Friday, 31 March 2017

Pigeon Post by Arthur Ransome

published 1936

Pigeon Post 3

[The holidays are beginning for the 3 groups of children – Swallows, Amazons and Ds]

They had just time to look at their own tents, and at the camp fire.

“Now for the pigeon-loft,” said Nancy.

They raced across the lawn and round the house to the stable yard…

Pigeon Post 2

Peggy said “Here you are. Don’t kick up too much row going up the ladder. That’s the door they fly in at.”

They went up the ladder to see the pigeon-loft, with its whitewashed sill for the pigeons to land on, and the little doorway with its swinging wires to let the pigeons come in and to keep them in when they had come. Nancy opened the big door for humans at the top of the ladder, and showed them the inner door of wire netting, and the big loft behind it, where Homer, Sophocles and Sappho were enjoying their evening meal, sipping water, and talking over the afternoon’s flights.

Pigeon Post

commentary: Another good one from the series: though one with very little sailing. (I’m re-reading them all, and Swallows and Amazons and Winter Holiday have appeared on the blog).

This was one of my favourites as a child, and it stood up well. The 8 children are back at the Blacketts’ house in the Lake District for the school holidays, but of course go camping – there is a drought so they can’t go to Wild Cat Island. But they have the pigeons, who can carry messages back to the worrying natives, and they have a project: prospecting for gold in the hills, hoping to surprise Uncle Jim. I remembered a lot about the book (‘Lurk! Lurk!’ which I think I used to drive my family mad with one holiday, and ‘reverse snakes’) but had no memory of how this strand was going to work out. As an adult reader I was concerned: obviously the children can’t find gold*, but isn’t this all going to be a massive anti-climax? And there are odd mentions of how Nancy’s view of the world is slightly strange, and that perhaps she can’t go on dividing people into pirates and natives. I’m sure I noticed nothing of this as a child reader, and in fact Ransome sorts it out very nicely and satisfyingly. I think most children will have guessed the secret of Timothy the Armadillo by the end.

*Interesting point this. I was thinking as I read that the children were obsessed with mines and the possibility of great riches, just as Agatha Christie works are in a similar era. Now, nearly all AC mines are going to be fake, or confidence tricks, but they do occasionally turn out to be real, just in time to cheat someone or make someone else rich. The Blackbird Mines, those diamonds in South Africa, the Mpala Gold Fields. So apparently I think this fairytale ending can happen in a book for grownups but not one for children.

The Ss & As &Ds use bicycles, which they call dromedaries – something which misled me for years into thinking that dromedaries must have 2 humps (=2 wheels), and there is an excellent scene where Nancy turns up with
Two small necklaces of blue glass beads which she hung on the lamp-brackets of the dromedaries.
“Every camel in the East wears them,” she said, “to keep off the evil eye, and our dromedaries will need them extra badly to save them from getting punctures.”
There is a fascinating description of Titty discovering that she can dowse for water – this whole section is done in an unexpected and sensitive way.

Susan tells Roger, about a passing adult,
“if he talks to you, you’re to remember that these are the holidays and he isn’t a schoolmaster.”
In my naivete, I thought this meant ‘you don’t need to be over-respectful or too too polite or call him sir.’ Far from it.
“I don’t know what you mean” said Roger.
“Oh yes you do,” said John. “No secret cheekiness. That’s what she means. And you jolly well know it.”

So all in all, a good read and a nice look back at a different age.

Coloured pigeons from a German book on the birds, via Flickr.

Pigeon housing, 1930s, Texas from the Library of Congress.

Boy with pigeon, Sydney, 1935, by Sam Hood from State Library of NSW.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Death and the Dancing Footman by Ngaio Marsh

published 1942

Death and the Dancing Footman

[Madame Lisse’s] face was an oval, beautifully pale, her lashes needed no cosmetic to darken them, her mouth alone proclaimed her art, for it was sharply painted a dark red. Her dress was extremely simple, but in it her body seemed to be gloved rather than clothed. She was not very young, not as young as Chloris Wynne, not perhaps as pretty as Chloris Wynne either, but she had to the last degree the quality that Mandrake, though he knew very little French, spoke of and even thought of as soignée. And, in her own vein, she was exceedingly beautiful.

Madame Lisse fastened three of Jonathan’s orchids in the bosom of her wine-coloured dress, and contemplated herself in the looking-glass. She saw a Renaissance picture smoothly painted on a fine panel. Black, magnolia, and mulberry surfaces, all were sleek and richly glowing. Behind this magnificence, in shadow, was reflected the door of her room, and while she still stared at her image this door opened slowly. ‘What is it, Francis?’ asked Madame Lisse without turning her head.

commentary: This has the best title of any Marsh book, and it is wholly justified by the context. I had read Dancing Footman many years ago (and early on in this re-reading was wholly confident I remembered the plot, victim and villain, and was wholly wrong) and had no idea what the dancing footman did – when I came to the appropriate passage, a long way in, I was wholly delighted. So I will leave it unmentioned for the benefit of anyone who may be reading it soon.

It's a classic detective mystery: a group of people have gathered for a country house weekend. They have been carefully chosen by the trouble-maker host (who I certainly thought deserved murdering), as just about every person has good cause to hate at least one other guest. Tempers are lost, voices are raised, everyone is angry. ‘He is a poltroon as well as a popinjay.’ And then, they are snowed in… and then someone dies.

It has an almost unique plot strand in the grudge that one guest has against another: she was an early subject of cosmetic surgery (called plastic surgery then), and the doctor botched the job so she became hideously disfigured. There is also a very common plot strand (great favourite of mine) in a distinctive Tyrolean cloak – two of the guests possess these, and other chaps borrow them. The ensuing confusion over who is a victim and who is the intended victim brings out the worst in Marsh – always droning on about who was where when, this time she actually reproduces a table of everyone’s activities, with a section each depending on whether X or Y was the true murderee.

