A Song Flung up to Heaven is the sixth volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography. My reading buddies Liz and Meg were a little bit a head of me, though I think we will all be starting on book seven soon. This volume is one of the slimmer volumes in the set – but it is every bit as addictively readable as the others – and I finished it in a day.

“Believe people when they tell you who they are. They know themselves better than you.”

This volume starts where the previous one left off, with Maya’s return to America from Ghana where she has spent a couple of years. She has left her son Guy behind, at his insistence. It is time for another chapter.

It is 1965 and Maya is returning to an America in which the civil rights movement has exploded. After meeting him for the second time while in Ghana, Maya has decided to put her energies into working with Malcolm X’s organisation in New York. However, before going to New York, Maya travels to California to see her mother and brother – and while she is there Malcolm X is assassinated. Maya is absolutely devasted, but while Malcolm’s brutal death leaves her feeling traumatised and lost – it is the reactions of other black Americans that leaves her really bewildered. She had expected a huge outpouring of grief and rage – and there wasn’t one. For a little while she really doesn’t know what she is going to do. We see Maya lost and a bit more vulnerable in this volume, needing the support of her mother and in particular her brother Bailey to whom she often turns in times of difficulty.

She gets a job as a market researcher in Watts, California. In August of that year, the Watts riots took place – and Maya was a witness to the violence, looting and chaos that took over the suburb for five long days. She walks through the riots, prepared if necessary to get arrested – even though she has done nothing – yet she passes through unharmed and unnoticed.

“Nothing’s wrong with going to jail for something you believe in. Remember, jail was made for people. Not horses.”

It is after this that Maya begins to spend some time on her own writing. She is encouraged by no lesser person than James Baldwin. She is given financial support by a friend – who only wants to allow her to write. She works on some drama and later starts writing poetry quite seriously.

Martin Luther King Jnr’s poverty march campaign is due to get going, and Maya is contacted by someone who askes her to join the campaign, she will again be working for Martin Luther King Jnr – if she accepts. Maya does accept – but she says she won’t be able to join the campaign until after her birthday as she is planning a big party. The year is 1968 – and her birthday Maya explains is on the fourth of April. I must admit I gasped out loud here! I mean what were the chances? – especially after what happened with Malcolm X, when she had missed being with him by a sudden change of plans. Again Maya’s grief and bewilderment is palpable. This extract leapt out at me – I think most of us know exactly how this feels, though I felt Maya expressed it particularly well.

“Death of a beloved flattens and dulls everything. Mountains and skyscrapers and grand ideas are brought down to eye level or below. Great loves and large hates no longer cast such huge shadows or span so broad a distance. Connections do not adhere so closely, and important events lose some of their glow.”

James Baldwin was one of a number of friends who helped Maya rouse herself again from her own terrible despair after King’s death. She is sustained in part by her writing and the good relationships she has in the people around her. It seems she has often been very fortunate in her friends.

A Song Flung Up to Heaven is an extraordinary portrait of an important period in American civil rights, and for that reason perhaps it has become one of my favourite of the six volumes I have read so far, they are all fantastic though. This volume although only the sixth of seven seems to mark the end of her autobiography really, as the seventh volume, Mom & Me & Mom is really an examination of her relationship with her grandmother and mother, and I believe goes back over some of the ground already covered in these books. I will be reading that one soon, and I am looking forward to meeting up with Maya’s Arkansas grandmother again.

As we leave Maya Angelou at the end of this volume, she is starting to write the book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she is just a little over 40 years old, and will we know live to be more than eighty. It does seem a shame that she leaves us here – when we know so much more came after. I know there are other books available books of essays in particular – so I may need to explore some of those in the future.

With thanks to the British Library for the review copy

The British Library Women Writers series is, as I am sure you’re all aware, right up my reading alley. Which Way? Was the last of the current crop I have to read and I confess I did save it for a while because of that.

