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This book was one of those chance buys. I was on holiday in Devon last year, mooching around a charity shop’s bookshelves. They had one shelf of old books – labelled rather optimistically ‘Antique and collectable.’ Well, I snaffled up three lovely old tomes from that shelf – and this was one of them. A book I knew nothing about, by a writer I had never heard of. It was the fragile old dust jacket that did it – I am a sucker for these vintage mystery covers.

Well I now wonder if I should have heard of the writer – Mignon G Eberhart was an American mystery writer who between the late 1920s and the 1980s produced over fifty novels. Another Woman’s House comes about halfway through her writing period – and though the plot is probably a little thin, there is something very compelling about Eberhart’s storytelling, and I enjoyed it enormously. Her characters are particularly well drawn I thought.

“It was still another woman’s house.
Nothing in the house had changed; nothing perhaps could change. Alice with all her beauty, her grace, her unerring taste for beauty might have put a spell upon the house and everything within it.”

The novel takes place over one twenty-four-hour period, and Eberhart slowly ratchets up the tension – as the truth of what happened when a man died is slowly revealed.

For several years Myra Lane has been living in England with her guardian; an elderly American woman who married a title – Lady Cornelia Carmichael was a good friend of Myra’s mother. Meanwhile Myra’s brother Timothy was educated in America and often spent time with Cornelia’s nephew Richard Thorne and his wife Alice at their beautiful house overlooking the sound.

Now, with the war over, Myra and Miss Cornelia have been living at Thorne House with Richard for almost two years. Timothy is out of the army and living in nearby New York. Myra has been blissfully happy at Thorne House – and has fallen in love with Richard. However, Richard’s wife Alice is still living, convicted of murdering a neighbour; Jack Manders – she has been in prison for two years. Myra has decided that she will have to leave Thorne house and move in with her brother – she won’t be able to cope with being in the same house as Richard now she woken up to her feelings. She is sure that Richard will never divorce Alice anyway while she is locked up.

Everyone adored Alice, an elegant beauty she decorated the Thorne house to absolute perfection. Generally considered an angel of pure goodness – no one expected a woman like her to be convicted, and in the unlikely event that she really did kill Jack Manders – he must have deserved it – is the general consensus.

On the day the novel opens, Myra and Richard take a walk in the gardens before dinner – and Richard reveals that he feels the same about Myra and wants to marry her. When they return to the house, two people are waiting for them in the library – the state Governor – and Alice Thorne. Myra and Richard listen bewildered to the Governor’s story of a changed statement, and immediate pardon, how he had taken it upon himself to bring Alice straight home. Alice is sent upstairs to rest while everyone tries to make sense of what has happened – dinner is delayed for several hours.

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It becomes clear that with Alice freed – and unable to face trial for the same crime again, a new investigation will get under way. The chief suspects; Webb Manders the brother of the man Alice was convicted of killing, Myra’s beloved brother Tim and of course Richard himself – it was his gun Alice was seen holding moments after the death of Jack Manders. Two other people are also involved, Alice’s close friend – Mildred Wilkinson, another wealthy woman who lives nearby and is a frequent visitor – and Sam the Thorne family lawyer another Alice adorer.

Questions abound. Who killed Jack Manders two years earlier? Why did Webb Manders say he had seen Alice standing over Jack with a gun? – and why has Tim Lane suddenly changed his evidence after all this time? Where is Richard’s gun – which was never found?

In the midst of all this – as Alice lies looking pale and beautiful in her bedroom upstairs – Richard declares he no longer wants to be with Alice – he is it seems determined to settle down with Myra. Alice is home though, and she wants her life back, she loves her house and she wants to be a wife to Richard again.

“She wanted to hurry from the room – from the drone of the rain on the flagstones outside, the wavering curtains, the cupid. She made herself sit down again in Richard’s chair. She would think and reason out – and then dismiss this intrusive, stubborn uneasiness which nudged at her as if it had hands, pointing, a voice saying in a breathless whisper, look, look here I am: Murder.”

It is very easy for the reader to quickly work out what’s what. As far as the characters go, it seems Myra is the brightest of them all, but even she takes rather too long to realise the truth. In a sense it doesn’t matter that this mystery is easy to work out – the plot might not be the most complicated of this kind of novel, but I found the novel to be hugely enjoyable and very compelling.

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Chosen by my very small (though not as small as it once was) book group as our January read, Milkman is one of those books I probably would have got around to by myself eventually. It is also the first Booker winner since The Luminaries I have had any interest in reading.

