Thalia by Frances Faviell

Just to prove that I am not always reading and writing about really fashionable or famous books, this is a review of a book that has been produced by Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press along with Faviell’s other books with probably less impact. Unlike her other books, this does not relate to the Second World War, and I found it a little difficult to date.

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This is one of those coming of age novels that lingers in the mind long after you have finished reading. Totally different from A Chelsea Concerto, my other experience of Faviell’s writing, I can only say that this is never a boring read, as dramatic action is never far away. Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press have found another winner! This book was one of the first set of their books to be produced, so has been available for some time in this reprinted version, an excellent outcome for anyone who had been searching for a copy.

This book is mostly set in a small resort in France, among an expat English community. It is summed up in the Introduction as “based on her own (Faviell’s) experience in France before the war when she was acting as a chaperone to a young teenager for the summer”. That sounds a little pedestrian, but this first person narrative is full of the passion of first love, searching for a career, and the confusion of what makes the contradictory people around her tick. Rachel has already angered her aunt and her father is absent, so she is exiled from her studies at the Slade school of Art and sent to France.  She is open to impressions from older men, pressures from the family she is living with, as well as a background of religious festivals and faith.

The strongest force in the book is undoubtedly Thalia, as her unpredictable actions and growing devotion to Rachel colours everything. As Rachel finds love there is subtle sabotage; Thalia’s own fractured relationship with her mother makes her a jealous soul to deal with for an uncertain chaperone. Thalia is obsessed with her absent father and there are worrying reports of her childhood in India. Added to the normal, for many girls, resentment of a mother whose own beauty is on the wane, Thalia is a complex character. When Rachel makes a break for it, she cannot foresee what will bring her back, and what will happen to a girl who is outwardly plain, but can reflect great beauty of her own. This is a novel of the time when outward feminine beauty meant so much, and its valuation by others had such effect on lives. So any feminism is subtle, and of a different quality from what we would expect from a contemporary novel, but this book is dominated by female characters. The male characters are all heavily criticised, seen as predictably weak, spoilt or lacking in some ways. Even those who try to help Rachel and Thalia are limited in some ways.

I enjoyed this book, despite the fact that I read it over a long period of time on ebook. It is not great literature, and can take some melodramatic turns, but that perhaps is a result of the perceived nature of teenagers whose views are seen as so dramatic.  As a book about young women trying to find their way in the world in difficult circumstances it is worthy book, and an interesting view of experience.

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

More fictional Murder! The title “Golden Age of Murder” sounds dated, but I think we still enjoy the Agatha Christies and so many other murder mysteries presented in books, television and film that this book is a fascinating insight into how it all began or at least how it got to be so popular.

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This is the ultimate source book for anyone interested in the crime writers of the interwar period in Britain. It has depth; I used some of the information for a talk on one of the writers it has large sections on, Dorothy L Sayers. It has breadth; many of the authors currently being reprinted by the British Library Crime Classics and the excellent Dean Street Press are mentioned in detail here. It is, perhaps most importantly, a very readable book about the writers of novels and stories with very few spoilers for the actual books. Edwards has published a very clearly written, detailed guide to an entire era in publishing of books that most of us have encountered at some point, and for real fans of the genre it gives so many starting points for further reading it provides a reason why it has taken me a while to read.

The subtitle of this book is “The Mystery of the Writers who Invented the Modern Detective Story”. This book features the writers, such as Sayers and Agatha Christie, who were the mainstay of The Detection Club formed by those British writers who wanted to meet to provide mutual support in the financially unpredictable pursuit of writing novel which featured mysteries, usually murder. Ritual and rules assumed different levels of support in a Society which invited members on the basis of their achievements in a genre which was emerging with the twentieth century, and gained its greatest popularity in the interwar years and in the beginnings of the Second World War. There are so many writers mentioned in this book I would suggest that most could find their own favourites among the ranks of Allingham, Berkeley, Doyle, Punshon, Jerrold and dozens more. Their interrelationships, personal issues and so forth are discussed here, as well as their relationships with other writers and publishers. The human stories behind the creation of the classics of criminal endeavour in terms of what the stories were based on, as well as highlighting why and how the stories were constructed provides some fascinating reading.

