Edith’s Diary (1977): Patricia Highsmith

★★★

We are all familiar with the concept of the unreliable narrator in fiction. But how much greater is that unreliability, how much greater the pinch of salt or the necessary adjustment, when we read someone’s diary! Many of us will have kept diaries, in our teens if not for longer. Looking back on them provides us with an opportunity to reassess the self-delusions of someone who is no longer the same ‘us’ are we are now. To read old diaries is to engage in a constant process of negotiation with a past self. Diaries give us the chance to tell our own stories: to present the world as we know it, with ourselves as the central characters, and everyone else swirling around us in secondary roles. We are unreliable, not through intention or malice, but through simple solipsism. Edith, the protagonist of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, also keeps a diary. It was given to her as a gift when she was young and idealistic, starting out on a life that she felt sure would be full of success. But increasingly, as we follow Edith through her life, that diary becomes a reminder of life’s unpleasant tendency not to fit in with nice, neat expectations. The appropriate narrative arc never quite seems to arise in real life. Family members, somehow, never quite fulfil the expectations we have of them. More and more, Edith finds herself having to correct the shortcomings of real life in her diary, an imagined world of perfection which could all too easily become more real than her own imperfect life.

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An Academic Question (1986): Barbara Pym

★★½

I enjoyed Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women so much that perhaps it’s inevitable I’d feel underwhelmed when I picked up another of her books. Having said that, there does seem to be something objectively thin about this novel of mild academic skulduggery and frustrated marriage in a provincial university. Our narrator is Caro Grimstone, a young woman of good family who has somehow found herself married with a four-year-old daughter. Seeking for a way to occupy her time (since her anthropologist husband doesn’t seem to need her to type or index his books – the usual role of an academic wife), Caro drifts into helping at a local nursing home. Here, while reading to a retired missionary, who jealousy guards his field-notes from his African sojourn, she realises that she may be able to be of use to Alan in another way – but at what cost?

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Cold Comfort Farm (1932): Stella Gibbons

★★★½

OK, here’s the thing. I didn’t love Cold Comfort Farm as much as I expected to. I’ve a feeling it might be one of those books that I’ve read ‘too late’: that I’d have gelled with it much more readily if I’d read it as a teenager or young adult. Or maybe I was just in the wrong mood. As it is, I enjoyed it but found it a little too self-indulgent and showily clever. Our heroine is Flora Poste, who has been expensively educated to ‘possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living‘. When her parents die, leaving her with a hundred pounds a year, she decides to impose herself on relatives rather than finding a job in London. From the shortlist, she selects the Starkadder family, descendants of her mother’s sister Ada, who live on a remote farm in Sussex. Flora is prepared for rustic simplicity. But even she is startled by the raw and elemental roughness she finds among her relatives at Cold Comfort Farm. With her neat and organised mind, Flora sees very clearly that the Starkadders must be taken in hand and improved, for their own contentment and her own comfort. A challenge lies ahead, to be sure, but nothing can stand up to Flora Poste once she’s set her mind to something.

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American Midnight (2019): Laird Hunt

★★★★

Sunny afternoons in May might not be the most obvious time to read ghost stories, but Pushkin Press’s new collection of eerie American tales are enough to send a chill up the spine no matter what the time of year. Selected and edited by Laird Hunt, these classic stories span the 19th and 20th centuries, and their settings include barricaded castles; modest lodging houses; wooded roads; aesthetic Parisian apartments; forest glades; and supposedly comfortable country houses. The general trend is to unsettle rather than terrify, for which I was grateful, because my overactive imagination really doesn’t need any encouragement in the dark reaches of the night. Including works by Edgar Alan Poe, Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, Shirley Jackson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, this is likely to include a couple of tales you’re already familiar with, but will introduce you to at least a few new friends, ready to raise the goosebumps on your arms…

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A Different Drummer (1962): William Melvin Kelley

★★★★

Hailed as a rediscovered classic, this 1962 debut novel examines the complexities of race relations in the American South, through the story of one extraordinary day. It’s a Thursday when the men who congregate on Mister Thomason’s shop porch see the salt wagon going by, up to Tucker Caliban’s farm. When they follow, they witness an unbelievable sight. Tucker, an African-American man who has only recently purchased his own land and built a house, methodically sows his entire acreage with salt, before destroying his livestock and setting the house on fire. He and his heavily pregnant wife leave without a word. In the days that follow, word spreads to the other African-American residents of the state and, one by one, they too pack up and leave. Kelley’s novel traces the roots of this event back through the history of the Caliban family and that of their employers and former owners, the Willsons. A blistering picture of a still-segregated South, it’s a sobering book – but one which proudly looks ahead to change.