It is a quite extraordinary book, a beautiful, complex novel with a strong sense of place in its portrayal of a community under immense pressure.

“After generation upon generation, fathers upon forefathers, mothers upon foremothers, centuries and millennia of being one colour officially and three colours unofficially, a colourful sky, just like that, could not be allowed to be.”

In an unnamed city Middle Sister likes to read nineteenth century classics while walking, she is eighteen, and all her mother can talk about is her getting married. Middle Sister is hiding two secrets, her burgeoning relationship with Maybe-boyfriend from another area, and her recent encounter with Milkman. Milkman is older, married and a known paramilitary leader. There are eyes everywhere, and soon her brother-in-law and other local people spot Middle-Sister in the unwanted company of Milkman, and gossip is rife.

To be in any way different, other or interesting, is dangerous in this community where renouncers and defenders keep to their areas of the city and only come together to wage war. There are ‘our streets’ and ‘their streets’ suspicion quickly roused by anything pertaining to that ‘country over the water.’ This is a community held together by fear, silence and tradition, and Middle-sister has one brother dead and another on the run. Middle-sister’s habit of walking while reading is bad enough – it attracts too much attention – she is beyond the pale it would seem.

Middle-sister goes running with Third-brother-in-law along the paths of the Parks & reservoirs, she walks from her French evening class through the ten-minute area back toward the home she shares with her mother and the wee sisters. It is soon apparent that Milkman knows where she goes and when. Middle-Sister spots his white van parked outside the night school and on other occasions. She is unnerved by Milkman’s interest in her and infuriated by everyone’s assumption that she is having a relationship with him, even her mother assumes it is true. Middle-sister is silenced by her confusion and paranoia – just grateful that Maybe-boyfriend is unlikely to have heard the rumours. Middle-sister’s paranoia increases by the day – Milkman speaks to her about Maybe-boyfriend, he knows everything about him and the car parts he has spread all over the floor in his house – and she is sure it is a threat.

“According to the police, of course, our community was a rogue community. It was we who were the enemy, we who were the terrorists, the civilian terrorists, the associates of terrorists or simply individuals suspected of being but not yet discovered to be terrorists. That being the case, and understood by both parties to be the case, the only time you’d call the police in my area would be if you were going to shoot them, and naturally they would know this and so wouldn’t come.”

Every generation I suppose have key moments as their historical backdrop – I grew up at a time when ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland were almost daily news. It’s clear early on, despite Anna Burns’ uses of labels rather than names, for people, places and indeed causes – that we are in Northern Ireland – probably somewhere around the late 1970s. It is a place of threat, rumour and suspicion, where the ‘real milkman’ is known as the man who never loved – and the community have long memories for things that happened in the past. There are so many unspoken rules, that leading a normal life is full of potential hazards.

“At the time, age eighteen, having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack from something that wasn’t there? At eighteen I had no proper understanding of the ways that constituted encroachment.”

Burns writes in a brilliant stream of consciousness that I heard in a Northern Irish accent. As we negotiate Middle-sister’s thoughts and fears, her relationships and memories we get a wonderful sense of this complex, frightening place that she calls

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home. Burns’ choice to use labels for names is inspired – and I thought it made this feeling of place and community all the stronger.

Milkman was a worthy winner of last year’s Booker prize and was a fairly big hit with my book group. The tension and feat felt by Middle-sister and the community at large is palpable – that feeling of living in a goldfish bowl. All those years growing up watching news reports of the troubles in Northern Ireland – which so often spilled over in to events here too, and it was reading this book that gave me a greater understanding. It is an extraordinary achievement.

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I have read only a few D E Stevenson books, not many compared to the enormous number she wrote. I have heard they vary in quality a little, but I loved the Miss Buncle books, Celia’s House and The Four Graces and have more D E Stevenson tbr. I recently received Mrs Tim Carries on from Dean Street press, and I realised I had never read the first Mrs Tim book. So, my first book of 2019 ended up being Mrs Tim of the Regiment on my kindle, a book that seems to have come about out of two books originally. It seems as if originally there were two books Mrs Tim Christie and Golden Days and at some point, they became Mrs Tim of the Regiment. Certainly, the first half of the book has a different feel from the second half – and I must admit I slightly preferred the second half.

I was glad to have something gentle and escapist to settle into around New Year, and I enjoyed spending time with Hester Christie and her family. It actually felt like quite a long book – probably because it was originally two books.

Hester Christie; – married to Tim Christie a captain in an unnamed army regiment – is our narrator, and diarist. The tone especially of the first half of the book is very much in the style of E M Delafield’s The Provincial lady – a light, breezy slightly mocking tone in which she relates her day to day life. She is the mother of two children, Bryan eleven and seven-year-old Betty – and she is assisted in the children’s care by Miss Hardcastle – Bryan goes to boarding school, but the family finances won’t stretch to two lots of boarding school fees. The family live in rented accommodation in a fictional village in the South of England, from where Tim goes to work at the regiment, and Hester keeps the home fires burning, which seems to be all that women in these kinds of books ever do. Annie the family housekeeper is very much part of the household too. Life might seem narrow to us at the start of 2019, but Hester is clearly happy, and her diary is full of small day to day domestic happenings.

“According to this book I have been sowing the seeds of complexes and cultivating inhibitions in Bryan and Betty ever since they were a few months old. Feel much worried about this, but decide that it is too late now to do anything, and that Bryan and Betty must just take their chance.”

Hester is happy enough in her domestic arrangements – everyone it seems knows who she is in the village, and she enjoys catching up with everyone. There are all the village shopkeepers for starters and Nora the other captain’s wife – who is rather annoying and who always manages to crop up whenever she is least wanted. Hester is always trying to keep on top of things, and not quite managing it, but she has her friendship with the latest regimental wife Grace and her irrepressible little daughter on hand to keep her entertained.

Suddenly, the family fortunes take an unexpected turn when Tim is posted to a job in Scotland. Hester and Tim take the family’s old banger Clementine to Scotland to look for a house – naturally the car breaks down – and all the houses seem terrible or absurdly large.

“Betty hugs me, and says, ‘Oh, Mummy, have you found a house? Is there a swing in the garden? You do look old this morning!’ Reply that I feel at least a hundred years old, and that I have found a house, but there is no swing in the garden. Betty’s face falls, so I rashly promise to see what can be done about a swing. She is overjoyed, and tells me that I do not look nearly so old as a hundred; only about sixty or so.”

It is at around this point that the narrative style changes a bit, (I assume at the point the original two books meet). The narrative is still Hester’s diary but the telling of it is much more narrative like – and that Provincial lady style of the first section of the book is dispensed with. More happens in this part of the book too.

They find a house which is pretty much perfect – and return home to make preparations for the move. The family are soon on their way North, without Miss Hardcastle, but with their trusty Annie in toe – with a whole new community to get to know. Here they meet Mrs McTurk, the sister of the dreadful Nora, who is a dreadful snob and talks loudly about the Rolls rather a lot. Betty makes friends with some local children, begins to attend the local school and Hester worries a little about the accent she may pick up.

Just as the family are beginning to settle in, Grace has visited and Bryan has paid his first visit home from school – Tim receives his majority – and it looks like the family will be on the move again.

One of their neighbours; Mrs Loudon is wealthy, locally respected woman who Hester soon begins to get very friendly with. Mrs Loudon invites Hester and Betty to her holiday home in the Highlands while Tim is away. Also staying with Mrs Loudon is her cousin Mrs Falconer – who really is quite a character. Here Hester gets embroiled in matters of romance when Mrs Loudon’s son Guthrie appears to have got himself attached to the wrong woman in a certain Miss Baker, who Mrs Loudon is anxious to gently separate her son from.

“‘You don’t think I’m wrong to try to influence Guthrie’s life, do you, Hester?’ ‘She’s not the right person for him.’ ‘She’s all wrong in every way. I’m not that despicable creature, a jealous mother. I’d welcome any girl I thought would make the man a good wife. Someone like you,’ she continues, looking at me, almost with surprise. ‘Yes, somebody exactly like you. And I’d steal you from that Tim of yours if I could, but I know there’s little hope of that – that’s the sort of woman I am. People must marry, and have children – and yet I don’t know why I should think so, for there’s a deal of sorrow comes to most married folks that single ones escape.’”

Then Major Tony Morley – who Hester and Tim already know through the regiment – turns up and becomes a frequent visitor at the house.

All very enjoyable, humorous, shot through with jolly little nuggets of wisdom. Spending time with Hester and her family was a real pleasure – and I look forward to meeting up with her, during the war, in Mrs Tim Carries On.

