Lighten up Anita

Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K Hamilton

I am profoundly aware that I often read books in the wrong order. I’m not referring to books in a series here though – I always prefer to start from the beginning with them; instead I’m talking about influence.

This means for instance that it was forty years before I came to We by Yevgeny Zamyatkin (my review)- the 1924 Russian dystopia that so profoundly influenced Orwell’s 1984. I was really glad to have read both, and actually would probably have found 1984 derivative if read in the publication order. In this case, reading the influenced before the influencer allowed me to revel in both future visions.

Then for my first Season of the Living Dead on this blog back in 2009, I managed to read Twilight before LK Smith’s The Vampire Diaries (my review). The Vampire Diaries arguably paved the way for subsequent teen high-school paranormal romances, but didn’t grab my imagination the way Twilight did.


Which brings me to Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K Hamilton. I was prompted to read this book when a copy of Affliction was sent by the publisher to me.  Affliction turns out to be the 22nd (!) in a series of vampire novels featuring Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter.  Good for me then, that I just happened to have the first, the aforesaid Guilty Pleasures in my bookcase, as I couldn’t possibly dive in at volume 22.

But first, a caveat: I have read and loved some of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse vampire novels set in the deep south (my review of the first here). Apart from all the vampire blood and gore, there is a rich vein of humour in these books, and Sookie is a kooky and lovable heroine. It didn’t take much research to find that the first Sookie book didn’t appear until eight years after Guilty Pleasures, which also predates Buffy. With Anita being a sort of paranormal Private Investigator, I thought there may be similarities too with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (my review of the first two here), but again The Dresden Files didn’t start until 2000.

Obviously I’ve read these books in the wrong order again, as Hamilton can probably claim to be the first in this particular sub-genre of paranormal urban fantasy writers. So how does Anita Blake hold up to those that follow …

guilty pleasures

I don’t date Vampires. I kill them.
My name is Anita Blake. Vampires call me the Executioner. What I call them isn’t repeatable.
Every since the Supreme Court granted the undead equal rights, most people think vampires are just ordinary folks with fangs. I know better. I’ve seen their victims. I carry the scars.
But now a serial killer is murdering vampires – and the most powerful bloodsucker in town wants me to find the killer.

Anita Blake lives and works in St Louis, Missouri.  Her primary job at the agency run by Bert is as an Animator – she can raise zombies, or put them to rest again. She’s also an expert in vampires. We don’t know the detail, but we know she bears a grudge against the bloodsuckers.  Her expertise in these areas though is very useful to the police; she’s on retainer and is often called in to murders where undead have been involved.

When vampires start being murdered, against her better judgement, she reluctantly agrees to investigate for the vampire grandmaster.  She’s better placed than most investigators to to this, for she is partially immune to the effects of a vampire’s gaze. She still knows better than to look them directly in the eyes.

It’s not clear whether it’s a vampire killing vampires, or one of the human anti-vampire activist groups.  Anita’s first port of call is to the club, Guilty Pleasures, run by vampire Jean-Claude – who has a definite attraction to her.  I suspect that Jean-Claude, who does remain alive at the end of the book, will play a big role in subsequent novels.

Jean-Claude, although masterful, is not the grandmaster of the vampires. That is Nikolaos – a thousand year old child vampire, whose powers are strong indeed. This evil girl is determined to let Anita know that the only reason she is alive is to solve the crimes.

Anita’s investigations also take her to a ‘freak’ party, where she masquerades as a new human vampire junkie – addicted to having some blood sucked from her.  Her escort for the night is Philip, a junkie trying to kick the habit.  He is strong and noble in protecting her, but things go wrong, the party is attacked and they escape. From there, it all gets terribly complicated between all the factions involved, the vampires, the hate-groups, the human servants, and the internal rivalries between the vamps.  Anyone who associates with Anita is at risk too.

We know that Anita will survive to tell at least another 21 tales, but how many others are going to die along with the way with her?  Frankly, it was all a bit grim, and there’s no let-up, no pause for breath. All the action takes place over just a few days and you wonder how Anita has the stamina for it.

Anita is a typical heroine. Super-tough and feisty, also petite – she has to punch above her weight being small. We get few details about what she does off-duty – this is a gal that lives for her job.  She narrates the story in a noir-ish style which, it feels, allows every noir cliché ever coined to be adapted to the world of vampires.

What Anita lacks though, and hence the book, is a sense of humour.  That’s what the other books I mentioned above have, and it allows us to take a breather from the action, and absorb all the complexities of the plot.  With Anita, it’s all bam, bam, bam – no pauses for a cup of joe with a friend, no chance to let off steam and allow another side of her personality to come through. Actually, she’s a bit whiny (mostly at herself, it must be admitted), but I didn’t warm to her the way I did Sookie.  It’s just non-stop action, with a few hours sleep to recover from the mounting number of injuries Anita accrues along the way.  The amount of pain this gal can sustain is superhuman – oh – maybe she is one?

