Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate A British Library Crime Classic

This recent murder mystery from the British Library crime classic series is a grim reminder that life on the Home Front in the Second World War was not glamorous for most people. Raymond Postgate had written a successful novel, “The Verdict of Twelve”, which looked through the biographies of the characters rather than just their relationship with the crime. Whether a result of his socialist interests or his journalist experience, he was far more interested in the people who may have been guilty or innocent rather than the complications of a plot. In this novel he painstakingly describes the background of each of the main suspects and victim beyond the discoveries made by the police detective Inspector Holly, and each story has an element of sorrow or loss shaped by the events of the early 1940s. Nobody really emerges as a likable character, least of all the victim.

Councillor Grayling is a deeply unpopular man and victim. He has ambitions to be a great man in his community and home, but cannot achieve anything, it is suggested, without bullying and blackmail. His wife dislikes him, the Vicar, who is a sad man in his personality and role, suspects him of corruption, and provides information of the victim’s last journey home by train. He describes how others sat round him in the carriage and exhibited symptoms of a miserable cold. Grayling had enemies in that carriage of both a personal and business nature; consequently Holly discovers that he has several credible suspects with reasonable motives. The tone is sombre, and there appears to be desperation all around, even if most of the characters are not in actual danger from the fighting. The method of killing is particularly grisly, and could only be carried out in wartime, which adds to the background of grey misery.

I actually found this a really interesting and intriguing book. The plot is almost secondary to the almost short story approach to each character, which reveals more than strictly necessary to potential involvement in the murder. Consequently this is not a mystery to read quickly because of the plot and the need to find the guilty person; I found each character’s story well written and providing a fascinating insight into everyday life in wartime. This is not a cheerful read but a well written novel of people in all their weaknesses. As a snapshot of the times it is a deeply atmospheric book with some strong images and rather world weary reality. Martin Edwards’ introduction refers to the “dark days of the Second World War” as the background of this 1943 book, and calls Postgate “a talented … amateur rather than a seasoned professional”. This is a fair assessment of an sensitive book of the era.




Liberty by Virginia Woolf – A Vintage Mini

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This small book, being a Vintage mini, is full of some of Virginia Woolf’s writing from her essays and at least one novel.  It represents some of her most accessible writing and is definitely a good place to start if you have always wondered about Woolf. Like the other books in this series, it is likely to increase your urge to go and get books from the shelf to read more, or maybe an entire novel.

The book begins with a lengthy extract from perhaps her best known essay, “A Room of One’s Own” which asks the question of what would have happened if Shakespeare’s sister had been similarly talented but debarred from his opportunities by reason of her gender. Woolf then expands this to an examination of women and how they are treated as “intellectually inferior to the worst man” by University authorities.  Similarly, women of enormous literary ability such as Margaret Cavendish are shown as poorly treated right up until Woolf’s own time. It includes the highlighted quote “There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind”.

The extract from “The Waves” brought back memories of studying it in the past, but the short section from it does not  confuse as much as the whole novel. If no other recommendation exists for this small book, there is my favourite essay or short piece of writing from “Street Haunting” which is a reminiscence of walking through London as a winter twilight falls, with all the people, lights and characters that stick in the mind. It is Woolf at her most lyrical despite being observations from life in a city.

This little book, reasonably priced, is one of a series that seeks to encapsulate a theme, in this case Liberty, but also succeeds in collecting the thoughts of an author whose output in terms of novels, diaries and writing is enormous and therefore can be a little off putting without this handily sized introduction.
I did wonder whether to do this Vintage Mini on its own or combine it with another one (the only other one I have read….), but I thought that it may take too long…Also I am going to a bookshop in a certain University city at some point over the next few weeks, so I may come back with some books.

Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill – A Year of Reading

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This book is subtitled “A Year of Reading” and that really gives away most of the format of this book. Susan Hill has combined twelve chapters named for each month of the year of considered arguments about books, spontaneous nature notes, and small revelations about her life and family members. Following on from her “Howards End is on the Landing”, this novelist looks at the world of her books and those that she has read and loved. I am quite attached to her first book of this type, though it did tend to drop into ‘authors I have known’ type reminisces rather than a commentary on books. This is an element here, as she reaches back into her memory to capture those she has known who were famous, but that is not the main thrust of this book. The main purpose of this book is to say what she feels about the books she has written, the books she owns and disposes of, and the setting and spirit of her current home.

Anyone with more than a passing interest in books today and over the last six decades or so will find this an argument for their interest; Hill writes of writers and books she has loved, writing and publishing her books, books that she has around her and those she loves. At the back of the book is a list of all those she refers to, not indexed but just the full reference to books she mentions, most favourably, some less so. She does discuss authors, and I have read reviews of this book which says that she dismisses some unfairly; indeed she writes off much of Second World War era fiction apart from Olivia Manning in sweeping terms. This style of criticism can provoke furious reactions but it is important to remember that this is a very personal book, in which she sets out her views. In a book group or other setting reaction would be possible and helpful; if this book had appeared as a blog the reader could comment. Overall I enjoy reading one person’s view of books, writing and the market so I accept her views, though they would not be my own. She writes of book prizes that she has known and judged, and their effect on writers. She is not too complimentary about the Creative Writing courses which are offered throughout the UK, but also admits that her own writing career was made possible and easier by mentors and others who supported her own early efforts.

This book is also full of notes on the natural world she experiences around her throughout the year, especially the comings and goings of birds. I am no expert in these matters, but I can appreciate her sense of the seasons, of light and temperature which help dictate her reading choices and settings. This is a book of experience, of intelligent assessment of the books and people that have shaped so much of a life. For all those who love books, for those who try to write them or those of us who just love to read and hoard them, this is a fascinating read of rich thinking about reading in a life.

Of course a certain gift giving festival approaches, and this would be an excellent present for any book lover. Though be aware, some of us couldn’t /can’t wait that long, and have already bought a copy….

The Plumley Inheritance by Christopher Bush – A new Dean Street Press classic reprint

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The start of a new series of a detective novels is exciting, even when they were originally published in 1926. Dean Street Press have started to reprint the books of Christopher Bush, and they sent me number one to review, for which many thanks. The detective in question is Ludovic Travers, referred to in this novel as Ludo, but in this opening mystery the focus is on Geoffrey Wrentham. Both men have served with some distinction in the First World War, and Wrentham has just been demobilised, which leaves him both relived to be returning to his home village, but a little bewildered by events which seem to threaten his own money. The adventure that he embarks on is full of excitement and a little danger, alongside painstaking working out of clues, with some village characters thrown in. The mystery of the Plumley Inheritance is not easily solved, and keeps everyone guessing until the end.

Henry Plumley is a man with many investments and interests. His sudden, public collapse and subsequent death leave instability in the businesses he has run, and questions about what his final motives implied to those dependent on them like Wrentham. Ludo is eager to help, having worked for the dead man on a peculiar list of requirements which has puzzled him for months. Trying to decode this list together with subsequent mysterious events occupies Wrentham for much of the novel, and his recent war experiences lead him to risk all searching at night time for further clues. There is a suspicious death and guilty goings on, but the ending seems satisfactory. The setting of a country vicarage and a village means a limitation to the number of suspects, though Plumley’s several properties are a little confusingly named. The nearest phone is miles away and there are certainly no car chases, which probably reflects the lack of personal transport in 1919 quite realistically.

This book is not the confident work of a seasoned mystery writer but sheer enthusiasm and imagination make it a jolly read for anyone interested in early mystery stories. In many ways it is the story of a village, a man returned from war, and his attempts to rediscover his peacetime role. Apparently there are over sixty books in the series to come and I assume that Ludovic will take over the detecting as the character of Wrentham is not really strong enough to carry a series of tough assignments. (A quick check on the later books suggests that this is very much the case). Altogether the republishing of these books seems to promise a feast of challenging reads and enjoyable mysteries to come from an engaging writer.

