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I do enjoy these Second World War mysteries, and so when this one came through the door recently I knew it would be right up my street. E. C. R Lorac has quickly become something of a favourite among regular readers of the British Library Crime Classics series – though I had only managed to read one of them before, I have a couple more tbr.

E. C. R Lorac is the penname of Edith Caroline Rivett – who also wrote as Carol Carmac and produced an impressive number of Golden age crime books. Checkmate to Murder was first published in 1944 when the author was at her writing peak.

The novel opens on a foggy night in London’s Hampstead, an odd group of people are gathered together in an artist’s studio. I particularly enjoyed the opening to the story, which immediately transferred itself in my mind to a stage set. Characters moving in and out and around each other just as they might on a theatrical stage really helps the reader visualise the setting. Gathered together that evening are artist Bruce Manaton, his sitter, André Delaunier decked out in the robes of a cardinal, alongside two chess players bent over their game in concentration. In an adjacent kitchen Manaton’s sister Rosanne, also an artist, is getting supper ready and popping in and out of the studio from time to time.

“Rosanne, standing looking at the studio and its occupants, was intensely aware of the decorative quality of both of the groups in it on that foggy winter evening. She did not often paint herself now: line work was her medium, but she felt an impulse to indulge in a modern composition in which both chess players, painter, and sitter should form a pattern, irrespective of distances and planes.”

She pops outside to check on the blackout – as they have had problems with it before – and is visited by Mrs Tubbs, a cheerful cockney char lady who comes daily to help their immediate neighbour and landlord Mr Folliner, a miserly recluse. Mrs Tubbs leaves, and the stage – as they say – is set.

Not long after this Neil Folliner, the Canadian nephew of old Mr Folliner arrives on leave and finds his uncle dead. Neil is immediately arrested by special Constable Verraby who was coincidentally on the scene too. The assembled company of the studio are briefly drawn into the unexpected drama by the special constable who deposits his quarry at the studio while he goes off to telephone the official police. Neil Folliner has hurt his foot, and while being attended to insists on his innocence, to the odd group collected around him. It is noted by one of the chess players that Verraby looked afraid – but what could he possibly have to fear?

It’s not long before Chief Inspector Macdonald and the men from the CID are on the scene. He is immediately faced with a perplexing collection of alibis and suspicions that are to lead him and his team in various directions. The previous occupants of the studio are soon added into the mix of suspects. It seems few people had reason to like old Mr Folliner, and locally there have long been rumours of his having squirreled away money and valuables in his broken down house.  There’s some nice interplay between police colleagues – and Macdonald seems to be a practical, sensible man.

“Macdonald went up the front steps and let himself in at the door: it had been left on the latch, and once inside he flashed his torch round the spacious hall and shivered. The place was dank, cold with an even coder chill than the outside air. The paper on the walls, once ‘grained and varnished,’ hung in strips, ghostly lines of white showing where it had come unstuck from the damp walls. The house smelt of mildew, unwholesome, sour. There was worn linoleum on the floor and the stairs, its pattern long since worn off by the passing footsteps. As he reached the turn of the stairs, Macdonald saw a line of light beneath a door, and he advanced towards this and let himself carefully into a brightly-lighted room at the back of the house.”

E. C. R Lorac is so good at setting a scene and creating atmosphere, she does this throughout the novel – it adds to the sense of theatre which I rather enjoyed.

The mystery is of course set against the backdrop of London in wartime, the dense fog lending an extra layer of darkness to the blacked out streets and adds a wonderful atmosphere to this mystery.

Checkmate to Murder is a good satisfying mystery – the denouement is clever; deftly explained. I was nowhere near guessing the truth.

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Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire

With thanks to the publisher for the review ebook and inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

Paula is one of three titles that have been chosen to launch V&Q books – an English language imprint of the German publisher Voland & Quist Verlag. This new imprint was launched earlier this week, so a big congratulations to all those involved. Translator Katy Derbyshire is heading up the imprint, which intends to publish up to five or six books a year, those books being, literary fiction and narrative nonfiction.  From the publisher’s website I can see that the intention of this imprint is to publish books telling the stories of complex relationships, migration, and its impact on people’s lives. These are definitely the kinds of books I find fascinating – and I suspect those readers already interested in the publishers like Fitzcarraldo will find plenty to like here.

I think it’s important for us all to know where we come from. Most families have those little stories often repeated of people long dead, things that happened many decades earlier – these stories are part of our make up, we love to tell them because they are a part of us.

Paula is a piece of autofiction in which the author seeks to explore and understand her relationship with her grandmother Paula. It is a delicate, intelligent piece of writing in which the author uses fiction to fill in the gaps in her knowledge about her family. Paula, the author’s grandmother was a devout Swabian Catholic born in 1915. She was a woman who the author was to go on to have a complex relationship with throughout her life. Paula refused to reveal who fathered her daughter (the author’s mother) in the 1940s – her silence on this, and the life she led during this period was absolute and was to have a profound effect on the following two generations.

“My grandmother Paula died on 10 November 1997 at the age of 82. She never talked about herself, not to the very end. She took her whole life to the grave, all her secrets and all her troubles.”

The child Sandra spent a lot of time with Paula, she recalls them regularly sitting together on the sofa watching Bonanza. She became concerned as a child that her mother didn’t have a father – and would ask why that was. Nothing was explained – she would listen carefully to what was said by her great aunt Marie and by her mother – but the truth of her grandmother’s past was always something out of reach. Sandra became determined to get to the bottom of it – to unravel the little mystery at the heart of her own family. Sandra is darker skinned than the other people in the village where the family live, and she wonders if in that there is a clue to who her grandfather was.