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Following a wonderful year of #readingmuriel2018 this seemed the perfect book to end 2018 with.

Alan Taylor first met Muriel Spark in Arezzo in 1990, she was already seventy-two and had been living in Italy with her companion Penelope Jardine since the 1970s. Taylor had gone to Arezzo especially to interview Muriel Spark. From this first meeting there blossomed a mutual, fond friendship which only ended with Spark’s death.

In Appointment in Arezzo, Alan Taylor tells the story of Muriel Spark, using his knowledge of the writer, as well as his conversations and friendship with Muriel and Penny. Taylor and his family became regular visitors at San Giovanni; Muriel Spark’s home in Italy, he tells of the family’s first holiday there, when Muriel and Penny were away travelling, and the Taylor family were left in charge of the house and the dogs. There were other times the family stayed with Muriel and Penny and their household is a charmingly chaotic, colourful one, a place of real warmth I felt.

“As we got out of the car, Muriel, dressed in an elegant trouser suit, emerged from a gnarled door, beaming broadly and greeting the children as if she’d known them all their lives. She had in her hands two notebooks, one of which she presented to each of the children. Jennifer’s was called ‘Confidential’ while Michael’s was ‘Underground.’ ‘Hide them from the customs officials,’ Muriel whispered.”

Alan Taylor was to accompany Muriel on several trips abroad – arranging for her to speak at the Edinburgh book festival – an event that had the whole of Edinburgh fighting for tickets – well you can hardly blame them. We witness Muriel in Manhattan, and Taylor recalls the years that Muriel Spark wrote for the New Yorker – and had her own office in their building. When the New Yorker celebrated its seventy fifth birthday, it invited Muriel Spark to take part in a festival, and due to Penny’s fear of flying, it was Alan Taylor who accompanied her.

“Throughout our stay in New York Muriel seemed carefree as I imagined she had been when she first arrived there in 1961, fascinated by everything and everyone. It was easy to forget that she was in her ninth decade and in constant pain. I couldn’t help but compare her with the elderly cast of Memento Mori. ‘How primitive life becomes in old age,’ thinks one of them, ‘when one may be surrounded by familiar comforts and yet more vulnerable to the action of nature than any young explorer at the pole.’ Muriel’s approach to ageing – and the infirmity that was its inevitable accompaniment – seemed to be to ignore it wherever possible.”

It is clear that the families became close, and Alan Taylor gained a deep understanding of Muriel Spark’s work, her character and personality. It seems to have been an understanding born of great respect for her work and affection for her as a person. It is obvious however that this book is in no way supposed to be a complete biography – it is the story of the Muriel Spark who was Alan Taylor’s friend.

“No life can be wholly recaptured in words. Something is always missing or unnecessarily included, or over-emphasised, or mis-recalled or made more of, or less of, than it merits. Scott Fitzgerald said that there never could be a good biography of a good novelist, because if he is any good he is too many people; Muriel would certainly have agreed with him.”

Taylor returns to those years before he knew Muriel Spark – and recounts briefly the years Muriel Spark herself covered in Curriculum Vitae. Her upbringing in Scotland, her brief disastrous marriage and the beginnings of her writing career.

However, Taylor certainly doesn’t shy away from those more controversial aspects of her life. He confronts the very difficult relationship with her son; Robin, relating aspects of their correspondence – which certainly shows another side to the story. He also confronts Muriel Spark’s attitude to her Jewish roots – one of the biggest arguments she and her son Robin had. He acknowledges Spark’s prior suspicion of biographers – especially following her experience with Derek Stanford – who had so betrayed her and whose unofficial biography had so infuriated her.

Taylor gives us Spark’s thoughts and feelings on all the key moments in her life, and her long career in writing. Taylor’s portrait is hugely affectionate, a warm, honest portrayal of a woman he quite obviously felt very in tune with. It is a wonderful portrait, and a wonderful book. It provides a fabulous companion to Curriculum Vitae – and for me really completed the picture of a writer I have come to admire so much.

Playing the Harlot was my final book in my A Century of Books, it fitted into my 1996 slot by virtue of the fact it was initially rejected for publication in 1963. Playing the Harlot – or, Mostly Coffee – was Patricia Avis’ only novel and ultimately foreshadowed the author’s early death – who never lived to see it published.

Avis is brilliantly witty, so often it feels as if her little asides and observations have come straight from life. Particularly interesting of course is the character Rollo – who apparently is her Larkin.

