Evil under the Sun by Agatha Christie

The weather has turned from grey and gloomy to the other extreme. It hit 31C at Fennell Towers this week, which frankly,  is too much for my English rose complexion to cope with. It was Factor 50 all the way. It did however lend a lovely backdrop to reading Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie. I know this story well, having seen the film multiple times and read the book at least twice. Nevertheless I still enjoyed it. 

Evil under the Sun by Agatha Christie

Evil under the Sun by Agatha Christie

Poirot is on his holidays at a hotel on an island off the coast of Devon, the Jolly Roger. His fellow guests include Arlena Marshall, a beautiful actress and notorious flirt. She soon sinks her claws into Patrick Redfern, much to the annoyance of his mousey and quiet wife Christine. The rest of the guests, including a retired Major*, a fashion designer, Arlena Marshall’s husband and step daughter, and Mr and Mrs Gardener a couple of American tourists watch as the flirting escalates and the humiliation of Christine accumulates. Sat on the terrace Poirot spots a sequence of events that he fears will lead to murder**. Poirot of course is right, and it isn’t long before the body of Arlena Marshall is found on a beach in a cove. It is a tough and confusing case, everyone seems to have a rock solid alibi, and Poirot supports the police in trying to work out what happened. 

This is a hugely satisfying mystery. The characters are great, and I was particularly fond of the very talkative Mrs Gardener and her very quiet husband Odell. You will know people like Mr and Mrs Gardener, and it’s hard not to smile as Poirot becomes verbally pinned to his seat as Mrs Gardener repeatedly assaults him with hour upon hour for chit chat. The set-up for the unmasking of the murdered is very clever, Poirot setting a trap, and the actual mechanism of how the crime was committed is complex and as perfect as anything of Christie’s I have read. Add to it the summer holiday tinged with murder feel and it’s a winner. 

 

*Obligatory in a Christie

** I have to say that if I ever found myself on holiday in the same place as Poirot, I’d pack and go home sharpish.

Corduroy Mansions by Alexander McCall Smith

Corduroy Mansions by Alexander McCall Smith

Corduroy Mansions by Alexander McCall Smith

I have to be honest I have never really got on well with The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (although I approve of the correct use of the apostrophe). I do enjoy the Scotland Street books, and this is the first of the Corduroy Mansions stories. 

Set in Pimlico in London, Corduroy Mansions in the nickname for a block of flats where a bunch of quite desperate people live. William, and his ex-vegetarian dog live in the top flat, and is desperately trying to evict his son, whom he feels should really be standing on his own two feet. His son thinks his Dad is having some kind of midlife crisis, and wants to stay in the flat as an easy route to home ownership when his Dad finally pops his clogs. 

Downstairs is a flat shared by three young women. One is a vitamin addict and provider of free colonic irrigation to her rather reluctant friends, one is studying art history and has fallen for her gay friend, and the third is PA to Oedipus Snark, the nastiest Lib Dem MP you can imagine. 

An accountant lives on the ground floor and likes to leave flowers in the hallway for everyone to enjoy. 

Other characters, including Oedipus Snark's Mum, uncle and girlfriend make their impact on the residents of the flats. It is all extremely gentle, funny, and completely devoid of any real nastiness. Even the MP, as horrible as he is, is more pantomime villain than conniving political bad guy. 

Sometimes the timing of when you read a book is as important as the book itself. I picked this up, without thought, from my bookcase, and found a charming, witty, observant story about a group of people who genuinely want to be good neighbours and help each other out. It is exactly what I needed, high literature it isn't, but if what you need is the literary equivalent of a warm blanket, a cup of hot chocolate and a nice biscuit, then this is it. 

A Tale of Four Kettlebells

A few days ago I finished my Duke of Edinburgh Diamond Challenge. On January 1st 2016 I challenged myself to complete 10,000 kettlebell swings by the end of the year. The number of swings was less important than making me train regularly. Since the start of the year I have trained at least three times per week, not missing a single session. 

Kettlebells

Kettlebells

A couple of thank yous. Firstly, thanks to everyone who sponsored me, I have raised over £300 for the Duke of Edinburgh Award charity, which will help young people complete their own awards. Secondly, thanks to The Delightful Mr F who counted all those swings. He was my independent ajudicator!

