Saturday, June 8, 2013

{review} barbara pym reading week


‘Reading, were you?’ Rupert picked up the book which lay on the little table by the fire. It turned out to be the poems of Tennyson, bound in green morocco. Could she really have been reading that? he wondered, looking around for the novel stuffed behind a cushion.
‘Yes, but I was just going to make some coffee,’ said Ianthe. ‘Would you like some?’
How convenient women were, Rupert thought, accepting her offer, the way they were always ‘just going’ to make coffee or tea or perhaps had just roasted a joint in the oven or made a cheese soufflé. (A Suitable Attachment)
I'm very late to the (tea?) party - though I have been playing along on twitter a little - but I have been so enjoying reading everyone's posts for Barbara Pym Reading Week, the brilliant idea of Thomas at My Porch and Amanda of Fig & Thistle. However, my new computer finally arrived yesterday (the whole saga is worthy of an entry to white whine, but I shan't bore you), so I'm back in blogging action now.

But, hey, plenty of time for reading without all those distractions provided by functioning technology, and I was really pleased that I managed to read five books by Barbara Pym this week. I loved them all, although I think that Excellent Women is my favourite (so far!).

So which ones did I read?


Excellent Women (1952) as I noted: wonderful, so funny and so sharp and quietly catty. And I was so happy to see Mildred Lathbury pop up (in name) in two other of my reads, so I found out what happened to her. This was my first Barbara Pym read, and I am now hooked. I may even like her more than Anita Brookner. Oh, perhaps not, but it is close...


Which is interesting, as my second read, Quartet in Autumn (1977) was a book with really Brooknerish resonances - about people who fail to "make contact" - although also reminiscent of another magnificent book about ageing, friendship and loneliness, Muriel Spark's Memento Mori {REVIEW}. It also captured the hideous ugliness of the 1970s really well.
Of the four only Letty used the library for her own pleasure and possible edification. She had always been an unashamed reader of novels, but if she hoped to find one which reflected her own sort of life she had come to realize that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction.

  

An Unsuitable Attachment (1963 - famously rejected by the publisher and not published until 1982) had a wonderful heroine in Ianthe, with her perfect little house and quiet careful life who is nevertheless prepared to take a chance on a happy ending rather than seek a safer alternative.
The man who had offered the seat had seen Ianthe as a tall fragile-looking woman in a pretty blue hat that matched her eyes. He might also have noticed that her dark hair was touched with grey and that although she was not exactly smart there was a kind of elegance about her. She saw herself perhaps as an Elizabeth Bowen heroine – for one did not openly identify oneself with Jane Austen’s heroines – and To The North was her favourite novel.
However, it was, obviously, the cat Faustina who really grabbed me in this one!
‘Yes – is that her coming now? I thought I saw somebody pass the window,’ said Sophia. Her tone was a little agitated for she had also just seen Faustina mount the refreshment table and pick her way delicately among the dishes of the cakes and savouries, sniffing the air, ready to pause and pounce when she came upon something that took her fancy.

After this I read Pym's first work, Some Tame Gazelle (1950), which was much more - like Excellent Women - obviously humorous in tone. I loved the sisters: Harriet, who likes to feed pale curates ("They were so immature and always made the same kind of conversation"), and the thoughtful Belinda who has loved the Archdeacon next door for thirty barren years.
She felt she could hardly agree that Agatha was elderly when she herself was a year older and thought of herself as only middle-aged. And yet, middle-aged or elderly, what was the difference really? Calm of mind, all passion spent … she had known that before she was thirty.
...
Belinda had decided to wear her blue chiffon. Henry had once said that he liked her in pale colours, and although that had been over thirty years ago it was possible that he still might.
The wicked one-liners in this book were quite wonderful. As a classicist, I am thinking of having this put on a t-shirt (perhaps in embroidery?): "I had a classical education and it isn’t a very good training for scintillating conversation."
‘Now, Ricardo, you mustn’t lose hope,’ said Belinda comfortably. ‘I know she is fond of you and even if she will not love you, always remember’ – her eyes lighted on the works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson – ‘that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. I always think those lines are such a great comfort; so many of us have loved and lost.’ She frowned: nobody wanted to be one of many, and she did not like this picture of herself, only one of a great crowd of dreary women. Perhaps Tennyson was rather hackneyed after all.

