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.
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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 Thank You Letter After Margery Sharp Day

I want to say thank you to everyone who played a part in this celebration of the lovely legacy of books that Margery Sharp left to the world.

flowersThank you to everyone who found a book to read, and everyone who spread them the world.

I found some spring flowers for you all.

And for her, of course.

I’m delighted that ten titles have reissued as e-books since last year’s Margery Sharp Day; making her work much more accessible than it had been.

I hope that there will be more reissues – and paper books too – so that we can read many more of Margery Sharp’s wonderful words, and draw others into her world.

We covered a wonderful range of titles between us.

The Flowering Thorn (1933)

Liz said

“A charming, funny and rather moving novel. Socialite Lesley Frewen decides on a whim to adopt the orphaned Patrick, a somewhat stolid child, much to the surprise and horror of her relatives and somewhat vapid friends. This precipitates a move to the country, and all the travails that come with this”

Helen said

“I was surprised by the lack of romance in the novel.  Although Lesley does have one or two love interests, things tend to be one-sided and it’s not until the very end of the book that there’s a hint of an actual romance for her.  I found this quite refreshing as it meant the focus was on other things.”

The Stone of Chastity (1940)

I said

“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!”

Lisa said

“There are many funny scenes in this book. My favorite came late in the story, as the Professor plans to cap his research with a public trial of the Stone. He forces the reluctant Nicholas to draw a poster inviting the local women to take part, which he posts (over Nicholas’s objections) on the church door.”

Cluny Brown (1944)

Madame Bibi Lophile said:

“Comic and affectionate, Cluny Brown would be easy to dismiss as lacking depth. But it is so superbly written, with such verve and understanding of human beings, that to do so would be mistake. Invite Cluny into your life, she’ll charm you, I promise…”

Rosemary said:

“Although her uncle had hoped learning how to clean and serve would sober her, Cluny, of course, brings her zest and curiosity with her – and changes the lives of everyone around her, including a few gentlemen who are not prepared for her influence – one in particular.  Of course, the ending is happily ever after – but with a surprising twist.”

Arpita said

“Margery Sharp’s Cluny is truly memorable. She’s slightly ‘off’ just like Sharp’s Martha of the ‘Martha trilogy ‘ and that makes her totally endearing to me. She doesn’t follow societal norms but does follow her instincts. And if that means that she will never know her place in life, then so be it.”

And I know that Juliana and Leaves and Pages have been reading Cluny’s story too.

Britannia Mews (1946)

Lory said:

“The pace of the novel never lets up, and the large jumps in time make it feel a bit breathless occasionally. Overall, though, Sharp makes it work, and packs a huge variety of incident and plot, and also of thought and passion and artistry, into a remarkably compact space — not unlike the Mews themselves. I enjoyed every page of this delightful book, probably my favorite Margery Sharp so far.”

 The Eye of Love (1957)

Audrey said:

“Being someone who’s addicted to series mysteries, I’m always so happy to find the Thirkells and Trollopes and other fictions that work this way, too, and normally I’d try to read them in order, but in this case I started in the middle, then went back, and then went forward.  It didn’t seem to matter: Martha was so well formed that meeting her as a fledgling artist, then a child, then a famous painter made perfect sense.”

Pam said:

“I really enjoyed this book. A quirky tale, concisely told with enough subplots to keep me interested …  There is humour in it. The writing is descriptive enough without being over bearing and the characters came to life for me.”

Madame Bibi Lophile said:

“I adored Martha. Stubborn, self-possessed, strong-willed and lacking any sentimentality, she was just wonderful. Sharp wrote two sequels about this unforthcoming heroine,  ‘Martha in Paris’ and ‘Martha, Eric and George’, which I will hunt down forthwith.”

And Poppy spent the afternoon with this book.

Martha, Eric and George (1963)

Mary said

“A charming book with wonderful characters. It opens with Eric coming home for lunch finding a carrycot with a baby in  …Ten years later Martha returns to Paris with an exhibition of her work. You will just have to read this lovely book to find out if all ends well.”

Audrey said:

“In reading these two books, I was reminded how skilled Margery Sharp is at drawing her characters. Sometimes, it’s because they resolutely remain themselves; other times, it’s because they reveal something surprising, and in Martha, at least, wonderfully, it’s a little of both.”

The Innocents (1972)

Ali said

“It is a much later Margery Sharp novel, first published in 1972 – it has a rather different feel to the two I have read before. The style is much simpler in many ways, and yet there was something about the writing style that jarred with me a little … However, the story itself is lovely, engrossing and readable, and quite moving. Margery Sharp tells a touchingly brave story, one I suspect was not often told even in the 1970s.”

Anna said:

“I loved the descriptions of the village, its physical appearance as well as its spirit, its people. The first part of the novel, which deals with getting to know the child and getting to learn how to meet its needs, is wonderful. (And can be used as a textbook.) Sharp writes well and has a great command over her story.”