Theodora Benson was not a name I was familiar with before this book arrived, and it seems that Which Way? Was her fourth novel, published when she was still only twenty five. It was an experimental novel, one using that idea we must all have considered from time to time, the what if… I had left five minutes later, turned right instead of left – stayed at home etc? Now-a-days we tend to it think of it as a sliding doors moment – named after that late 1990s film of the same name.

In this novel Theodora Benson imagines how the life of her central character Claudia Heseltine might have changed had she made a different choice at a pivotal moment. Claudia returns to the same moment in three parallel narratives. She is in her early twenties – her best friend has married and Claudia has been enjoying herself with parties, friends, young men and weekend get-togethers since arriving home from finishing school in Paris. As we reach that pivotal moment when Claudia enters the room clutching two letters, a phone ringing – we have already learnt quite a lot about her. She’s an intelligent young woman from a good family, she has some money, is well educated but with little idea of what she really wants. She has been living a pretty shallow life – all about fun and pleasure, with some vague idea that if she marries it will only be for love.  

“She was ‘finished.’ In a way, she was really finished. Her future alterations were not stages, they were phases. She might improve, develop, degenerate. But she was now – no matter how she might change in appearance, pose, outlook or circumstances, no matter how much knowledge the world might bring her – the complete substance of all the Claudias there could be thereafter.”

Now, on this particular day she has the choice between three weekend parties all happening on the same weekend – and all involving men she would like to meet or spend time with for different reasons. Oh which to choose?

“Only the fire was alive, consuming its life – for what? Then the door opened and as Claudia came with hurried steps into the fire’s glow, two open letters in her hand, the telephone began ringing. She shut the door and turned up the lights.”

We return to this moment two more times of course – each time she chooses a different weekend to attend, turning down the invitation to the other two – and we follow what happens. Each weekend party will involve a man who Claudia wishes to spend some time with. There is Hugh, an already published author – Claudia has known him for some time and they are good friends, he is someone in whose company she is relaxed and happy, she doesn’t really think she wants any more than that, but doesn’t want to lose him as a friend. Guy is an unhappily married man – she met him at a party, and wants to meet him again – and catch a glimpse of his wife who she has heard gossiped about. Lionel is a very handsome celebrated athlete, unfortunately he is also not very bright.

I really don’t want to say too much about each narrative – but of course each meeting will alter the course of Claudia’s life. In two of the narratives she marries, in one she doesn’t. In each one she encounters the other men she may have ended up with, had things been different – there are little echoes throughout, things that make Claudia stop and wonder what if…

We also witness how Claudia herself is a little different with each of these men – changing herself to suit the situation she finds herself in. Benson also shows us how men and women at the time differed in their attitudes to a significant relationship, how for a woman like Claudia the relationship was her whole life, but for the man, it was just one part of his life, separate to everything else in it.  At the end of one narrative Claudia appears to the reader to have found a degree of contentment – but doesn’t recognise it as that – thinking she has missed out on something better. At the end of each section Claudia is found wondering what might have happened to her had she not accepted that particular invitation that time.

“‘Just by sheer bad luck,’ reflected Claudia. ‘I would have had the sweetest of men to love and be loved by always, an interesting, intellectual life, a house of my own, children to beguile and worry and fill my middle age, perfect happiness – if I hadn’t just happened to go to Farling instead of Gloucestershire for a weekend five years ago. One can’t help oneself, can one? It seems funny it should be just blind chance.”

I must admit, I don’t usually like sliding doors type stories – I don’t really know why, but it is the sort of story I tend to avoid; however I really enjoyed this one. It is such an interesting, clever premise and this experimental style really works. I am curious to discover what else Theodora Benson wrote now, how sad these gifted women writers fell out of favour for so long. Hurrah for the British Library and others, for restoring their voices to us.  

It may not have escaped your notice that I have read quite a lot of the books re-published by Dean Street Press. They publish many of the kinds of books I love, they have become a reliable source of mid twentieth century women’s writing.

