Tag Archives: Penguin Books

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

What a marvellous novella this turned out to be. Smart, engaging and uproariously funny – another great summer read for me.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was the debut novel of the American screenwriter and author Anita Loos. (You can read a little more about her career here.) The book was an instant success on its release in 1925 – the individual sections had previously been published in Harper’s Bazaar, so the market was ripe for its appearance as a complete text.

Blondes features Lorelei Lee, a young American girl about town, and her best friend, Dorothy Shaw. Lorelei and Dorothy are very different from one another. At first sight, Lorelei – a blonde – appears rather witless and ditzy, while Dorothy – a brunette – seems sharper, more outspoken and more irreverent in her views. Lorelei likes to think of herself as being very refined, someone who is part of a particular social set along with everything this confers – more of that later…

So Mr Eisman gave me quite a nice string of pearls and he gave Dorothy a diamond pin and we all went to the Colony for dinner and we all went to a show and supper at the Trocadero and we all spent quite a pleasant evening. (p. 18)

The book’s main action really gets going when one of Lorelei’s male friends, Mr Eisman, ‘the Button King’, sends Lorelei to Europe with a view to broadening her horizons – a means of furthering her education if you like. Naturally, Dorothy accompanies our narrator on her trip, and their story is presented as a series of entries from Lorelei’s diary, a sequence of amusing vignettes as the girls make their way from New York to London to Paris and beyond.

It soon becomes clear that Lorelei has little interest in gaining a ‘traditional’ education while abroad. In fact, she seems far more concerned with shopping, drinking champagne and collecting valuable trinkets than taking in the famous sights. The majority of these attractions fail to impress her anyway, especially once she compares them to the buildings back in the US.

In London they make a very, very great fuss over nothing at all. I mean London is really nothing at all. For instants, they make a great fuss over a tower that really is not even as tall as the Hickox building in Little Rock Arkansas and it would only make a chimney on one of our towers in New York. So Sir Francis Beekman wanted us to get out and look at the tower because he said that quite a famous Queen had her head cut off there one morning and Dorothy said “What a fool she was to get up that morning” and that is really the only sensible thing that Dorothy has said in London. So we did not bother to get out. (p. 40)

Money, expensive jewellery and the good things in life are all important to Lorelei – she likes nothing more than a glamorous diamond bracelet and a delightful glass of champagne or two. Men are the main providers of these things with Lorelei attracting a trail of suitable admirers wherever she goes.

That said, Lorelei isn’t particularly interested in getting involved in any amorous romances. Unlike Dorothy, who falls in love relatively easily, Lorelei doesn’t become emotionally attached to any of these men. Instead, she sees them more as forms of light-hearted amusement and entertainment, just as long as they can furnish her with stylish gifts. As soon as Lorelei gets bored with her current beau, she demonstrates her readiness to move on to the next – providing he has enough money to keep her in the manner to which she has become accustomed.

So the French veecount is going to call up in the morning but I am not going to see him again. Because French gentlemen are really quite deceiving. I mean they take you to quite cute places and they make you feel quite good about yourself and you really seem to have a delightful time but when you get home and come to think it all over, all you have got is a fan that only cost 20 francs and a doll that they gave you way for nothing in a restaurant. I mean a girl has to look out in Paris, or she would have such a good time in Paris that she would not get anywhere. So I really think that American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and safire bracelet lasts forever. (p. 55)

By the way, these misspellings and the rather childlike phraseology are all part of Lorelei’s charm; Loos’ prose has a natural rhythm all of its own.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a short book, but the girls’ adventures rattle along at quite a pace. There is a brief encounter with the Prince of Wales, a contretemps over a diamond tiara that Lorelei has her eye on, and plenty of other vignettes aside. We even get a peek at Lorelei’s backstory – an incident involving a shooting, a charge of which our heroine was rather demurely acquitted.

The two women make ideal foils for one another – in many ways, they are complete opposites. Lorelei struggles to understand why Dorothy can fall for a man who has no money, while Dorothy herself is dismayed at Lorelei’s willingness to accept a life without love. However, a man’s monetary wealth and resources are more valuable to Lorelei than any emotional or physical connection. She is very single-minded in her approach.

You might feel you know the story of Lorelei and Dorothy from the 1953 Howard Hawks film – also titled Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – but Loos’ original novel feels like a different creature altogether. There is something rather knowing about the book, something much sharper and more satirical going on underneath the outwardly frothy surface. It’s all very cleverly done. Whatever level you choose to read it on, it’s a real treat.

The Penguin Classics edition comes complete with a series of charming illustrations by Ralph Barton. Here’s an example from the Paris section of the story.

To finish, a brief note about Irmgard Keun’s 1932 novel, The Artificial Silk Girl, a book that would make an interesting partner to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – you can read my post about it here. Reputedly inspired by the Loos, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, something that ultimately illustrated the darker side of life which lay beneath the glamour of the capital city of Berlin. It’s an excellent book, one that features a narrator whose voice I found utterly engaging from the start. Highly recommended reading.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Two Recent Reads – Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler and The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

Something a little different from me today – a few thoughts on a couple of recent reads, both of which could be loosely classified as crime fiction.

Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler (1938)

I really enjoyed this old-school spy mystery by the respected British writer Eric Ambler. (You can find my review of another of his books, the hugely entertaining crime caper Topkapi/The Light of Day, here).

Like some of Ambler’s other novels, Epitaph for a Spy features a relatively ordinary if somewhat naïve man who, through no real fault of his own, finds himself caught up in a mysterious network of intrigue and illegal activities. The man in question here is Josef Vadassy, a languages teacher and Hungarian refugee of uncertain status, who gets into trouble while taking pictures during his holiday in the South of France.

