Deep Water – Christine Poulson

A cure for obesity is the Holy Grail of medical research. Two years after a drug trial that went horribly wrong when a participant died, Calliope Biotech is close to success in the quest for a drug that will cure obesity. When another company claims to have got there first, & takes their claim to court, patent lawyer Daniel Marchmont is employed by Calliope’s entrepreneurial director, Lyle Linstrum, to scrutinize the evidence of lab books & trials when the lawyer working on the case, Jennifer Blunt, is killed in a car accident. Daniel’s reservations about taking on the enormous workload of the case are complicated by the fact that Jennifer was his ex-wife, who had left him for his best friend. Now happily married to Rachel, they have a daughter, Chloe, who suffers from Diamond-Blackfan anaemia. Rachel is concerned that taking on Jennifer’s case in such circumstances will revive painful memories but she’s unprepared for the stress that events from the past will place on her marriage. When Daniel discovers that a vital lab book, detailing the experiments undertaken by Honor Masterman & her team, is missing, & questions are raised about Jennifer’s professional competence, the car accident begins to look more sinister. When Daniel finds the missing lab book hidden in Jennifer’s house, the mystery only deepens as he tries to discover why Jennifer hid the book & what impact its contents will have on the case.

Chloe’s condition needs constant treatment – blood transfusions, injections – & the only hope for a cure is either a bone marrow transplant (neither Daniel or Rachel is a match) or the research that consultant paediatrician Paul O’Sullivan & his team are working on. Grant money is fast running out & researcher Katie Flanagan is under pressure to come up with publishable results that will hopefully lead to a cure for Diamond-Blackfan anaemia. Rachel is involved with the charity sponsoring the research &, after meeting her, Katie is very aware of the lives that depend on her work. That’s why she’s frustrated when her experiments don’t seem to be producing the expected results. Katie is also aware of how important this research is for her own career. She can’t stagnate at her current level forever. She needs to move on from postdoctoral research in a lab to a lectureship or permanent university post. After the sudden death of her supervisor, she was lucky to be offered a bench in Honor Masterman’s lab to be able to complete her research before the grant money ran out.

Professor Honor Masterman has been touted as a future Nobel Laureate & her team, led by Will Orville, are depending on the successful outcome of the patent case; their reputations depend on it. Katie is grateful for a working space but soon becomes aware that there’s something wrong at the lab. Working late at night she’s aware that there’s someone else there, someone who isn’t written in the log book. There are also odd accidents – chemicals misplaced, the spread of radioactive contamination. There’s also the puzzling non-results of Katie’s experiments. A gas explosion that leaves a security guard & lab technician Ian Gladwill in hospital leaves Katie wondering if someone could be deliberately sabotaging the lab. Katie’s friendship with Rachel leads to her renting the Marchmont’s barge when her flat’s lease runs out. She becomes involved in Daniel’s case when she’s able to help him interpret the crucial lab book & begins investigating, putting herself in considerable danger as reputations & a lot of money are at stake.

Deep Water is a terrific thriller. I enjoyed it as much as Christine Poulson’s last novel, Invisible. I really enjoy the way that she combines a tense plot with the very personal stories of her protagonists. Daniel & Rachel’s desperate search for a cure for Chloe that leads Rachel to join the board of the charity raising money for research is underpinned by the details of Chloe’s ongoing treatment. Their life revolves around Chloe’s needs but they’re a happy couple until Jennifer’s ghost brings back Daniel’s memories of their marriage & heightens Rachel’s insecurities about her place as Daniel’s second wife – was she only second-best? Daniel’s reservations about taking on Jennifer’s case are complicated not just by personal feelings but the need for his company to keep Lyle Linstrum happy. He can have no idea of the complications that the case will bring to him personally as well as professionally.

I also loved all the detail about scientific research & the constant need to publish, chase grants & funding, the temptation to heighten or even falsify results is ever-present. The atmosphere of the lab, with its strict security & focused researchers, was great but I always love the sense of place that Christine Poulson evokes. The Cambridgeshire Fens, Ely Cathedral & especially the lonely stretch of water where the barge is moored, were so evocative. As a cat lover I also have to mention Orlando, the ginger cat who has several significant scenes in the narrative. Katie Flanagan is a very sympathetic character & I’m pleased that Deep Water is the first in a series featuring Katie. The moral & ethical dilemmas in the story are incredibly knotty & all the characters have to grapple with the human cost of their actions. I always read Christine’s books in a great rush & this was no exception.

Lion Fiction kindly sent me a review copy of Deep Water. You can read more about Christine’s work at her website here & there are interviews with Christine on Sue Hepworth’s blog & at Clothes in Books.

O Pioneers! – Willa Cather

John Bergson emigrated from Sweden with his family in the 1870s. They settled in Nebraska where there were many other European migrant communities – German, Bohemian, Norwegian. After several tough years farming on The Divide, struggling against poor crops & bad weather, John is dying. He leaves the direction of the farm’s future to his daughter, Alexandra, a capable young woman who has the vision that is lacking in her two brothers, Lou & Oscar. We first see Alexandra in the role that will become familiar – taking charge of a situation. She comforts her youngest brother, Emil, when his kitten is chased up a pole outside the general store & asks her friend, Carl Linstrum, to rescue it. She is calm & sensible, dismissive of the admiration of a passer-by & preoccupied by her father’s illness. Lou & Oscar are good workers but unimaginative. They agree with their father’s last wish, that Alexandra will run the farm. After John’s death, there are several hard years but Alexandra is determined to keep the land they have & she convinces her brothers to take out a mortgage to buy more land when other farmers, including their neighbours the Linstrums, are selling out.

Sixteen years later, Alexandra’s determination has paid off. She is the owner of a flourishing farm, employing farmhands & training young Swedish girls as servants. Lou & Oscar are married & settled on their own farms with their families. Alexandra is determined to send Emil to college, although Lou & Oscar, unimaginative as ever, can’t see the point. Alexandra’s neighbour, Marie Shabata, is an attractive, vivacious young woman who married a handsome man who soon turned surly & unpredictable. Her childhood friendship with Emil has continued & she admires Alexandra’s calm efficiency at the head of her household.

