Weekend Coffee Share 14th August: Other Ways to Book

If we were having coffee and you asked me what I was reading at the moment (people always ask book editors —and sometime-book-bloggers—what they’re reading at the moment), I would tell you I’m reading a (slightly disappointing) thriller and also doing a lot of faux reading.

Yes. Fake. Reading. When you are short on spare time (I have mentioned toddler twins, yes?), us readers must find other ways to book. And while I can in theory sneak in 15 minutes on my commute, and another 5 while I meander (carefully) the streets of central London on my way to the office, and perhaps another 10 in bed before I pass out for the night, it’s not really enough. Plus in the multitasking fury that is my brain sometimes those train rides are for other things like the grocery order, the birthday message that is 3 days late, a really (un)important Facebook update or some mindless staring while said brain fails to latch on to any one thing for more than 10 seconds. I’m tired. And my brain is tired and sometimes even reading, to my utter disappointment, seems tiring.

And so I have found myself listening and watching ‘books’ instead. I know stories are stories but of late my radio listening and television watching is geared to the literary adaptation, and somewhere in my chaotic mind this ‘counts’ as book time. Not that I should have to justify it. Well, except that I’m a supposed book blogger who is too tired to read… In any case I have recently enjoyed some wonderful renditions of novels that have then inspired me to seek out the original material so that one day I can experience them again (properly—well, as intended) in their text-based form.

Radio 4 is one of the great joys of living in the UK and apart from hosting the only soap opera I care about, they broadcast the most wonderful radio dramas. It is from here that I have recently enjoyed the sheer fun and exquisiteness of Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (thanks to a tip-off from a friend), and the rich, intense, ambitious novels of AS Byatt’s ‘Frederica Quartet’. On television we this week finished the third season of the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, a wonderful series based on Kerry Greenwood’s delicious novels set in the 1920s and featuring Phryne Fisher, the most fabulous lady-detective ever invented. Earlier in the summer a delightful adaptation of Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals (one of those books I fear everyone else in the entire world has read except for myself), kept us both entertained and endeared.

So here we are now on our second coffee (it’s been a long week, right?) and I can tell you that even though I may be too tired and my brain too busy to devote the time to reading that I would like, I am at least finding other ways to ‘book’, to immerse myself in intriguing, clever and enjoyable literature—the type of stories that both cheer and inspire.

And very soon, in a mere few moments, I will be off to bed with the thriller I’m reading to squeeze in 10 more minutes of reading joy before I pass out. Goodnight, coffee drinkers and readers. Book well.

Trick of the Dark by Val McDermid

I’m not usually backwards in coming forwards. On reading this statement, those who know me well are probably rolling their eyes and muttering a mutter of faux disbelief. ‘You don’t say, I always saw you as a timid creature lacking confidence in your own opinion.’ But often in these book reviews I meander about a little. A bit of entertaining waffle at the start, the occasional divulging of personal information no-one needed to know, a stab at describing a plotline or a thematic penchant, before a bit more waffle, a pronouncement of judgement, and a conclusive note that doesn’t always end up how I imagined it would when I started writing.

But this time. This time. No mucking around, no babble, no gushing, no sitting on fences. I’m embracing in my blog-personality that which is more apparent in my everyday non-blogging existence. I’m going to be straight with you good people: I did not like Val McDermid’s Trick of the Dark.

Charlie Flint is a psychologist who is asked by a former college professor to find out who killed her daughter’s husband on their wedding day. The mother suspects her daughter’s new girlfriend, Jay, a wealthy and powerful businesswoman who both Charlie and her teacher know from the college. It seems people who get in Jay’s way keep ending up dead, and Charlie takes it on herself to discover if this successful and rich business celebrity is actually a serial killer.

