What I’ve Been Reading

'The Death of Lucy Kyte' by Nicola Upson I liked The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson, a murder mystery set in the 1930s, featuring a fictional version of the real-life mystery writer, Josephine Tey, as well as several other famous people (for instance, Dodie Smith and Wallis Simpson both make brief appearances). In this book, the fifth in a series, Josephine has to unravel the mystery of her godmother’s death and strange bequest. Could this possibly be linked to the famous, real-life murder of Maria Marten, a local servant girl who’d died a hundred years before? Well, yes, of course it is, but it also ends up being far more complicated and terrifying than I’d expected (admittedly, I am easily spooked). The story reminded me quite a lot of The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, although I think The Death of Lucy Kyte was more successful at handling the ‘supernatural’ elements of the plot (which may or may not be truly supernatural). I don’t read a lot of murder mysteries, because they so often use violent death as a mere plot device, without much acknowledgement of the terrible suffering it causes to the people who knew the victim. However, in this book, each of the characters was a plausibly complicated person, each violent incident had tragic repercussions, and there was nothing neat or painless about the conclusion. I hadn’t read the previous books in the series and this one worked well as a stand-alone novel, although I did become curious about the background of Josephine’s lover (who presumably is the subject of one of the earlier books). I believe the first book is called An Expert in Murder and it’s now on my To Read list.

Dogsbody by Dianna Wynne Jones was a clever and charming children’s book about Sirius the Dog Star, who is wrongfully accused of murder and sentenced to live in the body of a dog on Earth. I am not very interested in mythology or astronomy (or fantasy), but I loved the descriptions of Sirius’s doggy life and particularly his interactions with the other animals he encountered. Sirius is taken in by Kathleen, a young Irish girl with her own problems, and I liked the way the author didn’t hold back from showing that truly awful things can happen to children – but also that children can be brave and resilient and that hope can be found in unexpected places.

'Goodbye to Berlin' by Christopher IsherwoodGoodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood was a fascinating look at Germany in the early 1930s. The author insists in his introduction that it’s not “purely autobiographical”, but given the narrator is a young Englishman called ‘Christopher Isherwood’ who is living and working in Berlin at the same time that the author did, I think it’s fair to say it’s a reasonably accurate portrayal of his real experiences. Christopher drifts about Berlin, giving English lessons, hanging out in coffee shops and seedy bars and meeting a lot of interesting people. These include Sally Bowles, only nineteen and hopelessly naïve and romantic, even if she does refer to herself as an “old whore”; Peter, an Englishman besotted with a working-class boy called Otto; Otto’s impoverished family, living in a decrepit attic; and the Landauers, a wealthy Jewish family who own a department store. At first Christopher seems quite detached (“I am a camera with its shutter open, recording, not thinking . . .”), but he becomes closer to the people he’s observing, even when he disapproves of them and despairs for their future (“these people could be made to believe in anybody or anything”). He shows clearly how poverty and despair created by high unemployment and the collapse of the banking system after the First World War made it easy for Hitler to rise to power. The film Cabaret is based on the Sally Bowles section of Goodbye to Berlin, but the film doesn’t have a lot in common with the book. Both are interesting, though, in their different ways.

Old Filth wasn’t as immediately warm and engaging as most of Jane Gardam’s novels, perhaps because it was about a snobby, emotionally-repressed old Englishman. However, the story of how Edward came to be that way was engrossing and involved a variety of interesting settings. Edward spends his early years in a remote Malayan village before being sent to an abusive foster home in Wales, then on to several English boarding schools, whereupon war breaks out and he finds himself on an evacuee ship . . . and he hasn’t even made it to adulthood yet. The plot is very clever, moving back and forth in time to reveal information at exactly the right pace, with characters reappearing at strategic points (although occasionally in a way that strains credibility). It was fascinating to watch the decline of the British Empire through the eyes of a ‘Raj orphan’ who ended up a judge in Hong Kong before retiring to an England that was no longer Home. I believe there are several books about the same set of characters, and I’d be especially interested to read more about Edward’s wife Betty, who seemed to have led a very busy life (even if Edward was unaware of most of it).

'Bad Science' by Ben GoldacreFinally, some non-fiction. Bad Science by Ben Goldacre takes aim at the pharmaceutical companies, vitamin pill manufacturers, homeopaths, nutritionists, politicians and journalists who ignore scientific evidence in their quest to make money or become famous. Some of his examples will probably make more sense to UK readers (for example, he devotes a chapter each to Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford, apparently famous in the UK although I’d never heard of them), but there are also good general discussions about statistics, the placebo effect and how to analyse a scientific research paper. If you’re familiar with Dr Goldacre’s website or you read a lot of sceptic-based blogs, there won’t be a lot here that’s new to you, but I still found this to be an entertaining and interesting summary of some major issues in modern medical science (or at least, how medical science is reported in newspapers, magazines and on television).

9 thoughts on “What I’ve Been Reading”

  1. A novel involving both Josephine Tey and Dodie Smith sounds interesting – but possibly a bit grim for me at the moment.
    I’ve found both Ben Goldacre’s books – Bad Science and Bad Pharma enlightening and interesting – although you’re right about the UK focus – the first chapter on ‘Brain Gym’ or whatever can easily be skipped by those of us here in Australia. The rest was very interesting.
    I’ll have to get hold of a copy of Dogsbody – I’ve loved all the Dianna Wynn Jones books I’ve read!

    1. The Death of Lucy Kyte is fairly gruesome and Dodie Smith makes only very brief appearances. Also, it’s not very flattering to poor Dodie (Josephine is all “Oh no, do I have to go to that party? Dodie will be there and she’s awful”). I’m not sure how typical Dogsbody is of Dianna Wynne Jones’s books – I mostly liked it for the doggy bits!

      1. An interesting mix of books you’ve been reading. That’s an interesting idea – having Josephine Tey as the main character in the novel. I think it would have to be done with enormous skill for it to work. Christopher Isherwood very interesting on 1930s Berlin. He was perhaps a brittle talent but that very detached style works well in Goodbye to Berlin and Mr Norris Changes Trains. Congratulations and good luck with the film/TV options!

        1. I can’t say how accurate The Death of Lucy Kyte is when it comes to biographical details (the real Josephine Tey seemed to keep her life very private), but it worked really well for me as a novel. I really liked how the author handled the 1930s settings, too.

          And thanks about the film/TV!

        1. I’m actually reading Valerie Grove’s biography of Dodie Smith right now, and Dodie sounds completely awful! If it’s an accurate portrayal of her, Josephine must have been a very patient and long-suffering friend.

  2. Can I recommend Code Name Verity. It tells the interwoven stories of two British girls, an Air Transport pilot and a spy- sort of, during the second world war. It is incredible with lots of plot twits and ‘Aha’ moments that were absolutely brilliant. The tone used by the two narrators even sometimes reminded me of Sophie from the Montmaray Journals.

    1. I’ve read lots of glowing reviews of Code Name Verity and I’m glad you enjoyed it, although it sounds a bit too harrowing for me at the moment. I believe there’s a new, related book out, too, Rose Under Fire – have you read that?

  3. Yes, I have, though I still definitely prefer Code Name Verity. The companion novel is quite good, but I found Code Name Verity to be absolutely mind blowing, so it would be quite hard to match that.

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