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I have got quite good at acquiring Persephone books – you need only look at my Persephone page to see how the collection grows (I feel confident in one at Christmas too). However, I haven’t been so quick to read them of late – for no particular reason I can think of.  

In November I treated myself (that’s how it always feels) to reading two Persephone books. The first I was gifted at Christmas last year, the second I bought recently with a voucher I was given in May for my birthday. Six other Persephone remain on my tbr, one novel, four works of non-fiction and a slim volume of poetry, perhaps I need to make more effort next year.  

The Deepening Stream by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1930) 

I have already spoken about my physical difficulties with this large book – and for a little while that did affect my relationship with the novel. Thankfully I was able to overcome that, and once I had settled into the book properly, I enjoyed it enormously. There are images that I think will stay with me for a while, Canfield Fisher’s writing is very visual – almost cinematic. Set in the years before and during WW1 in the US and France.  

The Deepening Stream centres around Matey Gilbert (Matey is clearly a nickname – though it is never explained) one of three American siblings. Their childhood takes place in various American towns – following their academic father as he takes up new appointments, and France where he takes a sabbatical on two separate occasions. France comes to hold a very special place in Matey’s heart in particular – and her relationship with the Vinet family, who become almost as family while the Gilbert family are in France – is hugely important to her.  

Growing up, Matey and her two siblings Priscilla and Francis tiptoe around their parents – who continually seem to be on the edge of some unexplained battle. The children are scarred by their experience of living under such a cloud and witnessing this fractious marriage. Matey is saved by the love of her dog Sumner – and later by witnessing a scene between her parents that allows her to view them differently.  

Against all odds perhaps, Matey marries very happily. She and Adrian are of one mind, they think and act alike – Adrian even loves France as much as Matey. Two children come along, and then alas does WW1. Matey and Adrian are deeply distressed at the reports coming out of France as the war gets underway. They feel totally unequal to carrying on with their comfortable lives at home while war ravages the country and the people they love. Adrian is a Quaker – so there is no question of him joining the fighting, however in 1915 the couple make what to others seems like an extraordinary decision. Taking their two young children with them, they set sail for France. Here, Adrian will join the ambulance corps while Matey will give what help she can on the home front, staying with the fractured Vinet family who she first knew as a child.  

“‘There’s the dock where we’re going to land,’ said one of the passengers. They approached it more and more slowly. Matey ran her eyes over the people waiting. How French they were! Why did any group of French people look so different to Americans? There was a small, thin old woman in black, with a long mourning-veil, who was crying and waving her handkerchief at someone on the ship. Matey turned her head to see who was waving back at her. No one. She looked again the old woman seemed to be looking at her. 

With a shock Matey knew whose was that ravaged human countenance. Across the narrowing stretch of water, she was looking full into the eyes of Mme Vinet. It was her first glimpse of the war.” 

There is certainly plenty for Matey to do – she has some money left to her husband by an aunt to assist her efforts, Mme Vinet is a shadow of the women she was, her adult children scattered with no word as to how they are. Matey is a force of nature throughout the war, helping those no longer able to help themselves, she is indefatigable in her determination to save people (and especially children) from the poverty, trauma and starvation that the war has brought to so many ordinary, previously comfortable French citizens.  

The novel is a brilliant example of WW1 literature to sit alongside such books as A Testament of Youth.  

The Other Day by Dorothy Whipple (1936) 

In many ways there is a lot less to say about this book than there was about The Deepening Stream. Not because it isn’t wonderful – it really is quite wonderful – but because I can’t possibly do justice to the charming nature of it.  

Apparently, The Other Day, was a book commissioned in 1935 – published a year later – by Dorothy Whipple’s literary agent. It was not a book she particularly wanted to write.  

Dorothy Whipple was born in 1893 – and this book recounts delightfully her first twelve years. She reminds us – should we need it of all the horrors and pitfalls of childhood. How easy it is to get oneself into trouble with the grown-ups, how awful and miserable being taught by an unsympathetic teacher can be, how terrifying the illness of a sibling might feel. Her parents are presented as loving and sensible her siblings are lively and her grandmother is clearly deeply sympathetic and adoring but as children so often are, she frequently frustrated by the decisions that adults make for her.  

“I was aware, very early, of the power of grown-up people. With a word they could destroy your leaping hopes or deprive you of something you cherished with passion. They seemed not only tyrannical, but incalculable; you could never tell beforehand when or why they were going to approve or disapprove.” 

In twelve chapters – each focusing on a particular period in her childhood, Dorothy Whipple takes us to a bygone era, a simpler time perhaps, though one when a child may easily die from pneumonia. She races caterpillars with her siblings, pulls up all the flowers in her father’s garden to give to the old ladies at the alms houses, pays a visit to a hated aunt against her will, holidays in the Isle of Man and survives a miserable time at school before being sent to the glorious convent school. The family live in a Lancashire town at first, later moving to the country for part of the year. Here we witness again Dorothy’s love of the Lancashire countryside that she recounts so beautifully in Random Commentary.  

Children it seems are not so very different, whether they are born in 1893 or 1993 – those things that are important to children will always be the same. Dorothy Whipple reminds us of that, and I do think reading this and Random Commentary provides the Whipple fan with a fantastic portrait of the woman who gave us those fabulous novels and stories. All of which I suppose I shall just have to re-read one of these days.  

November in review

December is here – crack open the mince pies and the Christmas books! – perhaps. I am feeling quite bah humbug about it all, as I did last year, but I shall try to get myself Christmas motivated over the coming few weeks.  

Now that we are into the final month of the year, I can confirm that it has been the worst reading year that I can ever remember – if we just look at numbers, but I won’t be looking at numbers and stats this year – I don’t think that would make me feel any better. It’s particularly galling because I haven’t been at work for months so theoretically should be reading more – only it hasn’t worked out like that. Anyway, considering some of the months I have had, November wasn’t too bad.  

