A House Full of Daughters – Juliet Nicolson

By way of a change, a non fiction book. It fits nicely with my habit of reading the history of women’s lives: not exclusively viewing history that way, but so many of the books I pick up are either fictional or non- fictional biographies of women that it seems to work out that way. I’m reading Philippa Gregory’s latest book at the moment, and Northernvicar has just booked for us to go and hear her speak at Harrogate. Still on the Tudors, but this time from the angle of Margaret Tudor, who had a different view of Katherine of Aragon. Interesting.

Back to the main book. This is essentially a biography of Juliet Nicholson’s female relatives, from a dancer in Spain in 1830 through to a granddaughter born in 2013.  It is the story of a family who have mainly lived financially secure lives, in the beautiful surroundings of Knole and Sissinghurst.  Nicolson does write in the introduction about this aristocratic setting; the unhappiness felt by several of these women had nothing to do with lack of money. She writes “But I wonder if wealth  and class always amounted to privilege in a broader sense.” Some of these women have been deeply unhappy, in their marriage to unsympathetic and difficult men, in their own disappointments, even their own addictions. Encouragement of their own daughters has not always been the case, and if they have had success it has almost despite their backgrounds rather than because of it. Having said that, servants and money have always been there to soften the blow in terms of day to day existence until the most recent generations, and in the case of Pepita whose talent and beauty transformed her life. These are also women who have made their mark,; they include the writer and garden creator Vita Sackville West, whose life and writing are studied today. This chapter was a little disappointing, as I felt that Nicholson had not really created a full picture of such a vibrant woman, despite revelations about early married life.

This is a very well written , well researched book. Nicholson has obviously been fortunate in having immense family records to consult which would not be the case for most of us, as well as having famous lives to try and encapsulate. The most touching and significant portraits here as you may expect are of her own parents, and her own battles with life, again against a background of financial security but also a great sadness. I suppose one of the difficulties with history, even recent family history, is that “They all die in the end” and it is difficult to think of some individuals without loading them up with the regrets of their deaths rather than their achievements in life. I suppose I would have welcomed a little more positivism about women  who did achieve a lot, whether as a political hostess, a writer or a creator of a world famous gardener. This is not a miserable book, but neither is it a happy book.

One style point,  I became very confused about all the names given to the main people. While I appreciate that some people shared the same name, (two Lionels!) I sometime found that “mother” changed to Philippa and back again within a page. I also got my Vita and Victorias muddled, which meant a generational issue. Maybe it is because of my reading in a haphazard way, but it did affect my interest. That said, this is a searingly honest book which I found very interesting and I would recommend to anyone interested in women’s lives in the 20th century, particularly those interested in family dynamics.

















The Cheltenham Square Murder – John Bude


Guess where I went yesterday?

The British Library!

Now that we live in the Midlands rather than “Up North” going to London for the day is more of a practical proposition. Northernvicar had also spotted that the “Shakespeare in Ten Acts”

Exhibition was about to finish so if we were going to see it, we could get on a train at a civilised hour and manage a visit yesterday.  I like going to the British Library, as it’s next to the right railway stations, and even you have no reader pass as a researcher you can still see some interesting exhibitions.

This is a great one to see. In ten sections it looks at various aspects of Shakespeare and his plays, including some films of amazing productions. We really enjoyed it, and looking at two copies of the First Folio was a treat. They also had a piece about women playing male roles, including Maxine Peake’s Hamlet which is available on DVD…

Many of you know that I have been collecting and reading the British Library Crime Classic series, which is a selection of mainly Golden Age murder mysteries reprinted in a very readable format. The latest in the series is the Cheltenham Square Murder, by one of the favourites in this series, John Bude. I got a copy in Lincoln Waterstones, but the British Library in their shop and online, are selling copies for £5. It is worth getting!

For those who have read any of John Bude’s books, probably in this series, this is a worthy episode. He is good at place, and creating a limited number of suspects that makes it possible for the reader to develop her or his own theories about whodunit, and how…

This novel works well as the detective is a recurring character, whose personality does not get in the way of detection. Having said that Long, the actual policeman on site is irritating with his supposed accent. This is still a well plotted story of an unusual murder which can only have been  committed by a certain number of suspects in a confined area of Cheltenham. Actual bows and arrows are involved, as well as angles and checking up on some dubious characters. There are some wonderful creations here, notably a dog obsessed lady who scares off policemen, as well as stock characters that normally populate the villages of Christie and others. I had spotted a significant aspect of the murder before the story gets there, which is always satisfying. I enjoyed this mini saga of 1930s life. Bude writes

“Thus the inhabitants of Regency Square – diverse, yet as a community, typical; outwardly harmonious, yet privately at loggerheads; temperamentally and intellectually dissimilar, yet all of  them chiselling away at the same hard block of granite which, for want of a better word, we call life.

It’s nice to know that someone else could construct a sentence with even more clauses than I average!