Alexandra herself has changed very little. Her figure is fuller and she has more color. She seems sunnier and more vigorous than she did as a young girl. But she still has the same calmness and deliberation of manner, the same clear eyes, and she still wears her hair in two braids wound round her head. It is so curly that fiery ends escape from the braids and make her head look like on of the big double sunflowers that fringe her vegetable garden. Her face is always tanned in summer, for her sunbonnet is oftener on her arm than on her head. But where her collar falls away from her neck, or where her sleeves are pushed back from her wrist, the skin is of such smoothness and whiteness as none but Swedish women ever possess; skin with the freshness of the snow itself.

Alexandra is pleased when Carl Linstrum returns to The Divide after years away. Carl has always cared for her & his visit soothes the loneliness of her life. Lou & Oscar accuse Alexandra of impropriety & think Carl is after Alexandra’s money (or, more accurately, their own children’s inheritance). This causes a breach between Alexandra & her brothers & Carl leaves to seek his fortune in Alaska without any definite understanding between himself & Alexandra. Emil’s love for Marie seems hopeless & he decides to leave as well.

O Pioneers! was Willa Cather’s second novel & is considered one of the greatest American regional novels. Cather admired the work of Sarah Orne Jewett (who had encouraged her to write) & her influence is very evident in the glorious descriptions of the natural world & the landscape. Cather grew up in Nebraska &, in the portraits of the farmers & their families, she pays tribute to the women especially that she saw around her. In some ways, O Pioneers! was her true first novel as she later wrote when comparing it to her actual first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, about a young engineer & set mostly in London.

… I began to write a book entirely for myself; a story about some Scandinavians and Bohemians who had been neighbors of ours when I lived on a ranch in Nebraska, when I was eight or nine years old. I found it a much more absorbing occupation than writing Alexander’s Bridge, a different process altogether. Here there was no arranging or “inventing”; everything was spontaneous and took its own place, right or wrong. This was like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding. The other was like riding in a park, with someone not altogether congenial, to whom you had to be talking all the time.
(from My First Novels – There Were Two, The Colophon 1931)

O Pioneers! was unusual (it was published in 1913) as the popular novels of the time were the society or drawing room novels of masters like Edith Wharton & Henry James. Willa Cather’s greatest novels & stories are set in Nebraska where she grew up & in New Mexico & other places where she travelled in later life. She was carrying on the tradition of writers like Jewett & Mary Wilkins Freeman in focusing on the lives of rural communities, often immigrant communities. Drawing on her childhood memories & the nostalgic affection she felt for the people & the times is one of the strengths of her work.

Alexandra is such a wonderful character. Calm, sensible, intelligent, she dominates the narrative as she dominates her family. She’s like a medieval queen or great heiress, providing for her family, caring for her employees & treating them well but finding herself lonely in her lofty position. She also has her charities, from old Ivar, the strange old man who goes barefoot & has strange visions but has a canny common sense when it comes to farming to old Mrs Lee, Lou’s mother-in-law, who looks forward all year to her visit to Alexandra where she can wear her comfortable clothes & tell all the old stories from her homeland that her daughter is too sophisticated to care about. Alexandra’s competence leaves her feeling isolated & lonely, with only her old friendship with Carl to comfort her. Even Emil expects her to always be there, never changing, while he sets off to Mexico for adventures or is absorbed in his own thoughts of his hopeless love.  

O Pioneers! is a quiet book about determination & perseverance. The big emotions are there although they are hidden under the hard work & social expectations of a tight-knit community. In that same article for The Colophon, Cather writes,

… I did not in the least expect that other people would see anything in a slow-moving story, without “action”. without “humor”, without a “hero”; a story concerned entirely with heavy farming people, with cornfields and pasture lands and pig yards – set in Nebraska, of all places!

& was surprised when it was published. After her third novel, The Song of the Lark, Cather found herself going back to the direction of O Pioneers! with My Ántonia. Her best-loved novels are these stories about pioneering immigrant families & strong women like Alexandra Bergson & Ántonia Shimerda. Thank goodness she took that direction rather than any other.

Cold Earth – Ann Cleeves

During Magnus Tait’s funeral a landslide sweeps down the hill &, along with headstones & grave markers, destroys a nearby croft. Inspector Jimmy Perez is attending the funeral & decides to take a look at the seemingly abandoned croft. He’s surprised to find a woman’s body among the debris & even more surprised to discover that the forensic evidence points to murder rather than accidental death. The croft, Tain, had belonged to Minnie Laurenson &, after her death, her American niece had inherited the property. Apart from the occasional holiday let, the croft was empty & the identity of the woman proves hard to track down. The only clue is a letter addressed to Alis & a belt that may be the murder weapon. Local landowners Jane & Kevin Hay were Minnie’s closest neighbours but polytunnels & trees obscure their view. Perez calls in Chief Inspector Willow Reeves from Inverness to lead the investigation & the team’s first priority is to discover the identity of the victim.

Jimmy & Willow have worked together before & their friendship is tinged with a tentative attraction that both of them recognise but are unwilling to explore. Jimmy is still grieving for his fiancée, Fran, & he’s caring for Fran’s daughter, Cassie. He returned to Shetland some years before & knows the benefits & disadvantages of a tight-knit community when it comes to a murder investigation. The first clues to the victim’s identity point to a happy, attractive woman buying champagne for a special Valentine’s Day dinner but then another witness, Simon Agnew, comes forward & describes a visit from the same woman to his counselling drop-in service where she had been distraught & despairing. When the team discovers that the woman was using a false identity & that she had ties to Shetland going back some years, they need to find out who could have stayed in contact with her & what brought her back to the island. A second murder close to the scene of the first complicates the investigation & leads to suspicion & mistrust as the victim’s private life is exposed.

The Shetland series is one of my favourites (links to my previous reviews are here). Originally a quartet of novels – Raven Black, White Nights, Red Bones, Blue Lightning – but the success of the quartet led to more Shetland novels – Dead Water, Thin Air & now Cold Earth. The Shetland setting is one of the strengths of the books. A remote, relatively closed community (although less so since the expansion of the oil & gas companies) is a classic setting for mystery novels & Ann Cleeves makes the most of the connections between families that result from living in such close proximity. Jimmy Perez is an enigmatic man who has had enough time away from Shetland to be mistrusted by some but it’s also given him perspective which is valuable in his work. In a way Jimmy is the typical loner detective, self-contained & melancholy, but he’s a more well-rounded character than the stereotype implies. Sergeant Sandy Wilson, who has lived on Shetland all his life, lacks confidence & looks to Jimmy for reassurance. His familiarity with the people & the place is both an asset & a burden but Jimmy has learnt how to work with Sandy to bring out the best in him.

