The Prostrate Years, Sue Townsend
Acts of Faith, Adam Faith autobiography
Backroom Boys: the Secret Return of the British Boffin, Francis Spufford
Mrs Tim Carries On, D E Stevenson
Alice, Elizabeth Eliot
Caesar’s Wife’s Elephant, Margery Allingham
The Beauty King, Margery Allingham
The Doll Factory, Elizabeth Macneal
The Road to Grantchester, James Runcie
Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford
Don’t Tell Alfred, Nancy Mitford
The Strange Case of Harriet Hall, Moray Dalton
Currently reading this massive tome: A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle, Julian Jackson and in bed, Reasons to be Cheerful, Nina Stibbe
Let’s start with the books sent to me for review, which I’ve been meaning to write about all month. First, two of the latest Furrowed Middlebrow books. Mrs Tim Carries On has an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith in which he puts the case for unexciting but well written books which help to counter anxiety in uncertain times. I’m all for this. I almost always enjoy home front stories about the war, so I looked forward to this book. Apart from worries about her husband serving overseas, Mrs Tim doesn’t suffer any great hardships. She is rather annoying, like all characters who complain of poverty when they have servants and send their children to private schools. The book is saved by the cast of extras, some of whom are very entertaining.
I’ve read a lot of books by D E Stevenson but Elizabeth Eliot was a completely new author to me. Alice is narrated by Margaret, Alice’s school friend. The writing style reminded me of Barbara Comyns, which should have been a recommendation. In fact, half way through the book I was bored stiff by it. The characters seem a worthless bunch of people and when someone remarks that servants live more interesting lives than they do, I’m inclined to agree. In another world, these characters would be les gens du monde, whom Fabrice tells Linda are the only people worth knowing (in The Pursuit of Love). That would be Mitford-world, in which the characters are really interesting and amusing. Margaret tells us little about herself; she marries and we learn nothing about her husband or her married life. Alice’s eventual fate, obviously intended to shock, didn’t seem to me to follow naturally from her character and the events in her life. From what I’ve read, everybody except me loves this book. I was rather surprised to find that I preferred the D E Stevenson.
The Doll Factory is set in London around 1850, just as the Crystal Palace is being built. The heroine, Iris, is a young woman who scrapes a living, along with her sister, by painting the faces on dolls. The hours are long, the work tedious and their boss an opium-sodden tyrant. Iris is taken up by a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (what a tiresome crowd they appear here!), who wants to paint her. Iris is reluctant because she’s no fool and thinks being a model no better than being a mistress. When her new patron takes an interest in her own painting, she agrees to model for him and is set up with a room and a studio. That’s one part of the story; the other is far more sinister. Silas, a taxidermist, becomes obsessed with Iris and begins stalking her. He’s a fantasist with a record of violence against women but only the street boy Albie suspects him. This dark passion turns the story into a creepy thriller. Will Silas add Iris to his collection of two-headed puppies and stuffed mice? What will he do to her if he does? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
This is a well-researched book and a good read once it gets going; it didn’t grab me from the start. I felt it didn’t quite come off but that Elizabeth Macneal is an author to watch. I read this thanks to NetGalley. It will be published on May 2nd.
The enterprising Dean Street Press is bringing out a new range of ‘lost’ detective novels in March. The authors are Moray Dalton, Joan A. Cowdroy, E & M.A. Radford, Gordon Meyrick and Francis Vivian. So far, I’ve read just one: The Strange Case of Harriet Hall. Moray Dalton was the pen name of Katherine Moray Dalton, who wrote several books featuring Inspector Collier. The Strange Case of Harriet Hall was first published in 1936 but reads like an earlier book. It begins with Amy, a young, friendless woman with no family (danger signal!), who has just lost her job. While looking for another, she sees an advertisement asking any relative of her father to get in touch to hear something to their advantage. Amy arranges to meet ‘Miss Hall’, who says she is her aunt, asks her to come and stay with her to have plenty of fun and gives her £100.00 to buy clothes. Incredibly, Amy agrees to this and travels down to Miss Hall’s cottage. Finding no one at home, she spends a lonely night in the house, not knowing that Aunt Harriet is by now dead: murdered.
