Find of the Week!!


I’ve been lucky enough to receive a few review books this week, so the book-buying itch was quite mild when I popped into town at the weekend. I was pleased to upgrade my copy of “the Constant Nymph” for a less battered original green Virago version:


And the fact that it was only £1 was a good thing too!

But find of the week was most definitely this in the British Red Cross shop:


I’ve only read one Hamilton so far, but have another on Mount TBR, and he’s someone I want to read more of/about – so this was a real find – and a real bargain too! Because the Red Cross shop only sell their books at two for £1, so of course I had to choose another – making both utter bargains at 50p each! The second book I chose was Rose Macaulay’s “Towers of Trebizond”. I truly can’t remember if I already have a copy – I think I do, but if so, I’m sure I can find someone to pass it on to.

I *love* the local charity shops!! 🙂

A Proustian Musical Distraction!

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Discovering Nancy Spain


(I thought long and hard about posting this review, as the book title is perhaps a little inappropriate at the moment, bearing in mind all the awful news stories that are about. However, the book is such fantasy, so far away from reality, that I don’t think it can be seen as having any relevance to current events – so here goes….)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book is a really bad influence! He’s constantly coming across obscure writers and pointing his readers in their direction – the most recent being Nancy Spain, a once prominent personality who seems alas to languish in obscurity nowadays. Needless to say, I don’t need much prompting to go off on a book search, and a couple of Nancy’s works have made their way to my shelves!

Wikipedia summarises her thus: Nancy Brooker Spain (13 September 1917 – 21 March 1964) was a prominent English broadcaster and journalist. She was a columnist for the Daily Express, She magazine and the News of the World in the 1950s and 1960s. She also appeared on many radio broadcasts, particularly on Woman’s Hour and My Word!, and later as a panellist on the television programmes What’s My Line? and Juke Box Jury. Spain died in a plane crash near Aintree racecourse while travelling to commentate on the 1964 Grand National.

It was the thought of her crime thrillers that attracted me most, as I’m a sucker for vintage crime, and the first one to arrive was this lovely volume:

spain front

It’s an old, battered Book Club edition – so therefore, of course, very appealing in my eyes! It’s the Hutchinson Universal Book Club, to be precise, one I’ve not come across before – and I had to scan the wonderful back cover, featuring a great picture of Nancy by Angus McBean:

spain reverse

Anyway, on to the contents. Spain’s crime series seems to feature regular characters and detectives (Johnny DuVivien and Miriam Birdseye seem to be the main ones, but Johnny’s wife Natasha, a Russian ex-ballerina, also features strongly in “Poison” – in fact, she was possibly my favourite character!). The book opens with Johnny and Natasha arguing about music – obviously as he’s an Australian wrestler and she a Russian ballerina, Stravinsky is only going to appeal to one of them! Natasha packs a case and leaves, going to stay with her friend Miriam Birdseye, whose detective agency, Birdseye et Cie, is not doing too well. Fortunately, a letter arrives from Miss Liscoomb, the head of Radcliff Hall school in Sussex, where some unpleasant events have been taking place….

The ladies decamp to Brunton-on-Sea, and pose as a couple of temporary teachers while investigating – and in fact, not long after their arrival, the lights go out during a meal and the hot chocolate urn taps are turned on, resulting in one child being par-boiled (yes, really!)

Miriam and Natasha are roped into the school play, “Quality Street”, and gradually get to know the staff at the school, and the locals involved. Old friends (presumably from previous books) turn up, like the improbably named and very camp Roger Partick-Thistle. And then finally, a murder takes place. Can Miriam and Natasha solve the crime before anyone else gets hurt? And will Johnny sulk all through the book or try to track down his missing wife?

