Every week book shops are closing, so I feared the worst last week in Tunbridge Wells when I saw that the windows of Hall’s book shop were painted white and the bookshelves outside were gone. I was delighted though when I got a bit closer and saw a notice that announced that the shop was only closed for renovations and would open again in November in time for Christmas. It’s one of my favourite second-hand book shops. I visit it every year and always find some treasures.
This year I thought I was going to escape from our few days in Sussex without buying anything – but no. On a visit to Petworth I saw the magic sign ‘second hand bookshop.’ I went up the stairs into a small room. No-one was there. A sign read ‘Hard backs £1 and paperbacks 50p.’ Five minutes later I was departing with Civil to Strangers, a collection of Barbara Pym’s unpublished fiction, including four short stories. It’s in excellent condition: a bargain. I have already read the short stories and they have reminded me why I have so much enjoyed her in the past. She is just so funny in such a understated English way. This is from ‘Farewell, Balkan Capital,’ set in WWII when Laura is reflecting on what her parents would have thought of the mingling of classes at the ARP centre, which she is rather enjoying. ‘Perhaps it was a good thing that they had not been spared to see it. Laura had always thought that the shock of a Labour government in office had hastened the Archdeacon’s end.’
Incidentally, this was the perfect place to buy a book by Barbara Pym. A National Trust house with a tea room and a second-hand-book shop: just the sort of place where you might find one of her characters.
I’ll begin by saying right away that I am not suggesting that these are the five best Agatha Christie’s. I wouldn’t dare. I am not even saying that they were my favourites last week or would be next week. But right now I am choosing these as my desert island five (though even now at the last minute I’m wavering). I have been thinking about it off and on ever since Moira and I challenged each other. I didn’t have time to reread the whole lot, so I browsed a bit, did a bit of rereading – and here goes in no particular order.
One, Two, Buckle My Shoe: I love the opening. Hercule Poirot is at the dentist and feeling all the dread people do feel in the dentist’s waiting room. It’s funny, but also ingenious. Shortly after he leaves, the dentist dies from a gunshot wound and all the other patients who were waiting with Poirot are suspects.
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas: I picked this up from my mother’s book shelf a few years ago when I had a long wait to have the tire replaced on my car. Sitting in the dreary waiting room, suffering from a cold, I was very grateful to Agatha Christie. It’s a classic country house set up – and I was thoroughly bamboozled.
Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case. The last outing for Poirot and dear old Hastings. Touching and elegiac. And what an audacious plot. I love the fact that she wrote this in the middle of her career and waited over thirty years to publish it. Some of her late novels are pretty thin stuff, but this ensured that the Poirot books ended on a high note.
The Body in the Library: There would have to be a Miss Marple. She is especially acute and perceptive in this one. I love the title and – it almost goes without saying – the plot is very, very clever.
And now the last one and it is almost impossible to chose. I am tempted to chose The Mysterious Affair at Styles for symmetry, but in the end I am going for The Moving Finger. It is by no means the best plotted: others such as Peril at End House and The ABC Murders are better, but I just like it, that’s all.
And now over to Moira at http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.com.
We have lived in Sheffield for twenty years and until yesterday I have managed to avoid going to Meadowhall, Sheffield’s vast out of town shopping centre, except one occasion when I had to take our elder daughter to get some shoes not available elsewhere. Yesterday it was a similar story and I went with our younger daughter. At first I was pleasantly surprised. It didn’t seem as crowded as I remembered – apparently it’s worse on a Saturday -and I even spotted a Waterstones. But my pleasure was short-lived. When I actually went in, it was tiny. They didn’t have the book I wanted: too small to stock it. I did buy Michael Connelly’s latest, available half-price, but my prejudices were confirmed. Meadowhall is a temple to consumerism, mostly clothes and cheap jewellery – there is an M & S the size of a small country – yet it can’t support a decent-sized bookshop. It’s a shame.
The school holidays have started. I don’t expect to do much writing, but I plan to do plenty of reading. First on the list is my book group’s big read, Middlemarch, and I am so much looking forward to it. It’s a long time since I have reread it from cover to cover, and I’ll be reporting on that.
