Saturday 18 September 2021

Two short reviews

Two books to review briefly today, starting with A Talent to Amuse by Sheridan Morley.

This, as will be seen from the cover, is a biography of Noel Coward, the playwright, actor, song-writer and writer. He was born in 1899 (it's funny, I never think of him as Victorian) to a middle-class family who were not well off. He performed in school concerts and holiday competitions and knew from a very early age that he would be going into into the theatre and knew too that he would be famous. His first paid job was at the age of eleven and it was soon obvious that not only did he have a natural gift for music, he was also grimly determined to make it in the business. Which of course he did and was responsible for some of the most famous plays in the history of the British theatre, Blithe Spirit, Private Lives, Hay Fever, but he also wrote or starred in some iconic films, In Which We Serve, Brief Encounter, Blithe Spirit again, and The Italian Job. Not to mention songs such as Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage Mrs. Worthington and London Pride. This was a free book from Dean Street Press. Every week they advertise a free book on Twitter and the link takes you to Amazon where you can download it to your Kindle. (The link to their Twitter page is HERE.) Anyway, this was a very enjoyable read. It's made plain from the start that it's a theatre based biography, not a warts and all exposé. The author knew Coward and Coward asked him not to discuss his homosexuality in the book because 'there were still a few very old ladies out there who did not realise'. As such it is very much about his work rather than his personal life, although it does not altogether neglect that either. I found the ups and downs of Coward's working life quite surprising. He had a lot of failures amongst his huge successes and at times was quite unpopular in the British press. Some of his plays were thought to be solacious or immoral, dealing as they did with the reality of marriage and affairs. Noel Coward's life is a 'huge' subject and I would definitely like to read more. Possibly his diaries and letters would prove very interesting, he was also an habitual traveller, often travelling with the Royal Navy, and I would love to hear more about that. A good introduction to the man though.


Lastly, Grey Mask by Patricia Wentworth, which I first read about on Tracy's blog.

This is the first book in the author's 'Miss Silver' series of books, written in 1928. Charles Moray is returning to London after a four year absence. He's been travelling the world trying to recover from being jilted by his fiance, Margaret Langton. She gave no explanation and Charles assumed there was someone else and that by now she is married with children. It comes as a shock to discover she's not and  that she's mixed up in some very funny business. Looking around his empty house one night, prior to moving back in, he realises someone is upstairs. Hiding in a cupboard, he overhears what is clearly a gang planning something criminal, and in walks Margaret. She's only there for a few minutes and he can't hear what's said but it changes everything for him. Margaret meanwhile has picked up a young women in distress off the street. Empty headed, Margot Standing, is in fear for her life and Charles and Margaret end up trying to help her. Realising he's out of his depth and not willing to go to the police because of Margaret's secret involvement in criminal activities, Charles enlists the help of Miss Silver, a private detective of mature years, to help them with these knotty problems. This was great fun, reminding me a little of a couple of Agatha Christie's standalones, such as The Man in the Brown Suit. Miss Silver is not at all centre stage, it's more about this group of young people trying to get out of the tangled web they've woven for themselves. I'm assuming that in subsequent books Miss Silver is more to the fore. The character of Margot Standing was pretty annoying if I'm honest, but then I suspect she was meant to be. The writing, as you'd expect from someone beginning her writing career in the 1920s, was superb, they knew how to write back then. It's interesting to note that Patricia Wentworth didn't stop writing until her death in 1961, she was 83, and was incredibly prolific. I shall certainly try another of her books, in fact I have another free book from Dean Street Press again, The Red Lacquer Case, and I'll check out what the library has as well.


(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Grey Mask sounds rather good Cath. Glad you enjoyed these two books.

Dorothy Borders said...

These both sound quite interesting. Noel Coward was as fascinating as any of his characters, and I should perhaps be embarrassed to admit that I had not heard of Patricia Wentworth but she does indeed sound like a winner.

Lark said...

I love Noel Coward's plays! They're always so fun to see onstage. This bio about his theatre life sounds interesting.

Vallypee said...

Both these books sound very good, Cath. I remember my parents were great fans of Noel Coward and often quoted him. A very interesting and amusing man. As for the Patricia Wentworth book, isn't it interesting to see how writing has changed over the years. In many ways I mourn the paring down of our vocabulary; it feels as if an increasing number of words are either considered obselete or too obscure to use in daily writing. But at the same time I find many of these earlier novels terribly pedantic and verbose. I can't decide which bothers me more! Anyway, I'd like to read them both!

TracyK said...

I am glad you enjoyed Grey Mask, Cath. Thanks for the mention. Grey Mask is somewhat different from later Miss Silver books. Usually Miss Silver is more prominent, but sometimes she does show up later in the book and is involved but sort of on the sidelines. I have liked all of them I have read, but some more than others.

The book about Noel Coward sounds interesting. I know of him but not a lot. I would like to know more about his private life also.

Margaret @ BooksPlease said...

