Tag Archives: Sandra Danby

Book review: Hangover Square

Patrick HamiltonHangover Square by Patrick Hamilton, first published in 1941, is deservedly being re-discovered as a perceptive portrayal of people getting-by, living in the low rent district of Earls Court, London, months before war is declared. It is the mournful tale of one man’s hopeless love for a woman who exploits him relentlessly, his inability to see her for what she is, and the battle of his psyche, half of which is telling him to commit murder.

George Harvey Bone loves Netta Longdon despite, or perhaps because of, her disdain for him. ‘When she had finished making up, she went into the sitting room to change her shoes, and he followed her. He was always following her, like her shadow, like a dog.’ This is a novel about love, about living on the edge, and schizophrenia, and about the underbelly of a city paused on the brink of war.

The story flicks back and forth in George’s head between his lucid moments planning a new life in Maidenhead when he will stop drinking, and what happens after the ‘click’ in his head – a blackout or loss of sense of time and place – when he realizes the only solution is to kill Netta. George is put-upon by Netta and her circle of friends, he buys drinks, brings food, and they tolerate his company only when he can contribute something. Netta goes to Brighton with George, not to be with him but because she hopes he can introduce her to someone useful. George, bless him, fails to see this. ‘She was wildly, wildly, lovely that night. He looked across the table at her, and she was violets and primroses again.’ Netta and her heartless group of friends exploit George mercilessly and he allows them to do it.

Hamilton’s Earls Court is a seedy place where people get-by on little money, living in rented rooms or boarding houses, scrounging off others, seemingly without jobs to go to. Netta goes to bed in the small hours, rises at eleven in the morning with a hangover – the Hangover Square of the title – then navigates her day via pubs, bars and restaurants or drinking from a bottle of gin provided by a friend. Brighton – London-by-the-Sea – brings a breath of fresh air but, as is always the way, George’s problems follow him there. There is a lovely section when he plays golf, a successful round which gives him the confidence to woo Netta. ‘He wasn’t going to get drunk. She could drink if she wanted to, but he wasn’t going to – at least only a little. He was going to keep his head.’ The irony, of course, is that George is schizophrenic and has another psychotic episode.

This novel is very funny in places, in others the action can seem slow to progress, but I found myself willing George to tell Netta where to go. He is the sort of character you want to take by the hand. Of course, he is unable to stand up to Netta’s rude and ungrateful behaviour and it is the uncertainty of what he will do, where he will go, and whether his schizophrenic murder plans will come to fruition, which made this such an absorbing read.

Read this article about Hamilton published in the Daily Telegraph, and my review of The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton.

If you like this, try:-
‘The Night Watch’ by Sarah Waters
‘The Heat of the Day’ by Elisabeth Bowen
‘Midnight in Europe’ by Alan Furst

‘Hangover Square’ by Patrick Hamilton [UK: Abacus]

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
HANGOVER SQUARE by Patrick Hamilton #WW2 #bookreview via @SandraDanby http://wp.me/p5gEM4-2EQ

Book review: Tulip Fever

Deborah MoggachAmsterdam in the 17th century was a time when commerce was king and the sale of tulip bulbs made some people very rich and others bankrupt. This is the setting for Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, when Rembrandt and Vermeer painted some of the most-recognised art of our time. Sophia’s husband Cornelis is rich, thanks to tulips, and he celebrates his wealth by commissioning a joint portrait to be painted. It is a decision which changes their lives.

The deft switching of viewpoints – and each chapter is a single voice, Sophia, Cornelis, Jan [the painter], Maria [their servant] and Willem [Maria’s lover] – allows for a new take on each situation. The plot moves quickly, things are hinted at and passed over but relevant later. It is the sort of novel which seems simple but has hidden depths. The language can be so sensual. “Jacob van Loos is not painting the old man’s mouth. He is painting Sophia’s lips. He mixes pink on his palette – ochre, grey and carmine – and strokes the paint lovingly on the canvas. She is gazing at him. For a moment, when the old man was talking, her lips curved into a smile – a smile of complicity. He paints the ghost of this, though it is now gone.”

