Recommendsday: Books with Amazing Houses

So yesterday I took advantage of the last of my post-nightshift days off to go on a family jolly to Blenheim Palace.  It’s less than an hour from home, but surprisingly I’d never been before – perhaps because it’s not National Trust or English Heritage so you have to pay.  It was fabulous – and I got my day ticket converted into a year pass (which doesn’t cost any extra to do) so I can go back again and see some of the bits we didn’t have time for on Tuesday.  Any how, after a day out at a country house, it got me thinking about books which feature amazing houses.  So here’s a few for you for Recommendsday.

Blenheim Palace

OK the sky wasn’t as blue as I was hoping, but at least we didn’t get rained on…

I know it’s totally the obvious choice, but I had to start with Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.  It’s not my favourite Waugh (that’s Vile Bodies) but I know I may be in the minority on that.  I had a massive Waugh kick a couple of years ago and read a whole load of his novels back to back and for the most part they still really work.  Brideshead tells of Charles Ryder’s infatuation with the Marchmains and their upper class and crazy world.  The house is at the centre of it all as a character in and of itself.  Well worth reading if you haven’t already.  I definitely need to watch one or other of the TV/film versions soon.  And read Vile Bodies too.

Next, if you haven’t read any Roderick Alleyn books (and why not?) the first in the series, A Man Lay Dead, is set around a weekend party at a country house where one of the guests ends up dead.  Again, it’s not my favourite of the Alleyns (that’s Artists in Crime) but it’s a really good start to the series and a really good example of a country house murder mystery.

It feels like a while since I mentioned Rebecca on here, which is strange since the Du Maurier classic is one of my mum’s favourite books and I have a lovely Virago hardback copy which sits on my downstairs keeper shelf.  It’s creepy and gothic and has one of the most famous opening lines in literature in “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again”.  If you haven’t read it, why not and if you have go and reread it.  You won’t regret it*.

Finally, if you want something funny, try PG Wodehouse’s Blandings series.  The first one is Something Fresh, where you meet Lord Emsworth, his son Freddie and his secretary The Efficient Baxter and get a taste for the sort of high jinx that ensue.  I think I like them better than the Jeeves and Wooster books, but again I think I’m in the minority there.

I could go on – I haven’t even mentioned I Capture the Castle, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre or The Secret Garden..

All recommendations for more books with amazing houses gratefully received, in the meantime

Happy reading!

*Even if, spoiler alert, you never trust a housekeeper again.

Book of the Week: Cheerfulness Breaks In

As you may have seen, I didn’t read much last week.  It was a busy, stressful week at work and my brain was fried.  And then there wasn’t a lot to chose from for BotW.  And I know I’ve done an Angela Thirkell BotW before (not that long ago) but although this has its problems, it was still my favourite of the books I read last week.

 

Cheerfulness Breaks In sees the start of the Second World War and all the changes that brings.  It starts with Rose Birkett finally getting married (after having been engaged goodness knows how many times) and is very funny as that flighty damsel wonders if she can squeeze in a trip to the cinema on the morning of her wedding.  Then she’s off abroad with her serviceman husband and everything starts to change.  Some men are conscripted and go away, some are left at home fretting about how they’ll be treated because they haven’t been conscripted.  All the jolly hockey sticks girls throw themselves into nursing and the war effort and waves of evacuees arrive.  There are some very funny and poignant sections in here.

But – and there is a but – it does feel a bit dated because of some of the scenes with the evacuees and the Mixo-Lydians.  Thirkell’s view of the upper class/lower class divide is not as simplistic as some, because there are good people among the evacuated people – and some real idiots among the posh ones, but it is quite broad strokes, and strokes that favour the country people over the urban people.  But then Thirkell was writing this at the time these things were actually happening, so I’m chalking it up as having attitudes “of its time” and giving it a slight pass.  I suspect this is the reason why this one is an ebook only re-release from Virago rather than a pretty paperback like a lot of the others have had.

It’s available on Kindle or Kobo or you can pick up a secondhand paperback copy – but it’s not the best of Thirkell so don’t start here – go with Summer Half for some of the characters from this or Northbridge Rectory (actually the book after this in the series) or start at the beginning with High Rising.

Book of the Week: Northbridge Rectory

A tricky choice for BotW this week – I loved the Ben Aaronovitch that I read last week, but it is the 5th in the series (not including comics) and you really should read them in order.  And I already wrote about the first book Rivers of London in a previous BotW post 11 months ago and I recommended it in one of the Christmas Gift guides.  So it felt a little overkill (so just go buy the first one).  But the latest Angela Thirkell release from Virago was a lot of fun – even if it wasn’t my favourite of hers – but that bar is pretty high!