When I say I did not like this book, I mean it fairly comprehensively. I didn’t get much enjoyment from reading it, I didn’t have enough interest in or empathy for any of the characters, I didn’t find much in it to appreciate, I wanted to read it quickly but only so I could finish it. It wasn’t terrible (if it was I could at least lampoon it) it just wasn’t, well, it didn’t do anything for me and I couldn’t see how it would do much for anyone else. I found myself running through the questions I would have asked the author if I was editing the manuscript and the suggestions I would have made for changes to the text, and believe me, it is not a good sign when I am reading for pleasure and my editorial hat takes over. The significance of these opinions, for all the significance my opinions usually have, is that in the past Ms McDermid’s books have done something for me; I have enjoyed them very much. But here is the key difference: never before have I read one of Val McDermid’s novels that wasn’t a part of the Tony Hill series.

So I’m pondering a few things: Did the author just have a bad one? Did I just not get it? Is it only that I am terribly attached to the characters in her Tony Hill books (due to both the books and the television series) and those characters rise high above all others? Or are those novels Ms McDermid’s true calling and other stories are not?

There was a new Tony Hill novel released recently, and once it is in paperback I will be getting myself a copy to read (I almost splurged on the hardback when I was in Edinburgh a couple of months ago). But I don’t think I’ll go running towards Val McDermid’s other novels for some time. Trick of the Dark left me too disappointed.

Books that made me: Playing Beatie Bow

I have an overactive imagination. I am inclined to spend a reasonable amount of time in my head, and if left to my own devices the head stuff can start to dominate. It is difficult to explain. My mind doesn’t easily brake once a story is let loose, whether it is someone else’s tale or just a notion toodling around in my head. If you’ve seen the film Miss Potter and recall how Beatrix would occasionally address her painted creations, it’s a little bit like that. Rest assured I have all my faculties. I’m just a vivid daydreamer, I guess. On the politically correct school reports I believe exist these days (my teacher-mother once told me she can’t say a student ‘doesn’t understand’ something as that may imply that they’re thick) this habit would be referred to as: Strong visualisation skills. If  only I believed in all that The Secret rubbish.

I impart this weird personal information so that you know that when I say that every time I find myself in The Rocks in Sydney I think about what would happen if I turned a corner and found my modern self back in the ‘olden days’, you know that this is a fairly regular-type thought for me.  Let me explain. One of my very favourite books is Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park. Published three decades ago it is set in one of the oldest (and thus was one of the most notorious and wretched) parts of Sydney. A teenage girl, Abigail, is transported back to the late 1800s where she is taken in by the Bow family. It is a historical drama where Abigail learns some of the things she’s struggling to realise (or is lacking from others) in her contemporary life—ideas of family, of self-reliance, of love. In Abigail’s time Beatie Bow is an urban legend, a scary woman named in a children’s game. Abigail ends up in the past after following the child Beatie who she spies observing at the edge of one of these games,  through some kind of time slip.

The first time I read Playing Beatie Bow I finished the book, closed it, then promptly opened it and started all over again. I remember exactly the spot where I was sitting on my bedroom carpet.  The novel seemed to have everything a 10 or 11-year-old girl needed (sorry, I can’t quite recall how old I was). In my teenage years I read it several times, and that is rare. I am not a re-reader. Too many books, not enough time… Perhaps I did it more when I was a young thing, before all the necessities of life got in the way.

Why I wanted to re-read this particular novel is hard to explain (and, to be honest, clearly remember) apart from saying that I really liked it and that Ruth Park was a Very Good writer (which is hardly worth the trouble of posting, is it?). What I do remember is being swept up in a story that I never wanted to end, of caring very deeply for the characters (even though the protagonist could be a spoiled brat), of falling in love with the boy Judah just as Abigail did. I suspect that the boy thing had a lot to do with my quick re-reading. I have very strong recollections of some very strong reactions to the romantic elements in this novel. There is a kiss on a rowboat that filled me with giddiness the first (second, third, fourth) time I read it. Perhaps it was just the bloom of adolescence. Perhaps it was just exquisite storytelling.

