Yes, today's the day when Issue 4 of Shiny New Books is up and running. There are more than 80 new reviews, articles and interviews to explore. The section I'm nominally in charge of is non-fiction, and here's the great new picture, sourced by co-editor Simon, which fronts this issue's selection.
I was away from home all weekend and only got back yesterday -- I didn't take my laptop and totally failed to post anything on the blog using my iPad. So here's a little bonus -- Ola with Lamp, by the Norwegian painter Christian Khrog.
Do criminals read crime novels, I wonder? Perhaps it would be too much like a busman's holiday. I'm sure a great many readers of the genre are like me, rather gentle and law abiding in real life, but with an inexhaustible appetite for reading about people who are the exact opposite. I enjoy a good crime novel under any circumstances, but there's no doubt that they are my default reading mode, the one I turn to when I'm tired, unwell, or generally slightly fed up. I suppose I've been a touch of all those things recently, hence the gobbling up of rather a number of the things.
I read Ariana Frankin's Mistress of the Art of Death last September, and enjoyed it very much. The next two novels in the series sat around for a while, but I happened upon them a couple of weeks ago and whizzed through them very quickly. Set in the twelfth century -- which Franklin brings to life with an extraordinary mixture of historical accuracy and absolutely believable and recognisable characters -- the novels feature the female doctor Adelia Aguilar, who specialises in examining dead bodies. As with any series, a great deal of the charm lies in the characters, their interactions and relationships. You have to love Adelia, whose powerful intellect and dedication to her work has been tempered by the challenges of her devotion to her baby daugter and her relationship with Rowley, the child's father and a bishop into the bargain. An additional pleasure was that both these novels were set in places I knew well -- The Death Maze in Godstow Nunnery, whose ruins remain, just outside Oxford, and The Relics of the Dead in the now ruined abbey in Glastonbury. Great stuff.
I'd never heard of Elena Forbes before one of our Shiny New Books reviewers requested her latest novel, Jigsaw Man. As she is someone whose tastes I seem to share, and as I spotted the novel on Audible, where I have an account, I thought I'd give it a go. And I enjoyed it so much that I immediately downloaded the preceding novel in the series -- I think there are four altogether. These are police procedurals, which I always enjoy, and feature the rather attractive DI Mark Tataglia (Scottish Italian, said to look like a taller version of Robert Downie Jnr) and his female sidekick, DS Sam Donovan. Set in and around an area of London where I've lived myself (is there a theme going on here?), the two novels I've listened to so far both feature serial killers of admittedly a rather unpleasant kind, but the chief pleasure lies in watching the progress of the investigation, and seeing the mystery unravel. I shall be listening to the other two of these soon, though it's probably not ideal to be going through them in reverse order.
Finally, yesterday afternoon I picked up a review copy of Anthony Quinn's just published Curtain Call. Another author I'd never heard of, but the novel seems to have been rapturously received in the newspapers, and was apparently serialised on BBC Radio Four. So I had high hopes. Set in 1936, the novel takes place in London, and features an intriguing bunch of characters -- a young actress, her portrait-artist lover, a rather unpleasant aging gay theatre critic, a sweet girl who has been unwillingly recruited to work as an 'escort' (with all that implies) and various hangers-on. Some nasty murders have been going on, and everyone gets involved and implicated in various ways. Lots of background about the art and theatre worlds of the 1930s, plus the doings of Oswald Moseley and the various fascist groups of the time, and the ever present threat of exposure and arrest suffered by homosexuals. I wish I could say I'd loved this novel, but sadly I didn't. It's stylish enough, and the historical stuff adequately done, but somehow I found the whole thing a bit pedestrian, and didn't really care enough about any of the characters to get properly involved. But I'm obviously in a minority, so take no notice -- you might love it!
The Love Letter is the name of this painting by Auguste Toulmouche (1829-1890). It's certainly very beautifully painted and I'm sure we all love her outfit, and the tablecloth, and the curtain, and the wallpaper... But what exactly is going on here? Is she the recipient of the letter, which seems to have come as a shock, and perhaps not a pleasant one? Or has she read someone else's letter? Who knows. Toulmouche seems to have specialised in painting ladies in beautiful dresses -- Emile Zola apparently called them 'Toulmouche's delicious dolls'.
