Fortune Favours the Dead

Sometimes a witch has to retire a little bit, in order to get to some good new stuff to read. (I can recommend it.)

Stephen Spotswood’s Fortune Favours the Dead wasn’t new new, so much as lying in wait for me, because we both knew, the book and I, that I would get to it, if only I could. This debut crime novel came along as my guaranteed good read on that trip in October. And it was good.

It’s a Pentecost and Parker mystery, and both of them – Lillian and Willowjean – are female private eyes, in the kind of New York so many of us know quite well, because 1946 and New York feature a lot in films. This tale is told by Parker, the sidekick discovered by Pentecost just as the former was getting ready to bash her head in with a lead pipe.

I suppose it’s obvious that this could not have been written 75 years ago. Too much looking out for other women, too much same sex love, too much equality if you like. But that’s good. And it’s funny, and you like Willowjean, because she’s brave and capable, and you like Lillian, who is a great boss. There is also a more than useful cook, also female.

It’s a locked-room mystery. It had to be suicide, didn’t it? A dead woman’s dead husband’s ghost can’t really have murdered her. Can he? We’re moving in well-off circles, if not the exceptionally wealthy. But you know, featuring beautiful women wearing gorgeous clothes. (I look forward to the movie.)

With her background in the circus, Parker is no stranger to a bit of knife-throwing. It can come in handy. As do most of the other things she can do for Pentecost, who has multiple sclerosis, with better days and worse days.

It’s a very visual story; you have no trouble seeing these characters or the settings. Please bring on the film! Meanwhile, I’d usually say I can’t wait to get my hands on book no. two, but this time I can’t, because it arrived a couple of days ago. I really was quite late with this one, from just over a year ago. Won’t be late again.

I’m with Lucy

Mangan, that is.

You know how I want to be her. And now it looks like she’s me, too. Also, she puts it really well. I need say no more. (Except possibly to mention that I photographed her wise words from the Guardian.)

And I don’t even have a cat.

Brown bear, pink bear

When I was a very small Bookwitch indeed, I travelled quite a lot. Mother-of-Witch travelled by train with me from when I was a week old.

At some point she got chatting to a kindly older lady who pointed out that she’d be much more comfortable if she didn’t drag my enormous brown bear with us. For travelling it’d be better to have a tiny bear, she said. Thus I became carer of a little pink bear, who was much more travel-appropriate.

I grew up with them both; the bigger brown bear and the travel-sized pink bear.

You will have gathered that I recently packed some of my belongings to come and join me at the current Bookwitch Towers. I told Daughter neither bear was coming. She was shocked. She said I should at least take pink bear. I decided I could do, and then I asked her to photograph the two bears together, one last time, to say goodbye.

When I looked at the photo I almost burst into tears. How could I do that to brown bear? He looked as if he’d understand, but still. It felt cruel. And separating them, too. Not kind.

So, well, instead of a picture of pink bear on his own, here they are, having travelled safely with The Hungarian.

Goodbye Wilbur

I met Wilbur Smith in the very early Bookwitch days. I have still not read anything by him. Suspect I’ve felt he wasn’t my style, and there were so many other books.

But over the years he’s stood out as one of the greats, and it was fun to come across him at what was then my local bookshop. Handy. As you can see below, a lot of fans had come a long way, with their rucksacks full of books not bought at that bookshop. I think it’s the type of fan that tells me about an author whom I don’t know well, or at all.

And now he’s dead. But 88 is a good age, and it seems he wasn’t ill, but died with his boots on, so to speak.

Miss Graham’s [Cold] War [Cookbook]

We’ve got used to books where we are all terribly pleased the Allies won WWII. And it’s quite obvious, really – isn’t it? – that the victors take over and they run things, while the losers put up with it. Especially if you are the victorious one. And the British were quite decent and everything worked out for the best.

Well, there’s much that’s wrong with this picture, and I’m glad to report that Celia Rees deals with these tired clichés in her adult book about Miss Graham and her cookbook, back in Germany in 1946. To begin with, I found it refreshing to have a heroine – neither young, nor old – who drinks and has sex, in a way that we’ve got used to female heroines not doing [back then]. In fact, Edith Graham is quite normal, in a way that fits in with both modern thinking, but also doesn’t feel wrong for the 1940s.

And the British… well. They ‘know’ they are right and the Germans ‘had it coming.’ But they are not very nice. Nor are the Americans, and it goes without saying that the Russians are all wrong. We see the victors eating and drinking really well, while the Germans are quietly starving on the sides. Perhaps not those who ‘had it coming’ but more the normal civilians.

