The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett
Arthur Prescott teaches English literature at the University of Barchester so that he can live in his grandfather’s home town, where he spent many happy weeks as a boy. He loves to read in the cathedral’s rare book library, and attends Evensong and Compline services in the cathedral, where his friend Gwyn is the dean. He meets weekly with his friends David and Oscar to discuss book collecting, and is content with his life (except for faculty meetings) until young Bethany Davis arrives from America to digitize the cathedral’s books and unsettle his world. She demonstrates the usefulness of online research to Arthur, who avoids computers, befriends Oscar and David, and helps Arthur finish his overdue guide to the cathedral. Arthur is looking for information on St. Ewolda, who founded the monastery, and is stunned to find that Bethany shares his secret interest, searching for the Holy Grail. The contemporary story alternates with short accounts of the guardians of the lost book of St. Ewolda from 560 AD to World War II, and the dangerous times they lived in. Arthur, Bethany, David, and Oscar race against time to steal a rare book, explore the cathedral’s crypt, and crack a medieval cipher before the cathedral’s board must vote on an offer to buy the rare book collection. Barchester is the fictional town described in Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope’s books, and is a charming setting for this clever academic mystery that has a little romance.
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, by Jennifer Ryan
This is not the cozy tale of home front life in an English village that I expected, but instead a grittier, more memorable story of life in southeast England in 1940. Told in letters and diaries, we experience the points of view of several women and one girl in Chilbury. 13-year-old Kitty Winthrop befriends a young Czech evacuee and uncovers disturbing secrets, while her 18-year-old sister Venetia falls hard for a visiting artist. Widowed Mrs. Tilling, who has sent her only son off to war, resents giving his room to Colonel Mallard. Also featured is a conniving midwife who values money over morals. Newcomer Miss Prim starts a ladies only choir, over the objections of traditionalist Mrs. B, and the women gradually learn the power of music to entertain, comfort, and inspire. I would have liked to learn more about Miss Prim and about the backstories of other characters, but found this to be an absorbing, enjoyable pageturner. Readers learn how far a father will go to have an heir, what happens to the survivors when a house is bombed, and how the women of Chilbury struggle to adapt to their new roles during a time of constant change. Readalikes include The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, and though it’s set decades earlier, The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson. A first novel by an editor of non-fiction books, the author was inspired by her grandmother’s stories of life in WWII, and by the many memoirs of life in WWII England that she read, especially those of evacuees.
The Corner Shop by Elizabeth Cadell
When Lucille Abbey travels to Hampshire to find out why three of her best employees have left the job of private secretary to Professor Hallam, she finds that the cottage is at the top of a steep hill, lacks basic amenities, and that the professor is quite unreasonable. Lucille can handle the job, the cottage, and the professor, but is soon off to Paris for a “vacation”, running her aunt’s small shop while she’s away. It becomes apparent that Lucille’s aunt is dishonest, and acquaintances from London and Hampshire keep turning up in Paris. A charming, pleasant read, with some mystery and a little romance. This book was published in 1967, and is a bit dated. Why am I reading and reviewing it now? I have enjoyed other books by Elizabeth Cadell in the past, but I’m currently looking to read and review books that were popular 50 years ago, as the Woodridge Public Library is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2017. Information on special events can be found on the library’s website. The library owns 15 novels by Elizabeth Cadell, and she’s always a good choice if you’re looking for a light, gentle read.
Happy New Year!
The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway
An absorbing first novel, in which Lord Nick Falcott, who is about to die in the battle of Salamanca in Spain in 1812, wakes up in a London hospital in 2003. The Guild have found him, and will spend a year acclimating him to the 21st century, then give him a pension and assign him a country. Time travelers can never return to their home country or time period. However, after enjoying life for several years in New England, Nick is summoned by the Guild, and sent back to his estate in England three years after he was declared dead, in order to help find a Guild enemy who is manipulating time nearby at Castle Dar. In 1815, Julia Percy’s grandfather is dying, and Castle Dar will be inherited by her cousin Eamon. Julia learns that she can freeze time and travels to London to stay with Nick’s sisters and mother. Nick and Julia are attracted to each other, but the Guild has other plans for Nick. Full of adventure, intrigue, romance, and rich in historical detail, the author leaves open the possibility of a sequel. This debut is a good readalike for A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, and the regency romance novels with a military focus by Carla Kelly.
British Library Crime Classics
Recently I’ve read three of the British Library Crime Classics, mysteries originally published in 1935 and 1936. The series is described as “forgotten classics from the golden age of British crime writing”. 18 titles so far have recently been published in the U.S. by Poisoned Pen Press. I think that the books I’ve read will have broad appeal today.
The Cornish Coast Murders, by John Bude, is set in a small village on the coast of Cornwall. The mystery is discussed and partly solved during fireside chats in Reverend Dodd’s study, where he meets with the local doctor and Inspector Bigswell. When a local magistrate is apparently shot through a picture window, there are very few clues, suspects, or motives.
Death in the Tunnel, by Miles Burton, involves the death of a wealthy semi-retired businessman while alone in a locked train compartment, in a railway tunnel. There is no obvious motive for murder or suicide. The mystery is solved by the combination of careful detective work by Inspector Arnold and other, unnamed police officers, and the imaginative ideas of of Arnold’s friend, amateur criminologist Desmond Merrion.
Death on the Cherwell, by Mavis Doriel Hay, is set at a woman’s college at Oxford University. An unpopular member of the college staff is found dead in a canoe on a cold January afternoon by several of the students, who proceed to help police investigate the death.
The settings of these novels are charming to a modern reader, the intricate plotting is first-rate, the violence level is low, and the writing is compelling and richly detailed, making for quite a pleasant reading experience.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Elderly Britons Axl and Beatrice are a devoted couple who decide to leave their cave dwelling to go on a journey to visit their son in another village. Why leave now? Beatrice is clearly upset at losing the privilege of a candle in their room at night, and would like advice for a pain in her side. We gradually learn that there is a mist of forgetfulness throughout the land. What secrets are Axl and Beatrice forgetting, and is there a valid reason for the mist? Axl begins to worry that Beatrice will stop loving him if she remembers their past, and they both wonder if their long-lost son will welcome their visit. Traveling slowly, they encounter wonders, terrors, and adventures, but the pacing never increases in this dreamlike fable for grown-ups, set in the fifth or sixth century, decades after the death of Arthur, a leader of the Britons. There is an uneasy peace between the Celtic Britons and the Saxon invaders. In a Saxon village, Axl and Beatrice hear of a boy stolen by ogres. Edwin is rescued by Wistan, and the four journey together for a while. Wistan, a Saxon warrior, is determined to find and slay the dragon Querig, but elderly knight Gawain claims that quest for himself. A leisurely read, this is a beautiful portrait of an elderly couple and their quest to remember their past, no matter what happens.
I enjoy re-reading books occasionally, and sometimes I find books I haven’t read by favorite authors. All of these books were published between 1951 and 1960.
One of my favorite books to re-read is Trustee from the Toolroom, by Nevil Shute. Keith Stewart is an ordinary man in Ealing, England, who becomes trustee of his young niece along with his wife, and tries to find a way to get to the South Pacific to recover her inheritance. He is an engineer who makes mechanical models, and writes about them for The Miniature Mechanic, along with answering dozens of letters from readers working on the models. These readers later help him get to Tahiti and back home again, via the Pacific Northwest.
I also read The Far Country, by Nevil Shute, set mainly in Australia. Post World War II conditions in England were still bad, with some rationing still in place until 1954. Jennifer Morton gets an unexpected gift from her late grandmother, and visits her cousin’s ranch in Victoria, Australia, where she meets a Czech doctor working as a lumberjack. Beautiful scenery, appealing characters, and a good look at the differences between life in England and in northeast Australia around 1950. Nevil Shute’s novels are known for their excellent storytelling, with mostly appealing characters, usually ordinary people in extraordinary situations or settings. These aren’t necessarily gentle reads, as he is best known for the post-apocalyptic On the Beach, and the World War II novel, A Town Like Alice.
I listened to two Regency romance novels by Georgette Heyer: Venetia, and The Quiet Gentleman. Her books are known for mild romance and witty dialogue, along with some humor. They are also excellent as audiobooks. Since they’re set in the early 1800s, they don’t feel at all dated. The library has a large collection of both authors’ books, as they are frequently reprinted. If you’re looking for a change of pace for your summer reading, browse and enjoy.