I feel like this book wasn’t quite sure what it was. History of the book? History of access to books? History of what people think about books? Autobiography of Martin Latham? There’s some genuinely interesting stuff sandwiched in between Latham making sure we know that he worked for Tim Waterstone and knew a bunch of famous people before you could Google them. Sometimes his anecdotes work to illustrate the narrative he’s trying to spin… and sometimes he’s telling us about weird dreams he had.
It was also full of this… reverence for the codex (not the contents) as a physical object, and being passionately in love with the physical form of a book. He’s a fan of physical books you can fondle, annotate, spill things on, write your name in… And I can get it, to some extent, but you’d think people aren’t real readers if they don’t like to caress books or crease spines or whatever. He does bring across the sensual enjoyment of books, and what a delight that can be for some people, but, yeah, just not sure about this absolute lionising of the codex-form of books above all else, above even the contents (which he rarely discusses in detail).
I expected to love this, but found myself fairly nonplussed. Overall, I can’t say I really enjoyed it — something about Latham and me just didn’t click, for a start.
Inspector Littlejohn is supposed to be on holiday, taking a break after running himself into the ground on too many cases. As ever, a busman’s honeymoon is sure to follow, and Littlejohn finds himself investigating the murder of a parson, found in an astonishingly emaciated state with his head bashed in. Needless to say, it isn’t a very restful holiday, and Littlejohn even finds himself shot while he’s still making routine inquiries…
When I first read one of Bellairs’ books in the British Library Crime Classics, I thought it was fun, and I’ve definitely found that to be so with all his books. Maybe not the most inventive or technically brilliant, but likeable. I feel like Bellairs really enjoyed writing these books, these competent mysteries where the world is restored to rights by the finding and apprehending of the killer — without police violence, without prying too deeply into people’s psyches. Somehow cosy, even when the crimes are horrible. The Case of the Famished Parson fits well into that mould, and I enjoyed it very much.
I do have to say that I’d expected something a bit more weird, from that title. In the end, the fact that the man was starving is the least part of the mystery — easily sorted out, though it does have a part to play in explaining what happened.
I probably won’t be picking up another book by Bellairs immediately — but I’ll definitely be picking one up again in the near-ish future. They’re even on Kindle Unlimited!
Well, it’s been a while! I’m not going to do a full roundup, because it really has been too long, but this will serve as a placeholder for hopefully getting back to business as usual. So here’s a selection of books I got recently/for Christmas…
As ever, a pretty eclectic mix, and I look forward to ignoring them all equally while I reread older books… okay, okay, not really — I hope to read some of these very soon! But we all know what I’m like…
I was really in the mood to reread one of Mary Stewart’s novels, and I felt pretty nostalgic about The Gabriel Hounds. I thought I’d remember it pretty well, but there was actually a bit in the middle I was more vague on and that I could swear had happened in a different Mary Stewart book… In any case, The Gabriel Hounds follows Christy, separated from her group on a package tour of the Lebanon. Reminded that her great-aunt lives in the area, and surprised by the legends that seem to have grown up around her, Christy resolves to see the old lady — and thus finds herself plunged into a whole mess.
As ever, Stewart had an excellent way of bringing the landscape to life, not just the sights (I can’t imagine those anyway) but the smells and the impressions, and even somehow something of the light and the quality of the air. She’s very good at invoking an idealised, picturesque landscape — and some real nastiness, as well, of course, but that’s more commonplace. She’s not so bad with character, either — spoiled, sharp Christy; kind Hamid, who almost felt like he should be a bigger character or get some much better reward out of the story; poor Lethman…
I should warn readers that the love interests are full cousins, whose fathers were twins; cousin-marriage happens a couple of times in Mary Stewart’s books, but this one is closer than most, and lays particular emphasis on the two growing up like siblings. It might gross you out, so I mention it even though it’s a spoiler.
The actual plot is fairly obvious, and the romance almost perfunctory… but it has a kind of magic anyway.
Long Live the Post Horn! Vigdis Hjorth, trans. Charlotte Barslund
I’ll confess that I read this book pretty much solely because it involves saving a postal service, and I’ve been reading a few books which involve post and postal services in order to stock up on reviews for Postcrossing’s blog. Long Live the Post Horn! is a drifting, rambling novel in which a woman having a mid-life crisis about everything being fake and meaningless recovers her passion through getting involved in the fight to save the postal service from an EU initiative to introduce competition.
The problem for me is that rambling, wishy-washy quality — that stream-of-consciousness has never been my style. There are a couple of bits I liked, bits which capture some of the joy of post in particular, and also a scene in which the main character’s boyfriend explains he sends letters to himself as a sort of life coach — something about that felt distinctive and endearing, rather than kind of generic as in the rest of the book.
Not one I enjoyed — the narrator who never quite knows what she’s doing or why will never really work for me — but I’m sure there are people who will.
The Faerie Hounds of York did not quite go the places I expected it to. It started off with Loxley finding himself in a fairy ring, rescued by a gruff but kind stranger, Thorncress. Warned to leave the area and get himself to London, away from Faerie influence, Loxley quickly finds himself under Thorncress’s care again. A bond is forming between them, as Thorncress tells Loxley he will help him solve his mystery and get free of the Faerie… if it’s possible.
