The Reader’s Gazetteer: I

DSCF8207

Ixania, in Eric Ambler’s The Dark Frontier, possibly shouldn’t be included in this gazetteer, because the name is stated to be fictitious. (So is that of the country’s capital, Zovgorod.) This annoys me irrationally. Maybe it still begins with I.

The Dark Frontier is a good deal of fun, however, at the same time sending up and gloriously indulging itself in the tropes of the Ruritanian thriller. The mild-mannered, idealistic, scientist (a stereotype in his own right) gets a knock on the head and becomes convinced that he’s Conway Carruthers, the hero of the pulp novel he was reading before the accident. And there’s a good train journey, all the way from Paris to Bâle and then east from there:

Carruthers watched the mountains of Switzerland and Austria pass in slow review. Then for some hours, they ran across wind-driven plains. On the second night, he again saw the lights of houses gleaming up high as they climbed into the mountain country of Transylvania. They stopped at stations of which he had never heard, but there were some familiar names – Budapest, Cluj, Sinaia, Ploesti…

[they change train at Bucharest]

… The train for Zovgorod proved to be composed mainly of empty cattle trucks with two very dirty coaches and a mail van hitched to the rear. They were not due in Zovgorod until 7 A. M. the following morning and Carruthers did not look forward to the two-hundred-and-fifty-mile journey ahead…

… Leaning on the window-rail he gazed out into the gathering darkness. Far away he could see a line of hills traced delicately against the strip of cold cerulean sky left by a dying sun. The clouds still hung, black and heavy, overhead. The sound of the train seemed to echo across the plain as if in a great waiting silence. He turned his head towards the freshening breeze.

So, whatever Ixania’s really called, we can at least make a guess at where it is.

I came across Annals of the Parish, by John Galt, via the delightful Clothes in Books blog a couple of months ago. It’s presented as a memoir by the parish minister, covering the years from 1760 to 1810. Most of the action takes place in the village of Dalmailing, so I’ll have to add that on to the D blog. The nearest town, however, is Irville, which, we learn over the course of the book, has at one time or another:

  • a dancing school
  • a chaise
  • links with shipping
  • and with coal
  • New Inns, plural
  • a market
  • a grocery shop

and generally seems to be where things happen. A footnote tells us that in the real world it’s Irvine. I’m counting it.

Books mentioned in this post

The Dark Frontier, Eric Ambler

Annals of the Parish, John Galt

ABCDEFGHIJK

 

#indiechallenge – Love/War (Ebba Witt-Brattström, translated by Kate Lambert)

DSCF8121

The blurb

He said:
I look at you
and I ask myself
if a woman’s vanity is increased
by living with a successful man.

She said:
That was the stupidest thing
I’ve ever heard.
Even from you.

A marriage in its final death throes; half a life lived together, now ending. Raging, bitter, sad and scathing, Ebba Witt-Brattström’s debut novel introduces a bold voice in contemporary European fiction.

The author

Ebba Witt-Brattström is currently Professor of Nordic Literature at Helsinki University. She has received numerous awards for her work and was one of the founding members of the Feminist Initiative party.

The translator

Kate Lambert is a freelance translator working from Swedish and Finnish into British English in the depths of Somerset in South-West England. She has been working as a translator since 1996 and specialises in the arts and humanities, especially history and tourism. (She’s also a friend of mine, which is how I came to hear about the book in the first place.)

The publisher

Nordisk Books is an independent publishing house in Whitstable, founded in 2016 and with a focus on modern and contemporary Scandinavian literature.

The bookshop

I ordered this directly from the publisher.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘An author from another country’; ‘A new to you press’; ‘A debut’; ‘Translated book’; ‘Out of your comfort zone’; or ‘Book that defies genre’.

My thoughts

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like this. Sitting somewhere between poetry and prose, this is a fly-on-the-wall film of the slow, painful, disintegration of a relationship between two people who should probably have split up a long time ago. The ‘Love/War’ of the title hints at the partners’ opposite and incompatible understandings of the nature of the relationship – both what it was, and what it’s become.

A war doesn’t actually end
until one side is
totally defeated
or dead

She said:
You’re talking power politics
my dear.
When lovers are at war
there are no winners
only losers.

The extract quoted in the blurb is a good sample of the style; the disjointed dialogue continues to the bitter end. And it’s peppered with literary allusions in several different languages (sources and translations are provided at the back) – these are clever, educated people, who are just as susceptible to making a pig’s ear of their personal lives as anybody else. He’s abusive; she’s embittered. Nobody’s having any fun here; and yet I laughed. Usually it was because of a particularly well-chosen quotation.

It’s very readable; the conversation carried me along with it, as much as I was hoping for everybody’s sake for it all to be over. As in poetry, every word counts, and they’ve been chosen well.

On the Exeter Novel Prize shortlist

Exeter from Quay bridge cropped

Exeter is one of my favourite cities. It’s where I went to university; it’s where a lot of my friends still live; it’s a lovely place to go back to.

