Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

This plain little red hardback volume has been sat on my tbr pretty much forgotten for a few years now. His Master’s Voice by Ivy Litvinov a detective novel set in Moscow. It was the Librarything monthly themed read that made me take it off the shelves. I have been pretty useless with this challenge this year, only having joined in with January and February’s challenges so far. I was initially keen to join in most months but this has been my worst reading year ever, so it’s probably not surprising I’ve failed here too. For June’s challenge we had to read a book by a VMC author but that hadn’t been published as a VMC. I knew Ivy Litvinov’s collection of stories She Knew She was Right was an original VMC green spine – it’s one I have tbr – but was pretty sure this novel was never published as a VMC, so hopefully it does qualify.

I really enjoyed my first experience of Ivy Litvinov, I happened to start reading this on a very slow reading week (I think they are all pretty slow though at the moment) so it felt like a bit of a slow burn at the start, but once I got going with it I liked it a lot. The thing that pulled me in immediately was the stunning prose with which this novel opens – Litvinov introduces us to Moscow, on a bitterly cold night in February – and the sense of place is just incredible. It was enough for me to say, yes I really want to read this.

“The town seemed not so much asleep as strangled, locked in frost. The Kremlin palace and its numerous churches and spires looked down over toothed walls on silent squares, empty bridges, and abandoned streets. On summer evenings it looks down on its own reflection in the water, regally quiescent; on this bitter night in February,1926, when the frozen river refused to mirror its crude walls and fantastic buildings, it was more like a picture in a book for children than anything that had ever answered to the requirements of human beings.”

The novel doesn’t continue in quite such descriptive terms as the business of the story takes over, but Litvinov is a gifted writer, nevertheless. On this cold night a man is murdered. The dead man a resident of one of the countless yards in Moscow – the night watchman witness to the comings and goings, before in the early hours he too goes inside to his family to sleep.  It is the night watchman’s wife who discovers the dead man, early next morning, when taking him his breakfast. Arkady Petrovich Pavlov sat at his table, with a dagger sticking out of his neck, his head dropped forward on to his gramophone.

It falls to District Procurator Nikulin to investigate the crime – called to the telephone on a Sunday morning when he had been hoping for a lie in and time with the papers. He is aided by Detective Yanovitsky. Several items are recovered from the scene, including the dagger, a couple of gilded coins of tinfoil as if off some sort of garment or costume, a programme for the Bolshoi theatre dated the day of the murder, and a note signed with a letter s.

Investigations soon take the Procurator to the Bolshoi theatre and suspicion quickly falls on one of the ballerinas Tamara Geyorgyevna Dolidzey, who had been with the dead man on the evening he died, and whose dagger was found sticking out of his neck. 

“‘Well now Tamara, I have something to say to you. This morning Pavlov was found dead with this dagger – your dagger, Tamara – in his neck. Nobody is known to have come to him but yourself and nobody was there but yourself, Tamara. Nobody played your accompaniments on a piano because there was no piano in the room. There were no other guests. You were alone with Pavlov between twelve and one, and between twelve and three Pavlov was killed – with your dagger Tamara’

The girl listened to him with distended eyes and rapidly paling cheeks. She became so ashen white that the procurator looked around for a glass of water…”

The young dancer is locked up while investigations continue – protesting her innocence, horrified at what has befallen her. The reader is sure of course that Tamara is innocent – and soon enough the Procurator begins to have some doubts himself. Everything points to Tamara and yet there is the possibility that she is innocent. The Procurator begins getting manicures from a woman who did Pavlov’s nails, in a bid to know his victim a little better but more and more all roads seem to lead to the theatre.

As investigations continue there is the suggestion that Pavlov was really someone else, someone who had belonged to a secret political society – who might have an enemy still out there looking for him. Another dancer from the Bolshoi is brought in for questioning, a young man who has been harbouring tender feelings for Tamara and may have acted out of jealousy. As the conflicting evidence and testimonies mount, a journalist Julius Caesarovich Itkin (a somewhat improbable name) begins to interest himself in the case – and he doesn’t believe in Tamara’s guilt at all.

This was a really clever mystery which really did keep me guessing – lots of little twists along the way, meant I couldn’t possibly guess the outcome. I must make time to read that collection of stories by Ivy Litvinov, clearly a sadly neglected writer.

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This was a kindle book purchase that I made on a whim, after hearing about the book on the BBC’s Between the Covers programme. I started reading it a day or two later. The Return of Faraz Ali is Aamina Ahmad’s debut novel – and an excellent one at that. There are more layers to this novel than I had initially expected, the premise I saw online making it sound a little like something else. It was such a pleasant surprise that there was so much more to this novel.

Faraz Ali is a police inspector, in late 1960’s Pakistan. In 1968, Faraz has been dispatched to a police station in Lahore’s red light district tasked with whitewashing the murder of a young girl. The child has been killed by a man of great power, though no one seems to know who. Faraz must make it all go away. The man responsible for Faraz’s new assignment is Wajid, Faraz’s biological father.

“He waited for his mother and his sister, who had followed them downstairs, to wave good-bye, but they didn’t. His mother went back inside the kotha and called for Rozina to follow her. She didn’t watch as he disappeared around the corner. He knew then they would not bring him back, just as he knew his amma’s sorrow had not made her powerful. It had not, he realized, made her remarkable in any way at all.”

Unknown to anyone in his life, Faraz was born into the Mahalla, the red light district of Lahore. He began his life growing up alongside his older sister, living with their mother, one of the district’s courtesans within a tradition where a mother would raise her daughters to follow in her footsteps – and her sons would grow up to act as pimps. Wajid had initially left his son to grow up in the Mahalla with the woman who he had had a secret relationship with – only later he stole him back. Ripping the young boy from his mother and sister and everything he knew, and giving him into the care of relatives.

