200 posts and Poldark!

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200 posts! That’s quite a lot of posts about books and bookish things to have written. I think I started writing and posting in 2010, so I suppose it’s not that many ( the mathematically inclined can work out averages). In that time a lot has happened, some good, some bad, and some good excuses why I have not posted for a while… I did, for example, move two houses into one and complete courses in Citizen’s Advice and TEFL…I could pontificate for some time about why I post at all. I think the main reason is that I love books and want to tell the world about some of them. Sometimes I write a formal review, sometimes it’s more chatty, but thank you to all my followers for putting up with me, and Harry (technical support) for making it possible. Not forgetting @HannahPopsy for going and qualifying as a Doctor despite everything else, and of course http://www.northernvicar.co.uk for pausing between churches to cast an eye over my blog.

To the other focus of this post, POLDARK!

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Or, for those who are past a certain age…or whose parents bought the dvds..

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Or, for the purposes of this post

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Yes, the books are what I have enjoyed most….followed by Robin Ellis who brought a lot more thoughtfulness to the part. Ok, and Aiden, who is bringing other things…..

I always seem to have possessed at least the first Poldark book. I think I can remember the Robin Ellis version first time around (yes, they showed dubious scenes of passion in Cornwall at 7.30pm in those days), but they repeated it on daytime tv while I was hanging around waiting for daughter to be born. I collected the videos from Woolworths as they came out, which I replaced with a set of dvds from Barter Books, of all places. I am just managing to avoid watching them until the current series finishes on Sunday (otherwise known as my birthday).

The books. Why, you ask, with all these tv series to watch, do I read them?

I read all 12 volumes over many years, collecting number 12 in hardback when it came out in 2002 (? I may be wrong, don’t quote me). I have bought other Winston Graham books over the years, including Marnie (Hitchcock’s vision of which made a great film) and he was one of the few male authors allowed into my select library in my “other” house. (Anthony Trollope being the only other one).

Why do I love the Poldark books? Well, there are elements of saga, recurring characters and setting, and plenty of “Oh no, don’t do that moments”. The death of Francis is moving, and generally I think that the character of Demelza is so understandable. She tries so hard, feels so deeply, and it is completely believable that they have portrayed her as a fiery redhead in both tv series. Having said that, I think that both the late Angharad Rees and Eleanor both bring lots to the role which makes the character really live. There are goodies and baddies, all around the character of Ross who well, defies description. Start by reading Ross Poldark in a copy with decent sized type for preference, and see if it draws you in too. You can pick up copies everywhere… fortunately as my friend Anne neatly avoided a domestic crisis when she found volume six on Saturday… it was in the correct place where I hadn’t looked…

As for the controversy on the tv version. It’s in the books. It could have been done more subtly, as it did send out mixed messages. I think it’s a bit like the problem that Philippa Gregory mentioned in her talk at Harrogate. It is about the 18th century, with all that implies. The book was written in the 1960s. It was filmed for 21st century audiences who can be presumed to not be be historians. So we are dealing with three different perspectives. Ross was undoubtedly wrong. So very, very, wrong. And violent. Was it wrong to show the scene? Could it have been done differently? Ought it to have been done differently? I’m not sure. I did think the most real reaction was Demelza’s.  Only a black eye?

Anyway. Thank you for reading to the end, thank you for looking through any of my other 199 posts, and here’s to the next 100 or so!!!



Murder has a Motive, Serpents in Eden and Murder at the Manor – is no where safe??

After some very sensible books I thought that I would do a quick blog about a cheerful subject – multiple, fictional and historical murder. Multiple because Serpents in Eden is one of the British Library Crime Classics books of short murder stories, mainly of the Golden Age, historical because I really dislike contemporary murder stories (with the exception of Ann Cleeves), and fictional because I don’t like true crime, from whenever…

Having said all the things I don’t like, I do like Serpents in Eden.  As a determined collector of the British Library series, I have my favourites in the series, which I have mentioned on this blog. I have found the short story collections more difficult to get into, but more rewarding in their way, as each short story has to include a murder and its resolution, however contrived. It’s quite a tall order to get all of this in a short tale, and some writers miss, but in a collection like this really only has the hits, as they have survived many decades in one form or another. Having said that, Martin Edwards and co have had to seek out some fairly obscure collections and magazines to find these, even when their authors are otherwise well known. Margery Allingham is included, in a lovely story of dark doings at a village flower show:

The disaster itself was not complicated.Rather, it was one of those occurrences which possess all the simple awfulness of Greek Tragedy.    

