Snowdrift and other Stories by Georgette Heyer

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Georgette Heyer is one of the few authors who has created and sustained a whole new genre of fiction writing. Regency romances are not everyone’s first choice of reading; they can be formulaic, they are light and not asking too many deep questions, and they can be incredibly predictable. As to the formula, it is often the case that a couple meet or reunite after many years, there are barriers of society or temperament between them, there is a crisis which often involves a journey at breakneck speed, before the happy couple are united in marriage and live happily ever after. At least that is the basic plan of many regency romances that appear regularly today. The difference is that Heyer wrote them first, and wrote them better than anyone else. She was not worried by political correctness; her women can be startling for their beauty in a disguised way rather than their brains, her main characters are at least of good birth and end up with enough money to be considered rich, and men always have some redeeming quality. I am being negative about the Regency romance patterns but Heyer always added so much to her novels and in this case her short stories. The women always have courage and intelligence, even if temporarily misapplied, the settings are definitely correct in the smallest detail. Only fastidious research can guarantee the correct clothing, language and social behaviour, and Heyer has never been bettered in her incredible writing of the facts.  Her books have been held up as almost teaching resources for not only social history, but also military details of Napoleonic battles.

As you can imagine, I was delighted to get my hands on a copy of this book. Yes, I probably had read some of the stories in old and battered editions, but this book promised recently discovered stories and an altogether concentrated collection of short stories. I found it enormously good fun to read; Heyer has always been my comfort reading but this would be even more ideal for short waits in tricky circumstances. Each story here ticks all the boxes of an unpromising start between a small number of people, a journey and at least one misunderstanding. Often an elopement is proposed, but Heyer is far more sophisticated than depicting a straight dash to Gretna Green as something is always resolved without deceit and enormous hurt to at least the happy couple and the ‘good’ characters. To be honest these stories do get a bit much if read altogether, as in their rich plots and characters can tend to merge. Sometimes Heyer packs an enormous amount into a short story in terms of character development and change, but she was such a skilful writer that implication and characters will work out for the reader without being spelled out.

These stories, and Heyer’s novels, can be an acquired taste. Only one or two stories in this volume involve snow as implied in the title, so while it is an ideal read for winter evenings, it can be read at anytime you need a light read, confident that every setting, costume, language and gesture will be historically accurate, and anything except boring!

As you can imagine, I am a big Heyer fan but have not got round to rereading her books for ages, let along her mystery novels. This book does persuade me to go and see how many Heyer classics I own…

A Shiny New Books review – A Hundred Tiny Threads by Judith Barrow

Today I present a link to Shiny New Books – my review of a terrific book “A Hundred Tiny Threads” by Judith Barrow. Intense, atmospheric and generally superb writing…. – click here.

Apparently if you click on the above you get through to the review, and from there dozens (hundreds?) of book reviews!

Happy reading!

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

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The BBC version! Harriet Walters and Edward Petherbridge being academic….

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This book must rate as one of my all time favourite novels. Gaudy Night is all the things that Sayers does well; characters, especially the so realistic Harriet Vane, setting, Oxford at its best, and a mystery, which proves that a gory murder within the first three chapters is not essential. Harriet feels so real because she is the centre of the book, the reader is told of her doubts about the wisdom of revisiting Oxford let alone becoming involved in the mysterious persecution of the College inhabitants, and crucially her perspective on Lord Peter Wimsey. The reader, together with half the characters in the novel, fall for Peter’s undoubted charm and abilities, and obviously Sayers writes with real affection for her creation, yet with a realistic view of some of his weaknesses. Oxford is at its best as the colleges, towers and river make it into another character in this book; not that there is any shortage of academics, students and staff bumping into each other in many ways.

