With thanks to the British Library for the review copy.

I have been lucky enough to receive quite a number of these British Library Crime Classics from the publisher – probably more than I can actually cope with if I am honest judging from the number still unread on my shelves. However, when Murder’s A Swine dropped through my letterbox recently a quick glance at it told me that I wanted to read it almost immediately. My interest in it was sparked mainly by the author – Nap Lombard – not a name I heard before, but the author details on the back of the book reveal this to have been a pseudonym. Nap Lombard was in fact the joint pseudonym used by writer Pamela Hansford Johnson and her first husband writer and journalist Gordon Neil Stewart. Under the name Nap Lombard, the pair wrote two mystery novels during their marriage this was the second of them. Writing partnerships always fascinate me, how is the work divided up? – does one person write chapter one, the other chapter two and so on – or does one write and one come up with all the ideas? With a mystery novel this seems even more complicated.

First published in 1943, this Second World War mystery is very entertaining, there are some very odd goings on indeed – which are just spine tingling enough.

“I should imagine this was murder, too, because it would be very difficult to build yourself into a heap of sandbags and then die…”

On a wintry night in the London blackout a young air raid warden in company with amateur sleuth Agnes Kinghof find a body partly hidden in the walls of the air raid shelter which serves the block of flats where Agnes lives. As the police begin their investigations into who has died and how, the block of flats where Agnes and her husband live are further disturbed that very same evening when Agnes’ upstairs neighbour Mrs Sibley is terrorised by the deeply unpleasant sight of a pig’s head at her fourth floor window. Mrs Sibley who lives with her great friend, a writer of girls boarding school stories is deeply distressed and Agnes and her husband Andrew – having just arrived home on leave – busy themselves with helping to soothe the poor woman’s shattered nerves.

With the discovery of more unsavoury threats and notes signed ‘pig-sticker’ Agnes and Andrew – throw themselves wholeheartedly into investigating the mystery themselves. They rather put the backs up of the police lead by the absurdly named Inspector Eggshell, and really get on the nerves of Andrew’s cousin; Lord Whitestone a Scotland Yard big-wig with the unfortunate family nickname of Lord Pig. It is quickly deduced that it is more than likely that the culprit is living among them and is one of the other tenants in the block of flats. Someone is not who they say they are. What at first seem little more than unpleasant and inappropriate pranks start to look more sinister when a connection is made between one of the residents and the dead man.

When poor frazzled Mrs Sibley and her friend leave London for a riverside retreat – they are followed – and it isn’t long before the ‘pig-sticker’ seems to have claimed another victim. 

“Coincidence plays a large part in life; but in the drama of Mr Coppenstall and the pigs it played a very small one.

The only coincidence, indeed, lay in the fact that at this moment the Wrong Person was reading the telegram.

‘Name of Kinghof?’ the boy said, meeting the Wrong Person on the stairs.

‘That’s right,’ said the Wrong Person, putting out a hand, and returning with the envelope to seclusion and a steaming kettle. Handed in at Hooham at 4.45. Good enough. The Wrong Person resealed the envelope and stole out to slip into the Kinghof’s letter box.”

Despite stern warnings from Andrew’s titled cousin to not get involved it seems Agnes and her husband just can’t help themselves. Having worked out why the ‘pig-sticker’ has been targeting his victims – the only thing left to do is discover who he is. There are a few red herrings along the way, as Agnes unwittingly uncovers a sinister right wing political group and puts herself in danger during first aid training. I really don’t want to say too much more about the plot for fear of spoilers.

One thing that irritated me a bit was the too frequent descriptions of Agnes – who we are cheerfully told doesn’t have a very attractive face, but whose legs and figure are marvellous and so it didn’t matter. To have been told this once I might just about forgive but having the fact rammed down my throat subsequently was unnecessary and irritating. Perhaps readers in 1943 would have felt differently – I wonder? This is a small thing and perhaps dates the book a little – but certainly wasn’t enough to spoil my enjoyment.

Murder’s A Swine is a thoroughly well written novel (which is what I would expect from PHJ) with some delicious little slices of humour, especially in some of the dialogue, and in Agnes and Andrew’s interactions with Lord Pig. There is some really well realised characters throughout the novel with even very minor players emerging well fleshed out. Agnes herself is an especially likeable character, witty and imaginatively intelligent with a wonderful tendency to quote the sayings of her aunt General Sidebotham. Through her eyes we see something of the times in which the story is set – little glimpses of War time England which really give this novel a great sense of period.

All in all, though I found this a very entertaining mystery, with just the right amount of nerve jangling suspense. One of the most interesting aspects is that there is not a huge list of suspects – yet even within the narrow field of possibles the authors really keep you guessing.

I have come to love the writing of Sylvia Townsend Warner – her short fiction is wonderful and her novels all so different to one another they defy categorisation. An intelligent, inventive feminist writer and a weaver of wonderful stories, Sylvia Townsend Warner is someone who continues to fascinate me.

After the Death of Don Juan is an unusual novel – I think I knew that before I read it, and perhaps why it has remained on my tbr for so long. It is very readable nonetheless, a colourful, vibrant novel with a strong sense of place. It was a novel that was born out of Townsend Warner’s concern for what was happening in Spain in the 1930s. The novel was published while the Spanish Civil War was underway and the year before hostilities broke out across the world.

“‘What are you looking at Ramon? What do you see?’

