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.

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 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 )

This is the second book in the Century trilogy. I’ve read book one and reviewed it here. In While the World is Still Asleep, we followed the fortunes of three girls in Berlin. Jo, Clara and Isabelle discovered the new freedom which cycling brought them. That was Jo’s book; this is Isabelle’s.

Isabelle has eloped with handsome, dashing Leon and now lives with his parents in the Palatinate. She’s cut all ties with home and finds herself bored and lonely. It’s lucky she’s still so in love with Leon or life would be grim indeed. Then Leon inherits a champagne-producing estate and they move to France, full of hope for a new and better life. Unfortunately, the estate is run down, there’s no money and a scheming woman is out to undermine the Feiningers and buy the land from them. Worse still, Leon is selfish and seems keener on winning cycle races than on settling down to be a vigneron. As so often in Petra Durst-Benning’s stories, the woman has to do the work. It’s a long, hard road, full of unseen disasters but eventually Isabelle makes herself the Champagne Queen.

These sagas about women in the late nineteenth century are made interesting by the descriptions of the landscapes of different parts of Europe and the detail about how people earn their living. The Glassblower Trilogy is full of fascinating information about glass blowing in Germany. In book one of the Century Trilogy we learn about the cycling revolution. This book about champagne is very beguiling. It’s easy to fall in love with the country, the people and with champagne. I felt like opening a bottle! Petra Durst-Benning’s books are heavily research based but the information provided is not intrusive, just part of the story. My only disappointment with the books is that there’s no humour in them. Those poor women and what they put up with! Book three will be about Clara and I’ll be reading it.

This book was translated by Edwin Miles. It’s an AmazonCrossing book and will be out on 20th September. I read it courtesy of NetGalley.

‘a cultural phenomenon in his native Netherlands and now he and his famously anonymous creator are conquering the globe.’ The full title is Attempts to Make Something of Life. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼.

Hendrik Groen aims to ‘give the world an uncensored exposé, a year in the life of the inmates of a care home in North Amsterdam.’ I started laughing on page two and kept chuckling for a while. Then the humour began to be a little too black for someone who is getting old and I started finding it depressing. This is totally the wrong attitude! Hendrik is brave and kind and funny and he tries so hard not to give in and become a moaner like many of his fellow residents. ‘Yesterday I took a walk to the florist’s to buy some potted bulbs. So that I can tell myself a week from now, when the hyacinths start to bloom, that I’ve made it to another spring.’ That’s very Dutch. I loved the rebellious Old-But-Not–Dead-Club which Hendrik forms with a few carefully selected friends. They plan outings so that they always have something to look forward to and are united in their efforts to undermine the home’s director and her petty rules. It’s interesting to find that care of the elderly is as much of a problem and sometimes a scandal in the Netherlands as it is here. Somehow one thought it would be better. ‘Three old biddies in one room, no privacy to speak of, no personal belongings. Stark comfort in the year 2013, in one of the richest countries in the world.’ The infirmities of his friends are hard for Hendrik to deal with but the OBNDC forms an excellent support group.
more )

‘A funny and frank superhero story set in the world of Othergirl.
Joseph ‘Wilco’ Wilkes is one of life’s losers – he’s picked on, pushed around, and bullied by the rugby boys at the posh private school he attends on a scholarship. But his life is about to change: Wilco learns he can move things with his mind. Will this be his chance to play the hero, get the girl and finally stand up for himself? Or are things just going to come crashing down around his head? Becoming a proper hero will be quite the leap of faith...’

Poor Wilco has his nickname because he ‘will comply’, i.e. will do people’s homework for them and almost anything else for a quiet life. He has one friend and many enemies amongst the ‘rugger boys’, who despise everyone. The book gets off to a good start when Wilco first senses that he may have special powers. It’s pretty weird to find that by concentrating on an object you can move it at will. He hopes that this will change his life, help his hardworking mum (who can barely afford his school uniform) and perhaps even turn him into a Vigil. These Vigils are people with superpowers who are believed to help the government, save lives and generally whiz about to do good. Alas for Wilco. Nothing is that simple and using his powers leads to nothing but trouble.