As it turns out, the reel of film that Vadassy has been using to test various photographic techniques also happens to contain images of covert naval defences in a nearby town – something our protagonist is completely unaware of as he submits the reel for development. When the chemist who develops the film sees nature of these pictures, he alerts the police and Vadassy is promptly picked up for questioning. (Importantly, the novel was published in 1938 when Europe was poised on the brink of war, hence the seriousness of the situation.)

Luckily (or maybe unluckily) for our protagonist, the police soon come to the conclusion that Vadassy almost certainly didn’t take the incriminating photographs himself – he’s far too gauche for that. Instead, it seems likely that someone else has been spying on the naval defences, someone with an identical camera to Vadassy’s as the two pieces of equipment must have been switched at some point (probably by accident) – the most obvious cause of the issue being some kind of mix-up between cameras at Vadassy’s place of residence, the local hotel. So, Vadassy is sent back to the Réserve with strict instructions to follow the authorities’ orders in the hope of uncovering the real spy. Should he fail to do so, the outcome almost certainly means deportation for our protagonist, effectively destroying his whole world.

Vadassy is supplied with a list of the hotel’s occupants to ‘investigate’ with a particular view to establishing details of any cameras in their possession – but the fun really starts when Vadassy decides to use his own somewhat misguided initiative to root out the culprit without arousing their suspicions.

Among the guests at the hotel we have a typically British major and his mysterious wife, an idiosyncratic Frenchman who proves to be very indiscreet, and a young brother and sister combo from America who seem to have something to hide – I found this couple’s backstory rather hard to believe, but that’s a fairly minor quibble in the scheme of things. There are more potential suspects too, of varying European nationalities – twelve in total including the Swiss hotel manager and his wife.

For the most part, the characters are interesting and well-drawn – I particularly liked Herr Schimler, a man who turns out to have had a very eventful past. There are a few red herrings along the way as Vadassy’s suspicions flit from one character to the next, all of which help to maintain engagement.

The moon had risen and I could see the outlines of the clumps of bamboo canes below. A little to the right of them there was a patch of beach. As I watched, the shadows moved and I heard a woman’s laugh. It was a soft, agreeable sound, half-amused, half-tender. A couple came up into the patch of light. I saw the man stop and pull the woman towards him. Then he took her head in his hands and kissed her eyes and mouth. It was the unshaven Frenchman and his blonde. (p. 47)

All in all, this is a very enjoyable mystery with a clear resolution at the finish. In a sense, it becomes a race against time for Vadassy as he strives to flush out the spy before he is due back at work – both his job and his right to remain in France are at risk.

In his review of this novel, Max describes the story as being akin to a classic country house crime novel, which seems like a very apt description to me.

I read this novel over the sunny Bank Holiday weekend at the beginning of May, and it proved to be a fine choice. A nice match for the gorgeous weather.

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes (1963)

This is the third novel I’ve read by Hughes, a somewhat underrated American crime writer from the mid-20th century. My reviews of the other two are here – In a Lonely Place and Ride the Pink Horse – both of which I would strongly recommend, the former in particular.

My comments on The Expendable Man are going to be fairly concise. Not because of any concerns about the quality of the novel – far from it, it’s actually extremely good! Rather, the less you know about it the better, especially if you think you might read it.

In brief, the initial set-up is as follows. Hugh Densmore, a young doctor, has borrowed his mother’s Cadillac to drive from Los Angeles to Phoenix for a family wedding. En route, he spots a rather dishevelled teenage girl waiting alone on a deserted section of the highway. Densmore wouldn’t usually stop for hitchhikers – but in his concern for the girl’s safety, he offers her a ride which she accepts.

From the word go, it’s clear that these two individuals come from very different social spheres; he is well-bred, educated and polite, while she is rough, brazen and resentful.

After a tense and uncomfortable journey, Densmore drops the girl at a bus station and assumes he will never hear from or see her again. But then things go drastically wrong for our protagonist, and his previously ordered world comes crashing down around him.

This is a brilliant story, one that may well cause you to question your own assumptions – and maybe expose some of your subconscious prejudices too. It’s also very gripping and beautifully written. Hughes has such a wonderful style; it’s a joy to read. Here’s how it opens.

Across the tracks there was a different world. The long and lonely country was the colour of sand. The horizon hills were haze-black; the clumps of mesquite stood in dark pools of their own shadowing. But the pools and the rim of dark horizon were discerned only by conscious seeing, else the world was all sand, brown and tan and copper and pale beige. Even the sky at this moment was sand, reflection of the fading bronze of the sun. (p. 3)

The Expendable Man was my choice for our May book group, and I’m happy to say that it went down very well. (We take turns to pick the book which makes for a fairly diverse selection across the year.) It’s very difficult to go into any details here without revealing spoilers, but suffice it to say that we had plenty to discuss — particularly about the social context at that time. (Some of the issues raised by the novel remain painfully relevant today.)

All in all, this is highly recommended – not just for lovers of crime fiction but for other readers too.

Epitaph for a Spy is published by Penguin, The Expendable Man is published by NYRB Classics – personal copies.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Last year I read and loved Shirley Jackson’s gothic masterpiece We Have Always Lived in the Castle. So, it was with a keen sense of anticipation that I picked up another of her classic novels, The Haunting of Hill House, first published in 1959 and famously adapted for the screen as The Haunting some four years later. It’s a brilliantly unsettling book, a gothic/psychological chiller that relies more on the characters’ fears, imaginations and terrors than any explicit elements of horror or violence.

Central to the story is Eleanor Vance, a rather reclusive, childlike woman in her early thirties who travels to Hill House at the invitation of Dr Montague, an academic with an interest in the paranormal. Dr Montague has rented Hill House for the summer to observe and collect any evidence of supernatural activity or ghostly goings-on, not least of which may be connected to the dwelling’s complex and ill-fated history. Also joining Dr Montague and Eleanor at the house are Theodora, a bright, flamboyant young woman who brings a touch of sophistication to the proceedings and Luke Sanderson, the congenial heir to the estate.

