The Zero and the One by Ryan Ruby – New York, Oxford and a Puzzle

This is a powerful book, or a philosophical puzzle, or both in one extremely strong story. There are parts of this book that are a complete puzzle, being mainly the quotes from a non existent book “The Zero and the One”, but essentially the whole book is a puzzle. The resolution or answer only becomes clear in the end, or does it? On the surface this is a story of a suicide, but much more is going on. It can be seen as a story of intense relationships which can only break up horribly, or a book in which the forces against its two protagonists are just too much for them. It is a book to read with a certain tolerance of obsessions, and is certainly not for those who are easily shocked. It is an almost hypnotic read, and sometimes quite overwhelming in its effect.

The book opens with a young man, Own, travelling to New York for a funeral. Amid the descriptions of discovering a hot and largely unforgiving city in many ways, it emerges that he is going to attend the funeral of his more than friend, Zach. Zach has apparently committed suicide, but his family are stunned by his action, as he seemed to have so many things in his life. Clever, well off, gifted in many ways, the obvious questions are asked silently by his family, especially his sister Vera. Owen has time to reflect on his relationship with Zach. Owen is a student at Oxford, from a non University family background. His parents find it difficult to relate to him, his old friends do not know what to say to him. He cannot find his place in Oxford, except to study alone, lost in his self imposed allowance of beer, confused by the antics of students whose wealth and experience of public schools causes them to behave so differently. Zach seeks him out, engineers a friendship, introduces him to Clare, and together with Tori, form a small group who spend their time together. There are perfect times, punting on the river, drinking in the positive experiences of Oxford. Zach begins to behave even more strangely; while his behaviour on a trip to Berlin is beyond moral, his behaviour now breaks down. This does not emerge in a straightforward way, as Owen tries to cope with Zach’s family and his total culture shock in New York.

This is a shocking, strange but ultimately powerful novel. Owen is an unreliable narrator, and far more than a dispassionate narrator. There are points of breakdown when all predictable behaviour is gone, but the narrative pull is so strong that the reader is compelled to continue. This is not a book to be tackled lightly, and overall I do wonder at its treatment of women as reactive rather than proactive. This is not a book for the easily shocked, and one I may not have picked up for myself, but I am grateful to Legend Press for the review copy. A taut, compulsive read.


The Night Raid by Clare Harvey – Wartime Art, Weapons and Love

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This novel by a Nottingham author thankfully avoids much of the overly sentimental themes which can spoil some books set in the Second World War. The “Blitz Spirit” is often seen as a bit of an illusion, almost manufactured to suit the propaganda needs of an embattled nation. This historical novel depicts three women whose involvement with an Ordinance factory changes their lives in profound ways, and there is far more than a surface endurance despite the strains of the Home Front. The atmosphere of personal relationships threatened means that decisions are made with far reaching circumstances. A well-known artist becomes involved in the lives of young women whose prospects seem bleak; it is an imaginary episode yet is written in a believable way. Sometimes coincidences seem too much, but overall much that is positive emerges from this novel of realistic drama which goes beyond the “Night Raid” of the title.

Laura Knight was an artist who had always pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable. Her husband, Harold, was a noted portrait painter in a very traditional style, while Laura chose unusual subjects and depicted them in colourful and challenging ways. In this novel Harold is an elderly man, and Laura is a war artist who has had some success with painting “Ruby Loftus”, a girl working on heavy machinery to produce vital weapons. Financial necessity dictates her arrival in Nottingham to paint war workers. One of the girls she decides to paint, Violet Smith, is already in trouble. Unmarried mothers are shown as having little choice about their babies, and Violet’s own sister has placed further strain on her large family. She knows about life on the poverty line, and her work in munitions is not only vital to the war effort. Zelah Fitzlord is concerned for the welfare of the young women who work at the factory; it is her unusual qualities and determination to help that first interests George Hanford, supervisor of the night shift. What happens is partly under the control of these people, but fate continues to take a hand and occasionally tips into situations which can be a little too foreseeable to the reader, but Harvey manages to rescue the narrative before it becomes too awful. There is a tragic element of the story, but ultimately hope emerges in several ways.

I enjoyed this novel for several reasons. The writing is clear and the characters well defined. A balance is maintained between the problems that the characters face and the outcomes that left hope rather than misery. Laura’s unhappiness is seen from the inside, but also she is depicted as a strong and determined character as well as a sensitive, almost compulsive artist. While this is a fictional episode in her life, I think that it is well grounded in what is known about her, and no slander is committed. Zelah is a great character, determined yet vulnerable, and it is the little details about her that catch the attention and make her believable. Violet’s behaviour makes her a victim in some ways, but she is consistent in her spiky, realistic way. The small details of light, weather and behaviour are telling in a book which is perhaps not great literature, but a readable picture of women’s lives in a particularly difficult time, with some engaging writing and a clear story.

Laura Knight the artist featured in our visit to Nottingham Castle and Museum today. It was an accessible place to visit, once we had worked out that the gate would open to allow us to get to the Disabled parking space!  There were three of her paintings on display, not the best known (most of which we saw in an exhibition a few years ago in Newcastle), but including “Motherhood”, which is a thoughtful study of a mother and child. I bought the postcards, needless to say!


The Case of the 100% Alibis by Christopher Bush – An Impossible Crime?

The Case of the 100% Alibis: A Ludovic Travers Mystery by [Bush, Christopher]

The clue is definitely in the title of this book by the accomplished Golden Age Detection writer, Christopher Bush. The problem in essence that a murder has definitely been committed, there being no question of suicide or natural death. Yet everyone concerned “has the most beautiful twenty-two carat, diamond- studded alibi.” as one of the senior policeman investigating, George Wharton, publicly admits. Bush is a master of the impossible murder mystery, yet a respectable number of suspects can all prove that they were elsewhere at the time of the murder which can be pinpointed with unusual accuracy. This is not a case of a broken wristwatch indicating the time of death, a phone call summons the police to the scene of a fresh murder. Of course the redoubtable Ludovic Travers gets involved in this seemingly case of several suspects all being in full sight when the murder was committed; it is only using inspiration and that resolves this case of an unlikable victim whose murder seems destined to remain unsolved. This 1934 mystery, reprinted by Dean Street Press, is an always impressive display of coincidence, cunning and persistence which leaves no stone unturned as our detectives both professional and amateur are determined to find out exactly who committed a murder when no suspect was seemingly present.

Mr Lewton is dead. He is also a very unpopular man, a common thing in a victim dispatched in the opening chapter of a murder mystery. Thus the reader has little sympathy for someone whose own servant disliked him, who had business acquaintances rather than friends, who was noted for his flirtatious remarks to the doctor’s wife rather than genuine friendship. As Wharton, providentially on the scene when the report of the murder arrives soon discovers, there are several people who feared this man, whose interests were better served by his death than his remaining alive. Yet all of those who had motive were in public sight when the crime was committed, even the actor nephew whose financial circumstances were such as to require a timely inheritance. An inquest takes place, mainly in order to encourage a response and helpful leads from an eagerly interested public. It is only when Travers and his faithful manservant Palmer get involved that inspiration and dogged persistence win through.

This is a representative novel in the Ludovic Travers series, but it is definitely a standalone book. Fans of this author will sink happily into familiar characters pushing new barriers to get a result if not always complete justice. I was glad to see that Jane Wharton’s contribution is valued; if I have one complaint about these books it is their brushing aside female characters as mere plot devices. Here, however, Jane does contribute and her appreciation of detective novels as “very clever” sums up Bush’s novel well. This book makes use of an intriguing Prologue which serves both to drop a tantalising clue or two, as well as reintroducing the gentleman sleuth Ludovic Travers. It is an engaging book which features a crime that seems to defy detection but which eventually yields to studied investigation with inspiration. I was glad to receive this review copy and recommend it to all fans of the detection of ‘impossible’ crimes.

I have not posted so much as usual over the last week as I have been battling with an essay, but more excitingly, helping with wedding preparations! Making bunting for a marquee does take time, and I keep seeing triangles of fabric everywhere. Meanwhile Daughter and son in law to be are still working very hard so all hands on deck!

A Secret Sisterhood by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney – A book of Friendship between writers

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This is a book about friendship in all its human, genuine reality. Looking at the friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf with some lesser known (in the U.K at least) women, this is not a picture of constant devotion. Rather, there are misunderstandings, disagreements and complications in relationships which were sometimes difficult. The friendships cross many miles which frequently presented problems as correspondence was lost or significantly delayed, leading to bad feelings on both sides. The particular value in this book is the frequent revelation of little known or undiscovered documents which shed light on the friendships and the women involved. The existing biographies of most of these women are many and various, but this book by its very nature gives new insights into the lives of women who wrote, but also lived.

