Back to Work – with an old mystery…

So I’ve been away again with no online connection, and let my blog drift. Most unprofessional. Just when I had got a few people in the habit of looking at this bizarre mix of books as well. Still, jaunting done for a bit, so I hope to be a bit more dedicated to the cause.And maybe even do some more regular posts…

Still, Son Two behaving himself at University, and even doing some work. Have discovered a book token type card that I can top up in any bookshop and he can use at any bookshop to buy expensive textbooks. It means I can effectively buy him his books without being present, and he tells me that they don’t accept it in pubs….It also means that I have a top up card at home, whereas he has a matching piece of plastic in whichever Northern town he happens to be in…. the wonders of modern technology.Look it up under “Student Book Card” at . Thank you Daughter and her Bookshop Flatmate for the idea.

Anyway, lecture over. A book read while I was away

Patricia Wentworth was a contemporary of the Great Agatha, and like her often writes about an elderly woman detective. On the evidence of this novel The Traveller Returns by Patricia Wentworth these are less cosy murder mysteries, set during the Second World War. This novel features the mysterious Anne Jocelyn, believed killed in Occupied France, but now suddenly returned. Those closest to her are confused about her true identity, but secrets are disclosed that seem that only one answer is possible. It is only when Miss Silver, that redoubtable lady knitting away, encounters a doomed lady on a train that the stakes, already emotionally high, get even higher in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Is Anne who she claims to be? Could she be an obscure cousin? A satisfactory conclusion seems elusive as Miss Silver tries to convince more than one person that murder with a cause has been committed.

This is a good, if a bit dated, murder mystery. Ideal for those who have read a lot of Christie (or watched it on the tv ) and want something a little more challenging in terms of plot and motive, but with the same sort of background. This is not a modern gory thriller, but well written and with some interesting twists. Easier to read than the Campion books (for hardcore historical mystery readers only, unless you watch the dvd box set with the lovely Peter Davidson in), but tougher than Christie, this is an ideal book for the roaring fire, chocolate/alcohol evening in. This book is probably best read in quite a short time, as it is pretty complex, unless you can keep everything in mind. A quick check on a certain website suggests that there are many of her books out there which can be acquired quite cheaply. But don’t blame me if you get hooked…

A Bookshop, a Book Quarterly and royal madness

So, Son One and I went to see “The Madness of King George” Alan Bennett’s play now back on tour, even unto the Frozen North. It was a very confident production, with impressive acting and doubling up of parts. The latter was impressive as I remember the film version of the play being well populated and not many companies can run to a huge cast on tour. The parts of the King, Pitt and the Page were well played. Sadly, while I spent best part of four years looking at the literature of the period, my political history is a little less secure. Despite this I still enjoyed the production, including some relevant jokes about needing five years to restore the Nation’s economy! It did go on a bit after the King was restored in order to tie up all the loose ends and people, and to balance up the fact that the episode only lasted 6 months. Unfortunately the play started at 8pm and was long, so finished late. And the North felt particularly Frozen that night! If the production appears near you, it’s worth watching, but wrap up warmly!

On The Dabbler Website the is a feature of 1p book reviews. I confess to a passion for the concept of buying books for 1p (plus postage) online, especially as I’m not getting to independent bookshops at the moment. It is often also possible to buy them from charities, including Oxfam, which sort of helps justify my impulse buys.

One of these buys has been Penelope Fitzgerald’s “The Bookshop”.

This is best described as a long short story, rather than a novel, and to be honest starts really well then goes into a bit of a decline. It is set in a fictional Suffolk coastal town, which is very well described, and a book loving widow is the central character. Florence decides to set up a bookshop, which meets with some local opposition. She is invited to a party in order for the local lady of the manor to inform her that the shop building is actually required as an arts centre, and that she should open her shop elsewhere. There are encounters with the local children,a recluse and even the “rapper”, a poltergeist.

My quibble with this book is that it is too short. There are some super characters, well set up and established, and some promising situations developing, when the book suddenly fades away. While the resolution of the novel, such as it is, rather disappoints, I just think that it was a shame not to explore some more of the potential avenues opened up in this book. The underhand tactics employed to disrupt her business would be worth exploring, as would the unusual assistants she acquires. The best selling book is mentioned, but its implications are ignored. I really enjoyed most of this book, but felt let down by the ending. I would certainly like to read more by this author, and hope that the next book would be longer and the story more developed.  Any suggestions of other Fitzgerald recommendations?