Harriet Vane, author of thoughtful mystery novels and survivor of a murder trial thanks to Peter’s intervention, finds herself drawn back to her old college for the annual celebrations. She realises that she has become a notorious character for her contemporaries, not least because of her links with the famous Peter. She is fascinated by the fates of the other women who have married or who have chosen a career. Her return to London feels wrong as Peter disappears and her novel does not proceed well. When she is summoned back to Shrewsbury College to help solve a mysterious poison pen mystery, she decides to stay, do some academic work, and help the senior staff maintain peace and order. She meets current students and tries to understand undergraduate life; especially when she encounters Peter’s nephew. She becomes embroiled in his difficulties, not least having to contact Peter, who proves as elusive and surprising as always. The mystery is not really dangerous in terms of murder for most of the book, though there is a disturbing element when Harriet and at least one other seem to be in grave danger. Peter’s contribution is not to dominate as he graciously admits that Harriet has done most of the work; certainly he is not seen as the superhero coming in to save the day, but bringing a new insight. Harriet is not a female detective in many ways, but she emerges as someone who cares deeply and is determined to discover what is going on, and why, in an institution that changed her life.

This is such a super read that part of me could have rushed through each episode, each reflection on Oxford life, each observation on the largely absent Peter. To do that would have spoilt some of the enjoyment of a novel that Sayers obviously enjoyed writing with enormous confidence. There are times when it is self indulgent, when Sayers is showing off her considerable education, when she makes jokes and comments in other languages. It is a big book, and reading some editions has put me off as this book needs to be read comfortably and savoured. The folio edition is therefore the ultimate version beautifully printed. I can see that Sayers is an acquired taste, but this novel is enough to send me off to seek the other Sayers book as soon as possible.

This is the final book in the Folio set that was Northernvicar’s last minute Christmas present. At least I read it before this coming Christmas. It is a lovely, lovely novel, and so enjoyable in this edition. Thank you, Northernvicar!



Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton – A Persephone Gem

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This new Persephone reprint is such a good read that it felt personal. Diana Tutton’s book is full of the small details of a life restricted by a strong willed parent, aided and abetted by a loving father. This review copy, for which many thanks to Persephone, was not always easy to read because of its strength as the story of girls growing up in a sort of loving captivity. Not that money, affection or stability are in short supply as even those things that are rationed can be acquired and enjoyed; it is just that all visitors are discouraged, all trips away from the home are limited, and only one of the five daughters has been allowed to escape into marriage.

There are four daughters living in the family house, and in many ways it is an idyllic existence of playing the piano, writing poetry and doing the bare minimum of lessons.  The novel is narrated by Morgan, named for the Arthurian tales, and her sisters rejoice in the names of Cressida, Thisbe and Pandora, with the ordinary sounding Theresa the youngest. It would be a peaceful existence with Father writing successful novels except that three of the sisters are adults, and becoming restless with the expectation that they will remain at home indefinitely. When the married Pandora tackles her mother about Theresa going away to school, let alone Morgan visiting London, there is a great upset. Indeed, whenever there is a visitor, however harmless, Mother behaves oddly and Father lays down the law about the girls not seeing men and fulfilling their roles in the home. There are some lovely scenes despite this unreasonable parental behaviour, with the girls sneaking off to the cinema and a small café.  There is a cocktail party and subtle insults, fields and trees described in loving detail, a play and other events that show how everything is suited to Mother’s wellbeing and comfort.  A crisis occurs and drama ensues, a desperate situation arises and resolution is reached.

This book succeeds because it feels so real. The reader becomes involved in this tale of family life to the extent of intensely disliking Mother, whose reign of repression through her invalid lifestyle restricts her clever otherwise lively daughters. Father’s slavish devotion to her wants becomes particularly wearing, as her whims must be obeyed. She only listens to the elderly Gregory, who, confusingly muddled with one of Morgan’s visitors, lays down the law. This is a family drama but not saga; the ending is a surprise and left me speeding through the last few pages to find out what would happen. This is an amusing book, with a great sense of young women eager for life outside their home on their terms, thwarted by loving yet restrictive parents. I found the rhythm and feeling of this book enjoyable as the narrator, Morgan draws the reader in with her observations and hopes for life. It is beautifully written, engaging and an enjoyable addition to the Persephone collection.

