Oh dear! Coming on for two weeks into March and I haven’t written a blog post since my February round up. I hadn’t even realised it had been that long. I had hoped to write in some detail about a few of the brilliant books I read in February, that is clearly not going to happen. I do have one book from February still to write about – I’m a little anxious that I will forget all about it before I get around to doing it, it was a review copy, I read quickly before realising it wasn’t out until toward the end of April. All these years of blogging and suddenly I’m not managing it very well. I have thought about stopping altogether, but I don’t seem quite ready to make that decision, and so for now, I will continue to post erratically, lots of mini reviews and monthly round ups I’m afraid.  

I haven’t been feeling brilliant, but books can be a comfort – although neither of the first two books of March were what I could call comfort reads. They were excellent though.  

The Fawn (1959) by Magda Szabó translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix.  

This was a recent purchase, a pre-order in fact, a new English translation of an author I have enjoyed so much in the past was an exciting prospect.    

The Fawn is a complex piece, narrated by Eszter Encsy an acclaimed actress. Throughout the novel Eszter is speaking to her lover, explaining her past, seeking forgiveness, reliving key moments, and it’s only bit by bit that the reader begins to understand who who is, and what is going on. A helpful character list in the front of this edition was referred to several times. Eszter appears to be in her thirties and the present is the 1950s in communist Hungry, but Eszter is often talking about the past, an earlier time around the 1930s, when she was a child.  

Eszter was the only child of a music teacher and a non-practising lawyer, despite having aristocratic relatives the family live in terrible poverty, and all her life Eszter feels this poverty, and it fuels a terrible resentment and a hatred of a neighbour and classmate Angéla. Angéla grows up in a very different household, everything in her life appears to Eszter to be beautiful, gracious and rich – and when Angéla is given a fawn to care for – Eszter’s resentment boils over and leads her to do a terrible thing. Angéla has no idea of Eszter’s true feelings towards her – feelings carried through to adult life when Eszter is a successful actress and Angéla is married to the man who will become Eszter’s lover.  Even when Eszter hears of Angéla working as a nurse during the war, she views it with a snarky kind of spite that the author reproduces brilliantly.  

“Poor little Angéla with her little hands, her little first-aid kit, her lovely little feet — what delightful little bandages she must have made with lint and tape! Everybody had always been polite to Angéla all her life; I bet even the dying, the wounded, collapsed with some sort of internal haemorrhage so that she wouldn’t dirty her little hand.” 

The Fawn is a bleak story, it’s written very coldly which suits the narrative perfectly, but definitely doesn’t make for an easy read.  

Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman (2022) by Lucy Worsely  

I know I sometimes struggle with big hardbacks, but I specifically asked Liz for this book for Christmas when we were doing that ‘what do you want for Christmas?’ thing. I have been reading Agatha Christie since I was about eleven, when I borrowed them from my local library, and having visited her Devon holiday home Greenway several times, find her altogether fascinating. I was very much looking forward to reading this, and while I don’t think of biographies as comfort reads – this was wonderfully compelling.  

Lucy Worsely writes in a very accessible way; dare I suggest she writes non-fiction for those who don’t read much non-fiction (that is definitely me). It is certainly not too light, it’s thorough and well researched, but Worsely allows herself to be chattily familiar and informal at times – on one occasion she refers to Archie Christie as being ‘hot!’ I suspect some serious readers of non-fiction dislike that – I really don’t mind it at all. Worsely had access to a great number of personal letters and journals and uses these to help us to get a glimpse of a woman who was very private and who as the title to the book suggests, remains a little elusive.  

A must for Agatha Christie fans I suspect, this is a very readable biography, Agatha lived a long and remarkable life. Here Worsely details her childhood, her relationship with her mother, her daughter and both her husbands. We see Agatha buying up houses, volunteering during the war, and donating money to help her second husband’s archaeological digs, on which she happily accompanied him.  

One of the most compelling sections of the book is the section about that infamous year of 1926, when Agatha went missing for eleven days, before being unearthed in an hotel in Harrogate. I really had trouble putting it down during that section, it seems that still, we are all fascinated by that strange event in the life of this most famous mystery writer.  

