Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann 1

published 1953

Echoing Grove 2

[mid-1940s. Sisters Dinah and Madeleine have met up for the first time in many years]

After the meal, after a rapid tour of the house, they prepared themselves to take a walk.

‘Your shape is exactly as it always was,’ said Madeleine.

‘The same to you.’ Dinah looked with appreciation at her sister, tall and trim in old but well-cut tweeds.

‘No, not really. My legs…. Not that it matters tuppence. But I hate myself in slacks now. Mother couldn’t bear me wearing them, she said I looked like a female impersonator. You know how she had a muddled idea that women must dress to preserve the mystery of sex. However, you look all right in them. Fine.’

‘Thanks.’ Dinah’s voice was dry; she smiled. ‘But the mystery of sex was never my strong suit…. Mother turned in her hand about my clothes when I was 17.’


‘Yes. You’ve forgotten. It was only yours she fussed about. After my coming-out frock, God help me, I was scratched from the arena.’…

‘Poor darling, she had such awful taste,’ said Madeleine, staring out of the window. ‘It was based on a principle: what the jeune fille should look like.’

Echoing Grove 3

observations: An epublisher called Open Road Media is republishing all of Rosamond Lehmann’s works as ebooks in the US and Canada. They asked me if I’d be interested in looking at this one: in fact I have a 1st edition hard-back, and have read it several times, but I accepted their offer of an ebook, read it again, and fell in love with it all over again. And began to wonder – why isn’t Lehmann better remembered? Many of the women writers of the 1920s through to the 1950s have been revived, or perhaps never gone away. I – like many books bloggers – am an enthusiastic fan of many of them, and feature them frequently, and revere the publishers Bloomsbury, Persephone, Virago and Vintage (who have published Lehmann in the UK) for keeping them in print.

If I say she’s a much more serious writer than others who might on the surface seem similar (Nancy Mitford, Stella Gibbons, Dodie Smith, EM Delafield), that is not either to underplay the status of the others, or to imply that Lehmann is dull or humourless – she is never that. But she does not have the kind of self-deprecating, self-mocking jokes that turn up in other books: she gives herself, her heroines and their lives the importance they deserve. Characters have long discussions about their thoughts and feelings and – above all – their love affairs, and Lehmann is quite unapologetic. And rightly so: she makes these sections surprisingly riveting.

The Echoing Grove concerns the two sisters above, Dinah and Madeleine. Madeleine is married to Rickie, Dinah is living a rackety Bohemian life in London – of one of her later homes she says:
Only one bathroom in the building but the other tenants refrain from baths till Saturday, so it’s not too bad.
While Dinah is staying with her married sister, she gets engaged to Charles. That night, Rickie (up till now merely the perfect brother-in-law) goes to her room, where she is in bed, and tells her she can’t go through with it:
‘I’ve got to.’
‘You can’t. You know why.’
‘Break it off.’
 --and he immediately leaves the room. One of the hardest and most memorable seduction scenes in any book: ‘And so it had all begun.’

The affair between sister and brother-in-law causes great unhappiness all round (as well as some moments of great joy) and stops, re-starts and has its rather squalid moments. It is, to be truthful, not always easy to follow in the book – the above description is a lot more linear than the way Lehmann tells it. I think the affair starts in the early 1930s, stumbles along for a couple of years, then ends more or less decisively. The book starts in around 1944, when it is clear that Rickie is dead, and the two sisters have been estranged for a long time. The agonizing narrative of the relations among the three of them is then slowly reeled out, but jumping all over the place to different stages of the affair.

The whole book asks the same question over and over: can you follow your heart at others’ expense? Do you have the right to pursue your own happiness if you know you will badly hurt someone else? And there are no answers. The book often teeters towards showing Madeleine as a tradition-bound, stiff person, while Dinah is the attractive free-spirit. But Lehmann (who in her own life would be more of a Dinah than a Madeleine) also shows that Madeleine really does love Rickie, it is not mere convention that makes her want to preserve her marriage. And Dinah’s absurdities and the squalor of her life are shown, as well as the ways in which she would be extremely tiresome.

All the characters are superbly well-drawn, you feel you know them by the end of the book.

The book was made into a film called The Heart of Me in 2002: a terrific film that I highly recommend. There will be another entry on the book, and the clothes in it, and the film, later this week.

The advertising image is one I first used for Agatha Christie’s Moving Finger.

The second picture is from the wonderful Powerhouse Museum collection.

Monday, 29 June 2015

The Fat of Fed Beasts by Guy Ware

published 2015

Fat of fed beasts 2

[Narrator Rada has got caught up in an armed bank robbery]

One of the men shouted again and pointed his semi-automatic pistol at roughly the point where my head had been before I knelt, and then lay down, and I thought the old man was going to get shot. I recall thinking it would be a shame and something of a waste and a tragedy for a person to get shot just because he was deaf and maybe didn’t have the best peripheral vision. I reached out my right hand. From where I was lying, face down on the linoleum, I could just touch the old man’s foot. He was wearing brogues in thick, tan leather with the depth of shine that I knew, from having watched my father clean his shoes, and mine and, later, D’s, every Sunday evening until I was fourteen years old, came only as a result of repeated polishing over many years. I pinched the turn-up of his right trouser leg between my first and second fingers – I could not quite reach it with my thumb to get a better grip – and tugged, as best I could, to attract his attention and alert him to the danger he was in. He lifted his foot without turning, and shook it, as if shooing away a fly. When he put it down again, the heel – which I noticed was rubber, although the shoe had a leather half sole which was nearly new, or at least not worn – landed heavily on the first two joints of my index and middle fingers, and I could not help shouting out, even though I was trying not to, on account of not wanting to attract the attention of the men with guns, and possibly get shot.

fat of  fed beasts 1

observations: This very strange book is one I heard of over at Col’s Criminal Library. He made it sound unmissable, and anyway it was short(ish) and cheap. And he thinks I’m going to explain it to him. Ha.