As you might have sensed, there’s an awful lot of tongue-in-cheek in “Poison” – in fact, I found myself laughing like a drain at a lot of points during the book. The names along are enough to set you off: Gwylan Fork-Thomas, the chemistry mistress; Dr. Lariat, the local medic and heart-throb; Mrs. Buttick, his housekeeper; Mrs. Grossbody, the matron, Charity Puke, the Classics mistress and her hideous, controlling mother Mrs. Puke; and so on! And Spain’s writing is very witty:

“They drove briskly into Brunton-on-Sea, sitting upright in Roger’s Austin Seven, petrol for which was allowed for educational purposes. They were unalarmed by anything on the wet dark drive except a leaf that blew against the wind-screen and an apparition that fled before them howling like a wolf. It wore a black slouched hat and a loose dark cloak, and was obviously Miss Lesarum saying good night to her Girl Guide patrol.”

If you like your humour delivered drily and in many cases in punchline sentences, then Spain is the writer for you! There is a sense almost of caricature at times, with the lady teachers falling into the stereotypes you’d expect from a girls’ school, with their passions for each other, and also their admirers amongst the girls (it’s not called Radcliff Hall for nothing!). The pupils themselves are hideous, particularly Julia Bracewood-Smith (daughter of the local celebrity crime novelist) and the dreaded, bullying Gwen Soames, who’s worthy of St. Trinians! Spain has great fun sending up the traditional boarding school tale, the high point of which might be the game of Bally Netball, a violent ball game particular to the school which is considerably dangerous:

“The game of Bally Netball raged on unchecked. The little girls were inspired by such terror of their head mistress (now playing like a lambent flame along the ground) that they dared not turn their heads…. By the time that Natasha and Roger had left the Bally Netball game no-one had been killed…” – although quite a number of children do get injured!!

The characters are all larger than life but great fun, particularly Natasha, who does most of the detecting in “Poison” and has a very individual way of speaking:

“And she is telling you that you are going mad, I suppose?” said Natasha.
“Yes,” said Miss Lipscoomb, and sank into a chair. She put her head in her hands. “I think it is true,” she said. “But how did you know?”
“That’s an old one,” said Miriam briskly. “I always used to tell my first husband he was going mad,” she said. “In the end he did,” she added triumphantly.

What’s also noticeable about Spain’s writing is the complete lack of political correctness! Some characters are described as Jews or Jewesses, one of Johnny’s employees addresses him as “Bawss”, Roger Partick-Thistle is portrayed as a screaming queen, and there are many hints at lesbian lifestyles, either overtly (in the case of Gladys Puke’s passion for Gwylan) or more obliquely (the relationship between Miss Lipscoomb and her erstwhile partner at the school, Miss bbirch). There’s also a description of a special school’s outing to the seaside that I won’t repeat here… However, in some ways this is quite refreshing, in that Spain was writing from the margins herself. She was a lesbian herself, and lived with Joan Werner Laurie (the founder of She magazine) for a large part of her life; nevertheless, she had to feign a relationship with TV personality of the day, Gilbert Harding, to satisfy the publicity hounds – which is quite bizarre. So I can put these things in context and allow for them, because Spain was quite happy to lampoon anyone, including herself!

“Black Market Bob was a very smart taxi-driver indeed. He was so smart that he looked like one of Hitler’s S.S. Guards. He made cleanliness appear positively sinister. … Black Market Bob was certainly good-looking in a curious Germanic way. He only looked his best when wearing a peaked cap.”

If this all sounds a bit flippant, there *is* a murder mystery in there, and it’s quite absorbing though if I’m honest, a little straightforward. There are a couple of murders, a number of mysteries, some buried secrets and a lot of high emotion! We’re certainly not up to Christie or Sayers standard here, but I don’t expect Spain was intending her book to be that in-depth. Instead, I imagine she was trying to provide an entertainment, and “Poison” certainly does that! I really enjoyed my read of Nancy Spain – and fortunately there’s another volume of hers waiting in the wings!


Remembering Mary Hocking


Mary Hocking was a Virago author (though her books were also published by other firms) and unfortunately passed away earlier this year. Blogger Heaven-Ali is a huge fan, and has been flying the flag for Mary’s work for some time now. So it was nice to hear that she is dedicating the month of June to #rememberMary and is inviting other readers/bloggers to join in.


Hocking is often compared to Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym, both of whom I’ve read and enjoyed, so I’m happy to join in. Plus, of course, it gave me the excuse for a little book shopping and I have chosen her Virago novel “A Particular Place” – the random way my reading is nowadays, it’s unlikely I’ll read more than one!

