A Place to Stand by Ann Bridge (1953)

Mary Ann Dolling Sanders married Owen St. Clair O’Malley, a diplomat, on 25 October 1913. His career would lead to them travelling widely; and to the diplomat’s wife writing many novels – using the pen-name Ann Bridge – inspired by the places she visited and the history she witnessed.

This story is set in Budapest, in the spring of 1941.

Hope Kirkland is the daughter of an American businessman who has been based in that city ever since she was a small girl, looking after his company’s European interests. She has been sheltered and spoiled, but she is bright and curious; and I was inclined to like the girl who brought home wild flowers from the street market to sit alongside the rather more formal flowers that her mother chose.

On her way home from a trip to Belgrade, to say goodbye to her new fiancé, Sam, whose career as a reporter was taking him away from her only days after their engagement, Hope opened the box of chocolates he had given her as a parting gift. She thought it a rather thoughtless gift, particularly when she realised that all of the chocolates on the top layer were soft centres. Sam knew that she didn’t like soft centres! When she peeked at the layer below, she found no chocolates at all. She found three passports and some very precise directions as to what she should do with them.

3c9533834dc9c65593963305377444341587343Hope followed those instructions very carefully, and they led her to a family of Polish refugees. They were surprised to see her and not Sam, but they welcomed her and were very appreciative of the trouble she had taken. Hope liked them immediately, she was shocked that they has to live in such poor conditions, and she decided that she would do what she could to help them.

A friendship grew, and Hope learned a great deal from her new friends. She was particularly fond of the elderly mother of the family, and when she saw how kindly and gently her children treated her she realised that she had always taken her own parents and her very good fortune for granted.

When Germany invades Hungary Hope’s father is advised to leave the country as soon as he can. As Hope helps her mother to pack up their life she worries about what will happen to her friends. She is sure they won’t be safe, she is sure that she can do more for them, and her feelings are complicated by the fact that she has fallen in love with the son of the family.

What Hope does next is wonderfully brave and dangerous, but it could get her into terrible trouble ….

Ann Bridge’s writing is wonderfully vivid. She painted lovely pictures of Budapest before the invasion; she allowed be to be an eye- witness to that invasion as Hope rushed out to see what was happening; and she captured the turbulent events that followed wonderfully well.

I couldn’t doubt for a minute that she had been there and that she had thought a great deal about the history she lived through and the significance of the events that she had witnessed. She illuminated different attitudes to what was happening so cleverly, through conversations between the Kirklands and two friends; an American diplomat and a young Polish aristocrat.

The plot was very well constructed, every character was there for a reason, and the story held my interest from start to finish. It would have worked as well without the love story; and it might have been more interesting to see a friendship between a young woman and a young man from such different backgrounds.

Ann Bridge is sometimes accused of snobbery and I saw just a little of that her. It came mainly from characters whose backgrounds made their attitudes understandable, but I spotted one or two instances when it came from the author. I also have to say that I didn’t have to be told that Hope was pretty quite so many times.

I did like Hope. She was bright, she was capable, she was ready to do anything in her power for the people she loved, and  I was only a little disappointed when she sometimes chose to play the helpless female and have a man sort everything out. She was only nineteen years-old, and nothing in her upbringing had prepared her for much of what she would experience.

I loved many of the other characters – particularly Hope’s mother, who really came into her own when she was faced with a crisis – but I have to say that not many of them had depth. I suspect that there were a few characters who were there simply to serve the plot.

That lead me to say that this isn’t Ann Bridge’s best book; but I can also say that I’m very glad I read it.

It was a wonderfully entertaining and intriguing story; and it took me to a part of the world and a corner of history that I am pleased to know a little better now.

The Trespasser by Tana French (2016)

Ten years ago, a debut crime novel was published. When I picked it up in the library I was intrigued, and so I brought it home. When I began to read I was captivated by the story, impressed by the quality of the writing, and just how much there was to the book.

It was contemporary police procedural, with a wonderfully real Irish setting; it was a compelling character study, written with real insight and understanding; it was a perceptive state of the nation novel …

That book was ‘Into The Woods’ by Tana French.

It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was so very, very promising.

I had to buy a copy to keep, and I have loved watching the author do that same thing in so many different ways in the books that followed.

There have been six books to date; linked, but not quite in the way series are usually linked. Each book is centered around a member of the Dublin Murder Squad, who has usually appeared in an earlier book before becoming the protagonist of their own story. A story that will usually draw out their own story as well as the part they have to play in the investigation of a crime.