The Rescuers (1977)

BuriedinPrint said

“Margery Sharp puts her female mice on centre stage. Madame Chairperson in the Prisoner’s Aid Society dares to speak out of turn, in order to have the case of a particular prisoner heard … In some ways, Miss Bianca is a mouse of the 1950s. She recognises that “there is nothing like housework for calming the nerves”. But in other ways, she is quite the revolutionary.”

Now I think that’s everyone, but if it isn’t let me know and I’ll put things right.

I’m looking forward to seeing who reads what next.

I’m still dreaming of finding a copy of ‘Rhododendron Pie’, that oh so elusive first novel.

And I’m really hoping that more of Margery Sharp’s books will be sent back out into the world soon ….

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.

A Collection: The Romance of the Railway

Afternoons seem unending on branch-line stations in England in summer time. The spiked shelter prints an unmoving shadow on the platform, geraniums blaze, whitewashed stones assault the eye. Such trains as come only add to the air of fantasy, to the idea of the scene being symbolic, or encountered at one level while suggesting another even more alienating.

Once the train which had left them on the platform had drawn out, the man and the woman trod separately up and down, read time-tables in turn, were conscious of one another in the way that strangers are, when thrown together without a reason for conversation. A word or two would have put them at ease, but there were no words to say. The heat of the afternoon was beyond comment and could not draw them together as hailstones might have done. They had nothing to do, but to walk up and down or sit for a moment on the blisteringly-hot, slatted seat.

From ‘A Wreath of Roses’ by Elizabeth Taylor

* * * * * * *

57ab974052e0667f020deb29ca2f8ea4

‘Through the Marshes’ by Stanhope Forbes

* * * * * * *

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.

Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And there is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart run away in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!

‘From a Railway Carriage’ by Robert Louis Stevenson

* * * * * * *

b3cd9df7b90ed3472e8b8405a03e6783

‘Trainy Day’  by Franco Matticchio

* * * * * * *

The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph. In the odour of the station there is a passing whiff of station café odour. There is someone looking through the befogged glass, he opens the glass door of the bar, everyting is misty, inside too, as if seen by near-sighted eyes, or eyes irritated by coal dust. The pages of the book are clouded like the windows of an old train, the cloud of smoke rests on the sentences.

From ‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’ by Italo Calvino

Translated by William Weaver

* * * * * * *

* * * * * * *

When books are pow’rless to beguile
And papers only stir my bile,
For solace and relief I flee
To Bradshaw or the ABC
And find the best of recreations
In studying the names of stations.

‘Railway Rhymes’ by C L Graves

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‘The Station, 1930’ by Lilian Gladys Tickell

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The train slows and lengthens, as we approach London, the centre, and my heart draws out too, in fear, in exaltation. I am about to meet–what? What extraordinary adventure awaits me, among these mail vans, these porters, these swarms of people calling taxis? I feel insignificant, lost, but exultant. With a soft shock we stop. I will let the others get before me. I will sit still one moment before I emerge into that chaos, that tumult. I will not anticipate what is to come. The huge uproar is in my ears. It sounds and resounds under this glass roof like the surge of a sea. We are cast down on the platform with our handbags. We are whirled asunder. My sense of self almost perishes; my contempt. I become drawn in, tossed down, thrown sky-high. I step on to the platform, grasping tightly all that I possess–one bag.

Virginia Woolf

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‘The Tube Train’ by Cecil E Power

* * * * * * *

“Trains are relentless things, aren’t they, Monsieur Poirot? People are murdered and die, but they go on just the same. I am talking nonsense, but you know what I mean.”

“Yes, yes, I know. Life is like a train, Mademoiselle. It goes on. And it is a good thing that that is so.”

“Why?”

“Because the train gets to its journey’s end at last, and there is a proverb about that in your language, Mademoiselle.”

“‘Journey’s end in lovers meeting.'” Lenox laughed. “That is not going to be true for me.”

“Yes–yes, it is true. You are young, younger than you yourself know. Trust the train, Mademoiselle, for it is le bon Dieu who drives it.”

The whistle of the engine came again.

“Trust the train, Mademoiselle,” murmured Poirot again. “And trust Hercule Poirot. He knows.”

From ‘The Mystery of the Blue Train’ by Agatha Christie

* * * * * * *

* * * * * * *

Outside the window, there slides past that unimaginable and deserted vastness where night is coming on, the sun declining in ghastly blood-streaked splendour like a public execution across, it would seem, half a continent, where live only bears and shooting stars and the wolves who lap congealing ice from water that holds within it the entire sky. All white with snow as if under dustsheets, as if laid away eternally as soon as brought back from the shop, never to be used or touched. Horrors! And, as on a cyclorama, this unnatural spectacle rolls past at twenty-odd miles an hour in a tidy frame of lace curtains only a little the worse for soot and drapes of a heavy velvet of dark, dusty blue

From ‘Nights at the Circus’ by Angela Carter

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Poster produced for the Great Western Railway (GWR) and the Southern Railway (SR) to promote rail travel to Cornwall.

Artwork by Allinson.

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My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing,
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay

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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.