Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Charming Quirks of Others

In eight days I read three novels.  That's unusual and tells me how much time I spend doing crosswords!  The third was the seventh in the Isabel Dalhousie Novels series by Alexander McCall Smith. I've only posted on one of the others in the series: book five.  The problem with AMS is that the books have such a sameness because they are a continuation of the same core characters; the same places in Edinburgh and its environs; the same mentions of WH Auden; the same frequent use use of quotidian, egregious and palimpsest; the same charming strengths, failings and foibles of the characters; even the plots seem to be a variation on a theme.  It's all very comfortable and I love it for that.

It's taken me this long, though, to really appreciate that all that is just a comfortable way of delivering a treatise on what, for want of a better explanation, I shall call philosophy for the non-philosopher.  It's all done in bite-size pieces for the mind easily to assimilate.  One can accept it as a simple story or one can actually think.  The latter goes against the grain with me but this time I actually did (occasionally).

I can never recall reading a full review of any of his books but I must do so at some time to see how anyone actually gives a synopsis which isn't just 'copywriters blurb'.  The cover blurb for this book says "... the wife of a trustee of an illustrious school asks Isabel to look into a poison pen letter that makes insinuations about applicants for the position of principal.  And what's more, when a pretty cellist with a tragic story takes a fancy to her husband-to-be, Isabel finds herself contemplating an act of heroic and alarming self-sacrifice."  Frankly that tells the potential reader nothing about the book: certainly not a thing of value.

AMS is always throwing little teasers into his stories too: "...the rule was almost universally ignored and its authority, anyway, was questionable. Who established the precept anyway?  Why not split an infinitive if one wanted to?  The sense was easily understood whether or not the infinitive was sundered apart or left inviolate."  

There is also a rather interesting discussion on goodness which, for me, touches the issue of whether goodness if there because it is or whether it is there because we are told it is (by, e.g., a religion). 

Oh yes.  There's a great deal of though to be had amongst all that comfort.....if, that is, that's what one wants.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Importance of Being Seven

This is Alexander McCall Smith's sixth book in the 44 Scotland Street series and the second book I've read in less than a week.  There's little to be said about this series that I haven't already said.  The familiar characters and, for those of us who know and love Edinburgh, it's descriptions and use of the area make it a very 'comfortable' read.  
I have said on a number of occasions that I sometimes find AMS's continual references to W H Auden (a poet whom I don't enjoy) and vaguely ostentatious displays of his prodigious knowledge slightly irritating.  In addition I appreciate that using words like quotidian and palimpsest may increase the knowledge of many of his readers who might not otherwise come across such words very often (count me amongst that number) but to use them continually.........  That's a very minor point though because the series is rather like eating chocolate: once you have started then you will finish.

As always there is a plethora of quotes but some that come to mind in this book are:
The beautiful are forgiven; no matter how egregious  their shortcomings , they are forgive. 
Most of us, if pressed, are made uneasy by change.  We recognise its importance in our lives and there are occasions when we persuade ourselves that it's for the best - which, of course, it often is - but at heart we are concerned that, if change comes, it will bring with it regret 
'But we all waste opportunities,' said Domenica.  'Every single one of us.  Every young person does it.  It's because we think we have so much time, and then, when we realise that our time is finite, it's too late.' 
'Indeed' said the professor. 'But we are all fortunate in one way or another.  The task for most of us is to identify in what way that is, would you not agree?'

Monday, July 15, 2013

Teacher, Teacher!

Back in the distant days of January this year Librarian posted a review of the book Village Teacher the fourth in a series of six books by Jack Sheffield.  It sounded good enough to risk buying and on Amazon I took advantage of a special offer and bought the whole six for the price of one.  Over the last few days I read the first in the series: Teacher, Teacher!

Over the last few years I have read a few books by former teachers calling on their experiences in that profession: The Other Side of the Dale by Gervase Phinn and Freda Bream's  Chalk, Dust and Chewing Gum being two of them.  I didn't post on them unfortunately.   Freda Bream was a New Zealander who also wrote about her experiences as a postie in Whistles for the Postie and a host of who dunnits as well as another book of her teaching experiences I'm Sorry, Amanda.   Gervase Phinn has written more books following his experiences in education.

The one thing about being a teacher is that there is a wealth of material to be called upon if one is inclined to use it.  All three authors have very easy, comfortable and amusing writing styles.  