Also, I without the device of Harris’s Tru-blood – the synthetic blood that allows vampires to live alongside humans without the risk of bloodlust killing them all, even if vampires were real, they couldn’t be given equal rights to live alongside humans safely.  Given all their superhuman powers, unless the blood thing could be resolved, Anita’s world can’t exist – they have to remain underground.  That’s what makes the later series work.

While this first novel in the series did keep me reading until the end, I didn’t bond enough with Anita to want to read more of this series.  She does have legions of fans though. Do let me know if you think I should give her another chance. (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K Hamilton, Headline paperback, 327 pages.
Affliction (Anita Blake Vampire Hunter 22), pub July 2nd, 2013, Headline hardback.


Is the day of the encyclopedia on the shelf over?

Dear Readers, I’m in a quandary.

Twenty years ago, with the aid of a legacy from my late great-aunt, I invested in a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Leather bound with gilt page edges, and 32 volumes – it cost me over £1200 back then.


Britannica itself has now stopped publishing the print edition, concentrating on on-line products. Its final 32 vol set was published in 2010 in a luxury binding, it cost £9,999 and they only produced 10 sets.

My edition (the 15th) takes up nearly two full shelves of my Billy bookcases, plus there are the six yearbooks upstairs which I bought, at around £35 a volume, but have never looked at!


Presentation1It looks impressive, but I no longer use it.  A few months ago, I tried to encourage my daughter to use it for a project.  “You can use the dining table with several volumes open at the same time,” I said, “so you can easily refer between them,” already knowing that it was a lost cause.

The same goes for my 6 volume boxed set of the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music from 1995 (below). I’ve not used that in far longer than the EB.

guinness encyclop

When given the choice between Google/Wikipedia and the print version of Britannica, the free on-line option, regardless of accuracy, will nowadays always be the first port of call.  It’ll usually be the only port of call too most of the time.

Getting your facts right is important though – remember Jay McInerney’s novel Brights lights big city in which the protagonist works as a fact-checker for a NewYork publication?

You can’t beat an acknowledged primary source.

I do cross-check where appropriate for book reivews – vs an author’s own website for instance, plus a major book-selling site, and Fantastic Fiction for instance, but the tendency is to rely on Wikipedia.  Its level of detail and cross-referencing is growing exponentially; it is gradually acquiring depth, which is a quality that you previously had to rely on subject-specific books for, (and still do for all serious matters). When writing posts for this blog etc. I feel justified  in using these  on-line reference sources.  I’ve given up trying to encourage my daughter to use the print encyclopedias, but I continue to say, “I have a book about that,” whenever I can.

Which leaves me with this final quandary. There are three shelves of big unused books there in total. Heaven knows, I could do with the space. I realise I’ll only get a fraction of what I paid for them if I cash in – I’m sorely tempted though. Gone are the pre-wiki days when I used take part in a postal quiz tournament and spent hours with the books researching the answers. I can only remember using them once this year, trying to help Juliet with her history essay on Thomas Beckett. Note – I am not contemplating giving up the rest of my reference collection – just the multi-volume encyclopedias.

Although they were bought with a legacy, I still have a copy of the order and certificate of ownership, so would keep that in memory of my aunt. I no longer feel particularly attached to the books themselves.

What would you do in my position?
Would you keep or sell?
Your thoughts are welcomed…

P.S. I’m open to offers!

Perfect holiday rom-com reading …

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

rosie project

It’s not often that you know you’re going to love a book within the first few pages, but with The Rosie Project, that was never in question for me. It is the story of Don Tillman, a genetics professor at an Australian university. Having never made it to a second date, he’s decided it’s time to get married – but who to and how will he find a wife?

It very soon becomes clear that Don is definitely on the Aspergers spectrum.  He schedules his life to the minute – has a set weekly menu which includes lobster on Tuesdays. He is very literal, and doesn’t understand emotion well.

Yet, the author never makes fun of him, we’re on a voyage of self-discovery with Don as he explores the world of romance in his attempts to find a wife.  We’re with him all the way.

He is aided in his quest by his only real friends – Gene, a libidinous colleague who is always off on affairs, and Gene’s long-suffering wife, psychologist Claudia.  Don has come up with a mammoth questionnaire to pre-sort potential mates – for instance, smokers and vegetarians will not make it to the next step of a date.  Amazingly, Don gets lots of replies to his questionnaire, and Gene helps to sort them!

Then, one day, Gene sends Rosie, a researcher in his department to Don. Rosie is on a quest of her own, to discover her biological father. She knows it was one of the professors at a conference her late mother was at – there’s a group photo. All she needs to do is to identify all the people, find them, get a DNA sample – and Bob’s your uncle – father found.  Of course it’s not that simple – but Don is the right man to help.