Have you ever heard of Frances Vernon? I certainly hadn't, until I came across her novels, recently rediscovered and published by Faber Finds. Born in 1963, she had published six novels before her tragically early death in 1991, aged just twenty-seven. Though never a best seller, she was consistently praised by the critics, and really deserves this revival. I've reviewed two of her other novels for the next issue of Shiny New Books, coming out at the end of this month, but I wanted to tell you about this one, which I enjoyed enormously.
Gentlemen and Players follows the lives of three sisters, Sarah, Susan and Sophie Pagett. Born in the 1850s, they are the daughters of a wealthy, widowed, self-made, man who, as the novel begins, is about to remarry, to Augusta Fitzwilliam, a woman of higher birth but lesser fortune. Augusta's social position enables the girls to come out into London society, which they do with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success. Sarah, the eldest, no beauty but flawlessly turned out, almost immediately, and delightedly, accepts a proposal from the middle-aged Lord Henry Templecombe, who her intelligent and practical sister Susan rightly decides is a rake. Susan herself, plump and pretty, ends up happily married to a country vicar who has previously carried on an intense flirtation with her younger sister Sophie. Sophie is the beauty of the family, and a tremendous flirt, but surprises everyone by turning down numerous apparently suitable proposals in favour of marriage to a relatively impecunious doctor.
So far so good, but is this just a skilful pastiche of a typical late-Victorian/early twentieth century novel? Absolutely not. Skilful it certainly is -- Vernon, who was just twenty when this, her second novel, was published, evidently immersed herself in the literature and history of the past and reproduces the language and context of the era without a single false note. But there's so much more going on here. As this, and the other three of her novels I've read, show, she is intensely interested in women's lives, their choices, their sexuality, and the pressures they suffer as a result of social expectations. Sarah, the most conventional and the least intelligent of the sisters, very quickly comes to regret her marriage to a man who was only after her money:
'Naturally at first I -- I thought him a dashing figure'. She squirmed. 'I wanted to be married and I wanted a title. One ought not to say that, no-one ever admits it, but that is the bold truth, Susan'. She was speaking more easily than she had since Susan's arrival.
'I see', said Susan.
'Only think how terrible it would be to be an old maid'. A new look came into her face. 'That is not what you want, is it, Susan? Only think'.
Susan, who had looked disturbed at Sarah's first comment, said, 'Better to be an old maid than unhappily married, don't you think?' and drew herself up. 'Is he unfaithful to you, Sarah?'
'Naturally he is. He always was'.
'It must hurt, even if you don't love him'.
'One's pride', said Sarah proudly, and shrugged. 'I am indifferent'.
Sarah's indifference gradually turns to real suffering, and she eventually separates from her husband, but her trajectory is a sad and painful one. Her sisters' less conventional marriages are more successful, though both suffer in their different ways from doubts, confusion, and anxieties.
I think perhaps the title provides an indication of what Vernon wanted to convey in this novel. The gentlemen certainly have a part to play, as suitor, lovers and husbands, but they are far less vividly brought to life than the real players, who are the women. Of the three sisters, perhaps the most interesting is Susan, whose life on the surface seems so uneventful compared to those of her two sisters, the unhappy Sarah and the flighty Sophie. Susan is wise and perceptive, and not afraid of speaking the truth even at the expense of hurting, shocking, or alienating her listeners.
A critic reviewing the novel at the time of its publication called it 'cool, precise, amused and amusing'. I've seen Vernon compared to Jane Austen, Barbara Pym, and Ivy Compton Burnett, but in my opinion she's not really all that much like any of them. She's her own woman, and all the more admirable for that. I've had huge pleasure in reading all of her first four novels, and plan to read the remaining two soon. Good for Faber for making them all available again.
I had quite another painting lined up for you this morning, but yesterday I spotted this on one of my favourite art blogs, Old Painting, and had to share it for one simple reason. It's called Harriet. It was painted by Marcel Rieder (French, 1862-1942). Here's the info from the site:
Rieder studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He became a member of the Société des Artistes Français in 1894, and exhibited almost every year until 1939 in the Salon de Paris. From 1894, Rieder’s paintings became notable for their peaceful and intimate interior scenes of rooms lit by oil lamps or electric lighting.