True life crime and moral questions as well as the detailed working out of seemingly impossible crimes are detailed here, especially in brief notes at the end of each chapter which can trigger many ideas for further reading. It is possible to read this book straight through as a study of people who wrote books, why and how, but it is also an extensive resource for more detailed study of an entire genre. Sometimes dismissed as cosy, dated storiess, this book covers an enormous range of writing which provides an invaluable social history and mysteries which still confuse and are popular today in their many tv and film outings.

My particular reason for enjoying this book, aside from the detailed notes and indexes, is the fascinatingly human stories of writers such as Sayers and Christie in their context. Women writers and indeed readers have been the mainstay of murder mysteries for decades. Edwards, together with the British Library and Dean Street Press, together with so many other publishers and groups, are keeping fictional murder alive (!) in all its complex and entertaining “Golden Age”.

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

Away from murder, and back to Mothering Sunday. Back, that  is, to Graham Swift’s version of an interwar Mothering Sunday in a short but I felt, well written book which has implications for so much more than one day.

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A slightly trimmed image of the cover!

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

This short book, novella, romance, call it what you will, on one level is long enough for one idea. Jane Fairchild is a servant who has been having an affair with Paul Sheringham. This Mothering Sunday is to be their last meeting, certainly for this illicit purpose, as Paul is to get married within weeks. So far, so simple. Certainly a nice simple idea for 149 pages. Regrets, yes, the ending of a relationship, certainly. This short book on the surface is a short farewell to a sort of love.

The really impressive thing about this book soon becomes obvious. The title indicates that Jane is benefitting from a tradition of servants having Mothering Sunday, this day in March, free to return to their families, their mothers. Jane is an orphan, a foundling, without any family or even clue to a real name. This fact continues into a discussion of what she should do, her friendly even fatherly employer, the bicycle he provides, the books she can borrow, and all the many layers of contributory factors to a situation just as complex as many a full length novel. That is what is so fascinating about this book; it is just like real life in that no significant event happens in a vacuum, its causes, implications and impact come from so many sources, affect so many people, change so many lives.

Paul is in some senses the special son, as he has survived. This story is set in 1924, when the generation lost in the war is still a vivid memory, bedrooms still hold the everyday possessions of the dead, and servants are a disappearing breed. Jane is surprised at her summons to a house left empty as parents, servants and everyone has gone. Her opposite number as a maid, Ethel, is imagined as she will clear the room, pick up clothes, possibly wonder what Paul actually did in this fine spring morning. Even while the small events of the morning and early afternoon are happening, Jane imagines what will happen, the effects on the rest of her life. Her movement round the house is weighted with thoughts of what has happened to her so far, and thoughts to a future without Paul.

This book suggests what it is to be a writer, the watching of light, people, objects. The balancing of influences of family, or lack of one, creating a name, a background. Imagining what people will do, how they will react, what they will do in unforeseen circumstances. From early in the book we are told that Jane will survive, live a long life, become a significant writer. In one day, in this Mothering Sunday, her life’s pattern is discussed.

This book is a little obvious in its descriptions, and conceals nothing in any sense. I read it with fascination as it almost hypnotises with its detailed observations and Jane’s processing of what is happening. It is short, but packs in so much in a deceptively small “Tale”. It is unique in what it suggests and achieves within this format, and deserves to be read.

The Dead shall be Raised by George Bellairs – a British Library Crime Classic

On Easter Tuesday, what better than a bit of Murder at the Vicarage – fictional of course! A recent British Library Crime Classic is two stories featuring Inspector Littlejohn, and very good stories they are too.