Approximately two house after Gene left my office with the completed Wife Project questionnaires, there was a knock on the door. I was engaged in an activity which is not forbidden, but I suspect only because nobody is aware that I am doing it. I was weighing student essays as part of a project to reduce the effort of assessment, by looking for easily measured parameters such as weight, inclusion of a table of contents, typed versus handwritten cover sheet, which might provide as good an indication of quality as the tedious process of reading the entire assignment.
I slipped the scales under my desk as the door opened and looked up to see a woman who I did not recognise standing in the doorway. I estimated her age as thirty and her body mass index at twenty.
‘Professor Tillman?’
As my name is on the door, this was not a particularly astute question.
‘Professor Barrow gave me your name.’
I was amazed at Gene’s efficiency, and looked at the woman more carefully as she approached the desk. There were no obvious signs of unsuitability. I did not detect any make-up. Her body shape and skin tone were consistent with health and fitness. She wore glasses, with heavy frames that revived bad memories of Apricot Ice-cream Woman, a long black t-shirt that was torn in several places, heavy shoes and a black belt with metal chains. It was lucky that the jewellery question had been deleted, because she was wearing big metal earrings and an extremely interesting pendant around her neck.

Don thinks that Gene has sent Rosie round for the wife project – he invites her out to dinner.  Rosie is slim and pretty, but quirky and definitely impulsive, she also smokes and is a vegetarian, doesn’t fit his profile of what he’s looking for in a wife at all, he’s oddly attracted to her.

He agrees to help.  Of course the problem in this is that the candidates mustn’t know they are being tested – so getting saliva smears, hair follicles etc for DNA testing will be difficult – not to mention unethical, but Don, although he doesn’t know it is doubly smitten, with the idea of the project – and Rosie. The will they – won’t they get together love story is hilarious and heart-warming. Don and Rosie are both lovely, and obviously made for each other, but Rosie’s quest and Don’s rational way of looking at things will get in the way leading to increasingly bizarre situations as they collect the DNA samples.

Don’s narration is so matter of fact, but because of this is unintentionally funny.  The humour in this novel will make you laugh out loud, but always with Don and Rosie, never at their expense. Don’s gradual understanding of his emotions and his experiments at putting this into action are great fun.  Underneath though, Don remains true to himself – the changes are mostly cosmetic, he’s playing a role and we love him for it.


The novel started life as a screenplay before the author’s change in direction to make it a book. It’s always fun to mentally cast the film – Martin Freeman would be ideal for Don, but I’d really like to see … ooh … George Clooney play against type with, say, Kate Winslett as Rosie.  Who would you cast?

Funnily enough, after I finished reading this on holiday, we went to the cinema to see Despicable Me 2, which hilarious (but probably better if you see Despicable Me first). The relationship between baddie-turned-goodie Gru and madcap agent Lucy in this film reminded me a lot of Don and Rosie!

It is so rare for comedy novels to really work. The Rosie Project does – and I highly recommend it. (9/10)

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Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, pub April 2013 by Penguin Michael Joseph; hardback, 304 pages.

A novel of love, war, betrayal and stiff upper lip

Some Day I’ll Find You by Richard Madeley

Richard Madeley slightly surprised everyone in 2008 when he published his successful memoir Fathers and Sons which explored male familial relationships through the mirror of his own. Despite journalistic roots, it was somewhat unexpected that one of the most successful daytime TV hosts and champion of the Richard & Judy Bookclub could write. Now, matching his wife Judy Finnegan, he has written his first novel – would it pass muster?


Madeley hosting ‘Runway’ another 1988 quiz show.

I was intrigued to be offered a copy by his publisher – as many moons ago I met him when I was a contestant on the Granada TV quiz show Connections. That was back in 1988; he was on his way up, having made a name for himself on local shows, now breaking into national TV programmes. We had to rehearse our little introductions with him, and I remember having difficulty describing the branch of high-tech electronic materials I worked with in those days. He came up with a (so him) flippant response that neatly sidestepped the issue.  Recording loads of the shows each day – it was a daily tea-time quiz show – so there was no time to bond further, although Granada treated us contestants really well.  I got to stay overnight in the same Manchester hotel as many Coronation Street actors, and Jonathan Miller breakfasted at an adjacent table!  I lost my match on the buzzer on the final question but felt I acquitted myself reasonably, which was a relief as it seemed that all my UK customers had seen it and recognised me. But enough of all this reminiscing – what was his book like?

some day

Some Day I’ll Find You is a story of wartime romance and betrayal. The prologue starts in Nice a few years after the war, where Diana, sitting outside her favourite café, is stunned to hear a voice from her past as a taxi passes.

As it passed her, she saw the silhouette of a man sitting in the back. He was leaning forward and speaking, in English, to the driver.
‘No, not here. I told you – it’s much further up. Keep going all the way to the Hotel Negresco. And get a move on – I’m late enough as it is.’
Diana swayed and gripped the back of her chair. Impossible.
‘Stop!’ she called at last as the taxi reached the top of the square and began to turn on to the Promenade des Anglais. ‘Oh please, stop!’
But the Citroen entered the flow of traffic and disappeared down the long curving road that bordered the sparkling Mediterranean.
‘Madame!’ It was Armand, the patron, solicitous. ‘Do you have a problem?’
‘No, no …’ She sat down again. ‘Everything’s fine, really.’
But she was lying.
Everything was wrong.
Completely wrong.

