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My second read for read Ireland month was Mary O’Grady by Mary Lavin. It was an incredibly enjoyable reading experience by an author I hadn’t read before. Mary Lavin is remembered now mainly for her short stories – which I am very anxious to read – but she also wrote two novels.

Mary O’Grady is one of those Virago novels that is immediately involving, I knew immediately I would like spending time with Mary and her family. The novel follows Mary O’Grady from when she is a newly married young woman, to when she is an elderly woman, with decades of trials and tribulations behind her.

The novel opens in around 1900, Mary, a young woman from the country has not long married her Tom, who she met on her one visit to Dublin. She married him shortly after and moved to Dublin, carrying with her the memory of her beloved Tullamore – where she hopes one day to take her sons and daughters. Tom works on the trams, and Mary loves to walk down to the tram sheds to take Tom some hot food every dinner time, walking home past an expanse of vacant ground, covered in long grass – that reminds her of home. Tom and Mary adore one another, but it isn’t long before they have little ones to share their little house. Five children are born; Patrick, Ellie, Angie, Larry and Rosie. Mary is a good, sensible mother. Gradually, Mary’s memories of her country childhood fade – as her life revolves more and more around her own family – providing a warm and stable home for her children.

“It was evening time. Mary was going around the kitchen doing odd tasks of trifling importance. The young people were in the parlour, but the door was open, and someone, probably Ellie, had begun to tinkle a few notes on the piano. Tom was sitting in the kitchen, and although he was reading the paper, he looked up from time to time to say something to Mary.”

Lavin portrays this family and their little home so well and with such warmth that I felt I could walk through the rooms of that little house with the familiarity of a well-known place. The family live mainly in the kitchen, the parlour kept for best. As the children grow up – the girls become a little embarrassed by this – wanting their friends to believe the family sit in the parlour of an evening even when there aren’t visitors.

There is a bit of an age difference between the older three children; Patrick, Ellie and Angie – who were all born close together and the younger two – who followed a few years later. So, when Patrick, Ellie and Angie are emerging into young adulthood – Larry and Rosie are still children. The young O’Gradys all have their own personalities, Patrick the one with an eye always looking beyond his home – beyond Ireland – as a boy he was desperate to know what lay over the mountains he could see in the distance.

“‘When he was a little boy, he used to stand all day long under the bridge just looking up at the locomotives passing overhead. I used to think it was only because he was little boy that it was natural for him to be interested in trains and the like. But that wasn’t it at all. It was more than that. Even then, small as he was, the sight of them was torture to him, because they were going away, and he was always left behind, standing under the bridge looking after them, and listening to the sound of them dying away on the rails’

As Mary’s mind strayed back over those days gone past, a silence seemed to come down upon the whole house. The voices in the parlour had momentarily grown low, and were not heard, and except for her own voice, the kitchen was still and silent.”

Ellie knows her own mind, is a little force of nature, Angie is quieter. When Ellie and Angie meet two students Brett and Willy and bring them home, Mary is charmed – and sweeps these two handsome young men into the bosom of her family. It seems clear where these romances are headed – and the couples have Mary’s blessing. Life seems wonderful. This is not destined to last – and Mary and her family must face many trials, the first of which is the premature death of her beloved Tom.

Mary is still in her prime, and has two children still in the school room, and Patrick has begun to talk about going to America. Living nearby is Alice Maguire – who loves to help look after Rosie – and has developed a secret fondness for Patrick. Alice is a frequent visitor to the O’Grady house.

‘She had spared neither toil nor sweat nor sacrifice, and yet life, that had been as sweet as milk and honey, was souring hour by hour.’

Other devastating losses and trials follow – and always Mary puts her shoulder to the wheel and copes admirably. She doesn’t always understand the ways of her children – but she works hard to understand them, to do whatever is right for them – ultimately to protect and support them. The years are hard – and take their toll. At just fourteen Larry leaves for the Seminary – persuaded to the priesthood by his parish priest. Mary’s pride knows no bounds – to have a priest in the family – but she misses him terribly. Mary wants Rosie to go to the university – but Rosie has other ideas – and Mary begins to regret her youngest daughter’s prettiness when she turns the head of a young man Mary does not like.

