Saturday, 31 January 2015

Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn

published 2015

Curtain Call

Madeleine felt the fuggy warmth from the two-bar electric fire as she edged her way in; the place looked like a laundry room after a small tornado had whipped through it. Armchairs and sofa were heaped with clothes. Rainbow swipes of soft fabrics hung off every available upright. The bulb-fringed mirror overlooking the dressing table duplicated a wild landscape of pots and cream and brushes. Nina slyly took in her guest’s polite survey of her quarters, and laughed…

‘So…’ she began, surveying her guest, attired for the evening in a black alpaca coat with a contrasting fur trim, and a felt cloche pulled low over her brow. She looked – what was the word? - fetching, which wasn’t how you generally thought of tarts.

‘I wanted to – what we talked about the other night-' she said, halting,and her eyes flicked across to Dolly, who had seated herself at the ancient black Singer where she did running repairs on Nina’s clothes. She didn’t bother making a pretence of not listening.
Nina, understanding at once, put on her sweetest smile as she said , ‘Dolly, would you be a darling and make us a pot of tea?’

Curtain Call 2

observations: Anthony Quinn has been the film critic of the Independent newspaper for years, and now has a sideline writing novels: this is the first one of his that I have read. It’s a murder mystery set in London in 1936: The Tiepin Killer is picking off young women and making his mark with the said item of jewellery.

But it’s more like a straight novel than a crime story, surprisingly. We see very little of any investigations and police work, but we follow the lives of a number of people around London as they are affected by the crimes to a greater or lesser degree.

One is a theatre critic, plainly based on James Agate: Jimmy Erskine is living life on the edge – an aging homosexual, he is in danger from the law, he is running out of money and his health is bad. His nice young secretary Tom would like to get away but feels himself being enmeshed. Meanwhile society portraitist Stephen Wyley is having an affair with actress Nina Land. During an assignation in a hotel, she steps in as a woman is being attacked. The woman is Madeleine, a prostitute who has almost lost her life - and would like a better one.

These are all excellent characters and the picture of life is obviously well-researched, though not falling into the trap of being too pushy about it. It is the year of the three kings: Edward VIII has just come to the throne, and will abdicate by the end of the year. The Crystal Palace burns down, there is a drag ball raided by the police. Having servants is a lot more likely than having a car.

Some of the details I found unlikely – would an artist (no matter how successful) really be the subject of close newspaper attention because of his supposed support for fascism in 1936?

It’s quite a serious book, and thought-provoking and well-imagined on the life of the critic, Erskine. There were occasional funny moments: I did like this, at a 3-generation family lunch;
Mr Hamilton, recovering from the unsuspected presence of a vegetarian, seemed mollified. ‘Guards pudding’ he said. ‘The delight of my boyhood.’
‘It sounds grand…Guards’ pudding, eh? Nothing there to offend.’ 

‘Don’t bank on it’ said Mr Hamilton with a grimace….’probably a bloody pacifist as well.’
And later, after two people have a restaurant meal,
The horrified way in which Mr Turnbull started at the bill made Madeleine think there might have been a death threat scrawled on it.
…I thought Quinn should have put more jokes like this in the book.

If I read another of his it would be in the hopes of more great characters and fascinating lives, rather than the crime story.
The cloche and fur-trimmed coat are illustrated on the cover of the book:

curtain call 3
And to be honest that doesn’t sound very 1936 to me. The top picture is from some years earlier. The lower picture is what the women in the book would be more likely to be wearing in my important view. Both pictures from Kristine’s invaluable photostream. See also other entries on the abdication, labels below, with fashions of the time.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Snow Day: The Slype by Russell Thorndike

published 1927

Snow The Slype

About this time somebody started the silly rumour that the bodies of the missing parsons might be discovered in the great snow-heap at the corners of the Precincts. Heaps that Potter had piled up after the disappearance of the parsons. The curious and the morbid immediately attacked these tidy heaps with feet, umbrellas and walking sticks, and Potter was left to straighten them up when they were abandoned….

Snow, snow. Thick, white, silent and heavy. Not a sound in the Precincts but the rumble of the organ and the distant singing in the Cathedral, where Canon Cable is worrying his way through Evensong. Trillet is giving them no festival service tonight. He knew there would be no congregation. The weather is too bad even for the Precincts folk to venture forth. It is the first time that Potter has ever given up clearing paths. He had deliberately downed tools in the face of such snow.
observations: We have already had this book for a post-Christmas afternoon-on-the-sofa read: but it is also good for a snowday, which in the UK tends to be after Christmas, and is happening now in some places.

Sinister snow is a big feature of this book, and possibly my favourite line in the book comes when a bit of amateur detecting is going on, and the policeman, Macauley says:
‘Splendid! Recent footprints in the snow, of course?’
Such an archetypal Golden Age sentence – you know where you are with a book that contains that line. Along with: ‘To add to the general terror several persons reported the alarm of having heard ghastly shrieks from the Slype, each end of which was now guarded by special police.’
Russell Thorndike – best known for his Dr Syn books, and the brother of the actress Sybil Thorndike – certainly had a sense of humour, and the book is nicely funny when it is not being sinister and scarey. I particularly liked the Cathedral verger, Mr Styles, who falls over a kneeling worshipper and gets very annoyed:
‘Once let ‘em start this kneeling-about business out of service hours, and where will it lead ‘em? I knows. Independent bits of prayers all over the Nave, and they won’t be satisfied then till you’ll find ‘em flopping down higgeldy-piggeldy all over the Chancel.’
Thorndike creates many excellent characters in the book: Boyce’s Boy is a masterpiece.

