The Town Major of Miraucourt by J.B. Priestley – A Shiny New Books Review

Another Shiny New Books Review from Yours Truly! This time an unusual little book, but a fascinating insight into the last days of the First World War. See   for  lots more!

Of course, you will find lots more book reviews at Shiny New Books – a few hours worth at least!

To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD.Wallace A History of American Heiresses

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This American book, reprinted in 2012, is a comprehensive history of rich American girls, heiresses sometimes known as ‘dollar princesses’, who came to England to marry into the British aristocracy. This practice, which mainly occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, has been immortalised in fiction several times, most notably (as mentioned on the cover) in television’s Downton Abbey. The girls, brought up in a strict American society which had more rules, customs and conventions than imaginable today, were the product of a relatively small number of families with great fortunes. Not all the money was expected to go to the male heirs as in Britain; if the daughters found an impecunious but titled man to marry, he got the use of her money, she got the title for life and her children. The book is subtitled “Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery”, but the delicately minded need not fear; there is little sex.

The format of this book, a large paperback, at first suggests that there will not be much detail as each page opening features pictures and information boxes. This is not the case as the layout allows a lot of information to be packed into this book, which begins in 1860 with the visit of Albert, Prince of Wales. The book describes the tightly organised Knickerbocker families before going on to list the attractions of the London Season and the lure of British society. The Buccaneers braved the rigid rules of Society and married the young men whose estates and houses were financially embarrassed but who had a title to offer. Well known brides like Jennie Churchill and Consuelo Marlborough are featured as their sometimes unhappy stories are recorded. The less well known brides, in Britain at least, are also included with their trials and tribulations. This book takes us from the first brides through to the mistresses of King Edward VII, the trials of providing a male heir and spare, illustrated with maps and handy guides to the ranks of the aristocracy.

The early part of the book was not quite so interesting to me, as there is a great deal about the intricacies of American society and the power struggles and jealousies of the powerful women of the day. Later there is a lot of information about the marriages I have heard of before, even the excessive parties which have become legendary. There is a huge amount of information to be found in this book, especially when the Directory or Register of American Heiresses is added at the end. A Walking Tour of London is also featured with a Bibliography and Index. An immense amount of research has obviously gone into this book, and it would form an invaluable resource for writers and some academics. By no means a quick read, this is an exhaustive study of the subject of the girls who were persuaded to marry a title, at literally any cost, whether from affection or arrangement.  Yet it is readable and always interesting with its unusual format.

This is quite an old book, but I picked it up in November 2016 at Knole. It is a lovely book, and if I was aiming to write a book or study of this period and Anglo American marriages, it would be a fantastic starting point. It shows I read a wide variety of books…eventually!

Crime de Luxe – A Benvenuto Brown Mystery by Elizabeth Gill – Classic Mystery

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This 1933 book, recently reprinted by Dean Street Press, is full of surprises, deceit and even, for Benvenuto Brown, a hint of romance. There are only three books by this author, and this final novel shows her skill at dealing with an enclosed community in which the murderer is undoubtedly trapped. The creation of characters is as usual with this author very strong, as both men and women emerge as fully rounded with distinct mannerisms. Theories and world views are introduced and explored, as various nationalities and beliefs emerge. Gill’s well managed story pits her amateur detective against enough suspects to be fascinating as he tries to unravel the events on board a liner ploughing through the seas towards America. He does not seek out crime, but when it becomes obvious to him that at least one has been committed he will not relax until the culprit or culprits have been found.

When Benvenuto first boards Atalanta, the luxurious liner, he is contemplating a five day cruise finishing in New York. He is enjoying the people watching though there are those who are difficult to place; when he meets Miss Smith he is unsure what her history may be in her uncertainty. When she is killed he looks around him for suspects, some of whom are easily seen as involved, others less likely. A touching discovery in her luggage increases his determination to reveal the truth, even if it means suspecting the attractive Ann or involving himself in questioning the unlikable Lord Stoke. Strange events and even stranger motives emerge as further dangers emerge. While Benvenuto almost enjoys the challenge, he is wary of various people and amazed at some of the people who appear to have much to hide. Comparisons are made between America and Britain, political systems and marital fidelity. Yet the story never lags as Gill has set a strict five day timetable for mysteries to be solved and justice to be asserted, and she pours action and characterisation into each part of the novel.