 Naturally, we also see Agatha the writer – she appears to have had a great need to just keep on, producing the books that she did. She wrote when travelling and she wrote when she was ill. Spoilers abound, Worsely doesn’t shy aware from big plot spoilers when talking about the books, and I assume she thought that was the only way she could write about them honestly.  

Neither does Worsely shy aware of confronting some uncomfortable truths. While she doesn’t dwell on them at all, she does refer to those cultural references in Christie novels that jar terribly today, and she addresses her antisemitism, which apparently Agatha Christie persisted in seeing nothing wrong with, even after the Second World War. Worsley even acknowledges that some of her later novels aren’t really that good – there appears to have been a feeling in some quarters that Agatha should have stopped writing earlier than she did.  

Overall, this was a fascinating read that really kept me reading late into the night a couple of times.  

New books 

Another comfort I find is buying books – books I really have no need for right now! The joy of a parcel arriving – it cheers a day up. I have a list of books I must buy soon on my phone, it’s more than just a wish list – and I assume everyone has a list like that. Every now and then I buy a couple (or four) books off that list – and every now and then a few more books get added to the list. So last week I bought:  

Manifesto: On Never Giving Up by Bernadine Evaristo  

A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery  

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin 

Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood, her new collection of short stories.  

They are now happily settled on the book trolley by my reading chair alongside these two that arrived from The British Library – so thank you to them for:  

The Black Spectacles by John Dickson Carr – a British Library Crime Classic and 

The Home by Penelope Mortimer from the British Library women writers series.  

On a slightly more personal note – I am pretty much officially retired (on ill health grounds – I am only 54) since Friday – just some pension stuff to sort. This week I will be away with my mum, we’re off for a few days in a hotel by the sea, being waited on, reading our books while we order another tray of tea and gazing at the sea from the windows of our sea front hotel.  

February in review

It’s the last day of the month and I won’t finish another book before midnight. It’s been a good month of reading for me, and despite not being very well, I wanted to share it with you all. February has been #ReadIndies month, hosted again by Lizzie and Karen, it’s a month that seems to perfectly suit my kind of reading, and I have really enjoyed this month’s books. #ReadIndies has become one of my favourite reading events. Honestly, where would we be without these brilliant, independent publishers?  

Unfortunately, I just won’t get around to writing about everything, hopefully I will write in more detail about a couple more of these in the coming days or weeks. One of the review copies I received is actually not out until April, so that gives me plenty of time to write a proper review of it. Three of these have been reviewed previously.  

My first read of the month was a collection of stories Other Worlds (edited 2021) by Teffi (NYRB Classics) translated from Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler & others. Focussing on other worldly themes, the collection comes from across a forty-year period in Teffi’s life.  

Maud Martha (1953) by Gwendolyn Brooks (Faber) is a book I only heard about from other bloggers. The only novel by the celebrated poet and first Black author to ever win a Pulitzer Prize. Told in a series of poetic vignettes, this is the story of Maud Martha Brown who grew up on the South Side of 1940s Chicago.  

Cold Enough for Snow (2021) by Jessica Au (Fitzcarraldo Editions) a tender, delicate little novella about a mother and daughter visiting Japan together. This was my first of two visits to Japan in my February reading. The two meet in Tokyo, share meals in restaurants, walk around the city, visit galleries and talk. It’s an exploration of their pasts, memory and their understanding of each other.  

Bird of Paradise (1914) by Ada Leverson (Michael Walmer) a wonderfully bright, witty novel, that gently satirises a society in which love, and money go hand in hand.  

Appius and Virginia (1932) by Gertrude Trevelyan (Abandoned Bookshop) I was so looking forward to reading this, Gertrude Trevelyan’s first novel. I wasn’t disappointed – though it often made me sad and a little angry. It tells the story of Virginia Hutton who embarks on an experiment – to raise a new-born Orang-utan as a human child. She names him Appius and buries herself in a cottage with no servants and over the course of about a decade goes about the business of teaching Appius how to talk, read, play and daily become more and more like a real boy. There are one or two uncomfortable comparisons between Appius and people Virginia considers inferior – which for me went hand in hand with the character’s attitudes. Throughout the novel there is a conflict between nature and nurture, and what happens when Appius becomes aware of his true origins. A fascinating, thought-provoking novel, in which the reader is firmly on the side of Appius. 