And – as I’ve been fortunate enough to be reminded this year – it’s always nice to be on the shortlist for a literary prize.

So I’m doubly pleased to have had A Spoke In The Wheel shortlisted for the 2018 Exeter Novel Prize. I’m very much looking forward to going down to Exeter for the awards ceremony. It’s a good excuse to revisit old haunts, catch up with some people I haven’t seen for ages, and, I’m sure, meet some new ones.

Incidentally, the price of the paperback edition of A Spoke In The Wheel at Amazon.co.uk continues to drop. At the time of posting it’s down at £4.55. I’ve no idea how long that will last…

 

Another #IndieAthon done

DSCF8114

IndieAthon is done for another year. I got further through that rather spontaneous TBR pile than I expected, reading:

I also read, but have still to write up:

  • Love/War (Ebba Witt-Brattström, translated by Kate Lambert)
  • Go The Way Your Blood Beats: on truth, bisexuality and desire (Michael Amherst)
  • Smash All The Windows (Jane Davis)

That makes a book for each day of the readathon week, which isn’t bad going.

I will note that those boots let me down, and the water in, during a rainy but pleasant short break in Lille. I’ll have to save them for dry days in future.

And finally, the UK Amazon store has the paperback edition of A Spoke In The Wheel marked down by 40% at present. I’ve no idea why. The inner workings of Amazon are a mystery to me!

The Selfies Award: congratulations to Jane Davis

IMG_20190313_091823_500

Yesterday I attended the London Book Fair for the first time ever, thanks to BookBrunch, who provided free tickets to everyone on the Selfies Award shortlist. In the morning I spoke as part of a panel of four on the experience of self-publishing; then I met up with a friend and we went out along a very wet Kensington High Street to get some lunch and agree that the whole thing was very impressive but a bit overwhelming, and then I was back in time to wander around the fair a bit more before the awards ceremony.

The Selfies Award went to Jane Davis for Smash All The Windows (just under my arm in the picture), and it’s very well deserved. I can’t think of anyone who puts more work into making self-published books into a really high quality product, or, for that matter, anyone who does so much to support and encourage other authors in the field. Congratulations, Jane!

#indiechallenge – Family Roundabout (Richmal Crompton)

DSCF8130

The blurb

There isn’t one. One extract is quoted on the inside of the dust jacket, and a different one on the bookmark. I’m going to reproduce neither, and choose one that I prefer:

Stupidity is not an easy quality to assume, and there had been times when her real self had broken through the barricade, and she had startled and hurt him by what he called her ‘oddness’, but on the whole they had been happy. She had known the price she must pay for his love and she had been willing to pay it.

Her name was Millicent, but Henry, who liked diminutives, had called her Milly. She always thought of the quick-witted, quick-tempered girl who still existed somewhere within her as Millicent and Henry’s wife as Milly. ‘Now, Millicent…’ she would say to herself warningly, as she bit back some trenchant comment, some shrewd rejoinder.

The author

Richmal Crompton Lamburn, 1890-1969, the daughter of a schoolteacher-curate, went to a Derbyshire boarding school, to which she returned as a teacher in 1914 after having read classics at Royal Holloway College. She then moved to Kent to live near her married sister and was a much-loved classics mistress at Bromley High School. She published her first short story in 1918 (using her mother’s maiden name); after polio left her lame she became a writer full time. The first of the popular William books appeared in 1922. For the next 45 years she was always at work on two books simultaneously, one for children (generally a William book) and one for adults. In Richmal Crompton’s lifetime thirty collections of William stories sold over eight million copies; but she once hinted that her ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ had ambushed recognition for her forty serious novels, of which Family Roundabout (1948) is perhaps the best.

The publisher

Persephone Books reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers. Their reprints are made distinctive by the elegant grey covers and the endpapers chosen from contemporary designs to go with the book.

The bookshop

I got this from Persephone’s own bookshop on Lamb’s Conduit Street in London.

The bingo card

Persephone Books definitely counts as ‘A Women’s Press’, and it might just qualify as ‘A press over 20 years old’. And this is another book that I’d count as a ‘Favourite’.

My thoughts

This is not the edition in which I first read Family Roundabout. That one was a red cloth-covered hardback, shelved alongside the William books that we were read as children. When I’d run out of William I moved on to Felicity (much like William, but female and sixteen), and by that point I was just about old enough to appreciate Family Roundabout.

It’s a gently-paced novel following two families headed by two very different matriarchs through the years before the Second World War. Mrs Fowler (Milly/Millicent in the extract above) is a hands-off kind of a parent; Mrs Willoughby is quite the opposite. The plot follows their children, who are all grown up or almost grown up at the beginning of the book, through more or less ill-advised marriages, love affairs, careers, and attempts to leave the home town.

Crompton is very good on the nuances of family dynamics, on the equally strong desire to escape and to be supported, of small feelings that become big problems. And the sense of comic timing that makes the William books hilarious serves her well here, although of course it’s more subtle, somehow meshing wonderfully well with the wistfully optimistic tone.

