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!

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.