Article · Books

January Reading: New Year, New Process

My January book pile.
 
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This year I have set myself a routine. Instead of meandering about picking books willy-nilly, based on system-less and entirely arbitrary decisions, books shall be chosen this way:
  •  monthly Old Baggage’s Book Club book, chosen by a club member;
  •  one off my ‘unread but I’ve owned it more than a year non-fiction’ pile;
 
Persuasion
 
As it happens ‘Persuasion‘ ticks a box on two of the challenges, so hopefully that will ease me in, and probab-, possibl-, hopefully help me stop buying books I know I’m not going to read just yet, but which I’m worried I’ll forget about if I go away and leave them on the shelf.
 
Now if I can just get the sound of their papery little sobs out of my head, as I walk away and abandon them…
 
 
 
As well as reading, this year I’ve decided to give my brain a workout and included a puzzle book. Though I’m not going to worry about trying to get through one a month.
 
OS puzzle tour
I’ve been eyeballing these in Waterstones for about three years now, and over the Xmas break finally took the plunge with Sinclair McKay’s Scotland Yard Puzzle Book. I had assumed that they would be far too complex for me, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that they also cater to those of us with an IQ level that more often resembles the lower end wattage of old-school filament light bulbs.They do get progressively more difficult, though, so there is a challenge there for everyone. Having mostly completed McKay’s puzzles in about a fortnight, I picked up the OS Puzzle Tour of Britain. There’s a secret cartographer hiding in a small ,quiet corner of my soul so this was an obvious choice, and it was half-price to boot. So far, so good, I’m three puzzles in and the lightbulb hasn’t blown a fuse. Yet.
 
Styles
This is a surprisingly ‘historical’ collection for me. I usually veer more towards crime and sci-fi. ‘Styles’* is an easy one, then, but I’m Christie-lover anyway, and anything by her can be classed amongst my comfort-reads. My copy is one of the facsimile editions released a few years ago. There is something particularly special for me about reading a book in the form the author understood it would be published in. I have also found, having now read a few, that this small hardback format, is actually very pleasant to read. They are not particularly heavy, but they have that feel of solidity, and substance that paperbacks lack, but without the bulk and stiffness of modern hardcovers.
 
The Austen is a different proposition. I’ve never been a fan of this genre (in my head its classed as ’19th Century middle-class soap opera’) But I’ve enjoyed, if not loved, the odd BBC production, and they are classics, so maybe it’s time to get my head down and give it a shot. Especially as this one book fulfils both Penguin’s monthly challenge, and one of MMD’s slots. 
 
West Winging
West Winging It, by Pat Cunnane has been on my shelf for a while. I’ve been mildly obsessed with the goings-on of the White House since the turn of the century, and (yeah, you got it) The West Wing TV series. (Thanks, for that Mr Sorkin). I’m not high brow enough to read the really in depth political books though, so I settle for the stuff that’ll fill the void left by the end of the show. The gossipy light-weight fluff that throws out an occasional detail of process whilst spilling hundreds of secrets about the people, their cock-up’s, and scandals and (hopefully) eschewing any kind of regard for the Official Secrets Act, or whatever they have over there. I’m hoping Cunnane is going to live up to all my lowest expectations.
 
Gentleman Jack
The last book on the pile is ‘Gentleman Jack’. This is our January book over at The Old Baggage’s Book Club.
Chosen by one of our members, I’m having a little wobble about this, too. I love non-fiction, but the flat-out truth is I’m a junk reader, and whilst non-fiction subjects fascinate me…it takes me a lot longer to read them. They have complicated stuff like, y’know…𝑓𝑎𝑐𝑡𝑠, in them. It takes more time to absorb the information they contain. Not to mention my compulsive Googling of every tiny detail that I suddenly need to know more about. So whilst I’m thrilled at the idea of learning more about Annie, I’m vaguely worried I might have to exert some effort.
 
So, with slightly mixed feelings about how this month is going to go (how am I going to survive with no sci-fi, no urban fantasy, no….Bryant & May?!)  it’s time to see if I can make it through the first month of my new reading routine. Or if I end up back in Waterstone’s gathering up my weeping new children from the shelves, and carrying them home to a life of comfort, genre-sectioning, and very little prospect of ever being read.
 

*If your first thought upon reading this was “Harry?”, then you should definitely be reading a different blog…

 
Books · Review

Bats in The Belfry

A Cosy Crime sleeper worthy of resurrection

I’m a huge fan of Cosy Crime, I cut my grown-up reading teeth on Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, so it should be no surprise that I’m a big fan of the British Library’s inspired decision to republish lost Golden Age novels.

Fifty-one re-issues in and I’m still stunned at the number of authors who had stellar careers as crime writers, were fully inducted members of the Detection Club, and had publication lists to rival Christie’s but who, within a few years of their deaths, had just vanished from the pantheon classic crime novelists.

Bats In The BelfrySuch a writer was E.C.R.Lorac, author of Bats In The Belfry. In his introduction Martin Edwards describes  the pseudonymous Lorac (real name Edith Caroline Rivett)  as enjoying a “low-key career spanning more than a quarter of a century.” It also produced a catalogue of over seventy novels, yet, cosy crime fan that I am I had  never heard of her until her book turned up on my work intranet.

Bats, British Library’s inaugural Crime Classic for 2018, is also the first of Lorac’s novels to be given the British Library treatment.  It couldn’t have happened to a better book! One of the dangers of republishing books that have disappeared in the mists of time, at least if you are republishing them for the mass market, is that some of them will prove to have  been ‘lost’ with good cause. Not that the writing need be poor or the plotting weak, but there are social aspects that can be critical to the development or fundamental premise of the story that change over the course of  half a century. When that happens there is a danger that the reader will at best be disgruntled with a puzzle they were unlikely to be able to solve because they didn’t understand the clues they were being given,  or, at worst, that the whole premise will seem beyond ludicrous to modern readers. Of the twenty or so BLCC’s I have read only one has fallen into the latter category, and whilst there have been one or two which were a bit plodding thanks to such issues they have largely been a pleasure to read, and I have been able to joyfully pit my wits against the authors’ intrinsic challenge to solve the mystery before the denouement.

Bats in the Belfry most definitely falls into this class of Crime Classic, so much so that it’s a surprise to find from Edwards that it was a bit of a non-starter when it was first  published in 1937.

A failing writer, his actress wife, his ward and a selection of friends are collected one evening following the funeral of the writer’s cousin. Shortly thereafter the writer himself has vanished, his suitcase and passport left in a darkly sinister studio known variously as The Belfry, and The Morgue.  The story is as dark and twisty as any you could hope for from a member of the Detection Club, and it plays nicely on themes of the time. Broken marriages, financially emasculated men, and the requisite ‘strange foreign man’ all appear, and even aarchaeology gets a look in.  As the main characters sit and incautiously discuss ways to bump off someone and hide the body there is brief verbal tussle over the usefulness – and even existence of – dene holes, ancient subterranean storage areas that provided writers of the time with endless possibilities, most notably in Sayers’ The Nine Tailors.  Lorac’s plotting is flawless and deceptively simplistic, and she leads you back and forth from suspect to suspect. She is brutally unsympathetic to her characters, and her writing bundles you along until you finally reach the conclusion, to discover how good you are at detecting. Or not.