Finally, I read Jane and Prudence (1953) about two university women whose lives have taken quite different paths, while their friendship has remained true. Can Jane find Prudence a suitable husband from the unmarried men (perhaps the handsome leonine philandering widower Fabian who has a large photo of himself on his wife's grave!) in the village where she tries but always fails to live up to her (literary) expectations of the appropriate activities for a vicar's wife?
‘Yes, of course,’ Jane agreed. ‘The church is going to look very nice, I think.’
‘Oh, Mother, you always say that,’ said Flora, Mrs Glaze having left them alone together. ‘And you never really notice.’
‘No, I notice the things one shouldn’t,’ said Jane.
I quite liked how a little bit of life at the time crept into this book - rationed food, for instance. I love reading about food in books, and Pym's books certainly offered me a lot of treats (apart from liver). I felt like a nice very dry sherry quite a bit as I read too; but not, I think, a madeira:
‘This is Madeira,’ said Mervyn. ‘It seems a suitable present for a respectable unmarried lady who might be visited by the clergy.’
The 'excellent women' ("It was not the excellent women who got married...") who carried the parish / village / suburb / street along in all these books thoroughly resonated with me (over-educated spinster, perhaps even "comfortably indifferent to dress?"!).
Prudence’s flat was in the kind of block where Jane imagined people might be found dead, though she had never said this to Prudence herself; it seemed rather a macabre fancy and not one to be confided to an unmarried woman living alone.
I also loved the literary allusions scattered so aptly through the texts. In addition, I was reminded that I enjoy books where nothing much seems to happen (so, my passion for Anita Brookner) and what does happen happens so quietly that it hardly creates a ripple. Of course, one doesn't want this in every book, but it is really very relaxing at times! It also amused me quite a lot that so many inhabitants of these books seemed to have jobs that no one quite knew what they were, including the employees, in a "vague cultural organisation" (J&P), or "something to do with records or filing, it was thought, nobody knew for certain" (Q in A). The ordinary, the everyday - these are the stars of these books.

I am so happy that I have the pleasure of eight more of Barbara Pym's books to enjoy in the future. Many thanks to Thomas and Amanda for creating Barbara Pym Reading Week!

Barbara Pym with cat

26 comments:

  1. Welcome back - glad your laptop arrived! I really enjoyed Quartet in Autumn too - though we seem to be in the minority on that. And I did notice the complete lack of information about what they did in that office - or even who they worked for! Your post makes me want to order a copy of An Unsuitable Attachment immediately. I wonder if booksellers have noticed a spike in Pym sales this week.

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    1. Thanks Lisa May - good to be back! I work in the public service and there are definitely people in my organization who would be challenged to describe what they do. I just wish we had tea ladies to come around for elevenses!

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  2. Gosh, you have been busy! I'm so pleased that this week has given you a new favourte author. I'm still struggling to LOVE Pym, although I certainly like her a great deal. (I did much better this week than I did with Anita Brookner week!)

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    1. Maybe it is just a style thing, given that there are so many similarities with Brookner's style. The other one I'd lump in would be Spark, yet you obviously get along well with her books - rather more happens in them, though... Hmmm.

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  3. What a wonderful reading week you've had! I've read all of these Pym's and liked them all (though Quartet in Autumn made me depressed). I would suggest A Glass of Blessings too. It is so, so good, but not read very much.