Then we flashback to 1938 and war is not yet a certainty.  Diana Arnold is on holiday from studying at Girton, Cambridge.  Her brother John is at RAF officer training school, and has made friends with James Blackwell, an East-ender and chancer who shouldn’t really be there, but has wangled his way in. James is penniless, so when they get leave, John invites him to join the Arnold family at home in Kent.

The Arnolds are well off, Mr Arnold being a successful libel lawyer. Diana is a confident and beautiful young woman, and James immediately sees an opportunity to become set-up for life and he starts to woo her and her family.  We get a hint of how callous James is underneath when he drops the hairdresser he’d been seeing with no explanation.

The Arnolds fall for him, and he spins Diana sob-stories about his past, and she falls for him too and they get engaged.  War intervenes and the boys are called into action. James and Diana decide to get married as soon as they can, and test out their conjugal bliss.  Diana’s father is wary of their marriage, but her mother Gwen reminds him that they did exactly the same during WWI, and Oliver survived the trenches.  Two days of leave give them the window to get married, but after the ceremony with Diana still in her wedding dress, John and James are immediately recalled to take to the skies in their spitfires – neither will return. Diana is widowed, and left pregnant with their child.

She remarries to a rich, older man, who is happy to bring up her daughter, and they relocate to the Côte d’Azur, which is where her troubles begin again, when she hears that voice …

I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It was undemanding, but the plot had enough drama and the main characters were strong enough to keep me entertained.  Diana, a strong-willed Daddy’s girl, could be rather petulant, and you did wonder whether she’d be able to change James, well for a short while anyway, but she has reserves of stiff upper lip that take over from the wild romance. You hope that she will be the making of James, but that would be rather boring, and when his true character starts to show it adds to the drama considerably – we need him to be a cad and bounder.

Madeley’s text is unflashy, and flows smoothly. I couldn’t help but imagine him narrating the book in my head, as the writing did feel like him reading a book out loud, if you get what I mean.  He definitely has a voice in his writing; it will be interesting to see how his style develops in any future novels as it felt a little too like him in parts in this one.

This was an excellent, light holiday read, and with the twin settings of wartime Kent, and 1950s Nice, I can easily imagine a two-part drama on the tellybox. (7.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Some Day I’ll Find You by Richard Madeley, Simon & Schuster paperback (2013)
Fathers and Sonsby Richard Madeley

What we did on our holidays …

I know the state schools have only just broken up, but my daughter and I had the luxury of finishing for the year on July 5th, and so we’ve been on holiday and come back already.  (BTW, our school day is a full hour longer, so that’s 5hrs per week x 36 wks = about 6 wks of state school – can you guess I get fed up of answering that question about long holidays?!)

We’ve holidayed in the UK exclusively for the past few years, so I wanted to go a little further afield, but had the constraint of me never having driven on the other side of the road (my ex always did the driving on holiday) – I felt too nervous without another adult present.  My daughter expects seaside in the equation, so a citybreak was also out of the question…

The solution was to go to the Channel Islands!  They’re not in the EU; we could fly so it feels different, and they drive on our side of the road. So off we went to Jersey…

We flew in a little 19 seater prop plane out of Southampton on Blue Islands Airways, and could see into the cockpit – a real thrill. Jersey is the largest of the Channel Islands at approx 9 x 5 miles. Surrounded by beaches, famous for its potatoes, cows, its low taxes, having been heavily occupied by the Germans during WWII, amongst other things, and not forgetting the TV series Bergerac with John Nettles back in the 1980s, (below).


Although little, there is plenty to do in Jersey.

Jersey 2 with Guernsey 008b

On our first full day, we drove to the Corbiere lighthouse on the SW tip, made a sandcastle on St Brelade’s beach, went to the Lavender farm and back to our apartment in St Helier to go to the beach again.

The next day, we played mini golf and went to the Jersey War Tunnels featuring the German Underground Hospital which is a fantastic museum of the occupation of Jersey in WWII. The scientist in me was fascinated by the bottles of chemicals in the surgery – Chloroform and Ether, (how sad is that!).  It was fascinating, and being underground, cool too.

Jersey 2 with Guernsey 030b

What was disappointing there though was the gift shop – there was a choice of about six WWII books, boring tea-shirts, a boring mug, and tins of biscuits.  The rest of the shop was standard giftshop stuff you could buy anywhere by the seaside (bear in mind this museum was in the middle of the island).  I asked the lady at the till about the poor souvenir choices – and she said the shop used to be really good but got franchised out!  I didn’t see many people buying the standard stuff. We would see the same standard giftshop stuff all around the island.  What a lack of imagination.

We then spent a day in Guernsey – catching the ferry over for the 1hr journey. St Peter Port was charming – much less commercial than Jersey, which is full of the same high street shops as the UK.  I even found an indie bookshop (there are none in St Helier) – but sadly it was shut!