All the characters are interesting & memorable, no matter how small a part they play in the story, like the observant young cashier at the supermarket who grabs any excuse for a cigarette & a coffee break to talk to Sandy to Rogerson’s business partner, Paul Taylor, with his frazzled wife & three small sons. Jane Hay is a recovering alcoholic who is starting to feel restless in her gratitude to her husband for supporting her & worried about her son, Andy, who has dropped out of university & is back home, silent & uncommunicative. Jane’s husband, Kevin, works hard but is unsettled by something or someone. Local councilor, solicitor Tom Rogerson seems successful but some of his decisions on the Council have upset locals & his family – wife Mavis & daughter Kathryn, the local schoolteacher – seem unaware of the rumours about his womanising.

I read Cold Earth so fast that, as usual, I had no idea about the identity of the murderer, even as Jimmy & Willow were racing towards the solution. I love a police procedural where all the steps of the investigation are laid out. There are flashes of intuition but most of the work is a hard slog, often frustrating but with enough clues to keep the detectives hoping & the readers reading along at a breakneck pace. I’m assuming that there will be a final novel in this second quartet with Fire in the title & I can’t wait!

The Life of Charlotte Brontë – Elizabeth Gaskell

When Charlotte Brontë died in 1855, she was a famous novelist. Her literary reputation was high after the success of Jane Eyre, Shirley & Villette. However, her personal life was still a subject for gossip & ill-informed rumour. When Charlotte’s friend, Ellen Nussey, read an article that mixed critical acclaim with gossipy innuendo about Charlotte’s life, she encouraged Charlotte’s father, Patrick, & her widower, Arthur Nicholls, to commission a response that would silence the gossip. Although Arthur would have preferred a dignified silence, Patrick was persuaded & he agreed with Ellen that Elizabeth Gaskell was the right person to write such a response. Elizabeth Gaskell was not only a respected novelist herself but had known Charlotte in the last years of her life. The familiar story of the Brontë sisters begins with Gaskell’s biography so, instead of retelling that story, I’m going to focus more on the writing of the biography & its effects on Brontë biography ever since.

The book that resulted is one of the greatest biographies ever written about a writer. Gaskell had admired Charlotte & had a profound sympathy for her struggles as a writer & as a woman. She had been just as avid as everyone else to discover the identity of the author of Jane Eyre, which had been published under the pseudonym Currer Bell in 1847. Through her friendship with philanthropist Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth she met Charlotte & they became friends. Gaskell heard from Charlotte herself the sad tale of death & illness that had haunted her family & observed at first hand the struggle Charlotte made to overcome her shyness & her ill-health to enjoy the fame that her books brought her. They corresponded & visited each other so Gaskell was already predisposed to defend Charlotte from any slights when she was asked to write a memoir of her friend. The charge that Jane Eyre was a  “coarse” book, unsuitable for young girls to read, was especially offensive to Gaskell & so she was determined to emphasize the dutiful womanliness of Charlotte Brontë. Her book would show that the unique experiences of Charlotte’s life & her devotion to the truth had fed into the work & charges of coarseness & unwomanliness were completely unjustified.

The publication of the Life caused an immediate storm & scandal. The public’s desire to know more about the author of Jane Eyre was amply satisfied by the book although those who felt slighted or slandered were not long in coming forward. Gaskell’s research had uncovered the truth behind the Lowood scenes in Jane Eyre & she did not scruple to name names when she described Cowan’s Bridge & its head, the Rev Carus Wilson, the original of the odious Mr Brocklehurst. She also retold the story of Branwell Brontë’s employment with the Robinson family & believed his story of his passion for Mrs Robinson & blamed her for Branwell’s decline into alcoholism & death. When Gaskell was writing the book, she jokingly asked her publishers, ” Do you mind the law of libel. I have three people I want to libel …”. Unfortunately it was no joke when she was threatened with lawsuits by Lydia Robinson (she had remarried after her husband’s death & was now Lady Scott) & the family of Carus Wilson. A second edition was already in print but the third, corrected, edition took her months of work & was eventually longer than the first edition. The edition I read was the first edition which has all the libelous bits intact. Gaskell’s righteous anger is clear in these passages & also her reliance on the evidence she gathered from Patrick Brontë & Ellen Nussey as well as Charlotte’s own letters.

Patrick Brontë admired the book & felt that it did justice to his daughter but his reputation suffered as well. The picture of Patrick as a stern misanthrope, cutting up his wife’s silk dress & destroying his children’s coloured boots as too frivolous, made him seem a crank. Gaskell got these stories from a couple of disgruntled former servants but she was too intimidated by Patrick to ask him for his side of the story. He generously refused to reproach her for the portrait she drew of him & it has been said that his reputation has only recently been rehabilitated by the work of biographers like Dudley Green & Juliet Barker. Gaskell also suppressed evidence that didn’t fit with her thesis of a woman made great by suffering. She went to Brussels, where Charlotte & Emily Brontë attended the Pensionnat Heger. Here, Charlotte fell in love with her teacher Constantin Heger, the model for Paul Emanuel in Villette. She wrote him passionate letters which Madame Heger had kept & which she showed to Gaskell. Horrified by this evidence of Charlotte’s love for a married man, Gaskell attributed Charlotte’s misery during her second year in Brussels to worries about Branwell & her family. The secret of the letters was kept until the early 20th century when the Heger’s son donated them to the British Library.

One of the great strengths of the biography is the use that Gaskell made of Charlotte’s letters. Charlotte’s own voice, in her letters to Ellen, to her publishers George Smith & William Smith Williams & to Gaskell herself, is vigorous & alive. Her opinions are pithy &, even though Gaskell edited the letters carefully to remove any details or comments that detracted from the image she wished to present, it was impossible to silence Charlotte’s unique voice. Gaskell was a novelist & the narrative reads like a novel, once the early scene setting chapters are past. The story itself could not be more compelling & although she fudged some unpalatable facts & got things wrong, Gaskell’s version was substantially true. She may have emphasized Charlotte’s domestic virtues over her literary talent, but those domestic virtues were part of Charlotte’s life just as much as her work. It wasn’t until the later twentieth century that the Brontë Myth (as Lucasta Miller calls it in her wonderful book of that name) of the scribbling sisters in their isolated moorland home was overturned. Gaskell’s version of Charlotte’s life isn’t the only one to read if you want a complete view but it’s the only biography written by someone who knew Charlotte & who had a profound sympathy for her life & her work, a fellow novelist who admired the work & was passionately committed to the rehabilitation of her memory.

