Sunday, 25 September 2022

Agatha Christie by Lucy Worsley

I do like a literary biography and Lucy Worsley's Agatha Christie - A Very Elusive Woman is a great autumnal read.  It's a traditional 'womb to tomb' format which can sometimes be tricky but Worsley keeps this fresh by interjecting her own thoughts.  For example, when she was researching Agatha's first husband, handsome pilot Archie Christie and saw his picture she thought he was 'totally hot!'

I expected the most intriguing part of the book to be Agatha's famous eleven day disappearance in 1926 which caused so many repercussions and gave her an unfair reputation for being difficult.  Actually though I became absorbed in the voluntary nursing that Agatha did during the Great War before switching to pharmacy dispensing which she did as a volunteer in both world wars.  Of course, it was the pharmaceutical  knowledge of drugs and dosage which inspired some of her famous plots.

The popular image of Agatha Christie is that of a formidable older women but Worsley brings into clear view the young Agatha described by a contemporary as 'tall, very pretty, Scandinavian coloring and a lovely complexion' who falls in love with the dashing aviator Archibald Christie.  Sadly the marriage didn't last and Archie's affair prompted Agatha's disappearance where she drove aimlessly around the Surrey Hills at night contemplating suicide before heading towards a quarry. The car wheels became jammed in a hedge and hitting her head on the steering wheel may have shocked her back into an appreciation of life.  Worsley attributes this to a mental breakdown and fear that she was losing her mind and incapable of looking after her young daughter which seems entirely plausible.

Less easy to explain is the subsequent trip to a department store and booking into the Spa Hotel in Harrogate under a pseudonym where she seems to have rather enjoyed herself.  While friends and family grew frantic with worry and rival police forces were searching for her Agatha was socialising with other guests, dancing the Charleston and having parcels of clothes, books, magazines and flowers delivered to her room.

What an extraordinary life she had! A hugely successful writing career. Author of The Mousetrap the longest running West End play.  A passion for buying and restoring houses. A subsequent marriage to Max Mallowan which launched a new interest in archeology, excavation and travel.  I can't say I warmed to Max or her chilly daughter Rosalind in this biography but Agatha comes across as a joy who adored and financially supported her family and friends and when the taxman finally came calling said 'I shall go on enjoying myself and have a slap up bankruptcy!'

This will join Valerie Grove's Dear Dodie (biography of Dodie Smith, author of I Capture the Castle) as one of my favourite writer biographies.  What are yours?

Friday, 3 June 2022

The Cinderella Killer - a Charles Paris mystery

His hair was getting increasingly grey at the temples - still hopefully just on the side of distingue rather than decrepit - and he hoped when the grey had colonised all of his head he'd resist the temptation to dye it. So far as Charles could see from the evidence of other actors, the only tint available for men was the colour of conkers. And he didn't fancy going around looking like that. He had his pride.

Pretty much the only time I listen to Radio 4 nowadays is for the Charles Paris adaptions featuring the brilliant Bill Nighy as the dissolute actor/amateur detective.  I've never actually read the books by Simon Brett though so I started off with
The Cinderella Killer and very much enjoyed it.  Probably not for you if you are into dark and intricately plotted crime fiction, but if you like rackety English pubs, theatrical shenanigans and a very attractively louche central character you will like this.

Charles is in panto at Eastbourne.  He has a minor but lucrative role in the Empire Theatre's production of Cinderella. The cast is a mix of second rate soap stars who can't act but get top billing and veterans like Charles and old-time pantomime dames who can act but are not even named on the posters.  The director is a choreographer more interested in the musical numbers than rehearsing the script so Charles is usually to be found in The Sea Dog pub.

In spite of the rain through which he splashed, the front at Eastbourne sill retained the Victorian elegance which had once seen it called 'The Empress of Watering Places.'  Lights still shone from the pier, with its blue and white paint, it's Victorian Tea Rooms, it's Atlantis Night Club at the end. Charles loved the tacky charm of English seaside towns out of season.

Loved the amusing yet poignant descriptions of life as a mostly out of work actor - staying in digs and living paycheck to paycheck.  Charles is semi-estranged from his wife Frances because of his drinking and spends Christmas alone, irritated to see less talented actors who have made it big on TV and haunted by certain reviews of his own performances 'Charles's Paris looked as if he had wandered in from another show (and would rather be back there).'  Eastbourne Herald.