The first month was slow progress, but I have learned that constancy and persistence pay off. For the most part I have been doing on the minute training, swinging the bell for a given number of reps, then resting for the remainder of the minute. Rinse and repeat. I started with the 16kg bell, six swings per set for 10 mins. By the end I was using the 24kg for some sets, 10 swings per set and training almost daily. 

For those who like stats, here are some numbers:

Training sessions: 94

No of kettlebells: 4 (16kg, 18kg, 20kg, 24kg)

Weight moved: 168.96 tonnes

Locations: Our garage, a gym in Warwick, a car park in Manchester

I'm an engineer, so we have to have a graph don't we? So here we are a graph of cumulative swings against date. 

I have really rather enjoyed this, so the question is what next? Well, next I am working on my deadlift and pressing which have been sadly neglected, so this morning the trap bar was re-commissioned and my press technique checked by The Delightful Mr F. I'm ready for the next challenge.

Number 11 by Jonathan Coe

This is Coe's 11th novel, and the number repeats throughout the book as we join and leave a variety of characters making their way through life in the years following the millennium.  We begin with the eight year old Rachel, staying with her grandparents at around the time of the death of Dr David Kelly, the event having an impact which she carries with her into adulthood. Rachel and a friend meet a woman with a kestrel, and who also may, or may not, be keeping someone in her basement. We move on and join a woman who travels on the number 11 bus, around and around Birmingham because her house is too cold and she can't afford heating. We watch as some art critics are seated at table 11, and as celebrities are humiliated and manipulated by a pair of TV presenters in the jungle, whilst the superrich dig basements under there houses in London. All of these characters and circumstances are loosely held together by the number 11.

Number 11 by Jonathan Coe

Number 11 by Jonathan Coe

The social commentary on austerity Britain, the cruelty of reality TV and the viciousness of the internet and social media are laid bare for the reader, and it is hard not to flinch at some of it. There is a dreadful misunderstanding lasting for years down simply to an autocorrect on a smartphone, which made me wonder how many perfect good friendships have been wrecked by similar confusion. 

Whilst this book makes some very serious and acute obeservations on how we live now, and the impact of the financial crisis, it is very witty in places, just as satire should be. Funny, but with a sting in the tale. 

A long time ago I read The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim, which I enjoyed very much, but felt Number 11 was much better. I suspect that if you are one of the rare few in the "high net worth" category, you aren't going to enjoy this very much, but perhaps you should read it anyway. Everyone else will see a distilled down version of Britain, and perhaps now, more than ever, is the time to try and change these rather unpleasant aspects of our society.

Here Be Helens

Hoot the library owl is very, very cross

Hoot the library owl is very, very cross

Well, 2016, what on earth have you done to me? It is now July, halfway through, you pesky leap year you, and I have barely blogged since the Christmas decorations were packed away. I’ll tell you what you have done 2016. You have warped time, in some Stephen Hawking, timey-wimey, Dr Whovian, time-turner kind of way.  Your messing with the space-time continuum has meant that import things have piled upon important things leaving little time for reading, let alone time for blogging about reading. Well, enough is enough and I shall no longer tolerate such a cavalier approach to our fourth dimension. For the rest of the year, I plan to read at every opportunity. Tucked in my bag is my “on the go book” for reading in queues, on trains and at lunch times. I also have a list. Yes, a list 2016! A list of books I intend to read before you come to an end. You know how good I am with lists. Give me a list, and I’ll get to the bottom of it, ticking off every item with a ruthless efficiency. You may want to speak with your pal 2017, I intend to tackle 2017 in full literary sail. If you come between me and my reading again I shall be very cross indeed.  Consider my library one of those places on old maps which say “Here Be Dragons”, in this case though, “Here be Helens”. Don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

Literary Links

I haven't done one of this for a very long time, but a wonderful random selection of interesting bits and pieces have landed in my inbox and I thought I would share. 

