Vocations by Gerald O’Donovan A powerful novel of religion, power and life decisions

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This Irish novel, originally published in 1921, reprinted by Handheld Press, is a tremendously engaging read. Dealing with the fates of two girls in Catholic Ireland, it is a searing picture of the way that the established church worked in small communities dominated by priests and the local convent. Moreover, it presents a picture of the way young women were treated by those with a vested interest in vocations to the life of a nun, and the restricted life which is offered to those who are not attracted to the religious life. Catholicism, class, money and the lives of women are all carefully drawn by an author with a deep experience of the daily lives of those dedicated to a church which has developed in significant ways not always to the benefit for the most devout.

The book opens with Winnie and Kitty, daughters of Tom and Johanna Curtin, bemoaning their lot. At least Kitty is struggling with their tiny social life; restricted to going to church and walking through the small town in which they live. Winnie has become attached to one of the few men she is allowed to meet, Father Burke, a local priest who has a large opinion of himself and his effect on the local devout women. Kitty admires a local doctor who she has never actually spoken to, Thornton, and weaves many fantasies about him. Their parents are relatively well off grocers, running a successful business and wealthy enough to send them to a select local convent school. They both have ambitions for their daughters; Tom wants Kitty to marry the son of another local tradesman and join their businesses together, while Johanna is even more determined that both girls should enter the Sisters of Mercy convent and become professed nuns. Winnie finds much to admire in convent life, especially as it will bring her into daily contact with Father Burke, and eagerly embraces the opportunity to enter as a novice. Kitty is told she is expected to marry Joe Duggan, who she finds appalling, and suffers another disappointment. Thus she makes a decision which seems as if it will define the rest of her life.

It is the small details of this book which make it so engaging; it is not a happy story but it is a consistent and well -constructed novel. The very furnishing of the girls’ room shows a new luxury that imprisons them while supposedly adding an air of refinement. I was surprised at how much liberty Father Burke takes and how much Winnie can openly show her devotion, and how determined Johanna is to surrender both of her daughters to the cloistered life. As one of the sisters scents freedom, she begins to see the world as a multi coloured place full of opportunity. The messages given to the girls by all and sundry seem to shut down their options so early; the pressures on them to comply are overwhelming. The nuns in the convent at first seem all alike, it is only when stress occurs that their personalities begin to show clearly. The subtle messages of how convent life is one of harsh routine and repetitive activity emerge clearly, and the petty obsessions and jealousies which dominate their lives. This book tries to show how hard the convents of the day sought and tried to retain girls for a variety of reasons, not for solely devotional concerns. I was very grateful to receive a review copy of this book, and it is a fascinating insight into the life of women in early twentieth century Ireland.

In many ways this is an unusual book, but it is a very good read. Nobody can say Northernreader sticks to the same sort of book! I am finding another Handheld book fascinating at the moment; “The Akeing Heart” by Peter Haring Judd. It is going to be tricky to review , but very worthwhile. The Handheld books are fascinating and well worth looking out for! Why not have a look at http://www.handheldpress.co.uk



The Mitford Murders – Jessica Fellowes – The start of a series?

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A murder, a runaway, a determined detective and a celebrity family; in some ways this sounds like an ideal book. Set in 1919, the First World War is over but the effects go on; for so many of the characters there is a sense of loss, but curiously the effects are not for the loss of loved ones. Possibly it has changed people, and not for the better, but in many ways this is more a story of two young women growing up. Full of coincidence, a few very laboured jokes, and some frankly bizarre happenings, it is a book which promised much but that I felt a little disappointed by; it tries to achieve many things but I think misses some of its self imposed targets. Possibly this is because it tries to blend fact and fiction in many ways, and the inconsistent behaviour of some characters is the result.

