The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear – An excellent Maisie Dobbs novel

The name Maisie Dobbs is well known to many who love well constructed, powerful fictional women detectives. A series which begins before the First World War with the story of a young girl who finds a unique mentor and several benefactors has developed into a story of a determined older woman who has had many traumatic experiences. Winspear has produced twelve books which carefully document a woman’s life up to this point, but the really good thing is that this book can be read as a complete standalone novel. This is also a novel set in September 1940 in a London undergoing the blitz, and it conveys a wealth of experience of the uncertainty of life.  This is the London of Edward Murrow making broadcasts to America subtly urging them to join in another War by detailing how the people of Britain were coping, standing alone in the face of a force which had invaded much of the rest of Europe. Amid destruction and unexpected death as a result of enemy action, there is another question surrounding the murder of a young woman, and it is this death that Maisie must investigate. I had been really looking forward to reading this novel, and I was delighted when I was asked to contribute a review to a blog tour.

The book opens with the text of a broadcast made by a young American woman, Catherine Saxon, on the basis of a night spent in an ambulance driven and operated by Maisie and her long time friend, Mrs Priscilla Partridge. This is a realistic account of an experience which would test the most battle hardened as the casualties of war are not the men which the two women had nursed in the First War, but women and children in their own homes. Catherine’s report is brave, truthful and reveals a talent for reporting honed in the battlegrounds of Spain. When Catherine’s death is discovered, Maisie is requested to investigate, together with the mysterious American Mark Scott who she has met before in challenging circumstances. Maisie is also concerned about the welfare of a girl which she is proposing to adopt, if survival is possible in a world where no one is safe, even in the depths of the country. As always, she adopts a meticulous method of discovering all she can about the young American girl with a troubled past and an exceptional ambition. The other women who live in the house emerge as very definite characters, and Winspear spares no detail of other characters who are depicted. Even those characters who do not appear in the flesh are faithfully described and given real personalities. When a crisis occurs and someone very close to her is placed in danger, Maisie must show a near superhuman bravery and composure in order to get through, and make sure those around her can carry on.

This is an admirable book which captures something of the time and experience of London in the early days of intense bombing. Winspear manages to convey something of the uncertainty of a Britain standing alone, fearing invasion, hoping for America and other allies to help, but aware that there is real fear of another long battle. Maisie is as always an impressive creation of compassion, intelligence and determination to do the right thing, even if not conventional.  While this is a meticulously written book, the action keeps up a pace which maintains the interest of the reader and continues the tension throughout, while keeping up the human interest of the reoccurring characters. Maisie is very much the centre of this most engaging book, and I recommend you discover or rediscover her very soon.

Today we went over to Buxton to use the University library which is in the Dome dominating a hill above the town. It is a spectacular building and has a special interest for me as it is where Vera Brittain first started nursing. A display shows pictures of Vera and others telling her story. The dome is apparently a quarter of a mile around, a distance which Vera and the other nurses had to run around as they were not allowed to go across the immense circular building. Even though it is now used for student functions and other purposes, it still feels a very significant place. Buxton of course looked at its best in the sunshine, and had it not been for all the books I had to track down it would have been nice to have a look around. Still, it isn’t that far away, so another day…

The Mingham Air by Elizabeth Fair – A mature comedy of rural manners from Dean Street Press

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Mingham is a place that probably never existed, but after reading this novel of rural affairs you may well wish it did, together with characters that have a life of their own. Elizabeth Fair’s 1960 novel, recently republished by Furrowed Middlebrow at Dean Street Press, is a true gem of observation of life in a village in the mid twentieth century. Combining characters who attempt to manage, a family which needs organising, an ill fated Fiesta and a big house which forms a bone of contention, this comedy of manners and fate is enjoyable, hopeful and deeply engaging. Some characters make the reader wince, others frustrate, and others just amuse, as this novel proceeds without earthshattering events, but with a certain dramatic flair. I was very pleased to receive a copy to read and review.

