Archive for November, 2010

Present Tense Book Review – Lady Audley’s Secret

This week I’ve been continuing my classic crime kick with Lady Audley’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Written in 1862, it’s getting on for 150 years old. Which is one of those incredible things that seem perfectly reasonable on the face of it, but really, it’s sort of crazy that I’m sat here in my nice centrally-heated house with ‘The IT Crowd’ on in the background, reading this mid-Victorian novel. And then wittering about it on my blog.

I’m not sure what contemporary audiences would have made of the story – we are all very well-versed, now, in the conventions of crime fiction or TV shows, and approach such stories with a suspicious mind. But this book is, I guess, part of the foundations for such conventions. From the off I could see the shape of what was happening quite clearly, but I’m not sure if readers would have originally found it more opaque. In any case, it’s quite good fun, a bit like Columbo, where you know who’s responsible for the dastardly deeds, but the pleasure is in seeing how it’s all pieced together. I’m about a third of the way through, and we’re properly getting into the battle of wit and nerve between the amateur sleuth, Robert Audley, and his new, enigmatic, aunt…

A Mundane Mystery

Here’s a strange thing. Myself and Mrs. Monkeyshines returned on Sunday from a night away, and found a medium-sized cardboard box balanced on the small wall at the front of our house. It was spitting with rain, and the box was already a bit damp, so I brought it inside. It was not filled with rubbish, rather, it was somebody’s stuff, packed as if for a house move. Curious…

I’ve been reading a bit of classic detective fiction lately, and since I’ve been fortunate enough not to become embroiled in any murderous or nefarious activities, I thought this was a nice first-hand chance to apply my detective skills. Firstly, the box was a bit wet, but not soaked through or anything, so I don’t think it had been there overnight. It was also very deliberately and neatly placed on the wall, and the box was not sealed (the flaps were interlocked, if you know what I mean) and was free from dents and scrapes – so I don’t think it had, say, fallen from a moving vehicle.

It seems like poor form to rifle through the box, but I’ve had a peek, naturally, just to check that there weren’t any kittens in there. There are some hair straighteners on top, some little pots of hair dye (various colours), some wooden African animal carvings (that is, the animals are African, I haven’t studied the provenance of the statues themselves), and a sort-of gothy mirror wrapped in newspaper. The box smells quite strongly of stale cigarette smoke. On the top and sides “Ornaments” and “Market” are written several times each; and “T-shirts” and “Mens Hoodies”, also appear, all written somewhat haphazardly, but legibly, in biro. They could easily be done by the same hand, but not necessarily.

The nature of the articles that I have seen in the box suggest that these would not be destined for sale at a “Market”; rather, I think the box once served as a container for transporting casualwear to and from a market, but has since found use as receptacle for someone’s semi-treasured trinkets. The kind of stuff that, as we trundle through our modern lives, we hang on to, not for the sake of utility, but because it reminds us of a time or place that was somehow worth remembering. I’ve got boxes of tat like that myself, so it makes me a little bit sad that somone has lost their ornaments. They’re packed away too carefully for their owner to have left them on my wall, so that leaves, as I see it, two scenarios.

Either a former housemate or lover has discovered them in a lost attic corner, and has tried to return them to their owner’s last known address (although we’ve lived here since March, so this theory assumes that the box has lain dormant for a while, which does not square easily with the strong smoky smell). Or the aforementioned former friend or lover just dumped them at the first available opportunity (given that our house is the first on the street); but then why put them carefully on our wall rather than in a wheelie bin?

It’s a rum do, and no mistake. I’ve checked the local papers for any notices regarding lost boxes, but to no avail. In fact, there are virtually no classified ads/notices in the newspapers; I guess using the internet is easier and cheaper, but where would I start to look (or post a notice myself) in this big wide world web? I was expecting a knock on the door on Sunday, from the box’s owner. But I’ve been tripping over it in the hall for almost a week now. Is there some sort of acceptable time period after which I can have a proper look at the contents? After which those contents become my own? I shouldn’t like to throw them out, just in case, you know. Am I going to be traipsing this box around with me for the rest of my life?

A Cat’s Tale – Part Three

The story so far: Everyone’s favourite black-and-white cat has found a home where people call him by his true name, Binky Mackenzie…

I was left in a house with two hoomins, one male and one female, I think, but it’s hard to tell with their removable, multi-coloured fur. I spent some time at first under the sofa, but I was soon tempted out, with the promise of cat treats and strokes. Although one of the hoomins was a bit loud, I got used to it, because I’d not been doted on so much since I was a blue-eyed, mewling kitten. There was a small garden to play in, but I was a bit wary of the house disappearing like it did the last time, and anyway, there are distinctly fewer laps and beds for cats to sit on in the outdoors…

To be continued…

Present Tense Book Review – Case Histories: Part 2

(Part One of this Present Tense Book Review.)

I’ve rattled through this book, a testament to both the writing and the degree of traffic on Oxford Road this week (I do a lot of my reading on the bus…) On the whole it was enjoyable, and any book with a character called Binky is worth reading. Here, the Binky is an old South African lady, a slightly different twist on a cliched character, in a book full of quite interesting characters who don’t quite escape from the page. The story is pretty good, but the confluence of the three case histories is a bit unsatisfactory – two of them intertwine quite nicely, but the third feels mostly superfluous.