 I've ordered some of the Charles Paris books to read over the summer and I also found this lovely review by Verity Reads Books

Sunday, 13 March 2022

Lily King

Lily King's short story collection FIve Tuesday's in Winter was the highlight of my recent reading pile.  I loved her 2015 novel Euphoria and her more recent novel Writers & Lovers.  The nice thing about short stories is that you can read a whole story in the morning and get a feeling of accomplishment for the rest of the day!

The best in this collection I think is When in the Dordogne.  A lonely rich boy, traumatised by his father's suicide attempt, finds solace in the company of two sophomore boys who housesit him for the summer while his parents visit the Dordogne.  Episodes of midnight swimming in the garden pool, eating whatever they feel like from the freezer and a tennis match which proves to be a life lesson make this an unforgettable summer.  The kindness and easy camaraderie of the two older boys who help the 15 year old get his first girlfriend makes this an uplifting story which I think is a theme for the whole collection.

If you've ever had an adolescent daughter who rolls her eyes at everything you say you'll be wanting to read North Sea and I also liked Timeline.  Lily King gets an amusing reference to the Talking Heads in (which she also did in Writers and Lovers!)

I was a bit disappointed with Janice Hallett's The Twyford Code. Shame because I loved her earlier novel The Appeal.  Not quite sure why I didn't like it but I got bored with the fish symbol appearing everywhere and I'm not that interested in acrostics.  I also didn't think she captured the working class voice of the central character whereas in The Appeal she brilliantly portrayed  an insular middle class community.

Lastly In a Good Light by Clare Chambers is a reread for me.  Along with another of her earlier novels Learning to Swim she perfectly captures what it is like to grow up in England in the 1970s and 80s.  One of my favourite writers. 

Thursday, 3 February 2022


Being human means yearning for more than subsistence. As much as food or shelter we require hope.  And there is hope on the road. It is a by-product of forward momentum. A sense of opportunity as wide as the country itself. A bone-deep conviction that something better will come.

Something about Jessica Bruder's Nomadland really captured my imagination.  I'm interested in the lives of drifters, hobos, transients and migrant workers - from the pioneers in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie to novels by Miriam Toews, Louise Erdrich and of course, John Steinbeck.

I haven't yet seen the film so all my perceptions are based on the book in which journalist Jessica Bruder spends a considerable amount of time travelling with nomads, absorbing their philosophy and attending their meetups including the famous Quartzsite in Arizona.  Some are forced onto the road for personal or economic reasons while others just prefer living off-grid.

The focus is on Linda May who became homeless in her 60's, lived for a while on her daughter's couch in an already overcrowded apartment before taking to the road with the reasoning. 'I'd rather be queen of my own house than live under the queen of someone else's house.'  On the road she finds many other nomads in their 50's, 60's even 70's.  Many survive on social security taking back-breaking seasonal work as camp hosts at forestry centres, Amazon warehouses or in sugar beet processing plants.

Bruder encounters camaraderie and cheerfulness but experiences how tough life is with RV breakdowns, freezing temperatures and work-related injuries a recurring problem. Many get through their Amazon Camperforce shifts on paracetamol and ibuprofen, walking for miles in the warehouses and getting repetitive strain injuries from the hand held scanners.

Bruder's time spent with nomads extends to working the same jobs.  In one episode both amusing and slightly chilling she works at an Amazon fulfilment centre where she is pursued by a robot loaded with patchouli oil and reeking of it.  

As well as the warmth of characters such as Linda May, Ghostdancer, and Swankie Wheels it is the quality of writing that makes this book so good.

See you down the road!

Thursday, 23 December 2021

The Amazing Mr Blunden

 A blackbird was calling, a single note repeated, a warning note; but she could not turn her head to look at him.  It was as if she were concentrating all her mind upon one thing but against her will. And upon something she did not understand. Then she sensed that there was something moving through the mist on the lawn, just beyond the pont at which her eyes were focused. She could not see very clearly, but it seemed to be two pale figures and they were moving towards her slowly and with purpose.

Antonia Barber's charming children's ghost story The Amazing Mr Blunden has been republished by Virago Modern Classics just in time for Christmas.  I think it holds its own among the best coming of age stories such as Rumer Godden's The Greengage Summer or Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle.

Originally published in 1969 as The Ghosts it was made into a film and renamed The Amazing Mr Blunden in 1972.  If you had a 1970's childhood you may remember Diana Dors brilliant performance as the drunken Mrs Wickens.

