Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple – Persephone’s championing of a superb writer concludes.

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This book is the latest Whipple book to be published by Persephone, and it is the final one that they are able to bring out. It is actually Dorothy Whipple’s debut novel, originally published in 1927, and has the great merit of her obviously trying out the superb characterisation that marks out her later books. Her rediscovery by Persephone has led many to regret her relative obscurity as outlined in Lucy Mangan’s very personal and meaningful introduction. Her plots are basic and seem natural as they are so well worked out that they are never laboured, and in this book she is mainly an autobiographical storyteller. That is not to say it is in any sense tedious; while the reader is not chasing a whodunit formula she is intrigued to know what will happen to Anne next, or what she will cause to happen. The characters, always beautifully described, bring the reader along in the settings drawn from life, with all its petty irritations and small incidents. This is a novel of colour, depth and even smell, as the descriptions which run throughout the narrative feel so real.

The book opens with Anne as a child, gazing round her in church, subtlety allocating those around her their place in her world. It soon becomes obvious that her mother is disconnected, her father unrealistically authoritarian as far as she is concerned, and her only true supporter is Emily, the only servant in the house. She mothers the child, and later she is to be Anne’s true supporter throughout the vicissitudes of her young adult life. Anne is frequently obsessed with ideas, including the desire for a fish, which brings her into contact with George Yates. This relationship also becomes vitally important, though not in obvious ways. Mildred Yates is being brought up with another agenda from Anne, a suitable marriage to enhance her parents’ lives. The contrast in their lives goes deep, as Anne is depicted as so much more than a gratifying prettiness and clothes. Anne’s school experience at a convent is more than a school story, as the nuns are briefly but effectively described, and the nature of faith is felt and shown, rather than discussed. Aunt Orchard is a truly awful woman, but is restrained in her awfulness by a truly satisfactory revelation. It is not easy to see a happy ever after here, but be assured that as with Whipple’s other books the most obvious ending is not always employed.

I enjoyed this book; no great events, no great plot devices, just a simple story with many depths. The characterisation of Anne is gentle, understanding and realistic, and bears many of the marks of personal experience mined for a truthful book. While not obviously a feminist book; as Whipple was going on to write in “High Wages” about  the ways women could improve her lot, her careful drawing of various women and girls shows them struggling against the dissatisfaction of limited choices and their definition by men. Even an educated woman is forced to go without to give her son opportunities, and school owners lose much in an attempt to survive. Persephone’s choice of books is as always strong and never better than the complete books of Whipple, and I was very grateful to be sent a copy of this final volume. I recommend it for all those who want to read a sometimes painfully true picture of women’s lives between the great Wars of the twentieth century, but yet want to be amused by the impulsive and real girl and woman who discovers life and love from various people around her.


Sweet Danger by Margery Allingham – Danger, adventure and Campion

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A book which sits squarely in the Golden Age, (1933) this could have been a straight mystery. There are times when it could also have descended into farce, or been almost a famous five adventure, but to be those things it would have had to be written by somebody other than Margery Allingham. She successfully subverts so much in this tale, by including supernatural elements, international politics, misdirection and most of all the weird and wonderful Campion himself, that it becomes a very funny yet slightly disturbing read.  There is so much in this book that could go wrong, yet Allingham manages to hold it together admirably as a disposessed family fights, sometimes literally, to survive and find their inheritance, which has become a political mission for Campion and his group of trusted followers. When even the sternest fighters have to be restrained, and several near misses are recorded, life gets very complicated.

The book opens with a wealthy young man discovering, via an excitable hotel manager, that his friends have got an interesting mission in hand. While Albert Campion is pretending, (or is he?) to be royalty, Lugg his manservant is, as ever, predicting doom. As they proceed in a disorderly fashion to West Suffolk, they discover a seemingly delightful village with a mill run by the eccentric members of a family eager to seek their help with a series of puzzling discoveries. Amanda is a determined girl who seeks to maintain the family’s survival, while her somewhat colourless older sister and intense brother Hal always seem to miss the point. Miss Huntingforest, or Aunt Hatt, is an older lady with a fierce streak, which is fortunate in the trying circumstances she finds herself in on a regular basis. There is an elderly doctor who has a most strange agenda and the most fragrant garden in crime literature, who does more than patch up one of the adventurers, Guffy. All this pales into insignificance compared by the very real danger posed by the extremely powerful crime lord who will stop at literally nothing to achieve his aims. As ever, Campion takes many risks, faces many dangers, and does it all with the self – depreciating humour which characterises these books. His demeanour as the amiable twit could be wearing in other hands, but combined with a swift grasp of any situation, witty dialogue and extreme bravery, let alone his stern relationship with the memorable Lugg make up for any deficiencies. He is has certain Bertie Wooster tendencies, and is a fellow not unlike Sayers’ hero, Lord Peter, but combines all the best of both men with a certain air of mystery as to his background. Amanda Fitton is no Harriet, but shares the same desperate courage as Campion and is a character to keep in mind.