The novel opens with Hester and her godmother Cecily looking at pictures of a Priory which has been remodelled by its reclusive owner and widower, Thomas Seamark. Certain tactless remarks set up an uneasy relationship between the family and the local squire, as Cecily realises that she must handle the situation better, as well as improving her own relationships with her daughter Maggie and her son Derek. As we see the family in its own setting, we discover Bennet, husband and father, has decided to adopt the role of invalid who must be continually placated and humoured. He is beginning to discover that to be involved in other people’s business he must stage a sort of recovery, with the option to fall back on fragility as necessary. Meanwhile Mrs Hyde – Ridley, while conniving to get as much rent as possible from her memorably named tenant, Chrysanthemum, is anxiously game playing with her troublesome visitor, Mrs Vandevint, with her programme of cheap entertainment.  A Rector’s wife, Mrs Merlin, is determined to put on a Country Dancing Fiesta, which is beset with problems. Hester tries to manage several situations, despite Cecily’s conviction that she is still suffering from a broken romance, and tries to encourage despite fixations such as Bennet’s “precious car”, a changeable lord of the manor, and a secret ambition on another character’s mind. Summer weather confounds the best laid plans, and gentle humour pervades the whole novel as misunderstandings, mistakes and general mayhem ensues.

This is a novel which can remind the reader of the gentle humour and characters of Austen’s “Emma”, and the sort of ongoing polite battles of Benson’s “Mapp and Lucia”. I appreciated the reality of these characters, was fascinated by the attempted machinations of Bennet Hutton, and loved the humour of the dialogue. Fair’s novel is a finely balanced read of great confidence and maturity, and this final novel of six to be reprinted stands as a really good read. I thoroughly recommend it as a cosy read with some underling power, as Hester discovers the true nature of what she wants from life, family roles and relationships are readjusted, and the minutiae of daily life is examined in a glorious and often telling narrative. While Elizabeth Fair’s six novels have not been well known, she is an author well worth discovering, and I am so glad that they are now available both in paperback and digital formats.


In other news, our Big Book Sale went extremely well. We made nearly £350 for Ronald MacDonald Houses for the parents of children who are seriously ill in hospital. As we only charge 50p for each book, it means that we must have sold a few books! Lots of people came, some had refreshments and generally we had an excellent time. It is a lot of effort, but we are recycling books with a purpose as well as getting people involved. Well done D the Book Organiser!

Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert – a London Mystery from British Library Crime Classics

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Described as a masterpiece in older reviews, there is no doubt that this novel scores on so many points; a fascinating plot containing enough red herrings for any reader, a thoroughly established setting with its routines and quirks, and an extremely satisfying cast of characters, all well drawn  and distinctly individual. A book which reveals the writer’s own knowledge of working in legal offices; an amateur detective with an unusual trait that makes him a fantastic sleuth and operative, and the discovery of a body which almost defies belief in its audacity. This is a beautifully worked out book written with an understated and elegant style. I was very impressed and grateful to receive a copy of this book from the British Library Crime Classics series, as it is indeed an excellent read dating from 1950, and beautifully republished.

The opening section of the book serves as a clever introduction to a group of solicitors’ firms “the Gordon Selfridge of solicitors, different departments to suit all tastes and purses”. The newest entrant to this firm, Henry Bohun, is a much qualified individual who seems to have finally settled on a career in the law, together with his nocturnal activities that he pursues with a laudable dedication and intelligent bravery. As he observes the individuals around him, he realises that there are some very varied and interesting characters assembled, who will provide many avenues of investigation in due course. Not that this book is told exclusively from his point of view; indeed the interchangeability of his names (Henry or Bohun) can be a little confusing. When the body of a sort of client is discovered in a special deed box, sealed and only slightly decomposed, many questions emerge. Why is he in a box only accessible to a now deceased senior partner? Is the significance of that particular box vitally important? Why should anyone trouble to kill a man of limited means and influence? When could such a crime and concealment be effected? When another killing occurs, who has an alibi when the London Transport system has been affected by a general power cut? With so many clues, motives, accountancy queries and general observations on the minutely organised offices of Horniman, Birley and Craine, it is a fortunate thing that the investigation is in the capable and thoughtful hands of Chief Inspector Hazelerigg, who at once sees the whole picture, while suffering some doubts. With the painstaking efforts of Sergeant Plumptree who combines careful determination with the unthreatening appearance of someone who invites information, this is a delightfully complex but perfectly understandable novel.

