With thanks to the publisher for the review copy

The Secret Life of Books is another in a long line of attractive tomes produced to woo all us book lovers who love reading about the things we love to read. Preaching to the choir? Oh absolutely, but that’s no bad thing. Tom Mole brings his own ideas to the genre and there are some lovely personal anecdotes here too – including an insight into his young daughter’s adorable book group. There is also a rather surprising story about Philip Larkin and an Iris Murdoch book.

“I realised that you couldn’t talk about the book as an object without also talking about the things that people did with books. Reading was one of those things, of course, and people’s reading left their own traces on books. But reading was only one of the things that people did with books, and not always the most important.”

Well… I still think the reading of the books is the most important, but yes, when you think about it, we do, do a lot of other things with books. We buy them, collect them, give them away, deface them, talk about them, socialise around them, take them on holiday, arrange them on bookcases. This book is a celebration of all the things we do with books and more besides – as it also traces the history of how those things we do with books came about.

Looking at the subtitle; Why they Mean More than Words we see the author’s intention in this book is to explore the physical book, rather than what they contain. I found this a very interesting way to approach a book about books. The book is broken up into eight chapters, and between each pair of chapters is an interlude that celebrates a piece of artwork featuring books.

What emerges is a thorough exploration of books as objects, from the early scrolls and codex through to the leather bound first edition that would cost a small fortune to own today, to the cheap second hand paperback sporting coffee stains and inscriptions and on to the e-book. Mole suggests how books can reveal something of the status and wealth of the owner (think those very expensive first editions). There are often so many different editions of the same book – the contents are the same yet the physical object very different and what they mean to the owner can also be different. We leave something of ourselves behind in these books too as the author discusses – food stains, jottings – a bookmark where we stopped reading and never went back. We also take a great pride in the way we display our books. The author also suggests that the books we choose to put on our bookshelves tells us something about who we think we are. Oh, and don’t we all love looking at people’s shelves?

“A library is an argument. An argument about who’s in and who’s out, about what kinds of things belong together, about what’s more important and what’s less so. The books that we choose to keep, the ones that we display most prominently, and the ones that we shelve together make an implicit claim about what we value and how we perceive the world.”

The author understands the physical relationship we have with our books. He remembers an old Benjamin Disraeli book he has which had survived long years without being read, Mole had to cut the pages himself in order to read it. When we are searching a book for a favourite passage, we use nonverbal clues to help us – our memory of the physical book itself, the place on the page, how far through the book it was – this isn’t something we can do with an audio or digital book.

Something that resonated with me is how keeping a book previously read on our shelves somehow keeps it alive – something of that book is retained in our memory. Personally, I look at my bookshelves as places filled with old friends.

“Even if we can’t recall most of what we’ve read, the presence of the books serves as an aide-memoire, a reassuring sign that not everything we’ve read is lost. Books on the shelves are sandbags stacked against the floodwaters of forgetting.”

The author considers how technological developments are changing the way we read, and therefore our relationship both with books and the way we share them. Once it might have been wing backed chairs that gave a reader a small amount of privacy, shielding them as they lost themselves in a book, today it could be noise cancelling headphones that help to cut us off from the world around us. The author clearly understands the benefits of e-books – but warns how these technologies can also prove problematic, reminding us how e-readers have built in obsolescence, and how files stored on old devices can suddenly become difficult to access.

The Secret Life of Books contains lots of fascinating little nuggets of information with lots of historical facts I didn’t know, an exploration of books as objects is an interesting take on the book about books. The author’s enthusiasm for books is infectious, and this is a treasure trove for book lovers.

I really had wanted to review this one a little earlier in the week, but I am struggling a little to keep up with the blog. I’ll still be here – but the gaps between posts might get a bit wider some weeks, I’m so thoroughly exhausted all the time at the moment.

Needing something of a diverting but comforting nature last weekend, I turned once again to my pile of Dean Street Press books. I have quite a few to choose from and having enjoyed so many books set during the Second World War, I was drawn to Wine of Honour because it is set in the early months of peace.

The war had been so disruptive to normal life – people were spread across the globe – separated from their loved ones sometimes for years, put into uniform and given completely new roles. Suddenly, that all came to an end, and for some people it wasn’t quite the celebration it should have been. Those who had felt purposeful and busy, or enjoyed being defined by a role or a uniform, found themselves thrust back into their pre-war tedium, several years older and no better for it.

