Wednesday 21 February 2024

A few short reviews

Time for several short reviews to get myself caught up.

First up, Murder at the Spring Ball by Benedict Brown.

It's 1925 and Lord Edgington is a retired police detective aged 76. He lost his wife ten years ago and for that ten years he's been frozen  in time rather - a recluse in a huge mansion of a house. Waking up from this self-induced coma he decides on a magnificent ball such as the hall used to host in the old days. What he doesn't bargain for is for his sister to keel over, dead, poisoned by the champagne she couldn't wait to sample before everyone else. It's clear someone is after killing the whole family off. Lord Edgington, feeling the actual police are incompetent, sets about solving the murder himself along with the help of his teenage grandson, Christopher. This was huge fun and if you enjoy a country-house murder mystery you might like this. Lord Edgingtom is a bit autocratic but very clever and I like how he takes Christopher under his wing, believing in him when no else has time for the boy. There's a nice sense of a country mansion and a load of grasping, not very pleasant relatives, all with their own secrets of course. I'll definitely be reading on in this series as book 2, A Body at a Boarding School, is, as the title suggests, a 'school' mystery and I'm always up for one of those. 

Next, a classic, Dr. Thorne by Anthony Trollope which is the third book in his Chronicles of Barsetshire series.

Mary Thorne is Dr. Thorne's illegitimate neice and she's lived with him most of her life. Her father was the doctor's brother, Henry, her mother, Mary Scatcherd, from a rough family in the local town. Henry was not much good, and ended up being accidently killed by Mary Scatcherd's brother who went to prison for his crime. Dr. Thorne persuaded Mary to leave the baby with him and go off to America with her fiancĂ© who wanted Mary, but not someone else's baby. Fast forward 20 years and the two live in Greshamsbury and are very friendly with the local squire. Young Mary is in fact almost part of the family and very attached to two of the daughters and the eldest son, Frank Gresham, is in love with Mary Thorne. This is Not Good. Frank's father has squandered money left, right and centre and in order to save the house and the family, Frank must marry money. Mary Thorne has none. So that's the setting for what I gather Trollope felt was his best novel. I can see why, it's beautifully written, the problems and obstacles are so engrossing to read about and I loved it. Hypocrisy is very much the theme of this book, especially around money and blood. Some of these upper crust families desperately needed money so they happily married someone rich with a trade background - perhaps not 'happily' but 'needs must' sort of thing - but heaven forbid one of them wanted to marry a delightful girl from a good family but uncertain parentage and no money. And of course the one to really suffer is not the squire's family but Mary... the details of which I won't go into because of spoilers. Trollope relates the story of Mary Thorne and Frank Gresham in an extremely engaging manner, really funny in places and I loved his authorial voice breaking in occasionally to reassure or explain. Superb, and I will read more by Trollope this year, possibly the next book in the Barsetshire series, Framley Parsonage, or one of his multitude of standalone books. I'd completely forgotten what a brillaint writer he was. 

Lastly, Northbridge Rectory by Angela Thirkell.

So, this is weird because of course I knew that Angela Thirkell set her books in Trollope's fictional Barsetshire but I didn't expect to see families from Dr. Thorne still around and getting mentions in Northbridge Rectory. This is book 10 in her series and the second book which features WW2. Verena Villars is the wife of the local rector in Northbridge. They've been there a year or so and have already settled into their new home and have a lot of friends. Officers from the services are also billeted with them and then there's the vicarage staff who bring all their various trials and tribulations to Verena. This isn't a book where a lot happens, it's about people and how they interact with each other, but unlike most of Thirkell's output this one also has to cover how people coped during the war years. I think it's definitely the funniest one I've read so far. Miss Pemberton protecting Mr. Downing, her academic lodger, who writes books about Provencal troubadoors that no one reads, from other women is hilarious. Of course he gets away, but is that what he really wants? There's Mrs. Turner and her two nieces, whose home is comfortable and welcoming but sheer bedlam. And Mr. Holden, billeted with the Villars, and who has a bad crush on Verena and keeps telling her she looks tired. The vicar is of course pretty much oblivious to all of this... This is now one of my favourites from the series. Thirkell's narrative voice is so funny it reminded me slightly of The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield. I wondered where Barsetshire actually was, where Trollope had in mind, and I gather it was Somerset and possibly parts of Dorset and Wiltshire and that does indeed 'feel' right... to me anyway. 

So three good books and all authors with the potential for a 'lot' more reading this year. Can't wait.

I hope your February reading is going as well as mine? 

Sunday 11 February 2024

Maiden Voyages by Sian Evans

My second 5 star non-fiction read of the year is, Maiden Voyages by Sian Evans. I didn't find this book myself, I saw it mentioned on Susan at Bloggin' 'bout Books 'Top Ten Tuesday' post for the 28th. November, '23, featuring 'books set at sea'. Being a sucker for a sea-based book I reserved it from the library and am very pleased I did.


Up until the middle of the 20th. century (can't believe I'm talking about when I was actually 'born') if you wanted to cross the Atlantic it was pretty certain that your method of transport would be an ocean-going liner. By that time women were an accepted part of the deal, there were stewardesses to look after the wealthy and conductresses who kept an eye on female passangers in steerage. But of course, this wasn't always so. 

It was Cunard who first started employing women to look after women onboard ship when it was realised that in Victorian times it was not appropriate for a male steward to, for instance, look after the captain's wife. And then women passengers started to cross the Atlantic in ever greater numbers. Wealthy socialites first, then women with responsible jobs such as fashion buyers for the big stores, female authors promoting their books and, most of all, an absolute stream of women in steerage, emigrating to the USA, some with their families, some alone: they all needed looking after, guidance, or protection. 

The women they took on for these stewardess type roles were often women desperate for a job. Violet Jessop, for instance, went to sea to support an ailing mother  and five siblings. The shipping company's policy was actually to employ middle-aged women who were less attractive to the male crew. Violet was unusual in that she was young and pretty. She ended up with the moniker of the 'Unsinkable Stewardess' because she not only survived the sinking of the Titanic, she survived two other maritime disasters as well.

Violet is just one of the female ocean-going crew featured in this book. Edith Sowerbutts was the very first female conductress. Anne Runcie and Mary Ann McLeod (the mother of Donald Trump) sailed the Atlantic as hairdressers and beauticians to the wealthy. Hilda James, a famous swimmer of her day, went to work on the liners as a swimming instructor. Victoria Drummond the first female sea-going engineer, saved the cargo ship Bonita from sinking when it was attacked mid-Atlantic by a German bomber in 1941 and got herself an MBE. The list is fascinating and I love the way the author tells the story of a few of these women and their experiences at sea, throughout the book.

The thing I really loved was the history recounted as it affected ocean travel. So, of course the two world wars are covered extensively. But we also hear about the sinking of the Titanic, the Lusitania in WW1, Prohibition, Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson, GI brides. Women such as Nancy Astor, Nancy Cunard, Martha Gellhorn, Josephine Baker, Tallulah Bankhead, have their stories related in a very readable and accessible manner. Like all excellent books it has made me want to read more on some of the subjects the author touched on, and that actually includes most of the subjects and people I've listed. For me that's the sign of an excellent book.

The author suggests that millions of women's lives were profoundly changed by sea travel in the first half of the 20th. century. She illustrates that brilliantly in Maiden Voyages and I can't recommend it highly enough.


Monday 5 February 2024

Several crime titles

I'm behind with my crime fiction reviews - nothing new there - so this is a three-book post today, starting with A Death in Door County by Annalise Ryan.

Morgan Carter is a cryptozoologist (those who search for legendary animals like The Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot) who lives in Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Michigan. She owns a bookstore there but it's not your usual bookshop, it also sells weird and macabre items. Morgan is enlisted to help the local police when a dead body is washed up that has some huge bite marks on it. There's always been rumours of something Nessie-like in their area of the lake and, although the police chief doesn't really believe it, he needs an expert to advise him. When a second body, likewise mutilated, turns up, the police chief has no choice but to seriously review his beliefs. So this mystery had an excellent sense of place, the lake where it joins Green Bay, known as Death's Door, the islands, cliffs, forests, beaches... beautiful. I liked the budding relationship between Jon Flanders and Morgan, and the dog, Newt, was lovely. I wish there had been more of the cryptozoologist element though because that was why I picked it up. But it seemed like not even the cryptozoologist herself took that seriously. Anyway, a good start to a new series, book two is out already, Death in the Dark Woods, and I may pick that up when the price comes down a bit. 

Next, Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie. 

So, this is number 42 in Christie's Hercule Poirot series but for me it was as much an Ariadne Oliver mystery as a Poirot one. She goes off to a literary lunch, which is not really her thing, but while there she's approached by an obnoxious woman whose son is engaged to a girl whose parents died in mysterious circumstances, 15 years ago. They were found dead at the top of a cliff in Devon, both shot, but the police had no idea who shot whom first and have never been able to discover the answer. The woman wants Ariadne to try to find out as the fiance is Ariadne's God daughter. At a loss, the writer enlists the help of Hercule Poirot to help her find some 'elephants' who might recall some pertinent clues as to what happened. This one has got some rather poor star ratings on Goodreads, people seem to think it's not great because Christie was approaching the end of her life when she was was writing it and maybe losing some of her faculties. Be that as it may, I still enjoyed it very much. I like Ariadne Oliver as a character anyway and always think she brings quite a lot to a Poirot mystery. I liked how, between the two of them, they eventually managed to tease the truth out of people, Ariadne using her doggedly determined questioning skills and Poirot his little grey cells. Not the best Christie I've read but still an enjoyable read.

And finally, my first book for February, The Christie Curse by Victoria Abbott.

Jordan Bingham is back in her home-town of Harrison Falls, in the north of New York state. She's looking for a job that doesn't involve living with her uncles, who she adores but who exist on the wrong side of the law a lot of the time. She answers an ad from Vera Van Alst, an elderly invalid who lives in a huge house on the outskirts of town. Vera is a serious book collector who got wind of a possible secret manuscript of a play Agatha Christie might have written during her eleven day disappearance. Jordan gets the job and sets about her search only to dicover that her predecessor died in mysterious circumstances in New York City. Then people around her start to get attacked and Jordan realises this is not the cushy number she was hoping for. So, this was a fun 'Cosy', I suppose you would call it, which is not always my thing, but this was well written and engaging with some interesting characters. I liked cranky Vera, and the uncles, and was very intrigued by the cat coming and going. Also I had no idea until the end what was going on and why. There was a very nice sense of place too, made more so by the fact that I have been to the area. All in all, a fun read and likely as not I'll read on. There are only 5 books, all concerning famous crime authors such as Dorothy L. Sayers, Rex Stout etc. The mother and daughter team seem to have written these 5 and then stopped. I always wonder 'why?' when that happens.

Anyway. I hope your February is going well, and that you're finding some good books to read.