Facing South by Winifred Peck (1950)

The day that the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association comes to town is always a highlight of my bookish year. Some years I have a lovely time just admiring so many beautiful books in our town hall, and some years I find gems that I know I have to take home to read. Last year I brought home this book. I have books by the author that have been reissued by Persephone Books and by the Dean Street Press in my collection, I have yet to read any of them, but as I had never heard of this one, as I loved what I read about it on the cover, I didn’t want to risk letting it go and never seeing another copy.

The story begins beautifully, with a young newly married couple, Kay and Gilly Pallin, pausing for a picnic on their way to a family conference. They are looking down at an abbey set in a beautiful valley, and that abbey is the main reason for the family gathering.

Canon Pallin, Kay’s grandfather, had found the abbey in ruins when he was a very young priest, and restoring it became his life’s work. He considered it a great achievement, more than worthy of the time and money that he had poured into it; but his pursuit of his grand ambition had consequences for his family. Few of them understood and many of them were unhappy about what they had lost in consequence.

Kay had only met his Aunt Sophy, because his mother had been estranged from her family and her father had been angry at the paid her father had caused her. When she learned that both of his parents were dead his mother’s sister had written to him. he had liked her enormously, he had loved hearing about his mother’s childhood and the relations he had never met, and it was for Sophie’s sake that he had agreed to attend and to meet the surviving members of his mother’s family.

Gilly had only met Sophy, and so her husband explained the family history and connections to her before as they sat admiring the view.

Canon Pallin had high expectations of his children, he had a ‘difficult temper and a rather Old Testament disposition’ and so Kay’s mother wasn’t the only one of them to be cut off. Mark had upset his father by becoming a conscientious objector to the First World War, and becoming a successful campaigning journalist didn’t bring him back into favour. His father hoped that Steven would follow him into the church, but Steven chose a career in medicine, becoming a doctor and developing a successful private practice. Hilda also fell out with her father over her choice of husband, though Kay, who had met her, commented that she seemed to be the kind of woman who fell out with everybody.

Only Sophy hadn’t fallen out with her father; and she had returned to help and support him after her husband and her only child were both killed in an accident. When her father became frail he was moved to a nursing home and she remained in the family home with Mrs. Cribble, who was the housekeeper and cook and who became a very good friend.

Sophy had called the family together, because she had received a very generous offer for the house but the terms of her father’s will would make the sale difficult. He was near the end of his life, but not so near that the offer wouldn’t expire first. She was anxious about the descent of her siblings, various spouses and at least half a dozen of the next generation. Mrs. Cribble reassured her that they would cope, and when Kay and Gilly arrived they did the same. Kay stayed upstairs with his aunt and Gilly, who was always happiest in a kitchen, went downstairs to help Mrs. Cribble.

When the family arrived there were much to talk about, many different opinions and old grievances were aired, before different groups went out to see what they might do to resolve the situation.

Lady Peck managed her large and diverse cast of characters beautifully, she spun her story cleverly; and though this is a relatively short book she does a great deal to illuminate the lives, relationships and concerns of different family members, with insight and empathy; and to show the effects on a generation of living through two World Wars and great deal of social change.

It felt quite natural for Sophy to sit in the kitchen and chat with Mrs. Cribble, but her sister Hilda was horrified at the impropriety. My feelings chimed with Sophy’s but I understood why Hilda felt as she did, as she was unhappy and wanted to feel that she had some status in the world if nothing else.

The writing was intelligent, warm and engaging, it was rich with detail and the dialogue was particularly well done.

I loved that the story considered the effect on his family of the Canon’s rebuilding of the abbey rather than the rebuilding itself; and I appreciated that much more happened on the day that the family resolving the problem of the house and the will.

I loved Sophy, who was so lovely and reminded me a little of Trollope’s Mr. Harding.

I found so much to love in this book, I can’t list them all but I had to say that.

The resolution that was found at the end of the day was wonderful, casting new light on the character of Canon Pallin; and an epilogue set a few months later was a nice way to catch up my favourites – Gilly and Kay, Sophy and Mrs. Cribble – to see how their lives had changed and to hear news of others.

It won’t be long before I pick up another of Winifred Peck’s novels – and I couldn’t resist ordering another, that was likened to Trollope on the dust jacket of this one.

The Glass House by Eve Chase (2020)

Eve Chase has a gift for spinning stories, bringing characters to life, and making glorious houses live and breathe.

This book begins with a report of the discovery of a body deep in a forest, and then comes the house.

Behind a tall rusting gate, Foxcote manor erupts from the undergrowth, as if a geological heave has lifted it from the woodland floor. A wrecked beauty, the old house’s mullioned windows blink drunkenly, in the stippled evening sunlight. Colossal trees overhang a sweep of red-tiled roof that sags in the middle, like a snapped spine, so the chimney’s tilt at odd angles. Ivy suckers up the timber and brick-gabled facade, dense, bristling, alive with dozens of tiny darting birds, a billowing veil of bees …

That house is the focus of three entwined narratives, two from the past and one from the presents, telling a story of mothers and daughters, of love and loss, and of history and its consequences.

Rita came to Foxcote, that wonderful country home, as the nanny of two children whose family who had just suffered a terrible trauma. She wasn’t entirely happy about that, as becoming a nanny to a wealthy family in London had been her dream job, but she loved her charges and she know that they needed her, more than every now that their mother was mentally frail.

She was a city girl but she came to love the country.

The father of the family had to stay in London, his request that she send him regular reports made her uncomfortable, and what was happening to his wife and children – especially when one particular person visited – gave her serious cause for conccern.

Another voice from the past filled out the story, speaking of things that Sylvie didn’t see or know.

Years later, Sylvie was making plans to leave her husband. They were calling it a trial separation, but she knew that they had drifted apart and that it was time for a permanent change.

She felt positive about the future, but her plans had to be put on hold when a terrible accident left her usually bright and active mother in a comma. Her daughter’s reaction to that was not what she expected, Sylvie suspected that something was very wrong, because that had always been very close and they always talked about anything and everything.

I was captivated by both stories, past and present. Because the characters and relationships were so beautifully drawn that they lived and breathed, that they drew me in and made me care and want to know what would happen. Because the writing was so rich and evocative that the I felt that I really knew the times and places that the story visited.

At first there was nothing to indicate what would tie the stories together, but hints and facts were dropped in a way that was quite perfectly judged, until I knew and understood everything.

I wish that I could stop there, but I can’t.

The early chapters were perfect, but as time went on I worried that two serious incidents in the story set in the past would be difficult to resolve. The plot, beautifully constructed though it was, took the lustre from the characters and the relationships. They needed space to shine, but they were weighed down and stretched too far by an excess of story.

I was able to keep faith for most of the book, but I found that in the later chapters I couldn’t help feeling that the author spoilt her own story by trying to account for everything and everyone, and by tying the story set it the past and the story set in the present together much, much too tightly.

That is why, though I found much to love in this book, though it never lost its hold on me, I couldn’t love it as much as I hoped I would, or as much as I loved Eve Chase’s last book.

I hope that this wasn’t a sign that the author isn’t running out of ideas for this type or book, that she isn’t trapped in a niche or under pressure to come up with new ideas to quickly. I hope that this is just a mis-step.

Maybe it was the literary equivalent of an artist who doesn’t know when to put her brush down. I say that because I love the pictures that this book painted, but I need to stand back and not look too closely at some of the details.

Agatha’s Husband by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik (1852)

I have wanted to read one of Mrs Craik’s novels ever since I read her Unsentimental Journey Through Cornwall, a wonderful travelogue that made me like her enormously. It has taken quite some time, because all of her books – except one or maybe two that are available print-on-demand – are long out of print and I have never come across a single one of them.

My 100 Years of Books project led me to this one, when I was looking for something interesting to fill one of the trickiest early years. It was a title I had never seen mentioned, but I liked the sound of it, I liked the look at it, and when I saw that the Project Gutenberg edition had illustrations by Walter Crane I knew that I had started reading for a reason.

The story opens when Agatha is a wealthy young woman who has good friends but no family. Her guardian is a friend of her late father, a military man who is posted overseas, and Agatha has made an arrangement whereby she rents a suite of room from a friendly family. It is an arrangement that suits her very well, because she is always welcome to be part of family life but the family understands that sometimes she wishes to spend time alone or with her friends in her own space.

The ladies in Agatha’s social circle are eager to find her a husband, but Agatha appears uninterested; playing with her kitten while the mull over the possibilities, and insisting that she loves her independence and that she really is in no hurry to change things.

