At the start of this year I resolved to read 52 new books by the end of it, and review them as I go. Here we are off the blocks with January’s selection.
Thirteen Guests by J.Jefferson Farjeon
One of my strongest literary passions is the detective fiction of the Golden Age – roughly speaking the first 60 or 70 years of the 20th century. It was the subject of my dissertation at university, where it made a very pleasant change from Chaucer, and, in the highly unlikely event I ever have the time and money to indulge myself in an entirely useless PhD, it will be the subject of that too. Obviously I love Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey and Michael Innes, but many of the other novels which were wildly popular in their day have been out of print for decades.
It probably makes me a geek to admit it, but some of the happiest hours I have ever spent were sitting in the warmth of the Upper Reading Room of the Bodleian Library perusing some of these books which I had ordered up from the stacks (the Bodleian is one of only three libraries in the country which has copies of every single book published in the UK).
Sadly my life now does not permit me, let alone require me, to spend hours at a time shut away in a library in a city I don’t even live in. Happily, to get my fix of Golden Age crime, I no longer need to.
The British Library have started re-publishing whole swathes of these forgotten novels, and they are a pure delight. They are lovely editions with attractive vintage style covers and intelligently written introductions.
Thirteen Guests was a Christmas present from my parents, and it took a good deal of self restraint to wait until after I’d cooked Christmas dinner before diving in. Good thing for my hungry family that I did, because it is a real page-turner. It is a proper classic of the genre, well-written and pacy, with a classic country-house setting. I felt that parts of the novel, especially a few of the characters, owed quite a lot to Agatha Christie’s The Secret of Chimneys. Perfectly possible, as Christie had published that a decade earlier. More intriguingly, a key element of the plot recalled a plot device used by Christie herself in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case. That wasn’t published until the 1970s, although it had been written many years earlier, but still considerably later than The Thirteenth Guest, so, if any borrowing occurred, in this case it must have been Christie borrowing from Farjeon. Either way, it is a cleverly plotted novel, and the period setting is a pure delight. Throroughly recommended!
The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson
I bought this sequel to Notes from a Small Island as a Christmas present for my husband, in the sure and certain knowledge that I would enjoy it as much as he did. I wasn’t wrong. Bryson is still side-achingly laugh-out-loud funny, and his wry observations are absolutely on the nail. A favourite in our household!
Any Way You Want Me by Lucy Diamond
I’ve read some of Lucy Diamond’s other books, and enjoyed them, and so was very pleased to spot this on the swap shelf at the church where I take Sophia to a play group. Sadie is a stay-at-home mum to two young children and feels her sense of self has been totally subsumed under the dirty nappies and pear puree. When registering on a Friends Reunited site she invents a much more glamorous identity to impress an old boyfriend, and things get much more complicated from then on. This was a fun read, but also frustrating as I wanted to give Sadie and good shake and some sensible advice. People have said something similar about Ella, the lead character of my novel To Have and to Hold, and I’ve always felt slightly indignant on Ella’s behalf, but I get it a little more now. I was also left with the feeling that I’d like to read a book starring a mum who feels she has lost her identity, but doesn’t re-discover it through a traumatic but passionate extra-marital affair. Maybe she gets a hobby, or takes evening classes or goes back to work or her husband has the kids more so she can see her friends. If you know of one, let me know! Otherwise I’ll just have to write it myself…
Finger Food for Babies and Toddlers by Jennie Maizels
Well, I did say that there’s probably be cookery books included. I spotted this on the book stall at the school Winter Fayre and, given that I am proud possessor of a baby spoon refusenik I thought it had to be worth 50p. It really was. Jennie Maizels has created loads of delicious sounding, imaginative recipes which you’d think would tempt any child, however finicky.
I want to be the kind of mum who cooks from this book regularly. I really do. However. My only foray into it so far was making cherry tomatoes stuffed with feta and couscous. I didn’t resent one moment of the fiddly preparation when I was basking in the glow of giving my child a tasty and healthy lunch. I did slightly resent it when said child threw them all to the floor without tasting a single one. I picked them all up (waste not, want not) and ate them for my lunch, and can confirm that they were really yummy. But for the moment I am back to being the kind of mum who gives the baby what her sister is having, lets her dive in with her hands and clears the mess up afterwards.
Also this month…
The purpose of this exercise is to motivate me to read new books, and so I am not going to review old favourites I have re-read, but I will list them for completeness. This month I have re-read Artistic Licence by Katie Fforde, and enjoyed it as much as ever – Fforde is one of my ultimate comfort-read authors. I am also half way through The Ballroom Class by Lucy Dillon, but that is going to be pushed onto February’s page as I haven’t finished it yet.