Faraz, has his own family now, married to the woman he chose, a woman who married him because he was the sensible choice, they have a baby daughter. His new status as a family man and father, making him question his past, and wonder about this mother and sister – he has virtually no memory of his early life – a few images remain, haunting him. Now he is back, and he can’t stop himself looking for the family he lost.

“…since the arrival of his daughter, Faraz had thought constantly of going back. Nazia was of him now; who else was? He longed for the family he scarcely remembered, his mother and sister, to know Nazia, who ought to be known, and to understand the legacy—however poor—he’d given her.”

The Mohalla comes to life in Ahmad’s descriptions of it and the lives of the people who live here, she doesn’t sugar coat it – this is very much the short straw of life. This is a period of political upheaval – there is plenty of talk of riots and elections, corruption and power. Yet the lives of the women in Lahore’s red light district continue as they have for generations. Women are exploited and tossed aside here – their lives have little value – except perhaps to one another.

“When they turned into Heera Mandi Bazaar, he scoured the doorways, the open apartment windows above the stores, searching for something—anything—he might recognize, his body stiffening in anticipation. But the bazaar looked familiar only in that it looked like most others in the city. He tried to temper his disappointment; he’d always known he’d need another way to find his people—his memories, which were vague, fragments at best, wouldn’t lead him to them. They passed a line of shops that sold handmade instruments, dholkis, tablas, sitars, and then a stretch of function rooms where audiences came for dance, song, and, Faraz knew, the other things you could buy here.”

Faraz is not happy with his assignment, he doesn’t want the man who killed that young girl to get away with it, he looks into the eyes of the girl’s mother and see her pain. He understands the loss suffered by the girl’s mother and brother; he recognises her as a person. However, he quickly comes to see he is fairly powerless. His actions make some of his new colleagues suspicious, he knows he doesn’t have much time, so quickly begins making rather more enquiries than anyone is expecting him to. A visit to his father Wajid, at his comfortable home, where Wajid’s wife and Faraz’s half siblings live in some luxury underlines further, how little he can actually do. Wajid is not ready for Faraz to disobey orders.

Meanwhile Faraz’s mother Firdous is still in the Mohalla, she is bringing up her grandchild as her own daughter. Faraz’s sister Rozina has made it out of the Mohalla – her beauty and talent allowing her to raise her status to that of a minor celebrity. Her daughter Mina is growing up with Firdous, she only knows Rozina as her sister. Only, age is starting to catch up with Rozina, the married man who pays for her lifestyle, is already looking elsewhere – and Rozina knows it’s only a matter of time until she is back where she started in the Mohalla.

Having seriously angered Wajid, and asked too many of the wrong questions, Faraz is sent to Dacca –in what at this time was still called East Pakistan. The political backdrop to this novel is fascinating, the dictatorship of Ayub, and the rise of Bhutto as well as the start of Bangladesh’s independence all come into play. Ahmad doesn’t over explain things – which I am always glad of – she trusts in her reader’s intelligence (and Google) and so there are no awkward explanations of cultural terms, swear words or political figures shoe-horned in. Throughout the novel are little flashbacks to Eton educated Wajid’s time as a POW during the Second World War in the desert of North Africa – where he talks of his baby son for the first time. Years later, that son will also find himself a POW during the struggle for Bangladesh’s independence.

The Return of Faraz Ali is such a good debut novel – deeply poignant, in its exploration of what family means. It spans several years and takes us from Lahore to Dacca to London and back. A beautiful novel of love, identity and loss – and how we can’t help but carry those things with us.

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We come to books in a variety of ways, I find. I came to this one through a Twitter conversation – the subject of which I can’t remember now, but two people mentioned having absolutely loved this book and I soon found myself buying it. I don’t need much convincing where Dean Street Press books are concerned. I later discovered I already had an e-book version on my kindle – sent to me by the publisher, but I am glad I have the real book version to keep.

Ruby Ferguson was a prolific writer, Apricot Sky was her sixth novel under the name Ruby Fergusson, although she had also published several mystery novels under the name of R C Ashby between 1926 and 1934. Additionally she published a series of children’s pony books – the Jill series during the 1940s and 50s. The only book by her I had read was Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary which Persephone has reissued, though it is some years since I read it.  

Apricot Sky is one of those wonderful middlebrow titles that is a sheer joy to read. I read the majority of it during the last few days of my half term holiday, it was perfect company. Set in the Scottish Highlands three years after the end of the war, featuring a large lovable family, their optimism, love, humour set against the ups and downs of normal (sometimes chaotic) family life is absolutely irresistible. There are all the usual deprivations left over from the war, in terms of food shortages etc – but they aren’t dwelt upon and the characters seem capable of rising above such petty concerns.  

Mr and Mrs MacAlvey are a generally loving and cheerful middle aged couple, despite having lost two sons during the war. They are however, still surrounded by the remainder of their large family. There is Raine, newly engaged to Ian Garvine, the younger brother of the laird of Larrich, the sprawling old farm where Raine and her sister spent much of their time growing up. Cleo is just returned from three years in America – everyone excited at her coming home and wondering if she will have become all American. She still harbours a secret love for Neil Garvine, laird, older brother and everyone thinks confirmed bachelor. Raine and Cleo’s brother James lives not too far away with his neurotic wife Trina – who utterly smothers their two slightly nervous children. The housekeeper is Vannah – who after many years is really just another member of the family, and loved by all.

