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A little post-Christmas and Birthday round-up

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As I’ve mentioned before on the Ramblings, I am blessed (cursed?) with having a birthday fairly close to Christmas. It means I have to wait all year without celebrations and then two come along at once… Which can be a nuisance; but as my friends and family know me well, it also means there are often a fair amount of bookish incomings at this time of the year. Despite the fact that 2020  has been the year from hell and unlike any other, it’s comforting to find I still have piles of incoming books to share… ;D

First up the birthday pile:

There are some rather fascinating books in the heap, some of which I requested and some of which were inspirational choices by Mr. Kaggsy! From the bottom up, there’s “The Way of the World” by Nicolas Bouvier from Youngest Child; from what I’ve heard this should be a fascinating travel book! Then there’s “Moscow in the Plague Year” by Marina Tsvetaeva courtesy my Little Brother – he thinks the combination of Russia and Poetry and depression is ideal for me! ;D

Next up on the pile is Emile Zola – the first two books in his great cycle of novels. I have kind of conceived a desire to read the whole lot in sequence (gulp!) so requested these from Brother-In-Law. Then we get to Mr. Kaggsy’s choices, and he has done well. I love Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, so a pair of books by and about them promise great things. Mr. K. had a great attack of inspiration when he decided on the “Nineteenth-Century Russian Reader” as I don’t have this, and it’s stuffed full of fascinating stuff, as is “Russian Literature: A Very Short Introduction”. The final book from Mr. K, “The Day They Kidnapped Queen Victoria”, is one I’d never heard of – but it sounds a hoot!

Finally, atop the pile is volume 1 of the Journal of Montaigne’s Travels from my BFF J. (I am expecting remaining volumes to arrive later) – an antique and very pretty edition. Yay! Lovely birthday treats, all – and I’m keen to pick them all up at once, of course!

As for the Christmas arrivals, I sometimes expect to get less in the way of books but this year has seen some lovely books turning up under the tree:

I was a little knocked out by all the arrivals! To look more closely, from the bottom up, first we have books from family:

The bottom three are from Mr. Kaggsy, who managed to once again successfully get me books I want and don’t have – result! The next three are from the Offspring – thank you children! – and the top book is from brother-in-law who is usually good at following instructions re gifts…!

Next up is bookish arrivals from my Virago Secret Santa! As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m part of the Virago Modern Classics group on LibraryThing, and each year we do a little Secret Santa. This year my gifts were from Alvaret, who I know through her own blog, and she sent me the most wonderful books!

Thoughtfully, she included one book from my wishlist (Nancy Spain), one she thought I would like based on my reading taste (“The Boarding School Girl” – spot on!) and a book she would like me to read (“The Brothers Lionheart” – I’m intrigued!) Such lovely gifts – thank you!

Last but not least, books from friends:

The Ocampo is an impromptu gift from the lovely Jacqui – thank you so much! Perfect! In the middle is volume 2 of the Montaigne mentioned above – hopefully volume 3 will eventually make an appearance… And finally, “The Salt Path” is from my old friend V. – an inspired choice, as I’ve been thinking I should read this one for a loooong time!

So I have been very spoiled bookishly in the last couple of weeks – and once I have shaken this “Underland” book hangover off, I will really have to try to choose what to read next! 😀

Some late entrants to the field! #1951club

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The starting date of the #1951Club is getting closer and I’m still pondering on what to read next. A comment from HeavenAli reminded me that I have another lovely crime title to consider in the form of Nancy Spain’s “Not Wanted on Voyage”. I picked it up second hand and posted about it a while back, as there was an intriguing old photo tucked away inside; but certainly it would chime in well with my current enjoyment of classic crime. Here it is, next to another possibility:

Yes – gasp! – an e-book!!! It’s not a format I’m fond of, but I find I have Victor Serge’s “Memoirs of a Revolutionary sitting on my iPad, and it was published in 1951. I’ve loved all the Serge books I’ve read so far, so this is a strong candidate for a 1951 read. Watch this space to find out what I actually *do* pick! :))

Discovering Nancy Spain

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(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!

 

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

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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…

spain

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?

photo

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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