Who are the boy and girl that Lucy and Jamie see walking in the garden of the old house?Surely just children who live nearby with eccentric parents who dress them in a Victorian style.  Why then do they have no shadow?  Who is the mysterious old solicitor called Mr Blunden who turns up at their home with a job offer for their cash-strapped mother?  Why does he speak like something out of David Copperfield and why are his clothes so dry despite walking through the streets of Camden Town in the pouring rain?

Can you move the Wheel of Time in time to put right a terrible mistake made over a hundred years ago?  Lucy and Jamie meet the ghostly Sara and her brother Georgie by the sundial near the round seat in the old garden and Sara tries to persuade Lucy and Jamie to travel back in time to help them:  'To you the people who lived before you were born are now dead but you are also dead to the people born after you.'

This warm-hearted and clever ghost story may be just the thing to read for a little Christmas magic.  

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Clare Chambers

If only I hadn't gone back to the house on the day Lexi left; if only Anne Trevillion had been better at tennis; if only they hadn't taken on a new German teacher at my father's school thirty years ago.  Learning to Swim by Clare Chambers

Took a late summer trip to Covent Garden which was abloom with flower barrows and the city seems alive again after a long lockdown.  The book that accompanied me on the train was Learning to Swim by Clare Chambers which I absolutely loved.

You may have read her latest novel Small Pleasures set in the 1950's where a likeable female journalist investigates a suburban 'virgin birth'.  The success of Small Pleasures has resulted in the reissue of the earlier novels and I'm racing through them and must confess that I liked Learning to Swim even more!  Probably because it's a coming of age novel, my favourite genre, from modern classics such as A Greengage Summer and I Capture the Castle to Jane Eyre.

Clare Chambers has a light touch and I liked the opening where we first meet Abigail visiting her mother who is sorting photos from a cardboard box and muttering:

'Blurred, blurred, duplicate, awful bags under my eyes, don't know who that is.'

Abigail is in her early thirties and plays cello in an orchestra.  She has some difficulty crossing London by tube carrying a cello but makes it to her charity concert and runs into Marcus Radley a man she has not seen for thirteen years.  

 'We were both remembering the occasion of our last meeting: the heat in the chapel; the schoolgirl soprano breaking the last of us down; the windy graveside.'

From there the novel goes back to Abigail's early life.  A shy girl who is bullied at school finally finds a best friend and becomes besotted with her bohemian family.  My favourite part was when a teddy bear gets thrown in to the Thames!  

Having now read four of her novels I would say that Clare Chambers has something of the storytelling skill of Anne Tyler and the very English humour of Jilly Cooper.  Glad I still have two more to read. 

Saturday, 17 July 2021

The Appeal

This is amateur dramatics, not the RSC.
I took this smart and amusing murder mystery to Brighton last weekend and it was a great beach read with a highly original structure.  The story is relayed entirely in emails and WhatsApp messages yet still manages to have a bit of a Dorothy L Sayers classic crime feel.

Legal students Femi and Charlotte are handed six months' worth of email correspondence between a local amateur dramatics society and asked by their boss to look at it with a fresh perspective.   Some emails are missing, some irrelevant, some fail to deliver and some remain drafts.  Femi and Charlotte are given no background information but deduce that it is an ongoing legal case.

From the emails they learn that The Fairway Players have just staged a successful production of Blithe Spirit and are planning their next play when director Martin Hayward announces that his granddaughter Poppy has a cancer diagnosis.  Martin and wife Helen (leading lady) and his extended family appear to be queen bees in this group and the players and wider community begin a fundraising appeal called A Cure for Poppy.  However, sponsored runs, cake sales, charity football matches and Yogathons won't raise the required amount and more ambitious ways to raise money are considered.

Clever character portrayals emerge  - needy nurse Isabel, pushy former PR Sarah and my favourite - 23 year old Jackie who is 'currently travelling' and whose emails arrive from all over the world, always a step behind and giving away more than she may wish to.  There are also some highly amusing moments when their boss who is not tech-savvy tries to join the WhatsApp exchanges between Charlotte and Femi as they try to work out why someone dies and who is not as they appear to be.

This mystery also examines how a fundraising appeal can become heartlessly corporate  expecting people who work as tea ladies and nurses to stump up £10 for a raffle ticket or £80 to attend a ball.  The most moving email was from a man who donates to the Appeal for Poppy describing the loss of his own daughter and the impact it has had on him and his wife only to get an automatic Dear Donor reply telling him where to make his cheque payable to.

The Appeal by Janice Hallett is my reading highlight so far this year. Hope you enjoy it, too!