There’s one hell of a moment with this book which I didn’t expect, given the genre; I shouldn’t say too much unless I spoil the impact, because it turned a story I was mildly enjoying into something more intriguing for me. Some aspects of the romance genre are still here, but there’s a subversion of certain expectations which put me on the back foot. I shouldn’t say too much about that!
I enjoyed the characters and the bond they form, but that moment of subverted expectation might’ve been the best bit — I could otherwise have wished for more build-up, more familiarity with the inner lives of the characters (particularly Thorncress). On the other hand, then there’d be less mystery… In any case, definitely enjoyable.
Holy moly, this is lovely. I was urged to get this to do a review on it for Postcrossing (check out my others on the Postcrossing blog!), so it was one of the things I bought with my Christmas gift cards… and I’m glad I did. It’s an epistolary story, showing both the fronts and backs of postcards and — in little pouches, from which you have to pull out actual letters which are handwritten (Sabine) or typewritten (Griffin) — letters sent between Griffin (an artist who creates postcards) and Sabine (an artist who illustrates stamps).
Sabine has been seeing Griffin’s art in her dreams for years, and reaches out to him via a postcard once she finally finds out who he is and how to contact him (through running across his artwork). After just a few postcards are exchanged, she proves to him that she knows his art like no one else can, and they quickly forge a connection despite the physical distance between them. It’s a love story, and a mystery: how are they connected? Why are they connected? What does it mean?
It’s a lovely reading experience; the pouches are a nice gimmick, and they really give you a sense of discovery. I’m not super great with visual detail, but the fronts of the postcards (illustrated by Griffin and Sabine, in the story) and the decorations on envelopes and letters add quite a bit. It’s a very short read, but worthwhile — and that ending! I’ve ordered the next two books.
It’s been a while since I posted one of these here! But I’m trying to be more present again now… So let’s have a reading check-in!
What are you currently reading?
Long Live the Post Horn! by Vigdis Hjorth. It is… not really my thing; the rambling reflective narration is not working for me. It’s mostly for Postcrossing’s blog, though, so I’m forging my way along, slowly. Presumably the main character is going to care about working with the Norwegian postal service sometime soon.
I’m also partway through rereading The Gabriel Hounds, which I have fond memories of — partially memories of buying it while I was in Italy, my BA graduation present oh these many years ago, and reading it on the train between Naples and Rome.
What have you recently finished reading?
Griffin & Sabine by Nick Bantock, also for Postcrossing’s blog — it never rains but it pours; I’m stocking up blog posts for the next little while in case I come over all contrary and don’t feel like reading anything about postcards/postal systems. (This is bound to happen at some point.) I loved it; it’s a very tactile experience, since it actually contains the letters in actual envelope-like pouches, so you have to carefully slip them out and unfold them. I’m intrigued by the mystery of it.
Before that was Holy Shit, by Melissa Mohr — thank you to whoever recommended me that, though I’ve forgotten who. It was great; the chapter on oath-taking in the Bible was particularly fascinating.
What will you be reading next?
Sadly, it will not be Sabine’s Notebook (the sequel to Griffin & Sabine) because that’s in the post to me, having been only ordered today when I closed Griffin & Sabine on that cliffhanger. As ever, the answer is probably a shrug emoji, though I do want to go back to and finish Monstrous Regiment (Terry Pratchett), and a revisit of A Wizard of Earthsea seems indicated, because it’s a book club book (we all got together and picked our favourite books, then 12 of those got picked out of the hat to serve as prompts for a year of reading) and I still haven’t read the illustrated edition.
As with Accessories: Bags, this book caught my interest less because I have an inherent interest in the subject, or even fashion more generally, but because it suits my current rabbit-hole interest. I was here for the titbits about why certain shoes went hand-in-hand with certain dress fashions, and the book certainly had plenty of that kind of titbit — like the fact that the very long points of shoes like poulaines were somewhat eschewed by women at the time; they just weren’t practical and would tangle in the long hem-lines of dresses.
The book is beautifully presented with full-colour photographs/reproductions of art, and it’s structured well as a chronological dash through shoe fashion. It’s much better about women’s fashions than men’s (which is not, of course, because women have always had the reputation for being obsessed with their shoes — I refer you to top boots and Hessians, not to mention the aforementioned poulaines!) because of a survival bias in the existing shoes, and it is much stronger on more recent shoes… which are perhaps least interesting to me.
Definitely interesting, and one I’d recommend if you’re interested in the subject.
Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing, Melissa Mohr
Sorry, that really is the title of the book! And it’s kind of central to Mohr’s premise: that there are two axes of swearing, the ‘Holy’ and the ‘Shit’… or the profane and the obscene, or swearing and cursing — however you best see the distinction between “for God’s sake” and “for fuck’s sake”. She sets this up by discussing various different cultures (all familiar to a Western audience), starting with the Romans and Greeks (mostly the Romans), then moving to the development of Judaism and the rising importance of oath-taking… and then round the full circle back to obscenity.
It’s a fascinating history, though it really is brief when you consider the potential scope for investigating swearing throughout history. I found the chapter on the Old Testament Yahweh fascinating — Mohr charts the development of monotheism through the way oaths are taken and the importance of oaths in the Old Testament, and it makes a lot of sense. (Reassuringly, it’s also well-sourced, and includes quotations and examples.)
It was slower-going than I thought, when I look at my reading time records, but I found it very absorbing. My only complaint would be that the ending felt rather abrupt, even with the later postscript (which briefly discusses an analysis of swearing on Twitter). Recommended!