Full Moon – P G Wodehouse

If I mention two words – pigs & imposters – that’s really all you need to know about Full Moon, one of the Blandings novels of P G Wodehouse. I love Wodehouse & I’m very grateful to Simon & Karen for choosing 1947 for the latest instalment of their Club as it meant I had a chance to read one of his funniest novels.

As usual, there are several romantic couples facing opposition from the formidable women of Lord Emsworth’s family. His sister, Lady Hermione Wedge, has a beautiful but dim daughter, Veronica, who needs a rich husband. Lord Emsworth’s son, Freddie, now a super salesman for his American father-in-law’s dog biscuit business, is bringing his friend, supermarket millionaire, Tipton Plimsoll, down to Blandings in the hope of convincing him to stock Donaldson’s Dog-Joy in his chain of supermarkets. Lady Hermione thinks Tipton would be perfect for Vee. Tipton falls madly in love at first sight but is misled by Lord Emsworth into thinking that Vee is in love with Freddie. Tipton is also unnerved by a doctor’s diagnosis of the spots on his chest as a sign of alcoholic poisoning & warns him of hallucinations & other dire symptoms unless he stops drinking immediately. The fact that Tipton has started seeing a grotesque face appearing & disappearing at frequent intervals is enough to put him off the drink for life.

The face in question belongs to artist Bill Lister (known to Freddie, of course, as Blister) who has no idea that he has become the stuff of Tipton’s nightmares. Bill is in love with Prudence Garland, daughter of Lord Emsworth’s sister, Dora. Even though Bill has just inherited a pub which Prudence thinks could be very successful with a little work, her mother forbids her daughter to marry an artist & sends Prue down to Blandings Castle to be guarded by her Aunt Hermione. Bill’s godfather happens to be Lord Emsworth’s brother, the Hon Galahad Threepwood. Gally decides that Bill should follow Prue to Blandings disguised as a gardener & wearing a false beard that makes him look like an Assyrian king. This bid fails miserably when Bill mistakes Lady Hermione for the cook & tries to bribe her with half a crown to take a letter to Prue, but Gally’s next idea is even better. He introduces Bill (without the beard) to his brother as Edwin Landseer, the perfect man to paint a portrait of the Empress of Blandings, Lord Emsworth’s prize-winning pig. Complications ensue as you might imagine.

It’s all quite mad but a lot of fun. It was even more fun as I listened to the audio book of Full Moon read by Jeremy Sinden, which was wonderful. Jeremy Sinden is one of my favourite narrators of Wodehouse & I’m sure he narrated quite a few titles but there are only a few available on Audible. It amazes me that the plot components of all the Blandings novels consist of a selection of the following – imposters, thwarted love, the threat of the Empress being stolen or not eating, terrifying aunts, Gally’s schemes & Lord Emsworth’s dottiness – but they are all so funny. Wodehouse’s wordplay is sublime & his way with names can be compared with Dickens.  My favourite in this book was E Jimpson Murgatroyd, Tipton’s doctor. No matter how complicated the plot becomes, all will come right in the end.

Close Quarters – Michael Gilbert

My first choice for the 1947 Club is Michael Gilbert’s first novel, Close Quarters. It’s an atmospheric murder mystery set in a cathedral close in the years before the Second World War.

The Dean of Melchester Cathedral is concerned about a campaign of anonymous letters targeting the senior verger, Daniel Appledown. Appledown is an elderly man who has held the post for many  years. The letters accuse him of being unfit for the job & of unspecified illicit activities with the wife of a fellow verger. When the incidents become more public – leaflets in the choristers’  music scores & accusations painted on the garden wall, the Dean decides that he needs to consult an expert. The earlier death of Canon Whyte, who fell from the Cathedral Tower a year earlier, is also playing on the Dean’s mind. His nephew, Bobby Pollock, is a Detective Sergeant at Scotland Yard & the Dean decides to invite him down for a few days to look into the matter.

When Pollock arrives, the Dean fills him in & describes the residents of the Close. Canons Residentiary, Vicars Choral, Verger & the Choirmaster as well as the Dean, their wives, daughters & servants as well as a black cat called Benjamin Disraeli. There’s also Sergeant Brumfit, constable of the Close, who looks after the main gate assisted by his wife & seven children. Pollock begins his investigations, interviewing the other residents & discovering quite a bit about the rivalries & alliances of the inhabitants. Then, Appledown is found dead, murdered by a blow to the head, & Pollock calls in his boss, Inspector Hazlerigg, to assist the local police with the investigation.

The crucial time is around 8pm on the night before Appledown’s body is found. Everyone in the Close had a regular routine of Church services & duties with the Choir but there are some interesting anomalies on the night in question. Nosy Mrs Judd (widow of a former resident who has stayed on despite all attempts to move her out) sees everyone who comes & goes through one of the entrances to the Close but even she has to leave her vantage point to eat dinner. Rev Prynne was at the cinema; Rev Malthus was supposed to be visiting his ill sister but he couldn’t have caught the train back to Melchester that he claims to have caught; Choirmaster Mickie arrives home & tells his wife that he’s just seen a ghost; Appledown’s disreputable brother, who lived with him, was out with his Lodge on a regular outing & finished off the evening in the pub. Several members of the community claim to have been in the pub or working alone in their study or only have wives & daughters to give them an alibi. Hazlerigg & Pollock believe that the writer of the anonymous letters is also the murderer but what could be the motive?

There’s a mind behind this business, make no mistake about that. a very fine brain, cool, calculating, and deadly careful. every step, every single step, has been thought out beforehand. I have felt that once – twice – three times already today. … the calm and clever thoughts of a man confident in his own ability. … “Not madness but sanity – a sort of terrible sanity. Wne we discover the truth we shall find it as something simple and obvious. Its simplicity will be its strength. No elaboration – no frills – nothing to catch hold of.”

