The Yellow Room by Christopher Bowden is an elegant mystery focusing on the locked rooms of our recent past, our parents and grandparents, their stories, their loves, losses, and mistakes. Astoundingly it is self-published. I say astoundingly, not because I am surprised that the author thinks it should be deserving of an audience (it undoubtedly is), but because no agent or publisher agrees with him.
The tale begins with a prologue showing us Jessica Tate, in the present day, mulling her recent choices as she waits for her boyfriend Duncan. A flash back to 1953 shows us tantalising glimpses of a love affair and a murder.
Jessica has begun to visit her family's past after clearing out her grandmother's cottage after her grandmother's death. In a box labelled 'Postcards etc.' Jessica finds the ephemera of her grandmother's life: the green shield stamps, old theatre programmes, and at the bottom a guide to a country house, Brockley Hall, and slipped inside it a black and white photograph of a young man kept with a newspaper cutting. We follow Jessica as she investigates why the Yellow Room, mentioned and underlined by an unknown hand in her inherited house guide, is missing from the modern version, and discovers who the man in the photograph really is.
There are so many good things about this book. I love the eras and continents travesed as we follow events in the 1950s (with brief details of earlier lives) and modern day, in England and in Kenya (during the Mau Mau uprising). I like that the courting Miles and Pamela, just down from Oxford and out for her first season respectively, are call the 'Down and Outers'. I love Pamela and Miles and manservant Lorca as they struggle to maintain their post-war life. I love that Lady Pamela likes to err on another fur than Elinor Glyn. I love that Jessica has a pile of Georgette Heyer's with her grandmother's name on the flyleaf and that Lady Pamela reminisces about her sons' childhood when looking at a pile of G. A. Henty novels.
Over all The Yellow Room is an intriguing novel of books and houses and families, which makes English and colonial Kenyan mid-twentieth century social history utterly fascinating. There's a quote of praise on the front from Julian Fellowes and I am sure anyone captivated by Gosford Park or Downton Abbey will thoroughly enjoy Christopher Bowden's book. I love books focused on buildings, The Franchise Affair comes straight to mind, and The Yellow Room is up there with the best of them. Publishers don't want you help you read this book, ignore them please and buy it anyway.
Part of the reason for the rather intermittent blogging of the last few months is that I have been cataloguing an awful lot of new books. I thought I'd let you look at some of the things that are in stock. Being used books of course there's usually only one copy of each.
And some children's literature including some first editions...
You can see more as they're uploaded on to my website and bargain hunters may like to know that the influx of books has caused me to pop some fiction into my Ebay shop, some at very low starting prices.
A few thoughts on books I've been enjoying when I don't get time to blog:
Theodore Boone by John Grisham is the ever popular US author's first foray into YA fiction. It is a legal thriller with a pre-teen aspiring lawyer at its heart. This was very readable though by no means as gripping as his adult thrillers, but then I'm not the target audience. It has been very unfairly reviewed on sites like Amazon where many of his regular readers are marking this down for its simpler plot, for example, without getting that it is not an adults' book! I liked Theo, I liked the plot and the level of involvement of Theo in the law was believable. It had many of Grisham's traits (whole family full of lawyers, social justice, small town setting) but the family and small town atmosphere worked well with the smaller scope of the legal side. My favourite bit is Theo doing his homework in a glorified broom-cupboard at the back of his parents' offices whilst kids with legal questions knock on his window for advice. As I say, I thoroughly enjoyed it but I would love to know what a real lawyer or a real 12 year old thought of it. Grisham has used child protagonists before, notably in The Client (a good place for an adult to start reading Grisham actually), but that is rather too scary a premise for the audience intended with Theodore Boone. Grisham writes well about children and I was impressed by his foray into writing for them.
