The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag

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This book is a non fiction book largely set outside the UK, so not usually my sort of book for light reading. It is in some ways the book behind “My Family and Other Animals” by Gerald Durrell, in that it is the family history of a group of people that ranges from India to England, Corfu and other places offering homes to those driven by sadness, romance and friendship. It does not hold back on describing the differences between the amusing and neat adventures of a family in exile, travelling to a sunny, friendly safe idyll as depicted in the novel, and a real life spread of adult children in relationships.

This book has the advantage of a skilled writer working on a wealth of research into fairly recent history. Haag has had access to the diaries and photographs, many of which feature in this book, which tell the stories of the real houses that various members of the family inhabited on Corfu and other countries. It opens in India, telling of Louisa’s husband Lawrence and how his work took them many places. The loss of a daughter to diphtheria led to the infant Larry being aware at an early age of the vulnerability of life, and the effect that had on his writing. The births of Leslie, Margo and Gerry were followed by the death of Lawrence, and Louisa’s decision to take the children to England, where Larry was at school. Louisa’s deep unhappiness led her to move around the country, living in a variety of homes with Gerry as her constant companion. He records his early adventures with animals, such as a fierce dog called Prince, retired to a farm where ‘he could pick on something his own size, like a bullock’.

I think that one of the best elements of this book is the use of the writer’s deep knowledge of the writing of both “Gerry” and Larry. He recounts elements of how and where they wrote, as well as Gerry’s eventual need to write in order to support his zoo, his collection of animals he wanted to create and maintain to preserve creatures threatened in by the loss of habitat. It is not an airbrushed story; it tells how Larry and his wife Nancy lived elsewhere for much of the time, and visitors to the island such as Henry Miller recalled encounters with other visitors in the warm water and waves. Gerry’s preoccupation with the wildlife of the island was his saving, especially when channelled by Theodore Stephanides and others into real study and orderly observation. The characters of the island immortalised in Gerry’s writing are real, but with significant omissions such as Theo’s daughter Alexia. Margo is also often sidelined, suggesting in later life that she felt her education was unfairly disrupted even though she appeared not to be a fan of her boarding school at the time.

I was surprised how much the family jointly and severally travelled backwards and forwards to England before they left in 1939. Their lives and relationships after Corfu are well documented in this book, with photographs from the family. Again, nothing feels obscured as Leslie’s difficulties emerge, including his callous treatment of a maid, Maria, who had to flee her homeland owing to her pregnancy. As you may expect, this is not a chronicle of the happy family described in the television version, but a truthful version of a real family in all its ups and downs. The photographs liberally used in the text make it real, as well as the Epilogue which reveals the varied directions life took the Durrells post Corfu.

I would recommend this book to all who have enjoyed Gerald or Lawrence’s writing, or just the television versions. It is ‘warts and all’ but a very readable account of an unusual and amazing family.

We are reading “My Family” for our book club this month, and I have reviewed “Marrying off Mother” elsewhere on this blog. I am not usually a fan of animal books or memoir writing, but I just find Gerald Durrell’s writing so funny. I will embark on Lawrence’s one day!

Calamity in Kent by John Rowland – a British Library Crime Classic

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This book in the British Library Crime Classics series seemed to appear without a lot of fuss, which is a shame as I enjoyed it more than some other books which feature slow starts or a predictable answer. This opens very strongly, and there are elements of locked room mystery and thriller which kept my interest going until the very end.

This is a slightly unusual murder mystery as it features a freelance newspaper reporter rather than a detective. Told by Jimmy London, it offers a different perspective on the solving of murder as he is tacitly supported by Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard rather than the local police who are plodding rather than involved. This means the reader feels engaged as Jimmy follows clues and talks to people on an unofficial basis, rather than having sudden moments of detective inspiration. It means that he is frequently feels out of his depth, and his motives for pursuing the solution are not totally altruistic as he hopes for a scoop. He does become involved with some of the suspects as this unusual mystery unfolds.