Amy’s life now becomes linked with the Denes, a local family consisting of an ailing mother, two daughters and a son who is already smitten with Amy. This is where village scandal begins. The Denes had been mysteriously close to Miss Hall. The children all disliked her but Mrs Dene let her live in the cottage rent free, and sponge off her constantly. Why? To the local police, young Dene seems the obvious candidate for murderer: he was known to dislike the victim and was the one to find the body. After the post mortem, the case becomes an even more mysterious one. Things get so complicated that Scotland Yard is called in and Inspector Collier arrives. There is another murder and danger to all, especially when silly little Amy falls straight into an obvious trap.
I enjoyed this very much, in spite of the drippy heroine. It contains that staple of detective fiction, an identity question. The full truth is only revealed on the very last page. An even greater mystery is why Curtis Brown, in an afterword, gets the ending completely wrong?
Have you ever read a book, part of a series, which changed your attitude to the other books? Sadly, this happened to me with The Road to Grantchester. I have liked all the Sidney Chambers books and have probably given them five- star reviews. This prequel to the Grantchester novels is in two parts. The first deals with Sidney’s war experiences in Italy and is very good (also a useful corrective for anyone who still thinks that the fighting in the First World War was uniquely horrible). The second part deals with Sidney finding faith and resolving to enter the church. Some friends are supportive but Amanda seems to see his conversion as a betrayal and a change of personality. It’s written in the present tense, which is irritating to me; I also thought it less well written than the other books. The big problem, though, is that by the end of this book I liked Sidney less than I had before, which was surely not the author’s intention. I read this thanks to NetGalley. It will be published on 21st March.
I was feeling bereft after immersing myself in The Distant Hours
and couldn’t decide what to read next. I’d been watching the DVD of the 1980s Adrian Mole series (a Christmas present) and decided on Moley. As I made my way upstairs, The Prostrate Years came easily to hand. I’ve said before that it’s hard to read about Adrian having cancer but even so, I never tire of these books, no matter how often I read them. More rather random reading with Nancy Mitford. I’d wanted to check a reference in The Pursuit of Love and in no time I was re-reading Love in a Cold Climate and Don’t Tell Alfred again. Although The Pursuit of Love is almost permanently in my list of top ten favourite books, I do think Love in a Cold Climate is the better book. Don’t Tell Alfred I like because we get to know Alfred better and can see why Fanny married him, which was rather a mystery before.
Acts of Faith was found for me in a charity shop by huskyteer. Why are her charity shops so much better than ours? No one could say this is a very good book but there is interest in it for the fan and the photos are good. Adam certainly moved a long way from a council flat in Acton in his life.
Caesar’s Wife’s Elephant and The Beauty King are short stories by Margery Allingham which you can get as free downloads from the Margery Allingham Society. The first story is a Campion one. The second has never been published before and is not a mystery story at all. While I’m on about Campion (again), I’ve only just found out about Mike Ripley’s Campion continuations. Does anyone know if they’re any good?
The most brilliant book I read last month was Backroom Boys. I picked this up somewhere, possibly the market, purely on the strength of the author’s name and it had been lying around for a while before I decided to read it. Its great achievement is to make technology exciting for someone like me, whose scientific knowledge is woefully basic. The first chapter grabbed me immediately, as it’s called Flying Spitfires to other planets. It’s about British efforts to build a launcher which would put a satellite into space. Brilliant minds and beautiful engineering were involved yet, as Spufford notes, there was something Dan Dare-ish about it. The second chapter is about Concorde, the third begins in the 1980s with two teenage boys writing computer games in their bedrooms. So we go on, with certain themes repeated: lack of funds, a rather amateurish atmosphere, total belief, dedication and, usually, success which confounded critics. Perhaps we should worry less about teenage boys (or indeed, girls), crouching over computers in their bedrooms. They may be Britain’s brainy boffins of the future. Why was ‘secret’ added to this title, as it is nowadays to so many things which are already in the public domain? This is my only criticism of a fascinating book.