It is as if the author was walking among them, with a perfect understanding who to draw forward and who steer towards the shadows.

This time she makes the simplest of switches and it is wonderfully effective.

29430013The two detectives at the centre of this story are the two who were at the centre of the last story. Then, Steve Moran, who was angling for a place on the murder squad, and Antoinette Conway, who already had her place there, had met and were working together for the first time; now nearly a year has passed and they are professional partners.

Then he was at the centre of the story; now she is. That may sound like a small change – and maybe it was- but it allowed me a much greater understanding of each of them. Antoinette Conway had seemed so cynical, and now I began to understand why. Steve Moran got on with people, he had an easy charm; but I began to think that maybe he sometimes used that, calculating the effect it might have. A different kind of cynicism.

They were left on the fringes of the squad, dealing with the dull routine work. Because Conway had never been accepted, and because Moran had been partnered with her.

The case that fell to them at the end of a shift seemed routine, but they were both pleased to have a case of their own to work.

Aislinn Murray, an attractive young woman, was found dead in her own home on a Saturday night. Her table had been set for a romantic dinner for two, but that dinner would never leave the kitchen. She had been struck in the face and she had fallen and hit her head on the fireplace. There was no sign of forced entry, no sign that she had been taken by surprise. And so it seemed that her dinner guest had killed her – maybe deliberately, maybe accidentally – and fled the scene. All they had to do was find him.

Detective Bresslin, who had been assigned to oversee their work, wanted them to do just that and close the case as quickly as possible, so that they could all get on with other things.

When Conway and Moran they meet Aislinn’s friend Lucy they realise that the case may not be as simple as that, and that there would be much more to Aislinn’s story than anyone had realised. Conway was sure that she had met her before ….

The story follows every detail of what happens, and I was fascinated. I had ideas, but those ideas and my feelings about different characters shifted as new facts came to light. I really wasn’t sure where this was going to go, how the story was going to play out until the very end.

This is a big book for the story it holds, and I can understand why some people wouldn’t like it, but there are many reasons what I did.

Antoinette Conway’s narrative voice is perfectly realised, and she became a very real, very complex woman. She could be infuriating and I couldn’t always agree with the things she said and did; but I understood that she had her reasons and I understood what made her the person she was.

She carried me through the story.

This case changed her, and changed things for her, as is often the way with Tana French’s lead characters.

Every character who passed through this story was well drawn. The dialogue, the settings, the atmosphere – every element in this book worked, and that allowed the story to live and breathe.

I loved the way that themes were repeated through the stories of the detective and the victim. Each of those stories held some improbabilities, but they were credible and they said much about the issue and the choices that young women can face in the world today.

I’m avoiding details, because I don’t want to spoil the story, and because it is so much a whole that it is difficult to pull things out and have them make sense on their own.

The book works so well, as a police procedural and as a human drama; and it says what it has to say about the world very well indeed.

I hope I won’t have to wait too long for the next one.

Winter: A Wildlife Trust Anthology for the Changing Seasons

I thought that it might be too late to write about a winter book.
51kt6wp1s6l-_sx323_bo1204203200_
The evenings have been growing just a little lighter. Not quite light enough for evening dog walks in the park yet, but they’re definitely lighter than they were.

The first daffodils have been appearing. I love them, and when I took some to my mother last weekend she was absolutely delighted.

And seagulls have been inspecting roofs; reminding me that it’s nearly time to start thinning out Briar’s coat and put the hair out in the garden, so that birds looking for nesting material can pick it up.

But this week winter came back, with cold, with high winds and with sea spray coming right across the garden at high tide.

What could I do but pick up the fourth of these lovely anthologies from my bedside table?

I’ve had a lovely time reading and writing about the first three seasons:

Spring
Summer
Autumn

And now it seems that the winter anthology doesn’t have to wait for the seasons to turn full circle again after all.

(‘Winter Morning’ by Gwen Raverat)

This fourth season has never been my favourite. I dislike the dark mornings and evenings; and the cold, damp, grey, windy weather that envelopes us here in the far south-west of England. I know though that it is necessary; that nature needs to rest and be healed in the winter, as we are when we sleep; and that there is still much to appreciate, when there is time and the weather is right, when we wrap up and go out into the world.

The pattern that this anthology follows is wonderfully familiar to me now. It holds a wealth of short pieces. There is fact and fiction. There is old and new. There are nature writers and writers who just happen to write about nature. They all sit happily together, because they all saw the same natural world around them and captured different aspects of it when they say down to write.