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    1. I managed to pick up two more new titles at a book sale this morning - A Few Green Leaves and Crampton Hodnet - and I think my library has pretty much the rest, so I feel I've done well this week. I thought Quartet in Autumn was very bleak: the whole time one was anticipating some brutal 1970s disaster. The writing was terrific.

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  4. I have been inspired by all these posts to try Barbara Pym for myself. My library only has a couple of books so it will be one of those that I try!

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    1. Hi Marg - I would definitely recommend Excellent Women as a starter if they have it. Really very funny, and a pretty good summation of her entire 'genre'.

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  5. What a lovely post! I'm so happy to hear that you have fallen for Pym, and all your quotes made me laugh, which is one of the things I really value Pym for -- I used to have to be careful not to read her novels on public transport because I was liable to chuckle out loud. I don't much like Anita Brookner, probably because she isn't noted for her one-liners.

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    1. Thank you Harriet - I don't think it would be safe at all for me to read Pym in public! I did think that I really measure out my Brookner reading because it tends to be so miserable, while Pym is really far more easier, as it were, to live with the consequences!

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  6. I read Jane and Prudence this week also, and I loved that quote about Prudence's neighborhood!!!

    I've read five Pyms so far and I'd also recommend Crampton Hodnet and No Fond Return of Love.

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    1. I once house-sat in an enclosed block of apartments that so reminded me of these. I never met anyone on the stairs or in the lift or at the door. They might all have been dead. It was very freaky. I think they just all worked really long hours and never ate at home. That's what I told myself... (I picked up Crampton Hodnet at a sale yesterday, so that will probably be next for me, yippee!)

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  7. Envy your 5 books in one week. I've almost finished Quartet in Autumn, and though it leans towards bleakness, there are so many amusing dry lines in it that I revelled in it like a bath of a perfect temperature.

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    1. Even though it was so sad, the characterisation was so perfectly drily done. That whole thing about Marcia and her attempts to return the milk-bottle which doesn't match the rest of the bottle... Perfect.

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  8. Thoroughly enjoyed this post! Great sum up of the five Pym books. I've only read Some Tame Gazelle so far but I've already decided that I need to read the rest of her books. Love her sensitive humour and her gentle observations of the human heart. I guess stories about ageing spinsters resonate quite well with me too, as well as stories dealing with loneliness and solitude, grief, loss, etc... No wonder I find Anita Brookner's writing to be appealing as well.
    By the way, have you read Vita Sackville-West's "All Passion Spent"? I think that's a perfect book on the topic of ageing gracefully. Beautifully done.

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    1. I have read All Passion Spent, quite recently, and I loved it (though that middle section was a bit weird) - such a perfect portrayal of not giving in to what those around you think you should be doing. (And I'm pleased to find someone who's not ambivalent about Brookner!).

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  9. I read a few Brookner's a decade ago and loved them. I can't think why i haven't read any more or reread them.
    I'm looking forward to QIA too.

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    1. I found your blog through the reading week, Brona, which is one of the lovely things that these events bring about, I think. I only read a Brookner every now and then, even though I LOVE her writing, as a big read can tend to be pretty miserable. QIA had that miserable element, but a lot of humour too as relief. I hope you enjoy it.

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  10. How wonderful to have read all five at once -- I read 3 this week, and certainly enjoyed the way the characters cross over into other books, something more noticeable when the books are read close together. I loved Excellent Women & An Unsuitable Attachment. Have just finished A Few Green Leaves but not blogged about it yet! Nice to see that Pym Week inspired your reading :)

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    1. Thank you for visiting, Melwyk - I picked up A Few Green Leaves at a sale on the weekend, so I'm keen to read that one too now. I think I will have to eke out my pleasures now, as I will soon run out.

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  11. What a terrific reading binge you've had with Pym. Many of these are on my TBR list. Glad to see you enjoyed them.

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    1. It was wonderful, Diane. And the best bit is that I still have more to go!