Often, when I have written about DSP books in the past I have had comments from people saying how they would love to try some DSP or already love DSP themselves – so I hope some of you will find a book among this little lot that you like the sound of enough to try.

So, in a kind of reverse order – I found it almost impossible to rank these – my top ten of DSP middlebrow novels is:

10. Company in the Evening by Ursula Orange (1944)

With it’s unapologetic happy ending – Company in the Evening was written at a time when that’s what people needed. Narrated by Vicky in a first person confessional style – it is immediately very readable. The story takes place in the middle of World War two, people have begun to tire of wartime strictures, losses have been suffered in some families. It has quite a modern feel to some aspects, with Vicky working three days in the office and two at home, while juggling being a single mother – she does have help though in the shape of an old family retainer. Vicky offers her brother’s widow a home in her house, she has no real wish to share her home, and the two are very different women. Some interesting 1940s social snobbery, though we can see how that is changing.

9.A House in the Country by Ruth Adam (1957)

 I chose to read this because I had so loved Ruth Adam’s novel I’m Not Complaining. This novel (which could almost be a memoir) was written about a time when Ruth Adam and her husband and children shared a large country house with several friends. It charts their ups and downs of the whole process from acquiring the house and divvying up rooms to tackling a difficult boiler, and living with the privations of wartime. Straightaway, we sense that perhaps this story of a love affair with a house won’t be an entirely happy one. There is still a lot of joy in this book, and it was a pleasure to spend time with.

8 Not at Home by Doris Langley Moore (1948)

Elinor MacFarren is a middle aged single woman, and in the summer of 1945, finds herself obliged to enter into a house share with another woman. She is living in what has been the family home, where she lived once with her brothers, and where she helped to raise her nephew. Now she is alone, and money is tight. Miss MacFarren has spent her adult life writing about botany, publishing several books, and has something of a reputation in the field. She also has a wonderful collection of old botanical prints and some beautiful, antique pieces of furniture in the house of which she is very proud. Antonia Bankes arrives and proves to be an utter nightmare – it’s brilliantly written and really made me shudder, oh just the thought of living with someone like that.

7 Mrs Martell by Elizabeth Eliot (1953)

Mrs Martell is a character none of us are supposed to like, in her Elizabeth Eliot has created a marvellous character, selfish, self-serving, and always set on getting just what she wants.

As the novel opens, Mrs Martell, Cathie is a divorcee in her late thirties, who is satisfied that she can often pass for just thirty. Exploring her character fully, with both honesty and wit, Eliot charts the life of this woman from her teenage years through to a time not long after her second marriage. Elizabeth Eliot is such a good observer of people, and Mrs Martell is a wonderfully monstrous character.

6 Table Two by Marjorie Wilenski (1942)

I loved this novel because it features women in the workplace, during the war. In the office of the Ministry for Foreign Intelligence is an office of women translators – there are two tables of nine translators, and the never the twain (for what reason nobody knows) shall meet. The women of table two, bicker and fuss, trying constantly to out manoeuvre one another, while completely ignoring their colleagues on the other side of the room, who might as well not exist. Wilenski’s two main characters are sharply contrasted. Elsie Pearne is clever and efficient she has worked hard her whole life in various offices of business at home and abroad. She is though horribly embittered and considers herself far too good to be among these women, most of whom she considers idiots. Anne Shepley-Rice is a cheerful, pretty young woman. Anne arrives in the middle of an air raid to take up her position in the translators’ office at table two – sitting right next to Elsie – who decides to make a friend of Anne. Elsie is particularly a brilliant character study – and the relationships between the office women is really well done.

5 A Game of Snakes and Ladders by Doris Langley Moore (1955)

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 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.

