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I’m working my way through my 20 Books of Summer; currently I’m on book number 10 (way behind schedule), so thought I should start catching up on reviews, beginning with the two non-fiction reads I picked up.

All That Remains by Sue Black

Sue Black confronts death every day. As Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology, she focuses on mortal remains in her lab, at burial sites, at scenes of violence, murder and criminal dismemberment, and when investigating mass fatalities due to war, accident or natural disaster.

I really like Professor Dame Sue Black (to give her her full title), having watched her TV series a few years ago (History Cold Case if you are interested and can find it), and I was very keen to buy her book and read it immediately. Of course she is very matter of fact in describing her career and experiences and her general views on death but she is also immensely compassionate; some of the most moving parts of the book are where she talks about the cadaver that she and her lab partner worked on for a year when they were learning anatomy; an elderly man who had left his body to science for this very purpose.

I saw a little video of her talking about the book, and she refers to herself as a Martini Girl (any time, any place, anywhere – hands up all those from the 1970s!) as her expertise means she is often called in to help in times of disaster. She talks in great detail about her time in Kosovo, gruelling and not for the faint-hearted.

It’s a very positive book, encouraging us to accept death as an inevitable part of life. She is a treasure!

Black Dahlia, Red Rose by Piu Eatwell

In this ground-breaking book, Piu Eatwell reveals compelling forensic and eye-witness evidence for the first time, which finally points to the identity of the murderer.

Or does it? I’ve read (mostly fictional to be fair) accounts of the Black Dahlia case before so was intrigued to see to get my hands on this one. I am happy to admit my interest in true crime, and this is up there with Jack the Ripper as unsolved and open to many, many theories, some of them sensational and implausible.

At the time of the murder the relationship between the press and the police was almost incestuous, and corruption in the force was rife. The focus was very much on the gruesome and scandalous elements of the case and many of the pieces were very judgemental about the lifestyle of the victim, Elizabeth Short.

Più Eatwell has worked through the documents and has come up with a plausible solution to the crime which seems to fit the facts as she presents them, but as with all of these books there is always an element of doubt – unless you are an expert in the detail yourself (and I am definitely not) it’s hard to say if anything has been left out, but taken at face value this seems very convincing. Of course her conclusion has not gone unchallenged, especially by those with their own agendas, and it’s hard to see what, if anything, will happen next.




Scan 25At its simplest Levels of Life is a book about loss and grief  and love and sorrow. It brings together a number of disparate characters who are linked through their experience of ballooning – Nadar, an aerial photographer, Colonel Fred Burnaby, a British soldier and Sarah Bernhardt, the actress with whom it is thought Burnaby had an affair.

In considering their stories Julian Barnes also talks openly about his own grief at the loss of his wife, the absence that is in his life and his reaction to it.

You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed. People may not notice it at the time, but that doesn’t matter. The world has been changed nonetheless.

You put together two people who have not been put together before. […] Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.

This is a terribly sad book, and his emotions will be recognisable to anyone who has lost someone close to them, though the loss of a partner is not something I’ve experienced and must represent a real shift in perception of the future; the person you thought you were going to spend your whole life with is not longer there.

dewey-300x300Deeply moving.

My third Readathon book.

I am so, so far behind on my reviews that I seriously thought about skipping some (heresy) or having more than one (unrelated) book in a post (anathema). So I’ve decided to do the next best thing and crank out some mini-reviews. no disrespect intended to any of the books at all, of course.

First up is a tiny wee (in size not substance) memoir by Susannah Clapp; she was a long-time friend of Angela Carter, and A Card From…. is her attempt to capture the personality, interests, passions and life of an intelligent and versatile author by using the postcards she sent through her lifetime as a jumping off point for anecdotes and remembrances. The postcards themselves are often odd but it makes sense that Angela Carter would not have taken a traditional approach to dropping a note to her friends, and they make an interesting gateway into aspects of her life.

I really enjoyed reading this for two reasons:

(1) I hugely admire Angela’s work; I read and adored The Bloody Chamber when I was a student and every time I read something about her it makes me regret that I haven’t read more. I have thirteen of her books as far as I can tell and seem to skew towards her non-fiction. I’m mildly astonished (and a bit appalled) that I haven’t read either Wise Children or *gasps* The Magic Toyshop.