This book shows all the best strands of a late Golden Age classic, and Gilbert’s thoughtful, often amusing and always entertaining novel is a truly wonderful read. As always, Martin Edwards introduction sets up the book well while giving a valuable context to this particular novel within Gilbert’s considerable output and the current developments in crime writing. This is a book for anyone interested in the inventive crime writing of the twentieth century, the legal establishment and a well – constructed, convincing exploration of motives and activities of those whose business is the law, but who are also essentially human.


This book is excellent on legal offices of the 1940s and 1950s but a far more contemporary view of similar establishments is in Harriet Tyce’s “Blood Orange” which I have also reviewed here While this is a thriller rather more than a whodunnit, I think the most obvious difference is the role of women – from secretaries to lawyers! Not that Gilbert dismisses women, but they do not feature in such detail. Have you read either or both books?

The Ghost Tree by Barbara Erskine – “Beware of the Secrets in your Family History” – an extract

An extract from the beginning of of “The Ghost Tree”:

Scampering down the steep, echoing spiral stair, the small boy dragged open the heavy door and peered out into the close. In his family’s airy flat on the top floor of the tenement it was still daylight, the south-facing windows lit by the last rays of the setting sun. Down here, where the tall grey buildings closed in to shut out the light, it was almost dark. He closed the door behind him, careful to lower the latch silently so the clunk of metal on metal did not echo up the stone stairway, then he skipped across the yard to the archway that led out into the High Street.

He knew he was forbidden to come out by himself. He knew the crowded streets were full of potential danger for a ten-year-old boy on his own. He didn’t care. He was bored. His mother thought he was studying his books, his father was closeted in his study and his brothers and sisters, all older by far than himself, were busy about their own business. Out here on the streets of Edinburgh it was noisy, busy and exciting. He looked this way and that, hesitating for only a moment, then he ran out into the crowds where the din was overwhelming. Music spilled out from a tavern nearby; people were shouting, the sound of hooves echoed back and forth from the walls as did the rattle of wheels on the rough cobbles that paved the narrow street.

He headed up the hill towards St Giles’ kirk and the tempting range of shops and booths nestling against its northern walls, and was gazing longingly into the bowed window of a pie shop when a fight broke out only feet from him, the two men shouting at each other quickly surrounded by crowds, yelling at them, cheering them on. The quarrel grew more heated, blows were exchanged, then one of the men drew a dirk. Thomas barely saw what happened next but he heard the gasp of the crowd as the blade found its mark, saw both men hesitate, seemingly equally appalled, as the ribald comments from the onlookers died away and fell silent and the shorter of the men slumped slowly to his knees and then forward onto his face. Thomas saw the scarlet stain spreading down the man’s jacket and onto the cobbles as he fell, his face contorted with pain as he gave a final spasm and then lay still.

The crowd scattered, leaving Thomas staring at the slumped figure. Seeing the little boy standing there alone, a woman turned and grabbed his arm, dragging him away. After a moment’s hesitation he followed her, too shocked to protest, turning to look over his shoulder at the body lying motionless on the ground as the rain began to fall. Someone had summoned the Town Guard. He heard a whistle and angry shouts. It was too late. The killer had vanished into the network of alleyways beyond the kirk.

As he watched, the boy saw the shadow of the dead man rise up and stand looking down at his own body. He held out his hands in a pathetic, futile gesture of protest, then he looked up. Thomas thought he saw the man’s eyes seeking his own, pleading, before he faded slowly away.