‘So large a country,’ said the dying man. ‘And there in the middle of it, like a heart is Madrid. But our Tenorio Viejo is not marked. I have often looked for it. It is not there, though. It is too small, I suppose. We have lived in a very small place Diego.’

‘We have lived in Spain.’”

After the Death of Don Juan is an allegorical novel set in the seventh decade of the eighteenth century it combines legend and history with rich storytelling to produce something that I recognise would not be to everyone’s taste. (Goodreads reviews are not hugely favourable).

The story opens in Seville, among a group of aristocratic grandees. In this seventh decade of the eighteenth century Don Juan has disappeared. Snatched – so the story goes – by demons, in retribution for his attack on Dona Ana’s father. Don Juan’s own servant was witness to the event. Dona Ana’s father had been fatally wounded by Don Juan in the fight. Grieving for her father, Dona Ana finally marries her betrothed Don Ottavio – though her mind seems more taken up with the fate of Don Juan. Has he really been taken by demons? the story though fantastic is believed true by some – or has he fled to pursue his notorious ways elsewhere?

Dona Ana leads an entourage to the remote Spanish village where Don Juan’s father lives to deliver the terrible news in person. With Dona Ana on the long journey are Ottavio – who reluctantly agreed to the plan – their priest and Dona Ana’s duenna. They also take various attendants including Leporello, Don Juan’s servant, now taken into their employ – the man who apparently witnessed the bizarre and horrifying demise of his former master. The journey to Tenorio Viejo takes seven days, fuelled by Dona Ana’s obsessional pursuit of Don Juan – whether dead or alive, an interest which is rather more earthly than spiritual.

“Morning came, but could not kill him. Not damned, not even dead. The more she thought of it (and she thought of nothing else) the more convinced she became that Don Juan was alive. A man of such strength, of such aristocratic dominance, how should he be killed by a valet? No body, no stain of blood: only a table knocked over, some broken crystal and crockery, and Leporello’s story.”

Travelling across vast estates, over mountains and through villages the group finally reach Tenorio Viejo and become the guests of Don Saturno, Don Juan’s father in his castle. Townsend Warner’s sharp humour is in evidence in the portrayal of events at the castle. The visit which was meant to be short – becomes much longer – with everyone rather uncomfortably trapped together when the wimpishly pathetic Ottavio hurts his foot and is laid up in bed.   

Here Sylvia Townsend Warner turns her attention to the villagers – showing us the difficult lives of the peasants many of whom are dependant in some way on the largesse of Don Saturno. There is already the beginnings of a dispute over irrigation between some of the peasants and the castle. Townsend Warner does manage to breathe some life into these peasant characters, that her aristocratic characters don’t quite have, the olive growers, a miller, and his daughter a schoolmaster – those committed to religious devotion – and a sacristan who guards the door into the church, relishing the small amount of power his duties give him. It is these people the author is clearly more concerned with; I think it’s no accident that her aristocratic characters are more one dimensional. One especially memorable character from the village is Celestina the miller’s daughter, who hoards the money her father gives her for the saying of masses for his silk-worms. She wants the money to pay her dowry to the convent – where she intends to go as soon as she can to escape the marriage that she fears will be forced upon her. This society depicted here is practically a character in itself – one that is vivid and complex and troubled – and feels very authentic.

When the truth of what did or did not happen to Don Juan is revealed it sets in motion a chain of climatic events and an uprising among the peasants. A siege of the castle is attempted – which can only end one way.

A thoroughly unusual but very enjoyable novel – which perhaps could only have been written by Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Translated from the German by Tim Mohr

Another of the books that I read for Read indies month in February which I am trying to squeeze in before the new deadline – unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll get the final one reviewed before then.

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky is published by Europa Editions, and was the second book I received as part of my renewed subscription to the Asymptote book club. It was a book I loved so much I instantly bought another by the author. This is a novel about a dysfunctional family and the weakness of the human spirit, written with biting humour, fabulous dialogue and a good deal of heart. A slim novel that has the power to surprise us when we’re least expecting it.

Max is a child who lives with his grandparents in a refugee residence in Germany. The family have recently come to Germany from Russia taking up residence alongside families in similar circumstances. Max’s grandmother, a former ballerina, has some vague Jewish ancestry which allowed the family to get out of Russia and come to Germany as refugees, but she is nonetheless terribly antisemitic, she also hates the Germans – which considering she is living among mainly Jewish families in Germany makes things rather difficult. The move was all her idea, and Max and his grandfather followed meekly in her wake.

Max is the narrator of this delightful novel, who grows from a child not yet attending school to a young teen over the course of the narrative. Max’s grandmother Margarita controls everything in his life – she insists that he is sickly and not very bright – happy to talk about him in such a way right in front of him. Max isn’t allowed to play outside, he isn’t allowed sweets or cakes of any kind, even on his birthday he blows out the candle only to watch others eat his birthday cake. His grandmother parades Max around a series of doctors trying to find someone who will agree with her assessment of the child – and she has a thick file of medical notes at home to back up her claims.

“I’d always thought of women whenever I felt a cold claw gripping my heart. Grandmother had started to prepare me for my demise very early. The notion that time was trickling away gave me a sensation like goose bumps, and I wanted to soak up as much beauty as possible. I loved everything about women. The thin ones were lithe and fragile like daddy longlegs. The sturdier ones radiated warmth and plushness. If women were big I admired their strength, and if they were small I regretted the fact that I couldn’t protect them. That my grandmother was also a woman never crossed my mind.”

