Colder than ever this morning and a suitable start to December: sunrise at about 8 o'clock this morning. As if that weren't enough, Ive just heard the first radio airing this season of Slade's Merry Christmas.

Edit. Bizarre thing. The field beyond my hedge is *really* frosty. Yet a tractor is buzzing about cutting the long grass. Huh?

American Gods, Neil Gaiman
The Girl Before, J P Delaney sample
Clover Moon , Jacqueline Wilson
The Evenings, Gerard Reve (1947)
Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop of Dreams, Jenny Colgan
A Year and a Day, Isabelle Broome
reviews )

Drew the curtains this morning and saw this deer having a nice little lie down in the garden. The pic is the best I could do as it's not fully light yet. I wait to see if the beastie will move when I start crashing about. So far, it's taken no notice of me at all.

edit Oh dear, the poor thing has a bad leg and is only using three. Even so, fear gave it the strength to leap through the hedge into the field. I have enough things to worry about without adding injured deer to the list.

I’ve read nearly everything Jacqueline Wilson has written and, as I’ve said before, I prefer the books she writes about modern children with modern problems to her Victorian series. Clover Moon is set in vague ‘Victorian times’. Clover lives in Hoxton with her father, sister, stepmother and a horde of half-brothers and sisters. Even though her father is in work, the family is desperately poor and the children looked down on as ‘street children’: dirty, ragged and always playing in the alley. They don’t go to school. Stepmother Mildred treats Clover like a skivvy and childminder and beats her so badly that the neighbours notice. In spite of this, Clover remains feisty and optimistic, dreaming of a better future. She has a friend, a hunchbacked old doll maker who teaches her to read and write or, as Mildred would have it, ‘get above her station’. It’s the sauce factory for Clover as soon as she’s old enough to work there.

How she escapes this fate by running away and finding a better life makes for an engrossing read, if an unlikely story. It’s interesting to compare this book with Victorian morality tales like those by Mrs O F Walton which also deal with ‘poor children’ and how they can be rescued. In Mrs Walton’s world, religion plays a great part in the redemption of her characters, an option Wilson would reject. Part of the problem I had with this book is the first person narrative. It reads as though a nine year old girl had been told the story and asked to put it in her own words. That’s how anachronisms like ‘she disrespects me all the time’ creep in. It irritates me, but perhaps not the children the book is intended for.

At the end of the book there is a section about the history of child protection laws in Britain and advice on how to contact Childline if necessary. Very good. Not good is a page called ‘About the Victorians’. This is historically inaccurate, appallingly simplistic and didactically imposes on children opinions about things they can know nothing about.
Another triumph for Jacqueline Wilson, because of course the book is compulsively readable and will be an instant bestseller. But I stick by my reservations and wish that Dame Jacky would write more books like Double Act, one of my favourites.

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

Lots of other Jacqueline Wilson reviews here.
This morning, I finished reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. ‘So wot?’ I hear you ask. So it’s the only complete book I’ve read this month. It was worth it because, Wow, what a book! But also, what a long book.

What are these good intentions? To read, in December, only what I really want to, with probably quite a lot of re-reading. I still have books which should be reviewed, or at least given a mention and it makes me feel guilty. Guilt and reading should never go together, IMO. So I’ve been resisting all most of the tempting offers from NetGalley.

I have very much enjoyed Issue 4 of The Scribbler. Books about women’s war work, books about nursing, Christmas books. A frightening short story by Ethel Lina White* which I read elsewhere recently. Best of all is a brilliant Twelve Days of Christmas quiz. I’ve looked through it and am really looking forward to having a go some wet afternoon. Recommended, as I said here, for lovers of middlebrow fiction and children’s books.

*Recently? It was nearly a year ago! Took me a while to find but it’s reprinted in Serpents in Eden, one of the British Library Crime Classics. The fact that I remembered it so vividly shows how good it is.


Nov. 9th, 2016 11:21 am
From Not the Nine o'Clock News 1980.

I did warn people but no one wanted to hear. I have a long memory.
You need to listen all the way through this song to get the point.

Today, I had a long list of things to organise, each of which required a telephone call and then making an appointment of some kind. My heart sank and I realised I would actually prefer to clear out kitchen cupboards as part of my ongoing decluttering, tidying and cleaning mania. It turned out to be not so much tidying as throwing out. All those dead spices (‘use by 20.11.08’)! The baking ingredients part used and now useless (yellowing desiccated coconut, glacé cherries hopelessly glued together)! When recycling day comes around, I shall have trouble carrying out the bottle box. I now have spaces where before there was danger of a landslip of tins and packets every time I opened the cupboard door, but some restocking will be necessary. How lucky for Waitrose.

