Agatha Raisin and I Smell the Blood of an Englishman M C Beaton
Conclave, Robert Harris
The Fortune Hunter, Daisy Goodwin
The Designer, Marius Gabriel
Winter Holiday, Arthur Ransome
Nibs and the New World, Grace James 1953
Swan Feather, Lorna Hill
A City of Bells, Elizabeth Goudge
Henrietta’s House, Elizabeth Goudge
Murder is Easy, Agatha Christie
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
The Oaken Heart, the story of an English Village at war, Margery Allingham
Last month was a very difficult one for reading. Very little pleased me, two trips to the library found me no books and some old favourites disappointed.
First up, I had my last clutch of library books to read. Agatha Raisin and I Smell the Blood of an Englishman turned out to be even gorier and sillier than most of the other Agatha Raisin books but I keep reading them for the non-stop action.
Who would think that the election of a new Pope could be turned into a thriller? Robert Harris’s Conclave almost pulls off this trick. I found the main character, Cardinal Lomeli, very sympathetic and the detail about life in the Vatican fascinating. The ending has a very surprising twist. I wouldn’t say one of Harris’s best books but I enjoyed it.
I liked My Last Duchess, and Victoria was a speedy romp. The Fortune Hunter, though, is boring and nearly 500 pages of boringness. It’s nearly all about hunting, which is a turn off for a start and it’s at least twice as long as it need be. It concerns a young Victorian heiress, Charlotte, who is unusually independent minded for a woman of her class and is passionately keen on photography, which she has studied with her artistic godmother. Her brother and future sister-in-law are conventional bores who want to control her fortune for as long as they can. Poor Charlotte falls heavily for handsome Captain Middleton, although advised that he’s ‘unsuitable’, a womaniser etc. Bay Middleton wants to marry Charlotte (and not just for her money) but he meets and is enthralled by the Empress of Austria, who takes him on as her hunting pilot. The two of them are the best riders in Europe, as if I cared. Bay’s trouble is that he wants the best of both worlds: the glamorous mistress and a clever, pretty wife. I was hoping hard that the selfish man would lose both. There are some amusing vignettes of Queen Victoria; the research involved apparently led Goodwin to delve further and the rest is history (ha, ha).
The Designer was the free Kindle First book of the month a while ago. It’s set in Paris after the liberation but before the end of the war. The designer of the title is Christian Dior and I was hoping for a lot of detail about fashion. There is some but the main character is not Dior but a young American woman called Copper, who has come over with her husband. She discovers a surprising and unlikely talent for journalism and in no time is selling stories to top US journals. Meanwhile, she leaves her womanising husband and throws in her lot with the bohemian scene in Paris, meeting Cocteau, Poulenc, Hemingway and other luminaries of the time. It makes for uncomfortable reading, when everyone was either (they claim) in the Resistance or accused of being a collabo. They’re a rotten lot and only kindly Dior is Copper’s true friend. Sadly, I was totally unable to sympathise with Copper and found her impossible to believe in as a character.
By now I was almost in despair in my search for something I would really enjoy reading and turned to children’s books. Winter Holiday didn’t let me down: I love this book. Two new characters, Dick and Dorothea Callum, are introduced and the book opens with them looking down on the lake at a boat and hearing children calling to each other. It’s so cleverly done because the reader is with them, outsiders, not knowing the Swallows and Amazons, who can be rather superior and exclusive. One of my favourite scenes in the book takes place after the children have met as a result of Dick’s plan of ‘signalling to Mars’, which the others admit is a good wheeze. Having found that the tarn is fit for skating, the children are fixing on their skates when Dick, ready first, goes on the ice and quite unselfconsciously whizzes about, showing that he is a far better skater than any of them, apart from his sister. Hah! Good for the D’s! They are different from the others; clever children whose father is a professor. (Dick arrives for his holiday complete with ‘a telescope, a microscope and a book about astronomy’.) In fact, Dick is just the sort of weedy, bespectacled boy you’d expect John to think of as a ‘duffer’ and Dorothea, horrors, wears pigtails! They prove that appearances can be deceptive.
It struck me for the first time on a re-read, that William Mayne may have been influenced by Ransome’s style. Take this conversation between Dick and Dorothea, near the beginning of the book:
‘Upside down,’ he said.
‘It’s a boat, anyhow,’ said Dorothea.
See what I mean? Very spare.
I followed up this read with Nibs and the New World and Swan Feather. Neither is the author’s best book but each provided a welcome break from modern books I was fed up with. I then started on a re-read of A City of Bells. I expect everyone has read this but if not, here’s the gen. It’s set in Torminster, a small cathedral city based on Wells. Jocelyn is a former soldier, lamed in South Africa (the story takes place before the First World War), who doesn’t know what to do next in life. He goes to stay with his aged grandparents in the Close at Torminster. Everything there is old, buildings and people alike, and there’s a fairy tale atmosphere to the place. Jocelyn is immediately drawn to an old house in the city and soon finds that rumour has got about that he is going to open a bookshop there. So he does. The house was previously occupied by a man called Ferranti, a bitter, failed poet. Grandfather and his adopted daughter Henrietta were friendly with him and Grandfather sadly fears that Ferranti has killed himself. Jocelyn becomes obsessed with the unknown man, discovers some of his papers and writes a play based on them which is put on in London to critical acclaim.
For the first half of the book I was completely under Goudge’s spell again, having an enchanting read. Suddenly it all began to pall. Ferranti was a tiresome man (I’ve no time for tortured genius) and I became tired of the perfections of Henrietta. A few years later, during the Second World War, Goudge used the same characters in Henrietta’s House, a book for children. This really is a fairy tale and utterly charming if you’re in the right mood, which I was not. Just why is Henrietta so beautiful and good and delightful as to deserve all her good fortune? I felt more for her playmate Hugh Anthony (a genuine grandson), who is a perfectly normal boy. It’s odd that Goudge had such a strong Christian faith yet allows her characters to believe in magic, fairies and pagan goings-on.
Murder is Easy was at least readable but did nothing to change my poor opinion of Christie. I browsed my Kindle in desperation and picked Sherlock Holmes. It’s a while since I read the stories, which of course I know very well, and I was struck by how brilliantly the writers of Sherlock had borrowed from the originals.
I’m a huge fan of Margery Allingham and would never have believed she could write a book which is almost unreadable. Sadly, this is the case with The Oaken Heart It’s very hard going. The idea of the book is to explain, supposedly to American friends, how an English village coped with the onset of war. It’s autobiographical and, we must suppose, accurate. Her Essex village is here called Auburn; a neighbouring one is Pontisbright, a name fans will recognise. Allingham understood country ways and country people and aims to show the sturdy independence of the villagers and their attitudes to politicians, war in general, and an invasion of Londoners. This is interesting from a social point of view and must have helped researchers in the past. The problem is that it’s one long ramble. It would have been a much better book tidied up, cut and reorganised, perhaps written as a diary. I’d read half the book when I realised it was just depressing me and abandoned it. What a disappointment.
The book was available to ‘read now’ on NetGalley.