Three MacAlvey grandchildren live in the MacAlvey homestead too – orphaned during the war they slightly wild and adventurous – spending hours out of the house messing around in boats and delighting in the long summer holidays. These three, Primrose, Gavin and Archie keep everyone on their toes with their summer exploits. When the children hear that their English cousins are coming to visit – they are dismayed – fearing an end to their holiday adventures. The beginning of the stay is certainly not auspicious.

“It was a relief when the dinner gong sounded. The children made their way to the bottom of the table, where they usually sat in unobtrusive silence, avoiding any awkward questions from their elders, but this did not suit Cecil and Elinore, who waited to be given places by Mrs MacAlvey. Very soon Cecil was intelligently discussing the shooting prospects with Mr MacAlvey, while Elinore chatted in a sophisticated way with Cleo and Raine and was obviously making a big hit.”

Clearly, Elinore and Cecil are nothing like the MacAlvey children, Elinore in her silk stockings and court shoes at fourteen and sixteen year old Cecil in a tie and smart tweed sports jacket seem very buttoned up and prim. Soon enough, Elinore and Cecil get drawn into their cousins’ adventures which aren’t without risk.

Cleo quickly settles back into her old home with relief – planning on going to Edinburgh to find a new job after the summer. She is delighted to see her sister so happy, and throws herself into the wedding planning, and helping Raine and Ian decide what alterations need to be made to the old house before it welcomes its new mistress. Cleo proves to have a good eye for this kind of thing.

“I’m haunted by an awful dread,” said Raine. “It was a wedding Mysie once went to. The bridegroom never turned up and the bride swooned at the altar.”
“Have you practised swooning?”

As happy as she is for her sister, Cleo is saddened to see that Neil seems barely to notice her, while every time he is anywhere near her, she can barely concentrate. She tries hard to reacquaint herself with Neil, but is distressed by how stilted and strained their conversations seem to be. It doesn’t help that a glamourous young widow, Inga Duthie has moved into the area, a tenant of Neil’s, at ease with everyone, who in turn think she is wonderful. Cleo decides she can’t stand her. So, she is less than delighted to have to go and take tea with her.

“‘Of course I am a fool’ thought Cleo joylessly applying lipstick, ‘and I have a diseased mind. No wonder nobody likes me.’

In this low-spirited mood she found herself putting on a green linen coat and skirt which did not suit her and an organdie blouse which was wilted from having been worn before.

‘As if I cared’ she told her unpromising reflection in the mirror. I’m not competing.’”

There are visitors galore – one of whom talks endlessly about her operation, a garden party, visits to the neighbours, hikes, picnics and lots of wedding talk. So in a sense there isn’t really much plot – but who cares? It’s a simply charming story of a lovely family, everyday life, adventurous child exploits and romance set against the stunning landscape of the Scottish Highlands. Its definitely the kind of book I am always sad to finish, it was such a pleasure spending time with this family. It is also a novel which is frequently delightfully funny.

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Translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie

My book group chose to read The Braid by Laetitia Colombani in June, it was a novel I hadn’t heard of. Suggested by one of our two book group members who live in Bordeaux.

It is the story of three different women, from different countries who each face unique challenges. These women’s lives are destined to be intertwined by a single object. The stories of the three women are told in alternating chapters, and this way of telling their stories made this a really quick and involving read.

I suppose with a premise like that, the reader is always going to be looking for the connection – and I have to say I worked out very early what the connection was likely to be. In fact I was irritated by how obvious I thought it was – though overall I enjoyed the novel immensely. However, talking to the book group on Monday night’s zoom get together, two of the group said they hadn’t work out the connection at all – so perhaps it isn’t that obvious after all and just my brain racing ahead. The wonderful thing about book groups is hearing how other people experience and respond to the same book. Incidentally, our book group has become fairly international now. Due to the pandemic we went over to zoom, and are still meeting that way. So while five of us are from here in Birmingham UK, we have two member in Bordeaux and two in Canada. I must say I think I prefer book group by zoom – but I digress.

Bradlapur, Uttar Pradesh, India, Smita is a Dalit woman (a so called Untouchable) she has spent her life from childhood clearing out the village latrines by hand, it’s horrific, degrading work, which she has never got used to. This is the life she was born to, and is expected to pass on to her daughter.

“Smita wakes with a strange feeling. Urgent, gentle, new; butterflies in her stomach. Today is a day she will remember her whole life. Today, her daughter will go to school. School, where Smita has never set foot. Here in Badlapur, people like her don’t go to school. Smita is a Dalit. Of those whom Mahatma Gandhi called Harijan, the Children of God. ‘The oppressed.’ Untouchable. Unworthy. A species apart, judged too impure to mix with others, rejected and separated, like the chaff from the wheat. Millions like Smita live outside the villages, outside society; on the margins of humanity.”

However, Smita is determined her daughter won’t have the life she has had. She wants her to go to school, to escape the humiliation of her caste and live an entirely different life. Her husband agrees to pay the schoolteacher to take their daughter into school – but when the child is treated badly by the teacher, made to sweep the classroom, Smita insists it is time for them to leave the village and make their way to the city where there will be more chance to escape the traditional rules laid down for their caste. This carries great risk, for if they are discovered trying to run, the consequences for Smita and her daughter especially would be horrific. Smita is brave, and has great determination, she won’t allow her daughter to live as she has.