When Max does start school – and much to Max’s own shame – his grandmother tags along – right into the classroom, refusing to leave and setting herself down beside Max. Though with her lack of German (Max is already having to translate for her) this thankfully doesn’t last long, as it seems that it is Margarita that can’t keep up with the pace of learning, not Max.

In less assured hands Max’s grandmother could have become so monstrous she would be difficult to read about. Yet, Alina Bronsky has written the character of Max’s grandmother so faithfully and with a delightful mixture of comedy and pathos that while we may be outraged by her – we don’t really ever find her behaviour as upsetting as we might otherwise. In time we come to understand something deeper about Margarita – her anger comes from a place of loss – and a fear of ageing.

Meanwhile Tschingis; Max’s grandfather is a quiet, gentle man going about his work with little fuss. He generally lets his wife have her own way – and so he happily consents to taking Max to his piano lesson at a neighbour’s apartment. Nina – a woman Margarita actually approves of when they first meet – has a young daughter who goes to school with Max and has agreed to give Max piano lessons.

“The piano lessons felt like a short trip to a world I wasn’t allowed to live in. After the lessons Nina sent me to the kitchen where there were cookies and tea on the table. Grandfather smoked on the balcony and she went out and stood with him for a while every time. From behind the fluttering curtain the contours of their shoulders seemed to blend together, one entity with two heads with smoke hovering above.”

Max is actually a very bright child he is observant and he notices immediately why his grandfather is so happy to take him along to the piano lessons. Max understands with the simple uncomplicated clarity of childhood that his grandfather has fallen in love with Nina. The reader, along with Max wait with baited breath to find out what will happen if and when his grandmother finds out the truth of what’s been going on. When months later Nina gives birth to a child who bears an uncanny resemblance to Tschingis, the two families are forced to live with this new and unexpected world that has been created.

For all Margarita’s faults – and they are quite numerous – we come to see that she is capable of great love – although perhaps on her own terms. There are reasons why she is like she is, and while we may not wholly forgive her, we come to some understanding. As Max gets older he starts to find ways of loosening those ties that bind just a little – and in time finds a new place in the world that is just for him.

Thank you Asymptote for another fabulous book choice, and the introduction to an author I will read more of soon.

February in review

It always seems to be the last few days or so in February when we begin to really see the promise of spring. There were a couple of mornings last week when I took my morning WFH coffee break outside – albeit in a coat and scarf – but the birds were in fine voice in this industrial part of the city and it took just ten minutes to make me feel so much better.

In reading terms February has been ok, I have definitely slowed down a bit since January, finishing just eight books this month. The first of those was rather underwhelming but all the rest have been great. Four of this month’s reads count towards Karen and Lizzy’s #ReadIndies it has been brilliant seeing so many independent publishers being celebrated – I even discovered a couple I didn’t know about. Of course, as ever I am a few books behind in my reviewing so some will end up being reviewed in March.

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi was that underwhelming read that started the month. A book group read, a Booker shortlisted mother daughter story which no one in the group particularly liked.

One of my read indie choices was Saturday Lunch with the Brownings by Penelope Mortimer a stunning collection of short stories. A theme of domestic disharmony and suffocation runs through this collection. There is nothing warm and cosy about Mortimer’s domestic portraits here, instead we have stories of strained relationships, unhappy children, and infidelity. 

The Feast of Lupercal by Brian Moore was next – a quite brilliant little novel which forms a sort of companion piece to The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. This novel concerns a Catholic schoolmaster living a fairly narrow kind of life in 1950s Belfast. Moore perfectly captures the sadness of a wasted life – beautifully written and compelling.

Another novel I was prompted to read for Read Indie month was All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison. A rural 1930s setting it is a coming of age novel which I found something of a slow burn but enjoyed a lot in the end. Rooted in the English countryside and beautifully written it was rather a lovely piece of calm once I got going with it.

I don’t know why I chose to read After the Death of Don Juan by Sylvia Townsend Warner now, except that I have had it tbr a long time and it was about time. One of the reasons I like Sylvia Townsend Warner is that she isn’t easily pigeonholed as being like anything/one in particular. I knew this one would be unusual – and it is – but I did like it, it’s not my favourite of her books but I certainly enjoyed the vibrancy and colour which she brings to this allegorical story of eighteenth century Spain.

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky was a book sent to me as part of my Asymptote subscription. Published by Europa Editions it also ticked the Read Indies box. I absolutely loved this book – so much so I bought another book by this author for my kindle. Translated from German by Tim Mohr it is the story of the boy Max living with his grandparents in a residence for refugees in Germany. The grandmother is a dreadful woman, but so comically written that it never gets too much.

Murder’s A Swine by Nap Lombard is one of the British Library’s most recent publications, this review copy only dropped on to my door mat just over a week ago. I was particularly interested in the authorship of the novel, because Nap Lombard was the pseudonym for the writing partnership of Pamela Hansford Johnson and her first husband Gordon Neil Stewart. As a fan of PHJ’s writing already I was intrigued. It turned out to be a really good mystery novel – a bit spine tingling in places and very enjoyable.

I chose to read my next book group read next The Fat Lady Sings by Jacqueline Roy. This title is one of the six Black Britain writing back titles re-issued by Penguin with introductions by Bernardine Evaristo who has been championing the re-issue of these titles. I really enjoyed this novel and the voices of the two women at the centre of the novel – who meet in a psychiatric ward in the 1990s.