Ultimately Mary must face that same truth that many parents face – that no matter how she tries to support and protect her children – she can’t live their lives for them, and she can’t prevent them from suffering.

Mary O’Grady is a wonderful novel – full of warmth and sadness – ultimately full of life – and all its dramas. Mary O’Grady was an easy five star read for me – totally engrossing and full of emotion.

As well as being read Ireland month it is also Dewithon – hosted by Paula at bookjotter – a celebration of Welsh literature and Welsh writers. Last year I read Rhapsody a collection of stories by Dorothy Edwards one of just two books published by the Welsh writer in the 1920s. I was fairly sure I had read her only novel Winter Sonata many years ago – but had no recollection of it, and no longer owned a copy. When I finally got round to buying a copy, I bought the edition re-issued by Honno classics in 2011.

Winter Sonata is a quiet, restrained novel – in which nothing very much happens – if you like heavily plot driven narratives, this isn’t the book for you. I very much like this kind of novel – in which the reader has the sense that no word has been written carelessly, every phase considered by the author. As the title suggests there is also a musical quality to the novel – which is told in four long chapters, like movements. Music was clearly an important part of Edwards’ life – and it seems to have greatly influenced her writing.

Winter is also key – the novel starts on the last day of summer as Arnold Nettle a shy young telegraph clerk arrives in an unnamed English village to work in his uncle’s post office. Despite Dorothy Edwards being a Welsh woman, nowhere in this novel is there a mention of her native land. Albert’s one ambition on arriving is to make it through the coming winter without illness. He has suffered from ill health throughout his life to this point.

“He had arrived only the night before. It had been cold, rainy and depressing, but now on the first day here it was beautiful, as if to welcome him. Everywhere the trees were nearly bare, but a few golden leaves still clung to the black branches. The black curving lines and the gold leaves looked as if they were painted on the cold, grey sky. The sun shone quite warmly through thin clouds, but the earth had already hardened itself for winter, and did not respond.”

With not enough room for Arnold to live at his uncle’s house, he has taken lodgings in the house of Mrs Clark. Mrs Clark lives here with her flirtatious teenage daughter Pauline and her young son Alexander. The Clark’s are a working class family – and Arnold finds them rather jarring to his nerves and is happy to have any opportunity to be out of the house after his day in the post office. Pauline tries to involve him in the little secrets she keeps from her mother – while Mrs Clark frequently annoyed by Pauline is often to be heard shrieking after her.

Soon after his arrival in the village – Arnold first sees Olivia Neran through the post office window. A few days later she comes to the post office to send a telegram. For Arnold that first sight of her seemed to herald at least the possibility of good health. From here, he is hopelessly besotted, but far too shy to do anything about it. Olivia lives with her younger sister Eleanor, their aunt Mrs Curle and her son George, who is a little pompous but really quite likeable. Arnold Nettle finds himself drawn into this family circle when he is invited to come and play his cello for their entertainment. A friendship begins to develop between Arnold, George and the Neran sisters.

Arnold longs to belong to this sophisticated circle – which is soon joined by David Premiss, a literary critic and friend of the family who comes to stay for the winter. David is an especially confident young man, very used to having the admiration of women – he is also something of a flirt. He becomes an unsettling presence – though socially quite popular. It is Premiss who helps to draw Pauline Clark into their little musical evenings – she is invited to sing. Pauline is their social inferior – but that doesn’t stop her having her head turned by the attention. Small gifts from the Neran sisters and their cousin, a box of chocolates, a dress no longer wanted, some beads – remind us of Pauline’s place in the world. Her simple joy in these gifts, her anxiety to hide them from her critical mother – and her little brother’s awe at the sight of them – is beautifully portrayed.

“She lay with her eyes open until she heard her mother go to bed, and then lighting the candle, she went to the drawer to see what the chocolates looked like and if there were two layers. She removed all the paper from the top and looked at them. They were arranged in the form of a star and wrapped in different coloured papers. And there was a layer underneath. She would have gone back to bed, but she felt the need of talking about the evening and showing someone the chocolates, so she woke Alexander with as little noise as possible and, cautioning him to be quiet, she held open the box on the bed for him to see. He looked up at her with wide-open sleepy eyes and then down at the beautiful star.

