Category Archives: United Kingdom
Quartet in Autumn was only my second experience of Barbara Pym’s work and now I can see why she has such a devoted group of followers. What I enjoyed about Some Tame Gazelles (her debut novel) was her ability to portray the peculiarities of ordinary life in an English village of the 1950s. She uses the same approach in Quartet in Autumn but this time the focus is on the minor irritations and peculiarities of office life in 1970s London.
Edwin, Norman, Letty and Marcia work in the same office, engaged in the kind of unskilled, menial clerical activities that don’t add up to very much at all. Now in their sixties they are on the verge of compulsory retirement. It should be the autumn of their lives, a time filled with colour and mellow fruitfulness, but that is not the case for this quartet of rather lonely people.
Letty and Norman live alone in rented bedsits; Edwin in the home he once shared with his wife; Marcia in her parents’ old house. They chat in work but mainly keep their private lives, private, and there’s no suggestion they should ever get together outside of the office. They don’t even lunch together. Letty goes to the library while Edwin prefers to visit a church. Since his wife died he’s rather thrown himself into church affairs, assiduously reading the Church Times, ticking off a list of church buildings to visit and joining in with many church celebrations, especially those involving free sherry and food. Norman, a rather spry figure, occupies his time planning trips with his detestable brother-in-law that he never takes.
And then there is Marcia, the character Pym imbues with the greatest quota of pathos. The highlight of her life was the time she needed major surgery, an event about which she regularly reminisces. That’s when she’s not talking about the wonderful surgeon who performed her mastectomy and about whom she maintains particularly warm thoughts. One of her happiest moments comes when she takes the bus to his home, hoping to spy him if only in the distance. Marcia is a birdlike figure, an obsessive who hoards empty milk bottles and plastic bags in a shed in her over-grown garden. In her house stand row upon row of tins of food yet Marcia is slowly starving.
The foursome try to keep in touch post retirement but it’s not a successful experiment. Her funeral brings three of the quartet back together again, an awkward event which sees them take tentative steps towards a relationship that is more than simple acquaintanceship.
At times Pym’s tone is mildly satiric as she takes us through the mundane lives of these four and their individual frustrations and preoccupations. But she’s never cruel, recognising that these are people who despite their melancholy lives are doing their best to soldier on. Letty captures the spirit perfectly when she reflects after one lunchtime reunion:
”She must never give the slightest hint of loneliness or boredom, the sense of time hanging heavy.”
As boring as their lives are, and as full of regret and disappointment, Pym illustrates that their attempts to establish contact with one another is what gives purpose and meaning to their lives.
The Book: Barbara Pym wrote Quartet in Autumn over a three year period between 1973 and 1976. Several publishers rejected it on the basis that times had moved on and the reading public wanted more sensational topics than she offered. This changed when in 1977 the Times Literary Supplement published a list, compiled by notable literary figures, of the most underrated writers of the century. Pym was the only writer to be listed twice, poet Philip Larkin and the critic Lord David Cecil were both fans of her work Within a month, Macmillan accepted Quartet in Autumn. It went on to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
The Author: Barbara Pym’s first novel Some Tame Gazelle was published in 1950, followed by Excellent Women (considered her finest work) two years later. She enjoyed success as an author for the next 11 years while continuing to work for the International African Institute. Her novels fell out of favour in the 1960s, being considered ‘old fashioned.’ Quartet in Autumn was the beginning of the revival of her reputation.
Why I read this book: It was recommended by a number of bloggers after I published my review of Some Tame Gazelle.
Is there no place to hid from news of (alleged) election shenanigans. First we had allegations of voter fraud and wire-tapping in the US presidential race. Then came claims the British electorate was misled about the impact of the referendum on future membership of the EU. And now we have accusations about misuse of public funds against one of the candidates in the French presidential elections. Surely if I buried my head in Anthony Trollope’s Dr Thorne, a novel set in a quiet English country village, I would be free from such issues?. Not a chance…. Mr Trollope had a surprise up his sleeve.
Dr Thorne is the third of the Chronicles of Barsetshire series. In the first two – The Warden and Barchester Towers – Trollope concerned himself with the insular ecclesiastical world of a cathedral town. In Dr Thorne we move to the countryside and an entirely different pillar of society- the landed gentry in the shape of Squire Gresham and family. They’ve lived at Greshambury Park as the foremost citizens of this part of the county of Barsetshire for many generations but these are precarious times for the Greshams. They are beset by financial difficulties, most of which originate with the Squire’s wife Lady Arabella. As a descendant of the aristocratic De Courcy family she firmly believes she has a certain status in life that must be maintained. This means she absolutely must have a house in London so she and her daughters can enjoy The Season. And of course the said property has to be refurbished to the standard befitting her position. Her most damaging measure however was to encourage the Squire to seek election to Parliament. Now after two unsuccessful bids, both of which involved the outlay of vast sums of money, the Squire is having to sell off part of his land and take out a loan.