Latchkey Ladies (1921) by Marjorie Grant (Handheld Press) set around the end of WW1 this is the kind of novel I love, a novel about women, living and working independently at a time when that was less usual.  

A Summer with Kim Novak (1998) by Håkan Nesser (World Editions) translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel. Nesser is a very successful, well-known Swedish crime writer, who I hadn’t heard of. I read about this novel on another blog and wanted to read it. Although there is a crime in this novel – generally referred to by the narrator as the incident – it is in fact much more of a coming-of-age novel – and that’s what initially appealed to me most. Fourteen-year-old Erik and his friend Edmund spend the summer of 1962 by a Swedish lake, swimming, riding their bikes and daydreaming about a young schoolteacher called Ewa who looks just like Kim Novak. When Ewa’s boyfriend is found dead, Erik’s older brother is initially the prime suspect. Many years later, Erik looks back on what happened that summer. 

How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart (2023) by Florentyna Leow (Emma Press) is a collection of essays about the author’s time living in Kyoto. Florentyna takes up the offer of a house share in the hills of Kyoto. She starts a new job as a tour guide, falls in love with Kyoto, becomes a regular at a tiny, jazz bar. Meanwhile her relationship with her house mate becomes intense, and eventually begins to break down. This collection is a meditation on place, and the loss of friendship.  

In the Belly of the Queen (2023) Karosh Taha (V&Q books) translated from the German by Grashina Gabelmann. A novel about class, race and gender this novel is told in two parts. One runs from front to back – the other part (turn the book over) runs back to front – like Ali Smith’s How to be Both apparently. You can read which ever part you like first – I started with the slightly longer section first. As this novel – which I really enjoyed – isn’t out until April I will save my thoughts for nearer the time.  

Foster (2010) by Claire Keegan (Faber) another small novella which was lovely to read in one sitting. Set during a hot summer, a child is taken by her father to stay with relatives on a farm in rural Ireland. In the house of the Kinsellas the young girl finds an affection she has never known. Gradually in their care she begins to blossom. Only, there is something not talked about in this household, and summers have to end. A slight novel perhaps but one of absolute perfection.  

So, that was February, I don’t have any concrete plans for March – but I do hope to join in with Read Ireland month. I might read a William Trevor collection of stories and I have a couple of books I had meant to read this month that I ran out of time for. I have started reading The Fawn (1959) by Magda Szabo translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix – only fifty pages or so into it, but it seems promising so far. 

I would love to know what your highlights of February were – and what if any your plans are for March.  

I have been having a rather good month reading things for #ReadIndies all of which have turned out to be great. Latchkey Ladies by Marjorie Grant was a Christmas present from family, and one of three Handheld Press books I have tbr. I am glad I chose this one as it turned out to be an enthralling read. It was the first novel by the Canadian writer first published in 1921 it is set around the end of WW1 in 1918.  

The novel opens in the Mimosa club – a kind of women’s hostel, where some women live in rooms above, while others – like several of our characters, live out, going there for meals and to socialise.  

One of the first young women we meet – and the principal character throughout – is Anne Carey, one of the latchkey ladies of the title. Latchkey ladies being young women who live independently, working and renting rooms. Anne is rather conventional – and she doesn’t particularly love this way of life – it all seems rather beneath her – and she hates the war work she is doing in an office and is frequently at odds with her landlady, who she cannot disguise her dislike for. She is engaged to a young man serving in the army, but Anne is bored with him. Anne isn’t always that easy to like, and as we see her at work, overly upset by the soldiers that she rubs shoulders with and feeling superior to pretty much everyone else in the office, she is at her least attractive. In time, however, the reader will probably warm to her as I did. Soon after the novel opens Anne gives up this hated work, and floats around between jobs for a while, relieved to not to have to go back there.  

“Actually Anne was almost at breaking point without knowing it. The difficulties of her ordinary day, too long hours, too little food and fresh air, no free time almost, and the common anxiety of war weighed her down, and the hardest part of the strain was, as she had said, that she hated this work”. 

