If you enjoy taut, high octane thrillers with good characterisation, Wicked Game by Matt Johnson is the perfect fit. Johnson takes us into the covert world of national security and intelligence services through the figure of Robert Finlay. He’s an ex SAS operative who thought he had left those days behind him, his past cloaked […]
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Back in the mid 1980s when I was driving through Massachusetts on a holiday, I had no idea I was within striking distance of Edith Wharton’s old home near Lennox.
Edith Wharton and her husband escaped there from Rhode Island in 1901 when they bought a 113 acre site overlooking a lake. They set about transforming it into The Mount, an estate heavily influenced by European design traditions, but adapted for the American landscape. Edith designed the grounds herself and specified the external and internal design of the house.
Edith Wharton the gardener and architect? That was a surprise to me but apparently she’d built quite a reputation for herself in the field of design, long before she gained success as an author.
The first book she wrote (actually co-authored) was The Decoration of Houses, a non fictional work that aimed to advise the newly wealthy families of New England how to build and decorate houses with nobility, grace, and timelessness.
At The Mount, she put her philosophy about design and architecture into practice, taking inspiration from European traditions but adapting them to suit the American landscape. She strove for order, scale, and harmony in the house design and its surrounding gardens. She told her lover, Morton Fullerton, that she was amazed by her success with the project.
Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth…
The Whartons lived at The Mount for ten years. They welcomed the cream of American literary society to their home, including novelist Henry James, who described the estate as “a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond.”
During that time she wrote two of her most renowned books: The House of Mirth (1905) and Ethan Frome (1911). Her professional triumph was however marred by personal turmoil when her husband’s depression became a more acute condition. When the marriage disintegrated under the strain of his condition, they sold The Mount and Edith Wharton moved permanently to France.
The Mount was owned by a succession of families until 1942 when it became part of a school for girls. The school ceased operating in 1976 and the property, became the base for the theatre company Shakespeare & Company.
It was subsequently bought by Edith Wharton Restoration, which began a substantial restoration project in 1997. Today, The Mount operates as a museum and a literary hub, hosting readings, book launches and panel discussions.
It sounds a delightful place to wander around. The main house has a striking facade of white stucco and dark green shutters, capped with a roof top balustrade and cupola. It’s surrounded by gardens that Wharton envisaged a series of harmonious outdoor “rooms”.
But of course, my main interest would be the library. It’s the place where she did her writing. The books on the shelves are from Wharton’s own personal collection, representing every period of her life, reflecting her wide variety of interests. And there are some copies of her own works, complete with her pencil corrections.
Sounds magical doesn’t it? Sadly I can’t see a return visit to Massachusetts on the cards for me any time soon.
When a little free library opened a few weeks ago in my village I absolutely had to take a gander. With shops and libraries closed, this was the only way I could indulge in my favourite hobby of book browsing.
I thought I would come away empty handed but then, tucked away behind the multiple copies of James Patterson and John Grisham novels, I found two slim volumes by M C Beaton.
I’ve never read any of her Agatha Raisin series and probably wouldn’t have been tempted except it just so happened I was in the mood for something not too demanding.
Wit And Humour
And that’s exactly what I got. Book 1, Agatha Raisin And The Quiche of Death, and Book 13, Agatha Raisin And The Case Of The Curious Curate are both delightful escapist novels. I thought I would be mildly entertained but I wasn’t expecting to encounter books that were full of such sharp wit or to feature such an enjoyable non-PC character.
It’s the character of Agatha Raisin, a retired PR queen turned amateur sleuth. that makes the difference in this series. She’s absolutely the star of the show. Without her we’d just have pretty cottages, slightly amusing mysteries (nothing too gory or nasty) and quaint village traditions.
Agatha is definitely not in the Miss Marple mode. Instead of a neatly dressed, quietly spoken amateur sleuth with an acute understanding of human nature we get a brash and prickly career woman.
As the series opens, Agatha has decided to sell up her public relations company and move to a picturesque cottage in the Cotswolds. Accustomed to the buzz of parties and launches, she finds rural life is harder than she imagines. The locals in the village of Carsley are not hostile but don’t go out of their way to welcome her or include her in their social circle. Without friends and work, she quickly becomes bored.
No one asked her for tea. No one showed any curiosity about her whatsoever. The vicar did not even call/ In an Agatha Christie book the vicar would have called, not to mention some retired colonel and his wife. All conversation seemed limited to ‘Mawnin’, ‘Afternoon’, or talk about the weather. For the first time in her life, she knew loneliness, and it frightened her.
To stamp her mark on the village she decides to ingratiate herself with the locals to enter the annual ‘Great Quiche Competition’ . Never having baked anything in her life, she resorts to cheating, buying her ‘entry’ from an expensive London delicatessen. Unfortunately the competition judge dies after tasting her quiche. Agatha’s duplicity is revealed. Shame turns to anger when she is blamed for his death. It spurs her to turn detective and find the murderer herself.
Her methods are unorthodox and she finds herself in more than one scrape before the crime is solved. It’s great fun watching this woman’s inept attempts at detection and all the false trails she follows.
When I caught up with her again in Agatha Raisin And The Case Of The Curious Curate, it was to find that she’d become a fixture in the village. In the intervening years she’d married (twice). Husband number two has just dumped her; the launch she took on as a freelance project turned out to be dull and even her beloved London had lost its sparkle. So it’s back to the Cotswolds and those microwave meals for one.
