Books

Very Good, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse

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Table of Everyman Wodehouse editions at Waterstones, Piccadilly

Just over a year ago, I thought that I’d read some Jeeves and Wooster stories set in and around Christmas. Looking around, it seemed that Very Good, Jeeves was my best bet. It included Jeeves and the Yuletide Spirit – a Christmas story if ever there was one surely? 

Now for the past few years, I’ve been vaguely collecting the Everyman PG Wodehouse novels. I probably have a dozen or so, with the notion that I’d like to get a complete set at some point. So, it was an Everyman edition I was after. 

The obvious place to look was Amazon. Yes – local bookshops exist, but they’re not necessarily going to have copies of Everyman editions of Wodehouse. Amazon didn’t have any in stock, but claimed it could get one for me.  

In my experience Amazon tends to give longer lead times for titles that it doesn’t have in stock than is strictly necessary – underpromise and overdeliver. Publishers seem to give Amazon preferential treatment, and so I was confident that I should get the book reasonably quickly. 

A few weeks passed, and we were getting close to Christmas. I still didn’t have the title, but I knew how to remedy that. I headed down to Piccadilly where there were two likely shops that would help me. First up was Hatchards. These days it’s owned by Waterstones, but it maintains its own very distinct presence despite there being a very large Waterstones just a 100m further along Piccadilly. 

When the most recent Le Carré novel, A Legacy of Spies, was published, it was to Hatchards I went in search of a signed copy. I wasn’t alone in that hope, as a gentleman at the counter was asking that very question.  

“No, we don’t have any signed stock at the moment. But we may get some. He does come in here fairly regularly, and he always signs books when he’s in.” 

(In fact, I managed to snag a signed copy from Foyles.) 

Anyway, Hatchards tends to carry a good quantity of the Everyman Wodehouse editions, but when I searched the shelves I found just about every title except Very Good, Jeeves. No matter, I would check the large Waterstones just along the way. It too carries a significant number of Wodehouse novels – I’m sure they sell well to tourists amongst others. However, again I was out of luck. 

I gave up on being able to read the book for Christmas. Certainly, I could easily have obtained a paperback edition. But I wanted a hardback. My search would prevail. 

Christmas 2017 came and went, and on a regular basis, an email would drop into my inbox from Amazon assuring me that they were still trying to get hold of it, but that they hadn’t yet. They pointed me towards the paperback edition, but my order stayed live. They weren’t cancelling it. 

By now, I was just curious to see if they ever came through. 

Then, before Christmas this year, I happened to be close to Hatchards again. So, I popped in on a wet Saturday and wandered to the table and shelves where they keep their Everyman Wodehouses and wouldn’t you know it? There was a stack of copies of Very Good, Jeeves! I bought a copy and promptly cancelled my 13-month-old order with Amazon. 

Over Christmas I finally read it. The first thing to say is that although there are two Christmas-set stories in the book – itself a collection of short stories – they’re only very loosely set at that time of the year.  

But, as always, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. The running thread throughout the book is that Bertie is trying to get his own back after Tuppy bet him one evening at the Drones Club, that he couldn’t swing across their pool using rings. However, the final ring had been kept out of reach and Bertie had ruined a very good dinner suit as a result.  

To be honest, I’m not even sure why I’m providing that much “plot” information. It’s a Jeeves and Wooster book. You know exactly what you’re getting unless you’ve never read or seen a Jeeves and Wooster book. 

As a side note, having finished the book, I fancied re-watching some of the Fry and Laurie TV series. I happen to own DVDs of the full collection, but I was away from home at the time, with family for Christmas. No matter. Even if it cost me a few quid, I would rent or buy digital copies. 

It seemed unlikely, but I thought I would first check streaming services to which I already subscribed. But it seems that Netflix has not sprung for much 1980s ITV programming. I looked at Amazon, thinking that at least I’d be able to buy digital copies there even if it wasn’t available as a “Prime” series. But it wasn’t. Indeed, although two of the four series of the programme seemed to have once been available, a note informed me that, “Our agreements with the content provider don’t allow purchases of this title at this time.” 

