Happy New Year!
January is usually the month of resolutions, diets and saving money after an extravagant December. For many of us it is a long, anticlimactic month; spring seems far away and the cold weather can really affect our mood. While there are many suggestions on how to beat the January Blues, from exercise and detoxes to holidays in sunny destinations, Bloomsbury Reader would like to recommend simple book escapism. On the dark and long wintry evenings there is nothing better than curling up on the sofa with a cup of tea and a book.
If you enjoy hard-boiled adventures and crime, try one of Gavin Lyall’s gripping thrillers. Blame the Dead has an exciting and complicated plot which revolves around the mysterious death of Martin Fenwick, a rich and respected syndicate man. James Card – tough and lone ex-army man who was Fenwick’s private bodyguard when his client was shot – makes it his honorary mission to find the murderer and resolve the mystery. But, as more and more complications appear, from the discovery of debts and fraudulent transactions to unexpected attempts at seduction of Fenwick’s beautiful widow, Card’s private investigation becomes very dangerous indeed.
There was just the one shot, and maybe I heard the thud as it went into his body. Then I was on my face in the roadway, gun held straight in front, pointing at the last pillar of the arcade. Running footsteps—more than one person, away down the side street from the corner. I scrambled onto my feet, but Fenwick began to groan. And then a nasty gurgling noise. He’d fallen back in a sitting position against a big Citroën. There was a bit of blood on the front of his overcoat, but my hand came out dripping when I felt around the back. Exit wounds are like that. Half a dozen windows lit up as people opened the shutters, and one brave soul actually leant out. You don’t always do that when you hear a gunshot in France.
For those who like to indulge in a historical romance we have A Time to Love – a beautiful, all-encompassing story where the lives of the Jewish immigrant Cheifitz family, who fight against the economical and social hardships of the late Victorian period to bring up and educate their only son, David, are entwined with the lives of poverty stricken and slum-living Murphy family, whose daughter Ellen is determined to make something of herself. Ellen and David meet at school and fall in love but will their feelings survive the prejudices and pressure from their parents to marry within their communities? Beryl Kingston, with charming detail, tells a tale of life and complicated love in the melting pot society of London on the brink of the end of the XIXth century.
Ellen lay wakeful, tossed between ecstasy and worry. Now that she had time to think about what they’d done, she was remembering that it could have awful consequences. What if she had a baby? Plenty of girls did, as she knew only too well from her life in Dorset Street. Perhaps they ought to have waited till they were married. That was the proper way to go on. But oh, the memory was too close and too rapturous to be denied. And they’d be married as soon as ever they could. He’d promised. Married and together for ever and ever, sleeping in the same bed, loving like that whenever they wanted to. Even the thought gave her goose pimples.
Try something different with Gone Shopping. In this insightful and pacy biography, Lorraine Gamman depicts the extraordinary life of the notorious shoplifter and thief – Shirley Pitts. It may feel wrong to fall in love with a story about a thief and fraudster, but it is hard not to be drawn in by Pitts. Gamman’s account of her escapades and criminal activity throughout the 60s and 70s is as irresistibly charming and alluring as those of Frank Abagnale in Catch Me If You Can or Steven Jay Russell in I Love You Phillip Morris. Gone Shopping is a real literary treat which combines great writing with a true story full of unbelievable adventures.
‘Of course I’ll come with you to Selfridges, but what exactly do you want me to do?’ I asked, in a voice that I knew betrayed my concern. Shirley never had any problems getting taxis and I wondered why she suddenly needed my help, guessing she was after more than just a lift in my car to Oxford Street.
She laughed at what must have been a paranoid expression on my face.
‘It’s all right, Lorraine,’ she said, looking at me shrewdly. ‘It’s all perfectly legal… I just want you to help me open a safety deposit account, I’m worried that I’m just too tired to sort it out properly myself.’
I relaxed a bit, as I could see she was genuinely tired. Over the years we had been collaborating on our book, it was quite usual for Shirley to ask me to help her with things that involved writing letters and filling in forms. She was so negligent about paperwork that I often gave her free secretarial help in between discussing chapters, so naturally I agreed to go with her.