In Sicily, Giulia works with her father at his wig factory, once part of a thriving industry it is the last of its kind. Giulia has learned the trade from her father and the other women he employs, washing, dyeing and bleaching the hair they buy from regular customers and hairdressers. When Giulia’s father is seriously hurt in an accident, Giulia uncovers the truth about the business’s financial situation and it begins to look like the factory’s days are numbered. However, Giulia is not ready to give up her father’s beloved business, she can’t bear to be the one that sounds its death nell. When she meets a man who is an outsider within the Sicilian community he tuns out to be her potential saviour – in more ways than one. She will need to overcome her family’s fierce hold on the traditional way the business has been run, and convince them to adapt their ways in order to survive.

In Montreal, Canada Sarah is a very successful lawyer. Twice divorced, with two children and a male nanny, she has sacrificed a lot to get where she is. She works in a very competitive environment, she has no personal relationships among her colleagues, many of whom are just waiting to jump into her shoes whenever the chance may come.

“Untouchable: that was what Sarah had become. Relegated to the margins of society. And so no, she would not go back there, to the arena that had condemned her to death. They wouldn’t see her fall. She wouldn’t make a spectacle of herself, offer herself up to the lions. She still had one thing – her dignity.”

Any sign of weakness, Sarah knows would be the end for her. When Sarah faces a personal health crisis, she decides to soldier on, no one will know what she is going through, she will not allow her career and the position she has worked hard to achieve to be compromised. Only, as Sarah finds, this is easier said than done.

Each of these woman though living very different lives are each incredibly determined, showing great fortitude and resilience. Sarah is possibly the hardest one to sympathise with, though her story is just as fascinating as the other two. Aside from these three strong, interesting women, it was really nice to see a couple of lovely positive male characters too.

Next month I have persuaded my book group to read Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns and I am equal parts excited and terrified. I love Barbara Comyns so much, what if everyone else doesn’t?

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O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker was a novel I hadn’t even heard of until very recently. With W&N Essentials reissuing it last year this 1991 novel has been enjoying something of a renaissance. Several other bloggers, including Jacqui had been very enthusiastic about it, and I bought it following those reviews, knowing it would be right up my street.

It is a darkly, strange coming of age novel set in a draughty Scottish castle. As others have said previously, this is a novel with shades of Dodie Smith, Barbara Comyns and Shirley Jackson. It is a wonderfully imaginative novel, slightly gothic in tone, it is rich in vivid imagery, and beautifully written.

“Vera was painting the pony’s hooves gold in the dining room; Janet said this was bad for him; poison would seep into his bloodstream.”

The novel starts with a death, a murder in fact. Sixteen year old Janet, dressed in her mother’s black, lace evening gown lies at the bottom of a stone staircase in the Scottish castle where she had grown up. However, this is not a crime novel or a mystery to be solved, it is revealed almost at once that Janet’s murderer has been caught and locked up. Instead this is the story of Janet’s too short life. After her death, there seems to be little or no regret, she is dispensed with in the usual way, and then forgotten about. It’s a cold, tragic way for a young life to end.

“After that, only the speywives, the fishwives, the midwives, the ill-wishers spoke of her, endlessly rehearsing a litany of blame; for blame there must be, and no one could blame the murderer. Their voices whined and droned, spiteful as the sleety wind which slashed their headscarves across their faces as they huddled by the village bus stop, dreary as the wind which spat hail down the chimney as they took Sunday afternoon tea in the cold parlours of outlying crofts, where the Bible was open beside a ticking clock and rock buns were assembled on snowy doilies, malignly aglitter with the menace of carbonised currants. So they blamed the mother for giving the child all those books to read.”

The first few years of Janet’s life, during the War, are spent in Glasgow, with her mother Vera, and her grandfather in a manse by the sea while her father Hector is away fighting. On his return the family move to the remote castle, where roses refuse to grow. Four more siblings quickly follow. Janet’s life here is one full of misunderstanding. The oldest of five siblings, she is always at odds with the adults in her life. Janet is not like her siblings, they are more conventional, smooth haired and more attractive – her whole life, Janet was the outsider within her own family.

Cousin Lila – a cousin by marriage really – also lives in the castle, an arrangement under the terms of Hector’s inheritance. The Russian born, whisky drinking Lila is also an outsider, so it’s probably not surprising that Janet is drawn to her. Poor Janet is always getting into trouble, sometimes because she makes a mistake or doesn’t quite understand – yet everyone around her seems convinced that she is naughty, wilful and doing things deliberately. Janet withdraws more and more into her own world. She loves the wild landscape around the castle, she is at one with the natural world, her own fantastic imagination, and her love of books. She has a pet jackdaw, Claws who takes up residence in the doll’s house that was bought for her but she never played with.

“He was free to range wherever he wished; always he came back to her and at night they repaired to her room, where he roosted like a guardian spirit on the Iron rail of her bed. He was a magic bird. She loved him more than she had loved anything, anything or anyone.”

During her teenage years Janet is packed off to a boarding school, miles away. Being away from the landscape she so loves is hard on this lonely girl, who even at school makes no real friends. She finds her own way to survive it, books and her imagination her saving grace. It turns out that sport is very important at this school, but Janet loathes sport, and doesn’t do well when she tries, so she throws herself into her schoolwork, much to the disgust of her peers.

The older Janet gets, the nearer the end we get. Barker has created a wonderfully memorable character in Janet, she has a rich, creative inner life and we wonder what she might have become. There is a terrible sadness in the fact Janet never finds the tenderness and understanding that she should have had.

“And there had been the occasion when a friend of her parents had told them she thought Janet had a lovely face. Vera had reported this in accents of astonishment. Janet’s delight had rapidly turned to fear. She must never again meet this woman in case she changed her mind.”

