The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West

EdwardiansWriting with one hand at the moment, for various boring health reasons, which is why you’re likely to get a few short posts from me for the time being. Including this Shiny New Books link to an excellent novel by Vita Sackville-West. The more I read by her, the more I think her social history has unjustly overshadowed her writing – and The Edwardians was her bestseller. And while you’re there, check out Five Fascinating Facts about VSW.

While Vita Sackville-West is today best remembered as having (probably) been the lover of Virginia Woolf, and as the mind behind the garden at Sissinghurst, she was also a novelist of repute during her life. Indeed, The Edwardians – now republished alongside All Passion Spent by Vintage, both with Gosia Herba’s striking cover designs – was such a phenomenal seller that it helped keep Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s publishing house, Hogarth Press, afloat. Has this 1930 novel stood the test of time? Short answer: absolutely. It is somehow both riotous and thoughtful, borrowing from the modernists without losing its popular touch.

Tea or Books? #18: titles: fancy or simple? and Hercule Poirot vs Miss Marple

Tea or Books logoAgatha Christie and curious titles come together in perhaps my favourite episode of the podcast yet. And also the first one where we’re both in our 30s, guys. And also one of our most bizarre. In the first half, we look at titles and discuss whether we prefer them fancy or simple – yes, those are the categories – and quickly realise what a tangle that is.

On safer ground, we turn to Dame Agatha Christie in the second half, pitting her two most famous detectives against each other. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple – who will come out on top? The answers, as they say, might surprise you.

Listen above, via iTunes (rate! review!), or your app of choice – and let us know which you’d pick from each pair!

Here are the books and authors we mention in this podcast – it’s a lot this week – and, if you’re a fan of films, do give Colin’s podcast The C-Z of Movies a try.

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
The Years by Virginia Woolf
The Lost Europeans by Emanuel Litvinoff
Eudora Welty
Christina Stead
Emma by Jane Austen
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym
Dear Life by Alice Munro
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
A Pin to See the Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse
Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian by Marina Lewycka
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo
[could not find the particle physics novel title!]
The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley by Diana Petre
William by E.H. Young
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Hickory Dickory Dock by Agatha Christie
The Murder of Roger Acroyd by Agatha Christie
Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf
Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf
Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West
Samson Agonistes by John Milton
Taken at the Flood by Agatha Christie
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay
Andrew Marvell
Alexander Pope
A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie
Appointment With Death by Agatha Christie
The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie
The Majestic Mystery by Denis Mackail
The Life and Times of Hercule Poirot by Anne Hart
The Life and Times of Miss Jane Marple by Anne Hart
Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie
The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side by Agatha Christie
The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White

The Wheel SpinsI think I’d seen two different versions of the film The Lady Vanishes (the Hitchcock and the remake) before I knew it was a novel, and after that I tried to keep an eye out for it in bookshops. There was the small issue that at no point could I remember the title or the author. Even writing the heading to this post, I wasn’t sure whether it was The Wheel Spins or The Wheel Turns. Hitchcock knew what he was doing when he changed the title.

With my unreliable memory, I don’t recall the exact ins and outs of this adaptations, so I can’t say precisely how the book differs, but there certainly seemed to be some difference in tone. But I shan’t assume any prior knowledge on the part of the reader, you’ll be pleased to know. And we’ll quietly forget the films for the time being, excellent though they are.

Iris Carr starts off the novel coming to the end of a luxurious Italian holiday with a group of friends who are lively or obnoxiously boisterous, depending on whom you ask at the hotel. They head off back to England a little before she does, and she is left to ignore the other residents – from the vicar and wife who are keen to tell anybody about their children to the spinster ladies who strongly disapprove of youthful insouciance. They, in turn, are quite keen to keep out of anybody else’s business, for somewhat unlikely reasons that later become essential to the plot but (more rewardingly, to my mind) also lead later to my favourite lines in the book:

“You live in Somersetshire,” he remarked. “It is a county where I have stayed often. I wonder if we know any mutual friends.”

“I hate every single person living there,” said Miss Rose vehemently, sweeping away any claimants to friendship.

