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Posts tagged "books"

As promised in my last book review (on Deirdre Mask’s The Address Book), this time I’m reviewing Rita Mae Brown's mystery novel, Wish You Were Here. And while we’re getting started, I mustn’t neglect to mention that, in fact, Rita Mae Brown had a co-author on this book, Sneaky Pie Brown, a cat which condescends to share her living space!

Cover of Wish You Were Here

In my search for books about post, I’ve come across quite a few mysteries—including one by one of my favourite Golden Age crime writers, E.C.R. Lorac, which you can probably expect to see me review here sometime in the future. I try to select a range of different genres when I can, since I know that Postcrossers are a very diverse group with all kinds of interests… but nonetheless, the mysteries are compelling, and this book in particular got me thinking about why—but let me introduce it for a moment first!

Wish You Were Here is set in a post office, which gives the protagonist plenty of opportunity to snoop. The protagonist Harry is the postmistress, so she’s able to put two and two together when people start turning up murdered shortly after receiving mysterious postcards—a clue that the police would otherwise have missed.

That’s what I think is so appealing generally about using mail in some way in mystery stories. The things we write on our letters and postcards can be revealing of our personalities, and even addresses and postmarks can tell you a lot, even without peeking inside. The handwriting on the outside of an envelope can be the tiny telling detail that someone’s long lost auntie is about to make a triumphant return. In addition, postal workers can make a convenient witness, criminal, or provider of an alibi, or bring along the crucial evidence at just the right time.

In Harry’s case, the mystery is enlivened by interludes featuring cats, dogs, and other creatures, all sleuthing away at the mystery as well. For me, this was just a bit too cutesy; I’m not above anthropomorphising my own pets, but no matter how clever I tell them they are, my bunnies can barely sniff their way to their food bowls without great encouragement! I had difficulty with suspending my disbelief to imagine that a cat—even a clever cat—could reason out why someone might be the murderer… or that cats and dogs would talk amongst themselves exactly like humans do. That spoiled things a bit for me, though I think that touch of whimsy might be exactly what makes other people enthusiastic. Especially the pet-lovers amongst us!

I do love the idea of a postmistress being ideally placed to figure out a murder, all the same, and I got wrapped up enough in figuring out whodunnit that I finished the book in record time. I don’t think I’ll be continuing with the series, but it was an enjoyable read despite my doubts about our feline friends, and in this book at least, the postal system is pretty important, with threats/clues being delivered by mail, and Harry’s knowledge as the postmistress of Crozet giving her the information she needs to start working things out.

Don’t worry, I haven’t spoiled you on any of the clues, if this book sounds like your thing. There’s plenty still to discover in Crozet (especially judging from the number of books in this series).

Now that I’ve reviewed this one, I’ve promised plenty of times already that I’ll read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows), so I really better stick to it… and after that, who knows? E.C.R. Lorac’s Post After Post-Mortem is beckoning, but I’m hoping to find another non-fiction book to review first. There are a few on my wishlist, so watch this space!

Don’t forget, you can also make book suggestions to me in the forum thread I set up (you’ll need to be logged in to access it).

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I don’t know about you, but as a member of Postcrossing, I take having an address for granted. I hadn’t thought about life any other way, nor put a lot of thought into my various addresses over the years. In the end, what got me wondering about it was helping out at Postcrossing, checking people’s addresses to make sure they were correct and learning about how different countries format their addresses.

Cover of The Address Book

Just at the right moment to answer some of these questions, I came across Deirdre Mask’s The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power. Do any of her opening questions — the ones that led her into the subject to begin with — sound as familiar to you as they do to me?

I set out to write a letter. I was living in the west of Ireland, and I had sent a birthday card to my father in North Carolina. I pressed a stamp on the envelope, and just four days later the card appeared in my parents’ mailbox. I thought, not particularly originally, that this should have been much more expensive than it was. And how did Ireland and the United States share the proceeds? Is there some accountant in a windowless back room of the post office, dividing each penny between the two countries?

In case you’re wondering, Mask does include the answers to those questions!

It was pretty surprising to me how much there was to say about addresses, and how little I’d thought about it. Mask picks apart the advantages and disadvantages of having an address, and discusses how some people in areas without addresses actually oppose any change. For people in politically unstable areas, having an address can be a bad thing, because it makes you easier to find — and no one is likely to be sending you postcards!

On the other hand, it makes all kinds of things more difficult: most documents for proving your identity rely upon you having an address and a traceable history. You can end up barred from working, having a bank account and signing up for government services, and once you’ve got into that situation, it’s difficult to get out.

It’s also surprising to me how recent some of these conventions are. Zip codes in the US were only introduced in 1963, and reading in Mask’s book about their introduction prompted me to look up the system of postal codes in the UK, introduced between 1959 and 1974. They’re so ubiquitous now that I didn’t even realise my parents might not have had postal codes when growing up!

Mr Zip advert
This is an image from a March, 1965 issue of Time magazine in which Mr Zip appeared, advertising the introduction of zip codes (Time, March 19, 1965, 92, via the Smithsonian).