I enjoyed Close Quarters very much & it’s made me keen to read more of Gilbert’s work. This was his first novel & while there may be too many characters to comfortably keep track of (fifty people living in the Close alone although we don’t meet all of them), this is an exciting story with multiple red herrings & possible explanations. There are some great set pieces, especially a long chase by train & cab through London by Pollock following one character who, in turn, is following someone else & a long conversation between Hazlerigg & Pollock that lasts into the early hours of the morning as they work through the movements of their suspects. Gilbert’s style has plenty of humour & wit,

“Good gracious me, you don’t have to be invited. It’s a regular Thursday afternoon ‘do’. The Chapter take it in turns, and everyone in the Close rolls up and eats sandwiches and lacerates each other’s characters, and all in the most Christian way imaginable. You’ll regret it all your life if you miss it.”

There are definite echoes of Dorothy L Sayers in this mystery, from the elaborate working out of a crossword puzzle to the closed circle of suspects not unlike the similar setting of Gaudy Night. Actually it made me want to immediately reread Gaudy Night & I mean that as a compliment. This is a true mystery of the Golden Age, complete with maps of the Close & a handy list of the main characters. I have a couple of Gilbert’s other books on the tbr shelf (one in paper, Blood and Judgement, & the other, The Black Seraphim, an eBook I bought when Christine Poulson recommended Gilbert last year & again it in this great list of books set in Cathedrals). I’m very glad that the 1947 Club inspired me to get this book off the tbr shelves, it was a great mystery & a very enjoyable read. Thank you Simon & Karen.

Caught in the Revolution – Helen Rappaport

Helen Rappaport’s new book is a fascinating exploration of 1917 in Petrograd, the year of revolution, seen through the eyes of the expatriates living there. I’ve always been interested in Russian history but I knew very little about the progress of the Revolution from the perspective of the people living in Petrograd at the time. Caught in the Revolution is based on the memoirs & letters of the diplomats, journalists & nurses living in Petrograd during these tumultuous events.

By February 1917 Russia had been at war with Germany & Austria-Hungary for almost three long years.  The progress of the war had exposed all the problems of a pre-industrial society attempting to wage war in the modern age. Although Russia could put millions of men into the field, they were poorly equipped. Supplies had to be transported vast distances & the infrastructure just wasn’t capable of keeping up with the demand. At the centre of the regime was the Tsar, Nicholas II, who decided to take control of the army, leaving the government in the hands of his wife, Tsarina Alexandra. Alexandra was disastrously dependent on Grigory Rasputin & made decisions about the appointment of ministers based on his advice. The government were unable to oppose Alexandra’s wishes & Nicholas was too far away for appeal. Unfortunately Nicholas had faith in Alexandra & refused to change any of the appointments she & Rasputin made. Rasputin was murdered in December 1916 but, by then, it was too late to restore confidence in the government or the Tsar. The diplomatic community, led by the French ambassador Maurice Paléologue & British ambassador Sir George Buchanan, had tried to convince the Tsar that Russia was in trouble but he listened to their pleas politely & ignored them.  The American ambassador, David Rowland Francis, had arrived in Petrograd in April 1916 & was still feeling his way into the post when trouble began.

The situation came to a head in February when shortages of flour led to riots when supplies of bread ran out. Factory workers soon went out on strike & the Cossacks – the Tsarist regime’s most loyal supporters – refused to fire on the strikers. Eventually they mutinied & joined the strikers. The strikes were brutally opposed by the police as the government stood helplessly by & the protesters were emboldened by the restraint shown by the soldiers. American journalists Florence Harper & Donald Thompson found themselves in the middle of several protest marches & were impressed by how good-humoured the marchers were. Thompson had to be careful when taking photos not to be mistaken for a member of the secret police, who were the only people attracting the anger of the crowd. Eventually violence broke out when a group of protesters ransacked a pastry shop & the police responded with machine gun fire. The government was paralysed by a lack of leadership & attempts to convince the Tsar of the seriousness of events were unsuccessful. When Nicholas did decide to return to Petrograd, it was too late. Mutinying regiments blocked his train & he was convinced to abdicate.

The Provisional Government, led by Alexander Kerensky, was welcomed by the people, who expected immediate relief from all their problems. Workers went back to their factories demanding higher wages & shorter hours; citizens expected that food shortages would end; soldiers & sailors who had mutinied & shot their officers seemed to have forgotten about the war altogether. Kerensky struggled to keep his government together & was under threat from the more radical Bolsheviks led by Lenin, who had returned from exile. As a symbol of just how much had changed, Lenin set up his headquarters in the Kschessinska Mansion opposite the British Embassy. The mansion had been built for Mathilde Kschessinska, former prima ballerina & mistress of Tsar Nicholas. Kschessinska had fled to Paris just in time, leaving everything behind. By October, the unrealistic expectations of the people had collided with the ambitions of the radicals. Kerensky was overthrown & Lenin took charge.

That’s an incredibly short summary of the events of 1917. Helen Rappaport describes the political machinations very clearly but the core of the book & what I really want to focus on, are the eyewitness accounts because it’s these accounts that make the book such compulsive reading. The Press were censored by the Tsarist regime so journalists & photographers like Harper & Thompson were frustrated in their attempts to tell the world what was happening. Nevertheless they kept recording the sights & sounds of those incredible months. As soon as the Tsar abdicated, censorship was lifted & they could get their stories out. Many of the protagonists in the book also wrote memoirs after the events based on their diaries or the letters they wrote to family & friends at home.

There are wonderful eyewitness accounts of events like the funeral procession to the Field of Mars near the Pavlovsky Barracks & the Summer Garden for the victims of the Revolution. Already propaganda had taken over truth as many of the victims had already been buried by their families & empty coffins or just planks of wood were carried in procession to represent them. Florence Harper had been to the morgues in the preceding days to see the pitiful sight of people searching among the frozen corpses for their loved ones.