I was reminded of the famous comment by Mr Colman* (of mustard fame) that he made his fortune out of ‘what people leave on the side of the plate’. Perhaps the fortunes of Schwartz, Whitworth’s and other retailers of cooking ingredients are based on the good intentions of people who actually intend to cook with the things they pluck off the supermarket shelf because ‘you always need them’. Do you think Nigella actually uses every single item in those amazing store cupboards of hers, containing every ingredient necessary to make every possible dish? Perhaps I’m just a bad housekeeper.

*I found three tins of Colman’s mustard powder, all out of date. Moral: if you kept your cupboards tidier, you wouldn’t buy something you already had. Help, I haven't even started on the fridge.

I didn’t read as many books as usual last month because I was overcome by a sudden mania for decluttering, tidying and cleaning, which was very time consuming. I should have been tidying up the garden for winter, of course. Here’s the list.

Mozart, the Man Revealed , John Suchet
A Peacock for the Footman, Rachel Ferguson
The Dancing Bear, Frances Faviell
The Dark Circle , Linda Grant
Helen Passes By, E R Punshon
The Descent of Man , Grayson Perry
Winter , ed Melissa Harrison
The Red House Mystery, A A Milne
thoughts )

Just a quick heads up that two of Edmondson’s novels are currently 99p for the Kindle as part of the autumn sale.

The Frozen Lake I couldn’t put down. Here’s what I wrote about Fencing with Death.
‘Poor old Larry. Said to have a brilliant mind, he’s a complete idiot politically and a total believer in Marxist propaganda. When the chance comes to spend time teaching in Hungary he’s thrilled to think he’ll actually be living in a workers’ paradise. What a disillusionment is in store! Although this story involves a murder and a lot of dirty spying, it’s also very funny. I absolutely loved it.’
The BBC’s Love to Read season means lots of programmes about books on television and radio. I can’t possibly watch or listen to them all. Here’s a few I’ve managed.

On Sunday I watched a programme in a series I seem to have missed: Books That Made Britain. This one was East Anglia: The Scene of the Crime. It was introduced by Martha Kearney and the poor woman had little to do but walk about on windswept beaches putting in noddies for her interviews. The question was: why has an area with a low crime rate been the setting for so many fictional murders? The best answer came from one of the authors, who said that seeing a beautiful scene, he had to put a mutilated corpse in it. As Martha Kearney said, not what would occur to most of us but the point was the contrast between peaceful beauty and horrid murder.

I will leave aside my indignation that there was no mention of Margery Allingham, who set so many of her stories in Suffolk. This programme was boring; half an hour really dragged. Sorry, but I don’t find comments from members of a book group at all interesting or enlightening. The author interviews were better. A good wheeze would be to watch this with the sound off, just to see those incredible East Anglian skies and the mysterious, crumbling coastline. Absolutely beautiful to look at. I kept thinking of David Copperfield and the wreck scene but there was no mention of it.
Several other episodes are still available to watch and rather than give up on the series, I’ll try Rye.
even more )

New books

Oct. 31st, 2016 08:47 am
The Dark Circle, Linda Grant

I’ve read several books by Linda Grant, starting with The Clothes on Their Backs, which I liked. There’s a lot of publicity already for The Dark Circle and I can see why the publishers have high expectations for it. The book begins in post-war London with Jewish twins Lenny and Miriam about to start adult life in the new world. But fate has other ideas. When Lenny takes a medical test for his National Service, he’s found to have TB and he and Miriam are packed off to ‘the Gwendo’, a sanatorium in Kent. City-bred, they hate the country. The sanatorium is run on traditional lines: bed rest, open air treatment (beds outside even in the snow) for some, hobbies for those able to walk about. Being a patient is a full time job. The director thinks of people ‘learning to be’ patients. It’s very easy to become institutionalised.

Lenny is not the type to knuckle under and nor is the young American who makes a sensational entry. While Lenny is one of the walkers, Miriam is put out on the verandah where she meets an educated young woman, a type she’s never met before. As a result she and Lenny actually start reading real books for the first time and an unlikely friendship develops between the three.

A theme of the book is that TB is out of date in the twentieth century. I like this:

‘She had been maimed by an illness that was so far out of fashion it might have been a wartime recipe for pink blancmange made from cornflour when everyone these days ate real chocolate mousse and tiramisu. TB was spam fritters and two-bar electric fires and mangles and string bags and French knitting and a Bakelite phone in a freezing hall and loose tea and margarine and the black of the newspaper coming off on your fingers and milk in glass bottles and books from Boots Lending library with a hole in the spine where they put the ticket, and doilies and antimacassars and the wireless tuned to the Light Programme. It was outside lavatories and condensation and slum dwellings and no supermarkets. It was tuberculosis, which had died with the end of people drinking nerve tonics and Horlicks.’

