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Unconventional bookish fun

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This weekend is the UK Bookcrossing Unconvention (to distinguish it from the official international convention in April) here in Birmingham. I along with three bookcrossing friends have been organising it for almost a year – and I can hardly believe the weekend has finally arrived.

There will be plenty of bookish type fun for everyone, lots and lots of free books naturally on the famous book buffet, and much more besides. I have two large bags of books all prepped and ready to go – every single one looking for a new home. The unique ID number inside each book means it can be tracked by everyone who has come into contact with it – assuming people log it of course.

One of my main jobs as an Uncon organiser was to get some speakers for our programme of Saturday activities. We are therefore looking forward to hearing from:

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Fiona Joseph and Katharine D’Souza – two local authors will be giving us a talk entitled ‘The Women of Birmingham: telling stories with heart from the heart of the country’

guy-fraser-sampson-150x150Guy Fraser Sampson – who will be talking about his new series of books which begins with Death in Profile – which I read recently. Guy has previously written books which continue the stories of the characters of Mapp and Lucia as well as non-fiction books about finance.

One speaker Lynn Shepherd is unwell and has had to withdraw, but author Simon Michael has valiantly stepped into the breach at very little notice. Simon, who worked as a lawyer for many years will be telling us about his legal thrillers set in the 1960s.  simonmichael-0002-200x300

Our final speaker is from a small independent publisher Emma Press – who produce extraordinarily pretty little volumes of poetry here in Birmingham.

emmapress
Before we get to the Saturday activities there will be a lovely informal gathering in our rooms (close to the bar) at the hotel on Friday evening with a literary quiz, Birmingham jigsaw, lots of board games, and catching up with friends old and new.

As well as all that there will be a brilliant raffle, quizzes, games and lots of socialising.

On Saturday night everyone will get into groups for evening meals at restaurants close to our hotel. Sunday morning the traditional bookcrossing activities involve sharing all the left over books with the public – but we have had to be more creative with that this year. With the Tory party conference starting next week and security tight – we can’t have hundreds of bagged up books lying around the city centre – still plenty of books will be shared with the people of Birmingham in several cafes with dedicated bookcrossing shelves and along the number 11 bus route.

So following this wonderfully exciting, weekend of bookishness and socialising – it might be a day or three before I get any more blog posts up. Please bear with me.

 

a-room-of-ones-own-three-guineas

There are books I approach reviewing with some caution – or fear – and Three Guineas was one such book – the themes are so huge, the writing (naturally) so good – and the author – is Virginia Woolf. So you can expect a bit of prevaricating and waffle before I get down to it. My edition – the one pictured above, containing A Room of One’s Own – was sent to me by the lovely people at OUP when they heard about #Woolfalong. I had already read A Room of one’s Own last year – but only had it on kindle – this lovely edition with its copious notes gave me the perfect excuse to read Three Guineas for phase 5 of #Woolfalong.

Non-fiction and I don’t always get along, and September is a nightmare month for me – I’m so tired and busy – and I haven’t even got to my very very busy weekend yet – it means non-fiction wasn’t the best fit for me this month. Still I gave it a go – and I did pretty well. Despite my exhaustion and limited reading time I really engaged with this famous essay – well the first two thirds anyway – the final third did drag rather – and I struggled a little at times – due almost certainly to my own tired mind and nothing more. Still the whole is incredible, Woolf’s brilliance demonstrated here by her sharp commentary and fiercely intelligent wit. I found lots to enjoy and marvel at – Woolf’s insight into the society in which she lived with its obvious weaknesses and limitations – especially for women of her own class, is extraordinary.

“No guinea of earned money should go to rebuilding the college on the old plan just as certainly none could be spent upon building a college upon a new plan: therefore the guinea should be earmarked “Rags. Petrol. Matches.” And this note should be attached to it. “Take this guinea and with it burn the college to the ground. Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry, “Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done with this ‘education!”