The highlight of the whole holiday for me was going to Victor Hugo’s house in Guernsey where he lived in exile for 15yrs from 1865. This is run by the Musée de Paris – and admission is by guided tour only.  We’d missed the earlier English one, so I opted to practise my French. Poor Juliet was a little bored only catching the odd word, but wouldn’t be left behind.

Hauteville House Red Room

It was amazing. Hugo was an abundantly creative individual. He made furniture from doors, bits of churches, whatever – a master of brocante, shabby chic techniques, but making them opulent instead.  Even when he used a normal piece of furniture, he had to put his personal touch onto it – adding an inscription, his family crest, or other embellishments.  He overdecorated his bedroom/writing room so much he couldn’t sleep or work there – retreating to the attic.

Jersey 3 incl zoo 012bWe also visited two castles. Mont Orgueil in Gorey in the East which has centuries of history and is full of contemporary artworks (see left – Family tree of Henry II and Eleanor of Acquitaine, sorry I can’t remember the artist’s name).  Elizabeth Castle in the bay at St Helier, was strategically important in protecting the island, and when the tide is in accessible only by amphibious ferry.

Jersey 3 incl zoo 015b

Then we went back in time to La Hoque Bie Museum, which combines a neolithic passage grave 6000 yrs old with a later pair of chapels built on the top of the mound, and archaeological/geological museum on the side. The chapel was shrouded in scaffolding – but it wouldn’t be a typical holiday if at least one sight wasn’t!  It was a very peaceful location though. Apparently the passage is aligned with the spring and autumn equinoxes.

Jersey 3 incl zoo 062b

The undoubted highlight of our week for my daughter though, was our visit to the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. The only shame was that it was so hot that many of the animals like the orang-utan mother with her baby weren’t very active. But enough of these endangered creatures like our favourite otters and merekats were up and about to make it a real treat.Jersey 3 incl zoo 050bJersey 3 incl zoo 038b

We had a good week, apart from the last evening when we were invaded by flying ants – they came in through the conservatory skylight and clustered in the lounge – we had to abandon watching TV – there were hundreds of them – but next morning they were almost all gone!

Jersey last day 003b

So we packed up and left the island and the park next door to JLS  who were doing a gig there the next day.

I tend not to read much on holiday, but this time I finished two books – so there will be bookish posts soon!

I hope you all have happy holidays.

A quiet novel with emotional depth

The Cleaner of Chartresby Salley Vickers

cleaner of chartresThe seventh novel by Salley Vickers, The Cleaner of Chartres is the story of orphan foundling Agnès Morel, and the people who come into her life.

Before introducing us to Agnès, the novel begins by telling us about the great cathedral, how it burned and was rebuilt by an army of unknown craftsmen …

Nor was anything known of Agnès Morel when she arrived in Chartres nearly eight hundred years after the building of the present cathedral commenced. Few, if asked, could have recalled when she first appeared. She must have seemed vaguely always to have been about. A tall, dark, slender woman – ‘a touch of the tar brush there’,  Madame Beck, who had more than a passing sympathy for the Front National, chose to comment – with eyes that the local artist, Robert Clément, likened to washed topaz, though, as the same Madame Beck remarked to her friend Madame Picot, being an artist he was give to these fanciful notions.

Right from the start, we are entranced by the mystery of Agnès with her topaz eyes.  She was found in a basket by a farmer, who left her with the nuns at Rouen to bring up. When she was a teenager, things happened, and she ended up in psychiatric care under the kind Dr Deman.  It will take most of the book for Agnès’ backstory to be teased out gently, only then reaching a climax when the past threatens to eclipse the present.

It is in the present, twenty years later, that we learn about Agnès’ nurturing nature as she cleans and babysits for the residents of Chartres, taking on the job of cleaning the cathedral itself when the old cleaner became too infirm.  It was Abbé Paul that had found her when she arrived in the city homeless those years ago, helping her to find lodgings and work.

She is a quiet woman, having a few good friends and she is trusted by those who use her services, yet her exotic appearance does attract the attention of the town busybody Madame Beck.  Meanwhile Agnès attracts some rather more welcome attention in Alain, a craftsman working on a restoration project – there is a mutual attraction there, which doesn’t get past Madame Beck’s eagle eyes.  Beck decides to employ Agnès, always looking for a way to disparage her, and when one of her antique dolls goes missing – she starts her campaign against Agnès in earnest.

As the author said herself when I saw her speak the other evening Agnès is very much a catalyst for action in those she meets, bringing out their latent qualities. From being painter Robert’s muse, or a shoulder to lean on for the increasingly bewildered Father Bernard, to becoming the focus of the bigoted Madame Beck’s attentions.  She inspires love though too: in Dr Deman, in a kind of reverse transference when a patient falls for their doctor; unrequited love in Professor Jones whom she works for; and fatherly love in Jean, the farmer who found her whom she looks after in his declining years.

There are moments of humour too, one notable segment concerns two of the nuns who brought her up, (one nice, one nasty) when they come on a visit to Chartres.