There is a nice obituary of Mary here and it seems such a shame that her work is neglected; one of the large band of writers from the last century who wrote quality books which aren’t the all-bells-and-whistles big gimmicky sellers but nevertheless deserve to be read.

So please join us in remembering Mary Hocking in June!

A weekend of restraint – and Proust!


Yes, that’s right – Proust. I have taken the plunge into “In Search of Lost Time” or “Remembrance of Things Past” – whichever title you prefer – and am determined that this will be the year I read it! I’ve had a couple of attempts in the past and never got very far into the first section – the main enemy of reading Proust rather ironically always being time itself! However, I intend to finish the first book “Swann’s Way” (as it’s translated in my edition) and then take a little break – dealing with the series a book at a time will be the best way I feel.


I’ve been prompted to do this by Laura on the LibraryThing Virago Group who is also reading Proust, and whose progress is inspiring. She also pointed me in the direction of a very helpful blog, The Cork-Lined Room, which assisted a previous read-along by splitting the books into daily chunks and providing commentary. While I certainly haven’t stuck to the suggested chunks, the commentary has been excellent – I’d recommend it to anyone embarking on this kind of read!

The edition I’m reading is the Penguin 3 volume set from 1983, which I’ve been carrying around probably since the 1980s! It’s the C.K. Scott Moncrieff/Terence Kilmartin version and seems to be well-regarded – certainly I’m getting on quite well so far. More as I progress through the work…..!

The restraint this weekend was in only purchasing two new books for the groaning shelves:


The Virago Group has been full of high praise for Margaret Laurence’s work, so I was pleased to find one of her titles in the Oxfam – and with a very striking cover!


As for “The Secret Garden”, I have of course read this, and possibly even have a copy somewhere. But this is a grown-up pale blue Penguin Modern Classic edition and only 95p – so not to be resisted!

So – off for a little more of Proust’s sinuous prose before work….

Recent reads: The Mystery of Olga Chekhova by Antony Beevor

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I seem to have slipped out of the habit of reading non-fiction lately – and that’s odd, because I used to favour that type of book a lot. So I was pleased to pick up this particular volume in the Oxfam; and as I’m about to embark on a couple of very *large* fiction works, I thought I’d read the Chekhova first.

olgaAnthony Beevor is of course well-known for his books on Stalingrad, and also on Berlin in 1945, so he has the background for this type of work. Olga Chekhova was niece to Chekhov thorough his mother’s (Knipper) side of the family, and also through marriage to his nephew Mikhail (from the Chekhov side of the family). In fact, the whole family tree is a bit convoluted (and not helped by there being several Olgas) and the book would have benefited from a drawn family tree, rather than a written summary. This book tells the story of her life, from her young marriage to her cousin Misha, the rapid breakdown of that relationship, how she survived war and revolution, fled to Berlin and became an actress in German cinema, and somehow lived through the war in Germany, survived the fall of Berlin and lived to tell the tale. Alongside, we hear of her brother Lev, a spy for Russia, and the fate of all the Knippers and Chekhovs, including the original Olga Knipper – the great writer’s wife, and our Olga’s aunt (known as Aunt Olya throughout the book).

This is a surprisingly slim volume (some 234 pages) to tell what is in fact quite a big story, and therein lies the problem. Beevor obviously knows his stuff, and has done tons of research, but somehow the book feels thin and underdone. The “mystery” of the title is about Olga’s survival – was she spying for Russia and to what extent; and if not, how did she survive the liberation of Berlin when she should have been shot on the spot by the Red Army as a traitor, but instead was flown back to Russian for ‘interrogation’ and then returned to luxury in post-war Berlin? The obvious assumption is that she was spying for the Russians, but to what level is unclear and this book doesn’t really come up with any definite conclusions.