She discovers her grandmother’s photographs hundreds of them in homemade boxes and albums, – and starts to study them for clues. The photographs are full of people Sandra doesn’t know, pictures of men standing next to ships or motorbikes, posing in forests or fields. Many of the men are in uniform, some are dark skinned. Then there were the pictures of Paula and her sisters Marie and Theresia, photos of weddings and so on. These photographs are tantalising little glimpses into the past, and Sandra becomes sure that one of the unknown men in the photographs must be her mother’s father.

“I am an unreliable narrator. I’ve done talking therapy. I’ve reflected on my life. I’ve tried to trace the paths I’ve taken, to understand the past storms inside of me so that I can weather the storms to come.”

There is a deep affection for the woman Paula was when Sandra was a child, she remembers her scent – the feel of her skin, of her grandmotherly body lying next to her at night when she had had a bad dream. There is a deep poignancy to these tender recollections – especially when we consider the difficulties that were to come as Sandra got older.

As Sandra grows older her grandmother begins to annoy her more and more – Sandra is infuriated by her constant presence as if she is following her round the house – appearing in her room, not respecting her privacy. Sandra’s brother though doesn’t seem to have the same issues – isn’t watched in quite the same way – it makes the reader wonder – did something happen to Paula that made her so hyper-vigilant of her young granddaughter, or did she witness things in the war? – was that part of her silent past.  

“What makes a person? And how can a woman add up, build up to a real live individual if she’s done her utmost to reveal nothing of herself? Her voice, to find out what her voice adds up to, you have to imagine yourself so close you can feel her, hear it her inner murmur, her silent conversation, her thinking through prayer. Groping for understanding, it is impossible to get close enough if you don’t start with your own memories.”

We see how over time both Sandra’s and her mother’s mental health are affected by this strange, strained silence about the past and their relationship with Paula. Sandra does her best to piece together what she can from things she hears or are told to her by others like her father – but ultimately the silence her grandmother brought to their family is total, and far reaching.

Paula is a tenderly written book – whether you could call it fiction or memoir is debatable – it certainly has elements of both. The whole works beautifully – a blend of fiction and memoir, which tells the story of a family, and the writer it produced.

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In these strange and sometimes sad times that we have all been living through the past few months – many of us have found ourselves turning to a certain kind of book to get us through. We all have our different escapes in reading material, for some it is cosy or vintage crime, for others light modern fiction – whatever works for you – I understand that need. For me, I like fiction from a bygone age – I read all sorts of backlisted fiction, the literary and non-literary alike. In these times I have sometimes turned to books that lifted me a bit, helped me forget the reality of 2020 for a while.

There are times though when we need a happy ending – a nice setting, characters we love – those books that we lay aside fully satisfied with a great daft grin on our faces.

There are some titles that may immediately spring to mind to those of you who like these kind of books too – The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M Delafield, Miss Buncle’s Book by  D.E Stevenson, The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett  and of course Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. So, in case you are in need for a little something in a similar vein – I have a few recommendations. These are books that are unashamedly feel good, funny, or just light, bright and charming. Many are well written too – great characterisation, sparkling dialogue and amusing set pieces – just what a stressed out reader may be in need of for a weekend of quiet reading. Many of the books below, I really could have done with this year!

Patricia Brent Spinster (1918) Herbert Jenkins

An effervescent little gem, a feel good little fairy tale to be read with a wry smile. Living the shabbily genteel existence of a paying guest at the Galvin House Residential Hotel, is attractive twenty four year old Patricia Brent. Secretary to a “rising” politician with an absurdly socially ambitious wife, Patricia is lonely and stifled by life. One day Patricia overhears a conversation between a couple of her fellow residents – a spiteful couple of “old cats”, called Miss Wangle and Mrs Mosscrop-Smythe – pitying Patricia’s loneliness, with some relish. So, Patricia rashly tells a lie – which has all sorts of consequences. Sadly, out of print, while second-hand copies may be found, I am sure that this is available as a free e-book from Project Gutenberg.

 Our Hearts were Young and Gay (1944) Cornelia Otis Skinner

Cornelia Otis Skinner, an American actress, writer and screenwriter co-wrote Our Hearts were Young and Gay with her good friend Emily Kimbrough, a memoir about their travels in Europe in the 1920’s. It is difficult to see where Kimbrough’s collaboration is exactly as the book is written in Skinner’s first person narrative. None of that seems important however as the book is full of charm and humour, and both women come across quite hilariously full of adorably lovable quirks and eccentricities. My edition also came with some adorable little illustrations.

The True Heart (1929) Sylvia Townsend Warner

The True Heart is apparently a (very loose) re-telling of the story of Cupid and Psyche – though don’t let that put you off. If you weren’t aware of that then it wouldn’t matter – and it wouldn’t alter the delightfulness of this imaginative love story. The novel is deceptively simple, but it is a glorious non-sentimental celebration of love, and the wonderful capacity of the human heart. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing is superb – as always, I actually find her very readable, and I defy anyone not to absolutely love Sukey and her Eric. There is a wonderful fairy-tale quality to this novel – there’s a feeling that all is possible.

84 Charing Cross Road (1970) Helene Hanff

Probably a book that needs no introduction. It’s a long time since I read it, and I would love a chance to re-read it. Twenty years of correspondence between Helene a writer living in New York and an English second-hand book dealer in the famous Charing Cross Road in London. The two famously never meet, and this book is as poignant as it is joyful – but I had to include it, because what a wonderful portrait of friendship and book collecting it is.

Miss Carter and the Ifrit (1945) Susan Alice Kerby

Of course, Dean Street Press had to have a place in this list of books. There were probably more I could have included. Miss Carter and the Ifrit is whimsical and charming and a brilliant little escape. Miss Georgina Carter is a woman in her late forties – she lives alone in a small London flat and works in the censorship office. Her life is one of fairly dull, predictable routine, she feels like she has rather missed out on life, nothing of any interest could possibly happen to her now, she believes. An Ifrit (like a genie) is released from a piece of wood she throws on her fire – and her life is suddenly wholly different.

