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May 2016




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Apr. 27th, 2016


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Reviews Published

May. 18th, 2016


The China Governess & Margery Allingham’s London

Cover of reprint

After reading The White Cottage Mystery, I embarked on a small Allingham re-read. I began with The Fashion in Shrouds, an old favourite set in the upper class, fashionable pre-war world which was then Campion’s natural milieu. I moved on to The China Governess. This was a late addition to my collection and I’d only read it once before, so it was like reading a new book. The plot is very complicated. A young man, Timothy, recently engaged to a beautiful heiress, suddenly discovers that everything he has believed about his birth is wrong. His prospective father-in-law wants to know more before allowing the marriage to take place and most of the book is taken up with finding out the truth.

What struck me on re-reading this was what an isolated little world Margery Allingham created for it. She rarely visited London, preferring to stay at home in the country, yet you believe totally in her imagined little corners of London. This goes for More Work for the Undertaker and The Tiger in the Smoke as well. The China Governess has the usual cast of Albert Campion, Charlie Luke and Lugg but sadly no Amanda, whom Allingham made little use of in her later books. Timothy’s family live in a world of their own; they are a family for whom the very word ‘governess’ is strangely sinister. The book was first published in 1963 but it might as well be 1953. It’s as if the end of the "Chatterley" ban And the Beatles' first LP. had never happened.

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May. 16th, 2016


Angela Thirkell News

1948 reprint

I bought my first book by Angela Thirkell donkey’s years ago, probably at a jumble sale. I loved it and since then have managed to acquire all her books, either in hardback or in old Penguin editions. The reason there are so many mentions on my blog is that I so often re-read her books.

For those less lucky, it’s been good news that Virago are republishing Thirkell. The latest reissue, Cheerfulness Breaks In is just out this month. I was shocked to see Amazon reviewers giving the book only one star, but found it was because people buying this for the Kindle have been sent the wrong book! So be warned.

The reason for this post is really to point you at this excellent review of Cheerfulness Breaks In. Just follow the link on the blog.

Virago edition 2016

May. 12th, 2016


Foxes Unearthed, Lucy Jones

A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain.

Isn’t this a lovely cover? There’s a charming line drawing for each chapter, too. A very nicely produced book. This is not nature writing as we might think of it (probably a blessing from my POV), more of a journalistic investigation into these beautiful and fascinating creatures.

Tod, Reynard, Charlie. The names given to the fox reveal a relationship between man and fox which is like no other. For me, the most interesting sections of the book are those dealing with the mythology of foxes, going back before the ancient Greeks, and the history of the changing relationship between man and fox. In recent times (by which I mean over hundreds of years) the change has been the result of the loss of all other large predators except the badger. This puts the fox in a unique position. Pretty well omnivorous and always opportunistic, foxes have now moved into our towns and cities, delighting some and alarming others. I was particularly interested to read that both physiologically and in their hunting methods, foxes have more in common with cats than with dogs.

The hardest chapter to read was ‘Friends and Foes’, which deals with the hunting issue. This is a subject on which it is impossible to be neutral and which I shall keep quiet about. Lucy Jones is very fair, interviewing people from both sides of the debate (or war, as it is for some of them) but it’s pretty clear where her sympathies lie. It’s really extraordinary how much opinion is divided on foxes, hence the ‘love and loathing’ of the title. Some opine that ‘we’ dislike them because we can’t control what is wild. Our beautiful landscape has evolved through being managed. Should this apply to wildlife as well? Where I live, people were pleased by the increasing numbers of otters in the river. ‘Isn’t it lovely to see the otters?’ they said. Then it was noticed that all the moorhens had disappeared. This was not a coincidence. When rats began running boldly around the river bank near the supermarket (I saw one myself not a foot away from me), action was taken immediately. But otters are prettier. Our relationship with wild animals is complicated.

This is a thoroughly researched book and a thought provoking one. I was sent a copy by Elliott and Thompson.

May. 11th, 2016

woman's magazine

Wonder Cruise, Ursula Bloom

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.
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May. 9th, 2016


The White Cottage Mystery, Margery Allingham

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.

May. 5th, 2016


The Wicked Boy, Kate Summerscale

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.
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May. 4th, 2016


The Lubetkin Legacy, Marina Lewycka

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 .

May. 3rd, 2016


The Photographer’s Wife, Suzanne Joinson

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.

May. 2nd, 2016


April books

Love for Lydia , H E Bates
The Photographer’s Wife, Suzanne Joinson, review soon
The Lubetkin Legacy, Marina Lewycka, review soon
The Wicked Boy, Kate Summerscale, review soon
The Frozen Lake, Elizabeth Edmondson
John and Mary Detectives, Grace James
The Adventures of John and Mary, Grace James
John and Mary and Lisetta, Grace James
John and Mary’s Youth Club, Grace James
John and Mary at Riverton, Grace James
Silence in Court , Patricia Wentworth
Walk with Care , Patricia Wentworth
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