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Books. Tomes. Publications. Texts. And a marvellous festive treat from @BL_Publishing !

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It’s the usual story on the Ramblings: despite my best intentions, books *will* keep finding their way into the house… In fairness, I have bought very few of them, and I *have* piled on the floor in one of the Offspring’s ex-bedrooms at least 100 volumes to be sold or donated or passed on to friends. So the house rafters will hopefully survive for a little longer, and in the meantime I thought I should share some book pictures – because, let’s face it, we all get vicarious pleasure from seeing other people’s book hauls!

First up, the charity shops. I should just avoid them, I suppose, but *do* pop in every week – and mostly I’m good, reminding myself that I have plenty to read at home.

However, the previous weekend I couldn’t resist another Allingham (I kind of think I might have read this once, but I can’t remember) – it sounds good and was terribly cheap! The Capote short stories is a book I haven’t come across in my second-hand book searching, and I blame Ali – she’s reviewed Capote’s short stories glowingly, and although I’ve read his longer works I haven’t read this, so I had to pick it up.

The rather large volume that is “Middlemarch” is a Bookcrossing book – they have a little selection in my local Nero, and since I always have a coffee there on a Saturday I always check the books out. I have a very old and gnarled Penguin of the book, but the type is so small that it’s off-putting – so I figured this might spur me on to read it. It’s in almost new condition with decent size type and lovely white pages (as opposed to the brown and crispy ones of my old book) so that’s a bonus!

However, the bestest find (so to speak) of recent weeks is this lovely!! I’ve written about Anthony Berkeley’s works before on the blog – I love his Golden Age fictions, as he brings such a twist to the format, and in particular the British Library Crime Classics reprint of “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a really outstanding addition to their range. It seems the BL are not the only ones going in for classic crime reprints (although I would say they are leading the field), as this is a Collins reprint which seems to be part of a series of ‘Detective Club’ reissues. A lovely hardback in a dustjacket, for £2 not to be sneezed at. I can see myself picking this one up very soon!

Then there are the review books…. gulp. As you can see, a few have been making their way into the Ramblings – some rather substantial and imposing ones amongst them, particularly from the lovely OUP. The hardback Russians are calling to me, particularly “Crime and Punishment”, which is long overdue a re-read. Then there’s another edition of the quirky and entertaining Stella Benson from Mike Barker.

As for the Christmas paper… well, you’ve probably picked up on social media and the like that the British Library have a rather special volume planned as their Christmas Crime Classic this year, and this is what popped through my door, beautifully wrapped.

Early Christmas present – has to be good! This will be the 50th British Library Crime Classic, and it’s being released in a hardback with special extra material. Inside, it looks rather like this:

Isn’t it beautiful? The story itself sounds wonderful enough, but the book comes with an exclusive essay on the history of Christmas crime fiction, as well as an introduction, all by the marvellous Martin Edwards. And the book itself is beautifully produced, with the usual gorgeous cover image, plus a ribbon bookmark (I *love* books with a built in bookmark). What a treat! Part of me wants to devour it straight away, and part of me wants to wait until Christmas – what torture. Thank you, British Library!

So – some fascinating incoming books, I feel, and yet more difficult decisions to be made about what to read next. At least there’s not much risk of me running out of things to read…. 😉

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Fantasy vs. hard truths during the First World War

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This is the End by Stella Benson

Stella Benson is an author new to me, and it was the reprint of this novel by Michael Walmer that brought her to my attention. Michael kindly provided a copy for review, and I have *finally* got round to reading it – and, my goodness, I’m really wondering why a. she’s not better known and b. I’ve never read her before, because the book was stunning!

this is the end
A little bit about the author first. Wikipedia has quite a lengthy entry, but the bare facts are: Stella Benson (6 January 1892 – 7 December 1933) was an English feminist, novelist, poet, and travel writer. So Benson’s life was not a long one, and she died of pneumonia in Vietnam. She’d recently visited Virginia Woolf who makes reference to this in her diaries, ruing Benson’s passing and commenting on the fact that the newspaper hoardings carried the announcement of her death.

