Books, life the universe

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Currently reading . . .

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - and just reached the point at which Elizabeth is struggling to come to terms with Charlotte's engagement to Mr Collins. Elizabeth wants to marry for love but Charlotte is content to settle for her own home. Both have a similar amount of money behind them - i.e. not much - but Elizabeth is pretty. Have things changed? Looks are still - apparently - just as important but does money matter as much? There is a different attitude to it now I think. Women looking to marry a fortune were as common as men looking to do the same thing at the beginning of the 19th century - and gold digging was not a concept which would have meant very much as marrying money was considered no more than common sense, whether you were male or female. Interesting times.

Nicola Barker's Burley Cross Postbox Theft is a revival of the epistolary form in novel writing. I do like the form but I'm not sure about this book. It is amusing but the letters are too long I think. 26 letters are stolen from a post box in the village and found in a bag in an alley. They are handed over to a local policeman whose job it is to try and find out who broke into the post box. The letters reveal the usual cross section of oddities and feuds which might be expected in a village and some are funny. There's a bit too much lavatorial humour for my taste; one 'letter' is a transcript of a tape made by someone sitting on a loo - complete with 'sound' effects; another is about dog poo - several pages - and the same subject appears in another letter. I'll reserve judgement until I've finished it but at the moment I'm having trouble keeping the characters straight in my mind.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Re-reading Jane Austen

I've been listening to audio books of Jane Austen's novels recently - Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and currently Pride and Prejudice. Apart from Sense and Sensibility all the versions I have are unabridged so they provide anywhere from 12 to 15 hours listening. Listening to them has prompted me to re-read the books. I started reading Sense and Sensibility yesterday and I'm about two thirds the way through it. If anyone had asked me before I would have said S & S was probably my least favourite but actually it is really good.

There is no violence, no sex - except by implication. Colonel Brandon's ward - later his sister-in-law - has an illegitimate child as does her child. But it is enthralling reading and all of human nature is here. The vulgar but very good hearted Mrs Jennings; the excitable Marianne; the sensible Elinor; the two Steele sisters - Lucy and Anne - Lucy sly and Anne not very clever; Willoughby - the arch villain - though even he has some redeeming features; Colonel Brandon - apparently dull but merely quiet and intelligent; the Middletons and the Ferrars.

The dialogue is well done though obviously more long winded than in the 21st century. The author's comments on the ways her characters behave and the morives for their actions are brilliant. Marianne simply says - rather rudely - she doesn't want to play cards - Elinor suggests to Lady Middleton she would be better employed helping Lucy with her filigree work as she is making a present for Lady Middleton's daughter - and thus achieves her aim (talking in private to Lucy) - and keeps everyone happy.

Jane Austen may have lived a restricted life but she had plenty of opportunities to study and analyse people and society in general and her observations are put to good use in her novels.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Jane Austen - Ancient and Modern

I've enjoyed all 6 of Elizabeth Aston's Pride and Prejudice sequels and I looked forward to her latest book with interest. Writing Jane Austen is set in the present day and features an American academic living in London. Georgina Jackson is commissioned against her better judgement to complete a Jane Austen fragment. What follows is an amusing story about Gina's writers' block and her resistance to even reading Jane Austen's novels.

Gina visits Bath and goes on a Jane Austen tour and she does finally read the novels - and it totally bowled over by them. But can she complete her commission in within the three months' time limit? The characters are fascinating - her landlord Henry and his sister Maud - a Janeite; her fearsome agent, Livia; and Henry's housekeeper Anna. Most (all?) characters have names taken form the novels as well which makes for interesting reading if you know your Jane Austen.

This is a good light hearted read and I definitely didn't see the twist ending coming at all!

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Murder by Mistake

I am a fan of Veronica Heley's Ellie Quicke series and the latest one - Murder by Mistake - lives up to the high standard set by the previous books. Ellie is married to Thomas and living in Aunt Drusilla's house now that her aunt is dead. She is playing host to Ursula's wedding reception and looking after Mia as she recovers from her ordeal at the hands of her family and their friends. Ursula and Mia appeared in the previous book in the series Murder in House.

Everything is going smoothly with the wedding plans until Ellie's obnoxious daughter Diana appears and announces she wants to hold her own wedding reception at the house on the same day and Ursula's will have to be cancelled. But Ellie puts her foot down about it and refuses to cancel Ursula. So then it's two wedding receptions on the sane day - which would have been fine if someone hadn't decided to try and wipe out Mia and/or Ellie by various means.

This is a fast paced plot with an excellent mixture of fascinating characters. The constant battles between Ellie and her daughter are always interesting; and Ellie's endless curiosity about friends and neighbours and her efforts to help unravel their lives make for entertaining reading. The sub text is always Ellie trying to live up to her Christian principles - with her successes and failures. This could be sickly but isn't because Ellie is a strong character with a sense of humour and a well developed sense of the ridiculous as well as a good knowledge of human nature.