This is an excellent read for those fans of Golden Age detection who enjoy developed, complex characters. The isolation of the murder scene means that eventually the guilty will be identified and the situation will be resolved, though there seems to be some doubt whether these things can take place within the short time before the ship docks. Benvenuto has little time to take stock or to examine his own motives for investigation; he is a constant active presence given his amateur status. Gill’s eye for detail is unfailing as she describes clothing, facial expressions and the slightest turn of speech which may define guilt or innocence. It is an enjoyable book in which the women characters are more than just passing illustrations of the narrative. I found this book maintained its tension much better as everything took place in a spacious but limited territory, as I felt her previous book was a little confusing with its many locations.  As always, Dean Street press have chosen a really good example of the genre and I am grateful for a review copy to appreciate a talented author.


Fire on the Mountain by Jean McNeil – an experience!

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This is an unusual book. Rarely have I read a book which conveys so well the sense of a place that I have no experience of, conveys the sounds, heat, even the smells until I am completely convinced that I have been there! The desert, the lush vegetation of different parts of Africa becomes sometimes frightening and real in this book as the setting comes alive in all its threat and danger, and a fair bit of discomfort. There are also the characters; Nick, adrift in a world which he normally copes with so well, Pieter, angry author, Riaan, whose life view is unique as a result of his experiences. This moving, intelligent book presents a very different view of life on the edge in many ways.

Nick is a man who has seen much of the world in its extremes. He has changed careers to become a logistics manager for a NGO, rushing to the scenes of disasters and events where there is massive threat to life. He feels that he is difficult to shock, essentially in control, able to predict what will happen and crucially what to do about it. Suddenly he finds himself adrift in an amazing place, of beauty and scenery almost beyond description. He turns up on the doorstep of an unknown couple, a tenuous link means that he has never met Pieter and Sara before they generously offer him a flat and more in terms of companionship, largely as almost another son. When their son Riaan turns up for Christmas, he introduces so much uncertainty, yet so much attraction, Nick is alternatively mesmerised and angry. Riaan becomes more demanding and emotionally challenging, Nick discovers so much more not only about this strange young man but also about himself. There are flashbacks as he recalls people in his rootless past, and he questions everything he has ever experienced. A perilous journey has many implications for Nick and others, as life changing revelations occur.

This is a book of contrasts and challenges for the characters. I was disappointed that the women are a little one dimensional and quickly withdraw in the face of men’s conversations and experiences. Sara, Tanya and the other women mentioned in Nick’s past are not really developed as individuals. I really enjoyed the descriptions of the landscapes and the buildings within them, the concept of the mountain on the edge of the sea, the bleakness of a desert with no touch of modern developments. I had not appreciated that such vast landscapes existed and were not more tamed. The writing is intense and self consciously meaningful; McNeil is sometimes seemingly striving to keep the melodrama in check, as experience piles on events. This is not so much a book to enjoy as experience, it is a powerful comment on landscape and people within it. I was grateful to receive a review copy of this book, and recommend it for its strong view of men within a world which is almost alien in its strangeness.

Well, there is certainly a variety of books on this blog! “From Africa to Angela Thirkell”  Sounds like an intriguing Phd title!

Desire by Una Siberrad on Shiny New Books – a review by Northernreader!

Today I have a review on Shiny New Books – a 1908 book just reprinted by Handheld Press – “Desire” by Una Siberrad . It is an amazing book for its time, a “New Woman” with advanced ideas personified in Desire, a young woman with advanced ideas. Her determination and independence from a background of idle wealth is unusual at any time, especially in the Edwardian setting of this novel. You can find it and hundreds of other book reviews on the Shiny new books site.   (just click the link)


Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy – a beautiful, rich read of reality.

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This is a powerful book. Not necessarily because of the story, because in many ways it is very simple. The setting is mundane, the action is minimal. The strength of this book comes in the word pictures it contains, the characters it portrays in all their humanity. Not many writers could pull half of this novel off; its realism is painful because it is so true. Kennedy uses a style which is partly modern, but also partly traditional. This is not a stream of consciousness novel, but there are points when the reader is confronted by the inner thoughts of the two main characters in such an intimate way that it reveals far more than such methods would do in less competent hands. This novel does so much to unsettle the reader, but it is a compulsive read.