In Teacher, Teacher! Jack Sheffield has introduced a 'love interest' without interfering with the 'stories' of life during his first year as the head teacher of a village school in Yorkshire during 1977-78.  The book had me laughing out loud on several occasions and made me feel very sad on others.  It's a light read and a very enjoyable read.  It's also, in my view, well written.  One would have to work hard not to enjoy it.  
In speaking of the school groundsman - a former farmer - he says: "It (soil) was his creation following many hours of honest toil by a man who had grown old in the bosom of nature and measured time in the changing of the seasons." 
It having been agreed that a fortune teller known to the school Caretaker, Ruby, would be asked to tell fortunes at the school fete: " 'Will you let her know please, Ruby?' asked Anne. 'Perhaps she knows already' said Sally mischievously".  
Librarian's review is here.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Black House

I really should resurrect Eagleton Notes properly because last night I finished Peter May's book The Blackhouse.  I can think of no book I have read for many years that kept me so riveted to it: particularly towards the end when I couldn't put the light out until I'd finished it.  It's complex (though not really complicated)  and, in parts, implausible (are not most novels?) but the characters and places are so real it's uncanny.  Having lived the majority of my years on Lewis makes it all the more poignant and I can see many of the characters in people I know or am acquainted with.  Contrary to at least one reviewer I do not think it is insulting in any way to the people of what has long been my home.  Every place has it's characters both good and bad and Lewis is no different.  Some of the less central characters who are there for the embellishment of the story though not from Ness are immediately recognisable (sometimes as an amalgamation of real people).

The descriptions of the Island and the places (I'm fortunate enough through my work, for example, to have been all over the Lews Castle before it was declared dangerous and closed to the public) are wonderfully evocative of the place and reading the book here in New Zealand I was transported back to Lewis: almost like being beamed there à la Star Trek.

Oh yes, the story.  Police officer, unpleasant senior police officer, friendly and loyal police officer colleague, murder, deaths and so much more (some of which would sow ideas which could give the stories - this is not one story - away).  Frankly you don't need to have a synopsis: it seems to me in many ways that the murder is just a way of having a setting on which to hang (sorry) the characters who are really what I think the novel is all about.

I would stick my neck out and say that I think that anyone I know who reads this book will enjoy it at one level or another.

I bought it on Kindle (as I will now do the others in the trilogy) but when I return to Lewis I will have to have the real copies as well. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Frances Garrood, Novelist

I have now read Frances Garrood's three novels: all on Kindle. Usually I would write separate reviews (usually being a rather loose term given that I haven't written any book reviews for several years) on Eagleton Book Notes but this is one post and it isn't a review. Why? Several reasons: I follow Frances's blog and feel that I know her (to the extent that I am more acquainted with her than with any other published novelist) and although quite different there is a commonality shared by the three books.

Any book that starts off "Nobody expected Ernest to die.  Least of all Ernest." had to be worth some further exploration.  So I explored and found a source of enjoyment, pathos and a whole gamut of emotions.   One of the things that all three books have in common is that they are about ordinary (well, fairly ordinary) people doing what fairly ordinary people do.  Another is that I can't help the feeling when I read some of the interpersonal relationships that the author is speaking with a great deal of personal experience.  I know that there is a theme that recurs in all the books of which I have some experience and I don't see that anyone could just imagine the emotions that go with being in that situation.  But then I'm not an author and I don't have a very vivid imagination.

Getting back to Dead Ernest this is not, in many ways, a comfortable book.  Leastways I found parts of it very uncomfortable indeed.  Unfortunately without giving far too much away I can't really say more.  

I enjoyed the books.  If you are a person who is very uncomfortable with emotional issues then you may, just may, be able to enjoy these on another level but you will miss out.  I'd suggest you give them a try anyway.  The order doesn't really matter.

I do know that Meike who blogs at From My Mental Library has written reviews of all three books.   I wanted to write the opening to this post without re-reading her reviews but I shall now go and do that and I would also suggest that you read her posts at Dead ErnestBasic Theology For Fallen Women and The Birds, Bees and Other Secrets.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-time


The cover note says that this is a murder mystery novel like no other.  The detective and narrator is Christopher Boone.  Christopher is fifteen and has Asperger’s Syndrome [although that is not mentioned in the text of the book].  He knows a very great deal about maths and very little about human beings.  He loves lists, patterns and the truth.  He hates the colours yellow and brown and being touched.  He has never gone further than the end of the road on his own, but when he finds a neighbour’s dog murdered he sets out on a terrifying journey which will turn his whole world upside down.