(2) I am incredibly nosey about people, I love reading diaries and letters and reminiscences so this was right up my street. She sounds like she must have been a challenging friend but they are often the best kind.

Very enjoyable, though this is the second time this week I’ve felt that the English Lit police will be after me (I may have disrespected Falstaff in a Facebook status update). and this hasn’t turned out to be such a mini after all…

This was my third Readathon read.

I really did mean to blog about this ages ago but got caught up in other things as explained in recent posts, but I’m really keen to write about it now in case you haven’t come across it yet, because it was so absorbing.

Pattern in the Carpet is subtitled “a personal history with jigsaws” which is a lovely description of a wonderful, ostensibly rambling but actually probably very carefully constructed book.

And it’s important to say that I really enjoyed this book and dashed off to a cupboard in my study where I believe  my own collection of jigsaws are stashed but couldn’t actually get to them because of other stuff.

Margaret Drabble is very clear what’s important to her about the toys/games/pastimes/whatever you call them:

one of the reasons why the jigsaw appeals to me, as I have already suggested, is that it is pre-made, its limits finite, its frame fixed. […] It can’t be done badly. Slowly, but not badly. All one needs is patience. […] in this aspect , the jigsaw is the very opposite of the novel.

It’s a book full of learning, reminiscences, anecdotes and the kind of information that I absolutely love to store away and drop into conversation and (if I’m ever invited) pub trivia quizzes. Such as the fact that Paternoster Row, which used to have lots of bookshops, was “wiped out in all but name on the night of 29 December 1940, along with six million books.” Six million books, can you imagine?

There is a great deal about children’s education over the centuries and how jigsaws came to be, but in the end she feels that she “has strayed far from my plan , which was to write a brief illustrated history of the jigsaw puzzle.” And I’m glad she did because this is so much richer being as much I think about memory and family as anything else.

There is so much to this book and I can’t recommend it enough. I’ll finish with my favourite quote which is about Margaret Drabble’s father:

I don’t know whether or not he believed in God, but he would certainly have liked to be able to do so, and he behaved as though he did

Please give this a try.

I finished reading this memoir a few weeks ago and have been mulling it over in my mind since then, trying to decide what I want to say about it.

The problem is the one I always have when trying to discuss a book that is all about a real person by themselves. It’s almost impossible, unless you are going to be extraordinarily cautious, to talk about this sort of memoir without seeming to be reviewing the their life rather than how they have written about it.

So this might be a bit disjointed (why change the habit of a lifetime, I hear you ask).

First things first, Candia McWilliam is the author of three (I think) novels and a book of short stories. I have these in my possession and have read them all apart from (I think) the short stories. I really like her work, it’s difficult to describe in terms of style but the best way to put it I suppose is that it isn’t simple; she was often picked on by Private Eye for being pretentious, for example. So its been a real shame that she hasn’t published anything since the 1990s.

But What to Look for in Winter is really about the blindness which she developed from 2006, a condition called blepharospasm where vision isn’t impaired in terms of the eyes themselves, but you cannot open them. It’s about dealing with a condition that prevents her from indulging in the one thing that keeps her going – reading. It’s also about her life, her marriages, her children, her alcoholism, the things that influence her and what she goes through to find a way of seeing again, and the operations that are designed to allow her to open her eyes.

I found it incredibly moving and at times almost impossible to read because of her pain over her failed relationships and how she views herself, but it was also difficult to put down. It’s not what I would call a misery memoir, it’s hard going in places but it is also really worth persevering with, although the thing that stuck with me is how connected she still is with the past. She shares a bond with the fathers of her children which I understand but they are so heavily involved in her daily life, even before her blindness, in a way that I found very strange. I’m not sure I could keep such a close connection with people whom I had hurt or who had hurt me in the ways that she describes. But as I said at the beginning, not for me to judge, though i did get a bit impatient with her occasionally.

So rewarding, but not a light or easy read.

Postscript: an interesting review by Andrew Motion in The Guardian can be found here.

Bride of the Book God

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Scottish, in my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

I also blog at Bride of the Screen God (all about movies and TV) and The Dowager Bride, if you are interested in ramblings about stuff of little consequence

If you would like to get in touch you can contact me at brideofthebookgod (at) btinternet (dot) com.

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March 2023