There are variations though, beyond the changing of the seasons. Winter brings more poetry, a little more classic writing, and rather more bird watching than I remember in the three seasons that have passed.

I was also aware that there was a progression from the beginning to the end of winter as I moved through the book. That may well have been there in the earlier volumes, but this was the first time I appreciated it. The richness of these seasonal collections is such that I may notice different things, and different pieces may catch my eye, on a second reading.

('Winter Sanctuary' by Barbara Rae)
(‘Winter Sanctuary’ by Barbara Rae)

The very first piece in this book was a highlight.

“A sharp sugaring frost. The mulberry is at its best in November when it at last undresses itself. It does a sort of striptease before my study window, lightly letting go its leaves in a light breeze that seems to touch only this one tree after the stillness of the frosty night. The leaves float down in twos or threes, or just a single leaf at a time.”

(Those are the words of Roger Deakin.)

Immediately after that I was captivated by a sonnet by a poet I must learn more about; and then by a pitch perfect description of a particular day in a particular place by a write whose name I had noted when I was reading one of the earlier seasonal collections.

I can’t quote everybody, but I can draw your attention to some writers I’ve particularly appreciated who have blogs:

Annie Worsley
Nicola Chester
Tiffany Francis

I was so caught up with the nature writing that when I began reading a piece that should have felt very familiar I didn’t place it for a while, and when I did I realised what a difference it can make to your understanding of an author when you focus on just a small part of a very large whole.

('Large Tree Group Winter' by Victoria Crowe)
(‘Large Tree Group Winter’ by Victoria Crowe)

‘Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.’

That’s Dickens of course, from ‘Bleak House.’

I am pleased that authors are credited only at the end of each piece, and that I could read without prejudice.

I must mention one more piece of nature writing.  I was so taken by an excerpt from Lucy Jones’ book ‘Foxes Unearthed’ that I really need to find a copy.

‘We stared at each other, the fox and I, for a charged moment. Her eyes were a pale bronze and seemed bright and aware. She turned away and trotted down the street towards my house. She wasn’t in a rush at all. We walked for a while, her in front, me a few paces behind. In those seconds I got the sense that we were one and the same, mammals, predators, denizens of the earth …’

A contemporary piece by Jacqueline Bain really struck a chord.

Another piece, written centuries earlier but very close to home, made me smile.

('House in Winter' by Gabriel Munter)
(‘House in Winter’ by Gabriel Munter)

‘It was about the beginning of the spring 1757 when I arrived in England, and I was near twelve years of age at that time. I was very much struck with the buildings and the pavement of the streets in Falmouth; and, indeed, any object I saw filled me with new surprise. One morning, when I got upon deck, I saw it covered all over with the snow that fell over-night: as I had never seen any thing of the kind before, I thought it was salt; so I immediately ran down to the mate and desired him, as well as I could, to come and see how somebody in the night had thrown salt all over the deck. He, knowing what it was, desired me to bring some of it down to him: accordingly I took up a handful of it, which I found very cold indeed; and when I brought it to him he desired me to taste it. I did so, and I was surprised beyond measure.’

That comes from ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’ – another book I’d like to know more about.

The quality of the older writing selected from this wonderful. How could it none be when you can draw on writers like Thomas Hardy, Claire Leighton, John Clare, Virginia Woolf …

‘The Great Frost was, historians tell us, the most severe that has ever visited these islands. Birds froze in mid-air and fell like stones to the ground. At Norwich a young countrywoman started to cross the road in her usual robust health and was seen by the onlookers to turn visibly to powder and be blown in a puff of dust over the roofs as the icy blast struck her at the street corner. The mortality among sheep and cattle was enormous. Corpses froze and could not be drawn from the sheets. It was no uncommon sight to come upon a whole herd of swine frozen immovable upon the road. The fields were full of shepherds, ploughmen, teams of horses, and little bird-scaring boys all struck stark in the act of the moment, one with his hand to his nose, another with the bottle to his lips, a third with a stone raised to throw at the ravens who sat, as if stuffed, upon the hedge within a yard of him.’

(From ‘Orlando’ by Virginia Woolf; which has been on my ‘must re-read’ list for a while.)

('The Sleeping Heart of Winter' by Catherine Hyde}
(‘The Sleeping Heart of Winter’ by Catherine Hyde}

A piece like that doesn’t sit as naturally as it might with those around it, but how could you leave it out?