I loved the many intimate details of everyday life described in the book. The expatriates had just as much trouble staying warm, finding shelter & enough to eat as the locals. The fact that they were foreigners often made it more difficult as they were suspected of being spies & traitors. The descriptions of the bitter cold, the dreadful food & the lack of basic necessities highlight the chaos of the times. Sir George Buchanan’s wife, Lady Georgina, & daughter, Meriel, continued their charity work as did other women, often nurses & governesses who found themselves trapped in Petrograd. Revolution didn’t stop the inevitable friction between competing charitable enterprises as Lady Georgina’s hospital was eclipsed by Lady Muriel Paget’s Anglo-Russian Hospital which had been opened in 1916 by Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna & her granddaughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga & Tatiana. The chaos meant that it was difficult to know what was happening, who to trust, how many people had been killed & sometimes, just who was in charge. Nurses like Dorothy Seymour & Lady Sybil Grey struggled with the difficult working conditions, the fear & uncertainty but admitted that they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. They were seeing history unfold before their eyes.

Among the many unknown witnesses were some famous people. I had no idea that Emmeline Pankhurst, accompanied by Jessie Kenney, travelled to Petrograd at the height of the revolution to advise & support Russian women (whether they were particularly grateful for her advice was another story). She sympathized with the revolutionary cause but also wanted to convince Russia not to abandon the war. She was especially impressed by the women who were serving in the Army in a newly formed Women’s Death Battalion, commanded by Maria Bochkareva. Somerset Maugham was there, on a secret mission from the Intelligence Services to prevent the revolution & keep Russia in the war – rather a tall order! Hugh Walpole was there, working in propaganda at the British Embassy. Most famous of all in later years were John Reed & Louise Bryant. Reed’s account,Ten Days that Shook the World, has been influential in how the Revolution is remembered in the West but Rappaport demonstrates how much more can be gleaned from looking further.

Caught in the Revolution is an exciting story that I found impossible to put down. I read it in two days, caught up in the drama of the times & the stories of the people I came to know so well. Helen Rappaport handles a large cast of characters expertly; I’ve only mentioned a few of the many expatriates whose experiences she weaves into a compelling tale of this most crucial year in the history of Russia & the 20th century I follow Helen on Facebook & I was surprised to read last week that she’s having difficulty convincing TV production companies to commission programs about the Revolution for the 100th anniversary in 2017. I can’t think of a more dramatic event & this book certainly has more than enough personal stories to focus on. Hopefully the idea will be taken up & we can look forward to an adaptation of Caught in the Revolution next year.

A Chelsea Concerto – Frances Faviell

In 1939, Frances Faviell was living in Cheyne Place, Chelsea. She was an artist in her mid 30s & had just met Richard Parker, the man who would become her second husband. She had a facility for languages & trained as a Red Cross volunteer in preparation for the bombing that became more & more inevitable as Germany invaded & occupied Holland, Belgium & France. The Blitz devastated many parts of Britain but Chelsea, close to the main bridges over the Thames, was one of the most heavily bombed areas of London. A Chelsea Concerto tells the story of the Blitz through the eyes of a compassionate, sensitive woman whose common sense, patriotism & sense of humour were tested but never entirely broken by the onslaught.

Faviell’s memoir begins with the process of training as a Red Cross volunteer during the early months of the war. This period of Phoney War allowed London to prepare but also added to the sense of unreality as volunteers were bandaged up after imaginary bombing raids & practiced putting out incendiary bombs with sand & stirrup pumps. Practice shifts in hospitals were interspersed with lectures, including one by a doctor who had served in Spain during the Civil War. His words, “Casualties don’t choose their place of annihilation – the bombs choose them – anywhere – anytime. You must be prepared for anything.”, came back to Frances many times during the years that followed as the sometimes comical practice sessions gave way to the first bombing raids.

Frances Faviell was part of an artistic community in Chelsea that included Rex Whistler, with whom she’d studied at the Slade, & Edith Walker. She lived with her dachshund, Vicki (later nicknamed Miss Hitler because of her German origins), in a flat in a house on Cheyne Place that became a haven for her many friends. Her most prized possession was a green cat made of celadon that she had acquired as she left Peking in 1937. The cat was the Guardian of the Home & the man who gave it to Frances in exchange for her camera, told her that her home would be safe as long as the cat was treated with respect. Mrs Freeth, Frances’ housekeeper, was a remarkable manager who kept the household running no matter what else was happening. Frances acknowledged that she couldn’t have got through those years without Mrs Freeth’s support. On the top floor lived Kathleen Marshman & her daughters, Anne & Penty. Penty was intellectually disabled & was sent to live in the country when the Blitz began. Kathleen ran a dress shop & was a close friend of Frances even though she was older. Other friends included Larry, an American who had joined the Canadian Army & Cecil, a Canadian soldier who fell in love with Anne Marshman. Frances & Mrs Freeth also kept open house for the Civil Defence workers in the area who could rely on a cup of tea or bowl of soup after a long shift.

As the first refugees from Belgium began arriving, her language skills proved useful & she became an interpreter for a group of refugees living in Chelsea.This was a challenging task as the refugees were naturally shocked & traumatised by their experiences. The men were mainly fishermen who wanted to get back to their boats but the authorities had to screen them before allowing them into the community. Frances began teaching them English & tried to find them some employment to keep them busy as idleness & worry led to disputes over cooking & cleanliness. Vegetable plots were successful until the most difficult of the refugees, called by Frances the Giant, accused two others of stealing some of his plot &, once again, the police asked Frances to sort it out.

Other friends needed more support. Ruth, a German Jewish refugee, became suspicious of authority, convinced that she was being followed, her phone was tapped & that They would take her away. Her paranoia led to a breakdown & she attempted suicide. Ruth’s daughter, Clara, became Frances’s responsibility & she paid her school fees while Ruth was in hospital. Another young woman, Catherine, who had fled Belgium ahead of the invading German Army, narrowly escaped death as the refugees were bombed & shot at. She arrived in London alone & pregnant. She had been unable to marry her boyfriend in the rush of war & was obsessed with the shame of her predicament & with the perceived hostility of the other refugees to her plight. Frances supported her throughout her pregnancy & cared for the baby, Francesca, when Catherine failed to bond with her.

The Blitz was unrelenting during 1940. Sirens went nearly every night & sometimes during the day as well. Frances was working at a First Aid Post (FAP) as well as helping the Belgian refugees & also relieving telephonists at the Control Room in the Town Hall, taking messages for the Civil Defence staff. The bombs fell night after night, unexploded bombs (UXBs) were a hazard as well & negotiating the streets in the blackout during a raid had dangers of its own as Frances discovered when she almost fell into a crater that had once been a house. Running into a half-dressed woman who had been thrown clear when the bomb hit, Frances witnesses the efforts of the rescue crew to remove debris & rubble to get to the people who had been sleeping in the basement.