‘Where did you get it? he whispered.

‘Up at the Nerans,’ she said. ‘I’ve been there to sing, and the gentlemen gave me this.’

 Pauline Clark is very different to the Neran sisters – there is something irrepressible about her, she is the most overtly sexual character, and also the warmest character in the novel for me. Olivia is cool, very conventional, very much a product of her respectable upbringing and middle class home. She does very little – but move quietly from place to place. Her large sad eyes – described by Edwards on several occasions remind us of her burgeoning suffocation. It is only Eleanor, the younger sister, who perhaps begins to sense the inequalities in the behaviours and expectations of men and women.

The novel ends with the promise of spring – time has moved on, and not much has happened, yet we are left with a beautiful image of a time and a place. A richly rewarding reading experience, Winter Sonata is more complex than it might at first appear.

The Rental Heart and other Fairytales was chosen by my very small book group for our March read. The group met last Wednesday but I wasn’t able to go – however I had already read the book. A slim collection of stories by a writer I hadn’t read before (perhaps a story in an anthology – I can’t quite remember), as someone who likes short stories, I was looking forward to it. However, it didn’t really hit the spot for me, and ultimately, I was a bit disappointed. I didn’t hate them, I really liked Logan’s writing, her imagery is richly imaginative, yet something didn’t gel with me and these stories – and I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it was partly my mood, because looking back there were some lovely nuggets and while about half the stories left me a bit cold – some were really very good. Kirsty Logan is clearly a good writer – I was perhaps the wrong reader.

“I met Baba Yaga at the end of childhood – past pigtails and fairytales, but not quite ready to give up on make-believe.” 

(Witch)

Twenty tales – some so short they run to little more than a few paragraphs, they all follow themes of lust and loss – with lots of lgbt characters existing in slightly altered worlds. Many characters written so well I was frustrated that they weren’t explored deeper in a longer story. Here we meet people carrying clockwork hearts inside them, lascivious queens, paper men, teenagers sporting tails and antlers, a girl searching for Baba Yaga in the woods. The tales take place in different times and different places; including nineteenth century Paris, the Isle of Skye, a strange flooded world and 1920s New Orleans.

In The Rental Heart; the opening story in the collection, a young woman finds herself returning to the heart rental shop after she meets Grace.

“The day after I met Grace – her pierced little mouth, her shitkicker boots, her hands as small as goosebumps writing numbers on my palm. The day after I met her, I went to the heart rental place.”

(The rental heart)

In A Skulk of Saints two women live in a caravan between a discount tile shop and an abandoned petrol station. They are awaiting the birth of their child – there is a gorgeous atmosphere to this story – one of several that ended a little too soon for me.

In Coin-Operated Boys a strange love triangle emerges in nineteenth century Paris between a man, a woman and a coin-operated boy. Here technology, love, jealousy and historical fiction collide in a story that could easily have been extended to fill an entire novel.

The Gracekeeper was one of my favourite stories – a story of loss – and recovery, although nothing much happens. The imagery Logan uses is really lovely.

“The graces are restless today. They pweet and muss, shuddering their wings so that the feathers stick out at defensive angles. I feel that restlessness too. When the sea is fractious like this – when it chutters and schwaks against the moorings, when it won’t talk but only mumbles – it’s difficult to think.” 

(The Gracekeeper)

Some of these stories are modern fables, some reworkings of traditional tales – others are Logan’s own. I really hope I will read Kirsty Logan again one day, as there was a lot about her writing that I really liked. If this collection had just been longer versions of about seven or eight of these stories, I would probably have loved it – so many other readers seem to have loved it, so I am rather sorry I didn’t.

My book group have now picked our next two books – which I have been forced (no really) to buy, I make myself feel better by passing on via bookcrossing the majority of my book group reads.