There’s always a danger, re-reading old favourites, of a visit from the Suck Fairy – who has in fact left most of this untouched. The one exception would be Mrs Fowler’s daughter-in-law Belle, whose awfulness now feels very heavy-handed and rather misogynistic. The other characters, however, are neither too bad nor too good; one rather wishes that some of them would get their respective acts together, but sympathises with them nevertheless and understands why they just can’t.

#indiechallenge – The 12.30 from Croydon (Freeman Wills Crofts)

DSCF8127

The blurb

We begin with a body. Andrew Crowther, a wealthy retired manufacturer, is found dead in his seat on the 12.30 flight from Croydon to Paris. Rather less orthodox is the ensuing flashback in which we live with the killer at every stage, from the first thoughts of murder to the strains and stresses of living with its execution. Seen from the criminal’s perspective, a mild-mannered Inspector by the name of French is simply another character who needs to be dealt with.

This is an unconventional yet gripping story of intrigue, betrayal, obsession, justification and self-delusion. And will the killer get away with it?

The author

Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957) was one of the pre-eminent writers in the golden age of British crime fiction. He was the author of more than thirty detective novels, and was greatly acclaimed by peers such as Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler.

The publisher

The British Library publishes a range of books – some to tie in with their exhibitions, some just to stock their shop. This is one of their Crime Classics series – reprints of Golden Age detective fiction.

The bookshop

This came, very properly, from the shop at the British Library itself. You get one book free with British Library membership, and this was my choice.

The bingo card

Not so many options as usual here. ‘Genre fiction’, of course. ‘Book from a series’ – Inspector French appears in other books by Crofts. And I think there’s an argument that it defies its own genre.

My thoughts

I must begin by saying that it is sheer good luck that I happen to have a postcard of the sister aircraft of the one that appears in this book, at Croydon aerodrome. I may be something of a nerd about transport in books, but planes aren’t so much my thing, and this is probably the only postcard of one that I possess.

I can’t resist quoting the description, which really is very accurate:

How huge it looked! Unwieldy too, thought Rose, gazing at the criss-cross struts connecting its wings and its long, slightly curved body. Not in the least like a bird, but still like something she had seen. What was it? She remembered: it was a dragonfly. It was just a huge dragonfly with a specially long head, which projected far forward before the wings like an enormous snout. And those four lumps were its motors, two on each wing, set into the front edge of the wing and with its great propeller twirling in front of it. And there was its name, painted on its head: H, E, N, G, I, S, T; HENGIST…

[she boards the plane with her father, grandfather, and her grandfather’s manservant]

The principal object in the landscape was the lower wing. It seemed simply huge from so close. From it the great criss-crosses went up to the upper wing, which she could see only by bending down and gazing up. Others of these criss-crosses went down to the landing-wheel which had a pneumatic tyre a good deal bigger than her whole body.

The postcard came from my godfather, and I think I’d better send the book on to him.

Wikipedia has another picture of Heracles, and one of Helena.

(So yes, the image on the book cover is wrong. It isn’t even a biplane. I’ve seen worse, though: those planes on the audiobook cover of Susan Lanigan’s White Feathers definitely aren’t Sopwith Camels… I’ve heard that it’s very rare for cover designers to be expected to read the book they’re designing for, and that authors have little control over what their books look like.)

Anyway, that’s more plane-spotting than the book calls for, because it’s only the first chapter that really deals with it. This really is a most unusual crime novel: from the child’s breathless perspective on the aeroplane journey (Rose is ten) we abandon her altogether and jump back to the point where the idea of murder enters the murderer’s head. That isn’t really a spoiler: we know about his motive, his means, and his opportunity as soon as he does, and we follow him all the way. Then the detective gets two chapters at the end to expound upon how he worked things out.

Crofts pulls off the rather remarkable feat of telling us everything but never letting it become dull. There are always enough questions left unanswered to keep the pages turning.

The detail is meticulous but again, it’s absorbing. I particularly enjoyed the travel sections within the narrative: apart from the flight to Paris, there’s a Mediterranean cruise that also has some lush descriptions despite the point of view character’s preoccupation:

In the harbour the view was obscured by piers and buildings and shipping. But just before they entered they got a magnificent panorama of the whole coast. To the left was the hill and cape of Posilipo, with its palms and olives and cypresses, screening the fine villas of the wealthy Neapolitans. In front was the city, stretching up to the heights behind, from this distance white and fair. Then to the right the great double-coned mass of Vesuvius rose, with its almost solid column of smoke thrusting fiercely up into the blue sky. It somehow suggested power, that column, white in the mass, but flecked at intervals with the yellow of sulphur and the red of flame. It poured up in seething eddies, gradually bending over as it rose and shifting slowly inland. Beyond Vesuvius the long line of the Sorrento peninsula stretched into the sea, with, farther out, dead astern as they circled into the harbour, the high, jagged outlines of the island of Capri.

Not your average mystery novel, and all the better for it.