Hmm. 

I checked over on Google Play, but there was no sign of it. Finally, I headed to the service that seems to maintain the fullest library – iTunes. I’d have to watch on my iPad, but not matter. However, even there, I was out of luck. 

Even the ITV Hub, where I knew that I would at least have to put up with dozens of adverts, was unable to help me.  

Incidentally, if you do fancy the DVDs, they’re a snip at just £79.99 on Amazon! I’m sure my set cost less than £20 a few years ago. 

In essence, this is another case of a TV series being essentially unavailable anywhere. I simply don’t understand why it at least isn’t available for sale. I had ready money to buy episodes and the rights owners simply won’t take my cash. 

I’ve moaned before about this situation with regard to even quite recent films. As HMV totters and DVD players begin to become a thing of the past (we are fortunate that BluRay and HD BluRay players are backwards compatable), it seems that we continue to enter a film and TV dark age

For what it’s worth, on my return home I did indeed dust off my old DVDs and rewatched the first series, which happily still stand up. Several stories from Very Good, Jeeves feature in reworked forms in that first series. Look out too for Highclere “Downton Abbey” Castle doubling as Totleigh Towers. 

The series could do with a bit of restoration. I believe the series was shot on 16mm film, but it was then transferred to U-matic tape where the editing probably took place. If the original prints or negatives exist, to properly restore it would perhaps require someone to re-edit the right takes from the filmed elements and painstakingly rebuild it, layering in sounds and colour grading it all. A lot of effort, but it could look fabulous! Sadly, with a lot of ITV/Granada programmes, even if the programmes are restored, they don’t bother releasing them in their new state in the UK. See also, Brideshead Revisited, The Jewel in the Crown, and the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series. 

It would be lovely to think that the reason you can’t buy episodes today is because these restored editions are just around the corner. Sadly, that’s a pipe-dream. 

The Everyman books, however, are marvellous! 

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Bookshelves of Everyman Wodehouse editions at Hatchards, Piccadilly

The Secret Barrister

I think it’s safe to say that The Secret Barrister is easily the scariest book I’ve read in a long time. The one takeaway you instantly get from it is that you never want to get involved in the UK legal system.

Unfortunately, even if you’re a squeaky clean individual who does nothing wrong, there are many ways for you to get caught up in the actions of others, and this book highlights some of the frankly horrific consequences. But what is very clear is that the most iniquitous parts of the system mostly affect the poorest in society.

The anonymous barrister who’s written the book gives us potted histories of why our legal system is what it is, and then gets into the big problems that we have with it.

Some of the major problems are very structural – relying far to heavily on volunteer magistrates for example – but many are caused by a lack of funding. I think I’ve been aware just how much has been stripped out of the Department of Justice, but it impacts less on the middle class because most use things like schools or the NHS. Relatively few of that class fall foul of the law.

An essential book.

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Suffolk Winter 2013-20
Suffolk fens near Blythburgh

A superb gothic horror set in the wild fens of Suffolk.

I first came across Michelle Paver with her excellent ghost story Dark Matter, set amidst an arctic expedition in 1939. She followed that with Thin Air, another great ghost story, but this time set in the Himalayas in the 1930s, following the route of a previous expedition earlier in the century.

Now we have Wakenhyrst, a village amidst the fens at the turn of the century, where some unpleasant events have left long and deep scars. The book begins in mid-sixties, with a PhD student attempting to make contact with Maud Sterne. Would she be able to help her with her study of a painting known as the Wakenhyrst Doom?

This painting is to become the crux of the story we about to learn about. We go back in time to 1906 and the Stearne household who live in Wake’s End adjacent to one of the fens. The father of the house, Edmund Stearne, is a monster. He forces his wife to bear child after child, with so many being still-born or barely surviving birth. He lays down strict rules all about the house, including the requirement that he basically never interact with his own children (those who make it alive). “Father” is always about his studies, while young Maud is treated with general disdain as a female.