“This is the End” was Benson’s second novel, set in 1916 and published the following year, in the middle of the First World War. It tells the story of an orphaned brother and sister, Jay and Kew Martin; Kew has been away fighting and is on leave, while Jay has run away from the Family – Cousin Gustus, his alarming novelist wife Anonyma, plus Mr. Russell who has been ‘adopted’ by them. Jay has left to find her independence and do something of substance, so has become a bus conductor; the rest of the time she spends in her ‘bubble world’, a fantasy place where she has a Special Friend. The Family decide they will set off and look for her in Mr. Russell’s car; unfortunately, owing to the fantasies that Jay’s been spinning in her letters home, they have completely the wrong idea about where she is and head off into the country looking for a house on a cliff!

Meanwhile, Mr. Russell runs across a beautiful bus conductor and is smitten(!), Mrs. Russell returns from doing good works abroad, Jay continues to fantasise and the realities of war come closer and closer…. Which side will win in the fight between reality and fantasy?

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I have to say that this book was an unexpected revelation and really not what I was expecting at all. Benson’s a remarkably witty writer, very conversational in tone and chatting away to the reader. Her description of Anonyma is priceless:

“… she was conceived on a generous scale, she was almost gorgeous, she barely missed exaggeration. In her manner I think she did not miss it. She had therefore the gift of coping with colour. It remains for me to add that her age was five-and-forty, and that she was a novelist. The recording angel had probably noted the fact of her novelism among her virtues, but she had an imperceptible earthy public. She wrote laborious books, full of short peevish sentences, of such very pure construction that they were difficult to understand.”

And there’s plenty more wit, from Mr. Russell’s conversations with his Hound (actually a Pekingese) to Cousin Gustus’s constant pessimism. However, there are more serious matters in the book, alongside the levity. For a start, there is the status of women – Jay has obviously run away from a stifling atmosphere, determined to do something of worth and gain some independence. WWI was a time of course when the suffragette movement was strong and life was changing – the book reflects this, and also the position of many females within the family set up, and the expectations society and men had of them.

“A Family’s just a little knot of not necessarily congenial people, with Fate rubbing their heads together so as to strike sparks of Love.”

The other serious subject is of course the War itself. Initially, this is not the dominant factor, although Kew is home on leave and there is reference to his health having suffered. However, as the book progresses, things take a more serious turn and the horror of what is happening abroad is brought home. Benson is not particularly graphic, but she is marvellous at getting across the human cost of fighting and death by showing the effect on individuals, which in some ways may be more effective. And be warned, there are encounters that will break your heart. The story is deeply poignant and I was reaching for a tissue in several places. There is a sense that the War and reality are making people grow up, and they really don’t like it. As Mr. Russell says:

“I used to think that growing up was like walking from one of a meadow to the other, I thought that the meadow would remain, and one had only to turn one’s head to see it all again. But now I know that growing up is like going through a door into a little room, and the door shuts behind one.”

Things come down to a kind of battle – between Jay’s fantasy world and the realities she can only avoid for so long. As the equilibrium of the Family is disturbed and events go in unexpected directions, I found myself totally caught up in the book, knowing the inevitable would happen but dreading it. I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers, except to say the end is very powerful indeed.

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“This is the End” is a quirky, individual book – beautifully written, with little poems in between chapters; eminently readable; and very moving indeed. On the evidence of this, Benson was a talented novelist and her early death was justifiably noted by Woolf. I’d recommend TITE to anyone who’s reading books about the First World War in this centenary year, as it’s not graphic, but has a potent message. And the fact that I’m still thinking about it several days after finishing is a tribute to Benson’s strength as a writer. It’s criminal that Stella Benson is not better know, and kudos to Michael Walmer for making her works available.

(Book kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

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