This novel follows twenty four hours in the life of two people, Meg Williams and Jon Sigurdsson. Meg is a disturbed alcoholic, sober after much effort, understanding something of why she has sought comfort in drink. She is shown going from an appointment to work, café to walking around. She is waiting for a meeting, using or wasting time being around various points in London. Jon is a high ranking civil servant, seen as successful in managing crisis, understanding the negative side of political manoeuvres, but sees himself as a failure at life. He is seen at his ex wife’s flat, his office, and like Meg, in flash backs to childhood. They both meet people, sit in pubs and rooms, travelling in realisation of what is going on in their lives. Interspersed with this progress are short scenes, described people, on tube trains, buses around London. People behaving in unusual but mainly positive ways, finding joy in small games, children’s cleverness, attachment to pets. Some of these pictures are emotionally charged, others just speaking of the joy of life, touched with a little fear. Nothing dramatic happens; they are descriptions without climax, without context or explanation. They cover life in London, or wherever people are gathered. They contribute to the whole, the richness of this novel.

This is a book which frequently made me stop and think, despite the mundane subjects, because it was so deeply felt. Though I read it slowly, it took time to digest, cope with the richness of the writing. Like “Paradise”, one of Kennedy’s other novels which I reviewed for Shiny New Books  some time ago, this is difficult to read in some ways. It is also reassuring as a read that others notice what they are wearing, their surroundings, asking about the point of life. In a way it is a comfort read, a slice of life. Kennedy writes unnervingly well of daily life as it is lived; this book is full of insight and is to be recommended.

There is probably only a handful/ very small snowman’s worth of snow here now, and it all seems very far away! Still, I finished a few books, wrote a few posts, oh, and did some work as well! Here’s hoping that the weather with you is improving, and that you are enjoying some signs of spring!

Fire in the Thatch by E.C.R. Lorac – a British Library Crime Classic featuring country life

Sometimes with a murder mystery the location is central to the story; it gives depth and sometimes even clues to the central questions. This book is subtitled “A Devon Mystery”, and the setting in the West Country becomes more important throughout the book, as country ways, the contrast with London attitudes and even the geography of the countryside becomes relevant to the investigation by Lorac’s detective, Inspector Macdonald. This latest book in the highly successful British Library Crime Classic reprint series fulfils all the promise of Lorac’s other novel in the set, “Bats in the Belfrey”. It is a clever novel if only because for much of the time it is not always certain that there is a crime, and certainly the solving of it is far from straightforward.

The novel opens with a tense problem for some of the characters, as Colonel St Cyres tries to avoid his daughter in law, June. She is living with him and his daughter Anne for the duration of the war, in which time this book is set. His son, Denis, is a prisoner of war, and June is an unwilling guest with her small son in order to save money despite her regret at missing life in the society of London. She is hoping that one of her friends, Tom Gressingham, will be able to rent an adjoining cottage and land, but her father in law has other ideas. He has heard of a naval officer invalided out of the service, Nicholas Vaughan, in search of a cottage and the opportunity to farm a small amount of land. When the Colonel meets Vaughan he is most impressed by his sensible plans and determination to transform the long neglected cottage, a project he soon embarks on. Vaughan is a man who appreciates solitude, despite Gressingham, his friends, Brendon and Radcliffe, and June all criticising his lack of involvement. The death of Vaughan, though trailed on the back of the book, took me by surprise, as it is introduced in a clever and novel way, when Wilton, his fellow officer seeks a clarification of what happened. Macdonald arrives in Devon and meets the extremely competent Bolton and together they establish the confusing facts of the case.

This novel depends greatly on the local inhabitants who are slow to welcome newcomers, but are impressed by Vaughan’s industry and commitment to the land. In contrast the Londoners are brash and convinced that their money will buy everything. The evacuee, Alf, is a standout character with his intelligent interest in cars and keenness to help.  Anne, the Colonel’s daughter, is a quiet but eloquent witness who enables the investigation to proceed out of her regard for Vaughan. These and other characters helped to maintain my considerable interest in this novel. This is a confident, well written book in which small details are investigated to great effect, and the setting is carefully explored as the truth is exposed gradually and carefully. Later events are shocking, but well within the reasonable range of the mystery. It is a cleverly constructed novel, not only in terms of guilt but in how the situation developed where murder is likely. The introduction by Martin Edwards explains who Lorac was and how prolific she was in the writing of detection novels.  I do hope that more of her novels are reprinted as they are well written and most enjoyable.

I am so glad that I was able to track down a copy of this book; it was a really good read over a short period of time as I enjoyed it so much. Roll on the next Crime Classic!