Sister Laurence had taken the opportunity to escape to the north aisle of the nave. When Mother Véronique tracked her down, Sister Laurence declared that she had decided that her favourite window was Noah and the flood. She particularly liked, she said, the pink elephants and striped pigs.
‘Boars,’ corrected Mother Véronique.
‘Oh yes, of course, “boars”,’ repeated Sister Laurence with seeming meekness but with enough of a treasonous glint in her voice for Mother Véronique to embark on a lengthy account of the life of St Lubin.

This is sensitive storytelling at its best with a cracking character-driven plot that gradually increases in tension as Agnès’ story is revealed.  We are all smitten by her, but also by the cathedral itself. Who wouldn’t want to visit it after reading this wonderful novel and maybe find themselves as Agnès does in its labyrinth. (10/10)

To find out more and see other views about this book, why not take a look at Salley’s own website, or Jane’s review at Fleur Fisher in her World.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Cleaner of Chartresby Salley Vickers, Penguin paperback.

What does this measure?

This weekend, I have a mystery object for you …


Found lurking in an unsorted box of bits and pieces, probably from my late Mum’s, this is an Abel Morrall’s Metal Gauge. But what does it measure precisely?

I know it’s for knitting needles – and pre-metric (the 5 hole doesn’t correspond to 5mm for instance). I found some pre-metric needles and again there didn’t appear to be any correlation between old knitting needle sizes and the numbers on this gauge. Presumably there was another set of sizes…

I Googled it and found a whole booklet (click here) on the history of knitting needle gauges, but it doesn’t tell you what the numbers represent!

It would be nice to date it – I shall research further, meanwhile adding it to my knitting bag.

An evening with Salley Vickers

Salley Vickers, the best-selling author of Miss Garnet’s Angel, and her latest novel The Cleaner of Chartres is an absolutely fascinating person. We were lucky enough to have her visit Abingdon yesterday evening where she talked about her books in interview with Mark Thornton from Mostly Books

Salley Vickers 001

Salley, (named we found out from the WB Yeats poem Down by the Salley Gardens, salley being Irish for willow), had an unconventional upbringing being the child of strict atheists who were members of the British Communist party. She won a scholarship to St Paul’s school – and came top in RE!  She has done many things before becoming a novelist, most notably being a Jungian psychoanalyst which flavours much of her writing.

Mark started off by asking about her relationship with bookshops as an author. Salley said she felt it was a privilege to have her books in shops, and especially independent bookshops – who helped her on her way.  She couldn’t get her first novel Miss Garnet’s Angel into any chains, but indie bookshops did take it, and helped to spread how good it was by word of mouth.  She said she loves readers’ responses to her novels, and how books can bring people together – book groups are a sort of democracy at work – well sometimes.

Salley told an anecdote of how books can occasionally physically change lives: the real café in Venice that featured in Miss G was going to close, but suddenly people started coming to it after reading the book, and it was able to stay open. She was delighted to hear from the owner.

… which led on nicely to talk about places and character. Salley told us how she had been sniffy about going to Venice the first time, but as she walked through from the station towards San Marco, she felt ‘all my adolescent prejudices melting away.‘  She found the church that inspired her by getting lost.  It took getting lost on another visit to find it again.

labychartresfloorAlthough from a strict atheist family they did visit cathedrals, and Salley had visited Chartres when younger.  Later, she took her own family there, telling her sons that the labyrinth was the path to heaven.  But it was on another visit, when she snuck into the cathedral early one morning before it was officially open, and saw a cleaner working on the labyrinth that The Cleaner of Chartres was inspired.

For Salley, place has to ‘coincide with something happening in the present’ which leads to the dual timelines present in all her novels. Mark admitted that he was more than a little smitten with Agnès in The Cleaner of Chartres, and terribly worried when past collided with the present.  Salley explained how some people may say that Agnès was a little passive, but that she didn’t see her that way. Instead, she sees her as a catalyst, who brings out the latent qualities in other people – often beneficial, but not always.

Salley also told us that she always has one character in her novels through whom she expresses her own views and opinions – the Monsignor in Miss G, and Dr Demas in Chartres for instance – both characters that are interesting and, from the nods of acknowledgement, were well-liked in the room.

Mark and Salley then talked about her being a psychoanalyst and how this influences her writing.  Salley had wanted to be one, Jungian, from a fairly young age after reading a book by Jung about dreams and consciousness.  She uses this directly, by writing fast in her nightclothes when she gets up – preserving the vestigial traces of her unconscious dream state.  She also confessed ‘I don’t plot‘, like a psychoanalyst going with the flow in a session, she lets the characters guide the plot – however, she said ‘I like plot, and I like story.’ which is just as well, as her novels are known for a strong storyline.

She was fascinating company, obviously enjoying the interview style of the evening, and signed books for all with a violet pen.

I enjoyed The Cleaner of Chartres very much – review to follow.

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Miss Garnet’s Angel, The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers, paperbacks.