I warmed to Agatha immediately, loving that she was warm, open, impulsive, articulate and self-aware. At the age of nineteen she was a child in some ways and an adult in others.

She meant what she said.  She did enjoy her independence, but she knew that she didn’t want to be alone forever and that she didn’t want to live with the restrictions that she knew society placed on single women forever either. She didn’t tell them that because she wanted to wait for the right man, the man that she could be happy with for the rest of her life; and she didn’t think those ladies would be at all helpful in finding him.

Never any but fools have ever made love to me! Oh, if an honest, noble man did but love me, and I could marry, and get out of this friendless desolation, this contemptible, scheming, match-making set, where I and my feelings are talked of, speculated on, bandied about from house to house. It is horrible—horrible! But I’ll not cry! No!

When her guardian came home to visit he was concerned that Agatha was smitten with him. She wasn’t at all, but she was captivated by his younger brother, who she had met for the first time as he had lived with his uncle in America from a very young age. Her feelings were reciprocated, a proposal was made and accepted, and as Agatha had no family they agreed to have a quiet wedding in London.

All of this happened in the first few chapters, and it was clear that this was not to be a story of finding a husband but a story of adapting to married life.

The wedding itself raised several questions:

  • Why did none of the bridegroom’s family, who all sent warm and welcoming letters to the bride, travel to town for the ceremony?
  • Why was Agatha’s guardian – who was also the bridegroom’s brother – terribly late and in a dreadful temper?
  • And who was Anne Valery? Agatha learned that she was no relation, and yet she was spoken of as if she was the most important and most beloved member of the family?

All of those questions would be answered in the story that played out when the newlyweds went to stay with the family while they looked for a home of their own in the same part of the world.

Agatha’s new father-in-law , the local squire, was a widower, and the father of two sons and four daughters. He welcomed her warmly, and considered himself to have been blessed with a fifth daughter. She loved that!

Her four new sisters were just as happy to meet her. One was a married woman who lived in the nearest town; one was a quiet bookish girl who was happy to stay at home; one was vivacious and eager to be the family’s next bride; and one was an invalid, frail but appreciative of the great care that her family gave her. They were a lovely group – diverse but united!

Agatha was anxious about Anne Valery, fearing a rival, but when they met she found that she was an older lady and she quickly came to understand why her in-laws thought so much of her and involved her so much in their family life; though she didn’t understand how that had come to be and didn’t see a way to find out.

The newlyweds were very much in love and very happy – until the time came to establish their own home. Agatha found a lovely house but her husband refused to consider it as it was beyond his means. He absolutely refused to use her fortune. Agatha was bitterly disappointed, she didn’t understand why her husband wasn’t even prepared to discuss the matter, and then he left in the middle of the night, called away on urgent business.

Agatha felt terribly alone, because this was one thing she couldn’t talk about with her in-laws.

That was just the beginning a grand drama, that would draw in every character, answer all of those questions that the wedding and subsequent events had raised, and bring old family secrets to light ….

Mrs. Craik wrote well, and she was very good at characters and relationships; and her portrayal of Agatha’s situation before her marriage, her entry into her new family and the start of her marriage were particularly well done.

I was held by Agatha’s side and I always empathised with her.

BUT though the plot was well constructed, it was poorly paced, the ending was abrupt, there were moments that were too sentimental or too melodramatic; and the heroine was allowed to dominate in situations where she really shouldn’t have.

I am inclined to agree with George Eliot, who described the author as:

…. a writer who is read only by novel readers, pure and simple, never by people of high culture ….

I will happily reread her Cornish travelogue, but as there are so many more books in the world now that there were in 1852 I am in no hurry to seek out more of her novels.

The Lake House by Kate Morton (2015)

I have found that living in the world as it is now, and having to work to rebuild history and up with work in the present, requires a particular kind of book: a book that is absorbing and transporting and undemanding. I have picked up and put down a number of very good books that I really want to return to when things have settled down a little, but this was the book that held me.

It is the book that I chose from a line of books by the author the last time I visited our local Oxfam shop, remembering that I had loved the author’s most recent book, and thinking, as I always do when I pick up a big book set if the past, of my paternal grandmother, who loved this kind of book and who I am sure would have loved this one.

It weaves together the stories of thee children separated from their parents in different ways and at different times. One went missing from his family home; one was found by the police, alone and distressed in her home; and one had been given up for adoption and hoped to find out more about her history and the reasons why.

