Willnot, by James Sallis
a No Exit paperback, £7.99 (978-1-84344-669-9)
It’s not what you think – but then, what is? “We found the bodies two miles outside town,” it starts, this crime novel set in small town America, all of which sounds familiar territory. Willnot both is and is not the archetypal small American town, a self-contained community in which near everyone knows everyone else and their secrets, can tell you who owns which house, who built it and how it’s laid out inside. Fiercely independent too, a John Stuart Mill exemplar where you can behave as you like so long as you don’t cause serious harm.
The corpses are some years old and badly decayed and since it’s unlikely the mystery about them will be solved they come to symbolise something greater, to say something about the way our small private lives are small indeed when set against far larger, unknowable forces outside. Once they were gods and monsters; now we don’t know whether to blame the government, big business, the military or just someone else’s vendetta which we caught a glimpse of from the corner of one eye.
Sallis writes at a fast energetic pace you must catch on the wing as it flies by – carrying the story with it if you’re not careful: you have to pay attention to what’s going on. Easy enough with a book like this.
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Maggie King’s wonderful “Stories I Can’t Tell”:
“The Daily Mail, that rag, said I’d been a naughty girl from the start. The cheek! They ran a photo of me, aged five, smoking a fag, as if it were a secret they’d unearthed and not a publicity shot, as it was – and if that biographer fellow brings it up when he gets here I’ll throw him out. I will.”
And off she goes, engaging us with a great mix of theatrical anecdotes, pictures, pages of script and, as we quickly realize, her frank and never-before-released biography – the stories she can’t tell (or couldn’t till now). This is the fascinating life of a late Victorian child performer, Edwardian pierrot artist, ingénue, stage actress and recording artist, recording her first discs on crudely made early 78s and moving on through the change to electrical recording, proper mikes and her days as a risqué crooner with 1930s dance bands. Light-hearted as the book is to start with, it packs quite a punch.
James Havers has produced a wonderful, fully illustrated study of Gift Books For Good Causes, amusingly titled “Please Buy This Book” – the first comprehensive account of these half-forgotten gems. (Not forgotten by book collectors, though, many of whom have hunted them down for years in second-hand bookshops.) The book includes practically every one of the books produced in their heyday between 1898 and 1945, with charities ranging from the London Hospital to the Printers’ Pension Corporation, from the Belgian Relief Fund to the French Red Cross, from The Queen’s “Work For Women Fund” to the Lord Mayor of London’s Fund – and many more. The books were lavishly produced, yet published in large enough numbers to bring the prices within everybody’s reach, and include titles like The Queen’s Christmas Carol, Princes Mary’s Gift Book, Edmund Dulac’s Picture Book For The French Red Cross, Poems of the Great War, Pen and Pencil and Soho Centenary – and, once again, many more. Lots of pictures, lists of contributors, notes on the charities, selected extracts – this is a must for any collector of illustrated books.
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The Girl Who Fell From The Sky
World War Two. Marian Sutro (though she uses several names) is trained by SOE and parachuted into occupied France to liaise with the Resistance. She knows that half the operators don’t come back. Will she? Mawer is a great writer and he transforms what could have been a good wartime adventure into much more; a tense, superbly written thriller which both uses and conceals a good deal of research. Above all, it’s a tremendous read with a riveting central character. And it’s essential prior reading before his 2015 follow-up, Tightrope.