In the face of Hurricane Brian I am going out tonight to take part in a concert…a Last Night of the Proms no less!  Apart from singing in the choir I am reading a section of “Bed Among the Lentils” by Alan Bennett, performed on tv by Maggie Smith. Literally a tough act to follow…

One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens

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A selection of covers for a well established book. Curiously, I think the most recent one is the least enticing…

This is a 1952 book which looks back on the wartime year of a young woman who decides to train as a nurse to help the war effort. She does not need the money; she is not forced into the hospital by conscription, she “could not make up her mind what to be”. She finds many snags to each of the choices, A.T.S. requiring little work, the W.V.S involves ungrateful evacuees and the Land Army requires mangel- wurzel pulling in the early morning. The idea of nursing “Had always attracted me.” and she embarks on a journey to a hospital, any hospital who will allow her to start training immediately.

For those who may not relish the idea of a medical memoir, the writer is far more interested in her situation in the new way of life she discovers at the hospital. The other nurses of all ranks are discussed as some eat their body weight, others fall in love with local servicemen, some are determined to run the hospital on strict lines, or at least whichever ward Dickens is sent to in a haphazard way.  She works nights, fails to sleep during the day, and is occasionally invited away from the hospital for social engagements. One of the funniest situations is when she visits a school and is hailed as a source of a diagnosis of an odd rash. It is a funny book, despite or perhaps because of its setting. She assists at the last minute saving of a woman, and nurses private patients with their many and various requirements. There is a moment when the war seems about to intrude with extra patients, but as in many cases it is an anti climax, as is well suggested in the build up to the anecdote.

This is a well written, amusing book full of tales which have the suggestion of truth. It is not a sentimental tale, but more in the spirit of “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” which is high praise.  As a tale of the Home Front it is almost modern in its humour, and is far from a grim recall of danger survived. Dickens emerges as an independent young woman with a keen flair for honest observation. It is of its time, but is well written and engaging, and given its subject matter, a surprisingly cheerful read. I found it a fascinating picture of war time life, cheerful in contrast with other books of the time, and can recommend it to anyone interested in the life actually lived by some of the people of Britain at a time of challenge.

At the moment life at the Vicarage is busy. Today Northernvicar and I went to Leeds to see a couple of museums as part of our M.A. course. We know how to live! Selwyn, the Vicarage cat, was so appalled by his abandonment that he fell down the back of a cupboard on our return…

Death Makes a Prophet by John Bude: a British Library Crime Classic

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John Bude is a favourite author in the British Library Crime Classics series, so I was pleased to see another book by this “likable author” as Martin Edwards refers to him in the introduction. This is a likable book: while perhaps not quite living up to my expectations, and while it features a fiendishly difficult alibi and Inspector Meridith solving all, it is more novel than murder mystery.  I enjoyed most of the characters and the setting of a ‘modern’ town, but felt that it did not quite work as well as other Bude books have in some respects.

The novel is set in the midst of a cult religion, “Cooism”, and possibly that is where I felt it lacked impact and focus. Edwards points out that several Golden Age authors set stories in cult settings; but I wondered if by the time this post war (1947) book is written the moment had passed and potential adherents were not so credulous. Certainly the Founding Prophet, Eustace K. Mildmann, does not seem to exude the personal magnetism which would gather many followers. I found his most prominent disciple, Mrs.Hagge-Smith, an interesting character with her financial contributions and personality exerting a powerful pressure on the organisation, but she seems to be forgotten as the novel progresses. Penpeti, who aspires to the leadership of the cult is a bit of a cartoon character with his distinctive clothing and unprincipled behaviour. Bude is obviously enjoying finding names that match his characters, as Penelope Parker is the young woman who seems less real than others. I liked Arkwright, chauffeur and general down to earth character who is frequently found in awkward circumstances. The first section of the novel is uncomfortable and seems a little aimless; it is only when murder most foul happens and Inspector Meredith appears that the book seems to slip into gear with an investigation as Bude complicates matters considerably. The ending is a little abrupt but mystery is solved so the purpose of the novel is fulfilled.

