Elizabeth Taylor – “In a Summer Season”

(04 Jan 1998, book stall in Greenwich Market)

An original green covered Virago book, although the cover doesn’t really fit the subject matter. I didn’t really take to this book at first. It ticks all the Taylor boxes – slightly wonky marriage of misfits, suburban, middle class concerns, interfering mother in law, odd relatives … but the central character, Kate, didn’t really seem to come alive for me too much. Then suddenly, half way through, it “took” and I loved it from then on. The teenage characters are beautifully done, as they so often are. In particular, Louisa, with her odd collections, styes and love for the curate, is a great character, thrown into relief by her relationship with Aunt Ethel, a kind of aunt that doesn’t seem to exist any more, living in the family home and taking such pains to be unobtrusive that she becomes yet more intrusive. Add to the mix Mrs Meacock, the housekeeper, with her American puddings and wearing task of compiling a book, and son, Tom, nose to the grindstone in his grandfather’s office, and all you need is the return of next door’s Charles and his beguiling daughter to throw everything topsy-turvy.

This book is more full of sex and death than you’d perhaps expect an Elizabeth Taylor novel to be, from the outset, when we meet widowed Kate and her younger, very attractive husband, Dermot. It’s an interesting book, very Taylorian indeed, with all her hallmarks, including sudden events told dispassionately and the usual milieu … interestingly, I was never that keen on the mid-period Iris Murdoch novel “An Unofficial Rose”, which has the same features of being an uber-Murdochian novel. Not sure what that says about me, though!

Joanna Kavenna – “The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule”

(22 Jan 2012 – birthday present from Gill)

The kind of travel / quest book I like best, where the author sets of in search of, in this case, the fabled land of Thule. Was it the north of England, Scotland, the Shetlands, Iceland, Greenland, even? Or back round to Estonia or Norway? In her travels she comes across writers of antiquity and all points up to the modern day, taking a roughly chronological approach based on the theories, and looks at the people behind the theories, whether Norse scholars, presidents of countries or pro-Nazi movements. Of course, my favourite chapters were the section on Iceland, where she not only looks at William Morris and his theories, but good old W.H. Auden and the earlier women travellers I have read about in the last few years. But it’s all beautifully written, lyrical, fair, human and honest. Good scholarship, good writing and fascinating people and places to write about, all within a classic travel narrative in which, wandering the wastes of the northernmost US Airforce base, the author wonders how she will settle back into her London life.

Tarquin Hall – “The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing”

(July, Bookcrossing, from Gill)

Second in the lovely Vish Puri series, and we have a mysterious case that seems to involve a professional sceptic and debunker of religious myth having an encounter with a figure from such myth. At the same time as Vish and his collection of assistants are busy on this case, his mother draws his wife into investigating a kitty-party scandal, which sets up a nice counterpoint. I love the wealth of detail about contemporary Indian life and the multiple levels of society shown, from itinerant magicians to society darlings and trendy gurus – a great read.