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May 2018




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Apr. 27th, 2016


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Reviews Published

100 Book Reviews

May. 24th, 2018


The Man Between, Charles Cumming

I love a spy story, so I’m surprised I hadn’t read anything by Charles Cumming before. This is a classic story of an amateur spy, the sort of thing Joseph Kanon does so well. Kit Carradine is a successful writer of spy fiction and about to travel to Morocco to take part in a literary festival. He’s asked to do a small job for British Intelligence while he’s there and is thrilled by the prospect. His own father had been in the Service but his career was ruined when he was betrayed by Philby. Perhaps Kit can redress this? He’s a patriotic sort of chap and pleased to serve his country.

As is the way of such novels, he soon finds himself in way above his head not knowing whom to trust. At the time the story is set (pretty much the present day), an outfit called Resurrection is carrying out terrorist attacks all over the world against people and institutions perceived to be right wing. Kit has been asked to hand over a package to a missing girl, Lara, once associated with Resurrection and now believed to be on the run. He does find her and determines to rescue her. But does she need rescuing? Is she what she seems, a beautiful young woman always travelling to escape those who want to kill her? There are so many twists to this story that I can’t describe the plot for fear of spoilers. Suffice to say that I finished it in an orgy of one day reading and found it a real page turner.

Charles Cumming was himself recruited by MI6, so knows his tradecraft. No wonder he can write such a gripping tale. The Man Between will be out on 5th June and I read it thanks to NetGalley.

May. 23rd, 2018


TV watch: A Very English Scandal

Photo BBC

The BBC’s new series, A Very English Scandal is good; very good. An hour’s viewing passed by in a flash, always a good sign. As I’ve written before, I’m old enough to remember the unfolding of the Thorpe scandal and have also read John Preston’s book, on which this series is based. I don’t really want to write about the drama so much as about Hugh Grant. I’m rather sick of reading, from both professional critics and bloggers, that Grant’s performance is ‘surprising’ or ‘revelatory’ because the writer had previously thought of him as ‘just’ a romcom actor. Just? Since when did comic acting become easier than any other kind? Don’t you think that a lot of hard work and serious craft goes into playing a romantic lead? Take Cary Grant, the absolute master of the genre. Did he make it to the top without hard work and artistry? Hugh Grant is a very good actor and, IMO, plays Thorpe very well indeed, capturing the charm and glamour of the man but also his recklessness and his ruthless streak. He’s totally believable, which is the more remarkable in that he’s playing a man who was thirty years his junior at the time of these events.

May. 21st, 2018


Land of Plenty, Charlie Pye-Smith

In The Green Man by Kingsley Amis, the narrator writes,
‘Rural life is a mystery until one realises that nearly all of it, everywhere in the world, is spent on preparing for and recovering from short but punishing bouts of the tedium inseparable from the tasks of the land, or rather, their failure to give the least sense of achievement, as it might be a lifetime spent washing up out of doors. I have never understood why anybody agreed to go on being a rustic after about 1400.’

Reading of the trials farmers suffer through bad weather, fluctuating international markets, the loss of subsidies after 2020 and the demand from supermarkets to keep prices down, you have to wonder what keeps otherwise sane people tied to the land. It’s rather like a book version of Countryfile, discussing many of the same issues: is indoor or outdoor rearing better for animal welfare and the end product; does badger culling reduce the incidence of bovine TB; is there a future for mixed farming?