Iris, let us be honest, is not a particularly sympathetic woman. She seems unrepentantly selfish, quite rude, and snubs the overtures of friendship that are offered. She hopes, indeed, to travel back to England without them – but they do all end on the same train after all.

She is not, however, in their carriage – instead, after a curious incident of being knocked out briefly on the train platform – she squeezes herself into a carriage next to a friendly middle-aged lady, Miss Froy, and a peculiarly unfriendly set of others – including a formidable-looking baroness. Miss Froy is something of an adventurer (not, I assure you, an adventuress) and babbles away cheerily to Iris about her travel and exploits. It may not surprise you to learn that her response is to be pretty bored and inattentive, but she puts up with it for a while.

After Iris has had a quick nap, she wakes up to discover Miss Froy is missing… and when she asks the people in the carriage, they deny having ever seen her.

It’s an excellent premise for a novel (or a film), but it does require watertight plotting. At no point do we ever truly believe that Iris has imagined any of this – which I seem to recall felt like a possibility in the film – so, instead, we have to try to work out where Miss Froy is, and why everybody is lying.

One of those is answered very well (if not entirely unguessably – it felt obvious to me, knowing what happened, but perhaps it might not have done if I’d not seen the film); the other had a fair few holes, but none that let the novel down overall. And that was because White writes both engagingly and well. Indeed, her prose is more fluid, witty, and accomplished than many of the detective novelists of the period that I have read.

If her characterisation tends to caricature at times, she demonstrates greater nuance in Iris – who is an impressively believable combination of damsel in distress and determined sleuth, picking the most realistic elements from both stereotypes to create a non-stereotypical character. She actually behaves in a way that one might believe a person would behave, unlike 90% of thrillers – for The Wheel Spins often feels like it has crossed the line into thriller territory.

But my favourite elements were closer to normal: Miss Froy has two elderly parents – which came as a surprise, as I’d rather imagined her to be rather elderly herself until they appealed – and the narrative occasionally heads back to England to see them proudly and enthusiastically preparing for Miss F’s return. As is their adorable dog. It is all rather touching, and lends pathos that is often missing from high dramas. You can’t, for example, imagine Bulldog Drummond’s parents flicking through a photo album.

All in all, this is an endearing and enjoyable classic crime that was well-serviced by being turned into a Hitchcock film. Thank you Kirsty for lending it to me!



The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley by Diana Petre

Secret OrchardMore from Shiny New Books! And it is becoming almost a tradition for me to read one of Slightly Foxed’s beautiful memoirs in almost every issue – this time an author I’d never heard of. It’s a brilliant memoir about a distant mother/daughter relationship – sometimes literally distant – and discovering that someone Diana thought was a family friend was actually her father. And it more of a study of those around her than a memoir, really, as she remains an enigma to the end. Heartily recommend!

As usual, here’s the start of what I wrote, and you can read the whole thing at SNB.

I am always unable to pass on the chance to read a Slightly Foxed Edition and, having re-loved 84, Charing Cross Road in the last issue of Shiny New Books, it was fun to go and read something about which I knew absolutely nothing. Who was Roger Ackerley? Who, for that matter, was Diana Petre? And what was this orchard? The answers weren’t what I was expecting, but this memoir is none the less brilliant for that.

Some books from Brighton

Brighton booksA few weeks ago, I spent a couple of days in Brighton for a conference – and, whilst I was there, managed to persuade my colleagues that what they really wanted was to visit a secondhand bookshop. To do them credit, they did seem to enjoy it, and even bought a book or two – though the armfuls I was carrying around rather dwarfed them.

The bookshop was called Colin Page, and it’s brilliant. Excellent stock, low prices, and a spiral staircase = bliss. Also, the name of the shop also turns out to be the name of an American painter whose work I really, really like, so that was a nice coincidence. But you want to know what I bought, don’t you?

It was quite a quirky and unusual stock, mostly older hardbacks, and I think that was reflected in the books I came away with… Do tell me which you’ve got/read/want/etc.