The book opens with a murder on a train. An older lady, rejoicing in the name of Florence Nightingale Shore, sets off from London to stay with a friend. She does not survive the train journey. Louise Cannon, a girl from the poorer end of London (a Peabody flat, which is a rather distracting fact that comes into the book, as is the Florence Nightingale link) is escaping from a truly evil uncle. She collides with the investigation of two young railway police officers, who fluctuate from having great responsibility to being expected to do nothing much. Guy gives her enough money and advice to set her off for a large house and the job of nursery maid, which she somehow gets. At this point Nancy Mitford appears, and while her well documented growing up is a glorious source for novelists, she is as seen as inconsistent as the rest of her family in a strange way. At one moment she is grown up and bossy, then she becomes a girl without a clue. This new life for Louise alternates between security and jeopardy, especially as the Mitford parents seem to allow freedom then clamp down. I have read enough of Nancy Mitford’s semi autobiographical novels to know that this was fair, but equally trying to shove these observations in with the story of Louise, Guy, a murder mystery based on fact as well as social history is a tall order, and not one that Fellowes pulls off well in the novel as a whole.

Altogether, this is a book which tries to achieve so much and I feel does not quite succeed. Some of the events and themes were not essential to the book, but would have made a separate novel. There is a lot of very impressive research, a good feeling for the era of damaged people, and poverty as experienced especially by women is touchingly described, along with the fear. However, Louise seems to manage rather well on very little cash, and the coincidences and attitude to Guy seem difficult to reconcile with the idea of someone from a very poor background. The suggestion seems to be that this is the first in a series of murder mysteries to be solved by a combination of the characters, and maybe the next novel will be less frenetic as the characters and setting are now established. This is a good read with plenty of atmosphere and interest, and will appeal to fans of murder mysteries in an historical setting as well as those attracted by the Mitford name. I am just disappointed by its lack of focus and large number of themes and characters as some of the very good ideas tend to get lost.


The Demon in the House by Angela Thirkell – an early Barsetshire novel of Tony Morland

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This book, not often mentioned as being in the Barsetshire series, is a little bit of a curiosity even given the range of books tackled by Thirkell. While many of her books tend to focus on one family, or individuals within it for much of the novel, they often broaden out to include the other local preoccupations and concerns, especially given the wartime context of many of the books. This book, however, is almost exclusively centred on a boy, Tony Morland, his mother Laura, and quite a limited number of his friends and acquaintances. These are characters introduced in “High Rising”, but here they are far more undiluted by outside concerns, when even those women who dominated the action in that book of romantic mishaps and action are side lined. As an early book (1934), this is very much an attempt, I feel, to push a character as far as it will go, rather than look at a situation.

Tony Morland is twelve years old, the youngest son of the widowed Laura, and a strong motivation for her to carry on writing to earn enough to keep him at school and run two establishments with her devoted servant, Stoker. Tony always has advanced views, bordering on obsessions, and Laura finds it easier to give in than fight the constant chatter and reasons why he must have a bike, how fast he can ride it, and why the current bike is woefully inadequate to his ambitions. The fact that she suffers a dozen fears of his imminent demise as the result of his cycling is immaterial to him. He has his admirers; the Vicarage daughters Dora and Rose, only occasionally argue with him, and he is often accompanied by his friend from school, Robert Wesendonck or “Donk”, who limits himself to expressive mouth organ playing. The book records the various school holidays during a year, as Tony is at a good boarding school. Not everyone is a fan of Tony’s, as Dr. Ford is particularly acute in condemning his more outlandish actions. George Knox, introduced in “High Rising”, is a sort of adult version of Tony, seeing himself in various guises as author of brilliant (if uninviting to the general reader) of historical biographies,  and lacking the ability to know when he has said enough. George is to find successors in the Barsetshire series as several men suffer from a lack of perception about their own powers of speech.

This book is a curious book of school boy humour and adult insight into daily life. There are times when the book, like Tony’s incessant chatter, can a little wearing, and it is best tackled, I believe, in short chapters. It is undoubtedly gently amusing, and does much to provide background for characters such as Laura, who may well be the autobiographical portrait of Thirkell, driven to write popular books to earn money. Laura is a character who appears in many of the later books as the distracted author, called on to speak, act as companion and generally support while the main action of the novel goes on around her.  I found her attitude to Tony familiar, driven mad with fantasies of his injury, maintaining her equilibrium in the face of his constant ideas, coping with the other characters who demand her attention. There are some lovely descriptive passages as Tony and others find the beauties and curiosities of nature, and George Knox leads a trip to a Cathedral. Altogether this is not the strongest book in the series, and the Demon, or Tony, is an acquired taste, but it is an enjoyable read which sets the reader up for the rest of the Barsetshire books.

