Alex In Leeds

(Book Reviews and Adventures…)


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New Posts Will Be Forthcoming…

…From 01JUL2014.

The last five months have been hmmm, chaotic. In both good and bad ways. I am still very much alive though, still reading, still cooking, still travelling and (even if I haven’t been posting them) still writing thoughts on all these and my er, return is imminent. :)

I’m currently in the process of sorting through pages of notes and various folders of photographs which I imagine will take a couple of weeks to organise and polish up into posts and reviews… but I’ll say the start of July to give myself some leeway.

A few things from the top of my To Cover list:

+ Thoughts on Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Clive James’ translation of The Divine Comedy
+ Recent adventures in vegan baking, I’ve been experimenting :)
+ A huge breakthrough in my own family tree – I love producing revelations for genealogy clients but this is a first in my own research and it came about as a result of a personal genetics test done over three years ago
+ A craft project involving a favourite Wordsworth quote
+ Plans for my next 101 goals in 1001 days
+ My tenth anniversary as a book blogger is coming up in August

And the Tour de France will be starting here in Leeds on 05JUL2014 too.

I’ve been following blogs without commenting while I was ‘off-air’ but I’ll start easing myself back into Twitter and commenting over the next couple of days. (Apologies if I’ve missed a comment, tweet or email from you, I will try to catch those I missed but go ahead and nudge me if you’ve not had a response.)

TL;DR: I’m back. :)


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Reading Review: January 2014

Journal by Curt Fleenor Photography

January began with the delights of Elizabeth von Arnim’s Elizabeth and her German Garden and the book jar offered up Dorothy L Sayers which led to me happily swooning over Lord Peter Wimsey… but it ended with three disappointing books in a row and slipping into a literature-less funk for a week. What a truly peculiar month of reading!

January’s Books

Everything from genetic archaeology to fiction about 1930s divorce laws, from World War Two nursing to a ludicrously unreliable narrator’s account of marital torment. I think it’s safe to say my reading was diverse this month though I didn’t finish much of the non-fiction I started for one reason or another.

The Read Books

1) Elizabeth von Arnim – Elizabeth and her German Garden (Fic) (1898)
2) A P Herbert – Holy Deadlock (Fic) (1934)
3) Monica Dickens – One Pair of Feet (Non-Fic) (1942)
4) Bryan Sykes – Blood of the Isles (Non-Fic) (2006)
5) Dorothy L Sayers – Whose Body? (Fic) (1923)
6) Martin Amis – The Rachel Papers (Fic) (1973)
7) Rudy Simone – Aspergirls (Non-Fic) (2010)
8) Ford Madox Ford – The Good Soldier (Fic) (1915)
9) Dorothy L Sayers – Clouds of Witness (Fic) (1926)

Books read: 9 /Books ‘Surfed’: 11 / Books marked Did Not Finish: 0
Fiction: 6 / Non-Fiction: 3
Female authors: 5 / Male authors: 4 / Multiple authors: 0

January’s Highlights: Has to be my first experience of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series by Dorothy L Sayers. I was warned that Whose Body? wasn’t as good as later books in the series but it was a great introduction to some loveable characters and hooked me. Hurrah for the book jar offering Sayers up as my January choice. Blood of the Isles was a re-read from several years ago and I’ll be reviewing it soon as it’s a perfect example of a niche book that should find a wider audience, it’s the sort of book that sounds rather dry but you end up quoting chunks of to anyone in the same room… Oh and I should write about The Rachel Papers too as I’m counting it for my 20th Century of Books and loved the way it crackled along.

January’s Low Points: Unfortunately Dorothy L Sayers also provided my low point as well as my highlight – Clouds of Witness was so very disappointing it put me off reading for a week. Not on its own though, first there was Jules Pretty’s fascinating but very unevenly written account of walking around the East Anglia coast, The Luminous Coast, which kept sucking me in and then driving me away with good prose about wildlife or the 1953 floods followed by turgid lists of random people he’d met on the path for all of five minutes. After three evenings of trying to make headway with it I finally gave up. And in between the coastal expedition and the disappointing Sayers there was The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford which I found thoroughly implausible and stylistically unimpressive – but couldn’t put down even when the characters depressed me to the point of eating chocolate to recover from their antics. So yes, Sayers was not alone in causing the reading slump, Ford and Pretty played their parts too.