Eleanor is the first of the group to arrive at the property, and her initial impressions are not promising. Hill House itself is a strong force within the book, its imposing presence making itself felt at an early stage in the story.

This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed. (p. 35)

The house has been built in a curious design with the various rooms forming two concentric circles surrounding a central inner room. All the angles and doorways are slightly off-kilter, giving each room a somewhat unbalanced perspective, a feeling which only adds to the creepiness of the place – the internal doors seem to close of their own free will.

The housekeeper, Mrs Dudley, is a very strange creature indeed, unwilling to waver from her strict timetable of breakfast at nine and the laying out of dinner at six sharp, leaving everything in readiness for the guests so that she can head off to her own home before it gets dark. Mrs D is a wonderful Jackson creation (albeit in miniature), delivering her lines in a deadpan style – all of which adds a touch of dark humour to the novel.

In many ways, Eleanor acts as a focal point for the story. She has come to Hill House as a means of escape, to break free from her unhappy home life, an existence indelibly marked by the lonely years she previously spent nursing her sick mother (now deceased). There is an increasing sense, especially as novel progresses, that Eleanor sees Hill House as her destiny, drawn as she is to certain aspects of the house in spite of its chilling appearance and unsettling aura.

As she closed the door of the blue room behind her Eleanor thought wearily that it might be the darkness and oppression of Hill House that tired her so, and then it no longer mattered. The blue bed was unbelievably soft. Odd, she thought sleepily, that the house should be so dreadful and yet in many respects so physically comfortable—the soft bed, the pleasant lawn, the good fire, the cooking of Mrs. Dudley. The company too, she thought, and then thought, Now I can think about them; I am all alone. Why is Luke here? But why am I here? Journeys end in lovers meeting. They all saw that I was afraid. (p. 91)

At first, all seems relatively uneventful at the estate, and the members of the group sleep soundly through the night. However, it’s not long before the house begins to exert its mysterious forces on the group. A sequence of frightening noises, the appearance of strange writing on walls and other inexplicable events come together to unnerve the inhabitants, Eleanor in particular. In this scene, she cries out to Montague and Luke for assistance.

Her voice was not loud, and she had tried to keep it level, but she heard the doctor’s book drop to the floor and then the pounding of feet as he and Luke ran for the stairs. She watched them, seeing their apprehensive faces, wondering at the uneasiness which lay so close below the surface in all of them, so that each of them seemed always waiting for a cry for help from one of the others; intelligence and understanding are really no protection at all, she thought. (p. 154)

As the novel moves forward, there is a sense that Hill House is taking control of Eleanor, possessing her in some way, with things coming to a head following the arrival of Dr Montague’s disagreeable and controlling wife and her rather blunt assistant, Arthur. Mrs Montague also has a keen interest in the supernatural, bringing with her a planchette – a sort of Ouija board that produces words – in the hope of being able to communicate with the spirits.

The various relationships between women form an interesting thread which runs through the book, almost all of them characterised by hostility, envy or jealousy. First we have Eleanor and her sister – a woman we never meet in person, although we know that Eleanor dislikes her. Then there are the two Crain sisters, the daughters of the ill-fated man who commissioned the construction of Hill House in the first place – after inheriting the estate following their father’s death, the two sisters then spent a lifetime arguing over the division of the property and the family heirlooms. Finally, we have Eleanor and Theodora who initially form a close bond in unison against the potential terrors of the house. There is a sense that Eleanor views Theodora as the soulmate she has longed for, or even the person she would love to be herself – a glamorous, self-assured woman with an interesting life. But then the relationship between these two women begins to sour when Eleanor feels provoked by Theodora, a situation that only serves to distance Eleanor from the rest of the group.

The way that Jackson illustrates the gradual falling apart of Eleanor’s mind is very effective, encouraging the reader to come to their own conclusions about the young woman’s sanity. Does the terrifying aura of Hill House have the greatest impact on Eleanor’s state of mind, or is she inherently emotionally unhinged anyway irrespective of her surroundings? There is a degree of ambiguity here for the reader to ponder.

Eleanor is undoubtedly a daydreamer and fantasist, her vivid, childlike imagination running riot at various points in the story. When she spots a tiny cottage hidden away in a garden during the journey to Hill House, Eleanor imagines herself living there alone with only her fantasies and a white cat for company. Several of the motifs and images she creates at this point resurface later in the book, echoing and reverberating with great effect. These recurring symbols reminded quite strongly of Merricat’s lucky charms and rituals in We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

All in all, this is an excellent novel – a very striking exploration of a character’s psyche. It’s extremely well-written, too – at times the prose has an almost musical quality. Fans of Castle will almost certainly enjoy Hill House, a book that turned out to be a very satisfying and intriguing read for me. It was one of Max’s summary posts that prompted me to bump it up the pile – you can find a more detailed review here. Ali has also written about this book here.

The Haunting of Hill House is published by Penguin; personal copy.

The Boarding-House by William Trevor

I have written before about my love of the great British boarding house as a setting for fiction – more specifically, novels like The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton, Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross, and The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark. There is something about this type of environment that really appeals to me. Maybe it’s the seediness of these places or the strange mix of people we often encounter there – whatever it is, I never seem to tire of reading about these establishments. All of which brings me to the very aptly named The Boarding-House, an absolute gem of an early novel by the Irish writer, William Trevor – a very worthy addition to my list.

