Thirteen Guests by J. Jefferson Farjeon – A British Library Crime Classic

So, a completely different book to review. I’m managing (just about) to keep up with the British Library Crime Classic series; but it’s not easy! Even booksellers I have spoken to are confused as to when the books are actually coming out, and working out which is genuinely new and which is a new jacket on an existing book makes it even more confusing. By the time you add in the Thriller series I am a little bewildered! However, as the series is uniformly good with some real highlights such as  Quick Curtain I will keep going. They also look good on the shelves and are fairly robust… a consideration when I am carrying them around…

Anyway, back to the book. 

I actually read this book  a while ago. It is a competent, interesting country house mystery written to a high standard. When a hapless rail passenger suffers an injury at a country station he is taken up by a glamorous guest at Bragley Court. Nadine turns out to be a woman who inspires helpless devotion in many men, and when John Foss is taken by her to the big house, he too falls under her spell. The title emerges from the realisation by the hosts that John makes thirteen guests at the house party, though as he did not appear last another guest is actually the thirteenth to arrive. I must confess that I long since forgot who that was, as several guests are already present and some are longer term than others. An artist is painting the portrait of the daughter of the house and it is this painting which is damaged. A journalist tries to find out what is really going on, while others go hunting with interesting results.

The problem with this book is the sheer number of characters. Residents, guests, servants and locals  add up to an impressive number of suspects when murder is done, and I would not be surprised if the Detective who turns up gives up in despair. This rather goes against the whole idea of a limited number stuck in a house of which at least one must be the murderer. If it is murder. I was a bit confused…

The characters in the novel, having said all that, are really well worked out. The beautiful but rebellious daughter, the cynical journalist, the artist pondering dead dogs and painting, the ambitious political calculator. I really liked Nadine, who is well aware of her effect on males. John is a useful character, in the house but not really part of the party, which gives him perspective.  The background of a large house and a fox hunt is a natural setting for the ‘action’, and this is a successful 1930s mystery which feels authentic, originally published in 1936. The ending is satisfactory and most if not all the loose ends are tied up. I enjoyed it, and to an extent it is better than The Mystery in White of last Christmas at least in terms of real characters. I would recommend it as a worthy addition to the series.

The Prodigal – Nicky Black


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The Prodigal by Nicky Black is not the sort of book I normally read. Quite honestly, I have been missing out. This is a local book for me, being set in a fictional estate just outside the centre of Newcastle. It is a disturbing read, of domestic violence, drugs and danger on an estate that offers little hope for its residents. There is a uneasy picture of a local police force personified as less than enthusiastic, less than willing to look at the real people involved on the estate. In the centre of this book is a relationship between two people out of their depth in their situation, and some of the effects their relationship has on others.

The romance in this novel emerges as rushed but realistic in a relationship in the wrong place at the wrong time. The characters are depicted as showing the pain, fear and effects of the hatred around them. There is a fight near the start of the novel which seems to be accepted as yet another event which does not surprise, does not alarm the locals. It is a fight which nobody wins, but has an effect on several of those present and involved.

Lee is a police officer who grew up in the area, but moved away partly as a result of a difficult family background. Now a recently promoted officer, he moves back partly because he has an ambition to make a difference to those now struggling in the area he knew well. He also has unfinished business as he has come back to find the girlfriend he once abandoned, and the teenage daughter he has never known. He is of the place but has also grown away from it, not realising that the years have not been kind or positive in his absence. Nicola has seen the worse and perhaps the best; her family situation is complicated and ultimately terrifying. In another life they could be together, but there are so many people between them. Both are fighting forces, some of their own making, which threaten them as individuals and together. They seem to be frustrated at every turn, not just by petty squabbles but real dangers.

I do not think this is meant to be an enjoyable book, or a literary one. It is gripping and feels realistic. I found it easy to read, even if the events within it are tough to deal with. Apparently this novel has its roots in a proposed tv series, and it feels a very visual book. It does not go off into purple passages, and is all the better for it. It reminded me strongly of Crusaders by Richard T. Kelly which I read several years ago.

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This is not surprising in that it deals with similar themes in an similar setting, but The Prodigal is a much more straightforward, much more straightforward book.I read The Prodigal on screen, which made it feel different. I would suggest that this book is a great read if you are looking for the gritty, the straightforward and a good regional read. It is disturbing, realistic and a little frightening, consistent and well expressed. Ends are tied up, people behave consistently, and I would recommend this book.

Sweet Caress by William Boyd

I had been waiting for this book for a while. I enjoyed Any Human Heart and actually read Restless twice. I found the second book fascinating, even if the ending was not so convincing. I found the opening of Waiting for Sunrise slow, but I had read something of Sweet Caress and thought that it may be a return to form.