The family’s only hope for the future lies in the son and heir Frank. There is no doubt at all in Lady Arabella’s mind but that “Frank must marry money’” if they are to avoid the unthinkable, the loss of the estate. There is just one obstacle in the way of her determination to find him a rich heiress as his wife: Frank is in love Mary Thorne, the niece of the local doctor. Though she’s been hitherto welcomed at Greshambury Park, she is considered totally unsuitable as Frank’s wife. Not only doesn’t she have a bean to her name, she comes with the taint of illegitimacy and murder. What the Greshams don’t know – and neither does Mary – is that she’s an heiress to a large fortune.
Most of the novel is concerned with the romantic problems of Mary and Frank. Will Frank remain true to his childhood sweetheart or will the needs of his family prevail? it’s a story line that enables Trollope to weave in themes of class and lineage versus integrity and loyalty. Which matters most asks Trollope – to marry someone who is inherently good and honest even if they don’t have the right family credentials or to marry someone with money and breeding but without love? Lady Arabella’s view on this is quite clear and she’s prepared to take drastic action and sacrifice everything – her son’s happiness, Mary Thorne’s reputation and even her own medical treatment – to get her way. Her husband is more inclined to hope Frank’s passion for Mary is just a phase that will pass so he adopts more of a ‘wait and see’ stance. Two of the Gresham daughters fare very differently in the ‘money or love’ debate. One of them is jilted by her fiancé when he sniffs a chance to cut a more lucrative deal with a wealthy heiress but her sister, though also hampered by a very small dowry, gets to the altar because her fiancé declares he wants her and not her money.
It isn’t just the Greshams who are concerned with status. Some of the other characters are equally keen to rise up in the world, such as Sir Roger Scratchard. Once jailed for murder this humble stonemason became a wealthy man as the developer of ports and railways. Proving of invaluable help to the Government, he gets rewarded with a baronetcy despite his predilection for vast quantities of alcohol. But this title is not enough for him – he wants to be an even bigger Somebody with Influence – a member of Parliament no less. And so he throws his hat into the election ring, giving Trollope a chance to satirise the dubious electioneering practices used by the aspiring politicians of his day. During the campaign, Scratchard’s opponents paint caricatures of him around the area, portraying him as a labourer “with a pimply, bloated face … leaning on a spade holding a bottle in one hand” and throw a dead cat at him at one of the hustings. Unfortunately one of his election team sails too close to the wind when trying to secure a key voter, leaving Scratchard facing a prosecution for bribery.
Every kind of electioneering sin known to the electioneering world was brought to his charge; he had, it was said in the paper of indictment, bought votes, obtained them by treating carried them off by violence, conquered them by strong drink, polled them twice over, counted those of dead men, stolen them, forged them, and created them by every possible, fictitious contrivance; there was no description of wickedness appertaining to the task of procuring votes of which Sir Roger had not been guilty, either by himself or his agents.
Now you might very well draw some parallels between that situation and some more recent events. But in the vein of House of Cards “I couldn’t possibly comment. “
It’s good fun though Trollope is using the election campaign and Scratchard’s fate to counterpoint Lady Arabella’s belief that money is everything. Having been disgraced, Scratchard is forced to acknowledge that though he is still a wealthy man, this is of little comfort – what he has valued all along is to rub shoulders with the great and the good.
Money had given him nothing but the mere feeling of brute power; with his three hundred thousand pounds he had felt himself to be no more palpably near to the goal of his ambition than when he had chipped stones for three siblings and sixpence a day. But when he was led up and introduced … when he shook the old premier’s hand on the floor of the House of Commons, when he heard the honourable member for Barchester alluded to in grave debate as the greatest living authority on railway matters, then indeed, he felt that he had achieved something.
Trollope packs a lot into his novel. Dr Thorne is consequently rather baggy, especially when it deals with the backstory of the Gresham’s declining financial situation. Trollope was so aware of this that he apologises to his reader for the fact the novel begins with “two long dull chapters full of description”. He also acknowledges that readers might find the young, energetic Frank more interesting than the real hero, the middle aged country Doctor. Yet Dr Thorne is one of the two most interesting characters in the novel for me. He acts as the novel’s moral compass, confronting a personal ethical dilemma (should he reveal the secret of Mary’s impending fortune) with fortitude and refusing to instruct Mary in how to deal with Frank’s continued declarations of love, preferring instead that she work out for herself the best course of action. Even in the face of insults from Lady Arabella and Sir Roger’s wayward son, he shows great forbearance. Essentially he is an all round good egg.