We often talk about how a physical book can be a big part of the reader’s reading experience, a beautiful clothbound edition, quality paper or French flaps sparking joy in many of us. In November I was reminded how the physical nature of a book can also spoil a reading experience.  I had decided it was time to get some of the Persephone books I received as gifts the last two Christmases read finally, only I wasn’t in the mood for non-fiction, and the two novels I had are huge! A large Persephone book is not that easy to hold because of the thick paper and the double cover. I decided to read The Deepening Stream anyway – and get myself lost in a big book. Within a day my arthritic hands were really playing up – and the only e-book version I could find was a pdf and practically unreadable – so I tried to battle on. I began to lose interest as the pain in my hands got worse. Eventually I had to set it aside and read something on my easier to handle Kindle. When my hands improved, I went back to The Deepening Stream, and enjoyed it much more, though my hands did begin to complain again. My experience of reading that book was not very positive so my relationship with the novel itself was difficult though I am glad I persevered.

So, struggles aside – this is what I read in November.  

Two Thousand Million Man-Power (1937) by Gertrude Trevelyan – Trevelyan has been a brilliant discovery and I confess to buying two more novels by her that have been reissued by small presses. 

Palladian (1946) by Elizabeth Taylor – a re-read for my book group. Getting back to Elizabeth Taylor is always a treat. This is certainly not her best novel, but there are flashes of her brilliance throughout and I very much enjoyed it again. It’s amazing how much you forget and in re-reading you discover different layers and themes.  

The Deepening Stream (1930) Dorothy Canfield Fisher – the Persephone edition is just over 600 pages and frankly felt heavier than that. Luckily, the novel is very readable, the characters are very likeable. The novel provides a fascinating and no doubt horrifyingly accurate glimpse of life in France during WW1 through the eyes of Matey who we first meet as a child.  

Death of a Frightened Editor (1959) by E & M A Radford – e-book sent to me by Dean Street Press ages ago. Written by a writing partnership I hadn’t come across before. It’s the eleventh book in the Doctor Manson series – but I didn’t feel I suffered from not having read any others. Eight people regularly travel together in the first-class carriage of the London to Brighton train. One evening Alexis Mortenson – editor of a scurrilous newspaper dies from poisoning, a poison which acts very rapidly. Suicide is suspected then ruled out, how did the man come to ingest the poison when he hadn’t eaten or drunk anything for almost an hour before? This had all the ingredients I enjoy in Golden age style fiction – though I think some of the characterisation was a bit flat with one character speaking in such an annoying way I was thoroughly irritated by him.  

A Sunday in Ville d’Avray (2019) by Dominique Barbéris translated from the French by John Cullen. An extraordinarily atmospheric novella taking place on a Sunday in that period between the end of summer and the start of autumn. Our unnamed narrator travels from her home in the centre of Paris to visit her sister in Ville-d’Avray. During the afternoon the sister reveals the story of an encounter she had years earlier with a man, who we never get to know much about.  

Twelve Nights (2020) by Urs Faes translated from the German by Jamie Lee Searle. My second novella read for Novellas is November. Manfred walks through a snowy landscape, back to the childhood home he hasn’t seen in decades, to hopefully meet again the brother from whom he has been estranged for so long. 

Territory of Light (1978) by Yūko Tsushima translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt. Told in twelve standalone fragments, is the story of an unnamed woman’s first year parenting her daughter alone after separating from her husband. She moves herself and her daughter – who turns three during the story – into a fourth-floor apartment that is filled with light.  My first by the author, but not my last, I am sure.  

 
The Other Day (1936) – Dorothy Whipple – a recent Persephone acquisition I made using the Persephone voucher Liz had bought me for my birthday in May. A new Whipple – what a treat – which means I have read all the Whipples Persephone have re-issued. This is her childhood memoir – Dorothy was born in 1893 and the book charts some of the highs and lows of her first twelve years. I found it utterly delightful. She was apparently reluctant to write it at all, which is perhaps why we only get those twelve years. Very much the story of a bygone age.  

So that was my November – and as always, I would like to hear about yours. 

On to December and I am currently reading One Pair of Feet (1942) by Monica Dickens for my book group – I first read it donkey’s years ago – and I’m enjoying it all over again. After that I may move on fairly soon to some Christmassy reads. This is something I have done before – but didn’t bother with last year. I have short stories from the British Library women writers, Maigret Christmas stories (never read Maigret before, but have meant to) Laurie Lee’s A Village Christmas and a Christmas mystery from the British Library. I am hoping they will help get me in the Christmas mood. Liz is also doing her Dean Street Press December reading event – and I always have some DSP waiting to be read, so I am hoping to join in with that too.  

Whatever you’re reading in December I hope you have a wonderful month.  

I have not done well with the reading challenges lately – there are loads in November. However, after wrestling for some time with a rather heavy book that made my poor hands hurt, I decided I would get some of the novellas on my tbr knocked off and thereby join in with Novellas in November. Going for three translated works because I hadn’t read anything in translation since #Witmonth. 

All three are wonderful novellas in their way, nuanced, spare and atmospheric. The thing that so often makes a novella great is that understated economy of language, beautiful writing and the ability to pull the reader in instantly. These novellas all have those qualities.  

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray – Dominique Barbéris (2019) translated from the French by John Cullen. 

As so often happens, it was a review written by Jacqui of Jacquiwine’s Journal that put this delicate little novella on my radar. I bought it when spending gift vouchers earlier this year.  

This extraordinarily atmospheric novella takes place on a Sunday in that period between the end of summer and the start of autumn. Our unnamed narrator travels from her home in the centre of Paris to visit her sister in Ville-d’Avray, a quiet suburb. The sister is Claire Marie she lives in a comfortable home with her doctor husband and daughter. This is somewhere where the pace of life is slower, there’s a sense of stillness and quiet – the two sisters sit in the garden as the light of the afternoon begins to fade, Claire Marie’s daughter has been playing the piano, the smell of newly cut grass drifts over the fence.  

In flashback we glimpse the sisters as young girls, highly imaginative and romantic influenced greatly by Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. As the sisters spend the afternoon talking and reminiscing, Claire Marie begins to tell her sister about a rather strange encounter she had with a man several years earlier, when her daughter was still quite young. She met the man while covering for the receptionist at her husband’s surgery, a man named Marc Hermann who we immediately sense is a little mysterious. He says he is Hungarian, but we get to know little else about him.  

Claire Marie’s narrative takes us and her sister back to that time, a time that had never been spoken about before. Not much happens between Claire Marie and Marc, they meet up from time to time, go for walks in the forest or local parks. Something has clearly drawn these two together that is unexplained, and feels slightly dangerous, there is an edge to Marc or perhaps to the risk the Claire Maire is taking in having this time away from her normal life. There is a sense that she wants to pull away from him but can’t quite.  

A lazy Sunday afternoon of a novella, atmospheric and hugely readable. A smart little edition published by Daunt books I highly recommend it.  

Twelve Nights by Urs Faes (2018) translated from the German by Jamie Lee Searle. 

I feel as if there isn’t a lot I can say about this novella – it certainly hasn’t much in the way of plot, and it is the shortest of these three that I picked to read this month. It is the one I bought most recently too, originally thinking I might read it over Christmas – but decided November was close enough after all.  

It’s a beautifully evocative piece however set in the period between Christmas and twelfth night.  

As the novella opens, we meet Manfred, who is walking through the snow towards the village where he grew up and where he hasn’t been back to for forty years. The landscape is both familiar and strange after all this time – and Manfred recalls his mother’s traditions at this time of year, a period wrapped up in superstition and folklore.  

“The ill fate their mother had feared, and hoped to prevent with all her precautions, did occur. But it wasn’t the work of demons. They had conjured it up, he and Sebastian: the fraternal feud in Hullert. Or had it even been a war? No wind chime could prevent it. No sprig of mistletoe, no St John’s wort; motherwort and sweet seneca were powerless, as was the Yule log smouldering in the yard.” 

Manfred had grown up with his brother Sebastian, but a bitter family feud erupted when Sebastian inherited the family farm. Manfred had considered his brother inferior to the role and when the woman he loved also chose to marry Sebastian Manfred cut all ties with his brother and left. Manfred’s furious act of revenge, before leaving still haunts him, an act he regrets still.  

Now seeking some kind of redemption before it is too late, Manfred is returning to where he grew up, not even knowing if his brother will see him.  

I still think this would make a lovely little Christmas read, one to be devoured in an afternoon by the fire. This little hardback edition from Harvill Secker is beautiful too.  

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (1978) translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt. 

Read on my kindle – I have had Territory of Light tbr for ages – I keep meaning to read it for #Witmonth and forgetting I have it. I absolutely loved this and will read more by this author.  

Light is a recurring theme in this novella, and the author uses it to brilliant effect. Sunlight streams through windows, or is dappled in the park, there are fireworks, shining flood water, the altered light of an apartment where the windows have suddenly been covered by blue mesh.  

The novel is told in twelve standalone fragments telling the story of an unnamed woman’s first year parenting her daughter alone after separating from her husband. She moves herself and her daughter – who turns three during the course of the story – into a fourth-floor apartment that is filled with light.  

“But once you got the door open, the apartment was filled with light at any hour of the day. The kitchen and dining area immediately inside had a red floor, which made the aura all the brighter. Entering from the dimness of the stairwell, you practically had to squint. ‘Ooh, it’s warm! It’s pretty!’ My daughter, who was about to turn three, gave a shout the first time she was bathed in the room’s light. ‘Isn’t it cosy? The sun’s great, isn’t it?’ She ran around the dining-kitchen as she answered with a touch of pride, ‘Yes! Didn’t you know that, Mommy?’” 

Here she must come to terms with the end of her marriage, face the future and parent a lively young child alone. The child is portrayed delightfully, and realistically, the mother doesn’t always make the best choices, and her daughter unsettled or disappointed can fly into rages. Negotiating work, childcare and limited contact with her estranged husband, take their toll and this lonely young mother looks for entertainments elsewhere, often finding being alone with her child challenging and frustrating.  

There is a lovely, dream like quality to this narrative which I really enjoyed, the whole story suffused with light and colour like the apartment where most of it is set making for another wonderfully atmospheric read.  

Sorry for the long post, but I wanted to write about all three of these before the end of the month – just made it. 😉  

With thanks to Neglected Books and Boiler House Press for the review copy 

I am failing still to review the majority of books that I am reading, this month feels worse than ever. However, there is one recent read that I really wanted to tell you about. Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan is being re-issued by Boiler House Press on the 30th of November – so you’ve not long to wait, and it’s definitely one I recommend looking out for.  

Two Thousand Million Man-Power is an extraordinary novel. The title I would suggest, doesn’t immediately make one want to grab it off the shelf, though it is at least intriguing. Gertrude Trevelyan herself and her literary legacy has almost completely been wiped from history – funny how this always happens to women writers! During her lifetime she was very well regarded and published eight novels. Trevelyan was a very political and socially aware writer, and in this novel, she shows an extraordinary understanding to all that was happening around her in the later 1930s. However, as the introduction to this new edition explains Gertrude Trevelyan’s name has been completley excluded from all indexes of inter-war literature. So, it seems almost miraculous that Boiler House Press should have even heard of this novel, much less decide to re-issue it, a novel after more than eighty years in the wilderness brought back for a new generation of readers. So, if like me, you enjoy inter-war literature, especially that which highlights ordinary life in a realistic and unsentimental way, this is absolutely the novel you’ve been waiting for.  