Charlie Pye-Smith travels the country visiting farms large and small and trying to find out what makes some more successful than others. Unfortunately, he feels obliged to describe everyone he meets as tall or short, fat or thin, good looking or not and also to tell us what they gave him to eat. I found this extremely tedious and not at all to the point, which is of course, what does the future hold for British farming? Why don’t we produce more of our own food? There are plenty of interesting facts here, such as that most potatoes grown in this country are used to make chips and crisps. Successful farmers are those prepared to change with the times. Negotiate a good deal with Waitrose for top of the range products. Diversify into products like cheese and ice cream made from local milk. Run tea rooms, offer bed and breakfast, sell at local markets and build up a customer base. Be prepared to use part of your land as a nature reserve. Not all gloom (unless Eastern Europeans stop coming here to work) and a brighter future for those willing to adapt. Mr Pye-Smith tries not to be nostalgic for the kind of farming he remembers from the fifties and sixties but to embrace changes which can improve both the food we eat and the natural environment. The big questions are firstly, are we prepared to pay more for our food and secondly, are we happy to pay farmers to maintain the landscape we love?

Land of Plenty is published by Thompson and Elliott, who kindly sent me the new paperback edition to read.

The way we were. The Farm as depicted by C F Tunnicliffe for Ladybird Books, 1958.

May. 15th, 2018


Citizen Clem, John Bew

Clement Attlee has long been my political hero, so when a friend recommended this book, I was keen to read it. It’s brilliant and deserves all the prizes it’s won. I won’t try to write a review, since I can’t imagine that many people who visit here will want to read nearly 600 pages of political history. So I’ll just flag up some of the interesting things about Attlee’s life.

First, you have to remember that he was born in 1883 and always recalled watching the parade for Queen Victoria’s jubilee in 1897. He was a Victorian, yet was Prime Minister when I was born. His upbringing was conventional: a happy family life, Haileybury and Oxford; not the background you expect for a revolutionary. It was working in the East End of London which converted him to socialism and he devoted his life to improving the lot of the poor. Already thirty-one when the First World War broke out, old by the standards for new recruits, he volunteered anyway because of his strong patriotic feelings. He fought bravely throughout the war, ending it as Major Attlee. This stood him in good stead in his later political career, as no one could doubt his courage.
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May. 11th, 2018


TV watch: Detectorists

Detectorists completely passed me by when it first appeared on television and I've been catching up on Netflix. I love its gentle humour, the sweet characters and this theme tune, which we don't hear enough of, IMO.

May. 6th, 2018


April books

Coming Home to the Comfort Food Café, Debbie Johnson
Murder isn’t Easy, Richard Hull
Birds, Beasts and Relatives, Gerald Durrell
The Garden of the Gods, Gerald Durrell
The Durrells of Corfu , Michael Haag
A Month in the Country, J L Carr
The Lost Letters of William Woolf, Helen Cullen
In Farleigh Field: A novel of World War 11, Rhys Bowen
The Silver Music Box, (Silver Music Book Series Book 1) Mina Baites
Old Baggage , Lissa Evans
The Woman in White , Wilkie Collins
Crooked Heart, Lissa Evans
The Only Story, Julian Barnes
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May. 3rd, 2018


The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins: the book and the series

This was supposed to be part of my ‘April books’ post (as yet unfinished) but turned out so long, I thought it had better have a post of its own.

Jessie Buckley as Marian. Photo Radio Times.

When the TV series began, I decided to re-read The Woman in White. I soon found that I hadn’t read it before but knew the story from an excellent radio dramatisation heard years ago. The introduction to my (Daily Express!) 1930s copy, states that Thackeray sat up all night to finish the book. I didn’t match that feat but did romp through its 500+ pages very quickly indeed. It tells the story of two half-sisters, Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe, living in a remote country house with their selfish uncle. Laura has a fortune; Marian, none. It was the dying wish of Laura’s father that she should marry Sir Percival Glyde. Why? I find this a weak point in the novel. A young drawing master, Walter Hartwright, is hired to teach the girls sketching. He has previously had a strange encounter on Hampstead Heath with a wild young woman who claims to have been wrongly put away in a lunatic asylum and begs for his help in escaping, which he gives. She is Anne Catherick, the eponymous Woman in White, who loathes and fears Glyde.

