Review – Clouds of Witness

Clouds of Witness (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries No.2) – Dorothy L. Sayers

Chivers Press, 1988

Originally published 1927

It has been a source of much embarrassment to Gerald, Duke of Denver, that his younger brother, Lord Peter Wimsey, can’t help dabbling in detection. When their soon-to-be brother-in-law is discovered dead, however, and suspicion falls heavily on Gerald, a detective in the family is suddenly urgently necessary. Lord Peter must read between the lines of each witness’s testimony to discover the truth of what happened…even if he increasingly doubts that he wants to know the truth.

I find it difficult to separate the period-typical issues of an old book from the story itself. That was a particular problem reading Clouds of Witness because chunks of the plot required you to see certain things are either acceptable or unalterable, and both left me very frustrated. As such I’ve included a spoilery trigger warning in the paragraph below. The actual mystery is intriguing, if a bit messy, but the ending didn’t make an enormous amount of sense. The Lord Peter series continues with Unnatural Death.

(SPOILER: This book contains a domestic violence situation and a completely inadequate reaction from the protagonist. It may be true to social norms of the 1920s that Lord Peter doesn’t get involved until he wants something from the woman in question, and that he then expects her to risk life and limb in order to assist his brother, but it made me like him considerably less than I did before and may be very triggery for some readers.)

Review – A Table in the Orchard

A Table in the Orchard: My Delicious Life – Michelle Crawford

Ebury Press, 2015

A lifelong fantasy of moving to the country and living off the land comes true for Michelle Crawford and her family when they trade in Sydney for Tasmania’s Huon Valley. Determined to grow as much of their own food as possible, and even make a profit from it if they can, Michelle sets to work with a will on transforming their farmhouse into the home of her dreams. Such an undertaking will take all the time, money and energy that can be thrown at it…but the way there is worth it.

I expected more a memoir, less of a cookbook. Michelle Crawford goes into a lot of detail about the process of creating her kitchen, garden, orchard and side businesses, but not many day-to-day anecdotes and the word ‘vintage’ was used with startling frequency. However, the photographs generously scattered through the book are delightful, the recipes look delicious, and anyone planning a tree change couldn’t help but be inspired by Crawford’s experiences.

Review – Whose Body?

Whose Body? (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries No.1) – Dorothy L. Sayers
New English Library, 1989
Originally published in 1923

If there is such a thing as a respectable corpse, the one found by unassuming architect Mr Thipps is certainly the opposite: a naked stranger in a bath. At first suspected to be a missing financier, the body remains stubbornly nameless. To Lord Peter Wimsey, a wealthy young nobleman with a hobby of detecting, it’s the kind of puzzle dreams are made of. As he delves deeper into the case, however, ugly truths begin to fit together. This isn’t a game any more to Wimsey, but there’s someone out there who disagrees, and is very determined to win.

My mother having encountered and adored the Lord Peter Wimsey books last year, I decided to try them too. Sayers was a contemporary to Agatha Christie and the books have a few things in common: their characters’ easy callousness regarding murder for one, and of course the rich, elegant setting of 1920s London. There’s a wince-worthy vein of anti-Semitism through this book, though not one actually condoned by the narrative. Sayers writes with rather more description than Christie and has a light, playful turn of phrase, but handles darker angles well – there’s a very sympathetic portrayal of shell-shock, for instance – and the construction of the crime was masterful, if a bit laboured at the end. The Lord Peter Wimsey series continues with Clouds of Witness.

Review – The Sword in the Stone

The Sword in the Stone (The Once and Future King No.1) – T.H. White

HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2008

Originally published in 1938

Growing up in the castle of the Forest Sauvage, the boy known as the Wart and his foster brother Kay are expected to learn about everything from literature and geography to hawking and swordplay. One day the Wart loses a hawk and finds a tutor – and the wizard Merlyn, it turns out, takes an unconventional approach to teaching. He’d rather turn the Wart into a bird than explain the anatomy of one, and prefers going to see a real giant rather than just hearing stories. But the biggest adventure of all is one the Wart could never have imagined.

This is the first book in T.H. White’s classic children’s series, which somehow I completely missed reading while growing up. Since I am researching Arthuriana this year for Ladies of Legend, it seemed a good time to read The Sword in the Stone. For some reason I didn’t expect it to be quite so silly – it took me a little while to fall into T.H. White’s world, but his breezily cheerful anachronisms and adorably ridiculous cast of characters made it easy to see why The Sword in the Stone is so beloved. There is a bit of racism, mostly the casual use of outdated terminology in a patronising or parochial way – including one very weird distortion of the word ‘Ethiopian’ in a totally inappropriate context – but the story was considerably less sexist than I expected.

The series continues with The Witch in the Wood. I’m undecided on whether I’ll keep reading – it’s hard to see how you could sidestep the bloody baggage of the legends, making them child-friendly, and still keep the spirit of them – but at the same time, I admit I’d kind of like to see him try.