The novel concerns Robert Thomas and Katherine Bott from New Year’s Eve 1919 until the funeral of King George V in 1936. Throughout these years they change and grow, experiencing youthful radical idealism, economic boom and bust, terrible poverty, unemployment and comfortable middle-class life in the suburbs with all the trappings. What Trevelyan does brilliantly however is to set her novel and place her characters very much in the context of everything that was happening in society and the wider world. Robert and Katherine move through their world in London against a backdrop of newspaper headlines, radio broadcasts and advertising slogans. The world of the 1920s and 1930s is realistically laid before us.  

“In streets of crowded tall houses and in wider streets of lower houses and on broad high-roads with houses spaced out by gardens and out in Surrey where new red villas were dropped among the pines, and down in the farms and manors of the West Country, and up through the Midlands and North in sudden huddled stacks and unexpected farmsteads, and in the crofters’ cottages and tumbledown castles of the Highlands and in solid Lowland homes and in grey Yorkshire towns and moorland farms and in fishing colonies down the coast, and on the flats of Essex, and in the small new houses beginning to sprout on the extreme northern edge of London, and in the brick and stucco villas, behind tight curtains, and in streets of crowded tall houses, the greater number of the forty-seven million one hundred and thirty-three thousand inhabitants of the British Isles slept or listened to the sounds of sleeping. The Reparations Conference had broken down in Paris: Allied proposals; over in Dublin police were potted at from doorways; civil war in Russia was practically over; Poland was making a defensive alliance with Rumania; in London the Reparations Conference was at it again: German counter proposals. In the early hours of the morning, down off Ladbroke Grove where a coster’s barrow here and there was on the move, Robert opened an eye and saw the room was still half dark and shut it again.”  

When we first meet Robert and Katherine, they are young and single each pursuring their own career, each living in rented rooms. They are both high minded individuals, full of idealism, they meet at an evening lecture after their day’s work. Robert is a research chemist with a cosmetics firm, Katherine is a London County council schoolteacher, with little affection for the children in her care. They begin a relationship, with all the ups and downs of most relationships, it will be several years before they actually marry and set up home together.  

The couple’s fortunes wax and wane – as do some of their youthful ideologies. They move to better, then worse properties, lose and gain employment. Acquire all the modern trappings of successful living, a car, a radio, modern furniture and then sell them again when times are hard.  

I am wary of giving too many spoilers here, but Trevelyan shows us how personalities and relationships are affected by economic changes. She also satirises rather beautifully the suburban bourgeoise life. This is no cosy, love story, it is a realistic portrait of a very believable couple living a very believable life. Robert is easily the most likeable of the two – Katherine is changed too much by her experiences of difficult times, but even as a young, single schoolteacher, she seems more pragmatic than Robert.  

Gertrude Trevelyan is a name which deserves to sit alongside the other literary giants of her generation, and it is good news indeed that this novel is being made available again.  

I am writing this while in a very bad mood – and that’s why I haven’t blogged earlier in the week as I had originally intended and why I am behind in reading and commenting on other blogs. It is amazing how trying to sort out what should be a minor issue can become all-consuming, take over your days, and interrupt your nights. I am so distracted and mithered that I am finding it hard to concentrate. I am already finding writing full reviews more challenging than it used to be, so I didn’t really need this as well.  

However, while I am struggling to write properly about books, I am reading them – not in such large numbers as I would like but I am thoroughly enjoying the business of reading, choosing what to read next and sitting quietly for a while with a book. There’s a special kind of comfort in sitting up late in silence while the world slows down a little and entering that world that you have wanted to return to since you last laid the books aside. That never diminishes. A feeling that only the booklover understands. 

The book I started November with is the perhaps oddly titled Two Thousand Million Man Power by Gertrude Trevelyan (1937) which I was delighted to receive a review copy of. I will definitely be reviewing it later this month. It’s a brilliant novel – ignored for something like eighty years it is finally being reissued by Boiler House Press at the end of the month. It’s about a man and a woman, ordinary people over several years, against the backdrop of all that was going on in the 1920s and 1930s, their dreams and the slow destruction of those dreams when everyday life is brought into play. I shall say nothing more, but please look out for it; it really is quite brilliant.  

Several weeks ago, I suddenly had the urge to re-read Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour (1947) – which I did. Re-reading Elizabeth Taylor is always a pleasure and I decided I should give myself permission to do this more often. Then quite coincidentally my book group decided to read an Elizabeth Taylor for November, and after some discussion we settled on Palladian (1946). So, my second read of the month has been that. I found my memory of it to have been rather sketchy – I remembered a few important things but had forgotten others. It certainly isn’t her best book, but there are flashes of her brilliance in it, and while parts are a little over-wrought, her characterisation is as fine as ever. I finished rather sorry there wasn’t just a little more.  

That, I suppose is why we keep the books we do. So that we can one day take out an old friend, open up the pages and say – “ah, yes, I remember you.” There is a comfort in familiarity too.  

I haven’t bought any books for a few weeks (polishes halo) but a couple have come into my life. Two Christmas themed reads from the British Library The White Priory Murders a mystery for Christmas by Carter Dickson (1934) (aka John Dickson Carr) and from the women writers’ series Stories for Christmas (2022). I am saving both for next month. I have also just redeemed a Persephone gift voucher I had from Liz back in May for my birthday. I have ordered Dorothy Whipple’s The Other Day (1936)– and I can’t wait for it to come.  

Speaking of Persephone, I realised I had quite a bit of a Persephone backlog, I received several last Christmas which I still haven’t read. So, while everyone else seems to be reading novellas for novellas in November (I shall try to join in later in the month) I am contemplating starting one of two huge Persephone tomes. I just fancy getting really stuck into a big novel. I have The Oppermanns by Lion Feuchtwanger (1934) and The Deepening Stream by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1930) to choose between, and I fully intend to settle down later this afternoon and make my choice. There are still a few other Persephones unread in the cupboard, but I have a feeling that I shall probably cheat and read that new Dorothy Whipple before I read them.  

