Okay, I’m sure you’ve all heard just about enough our recent trip, but as part of my segueing back into talking about books and reading I figured I might as well report on what I was reading during all that time. Particularly since I obviously didn’t make a lot of notes of my thoughts, so if I don’t talk about them all now, they’ll be lost to this blog forever.
I took only a handful of physical books with me (though of course with my Kindle I had about 50 more, so I was sure to be covered). I had picked up my first Miss Read Thrush Green book, Battles in Thrush Green (1975), at the book sale just a couple of weeks before our trip, and I finished reading it right before we left. Having got a taste for the charming characters, I had checked the actual shop at our public library and found four more books in the series, so I carried Return to Thrush Green (1978) with me on the trip, and finished reading that one just a few days in. I know some of you are also Miss Read fans, but I wonder if you have a clear preference between the Fairacre series and the Thrush Green series. Having read only one of the former and now two of the latter, I have to say I have a preference for the latter—I think because it’s told in the third person and therefore shifts perspective between all the characters, while the Fairacre book I read was in the first person and limited to the schoolteacher’s perspective. But perhaps that’s not the case with all the other Fairacre books? At any rate, I very much enjoyed both of the Thrush Green books, but now I have a quandary—should I venture back to the beginning of the series now, or continue reading forward to the end and then go back to the beginning. Oh the quandaries that face obsessive readers!
I had also come across three Amanda Cross mysteries at the book sale, and finished reading The Players Come Again (1990) before we left. That was an odd entry in a mystery series, since the mystery was really a purely literary one. It was rather more a straightforward academic novel, a less complex version of A. S. Byatt’s Possession, than what would ordinarily be called a mystery, but it was quite enjoyable for all that. So I took the other two Cross mysteries with me, and was reading The James Joyce Murder (1967) during our stay in Rye—perhaps that explains why the ghosts didn’t bother us, it’s not exactly a suitably moody book for such a setting. I enjoyed that one very much, but when I proceeded to A Trap for Fools (1989), I got bogged down, and I have to admit I still haven’t finished it. Perhaps that’s as much because other books started to find their way into my bag by that point in our trip as it is because the book was less enticing—it is interesting in its meditations on academia and female friendships, but it does seem to drag a bit as a mystery (though here at least there is a proper murder).
This is all a sort of preface for the best book I read on vacation. In addition to passing along some of her “extra” books to me, Gil had the brainstorm of letting me read a Josephine Bell mystery she had just picked up as a gift for someone else, then I could return it to her by mail before leaving England. I happily accepted, especially since the mystery in question was Death at Half-Term (1939, later reprinted as Curtain Call for a Corpse), one of the Bell books set in a school.
This mystery centers around Dr. David Wintringham, who has been known on previous occasions to aid Inspector Mitchell of Scotland Yard in solving perplexing cases. David and his wife Jill happen to be at the school for a half-term performance (Jill’s sister Judith is married to the headmaster). A touring theatre company is putting on a production of Twelfth Night when the leading man gets himself clobbered over the head. There are skirmishes between the actors, a mysterious tension between a temporary master at the school and the leading lady (who is gleefully melodramatic in mourning the husband she never loved), a group of boys who take it upon themselves to find the murder weapon (and do), and a simmering romance between a master and the assistant matron. All of which makes for rollicking fun along the way.
I'm certainly going to be on the lookout for more Josephine Bell. Allowing for the possibility that not all of her books may be as much fun as Death at Half-Term, I’m willing to bet that many of them are. Happily, it appears that many (but not all) of her books have now been reprinted by Bello Books, but I wonder why she hasn't yet received the attention she deserves. At any rate, thanks to Gil for giving me the chance to read this one!
From there, amazingly enough, I proceeded to another American mystery (hey, I was on vacation!)—Helen McCloy’s superbly eerie Through a Glass, Darkly (1949), which also, as it happens, has a school connection, though very few of the scenes actually take place at school. It’s an intriguing tale, part mystery, part thriller, about seemingly supernatural events. It begins with a young art teacher in a girl's school being dismissed without explanation because she seems to have inspired unspecified gossip or anxieties among the girls and staff. To say much more would spoil the elegant unfolding of the eerie plot, during which one's assumptions and sympathies are likely to shift several times, but the book is of particular interest because there is, on the one hand, a perfectly logical explanation of the odd and tragic events, and, on the other hand, just the slightest possibility left open that the events really might have been supernatural after all. If you’re a sensitive reader, don’t read this one right before bedtime! Some readers might feel that all the theorizing about the supernatural, including historical examples of similar situations, slow the pace too much, but I enjoyed it anyway, and the situation of vulnerable women at a slightly ominous girls' school might remind some readers of the similarly eerie and similarly compelling Ethel Lina White novel The Third Eye, reprinted a few months ago by Greyladies.