Meet Mr Sulky

Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard, translated by David McClintock

thomas bernhardWhen Stu announced he would host Thomas Bernhard Reading Week this week, I first thought ‘Who?’. Just a little research revealed that he was considered one of Austria’s leading writers of the post-war era, and he was also rather controversial for constantly criticising Austria – a Nestbeschmutzer (one who dirties his own nest). I also ascertained that he was likely to be quite difficult to read, but I liked the sound of his books, so I took up the challenge, choosing one of his shorter novels…


Woodcutters was written in 1984 and  the translation by American, McClintock I read was from 1987. It takes the form of one long unspoken monologue, written in one long paragraph too – I considered writing my review in similar fashion, but I shall spare you that!

The action takes place at a late-night artistic dinner-party in Vienna, hosted by the Auersbergers, who run into our unnamed narrator in town after not seeing him for over twenty years, (he had formerly lodged with them and they had fallen out).  Surprised, he accepts.  Frau Auersberger tells him the guest of honour is to be an actor, currently starring in Ibsen’s play The Wild Ducks.

However, earlier on the same day as the dinner is the funeral of one of the narrator’s dearest friends, Joana. She hanged herself, but the Auersbergers, who also knew her are continuing with the dinner. Our narrator arrives at the party in a real sulk, wishing he wasn’t there, brooding over the death of his friend and the events of the funeral, hating his hosts; he decides to sit in a tall wing-backed chair out of the way, to observe, doze and tell us about Joana and the Auersbergers.

Eventually the actor arrives after his evening performance and they sit down to dinner after midnight. The narrator hates the actor on principle – he rants to himself:

These actors are petit bourgeois nonentities who know nothing whatever about the art of the theater and have long since turned the Burgtheater into a hospice for their terminal dilettantism.

The narrator’s former lover, Jeannie, a writer of sorts, is also there – he hates her now, and she repeatedly tries to show off. She asks the actor inane questions, and the actor pontificates in response…

It was a wonder, he said, that The Wild Duck had been put on at all in Vienna – put on was a phrase he used repeatedly – since putting it on in Vienna was a risk. After all The Wild Duck was a modern play. He actually used the term modern to describe a play that was just a hundred years old, and was still as great, after a hundred years, as it was when written: to call such a play modern was patent nonsense. To present The Wild Duck to the Viennese public was not just a risk, said the actor, but a considerable gamble. The Viennese simply did not respond to modern drama. They preferred to go and see classical plays, and The Wild Duck was not a classical  play – it was a modern play, which might admittedly become a classic.

But finally the actor retorts with something that momentarily raises him in our narrator’s eyes – he wishes he was a simple woodcutter – ein holzfäller.  But that doesn’t last, and eventually, they all go home at about 4am.

Essentially that’s all that happens, but it’s the way his tells it that makes the story.   You know how it is when you worry at something, you mutter about it or fiddle with it repeatedly, and this is how it is with the narrator.  Right from the beginning, when he arrived masking an angry sulk, he wishes he wasn’t there, that he hadn’t bumped into his former friends, the Auersbergers. Looking around the apartment, he settles on the library…

The Auersbergers, who inherited this library, have probably taken out no more than twenty or thirty volumes in the past thirty years, whereas I positively fell upon these collections in the Gentzgasse and Maria Zaal with all the passion of the ignoramus, as I have to admit. And perhaps what tied me to the Gentzgasse and Maria Zaal was not so much the Auersbergers themselves as the extensive libraries which their forebears had founded merely for show, a show of scholarship, culture and comprehensive knowledge – the kind of wide-ranging knowledge that is deemed to go with metropolitan life – things that have always been in fashion. … They’ve always gone in for show, I thought, because they lack any capacity for reality. Everything about them has always been show.

He sulks, he mutters, he reassures himself that he’s sitting the the wing-backed chair, and he sulks some more, sitting in the wing-backed chair. He wishes he hadn’t met the Auersbergers again, he disparages them some more as he sits in the wing-backed chair.  Slowly, and with much repetition, the story gradually edges on, reaching the end of the evening.

You will have seen from the extensive quotes above, that this short novel is not an easy read, especially with no paragraphs to give natural pauses.  When I put the book down for a breather, I found I had to go back a couple of pages to get into the flow again.  It has a certain sardonic humour running through it though as the narrator constantly criticises everyone except the dead Joana – while sitting in the wing-backed chair, of course.

I’m glad I’ve read Thomas Bernhard – thanks Stu. I did enjoy it, but it was hard work and I was tiring of it in the middle, only for it to pick up again towards the end. If you like a challenge, Bernhard would be ideal – and this book could be a good one for you (6/5/10)

I shall leave you with a treat – Monty Python’s Lumberjack (ie: holzfäller) song in German, which the Pythons made for a special programme to show in Germany and Austria back in 1972…

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard, Faber paperback.

A French crime novel of character…

The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds

3 evangThis was our bookgroup read for June into July, the first roman policier, and an award-winning one too, by frenchwoman Fred Vargas – Fred being short for Frédérique.  Vargas is an archaeologist and historian and, with Reynolds as her translator, won three successive CWA International Dagger awards for her first three novels.