I found this novel a little difficult to become enthusiastic about as the characters seemed a little one dimensional and for a character driven mystery that was disappointing. Possibly it had missed its time for an old fashioned mystery and had not quite caught up with a post war world. It is undoubtedly a worthy addition to the series of crime classics and Bude’s writing is involving and interesting as always. The murder mystery plot is well constructed and delightfully puzzling, with some twists that make it seem impossible to solve, but reliable Inspector Meredith is never defeated and the reader is agreeably satisfied by the solution.

At the moment I have been collecting books for possible posts but not quite getting round to posting them! Thanks to the lovely Dean Street Press for some new Christopher Bush books I have discovered another Golden Age author to enjoy so watch this space if you are interested in such things. As always the number of books in exceeds the number of books read so the upcoming Big Book Sale in the next door Church Hall will probably bring on more qualms of conscience…Oh dear. Pity poor Northernvicar!

The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien

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This is a fictional account of the life and loves of Joan of Kent, one of history’s lesser known influential women, whose matrimonial and political experiences had a significant effect on the history of England, Wales and parts of France. Her royal birth and her life choices involved more than one Pope as her husbands and sons gained and lost power in the medieval world of marriages and diplomacy. There are times when it is difficult to remember where the action of the novel fits in with the overall history of the time, so it is fortunate that there are some genealogy tables in the front of the book. This is not a period of history that has been extensively tackled in fiction, in my experience, which gives O’Brien a lot of space to produce her own perspective of the “Fair Joan”.

The first sight of Joan is of a self centred girl who has a high sense of her worth as a beautiful royal woman, whose birth places her near to the royal family in the person of the King, Edward, and his loving wife Philippa. As the story of her life is recounted in the first person, we know that she has grown up with the royal princes and the upper aristocracy, but that her first love is a man of more ability than position. Her early choice means that she must stand against many adults who wish to steer her marriage prospects, and it is perhaps difficult to believe that such a young woman could stand against those who were determined to dictate her fate. Joan comes over as a tough soul, calculating her chances of success, less romantic perhaps than ruthless. Her preservation of legal paperwork is unusual, but proves significant in later days. She does not always gauge the mood of those around her correctly, but later love does come into her life and determines her actions. Her stubborn determination to see her son come to the throne dominates the latter part of the book, and the close of the novel is a little curious as there is more to describe, more left to experience.

I enjoyed the way this book was written, as many of the characters do live on the page and in some ways Joan is not always the most sympathetic.  The book seems well researched, and the settings, which are listed in the back, convincingly described. The book held my attention, as there was much to learn from it, though at no point was it didactic. Rather it swept along, a little gloomy, but realistic. I admired the way that most of the women were strong, especially Joan, fighting for those that they loved with every skill at their disposal. Joan’s hatred of Alice Perrers becomes a strong element of the book, which seems reasonable given her affection and respect for Philippa; an interesting element given this author’s previous book “The King’s Concubine” which tells Alice’s story.  Altogether this is a well written, involving historical novel which looks at a less well known period of British history and the characters which dominated it. I would recommend it especially to anyone who enjoys this genre but perhaps feels that certain periods have been a little overdone.

We have just returned from Derby Theatre where we have just seen a production of “Great Expectations”. An excellent evening, it was brilliantly staged with minimal staging. If it tours, which I imagine it will, do try and see it, even if Dickens is not your favourite author…

Reader, I Married Him – Stories inspired by Jane Eyre Edited by Tracy Chevalier

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This book of short stories “Inspired by Jane Eyre” is a feast for those who love Jane Eyre, appreciate short stories, and enjoy spotting authors, some well – known, some not, having a good time. Some of these stories by women are more linked to Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece, than others. All the stories are worth reading, though personal preference will determine favourite stories.