I don’t know how you’d describe it – existential noir? We are introduced to a group of people who work in an office together: one of them is a witness to the armed bank robbery above. Nothing is what it seems. The office workers are described as ‘loss adjusters’ but in fact their job is far more unlikely and unusual than that. Some of them are related, some of them live together.

Then there is the bank robbery, which we quickly find out seems to have been staged by some disenchanted police officers. Worst case, two people were shot and possibly killed. But the bank officials claim no-one was hurt at all.

And then, the old man above. He refuses to obey the gunmen, and in the end walks away. But who is he? A name pops up, but it’s the name of someone known to have died a month ago - ‘I had seen the man’s body’ in its coffin. (Col’s review explains the plot better than I have, and in more detail.)

Very confusingly, the chapters are all first person, but are narrated by different characters, and you have to work out for yourself who is talking, with no hints at the beginning of the chapters. It is not that difficult, tbh – though two men have very similar voices - but it is annoying and a bit cheeky.

Throughout the text, there are endless references to literature – James Joyce, Philip Larkin, Dostoievsky, Ian McEwan, Melville - and no doubt many more that I didn’t pick up *. The title is a phrase from the book of Isaiah in the Bible – the sentence has God saying, roughly, ‘why do you make all these sacrifices, why do you think I want all these offerings, I have enough of the fat of fed beasts’. I don’t know why this is relevant.

The book is certainly well-written and very compelling, I really wanted to know what was going on, and the characters were memorable. I found it a little bit too tricksy for my tastes, and am not at all sure that I understood what had happened. I finished the book quite satisfied, but now keep thinking of questions. Sorry Col.

Mind you, I did find the clothes description he was looking for:
He is wearing the pale grey Prince of Wales check, and a hand-made shirt the colour of pus. His tie is lime green.
-- but I didn’t in the end go for that, nor for the carefully-described garb of the bank robbers – Kevlar vests and black balaclavas (instructions given on how to use one as a tourniquet). Nicholas Lezard reviewed the book very enthusiastically in the Guardian, and his final lines were ‘The result of all this is the best debut novel I have read in years. I am now going to polish my shoes.’ ( * Lezard also tells us that the book is stylistically indebted to Samuel Beckett, and I would like credit for the fact that I did not quickly slide Beckett’s name in amongst the references I noted myself above.) I’m not sure how important shoe-shining really is, but apparently the cover (I read it on Kindle) says the book is:
about money, work, love, redundancy, crime, the afterlife AND the importance of well-polished shoes.
The Fat of Fed Beasts was entertaining and very amusing. I liked this line:
You involve yourself with a very low grade of person when you become a thief.
The plot would not challenge this proposition. Ware tells us he borrowed it from real-life bank robber Willie Sutton, who is quoted throughout the book.

On balance, I would read something else by Guy Ware.

The pictures above are from fashion adverts. An unlikely sidelight on the history of trouser turnups comes from Royalty here on the blog

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Dress Down Sunday: The Dean’s Watch by Elizabeth Goudge

published 1960 – book set in the 1880s

Deans Watch 2

[The Dean is visiting the home of his solicitor in the town]

A small girl was planted sturdily before him. She wore a starched muslin frock with short puffed sleeves and a frill round the neck. A blue sash encircled that part of her anatomy where in later years a waist would possibly develop….. He could not guess her age, but as her chest was about on a level with his knee he thought it to be tender….

She leaped into the big chair beside the canary’s cage and swarmed up its padded back, revealing as she did so that she wore the most enchanting lace-trimmed undergarments….

[Later] Climbing on another chair, showing a good deal of petticoat as she did so, she smiled adorably.

observations: When Christine Poulson and I did our lists of books set in Cathedrals and churches, revered blogfriend and favoured writer Hilary McKay had her own suggestion: The Dean’s Watch by Elizabeth Goudge. And this is it.

Goudge (1900-84) is a lost middlebrow author: her children’s book The Little White Horse has cult status, and the recommendation of JK Rowling. Her adult novels have  titles such as The Herb of Grace, or The Heart of the Family – both part of the Eliots of Damerosehay series. Somehow those titles tell you exactly what kind of books they are. As a teenager (alas, there wasn’t much in the way of YA in those days) I raced through them all, borrowing them from the local library. But it’s been a long time since I’ve read any.

The start of this one brought it all back – endless scene-setting in an imaginary Cathedral town (though you would guess based on Ely), and a lot of history and great characters from the past, and descriptions of bells and clocks.

On about page 40 the actual story gets going, by which time I was losing patience. Finally (this is late Victorian times) we reach a craftsman clockmaker, Isaac, and a long-standing and fierce Dean. Both men have imperfect lives, and the book is about their growing friendship. There is an array of minor characters surrounding them – very well-drawn – and it is obvious that both men’s lives are going to be improved by their unlikely camaraderie. The Dean – a good but stiff man – thinks he is unable to provoke love or affection in others. He will find he is wrong, and the little girl above will help with this.

All this is as predictable as the chiming of the Cathedral bells and the clocks of the town – it is sentimental, formulaic, slightly twee, and full of big doses of spirituality. And yet – my initial impatience wore off, and I became spellbound by the story, anxious to know how exactly things were going to turn out right, concerned about poor Job and Polly. And, amid the sentimentality, there are touches of real depth and a glimpse of the harshness that love can bring – the picture of the Dean’s wife and their relationship is heart-breaking.