I found the book went off the boil for a while until Wilco accidentally manages to do something really useful (and unlikely). There’s no dramatic improvement in his life at Gatford House (which sounds a horrible school) but the future looks more hopeful. I didn’t find Wilco a well realised character and couldn’t help thinking of Molesworth (whom one believes in totally) and the way he copes with ‘swots, bulies, cissies, milksops, greedy guts and oiks’. It’s a sad truth that bullying is rife in schools (and in the workplace) and that victims will not develop superpowers in order to cope with it.

So I’m underwhelmed by Wonderboy. It’s not quite fantasy yet not helpful about coping with what life throws at you when you happen to be a weedy teenager. I’m at a loss to know why this book is described as ‘frank’. Frank about what? The fact that quite young boys and girls fancy each other? That’s news. I’d have enjoyed this book more if I were a ten year old boy, I think.

Wonderboy is out early next month and I read it courtesy of NetGalley.

At first The Fire Child seems very Rebecca: big old house in Cornwall; beautiful young woman dead in mysterious circumstances; rich, handsome widower marries in haste a much younger woman who has to adjust to becoming mistress of a great house. No Mrs Danvers. Instead there’s Damian Jamie, David’s young son, who seems to predict the future and believes he sees his dead mother. Poor Rachel. How is she to cope with a disturbed child, a distant husband and what appear to be supernatural events? This turns into a horror story.

The Kerthens have lived at Carnhallow for at least a thousand years and have made their money out of the tin mines on their land. David is obsessed with his own family history and the need for the line to continue. In order to maintain his inheritance he works all hours as a highly paid lawyer in London, only returning home at weekends. At the same time, he’s modern enough to feel some guilt about his ancestors’ behaviour: the terrible working conditions and numerous deaths of the miners who have made his family wealthy.

Rachel is so in love with David and so fond of her stepson that all seems well. But Jamie begins to behave strangely, with his apparent predictions. One day he tells Rachel that he has seen something very, very bad, something he doesn’t want to happen. ‘You are going to die by Christmas Day.’ Each chapter is headed ‘x days before Christmas’ so that as the date approaches, the reader is almost as frightened as Rachel. She’s lonely in the great house, feels haunted herself by the dead first wife and the dead miners she imagines to be right under the house. She starts to fear her apparently perfect husband. David has secrets. Rachel has demons of her own, events in her earlier life which are not revealed until near the end of the book. I can see why S K Tremayne’s The Ice Twins was a best seller because I could hardly put this book down but raced to the end to find out what would happen.

One little nitpick (I have to do this, don’t I?): ‘reiterate’ does not mean ‘repeat’, as in ‘repeating the mistakes of the past’. Editors, where were you? The Fire Child is a cracking read, published by Harper Collins. I read it courtesy of NetGalley.

I loved Beswitched and Five children on the Western Front but had never read any of Kate Saunders’ adult novels. When I saw that The Secrets of Wishtide was to be the first in a series about a Victorian lady investigator, I was eager to read it.

‘Mrs Laetitia Rodd is the impoverished widow of an Archdeacon, living modestly in Hampstead with her landlady Mrs Bentley. She is also a private detective of the utmost discretion. In winter 1850, her brother Frederick, a criminal barrister, introduces her to Sir James Calderstone, a wealthy and powerful industrialist who asks Mrs Rodd to investigate the background of an ‘unsuitable’ woman his son intends to marry – a match he is determined to prevent.’

The book got off to a good start for me with a quotation from David Copperfield about Little Em’ly. Sure enough, the book is full of ‘fallen women’ but I was a little surprised to find part of the story a direct twist on Dickens’ novel. The author explains at the end that this was done ‘with the deepest respect’. You don’t have to be familiar with David Copperfield to enjoy the novel; the critique of Victorian morality, and the unjust fact that ‘the woman always pays’ is decidedly modern.

Mrs Rodd travels to deepest Lincolnshire, ostensibly as governess to two girls but really to find out the truth about the ‘unsuitable woman’. No sooner has she achieved this than the case takes an uglier turn with several savage murders. The evidence points to Sir James’s son Charles as the culprit and he is arrested. Laetitia and her brother are convinced he’s innocent and our female detective ends up putting her own life in danger in order to get the real criminal brought to justice.

The book is made by the character of Laetitia Rodd. She’s middle aged, still grieving over the loss of her husband, yet putting her energy to use in helping others. She is kindness itself but shrewd with it and not easily taken in. Victorian family life is believably described but Kate Saunders sensibly doesn’t attempt to reproduce nineteenth century speech. (If she has done, it doesn’t show.) I loved this, read it quickly, and look forward to the next Laetitia Rodd mystery.

I read this book courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley.

Here’s what the publisher says:
‘What magic is this?
You follow the hidden creek towards a long-forgotten house.
They call it Keepsake, a place full of wonder ... and danger. Locked inside the crumbling elegance of its walls lies the story of the Butterfly Summer, a story you've been waiting all your life to hear.
This house is Nina Parr's birthright. It holds the truth about her family - and a chance to put everything right at last.’

I enjoyed the Winterfold books which comprised A Place for Us, so I requested The Butterfly Summer from NetGalley expecting a treat. This is really two books. In the present day there’s Nina, divorced and back living with her mother and stepfather. One day she’s with her ex-husband (and still good friend) in the British Library when a completely strange woman claims to know her as ‘Teddy’ and slips an old photograph into her bag. So begins a search into the past which is disturbing for Nina and upsets her relationship with her mother. She’s always been told that her father is dead. Now the mysterious stranger tells her that he isn’t and that she should know about ‘Keepsake’. Little does Nina know that she is the heiress of Keepsake, that fantastical, hidden house in Cornwall, with its wonderful garden full of butterflies.

The other half of the story is ‘The Butterfly Summer’, a book written by ‘Teddy’ for her son and a former lover, explaining and justifying her actions (how convenient!) This story within a story describes the events of one wartime summer. Oddly, it read more like something happening in the nineteenth century, which was confusing. I confess I found this dragged at times and I was itching to get back to modern Nina.
more )

This book will be out in August and is already creating a buzz. In 1666, that annus mirabilis, Thomas Allgood is working as John Milton’s secretary while at the same time spying on him. In 1777, William Blake creates a creature or homunculus from one of Milton’s ribs. In 1888 ‘Jack’ describes and justifies the murders he commits in Whitechapel. In 1999 a computer programmer called Chris is working on fixing the millennium bug while becoming involved with co-worker Lucy, who has some seriously weird preoccupations. What they all have in common is that at some time each has in his possession a curious little wooden puzzle, or rebus, which fascinates them. The other linking factor is that each sees a cloaked and hooded man with a shining metallic mask instead of a face. Plus, each feels in some way special, singled out for a great purpose.

Each of these characters has his own voice, faithfully reproduced in the correct style of the period. This kind of pastiche is very clever but it’s been done before; by Peter Ackroyd for example. It happens that I’m familiar with seventeenth century prose and also know my Milton and my Blake. What would people without this advantage make of the book? It’s inevitably rather elitist. Worse, it does not hold one’s interest. I was constantly reading another section, putting the book aside in order to read something quite different, then returning to it with a dogged ‘I will finish this book!’ feeling. I was looking for a sense of direction, a conclusion of some kind, however fantastical. Numerology? Complete nonsense. Likewise Millenarianism.

You will gather that I didn’t get this book at all. It pains me to be harsh about something which is, after all, much better than most books which get published but I found it to be pretentious tosh.

The Countenance Divine is published by John Murray and I read it courtesy of NetGalley.

This is subtitled ‘One woman’s romantic adventure of a lifetime’. It’s been reissued by Corazon books and I read it courtesy of NetGalley. If you look up Ursula Bloom here and read ‘Ursula Says’, you’ll find a lot of common sense. She was obviously an interesting person, who wrote over 500 books! Although I seem to have known the name forever, I can’t remember having read any of those 500 until now. Judging by my reaction to Wonder Cruise, I won’t be temped to read any more.
the book )

I love Margery Allingham’s books, as you can tell from what I’ve written about her before. Yet I’d never read The White Cottage Mystery, her very first detective story. It’s hardly a scarce title, as there was a Penguin edition but it’s been reissued by Bloomsbury with a lovely cover similar to those of the British Library Crime Classics. I read it courtesy of NetGalley. It was first published by The Daily Express in 1927 and features the elderly (according to the author) detective, Challoner, and his son Jerry.

A man who is universally loathed as ‘a devil’ is found murdered in The White Cottage, home to a neighbouring family. Young Jerry coincidentally happens to be on the scene and his father is called in to deal with the case. It’s a tricky one because so many people had a good motive for murdering Crowther and several of them were around White Cottage at the time of the crime. Plus, Jerry is falling in love with one of the suspects and won’t hear a word against her. Challoner soon realises that most of those involved are frightened and are lying to him. The question is: why? The conclusion he eventually comes to is very unusual and for the first time in his career, he abandons a case.

This novel was written very early in Allingham’s career and is nothing like as good as her Campion stories. Yet already she shows the talent for characterisation and the feeling for place which make the Campion stories so successful. It may be considered a minor work in her canon, but for me it’s far better than some of the detective novels being reissued as ‘neglected masterpieces’. She was, quite simply, a far better writer than some of those authors who have been quite justifiably forgotten until now. I felt an Allingham re-read coming on and have started with The Fashion in Shrouds (1938). My old Penguin copy has brown pages and is falling apart, but I’m gripped by the story already.

I’d previously read the author’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace. I see that writing about The Suspicions of Mr Whicher I said, ‘There’s obviously a huge amount of research in this book but it’s never obtrusive.’ Unfortunately I didn’t feel the same about The Wicked Boy. The book starts very slowly indeed, with fact piled upon fact and me thinking, ‘Come on, get to the murder!’ When we do so, a strange and horrific tale unfolds.
orrible murder )

I give this book five stars because I feel grateful to the author for making me laugh out loud several times. Berthold is fifty-ish, a ‘resting’ actor whom divorce and lack of work have driven to live with his redoubtable mother Lily. He was named for Lubetkin, who designed the block of flats they live in and with whom Lily claims to have had an affair. When Lily dies, Berthold panics that the ‘Bedroom Tax’ will lose him the flat, so he persuades a Ukrainian woman, Inna, to move in and pretend to be his mother. How can he possibly get away with it? Cue many a farcical scene.

Inna is a wonderful character with a bizarre use of English (‘You homosexy, Bertie?’) and a strange nostalgia for the great days of the Soviet Union. Some of the other residents are equally eccentric; ‘Mrs Crazy’ for instance, with her hair-do permanently covered in plastic and Legless Len, forever optimistic in spite of his wheelchair. Many of the flats are already privately owned, thanks to the right to buy. Plus, developers have their eyes on the area. The flats were designed with a pretty grove of cherry trees in front; a pleasant outlook and a meeting place. With shades of The Cherry Orchard (which gets a mention), there’s a plan to cut down the trees and put up a large new development right in front of the Lubetkin flats. The scene in which the residents fight off the chainsaw men is terrific and very funny. Go Mrs Crazy!

Another active campaigner is Violet, a beautiful half Kenyan girl who takes over the flat next to Berthold’s for a while. She’s just got her dream job with an investment company, only to find that it’s a cover for money laundering and global corruption, all taken for granted by the people who work there. She decides she can’t cope with it and starts looking for another job. If I were being really picky, I’d take a star from my rating because for me Violet’s story doesn’t gell with the rest of the book. She could have a novel of her own.

This is very much a ‘how we live now’ book, set very firmly in present day London. Although it’s funny, it’s also angry; angry about the betrayal of the post-war ideals typified by Lubetkin’s work. ‘This council building no longer housed the benign supportive state that Lubetkin and his post-war colleagues had tried to engineer, but a bossy, intrusive, policing ‘Them’ whose role was to keep the undeserving poor in their place.’

The Lubetkin Legacy will be published by Penguin on 5th May. I read it courtesy of NetGalley and enjoyed it very much. You may like to read the author’s amusing biography here .

I enjoyed the author’s first book, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar. This one is better – brilliant even - but very hard to review. I made a list of things the book might be about:
Parent/child relationships
Politics in Jerusalem before the Second World War
Why title?

The main character is Prue Miller, née Ashton. She’s a sculptor who has escaped the London art world and a terrible marriage to live with her young son Skip in a tumbledown shack in ‘Bungalow Town’, almost on the beach at Shoreham, Sussex. Confusingly, Prue is *not* The Photographer’s Wife. That’s Eleanora, an Englishwoman who shockingly married a foreigner, the famous photographer Khaled Rasul. When Prue was a child, she spent six months living in Jerusalem, where Eleanora was almost the only person to take any notice of her. The narrative moves between Jerusalem in 1920 and Shoreham in 1937.

Prue had a lonely childhood. Her father was always abroad, her mother ill. When her mother is committed to some sort of institution her father sends for her to join him in Jerusalem. The city is a chaotic mix of ancient buildings, people of all races and creeds; also a hotbed of political intrigue, much of it against the British. Astonishingly, Prue’s father allows her to wander the city alone; at one point in the book I was speed reading, in terror of what might become of her. Her friends are all adults. Isfahn teaches her Arabic but also secret codes. An adept pupil, she obtains information for him about British plans. Eleanora, who has taken up photography herself since her marriage to Rasul, seems genuinely fond of her. Then William ‘Willie’ Harrington arrives on the scene. He’s a former pilot, horribly scarred by a horrific flying accident. He’s in love with Eleanora, can’t accept her marriage and wants to take her away. Prue feels she’s lost her friend. Then something happens which means she’s sent back to England.

The intervening years are only sketched in. Prue attends the Slade and becomes an admired part of the new movement in art. She marries the dreadful, controlling Piers and has a son she doesn’t want. Her behaviour at this time is distinctly odd; for instance, her compulsion to take off all her clothes in public. When she runs away to Shoreham history seems to be repeating itself as she allows Skip to run wild. Then Harrington turns up, now involved with the Secret Service. Prue’s relationship with Isfahn and the events in Jerusalem all those years ago have become issues of interest to the British government. No spoilers, but at the end of the book (by which time war has broken out) you are still wondering what will become of Prue and her son. And caring.

A strangely haunting story about a woman who is unusual, to say the least. I liked it very much. I read it courtesy of NetGalley and it’s out on 5th May.

I’ve just this morning heard Alain de Botton talking to Chris Evans about his new book, which is out on the 28th. He repeated his assertion, which occurs several times in the book, that ‘We are all a bit mad’ and that in relationships we have to accept each others’ particular form of madness. When asked by Chris why he’d chosen to write a novel rather than just a list of thoughts about love and marriage he was rather vague. I think he just wanted to write a novel. I’d already written my review and here it is.

*Pause while I regain my internet connection. Grr.*

This is a strange book: part romantic novel rather on the lines of One Day, part marriage guidance manual.

