Saturday, 14 January 2023

Lucy by the Sea

Easily the best novel I read last year was Elizabeth Strout's Lucy by the Sea.  I love Lucy's gorgeous narrative voice.  I think this novel is as good as the first in the quartet My Name is Lucy Barton but instead of a younger Lucy in her hospital bed overlooked by New York's Chrysler building we have a newly widowed Lucy transported by ex-husband William from pre-pandemic New York to ride out the lockdown in a house overlooking the sea in Maine.

Lucy's mother is a powerful presence even though she is no longer alive.  Appalling though she could be, sometimes remembering her words 'People need to feel important' helps Lucy to get some of William's excesses in perspective.

You get the sense that this may be the last Lucy novel, not least because characters from other novels resurface.  Bob Burgess from The Burgess Boys takes regular coastal walks with Lucy, Katherine from Abide with Me appears as an adult and Lucy's gentle, troubled brother 'socially distancing for 66 years' succumbs to Covid.  

This is not a sad novel, though.  There are beautiful descriptions of the changing sea and sky throughout the pandemic year.  Bob Burgess and William arrange a studio for Lucy so that she can continue to write.  There is humour in William's insistence on doing all the cooking yet needs praise for every meal he makes while Lucy washes up.  Although still haunted by her childhood experiences she finds joy in small things - a faded table-cloth edged with pink pompoms she finds in the Maine house. 

As a trauma survivor and perhaps naturally reticent Lucy takes care not to overstep around the adult daughters she loves but when her eldest daughter is about to repeat a mistake Lucy herself once made when younger, she steps up:

I turned so that I was facing Chrissy. "You listen to me," I said. "You listen to every single word I have to tell you.  And take your sunglasses off I need to see your face,"

I'm now rereading the wonderful My Name is Lucy Barton.

I also read Darling India Knight's re-imagining of Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love.  I think it just about works.  Certainly, the updated characters are clever and amusing and I kept turning the pages but without the wartime background you lose the poignancy of the original.

Monday, 5 December 2022

Love and Saffron

Mother loves her magazine subscriptions, and every month, as soon as they arrive, she folds back the pages to her favourite columns. The first two she reads are yours and Gladys Taber's "Butternut Wisdom" in Family Circle. I prefer yours.  It makes me feel like I am having a conversation with a good friend, and your enthusiasm for life has taught to be more aware of my own world around me, and especially the outdoors. Oct 1st 1962.
Kim Fay's warm-hearted Love and Saffron is a novel of female friendship relayed in a series of letters exchanged in the early 1960's.  It  has echoes of Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road.

Imogen Fortier writes a column called Letter from the Island in the Northwest Home & Life magazine detailing weekends spent in her cabin on Camano island, Washington.  Her accounts of island living - picking wild native blackberries, clam digging, watching cormorants and sandpipers - prompt a fan letter from Joan Bersgstrom, a 27 year old Stanford graduate who lives with her mother in California.  Joan encloses a gift of saffron and a recipe for using it in a dish of steamed mussels. 

A correspondence develops between the older and younger woman who share recipes, book recommendations and increasingly their hopes and fears.  This is set against a background of events of the 1960s.  Both women are devastated when Kennedy is assassinated.  Joan is not keen on the new fashion for stirrup pants and a little uptight about Helen Gurley Brown's newly published Sex and the Single Girl.  Imogen, being almost 60, is much more laid back but she can't quite get used to the four boys from Liverpool with funny haircuts although does learn the words to Twist and Shout.

The friendship culminates with Imogen paying a surprise visit to Joan in California.  Then the correspondence goes quiet and you will have to read it to find out why!

I loved all the sixties references and concerns - Joan Didion, Jane Jacobs, Jax fashions, the Cuban missile crisis - and Kim Fay's skill as a writer makes you feel that you are reading actual letters rather than fictional representations.  This book would make a lovely Christmas gift for female friends.

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.