“I wonder how many women today are back in their pre-war ruts. For how many was the war merely a temporary disarrangement and for how many others has it meant complete re-adjustment, an entirely new set of circumstances? This is a stupid thought for me to have when, even in my own case, I don’t know the answer.”

The story is told from several perspectives. Part of it is the first person narration of Helen Townsend – the rest of the novel told in the third person. Helen and her neighbour Laura Watson are friends who don’t have that much in common, they became close while serving together in the ATS. Now they are both back in their village of Kirton, out of uniform and feeling like strangers in their own village. Helen is married to the local doctor Gyp who has been away in the East for five years. However, she has spent much of the war – serving in various places – with her lover Brian Gurney – who is also from the village. Gyp is due back at any moment and Brian wants Helen just to go away with him.

Laura has returned to normal life quite reluctantly but with a grim resignation. Trapped at home with her domineering father – who is very grumpy and disagreeable and doesn’t care at all for how his daughter feels. Laura had loved the ATS – she is already beginning to live on the memories of the past few years, and Helen recognises that Laura will continue to do this – and that as time goes on her memories will only sharpen. Helen feels a little awkward around Laura now, as she thinks she may have an inkling about her and Brian but really isn’t sure. They have not become the kind of friends who confide such things to one another.

Helen’s lover Brian is the younger son of Sir James and Lady Gurney, his sister married a Polish officer and was soon widowed with a child, his elder brother who joined up by pretending he was younger than he was is now nearing forty and has nothing to do. While Lady Gurney is worried about her eldest son her husband is worried about their finances – living at Kirton Manor is starting to seem it may no longer be an option. Angela Worthing a woman determined to carve out a career for herself in this brand new peace, draws close to Peter, and tries to help him.

The Cobb family run the local pub – and the war has changed them too. The daughter Lily came home from the WAAF pregnant, her fiancé killed before he could marry her. The Cobbs welcomed their daughter home with nothing but pride – she has been a wonderful help to her father behind the bar. Their son, Dick has come home damaged from the war – badly injured at the moment he was given a captaincy – he is struggling to hold down a job and be a good husband and father.

Mary Cross who lost her husband in the First World War, is mother to an RAF pilot, she spent her life trying to be both mother and father to her son. Now she writes an agony column in a national magazine.

While most of the novel takes place in the village – we also pay a few fleeting visits to London, where we learn the BBC is so longer wearing its wartime camouflage – and the streets are full of damaged buildings and scaffolding.

“She walked round by Lansdowne Place where, since May 1941, they’d been patching up the blitzed corner. She noticed, with methodical satisfaction, that yet another gleaming yellow brick building was nearing completion. You could date the devastation and the rate of repair from the lighter brick walls down to the grey black of the house on the Guilford Street corner.

Yes, spring was certainly here. The ladies of Guilford Street had discarded their utility furs for brighter and shorter jackets. Pale sunshine gleamed on the darkening partings of bleached heads. They are feeling the draught, poor dears, Angela thought, and noted the complete absence of American uniforms from the street scene. That was the big transformation—apart from spring and scaffolding—there were no Americans.”

Wine of Honour is fascinating for how it shines a light on one fairly short period of time – those first months of peace in 1945. Wives had to learn to live with husbands again, wind back the clock several years, remember who it was they had once loved so much.

“It went on and on and, quite suddenly, Laura felt desperately tired. Everybody but herself was married or doing something interesting. Only she was left out and lonely. She could have wept for the years snatched from her life. Years of hard work and happiness and the promise of something exciting just ahead. A lovely phase of her life which peace had cut short, leaving her instead just those number of years older.”

Parents had to learn how to live with the altered people their adult children had become, and those children had to reconcile the fact that the best years of their lives were in the past, and all they had ahead was middle age. Society had changed – and everyone had to find their new place in it. Change is always interesting for the way people handle it and Barbara Beauchamp has tapped into this perfectly. Wine of Honour is a lovely, highly readable novel – and I zipped through it.

(A small warning for those reading this edition, there are a few typos – names being mixed up. Maggie Cobb became Mary at one point and Lady G, Laura – I got momentarily confused, this issue might have been fixed in the digital version.)

When I saw that The Soul of Kindness was going to be featured on the Backlisted podcast – (which I admit I don’t often manage to listen to but will do this time) – I decided the time had come to re-read it. I first read it almost exactly seven years ago and had very fond memories of it. I definitely appreciated it even more this time. Elizabeth Taylor is just so gifted at portraying awkward or unequal relationships. The quiet manipulation of one person over another – the suffocating loneliness of someone trapped in an unsatisfying relationship, the misery of unrequited love. The relationships in this novel are fascinating and portrayed to perfection, Taylor creates so many ‘types’ that we recognise instantly.

The Soul of Kindness of the title is Flora Quatermaine, a beautiful young woman, who is celebrating her marriage to Richard as the novel opens. One of our first glimpses of her is as her new husband is making a speech; stepping outside the wedding marque to minister to her doves. The eyes of many of her wedding guests follow her – she is the focus of attention and not the groom nervously making his speech. This is typical.  Flora is adored by everyone, an adoration she appears to feel is her due. She is always making an entrance.

“Here I am!” Flora called to Richard as she went downstairs. For a second, Meg felt disloyalty. It occurred to her of a sudden that Flora was always saying that, and that it was in the tone of one giving a lovely present. She was bestowing herself. “

Four years on and Flora has everything she wants; her husband Richard, a baby on the way and a lovely home in St. Johns Wood. Flora organises her life the way she likes it. Surrounds herself with people who indulge in what Richard at one time disloyally thinks of as “Flora worship.” She counts on Meg to never forget her birthday, Meg who always looked after her, protected her at school. She delights in helping Kit, encouraging his unrealistic expectations, buying him a suit that is embarrassingly expensive – sweeping aside everyone else’s cautions.

Mrs Lodge; is Flora’s housekeeper, Flora has made a special friend of Mrs Lodge and simply can’t imagine her life without her. Mrs Lodge hates London, and dreams of life in the country. The people, who surround Flora, conspire to protect her from herself, the truth of what she is. For Flora is a quiet, smiling monster. Flora only sees what she wants to see, hears what she wants to hear, she lives in a self-imposed bubble. She has her own ideas about the people around her and is blind to any alternative. Her father-in-law, Percy thinking her biddable when she first married Richard, soon revises his opinion.

Richard is a rather insipid character and very much feels like an also ran within his relationship with Flora. He develops an odd friendship with neighbour Elinor Pringle. Richard see something in her that he recognises, someone who like him, is rather alone within their marriage. This is a recurring theme; there are many lonely people in this novel.

Elizabeth Taylor’s minor characters are just as deftly explored as her central characters. Richard’s father; Percy has a lady friend Ba, whom Flora is certain he should marry. Flora is delighted when the marriage comes off, but Percy had enjoyed the years of visiting Ba in the evening, having that to look forward to all day, now he isn’t sure how to manage his evenings. Percy is brilliantly drawn, he hates the idea of foreign travel, and sulks like a child when Ba goes to France for a week. Meanwhile, Flora’s mother Mrs Secretan lives in the country with her companion/housekeeper Miss Folley, Miss Folley invents old love letters to read out to Mrs Secretan and makes spice cakes when Flora is expected to visit, these visits are always greatly anticipated by both women.

Meg and her brother Kit have to move to Towersey in the Thames Valley where they meet the bohemian painter Liz Corbett. Liz hears all about the wondrous Flora, but unlike everyone else, she absolutely refuses to believe in Flora’s goodness. Despite only being a very minor character in the novel – Liz’s attitude to Flora appears to be the only sensible one.

What I love about Elizabeth Taylor is how she is able to reveal the truth of people in their small private moments. This view of Percy remains one of my favourite excerpts.

“A quiz programme. Two rows of people facing one another. A pompous, school-masterly man asking the questions. Those answers that Percy knew he spoke out loudly and promptly; when he was at a loss he pretended (as if he were not alone) that he had not quite caught the question, or he was busy blowing his nose to make a reply, or had to go to help himself to whiskey.”

The subtlety of Elizabeth Taylor’s writing is masterly. She could have made Flora a shrieking harpy of a monstrosity, yet she is a more benign presence for most of the novel. Flora’s true personality creeps up on the reader as the novel progresses in quite subtle ways.