Something Light (1960) Margery Sharp

Light, effervescent and endlessly charming. Something Light, is aptly named, but Margery Sharp’s writing is excellent, her characterisation faultless. Instantly likeable; Louisa Datchet is a woman who has achieved the milestone of thirty. A moment it seems likely to focus the mind. Dear Louisa, has always been a good friend to needy men. She now decides, quite suddenly that she wants to get married – and having decided to do so, she immediately sets about it, with, needless to say, mixed results.

Business as Usual (1933) Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford

Recently re-issued by Handheld Press Business as Usual is full of delightful period detail, humour and spirit. Ann Stafford’s charming, line drawings are reproduced alongside the text as they were originally in 1933.

Written in letters it tells the story of Hilary Fane, a young woman from Edinburgh who having finished with university wishes to spend a year earning her living in London before returning home to be married. The novel faithfully recreates the reality of work, shopping and conventional society while also acknowledging the poverty and even illegitimacy that existed alongside it. In no way a novel that preaches however, it is instead a novel of light, bright intelligence, deeply charming and ultimately heart-warming.

Beneath the Visiting Moon (1940) Romilly Cavan

Beneath the Visiting Moon is a little longer than some of the other Dean Street Press titles I have read – a fully satisfying novel that combines family life, romance and the trials of growing up. Scott recommended it particularly for fans of Guard your Daughters, and I can see why, although this novel isn’t as dark as Tutton’s brilliant novel, there are shadows, glimpsed fleetingly at a distance.

What we do have though is a genteelly impoverished family living in a large house in a typical English village – characters are wonderfully well drawn, their voices distinct. There is a large supporting cast of eccentric characters, in whom we can see some slightly darker elements hidden beneath the surface.

The Mrs Tim books (1932-1952) D.E Stevenson.

This is a bit of a cheat because there are four Mrs Tim books. The first one Mrs Tim of the Regiment is published by Bloomsbury, and the next three books have been re-issued by Dean Street Press. I still have number four waiting to be read. The first book if I am honest is the one I liked least – but generally these stories of a regimental wife before during and after the Second World War, are a delight. In the company of Hester Christie, we experience life, love, motherhood, friendship, romance, and work, with charming humour.

Home Life (1986) Alice Thomas Ellis

In 1985 Alice Thomas Ellis began producing a weekly column in the Spectator called Home Life. These short pieces were collected together in four volumes of which this is the first – and I really will have to collect the other three (not sure how easy they are to get hold of though). This book was an absolute joy – and I would happily have read on and on had there been more. These articles about the author’s own family life are full of fun, tongue-in-cheek observations and ruminations – a (not so) Provincial Lady of the 1980s perhaps. She is also very honest, blithely referring to visiting her son’s grave almost in passing – you begin to feel very much one of the crowd.

So, if you’re looking for something joyful to read to shut out 2020 you could do a lot worse than one of these. Happy reading.

Oh, and look what just arrived – a bit more joy here too I should think.

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Chosen by my book group as our September read Queenie is a debut novel by Candice Carty Williams, the much talked about winner of the best book in the British Book Awards. The author was the first black woman to win the award since it began in 1994, which is a sobering thought in itself. In some ways Queenie might appear to be little outside of my comfort zone, I don’t always get along with such modern narratives – yet I really enjoyed this book – and it will give us plenty to talk about when we meet up (virtually) this evening to discuss it.

This is definitely a book for the times in which we live – I have seen it described as ‘the black Bridget Jones’ which is a description I have been quite irritated by, for me that’s a wholly inappropriate description. Queenie could never be Bridget – their background, their environment and their experiences are entirely different. I also think this novel has more about it than Bridget Jones, it is far more political, the themes are bigger and more serious too.

“The road to recovery is not linear. It’s not straight. It’s a bumpy path, with lots of twists and turns. But you’re on the right track.”

Queenie is a twenty-five year old Jamaican British woman who we first encounter as she undergoes a gynaecological examination. She is in the process of moving out of the flat that she shares with her (white) boyfriend Tom, who has requested that they have a break. Queenie’s family remain uncertain about her relationship with Tom. Her religious auntie Maggie and cousin Diana are great support to her – while her grandparents are loving, they are traditional, set in their ways and often annoy Queenie. A bath at her grandparents’ house must be taken quickly, with her grandfather standing outside the door shouting about the water rates. Her mother is living in a hostel, and Queenie only sees her occasionally, in time we learn more about her mother’s story.

Queenie is devasted by the break with Tom, which she is certain will be temporary, and she looks forward to the day when Tom calls to say he wants her to move back in. Tom seems to be the love of her life – nothing makes sense to her now they won’t be together. She is working for a national newspaper – her dream job, she wants to use her job to discuss the realities of life for black people – she especially wants to write about black lives matter – if only her boss would let her. Queenie has a group of good, supportive friends who are never far away. Her friends Kyazike, Darcy and Cassandra are her confidantes through everything, they hear it all.

‘Kyazike, are they going to kill us all?’ I asked angrily. ‘For doing nothing. Nothing at all. For just being. For being black in the wrong place, at the wrong time? I hate it.’ I was breathless. ‘It’s unfair, it hurts my heart. Who will police the police?’

Constantly negotiating a life lived between two cultures, various things have started to take their toll on Queenie in the wake of her break with Tom. Throughout the novel we start to see some things in flashback from her past, issues with her family, with Tom and in the view she has of herself are explained.

‘Why can’t I just have a happy ending, Kyazike?’ ‘You joking, fam?’ Kyazike laughed. ‘You think life is a film? Even if it was, fam, we’re black. “Whatever shade”,’ she said, mimicking my voice. ‘We’d be first to die.’

