life update, not a book

Covid plus 20-something days

It’s not quite a month since my (first) positive covid test, but I’m interrupting your regularly scheduled programming for an update, because hey, why not.

I think I’m mostly back to normal. I’ve got a slight residual cough and the back of my throat still feels a bit raw. I’m probably still blowing my nose a bit more than usual. I’m still getting quite tired and i got a bit puffed out going up all the stairs at work the other day – but that could just be me talking and walking up stairs too fast… I’m also sticking to that recommendation from some cardiologist somewhere that you’re less likely to get long covid if you avoid strenuous exercise for six weeks. It’s not just that I hate running and it’s a good excuse not to go do it – I’ll have you know I bought new running shoes the weekend before I caught covid and I haven’t had a chance to try them out yet!

In reading terms, I’m struggling to focus a little bit and the temptation to reread stuff is near impossible to resist sometimes. I was doing really well in early March with the NetGalley list and then it all came undone because almost everything I had due next required more brain power that I had to give – or wasn’t certain to have a resolution. But I think I’m clawing it back around slowly. Of course the difficulty with this is making sure that I’ve read something each week that I like enough to write about for Book of the Week, but I’ve managed it so far. Although this week may yet be the exception of course.

Even pre my covid I had cut back a bit on my podcasts in favourite of audiobooks and that trend has only continued. I’m working my way through the theatrical Inspector Alleyns at the moment with a side order of Gaudy Night when needed (plus ça change etc) and then Amelia Peabody as well (we’re back in 1914 again and oh my goodness Thunder in the Sky is so good). I’ve started a couple of Angela Thirkells but they just haven’t hit the spot so far in the way that the murder mysteries and Amelia do. My brain. Such a weird place.

Anyway, that’s the update from me. I’ve been very fortunate – now that I’ve had it with the tests to prove it I am fairly sure I had It but worse in January 2020, so thank goodness for the vaccines etc and may I be fortunate enough not to catch it again for another two years – if at all.

Surviving the 'Rona

Goodbye 2021…

Well, here we are. The last day of another year. Or at least it will be when you’re reading this. I don’t think any of us quite expected that 2021 would be even more exhausting than 2020. In fact I’m not sure any of us thought that it was possible to be even more tired than we were last year. And yet. At the end of 2020, with vaccines against covid arriving I think we all thought that by the end of 2021 things would be back to normal again. And now, we’re all wondering if things will ever be normal again. But you have to hold on to something don’t you, and I’m holding onto the fact that I’ve now been jabbed and boosted, we did go on holiday (twice!) this year and that I made it back into the theatre as well. So I’m still in a better place than this time last year – even if omicron is causing some problems right now. Consider this the pandemic evolution of the old Obsessions of the year posts.

I think that the general ennui of 2021 can be seen in my reading habits. I’ve read slightly less books than I read last year – but then in March I traded in my commute to London to a short walk to the spare room when I changed jobs and lost my train reading time. I only had about a month and a half of regularly being back in the office this autumn but I never really got back to my regular nights away from home for work – so I lost that reading time in the evening too.

I’ve also read a lot less physical books this year than you would expect considering that I’ve been at home so much with so much access to my to-read bookshelf. But then I have grown somewhat obsessed with my kindle streak in recent months and you know what I’m like when I get something in my head. And of course it continues to be much easier to binge a series by clicking on the buy next button on Kindle and reading it straight away than it is to wait for the next one in the series to turn up.

I have re-read a lot this year – some books more than once. And I only allow a book to count on the list once each year – even if I’ve read – or listened to it more than once. And if we were including those in the list we’d be way over last year’s total because I’ve done most of the Peter Wimsey cannon more than once, along with a lot of the Amelia Peabody books, several of the Inspector Alleyns and my favourite Georgette Heyers.

And that leads me on to another of the trends of the latter part of this year – my retreat into the familiar. I think I said last year that I was spending a lot of time reading romance and cozy crime because I knew that they would work out already in the end. But since the summer I’ve been listening to the same audiobooks over and over again. I think after nearly 2 years of pandemic living I’ve started clinging to the familiar in the same way that I frequently do the ironing watching the same Miss Marples or Inspector Alleyns that I’ve watched dozens of time before. And that’s how we got to a point where I wrote a magnum opus about Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.

So here’s to 2022. May it be better than 2021.

Authors I love, detective, Series I love, Surviving the 'Rona

Favourites Revisited: Gaudy Night

Amid the flurry of end of year posts, here is something completely different and that has been months in the making. It’s taken me a while to get this down in writing in a way that I’m anywhere near happy with and I’m still not sure I’m quite there. So why am I finally posting it now? Well, I was writing my end of 2021 post and it was starting to touch on some similar ground, so I thought I ought to get this out there first.

One of my very earliest posts on this site was about my love of Peter Wimsey. And over the years since then I have reread and relistened to the series over and over. But until the summer it had been years since I had Gaudy Night – in full at least and not as a radio play. But then I treated myself to the audiobook in August and listened to it. And I was enjoying it so much that I got the book off the shelf too. And then I realised that I was behind on my podcasts because I wanted to carry on listening to Gaudy Night rather than listening to them. And when I got to the end, I started all over again. And now I have a lot to say about it and Spoilers ahoy, not just for Gaudy Night but for most of the rest of the Wimsey books. Be warned.

A reminder, if you need it, that Gaudy Night is the third of four books featuring Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey. It is the book where Harriet’s relationship with Peter moves towards a resolution. The final book of the quartet sees the pair get married and Gaudy Night is the bridge that explains how they got from the tetchiness of the murder at Wilvercombe (which was already a step on from her mistrust and confusion in Strong Poison) to a point where Harriet has realised that she is in love with him and that taking a chance on another relationship might be the right thing to do.

She fell a victim to an inferiority complex, and tripped over her partner’s feet. ‘Sorry,’ said Wimsey, accepting responsibility like a gentleman. ‘It’s my fault,’ said Harriet. ‘I’m a rotten dancer. Don’t bother about me. Let’s stop. You haven’t got to be polite to me, you know.’

Worse and worse. She was being peevish and egotistical. Wimsey glanced down at her in surprise and then suddenly smiled.

‘Darling, if you danced like an elderly elephant with arthritis, I would dance the sun and moon into the sea with you. I have waited a thousand years to see you dance in that frock.’

‘Idiot’ said Harriet.

Have His Carcase

I have had the audiobooks of a lot of the other books in the series for years. In fact Busman’s Honeymoon was one of my earliest picks on Audible and I soon picked up as many of the others as I could that were read by Ian Carmichael. But he didn’t read all of them, so I filled in the gaps using radio adaptations of the series – again starring Ian Carmichael as Peter. I had Murder Must Advertise read by someone else, and Five Red Herrings read by Patrick Malahide (in a delightful crossover with my love of the Inspector Alleyn TV adaptations) but until thus summer I didn’t have either Have His Carcase or Gaudy Night in full on audio. But as I was working through audiobooks at some pace, I decided to take a chance on the Have His Carcase that Audible were offering. Now I have reread Have His Carcase a few times – because I think it’s a particularly well worked mystery – but I’d stuck to the radio play version because of my attachment to Ian Carmichael narrating. But actually after a little bit I got used to Jane McDowell, and although the code breaking section makes no sense to me as audio (it’s hard enough on paper), because it was told from more Harriet’s side than Peter’s the female narrator grew on me. So I bought Gaudy Night.

The thing it is easy to forget reading now is that Sayers spaced out the Peter and Harriet with other novels with just Peter and the poor readers at the time had no idea what was going to happen – if anything – between them. So when you realise Strong Poison (1930) was followed by Five Red Herrings (1931), it adds the context that perhaps the reason Peter has gone off to Scotland is perhaps to clear his head after Harriet’s trial. Have His Carcase is next (1932), when Harriet finds a body on the beach and Peter comes down to solve the crime (as she thinks) but also as the reader knows, try and make her situation better. Then it’s Murder Must Advertise, which focuses on Peter in his advertising alter ego but with a blink and you’ll miss it nod to what is going on with Harriet.

Wimsey put down the receiver. ‘I hope,’ he thought, ‘she isn’t going to make an awkwardness. You cannot trust these young women. No fixity of purpose. Except, of course, when you particularly want them to be yielding.’

He grinned with a wry mouth, and went out to keep his date with the one young woman who showed no signs of yielding to him, and what he said or did on that occasion is in no way related to this story.

Murder Must Advertise

Then the following year was the Nine Tailors before (at last) Gaudy Night in 1935. And early in Chapter 4 of Gaudy Night, Sayers sets out for you what has been going on in the background all along. I’m struggling to think of another series with a moment quite like it – where an author says “by the way, while these mysteries were going on, there was also something I didn’t tell you about”.

Was it too late to achieve wholly the clear eye and the untroubled mind? And what, in that case, was she to do with one powerful fetter which still tied her ineluctably to the bitter past? What about Peter Wimsey?

Gaudy Night

And then across the course of 500 pages, Harriet tries to solve a poison pen mystery at her old college, but decide exactly what about Peter Wimsey. She works her way through her hang ups after her disastrous relationship with Philip Boyes and starts to come to a better understanding of who she is and what it is about her that has caused Wimsey to propose to her once a quarter for years on end. And the reader understands him better for it too.

I have listened to the radio play version of Gaudy Night more times than I care to count, because even though Ian Carmichael is really quite old by that point, he doesn’t sound it and it is such a clever mystery as well has having a great setting in Oxford. But as I listened to it unabridged, I realised both how cleverly that radio adaptation had been done and how much had been taken out from the original novel. Reggie Pomfret’s whole plot strand is neatly snipped out and part of the evolution of Harriet’s feelings goes with it. And because it is a radio play you also lose the internal side of Harriet’s world and of course the glorious set up explaining what had been going on in the background with Harriet and Peter was missing too – because how on earth do you jump through a time line like that in a radio play?

After I finished Gaudy Night, I bought the Jane McDowell Busman’s Honeymoon and listened to that as well for the contrast with the Carmichael that I have listened to so many times. And it was interesting, but then I went back to Gaudy Night again. And again.

And so here we are, several months on. And I’ve probably listened to it in full half a dozen times. And my edited highlights half a dozen more: that chapter four description of the three years between Wilvercombe and Harriet’s return to her old college for the Gaudy. Her first encounter with St George and her subsequent discoveries about Peter’s relationships with his family – and then Peter’s reaction to that. His arrival in Oxford and their afternoon on the river. The chess set. The resolution of the mystery. The resolution. What it is about Gaudy Night that means it is what my brain needs at the moment I don’t know. But it is.

I’ve written bits and bobs here about the pandemic, but it’s been a rotten nearly two years for everyone. And it turns out that my brain had decided that the best way to get away from what’s happening in the real world and to help it relax, is to listen to the same audiobooks over and over again. Gaudy Night. Busman’s Honeymoon. Sylvester. These Old Shades. Artists in Crime. Death in a White Tie. And that’s ok by me, even if it does mean I’m months behind on podcasts I previously listened to religiously. But hey. These aren’t normal times. As is evidenced by the fact that I’ve just written the longest thing I’ve ever put on this blog to dissect my obsession with Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Now if you’ll excuse me, Harriet is trying to write a letter to Peter about St George…