Virginia Woolf originally wrote this as a novel-essay which was to form part of her novel The Pargiters – the original idea to have alternating fiction and non-fiction chapters. Of course in the end Woolf re-thought this idea and The Pargiters became The Years, the non-fiction sections removed to become Three Guineas.

The essay is essentially a series of letters – letters which serve to answer the question of how war could be prevented. This was a subject which would have been very much in vogue I assume at this time, written in the mid to late 1930s when everyone felt the world to be on the brink of another war. In her letter –  her reply to an educated gentleman – Woolf wryly wonders why she should be so approached with this difficult question, when as a woman, the daughter of an educated man – she doesn’t enjoy the same access to universities, societies and the professions as the sons of educated men.

“Behind us lies the patriarchal system; the private house, with it nullity, its immorality, its hypocrisy, its servility. Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed.”

In her bid to answer this larger question about the prevention of war – Woolf also sets about answering the questions of why the government does not support the education of women and why women must be continually prevented from following professional careers. In asking these question Woolf is naturally considering why educated families are prepared to spend money on educating their boys but not their girls, and what it might mean for society should those girls be allowed to be so educated. Woolf imagines a new kind of women’s college, a college which would be more experimental – less concerned with shoring up the traditional male world.

“…what should be taught in the new college, the poor college? Not the arts of dominating other people; not the arts of ruling, of killing, of acquiring land and capital.”

She envisages a time when women too will be able to deliver sermons from church pulpits, sit in judgement in courts of law, teach young men at university or rise through the ranks of the civil service.

Woolf who had been so badly affected by the horrors of the First Word War, was a famously anti-war pacifist – she was also ardently feminist, and with Three Guineas she combines these two concerns. More than eighty years after it was first published Three Guineas still has lots to say to us in the twenty-first century.

I am very glad I read this for all its challenges because as always Virginia Woolf opens my eyes and gives me food for thought.

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no-place

Review copy from the author

I was delighted to be sent a review copy of this novel by an author whose previous novels I have enjoyed and who will be speaking later this week at an event I have been helping to organise. Katharine D’Souza is a Birmingham novelist, and while her books are set in a city which is very recognisable to anyone who lives here, there is more than that to recommend them. Really it is irrelevant whether you know the city or not – but as someone who does, it adds an extra dimension to be able to picture – for instance – Bournville village or the canal side bars in the city centre. I always enjoy novels set in Birmingham, but the devil is in the detail – it is always quickly evident how well the writer knows the place – and as Katharine D’ Souza lives in Birmingham herself, I know she always gets those details spot on.

The third novel by Katharine D’Souza No Place explores the idea of what it means to belong. Some people identify very clearly with a particular country or city – other people struggle to find within themselves that sense of belonging. It is the two sides of this age old story that is at the heart of the this hugely readable novel. bournville-green

Tanya Gill is a radiographer who works in a large Birmingham hospital, she spends her evenings watching the planes on a flight radar website – dreaming of leaving Birmingham, imagining the people on those planes overhead. Tanya’s sister Geena has ambitions as a jewellery designer, for now she is working in a small jewellers and watch repair shop in Bournville Village. Bournville is the village created by the Cadbury family for the chocolate factory workers – it is a particularly idyllic Birmingham, suburb.

“Royal wedding, Team GB, Diamond jubilee: any excuse to fly the bunting. Not just bunting either. Mugs. Cushion covers. Bath mats and hand towel set. Dadda did things properly. The ultimate patriot, more British than fish and chips.
Tamya didn’t get it. Britain might be home, but there was a world out there and staying put meant missing out.”

Tanya is the elder of the two sisters born to Indian immigrants. Their father, after thirty years in Birmingham, is as English as fish and chips, his fierce patriotism, extending to union jack door mats and royal wedding memorabilia. Their mother died ten years earlier, since when Tanya has been doing her best to take care of everyone. Tanya and Geena grew up with little knowledge of their Indian heritage, the family have never practised the Sikh religion, and the girls never thought to ask many questions about their Indian roots.

