Coffee (2020): Dinah Lenney

★★

Bloomsbury Object Lessons

The first Bloomsbury Object Lessons book I read was High Heel (I’ll post on it soon), and I can’t help feeling that it spoiled me. I’ve since been working my way through other titles in the series and, so far, nothing quite lives up to the poetic blend of history, mythology and social history which High Heel accomplished, and which set my expectations (unreasonably high?) for the rest of the books. Take Coffee, for example. If the aim of this series is to present everyday objects in a new light, informing readers about their place in economic, social or art history, or enlightening us about how they’re made, you’d have thought that coffee was an easy thing to do well. I’m not much of a coffee drinker myself, but my boyfriend is, and I was hoping to find lots of interesting pieces of coffee trivia with which to impress him. Instead, I found myself ploughing through a bizarre stream of consciousness about the author’s life and how she drinks, buys and feels about her own coffee. The few pieces of context that I did pick up were squirrelled away in footnotes, and it’s rather disappointing when the two things you take away from a book about coffee are: a) a recommendation of another book that seems to do what this one should have done; and b) an amusing Jewish joke.

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Stanley and Elsie (2019): Nicola Upson

★★★★

Two years ago, on a hot summer’s day, I went to Cookham in search of Stanley Spencer. Nestled around a high street, the village is small and probably rather peaceful under normal circumstances, but I’d managed to turn up on the weekend of Rock the Moor, a festival which had taken over the meadows down by the river. As I studied the pictures in the Stanley Spencer Gallery, a converted chapel at the far end of the village, my contemplation was underlaid by the distant, persistent throb of drums. It was all rather wonderful, in its own bizarre way. Stanley Spencer is an artist I don’t know well, but I like what I’ve seen of his work. It has the kind of robustness, the rounded simplicity and simplified geometric flair, that I find in the works of other British artists of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and which always appeals to me (think Laura Knight; Augustus John; or, in a slightly later period, the young Lucian Freud). It was inevitable that this novel would capture my attention, but I came to it with caution: all too often, art-historical novels disappoint. But not this one. In simple but evocative prose, Upson unfolds the story of the Spencer family and their maid Elsie Munday, in a story that spans thirty years and offers an absorbing insight into one of the most tumultuous and bizarre artistic marriages of the 20th century. Fascinating and beautifully researched.

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The Colour of Murder (1957): Julian Symons

★★★

My next book in the British Library Crime Classics series takes an unusual approach to narrative. The first half is a first-person account, presented as a psychologist’s record of sessions held with the speaker, a young man named John Wilkins. About halfway through the book, we find out that there has been a murder – but it would be a spoiler to say, right now, who’s been killed, or who is the suspect. During the second half, we follow the action in court, watching prosecution and defence in action, we try to understand exactly what happened on the beach at Brighton that dark summer night, and whether the accused truly is guilty. As a murder mystery it isn’t entirely satisfying – there’s very little sense of catharsis to be had – but it’s fascinating as a social history. Reading it so soon after The Fortnight in September, I found myself drawing lots of parallels between the modest lives of the Stevens family in the 1930s and that of John Wilkins in the 1950s: a world of humble jobs, social striving, and frustration, which hasn’t changed as much in twenty years as you might expect. However, while the Stevens family ultimately find joy and hope in their lives, Wilkins feels consistently hard-done-by: a man whose search for self-fulfilment leads to a tragic outcome.

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Middlegame (2019): Seanan McGuire

★★★★

The Up-and-Under stories by A. Deborah Baker are cherished classics of children’s literature. Two friends, a strangely complementary boy and girl, set out together on a journey to a dazzling city, where destiny awaits. Along the way, they meet strange characters, some of whom are friends, and help them on their journey. Others seem friendly, but only hinder them. This is a core narrative in other stories too: the road; the city; and the knowledge that awaits you when you get there. But what if the story isn’t just a story, but a road-map? What if Baker’s innocent series of children’s books is actually a manual of secret knowledge? Few people know that A. Deborah Baker wasn’t a cosy children’s author. She was Asphodel Baker, one of the most brilliant and frustrated alchemists of all time, and the books were the distillation of her knowledge, in a world that slammed all its doors in her face. Now, a hundred years down the road, two children – a strangely complementary boy and girl – are about to embark on their own journey into the unknown. They can succeed, or they can die. Success will mean remaking the world. Sprawling, ambitious, and stuffed with ideas, Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame grabs you by the throat and simply doesn’t let go for five hundred pages.

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Travelling in the Dark (2018): Emma Timpany

★★★

Sarah is making a long overdue journey. With her eight-year-old son beside her, she is on a long-haul flight from her home in London, ‘slipping across countries through the shimmering boundaries of time’, heading back to southern New Zealand where she grew up. As she nears her destination, Sarah must tackle memories from her childhood, recollections of a hard, unfair time that, even now, refuses to loosen its claws completely. Emma Timpany’s evocative but bleak novella, part of the Fairlight Moderns series, probes at the way in which we are yoked to our pasts and follows one woman’s efforts to close the circle: ‘Sometimes it’s just a matter of waiting; waiting for history and memory to align, like stars over a mountain, and lead you home.

