Monday, November 02, 2009

Books read in September and October

A much reduced intake of books this past couple of months, owing to the general frenzy of activity around our emigration to New Zealand. It's nearly upon us! This time next week we'll be there! It's a safe bet that the ratio of personal ramblings to book reviews on this blog will increase once we've migrated, but for now, here's another post of plain old literature.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie
The book that made Christie's name as a writer. Not only did it earn her a lot of public attention with its "cheating" ending, it also breathed fresh life into the English murder mystery genre, a genre that relies more heavily than most on repetitive formula. And as luck would have it, it's one of Christie's best-written books - her first real classic. The last couple of chapters are a delight on every reading.

Hercule Poirot's Christmas, Agatha Christie
Yes, it's a ridiculous book, but I still love it. I love all the tricksy Christies. Thing is, in that book that I really must get my own copy of, Robert Barnard analyses this particular novel and shows exactly where the clues are and how Christie has set up the surprise ending, so suddenly it doesn't seem all that ridiculous. Now it actually seems quite clever. Hurrah!

Cards on the Table, Agatha Christie
Not a tricksy Christie, but one of her all-time greats. You're given four suspects and assured that one of them is the murderer - your only clue in solving the mystery is the way in which each of them played bridge on the night of the murder. This, then, is the clearest expression of Poirot's (supposedly) psychological method of detection (and as if by a staggering coincidence, it's also the set-up Poirot detailed as his ideal crime investigation in The ABC Murders the previous year - Cosmic Dialling in Crime Fiction?). It's not the hardest one to solve, but it's immense fun.

The ABC Murders, Agatha Christie
Saving the best for last here. Among Christies, this stands alone, not least because it's so different from the other Poirots (notwithstanding the horror that is The Big Four) - it's Poirot versus a serial killer. Yes, yes, I know Christie's murderers often kill more than once, but let's draw a critical distinction between the domestic murderer who kills again and the lunatic who kills unrelated victims according to a pattern or a theme - in this case the alphabet. These days, serial killers have become so absurdly romanticised that horror films, police procedurals and even comedy series actually feature them as heroes, sometimes even giving them the moral high ground over victims and police; in Christie's day, Jack the Ripper was still within living memory and the "homicidal maniac" was still a sufficiently rare and startling thing that this book's impact must have been all the greater at the time it was published. Naturally, there's a terrific twist.

It was at this point (or shortly thereafter) that the removal men came and took away all of our stuff - we'll be seeing it again, in New Zealand, in about another two months. There were a few books that I felt obliged to keep in my hand luggage for the journey, those that would be particularly hard to replace and would give me joy during the first couple of months down under. However, due to the airline weight restrictions I was forced to compromise on numbers, and ended up with the following:
  • WG Grace's Last Case by Willie Rushton, a recent acquisition. The Lovely Jo and I have both since read this, and as the largest of these books it's now been left with the in-laws (temporarily, until the next time we're in the country) because the luggage was still overweight.
  • The Lovecraft Papers by Peter Cannon, another recent acquisition.
  • Cobralingus by Jeff Noon.
  • Cold Print by Ramsey Campbell.
  • Two volumes of Kai Lung stories by Ernest Bramah - The Wallet Of and Golden Hours.
  • A small souvenir fold-out book from the Magritte Museum in Brussels.
  • Let's Learn Maori by Bruce Biggs - this one may actually be of practical use.
I'm not expecting these to fill my reading time for the full two months (indeed, I'm already halfway through them), but it's a start. At least there'll be bookshops when we get there.

The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, edited by Robert E Egner and Lester E Denonn
Library book. I'd stumbled across a collection of the philosopher's quotes online and liked what I read, so this (very large) collection of essays seemed like the appropriate next step. The editors have arranged their choice of essays by subject, selecting four or five in each case. Russell proudly admitted having changed his views over the decades ("What physicist would dream of boasting that his opinions had not changed in the last half century?" was one of his charming bon mots), yet there's a lot of similarity between the essays in each section. It's all very well setting out to select Russell's best pieces on a subject, but if they all happened to appear within a few years of each other, because he'd arrived at some particularly pleasing opinion or found a particularly good way of phrasing his views and went on to repeat it a few times... So while there's much to recommend this book, I'm not sure that it's entirely representative of Russell's output. I might well find it better to try one of his own one-topic books.

WG Grace's Last Case, William Rushton
The great comedian Willie Rushton's first (and possibly his only) novel, this anticipates The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by a decade or two. What you have here is the Champion of All England teaming up with Doctor Watson, AJ Raffles, the Canadian Mountie son of Charles Dickens and a host of other historical and fictional characters to foil a second Martian invasion. Barking mad, and although at first it appears to be a string of rambling, unrelated episodes, it does all tie in at the end.

The Lovecraft Papers, PH Cannon
Alas, how difficult to get hold of Scream for Jeeves, the Wodehousian Lovecraft parody by Peter Cannon. But hurrah, here's a book that not only includes Scream for Jeeves but also Pulptime, a team-up between HP Lovecraft and Sherlock Holmes, and all for a surprisingly lower price than its individual parts. The Jeeves stories are brief (and although close, not entirely in keeping with Wodehouse's style - Bertie Wooster seems to know more than he should about eldritch lore) but a lot of fun. The Holmes story is not per se Lovecraftian, but a lovely coda to Conan Doyle's canon.

In Search of Bristol, Stephen Morris
Bristol and Ballooning, John Christopher and Richard Cardy
Two coffee-table books of Bristol-themed photography, given to me as a leaving gift from my colleagues at work (thanks, guys!). Sadly I haven't been able to find room (or rather, weight) for these in the luggage, so the in-laws are kindly looking after these too, but I did manage to read them. Stephen Morris' book is a straight collection of his own photographs of the lesser-seen bits of Bristol. Some nice shots in here, although I'd rather he hadn't favoured the close-up detail shots as much as he has. Clifton Suspension Bridge is one of those things I feel you can appreciate better when you can see more than a few square metres of it. The ballooning book is a history of Bristol's famous annual Balloon Fiesta, with plenty of photos and some surprising information in the text (the story of Air Balloon Road in St George, for instance). Both very nice.

1 comment:

Christopher Pittard said...

Kia ora! (Sadly, too orangey for crows). Of course, you've read *W G Grace's Last Case* - unfortunately, I passed on my copy (old stock from Exeter Library, incidentally) unread in a purge of what was becoming an unfeasibly bloated fiction waiting list...