There are several other young women who Anne is friendly with, they all see each other daily at the Mimosa club, often going out to bohemian parties, where they are introduced to all sorts of writers and artists. Maquita is the woman Anne is closest to, she is less conventional seeming to Anne – loud and energetic, fun loving and kind she embraces the latchkey lifestyle, enjoying the variety and independence it brings. Sophy is pretty, but lacks charm, and her own mother appears to prefer the company of Anne. Geraldine Denby, an admiral’s daughter comes to the Mimosa club with her employer, to whom she is companion. Through her brief story, we see the terrible toll, this lifestyle took on many women.  

Anne and Maquita meet Petunia at a party, and take her under their wing, she is an entirely different kettle of fish. There is some question over Petunia’s background – most recently she was a chorus girl – and these questions are discussed in ways which become rather uncomfortable. These kinds of novels always tell us so much about certain attitudes of the time, and how important the class system still was. Anne doesn’t much enjoy the noise and clamour of this party, happy to sit back and take it all in. 

“The room began to fill with people, and Anne, withdrawing from the inner circle that surrounded Mr Meebes, was content to look on and to talk to such casual guests as drifted by. It amused her to see how naturally Maquita became part of the crowd – her eyes, her hands flashing, her laugh pealing above the other voices. She adored people without discrimination – a party of any sort delighted her, and these chorus girls, and mannequins, and young soldiers were exciting to her. Sophy too seemed to be very happy, and Petunia when she was not claiming Simon’s attention, was charming a young Flying Corps officer with his arm in a sling.” 

 However, everyone seems to love beautiful, naïve Petunia (though whether she is really that naïve is also in some doubt) – she is only eighteen after all. Anne and Maquita secure a room for her at the Mimosa club, all set to fully scandalise an older member of the club who sees herself as being particularly refined and is possibly still living in the Victorian age.  

It isn’t long before Petunia has caught the eye of a slightly stuffy man from very good family, he is utterly infatuated with Petunia, determined to marry her, cart her off to the country pile and turn her into a society wife. Petunia doesn’t seem very sure what she wants.  

Someone else Anne meets at this party is Philip Dampier, a married man and well-known playwright whose work she has admired. The two become friends, and Anne is introduced to his wife and two little boys – she loves children – and becomes fond of the family. However, the two begin an affair, and of course, almost inevitably the consequences for Anne will be far greater than for Philip.  

A good novel about women during this period, giving an authentic flavour of London life and society at the end of WW1. Interestingly, for Rose Macaulay fans, Marjorie Grant knew Rose Macaulay and so it is possible that the relationship of Anne and Philip was inspired by that of Rose and Gerald O’ Donovan.  

With thanks to the publisher Michael Walmer for the review copy. 

Ada Leverson was a writer best known for her parodies and sketches of the 1890s and her six novels published toward the beginning of the twentieth century. She is well known for having been a friend of Oscar Wilde. I have previously read her 1911 novel The Limit and the Virago omnibus The Little Ottleys, which is comprised of the three novels Love’s Shadow, Tenterhooks and Love at Second Sight. So, I was delighted to be offered this new edition of Bird of Paradise – a novel very much in a similar vein as The Little Ottleys novels, yet for me even more of a page turner. It is a wonderfully bright, witty novel, that gently satirises a society in which love, and money go hand in hand.  

In this novel we meet two married couples, Bertha and Percy Kellynch and Nigel and Mary Hillier. Ten years earlier, at the beginning of the century, Bertha and Nigel had been inseparable. The eighteen-year-old Bertha had been heartbroken when Nigel realising that Bertha wasn’t possessed of the fortune he required, threw his lot in with heiress Mary instead and married her.  

“Nigel, who had been in a frightful hole when he met the heiress, of course made a point of discovering, as soon as all grinding money troubles had been removed and agonising debts paid, that no material things were capable of making him happy. The gratification to his vanity of his big country house, and charming house in London and so forth amused him for a very short time. He became, horribly bored, and when Bertha married Percy Kellynch, felt pained and particularly surprised and disappointed in her.” 

A decade on Nigel has had time to regret his choice, coming into money himself soon after his marriage, he feels he should never have thrown over the great society beauty – for his marriage hasn’t been a happy one. Despite being blessed with two children, Nigel remains horribly jealous of the man Bertha married soon after his own marriage. However, it is Mary’s jealousy that is blighting their marriage, her bitter jealousy toward Bertha, her insecurity and tendency to cling to Nigel is driving him mad.  