Now this is something that I’ve said before but must say again:

When I look at the book as a whole I have to say that some of the pieces spoke to me more than others; and that some of them didn’t really speak to me at all. But that it the way of things when you hear so many different voices, and I can’t say that there were any that didn’t deserve to be heard.

It’s a beautifully produced book; it would make a lovely gift to anyone who loves or is curious about the natural world around them.

I know that I will be revisiting all four anthologies as the cycle of the seasons continues.

A Book for Margery Sharp Day: The Stone of Chastity (1940)

I have loved many of Margery Sharp’s books for many different reasons ; and the book I have chosen for Margery Sharp Day this year is the book I love for its wonderful mix of satire and silliness.

Professor Pounce, a scholar of literary antiquities held in the highest regard, has always dreamed of publishing a monograph that will dazzle his contemporaries. He thinks that he may have finally found his subject when he learns of the local legend of the ancient village of Gillenham. It is said that there was stepping stone in stream there that would ensure that virgin girls and faithful wives would never slip, while the unchaste would invariably trip into the water.

He formed a wonderfully scientific plan. He would have all of  the ladies of the village fill out a questionnaire to ascertain their understanding of the local legend and state of their chastity. And then there would be an event by the stream, with all of the ladies in turn stepping on the alleged Stone of Chastity, so that he could properly establish what its powers might or might not be.

33954186Then refreshments wouldl be served.

It doesn’t occur to Professor Pounce that anyone might be reluctant to take part, or that they might be offended by his proposal; because he really was that caught up in his academic bubble.

Life in the sleepy village of Gillenham will never be the same again. The vicar’s wife is outrages by the revival of paganism, and the vicar is inclined to agree. The Pye family at the farm cut off supplies to the manor house that the Professor had rented for the summer.  The ladies of the Women’s’ Institute marched out to confront the perpetrator of this outrage ….

The Professor ploughed on, sweetly oblivious.

He had brought his nephew, Nicholas, along to act as his secretary; and he had to deal with all of the practical issues while being horribly aware of what the villagers were likely to think of his uncle’s plan. He had to organise the questionnaires, recover the Stone itself from Mrs Thirkettle’s scullery floor, and publicise the grand testing of said Stone.

He also had to juggle three romantic interests: a statuesque beauty, a bookish blue-stocking, and a bright young thing.

That was fun, but as Nicholas was a rather unremarkable young man I’d rather have had a little less time with his love life and a little more time with the villagers and the main plot.

That’s my main reason for saying that this isn’t Margery Sharp’s best work.

But it is wonderfully entertaining.

Margery Sharp drew humour from her story beautifully, and she judged her material perfectly. She was as acute and as witty as she always was, but she was never judgemental or prurient.

I found it easy to believe in these people, the things they said and the things they did, and that the Stone of Chastity might be sitting somewhere in the very real village of Gillenham; even though I knew that it was the product of the author’s wonderful imagination and that her plot was exceedingly improbable!

I happily turned the pages, with some idea of where things were going but not much idea at all how they would all end up.

I was charmed by a wonderful cast of characters.

Carmen, an artists’ model, was a wonderful comic creation, a typical Sharp heroine who always followed her heart and her instincts. She caused quite a stir in the village.

Mrs Crowner, the vicar’s wife made me think of Trollope’s Mrs Proudie. She wasn’t quite as formidable, but the vicar clearly knew that it was best to nod and agree with her.

Mrs Pounce, the Professor’s widowed sister-in law, was a very nice lady, who always acted properly and wanted to enjoy her summer in the country.

I could pick out others, but maybe its time I just said that Margery Sharp created a wonderful ensemble.

I should also say that there were so many wonderful incidents, that the set pieces were so well done, and that the plotting really was quite clever.

The ending felt a little downbeat at first; but there was a nice, gentle twist that I loved, there was a really pleasing realisation for a particular character and it seemed that something had changed in village.

The more I thought about it, the more I liked it.

And I think I might say that about this book as a whole.

* * * * * * *

Now, please do tell me if you’ve read a book for Margery Sharp Day. I’ll post a round up once the day is done.

And please don’t worry if you haven’t – Margery Sharp posts are welcome on any day of the year!

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West (1930)

History records that Vita Sackville-West wrote ‘The Edwardians’ on holiday, targeting popular success. Her book was a huge hit, it was adapted for the stage, it was translated  into several languages, but neither its author or its publisher saw it as having any claim to literary greatness.

They were probably right, but it is a  lovely entertainment that captures a particular time and a particular class wonderfully well.