This is a series I collect in hardback and regularly re-read. It deserves to be better known in my opinion.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Philip Pullman

I read Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and that Scoundrel Christ with interest. It is an imaginative re-telling of the story in the Gospels from Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection. He splits Jesus into two. Jesus himself and his twin brother Christ who faithfully records Jesus' words for posterity. The book offers some interesting thoughts on the way what actually happened becomes history and is distorted in the telling.

What I think is upsetting people more than anything is that the book highlights to difference between Christianity and the institution of the Church. Pullman has always said he is not anti religion but anti Church - not the same thing at all. Christianity as a belief system would still exist even if there was no Church to structure it. Isn't the quotation - 'when two or more are gathered together in my name . . . '?

An interesting book though I still prefer the King James version of the Bible because of the resonance of the language.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Hard Work

I thought Polly Toynbee's book Hard Work was really excellent reading and it certainly made me stop and think. She had to pretend she was virtually destitute for the period of Lent and see what it was like doing a low paid job and trying to set up home from scratch. While she didn't claim Job Seekers' Allowance or a Social Fund loan she did go to DWP and talk about what she would be entitled to if she was in that situation so that she could establish how much money she would have to last her until she could get a job and where she could get cheap furniture from. She was loaned a council flat in a run down block that was being refurbished.

Some reviews have said the book is patronising but I didn't feel it was. She highlighted differences in income by saying she would have spent what she earned in a week from a low paid job on a meal out. I felt from reading the book that the author herself really learned a lot from the experience and it made her more understanding of the poor in society. She took several low paid jobs - mainly minimum wage - including - hospital porter, cake packer, nursery assistant,school dinner lady, early morning cleaner, care assistant in a nursing home and tele-sales.

What really came over to me was the inconvenience involved in getting a job. Bus rides or train trips to collect application forms or wait at a factory to see if there were any jobs, not being able to take away contracts - or even copies of them, turning up for interviews to find the person who arranged the interview has left the company etc etc. Even when you've got the job it's quite often through an agency with no printed terms and conditions and no job security or holidays. Even though we have employment laws in this country smaller employers do everything they can to get round them.

With the majority of jobs in the private sector cost cutting and profit are the all important things and everywhere is always understaffed so that one person off sick or left means that everyone else has to work even harder. In spite of this the author found many people doing more than they were asked to because they took a pride in their work and wanted to do the best they could. Even in dreadful jobs with difficult conditions people found it impossible to look for better jobs because of the time and effort involved. Many were trapped because the job was the only one which fitted in with childcare arrangements. More than 70% of the low paid jobs are done by women.

What really struck me was that when wages were compared with those paid for the same jobs in 1970 workers are relatively worse off now - in spite of the minimum wage being introduced in 1999. The author's interview with the anonymous 'Mr Jones' towards the end of the book shows how many medium sized private employers think of their staff - just as a means to make a profit. The book raises some interesting and complex issues about low paid work. Much of it is essential and if all the care assistants - for example - went on strike their absence would be noticed instantly; and yet they are paid less than enough to live on, even at a very basic level. No one seems to realise if employers spent more on training and paid better wages they would have much lower turnover of staff and probably a higher profit as a result.

Interesting and thought provoking stuff.

Monday, 12 April 2010

More books . . .

I have just started this: Ruth Saberton - Katy Carter Wants a Hero. The author made headlines in some quarters by putting the manuscript through Richard and Judy's door at their holiday home. Fortunately they loved it and the rest, as they say, is history. It is chick lit but with masses of humour. The dinner party and the lobster which causes Katy to lose her home and her fiance is brilliant and laugh out loud funny. I'm about 100pages in and so far it is really good.

I have also started Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. It is a simple imaginative retelling of the Gospel story. Jesus and Christ are twins with Jesus being the out going one who preaches and Christ the quiet one who takes down his words. Whether it will annoy or inspire is hard to say. I'm finding it interesting though modern use of language - in my opinion - does not compare with the resonance of the King James Bible.

I've read a few pages of Kal Bonner's Climbing a Ladder Backwards which Anne Brooke did not enjoy. I think it is going to be a little tedious - not because of the Instant Messaging aspect of it but because every joke appears to be somewhat overwritten. I keep wanting to go through it with a red pen crossing out the superfluous words which make it overdone. I will persevere if only because I like the stripy socks on the cover.

Still reading Polly Toynbee's Hard Work - I shall never call myself poor again.

I am nothing if not eclectic in my reading

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Books currently in progress . . .

Someone recommended Polly Toynbee's Hard Work to me a while back and I rummaged through my unread books and found I actually already had a copy of it! She left her comfortable life and took a flat in a run down tower block as an experiment to see what it was really like doing low paid jobs or living on benefit. It is interesting reading and she is honest enough to admit that she hadn't realised what it was really like living below the poverty line. Many people may be put off the book because of her political beliefs but I'm finding it illuminating.

Then there's Gross Misconduct: My Year of Excess in the City by Venetia Thompson which - if you can get past the bad language and the childish behaviour of many of her fellow workers - is an eye opener. It makes you realise why there are so many bullying and sex discrimination claims filed against banks and other financial organisations.