What changes things is his discovery at the local church, St Guthlaf’s, of a hidden painting representing the Last Day of Judgement. Painted on planks and then whitewashed over in the sixteenth century to protect worshippers’ eyes from the licentious behaviour depicted as sending you to hell, it is this painting’s discovery that sends things spiralling out of control. And there are things from the past that in due course will be uncovered.

To say more would be unfair, but the attention to detail is wonderful. You feel that you’re living and breathing in the old house, sitting on the edge of the fens with the sounds and smells that would bring.

The rural life is captured beautifully, with the poor labourers who make ends meet and need the employment of rich landowners like Stearne. Paver gives us some beautiful descriptions of things like eel-babbing and starling murmations.

But it also captures a madness that comes from an obsessional attempt to understand both the painting and studies into the lives of other obsessives.

Everything beautifully comes together in this well-told tale.

I couldn’t put it down and can’t recommend this book highly enough!

Wakenhyrst is published by Head of Zeus on 4 April 2019. Thank you to the publishers and Netgalley for my advance reader copy.

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Have you ever wondered what life was like in a band in seventies? Then this is the novel for you. 

I am something of a sucker for books, films and TV series set in the music industry. From Almost Famous (which perhaps is closest in vibe to this novel), to Vinyl and the little seen Roadies, I’m fascinated by a life that I’ve never especially wanted to be part of. This novel ticks all those boxes. 

Daisy Jones & The Six tells the stories of Daisy Jones, an aspiring songwriter, and Billy Dunne, the lead singer of The Six. Told in a first-person style, we learn how the singer songwriter and rock band came together, produced one of the best-selling albums of the period, and then broke up (This is not a spoiler incidentally, as it’s revealed right at the start). 

The novel reads like one of those oral histories that you might read in music magazines like Rolling Stone, cutting back and forth between the relevant protagonists as we follow their lives and experiences.  

Daisy is the daughter of distantly wealthy parents who never seem too worried that their teenage daughter is hanging out on Sunset Strip, becoming the coolest person around, drinking, taking drugs and having sex with whoever she likes.  

Meanwhile, across the country, Billy Dunne is forming a band with his brother Graham amongst others, and trying to make it in the music industry – starting with smaller clubs before eventually getting signed to Runner Records and having some demons to face. 

The novel tells how these two paths collide, and the impact it has on both their lives personal and professional lives.  

These might not be real lives, but they feel real, and that’s what’s important. All the way through this novel you feel that Taylor Jenkins Reid knows about the scene at the time. At the very least, she has spoken to people who understand it. I don’t know who Daisy might be based on, but you can certainly believe that there was a wild child like her, living in a cottage at the Chateau Marmont, and hanging out with all the names of the day. 

You also know that LA was the epicentre of a certain type of music of the time, and that bands did indeed feel the need to move there to develop their careers. 

The structure of the novel means that initially it can be little hard to differentiate the characters – they are all giving interviews to an unseen narrator. But everyone here is their own person, and you begin to wish that you could listen to the songs and hear that music that’s being talked about (In fact, you can read the lyrics from many of their songs in the novel’s appendix). 

One slight complaint I have about the book’s structure is that it requires that all the characters have fantastic recollection of the period. Yes, there are some entertaining “unreliable narrator” moments, when two characters remember a key conversation very differently, but considering the sheer quantities of drink and drugs that were being consumed, word perfect recall of some of these conversations is a little bit of a stretch at times. But it’s hard to work around that given the structure’s constraints. If this were a documentary feature, then those gaps might be filled in with clips from the era, but a novel doesn’t have that luxury. 

It’s very entertaining how the novel has to carefully weave between real people from the period and people who might have been around at the time. A venue in LA is real, a presenter of Saturday Night Live isn’t.  