Allingham’s autobiographical writings in the “Oaken Heart” and elsewhere shows that she regarded her writing as her job, raising money for her country life, but this book shows her really stretching herself to have a good time with her creation, Campion, and throwing everything into the mix. It does not depend on the clever writing of some of her later novels, as amnesia and wartime dangers dominate, and the superb “Tiger in the Smoke” which plunges into the real depth of good and evil. This is a sunny novel which entertains as well as having a dark side. My favourite section is a visit to a museum described as “dull” by its curator, as uncertain ‘church representatives’ are met with a real surprise. As no one is sure exactly what is going on, this is an exciting adventure and well worth discovering, or rediscovering.

I wrote this review as I have had quite a busy weekend, with singing at a concert, a wedding, a blessing, and running a successful bookstall at an Open Gardens. We opened the Vicarage garden which is definitely a work in progress, owing to its sheer size and challenging areas. Thanks to help from other people and the dubious benefits of bark on matting it was presentable, though I spent time shuttling between a boiling hot tent and a magnolia tree. I sold lots of books! Northernvicar is also basking in his success at raising over £1,000 for the British Heart Foundation by walking Snowdon, so well done to him. I would prefer a sponsored book read myself…

White King – Charles I by Leanda de Lisle reviewed on Shiny New Books today!

Another review on Shiny New Books today! This is a non-fiction book, but as I explain in my review, it reads more like a novel. Was King Charles more sinned against than sinning? Was he misguided? What about his wife, Henrietta Maria? Lots of questions and many answers in this book. Like her earlier book,  “The Tudors” this is an immensely readable book which I have greatly enjoyed reading.

See  for my full review.

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans – reviewed on Shiny New Books today!

Here is a link to my latest review of a truly brilliant book on Shiny New Books. Lissa Evans has written a brilliant story of suffragettes after the battles were seemingly won, only to find that there are new battles to fight in a different way.

See   for more about his book which makes for great reading in this anniversary year.

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Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville – An amusing British Library Crime Classic

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This 1934 novel, recently reissued in the popular British Library Crime Classic series, is written with the “light touch” that the debut author was aiming for, and is consequently a funny, clever and perhaps fanciful mystery. Murder is not the first problem, but jewellery, its theft and collection, becomes very much a theme of this book. Violence is done, and not all the characters survive the weekend in the country.  This is a collection of characters typical of many a Golden Age detection novel, but the execution of the plot is far from straightforward in any sense. Engaging characters, a far from sensible hero, and this almost farcical novel is entertaining and satisfying in many ways. I was very pleased to receive a review copy of this book, and enjoyed it immensely.

Jim Henderson is a survivor of the First World War, left intact physically and mentally, but living in reduced circumstances despite his gentlemanly upbringing. His landlady, Mrs. Bertram, is always full of the latest news and gossip, but is touchingly surprised when he is whisked off in a shiny big car by his friend Freddie Usher for a weekend in the country. A mysterious Mr. Carson has invited both young men, together with four other people, for fishing, shooting and most appealing, free food. The newly refurbished house is set in an island of pine trees, but despite its isolation it is not long before Jim and Freddie make the acquaintance of Mary, a young woman with her own reasons for pursing investigations. Soon suspicious discoveries, the disturbance of a female guest, and nocturnal activities of an unknown quantity lead to the growing realisation that Mr Carson and his butler maybe motivated by more than just hospitality. Even a local cat is far from safe. The whole tale rattles along in a most satisfactory way, and the eventual ending sees justice for all.

This book is accomplished for a debut novel, and some of the elements recall Wodehouse as the hapless hero and his companions try to sort out the situation. There is even one character who would qualify as an honorary “Aunt”. It is also good to see a female character filling a larger role than just the victim or witness, as at least two women have their own plans to remedy the situation. Like the other two Melville books republished by British Library Crime Classics, “Open Curtain” and “Death of Anton”, this novel is quick moving and funny. If this novel is over dependent on coincidence, such is the wit and confidence of the writing that it is forgiven. If you like your crime fiction classic, yet far from serious and graphic, this is an excellent choice. I really enjoyed the unlikely scenario, the sly digs at the classic country house mystery, and the character of Jim, who finds out what he is really capable of when in an incredible situation.