The reader must remain vigilant to catch everything. After four chapters I realised the significance of the quotation at the head of each chapter, and went back to the beginning again. They shed fresh light on the story being told. For example, “‘Trust not to appearances.’ Jacob Cats, Moral Emblems, 1632.” And, another chapter heading, by the same author, ‘Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret places is pleasant.’

In places, Moggach’s description echoes Dutch paintings of the period: “Sophia stands at the window. She is reading the letter. Through the glass, sunlight streams on to her face. Her hair is pulled back from her brow. Tiny pearls nestle in her headband; they catch the light, winking at the severity of her coiffure. She wears a black bodice, shot with lines of velvet and silver. Her dress is violet silk; its pewtery sheen catches the light.” Certainly an understanding of art of the period will help a reader get more from the text.

Shown at the top of this page is the current cover by Vintage, but I prefer the cover of my paperback Vintage edition which dates from 2000. The illustration is a detail from ‘Antea’ by Parmigianino, from the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples. Both are shown below.

Read my review here of Something to Hide by Deborah Moggach and read more about her other books at her website.

If you like this, try:-
‘The Miniaturist’ by Jessie Burton
‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring’ by Tracy Chevalier
‘Girl in Hyacinth Blue’ by Susan Vreeland

Tulip Fever’ by Deborah Moggach [UK: Vintage]

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
TULIP FEVER by Deborah Moggach #books via @SandraDanby http://wp.me/p5gEM4-2sv

Book review: Christmas Pudding

Nancy MitfordChristmas Pudding is another between-the-wars comedy of manners by Nancy Mitford. With scathing observation at times as sharp as Jane Austen, Mitford introduces a new character, Lord Lewes: ‘He was tall, very correctly dressed in a style indicating the presence of money rather than of imagination, and had a mournful, thin, eighteenth-century face.’ This is her second novel and features some of the personalities featured in her first, Highland Fling, though familiarity with the first is not essential for enjoyment.

The action takes place over one month around Christmas, the pudding of the title refers to Mitford’s mixture of personalities in two house parties in the Cotswold countryside. Paul Fotheringay, whose debut literary novel has been heralded as a comic farce, is desperate to escape London and find inspiration for his next book. Wanting to be taken seriously as an author, he settles on a biography of Victorian poet, Lady Maria Bobbin. When he is refused access to the diaries by the current Lady Bobbin he conjures a plot with her teenage son Bobby to masquerade as Bobby’s tutor over the Christmas holidays and so gain secret access to the diaries. And so Paul becomes part of a love triangle at the Bobbin’s home Compton Bobbin, involving Bobby’s sister Philadelphia and the honest, boring but reliable Lord Michael Lewes. The second house party, at the rather kitsch over-furnished Mulberrie Farm, is held by former prostitute and now society lady Amabelle Fortescue. Mitford’s characters move in the same overlapping social circles so it is inevitable that Amabelle and her guests Sally and Walter Monteath will socialize with some of the guests at Compton Bobbin.

Love is the central theme, true love, idealised love, upper-class arranged marriage and marriage for pragmatic facing-old-age reasons. As has always occurred in aristocratic circles, marriage is approached with a healthy dose of pragmatism making romantic love seem frothier and more idealised than ever.

This is light-hearted fiction and limited in its observation of characters; there is no upstairs/downstairs contrast here, which would enrich the social commentary. But the old and young are perfectly capable of condemning themselves out of their own mouths. Reading this novel will not change your life, but it will amuse you and the ending is not the easy way-out you may expect. My one criticism is that there are slightly too many peripheral characters with their own strings of plot.

Read my review of Highland Fling, Mitford’s first novel.

If you like this, try these:-
‘Sweet Caress’ by William Boyd
‘A Death in the Dales’ by Frances Brody
‘Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift

‘Christmas Pudding’ by Nancy Mitford’ [UK: Fig Tree] Buy now

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
CHRISTMAS PUDDING by Nancy Mitford #bookreview http://wp.me/p5gEM4-2UO via @SandraDanby

Book review: Fred’s Funeral

Sandy DayNone of us have the luxury of hearing what is said about us after we are dead. In Fred’s Funeral, Canadian author Sandy Day tells the story of one soldier, returned from the First World War, who felt misunderstood and sidelined by his family. Only when he dies in 1986, seventy years after he went to war, does he observe his own funeral and find out what they really think of him.

Fred Sadler has lived his post-fighting years in one institution or another. Clearly he is suffering from some form of shell shock or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder but this goes undiagnosed. There are periods of living in boarding houses, his family is unwilling to have him live with them, until his behaviour deteriorates and he is sent back to hospital. Now dead and trapped as an unwilling ghost, Fred observes his funeral presided over by Viola, the sister-in-law he always disliked. As the mourners sit around and share memories of Fred, he watches, frustration mounting, as he is unable to correct their observations. They portray a ‘Fred Sadler’ which he does not recognise. I kept expecting something to happen; a true memory of the war, an event, which would explain Fred’s illness and set the record straight with his family. But it didn’t come. The story is told in linear fashion; the anecdotes of Viola and the remaining family are interchanged with Fred’s reaction to these stories plus a few flashbacks to the war. Clearer signposting of these sections would make reading easier.

Day clearly captures the time and place of post-Great War Canada, a subject which is new to me. However I found the repeated digressions into the extended family history and details of the lifestyle a distraction from the main story [so many cousins, great-great grandparents and houses]. I so wanted to cut some of these unrelated sections to allow a stronger novel to push its way to the surface; simpler, more powerful. The inclusion of so many family details makes me wonder if the core of Fred’s Funeral is a memoir, inspired by a real family, from which the author feels unable to cut some relations and take the leap into pure fiction.

The portrayal of Fred’s experience at Whitby Hospital for the Insane is heart breaking, as is the disinterest of his family. For them, Fred is an embarrassment. It is a sad indictment of our treatment of soldiers returning from war and our ignorance that the effect of fighting can last a lifetime. It is easy to assume that in the 21st century this has changed, but the modern day strand of Day’s story suggests it hasn’t. It is as if Fred’s life has paused. “He banished feeling anything long ago. He feels timid. He feels tentative, like every step he takes is on a thick layer of ice and at any moment, he might crash through into a frenzy of drowning.”

At the end of the novel, there is no ‘reveal’, no surprise, and I felt a little let down. Overall, this is a thoughtful examination of how family tensions, petty jealousies and misunderstandings can spread down the generations. Gossip and guesses are transformed into ‘truth’.

Day also writes poetry and this shows in her neat turn of phrase. For example, cousin Gertrude puts on her eyeglasses which “magnify her grey eyes like two tadpoles in a jar”. Read more about her poetry here.

If you like this, try:-
Etta and Otto and Russell and James’ by Emma Hooper
‘Wake’ by Anna Hope
‘Yuki Chan in Bronte Country’ by Mick Jackson

‘Fred’s Funeral’ by Sandy Day [UK: S Day]

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
FRED’S FUNERAL by Sandy Day #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-35o via @SandraDanby


Book review: Vanishing Acts

Jodi PicoultThis is the first book by Jodi Picoult which I have read, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I would describe Vanishing Acts as long, intriguing, multi-layered. Is it the greatest? No, but it makes me want to read more of her books. Her multiple-perspectives mean you get a 360° view of a situation and see how different people view the same thing, something we are not always privy to in real life.

Delia Hopkins lives in New Hampshire with her widowed father Andrew and her daughter Sophie. She works with her own search-and-rescue bloodhound to find missing people. She is about to marry Eric, a friend since childhood. Everything seems happy, except for strange dreams which she cannot explain. ‘I am little, and he has just finished planting a lemon tree in our backyard. I am dancing around it. I want to make lemonade, but there isn’t any fruit because the tree is just a baby. How long will it take to grow one? I ask. A while, he tells me. I sit myself down in front of it to watch. He comes over and takes my hand. Come on, grilla, he says. If we’re going to sit here that long, we’d better get something to eat.’ Fitz, a journalist, who also grew up with Delia and Eric, cannot explain the significance of the lemon tree. But the puzzles keep coming, after a policeman knocks on the door and arrests her father for kidnapping.