The author wrote what she knew, and at the very beginning of the book she notes that:

“No character in this book is wholly fictitious.”

If you have knowledge of her and her circle you will appreciate that; and understand that she is looking back at the world that she grew up in, comparing it with the world that her mother knew and the very different world that her children knew; and knowing that, while she loved it dearly, it was fatally flawed.

But it doesn’t matter if you know nothing at all, because the book is such a lovely period piece.

edwardiansThe story opens in 1905, with Sebastian, the nineteen year-old Duke of Chevron ascending to the roof of his country home to escape the guests at his mother’s house party. She loves society, while Sebastian isn’t quite sure how he feels. He is drawn to the glamour of his mother’s social set, but he can’t help being aware of how shallow their lives and their values really are.

His estate, Chevron, is a working estate, and Sebastian loved everything he can see and hear from his high vantage point.

“The whole community of the great house was humming at its work. In the stables, men were grooming horses; in the ‘shops’, the carpenters plane sent the wood-chips flying, the diamond of the glazier hissed on the glass; in the forge, the hammer rang in the anvil, and the bellows windily sighed … Sebastian heard the music and saw the vision. It was a tapestry that he saw, and heard the strains of a wind orchestra.”

It had been that way for hundreds of years, with sons following their fathers into the shops to learn a trade, and with positions within the house filled by the daughters and nieces of those already employed;  with staff claiming – and constrained by – their inheritance just as much as the family they served.

All of this is so vividly evoked, and the early chapters are rich with details of the life of the house, the party arrangements, the family, and a veritable army of servants.

One of the weekend visitors to Chevron, Leonard Antequil, didn’t belong to that world; but his adventurous life, including a winter spent alone in a snow hut in the Arctic Circle, and had brought him fame and made him a very desirable guest for the fashionable set.

It may not have occurred to the other guests that he was there as the result of his own of his efforts while they were there only by chance of birth or marriage. Or that he thought little of them.

One night Sebastian invited him up onto the roof, and he spoke to him openly and honestly, sensing his dissatisfaction and urging him to recognise the limitations of his lifestyle and to consider breaking with tradition.

“Very well, if you want the truth, here it is. The society you live in is composed of people who are both dissolute and prudent. They want to have their fun, and they want to keep their position. They glitter on the surface, but underneath the surface they are stupid – too stupid to recognise their own motives. They know only a limited number of things about themselves: that they need plenty of money, and that they must be seen in the right places, associated with the right people. In spite of their efforts to turn themselves into painted images, they remain human somewhere, and must indulge in love-affairs, which are sometimes artificial, and sometimes inconveniently real. Whatever happens the world must be served first.”

Sebastian is torn between his deep love of his home and his knowledge of the truth of Antequil’s words.

The arguments are beautifully expressed and perfectly balanced.

Sebastian regretfully declines Antequil’s invitation to accompany him on his next trip; but he never forgets their conversation.

He is seduced by an older woman, a society beauty of his mother’s generation; when their affair is ended by an ultimatum from her husband he drifts into a shallow life as a man about time; and then he draws a middle-class doctor’s wife into his life, and makes the mistake of inviting her to Chevron ….

“He had tried the most fashionable society, and he had tried the middle-class, and in both his plunging spirit had got stuck in the glue of convention and hypocrisy.”

All of this says much about Sebastian’s world; but it isn’t quite as engaging as those early chapters about life at the family estate.

Meanwhile, the world was changing.

Sebastian’s sister, Viola, knew that, and she was glad.

“For what have our mothers thought of us, all these years?” said Viola; “that we should make a good marriage, so that they might feel that they had done their duty by us, and were rid of their responsibility with an added pride. A successful daughter plus an eligible son-in-law. Any other possibility never entered their heads – that we might consult our own tastes for instance ….”

The author knew that.

The first defection at Chevron, when the head-carpenter’s son chooses a job in the new motor industry rather than follow his father into Chevron’s shops, illustrated that beautifully.

Sebastian was caught up with his own concerns, he was unhappy, but an encounter with Leonard Antequil on the day of the coronation of George V made him realise that he could change his life.

But would he?

I can’t say, and there are lots of details that I haven’t shared.

I loved this book: the prose, the conviction, the wealth of detail, the depiction of society.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. It’s a little uneven, the structure isn’t strong, and much of what it has to say feels familiar.

But it does so much so well, it has such authenticity, and it is a wonderfully readable period piece.

Mystery in the Channel by Freeman Wills Croft (1931)

There are times, when life is busy, when a vintage literary mystery is the perfect bookish prescription. When I needed that prescription I picked up this book, and it was perfect.