The first pairing is Jane Austen and Anne Sharp, the first world reknowned author, the second a governess with such severe health problems that her employment was uncertain. Austen of course was not recognised for her prodigious talent during her lifetime, but the prospects for Anne were far worse as she lacked family and friends to provide for her; the obscure details that the authors were able to find indicate a very poor background. Her employment as a governess in the household of Jane’s wealthy brother Edward brought her into contact with Anne, yet they met infrequently in the years to come. This part of the book is a little disturbing; medical procedures of the time were a little basic. The second pairing is Charlotte Bronte and Mary Taylor, the latter one of the school friends that Charlotte made in her varied scholastic career. Mary alone would make the subject of a fascinating book, especially as the authors have found a picture of Mary in her adventurous life taking in many continents. George Eliot was at a difficult stage in her life when she was first in contact with the celebrated American author Harriet Beecher Stowe. While Marian’s (Eliot’s) step son grew weaker and died, Harriet decided to take on the cause of Lady Byron which antagonised many of her readers. The distance between America and Britain led to delays in the post, but the book suggests that the real cause of the delays were the women’s family and writing problems. This book has to fill some gaps in the available letters between the two, but manages to maintain a realistic narrative. The final section covers the friendship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, whose relationship was shaped by the competing careers of two people whose writing was regularly challenging the usual genres. Virginia was a publisher as well as a writer, and her involvement with Katherine was of necessity complicated. This book shows both women at their best, but also at their worse as they were suspicious of each other’s output.

This is an immensely readable book which spares no effort in revealing the varying fortunes of women who wrote, who lived real lives, and whose devotion to each other varied with their own changeable fortunes. There are some moments of confusion where the narrative goes back into the past of one of the women, this was particularly so in the Harriet Beecher Stowe section, but it does explain why the women acted as they did. This book is a relatively short one for all the material it contains, but an extensive set of notes, combined with a select biography and a solid index will allow any reader to pursue any points of especial interest. This is a useful book as well as an informative one; anyone with an interest in any of these authors will something new and fascinating in this unusual and often touching book.

I have slowed down my posts this week as I have been struggling with and essay and other things; at least yesterday brought an exciting lot of book post. Obviously time will not go unoccupied in a Vicarage at Easter!

Bramton Wick by Elizabeth Fair – a rural comedy with some difficult characters

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This “cheerful debut” novel originally published in 1952, recently reprinted by Furrowed Middlebrow(Dean Street Press) is indeed a comforting read in the sense of rural matters and manners. That is not to say that it is all gentle and lightweight; some of the characters are quite unpleasant, and some totally ineffectual. There are types of people who may be identified in communities everywhere today; the carefully calculating, the misguided, the romantic hopeful, the naïve and the unfortunately loyal. To a certain extent this community dictates the chances and relationships which will occur as limited opportunities to meet and travel in this post war world, when the lives of most of the inhabitants are dictated by genteel poverty. Choices are made, often to the surprise of some, but also lives continue powered by the gossip, minor disputes and general good humour which typify such small communities in this form of literature.

Miss Selbourne is the first character to be described as the book opens, with her rather slapdash approach to housekeeping playing second fiddle to her many dogs,  being pets, business concerns and ultimately her obsession. Her friend, Miss “Tiger” Garrett is shown as a less attractive character, demanding and impulsive, lazy and a truly dangerous driver. This is ironic as her greatest life experience was driving ambulances in the First World War. Laura and Gillian are the daughters of Mrs Cole, neighbours of the two ladies, forced to an extent to come into contact on a daily basis. Mrs Cole lived her early married life in the big house, Endbury, but at her husband’s death she was forced to move into a small cottage with her daughters, finding her comfort in obsessive gardening. Now Endbury is inhabited by Lady Masters who is the familiar matriarch in the tradition of Lady Catherine de Bough, being manipulative and determined, though curiously blind as to the qualities of her only child, the adult son Toby. Laura supposes that if she marries Toby she can return her mother to Endbury, and begins to speculatively encourage the vacillating Toby. Mrs Cole also realises that such a marriage would be life changing, though has no real idea how to encourage it. Gillian is far more calculating and determined, having discovered another local man. Alongside this romantic theme operate the side characters who produce much of the humour, including the gossip, religion and nostalgic dominated Misses Cleeves and their landlord, the devoted and down trodden Mrs Worthy and her frankly unpleasant husband.

Fans of some of Austen and Gaskell’s Cranford will recognise some types here, and Anthony Trollope and Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire books are suggested. Unlike the latter two authors, however, this is a relatively short book and not part of a series, so each character, theme and question of country life must be fairly quickly dealt with by Fair. It is therefore light and suggests the humour of humanity in a rural community rather than developing it. This is a limitation to those of us used to affairs taking longer times to work out as the author tries to tie up each characters’ fates neatly at the end of less than two hundred pages.  It is an enjoyable slice of rural life with its frustrations of transport, tea parties and church services, and I recognised the dangerous driving, women with a fondness for drink and the complicated romances that Thirkell develops in her novels. I am grateful for this review copy, and look forward to reading other books by this confident and skilled author.

Once again we have snow, at least in Derbyshire! Some of us have had to get to places so, not everyone has been enjoying a snow day off, but at least we have had some extra time to read/finish something/ watch tv….Either way, I hope you have all managed to stay warm. Of course, you could be reading this in a place where such snow is not exceptional, so no doubt you think that the U.K. makes a bit of a fuss!

The Town Major of Miraucourt by J.B. Priestley – A Shiny New Books Review

Another Shiny New Books Review from Yours Truly! This time an unusual little book, but a fascinating insight into the last days of the First World War. See   for  lots more!

Of course, you will find lots more book reviews at Shiny New Books – a few hours worth at least!

To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD.Wallace A History of American Heiresses

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This American book, reprinted in 2012, is a comprehensive history of rich American girls, heiresses sometimes known as ‘dollar princesses’, who came to England to marry into the British aristocracy. This practice, which mainly occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, has been immortalised in fiction several times, most notably (as mentioned on the cover) in television’s Downton Abbey. The girls, brought up in a strict American society which had more rules, customs and conventions than imaginable today, were the product of a relatively small number of families with great fortunes. Not all the money was expected to go to the male heirs as in Britain; if the daughters found an impecunious but titled man to marry, he got the use of her money, she got the title for life and her children. The book is subtitled “Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery”, but the delicately minded need not fear; there is little sex.

The format of this book, a large paperback, at first suggests that there will not be much detail as each page opening features pictures and information boxes. This is not the case as the layout allows a lot of information to be packed into this book, which begins in 1860 with the visit of Albert, Prince of Wales. The book describes the tightly organised Knickerbocker families before going on to list the attractions of the London Season and the lure of British society. The Buccaneers braved the rigid rules of Society and married the young men whose estates and houses were financially embarrassed but who had a title to offer. Well known brides like Jennie Churchill and Consuelo Marlborough are featured as their sometimes unhappy stories are recorded. The less well known brides, in Britain at least, are also included with their trials and tribulations. This book takes us from the first brides through to the mistresses of King Edward VII, the trials of providing a male heir and spare, illustrated with maps and handy guides to the ranks of the aristocracy.

The early part of the book was not quite so interesting to me, as there is a great deal about the intricacies of American society and the power struggles and jealousies of the powerful women of the day. Later there is a lot of information about the marriages I have heard of before, even the excessive parties which have become legendary. There is a huge amount of information to be found in this book, especially when the Directory or Register of American Heiresses is added at the end. A Walking Tour of London is also featured with a Bibliography and Index. An immense amount of research has obviously gone into this book, and it would form an invaluable resource for writers and some academics. By no means a quick read, this is an exhaustive study of the subject of the girls who were persuaded to marry a title, at literally any cost, whether from affection or arrangement.  Yet it is readable and always interesting with its unusual format.

This is quite an old book, but I picked it up in November 2016 at Knole. It is a lovely book, and if I was aiming to write a book or study of this period and Anglo American marriages, it would be a fantastic starting point. It shows I read a wide variety of books…eventually!

Crime de Luxe – A Benvenuto Brown Mystery by Elizabeth Gill – Classic Mystery

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This 1933 book, recently reprinted by Dean Street Press, is full of surprises, deceit and even, for Benvenuto Brown, a hint of romance. There are only three books by this author, and this final novel shows her skill at dealing with an enclosed community in which the murderer is undoubtedly trapped. The creation of characters is as usual with this author very strong, as both men and women emerge as fully rounded with distinct mannerisms. Theories and world views are introduced and explored, as various nationalities and beliefs emerge. Gill’s well managed story pits her amateur detective against enough suspects to be fascinating as he tries to unravel the events on board a liner ploughing through the seas towards America. He does not seek out crime, but when it becomes obvious to him that at least one has been committed he will not relax until the culprit or culprits have been found.

When Benvenuto first boards Atalanta, the luxurious liner, he is contemplating a five day cruise finishing in New York. He is enjoying the people watching though there are those who are difficult to place; when he meets Miss Smith he is unsure what her history may be in her uncertainty. When she is killed he looks around him for suspects, some of whom are easily seen as involved, others less likely. A touching discovery in her luggage increases his determination to reveal the truth, even if it means suspecting the attractive Ann or involving himself in questioning the unlikable Lord Stoke. Strange events and even stranger motives emerge as further dangers emerge. While Benvenuto almost enjoys the challenge, he is wary of various people and amazed at some of the people who appear to have much to hide. Comparisons are made between America and Britain, political systems and marital fidelity. Yet the story never lags as Gill has set a strict five day timetable for mysteries to be solved and justice to be asserted, and she pours action and characterisation into each part of the novel.

This is an excellent read for those fans of Golden Age detection who enjoy developed, complex characters. The isolation of the murder scene means that eventually the guilty will be identified and the situation will be resolved, though there seems to be some doubt whether these things can take place within the short time before the ship docks. Benvenuto has little time to take stock or to examine his own motives for investigation; he is a constant active presence given his amateur status. Gill’s eye for detail is unfailing as she describes clothing, facial expressions and the slightest turn of speech which may define guilt or innocence. It is an enjoyable book in which the women characters are more than just passing illustrations of the narrative. I found this book maintained its tension much better as everything took place in a spacious but limited territory, as I felt her previous book was a little confusing with its many locations.  As always, Dean Street press have chosen a really good example of the genre and I am grateful for a review copy to appreciate a talented author.


Fire on the Mountain by Jean McNeil – an experience!

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This is an unusual book. Rarely have I read a book which conveys so well the sense of a place that I have no experience of, conveys the sounds, heat, even the smells until I am completely convinced that I have been there! The desert, the lush vegetation of different parts of Africa becomes sometimes frightening and real in this book as the setting comes alive in all its threat and danger, and a fair bit of discomfort. There are also the characters; Nick, adrift in a world which he normally copes with so well, Pieter, angry author, Riaan, whose life view is unique as a result of his experiences. This moving, intelligent book presents a very different view of life on the edge in many ways.

Nick is a man who has seen much of the world in its extremes. He has changed careers to become a logistics manager for a NGO, rushing to the scenes of disasters and events where there is massive threat to life. He feels that he is difficult to shock, essentially in control, able to predict what will happen and crucially what to do about it. Suddenly he finds himself adrift in an amazing place, of beauty and scenery almost beyond description. He turns up on the doorstep of an unknown couple, a tenuous link means that he has never met Pieter and Sara before they generously offer him a flat and more in terms of companionship, largely as almost another son. When their son Riaan turns up for Christmas, he introduces so much uncertainty, yet so much attraction, Nick is alternatively mesmerised and angry. Riaan becomes more demanding and emotionally challenging, Nick discovers so much more not only about this strange young man but also about himself. There are flashbacks as he recalls people in his rootless past, and he questions everything he has ever experienced. A perilous journey has many implications for Nick and others, as life changing revelations occur.

This is a book of contrasts and challenges for the characters. I was disappointed that the women are a little one dimensional and quickly withdraw in the face of men’s conversations and experiences. Sara, Tanya and the other women mentioned in Nick’s past are not really developed as individuals. I really enjoyed the descriptions of the landscapes and the buildings within them, the concept of the mountain on the edge of the sea, the bleakness of a desert with no touch of modern developments. I had not appreciated that such vast landscapes existed and were not more tamed. The writing is intense and self consciously meaningful; McNeil is sometimes seemingly striving to keep the melodrama in check, as experience piles on events. This is not so much a book to enjoy as experience, it is a powerful comment on landscape and people within it. I was grateful to receive a review copy of this book, and recommend it for its strong view of men within a world which is almost alien in its strangeness.

Well, there is certainly a variety of books on this blog! “From Africa to Angela Thirkell”  Sounds like an intriguing Phd title!

Desire by Una Siberrad on Shiny New Books – a review by Northernreader!

Today I have a review on Shiny New Books – a 1908 book just reprinted by Handheld Press – “Desire” by Una Siberrad . It is an amazing book for its time, a “New Woman” with advanced ideas personified in Desire, a young woman with advanced ideas. Her determination and independence from a background of idle wealth is unusual at any time, especially in the Edwardian setting of this novel. You can find it and hundreds of other book reviews on the Shiny new books site.   (just click the link)