Books, life the universe

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson is excellent - I really enjoyed it. I shall have to take back what I said about very little excitement and it being a novel of character. There are some very exciting scenes towards the end of the book. It is a touching and unusual love story but also a novel of village life in the 21st century. The Golf Club holds a dance, the local landowner searches for ways to keep his estate viable financially, the villagers protest against a possible expansion of the village, and families from different cultural backgrounds try to fit in but also bring something new to village life.

Prejudices and stereotypes are much in evidence and many of the characters have lessons to learn about integrity and honesty and the way difficulties can bring out the best in the most unlikely people. The Major himself could have been in danger of being a bland character but he is far from that. He is quiet and self effacing and shuns the limelight but he has his standards and an unshakable integrity. But he also has a nice line in answers for those who try and push him around. His relationship with Mrs Ali - the widow who runs the village shop with her nephew - is well and sensitively drawn. Mrs Ali herself in an interesting and complex character.

The ending is surprising but satisfying. I recommend it to anyone who thinks a novel about village life is bound to be dull and boring.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Patricia Wentworth

I have never read any of Patricia Wentworth's crime novels. She writes about Miss Maud Silver - a private detective from much the same stable as Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. Miss Silver, though, is a private detective and runs her own business. I've just read The Silent Pool which falls into the sub genre of country house mystery. Miss Silver is consulted by Adriana Ford - a retired actress - who thinks someone may be trying to murder her. Having unburdened herself to Miss Silver about certain worrying incidents she feels better and decides not to call in Miss Silver professionally - until a guest in her home is murdered. Then Miss Silver pays a visit.

I thoroughly enjoyed this low key mystery with its interesting characters and intriguing plot - and I liked Miss Silver herself. I think I shall be reading more by this author and I wonder why I have never read any before?

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Duplicate Death and Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Georgette Heyer's Duplicate Death is an excellent fast placed mystery story featuring Chief Inspector Hemingway who features in other books as a Sergeant. A Bridge party leads to strangulation via picture wire of a very unpleasant character - Dan Seaton-Carew. There are many clues and a similar number of red herrings and it is not until a second murder takes place that Hemingway is able to work out what happened.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson is one of those quirky village England stories which I really like. The Major is still trying to come to terms with the death of his wife Nancy when his only brother, Bertie, dies. This strangely enough is the catalyst for him getting to know Mrs Ali - a widow who runs the village shop with her nephew. I've read about a third of it so far and I really like it. The characters are believable and eccentric and the plot intriguing. But this is a novel of character and every day events rather than anything very dramatic.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

The Matchmaker of Perigord

Julia Stuart's The Matchmaker of Perigord is a tale of a small village in the South West of France called Amour-sur-Belle. It is so ugly even the English will not buy property there and it only has 33 inhabitants. Guillaume Ladoucette is the barber but he has few customers as many of the villagers are going bald. He decides to open a matchmaking business instead as he knows a lot of the villagers are looking for love.

The story which follows is fast paced and whimsical and includes many luscious descriptions of food as well as plenty of eccentric characters and local feuds. How the villagers find happiness and outwit the council when it forces a public shower on them because they're using too much water having baths is amusing reading. I don't think it is perhaps as good as the same author's Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo but it is still worth reading.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Uncommon Arrangements

Katie Roiphe's Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages in Literary London - 1910-1939, makes fascinating reading. Some of the marriages are relatively well known - Vanessa and Clive Bell for example - others are less famous - Elizabeth Von Arnim and John Francis Russell. What I found most intriguing was the way all seven of the couples knew each other and were frequently former or future lovers. All were eccentric characters - most notably Radclyffe Hall who would have been ostracised by most sections of society at the time though she was accepted by literary London.

Anyone who thinks marriage has only been questioned in recent years needs to read this book to see how it was being interpreted a century ago. H G Wells had many mistresses including - most notably - Rebecca West. Katharine Mansfield and Vera Brittain were both more interested in their work than their husbands and lived 'semi-detached' married lives. Lovers were tolerated or openly encouraged in all of the marriages. Vanessa and Clive Bell living with Vanessa's lover Duncan Grant. Una Troubridge and Radclyffe Hall lived openly together as lesbian lovers. Many of the women felt conventional marriage to be too claustrophobic and imposed their own interpretation on their own with or without their husband's agreement.