In April we will be reading Bookworm; A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan – which seemed to be reviewed enthusiastically everywhere last year. As it didn’t fit into my A Century of Books which obsessed me all of 2018 – I resisted, and my book group waited to pick it until it was in paperback. I think it’s one we are all looking forward to.

In May we will be reading The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas. When my friend messaged me after the book group on Wednesday that I missed to tell me which book had been picked – I admit – my reaction was – “what?” or words to that effect. Then I looked it up and thought – ‘oh ok that might be interesting’ – the Guardian called it “Inventive and unflashily wise about human hearts.”

Are you in a book group? – what will you be reading next with it?

Translated from Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać

The Hotel Tito by Croatian writer Ivana Bodrožić is one of the books that I received through my Asymptote book club subscription. It was a book I knew instantly it arrived I must read – it’s just taken me a while to get to it.

The conflict which engulfed the Balkan region  – and which saw the breaking up of the former Yugoslavia – is one I remember being all over the news in the early and mid-1990s. I had known people growing up, who had frequently holidayed in Yugoslavia – it was a country in Europe – and that conflict that swept through Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia – brought the possibility of war anywhere and at anytime home to me.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator who is nine as the novel opens, she has an older brother who is sixteen. When the Croatian war of Independence breaks out in her hometown of Vukovar – everything she has ever known is shaken up. Sent suddenly on a seaside holiday to escape the hostilities – she expects to be home in the not too distant future. By the time the summer has come to an end everything is changed – her father, having stayed behind in Vukovar to help defend it is missing. Our narrator joins her mother and brother as they travel to Zagreb. Here they join the scores of other displaced people in need of accommodation, many of them also with missing loved ones.

After several months squatting in an empty apartment, the family are served with an eviction notice – and are given a room in what has come to be called The Hotel Tito a little way outside of Zagreb; in the village of Kumrovec in the Zagorje region which was also the birthplace of Marshal Tito.

“We were among the last to move in so I didn’t know anyone. At the front desk I saw kids my age. After two or three days in our room, I ventured out and started exploring the cold, dark halls. The rambling concrete complex was vast and easy to lose my way in. The dark, that’s what I remember best, there weren’t windows except in the rooms, and out of the dark would swim the faces of old people shuffling noiselessly among the catacombs.”

The Hotel Tito is a huge political school that was previously used as part hotel part conference centre. The large conference rooms are assigned particular uses for the community living in the building, conference room 4 – day care, no 5 the church, an infirmary in another and so on. The family of three are housed in one small room, and here they live for the next few years. It is far from ideal.

Everything seems to be different, different words for favourite snacks, a different accent, a new school – for a young girl missing her father it’s all quite disorienting. Among the refugees from Vukovar are old friends from home – like Željka and her mother, and in time her grandparents turn up too. It’s time to make new friends however – other kids in the same position – they band together in that special way kids have, particularly when faced with the cruel taunts of the local children.

“We joined forces in our war against the Piglets – our favourite name for the Zagorje locals – which began on our first day at school.  The war was cruel and went on for ages, with the rare ceasefire and only sometimes real friendship.  We were all about the same age, all equally poor, but our group had come from Vukovar, a city, a real urban centre with a main square; baroque buildings, a cafe, and a Nobel Prize winner, while all they had was a pastry shop, Suljo’s, and their mangy commie president Tito who made this whole mess in the first place.  Our arguments were pretty rock-solid.”   

Naturally the family form friendships with the people they are living amongst, but their living conditions are less than ideal. The family exist in a strange kind of limbo – they have no news of their father – and with no definite death, there is no pension. Always in the back of their minds is the thought that he may yet turn up alive. Over the years, our narrator’s brother and mother write regularly to the authorities to plead for an apartment, in the meantime the Hotel Tito is their home. As the kids grow into teenagers the front desk of the Hotel Tito is the usual place to congregate when going out for the evening.

The Hotel Tito is a coming of age tale with the Croatian conflict and the family’s displacement an obvious difference. Our narrator grows up, we see her entering essay writing competitions, going on a kind of exchange trip to a family in Italy – getting her first boyfriend. Her experiences are so familiar – so like the ones we all had – and yet the context in which she grows up is so clearly different.