Set in a South London suburb in 1964, the novel is an ensemble piece, focusing on the lives and concerns of the residents of Mr Bird’s boarding house, the sort of traditional establishment that is fast going out of fashion due to the rise in bedsits and flat-shares. At first, Mr Bird’s tenants appear to be a disparate bunch, each person possessing their own individual characteristics and personality traits. However, it soon becomes clear that they are all solitary figures, mostly flawed or inadequate in some way, at risk of being seen as misfits or outcasts from the realms of ‘normal’ society.

There is Major Eele, an old-school eccentric with a penchant for strip clubs; Mr Obd, a lonely Nigerian man who longs to deepen his relationship with an English girl he first met some twelve years earlier (sadly, she will have nothing to do with him any more); Mr Scribbin, a railway enthusiast who spends his nights listening to gramophone records of steam trains; and Mr Venables, a nervous office worker who has been the subject of petty bullying for most of his life. Then there are the female residents, Miss Clerricot, a somewhat plain secretary who is puzzled by the fact that her married boss seems to be taking a particular interest in her, and Rose Cave, a gentle, middle-aged woman who remains haunted by the memory of her dead mother. There are a couple of other notable residents too, Nurse Clock and Mr Studdy – more about those two a little later on.

All of these characters are drawn by Trevor with great precision and clarity, and in such a way that clearly elicits the reader’s sympathy. The pen portraits of Miss Clerricot and Rose Cave are particularly touching. There is a sense of tragedy surrounding the lives of both of these women, a feeling of missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential as time passes them by.

At first, Miss Clerricot is buoyed by the attention of her boss, Mr Sellwood, who takes her to lunch and then on a business trip to Leeds. However, her illusions are shattered when she realises that her companion is merely looking for someone who will listen to him, a captive audience for his interminably dull discourses on the banking and insurance industries. Not that Miss Clerricot wants to have an affair with Mr Sellwood, but it would be nice to feel wanted and desired in some way, at least for once in her life.

Rose Cave’s backstory is sadder still. Having been born out of wedlock, she never knew anything of her father apart from the fact that he had been hired by her grandparents to hang some wallpaper in their house. There was a closeness between Rose and her mother in those early years; the scandal over the affair and the snobbery it created in the family drew them together, cementing their reliance on one another until death intervened.

Rose Cave lived a selfless life until her forty-first year, until the day her mother died. And then, when she moved closer in to London, closer to the work she did, she found it hard to feel that she was not alone. She joined clubs and societies to give herself something to do, but one night when she glanced around it seemed to her that she was just a little older than the other people present, and it seemed that the fact was noticeable. (p.48)

Also residing at the boarding house are the kitchen staff, the pragmatic Mrs Slape and her young helper Gallelty – the latter a very recent addition to the household, having been scooped up by Mr Bird in the most unlikely of circumstances.

It’s not long before we get the sense that Mr Bird has deliberately ‘collected’ these various unfortunates over the years, seeking them out for his own pleasure – not as acts of kindness but for some sort of perverse mischief, the nature of which becomes a little clearer as the story moves forward.

He in his time had sought these people out, selecting them and rejecting others. He sought them, he said, that they in each other might catch some telling reflection of themselves, and that he might see that happen and make what he wished of it. (p. 16)

Even though Mr Bird dies right at the beginning of the novel, his presence is felt throughout by way of extracts from his ‘Notes on Residents’ and accompanying flashbacks from the past. Plus, there is the sense that his spirit remains in the house following his death, exerting its influence over the various events which subsequently play out.

In a move seemingly designed to put the cat among the pigeons following his death, Mr Bird has bequeathed the boarding house to the two most diametrically opposed residents – namely, the rather brusque and interfering Nurse Clock and the feckless petty criminal and blackmailer, Mr Studdy.

Constantly on the lookout for any moneymaking opportunities, Studdy – a rather amiable chancer – uses the residents’ collection for Mr Bird’s funeral to acquire a couple of cut-price wreaths, pocketing the spare cash in the process. A nice little earner when added to the eight pounds eight he hopes to save in unpaid rent – money previously owed to Mr Bird that he now plans to keep for himself (well, as long as Nurse Clock doesn’t get wind of it).

Nurse Clock and he did not hit it off. He wondered if she knew about the eight pounds eight. It was not impossible, he imagined, that Mr Bird had released that information on his death-bed. She had looked at him oddly when he had displayed the wreaths, when he said that he had added an extra sixpence of his own. She had pitched up her head, snorting like a horse, blowing through her nostrils. You could not trust, thought Studdy, a woman who looked like that and who spoke so sharply. Whenever he saw her in her big blue skirt he wanted to stick a pin in her. He fingered the point of his lapel and felt the pin there, the pin her carried for that purpose: to stick, one day, into one or other of Nurse Clock’s knees. (pp. 14-15)

The other residents and kitchen staff fear Mr Bird’s death will signal the end of the boarding house. However, the conditions included in Bird’s will and testament provide them with a certain degree of reassurance. Nurse Clock and Studdy are to inherit the establishment provided it remains in its current form with no changes to the residents or staff – well, until someone dies or leaves the boarding house of their own accord. There is much fun to be had in observing the dynamics between the domineering Nurse Clock and the rather sly Mr Studdy as they vie for position in the house, their conversations with one another are a real treat.

In time, however, Nurse Clock realises that Mr Studdy might prove to be of some use. With Studdy’s assistance, she plans to turn the house into a home for the elderly – an altogether more agreeable endeavour than a boarding house, and potentially more profitable to boot. Studdy, for his part, sees this development as a positive move, viewing it as an opportunity to extort money and valuables from vulnerable elderly residents in their twilight years of their lives.

The hatred was still there between them, but it no longer raged; it was no longer on the brink of violence, because something stronger, something like self-interest or greed or small ambition, had put it into its proper place. (p. 120)

As the story plays out, it builds to a near-inevitable denouement. One gets the feeling that the spectral Mr Bird is playing God with the lives of the various residents, pitting them against one another in a bid to destabilise the environment he once created.