There are murders here, unexplained deaths and unforeseen happenings abound, and the great thing is that if you are not enjoying one story, there will be another one along in a minute. I admire the way these authors can create a countryside world in a couple of paragraphs, as well as work in a plot. Some depend on using an established detective, but most create characters especially for the tale. There are at least three sets of short stories in this series, and they are all good reads (and good value for money).  I have also read Murder at the Manor,   a set of short stories set in the great houses of Britain (most are fictional). Again, even if there are some stories which do not ‘work’, for a reader, there are plenty that do succeed. They are difficult to review as the stories by different authors are so very diverse, but these books are ideal for picking up and putting down, although there is the temptation to read ‘just one more’.

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Having said all that about short murder stories, an entire novel with one detective and murder in a village is Murder has a Motive by Francis Duncan. It is a Mordecai Tremaine mystery, and I first encountered this detective (distinctly amateur) Murder for Christmas , a festive little murder available last year . Since then Vintage have produced three more titles, and this one is very interesting.

Originally published in 1947, this is a story set in a village which is dominated by a local amateur production of a murder mystery by the quite well off inhabitants. Mordecai is visiting the village doctor and wife, but he arrives just after a tragic murder is discovered and gets drawn into working out what is going on. The first murder is quite sad and shocking, but there are elements of farce as each member of the community comes under suspicion. There was a lot of deep thought here, as well as red herrings and bad atmosphere, but the mystery is satisfyingly complex and follows the finest traditions of a closed community of distinctive characters. I enjoyed this novel as a good read, a good combination of the obvious and the devious, as well as an interesting picture of country life. Mordecai thinks to himself:

Life was ugly and untidy besides being beautiful and marvellous and full of wonder. You had to see the dirt as well as the stars.  

This is a good, satisfying murder mystery, well worth seeking out. I already have another one ready to read….

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Peace Breaks Out – Angela Thirkell

I usually try to review books in this blog that are easy to get hold of, but I think I will do this one as although copies are expensive, it is being brought out on kindle on the 3rd November so will be available. I am surprised that Virago bring out some of Thirkell’s books on kindle only; those who have discovered her usually like physical copies of her books to add to their collection. I have two physical copies, but would still welcome a paperback. The three books that are coming out on the 3rd are on my birthday list, so watch this space…

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This is one of Thirkell’s  wartime novels in a way, though based more on the events of V.E. Day and “Vee – Jay” Day. It does reflect why some do not get on with her books, as the war is a background issue and those who lose loved ones rare in her books. There is a character in one book whose husband is posted as missing, and it is a moving picture of a woman whose life is in some senses on hold until she gets confirmation of her husband’s fate.  One of the characters who is not always the most popular (Mr Adams) tries so hard to find news. Which novel is it? I feel it might be one that is due to come out in the near future…

But I digress. This novel is surprisingly bitter about Peace being declared, seeing the announcement as an inconvenience rather  than marking the end of a terrifying time. Maybe it’s because this book is set in the countryside where air raids are rare (see Northbridge Rectory   for  home front descriptions), or maybe the day to day concerns of bread supply are the realistic way most people actually made it through. There are some disturbing references to refugees from European countries, but maybe I’m a little sensitive to such things at this time. Having just finished a Mitford novel ( I read them over breakfast – don’t judge) I found myself gritting my teeth far more over her subject matter. Is it a matter of hindsight or a genuine problem with writing of the past?

This novel is dominated by romance. David is at his outrageous flirting again, which almost proved disastrous in Wild Strawberries  , and it is more than time that someone stronger takes him on, which looks increasingly possible. In the meantime both Anne (Miss Buntings second heroine) and Martin are both made miserable by his antics. This book features many reoccurring characters, so may not be the best place to start with Thirkell (High Rising or Wild Strawberries  being better) . This novel will not disappoint Thirkell fans, if only because it features Lady Emily and her “portable property” barriers, her formidable if selective memory, and her appreciation of “that lovely creature”, Robin’s mother. This book ends so well for those with a sentimental nature, but could put others off who like their fiction a little more realistic and sensible….