That’s all from me for now, I shall endeavour to write properly about something I have read soon. In the meantime, happy reading.  

October in review

Of course, having hoped that in October I might get somewhere closer to my old blogging routine, I didn’t really get anywhere near it. I did manage one more blog post in October than in September – and I managed to join in with the #1929 club. So, I am clawing my way back.  

I hope you all had a good month of reading during October – autumn has set in, and the nights are really drawing in. Here in the UK the clocks went back to GMT at the weekend, and it’s been raining a fair bit the last few days. Definitely the time to get to grips with some good books. My October reads were largely very successful, only one really failed to hit the spot, and even that had things to like in it. I am going to try and write more fully about one or two of them, but no promises.  

I began October reading a beautiful collection of Irish short stories This Train is For by Bernie McGill (2022), a new to me author. Sent to me by Cathy from 746 books in the summer, it has introduced me to an author I shall want to read again. The writing is exquisite, spare and full of feeling. In this collection are stories of grief, loss sadness and some surprising touches of magic. Many of the stories feature journeys, some physical some of the mind.  

My second read was inspired by Jacqui of Jacquiwine’s Journal – whose review of A Helping Hand by Celia Dale (1966) had me rushing off to buy my own copy. I am so glad I did, it’s a chillingly brilliant novel, reminiscent of Shirley Jackson, with elements of Celia Fremlin, Muriel Spark and Patricia Highsmith. The story of systematic elder abuse (from before such a term existed) by greed, exploitation and manipulation might not be for everyone but it is horribly compelling. Celia Dale weaves the most extraordinary tale of suburban domestic horror around her small group of characters, it makes you wonder what is going on behind the neat net curtains next door.  

My next two reads were both for the 1929 club – I had to get started early in order to stand any chance of writing about them. The first of them was Eve in Egypt by Stella Tennyson Jesse (1929) reissued by Michael Walmer. I have already reviewed this for the 1929 club and had to admit to being a bit underwhelmed. It is a blend of fiction and travelogue and parts of it worked better for me than others.  

Water Weed by Alice Campbell (1929) the first of my two kindle reads in October was sent to me by Dean Street Press and introduced me to a new Golden Age type mystery writer. Slightly longer than the average Golden Age mystery, we see a plucky young American heroine desperately try to prove her long-time friend is innocent of the crime he is accused of. There is actually much more to it than that though – see my previous review.  

Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie (2022) a new novel by Kamila Shamsie always seems like quite an event, so I had to treat myself to the hardback. One of the books I want to review more fully – so I shall save most of my thoughts for then. Having had such a success with Home Fire no doubt expectations were high for this. Overall, I loved it, it isn’t quite the jaw dropper that Home Fire was, but it is a different kind of story. It is a novel about the ties of childhood friendship and what we owe to those who have known and loved us longest – it is also a novel about Britain today, about power and how we use it.  

Confusion by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1993) my second kindle read is the third book in the five volume Cazalet chronicles. I probably won’t be reviewing this in full – as it is hard to write about books in the middle of series. Here the war is in full swing, one father is missing, presumed dead after two years with no word – but will he turn up one day after all? Almost everyone it seems is having an affair or liaison of some sort – so Confusion is a pretty good title. Everyone seems rather un-moored after living through a long war – as VE days gets closer the feeling of exhausted relief is quite palpable.  

The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (2022) I bought this as soon as it came out in May with birthday book vouchers. I had loved The Mercies, which I only read at all because my book group chose it. This is another historical novel based on something that really happened. The dancing plague that hit Strasbourg during the hot summer of 1518 is the background to this fantastic novel. As more and more women join the dancers in the city square, the city authorities declare an emergency. Musicians will be brought in to help dance the devil out of these women. Living nearby is Lisbet heavily pregnant after a dozen previous lost babies, a beekeeper living with her husband and mother-in-law. Her husband’s sister returns from the mountains after serving a seven-year penance for a crime no one will name – but Lisbet is determined to discover. Then the musicians arrive, and more and more women join the dancers. This is a novel that becomes harder and harder to put down.  

So those were my October reads – only seven but I have stopped worrying too much about that.  

I don’t have too many plans for November – my book group will be reading Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor and as it’s about ten years since I read it, I will be enjoying a re-read of it soon. I shall try to get to some novellas for Novellas in November and I might try some Margaret Atwood essays for MARM – it does very much depend on my mood though.  

So, tell me what brilliant things did you read in October? I always love to know – and whatever you pick up in November – happy reading.  

Finally getting the two books I read for the 1929 club reviewed. I knew I had to get myself prepared to even have a chance of getting down to writing about them in time. The two books I read were rather different, one a more literary type book a curious blend of fiction and travelogue by a British writer and sister to the slightly better-known F. Tennyson Jesse, the second by an American golden age crime writer. To be honest I had more success with one than the other – reviewed here in the order I read them.  

Eve in Egypt – Stella Tennyson Jesse (1929) 

This is certainly presented more as a novel than a travelogue although there are definitely features of the latter – the book is peppered with photographs that Jesse herself took on a similar expedition. Set in the late 1920s, the novel does have a very 1920s feel to it – a good deal of gushing, jolly hockey sticks, frivolity and wit which is charming. The characters are all very engaging (of a particular type) and the dialogue between them is deliciously sparkling. So, there are definitely things to enjoy here, and kept me reading. A couple of things worked less well for me, but I will come on to those later.  

Eve Wentworth is a very beautiful young woman from a certain kind of privileged background (though this is never mentioned – we know the kind of family they are immediately) she lives with her sister Serena and brother-in-law Hugh Erskin. She is in a slightly awkward situation, having been asked by two different men to marry them, they are waiting for an answer, which she seems unable to give. She is bemused it seems by how silly men get over her – but accepts it as her lot in life too. 

“The nuisance was that so often just being natural and friendly seemed to do more harm than anything else! What a pity men were so terribly susceptible! The least little thing, and they seemed to be thrown off their balance. No stamina, Eve supposed.” 