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  12. Reading the quotation you included from A Suitable Attachment I thought 'that's the one for me' but Quartet in Autumn sounds absolutely brilliant, too. The quotes and your positivity are almost infectious - I pretty much kicked myself for not signing up but now I really see what I missed! That must be rectified.

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    1. I think it totally depends on your mood - if you want a slightly happier one, then I wouldn't go for QiA, but if you want to wallow in melancholy and lovely words, then definitely QiA! ;-) I say, go for both!

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  13. Excellent Women was the only one I could get through, so I guess it's my favorite, too. But I can't say I have developed a terrible fondness for Pym. Which rather defeats the purpose of Pym week, sadly.

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    1. It's just as useful to find out what you'd rather be spending your valuable reading time on, I think!

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{READ IN 2016}

  • (K = Kindle; rr = re-read)
  • JUNE
  • 47.
  • 46.
  • 45.
  • 44. Hack - Kieran Crowley [K]
  • 43. The Portable Veblen - Elizabeth McKenzie [K]
  • 42. The Spirit Murder Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • MAY
  • 41. The Ginger Cat Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 40. The Pleasure Cruise Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 39. The Polo Ground Murder - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • APRIL
  • 38. The Outsider - Jason Dean [K]
  • 37. The Hunter's Oath - Jason Dean [K]
  • 36. Missing or Murdered - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 35. The Beetle - Richard Marsh [K]
  • MARCH
  • 34. A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell 1) - Deanna Raybourn [K]
  • 33. The Chimera Vector - Nathan M. Farrugia [K]
  • 32. An Infamous Army - Georgette Heyer [K]
  • 31. Mr Bazalgette's Agent - Leonard Merrick
  • 30. Don't Tell - Karen Rose [K]
  • 29. Say Goodbye - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 28. Gone - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 27. The Killing Hour - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 26. The Next Accident - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 25. The Third Victim - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • FEBRUARY
  • 24. The Perfect Husband - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 23. Find Her - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 22. Fear Nothing - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 21. Catch Me - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 20. Love You More - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 19. Live to Tell - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 18. The Neighbour - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 17. Hide - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 16. Alone - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 15. The Humans - Matt Haig [K]
  • 14. Utopian Man - Lisa Lang
  • 13. Love Insurance - Earl Derr Biggers [K]
  • JANUARY
  • 12. The Ignition Effect - Viv Ronnebeck [K]
  • 11. My Brilliant Career - Miles Franklin [K]
  • 10. Dangerous & Unseemly - K. B. Owen [K]
  • 9. In Bitter Chill - Sarah Ward [K[
  • 8. Half a Crown - Jo Walton [K]
  • 7. Ha'penny - Jo Walton [K]
  • 6. Hilda Wade: A Woman with Tenacity of Purpose - Grant Allen [K]
  • 5. The Case of William Smith - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 4. Blue Murder - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 3. Bleeding Hooks - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 2. Knock, Murderer, Knock! - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 1. Ten Star Clues [Bobby Owen 15] - E. R. Punshon [K]