And almost at once there was sudden violent activity in the dead, ravaged street; the wails were drowned in the jarring of brakes, the screeching of engines, and sudden short sharp commands. In the thick evil-smelling blackness it was an eerie and ghastly sight to see all the preparations being made, the paraphernalia unloaded. did any of us realise how terribly dangerous and treacherous it was to have to excavate, shore up, and tunnel in such complete blackness for buried bodies – living or dead? Did we appreciate it until we saw it? I know that I had not until I watched the tunneling for Mildred Castillo and that had been mostly in day-light.

On another journey she was called on to be lowered head first into a shaft to sedate a badly wounded man. The description of this is horrific yet forensic in its detail, even down to the way she held the torch in her teeth & looked back on her acrobatics training with gratitude as she fought nausea & dizziness to stay conscious & help the man.

The sound coming from the hole was unnerving me – it was like an animal in a trap. I had once heard a long screaming like rabbits in traps from children with meningitis in India, but this was worse – almost inhuman in its agony. The torch showed me that the debris lay over both arms and that the chest of the man trapped there was crushed into a bloody mess – great beams lay across the lower part of his body – and his face was so injured that it was difficult to distinguish the mouth from the rest of it – it all seemed one great gaping red mess.

One of the worst jobs Frances was required to do was to reconstruct bodies blown apart by bombs, putting the limbs back together so that the families could be shown a body to identify. Sometimes there weren’t enough limbs & body parts to make the right number of bodies. The macabre nature of the task was mitigated by the knowledge that it just had to be done. There was no time to show fear or to be ill or disgusted; time enough for that when the work was finished. It was only when she had to visit a sick child on the top floor of a house (where no one willingly slept during a raid) that Frances felt afraid.

I think it was during some of those many visits to Raymond … that I first began to know real fear. Up to that time I had not really minded the Blitz at all. I had just married, and we were very happy, although the occasions when we were both together were increasingly rare. Richard was frequently away on tour for the Ministry, and I was often on night duty, but the bombs seemed a macabre background to our personal life, and the fear that either of us would be a victim of the Blitz was a remote thought – but it was one which now began recurringly to enter my head.

Life wasn’t unremittingly awful, even during the worst of the Blitz. Frances & Richard managed to get away from London & go walking on the Downs in Surrey where they watched dogfights overhead & marveled at the beauty & peace in the midst of destruction & death. There were parties in Cheyne Place & amusing incidents to relieve the horror as Frances tried to keep the peace among the refugees & planned her wedding. Little Vicki was unperturbed by the bombs & the knowledge that the Green Cat was serenely sitting on the windowsill guarding the house & its occupants was comforting. Frances was pregnant & had reduced her workload. Then, in December 1940, during the biggest raid Chelsea had experienced, Frances’ home suffered a direct hit & was completely destroyed. Frances, Richard & Vicki survived & were miraculously able to get out of the house with minor injuries. The description of the blast & the dazed aftermath is horrifying. Frances & Richard went to the FAP, not really knowing what else to do & returned to the house to discover that they had been presumed dead. This was the end of their life in Chelsea & the Parkers left London & moved to Esher.

Standing there by the great heap which had been our home without possessing even a pocket handkerchief gave me an extraordinary feeling of freedom mingled with awe. Yesterday it had been a lovely home filled with choice and beautiful objects. Like all the others round it, it had vanished in a few seconds, truly ‘gone with the wind’. I understood a little then of how some of the bombed-out and refugees must have felt, but strangely enough I didn’t mind at all,. I had already learned that home is to be with the person you love, and hadn’t I been wonderfully blessed in having Richard, the expected baby, and even Vicki all saved? As I turned over some of the rubble looking for even a chip of the Green Cat I thought of the Second Commandment, for, like the huge carpets, the heavy furniture and easels, he had simply disintegrated into dust.

This is a devastating book. I’ve never read a better memoir of the Blitz or one that affected me so much. The final chapters are heartbreaking to read & I read the last half of the book in one sitting, compelled & horrified in equal measure. I cannot believe that this book has been out of print for so long & I’m just so pleased that Scott from the Furrowed Middlebrow blog & Dean Street Press have brought A Chelsea Concerto back into print as the first title in their new imprint, Furrowed Middlebrow Books. Virginia Nicholson, author of Millions Like Us, has written the Foreword for this new edition. She describes her search for the author of this remarkable memoir & Faviell’s life after the war as she continued to paint & wrote fiction as well as A Chelsea Concerto & another memoir about life in post-war Berlin, The Dancing Bear (all reprinted by Dean Street Press), which exorcised the memories of the war at last.

Dean Street Press kindly sent me a review copy of A Chelsea Concerto.

Literary Ramblings

I have three terrific books to review but, at the moment, I don’t have the will or the energy to get my thoughts together. In the last two weeks, I’ve been in 19th century Yorkshire, revolutionary Russia & outback Australia in the days of the pioneers. However, I’m starting three weeks holiday on Friday &, right now, I have that “just let me get to the end of the week” feeling which means that coherent thought is beyond me. So, instead of a considered review of any of the books I’ve been reading, here are a few links, photos & reminders instead.

The freesias are from my garden, the first freesias I’ve ever successfully grown so I’m thrilled. Freesias are one of my favourite flowers, I love the scent. I know the jug they’re in has a Christmas theme & I hope this won’t mean that I’m condemned as one of those people (usually managers of supermarkets) who put the Christmas decorations & mince pies out in August. It was just the best sized jug for the purpose. The freesias only lasted a day at home as I had to save them from the Phantom Freesia Fancier, aka Lucky. I knew she loved eating roses but I thought the strong scent & the texture of the freesias would put her off.  It didn’t so, to save her from an upset stomach, or worse, I shut the flowers in the bathroom on Sunday & then took them to work. It’s been a very wet Spring here & I had to squelch across the lawn to pick them but it was worth it.

The 1947 Club is only a couple of weeks away & I have some very exciting books to choose from. Simon & Kaggsy are hosting a week of reading, blogging & discussing books published in 1947.