I don't know who this Harriet was, and would have suspected she was his daughter if a) he apparently didn't have one, and b) Harriet is a name not used in France -- it confuses people, who think it must be a man's name, hence letters I get addressed to M. (Monsieur) Devine. Probably the daughter of an English friend. Anyway, what does it matter? It's a lovely peaceful painting.
As I've said before, I have loved the novels of Edith Nesbit since I was a very young child. I've re-read most of them over the years, but The House of Arden and its companion novel Harding's Luck were my absolute favourites at the time and I never get tired of them however many times I re-read them. I'm not sure why I decided to pick them up recently for the umpteenth time, but I did, and the experience was an interesting one.
The House of Arden was probably my favourite of the two when I was a child. It's the story of two children, Edred and Elfrida Arden, who live in straightened circumstances with their aunt in her seaside boarding house. Their mother is long dead and their father has disappeared on an expedition to South America. Then something amazing happens -- Edred turns out to be the heir to a title -- he is now Lord Arden -- and to a ruined castle by the sea. The children move to the house that belongs to the castle, and it is here that the magic starts happening. They find an attic room containing a row of large trunks, each one of which proves to contain clothes from past periods in history. If they put on any of these clothes, they find themselves at once back in that time. So, with this great ability, they visit Napoleonic times, the eighteenth century, the England of James I, and finally the time of Henry VIII. On each visit, they have extraordinary and sometimes frightening adventures, but they also gather a little more information that may help them to find the hiding place of the Arden treasure, which they know exists somewhere but has never been found. Whether they find it or not I shall not tell you, as, even though you are grown up, you really should read this story. Perhaps you can already imagine how intensely exciting all this was to a small child with a fascination for history. I longed and longed so much to find those trunks and to put on those clothes!
The House of Arden came out in 1908, and the following year Nesbit published the sequel, Harding's Luck. In fact to call it a sequel is not really accurate, because the events of the second book run concurrently with those of the first. On their trips back to the past, Edred and Elfrida have encountered a boy of their own age, a cousin, who they discoverer to their astonishment has some knowledge of their own time. Harding's Luck is his story. Born into poverty in a miserably poor area of London, crippled by an accident shortly after his birth, Dickie Harding has been brought up by a woman who is cruel and uncaring. But, like Edred and Elfrida, he discovers a kind of magic that transports him back to the time of James I, where he has a loving family, a wonderful old nurse, people around who love and support him and, most amazing of all, he is no longer crippled.
Life in the past is so different, and so much better in every way, that he is tempted to stay there forever. But Dickie is a boy with a strong sense of what is right, and in his present day life he has been befriended by a man called Beale, who is a bit -- quite a bit -- of a crook. In fact Beale took up with Dickie in order to use him to get into a house where he and his cronies wanted to commit a burglary. But though at first Dickie goes along with all this quite innocently, the more time he spends in his alternative life, the more he sees how wrong all this is. Most people would just opt out and leave Beale to his own devices, but Dickie, who has never had a father, has become more and more attached to the man, who in his turn has come to love and respect the boy. So Dickie keeps coming back, having each time acquired some knowledge that will help the two of them to survive without committing any more crimes. Events at last bring him back to a relationship with Edred and Elfrida, and together they achieve some wonderful things. Dickie -- now Richard -- is all set for a future that would exceed his wildest dreams, but at the end of the novel he makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to benefit his friends and their father.
I don't think I've ever read this novel without crying at the end, and this time was no exception. I know this was Nesbit's favourite of all her children's books, and I can really see why. Nesbit was a socialist, and cared deeply about the plight of the poor and the terrible living conditions they had to endure, something she explores in this novel. She also seems to have believed that people, though they were often misled by selfishness and greed, were naturally good if they only had a chance to discover it. I think the reason her novels have stayed so enduringly popular is not only that the children in them are so delightfully ordinary and human, but also because she addresses serious things that appeal as much, or more, to adults as to children. Harding's Luck is perhaps the most serious of her children's books but it has enough magic, excitement and adventures to satisfy the most demanding child. Wonderful.
I'm delighted to welcome Adèle Geras for another guest blog. I'd never heard of Bernadine Bishop but I want to read her now and I'm sure you will too.