And more clothes – I liked the woman who ‘wore Harris tweed and looked…as though she would be tiresome about dogs’. Tweed coats, and a tweed hat, feature in the plot.

A very different woman (the two are rival beauty salon owners)
dressed herself up in what I happen to know is a Chanel model at fifty guineas, and came down for lunch looking like an orchid at a church bazaar.
She later takes to her bed
most decoratively. There was a general impression of masses of tawny lace, from which Madame Lisse emerged in pallor and smoothness.
Alleyn doesn’t appear till nearly two-thirds of the way in – luckily he is staying nearby, with some of the characters left over from Marsh’s Overture to Death, recently on the blog.

He is asked, interestingly, to consider whether death could have been achieved using
A Busman’s Honeymoonish sort of contraption
- a reference to the Dorothy L Sayers book of 1937.

I loved the revelation that inflatable rubber pelicans, ‘bathing birds’, were kept in the pavilion for the use of those swimming in the lake, and I laughed at this description:
A faded photograph presented a Victorian gentleman wearing an ineffable air of hauteur and a costume which suggested that he had begun to dress up as Mr Sherlock Holmes, but, suddenly losing interest, had gone out fishing instead.
- moments to remind me how funny Marsh can be, and what a shame she didn’t exercise her humour more.

But still, all in all a very enjoyable book with some very sour characters.

Picture of a 1940 gown from the NYPL.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Guest Blog: How to Murder Your Life

I was offered this book, a memoir, to review, and (having read it) decided to pass it on to someone closer to Ms Marnell in age, who happens to work at the other end of the same industry.

So this is a guest blog by

Barbara Speed

the book:

How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell

published 2017

Cat Marnell
So now I was a beauty editor. In some ways, I look the part of Conde Nast hotshot - or at least I tried to. I wore fab Dior slap bracelets and yellow plastic Marni dresses, and I carried a three-thousand dollar black patent leather Lanvin tote that Jean [my editor] had plunked down on my desk one afternoon. (“This is.. Too shiny for me,” she’d explained).

My highlights were by Marie Robinson at Sally Hershberger Salon in the Meatpacking district; I had a chic lavender pedicure - Versace Heat Nail Lacquer V2008 - and I smelled obscure and expensive, like Susanne Lang Midnight Orchid and Colette Black Musk Oil.

But look closer. I was five four and ninety-seven pounds The aforementioned Lanvin tote was full of orange plastic bottles from Rite Aid; if you looked at my hands digging for them, you’d see that my fingernails were dirty...

commentary: Cat Marnell’s memoir has repeatedly been called - from its highly controversial announcement onwards - a “drug memoir”. Its Amazon page helpfully bolds out the shocking aspects of Marnell’s story, so you’re under no illusions about its selling points: “A pillhead. I was also an alcoholic-in-training who guzzled warm Veuve Clicquot after work alone in my boss’s office with the door closed; a conniving and manipulative uptown doctor-shopper; a salami-and-provolone-puking bulimic”.

It’s true - there’s hardly a page where drugs don’t appear, and while Marnell was apparently clean while she wrote it, the book has the frenetic, patchy feel of an author who isn’t 100% focussed.

But the best narrative, and perhaps the main one, isn’t about a woman and her drugs, but about a woman and her job. These stories are surprisingly rare - My Salinger Year is one notable exception, as is the unexpectedly brilliant Anne Hathaway and Robert de Niro film The Intern..

Marnell first hit headlines for her column on “unhealthy beauty” for the online magazine XOJane; a role she subsequently quit because she’d rather be “on the rooftop of Le Bain looking for shooting stars and smoking angel dust with my friends”.

But if nothing else, the memoir shows how badly Marnell wanted her ambitions to win, instead of her demons.

As a little girl, she made handmade beauty magazines, product captions and all. And without being patronising, what is astonishing in the story here is that she does work as hard as she does - she recalls getting in every day at 9:45 as Jane Pratt’s assistant, and “saying yes to everything”, loving every aspect of her often admin-based job. The brands, as above, are meticulously noted - the Versace, the salons, the lilac and yellow of mad 90s fashions.

It could be that the passage above, and the constant roll-call of brands, colours, drugs and, of course, makeup, is meant to be bathetic - like American Psycho, reciting all the surface aspects of life while exposing the darkness beneath. But How to Murder Your Life is peculiar because its horror and joy coexist quite happily: it is deeply horrible in places, and yet, somehow, you keep reading.

Marnell’s energy is infectious. It could be that the pedicure and shiny dress and bag and the sick woman underneath are totally at odds, but it could also be that life isn’t that simple. How to Murder Your Life refuses to be a misery memoir, just as it refuses to glamorise Marnell’s addiction (for every party with friends, there’s a night out Marnell attends, pathetically alone; or a friend who robs and abuses her).

The book’s dedication reads “For all the party girls”, and at its best it’s a little like her XOJane columns: neither taking the drug addict and making her a glamorous icon, nor damning her as totally fallen. Marnell first went truly “viral” for a piece about Whitney Houston’s death, using it to explain “why I will never shut up about my drug use”, a resolution which clearly carried forward to her book:

..when I am at my sickest, I put a huge amount of effort into fooling everyone: the hair, the makeup, the chatter. You either never see me—I've been so busy—or I'm my very best self in public before rushing home to numb out again. 
…[on writing about drugs] You call it oversharing; I call it a life instinct. Because look. Look how easy it is, even when you are Whitney fucking Houston, to withdraw your voice and pretend like you're a good girl and not mention that you're using. To slip silently into the water. To disappear.

The picture shows Miley Cyrus on the Jimmy Fallon show.