But pride of place as a character has to go to Lady Arabella Gresham. She’s a magnificent portrait of a thoroughly selfish woman, so imbued with notions of her status that she cannot see the damage she causes through her manipulative treatment of her daughters, her son and even her husband. The one person who is more than a match for her is the doctor. Despite her best endeavours to break off the relationship between him and the Squire, it’s the doctor to whom her husband turns for support and with whom, ultimately, she herself has to find a compromise. How would Lady Arabella fare when confronted with Trollope’s other superb harridan – Mrs Proudie the Bishop’s wife last seen in Barchester Towers. Now that would be an encounter I’d love to see……
The Book: Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope was published in 1858 as the third in his Barchester series. According to Ruth Rendell in the introduction to my edition, the idea of the plot was suggested to Trollope by his brother. A television adaptation by Julian Fellowes (scriptwriter for many classic adaptations) was broadcast in the UK in 2016.
The author: In addition to giving the world two series of best-selling novels, Anthony Trollope left a permanent mark on British society with his introduction of the Royal Mail pillar box in 1874. These were painted green initially but changed twenty years later to the red that exists today on every post office collection box in the country. Trollope was working as a civil servant at the Post Office at the time – an occupation he continued until 1866. More information about his career and writing can be found at the Trollope Society website.
Why I read this novel: I enjoyed The Warden and Barchester Towers so much I decided to read all of the Chronicles of Barsetshire novels in order. Dr Thorne is one of the titles on my Classics Club list.
It’s risky to begin reading a series part way through its run. I knew when I opted for The Chalk Pit, the ninth in the Dr Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths, that I’d be missing a lot of the background details about the characters and their relationships. But the premise of a crime/mystery series whose central character is a forensic archaeologist, seemed rather different so I was willing to take the chance that I could get up to speed fairly quickly without having to go right back to book one.
The publishers Quercus are clearly aware that this could be an issue since they provided a handy ‘who’s who’ at the back of the book. This wasn’t of much help to me however since, by the time I discovered the guide, I had already finished reading the novel. Not that it proved a problem because within the first few chapters Elly Griffiths succinctly provided everything I needed to know about Dr Galloway and her tangled relationship with Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson. The two have worked together on several cases but they have an even closer connection – they have a six-year-old daughter though Harry still lives with his wife.
In The Chalk Pit, the two are thrown together once more when Ruth is called in when some bones are discovered in a tunnel under the city of Norwich. They look as if they’ve been there for hundreds of years but there’s something odd about them – they might have been boiled, a practice Ruth knows is associated with cannibalism. Harry meanwhile is wrestling with his own mystery – who has killed two homeless men who live on the streets of Norwich? And is this somehow connected with the disappearance of a female rough sleeper? His team don’t have a lot to go on other than the rather strange remark that she had ‘gone underground’. Progress is slow which doesn’t please the new (female) Superintendent who wants Harry focused on higher priority matters instead of wasting time on this investigation. The pressure mounts further when two other women go missing.
Two elements of this book were disappointing. One was the pace at which the plot progressed. Books are like cheese in my view – they need time to mature. This one felt rather rushed. Just when I was having my imagination fired up with the idea of homeless people forming a new community to live in old chalk pits underneath the city of Norwich, Ruth announces she knows the identity of the killer. From there we get a bit of rushing around the city and then the killer is in custody and it was all over. I could happily have spent more time exploring the underground world. The second disappointment was that
we didn’t get to experience Ruth at work as much as I would have expected. Yes she examines the bones and sends them off for various types of analysis and has a few conversations about the history of chalk pits and different underground societies around the world. But I wanted more of this – and less about her daughter and their life together in a remote seaside cottage.
Where The Chalk Pit really scored highly for me was in the way it treats the issue of homelessness. Elly Griffiths avoids the easy option of portraying the street dwellers as ‘salt-of-the-earth’ type figures who are ranged against a society that doesn’t care. Instead she shows them as people who have sadness in their lives but also character flaws that led them to nights in doorways.
This nuanced handling comes through also in the way that the police officers respond to these homeless people. Early on in the novel one of the street dwellers, a guy nicknamed “Aftershave Eddy’ by police who have experienced his less than fragrant body odour, is found dead on the steps of the police station. Harry castigates officers who had walked passed the man, assuming he was asleep though he had a knife in his chest. The deliberate disregard is however modified once the investigation is underway however and officers come fact to face with the reality of the world of the homeless. One female detective, visiting a day shelter remarks:
The homeless are like the remnants of a long-forgotten army, still dressed in their ragged uniforms reminding their more-fortunate neighbours that there is a battlefield out there, a place of violence and fear and dread.