Review – I Work At A Public Library

I Work at a Public Library – Gina Sheridan

Adams Media, 2014

Life as a librarian is anything but quiet. From helping to find the right book to explaining the intricacies of the digital world, dealing with bizarre questions (“did someone hand in a wetsuit?”) and handling confrontational patrons (“I insist you read it. Insist!”), this collection of true anecdotes from library staff proves it takes a lot of diplomacy – not to mention a good poker face – to stand behind the counter.

I Work at a Public Library is a short assortment of stories from various libraries, but mostly focused on U.S. librarian Gina Sheridan’s experiences. As an Australian, some anecdotes didn’t entirely make sense to me, but most of it was funny and all too believable. Sheridan blogs more stories on her Tumblr here.

Ladies of Legend: Baba Yaga

References: Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, A Book of Enchantments and Curses (Magnet Paperback, 1985) by Ruth Manning-Sanders, Magicians and Fairies (Dragon’s World, 1995) by Robert Ingpen and Molly Perham, The Complete Book of Witches and Wizards (Carlton Books Ltd, 2007) by Tim Dedopulos, The Kingfisher Book of Mythology: Gods, Goddesses and Heroes from Around the World (Kingfisher, 1998) edited by Cynthia O’Neill, Peter Casterton and Catherine Headlam, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin, Russian Fairy Tales (Hamlyn, 1975) translated by Vera Gissing

Let’s talk about witches. Specifically, let us talk about the one who can out-witch them all, Russias’s incomparable Baba Yaga. Also known as Baba Iaga, Baba Jaga,  Bonylegs or Bonyshanks, Jezda in Poland and Jazi Baba in the Czech Republic, she appears as a skeletal old woman with stone or iron teeth and lives in the deep forest, in a house that moves around on chicken legs, surrounded by a fence of human bones. Depending on the version you choose, she either travels abroad in a cauldron with a broom to sweep away her tracks or (this is the one I like) in a flying mortar and pestle. According to The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies, she guards the Fountain of Life – The Kingfisher Book of Mythology has it that she guards a gate to the spirit world. In Ruth Manning-Sanders’ A Book of Enchantments and Curses, she is served by three knights who personify (or may actually be) dawn, the rising sun and dark night. Whatever her true occupation, Baba Yaga is fearsome.

She is also highly unpredictable. In some stories she is a child-eating, curse-wielding hag of the most traditionally evil type. Others show a more complicated character. In Hamlyn’s Russian Fairy Tales she shows up in ‘Ivan and the Princess Blue-Eyes’ with a metal nose and a soft spot for questing princes. She lends Prince Ivan her own cloak and story-telling cat, offers him advice on how best to get his father’s stolen eyes back, provides magical artefacts to help him escape the terrifying Blue-Eyes on his return journey and even delays the princess with a bath to give him more time.

In ‘Vasilissa Most Lovely’, from A Book of Enchantments and Curses, a young girl is sent to Baba Yaga’s cottage by her vicious stepmother and stepsisters on the pretext of fetching a light. Of course they hope she will be eaten, but Vasilissa is protected by a magical doll that completes all the impossible tasks Baba Yaga sets for her. Refusing to eat a blessed child, Baba Yaga sends Vasilissa home with a glowing skull lantern, which promptly eats up the unlucky stepfamily.

Sometimes, Baba Yaga just cruel. In a story from Magicians and Fairies, she gives a prince a ring and promises that the girl who can wear it is the one he must marry – but the only girl it fits is his sister Catherine. Ignoring Catherine’s frantic protests, Prince Danila Govorila sets about preparing for a wedding. Fortunately, other elderly women come to the rescue. They advise Catherine to make four small dolls and place one in each corner of her room. When she is called to the bridal chamber, the dolls start singing and the princess falls through the earth into an underground realm where, you will be astonished to learn, she encounters a certain chicken-legged hut. There she meets a beautiful girl who is embroidering a tablecloth. The girl is Baba Yaga’s daughter, a quiet rebel in the gruesome household. Instead of turning her guest over to her mother, the young witch transforms Catherine into a needle. The next day the two girls work on the tablecloth together and Baba Yaga’s daughter manages to hide her new friend for a second night, but on the third day the witch comes home early and catches them.

Catherine won’t die easily. When Baba Yaga puts her on a shovel and tries to push her into the oven, Catherine twists around at such awkward angles that Baba Yaga loses patience and sits on the shovel to show her how it’s done. The girls promptly pull a Gretel, knocking her all the way in. Then her daughter collects a few necessities and they flee. Of course, the oven doesn’t hold Baba Yaga for long – but by throwing down a magic brush they put a marsh behind them, then a comb becomes a forest, and when they throw down the embroidered tablecloth it becomes a sea of fire. The story insists that Baba Yaga falls and burns there, but personally I don’t believe it. Anyway, Prince Danila Govorila comes to his senses and marries the witch’s daughter, whose name appears to be Vasilissa too; Catherine marries an unidentified ‘good man’ and none of them are ever troubled by Baba Yaga again.

Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies offers a quote from one unnamed folkloric commentator: “Baba Yaga hails from the place where fear and wisdom meet, she straddles the gap between life and death and holds the secrets of both.” Her true intentions are always difficult to quantify, but one thing is certain. She is never a woman to be crossed.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!