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This book features at least two murders; good solid mysteries which kept this reader guessing to the end.

I enjoyed the first particularly as it opens with a description of a performance of Messiah in a Methodist church, featuring Superintendent Haworth, local detective with whom Littlejohn agrees to break his holiday to investigate a local crime. The performance is described in loving detail and leads to some funny exchanges, as news of a “cold case” comes into the police station. A message is sent to the church; “Now don’t go and upset him in the middle of Why Do the Nations, but give it him as soon as you can.” As the blushing constable considers exactly when to interrupt his boss, it begins to sink in that a body missing for many years has been found on the moors. It soon becomes clear that a murder assumed to have been motivated by the love of a local woman is not as straightforward as it seems, as death and disappearances mount. The final twists, appreciated by Littlejohn in all its implications, made this a murder mystery I did not solve before the end. This is a super piece of writing as the detective is seen as human, with his reactions and understanding well expressed as he tracks down those involved and guilty.

The other short novel in the book deals with the murder of a “Quack”, an unlicensed medical practitioner whose unorthodox treatments of otherwise hopeless cases may or may not have contributed to an almost locked room murder.  Littlejohn is brought in to investigate a mysterious death, and discovers a family tradition of complementary medicine which depends on observation and calculated experimentation.  Within the local community and family there are tensions to be discovered, and soon more than one suspect emerges. I enjoyed Littlejohn’s reactions to the people he must encounter, as he realises that not all of them as are a straightforward as they imagine. He detects how one character has been unduly influenced by another she has been close to, and reflects on this nonsense that his wife would soon have dealt with in her own way.

I have enjoyed the books that the British Library have reprinted by George Bellairs, or Harold Blundell as he was known in his real life in banking. As Martin Edwards says in his introduction, he was a steady, detailed writer rather than a superstar like Sayers, factors reflected in his detective creation, whose patience is needed in these tales. Of this ever growing collection of novels (a new shelf is needed for the forty plus editions in this house) this is a good buy and as murder goes, most enjoyable.

 

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

In the busy build up to Easter, when family and friends are perhaps looming, today’s book may be a challenging read. I would recommend you do find time to read and enjoy it, even if it is not always comforting story or series of tales.

 

I was so keen to read this book that I invested in the hardback (that, and I was in a favourite bookshop just before we moved house). I am glad I did, partly because the cover of the paperback is a sad let down in terms of suggesting that this novel is only a wartime romance. There is romance in this book, but of a very down to earth type, full of the chat and understanding that make the various relationships between the characters seem real.

There is a lot going on in this book. Mary is a young woman who wants to be involved in the war from the very start. She believes and hopes that she has signed up for secret war work, but it is not a spoiler to say that she ends up in a classroom, and it is through this situation that she meets Tom, who soon becomes fascinated with her and her unlikely set of attitudes. She also encounters some children who for various reasons are not evacuated, and she becomes involved with their lives. Tom’s friend Alistair joins up, and his experiences of life in the army are described with the detail that reveals that, as Cleave mentions in his afterword, he based that section on his grandfather’s accounts.

The beginning of the blitz as well as one character’s progress at the front gives an intensity to this book that made me put it down at the end of chapters to understand what had happened. Cleave plays tricks on the reader as bravery, even survival, is completely at risk. While there are four main characters, there are the friends, relatives and colleagues who maintain the dialogue, sometimes the plain speaking, which makes for a sometimes painful realism. Not that this is a sad or cheerless book; indeed, sometimes the conversations between the main characters are laugh out loud funny. Maybe it is gallows humour, but it is the sort of humour that does happen at times of stress or endurance; it’s the first time I have seen it not only written down but maintained between so many of the characters.