Northbridge Rectory is the tenth of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels – they started in the 1930s and by this point we’ve reached the war years.  There are officers billeted at the Rectory, where Mrs Villars is struggling to adapt to life as a Rector’s wife rather than a Headmistress’s wife.  There are some transferable skills though…  Northbridge’s unmarried ladies, widowed ladies and officious ladies are all out in force – taking control of the war effort and trying to assert their authority over each other as best they can.

Thirkell excels in creating believable grotesques – her books fill a similar hole for me as the Mapp and Lucia ones, except that in a Barsetshire novel they are the side dish not the main course.  In this one we get a truly terrible officer’s wife – who has not idea how horrible she is, an old maid who likes to suffer and who has been cultivating a spineless writer who has his own issues,  a vicar who is trying to escape the attentions of his elderly lady parishoners and an officer who doesn’t realise that he’s talking himself into a transfer.

A trip to Barsetshire is always fun and there are some familiar faces here too.  I still think that Summer Half is my favourite – closely followed by High Rising and Pomfret Towers.  I’m thrilled that Virago are reissuing them – even if I’m a little bit annoyed that some of them are e-book only because I wanted a matching set in paperback.  Get your copy from Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones or if you don’t want the paperbacks you can get the Kindle edition.  I’m off to make puppy dog eyes at Before Lunch and try to resist breaking the book-buying embargo.

Scottish-set books

In honour of the referendum today (I’m very excited as I’m working on the coverage overnight – but think of my poor partner having to put up with my moodiness afterwards) I thought I’d put together some of my favourite Scottish set books.

We’ll start with a classic of its genre – The 39 Steps – which you can get for Free on your Kindle. If you haven’t read this adventure caper – where Richard Hannay attempts to escape spies – you really should.  It’s a bit like an Indiana Jones film but a book, set pre-World War One and in Scotland rather than than somewhere more exotic.  Definitely worth a look – and the play version in London is a hoot (if not at all the same feel!).

Moving on to cozy crime and M C Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series.  There are 30 novels about the perpetually single-but-romantic-yet-indecisive policeman and his flock in the village of Loch Dubh.  You don’t need to start at the beginning with Death of a Gossip (although it helps with keeping track of Hamish’s romantic entanglements) and they’re all fun (if increasingly formulaic) detective capers as murders crop up in lazy Hamish’s vicinity.

Falling in love with a Highlander (or being thrown together with one) is a popular theme historical romance.  It is, however, one that I struggle with.  I don’t know why, but they give me the giggles and the internal cringes if you know what I mean.  The men tend to be particularly thick headed and the women a bit shrill and irritating.  But then I haven’t read that many of them – I’m sure there are many excellent examples (leave your suggestions in the comments!) – as even reading the blurbs for some of them makes me embarrassed to read historical fiction.  So I’m offering you one recommendation – Julia Quinn’s When He Was Wicked – which to my memory includes no kilts, caber tossing or haggis, just a Scottish earl, who is in love with his cousin’s widow.  This was one of the very earliest of Quinn’s books that I read, and it is still one of my favourites.  A good blend of old school romance in the style of Georgette Heyer and the sexy bits that you never got from her!

And for a modern Scottish set romance, I give you Katie Fforde’s Highland Fling – about Virtual Assistant Jenny Porter who goes on a business trip to assess a failing Highland textile mill after a fight with her boyfriend.  Jenny manages to get thoroughly wrapped up in the village life – as her personal life gets more and more complicated.  A lovely read for a cold night in front of the fire – and yes, I know it’s not winter yet, but it’s definitely coat weather at the station at 4.15 in the morning now, so I’m including it!

It wouldn’t be a list from me if I didn’t get a bit of Lord Peter Wimsey into it, so I have to mention Five Red Herrings – which is the novel between Strong Poison and Have His Carcase and sees Peter on holiday to Scotland (one suspects to escape after the stress of the Vane case) and stumbles across a murder.  Its a complicated tale, involving artists and train timetables amongst many things – and if you’ve read Busman’s Honeymoon (I think, it’s a Harriet novel anyway) the source of the quote about “a murderer eating two breakfasts to lend verisimilitude to an otherwise unconvincing narrative.”

So there you are – some Scottish themed reading to add to your list.  On my list of Scottish-set books to read are: Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series (the first is Cross Stitch) which several friends have recommended and has just been turned into a TV series and Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street.

Award-winning books

I read a lot of books.  I have read a lot of books.  I like to think I read widely and across a lot of genres. But I have not read a lot of award-winning books.  Why is this – and what am I going to do about it?

