An unexpected pleasure

This weekend, I’ve read a historical crime fiction novel, Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn, and found it an unexpected pleasure. Historical fiction is a genre I usually shy away from, but I bought this cheap ages ago and picked it up from the TBR shelf on Friday night. Two chapters in and I was hooked.

Opening with the arresting line: “To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor.” , the novel follows Lady Julia Grey through 1886 London as she investigates her husband’s sudden death at a dinner party with the able and argumentative assistance of private investigator Nicholas Brisbane. It is peopled with a host of well drawn and interesting characters from all levels of Victorian society, has a suspenseful and credible plot, a spark of sexual tension between the two protagonists and stylish writing.

I really enjoyed this foray outside my reading comfort zone. So much so that I’m looking forward to stopping by the bookshop after work tomorrow for the sequel, Silent in the Sanctuary.

Quite appropriately, until then I’ll be reading Imagined London: a tour of the world’s greatest fictional city by Anna Quindlen.

Book binge

Since I last posted I’ve:

- caught up with the Thursday Next series (fingers crossed there is more coming),

- confirmed my good opinion of Alice Munro with her second and third published books (Lives of girls and women and The beggar maid: stories of Flo and Rose respectively),

- succumbed to the predictable pleasures of chicklit with Sophie Kinsella’s latest, Remember Me?

- raced through Reginald Hill’s A cure for all diseases, a Dalziel and Pascoe novel up to his usual high standard although sadly not featuring Ellie and Rosie Pascoe,

- continued with my annual Austen re-read/ love-in,

- and laughed my way through Kate Atkinson’s One good turn, a superb follow up to Case Histories which lives up to its subtitle A Jolly Murder Mystery.

Amidst all the Easter festivities, I spent one afternoon book buying (or binging!) and came home with:

Second-hand, from the top:

1. Pistache: a collection of fanciful, satirical and surprising parodies, squibs and pastiches by Sebastian Faulks- for a literary laugh.

2. Seducers in Ecuador and The Heir by Vita Sackville-West- two novellas, the first about an Englishman’s holiday in Egyt, the second an insurance salesman who inherits a Tudor house. I’ve long meant to read something by Vita Sackville-West and I find the green Viragos hard to resist.

3. Love letters chosen by Antonia Fraser- 135 letters from the famous and not-so-famous, covering beginnings and endings, ecstasies to jealousies, declarations to rejections. I hope this book will encourage me to read some other letter collections languishing on my shelves (by Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Conan Doyle and the Mitfords, to name a few).

4. Imagined London: A tour of the world’s greatest fictional city by Anna Quindlen- how could a literary Anglophile resist?

5. The essential Carmel Bird- a short story collection by one of my favourite Australian authors.

6. Difficulties with girls by Kingsley Amis- I’m looking forward to re-visiting Patrick Standish, Jenny Bunn and co in this sequel to the hilarious Girls like you.

New, from the top:
1. The bay of noon by Shirley Hazzard- a tale of four friends in war-torn Naples by another favourite Australian author.
2. The wig my father wore, and at the bottom, The Portable Virgin, both by Anne Enright. I avoided The Gathering, possibly unjustly, as yet another Irish misery memoir. The premise of both Anne Enright’s first novel and first book of short stories sound intriguing, so if they are any good I may read The Gathering after all.
3. Interpreter of maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri- I’d like to see what all the fuss is about, and need to read some short stories by someone other than Alice Munro!
All just part of my lovely weekend which will soon (sadly) be over.

Dance of the happy shades by Alice Munro, 1968

Vaguely aware of Alice Munro as an acclaimed Canadian short story writer, I decided to try her first volume of short stories after seeing and being quietly impressed by the film Away from her, an adaption of her story The bear came over the mountain. (Incidentally, and before I start singing Ms. Munro’s praises, I think Julie Christie deserved the best actress Oscar for this film).

Having begun Dance of the happy shades, I settled in for a thoroughly enjoyable visit to the farms and quiet towns of south-western Ontario. In the space of only ten or twenty pages, Alice Munro gives startling insight into the past, present and future of each of her characters, conjuring up a world of which it might be said that still waters run deep.

In Walker Brothers Cowboy for example, a young girl and her brother take a trip with their father on his daily rounds as a door-to door salesman which in the 1930’s “keeps the wolf from the door. Keeps him as far away as the back fence.” Slowly, so subtle it’s almost unnoticeable, details are added to this picture- the failed fox farm and coming down in the world of this family, the mother’s resentful efforts to get by, the father’s dogged attempt to put on a brave face. An effort which seems to falter after a rude and unequivocal dismissal, leading to a visit which makes the young girl “feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.”

Each story is vivid, empathetic and intriguing, with the truth of a life gradually and convincingly revealed. Anchored in a very specific, rural Canadian world, these stories none the less capture universal human situations perfectly. The thoughts of a lone dissenter amongst a vocal group for example, from The Shining Houses:

“She was trying desperately to think of other words, words more sound and reasonable than these; she could not expose to this positive tide any notion that they might think flimsy and romantic, or she would destroy her argument. But she had no argument. She could try all night and never find any words to stand up to their words, which came at her now invincibly from all sides: shack, eyesore, filthy, property, value.

And these were joined by other voices; it did not matter much what they said as long as they were full of self-assertion and anger. That was their strength, their proof of their adulthood, of themselves and their seriousness. The spirit of anger rose among them, bearing up their young voices, sweeping them together as on a flood of intoxication, and they admired each other in this new behaviour as property-owners as people admire each other for being drunk.”

This collection of short stories is amongst the best I have ever read. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and am eagerly anticipating reading more of the Munro oeuvre soon. It will be interesting to see how her writing has developed over the years from this, a highly accomplished and memorable debut.

The return of the devoted reader

Now that my internet connection has finally been restored, I can once again blog about what I’m reading, instead of boring anyone I know who’ll listen.

Over the past month, I’ve:

- enjoyed the company of a delightful Edinburgh spinster, Isabel Dalhousie, in Alexander McCall Smith’s Sunday Philosophy Club series.

- been moved by the painfully honest, tender and often surprisingly funny Iris trilogy by John Bayley, in which he recalls his marriage to Iris Murdoch,  relates her diagnosis with -and decline because of- Alzheimer’s disease, and describe his life in the widower’s house after her death.

- feverishly turned the pages of the two resolutely bleak but unputdownable crime fiction novels  by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville). Fingers crossed they keep coming, so I can again visit 1950’s Dublin with Harry Quirke.

- laughed my way though Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series.

- been shocked and delighted by four stories from Alan Bennett, which happily proved that The uncommon reader was more than just a fluke.

- and discovered Alice Munro for myself.

Now I’m off to catch up with what everyone else has been reading.