High Rising: 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: 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: 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: 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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Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight): Émile Zola

★★★★

Les Rougon-Macquart: Book 11

My first book of 2020 was Au Bonheur des Dames or The Ladies’ Delight, part of Zola’s sweeping Rougon-Macquart cycle, which explores various facets of 19th-century French life. This is the first time I’ve read Zola and I wondered whether it would matter that I was leaping right in at Book 11 of the series, but in fact Au Bonheur des Dames works perfectly as a standalone novel. No doubt I would have recognised certain characters if I’d read the other books, and I may have known a little more background about Octave Mouret, but I didn’t feel that I was missing out. I chose to start here because it’s supposed to be one of Zola’s more upbeat and cheerful novels – perfect for the start of a new year – and it was rather fitting for January, in that it focuses on the rise and development of a great department store. Zola writes of ‘the continuous purring of a machine at work, the customers shovelled in, heaped in front of the displays and dazzled by the goods, before being hurled against the cash desks‘. Well, in last week’s sales I was one of those being hurled, and so it added an extra level of interest and amusement to hear about how such great shops came into being. A fascinating story of a time of frenzied change.

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Maddy Alone: Pamela Brown

★★★½

The Blue Door: Book II

In the wake of Mishima, I needed something totally different: something charming, cuddly and heartwarming. With relief, I turned to the second book in Pamela Brown’s Blue Door series (the first was The Swish of the Curtainwhich I reviewed some time ago), telling the story of a band of ambitious children who set up a theatre company in their small town of Fenchester. In this sequel, the older children have achieved their dreams and are now studying at stage school in London, but poor Maddy, the youngest, is only twelve years old and has been told she needs to stick with ordinary school for the time being. Pushed to her limits by the thought of all the fun the others are having, Maddy begins acting up; but soon she discovers a marvellous opportunity right on her doorstep, which will change her life once and for all.

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Aspects of Love: David Garnett

★★

I know virtually nothing about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Aspects of Love, except for the song Love Changes Everything, which was on a CD we used to play in the car during long journeys. I certainly didn’t know that the musical was based on a book, still less that said book was a product of the Bloomsbury Group. When I stumbled across it by chance, I decided that I simply had to give it a go – though I can’t say that I enjoyed it. It’s a self-indulgent triumph of style over substance and, while it’s a quick read at fewer than 150 pages, it lingers in the mind for the wrong reasons: for its unpleasant aura of exploitation and emotional manipulation. It becomes even more sinister when you realise that it was inspired by events in Garnett’s own life.

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Jumping the Queue: Mary Wesley

★★★

I read The Camomile Lawn as a student and, being young and naive, was impressed by its suave, sophisticated, witty characters. With this in mind, I happily snaffled Mary Wesley’s Jumping the Queue when I found it on a bookshop expedition to Winchester with H. Now I wonder whether, if I were to reread The Camomile Lawn, I would find there the negatives that I noticed here alongside the wit and sophistication: detached indifference; clever people behaving horribly to one another; a rather nihilistic view of the world. What, really, is the point? That’s the question we find the recently widowed Matilda Poliport contemplating as the book starts. Carrying a basket of wine, cheese and fresh bread, she’s heading down to the beach for a picnic before she ends it all. When her plans are frustrated, she heads back to a life that she thought she had all neatly tied up; but this time she has an unexpected companion: a soul almost as lost as she is. Be warned. This is not a cosy piece of classic fiction. This is fiction with claws. And teeth.

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A Breath of French Air: H.E. Bates

★★★

The Larkin Family: Book 2

All might be radiant and perfick in the Kent countryside, but everyone needs a holiday now and again. With Mariette wilting under low spirits, and Ma growing weary of her newborn Oscar’s incessant demands for milk, Pa lets himself be convinced that they could really do with a trip to France. It does require persuasion, of course, because Pa finds it hard to believe that anywhere could be more lovely than home – but the one thing he loves more than home is his family, and he’s willing to do anything to make them happy. Encouraged by the enthusiastic Charley – who spent summers in Brittany as a child – Pa begins to pick up a few useful phrases of French, and the whole Larkin family piles into the Rolls and sets off for a spot of continental leisure.

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The Darling Buds of May: H.E. Bates

★★★★

The Larkin Family: Book 1

I have vague memories of watching the Darling Buds of May TV series in the early 1990s, although I was too young for much to register. The word ‘perfick’ made an impression, of course, and I remember that, every time Catherine Zeta-Jones came on screen as Mariette, my dad would shake his head and say, “I don’t know what they see in her”. I also grew to assume that my paternal grandmother, a farmer’s wife who died when I was small, must have been pretty much like Pam Ferris’s Ma Larkin. But plot? I honestly couldn’t remember much. As the first tenuous signs of spring try to force their way through the rain and sharp winds here in London, I decided I needed a bit of bucolic escapism and bought myself the book (and its sequels). And it was just the ticket. Warm, generous, sun-drenched: a world of strawberry-picking and white tablecloths in orchards on warm evenings; where all guests are welcome and, if you like it well enough, you don’t ever have to leave. Perfick indeed.

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