While the lives of many of these characters are marked by a deep sense of sadness or loneliness – Mr Obd’s situation is particularly heartbreaking – they are partly balanced by touches of dark humour every now and again. Major Eele takes centre stage in some priceless scenes, most notably those involving a certain Mrs le Tor, the unfortunate recipient of one of Mr Studdy’s rather tawdry blackmail letters.

The attempted disposal of Mr Bird’s clothes to a charity for refugees gives rise to more moments of hilarity. In an underhand move on the part of Mr Studdy, the deceased’s suits and shirts get mixed up with items belonging to Mr Scribbin and Mr Venables, much to the embarrassment of the normally uber-efficient Nurse Clock. It is a truly marvellous scene, one that could have come straight out of a classic comedy of manners by Barbara Pym.

All in all, The Boarding-House is a superb novel, a wonderful study of human nature, a tragi-comedy of the finest quality. Highly recommended.

The Boarding-House is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

My books of the year, 2017 – favourites from a year of reading

As I’ve been off the grid for most of last few months, I didn’t get a chance to post a list of my favourite books from 2017. So, in the spirit of better late than never, here it is. Enjoy!

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Like its predecessor, 2017 turned out to be another strong reading year for me. I read fewer books than usual this time (around 70 books, mostly older/blacklisted titles) but the majority were very good. Once again, it proved very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, so I’ve gone overboard with a top fifteen – that’s two more than the baker’s dozen I usually aim for. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

It’s getting to the point where I need to reserve a permanent spot for Barbara Pym, such is the quality of her writing. This year’s slot goes to Crampton Hodnet, a delightful comedy of manners set in North Oxford in the late 1930s (Some Tame Gazelle came a very close second). What a joy it was to return to this author’s territory, a familiar world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, amorous students and gossipy women. Probably the funniest Pym I’ve read to date.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

A series of six interlinked short stories/sketches inspired by Isherwood’s time in the city during the early 1930s. I really loved this book with its striking cast of characters and wealth of engaging vignettes. As one might expect, the author’s portrayal of a Berlin in flux is truly wonderful, capturing the atmosphere of everything from the seedy underground bars and nightlife to the magnificence and glory of the glamorous side of the city. A most evocative read.

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

Here’s another author worthy of a permanent place my end-of-year lists, Elizabeth Taylor – I just can’t seem to get enough of her work. The storyline in this book revolves around Flora Quartermaine, a beautiful young woman who seems to have the perfect life. While Flora considers herself to be the very soul of kindness, in reality this is far from the truth, her best intentions often causing more harm than good. A novel full of little insights into various aspects of human behaviour – lovers of character-driven novels should enjoy this one.

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates

My favourite of the collections of short stories I read in 2017 (Saki’s Improper Stories came a close second). Yates’ canvases may be small and intimate, but the emotions he explores are universal. Here are the frustrations and disappointments of day-to-day life, the loneliness that stems from rejection, uncertainty or a deep feeling of worthlessness. Once again, this will appeal to lovers of character-driven fiction. A superb set of stories, quite varied in style in spite of the overriding theme.

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Set largely in the seedy bars and boarding houses of London’s Earl’s Court, Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel Hangover Square centres on the tortured existence of George Harvey Bone, a thirty-four-year-old man who is obsessed with a beautiful yet vindictive young woman named Netta Longdon. It is an utterly brilliant portrait of a man on the edge, perfectly capturing the sudden changes in mood and mindset of a lonely and tormented soul, driven to distraction by the heartless woman he so deeply desires. This might just be my favourite book of the year.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

A beautiful and compelling portrayal of forbidden love, characterised by Wharton’s trademark ability to expose the underhand workings of a repressive world. Set within the upper echelons of New York society in the 1870s, a culture that seems so refined on the surface, and yet so terribly brutal, hypocritical and intolerant underneath once the protective veneer of respectability is stripped away. There is a real sense of depth and subtlety in the characterisation here – classic literature doesn’t get much better than this.

School for Love by Olivia Manning

A highly compelling coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem during the closing stages of the Second World War. It’s a brilliant novel, one that features a most distinctive character quite unlike any other I’ve encountered either in literature or in life itself. In Miss Bohun, Manning has created a fascinating individual, one that is sure to generate strong opinions either way. Is she a manipulative hypocrite, determined to seize any opportunity and exploit it for her own personal gain? Or is she simply deluded, predominately acting on the belief that she is doing the morally upstanding thing in a changing and unstable world? You’ll have to read the book yourself to take a view.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

One of several reads featuring a highly distinctive female narrator – in this case, Sophia, a young woman who is looking back on her unhappy marriage to a rather feckless artist by the name of Charles. In writing this book, the British-born author Barbara Comyns has drawn heavily on her own life experience. It is, by all accounts, a lightly fictionalised version of her first marriage, a relationship characterised by tensions over money worries and various infidelities on her husband’s part. Although it took me a couple of chapters to fall into line with Sophia’s unassuming conversational style, I really warmed to her character, particularly as the true horror of her story became apparent. This is a wonderful book, by turns humorous, sad, shocking and heart-warming.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Enchanted indeed! What a delightful novel this turned out to be – telling, as it does, the story of four very different English women who come together to rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera for the month of April. Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, this utterly charming story has a touch of the fairy tale about it as the lives of these four women are altered in various ways by their time at San Salvatore. A truly magical read, guaranteed to lift the spirits.

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

In this beautifully written novel, we follow a day in the life of the Marshalls, an upper-middle-class family struggling to find a new way to live in an England irrevocably altered by the Second World War. Several threads and encounters come together to form a vivid picture of a nation, a country trying to come to terms with new ways of life and the accompanying changes to its social fabric. A little like a cross between Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and an Elizabeth Taylor novel, this was a wonderful discovery for me.

Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith

This novel was published in 1957, two years after The Talented Mr Ripley with which it shares a focus on the psychological – in other words, the motives that drive certain individuals to behave in very sinister ways. Once again, Highsmith encourages us to side with an outwardly respectable man who secretly harbours psychopathic tendencies. The way she does this is so clever; she knows exactly how her readers will respond to each of her characters, thereby creating a situation where we feel sympathy for a murderer and contempt for the woman who has made his life so difficult. A thoroughly delicious read.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I read this in advance of Halloween, and it proved to be a highly appropriate read for the season – atmospheric, unsettling and at times quite humorous in a darkly comic way. What really sets this book apart from so many others is its highly distinctive style, much of which stems from the curious nature of the narrator’s voice, that of young Merricat Blackwood. A novella with much to say about our suspicions, our prejudices and, perhaps most importantly of all, our treatment of people who seem strange or different from ourselves. The sense of being an outsider – or society’s mistreatment of the outsider – is a prominent theme.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

Several of the books in translation I chose to read in 2017 were disappointing, but this one really stood out for the distinctiveness of its central character, Doris. A striking young woman whose voice I found utterly engaging right from the very start, particularly in the way it reflected her complex personality – a glorious mix of the naïve and the streetwise, the vivacious and the vulnerable. Reputedly inspired by Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, one that ultimately shows us the darker side of life which lies beneath the glamour of the capital city, Berlin. Another very evocative read for me.

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

Set on an Oxfordshire country estate in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party provides a terrific insight into the dying days of the Edwardian era, the beginning of the end of a time-honoured way of life for the English upper classes. Essentially a tale of ‘upstairs and downstairs’, this is a wonderful ensemble piece with a sting in its tail. Fans of L. P Hartley’s The Go-Between will likely enjoy this one.

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes

Dorothy B. Hughes made my 2016 highlights with her classic noir novel In a Lonely Place, the story of a damaged ex-Air Force pilot named Dix Steele. And here she is again in 2017, this time with the existential noir Ride the Pink Horse. Written in a tough, hardbitten style, Pink Horse is a slow burn tale of pursuit, the tough, streetwise guy who comes looking for a final payoff from his former boss before hightailing it to Mexico and the life he envisages there – only things don’t quite go to plan. It’s probably my favourite of the dozen or so crime novels I read last year.

So there we are – a pretty satisfying year of reading all told.

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

Set on an Oxfordshire country estate in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party presents a terrific insight into the dying days of the Edwardian era, the beginning of the end of a time-honoured way of life for the English upper classes.

The novel follows the final twenty-four hours of a three-day shoot, a landmark event in the social calendar of the Nettlebys and their immediate set. Our host is Sir Randolph Nettleby, a landowner and member of the old guard, one who values the long-established traditions of rural life and the gentlemanly spirit of the shoot. In this capacity Sir Randolph is ably assisted by his wife, Minnie, a slightly foolish but charming woman with a great appetite for socialising – she is the perfect hostess for the formal dinners and elaborate lunches which accompany the main attraction.

Present at the party are several esteemed guests, the rich and successful, the beautiful and decorative. All of these individuals appear to know one another quite well as they are all part of the same social set. There is Minnie’s bridge partner, Sir Reuben Hergesheimer, a well-travelled and wealthy financier who now views England as his adopted home; the rather pretentious and stuffy Bob Lilburn and his beautiful wife, Olivia, one of the most sensitive and sympathetic characters in the group; and Lionel Stephens, a very successful young barrister who has fallen for the lovely Olivia and all her charms. Also in attendance are the Nettlebys’ rather disapproving but practical daughter-in-law, Ida, and her four children, Cicely, Marcus, Osbert and Violet. (Ida’s husband, John, is abroad on business.) Nineteen-year-old Cicely, a romantic at heart, flirts openly with another of the guests, Tibor Rakassyi, the dashing Hungarian aristocrat who promises to invite her to see his homeland in the forthcoming months. Lastly (at least among the upper classes) we have two of the most interesting characters in the book, the rather conceited and ultra-competitive Lord Gilbert Hartlip, widely known one of the best shots in England, and his highly spirited wife, Aline, a knowing woman who has enjoyed several affairs in recent years. Her latest lover, the vacuous Charles Farquhar, has also been invited to participate in the shoot.

Aline was a fairly demanding guest and if the presence of the handsome but stupid (in Sir Randolph’s view) Charles Farquhar would keep her quiet so that her husband could concentrate on his shooting, Sir Randolph was perfectly happy to ask him. Gilbert Hartlip was one of the best shots in England, if not the best of all, and it was a pleasure to see him in action – sometimes a bit of an anxiety as well, for he had some of the star performer’s temperament and could be very difficult if he thought he was not being given his dues share of the best places. (p. 13)

In addition to the cream of society, we also meet the various servants and workers responsible for the smooth running of the event. Chief among these is Glass, the head gamekeeper who manages the finer details of the shoot, issuing instructions to his team of beaters on how best to raise the pheasants and woodcock on the right flight paths for each ‘drive’. A little like Sir Randolph, Glass is another traditionalist, a man wedded to the ways of the land. He would like nothing better than for his son, Dan, to follow in his footsteps to become assistant gamekeeper at the estate; but Dan is bright and intelligent with a natural aptitude for science and nature. As a consequence, he is torn between staying at Nettleby to support his father and going to college to further his education, an endeavour Sir Randolph has offered to fund.

Other members of the supporting classes include the thatcher and poacher, Tom Harker, whom Glass has enlisted (albeit somewhat reluctantly) as one of the beaters to man the event, and Cecily’s maid, Ellen, a friendly, kind-hearted girl who comes to the aid of young Osbert when his beloved pet duck goes missing on the final morning of the shoot. Also present are Albert and Percy, the young lads who load the guns for Gilbert Hartlip and Lionel Stephens during the periods of intense shooting which take place throughout the day.

