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December 2015




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Dec. 1st, 2015


November books

The Seventh Wife, T Kingfisher
Apricot Kisses, Claudia Winter, trans. Maria Poglitsch Bauer
My Shanghai 1942-46, Keiko Itoh
What Katy Did, Susan Coolidge
The Red Notebook, Antoine Laurin
Comes a Stranger, E R Punshon
Priorsford, O Douglas
The Crystal Beads Murder, Annie Haynes
Presumption of Death, Jill Paton Walsh/Dorothy L Sayers
Christmas at the Vicarage, Rebecca Boxall
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Nov. 27th, 2015

woman's magazine

New magazine: The Scribbler

I’m sure many people who visit here are already familiar with the Greyladies imprint. Titles printed so far include adult novels by authors better known for their children’s books, like Josephine Elder and Lorna Hill, novels Noel Streatfeild published as Susan Scarlett and previously unpublished work by D E Stevenson. I needn’t go on as you can see the books for yourself on the website. There are brief reviews of some I’ve read here.

Now Shirley Neilson has a new venture: ‘A Retrospective Literary Review’, known as The Scribbler. I thought I’d buy the first issue before deciding whether or not to take out a subscription and I may be hooked. People still lamenting the demise of Folly magazine will find much to please them here, including articles by some familiar contributors. This first issue includes a short story by D E Stevenson, reviews of novels set in girls’ schools, crime and scandal in girls’ schools and a Literary Trail of the Scottish Borders which will have you searching your shelves for the books mentioned, so that you can read them again. All this and charming period illustrations, too.

If you share my interest in children’s and middlebrow books, The Scribbler could be for you.

Nov. 25th, 2015


The Red Notebook, Antoine Laurin

I was charmed by The President’s Hat, so I bought The Red Notebook when it was a cheap Kindle deal. It might just as well have been called Laure’s Handbag, as it’s also about finding a lost personal item, in this case a woman’s mauve handbag. The book begins with Laure being mugged on her doorstep and robbed of her bag. Not the sort of charm I was hoping for! Left without keys or money she seeks refuge at an hotel but by next morning the bang on the head she got from the mugger has taken effect and she’s carted off to hospital in a coma.

Laurent owns a bookshop called Le Cahier Rouge. He has an ex-wife and a precocious daughter called Chloe. On his walk to work he finds the mauve bag dumped on top of a rubbish bin and tries to hand it in at a police station. Finding that this will take hours of French bureaucracy, he eventually takes the bag home and goes through it. He knows perfectly well that this is odd as he’s never even looked in his wife’s bag, but he feels compelled to do it. In the bag is a red Moleskine notebook containing Laure’s thoughts, which obviously no one else is meant to read. All he learns from the bag is a Christian name and he starts to follow every possible clue to the bag’s owner, beginning with a dry cleaning ticket.

As his investigations continue, they do start to seem creepily close to stalking but we already think he’s quite a nice bloke and his daughter is around to keep things normal and in the end to ….no spoiler! This is a fairy tale, really; The Sleeping Beauty, perhaps. I enjoyed it very much and wished it were longer.

Nov. 23rd, 2015


My Shanghai 1942-46, Keiko Itoh

It’s hard for the British, with all their war myths, to imagine being on the losing side in a world war. Even harder to imagine loving your country while disapproving of the actions of the government. My Shanghai is written in diary form by Eiko, a beautiful young Christian Japanese woman raised and educated in England, where her father was a respected banker. She is married very young to the older, enigmatic Hiro and in 1942 they join the Japanese population of Shanghai. By that time there were 100,000 Japanese people in ‘the Paris of the Orient’ and the city was very cosmopolitan. Eiko has been brought up by her father to have liberal views and to mix happily with people of all races and religions. In Shanghai she soon makes friends amongst the Quakers as well as the Chinese and her fellow Japanese. The diary form of the book actually creates tension; Eiko’s first entries are so innocent but the reader knows what is to come.

The first bad news to hit is that ‘Daddy’, at first under house arrest in London, is interned on the Isle of Man. Then Japan’s alliance with Germany changes attitudes to the many Jewish refugees in Shanghai and they are moved to ‘designated areas’. Poor Eiko. Back in London she had ‘never thought about people being Jewish or not.’ She is especially worried about Irma, her friend and a tireless worker for the refugees. Her Quaker friends become ‘enemy aliens’. First they have to wear distinguishing armbands, then they are sent to internment camps. She gets fond of a young Chinese man to whom she’s been giving English lessons but he disappears, almost certainly to join the Communists. The young son of another friend is so brainwashed at school that he can’t wait to be a pilot in the service of his country. Things get worse and worse. There are food and fuel shortages because all resources must be devoted to the service of Japan. ‘Foreign’ words are banned, as are smart clothes. Japanese women must now dress like peasants.

Shanghai is an occupied city but there are divisions amongst the Chinese, between those who support the Nationalists (the Kuomintang) and those who think they are corrupt and that Communism is the answer. Small wonder that most people keep their heads down and are cautious about what they say in public. Whatever happens, Eiko manages to keep her husband and two little boys happy while running an efficient household with the help of loyal Chinese servants. When the tide starts to turn against Japan Eiko is saddened by news of the ‘heroic’ Kamikaze pilots, regretting the waste of young lives, disliking the military authority for its willingness to sacrifice the young and longing for a negotiated peace. After Japan’s surrender, the tables are truly turned. Brutal Japanese soldiers strutting about insulting the Chinese are replaced by impossibly tall and healthy looking Americans. Eiko’s family has been forced to move several times; first to make way for the Japanese military, eventually being herded into a designated area, just as the Jews had been. A far cry from the privileged luxury Eiko has been used to, yet she never gives up. Eventually the family is repatriated to Japan and the story ends.