I am not for a moment saying that Goudge was a 20th century Charles Dickens, but the experience was similar to reading Dickens: you know you are being manipulated, and also forced to read a lot of unnecessary guff alongside the good bits, but you become completely pulled in and delighted by it. And the picture of the city and the cathedral is astonishing and beautiful, it becomes totally real as the Dean walks round it. And in the end the goodness of people, their heart and charm, win you over, and you wish life really was like that.

A great addition to the list of Cathedral books – thank you Hilary McKay.

The little girl in the extract teeters on the edge of Shirley Temple and Lewis Carroll territory, but you have to allow Goudge the time she lived and wrote in. The picture is by John Hoppner, and came from the Wikigallery

Dickens himself wrote about a Cathedral City in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

The Fearless Treasure by Noel Streatfeild

published 1953

Fearless Treasure

[The time-travelling children are in 18th century London]

There were smartly-dressed ladies, with great hooped skirts and very low-cut bodices, with their hair hidden by little lace or linen caps. With them were what by their aprons seemed to be their maids, who, though more plainly dressed, looked as much like their mistresses as possible…. Although they had been to the market and done their shopping they seemed in no hurry to get home, but walked up the road looking around in an eager way to see if any friends were about…

The gentlemen were, the children thought, very dressy. They had what they took for long hair, but Mr Fosse said were wigs. He said, if they could look through the walls of the houses, they would see gentlemen without a hair on their heads, sitting in very expensive dressing-gowns waiting for the wig man to finish curling their hair before they could go out. They wore lovely brocade coats with masses of button-holes, fine handsome turned-back cuffs, white lace at their wrists and necks, long waistcoats, with again rows of button-holes, breeches to the knee and, of all gorgeous things to wear, many of them had red heels on their shoes. On their heads they mostly had huge turned-up black hats, bound with gold braid.

observations: So this was interesting: at the end of last year when I did a post on E Nesbit’s House of Arden (time-travelling children, costumes), two fellow-Nesbit fans and blog-friends both mentioned this book for comparison purposes.

Daniel Milford-Cottam said:
There's a Noel Streatfeild book that is very similar in general concept to House of Arden called "The Fearless Treasure." which is... very hard to describe otherwise. Six children, three girls, three boys, from six very different schools and six very different backgrounds - from working class, to super-posh - are sent to visit a strange old man who takes them back through time to six different periods - where each of them discovers a different connection/link to the past. It's a pretty good book and an interesting story, but it is very odd - I wasn't expecting it from Streatfeild although it has a LOT of her trademark touches.
Lissa Evans then said:
I remember finding The Fearless Treasure extremely hard going - it had very peculiar illustrations and ends with two children 'winning' and having to come up with a good way of using a large old house. The solution is a sort of school where poor but distinguished children can learn to rise above their background. I agree with Daniel - very odd.
I was convinced I had never heard of it, let alone read it, despite being such an all-round Streatfeild fan, and ordered a copy for myself.

And when I started reading it, I got to the end of page 1, and it all came flooding back: I most certainly had read it, and remembered with absolute certainty various details that were going to pop up in the next few pages.

What most clearly came back to me was that I had borrowed it from the school library, and had been very disappointed that it didn’t resemble the wondrous Ballet Shoes of blessed memory. Where were the auditions, the frock panics, the lining material at one and six-three a yard? The opening chapter describes six children being plucked from everyday life to go on a great adventure: each has home, background, family and school sketched out. My great wish was to hear more about the children there, at home, not to follow them on a historical jaunt through the ages. (I particularly liked the headmistress who had designed the school uniform in her favourite colours of blue and mauve, and sent notes to the girls with the signature well spaced out ‘so that the girl could, if she wished, cut out the signature for her autograph album.’ It sounds nearly as good a school as the one in The Clue in the Castle)

I took more joy in the book this time around: there is a very complex magic by which the children can at first hear historical details, then see them, then live them. There are six sections, each from a different era – one for each child, fitting in with their long-term ancestry – Norman, Viking, rich, poor. It is very carefully done, there is nothing slapdash about it, and it seems it was well-researched and I’m guessing accurate. The big difference to modern eyes is that it is very English – although Romans, Vikings and Normans are seen as immigrants, there is no space to look at any other nationalities coming into the country: and everyone is very white. But Streatfeild is anxious to explore issues of human rights, the rule of law, democracy and equality; and some of the thinking is very modern. It is certainly not as simplistic or as jingoistic as you might expect.

It was a very interesting book, and I’m glad to have read it again. Still, I bet it was given out as a school prize to many a poor child who hoped for something more theatrical from the author’s name…

The picture is from one of my all-time favourite resources: the album of photos from the Builth Wells Historical Pageant of 1909.

Friday, 26 June 2015

The Silent Pool by Patricia Wentworth

published 1956

Silent Pool

There [the coat] hung, with its great black and white checks and the emerald stripe which had taken her fancy. She didn’t know when she had seen anything smarter. She slipped it on and went out into the dusk…

[Later the coat is under discussion]
‘I have had it for some time, and it is – pretty noticeable – big squares of black and white with an emerald strip running across them. Quite unmistakable, and everyone knows it. Sam will have seen me in it for years.’

‘And how did Miss Preston come to be wearing it?’

‘It was hanging in the cloakroom, just by the garden door.’ She hesitated for a moment, and then went on. ‘I don’t know why she went out, but her dress was thin – she would have needed a wrap. And in a way, I suppose, she thought of the coat as her own. You see, I had half given it to her.’

observations: Here’s a tip, should you ever be visiting the strange and remarkable world of Patricia Wentworth. If someone has a very distinctive piece of clothing or accessory, something brightly-coloured and obvious, on no account borrow it. You will be murdered. It seems a particularly common idea in her books (or perhaps my choices have been coincidental.) The experienced crime fiction reader can see it coming a mile off.