Bertha is known as having been blessed by great beauty, goodness and kindness, and although she hasn’t been blessed with children, she is blissfully happy with her husband Percy. She no longer thinks of Nigel as she did when she was eighteen, and in fact, being aware of his frailties and penchant for wanting what he can’t have, has no regrets whatsoever. Several years after their respective marriages, the two have again become occasional friends, existing within the same social set. For a while at least Nigel had been content to merely see Bertha occasionally in the guise of a friend. However, as time has gone on that has become less satisfying, and Nigel is now tormented by the return of his old feelings for Bertha.  

Meanwhile Bertha has set herself the task of helping her friend Madeline Irwin in her own pursuit of love and marriage. Madeline has become smitten by Rupert Denison, a popular young man, with the habit of patronisingly ‘educating’ young woman in a slightly school masterish manner – Madeline doesn’t care and declares to Bertha that he is to her as Percy is to Bertha. With another young woman having been seen in the company of Rupert, Madeline is desperate to secure her man. Bertha enlists the help of her old friend Nigel – little realising perhaps how easily these things could be misconstrued.  

“With the casual indiscretion of the selfish man, Nigel, of course, told his wife at length early in the honeymoon, all about his romance with Bertha. This Mary had never forgiven. Curiously, she minded more this old innocent affair of ten years ago, which he had broken off for her, than any of his flirtations since.” 

With Mary becoming ever more suspicious, things get very serious, as the poor, miserable woman goes to rather desperate lengths to separate Nigel from Bertha. Mary doesn’t really know Bertha and has built her up in her head as a terrible flirt, a woman who is bound to be after her husband. Mary is portrayed as a desperately unhappy woman, she realises Nigel married her for her money, and now spends most of her day, sitting looking out of the window, watching intently for his return. She takes little interest in her children, investing all her energies in the worship of her husband. With things so suffocating at home, it is little wonder that Bertha has once again become Nigel’s ideal. Nigel’s infatuation, and Mary’s jealousy can only lead to trouble for everyone. The reader can’t help but feel sorry for Mary in her terrible misery.   

There are some very enjoyable peripheral characters including Bertha’s mother-in-law – Lady Kellynch and young brother-in-law, Clifford, who eighteen years younger than Percy, is a twelve-year-old schoolboy, who clearly gets up to all sorts but is the apple of his mother’s weary eye. Clifford has lately become very enamoured by the mother of his school friend and induces his mother to invite her to tea. When Mrs Pickering arrives, it becomes clear that she is a former actress who famously married after meeting her husband when she was playing Prince Charming in Blackpool, to the collectively raised eyebrows of society.  

This is a joyfully, entertaining novel, and I just flew through it, while not wanting it to end too soon.  

Edited by Robert Chandler, Translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler & others.  

Despite not having reviewed many of the books I read in January, I am moving straight on to my first read for #ReadIndies month. I might go back to some of those January reads yet – but I doubt it. #ReadIndies is hosted by Karen and Lizzie and is a lovely flexible challenge – you can read anything at all as long as it comes from an independent publisher. Independent publishers are so important, giving us a range of different voices from writers all over the world, reissuing classics and producing quirky titles and interesting editions that differ to those produced by the big publishing houses. I particularly appreciate those publishers bringing out translations and backlisted titles by women.  

My first title for #ReadIndies was Other Worlds: peasants, pilgrims, spirits, saints by Teffi sent to me for Christmas by Jacquiwine, a NYRB classic. I don’t read much Russian literature these days (I had a short Russian phase in my early twenties) and I have never read Teffi – but I do enjoy short stories and so this felt like a great collection to start with. Apparently best known for her satirical sketches of pre-revolutionary Russia, this collection focus on more other worldly themes. The stories were written over a forty-year period, from the times she was writing in Moscow through to those days when she was living in Paris.  

It is difficult to review this kind of collection, though I hope I can offer a little flavour of it. These stories have themes of religion either Christian or Russian orthodox and folklore and spiritualism. The collection is organised into five parts, with each group of stories taken from one of Teffi’s collections. Here we have stories of the poor and the rich, of pilgrims travelling together sleeping in hostel type accommodation, of wolves, shapeshifters, of witches and spirits, fear and superstition.  