Just at the right moment longtime family friend Jeremy Vaughan invites them to join him on a tour of Egypt, sailing on a traditional dahabeah along the Nile. For Eve this is a perfect escape. Eve has always liked Jeremy, the two have always got on well, with a teasing, relaxed friendship that has developed with those years of easy familiarity. However, during the trip Eve begins to sense her feelings toward Jeremy are changing, which is further complicated by the appearance of a wealthy young American and her brother they meet along the way. So, that is essentially the main premise, which is lovely, charming and hugely appealing – some predictability to the ending, but I don’t mind that.  

Now to what worked less well for me.  

As Eve, Serena, Hugh and Jeremy travel along the Nile, they employ the services of a dragoman named Moussa who will remain with them throughout their tour guiding them and ensuring all their needs are met. It takes about ten seconds seemingly for Serena and Eve to utterly adore Moussa and cast him in the role of a sort of paragon. Moussa we are soon told absolutely adores them too, especially ‘Miss Eve’ for whom we suspect he would happily prance across hot coals. He is constantly delighted by them, beams his approval, wags his head in wry amusement etc. I find this all rather uncomfortable – it is a typical colonial trope which crops up in novels of this period – but I can’t say I enjoy it.  

Secondly, are the detailed historical and geographical details that Jesse has woven into the narrative, often in long conversations between characters – as they set about learning about the history of where they are travelling. I found this rather tedious – and there were a few places where I had to skip a little just so I didn’t get bogged down. Other people might love these details, but for me there were too many and it became dull.  

So, a bit disappointing but good enough to persevere with.  

Water Weed – Alice Campbell (1929)  

Kindly provided by Dean Street Press 

One of the Golden Age mysteries that Dean Street press reissue – this was an excellent kindle read. A bit longer than I had expected but not the worse for that. I really liked Campbell’s sparky heroine and her fully fleshed characters and a mystery that took time to build.  

Young American Virgina (Ginny) Carew is spending several months in London. Here she and her father run into fellow American and family friend Glenn Hillier. Ginny is particularly shocked by what she sees as an obvious change in Glenn. Thinner, distracted and nervous, Ginny finds it hard to engage him in conversation and he is soon rushing off. 

As her father returns to the States, Ginny starts to learn a little about where Glenn’s problems might lie. It seems he has become involved with the family of an older woman, Mrs Fenmore known as Cuckoo. Cuckoo, a beautiful, apparently fragile woman, legally separated from her second husband lives in a large country house with her son Henry and daughter Pam. However, it is clearly with Cuckoo herself that Glenn is infatuated – there has already been a little bit of gossip about the pair. Glenn has spent several months staying with the family and is talking about ditching his plans to return to the states where his father will help him gain good employment.  

Soon, Ginny finds herself invited to stay with the Fenmore family, as a friend of Glenn’s and reluctantly she accepts. Immediately, Ginny senses that she might not be quite as welcome as the invitation might suggest – there is much about her hostess that she simply can’t work out. Glenn seems to be utterly devoted – but absolutely worn down and worried to bits at the same time. The whole atmosphere of the house is strange, even the servants seem peculiar. While Glenn repeats odd stories about Cuckoo’s fears, Ginny hears unexplained footsteps in the corridor outside her room late at night and sees Cuckoo steaming open letters to Glenn from his father in the States. 

“It was the faint but unmistakable noise of a cautious footfall pursuing its way along the passage outside her room. She held her breath and listened alertly. Yes, there was no doubt about it, someone was creeping along, very slowly, a step at a time, with the subdued tread of slippered feet. Who could it be? And why did the person not turn on the light?” 

Ginny is at a loss as to what precisely is going on, and what if anything she can do to help Glenn, toward whom her feelings have begun to change from mere friendship.  

Eventually – at least halfway through this book, a murder occurs – and it’s pretty easy to guess who the victim is going to be. As the murder is discovered, Glenn disappears and is instantly assumed to have been responsible. Only Ginny it seems believes he couldn’t have done it, but she will have an uphill struggle finding out the truth and convincing anyone else. 

A thoroughly engaging read, with a satisfyingly dramatic ending. I look forward to reading more by this author.   

With thanks to the British Library for my copy 

Despite my continued inability to get blog posts written, there are books I have read that I would like to tell you all about, if only I could make myself do it. 

War Among Ladies by Eleanor Scott is one of the most recent reissues from the British Library women writers series and was easily my favourite read of September. I love a school setting, and this devastating portrait of women teachers and 1920s education was a thoroughly immersive read.  

It is the 1920s, Besley High School for girls is not a particularly well thought of establishment, exam results have been on a downward trajectory, and some teachers find they simply can’t get a better position at any other school. Here, the staffroom is rife with muttered resentments and petty spite. For these apparently nice, often middle-aged English women are in a battle for their very survival. All the teachers are women, all the women are single, living in shabby rented rooms – with little or nothing to brighten their existence. We see them troop back wearily to their rooms, where they are served small, inadequate meals by sour landladies and spend their evenings marking piles of exercise books they brought home with them. The reality of this existence as presented to us by Eleanor Scott is both realistic and depressing.  

However, the choices for these women are few – and once the teaching career has been embarked upon, it becomes difficult to leave. It is in the character of Miss Cullen that Scott shows us the terrible injustices that teachers like those at Besley High faced. Miss Cullen is a French teacher, she has been teaching a long time, and used to be pretty good at it, however her methods are old fashioned, and this is further demonstrated in the recent exam results. In the graduation system of the time, a failure in one subject meant an overall failure. So, when only four girls pass the end of year exam, everyone knows it is because of French, because of Miss Cullen. Ultimately, with the shadow of the inspector a constant dread, everyone’s livelihood is under threat, the very existence of the school could be in danger. Miss Cullen is not the most popular member of staff, but now she is openly despised, and knows it. Scott describes her unkindly, it seems – though as the novel progresses, we see feel real sympathy for Miss Cullen and her potential fate. 