Bumbling Detective In High Heels
The arrival of a new curate in Carsley is just the tonic she needs. Even though “she swore she would never be interested in a man again” Tristan Delon is a golden-haired, blue-eyed dish. He has all the ladies in Caswell swooning over him. After an intimate dinner for two in his flat, Agatha falls for his charms. she begins to dream of an exciting new adventure with a toy boy. Her dream doesn’t last long – the very next day the curate is found dead.
When the eye of suspicion turns on the Vicar, the husband of her best friend, Agatha sets off once more on the trail of a murderer. What follows is often hilarious as Agatha bumbles around following up on clues, worming information out of people and annoying the local police force.
Just like The Quiche of Death, in The Case Of The Curious Curate, MC Beaton delivers some deliciously funny scenes. Agatha has a penchant for causing mayhem as she lurches from one theory to another. Though she is so often rude and forceful, by the end of each novel, I did find myself warming to her. I loved the image of this champion of justice fretting about her weight before bunging another high calorie meal into the microwave before heading off in high heels and tight skirt, to do battle with the villain behind net curtains.
Would I read another book in the series? I might do if I were ever feeling a bit down in the dumps and in need of a pure entertainment. I have a feeling they would work really well as audiobooks so I’ll have to look out for them via my library’s digital service.
A Monster Calls is the only fictional book I’ve ever bought purely because I was interested in the illustrations.
I first heard about the book in a Sunday newspaper supplement in which illustrator Jim Kay described the process of creating an imaginary monster for a new children’s novel by Patrick Ness. I was so intrigued by Kay’s explanations of using ink splats, splodges and rubbings from bits of wood to produce textures and patterns, that I just had to see the results for myself.
The finished illustrations are gobsmackingly brilliant. Patrick Ness imagined his monster emerging from a yew tree as a huge, gnarled, creaking, spiky thing. In Kay’s stark black and grey drawings, you get not only a sense of the monster’s scale, but its earthy origins. Hands fashioned from twigs and bark like legs topped with a crown of thorns.
Some scenes are rendered on a single page, others spread across several pages with motifs repeated as smaller drawings elsewhere in the book.
You turn a page on which you’ve just read about the creature that comes knocking on a young boy’s bedroom window, and suddenly you see this huge shape yourself. As a young reader I think I have been petrified. But here’s the really clever part: although the illustrations are detailed, they still leave huge scope for the imagination. There’s plenty of ambiguity for the reader to interpret the scene for themselves.
I’m conscious I haven’t really talked about the narrative but don’t think that’s because I felt the text was somehow inferior to the illustrations. A Monster Calls is in fact a book where the illustrations and text are in perfect harmony. That’s an astonishing achievement considering that Patrick Ness and Jim Kay never met until after the book was completed. They communicated entirely through a third party – the art director at Walker Books, Kay told The Guardian newspaper in a 2012 interview.
A Monster Calls is a fantasy novel aimed at young teen readers. It follows 13-year-old Conor O’Malley who lives alone with his ailing mum. Dad isn’t much on the scene because he’s living in America with his a new family. Conor’s grandmother occasionally makes an appearance, but she’s not the “crinkley and smiley with white hair” kind of grandma who giggles at Christmas after a glass of sherry. That’s how grandmas are supposed to look and act, in Connor’s view but his
… wore tailored trouser suits, dyed her hair to keep out the grey, and said things that made no sense at all, like ‘Sixty is the new fifty’ or ‘Classic cars need the most expensive polish.’ What did that even mean? She emailed birthday cards, argued with waiters and still had a job.
Which leaves the boy isolated and alone, unable to express his fears about his mother who is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. There’s no-one he can tell either that he is being bullied at school.
A Monster Comes Calling
For months Connor’s sleeo is disturbed by the same nightmare, “the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming”. One night at precisely 12:07, he hears a voice outside his bedroom window, calling him. Peering out he encounters a towering mass of branches and leaves in human shape, a monster who insists Connor has summoned him.
The monster continues to meet Connor to tell him stories that all touch on the complexity of human emotions and decisions. As the novel progresses, his mother’s condition worsens and Connor’s encounters with the monster unleash an aggressive reaction in the boy.
Why does the monster keep re-appearing? We don’t discover this, or the exact nature of Connor’s nightmare, until the very end of the book. Unlike many books written for children, this one doesn’t have a happy-ever- after kind of ending. Patrick Ness never shrinks from showing a child’s fear of loss and their frustration with their inability to control the future. I thought this was a sad but profound novel that treats a difficult topic of terminal illness with great sensitivity.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness: Endnotes
The novel was written based on an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, She was terminally ill with cancer herself when she had the idea for the story but died before she could complete it. Walker Books commissioned Patrick Ness to write the book although as Ness says in an afterword to my edition, he he used the preliminary idea but gave it a completely different spin.
Patrick Ness and Jim Kay won the Carnegie and Greenaway Medals for writing and illustration in 2012, making A Monster Calls the only novel to have won both children’s literary awards in 50 years.
You’ll find samples of Jim Kay’s illustrations for the book on his website. His other work, including the illustrations for the Harry Potter books, is just as impressive.