Grieving for her relationship with Tom, Queenie enters a worryingly self-destructive period. She moves into a shared house – where things are never very quiet or very clean – and the rent takes most of her money. Queenie puts a dating app on her phone, and when she isn’t meeting men from that she is encountering them at work or elsewhere. She lurches from one terrible choice to another, none of these men treat Queenie with any affection or respect – merely using her as an object, and because she prefers to date white men, she encounters racism too. From the creepy men who obsess about the size of her bottom, or describe her skin as being like chocolate and the white liberals whose throw away comments meant to be supportive are anything but, to those who think it’s perfectly ok to just reach out and touch her hair whenever they want.

Queenie is constantly in need of some kind of affirmation, but the men she encounters do nothing to help Queenie’s self-esteem. Gradually her experiences, coupled with the things she is still processing from the time she lived with her mother, begin to have a detrimental effect on her mental health. She is even putting the job she was so proud to get at risk – constantly pushing things with her boss Gina, unable to focus properly, talking to her friend Darcy or obsessing over her phone messages when in the office. It becomes clear to just about everyone but Queenie herself, that she needs help.   

While a lot of Queenie’s actions may be frustrating to readers as we watch her spiral into a darker and darker place, it is obviously symptomatic of her pain, and of those things she didn’t process when she was younger. I loved Queenie (both the novel and the character) she is someone I wanted to hug (remember those?) and tell her frankly to walk away from all those awful men. Queenie is an excellent novel, very deserving of all the accolades it has received – it’s a fresh, honest portrait of a young black woman’s sexual exploits, supportive friendship, mental health struggles and recovery. I am looking forward to discussing it with my book group later tonight.

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With thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

There is something so wonderfully engaging about Elizabeth von Arnim that her books often feel like a tonic. Despite the fact that she is usually telling a truth about women’s lives that isn’t always happy she does it in a way that is touching and wry, more than a little tongue in cheek, while showing us the wonderful absurdities of a certain kind of pompous male. In Father one of Elizabeth von Arnim’s later novels she employs both light comedy and poignancy to tell a story of unmarried women reliant upon men for the comforts of home.

Jennifer Dodge is thirty three, living in Gower street with her father – her mother having died some years earlier – she is one of the surplus women of the 1920s and 30s following the Great War. Since her mother’s death, Jennifer has devoted her time to her father – acting as his secretary as well as running the house and directing the servants. Her father: Richard Dodge is a renowned novelist, revered more than he is read – he considers Jennifer’s assistance to be tied into the gratitude she owes him. Father has a rather unreasonable dislike of old maids – and while he expects Jennifer to be at his beck and call he is also irritated by her presence.

As the novel opens Father arrives home for tea with a very young woman in tow – and reveals that he has just married Netta and is about to go away for a month’s honeymoon to Norway. He is expecting a scene – certain that his daughter will have an objection to a much younger step-mother. Yet all Jennifer can see in front of her is freedom.

“Through and beyond father she saw doors open, walls falling flat, and herself running unhindered down the steps, along Gower street, away from London, across suburbs, out into great sunlit spaces.”

Surely, this is the chance she has always wanted. To live independently – away from London to have the garden she has always dreamed of. Her mother left her £100 a year (Simon Thomas, in his Afterword helpfully translates that into today’s money to be around £6,500 a year, a long way below the poverty line) and she decides that is more than enough to rent a tiny cottage and cultivate her garden. As soon as her father and Netta have gone away – he leaving instructions about editing his fifth chapter – Jennifer puts her plan into action. She will find a cottage and spend the weekends while her father is away beginning her independent life – in the week she will finish that fifth chapter and prepare the house in Gower street for her father’s return. After which she will leave finally to start her own independent life. Minnie the maid suggests that she consult the advertisements in a clerical paper called The Sussex Churchgoer – and despite never having been a churchgoer herself not having been confirmed even – Jennifer does so and is soon setting out for the countryside in reply to two of the adverts.  

In Jennifer’s expedition, to secure herself a little cottage, von Arnim is at her comic best. With only the train at her disposal she is obliged to walk miles through the Sussex countryside before she finds herself at the first vicarage that has a cottage for rent. Here, she manages to get on the wrong side of the dour faced clergyman – who we shall meet again later – and is then obliged to walk several more miles to get to the second. Here Jennifer is in luck – and secures herself the key of Rose cottage having paid six months rent in advance.

Rose cottage in the village of Cherry Lidgate is rented to her by Alice Ollier – the much older sister of young vicar James Ollier – and she only did so because she was in a temper with James and likes to have her own way. Alice controls James in a not dissimilar way to how father controls Jennifer – she rules his every moment, it is because of her he is a clergyman when he doesn’t really want to be – and she is forever silencing him by spitting out “bosh!” at him in reply to anything she disagrees with, a word he has come to despise. Alice is another of those surplus women – and her comfortable life would be under threat if her younger brother ever married. She has a nice home with servants where she has complete control – is at the heart of the community, a respectable spinster.

Meanwhile Jennifer secures herself a few necessary items, including a mattress and a kettle and takes up immediate residence in the cottage. Planning to return to town on Monday. During the weekend Jennifer makes James’s acquaintance and despite the short time they have together it seems it is a moment that changes everything – particularly for poor harried James.

“…listening with absorbed attention more to her voice than to what she was saying, and thinking how like she was, flowering through her voice into beauty in the darkness, to some butterflies he had come across in the Swiss mountains the summer before. When they were folded up they were grey, mothlike creatures that one might easily overlook, but directly they opened their wings they became the loveliest things in the world, all rose-colour or heavenly blue. So had she been to him in the daylight that afternoon, – an ordinary woman, not in any way noticeable; but now listen to her, opening into beauty on the wings of her voice!”