Then there are the crime novels that I’ll be tackling either at home or abroad. I am a big fan of Martin Cruz Smith, so I’ll be packing his new novel, Tatiana. I recently reviewed The Hunting Dogs by Jorn Lier Horst, which I loved, so I’ll follow that up with Closed for the Winter, the only one in English that I haven’t yet read. I plan to try Johan’s Theorin’s The Quarry. He comes recommended by Barry Forshaw in his guide, Nordic Noir, and the novel’s set on the Swedish island of Oland, which I’ve visited on the Swedish trip I recently wrote about here: http://somethingisgoingtohappen.net/ and http://bit.ly/1jRNrnk
We’ll be in northern France part of the time, so I’ll be brushing up my French with Simenon’s Maigret et l’inspecteur Malgracieux and maybe Alphonse Daudet’s Lettres de mon moulin. Adrian Magson’s series featuring Inspector Lucas Rocco are set in 1960s Picardy and I’ve downloaded the latest, Death at the Clos du Lac.
I’ll be blogging, but maybe not quite as regularly as usual. We’ll see.
Meanwhile, I’ve been rash enough to agree to list my five favourite Agatha Christie’s after being challenged by Moira at ClothesinBooks. She’s doing the same and we’ll both be posting our lists on Thursday.
My first novel is now available as an ebook at a much reduced price, so this would be good time to read it if you haven’t already. The whole series is now available quite cheaply.
I’ve been asked more than once if I’ll write another Cassandra novel – in fact, I had a query today – and I do sometimes think of it. I did so much enjoy writing that series. I’ve thought too of writing a short story or novella featuring Cassandra, especially for readers who have asked for a little bit more.
It is hard to know when to go on with a series. The Cassandra James mysteries never went into paperback, (until Ostara picked up Murder is Academic). It seemed time to try something a bit more ambitious. But it’s one of the great things about ebooks: the Cassandra stories need never go out of print, so there is always the possibility of adding to that select group of (highly discerning) readers who’ve liked Cassandra.
Through her I have made some lovely friends on-line, and I wouldn’t like to think I have left her behind forever.
I’ve done it again. I knew I’d enjoy Helen McCarthy’s new book, Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat, so I asked the London Library to acquire it. In due course they did and posted it to me. It’s a particular pleasure to be the first reader of a brand-new pristine copy of a book. But not for the first time I made the mistake of not starting it right away. As a new book it can be recalled after two weeks, and it has been, so I had to read all 346 pages over the week-end. I put all my other reading aside and read in odd moments and in bed. Then on Sunday I did something I hardly ever do, except sometimes on holiday. I sat in the garden and read for the whole afternoon.
I’m glad I did. This is a terrific book, scholarly and at the same time a great read. I particularly liked the way it was structured, each chapter began with some important conference or congress, starting with the Congress of Berlin 1878 and ending with the United Nations Conference for International Women’s Year in 1975, revealing the way women only very gradually became more present on the world stage.
It is extraordinary to realise that women were only allowed to enter the Foreign Office and Consular Service in 1946 and that until 1973 a woman had to resign if she got married. It had been inconceivable that a husband would be prepared to follow his wife from posting to posting and if he did, what on earth would be do all day? He would necessarily be a pretty inadequate, unmanly kind of fellow.
It’s all here, a thoroughly researched history of the subject, which is never allowed to become dry. There are some fascinating accounts here of women like Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark, who managed to do good work overseas, and many other lesser known but equally formidable women, coming right up to the present day. Diplomats’ wives aren’t neglected either. Like the wives of the clergy, they were expected to be part of the package, doing huge amounts of unpaid work.
I loved Women of the World, but time now to pack it up and send it back to the library so that the next person can read it.
It was a beautiful summer’s evening. There was plenty of wine – supplied by my hospitable husband. My dear friend, Sue, arranged the flowers (AND did the washing up).
It was lovely to see so many of my family and friends there. There was a lively buzz of conversation and I enjoyed it so much that I’ll have to crack on with the next novel (pretty near completion) so that I can have another party.