This is a slow burning success of a novel, far from a thriller but a good read nevertheless. Worth seeing if you can track it down, especially at £5!

Marrying Off Mother and other stories – Gerald Durrell

The first thing to say about these short stories is that it is not a sequel to “My Family and other Animals”. I am halfway through Slightly Foxed’s lovely edition of that book. https://foxedquarterly.com/shop/family-animals/   I did not manage to see the tv version (moving house etc). These stories are definitely for adults, as they include a horror story and extremely funny story  which even I found shocking…

This edition is in the new PanMacmillan series, which I have been picking up copies of books of for the last few months. I must admit that I have not spotted  a common theme for the choices, though the Winston Graham looks very promising.

Back to this book. The title story does refer to the original Durrell family, as the adult children decide that they want their mother to remarry, with some very funny results. Esmeralda the perfumed pig turns out to be a valued member off the family, while Moses the parrot has such a turn of phrase even dockers are embarrassed. Durrell is asked to  lecture in America, where cultural differences abound. Fred, the Butler, has a nice line in Biblical explanation, while Great Uncle Rochester continues to fight the rebel horde of Yankees. There are surreal moments in these 8 stories, some of which Durrell claims are true, some “semi true”. They are all well written and often funny. This is a super book for picking up and popping down over holiday expeditions, though rarely will you be in charge of transporting large predatory cats as in one story…

I seem to be turning to a lot of collections of short stories at the moment. I have a copy of Fay Weldon’s short stories, Mischief, which represent stories published throughout her career. They tend towards weary feminism at the start, at least. Dancing with Mr Darcy is a collection of stories inspired by Jane Austen selected by Sarah Waters in 2009. They are a very varied bunch! It is interesting contrasting stories by one author with a collection of stories by vastly different authors. While Durrell has a very picturesque style, Weldon stories seem very much of their time. The Jane Austen stories are touching, daft and funny, and a very mixed collection written by diverse authors. So, back to the collections of short stories…

Journey to Munich – Jacqueline Winspear

After the last post, here is the most recent episode in the Maisie Dobbs series. I must admit that I did not hold out much hope of getting to read this book until it came out in paperback, but lo, there was a copy of the new hardback on the shelves of the newly discovered (for me)  Belper Library…


Anyone who has read any of the Maisie Dobbs books knows that this detective / secret agent / investigator carries angst with her. She comes out of service to go to Cambridge, leaves to nurse in the First World War, falls in love, loses her man etc. Somewhere along the line she comes to the notice of Maurice, who has many skills and links with the Secret Service among other organisations. His death and bequests mean that she has become a rich woman, and she has endured further tragedy by the time this, the tenth novel in the series begins.  These novels are best read in sequence as the developments in Maisie’s life are central to each plot. Some of the books are better than others, and I can remember one or two where the research undertaken hangs over the text heavily.

In this novel Maisie is despondent about her present and future, living with her friend’s family, having been rescued from nursing in the Spanish Civil War. She is contacted by some government officials who have a mission for her in Munich. It requires more than delicacy as the Nazi party are becoming more established and dangerous.

As always, there is an ongoing obsession with what Maisie is wearing. It  is partly justified by the need for disguise, but it is a theme. This is a well written book, with a strong storyline. The characters are well defined and the background of rising racism in Munich is well drawn. There is a sense of menace in every building, every turn, every decision that Maisie makes. In the last section of the book an odd decision threw me a little, but it leads to an interesting outcome.

It is not essential to have read every book in the series to enjoy this novel, but there are undoubtedly ongoing themes and characters through the story which would be confusing to the new reader.  If you enjoy reading about the interwar period and female investigators, this is certainly a good book.

Behind the Shattered Glass – Tasha Alexander. Reading the series….

Kate Shakleton. Masie Dobbs. Brother Michael and the physician Matthew. Lady Emily….

There are so many series of detective novels set in Victorian times, Medieval times, the interwar period that it can be a difficult and expensive job to keep up with them all. Many focus on women as detectives, writing about women who either find themselves in the middle of murder mysteries, or who are employed to sort out difficult or fatal situations. Often the women are unusually able to see the clues and answers, sometimes there is a strong man who turns up in the nick of time. My favourite series which I have reviewed here before by Susanna Gregory usually puts her main protagonists in impossible situations which seemingly defy escape, yet both men are still alive after 22 novels…

So do I read them in order? It depends. If I have been following them for years  I seize or order them from the library as soon as I can. I can therefore often avoid actually buying them unless I am desperate. Some I manage to find from charity shops or bargain book places, in which case I read where I can, then try to track down copies in libraries to fill in the gaps. I will try and read in order where possible in which case https://www.fantasticfiction.com/ is really useful; although an American site it lists a huge number of authors’ outputs in order and is much clearer than book buying sites. Obviously if an author is writing many books the quality and readability of individual novels may vary, but mostly the characters can bear more or less convincing situations.