It would seem that The Soul of Kindness was not the best received of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, nor the most successful. In The Other Elizabeth Taylor, the biography by Nicola Beauman, the author suggests that The Soul of Kindness is too long, that it would have made a very good short story or novella.

“It is in this novel more than in any of her others that she suffered from being forced, according to the conventions of English and American publishing, to spin things out to seventy or eighty thousand words.”

(Nicola Beauman – The Other Elizabeth Taylor )

I don’t really agree, there is nothing in the novel that feels forced or padded out to me. Certainly Elizabeth Bowen, a long-time friend and champion of Elizabeth Taylor apparently liked it a good deal and I for one wouldn’t want to argue with her. The writer and critic Philip Hensher described The Soul of Kindness as “so expert that it seems effortless.” That I can certainly agree with.

Although I have pre-ordered new releases a few times before it’s not something I do very often – and never have I felt swept along by the hype of new book like I was this one. If I am honest, I had never thought that The Handmaid’s Tale needed a sequel – but once the fact of it was a known thing – I wanted to read it. So, yes, the hype has been insane, but the book is honestly excellent, it’s an absolute triumph on many levels. One of the ideas I love most in this novel is how the very act of storytelling can be an act of rebellion – even if, maybe especially if, you can’t be sure your words will ever find a reader.

“Where there is an emptiness, the mind will obligingly fill it up. Fear is always at hand to supply any vacancies, as is curiosity. I have had ample experience with both.”

I love Margaret Atwood – I find her so wise and inspiring, and I really love The Handmaid’s Tale which I re-read with my book group a couple of years ago. Re-reading Handmaid is a good idea I think if you’re embarking on The Testaments many moons after first visiting Gilead.

I wasn’t sure exactly how to go about this review – so many people are reviewing it at the moment, and I have been avoiding blogger reviews until I had written my own. I am going to attempt to keep this as spoiler free as possible, certainly there will be no major plot spoilers, though if you’re going to be reading this next week proceed with caution. (There are THT spoilers ahead though).

“The corrupt and blood-smeared fingerprints of the past must be wiped away to create a clean space for the morally pure generation that is surely about to arrive. Such is the theory.”

It is fairly well known I think that The Testaments is not a continuation of The Handmaid’s Tale as such. Instead it’s more of a re-examination of the Gilead we think we know, from Atwood’s 1985 classic. Set around fifteen years after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments offers us another view of the society of Gilead. We all know how that earlier book ended with Offred heading off who knows where in the back of a van. Many of us wanted to know more – wondered what became of Offred, the symposium at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale leaves us with the idea that at some point Gilead ended – but how? Offred’s position in that earlier novel was such that her view of Gilead was necessarily narrow – there was just so much she couldn’t know or wasn’t allowed to know; her perception of Gilead’s society is therefore skewed. What The Testaments does brilliantly is to open up Gilead to the reader in way Offred’s account wasn’t able to. Atwood is brilliant at creating an altered world, a society with different rules and traditions.  

The Testaments is told in three different voices – the testaments of the title. The first testament we discover within a page or two is being related by Aunt Lydia – who readers will remember from the earlier novel – a character who has become a huge part of the TV spin off series.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one most travelled by. It was littered with corpses, as such roads are. But as you will have noticed, my own corpse is not among them.”

The other two testaments are told by young women – looking back at their adolescence/teenage years, as they came of age and began to make discoveries about the world they were living in. One of these young women has grown up in Gilead, the other has grown up across the boarder in Canada, where she has witnessed protests against Gilead, and the visits of the Pearl Girls – sort of missionaries from Gilead. The stories that Atwood weaves through these three testimonies are so compelling, full of twists and surprises, as ever her storytelling is perfect – and she writes so well too. There is such wisdom in this novel, such understanding of how people act – there is also so many wonderful, quotable nuggets of excellence.

“You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.”

When we consider totalitarian regimes – and the world has seen its fair share of them – what we often ask ourselves is how are ordinary people persuaded to collaborate with what they must know to be evil? This question is explored in the story of Aunt Lydia particularly, and it is a fascinating element, it’s a chilling idea, that intelligent people, previously politically unengaged can be so easily coerced.