Alice senses danger – and spirits James away to Switzerland. Jennifer senses danger of a different kind when she discovers that Netta may have already begun to regret her hasty marriage. While Alice is desperate to prevent her brother bringing about the end of her comfortable life by having his head turned and marrying – Jennifer is equally desperate to prevent her young step-mother from turning away from her new husband.

This is a glorious novel – von Arnim’s tone is humorous though she is making a serious point. Exploring the expectations that were placed on unmarried women in this inter war period she reminds the modern reader (especially those of us who are single women) that while things may be far from perfect – we do, in this part of the world, at least have the freedom to live as we want to.

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Over the last few years’, I have read and enjoyed several Rose Macaulay novels, so I am delighted that she appears to be enjoying something of a revival. A few years ago, Virago brought out some of her novels and now both the British Library and Handheld are re-issuing others. She really is an interesting writer and a prolific one, whose writing career spanned fifty years. Dangerous Ages was Macaulay’s eleventh novel published when she was forty.

“Queer, fantastic, most lovely life! Sordid, squalid, grotesque life, bitter as black tea, sour as stale wine! Gloriously funny, brilliant as a flowerbed, bright as a street in hell, – unsteady as swing-boat, silly as a drunkard’s dream, tragic as a poem by Masefield… To have one’s corner in it, to run here and there about the city, grinning like a dog – what more did one want?”

In this novel Rose Macaulay examines four generations of women within one family, each of them at a different ‘dangerous’ stage of womanhood. Women are certainly the focus here – and although there are a few male characters, they really are of lesser importance. The novel is set in 1920 and is a wonderfully immersive portrait of middle class English women of the period. It is also a novel of mothers and daughters – Macaulay exploring this often complex relationship with perceptive understanding – each of the women in her novel standing for a different generation.

“It wasn’t really touching to be young; it was touching not to be young, because you had less of life left. Touching to be thirty; more touching to be forty; tragic to be fifty; and heartbreaking to be sixty. As to seventy, as to eighty, one would feel as one did during the last dance of a ball, tired but fey in the paling dawn, desperately making the most of each bar of music before one went home to bed.”

Neville is celebrating her forty-third birthday, an event which has caused her to examine her future now that her children are grown up. (Neville is not the only Macaulay character to have a traditionally masculine sounding name – it is something she has done in several of her novels.) She is considering taking up the medical studies that she gave up more than twenty years earlier – why shouldn’t she be a doctor now that she is finished with parenting? Neville’s sister is Nan, ten years her junior – she could almost be another generation – carefree, a little cynical, living life on her terms while Gerda, Neville’s twenty year old daughter, represents a modern generation of young women born at the dawn of the twentieth century, who mock the repressions of their elders’ Victorian past. Another sister, Pamela who is thirty-nine – lives with her friend Frances, they do good works and take care of each other. Hers is a quiet, contented life busy with things that she considers important. Pamela plays little part in the main events of the novel – though it is interesting to compare the lives of these sisters.

Neville’s mother: Mrs Hilary (Emily) is sixty-three – and has been reluctantly inspired by her daughter-in-law Rosalind who she – and no one else it seems – much likes, to investigate Freudianism – which had become very popular around this time. Rosalind, married to Mrs Hilary’s son Gilbert – having started practising Freudianism and extoling its virtues despite no formal qualifications to do so – offers to analyse Mrs Hilary, who decides that she would be more comfortable talking to a man. She consults Dr Craddock, and in talking to him finds a voice. A mother to five, now a widow, living in a small seaside resort Mrs Hilary is rather at a loss, what should she do now that the work of her entire life is done? Mrs Hilary is referred to almost entirely by just her married title – and is only a little less reduced than her mother; Grandmamma now in her eighties, in being essentially nameless. Grandmamma, unlike her daughter and granddaughters is not considering the meaning of her life or worrying about what the next stage might be – she is content, well looked after and continuing to enjoy her garden.

“We may say that all ages are dangerous to all people, in this dangerous life we live. But the thirties are a specially dangerous time for women. They have outlived the shyness and restraints of girlhood, and not attained to the caution and discretion of middle age. They are reckless, and consciously or unconsciously on the lookout for adventure. They see ahead of them the end of youth, and that quickens their pace.”

I thought Nan was a wonderful character, rather cool, a young woman full of life who thinks nothing of flying along cliff paths on a bicycle at pull pelt. She isn’t given to emotional displays and keeps her feelings to herself. Nan has frequently been in the company of Barry Briscoe – and their relationship seems to have become an accepted thing – in an ‘only a matter of time’ kind of way. Only, Nan is about to get a rude awakening in her attachment to Barry. While Barry stays in London and offers a job to Gerda at the Worker’s Educational Association that he manages, Nan goes off to Cornwall to finally work out whether she does or does not want to marry Barry. After a few days on her own, Nan is joined as previously arranged by Barry – but he brings Gerda with him. For Barry, Gerda represents the future – what might she and her generation not achieve? While Nan, is very much the present.

Macaulay’s writing is excellent and her characterisation spot on – the interplay between characters really drives this novel forward – there is reasonably little plot. It is a joy to read though – Macaulay’s examination of these women’s various responses to the concerns they face at different stages of their lives is still relevant and hasn’t dated I don’t think. Now really looking forward to reading Potterism re-issued by Handheld press soon.

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With thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

I have written before about my feelings towards Angela Thirkell – how I want to like her more than I do, how I get more than a little irritated by her world view – her snobbery and casual xenophobia. So, I’ll not repeat myself – you can read some of my thoughts about her in my previous posts like Before Lunch, The Headmistress, The Brandons and others, I have now read quite a few Thirkell – like I say I really do want to like her. Growing Up is set in the middle of World War Two – and as many of you know I do like a wartime novel – (written during the period for preference). As it was All Virago All August too – I decided to give dear old Ange another go – and while she will always irritate me I have to say I did really enjoy this one.

Angela Thirkell was a prolific writer, her famous Barsetshire novels number nearly thirty. It would seem that Virago – for reasons best known to themselves I am sure – are publishing these Angela Thirkell novels out of order, and I have certainly not been reading them in order. There are characters in this novel who I am reliably informed appear in earlier novels in a younger and unmarried state – so if you are reading these novels in strict order there may be unwitting spoilers ahead.

Wartime or not Thirkell’s world is still very recognisably her own. Her class conscious snobbery is present – but is less objectionable. Her working class characters less infantilised than in previous novels, though their overflowing love and deference toward their ‘social superiors’ is hilariously unrealistic. I suppose what I would quite like to see – but never will – is a rabble rousing left wing character to come lurching down the village street loudly proclaiming the end of the class system – posting notices of union meetings on the lampposts.  

Wartime has brought change to Barsetshire and Beliers Priory is now a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers. The Priory’s owners: Sir Henry and Lady Waring have moved themselves into the old servants’ quarters – which they are finding surprisingly comfortable and practical.

“Lady Waring sometimes wondered if she ought to be so comfortable, but as Sir Harry worked in town four days a week on matters connected with regimental charities, spent two days hard work on county jobs and was rarely free on Sundays, besides doing a good deal of the gardening, she hoped her comfort would be forgiven, wherever these things are judged, because it made a restful home for her husband.”

The hospital is run competently by Matron – who having lost her cat in an unfortunate shooting incident is given charge of a new kitten Winston – she is very much a cat person and enjoys extolling Winston’s virtues every chance she gets. There are some wonderfully entertaining characters in this novel, from the absurdly emotional Selina Crocket and her mother Nannie Allen to the gamekeeper Jasper who believes his grandmother returns from time to time in the form of a black hare and is determined to shoot her. Laura Morland and Dr Ford pop up when Laura gives a talk for the men at the hospital. Her son, Tony Morland now older and less annoying and in uniform also shows his face, and we see that poor Dr Ford has never really got over his dislike of the young man. Laura finds herself among a large gathering of fans as she comes to deliver her talk – and Matron explains carefully how she got one of the nurses’ uniforms wrong in a previous novel.

“Mrs Morland, in spite of her large and constant public, was always surprised, interested and pleased to hear than anyone had really read her books, though sometimes a little depressed by the way in which her friends lent their copy, to one another, and she took very seriously any technical criticism that came her way.”

The Waring’s niece Leslie arrives for a visit – she has not been well – and very much needs time to recover herself. Having worked in a hush-hush job with the navy she was torpedoed on the way home from America and her nerves are frayed from the experience and overwork. So, when the Warings are asked to house an intelligence officer and his wife, they agree with some reluctance. Their guests turn out to be Lydia and Noel Merton – and with them they bring a breath of fresh air – Lady Waring is soon enjoying Lydia’s company, and Leslie makes a great friend of her. Walking from the station to the Priory upon her arrival, Lydia was delighted to have bumped into another old friend – who is billeted nearby – and soon it seems as if the attentions of almost everyone locally are centred on Beliers Priory in one way or another.

This is a novel written at a time when the outcome of the war was still uncertain – there was still a lot of anxiety about for people with loved ones abroad. Both Leslie and Lydia have brothers serving abroad that they are desperate for news of – and we are reminded of the impact of war with the knowledge that Sir Henry and Lady Waring’s only son was killed in the First World War. Dunkirk is talked about with some reverence – and in the hospital now housed in Beliers Priory there are plenty of reminders of what war can mean. Wartime also brings new opportunities for women – both Lydia and Leslie have benefitted from the chance to do things they never would have done in peacetime. Neither of them really want to be idle – they wish to be useful and busy – and they both have a lot to offer.

Against the backdrop of war and all the uncertainty it brings Thirkell tells a story of a community coming together – a little romance and perhaps just a bit of hope for the future – all being well.

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A friend popped in to see me a couple of weeks ago, returned a book I had loaned her and then produced this one – which she thought I would like. It just happened I finished a book a couple of hours before she had arrived and hadn’t decided what to read next. Miss Pym Disposes looked exactly what I was in the mood for – and I have meant to give Josephine Tey a try for years – so it did seem like the perfect moment and in fact it was.

As I mentioned in a recent post: The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye – I like rather a lot from my mysteries. While I appreciate a fiendishly clever plot and a totally unexpected denouement, I really like to become fully invested in the characters – as I would in any other kind of novel. I like a good sense of place, some description to sit alongside the mystery. I do not like lots of gory details, and I don’t expect a body in the first chapter necessarily – I like an author to trust in their reader’s sense of anticipation. Miss Pym Disposes ticked almost all my mystery novel boxes – the thing I really appreciated is that in this novel Josephine Tey takes her time. For two thirds of the novel, Tey gives us a novel about a woman visiting a girls physical training college – she introduces us to members of the staff and student body with acuity – involving us the reader in the life of this community. Of course, we know or at least sense that something will occur – and so there is a delicious sense of anticipation – and when ‘the moment’ comes we care about it so much more.

I very much liked Jospehine Tey’s style in this novel – I have heard some people say the quality of her novels varies – but I enjoyed her observations and little asides such as this.

“There was no doubt that being a little on the plump side kept the lines away; if you had to have a face like a scone it was at least comforting that it was a smooth scone.”