We know of course from the first page how this story will end, and there is a dark poignancy to this lonely, life, but Barker’ storytelling is perfectly balanced. So, in the same way the reader accepts the darkness at the heart of the stories of Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge so we accept this one. Perhaps it helps to know right from the start where we are going, there’s no point lying awake worrying about this character.

Well everyone who said I would love this novel was right, I did. Barker’s descriptions of the natural world are beautiful, shot through with little nuggets of surrealism and gothic imagery – and it seems I never tire of coming of age tales.

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Pamela Hansford Johnson I think is probably still a much neglected writer. That is a real shame however, as she was a very good writer indeed, and a very prolific one. Hodder and Stoughton have re-issued some of her titles (including this one) though I have had a lovely first edition of it waiting on my tbr for some time. Very pleased that I finally pulled it from the shelf.

The Unspeakable Skipton is the first book in a trilogy which is completed by the books Night and Silence Who is Here? And Cork Street, Next to the Hatters – Pamela Hansford Johnson was good at titles. Since finishing this book, I have tracked down old copies of those, and snapped them up on ebay – just waiting for them to arrive now.

This is a wryly satirical novel which I thought was very enjoyable, though not an enormous amount happens. Daniel Skipton, the unspeakable one of the title is an English ex pat living in Bruges in some poverty. He is a writer, utterly convinced of his own genius and fairly disparaging of pretty much everyone else around him. His room is sparsely and poorly furnished, he is frequently hungry and there are many days when he takes steps to avoid meeting his landlady in the hallway. He spends a lot of time writing rude letters to Willy; his publisher regarding his manuscripts which are clearly unpublishable, or to his elderly aunt “Flabby Anne”, who he is convinced keeps peacocks, is rolling in money and conspiring to keep it from him. He is forever looking for ways to raise some money, totting up what he has spent and how much is left and despairing at the figures before him. Skipton is a well-drawn character, not especially likeable, though no one in this novel is. The one thing he does seem to appreciate is Bruges – a place where he has lived for some time, and knows well.

“A miraculous evening. The sky broke like an egg into full sunset and the water caught fire. He held his breath: an angel could appear in full dress with insignia, he would not be surprised. It was a wretched thing, on an evening like this, he had to turn away from such majestic sweetness to write to such a swine as Willy”

In the evening Daniel ventures forth watching out for likely looking tourists who he can con out of some much needed money. Offering various services to mainly English tourists, the sourcing and procuring of works of art (some of which may or may not be what they are hoped to be) he can strike a mean little deal with the Flemish seller who has clearly had dealings with Daniel Skipton before.

Towards the beginning of this novel, Skipton comes across a peculiar little party of English tourists in a café terrace opposite the Cloth Hall. Dorothy Merlin, a verse-dramatist, her bookseller husband Cosmo Hines, and their friends Duncan Moss and Matthew Pryar.

“Daniel was not one to peer round and about him. He sat proudly aloof, his profile raised, his mouth sternly set. He could see who was behind him in the pocket mirror concealed in his cupped hands.

Just behind him was a party of four people, English, one woman and three men. The woman was short and meagre, perhaps at the beginning of her forties. She was dark-skinned, and the hair wrenched back from her box-like forehead into a bun had a surface fuzz which the violence used upon it had been unable to repress. Her eyes were prominent, her nose was small and hooked. She looked like some distraught bird chained by one claw to a perch.”

He woos them very cleverly by promising access to a strange little spectacle that he pretends to be rather a little shocked by, and so piques their interest beautifully. In this way, he brings himself into their orbit and earns himself a fee. Skipton is quick to judge Dorothy and her companions, however, they turn out to be people to be reckoned with. Though, no matter the difficulties, no matter how much running around and conspiring he has to do, Skipton is never less than completley unshakable in his belief in himself.

Through this funny little band of friends, Skipton meets Querini, an Italian singer and apparently a count, and the mysterious, grand socialite Mrs Jones. Even these two in the end prove too much for Skipton, and the reader is unsurprised that not everything works out as he had planned.

There is a lot of dark humour in Hansford Johnson’s portrayal of Skipton, though in the end there is something rather tragic about him. The huge disconnect between how the world sees Skipton and how he sees himself is the beginning of it, his scathing opinion of everyone else, his desperation at trying to appear to be something he isn’t, and his own self-delusion is pathetically sad. However, Skipton is not the kind of character anyone will shed tears over.

1950s Bruges, with its old buildings, canals and ringing bells is beautifully recreated – this strong sense of place clearly written by someone who knew and loved the city. Bruges is a city I have encountered in PHJ’s fiction before. All in all a thoroughly enjoyable novel – and I am looking forward to reading the next two books, and will try not to leave it to long before I do.

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One of the most recent publications to come from the British Library Women Writers series was Strange Journey by Maud Cairnes. Yet another gem within a collection that just keeps turning out absolute winners.

I feel that there should be a class of fiction that Strange Journey fits into – but I can’t really think of an accurate term. It isn’t science fiction or magical realism, and yet there is a slightly whimsical, fantastical element to it. Readers of books like The Love Child, Lolly Willowes and Miss Carter and the Ifrit – will thoroughly enjoy it though I’m sure. So, if this 1935 novel is a type – then it is a type I very much enjoy.

Have you ever, just for a moment wanted to change places with someone else? That idea is at the heart of this deliciously entertaining little novel. In this body swap comedy, the minds of two complete strangers, each from different social worlds randomly switch places. Polly Wilkinson and Lady Elizabeth have never met, never heard of one another. When middle class housewife Polly, sees the smart, sleek car in which Lady Elizabeth is being driven, she wishes just for a moment to swap places with whoever is inside, to experience the leisured ease that they must surely enjoy.

“Suddenly I felt a longing to change places with her, to get into that big, comfortable looking car, lean back in the soft cushions I felt sure that it contained, while the chauffeur made it glide away through the dusk to some pleasant house where there would be efficient servants and tea waiting, with a silver teapot, thin china, and perhaps hot scones, nice deep arm chairs to sit in, and magazines lying on the table.”

 So, when a little later, following a moment’s dizziness, Polly finds herself in the body of another woman, in a large country house, she is utterly bewildered.

How Polly (as Lady Elizabeth) copes with not knowing who anyone is, where her bedroom is and what just happened a few minutes earlier is hilarious. Those around her seem to pick up on moments when Elizabeth is just being a little odd – saying strange things, reacting to things in a way in which she wouldn’t usually, and think no more of it. The dogs however know something’s up and growl and bare their teeth at Polly. Maud Cairnes has a lot of fun with this story, Lady Elizabeth – who never plays bridge, suddenly and surprisingly trouncing everyone only never to sit down to bridge again, the accomplished horsewoman falling screeching from her mount, and screaming the place down, as the birds shot down on a shoot, rain down around her head. Meanwhile Polly is suddenly a wonderful pianist, and a huge social success at dinner with her husband’s boss. There’s a lovely moment when Polly overwhelmed by the choice of jewels in Lady Elizabeth’s jewellery box just puts it all on. Later someone, thinking she has done it as a joke calls her a Christmas tree.

“She then opened a big jewel case in which there were several tiers. I thought it looked like a real treasure chest, when I saw brooches and necklaces, bracelets, ear-rings and rings, all in velvet compartments. I just stared. Late for dinner or not I had no intention of hurrying over my choice. I took a sort of collar of emeralds and diamonds, and put it round my neck; it looked wonderful. Then I found some emerald and diamond ear-rings, long ones, and some bangles; I put two or three of these and a big diamond brooch like a spray, that cheered up the dress a lot.

Then I saw the pearls — three long ropes of them — and one shorter one. I put the ropes on and looked happily at my reflection in the mirror.

“I think I want something on my head now,” said I, wondering if it was a grand enough party for a tiara.

Foley, who had been looking rather stunned, smiled respectfully as though I had made a joke. I gathered that it was not a tiara occasion.”

It takes Polly a while to realise that while she is being Lady Elizabeth, Lady Elizabeth is being her. Polly returns to herself, to find her living room furniture has been rearranged, dinner invitations accepted and the children told extraordinary tales – that she must now carry on with.  Polly realises that Elizabeth’s marriage isn’t very happy, but senses that Elizabeth wants it to be – can she help? Lady Elizabeth meanwhile is doing her own little bit of meddling – paving the way for two lonely people to make one another very happy. When the inevitable happens, and the two women meet – they decide to try and find a way to control the gift that has been thrust upon them.

Of course, class is a big part of this novel – and it helps if you understand all the subtle differences in Polly and Elizabeth’s worlds. Those subtleties would have been more apparent to contemporary readers than twenty-first century ones, though that whole fish out of water element still works, even if you aren’t. Polly and her husband are not exactly the Clampetts after all, they are a nice middle class couple with two children, on a reasonable, though not excessive income, living in a nice suburb, they can afford to pay a daily and Polly has no need to go out to work. Lady Elizbeth is from an entirely different world, a large country house, a home in London, with hunting and riding part of everyday life. As someone who reads a fair bit of fiction from between the wars the differences in class were perfectly evident. However, some of the greatest subtleties are in speech, and these are harder for the twenty-first century reader to pick up on. So I was very glad for Simon Thomas’s afterword in which he explained those very things I had been a little puzzled about. This story is perfect for lots of little social faux pas and so when Polly (in the body of Lady Elizabeth) asks a butler to announce her as Lady Forrester, I had a feeling it was wrong, though I didn’t know why it was wrong, again Simon helped me out.

This novel is an absolute hoot – thoroughly entertaining, light without being silly. I only wished it had been a little longer.

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Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Mrs Mohr Goes Missing is the first of two mystery novels by Maryla Szymiczkowa to have been translated into English. This was passed on to me by my friend Sian, who has previously been the source of good, quirky fiction in translation. Maryla Szymiczkowa is the pen name for writing duo Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczyński. In this novel they write with some gentle, wry humour, which I thoroughly appreciated.

This novel is more than just a mystery story though, it is also a wry glimpse into turn of the century Polish manners. Set towards the end of the nineteenth century, a time when Poland didn’t exist as an independent country it was partitioned by three empires. Cracow however, where this novel is largely set, had special status, it was semi-autonomous at this period, under the control of all three empires. The author’s preface at the beginning, explains all of this in more detail, quite fascinating.

Cracow, 1893. Zofia Turbotyńska is a bored housewife, married to Professor Ignacy Turbotyńska of the medical faculty at the university, of whom she is very proud. Nevertheless, Zofia has her own ideas about certain medical conditions and how to keep them at bay, ideas that clearly don’t tally with those of her husband.

“Zofia had felt as if cholera were standing at the gates, and that it was time to protect herself from it. Unfortunately, her husband had his own tiresome medical opinion on how to treat this illness, which was that wine may well taste good, and might even fortify the organism as a whole, but wouldn’t keep cholera at bay; he droned on tediously about the comma bacillus and hygiene, insisting that the only cure was to build proper waterworks. But Zofia knew her facts: washing one’s hands was not half as effective as wine recommended by the medical authorities.”