So that was February – and there were a couple of books I had wanted to read in February that I didn’t manage to get to – so they may or may not end up in March’s pile.

March sees the start of #ReadIrelandmonth21 an annual reading event hosted by Cathy of 746 books and also of Dewithon. I don’t appear to have anything from a Welsh author for the Dewithon this year, but I do have several by Irish writers. It wouldn’t be Read Ireland month for me without Molly Keane – and I do have one of the few I have left to read on the tbr. It’s one of the more recent editions with the covers I hate, but I will try and look past it. I also have a novella by Maeve Brennan who I have heard such good things of from other bloggers and Mary Costello’s Academy Street on my kindle. However, I have decided to start with The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor and I’m thoroughly enjoying it so far. How many read Ireland titles I actually manage remains to be seen but I am glad I have such a nice little pile to choose from.

So how was your February for books? Tell me what you read that I should know about – and what are your plans for March reading?

I have been trying my best to join in with #ReadIndies this month – and some of last month’s reads that I have reviewed this month have counted towards that as did Saturday Lunch with the Brownings from Daunt books. I picked up All Among the Barley published by Bloomsbury after my sister recently passed her copy on to me.

Melissa Harrison is a writer I have wanted to try for a while, and I have certainly read some enticing reviews of her work previously. I read All Among the Barley during a stressful few days when my concentration wasn’t great. It is definitely a slow burn of a novel – though one I ended up really enjoying, well written; beautifully capturing a time and a place.

“When I was a child, I believed that what I want mattered so little that it wasn’t even worth me discovering what it might be.”

The narrator of All Among the Barley is Edie Mather, a fourteen year old girl living on a Suffolk farm in the 1930s. In this place and at this time she is considered to be on the brink of womanhood – she has already left school – despite her teacher’s entreaties that she continue her education. Edie lives at Wych Farm with her parents, grandfather, and older brother – her sister has married and left home, there are a couple of farm workers too who have been with the family for years. The shadow of the Great War still hangs over the farm and its inhabitants, and the Great Depression has affected them and the wider community in many ways. Running through the story is that age old juxtaposition of the preservation of tradition with the progress brought by new practices. The whole novel is something of a love letter to those long gone times, a reminder of a way of life, a slower, harder time, when people still carried the most unbearable losses with them. Harrison’s descriptions of landscape and the natural world are gorgeous, she clearly has a wonderful affinity with the world around her and the land that will have changed little in ninety years.

“On a cornland farm, such as ours, the pause between haysel and harvest is like a held breath. The summer lanes are edged with dog-roses and wild clematis, the hedges thronged with young birds. At last the cuckoos leave, and you are glad of it, having heard their note for weeks; but the landrails creak on interminably, invisible among the corn. The nights are brief and warm, the Dog Star dazzles overhead; the moon draws a shadow from every blade of wheat. All day, dust rises from unmade roads and hangs in the air long after a cart or a motor-car passes. Everything waits.”

Edie hasn’t always been comfortable around other children, she’s a bit of a loner, bookish and imaginative. She has a fascination for the ancient stories of witches and enjoys looking for the old witch marks that can still be found around the area. Towards the beginning of the novel Edie is reading Lolly Willowes – a book I suspect helps to fuel her imagination.

Into this world comes Constance FitzAllen a glamorous outsider from London. She is staying in the village, but quickly insinuates herself into the local community, becoming a regular visitor at Wych farm. Connie (as she quickly becomes known) is making a record of all the old country traditions and beliefs. Researching a fading way of life and discovering what modern practices are taking their place. For Edie, Connie is a breath of fresh air – bringing the glamour of London a little closer; taking much more of an interest in Edie than she is used to having. Edie’s mother isn’t sure of Connie at first, treating her with some suspicion, yet even she is soon won over, charmed by the interest Connie is taking in the farm and their lives.

However, Connie isn’t all that she appears. Along with her interest in traditional farming methods, folklore, and country traditions she brings new ideas and some dangerous politics. As the novel progresses Connie’s view of outsiders start to emerge, antisemitism and a passionate belief in the preservation of traditional ways.

As harvest approaches the pressure on everyone at Wych Farm mounts. Edie’s father isn’t himself – he gets horribly drunk at the summer fair – and Edie is mortified. Meanwhile Edie has her own worries and concerns, one of the boys she grew up with is paying her more attention than she feels comfortable with, she is confused about how she feels and how to deal with the situation.

“It isn’t easy to conceive when you are growing up, that the world could be any different than how you find it, for the things you first encounter are what normality comes to consist of, and only the passage of time teaches you that your childhood could have been otherwise.”

I won’t say any more about the plot, but there is a deep poignancy at the end of the novel – as we encounter Edie as an elderly woman, looking back on her life and all that happened to her.

Despite my odd mood and the slow burn nature of this novel, I soon came to appreciate the novel for its incredible sense of place, the lyricism of the writing and the character of Edie who I loved.

My second read for Cathy’s Brian Moore centenary read-a-long was Moore’s 1958 novel The Feast of Lupercal. A rather different novel on the surface from last month’s Brian Moore read, though I can see some repeating themes, it actually reminded me far more of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne which I read in 2019. Where that novel concerned the celibate, disappointed life of a Catholic woman, this novel concerns a man, a teacher living a fairly narrow kind of life in 1950s Belfast.