“She was an ugly figure standing there in the fresh sunlight, rows of young impertinent faces ranked before her. Her hideous home-made dress of brown casement cloth strained across her square, sturdy body and hung in ungainly folds above the thick ankles and flat, broad shoes. It was an odd face, as so many are when you look into them. The skin, reddened and rough, and slack now from want of exercise and years of unhealthy life, stretched tightly across the high, narrow forehead, where no stray line of hair softened the angularity, and sagged beneath the eyes and long, weak, protruding chin. The mouth, set a little open, smiled perpetually, anxiously.” 

For as Miss Cullen’s abilities as a teacher have crumbled so has her ability to keep order in her classroom. The girls treat her with great disdain, the group dynamic lending them the bravery to act in ways they wouldn’t if on their own. The noise from her classroom is often unbearable – she is mortified by her lack of control and does all she can to cover it up and excuse it, but of course no one is fooled. Miss Cullen has lost the respect of both her pupils and her colleagues. Miss Cullen is fifty-six years old – she has four years until she can collect her pension, and thankfully retire. There is no mechanism for her to retire early, this is perhaps the greatest cruelty of all. If Miss Cullen (or any other teacher) leaves or is sacked and remains unemployed for the intervening period left before retirement, then they will sacrifice all the pension contributions that have been made so far – and end up with nothing. Miss Cullen is well aware of her failures – but she simply can’t walk away, she would have nothing at all to live on if she couldn’t find another job, and at her age she would be unlikely to do so.  

Into this troubled environment come a new, younger crop of teachers. Among them English teacher Viola Kennedy. Viola – is young, and as yet hasn’t been totally subsumed and broken down by the system – she is optimistic, full of idealism, puzzled by the cynicism and resentment, she finds at Besley. As Viola initially holds out the hand of friendship to Miss Cullen, the other staff members are plotting how to get rid of the woman who could destroy all their careers. Viola’s friendliness towards Miss Cullen is treated with harsh suspicion by her older colleagues, and they waste no time in trying to put her fully in the picture.  

“IV (the dreaded IVb of last year) was enjoying itself. The noise was such that no human voice, not even Miss Pearson’s could possibly have made itself heard. Girls talking, shouting, banging desks, stamping, all looking at her with merry, challenging eyes to see what she would do.” 

An evening with a group of girls at the theatre ends in near disaster for Viola, and a visit from the inspector has everyone rattled. The headmistress is shown to be weak and, in a community, where everyone is apparently watching what you do, gossip is rife when Viola meets a male teacher from a neighbouring school.  

The tension for these women is real – their cynicism, suspicion and weariness are not to be wondered at, and it can’t be long before Viola is affected by it.  

This really is a quietly devastating novel – revealing the unrelenting misery of an existence where women are trapped by their circumstances and yet terrified of losing that small inadequate bit of independence.  

With thanks to V&Q books for the review copy. 

 

I feel I am a little late posting my review – so apologies to V&Q for that – I didn’t get this book read when I thought I would because I spent so many weeks reading almost exclusively on kindle to save my sore hands.  

I accepted Odesa at Dawn from V&Q books intrigued, but knowing it was rather outside my usual reading sphere. The idea of a “surreal contemporary spin on the classic spy novel” was instantly appealing especially given the Ukrainian setting. I had first got to know V&Q books as a publisher of German books in translation, this novel is different in that it was originally written in English, not German. Sally McGrane in a Berlin based writer and Journalist who has worked in Russia and Ukraine.  

This story clearly takes place before the current war that started so shockingly last February. Ex-CIA man Max Rushmore travels from the US to Odesa to attend a conference where he will meet up with some familiar old faces and drink a lot in the hotel bar. He is also hoping to delay an awkward conversation with his wife about his future. While Max is not unlikeable as a character, the reader rather does feel for his poor put upon wife, who never has a clue what he is up to.  

So, when Max hears a rumour of a strange discovery, he can’t help but prick up his ears. He simply can’t help getting himself involved in a bizarre investigation following the discovery of the local governor’s hand in a vat of sunflower oil. Later, Max stumbles across a toe bearing the same very distinct markings – a birth mark that is well known as being that of the governor’s. Yet, the governor is alive and well, as far as anyone knows.  

McGrane takes us into the dark, underbelly of Odesa, where corruption, violence, and political tensions are rife – and seemingly part of everyday life. Alongside the shadowy figures who will soon start tracking Max Rushmore’s every move are a network of mafia-like stray cats who appear to have an uncanny knack for knowing exactly what is going on.  Led by Mr Smiley (yes he’s a cat) these cats are oddly creepy, and a brilliantly bizarre addition to this compelling and witty tale.  

“With a swish, Mr Smiley curled his tail. Pressed his body to a tattered brick facade. Listened. Felt. Became part of. The city had a single consciousness tonight. As if every building and every being breathed the violence in the air. Tourists in hot pants were jumpy. From car windows, the tinny beats were lower and louder than usual; from every corner came the sound of tyres screeching. The scent of burnt rubber. Soviet-made brakes wailing, heartbroken by their own demise.”

Max’s investigation takes him to every dark part of this beautiful Black Sea port city that is so coveted by the Russians, through the miles of crumbling catacombs that lie under ground and threaten any moment to cave in. We meet a host of colourful characters along the way, including The King, an elderly man who is not to be underestimated, and whose name is enough to strike terror into some, a poet-psychiatrist, Lion, a former convict, Sima, a young woman who narrowly escapes being blown up by a bomb, a scientist with a strange secret theory involving axolotls and a businessman totally out of his depth.  

Short chapters really help to make this a compelling, pacy read which really gets to the dark heart of Odesa. Throughout the narrative McGrane even manages to pay tribute to such luminaries as Pushkin, Gogol, and Chekov. All in all, a thoroughly, fascinating novel combining elements of weird science with more traditional spy genre elements. 