There are so many excellent Crime Classics being republished over the next few months that it will be a full time job to keep up with them!




The Case of the Tudor Queen by Christopher Bush – Is Ludovic Travers beaten by this case?

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This book is the eighteenth Ludovic Travers Mystery, originally published in 1938, now reprinted by the excellent Dean Street Press, which means that this complex tale is very easy to obtain. As to be expected, this is a clever, complex murder mystery in which much is set up for the unwary, and for a large amount of the book the vital information for Travers’ breakthrough is missing. He is ever present, but this seems to be a double death without any certainties but a lot of dead ends. Travers, Wharton and the other investigators have certainly met their match in a case which threatens to defeat even their combined forces. This is a case with high drama, deliberate misdirection and haunting images, as well as a solution that is separate in time and space.

Travers and his ever faithful manservant, Palmer, are giving a lift to Superintendent George Wharton in “the Rolls” through the countryside when they come across a young woman walking along in strange circumstances. It turns out that she is a servant of an actress who has failed to turn up at her country cottage, along with her handyman who also appears to have disappeared. As the gentlemen drive into London in an effort to solve the puzzle of a woman who has left her immediate effects behind, they open up the town house to discover the body of Ward, the servant, in the kitchen clutching a glass.  A more graphic horror is to be found upstairs as the body of Mary Legreye is found in an eerie echo of her greatest role. Wharton attempts to charm, threaten and generally discover what all the contacts of the unfortunate pair have to say on their whereabouts at the time of the deaths. Could this be the case that defies the combined resources of Travers, Palmer, Wharton, Norris and Lewis? The solution is impossible to foresee, yet manages to be credible.

One of the most significant things about many of Bush’s Travers books is the breaking of alibis, and in this novel the alibi of everyone seems unbreakable.  This novel seems to represent defeat for the crime cracking team, and the solution is extremely elegant. I am still not convinced that Bush was an accurate writer of female characters, but this is a minor quibble with such a well written tale. Motoring enthusiasts may be intrigued by the details of this book, as well as Travers’ Rolls, and the clues which emerge are well managed gathering together so many seemingly mixed elements. The descriptions are as always well managed, combing a haunting image with more technical details well. As always it is difficult to write an effective review without giving too much away, but this is a book of its time in a sunny pre -war way, as well as being a mystery which has stood the test of time well.

The good news is that there is another ten of Christopher Bush novels being reprinted and made available through Dean Street Press on 2nd July. This brings the number available up to 30, and these novels are definitely addictive (you have been warned).  I am especially looking forward to this group as they are the wartime novels, and as readers of this blog will know I’m a great fan of novels written actually during the Second World War. (See the Angela Thirkell novels for example). Persephone Books have a box set of their six novels in this category, and they can easily be identified on their brilliant website here  (where they have more than six…). Happy reading to come!

Star Teacher by Jack Sheffield – a small rural school described with humour

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One of a series of books, this enjoyable novel is a quick read, but has a lot of appeal to teachers, parents and certainly anyone who remembers the eighties. Not a dramatic read in many ways, it tackles everyday issues of life in a rural school, but also has much to say about the community in which it is set. The anecdotes of what the children say and do reveal an acute listener with a large experience of working in schools, and these “Teacher” books have been likened to the James Herriot vet books in terms of humour. This, the ninth book in the popular series, is a good representative of all the books, with all the battles to maintain the status quo in the face of county pressures.

Jack Sheffield is the main character, being the head teacher of Ragley village school in rural Yorkshire. As in the other books, the school year provides the framework for the novel, as the various children, some of their parents and the school staff feature in the narrative. Much of the novel is narrated through Jack’s eyes, so we see the broad picture of a school that he obviously feels strongly about in every detail. As with all the books, we read many of the children’s puns and misunderstandings which fit into the story well; less smoothly integrated are the prices of small items which Sheffield has obviously researched in detail. The subtitle is “The Alternative School Logbook 1985 – 1986”, and the book is the very slightly subversive view of the education system from the inside. Changes are afoot for Beth, Jack’s wife, as her ambitions for a different headship continue. Soon Jack is told that a proposed combination of schools mean he will have to reapply for his current job, and this provides a tension throughout much of the book. The children and staff provide much distraction, and the main people in the village show their distinctive characteristics in such settings as the village dramatic production. My favourite is the gentle postmistress whose teddy bear reminds her of her lost love.