Geena has been – until recently – at the centre of a large group of friends, out most evenings, socialising in town. Tanya, usually stayed at home in the evenings, boyfriends haven’t featured much lately. However, Geena has incurred the wrath of her friends, and finds herself shunned, staying home more and more. With fewer distractions Geena begins to think more seriously about her future ambitions. Tanya is used to treating her sister like the kid she was when their mother died, and isn’t quite prepared for her younger more frivolous sister to start stepping up to the plate.

When their Dadda – Jagtar – is subjected to an upsetting, racist incident on a bus, it seems to trigger something that Tanya and Geena are unable to understand. Suddenly he avoids going out, becomes more protective and begins to talk about moving, Tanya spots he’s been doing property searches for Wiltshire.

“Tanya had always been happy to stay with him, she had promised her mum she’d do as much, but to follow Dadda into a rural seclusion would be going too far. Her own dreams had no borders. If she left Birmingham it would be to travel beyond British shores.”

The sisters can’t understand how a relatively minor, though unpleasant incident could spark such an extreme reaction. Deb, a colleague of Tanya’s from the hospital who works with injured service personnel may be able to help get to the bottom of what is really going on. Perhaps there is something in his past that they are unaware of? – something that has been unearthed by his recent upset.

As the novel opens Tanya meets Will from Chicago– in Birmingham working for the American company who now own Cadbury – he represents the different world she longs to explore. Even the way he pronounces her name seems exotic. However, nothing is straightforward and soon Will is required to fly back to Chicago, and Tanya is worried about her father. Will is keen that she visit him in Chicago to see if their relationship could be the real thing. How can she do that now? Always at the back of her mind is the idea of travelling far from Birmingham, of finding out where all those planes on the radar website go. Passionate about her job, Tanya also has ambitions of furthering her career, undertaking more training, new challenges. Tanya must find out who it is she wants to be, and what it is that makes a place home.

No Place was a lovely comforting read, full of dear familiar places. The Gill family represent many of the challenges that affect families like them in the twenty-first century. Their stories are compelling and the ending – which I won’t spoil – is quite perfect.

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good-morning-midnight

My second read for #ReadingRhys week was Good Morning, Midnight, a novel exploring the same kinds of themes as her first novel Quartet which I reviewed earlier this week. Published more than ten years after Quartet, it shows Rhys still concerned with the fate of the single, lone woman, vulnerable and isolated.

Good Morning, Midnight is every bit as affecting and powerful as Quartet, for the life Rhys portrays is bleak. Here is the world of the dispossessed, the powerless, the damaged and those who damage. It is a world of shabby, colourless rooms in hotels where no one would stay if they had any other choice.

Our narrator is Sophie (Sasha) Jansen, a woman a little older than Marya in Quartet, she has returned to Paris from London. She has failed at a series of unsatisfying jobs since leaving her former profession of mannequin. Early in the novel we witness Sasha abruptly leave her job as a shop assistant in a dress shop. She seems powerless to stick up for herself, walking away with barely a murmur. Everything she might say remains locked inside.

“You, who represent Society, have the right to pay me four hundred francs a month. That’s my market value, for I am an inefficient member of Society, slow in the uptake, uncertain, slightly damaged in the fray, there’s no denying it. So you have the right to pay me four hundred francs a month, to lodge me in a small, dark room, to clothe me shabbily, to harass me with worry and monotony and unsatisfied longings till you get me to the point when I blush at a look, cry at a word.”

Now she is considering drinking herself to death and dying her hair blonde.

Sasha’s room is a sad, dispiriting place. Her neighbour who strides around in a long white dressing gown un-nerves her, but really this room so representative of her life, is just one in a long series of such rooms. Needing to appeal to friends in England for money, the fur coat she wears the only sign of better times.

“A room is, after all, a place where you hide from the wolves. That’s all any room is.”

Sasha’s story moves back and forth in time, her perspective shifting from her time in London to her time in Paris, from the time she was married, to the time she is alone again. Her life in Paris moves between a variety of cafes and bars, places where she is known, some she wants only to avoid, and places where she encounters the men with who only succeed in making her lonelier than ever. We find her sobbing in public, uncomfortable in the presence of strangers. Yet her position toward the bottom of this society lends her an empathy with the dispossessed or vulnerable people she meets. Perhaps in them she recognises something of herself.

