Monthly Archives: February 2022

Age, violence and delight in this deftly handled tale of derring do

Review: Archie Henderson

The Man Who Died Twice, by Richard Osman (Viking)

Richard Osman’s first two novels, with a third on its way, are a bit like Famous Five Go On Pension. There are only four of them, however. They have grown up, grown old, ditched Enid Blyton and been taken on by an author who has given them Blytonesque adventures, touched with the wisdom of age and not a little violence.

Readers were introduced to the four in Osman’s first novel, The Thursday Murder Club. They were a disparate lot that Blyton could never have dreamed up: a retired nursing sister for whom the glass is always half full, a dyed-in-wool trade unionist who thinks Arthur Scargill was something of a wuss and who is also a West Ham supporter so is used to being a loser, a retired psychiatrist from Egypt and a steely former spy.  Continue reading

Bedside table books for February

February Bedside

These were among the books that arrived on Vivien Horler’s desk this month. Some will be reviewed in full later. All are among Exclusive Books’s top 22 books for February.

The Postmistress of Paris, by Meg Waite Clayton (Harper)

Like the deeply moving The Last Train to London about the Kindertransport, this new novel is set in Paris during World War 2. It was inspired by real-life Chicago heiress Mary Jayne Gold who helped to smuggle artists and intellectuals out of France. In a 1940s book Crossroads to Marseille she wrote: “Once back in Paris I learned that most Americans were scurrying home. I decided to stay on…If the French could take it, so could I. Besides, too many extraordinary things were in the making, and I didn’t want to miss out.”

Nanée is wealthy and living a great life among artists in Paris when war breaks out. She joins the Resistance and is dubbed the Postmistress because she delivers messages to those in hiding.

One of those she helps is a brilliant Austrian photographer and widower, Edouard Moss, who has fled to Paris with his toddler daughter only to be interned as an enemy alien. As the blurb has it, his life “collides with Nanee’s in this sweeping tale of romance and danger in a world aflame…”

I’ve started it and so far it’s great.

The Christie Affair, by Nina de Gramont (Mantle)

Everyone knows that in 1926 the writer Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days. To this day no one knows exactly what prompted it, although there was speculation it was to punish her philandering husband.

This novel is narrated by one Nan O’Dea, the husband’s mistress. O’Dea is brought up in London and flees to Ireland during the Great War. But a private tragedy there prompts her to fight her way back to England, where she focuses on Agatha Christie. As the blurb says: “Because Agatha Christie has something Nan wants. And it’s not just her husband…”

This looks fun.

Death on the Trans-Siberian Express, by CJ Farrington (Constable)

Conor Farrington is a rail groupie. He was inspired to write this novel after travelling on the Trans-Siberian Express, the longest railway in the world, which goes from Moscow to Vladivostok across the snowy wastes of Siberia. That journey was done in 2015, and he followed it up with the Silk Route by rail in 2017.

This debut novel tells the tale of Olga Pushkin, a railway engineer, who spends her days in a rail-side hut in the snowy village of Roslazny, with only a hedgehog for company. She dreams of a better life as a writer, but there does not seem to be much hope. And then one day Olga arrives at her hut to be knocked unconscious by a passenger falling from the Trans-Siberian, a man who turns out to be an American with his throat cut from ear to ear.

And Olga is on it.

Mothers, Father, and Others – new essays, by Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)

The Literary Review has described Siri Hustvedt as “a 21st century Virgina Woolf” (although she is a robust woman unlikely to meet Woolf’s unfortunate end). This is a collection of essays on feminist philosophy, literature, family love and hate,  prejudice and cruelty and borders. It is also about, according to the blurb, “the broader meanings of the maternal in a culture shaped by misogyny and fantasies of paternal authority”.

I’ve dipped into it, and there are some charming memories of her mother and grandmother, as well as some rather rigorous ponderings on Covid, the future of literature, states of mind and one essay titled: “What does a Man Want?” Indeed.

How a dream of ‘something better’ changed the world of fashion

Review: Vivien Horler

The Chanel Sisters, by Judithe Little (H Review)

This historical novel about Coco Chanel and her younger sister Antoinette is dedicated in part to Antoinette “so she won’t be forgotten”.

American author Judithe Little was inspired by a biography of Coco Chanel. She expected to read Coco – real name Gabrielle – came from a privileged, glamorous  background. But to Little’s surprised, she read that Coco and Antoinette were born into a family of peasants and had been abandoned as children in a convent orphanage in rural France, where they spent years as charity cases.

“To me, this part of Coco’s biography made her eventual success all the more stunning,” she writes in a historical note at the end of the novel.

Since Coco always indicated she came from a wealthy family, Little decided she could not be the honest narrator of the novel, and so she turned to the supportive and hard-working Antoinette. “Only a sister who had stayed loyally by her side could know, for example, that Coco’s lies about her childhood were also a way to escape the pain of their abandonment.” Continue reading

When idle hands changed the future for half a million children

Review: Vivien Horler

A Path Unexpected – A memoir, by Jane Evans (Jonathan Ball)

Jane Klein was the women’s page editor of the Rand Daily Mail when she met Anthony Evans at a party in Joburg.

They clicked immediately and within months were talking of marriage. There was a snag though – Jane was a nice Jewish city girl, and Anthony was an Anglican cattle farmer based near Viljoenskroon, a tiny town in the Free State.

Her father told her: “Don’t get too excited. Men like Anthony don’t marry Jews.”

He did, though, and soon Jane had resigned her job and gone to the farm Huntersvlei with him. They settled in a cottage on the farm, while Anthony’s widowed mother, Sybil, elegantly coifed and immaculate, lived in the main house.

On the first day after their honeymoon, Anthony immersed himself in work. Sybil had her chores, and Jane was at a loose end. She had no idea what she was going to do. Continue reading

Tartan noir and a different world

Review: Vivien Horler

The Dark Remains, by William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin (Canongate)

It’s autumn 1972 and Glasgow is a far cry from the city that will be named the European Capital of Culture in 1990.

Tall sooty buildings, rival gangs and incessant drizzle characterise the world of Detective Constable Jack Laidlaw and his colleagues.

The body of lawyer Bobby Carter is found in an alley behind a pub called The Parlour near the city’s shipyards. The pub used to be busy place, six deep at the bar, but with the decline in ship-building “you could prefix ‘Funeral’ to the pub’s name and it would not seem out of place”. Continue reading