The full title of the novel is Sweet Caress -The Many Lives of  Amory Clay. It is a reference to a fictional quote: “However long your stay on this small planet lasts , and whatever happens during it, the most important thing is that -from time to time – you feel life’s sweet caress.”

 I really enjoyed this book! It helps that it is narrated as an autobiography by Amory Clay, a woman who has survived. She has a traumatic childhood, ended by a dramatic event. She picks up the skills, contacts and impetus to become a photographer and begins travelling to exciting places. She finds herself in 1930s Berlin, and takes photos of the seedy side of life. She goes on to see America, war and peace. It is a life of extremes, danger and events which change her life in unpredictable ways. Her love life is not straightforward, becoming complicated by war and peace.Her family survive and make calls upon her, but do not limit her progress. She gets some lucky breaks, but also has some challenging circumstances to endure. So, overall a believable life.

The style of writing is so realistic that I kept wondering whether Amory was in fact a real person, albeit someone always on the spot during great events and circumstances. It seems to me that Boyd has imagined and researched his way into the female perspective well, against a background of the twentieth century not dissimilar to the time period covered by Any Human Heart. No event is skimmed over, and there are repercussions which  Amory considers and acts upon, without minimizing their effect.  This is partly achieved by the device of a looking back from the vantage point of the 1970s, and the isolation of a Scottish island. It means that we know that Amory has survived, but at what cost only emerges gradually. It is very good on family relationships, whether sibling, parental or romantic. It explores the positives and negatives, the impact of decisions made and trauma which lasts.  Another convincing element is the inclusion of photographs, mainly (supposedly) taken by Amory. They are not always the most dramatic possible, but reflects what survives from a full life.

So, this is an enjoyable and well written book. I think that it does represent a return to form for Boyd, and I am intrigued as to why he decided to write from a woman’s perspective. I am glad he did.

Shiny New Books The new issue is out!

If you have been wondering about my blogging silence, here is a link to two book reviews on Shiny New Books .  I’m really excited to add my pennyworth to the Reprints section as I review two books: ‘Paradise’ by A. L. Kennedy and ‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ by Janice Galloway.

More to the point, this is a great new books newsletter which offers hours of enjoyable reading and reviews of books. There is also the archive section which lets you read through six previous editions.

So, if you don’t mind losing a few hours, adding to your list of books to read, and generally enjoy lots of bookish reading, go to Shiny New Books forthwith!

Jutland Cottage – Angela Thirkell

Normally I review books that are widely and easily available, but sadly this one is not likely to turn up without a bit of searching. There are definitely second hand copies available, including the U.S. Moyer Bell paperback. As I have said in a previous post, the wonderful Virago Modern Classic series have produced about six volumes in this series so far, and are due to produce more during 2016. This does mean that copies are available in secondhand and charity shops, as well as many ‘ordinary bookshops.

(Two new editions available just about everywhere)

The book that I have just finished in the Barsetshire series is Jutland Cottage (1953), which I tracked down in a first editon in a charity shop. ( I think I have another copy from a Cheshire Bookbarn – for slightly more…)

(Angela herself.)

This book is not the strongest  in the series, but I found it more readable than some. Set in 1953, when it was written, it has not the sense of threat those books written when Britain was at war in the 1940s, but it opens with news of the death of the much loved King George IV.  We therefore see various individuals wondering about suitable dress for the announcement, something that immediately dates the novel. On a happier note, this novel includes several favourite characters, including the ex sailor, now ordained, Canon Fewling. My own favourite in this novel is the “lovely Rose Fairweather”,  beautiful but widely seen as a little lacking in common sense, who in previous novels has got accidentally engaged many times. In this book she is happily married, still repairing her makeup, driving too fast, and uttering her favourite phrases such as “Shattering” and ” foully dispiriting”. She proves very organised on this occasion, setting up an unofficial   support group for the worthy but poor Phelps family. In particular, the hardworking daughter, Margot is taken out and transformed as she attracts more than one suitor. Miss Hampton, author of passionate books and her Friend, Miss Bent, dispense drinks and words of wisdom about St.Paul among other topics. Cars are driven fast and well, dress material eagerly sought and received. Rose utters observations about astronomy never expressed in textbooks.

I can imagine that these are not the books for everyone. They depend on in jokes, a suspension of disbelief, a memory of characters from other books, but not necessarily to be read in order. I enjoyed this particular book as it includes some memorable characters and an interesting story line. It is full of minor events and rural developments, and for those who enjoy fairly gentle English country stories it is very funny and enjoyable. As other books in the series are much easier to obtain, it may be as well to start with those if you are new to Angela T’s novels, but this is an enjoyable installment.