Reading Challenges

19th Century of Books

19th Century of Books – 1/100 (1 title added)

20th Century of Books

20th Century of Books – 5/100 (5 titles added)

Plans for February

I don’t really have any plans for this month, other than picking another book jar selection out and dipping into some of the cookbooks I’ve borrowed from the library to stave off the winter blues. I’m planning on concentrating on 19th century titles in March so in the cold, wet meantime I’m enjoying digging into the assortment of books closest to my bed…


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Life’s Not A Football Match…

Whose Body by Dorothy L Sayers

My favourite quote from Whose Body? by Dorothy L Sayers was a little long to include in my post on the book but I want to share it with you here. It’s Inspector Parker talking to Lord Peter Wimsey about his sleuthing style and overall motives for crime-solving:

”Yes, yes, I know,’ said the detective [Parker], ‘but that’s because you’re thinking about your attitude. You want to be consistent, you want to look pretty, you want to swagger debonairly through a comedy of puppets or else to stalk magnificently through a tragedy of human sorrows and things. But that’s childish. If you’ve any duty to society in the way of finding out the truth about murders, you must do it in any attitude that comes handy. You want to be elegant and detached? That’s all right, if you find the truth out that way, but it hasn’t any value in itself, you know. You want to look dignified and consistent – what’s that got to do with it? You want to hunt down a murderer for the sport of the thing and then shake hands with him and say, “Well played – hard luck – you shall have your revenge tomorrow!” Well, you can’t do it like that. Life’s not a football match. You want to be a sportsman. You can’t be a sportsman. You’re a responsible person.’

‘I don’t think you ought to read so much theology,’ said Lord Peter. ‘It has a brutalising influence.’
(Page 126)


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Review: Whose Body? by Dorothy L Sayers

Whose Body by Dorothy L Sayers

Category: Fiction/Mystery – Paperback: 214 pages – Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton (Hachette) – Source: Public Library
First Published: 1923

So, I was nervous collecting this from the library after reserving it. When it came up as my January book jar pick the comments some of you lovelies left on my post suggested that I possibly shouldn’t get my hopes up too high as you preferred later books in the Lord Peter Wimsey series of mysteries rather than the detective’s debut in this novel… And I guess I’m going to read on to find out if you’re right about the series overall – I finished this within four hours of checking it out from the library. I’m hooked.

Which is a little surprising as mysteries really aren’t my usual reading fare.

It’s not exactly flawless as a novel either, it’s fairly obvious early on who is the murderer and the two mysteries of where a wealthy financier has disappeared to and how an obviously staged, naked body turns up in a complete stranger’s bathtub in the middle of the night aren’t actually that taxing. But the mysteries are secondary to the set up Sayers is creating here and I really did love the characters and background she was introducing.

Wimsey, an aristocrat with an obsession for rare medieval folios, lingering nightmares of World War One and love of the intellectual chase, shimmers with restless, nervous energy and intelligence. And yes, he won my heart fairly quickly. I can understand why so many readers list him as a literary crush, he has that glow of the damaged but brilliant about him that is so very appealing.

‘The gutter’s only a couple of feet off the top of the window. I measured it with my [walking] stick – the gentleman-scout’s vade mecum, I call it – it’s marked off in inches. Uncommonly handy companion at times. There’s a sword inside and a compass in the head. Got it made specially. Anything more?’
(Page 26, Lord Peter Wimsey exploring the crime scene armed with only a magnifying glass strength monocle and walking stick…)

His deliciously adventurous mother, the Dowager Duchess, copes admirably with awkward situations and strange guests turning up in the middle of the night. His snarky butler, Bunter, who drools over new camera lenses, is a dab hand at interviewing himself and ‘never offers to do his job when you’ve told him to do somethin’ else’, made me grin from ear to ear. I also liked the friendly, smart Inspector Parker who debates cases with Wimsey over brandy and contrasts nicely with the bumbling Inspector Sugg who dislikes Wimsey intensely and arrests two obviously innocent people in the opening chapters just because they’re there.