As the novel unfolds, we learn more about the main characters, their distorted moral values and the rarefied world in which they circulate. What Colegate does so well here is to shine a light on the farcical nature of Edwardian society, the sheer pointlessness of the endless social whirl and the ridiculous codes that govern it. We see the elaborate preparations for lunch at the boat-house, an activity which requires the butler and footmen to transport a hot meal to its destination via hay boxes to keep it warm. There are the frequent changes of clothes throughout the day, with a need for each outfit to be perfectly suited to the particular occasion – not to mention the prospect of social embarrassment when one doesn’t have the ‘right’ kind of shirt studs to hand to wear at dinner. In this scene, Olivia Lilburn is making fun of her husband’s worries over that very matter; clearly these things are terribly important to Bob if not to his wife.

‘Oh, Society.’

‘Don’t dismiss it in that way, Olivia. Society is very important. I hate going into it inadequately equipped.’

‘It’s not a battle surely?’

‘In some ways it is not unlike a battle.’

‘In which he with the too-smart shirt studs bites the dust?’

‘Well…’ he began unwillingly to smile. ‘Sustains a setback maybe.’

Olivia laughed, putting her head with its thick crown of auburn hair back against the blue chaise-longue. ‘You are quite ridiculous.’

‘It’s all very well. You can dismiss these things if you like, but they are the structure of our lives and if we lose respect for them we lose respect for ourselves.’ (p. 38)

While Olivia Lilburn has come to the realisation that she is trapped in an empty and shallow world, there is little she can do to break away from it. For all her insight and sensitivity, Olivia is virtually powerless when faced with the well-established structures that govern her place in society. In this scene, Olivia has just been observing her husband, Bob, in conversation with Minnie Nettleby, rattling off the names of various people in attendance at some social function or other without showing the slightest interest in any of the individuals themselves. A sort of ritual ‘checking of the compass points’ as Olivia regards it.

The object of the thing appeared to be enumeration rather than enlightenment. Once she had said to him, ‘Supposing there are some other people somewhere, people we don’t know?’

He had looked at her seriously.

‘What sort of people?’

‘Perfectly charming people. Really delightful, intelligent, amusing, civilized…And we don’t know them, and nobody we know knows them. And they don’t know us and they don’t know anybody we know.’

Bob had thought for a moment and then he had said, ‘It’s impossible. But if it were not impossible, then I don’t think I should want to know such people. I don’t think I should find anything in common with them.’ (p. 120)

I love that quote; it seems to capture so much about these people and their abject disregard for others. While Colegate doesn’t overtly judge her characters, she does shine a light on their disreputable morals and skewed principles.

As the shoot progresses, a competition starts up between Gilbert Hartlip and the normally relaxed Lionel Stephens, a rivalry which is just as keenly felt between their respective loaders, Albert and Percy. Lionel, impassioned by his love for Olivia, begins to fire on all cylinders, shooting his birds with great speed and accuracy. There is even some suggestion of him encroaching onto Gilbert Hartlip’s territory, a development the latter does not welcome, keen as he is to maintain his reputation as one of the country’s finest shots. Significant tensions ensue, much to the dismay of Sir Randolph, who detests any attempts by participants to keep a count of their individual kills. At one point, the action is enlivened by the appearance of an animal rights activist who ultimately appears to find some common ground with the host, much to the surprise of some of the guests.

What makes this book all the more fascinating for readers is the knowledge that a whole way of life for this generation is about to be swept away with the advent of the Great War. Sir Randolph clearly fears change as the political and industrial developments of the day are already threatening to destabilise the familiarity of his world. He bemoans the decline of the agricultural industry and the long-standing traditions of rural life.

‘…For generations we ran the country; it did not suffer from our rule. If the landlord class goes, everything goes. It will be the ruin of rural England. Ida tells me I am prejudiced. Show me the man with blood in his veins who is not.’ (p. 28)

All in all, this is a brilliant novel, poised and subtle in its depiction of the shallowness of the society at the time.

While checking the details for this post, I was surprised to discover that the book had been published as recently as 1980. In many ways it actually feels like a much older novel, one that could have been written in the 1920s or ‘30s, such is the authenticity of the world Colegate creates here. It’s a very impressive achievement. There’s a film too, directed by Alan Bridges (who also adapted L. P. Hartley’s The Hireling for the screen, another book I read this year). I’m looking forward to watching it.

The Shooting Party is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

With Halloween fast approaching, I thought it would be a good time to try Shirley Jackson’s widely-acclaimed Gothic classic, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), a book that has been sitting on my shelves for quite a while. Fortunately, it proved to be a highly appropriate read for the season – atmospheric, unsettling and at times quite magical. I think I can see why this book has earned its place in the 20th-century canon.

The novel is narrated by Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood, an eighteen-year-old girl who lives with her gentle older sister, Constance, in a large isolated house on the outskirts of a village in New England. (The location is thought to be loosely based on North Bennington, Vermont, the place where Jackson lived for much of her adult life.)

The vast majority of the local townsfolk will have nothing to do with the Blackwoods as a result of an infamous incident that took place at the house some six years earlier. The girls’ parents, aunt and younger brother all died of arsenic poisoning after the deadly substance had been mixed with the sugar they consumed with their blackberries at dinner. Merricat was not present at the time as she had been sent to bed before the meal commenced. To this day the local villagers remain convinced that Constance – then aged twenty-two – administered the poison, even though she was found not guilty of the charge due to a lack of evidence. Constance did not take sugar on her berries that day, a point which counted against her at the time of the trial.