Being determined to review all the Thirkell books, but not in order, I continue to look for editions of all the Barsetshire novels. Barter Books seemed to be lacking last week, but there was a few to be found at the Astley Book Farm including a first edition of “Love Among the Ruins”. I have never seen “Demon in the House” in a bookshop, and the Moyer Bell edition is a little uninspiring with a completely irrelevant cover, but at least it exists! I still need to check if I have achieved the full set…

The Chimney Murder by E.M.Channon An immersive domestic crime?

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This novel seems to be at first glance quite a domestic mystery. With a thoroughly disagreeable man at the centre, who strikes fear into the heart of his family with his unreasonable temper, it seems a murder would in some ways be a logical outcome.  There is nothing so straightforward in this gripping book originally published in 1929, more recently reprinted by Greyladies, which was written by Ethel Mary Channon.  Instead of a large country house, this unusual murder mystery is set in a small suburban house, with the interest and involvement of several neighbours. It manages at once to feel claustrophobic, tense and ominous. Strange events make everyone in this novel doubt their family, friends and neighbours. There are many secrets to be revealed, as well as some heartfelt longings and regrets. People change, others find their true selves, and the murder is far more than a cosy puzzle when everything hangs in the balance. The men in this novel are largely revealed as less than capable, whereas some of the women find their strength of purpose. Nothing is easy in a book which feels so possible in its reasons, even if the execution seems a little messy.

Mr Harbottle Binns is an ill tempered man, whose frequent mood changes cannot seemingly be averted by his wife, despite her continued attempts to placate him and prevent his fearsome outbursts. He shows cruelty and ill manners to many, especially his family, but even his quiet, poor neighbours suffer from his often unreasoning complaints. When his family sneak out for the day, careful not to leave a trace, his latest outbreak means that various members of his family discover why fires cannot be lit.  A messy murder exposes awful characters, dreary characters and no little pain. As Selina, always called Mrs. Binns, discovers a strength which she has been keeping quiet under her husband’s oppression, her children are left confused.  Nice touches, including humour and romance, are threated through the book. This novel full of incident, red herrings and strong feelings is essentially a family, domestic novel, with everyone under suspicion. As a young couple find each other, and a sense of purpose is rediscovered, secrets emerge and must be concealed.  There is a neat ending, when truly every character works out what really counts in life.

This is a strongly written, closely observed narrative, full of the domestic details which makes even a horrific murder seem more real. I found it a brilliantly written novel which seized my interest, as soon as the older women became stronger in the face of family tragedy and fear. This book’s unexpected strength emerges as the female characters, especially the older women, are forced to take control. Even the noisy and negative neighbour has her day, or days, as she revels in her special insights in masterly monologues. This novel in some subtle ways is ahead of its time in terms of its immersive achievement and recognition of the roles of women, in direct contrast to some other novels of this period who are not so able to admit women can be protagonists in any real way. At first I was less than impressed, thinking that the cowering wife and dominating husband showed that this would be another book of a straightforward murder mystery. However, I soon discovered that this was a far more clever narrative than that and I could not be easily parted from this book. The mystery is not complex, but the way of working things out is fascinating, and the characters are simply memorable.

I am so impressed by the books that Greyladies have reprinted. I have an idea that I read somewhere that they are relaunching their website this summer, so I hope that this means more choice of reprinted gems.

Meanwhile, I am still discovering more books to read and review.  I am greatly enjoying the new Alison Weir novel “Jane Seymour The Haunted Queen” in Her Six Tudor Queens series. I am looking forward to hearing her speak at the Derby Festival; after last year I am expecting a torrent of information!