I thoroughly enjoyed this fictional representation of the rise and fall of a band plying their trade in the late seventies. The book is more about relationships of the protagonists than the minutiae of how the industry actually works. But you kind of wish you could have been there. 

Daisy Jones & The Six is published by Random House on 7 March 2019.  Thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for my advanced reader copy. 

Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly

Possibly my favourite show on Amazon Prime Video is Bosch, based on the Michael Connelly series of novels. The fifth season isn’t due until next year, but the good news is that Amazon has already renewed it for a sixth season!

Harry Bosch has now appeared in something like 21 novels now, and Dark Sacred Night is the latest novel to feature the Los Angeles based detective. Having been forcibly retired from the LAPD a few books ago (he’s still within the force in the TV version which tends to use older titles for each season), Bosch has been working on a part time basis for the San Fernando PD exploring cold cases. Meanwhile LAPD Detective Renée Ballard, who was introduced in her own first novel last year, The Late Show, crosses paths with Bosch as he’s following a case that’s a bit more personal to him.

Bosch and Ballard then join forces to try to work out what happened to a young girl who’s body was found some years ago, but who’s murder was never prosecuted. Bosch feels that he owes it to her mother, who he’s been trying to help overcome her own addictions, to find out.

Connelly’s novels are always contemporary and fairly free and easy to read. Here we alternate perspectives from Bosch and Ballard as they both go about their day to day business – particularly in Ballard’s case – and together work the bigger case. Bosch, as ever, is causing trouble.

I always enjoy these novels because they feel like they present something of the real LA, and less the version we have so commonly gotten in TV and film. It feels more like a real character. The same is true of the Amazon series incidentally.

Being part of a long running continuing series, we get small developments in some of the characters’ long running relationships – notably between Bosch and his daughter Maddie, who these days is in college. The only problem I ever have with Connelly’s books is that I read them far too fast, and then have to wait another year for the next one – although last year we got two novels.

At least there’ll be another Amazon series in the meantime.

For the Missing by Lina Bengtsdotter

The search for a missing girl in rural Sweden forms the backdrop to this intelligent crime story from Lina Bengtsdotter. A teenager, Anabelle, has not returned home from a wild party in a down-at-heel town in deepest Sweden. DI Charline “Charlie” Lager and her colleague Anders have been sent to investigate.

Nearly everyone involved in this procedural is troubled. We first meet Charlie recovering from a monumental hangover and one-night stand. But that’s as nothing to the goings on in Gullspång, where the town’s teenagers are drinking nearly as much as their parents, everyone reliant on the local paper mill for a living, and under-age sex and drugs are very much on the cards.

Inevitably the police initially get nowhere, but not everyone is being as helpful as they might. At the same time, Charlie is facing up to the face that she’s returning to the town of her childhood – somewhere she hoped she would never return to again.

Everywhere you turn in this novel, there are ghosts of what happened before, and it probably wasn’t pretty.

The book moves along quite nicely, and it has a structure that sends the reader forwards and backwards in time as we learn what really happened. I found the book highly readable, with it portraying a depressing picture of a part of the Swedish countryside that I found convincing.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher Orion, for an ARC. For the Missing is published on 13 December.

Where the Truth Lies by M J Lee

Ten years ago, a junior detective accidentally captures “The Beast of Manchester.” In the present day a series of dead prostitutes in turning up on the streets of Manchester. Is there a relation between the two in this pacey police thriller?

Now a Detective Inspector, Ridpath is recovering from treatment to cancer and has been given the task of working as an officer for coroner’s court. This should be an easier route back into full-time detective work, but things don’t quite go as easily as planned. When an exhumation of the body of one of the Beast’s victims reveals an empty coffin, things are turned upside down.

This first in a new series of books is set in and around Manchester, and we get a good flavour of the area: snarled up traffic on the Oxford Road; the emptiness of Media City. Being set in the world of the coroner’s court is unusual and creates a point of difference from other police series.