{READ IN 2015}

  • (K = Kindle; rr = re-read)
  • 133. Four Strange Women [Bobby Owen 14] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 132. Newt's Emerald - Garth Nix [K]
  • 131. Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries - Martin Edwards (ed.)
  • 130. Murder Abroad [Bobby Owen 13] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 129. Suspects Nine [Bobby Owen 12] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 128. Comes a Stranger [Bobby Owen 11] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 127. Dictator's Way [Bobby Owen 10] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 126. The Dusky Hour [Bobby Owen 9] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 125. Mystery of Mr Jessop [Bobby Owen 8] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 124. The Perfect Meal: In Search of the Lost Tastes of France - John Baxter
  • 123. The Bath Mysteries [Bobby Owen 7] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 122. Death Comes to Cambers - [Bobby Owen 6] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 121. Death of a Beauty Queen [Bobby Owen 5] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • NOVEMBER
  • 120. Mystery Villa [Bobby Owen 4] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 119. The Wonder Woman Chronicles 2 - W.M.Marston & H.G.Peter
  • 118. World of Trouble - Ben H. Winters [K]
  • 117. Countdown City - Ben H. Winters [K]
  • 116. The Last Policeman - Ben H. Winters [K]
  • 115. Crossword Mystery [Bobby Owen 3] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 114. Death Among the Sunbathers [Bobby Owen 2] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 113. Information Received [Bobby Owen 1] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 112. Foxglove Summer - Ben Aaronovitch [K]
  • 111. Broken Homes - Ben Aaronovitch [K]
  • 110. Whispers Under Ground - Ben Aaronovitch [K]
  • 109. Moon Over Soho - Ben Aaronovitch [K]
  • OCTOBER
  • 108. Rivers of London - Ben Aaronovitch [K]
  • 107. Blood Safari - Deon Meyer [K]
  • 106. Backtrack - Jason Dean [K]
  • 105. The Wrong Man - Jason Dean [K]
  • 104. The Anniversary Man - R. J. Ellory [K]
  • 103. The Wonder Woman Chronicles 1 - W.M.Marston & H.G.Peter
  • 102. Death and the Spanish Lady - Carolyn Morwood [K]
  • 101. The President's Hat - Antoine Laurain [K]
  • 100. The Admirable Crichton - J. M. Barrie [K]
  • SEPTEMBER
  • 99. Make Me - Lee Child [K]
  • 98. Chicken a la King & the Buffalo Wing: Food Names.. - Steven Gilbar
  • 97. Bad Luck & Trouble - Lee Child [K; rr]
  • 96. The Hard Way - Lee Child [K; rr]
  • 95. One Shot - Lee Child [K; rr]
  • 94. The Enemy - Lee Child [K; rr]
  • 93. Persuader - Lee Child [K; rr]
  • 92. Without Fail - Lee Child [K; rr]
  • 91. Echo Burning - Lee Child [K; rr]
  • AUGUST
  • 90.The Visitor - Lee Child [K; rr]
  • 89. Tripwire - Lee Child [K; rr]
  • 88. Die Trying - Lee Child [K; rr]
  • 87. The Killing Floor - Lee Child [K; rr]
  • 86. Satellite People - Hans Olav Lahlum [K]
  • 85. Revelations of a Lady Detective - William Hayward [K]
  • 84. The English Spy - Daniel Silva [K]
  • JULY
  • 83. The Heist - Daniel Silva [K]
  • 82. The English Girl - Daniel Silva [K]
  • 81. One Kick - Chelsea Cain [K]
  • 80. Let Me Go - Chelsea Cain [K]
  • 79. Kill You Twice - Chelsea Cain [K]
  • 78. The Night Season - Chelsea Cain [K]
  • 77. Evil at Heart - Chelsea Cain [K]
  • 76. Sweetheart - Chelsea Cain [K]
  • 75. Heartsick - Chelsea Cain [K]
  • 74. Personal - Lee Child [K]
  • 73. I Regret Everything - Seth Greenland [K]
  • JUNE
  • 72. The Seven Dials Mystery - Agatha Christie [K; rr]
  • 71. The Secret of Chimneys - Agatha Christie [K; rr]