Surviving the 'Rona

Surviving Coronavirus: Podcast edition

Welcome to the latest in my occasional series of things that have been helping me through the Quarantimes. I listen to a lot of podcasts, even in normal times, because I do a lot of walking as part of my commute and I like to have something to listen to. But they’re mostly topical news and politics podcasts, and you don’t need my recommendations for that. I’ve always had some podcasts that I *only* listen to while I’m running – because it gives me an incentive to run to hear the next part – but during the various lockdowns, this has expanded so I have some podcasts that I’m only allowed to listen to while I’m out walking and getting some exercise. And now, even though lockdowns are easing, I’ve moved jobs so I’m working from home rather than in the office, so having a reason to go out and exercise is really useful! So that’s the list I’ve drawn these recommendations from – stuff that’s so good that it’s worth leaving the house to listen to! All of these are available to listen to for free – and although there are premium options available for some, the series are all complete so there’s no waiting to binge.

Unfinished: Short Creek

The second series of Witness Doc’s Unfinished podcast focused on the town of Short Creek, on the Arizona/Utah border, which is also divided by religion. It was the epicentre of the branch of the fundamentalist Mormon sect led by Warren Jeffs and the residents are a mix of FLS members – and ex-members. It’s the story of how the current situation came about – the history of the group and the circumstances surrounding Jeffs’ conviction and imprisonment for sex crimes but it’s also an examination of Freedom of Religion and freedom from religion. There are 10 parts available (and a bonus AMA) available without a premium subscription, and I found it fascinating. And not just because I read a lot of early Mommy bloggers who were Mormon and have watched a fair few episodes of Sister Wives. You may have seen Under The Banner of Heaven on my reading list the other week  – and Short Creek features in that too, but that book has a different focus – and is also more than a decade old now. But if you’ve read that – you’ll probably like this. More info about Unfinished here. And if you like this and enjoy it, then my next stop was Heaven’s Gate – another series about a cult, this time one that ended in a mass suicide. And just this week, Wondery have dropped a trailer for a new series about Jerry Falwell Jr called In God We Lust which is going to be next on my list to listen to.

Wind of Change

From Crooked Media (a group of ex-Obama staffers who started a media company, you may know them from Pod Save America) and Pineapple Street Studios (the company who produced Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill podcast), this is an investigation into whether the CIA had a hand in writing the Scorpions’ song ‘Wind of Change’ which became an anthem across Eastern Europe just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s got music history and spying but it also says a lot about how America used its culture to spread power, and how Western culture got behind the Iron Curtain. If you like spy thrillers and John Le Carre, this should be on your playlist. I listened to most of this podcast while plodding around my local park in 30+ degree heat back in summer 2020, which feels like so long ago now, but it says a lot about how engrossed I was in it that I was prepared to turn out for a run in a heatwave so that I could keep listening to it! And it’s just been nominated for a Webby Award as well. More info here.

Boom/Bust  

Logo of Boom/Bust

This one is firmly in the spectacular business failures section of my wheelhouse – see also Bad Blood and Billion Dollar Loser – Boom/Bust, as the logo suggests covers what on earth happened to HQ Trivia which was briefly the hottest thing in mobile gaming and allegedly the future of TV. If you didn’t come across it at the time, it was a live trivia game with big money prizes. For a few weeks (maybe months) here in the UK I’d see some of my coworkers on the late shift logging on to their phones to try and win some money. But as quickly as it started, it was over and this podcast from the Ringer looks at what happened and why. The story is actually somewhat longer than I expected – because it was around for longer in the US – but it’s another story of The Next Great Idea – where it got massively popular without a sense of how to sustain it long term. Find out more here.

Bunga Bunga

Logo of Bunga Bunga

So if you’re my sort of age, Silvio Berlusconi was a fixture of European and world political life for a long time. In fact, my first foreign trip was to Italy to see relatives right at the time his first successful election campaign was in its closing stages – I remember seeing the Forza Italia song on the evening news while we were there. And I knew it had been a hell of a story since that 1994 election win through to the Bunga Bunga party scandal that saw him eventually banned from holding public office. But as Wondery’s Bunga Bunga  demonstrates, it’s actually even wilder than you could imagine. Even if you’re not that into politics, the story of how the child of a middle class bank employee and a housewife became first a media mogul and then one of the most important figures in modern Italian politics is a fascinating one even before the many controversies and scandals that came along the way. You can find more info (and a trailer) here.