“Rollo, never employed on enterprises to which he might debit his travelling expenses, had arrived on the six o’clock bus. Since then he had been explaining to Mary in the sitting room the consequences of having been obliged to eat savoury rice for lunch. Pete was still out testing the dip-switch mechanism against the garage doors.”

During the 1950s Patricia Avis was an angry young woman among a large group of literary angry young men, including Philip Larkin, all of whom became quite well known – while Patricia Avis was forgotten. Her novel was a Roman à clef, focussing on that literary circle she was a part of. This, it seems the reason the novel was rejected by publishers who were concerned about the potential slander of literary figures.

It is women however who are at the heart of this novel, Mary Gallen – brought up and educated abroad, and her friends Theo and Abigail. Avis paints some wonderful portraits of these easy living young people.

“Theo grabbed a raincoat off the bannisters and rushed downstairs, missing all the splits in the linoleum, which had been known to trip people up.
Coming back was much more sedate. She had a young man with her, a tall, thin, stooping young man in spectacles. And he was wearing a pink check wool shirt half tucked into a pair of shrunken chocolate-coloured corduroys held up by an old school tie. One half of his face was concealed by a tongue of uncombed hair. The other half, sketchily shaven, looked kind and content.”

Avis highlights that post-war generation, a generation beset by political and social aimlessness. They are intellectuals, cynics, closet homosexuals and adulterers.

We first meet Mary when she is a young student, living in convent halls – and drinking coffee with Rollo – the Larkin figure in this novel. Mary writes to her wealthy parents in Argentina often, asking for money or permission to do things she suspects they won’t approve of. As the novel opens Mary is writing to ask to be allowed to move out of the hated convent halls and into Theo’s flat.
Mary marries Pete, a medical student – and they set up home with an Irish housekeeper and her two adopted children ruling the roost. Yet, it is with Rollo that Mary has an affair. Like the author herself, Mary decides to go to Paris to continue her studies, it is the beginning of the end of her marriage. Here Mary meets Martin, who she later marries.

Playing the Harlot is a very feminist novel in what it has to say about sexual politics and the place these women find themselves in in society. Mary, Theo and Abagail are all intelligent young women, and yet, they largely serve as accessories in the lives of their men. Theo; herself a medical student, marries a student lecturer and is later buried in domesticity. Abagail an art student, marries an ageing European count.

Mary throws herself at life – full of life and optimism, always looking for love and acceptance. Her relationships unsuitable and unfulfilling. Throughout her various relationships – which are sometimes with men who prefer men, she is plagued by a series of miscarriages. The lack of sympathy and support is very noticeable. Mary lies in a nursing home until discharged, and then just gets on with it. The novel is very readable, and Avis’ dialogue is particularly good, the characters all sympathetic and believable – it is certainly a novel of its time (of when it was originally written that is) providing fascinating a portrait of the literary circles in which Avis moved.

Overall I didn’t love this novel, but it is a very interesting novel, well written and quite compelling in its way.

December in review

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Following the two other round-up posts I have done this week a December in review post seems a little redundant, but it helps to complete the picture of the year.

I read nine and a bit books in December – the bit will now have to be my first book of 2019 – finished my A Century of Books and scored a wonderful pile of new books at Christmas.

I began the month reading A Saturday life by Radclyffe Hall, a comic novel about a precocious child, artistic experience and the possibility of reincarnation.

Olivia by Dorothy Strachey (published under the pseudonym of Olivia) was a little surprise, I hadn’t expected to enjoy it so much. Olivia is sixteen when she is sent to Les Avons a finishing school near Paris, run by two mademoiselles. This is a school of an entirely different kind. It is a school where there are few rules, where laughter and passionate discussion are actively encouraged. Olivia revels in this atmosphere so unlike anything she has experienced before.

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay is a novel with a famous opening line – but it is worth reading for more than that. The novel follows the progress of a group of characters as they embark upon a journey from Istanbul to Trebizond. They are, Laurie – our narrator, her Aunt Dot (Dorothea Ffoulkes Corbett) and Dorothea’s friend, high Anglican priest Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg.

I’ve loved everything I have read by Diana Athill and Stet – an editor’s life was no exception. Shining a light on fifty years of publishing, her work alongside André Deutsch, and the writers she worked with, I can see why Stet is a favourite with many Athill fans.