The winner of the Clip Carnegie Medal has been announced as One by Sarah Crossan, published by Bloomsbury. I haven't read it, but it sounds stunning. The story revolves around a set of conjoined twins who have to go to school as they can no longer be home schooled. The Carnegie Medal doesn't shy away from difficult topics (see The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks), and this promises to be another worthwhile read. 

BBC Radio 4 are setting out to celebrate Roald Dahl's 100th birthday with a series of dramatisations and documentaries. I rather like the look of the one about the Gremlins story. 

Meanwhile, over on your tellybox, BBC Four has a documentary called B is for Book, about children learning to read, following them over a year. This has the potential to be fascinating, one to record I think. I can remember being taught to read, but have no idea how long it took me to start to read independently. 

Finally, Carol Ann Duffy is doing her bit to support independent bookshops. Why not do your bit too and buy a book from an independent, either in person or online on their websites. You'll be supporting a good local business, and you'll have a new book!

Where In The Literary World Are You Today?

Today I am with Tommy and Tuppence. Apparently there are some spies in a boarding house on the South Coast, planning to wreak havoc on the Allie's war effort. Tommy and Tuppence are having none of it and are working on unmasking the fiend. My money is on the retired Major...

- N or M? by Agatha Christie

It's been a long time...

Honeysuckle in the Fennell Towers courtyard

Honeysuckle in the Fennell Towers courtyard

...coming. Not this blog post, although my blogging frequency has been somewhat erratic of late. No, what we have been waiting for has been The British Summer. In the world of books The British Summer seems to exclusively be the glorious "perfik" summer days of The Darling Buds of May by HE Bates. In reality of course it is mostly a mishmash of cloudy overcast days, scattered showers, sometimes torrential, with the odd day of beautiful blue clear skies, where people rush outside and get burned to a crisp*. 

This morning though has been one of those days which suits me perfectly. The sun has been out, but it isn't too hot, there was a light breeze which animated the trees that surround our house, the birds were singing** and for the first time in several months I have had a day free of work, health issues, and chores. I popped along the road to get the Sunday papers, a rare treat these days, and decided to sit outside in the Fennell Towers courtyard. We have a back garden, skilfully maintained by The Delightful Mr F, which produces lots of fruit and veg for us, but at the side of the house, enclosed on three sides is a courtyard. I have spent a wonderful few hours ensconced in deckchair with the papers and an Agatha Christie. There is no better place, in my view, to read an Agatha Christie than in a garden, surrounded by the scent of honeysuckle on an English summer's day. The genteel pace of life combined with a brutal stabbing / shooting / poisoning*** can't be beaten. 

So, I am happily relaxed, safe in the knowledge that over the next few chapters Tommy and Tuppence will unmask the spies apparently lurking in a boarding house on the south coast in amongst the retired majors, old maids and mysterious hotel managers. 

I hope you are having a lovely literary weekend, and perhaps this is a sign that The British Summer has arrived. 

 

*I burn badly and quickly. I learned a very long time ago that when the sun comes out, it's time to slap on the factor 50 and head for the nearest shade. The lobster looks does nobody any favours.

** Probably because they are high on the fruity nibble bird food we put out for them this morning. they go nuts for it.  

*** Delete as applicable

 

The Last Reef by Gareth L Powell

I will openly admit I know very little about Science Fiction. Not because I dislike it, but just because I read so little of it and I don’t know where to start. It isn’t often I thank Facebook, but in this instance it put me in touch with an old school chum, Becky,  who is now married to Gareth L Powell, Sci Fi author extraordinaire.  A Facebook chat ensued and Becky recommended The Reef to me as an introduction to her hubby’s work. I duly trotted off to the library to get a copy.

The Last Reef is a series of short stories, some of which have given rise to full length novels. I am not sure I am going to be able to describe this book and do it justice, but I’ll give it a try.

This collection may be catalogued under “Sci-Fi”, and it is, it has all the hallmarks. Spaceships? Check. Alien planets? Check. Lots of cool tech? Check. It also has very human and well-drawn characters, driven by real emotions and thoughts and. The backdrops that Powell has created also feel strangely familiar, despite the futuristic setting. I guess human motivations don’t change, just the tools at our disposal.