With thanks to the Guest Blogger, Barbara Speed. She has featured on the blog before with a guest entry, and she and I did joint pieces about World Literacy Day. She has also made uncredited appearances in blog photographs from time to time. She works as Comment Editor for the i newspaper.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Mothers’ Day: The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow

published 1954


[Set in the early 1940s. Gertie’s brother Henley has been killed in WW2. She is out walking with her daughter Cassie]

Cassie lagged again, and Gertie, hurrying down the lane, gave a slow headshake, as over a puzzle, as she listened to the child, now in the road, now hidden in the brush, trying at times to skip in the too big shoes, now and then singing snatches of her wordless songs that almost always ended in bursts of laughter or low murmurings…

The child’s prattle faded. Mostly she heard the silence. She walked even faster, running away from the silence, the emptiness; in it would come Henley…

Many times at night, unable to sleep, she had got down the Bible, but mostly she sat in the lean-to kitchen, so as not to waken Clovis or the children, with the book closed across her knees. The old questions that had always been in the Bible for her came back with Henley’s one question – Job’s children, did they know or question why they died to test the patience of their father? And Jethro’s daughter, bewailing her fate in the mountains, had she ever, like Henley, asked, ‘Why me?’ Did Judas ever ask, ‘Somebody has to sin to fulfil the prophecy, but why me?’

She walked faster, but slackened her pace when she heard Cassie’s prattle, behind her now.
commentary: It is Mothers’ Day here in the UK, although the featured mother above is very American – and the book, a classic, is almost unknown here.

Gertie has to be one of the great fictional mothers, bringing up her children in great hardship, trying (along with her husband Clovis) to do her best for them. She is forever worried for them, concerned, trying to defend them and save them. The book starts with an astonishing scene on the backroads of Kentucky, where she is desperate to get a seriously ill child to the doctors – she somehow forces a reluctant army officer to take them into town, but along the way performs an emergency tracheotomy on the child. It is an opening unlike any book I can think of. She is shown in all her strength, a woman who will take on the US Army to save her child.

She and her family are poor farmers in a remote part of the state, but they are happy, and she has hopes and plans to own their own land. During the War her husband goes to Detroit to work in a factory – eventually she is pressured to follow him, though this means giving up all her plans.

In Detroit she lives in a housing project, an alley full of different families, all of them clearly drawn for us, and we follow their lives for the next couple of years, with endless ups and downs (mostly downs, tbh). Gertie has a talent for wood-carving, and she makes the dolls of the title to try to get money for the family. She is also forever looking at a large chunk of wood she has been treasuring for years, not sure how best to carve it.

There is much discussion of child-raising in the book - the mothers in the alley have very varied ways of parenting, and it is fascinating to read, and to see that all the current discussion and variations were in full flow back then.

There’s also a woman who wants a housecoat (subject of much Clothes in Books discussion recently) for Christmas –
‘She’d set her heart on a housecoat she seen in a window at American Credit.’
‘With flounces and a lot of gold?’ Mrs Anderson asked.
Max nodded, glad, ‘He must a got it. Full-skirted, swishy?’

Online there is a reference to ‘a club for people who could only read The Dollmaker once’, and you can totally understand that. The book is a masterpiece, it is heart-wrenching and beautiful and quite extraordinary. But  one section of the book is so tragic that if I were to read The Dollmaker again I would most certainly skip it. It is too much.

It is not a heart-warming story of happy communities – it is probably a very truthful picture of neighbours who are fighting one minute and forced to help each other the next. There is no avoiding the grinding poverty, the fears about money, the paper-thin walls that mean everyone knows your business.

We also get a brief portrayal of a very difficult mother-daughter relationship: Gertie’s mother is only in a couple of scenes, but jumps off the page as a certain kind of person, complaining the whole time and never happy. It is she who pushes Gertie to leave the land and join Clovis in Detroit.

And that leads me onto my only criticism: the book shows the city as being totally bad, and it is constantly being compared unfavourably with living on the land. There are no benefits allowed for Detroit, and that does seem unconvincing and unrealistic. The scales are tipped by the author, so that the move to the city is shown as entirely dark, and as putting an end to the family’s hopes and dreams. But it's hard to believe that dirt-farming has no downside...

But somehow it is compelling and gripping, and not as depressing as it might be. I realize that doesn’t sound like much of a recommendation, but I thought it was a wonderful book. John Steinbeck is feted as a great author in this area, but to me this book is better than any of his.

It is being re-issued now, and I hope it gets the attention it deserves both in the USA and in the rest of the world.

Gertie is a great Bible reader, so I hesitate to correct her, but I wonder if she actually meant the daughter of Jephtha (rather than Jethro) in the passage above.

Previous Mothers' Day entries have included books by Dodie SmithAngela Carter, Arnold Bennett, GB Stern - and also a Guardian piece on Bad Mothers. Click label below to see more.  

The picture is by the incomparable Dorothea Lange, photographic chronicler of 30s America. So although it was taken in 1936, a few years before the book’s setting, I thought this looked like Gertie and one of her children. It shows ‘Jewish-American farm mother, Mrs. Cohen, wife of the farm manager’ in New Jersey, and is from the NYPL.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Death Has Deep Roots by Michael Gilbert

published 1951
Death has Deep Roots

[Solicitor Nap Rumbold has a very short time in which to try to find evidence of a client’s innocence. He needs to investigate events in the past in war-time France.]

Meanwhile Nap had discovered the Bureau de Lorraine…

He found a room marked ‘Reception’ and looked in.

Seated behind a desk, sole occupant of the room, was a girl. She looked up, saw Nap, and smiled. It did not need the new copy of Le Figaro in her hand or the elaborately-simple, beautifully conceived clothes. The face itself was sufficient to place her within ten square miles of the world’s surface. Only one capital city could produce that deepest of dark brown hair, with high-lights of black , that white neck solidly angled to the shoulders yet too well-proportioned to seem thick: Siamese cat’s eyes of very light blue, which were so rarely found with such black hair.

Nap realized that he was staring, but that the girl seemed unembarrassed by this circumstance.

Possibly she was used to people staring at her.