Lucy Pym is a woman in her thirties – she took to read psychology books and having read a lot of them wrote a fierce rebuttal which turned into a book and became a huge bestseller. She uses her understanding of psychology to understand the people she meets – though whether it’s real psychology or just plain good sense I don’t know. She is invited by an old friend from school days – who is now the headmistress of a physical training college for young women – to give a lecture.

Initially it is to be a brief visit – and as the novel opens Miss Pym is being rudely awoken by the 5.30 am bell that rouses the students from their beds in the summer months. It is the beginning of the last week or so of the academic year – and the young women of the senior year are preparing for their final exams. Having been put up in the student wing of the school rather than the staff wing, Miss Pym is soon drawn into the noisy, chaos that is life among these young women. They chatter and rush about at all hours – full of the impending exams and physical demonstrations, and who will or will not be appointed to posts in other institutions as they go forward into the world.

“It was Lucy’s private opinion that injustice was harder to bear than almost any other inflicted ill. She could remember yet the surprised hurt, the helpless rage, the despair that used to consume her when she was young and the victim of an injustice. It was the helpless rage that was worst; it consumed one like a slow fire. There was no outlet, because there was nothing one could do about it. A very destructive emotion indeed.”

Lucy is a big hit with these young women, and they urge her to stay – so that she can attend their tea party on the lawn and the end of year demonstration at the end of the following week. Her accommodation has no bedside reading light, she is woken by bells far too early and the healthy, nutritionally balanced diet is certainly not to her liking, but Lucy Pym likes very much the young women she has been thrown together with.

“In the last few years she had been ignored, envied, admired, kowtowed to, and cultivated; but warm, personal liking was something she had not had since the Lower Fourth said good-bye to her, with a home-made pen-wiper and a speech by Gladys Someone-or-other, shortly after her legacy. To stay in this atmosphere of youth, of liking, of warmth, she was willing to overlook for a space the bells, the beans, and the bathrooms.”

Despite her initial wish to get straight back to London, Lucy is charmed by these vibrant young women as well as interested in them and with nothing pressing her immediate return home she does decide to stay. Lucy is aware of the rising tensions within this group of students, petty rivalries and jealousies that exist within any such group. Over the coming days Lucy gets to know the seniors really quite well – she is roped in as an exam invigilator and begins to make some observations about one of the students in particular.

Eventually, just as the reader knew it would – something happens – apparently an accident – and a young woman is taken to hospital where she later dies. Miss Pym is not convinced at all that this was really an accident. In the time she has spent at the college Lucy has made some discoveries that she thinks are relevant to what happened – what though should she do with this evidence?

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August in review

These last few days of August have been something of a disappointment not really feeling like the end of August but more like mid-October – in my part of the UK at least. This post popping up a day earlier than usual as I won’t finish another book by midnight tonight.

September starts tomorrow and with it comes my return to work after months of shielding followed by school summer holidays. It’s going to be a shock to the system – getting back into the old routine, though in many ways I am looking forward to it. Not sure how a return to work, will impact on my reading and blogging but there is bound to be a drop off – so my intention is to write any blog posts at the weekends and schedule them for the following week. That rather depends on my being organised at the weekends and getting down to doing it – so we shall see.

August was a pretty good reading month – juggling things for both #witmonth and All Virago All August – I got through some excellent books, though ended the month on a rare dnf – more of that later. The first three of my #Witmonth reads were actually read in July so I had time to write about them for August – my final tally for #witmonth six books – my final tally for August nine and a half.

The first book of the month however wasn’t for either of those challenges – how easily do we become distracted? Miss Benson’s Beetle is the latest novel from Rachel Joyce. I have enjoyed the other books I have read by her – though they can get a bit sentimental, this one has a darker edge, and is a wonderful story of female friendship, adventure and following one’s dreams. I gulped it down in no time. Definitely my favourite by her to date.

Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen translated from Hebrew by Sonra Silverston. The novel examines morals and responsibilities in the aftermath of a hit and run on a deserted road. I thought this was an even better novel than Liar, which I read last year. There’s an almost thriller like nature to the storytelling which makes this a pacey and gripping read from page one.

The Listener by Tove Jansson translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal is a delicate collection of short stories – some very short. Jansson’s clear, crisp prose, clear vision and her delicate philosophy was a delight to dip in and out of. Jansson’s stories portray a city ravaged by storms, the beauty of the start of spring, childhood, old age and love. Artists feature throughout and as ever her own artist’s eye is evident.

The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye by Brian Flynn and reissued along with quite a number of other Flynn novels by Dean Street Press is a very clever mystery with a brilliant denouement that I hadn’t seen coming. For me it lacked a little in the character development and description that I so enjoy when reading – but I shall still probably read him again.

For All Virago All August The Last of Summer by Kate O’Brien a lovely, slow thoughtful read – rather perfect for summer days in fact. We find ourselves in a small town in Ireland in the last few weeks in the summer of 1939 before hostilities break out between Britain and Germany. Angèle, a young French actress, had been travelling in Ireland with friends when she decide to cut them loose and go instead to the family home of her dead father. Her arrival is unexpected and disruptive.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder was one of the books on the International Booker shortlist – the third of them I had read. I thoroughly enjoyed this poignant dystopia of memory and loss – it was definitely the one I was hoping would win – we now know it didn’t. Our unnamed narrator is a young novelist on an unnamed island where things have bit by bit begun to disappear, sometimes people disappear too, like her mother. Random objects no longer exist – hats, ribbons, birds, roses – have disappeared from this world as have many other things. When something disappears it simply has no meaning for the people of the island and can be disposed of easily and unemotionally, burnt or handed over to the memory police. This has made me want to read more by this author.

I had never read a Josephine Tey novel until a friend gave me an old copy of Miss Pym Disposes a couple of weeks ago and I decided to read it straight away. My review is written and will pop up later this week. It was exactly the kind of mystery I like – a mystery which has so much more about it than just the mystery. Written in the 1940s and set in a women’s Physical education college – Tey wonderfully recreates the small and not so small tensions, petty jealousies, and anxieties of a group of young women on the brink of graduating.