Through their investigations the officers come to see these figures as human beings who had a life before they took to the streets. They learn how small gestures such as talking about football or playing a game of chess can make a difference in helping a homeless person feel part of society. Unfortunately the majority attitude is to treat street dwellers as an inconvenience. “Nobody cares about the homeless,” one man tells a detective. “They just want us to go away so they don’t have to see us and feel guilty.” Faced with that reaction, it’s understandable why, for some of the characters in this novel, life underground is far more attractive than an existence above.
The Book: The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths was published in February 2017 by Quercus . itis the ninth in the Dr Ruth Galloway series which began in 2010 with The Crossing Places.
The Author: Elly Griffiths is the pen name of Domenica de Rosa. She was inspired to write the Dr Ruth Galloway series by her husband who swapped his career in the City for a job as an archaeologist. Discover more about Elly Griffiths on her website.
Why I read this book: Although I don’t read a huge amount of crime, I’m often on the look out for a novel in the genre that is slightly different from the usual fare. I’ve never read anything featuring a forensic archaeologist and in fact had little idea what that job could entail – I thought this book could enlighten me. Seems like I will need to read some of the earlier titles in order to be further enlightened. I received a copy from the publishers via Net Galley in return for an honest review
In Penelope Lively’s Booker-prize winning Moon Tiger, an elderly woman lies dying in a hospital somewhere in the UK. As the nursing staff suspect from her rambling utterances, she is no ordinary woman. She is Claudia Hampton, an esteemed war journalist during World War II who went on to become a published historian. Now lying on her bed she decides to construct in her head a history of the world and at the same time her own history.
The question immediately confronting her is how best to tell this story. Claudia is clear that her readers should not expect a linear narrative nor to encounter just one Claudia. “I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water,” she declares. “The pack of cards I carry around is forever shuffled and re-shuffled, there is no sequence, everything happens at once.”
This statement becomes a metaphor for the way Penelope Lively constructs her own narrative. Instead of a linear progression we get a kind of fragmented monologue from Claudia (the results of her medication or her ageing mind?) interposed with the comments of an omniscient narrator. Some episodes are relayed multiple times from the – often conflicting – viewpoints of different people who are reaching into their own memories. Claudia – and hence Penelope Lively – orchestrate these people as if they were providing stage directions for a set of characters in a play.
Mother, Gordon, Sylvia, Jasper, Lisa. Mother will drop out before long, retiring gracefully and with minimum fuss after an illness in 1962. Others as yet unnamed will come and go. Some more than others; one above all. In life as in history the unexpected lies waiting, grinning from around corners. Only with hindsight are we wise about cause and effect.
Females do in fact play second fiddle to the male characters in Moon Tiger. For this is a story that revolves around Claudia’s relationship with three men: her brother Gordon against whom she competes intellectually; her first lover Jasper by whom she bears a child; and Tom, a British tank commander she meets and falls in love with in Egypt while reporting on Rommel’s desert campaign. Their time together is confined to one weekend during Tom’s leave from the front but it is enough for them to begin to make plans for the future, for marriage and children. Shortly afterwards Claudia learns of Tom’s death during the Battle of El Amamein. Now, after many decades, Claudia vividly recalls details of this precious weekend, the ring he bought her and the Moon Tiger mosquito coil that sent coils of smoke into the night as they lay in bed on their last night together.
Lively takes two risks with this novel. First of all she chooses as her protagonist a character who it is difficult to like. Claudia is an opinionated, selfish, competitive, headstrong woman who doesn’t seem to feel any strong emotional attachment to her daughter Lisa, leaving her in the hands of her grandmother while she goes off on her reporting assignments. She also has a questionable relationship with her brother that might disturb some people. But then we get Lively’s inventive form of story-telling where the narrative seems to start, stop, rewind and then fast forward. It’s a tricky technique to get right. It makes for a difficult to understand opening chapter compounded by the fact we don’t know the characters being mentioned. But once Lively gets into her stride, the result is rather wonderful. And she succeeds, against the odds, in providing a story laden with atmosphere and poignancy (nowhere more so than in the final few pages).
It’s a novel that captivated me with its exploration of the difficulties of producing a history even if it is one’s own; of sifting through and trying to reconcile memories with facts. I’m sure it’s one that will withstand a second reading but in the meantime I’m left with an abiding image of an old woman in bed watching darkness fall on bare branches outside her room… and remembering.
The Book: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively was first published by Andre Deutsch in 1987. My paperback edition was published by Penguin in 2010. It won the Booker Prize in that year against competition from Iris Murdoch and Chinua Achebe. A recording of Penelope Lively talking about Moon Tiger is available as a podcast from the BBC World Book Club via this link.
The Author: Penelope Lively grew up in Egypt though moved to England to take up a place at Oxford University. She was twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize with her first novel The Road to Lichfield in 1977 and then According to Mark in 1994.