As a consequence, the Blackwood girls now live a highly secluded life with their Uncle Julian, the only other survivor of the poisoning. In failing health both mentally and physically, Julian continues to be preoccupied with the murders; as such, he spends much of his time obsessing over his notes on the case in the hope of completing a book on the subject.

In order to remain out of public view, Constance prefers to stay within the confines of the Blackwood estate, thereby leaving Merricat in the unenviable position of being the main link between the family and the outside community. Twice a week Merricat ventures into the nearby village to buy groceries and collect books from the library. Here she must run the gauntlet, steeling herself against the taunts, prejudices and slights from the villagers who consider the Blackwood sisters to be nothing less than evil demons.

“The Blackwoods always did set a fine table.” That was Mrs. Donell, speaking clearly from somewhere behind me, and someone giggled and someone else said “Shh.” I never turned; it was enough to feel them all there in back of me without looking into their flat grey faces with the hating eyes. I wish you were all dead, I thought, and longed to say it out loud. Constance said, “Never let them see that you care,” and “If you pay any attention they’ll only get worse,” and probably it was true, but I wished they were dead. (p. 8)

As a character and narrator, Merricat Blackwood is someone you are unlikely to forget in a hurry. There is a childlike quality to her highly distinctive voice; for Merricat, it is as if time has stood still since the poisonings as she speaks and behaves like a young girl, one intent on maintaining the security and stability of her make-believe world. A deeply superstitious individual at heart, Merricat believes she can protect her beloved sister and Uncle Julian from external dangers and evils by relying on magic words, strange rituals and imaginary games. She loves her sister dearly and would like nothing more than to transport Constance and Uncle Julian to the moon – a fantasy world of winged horses, magical plants and eternal sunshine, a place where they could be safe and happy.

“On the moon we have everything. Lettuce, and pumpkin pie and Amanita phalloides. We have cat-furred plants and horses dancing with their wings. All locks are solid and tight, and there are no ghosts. On the moon Uncle Julian would be well and the sun would shine every day. You would wear our mother’s pearls and sing, and the sun would shine all the time.” (p. 75)

Constance for her part indulges her younger sister, playing along with her escapist fantasies and dreams to her heart’s content. Nevertheless, Merricat can sense something disturbing in the air – a change is coming and not for the better. The arrival of the girls’ estranged cousin, Charles, seems set to disrupt the comfortable atmosphere in the household, a dynamic that Merricat is determined to preserve. Now that Charles’ father is dead, a man who cut off all relations with the Blackwoods at the time of the trial, Charles is free to reconnect with his relatives. However, he seems more intent on getting his hands on the Blackwoods’ money – the majority of which is locked away in a safe in the house – than demonstrating any genuine interest in the girls’ welfare.

Naturally, Merricat sees through the formidable Charles in an instant. In particular, she is dismayed by two things: firstly, Charles’ outright intolerance of Julian whom he considers a burden; and secondly, his developing friendship with Constance who, on account of her sweet nature, can only see her cousin in a positive light. Merricat makes no secret of her hostility towards Charles, a point he intuits immediately. If only Charles would go away, then everything would be alright again and the family would be safe.

Constance made shadows up and down the hall when she went to the window to look down on Uncle Julian and outside the leaves moved quickly in the sunlight. Charles had only gotten in because the magic was broken; if I could re-seal the protection around Constance and shut Charles out he would have to leave the house. Every touch he made on the house must be erased. (p. 69)

While this is a slim book, it has much to say about our suspicions, our prejudices and, perhaps most importantly of all, our treatment of people who seem strange or different from ourselves. From what I can glean about Jackson and her fiction, it would appear that this theme of being the outsider – or society’s mistreatment of the outsider – is a feature in much of her work.

The plot works very well within the framework established by the set-up. For example, we do learn the truth about the fateful poisonings, but that’s not the main point here. What really sets this novel apart from so many others is its highly distinctive style, much of which stems from the curious nature of Merricat’s voice. Childlike chants and rhymes are repeated at various points in the story, an effect that adds a strange lyrical quality to the text, albeit a rather unsettling one.

While I was expecting this to be a somewhat unnerving or chilling read (there are times when Merricat is quite disturbing), I wasn’t prepared for the dark humour, a tone that Jackson uses to great effect in certain scenes. Most of these comic moments revolve around Uncle Julian, whose ramblings about the past provide much amusement for the reader. At an early stage in the story, he puts on a great show for Mrs Wright, a rather timid but nosy woman who is fascinated by the mystery of the Blackwood poisonings. Mrs Wright has come to the Blackwoods’ house to accompany her friend, Helen Clarke, one of the few locals who will have anything to do with the Blackwood sisters. In calling on the Blackwoods on a weekly basis, Helen hopes to encourage Constance to reconnect with society, to begin to live her life again.

Much to Helen’s disapproval, Mrs Wright gets swept up by Uncle Julian as he proceeds to show her the dining room where the infamous poisonings occurred. It’s a marvellous scene, too long to quote here. Instead, I’ll finish with a short passage on the ladies’ arrival at the house, one that hints at Jackson’s eye for a humorous incident.

Constance was perfectly composed. She rose and smiled and said she was glad to see them. Because Helen Clarke was ungraceful by nature, she managed to make the simple act of moving into a room and sitting down a complex ballet for three people; before Constance had quite finished speaking Helen Clarke jostled Mrs. Wright and sent Mrs. Wright sideways like a careening croquet ball off into the far corner of the room where she sat abruptly and clearly without intention upon a small and uncomfortable chair. Helen Clarke made for the sofa where Constance sat, nearly upsetting the tea table, and although there were enough chairs in the room and another sofa, she sat uncomfortably close to Constance, who detested having anyone near her but me. “Now,” Helen Clarke said, spreading, “it’s good to see you again.” (pp. 25-6)

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.