September in review

Here I am on the 2nd of October trying to work out why I failed to blog much again during September – the month when I was going to try and get back to something close to normal. I don’t know – fatigue is a big factor but it’s frustrating, nonetheless. I am missing that interaction I get from blogging, so I need to try harder. I only managed to write three blog posts during September, and I am again horribly behind reading everyone else’s. Anyway, I read or re-read eight really good books during September and was a good way into my ninth as the month ended. That final one can go into October’s pile though.  

One thing I managed in September after weeks of almost exclusively reading on my kindle was to read some physical books – I had rather missed that. Two books read on kindle at the beginning of the month but then I managed to get some physical books off my tbr.  

Oddly enough, the beginning of September now feels like a long way away, when I was reading Marking Time (1991) by Elizabeth Jane Howard on my kindle. The second book in the Cazalet series which has whetted my appetite for more soon. Set toward the beginning of WW2 – we see the changes war brings to the family.  

My next read, Mr. Bowling Buys a Newspaper (1943) by Donald Henderson – a friend had mentioned it to me after she had finished reading it, and I knew I wanted to read it too. Apparently, Raymond Chandler’s favourite novel, it is something of an inverted crime novel. The mystery here is not who the killer is, but whether he will be caught. For Mr Bowling buys a newspaper following each of his murders to see if there is any news on his crimes. The trouble is no one takes much notice of his victims, there is a war going on after all, which is a pity because Mr Bowling really wants to be caught – or thinks he does.  

Of Love and Hunger (1947) by Julian Maclaren-Ross was one of the books that appeared in Jacqui’s blog post about boarding house novels. I admit I hadn’t heard of it but was intrigued enough to buy a copy. These penguin modern classics are such satisfyingly smart editions. We follow the fortunes of Richard Fansawe, a vacuum cleaner salesman in a down at heel seaside town. He lives in a dingy boarding house, never has much money and hangs around town with the other dubious characters who pursue the same, depressing occupation. War is approaching, several of the characters refer to the certainty of it – and whether it will give them another purpose. Against this background Richard meets Sukie, who he finds very desirable – she is also married to his friend. What Maclaren-Ross does so brilliantly here is to reproduce the atmosphere of this town, these disappointed men pursing a hopeless profession.  

A View of the Harbour (1947) by Elizabeth Taylor was a reread. My love of Elizabeth Taylor is well known, I think. I have read more than half her novels twice and have been meaning to re-read the rest for ages, this felt like such a treat. Newby, a coastal village long past its best, everyone looks out on everyone else. Nothing much goes unseen for very long. Bertram, a painter comes to this place, just before the season gets going. Tory, still smarting from her failed marriage has become involved with her neighbour Robert, whose wife Beth is Tory’s friend but is far more involved with the fictional worlds she creates in the books she writes. Mrs Bracey – an invalid, never leaves her house, is a sore trial to her daughters who she pesters for gossip. Her world has narrowed to what she can see from the window or hear about from others. Lily Wilson lives above the town waxworks; she is lonely and a little afraid of the exhibits when she comes back alone at night. She starts frequenting the pub a little more often – for the company. Taylor is as brilliant as ever here – the atmosphere of a sad, grey seaside town and its inhabitants is perfect, her observations as ever spot on.  

Odesa at Dawn (2022) by Sally McGrane was kindly sent to me by V&Q books and I fully intend to review it soon. I am determined to get the three review books I read in September reviewed this month, even if I manage nothing else. Totally outside what I usually read, yet I really enjoyed it. Odesa at Dawn is described as a surreal contemporary spin on the classic spy novel. Fast paced and witty, we really get to see the gritty, dark underbelly of Odesa. I shall save the rest of my thoughts for a full review.  

War Among Ladies (1928) by Eleanor Scott very kindly provided by the British Library, the latest in their women writers series. This was easily my favourite book of the month. Again, I intend to review this one more fully in time. Set in a girls’ High school in the fictional town of Besley – which we quickly realise is a narrow-minded provincial entity, of which it would be disaster to fall foul. The staffroom at Belsley High School is a haven of bitter resentments and spiteful gossip. The staff are all single women living in shabby lodgings, if they lose their job, they lose their pension and all the years they have paid into it. In a school where the failure of one means the failure of all, everyone is under threat. A new teacher arrives, full of optimism but soon gets drawn into the scheming, internal politics.  

The Seat of the Scornful (1941) by John Dickson Carr again sent to me by the British Library, I have quite a number of these BLCC books tbr, I chose to read this one over the others because it is set in Devon. I have a great love of Devon, though Devon itself doesn’t really play much of a part here. Still, it is a thoroughly enjoyable mystery, a small cast of characters, yet still keeps the reader guessing and I thought the twist at the end was quite brilliant.  

I do plan to review some of those books, though certainly not all of them. Fingers crossed I can do a bit better this month. 

The Pachinko Parlour (2018) by Elsa Shua Dusapin translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins. I was sent to be by Jacqui after she had finished with it. A beautifully understated little novella. Claire travels from her home in Switzerland to visit her grandparents in Tokyo. She and her grandparents are Korean, they had fled Korea at the time of the war, Claire had grown up on another continent, visiting her grandparents in Japan from time to time. It is summer, the heat rises daily, Claire divides her time between tutoring twelve-year old Mieko in a strange apartment in an abandoned hotel (Mieko sleeps in what was once the swimming pool) and lying on the floor in her grandparents apartment, daydreaming. Her grandparents own Shiny, a Pachinko Parlour that draws people in day and night with its promises of good luck. The relationship which develops between Claire and Mieko is wonderfully drawn, as is the awkwardness of the relationship between Claire and her grandparents as she attempts to plan the long-promised trip for the three of them to Korea.  

In the meantime, tell me what you’ve been reading and what your plans for October might be.