The intriguing feature of this book is that the first corpse is found not in a locked room, but a locked carriage of a cliff railway. Jimmy encounters the bewildered operator who discovers the body, stabbed in the back. From the realisation that this story could revive his career, Jimmy proceeds to discover the clues that will assist not only his detective friend, but will maintain public interest in the developing case. Published in 1950, this picture of post war Britain with shortages of basic items and coming to terms with loss is an interesting read. The female characters do not drive much of the action, but are significant in the plot. I think that this book becomes a thriller towards the end, but still manages to tidy up the loose ends and answer the questions about who did what, and why. It is not always completely satisfactory in answering the questions of motivation, but the narrator is not a professional detective and proceeds as a “civilian”, which helps the reader feel as if they understand why he chooses his actions.

This is not a genre defining book, but fulfils a definite position in a series of interesting mysteries. According to Martin Edwards’ introduction Rowland was interested in true life crime, and this shows the appetite for such newspaper articles. I enjoyed reading this book, and think it a worthy addition to this series of mysteries.

My next few posts turn away from crime (!) and mystery as I look at two books that I have recently read and enjoyed. “The Durrells of Cofu” by Michael Haag is a real life account of the Durrell family’s real time on Corfu, behind the jolly “My Family and other Animals” and the tv series. “Jane Austen at Home” is a book by Lucy Worsley which made not only the basis for a tv programme  but a piece in Private Eye. Two (or more!) writers and their real stories; not as neat as their novels would suggest. Watch this space!

Margaret the First, A Novel by Danielle Dutton

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Who was Margaret the First? You may well ask, and unless you do some extra research this book will not really give you the biographical facts usually recited about this real person who endured exile and relative poverty as a result of Civil War and loss of royal favour. If you track this book down, however, you will learn a lot about how this character felt, thought and something of her determination to live and write in her own way, based on the books that survive her.

Margaret made a marriage for love to William Cavendish at the start of Queen Henrietta Maria’s exile at the beginning of the English Civil War. He encourages her to write plays, poems and other wild, visionary pieces of stories, fantasies and new ideas. When she returns to England, and William eventually reclaims his family lands and houses, she writes for publication, in many ways being one of the first noble ladies to do so, especially as her work includes the new philosophies and discoveries which filled the interests of so many in Restoration London. She attends the Royal Society, being the first woman to do so and the last one for two hundred years. She comes to the attention of Samuel Pepys and other writers and diarists, as much for her amazing self designed clothes and grand entrances to theatres as her writing.

Despite her writing being in print at the moment, and at many stages since her relatively early death, not much is written about her compared with, for example, Pepys. She was not writing a diary, and she did not begin a particular writing genre such as the novel so her work was and is difficult to catagorise. Such people as Virginia Woolf admired her, but it is possible to visit one of the family houses and not read anything about her. She obviously, from this book, had an incredible imagination that took ideas from others and embellished them into extraordinary visions. She saw nature in amazing ways, rivers had sounds and personalities, the world to her was unlimited by time and space.

This short book, novel, switches viewpoints between the first and third person, revealing where Margaret was living and seeing it through her eyes. It is not at all biographical in the traditional sense, but the confidence of the style is that the reader seems to see, hear and smell through Margaret’s senses, which can make it a little overwhelming. The length of the book would suggest it is a quick read, but I found it too intense to read quickly or in one sitting. Technically it is almost a stream of consciousness, as Dutton slides between seeing nature as a cathedral, and details the mess and noise of a poor area of London. So while this book lacks a line of story in the ordinary sense, the reader gets the sense of what her life was actually like. She had no children, but as William was already provided with heirs from his first marriage, he chooses to remain devoted to her as she did to him.

So this is a difficult book to describe and convince another to read, but it is as extraordinary as it seems the lady was herself. Which is some achievement.

This  was going to be a brief post to reflect the length of the book, but it became longer as it is such unusual book. If you do get chance to read it, it is fascinating.

Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell and a few words on the new Lucy Worsley

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If the large number of Angela Thirkell novels now in paperback (not enough, Virago!) are a bit confusing, this early book may appeal. It is not the first in the series, but stands alone well (as most of the books do, really) and while it introduces and mentions characters that have a lot of involvement in the storylines of the other novels, you do not need to know all about them to follow the plot of this book.

It is a simple plot. Alice, shy artist daughter of Mrs Barton, author, is completely terrified of going to a house party at Pomfret towers. Her father and brother Guy are pretty mystified by this, but the inclusion of two family friends, Sally and Roddy, in the invitation gives her some courage. The house seems to be full of authors, established and would be, publishers, artists as well as sundry guests who fill Alice with varying levels of trepidation, but she survives as does everyone else. Some dreams are fulfilled, some suffer agonies of disappointment, others find a new life and partner as a result of a weekend in the country.

This could easily be the setting for a country house murder, but Thirkell is more interested in pushing her characters into less obviously difficult trials of life and love, including publishing,  romance and ambitions. It would be better described as a comedy of manners, as the reader waits to see if there is a satisfactory outcome to the various plot strands.

There are some great characters here, as the overbearing mother is contrasted with a no less caring but less ambitious parent, the modern artist with the sensible land agent, and minor aristocracy with those who actually do the work on the land. There is Sally, one of Thirkell’s practical young women, whose attitude to her pet dogs is memorable, as well as Phoebe, forerunner of a later Jessica, who decides that life on the stage is better than waiting for her mother’s matrimonial ambitions to work out. Guy, Roddy and Giles are young men who are not always sure what they want, but are definitely preferable to Julian, artist and difficult offspring.

This book represents Thirkell having fun, before the onset of war and shortage, race and class become so central. It is entertainment, well written and enjoyable, comfort reading for those seeking a safe read with satisfactory endings for nearly all concerned. I would recommend it for its characters and for those interested in a certain section of pre war society, a comedy without complexity.

In other news, Northernvicar and I went to see a production of Cyrano last night at Derby Theatre Royal. Dramatised by Northern Broadsides company, there was music, sword fighting and more rhyming than I expected. If you find it on tour, do go!

I have also been reading the new Lucy Worsley book, Jane Austen At Home. It is a very readable biography which is published today, and I have found the proof copy I received a while ago really interesting. There has been one report that suggests that it is very derivative of other books, but there has been so much written on quite a short life that the same observations are going to be made, the same facts quoted. I will get round to writing about it soon, but if you are a beginner Austen fan or an expert, I think that there will be something in this book for you, and it is an enjoyable read.

Knock, Murderer, Knock! by Harriet Rutland

Knock, Murderer, Knock! by [Rutland, Harriet]

This is a Golden Age Mystery not to be missed! Available from Dean Street Press, who have brought out some excellent murder mysteries, this marks the 1938 debut of a woman writer who is confident enough to make quite a lot of the female mystery writer in the book itself. One of the great things about Dean Street Press is its championing of female writers of the mid twentieth century, making these little known books available once more.

Rutland sets her tale of multiple murder in a ‘Hydro’, a sort of hotel for those who wanted some medical attention, but were often in need of a long term place to live, with full meals and maid service. Certainly the widowed, single and other residents are a singular lot; women who have nowhere else to be, ex military men seeking some form of community, a family whose grown up daughters feel trapped by their surroundings. A younger woman turns up, and her fashionable clothes, daring make up and overall behaviour shocks and fascinates all the other residents. It seems that she will provide enough valuable scandal for months to come, when a shocking murder shakes the establishment to the core.

The arrival of Inspector Palk gives much reason for complaint, as despite his methodical questioning and determination to solve the mystery, he struggles to justify making an early arrest. Mrs Dawson, resident mystery writer makes admission as to method, and quotes her theory

“Well, have there were to have been several murders in the book. Two or three, at least. The reading public nowadays is never satisfied with only one murder. They like plenty of thrills for their money.”