In other news, northernvicar and I made our annual pilgrimage to Harrogate for the History festival. We only went to events on the Friday, but saw some interesting new novelists speak about their debut novels, and Wolf Winter  win the prize. I also saw Philippa Gregory’s presentation on her work, and the queues for book signing after she won the Outstanding Contribution Award. I have reviewed a few of her books, including her latest here https://northernreader.wordpress.com/category/philippa-gregory/ More to come about this festival I’m sure.

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A Chelsea Concerto – Francis Favell – A Furrowed Middlebrow book

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Here is the first book that I have read from the reprint series from Furrowed Middlebrow. I was approached to review it in ebook form, which does affect my reading of it, and explains why I can only use this image that someone else has supplied. But I really found it an amazing book, so different from the other accounts of the Blitz in London that I have read.

Firstly, despite the fact that this book was written several years after the events described, this does not read like a novel. The Narrator records her own experiences in the order they happened, in all the confusion and muddle of a developing situation. This gives an immediacy to the text and an importance to such little things as the French design of a tin hat as well as the death of a friend that it usually found in a diary. That is not to say that the book is lacking characters; the obsessions of tragic Ruth and the solid dependable Mrs. Feetch are only two of the people who come to life in this book. The fear of destruction written about so movingly in the first part of the book is in contrast with the writer’s apparent optimism for much of the book’s progress, but it is never far away as every building becomes a target. Churches, hospitals and of course homes are destroyed, and the sense of helplessness as the water supply is cut off and help cannot get through is very vivid. There are nightmare images that Favell witnessed and experiences that she endured which make this a grim read in places; this is not fiction in any sense, but distilled horror of war.

Having said this, this can be a funny and endearing book as Favell also recounts her experiences with the local characters, like old soldiers determined to help even though they are in their eighties, and a patient travelling in an ambulance who  is greatly comforted by a detailed account of the scenery going past, only to discover that the speaker could not actually see out of the window. There are shards of hope and love even if life is brief and troubled. Favell’s voluntary work meant that she effectively looked after a group of Flemish refugees, who are described as real individuals, real people who argue and fight, but who also stand together in their suffering. “The Giant” is described as a real man, trapped by his temper as well as forces beyond his control.  I was also struck by the reality of Catherine whose life story is tragic, yet she battles on with the support of Frances and others.

This book is an illustration of the fact that numbers of dead and injured mean little to the reader compared with the stories of real people, real lives and loves. Yes, much of this book is sad, but the survival of the human spirit makes real the story of the blitz in London and in many other cities throughout this country and others. As someone who has read quite widely in the fact and fiction of this period, I really appreciated the opportunity to read this otherwise rare book, and I look forward to many other Furrowed Middlebrow reprints.

Every Good Deed and Other Stories – Dorothy Whipple – a new Persephone!

I was really pleased to get a review copy of this book, another long awaited short story collection by that much undervalued writer of the twentieth century, Dorothy Whipple. If you have ever looked at the Persephone collection of books, which now number 120, you will have heard of the great Dorothy Whipple. They now publish ten of her books, including eight novels and the rather good collection of short stories The Closed Door and Other Stories  (Persephone no. 74). There has been much debate about why this novelist whose books were very popular when published is not more known today. Some have pointed out that the writing is too intimate, perhaps too painfully honest, so that the reader cannot help be drawn too far in, identify with the characters so much that they feel their sadness or frustration. Certainly that can be a difficulty with some of the longer novels; it is sometimes necessary to put them down and return to real life, such is the pull of the narrative, the emotions related. I would argue that such involving writing can be cathartic and necessary in a difficult modern world!

