The Lark

Reading this is to be wrapped in sunshine, just looking at the cover makes me happy!

First published in 1922, it’s 1919 when cousins Jane and Lucilla, after spending the war years tucked away in a small boarding school, are finally set free in the world. Their guardian meanwhile has gambled away their inheritance and the girls find themselves with just a small cottage in the English countryside. After deciding against marriage they agree that they’re going to earn their livings. They won’t see themselves as genteel spinsters but as adventurers with the world before them.

‘If we’re going to worry all the time about the past and the future we shan’t have any time at all. We must take everything as it comes and enjoy everything that is – well, that is enjoyable. . . Live for the moment- and do all you can to make the next moment jolly too, as Carlyle says, or is it Emerson?’

Picking themselves up and jollying along, presence of mind and the belief that everything will be a lark (the lark of the title), while still having breath to whistle Mendelssohn is the order of the day, and the girls’ carry on with aplomb; meeting an assortment of characters and getting mixed up in a series of misadventures until everything ends happily – I won’t give the plot away but there’s no point even considering that this is a novel with an unhappy ending!

But before we all dissolve in a puddle of brown sugar Nesbit saves us with her humour.

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Murder on a Winter’s Night

Short stories have been my discovery this year, and this collection of ten crime stories didn’t disappoint. Although most of them were set before 1960 a couple were more modern and I enjoyed the difference in attitudes towards the police. And not all were about murder, there was a good helping of burglary and double crossing too. Here’s just a quick thought about my favourites:

The longest story by far was The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention by Dorothy L Sayers (1928). Lord Peter Wimsey is staying with some friends the Frobisher-Pym’s in the country, and while there gets himself involved in village life as is only polite. There are late night rides along eerie lanes, a spot called ‘Dead Man’s Post’ where George Winter was ‘foully murthered’, sightings of the death coach and a headless horseman and the reading of a strange and macabre will that upsets the family at the big house. This was a lot of fun!

The New Catacomb by Arthur Conan Doyle (1898) is set in Rome, where two young archeologists discuss a catacomb that one of them has just uncovered. This was brilliant, one of those stories where you know almost straight away what’s going to happen but Conan Doyle builds up the tension, teasing the reader until we start to doubt ourselves – and then delivers!

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The Far Cry

I haven’t been to India and think the closest I’ve come to experiencing the colours, noise and vibrancy is through reading Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. The Far Cry reminded me of that novel in that it shows India as it is, (or at least how I think it is) there are no rose tinted glasses here, but it’s by an author who truly loves the country.

In her preface to the Persephone edition, Emma Smith (1923-2018) recalls arriving for the first time in India. It was September 1946 and she was 23 years old when she sailed out of Southampton. She was attached to a documentary film unit commissioned by the tea board to make educational films in Assam. Her title was assistant-director, which meant general dogsbody and the script writer was none other than Laurie Lee, then better known as a poet!

I went down the gangplank at Bombay, and India burst upon me with the force of an explosion.”

It’s this sense of innocence mixed with excitement that I think she captures so well in The Far Cry with her 14 year old protagonist Teresa Digby.

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Tension

Written in 1920, Tension is set in the Commercial and Technical College for the South-West of England and about the appointment of a new Lady Superintendent, Miss Marchrose. Mark Easter whose wife is in a ‘home for inebriates’ , also works at the college and lives with his two unruly children in a villa near Sir Julian, the chairman of the college and his wife Lady Edna Rossiter. Mark is a handsome, sociable, easy going sort and quickly befriends Miss Marchrose, but Lady Rossiter is sure that this is the same Miss Marchrose that some years ago, jilted her invalided cousin.

Mark Easter’s children are wonderfully real. Squabbling, crying and always sticky they interrupt and disturb without a thought and the book opens with the exasperation of Sir and Lady Rossiter as they try to manage the two urchins who burst in on their breakfast to declare that their aunt has written a book: ‘Why Ben! A Story of the Sexes.’ The scene is fun, farcical and full of humour but from this light beginning the tension grows until I wasn’t squirming (as the preface said I might) but tied in a tight knot of outrage at the gossip and bullying, incredulous to what was being said and aghast at what wasn’t.