Laura and Walter are attracted to each other but her loyalty to her dead father is such that she resolves to go through with the marriage to a man she doesn’t love. Things get really interesting when Glyde’s friend Count Fosco appears on the scene. He’s a wonderful, larger than life figure (literally; he’s described as grossly corpulent), with his devotion to his pet birds and mice, his love of music and all things beautiful, his knowledge of chemistry and his wickedness. Glyde is a pantomime villain, a very stupid man, while Fosco is all brains and guile. Their plan, of course, is to get their hands on Laura’s money. Anne Catherick tries to warn Laura against Glyde; she’s forever flitting about in churchyards and crumbling boathouses uttering sibylline but incoherent warnings. This adds to the gothic feeling of the novel, as does the isolation of the two young women in Glyde’s gloomy house.

Here is the time to say that Laura is rather an Amelia, a pale and spineless cipher for put-upon womanhood. Marian, in contrast, is intelligent, strong willed, sharp and tough. Count Fosco genuinely admires her virtues but why Walter would look at Laura rather than extraordinary Marian is a mystery about men’s tastes. The book races to its conclusion with many a twist and turn. You might think it a feminist work because of its depiction of the powerlessness of women, yet after some melodrama things end conventionally enough.

Collins used multiple narrators to tell his tale, which makes adaptation difficult. The great mystery about the TV version is not, ‘what is Glyde’s terrible secret?’ but how it is possible to turn such a cracking read into something so slow, boring and lacking in menace? Then there are the historical inaccuracies. The book was published in 1859 yet Laura looks half the time as if dressed in a regency nightie, while wonderful Marian wears clothes so eccentric for the date (she looks great!) that you wouldn’t turn a hair if you saw her walking down your high street tomorrow. Very disappointing so far.

Apr. 27th, 2018


Old Baggage, Lissa Evans

I was thrilled to learn that there was a new book by Lissa Evans and to be able to read it early, thanks to NetGalley. Old Baggage is about Mattie, a former suffragette. She’s a wonderful character: fiercely intelligent, witty, overbearing. She lives in Hampstead with her friend The Flea, who looks after her because domesticity is not Mattie’s thing. As far as she is concerned, the struggle for women’s rights is far from over but does she dwell too much on the past? The happy days of the sisterhood, even the suffering in prison? She needs a new outlet for her formidable energy and starts a group for young girls, to be called the Amazons. They will learn self-defence, self-reliance, healthy outdoor living and expand their horizons in accordance with Mattie’s ideas. The Amazons are to be the opposite of any youth organisation which seems regimented or militaristic; Mattie’s generation is the one which lost its brothers and sweethearts in the First World War.

A first there are few responses to her advertisement but the Amazons attract more and more girls, who are soon having the time of their lives on Hampstead Heath. The most interesting of them is Ida, a bright girl from a working class home where no one has any aspirations and she is constantly disparaged. Working as a housemaid for Mattie, she is exposed to new ways of thinking and begins to dream of improving herself. She’s also a great success in the Amazons, a born leader. All seems going well when a new character is introduced, a girl who causes Mattie to lose all sense of proportion, for reasons which I can’t give for fear of spoilers. The Flea sees things straight, speaks her mind and the two old friends become estranged. Mattie has committed a double betrayal and has to come to terms with it.

The end of the book connects it with the wonderful Crooked Heart, which I praised so highly here. I absolutely loved Old Baggage from the first page (but not as much as I loved Crooked Heart). Now that we have some of Mattie’s back story, it would be wonderful to find out what happened to Noel of the earlier book.

Old Baggage (nice punning title), will be out on 14th June.

Apr. 19th, 2018


Bad news for cricket fans

‘The BBC has lost the rights to cover England's upcoming cricket tours of Sri Lanka and the West Indies on radio to commercial broadcaster TalkSport.’

Has the BBC gone mad? TMS is what I pay my licence fee for! It’s been the sound of summer since my childhood and I’m just one of millions of fans all over the world. Who wants cricket commentary interrupted by advertisements?

At least we’ll still have the Test Matches played here this summer, but for how long? The Beeb seems to hate cricket.
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