“You pride yourself on being a realist, I told myself, so face the facts. There’s been a coup, here in the United States, just as in times past in so many other countries. Any forced change of leadership is always followed by a move to crush the opposition. The opposition is led by the educated, so the educated are the first to be eliminated.”

The Testaments is a wonderful achievement, for an author to return to her fictional world after so long, and to do it so convincingly is extraordinary.

With thanks to Virago for the review copy

Over the summer I read The Wedding by Dorothy West – and it immediately made me want to read everything she wrote – it’s a sadly very short list. I do have her first novel The Living is Easy somewhere on my tbr – which I will read in the fullness of time, knowing there will be no more.

The Richer, The Poorer is a collection of stories and autobiographical pieces, they are an absolute delight. Here Dorothy West shows her brilliance in the shorter form, she illuminates the struggles of ordinary families, the sad, disappointment of childhood, the misunderstandings that exist between the old and young.

In these stories we meet people dreading the visit of the investigator – who decides whether they will receive welfare relief. There are families holding funerals, girls renting typewriters, people living in sad marriages, a forty year old man trying again for his bar exam, children whose small eyes are opened to the frailties of their parents, people who have spent all their lives working to avoid the poverty of their childhoods. In each story, Dorothy West’s characters step from the page fully formed, they are clearly the people she met during the time she worked in Harlem as welfare investigator and relief worker.

There are seventeen stories in this collection, and many are very short – yet for me at least not unsatisfying. I delighted in gulping down one after another, after another. Following on from the stories, are thirteen autobiographical pieces, sketches and reminiscences from Dorothy West’s long life, many harking back to her childhood. With so many pieces in this collection I can only really give a flavour of the whole.

In these stories people acknowledge the history of slavery – many characters in these stories people born in the South but who moved North to escape the prejudice so prevalent in the South, but something of the place we once called home always pulls us back.

“He shuffled down the street, an abject little man of fifty-odd years, in an ageless overcoat that flapped in the wind. He was cold, he hated the North, and particularly Boston, and saw suddenly a barefoot pickaninny sitting on a fence in the hot, Southern sun and a piece of steaming corn bread and a piece of fried salt pork in either grimy hand.”

(The Typewriter)

The collection opens with The Typewriter a middle aged man plods home after a day at work as an office building janitor. His daughter has been learning to type on a rented typewriter – and he isn’t looking forward to the sound of it echoing through the apartment. However, he is a fond parent and he wants to help his daughter – so when she asks him to dictate made up letters for her to type, he obliges – and his letters, firing his imagination, open up a whole new world for him.

In the title story; The Richer, the poorer – two sisters who have lived their lives very differently are brought together again by the circumstances of old age. While one sister, saved and worked hard all her life – sacrificing many comforts to the drive to ensuring she has money for her old age – the other sister did the exact opposite.  

“Over the years Lottie had urged Bess to prepare for her old age. Over the years Bess had lived each day as if there were no other. Now they were both past sixty, the time for summing up. Lottie had a bank account that had never grown lean. Bess had the clothes on her back, and the rest of her worldly possessions in a battered suitcase. 

Lottie had hated being a child, hearing her parents skimping and scraping. Bess had never seemed to notice. All she ever wanted was to go outside and play. She learned to skate on borrowed skates. She rode a borrowed bicycle. Lottie couldn’t wait to grow up and buy herself the best of everything. 

As soon as anyone would hire her, Lottie put herself to work. She minded babies, she ran errands for the old.”

(The Richer, The Poorer)

In the stories The Five-Dollar Bill and The Penny we see both the desperation for a small amount of money and the terrible toll poverty can have on children. In the first of these, a child is made aware of the duplicitousness of her mother. While in the second story a little boy is joyful at the gift of a penny from his father – but his joy is destined to turn to misery – and have unexpected consequences, thanks to the interference of a local do-gooder with an agenda.

In Jack in the Pot Mrs Edmunds wins fifty-five dollars on bingo – a fabulous sum of money at the time. The winnings bring a terrible fear however, as she and her husband are awaiting a visit from the welfare investigator. She is terrified of being sanctioned. She tells her husband she won five dollars and they celebrate with a wonderful dinner. Meanwhile, a neighbour suffers a terrible tragedy – and knowing his need of the exact sum of money she has hidden away Mrs Edmunds is horribly conflicted. We meet another welfare investigator in the story Mammy in which an investigator must follow up on a claimant’s previous employment – in this story we meet the mammy of the title; Mrs Mason, who has suddenly left her employer and refuses to return. There’s a lot that is uncomfortable about the relationship between the wealthy employer and her servant – too much that reminds the reader of the imbalance of power.