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Seventeen (2003): Hideo Yokoyama

★★★½

It’s 12 August 1985. Journalist Kazumasa Yuuki is trying to wrap up his work at the North Kanto Times so he can head off for a weekend climbing with his colleague Kyoichiro Anzai. They plan to tackle the demanding Tsuitate rock face on Mount Tanigawa, something far more challenging than anything Yuuki’s attempted before. However, just as he’s about to leave the office, he and his colleagues hear a shocking news report. A Japan Airlines jumbo jet carrying 524 people has disappeared from the radar; soon, news comes that it has crashed into a ridge near Mount Osutaka, with almost complete loss of life. The staff of the paper are stunned into silence. This is on their patch. Suddenly their small provincial paper is on the front line for the deadliest airline crash in history. Hideo Yokoyama’s novel covers the seven days that follow, as the editorial staff struggle to overcome internal factions to deal with the crash. Based on the true story of the Japan Airlines Flight 123, and inspired by Yokoyama’s own experiences working as a reporter for a regional newspaper in Gunma Prefecture at the time, this is a sobering and thoughtful story about rising to meet challenges – both in and out of the office.

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The Warrior’s Apprentice (1986): Lois McMaster Bujold

★★★

The Vorkosigan Saga: Book 3

Well, folks, here we go: it’s the first of the Miles Vorkosigan books. Some of you will look at the rating and squeak with indignation. Others warned me, wisely as it turned out, that it might take me a while to warm up to Miles. And don’t despair: after all, I thought Lymond was a complete swine when I first encountered him, and look how that turned out. Miles is not a swine, but he is implausibly brilliant. I need to spend just a little more time with a character before I can suspend disbelief to the amount required in certain sections of this novel. If Miles Vorkosigan at the age of seventeen can provoke such disruption to the galactic order, then heaven help us all, say I. This is undoubtedly the most impressive ‘What I Did On My Holidays’ report ever compiled, not just on Barrayar but throughout the known universe.

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Blood of an Exile (2019): Brian Naslund

★★★½

The Dragons of Terra: Book 1

Silas Bershad is an exile, condemned by his king to the life of an itinerant dragon-slayer. Marked with the blue bars of his trade on his cheek, and with his arm covered in tattoos recording the beasts he has killed, he is an object of fascination and fable to those he meets. Most dragon-slayers don’t last long, but Bershad – known popularly as the Flawless – has outlived sixty-five dragons and has no plans to stop there. The alternative is death on the king’s command and Bershad doesn’t fancy giving him the satisfaction. But when he’s summoned to the capital, Floodhaven, Bershad must confront the life he gave up fourteen years ago and decide whether his hatred for King Hertzog will stand in the way of accepting a new mission beyond the kingdom’s borders. If he succeeds, he will win his liberty and regain his noble status. And besides, there’s more at stake than simple politics. While this first instalment in Naslund’s fantasy series is focused on setting out the pieces – and ends rather abruptly – it does offer rich and intricate scene-setting, with an unusual emphasis on the ecosystems of this fantasy world.

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Castle Skull (1931): John Dickson Carr

★★★

Henri Bencolin: Book 2

The British Library Crime Classics series doesn’t just embrace British writers. Castle Skull is positively international: the work of the American crime novelist John Dickson Carr, set in Germany, with the Parisian detective Bencolin as its protagonist. It’s one of Carr’s earlier works, published in 1931, and he seems to have thrown everything at it in an excess of exuberance. A mystery, but also a macabre piece of Grand Guignol, this story takes us deep into the dark gorges of the Rhineland, and to the eponymous Castle Skull, former home of the magician Maleger. This extravagant folly was left jointly in his will to his friends Jerome d’Aunay, the Belgian financier, and Myron Alison, the British actor. But now d’Aunay has come to Paris in search of Bencolin’s brilliant mind, for there has been a horrific death, and the castle has seen blood spilled upon its walls: ‘Alison has been murdered. His blazing body was seen running about the battlements of Castle Skull.’ It’s definitely one of the more ‘what the…?!’ opening gambits in detective fiction. A blazing body; a castle shaped like a skull; a whole treasure trove of dark secrets… Bencolin can’t resist and, along with his friend (and the book’s narrator) Jeff Marle, he heads for the Rhineland to discover the full sinister history of Castle Skull.

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The Fortnight in September (1931): R.C. Sherriff

★★★★

A few days ago, The Guardian published an article in which authors recommended uplifting books to brighten our spirits. Kazuo Ishiguro’s choice was The Fortnight in September (1931), about a London family’s annual holiday at the seaside in Bognor Regis. I bought it there and then, and have been happily absorbed in it ever since. It’s hard to describe exactly why it’s so absorbing, because very little happens – it’s a simple little book, but simplicity is a large part of its appeal. It takes you back to a less complicated age, when you had one holiday a year, and all excitement, hope and expectation centred on those two weeks at the sea. You probably went to the same place every year, and there were boarding houses and sandcastles; strolls along the promenades; mornings swimming in the sea; bathing huts; arcade games; the band playing on the pier. It conjures up the golden age of the British seaside town, and the sheer pleasure of being on holiday and getting away from it all. So roll up your trouser-legs, grab your bucket and spade and join me for a heartwarming piece of escapism.

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