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!

Saturday, 1 May 2021

Mary Lawson

She threw out a bottle of perfume the twins had given her for Christmas one year, the name of which - Ambush - had made her father laugh out loud ...

A new novel by Mary Lawson is always a pleasure. Like Anne Tyler she writes about families out of step with each other and her literary landscape is always Northern Ontario in Canada. I’m re-reading Mary Lawson’s three earlier novels before I start A Town Called Solace.

My favourite Road Ends was published in 2015 and its snowy setting is the fictional town of Struan.  The novel has a warm beating heart, largely in the form of Megan the eldest daughter of a mother who can’t stop having babies and then losing interest in them when they become children.  The eldest brother Tom is struggling to cope with the suicide of his friend and instead of using his degree he opts to drive the town snowplough.  Some of the most vibrant scenes in the novel are Tom struggling to get the ancient ‘headache yellow’ snowplough to start and then rumbling down the roads of Struan with ‘the new snow flying off the blade of the plough in a great soft arc.’

Megan has the household pretty much buttoned down, cooking, cleaning, laundry, organising her mother, keeping her younger brothers under control and loving and caring for her smallest brother Adam. It is when she decides to leave for London that this outwardly respectable but deeply troubled family start to fall apart. The dopey mother and wilfully blind father can’t seem address the benign neglect of little Adam but as Lawson weaves their narratives together you begin to understand the reasons for their behaviour.

Lawson is wonderful on the London of the late 1960s and 21 year old Megan’s experiences as an outsider in the world of Mick Jagger, bedsits, mini skirts, Carnaby Street and sexual freedom. I am looking forward to starting A Town Called Solace.

Anyone else vaguely remember a perfume by Dana called Ambush

Friday, 5 March 2021

Josephine Tey

 'Go away from here.  Go away while the going is good.  Go away.  Away from here.'

I made the rookie mistake of reading the blurb on the back of the book before starting Josephine Tey's 1946 novel Miss Pym Disposes and annoyingly it gave away the crime!  It didn't spoil my enjoyment though and I loved the setting - a girls PE college which teaches gymnastics, ballet and anatomy as well as taking in remedial patients.  Just the spareness of the opening sentence shows what a good writer Tey is:

'A bell clanged.  Brazen, insistent, maddening.'

The central premise - young woman writer visits alma mater and her success and stylishness proves to be a hit with the girls and the teachers - is not disimilar to Dorothy L Sayers' Gaudy Night although they differ in style and focus.  In fact, the hectic timetable, teachers arguing in the staff room and a bit of cheating in an exam reminded me a lot of the Enid Blyton classic girl school stories Malory Towers and St Clare's. 

Before whole-heartedly recommending Miss Pym Disposes though I will just say that those of us who read a lot of novels from the early part of the 20th C have to keep a sense of place and time and there are a couple of expressions in this book which are really not acceptable now. 

I've also started another Tey novel The Singing Sands set in the bleak beauty of the Scottish Highlands.  It has a great opening with a London Euston train sliding into a Scottish station.  On board is Detective Alan Grant of Scotland Yard visiting an old friend in the 'great clean Highland country' on doctor's orders.  Overworked and suffering from claustrophobia Grant is planning to fish the lochs and relax.  On board, there is also a dead body, as is the way with detective novels and Alan Grant doesn't want to get involved.  He's off duty, he's not well, he's going on holiday.  But something about the dead man's young face and rumpled black hair gives me the impression that Grant is not going to have a relaxing holiday.

Saturday, 26 December 2020

Black Narcissus

'Then she could have sworn she heard a noise, a drag like a wet skirt on the floor, but the room was empty.'

Rumer Godden's novels begin with a journey. In Black Narcissus the five English nuns travelling to Mopu in Northern India think they will establish a school for making lace, a clinic and teach local children to read and write. Instead the Himalayan altitude begins to work on them and the Darjeeling wind which smells of tea and orange blossom evokes desire and memories. 

Sister Clodagh cannot stop thinking about her former love in Ireland, Sister Blanche yearns for a baby, Sister Philippa becomes obsessed with the gardens and poor sad, mad Sister Ruth becomes fixated on Mr Dean the macho site agent.

Only the older, wiser Sister Briony keeps it together but even she can't prevent Sister Blanche from making a fatal mistake which turns the local people against the nuns.  Then Sister Ruth makes her move on Mr Dean.

Virago have just published this lovely edition and I'm very much looking forward to the BBC production tonight.  I hope they do justice to a wonderful storyteller.  Rumer Godden went on to write a more sophisticated study of a convent in In This House of Brede, one of my favourite novels, but nothing quite captures the gothic tension of Black Narcissus.

Friday, 13 November 2020

Ann Patchett

When my daughters were little I used to read them the Blue Kangaroo books by Emma Chichester Clark.  While they were entranced with the adventures of Lily who kept losing her toy kangaroo, I became besotted with the house Lily lived in. It was generously proportioned with high ceilings, fireplaces and tall bookshelves, wooden spindles on the staircase and panes of coloured glass in the front door.  We were living in a small semi at the time and when we eventually did buy a larger house I was looking for a Victorian house like the one in the Blue Kangaroo books.

I do like a novel that centres around a house or has a house as character.  Ann Patchett's The Dutch House features a post WW2 house built with secret crawl spaces, window seats and  cinematic size panes of glass.  There is a shattered ballroom on the third floor, once infested with racoons and now lovingly restored.  The house is a backdrop for secrets slowly revealed and a rock of a big sister, the magnificent Maeve. There is also a second wife whose coldness and insecurity centres around her insatiable desire for the house.

I think this is Ann Patchett's finest novel to date and I want to go back to the beginning and read it all over again!

Friday, 7 August 2020

When the sukebind is in bud ...

Delicious new cover for the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Cold Comfort Farm.  I've never found this book quite as amusing as is often claimed.   Probably because  I am very fond of one of the novels it parodies (Mary Webb's Precious Bane) but there is lots to love about this 1932 classic.

Flora Poste is an elegant bluestocking, remarkably self-assured for a nineteen year old but her moments of self-doubt and kindness keep the reader on her side as she descends on Cold Comfort Farm to drag the unwilling inhabitants into the twentieth century.

I liked Mrs Beetle, wife of Agony Beetle and mother of Meriam the hired girl who falls pregnant 'when the sukebind* is in bud' and has produced several babies.  Flora advises Meriam on contraception and Mrs Beetle offers her own advice:
Anyway, we know now, thanks to Miss Interference from up the 'ill. And I'll lay she's no better than she ought to be, a bit of a kid like 'er sailing in 'ere as bold as brass and talkin' to you about such things.  Still, she does look as if she washed 'erselef sometimes, and she ain't painted up like a dog's dinner, like most of them nowadays.  Not that I 'old with wot she told, you mind you, it ain't right. 
I really liked all the Jane Austen references.  The novel's dedication comes from Mansfield Park 'Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery' and  begins with Flora's position in the world and financial prospects which is also typical of the beginning of an Austen novel.  I suppose her interfering nature makes her a little like Emma, but Flora does not have Emma's wealth and status.  She does however intend to write a novel as good as Persuasion when she is 53.

Sukebind is a flower invented by Stella Gibbons to symbolise human lust!