Women and Power -The Struggle for Suffrage by Sophie Duncan and Rachael Lennon

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At first glance this is a slim book of photographs associated with the fight for the vote for women in Britain. Produced by the National Trust, it would be easy to dismiss it as a gift book. However, the text and selection of photographs goes far beyond merely descriptive; this book represents a scholarly overview of the events, people and situation in the late nineteenth century. The most significant achievement of this book is the way it brings the 1918 decision to allow certain women to have the vote up to date in the gender politics of today.

The book largely covers the involvement of people associated with National Trust properties on all sides of the debate. In the section “Risking a Change 1868 – 1905”, the authors identify families who campaigned for suffrage, as well as those who were divided on the whole question. Portraits of the women involved are reproduced throughout the book to a high quality, and so much work has been done in finding and using the pictures and photographs. There is a lot here about women’s situation before the suffrage campaign began, such as actress Ellen Terry as well as the confusing views of Virginia Woolf. The relationships between activists is explored in the section called “Decentring men”. The people are linked to the properties with such diverse choices as Kipling  of Batemans who accused the suffragists of not caring about the politics, just the men involved. Force feeding is discussed, as well as the memorable Emily Davison whose very public actions at the Derby affected so many lives.

There are many books available about the fight for women’s suffrage in this anniversary year, often far more comprehensive than this book. This book’s selling point is the way it links National Trust properties to the people involved, and the exhibitions and events planned for this anniversary year. Wallington is mentioned as the home of socialist activists, but the property has chosen not to run an exhibition this year as it is celebrating fifty years of National Trust ownership. The book covers issues such as whether the suffragettes could be seen as terrorists for their actions, and the nature of the limited enfranchisement in 1918.The final section is called Women and Power 2018, and begins with a quote from Attwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” “We lived in the gaps between the stories”.  Altogether this book is a super introduction to the subject, and though it lacks an index and bibliography there is much to be found in this book. I would certainly recommend it as an introduction to the topic, and for those who want a glimpse of the people behind the historical facts.

I actually bought my copy of the above at Wallington, but I have seen it on Amazon, or try  http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/guidebook/womenandpower

I am a Life Member of the National Trust, but I am not involved in the production of this book, honestly!

Looking forward to future events, the Derby Book Festival seems to have some interesting events coming up, and Northernvicar has already bought some tickets. Watch this space for further developments!

The Native Heath by Elizabeth Fair – A small community in all its beauty

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Occasionally an author’s books chime well with what a reader enjoys reading, and that seems to be the case with Elizabeth Fair’s novels. This 1954 novel, recently reprinted by Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press, is an excellent read of rural matters, a large village populated by characters that are of their time, yet can still be easily imagined today. I was glad to receive a review copy of this book, and not only because it reminds me strongly of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series, but also as a lovely if short novel that skilfully introduces characters that I am interested in reading about. Although a short novel, it fits in many of the small events which combine to make a very satisfactory picture of life in the 1950s, where competitions, scandal and rumour are never very serious but meaningful, and the irritations of daily life mount up into a fascinating picture.

This is the story of Julia Dunstan, recent widow who has lived abroad with her wealthy husband. She inherits a house that she remembers visiting as a child, and she rediscovers a cousin who also stayed there during school holidays. Dora is a single lady who has always worked to support herself, and now Julia feels that she ought to offer her a home in return for companionship and some help. An awkward servant and an unemployed nephew complete the household which rapidly becomes a focus of interest for most of the villagers. Julia is not content to play householder alone, but find out and if possible help as many people around her. She becomes especially interested in her quiet cousin Francis. There is also Miss Pope, the Vicar’s sister, always involved in the villagers’ lives, who becomes convinced of several interesting facts. Lady Finch has her obsessions, and a niece Harriet who develops plans of her own. Confusions and romance happens, picnics and set pieces of garden parties dominate. Many small details crowd the narrative and contribute to the whole fascinating package.

