may be a jug of flowers on the table. A chair invites you to linger, perhaps by an open fire. A local author has signed five copies of his book and they are waiting to be bought, by the till. There are maps and local walks, railway histories, an intriguing selection of fiction and that category called gift books.

The second thing that’s changed is the pricing. Who pays full price for books these days? It seems that books are marketed like pork pies or crumpets, as if one book is the same as any other. The principal idea is BOGOFF (Buy one and get one for free). And you can buy them in supermarkets along with your pork pies and crumpets. Chain bookshops blast you with offers, or the apparent attraction of being newly published, or that they are recommended by the staff. This last I do find interesting, although rarely decisive.

And then, of course, there is Amazon. Loved that they made it possible to buy any book, and quickly. Hate that Amazon is taking over the world. I don’t believe that Amazon acts in the best interests of authors, publishers or readers.

When I buy on-line I go first to Hive, still discounted, still free postage and in some mysterious way, supporting local independent bookshops.

But my ideal book buying experience is without stress. The shop feels domestic, cosy but full of possibilities. The shelves are interesting, inviting, categories easy to find, and the staff knowledgeable and opinionated. It is an independent bookshop.

In 2014 Dulwich Books was awarded the title Independent Bookshop of the year in the Bookseller Awards, Children’s Bookseller of the Year was The Edinburgh Bookshop.

Persephone Book Shop, Lambs Conduit Street, London

Persephone Books window

Persephone Books window

Last week I visited a bookshop that I love. Persephone Books sell their own books, those lovely dovegrey volumes by (mainly) women, books that need publishing. Books such as these, reviewed on this blog:

They are objects of aesthetic pleasure, chosen with great good taste. And they offer 3 for £30, or £12 each. This week I bought

  • The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray
  • A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf
  • No Surrender by Constance Maud

166 Perseph bkshelvesThe pleasure of buying new books is enhanced by the domestic feel of the interior, the wooden furniture, cushions and fabric for sale (echoing Persephone’s trademark end papers and bookmarks, chosen from fabric designs contemporaneous with the contents of the book).

On the day I am there, as on previous occasions, office activities (such as receiving orders, enquiries about the Persephone Biennial Catalogue, payment issues) go on in the back of the shop.

Visiting Persephone Books reminds me of the importance of independent publishers, of the pleasures of buying books in nice shops and that I am not alone in wanting to go on visiting bookshops. (You can order their books online through the website as well as signing up for the daily Persephone Post, a visual treat).

Visiting Persephone Books reminds me that I am part of a community of readers.

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The Killing of Bobbi Lomax by Cal Moriarty

Three bombs exploded within 24 hours, even before this book started, and a fourth on page 158. Who on earth wanted at least four apparently unconnected people killed in Canyon County in 1983?

165 Killing of BLThis is the first of Cal Moriarty’s ‘wonderland’ series. She is due for exposure in the Faber Crime series. She is a graduate of Faber Academy’s Writing a Novel course. As were SJ Watson, Before I go to Sleep and Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

Some of the plot without spoilers

I found the plot somewhat Byzantine and hard to get into, but after a few chapters I got the hang of the main issues and the structure. We are in 1983, in the US, in a remote city dominated by a mysterious cultish organisation called The Faith. Like many cults they have enemies (including a breakaway group called the Real Faith) and a history to give the ruling fathers authority, the very creepy Order of the Twelve Disciples. As with many faith-based movements, their claims to power are founded in the documents that have survived from their past. It is upon this that the plot turns.

And being 1983 there are no mobile phones (only pagers) and no helpful internet. So our detectives have a great deal of legwork to do. We are helped to understand their quest by following their investigations in the 5 days after the third explosion. But also by an interwoven plot thread that follows one of the bomb victims from the summer of the previous year.

Some of the characters are easily recognizable as inhabitants of planet US police fiction.

  • The hard-bitten detective, Marty Sinclair (described as a veteran detective), who has lost people close to him,
  • His Latino side kick, Al Alvarez. There is a deep bond between them as a result of being long-term cop partners,
  • The attractive red-haired divorcee, Marion Rose, who quickly takes a shine to Marty,
  • Ziggy, who lives in a house built of books (brilliant detail),
  • The Captain in thrall to The Faith,
  • Rod and Ron Rook who deal in coins and antiquarian books,
  • The crook who married the much younger woman, scorning his wife of two decades …

But there are some interesting and original plot details.

  • Ziggy’s house,
  • The use of the theme of Alice in Wonderland …
  • … and of Edgar Allen Poe,
  • The details of the forger’s trade,
  • The mysterious Order of the Twelve Disciples who run The Faith,
  • And Mesmerism.

Actually this last element stretched my credulity too far. The story did not require Mesmerism, it could have stood up without it.

Loose ends

Having managed to keep the story, including the plot against the Faith, clear in my mind I was sorry that I did not find out what happened to the good guys: the two detectives and the redhead. In the postscript Abraham City, several years later there is no mention of them. They are no doubt being saved for the sequel, after all, as a result of the events in the novel The Faith is …

Come on Faber! The author’s name should figure prominently on the cover. On my uncorrected proof copy it can only be found among the blurb.