The picture of the Persephone bag is because I treated myself to a third one on my recent visit to the shop, which I greatly enjoyed. My original bag of this type is so strong and virtually indestructible as I use it every day to transport books and so many other things up and downstairs. They will also sell them by post, which I would strongly recommend to anyone who has given up trying to find a suitable present for a bookish friend!

The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

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This is a book which, like the painting at the heart of it, stands out as a beautifully written tale of life and attraction in Delft in the mid seventeenth century. It represents a slice of the life of a young woman who history cannot name, but who is given a fictional life by a skilled writer. The research which undoubtedly underlies this story is never heavy handed, but blends beautifully with the fiction to present a picture of a life which is almost claustrophobic, but always within the wider setting of a city divided into areas of religion. The painter, Vermeer, is never actually named in this book; he is seen as master of the house, painter, husband to a difficult wife, and strange presence in the life of the girl whose image lives on in the famous painting.

Griet is a girl forced to become a maid in a house where the painter and his family live. From the first meeting, a knife knocked to the floor by Catharina bodes ill for their relationship, while “He” quickly realises Griet’s perfectionism and perception of colour. As Griet takes up her new role, she organises and establishes her work efficiently and sums up those she works and lives with. The other servant is fiercely loyal and fairly easy to manipulate given her attachment to Maria Thins, matriarch and organiser of finance. The children vary from helpful to secretive and cunning; the actions of one girl imperil Griet’s very employment as well as the destruction of her property. In a way this is an undramatic book, but the simmering tension and Griet’s developing understanding of the painter’s creativity dominate. Griet’s relationship with her own family changes and is fatally interrupted; truly she is alone and dependent on her own resources. Her vulnerability is her greatest comfort and reason for living as she assists the painter to paint. The unwelcome attentions of a patron means that she must be painted in an intensely intimate way; her hair and identity is concealed in the portrait, but she knows that the picture will be her downfall.

This book has much to say on the subject of human creativity and perceptions of family, relationships and development. It is a book relevant to today’s situation of a woman subject to unwanted attentions, and in this book some of the female characters have a seeming authority which becomes subjected to a man when the situation escalates. The sureness with which Chevalier writes means that the reader is drawn inescapably into the world of the paintings, seeing with Griet colour and form in a new, intense way. This book repays a second read if only to pick up the nuances of themes such as religion, attraction and subtle changes in atmosphere. It is easy to read, stylistically beautiful, and most definitely recommended to anyone who enjoys historical novels with real drive and purpose.

Having spent most of the weekend sitting in a church looking after a collection of crib/nativity sets, I thought that I would pop this post on as we recently had a book group discussion which praised this book greatly! At least it is really easy to get hold of in charity shops…

The Perfect Murder Case by Christopher Bush – A Classic Mystery

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This second Ludovic Travers mystery has been hailed as one of the significant Golden Age murder mysteries and I was pleased to receive a review copy from Dean Street Press. It is an incredibly mystifying novel, with a seemingly unbreakable alibi, foreign travels and some double dealing with servants and a sought after will. It has everything, with the addition of a series of letters addressed to newspapers announcing a murder. Unlike Christie’s announced murder, there is a scarcity of detail for detectives both amateur and professional to go on when trying to be on the scene. Reassuringly women and children are to be excluded, but it adds to the detail of a complex but satisfying puzzle.

The murder, when it takes place, becomes the target of investigation by Scotland Yard detectives whose reputation is formidable. A businessman brings in an ex CID officer Franklin who is to launch a private detective agency on the basis of a high profile case. Ludovic Travers trades on a little nepotism to add his lateral thinking to the mystery, together with his Bunterish manservant, Palmer.  When the murder of the much disliked T.T Richleigh takes place, the scene is soon closely examined by all parties and the pursuit begins. While there is a clear motive, the alibis seem unbreakable as much rushing about must take place. Language traps are set, island hopping takes place, as tragedy is revealed. Franklin emerges a determined detective, risking life and limb in order to sort out the mystery. Travers’ contribution is small but significant as he has spotted possible connections from a seemingly irrelevant event. He is on track to become more involved in the mysteries dominating the public imagination, a progress which will take him through sixty more novels.

This is a confident novel for a second book, full of the little tricks of an established writer. A locked room and notes contributing to the solution abound, both confusing and eventually explained. The element that lifts this novel is the inclusion at the very start of two seemingly unrelated scenes, one domestic, one apparently spy related. It is only at the end when all is explained that the reader realises why they were included, and the tragic implications of their effects.

Altogether this is an enviable, assured piece of writing which has everything desirable in a murder mystery puzzle. The victim is unpopular, the crime more mechanical than tragic, the mystery is deep. Sayers called this a “workmanlike” novel, and it succeeds in being a compelling read. My one quibble is with Bush’s depiction of women as servants or perhaps objects of pity. His men are clever and inventive, questioning and intuitive, but the women do seem to just exist to further the story. Given the time of writing this is perhaps not surprising; in 1929 the fact that many popular writers were female did not mean that they featured heavily as detectives or strong characters. Bush was a talented, comprehensive writer who leaves no stone unturned in writing this, his most popular novel, not perhaps perfect but extremely entertaining.

I enjoyed reading this book, and it is definitely a classic of its type. Meanwhile I seem to be reading many books but not quite getting round to posting about them; my current M.A. is creeping up the agenda!

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

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This is not a novel, not terribly exciting, but nevertheless an endearing read for anyone who is obsessed with books. It is indeed a diary, which reveals the mundane and the deeply interesting progress, or lack of, experienced by Shaun Bythell who invested in a second hand bookshop. The Bookshop is in Wigtown, Scotland’s book town on the west coast, not on the main tourist routes, and so trying to run a successful business is challenging, to say the least. When added to the problems of online book selling, including competition from the major business and postal delays, it is not always a cheerful read, but it is always a fascinating one.

Bythell is forced to restrict the number of staff he employs, and so the infamous Nicky is only part time and an eccentric character, who takes delight in finding “food” items from skips and changing the arrangement of books. Her contribution to the running of the shop is not always in harmony with Bythell’s, and her characteristic behaviour lifts this book from being another “silly things said in bookshops” chronicle. The regular customers are few and some of the tourists not really looking to actually buy the books. I think that Bythell has been criticised for his negative views on customers, but the continual avoidance of paying a fair price for the books would try the patience of a saint. I realise that some of the comments may be exaggerated for effect, but we all know how often bookshops are used as browsing spaces by people who later buy the books elsewhere. I was interested in how far Bythell is asked to travel to value book collections, and how little treasured books can be worth. Highlights of the year, as the book is strictly chronological, include the annual Wigtown Book Festival which attracts well known writers and people from the book trade. This book is full of bookish gossip and there are some recommendations and information which make this a fascinating read for book lovers.

The style of this book is a little restricted by the format of a diary, which can get a little wearing, but generally there is enough interest in the buying and selling of books to keep the reader’s interest. Each entry records the number of customers that day as well as money taken, online orders and books actually found. The book also contains Bythell’s own reflections on his out of shop pursuits such as salmon fishing, and his relationships with Anna and his parents. Thus other characters wander in and out of the shop, warehouses and book storage places are explored, and altogether this is a picture of a bookshop seemingly operating on tiny margins. Nothing is clearly stated, nothing argued fiercely, but this is a strong defence of the small, very individual bookshop and a way of life on the edge of Scotland.

So another book about books, which is probably one of my favourite type of reading. Speaking of which, after our recent trip to London and several book buys, I must get around to sorting them out. Remember that extra hour we got a few weeks ago? I could do with a few more of those…

A Double Affair by Angela Thirkell

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This is a late novel in the Barsetshire series of novels. Sometimes that means that it is not as sharp, in a good way, as some of the wartime novels. I feel it is simply not quite as entertaining, that Thirkell knew her books would sell so some of the focus slipped, and that this book was simply a criticism of one or two of the characters. That said, it is still a novel by a wonderful author with the confidence to expand on her characters, themes and setting, and on a first read through I really enjoyed this book.

The first part of the book is a dominated by a wedding. Miss Merriman, perfect companion, secretary and personal assistant to Lady Emily of blessed memory, and since then assistant to the Pomfrets, has become “quietly and happily engaged”  to the Reverend Herbert Choyce, Vicar of Hatch End. The opening chapters describe the build up to the wedding, overseen by the lovely but vague Lady Graham. Over the years Miss Merriman has made many friends and gathered admirers so her wedding preparations are populated by many presents and discussions about the ceremony. Her progress before the great day shows how she will still be a force for good, still be able to bring out the best in people and situations, still be touchingly surprised by the amount of affection she creates, especially among the Leslie family. This section of the novel is the happily ever after piece writ large, the details of a wedding universally welcomed.

The rest of the book is devoted to various people in gentle life changing events. A single lady living with her mother develops her life ambition, and in its success creates an opportunity for an adult son to see his mother happily settled and begin to develop his own matrimonial plans. Another wedding is anticipated, and all seems well. The dominating character is a young woman, Edith, Lady Graham’s youngest and at this stage, most challenging children. At eighteen she is in some ways grown up, having been to America with Uncle David and his practical wife, but in other ways she feels the way she is treated as an child is unfair. She is unsure about what she wants, a career in estate management, to marry into land, to find her place in local society. In some ways she knows there are young men who are friendly towards her, but they and others still treat her as a child, at least in her eyes. Her behaviour is seen as unfriendly and immature, described in a time before ‘teenagers’ existed. All is not lost, however, and a happy ending beckons for Edith and many others.

This is an enjoyable book, full of the small pictures of rural life among the minor aristocracy. The characters are full of life, gentle and real, full of local concerns and frustrations. In this edition at least there is not the jarring obsessions of class and nationalism that are negative elements in some of the other novels, but rather a contented acceptance and working out of life stories. I did not detect as many inconsistencies in martial names and status as some of the other late books, but as always ages are fluid as people of the older generations seem to survive to enormous ages if they are required for narrative purposes. This is a very readable book, full of what makes Thirkell a special and memorable novelist, and the Barsetshire Chronicles such a memorable series.

The copy that I read is another ancient library book. It is certainly more obscure than some of the Thirkells I have posted about on this blog, but it is Angela Thirkell Reading Week  (a facebook group) at the moment, so I thought it was well worth reviewing now. After a quick visit to London on Monday, I have two more Persephone books to review together with some tasty tomes I rounded up in other bookshops. I managed to get to the Persephone shop itself, so had a good look around at their fifty books they wish they had published. A couple of nice hardbacks as well…

Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li – A Blog Tour Post!

This is a novel which has found its time. It speaks of a harsh event, the attack on a woman which changes her whole world view. It shows how a confident, able, articulate woman is completely thrown by the actions of an anonymous young man, how her life changes within an hour. No detail is held back, nothing is hidden. The details are all there both of the attack itself and the aftermath. The anguish, the fear, the tearing sorrow. Vivian, the young woman is shown growing up, her first tentative encounters with men, her overwhelming desire to walk, hike, to discover landscape on her own. How this part of her life becomes corrupted so that she can no longer find pleasure in the world around her. It is also a testament to the power of friendship, those who support her in the immediate aftermath, those whose anger against the attacker takes the strain of that emotion from her, even if they can take nothing else. She finds that “Anger is too destructive, too exhausting”.