If I was in a reading group I’d comment on the theme of lost women/girls, and the multi-layered definitions of loss that the book explores, and explores well, I think. But that sounds a bit pretentious when I’m just churning words out into the ether, so I’ll conclude by saying that the book was sufficiently diverting that I want to read the others in the series…

Present Tense Book Review – Case Histories

One of the quiet pleasures of moving in with Mrs. Monkeyshines was the appearance of a bunch of new books on the bookcase. I’m halfway through one of these now, Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson. According to the cover it’s an international bestseller, but I started it with no idea what it was about – sometimes I quite like plunging into a book and letting it take me somewhere unexpected.

There are three strands to the story, parallel so far, but I’m sure they’ll come together – hopefully in a surprising and pleasing manner. Three case histories from the recent(ish) past land in the lap of our laconic detective, Jackson Brodie, all around the theme of lost women of one sort or another. There’s quite a few characters and stories to keep track of, but fortunately they all have different names, so it’s not too bad – I’ve always thought that’s one of the great conveniences of fiction.

It’s certainly well written, but I hope some stuff is going to start to tie together soon, as my little brain is beginning to creak at the seams with the effort of keeping all the narrative balls in the air. As an aside, I like that it’s set in Cambridge, because I used to live there, and I haven’t yet tired of thinking, ‘ooh, I know where that is’ when the author is specific about location.

Present Tense Book Review – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Part 4

(Part Three of this Present Tense Book Review.)

The last quarter of the book flags somewhat, and although it has some very funny isolated scenes, it’s nowhere near as good as the rest of the book. For me, this has a lot to do with the appearance of Tom Sawyer, who is supposed to provide comic relief, but is just an annoying brat. Huck is mischievious, but endearingly so, and when he teases Jim, earlier in the book, and upsets him, he feels remorse and realises the affection he feels towards him; Tom is unrepentant when his elaborate scheme to free Jim causes a massive amount of stress and trouble for the kind people he is staying with.

The latter part of the book sags, too, because we are no longer drifting downriver on a raft, but are stuck on dry land, in the same location for chapter after chapter, and it just feels like the narrative has stalled. It’s still well-written, and entertaining, despite Tom Sawyer, but the preceding chapters were so much better, the ending feels like a bit of an anti-climax. So, read the book, by all means, but you won’t be missing much if you skip the last 8 chapters.

Cats I Have Known – Heidi

I’ve always had an affinity with cats – if one crosses my path as I’m walking down the road, I’ll stoop down to scratch it behind the ears. I’ve sometimes wondered whether being a cat-person is largely due to growing up with cats, or whether my personality is such that I just seem to be on the same wavelength as our feline friends. There’s been some recent research on this, in an interesting journal, Anthrozoos, which examines the interactions between humans and (non-human) animals. I might return to the research in a later post, but now I’d like to write about my first cat, Heidi.

Getting Heidi is, sort of, my first memory. I remember writing something at primary school, on my earliest memory, and I wrote about getting Heidi from a cat re-homing centre, and how excited and happy I was. But now, I don’t think I really remember getting her, I think I remember the images and emotions that my childhood brain conjured up for that essay. Anyway, I can remember playing with her at home. She was a tortoiseshell, quite slight, and fairly young and hence playful.

My mum had a big wooden clothes horse which Heidi loved climbing, particularly when it was draped in damp clothes; which are a magnet for cat hair, so my mum wasn’t best pleased with her demonstrations of agility. She died while still quite young, sadly, the victim of a car accident; I can vividly remember being terribly upset. But I don’t want to end on a morose note; she was a lovely cat, and we had fun together; and whether she taught me to like cats or just brought out my inherent felinophilia, she started me on the path to being a cat-person, and I wouldn’t want to be any other way.

Mine’s a Saucer of Milk, Ta

I would like to “exploit fluid inertia to defeat gravity and pull liquid into [my] mouth”. Milk would be an ideal liquid to test out this important, but disgracefully neglected, area of research.

Present Tense Book Review – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Part 3

(Part Two of this Present Tense Book Review.)

Dern it, this book is blame’ long. Reckon it seems so b’kase I has to read the words slow-like, to git ther meanin’.

Still entertaining, even though it’s more of the same, with a nice quote from the King: “Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? and ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”

A Cat’s Tale – Part Two

The story so far: Our feline hero has been rescued from the mean streets of Beckenham, but is distinctly miffed with the number of cats he has to share a house with…

While in the house of many cats, I adopted the name Frankie, in order to project a tough, don’t-mess-with-this-cat, image. As a little cat, it’s important on your first day in cat borstal to pick a fight, so as to send a message that you’re not to be trifled with. This attitude, unfortunately, does not work particularly well if your concept of a fight consists of yowling and puffing up your tail, and the other cat’s involves actual physical contact. I spent a lot of time under the sofa at that house.

My time as Frankie did not last too long, luckily, and I was soon taken by the cat ladies to a house where the hoomins knew that my name was Binky Mackenzie, so I felt right at home. But that’s a tale for another day…

To be continued…