‘I looked for any footprints of course, but naturally, with all this rain, there wasn’t any sign. Of course, if this was a detective story, there’d have been a convenient shower exactly an hour before the crime and a beautiful set of marks which could have only come there between two and three in the morning, but this being real life in a London November, you might as well expect footprints in Niagara.’
(Page 43, Inspector Parker contemplating the inconvenience of London weather)

And then there’s the affectionate digs at Conan Doyle and Sherlock and the interesting kink in Wimsey’s sense of fair play that sees him struggle to seize his murderer because he enjoys the hunt but not the conclusion or consequences. I was fairly startled when Wimsey tipped off the villain (I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say he does because the surprise lies in how he does it) but it did make a peculiar kind of sense. It also made the ‘confession’ aspect of the ending slightly more believable.

I now need to buy my own copy of Whose Body? and track down the next book in the series especially since most of my earlier commenters said the series gets better and I’m curious to see where Sayers takes these characters. I’ve got that glinty-eyed look about me. You know, the one that suggests a new bookish love affair has begun? Expect to see more Sayers here shortly. :)

This book counts for 1923 in my 20th Century of Books.

Further Reading: I posted my favourite long quote from the book, The Sleepless Reader’s review, A piece on Open Letters Monthly about Sayers and the Golden Age of detective fiction

Buy the book: Book Depository

List of books read in 2014 / Index of Fiction


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Review: One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens

One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens

Category: Fiction/WWII – Paperback: 221 pages – Publisher: Penguin Books – Source: My own shelves
First Published: 1942

Another old orange Penguin book on my shelf, this is a book I shuffled closer to the top of my To Be Read pile last year thinking it might make an interesting addition to my century of books challenge…

When World War Two broke out Monica Dickens (who’d already published two books, including one about working in some odd jobs) signed up as a nurse and went to work in a hospital, this book is a non-fiction account of her experiences there. It’s mostly made up of descriptions of other nurses, the routines within the hospital and wards and humour about having to wear cuffs in the hallway and troublesome patients, terrible meals in the refectory, the steady supply of gossip and climbing in windows when out after curfew.

‘It was now that I first sensed the faint antagonism that all Day Sisters have for the night nurses on their ward. There is the suspicion that, behind their back, one will trifle with their beloved machine. Wherever possible, the blame for a mishap is pinned on the night nurses. It is they who have broken that syringe to which no one will confess; they who ate that jelly and stole Sister’s ginger biscuits…’
(Page 84)

I actually rather liked it. Dickens has an eye for detail and is good at telling a tale about hiding a broken thermometer or trying to stay awake on night duty, but because she was in Windsor (she changes it’s name to Redwood in the book) not London or somewhere more affected by the war her experiences skate along on a very jolly, largely inconsequential level. There’s one night out that is interrupted by a sudden influx of severe burns cases that come from a factory accident and a couple of German pilots find their way to the ward but mostly she spends her days caring for geriatrics, new mothers and private patients.

Presumably that was exactly what the original audience wanted – the sense that England was going on in true English fashion with babies born every night and brave, funny nurses bending the rules occasionally but caring for their charges when it mattered – but it wasn’t what I was expecting and I was disappointed by it. Entirely my fault of course, I don’t read blurbs much and the combination of the opening page (debating what war work Dickens should sign up for and explaining why she chose nursing) and the publication date led me to assume the war would be a far more prominent feature of the book that it was.

If you’re going to pick this up yourself let it be for the amusement of either Dickens’ tales of getting in trouble or curiosity of what nursing was like in the 1930s and 1940s – her descriptions of making meals on the wards and trying to juggle a thousand and one tasks in the sluice room between patients ringing for help are interesting enough in their own right without any war specific tales. After all, the humour comes from someone as ill-suited to the strict discipline as Dickens clearly was being forced by the war to knuckle down and write short stories at 03:00 in between never-ending rounds.