In researching this article, I printed myself out a list of the winners and nominees of the Booker and the Orange/Bailey’s prize and the winners of the Costa awards.  I settled down with a pink highlighter to mark up what I have read.  There is not a lot of pink on the lists.  But there are a lot of books that I think I should have read – and others that I would like to read, but have never got around to.

What do I mean by not a lot?  Well, I’ve read seven books from the list of Booker winners and nominees – yes, just seven. Of that seven, two are winners (Ghost Road and Wolf Hall), one I studied at A-Level (The Handmaid’s Tale), two have been read in the last month (Mrs Palrey at the Claremont and Loitering with Intent) entirely coincidentally and the remaining two have been read in the last year as well (Good Behaviour and Restoration).  You may have noticed from that little list that I have only read two books from the last 20 years of Booker nominees.  Now considering that I think of myself as a book person, I’m a bit ashamed of myself.

The Handmaid's Tale and Restoration

Handmaid was one of my A-Level books (the battered cover is from my schoolbag!), whilst Restoration is a more recent acquisition

There are some authors on the list where I have read some of their other works – just not the prize-winning ones, people like Muriel Spark, Nina Bawden, Penelope Lively, Jill Paton Walsh and David Lodge.  But there are some authors where, despite their reputations and in some cases multiple entries on the list, I haven’t read any of their books – let alone the prize-winning ones.  People like Salman Rushdie (although I listened to some of Midnight’s Children when Radio 4 serialised it when I was about 14), Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Beryl Bainbridge and Ian McEwan to name a few.  There are some who I have books by on the Kindle waiting to be read – two of this year’s list including the winner – that I haven’t got around to because there’s always something “better” there as well.

So what’s my problem?

Well, I think it’s partly in my head – I think they’re going to be boring and hard-going.  My mum used to read the Booker winner every year – a habit she gave up when she got stuck while reading Ben Okri’s Famished Road.  I can remember her saying that there was no point in reading something you didn’t enjoy, that she hadn’t enjoyed the last few winners and she wasn’t going to force herself to read them just because they were winners anymore.  I think this has stuck with me – I avoid them because they’re award winners or nominees, even if the blurb on the back makes them look interesting – I think it’s a trick.

A shelf of books

My collection of pretty Designer Virago books – and a couple of other VMCs by award nominees

Now I am starting to get over this – the two nominated books I’ve read in the last month, I’ve enjoyed – and I didn’t know they were nominees when I picked them out and read them.  In fact I was surprised when I found out – because they were interesting and funny.  I’d also like to thank Virago for their role in this – they keep turning out attractive looking reissues of intelligent (and often funny) women’s fiction.  I have half a shelf of their Designer hardbacks – many of which I’ll admit I first picked up because they looked beautiful – and I have a lot of their paperback Modern Classics too.  They are widening my horizons.

The other issue – that I can think of anyway – is the size of the to-read pile and the Goodreads challenge, both of which mean I often go for books I know I can read quickly so I can get them off the pile.  I leave long books and “difficult” books on the shelf – favouring short ones and “light” fiction.

A pile of books

As you can see, there are a few books by nominated authors waiting to be read

Writing this has made me feel a bit embarrassed – and very ill-read.  So. I’m going to try harder. I’m going to try to do better.  I’m going to try to improve my hit rate with prize winners and prize-winning authors.  I’ll start by working my way through the books on the to-read pile that are award nominated or written by prize winners.  And to make sure that I do do better and read these books that I say I will – I’ll keep you posted too.

Help me on my way by recommending me your favourite prize-winning or award nominated books in the comments below.

Series I love: Lord Peter Wimsey

I have a rather complicated history with detective stories.  When I was 11, I scared myself silly by forgetting I’d put a pillow in my bed to confuse my sister while I was downstairs watching Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple with my parents.  Once I’d seen Miss Marple on the TV, I promptly read all the Agatha Christie books that my mum owned, bought more with my pocket money and then in a fit of angst over death (in particular my own), gave all my purchases to the jumble sale and hid mum’s copies out of sight.  I know.  I was a strange child.

After that, I left detective stories alone for probably about five years.  Then a friendly librarian, who found out that I was a bellringer, pointed me in the direction of The Nine Tailors, which I duly read, enjoyed and then forgot about – although by this point I had started reading Agatha Christie again.

Fast forward nearly 10 years and I’m living in Essex, working the early shift at a radio station, a bit lonely and hitting the library hard.  I don’t know if I started reading them because I was reading Margery Allingham (who had lived locally) and seen comments that Albert Campion had started as a take-off of Peter Wimsey, or because I’d seen a recommendation, or because I happened across them in the stacks at the library and remembered I’d enjoyed The Nine Tailors, but I did rediscover them and boy did I love them.