One issue that Mask discusses that was particularly relevant for me (since I’m studying for my MSc in Infectious Diseases) was the importance of clear maps and precise locations for epidemiology. Ever since John Snow (not that one, GoT fans!) made a map of London to track cholera infections, epidemiologists have used maps and addresses to try to identify the causes of infection and the sites of transmission. Sometimes they need to use addresses to contact people and do follow-up work… but often the people most at risk of diseases like tuberculosis are people who have no fixed address, or live in improvised homes and shantytowns. How do we find those people and help them access the long-term treatment they need, without addresses?

The book is packed with all kinds of dilemmas like that — many of which I really hadn’t thought about before picking it up. It was pretty eye-opening, and I won’t be taking my address for granted again! What do you think; will you be giving this book a try? Has anyone already read it? I’d love to hear what you thought of it, if so!

The next review should be about Wish You Were Here (by Rita Mae Brown and her cat), but after that, I’m not sure! The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society features high on the list, since several Postcrossing members have asked my thoughts on it. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s ready on my shelf! But is there something you’d like me to review? You can make book suggestions to me in the forum thread I set up (you’ll need to be logged in to access it).

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Cover of Griffin & Sabine

A while ago, I promised a review of Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine books. They’re one of the first suggestions people had for me when I said I wanted to start writing reviews of books that feature mail in some way, and they are completely gorgeous. Did you have pop-up books as a kid? Or any kind of books with pockets and things to discover? If you loved those, these are the adult version: some of the pages show postcards, carefully illustrated with stamps and all, while others have decorated envelopes stuck onto the page, with actual letters inside which you can carefully pull out, unfold, and read. The whole experience feels a little like a treasure hunt.

The original three books are not exactly weighty: I think I read all three in under an hour in total—but what an absorbed, fascinated hour! The story is mysterious, opening with a postcard from Sabine to Griffin:

Griffin Moss

It’s good to get in touch with you at last. Could I have one of your fish postcards? I think you were right – the wine glass has more impact than the cup.

Sabine Strohem

This seems a prosaic enough way to start: it looks like a simple enough postcard to an artist, after all. But Griffin writes back (on a postcard with the fish/wine glass image) in consternation. Does he know her? How does she know about the version with the cup? He never showed it to anyone…

Photo showing the text of Sabine's first postcard, and the image for Griffin's reply

It turns out that the two of them share a magical bond, and Sabine has been observing Griffin’s work from afar for quite some time. Their postcards and letters are a beautiful example of how correspondence—even without the correspondents knowing what the other even looks like—can create friendship and intimacy. Griffin and Sabine fall in love via their postcards and letters, and eventually make a plan to meet.

The story is both a love story and a fantastical mystery, and it’s both wonderful and frustrating because it’s told entirely through the medium of the postcards and letters they exchange. You have to fill in the gaps with your own imagination (think about how eagerly they each wait for their postcards!) and do a fair bit of puzzling yourself to imagine what they think as they’re writing the cards and letters. The mysteries never really get resolved (at least not in the original trilogy, though there are more books now), so if you need all the answers, then it might not be for you.

Personally, I didn’t need things to be wrapped up neatly, and I like being left with questions. The books are beautiful, and the reading experience is pretty unique, and even if we’ve never personally been mystically connected to someone we’re writing a letter to, I think we all know a little about the connections that putting pen to paper can forge!

I’m a little behind myself on writing up these reviews—reading the books is always the most fun part!—but I can promise that reviews of Deirdre Mask’s The Address Book (non-fiction about the importance of addresses) and Rita Mae Brown’s Wish You Were Here (a mystery led by a postmistress and her pets) should be coming soon. After that, I think it’s finally time for me to take the leap and read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which was another of the books that people immediately began recommending as soon as I asked for suggestions about epistolary novels and books involving mail. After that, who knows? If you’re on the forum, you can always make suggestions to me in the topic I set up.

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Hey everyone! It’s Nicky back again with a new book review. Last time I was talking about Sir Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, and this time (as promised at the end of the last post) I’m here to talk about Vigdis Hjorth's Long Live the Post Horn! I read it in the English translation by Charlotte Barslund: it’s a Norwegian novel centred around a woman who doesn’t really know what she wants from life or what she’s doing, until she finds a new purpose in protesting against a new EU directive which will change the Norwegian postal service.

Cover of Long Live The Post Horn!

I have to admit, I wasn’t a huge fan of this book. I think that’s mostly just personal taste: the translation is really readable, and it does really well at portraying a kind of dreamlike stream-of-consciousness narrative in which the main character, Ellinor, is drifting through life without doing anything of consequence. She’s not really connected to her job writing copy as a publicity consultant, she’s not really engaged with her relationships with her family or her boyfriend, and she doesn’t really know what the point of it all is. Hjorth manages to make that beautifully believable, to the point where I found it a little depressing to read myself. Once Ellinor’s inspired, her almost feverish activity comes through in the narrative as well.