He stood watching for one horrified second, then he turned and ran, ducking out of reach of the woman’s motherly grasp, dodging through the crowds back down the street towards the safety of Gray’s Close. He reached the familiar shadows of the entry, hurtling in, away from the horrors of the scene behind him, crossing the rain-slippery cobbles, desperate to get home. Fumbling with the latch he pushed the heavy door open, pausing in the impenetrable darkness at the foot of the stairwell, trying to get his breath, tears pouring down his face, before heading up the long steep spiral stairs. On, he went, his small feet pounding up the worn stone steps, on and on, up and up …

Ruth Dunbar woke with a start, staring into the blackness of the bedroom in her father’s Edinburgh house, grasping for the dream, still feeling the little boy’s terror as he ran, still seeing the drama unfold, raising her eyes in her dream from the body lying in the dark street to the shadowed grey walls, the crowds, illuminated so dramatically by the flaming torch held in the raised hand of a bystander, her gaze travelling on up to the great crown steeple of St Giles’, starkly unmistakable halfway down Edinburgh’s spine, silhouetted against the last crimson streaks of the stormy sunset.

She hugged her pillow to her, her breath steadying slowly as her eyes closed again.

In the morning she would remember nothing of the dream. Only much later would it surface to haunt her.



The above is an extract from Barabara Erskine’s super new book, the Ghost Tree.  In the present day, Ruth, coming to terms with her father’s death and a disturbing discovery, is going through old family papers. She finds a diary written by her ancestor, Thomas,  and an incident from 1760.

Barbara Erskine is an immensely skillful writer of “Time – slip” novels. It is an impressive achievement to be able to write a convincing narrative of a historical period, creating people place and events successfully. Then to marry it with a present day narrative that catches something realistic about the way we live now is even more impressive.

I am hoping to review this book soon, as part of my new contribution as  a LoveReading  Book Buzz Ambassador.


So here is my first blog post under this scheme! I hope you enjoy the extract!




The Point of Poetry by Joe Nutt – Poetry explained for all people

Why read poetry? Why is poetry, contemporary or classic, worth teaching, experiencing and studying? Joe Nutt, veteran of teaching poetry in many places to many people, has chosen a selection of poems, some well known, some classic, and some which are more challenging, and provided an essay on each one which has the stated aim of making the reader eager to read the poem itself. He wants to convince the vaguely interested, the not really interested, and the basically poetry phobic, that poems are the most challenging, the most exciting and the most expressive forms of writing in English. He is fond of likening them to a firework, being a mix of components which when lit gives the most amazing, fantastic and dramatic display. He is not merely a devotee of the form; he uses current events, well chosen biographical information and a critical eye to enthuse the reader to see new and exciting aspects of poetry both familiar and unknown. He writes that this book “is not as ambitious.” as War poetry, which he does not directly cover; “It doesn’t set out to change the world”. He patiently but never tediously seeks to convert every reader to the enjoyment and excitement of poetry, maintaining a certain pace which attracts, enlightens and certainly makes an excellent case for the poems he features. This is not an exam passbook, painstakingly going through each poem in every metaphor, simile, alliteration and all the other points that can obtain marks in a written paper. Rather, it seeks to transmit the excitement and living nature of poetry whether read from the page, recited aloud, or part of a performance which tends towards rap. As someone who has tried to teach poetry in many settings, and sometimes failed to see the point, I was delighted to read and review this book.