More great snow books on the blog: The excellently-named Blood Upon the Snow by Hilda Lawrence; Agatha Christie’s Sittaford Mystery - snowed in on Dartmoor and splendid snow clues; and the blank canvas in Harriet Lane’s sinister Alys, Always, while the heroine is making your blood run cold.

The picture is Cathedral in Winter by Ernst Ferdinand Oehme, and is from the Athenaeum website.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Clothes in Books: 3rd Birthday

Sparkling Cyanide

It’s three years this week since I started the blog.  Major moments since the last birthday include:

1) continuing to blog regularly for Guardian books – click on the tab above to see the list of articles. Topics this year included wedding dresses, dinner parties, shoes, nuns and bad character names.

2) CiB favourite Samantha Ellis not only wrote one of the best books of 2014 - How to be a Heroine – but also said that CiB combined ‘impeccable research & epic frivolity'. She was specifically talking about the stockings and nylons piece for the Guardian, but I’d like to think it might be the Clothes in Books motto.

3) The usual high quality April Fool entry – this time featuring a favourite author and a particularly fine picture. And there was a new feature of lists, from best Agatha Christies to Books like I Capture the Castle. There was Poison Pen week, there were guest bloggers, there were obituary entries.

But as ever the main highlights have been the pictures, so I thought I’d revisit some of the best ones of the year.

last one Violet letters
Over the year I looked at a lot of books by and about Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis. This amazing picture of the young Violet,used for this entry from her letters, where she remembers her youth,  became the most viewed, RT-ed and shared picture in the history of the blog, beating out even the famous corset shop image, the previous winner. More than 4000 people looked at it over the course of a couple of days.

Newton Letter IWM

This picture from the Imperial War Museum is my favourite of all the pictures I have used on the blog. I used it to illustrate John Banville’s The Newton Letter: it’s a picture of a Land Girl. The IWM generously allows blogs to reproduce images under a CC licence, but I like this one so much that I paid for a print to be made, and it now hangs on  my wall.

Sometimes I get all pleased with myself because I think the picture is an exceptionally good match for the book. The picture at the top of this entry is for Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide – I’d been looking for the right image for the whole life of the blog. The one below miraculously works for Christie’s Mystery of the Blue Train AND Nancy Mitford’s Pursuit of Lovesee entry here.

Mystery of Blue Train 2

And I was delighted with this for Ned Beauman’s Teleportation Accident:

Teleportation Accident

Here we illustrate exactly & gruesomely the manner of death in PD James’s Shroud for a Nightingale:

Shroud for a Nightingale

I loved these folk-dancing girls, IWM again, ideal for Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes:

Miss Pym

And I found this picture in the early blog days, and finally found exactly the right book for it: Murder a la Mode by Patricia Moyes:

Murder a la Mode

---in the notes on the entry there’s a really splendid combination of trainspotting and fashion.

Clothes in Books has – of course – a favourite couture milliner (doesn’t everyone?) and it is Lilly Dache. This picture of Lilly working is considered to be a dead ringer for CiB hard at work choosing images for the blog, while wearing a jaunty hat indoors:

Secret Hangman

Though on good days, after a particularly good blogging session, or a successful search for the right photo, the CiB office can look more like this:

Journey by Moonlight 1

As ever, I want to thank two groups of people: the fellow-bloggers, readers and commentators who make this such fun – you know who you are. You recommend books to me, and even send them to me, you read my posts, share them, chat to me and have become good friends.

And also the countless individuals and organizations who so generously share their photos on the web – every single day I find something astonishing, beautiful or affecting, and I hope, wherever you are, you feel I might have done justice to your pictures, and shared them to a wider audience in a respectful spirit.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory

published 2014

Kings curse

[Henry VII has died; his son has succeeded to the throne as Henry VIII; narrator Lady Margaret Pole has been summoned to the court, returned to favour with the new regime]

Dressed in my new gown of pale Tudor green, wearing a gable hood as heavy as that of the princess, I walk into the presence chamber of the King of England and see the prince, not on his throne, not standing in a stiff pose under the cloth of estate as if he were the portrait of majesty, but laughing with his friends strolling around the room, with Katherine at his side, as if they were a pair of lovers, enchanted with each other. And at the end of the room, seated on her chair with a circle of silent ladies all around her, a priest on either side for support, is My Lady, wearing deepest black, torn between grief and fury, She is no longer My Lady the King’s Mother – the title that gave her so much pride is buried with her son. Now, if she chooses it, she can be called My Lady the King’s Grandmother, and by the thunderous look on her face she does not choose it.
observations: In the UK, the book-reading population is obsessed with a TV programme at the moment: the BBC’s 6-part production of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. There’ll be more about this in a future post, but it seemed like a good time to look at Philippa Gregory’s  latest.  Lady Margaret Pole flits in and out of any reading you do about the Tudor years – the most memorable thing about her was her death…. See below for SPOILER