Taken individually there are no great events, no massive points of dispute, no major scandals in this book. However, the details of everyday life are lovingly and lightly depicted, the people are real with their small concerns and embarrassments, and overall this is a loving portrait of a village emerging from post war austerity. The neighbour who always wants to borrow things indefinitely, the damp garden party, the memorable shopping trip all add up to a very human picture. This is not part of a series, so all the situations have to be resolved in the last few chapters, whereas they could have been stretched out perhaps beyond being interesting. Fair is generous with her characters, with even those who only briefly appear being given real attributes. This is a short, well constructed book which uses gentle humour and really joyous themes to build a world in which the small concerns of life dominate and there is a satisfactory answer to most of life’s problems. I greatly enjoyed it and recommend it to all those who like the gentle humour of Thirkell, and some of the more straightforward of Pym’s tales.

The Case of the Monday Murders by Christopher Bush – a Confident and Clever Mystery

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Another Monday, another Murder? This 1936 novel, recently reprinted by Dean Street Press, is a complex tale of murder, publicity seeking and long held grudges. It depends on the characters of newspaper men in an age when all news, opinion and speculation had to be waited for, bought and eagerly read in papers all vying for the greatest impact and sales. Crime novels in this “Golden Age” of detective fiction were popular, and in a rather cheeky sideways reference to the Detection Club which celebrated the work of such greats as Dorothy L. Sayers, the “Murder League” is depicted as a dubious gang of writers churning out books to a pattern. The mainstay of this book, as with most of Bush’s detective writing, is the rich, educated and undoubtedly clever Ludovic Travers, but even he struggles with the challenges thrown up by the seemingly disparate deaths he investigates here. This is a novel of timing, false trails and red herrings, and a parrot who may well have more to say.

This novel opens with the opening in a busy newspaper office of a mysterious letter which promises to provide sensational copy for a few days. It mentions several unsolved murders, and draws attention to the fact that many of them were committed on a Monday. As in at least one of Bush’s previous books, a deadline for murder whets the fear of the reading public, and Travers is soon asked to write up at least one of the cases. It is not difficult to work out the author of the letter, and once again there is the concept of the ‘perfect’ murder, when ‘undesirables’ are killed with such attention to detail that the crime will forever remain unsolved. The suspicious death of such a man in Travers vicinity causes him to discover clues which show sophistication and forethought, but the question of a false trail means that for all his bluster and determination, Bush’s other detective, Inspector Wharton, is left to struggle with the unthinkable. Travers follows up such slim leads of information that it is perhaps easy to get muddled, but he does not do so alone as Norris is once more inspired to use his skills to follow up ideas which Palmer, the devoted servant, dredges up from memory. As in several of these books, while the police carefully exclude possibilities and provide the effort, it is Travers who risks all on a hunch, potentially costly and certainly bearing risk.

As always with the Travers novels, this is a masterfully plotted story of timing, suspense and deliberate confusion. Bush manages to introduce characters succinctly yet effectively who may have much to do with the murder of the day, but who may equally have little more than a window dressing role in the eventual explanations. Information is gathered from tenuous links going back for decades, yet much is to picked up from little details of voice, attitude, and the debris of everyday life. So much, so Cludo, but Bush’s real skill is in holding all the lines of enquiry in tension, while injecting a certain humour and understanding of life into the proceedings. For me, the downside of Bush’s novels is always the lack of meaningful women characters.  While few can create a Harriet Vane or even a Miss Marple, it is a shame that Bush seems to disregard women as very much subsidiary characters in a world of carefully nuanced and well drawn out male protagonists, with not even the rather clever Mrs Wharton been mentioned in this novel. Despite this, I continue to enjoy these books and was very grateful to receive a review copy of this reprinted and fast paced Travers books, and I look forward to following his adventures in many more books to come.