Wentworth World is, anyway, not really a recognizable part of normal life, with its ancient coughing investigator - who cleverly manages a ‘formal’ cough this time - its tips on sizing up the knitting (never make the smallest size!) and its bits of nasty Victorian jewellery – cairngorm brooch, cameos, lockets with hair in, a subtly-changing Irish bog oak flower with pearl.
Silent Pool 2
Is this what Miss Silver’s shape-shifting brooch looks like some of the time?
When I blogged on theatrical dressers recently, the lovely Vicki/Skiourophile mentioned this book: it is set at the home of a retired theatrical grande dame, and her dresser (nobly – dressers are all Cockney sparrers, and hate the country) has lived with her for years, and is the only person the actress, under threat of death, can really trust. ‘She came to me when she was only a girl, and she’s about sixty now.’

The bright and distinctive coat is being fought over by two of her dependents, so you know no good can come of this.

There is a Scottish young woman called Janet who is looking after a child and telling her stories of her childhood home of Darnach – this is peculiarly reminiscent of the Jane Duncan books about Janet of Reachfar which the blog has been following over the past year or so.

I learnt two new words: kenspeckle (distinctive and conspicuous) and heterodyne (to do with radio waves).

There is a shoe buckle which resembles the one in Agatha Christie’s One Two Buckle My Shoe.
I have read a number of these books recently, and have enjoyed them more than I expected. But I’m still waiting to be surprised by one of them: a clever plot twist, a truly unexpected murderer. Even a murderer who is nice the rest of the time would make a change – none that I have read has a killer from a character Wentworth or Silver seems to approve of. In each book you are presented with a group of suspects. The reader can reduce this pool to the people who are horrible. Silver finds out (by divine guessing) which of them did it. End of story.

But – as I keep saying -  I have recently been forced to reconsider Miss Silver after seeing this fascinating article by blogfriend Noah Stewart. And as I also keep saying, anyone interested in crime fiction should read it.

And, also in her favour, Wentworth does very good descriptions of people’s clothes – though I would also say that no-one who is well- and tastefully-dressed ever does the murder either. (In this one I liked one of the badly-dressed characters who ‘looked a little more run-in-the-wash than usual.’) I look forward to someone who has read more of them putting me right on this.

The picture is from Kristine’s photostream. It’s a particularly bad idea to lurk in a distinctive check coat near water, as hinted in the title of this book.

And, btw, exactly 30 years before this book was published, Agatha Christie disappeared mysteriously, staging a nationwide manhunt: her empty car had been found by somewhere called…. The Silent Pool. Coincidence, or was Wentworth referring back….?

Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Expats by Chris Pavone

published 2012

Expats 1

Kate forced the boys to pose at Checkpoint Charlie, in front of the YOU ARE NOW LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR sign on Friedrichstraße. Kennedy was here in ’63, on the same visit that included his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, delivered down in Schöneberg. Then in ’87, up at the Brandenburg Gate, Reagan challenged Gorbachev to tear down this wall.

Americans liked to deliver bombastic speeches here in Berlin. Kate followed that tradition with an impassioned version of her stump, If You Don’t Start Behaving Right This Instant. It was probably the chocolate that was the culprit, she announced. So a solution could be that they never eat chocolate, ever again, in their entire lives.

Their eyes were wide with terror; Ben started to cry. Kate relented, as usual, with a variation on “That’s not what I want. So don’t make me do it.”

They quickly recovered, as they always did. She set them off into the undulating rows of monoliths of the Holocaust Memorial, thousands of concrete slabs, rising and falling. “If you come to a sidewalk,” she called out, “stop!” The boys had no idea what this place was; there was no way she’d explain it.

Expats 2

observations: I had a terrific shock when I finished this book: I was amazed to find that Chris was a man, not a Christine. The book is so good on women-at-home-with the children, on the experience of a woman moving to a new country and trying to start up while her husband works – I am extremely impressed that male Chris could write on this subject so well.

The Expats is an excellent spy thriller, very easy to read and entertaining. Kate moves from Washington DC to Luxembourg as an expat wife: her husband’s job has brought them (with their two young sons) to this new home. She has given up her job to come – but as it happens her job was as a CIA operative. She has a long and quite violent history, about which her husband knows nothing.

She starts to notice odd things about their new life, and to wonder about some new friends, and to worry about her husband. And then things get really exciting. It’s a very good plot, one that gets more and more twisty as you go along. Quite often you can see what’s coming, but Pavone always has another trick up his sleeve.

But at the same time as being a good solid spy book, it is also absolutely brilliant on the nature of expat life, particularly for women. I think anyone who has lived that life – no matter which countries they started from or moved to – would love this book. It’s all there: the meetings at the school gate, the brisk sorting through the other women you meet to see which ones will gel, the coffee events, the endless gossip. The early days when you feel you haven’t spoken to a single adult who wasn’t paid to talk to you, and are trying to keep your children entertained in a country where you know no-one and don’t understand the routine. The fact that quite likely your spouse is having to work particularly hard and long hours in his new job, making everything that much worse. And then the slow improvement as you create a life for yourselves – it’s all there, with a CIA gloss.

Although quite hard-boiled events are mentioned, and are important, this book is not full of horrible or gruesome violence – another point in its favour in my view.

There were some nice clothes descriptions in the book, but in the end I wanted to use this passage, about a visit to Berlin. Another expat theme is that you go on trips all the time, ‘making the most’ of your host region (in this case the whole of Western Europe) - and the details of trying to make the children behave are so familiar, surely, to all parents taking their children on any trip.