“This will not be a funny book," says Christopher. "I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them."   But that’s not altogether the case.  It is a book with humour and pathos.   I am acquainted with people with Asperger’s Syndrome and to be able to gain an appreciation through this book of how they see the world  was a challenge and an education.

The eyes of a child are often used to portray the frailties of adults and human life in general and this not only uses the eyes and mind of a child but it strips everything he sees of emotion and narrates it in a cold and logical format which I found at the same time both simple and hard to read. 

I’m not sure that this can really be described as a murder mystery novel but it is a book which I found hard to put down and impossible to ignore.  I also learned quite a lot about maths!

My only reservation is that when the author got to the end of the book it was as if he suddenly just gave up and finished writing.

Would I recommend it?  Without hesitation.  Even if you don’t enjoy the story you will learn about a human condition and that will help you to understand an alternative view of life.  That has to be a Good Thing.


Because time is not like space.  And when you put something down somewhere, like a protractor or a biscuit, you can have a map in your head to tell you where you have left it, but even if you don’t have a map in your head it will still be there because a map is a representation of things that actually exist so that you can find the protractor or the biscuit again.  And a timetable is a map of time, except that if you don’t have a timetable time is not there like the landing and the garden and the route to school. Because time is only the relationship between the way different things change, like the earth going round the sun and atoms vibrating and clocks ticking and day and night and waking up and going to sleep , and it is like west and nor-nor-east which won’t exist when the earth stops existing and falls into the sun because it’s only a relationship between the North Pole and the South Pole and everywhere else, like Mogadishu and Sunderland and Canberra.

People believe in God because the world is very complicated and they think it is very unlikely that anything as complicated as a flying squirrel or the human eye or a brain could happen by chance.  But they should think logically and if they thought logically they would see that they can only ask this question because it has already happened and they exist.

After posting this I remembered that Scriptor Senex had read it when he was here last year.  See his blog entry at  A Book Every Six Days.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Matchmaker of Périgord


I have absolutely no idea how or where I first saw this book.  All I can remember is that Julia Stewart’s book caught my eye when it was published in 2007 and I knew that I had to read it.  Perhaps it was because I am acquainted with the Périgord region of France (and in particular the real towns mentioned in the novel although I was unaware of that before I read it). 

I received it as part of a Christmas present and it was waiting for me when I returned from New Zealand.  I finished it a few hours ago over a leisurely lunch. As I was reading it (which I managed in a matter of a few days – a record for me when not on a plane?) I was occasionally reminded of Tom Sharp’s Blot on The Landscape (1975) and Porterhouse Blue (1974) which I read in the ‘70s.  I enjoyed them but I could never get into any of his other books and abandoned the attempts. 

As soon as I started it I needed to know how it ended.  On occasions it irritated me.  On occasions I just enjoyed the style and prose which borrows from the same school as Alexander McCall Smith when it comes to describing things.  The Matchmaker, for example, never wears plain ‘sandals’ but always ’supermarket leather sandals’  It is, however, an absolutely delightful read with not a nasty thought to be found on any page. 


‘I’ve never eaten frogs in my life.  Nobody in their right mind would.  Have you?’  ‘Of course not!  Only tourists do.’

Love is like a good cassoulet, it needs time and determination.  Some bits are delicious, while others might be a bit rancid and make you wince.  You may even come across the odd surprise like a little green button, but you have to consider the whole dish.

Without love we are just shadows.

Once the villagers had settled their argument as to whose limbs were whose, they got to their knees and it wasn’t long before they were able to stand.  Eventually they found they could focus, and even remembered their own names.  When they staggered out of the bar and saw the frightful state that the village was in, their hearts immediately soared, knowing that the chances of the English buying homes in Amour-sur-Belle were now even more remote.

…the Comité des Fetes announced that the celebrations to mark Patrice Baudin’s recovery from vegetarianism would be held that afternoon.

However, possibly the best quote of all is the last two sentences of the book and to get there you’ll just have to read it.  I think it was worth it.