It begins with a passenger ferry in the English channel, sailing from Newhaven to Dieppe. Captain Hewitt sees a yacht adrift, with a man lying motionless on the deck. He sends a small boarding party and they find that the man has been shot dead, as has another man they find in the cabin.

There is no sign of a murder weapon, or the murderer.

Another man arrives on a motor launch. He is John Patrick Nolan, and he had come to join two of his partners in Moxon’s General Securities on a business trip, to meet a French financier named Pasteur in Fécamp. He identifies the two dead men as Paul Moxon, chairman of the firm, and his vice-chairman, Sydney Deeping.

29967411Back in England the investigation falls to the Sussex Police, and to Inspector Joseph French of Scotland Yard.

It appeared that Moxon’s General Securities was on the verge of collapse: and that maybe the partners, unable to meet their obligations, were fleeing the country with £1.5 million pounds in cash that was missing from the company’s strong room.

The investigation would be complex. It took in many people involved with and affected by events at the failing finance house; detailed nautical calculations and timetables; and the serial numbers and whereabouts of the missing notes.

It wasn’t difficult to follow. I didn’t try to work too much out, but I enjoyed watching capable professionals doing their jobs; and following the investigation and all of different developments.

The plot was very well constructed.

The characters were drawn simply; just clearly enough to allow the story to move forward.

Many of the details if the story still resonate: particularly the business failure, the executives abdicating responsibility and absconding, and ordinary people suffering life-changing losses. Technology has changed, the figures have changed, but almost everything else would be exactly the same today.

I appreciated that many of those working on the investigation had genuine concern for the families of the dead men and for the many people affected by the collapse of Moxons.

There are many days when I would rather read a mystery with more complex characters, with a plot that held more surprises, and with a story that was a little more profound.

But on the day that I read this book it had exactly the right amount of mystery and real human interest to engage and to entertain.

The Eye of Love by Margery Sharp (1957)

‘The Eye of Love’was the first of Margery Sharp’s books I read, back in the days when it was a Virago Modern Classic. The founder of the Library Thing Virago group – a lovely lady named Paola – mentioned that Margery Sharp was one of her favourite authors, I liked the sound of this book, and so I picked up a copy.

I loved it!

I loved the two sequels!

Margery Sharp became one of my favourite authors!

When a whole set of Margery Sharp’s out of print books – including this one and its  sequels – were sent back out into the world last year, by Open Road Media, I thought it might be time to revisit ‘The Eye of Love’.

It was!

I loved it all over again!

‘The Eye of Love’ is a quirky and charming fairy-tale romance like no other that I have ever read.

29372657It tells the story of a middle-aged couple: Miss Dolores Diver, a rather gawky middle-aged lady, who wears a comb in hair and shawl around her shoulders because believes she has the looks and the character of a Spanish Rose type; and Mr Harry Gibson, a rather stout gentleman who has inherited responsibility for his family business.

In the hands of some authors such characters would appear silly or foolish; but not in Margery Sharp’s hands. She writes about them with great wit, with great affection, and with understanding of their foibles and their perception of each other, looking through the eye of love.

She made me love them, and she made them utterly real.

A rather eccentrically dressed lady I see in town might be a Miss Diver; a quite unremarkable man I see dressed for business might be a Mr Gibson.

I love that!

I love that every single person I might pass in the street has their own life story to be told, and – I hope – somebody who sees them through the eye of love.

Harry & Dolores had happy years together, enjoying simple pleasures and precious hour that they spent together, but they were to be separated. Harry’s business was struggling, he had a chance to make that business – and his widowed mother’s life – secure, but that depended on his marrying the daughter of his new business partner.

He didn’t like it at all, but he knew that he had to do the right thing

The lovers are both distraught, and while Dolores struggles to manage without Harry’s financial and practical support, Harry struggles to work up any enthusiasm for the wedding and new home that his mother and his fiancée are happily planning.

What will happen?

Will true love conquer all?

cc207ceb20d74b024e2fb3160e096d40Wrapped around this romantic comedy is the beginning of the story of Martha, Miss Diver’s orphaned niece. Martha is a stolid and self-possessed little girl, a true individual who is sweetly oblivious to the cares and concerns of others and sails through life’s storms, set on the course that she knows is right for her.

Martha’s passion is art, and all she wants to do is draw the world around her. She is single-minded in her quest for the materials and the time she needs to do that, and along the way she both helps and hinders her aunt in her new role as a landlady; as well as acquiring a very interesting and very sensible patron.