  • 70. They Came to Baghdad - Agatha Christe [K; rr]
  • 69. Arabella - Georgette Heyer [K; rr]
  • 68. Cotillion - Georgette Heyer [K; rr]
  • 67. The Red Notebook - Antoine Laurain [K]
  • 66. The Reluctant Widow - Georgette Heyer [K; rr]
  • 65. The Nonesuch - Georgette Heyer [K; rr]
  • MAY
  • 64. The Grand Sophy - Georgette Heyer [K; rr]
  • 63. The Gazebo - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 62. Frederica - Georgette Heyer [K; rr]
  • 61. Murder Every Monday - Pamela Branch [K]
  • 60. Below Stairs - Margaret Powell
  • 59. Human Flies - Hans Olav Lahlum [K]
  • 58. Dash and Dingo - Catt Ford & Sean Kennedy [K]
  • 57. Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948 - Noah Berlatsky [K]
  • APRIL
  • 56. Ravished - Amanda Quick [K]
  • 55. Garden of Lies - Amanda Quick [K]
  • 54. Captain Jim - Mary Grant Bruce [K]
  • 53. Five Wounds - Katharine Edgar [K]
  • 52. Tragedy at Law - Cyril Hare [K]
  • 51. The Fallen Angel - Daniel Silva [K]
  • 50. A Dark & Twisted Tide - Sharon Bolton [K]
  • 49. Like This, For Ever - Sharon Bolton [K]
  • MARCH
  • 48. New Finnish Grammar - Diego Marani [K]
  • 47. The Feast - Margaret Kennedy [K]
  • 46. A Month in the Country - J. L. Carr [K]
  • 45. The Eyes Around Me - Gavin Black [K]
  • 44. The Silent Pool - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 43. The Fingerprint - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 42. Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant - Jenni Ferrari-Adler (ed.)
  • 41. A Time to Keep Silence - Patrick Leigh Fermor
  • 40. The Crime and the Crystal - Elizabeth Ferrars
  • 39. Eternity Ring - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 38. Through the Wall - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 37. Wax - Ethel Lina White [K]
  • 36. Lonesome Road - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 35. Latter End - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • FEBRUARY
  • 34. Vanishing Point - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 33. The Unknown Ajax - Georgette Heyer [K; rr]
  • 32. Live Alone And Like It - Marjorie Hillis [K]
  • 31. Ice Station Zebra - Alistair Maclean [K; rr]
  • 30. Strange Weather in Tokyo - Hiromi Kawakami [K]
  • 29. The Sittaford Mystery - Agatha Christie [K; rr]
  • 28. 4.50 From Paddington - Agatha Christie [K; rr]
  • 27. After the Funeral - Agatha Christie [K; rr]
  • 26. The Ordinary Princess - M. M. Kaye
  • 25. The Golden Rendezvous - Alistair Maclean [K; rr]
  • 24. Night Without End - Alistair Maclean [K; rr]
  • 23. Athabasca - Alistair Maclean [K; rr]
  • 22. Puppet on a Chain - Alistair Maclean [K; rr]
  • 21. Venus in the Kitchen, or Love's Cookery Book - Norman Douglas
  • 20. Floodgate - Alistair Maclean [K; rr]
  • 19. A Taste for Death - Peter O'Donnell
  • 18. The Bat that Flits - Norman Collins
  • 17. An American Girl in London - Sara Jeannette Duncan [K]
  • 16. Shooting in the Dark - Carolyn Hougan
  • 15. The Defector - Evelyn Anthony
  • 14. My Lady Valentine - Octavia Roberts [K]
  • JANUARY
  • 13. The Talisman Ring - Georgette Heyer [K; rr]
  • 12. Serve It Forth - M. F. K. Fisher
  • 11. Something Light - Margery Sharp
  • 10. Don't Point That Thing At Me [Mortdecai 1] - Kyril Bonfiglioli [K]
  • 9. The Nebuly Coat - J. Meade Falkner [K]
  • 8. Seven Little Australians - Ethel Turner [K]
  • 7. Moroccan Traffic - Dorothy Dunnett [K]
  • 6. Split Code - Dorothy Dunnett [K; rr]
  • 5. Roman Nights - Dorothy Dunnett [K; rr]
  • 4. Operation Nassau - Dorothy Dunnett [K; rr]
  • 3. Ibiza Surprise - Dorothy Dunnett [K; rr]
  • 2. Rum Affair - Dorothy Dunnett [K; rr]
  • 1. Tropical Issue - Dorothy Dunnett [K; rr]