Guest review 2 – and it’s Smut!!

Introducing my second Guest reviewer! EE has chosen Alan Bennett’s Smut. I haven’t read this yet – so I’m hoping that I can borrow it from her…

Sniggers and Smut

Alan Bennett’s ‘Smut: Two Unseemly Stories’


These two entertaining stories are full of the down to earth humour and deft social observation you would expect from this writer.  The brevity of this volume (slighter material than a lesser author would get away with for the price of a hardback volume) would make it suitable for book groups balking at ‘War and Peace’.


In these risqué tales, all the characters are putting on various kinds of acts in order to keep up appearances of respectability, usually only deceiving themselves.  In the first story, Mrs Donaldson, left with a certain emptiness in her life and her finances after the death of her dull husband, finds more diversion than she anticipates, taking in young lodgers and acting as a ‘Simulated Patient’ for medical student training.  In the second story, Mrs Forbes is a snobbish, overbearing wife and mother to her frustrated husband and secretly gay son but, nevertheless, the family feel they must rally round to protect her from unpleasant facts…


The predicaments of the main characters are shown with compassion and a wry comic eye as well as giving unsettling hints of a darker side to their sexual adventures.  The first story is, in my view, the finer of the two, evoking Mrs Donaldson’s dilemmas with an intimate sympathy which is missing from the more ‘knowing’ narrative tone of the second story.


I am underconvinced by the stories in one major respect.  The presentation of the women  characters seems worryingly outdated.  The stories are set in the present day, or something close to it – Mr Forbes hides from his wife on dubious websites and Dr Ballantyne grills his students about ‘the new polyclinics’.  Yet Mrs Donaldson, a modern fifty-five, is described as if she were decades older, in both her clothes and her sheltered gentility.  Of course, her primness increases the comic potential of the story; but the discrepancy about her age is odd.  Fifty-five is not as old as Bennett seems to think.  No, not even for women…


Sex aside, the marvellous role-play scenes with the medical students and the splendidly sarcastic Dr Ballantyne are the hilarious high point of the book, as well as being entirely convincing.


Entertaining and unsettling.

Smut: Two Unseemly Stories

Thanks EE! I agree that fifty five isn’t old; especially for a woman…


Two series – both probably acquired tastes

Another day, another post – delayed (sorry) by Son Two running the Great North Run in under two hours…and Son One doing the Support Vehicle and the roast dinner!  Like Son One I am staring a  new course (Open University) so reading priorities are  changing. British History for Dummies anyone? At least it provides a useful reminder of the batting order of monarchs and the difference between spinning jennies and mules (don’t ask)

Anyway, two books that are part of series. Lucia’s Progress by E.F. Benson

Lucia's Progress (Black Swan)

is the second in the Mapp and Lucia series. Set in the 1920s, it features two women of a certain age playing one – up womanship in the small town of Tilling. It is subtle piece of writing in which nothing much happens, but it features some outrageous acts of small defiance. Each woman, whether by marrying, investing in strange shares, house buying and selling or aggressive bridge playing, tries to outdo the other. It is a strange sort of humour, in many respects an acquired taste, but involving some memorable characters, not least Major Benjy and Georgie, the hapless men who get dragged into the schemes. I enjoy these books in small doses, and they are not the easiest to describe, but if you enjoy the characters in Pym, Delafield and even (if I dare to say it) Austen, you may well find this series worth tracking down. They can be bought new quite cheaply, though I have yet to buy the dvd versions which are apparently available.

Dead in the Water by Carola Dunn is the latest that I have read in the Daisy Dalrymple series of murder mysteries. Like the others, it is a very easy read, though this particular episode requires a little knowledge of rowing and messing about in boats, as it is set in a 1920s regetta featuring races between colleges and other teams. As always, there is a death early on, and the bulk of the novel is spent sorting it out. En route there is injury, suspicion and death as Daisy and her fiance Alex deal with servants, aristocracy and grand houses against the background of recovering from the First World War. It is a good read if your taste is towards people who wherever they go seem to encounter murder, and the characters are a little better in this book than in some in the series. The plotting is a little weaker, though, despite the details of rowing and hangovers. If you like this series of books, it is a good addition, but not as good as some of the others, especially Murder on the Flying Scotsman, which must win out for the title alone. Another acquired taste, probably…


Harry Potter and David Cassidy – books to conjure with?

Still recovering from my huge book reading holiday by not actually finishing any books since, I thought I would look back to three I did finish while enjoying Orkney.

The two Harry Potter books were, of course, excellent. As much as I enjoy the films, they cannot be as complete as the books and convey the same sense of build up to the big events. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the infuriating Malfoys get so cross making that I always have a little cheer when Dobby succeeds at the end. Some of his earlier stunts are  so very dangerous and frustrating that it is amazing that Harry survives, let alone stays at Hogwarts. Harry and Ron’s escape from the Forest is always surprising, as are the revelations of the final scenes. When I read the despair that Ginny’s disappearance causes, I wonder at which point Rowling decided what would happen in that final scene in the final book.

As for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I suppose the whole thing hinges on what you think of  the time travel aspect. It seems odd that Hermione  is issued with such a powerful instrument just to allow her to attend lessons. Surely the wizarding world would have made more use of such a device if it was freely available, albeit with extreme care. It is a difficult concept to explain in the book, but Rowling just about gets away with it. I think that it’s more of a problem in the film, when the suspension of disbelief in a world just slightly different from our own is maintained, but only just. Much has been written about why the Potter books work. I think it is because the world, the characters, are so understandable, even if they have amazing powers. For example, in Chamber of Secrets Mrs.Weasley is furious at some of her sons for using the car to rescue Harry, just like any other parent would be.  The fact that the car is able to fly just adds to the situation.  So the whole time shift thing, I think, just pushes it too far.

The most touching element of this book is Harry’s discovery of his godfather. While the whole saga demands that Harry has no parents living, it is good to see him have a slightly risky godparent. What has always confused me is what happened to his father’s, James, family. Being entrusted to relatives outside the magical world is one thing, but I have often wondered why there was no family at all left. After all, even the much older Dumbledore still has at least one family member surviving.  The most terrifying characters are undoubtedly the Dementors, not just because of their general terrifying presence, but because of their ultimate power. Apart from the time shift element, which is difficult to describe, this is an excellent book.

One of the other books is I Think I Love You by Allison Pearson. Females over a certain age may remember the title as being part of the lyrics of one of David Cassidy’s songs. and the early part of this novel is set in the world of teenage fans and the frustrations of being a teenage girl with all the friendship crisis and allegiances that entailed. The novel evolves into a study of being a parent who isn’t coping, because of challenges  beyond their control. Marriages go wrong  and only a dramatic trip can give a new perspective. There are some funny moments as well as intensely dramatic scenes. While this book could easily be seen as simply another easy read, the writing is far better than that, with painful observation emerging. I believe I read and quite appreciated her other book, I Don’t Know How She Does It, soon to be a very American film. I’m not sure if it will work in some ways, as what I enjoyed about it were the small observations, such as the harassed heroine distressing mince pies to make them look home made. That moment probably won’t make the film. This book is good, with sharp observations and a satisfying story. Not great literature, but definitely worth reading, even if you preferred the Osmonds (who?).

Adventure, Romance – it’s all happening here

Yes, I know I’ve had another gap, spent sorting out Sons for colleges and other exciting things. It has been a bit frustrating because I read so many books while away that I’m in danger of forgetting how good they were before I post about them here. Or returning them to the library. Or lending them out ( it keeps the numbers of books down to almost, maybe manageable). One friend offered to sort them out and put them into order. Maybe she hasn’t seen how many there are ; has she got two weeks to spare?

Anyway, I’ve lent her a few books to keep her going. One of which was The Moonspinners by Mary Stewart. 

It is not the sort of book I would naturally reach for, but I noticed that this author’s books had been reprinted and were available from among others, though I picked this one up in a bargain book shop. Ever keen to mention easily available books I read this one surprisingly quickly. I had bought many years ago some of Stewart’s “Arthur” books but this one is very different.

This book features a young woman, Nicola Ferris, on holiday in a remote bit of Greece in ( I think) the 1950s. She works in Athens, so her Greek is good, which is handy when she walks into a murder scene, with attempted murder, hide and seek among caves, hills and cliffs, abduction and alpine plants. It is an adventure story, highly suitable for the younger reader as well as the not so young. It is quite a simple story, but sometimes the goodies and baddies are not so obvious, and there are many red herrings as well as (literally) cliff hangers. There is some romance, but nothing to frighten the horses, and it is more an adventure story for adults. A good book to fill a rainy afternoon, but not great literature. The sort of book to inspire a holiday choice, even if it is possibly a fictional setting. There are some adult themes here, such as a suggestion of domestic violence, which merit more thought, but to be honest it is more of a female led thriller.  It is an easy read, but well written with many twists and turns. A sort of murder mystery that works as an adventure story. Enjoyable.

Back from the far North (or further North anyway!)

I’m back from holiday! A fortnight in changeable, lovely, welcoming Orkney.  For a twenty five mile island, there are many books to be had. The Orcadian bookshop is definitely worth a look if you find yourself in Kirkwall ( perhaps an unlikely circumstance…) if only because they can order up any book in print with very little to go on. The famous author in Stromness is George Mackay Brown, poet, journalist and writer of amazing prose. We did buy a couple of his books; watch this space for further comments.

I did of course read a few books while I was there (eight or so).  It was made easier by the extreme comfort of the bungalow and the day of the gale when I couldn’t get out of the front door. This did include some Harry Potter, numbers two and three, as well as some books in various murder mystery series.  I really enjoyed Dandy Gilver and an unsuitable Day for a murder by Catriona McPherson

Having not enjoyed The Winter Ground much this is a good return to form for the Dandy Gilver series. It is set in two department stores and depicts two warring families and suicide, or murder. I thought that the descriptions of the two stores was particularly good, as well as Dandy’s reactions to the clothes on sale. The mystery takes second  place to the characterisations and descriptions of people and place. At last Hugh the husband does the right thing, and we see Dandy herself develop in confidence. The police are not generally cooperative, but Dandy still discovers a lot of the truth. My only and main criticism of the book is the family complications which had me checking the family tree in the front of the book. That is part of the plot, however, so not surprising that it’s complicated.

This is a good book in the series, which does not need to be read strictly in order to enjoy the novel. It may be a bit confusing if you read it as the first book by this author, though it is possible just to read it to wallow in the 1920s period details. It is a good book, a very Scottish book, and you really don’t have to go to Orkney to buy it!