Margery Sharp spins a story that is both lovely and clever in this book. Her writing has both wit and charm, and is acute without ever being unkind. I think that she understood, and that she smiled at her characters.

There are so many lovely details, and a great many moments that strike a chord.

I loved the friendship that blossomed between Harry and his future father-in law. I was entertained by the machinations of the ladies who worked in Harry’s showroom. I was concerned when Dolores’s lodger took her to be a wealthier woman that she was and began to lay plans. I had horribly mixed feeling as I saw how happy and proud Harry’s mother was during the wedding preparations. I was interested in what Martha learned as she drew the gas oven.

Those are just a few of a great many things.

Most of all,  I cared  about the plight of the star-crossed lovers.

I knew the ending I wanted –  and of course I remembered it from the first time I read the book – but I didn’t remember exactly how the story got there until it did.

That ending  – and the whole story – was so cleverly constructed and so well told.

I loved the balance of the predictable and the unpredictable.

The first time I read ‘The Eye of Love’ I saw Dolores and Harry as the stars, and it was only when I moved on the sequels that I realised how significant it was that this was the beginning of Martha’s story.

She is definitely a one-off, but she is also an archetypal Margery Sharp heroine: an honest and independent woman, following her own instincts rather that social convention, and charting her own, independent course through life.

I have to love that!

You really should meet Martha. And Harry. And Delores. And Mr Joyce ….

I’m sorry that I shall be leaving Dolores and Harry behind, but I’m looking forward to following Martha’s adventures when she goes to art school in Paris all over again.

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Margery Sharp Day is less that two weeks away – the celebration of her 112th birthday party is happening on 25th January 2017.

There’s no need to RSVP – though it would be lovely to know if you might come –  all you need to do is to read a Margery Sharp book between now and then, and post about it on the day!

Just click the picture for all of the details you might want to know.

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The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola (2016)

‘The Unseeing’ is fiction spun around historical fact.

Hannah Brown was brutally murdered on the eve of her wedding, in 1937, and parts of her dismembered body were found in different sites around London.  James Greenacre, the man she would have married, was arrested. At first he denied all knowledge of what had happened, but he would change his story. He would claim Hannah’s death had been an accident and that he had paniced and disposed of her body because he knew that suspicion was likely to fall on him,  because he had fallen foul of the law before..

27245142.jpgSarah Gale was tried as an accessory and, after offering no defence, she was convicted. She had a child but no husband, and she had lived with Greenacre as his ‘housekeeper’ until he had taken up with Hannah Brown, who he believed to be alone in the world with independent means.

After Hannah’s disappearance, Sarah returned to Greenacre’s household and was seen to be attempting to pawn Hannah’s belongings, and wearing her clothes.

Greenacre was found guilty and he hanged, but, after a petition for mercy, Sarah Gale’s sentence was commuted to transportation. She and her son were sent to Australia, and no more of her story is known.

Anna Mazzola’s story considers some of the unanswered questions about Sarah Gale.

Why was she granted a petition?

What did she know about the death of Hannah Brown? What did she do?

Why did she offer no defence?

Edmund Fleetwood is a fictional character. He is a young lawyer, and he is delighted to receive a first commission from the Home Secretary. He must investigate whether there are grounds to give Sarah Gale a pardon. Because the evidence against her is circumstantial; because she is the mother of a young child; because Elizabeth Fry has taken up her cause; because she has the support of the general public ….

The lawyer visits James Greenacre before his execution. He speaks with Sarah’s sister, who is looking after her child and is terrible worried. And he visits Sarah herself, who is willing to talk to him but unwilling to answer the questions that he needs answered.  Edmund is inclined to believe her, but the question of whether or not she is telling the truth, of whether the image she presents to him is real or a construct, is always looming. The answer to that question is always in doubt,  and carefully timed revelations made considering that question fascinating.

Anna Mazzola’s writing has many strengths.

Her descriptions are wonderfully vivid, evoking the terrible atmosphere of Newgate prison.  She allows her characters to speak, quite naturally, of the way the law is weighted against women and against the poor. I believed in all of those characters; and in everything that was said and done in that prison.

She constructed a compelling story that worked with the real, historical events. It is a  credible – but rather improbable – account of the crime, and it respects the memories of the real people who lived through these events.

Her characterisation of Sarah is particularly striking, showing a woman struggling with the secrets that she chooses not to share in court; even though she know that she will suffer from the consequences of that decision.