I wouldn’t have picked this up without the misunderstanding about it being an account of nursing that happens to be from 1942 rather than about a hospital in wartime specifically (nursing tales really aren’t something I’d go for normally) but Dickens’ wry digs at those around her kept me reading and it’s proved to be an interesting introduction to Dickens’ style. She’s a bit of a snob, her snarking can sound a little whiny at times and there’s some casual racism that made me twitch… but on the whole I’m very curious to read more of her work. Perhaps I’ll try one of her novels next.

This book counts for the year 1942 in my 20th Century of Books.

Further Reading: A Penguin A Week hated it, Leaves and Pages loved it

Buy the book: Book Depository

List of books read in 2014 / Index of Non-Fiction


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Review: Holy Deadlock by A P Herbert

Holy Deadlock by A P Herbert

Category: Fiction/Divorce – Paperback: 320 pages – Publisher: Penguin – Source: My own shelves
First Published: 1934

In 1934 two novels were published that focused on the absurdity of the English divorce laws of the time, one was Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust and the other was Holy Deadlock by A P Herbert. It was Holy Deadlock that had the bigger impact – it sold more than 90,000 copies and was a “sensation on both sides of the Atlantic”. It also led to Herbert being elected as an MP in 1935 and a new divorce law being introduced in 1937.

At the heart of the story are poor John Adam and Mary Eve. Thrown together after World War One when they were young, naive and everyone made jokes and threw them together because of their names (how could Adam and Eve not be a perfect match?) they married in 1920. Seven years later they’d tried to make things work but he’s a textbook publisher and she’s a theatre actress, their personalities are just too different. As John sensibly asks on the opening page:

‘Was there any other lifelong bargain in which a mistake was irrevocable, from which the law provided no honourable escape at all?’

Divorce in England at the time was almost impossible though.

Your spouse could go mad and be sent to an asylum, they could be imprisoned for life, they could beat you black and blue every day or just disappear into thin air. All those were unfortunate but you couldn’t get a divorce for any of those reasons. The only way to get a divorce was to prove one of you had committed adultery. And yes, it could only be one of you – if you both committed adultery it was deemed safer for society to leave you shackled to each other.

So for John and Mary to be able to divorce and get on with their lives one of them will have to ‘prove’ they have committed adultery. It’s been two years since they stopped living together and both are involved with someone else. John has met Joan, a school teacher, and Mary is in love with Martin, who works for the BBC.

Here’s the problem – Joan and Martin both have employers who expect snow-white reputations from their staff, both would lose their jobs and struggle to find another if they were cited in a divorce trial and mentioned in the newspaper reports of it. So neither can help John and Mary get out of their marriage.

Instead, Mary asks John to ‘behave like a gentleman’ and find another woman who he can pretend adultery with…

What follows is a farce of finding an agency where you can hire such a woman, an uncomfortable weekend at a Brighton hotel with ‘Miss Myrtle’ to ‘prove’ the relationship before sending the hotel bill as evidence (along with the divorce petition) to Mary on the Monday. This is such common practice by men seeking divorce that the hotel manager is sick of his staff being whisked away to the London courts to testify they’ve seen adulterous couples in bed together when delivering the morning cup of tea!

After all this embarrassing subterfuge for poor, shy John, the first attempt fails when the hotel maid tries to protect John’s reputation by denying she’s seen him before. The judge also queries why John would go to a hotel with Miss Myrtle when he didn’t seem to have known her for very long.

The second attempt sees John’s partner-in-non-crime, a governess who fancies some extra funds, come down with measles which means spending weeks in a seaside hotel nursing her better. They had however instructed Mary’s private detective to document them ‘courting’ around London and John’s flat previously though so the case is more solid and the divorce is granted.

But.

You knew there was a but, right?

All divorces took six months to be granted and could be revoked in that time. The courts employed an official called the King’s Proctor to investigate any queried divorce request. While John  has been desperately trying to prove adultery with women he’s got no interest in, Mary has been struggling to make Martin wait for the divorce. When they go sailing to finally spend some time alone together they accidentally get trapped on the boat overnight and it results in a nasty neighbour sending an anonymous tip-off to the KP to investigate – the divorce will be reversed if both Mary and John have committed adultery.