This is a story about repressed memory and triggered memory, the difference of which is central to the court case which is the core of this novel. It is about trust, instinct and loyalty and how sometimes the hardest thing to do is the right thing to do.

It is a long book and some sections felt over-written, a style I sometimes find with American authors; using two metaphors where one will do. But the plotting is excellent and the rope of tension pulls you mercilessly onwards. My paperback [below] is an American edition by Washington Square Press, it changes typeface for each different point of view which I found surprisingly irritating.

Click here to read the first paragraph of Vanishing Acts and read more about Jodi Picoult’s books at her website.

If you like this, try:-
‘Somewhere Inside of Happy’ by Anna McPartlin
‘Something to Hide’ by Deborah Moggach
‘Crow Blue’ by Adriana Lisboa

Jodi Picoult

‘Vanishing Acts’ by Jodi Picoult [UK: Hodder]

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
VANISHING ACTS by @JodiPicoult #books via @SandraDanby http://wp.me/p5gEM4-2uE


Book review: Beneath an Indian Sky

Renita D’SilvaWomen’s ambition, women’s capability to lie and manipulate, and women’s ability to love, cherish and recover. Beneath an Indian Sky by Renita D’Silva is the cautionary tale of Sita and Mary and how their lives, from childhood to old age, are entwined in India. It is a symmetrical story, but the permutations of its angles and consequences are not clear until the end. Be patient, relax into the story, because the ending is worth it.

1925, India. Sita’s parents despair of her acting like a girl so, to encourage more restrained behavior, they arrange for her to become friends with Mary. Mary’s parents encourage individuality, freedom and learning, but Mary secretly envies the rules and ordered life of Sita’s home. And so the two girls become friends. Until in 1926 something happens which splits them apart.

This is a tale of opposites; two little girls who, despite being different, become friends. What happens when they grow up turns into a darker more difficult story about friendship, honesty, betrayal, loss, anguish and regret. Renita D’Silva takes you to another world, India pre- and post-partition, with all its scents, colours, flavours, wealth and poverty. She is a magical writer of the setting into which she lays an emotional story of the twists and turns of women’s treachery and ability to heal.

The girls are born into an India where women must defer to their husbands and sons, where endless wealth and dirt-grovelling poverty exist side-by-side; where women do not always support each other and mistakes are not forgotten. Behind the story is a ‘be careful what you wish for’ moral that applies to both girls. Intertwined with their story is the modern one of Priya, a documentary film-maker, who lives in London and is unable to have a child.

I really enjoyed this book, read quickly over a weekend. Be warned, secrets have a way of being found out.

Here’s my review of A Mother’s Secret, also by Renita D’Silva.

If you like this, try:-
‘White Chrysanthemum’ by Mary Lynn Bracht
‘The Tea Planter’s Wife’ by Dinah Jeffries
‘A Life Between Us’ by Louise Walters

‘Beneath an Indian Sky’ by Renita D’Silva [UK: Bookouture]

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
BENEATH AN INDIAN SKY by @RenitaDSilva #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3jl via @SandraDanby



First Edition: The Hundred and One Dalmations

My first memory of the iconic children’s book The Hundred and One Dalmations by Dodie Smith, is actually the Disney animated film. This was quickly followed by a Puffin edition, which I sadly no longer have. That films are still being made of the story, and there is demand for old copies of the novel at rare booksellers, is, I think, testamount to the longevity of the book. Long may it continue, even if it includes no fight scenes, no dragons, no magic, no vampires or spaceships.

First editions
At bookseller Peter Harrington, there are three first editions available [at time of going to press].


A special edition by Heinemann 1956, £1,500, bound in white morocco with black onlay patches to resemble the coat of a Dalmation dog [above left].

The second example for sale is also a 1956 Heinemann first edition, £975, including black and white illustrations by Janet and Ann Grahame-Johnstone [above top right].