I enjoyed this book, even though I struggled with some of the tragedies. The style is so confident, whether dealing with disaster or hope. The theme of racial discrimination is tackled as a fact, rather than a point for preaching. There is sadness at the difficulties some people, some children face. It challenges the assumptions that all children were evacuated away from the bombing, which many contemporary sources argue simply did not happen in a significant number of cases. There are disturbing images here, but also the hope and survival of the human spirit. The hysterical reaction to the bombing of London feels slightly drunken, as characters come to terms with loss and change to familiar landscapes in all senses. It is that element which remains with me as I recognise the dawn realisation that so much has changed, but much is the same.

So I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the Second World War, as well as vivid, human writing about life changing experiences. It is an intense read rather than a fast one, not gripping in the sense of a thriller but in the sense of human curiosity. This is not an easy read, but such a richly written book that I would suggest you get your hands on a copy you can keep for some time and relish.

 

Shiny New Books review – Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett

Over on Shiny New Books this very day, my review of Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett. I thought that it was a really memorable book, written very much from Anna’s point of view as she negotiates life with a difficult father. There are some great descriptions of life in an industrial town, for women as well as men, in the early twentieth century. It is quite an emotional book, but very involving in its elements of hope and romance. I enjoyed rediscovering this writer, and getting his view of twentieth century (ish) life.

See http://shinynewbooks.co.uk/anna-of-the-five-towns-by-arnold-bennett/

 

The Warrielaw Jewel by Winifred Peck

After various visits to exciting bookshops, including one on a hill in Buxton (Scriveners Books, friendly staff and you can watch hand bookbinding), I thought I would look at a book I actually got through the post from the ever lovely Dean St Press.

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Winifred Peck wrote two mystery novels, and they have turned out very differently. To say that The Warrielaw Jewel is more domestic sounds like a criticism, but in this case it is a compliment. It deals with Edinburgh life before the First World War, written from the perspective of a woman newly married into the society of ancient families, strange obsessions, and beliefs about inheritance that defy logic. Betty’s husband is a lawyer, well versed in the history of families who live to strict rules of their own devising, but who are keen to drag in the law prove a point. This makes it sound dry, but it certainly is not, as early cars screech around, gentlemen detectives detect, and the plot becomes increasingly convoluted.

 

Betty is introduced to two of the Warrielaw family when they call to see her, on the surface as a bride, but really hoping to talk to her husband John about the legal knots that the family has tied itself into over inherited property. Apart from a large house and garden, the burden of the squabble seems to be a jewel, not of fabulous value for its stones, but for the workmanship which is so exquisite that it seems not of human origin. Within days the jewel is stolen, petty jealousies rise and a murder has been committed. The sound of cars rushing around, mammoth walks and the narrator falling asleep at unlikely times add up to an engaging mystery, which cannot and will not be easily solved until the last gasp of available time.

 

The plot rapidly becomes complicated and motives assumed and discarded in the face of a mystery played out across the city. As with Peck’s other novels, it is a mixture of the dialogue and the characters that really engage the reader. Little clues of speech reveal much, as a chief suspect learns of his peril and replies with “In the midst of death we are at breakfast time. Let us send out for some sausages.” His clothes, noticeable in a crowd, contrast with those worn by his aunts, being carefully described in their colour and style to reflect the personalities of the wearer also assume some significance in other ways. Peck notices and describes (in her fictional creations) the telling gesture, the glimpse through a window which reveals so much. The style of writing is so elegant, so assured, that the reader is completely engaged, not only to solve the mystery, but to revel in exactly how it was done.

 

I really enjoyed this novel, partly as a murder mystery published in the Golden Age even if set before the interwar years, and partly because it is a tale of a society complicated by tradition, some wealth and some pithy observations about families and women within and without them. As in Peck’s other reprinted book, Housebound (Persephone no.72), the houses and streets, gardens and even vehicles assume importance as Peck obviously enjoys visualising the settings in which she has set her fully realised characters. Romance, risk and a satisfying pace make this another excellent read from Dean Street Press, and I am very grateful that they supplied me with actual copy of this memorable book.