Philippa Gregory has written several fine novels about the Tudors: her Other Boleyn Girl is one of my favourite historical novels of all time, and was a game-changer for the genre. Now this book connects Gregory’s Cousins’ War sequence with the Tudor books: Margaret Pole was a Plantaganet, the daughter of the Duke of Clarence and so the niece of two kings – Edward IV and Richard III. During her lifetime her fortunes changed dramatically several times. Gregory attempts to make a coherent story of her life - she has tried to make a best guess at a mindset that might have been hers. So this is clearly a novel, but I found it fascinating and convincing, and the picture it draws of the horrors of the later years of Henry VIII’s reign is undeniable. The man was a vicious and probably sociopathic tyrant. There is a great description of Jane Seymour ‘stepping up to a throne which was still warm from the frightened sweat of the last incumbent.’

Margaret Pole is shown as no angel – Gregory is sometimes accused of giving her women modern feelings, but I think what she does well is show how they might have been. Her Margaret has no doubts about her own superiority, the importance of her family, and the divine right of Kings. There is a nice moment where she says : ‘for a moment I have a sense of the joy that comes with having, at last, some stake in the game, some power’ – and all Gregory’s heroines tend to be like this. It is a refreshing change: we know so little of what women actually thought at this time, and I like her tough women who can be selfish and cruel and ruthless. Women lived by harsh rules at that time, but we must also accept that women imposed those rules as much as men. And it’s obvious that some women did want power.

There has been some bookish talk lately of whether women characters are ‘allowed’ to be bad, whether readers will accept that, and I myself wrote a piece for a Guardian series called Baddies in Books  - I was keen to write about a woman, and chose Sylvia Tietjens from Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. It seems to me that women are not being presented fully if they are not shown as having the full range of feelings, crimes and thoughts – and that it is not very feminist to show only heroines who are ‘nice’ and don’t behave badly. Philippa Gregory’s women can never be accused of that, and it’s one of the reasons I like her books so much.

The picture is as portrait supposed to be that of Margaret Pole, though there is some doubt.


Margaret Pole was condemned to die at the Tower at the age of 67, and a bungled execution resulted in her fighting back on the block: allegedly the inexperienced headsman took 10 blows to kill her.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Lions and Shadows by Christopher Isherwood

published 1938

[The young Isherwood becomes fascinated by cinema, and joins a Film Society at Cambridge]

I was, and still am, endlessly interested in the outward appearance of people – their facial expressions, their gestures, their walk, their nervous tricks, their infinitely various ways of eating a sausage, opening a paper parcel, lighting a cigarette. The cinema puts people under a microscope: you can stare at them, you can examine them as though they were insects. True the behaviour you see on the screen isn’t natural behaviour; it is acting, and often very bad acting too. But the acting has always a certain relation to ordinary life; and after a short while, to an habitue like myself, it is as little of an annoyance as Elizabethan handwriting is to the expert in old documents. Viewed from this standpoint, the stupidest film may be full of astonishing revelations about the tempo and dynamics of everyday life: you see how actions look in relation to each other; how much space they occupy and how much time…. If you are a novelist and want to watch your scene taking place visibly before you, it is simplest to project it on to an imaginary screen. A practised cinema-goer will be able to do this quite easily….

[the film club goes to visit the set of a film in London, where they work as extras]

Noise was my chief impression of the day… I had one big moment: together with a dozen others, I was told to descend a flight of steps, drunkenly, my arms round two girls’ necks. This was a close shot: I must have been clearly recognizable. Needless to say it was cut out of the finished picture.

Our day ended at 10 pm. With the others, I limped to the pay-desk and was given 24 shillings. It was the first money I had ever earned in my life, and certainly the last I shall ever earn as a film actor.

observations: Here’s a second book of university memoirs – events taking place 20+ years after The Babe BA, Saturday's book by EF Benson, and about as different a book as it is possible to be. And yet there are points in common….

Isherwood was roughly a contemporary of Evelyn Waugh’s, and it’s interesting to compare his Cambridge years, recorded in this book, with the Oxford of Brideshead Revisited. Lions and Shadows is a fictionalized memoir or autobiography: some parts – where he gives the plots of books he almost wrote, and describes in detail a strange game he played with a friend – are very dull. But it’s well worth it for the patches of brilliance that pop up. I loved this description of why films are important, I thought it was original, incisive and a revelation.

Although he was something of a literary figure, it seems somehow appropriate that what he is most famous for are the stories on which the film Cabaret is based (and also the stage show currently on Broadway, never out of fashion). He also wrote A Single Man, made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Colin Firth in 2009.

And Isherwood – who lived in California for many years - did appear in another film: in the 1981 Rich and Famous, directed by George Cukor, he was ‘Malibu party guest’ – perhaps unpaid? – various other moderately famous people seem to have played themselves at two parties in the film.