And finally, if you are not totally devoted to the emergence of new novels, a worthwhile read is “Slightly Foxed” , a quarterly journal of book reviews. None of the books are recent, though most are within living memory. Some are out of print, and consequently may take a bit of tracking down, but all the articles are worth reading in their own right. Many of the books recommended are happy books, but all of them have stood the tests of time and memory. Some reviewers write about the authors themselves, and many interesting stories emerge. It is worth a look at, and this book magazine at least doesn’t have to be read within a month to get the best value. These books are not fashionable and will not date…

Good historical fiction – politics, religion, romance and paintings!

Theatre time this week. With Daughter to see the RSC’s Anthony and Cleopatra at the Theatre Royal. The Production itself was very good; very well staged, impressive effects, excellent costumes. We did agree, though, that the casting of Cleopatra was at best, described as “brave”, at worse misguided. The dear lady seemed to be without allure, without much appeal, and crucially, insufficient presence to make any one give up an empire. “A bit whiny” said Daughter, as Cleo nagged Anthony into action. Anthony’s attempt at suicide provoked actual laughter from the audience, which wasn’t completely deserved, but it was a little unconvincing. Tonight “The Madness of King George”. Comments to come!

Today’s book is not the best known, but excellent.

Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett

This is not just another Henry VIII wife, mistress, servant book. It is about Meg Giggs, an adopted daughter of Thomas More, Hans Holbein who painted pictures of the More family, and the mysterious John Clement. This not just a book about the rise, decline and death of More, but features the importance to him of his family and friends, and his control of so many situations even when his influence was under attack. It is about the religious dangers to both sides of the Catholic/Protestant debate; the signs and illness associated with the King’s determination to marry Anne Boleyn, the secrecy and danger faced by those under persecution. Holbein’s paintings are explained, including his Ambassadors picture with all its symbolism.

At the centre of the book is the character of Meg, who faces the challenge of being in the More family, being loved by two men, and trying to understand the challenges of politics, religion and medicine in a very realistically drawn London in 1527. She comes over as a real person, drawn into the big issues of the day. Her relationship with John Clement has implications not only for her, but for the politics of a nation.

This is not a dry historical account of a complicated period of history, but it is well researched and solid in its facts. It is a novel of romance, but also family loves and concerns, described in all their complexity.It introduces well known characters, but describes them all in their faults and strengths. I really enjoyed it, despite the fact I have been reading Tudor novels for years, because it brought out so many new elements of the period. I know that I strongly recommended the The Captive Queen a while ago as a really good read, and this book is also very strong, set in a better known period. If you are at all interested in historical fiction, this is an excellent example.

A Newcastle Book

When we first moved “Up North” I was interested to read any books which gave me a clue about what life here was like. I did read “Wife In the North” by Judith O’Reilly which was interesting and relevant to my situation to an extent, but found the fact that it was a collection of blogs meant that it was repetitive (she kept running out of petrol) and a little negative in terms of her experience of the local school. The last chapter is, however, incredibly sad, and should not be read by anyone less than emotionally one hundred per cent.

A more literary effort, but frankly brutal in places, is Crusaders, by Richard T. Kelly, a novel about an idealistic young priest, John Gore, who comes to live in Newcastle in 1996.

It follows his progress, or problems, and experiences in his endeavors to attract people to a new inner city church. Some of the local characters become instantly recognizable, others are more extreme, and it is an interesting examination of the problems of living and working in a challenging role in a particular and convincing setting. This is the part of the book which works for me best, although it is ultimately frustrating in many ways.

The other strand of the book is the story of Stevie, whose chosen life style takes him into the somewhat gritty parts of the North East. He becomes a local operator in the less salubrious parts of the area, and this is the part of the book which is much less readable for many reasons. The language is strong, the violence brutal, but sadly, has a ring of some realism to it. I do not know how representative is is of life then or now, but it is a challenging read.

I thought that this was a well written and worthwhile book. I would not recommend it to everyone, but if you can tolerate the basic bits, it is a fascinating picture of life, faith and real life in the North East in the Nineties.

Joules’ Happy Books

I’m still trying to post about books that make me happier, or at least do not fill the innocent reader with doom and gloom. I have just received, as in, I know that they are in the house, but can’t rip into the package until my birthday, the Booker shortlist. I watched The Review Programme on Friday night with Birthday Son (19 today!) and must admit that they didn’t seem that jolly. Well, I have read The Long Song and that was overall quite positive, especially given the subject matter. Will post on that after birthday.

Back to my happy books. Well, an absolute superstar author in my view is PG Wodehouse.