‘Can I be of assistance?’

commentary: As so many times before, the crime writer, crime fiction expert (and blogfriend) Martin Edwards is the direct cause of my picking this book up. Recently on his blog he reviewed Guilty? (aka By Whose Hand?) a 1956 film based on Death Has Deep Rootssee the blogpost here. I was sufficiently intrigued to order a DVD of the film, and was also very happy to find that I had a copy of the book already – first read more than 20 years ago. So I wallowed in film and book, enjoying both enormously.

Martin says with perfect truth that it is odd that more of Gilbert’s books weren’t filmed or televised – they seem like ideal material. This one is a corker, with a great setup. Victoria, a young Frenchwoman working in a London hotel, has been accused of murdering one of the guests – a man known to her previously, when they and several other characters were all working for the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation in WW2.

Victoria mistrusts her legal team, and changes them at the last minute – bringing in the oddly-named Nap, above. He and a friend do some hands-on investigating, while his father and the barrister fight the case in court, trying to slow it down for the last-minute evidence to emerge. So alternate chapters feature the excitements and tension of a major murder trial, and then the adventures of the investigators – from low-life London dives, to an army camp on Salisbury Plain, to a trip to the French countryside where the crime does indeed have its roots.

It is completely gripping, with occasional excellent flashes of humour, and some wonderful scene-setting and character-drawing. I loved the delicate question when a witness has emerged, something of a good-time girl:
‘Her name is Irene, and she sings when she can get an engagement.’
‘Is she----?’
‘No she isn’t. I don’t say that if times got hard she mightn’t be, but at the moment, in my opinion, she’s just an honest little trouper without much stuffing.’

One of my favourite Michael Gilbert books is the astonishing Night of Twelfth, an absolute tour de force, and also a tremendous picture of a fictional boys’ prep school, lightly sketched. This book has another such school – it only appears in a couple of pages, and it could have been omitted altogether, but the pages of description are hilarious and completely convincing and made me laugh out loud in a crowded train. This also made me check out Gilbert’s biography: I think of him as a lawyer, but yes he did earlier work as a teacher – I had decided he MUST have done to write so well about schools. Here there is a teacher who pretends to have been a conscientious objector during the War, because the boys would get over-excited if they knew he had been a Commando.

Nap goes on from there to call in unexpectedly on a young housewife. She shows him into the sitting-room then disappears for a couple of minutes: She came back having ‘done the mysterious things which women do to themselves on such occasions [so as to] look ready to entertain a duchess.’

One character, the missing soldier Julian, is seen entirely through others’ views of him, particularly women’s views. He is no stereotype – he is not the dashing Don Juan type, but it is clear he has a way with women, and he becomes very real to the reader.

It’s these little touches that make Gilbert’s books so charming and memorable, as well as his good plots and excellent legal details. I think he gives a magical picture of London, and of 1951 lowlife as well as the legal world. I also like the incidental details – Nap, starving, gets some sandwiches in the hope of eating them at his desk, but is called out urgently and has to go off elsewhere. Nowadays we would assume he would take the sandwiches with him and eat them in the street or in the taxi – but that was obviously impossible for a respectable young chap in 1951, so he ditches them, offers them to his secretary. Five guineas to any contemporary author who is able to put a detail that perfect & authentic into a historical book… It's the manners that they get wrong, as I think my blogfriend Lucy Fisher would agree.

My only complaint about the book was that it wrapped up too quickly, I’d have liked a bit more detail about what happened subsequently to the various characters.

I then watched the film, which was also very enjoyable, though with a simplified plot, and somewhat less nuance in the characters. But the trial scenes were great fun to watch – are there any bad films set in courtrooms? – so hard for it NOT to be compelling.

So thanks again to Martin for the push, and h/t to Chrissie Poulson who got me re-reading Night of the Twelfth two years ago.

The picture is from an ancient strange book called Girls of Paris which I picked up secondhand. She is actually reading the fashion magazine Elle rather than Figaro….

For more from Michael Gilbert, Martin Edwards, Chrissie Poulson or Lucy Fisher, click on the labels below. 

Thursday, 23 March 2017

The Fifth Letter by Nicola Moriarty

published 2017

Fifth Letteer

Joni drummed her fingers on the bench top as she waited while Trina tightened her laces. She’d been up since 5 am, unable to sleep, still feeling uneasy about what had happened at the pub the previous evening.

As soon as Trina’d emerged from her bedroom, Joni had pounced on her. ‘Come for a run with me! I need to get out.’

Trina had shrugged and agreed and Joni had immediately dressed in fluoro striped leggings and Nike singlet, while Trina changed into a much more casual outfit of casual tracksuit pants and an old t-shirt.

‘One sec,’ said Trina, as she stood up from doing her laces and then headed around to the kitchen to grab a glass of water and wash down a tablet before she and Joni headed off.
commentary: My book selection skills have been a bit off lately – I feel I’ve said several times, politely, ‘this was not the book for me, but others will probably love it’. And here we go again.

This time it was a definite category error: I thought this was a crime novel. My bad. The story, set in Australia deals with four young women, friends since school, who go on a weekend away and make a plan to each write a letter revealing a secret. The four letters are written, and discussed and pored over – but it turns out there is a fifth letter, with much deeper and darker revelations, and the question is: which of the women wrote it? A good setup – but I thought this would be a proper thriller, with a crime either lost in the past or else brought on by the whole letter business. But that isn’t really the case. The book is pretty much unabashed chicklit: it’s about relationships and feelings and friendships, and about the scars and traumas of childhood.

I thought it was a big error for us to see the action through the eyes of one of the women, because that knocked her out as a possible writer of the fifth letter, and reduced the tension. And there was a lack of balance, an unevenness about the book – some matters were taken seriously and others dismissed too easily. The actions of some of the women seemed very strange, and they all seemed rather dim, and they didn’t in fact seem to like each other all that much.

But Moriarty kept the story going, it was certainly an easy read, and it was all rounded off at the end. But I didn’t believe a word of it. (Not necessarily a deal breaker.)