The title story, Every Good Deed  is in fact a novella, published separately in its original form, and thus is longer than the other stories. It is about the “Miss Tophams (who) lived tranquilly at The Willows”. They live quiet lives full of good works and music; their lives are made easy by the efforts of their invaluable Cook, and everything is ordered and pleasant. Their lives are then invaded by the odious Gwen, and suddenly they have to deal with a girl of more realism, more up to date and grasping ways. They have until now lived in a dated bubble of mutual congratulation and  innocence, now they have to deal with the reality of real life, financial demands, and teenage tantrums. I winced at this, the crash that was coming, the complete upset of a world. I could also see Gwen’s view, in an environment she had not expected, never understood, and it was to be anticipated, perhaps, that she would take advantage of in a day to day way. When she leaves, quietness and contentment descends once more, until her return brings a new life to the sisters. Their dilemma is summed up in one paragraph.

But nowadays it is different. The Miss Tophams were modern in that they were apologetic about what they thought to be right and diffident in condemning what they felt to be wrong, in case it wasn’t. The conversation that took place in Miss Emily’s bedroom that night…might have amused a sophisticated listener.   

This is a story with twists that sadden and change the story from the expected, but also show a realism of a lifestyle challenged and changed by real life, and in which hope and loyalty can triumph.

The other stories, as different in many ways as possible, always feature at least one woman who is challenged by the choices and behaviour of another. Boarding house  is a fascinating little picture of how one person is fated to change the complacency  of many lives. Susan is so sad, but unsurprising. Miss Pratt  is a delightful story of families and dependent relations which really appealed to me. The story that lingers is One Dark Night,  even if the ending is a little contrived, which shows war as a nuisance rather than just full  of grand heroic gestures.

The world of Dorthy Whipple is full of the small intimate details of lives lived which drag you in, and in these short stories sometimes trick you by diverting off in unexpected ways. Do try this book for pictures of lives past, but still real.

Persephone Books are available from several enlightened bookshops where they live on shelves, or directly from http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/ where you can easily get lost for many hours of bookish pleasure.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend – Katarina Bivald

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This is not my usual type of book; by a Swedish writer and set in America. But it’s about BOOKS!

The setting is a fairly small, fairly hopeless town in Iowa. The theme is the power of books to  enhance and even change lives, as demonstrated (arguably) by the narrative of the novel.

Sara leaves her disappointing life in Sweden where she has been working in a now defunct bookshop to visit her pen pal Amy. They have been exchanging letters and books for some time, and Amy has been writing so vividly about the town and its inhabitants that Sara feels that she will recognise them. However, when Sara actually arrives in Broken Wheel, she discovers that Amy has just died. She is pressed to stay, and recognises the people and situations that Amy has described. She is beginning to despair, even running out of the books that she has brought with her,  until she discovers Amy’s collection of well loved books and realises that she could perhaps help some of the frustrated and fed up people she sees around her. She asks for help to open a bookshop, that will sell, lend or generally supply the right book for anyone who ventures into the shop.

As you might guess, a transformation in many lives is effected, as romance and the rebuilding of relationships begins. The town also changes as Sara and the bookshop becomes the focus of attention. There are some dramatic moments, and some very funny developments which I enjoyed. There is a little too much romance, too much wish fulfillment for my taste, but it ends on a generally satisfactory note. I am not sure which market this book is aiming for, as it is a little to quirky for a straight romance, and perhaps lacks focus. It is certainly worth a read, as the characters are engaging (look out for the gun toting Grace!) and Sara’s sadness at a life which she does not want to return to is touching. Tom and George get a little muddled in my mind, but Amy’s letters are all too brief set irregularly in the text. I was not sure that they really achieved the picture that they are said to have done in Sara’s mind to urge her visit. This is a good, engaging book, with some unexpected twists which seems to be doing well in this bestseller lists. I can imagine that there will be a film of this at some point, but it will have to be sharpened up first. I was also surprised by how many books mentioned are British! (Bridget Jones?) It is an interesting novel about the power of books and I may well suggest it for my new book group (still in the arranging stage!).

The Secret of High Eldersham – Miles Burton

Of all the Golden Age Crime reissues that the British Library have recently brought out, The Secret of High Eldersham  must be one of the strangest. I have been reading my way through many of these books, collecting them all, and this one wanders off from the point far more than any of the rest. It opens with a murder, the local police are soon baffled, and an unofficial expert is accordingly consulted. So far, so normal for these type of novels. I began to think that the author had miscalculated and would wrap up the narrative more quickly than the apparent length of this book would warrant. Maybe there would be a romance, I thought. Or many purple passages of prose about the countryside setting. Or even a theological excursion, as in one murder mystery I read recently. Having lived for a while in East Anglia I thought that it would be interesting to see how Burton dealt with local secrecy in 1930.