Diarmuid Devine is a thirty-seven year old schoolmaster at the Catholic boys school, Ardath college in Belfast. Dev – as he is known to pretty much everyone – teaches English, and a look is all he requires to instil the discipline expected in his classrooms. When that isn’t enough he has no qualms in employing the cane. Outside of school he lives in digs, getting his meals from his landlady – an arrangement he has had for ten years. Having an interest in the theatre he has worked behind the scenes with a local amateur dramatic group, though his huge efforts have been taken for granted and he has had to endure the ignominy of having his name missed off the programme for several years. It’s a small, quiet life, and despite his age Dev has had no experience with woman at all, has never had a girlfriend and has led a life that adhered pretty closely to the principles of the Catholic faith.

“As for girls, well, he had never been a ladies’ man. He was not ugly, no, nor too shy, no, but he never had much luck with girls. It was the education in Ireland, dammit, he had said it many a time. He had been a boarder at this very school, shut off from girls until he was almost a grown man.”

Dev has probably never given much thought to how others may see him. So, it is with some horror that Dev overhears a couple of colleagues discussing him. A conversation in which the other two men acknowledge that Dev would have no idea what it would be like to have feelings for a girl, declaring him to be ‘an old woman.’ For Dev this insight into how other people might see him is profoundly shocking and gives him much to think about.

The revelations of the day therefore are still very much with him that evening when he decides to attend a party given by a teacher friend Tim Heron at his home. During the evening Dev gets talking to an attractive young woman called Una Clarke, a niece of Tim Heron’s who is staying with Tim and his wife until she can begin her nurses training. Una is from Dublin, a Protestant and only twenty years of age. A hint of scandal has followed her to Belfast – rumours that Dev is made aware of that first evening by those who are always quick to judge. It is said that Una was involved with a married man in Dublin, so her mother has sent her to stay with her uncle to get her out of the way until she starts her nursing course. Something about Una captivates Dev right from the start, though what could she possibly ever see in him? Dev leaves the party early. I loved Moore’s observations throughout this novel – here his description of a group of Heron’s relatives at the party.

“Here were the old ones. Tim Heron’s mother and his wife’s father, an aged uncle, a solitary aunt. Five or six unmarried females, elderly, out of things. All of them dressed in their Sunday best, wondering what to do with themselves. For they had so looked forward to this party, and now, as usual, they were not enjoying it. They sat in a stiff oval on the sofas and chairs, trying to think of small useless remarks. Unwanted, even by each other, they were the kind of relatives who must be invited to every function because, being the least noticed, they were the quickest to take offence.”

The college Dean: Father McSwiney asks Dev to help put on a play to help raise funds for charity. After running into Una again in a coffee shop and following some discussion with other members of the theatrical group it is agreed that Una – despite having no experience of performing – can audition for one of the roles in the upcoming play. Dev soon finds himself in the position of having to coach Una for the part – and so the two begin to spend a lot of time together. Una is really not going to be suitable for the role, yet the two enjoy their rehearsal time together and a friendship soon develops – with Dev wondering if this new friendship could ever be anything more. Una even confides in Dev – telling him something about what happened in Dublin, though the unworldly Dev has no idea what to do with Una’s revelation and makes certain assumptions that only helps to confuse the issue later.

Dev is conscious of how much older than Una he is – he wants her to look on him as a possible suitor/husband – and decides to change himself for the better so she might look on him with favour. He shaves off his moustache and buys a new suit of clothes. The scene in the tailor’s shop is beautifully and amusingly rendered – with poor Dev obviously clueless about fashion.

Needless to say, it isn’t long before the whispering starts. Una’s uncle Tim is desperate that no scandal should attach itself to Una while she is under his roof. Moore manages to make this community in Belfast seem as insular as a small village – rumours are passed along swiftly, when tensions between Tim Heron and Dev threaten to get out of control it would seem that everyone knows about it. In this Catholic environment of the 1950s any whiff of scandal or impropriety can completely ruin someone.

Moore perfectly captures the sadness of a wasted life – beautifully written and compelling The Feast of Lupercal assures me that I should read more Brian Moore this centenary year – and I’m sure I will.

For me a really good collection of short stories is one where there is a theme running across the collection, and the stories themselves are so good you just want to read them one after another after another. Saturday Lunch with the Brownings is one such collection, it was the only collection Mortimer published alongside nine novels, biography, memoirs and journalism.

The collection was first published in 1960, the twelve stories all written in the late 1950’s when Penelope Mortimer was known best for being the celebrated wife of John Mortimer – something which I think is key when we consider the theme of domestic disharmony and suffocation that runs through the collection. There is nothing warm and cosy about Mortimer’s domestic portraits here, instead we have stories of strained relationships, unhappy children, and infidelity. The women in these stories are often struggling with the realities of parenthood, the insensitivity of husbands or the other suffocations of an unequal marriage. Penelope Mortimer perfectly understands the unhappy child too, she is able to put herself into the mind of the child – the child who is let down by or unsure of the adults around them. Her observances are so sharp, the view of motherhood and marriage she leaves us with is ultimately devastating.

The collection opens with the brilliant The Skylight in which a young mother travels to France with her young son. They arrive at the remote house where the woman has arranged for them to stay. The child is tired and fractious and they are both in need of rest. However, the house is locked up with no sign of the owners and no way of gaining access to the house – and no one around to help. It is hot and the mother is anxious to settle her son inside. Having carefully looked to see if there is another way of getting into the house the mother spots a small skylight in the roof which is open, only it is far too small for her to get in. A ladder lies close by – an obvious though risky strategy occurs to her and after some agonised thought she puts her plan into action. She helps her five year old son down through the skylight from the top of the ladder, after giving him some very detailed instructions as what to do once inside. The child then disappears from her anxious view. It’s a story reminiscent in style of some of Daphne du Maurier’s more memorable pieces. Mortimer perfectly captures the tension and rising sense of panic in the situation.

“In the silence she heard, quite distinctly, a tap dripping. A regular, metallic drip, like torture. She shouted directions to him, waiting between each one, straining to hear the slightest sound, the faintest answer. The tap dripped. The house seemed to be holding its breath.”

(The Skylight)

The Skylight wasn’t the only story that reminded me a little of du Maurier – another story further into the collection Little Mrs Perkins is a delicious little bit of sleight of hand. Mortimer lulls us into a false sense of security, the reader makes certain assumptions about the woman we are introduced to when all along there is something else entirely going on. The narrator of this story is a woman in bed in a nursing home recovering from the birth of her third child. The Mrs Perkins of the title is the woman brought into the bed next to her – it seems that she is threatening to miscarry the child she is carrying.

The title story Saturday Lunch with the Brownings is one of the stories that perfectly shows Mortimer’s ability to capture the minutia of domestic situations. In this story we meet what would now be called a blended family – Madge and William Browning, their daughter Bessie and Madge’s two daughters from her first marriage. The adults find themselves at each other’s throats arguing over the children – William’s resentment over his step-daughters gradually showing itself over the course of one volatile family Saturday.

A comfortably married couple feature in the darkly humorous Such a Super Evening. A lawyer and his wife are delighted to have had their dinner invitation accepted by the Mathiesons, a socially glamourous literary couple whose presence at parties is to be gloated over by the fortunate host. Needless the say, the evening doesn’t go quite as the couple had expected.

Mortimer is never afraid to make us shudder a little, she excels in the unexpected every bit as much as she does the domestic. In The White Rabbit an eleven year old girl is made to visit her estranged father who has some kind of rabbit farm. The child endures the visit to her father’s home – where she encounters rabbits in various states of health – and is given a white rabbit to take home.

“All the way back to London my father sang, in a tuneless sort of voice. I knew he was glad the day was over. I kept rehearsing what my stepfather would say. I knew he wouldn’t think of letting me keep the rabbit, but I was not sure of the voice or the words he would use. This worried me. I felt I should know. The rabbit crouched in my lap. It was so frightened I hoped it would have a heart attack and die.”

(The White Rabbit)

She doesn’t want the rabbit, for the girl the rabbit represents something she can barely articulate. She wants more than anything to belong wholeheartedly to her mother and step-father – a man vastly unlike her own father – the rabbit she sees as something that can only spoil that relationship.

Another story which focuses brilliantly I think on the viewpoint of a child – is The Renegade. A young girl at a boarding school she hates is certain her father will react with sympathy when she turns up on the doorstep late at night. This story is especially successful as we start with the self-deluding viewpoint of the girl’s parents – an unsatisfied middle aged vicar and his wife.

All in all, an absolutely brilliant collection of stories which has definitely whetted by appetite for more by Mortimer – I have previously read Daddy’s Gone a-hunting and The Pumpkin Eater.

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi was on the 2020 Booker shortlist – and was one title that I felt like I might like to read. My book group chose it as our February read and I was fairly certain it would be a book I would enjoy and was looking forward to it. However, as it turned out my relationship with this book was not quite so straight forward or always quite so positive.

I didn’t actively dislike the novel, however I found it very difficult to engage with it fully. I always think that is one of the most important thing for any book to do – the reader must engage at some level – be it positively or negatively. Doshi’s writing is beautiful, the prose is rich and visual – though because I failed to engage with the novel as I should have, many of those images that lovely writing should have left me with, have already faded. There was something about the flow of the novel that jarred a little for me – following discussion with my book group I wasn’t the only one who felt like that.

“…the mother I remember appears and vanishes in front of me, a battery-operated doll whose mechanism is failing. The doll turns inanimate. The spell is broken. The child does not know what is real or what can be counted on. Maybe she never knew. The child cries. I wish India allowed for assisted suicide like the Netherlands. Not just for the dignity of the patient, but for everyone involved. I should be sad instead of angry. Sometimes I cry when no one else is around – I am grieving, but it’s too early to burn the body.”

The mother daughter story is one that is written endlessly, it is a theme I generally like reading about. The viewpoint here though is all one way, our narrator is Antara, the daughter – a fairly unlikeable, unreliable narrator.  She is a young woman living in Pune in India – married to Dilip who grew up in America before coming to live in India. They live in their own apartment, Antara’s mother lives nearby.  Now Antara’s mother Tara is having memory problems, starting the gradual slide into dementia – forcing Antara into the role of a caregiver. There is a sharp resentment here – Antara never having forgiven her mother for the chaos of her childhood – for the times when she was absent.

As a young woman having entered into an arranged marriage, Tara shocked her family by leaving her husband and taking her young daughter to live in an ashram. Here Tara became the chosen lover of the ashram leader, leaving young Antara to be cared for by another devotee.