Not to make too much of this – it’s plain that Nicola Moriarty is the sister of blog favourite Liane Moriarty. It would be unfair to compare the two writers – especially as, despite superficial similarities, their books are quite different.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Wonders Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin

published 2016

set in the 1460s

Wonders will Never Cease 1

[Anthony Woodville is riding through London at night]

Anthony thinks that the windows of those houses on Cheapside whose interiors are lit up with a dull yellow light resemble the eyes of goblins and he says as much to William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, who is riding beside him.

The Earl’s response is surprising, ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Did I ever tell you that I was once on a goblin hunt? It was in the marchlands of Wales. The whole area was infested with these horrid creatures and they were attacking children. So their numbers had to be brought down. Their glowing eyes used to give them away. Also the hounds found it easy to follow their peculiar smell. The little creatures resembled humans so much, particularly Welshmen, that it seemed cruel to kill them, but we did and we cut off their ears for the tally. Looking back on it, perhaps we should not have held so many meets, for I believe that there are very few goblins left in England or Wales. They may even be extinct.’

Wonders will Never Cease 2

commentary: This is my favourite passage from this book, I think -  though there are many other candidates.

So 2017, whatever it might hold in other areas, looks like being a good year for books. I’ve already read two that I think will be among my best all year – this one, and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, on the blog recently.

The trouble with Wonders is that it’s hard to describe it in a way that doesn’t sound off-putting. Whatever algorithm prompted amazon to recommend it to me did work out (and makes it worth all the annoyingly wrong ideas they normally have about what I’d like): I tried a free sample and after reading the first chapter I instantly downloaded the rest, and ripped through it ravenously. It was truly a joy to read.

It’s a historical novel about Anthony Woodville, the brother of Elizabeth Woodville: she was the silver-gilt beauty who married Edward IV. But this is his story, not his sister’s – and it has supernatural elements. But these are side-by-side with the historical facts. They are ever-present, but not overtaking the story. Does that make any sense…? I thought it was going to be a mixture of alternate history (but no, the outline of facts is correct) and much-loved author Terry Pratchett (but no, this is set in the actual world). Is it more like Hilary Mantel crossed with JK Rowling? I don’t know. I just know that I loved it.

It is a very funny book, and I think anyone who reads anything about British history will enjoy this:
‘By the five wounds of Christ! This is the curse of the English aristocracy. We lords and ladies are so brainless that we cannot think of any names for our children except Elizabeth, Anne, Katherine, Henry, Richard, Edward and John. And then again Henry, Elizabeth, John, Katherine, Richard, Edward and Anne. So we are in a constant muddle as to who is who. The lower orders have more sense and imagination, for they take names like Hodge, Poyns, Garth, Alfred, Marigold and Beverley. By God, I am heartily tired of my own name, John, and I believe that I shall have myself called Actaeon, Zoroaster, or perhaps Fabrice.’
The book starts with the grim Battle of Towton, the engagement in a snow storm on Palm Sunday 1461, with the highest casualty figures of any battle on British soil. This is the Wars of the Roses. Anthony is almost killed, or perhaps he is killed and comes back to life. Everything in his life is just a little off-balance ever afterwards. He has a terrific interest in the world around him, and he is not sure what to believe. Life for everyone is a convincing mixture of un-reformed religion, weird superstitions, a whole set of Arthurian myths and legends, and a vague feeling that not too long ago there might have been some very odd creatures and realities and people around, and these matters are just out of memory, just beyond catching.
After much thought and the consultation of old chronicles, the Abbot has succeeded in conclusively demonstrating that most of the centuries between 600 Anno Domini and 900 Anno Domini have been invented by a tenth-century Chronicler…. It has struck the Abbot and the Chronicler of Crowland that it was most suspicious how very little happens in those phantom centuries and, once they have been done away with, the Abbot’s chronology works perfectly. Anthony, reading this, is doubtful, but when he tries to think of anything that happened in those three centuries, he cannot.
There is a scene where Anthony is trying to conceive a child with his wife, and they find themselves surrounded by spirits of the dead: ‘Hell is too crowded. So we have come to live with you.’ It is terrifying: I make notes as I read, and here there is this ‘!!!!!!’

In the book there are Wagner plots, and the Erl-King, and the memory system Mantel mentions in Wolf Hall, and the Red-Headed League, and possibilities of gentle anachronisms. There is a discussion of Noah’s Ark in terms of jousting:
The Abbot found that the top deck alone would be large enough to accommodate twenty-two tilting grounds – not that Noah and his sons would have had time for jousting, since they would be too busy feeding the animals.
When Anthony takes part in some major jousting there is this striking sentence about the men in their armour:
Anthony and the Bastard advance slowly towards each other like silvery lobsters moving under water.
Anthony knows how his story is going to end, because the truly horrifying Talking Head has told him. (I would quite like to forget about the Talking Head, but it won’t leave my mind.)

It’s a book about stories and the way we react to them. It’s about changes in the world, about religion, about knowing what is real and what isn’t. It’s about something in the distance that we can’t explain, something glimpsed out of the corner of our eyes.

Religion features a lot – I liked Anthony’s associate, Ripley, saying ‘I think that the Bible is very badly plotted. I could do better’. It made me think of a historian’s claim that magic, witchcraft and superstition were common in Pre-Reformation England, mixed in with a poor grasp of Christianity.

There is an extraordinary claim about some religious types:
‘What are the Brothers and Sisters of the Blessed Vespers?’ Anthony had never heard of such a group before.
‘They profess an evil heresy…The adherents of the Blessed Vespers are dedicated to coupling in churches.’
‘What do they do that for?’
‘It is not one thing. As far as I can understand it, some do it in hope that such a blasphemous act will put them beyond any hope of redemption in the afterlife and thus thereafter they may worship God without any expectation of reward and that is the purest form of worship there is, for they envisage themselves still offering up prayers and thanks to God from the flaming pits of Hell.’