“My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafés where they like me and cafés where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I shall never be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on.”

From the start we sense a tragedy lurking in the past, and a hopelessness in her future, Sasha is a woman who is lost, she feels out of step with society. Continually telling herself that she must do this or that in order to be like everyone else, she manages nevertheless to be always out of step with the society she sees around her. The men she meets now or has in her past are men who can only ever hurt her. Men like her husband Enno, and drifters like the gigolo and the Russian artists she encounters.

readingrhysIn many ways Good Morning, Midnight hasn’t very much in the way of plot, but it doesn’t really require one. Rhys’s portrayal of desolation is tinged with dark humour, but it is the hopelessness which remains. Sasha is one of the faceless members of society that those whose lives are going well don’t really notice, she exists only on the edges.

As with Quartet I found Rhys’s depiction of a broken woman to be brutally poignant. Sasha’s voice is cynical and immediately chilling.

Strangely, perhaps I finished this novel sitting in a café bar alone, eating my evening meal and waiting for friends (I was early, I always am). It was a suitable place, although the novel itself ends – for me at least – with a shudder, that may haunt me for a little while.

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death-in-profile

Most of you will know how I enjoy a bit of Golden Age crime – perfect for tired brain days and lazy weekends. I read far less modern crime – most of it is just too grim. However, I was assured by other reviews that Death in Profile – the first of Guy Fraser Sampson’s Hampstead Murder series – is not like those novels. Although set in the modern world the novel sticks to the tradition of those Golden Age mysteries which are still so loved by readers.

In this compulsively readable mystery the author not only adheres to the traditions of the Golden Age – he pays brilliant homage to them – particularly to the characters made famous by Dorothy L Sayers.

Yet this is the world of a modern police unit, young senior officers, fast tracked following psychology degrees, older traditional coppers not cutting the mustard. Expectations are high, results are needed, progress needs to be seen to be being made. There are no country house gatherings, steam trains or late night telegrams – this is London in the 21st century.

In the genteel London suburb of Hampstead, a series of murders have remained unsolved for a year and a half, as a fifth victim is discovered by Boyo a homeless crack addict’s dog.

“Boyo was a border collie cross, which was how he had come by his name. The crackhead who had given him to his owner, Ben, as a puppy had been convinced that Boyo was a proper noun much in evidence among Welshmen, rather than an antiquated form of address. Not that Boyo himself was particularly worried one way or another, for two reasons. First, he was on the whole preoccupied with satisfying his pressing need to find something to eat. Second, as a dog he was incapable of abstract conceptual thought.”

Kathy Barker, a local doctor’s wife is the victim, she had left her home the previous evening following a row. Thankfully for readers like me – the unpleasant details are not dwelt upon, the focus instead is largely on the police team investigating, and the trail of evidence. Senior investigating officer – Chief Inspector Tom Allen is removed from the case – to his fury – and young Detective Superintendent Simon Collison is asked to head up the team. Allen vows to continue to investigate, but his former colleagues are barred from speaking to anyone about the case. Working closely with Collison are Detective Inspector Bob Metcalfe D C Priya Desai and Karen Willis, three members of a larger team who have all been working together for eighteen months with frustratingly little result.

Collison sighed. “You don’t read much, do you, Andrew?”
“You mean books? No, not really. Who does these days?”
“So how many books do you think you read every year? I’m asking just out of interest, you understand.”
“Well, I take one on holiday with me, and say two or three others.”
“I see,” Collison said thoughtfully as he paid the bill. “So how do you learn things, then?”
“Isn’t that what the internet’s for, sir? Anytime you want to know something, you just look it up.”
“But doesn’t that presuppose,” Collison replied as they started strolling back down the hill towards the police station, “that you know what it is that you’re looking for in the first place?”
“How do you mean, sir?”
“Well, clearly the internet is a fantastic information source but reading is different. With books you learn things, random things, whatever the author might be talking to you about, and you sort of soak them up like a sponge over the years. They are stored away in some dim recess of the unconscious mind until one day some equally random stimulus sparks a connection, and you find that you’ve combined different items of memory and perception into a completely new insight.”