Because there may be a way out and it’s called Streptomycin. Unfortunately, as with some cancer drugs today, it’s in short supply, expensive and doesn’t work for everyone. It’s for the director to decide who will be guinea pigs; potentially, whether a patient will live or die. It’s a tribute to the character development in the book that I was hoping that Lenny, Miriam and their best friends would survive the illness and the book. There is a shock development, but no spoilers here. This is very well worth reading, for the characters and for the well-researched account of the effects of TB a mere sixty or seventy years ago. This may be the best of Linda Grant’s books I’ve read.

The Dark Circle will be published by Virago on 3rd November and I read it courtesy of the publishers and NetGalley
Winter, The Descent of Man )
I’m not a believer in spoiling wild birds. They’re wild! Let them build their own nests and find their own food. But it is nice actually to see the garden birds rather than just know they’re there, so I have a feeder hanging conveniently from a tree branch, just where I can see it whenever I’m eating. When I put out those suet chunks impregnated with bird goodies and which you can buy so cheaply at the market, I had happy visions of flocks of tiny birds clinging daintily to the bars of the feeder, pecking away. Alas, there are too many big birds around. The cunning rooks (or crows, which?), baffled at first, found a way to get at the food. They would fly repeatedly at the feeder, stabbing their evil great beaks through the bars until, eventually, the suet bars crumbled and they were able to eat what fell to the ground. The Messerschmitts of the bird world.

The feeder currently (this is a joke, see later) contains lumps of a courgette loaf which turned out a disaster. As it included vegetables, nuts and dried fruit (geddit?) I thought the birds would like it. At first there were no takers and it seemed the loaf was so horrible not even the birds would eat it. Then it started to disappear. The crows (or rooks) are cleverer than ever; they’ve learned to cling to the sides of the feeder to get what they want. They are so monstrous (if they’re crows), that the feeder sways dangerously and twig, food and bird seem about to tumble to the ground. I hope it won’t happen as I’ve run out of handy twigs to hang things from. I thought magpies were supposed to be intelligent birds, yet every day I see one (I assume it’s the same dimwit) trying to get at the food and doomed to failure. It attempts vertical take off from the grass, flutters frantically just far enough to almost reach the tantalising treat, then collapses back on the grass. This goes on until the poor creature is tired out. Will it find a way?

Picture here if I manage to take one.

I was absolutely furious yesterday evening to find that the borefest which is Autumnwatch had taken over the schedules for the entire week and there would be no University Challenge or Only Connect. My favourite programmes! All was not lost because I had the second episode of Andrew Marr’s Paperback Heroes to look forward to. This is a brilliant little series. In the first episode Marr looked at detective fiction. Last night’s episode, about fantasy writing, was even better, I thought. Phew, it was so fast and so dense I could hardly keep up.

I’m a bore about fantasy, thinking that once you’ve read Tolkien you don’t need to read any more. It’s often been pointed out to me that there are many different forms of fantasy and Andrew Marr convinced me that this is true. I now have to read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, for example. This series (BBC 4 of course), is television for intelligent viewers and shows what TV can be at its best. Next week: spies!

Simon of the Stuck in a Book blog has been recommending The Red House Mystery forever. I’d never read it but seeing it currently on Amazon for 76p I snapped it up.

Also available: Dr. Thorndyke’s Case Book by R. Austin Freeman and a number of his other books. Has there ever been a better time for reissues of out of print books? I think bloggers can take some credit for this.

If you ever listen to Classic FM for five minutes, you’re sure to hear a plug for this book. At first I disliked it, because it breaks all callmemadam’s rules of biographical writing. It’s full of ‘I am certain that’, ‘no doubt’, ‘he/she/they would have’ etc. No! The only place for the biographer’s fancy is in a fictionalised life and I’m not keen on those, either. I was also slightly insulted to have explained to me the extent of the Holy Roman Empire and who Goethe was. But come on, be fair. Suchet’s book is not intended to be a work of scholarship; he didn’t even want to write it, asking who needed yet another book about Mozart? Classic FM persuaded him that there was a need for a book written in an accessible style to appeal to CFM listeners, which is what he has produced.

His qualifications are: a great love of Mozart and (I didn’t know this), an Honorary Fellowship from the Royal College of Music. He’s also trawled Mozart scholarship extensively. The result is a readable account of Mozart’s life, with liberal quotes from the many letters written by Mozart’s father Leopold and by Mozart himself. (If anyone is going to be upset by discovering that the revered genius was also a filthy minded potty mouth, they’d better not read this.) You can’t help but be drawn in by the tales of the travels Leopold Mozart undertook with Wolfgang and his sister Nannerl. The gruelling conditions of travel in those days! The terrible illnesses suffered by both children! Could it have shortened Mozart’s life? Probably not, since Nannerl lived to old age.