The book is well written with a comprehensive bibliography and index. My only complaint was that when people bought or rented houses the locations are frequently omitted. Couples lived in London - yes but where in London - it's a big place. It is not sufficient to say someone moved to a house on the South Coast - it is hundreds of miles long. I found I wanted to scream 'Yes but where?' at the author on several occasions. I did enjoy reading it though in spite of this, relatively minor, point.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Is this a non-job?

We get at least one flyer through the door every day for various services and one of the 3 which appeared yesterday was for wheelie bin cleaning at £2.50 a time. There is already someone who comes round once a month - I think - and offers the same service at £2. My question is why would you pay someone to clean your wheelie bin?

We have 2 wheelie bins - one green for ordinary rubbish and one blue for recycling. The recycling is tins, cardboard, paper, and glass - so nothing dirty in that if you do as you're supposed to do and wash tins and jars before you put them in the bin. The green bin conceivably does get dirty because it has ordinary rubbish in it which may include food waste. I mainly put anything dirty, wet or smelly in a plastic bag do that I don't need to wash my bin very often.

Neither of my bins has been washed for about 6 years - and they aren't that bad apart from being dusty outside. If I want them washed I'd wash them myself in about 5 minutes - in fact it would probably take me longer to get the hose out and connect it up than it would to wash the bin! Yet some people round here have their bins washed for them once a month.

In my opinion this is a waste of water and a waste of money. Full marks for the person who first thought of it and realised people would pay for it. Did anyone ever wash out the metal dustbins we used to have? Some people I'm sure but most took the view there wasn't much point of washing it if you were going to then put something dirty in it. A sensible attitude in my opinion.

Monday, 15 February 2010


Behold, Here's Poison by Georgette Heyer was first published in the 1930s and has stood the test of time extremely well. Gregory Matthews - by all accounts a dislikeable character - is murdered. At first his GP is prepared to sign a death certificate as he had been treating him for a hear condition but the corpse's family - or rather one of his sisters - wants a post mortem. It turns out he was poisoned with nicotine - how it was administered is the biggest part of the mystery with just about all his relatives and acquaintances having means, motive and opportunity.

This is a traditional country house murder mystery of the type which was so popular in the Golden Age of detective fiction. The solution is ingenious and not at all obvious with many red herrings along the way. If you leave out excessive gore - which many modern writers seem unable to do - there has to be excellent plotting and characterisation and these there are in spades in this book. Still worth reading more than 70 years after first publication.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Just about to start reading . . . .

I intend to start reading today: Georgette Heyer's Black Sheep; Katie Roiphe's Uncommon Arrangements; Julia Stuart's The Matchmaker of Perigord. I shall also continue reading Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream and listening to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. People always ask me how I can possibly keep the details in my head when I read so many books at the same time. I think the answer lies in making sure you read different genres. I'm not sure I could read 4 books of the same genre.

Of the four books which I shall be reading - 2 are fiction and 2 are non fiction. Black Sheep is set in a similar historical period to Pride and Prejudice but its location is Bath whereas P&P is set in Hertfordshire, Kent, London and Derbyshire. In any case listening is not the same as reading - well not to me it isn't. I know many other voracious readers who always have more than one book on the go. If I'm struggling with a book I will read it 30 pages or so at a time interspersed with another book which I am really enjoying. That way I persevere with books which I might otherwise give up on - and I'm frequently rewarded by finding books enjoyable which started off in an unpromising fashion.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The Terror Dream

The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post 9/11 America by Susan Faludi is interesting - and frightening - reading. I decided to read it because I was very impressed by her book Backlash. The Terror Dream could almost be said to be an updated version of Backlash. I've read the first two chapters so far and it is interesting and disturbing how the American media turned on feminist writers and journalists after 9/11. People such as Susan Sontag and Barbara Kingsolver were pilloried for daring to write anything not wholeheartedly pro America's response to 9/11. Rational articles which suggested America put its own house in order were referred to as treason.

The number of comment articles written by women in the American mainstream press more than halved overnight. It was stated by many commentators that feminism was wholly responsible for 9/11 because it had weakened America and made the attacks possible because no one expected them to retaliate. This was mainstream, journalism not the nuttier outer fringes! The attitude from many quarters was - 'Not now, dear, we're at war.' Domesticity was suddenly top of the agenda and the country behaved as though 9/11 was an attack on domestic life rather than on America's foreign policy in the Middle East. Absolutely fascinating reading.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Housewife in Trouble

Housewife in Trouble by Alison Penton Harper is an enjoyable romp and is the latest in her 'Housewife' series of chick lit stories. Helen is married to Rick and Julia has had her mid life crisis baby; Leoni is still plotting to dispose of Marcus and the kids; Sara - Julia's business partner - is thriving on running the business herself. But all is not as simple as it seems. There are lots of cats about to escape from a great many bags.
This is a roller coaster of a book with some brilliant one liners and some marvellously memorable characters and ideal to read on a cold winter evening accompanied by a bottle of wine - or two - and a box of chocolates. Brilliant stuff!

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Currently reading

I am still ploughing through Melanie Phillip's The Sex-Change Society: Feminised Britain and the Neutered Male - which reads too much like a political rant. Her favourite subject seems to be that divorce is really bad for men and really good for women so it should be changed. I do agree that something needs to be done about fathers having access to their children after divorce as it seems there are some apparently very unfair decisions made about where children live and whether or not they have contact with their fathers.

I do not with agree with her contention that women divorce because they're bored. Having been through a divorce - which was relatively amicable compared with some - I can confirm that no one would do it for fun or because they were bored. To suggest just because more women instigate the legal side of divorce that all the men were unwilling to be divorced is an assumption too far.

I am also reading - by way of contrast - I was Jane Austen's Best Friend by Cora Harrison. Aimed at teenagers it can still be read by adults. It is an imaginative reconstruction of a few months in the life of a 16 year old Jane Austen and her cousin Jane (changed to Jenny in the book) Cooper in the form of extracts from Jenny's journal. I've read about 100 pages and found it charming and the line drawings sprinkled throughout the text (by Susan Hellard) exactly fit the story.

I am also listening to an unabridged audio book of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice read by Irene Sutcliffe. Her voice is absolutely perfect for the story and it really brings it to life for me by listening to it rather than reading it.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Balthazar Jones again

I finished Julia Stuart's Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo last night. I would recommend it to anyone who wants a book to laugh over and to cry over. It's about interesting people and interesting animals. It's also about love, loss and coming to term with situations as they are rather than as you want them to be. Funny and heartwarming and I found myself laughing over one page and then crying over the next one.

I really liked Hebe - Balthazar's wife - who works in the lost property office. She and her colleague, Valerie Jennings, are absolutely priceless. Hebe takes refuge in a magician's box for sawing the lady in half when life gets too much for her - why was that left on the Underground?; Valerie lies in an Egyptian sarchopagus with a hardback book carefully wedged to stop the lid closing. Their attempts to reunite lost property with the owners are priceless: the box with someone's ashes in; the safe that no one can open; clothes; books; a gigolo's diary; an Oscar statuette - these are just a few of the things described.

Then there are the animals - the parrot that sleeps upside down; the zorilla - don't ask; the albatross which misses its mate and the pig which plays football with a grapefruit. But the people who make up the Tower population are intriguing too - Septimus Drew, the erotic novel writing clergyman with the nibbled cassock and the unrequited love for Ruby Dore the landlady of the Rack and Ruin pub; the Ravenmaster who is fanatical about his ravens and about the woman from the cafe.

It is lovely book and I recommend it to anyone who wants something different.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo

Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo by Julia Stuart is one of those novels which is totally unclassifiable. Balthazar is a Beefeater who is asked out of the blue to become the keeper of a menagerie filled with animals given to the Queen by other countries. The various animals and birds are delivered to the Tower from London Zoo except somewhere along the line the penguins go missing and don't arrive and four giraffes appear which should have stayed at the zoo.

But it is not just the animals which are causing problems. There is the Rev Septimus Drew - the Tower chaplain - fighting a constant battle against rats who nibble his cassock when he's praying. He is suffering from unrequited love while he makes a career for himself as an erotic novelist. Balthazar himself is having problems with his wife as a result of the death of their son Milo. Hebe Jones works at London Underground's lost property office and the scenes set here are marvellously funny.

In amongst the fascinating characters there is a great deal about the history of the Tower, though it is never overdone. I haven't yet finished the book - about two thirds through at the moment - but it is so quirky and whimsical I had to put something on here about it. Love the cover as well.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Cut Short

Cut Short by Leigh Russell is now available again an Amazon after its second reprint in 6 months. I read the book some months ago and found it an excellent crime story featuring an interesting new detective - Geraldine Steel. I am also informed that the next book in the series will be out in June - title - Road Closed.
Leigh's blog is at

I am always interested to read new novels - especially crime - by new authors and I sometimes wonder whether people are too reluctant to try debut authors. I often become aware of new authors from reading Writing Magazine which I find to be a good source of different books.

A recent review of the book can be read at