The central story opens in 1933, at Loeanneth, a Cornish manor house set beside a lake. There was a party on a summer night, and the next morning eleven-month old Theo Edevane, the son and heir born some years after his three sisters, had vanished without a trace. The police investigated but they could find nothing and the family abandoned their lakeside home.

In London, in 2013, Detective Sadie Sparrow worked on the investigation that followed the discovery of an abandoned child. There was no indication of what her mother had left or of what might have happened to her, but after talking to the child’s grandmother Sadie formed views that contradicted the conclusions of her superior officers when they closed the case. She wouldn’t let the matter rest, and she was strongly advised to distance herself for a while, to take a holiday until the dust settled.

She went to Cornwall to stay with her grandfather, who had retired to Cornwall after her grandmother’s death; and it was when she was walking her grandfather’s dogs that she discovered an empty manor house on a neglected estate by a lake. She asks questions and is told of events that happened seven decades earlier and of the mystery that was still unsolved. That mystery intrigued her and trying to find a solution became a way to fill her days, a way to prove to herself that she was a capable detective and, maybe, a way to prove that to her police colleagues.

She found that a young policeman who had worked on the case was still living locally; and she knew that one of the three sisters – Alice Edevane – was a successful author of psychological mysteries ….

The story moved backward and forwards in time in a way that felt natural and right. I always knew exactly where and when I was; I always had ideas about how the story as a whole might come together  – sometimes right and sometimes wrong and I found something to hold my interest in every strand of the story.

It explored the stories of different members of the Everdene family, before and after the disappearance that re-shaped all of their lives. It followed as she made investigations, as she thought about and dealt with the repercusssions of the case that had led her in to trouble, and wonders how she should answer a letter from the child she had given up at birth fifteeen years earlier.

The writing was lovely, the plot was cleverly spun, and people and places were beautifully evoked, with enough detail to allow them to live and enough space to allow them to breathe.

I found much to love, this definitely was the right book at the right time, but I was a little disappointed with the pacing.

The early chapters were absorbing, but there was a time in the middle of the book when the story sagged just a little, and then the ending seemed rushed and contrived. I can’t say that it was wrong –  it felt right emotionally – but the characters needed time and space to make it work.

There are books of the kind where you just want to find the solution to the mystery and then leave, but this is not that kind of book. I was invested in the character and their stories and I wanted to see more of how they shared the news of what was discovered and how they came to terms with it all.

That was disappointing, but I loved my journey through this book and I was sorry that I had to leave.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1860)

Just as I thought I was finding my feet again in this changed, strange and uncertain world, that I was learning to live with the uncertainty, the restrictions and the changes, that I was finding my way back into the world of people who read and write and interact, something went horribly wrong.

I was sitting at the dining table, at work on my company laptop, when I began to realise that things weren’t quite right. Then an email arrived from IT saying that they were closing down everything because we might have a very serious problem. We did. It transpired that our IT company had been subjected to a cyber attack and that both our servers and our off-site back up had been compromised.

When the dust settled we recovered a great deal, but my accounts system had been destroyed.

The trauma of the whole thing on top of everything else that has happened this year, and the volume of work needed to both keep on top of things now and rebuild our history knocked me sideways.

I completely lost all sense of myself as a reader for a while, but now I am on the road forward I have begun to look for my inner reader again.

I began with a audiobook of a favourite novel by an author I have loved for all of my adult reading life

A few years ago I was terribly torn over the question of whether of not to re-read Wilkie Collins. Because I fell completely in love with his major works when I was still at school, and I was scared that I might tarnish the memories, that his books might not be quite as good as great as I remembered.

I was thrilled to be able to say that my fears were unfounded. The book that I picked up to read was even was better than I remembered. A brilliantly constructed and executed tale of mystery and suspense, written with real insight and understanding. (greater appreciation with experience)

Now I have made another journey though the story of ‘The Woman in White’ and it proved to be the exactly the right book at the right time.

The thought that follow aren’t entirely new, because I have taken what I wrote after my last reading and changed things a little to try to catch my feelings now and to get back into the habit of writing about books.

The story begins with Walter Hartwright, a young drawing master, unable to settle the night before he is to leave London to take up a new post in the north of England. The hour is late, but he decides to take a walk. The streets are quiet, the city asleep, and yet a woman appears before him. She is dressed entirely in white and she is distressed, afraid of someone or something. He offers her assistance, and helps her on her way to what she believes will be a place of safety.