The Flower-Show Match by Siegfried Sassoon
I grew very fond of Sassoon while reading Anna Thomasson’s A Curious Friendship, and have bought quite a few non-fiction books by him since then – this is my first collection of his prose fiction. I think fiction?

The Author and the Public: Problems of Communication
This is an anthology of different people thinking about the unique relationship between author and public. I have the perfect shelf for this sort of book, of course…

The Writing on the Wall by Mary McCarthy
Literary essays by an author that I have yet to read anything by – but what got this off the shelf and into my hands was the fact that a couple of the essays are about Ivy Compton-Burnett. I will amass anything about Dame Ivy.

Adonis and the Alphabet by Aldous Huxley
SIMON. Read some of the Aldous Huxley books you already have. Yes, I know. BUT ALSO LOOK HOW PRETTY THIS ONE IS. (More book descriptions below the image, of course.)

Brighton books 2016


The Art of Growing Old by John Cowper Powys
I’ve grown more interested in the Powys brothers now that I have father-is-vicar-of-Montacute in common with them; this looks unusual and intriguing.

Muriel Spark – John Masefield
I’ve read lots and lots of Muriel Spark’s novels, but I’ve never read any of her biographies – and have to confess that I’d forgotten she’d even written one of Masefield. It will be intriguing to see if her is similar here to her unmistakably Sparkian novels.

Max Beerbohm in Perspective
I can’t see who wrote this from the image, and the book is all the way across the room… but I keep piling up books by and about Beerbohm, based on having liked one novel and one collection of essays. Here’s hoping I continue to enjoy Max!

The Reading of Books by Holbrook Jackson
Try imagining a world in which I didn’t buy a book with this title. You couldn’t do it, could you?

Mainly on the Air by Max Beerbohm
And there he is…

Also in the bigger image are two books I bought in a charity – House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier (which I had thought I owned, but apparently didn’t) and The Condemned Playground by Cyril Connolly, to follow up my read of  Enemies of Promise.

The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Story-of-AliceIt’s not all that long til the next issue of Shiny New Books and I am very behind with linking to reviews I wrote in the last issue. And I did want to point out a few – starting with The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. It’s all about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice Liddell, and Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll. And Robert Douglas-Fairhurst just happened to my undergraduate tutor. So this review sort of covers both those things… starting with this paragraph to lure you in. Read the whole thing over at Shiny New Books!

There are few children’s literary characters who are as well known as Alice et al. From Alice bands to Mad Hatters, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Cheshire Cat, and more, these creations have passed beyond the original two books they appeared in and into the wider consciousness. By finding themselves there, the connection to their author has grown hazy and uncertain over the years – was, indeed, always hazy and uncertain. Even the book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is more likely to be called Alice in Wonderland. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst has the unenviable task of disentangling myth and rumour, finding the roots of Alice in an academic’s room in Oxford – and what he has produced is an enchanting maelstrom of facts, accounts, and possibilities… in which Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) remains, somehow, a little elusive.

Tea or Books? #17: diaries vs letters and The Importance of Being Earnest vs The Picture of Dorian Gray

Tea or Books logoLetters! Diaries! Oscar Wilde! We’ve got it all – well, those three things – in episode 17 of Tea or Books?, which has taken a bit of time to arrive, for which I apologise. But we are as rambling and bookish as ever. Do let us know which you’d choose in each category, and any suggestions you have for great collections of letters of diaries.

Ooops for the moment where I said Virginia Woolf when I meant Jane Austen. Sorry Jane.

Next week we’ll be getting into all things Agatha, pitting Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot against each other. That one should be fun. Do, do, do let us know any suggestions you have for future episodes – we love getting them. Listen above, or visit our iTunes page (or use your podcast provider of choice). You can even rate us on iTunes if you so please.