Lovely Virago sent me a copy of Growing Up by Angela Thirkell – and despite my often talked about issues with her – it being All Virago All August after all – decided to give her yet another go. I was less upset with Thirkell in this novel than in some others – and I must admit I did enjoy this one – escapist of course and pretty much what I was in the mood for. I shall leave further comment for my review.

Not a VMC of course, Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay comes from the British Library Women Writers series – but as a Virago author I claim this for AVAA too. This was a superb read – I have read several novels by Rose Macaulay and recommend her highly. Handheld Press are also publishing a couple of things by her one of which I have ready to dive into soon – such an interesting writer.

All of which brings me sadly to my very rare dnf –The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld translated by Michele Hutchison. This was one of several books I bought for my kindle back in July – I thought it sounded interesting but had read no reviews of it. When I began looking at Goodreads I knew I night have made a mistake. When it won the International Booker prize the other day, I decided to take a deep breath and give it a try. Goodreads reviewers having used phrases like graphic, disturbing, grim, disgusting, animal cruelty etc – made me nervous, I ploughed on, through fifty percent of the novel. It really isn’t for me – and so I set it aside – and I won’t be reviewing it. Rijneveld writes well, very visually – perhaps too visually and I am glad they won and have been recognised but honestly this is not a novel for the faint hearted and I gave it a good try.    

So, I end the month reading Father by Elizabeth von Arnim – another from the lovely women writers series from the British Library. Much more up my ally and so far so lovely. It will probably appear in next month’s round up post as my first book of September.

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Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

This will be my final post for this year’s #Witmonth – I haven’t read quite as many #wit books as I had originally intended but isn’t that what always happens? The Memory Police was my sixth read for #wit – and they are all too different to pick a favourite but this one will stay with me for a long time I think. I was captivated from the first page.

The novel was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize – it didn’t win – the winner was announced yesterday as being The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld translated by Michele Hutchison. It’s a book I really want to read though I am slightly put off by some reviews describing it as tough or harrowing (not sure I have yet recovered from Hurricane season) but as I do own a copy I may just give it a try. Sorry I digress.

I do occasionally enjoy dystopian fiction (as opposed to sci-fi which I tend to avoid) I find the depiction of altered but still recognisable worlds to be fascinating, the imagination that goes into creating a credible society, with all its strange rules and procedures is incredible. The Memory Police combined all the things I enjoy about dystopia; spine tingling fear, an uncertainty about what is happening, that fascination of a changed society with a deeply poignant, rather haunting story of memory and loss.

“Memories are a lot tougher than you might think. Just like the hearts that hold them.”

Our unnamed narrator is a young novelist on an unnamed island where things have bit by bit begun to disappear, sometimes people disappear too, like her mother. Random objects no longer exist – hats, ribbons, birds, roses – have disappeared from this world as have many other things. When something disappears it simply has no meaning for the people of the island and can be disposed of easily and unemotionally, burnt or handed over to the memory police. The world moves on and everyone continues to live without that disappeared thing – as if it never was. Hats and ribbons are one thing – but what about calendars, photographs, books – and what will be next?

“My memories don’t feel as though they’ve been pulled up by the root. Even if they fade, something remains. Like tiny seeds that might germinate again if the rain falls. And even if a memory disappears completely, the heart retains something. A slight tremor or pain, some bit of joy, a tear.”

Our narrator is an intelligent, caring young woman – she empathises with her friends and neighbours, worries about people getting picked up by the memory police, but she has little nostalgia for the past, except for when she is remembering her mother. Her mother had had drawers full of strange and inexplicable things in the basement of their house – objects that she would weave stories around – but her daughter can’t really remember those now. There is a sense of loss when she thinks about her mother, a wish to know what happened to her.

There are some people who retain their memories of things that have disappeared – those are the people who are at risk of being taken away by the memory police. When our narrator learns that her editor R is one such person – she is desperate to help him. Her best friend is an old man who lives on a boat near her home – he used to operate the ferry before the ferry disappeared – she gives him copies of the books she writes – but he doesn’t read them.

“…he has never read a single page of any of my books.
Once, when I told him I’d love to know what he thinks of them, he demurred.
“I couldn’t possibly say,” he said. “If you read a novel to the end, then it’s over. I would never want to do something as wasteful as that. I’d much rather keep it here with me, safe and sound, forever.”

Together the young novelist and the old man hatch a plan to save R from the memory police. They hide R is a tiny secret room between the floors in the young woman’s home – the old man rigs up ventilation and plumbing and a speaking tube – and R leaves his family and takes up a new life, hidden from view. He tries to teach his host about the things he remembers, to ignite her memory – but all that returns are meaningless flashes that have no emotional significance and immediately start to fade.

Meanwhile the novelist is working on her latest book – a novel about a woman taking typing lessons. Bit by bit the woman in the novel relinquishes control of her words to the teacher – until she has no voice left. It’s a powerful little allegory in itself.

As R desperately tries to hold on to the things that disappear – the novelist lets them go without a pang – even when novels disappear.

The Memory Police is a compelling and powerful novel – in it there are of course echoes of classics such as 1984 – although this novel is less about a regime and its bureaucracy and more about the impact on people – their survival especially. We never find out why things disappear – they just do – and to keep a disappeared thing or to retain the memory of what is disappeared is dangerous. A novel of memory, loss and control The Memory Police is hauntingly written and will no doubt encourage me to explore more by this incredible writer. I was surprised that this novel first appeared as long ago as 1994 – not only does it feel very current, frighteningly relevant – but I was puzzled as to why it’s only now been made available in English.

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