And this is my current book. It is actually one on the Blandings books, which record the daft events at Blandings Castle, home of Lord Emsworth and his pampered prizewinning pig, the Empress of Blandings. Although  there are farcical misunderstandings, broken romances, attempted pig poisoning, I know that it will all end happily with even those suspicious characters only receiving their comeuppance with discomfort. Being a big fan of Jeeves and Wooster I usually watch the Fry and Laurie version when ever it appears on tv, if only because they were my (much older-ish) contemporaries Cambridge many, many years ago. Wodehouse books do not contain death, only minimal domestic destruction, and have some brilliantly funny characters. Not easy to convey in a few quotes, but worth reading the books for, even if the plot goes in for great complications. True romance always survives, and nobody ever goes seriously hungry or abandoned. Any Wodehouse book or collection of short stories will do: he produced ninety nine including a number concerning golf, which I have no knowledge or interest in, but have greatly enjoyed.

When reading other book blogs, including the brilliant www., they often ponder what makes a book readable when others seem unapproachable or just downright miserable.  I do read Jane Austen, Georgette H and others, but the real mood lifters are the Wodehouse books. I’ve probably got a few left to go….

Private Battles – a serious read

I mentioned this book in a post a little while ago. Private Battles by Simon Garfield is a serious book, but a very enjoyable one nonetheless. Compiled from four diaries maintained throughout the Second World War on the Home Front, this is the true, day to day experiences of four very different people. It is the result of the work of Mass Observation, which has been collecting  the diaries of people throughout Britain. Other books from the same source, and featuring some of the same diarists, are Our Hidden Lives and We Are At War.  While I appreciate that they are not everyone’s cup of tea, the format of keeping to a small number of diarists means that a picture emerges of each individual.  I enjoy these books precisely because they are individuals, and amid all the international changes and pressures we can read about their crisis, and their obsessions. In this book I was fascinated by Ernest Van Someren’s family and work life, relating the problems of a man whose small concerns are played out against a massive background of possible invasion and the gradual winning of the war. Even when a suspected murder happens to a member of his family in the USA, he still maintains a running commentary about his chickens and the behaviour of his young son.

It reminds me of my much prized complete collection of Persephone books (Hands off, daughter) which includes several books from the Second World War period. Unsurprisingly, one of the earliest books I bought in this series is one of my favourites, Few Eggs and no Oranges – the diaries of Vere Hodgson 1940-45. A big chunky diary of a single charity worker during the London blitz, it combines the concerns of a woman which transcend their particular context with the particular shortages and crisis unique to the period. Two more Persephone books are due out in the next few weeks, so I am putting in my birthday/Christmas demands, sorry requests, now. Ninety books from such a small publishing house is a great achievement, and such a lovely shop in Bloomsbury. Nicola Beauman and her staff helped keep me sane when number one son was in Great Ormond Street across the road, so if you live in, or visit London, make the time for a visit, and you won’t be disappointed. If you cannot get there in person, their website  is well worth reading in its own right, as well as tempting you to spend much money…

At Sea – A funny modern novel

At last! A funny modern novel. Well, that’s not strictly true. I discovered Laurie Graham a few years ago, having picked up a second hand copy of The Unfortunates, followed swiftly by The Future Homemakers of America. They were unusual books, set in America and the UK, so much so that I believed that Graham was American. She wrote a fascinating novel about the Kennedy dynasty, The Importance of being Kennedy from the point of view of an English Nanny, and the great Windsor scandal Gone with the Windsors. These books seemed historically accurate, but were essentially novels, written from the point of view of friends with all the limitations of a side view of events. And above all, they were funny. Maybe not laugh out loud, but with insights, asides and humanity that made them enjoyable and absorbing reads.

So I duly bought Life according to Lubka. It disappeared to the unofficial library of daughter’s flat, and hasn’t been seen since. So when I spotted At Sea in the wonderful local library opposite the house, I pounced and eagerly started to read before that  copy disappeared. Yet again this is a novel with an unexpected transatlantic element and is very readable. An English Lady has met and married a cruise ship lecturer in interesting circumstances, and now begins to suspect that his demanding behaviour suggests that he is not all that he seems. I’ve never been on a cruise (a choppy crossing to the Isle of Man doesn’t count, even if it felt endless), but this novel seemed very realistic in its tourist attractions, real characters and convoluted progress. Lady Enid is gradually transformed, and transforms herself against the background of her dubious husband and batty aristocratic family. Americans shop whenever and wherever, the flirtatious chaplain does a mean foxtrot, and Bernard’s behaviour becomes more outrageous.

So, the moral of this post is, if you see a Laurie Graham book going secondhand or indeed on offer, read it and you will be hooked. You will also learn some strange American history and perspectives, with a very unusual sense of humour. Read before they disappear….