The film he appears in here – Reveille, directed by George Pearson – is a 1924 silent starring Betty Balfour, and is one of the BFI’s 75 most wanted films – (ie the reels are missing and they would love to find them.) The 24 shillings would be about £35 in today’s money – not a generous amount. Interesting that he’d never worked before.

There’ll be another entry on this book later.

The image of a filmset is from a motion picture trade directory of 1917. The young woman is Betty Balfour, star of the film.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Book of 1915: The Lost Prince by Frances Hodgson Burnett

published 1915

[12-year-old Marco, not long living in London and lonely, is walking the streets]

Marco heard a clamour of boys' voices, and he wanted to see what they were doing. ..Half-way to the street's end there was an arched brick passage. The boys were not playing, but listening to one of their number who was reading to them from a newspaper.

Marco listened also, standing in the dark arched outlet at its end and watching the boy who read. He was a strange little creature with a big forehead, and deep eyes which were curiously sharp. Near him were a number of sticks stacked together as if they were rifles. One of the first things that Marco noticed was that he had a savage little face marked with lines as if he had been angry all his life...

[later the boys are drilling] "Form in line!" ordered The Rat.

They did it at once, and held their backs and legs straight and their heads up amazingly well. Each had seized one of the stick guns.

The Rat himself sat up straight on his platform. There was actually something military in the bearing of his lean body. His voice lost its squeak and its sharpness became commanding.

He put the dozen lads through the drill as if he had been a smart young officer. And the drill itself was prompt and smart enough to have done credit to practised soldiers in barracks. It made Marco involuntarily stand very straight himself, and watch with surprised interest.

observations: Rich Westwood at the Past Offences blog chose 1915 for this month’s meme – see all the details here. Crime novels weren’t nearly as common then, and I was casting around for something to read when I came across this book, which was a childhood favourite. It’s not crime, but it is certainly a good strong adventure thriller, in the tradition of John Buchan’s 39 Steps (also 1915) or Anthony Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda. There is a mystery or a secret at the heart, but if anyone (including the children at whom it is aimed) doesn’t guess it by about page 50 I’d be surprised.

Marco is 12: he and his father Stefan have been wandering round Europe for as long as he can remember. He knows that they are actually Samavian, but cannot return there because of the political situation and warring factions. Samavia is an invented Ruritanian/Balkan state, as much loved in books of the first half of the 20th century. (Agatha Christie invented one for her early thrillers and then kept changing – or, one suspects, forgetting – its name). Marco and his Dad are patriots and have ‘warm Southern blood’. Eventually Marco realizes that his father is working towards a better future for Samavia – if only the Lost Prince could be found to take over the throne! Meanwhile Marco and his new friend The Rat play war games and ‘practise’ for a role they might play in the rescue of the country.

Then a message needs to go out, and Marco and The Rat set off: they will be unnoticed as poor children in rags, and can go to the great cities of Europe, and in each place seek out a local Samavian supporter (who might be anything from a shop-keeper to the Chancellor), a member of the Secret Party, and pass on the message: ‘The Lamp is Lighted’, to start the revolution. Quite honestly, if that plot doesn’t thrill you to the marrow, then you are not worthy of this book – I loved the idea when I was 10, and I love it now. It’s like a cross between John le Carre and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.

It is by no means a perfect book – I could have done with a lot less of the unquestioned social stratification and the grovelling of the lower classes to the toffs. I quite hoped for a workers’ revolution in Samavia, but that was never going to happen.

At the end Marco is provided with ‘a richly decorated Samavian uniform’ – I hope this is not a spoiler – ‘which had a touch of the Orient in its picturesque splendor. A short fur-bordered mantle hung by a jeweled chain from the shoulders, and there was much magnificent embroidery of color and gold.’

As a 1915 book for Rich’s meme it shouts out (as no doubt many will) as a book that was published then but had been written before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914: as I say above, it was quite unquestioning about life, and the future, and politics, and the excitement of war.

1910 newsboys from the Library of Congress.

Prince Lois Ferdinand d’Orleans, also from Library of Congress.

Plenty more Francis Hodgson Burnett on the blog – click on the label below.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Dress Down Sunday: A Running Duck by Paula Gosling

published 1978 in the UK


[Clare and Malchek are on the run, pretending to be a couple and hiding out along the way]

The double-bed in the first motel was a problem. To toss a coin and stick one of them with a chair or the floor seemed juvenile. In the end they both got ready for bed, went to bed, and lay on the bed, wrapped in more than blankets.

He was very aware of her nakedness under the white pyjamas she had chosen in an effort to appear sexless. In fact, all they did was outline her body even more emphatically than a nightgown would have done.

Normally he simply slept in his skin, but had borrowed some pyjamas for the trip. They constricted him and he felt strange, finally tossing the top back into the suitcase.

observations: Rich Westwood at Past Offences rediscovered this book a while back, and so I picked up a cheap copy in the hope of some splendid 1970s fashions for a blog entry. I had read a couple of later Paula Gosling books, but this one was very different: a tough, hard-boiled kind of book – as proved by the astonishing fact that it was turned into a Sylvester Stallone film, Cobra. The heroine is an executive at an ad agency in San Francisco: I’d envisaged nice scenes among the account managers, as in books by Dorothy L Sayers (Murder Must Advertize) and CS Forester (Plain Murder) featured in a short Ad Agency meme on the blog in 2013. (I was prepared to include this new one in my ranking of the best agencies to work at.)