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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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High Rising (1933): Angela Thirkell

★★★½

If you’re in need of some cosy period escapism at the moment (and who isn’t?), you could do a lot worse than delve into Angela Thirkell’s High Rising, first published in 1933. It isn’t life-changing literature but, like the self-proclaimed ‘second-rate’ novels penned by its heroine Laura, it has a distinct charm of its own. We meet Laura Morland as she is taking her young son Tony home from school for the Christmas holidays, to their cottage in the country village of High Rising. What follows is a mixture of social drama – of the gentlest and most genteel kind, as a series of potential romantic attachments ebb and flow among the middle-class villagers – and mild mystery. Why has such trouble been caused by the arrival of Miss Una Grey, the new secretary hired by Laura’s friend and fellow writer George Knox? Does she really have ambitions to marry him? And, if so, how can Laura protect his shy daughter Sibyl from the claws of this Incubus (as Miss Grey is christened)? Charming and mild, this feels like a Sunday-evening BBC period drama in prose and, although you never have any doubts that everything’s going to end up neatly resolved, there’s some fun to be had seeing how it develops along the way.

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The Murder of My Aunt (1934): Richard Hull

★★★½

Edward Powell is miffed. He’s fed up of the tiny Welsh town of Lwll, on whose outskirts he lives (‘How can any reasonably minded person live in a place whose name no Christian person can pronounce?’) and he’s bored of the tedious local company. Most of all, he’s on the verge of being driven to distraction by his Aunt Mildred, with whom he lives, and who seems to exist for the sole purpose of spoiling his life. Now, if only he could find a suitably artistic way to get rid of her! In this playful instalment in the British Library Crime Classics series, the conventional structure of a murder mystery is turned on its head. As we watch the ghastly Edward bumble his way through a series of clumsy attempts at murder, the question is not ‘whodunnit?’ but ‘will-he-do-it?’ Blessed with one of the most ghastly protagonists I’ve ever encountered, and peppered with throwaway comments so pretentious they’d put Anthony Blanche to shame, Richard Hull’s 1934 novel is also one of the most entertaining Golden Age crime novels I’ve read so far.

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Thirteen Guests (1936): J. Jefferson Farjeon

★★★

John Foss, a young man in a state of distraction, gets his foot caught while leaving the train at the country station of Flensham. Badly injured, he providentially finds himself sharing a platform with the beautiful Mrs Leveridge, who is on her way to a house party at the nearby Bragley Court. She takes John along with her, so that he can receive the attention of a doctor and rest in comfort, correctly judging that their host Lord Aveling won’t mind stretching his hospitality to another guest. But, as John is warmly greeted and installed on a couch, he realises that his presence means there will be thirteen guests at this weekend’s party. And, as the other guests trickle in, John finds himself watching to see who will be the thirteenth to pass through the doorway. He swiftly sees that all is not well at Bragley. Secrets and dislike ripple beneath the polite surface and there are strange alliances and tensions between unexpected groups of guests. And he is right to be uneasy, for by the end of the weekend three people will be dead…

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Bats in the Belfry (1937): E.C.R. Lorac

★★★½

On a cold March evening, a group of friends amuse themselves with a morbid intellectual game. They compete to come up with the best way to dispose of an unwanted corpse. This all seems like a cheerfully shocking, daring kind of game in a chic drawing room near Regent’s Park, but within a few days it all starts to feel horribly prophetic. First, one of the party goes missing. Then a gruesome discovery raises the likelihood of murder, and the remaining members of the group find themselves under the unwelcome scrutiny of Inspector MacDonald of Scotland Yard. Under the bright beam of his eye, fissures and rivalries emerge, and he swiftly realises that there’s more to this particular case than meets the eye. A classic old-school murder mystery, first published in 1937, this is jolly engaging stuff with a powerful sense of place. London, from Regent’s Park to Notting Hill and the Strand, is just as central a character as any of our suspects. But now to the key question. Is Bruce Attleton really dead? And, if so, who killed him? And why?

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