Out of the collection I had two particular favourites. The Last Reef explores the idea of artificial intelligence networks, and the mega-corporations exploiting them. I am not going to even attempt to explain this, it is far better to read the story. What really engaged me was the recognition that we may not be close to this level of technology yet, but I am not sure we are as far away as we think. The dire warnings from Professor Stephen Hawking on AI ran through my head as I read.

The second story which really got to me was Arches. Arches have been popping up randomly around the world, and when people go through them they don’t come back. An arch opens up in Oxfordshire, and of course our heroes decide to drive through it to try and find a lost brother. On the other side they find various waifs and strays and end up in a camp for those trying to work out what is going on. It turns out, if I may borrow a Dr Who quote, that it is all a bit “timey-wimey”, and really rather frightening too. As with all the stories, what makes these so believable is the characters, the setting makes life exciting, but I really bought into the inhabitants of Powell’s worlds, and wanted then to survive.

Apologies to Gareth for my rather inadequate review. The long and the short of it is that I loved all these stories, many of which have stayed with me. I have read a few books this year which keep popping back into my mind, and I can add The Last Reef and Arches to that list. They are even now making a strange alliance in my brain with Meadowland, Stoner, and The Vegetarian. Make of that what you will. 

L-Space Strikes Again...

You may remember The Case of the Missing Pratchett Book and The Case of the Karate Library, well The Delightful Mr F has, once again, been truly Delightful. The Folio Society have published a beautiful edition of Mort by Terry Pratchett, and alongside the normal version, there is a limited edition of just 500, which has now sold out. 

Today I was feeling a little bit worn out, and lo, what should appear on the Pratchett book case?... These appeared... I had no idea, and then there they were, wrapped up, and standing in line with all the other books. 

Top: Limited Edition. Bottom: Normal Edition

Top: Limited Edition. Bottom: Normal Edition

Yes, not only had he bought me the normal edition, he had got his mitts on a limited edition one too. So I now own No. 401*.

Limited Edition front plate

Limited Edition front plate

They are both utterly beautiful. The standard edition has a suede cover with stunning artwork on the slip case. The limited edition feels as though it has come straight out of DEATH's library, with a leather cover and gold edged pages, just as it is described in the novel. 

Normal Edition Slipcase and Cover

Normal Edition Slipcase and Cover

Both books have equally fantastic artwork, and I particularly like this one of DEATH in a bar. 

DEATH has cocktail

DEATH has cocktail

You all know how much I love books, but these two made me go slightly weak at the knees. I had to have a sit down (and a read). 

* The Delightful Mr F's delightfulness knows no bounds. He's a keeper, that's for sure. 

The Subprimes by Karl Taro Greenfield

The title refers to a group of people who have become homeless after the subprime mortgage scandal in the US. Set in the near future (close enough to feel horribly real), they travel from city to city looking for ad hoc work and trying to stay out of the “debt rehabilitation centres”.  In this world, the minimum wage has been abolished, as has renewable energy and the world is totally governed by big business which is full of even bigger bullies. Unless your credit score stacks up, your life is meaningless. The masses are entertained with manipulated reality television, where everyone needs a “story”, and the bankers are up to their old tricks with risky investments such as the Carbon Credit Credit Default Swap Swap Swap.

The plot follows a series of characters, including the charismatic Sargam, a motorcycle riding Subprime hellbent on helping her fellow Subprimes find some peace at last. She helps build a small, but successful self-sufficient community in an abandoned housing estate in the desert.

Whilst Sargam and her friends are busy trying to make a life for herself we meet Richie, a failed writer, a very dodgy Pastor and shamed investment banker. Eventually their paths collide in a stand-off which is messy and confused, and feels exactly right.

There were some aspects of the ending which didn’t sit quite right with me, but nevertheless, it is a very thought provoking novel. It is easy to think “this will never happen”, but there were passages that stopped me dead, and made me cringe. We are, in some aspects already in the mire. 

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe by Agatha Christie

We are back with Poirot once more, alas, Hastings is not with him this time. Poor old Poirot is not having a good day. He has to visit the dentist, which is something he does not relish. Having survived the encounter, he is rather surprised when his old chum Chief Inspector Japp calls and tells him that his dentist is dead. At some point between Poirot leaving the surgery and a couple more patients Mr Morley becomes so disillusioned with dentistry he decides enough is enough and shoots himself.