The very young man who carries out the attack is no faceless stranger to the reader. The first third of the novel alternates between the story of Vivian’s life and the disturbing background of Johnny that has left him the person he is, the person he becomes at the time of the attack. His family are Travellers, permanent outsiders in Ireland, a place where outstanding scenery overlaps with urban deprivation. Not that this book spends too long portraying the scenery, except in describing its effects on the lives of those who live among the squalor. There is a way in which the attack itself despoils the setting, symbolised by a water bottle which falls into an inaccessible spot, a manufactured incursion into the natural backdrop. Johnny is not self -pitying, just full of the needs of young men as he is, the attitude to women, girls, the calculations to achieve temporary satisfaction. Vivian is a target because she is there, alone, and in his sight, available. He fails to understand the enormity of his crime, rationalises it to himself, prepares explanations that will justify what he did to Vivian.

This is an intense book which does not hold back on the telling detail, the mundane nature of life, the sometimes terrifying reality of experience. The ongoing nature of post traumatic stress which is the relentless aftermath of an attack is brilliantly described, Vivian’s life totally changed by the events of one afternoon. This book is written by a survivor of an attack, though a completely fictional treatment of the subject. There is no apology made for the attacker, but some explanation of what he did, and why he attacked Vivian in the way that he did, his self- deceit and self- justification. This is Vivian’s story, the woman “irrevocably changed”. This book gives a burning insight of a life changing event for both the attacker and the attacked, with the hope that there is survival, even recovery. This is not an easy book to read in its subject matter, but it draws the reader in, propelling onwards as a long walk, full of human understanding.

It was really interesting to be on the Blog Tour for Dark Chapter; it is undoubtedly a significant book, winning at least one major prize and a lot of interest. Thanks, Legend Press for the review copy!

Women & Power – A Manifesto by Mary Beard

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A short book, a powerful book and a well written book. This is, as it says, on the cover, a manifesto, a cry for women to have a voice and crucially to be heard, and for women to have the right not to be demonised. In the form of two lectures, with plenty of pictures to back up the text, this is a book written against the background of wide events; Hilary Clinton’s defeat in the Presidential elections, women’s declarations of past abuse and much else. Beard also uses her personal experience of internet abuse and unfair treatment in the media to explain why her arguments throughout this consistently written book are so powerfully needed in today’s networked world.

As you would expect from a Classics Professor, this book is full of allusions to the Greek and Roman world, stories and images of women punished for offences committed against them, and their voices denied. If you are not an expert, do not fear as this experienced teacher gives enough of the backstory of each metaphor or reference that it is always abundantly clear what she is trying to put over to the reader. The illustrations are clear and relevant to her argument; a more modern one is the “Miss Triggs” cartoon in which the chair of a meeting compliments Miss Triggs on her suggestion by asking one of the men present to make it.  This is a theme which Beard continues to develop; how women’s voices are covered by men’s whatever they say in every context. She acknowledges that recent times have seen improvements, the number of women M.Ps increasing for example, but how even the significant speeches of women are still being edited and made more acceptable. A wide variety of examples are cited of women having to conform or being restricted to having their words changed or mediated through men, or having to acknowledge their restrictions as not having a voice in their own right, even when they are a Queen of England rallying troops at Tilbury in the late 1500s.

This is a confidently written book by a woman of insight and courage. She is definitely not a man hater, but a feminist arguing from a position of knowledge. The most touching section is in the introduction when she recalls her mother, a very able and successful woman, frustrated by her lack of a University education and so pleased to see her daughter able to graduate. There are images which disturb; the Medusa in particular in all its variants. These two lectures deserve this book to be read and appreciated by many: anyone who has experienced a “Miss Triggs” moment, anyone who just feels that the world is unfair to half of the population, and anyone who appreciates a clear argument, well delivered.

I realise that this is not my normal Northernreader type book, even though I do cover the odd non fiction book they are often related to a novel or author. Having got my hands on a copy of this book quite early by being in Nottingham Waterstones very unexpectedly, I thought I would review it here quickly before my daughter claims ownership…