Keiko Itoh has written this book as fiction, based on the experiences of her own mother and aunt. Yet it reads like history and I learned an awful lot from it about what it must have been like to live through those times, in that place. Many thanks to the publishers, Renaissance Books, for sending me a copy of such an interesting book, so atmospherically describing a city in turmoil and its unfortunate inhabitants, caught up in ‘interesting times’.

Nov. 22nd, 2015


Nature watch: Oh deer

What a cold and frosty morning. It’s ages since I’ve seen any deer in the garden. This morning, once it was light enough to draw the curtains, I was sitting quietly at the table with a cup of coffee, reading in yesterday’s sports’ pages about Buttler’s fantastic knock of 116 not out off 52 balls. ‘Well done, young man’, as Boycott would say. Suddenly first one, then a second, then a third young deer bounded across the garden and scrambled through the hedge. They’re so quick! I thought the last one was getting stuck so opened the kitchen door to encourage him on his way. They usually leap right over the hedge but it won’t have its summer growth pruned until tomorrow, so perhaps even these astonishing little high jumpers knew they couldn’t make it. I’ll have a prowl round later and see what they’ve been eating, pesky things.

Ironically, I’ve made several Christmas cards showing deer as splendid beasts. Here’s one, as I couldn’t snap the real thing. Those I see don't have antlers.

Nov. 21st, 2015


A Negelcted Crime Writer: E R Punshon

Comes a Stranger is the best sort of book: the kind you want to read all the time. Sit down with a cup of coffee? Read another chapter. Ooh, just one more, and so on. This is the more remarkable because the book has been out of print for seventy years. In his day, E R Punshon was a popular writer admired by Dorothy L Sayers. His best known books are the series about Bobby Owen, an unusual hero because he works for Scotland Yard but as a Detective-Sergeant rather than a DCI.

The Stranger of the title is death. Can it be mere coincidence that as soon as Owen, known to be ‘a Scotland Yard detective’ appears on the scene, the murders begin? It’s almost as if someone wants old mysteries solved. He is visiting his fiancée, Olive, who is staying with Miss Kayne, an old family friend and owner of the world famous Kayne library. Started by Miss Kayne’s father and run by the mysterious librarian Broast, the library is the repository of some of the world’s rarest books; yet Miss Kayne seems to hate it. Even more strange is that almost her first words to Owen are that she once committed ‘the perfect murder’. The bodies begin to pile up, there are suspects galore and the book gallops towards a Götterdämmerung-style climax. An afterword by the crime historian Curtis Evans explains how part of the story (minus the murders) was based on a true case.

Comes a Stranger will be out, with four other Punshon novels, on 7th December and they’ll be cheap as chips. All praise to Dean Street Press for reissuing these books and thanks for sending me a copy of Comes a Stranger. I’ll be reading the rest as well.

Nov. 14th, 2015



Have you looked at Amazon

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Nov. 13th, 2015


When I Was Seven

What is it that makes seven such a magical age for reading? I’ve been wondering about this because my current bedtime read (as a break from the daytime books I have on the go) is What Katy Did. I’m pretty sure I was seven when I first read it and looking at it now I’m surprised. The language is old fashioned. It’s full of references I couldn’t possibly have got. Yet it’s so entertaining that I read it over and over again and still enjoy it today.

One day my mother came back from shopping in Croydon with a surprise for me: a Puffin copy of The Secret Garden; the very one shown above. It became my favourite childhood book.

I may have mentioned this before and if so, sorry to bore you. From the age of six until I was twelve I had to have an annual check up with X-rays at one of the big London hospitals. It was always winter. There were bus changes with long, cold waits for the bus. Then long, dull waits in bleak corridors at the hospital. In order to sweeten this pill for me, my mother bought me every year for that day a shiny, new, hardback book, which she could ill afford. Why she picked Jennings’ Diary for the year I was seven I don’t know (perhaps I’d heard the stories on Children’s Hour?) but it started a life-long love affair. I now have a complete collection of Jennings books but the first I read remains my favourite. Even now, I just have to think, ‘Mr Wilkins missing link’ to laugh out loud.

I could add Heidi and An Old-Fashioned Girl to the short list but that will do for now. Can you remember your reading from that far back? Are there books read at seven that have stayed with you all your life? I’d be really interested to know.

Nov. 8th, 2015


Remembering today …

Someone I never knew but should have done.

Frank Aldridge. He’s the little boy in the back row, wearing a striped blazer. My husband’s uncle. He was shot down and killed flying over the Netherlands. I have many heartbreaking letters exchanged between his parents and kind Dutch people. Frank must have been still at grammar school in 1939, then joined the RAF as soon as he could. He was nineteen when he died.

Nov. 6th, 2015


October Books

Fall of a Philanderer, Carola Dunn
Gunpowder Plot, Carola Dunn
The Bloody Tower, Carola Dunn
The Black Ship, Carola Dunn
Sheer Folly, Carola Dunn
The Brontë Plot, Katherine Reay
Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
Anthem for Doomed Youth, Carola Dunn
A Youthful Indiscretion, Elizabeth Edmondson
US, David Nicholls
Gone West, Carola Dunn
Finding Philippe: Lost in France, Elizabeth Edmondson
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