Photos taken in Berlin last year by Audrey Stafford. Top is the Brandenburg Gate, below is the Holocaust Memorial.

There’s a lot more about Berlin, and spies, in the books of Len Deighton – the blog has been working its way through the Bernard Samson books in recent months. Click on the tabs below to see the entries.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

published in English 2012, translation by Ann Goldstein

book 1 of the Neapolitan Series

My Brilliant Friend swimsuits

[Elena goes on holiday to Ischia]

In the beginning, after all the fears that my mother had inoculated me with and all the troubles I had with my body, I spent the time on the terrace, dressed, writing a letter to Lila every day, each one filled with questions, clever remarks, lively descriptions of the island. But one morning Nella made fun of me, saying, “What are you doing like this? Put on your bathing suit.” When I put it on she burst out laughing, she thought it was old-fashioned. She sewed me one that she said was more modern, very low over the bosom, more fitted around the bottom, of a beautiful blue. I tried it on and she was enthusiastic, she said it was time I went to the sea, enough of the terrace…


[A year later, Lina has a job looking after some children]

Sea, sun, and money. I was to go every day to a place that I knew nothing about, it had a foreign name: Sea Garden…

Every morning I crossed the city with the three little girls, on the crowded buses, and took them to that bright-coloured place of beach umbrellas, blue sea, concrete platforms, students, well-off women a lot of free time, showy women, with greedy faces. I was polite to the attendants who tried to start conversations. I looked after the children, taking them for long swims, and showing off the bathing suit that Nella had made for me the year before.

My Brilliant Friend beach

observations: Elena Ferrante has a very particular place in the contemporary literary canon: she’s an Italian novelist who shuns publicity and seems to be close to crossing from cult status to bestsellerdom in the USA and the UK, while apparently less popular in her home country of Italy. The whole scenario is covered in this Guardian article last year, and another one this weekend

I liked reading this book, but am also looking forward to the subsequent books, which I anticipate enjoying even more: the series tells the story of a friendship between two women, and here they are children and teenagers. In any such bildungsroman I am always waiting impatiently for the young years to be done – even though the point is usually the lasting effect of those years on the future personalities. Shoes play an important part in this book, but I am guessing we haven’t heard the last of them, so I will probably feature them in a future entry – I am pretty much convinced I will be reading the whole quartet.

The picture of Naples life in the late 1940s and 50s is fascinating and convincing: it’s like watching a Fellini film or seeing black and white photos such as the ones with this entry. The limitations of the girls’ lives are spelt out – they come from working families, but there is little money and they almost never leave their own neighbourhood. The men have control, and there is a lot of violence. There are characters with underworld connections. One of the young women is lucky enough to get a few years’ more education, but most of the young people (male and female) have no such expectation. Their lives are bounded and predictable, and the men are full of ideas of honour and shame, and are violent and tiresome in pursuit of that.

There is a marvellous extended description of the runup to a wedding, and then the event itself, with its community feel, its many important choices and decisions, and the outrage of guests who don’t feel they got the proper treatment. The affianced couple – going up in the world – displayed ‘kindness and politeness toward everyone, as if they were John and Jacqueline Kennedy visiting a neighbourhood of indigents.’

Many references to the English-language versions of the books mention the wonderful translation. I wish I spoke Italian, so I could judge this better. The translator is an editor at the New Yorker, which pretty much inures her from any criticism in US intellectual circles. I find the language used quite clumsy, but perhaps this is just reflecting the original? For example, the first couple of sentences of the first extract above are rather odd, particularly ‘What are you doing like this?’

But this is just my interest. I am very keen to move on and read the next in the series.
The photographs are as follows:

"Young women of Naples in swimsuit, Italy 1948" by Anonymous - Old photo. Licenced under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
"Children of Naples, Italy" by Wayne Miller, Photographer (NARA record: 2083745) - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Licenced under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
"People on beach - Naples, Italy - April 21 1945" by Anonymous - Old photo. Licenced under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Deadly Virtues by Jo Bannister

published 2013

Deadly Virtues

To visit Mr. and Mrs. Cardy, at first he dressed as he did for his appointments with his therapist. But when he looked in the mirror, it was all wrong. He was clean and tidy enough—though he’d always been one of those men who only have to put on a new suit for it to immediately start looking shabby— but he didn’t look … he didn’t look … Responsible. That was what he didn’t look. He didn’t look like someone grieving parents would talk to because it might help them discover what had happened to their son. If they saw him coming up their drive they’d think he was delivering the local freesheet.

He went back to his wardrobe, pushed aside the three or four things he wore all the time— cords and sweatshirts, and rugby shirts for teams he couldn’t have named let alone played for— and knocked the cobwebs off some of the things behind them. A good white shirt that he hadn’t worn since the last time his wife ironed it. A suit that hung off his bones now, even after he’d punched fresh holes in the belt….

observations: This is Gabriel Ash, a most unusual character and an excellent creation. The book is set in a Midlands town in the UK, and Ash is known as ‘Rambles With Dogs’ locally – as one policeman says
‘You know— like [the film] Dances with Wolves? I think he’s a bit …’ He made a spiral movement with one finger about his ear. ‘He wanders around the place talking to that dog.’
Ash is attacked in the street, is recovering at the police station, and encounters a young black man who knows that something terrible is going to happen to him. The young man gives him a strange message, then dies sadly but apparently explicably. Ash is unconvinced by what happened, and tells a young policewoman, Hazel, that something is up. The two of them team up, along with the dog, to solve the crime. (The dog – a major player in this – manages to be surprisingly un-annoying. I am so not the audience for a book about a man who talks to a dog, but this one got away with it.)