For example, In Confession, a young girl prepares for her first confession, she worries about a lie she told, the event looms large and fills her with anxiety. In a A Quiet Backwater a laundress discusses the name days of the flora and fauna around her. It’s a beautifully descriptive story, presenting us with a very visual scene of traditional rustic life.  

“Every sea, every great river and stormy lake has its quiet backwater. The water is clear and calm. The reeds don’t rustle, and there are no ripples on the smooth surface. Anything there is an event – the mere touch of a dragonfly’s wing, or that long-legged dancer, an evening mosquito. 

If you climb the steep bank and look down, you’ll see at once where this quiet backwater begins. A line has been drawn with a ruler.” 

(A Quiet Backwater)  

In Solovki – a group a pilgrims travel to a monastery. Two of the pilgrims are Semyon and his wife Varvara – and Semyon wastes no time in telling the story of his wife’s transgression to the other pilgrims – a story he has been repeating to everyone he can for months. It becomes clear to the reader that he doesn’t know the full story.  

Some stories concern matters that are little darker – lightly brushed with horror, they explore the deep superstitions of spirits, witches, shapeshifters and things unknown. In Witch a couple come to believe their servant is a witch, the final straw for the young wife is finding the dining chairs all turned around, facing outwards (not a superstition I have heard of before). Wild Evening is about the fear of the unknown, all the characters seem to be in a state of fear. Shapeshifters explores the various stories around shapeshifters, werewolves and shewolves. The Dog tells the story of a loyal lover, war and a legend from an old mill that a group of young people once joked about.  

“We liked Tolya’s old legend. Vanya Lebedev, however, said, ‘That’s splendid, Tolya. Only you could have told it better – it should be more scary. You should have added that the mill’s been under a spell ever since. Whoever spends one whole night there will be able, if ever he wishes, to turn himself into a dog.” 

(The Dog)

All these stories are wonderfully visual, Teffi is a very atmospheric, descriptive writer. I was at first a little perplexed by the translation of some of the dialogue in a few stories. Several stories – like that of Yavdokha, about a peasant woman who receives a letter she is unable to read – have a local dialect spoken between characters. The speech that is reproduced in some of these stories began to sound to me like the dialect of someone from Yorkshire. I was a bit discombobulated, but flipped to the explanation, written by Robert Chandler on this translation, in the back of the book. I was glad I did, his explanation is rather too long to reproduce here, but reminded me how difficult translation is and how important it was for the translator to provide differentiation between peasant characters and say middle-class people, monks or even wealthy landowners.  

This collection was a superb introduction to a legendary writer – thank you Jaqui! It really got my #ReadIndies reading off to a good start.  

January in review

The last day of the first month of 2023 and phew it has seemed a long month, and that despite not being at work. Again, I have struggled to review what I have been reading, and those reviews I have managed from my month of reading might end up being it. Not convinced I will get around to reviewing any more of my January reads, I will instead write a few lines about each of them here, for now.  

Several reading challenges were doing the rounds in January, and although I didn’t join in as much as I had hoped, I did manage two books for the Japanese reading challenge and one book for the year of William Trevor. I read nine books this month, seven real books, two kindle books – my final book of the month is being finished later today, I only have about 60 pages left to read, so felt I could include it here as I should finish it by tonight.  

In January I read:  

For Japanese reading challenge I started the month with Heaven by Mieko Kawakami (2009) (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd) one of just three books I reviewed this month. It’s a tough read in many ways, focussing on the bullying of a fourteen-year-old boy and his only friend Kojima. It is however a brilliant novel.  

The Old Boys by William Trevor (1964) for that year of William Trevor reading, that I plan to dip in and out of. 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. Some absolutely brilliant characterisation and sharp observation from Trevor here. A writer who doesn’t disappoint.  

Woman Running in the Mountains by Yūko Tsushima (1980) (translated by Geraldine Harcourt) also of course for the Japanese reading challenge. This is a beautifully written novel full of atmosphere, quiet, subtle and thoroughly engaging. It is the story of Takiko and her first year of being a single mother while living in her parents’ house.  

Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia (2021) the first of my two kindle reads this month. Not a book I had heard of before my book group picked it for February (I decided to read it a few weeks early). A story of the past and present, a story that weaves together five generations of women shaped by betrayal and the decisions taken by mothers. Set partly in modern day Miami and the Cuba of the nineteenth century and the 1950s – this is a novel that fell flat for me. It has a lot of really good reviews on Goodreads (which I can’t quite understand – but anyway…) nothing really clicked for me – and the writing which I have seen described as lyrical, I found average.  

The Charioteer by Mary Renault (1953) I have been meaning to try Mary Renault for years. I had two of her novels on my kindle – the non ancient Greek ones – and I had heard somewhere that this was considered a particularly good one. I thought it was brilliant. First published in 1953 it is a bold unapologetic portrayal of homosexuality. Wounded at Dunkirk, Laurie Odell is sent to a rural veterans hospital to recover, where he undergoes several operations on his leg. Here he befriends Andrew, an orderly who is also a conscientious objector. Drawn together they begin a chaste though intense friendship – Andrew seemingly innocent of his true nature, Laurie well practised at hiding his. Then one day, while away from the hospital for a few hours Laurie encounters Ralph Lanyon who had been a couple of years above him at school, a figure Laurie has never forgotten because of the way in which Ralph left the school and the gift he bestowed on him as he did. Through him Laurie is drawn into a circle of world-weary gay men, men who live their lives unafraid. Laurie is left to choose between two worlds – one of chaste romance and one where he can enjoy the pleasures of experience and a full relationship. At over 400 pages The Charioteer is a richly rewarding book, thoroughly immersive and engaging.  

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy (1986) I can’t remember where I heard about this book now, but it was on my wish list that I gave my family, and I got it for Christmas. An old second-hand copy as it is out of print. This novel was published as part of the Caribbean Writers Series – the author Beryl Gilroy was born in Guyana. This her first novel won a prize in the GLC Black Literature Competition. The story of Mama King struggling to come to terms with the realities of ageing. Her family all live abroad, and they have arranged for her to move into Frangipani House a down at heal rest home for elderly Black ladies. Mama is driven almost to madness by the claustrophobic atmosphere and her own inertia and chooses to escape and take up with a troupe of honest beggars.  

Death of an Author by E C R Lorac (1935) one of two bookish mysteries to come through my door courtesy of the British Library this month. E C R Lorac is a very popular author among lovers of the Golden Age, and I thought this was a very clever one indeed. Here Lorac plays with the idea of pseudonyms, women writing as men, and good women writers being assumed to be men. Red herrings abound, as we are never quite sure who is who – when a popular mystery writer is reported missing by his secretary. However, it seems no one, other than his secretary and (also missing) housekeeper, has set eyes on the writer. Additionally, who exactly this secretary is – or might be is also raising questions with the investigating policemen on the case.  

Another of this year’s Christmas gifts, Tomorrow by Elisabeth Russell Taylor (1991) I first heard about this novel from Jacqui at Jacquiwine’s journal. A beautiful, quiet novel, very poignant. Jacqui said it reminded her of Anita Brookner and I can certainly see why. It is 1960 and Elisabeth Danziger returns as she has done each year since the end of the war to a hotel on the Danish island of Mon. The hotel was once her family’s second home, where growing up before the war Elisabeth lived happily, part of a cultured, talented family. Now, each year she revisits, relives the past, repeats the same things each year – fulfilling the promise she made to return, that only she could keep. I may still review this fully – I haven’t done it justice here; it is a wonderful novel.  

Night and Silence Who is Here? by Pamela Hansford Johnson (1963) this is the novel I am currently reading – my afternoon will be dedicated to finishing it. The second volume in her Dorothy Merlin series (though in fact the novels standalone) it is subtitled an American comedy. I have found it delightfully amusing – and been flying through it. PHJ is immensely readable, an intelligent, witty writer. I have a pristine first edition of this one that I picked up off eBay, first edition or not, books are to be read, and I have enjoyed reading this one.  

A quick look ahead at February – as this post is already longer than I intended. Karen and Lizzie are again hosting #ReadIndies – where would we be without our indie publishers? I have masses to choose from – and a few more winging their way to me as I spent the rest of my book tokens yesterday. I gathered together a few possibles from my book trolley that I keep by my chair – there are in fact lots more indies in my big tbr cupboard too. Which of these I shall actually read remains to be seen. 

As ever, I love to hear about what you’ve been reading and what your plans for the next month might be.  

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?