The book is lavishly produced, with many coloured illustrations. The contemporary pictures of the young Mozart seated at a keyboard with his little legs dangling are strangely touching. Quite rightly, you finish the book in a suitable state of awe and wonder at his astonishing genius, ‘God given’ according to both Leopold and Wolfgang, and a saddening sense of what was lost by his early death. It’s hard to read about the end of his life without a tear. The 225th anniversary of his death falls in December 2016.

I was sent a copy of this book by Elliott and Thompson.

In other news, this is the only book I have finished this month. The sole reason for this is that I never want to get back to A Footman for the Peacock and am only reading it in bed. I must finish it and find something I actually want to read.
I read these books courtesy of NetGalley. I’ll start with the best one.
Today Will be Different, Maria Semple

More about the wacky world of middle class Seattle from the author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, which I enjoyed. Today Will be Different is a breathless gallop through one day in the life of Eleanor Flood: former graphic artist, surgeon’s wife, older mother. ‘Today I will be my best self, the person I’m capable of being. Today will be different.’ If this day of misadventures is typical, you wonder how she keeps going.

This book is just packed with action and very funny. Eleanor has lived in Seattle for ten years but hasn’t really adjusted. ‘Living too long in New York does that to a girl, gives her the false sense that the world is full of interesting people.’ She loves her husband but lists his faults, one of which is reading in bed and not switching out the light. ‘When he finally does, he’ll sometimes rest his book on me. And these aren’t slim volumes of poetry. They’re Winston Churchill biographies, and Winston Churchill lived a very full life.’ Her son Timby is a worry, with his love of wearing make up and sudden dislike of school. This is absolutely not a linear narrative; the action jumps around apparently randomly, through Eleanor’s consciousness. In this way Maria Semple brilliantly manages to tell a whole life story in a day: from difficult childhood through career and marriage and ongoing attempts to cope with her troubled relationship with the sister whose very existence she now denies.

A tour de force of writing, which I loved.

Published 13th October
two more )

Born Scared, Kevin Brooks. Full review I forgot to post last month
Holding, Graham Norton. Review soon
Secrets Can’t be Kept, E R Punshon
The Amazing Adventure of Jane Smith: A Golden Age Mystery, Patricia Wentworth
Today Will be Different, Maria Semple. Review soon *****
Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins, James Runcie
Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz. Review soon
A Leap of Faith, Trisha Ashley
It Might Lead Anywhere, E R Punshon
A Chelsea Concerto, Frances Faviell
Currently reading:
Mozart, John Suchet
A Peacock for the Footman, Rachel Ferguson
reviews )

The brilliant collaboration between Scott of the Furrowed Middlebrow blog and the enterprising Dean Street Press has resulted in nine new issues of out of print books by women authors. They’re available from 3rd October (how can it be so nearly October already?). I actually looked forward to writing this post because I love to be able to recommend a book wholeheartedly. The book in question is the first one I read: A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell. I loved it.
this book and others )

I see the critics have been raving about this new series starring Robbie Coltrane as an ageing, much loved comedian who is accused of rape. I was less impressed. I found it slow (four episodes!) and the music and shots clichéd. What will keep people watching is the big question: did he do it? Because this is no easy, ‘he’s obviously innocent, how will he prove it' story. The more I think about Robbie Coltrane’s performance, the more brilliant it seems. He’s like a giant façade of a man, who reminded me of Archie Rice in The Entertainer: ‘I’m dead behind these eyes.’ After an hour on screen, we still know almost nothing about this man. And there’s enough unsavoury history behind him (his wife must stay with him because she’s a Catholic) to make it just possible that he is guilty.
So it will be interesting to see whether or not we should sympathise with a character who is not very attractive.

I watched this delightful little film yesterday evening and enjoyed it so much that I stopped knitting in order to concentrate and try not to look at the subtitles. Michel is a prosperous dentist. Out shopping one pleasant Saturday he finds a rare jazz record he’s been looking for forever and can’t wait to get back to his lovely apartment to play it. Everything conspires against him. His neurotic wife wants to confess something. His son imports a large family of ‘illegals’ into the attic. His guilt-ridden ex-mistress keeps phoning, as does his mother. The cleaner makes a racket. The Polish (only he’s not) builder crashes about then causes a flood which brings a neighbour round to complain. And so on. This clip gives some idea of the farcical chaos which ensues.

Handled differently, this could have been a dark tale about betrayal, identity and middle aged angst but here all is light, sparkling froth. I loved it and have rather fallen for Christian Clavier.



January 2017



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