Always keen to improve her own social standing whenever possible she can’t help but make reference to her husband’s new exalted status whenever she has the opportunity. With the habit of dispensing with her cook at regular intervals, her current employee Franciszka has been with her several months. For whenever Zofia is tempted to fire her, she remembers with pleasure how she poached the girl from her cousin who she detests.

“Like a true member of the Cracow bourgeoise, Zofia Turbotyńska was not a fan of the day off; spare time could be devoted to something useful, such as cleaning the silver or washing a few windows. But so be it – half a day once a week had to be relinquished, as a guarantee not only by contract but also by custom, that is the rules of the Dutkiewicz house, which Franciszka had brought with her from Floriańska street to St John’s.”

Having decided to organise a charity raffle, Zofia plans to enlist the patronage of some elderly, aristocratic ladies. With this in mind she accompanies Franciszka to Helcel House, a retirement home run by nuns. While Franciszka goes round to where the almsmen and women are housed to visit her aunt, Zofia finds her way inside, to speak to one or two of the nuns she knows. Hoping for an introduction to the grander old ladies who live in their own small apartments within Helcel House, and even keep their own maids. Zofia is immediately aware of an unusual flurry of activity with nuns bustling along the corridor at speeds seldom seen before. For it seems that Zofia has walked straight into a little mystery, one of the ladies from Helcel House has gone missing. The poor woman is eventually found, dead, hidden in an attic, the first of two deaths to occur.

Having once discovered a maid was stealing sugar from her, Zofia considers herself adept at investigation, and throws herself whole-heartedly into finding the killer. The watchman is arrested and taken away, but Zofia knows he is innocent, and she doesn’t mind telling the investigating magistrate that he has got it wrong. Zofia goes into full investigative mode, all while keeping her activities a secret from her husband, who is afraid won’t think it quite seemly. The mystery does take a much more serious turn when the second death occurs, and Zofia finds herself in quite a complex mystery, but one she is determined to solve – and she does, of course, bringing everyone, suspects and police together for the big reveal.

Outside of the mystery element there is a lot of lovely detail about late nineteenth century life in Cracow. There is a grand opening of a theatre to attend, and the traditions associated with All Souls Day and All Saints Day, and a funeral to be attended. Zofia is a social climber, she is a bit of a snob, but she is clever and sparky and I liked her despite her obvious flaws.

I think readers of Golden Age mystery novels would enjoy this as I did, the style is very much in that tradition, with good character development and matters of the society as a whole creating a fascinating backdrop to the main events.

I am definitely going to get myself a copy of the second book Karolina, or the Torn Curtain, soon, as I want to see just what Zofia gets up to next.

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A Well Full of Leaves is one of the two most recently published books by Persephone, and I was lucky to receive this one for my birthday from Liz. It has been out of print for decades, the author herself died prematurely in 1947. The piece on the Persephone website about this novel seems to suggest that it may be a book that will divide readers. I can see why that might be, I enjoyed it – though I feel enjoyed is the wrong word, as there is a lot of unhappiness here. I would say don’t be put off by the Kirkus review that is pasted into the description of the novel on Goodreads. This is a novel that is very beautifully written, and while some readers may dislike the long descriptive passages, others will relish the prose.

This is the story of a childhood, the growth of four siblings to maturity following their bleak and terrible childhood. Narrated by Laura Valley, the third of four siblings, as the novel opens she is thirteen, she has an older sister Anda, an older brother Robert and a younger brother Steve. They live in a horrible little house, in a horrible street with fairly horrible parents. Their father is mainly pathetic, he bets on the horses and loses, drinks a lot, and has been completley dominated by his terrible, bullying wife. Their mother is possibly the worst mother I have come across in fiction, she is cruel, spiteful and uncaring. She casts a long shadow over the inhabitants of that house, in which no one is ever very happy.

“It isn’t everyone who has a mother like ours. She was a specialist whose specialities never touched the kind, the gentle, or the constructive. She was at her best when she was toppling the entire scene. All her dislike of us and the world in general was extended into whatever she was doing. Under her hands soapsuds were angry, clothes sneered, steam menaced, crockery raved.”

Her greatest loathing is directed at Steve the youngest. At just eleven, he is already shaping up to be a great Greek scholar, winning a scholarship for the Grammar school. Laura is determined that he will continue his education, and make it to the university in a few years’ time. Robert has been forced to leave school at fourteen, and is working as a clerk, this despite his enormous fascination for history which continues despite his having left school. Anda the eldest at sixteen, is a traffic stopping beauty, and she has no intention of staying in that house much longer.

Laura has her own unique way of surviving the misery of her surroundings. She has a wonderful capacity to see outside of herself – to see beauty in the smallest of things – to enjoy the rain or the wind or the sound of a bird. Laura’s love of nature saves her – though reader beware, this is no adult fairy-tale.

“The wind was not just a casual noise to be swallowed up and forgotten with the other noises of the street. It had risen in the thin blown-glass of waves meeting a far-off shore; it had travelled from beaches where the sea slid forward and fled back again, grinding the shells to sand; this wind had boomed in slippery caves with hanging seaweeds for aeolian harps; it had blown across wild heaths setting tatted winter weeds jigging, careered through copses and wild-wood and quiet country cemeteries where tombstones listened to it impassively in the moonlight; it reached the towns, roaring round the theatres and churches, past shut shops where quails and shrimps and sheep’s brains and forced strawberries were all quietly waiting to be bought and devoured and so become the blood and thoughts of men and women. And it came at last to shabby streets like our own, shrieking aghast through leagues of brick and hovels, whipping the waters of lonely, warehouse-enclosed canals into long stiff ridges of black cream, and finally going off blustering and spent to the hills beyond the town.”