The reader’s mind really has to fight to get hold of some of the ideas in Wonders Will Never Cease

In a most unlikely way, the book reminded me of George Herbert’s beautiful poem about Prayer, the one that ends:
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

It has the same level of visuals, imagery and mystery. But at the same time it is a most entertaining read. It is a wonderful book.

The pictures show Anthony Woodville. In the second one he is presenting his book to Edward IV – he helped produce some of the first books printed in English, having translated European works.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Hamlet, an adventuress in a nightie, and a book of 1937



Hamlet, Revenge! by Michael Innes

published 1937

Hamlet Revenge!

[The middle of the night at Scamnum Castle: a performance of Hamlet has been interrupted by a murder, and the investigation is ongoing.]

Without warning the door flew open and Anna Merkalova swept into the room. ‘Gervase,’ she demanded tragically, ‘have they found out?’ And she tossed a small metallic object on the bed.

Gott wondered if too much concentration on Hamlet was inclining him unwarrantably to assess things in terms of stage effect. The Merkalova’s entrance had been excellent theatre…

Noel twisted his neck to contemplate the exhibit which the Merkalova had cast on the bed and then straightened it to observe the more compelling exhibit of the Merkalova herself. She was not very adequately clothed; she was a maturely and unambiguously attractive female, her Russian eye underlined for emphasis, and lit up, at the moment, with the most lovely intimations of passion. The lady, he said to himself, is about to throw a temperament.

Hamlet Revenge 2

commentary: This is my book of 1937 for Rich Westwood’s Crimes of the Century meme over at Past Offences.

I was planning to illustrate the entry just with pictures of performances and costumes for Hamlet, very respectable and serious – but in the end, who can resist an adventuress in her nightie? (My book for 1929 in this meme featured Agatha Christie’s Seven Dials Mystery, in which ‘The Countess flinched and sat up. She drew the folds of a very transparent negligée closer around her. It was a mere veil of orange chiffon.’)

This was the second of Michael Innes’s Appleby mysteries, and has an excellent set up: a semi-amateur production of Hamlet at a lordly Gothic castle, featuring members of the family and entourage as actors alongside a professional actor. One of the amateurs is the Lord Chancellor of England, who is carrying a most important document of state, one that would be very valuable to unfriendly governments. A murder is of course staged to occur during the performance, and the vital paper goes missing.

Hamlet Revenge 3

I must say, Innes does not go to much trouble to tell us what this doc could possibly contain – I can’t be bothered to copy down how the Prime Minister describes it (‘organization – industrial interests – international’ oh I’ve fallen asleep), but it’s rather hard to believe in. I think the author learned here from the mistress of the ignored detail – Agatha Christie never bothered much with telling us what was in the Secret Plans, she expected us to take it on trust. And Innes was definitely a reader/fan – one character in the book wants a private detective to be brought in: ‘There is a very good man whose name I forget; a foreigner and very conceited – but, they say, thoroughly reliable.’ Not much doubt that this is Hercule Poirot.

But Appleby does his best: I guessed who did it before he did, but only because of long experience of reading detective stories.

My criticism of the book is that there were far too many indistinguishable characters (well Hamlet does have a large cast…) -  many of them had a title, and a name, and a part they were acting, and Innes used them interchangeably and confusingly.  And the book took too long to get going.

The mystery I couldn’t solve was: who was Noel, an important character, featured above? He is described as ‘a scion of the house’, but he is not the son of the Duke nor of his brother, and he is not the heir, and he has a different last name from everyone else. And talking of names - the Duke’s name is Teddy Crispin, and his brother is called Gervase. Could it be that this is where crime writer Edmund Crispin got his pseudonym and sleuth’s first name? His real name was Bruce Montgomery.

There were many other felicities about the book, once you got used to the hundreds of names on offer. I liked the all-purpose question to engage an academic in conversation, no matter what his subject: ‘And what do you think of this young German school?’

There is a theory put forward that since the advent of the talkies, an audience can cope with fast speaking – ‘they bring the ear up with the eye again’ – and so these actors can perform Shakespeare’s lines much faster.

Innes was obviously very interested in psychology, which features a lot in the book in a rather heavy-handed way. But then there is a fascinating disquisition by an advertising copywriter on selling chocolates – she wants to get women to buy them for other women rather than waiting for men to buy them – the whole section could come from a book of today. (The author, writing under a different name, was also very interested in the psychology of advertising in this book, The Last Tresilians.)

As a book of 1937 – there is a lot of vague political talk, and the secrecy, the spies and the important affairs of state are all indicative of the long slide into war. Meanwhile the social structure remains untouched with the frightfully quirky and eccentric toffs. Viva la revolution.

Hamlet has featured on the blog a lot – click on the label below to see the many posts. I did an article for the Guardian on the many many crime books with titles taken from Hamlet. (This is not one of them – the phrase ‘Hamlet, Revenge!’, as the very erudite characters in the book know, is not from Shakespeare’s play.) And there are posts on books influenced by Hamlet, or about performances of the play.

The top picture is from Kristine’s photostream.

The second one is from the Library of Congress and combines two themes from the book – it is meant to be Ophelia, ‘dressed in a flimsy negligee’ as the helpful caption says.

Hamlet himself is John Gielgud, from the NYPL – they have a collection of Hamlet photos to lose yourself in.

Friday, 17 March 2017

St Patrick’s Day: a look at Anglo-Irish history…


Troubles by JG Farrell

published 1970

Troubles St Patricks

[Set 1919-22 in Co Wexford, Ireland: a young man, Padraig, is visiting the twin girls who live in the dilapidated hotel. They all  play a dressing-up game]

So the tour got under way. Padraig followed with a twin on each arm.. and had an enormous success with the old ladies [the hotel guests]. What a fuss they made of him! It was wonderful, they thought, how he seemed to know what to do just by instinct, keeping his knees together and sitting up straight and so forth.

