Murder Under Her Skin

That was a good run-up to Christmas! I so enjoyed sitting down with Stephen Spotswood’s second Pentecost and Parker mystery. Happily it was even better than the first, and I now wish myself into a future where there are lots of Pentecost and Parker novels. I hope to see you there.

This time our private eyes leave New York to go to the circus. Parker’s old circus no less. She doesn’t need to throw any knives, but the murder they have come to solve does involve a knife in the victim’s body, and it’s a victim Parker knew well, and the obvious murder suspect is her old mentor.

The small Virginian town the circus is in might be your typical small town in the South, but it is also not, and that’s very refreshing. People are prejudiced, and there is religion, but it’s not the way you’d expect. Ruby, who used to look out for Parker when she arrived as a teenager, was popular with everyone. And still she ended up dead.

We discover more about Parker’s past, obviously, but also about Pentecost’s family, and the usefulness of knowing your bible. Perhaps our two detectives packed too many changes of gorgeous clothes – I can still see that film – but it’s learning about life in the South and what a circus is like, as seen from the inside, which makes this book. I’d already minded, a little, that the action moved away from New York, and now I mind a little that it will, presumably, move away from the circus too.

But there will doubtless be another setting for me to like, and new clothes for Pentecost and Parker to wear, and more characters for them to suspect.

New Year’s MBE

You know how people talk about feeling old when the policemen start looking young? Or their GP? Or anyone whose business it ought to be to look ‘old.’

I was about to say ‘how about when your friends start getting MBEs and OBEs and that sort of thing?’ But I realised that this has already happened. What I actually – probably – mean is when it’s your child’s peers who achieve this. (I still haven’t quite got over the idea that Daughter’s pal from school flies commercial passenger planes.)

But as I was idly flicking through social media while waiting for 2022 to strike last night, I discovered that Daughter’s mentor from Space School – Sheila Kanani (now Pearson) – has been made an MBE for her services to educating young people about space and physics (those might not be the precise words, but you get the idea). This is a good thing. Both the teaching of STEM subjects and enticing children to take an interest in them, and for the person doing this to be formally rewarded.

Look at my own ‘child’, who was interested and who followed in Sheila’s footsteps. After seeing Sheila in action in Edinburgh a few years ago, I’d like to take similar footsteps too, because she was that much fun and made it all look easy.

There were bests in 2021 too

I worried. But then I nearly always worry. What did I read? Was it any good?

As always, I read. And yes, it was good, even in 2021. I read fewer books than usual, and with a larger proportion being old, adult or a translation, I have left those out. It’s handy that I make my own rules here.

I’ll put you out of your misery right now. The book standing head and shoulders above all the other really great books is Hilary McKay’s The Swallows’ Flight. Set in WWII, it’s a story I can’t forget (and these days I forget a lot).

Hilary’s is not alone in being a WWII story, as 50% of my 2021 winners are. I don’t know if this is proof that many more such books have been published recently, or if it just shows how much I like them.

The other five are Phil Earle’s When the Sky Falls, Morris Gleitzman’s Always, Liz Kessler’s When the World Was Ours, Tom Palmer’s Arctic Star, and Elizabeth Wein’s The Last Hawk. The latter two are dyslexia-friendly books.

Debi Gliori’s A Cat Called Waverley also features a war, but a more modern one. The illustration below makes me cry every time, and it has that thing which makes a picture book truly great.

Waverley is Scottish, as are C J Dunford’s Fake News, Barbara Henderson’s The Chessmen Thief and Roy Peachey’s The Race.

Last but not least, we have an animal story from Gill Lewis, A Street Dog Named Pup, and a ‘historical futuristic fantasy’ in The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne by Jonathan Stroud.

These twelve gave me much pleasure, and they were not in the slightest hard to choose. If the publishing world continues to give me books like these, I will have no reason to give up [reading].

Seven books and a smell

For a few panicky seconds on Christmas Eve as the presents were being handed out, I was afraid we were going to do a Mr and Mrs Hilary Mantel thing. I’d read how last year they gave each other the same book. This comes of knowing perfectly well what the other one would like.

At Bookwitch Towers Daughter is good at knowing this (the Resident IT Consultant follows the list given to him), and when I found myself staring at a British Library Christmas crime anthology edited by Martin Edwards, I hurriedly tried to recall what I’d got the Resident IT Consultant. Two collections edited by Martin, but which ones? And how did they differ from the ones last year?

In the end they turned out to be different collections, but Daughter and I had clearly studied the list of crime stories edited by our Mr Edwards, and then made our separate choices. This was a problem I’d not even seen coming!

As you can see I am looking at a varied reading diet for the near future. Eoin Colfer and Shaun Tan were by request, so to speak, while the Literary Almanac was the result of individual thinking by the Resident IT Consultant. So, Silent Nights from Daughter, and also two Mary Westmacotts, chosen without even the prompting of Sophie Hannah’s suggestion in the Guardian during the year. Very perceptive. And at last I have got my Glamorgan sausages back! I’ve been going on about Michael Barry all year, after realising that parting with his cookbooks from the olden days might have been somewhat premature. I just couldn’t find his Glamorgan sausages online. But here they are. Someone paid attention to her mother, and then went secondhand book shopping.

That’s the seven books. The final gift was a scented candle from ‘an author’, smelling of old bookshop. The candle. Not the author. I’d have thought Bookwitch Towers might almost manage that smell on its own, but now we’ll leave nothing to chance.

I wish my hairdresser could see me now. I mean, when I unwrapped my books. Earlier in the week he’d asked if I thought the Resident IT Consultant would surprise me with a really special Christmas present. I’m afraid I laughed. I came home and told the other two, and the Resident IT Consultant said that it really would be a surprise if he were to do that. But I felt fairly safe from any development in that direction.

In return I surprised the hairdresser. Twice. Seven years on he discovered I have a Son. Who is not a scientist. And who does not translate for the police. He’s also into books. Son, I mean. And the hairdresser does read, so I decided to combine the two, and went back a few days later and gave him one of Son’s.

Laurie Frost

This is a post I didn’t want to be writing.

Laurie Frost died on Christmas Eve morning. For those of you who have been here for the last fourteen years, you will know that Laurie wrote a rather good, not to mention thorough, book on absolutely everything to do with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials in The Definitive Guide.

Her book started a cross-Atlantic friendship which unfortunately never led to an actual meeting between us. But I decided some time ago that this was fine, and that one can have good relationships online. And I did get to ‘bully’ Laurie into flying to New York from her then home in Alabama to meet Philip Pullman. She was hesitant, even though she had written this great book, and even though she and Philip had corresponded, but I said if she could carve out the time and had the funds, she must go.

I’m glad she did, and I believe she was too.

For us it began when she sent her book to [my then teenage] Son for a review, and I also read and reviewed it and then wrote to her, and just happened to suggest that Son and I could travel to Oxford to find her photos of the places where Lyra and Will spend time. Laurie then incorporated them into the reprint of her book.

We then moved on to more normal topics for discussion, such as our [similarly aged] children, and life, and stuff. A very busy and active woman, Laurie was the kind of friend who’d embroider a witch for Christmas. And who in turn ‘appreciated’ a flower made from an airline sickbag, or barfbag as she called it.

Today would have been Laurie’s birthday. She’d been ill for quite a few years, so I’m grateful that she lived rather longer than I suspect she thought she would, when she first told me of her illness.

The world needs enthusiasts like Laurie; someone who would dive deep into something that interested her. And she was someone who stood up for her family, defending them whenever necessary. I’m thinking of them today.

Village Christmas

I don’t know how old this one is. Well, the story itself, Village Christmas, by Miss Read, has a date of 1972. It came as part of a pile of these tiny Penguins – by which I mean books, not birds – which were sitting on Mother-of-Witch’s bookshelves. Having missed these minute, short books I grabbed the whole lot when I left, and when I wanted something to read in the GP’s waiting room recently, I picked this one, because it was Christmassy.

It’s old-fashioned in that nice way us foreigners like. It’s Olde England. Or at least as olde as it got fifty years ago. Because there is one fact in this little story which proves it’s not ‘hundreds’ of years old. Someone wears clothes that would have been right at home in the late 1960s, even if they were rather out of place in this village. At least according to the sisters, Mary and Margaret.

Set in their ways, and very frugal, they are kind and polite, but fail to understand the world as it is today, by which I mean back then, fifty years ago. The younger woman who wears ‘the clothes’ is an outsider, lovely and friendly, but somewhat looked down on by the decent villagers.

This being a Christmas story, it’s quite obvious what must happen to this pregnant wearer of strange clothes. There has to be a Christmas baby.

I’ll leave you to it.

The 2021 mantelpiece

It’s almost as if they had collaborated; my former neighbours and my author friend. That very pink hill really does continue rather nicely from one card to the next. And the owls on the other side match well, even if one has a plant growing out of it. I have other cards too, but like the mantelpiece to have some sort of theme.

Here’s to as decent a Christmas as we can manage, and plenty of hope for 2022.

Always

I was all right. It was fine me not having read two of the books in Morris Gleitzman’s Once series. This one – Always – is the last. And it really is the last. Because several of the books have turned up in random order, it doesn’t actually matter at all. But it does help if you have met and know Felix.

He is an old man now. Granted, he was old before as well, in modern Australia. But when Once began he was a child, and that childlike way of being has remained with both Felix, and the current child in the book. The world is full of sweet and lovely people.

But I suspect that when Morris saw what was going on in Europe today, he needed to write one more book about Felix. Because there are also many rather nasty people, and perhaps a book won’t help change that, but it will help the reader to believe in courage and goodness.

Wassim is the latest – last – child and he is as kind and thoughtful as all the others have been, especially not forgetting Zelda. Either of the Zeldas, but mostly Zelda the first, who died. (I’m sorry if you didn’t know that, but it’s very much part of the story.)

We’re back in, not quite Poland, but somewhere a bit like it, and Wassim is having a hard time, with dead parents and Uncle Otto, who can be harsh sometimes but who took him in, and the Iron Weasels who are very bad. In other words, we and Wassim are looking at a Europe that hates foreigners and coloured people and anyone else who is different; Jews, Muslims. You get the picture.

I’m grateful to Morris for wanting to write about this, which I believe both he and I thought was part of the past, the past where Felix was a child and WWII happened.

Wassim knows he needs help, and he learns about Felix, and he looks him up online. Although it could be worth noting that public libraries ‘can be more dangerous than they look.’

Anyway, he finds Felix and Felix agrees to help him. This is where you need to start worrying. But with these two very sweet people working together, you know some good will come of it. Even if you also know, or suspect, that some bad is unavoidable. Remember Zelda.

Now is very much a time when we need a Felix.

are we having fun yet?

Sigh. The best-laid plans of witches, and, well, others. I was going to do a Lucy Mangan tonight, by which I mean take a leaf out of her book – are we having fun yet? – and do as she does. I mean her fictional female character Liz. Liz wants nothing more than to be left in peace, and a night on her own in a hotel seems like heaven. (For me though, it was Omicron that got in the way, and I am no longer required to babysit Daughter’s work laptop while she has fun at the ‘office’ Christmas party, as the party is now going to be hot chocolate online.)

But, I must say that Lucy, no, I mean Liz, has a lovely husband. I’m not sure he’s meant to be, and yes, he’s useless at so much, like most of his brethren. But he understands her so well, even if he has to be reminded of stuff every now and then. He’s kind. When Liz wants to live her dream of a cold Bonfire night out, and dresses her children accordingly, and they get too hot, Richard tells their five-year-old to ‘boil quietly’ so she doesn’t spoil mummy’s evening. And for poor Richard’s birthday the family bake him a somewhat ruined cake, which he eats with manly determination. “‘I thought it was a Frisbee covered in shit!’ he says cheerfully. ‘Biting into it and finding it was actually made of food was a nice surprise.'”

This diary style, a year in the life of Liz and her family, is the most fun I’ve had in a long time. The shit cake episode made me laugh so much I cried. The rest of the time I found myself nodding in agreement with Liz as she remarked on what Richard said, or the children, or the [mean] mums at school. Liz has two children. I believe that is the main difference between Liz and Lucy. Her parents are remarkably similar to Lucy’s, as is her sister.

I know that people are often like each other, but this is wonderful! Liz thinks almost exactly the same intelligent thoughts that I do.

I thought I was alone. And I’m not.

Nothing to Hide

I do love James Oswald’s Tony McLean. But I believe I love Constance Fairchild more. As I have already pointed out, they are quite similar, in their poshness and that. But it’s fun to have a female detective, and one who’s so good at annoying people that neither she nor the reader knows whether she will remain with the police. Or for that matter, end up dead.

This time she’s facing the paparazzi outside her flat, and that doesn’t exactly help with any hiding or lying low. Neither does finding a body – albeit not a dead one – near her bins. (I’ll let you in on a secret. I thought a body part was going to be in her fridge. But it seems Con is just not good at household chores.)

New boss, new-old colleagues who don’t care for her. Her neighbour Mrs Feltham is still around, and still cooking delicious curries. And there is another trip north to Scotland, with another appearance from Rose, as well as a meeting with one of Tony McLean’s team. More than one, actually. I like this crossover of characters.

The crime is awful, as is the way things happen. James is good at really appallingly unpleasant bad guys. We see more of Con’s family, and the family home. There is a wedding, and there are funerals.

But I really do like this.