DC Karen Willis’s partner Peter Collins – a psychologist and criminology tutor is approached to provide a profile of the serial killer. Peter Collins is something of an eccentric, with his appearance and often his behaviour harking back to another time – the period of his favourite mystery novels. Peter is a huge fan of Golden Age fiction – Lord Peter Wimsey a particular inspiration. Peter’s mind is a little fragile, and at times of extreme stress Peter retreats to the world of Dorothy L Sayers. Sampson shows superb knowledge and affection for Sayers work. I don’t want to say too much and spoil it for future readers – but there is an entertaining section which does pay homage to those characters that Sayers readers love.

The profile that Peter comes up with – sends the team off in another direction, and they soon have someone in their sights. Assumptions can be dangerous however, and Peter’s plea for caution falls on deaf ears as the team get excited about possible breakthroughs. Very little in life is that easy however – and the team are brought up short when they make a big mistake. As if professional errors are not enough – it seems as if someone on the team are giving details of the investigation to the press – and the top brass are none too impressed.

The police procedural, forensic and legal elements of a serial killer case are dealt with very realistically – it seemed to me – and yet these details are not allowed to get in the way of a darn good story, which is really well plotted. The various police officers, including their private lives and explored well, the characters’ people we come to care about quickly. These officers have laptops, mobile phones – are in every way, thoroughly modern professional members of the police service – yet like their golden age colleagues, don’t use foul language, and treat everyone – including one another with the utmost respect. D C Willis seemed to be the object of every male’s desire – and the appearance of her legs were dwelt upon more than I felt necessary – but that’s a minor irritation. I would love to read about all these characters again – as they investigate another case. I particularly love Peter – and I also want to know what happens to grumpy Tom Allen next.

I flew through this book – it’s so engaging and a real page turner – I for one really hope there are some more of this series soon.

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quartet

When Jean Rhys reading week was announced by joint hosts Jacqui and Eric, I suggested Quartet to my very small book group. We’re meeting on Wednesday evening to discuss it – smack bang in the middle of #ReadingRhys week – perfect timing.

Quartet was Jean Rhys’s first novel, coming a year after a collection of short stories she had produced with some help from writer Ford Maddox Ford. It is the first of four novels which are said to be highly autobiographical. Rhys’s unhappy love affairs and her time living in Paris seem to have influenced her writing. Around the time that Rhys was writing Quartet – she was living in Paris with Ford Maddox Ford and his common-law-wife (as it was then termed) Stella Bowen. The couple are fictionalised here in the characters of the Heidlers.

Marya Zelli is a young Englishwoman, married to Stephan, a Pole, the two are, superficially at least happy, Stephen ekes out a living for the two of them in Paris somehow. They live a disorganised kind of life, Marya never asking questions to which she may not want the answers, never questioning where their small amount of money comes from. Despite being twenty-eight – Marya frequently seems much younger.

“Stephan was secretive and a liar, but he was a very gentle and expert lover. She was the petted, cherished child, the desired mistress, the worshipped, perfumed goddess. She was all these things to Stephan – or so he made her believe.”

When Stephen is arrested, and then imprisoned for theft, Marya is left penniless, with no way of making a living, and it appears no one to help her. H J and Lois Heidler are a well to do couple, they are keen to take Marya under their wing, inviting her to move in with them. Marya is unsure, reluctant – she appeals to her husband on visiting day, he tells her to take them up on their offer. Marya is a woman who frequently seems unable to make decisions for herself, everything she does in this novel is directed by one of the other three people in the quartet of the title. readingrhys

Soon after going to live with the Heidlers, Heidler makes advances to Marya, and she finds herself becoming more and more drawn to him, almost despite herself. Strangely, Lois Heidler is completely complicit in her husband’s pursuit of Marya. Marya is alone, penniless, with no resources she is torn between wanting to flee the peculiar and unsettling situation she finds herself in, and the knowledge that she has nothing else.