The third book, a pink leather first edition by Heinemann, 1956, £2,000, features an onlaid Dalmation on the front cover plus paw prints above lower right].

The story
Pongo and Missis are a pair of spotty Dalmation dogs which live with Mr and Mrs Dearly. Missis has a litter of 15 pups. Concerned that Missis will be unable to feed all her puppies, Mrs Dearly looks for a canine wet nurse to help and discovers a liver-spotted Dalmation lost in the rain. The dog is named Perdita who tells Pongo the real reason she was outside in the rain: she was searching for own lost litter of puppies which had been sold by her owner. Trouble really arrives when Mr and Mrs Dearly host a dinner party at which one of the guests is Cruella de Ville, who is fixated on fur clothing.

The film
The Walt Disney animated film of 1961 [below left] varies the story slightly in that Missis does not exist, Pongo and Perdita have their own little of puppies. Actor Rod Taylor was the voice of Pongo, Cate Bauer played Perdita, and Betty Lou Gerson was Cruella de Ville. Watch an excerpt here.

The 1996 film [above right], starring Glenn Close as Cruella de Ville, was a live-action comedy adventure. It was praised for its faithfulness to the 1961 film and was a commercial success, though it received mixed reviews. Watch the trailer here.

Other editions

Dodie Smith


‘The Hundred and One Dalmations’ by Dodie Smith [UK: Egmont]

If you like old books, check out these:-
‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll
‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett
‘The Hobbit’ by JRR Tolkein

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
First Edition: THE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIONS by Dodie Smith #oldbooks https://wp.me/p5gEM4-38Q via @SandraDanby

Book review: The Believers

Zoe HellerThe Believers by Zoe Heller is the story of a New York family and how serious illness challenges each person to consider in what they believe. The Litvinoffs are a Jewish family used by Heller as a prism to question our beliefs, not just religious but also motherhood, fidelity and politics.

The story starts with the meeting of English student Audrey and American lawyer Joel, at a party in London in the Sixties. The action then shifts swiftly to 2002. Audrey and Joel live in New York, he is a prominent and outspoken radical lawyer, she does good works. They have two daughters, Rose and Karla, and adopted son Lenny. On the day he is due to appear in court representing a controversial defendant, Joel has a stroke. As he lays in a coma, Heller shows each of the family confronting the situation, its impact on their own lives, or not as the case may be. None of the characters are particularly likeable, and the storyline can be difficult in places, but I found the pages turned quickly as I wanted to know the ending. Of course, like life, there is no neat finale only more life to follow as the stories of the family continue.

Audrey is a deliciously outspoken and brutal mother to her daughters, though she mollycoddles her son to a ridiculous degree. Rosa is re-discovering her Jewish roots, having been raised in a non-observant Jewish family. We follow her exploration of the oddities of Orthodoxy, as she wrestles with the concept of accepting things she doesn’t understand. Karla, unhappily married and trying for a baby, is the recipient most frequently of Audrey’s caustic tongue. Not looking for an affair, she nevertheless stumbles into one, and has difficulty believing and accepting her suitor could possibly be attracted to her. Lenny is a drug addict who believes in nothing except his next hit. Meanwhile, Joel in his hospital bed is the cog of the wheel around which they all move.

I was left loving Heller’s writing, she has a wonderful turn of phrase. ‘Depression, in Karla’s experience, was a dull, inert thing – a toad that squatted wetly on your head until it finally gathered the energy to slither off. The unhappiness she had been living with for the last ten days was quite a different creature. It was frantic and aggressive. It had fists and fangs and hobnailed boots. It didn’t sit, it assailed. It hurt her.’

But, I finished the book dissatisfied with the story. Audrey’s Englishness did not come into play, except in the first chapter which feels unrelated to the rest of the book, and she seems unnecessarily harsh and unfair without real justification. What made her so bitter? Something which happened between the Prologue in 1962, and the main story in 2002? The big surprise, when it comes, is perhaps predictable to everyone except Audrey.