But no: Clare is the only witness to the aftermath of a murder, and could identify the hitman, so she is in danger. A rough tough cop, Malchek, is desperate to catch the hitman – in fact he is more interested in that than in protecting the witness. Well, at first anyway. They end up racing around northern California, visiting small towns, almost catching the enemy, almost being caught. (I really enjoyed their travels through the redwood forests – having visited them myself under less fraught circumstances I know how beautiful and restful they are.)

It’s all very much of its time, and very typical of a certain kind of crime book by a woman which seems to be setting out to show the author can be as tough as any man, including a particularly weird moment early on concerning semen - which nowadays would be a source of DNA and a means of id-ing the shooter. There’s this wince-making sentence: ‘The receptionist was an ardent feminist, in between boyfriends’ – which I would have objected to just as much in 1978 as I do now. At the same time, when Clare tells the cops she works at an ad agency, they say ‘What do you do there? Secretary?’ It all reminded me rather of the Mary Tyler Moore Show of blessed memory, and I would have enjoyed more of the single-girl-setting – but she must away to the woods with the strong silent Malchek…

Mostly historical interest then. A Running Duck presumably means ‘as opposed to sitting duck’ and seems a particularly stupid title – worse even than Cobra. The book was called Fair Game in the USA.

Click on the labels for more pyjamas of various kinds. 

Saturday, 24 January 2015

The Babe BA by EF Benson

published 1897

The Babe was beautifully dressed in white flannels, yellow boots and a straw hat with a new riband….

Behind the railings the garden lay deliciously fresh and green. Long level plains of grass were spread about between the flower-beds, and the whole place had an air of academic and cultivated repose. On one of these stretches of lawn a game of tennis was in progress; the performance was not of a very high class, but the players seemed to be enjoying themselves….


“To think that a mere game of football should lead to such disastrous consequences” [Reggie] remarked…

“That pig of a half-back caught me a frightful hack on the shin” [Ealing] said…

Ealing and Reggie were both in change, they both wore villainously muddy flannel knickerbockers, short enough to disclose villainously muddy knees, old blazers, and strong useful football boots with bars.

The frost continued, black and clean, and the Babe, like the Polar Bear, thought it would be nice to practise skating. He bought himself a pair of Dowler blades with Mount Charles fittings, which he was assured by an enthusiastic friend were the only skates with which it was possible to preserve one’s self-respect, and fondly hoped that self-respect was a synonym for balance… The Babe wobbled industriously about, trying to skate large… About the third day the Babe was hopelessly down with the skating fever…

observations: The first disappointment was that I thought The Babe BA would be a woman – rather like those sexy PhD costumes on sale around Halloween – and that this would be a book about women going to college: an early version of the beloved Legally Blonde. Far from it. The undergraduates in this book are staunchly male, and The Babe is a man. (The book is set at Cambridge University.)

The second disappointment was that it was terrible. After looking at Benson's Mapp and Lucia (recent entry, BBC TV series) I thought I’d read one of his standalones - which I also thought might be a Book of the Century (blog challenge explained here), but it was 1897, so no good for that and yet another disappointment.

Imagine the dullest person you know describing his university years, which he thinks are unique and interesting, but really were nothing special. Plenty of injokes, and would-be witty repartee, and allegedly hilarious pranks and adventures. That’s what this book is – and there’s really no excuse because Benson was thirty when it was published, and it was far from being his first novel. It tells the story of a talented wonderful young man who floats his way through his undergraduate years. He’s very good at sports, and is very popular, and terribly nice, and he keeps a dog called Sykes. (I kept forgetting Sykes was a dog, and thought he was another student friend.) The Babe’s ‘particular forte was dinner parties for six, skirt dancing and acting, and the performances of the duties of half-back at Rugby football.’

The business of skirt dancing is intriguing, and never fully explained: This is what Wikipedia says:
A skirt dance is a form of dance popular in Europe and America, particularly in burlesque and vaudeville theater of the 1890s, in which women dancers would manipulate long, layered skirts with their arms to create a motion of flowing fabric, often in a darkened theater with colored light projectors highlighting the patterns of their skirts.
In Babe’s case is seems to mean dressing up as a woman for fun and then dancing around for the entertainment of your friends. The Babe also plays Clytemnestra in the Oresteia, in Greek, to perfection.

The book is embarrassingly arch and deeply unfunny. Also there are the usual twisted notions of honour and shame: someone is suspected of cheating at cards - almost involuntarily as he cannot help but see the cards - and this is a dreadful thing which should lead to complete social ostracism. Only the Babe’s magnanimity and generosity turn the business round. But his own behaviour is fairly shocking: he deliberately creates ice outside his room (because he loves skating, above), and his cleaner trips over and hurts herself and breaks a lot of crockery ‘happily not his’. The blooming dog goes round biting people and being destructive of others’ property all over the place, but that is seen as just funny. Babe and his friends go carol-singing, collecting money for charity, and he appears to steal the proceeds for himself - it’s just possible that you are meant to assume this is a joke, but there is no direct indication.

I think the cardsharp sounds much nicer.

Best to forget this book altogether and stick to Mapp and Lucia.

And enjoy these nice ancient pictures of sports activities. Tennis from NYPL, Oxford v Cambridge football match from a book on sports of the world, skating from the Library of Congress. 

Friday, 23 January 2015

Plotting for Grown-ups by Sue Hepworth

published 2013

[Sally is planning what to wear for a meeting, with the help of her friend Wendy]
“You should wear your indigo jeans and a black polo neck. But maybe not: you’ll be too hot today… Do you think you’d be too warm in that v neck angora jumper in ivory, cos it’d make you look really tactile, and he’ll be in agony. No – the rock chick look – aim for a Marianne Faithful take on it – she’s about your age. Wear the jeans, like I said, and two layered t-shirts, sheer ones, and that black jacket with the sleeves pushed up, and those funky feather earrings Sam gave you. And a bandanna – yes.” 

I did what she said, and put on lots of eye make-up as well.

Then I removed the bandanna and jacket and substituted my scarf with the swallow print, and my coat – the one he liked – but I started to sweat (dammit) so it was back to the jacket and bandanna. Crikey. It’s tough trying to look like Stevie Nicks.

observations: Surely most women would recognize this as the way we actually put together our outfits, as opposed to the manner recommended in the likes of Vogue? I found it very true to life. This is a delightfully entertaining book, following nine months in the life of a 60-ish writer living in the Peak District: it takes a diary form, though what it resembles to me is a broadsheet newspaper column of a certain kind – you could just imagine reading this story week by week. I think 10 or 15 years ago it would have been in a newspaper, but nowadays there isn’t room for this kind of thing: everything has to be more mean and snarky and strange.

The heroine, Sally, has a lot in common with author Hepworth, and as Sally produces her own book during the course of the novel, there are times when it seems as though it is going to collide with itself. We hear about Sally’s attempts to find a publisher, her decision to self-publish, and her on-off romance with her printer. It is like hearing a friend telling you about her life in weekly sessions, and is clever and amusing. Sally’s marriage has ended and she is very funny about the idea that

If I’d known I was going to end up single, I’d have done it a whole lot sooner. Marriage can be such a hard slog, and you have to compromise on so many things, so many things, just to keep the peace. I feel cheated to be ending up alone at this age.

The difficult business of telling your grown-up children that you are dating again is also an issue, for her and for her new love interest. One of her children keeps coming home, and she also has her brother staying, and the lovelife of friend Wendy (above) to keep track of, so there’s plenty happening. I am delighted to say that there are many many good, proper clothes descriptions: Wendy specializes in rather wild charity shop finds, including Union Jack shorts for the Queen's Jubilee year in 2012.

There is excellent use of blogging and tweeting – more so than in most books by much younger and allegedly more social-media-conscious authors.

Sally had the Mary Quant nail varnish Brazen Bronze when she was young – perhaps we all did, but I certainly did too.

This is a gentle, witty read: very enjoyable.

I have provided something of a collection of clothes for Sally: she likes the brand Toast, but can’t afford it, so here’s an extra outfit from the label for her here:

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Thursday List: Emptying the Bookcase 2014


a bookcase on 1st September 2014

Story of a bookcase…

At the moment there is a blog challenge called the TBR Double Dog Dare – more details below. A number 
of my blog friends are interested in doing this, and it resonated with me because --- I more or less did it. In the second half of 2014 I decided something had to be done about my TBR (= To Be Read, in common book-blogger-speak) pile. So I started small, with a row of books held between some very nice bookends (parting present from my lovely American bookgroup when I left in 2002, and I feel some of the books had been there ever since). By 31st August the bookends looked like this:

Inspired, I turned to the major bookcase holding TBRs. On the 1st September It looked like the top picture. So I set myself the task of clearing a shelf a month. And this is how it went:

1st October:

1st November: 

1st December: 

1st January:

During this period, there was supposed to be an embargo on my obtaining new books. That wasn’t leak-proof – as in the dare below, I excluded review copies, book group books, gifts, books I had to read for my Guardian pieces, and a few other categories. So this picture – also taken on 1st January - shows some of the books that have arrived in the house during the course of the campaign:

... and there are more books on my Kindle. 

But that’s all right isn’t it?

I’m very happy with the end results, and strongly recommend to anyone doing the Double Dare to stick with it (even if there is the odd slip-up) because you will be really pleased with yourself at the end….

Many of the books in the bookcase have been featured in blogposts, but not quite all. Some reviews haven't appeared yet. Email me if you want to know more about any of them. 


Here are the details of the blog challenge, from the blog James Reads Books:

James says: Is your TBR list getting you down?  Do you own more books than you can read in one lifetime?  Are there so many books on your nightstand that you have no place to set your coffee mug down in the morning? The TBR Double Dog Dare is here to save the day! The TBR Double Dog Dare is not a reading challenge; it’s a dare. This means that people who do not participate in reading challenges are allowed to participate. I’m not challenging you; I’m double-daring you. All you have to do to win the TBR Double Dog Dare is to read only from your TBR pile between January 1 and April 1. You can still buy books, you just can’t read them until the TBR Double Dog Dare is over. (You can make exceptions for books clubs, arcs, and other things you really want to make exceptions for. The TBR Double Dog Dare is all about having fun. So if you join in for a week or a month, no worries.) Are you brave enough to take the dare?  

It is by no means too late to join in - go over to James Reads Books to sign up.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Mrs Harris goes to New York by Paul Gallico

published 1960

‘Oh dear,’ said Henrietta Schreiber suddenly, ‘I wonder if I’ve done the right thing?’ She was sitting in front of her mirror in her cabin, putting the final touches to her face. Beside her lay an engraved card of invitation which stated that Pierre RenĂ© Dubois, Captain of the s.s. Ville de Paris, would be honoured by the company of Mr and Mrs Joel Schreiber for cocktails in his cabin at seven-thirty that evening.

They emerged from their cabin, where their steward waited to guide them. He took them as far as the private stairway leading to the Captain’s quarters, which they mounted, to be received by another steward who asked their names and then led them to the door of the huge cabin from which emerged that distinctive babble of sounds that denotes a cocktail party in full swing.

The Captain, a handsome man in dress uniform with gold braid, said, ‘Ah, Mr and Mrs Schreiber. So delighted you could come,’ and then with practised hand swung the circle of introductions - names that Mrs Schreiber only half heard until he came to the last two, and no mistake about those: ‘ - His Excellency the Marquis Hypolite de Chassagne, the new French Ambassador to your country, and Madame Harris.’

observations: This is the follow-up to Mrs Harris goes to Paris, and it’s not quite as good as that simple fairytale. Mrs Harris and her friend Vi cross the Atlantic with the Schreibers, whom they worked for in London, to help them as they move to what Vi thinks of as ‘Soda and Gomorrow’. (There is an interesting description of Mrs Schreiber not wanting Eastern Europeans to work for her – these days in London the East Europeans would be the star employees.)

Mrs Harris lives next door to a family with a foster-child, and this child, Henry, is being badly-treated, after being apparently abandoned by first his GI father and then his mother. Mrs H knows that the father went back to the USA. So (this is not a realistic book) she smuggles the boy on board ship with them, takes him to New York, then tries to find his father. If you can’t see the exact form of the happy ending coming a mile off, you probably haven’t ready many books before.

They are both very jolly books, adding to the sum of human happiness, but if I were an Amazon reviewer I would be saying in that snooty way they like so much: ‘Did Paul Gallico never do creative writing 101? We were always told SHOW NOT TELL.’ Gallico rarely shows, always tells: he is oppressively, unrelentingly keen on telling you what to think about every character, he never leaves anything to chance, or to the reader’s imagination.

In the section above, Mrs Schreiber – in first class – is worried about Mrs H in Tourist, and then finds her at the cocktail party, wearing one of her own cast-off dresses (not the famous Dior dress from the first book…), and accompanied by His Excellency the Marquis, who has popped in from the other book.

Mrs Harris mentions in passing that the villainous family next door were like the Jukes family – a reference that meant nothing to me, so I looked it up, and I highly recommend that everyone should do so – it’s a fascinating, mind-bending, real-life story about sociological research, nature vs nurture, genetics, and eugenics.

The description of the voyage reminded me of the Atlantic crossing in the 1981 TV version of Brideshead Revisited: so these are screenshots of Celia Ryder, played by Jane Asher, her cabin, and a cocktail party on board. I wrote about Brideshead in the Guardian and on the blog over Xmas.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The Blind Goddess by Anne Holt

translated by Tom Geddes

published 1993

[Norway: Police investigator Hanne Wilhelmson has gone out to meet lawyer Karen Borg at a cabin out in the middle of nowhere]

She had no difficulty finding her way. There was an inviting glow from the windows, in welcoming contrast to the desolate shuttered cottages nearby. She hardly recognised her. Karen Borg was dressed in a shabby old tracksuit which made Hanne smile when she saw it. It was blue, with white shoulder inserts that met in a vee on the chest. She’d had one very similar herself as a child; it had served as playsuit, tracksuit, and even pyjamas before it finally wore out and proved impossible to replace. On her feet Karen had a pair of threadbare woollen slippers with holes in both heels. Her hair was uncombed and she wore no makeup. The smart, well-dressed lawyer had gone to ground , and Hanne had to stop herself scanning the room in search of her. “Sorry about my clothes,” said Karen with a smile, “but part of the freedom of being here is looking like this.”

observations: A few years ago Anne Holt’s book 1222 was published in the UK and got a fair amount of attention – I must have been one of many people who bought it (on special offer IIRC) and read it and realized quite quickly that this was well into a whole series of books – and that the main sleuth, Hanne Wilhelmsen, had a considerable backstory.

I’ve finally got around to reading the first book, and it’s very different from 1222 – which was actually the 8th in the series.

This is a police procedural set in and around Oslo, and is very much of its time – 1993. No mobile phones in general use, no quick looking-up on the computer. A report goes missing, and that’s it – there are no copies, it wasn’t written on a computer, there’s no file, no backup. The plot concerns a drugs ring which may reach into the most respectable legal circles.

Quite early on, lawyer Karen Borg, unused to criminal cases, is talking to her client:
[Her experience] was entirely limited to having yelled after a bicycle thief who was making off down Markveien with her new fifteen-gear bike. But— she had seen this on TV. Defence Counsel Matlock had said: “I don’t want to know the truth, I want to know what you’re going to say in court.” Somehow it didn’t sound quite as convincing coming from her own lips. More hesitant, perhaps. But it might be a way of eliciting something.
I thought this was hilarious, and was hoping for a similar tone throughout the book, but in fact I found it rather humourless and flat – though I did enjoy the odd detail, such as the meal the two women above are about to enjoy:
The food wasn’t very sophisticated: canned reindeer-meatballs in gravy with potatoes and a cucumber salad. The cucumber didn’t go with it, Hanne thought to herself, but it filled her up.
In general I much preferred the odd tone (and first person narrative) of 1222, which was an unusual book, and one that kept you guessing. Not so much with this one – but I should say that plenty of crime fiction bloggers very much liked the earlier books in the series. I am not nearly so widely-read in the area of scandi-crime-fiction, and so this is probably a case where personal taste is even more important than usual – I wouldn’t want to put anyone off the book.

The picture is from the Norwegian National Archives: there’s no date, but perhaps for its day the outfit was the equivalent of a shabby tracksuit…. And there's the reindeer ready to be turned into meatballs. 

Monday, 19 January 2015

Lise Lillywhite by Margery Sharp

published 1951

Martin… compromised with a dark suit and a white shirt [and] arrived punctually at 9.15. It was not Lise who admitted him, it was a man-servant. Martin entered the sitting-room.

Very discreet was Lise in dusky blue muslin, full-skirted, cut a little away from her white shoulders

[Later] During the weeks that followed, Lise Lillywhite’s life became greatly altered. Martin stood like aa spectator on the sidelines, observant, almost painfully interested, but without any active part: it was Count Stanislas Dombrowski who guided Lise’s steps on her second excursion into the wide world…. In company with the Count, Lise was permitted to go to the theatre at night.

Naturally Tante Amelie always went with them, and they went nowhere but to the opera or the ballet… they were often all four at the same performances, when Martin, wearing his office suit, came down during the interval to the staircase avove the foyer, to see Lise make her entry below….

She wore her smoky muslin, and a tippet of white fur [and] gardenias or camellias in her hair.

observations: Those of us who love Margery Sharp pass on recommendations to one another, titles we may have missed. I thought Barb at Leaves and Pages told me about this one, but maybe not. Whoever it was, thank you.

I loved this book, and I’m sure will read it again – it could go on my list of Books Like I Capture the Castle (young girls winning through) though it is not exactly one of them. We see so little of the book from Lise’s point of view – for most of the time she is a complete blank to us (she should have been played by Audrey Hepburn in a film). When she does suddenly make a stand and speak out, it is a big surprise to the reader – her moral preoccupations are odd and specific.

We see the action pretty much through the eyes of Martin above: he is Lise’s first cousin, 34 to her 17, and has fallen for her but feels he can’t do anything about it.

She is impoverished, living with relations in London after WW2 – she has something of the women I mentioned in a post on this Linda Grant book, like a Brookner woman – and the rather dashing Count, above belongs with the riffraff from Matthew Sweet’s wonderful book about the wartime West End Front. This is a romantic comedy, or comedy of manners, but must be almost unique in that virtually no reader could guess how it is going to come out. I guessed one early plot item, but beyond that I had no idea what to expect.

It paints such a marvellous picture of post-war England (rather like Barbara Pym) – the country relations trying to make the farm pay, the boys’ prep school, the ‘arty tarty’ girls in a flat having parties with sausages frying on a gasring. Once you start noticing nylons they pop up everywhere (see my Guardian piece here): they are currency in this one, smuggled and stolen.

Tante Amelie is one of Sharp’s great creations:

When Tante Amelie expected one to leave, one left; she simply ceased to continue the conversation, let her end of it fall like the end of a skipping-rope.
After she has some success at a party Tante Amelie says, complacently, ‘I think some of the flappers there were a little surprised to see such attentions paid an old woman; perhaps it will teach them that lipstick is not everything.’

The Count is also excellent – you cannot take against him, even though he is shown as rather worthless. You suspect Sharp, like many of her heroines, had a hard time trying to resist the bad boys of life….

I have yet to find a Margery Sharp book that I dislike, and this one will now come high up my list of favourites. Click on the Sharp label below to see entries on The Eye of Love, The Nutmeg Tree, and Something Light.

The top photo is from Dovima is divine dated 1949. Elsewhere in the book Lise wears a grey coat and beret – this picture comes from an earlier entry on a John Dickson Carr book of similar vintage.