I pointed to the black leather holdall. ‘What you got in there, then, the Crown Jewels?’
‘No, about a hundred grand in cash,’ she said, and I knew by her tone that she wasn’t joking. ‘Have you got anywhere we could be private because I really need to count it properly.’
For those who like psychological puzzles and cosy crime, Sunday Best is a great whodunit from Bernice Rubens, who won The Man Booker Prize in 1970 for her earlier novel The Elected Member. Sunday Best tells a thrilling tale of George Verrey Smith who leads a very peculiar life. From Monday to Friday he is a cynical, bored, suburban schoolmaster whose marriage seems as unexciting as his job. But on Sundays George becomes someone completely different – on Sundays, his favourite day of the week, he locks himself in his room and becomes … Emily. George’s life would go on undisturbed if not for a mysterious murder of another teacher, Mr Parsons, with whom George has had a complicated acquaintance. Unpopular among school board members, George becomes a prime suspect. Things get dangerously entangled when the investigation brings to light George’s unusual Sunday habit… Will the police and local community believe that George is innocent?
The Superintendent took out his notebook, and began with routine questioning. She told him what he already knew, that her husband had disappeared, and that she could find no reason to account for it. No, he had no financial problems, no other woman, no phase of deep depression. ‘My husband is perfectly normal,’ she challenged him and it was her aggression that aroused his suspicions.
‘I hate to ask you these personal questions, Mrs Verrey Smith, but it is in all our interests that your husband be found. He may have absolutely nothing to do with the murder. His disappearance may be purely coincidental. But you agree, that until we find him, we cannot clear him? Are you sure there was no other woman?’
Julian Gloag’s Our Mother’s House is often compared with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden; this haunting, chilling tale of a family of children’s descent into twisted madness as they try to cope after the death of their mother whom they bury in the garden is well written and intriguing – well worth reading. It was made into a film starring another Bloomsbury Reader author, Dirk Bogarde in 1967.
Mother died at five fifty-eight. Her last act was to reach out for the gold fob watch that lay on the bedside table. Unsurely grasped in the thin fingers the watch fell and its soft rhythm ceased, marking the precise minute as if in evidence of some crime. It is possible that Mother lived a few moments longer. But there was no way in which she could signal her children. For weeks she had been able to speak in no more than a whisper, and the embroidered bell rope that hung above her bed had long been disconnected from its clapper in the kitchen. “Can’t abide bells,” Mother had said when, years ago, she had taken the lease of 38 Ipswich Terrace. “Have quite enough of them on Sundays and at funerals.” But even if the bells had functioned, she was too feeble to tug the bell pull. Her once inexhaustible energy had lately withered to where she could not lift a spoon without Elsa’s aid.
And finally, for those readers for whom January is too busy to indulge in a long read we recommend Late Night on Watling Street, the short story collection by Bill Naughton – a skilful creator of exceptional stories depicting everyday events. Set mostly in Lancashire and populated with ordinary people, track drivers, postmen and weavers, this collection treats prosaic dramas and accidents with great sense of humour and understanding.
From ‘Bit o’ Skin’
Flash was a postman and suffered a strong unpopularity among his workmates because, no matter how he tried to slow himself down, he could not help but knock fifty minutes off the scheduled time of two hours for a delivery —and when they arrived at the depot with sagging knees Flash would be practising weightlifting.
In the evening he had an off-duty job as a barman at Dunn’s long bar, where alone he could handle a trade so brisk that it kept three normal barmen going on his night off. He was so sharp of eye that he would spot a hat passing the window and instantly know the wearer, and he would have his drink waiting for him when he came in—and his hand out for the cash. And most of them did not like this prompt service—they said it deprived them of some pleasure a chap gets out of ordering his drink, and also that the beer was inclined to go flat on them.
Flash, in fact, though he never said a wrong word to anybody, was not liked a bit. It used to irk me when I heard his front gate go click at half-past four of a summer morning—knowing that he was off for a five-mile trot with a swim thrown in; and I could never avoid a stroke of malice when I moped downstairs at seven and saw his spade glistening in the garden, as he got through an hour’s digging before belting off to work.