The selection of poems in this book is often surprising, subtly reassuring, and sometimes extremely challenging. War poetry, such as that of Owen and Sassoon which can maintain interest because of its graphic nature is not here; instead there is the wonderfully subtle and somehow powerful “Adlestrop” by Edward Thomas in which nothing has changed, but there is no one thing the same. Rosenberg’s  poetry is not graphic in the same way, pondering the universality of a rat in the trenches. There is a Shakespearean sonnet, number 18, which is discussed partly as providing possible chat up lines, while acknowledging its power and beauty. Carol Ann Duffy’s “Mrs Midas” is not only seen as a clever poem giving a voice to the wives of the well known, but also describes the sexual and physiological effects on a marriage of time as well as a memorable curse. Nutt acknowledges that  Blake’s “The Tyger” has been so often taught in schools as to be trotted out with no understanding, but that when looked at with new eyes has a deep power which has hitherto been  unsuspected. Donne’s rather exciting life and choices is examined in the light of his “Twickenham Garden”, while no implication, racy or otherwise, is ignored in “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell. Abandoning classic poetry for the moment, he explains, critiques and generally comments on performance poetry in “Famous for what?” by Hollie McNish.

This is a brilliant book, commenting not only on the poems included but also on poetry generally, the classical expectations and the more modern challenges. Whatever your experience and feelings concerning poetry, this book is a valuable addition to any collection of books on the subject, enthusing, arguing and crucially providing the scaffolding for a true appreciation of the poet’s art.


As promised, this is my review of  a poetry book; no one can deny that there is a variety of books on this blog! It is a really fascinating book which has just about converted me to not only analyse poems, but look harder at their context and the people behind them. I’m not sure it can be transferred to every poem, but this a useful collection which should cover many situations!

Rosy is My Relative by Gerald Durrell – a genuinely funny and charming book

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A genuinely funny book, where no one dies and only the dubious characters suffer a little, is always a great thing to have achieved, and Gerald Durrell achieved it many times. For a man known for his love for animals, he created some incredible human characters. This is a book of its time, the early twentieth century, where eccentric characters stalked the country lanes, theatres had strange and wonderful shows, and the legal system was still dominated by memorable people. As always, there is an immensely friendly tone in Durrell’s writing, as even the less than pleasant characters do not really suffer, but get their comeuppance in a thoroughly satisfactory way for the reader. Archie is the classic everyman, with secret dreams and genuinely good intentions throughout this charming novel. Originally published in 1978, this book has been reprinted by Pan in 2017 and made available again.

The memorably named Adrian Rookwhistle is a thirty year old man who works in a mundane job, doing predictable boring work. He lives at the mercy of a talkative landlady, whose cooking is appalling and personality dominates his uneventful life. He has secret dreams of adventure, but it looks horribly unlikely that he will ever do much more than plod along. Out of the blue he receives a letter from a dying uncle, who tells him that he is sending Rosy, a female with a drink problem, to him, together with the enormous sum of £500 to sustain her. He expects a showgirl who is past her best, so is stunned to discover that he has an elephant to take care of, who exhibits a tendency to seek out alcohol wherever it may be found. Abandoning the beautifully named Mrs Dredge, he seeks the help of his friend Mr. Pucklehammer as he decides to walk with Rosy to the coast in order to find her a new home. This is more difficult than it sounds, as apart from her alcohol dependence she has vivid memories of her time in the circus. So when she encounters certain people she lifts them up in her trunk. She picks out a squire in full hunt mode, and compounds her mistakes at a party where she finds some strong drink. Having said that, she is resourceful and brave, and is soon devoted to Adrian, whatever happens to the pair.  Lawyers, actors, judges and others combine to make for a complicated ending, but my favourite is Mr Filigree who is a firm believer in reincarnations.

The semi legal language of this book is very funny, and the whole style of the book has the quality of a jolly story. I really enjoyed its old fashioned charm and pace, and the frequent turnarounds of fortune. The lovely romance is at once realistic and dream like, and there is no doubt that this is a life changing journey for Adrian and of course Rosy. This Durell book is entertaining, uplifting, and I thoroughly recommend it as an antidote to frequently traumatic fiction.


I notice that this was a book I acquired at the rather wonderful Barter Books on a recent visit. One of the great attractions of this shop ( a small word for a great place) is the fact that you never know what you will find – old favourites in a new form, new authors who you can afford to take a risk on, lots of mainstream titles mixed in with some genuine finds. If you are ever near Alnwick in Northumberland, it is so worth making time to visit ; you will find something most enjoyable, and the food is excellent (thrice cooked chips, anyone?)

Welcome to the Heady Heights by David F.Ross – Glasgow in 1976


July 1976 in Glasgow. It’s a tough place to be, when Archie is “a stoical son of Glasgow; an unrequited optimist”, but also a man with many problems. After all, this is a place of casual violence, when fights can break out over a look, an unintended slight. The streets, the houses, the tenements, nowhere is truly safe for the young, the old, those who are different, even those who are the same. Poverty in some respects is the norm, yet there are those who dream of being rich, if only for a short time. Beer, betting and the grey economy are all around. Women out live the men, but they can still be endangered if certain men choose. This is not a society for the nervous and that is reflected in the language of this book, where the local dialect, slang and ways of speaking are accurately recorded. The rhythms of the street dominate the narrative, as Archie and others chase dreams, or at least try to survive. I was very interested to receive a copy of this book to read and review.

Archie is a bus conductor. While that would be a fairly mundane and safe job in many cities, in Glasgow the upstairs of the bus is the office and receiving room for those who owe money or debts that are less well defined. When a justifiably nervous acquaintance, Bobby Souness jumps through the emergency window, Archie gives chase in a decision that will change his life. Meanwhile WPC Barbara Sherman has discovered that being the only woman in a police station is not an easy thing when she is ordered to become the personal protection officer of an MP’s wife. The MP, Big Jamie Campbell, is also in the sights of Gail Proctor, a young woman who is determined to discover his exact involvement in the death of her uncle. When Archie is made unemployed with a father who is rapidly becoming more confused, he realises that he must raise not only enough money to survive but also support his care. He becomes a driver for the dangerous Wigwam, and it is while accompanying a celebrity that he inadvertently saves him from a dangerous encounter. As hints of a dangerous conspiracy emerge throughout the underworld of the East End of Glasgow, Archie suddenly discovers an ambition to take a group to London to win an “Opportunity Knocks” type programme, a fast track to fame and fortune. While WPC Sherman discovers that something is amiss with young men who disappear in mysterious circumstances, Proctor finds merely living in a crumbling room is dangerous. As the tension mounts, danger becomes real, and only dark humour can save the situation. Fortunately “High Five” brings their own particular talents to the excursion, and the day may yet be saved.

Ross’ writing style is powerful in many ways, as black humour threads throughout the danger and squalor of a city in a heatwave. He has undoubtedly caught the mood of the time, as the financial pressures of the time dominate lives. No one is without hope, even if it is only to survive in a community where life is cheap. Ross shows great skill in creating comedy where life would otherwise be bleak, and hope where everyone is threatened. I found this book compelling and fascinating even when a little surprised by its bleakness, and darkly funny in many respects. Not for those of a nervous disposition, this is a well written book of lively images, determined descriptions and memorable characters.


This book is certainly a bit different from my next blog tour book – called “The Point of Poetry” ! I will be hoping to do at least one review then though! Having tried to sort out a few books to go yesterday, I realised just how long it takes! Certainly not a quick job – there are a lot of books in this house.

A Winter Away by Elizabeth Fair – a cosy, funny story for everyday

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Family feuds, unlikable relatives and a secret romance all go to make a lovely novel which recaptures a time and place which seems so familiar, yet so far away. This 1957 book, now reprinted by the wonderful Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press, goes some way to introduce a world of high tea and a large house full of challenges. A car accident damages egos, a curate creeps around, and a winter in the country is brought to life by this skilful and clever writer. I was so grateful to receive a copy of this book to read, enjoy and review.