As a little light relief there's also Georgette Heyer's Bath Tangle.

Blood Harvest by S J Bolton was excellent - totally absorbing reading.

I have also just finished Echoes of the Goddess by Simon Brighton and Terry Welbourn about Goddess worship in Britain and the monuments which still exist if you know where to look for them. It also touches on witchcraft, Druids, Celtic Christianity, May Day festivals and pagan imagery in churches. I learned quite a lot from it including the apparent origins of the dance of the seven veils - Inanna's visit to the Underworld to visit her sister Erishkagal - she had to take off a garment at each of the seven gates of the underworld.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Blood Harvest

I am currently reading Blood Harvest by S J Bolton and it is very very good. Not the sort of thing you want to read late at night in the house on your own. It features a village from hell where small children disappear and everyone takes part in strange and rather nasty customs. There is a new vicar, a very interesting female psychiatrist and a family who have misguidedly built a new house bang next to a graveyard. I am saying no more at the moment but if you like crime and more than a hint of the supernatural and religious you will love this.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

ABC of me

Inspired by Zen Mischief here is the ABC of me:

Age: 58
Bed: double - to myself - with a King Size quilt
Chore you hate: most of them
Dog's Name: never had one
Essential start your day item: coffee
Favourite colours: black, blue, some shades of pink
Gold or Silver: silver but do like gold as well
Height: 5ft 4 ins
Instruments you wish you could play: classical guitar
Job Title: chief cook and bottle washer
Kids: couldn't eat a whole one
Living Arrangements: house - usually untidy - see answer to C above
Mum's Name: Josephine
Nicknames: none I'm aware of
Overnight hospital stay apart from birth: tonsillectomy and hysterectomy
Pet peeve: those who state opinions as facts
Quote from a movie or book: 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.' Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind
Right or left handed: right for most things, left for undoing bottle tops or jars
Siblings: 2 - one brother, one sister
Time you wake up: about 7.00am
Underwear: M&S white cotton up to my waist - can't bear being uncomfortable. Don't wear a bra since I retired
Vegetables you dislike: spinach
Ways you run late: only if buses/trains are late or traffic jams if travelling by car.
X-rays you've had: chest,dental,arms,MRI scan of head
Yummy food you make: anything I make is yummy
Zodiac sign: Capricorn

The Shadows in the Street

I've spent the last two evenings reading The Shadows in the Street by Susan Hill which is the latest in her Simon Serrailler series. There were many people who criticised the previous book - The Vows of Silence - for concentrating on the less inspiring aspects of Simon's character. To a certain extent I could see the point of the criticisms though it was still a good book. The same criticism cannot be levelled at this latest one.

Simon is recalled from a holiday on a Scottish Island because of the murder of a prostitute. But this is not the end of the problems in Lafferton. The Cathedral Close is in uproar because of a modernising Dean and his interfering wife - shades of Trollope here! When Ruth Webber, the Dean's wife, disappears and the Dean himself appears to have something to hide the stakes suddenly become higher. The reader gets to know some of the prostitutes - Abi and Hayley and their children. I thought their lives were well done showing their struggle against poverty and the authorities while they try to do the best for their children.

The suspects are many and varied and when another prostitute is murdered the investigation becomes more complex. Cat - Simon's sister - becomes involved because she is the GP of many of the people mixed up in the police investigations. The book follows the people affected by the crimes and involved in the police investigation. Simon is calmer and more stable in this book and Cat is gradually coming to terms with being a widow. I found the book gripping reading and read nearly 200 pages of it last night alone. The style is as ever understated and low key, the characters well drawn and believable.

If you were slightly put off this series by the last book - try this one - you will not be disappointed.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Publisher of crime novels

I have just noticed a publisher I've never heard of - ostara publishing - who are reprinting authors such as V C Clinton-Baddeley, D M Greenwood, Kate Charles and Veronica Heley. Many of Kate Charles' novels featuring mayhem in the Church of England have been out of print for a while, as have D M Greenwood's Theodora Braithwaite novels so this can only be a good thing.

A publisher to watch perhaps.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Donna Leon

I really enjoy Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti crime novels and the latest - A Question of Belief is excellent. Venice is sweltering in the heat and humidity of August. Brunetti is about to go on holiday with his family when two potential problems come his way. His colleague - Vianello - is worried about his favourite aunt who seems to be spending a lot of money on fortune tellers and charlatans; and he is presented with a list of court cases featuring the same judge and court clerk which appear suspicious.

Brunetti asks Elettra - his boss's secretary - to do some research for him and the results lead him to think there may be something serious going on in both cases. Neither seem urgent so he sets off on holiday by train. He has not reached his destination when he is called back to Venice. The court clerk has been murdered.

What follows is a convoluted and very satisfying story involving influence and privilege and some very mixed motives. Excellent reading as ever and better than a guide book for getting to know Venice.