The book is real page-turner, with short punchy chapters jumping between Ridpath, another young detective, DS Clark, and the evil doers. The story is fast paced, never standing still for more than a few moments. Ridpath’s recovery from cancer is omnipresent, but it’s his wife who is more worried about it than him. And the police world around the story feels authentic.

This isn’t a book for the squeamish, but it rattles along and it reaches a very satisfying conclusion.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher Canelo. Where the Truth Lies is out now.

She Lies in Wait by Gytha Lodge

In 1983, seven teenagers go into the wood and only six come out. Thirty years later, a body is found and DCI Sheens instantly realises it must be Aurora, the teenager who disappeared all those years ago, but who was never found.

Aided by his small team, including the novice DC Hanson, we revisit the characters thirty years on. Did one of them do it? Are they covering up for one another?

Set in and around Southampton and the New Forest, this is a page-turner, with the narrative flipping backwards and forward between 1983 and the present day, as we learn more about the teens and their lives and friendships from the time.

The dynamic between Sheens and Hanson is interesting and unusual. Is Sheens, who went to school with the victim, covering something up himself? The distrusting Hanson has some issues her life too.

Gytha Lodge has created a story with some all-too relevant themes, with characters who exhibit some of the complexities and contradictions that people do have.

Overall, an intriguing tale, that kept me gripped until the end.

Thanks to NetGalley and Penguin UK for my ARC. She Lies in Wait is published on 21 March 2019.

Fear by Bob Woodward and The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

Like many political watchers, I’ve been equally appalled and yet addicted to watching what is going on currently in US politics.

Right now there’s the dismal spectacle of Brett Kavanaugh being elected onto the US Supreme Court despite a number of serious accusations being made against him, few of which are truly being taken seriously. In the meantime, there’s Trump mocking the accuser at a rally (and then denying it despite all evidence to the contrary).

These two books, in their own separate ways, describe in some detail the ineptness of the Trump administration, the lack of focus and the general 

Bob Woodward’s Fear is currently riding high in the bestseller lists and for good reason. Woodward has written about presidents all the way back to Nixon, but this feels more urgent than probably any of those other titles. He has a very measured tone, rarely inserting his own authorial voice into the narrative he’s telling. Instead, he relies on first hand testimony of many people, usually speaking anonymously.

Woodward’s narrative is direct and steady. He paints Trump in a similar light to others – notably Michael Woolf in Fire and Fury earlier this year – in that Trump is like a toddler in the way he can be distracted and then completely forget about something. The book opens with an official simply lifting a letter that would start a trade war with South Korea and jeopardise US military intelligence in the region. Once the letter has gone (and Trump does love signing things), the President forgets about it. At least until someone else brings it up – perhaps either on Fox News, to which he’s addicted and gets much of his information, or from someone like Peter Navarro, an economist for whom, almost uniquely, trade is considered bad. 

The book repeatedly explores the lack of a basic understanding of how modern businesses are driven, how having a trade deficit with a country isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and just really simple things like how modern supply chains work. Trump, as we know, is obsessed with things like steel production, and has started a trade war with China that has almost instantly required the government to bail out farmers who have been hit by tit-for-tat tariffs.

The tone all the way through the book is measured and never breathless. And that just makes it all the more vital. 

Meanwhile the always very readable Michael Lewis has The Fifth Risk, which examines the workings of the US government following the Trump victory. He zooms in on a handful of departments, digging into the background stories of some of the people who work there, and explaining what the departments do, and why their work is often vital but undervalued. 

On more that one occasion, he relates stories of people who were being loaned government money without realising that it the government that was lending the money, as the money is often distributed via local banks. 

There are horrifying stories of the Trump’s dreadful transition team, coming into the various departments weeks or months after the election, rather than the next day, not being interested in what those departments actually did, and generally being very unsuited to the roles. 