The autobiographical pieces that follow the stories are simply wonderful. In these pieces West remembers her middle class Boston childhood, paying tribute to her fabulous mother. She recollects the summers spent so happily on the island; Martha’s Vineyard, and the people who would come and share the family summer cottage with them. She also recalls a trip to Moscow, and the time she spent working as part of the Harlem Renaissance. We are left with the impression of a fascinating woman, who lived a long and happy life.

The Richer, The Poorer is a wonderful immersive collection, the themes are universal and West’s writing compassionate and richly observant.

When I picked up this book, I was in the need for something comforting, the bookish equivalent to a mug of cocoa and a fleecy blanket. It turned out to be the perfect choice, light, effervescent and endlessly charming. Something Light, is aptly named, but Margery Sharp’s writing is excellent, her characterisation faultless.

First published in 1960, the setting of the novel appears to be just a little earlier, quite possibly the very late 1950s. Certainly our heroine, is a woman who heralds the freedom that the sixties were to bring to so many like her. She lives independently, earning her own living, she has many friends and is answerable to no one.

“For once, rarely, contemplating an abstract conception: the position of the independent woman in modem society. Better their lot by far, Louisa was sure of it, than that of the timid Victorian wife trembling at a husband’s frown. (On the other hand, not all Victorian wives were timid; Mrs. Proudie, for instance, browbeating her bishop, couldn’t have been wholly fictional?)”

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 fully admits to liking men, a lot, and is fairly surrounded by them, she even converses quite intimately with her milkman. Men also seem to like her – whenever they have a problem or are ill it is Louisa they turn to. She has been so busy helping out her army of male friends, that Louisa has stopped thinking about herself. When not buying extra yogurt with her daily milk for the resident at number ten or visiting her thespian friend Hugo – ill with a cold – Louisa is a dog photographer. She struggles to keep her head above water, but she is fully independent.

“Bachelors in lodgings going down with influenza employed their last spark of consciousness to telephone Louisa. Sometimes their landladies telephoned her. Publishers of books commissioned but overdue telephoned Louisa. She was constantly being either sent for, like a fire engine, or dispatched like a lifeboat, to the scene of some masculine disaster, and fond of men as she was, by the time she was thirty she felt extremely jaded.”

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.

She sets her sights on three very different men. The first, a holiday acquaintance who suddenly gets back in touch – asking for help – who just happens to have an awful lot of money. F. Pennon, who Louisa remembers looking rather like a Sealyham, is much older than Louisa, but definitely someone she can get along with. Unfortunately, it is a matter of romance that F. Pennon wants Louisa’s help with – and Louisa finds herself spending a week or so in Bournemouth, playing chaperone to F. Pennon and Enid; the woman who he was separated from twenty years earlier – and has been writing to in Argentina ever since. Does he, however still want to marry Enid after all these years?

When Louisa spends some time with a happily married couple of many years, (taking pictures of dogs) she decides what she really needs is a steady, loyal man. A man like optician Jimmy Brown, who she knew had once admired her when she was still living in her old home town. She decides to go and look him up, and trades a dog photography session for a room in a local b&b. While comfortably ensconced at the guest house, Louisa renews an old acquaintance, and makes several new ones, in her fellow residents, including a dear old admiral and a scot, Mr McAndrew with whom Louisa becomes very irritated. She also needs to get her killer shot of the landlady’s two dogs – in the midst of all this F. Pennon turns up again, in need of a friend.

Back in London, Louisa needs to earn some money, momentarily cheesed off with the dog photography business, Louisa decides on babysitting. One night of babysitting leads to a trial as a sort of girl Friday/housekeeper to a widower with three teenage children. Louisa’s thoughts, naturally enough turn to readymade families, and she soon starts to see herself as a fond step-mama. Having spent a week or so settling in and making herself quite indispensable, Louisa finds herself tucked up in bed, with three teenage children sat around her, confessing their ambitions and asking for help with their father – Louisa naturally agrees to help.