It all looks very clear cut when it transpires that one of the patients that morning was given an overdose of anaesthetic and the conclusion is that in a fit of remorse Mr Morley decided to take himself off to the great waiting room in the sky. Poirot, of course isn’t so sure, and as always he was right. Morley was murdered, but why, and how? It’s a very tricky problem, and one of Christie’s more complex plots. There is espionage, a wealthy millionaire, and a rather do-gooding woman. The actual number of suspects is quite small, but I was guessing up until the end. Actually, to be fair I was still trying to work out exactly what had happened even after Poirot’s summing up. I got there in the end, but I had to mull it over for a while. There are great number of bluffs and double bluffs. It might be as well to have a pen and paper to hand for the final couple of chapters to keep up with what is going on.

It is the first novel which starts to reflect the Second World War with the themes of doing something for the greater good of the country coming through.  I admire Chrsite in trying to reflect the real concerns faced by society in 1940, but I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again - she doesn’t do thriller very well at all. Poirot is wonderful in this, but the plot is hard work. She is much more successful when she sets plots in a more traditional classic crime settingsuch as big houses and English villages and lets the impact of war take their toll at that level rather than worrying about state secrets. The impact of war is no less pronounced, but her handling of it is much, much better.

So, not one of my favourites, but it is Evil Under the Sun next, which I am very much looking forward to.

 

Meadowland by John Lewis-Semple

The sun is out! And not just a weedy, hiding behind the clouds type of sun, but a full on, sun glasses required, knitwear shedding sun. This has meant that the Fennell Towers kitchen garden is springing into life, carefully tended by the Delightful Mr F. At the end of the garden we have a little meadow, and I love seeing how this changes through the seasons. So, what better book to pick up just now than Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field?

It is a truly glorious book. John Lewis-Semple owns a farm on the boarders of Herefordshire and Wales and he follows the ebb and flow of the seasons in a diary format, with a chapter for each month of the year.  I love the countryside and natural history, and my Reader’s Digest Book of British Mammals is one of my treasured childhood books. This isn’t your traditional, natural history book though. It doesn’t have photos and advice on how to tell your Dunnock from your Sparrow. It is a book about one man and his relationship with the land he tends.

The detailed observations of the flora and fauna which live and die in his field are beautiful, if sometimes rather graphic. Nobody can accuse Lewis-Semple of glossing over the more violent side of Mother Nature. The narrative is carefully constructed and the effect is for the reader to truly understand the lifecycle and ecosystem in just this one field. He writes about the countryside with a passion and poetic subtly entwined with references to history and literature. It is littered with interesting facts, and on almost every page I was looking up and informing The Delightful Mr F of a new nugget of information. Did you know that some flies can lay their eggs in cow pats before they have even hit the ground? Me neither.

The writing is beautiful, Lewis-Semple has a wonderful turn of phrase, coupled with an eye for detail, the patience of someone who tends the land, and a real respect for all the residents of the field. From the flowers and insects through to the voles, hedgehogs, owls and his own cattle. Much of what I have read will stay with me, but one phrase in particular, which I have long thought myself, but could never have put so eloquently:

“A lawn, when you come to think of it, is nothing but a meadow in captivity”*

Read this in the sunshine and then go out and do something to help support out beautiful British wildlife. You won’t be able to help yourself.

 

*I really dislike lawn, I don’t see it does anything for nature at all, especially when sprayed with weed killer. And don’t get me started on artificial turf…

Reading Spa No. 8 (or possibly 9)...

The Delightful Mr F, as long time readers will know, is delightful in many a way, but he has a particular knack with present buying. His complete understanding and appreciation of my book addiction knows no bounds, and he happily supports my literary cravings by giving me Mr B's Reading Spas at least once per year. I have lost count on how many I have had*, but it doesn't matter, each one is as different as the last, and all are marvellous. 