The fact that Ivana Bodrožić’s novel is so obviously autobiographical makes it all the more powerful. Her formative years took place during these same extraordinary times and in very similar circumstances. Bodrožić’s matter of fact child’s eye view pulls the reader in instantly, there is a wonderful sense of place in her description of the Hotel Tito. She faithfully recreates the atmosphere of a country in the grip of, and later recovering from a brutal conflict, while everyday life continues for those not in its immediate path.

The Librarything Virago group’s ‘reading the 1940s’ event allows those of us taking part, to read widely, taking in many different parts of the world. Martha Gellhorn’s devastating 1944 novel Liana takes us to a fictional French Caribbean island in 1940 – a world away from the European war, and yet not entirely unaffected by it.

Martha Gellhorn was an American journalist, novelist and travel writer, often described as one of the great war correspondents of the twentieth century. Today there is a journalism prize named after her.  In Liana she clearly had something to say about the relationships between men and women – and particularly between whites and blacks. There is a huge power imbalance between a wealthy white man and a poor, young mixed-race woman at this time, and Gellhorn explores this imbalance to perfection. My first time reading Martha Gellhorn, it won’t be my last.

“Liana’s table manners were certainly better than Marc’s, as she was graceful and full of care and he was neither. She had learned this finicking voice to go with the cautious tidy French she now spoke. She wore her elegance like varnish all over her. The servants did not smile when she gave them orders. They did not even smile with their eyes. Liana was haughty out of fear, but after months of use her haughtiness looked genuine.”

1940, France has fallen to the Germans but all that seems a long way from the tiny island of St Boniface where no news seems to interest the inhabitants more than the marriage of wealthy Marc Royer. Having met Liana; a young woman of mixed heritage -he takes her into his home as his mistress. Nobody bats an eyelid – this kind of behaviour is perfectly acceptable, even expected of wealthy white men. Marc has an odd, almost obsessional relationship with another woman, Marie – who once married his brother – but is now a widow. Marie entertains Marc at her home; La Paradis, a couple of evening a week – yet keeps him at arm’s length. To spite Marie, Marc marries Liana – an event which sends shock waves through the island and gives the gossips something to talk about for months. No white man, has ever married a black woman before, and no one can quite believe what Marc has done.

This marriage appears to be completely life-changing for Liana – Marc is wealthy – he has a fine, gracious house with servants, indoor plumbing – better than that a beautiful, warm tiled bathroom. Marc wants Liana to look like the white wives, and orders lots of beautiful clothes for her to wear, encourages her to put up her hair, he decides to call her Julie. For a little while Liana believes she can be like the white wives, her mother assures Liana that Marc can’t possibly despise her if he marries her, that the wife sits at the head of the table it’s the reason she marries Marc.

“Liana looked at the iron cook pot on the smoke-blackened hearth. She was thinking: dances and card parties and all the lights burning in the house at night. Picnics, she thought, and birthday presents and going to church on Sunday wearing fine clothes and a hat and gloves.”

Liana’s mother Lucie and Liana’s younger half siblings still live up the mountain, in a small shack. This is the life Liana escapes from when she agrees to marry Marc, she doesn’t love him, she knows he doesn’t love her. He desires her, he enjoys owning her, Liana can respond to Marc sexually, but she has no real affection for him. She has no better experience to compare her relationship to – but she clearly doesn’t expect fairy tales. When Liana returns to her mother’s house on a visit, she is repulsed by the life she has left behind her, the stench of the latrine, sleeping nestled up against the bodies of her siblings in the room where the cooking smells still hang in the air – and where the heat rises throughout the night. She knows she can’t return to this life.

Liana soon starts to see her marriage for the prison that it is. It doesn’t matter what clothes Liana wears, or how she wears her hair – Liana will never be accepted by either community – she doesn’t belong anywhere on the island where society runs very much along colour lines.

“‘Julie’ he said to his wife in an easy voice, not a voice for quarrel. ‘as you have nothing to do, I find it absurd that you do not arrange better meals. You get plenty of money for housekeeping.’