What am I listening to next? Well I’ve already mentioned In God We Lust, but that only has the trailer out so far, so I’ll have to wait for that. I’m also looking at Spy Affair (about Maria Butina) and The Lazarus Heist (about North Korean hacking) but again neither of those series are complete yet so I’m still looking for my next series binge. If you have any recommendations please put them in the comments – nothing too violent though please. In the mean time there are a few new episodes of Real Dictators that have been dropping over the last few weeks- but I’m not sure I’m in the right headspace to listen to five (so far) episodes about Hitler. I’ve listened to previous episodes while running and find that the awfulness makes me run faster – I think I’m trying to get away from it (this also happened when I tried listening to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography of the Romanovs. So much death, so much torture, so very gruesome). I’m also a few episodes behind in Greg Jenner‘s latest series of You’re Dead to Me but laughing while running is not the best idea for me.

And as a final note, my original “only listen to it while you’re running” podcast was Hit Parade from Slate – which is a examination of Billboard chart music trends. It looks at why some songs become mega hits and how some artists (or music types) came to dominate the airwaves. Early in the pandemic they moved the whole podcast behind the Slate plus paywall and I love it so much that I joined up just so I could keep listening to it. As the situation with coronavirus has changed, it’s rememerged slightly – so there is one full episode every month which everyone can get (although non-subscribers get it as two parts with a couple of week gap in between) and a bonus episode for Slate plus subscribers. The latest episode is about Taylor Swift – although with the news in the last 24 hours about the death of Jim Steinman their October episode is all about his career in music and would make a great listen instead of reading an obit, but it’s one of those podcasts where you can go back to the beginning (an episode about the Beatles) and just work the whole way through. I did. It might change your views on some groups (I’m a lot more pro BeeGees than I used to be) or it might not (I still hate hair metal, but so does the host so it’s fine) but you’ll learn a tonne of stuff.  

Happy Listening!

book adjacent, Children's books, Surviving the 'Rona

Surviving Coronavirus: Baby-Sitters Club

Another in my occasional series of posts about things that have been getting me through the Coronavirus, and this is one that dovetails with my love of middle grade books, despite the fact that I’m no longer a middle grader – and in fact am easily old enough to have a middle grader of my own!

If you’re my sort of age, The Baby-sitters Club was up there with Sweet Valley High as a series that you binge-read from the library. Or at least it was for me.  The books – with the building blocks logo and the house with the illustration of the story in the window were instantly recognisable. It’s hard to remember so many years later, but I’m fairly sure I read almost all of the first 50 books, and all the early super specials as well as some of the mysteries. So, I was excited – but also a little trepidatious – to see that Netflix had adapted it. How do you update a series written in the pre-internet, pre mobile phone world so that it works for children today?

As it turns out, they’ve done it really, really well. The personalities of the girls are the same – but Dawn is Hispanic and Mary Anne is biracial. Stacey still has diabetes, but now she has an insulin pump rather than having to do injections. There are mobile phones, but Kristy and Mary Anne still have flashlights to signal between their houses – because Mary Anne’s dad is so overprotective. Would modern parents really trust a bunch of barely teenagers with their kids? Well the series does try and address that. It’s got a strong focus on social justice, which I think is both true to the original books and inline with what the kids today (!) are interested in and it has enough easter eggs in there for the grownups too – like the handwriting on the episode titles being the “right” ones for each girl from the original books, Alicia Silverstone as Kristy’s mum, Kevin from Brooklyn 99 as Mary Anne’s dad. As grown up, sometimes it was all a little bit ott but I’m not the target audience- and i find that with a lot of children’s shows. It was perfect though for watching while ironing. And low-stakes drama is about all I can deal with right now. At the end of the series Mallory and Jessi were introduced, which means I’m hoping there are plans for a second series – but obviously these strange times we live in could have thrown all that up in the air and mean that the cast age out faster than expected.

