The Mysterious Affair At Styles

“Every murderer is probably somebody’s old friend.”

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This is the book that began it all… Agatha Christie’s first ever published novel!

She wrote it during World War 1, and after being turned down (hard to believe!) by more than one publisher, it finally made its way into bookstores early in 1921. Since then, Agatha Christie became the best selling novelist of all time, outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible. Plenty of time for those who’d refused her to regret that decision!

In the little Essex village of Styles St Mary, we first meet Hercule Poirot… a Belgian refugee, who’d been a great police detective there before fleeing to England with countless others early in WW1. Poirot is hilariously renowned for his devotion to ‘order and method’ in criminal detection.

“Everything must be taken into account. If the fact will not fit the theory—let the theory go.”

He’s recruited to help solve the murder at Styles Court by Arthur Hastings, an officer in the British army who’s on leave recovering from a battle wound. Hastings is a highly likeable character (more than a little bit like ‘my dear Watson’ to the great Sherlock Holmes) He and police Inspector Japp of Scotland yard are to become regular fixtures in the many Poirot stories that followed this one….

And now, for the mystery! Emily Inglethorp, a wealthy older woman is poisoned.

Suspects include her new husband Alfred, who is decades younger than her, John and Lawrence Cavendish (Emily’s stepsons from her first marriage), Mary (John’s wife), as well as the victim’s’s paid companion, Evelyn Howard, and a family friend, Cynthia Murdoch; all of whom were living at Styles at the time of the crime.

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Alfred is suspicious for more than just the obvious reason of his sudden marriage to such a rich woman so much older than himself. He’s not very popular with John and Lawrence, who naturally wish their own father’s fortune to have been left more to them than in the power of their stepmother and her new husband! Mary seems to be (understandably) resentful of their financially dependent position, and Cynthia is working at a WW1 medical dispensary, so she has access to poisons! Even Evelyn Howard, who is generally  considered a good sport, but who is clearly not impressed with her employer’s second husband, isn’t above suspicion.

“They tried to be too clever—and that was their undoing.”

Of course you can be sure of satisfaction among the twists and turns of this clever plot, and if you haven’t read Agatha Christie before, there’s no better place to start than here- at the beginning!

I’m not a fan of gruesome or graphic crime stories, but these ones are classy. The writing is all about the brilliant detective using logic and awareness of human nature to solve mysteries. Plus, it’s fascinating to go back to this old time and far-off place and hear how people thought and spoke. I can never get enough!

Do you like reading mystery/detective novels?

Which are your favourites, and why?

Thank you for reading with me, 

Leah 🙂

p.s. I hope you enjoyed my post today… If so, please leave me a comment, follow my blog, and and feel free to share it with someone else who might like it, too!!

 

The Summer Before The War

“War does have a way of interfering with one’s most closely held desires.”

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This yummy novel is part love story, part ode to the English summer of 1914, and partly a gentle feminist manifesto.

Beatrice Nash is a very clever, well read, highly educated woman; more so than is deemed quite proper, really. She’s coming into the little East Sussex town of Rye as a newly appointed Latin teacher, and several of the traditional people there find her a bit shocking. She would become a writer if she could, but has to earn her living, and is frankly fortunate that her own education allows her to do so by using her brain.

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Alas, she is also quite lovely to look at. Still recovering herself after the death of her old father, Beatrice is ready for a fresh start. Thanks to Agatha Kent (an old family connection who is also a well-established matron in Rye society) she has secured this new job. Agatha is a strong proponent of women’s rights and education for all children, including those labelled ‘gypsies’. She’s a super-likeable character, and if I were in the novel, I’d want to spend time with her in the hopes that she’d ‘rub off’ on me!

As so often happens, life has more in store for Beatrice than she had in mind for herself. Though she’s not looking for love, Agatha’s sensitive nephew Hugh Grange (a medical student on his summer break) finds his aunt’s bright and lovely young protege irresistible. Their friendship is growing to mean more to both of them by the end of that fateful summer than either of them expected it to…

“But if all else fails, I can always write her a sonnet.” “A sonnet?” said Hugh. “No woman can resist having her name rhymed with a flower in iambic pentameter,” said Daniel.”

Beatrice had found Hugh’s cousin Daniel pretty charming, but there was no future for the two of them as Daniel is homosexual. As are a pair of young local women Beatrice gets to know. Of course this is all kept quiet, as society was unforgiving toward such individuals….

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….And toward unmarried women who were no longer virgins. This is appallingly evident in the awful case of Celeste, the daughter of an old Belgian professor. They are taken in as refugees by England, as were countless other Belgians early in World War 1. (Naturally, they were a more palatable family to bring into one’s home than many others, who were made far less welcome due to their ‘peasant’ status.)

But poor Celeste is pregnant with the child of the German soldier who had raped her, and incredibly, she’s treated as ‘damaged goods’ by narrow-minded residents of Rye. It’s a relief to me to see how Beatrice Nash is able to make a difference at a time of terrible upheaval and long-overdue change!

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It’s a little tricky to know what to make of the local ‘man of letters’, Mr Tillingham. He seems like a nicely intellectual, slightly eccentric old character; but there’s something about him that feels like sand in my teeth.

Daniel is killed in the fighting, and their poor young Romany student returns home with P.T.S.D. Helen Simonson doesn’t spare her readers a view of the reality of war, which of course contrasts sickeningly with the insanely feverish, flag-waving excitement that drew so many off to battle. Beatrice and Hugh find in each other the love they so deserve after he returns from serving as an army doctor. It doesn’t feel especially romantic, but more like a piece of comfort. They and their lives, like those of millions of others, are forever changed by the war.

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This novel makes the same statement as did Testament of Youth. Violence and death is a senseless waste of life. I wrote a blog post about this intense autobiographical book shortly after I read it. Here’s a link to that: Vera Brittain.

It also reminds me of a more recent post, in which I blogged about another historical novel from the same period and not far away; Jacqueline Winspear’s  The Care and Management of Lies…

Which literary character do you wish you could actually get  inside the world of a novel and hang out with?

If you enjoyed reading this, I hope you’ll follow my blog and pass it on to someone else who might like it, too!

Thank you for reading with me,

Leah 🙂

 

Footsteps in the Dark

“It was growing late, and though one might stand on the brink of a deep chasm of disaster, one was still obliged to dress for dinner.”

~ Georgette Heyer

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Delicious. This really hit the spot.

Interwar England is one of my favourite settings to read in, and Georgette Heyer is one of my favourite reasons for this! Published in 1932, Footsteps in the Dark is the first of the many mystery novels written by this prolific author. I enjoyed it so much that I went straight on to her next mystery, and don’t plan to stop until I’ve read them all.

(Or until I run out of access on my library app for the month. That happened fast.)

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Georgette Heyer

I could compare it to Agatha Christie’s detective stories; only somehow a little lighter in tone, and a little more emphasis on the action as it happens than on the brilliant mind solving the crime. I like how Georgette Heyer always seems to write one character who is terribly clever in that very dry English way; it lightens the mood of the book and really takes the edge off the tension created by creepy mysteries unfolding among such prosaic and unsuspecting snobs.

The old-fashioned thriller woven through with social comedy is a perfect combination, like eating sour candy.

When the story begins, Celia Malcolm and her siblings (Peter and Margaret Fortescue) have just inherited a charming old country house.  Against the advice of Celia’s husband Charles, they decide to keep it as a summer residence. ‘The Priory’ has barely been maintained since the tenants were haunted away a few years ago by the resident ghost (a ‘monk’.) There’s no telephone or even any electricity installed, but they (with their elderly aunt, Mrs. Bosanquet) cheerfully drive up the long lane through the forebodingly dark woods to the house for a season of rustic, if genteel rest and relaxation…

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Charles and Peter’s idea of a good vacation involves a bit of fishing, so they take full advantage of the estate’s trout stream, and on their way home one day they happen to spy a couple of men who are acting and talking rather suspiciously. One of them is the mysterious stranger who helped Margaret out when she had car trouble the day before, and the other is the shifty character they’d recently spotted eavesdropping on their conversation with the innkeeper in the local pub. Hmm.

There aren’t many neighbours of sufficient social standing to get together with for dinners and card parties, but the Fortescues do enjoy some such visits with the local gentry; enter Colonel Ackerly (a retired military officer who plays a mean game of lawn tennis), and the eccentric Mr. Titmarsh (a devoted and enthusiastic collector of rare moths), as well as Dr. and Mrs. Roote (the tipsy village doctor and his long-suffering wife)…

There are a few other locals who show up in this old-school cast, but the last one I’ll mention is Monsieur Duval. He’s an appallingly rude, drug addicted artist who lives in a secluded cottage near The Priory. His egotism is matched only by everyone else’s utter distaste for his company (and his art.)

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If you’re in the mood for secret moving panels, winding passages, skeletons, and terrifying noises in the night, barely laced with a little touch of romance, this vintage thriller might be the book for you.

While this novel is not to be taken at all seriously, it’s brilliant as lightly thrilling escape literature! Of course, reading novels set long ago and far away is one thing, but I find that when I read ones that were actually written in other periods I have to overlook some very out-dated attitudes in order to enjoy the story for what it is. This is fine with me; I’m not a fan of revisionist history and the flavour is more authentic than anything a modern author could dream up.

Do you prefer to read stories set in modern times, or take in a little time travel on your way through a book?

Thank you for reading with me,

Leah 🙂

 

 

 

Pemberley Shades

“Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?”

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Ooh. Aah. This is a vintage sequel, the second Pride and Prejudice spin-off ever published… It came out in 1949!

(Incidentally, the first ever sequel to Pride and Prejudice, the most famous- of Jane Austen‘s novels, was published in 1915, entitled Old Friends and New Fancies.)

Back to our feature presentation: Pemberley Shades.

What a delightful book. The language feels quite authentic and the story is imagined really well, which is believable since its author was a clergyman’s daughter who grew up (with a governess) in Victorian England, and lived out her days as a single woman living with her family- as had Jane Austen herself.

~I’m excited to share with you an excellent blog post I discovered about the story of this story, especially it’s recent republication!

Pemberley Shades: The Legend of the Lost Sequel

On to the story itself…

Things are not always what they seem. Least of all, people.

This photo of the Derbyshire countryside (where our story takes place), seen through the mist, really captures our novel’s tone; trying to get a clear view through a screen of lies…

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Photo by Ali Gooya on Unsplash

So, we begin just a few years after the end of Pride and Prejudice… at Pemberley (the famous Darcy family estate) with Elizabeth and Darcy; happily married parents of young Richard (their cute, but somewhat spoiled son and heir.) Darcy’s musically talented younger sister, Georgiana, is still single and so living at home with the happy couple.

As their local rector has recently passed away, Darcy is on task to fulfil his responsibility of choosing and providing a new one to preach and minister to his tenants. He’s determined to avoid having the unbearable Mr. Collins foisted upon them all by Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who has a hate on for her former favourite.

In the meantime his friendly neighbour Robert Mortimer of Clopwell Priory has been kindly filling in at the pulpit. But alas, in spending so much time at Pemberley, he finds himself infatuated with Georgiana. Which is sad for him, as she does not return his sentiments.

In the nick of time, Darcy receives a recommendation for a clergyman who sounds like just the ticket. Enter Mr. Stephen Acworth. And this is where the plot thickens.

I don’t want to spoil the book for you, so I’ll now become a little vague (to match the thickening plot.)

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English manor house, site for the BBC’s filming of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

We are treated to a  letter from Mr. Collins, and extended visits by several amusing characters from the original cast; including Lady Catherine De Bourgh and her poor daughter Anne (who seems to have had enough of her domineering mother), the hopelessly good-natured Jane with her beloved Bingley and their children, as well as Elizabeth’s somewhat reformed younger sister Kitty, their mildly eccentric father, and the all-around wonderful Aunt Gardiner.

“Sound principles are not always found in conjunction with a sweet temper, a superior understanding and elegant manners, but Mrs Gardiner possessed all these attributes and more besides.”

The ‘lightly gothic’ tension in the plot of Pemberley Shades reminds me of Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen’s slightly spoofy Gothic drama.)

So whet your lips for some thrillingly awkward, even frightening scenes deep in the shady woodlands, some shockingly improper behaviour by those who should know better, and some downright satisfying (if surprising) romantic entanglements!

I’m sure any fans of Jane Austen (and her entourage of follow-on novels) will enjoy this book as much as I did.

Which other Austen-esque ‘sequels’ or ‘alternate endings’ have you read, and which would you recommend?

Thank you for reading with me,

Leah 🙂

 

 

 

Becoming Mrs. Lewis

 

“What on earth would become of me if I should ever grow brave?”

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What a heartbreakingly beautiful true story.

I was vaguely aware that C.S.Lewis had been married late in life to an American woman in ill health. That was about all I remembered from the film, Shadowlands. Then I happened upon this book in a library e-reader app last week, and could hardly put it down until I came to the inevitable end.

From the first page, it compels.

Who knew that the woman who would one day become Mrs. Lewis started out as a highly intelligent, atheist Jewish child in New York City?

That she lived and wrote as a communist, and graduated with a masters degree from Columbia University?

That she endured years of infidelity and abuse with an alcoholic  husband before fleeing with her two little boys to save her health and hope…?

Not I…

Early in this historical novel (which reads more like an autobiography) Joy had a totally unexpected experience when she fell to her knees in desperation and fear on the floor of her baby’s bedroom one night. She was surprised to find herself uttering a prayer, which was answered by an immediately overwhelming sense of comfort and peace. She could never look at her life the same way again.

“Much of what I’d done — mistakes, poems, manipulations, success and books and sex — had been done merely to get love. To get it. To answer my question: do you love me? . . . From that moment on, the love affair I would develop would be with my soul. [God] was already part of me; that much was clear. And now this would be where I would go for love — to the God in me. No more begging or pursuing or needing.” (‘Joy’) 

She was an award winning writer in her own right, and knew other writers; one of her friends had spent time in England with the well-known author, C.S. Lewis (known to his friends as Jack.) She wrote to him, searching to understand her spiritual experience and gain clarity as a Christian convert.

They did have some things in common, most importantly their incredible intellect, and their surprise at being forced by their own undeniable experiences to forsake their atheism for Christianity.

C.S. Lewis The Kilns, His Oxford Home

~The Kilns, Lewis’s home

(photograph: awesomestories.com)

Joy met her match in Lewis, an Oxford professor 17 years her senior, who worked in a world of academics (of which she was undoubtedly one) and men (of which she was undoubtedly not one.) The college where he worked wasn’t even open to women students!

Little did he know then that this was ‘the beginning of the end’ of his life as a confirmed bachelor. He was originally from northern Ireland, and when Joy stepped into his life he lived contentedly in the English countryside with his older brother, Warnie (who was a dear, and loved her as a sister.) But alas, Jack’s friends didn’t approve of her, especially not for him. It really is amazing that they ever got together.

“It is not hopeless,” he said with surety. “It is uncertain, and this is the cross God always gives us in life, uncertainty. But it is not hopeless.” (‘Jack’) 

Love conquers all.

Patti Callahan ( author of Becoming Mrs. Lewis) has researched minutely and read extensively; so much so that she’s able to write convincingly in the first person about Joy’s courageous suffering through her ‘once upon a time’ and brave living which propelled her eventually into her own ‘happily ever after.’

Becoming Mrs. Lewis left me craving more about this brilliantly gifted writer who waded through chronic illness and faced down relentless prejudice to produce an impressive body of written work and captivate the heart and mind of one of the most famous writers and speakers of his time (and the author of The Chronicles of Narnia!)

It’s safe to say she was the love of his life, as he said this of her:

“She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow-soldier. My mistress; but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me. Perhaps more.”                                                 -Person Jr., James E (16 August 2009). “Books: ‘Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman'”. The Washington Times. Retrieved 8 December 2011.

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Joy Davidman (findagrave.com)

I know Joy wasn’t alone in her experience of feeling at first that she had to do or be something, good enough somehow, to ‘earn’ the right to be loved by ‘proving worthy of it’…

I’ve experienced powerful change in my own life, by realizing that I, in my flaws, am and always have been perfectly loved by God.

How about you?

Also, can you recommend to me any other good books or movies about Joy and Jack?

Thank you for reading with me,

Leah 🙂

 

The Care And Management Of Lies

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” ~C.S. Lewis

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Perusing the library shelves, judging books by their covers; I suspect many of us indulge in this delicious pursuit. But this isn’t always the most reliable method for laying my hands on a book I’ll hardly be able to put down. Still, libraries are one of my favourite places to meander, and it’s always worth a try.

This is exactly how I first discovered this week’s author, Jacqueline Winspear. I was uncommonly lucky that day; I happened to pick up the first book in her well-researched historical mystery series (Maisie Dobbs)! Suffice it to say, I now pounce upon each new instalment with fervent energy and devour it so quickly I only wish it were longer.

This book, however, is her heartrending standalone novel. In this sense, I could almost compare it to Alexander McCall Smith’s  La’s Orchestra Saves The World (https://leahsletters.blog/2019/03/02/las-orchestra-saves-the-world/) except that it’s set during the first, rather than the second World War.

“What is certain, is that war will not leave us as it found us.”                                          ~Woman At Home, February 1915

Dorothea and Kezia are old schoolmates, who (not without some bitterness) become sisters-in-law. While one woman focuses on her career in the city and the fight for women’s rights, the other struggles to learn the trade of being a farmer’s wife.

It still takes my breath away to sense the sickening numbers of loved ones who left for the war and never came back. I can’t comprehend what it would be like to carry on, intimately faced with such widespread grief.

I was immediately drawn into the keenly felt nuances of long-standing women’s friendship, complicated by the upheaval of war. I wonder how many of us today can even relate with the brave and selfless urge to persistently write cheerful lies to the battlefront.

This story really made me think. A lot. And wonder.

Ethical questions are served here, and pushed around like overcooked vegetables on a child’s plate…

 

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Women’s issues are at the forefront of social awareness for a lot of us today. Just over 100 years ago, things were very different, or were they?

Of course the historical perspective is compelling and the farm setting enchanting, but the very different ways these two women face down their enemy- war- is what makes this a book not to be missed.

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What behind-the-scenes ‘battles’ have you read about?

And I’d love to hear what you think of the questions raised in this conundrum of a novel…

Thank you for reading with me!

Leah 🙂

Dear Mrs. Bird

“Never give in, never, never, never–never, in nothing, great or small, large or petty–never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”    ~Winston Churchill

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This is the tale of the life-changing and heart-rending experiences of Emmy, a young woman with journalistic ambitions and seemingly endless energy, during the Blitz in WW2 London. It’s written in a light, good-humoured (almost diary-like) tone that invited me to smile along with her; but this voice was contrasted by the unimaginable horrors through which she somehow kept heart enough to Keep Calm and Carry On.

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I wanted to read this book as soon as I saw it featured in a library. (book-lust at first sight;) I’ll chalk that instant attraction up to the vintage-style cover, especially the old-fashioned typewriter keys. I liked it even more once I opened it up and started reading! I am always drawn to stories from this time and place, and the main character’s somewhat disarming flaws drew me right into hers. What she occasionally lacked in ‘honour and good sense’, Emmy made up for in compassion and her brave determination to act on it.

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For anyone who enjoys some witty ‘British-isms’ sprinkled liberally throughout a highly readable novel that takes you into the heart and mind of a likeable young woman, give this book a go; it won’t disappoint!

Also, do tell… what other historical fiction from this era do you recommend?

Thank you for reading with me,

Leah 🙂

p.s. I’m not the only blogger (on WordPress) writing about this one!

Check these posts out, too:

https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/44595095/posts/16643

https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/77612352/posts/1721

https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/84556689/posts/54921

https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/44873370/posts/10851

https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/30727745/posts/6902

 

 

 

La’s Orchestra Saves the World

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one. ~George R. R. Martin

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I’m not sure how many times I’ve read this story; my favourite memory of reading it is the time we were on a long family road trip. I was reading it aloud as we drove past lavender fields, which was an enchanting coincidence; the main character’s full name is Lavender. Also, there is an abundance of this flowering herb growing in a garden which is the scene of some of the most important action in the book.

Alexander McCall Smith is most famous for his warm, wise, and witty No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, featuring my dear imaginary friend, Precious Ramotswe. (I am not ashamed to have an imaginary friend who was invented by a clever author.) He’s also written other series, and several standalone novels. This one is my favourite; so much so, that I wish it was part of another series.

I especially enjoy the setting; a quiet country village in England’s East Anglia region. When we lived in England for about 3 years while our children were young, we lived up on the Suffolk coast, so I have seen the 21st century version. It’s a beautiful area, in a gentle and delightfully rural way. (Ironically, this normally out-of-the-way place was the site of the Battle of Britain in WW2.) In this charming story, La goes about saving the world from the outpost of her sleepy Suffolk village during those very years.

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What books act as your return ticket to places you’ve enjoyed?

Thank you for reading with me,

Leah 🙂