For my 1993 slot of A Century of Books I read A Virago Keepsake, a collection of essays published in 1993 to celebrate Virago’s twentieth anniversary. Twenty pieces by or about Virago writers – many of them reminiscences of the beginnings of Virago, and the start of careers. There were very familiar voices with pieces by Margaret Atwood and Maya Angelou, other writers were new to me. A collection very much of its time.

The Old Man and Me by Elaine Dundy was one of my highlights of the month. In Honey Flood we have a fascinating unreliable narrator. In a city of bohemians, drug users, hipsters, jazz clubs and smoky bars, Honey sets about meeting C.D McKee, a legendary Englishman of enormous proportions and wealth. She is a young woman on a mission, and she needs to reinvent herself to put her plan into action.

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd was recommended to me by someone on Twitter – a family memoir in which Holroyd writes honestly about his family, taking something of a back seat himself.

Playing the Harlot by Patricia Avis was my final book for ACOB, first published in 1996 having been initially refused publication when it was first written. Set among the raffish literary crowd in which Avis moved – which included Philip Larkin, we follow Mary and her friends and lovers through several years of complicated relationships.

Appointment in Arezzo – a friendship with Muriel Spark by Alan Taylor is a wonderful book, having read Spark’s autobiography Curriculum Vitae last month, this book provides another layer of understanding about Muriel Spark.

So, yes rather untidily I do still have two books from 2018 to review – I will get back to reviews soon.

In 2019 I will be reading more of whatever I please – fewer challenges this year. Though I am looking forward to the Librarything virago group’s year long reading event. Reading the 1940s – which is something which will be very easy to dip in and out of. There is a theme for each month – January has the theme of family. There aren’t really any rules – most of us will probably read mainly Virago and Persephone editions/authors though I can see Dean Street Press editions and perhaps Vintage editions creeping in too. I already have lots of books that will fit so I will probably join in quite a lot. Pretty much anything goes – published in the 40s or set in the 40s – fiction or non-fiction, set anywhere in the world, we’re certainly not restricting it to the war years.

In a couple of weeks, I will be re-reading Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym with a Barbara Pym FB group I started a few years ago. My book group will be reading Milkman by Anna Burns, so that will probably be my next read. I am currently reading Mrs Tim of the Regiment by D E Stevenson on my kindle – and enjoying its relaxed and witty tone.

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Twelve books for 2018

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Here we have twelve books for twelve months – I am currently reading my 120th book of the year, but I won’t finish it till the New Year.

I finished my A Century of Books though, what a brilliant challenge, and I might do it again in a year or two. The full list of what I read is here.

I never read all that many new publications, as I am more comfortable with more vintage/classic books. So, no modern books appear in my top twelve this year – and weirdly no books in translation, despite having read far more than I usually do.

I usually limit myself to one book by any particular author, well I have broken that rule – twice. Here they are in reverse order this year.

12 Symposium by Muriel Spark (1990) – I have really come to appreciate Muriel Spark this year, much more than I had expected. This is a very clever novel, beautifully textured, I loved the way the narrative moves back and forth in time, gradually revealing a little bit more about a group of wealthy, privileged people. It is a novel about what happens when certain types of people come together, about the thin veneer of respectability that might exist in such circles. We are though in typical Sparkian territory, and there is also robbery and murder on the agenda and more than a few surprises.

11 Home Life by Alice Thomas Ellis (1986) In 1985 Alice Thomas Ellis began producing a weekly column in the Spectator called Home Life. These short pieces were collected together in four volumes of which this is the first. This book was an absolute joy. These articles about the author’s own family life are full of fun, tongue-in-cheek observations and ruminations – a (not so) Provincial Lady of the 1980s perhaps.

10 The Bachelor by Stella Gibbons (1944) The Bachelor of the title – Kenneth Fielding, and his sister Constance own Sunglades; a large seven-bedroom house not far from London, though far enough to protect them from the worst of the bombing. With them lives a spinster cousin Frankie Burton, who nurses the memory of her one romance when she was a young woman. To prevent being landed with more strangers from London, Constance decides to fill up her empty bedrooms with people of her own choosing.

9 The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning (1955) Eighteen-year old Ellie leaves her home in the provincial seaside town of Eastsea in search of independence. Having done a night school art class at the technical college Ellie has her sights set on the art world. In London, Ellie takes a small bedsit in Chelsea and manages to get a job at a furniture studio – initially in packing – but soon she is moved to the ‘antiquing’ room where she paints bits of furniture. She also acquires a middle-aged lover.

8 Loving and Giving by Molly Keane (1988) Molly Keane’s final novel published more than sixty years after her first is utterly superb. On the surface it may sound like so many other Keane novels – it isn’t, it is a more mature work – beautifully written and with a brilliantly unexpected ending. The novel opens in 1914, Nicandra is eight years old, life is good at the family’s grand Irish home; Deer Forest. This is a place where everyone has his or her place, above stairs the family live comfortably, below stairs or in the stables, the maids, butler, grooms and steward have a different kind of life. Nicandra runs between the stables, and the house with a freedom few modern children ever experience.

7 The Diviners by Margaret Laurence (1974) A modern classic in Canadian literature; The Diviners is the story of Morag Gunn, a fiercely independent writer, her difficult relationships with her Métis lover Jules Tonnerre, and her daughter Pique. The story moves back and forth between Morag’s present – where she struggles with her work and her relationship with her daughter, and the past as she grows up more and more desperate to escape the town of Manawaka.

6 The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer (1962) This is a novel about the pitfalls of marriage and motherhood, Mortimer’s simple prose is wonderfully immersive, dreamy and intimate. We only ever know our narrator as Mrs Armitage, her husband, Jake is a screenwriter – he has a rich, creative, rewarding life, filled with travel and acclaim. Jake’s wife is part of his home life – an attractive feature of his home, an accessory. The couple live in London but are building a glass tower in the country – with the intention that it will one day, become the family home. Mrs Armitage proudly tells her doctor about the tower. We sense immediately this happy ever after is an unrealistic expectation, that fairy tale ending perhaps, that we so often strive for.

5 Mad Puppetstown by Molly Keane (1931) Mad Puppetstown is a wonderful evocation of an Irish childhood in the early twentieth century, before the First World War. The writing is extraordinarily beautiful, the opening page is really quite poetic. Into what Molly Keane calls ‘those full-blooded’ days young Easter Chevington is born and raised. She is eight as the novel opens, living in her father’s country house of Mad Puppetstown with her father, Great-Aunt Dicksie, her two adored boy cousins Evelyn and Basil and their beautiful widowed mother Aunt Brenda. The children live a charmed life – running free, and slightly wild in the Irish countryside, surrounding the house.

4 The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns (1985) Barbara Comyns is stunning, and this was a novel I could not stop thinking about afterwards. The setting, the London of the 1980s – albeit the 1980s viewed by Comyns. The 80s of Comyns’ fiction is fairy-tale like – everything exists somewhere outside the usual realms of time and space. There is an odd timelessness to much of The Juniper Tree, the modern world is present glimpsed through piles of dusty antique furniture and ageing knick-knacks of a little antique shop. Comyns’ novel The Juniper Tree is based on a Grimm’s fairy-tale of the same name.

3 Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple (1927) A new Whipple in the Persephone list is always a treat, and this was one of the books which tempted me away from ACOB. Dorothy Whipple’s first novel – published when she was in her thirties – was very autobiographical. We follow the growth, education, life and loves of Anne Pritchard from the time she is just five years old through to a time when she is finally settled.

2 The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963) Quite definitely my favourite Muriel Spark novel of this year. Every word, every scene is brilliant. Set in 1945 – ‘when all the nice people were poor’ at the May of Teck Club where the girls of slender means live together and share a taffeta Schiaparelli dress.

1.The Montana Stories by Katherine Mansfield (2001) – this is an extraordinary collection, even though some pieces are unfinished, and some pieces I did like more than others, something about the writing of Katherine Mansfield has stayed with me throughout the year. The stories were written in 1921 – but this collection was only put together by Persephone in 2001. In 1921, Katherine Mansfield, very ill with TB went to stay in a chalet in Montana, Switzerland for her health. This period became one of her most creative periods – and the pieces in this collection are presented chronologically – which is often such an interesting way to read a writer’s work. There are stories in this collection, like The Dolls House, and The Garden Party I could happily read again and again. This book set me on a mission to read more Katherine Mansfield. Although this wasn’t my first book by Katherine Mansfield – it was my first for several years. Thanks to this book I will definitely be reading or rereading more by Mansfield in the coming year.

So, there we are. Twelve books for 2018, and yes, they’re all women (and I don’t do that deliberately). Some of these books will help inspire my reading in 2019 – and I would love it if they inspire you too.

To all of you, of course I wish a very happy, healthy New Year – filled with wonderful books.
Happy reading!