This book is a fast and easy read, enjoyable in every sense. As an ex teacher I appreciate the humour and tiny incidents in a school and village which make up life. The machinations of certain “baddies” in the education system is a familiar tale, and the less likable characters add to the story greatly. This book would work as a standalone read, whereas the whole series is even more enjoyable. I recommend it as a great comfort read, one which entertains without effort, and is essentially cheerful.

The final two days of the Derby Book festival were extremely interesting. I greatly enjoyed the tea with Nicola Beauman of Persephone Books, and I am greatly looking forward to the two new books I have yet to read. Lucy Mangan was really friendly, abandoning her signing session  to pop up the stairs to sign my book and chat. Altogether it was a really good festival, and I hope Diane my companion enjoyed it as much!

Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen – Six Tudor Queens by Alison Weir

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While this is another fictional biography of a Tudor royal, this novel is very special because it gives real insight into the shadowy life of Jane Seymour. Her life story, particularly her relatively brief reign as queen, is often glossed over as in the shadow of the more memorable Anne Boleyn. She did the one thing that the other five wives were not able to do, give birth to a son who would survive his father, the difficult and notorious Henry VIII. She has been dismissed as plain, quiet and simple, but it is the achievement of this novel that she is given a real personality as being decisive, brave and willing to risk all for what she believed and who she was loyal to despite real danger. Her family are shown as more than dysfunctional, as her brothers and father persuade her to act to further her ambitions. She was quietly strong, but this book also shows her fears of not only human forces but also the supernatural elements that carried over from the tragedy of her predecessors. Alison Weir’s status as a historian means that this is a novel with a really solid basis in research, and her third novel in this series shows her undoubted ability to paint a story within the framework of fact.

Jane is one of the daughters of John and Margaret Seymour of Wulfhall. She is first seen as a young girl, who has already decided to enter a convent, such is her commitment to the traditional religion of the country. She is not happy with the religious house she first stays in, however, and she is soon drawn back into her family as it deals with a scandal which means the sorrowful exile of her sister in law. She is the one who strives to maintain the children’s contact with their mother, as she comes to understand the complexities of relationships. As she goes to court to serve Katherine, Henry’s first wife, she witnesses at first hand the pressures on women to ‘produce’ sons, and the misery of the discarded queen. She tries to remain loyal to Katherine, but the machinations of her family means that she is forced to join the household of Anne whose star is in the ascendant. Weir draws a touching picture of a young woman whose disbelief that the King has become interested in her is dismissed by her family, as they realise that royal favour can propel their own ambitions. While she genuinely wants a simple life with a husband of her choosing and children, she is increasingly pursed by a king. Her story is well known, but her fear of implicating Anne further and her genuine horror at the execution of so many comes through in this book. While she comes to love Henry, she is frightened of his unpredictable temper. She tries to understand his fear of rebellion, yet feels deeply the plight of Princess Mary. She feels constrained to plead for the religious houses that are being dissolved throughout the country, but her public support of them is humiliatingly dismissed.

The author’s note in this book sets out much about the writing of the novel and the research that forms its basis. Although not much is known about how Jane feels about her rapid progress to wife and mother, Weir succeeds in fleshing out the bare bones of the story from what little is known in a convincing way. I found the account of her last illness especially fascinating, given the little that is known. Weir backs up her assertions well, concerning pregnancies before Edward’s birth and the hasty execution of Anne and the men accused with her. I was not always sure how close Weir got to depicting Jane’s feelings, given the slight distance throughout the novel, but this is a solid depiction of the known facts. It is easy to read, and despite knowing the outcome, I was still drawn to this book for its fascinating narrative.

Northernvicar and I went to the Derby Book Festival yesterday evening to hear Alison Weir talk about this book. As with the evening last year when she spoke about Anne Boleyn, she showed many images of Jane Seymour while speaking about her work on this novel. It was fascinating, especially when she spoke of her research on the death of this queen. Most of her speech is reproduced as the Author’s note in this volume, and it is very interesting. If you have ever wondered about Anne’s successor, this is a very substantial book and an excellent read.

The Visitors by Catherine Burns – A shocking book contrasting the mundane and the disturbing

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This is a disturbing but brilliantly written book. It is chilling, and all the more so because it is so domestic and intensely focused. I admit it would not be my first choice of reading, but once begun this is a very difficult book to put down. Domestic terrors and disturbing discoveries all amidst the mundane realities of daily life make for an incredibly frightening read. There is so much going on in this relatively small book, even though it is written about such a small space. The main character is minutely described, as is the other members of her family, with such careful insight that many will identify with aspects of her character, which makes the revelations and truly shocking events towards the end of the book even more graphic.