Why I read this book: It is part of my Booker Prize project
With its pirates and fairies, fights and flights, it’s not surprising that Peter Pan has long been a popular play to mark the Christmas season. The playful and adventurous spirit of the title character have captured the imagination since the play was first performed in 1904. The various film versions, particularly the Disney version from 1953 have added considerably to the play’s popularity. Perhaps part of its enduring appeal rests in the feeling that there could be a little bit of Peter in all of us. Maybe we, like Peter, want “always to be a little boy and have fun.” Film directors and stage directors have consequently tended to present Peter Pan as a celebration of childhood and the power of imagination. How else to explain why audiences enthusiastically respond when they hear Peter’s appeal:
“Do you believe in fairies? Say quick that you believe! If you believe, clap your hands!”
It wasn’t until I read the text of the play that I realised how much it undercuts and disturbs the idea of carefree childhood. In fact it raises some disturbing questions which are never totally resolved.
Let’s take the character of Peter himself as an example. This is a boy who has boundless energy and enthusiasm for adventure. He wages constant war against his arch enemy Captain Hook, enjoys mock fights with the Indians, and leads the Lost Boys on hunting expeditions. Yet beneath his bravado he is rather a sad figure. He is essentially an orphan, a boy who severed his familial connections when he overheard his parents discussing what he would be when he grew up – growing up is of course the last thing Peter wants to happen. Taking Wendy to Neverland as a ‘mother figure’ who looks after the home and tells stories, is an attempt to fill that gap in his life. Wendy of course wants to be something other than a mother to Peter but the emotional side of his character is so deficient he is confused by her overtures. She is looking to be kissed. He doesn’t understand the concept of ‘a kiss’ – so when asked for one all he can do is present her with an acorn.
It’s not surprising – this is a boy who doesn’t comprehend emotions and in fact has built a protective shield against such sensations. The warning signs are there in his first encounter with Wendy:
Peter: “You mustn’t touch me.”
Peter: “No-one must ever touch me.”
He means ‘touched’ in a physical sense but the play makes evident that his emotions are equally impenetrable. Which leaves us with a problem: if Peter cannot feel anything for another human being, cannot indeed even recognise other people have emotions (he is totally baffled by Tinker Bell’s jealousy of Wendy) he can never fully mature. On that basis, his desire to always want to be a child is a denial of his own humanity. He will forever be stuck as a child, not because this is the most attractive of states but because he cannot be anything else. He cannot move on but remains stuck in an endlessly-repeating cycle of adventures and mistakes and so becomes a tragic figure. It’s a long way from the idea in the popular imagination of Peter as a loveable imp.
Even more disturbing is that Peter also wants to deny other children the possibility of maturity. He is the leader of the Lost Boys, the youngsters who supposedly fell out of their prams as babies, but he doesn’t act as a responsible parent, guiding them through life. Instead he manipulates them so they think his world, the world of invention, is the real world. They exist in a state of complete make believe, eating pretend meals and wearing the skins of animals they imagine they have killed. Of real life, their life before Neverland, they have only a vague recollection. Wendy proves to be their saviour. Through her influence they begin to remember their past and to long for more than a world of invention. They are not so far steeped in the cult of Neverland that they cannot leave and join the real world as adopted sons of Mr and Mrs Darling. But Peter is destined always to remain the outsider.
His isolation is an example of a feeling of sadness that I saw running through the play. Yes it celebrates the exuberance of childhood but Barrie shows that there is also a price to be paid by those who choose to remain in childhood. Though Peter Pan is in so many ways a celebration of immaturity, it also contains a warning to those who refuse to grow up.
The book: Peter Pan or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up was first performed in London in 1904. The script however was not published until 1928 – by then Barrie had made some significant changes including the addition of a scene containing an alternative ending. The original play ends with the Darling children back home and Peter promising to return for Wendy every spring. The revised ending – entitled When Wendy Grew Up. An Afterthought – came four years after the play premiered. In this newer version Peter returns for Wendy years later to find that she is now grown up with a daughter of her own named Jane. Wendy is too old to return to Neverland herself but allows her daughter to go as Peter’s new ‘mother’.
The author: J.M Barrie was a Scottish novelist and playwright. He was inspired to create the character of Peter Pan through his involvement with the Llewelyn Davies boys who became his adopted sons when their parents (his friends) died. Barrie first brought Peter Pan to life in a 1902 novel The Little White Bird.
Why I read this book: Peter Pan is a set text for a module on children’s literature I have been taking.
The text of the play including J. M Barrie’s copious stage directions is available via Project Gutenburg.