“There they sat, the family of Louisa’s dreams, assembled dressing-gowned about her bed. Catherine was back on its foot, Paul occupied the dressing stool, Toby squatted on the rug. All had brought tooth mugs, Paul nipped down for a bottle of lime juice and a soda syphon; in which heady mixture (for so in the circumstances it was) to drink Louisa’s health.

‘Don’t say it!’ repeated Louisa anxiously. ‘For heaven’s sake don’t jump the gun! He hasn’t asked me yet.’”

Things don’t always go according to plan, as Louisa finds out, more than once – and there is such a thing as trying too hard. Sometimes, the right person is the last person you would imagine. Margery Sharp does a lovely job of rounding this one off, quite satisfactorily.

This was the perfect read for the first tiring week back at work after the summer break. A delight from beginning to end.

With thanks to The British Library for the review copy

Well these British Library Crime Classics are marvellous for taking us away from the realities of modern life. Surfeit of Suspects is a later book than many of those Golden Age titles I have loved reading over the years.

This is my first novel by George Bellairs, and this title one of many to feature his Scotland Yard detective Littlejohn. George Bellairs was a pseudonym for Harold Blundell, who wrote over fifty novels. It’s a shame that such a popular and prolific author should have stopped being published, so hooray to BLCC for bringing them back.

Set in the fictional Surrey town of Evingden in the early1960s, the story centres around an explosion, the death of three men and small town grievances. 

“At eight o’clock in the evening on the 8th of November, there was a terrific explosion in Green Lane, Evingden. It smashed all the windows of two rows of terraced cottages in the vicinity and the front of a corner shop completely collapsed and strewed sweets and provisions all over the pavement. When the startled tenants of the damaged houses rushed outside they found the offices of the Excelsior Joinery Company reduced to a mass of rubble.”

Evingden is a town set for expansion, one of the new towns that were created in Britain in the 1950s and 60s to ease the housing shortage that followed in the wake of WW2. Not so long ago, Evingden was a small, sleepy place, where everyone knew their neighbours, not everyone is ready for the changes. There are those who will benefit greatly if some of the plans go ahead – but other businesses are struggling to stay afloat. Bellairs is excellent at portraying the claustrophobic atmosphere of a small town in changing times. The small men who want so much more, the disappointment of a bad marriage, the looming presence of a bully, council corruption, the failing bank manager edging toward retirement.

When the police pick their way through the rubble of the Excelsior Joinery Company, they find the bodies of three men. They are three of the five company directors who were having a meeting at the time of the explosion. The two remaining directors – Fred Hoop and his father Old Tom, knew nothing of the meeting, and immediately come in for some scrutiny when it is revealed that the business was under some quite severe strain. Possible personal motives are explored initially, as Fred Hoop’s wife was having an affair with one of the dead men. However, Fred seems to have been visiting his wife – who is staying at her mother’s house, outside the town – at the time of the explosion.

When it’s discovered that it was dynamite that caused the explosion, Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate. He is assisted by his own Inspector Cromwell, and local man Inspector Tatersall.

Nothing is ever quite as it seems though, and Littlejohn and Cromwell are soon unearthing all manner of financial shenanigans and potential corruption on the town council, not to mention the shady Mr Bugler the company cashier and his even shadier bookie friend. There is also a worn down bank manager with a lot to lose if the Excelsior hadn’t repaid the loan he had agreed. When you throw in an abortive bank robbery a few weeks earlier, and a local quarry missing some dynamite, the case is all set to get nicely complex – and it seems to the police, that there really isn’t any shortage of suspects.

“Someone was inserting a key in the front door. Which was violently flung open. A large man struggled to pull down his umbrella and as he did so, spotted Cromwell in the hall. This made his performance with the umbrella much more difficult and increased his anger. He finally succeeded and flung the object from him in a corner of the porch.

A large, heavy man with a square red face, who first groped in the hatstand for a stick, for he was lame, and then made for Cromwell like a bull at a gate.”

Surfeit of Suspects is an enjoyable read, perhaps not a favourite (I probably prefer the 1930s/40s mysteries if I am honest) but fully diverting and satisfying. I really liked Bellairs’ Characterisation; Fred Hoop’s wife, her mother and the larger than life Alderman Vintner are especially well drawn, and Littlejohn is one of those very likeable policemen. All in all, this made for great weekend diversion.