Walter takes up his new post, tutoring two half-sisters at Limmeridge House in Cumbria. Laura Fairlie is beautiful, and she is an heiress. Marion Halcombe is neither of those things, but she is bright and resourceful. She needs to be. Walter recognises names and places spoken of by the woman in white. Her plight is linked to the family at Limmeridge House and the secret she holds will have dire consequences, for Laura, for Marion, and for Walter.

That is just the beginning, but it’s all I’m going to say about the plot. Wilkie Collins asked reviewers not to tell too much, and I think he was right to do so. If you’ve read the book you will understand why, and if you haven’t you really, should!

I was held from the first word to the last and, because there were so many twists, so many questions, and because the storytelling felt so real and natural.

The structure was intriguing. This is an account put together after the events, with testimonies from a number of narrators who were witnesses to different events. It worked beautifully, and with none of the fuss or distraction that sometimes seems inevitable with this device. All of the voices were engaging and distinctive. And their appearances varied in length, so I was always curious to know who would be coming next, when they would appear, and what forms their testimonies would take.

The characters really made the story sing. Each one is beautifully drawn, and there are enough of them  to keep the story moving but not so many that it becomes difficult to keep track.

There are two standouts. Marion Halcombe is the finest heroine you could wish for, accepting of her position, doing whatever she can to help the situation, and wise enough to know when it is time to step back and allow others to take the lead. And she is capable, but not invulnerable. And, on the other hand there is the most charming villain you could wish to meet. Count Fosco knows that, used together, charm and intelligence can take you a long way in life, that little foibles add to the charm, and can be a wonderful distraction.

And then, in the background, there is Frederick Fairlie, Laura’s uncle and master of Limmeridge House. An invalid, whose obsessive, selfish concern for his own well-being provides welcome light relief, but also has terrible consequences. And Mrs Vesey, Laura’s former nurse, who seems to be a dependent, but could maybe, maybe be a rock when she is needed.

There are others, each with something important to offer, bringing light and shade to the story. But I am saying too much.

One thing that I haven’t noticed before bit very much appreciated this time is the way that the character of Walter Hartwright grows and is shaped by his experiences.

Another thing that I have always loved is the  wonderful relationship between Laura and Marion, one of the best portrayals of sisterly love that I have read.

Their stories, and the story of the woman in white, say so much about social inequality, the treatment of those who could be labelled as mentally unstable, and the subservient role that wives were expected to play in 19th century Britain. All of which is done, to great effect, without ever compromising the storytelling.

I am tempted to read – or listen to – another Wilkie Collins book, but other books are calling to me.

That feels like a very good thing right now ….

The Phoenix’ Nest by Elizabeth Jenkins (1936)

It is a rare and lovely treat, to pick up a book certain that you will love it but with no knowledge of what it will hold.

I spotted this book in the closing-down sale of a lovely local second-hand bookshop. I didn’t recognise the title but I did recognise that name of an author who has been published by both Virago and Persephone, and so I had to buy the book.

Online research confirmed the book’s existence but nothing more. I went back to the library to see if it was mentioned in Elizabeth Jenkins’ memoir. It wasn’t. The contents of my book were still a mystery.

It sat on a shelf in a bookcase where I keep interesting old books for quite some time, until it caught my eye a week or so ago and I decided that it was time I started to read.

With the world as it is right now, we need to be kind to ourselves and to the people around us, and for me one of the things that means is reading some of the ‘special books’ that have been waiting for exactly the right moment.

The story opens on a September afternoon in Elizabethan London. The Queen’s barge is sailing down the Thames, as part of the celebration of victory over the Spanish Armada. A group of actors is watching from a high window. They include the leader of their company, Mr Edward Alleyn, an exceptionally tall man with a remarkable presence; Mr Edward Juby, a flamboyant actor who always played the leading lady and loved society; Mr Thomas Tallis, a good-natured family man and a consummate professional; and young Nicholas Pavey, who Mr Alleyn had to lift so that he could see the scene on the Thames and who would grow up to be a great actor.

It was only when they turned their attention back to the new play that they were rehearsing – a play that followed the fortunes of a shepherd named Tamburlaine – that I realised that there was at least some fact mixed with the fiction and thought I should look it up to see where I was in the life of Christopher Marlowe, because my knowledge of Elizabethan theatre is sketchy to say the least.