Edith is in Lübeck to look after education, but she has also been involved in a couple of sidelines, doing bits of minor (?) spying for the Military, and also for someone else. She does this with the help of her recipe collection, which turns out to be a useful hobby.

She makes friends, but also plenty of enemies. Above all, she learns that all is not simple and that even close friends are doing the wrong thing and not always for the right reason.

In a way I already knew this, but I still feel my eyes have been opened. And the book has probably forever ruined similarly set books where the Allies are the heroes.

There are a couple of unusual twists to the story, at least one of which I could sense from the beginning, while not quite sure how it would work out. I’ll leave you to enjoy the book, and to see what you think will happen.

(I believe the words ‘cold’ and ‘cookbook’ have been dropped from the paperback edition. I would like to think that they have also edited the surplus of ‘Teirgartens’ I was disturbed by. Or not. German is a foreign language, after all.)

The Upper World

Time travel is always good, even if in this case Femi Fadugba only lets his characters travel fifteen years. It’s enough, though. And it’s in Peckham. Which is also fine. Stay with what you know well, and in this case that would be quantum physics. And Peckham.

Told from the points of view of Esso and Rhia, we learn what used to be, and what it might become. Esso is a teenager today, and Rhia is the same age fifteen years on, when things have changed quite drastically in some respects. I wouldn’t say that her world is better. It’s scarily regimented in many ways. But then, being black and a bit of a troublemaker in Peckham today is not plain sailing, either.

I like the fact that Femi lets his main characters be good at physics and maths, while also being quite normal teenagers, getting into scrapes, hoping for a decent future for themselves. And trying to explain to your gun-toting ‘friends’ that you travelled into the future that morning, but now you are back, and using science to do so, is quite fun.

And if it’s time travel, does that mean nothing is ever too late?

Some things change

Others do not. It may have escaped your notice – or not – that the Bookwitch clan has travelled. Not much. Only out, and back again. Both were fraught with worryings, as things are these days.

He’d got no further than the gate at our local airport before the Resident IT Consultant was stopped. His arms waved. I caught up with him and asked the British Airways man at the gate if there was a problem. This is not something I regularly get to do, being a mere wife, and a foreigner to boot. Yes, he was not allowed to travel to his destination. ‘It’s all right’, I said, ‘ because I am. And he’s with me. Here’s the marriage certificate.’ (Never travel without it.)

And if we had been short of lorries at home, I can assure you they were all over there instead. In the dark, in the rain.

Very nearly the first thing we did was to go and see the optician. You will remember we like doing this. It was lovely, and thankfully the other two bought new glasses, which excused me from spending money while still letting me see him. On our last evening nearly three weeks later he came to the house to deliver Daughter’s sunglasses, because what is a twenty mile round trip in the dark for customers having come all the way from Scotland?

Son joined us briefly, and on his first day we went to a favourite spot to eat lunch al fresco, because Sweden in October is so right for that… Daughter even paddled in the sea afterwards and that is so not normal that clearly something had changed.

I had brought gin to reward the neighbours. I believe it’s all the rage. The gin, I mean. And it was a change from whisky. But seriously, would you mow my ‘lawn’ for two years in return for a bottle of gin? Admittedly there was shortbread too, but still. I have better neighbours than I deserve.

That nice view I discovered at my friends’ house last time? Well, it’s gone now. Thankfully they asked us over for soup in the evening, so it was too dark to see the view that can no longer be seen. Honestly, people build new roofs on houses they should have no right to build. At all.

This time when we went for Sunday lunch, the ‘salmon car park’ offered a magnificent toadstool. I’m trying to work out if that’s a change for the better compared to the large cars two years ago.

And then we went for Sunday lunch the next Sunday, too. Same place I mean. So no change.

And because it would have been a shame to break a good tradition we returned for a third salmon Sunday, before running out of Sundays.

In between that we had three lots of visitors who all offered to buy some salmon for us to eat, but I managed to persuade one of them not to.

Don’t be alarmed. We also ate a lot of take out pizza, and might just have eaten at Max a few times where they do a decent selection of vegan burgers. All this saved me from virtually any cooking of proper meals.

But at least one can now buy the ‘vinegary stuff’ you put on insect bites again. (And I believe I spy face masks on the left, even if no one seemed to wear them.)

The wool shop in town was gone. In its place the next door tea shop had expanded. That’s tea shop as in sells dry tea, not tea in cups. And Marimekko stuff. You can’t have too much Marimekko stuff. So we didn’t even go in, just to be on the safe side. At the library Daughter was in raptures over the 3D printer, and the chap running the library café looked jolly pleased to have taken a selfie with Prince Daniel.