“The whites are still bright, some glaring and some almost blue, the white of widows, of mourners and renunciants, holy men and women, monks and nuns, the white of those who no longer belong in the world, who have already put one foot on another plane. The white of the guru and his followers. Maybe Ma saw this white cotton as the means to her truth, a blank slate where she could remake herself and find the path to freedom. For me it was something different, a shroud that covered us like the living dead, a white too stark ever to be acceptable in polite society. A white that marked us as outsiders. To my mother this was the colour of her community, but I knew better: the white clothes were the ones that separated us from our family, our friends and everyone else, that made my life in them a kind of prison.”

Later, Tara and her daughter endured a brief period of time as beggars, before being taken in by Antara’s grandparents. Antara’s memories of this period are bitter – but as others around her sometimes contradict her memories of that time – not to be relied upon.

In the present, with her mother clearly declining Antara is burdened by the expectations placed upon her – stifled by her memories and resentments. Should she try and move her mother into her apartment – or is she better in her own place? Antara and her husband often disagree about what the best course of action is. He doesn’t understand the anger that flares up between the two women. As much as Antara resents her mother – she is strongly connected to her – and starts to look into ways to help her mother, slow down the progression of her illness. Yet she also wants her to acknowledge the past and its effect.

However, it appears that there are things that Antara wants to remain hidden – things she would rather not have come back to the surface. There is a slightly shocking toxicity to Antara’s treatment of her mother as the novel progresses – a cruelty that while not physically abusive is still hard to read about.

As a novel about the roles of mothers and daughters – and women in general this provided my book group with a lot to talk about. Tara wasn’t the only neglectful, selfish parent, yet all the blame is placed on her by her damaged daughter. In this way I think Doshi is telling us something about modern Indian society. Antara is expected to look after her mother – and so she does or attempts to. None of the men in the book are portrayed sympathetically at all.

“I wonder how I will love Ma when she is at the end. How will I be able to look after her when the woman I know as my mother is no longer residing in her body? When she no longer has a complete consciousness of who she is and who I am, will it be possible for me to care for her the way I do now, or will I be negligent, the way we are with children who are not our own, or voiceless animals, or the mute, blind and deaf, believing we will get away with it, because decency is something we enact in public, with someone to witness and rate our actions, and if there is no fear of blame, what would the point of it be?”

I was left ultimately unsatisfied, wondering what I was supposed to take from this novel – and thinking I had maybe missed something. Perhaps Avni Doshi is showing us that the complexities of the mother daughter relationship are never-ending.

Many of us I think are finding ourselves in need of a comforting hug in book form every now and again, and the Mrs Tim books slide very nicely into that category. Hester Christie is delightful company for a few days, there is nothing too silly or fluffy here – she is instead sensible and nice and immensely likeable. Mrs Tim Flies Home is the fourth and sadly final book in the series – and time has marched forward. The war is over – though many service personnel like Colonel Tim are still stationed abroad.

It is always difficult to review books that are part of a series – as readers may not have read the others. However, for those of you who like these Furrowed Middlebrow type novels, and especially have enjoyed D E Stevenson’s Miss Buncle books, or the novels of O Douglas then I think the Mrs Tim books would suit you admirably. I think it is generally accepted that D E Stevenson’s novels vary a little in quality, but the Mrs Tim books are light without being silly, charming without being mawkish and have a gentle humour and warmth that make them just perfect for tired, lazy weekends.

All the novels take the form of a diary – and Hester’s voice is always a delight, while she is clearly and firmly middle class there is nothing snobbish or condescending about Hester, there is a lovely normalness about her. In the three previous novels we have followed Hester Christie through the war years and before – through several moves and promotions of her husband.

“In the course of my wanderings I have started life anew in many places, and in every place the same thing happens: at first there is little to do, one knows nobody and life passes by like a pageant, then gradually the world breaks in and one becomes a part of the pageant instead of a mere spectator.”

We have watched her throw herself at all those little domestic disasters that come along, child rearing, war work and a spell at a Scottish hotel. Through all those years Hester can’t help but be a good friend, she has even been known to try her hand at a little romantic match making.

Hester has spent a very happy eighteen months with her husband Tim stationed in Kenya, however as the novel opens she is heading home alone. While Tim stays in Kenya for a while Hester is heading back to England to be with their two now almost grown up children – who are both still nevertheless at school.

Hester has arranged to rent a house in the village of old Quinings close to the pub run by her faithful former maid Annie and her husband. She is planning a quiet summer with the children when they are home from school and looks forward to catching up with Annie too. 

Hester is flying home – which in itself is quite the thing for the early 1950s – but will be breaking her long journey by spending a couple of days in Rome. On the plane from Kenya Hester meets a woman called Rosa Alston – who she swerves spending any more time with in Rome, when an old friend turns up to surprise her.

A few days later settled back in England, and reunited with Annie, Hester is getting to know the charmingly named The Small House – where she looks forward to welcoming Bryan and Betty. Hester has almost forgotten all about Mrs Alston – but of course she turns up – having remembered Hester’s descriptions of the village and attracted by the sound of the place she arrives in Quinings with her son who needs plenty of quiet to complete his studies.

Soon enough Hester is dragged into the lives of others too. There are the usual curious neighbours as well as a dishonest landlady to be dealt with. As ever D E Stevenson gives us an enjoyable cast of characters, including an impoverished village librarian in need of some good fortune, young lovers and a nice chatty daily woman who advises everything should be done ‘straight off.’