I found out where I was, and I found out that each and every character I had been reading about was a real historical figure. I wasn’t surprised, because I knew that Elizabeth Jenkins wrote non fiction about the period, but I was impressed with how real and alive she made her story.

Mr Philip Henslowe was a theatre owner, an impresario and a good friend to the company of actors. He was an intelligent and ambitious man, a widower whose home was managed by his two step-daughters. Bess was gregarious and loved to play the hostess, while Joan was content with the company of her small family and happiest when she was at work in the kitchen.

When Mr Alleyn made an offer of marriage to Joan he was delighted; not simply because the role of Tamburlaine had made him a star, but because he could see that he was a kind and modest man, unspoiled by his success, who loved Joan as much as she loved him.

They would be wonderfully happy together. He had the wisdom to settle close to her family home, so that she would have their company when he was away, and she blossomed.

Bess loved her sister, she loved seeing her so happy, but her own life was less successful. She escaped an unwanted suitor by answering a request from a playwright she had met as a guest of her step-father to go to Newgate Prison to make the payment he needed to be released. What she experienced that night shocked her, as did learning more of the man she had admired; and her family were horrified that she had gone out alone and at the possibility that she could have brought the plague home with her.

This is not a plot driven book, it is a book that follow the lives of the Henslowes and the Alleyns over a period of years.

It is beautifully written, there is not a single false note, and I particularly loved that way that Elizabeth Jenkins evoked the period and the lives lived without having to pause for description. Every detail was right, nothing was forgotten, and every character’s story was managed beautifully.

At first I thought that this was a good book, but as it went on I was so engaged by the character that I decided that this was a very good book and that it would be lovely if it was reissued.

Elizabeth Jenkins’ work is very diverse, and maybe that makes her a hard sell in this day and age, but she deserves to be remembered for more than her two works currently in print and this book deserves to be much more known than it is.

Christopher Marlowe reappears. There will be more plays and there are rumours that he works for Francis Walsingham. There is a visit to John Dee, who tells fortunes for Joan, Bess and their friend Eleanor. And there is a dinner where Francis Drake and Christopher Marlowe are both present and the conversation is a joy.

Even better than that was the illumination of the different courses the life of a gentlewoman could take, through the stories of Joan, Beth and Eleanor, who marries a much older man, not for love but because it is the best of the limited choices open to her.

I loved that, I loved the evocation of Elizabethan London, and I loved the human story.

The Cutting Place by Jane Casey (2020)

I don’t watch out for many new crime novels, but I do watch out for Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan books.

Why?

Well, I’ve come to like Maeve and to appreciate her progress of her career and her life over the course of nine books in this series now. She is good at her job, she works well with her colleagues, and she is a little less inclined to rush in without thinking things through now. I appreciate that she is both capable and vulnerable, and that she feels so real that I can easily believe that she is at work in London doing what she does.

The nine cases that I have seen have been diverse, they have been engaging, and they have addressed interesting issues. Some of the stories – including this one –  have been a little too dramatic to be true, but the characters, the psychology and the emotions are always right.

This investigation begins when a severed hand is found on the bank of the river Thames. It is established to be the hand of a young woman, more remains are found, and though it seems unlikely that she can be identified every effort is made.

An identification is made, not as the result of that diligence but from a routine DNA check.

The dead woman was a freelance journalist, she lived alone, she was quite solitary, and so she had hardly been missed.

Maeve found that she had had been hard at work on a story about the Chiron Club, the most exclusive private members club, to which only the richest and most privileged men in London could gain admission. She saw signs that there were things much more dark and dangerous than the  usual kind of ‘boys will be be boys’ bad behaviour that you might expect in such an institution; but to investigate such a powerful and secretive institution would be far from easy.

The plot is well constructed, compelling and frighteningly authentic.

The details were right, characters and incidents were utterly believable; and when twists came they were in no way contrived, they came naturally out of the story.

That made me feel very close to events; that I was living through everything that happened.

That plot is set against significant developments in the live if Maeve and her colleague, friend and landlord DI Josh Derwent. What happens comes quite naturally out of the history that has built up over past books, and though i saw what was coming to some degree I was also taken by surprise.

I don’t want to say too much about specifics, but this side of the story was every bit as compelling, every bit as well executed as the story of the investigation.