In this book there is more than one murder, and I found one a little disturbing. The characters in this novel are all convincingly strange and of their time. As a closed community mystery it works well, with some very funny interludes, such as the charabanc trip to see the murder site which enrages some of the residents. The final scenes are suitably tense, with an interesting moment of drama as the revelations are made. I particularly liked the ending when all is explained and resolution reached, even if the solution is admittedly an old – style characterisation.

Overall, this is a satisfying read for anyone keen on Golden Age mysteries, especially as it almost makes fun of itself as the readers and writers of these novels appear with their suggestions. It is a confident novel that includes all the usual suspects and interesting twists. I really enjoyed it, and yes, struggled to put it down.

Yes, another review in double quick time! I have just been accepted to do another M.A. at the University of Derby, this time in Public History. As Northernvicar is also going to attempt to do the course, this could be fun. So maybe from September the reviews could slow down a little…

Dissolution by C.J. Sansom

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This is the first book in the famous Shardlake series, and a worthy beginning to a set of books that have disturbed and created interest in this period. The reign of Henry VIII has been endlessly filmed, written about from the angle of each queen, examined for its change of church and state. It is the Shardlake series that has come closest to revealing what it was like on the fringes of power, and the fear of breaking the laws or rules that must have seemed to change everyday, at least until Mantel’s Wolf Hall with its examination of Cromwell’s life and times.

Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer, used to the face to face battle of the London law courts, sometimes employed by Cromwell to sort out a particular difficulty in enforcing the changes in church and state he was determined to push through despite the hardship they may cause to local areas. Shardlake is human. That is where the strength of the book lies for me; in all his discomfort, attraction to women he meets, fear of failure, he is a real person. In this book, his mission to sort out what has been happening in a small monastery on the coast, specifically the death of one of Cromwell’s commissioners, is anything but straightforward. Although Shardlake is an instinctive supporter of the religious reforms which mean that every religious practice is being questioned, he becomes disturbed by what they mean in practice. The murder which brings Shardlake and his employee Mark though the snow and winter is gory and not easy to solve, especially given the fear and unwillingness to cooperate shown by the monks and inhabitants of the monastery and nearby village.

This is a closed community murder mystery which includes all the twists and turns and questionable characters that any reader could wish for in a well written crime novel. The characters who have so much to conceal are contradictory, dangerous and very well drawn. The weather, marshes and unstable buildings all add to an atmosphere of menace. This is the sort of book that can lead to unsettling dreams, as no where and no one is as it seems.

I knew a fair bit about this historical period, but I think that it would be very approachable by the general reader as Cromwell and Shardlake’s actions are explained, even when royal connections emerge. Shardlake emerges a very real person, sensitive to comments about his appearance, aware of his shortcomings but also his abilities. He has a past, a sad history of attraction to a woman who he lost, and his concern for Alice is genuine. Alice and the very few other female characters are strong and act under their own initiative, but law, custom and expectation are against them.

I would recommend this book as a fascinating and immersive read, even for those who are not historians or crime fans. The characters and setting really live, and this book is a great start to the Shardlake series which can become addictive!

I picked up this book again after reading it several years ago, and enjoyed it enormously, if enjoy is the right word. I am trying to come up with a talk on the Reformation and Fiction for June. I have reread this book and am half way through Wolf Hall (again). I must admit that finding books which deal with this period is not easy; there are so many books about the Tudors but not so many novels about what happened to people when the monasteries closed and churches changed. Any ideas?

Clayhanger by Arnold Bennett at Shiny New Books!

Today I am reviewing Clayhanger by Arnold Bennett and revealing Five Fascinating facts about him at Shiny New Books!

The link is

I’m hoping that works! Otherwise try

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In this edition of Shiny new books I review a reprint of Clayhanger as an immersive book of family  and one man’s progress through life in a Midlands industrial town. Five Fascinating Facts about Arnold Bennett also recalls some little gems I discovered on a recent visit to the Potteries museum in Stoke on Trent. If you are a Bargain Hunt or antique programme fan I would recommend it!