My little local library didn’t have many books in the series – and once I’ve found something I like, I want to read them all, as quickly as possible.  So I started buying them in the local book shop.  But it didn’t have many in stock.  So I picked up a few second hand paperbacks from my friendly book dealer who happens to do detective stories as well as classic school stories, then I started buying the ones that I’d read at the library (because I *had* to have the whole set) and so my rag tag collection was born.

Lord Peter Wimsey books

My Dorothy L Sayers collection

For those who have had the misfortune to have never come across Lord Peter Wimsey, he is the archetypal gentleman detective – much copied and never equalled.  The second son of the Duke of Denver, born in 1890, educated at Eton and Oxford, he is a bon vivant with a private income who solves mysteries because he can.  But Peter is troubled – he’s battle scarred after the First World War, with shell-shock and a fear of responsibility; which sits badly with sending men to the gallows.  He’s much more than just an idle rich man with a vaguely foolish face – which is the image he likes to project to the world.   Assistance comes principally from his faithful valet Bunter (who had been in his unit in France) and Chief Inspector Charles Parker of Scotland Yard.  The books were published between 1923 and 1937 – and Peter ages in real time as the series progresses.

 

Four books

The four books that feature Lord Peter Wimsey and the mystery writer Harriet Vane

My favourite four books are what I call the Peter and Harriet Quartet – that is Strong Poison, Have His CarcaseGaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon – the novels that feature Harriet Vane, first encountered in the dock at the Old Bailey on trial for murder – who Peter falls in love with and pursues across the next three books.  As well as my paperback copies, I have all four as audiobooks or radio plays – and they run in high rotation on my generic mp3 device on my journeys on the train, on my lunchbreaks and late at night when I’m staying away from home and need something to listen to to get to sleep.  I didn’t read them in order – Have His Carcase came first, then Busman’s Honeymoon, Strong Poison and finally Gaudy Night.

I’m firmly convinced that Busman’s Honeymoon is probably the most romantic detective novel in existence.  In the dedication at the start Sayers writes:

It has been said, by myself and others, that a love-interest is only an intrusion upon a detective story. But to the characters involved, the detective-interest might well seem an irritating intrusion upon their love-story. This book deals with such a situation.

And to me, that pretty much sums it up perfectly.  Busman’s Honeymoon is a perfectly formed detective novel (I didn’t figure out who did it until the reveal) but also is a beautifully romantic story about the start of a couple’s married life.  And if you’ve read the three books that lead up to it, it’s the perfect end to a long and sometimes painful courtship, which must have felt tortuous to readers when the books were first published – because Strong Poison was appeared in 1931 – and Busman’s Honeymoon came out six books later in 1937.

Gaudy Night is the weakest of the four when it comes to the detective plot – it’s not an actual murder but a poison pen mystery and actually has very little Peter to a lot of Harriet.  But it’s still a very good book and you learn a lot more about Harriet, her life, her side of the courtship and what she was doing while Peter was solving the mysteries in the two novels of that part of the series that she doesn’t feature in.  Strong Poison and Have His Carcase have two of Sayers’ best puzzles – they’re utterly ingenious and perfectly plotted.

Among the other novels, my favourite is Murder Must Advertise, where Peter – under the psedonym of Death Bredon – goes to work at an advertising agency where one of the copywriters has fallen to his death, leaving a letter hinting at scandalous goings on in the firm.  Sayers was herself a copywriter for a decade – and the book is a fascinating glimpse into the world of advertising in the early ’30s as well as a really very clever murder mystery.

Peter Wimsey

My collection (unusually for me) has several different styles of cover

I could write at even greater length about the wonders of these novels, but this post is already massively long.  I hope that if you’ve read this far and you haven’t ever read any of Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, you might be tempted to go and try one.  My recommendation as a starting point would be Strong Poison or Murder Must Advertise, although equally Nine Tailors or even the very first book Whose Body? would be a good introduction. Don’t start with Busman’s Honeymoon (I’m not even linking to it to deter you further) as you’ll regret it if you don’t read Peter and Harriet for the first time in the order in which they were intended – I know I do and as soon as I had finished Gaudy Night for the first time I went back and read all four again in the right order!

As usual, my links are to Foyles –  because I love them, their Foyalty points, their order in the morning and pick it up from a store in the afternoon feature (which even gives you discount) and I’ve found that for this sort of book (ie not a mass-market new release) they are often cheaper than the alternatives – but equally you can find Lord Peter in your high street bookshop, at major online booksellers and often in charity shops.  They’re also widely held by libraries because they are, after all, classics of the genre.

Go – discover Peter – and enjoy.