Daughter wanted to look in the bookshop. Good thing she did, or we wouldn’t have discovered her favourite clothes shop had moved [before it was too late]. The surprise pharmacy that popped up in the bank’s old premises? Gone. As for the bank itself, we popped upstairs to talk to them before giving up. The staff were mostly on their lunch break, and so were the customers. Hence the ‘queue’.

You still need change, if only to put into the supermarket trolley. No change for the toilets, but credit cards will do. (It just feels a bit extravagant using credit to spend a penny!) Although, one of the public toilets had gone. As in gone gone.

The local bus company has mislaid £150 of my money. That’s anything but change.

Returning home we flew SAS, but rather regret doing so. They have changed, and not for the better. They also changed our seats. Often. Partly because of a change of aircraft, which was not for the better. But the thing is, if I pay good money for an aisle seat at the back and to not sit near the Resident IT Consultant, that should still be possible. There is a back to most plane types, and many of them have aisles. Most of them also have enough rows of seats that we can each have what we prefer when we fly. Which is not the same. Having said that, considering how cramped the plane was, I dare say it was a blessing that the man whose lap I almost sat on, was my own husband rather than someone else’s.

Maybe.

They let me back into the country. The only change I’ve discovered so far is that the neighbour has a larger greenhouse.

Van men

The moment the Hungarian arrived in Sweden last week I offered him some tea, on the basis that a UK-based man with a van would be suitably adjusted to tea. (We had packed the coffee.) He declined, but upon seeing the two coffee machines on the kitchen worktop, said he’d have a coffee.

Hmm. Using my initiative, I cobbled together two pods of café au lait into a large mug, not inquiring whether he wanted milk [non-lait not being an option] or sugar. He drank it.

Daughter found this Hungarian online a couple of years ago, and liked him well enough to ask for a repeat move last year. And now there was me.

I have a pleasing symmetry, using Hungarians help move my stuff away from the [same] house in Sweden. It felt as if it must have been meant.

I was impressed with his willingness to drive long distances to move some paltry belongings in this day and age of difficult border crossings. Not to mention the red tape. And when I said I could do with him turning up in the next two weeks, he turned up, although just back from Italy. Perhaps sensing some slight hysteria on my part, he emailed me saying ‘all will be well’.

So tea was the least I could offer the man (who said he had eaten on the ferry so was all right). Except it turned into weird coffee.

He carried and he talked, and then sat on the piano stool filling in forms before driving off again.

Today he phoned to say he was a few hours away from the Scottish Bookwitch Towers, so we quickly cleared a path through the house for our junk. I instructed the Resident IT Consultant to do the offering of coffee and to make it proper coffee this time.

Not surprisingly he required no coffee.

And, erm, it seems he’s Bulgarian. 😳

Abigay’s Farm

This book by Odette Elliott, who has long been a reader of Bookwitch, is relatively short, but it has everything. By this I mean it’s a nice story, in that old-fashioned sense, while also giving us a mixed race family, illness and potential disability, discussing problems facing farmers today, and how to deal with bullying. That might be all, but is definitely enough to be going on with.

Twins Abigay and Gabriel get on – I was going to say, surprisingly well – but they are twins, so this will explain their interaction with each other. Used to doing everything together, enjoying life on their grandparents’ farm, Abigay is shipped off on her own, because Gabriel is in hospital.

The farm is lovely, but there is something different about it too. The grandparents look worried and the local bully seems extra sure of himself. Abigay finally works out what it is, and she also works out how things might be solved. Back in London there are new problems for Gabriel, meaning more worrying on all fronts.

But as I said, this is a nice story, and things will work out. Eventually.

I would like to have a farm like this to visit. I suppose having grandparents would be taking wishes too far, but a favourite spot in the countryside would be lovely.

a Boy his Bear and a Bully

Be brave.

That’s not easy, I know.

In a Boy his Bear and a Bully, Katie Flannigan writes about Scott who takes his teddy to school with him. He’s not alone, as Rosie brings her unicorn to school too. But Duncan, he’s the mean one, bullying Scott every day.

And then Buttons – that’s the teddy – disappears.

I think we all know what happened. But how to sort it? Well, it’s Dress Up Day, and wearing his dinosaur suit, Scott finally knows what he has to do. It still takes courage.

I hope readers of this book will be able to be braver than I would be.

Illustrations by P J Reece.