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Murder in the Mill-Race

Dr. Raymond Ferens is thrilled to move from his industrial practice to a picturesque village in the Devon countryside and with his wife Anne they set up home in the Dower House – a study for him, a kitchen for her. Lord and Lady Ridding live in the Manor House, old Dr. Brown is getting ready to leave his practice to Raymond, there’s the church, the post office, farms, and a children’s home that’s been run by Sister Monica for more than 30 years. A formidable warden she wears an old fashioned habit and seems to have a strange hold over the villagers.

And at first all seems idyllic. But. Set on a hill top on Exmoor, Milham in the Moor has cut itself off from neighbouring towns and villages; not trusting strangers or liking questions; so when Sister Monica’s body is found in the Mill-Race the villagers close in on themselves, agreeing only that she was a saint, she had been having dizzy spells and it was an accident. Chief Inspector Macdonald is called in from the Yard with his able deputy Detective Inspector Reeves.

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Vanity Fair

This has taken me so long to read that I can hardly remember a time before Vanity Fair, and while there were certainly some ups and downs, when I finished, it wasn’t with a feeling of relief but with huge satisfaction at having read a really brilliant book.

First published as a complete text in 1848, Thackeray tells the story of school friends Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley, their families and friends in the first half of the 19th century with London society, the Napoleonic wars and colonisation in India forming the backdrop. The scheming manipulative Becky is a perfect foil to the humble simplicity of Emmy. As they both negotiate marriage, in laws and motherhood they also negotiate the slippery pole of social success and acceptability.

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The Silence Of The Girls

In the narrow Lanes of Lyrnessus Achilles is leading his men as they ransack the Trojan city in revenge for the kidnapping of Helen. Once all the men are killed the women are taken to the Greek soldiers’ camp as slaves. Briseis the queen is given as a prize to Achilles, the man who butchered her family and it’s her story that’s central to this retelling of The Iliad.

I found this shocking and upsetting but incredibly compelling, the domestic lives of the women and their children amidst the biblical brutality of bored and frustrated warriors.

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The Lake District Murder

The Sussex Downs Murder is the BLCC listed on my 10 Books of Summer challenge, but the sea side bookshop I was in only had this one on its shelves, so I stayed with Meredith but on his home patch of Keswick in the Lake District and in 1935 while he’s still a lowly Inspector.

The setting is lovely and having read a couple of other Meredith mysteries it was interesting to see where he came from. The small towns are filled with amiable shop keepers, burly farmers and friendly bank managers and everybody, no matter how criminal carries a dinner basket. His son Tony is an eager to help seventeen year old and his wife worries over the amount of work he does. It’s all very domestic.

But trouble arrives from the south (!). There’s a particularly grizzly suicide in a garage on a lonely stretch of road, and as the investigation gets under way one puzzle just leads to another, and was it suicide after all or could it have been murder? There seems to be a shadier side to these normally quiet coastal towns. But Meredith, on his first solo investigation, puts the whodunit on hold and even the whydunit as he sets out to prove the howdunit.

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Maurice

Set at the beginning of the twentieth century, Maurice follows Maurice Hall through his school days and adolescents, to his time as an undergraduate at Cambridge and into early adulthood. It follows his loneliness and confusion, his sexual awakening and acceptance of his homosexuality and his eventual happiness.

Forster wrote Maurice in 1913 directly after a visit to Milthorpe, the home of Edward Carpenter (who I did a brief post on here) and his ‘comrade’ George Merrill. He calls Carpenter his ‘saviour’ and Milthorpe a ‘shrine’ and says that they ‘combined to make a profound impression on me and to touch a creative spring. . . The general plan, the three characters, the happy ending for two of them, all rushed into my pen.’ I think this is important because I found Maurice the most intensely personal book I think I’ve ever read.

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A Film For May: Don’t Look Now

John and Laura are in Venice a city they’ve visited before to try and escape the pain of their young daughters death. One lunchtime they become aware of a couple of elderly women watching them intently. They find out that one of the women has second sight and can see their daughter. As Laura becomes increasingly friendly with the sisters, John becomes increasingly worried.

When a telephone call comes through from their son’s school in England saying that he is ill, Laura takes the first flight to be with him leaving John to follow with the car the next day. But going along the Grand Canal he notices a vaporetto going back to Venice and on board are the elderly sisters and Laura.

He returns to Venice, but Laura is nowhere to be found and John finds himself getting caught up in a train of strange and violent events.

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