Marion is the central point of this book, as despite being written in the third person we soon become experts in her particularly limited world and her intense feelings which run like a commentary in the book. Having said that, she is the sort of person who can lie motionless for hours, contemplating the great mysteries of her life. She seems on the surface to be a simple scared soul, with more than the usual social fears. She lives in the house she grew up in, knowing every nook and cranny, every ornament and scrap of paper. Her brother John also lives there, having left a teaching job under a cloud. He is obsessed with planes and small hobbies, but obviously has a secret life which is connected with the cellar of the large house. There are obviously unresolved issues from difficult childhoods and adolescence, a Marion was bullied at school and John, though academically gifted, was very much a lone boy. The parents, long dead, would have been nearly impossible to cope with despite their relative wealth, and the many flashbacks which describe life in the house go towards explaining the situation of the current day. Gradual revelations and clues given to daily life reveal a desperate situation, as the terrifying details emerge.

The power of this book is in the writing of the everyday, as well as the creation of characters. The reader is drawn into a world of reality with undertones that frankly do not bear thinking about too much. Various seemingly disconnected episodes resolve themselves at the end. There are aspects of this book which are frankly stretching credulity, but the writer manages to hold everything together. This was a review copy of the novel, and I was intrigued to tackle this book which is so far outside my comfort zone. As a debut novel it is an accomplished, sustained narrative, and I recommend it to anyone who may also may also be intrigued by its mixture of the mundane and the fearsome.

Reports from the Derby Book festival include a strong recommendation if ever given the chance to hear Kate Mosse speak about her new quartet, beginning with “The Burning Chambers”. Her descriptions of her writing process, research and genuine interest in her novels was as always inspirational. This is a huge book to read, and sounds ominously full of historical events that did not always end well, but I suspect will be a genuine page turner. I will let you know if I find the commitment to undertake this big book!

Wartime at Woolworths by Elaine Everest – An addictive saga!

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This is the sort of book which is partly comfort reading, partly melodrama and essentially a family saga. It is about people who behave predictably in a particular setting, this time war time Kent. The idea was originally that three girls are brought together by their common employment at a branch of Woolworths, but by the time of this third book in the series the links between the original girls are so complicated by common friends and family that it is difficult to see the characters that the first book was based on. It is quite complex, as part of the action takes place out of the immediate vicinity of the shop, and a knowledge of major events of the time helps to make the narrative and some of the emotions demonstrated clearer.

The story opens with Betty who is running the Erith branch of Woolworths in conversation with Sarah. The action then leaps backwards to a few months before when these two women are dealing with the crisis, and minor drama of life on the home front, when Betty has been promoted to manage the store, but is dealing with a staff shortage brought on by the absence of men who are fighting in the forces. Also the original Woolworth girls are distracted by young children and family pressures, despite the efforts of Ruby who appears to be some sort of universal grandmother. Two of the three girls decide to go back to their places of origin to try and discover what remains of their families, in London and Birmingham respectively. Both searches result in drama and long lasting repercussions as wartime problems claim the full attention of the reader. Based on an actual tragedy in London, there are few happy outcomes here. The various generations of the women are complicated, and their trials and tribulations are interwoven. There are happy moments of survival and joy, as well desperation. All matters are quickly resolved and while melodrama is the order of the day, there are happy human elements of joy and relief throughout.

This book is really a sort of soap opera in novel form. Everest undoubtedly creates characters who have a variety of emotions, and the wartime setting gives a lot of scope for dramatic incident which she takes full advantage of, and not in the most obvious way. Some events are difficult to believe in objectively, but the whole is a pleasing and slightly addictive narrative. The interlinks of people are a little difficult to keep up with and various generations are mixed in confusing ways, but as this is the third book in a series many readers will have a greater knowledge than I have of the setting and people described. Many of the characters are more than happy to help in the most difficult of circumstances, and in many ways this is a positive book. I was happy to read this review copy of the book and found it surprisingly enjoyable. It seems to sit well in its genre of twentieth century saga featuring women in difficult circumstances, and it is generally a positive read.

I asked for a review copy of this novel as I too was a Woolworths girl: I had a Saturday job in a large branch clearing tables in the cafe. I learnt various things, such as how to eat left over cream cakes in record time, and how to deal with awkward customers. Much of my earnings subsidized my book habit! This was an addictive read, and I freely admit to tracking down a copy of the first in the series!