The Charming Quirks of Others, Alexander McCall Smith
The Affair of the Thirty-Nine Cufflinks, James Anderson
The Shuttle, Frances Hodgson Burnett, read on Kindle
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, read on Kindle
Out of Love, Victoria Clayton
At Sea, Laurie Graham
Old Christmas, Washington Irving, read on Kindle
Agatha Raisin and the Busy Body, M C Beaton
The Christmas Angel, Abbie Farwell Brown, read on Kindle
Christmas at Nettleford, Malcolm Saville
The Black Ship, Carola Dunn
The Dragonfly Pool, Eva Ibbotson
Jane Shaw re-reads
Susan Pulls the Strings
No Trouble for Susan
A Job for Susan
My Father’s Fortune, Michael Frayn
Who would read a biography of ‘Tommy’ Frayn if he hadn’t had a son who became a famous writer? Almost nobody, which is why My Father’s Fortune could have been called My Father and Myself (title already used up by J R Ackerley), Father and Son (Edmund Gosse) or Fathers and Sons (Turgenev and Richard Madeley). Ironic that Michael Frayn’s wife, Claire Tomalin, writes excellent biographies of famous people (Jane Austen, Ellen Ternan, Pepys) and he writes about someone no one would otherwise have heard of.
Michael Frayn says that he wrote the book for his children and grandchildren, so they would have an idea where they came from. It’s not exactly rags to riches but a long way from the hugger-mugger living and poverty of Tom Frayn’s youth to the detached house he was able to rent for his own family and to the fame of his son and comfortable lives of his grandchildren. He owed his success to quick wits and enterprise, starting out at fourteen and for most of his life supporting sick or indigent relatives. In this world, family really matters.
After reading the book I looked at the Amazon reviews and almost every writer there said they read this biography because they had enjoyed Spies. I loved Spies myself and was strongly reminded of it in the descriptions of growing up in Ewell. I could also remember scenes from a television programme Frayn made years ago, revisiting his childhood haunts, so I had a pretty good visual image of that way of life. The book has similarities to Cold Cream by Ferdinand Mount and Nigel Slater’s Toast; the common factor is a missing mother and the consequences of that loss. Of the three writers, Frayn is the most prone to beating himself up for the childish ingratitude and teenage intellectual arrogance which distanced him from his father. Luckily, later in life they became closer and you finish the book feeling quite fond of this man who, in spite of all his problems, still had a wonderful smile.
My Father’s Fortune was a Christmas present from huskyteer, who went to hear Michael Frayn talk about the book and thoughtfully picked up a signed copy for me. He writes so well that you could probably enjoy the book without having read any of his other books or plays. See here for previous posts featuring Michael Frayn.
I was lucky at the library last month, coming home with several books I actually wanted to read. This is more surprising than you might think. One, The Christmas Cookie Club by Ann Pearlman, turned out to be a dud which I couldn’t finish. Alexander McCall Smith’s latest Isabel Dalhousie novel The Charming Quirks of Others was enjoyable, mostly for the descriptions of Edinburgh life. My problem with this series, although I read it avidly, is that I can’t really like Isabel. Possibly this is due to envy of her lifestyle, possibly she just is a rather annoying person who doesn't deserve the gorgeous Jamie. I certainly have no desire to sit down in Cat’s deli with her to have a chat over a cup of coffee. The Affair of the Thirty-Nine Cufflinks by James Anderson is the third and last book in the Inspector Wilkins (or Burford) mysteries and was written some time after the others. I think it might be the best and found it very amusing. Also funny in a rather bitter way was Laurie Graham’s At Sea. The action take place on a cruise ship where horrible Bernard gives guided tours on antiquities, supported by his long suffering and well born (she’s an Hon) wife. A fellow traveller recognises Bernard from childhood and the ‘professor’ spends the rest of the voyage trying to avoid being unmasked. I’m pleased to report that everything works out well for his wife and not for him.
Another library success was Agatha Raisin and the Busy Body. In this latest adventure, M C Beaton turns her always politically incorrect gaze on health and safety rulings. No Christmas tree on the church, no fairy lights in the village street, no wooden shelves in the shop in case someone gets a splinter. Small wonder that the health and safety officer is murdered, right outside the vicarage in the next village. Better written is The Black Ship by Carola Dunn, another Daisy Dalrymple mystery and also a library find. I make no apology for liking these light, fast reads. Out of Love by Victoria Clayton I enjoyed, although not as much as I did Clouds Among the Stars. I’ll certainly go on reading her books. This was a loan as was The Dragonfly Pool, yet another delightful fairy tale by the sadly late Eva Ibbotson.
No need to say anything about A Christmas Carol except that it remains the archetypal and best Christmas story ever written. The Christmas Angel by Abbie Farwell Brown is a good example of serendipitous (free!) finds for the Kindle. I’d never heard of the American author and was intrigued by this short, moral story. Scrooge-like Miss Terry lives alone with her servant Norah, remains estranged from her brother Tom and despises Christmas.
"Stuff and nonsense!" mused Miss Terry scornfully. "What is our Christmas, anyway? A time for shopkeepers to sell and for foolish folks to kill themselves in buying. Christmas spirit? No! It is all humbug,--all selfishness, and worry; an unwholesome season of unnatural activities.
This even though she sees
Every window opposite her along the block, as far as she could see, was illuminated with a row of lighted candles across the sash. The soft, unusual glow threw into relief the pretty curtains and wreaths of green, and gave glimpses of cosy interiors and flitting happy figures.
Going through a box of old toys she throws some on the fire but experiments with others by putting them outside to see what will happen. What she sees convinces her that the Christmas spirit is all an illusion. Then she finds the Christmas angel which always topped the tree when she and Tom were children. In a dream-like sequence, the angel comes to life and shows the good things which have really happened as a result of her giving away the toys. The angel speaks strictly to her:
"Now you have lost the old belief and the old love," went on the Angel. "Now you have studied books and read wise men's sayings. You understand the higher criticism, and the higher charity, and the higher egoism. You don't believe in mere giving. You don't believe in the Christmas economics,--you know better. But are you happy, dear Angelina?" Again Miss Terry thrilled at the sound of her name so sweetly spoken; but she answered nothing. The Angel replied for her. "No, you are not happy because you have cut yourself off from the things that bring folk together in peace and good-will at this holy time. Where are your friends? Where is your brother to-night? You are still hard and unforgiving to Tom. You refused to see him to-day, though he wrote so boyishly, so humbly and affectionately. You have not tried to make any soul happy. You don't believe in me, the Christmas Spirit."
Of course, Miss Terry is converted instantly, just like Scrooge. She welcomes Tom and the next day they adopt the little girl Mary, who picked up the old doll Miriam in the street.
I read Christmas at Nettleford as I do every year and knowing it almost off by heart, I only bothered with the best parts. The three Susans I picked because they are all set during the Christmas holidays. The picture shows the first and the last Susan books (of eleven) and you can see the difference between 1952 and 1969.
The children do get older during the series but not by much. Susan never loses her Scottish 'ugh's and 'mph's and other barbaric (to the Carmichaels) words but by the last books the children are using expressions like ‘all that jazz’. The titles give away Susan’s character: Susan Rushes In and Susan Interferes, for instance. She’s always dashing about to do good, to the despair of lazy Midge, who is probably my favourite character. I absolutely love these stories and find the style of humour similar to that of the Jennings books. In Susan Pulls the Strings Susan Lyle moves to live with her cousins the Carmichaels in Wichwood village ‘five miles from the centre of London’. It helps that they live in just about my dream home, a large house opposite Wichwood (Dulwich ) Picture Gallery. In this book she foils a watch smuggler, in No Trouble for Susan she persuades everyone to run a bookshop during the holidays and in A Job for Susan helps Bill to earn the £10.00 he has rashly promised to raise for Oxfam. The fun of the books is not so much in the adventures as in the cosiness; the large and frequent meals, the carol singing and skating and theatre-going which make for perfect, if very busy, Christmas holidays. My favourite will always be Susan Pulls the Strings. I owned this one as a child and know every detail of its bright, shiny cover.
It may be January but it’s still Christmas so I’ll carry on with Christmas reading.