Swallows and Amazons was the first title in Arthur Ransome’s classic series of 12 novels written between 1929 and 1934. It introduces the Walker children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger (the Swallows), the camp they create on Wild Cat island and their adventures with the two intrepid Blackett sisters (the Amazons). Ransome, who was a journalist with the Manchester Guardian, was inspired to write the book after a summer spent giving sailing lessons to the children of some friends. His novel relates the outdoor adventures and play of the two sets of children who are spending the summer holidays in the Lake District. Initially ‘enemies’ the Swallows and the Amazons enjoy a few skirmishes until they agree to band together against a common foe – the Blacketts’ uncle James whom they call “Captain Flint” who angers them by thinking them responsible for the theft of his precious trunk. But of course, since this is a book intended for child readers, all must come right in the end. Mistakes are set right, apologies given, the children become firm friends with Captain Flint and all resolve to meet again the following summer.
I never read Swallows and Amazons as a child – in fact I never heard the title mentioned even among any of my friends. But it was a set text on my children’s literature course so in I plunged. I admit that, despite the fact it was voted in a 2003 BBC poll as one of the nation’s favourite reads, I didn’t warm to this book initially. It contained far too much about the mechanics of sailing in which I have little interest. But once I’d got over that barrier I began to appreciate this tale of a bunch of children who get to go off on adventures without too much interference from adults.
It’s a novel in the long tradition of ‘island stories’ but instead of travelling to far off places and encountering pirates as the kids do in Treasure Island for example, the children here base their adventures on a small island in one of the Lake District’s lakes (some local experts claim it’s Lake Windermere, others that it’s Coniston Water.) Influenced by their reading of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island the Walker children and the Blackett girls let their imaginations roam free. Adults are transformed into ‘natives’, the map of the lake is re-drawn with their own names assigned to its inlets and bays, the fish they catch become ‘sharks’ and the pebbles for which they dive are ‘pearls’. They eat some odd sounding meals – it took me a while to work out that the ingredient they call pemmican is something like SPAM – but they are not so far away from civilisation that they miss out on cakes and other treats from their mother and the nearby farm.
The more I read of their invented world, the more I recalled some of the adventures I had with my large group of cousins during our own school holidays, leaving the house just after breakfast and sometimes not returning until it was time for tea. In between we roamed the hillsides building dens to ward off imaginary invaders sustained with some wild berries we managed to forage. For the children of Swallows and Amazons their adventures provide a form of education. They learn practical skills like how to handle the dinghy or how to cook on a camp fire but they also learn a lesson in life – the importance of not taking things at face value and of valuing other people’s property. It has a clear didactic element but it’s handled fairly lightly (certainly in comparison to Little Women!).
On the whole, though I wouldn’t want to read any more in the series, this was a fun read and I found I could easily skip the details about sailing. I loved the way it sparked memories of my own childhood – I wonder whether kids today still make up their own imaginary worlds or has this become a victim of the easy availability of virtual reality and gaming?
The Book: Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome was published in 1930. So popular has it proved over the year that multiple TV and film adaptations have been issued, including one by Harbour Pictures and BBC Films in 2016. (it attracted criticism because out of some odd idea of sensitivity, one character’s name was changed from Titty to Tilly).
The Author: Arthur Ransome was born in Leeds but spent large parts of his childhood in the Lake District, using that detailed knowledge to inform his novels. Ransome had already written 20 novels but it wasn’t until third of the Swallows and Amazons series was published did he achieve commercial and critical success. After the success of his first Swallows and Amazons novel he gave up his journalist career and devoted himselfto to writing adventure stories for children. The Arthur Ransome Trust set up to honour his work, continues to operate today, providing children with some of the same experiences as the children in his novels.
Why I read this book: Quite simply I wouldn’t have read it if it hadn’t been a set text for my children’s literature course.
This week’s Top Ten topic is about books we consider to be underrated and hidden gems. My list is a bit of a cornucopia, comprising of a smattering of historic fiction, literary fiction and works by authors from Africa and South America. All hyperlinks are to my reviews.
Let’s start in Brazil with Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis, an author little known of outside of South America but is a familiar name to every schoolchild in Brazil (he’s required reading in the education system). It is supposedly an autobiography written by Bento Santiago, a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro, in which he describes his early life, his years of happiness married to his childhood sweetheart and then the heartbreak when he thinks she has betrayed him. Whether this is the truth is uncertain because Bento isn’t exactly a reliable narrator nor one who can be trusted to stick to the point. He can be in the middle of describing the grande passion of his life and then suddenly switches to commenting on ministerial reshuffles and train travel. A great choice for readers who like quirky novels.
Moving on to Africa, first up is Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a novel deemed so dangerous by the Kenyan government that they imprisoned the author. What was so incendiary about this novel? Quite simply because it turned the spotlight on the authorities for their betrayal of ordinary people in Kenya, promising them the earth when the country gained independence but then when the rains failed, the crops died and people faced starvation, they ignored their calls for help. A powerful novel that sadly depicts a situation happening in too many parts of the world.