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That’s where it all went a little strange. The whole village is in the grip of something so unusual that the author obviously had to hop off to his reference books (remember those pre internet days?) to do lots of research. I am not sure whether it was a good idea; by the time it had been related back to the situation in hand I had quite literally lost the plot. If this is “fast paced and crisply told ” as the back cover promises, well, I’m not at all convinced. A working knowledge of matters marine would have helped me; prolonged passages relating to boats, tides and stuff was a bit confusing to someone brought up in the landlocked midlands (and who has recently returned there). There was also violence, but I even got confused as to who was fighting who, and whose unconscious body was which.

This is an interesting read in many ways, though I am really not convinced by the whole research/narrative ratio, and I think that  it was unnecessarily confusing overall. If you are new to this series of books, this is not one to start with as representing the usual high quality of writing. I can cope with solving the mystery before the end, or not really being satisfied as to the outcome of a book, but this was a tricky read. Having said that, I did finish it, and probably learnt something about the subject matter of the book, but I would have preferred the straightforward murder mystery of its time than this strange book.

Try Anything Twice – Jan Struther, the real Mrs Miniver?

The front of this book proclaims it is by the author of “Mrs Miniver”, which will mean different things to different people. The original novel is very much along the lines of “Diary of a Provincial Lady” a brilliantly funny book if your reading tastes run to country life between the wars of the 20th century. “Mrs Miniver” is a far more earnest affair, with far fewer funny situations and characters. I mentioned it in a blog post in January 2011 (see under “Jan Struther” in my author column on the right>>) as it has been seen as a hugely significant novel in the USA during the early 1940s, influencing many towards involvement in the European war. Jan Struther herself undertook tours of various parts  of America to speak about her book and the British war effort. The famous film, Mrs Miniver, though loosely based on the book, captured a sense of brave little Britain, fighting on against the odds.

Her real name was Joyce Maxtone Graham, and it is certain that she lived a life far less settled than her  most famous character. Her granddaughter, Ysenda Maxtone Graham, has written a moving biography of her grandmother and it has been published by “Slightly Foxed”. The Real Mrs Miniver,  (no. 21, limited edition). In that she emerges as a very real person, with all the contradictions and confusions of a woman living in challenging times. She was a poet, some of whose poems appear as popular hymns to this day. She reviewed books and wrote articles, some brief and amusing, some snapshots of holidays and life which linger in the mind.

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It is these articles which form the basis of Try Anything Twice,  a collection of pieces that she wrote in the 1930s, but which have surprising links to today. The need to economise to meet all the bills suggests

“Whichever method is employed to stave off disaster…that intricate gymnastic exercise which consists of simultaneously pulling up one’s socks, drawing in one’s horns, and turning over a new leaf.”   

“Genius may write on the back of old envelopes, but mere talent requires the very best stationary money can buy”

“Giving a party is very like having a baby: its conception is more fun than its completion, and once you have begun it is almost impossible to stop.”       

It is a book of its time, yet, giving up newspapers on the basis that everyone hears important news anyway in order to save money and time seems oddly relevant. There are also some lovely pieces recording blissful holidays, and also some which discuss the mundane journeys which are regularly undertaken, yet are significant for the landmarks passed and memories evoked. This may be a book for the fan of women’s writing of the twentieth century, yet it has a haunting and sometimes very funny content for all readers.





The Captain with the Whiskers – review in Shiny New Books!

It’s Shiny New Books Day, and I have a review in the Reprints section!

It’s for The Captain with the Whiskers, a story of 20th century Ireland. It tells the story of a troubled family in the setting of the lives and loves of a small community, challenged by the forces of a changing world. It sounds a little depressing, but it’s so well written and captivating….

The Captain with the Whiskers by Benedict Kiely

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Why not pop over to Shiny New Books anyway? You will find a lot of reviews…and lose an hour or so…

Shiny New Books: Issue 12