Vain Shadow – Jane Hervey A Persephone Classic

When I visited the Persephone shop a couple of weeks ago, I was amazed, as always, by the sheer number of books that they have reprinted and I have enjoyed. I was sufficiently overwhelmed to buy 3 books – even if I do have the full set – but one of them was a present… I also bought some books from the 50 books that they wished they had published, including One Fine Day and an Elizabeth Jane Howard I had not heard of thus far.

As always if you want to order any of the books, you can look at for complete lists and details of books and many other things.

One of the books that I had missed out on reading when it had first arrived from Persephone was number 83, Making Conversation by Christine Longford. I found this a little disappointing, to be honest, being a record of Martha growing up and going to Oxford. It is hailed as a comedy classic, but it is a very subtle, and perhaps not as strong a novel as I had expected. The hapless Martha swings between political extremes and attitudes to the foreign boarders in her mother’s house. Her career at Oxford, while at some levels a fascinating account of the women who pioneered women’s colleges, was not developed sufficiently for me. An interesting period piece, but not a classic in the same way some of Persephone’s books have proved.

A much better book, in my opinion, and one that stays with me far more, is Vain Shadow by Jane Hervey, number 112.

(This image is copyright Persephone books.)

Jane Hervey has apparently only published this novel, and I think that it is an outstanding one. It was a novel I was so keen to read on once started, despite the subject of a family funeral. There is no real sorrow at the patriarch’s passing, but each family member has his or her own agenda. The eldest son, Jack, follows the displeasing profession of artist and has acquired a much younger wife. Harry is the capable, obsessive manager, and Brian is very keen not to miss out on anything. The women are more nuanced, so real in their reactions to the situation. The widow’s relief at her relative freedom, Joanna, the granddaughter, comes to several realisations about her life, whereas the two wives, Laurine and Elizabeth, reflect and sort out their husband’s obsessions. The other people, servants and locals, are touching in their respect for the old man and the status quo which is threatened by his death. There are whispered conversations, inner monologues and the unwritten customs of funerals as people try to do the right thing. As is normal at such times, emotions are heightened and the future seems ominous as well as representing change. Harry is determined to get things just right, but he is not the eldest  son. Joanna is a fascinating character, and I really enjoyed finding out about her progress through the book.

The four chapters, covering four days of funeral rites, hold the interest through the small details of the house in which most of the action takes place, and the conversations between the characters and their reactions are so telling. It feels like a short story in some ways, but the length and the bringing in of so much information from the outside the narrative of the four days makes it so much more. It is not an intense story, but feels so real in its writing that it could be a an account from one’s own experience. I can highly recommend it as showing the best of Persephone’s novels.

Death of Anton – Alan Melville – Another British Library Crime Classic

There has been a gap in posts caused by a line breakage – our somewhat overgrown area of garden through which the phone line stretches had to be investigated. The rest of the garden looks wonderful thanks to the efforts of Northernvicar, but perfection is difficult to achieve!

This is another keenly awaited edition from the British Library Crime Classic series. I actually went into the bookshop at the British Library the other day, only to discover I had the full set so far! It has not quite filled a shelf, yet…

I had high hopes of this book having enjoyed the comedy of Quick Curtain so much recently. This novel from Alan Melville also features Detective – Inspector Minto of Scotland Yard, and while he sits light to police procedure and back up once more, I did not find it as funny as the previous murder mystery. Quite possibly this is due to the absence of his son, with whom he enjoys all the fun and games in Quick Curtain, but he does have family represented here; his brother who is a Catholic priest ( important to the story) and Claire, his younger sister whose wedding he is due to organise/attend/go in fear of throughout.

The main action takes place in a circus, where Anton is the short lived tiger tamer and many nefarious activities are taking place. There is murder, mayhem and mauling, as Minto tries to sort out what is going on, and his list of suspects gets shorter. Minto has to get out of some narrow scrapes, and not all relate to writing a speech for the wedding. He has to become acquainted with a dubious pawn shop as well as the inhabitants of the circus. The setting of a circus is soon evidently well chosen, as the dangers of live acts involving animals and heights add to the danger to the hapless detective. When he actually sits to watch the performance he discovers the danger of sitting in the cheap seats as he leans back too far and has to be rescued.

This is a good read, as are most of this series, as the plot becomes increasingly convoluted and coincidental. It is not a high literary effort, and I daresay the plot does not bear too much examination. It is funny, and absorbing, the sort of book to be kept on one side for a free day as you will undoubtedly want to read on. The death of characters is a little too easily dismissed, which gives Melville ample opportunity to make ironic comments at audiences disappointed by the absence of serious injury in any particular performance. I get the impression that this book was as enjoyable to write as read, as the author has fun getting his character covered in mud, dismissing non Scottish porridge, as well as discoursing on the personalities of performing animals. Such circuses are a thing of the past, with their bad treatment of animals and performers, but this book is a very enjoyable historical murder mystery, and well worth seeking out for the character of Minto alone.

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

I actually bought this the day it came out. Then I discovered, like the review on Shiny New Books suggests, and as I found with Waters The Little Stranger, that I could only read it during the day. It is a brilliantly written, intense book, which is one of the few that really draws the reader in, but so much so that when the main character is depressed, I got depressed, or fearful, or whatever. I cannot work out how Waters achieves this effect. Maybe it is the detail of the domestic, the sense of the house almost being another character, but this book goes out of the house, into offices and other houses, which also take on the sense of being there. Not that she limits herself to a sense of place, as the characters in all their faults and speeches also become real.

Waters creates the sense of invasion by the paying guests, Lillian and Len, who move into the house which Frances and her mother have struggled to keep going since the death of both sons and husband. The brothers are mourned as many young men, as being killed at the Front during the First World War, whereas Mr. Wray senior was a spendthrift and buyer of fake antiques. Frances is a sad young woman, who regrets that she gave up her relationship with Christine in order to stay with her mother and keep up the family home, and her life has become dominated by the need to keep it clean, to follow the tracks of an unmarried daughter. The arrival of the beautiful Lillian, unsuited to her husband who works in an Insurance Office, challenges and changes the colourless house, with noise and sheer presence. Leonard is an invasive force, who walks through the kitchen, starts conversations, creates trouble in well behaved way.

The plot of the book means that it needs to be read to understand. The context of affection, even love, of anger, of fear, of despair, as well as emerging feelings for other characters, can only be understood in the context of slow reading. I think that this book needs time, and that is one of its main strengths, and perhaps it should be thought of as a big book like Wolf Hall. I enjoyed reading it; it is a strong, intense book, and I think it worked well throughout as it built to a climax which I thought was satisfying. It is a book which rewards concentration rather than half asleep reading. Waters is an incredible writer, and I have got so much from each book; a sense of history, people in difficult circumstances, the vulnerability of women in society. If you set out to read this, allow time and emotional energy.

The Pleasure of Reading – Edited by Antonia Fraser




 Another book that I read while we were away was an ideal book to pick up and put down between bookshops/ places of interest. Produced in aid of Give a Book charity, it is comprised of forty three authors writing about how they started reading, often compulsively, almost as addicts, and how they have carried on . Some authors I knew well, others were new to me, but they represent a good balance of those who are sadly no longer with us and the more recent writers.

There are those who became obsessed with reading as small children, some as a result of being read to, some as a result of reading everything they could get their hands on. Tom Stoppard writes about his reading at all the wrong times throughout his life, whereas Judith Kerr recalls reading when exiled from her country of birth. Some of these writers take the request to name ten favourite books seriously, others just list the books they could not live without on a mythical island. The influence of parents is often strong for writers as they produce the right book at the right time, other readers read despite their parents, sometimes free range with library tickets (familiar admissions that they found the adult section more interesting than those books offered to children). There is quite a lot of overlap of early reading, with the celebrated Alice books being frequently mentioned, as well as Dickens and the now politically incorrect books of Enid Blyton. There are lots of different authors mentioned, though this book doesn’t really provide a list of recommendations, and there is a lot of familiar territory here.

A really memorable entry is by Roger McGough, whose childhood reading was limited. He writes “my favourite story was a tin of Ovaltine…’Sprinkle two or three heaped teaspoonsful of…”. Other writers recall childhood confusions such as Jane Gardam, whose mother’s promise to bring a ‘Porter’ was really a (Beatrix ) Potter. Others remember reading despite their teachers, or conversely being inspired by them. I should imagine that every reader will find familiar memories here, such as reading by half light when supposed to be asleep. It is a good book to pick up and put down when travelling or supposed to be doing something else, and there and some funny and interesting anecdotes.

I found this a good read, providing fascinating memories of writers as they recall what enticed them into read. As “books about books” go, this is not a handy list to work through of recommendations, but it certainly makes me aware of stuff I haven’t read, or given to my offspring….

Murder on High Holborn – Susanna Gregory

There has been a bit of a gap in posts as we have been on holiday/annual book buying tour. Apart from the predictable places (Heffers in Cambridge, Persephone in Bloomsbury, second hand bookshops everywhere) we also found in the depths of Shropshire a Guildhall opened as an honesty bookshop full (yes, as in a room full) of second hand books for the choosing. One box full later (with a suitable donation, honest!) the car looked less like a car for luggage and more than a travelling bookshop. So nothing new there then…

One of the side effects of this travelling is the opportunity to listen to an audiobook. On thirteen discs we listened to Murder on High Holborn by Susanna Gregory. On this blog I have written often about Gregory’s other series, the Matthew Bartholmew books set in fourteenth century Cambridge, and I have been eagerly reading each book as they have come out in hardback from the library. The Thomas Chaloner series, set in Restoration London, have largely passed me by; I read the first when they started to come out and I went to an author event where they were launched – in 2006! I picked up the paperbacks more or less as they came out, but never really read them. I think that, having listened to this, I will change that…

In this episode of the ongoing adventures of Thomas, (possible spoiler alert, I’m not sure how much this reveals of the previous books), Chaloner is charged with trying to discover what is going on with a proposed plot to overthrow the King (Charles II) and government, and usher in the final millennium. Alongside this, he has to find the murderer of a courtier in a brothel and why the ship London has sunk with all hands in a peaceful stretch of river.

On a more mundane level his wife is spending freely and London is beset by rain and mud. There is adventure, more death and much running around London and its environs. There is comedy, as one of the characters goes by the name of Consti Pate. The other characters, including a drunken Admiral, Prince Rupert and spies of varying degrees of ineptitude have all got their own agendas, and many of them are willing to kill to achieve their aims. The pace of this novel is fast, to reflect the relentless nature of Chaloner’s many tasks and investigations, but he does get time to sleep and eat. This is not a seventeenth century 24, and there is enormous detail in the modes of travelling, clothing, weaponry and life generally. As in Gregory’s other series of books, there are many “how will he get out of this?” moments and generally given the high body count this is a good novel. There are few female characters, and I must admit I got some of the men muddled up in my mind. It is an historical murder mystery, thriller, and therefore perhaps not for everyone, but I enjoyed it. (As did Husband, as he dealt with yet another lot of road works). It would not be necessary to have read the other books in the series to enjoy this, but it would help to understand the setting. Medicine is a bit primitive, and there is a real fear of the supernatural as worked on by several characters. I can certainly recommend this book for as an historical adventure with great characters. I think that I will still prefer the Matthew B. series, but these books will certainly fill the year gaps between each episode of that series.

Dandy Gilver &the Unpleasantness in the Ballroom – Catriona McPherson

Another day, another series depicting a woman detective in the late 1920s, early 1930s in Britain. Definitely Britain because this series of ten books about the cases of Dandy (Dandelion!) Gilver  often take place in Scotland. This book is the latest in the series in which a fairly bored aristocratic (if with an unusual upbringing ) becomes a private detective with her friend Alec.