From Ethiopia comes All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu which I picked up on a whim while at the Hay Literary Festival a few years ago. This is a book about love but also about the lengths to which someone will go to build a new life for themselves, even if that means leaving their homeland and their identity.
By complete contrast The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso offers a tale of rivalry and hostility between two very stubborn women who live next door to each other in Cape Town. Many of the scenes are hilarious but this is a novel which also asks searching questions about racial tension and the possibility of reconciliation between the different sectors of South African society.
And finally from Africa we get Wife of the Gods by the Ghanian author Kwei Quartey. The plot revolves around the murder of a young female medical student but the novel does far more than offer a well-paced detective story. This is a tale which takes us to the dark side of Ghana’s culture where young girls are offered as trokosi (or Wives of the Gods) to fetish priests and villagers still believe in the power of medicine men to assuage vengeful gods.
If those titles have given you a taste for fiction from Africa – or indeed from anywhere in the world except your own country, but you don’t know where to begin – your saviour will be The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by Michael Orthofer. This offers profiles of the literature on a region by region and country by country basis and a multitude of author names to explore.
Changing direction totally I offer one of the best historical fiction novels I have read in several years. Antonia Hodgson’s debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea takes us into the heart of the notorious squalid and disease ridden Marshalsea prison for debtors. Reading this, you can almost smell the place such is the power of Hodgson’s narrative. Her protagonist Tom Hawkins ends up in the Marshalsea because he has too much of a liking for gambling and women. The question is whether he will leave the prison alive or dead.
I couldn’t possibly create a list of under-rated gems without mentioning Holiday by Stanley Middleton. I know it seems strange to think of a Booker prize winner as a hidden gem but this winner from 1974 is one that few people seem to know. Middleton himself also seems to have disappeared from the public consciousness. This despite the fact he wrote more than 40 novels. Holiday is a quiet novel in a sense because the action, such as it is, is all inside the head of the main character. Edwin Fisher, a university professor takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside where he reflects on the breakdown of his marriage. It’s a well observed story of a man who is more an observer than a participant in life.
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan was also a contender for the Booker prize. This is a novel about a community and the individuals within it that feel the effect of the collapse of Ireland’s economic boom. It’s a novel that almost never saw the light of day. It had been rejected by numerous publishers but was rescued from yet another reject pile by an intern who raved about it and persuaded her employers to give it a go. It then went on to make the long list for the Booker Prize. What happened to the intern is not known but I hope she got a permanent job for showing such great intuition.
And finally, a novel that should have won the Booker in 2013 but sadly the judges felt otherwise. Harvest by Jim Crace is a beautifully written lyrical novel set in a period in history where a traditional way of life where people rely on the land to make a living is ruptured in the name of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise”.
The revival of interest in crime classics from the Golden Age of (the 1920s and 30s) continues unabated it seems. The British Library decision to publish hitherto neglected titles from that era was a smart move, coming just as book pundits began to detect a desire by readers to move away from dark modern thrillers. Whether the interest in the Classic Crime series (now 20 titles and growing) was really a reaction to the complexity of modern life and a yearning for the ‘simpler’ life of the past, is debatable. It may be that the interest in the Golden Age will be short lived but for now, it’s definitely on the rise.
Miss Christie Regrets by Guy Fraser-Sampson harks back to that era but also brings it up to date with a whodunnit trail involving espionage and a threat to national security. It doesn’t slavishly follow the conventions of the Golden Era detective story (no locked room mystery here for example or English country house setting) but it acknowledges its heritage with multiple references to the leading practitioners of the genre like Marjorie Allingham and of course Agatha Christie.
This is the second title in a series set in the Hampstead area of London and the police station serving that suburb. It features some of the same characters of the earlier novel Death in Profile; in particular Detective Superintendent Simon Collinson, the psychologist Peter Collins and Detective Sergeants Bob Metcalfe and Karen Willis. It begins with the discovery of a body at an art gallery/museum, with our old friend the blunt instrument soon identified as the murder weapon. There are a few obvious suspects including the caretakers of the building though the security system was so lax anyone could have walked in from the street and done the evil deed. The police team are already struggling to make much progress when a second murder victim is discovered in the basement of an iconic apartment block which boasted illustrious tenants including Miss Agatha Christie herself. Collinson is convinced the two cases are connected even though they happened some 60 years apart. He’s also convinced Miss Christie somehow holds the key to the mystery. He’s not able to make much progress however until Special Branch begin to reveal some of their secrets. I won’t give the game away much further other than to say the trail uncovers connections that the intelligence service have sat on for decades.