Although the plot of this novel contains an ingenious crime which kept us guessing to the end, at its heart this book is totally character-driven. It is set in and around those quiet Parisian side-streets south of the rive gauche full of houses where shabby can sit perfectly alongside chic, and cornershop brasseries and tabacs do a good local trade. Let me tell you a little about what happens …

The story opens with an opera singer – Sophia Siméonidis wakes up to discover that a tree has been planted the garden of her grande maison. Her husband is unconcerned, but it troubles her, so she rings the bell of ‘the disgrace’ as she calls the house next door to ask the three young historians, Marc, Mathias and Lucien who share it to dig up the garden and see what’s going on.  Nothing found, the tree is replanted, but some weeks later Sophia goes missing. The remains of a corpse which appears to be the missing opera singer is found in a burned-out car.  The three had befriended Sophia and her best friend Juliette who runs the brasserie a few streets away, and together with Marc’s godfather and uncle, an ex-cop, they start to investigate.  Was it her cool and aloof husband, her fiery Greek former lover, her niece who has arrived in Paris?  All could have dunnit.

Now, back to the characters.  It is Armand Vandoosler, Marc’s godfather that coins the term the three evangelists for the guys, calling Marc, Mathias and Lucien, St Mark, St Matthew and St Luke after the gospels for fun.  It irritates the hell out of Marc in particular, but it sticks.

The three young academics are strapped for cash. When offered to live at a low rent in ‘the disgrace’ in return for doing the house up, they jump at it.  They each specialise in a different era of history – Marc is a medievalist, Mathias studies cavemen, and Lucien The Great War. Their characters reflect their chosen eras too. Marc is very serious and dresses in black, Mathias would live like a caveman if he could, and Lucien talks in war clichés…

…Lucien came downstairs and burst into Marc’s room without knocking.
‘General alert!’ he cried. ‘Take cover! The neighbour’s on her way.’
‘Which neighbour?’
‘The one on the Western Front. The one on the right, if you prefer. The rich woman who wears scarves. Not a word. When she rings the bell, nobody moves. Empty house. I’ll tell Mathias.’
Before Marc could say anything, Lucien had run down to the first floor.
‘Mathias,’ he called, opening his door. ‘General alert! Empty—‘
Marc heard Lucien stop abruptly. He smiled and came downstairs after him.
‘Oh for God’s sake,’ Lucien was saying. ‘Do you have to be in the nude to put up some bookshelves! I mean, what is the point? Don’t you ever get cold?’
‘I’m not in the nude, I’ve got sandals on,’ Mathias said calmly.

It could be easy to get irritated by these three, our modern-day equivalent of the impecunious students of Puccini’s La Bohème, or French ‘Friends‘ like Ross, Chandler and Joey.  However, I rather liked them, as did our bookgroup. I did have a favourite in Mathias  who is big-hearted and arty, (he’s Joey, although by subject matter he should be paleontologist Ross); Lucien could be Chandler – master of the quick quip, and Marc is all too serious and highly-strung Ross.

GiancarloI haven’t introduced you properly to Vandoosler yet.  The old ex-cop is utterly charming, a silver-haired flatterer who had was retired from the Sûreté for not being the cleanest of flics.  I immediately visualised him as Giancarlo Gianini, (who played Rene Mathis in the Bond films, Casino Royal and Quantum of Solace).  I know he’s Italian, but he feels right in my thinking.  Mind you, Alain Delon would do too!

Armand Vandoosler raised his finely wrought profile. He was looking like a policeman now. He had a concentrated expression which seemed to draw his eyes in under his eyebrows; his nose appeared somehow more commanding. Marc recognised the look. The godfather had such an expressive face that you could tell the kind of thoughts he was having. When he looked serious, it was the twins and their mother, lost somewhere in the world; when it was medium-serious, it was police business; when it was sharp, it was some woman he was trying to seduce. At least that was the simple reading.

Vandoosler leads their investigation, using his contacts in the police, but doing things totally his own way.  He must have driven the local police mad with his interfering, but we all enjoy maverick investigators.

There was much humour in this novel which kept the tone light – the interplay between the three evangelists was fun, and the relationship between Marc and his godfather too.  The descriptions of Paris life were nice too, particularly all the late suppers at the brasserie, bringing shopping from the markets not the supermarché – it almost seems an age ago, yet the modern scourge of car parking problems will play a part too.

large_sm walking down paris streetI liked this book a lot, and so did the rest of our bookgroup who made it to our monthly meeting.  Vargas has written two more novels featuring the Three Evangelists, but unfortunately, these don’t appear to have been translated yet. We all would read more, but will have to try her other series – featuring Commissaire Adamsberg.

Overall though, this book just made us all want to go to Paris!   (8/10)

Paris in July 2013

Which brings me to the fact that this post fits perfectly with the start of this year’s Paris in July hosted by Bookbath and Thyme for Tea – a month-long celebration of all things literary related to the City of Light. It’s the first time I’ve joined in, and I hope to read at least one more Parisian book this month too.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas (1995), translated by Sian Reynolds (2006), Vintage paperback.