Maud has just arrived in a tiny village to stay with her cousin Alice, whose companion Miss Conway is less than enthusiastic about a new house guest. For Maud it is an answer to her less than happy existence with her stepmother who has tried to get her conveniently married off. She is to be a non resident secretary to Old M, an eccentric man who lives in the local big house, who has some distinctly odd ways which have meant that other secretaries have left. Maud is lacking confidence and has been lonely; she knows that she must make a good impression and some friends in this new life. She soon meets some of the local characters, who include a family who have the most awkward parties which Maud finds incredibly difficult, and the reader will find most entertaining. She encounters Charles and Oliver, and also has some embarrassing experiences. Wilbraham is a daft dog who provides some comic relief, while creating another source of jealousy. My favourite character is Ensie, clergy daughter who swings between her different identities with amazing results. This book has a plot which does not produce many surprises, but it a most enjoyable ride, partly because of the details of food eaten which neatly sum up the various personalities, the distinctive rooms in the various houses which dominate the story, and the outings and trips which show so much about the characters.

I enjoyed this book for its sometimes delicate and sometimes brutal sense of humour. The small actions of the characters sum up the various personalities so neatly, their reactions to situations are always entertaining. Fair has a wonderful writing style which is honest and always true to type; not great leaps of introspection but a charmingly accurate self realisation from Maud and some others as how they appear to others. Even the relatively minor characters, such as Miss Conway, have a back story which is efficiently conveyed as justification for their present actions. The set pieces of parties and picnics, arrivals and departures are full of real life, and contribute to the story hugely; the big house almost becomes a character in its own right. I recommend this book as an enjoyable read for anyone who enjoys a cosy experience with perhaps little drama, but lovely characters and a soothing plot, full of the little incidents and events which made up real life in the 1950s, and are not so very different from today.


This is one of Furrowed Middlebrow’s best books, a joy to read. While it is lovely to find obscure books by women authors (see my ongoing obsession with Angela Thirkell’s books) and reading them, it is so wonderful that publishers like Dean Street Press, Persephone and others are making these books available to everyone. I can recommend these books in the certain knowledge that they can be bought (and even borrowed if you are lucky enough to have access to a good library) and you too can make a collection of these once forgotten but now happily rediscovered novels.

Strays and Relations by Dizzy Greenfield – family life from a new perspective

A book of honest memories, sometimes painful, often hilarious, always thought provoking, Dizzy Greenfield has written a loving book of family and friends. This is the story of discovery of what families can mean in all their variety and sometimes inconvenient affection. New beginnings can only mean challenges, but as Dizzy negotiates life in all its variety, her unique circumstances seem to magnify the small challenges that afflict all of us at times. The contrast between countryside and city is well drawn, as getting to know people can sometimes mean getting to grips with entire lifestyles. I was pleased to receive a copy of this book to read and review.

The book opens with a journey on a train, as Greenfield describes with a realistic touch her fellow travellers. She is en route to meet someone, on “a journey that had taken five hours and four decades”. Her friend Sugar, who we will read more of later, reminds her to be “True, Brave and Fearless”, as she confronts those who are waiting for her to arrive. We go on to discover that she has been adopted and lives with her partner Will and their daughter Sasha. She has fond memories of most of her childhood, of her adoptive mother in particular, who has a lovely positive attitude to Dizzy and her attempt to discover her birth mother. Dizzy is quite a character, content to live in a lonely farmhouse with few comforts and a notoriously temperamental Rayburn called Daphne for heating and unpredictable cooking. She recalls her rescue of a dog, Merlin, and her desperate attempts to restrain him and his behaviour. He will provide a lovely background character responsible for someone who will temporary get lost. Dizzy and Sugar have quite the adventure to find out more about her birth mother in Ireland, enjoying local hospitality. As members of her birth family emerge, she discovers that her partner, her daughter and her home will be affected by an influx into her life of people who are loving, radically different, and no longer allow her life to run in straight line.  It is her honesty and the tiny details that make this book come alive, and the humour and good nature that transform the bleakest events into comedy, headlines which verge on the ludicrous, such as a lost prosthetic leg, overly hot chutney and awful television.