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I was fortunate enough to go when they had an exhibition about Arnold Bennett and his paintings, but their permanent exhibitions are very interesting and family friendly. They sold quite a range of his books in the shop, which is great as when I visit an author – associated site, I love being able to buy a book by that author. Of course, reading it takes a little longer!

Image result for Pretty lady bennett Here is one of that I bought. My review to follow… sometime.  Meanwhile, here is a link to an interesting site which I have not read in detail, but reviews this book in great depth!

I have also got a box of books from the wonderful Dean Street Press, so that I can study their backlist of Crime Classics! Look out for more (fictional, Golden Age) murder from the Vicarage!

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

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This book was heavily marketed as being “The brand new Hercule Poirot”, the first authorised by the Agatha Christie estate. Sophie Hannah apparently came up with a plot idea that would cleverly echo the sort of complicated if not impossible case Poirot enjoyed. Even better, from the first chapter Poirot finds a personal connection as he speaks to a distressed woman in his new favourite restaurant. It is not long before he is plunged into a full blown multiple murder mystery, which seems to draw in many motives and potential culprits.

One of the standard elements of a mystery novel is the need for a ‘side kick’ or person who can do a little detecting but essentially exists to ask questions and receive answers from the main detective. It is useful if the same character can act as narrator, as he or she sees what the reader wants to see in the quest to solve the mystery. Rather than use one of Christie’s usual “Watsons” such as Hastings, Hannah establishes Edward Catchpool, of Scotland Yard. I’m not convinced by this choice and her development of his character; for a presumably experienced policeman he seems disinclined to get involved in solving the murders, and backs off from using information once obtained, even if it may prevent further attacks or murders. As with Hastings, he is at once intuitive and inspired to follow information, as well as scared of getting involved in death. He also finds Poirot infuriating as the demands to come up with answers to questions that only Poirot/Hannah has a clue about come thick and fast. I know that a policeman has to be involved to give official status to Poirot’s investigations, but I struggled to believe in this one.

Another familiar part of the mystery writing genre is the idea of a closed community and therefore a limited pool of suspects, such as the country house type murders at which Christie excelled. When this book relocates the action to a village it improves; the concept of the possible murderer emerging from the whole of London let alone with the connivance of a huge hotel staff makes the focus unclear. I also have a favourite character in the village whose sheer force of will and determination becomes vital.

It is difficult to write a review of a murder mystery without revealing too much. This book is a good read, which certainly keeps the reader guessing. The question of whether it is a good Christie sequel or copy is more difficult. Poirot is developed as a character in this book but not beyond a reasonable level. It is not a caricature or cartoon, but a thoughtful development of his irritating but successful character and detecting abilities. I think that there are a few too many leaps at the end of the book where his theories are look a little unsubstantiated, but true to form he explains it all at the end. My criticism is that Hannah has lost some of the simplicity that marked Christie’s writing at its best. She tends to over-complicate and repeat, which makes for what feels a longer book and one that seems difficult to follow. Overall this is a good book, which generally good characterisations and an enjoyable if slightly depressing plot. I am glad that Hannah has risen to the new Christie challenge, and I look forward to her second outing of this type, “The Closed Casket”.

This book made for an interesting discussion at our book group! Views were polarised as to everything from the characters to reviewing policies for newspapers. Overall it was agreed to be very different from our previous book choice, “Lark Rise to Candleford”!

Tom Tiddler’s Ground by Ursula Orange

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This reprint of Orange’s book is a welcome addition to the Furrowed Middlebrow series published by Dean Street Press, and it is one of the best I have read. As a fan of Angela Thirkell’s novels, I thought I knew this territory well; a wartime look at life in a village with the focus on some individuals out of their comfort zone. This book is set in the early days of the Second World War, before bombs fell in blitz, when evacuees were debating whether to stay in countryside safety or return to London, when people were preparing for challenges to everything they knew.

Caroline Cameron is a young woman who seems to have it all, child, husband, money and a lovely home. Constance Smith has a lovely home in a village, Chesterford, but no children and a distant husband, Alfred. When war threatens Constance welcomes not only her old school friend Caroline, her daughter and Nanny into her home, but also an evacuated mother and child. Challenges soon emerge as Alfred’s behaviour becomes more flirtatious and ambitious, and the mother from London   struggles to look after her child. When Constance’s brother George comes to the village, Caroline is diverted by his sense of humour, but also embarks on an affair in London with an actor. Mysterious letters, Constance’s developing affection for the evacuee child and the scandalous behaviour of a local teenager threatens the peace of the village long before war wreaks havoc in the country at large.

This all seems rather grim, but Orange is a skilful and amusing writer. I particularly like the asides in brackets after many characters, especially Caroline, speak, revealing what they wished to say in reality. It is this factor, together with a stronger plot, which is the main difference from Thirkell’s writing, as well as it being a stand alone book. It features many strong characters, well written and believable.  For example, Caroline spends the weekend with her lover at friends’ house, and although these characters only appear briefly they are very funny, with no idea if they have servants or how they survive. I really enjoyed the working out of the plot and thought that the characters were consistent and realistic in many ways.

This is an easy to read and involving book, of its time and reflecting the uncertainty of 1941, when no one knew how the war would proceed. The characters, though a little confusingly named, are funny, realistic and generally understandable. It is in many ways a jolly book, despite the time at which it was written, and a rewarding read. It does not totally resolve the situations it creates, and it is not a substantial piece of writing, but I would recommend it to anyone interested in this period and the experience of women at the onset of war.

Dean Street Press are publishing excellent reprints of Golden Age Crime novels, and they are worth seeking out. I have downloaded several onto my kindle, despite not being a fan of ebooks, and they have been useful to read on my kindle app when waiting around. I still prefer physical books, and have so many waiting for  attention (putting on shelves?!?) that seven days in a week are far from enough! Still, who needs to be able to see the carpet?

The White Cottage Mystery by Margery Allingham

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This book is the first story produced by Allingham featuring a detective, W.T. Challoner. It was actually compiled from a series which first appeared in the Daily Express in 1927. This is therefore not Allingham’s famous “sort of a detective”, Campion, but an older man, whose vast understanding of human nature means he can solve crimes that puzzle others.

The original format of the serial means that the chapters of this novel are very short, and the murder mystery is not complex as each chapter was not meant to be read closely following on from the previous one. Despite this, the crime is still singular in its gory detail and domestic setting. The suspects are more or less ticked off, before a shift of scene means that foreign travel and a whole new set of suspicious circumstances must be delved into by the two sleuths. The fortuitous arrival of Challoner’s son Jerry at the murder scene means that Challoner has a Watson to explain his thinking to, as well as a younger man to do some of the running around. Jerry’s solving of the crime is compromised by his affection for a suspect (as announced on the back cover of this edition), but does give rise to an interesting question unusual in this sort of investigation novel, as to whether the crime can be justified when it soon emerges that the victim is a very nasty person. This level of complexity in an otherwise standard murder mystery makes for a more interesting read than some classic reprints of the era. Allingham’s later development of Campion and his associates is not the classic murder mystery duly solved and murderer punished, if only because Campion is only a well -connected, amateur detective.  Her best known novel, Tiger in the Smoke, questions the nature of an evil person, and I think that this thinking is beginning to be seen in this early novel.

Overall, this is not a complex subtle novel in many ways, but a satisfying short read. The characters are interesting and well developed in a very clever, brief manner. This is not a great murder mystery, but as an early example of Allingham’s writings I found it very interesting and a sign of great things to come.

This is a very brief review as I confront the problem of how to write about a murder mystery without introducing the dreaded spoilers! This may be a book for those who want the complete set of Allingham’s mystery books, and Bloomsbury have filled a gap as well as providing a book for those who want a fairly brief read without discovering the delights of the rather more complex Campion, well brought to life by Peter Davison in the tv series of 1989…

Campion: The Complete Collection [1989] [DVD]