The Delightful Mr F and I pottered up the M4 in good time last Friday to have a pre-reading spa breakfast at Rosarios. After a little wander around the town we headed back to Mr B's where The Delightful Mr F left me with in the capable hands of Ed. My favourite part of the spa is talking with one of the Mr B's team about what I have read, what they have read, the latest books, recent discoveries and new favourites. Due to The Important Things, I hadn't read as much as I normally have by this point in the year, nevertheless we had a good chat about The Vegetarian by Han KangStoner by John Williams (more of that later) and the rather dark nature of my recent reading**. I was then left with a few books to look at, and a very nice chocolate brownie as Ed headed off to find me some more reading material. 

I hadn't asked for anything in particular, and Ed bought back a lovely eclectic mix of dark, unusual, feel good and classic books for me to choose from. I bought the lot***.  So here they are, have you read any of these?

Books from Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights

Books from Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights

You can find them on the Mr B's webshop if you fancy getting copies yourself, and of course they will be reviewed here in due course. I'm particularly looking forward to The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage which Ed tells me is better than Stoner. Better?! Well that's a lot to live up to.  City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett is one I would never have looked at on my own, and I have a feeling my open up a whole new genre for me to explore. 

A Reading Spa at Mr B's is one of life's pleasures as far as I am concerned, and so, see if you can get yourself down to Bath for a natter with one of Team B. Your book joy will spilleth over.  

 

* Mr B - do you know? Is it 8 or 9?

** Not dark for a reason, they were just short books and I couldn't face anything longer than about 200 pages. 

*** I always do, I have no willpower, and a strong husband to help me carry them back to the car. 

 

I'm Back and I'm Blogging!

I’m back and I’m blogging! Yes, the Important Things which have been taking up so much time have finished for the time being, and so I have returned to the blogosphere charged up and ready to go. Heaven help you all.

As you may recall, the Important Things, have taken up a lot of time, and sapped me of all my reading energy. My reading mojo is never away for very long though. Yesterday I had a little surf on the interwebs and discovered lots of lovely books to add to the “would like to read” list.  

Next week I am off to Mr B’s for Reading Spa No.8* which The Delightful Mr F bought for me, because he is delightful. I should have some lovely new books to bury my nose in and literary balance will be restored.

So, as I have been out of the literary loop since before Christmas, hit me with your recent reads, which you would recommend?

Happy reading!

 

 

*I think it is number 8, it might be 9. Either way I’m a happy bunny

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

So here we are, we have arrived at one of Christie’s most famous and arguably best mysteries. There was a marvellous adaptation on the BBC at Christmas, which if you haven’t seen, is well worth the watch.

The set-up for this book is ingenious. 12 people are invited, for various reasons, to an island off the coast of Devon. On arrival, their host is nowhere to be seen, and the weather closes in, leaving them stranded. At dinner on the first evening a disembodied voice, which turns out to be a record playing in the next room, accuses them all of getting away with murder.  One by one, each of them is murdered… until then there none.

As the bodies pile up, the remaining guests  search for the killer on the island, until they come to the conclusion that it must be one of the party. Then the paranoia, accusations and fear really kick in. All semblance of good manners, and standards go out the window as they refuse to eat food the others have prepared and lock their doors at night.  The unravelling of the English ladies and gentlemen, normally so formal, is fabulous.

The resolution is fantastic too, the reasons the killer had for murdering all these people strike me as rather contemporary, and ahead of its time. It is all rather marvellous as a crime story goes. Great characters, atmospheric weather, a high body count, and a cold, clever and calculating murderer.

I honestly didn't think it was possible...

... that I would read myself out. I honestly can't bring myself to read another word. "Where is Helen, and what have you done with her? ",  I hear you cry.  Dear readers,  a great calamity has befallen me. You may have noticed it has been somewhat quiet around here since the beginning of the year, with just the odd review materialising every so often. The sad fact is that I have been working on other Things, very Important Things*, which needed my undivided attention. The upshot is that I have had to rely on posts I had written some time ago and put on the "in case of emergency" shelf in the blogging cupboard. I have been raiding this shelf on a regular basis and blowing off bits of fluff and dust from these reviews and posting them on here as and when I have had a moment. 

These Important Things have required me to read and read and read. In fact I have read over 1000 pages of text, three times since the start of January, and frankly I can't read another word. The text wasn't even a good story, just technical stuff, with really small typeface and bad formatting.  It is now Easter Sunday, prime reading time, but frankly the thought of running my eyes across the page is causing some distress. 

The good news is that the Important Things will all be done and dusted in a couple of weeks, when I hope that my reading muscles will be back in full force and  I can once more pick up my To Be Read pile and make some headway.  Perhaps a visit to Mr B's would help?

Do Important Things get in the way of your reading and have you ever read yourself out completely?

*Note the capital letters, that shows just how Important these Things are

Stoner by John Williams

This novel was proposed as a potential read at the book club I go to, I had read it before and had a copy. After a frustrating search for it* I settled down to read. Readers, I was transfixed. The note on the front of the copy I have says “The best novel you’ve never read”. And that about sums it up.

It is really a book about an everyman. Set in the US over the lifetime of the main character, Stoner leaves his parent’s farm to go to University. There he discovers a love of English Literature and goes on to gain a PhD. World War I passes him by as he settles into a teaching post at the university he studied at. It is an odd book in that nothing really happens, but everything happens. Stoner has an average career, marries, has a little girl, his marriage hits problems, and he deals with office politics. This is not the tale of a remarkable life, or a man swept up in a great adventure, it is the story of the problems all of us face.

The prose has very little dialogue in it, which is something that doesn’t always sit well with me, but in this instance was absolutely right. The reader is the observer of Stoner’s thoughts and feelings as he stumbles his way through each day. I particularly liked the descriptions of the interactions between the university staff members, as the try to out manoeuvre each other.

The book left a lasting impression on me, I wondered why things had happened to Stoner, and could he have changed things if he had wanted. It’s a fabulous read and I would happily read it for a third time. If you want an intelligent, beautifully written book following a very human character we can all relate to on some level, then this is the one for you.

 

*I eventually discovered it on a random bookshelf, far away from where I originally thought it should be. Why is that? I am sure books move on their own.

The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

I will admit that I picked up this book because of the beautiful cover. Isn't it stunning? The wonderful discovery I made is that the novel which sits inside that wonderful artwork is just as brilliant. 

Set during the Second World War we first meet James, a young officer who finds himself in a German prisoner of war camp. To try to insulate himself from the horrors he starts a study of the family of red starts, small birds, which have nested just outside the fence line of the camp.

Back in the UK Jame's wife, Rose finds herself alone while her husband of just a few months in the camp. She embarks on an affair with another young soldier who quickly also heads off to war. Meanwhile Enid, Jame's sister is bombed out of her flat in London and decides to ask Rose if she can move in with her. 

As we follow James, Rose and Enid through the war and into peace time the theme of nature goes with them. Each of them retreats to the natural world around them. I am a great believer in the power of nature on wellbeing and this aspect of the book really connected with me. 

James, Rose and Enid go through the mill one way and another, and their thoughts, feelings and reactions to the situation they find themselves in feel totally authentic. This is a beautiful and subtle tale of how people cope in difficult times against a backdrop of stunning descriptions of the natural world. 

The Visitors Book by Sophie Hannah

The Visitors Book by Sophie Hannah

The Visitors Book by Sophie Hannah

This is a lovely collection of creepy ghost stories, which I read during a howling gale in a remote cottage in Devon when The Delightful Mr F and I were last on holiday. The climatic conditions contributed to my being quite considerably spooked. 

The stories are unnerving, mainly because the set-ups are so mundane. The description of a children's birthday part had me laughing at the stress of the host's parents as they try to stop crips being trodden into the expensive Axminster. My smiles disappeared pretty quickly as it becomes clear that one little boy hasn't been collected by his parents. 

Another story sees a young Mum at the school gates struggling with the politics of the school Mum clique, it doesn't end well. 

Add to those two stories, the mystery as to why a new boyfriend is so desperate for his date to sign his visitors book and why someone in a post office queue appears to be dead, and you have a great set of plot twists. 

May I recommend renting a cottage somewhere remote during a storm to get the full effect?