Read the opening paragraph of Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller.

If you like this, try:-
‘Freedom’ by Jonathan Franzen
‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler
‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara

‘The Believers’ by Zoe Heller [UK: Penguin] Buy at Amazon

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE BELIEVERS by Zoe Heller #books via @SandraDanby http://wp.me/p5gEM4-2BZ

Book review: The Western Wind

Samantha Harvey In 15th century Somerset, a village is isolated between high ground and a river. Various attempts to find funding and the skills to build a bridge have foundered, and with it the village’s hopes of prosperity. Then in the early hours of Shrove Saturday, the body of a villager is swept away by the river and everyone looks to the priest for answers. The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey is a contemplative, slow burn about John Reve, the priest, his care for the villagers of Oakham, and the persistent questions of his visiting rural dean about the death of Thomas Newman.

The story timeline is chopped up and told backwards, which adds to the mystery. The novel starts with the sighting of the body and the finding of a green shirt in the bulrushes. This is a sign, Reve says, that Newman’s soul has crossed into heaven. Only at the end, do we find out the truth of what really happened. The dean is a threat; we never know his name, and only at the end are we given a physical description of him. He suggests to Reve that as this is the season of confession, a pardon be issued to anyone confessing in the next three days. This, he hopes, will enable him to tell the archdeacon that the death was investigated and the village is full of church-going people who are faithful penitents. He tells Reve: ‘You’re the parish priest – your word weighs a hundred times a normal man’s, two hundred times a woman’s, three hundred times a child’s. Your word is a silver weight in the palm. Your word is worth trading money for. It would cut like a stone through water.’ But what is a parish to do if a priest fails in his office and then compounds that failure with lies; and worse, encourages a parishioner to lie. Everyone in the village is affected by what has happened. Reve has a privileged position, he listens to the confessions of all the villagers; he knows their secrets. But to whom does he tell his own secrets? Unsure of his actions and feeling threatened by the dean’s relentless questions, he asks God to send the western wind as a sign of approval and to blow away the spirits.

There are all sorts of themes going on here. The fine line between religion and superstition. The hypocrisy and lies of religion and its priests. The honesty and doggedness of the rural poor and their willingness to believe in symbols and spirits as well as God. It considers the practice of confession, that allows a person to sin in the knowledge that they will be blessed by the priest afterwards.

This is a careful, restrained novel – as fitting its contemplative clerical narrator – rich in descriptive detail. But at times I wishes it moved a little faster or was a little shorter. Told entirely from Reve’s point of view, it might perhaps have benefited from another voice. I also found the ending rather abrupt.

If you like this, try:-
‘Reservoir 13’ by John McGregor
‘Master of Shadows’ by Neil Oliver
‘Under a Pole Star’ by Stef Penney

‘The Western Wind’ by Samantha Harvey [UK: Jonathan Cape]

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE WESTERN WIND by Samantha Harvey#bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-37m via @SandraDanby

A poem to read in the bath… ‘After a Row’ by Tom Pickard #poetry #nature

Winter Migrants by poet Tom Pickard is a collection of poetry and prose, starting with the prize-winning sequence ‘Lark & Merlin’, an erotic pursuit over the hills and fells of the poet’s Northern-English homeland. In truth, I could have selected anything from this slim volume, but ‘After a Row’ just caught my mood today.

Tom Pickard

[photo: carcanet.co.uk]

Because of copyright restrictions I am unable to reproduce the poem in full, but please search it out in an anthology or at your local library.

‘After a Row’
A lapwing somersaults spring,
Flips over winter and back.

After a fast walk – my limbs
The engine of thought – up long hills
Where burn bubbles into beck and clough to gill

Tom Pickard


Read these other excerpts, and perhaps find a new poet to love:-
‘Sometimes and After’ by Hilda Doolittle
‘Cloughton Wyke 1’ by John Wedgwood Clarke
‘Forgetfulness’ by Hart Crane

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
A #poem to read in the bath: ‘After a Row’ by @tompickardpoet http://wp.me/p5gEM4-2UD via @SandraDanby