On the blooming adolescence, there is also a mention of eyebrow licking that bamboozled me at the time and I must say that I am yet to come across it in my adult life  (well what I imagine was meant by it, anyway). It’s an odd thing to recall, I know, and it is merely the author describing some of Abigail’s previous innocent experiences with boys but it has always stayed with me. There are other, small (less odd) things I recall to this day: the lace of Abigail’s dress, a fire. It is not unusual for me to see or hear something even today which will make me think of  Beatie Bow. Especially when I am wandering The Rocks.

I have always been fascinated by The Rocks in Sydney. Harbourside with its wharves and chandleries, its sandstone buildings, narrow laneways and secret staircases, tales of murders and other awful crimes, houses of booze and ill-repute, the cellar rooms where unsuspecting schmucks were shanghaied onto ships, cobbled streets, the garrison church, the oldest pub (where I almost lost Middlemarch last week), and the observatory on the hill watching over it all. Perhaps it’s my convict ancestry which informs my interest. Perhaps it’s just the living, breathing history of the place that appeals. I don’t think Playing Beatie Bow started it (I think it was my mother, who has a great historical knowledge, is a keen family historian and used to take us off on fabulous excursions to places like The Rocks as children) but my affection for this book certainly helped lock this area and its stories into a part of my being.

Ruth Park won many awards for Playing Beatie Bow, both in Australia and internationally. I am not alone in my love or admiration for it. It is still in print (with the same cover I might add) and in the mid eighties a successful TV series was made of it. I suspect watching the series prompted me to want to read the novel, or inspired my mother to give it to me. It doesn’t really matter how I got my hands on the book, just that I did.

¨

Ruth Park died in December 2010.

Q is for Questions

At the end of the year we start asking ourselves questions. Did I do all I planned for the year? Am I satisfied with my life? How did I spend my Christmas bonus so quickly?

Q is for Questions. And who asks lots and lots of questions? Well, small children. Usually in the middle of an important over in the cricket or while you’re telling their mother an inappropriate story. But also detectives; and don’t I just have a tonne of detective novels stored up in the pile. And what a great excuse in these festive and ‘light-reading’ times to get back into some Regency murder.  That’s correct my cravat-wearing, cobblestone-strolling aristocrats, it’s time for another Sebastian St Cyr mystery.

There’s something about a southern hemisphere Christmas which makes me look forward to lolling about on a verandah with a reading indulgence or a favourite friend. And a Viscount Devlin mystery fits both these criteria. In the latest novel by CS Harris, What Remains of Heaven, Sebastian is asked to investigate the murder of the Bishop of London in a recently opened crypt and that of the 30-year-old corpse the bishop’s somewhat fresher body was found lying next to. At the same time, Sebastian’s relatives continue to attempt to marry him off, an old army colleague is trying to murder him, and he and Hero Jarvis (daughter of the evil and powerful Charles, Lord Jarvis) keep sidestepping a rather important conversation.

I am yet to find a St Cyr novel which disappoints, though perhaps this one is a little tamer than the others. Mind you, there is still a crime to be solved; action and attacks, intrigue and interest, close calls and clues—both to the murder and to Sebastian’s past. Perhaps I’m just impatient that I didn’t discover some of the information about Sebastian’s parentage that I wanted to, nor get to see a couple of plot developments I’m waiting on (and am now assuming will be revealed in the next instalment). Perhaps I was just disappointed that our hero didn’t spend any time in the bath in this novel…

One day, CS Harris’ mysteries/romances will be made into a TV series and the lucky man performing as our Lord Devlin will become a heart-throb the likes of who we haven’t seen since that time some bloke called Colin Firth played Mr Darcy. In the meantime, while the tube-watching masses are ignorant of the existence of Sebastian St Cyr, we the book-reading (and sometimes tube-watching) population can pour ourselves a refreshing cocktail, settle into a comfy chair on the balcony, put our feet up on the rail and indulge in these well-written, elegantly entertaining and fun-to-read novels.*

* In previous posts discussing these novels I have stated that they also suit stay-in-bed winter weather. I think we can thus conclude that Sebastian St Cyr mysteries can be read at all times, in all seasons.

Book 24: Fever of the Bone by Val McDermid

After a lengthy decision-making process of trying to work out which books to take with me on an overseas holiday (and some inspiringly creative packing), temptation stared me in the face at the airport when I saw that a new Val McDermid book was out. Bugger the embargoed boxes of the new Dan Brown waiting to be opened (yawn). I pushed the security guards protecting the Decoder out of the way to grab my copy of Fever of the Bone. If you like your thrillers intense and twisted, a long unrequited romance, protagonists with clear flaws, are a fan of TV’s The Wire in the Blood (even if it’s just cos you have a thang for Robson Green’s eyes) then Val McDermid’s Tony Hill series are for you.

The latest book in this psycho-detective thriller series was up to her usual standard and to be able to crack it open on the plane as soon as I had fastened my seatbelt, set my holiday off to a fab start.

So how do you choose the books you take on holiday? It’s the result of an odd and lengthy equation of desire and practicality, times the amount of space you have in your suitcase divided by the length of your holiday and squared by how fussy you’re going to be about what you read while on r ‘n’ r. (I hope it is all very clear to you now that I’m posing as an artsy fart and am secretly a mathematical genius.)

So yes, I am carrying several books with me on my trip and leaving them to the winds of various locations as I finish with them (the books and the locations). It’s tough. I know I have said before that I’m not overly sentimental about keeping books but the novels I have brought with me are written by some of my very favourite authors. This is what I went for: four books I have been hanging out to read, one I’m assured will be excellent, one to dip into something new. And of course the airport buy. As I’m mostly writing these entries a couple of weeks after finishing each book, I can tell you that I will have to be replacing most of them when I get home. But that’s the financial burden I was willing to make for creating space and alleviating luggage weight as I travelled. And of course, to read what I wanted.

I suffer from a little known phobia of being caught short without anything to read. So much have I trained myself to be a constant reader (that’s for the Crows Nest folk) that I really do panic if I suddenly have to get a train somewhere and I am without reading material. What the hell will I do for twenty-five minutes on my own….!?

Travelling solo, my books have enjoyed accompanying me to high tea at an olde worlde hotel, breakfast at a diner, lunch at a posh restaurant, dinner at a pub, several hostel common rooms and kitchens, and on oh so many buses and planes. More sociable than an MP3 player, you can retreat to the book if feeling loserly at the table on your own, but discard it when conversation or distraction arises, you can carry it as an intellectual prop, or whack it down for show and employ it for the great ice-breaking qualities a book holds. I’ve used it for all these, and many other, handy uses. Most of all, as an entertaining security blanket. Some people need to know they have their phone on them at all times, others a watch or special piece of jewellery. I just need to feel that familiar weight of bound pages in my handbag and I’m a happy woman. Wherever I may be in the world.

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Canadian depository for Fever of the Bone: Ocean Island Backpacker’s book exchange cupboard, Victoria, Vancouver Island.

Books 22 and 23: The Patience of the Spider and The Paper Moon by Andrea Camilleri

What is it about some novels that make you want to travel to the places they depict? It’s not just well-told descriptions of place, although that helps. It’s something deeper, a heartfelt emotional connection with the characters and stories of a particular setting; with characters who are likewise intricately entwined with their surrounds.

I was thinking of this kind of thing while travelling around Prince Edward Island (PEI) in Canada, the home and inspiration, perhaps life force, of LM Montgomery, creator of Anne of Green Gables. Thousands and thousands of people visit a tiny town on a small island to SEE the land where a fictional character resided. I did it. And every bookish person I know asked me if I was going to PEI on my Canadian travels. It was about all they wanted to know. And my visit to Cavendish was good and all was stunningly beautiful and satisfying and only served to place Anne with an ‘e’ on an even stronger footing in my heart.

So many novels do this to us. It’s why publishers so often refer to settings when promoting a book. Who doesn’t want to be whisked away to exotic or interesting shores? At the moment, my special novels which do this are the Inspector Montalbano mysteries. As soon as I open them I can smell the Mediterranean, taste the espresso, hear the church bells ringing and the scooters beeping. Whenever I read these books I want to runaway to Sicily and eat mullet on a paved terrace. Under the spell of the author’s words I am completely transported to the villages of Salvo Montalbano. Indeed, I feel almost Sicilian while I read these books. Ciao.

The transportation qualities of a good novel, is one of the most pleasurable things about reading. And when we read while we travel those qualities are at least doubled in power with the parallel journeys we’re taking. So at the moment I am enjoying the double delight of dining on lobster rolls and watching little fishing boats bobbing in the cold waters of the Canadian Maritimes in person, and indulging in clam linguine and zipping through the cobbled streets of a seaside Mediterranean village in my head (well, not zipping, really, because Salvo Montalbano drives likes his nonna).

A tough life, si?

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Canadian depository for The Patience of the Spider:  Halifax HI Hostel book exchange.

Canadian depository for The Paper Moon: window ledge of room 336, HI Quebec City.

Book 7: Rounding the Mark, Andrea Camilleri

If ever I wanted a character from a book to be real and whisk me away to their world, then Inspector Salvo Montalbano is the one for me. roundingI want to swoon into his arms and have him carry me to Sicily and we will live in his villa by the ocean and eat broccoli pasta and freshly caught squid (lightly grilled, with lemon), slurp espresso after a morning swim and catch the evening breeze on the verandah while sipping the very best whiskey as he tells me of his day policing an island which is endearing, terrifying and somewhat nutty all at once. Ah, Salvo, the times we would have…

I first came across Montalbano in my insomniac days when I would wathc the Italian telemovies on SBS late at night. They are fantastic and wonderful renditions of the novels, the characters are spot on, the humour just right, the attention to food, dress, literature, architecture, human relationships and foibles and all the things that make up Salvo and his compatriots is spot on and no one, no one aside from Luca Zingaretti could play Montalbano (and I freely admit to the Italian actor being a significant part of the reason I am in love with Salvo). And of course there is a liberal sprinkling of exclamations to the virgin mary, swearing against mothers, head slapping and cheek kissing that make any one who likes to like Italia tingle with joy. And there is the food, oh the food… and that romantic almost-decay of the buildings and people of Sicily…

The Montalbano novels are exquisite. I’m not sure what version of the crime oeuvre we should put them under. They’re more than cosies but never venture into the forensic or gruesome, they’re not procedurals because the over-bureaucracy of the Sicilian police force is often ignored by Salvo and his crew. They are just good – let’s say that. Any one who enjoys a classic British detective tale (or telly show – think Morse, think Frost, think Poirot) will like them. Camilleri is a master – his ability to portray life, to portray how humans and relationships areis a delight. The translator, Stephen Sartarelli, does a marvellous job – you wouldn’t know they were originally written in Italian.  They are funny (Catarella – the most perfect clown-simpleton character you will find), intelligent, whimsical, sad, beautiful – a joy to read (and also easy to read – how nice!).

I love these novels because they reflect a great love for life, for the things that make life a joy. Montalbano is a Good man, who often finds the modern world saddening, who fights for what is right, who is respected by his men, and also by most of the mafioso who tend to sit at the back of a lot of the crimes he investigates. He can be gruff and moody (especially if he is hungry), insubordinate, and the occasional insensitive bastard (oh poor Livia his long-term but far away girlfriend) but he is full of so much passion for all those joyous things: food, literature, sex, love, theatre, nature, children, humanity, his homeland, the good in people. Like many detective-protagonists he is often trying to retire (he’s said to be a little over 50 – and no, that doesn’t stop me wanting to run away with him) or be on holiday but the case will draw him in, usually because of some kind of injustice, the tragedy of the victim’s life, the inhumanity of the crime, the insanity or insensitivity or inability of the top brass. Oh and he doesn’t like guns and drives really, really badly.

Rounding the Mark is the seventh Montalbano tale to be published in English. It is a fine addition to a glorious series of novels (this one focuses on some nasty folk trading illegal immigrant children). They simply bring joy and happiness to my life and I’m sure if you read them they will to yours too.