Last week-end in Birmingham I had free time on the Saturday afternoon and I walked into Bourneville and visited Selly Manor, a Tudor manor house. There was hardly anyone else in the house and I had the charming garden completely to myself. I remembered another expedition over thirty years ago in my Birmingham days. On a sleepy summer Sunday we set out from Moseley to visit Sarehole Mill, an eighteenth century watermill, best known for its literary associations. Tolkien spent part of his childhood nearby and used the site of the mill and its surroundings as the inspiration for the Shire in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It has now been swallowed up by Birmingham suburbs.
When I say ‘we’ I don’t actually recall who went with me. I just know that I wasn’t on my own. I have a hazy memory of clambering about in the mill, but the thing I mainly remember is that we caught two buses to get there. In my memory it was a real expedition and what what comes back most strongly is a sense impression of waiting for the bus in the sun, as we came home from a pleasant outing. But when I looked up the distance just now on Google maps, it was only two miles from Moseley where I lived to Sarehole! Two miles, and we bothered to catch two buses! I find that puzzling. Did we really do that? And yet it is fixed so firmly in my memory. Perhaps we had my mother with us and she didn’t want to walk. Or perhaps it was too hot to walk. What we remember and what we don’t remember is a source of fascination to me and is such a fruitful area for a novelist.
Sarehole Mill (pictured above) is still open to the public and you can find out more about it here: http://www.bmag.org.uk/sarehole-mill
Kate Ellis’s new novel, The Shroud Maker (she is so good at titles) has recently appeared in paperback. She kindly agreed to be interviewed on my blog.
I began by asking her how she carves out time to write. What is her writing routine?
Over to Kate:
How do you carve out time to write? What’s your writing routine?
I’m lucky enough to be able to write full time so I do regard it as a job. I try to be very disciplined so I start writing at around 10.30 most mornings (after getting all the routine stuff and household chores out of the way). I take a break for lunch and then work through until around 5 pm when hunger gets the better of me. I use the evenings and weekends mostly for relaxing (and possibly bell ringing or archaeology) – although if I have an urgent deadline I will work then too if necessary.
What comes first for you: a theme, plot, characters?
It’s different in every book. Sometimes a theme comes first – say obsessive jealousy or a longing for revenge. At other times I’ll come across a story from history which I have to write about…or one from the present day which offers tempting murderous possibilities. Of course I know my series characters very well (almost like real people) but the other characters tend to appear in my mind as I’m writing.
So often in your novels the present is intertwined with the past. Tell us a bit more about your interest in history and archaeology?
History has fascinated me since I was a child. I was never happier than when I was wandering round some National Trust property imagining all the people who’d lived there and how the events of history affected their lives. I suppose my interest in archaeology developed from that. There’s nothing more satisfying than digging up an object that somebody in the past actually held and used. They do say that inside every archaeologists there’s a detective trying to get out so I’ve found it quite easy to include it in my books.
Who are your writing heroes? Whose books do you like to read, and why?
As I was growing up I devoured the works of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh and then I went on to enjoy the books of Ruth Rendell, P D James, Colin Dexter and Reginald Hill. I do love a good mystery and I must say I favour crime novels that aren’t too cosy but aren’t too graphically violent either – the middle ground where I think I pitch my own books. At the moment I tend to look for books by Peter Robinson, Phil Rickman, Peter Lovesey, Martin Edwards, Ann Cleeves and Christopher Fowler. I also enjoy historical crime by the likes of C J Sansom and Lindsey Davis.
A favourite bookshop?
I like most bookshops but indies with knowledgeable staff and genuine enthusiasm for books will always do it for me. Many are struggling at the moment and I wish more people would use them (and support libraries, of course).
What are you writing now?
I’ve just completed my next Wesley Peterson novel – it’s called The Death Season and will be out next year. I’m also working on a fifth Joe Plantagenet novel.
I reviewed Kate’s novel, The Cadaver Game, on the blog last week. You can find out more about Kate and her books at http://www.kateellis.co.uk