“ ‘I’ve realised, you see, that life is cruel and horrible to unprotected people. I think life is cruel. I think people are cruel.’ All the time she spoke she was thinking: ‘Why should I tell her all this?’ But she felt impelled to go on. ‘I may be completely wrong, of course, but that’s how I feel. Well, I’ve got used to the idea of facing cruelty. One can, you know. The moment comes when even the softest person doesn’t care a damn any more; and that’s a precious moment. One oughtn’t to waste it. You’re wonderfully kind, but if I come to stay with you it’ll only make me soft and timid and I’ll have to start getting hard all over again afterwards. I don’t suppose,’ she added hopelessly, ‘that you understand what I mean a bit.”

Marya is trapped into this ménage à trois, a victim of the society in which she lived. A society where women with no money and no husband or family are prey to the wealthy and or disreputable, who may not have their best interests at heart. Marya considers her lot alongside that of the prostitutes, she appears accepting of the idea of her body, and sex as being her only asset, not once does she consider any other possible way of living.

Marya becomes Heidler’s mistress, he and Lois direct everything she does. They advise her to leave Stephen to not visit him in prison. Yet, Marya does visit her unreliable husband, every week but one, for the entire year he is locked up. Marya knows that when Stephan is released he will be expelled from Paris, and now she is becoming increasingly dependent upon Heidler – needing him, in a way that suits him perfectly. The Heidlers are manipulative and unpleasant, their motives difficult to understand – perhaps they’re not important. Marya is helpless, incapable of changing her course, listless and depressed, she is also hard to sympathise with.

“He was still looking steadily at her. His eyes were clear, cool and hard, but something in the depths of them flickered and shifted. She thought: ‘He’d take any advantage he could — fair or unfair. Caddish he is.’ Then as she stared back at him she felt a great longing to put her head on his knees and shut her eyes. To stop thinking. Stop the little wheels in her head that worked incessantly. To give in and have a little peace. The unutterably sweet peace of giving in.”

In this novel Jean Rhys shows herself a master of imagery and place, the world of 1920’s Paris is brilliantly recreated, a world of café bars, restaurants and Paris streets in winter. The whole novel is wonderfully cinematic. There’s a mood, matching the dark heart of this novel which is intimately poignant and quite disturbing. The ending shocked me, there’s a pessimistic realism to it that made absolute sense however – I’ll say no more than that.

Quartet is a wonderful first novel, beautifully written and atmospheric, I was forced to read it quite slowly for various reasons, I’m rather glad I did. I have read Wide Sargasso Sea two or three times, and After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, but I am now looking forward to exploring more Jean Rhys novels, starting with Good Morning Midnight, which I hope to review at the end of the week.

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When I read Thomas’s review of Victoria Four-thirty, I had to buy it immediately. I was a little disappointed that my copy didn’t have an original dust jacket like Thomas’s – but it didn’t detract from the wonderful reading experience. My battered old 1938 edition is inscribed: Cleveland Ohio USA June 1938 A.Q.G. My book it seems is something of a traveller itself.

I had never heard of Cecil Roberts, and still don’t really know very much about him. (The oracle that is) Wikipedia tells me that Cecil Roberts was a literary editor and war correspondent as well as a novelist, poet and dramatist. What surprised me most perhaps – given that I hadn’t previously heard of him, was the long list of his works, Roberts was hugely prolific. He began publishing poetry in 1917, following it with more poetry, novels, biography and five volumes of autobiography in the 1970’s.

Victoria Four thirty published in 1937 – explores the stories of travellers on the 4.30 boat train out of Victoria station, which will connect with the Arlberg-Orient Express. Each chapter for the first two thirds of the novel tells the story of thirteen different people, one of them a young porter at the famous station, twelve others who are preparing to catch the Victoria four-thirty. I couldn’t possibly tell you about each of these characters in any great detail – there are far too many and we’d be here a long time. Europe of the late 1930’s was a place in turmoil, and there are several moments when we are reminded sharply of what the ruling party in Germany were about – and what horrors were just a few years away.