One series which I have enjoyed and found disappointing in various novels is Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily series. There are 11 published in America, and probably at least the first ten are available here. Beginning with And Only to Deceive, they follow the progress of an aristocratic lady who finds that murder happens too near home. Her mother is a close friend of Queen Victoria, but Lady Emily is a rebel who conforms initially in marriage but finds herself fascinated by ancient literature and art. Murder and mystery affect her family, friends and associates, and she is able by using her natural abilities and considerable resources to solve many cases.

I read and invested in a few of the earlier books in the series and enjoyed them, but found one that I did not enjoy, partly because of the story which I found wallowed in misery too much, which I did not need at the time. So I picked up Behaind the Shattered Glass at a bargain shop not really expecting much. I really enjoyed it. The situation was convincing, the characters  consistent and attractive, and the solution satisfying. There are many red herrings, and on the way Emily involves herself in several interesting situations. It shows conventions challenged, people behaving unpredictably yet within the scope of their character, and all loose ends tied up. It is not great literature and will never trouble prize judges, but  I think it represents books that people actually read rather than carry round to impress.

So, whether you enjoy series and find it satisfying to follow character through several situations, or prefer to read one off mysteries, I think you would enjoy these books. Of course, I still prefer Kerry Greenwood’s Miss Fisher mysteries…..

Resorting to Murder – Holiday Mysteries – Edited by Martin Edwards

Another review, another British Library Crime Classic…. This one is full of short stories which take place at holiday resorts of all types, though mainly in the 1920s and 30s. It includes such noted authors as Arthur Conan Doyle, and some authors so obscure that it has obviously been difficult to get copies of the stories. It does make for a variety of styles, length and outcomes, and some are so complex as to be difficult to follow, while others are very short to the point.

As with the other books in this series that are divided into a collection of short stories, this one took much longer to read. In fact, I think that it is the first one I’ve actually finished. I do enjoy them, but find them difficult to read for long periods as I do with the single author novels. It is partly because of the variety of styles and situations, and a swift relocation with characters necessary to read short stories one after another. One involving various ski/climbing “Accidents” was very confusing, whereas another was purely a legal question which reminded me of long ago problems set in criminal law exams. This would be an excellent book to take on holiday as it is a good length and does not require extended concentration. I enjoyed reading it and would recommend it to any fans of “Golden Age” mysteries or anyone keen to find out what all the fuss is about. I must admit I do prefer the single mystery novels as it is interesting following the characters and plot over many chapters as opposed to everything being dealt with in a few pages.Writing Murder Mystery short stories are difficult, dealing with introducing characters, including detectives, the crime and frequently the solving of it within a believable context. It is fascinating to see how these writers have risen to the challenge.


Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. J.K Rowling and others!

It’s been a week since I posted a negative review of James Runcie’s latest, and the sky has not fallen on my head, so I thought I would add a new post today and see if my luck held. Of course, there are many great reviews to be read on Shiny New Books today so I have deliberately avoided opening that site in case I am not heard from for a week or so…

Anyway, the “new” Harry Potter is out and in my case, read with enjoyment. I used to be able to go to the midnight openings in beautiful Bury St Edmunds with six children in tow (not all mine!) but this time I tootled into Derby Waterstones for my copy on Sunday lunchtime, owing to a rare afternoon off for the Vicar.

The first thing to realise is that this is not a novel, but a script. Therefore it took a bit of imagining to understand all the bits in this play, especially when some of the scenes were short and disconnected. That said, I enjoyed tracing the characters and story through the script and how both elements developed. It is a fast read, so I found myself putting it down to take in what had gone before and place it in the overall Potter narrative. So it’s not great literature, and there are not many pieces of stunning  writing, but having said that I really enjoyed how the characters were presented as being older, not necessarily wiser, and interacted with all that happens. There are many twists and turns which I did not foresee, and I won’t reveal for spoiling it, but overall it was a good experience to find out what happened to so many characters in the best of times and the worst of times. Anyone who has read the books, or just followed the films, has wondered what happened to those people that had been so well written or portrayed onscreen, and there is much to surprise and entertain if you can cope with the play format. As always, there is enough magic to keep things moving, but within limitations so the characters have to work and develop to cope.  With a series like this, the characters have to be consistent in order to maintain our interest, which some saga writers struggle with, so it was good to see the same foibles as well as the strengths of Harry et al in a new series of settings.


It goes without saying that I would love to see the play live, but I suspect it will be a while before I can organise that. Just a thought, that if so many people want to see it around the world, would it be possible to do a live cinema broadcast as they have for some Shakespeares’ that have sold out within hours? Not a film, which would take years, and is a different beast altogether, but a one off showing with no encore evenings? Thus those of us who cannot for many reasons attend the theatre (distance, finance, mobilty etc) in London could hope to see it in a setting which we can more easily access. Encore evenings would make it a less special experience, but those of us who will not get to London for the show could make the effort for a one off chance.

Whatever happens, I really enjoyed reading this despite it not being a novel, and would recommend it to Potter completists and anyone who ever wondered what happened next…