When the final trial reveals that a private eye saw Mary let Martin into her hotel room while working in Manchester (only to say goodnight) all John’s efforts are in vain. The judge refuses to exercise discretion or believe in Mary’s innocence. He refuses to finalise the divorce.

By the end of the novel, John has spent a fortune and is no closer to being divorced. The woman he was doing all this for, Joan, is now a headmistress and can’t be seen with him. Martin has been sacked by the BBC. Mary can live with Martin but if they do she’ll never be able to get her divorce which depends on a new trial and John pretending to commit adultery a third time…

It’s a plot with lots of twists and Herbert has a lot of fun with his characters. I can’t help calling them ‘poor’ John and Mary because every time they appear to be winning the game someone adds another fiendish rule. Though Herbert doesn’t really look at the social implications of divorce being so expensive and only granted by the London courts he does manage to imply the stress it puts on everyone involved and though he keeps it light-hearted it could just as easily read as tragedy.

Mary has had to keep her love for Martin on hold while trying to get the divorce and it stifles her natural happiness. Before they conceded defeat and split, John could only occasionally see Joan in the holidays because they didn’t dare risk her reputation while he was still officially married to someone else. Joan and Martin had to wait patiently, sneak around and dodge private detectives and couldn’t even be alone in private with the person they love. Herbert points out a couple of times in passing how much worse this might have been if John and Mary had had children.

I find humour hard to judge and occasionally Herbert is paternally patronising about his female characters but my word, no wonder this sold so many copies and resulted in such debate. It’s revolutionary stuff and I’m not at all surprised that the man who wrote it brought about a change in the law within three years. Though happily married himself Herbert clearly cared deeply about the injustice of only letting ordinary men and women have one shot at happiness and making no allowance for mistakes.

This counts for the year 1934 in my 20th Century of Books.

Further Reading: This book was the first to include the word ‘fangirl’

Buy the book: Book Depository

List of books read in 2014 / Index of Fiction


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The Book Jar 5: It’s Going To Be Murder…

How To Make A Book Jar

Background: A book jar is a pretty, positive way of gathering together all the titles you want to read or have on your To Be Read pile onto slips of coloured paper so you can add an element of surprise into your reading and do away with long, ever changing lists. I made mine back in March and it seems to have inspired quite a few people to have a go making their own. :)

After my last book jar pick (Arthur C Clarke as a wildcard choice) it’s time to draw the first choice of 2014. I’ve decided to go for one of the green slips – these are the ones with titles from 1900-1950 on them. I’m hoping for something not quite so out of my comfort zone as sci-fi!

*drum roll*

My fifth pick is: Whose Body? by Dorothy L Sayers

Whose Body by Dorothy L Sayers

Hmm. Well mystery novels are less out of my comfort zone than sci-fi or Henry James but I read almost no mystery titles these days which is how this ended up in the book jar; it will be my first ever novel by Sayers.

In fact, odd as it sounds, I’m more familiar with Sayers as a translator: I’m a fan of her version of Dante’s Divine Comedy which tries to keep the complicated rhyme scheme of the original poem (most modern versions go for blank verse or adapt it in some way, including Clive James’ latest translation.)

However, that was written in the 1950s and Whose Body?, her debut novel, was first published in 1923. It’s the book that introduced her famous detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, to the world and he proved so popular a sleuth that Sayers went on to feature him in a dozen novels and many short stories.

Unlike other famous long-running characters or sleuths from the era (like Jeeves or Poirot for example) I don’t think I’ve ever heard or seen a TV or radio adaptation of a Wimsey mystery so all this really will be brand new to me and I’m rather excited.

Perhaps I’ll discover a whole new series to dig into…? Or perhaps I’ll find myself unable to shake memories of W Somerset Maugham’s problem with fictional sleuths?

Since I don’t have a copy of this one I’ve reserved it from the library, expect my thoughts in a week or two. :)

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