The characterisation of the two characters and their (platonic) relationship is as complex and as realistic as anything I have read in contemporary fiction, and I am so anxious to know what happens next.

(You could read this book as a stand-alone mystery, but I have to recommend going back to the start of the series and reading every book!)

The drama and incident held me to the very last page, and though I wasn’t entirely convinced by they final resolution of the story of the murdered journalist, and though I had spotted something that Maeve didn’t realise was significant until quite late in the day, I was quite prepared to accept that life was fallible and that sometimes people can do things that take you completely by surprise.

I could do that because the story as a whole felt real and authentic and relevant.

I shall be surprised if I read a better piece of contemporary crime fiction this year. And I am already anxious to read Jane Casey’s next book.

The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas (1850)

‘Contempt for flowers is an offence against God. The lovelier the flower, the greater the offence in despising it. The tulip is the loveliest of all flowers. So whoever despised the tulip offends God immeasurably.’

In 1672, Cornelius and Johan de Witt, brothers and prominent citizens of Holland were charged with treason and sentenced to exile. Cornelius had been tortured in the hope that he would confess to plotting with the French king, but he said not a word. He was guilty but he was safe in the knowledge that the evidence was safely hidden. 

His silence did not save them. The authorities, and William of Orange in particular, wanted rid of the troublesome pair and so they manipulated the situation. The two brothers were lynched by an angry mob early on their journey to their place of exile.

The opening chapters of the story were a little more difficult to follow than I had expected, but I kept going because it was Dumas, because I understood that this was real history, because I knew there would be tulips, because I had read much that was positive about this book, and because I’d had in mind for my 100 Years of Books for quite some time.

I’m glad that I did.

The story moves to Cornelius van Baerle, a wealthy young man who lived quietly in the country and devoted his life to his tulips. He studied them, so that he could grow the very best flowers and develop new varieties. When the Haarlem Tulip Society offered a prize for the first black tulip presented to them, Cornelius set to work. Not for the prize, not for the glory, but for the chance to introduce such a flower into the world.

He didn’t know that his neighbour, Isaac Boxtel, had the same ambition; or that his motives were self-serving and that he was prepared to go to any lengths to win and to ensure that his neighbour did not. 

Cornelius van Baerle was the godson of Cornelius de Witt, but he had followed his father’s advice to steer clear of politics; and that may be why when his godfather asked him to be the custodian of a packet of letters he accepted readily and put it away safely. 

His neighbour didn’t know that, but he had seen the visitor and when he heard the news of the murders he denounced his rival to his authorities. The packet was discovered just where Cornelius had put it, and his protestations that he had no knowledge of the contents were greeted with disbelief.  He had just enough time to hide his three black tulip bulbs in his clothing before he was taken to the same prison where his godfather had been held.

Rosa, the beautiful and spirited daughter of Gryphus, his brutal jailor, came to love Cornelius. She feared that he loved tulips more than her, but she loved him more than enough to do everything she could to help him to grow his black tulip in secret. He did love her, but he knew that his future was uncertain and so he was unwilling to say or do anything that would confirm his feelings.

Neither of them knew that Boxtel was close at hand, plotting and scheming to capture the bulbs.

Cornelius knew that he might not live long enough to see his black tulip flower.

He thought of the beautiful tulips which he would see from heaven above, at Ceylon, or Bengal, or elsewhere, when he would be able to look with pity on this earth, where John and Cornelius de Witt had been murdered for having thought too much of politics, and where Cornelius van Baerle was about to be murdered for having thought too much of tulips.

The story that plays out is captivating,  it is  wonderfully readable, and this short novel holds a great deal more than most other books with similar proportions. Every character, every incident, every dialogue, has its purpose; and the plot, a lovely fiction spun around real history, is very well built by a very fine craftsman.

There are echoes of his other work, it is recognisably his work, but it is also quite distinctive.

There is a beautifully handled romance, there is wonderful suspense and intrigue, there is a nice dash of comedy, and there is a race to present the black tulip that leaves the outcome for all concerned in doubt to the very end.

The conclusion ties all of the plot strands together, and a little glimpse of what the future held was a lovely final touch.

The Forgotten Smile by Margaret Kennedy (1961)

We have been having some long overdue building and decorating work done, and one of the consequence of that has been that I have had to pack a good number of my books away. While I was going through the difficult process of deciding which books I could part with for a few months, a book by Margaret Kennedy caught my eye, and I realised that I hadn’t read any of her work for a very long time.