Both these books look fascinating. I've read two of the Miss Silver books, The Girl in the Cellar, which was her last book and The Brading Collection which I much preferred. I'll look out for the Dean Street Press free books - I didn't know they did that!

Cath said...

Diane: Grey Mask was excellent, I'm so glad I read book blogs and get so many recs.

Dorothy: I so agree that Coward was easily as interesting as his character, which is why I'd like to know more. Well, to be honest, I hadn't heard of Patricia Wentworth either until quite recently. There were so many Golden Age crime writers that it's quite hard to be aware of all of them.

Lark: Me too and his films. The book made me want to rewatch those and I also looked on YT for interviews and found a few.

Cath said...

Val: Noel Coward was definitely more of our parents' generation I feel. Although I grew up with Sunday matinee movies on TV so was quite aware of him myself. Films like In Which We Serve which is apparently acknowledged as the most realistic film depicting WW2 that was made. Suspect opinions vary on that though.

Yes, when you read a lot you notice how differently they wrote in the early to mid-twentieth century. And I couldn't exist purely on a diet of that kind of writing as quite a lot of concentration is required. I also like to read more modern books which you can read with ease, variety really is the spice of life! There's one vintage crime writer whose books I like but he went into minute detail about such things as railway timetables and timings, so yes, when you say 'pedantic' you're spot on.

Cath said...

Tracy: My pleasure. I've been meaning to try her books for a while based on your recs. I thought somehow that Miss Silver would be in subsequent books a little more.

Margaret: Yes, that Dean Street Press page on Twitter is well worth following. They announce their free book on Monday and it stays free through Friday I think.

Margaret @ BooksPlease said...

Thanks, Cathy. I'm now following Dean Street Press on Twitter and I'll see what tomorrow brings :)

That explains why I couldn't download the book this morning!

Sam said...

I know shockingly little about Noel Coward and his writing, only a handful of basic facts. People don't seem to read plays these days, nor did they much teach them in the public schools of my day, so maybe that explains it. Glad you enjoyed the bio.

Patricia Wentworth's name came up in that video history of mystery writers I watched a while back and I keep meaning to find something of hers to read. This is a good reminder to do just that, even though this one doesn't quite seem to be what you had hoped it would be.

Cath said...

Margaret: Yes, It's always Monday to Friday and not always that early on Mondays either, so you have to keep an eye out.

Sam: I think Noel Coward is one of those very British 'institutions' so it's quite understandable you know little about him. To be honest, I didn't know much more as he's way outside my generation. I suspect I first took real notice of him in The Italian Job where he was the mastermind criminal but have come to know a bit more about him since. But I honestly had no idea he wrote Brief Encounters. That was an 'Oh!' moment for me.

Wentworth is worth a look in my opinion, when you want a madcap vintage mystery as a bit of light relief. This book is like that anyway, it'll be interesting to see what other books in the series are like.

CLM said...

I own a Noel Coward bio that I have been meaning to read but it is by another author. I will have to keep an eye out for it.

Patricia Wentworth is a big favorite of mine but I had forgotten this was the first Miss Silver book! I can't read about a Wentworth without wanting to reread them all. I think I have a few deserve some attention.

Cath said...

Constance: Yes, there is another bio which I think goes more into his lifestyle and personality. I'd like to read that at some stage I think and possibly his letters or diaries.

I'm pleased to hear you like Wentworth's books so much because that means I probably will too.

Susan said...

I know next to nothing about Coward, but it does sound like he led an interesting life. I always enjoy reading about fascinating people, famous or not.

Yvonne @ Fiction Books Reviews said...

I'm not sure that the biography of Noel Coward is one for me, even with my recently expanded reading genres choices. However I seem to remember my mum reading Patricia Wentworth books when I was a child and I have become more interested in vintage fiction over the past few months, so definitely an author for my list.

We went into Bath working a couple of Sundays ago and I was surprised to see that 'Persephone Books' have upped sticks from London and moved into the City, so that's another place on my radar for a visit, as they don't open on Sundays!

I too have followed Dean Street Press on Twitter, so thanks for the 'heads up' about them. I shall be making sure to visit early in the week to see if I like the sound of their book of the week.

I hope that all is well with you :)

Cath said...

Hi Yvonne. I would only recommend the Noel Coward to someone who is very interested in the history of musical theatre or film. The Wentworth, however, is well worth a look.

Yes, I saw on Twitter that Persephone has moved to Bath, cheaper rents I suspect. So Bath is now on my list for a return visit, possibly in the Spring. I visited them once in London but it was quite a hike to find the shop. Hopefully Bath will be simpler.

My pleasure re Dean Street books. The Noel Coward is the first of their free books I've read but I have about a dozen collected on my Kindle, of all varying types.

Yes, we're fine thanks but it's been a long summer. Hope you're ok as well.

Cath said...

Susan: I agree, in fact I think the less famous people are the more interesting they can be.