Bannister has written dozens of books, in several series, going back over 30 years: I hadn’t previously read any, nor had I heard of her. But I was impressed, and she certainly has considerable powers of invention.

I liked the gentle humour – two police constables are on late-night patrol:
[PC] Budgen suggested checking the all-night café for criminal masterminds. When none was immediately apparent, they took a corner table and— as cover— ordered a pot of coffee and some sticky buns. They were still waiting for the criminal masterminds to show up when the call came in.
The set-up was excellent and intriguing, and although some aspects of the solution hardly surprised, it was still well worth reading. It did have a faint air of having been written a long time ago and brought out and dusted off: computers and mobiles turn up now and again, but in a random manner. And there were oddments that were all wrong: flower traders at Covent Garden? Not in many a long year. The reporter cannot simultaneously have watched the BBC’s [real-life] Welsh newsreader Huw Edwards overtake him career-wise, yet be too young to remember the 1980s riots, and be just over 40….

But still, these are small matters, and Bannister has a lovely way with language: no-one will listen to Ash – as outlined above – but Hazel thinks to herself ‘Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day. Maybe there was something in what he was trying to say.’ And I liked the local expression for someone with roots elsewhere: ‘A granny missing from the graveyard.’

One aspect of Ash’s story is left unresolved, and I believe the next book in the series has now been published - I certainly want to know more about Ash, so will read the next one.

The picture, from Wikimedia Commons, was taken in Cork in the Republic of Ireland by psyberartist.

I can’t really see any connection with Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, but one of the main characters in that was called Gabriel Oak.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Dress Down Sunday: The Forgotten Lies by Kerry Jamieson

published 2011 set in 1935


Forgotten LIes

The studio had arranged for the three actresses to be collected from Lantana Drive at 7 o’clock, but Charlotte wasn’t nearly ready to leave and it was well past 6.30. She sat in a slip in front of her dressing-table mirror, applying makeup. She was quiet composed now: she had spent the afternoon considering her options. There had been tears of course, but she had beaten them. Now she was resolute with self-control. Only Allegra had borne witness to her fretful pacing.

Verbena came into the room uninvited and sat down in Charlotte’s bedroom chair. She wore a man’s suit and trilby; her small dark nipples showed through her white silk blouse. She had strung a dozen strands of pearls casually around her neck. Ivy followed her in, dressed in more conventional attire – a low-cut fitted dress in rose satin with short, matching gloves.

forgotten Lies 2

observations: Charlotte, Verbena and Ivy are aspiring young actresses in Hollywood in 1935: Allegra is their Mexican maid. They share a house provided by the Warner studios, and they are about to go to a party at Charlie Chaplin’s house. Charlotte may be about to make the breakthrough to stardom in an unlikely-sounding Biblical drama featuring the story of Joshua, the walls of Jericho, and Rahab the whore. But there are events in her past that she really doesn’t want coming out to spoil things. She is ready to fall in love with her co-star, the handsome Liam, but the odds are stacked against her.

I really wanted to like this book: Jamieson’s books are somewhere on a line between crime fiction and straight novels, and I enjoyed her other books, The Golden Door and A Shadow on the Wing. The setup seemed promising, but the trouble was that everything was too gloomy, and it seemed essential that all sex be absolutely horrible, or coercive, or just doomed. I liked the fact that Allegra had her story too, and the attention Jamieson gave to people living in hard times and scrabbling to make a living: the real-life photographer Dorothea Lange, chronicler of the Depression, makes a cameo appearance. The whole novel had some momentum - in fact it was rather noir-ish, and that might recommend it more to some of my blog friends than it does to me.

The Lesbians in the book all dress in men’s clothes, which reminded me of this piece – a short video clip - by my friend the cultural critic June Thomas, explaining why the look may be popular.

The top picture is one I’ve been longing to use on the blog: it is from the German Federal archives, and shows a group of young women getting ready to go out to a dance in 1934 – the other side of the world, in Berlin, but you can see they are sisters under the skin. (The girl on the right looks as though she is checking her smartphone for texts, but I guess it's actually a mirror.)

The other one is a Laura Knight painting called The Dressing Room, and I originally used it to illustrate this entry on The Dud Avocado.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

The Romantic Lady by Michael Arlen

short stories: extract from The Romance of Iris Poole

published 1921

Romantic Lady

But now I had no pleasure from the spectacle, I only wished, and heartily, that the room was empty of its music and people, empty of all but Iris – to whom, if miracles could happen at all, I would enter suddenly and brave her startled gaze with my love-making, and take her. But the most wonderful thing about miracles is that they never happen, so I could do nothing but stare at her as far as I could disjointly see her among the moving crowd; a creature of green and gold that night, for her dress was of jade, and her hair, I thought, couldn’t of course be but gold to ornament it fittingly; so that, I said, she will always be her own carnival, even in a desolate place. And once again, with that white face under hair which seemed that night more than ever barbaric in its splendour, she gave me that feeling of her as a strange thing from some wild legend, a woman of doubt and desire so consummately human as to be almost inhuman: tamed into life just for this moment, but only for this moment, without a why nor whence nor whither…

observations: This is a good example of Michael Arlen’s strange style: some of those sentences above are verging on self-parody, and don’t really make sense, and possibly are open to stylistic and grammatical criticism. But they are dramatic and to some extent engaging. This is a book of four long short stories, and it appeared a few years before his great masterwork, The Green Hat – one of the inspirations for this blog. [for more on this, follow the links or click on the labels below]. You can see the bones of The Green Hat in there – Iris Storm is the heroine of The Hat, to go with Iris Poole here.