“My life has made me what I am. It hasn’t been easy, sometimes I have found it almost unbearable, but suffering can be transmuted into strength-as a rod is tempered by passing through a furnace-and all my hard work, all my anxieties and failures and disappointments have made me what I am. When the rod is tempered it has to be polished and made fit for service…everything that happens as one goes through life helps to polish the rod. If I didn’t feel sure of that I couldn’t go on; I couldn’t face the future.”

The only cloud on the horizon for Hester is the knowledge that she has become the subject of some rather silly gossip – and Tim’s latest letters seem oddly abrupt.

This was a lovely conclusion to the Mrs Tim series – and of course there are lots and lots of D E Stevenson books still to read – she was nothing if not prolific. A lovely little nod to her Miss Buncle series of books can be spotted in a few mentions of the town of Wandlebury – where Hester has a pleasant lunch with family friend Tony Morley. It seems D E Stevenson often pops people and places from other books into her novels.

I have now read a good number of Rose Macaulay’s novels – she was a very interesting and prolific writer whose career spanned something like fifty years. Non-Combatants and Others is one of her earlier works re-issued last year by Handheld Press who have reissued two of her other earlier novels – which I highly recommend. This volume consists of the novel Non Combatants and Others – first published in 1916 – some pieces of journalism, some essays, and a short story. Together these pieces make up an excellent collection of writings against war – Rose Macaulay was a committed pacifist in the years before the second world war.

The novel is remarkable for being the first anti-war novel to have been published during The First World War. Considering how jingoistic the country was at this time, it seems extraordinary that she should have published it at all during the war – it seems at the very least quite a brave step.

The novel Non Combatants and Others is the longest piece in this volume at a little more than two-hundred pages. The non-combatants of the title being those who do not go off to war, the women, the conscientious objectors, and those whose health precludes them from joining the fray. Alix Sandomir is the main focus of the novel – a young woman studying art, as the novel opens it is 1915 and Alix is living with her aunt and cousins in the country. Alix’s father is dead, a Polish liberationist who died in a Russian prison, her mother Daphne is a campaigner for peace, she travels widely and is currently abroad again. A childhood illness has left Alix with a limp – she walks with a stick and is very conscious of her disability. Her aunts and cousins are busy with various kinds of war work – all of which has left Alix feeling rather out of things, she is unable to fully engage with what is happening all around her and the changes that war has brought with it.

“For among them, the centre of the family, was John; John wounded and just out of hospital and home on a month’s sick-leave; John with a red scar from his square jaw to his square forehead, stammering as he talked because the nerves of his tongue had been damaged. Alix, watching from the garden, saw the queer way his throat worked, struggling with some word.”

Alix decides to move in with a distant cousin she barely knows in London. Her cousin is a middle aged woman with two grown up daughters, their house -Violette – is closer to her art school – but it is also away from all the talk of war and war work. At Violette there is little if any talk of war. Her cousin Mrs Frampton is a comfortable, conventional woman, her daughters each have their own concerns. Kate is very prim her life seems to revolve largely around her church – she has little time for any enjoyment. Evie is very beautiful and she is all about enjoying herself – she has lots of friends, and lots of admirers and will be the unwitting and unthinking cause of Alix’s heartbreak.

From Violette Alix is able to carry on the life she wants to live. She attends her art school – she visits her brother Nicolas in the rooms he shares with his friend Rev West – and when her friend Basil is sent home from the war injured she is able to visit him too.

“He talked nonsense, absurdly; they all did. They all laughed, but Basil laughed most; he laughed too much. He said it was a horrible bore out there; funny, of course, in parts, but for the most part irredeemably tedious. And no reason to think it would ever end, except by both sides just getting too tired to go on…Idiotic business, chucking bombs over into trenches full of chaps you had no grudge against and who wished you no ill …and they chucking bombs at you, much more idiotic still. The whole thing hopelessly silly…”

There are some days out to be enjoyed with friends, but everywhere there are reminders of the war, as the year goes on, Alix is forced to face some of what is happening across the channel. Tragedy is brought right to her door – and the experiences of those around her can’t be entirely ignored. To this point Alix has been quite selfish – concerning herself only with what she wants to be concerned with – keeping everything else at bay. This cannot be sustained.

Cleverly Rose Macaulay shows us the various points of view of all these characters – revealing how the war impacted on different people in different ways and how that manifested itself – with some people hiding quite well how they really were.

Alix’s mother Daphne arrives in London in time to help Alix re-evaluate the way she is living.

Following on from this excellent novel – are the non-fiction pieces written between 1936 and 1945 for Time and Tide, The Spectator and The Listener. These pieces are really well written – together they detail the rise of fascism abroad and in the UK and the response to war of ordinary people.

“Where an hour back two houses stood in this small street, there is a jumbled mountain of fallen masonry, rubble, the shattered debris of two crashed homes; beneath it lie jammed those who lived there; some of them call out, crying for rescue, others are dumb. Through the pits and craters in the rubbled mass the smell of gas seeps.”

(5 October 1940)

One piece I found fascinating and chilling was her report on a visit (in her role as a journalist) to one of Mosely’s rallies. Other pieces discuss such things as the differing attitudes to the death and destruction of war, pacifism, and post-war morality.

The final piece in the book is Miss Anstruther’s Letters – a wonderful short story from 1942 – which I have read twice before. It is beautifully rendered, memorable because of its simple poignancy and the fact it is based on an incident in Rose Macaulay’s own life.

Together this novel and the non-fiction pieces that follow it provide an extraordinary sense of the pain and anger that so many felt towards the suffering that war brought with it.