And because of its short length, the book does feel a little rushed; because it covers such a long period of history, and such a dramatic one at that, it could have been so much longer and more in-depth. Instead, it ends up feeling a little like a summary instead of a full length book, and that’s a great pity; because Beevor is a first-class writer and has obviously done so much research here, which isn’t done justice. Where he excels is in capturing the chaos, confusion and uncertainty of war and revolution; the horror and the violence; the ever-changing borders and alliances; the starvation and the fear; and the unbelievable bizarreness of some situations, like the Moscow Arts Theatre going out on an acting tour in the middle of a civil war.

The book is very readable and so I ended up a bit frustrated because I felt it could have been so much more. It paints a wonderful and fascinating picture of the fates of the various members of the Chekhov-Knipper families, but this is only a glimpse rather than the full detailed story. In some ways, the title is a misnomer, as there is no real mystery about Olga and her spying, and what there is will probably never be resolved. In fact, the book seems to have more about brother Lev’s exploits than Olga’s, and as the Russian archives have been opened, there is probably not much more that can be found out.

Another thing that I wondered about was exactly to whom the book was pitched. It didn’t come across as detailed enough to be scholarly, although assumes too much background knowledge for the general reader. This probably all sounds very negative, and I don’t want it to seem like I think this is a bad book, because I did enjoy reading it. It was more a case of wishing it had gone further, and the subtitle of the book, “The true story of a family torn apart by revolution and war”, gives the hint of where I would like it to have gone. A much more in-depth study of the lives of the Chekhov/Knippers would have been a satisfying read, particularly as Aunt Olya was the dominant character throughout.

After the war, the story is wound up quite quickly, and the reader can’t help agreeing with Beevor when he concludes: “The simple answer is that Olga Chekhova, ever since the collapse of her marriage to Mikhail Chekhov, had been a determined survivor, prepared to make whatever compromises were necessary. She had a number of failings, particularly her relationship with the truth, yet she remained a brave and resourceful woman whose main priority was to protect her family and friends.” More than that we will probably never know. I did like this book, but I do think it was something of a missed opportunity…

Shiny new books versus preloved old books – and is it greedy to like both??


Shiny new books, as well as being a rather fabulous website here, are things likely to bring pleasure to any bibliophile. There’s nothing like picking up a brand new volume, with clean white page block, unmarked cover, and sniffing inside the smell of freshly printed pages. So why is it that I often find myself just as thrilled by an older book??

It’s not that this is a new tendency, as I’ve always had a thing about old books – from the time I used to borrow battered old volumes from the school library, to picking up cheap paperbacks from jumble sales, and then discovering second-hand bookshops in my teens. This of course was partly driven by necessity, as we had very little money to spare for books when I was young, and we made good use of the local library. However, I do always seem to have had that nagging feeling that *somehow* an old, preloved book has, well – more character!!

Old Penguins are a case in point; I come from the school of thought that believes you can’t go wrong with a Penguin, and my shelves are stacked with fragile old paperbacks. Yet in many cases I could get a brand new version for the same cost, or possibly less.Yet I’m drawn to dated covers, funny illustrations and designs, frayed dust jackets and the whole history of ownership of the book.

A good example is the second Nancy Spain book I’ve obtained recently. It’s a lovely old green crime Penguin (and they’re another type that’s a reliable bet for a good read) – it’s browning, got foxing, but it has a lovely map of the crime scene in the front, a cast of characters and a hint of its past. And when I picked it up, out fluttered a small black and white photograph…


This was intriguing to say the least. I’m used to finding old receipts, shopping lists, advertising flyers etc in second-hand books – I tend to use whatever’s nearest as a bookmark myself, so I sympathise with previous owners! But a photograph? It appears to be of the Eiffel Tower and if I read the date properly is from 1956 – when the book was published. I can’t read all of the inscription, but the photo sets me thinking. Did the book owner receive it from a friend or relation or lover? Did they stay together or part in sadness? Did the photo sit there all that time, on someone’s shelf, till time took its toll and their book collection was sold?


Well, not all second-hand books come with a mystery; and I will always love receiving a shiny new book, or picking up the latest in a series I’m reading, or flicking through the latest Pelican (how happy I am that they’ve relaunched the imprint!) But preloved books, with a history and a story of their own will always have a special place in my heart.

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