While I’m talking about mysteries, Mavis Doriel Hay’s Death on the Cherwell (1935) helped me get through the long, dreary flight home. (And I am reminding myself, as I did so many times on our trip, that it is, according to Google, properly pronounced CHAR-well, as if one were ordering a steak well-done, not CHURR-well. I have quite a list of such pronunciation lessons now!) It’s the second of Hay’s three mysteries, following Murder Underground (1934) and preceding The Santa Klaus Murder (1936), all three reprinted in the British Library mystery series. As a mystery, Death on the Cherwell seemed like no great shakes to me, though as usual I made no effort to follow all the ins and outs of who was where at what time doing what for how long. But as a novel about young women at Oxford, it’s quite charming and fun in a perky, flapperish sort of way. It’s a good book to curl up with when you don’t have energy for anything challenging and just want the pages to turn themselves—for example, on a transatlantic flight. I was also interested to discover from the introduction to the book that Hay was, as a novelist, yet another of many, many casualties of World War II. First the stresses and constraints of the approaching war must have prevented her from writing, and then the death of her husband, an RAF pilot, must have thoroughly derailed her from writing such cheerful, energetic fiction. She did later publish books about arts and crafts, but never seems to have returned to writing fiction. The war had many casualties off the battlefield as well…
Also somewhat in the mystery/thriller category is Joy Packer’s The Man in the Mews (1964), which I read halfheartedly on the trip and only finished after we’d returned home. I picked up the book because I thought she might belong on my Overwhelming List, only to discover that she was from South Africa. It’s part romance, part thriller, and part psychological drama—the Google Books summary reads, “Widow who visits London after a long absence when her daughter becomes engaged is recognized by a collector of newspaper crime stories as the ex-wife of a murderer.”
It’s by no means a great book, but I did find it modestly interesting in some ways. There's the title character, an admirer of murderers, who is somewhat intriguing in his very modern-seeming desire for a dark notoriety. And there's the middle-aged Mrs Olivier, hiding her dark secret and trying to protect her daughter from it, who has returned to London for the first time in decades. Sadly, there are also some rather excruciatingly melodramatic romantic scenes and confrontation scenes, and a belief in the determinism of genetics that seems strange to modern readers. A forgettable novel, for sure, but one with a bit more kick than I expected.
I mentioned in my last post that amazing Oxfam shop in York, and Doris Pocock’s The Treasure of the Trevellyans (1938) was one of my acquisitions there. The cover was so charming, I couldn’t resist reading it right away. It’s a pleasant family adventure tale, about an impoverished artist who inherits a run-down house and land in Cornwall from an eccentric uncle, and takes his family there for a long holiday. The trouble is, the house is so run-down that it amounts more to camping out than living in a house. For the Trevellyans themselves, this is of little concern, as they are a perky, adventurous clan and take it all in stride. But when their posh cousin decides she wants some adventure of her own and stows away with them, she finds it harder to adapt to the rough conditions. Then the uncovering of a reference to a family treasure hidden somewhere on the property leads to an exciting and sometimes harrowing search. (Note to self: When asked to search for treasure by being lowered into a well in a bucket, decline the opportunity.)
Pocock has some obvious weaknesses as a storyteller—a bit too formulaic, her prose a bit awkward and repetitive at times, a tendency to be overly obvious with her sentimental conclusions (of course, everyone learns valuable lessons in the end)—but the formula she uses is a pleasant and entertaining one, and the setting is enticing. It’s nowhere near as strong, for example, as Gwendoline Courtney's family tales, but certainly worth the four pounds I paid for it (especially with its lovely dustjacket).
|I love the book, but I still think the girl in|
yellow looks a bit like a Stepford wife. Perhaps
that explains their love for housekeeping?
And speaking of Gwendoline Courtney, I’m going to interject one more pre-holiday read here, because otherwise I know I’ll never get round to mentioning it. When I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by life just before our trip, I picked up one of several Courtney novels sitting on my TBR shelves, The Girls of Friar’s Rise (1952), which proved to be just the medicine I needed. All the more surprising because it is, apart from being a lovely family story, basically a tale of how delightful housework is—a theme I shouldn’t, by rights, enjoy at all. But reading about housekeeping is certainly better than undertaking it, and so this book, about a troupe of domestically accomplished girls, inadvertently left to manage on their own when their parents rush off to Canada and the adult supervision they’d arranged falls through, turns out to be quite delightful.
The girls befriend a new neighbor who has taken up residence in a ramshackle old house nearby in hopes that country life will help him recover from a serious illness. Such a scenario, in the hands of a modern thriller author, would no doubt lead to the girls being tortured or made into slave labor or the subjects of science experiments, but in Courtney’s more idyllic world, the man watches over the girls while they glory in making the ramshackle house into a home and help to heal him with their affection and ample produce from their garden.
It’s really a lovely book. Not quite, for me, to the standard of Courtney’s earlier book, Sally’s Family, which deals just a bit more realistically with the realities of postwar life, but it’s nevertheless wonderful, feel-good fun. It was reprinted by Girls Gone By a few years ago, but is out-of-print again now. Hopefully they’ll get around to a reprint one of these days.
And that’s that. I actually managed to do a fair bit of reading, if you consider how much ground we were covering every day on the trip! The mark of a true addict…