It’s a plot that’s not fiendishly difficult but has enough complexity to keep me guessing until the final stages. Miss Christie Regrets has a satisfying quota of dead bodies though they happen off stage as it were and are not described in any gory detail and plenty of red herrings. Ultimately it’s a straight forward police procedural murder mystery in which the detectives reach a solution not through sudden ‘light bulb’ moments but by meticulous attention to detail and protocol. Good old fashioned detective work I suppose one could call this.
My enjoyment would have been even greater if there had been less of the police procedural element and more depth to the setting. I enjoyed learning about the history of the Isokon building which was intended as an experiment in communal living and designed in the style of the Bauhaus movement. But given that the series is named Hampstead Murders I would have expected more of a sense we were in this particular part of London. There are some occasional references to pubs or buildings like Burgh House where the first murder victim is found:
Burgh House sits rather smugly in New End Square, as if well aware of the fact that it is both one of the largest and also one of the finest houses in Hampstead.
These glimpses were tantalising. I’d hope that as this series progresses and the characters are given more depth that more emphasis is also given to portraying the unique character of Hampstead. I would have welcomed more of that element and less of the daily recaps of the investigation. Police work does involve a higher degree of routine work than TV dramas suggest but I don’t necessarily need to see that mapped out in such detail as in this novel. It made the book feel longer than it needed to be.
Overall however this was a highly readable novel and one I can see having a strong appeal to people who enjoy being challenged by the mystery of death but don’t need all the gruesome details.
The Book: Miss Christie Regrets is published January 2016 by Urbane Publications UK
The Author: Guy Fraser-Sampson has a list of writing credits to his name including works on finance, investment and economic history. He is best known as the author of three novels in the Mapp and Lucia series created by E.F.Benson.
Why I read this book: I received a review copy from the author in exchange for an honest review (which I hope this is).
Strong Poison is the fifth book to feature Dorothy L Sayers’ aristocratic private sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read any of the earlier novels for this book can stand on its own. It’s a wonderful introduction to Wimsey and his methods which seem to involve a lot of thinking and casual conversations with witnesses and potential perpetrators. He has one ace up his sleeve – the group of women known as ‘The Cattery’, members of a fictitious typing bureau who are deployed to infiltrate houses and offices and nose about on his behalf.
These were spinsters with small fixed incomes or o comes at all, widows without family; women deserted by peripatetic husbands and living on a restricted alimony, who previous to their engagement ….had had no resources but bridge and boarding house gossip.
It’s a brilliant device because it gives scope for some wonderful characterisations and amusing episodes. In Strong Poison we benefit from two highly amusing scenes in which one woman takes part in a seance and pretends to be a medium and another where a man takes lessons from a master thief on how to pick locks.
The plot revolves Harriet Vane who is on trial for the murder by arsenic powder of her former lover. Whimsy attends the trial and is convinced that Harriet Vane is not guilty of murder but can he prove this in time to save her from the gallows? He’s up against it since the police are equally convinced they have the right culprit and even the judge at her trial seems to be against her. Finding the real poisoner isn’t just a case of exerting true justice – Wimsey has another motivation for solving the mystery – he has decided he wants to marry Harriet even though all he knows about her is what was revealed at the trial. She understandably demures at this proposal since she knows even less about him, but Wimsey is not a man to take no for an answer.
The plot is reasonably straight forward – surprisingly I guessed who the culprit was long before the revelation (as I suspect many other readers will). Less evident than the answer to the question whodunnit? was the answer to the question of how the murder was accomplished. That one kept me perplexed right to the end.
The plot is less important than the characters and the setting however. This is novel dating from the 1930s, an era often labelled as the “golden age of crime” because it also saw the rise of two authors who became synonymous with crime fiction: Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. It’s an era wonderfully evoked by Sayers who of course was writing about her contemporary world. Equally masterful is her creation of Lord Wimsey. One moment you’re thinking that despite his elegant clothes and foppish language he is a bit of an idiot and the next thinking how astute a judge of character he is. A most unusual private eye .
All together an entertaining novel that did the job perfectly when I needed an antidote so some of my darker reading materials. I know where to turn when I’m next in that mood.
The Book: Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers was published in 1930. According to Wikipedia the relationship between Harriet and her lover was inspired by Sayers’ own fraught relationship with fellow-author John Cournos. Cournos wanted her to ignore social mores and live with him without marriage, but she wanted to marry and have children. After a year of agony between 1921 and 1922, she learned that Cournos had claimed to be against marriage only to test her devotion, and she broke off with him.
My edition: Published by Hodder and Stoughton’s New English Library. It has an introduction by Elizabeth George which pays tribute to Sayers’ ability to conjure up compelling characters.
Why I read this: it was in a second hand book shop and in excellent condition so of course I had to buy it but then left it lingering on the shelf for a while. I had just read Little Women and after so much saccharine I needed a complete change of pace .