I've just come back from a wonderful week in a beautiful house in Italy belonging to some very kind and generous friends. As Julia is a writer and a reader, I knew there would be plenty of books around, so I took the rather daring step of only bringing one of my own to read (with some on my iPad for back-up). I thought it would be good to explore someone else's bookshelves, since so many of the books I get to read these days come with a 'please review' implication attached to them. So -- how did I get on?
Ngaio Marsh's Tied Up in Tinsel was the one I took with me. A late novel by this queen of golden age crime, it was sitting on my bookshelf, having appeared from who knows where, and though I've read lots of her books, I realised I'd never read it. As I didn't want to be weighed down by a heavy tome. this one looked perfect, being delightfully thin and light. Well, thin it may have been, but it kept me happy for a couple of days. It's rather a lighthearted affair, but none the worse for that. Set over Christmas, as the title suggests, it features Agatha Troy, the wife of Marsh's detective Roderick Alleyn, who is spending the season in the ridiculously opulent house of an antique dealer who has commissioned her to paint his portrait. An eccentric chap, he has taken on a group of five convicted, though now released, murderers as his servants. So when someone gets killed, they naturally come under suspicion. Some wonderful English eccentrics here, and of course the handsome, suave, exceptionally brilliant Alleyn comes in at the end to solve everything. Lovely.
My first browse of the bookshelves turned up Stolen, by Deborah Moggach. I've read several of her novels with huge enjoyment, including the one that gave birth to the film of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I'd never heard of this one so I had no idea what I was embarking on (the cover was different, or I might had been able to guess). So -- told in the first person, this is the story of a woman who falls madly, passionately in love with a man from Pakistan. They marry, have two children. All goes well at first, then she gets bored and starts an affair. When he finds out, he takes the children to Pakistan and she is left devastated. What happens in the end I am unable to say, because at this point I'd just had enough. Although naturally I sympathise with anyone who loses their children, I thought she was a total pain, I'm afraid, and found I didn't care what the outcome was going to be. So I gave up and will never know unless someone is kind enough to tell me.
OK -- time for something a bit more intellectually challenging, I thought to myself. I have a very ambivalent relationship with AS Byatt -- I was really irritated with Possession (all that cod Victorian poetry) but very much enjoyed The Children's Book. So although I knew that this was part 3 of what's called the Frederika Quartet, I thought it sounded interesting and intriguing. But oh dear. I did manage to get to the end of it, but there was a great deal of skipping involved, including long passages of a 'novel' written by one of the main characters (and a more unpleasant novel written by a more unattractive character it would be hard to find). I was interested in Frederika and her story -- here she manages to leave her horrible violent husband and gets embroiled in a divorce and custody case -- but got horribly bored by long discussions about art, and education, and lots of other things which may be OK in their place but really seemed irrelevant to the actual plot. Call me a philistine if you want -- I don't mind.
Babel Tower was a very long book, so by the time I'd ploughed through it, it was time to set off for home, and the iPad was now the only option. I've ended up with a lot of stuff on there which I obviously must have bought but can't at all remember why -- usually either someone's good review or a 99p Kindle Daily Deal that sounded appealing. I think it must have been the latter in the case of The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle as I'm sorry to say I can't imagine anyone whose opinion I value giving this a good review. The novel is told in alternating chapters by two characters, Elizabeth Pringle, who has just died aged 96, and Martha, who has inherited her house on the isle of Arran. I wish I could think of something positive to say about it -- I suppose if you wanted to know more about the history of Arran you'd learn something, but the plot and the narration really rather reminded me of a Woman's Own story (anyone remember those?) or a Mills and Boon novel. In fact I discovered this morning that the novel was shortlisted for a Bad Sex Award, though I must say I didn't think the sex was any worse that lots I've encountered elsewhere. It was the relentless sentimentality and utter absence of irony that really got to me.
A relief to get home, then, and resume my reading of Mrs Engels, which I am enjoying enormously. Lots of good stuff coming through the door, too, so hopefully you'll find me in a less condemnatory mode next time.