Arlen heroines are sexy women, unfaithful, beautiful and outrageous. They are all pretty much the same, and the relationships with men in the stories are pretty much the same. There is a lot about lilies, and crushing them, in one of the stories, which is strangely reminiscent of Proust – whom Arlen does not otherwise resemble in the slightest. There is a very odd interlude where the amount of cigar ash sitting undisturbed is used as an alibi to satisfy a suspicious husband. In truth, by story number 4 the reader is getting a bit tired of these lives ruined by love, these British straight men who can be destroyed by Consuelo and Fay and Iris. The stories are narrated to a male listener, a friend of the main protagonist: the listener might or might not have a role to play in the action.

Arlen sounds like an entertaining and charming chap, and The Green Hat is one of my guilty pleasure books, but I’m not sure I would read more by him based on The Romantic Lady: there is not much depth, and not many surprises, in this book.

But, hey, isn’t that a fabulous dress? - picture from the NY Public Library

Friday, 19 June 2015

Book of 1934: A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh

published 1934

Man Lay Dead

Rankin led the way out into a sunken country lane, where they found a group of three muffled passengers talking noisily while a chauffeur stowed luggage away into a six-seater Bentley…

Nigel had made his bow to Rosamund Grant, a tall dark woman whose strange uncompromising beauty it would be difficult to forget. Of the Hon Mrs Wilde he could see nothing but a pair of very large blue eyes and tip of an abbreviated nose. The eyes gave him a brief appraising glance, and a rather high-pitched ‘fashionable’ voice emerged from behind the enormous fur collar:

‘How do you do? Are you a relation of Charles? Too shattering for you…’

observations This is my book for Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century meme over at his Past Offences blog: the year for June is 1934.

The fur coats are going to be significant, and not only because the investigation will also show up how many clothes a woman going on a weekend country house visit would bring with her – this is part of one woman’s travelling wardrobe:
‘Harris tweed coat and skirt, shepherd’s plaid overcoat. Burberry raincoat, blue. Black astrakhan overcoat, black fur collar and cuffs.’
Later one character will ask another ‘if I were to kiss the fur on your collar, would you mind very much?’

This was Ngaio Marsh’s first crime novel, and it has some very traditional clues: a piece of fur caught on a railing is just one of them. And rather a traditional plot: disparate people assembled for the houseparty, a game of Murder which is going to get all too real. There is a ludicrous Russian plotline, and Inspector Alleyn is very annoying. It’s not a terrible story, but you would not have been betting on the author becoming a Queen of Crime and producing a considerable body of work.

The book has an uncertain tone, and the final exposition, where the murderer is revealed, is bizarre, I read it several times but it still didn’t make much sense – why did the person involved confess so suddenly?

1934 details – on a visit to a restaurant, Nigel has to sit at a table at the back because he is not in evening dress, and there is an implication that he and his partner can’t take to the dance-floor because not smartly enough dressed.

The country house has a vast number of servants, who are all treated with a great deal of disdain, when any interest is shown in them at all. I wouldn’t blame them if they’d risen up and committed the murder in a big gang. A dogskin glove (dropped by the murderer?) has a press button on it, which I eventually worked out to be what we would call a popper or press-stud.

It was hard to feel much sympathy for the victim, nor much disapproval for the killer.

I did wonder if Marsh was very familiar with the milieu she was describing. The houseparty was rather cartoonish, what with the tango-dancing, the de-bagging, and this authorial intervention:
‘Charles you’ll make me drunk,’ she announced. Why does a certain type of young woman think this remark unfailingly funny?
The revered Inspector Alleyn – this is of course his first appearance – is described as having an Oxonian accent. I think she means Oxbridge – but I liked to think of him talking like either an Oxford city townie, or else a rustic yokel from the county of Oxfordshire.

I have recently been talking a lot about Martin Edwards’ marvellous The Golden Age of Murder. One of the aspects I haven’t mentioned to date has been his clever way with plots and solutions: there isn’t a word of a spoiler in his book, but he does discuss plots and solutions – just a long way (in page terms) from any mention of the title. This simple but brilliant trick means that anyone who has read that particular crime books knows exactly what he means, but no-one else has the plot spoiled – I was full of admiration.

And so at this point I would like to say to blog friends Noah Stewart and Daniel Milford Cottam: yes I got it…. They will know what I mean, but no-one else will...

Blogfriend Lucy Fisher has reviewed a number of Ngaio Marsh books on her blog The Art of Words, and lists all the books, with notes, on this page.

The ladies peering out from around their fur collars and cuffs are from Kristine’s photostream, and the date is 1932.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

The Siren by Alison Bruce

published 2010


She knew the curve of each footpath, and she had favourite headstones. Plenty marked with ‘wife of the above’, but none, she noticed, marked ‘husband of the below’. Lots, too, who ‘fell asleep’. And if marriage carried kudos, so did age: in some cases a mark of achievement and in others a measure of loss. She loved some stones for their ornate craftsmanship, others for their humble simplicity. She taught herself to draw by copying their geometry and scripts and fallen angels. The school claimed she had a natural aptitude for art but she knew it was the cemetery that taught her balance and perspective, light and shade and the importance of solitude. In isolated moments, when her feelings of abandonment became all but overwhelming, she’d return to certain memorials that had stayed in her awareness after her previous visits. Like that of Alicia Anne Campion, one of the many who had fallen asleep. She’d gone in 1876 at the age of 51, and had been given a low sandstone grave topped with white marble, shaped like a roof with a gable at each end and one off-centre. The elaborate carving was still unweathered. Kimberly knew how to find it at night-time and had often sat there in the dark, with her back against this grave and the pattern close to her cheek, her fingers tracing the crisp lines that the stonemason had chiselled.
observations: Alison Bruce is writing a series of police procedurals set in Cambridge – I accidentally started with this, the second one, but that seems fine. The setting is very authentic – I lived for several years in the area constantly referenced in the book, and really enjoyed tracking people’s journeys down the streets. The cemetery above is well-known to me – I used to use it as a shortcut.