Readers who don’t like episodic type narratives might struggle to engage with the constantly changing characters, but I loved the multiple stories, all different, featuring a host of characters from across Europe. I was confident I would meet them again, discover something of what comes next for them, I was hoping for lots of happy endings, dreading sad ones. Something about Roberts’s writing and particularly his superb storytelling meant that I became instantly involved in the lives of each character as they came along.

We begin our journey with Jim Brown, a young railway porter at Victoria, a cheerful dreamer, with a girl called Lizzie. Jim watches the passengers rushing through the station, spots the exotic labels on the luggage thinking he’ll never see those places himself.

“Jim Brown walked along the smoky little Pimlico street that lay immediately behind Victoria station. That station, whose wide glass roof he could now see over the high brick wall and the long line of dingy houses that backed on to the shunting area, symbolized the barrier between two styles of life.”

Friedrich Gollwitzer a world famous conductor, will be travelling on the boat train alone, Hans, his valet-secretary (his only friend and companion) having to stay behind for a couple of weeks following surgery for appendicitis. Newly-weds Dorothy and Derek Blake, will embark upon their new life together from Victoria at 4.30, a three-week honeymoon in Austria – followed by a posting to Burma. We first meet Dorothy on the morning of her wedding, excited, nervous and besotted. Hotel worker; Nikolas Metaxa originally from Athens has been in London for five years, learning his trade, saving to make his dream come true, the love of his life back in Athens. Nikolas is travelling home, finally to his Xenia.

The most poignantly drawn character, is Prince ‘Sixpenny.’ A boy prince from Slavonia – finds himself unexpectedly and tragically a young king, while staying with a school friend. Devastated by his father’s assassination, he is bundled into the train, clutching a box with a pet rabbit, relieved, in his misery to see the familiar face of his dear governess.

“Preceded by the gentleman in the frock coat they reached a reserved carriage. As foretold, an English gentleman, also with a top hat, was presented to him. Was he going to see nothing but gentlemen with top hats, all very solemn and yet wishing to be kind? The Englishman presented his wife, a pretty lady who gave him a small packet and said with a lovely smile for him, “I hope Your Majesty likes chocolates.”

Mr Henry Fanning a popular novelist, is sent off by his worried wife – in search of plot. The anxious writer already convinced that he is ‘finished.’ Emil Gerhardt of Berlin, is an actor, his blond good looks and superb physique have been exploited by the Nazi party in their propaganda films. Emil has been staying in London, with friends, but now, despite his friends’ concerns, returns to a Europe in turmoil uncertain of what lies ahead. A nun; Sister Theresa is preparing to travel back to her Transylvanian mountain convent, following a medical appointment and a visit with her family. Bachelor, Percy Bowling of Derby – has taken his savings and done a flit – leaving his selfish, money grabbing unappreciative family behind him – in search of adventure. Wealthy businessman, Alexander Bekir, is a Turk, now living in London, married to a Frenchwoman, with three children. Embarking on an annual trip, while his suspicious old mother-in-law is sure he is keeping financial secrets from her daughter. General Zoronoff. Once a great Russian general, now makes ends meets as a chauffeur and tour guide to wealthy tourists. Dr Wyfold is asked by his sister in law to travel to Austria to find her son, who it appears has cut off all contact, and failed to return to begin his university studies. Lastly we meet Elise, an eighteen-year-old maid – her connection to the train is unclear at first.

boatrainnI loved the world in which this novel is set. The world of luxury 1930’s European travel, proper luggage and railway porters, the world famous boat train, the wagon-lit. Trains are just not the same these days (not that I ever experienced those days of course) – but I still rather love them.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers – as I think I may not have been the only one who rushed off in search of reasonably priced second hand copies – so I’m saying nothing about the final third of the novel, which finishes off the stories of these wonderful characters. Suffice to say – this is a marvellous read, which I would love to see re-issued.

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