Celia’s House, D E Stevenson
Priorsford, O Douglas
Don’t Ever Get Old , Douglas Friedman
Housekeeping , Marilynne Robinson
A Pony for Jean, Joanna Cannan
The Help, Kathryn Stockett
My Dear Charlotte, Hazel Holt
Penny Plain, O Douglas
Susan, Bill and the Vanishing Boy, Malcolm Saville
Suddenly at his Residence, Christianna Brand
Lucia on Holiday, Guy Fraser-Sampson
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (These Foolish Things), Deborah Moggach
I’m so grateful to Mary at Mary’s Library for pointing me at My Dear Charlotte. I love Hazel Holt’s Mrs Malory mysteries but had no idea she had written this Jane Austen pastiche. It’s an epistolary novel telling the story of a murder in Lyme Regis, through the letters of Elinor Cowper to her sister, who is staying in Bath with relatives. Modelled on Jane Austen’s own letters to her sister, each missive begins, ‘My Dear Charlotte’ instead of ‘My Dear Cassandra’. In a fairly short book, Hazel Holt manages to convey a vivid impression of Lyme and its most important residents.
Just as in Jane Austen’s letters, there is a great deal about clothes and shopping, domestic details (“I will not say that your mulberry trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive.”), and comments on the neighbours. “You will be interested to learn that Mr Powlett gave a dance on Thursday, to the great disturbance of his neighbours, who, you know, take a most lively interest in the state of his finances, and live in the hope of his soon being ruined.” There are hints of Jane Austen’s novels. “I believe that young men of his sort will journey to London simply to have their hair cut fashionably.” will remind readers of Emma, as will the secret engagement between Miss West and Mr Russell. “And, indeed, dear Charlotte I remember many lectures you gave me about my unladylike behaviour, when I walked back through the town with my petticoats muddy and bedraggled from searching for fossils when the tide had just gone out,” shows us that Elinor is rather like Elizabeth Bennet.
The murder mystery is about the surprising but apparently natural death of Mrs Woodstock, a domineering and unpopular woman. Elinor writes, “Certainly in Lyme opinion of Mrs Woodstock has already undergone a remarkable change – from being a monster of disagreeableness she is immediately transformed by death into a martyr to ill health whose unpleasantness and ill temper, everyone now agrees, was quite understandable given the pain she no doubt had to bear, poor soul, over the years.” A number of people would appear to benefit from the lady’s death, so there are plenty of suspects. Gradually, all is revealed, but “It is, I admit, an unsatisfactory ending with no villain brought to justice and so many matters left unexplained.” I could have enjoyed this book without a murder, I think. In my opinion, Hazel Holt has captured Jane Austen’s voice better than any other writer I’ve read. I read this on the Kindle and will just warn you that if you download a sample, you won’t get a word of the book, just the introduction. Swiz.
Suddenly at his Residence is a far more traditional detective novel. It’s a classic country house, must-have-been-a-member-of the-family who did it story, set in 1944. Very enjoyable, although most of the characters are unpleasant. Christianna Brand wrote a lot of crime fiction, but the only other crime novel of hers I’ve read is Green for Danger. That is better, I think, and was made into an excellent film. Back in the far-off days when I used to read aloud, I loved reading the same author’s Nurse Matilda stories because they were so funny. I’ve avoided seeing the film Nanny McPhee, fearing that it could never live up to the books.
A Pony for Jean is one of the most famous pony books ever written, yet I’d never read it before. I read the 1970 Brockhampton edition, which had obviously been slightly modernised, very inconsistently. For instance, two birds in the book are called Elizabeth and Philip, names which would have meant nothing to a reader in 1936. Yet there are mentions of Jean’s ‘stockings’, when by 1970 anyone would have said ‘socks’ and there’s a reference to ‘the long drop’ although hanging had been abolished by then. I’m glad I got round to this classic book at last but wouldn’t bother reading it again. Susan, Bill and the Vanishing Boy is the third book in the Susan and Bill series which Malcolm Saville wrote for younger children. He was a far more innovative writer than he’s given credit for; the two families in the books (this one, 1955), are homely, working class people. It was much better than I expected.
Deborah Moggach’s novel These Foolish Things has been repackaged and re-titled The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to tie in with the film. A strangely assorted group of elderly folk decide to spend their retirement years in India, with some surprising results. I was mentally trying to cast the characters as I went along, with little success. I understand the film is quite different from the book. I did enjoy it but couldn’t help comparing it unfavourably with another book about elderly people living together: Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up.
Comfort bedtime reading for the month was O Douglas, yet again. I re-read Priorsford and Penny Plain, in the wrong order but it really doesn’t matter. Penny Plain introduces Jean Jardine and in Priorsford she returns after twelve years away. The charm of these books for me is in the non-county people, the ‘characters’. I don’t like to hear Jean speak of them patronisingly (although she loves them) because it’s Mrs Duff-Whalley, whom you love to hate, the twittering Miss Watsons, Mrs McCosh with her Glasgow speech and dour Bella Bathgate who really bring the books alive.
I’ve read about half of Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire, which came from NetGalley. It’s a college story, hailed as an ‘I couldn’t put it down’ book. Clearly, I’ve had no trouble putting it down while I read other books, but I will get back to it. Years ago I read Lawrence Norfolk’s Lemprière’s Dictionary and found it interestingly different, so I was pleased to be able to download his latest offering, John Saturnall’s Feast. Alas, the proof I was sent was so mangled as to be unreadable and I gave up. To be honest, I rather suspect the book may be unreadable anyway. Don’t let this put anyone off signing up for NetGalley, it’s the first time I’ve been sent such a bad proof.