Having returned from a few days away in sunny Northumberland, and it was sunny everyday, I must report that I read several books and fought with difficult wifi. As I already had a few books to review, I will be spending a fair bit of time posting. The warm and dry weather was quite the revelation, and the people were as friendly as ever. Cogito Books in Hexham kept a signed book for me, and got three more in for me within 24 hours, Newcastle Waterstones tracked down both hardback books I was chasing, and the wonderful Barter Books provided a lovely pile of books! So, much reading to come! Anne and I spent most of a day in Barter Books, and I am pleased to say their food is still  wonderful…

The Time Machine by H.G.Wells – The Oxford University Press Edition

This book has been said to be one of the earliest novels of science fiction. While it is not a genre I know well, I believe that this book does set down some of the rules and standards that have become part of the definition of science fiction. A realistic setting, almost domestic, a real attempt to produce evidence that would satisfy a discriminating audience, and events just beyond expectation and credibility. In this novel the protagonist is not overly dramatic, his audience chosen for their professional scepticism, and the setting is so Victorian domestic that a reader can learn something of that period. In the light of the current fashion for dystopian vision, this is a chilling report of a world where evolution has defined humanity so as to be vaguely recognisable rather than the same, but developed. Written in 1895, this is a book that would shock today in its bleak view of life many thousands of years hence.

The Time Traveller is in his sitting room, expanding on his thoughts about humanity to his guests, known mainly by their profession (a Medical Man, a Psychologist, an Editor and others) in an after dinner discussion. No women appear in this setting; this is a gathering of scientific gentleman presumed to be sceptical about such dubious assertions that time travel is possible and indeed experienced by one of their number. He produces a model, beautifully made, of a prototype time travel machine, and explains when it disappears that he proposes to make a larger version in which he will travel to the future. His friends are unconvinced, but soon he invites them to believe such an attempt has been made.

The future is at once a paradise and a frightening place. Those he encounters are difficult to categorise, but the Time Traveller recalls an experience that is incredibly detailed. Proof of events is not utterly compelling, but there is every reason to believe that what occurred in this otherwise remarkable house cannot be easily understood.

This is an extremely short, readable classic which is stylistically of a time when the forces of industrialisation and invention were resulting in whole new world views, often painful, sometimes exhilarating. Its late nineteenth century setting is solid, its view of a possible future almost lyrical. Wells was a scientific journalist; a new profession which meant that he was presumably on the edge of discoveries that to the eyes of his contemporary readers would have seemed incredible. Thus time travel would have almost seemed credible by contrast, and it is long before the rules of causing upset in travelling backwards and forwards in time were set down.

This edition of which I received a review copy from Oxford University Press sets out an informative introduction and includes a substantial amount of additional text. The notes explain some of the more obscure references and greatly adds to the understanding of the book. If your tastes run to classic science fiction this novel is a defining introduction, and this edition explains much of the background and achievement of H.G.Wells as one of the most innovative writers of his time.


Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull – Another British Library Crime Classic with a twist

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Great claims can be made for this book because it starts with a very original idea. The scene is set in the trial for murder, but it soon becomes obvious that while we begin to pick up the facts of the case, we are not to find out who the accused actually is until substantially later in the book. The British Library Crime Classics series published Hull’s very unusual “Murder of My Aunt” last month; this month’s offering is equally puzzling. Is it a murder mystery, or a legal trial novel? What is the role of the police? Will it come down to the skill of the lawyers or will the truth out? This novel starts where most murder mysteries end, when the trial for the life of the accused begins. This book was originally published in 1938, in the Golden Age of Detection, when capital punishment meant a guilty verdict was literally a death sentence. So this book deals with one death, but could possibly lead to another.

This book begins with an ambitious lawyer, Anstruther Blayton, opening the prosecution of the mysterious accused. In comparison, the judge, Sir Trefusis Smith, is perhaps thinking of retirement, but his reputation for directing a jury is formidable. One of the impressive things about Hull’s writing is that you can see and hear his characters from their words and dialogue. These are not stock characters, but manage to convey what they are thinking apparently so effortlessly. When we get to the beginning of the actual description of the crime, there is humour and depth in each of the characters, especially Hardy who describes his interest in the character of Cargate. The latter is soon found to be a thoroughly unlikable man, with no obvious patience or understanding. It emerges throughout the book that he has no redeeming characteristics, and that he bullies and threatens everyone he comes across. He is no respecter of persons; the loyal and influential are all alike to him as targets for his nastiness and suspicion. Hull almost has fun creating a character who no one could like, thereby multiplying the number of possible suspects who have found themselves in the dock. He also enjoys himself with the Hardy family, who are so numerous that their occupation becomes their name. I think that the writer is playing with the reader here, adding to the confusion. The doctor tries so hard to do the right thing, but is in uncharted territory. Railway enthusiasts may enjoy the debate on the etiquette of having a body on board.  There are many clues, but this is essentially a straightforward murder. The real question is the identity of the accused, and what will happen.

Technically this is an accomplished book with a lot of interest. I enjoyed reading about the characters, even if Cargate was over the line in terms of awfulness at some points. It is both a classic murder mystery and a book with a decided twist, which means that the reader must concentrate! I was very happy to receive a review copy of this latest book in the series of books, most of which I have enjoyed. This lesser known author of the Golden Age of Detection certainly wrote some good books with unusual twists, and I would hope that some more become easily available in the near future.

It is always a treat to read a new British Crime Classic, and this one is a super edition. I am reading some of the new Science Fiction classic stories that have recently come out, and am looking forward to posting a review in the near future.

Dandy Gilver & A Spot of Toil & Trouble by Catriona McPherson – The Scottish Play in a Castle

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Dandy Gilver is a character familiar to readers of this book blog. Inasmuch as she always narrates the books which she appears in, her character is self evident as quite a thoughtful person who rebels in an organised way against her class and expectations. Her role, established over the last eleven books, is as an amateur detective with her trusty sidekick Alec. They do not always get on, they infuriate each other with their habits when detecting, they are as predictable to each other as any married couple. They basically respect each other’s processes while working through the mysteries they unearth in each novel, and in contrast with Dandy’s relationship with her usually absent husband they enjoy the joking of a sibling like relationship. As in the previous novels they rarely stick to the mystery they have been hired to solve, discovering the underlying truth of what happens when they start to pursue the “wisps” of clues. The setting of the interwar period is beyond the post First World War aftermath, but here is the first stirrings of concern that there may be another war on the way.

On this occasion Dandy is summoned to a thread bare Scottish castle by the couple who own it for the moment. Minnie and Bluey know that they are in big financial trouble, and are grasping at the idea of putting on Shakespeare play staged by their daughter’s fiancé, Leonard, in order to attract rich visitors. Bluey’s mother Ottoline is still in residence, full of memories of her husband Richard who left many years previously possibly with a famous but apparently cursed necklace. Dandy and Alec are hired to find the necklace, or at least establish what happened to it. In looking for it they disturb many family secrets as well as the fabric of an old solid building. It soon emerges that the play planned is in fact Macbeth, and casting issues mean that everyone gets dragged onstage. There is thus the opportunity for many theatrical jokes, especially the Porter’s speech. The denouement is complicated, and demands much concentration, but is ultimately satisfying in way of these novels.

These books are enjoyable to read, with strong characters and some very funny moments. The in jokes on this occasion relate to Macbeth, and actors who frequently take themselves very seriously. The plot wanders a little, and there are loose ends and red herrings aplenty. This is a relaxed book compared to the earnest series set in the same period, Maisie Dobbs by Jaqueline Winspear, as McPherson takes a far lighter view of the characters and their motivations. This book fits the bill for a casual read, even if the reader does have to work a little harder at the end to understand what has been happening. It is an historical mystery series that is worth following, though I feel it could also be read as a standalone novel, and the series as a whole probably does not have to be read in strict order. The “Scottish Play” was never quite performed like this!

So, a jolly book for a hot Bank Holiday, and a new bookshop discovered! Northernvicar tracked down Astley Book Farm in the Midlands (see http://www.astleybookfarm.com/index.html) for more details. I found the beautifully shelved fiction section while he enjoyed tea and scones. Money was spent…and a first edition “Love Among the Ruins” by Angela Thirkell found!