It tells the story of the romance and marriage of Rabih and Kirsten, described as if by an impartial observer, rather like someone from Mass Observation. Events take place and as each milestone in the characters’ lives is reached a passage of analysis follows, in which the omniscient author explains why this is happening. The philosophical sections are written as though the thoughts expressed are universal truths. What do people expect from love and marriage? That it be lasting, totally monogamous and will provide the security previously known only in childhood, when parents were almost mind readers, able to interpret needs and fulfil them with correct actions and reassurance. Unconditional love, in fact. A tall order and unrealistic.

Here’s an example of the authorial comments which punctuate the book:
‘Were Rabih and Kirsten able to read about themselves as characters in a novel, they might – if the author had even a little talent – experience a brief but helpful burst of pity at their not at all unworthy plight, and thereby perhaps learn to dissolve some of the tension that arises on those evenings when, once the children are in bed, the apparently demoralizing and yet in truth deeply grand and significant topic of the ironing comes up.’

Although I found all this slightly odd, I did read this well written book very quickly and enjoyed it.
I read it courtesy of NetGalley.

Arthur Pepper is sixty nine and mourning the death of his wife the year before. On the anniversary he steels himself to go through her things to dispose of them. Hidden away, he finds a gold charm bracelet which he’s never seen before. The charms are fascinating and he thinks they may have had some special meaning for his wife. Seeing a number engraved on a beautiful little elephant, he deduces that it’s a phone number and plucks up courage to dial it. To his amazement, he speaks to someone in India who knew his wife. He had no idea his wife had ever been to India! This is how the quest begins: to investigate each charm in turn to discover its meaning.

This takes nerve because ‘Arthur really didn’t want to leave the security of his house, the smothering comfort of his routine.’ Nevertheless he sets out bravely until he has tracked each charm. Some of his adventures are highly improbable but this is fiction. He discovers that before they met, his wife had a life he knew nothing about. Will this destroy his memories of what was for him a long and happy marriage? The book is bound to be compared with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry but they are very different stories.

There are some oddities here. Arthur is my generation but I don’t know anyone my age called Arthur and never have done. He says ‘swell’ and ‘go paddle’, which Englishmen don’t. But it’s impossible not to like Arthur and to hope for a better, less lonely future for him.

This is out today and I read it courtesy of NetGalley.

Good news! Next month Bloomsbury are reissuing novels and many short stories by H E Bates as e-books. I’ve already read Love for Lydia, courtesy of NetGalley. This is a five star book for me, mainly because of the writing. When I say that Bates was a great storyteller in the old-fashioned way, it’s a compliment.

I’d not read Love for Lydia before. I heard it read on Radio 4 years ago and wanted to read it then but it was hard to find a copy. It was first published in 1952 and is set (like The Feast of July), in the Northamptonshire of Bates’ own youth, in a grim town which shoe making and leather tanning have made dirty and smelly. At a distance from the town is the big house where the Aspens live, marooned in their own island of gardens and privilege. The hero narrator, ‘Mr Richardson’, hates the town, which is why he spends so much time walking in the local countryside. The English landscape is lyrically described; its changing seasons, its flowers and wildlife, its transience. It’s against this background that the story of young love, passion and tragedy is played out.

When her father dies, Lydia Aspen comes to live with her aunts and uncle. The aunts worry that she will be lonely and encourage Richardson to take her out. At first Lydia seems very young and awkward but she already has a strange attraction for men. Once she realises this, she exploits her power. She seem wilful, cruel sometimes, impossible to understand. Everything that happens, happens because of her. Richardson is looking back at the events; not nostalgically exactly, because some of the results are terrible, but in an elegiac way, regretting the lost world of the Aspen house and the countryside, already threatened in his youth, now further despoiled. There are echoes here of Great Expectations (Richardson is Lydia’s social inferior), Brideshead Revisited, even Le Grand Meaulnes. Lydia is Estella with an unexpected heart.

This is a fine novel, beautifully written. It could almost have been called Love for England. I hope Bates will find a new readership thanks to the reissues.
more about H E Bates )



January 2017



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