Good luck to Cal Moriarty. The Killing of Bobbi Lomax demonstrates that she has a good line in inventive crimes to be solved by an educated and troubled detective. The internet reveals that she has worked as a private eye and that a second ‘wonderland’ novel will appear.

 

Cal Moriarty, The Killing of Bobbi Lomax. To be published in May 2015 by Faber & Faber 335pp. My pre-publication copy was provided by the publisher.

 

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South Riding by Winifred Holtby

Mrs Featherstone occupied the corner chair in our staffroom, a specially imported armchair unlike the institutional ones provided for the rest of us. I was frightened of her at first, then in awe, then respectful and finally missed her when she retired. She sat throughout the lunch hour, and if children needed to speak to her they were allowed to enter. The rest of us had to speak to children at the door. Mrs Featherstone let it be understood that in her day colouring hair with henna (as I did) was a sign of loose morals. She also told us that before the war she had been required to give up teaching when she married. And she and her husband had bought their first house for £60. No-one, staff, students, headteacher was able to get anything passed Mrs Featherstone. This was in the first days of my teaching career in the 1970s.

164 cover S RidingMrs Beddows, from South Riding, seems to me to be very like Mrs Featherstone. She is the 13th in the series Older Women in Fiction on this blog.

Mrs Beddows

Alderman Mrs Beddows is 72 and like all the main characters in South Riding a rounded character. She is married to a man so mean that her own generosity is a form of repentance. She uses their social advantage to benefit the community through serving on the Council. In addition to the tedious work of inspecting cash-strapped mental hospitals, interviewing for a new headmistress of the grammar school and the countless committee meetings, Mrs Beddows also manages to dispense charity and find jobs and other solutions to the many difficulties of the inhabitants of her area.

Here is how Winifred Holtby describes her at the opening of the novel

She was a plump sturdy little woman, whose rounded features looked as though they had been battered blunt by wear and weather in sixty years or more of hard experience. But so cheerful, so lively, so frank was the intelligence which beaned benevolently from her bright spaniel-coloured eyes, that sometimes she looked as young as the girl she still, in her secret dreams, felt herself to be. Her clothes were a compromise between her spiritual and chronological ages. She wore day-to-day a dignified and beautifully designed black gown of heavy dull material; but she had crowned this with a velvet toque plastered with purple pansies. She carried a large bag embroidered with raffia work and had pinned on her rounded bosom the first crimson rose out of her husband’s garden. Actually, she was seventy-two years old, a farmer’s daughter, and had lived in South Riding all her life. (4-5)

There is a great deal of affection in this description. The character may well have been inspired by Winifred Holtby’s own mother.

In both her public and private life Mrs Beddows is loyal. She never complains about her husband’s freeloading and generously provides a home for her neighbour’s daughter. She loves this neighbour, Robert Carne, who is a gentleman farmer finding it hard to keep his farm viable. Not only is agriculture a difficult economic prospect but Carne has the expense of supporting his wife in an asylum.

Mrs Beddows also supports the innovative Sarah Burton, appointed to provide a better education for the girls of the area. Miss Burton attempts to improve the school in the face of lack of interest in girls’ education, weak and inappropriate teaching staff, inadequate buildings and depressed and troubled social backgrounds. She too is supported by Mrs Beddows.

164 S R green coverWinifred Holtby has given us a portrait of an active woman of the county, finding satisfaction and pleasure in being useful to the community. Mrs Beddows is not waiting for death, although aware of her age. ‘The consciousness of her three-score-years-and-ten arose and smote her. There was so much to do that she must leave undone.’ (335) This is her reaction to a tour of the mental hospital. There is an echo here of Winifred Holtby’s own mortality. She knew she was terminally ill with Bright’s Disease, even as she wrote South Riding.

South Riding

Mrs Beddows is only one of the strong characters in this novel, which is broad-ranging enough to have been compared to Middlemarch in its scope. South Riding is a fictional county. It always intrigued me as a child that while we had North, West and East Ridings of Yorkshire, there was no South Riding. And the idea of a Riding conjured up people on horses marking out the boundaries.

This is the story of a rural community in the 1930s, suffering during the depression years, with its inter-relationships, and ambitious people, and inhabitants trying to survive in the hostile economic climate. The community of the South Riding stands for the country in those dire days. Many people were still suffering from the effects of the First World War. Building the Land Fit for Heroes promised by Lloyd George was proving harder than anyone had imagined.

Despite the hardships, the members of the community do support each other, and this spirit may have been evident during the war that was to come within a few years.

Portrait of Winifred Holtby By Jburlinson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Winifred Holtby By Jburlinson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

While South Riding is a campaigning novel it does not read like one. It is admirable in its scope and for the careful plotting. It was the final achievement of Winifred Holtby, who died before its publication (March 1936) at the age of 39.

Relevant links:

Reviews on the Age of Uncertainty

And on Booksnob

Review of Land of Green Ginger on this blog.

Winifred Holtby was also a poet. I referred to her in a post about women poets of the First World War.

 

South Riding by Winifred Holtby, published by Virago Modern Classics since 1988, first published in 1938. 515 pp

 

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, poetry