Her name was not Julie; Julie was the name he chose for her. She despised it knowing that he wanted a wife who would fit that name, neat faced with a small pink mouth and a terrible tiredness in her and around her.”

Marc takes her out for rides in the car, but he never takes her to pay visits, no one ever comes to the house. Marc is out and about doing business, still spending several evenings a week with Marie – while Liana stays in the house – with nothing to do, and no one to talk to.

Pierre Vauclain arrives on St Boniface – traumatised by the occupation of his country. He takes up the position of school teacher. The school only operates in the morning, and so Marc, sensing a man in need of more money, and finally recognising that his young wife has nothing to do – employs him to teach Liana in the afternoons.

Liana finds happiness and freedom in the company of Pierre – reading and discussing literature, swimming and having picnics by the sea. The inevitable happens – and Liana knows finally what it is to love someone. However, Pierre is a man, a white man, and he knows just where his allegiances lie.

There is an inevitability to Liana’s story, Gellhorn’s novel about oppression and inhumanity is still as powerful today as it was in 1944.

Last weekend I bought three new books with a small lottery win – I went into Waterstone’s and happily browsed for ages before settling on:

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier – a lovely new green spine Virago.

Tangerine by Christine Mangan – which I have seen reviewed positively, and just looks sumptuously diverting.

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel which I have wanted to read for ages.

I added a bunch of daffs and some vegan chocolate to my lottery winnings haul which made for a very happy Sunday afternoon. The week which followed was busy and turned out to be an oddly slow reading week. On Tuesday I started juggling two books – which I rarely do – a collection of short stories for my book group The Rental Heart by Kirsty Logan which I really wanted to love – but hasn’t quite hit the spot with the first six very short stories, I’m still less than forty pages into it. The second book was The Hotel Tito by Croatian writer Ivana Bodrožić – which I finished an hour ago. I will try a couple more of those stories over the weekend – but if I don’t like those – I probably won’t bother finishing or reviewing the book.

This week also saw the announcement of the 2019 Women’s Prize Longlist – a prize I am always interested in following, though I generally read few if any of the nominated titles. I have read just one title from the sixteen longlisted books. I sat up too late the night of the Women’s Prize longlist announcement reading Liana by Martha Gellhorn – not finishing it till the next day – but finding it hard to put down. A novel first published in the 1940s – bang smack in the middle of my comfort zone – period wise.

I love women’s writing – regular readers will I’m sure have picked up on that. I don’t deliberately not read male authors – I am just not as drawn to their work – and I read fewer of them.

It set me wondering how many of the previous winners – since 1996 when the first prize was awarded – I had actually read. Nine – which I thought pretty feeble for someone who has been reading women writers in big numbers for as long as I have. Granted I do read far more classic and vintage women writers than contemporary titles – but that doesn’t mean I don’t still have an interest for what is current – and I sometimes read new novels that blow me away; Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, Winter by Ali Smith, Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik, Old Baggage by Lissa Evans and most recently Milkman by Anna Burns – come most immediately to mind.

So, with all that in mind – (it was late at night – is my only defence) I came up with my women’s prize project – at which it is possible I shall fail, and if I don’t it could take me years. The following day I typed up my list and put it one a separate page here – mainly for me to refer to. Having had to abandon the Booker project I began years ago – because the books that won between The Luminaries and Milkman, I knew I would never read – I had a new project – all the winners and shortlisted books of the Women’s prize.

I discovered I already had several tbr – more than I had initially remembered – and so it will be those I start with. I will not be buying lots of new books, I shall add titles to my tbr as they crop up in my life – via second hand shops etc there shall be no hunting. This project will take me a little more outside my comfort zone – something I need occasionally – not just because they are more recent publications – but because a number of them I had not really been interested in when they first came out. Several titles I probably had in the back of my mind as ones I wanted to read – one day – quite a lot however, I seem never to have heard of.

So, despite saying I wasn’t doing a project this year – I am doing a project – though it certainly is not one for this year alone.

What are your favourite Women’s prize books?

My affection for British Library Crime Classics is well know I should think. There are just so many great titles being released by them all the time, more I want to read than I may be able to. I have had Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm tbr for quite a while – and it really hit the spot last week.