Then it was time for Padraig to go home for his supper and so he had to get changed back into his other clothes. But he would come again on the following day; there were still lots of dresses for him to try on…

For a few days they continued playing their game of dressing up Padraig as a girl. All Angela’s clothes were spilled out of their trunks cupboards and packing-cases; the dresses that suited him were put in one pile, those that didn’t in another. For a while they found this engrossing enough, but presently the job was finished. Just as interest was once again beginning to subside Viola remembered that they still had to consider the rest of Padraig’s clothing, his underwear, petticoats, corsets and so forth. Soon they were all bubbling with hilarity as they struggled with eye-hooks and tugged on the strings of Angela’s corsets – not that Padraig’s shapely body needed any artificial correction of course.

troubles 2

commentary: Thinking in advance about St Patrick’s Day, I picked up this one as a good Irish book, and noted it would take me a while to get through – it is 445 pages long. And I read it (this is hard to believe for me too) in a day. I couldn’t put it down, I ditched other things I should have been doing, and stayed up late to finish it. It is a masterpiece, it has instantly found a place in my ever-changing Top-10- books list.

It’s the first of Farrell’s Empire trilogy – the others are the Booker-Prize-winning Siege of Krishnapur, and The Singapore Grip. This book won the Lost Booker Prize (awarded in 2010 for the best book of 1970) and rightly so. I think Farrell, despite that sudden re-surfacing, isn’t much thought of now – I said as much in a Guardian piece on book titles –  ‘The Singapore Grip is now largely forgotten, except by journalists in search of a gripping headline.’ One person tried to argue with me, but I wish it had been 100 people saying ‘bestseller – much-loved – cult classic – taught on courses’, but no.

Troubles St Patricks 3

Troubles is a glorious book – hilariously funny but also very sad, surreal at times, with weird scenes of great charm, and others of bizarre violence (the cat who attacks a hat comes to a bad end…) Major Brendan Archer comes to a once-grand hotel in County Wexford to meet up with a young woman he is apparently engaged to, though he is rather vague about that. He met her while on leave from his service in WW1, but seems happy enough to go along with her plans for marriage. Her father, Edmund, owns the hotel. The Major becomes one of those very novelistic characters who mysteriously can’t leave a place, for no apparent good reason (cf recent blog read The Magic Mountain) – though at one point he goes away and comes back again. It becomes clear that the wedding isn’t going to happen, but still he lingers, infuriated by much that goes on, aghast and mystified by the political life outside the hotel. Some of the Irish are fighting a War of Independence – but who are they, and what do they want, and surely they can’t really hate the British…? The Major’s own background is never spelled out, but there are hints that he is Anglo-Irish too, part of the Ascendancy.

The months go by. There are the hilarious twins, Faith and Charity (no Hope…?) from the excerpt above - they are like schoolgirls from St Trinian’s and with them ‘everything has a habit of beginning amusingly and ending painfully.’ There are the old ladies and the strange Irish servants, and Sarah, the young Catholic woman from the local town. One character elopes, and ends up taking the same train twice, to the mystification of the station master.

It is remarkably like a bigger and more dilapidated Fawlty Towers, and it is equally funny, from small moments such as Edmund talking about the garden:
‘Planted by my dear wife.’ After a moment, as if to clear up a misunderstanding, he added: ‘Before she died.’
- to the riotous and horrendous ball, along with the cameo of the man come to make breakfast the next morning.

I loved every minute of the book, with its clear and careful yet not hammered-home status as a metaphor or an allegory for the relations between the UK and Ireland, the hotel standing in for a crumbling empire. We know from the first page that the hotel is going to burn down (like many a big old house in Ireland in that era) – and the Major is constantly finding new disasters in the building before we reach that point: plants growing in the wrong places, wildlife everywhere.

We never really feel that we know the Major well, but he is a haunting and memorable character, and this is a haunting and memorable book, with a lot to say about the relations between locals and the gentry.

The man with the dog could be either Edmund or Brendan – it’s from the National Library of Ireland, which has a most wondrous collection of pictures generously on offer. The group on the steps of a grand house is from the same source, dated 1922. The Rosslare Hotel in the 4th picture isn’t nearly as grand or as dilapidated, surely, as the Majestic in the book, but the photo has a feel for it. You could find an illustration for every page of Troubles from this collection…

Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Trophy Child by Paula Daly

published 2017
Trophy Child

At Reid’s the students wore exactly the kind of uniform you would expect them to: the prefects black, billowing gowns; Years 7 to 11 brightly coloured striped blazers, the girls long pleated skirts. They used to wear straw boaters in the summer months but these were jettisoned after a series of stealth attacks from the kids at the local comprehensive school in which the hats ended up in a variety of places – once, on the head of a boarding mistress’s horse, its long ears sticking out through holes that had been cut in the top. For the most part the pupils of Reid’s stayed out of trouble and the school was able to maintain its untarnished reputation.

For the most part.

commentary: What a joy to find a great new author – I loved this book. The Trophy Child is a cross between a police procedural and a domestic thriller, with some unexpected joys and surprising characters, and it made me laugh when it wasn’t making me wince, and worry for the protagonists. It’s like a cross between the books of blog favourites Elly Griffiths and Liane Moriarty – and that is very high praise.

Meet the blended family of Noel and Karen Bloom: each has a child from a previous relationship, and they have one child together, a daughter Bronte. Daly sets this going very quickly and clearly – we see that Karen is a Tiger Mother, pushing Bronte to endless achievements and new subjects via a terrifying schedule. She has more or less given up on the other children, teenagers Verity and Ewan, but there has been an incident in the recent past, involving violence. Now, as the family re-groups, Verity takes Bronte out for a walk. And – every parent’s nightmare – Bronte disappears.

It would be wrong to reveal more of the linear plot than that (though I will just offer the reassurance that this is not a gruesome book, and the danger to children is done in a very careful way) – but it’s a complex and satisfactory story. It’s also quite a cheeky one, for a reason that would be a spoiler… So: very clever plot. At times I thought it was sinking too much into giving us a domestic story, but Daly triumphantly brings it all back in the end – I had been truly bamboozled.