The earlier nine books are about how Dandy almost accidentally becomes an investigator into the matters of scandal and often murder which seem to afflict the minor aristocracy and gentry in those exciting days. There are the usual panics about money and position, and the details about dress and manners which are familiar from the Maisie Dobbs books, though not so deeply significant and meaningful as in some purple passages in those books.  These are far more realistic than the Daisy Darymple books, as the characters seem more realistic though equally obsessed with food and hunger for same. Dandy’s husband, Hugh, is not the romantic lead of a woman’s dreams; he is quite fed up with Dandy’s activities when he first discovers them but is more than reconciled to them when the money she earns subsidises his estate and provides for the sons, whom Dandy seems more than happy to leave.


This is an uneven series in my mind, whether read at yearly intervals or as a catch up when they suddenly appear in the library. The second book, The Burry Man’s Day , is set in Queensferry, and deals with local customs with a clever if unlikely ending. The eight book, Dandy Gilver and a Deadly Measure of Brimstone is a very good read about mysterious goings on in a Scottish Spa. Some books in this series are better than others; McPherson is better in enclosed worlds, but not as in Agatha Christie. Her research seems excellent and nothing really jars, unless it is the heroine’s impatience with the lot of women. These are not fast moving narratives like Miss Fisher, and Dandy rarely faces danger or temptation. These books are more thoughtful, clues, motives and characters are more carefully worked through. They do not need to be read in strict order, as the stories do not really run into one another, but the supporting cast does develop and change.

This particular adventure begins with Dandy and Alec being retained by a family in Glasgow. There is a lot about ballroom dancing but nothing very taxing for the reader, and costume sewing is also important. It becomes a tangled web of motive and characters, and I enjoyed its unpredictability. Dandy and Alec have to eat, drink and even attempt dancing, but happily Grant is on hand…

These books are light reading in many ways, and are not as deep and meaningful as Maisie Dobbs! They are funny and involving, and can be informative about each community Dandy gets embroiled in with Alec’s assistance. As good summer reads I would recommend them, especially if you can borrow or get them cheaply, as frankly they are not great literature. Any more Women detectives of the interwar period out there?

The Welcome Scream – Ian Knox

Obviously, writing a blog like this I enjoy reading (or at least starting books, carrying them round, collecting more…) I like to review books , and if people entrust me with books for review I am really pleased to read and comment on them. It  is a great way of reading books that perhaps I would not choose at first sight, and it is an interesting exercise to sum up a book in three hundred words or whatever rather than just returning it to the shelves.  So, if you want a book reviewed…

The first thing to say is, I enjoyed this book far more than I thought I would! Set variously in London, France and Africa, I thought that having very little knowledge about two of those places would mean that I would not find it interesting, but this novel conveys a good sense of place and people as well as time.

The plot of this novel is a little complex, and to say too much would give several twists away, but to be honest they are clearly signposted. The main characters are seen in London, various parts of France, and a notably realistic section in Africa which deals well with the challenging conditions, the heat and the different pace of life. The people in this book do fall in love very quickly, and I would have some issues with the dispatch of two women when inconvenient to have them living. I like the short chapters, as they add considerably to the readability of the book, but there are some sections that would benefit from a good edit to balance the book overall. The narrative flows well, but there are some sections or descriptions which do slow down the progress of the novel to little effect, though I did enjoy finding out about the growing of grapes for wine and the scorpion incident has the hallmarks of non-fiction! Some characters, friends of the protagonists, are mentioned and described but are never finished, so I must admit they are a little distracting. For example, a good friend of Annie is introduced but never developed, just mentioned in passing as existing in the latter part of the book.  I learnt far more about General de Gaulle than I expected, but not so much about Churchill!

Sometimes the books multi location,multi time becomes a little confusing, but overall it makes excellent sense. I felt that the ending is very satisfactory, if very convenient, and reflects the book as a whole. The various religious missions come out of this book very well,  as do some clergy.  It is not a work of great literature, but it is all the more readable for that. The main characters are good, if sometimes dropped a little quickly. There are some interesting insights into history, but not detailed descriptions of battle, so it would appeal to those keen to read a novel set in the mid twentieth century without lots of war detail.

This is not a book that will turn up in every book shop, but it is worth seeking out.