It is in these descriptions and observations of the natural world that Myers is at her very best. She reminds us that even in the humblest of streets the same gentle breeze may blow as over any green field – that a bird, or a blade of grass, a wildflower can sometimes be enough to lift the spirits.

Anda escapes the house for life with a kindly artist, many years her senior, though the relationship appears to be platonic. Later, she marries into aristocracy, and enters London society. Steve’s hopes of continuing his education are thwarted by his vile mother, who simply can’t allow any of her children even a modicum of happiness. Steve accidentally finds the world of the theatre, and by the time he is in his early twenties he is a huge success. Laura stays at home long enough to care for her father in his last illness, as she can’t bear to leave him to her mother’s not so tender mercies. Then she moves in with Steve, and falls in love with a married playwright that Steve introduces her to. Steve is the most damaged of the Valley siblings, his relationships with those around him anything but healthy, women adore him, but he uses them, despising them, throwing them aside. He can’t leave the past behind, and carries his bitterness with him every day. As the years pass, Laura becomes the only person that Steve can tolerate.

I think the reader probably knows early on that there are no happy endings here, Myers shows us how impossible it is to rectify the damage of a terrible childhood. I won’t say any more than that because of spoilers.

I am glad that Persephone brought this back into print, I know Elizabeth Myers wrote other books too, but it does seem she disappeared without trace.

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Translated from the French by Frank Wynne

I read The Mad Women’s Ball for my book group, the week before my Daphne du Maurier reading week – it turned out to be a good book for us to discuss. It is a slight novel that examines the horrors endured by women placed in institutions in the nineteenth century. It has, amazingly already been made into a film, though I have yet to see it.

The thing that I feel I must say first and foremost is that I didn’t find this novel as depressing as it could have been. There are some disturbing scenes (including one of sexual assault) that really do make the reader catch their breath – but it is also a novel of friendship and of finding a sort of freedom in unlikely places.

The setting is The Salpêtrière Asylum: Paris, 1885, here the renowned Dr Charcot thrills certain sections of Paris society with his demonstrations of hypnotism on women who have been cast out by society and their families. Women from all sections of society, deemed mad – but really in the main just inconvenient, outspoken, unconventional.

“The Salpêtrière is a dumping ground for women who disturb the peace. An asylum for those whose sensitivities do not tally with what is expected of them. A prison for women guilty of possessing an opinion.”

Genevieve is the head nurse at the asylum, called ‘the old Lady’ behind her back – though that has nothing to do with her age. She hangs on Dr Charcot’s every word, believing in him and his work, and the rightness of the women in her care being incarcerated as they are. Her opinion however, naturally worth about as much as that of the women incarcerated. There are some harrowing scenes of women paraded before an audience, attending one of the doctor’s lectures, he hypnotises them, inducing fits that the assembled men (because of course they are all men) can ‘study.’

Once a year there is another great spectacle at The Salpêtrière Asylum, the mad women’s ball – properly called the Lenten Ball. This is the hottest ticket in town for the Paris elite. Only those fortunate enough to be invited get into the ball where they will get a chance to see the mad women all dressed up. For the women of the asylum themselves it is the best night of the year, the excitement begins weeks before, the great question for each of them of course, what they will wear.

Eugénie is a young woman from a conventional, proper, middle class family. She particularly adores her grandmother. She knows her father only looks at her in terms of what kind of marriage she might make, and when she attempts intellectual debate with him he calls her insolent. Eugénie, has a secret – sometimes she can see and hear the dead. She knows what it could mean if she tells anyone – but she has heard about a book about spirits that has scandalised all of Paris, and she is determined to get hold of it. She asks to accompany her brother Théophile to salons where all sorts of things are discussed without fear. Eugénie is an intelligent inquiring young woman, she wants to understand this strange ‘gift’ she has been saddled with. She decides she can trust her grandmother, and one evening decides to take her into her confidence. You can probably guess what happens next. The betrayal is huge.

“Truth be told, whether free or incarcerated, women were not safe anywhere. Since the dawn of time, they had been the victims of decisions that were taken without their consent.”

Eugénie becomes another woman locked away with little hope of ever being released when there was absolutely nothing wrong with her. It is just a few weeks before the mad women’s ball – and Eugénie finds herself surrounded by women who can talk of little else. At first Eugénie is locked up by herself, but once she has stopped raging and calmed down, she gets to meet some of the other women, given a bed in a dormitory. She meets Louise, young and vulnerable believing herself in love with one of the male orderlies and Thérèse an older former prostitute who has been at the asylum for many years, and doesn’t want to leave – it’s her safe place, she knits shawls for everyone.

Eugénie sees something in Genevieve – she recognises the grief she carries still for her adored younger sister who died. Determined not to succumb, to find a way out of the asylum, Eugénie thinks she knows how to get Genevieve to help her get out. Eugénie represents the world of faith and Genevieve the world of science that were so often at odds at this time, but can these two women find a common ground and work together?

This is a wonderful little novel – Victoria Mas does a brilliant job at exposing the double standards and inequalities in nineteenth century French society. For a feminist book group like mine, there was a lot to discuss. Women had little agency at this time, as Mas reminds us – even women’s clothes were designed to hamper them.

“The sole purpose of the corset was clearly to immobilize a woman’s body in a posture considered desirable – it was certainly not intended to allow her free movement. As if intellectual constraints were not sufficient, women had to be hobbled physically. One might almost think that, in imposing such restrictions, men did not so much scorn women as fear them.”

This is an incredibly thought provoking novel – it made me angry, it made me sad, but there is no unremitting misery, and I was surprised by several ideas – including the one, that for some, the asylum offered a kind of freedom.

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