Twenty one authors, including Susan Hill, Salley Vickers and Emma Donoghue, were all keen, according to Chevalier’s Introduction, to contribute a story. She writes “You do not need to know Jane Eyre to enjoy these stories, but if you do those resonances will make you smile”. Marriage, relationships and all sorts of revelations dominate this collection which will not surprise anyone familiar with the source novel. Some stories, such as Vickers’ “Reader, She Married Me” tells the story from Rochester’s point of view, and Helen Dunmore’s tells the tale from Grace Poole’s testimony. As with many of these sort of versions of well – known novels, notably Austen’s, they are clever retellings of a story which often brings out aspects of characters that had not been previously obvious. Many of these stories show regret and sadness, though some reveal the joy of relationships suddenly discovered. There is much to hold the stories together, though no two stories are so alike as to be tedious. Obviously some writers handle the short story form better than others; some are already known for collections of their own stories, whereas some feel unfinished and not so satisfactory. One or two could be the start of novels in their own right, and the characters are full of their own ideas. Susan Hill’s is a surprise, as a real person from recent history justifies her actions.

There are many reasons to read this book, as the authors recount their own history with Jane Eyre. Some have obviously been profoundly affected by Charlotte Bronte’s work, others admit to never having read the novel. This is a discovery for admirers of Jane Eyre, and for anyone who enjoys the short story form with a common theme. Chevalier’s own fondness for the work of all the sisters emerges clearly in her editor’s role, and yet it is more than another biography or rewrite of one of the favourite books in English literature.

The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister

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This is a book I would recommend for anyone who is keen on historical fiction, especially if they enjoy being totally immersed not so much in an historical period as in a person’s life. One of the accusations levelled at Arden, the undoubted heroine of the novel, is that she is a hypnotist, and this novel almost hypnotises with its strong narrative. It is rare that a book drags the reader in so successfully as this, desperate to find out what happens next, or that the underlying dread of a particular character turning up feels so real. This writer keeps everyone on their toes, with twists and turns throughout that are so unpredictable. Arden is so human in that she refuses to take the easy line, refuses to conform to what is expected of her by both the reader and the other characters in the book. Not that this is a plodding progress of a book; the element of fantasy, magic, is carefully controlled on the edge of what is real. One or two of the people and events are real people, real happenings that have been skilfully brought to life. The book is a story of a life, recounted in difficult circumstances, to an unreliable listener who has his own agenda, and it is all the stronger as it must convince, change a mind.

Arden, Ada, Vivi and all the other names the leading character goes by is telling her story with perfect recall to a confused man who has his own preoccupations. He has received life changing news that day, and is trying to come to terms with it, when he comes across a woman who he has just witnessed undertaking a spectacular magical show. Now a man is dead, she has turned up apparently on the run, and he decides he must act. He detains her in his office, a difficult thing to achieve as he suspects she is quite capable of escaping. To deny the charge against her, to escape the inevitable trial and death penalty, she wants to talk to him. He knows that she is a woman with unique powers which he does not understand, but becomes drawn in, enveloped in her story.

As he is to point out, her tale of her life is so complete, with recalled conversations and events being so perfectly described, that it is suspicious. Nevertheless, it becomes a tale of determination, of love, of disappointment all against such a realistic set of circumstances that the remarkable almost becomes commonplace. This is a story of a woman with drive and determination way beyond her time, who meets with help and obsessive desire. The sounds, sights and smells of her story seem real and engrossing, and the logic of her actions startling yet logical. A travelling show feels so amazing that the acts feel as if performed for the reader. I certainly learnt a lot about the illusions and basic magical acts that I had never expected.

This is a fascinating book with so much to enjoy. Not just a life story; an historical tale, a fantasy, a murder mystery all combine to make an absorbing tale of romance and peril. I would perhaps not have chosen it had it not been a copy sent for review, but it is a very surprising, gripping read.

One of the great things about writing is a book blog is a bit like being in a good book group; you end up reading books that you would not necessary choose to buy. I certainly enjoyed it!