This is a book which has undoubtedly been written from the heart with some deep emotions, imaginative empathy, and a great sense of humour. There is the pain of a mother who lost children, the gap of no communication for decades, and yet the ability to pick up relationships. This is a cheerful book, as alcohol is taken and new connections made, but there are challenges of sadness and loss honestly described. Greenfield is a clever observer, a constructor of memorable scenes and has a fine ear for dialogue. This is an immensely readable book, which I greatly enjoyed, and I recommend it for a refreshing view of family life.


This is a lovely book which really brings to life an unusual family situation in all its glory. It is such a well written series of memories, which can trigger off all sorts of memories for each of us. It certainly reminded me of the need for photographs and other memory triggers – just like blogs, in facts. Thank you to everyone who “likes” and comments on this blog – I may sometimes not respond, but they are appreciated all the same. Do let me know what you think!

The Long Song by Andrea Levy – A tale of the end of Slavery with some funny twists

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Cheeky, moving and sometimes tragic, this is a novel both of great power and mischief. Levy’s novel gives a voice to those who left few if any written documents; the slaves of the plantations who were given their limited freedom. This is not a grim tale of unrelenting cruelty, though there is oppression and bad treatment of people who had been slaves from birth. This is a tale that moves along with misunderstandings, some pain and victimisation, but it is undoubtedly lightened by the character of Miss July, appropriating small objects, misleading her hapless mistress, and finding a way to survive. She is an unreliable narrator, arguing with her son who asks her to write down her memories, giving alternative versions of certain events. In another way she is so reliable, however, for in this (fictional) account she has no author’s skills or ambitions to shape or define her story or her way of telling it. Her honest use of language and description has all the naivety of innocent truth, and a realism that only fiction can provide. I had picked it for our book group – it was unanimously praised by all members.

This book opens with an explanation of its writing from Thomas, who reveals that his mother had felt compelled to relate to him her life story, usually when he was busy. As her persistence had worn him down, he suggested that she write it in a small book. Although unusually for a freed slave, she was able to write, he has to assure her that his professional editing and typesetting skills would “make her tale flow like some of the finest writing in the English language”. So she sets out to write of her experiences as a child and young woman during the period when the slaves of the plantations on the island were freed. From the beginning she gives a harsh account of her conception from the forced actions of Tam Dewar, the white slave overseer, on Kitty, a powerfully built field slave. Her birth is described in several ways, but it is certain that Kitty took care of her until as a small girl, she is taken up on a whim by Caroline Mortimer, the plantation owner John Howarth’s widowed sister newly arrived on the island. Caroline renames her Marguerite, and tries to train her as a maid, but with limited success as July takes every opportunity to ignore, win small rebellious victories, and generally assert her identity. There is a night of change, when it seems that the slaves have banded together to overthrow their owners. As July savours for a moment a new freedom, there are some terrible events which demonstrate the strength of parental love. There are new things to come in the life of the slaves and especially July, and throughout she complains and comments on her son and his family with a pained affection.

This is a book which describes some grim situations, interrupted by July’s mischief, days of sunshine and light, and incidents of July’s writing. It contrives to be touching and moving, while giving a voice to those women and men who found a sort of freedom, and depicting the problems of those who had previously been able to order their lives and even deaths. The problems of slavery dominate the novel, but there are also problems when they are freed, not least for the former owners who are left with many challenges. This is truly a wonderful book, and I recommend its storytelling, its sometimes breath-taking audacity, and generally its spirited style of giving a lively account of world changing events.


It was really sad to note that as this book was due to appear at our book group that the news came through of Andrea Levy’s death. Having managed to watch the television programme on BBC 1 in which she spoke movingly of her life and uncertain entry into writing, I knew that she was immensely talented and a down to earth person. We had also enjoyed “Small Island” a while ago, so we were saddened to hear that no new books would be coming from this author. We will be looking out her earlier books.