Here are the books and authors we mentioned this week:

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty by Judith Viorst
The Small Miracle by Paul Gallico
Moranifesto by Caitlin Moran
The Prose Factory by D.J. Taylor
The Years by Virginia Woolf
The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf
Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf
To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Night and Day by Virginia Woolf
Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty
The Lost Europeans by Emanuel Litvinoff
What There Is To Say, We Have Said by William Maxwell and Eudora Welty
The Element of Lavishness by Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell
The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters ed. Charlotte Mosley
The Letters of Elizabeth Myers ed. Littleton Powys
A Well Full of Leaves by Elizabeth Myers
More Was Lost by Eleanor Perenyi
The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Sylvia and David: the Townsend Warner/Garnett Letters
Bloomsbury’s Outsider by Sarah Knights
Lady Into Fox by David Garnett
The Letters of Virginia Woolf
The Letters of Jane Austen
A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf
Nella Last’s War by Nella Last
A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt ed. Simon Garfield
A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip ed. Alexander Masters
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare

Death in Profile by Guy Fraser-Sampson

I’m back! In fact, I’ve been back for a while, but took a bit of an extended break so I could pretend that I was still by the seaside. And life is a bit busier than usual at the moment, so I might not be springing back into full flow just yet (can one spring into flow??)…

Death in Profile

BUT I wanted to give people the opportunity to read all about Guy Fraser-Sampson’s Death in Profile (2016) over at Vulpes Libris. Here you areeeeeeee.

This, that, and hols

First things first… happy 90th to Queen Elizabeth II!

I’m taking a bit of a blog break for a couple of weeks, as I’m off to Brighton for two days, then down to Cornwall (via Somerset and Sherpa!) for a family holiday. I’m pretty excited about reading these two enormous books…

Prose Factory and Moranifesto

Before I disappear for a bit, here are a few completely unrelated things to share…

1.) I’m taking part in Brooding About the Brontes with a guest post over at Girl With Her Head in a Book. I get all defensive about Anne Bronte and I quote Iggy Azalea, so there’s that to look forward to.

2.) At some point I’ll do proper posts about Shiny New Books Issue 9, but for now – why not check out 5 Fascinating Facts About Vita Sackville-West?

3.) So sad to hear about the far too early death of Victoria Wood. I don’t know if her audience was as international as it deserved to be, but she is undoubtedly a national treasure here in Britain – and I heartily recommend you spend an evening looking up her best bits of YouTube. Although her highlights would take a week to watch. She was such a master of language.

4.) If you like the ‘Tea or Books?’ theme tune as much as I do, you might have wondered what it was. I don’t think anybody’s ever actually asked, but I’m going to assume it’s the great unspoken question. Anyway, I got the clip from a copyright-free site, and it’s the lovely 1928 recording of ‘Smiling Skies’ by Benny Meroff. Hear a bit more of it in the video below…


Tea or Books? #16: series vs standalones and Winnie the Pooh vs The Wind in the Willows


Tea or Books logoWinnie-the-Pooh vs Wind in the Willows is perhaps the most animal-strewn debate we’ve had so far, as well as being more or less inevitable that we’d get to this one eventually – especially given my tendencies to shoe-horn A.A. Milne into any discussion.

But before we get to that, we tackle the less-animal-strewn battle between series of books and books that are standalones (or ‘one-and-done’; thank you Jennys for that piece of terminology). I rather suspect we’ve missed out lots of classics.

Do let us know which you’d choose from each pairing – and let us know any topics you’d like us to cover, of course! Check us out on iTunes or via your podcast app of choice or, indeed, above.

Here are the books we chat about in this episode:

The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham
The Blessing by Nancy Mitford
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Case of the Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr
The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards
Young Man With a Horn by Dorothy Baker
Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling
William series by Richmal Crompton
Sweet Valley High ‘by’ Francine Pascal
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Grey by E.L. James (!)
Agatha Christie
Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward
Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim
The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim
Elizabeth in Rugen by Elizabeth von Arnim
Mapp and Lucia series by E.F. Benson
Miss Mapp by E.F. Benson
Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson
Sherlock Holmes series by Arthur Conan Doyle
Waverley novels by Walter Scott
The Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope
Marcel Proust
Pilgrimage by Dorothy Richardson
The Lark by E. Nesbit
Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker
London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Provincial Lady series by E.M. Delafield
Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Not That It Matters by A.A. Milne
Golden Age by Kenneth Grahame
Dream Days by Kenneth Grahame
Toad of Toad Hall by A.A. Milne
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde