In 2018, I started the #readingMuriel2018 reading challenge – and during that year read an awful lot of Muriel Spark – though I didn’t manage everything she wrote. I had fully intended to read The Finishing School at the end of that year of reading, as it was her final novel. However, it has sat on my tbr along with at least one other Spark novel that I bought to read in 2018 but didn’t manage to get to.

In her introduction to this edition, poet Jackie Kay describes this novel which was written when Muriel Spark was eighty-six as a comic and satirical swansong. It is a novel about passion and creative jealously, beginnings and endings, writing fiction, reality and imagination. It is interesting to note that in Muriel Spark’s first novel The Comforters the central character is a writer who begins to hear a typewriter tapping out the words she speaks or thinks. In The Finishing School we meet two writers, one of them, a student at the school is apparently turning out some potentially brilliant stuff at quite a rate, while the other, a teacher, is seriously blocked. The other Spark novel one can’t help but recall is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – where another teacher has an enormous impact on her young students.  

“‘You begin’ he said ‘by setting your scene. You have to see your scene either in reality or in imagination. For instance, from here you can see across the lake. But on a day like this you can’t see across the lake, it’s too misty. You can’t see the other side.’ Rowland took off his reading glasses to stare at his creative writing class whose parents’ money was being thus spent…”

The Finishing school of the title is College Sunrise, currently located in Ouchy on the edge of Lake Geneva. The school is run by Rowland and Nina Mahler, the school is peripatetic, moving around Europe, a different place each year leaving a few debts in their wake. The couple support themselves with what they make from the school as Rowland struggles to write his novel. Rowland teaches the creative process, while Nina teaches other more frivolous aspects of life.

“When you finish at College Sunrise you should be really and truly finished,” Nina told the girls. “Like the finish on a rare piece of furniture. Your jumped-up parents (may God preserve their bank accounts) will want to see something for their money.”

This year they have nine students – all from different privileged backgrounds, a mixture of nationalities they all seem to be in their late teens. We don’t really get to know these students in any meaningful way, and what we do see is not always likeable. Chris Wiley is one of them, at almost eighteen he is already writing his first novel about Mary Queen of Scots, unconcerned that she has been written about many times before, he is confident he can bring something new to the story. Chris starts to seek out new angles to the story of the Queen and the story of Darnley’s murder. Rowland who is struggling with his own writing becomes very irritated by Chris’s burgeoning success.

Chris has one of his fellow students keep his computer and discs in her room, away from prying eyes. It soon become obvious to everyone that Rowland is especially bothered by Chris and his writing – and the reader starts to wonder how far his creative jealousy and rivalry will push him. Rowland watches Chris, riffles through his bag – and in the end begins to write his observations of Chris into his own novel.

Meanwhile Nina is becoming more and more aware that her marriage is probably over, Rowland is more married to his novel she thinks than to her. She begins an affair.

“‘Do you find,’ said Rowland to Chris, ‘that at a certain point your characters are taking over and living a life of their own?’

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ Chris said.

‘I mean once you have created the characters, don’t you sort of dream of them or really dream of them so that they come to you and say ‘Hey, I didn’t say that.’

‘No’ said Chris.

Rowland’s jealousy begins to get a little out of hand, as does Chris’s attempts to thwart him. A publisher begins to take some interest in Chris – more attracted it seems by his age than his actual writing.

In the Finishing School Spark is as clear sighted as ever – she knows what she wants to say, and in it we see many of the preoccupations from her earlier novels. In the title it is tempting to see Spark having another little laugh, perhaps knowing this would be her final novel, although I did read somewhere that when she died a couple of years later she had another unfinished novel in progress. The Finishing School is witty and satirical and has been described (so I’m told) as the perfect partner to her famous novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

One of the most recent offerings from the British Library women writers series is Tea is so Intoxicating by Mary Essex. If you have ever dreamed of leaving the rat race and opening a little tea shop somewhere then this novel could serve as a good reminder that these things are rarely as easy or straightforward as we may imagine. While I have never wanted to run off and open my own tea shop, I am rather fond of visiting them – and so with my fondness for novels set around this time period, this novel was right on brand for me.

Mary Essex is one of several pseudonyms used by writer Ursula Bloom – who under her various pennames wrote over five hundred novels. Those that she wrote as Mary Essex apparently more humorous and less conventionally romantic than many of her other novels. Mary Essex’s tone is deliciously humorous, she shows us her characters in all their absurdities – and doesn’t give us a neat, conventional ending. As in life – not everything is tidied up. Some marvellously colourful and well-drawn characters too make this novel a joy to spend time with.

Commander David Tompkins and his wife Germayne went to live in the village of Wellhurst before the war when they first set up home together. Now the war is over and David along with the rest of the country is ready to improve their fortunes and look to the future.

“I shall turn this into a tea-house, with lunches if requested, and shall serve pleasant meals in the orchard,” announced David, “and with my penchant for cooking I ought to make a fortune.”
“Oh dear!” said Germayne.

David and Germayne met while she was married to someone else, she had become a bit bored with Digby – and began a relationship with David. She also had a young daughter Ducks – who we are given to understand is a right little madam. Germayne leaves Digby and Ducks and sets up home with David – eventually they marry. Now after several years together and the war a couple of years behind them – David has discovered the delights of cooking. Unfortunately, he’s not very good at it – but tends to think he is. He previously worked for the Dolly Varden Cosy Tea Shops company – who provided cheap and cheerful teas for the masses. David was not involved in catering – he worked in accounts, still he persists in believing this experience will be invaluable.

The villagers of Wellhurst are not all very keen on the idea of David’s tea garden – Mr and Mrs Perch at the Dolphin are certainly a bit ruffled – as they serve a few teas in their small garden. David is less than tactful when he explains that he won’t be in direct competition with them.

“there was no question of competition at all, because he was catering only for the better-class-tea-seeker, his Cherry Tree Cot would appeal only to the more sensitive with its fine china, delicate sandwiches, and home-made cakes.”

Starting to realise perhaps, that some of the catering for his beloved tea garden might just be a bit beyond him, David employs Mimi as a cake cook. Mimi is from Vienna originally – and has quite the talent for fluttering her eyelashes at men to get what she wants – she particularly likes lots of sympathy and attention. Women are not so taken in of course, but Mimi’s presence has already impressed itself upon several local males, and irritated Germayne who can’t help but notice that in David’s eyes she can do no wrong.

Mrs Arbroath at the big house rules the village and also believes she can bend the local clergy and the doctor to her will. She dislikes the social changes that have come with the end of the war – and looks back to the world of her youth with affection. She particularly dislikes the idea of David’s teas, dreading an influx of visitors – and sets out valiantly to turn the village against the Tompkins.

While David becomes ever more obsessed with his arrangements not to mention his shaky financial projections that herald great success – Germayne harried to pieces with everything that is going on, gets ever more worn out. Then, just to add more complications, and with the Tompkins marriage clearly under severe strain, Germayne’s daughter (now sixteen) and her first husband Digby turn up.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel – and I also liked the unconventional nature of the ending – I would love to discuss this further – but really can’t give away any spoilers. However, I wondered whether something of Mary Essex’s (Ursula Bloom) own attitudes can be glimpsed in the way she settles things for some characters and not others.

Another lovely re-issue from the British Library – and I am very invested in this series which really could have been made for me.

It is more than five years (which I hardly believe) since I last did one of these posts. So, I am experimenting with bringing them back from time to time. Let me know if it’s a good idea or not (be gentle). I know Thursday isn’t strictly speaking midweek – but it’s close enough so I am keeping the title.

Since returning to work I have been struggling a little with reading and blogging.

As well as reading slowly, blogging has become more difficult, still something I enjoy overall though. Tiredness and time (lack of) are at the root of it all. I have been writing blog posts at the weekend, scheduling them for the following Mondays and Thursdays, so far that has worked fine, and now I hope I am in some kind of rhythm. I am also struggling to read/comment on blogs everyday – I try to read a few each day – but it eats into my reading time or my lunch break (see below) so I know I am probably behind with lots of your lovely blogs – I am doing my best – and will catch up when I can.

I am trying to just enjoy my reading – even if it is just twenty pages, and not get bogged down in how little I am managing to get through in a week or a month. However, it is a constant nag in the back of my mind because I would like to read more, get through more pages each day. Again, tiredness, well sheer exhaustion most days is the issue. So, I am trying to read differently. I sometimes have a bit of time in the morning, I like to get up in plenty of time, and I usually watch breakfast news, but that is often depressing anyway. So, some mornings, I shall try and read a few pages, even just 10 pages will be worth it I think. Similarly, I don’t generally take books to work – but lately I have found some lunch breaks I am on my own. I don’t have long and need to heat my lunch and eat it – but again I might just get the chance to read a few pages those days I find myself on my own. I shall see if these small bits of extra time help me read more again. Watch this space!

I have been back at school for about seven weeks (I think, time has become oddly meaningless in 2020) and during this time you will be amazed to hear that I have acquired more books than is strictly necessary for someone reading so slowly. There may even be more that I have forgotten – and there is one winging its way to me from Hive books that is yet to arrive. I realise the picture at the top of the post isn’t entirely clear – so here are the titles.

The Virago book of Women Travellers by Mary Morris (Ed) (1994) a new edition of this marvellous collection from Virago.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman (2020) Already read and reviewed – marvellous stuff, and clearly a big hit.

Non Combatants and others by Rose Macaulay (1916) many of us have been on something of a Rose Macaulay kick – this is a novel and some nonfiction writing.

Mystery at Geneva by Rose Macaulay (1922) A rather ugly edition bought from ebay – there were other old hardback editions which cost a lot more, so considered this a sensible compromise. I saw this one mentioned in the introduction to Potterism which I read recently.

The Story of Stanley Brent by Elizabeth Berridge (1945) several other bloggers have reviewed this – and it sounds marvellous, a tiny novella – with worryingly small print – but I think I will cope.

Watson’s Apology by Beryl Bainbridge (1984) My friend Sian sent me this one and the next book – despite living only a few miles from me, current restrictions means I only see her on Zoom calls, so she kindly posted these to me. Book post from a friend is the best.

Holiday Heart by Margarita Garcia Robayo (2017) The second of the books Sian sent me – I have seen a couple of reviews for this, it looks good.

The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons (1960) sent to me by the British library – with its distinctive cover showing fireworks – this seems to be perfect reading for early November.

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson (2019) A book I nearly bought a couple of times, this showed up in my October Books that matter box – I’m very intrigued by it.

Tea is So Intoxicating by Mary Essex (1950) A very on brand novel for me from the British Library women writers series. I have already read it – and my review will be up next week.

The Bastard of Istanbul – Elif Shafak (2006) I have meant to read Elif Shafak for years, I saw her do a talk at the Birmingham literature festival a few years ago, and thought she was excellent. This turned up in my September Books that Matter box – my subscription has now ended I am resisting signing up for more – only because of the amount of books I have. It’s a lovely subscription.

(on my kindle)

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (2020) already read and reviewed – it was my book group’s October read – a great book for a book group discussion.

V is for Victory by Lissa Evans (2020) I really couldn’t resist this one – having read Crooked Heart and Old Baggage – I am looking forward to reading this very much – it could be soon.

And on its way from Hive my book group’s November pick Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth (2020).

Then there were a clutch of Dean street press books I bought in mid September which I think I mentioned in another post – one of which (A Game of Snakes and Ladders) I have already read.

This post is already longer than I had intended – but have any of you watched Between the Covers on BBC2? I caught the first two episodes on iPlayer – and I shall definitely be watching the rest. Presented by Sara Cox – each episode she talks to four guests – who all recommend a book, and each give their opinions on a book they have all read. Quite a variety of books have been mentioned already – and it could prove dangerous for my to buy list.

Every now and then a hyped book comes along that is really worth the fuss that has surrounded it. The Thursday Murder Club is the much anticipated first novel by TV presenter/quiz show host/producer Richard Osman. Anyone who has seen Richard Osman on TV will know he is a very witty, intelligent man, but is he also a good writer? – well yes he is. This is the first book in a projected series of at least four I understand, and it is full of Osman’s sharp humour – witty asides and amusing observations; unexpectedly poignant and heart-warming.

“Karen has been on some bad dates on Tinder. But this was the first time that someone had accused her of murder.”

The film rights for this have already been sold to Steven Spielberg, no less – so I think we can already count this a major success.

“In life you have to learn to count the good days. You have to tuck them in your pocket and carry them around with you. So I’m putting today in my pocket and I’m off to bed.”

I knew immediately upon starting that this was a book I was going to enjoy – and the characters were instantly people I wanted to spend time with – that is always a good sign.

Coopers Chase is a very nice retirement village in the Kent countryside – residents enjoying the privacy of large self-contained flats – but able to access a raft of social activities as well in the communal areas. Built on the site of a former convent, by developer Ian Ventham, it has an extensive graveyard and farmland around it which Ian is desperate to develop too, seeing a potential goldmine in the extension of Coopers Chase. Of course, not everyone is happy about Ian’s plans, although Ian really doesn’t care if he ruffles a few feathers. He has been working with a local builder Tony Curran – Tony clearly has a bit of a colourful past – and quite the reputation if crossed. Only now Ian has decided to dump Tony in favour of Polish builder Bogdan, Tony will be furious.

On Thursdays, septuagenarians Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron meet in the jigsaw room as the Thursday Murder club – though they don’t let on to anyone else that that is the nature of their Thursday meetings. They meet to discuss cold cases from files that once belonged to another friend (a retired police officer) who is now sadly in the Willows – the nursing home attached to Coopers Chase. Each of these four members of the Thursday Murder club bring something different to the table from their past lives. Joyce was a nurse, Elizabeth was a spy, Ibrahim a psychiatrist and Ron was a rabble rousing union leader. Joyce is the newest recruit, and she is the narrator of some chapters – the rest is told in the third person. Joyce is a joy, frequently and unintentionally hilarious, she is a widow whose daughter is a hedge fund manager – though Joyce doesn’t really know what that is.

When a real murder occurs, the Thursday Murder club put away the old files and decide that they will solve the case. They have recently met young PC Donna De Freitas, who came to Coopers Chase to do the usual security talk, only the Thursday Murder club weren’t very interested in that – and decide to utilise their new friend in getting to grips with the case. Donna has recently transferred to the local police station from London, it was a bit of a hasty decision, and now she is regretting it. What she would really like is to be a real investigator – catching the really bad guys, not delivering security talks to pensioners or primary school children. Donna is excited therefore to find herself seconded to the murder investigation, working alongside DCI Chris Hudson’s team. Rather unexpectedly, Donna and Chris become rather good friends, Donna can’t help but notice that he is need of some advice about clothing, and she encourages him to get a bit healthier – for Chris would really like to find a nice woman to share his lonely middle age.

“Chris has been to retirement communities before and this is not at all what he had been expecting. This is a whole village. He wanders past a bowls match, wine chilling in coolers at each end. One of the players is an extremely elderly woman smoking a pipe. He follows a meandering path through a perfect English garden, flanked by three storeys of flats. There are people gossiping on patios and balconies, enjoying the sunshine. Friends sit on benches, bees buzz round bushes, light breezes play tunes with ice cubes. Chris finds the whole thing deeply infuriating. He’s a wind-and-rain guy, a turn up the collar-on-your-overcoat man. If Chris had his way he would hibernate for the summer. He has not worn shorts since 1987.”

As DCI Hudson and Donna De Freitas begin the investigation, the Thursday murder club get stuck in too – and DCI Hudson can do nothing to stop them he realises – and in the end gives in and answers their frequent summons to Coopers Chase to discuss their latest findings. A second death occurs, and a decades old secret unearthed as the case becomes more complex – a case satisfying enough for most crime fans I should imagine, though nothing gruesome or gratuitous I am happy to say.

Alongside the murder cases that are at the heart of this novel – Osman explores the love that exists between people who have lived together for a long time, and even more poignantly that which still exists when one partner is no longer there. It is a fabulous portrait of older people, one that recognises that people can still have a lot to offer in later life – drawing on a wealth of experience and maintaining an energy and enthusiasm for more than daytime TV and comfy slippers.

I am already looking forward to the next instalment of this series – not to mention wondering who will play the various characters if that film is ever made.

Chosen by my book group as our October read Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid was longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. It is a very modern narrative, perhaps more so than I usually read, but one of the first things I noticed was how authentic the narrative voice is for this novel. I was drawn in immediately.

Such a Fun Age is an enormously clever satire of white privilege, racism and wokeness in twenty-first century America. As a book group choice, it was brilliant, so many things to talk about, so many big issues, ambiguities and thought provoking moments to discuss.

Reid uses a wonderful premise through which to explore these issues, which have been so talked about this year – on both sides of the Atlantic. In Philadelphia, Emira Tucker is a twenty-five year old college graduate – who still does not really know what she is going to do with her life. She is a part time typist, part time baby-sitter. Late one night, while she is at a party, Emira gets a phone call from the family she babysits for – asking her to come and pick up their nearly three-old daughter Briar and take her out. Emira (who has been at a party drinking, and is unsuitably dressed for babysitting) is asked to collect Briar because Peter, Briar’s dad, a local news anchor made an unconsidered remark on a news bulletin; has been accused of being racist and now an egg has been thrown through their window. Alix, Briar’s mum doesn’t want Briar to see the police coming to the house.

So, Emira collects Briar – who she adores and is always happy to spend time with – and takes her to a local late night grocery store to keep her occupied for a while – Briar likes looking at the nut display.

Unfortunately, Emira and Briar attract some unwelcome attention from a nosey woman and a security guard, the reason? Emira is black and Briar a blonde haired white child. Things get out of hand very quickly and it becomes clear that these people think Emira may have kidnapped Briar or something – Emira is terrified they will try and take the child away from her. A white guy a few years older than Emira, starts filming the ensuing row – and while Emira is glad of his support she is more worried about what Briar’s parents would think about the footage. Briar’s dad Peter turns up following a frantic phone call from Emira, and everything is sorted out and Emira tells Kelley her supporter who filmed the whole incident that she doesn’t want the video to be released and he emails a copy to her so she can control who sees it. A few days later, Emira meets Kelley again on a train, and the two begin dating.

From here, Reid explores the privilege, wokeness and closet racism of various people. Alix, Emira’s employer is an especially fascinating character, she is some kind of influencer, who makes a living from writing letters and endorsing products. She is a very privileged woman, who grew up in a family who came into sudden wealth. Now she is trying to get used to her life in Philadelphia after living in New York, she is trying to maintain the fiction on her social media that she is still in New York – because Philadelphia just doesn’t have the same ring about it. We see from the start that Alix (real name Alex) favours her baby daughter Catherine over precociously chatty Briar. Following the incident at the grocery store, Alix starts falling over herself to be nice to Emira, trying to get to know her better, worrying about what she is thinking – all of which quickly starts to look quite obsessive.

“Alix fantasized about Emira discovering things about her that shaped what Alix saw as the truest version of herself. Like the fact that one of Alix’s closest friends was also black. That Alix’s new and favorite shoes were from Payless, and only cost eighteen dollars. That Alix had read everything that Toni Morrison had ever written. And that out of her group of friends, Alix and Peter actually had the smallest salaries, and that Tamra was the one who always flew first class.”

Here Reid is interestingly ambiguous, the reader senses that all is not right with Alix’s interest in Emira – she is clearly overstepping the bounds of acceptability here – and it feels uncomfortable. Reid shows us how blurred the lines can be – and how there’s a kind of racism that doesn’t look like we expect it to. Alix’s character and her motivations become more and more troubling as the novel progresses.

“There were moments like this that Alix tried to breeze over, but they got stuck somewhere between her heart and ears. She knew Emira had gone to college. She knew Emira had majored in English. But sometimes, after seeing her paused songs with titles like “Dope Bitch” and “Y’all Already Know,” then hearing her use words like connoisseur, Alix was filled with feelings that went from confused and highly impressed to low and guilty in response to the first reaction. There was no reason for Emira to be unfamiliar with this word. And there was no reason for Alix to be impressed.”

Emira meanwhile is happy with her new boyfriend, unconcerned that he is a few years older than her. Kelley is a good looking guy; working in IT, most of his friends seem to be black. At thanksgiving time, a big coincidence is revealed, that is forgivable as it moves the narrative to where it has to go. We see something of Alix’s past and Kelley’s as bit by bit Reid allows us to see them more clearly.

Such a Fun Age is thoroughly readable, often funny and very clever – I can see why so many people have loved it. As a debut novel it is particularly impressive.

My recent purchase of five Dean Street Press books included two by Doris Langley Moore. Having so enjoyed Not at Home, I had known it would not be long before I read another of her novels. A Game of Snakes and Ladders is a little different to Not at Home less domestic though fully immersive. In this novel Doris Langley Moore gives us another heroine who (like Elinor MacFarren in Not at Home) the reader roots for from the start.

There is some kind of odd publishing history for this novel, first published in 1938 as They Knew her When – it was revised and published under this title in 1955. The opening sentence immediately showing one revision.

“During the First World War, as during the Second, all the lighter kinds of theatrical business flourished.”

In a note from the author to the publisher re-printed in the front of this edition, Doris Langley Moore explains how she came to write this novel – or at least what inspired her to create her heroine. She wanted a heroine that would go through a multitude of trials before emerging victorious at the end – like in the novels of Fanny Burney.

“Fanny Burney would not approve of some of my chapters, but it was my affection for the novels of her school, in which the heroine goes through all kinds of distresses but emerges in a sweeping triumph at the end that made me long to try my hand at the same theme – treating it, however, in our down-to-earth twentieth-century way.”

After the end of World War One two young women, Lucy a vicar’s daughter sensible and unflappable, and Daisy, pretty, ambitious, and highly self-interested are performing with a theatre company in Egypt. Lucy is about twenty seven, Daisy a couple of years younger, and the two had been thrown together by their touring company while in Australia, a fairly superficial friendship had developed. In 1919 Lucy is still nursing a heartbreak, she had been very much in love with Henry, the younger son of a titled English family – who she argued with and separated from during the war. When the show in Cairo comes to an end Daisy decides to stay in Egypt, Lucy meanwhile is keen to return to England. Of course, things don’t quite work out for Lucy in the way she expects – and the novel follows her over the course of almost twenty years through a variety of trials and tribulations.

Daisy has caught the eye of a wealthy businessman, who has some involvement with the theatre. When Lucy falls seriously ill Daisy has her moved to an expensive nursing home, and upon her recovery Lucy finds herself in serious debt to her friend’s lover. Daisy – who doesn’t really want to lose Lucy’s company, further promises that Lucy will remain in Egypt until the debt is repaid. Moving back and forth between Cairo and Alexandria Lucy is forced to find work that will pay her enough to live on, repay her debt and eventually fund her passage home to England. Lucy feels trapped by her position and with her illness having taken a toll on her looks and her singing voice she is obliged to take a job as a kind of dogsbody assistant to a theatre manager – all arranged by Daisy’s lover Mr Mosenthal. Lucy is determined to save what she can of her meagre earnings and get back to England, from where she will continue to pay off her debt to Mr Mosenthal – who is really not as bothered about the debt as poor Lucy imagines.

“Daisy was one of those plastic and adaptable persons who are able to produce whatever sentiments expedience may demand of them. She had the happy faculty, of adjusting herself, without either effort or knowledge on her own part, to people, circumstances, and surroundings. She held, upon almost every topic, exactly such opinions as it seemed advantageous to hold, and if the paradox is tolerable, being quite without intellectual honesty, she honestly believed in those opinions.”

Daisy is a very selfish young woman, totally incapable of recognising her own selfishness, she manages to delude herself about her own motives. She enjoys having Lucy at her beck and call – when it suits her, but she is far too invested in her relationship with Mr Mosenthal to really think too much about Lucy. As her relationship develops and looks to becoming more permanent, Lucy is really only needed to help fill Daisy’s quiet afternoons in the comfortable flat she shares with Mr Mosenthal.

Lucy is living in one room of a rooming house – waging a continuous battle with the threat of cockroaches, making what little economies she can in her living costs. She’s made no friends at work – as everyone is suspicious of her involvement with Mr Mosenthal – wondering if she is reporting back to the big boss. However, Lucy does befriend a young girl living in her boarding house, Constance and her father live on the floor above Lucy, and despite Constance being only about seventeen, the two become good friends – until a dreadful argument severs their friendship. Lucy has not lost sight of her main objective, to secure passage back to England – but she hasn’t reckoned on so many things going wrong. The reader watches in dismay as poor Lucy lurches from one crisis to another – each of them making it harder and harder for her to get home to England. As time goes on, and the fares start to rise – Lucy becomes resigned to staying in Egypt. Daisy – the cause of all Lucy’s initial troubles becomes an ever more distant figure in Lucy’s life – as she attains married respectability.  

The reader has some realistic hopes of things working out well for Lucy – it is that kind of novel – and we sense this right from the start. Her stay in Egypt is long – very long, and we wonder what will take her home? – who might help her?  and what will lie in wait for her after such a long absence?

A thoroughly enjoyable read, with a wonderfully satisfying ending, I am so looking forward to my next read by Doris Langley Moore – hooray for Dean Street press bringing her books back to us.

I had several really tempting looking books that I could have read for the #1956club but I settled for The Last Resort by Pamela Hansford Johnson, she is a very undervalued writer, an excellent writer in fact, though so many of us now know her for her apparent enmity with the writer Elizabeth Taylor. Ironically of course their writing isn’t that dissimilar – certainly readers of one would most likely enjoy the other.

This appears to be a novel about a character we first met in the novel An Impossible Marriage – Christie from that novel is now older and become Christine – there is a passing reference to Ned her first husband, the subject of that earlier novel. However, the two novels do stand alone, and this can be happily read without having read the other.

The Last Resort is a very finely crafted novel, intelligent and often wryly humorous – Pamela Hansford Johnson explores a series of complex and sometimes suffocating relationships over the course of a few years. She has an extraordinarily incisive way of getting to the heart of how people are with one another – they way they feel, they way they talk to one another showing all those hidden little deceits and vanities they harbour.

Christine Hall, a writer and mother in her late thirties is on holiday on the South coast of England, staying at the Moray hotel, while her husband Gerard is in America on business. Here she bumps into her friend Celia Baird who is staying at the Moray with her parents.

“I recognised Celia Baird sitting farouche and neat between her parents. As usual, she was expensively dressed; as usual, only her hat became her. Her other clothes looked too restrained, too elderly, always a little too large. I noticed she was wearing a good deal of jewellery, a pearl necklace and earrings, a pearl and diamond brooch, a large, old fashioned ruby ring. She was looking through a smart magazine with the restless, rather angry air she had when she thought about buying things. I thought how much she had aged.”

Celia’s parents a retired doctor and his wife live permanently at the hotel – one of those hotels we just don’t have any more – a place of sleepy tradition and some suffocation. The Baird parents are wonderful creations – Mrs Baird keeps a cat – strictly against the rules in her cluttered stuffy room, while Mr Baird’s room is more organised and tidy – they are a couple who have really ceased to like one another – but continue to rub along together all the same. Old Dr Baird as he was, is difficult, opinionated, and rude, often savage or dismissive in his dealings with others.  

The Moray is portrayed in fascinating, atmospheric detail, elderly residents doze in the lounge, the bar is almost deserted later in the evening, there’s a feeling everything has been this way for years.

“Christmas dinner was a curious meal.  It was not the custom at the Moray for guests, whether resident or not, to pay much attention to one another.  The Bairds knew all the residents by now, but they hardly ever exchanged more than a good-morning or a remark about the weather.  I myself had commented upon two old ladies who, having lived there for more than ten years, occupied seats on opposite sides of the chimneypiece and had never spoken together in anything resembling friendship.  “But they aren’t relations,” Mrs. Baird said, puzzled, “though they do look a bit alike.  They don’t even know each other.  At dinner on that particular day (it was served at the usual time, at half past seven) a feeble attempt was made at general comradeship.  All through a well-cooked but poorly served meal…well-known solitaries braced themselves to look around, nod and smile blindly at random; elderly married couples, who wanted nothing but to be alone, bobbed quickly at other married couples, while hoping the gesture would not form a precedent; and one or two determined diners even leaned across with their crackers at adjacent tables.”

Celia, impulsive and a little eccentric, spends most of her time in London, coming back and forth to the Moray hotel to see her parents. She has a business in London though pretty much everything is taken care of by her business partner, Celia is one of a larger group of friends who all have Christine at their core – and meeting Celia again after some time, Christine is drawn back into their world. There is architect Eric Aveling, with whom Celia is having an affair and with whom she is desperately in love, Eric’s business partner Junius Evans, and Eric’s dying wife Lois. Lois is now permanently in a nursing home, where both Christine and Celia visit her – both secure in the guilty knowledge, that she knows nothing of Celia and Eric’s relationship. Everyone else knows of the relationship – though not everyone thinks that Eric and Celia should marry, after Lois dies. Junius, discreetly gay, is certainly interfering, and later he mischievously introduces Nancy Sherriff to them all, helping the inevitable change in dynamics that is to come.

Over the course of the novel, Christine returns several times to the Moray, sometimes on her own, sometimes with her husband Gerard and teenage son Mark. The family become favourites with the older Bairds particularly, with Christine often alarmed by Mrs Baird’s manipulation of her middle aged daughter and bemused at the unlikely friendship between her son and old Mr Baird. Christine is the one real, friend to Celia, she is her confidante, and while Christine remains a little colourless – we see everyone through her eyes with clarity.

When the inevitable happens, and Lois dies, the dynamics of the group begins to change. One constant refrain seems to be whether Lois did in fact know about Eric and Celia. Celia and Eric are haunted by the memory of Lois – and their relationship is rocked. Christine can only watch her friend’s obvious turmoil – Pamela Hansford Johnson explores the ravages of love, guilt, and secrecy in her story of these people.

As the years progress, nobody could reasonably predict the outcome of these troubled and fractious relationships.

I doubt this is Pamela Hansford Johnson’s best novel – but I rather loved it – reading it slowly suited the narrative I thought. I still think her Helena trilogy of novels is absolutely masterly.

My intention had been to read and review two books for the #1956club – but I am already having to acknowledge a failure. I am currently drawing to the end of The Last Resort by Pamela Hansford Johnson – review later in the week – but that will have to be my only contribution. I am reading too slowly to manage anything else and I really do have to read my book group choice in time for next Monday.

However, 1956 really is a very good year, and looking back through my own old blog posts I realised what a wonderful variety of books had come my way from that year. There are a few that are probably already well known to regular readers of this blog, books I fully expect to see mentioned elsewhere this week. Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay, Tea at Four O’clock by Janet McNeill, Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly and The King of the Rainy Country by Bridget Brophy would all be fabulous picks for this week, but I want to take a look back at a few other books from that year.

So, whether you’re looking for inspiration for things to read this week – or at just some other time – here’s another list – seeing as you all so liked the last one.

The Visiting Moon by Celia Furse

First read in December 2015, The Visiting Moon by Celia Furse is a kind of fictional memoir. Its Christmassy theme making it a lovely seasonal read. A beautiful illustrated edition came my way from on online second-hand bookseller – though I first heard about the book from another blogger. Admittedly I was puzzled about whether this was really a memoir or a novel – I decided the later – but in a sense it doesn’t matter. The story of an eleven year old girl sometime in the mid-nineteenth century paying a two week Christmas visit to her grandparents’ house certainly feels very autobiographical.

 Antonia is the young girl at the centre of this novel; she is an immediately engaging character, a spirited, lively child bubbling over with affection and enthusiasm. That infectious wonder that childhood and Christmas bring together never gets tired I don’t think. Antonia begins the book a little sad – abandoned she feels by her parents, but on her grandparents’ estate she is surrounded by a host of relatives. Soon, Tony as she is usually called is swept up by her enormous caring family. Her holiday is one of Christmas celebrations, snow falls, tobogganing and children’s parties. It’s a delightful picture of a nineteenth century childhood Christmas.

A Lighthearted Quest by Ann Bridge

First read in July 2013. Perhaps best known for her novels Illryian Spring and Peking Picnic (both very good) Ann Bridge also wrote a series of books about a part time British intelligence agent/part time reporter, and traveller Julia Probyn. Ann Bridge is very good at writing about far flung locations – and A Lighthearted Quest, the first in the series is set in the French administered Morocco of the 1950’s. Julia Probyn’s childhood playmate and cousin Colin Munro has disappeared, last heard of in Morocco and believed to be still there, somewhere. Julia is asked by his mother and sister to use her cover as a journalist to track him down and press him to return home, where he is needed to run the family’s Scottish estate. Julia gets passage aboard a small cargo boat and aboard meets the first of a host of memorable characters. Once in Morocco she is greeted by a wall of silence when she starts to ask about Colin. This is the only Julia Probyn book I have read as yet, but she really is a great character and as I do have the other books on my kindle I really should get round to reading the rest.

Every Eye by Isobel English

First read in March 2017. A slim Persephone book, Every Eye is another novel with a wonderful sense of place. Despite its slimness this is a book which has a surprising amount in it – not so much in plot as in its exploration of the characters, moving back and forth in time. Hatty is a woman in her thirties recently married to a younger man, and about to go off on their delayed honeymoon. On the eve of their departure Hatty hears that Cynthia has died (a few pages later we learn Cynthia had married her uncle 19 years earlier). It is six years since Hatty cut herself free of Cynthia – the novel is an exploration of this relationship – and others – and the impact these relationships have upon her.

As Hatty and Stephen travel by train through Europe toward their holiday destination, Hatty reflects on her relationship with Cynthia, her Uncle Otway who Cynthia married, and the relationship she had in her twenties with a much older man. The story switches back and forth between the present and the past, Isobel English’s writing is superb. I had been told that the novel’s final line is one of those that make you catch your breath – but of course I have now forgotten it – so I shall be off to look it up later.

The Half-crown House by Helen Ashton

First read in January 2016. I had seen mixed reviews for this one, but already a Helen Ashton fan I sought out an old battered copy. It is a slow burn of a novel, but I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. It’s one of those novels that takes place over an entire day.

On Saturdays and Wednesdays between April and the end of October Fountain Court is open to the public –for an entrance fee of half a crown. The household staff and members of the Hornbeam family who live there act as guides to keep down the costs. The novel opens on the 30th October 1954 – the last day of the year that Fountain Court will be open before the long winter break. It is a busy day – the small group of visitors paying their half-crowns to look around just the least of it. Living in the old house now are just two of the remaining Hornbeam family – Henrietta – still mourning the death of her beloved twin brother during the war, and her grandmother, the dowager Lady Hornbeam.

The son of Henrietta’s brother is coming to live with his father’s family, Cousin Charles injured in the war is home and now living above the stables and helping out. Nanny is excited to have a child to care for again, and the butler is preparing for an important lunch.

Although the action, such as it is – takes place on one day – a day heralding great change – the past weaves in and out of the 30th October 1954 through the stories we hear of the past. Memories are shared and recounted, stories that include a Queen’s visit, a disastrous marriage, several family tragedies and scandals.

An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden

First read January 2015. I always think Rumer Godden writes about childhood perfectly. An Episode of Sparrows was a surprisingly emotional read, but I absolutely loved it. I have seen An Episode of Sparrows referred to as a young adult or even a children’s book, although Wikipedia lists it in amongst Rumer Godden’s adult novels and having read it I think it fits there more comfortably. To me it certainly doesn’t read as a children’s book (although nothing in the content would preclude a child reading it) but more, as a book for adults about children.

Set in London sometime after the Second World War, among the street children who run up and down the grim, unloveliness of Catford Street, An Episode of Sparrows shows poignantly the simple joy that a garden can bring. At the end of Catford Street, is a gracious London square, a square of houses of an altogether different kind, they have a very pleasant garden, a gardener and a gardening committee. Catford Street is a place where nothing very much ever grows, the children there are small and scrawny, running wild, gathering in gangs in the bomb damaged ruins that still litter the street.

Lovejoy Mason is a tough little nut, a child more ridiculously named it is hard to imagine, as there is little love or joy in her life. She lives with Mrs Combie and her husband, with whom Lovejoy’s mother lodges when she is home – which she seldom is. Lovejoy will break your heart a little bit. When a packet of cornflower seeds fall into Lovejoy’s hands it fuels an obsession. Lovejoy wants a garden, and from that moment pours all her energy into making one among the bomb damaged ruins and squalor. I cannot lie – there may have been tears in my eyes once or twice.

Madam Solario by Gladys Huntington

First read in April 2017. Another beautiful Persephone book, and one that is something like 500 pages long. Gladys Huntington’s writing has been compared to that of Henry James – and I could see why, the novel also reminded me of Edith Wharton.

Madame Solario is strangely compelling, the reader can’t help but be drawn into the intense relationships which slowly develop between a large group of mainly Europeans on the shores of Lake Como. It is a world painted exquisitely by the author – who herself would have experienced something very similar as a young girl, holidaying with her family on Lake Como.

Set in Cadenabbia on Lake Como in September 1906, Madame Solario transports us instantly to another world – a world of European and American high society, a lakeside retreat, shuttered villas, picnics, polite conversation and whispered scandal. One of their number is Bernard, a young Englishman recently graduated from Oxford. Madame Solario, still young and beautiful arrives amid disturbing rumours of her past. Whispers of a terrible scandal within her family, leading to her being married off to her much older South American husband – only where is he now? And what happened to her brother who disappeared around the same time? A stunning sense of place, and excellent writing.

Apologies for the hugely long post – I fully expect most people to skip through it rather than read it all – but hopefully you might find something to read either this week or more likely at a later date.

Happy reading.

September in review

September has flown in some ways and in other ways has felt like its lasted months – and I have been reading really slowly. The pictured pile of books above, no doubt telling its own story, though I did read two books on kindle. All things considered though; I am very pleased with what I have managed to read.

 Of course, after months of shielding, and the long school summer holidays, going back to work was like being hit by a train. As well as trying to work, I am still struggling with my RA which hasn’t been stable for almost a year, I shall be starting new medication soon, so I am hoping that will make a big difference. At the moment, any part of the day/week when I am not at work is recovery time, and I often find I am just too tired to read more than a few pages.

I began the month reading Father by Elizabeth von Arnim – a delightful new re-issue from The British Library. In Father one of Elizabeth von Arnim’s later novels she employs both light comedy and poignancy to tell a story of unmarried women reliant upon men for the comforts of home. This is a glorious novel – von Arnim’s tone is humorous though she is making a serious point. Exploring the expectations that were placed on unmarried women in this inter war period. 

My book group chose Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams as our September read, and I looked forward to reading a book I had heard such good things about. I wasn’t disappointed.  It’s a fresh, honest portrait of a young black woman’s sexual exploits, supportive friendship, mental health struggles and recovery.

New publishing imprint V & Q books invited me to take part in a blog tour as part of their launch celebrations. Paula by Sandra Hoffman translated by Katy Derbyshire is a piece of autofiction, in which the author seeks to understand the silence at the heart of her own family.

Another novel from the British Library Checkmate to Murder by E. C. R. Lorac is another really good Second World War Golden Age mystery. A densely foggy night in London during the blackout, and an old miser is found dead by his visiting nephew. The odd inhabitants of an artist’s studio – tenants of the old man – are inevitably drawn into the drama.

I have been delighted to see Rose Macaulay enjoying something of a renaissance lately. Potterism reissued by Handheld press is a brilliant novel – which resonates still quite strongly one hundred years on. Potterism is a satire of the newspaper industry around the time of the First World War and just after.

When twins Jane and Johnny Potter are at Oxford just before the First World War, they despise the newspaper empire that has been built up by their father. They encounter others who think similarly – who see everything that Percy Potter’s newspapers stand for as being second rate, an inauthentic arm of the popular press – that incite gossip, sensationalism, conspiracy theories and what would now be called fake news.

Buttercups and Daisies by Compton Mackenzie was a delightful piece of whimsical escapism. Mr Waterall, a lovely comic creation, who is a pompous, rather delusional character – though not unkind. His enthusiastic purchase of a country cottage (which is little more than a shack) is delightfully portrayed – along with all the trials and tribulations that beset him and his family as a result.

I often reach for Dean street press books during times of tiredness or stress and A Game of Snakes and Ladders by Doris Langley Moore was one of a crop of DSP books I bought recently. Set over a period of almost twenty years mainly in Egypt it follows the fortunes of two women, who start out as friends, part of a touring theatrical company just after WW1. Thoroughly involving and well written, I only wished I could have read it faster.

After finishing A Game of Snakes and Ladders – I decided to start my 1956 reading. For anyone who doesn’t know, twice a year Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon from Stuck in a Book host club weeks – where readers will read books originally published in whatever year has been chosen for that club. This time it is 1956 – a very good year by the way. The 1956 club starts on Monday, so still time to find something to read next week. I chose to start with The Last Resort by Pamela Handsford Johnson – though I had a few I could have read instead. I haven’t quite finished it yet – so I shall put it on to next month’s roundup pile. So far it’s very good, Pamela Hansford Johnson is a very good writer.

My reading plans for October include another book for the 1956 club, time permitting,  Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid chosen by my book group – and I’m planning on reading Richard Osman’s new novel The Thursday Murder Club, I recently bought two signed copies to share with my mum and sister – but I get to read one copy first.

Tell me, what great things did you read in September? I love to hear what others have been reading and let me know what your plans for October are.

It’s funny how a book that has sat on the shelf virtually ignored for a while suddenly catches your eye. That’s what happened with this plain old edition of Buttercups and Daisies – a perfectly good reading copy it dates from 1931 and is very foxed and showing its considerable age. I heard about it of course from Simon, whose infectious enthusiasm a little over two years ago, had me hurrying off to Ebay – and then the book was shelved on my horrendous tbr and forgotten all about. The Saturday before last, I was casting about for something new to read when my eye fell on this one, and I honestly couldn’t remember a thing about it. Opening it up and reading the first page or two was enough to convince me – I settled into the narrative straight away with a contented sigh and a smile on my face.

Compton Mackenzie is a pretty well known name, probably known best for his Scottish comic novels Whiskey Galore and Monarch of the Glen. However, I hadn’t read him before – and this one proved a thoroughly enjoyable introduction. Buttercups and Daisies comes about half-way through Mackenzie’s prolific writing career – and has certainly whetted my appetite for more one day.

If you enjoy books about house purchases – whether wise or otherwise – and the creation of a garden, then this could be for you. There are also plenty of laughs and a host of colourful characters, including a couple of boisterous boys whose idea of insulting one another is to call one another a big fat liar! It’s all wonderfully charming and proved great company over several very tiring days.  

The novel opens with the Waterall family at breakfast – when Mr Waterall – a fabulously comic, creation – a slightly pompous blusterer – exclaims that the very thing he has been after for years is advertised in the paper.

“This,” Mr. Waterall announced, on a fine Saturday morning in late September, as he gazed over the top of his paper at his wife, “this is what I have been looking for for years.”

Mrs. Waterall’s impulse was to suppose that her husband was enjoying one of those little triumphs to which he was periodically addicted. He had a habit of putting articles away in safe places, forgetting the place immediately afterwards, and accusing every member of his family, from his wife to the boy who came in to do the knives, of having interfered with his arrangements for security. Mrs. Waterall could not be blamed for assuming that. This was one of the mislaid treasures.

“For years!” Mr. Waterall portentously repeated. “Have the goodness to listen, my dear.”

His poor family are clearly long suffering, they consist of his wife – who is well used to soothing, placating and keeping her powder dry – two sons Ralph and Roger, thirteen and twelve respectively and a ten year old daughter Phyllis – who has mastered the art of affected simpering to get her own way. The boys get up to all kinds of mischief, quietly despise their sister and are constantly embarrassed by their father. So, when Mr Waterall tells his astonished family that he has always wanted a little country cottage – and here is one to be had in Hampshire for £125 – the news is greeted with some suspicion. Mr Waterall hurries off that very day to see about the cottage – his head full of grand plans and a romantic idea of country living. Mr Waterall is a fantastic creation, because he is completely benign, there is no nastiness in him, he isn’t really a bully or a tyrant – in fact he often shows great kindness – but he is faintly ridiculous, totally unaware of his own absurdities and thoroughly deluded.

“Mr Waterall, attired in a brown Norfolk suit and box-cloth gaiters, appeared in the hall. Ralph groaned. His father’s costume was even more conspicuous than his brother had led him to believe. Mercifully it was a dark wet afternoon, and under an overcoat, his father might not attract too much attention.”

Mr Waterall is met at the station by the man selling the cottage – and we see immediately the man is something of a rogue – he has set his heart on unloading his hated little cottage on Mr Waterall and sets about immediately charming and flattering Mr Waterall into the purchase. The cottage itself is a bit of a disappointment if Mr Waterall would allow himself to acknowledge it – which of course he doesn’t – two rooms and a lean-to kitchen a corrugated roof, blue paintwork and no mains water. Yet of course Mr Waterall buys the cottage – meaning it for a delightful country get-away for his family. It’s going to need some work though – a couple of new rooms built on to it for starters and a garden created from scratch. Mr Waterall doesn’t really know anything about plants – but he thinks he does.

Needless to say, the reality of this holiday cottage in the country – doesn’t quite match up with Mr Waterall’s grand fantasies. With no door on the kitchen lean-to, a cow wanders in while the family are having dinner – Phyllis falls down a well, and the neighbours prove a colourful bunch to put it mildly. The boys have some wonderful adventures including sneaking out at night to meet up with Texas Bill a fourteen year old whose rackety life with his hard drinking Uncle ‘Gus’ means he has a lot more freedom and is therefore viewed with a certain amount of glamour. The family have a lot of ups and downs over the next few months, but Mr Waterall’s belief in his country idyll never really waivers.

Buttercups and Daisies was a delightful bit of whimsical escapism, just perfect for my current frame of mind.