Yes, those holidays that ended last month. Better late than never. Here are the books I found the most interesting.
I enjoyed The Guggenheim Mystery by Robin Stevens, an entertaining middle grade novel, featuring Ted, a twelve-year-old British boy who visits his American relatives in New York and finds himself solving an art heist mystery. This is a sequel to The London Eye Mystery by the late Siobhan Dowd, who died the year that book was published but had planned to write a New York sequel. Ted is presumably on the autistic spectrum, although he’s never labelled as such, and some parts of his characterisation seemed a little unlikely. He has amazing powers of memory, logic and pattern recognition which he uses to solve the mystery, but he also somehow copes amazingly well with the noise, confusion and changes to his routine during his holiday, without any meltdowns and with everyone around him being consistently understanding and accommodating. Still, it’s nice to read about the positives of neurodiversity and children with autism spectrum disorders and their siblings, classmates and friends would relate to many of the scenes in this book. The mystery is interesting and cleverly plotted, and I liked the behind-the-scenes look at the Guggenheim Museum.
I had The Palace Papers by Tina Brown on reserve at the library for months and it became available just as Prince Harry started promoting his memoir, which meant that I had had more than enough of royalty by the time I finished reading this. The Palace Papers is a gossipy, well-researched history of the British royal family over the last twenty-five years. It focuses on the women who schemed and plotted to marry into royalty — Camilla Parker-Bowles, Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle — while also covering some of the many recent royal scandals. These include phone hacking by the press, servants selling lurid stories, Harry’s mental health problems and drug abuse, and Andrew’s financial scandals and friendship with Jeffrey Epstein and civil court settlement with a young trafficked woman. But mostly the book is about how utterly pointless the modern royals are, with their existence depending on positive press coverage. Some of the royals (notably William and Kate) seem to ‘manage’ the press more effectively than others, but no one comes out of this book well. The late Queen tended to ignore dangerous problems (notably, Andrew), Charles is self-pitying and selfish, Camilla has no morals, Andrew is a spoilt brat, Edward and Sophie are money-grubbing. Harry comes across as a vulnerable and damaged man who never grew up, while Meghan is depicted as shallow, rude and deluded. I finished the book wondering why on Earth intelligent young women such as Kate and Meghan would want to join such a dysfunctional family – surely if they’d wanted a wealthy lifestyle, it could have been achieved more easily than by marrying a prince? I have zero interest in reading Prince Harry’s Spare, but unfortunately, Australians are required to continue to have some interest in Britain’s version of the Kardashians, because whoever is on the British throne is also our nation’s Head of State.
I then read a lovely book about trees. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben is an engaging, chatty account of how trees protect themselves and their young, adapt to challenging circumstances, fight for resources with other species, and share information, food and water with each other via a network of roots and fungi (the ‘wood wide web’). Trees can live for hundreds and even thousands of years and the author describes some amazing trees – for example, a single quaking aspen in Utah that covers 100 acres, with forty thousand trunks growing from the same roots, and a beech stump that was cut down five hundred years ago but has been kept alive all that time by neighbouring beeches feeding it sugar. The author is a German forester and he focuses on Central European forest trees, with a few mentions of North American trees. He is not an academic or a scientist, and although there are footnotes, this book is as much about the author’s feelings as about scientific evidence. Sometimes he makes assertions that seem dubious – for example, that humans can subconsciously detect when trees are stressed and that this affects the humans’ well-being when they walk through an unhealthy forest. Some readers may also object to his frequent anthropomorphising of trees (for example, when trees are described as “cruel” or “ruthless” or “caring”) and his somewhat disorganised and repetitive prose. However, I found this a fascinating and enjoyable read and I ended the book with a renewed appreciation of trees.
Finally, I read the first volume of John Mortimer’s very unreliable memoir, Clinging to the Wreckage. Mortimer, the author of Paradise Postponed and the creator of Rumpole of the Bailey, was a prolific playwright, screen writer and novelist, as well as a barrister and Queen’s Counsel. This volume describes him growing up as the only child of an eccentric and violent barrister, who refused to admit he was blind and insisted his long-suffering wife act as his scribe and guide dog. Young Mortimer attended Harrow and then Oxford, managed to avoid war service due to his own poor vision, joined the Crown Film Unit to produce propaganda films, then bowed to parental pressure to go into the law profession, all the while churning out a number of entertaining novels, plays and scripts. There is a lot of name-dropping, exaggeration and embellishment as he describes the literary, theatrical and legal worlds of London, but his anecdotes are usually amusing and engaging. In the introduction to this book, Valerie Grove accurately notes that he tends to portray himself as “a hapless and often bewildered onlooker, to whom stuff happens”. So, for example, he claims to be baffled when his twenty-year marriage to novelist Penelope Mortimer starts to crumble. He fails to mention his multiple extra-marital affairs or that he requested his wife have an abortion and sterilisation during her eighth pregnancy, and that while she was recovering from that operation, the poor woman learned that actress Wendy Craig had given birth to her husband’s son. (He also neglects to mention he was kicked out of Oxford when staff found he’d been writing ‘amorous’ letters to a schoolboy.) I puzzled over what all these women found attractive about him. It certainly wasn’t physical beauty, but perhaps they found his story-telling irresistible.
The best part of this book for me was his discussion of censorship. As a QC, he defended the publishers of Last Exit to Brooklyn and then the publishers of Oz magazine when they were charged with publishing “obscene” works. English law stated that a literary work was “obscene” if it “tends to deprave and corrupt those likely to read it”, although publishers could avoid conviction if the work was judged to have “artistic merit” and publication was in the “public good”. He successfully argued on behalf of the publishers of Last Exit that the book’s depiction of homosexual prostitution and drug abuse was so revolting that it would turn all readers away from these practices. He makes a number of sensible points — for example, that no-one is forced to read a book or watch a television show that they know will offend them, and that “if books had the effect claimed for them by the censors, every English country house would have a bloodstained butler in the library, dead with a knife between his shoulder blades.” His many examples of the Lord Chamberlain’s demands for script editing (“Wherever the word ‘shit’ appears, it must be replaced by ‘it’) would seem at first to be an amusing look at the olden days, except we have the current example of Roald Dahl’s books being bowdlerised (no mention of ‘fat’ or ‘ugly’ allowed anymore and ‘white’ and ‘black’ in ‘white with fear’ and ‘a black cape’ must be removed). The more things change, the more they stay the same.