I've been wanting to read Sophie Hannah for a while. I finally got my paws on two of her thrillers: Little Face, which I quite liked) and The Point of Rescue (which I really, really liked). Unlike Grisham Hannah's prose is of unarguable quality so, though a 'lighter' read thematically, both books are still a pleasure throughout. Both books have female victims and I liked the fact that both victims act on their own behalf, and neither wait for the usual male rescue, though with mixed success. Hannah's weak point is plot. Both books are page turning and quite scary in places but the twists in the end don't always work (I was more convinced by The Point of Rescue than Little Face) and in order to make them plausible at the last minute there are some rather weird bits of characterisation thrown in. I very much like her police officers: Simon and Charlie are great creations both a bit brilliant, both a bit dysfunctional, but with personal failings rather different from the hackneyed "dysfunctional cop" that is so often trotted out. I will be reading the rest of her thrillers but do wonder if straight forward literary fiction might be more Sophie Hannah's thing than struggling with surprise plot endings for thrillers.
The Bat Tattoo by Russell Hoban was one I had great hopes for but it just didn't quite work for me. I liked the tattoo imagery, the main characters and many of the themes but was left cold by the recurring crash dummy motif, which was more than could be said for some of the characters who got rather involved with it. The dummy is part of the themes of loss, separation, sudden endings, but as you'd exect from a crash dummy, this really is not subtle. So, I liked the non-dummy parts, but don't think the whole thing worked. This doesn't always matter (like in Tales of Protection) but it did here.
Harry Potter series. This was a re-read for me and great pleasure it was too. It confirmed for me though that number three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is by far and a way the best stand-alone book of the series. Harry's character seems more whole here, he actually learns rather than stalks about (as in the first books) or sulks (as in the next two books). The plot was tight and not nearing the 'baggy monster' status of the final volumes. This is not to take away from the enormous plotting achievement of the whole series, or to say that she can write like Philip Pullman, but in the Prisoner of Azkaban she comes her closest.
I have also been reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (love Salander and Blomkvist but don't understand why a novel with such a feminist take on sexual violence is quite as graphic as this is), the wonderful The Stranger House by Reginald Hill (I've raved about him before so I won't go on here except to say that this is a lovely stand-alone mystery set in the Lake Distict and comes highly recommended from me) and The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne which I picked up after reading Stuck-in-Book's views on Milne for grown-ups (its not the tightest mystery in the world but a good piece of classic amateur sleuthdom and I enjoyed it very much).
And my current read is Harbour by John Ajvide Lindqvist which I am thoroughly enjoying. It is a really measured, character-led thriller, not too violent (not yet, at least) but very imaginative and understated. I think it is even better than Let the Right One in (cinematically Let Me In is doing the rounds at the moment) which I also enjoyed. Lindqvist writes beautifully about adolescents.
A Campaign for Real Books has been launched. It aims to support the book trade in the UK, both new books and secondhand, online shops and bricks and mortar. As a member you'll receive a simple paper CAMBO card entitling you to 10% discount when you spend over £10 at independent bookshops. It's a book token that works all year round; it's valid in both new and second hand bookshops who have signed up and when you buy one it will enables the campaign to do all this and more:
•support new and secondhand independent bookshops across the UK
•campaign to save threatened bookshops and libraries •support independent printers, publishers, papermakers, binders, private presses and all those whose livelihoods depend on paper books
•hold and sponsor book fairs, literary festivals and other events
•organise prizes for authors, shops, independent publishers, designers, illustrators and others associated with the book trade
•develop our website with news, views, interviews, links to shops, books for sale and much, much more Plus you'll get free or discounted admission to all CAMBO events, a newsletter and more! You can start showing your support by pre-registering today - and when you do, you'll receive an extra two months' membership free, meaning your CAMBO card will save money on books this Christmas and next!
Whilst I have nothing against e-readers I support this campaign wholeheartedly. The book trade needs all the help it can get. I have signed up as a participating bookseller though I haven't fathomed how to get a CAMBO banner on my site yet. You can however still get the 10% when ordering through C L Hawley or by phone.
Some of my colleagues who have signed up to give the discount to CAMBO members include: