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Popping up with a longish post, proof I am still around. It’s been nearly a fortnight since my last post as again I have been hit hard by RA symptoms and crippling fatigue. This is clearly going to happen a lot, so I suppose my blog posting will continue erratically at least for now.  

I began January joyfully reading at quite a decent pace, however that has slowed down now, as I have been sleeping so much, and watching loads of TV. I had wanted to join in several of the reading challenges that are around in January, and started reading Heaven for the Japanese reading challenge as the New Year came in. So far, that is the only book I have reviewed from this month’s reading.  

Following that I sat down with The Old Boys by William Trevor for Cathy and Kim’s year of William Trevor. A marvellous novel full of excellent characterisation and sharp observation. I had hoped to move on to Cheating at Canasta, the short stories that are selected for this month too, but I haven’t even managed to buy a copy yet much less read it. (I might cheat and read it in February, as I have read both of February’s William Trevor titles before).  

I then moved back to Japan with Yūko Tsushima’s Woman Running in the Mountains – a pricey NYRB edition I bought with book tokens just after Christmas. Having so loved Territory of Light back in November I was really looking forward to this, and I wasn’t disappointed, so glad I treated myself to that particularly nice edition too.  

So, in a bid to catch up a little, forgive me for these mini reviews of two novels that are not only quite different to one another, but really deserve proper full-length pieces.  

The Old Boys – William Trevor (1964) 

The old boys of the title are a bunch of septuagenarians who were once, public schoolboys together, and now make up the Old Boys Association. High on the agenda as the novel opens is the election of the new president. Jaraby is sure of his success, this is a position he has been waiting to take up, feeling it is his proper due. He has however not reckoned on the bitter resentment of Nox – who Jaraby was particularly awful to during their schooldays, but for Jaraby that is long past and forgotten. The rest of the wonderfully named old boys are General Sanctury, Ponders, Swabey-Boynes, Turtle and Sole and Cridley. The latter two having more recently taken up residence together in a boarding house, where they get up to all kinds of mischief sending off for catalogues and getting quotes for home improvements, they have no right to request. When Jaraby’s wayward son Basil gets arrested by the police, Nox immediately sees it as a way of upsetting Jaraby’s plans for his election. His memory of the past is clear and for him it isn’t over.  

“Jaraby, who was a stickler for detail and discipline, was determined that Nox should do what was required of him; quietly contentedly, and with the minimum of nonsense.” 

Jaraby is the main character here, one of Trevor’s brilliantly drawn, though not very likeable creations. The best scenes in the book I think are those between Jaraby and his wife. She, no doubt long suffering with this fussy, pompous old bully – who is currently trying to persuade his doctor that he needs help drugging his ‘mad’ wife, to keep her quiet – lovely man! However, the worm has turned, and she is quietly, but determinedly fighting back, and Jaraby can’t work out what’s wrong with her. Two things they fight about most is Jaraby’s cat and their son Basil – who Jaraby won’t have in the house.  

Warning cat lovers, there is a very bad thing with the cat – which Trevor manages to not make very upsetting however a lot of cat lovers would really dislike it.  

The Old Boys is an excellent novel with a lot going on beneath the surface, Basil for instance, is a brilliant creation – we only latterly realise what a disturbing character he is. Trevor is good at these kinds of sinister characters, and he slips them into his writing a lot and I have to say I find them fascinating.  

Woman Running in the Mountains – Yūko Tsushima (1980) 

Translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt

This is a beautifully written novel full of atmosphere, quiet, subtle and thoroughly engaging. It is the story of Takiko who as the novel opens on a hot, midsummer morning leaves her home, her family asleep and walks to the hospital by herself to give birth to her son. Her pregnancy is the result of a brief liaison with a married man she met through work and is a cause of great shame to her parents. She has no shame about her situation, for her it is perfectly natural, she is to become a mother, a fact she can hardly believe. She would rather not have to return to her parents’ house where her child is unwanted, but she will have no choice when the hospital discharges her. Takiko thinks this baby will be hers, just hers and she longs for independence and to be able to direct her own life fully. Takiko enjoys her time in the hospital, enjoying the company of the other new mums, however the time is short and soon she accepts she will have to go home with her mother to the house with her young brother and abusive father, where there is little space and no enthusiasm for a new baby. 

Takiko’s son is called Akira and the novel follows her first year of being a mother. From those first difficult days with a newborn, living in cramped conditions in the heat of summer coping with all the associated pain and difficultly of new motherhood – through to her accessing of childcare and finding work. A series of poorly paid, unsatisfying jobs, waitressing, door to door make up sales make life difficult for Takiko as she juggles that with paying for childcare. Then she sees an advertisement for a male employee at a nursery supplying plants to businesses – knowing she can do the job as well as a man she applies and gets the job.  

Work sees her exploring new things, new neighbourhoods and finding things she can do she had never dreamed of. It also brings her closer to the mountain that has captured her imagination. Her mother grew up in the mountains and Takiko carries the images and ideas of the mountains with her, part of her longing for freedom, for a different life. Takiko meets another older, married man at work, the father of a disabled child, they are drawn together by their parenthood and the mountain.  

I am so glad I finally discovered the writing of Yūko Tsushima I found this to be every bit as good as Territory of Light

So, two challenges ticked off and thoroughly enjoyed – I had intended to read another Japanese book, but I seem to be running out of time in one way and another. I have watched and absolutely loved Tokyo Vice on BBC iplayer though which seemed appropriate this month.  

Translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd 

The Japanese reading challenge has totally passed me by in previous years, so having discovered it (finally) I was able to get to read a couple of books that had been on my radar for a while. Hosted by Dolce Bellezza it’s clearly been going for years. The first book I read was Heaven by Mieko Kawakami a short novel shortlisted for the International Booker prize. My first read of 2023 and it was brilliant.  

A tough read in many ways, it could be quite triggering for those who have ever experienced significant bullying – so it might sound odd to say I enjoyed it, but I did. I think perhaps that the way the author approaches the subject is key, she makes us care about the two central characters very quickly, and that of course draws us in. School days stay with us I think in some way for many years, we never entirely throw off the old little insecurities that were exposed in those days. We never quite forget what it was like to be side-lined or laughed at, school was not a happy place for me, I wasn’t one of the uber popular or cool kids, I experienced the usual rough and tumble of school, some of which was unkind, but I was never seriously bullied. However, for most people school days remain a significant easily remembered time, and maybe that is what makes this novel work so well, we can all of us put ourselves right there.  

In this novel we meet an unnamed fourteen-year-old boy, a pupil at what appears to be a typical Japanese school. He is relentlessly and horrifically bullied – choosing to stay silent about his misery, he goes to school each day, knowing what he’ll face. He is sure the one thing that makes him stand out, the thing that has made him a target is his lazy eye – the other boys call him ‘Eyes’. He is as bound up in hating his eye as he is in hating his tormentors. This situation never gets any better, the bullies never let up, he is psychologically worn down as well as physically attacked time and again. ‘Eyes’ spends long hours thinking about his situation, worrying about what might happen next, analysing why he was selected. This daily torture becomes his whole world, eclipsing everything else. One evening on the TV news is a story about a schoolboy who has killed himself because of bullying, and ‘Eyes’ begins to think about this a lot. 

One day, totally out of the blue, he finds a small note folded up in his pencil case. The note says: ‘we should be friends.’ The note turns out to be from Kojima, a girl in his class, who herself is also subjected to bullying at the hands of her classmates – it appears to be the boys who targets ‘Eyes’ and the girls who torment Kojima. 

“But I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I guess I was crying because we had nowhere else to go, no choice but to go on living in this world. Crying because we had no other world to choose, and crying at everything before us, everything around us.” 

 The two are able to provide each other with much needed support and consolation, they have a secret meeting place, and even meet up during the summer holidays. They communicate often through notes, and bit by bit the two become closer, they are each the only friend the other has. In time they begin to talk tentatively about the bullying. It is through these conversations that the author is able to explore the psychology of bullying, why it happens, how best should a victim react, is retaliation or passivity the best way to deal with this kind of daily torment? 

“For people to actually live by some golden rule, we’d have to be living in a world with no contradictions. But we don’t live in a world like that. No one does. People do what works for them, whatever makes them feel good. But because nobody likes getting stepped on, people start spouting crap about being good to others, being considerate, whatever. Tell me I’m wrong. Everyone does things they don’t want people doing back. Predators eat prey, and school serves no real purpose other than separating the kids who have what it takes from the ones who don’t. That’s the whole point. Everywhere you look, the strong walk all over the weak. Even those fools who think they’ve found the answers by coming up with perfect little sayings about how the world ought to be can’t escape it. Because the real world is everywhere.” 

 Gradually we see that the two see their bullying rather differently, while our narrator is certain all he should do is remain passive, that any kind of retaliation would make things worse, Kojima feels that there is a strength in their suffering that will serve them well through life – and for which they will be rewarded.  While he feels that if only his eye could be fixed, he would be accepted everywhere just as others are, Kojima likes his eye – says it makes him, him, and views fixing it or wanting to fix it as a betrayal of all they are enduring.  

This is a beautifully written novel, compelling and heart-breaking, a poignant exploration of a fragile friendship that has a shared torment at its heart. Can a friendship based on such things really survive?  

Translated from the Icelandic by Brian Fitzgibbon

There are several books I read toward the end of 2022 that I would like to review properly, though I don’t think I will be able to manage that. Animal Life by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir was in fact my final read of 2022 and probably not a book I would have reviewed had I not been reading it for Annabel’s Nordic Finds reading event. 

This is the most recent novel by the author of Butterflies in November, which I really enjoyed a couple of years ago. Telling the stories of a family of midwives it also includes many thought-provoking musings on birth, death, human beings, the natural world and even the universe beyond. There is little in the way of plot, and I was left not really sure what my feelings about it were.  

Set in Reykjavik in the days leading up to Christmas, as a great storm approaches the city, we meet Dómhildur, who has just delivered her 1,922nd baby.  

“In order to be able to die, a human first has to be born.” 

Dómhildur, is a midwife, who comes from a family of midwives and undertakers. One of these former midwives was the woman she calls her grandaunt (I would assume that was Great-Aunt in English, but it doesn’t really matter). The grandaunt now deceased is a woman long remembered at the hospital, for her unconventional methods.  

“It is almost noon when the Artic night finally begins to dissolve and the ball of fire rises over the horizon, or just about, a pink streak piercing through a slit in the curtains of the delivery room, barely wider than a pocket comb, landing on the suffering woman on the bed.” 

Dómhildur is living in her grandaunt’s old apartment, nothing has been done to update the furnishings or décor, it has the look and feel of somewhere an elderly person has recently vacated. The aunt’s possessions are still in the apartment, as are the manuscripts the aunt worked on for many years and the letters she received from her pen-pal in Wales.  

When she isn’t at work, Dómhildur, begins to go through the mass of writings left behind by her grandaunt. She discovers three manuscripts that are rather chaotic and jumbled but which point to a near obsession in their writer. The natural world, animal life and its connection to human life, the aunt has spent years compiling and analysing information about a host of subjects, from light, to environmentalism, to the life span of an oak tree and everything in between and beyond – musings on the comparisons between animals and humans and the coincidences which need to be present for a human child ever to be created and born. Alongside the manuscripts are forty years’ worth of letters she exchanged with her pen-pal.  

“I wake up on the shortest day of the year into the longest night of time. It will be a long time before the light dissolves the night and the world takes on a form.” 

Light and dark is important, perhaps not surprisingly. It is the darkest time of the year in Iceland, and as Christmas draws nearer and the forecast storm gets ever closer Dómhildur meets her new temporary neighbour. An Australian tourist is staying in the apartment on the floor above, her other frequent contacts are her sister, and an electrician – who doesn’t like the dark. Dómhildur’s sister is a meteorologist with concerns about the coming storm, she phones often to ask where her sister is and what she is doing. The electrician comes to fix some lights, he is the husband of a woman whose baby Dómhildur delivered. 

So, that feels like pretty much all that happens. The novel is beautifully written, there’s plenty of thought-provoking ideas within it too, but the author never allows it to get too dry or serious, providing moments of lightness too. There is a slightly fragmentary nature to this narrative, which can be harder to engage with, I was left feeling a little underwhelmed.  

Another day another round up – this time my December reading, which overall wasn’t too bad. I don’t think I will get everything I haven’t reviewed so far written about – but I will see how things go. Speaking of seeing how things go, I also want to look a little ahead – more of that later. I got a lot of books and book tokens for Christmas, and some of those books will get read soon, I can’t help myself.  

Liz was running her Dean Street December challenge which was a great excuse to break open some DSP – I always have some waiting to be read. I had also set aside four Christmassy themed reads, but only managed three. I read ten books in December – eight physical books and two on Kindle.  

I started the month reading One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens (1942), a reread really, though it had been several decades. My book group had chosen it, to my surprise, I hadn’t even been the one to suggest it. I suspected none of them would really love it, I was right. I enjoyed it, but the others found it repetitive, and they didn’t like MD herself and thought the women in it unkind to one another.  

All Done by Kindness by Doris Langley Moore (1951) from DSP was my first of three reads for the Dean Street December challenge. A fabulous comedy of manners that centres around the potential of a pile of old paintings to be a pile of Old Masters.  

Near Neighbours by Molly Clavering (1956) was just a joy, my first novel by her, but thankfully DSP have published a few. A woman nearer seventy than sixty is given a new lease of life following her dominating sister’s death, when she begins to get to know the lively family next door.  

Richardson Scores Again by Basil Thomson (1934) is one of the Golden Age novels published by DSP. I hadn’t read this author before but based on this one I’ll happily read more. Plenty of twists and turns and even an escaped parrot to entertain the reader. Thomson knew the world of policing and his procedural style story is well plotted with good characterisation. 

Then I broke into the Christmassy themed reads. A Maigret Christmas and other stories by Georges Simenon (1951). Three stories featuring Maigret or other (apparently) known characters from Simenon’s novels. This was my first Simenon, and I absolutely loved it, and fear I shall now have to read all the millions of Maigret books. These stories had more than just mysteries, there was great writing, atmosphere, fabulous characterisation, all the things I love. I have been missing out.  

When my hands started playing up, I decided to read A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe (2022) on my kindle. I immediately had to buy a second (paperback) copy for my sister, I knew it was the kind of book she loves. I loved it. It features the Aberfan disaster, and a young newly qualified embalmer who rushes to Wales to help in the aftermath. It’s an experience young William will – can – never forget. There’s so much more to it than that though, a beautiful novel of friendship, trauma, redemptive love and kindness.  

Back to the Christmas books with Stories for Christmas and the Festive Season (2022), a collection of Christmas stories by women writers from the British Library women writers series. Containing stories by the likes of Muriel Spark, Stella Gibbons and Margery Sharp. The kind of collection where the reader can’t help but gulp down the stories with greed.  

Also, from the British Library The White Priory Murders by Carter Dickson (1934) a large old house outside of London around Christmas. Where film star Marcia Tait and others of her milieu will be staying and also James Bennett newly arrived from America the nephew of the great detective Sir Henry Merrivale. A seemingly impossible, locked room type murder occurs. To be honest, I was a little underwhelmed by this one, though it got better as it went on.  

A Town called Solace by Mary Lawson (2021) very nearly made it into my top ten books of the year. Set in North Ontario in 1972, It is about three people, seven-year-old Clara, whose older sister has gone missing, Liam who has moved into the house next door, previously occupied by Mrs Orchard who Clara was friends with, and Mrs Orchard in her final illness. Just wonderful.  

My final read of the year was Animal Life by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (2020) translated from Icelandic by Brian Fitzgibbon which I chose for Annabel’s Nordic Finds challenge which started on January 1st. I would like to review it in full at some point because of the reading event but not sure how much there is to say about it. Not unenjoyable, but a little odd.  

So, then looking ahead to what I might read this year. I don’t intend to make too many plans, though as previously stated I want to reignite my enthusiasm for blogging which has waned the last few months. I definitely want to join in with some reading challenges, this month there is Nordic Finds, The Japanese Reading challenge and The William Trevor yearlong event is also starting hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Kim at Reading Matters. I have books for these challenges at the ready, my first read of 2023 is Heaven by Mieko Kawakami which I am loving. No firm decision on this yet but I will probably host my Daphne du Maurier reading week in May – as long as there is still interest, and I will be joining in with Karen and Simon’s club weeks and WIT next August. I am sure there will be many more challenges along the way, I like challenges, so I will keep my eyes peeled.  

Last year, I learned to take pleasure in the business of reading, having time to read, even if it’s short, having lots of books to choose from, and lots of bookish online (and real life) friends to recommend more. I am not setting a Goodreads target this year – it doesn’t really matter, if I read more or less than last year – just send me good books (actually don’t, I have gazillions).  

I will more often go with my mood – and that often serves me well. Whatever you choose to read I hope you love it.  

What brilliant things did you read in December? – and what plans if any do you have for 2023?  

2022 – A Year in review

It’s that time of year again – a time to look back a little on the year that has gone – and celebrate some of the best things we’ve read. Best of year posts have been springing up for weeks – so apologies to those of you who are heartily sick of them.  

I have read far fewer books this year than I can ever remember. Had I been writing this post a few months ago I would have been very negative about that, but I feel I have come to terms with it. I read a bit less these days, and that’s just the way it is. So, after having picked twelve books for twelve months for several years, I am sticking to ten this year. One post, ten books. Glancing down the list I do think it very representative of my reading, mostly fiction, mainly women, some backlisted, some translated a couple of newer titles.  

In the order I read them, my top ten books I read in 2022 are: 

The Narrows by Ann Petry (1953) read in February. Reissued by Virago Press. A novel about love, lust, class, racism, tabloid journalism, the truth and betrayal – Petry writes her story flawlessly, giving us characters we won’t easily forget. Most of the characters inhabit the area of Monmouth, Connecticut called The Narrows – a Black community within what is a largely White town. A more complex novel than Petry’s best known work The Street, but so compelling, the narrative shifting between characters, its pacy and vividly described.  

Random Commentary by Dorothy Whipple (1966) read in February. Reissued by Persephone books. A compilation of pieces from Dorothy Whipple’s journals and notebooks. The journals were kept intermittently by Dorothy, then years later she simply copied out extracts that she thought might interest her readers. Nothing was ever organised or dated – though of course it all runs more or less chronologically, therefore the title fits absolutely. A thorough delight for any Whipple fan.  

Fools of Fortune by William Trevor (1983) read in March. Published by Penguin books. Told mainly in two first person narratives, spanning a period from just after the First World War to the 1980s. It is a beautiful, complex novel, haunting and tender and always compelling.  

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak (2021) read in June. Published by Viking. Divided into three time periods – the late 2010s the early 2000s and 1974 – The Island of Missing Trees, with one very unforgettable narrator, tells a story of belonging and identity, it is a poignant story of love and trauma. Set in Cyprus and London, it is beautifully written, compelling and thought provoking.   

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (2020) read in July on Kindle. Published by penguin books. The story of an American-Ghanaian family in Alabama. A stunning, intelligent novel about family life, loss, grief, addiction, science and faith. A fast-paced multi layered novel that packs quite an emotional punch. 

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (2007) translated by Frances Riddle – read on Kindle in August. Published by Charco Press. A deeply heartfelt novel about a woman’s search for the truth about her daughter’s death. There appears to be a mystery at the heart of this novel and yet it’s not really a mystery novel. There’s a beautiful subtlety to the author’s telling the story of Elena and her daughter. The author understands the vulnerability and the frustrations of someone living with a debilitating health condition and that understanding weaves itself through the narrative.  

War Among Ladies by Eleanor Scott (1928) read in September. Reissued by The British Library as part of their women writer’s series. I love a school setting, and this devastating portrait of women teachers and 1920s education was a thoroughly immersive read. A novel about the politics and petty rivalries of a 1920s staffroom, Scott shows us how the choices for unmarried women who needed to earn a living were limited – and how difficult their lives were.  

Two Thousand Million Man Power by Gertrude Trevelyan (1937)) read in November. Reissued by Boiler House Press. Two Thousand Million Man-Power is an extraordinary novel. 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. So, looking forward to reading more by Gertrude Trevelyan soon.  

Territory of Light by Yūko Tsushima (1978) translated by Geraldine Harcourt read on Kindle in November. Published by Penguin books. 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. A beautiful, delicate novel, which I read quickly, totally taken over by the imagery.  

The Other Day by Dorothy Whipple (1936) read in November. Reissued by Persephone books. My second Whipple on this list – I nearly swapped this for something else – but decided to stick to it. 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. Another must for the Whipple fan, a deeply charming memoir.  

Coming in just under the wire – those I very nearly put in my list or would have done if I had been making the list longer: Springs of Affection, short stories by Maeve Brennan, The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard, A Helping Hand by Celia Dale, and A Town called Solace by Mary Lawson which I only finished two days ago. 

So, that’s it – another year done, all bar the shouting. A few hours left of 2022 – but to be honest I have never been very bothered by New Year. The whole New Year, new year’s resolutions, “it will all be better next year” vibe irritates me. Still, if I were to make a New Year’s resolution (which I am plainly not going to do) it would be to get back to blogging a bit more regularly. I miss my former enthusiasm for it, but I am hoping bit by bit I will find my way back to enjoying it more than I have this year. I have struggled a lot since the summer, to blog and read and comment on other blogs – I feel I interact less on social media too. Thank you to those who have commented on, read, liked, or shared my infrequent posts over the last few months it has kept me going.  

There are changes on the horizon for me in 2023. I am in the process of being medically retired from work – I haven’t been at work since July. I have been told it can take months to go through, so I am currently off sick and waiting for everything to be finalised. The reality for me now is that I rarely leave home – and that’s unlikely to change much, if at all. So, I should have more time for blogging etc shouldn’t I? It’s not worked out like that yet. 

Despite my dislike of New Year – I do sincerely wish you all a very happy one. Let 2023 be filled with light, peace, and plenty of books.  

What were your best books of 2022? 

One thing that #DeanStreetDecember gave me the chance to do was to explore the work of two new to me authors. First was Molly Clavering, a Scottish middlebrow writer who was a great friend of DSP favourite D E Stevenson. DSP have reissued eight of her novels. The second new to me author was Basil Thomson, a mystery writer (among many other things) in that Golden Age style. He was a man of many hats, having worked in the foreign service, then later alongside the Prime Minister of Tonga and then as Police Commissioner to the Metropolitain police. DSP have also published eight of his novels featuring his character Inspector Richardson. I was lucky enough to stumble upon five of them together in a charity shop a year or so ago, I found nos 2, 3, 4, 7 and 8 and having now started with number 2 as the earliest I doubt it matters much which order they are read in.  

Near Neighbours by Molly Clavering 

Near Neighbours is an unashamedly delightful read – without being in way sugary or silly. Molly Clavering has created a cast of characters her readers can become immediately invested in. Her central character Dorothea Balfour in particular is a wonderful character – her back story is somewhat sad, and the reader can delight in her late blossoming and happiness.  

“For as long as she could remember, Dorothea had lived in a continual state of giving-in: to Papa at first, and after he died, to Belle. It had not been so bad while Mamma was alive to share this bondage, but during the last ten years, alone with Belle in the big gloomy house except for Edna far below in the basement, life had become almost unbearable.”  

Dorothea Balfour we are told early on is closer to seventy than sixty. The novel opens on the day of her sister’s funeral. Dorothea had been totally dominated by first her father then her sister – and now suddenly at the age of sixty-eight she is alone in the Edinburgh family home, save for her servant who is clearly happy to see Miss Balfour freed from her domination.  

Next door to Miss Balfour lives the Lenox family, who Dorothea has secretly rather enjoyed hearing through the walls and watching from the third-floor window. Her sister had strongly disapproved of their neighbours and so Dorothea was never able to get to know them. The Lenox family is made up of the widowed Mrs Lenox, and her five grown up, or very nearly grown-up children. Four daughters, all named after trees, Willow, Hazel, Rowan and Holly and a son Murray (pleased to have escaped the tree names). Willow is quite newly married, her young husband is living with her and the rest of the family in the house next door to Miss Balfour – though as he is away at sea, he isn’t there much and Willow sometimes finds that lonely. Mrs Lennox thinks Willow and her husband should be moving out and living on their own. Holly the youngest is coming to the end of her time at school.  

When, on the very day of her sister’s funeral Miss Balfour is visited by Rowan Lenox expressing her condolences, Dorothea seizes the chance to finally get to know her neighbours. She is soon embroiled in their busy, chaotic lives and the Lenox family can barely remember a time when dear Miss Dorothea – as they come to call her – wasn’t a big part of their lives. She is further surprised when her sister’s former husband turns up on her doorstep, and she finds he isn’t quite what she thought he would be.  

There are domestic difficulties to be negotiated, romantic dilemmas and an artist’s abandoned family to be contended with – and although not everything is tidied away completley (which always seems more realistic) there’s plenty to satisfy those hoping for positive outcomes. Near Neighbours is a very cheerful and hopeful novel. Certainly, an author I shall read more of in the future.  

Richardson Scores Again by Basil Thomson 

Richardson Scores Again is the second of Basil Thomson’s Inspector Richardson novels – though Richardson is still a Seargent and has yet to ascend to the dizzying heights of inspectorship. Still, it is a thoroughly enjoyable mystery, with plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader on their toes. I can’t see it matters much what order these books are read in, however the progression of Richardson’s career would make more sense if the novels were read in order I suppose.  

“In the hall he found the body of his maidservant, Helen Dunn, aged about fifty, lying on the floor near the telephone. She had bled profusely from a wound in the head and her body was cold.”  

The case starts with a murder and robbery at a house in Laburnum Road in London. It certainly doesn’t end there however, strangely enough it goes on to include an escaped parrot, a man impersonating a policeman, a stolen car, a political rabble rouser and the almost unbelievable story of the nephew of the Laburnum Road householder.  

To begin with some of Richardson’s superiors aren’t convinced all these things are connected – but Richardson is dogged in his pursuit, an intelligent investigator, who leaves no stone unturned.  

No doubt Thomson’s experience in the world of policing, help to make the police procedural element of this mystery feel very authentic. His characters are well drawn, with good dialogue and some humour. There is a lot to enjoy in this pacy mystery and I will definitely read more.  