Anyway, you can find the Baby-sitters Club on Netflix – and I’m off to read one of the new Babysitter’s Club graphic novels which have been adapted by Raina Telgemeier.

Happy reading!

 

Surviving the 'Rona

Surviving Coronavirus: Kindle Unlimited

So I started a Kindle Unlimited trial at the back end of last year – the trial is about to end, so I thought now was a good time to do a little review, plus given the situation that we’re in at the moment, where people may have more time on their hands to read books but less money to spend on them, then it seemed like a good time to do a little recap. The first thing to note with this – as will any free trial – is that you need to diarise when you need to cancel your trial so that you don’t get charged if you don’t want to. I use Google Calendar for this – with a note on the actual date and a string of reminders ahead of time to make me do something. It’s also good if you have an annual subscription to something at a special rate that you want to haggle with to keep rather than pay the full price (hello New York Times). So my first point is that it’s only free if you remember to cancel it. And if you don’t cancel it, it’s only worth having if you are using it, so you need to work out a way of keeping track of what you’re reading. I’ve done this by creating a tag in Goodreads that I add to books from the service that I finish. It also really helped with writing this post!

Covers of Left-Handed Death, The Case of the Famished Parson, He Dies and Makes No Sign and The Colour of Murder

Next a quick primer for those who don’t know: how does Kindle Unlimited (KU) work? Well it’s a bit like a library – you can borrow up to ten books at a time from the included titles. And it’s super easy to know which titles are include because if you’re in the programme it’ll prioritise the option to read with Kindle Unlimited over the option to buy, and if you’re not in the programme it’ll be asking you if you want to read it for free by starting a trial. Once you’ve finished a book, you return it – and if you’re at the limit it’ll then let you borrow another one. If you belong to a library that does ebook loans via Libby this may sound familiar to you, but the difference is that the loans don’t have an expiry (you’ve got them til you give it back) and when you do give it back, it disapears from your Kindle completely – unlike libby loans which stay there and just tell you the loan has ended if you try to read it after the end of your loan.

Covers of Answer in the Negative, Murder in the Mill-Race and the Case of the Demented Spiv

So, how have I got on? So far (with about a week to go of the trial) Kindle Unlimited I’ve read 23 books and threehave them have been written about in Book of the Week posts (Murder by Matchlight – which also is about KU title Murder in the Mill Race), Answer in the Negative and Case of a Demented Spiv). I’ve also binged on a couple of series from Beth Byers – one of which I’m sure I’ll get around to writing about at some point soon. But it is a bit of a process of trial and error. Some of the stuff is really good, some of it is… less so. I’ve had a few total failures, but I’ve got better at working out from the description whether things are going to work for me or not.

Collage of my current KU titles

My perception before I tried the service was that it was mostly authors that I’d never heard over but there are some big names available – the Harry Potter books are currently in KU.  However I’ve found it’s particularly good for finding and trying forgotten Golden-Age Crime writers – as you may have noticed from the BotW. I’ve also found its handy to check back regularly to see if titles by authors you like have gone in (or out) of the programme. For example there is a different selection of George Bellairs novels available this week than there was last time I checked, there’s a  Molly Thynne novel now that wasn’t there when I checked when I returned the one I read last week. There’s a Rhys Bowen standalone novel currently available and there’s a rotating selection of British Library Crime Classics books available. I have had less sucess so far with romance and non-fiction, but perhaps that’s because I’ve read less of them using KU so far so the algorhythm isn’t suggesting the right things to me.

I still haven’t quite decided if I’m going to pay for it monthly – and if I do i’ll have to keep it under review to make sure I’m using it enough, because goodness knows I already have a lot of books to read, but I’ve enjoyed it while I’ve had it. If you’ve got KU, please put your recommendations in the comments!

Happy Reading!