BERNADINE BISHOP: a novelist you ought to read.
by Adèle Geras
Every so often, I get a literary bee in my bonnet and start banging on about someone I’ve just discovered because I want everyone I know to enjoy the same thing. I’ve been on an evangelical crusade for years about Dorothy Whipple, whose novels and short stories are published by Persephone Books and who is marvellous in every particular. If you haven’t read her books, please try one. I ’m willing to bet you will adore it and go on to the others.
The year that has just ended brought another discovery. Bernadine Bishop died of bowel cancer before she discovered that she hadn’t won the 2013 Costa Novel Prize with her book UNEXPECTED LESSONS IN LOVE. She had written two novels in her twenties, and then spent most of her life working as a therapist, having children and living what was clearly a very productive life. With the onset of cancer, though, she began to write fiction again and the two novels I’ve read from this period are so good, and so intriguing that I felt they ought to be brought to the attention of the readers of this blog.
UNEXPECTED LESSONS IN LOVE is the story of two friends, Cecilia and Helen, who have bowel cancer. Of all the books I’ve read recently that tackle this subject, (and there are plenty, even in YA fiction…think of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS etc) this one seems to me to be head and shoulders above any of the others. It is matter-of-fact and plain speaking: telling it like it is with neither sensationalism nor sentimentality. Bishop doesn’t flinch from physical details but she never exaggerates for effect nor asks us to gawp or shriek in horror. Also, the cancer and dealing with it turn out not to be the only focus of the book. The plot is mainly about how this sick woman and her helpful and loving but sometimes not altogether useful husband cope with the grandchild that their son leaves with them when the baby’s mother goes AWOL for months. Cecilia has to look after the baby because the son is a foreign correspondent and always on a plane to somewhere dangerous. What follows from this is very carefully plotted and very funny in some places. It’s also intensely moving. We follow the two friends and their families as they make the cancer journey and also have to negotiate the other stuff that life throws at everyone, not only at sufferers from a life-limiting illness. It’s brilliant, and ultimately cheering and I do recommend it most sincerely.
HIDDEN KNOWLEDGE is a much shorter novel and it tackles the difficult topic of child abuse in a most unusual and interesting (and again completely non-sensationalised) way. Bishop, who had much experience in dealing with many psychological problems in the job that she did for many years, clearly knows her way around such subjects.
We meet a family of three high-achieving siblings, all middle aged. Hereward Tree, the eldest of the trio, is a famous novelist and he spends most of the novel lying in hospital in a coma. He has a fiancée, Carina, who is much younger and Italian. His sister, Romola, is a head teacher and an intelligent and somewhat unfulfilled woman, deeply devoted to both her brothers. Roger (unfortunately named, I think) is a sensitive and kind and generous priest. He is also a child abuser. He has confessed, and is on his way to prison. We know this from the very beginning.
Entwined with the story of the Tree siblings is the narrative that centres around Betty Winterborne. She’s a widow. She has a daughter who’s unmarried and has a good career as a dermatologist. She had a son, but he died in a tragic accident on a school trip when he was ten years old, decades ago. Roger was a teacher at the school at the time, and he may have caused the boy’s death.
We are in the territory of moral dilemmas. How should Romola deal with Hereward’s unfinished novel, whose ending she feels is a travesty? Will Betty find out the truth about the fatal school trip? How should Julia make her dream of a baby come true when she has no boyfriend or husband on the horizon? And is Carina right to wrestle with a guilt of her own? Will Romola let Hereward’s novel stand as he wrote it? And Roger: how will he deal with his undoubted guilt? How will he cope in prison?
The story unfolds with exemplary economy and elegance and yet we never feel we are short -changed. Bernadine Bishop is a wise and wonderful writer and I do urge you to try and find these two books. I’m going to read another late novel of hers called THE STREET. I can’t wait.
I'm usually on the lookout for less-known paintings and painters for my Saturday series, which started as just Women Reading but tends to branch out from time to time. But here we have something which you may have seen before -- Pierre Auguste Renoir's painting of his friend Manet's daughter Julie with her cat. It was painted in 1887, but is pretty timeless, really -- both the little girl and the cat look almost drunk with contentment. One of my two cats loves being cuddled like this -- the other one is a bit more skittish, though he'll sometimes welcome a snuggle too.