December has been declared #DeanStreetDecember by Liz – a chance to read our lovely Dean Street Press books, and I think it should be an annual event. I always have plenty of DSP waiting to read – usually some in book form, with lots more on my kindle (can’t resist those deals). So, of course I had to join in, although I originally only committed to reading one, I have just finished my third. Such a lovely ten days of reading, two Furrowed Middlebrow titles and a Golden age mystery. I will do my best to review them all properly, but no promises.  

Anyway, the first title I took down off my shelf was an easy choice All Done by Kindness by Doris Langley Moore. I had already read the three other titles DSP publish by her, so I had been looking forward to this one, I wasn’t disappointed. Doris Langley Moore is an excellent writer, the plot of this one, like My Caravaggio Style (1959) showing her knowledge of the creative arts. Where My Caravaggio Style was about an audacious literary fraud, this novel is a comedy of errors centring around the authenticity of a pile of potential Old Masters. It is incredibly compelling.  

Dr George Sandilands is a kindly, family doctor, a widower with two adult daughters and two almost grown-up children still at school. When he shows particular kindness towards an elderly patient who has fallen on hard times, she insists that he allow her to gift him a lot of old paintings that have been stored in the attics of her house for many years. Unaware of the drama these paintings will unleash after the old woman’s death the good doctor accepts the trunkful of old damaged paintings.  

The doctor’s house is run, and managed very well by his eldest daughter Beatrix, who as well as being a superb housekeeper is a bossy, managing kind of person, she is immediately horrified by the pile of old paintings which she considers an eye sore and an untidy nuisance.  

“If it had not been for Mrs du Plessis, Dr Sandilands might never have discovered that, far from having sold a horse for green spectacles, he had, so to speak, exchanged a cow for a handful of coloured beans.”  

Four years after the death of the old lady who gave him the pile of paintings (now stored in his own attics) Dr Sandilands makes the acquaintance of Mrs du Plessis, a young widow who had been previously living in Rhodesia and is now the boss of Linda Sandilands – the doctor’s other adult daughter – at the library. Mrs du Plessis is an amateur art connoisseur, and amateur or not she really knows her stuff. When Mrs du Plessis is shown the old paintings, she gets herself into a fever of excitement, undertaking a lot of detailed research and finally developing a theory about what the works really are, which if correct would take the art world by storm. Mrs du Plessis is totally convinced, and her enthusiasm eventually ignites a little flame of excitement in the doctor and his family.  

A decision is made to get a foremost expert to authenticate the works, should he agree with Mrs du Plessis then any remaining doubt will be put to rest, and the paintings can finally be shared with the art world, sold and out of Beatrix’s hair. Sir Harry Maximer is generally considered the leading art expert in the country, a man of unblemished character. With his trusty and adoring secretary never far away, Sir Harry is himself a collector of art, and he can’t help but be quite the snob about what he likes and what he doesn’t. However, there is more to Sir Harry than meets the eye.  

“He laughed with unwonted nervousness, perceiving for the first time that his coup – so tremendous if he were to bring it off – might be classed by those who did not understand his praiseworthy motives as fraudulence on a rather considerable scale. He was not afraid; he had abounding faith in his own cleverness, but he was excited and a little overwhelmed at the daring of the steps he had already so coolly achieved, like a man who looks down from somewhere near a mountain top and wonders how he has succeeded, without losing his head, in scaling such a height.” 

The battered old pile of pictures that Dr Sandilands has in his attics will unleash all manner of nefarious plotting and machinations. Enter a sleazy London art dealer and the director of a local art museum who comes to side with Mrs du Plessis, who is not about to give up her theory without a fight, and the stage is set for a rollicking good read, that becomes increasingly hard to put down.  

Not wanting to spoil the rest of the plot for future readers I shall leave it there.  

I know that Doris Langley Moore wrote a couple of other novels so far not reissued by Dean Street Press, so of course I am hoping that at some point they will.  

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. 😉