Most of the BLCC mysteries are from the 1930s part of that Golden Age of crime fiction still popular today – other books, published later are very much part of that tradition. Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm however, was published later – 1960, and while retaining many of those Golden Age features, it has a slightly different tone. This is not quite the world of country house parties and telegram boys, there’s a little more grit and realism without any of unpleasant details that modern crime novels often see as a necessity.

Gil North was a new name to me, he is apparently best known for his Cluff books, which were adapted for TV in the 60s. This is the first novel in the Sergeant Cluff series, and I will definitely want to read more of them. Cluff is such a great character, spending time with him will be a pleasure. The one thing I didn’t like so much – is Gil North’s habit of describing women’s breasts – there is one character in particular whose breasts come in for more mentions than might be expected – and certainly far more than is required (that would be none). It was a small irritation but not completely off-putting.

Sergeant Cluff lives alone in an isolated cottage outside the small town of Gunnarshaw, an area of Yorkshire where he has always lived, and where his family has farmed. A somewhat gruff, middle aged man who has never married, and shares his home – and his adventures, with one of a succession of dogs called Clive.  Cluff knows everyone in the surrounding area, and everyone knows him. He is the kind of man who really understands people – he knows before they do how they’ll react, what mistakes they will make – and he is dogged enough to wait. Cluff is frequently at odds with his superiors, his inspector is irritated and perhaps a little undermined by Cluff’s knowledge of everyone in Gunnarshaw.  

A Gunnarshaw woman has been found dead by the police, following a neighbour’s concern. Amy Wright is found dead in bed, the house filled with gas. Amy married late in life, to a man much younger than her, she owns the house and has money in the bank – the neighbours think little of her husband – who hasn’t been seen for a couple of days, Amy’s adored little dog hasn’t been seen for about a week either.

The Police are sure about what happened to Amy – and the coroner agrees – the small town inquest, held in the town hall, portrayed to perfection by Gil North.

“Steam heating made the atmosphere warm. A film of condensation dimmed the windows. Everything in the hall took place at a pace slower than that in the town outside, a minor key, with a proper respect for the dead.

The people were as quiet as if they were attending a funeral service in church. They were as still as mice when a cat is about. They did not wriggle in their chairs. If they forgot themselves and moved they pulled themselves up sharply and glanced at their neighbours, embarrassed and ashamed. They suppressed their coughs, growing red in their faces. Those with colds dared only the tiniest of sniffs, tortured on the rack of respectability.”

Cluff is not so happy – he is certain that Amy’s husband bears some responsibility – either morally or criminally – he isn’t sure which, but he is determined to discover the truth. When Wright finally turns up – compete with an alibi that puts him working on a farm several miles away – still Cluff is not satisfied. Wright is clearly rattled by Cluff, reacting hysterically to his questioning at the police station. No one thinks there is a case – Amy took her own life – a tragedy but not worthy of investigation. Cluff takes leave so he can discover the truth about Amy’s death. Wright goes back to Amy’s house – knowing it is his now, as is all the money in the bank, but he can’t relax. Cluff is hard on his heels, literally stalking him through the Gunnarshaw streets, silent and watching outside the house. Within hours Wright is beside himself with fear and anxiety.

“He was harried along the never-ending road. The country about him was immense, threatening. He could feel the chill repugnance it had for him and his own being grew smaller, until he was less than nothing. The moors towered on this side and that. Their blackness merged with the blackness of the sky. They reached above him, groping towards each other.”

Cluff is perfectly at home in the rugged, Yorkshire countryside where he was raised. So sure, is Cluff of his quarry, he follows Wright to a sinister, isolated farm, where secrets wait to be discovered.

Sergeant Cluff stands Firm isn’t a whodunnit exactly – it is more about the dogged pursuit of justice – Cluff is a believer in the righting of wrongs, he sides with the underdog. North examines the psychology of people, how they act, react and feel about situations, what conscience they have about their actions. Overall, a good compelling little read (less than 200 pages – which is shorter than most of these) with a very well-drawn central character.