The book is very unusual. There is the heroic policeman – he’s a maverick, he’s brilliant, he’s rich, he’s deeply attractive to women. But we keep switching from his POV to that of the people around him, the other police staff, as well as to other characters in the drama being played out. I found this unsettling. Quite often a section ends, and then we go back to the same section from someone else’s POV. There are endless miscommunications and misunderstandings. I have never read anything quite like it.

The plot is intriguing – the young woman, Kimberly, has something problematic in her past and has fears for her young son. Her best friend dies in a house fire, and her son goes missing. She is connected with a notable crime family in the city, in a world of nightclubs and casual crime. I thought the ending was a bit rushed, and I’m not sure I understood every single thing that had gone on – I certainly didn’t get why some people acted as they did. The business with the child’s photo seemed ridiculous: really, if you saw a picture of a toddler would you be able to say with certainty that it was not of a child you had seen a week or so ago? But overall it was a good police procedural, with considerable eccentricities.

I really liked Sergeant Sheen, with his arcane filing system and encyclopaedic knowledge of the city, though here as elsewhere in the book there seemed to be very little in the way of modern technology. It was as if the book was written 20 years ago, then updated in a random way with some quick mentions of mobile phones.

My other problem came with the hero spying on his boss’s office with his telescope. Really? Really? I found this whole scene jaw-dropping.

But the book was a good read.

The photos of gravestones are from Perry Photography and used with her kind permission: you can see more of her pictures at Flickr, or at her website weddingsinitalytuscany. Her wonderful photos have featured on the blog many times before.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Fireweed by Jill Paton Walsh

published 1969, set in autumn 1940

D 1678Remember? I can still smell it. I met her in the Aldwych Underground Station, at half past six in the morning, when people were busily rolling up their bedding, and climbing out to see how much of the street was left standing. There were no lavatories down there, and with houses going down like ninepins every night there was a shortage of baths in London just then, and the stench of the Underground was appalling. I noticed, as I lurked around, trying to keep inconspicuous, that there was someone else doing the same. I was lurking because I wanted to stay in the warm for as long as possible, without being one of the very last out, in case any busybody asked me tricky questions. And there was this girl, as clearly as anything, lurking too.

D 12199

[He makes friends with the girl, Julie, and they decide to join forces]

I looked at her doubtfully. ‘You’d stick out like a sore thumb in that posh dress,’ I said. ‘We’d have to get you something a bit raggedy.’

‘How could we do that?’ she asked.

D 14836‘From the Salvation Army Mission. They got me this jacket when the weather went cold. They don’t ask too much, either. The only trouble is, all their stuff’s too big.’ And I pulled at my jacket, to show her how far in front of my chest it buttoned up.

She laughed. ‘Bill, you could get two of you in there, easily,’ she said. Then she began to giggle. ‘And wait till I tell Mother. She said this dress would do to go anywhere!’

observations I’d never heard of this book until recently: I was discussing books set in WW2 with new friend the writer Lissa Evans, and she was shocked that I didn’t know this one. And rightly so: it is a complete gem, a small perfect book about young people at large in London during the blitz. Bill and Julie each have their own reasons to be adrift, and they link up and start to operate together: sleeping in the shelters at night, picking up casual work in the day. Eventually they manage to make a kind of home in the cellar of a bombed-out house: and their fake family life is extended to include a much younger lost child. But of course this cannot last.

It’s a short book, the story told with great economy, but full of implications and subtleties. Julie is obviously from a much posher family than Bill’s, and there is some mutual incomprehension. Bill is 15, Julie is of similar age but I don’t think that is specified. Sometimes the two are like children – there is a great moment when Julie is describing being on a ship that was attacked and sunk:
‘it was torpedoed in the middle of the Atlantic…’
‘You were on that [ship]? What was it like?’
‘Not so much fun as it sounds.’

And sometimes they seem much older.
All around us death and ruin rained out of the sky. We saw it everywhere, and we were afraid like everybody else, and yet it cast no shadow in our hearts.
There are amazing descriptions of air-raids on London, and on the sights that meet their eyes the next day, and there are black jokes:
I can still remember a toothless old man saying, ‘Talk about laugh! She paid into the insurance for years to be buried proper, and it took them three days to dig her out!’
You can read the book pretty much in one sitting, and it is mesmerising, and tremendously affecting. Afterwards the occasional question arises – I couldn’t work out the timeframe at all, how long they were together, though external events put it at a few weeks just. Later (after the main story is finished) Bill says:
That was the night of November the twenty-third; the first night for fifty-seven nights that there were no raids on London at all.
-- and that shocked me: despite all my reading about the era, I hadn’t realized that the raids were so unremitting at that time.

There is an introduction to my edition by writer Lucy Mangan, who loved the book – but who once met author Jill Paton Walsh and was told firmly that the book was juvenilia, and that JPW did not like it much any more. It’s a funny but sad anecdote: and Mangan concludes that the rest of us can carry on loving and admiring and enjoying the book…

The top picture is, exactly, people sleeping in the shelter at Aldwych. It is used by kind permission of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM (D 1678): the caption reads ‘Shelterers sleep along the walls of the passageway leading from the lifts to the platform at a London Underground station, probably Aldwych, in November 1940. The shelterers lie on thin mattresses and suitcases have been used to partition off areas...’

The young boy is also from the IWM, © IWM (D 12199).

The young woman is in a utility dress, also from the IWM collection, © IWM (D 14836).

Jill Paton Walsh’s continuation of the Lord Peter Wimsey books featured on the blog here