Here are the books I’ve plucked from the tbr shelves & I’m having a hard time deciding which ones to read. Any recommendations? In case the titles are a bit hard to read, they are Close Quarters by Michael Gilbert,  Full Moon by P G Wodehouse, A Crowd Is Not Company by Robert Kee, Poppies for England by Susan Scarlett (Noel Streatfeild) & The Serendipity Shop by Dorita Fairlie Bruce.

I feel that I should have read a Mary Stewart novel in celebration of her centenary this month but I’m running out of time & probably won’t get there. However, I’m looking forward to reading the reprint of her novella, The Wind off the Small Isles, which has been unavailable for some time.

Also looking forward to Artemis Cooper’s biography of Elizabeth Jane Howard. There’s an article here by Cooper on the biography & she was also a guest on BBC Radio’s Open Book last week. I’m between audio books at the moment so maybe All Change, the final Cazalet novel, read by Penelope Wilton, should be next?

I bought a copy of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin the other day & I was reminded of the excellent TV adaptation from the late 70s with Kate Nelligan & Brian Cox. Alan Rickman is also in this production, which I’d forgotten although I probably didn’t know who he was back then! It’s on YouTube here if you haven’t seen it & the quality of the picture looks very good.

I’m not a big fan of those publishing projects where writers “update” the work of Jane Austen or Shakespeare. However, I’m intrigued by Margaret Atwood’s take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Hag-Seed will be published next month & here Atwood explains her ideas on the play & her version of it.

I love photos of bookshops & here are some gorgeous photos of the Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company along with Jeanette Winterson’s Preface for a new book about the shop.

Finally, Scott from Furrowed Middlebrow has heroically made all of our bookish shopping sprees look positively anaemic compared to this majestic haul of 96 books from the Friends of the San Francisco Library book sale. The publication date for his new imprint, Furrowed Middlebrow Books, is fast approaching & I’ve already started reading A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell.

Brat Farrar – Josephine Tey

Patrick Ashby committed suicide when he was just thirteen. He threw himself off a cliff or swam out to sea until he could swim no more. His parents had been killed in a plane crash shortly before but his family – twin brother Simon, sisters Eleanor, Jane & Ruth & Aunt Beatrice – & friends had no idea that he was distressed enough to take such a drastic step. Beatrice Ashby (known as Bee) had stepped in to look after her nephews & nieces & take on the running of The Latchetts, the estate & horse stud that would provide a precarious living for the family. Precarious, that is, until Simon, now the heir to his mother’s fortune after Patrick’s death, turns 21 when he will inherit.

Just before this milestone, a young man turns up claiming to be Patrick Ashby. From the beginning, the reader knows that he is not Patrick but an imposter. Brat Farrar was a foundling, brought up in an orphanage. When he runs into Alec Loding on a London street, Loding is overcome by the family resemblance to the Ashbys, mistaking Brat at first for Simon. Loding conceives a scheme to defraud the Ashbys & make his own life as an unsuccessful actor easier. Loding had grown up at the neighboring estate to Latchetts & knew the family intimately. He convinces Brat that the scheme can work & coaches him in the part. Brat soon finds himself enjoying the adrenaline &, in a short time, he has convinced the family lawyers & Bee that he is Patrick returned from the dead.

Brat’s own life has been anonymous enough that he can just tell his own story, apart from the motives for his disappearance & how he found himself in America. Brat had worked with horses there & loved it until an accident left him lame. The Latchetts is everything he had ever dreamt of & he soon finds himself in love with the house & everyone in it; everyone except Simon who curiously refuses to accept that Patrick has returned. Simon has been done out of the inheritance that for eight years he had confidently expected would be his. But, is there some other reason for his attitude than arrogance & bad temper? How long will Brat be able to keep up the pretence before someone or something trips him up?

This is such a wonderful book. I love Josephine Tey’s novels & I read them all many years ago. The Daughter of Time is the only one I regularly reread but I love them all. Tey is so good at the psychological motivations of her characters. We are aware of Brat’s emotions from the start –  suspicion of Loding’s motives, to the excitement of the game & deceiving people so successfully to the complications that arise when he is welcomed into the Ashby family & begins to feel ashamed at his deception of these people he has grown to love. There’s also his wariness of Simon as he tries to work out his feelings & account for his behaviour. Bee was my favourite character. She has given up her own life to care for her brother’s children (like Elizabeth Branwell, who left the warmth of Cornwall for Haworth after her sister’s death – I’m rereading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë) & has endured not only his loss but that of Patrick as well. She is kind, loving & principled, refusing to touch the trust money even when the stud was in trouble & she, along with Simon & Eleanor, have kept Latchetts going.

Patrick comes alive to us as a sensitive, kind boy, as is evident in the joy that neighbours & tenants show on his return. Bee has been haunted by the thought of his final moments, wondering whether, at the last minute, he regretted his actions. One of the stumbling blocks for Bee in Patrick’s return is why he should never have written to her to let her know that he was safe. The Patrick she knew would not have been so cruel. Still, she welcomes Brat wholeheartedly & never reproaches him. Simon is arrogant, privileged & unlikeable but still, it’s not difficult to understand his shock at the change in his fortunes & the future he thought he would enjoy.

Tey is also good at creating a world, in this case, a horse stud & riding school. I’m not interested in horses at all but she made that world, with its horse shows, racing, riding lessons for bored schoolchildren & the precariousness of success where a bad season could almost destroy the business, very real & interesting. The minor characters are also interesting – vicar George Peck & his beautiful wife, Nancy, who is Alec Loding’s sister & was once the belle of county society, shepherd Abel, fussy Mr Sandal the lawyer, Lana Adams, the “help” who epitomises the new breed of household help post WWII & Glaswegian Mr Macallan, the local reporter who hopes his story about the Ashby resurrection will get him onto the front pages of the London papers. I couldn’t help but think that Tey made him Scots because of her background. I must find out if there’s a model in her life for all the young American men who pop up in her books – Brat & Brent Carradine in The Daughter of Time & I’m sure there was one in The Singing Sands. I could always read the recent biography on the tbr shelves, I suppose!

I listened to Brat Farrar on audio, read by Carole Boyd, one of my favourite narrators.

Anglophilebooks.comThere is a copy of Brat Farrar available from Anglophile Books.