It seems that another failing of US government is the level to which so many jobs are political appointees. Trump has been singularly bad at filling these vacancies, and when he does, they’re often people who have no interest in the subject at hand. Sometimes this is because they genuinely don’t know what the department does! You would think a quick search of Wikipedia might be in order before you enter the building.

In the meantime, these apparatchiks wander around getting government employees to stop using the term climate change.

Perhaps worse are people who do know what the department does, but in whose outside interests, a level of dismantling works in their favour. A case in point is Barry Myers, chief executive of AccuWeather, the private weather provider. Trump nominated him to oversee the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who run the US National Weather Service. AccuWeather uses data paid for and provided by the National Weather Service to bolster its forecasts. Yet it has fought hard to prevent the US Government widely publishing that weather themselves. There is no National Weather Service app, and that is no coincidence. AccuWeather’s app is very popular and delivers significant advertising revenue. Myers has fought hard to prevent that data being made widely available despite the fact that he personally benefits.

The books is full of stories like this. Lewis finds people who are working in the government sector, often for less money than they could earn elsewhere, because they believe they have a civic duty. How much is all of this going to be undone by Trump? Time will only tell. 

This was another book that was clearly published in a rush, and as such, it perhaps doesn’t hang together as much as some of his other books. And yet, the subject matter is probably much more important than that of his other books. Lasting damage could be done to millions of Americans by the actions of a few.

What both books make really clear is that there are a lot of people with no experience, no knowledge, and no wish to actually learn anything new. Being informed is somehow not a good trait within this administration. 

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Love is Blind by William Boyd

A new William Boyd novel is always to be welcomed, and as with the superb Sweet Caress from 2015, Boyd has returned to a familiar “whole life” novel. (A recent Guardian piece by Boyd explores that challenges of this form, and notes how relatively few novels of this type there are).

Love is Blind tells the story of Brodie Moncur, the son of a fire and brimstone Scottish clergyman, who takes up the trade of piano tuner for a piano building business in Edinburgh. Soon enough Brodie moves on to a late 19th century Paris where the young, free and single man attempts to support the growth of the piano business by sponsoring performers to use their pianos.

In this way he runs into the ‘Irish Liszt’, John Kilbarron and his business partner brother Malachi. He also meets the Russian opera singer Lika. And so begins a tale that wanders across turn of the century Europe and further beyond. 

Whole life novels like this need to condense a lot into a few pages, meaning that the plot tends to move along apace. Yet, we still need to time to get a feeling for the place and the period that we’re in. Boyd does this comfortably – his siblings trapped in the family home with their overbearing father ruling the roost; Edinburgh, Paris and Nice as the horse seems to be slowly beginning to make way for the motor car; and the high society of ‘Piter’ – St Petersburg.

The narrative keeps moving forward, and the characters feel real enough – big and bold though they may be at times. While perhaps not quite as strong as Sweet Caress which was a remarkable novel presenting us with photographs ‘taken’ by its protagonist, I was nonetheless entranced by this and when the end was reached, could have stayed on for much more.

Reading this also made me realise that I really do need to return to The New Confessions, Boyd’s 1987 novel that I first read around that time. My paperback edition is around somewhere…

Prior to reading Love is Blind, I finally caught up with Boyd’s recent collection of short stories, The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth. While some characters are shared between stories, these are a series of mostly unrelated contemporary tales. I especially enjoyed the epistolary story of letters from an increasingly exasperated producer attempting to get a film off the ground. The story of the title is more of a novella, and is easily the best of the bunch as we follow Bethany through her early life and loves, and a series of jobs largely organised by her mother. The final story has the best hook, yet is perhaps the weakest and seems to stop a little too abruptly. But the short story seems to be a neglected medium – fit only for 15 minute slots on Radio 4, and to pad out seasonal editions of broadsheet newspapers when popular crime writers are commissioned to pen a festive whodunit. You won’t spend long on these tales, but they’re fun while you’re there.