That had been deliberate, because I only have two novels left and I hate the idea of running out, but once the idea of reading them had lodged in my head I couldn’t shake it our again; and the idea of visiting a Greek island while the weather raged outside was simply irresistible.

The Forgotten Smile is Margaret Kennedy’s penultimate novel, and it is mainly set on the island of Keritha, Like many of her novels, it tells the separate stories of a number of characters whose paths cross and it moves backwards and forwards in time.

Doctor Challoner is an elderly academic, and he is in Greece and on his way to Keritha to collect an inheritance from his aunt and uncle. His grand-father’s second wife had been Greek, she and her two children had never really felt at home in England, and so when her husband died she took her children home. Freddie and Edith had lived there for all of their lives, happily and rather unconventionally. Though Doctor Challoner had no feelings about them and no interest in their home or their island, he was set on recovering certain family heirlooms.

While he is on his way, he encounters Selwyn Potter, a former student, who was academically brilliant, good-natured, but socially awkward. Doctor Challoner wasn’t overly pleased to see him, he didn’t think to ask what he was doing there or why he had become a school-teacher, but as he could not speak modern Greek he took him along to act as his interpreter.

The sky was dazzling and the sea was a very dark blue shot through with streaks of green and bronze like a peacock’s tail.  The distant islands, scattered about the horizon, were pale lilac and pink in the triumphant light.

When the two men reached their destination, Selwyn was surprised to be greeted by Kate Benson, whose children he had known at school and who he had always considered to be the best of mothers. She remembered him somewhat less fondly, as the clumsy young man who had broken her coffee table, but each would both discover that the other had an unexpected journey to reach that particular point in the world and in their life.

The two histories that unravel are both expected and unexpected.

Kate felt disregarded by her husband and underappreciated by her children. It might be true that she had not handled their transition from children to adults with lives and relationships of their own as well as she might, but even if that as the case they had judged he harshly and thoughtlessly. That was why she decided to do something that she had always wanted to do – she went on a cruise. It as not a great success but it took her to Keritha. She went for a walk while the rest of her fellow travellers sat on the beach, she met some old school-friends – Freddie and Edith Challoner; they invited her to stay – and she did. A visit home showed her that her absence had consequences that she had not foreseen, and that maybe that was no longer her place in the world.

Selwyn had thought that he had found his place in the world. He had never thought that he would but he did, and then he lost almost everything through no fault of his own.

He had been, she perceived, too happy for safety.No refuge was left to him in a world which had completely disintegrated.

These two stories of separation and loss, rediscovery and recovery, are set against a very different story.

Keritha was a tiny island, away from the tourist routes and largely untouched by the modern world. The old ways still prevailed,  it was pagan and it was primitive, and that gave it its own particular magic. Alfred and Edith appreciated that, Kate and Selwyn appreciated that, but Doctor Challoner would have none of it; because though he loved the classics he had no interest in anything at all beyond his chosen sphere. He considered the island backward and the islanders barbarous; he just wanted to collect his inheritance and leave, but on Keritha – and particularly for the heir of the man who had been dubbed ‘Lord Freddie’ the world just didn’t work like that!

In the early stages of the book my overriding thought was that I was reading another very good Margaret Kennedy novel. Her writing was elegant and evocative, she  was clear-sighted, she was psychologically acute, and she made these characters and their worlds – both Keritha and England –  live and breathe.

I was particularly taken with the two leads, Selwyn and Kate. I knew these people, not well because Margaret Kennedy is an author who shows rather than introduces her characters. I understood them and I empathised with them.

There is a little comedy here, among the more serious and complicated emotions, and though it isn’t something I usually associate with her work I have to say that she handled it very well.

As I turned more pages I my thinking shifted, because I was so very impressed by one thing : how cleverly she was gradually revealing different aspects of her characters and their lives. I didn’t think about how she might end this story, but when I reached the end I thought that it was exactly right. It was a final chapter for this book but not a final chapter in the lives that were illuminated in its pages, and I appreciated it was left open with just a little suggestion of what might happen next.

‘The Forgotten Smile’ is both recognisably Margaret Kennedy and distinctive in her body of work; and thought I cannot say that it is her very best work I can say that there are things her that she did as well – and maybe even better – than she had before.