And the picture of life for the characters is wondefully well-done, and hilarious.

Karen, the pushy parent, is a cartoon figure really – she is the least convincing as a real person, but she’s such a joy for Daly to write about that we can forgive her. At one point another pushy parent, Pia, is trying to find out if her son has taken drugs with Karen’s son:
As far as Karen knew, Hamish was too much of a goody-goody to smoke even tobacco, but she went right ahead and said ‘I’m sure it was only once or twice…’
Poor Hamish, thought Karen. The kid could deny it for the rest of his days and Pia still wouldn’t believe him.
Her husband Noel is a great creation too: he is so far from perfect that he has a charm of his own. When his in-laws are coming on an urgent desperate visit because of the various disasters that have struck the family, he
wondered idly if perhaps [mother-in-law] Mary would bring a fruit cake
- this was possibly, weirdly, my favourite line in the book, because it IS how people really think and behave. Whereas in most books it would be a clear indication that Noel is a narcissist or a sociopath or possibly a killer, in this case it is just another sign of his general outlook of life. (He may well be a guilty party – I’m not spoilering – but the cake incident is not a clue either way.)

The investigating policewoman is Joanne Aspinall, another terrific character, who is thunderstruck to find she has an unexpected connection with the case, but soldiers on bravely. (The book wanders among different points of view, and all of them are very enjoyable and well-done – but this means we don’t get as much of the investigators’ views as in a full-scale police procedural.)

I particularly enjoyed her thoughts about increasing obesity in the world:
Most of Joanne’s colleagues today couldn’t run; they were short of breath after climbing the station stairs. And for a time this had concerned Joanne. How on earth would they catch anyone? That was until she realized that most criminals were also too fat to run away from the police. She’d watched some footage recently of the miners’ riots in the 80s. Men as old as 50 hightailing across fields, vaulting over fences. That would never happen today.
The setting in the Lake District is nicely done and very real too, and there are some interesting comments on child-rearing and how we position our children with regard to outside activities.

So all in all – nothing but praise for this one. I am looking forward to reading more by Paula Daly.

The school the children attend is old-fashioned, but not - obviously – quite as old-fashioned as the picture above, which was taken in 1930. But I couldn’t resist this portrait of Australian schoolgirls: ‘St Mary's College tennis team at Charters Towers. The girls hold tennis racquets and are dressed in school uniforms with blazers, ties and hats’. It’s from the State Library of Queensland.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

published 2017

set in 1645



[Alice has been forced to accompany her brother, the witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, on a journey through East Anglia looking for witches]

The next weeks were like one of those nightmares, the ones from which you cannot wake. I searched women, gently, and reported as little as I could to Matthew. But those who drew a discontented crowd, hungry for what proofs had been found against them, there was little I could do for them. Each one of them had a different tale, fit to break your heart; but what they had in common was loneliness, and too many nights spent listening; loose flesh where they had given birth or gained weight in other, better summers. What they had in common was fear.

We moved up through Suffolk from village to village, Matthew writing ahead to seek information and a welcome in each new place. The back of my neck burned and peeled and burned again. Often I thought of leaving, of sitting down in the road and refusing to move. But in the end I thought it better to stay, and try to work against my brother: for, as I tried to gather my courage back, I saw that I was well placed to do it, without him even realising that it was being done.

witchfinder 1

commentary: This book left me conflicted: it doesn’t have much in common with recent read The Roanoke Girls (except that each is by a woman and about women, with a female narrator) – but in both cases I thought the novel might be a lot more appealing to other people than it was to me.

It started off really well - it’s a proper, well-researched historical novel, and beautifully written. Matthew Hopkins is a notorious real-life figure, who took it upon himself to be a witchfinder. As Alice says in the book:
The number of women my brother Matthew killed, as far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six.
The story is horrible – the methods of search, the allegations and counter-allegations, the glimpses of sad lives and desperate women, the cruelty and intransigence of the witchfinders. Not much is known about Hopkins’ life, so Underdown has given him a half-sister. In the book, she is widowed after several years in London, and comes back to her brother’s place in Manningtree, Essex. She gets drawn into his dreadful deeds, and worries that the whole scheme is aimed at a former servant, Bridget, with whom Alice has close ties.

There were good things about the book – the emphasis on women’s lives and problems, the details of how things were managed (chamber pots feature a lot), the seriousness with which Underdown has approached the subject matter. But as the book went on, I found the truly sickening detail of the witch-finding too much, I felt queasy after reading it. And if I had chosen to read a non-fiction book I would have no complaint. But I found it an awkward fit that the book has added its own plot about the past, concerning Alice and her parents and step-mother. That didn’t seem to mesh well for me. The last section of the book is obviously extremely well-planned and worked out, but seemed to me to skim over a lot, with a surprising amount of action rushed through completely off-stage, with our heroine not involved. The final twist was deeply predictable, but somehow satisfying.

There is a lot to commend in this book, it is a very good historical novel, and I’m sure many readers will enjoy it – especially as it gives voices to women who have not been heard over the years.

There were more recent, and more light-hearted, witches on the blog last month, in Lucy Fisher’s excellent Witch Way Now?, while Elly Griffiths featured the Pendle witches in her modern crime book Dying Fall.

Elizabeth Goudge’s The White Witch is set in the 1640s, as is The Witchfinder’s Sister. Lolly Willowes, in the Sylvia Townsend Warner book, is an admirable witch: and there are many more witches on the blog: click on the label below.

Sarah Perry’s wonderful Essex Serpent is another historical novel set in the county.

The dramatic scene is a Victorian picture called An Arrest for Witchcraft in the Olden Time by John Pettie, from the Athenaeum.

The young woman is a 1645 picture: Girl Holding a Fan by Hendrick Cornelisz van Vliet, also from the Athenaeum.