I have to say that the setting up of the story is stronger that its playing out. Because the author gave every character a story, because she was careful to explain everything, I came to feel that there was a little too much going on. Real life is rarely tidied up so well, and that made events seem less real.

The story was strongest when it focused on Sarah Gale. On her life story, on her criminal conviction and on her life in prison.

Edmund Fleetwood was a credible and engaging character, but it was his own story that unbalanced this book for me. I wish that he had been simply the agent of Sarah’s story.

That said, the plotting was very effective.

There were some lulls in the story, but there was always more than enough to hold my interest.

I had to keep turning the pages, and I am very glad that I did.

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser (1989)

The Quincunx is an enticing, entrancing recreation of a Victorian novel, written in such perfect period prose and holding so much that is typical of the Victorian novel that you might well believe that Charles Palliser had excavated it and not sat down to write late in the twentieth century.

I skated around it for quite some time, because it is such a very big book, and I read a couple of the author’s later, shorter works; but now that I have read this book I have to say that completely outclasses them.

The story begins with a young boy, named John, who lives with his mother, Mary, in an English village. They are not wealthy but they are not poor either, and so they are able to live quietly and quite comfortably. As he grows up John comes to realise that the way they live is not normal and that his mother is keeping secrets; that there must be reasons why she is so very protective of him, why he isn’t allowed to play with other children, why anyone who comes to their door is unwelcome.

quincunx

When a relative he has never met dies – and after he has broken more than one of his mother’s rules – things go terribly wrong for Mary and John. They lose what small capital they had, Mary comes to believe that they are no longer safe in their home, and so mother and son set out for London.

Things go wrong again, and Mary does not know who they can trust; who is really her friend and who is in the employ of the man she believes to be her enemy?

The plot is much too elaborate to explain, but it spins around a simple scrap of paper: the codicil to a will written half a century earlier. The will and the codicil had implications for five families; they had been written for unhappy reasons in unhappy circumstances, and they had created greed, hatred, madness and murder in five generations. They affected John, but he didn’t know how, he didn’t who his father was, and he didn’t know who his friends and enemies were.

He did know that he was in danger, caught in a complicated conspiracy, and that he had to work out how to survive and claim the inheritance that he believed was his.

Every kind of character, every scenario, every setting, you might think of finding in a Victorian novel is to be found in this book.

Sometimes the plot lingers, but I found the details of day to day living and how practical problems were faced quite fascinating. At other times it rattles along, almost so quickly that I wished I might have spent a little more time with some places and people, though what happened next always captured my interest and didn’t allow me to miss the things that had gone by.

The plot is relentless, always focused on John’s story; mainly through his own first person account, broken only when he hears the stories of others and when an omniscient narrator steps from the shadows to show scenes that will affect John’s progress.

It’s construction is so elaborate and so clever.

The atmosphere is wonderful, and this really is the perfect book for dark winter evenings.

Imagine that Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens sat down together with all of the time in the world to create a masterpiece, drawing on their own greatest works and the great works of their contemporaries, each writing to their strengths and reining in the other’s weaknesses, and trying things they has never tried before, to wonderful effect.

This feels a little like that.

There really is everything you could want in a Victorian novel, and I caught echoes of many beloved stories. And then there are things that feel a little more modern but work so well: a narrator who may not be wholly reliable, questions that are left unanswered, an ending that lets the reader draw their own conclusion, and a structure that slowly moves into the light ….

There are five related families over five generations, whose five crests form a quincunx, an arrangement of five objects with one in each corner of a square and one at the centre. The novel itself is divided into five parts, and each part is divided into five books and then five chapters.

There are so many small but significant details. I spotted some of them but I am sure that I missed others, and that this is a novel that would reveal much more on a second reading.

It has failings. John and Mary could both, for different reasons, be infuriating. Occasionally a character or a situation was compromised a little for the sake of the plot. The later chapters were less subtle than what had come before. There was at least one unanswered question that needed an answer: the question of John’s parentage.

But, as a whole, The Quincunx worked wonderfully well.

It is more a book for the head than a book for the heat.

And yet I loved that quite near the end I came to realise that it was also a coming of age story.

I read it much more quickly that I thought I would. I had to keep turning the pages. I was intrigued. I had to know. I couldn’t quite explain how all of the pieces of the puzzle fit together, but I have a good idea, and I think that it works.

I was completely caught up in the world of this book, I miss it now that it is over, and I can’t help wondering about the lives of many of the characters I met beyond the pages of the book.