Ellinor’s life is shaken up by the suicide of a member of her three-person publicity firm. She ends up having to take over one of his projects: the effort to persuade politicians and trade unions to protest against a new directive which will allow other companies to compete with the Norwegian postal service. At first they’re very pessimistic about the idea of getting people fired up about the issue, but a story about a dead letter which the postman finally manages to deliver makes her see the value in the campaign, and she manages to get her co-worker engaged with it as well. The second half(ish) of the book shows Ellinor reconnecting with the people around her as well, including trading confidences with her boyfriend, which led to one of my favourite bits:

“Sometimes when I don’t know what to do, ” he said, “I’ll write myself a letter.”

“Why? To support the Post Office?”

It was his turn to laugh.

“No, ” he said, “but when I express myself as if I’m not me, the words come to me, ” he said, “when I pretend I’m someone else, then I express myself more clearly and I send the letter to myself so I can see what I mean.” he said.

“Couldn’t you just write the letter, put it away and then take it out another time?”

“I’ve tried that, ” he said, “but it’s not the same. I have to do the whole thing, the envelope, the stamp, the post box, and then it really does work.”

Writing letters (and postcards!) is different, somehow, especially when you take the time to put it in an envelope and put a stamp on it—it’s all much more deliberate than sending an email, for instance. I’ve never tried sending myself a proper letter, but I can see how it might work!

I can see this book working really well for a lot of readers; for me, it’s just not entirely my cup of tea. Still, it’s always interesting to try something new, and I was especially interested because I don’t think I’ve read any contemporary Norwegian fiction before.

Cover of Griffin & Sabine

I recently read Nick Bantock’s Griffin & Sabine, and I’m hoping to review the first trilogy for my next post. After that… I’m still hoping to find some non-fiction about mail/postal services. I think Deirdre Mask’s The Address Book is close enough in theme, so a review for that should be coming up soon as well. It’s all about the history of street names and addresses, and what they can tell us about local history and politics, and I really liked it, so I’ll probably write that up soon!

If you have any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them; feel free to leave a comment here, send me a message, or drop a note in the forum thread if anything comes to mind!

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Hi folks! I’m back again with another of my book reviews. Last time I was discussing Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road… and now it’s time for something completely different. As promised, I picked up Sir Terry Pratchett's Going Postal, a book from his Discworld series which stands alone.

Cover of Going Postal

Going Postal's main character is Moist van Lipwig, a con artist given the “option” of turning over a new leaf and breathing life back in Ankh-Morpork’s postal service, which means we start the book with his “execution”, and it takes a while to get round to the post office part. Once it does, the results are a little dismaying for those of us hooked on sending postcards: mail hasn’t been delivered for years, and mostly lies around in heaps in the building, threatening avalanches and blocking off rooms. Moist clearly has his work cut out for him.

As with most of Pratchett’s work, Going Postal is full of humour: that kind of humour that hits the nail on the head. Take this quote about librarians:

People flock in, nevertheless, in search of answers to those questions only librarians are considered to be able to answer, such as “Is this the laundry?” “How do you spell surreptitious?” and, on a regular basis, “Do you have a book I remember reading once? It had a red cover and it turned out they were twins.”

Having worked in a community library for a while, I can tell you that you really don’t go long before you get asked questions like that!

I never really got into the Discworld books before I read Going Postal, but it turned out that what everyone kept telling me was true: sometimes, you just have to find the right book to start with. For me, that was this book, with Moist and the golems and the gargantuan task of not only getting the post back up and running, but also fulfilling some prophecies, avoiding assassination, keeping Lord Vetinari happy, and winning some pretty epic bets. The postal service is at the heart of Going Postal, as you’d expect, and Pratchett’s very conscious of how important those connections between people are, even amidst his humour.

I have to admit that some of the scenes got a little too into the slapstick end of humour for me: there’s an initiation for Moist as a proper postman, once he’s persuaded people to come back and start posting letters, and it relies on things like Moist falling over random items (because postmen end up falling over things in the line of duty, like rollerskates left lying around). It’s a bit heavy-handed at times… but there’s a lot of the intelligent humour that comes from playing with words or saying things which are true in a funny way, too. Moist is a scoundrel, but he grows on you—I found myself really wanting to know how Moist would figure things out and get the mail delivered.

Overall, I’m glad I decided to read this! I’m pretty sure I’ll read Making Money (another Discworld book featuring Moist) in the near future.

Cover of Long Live The Post Horn!

That said, my next review for this blog will be a review of the English translation of Long Live the Post Horn! by Vigdis Hjorth (translated by Charlotte Barslund). As ever, I’d love to hear more suggestions for books I should read. I’ve recently picked up Nick Bantock’s Griffin & Sabine and its sequels, so I’ll be reviewing them soon… but after that, I’d particularly like to read some non-fiction about mail/postal services/postcards. I have a few ideas, but it’d be great to hear yours as well—let me know via the comments to this post, send me a message, or drop a note in the forum thread if anything comes to mind!

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