4 The Woods in Winter by Stella Gibbons (1970)

Which I only read very recently, I loved it from the first sentence. Our heroine is Ivy Gover – a middle-aged, curmudgeonly char woman. When we first meet Ivy, she is living in one room in London. She inherits a small cottage in the countryside, something she has always wanted and takes possession as soon as she can, where she sets up home with a rescued dog and a pet pigeon. She has slight witchery skills, and is at one with the natural world around her.

3 The House Opposite by Barbara Noble (1943)

I do love a book written during WW2. The House Opposite provides an extraordinarily vivid picture of what it was really like to live in London during the Blitz. Normal life goes on just the same in a sense, yet the nightly bombardment is never far away whether in people’s minds or in the everyday conversations with neighbours and work colleagues. Work must still be attended – if the buses are running – food acquired and cooked, the minutiae of everyday life attended to, just as if bombs aren’t falling from the sky almost every night. Elizabeth is a young woman living at home with her parents, working in London and keeping her affair with her boss a deep secret.

Across the road in the house opposite Owen Cathcart is just eighteen years old, having finished with school he awaits his call up, hoping to go into the RAF. An overheard and rather unfortunate remark from Elizabeth in the past has rather coloured his view of both Elizabeth and himself – and it is with some resentment that Owen takes up his fire watching duties alongside her. For years Owen has hero worshipped Derek his slightly older cousin – he starts to fear what his feelings might mean – and is confused and angry a lot of the time.

2 Miss Carter and the Ifrit by Susan Alice Kerby (1945)

A delightful bit of whimsy.  Miss Georgina Carter is a woman in her late forties – she lives alone in a small London flat and works in the censorship office. When Georgina buys some blocks of wood for her fire that have come from a blitzed roadway, she can have no idea what adventures will result. With a new biography of Lady Hester Stanhope to read, she is looking forward to a cosy evening by a good fire. Throwing one of the blocks onto the fire later she is more than a little surprised to find that the act of burning releases a very long-imprisoned Ifrit (similar it seems to a genie). His name is Abu Shiháb, and he declares himself to be Miss Carter’s slave – a word Georgina passionately objects to. She decides to call him Joe – and the relationship that develops between them is just delightful, she teaches Joe and he helps her in a little romance.

1 Beneath the Visiting Moon by Romilly Cavan (1940)

Beneath the Visiting Moon is a little longer than some of the other Dean Street Press titles I have read – a fully satisfying novel that combines family life, romance and the trials of growing up. Scott recommended it particularly for fans of Guard your Daughters, and I can see why, although this novel isn’t as dark as Tutton’s brilliant novel, there are shadows, glimpsed fleetingly at a distance.

There is a large supporting cast of eccentric characters, in whom we can see some slightly darker elements hidden beneath the surface. When Elisabeth Fontayne remarries – two families are blended and have to start living together. A coming of age type novel set in 1939 – a time where threat hung in the air.

Well that’s them – sorry, bit of a longer post today.

Two reviews today in a bid to catch up a little – apologies for the long post. Two quite different novels with nothing to connect them, except they are both excellent and come highly recommended by me.

China Court – Rumer Godden (1961)

I read China Court for Rumer Godden reading week, which was back toward the beginning of December, and can’t really explain why I have waited till now to review it, because I loved it. It was a slow reading week that week, and I spent almost the whole week reading that one book – and in a way that was a joy, because the book was so lovely, I enjoyed spending time in the world of China Court, meeting a host of different people from below and above stairs who had lived there.

Tracy Quin is the daughter of a screen star, she grew up in a variety of places around the world, but China Court where she lived for a while as a child, with her grandmother is the place that really has her heart. Tracy returns to Cornwall, and China Court after her grandmother’s death. The house is full of memories for Tracy, the place she always meant to return to – and now she feels it might be too late. Her grandmother’s death has set in motion certain events – there are things which must be sorted out – decisions to be made. The relatives start to gather – the aunts and uncles who all have very strong opinions which they are happy to share. Tracy feels as if she is losing China Court just as she has found it again. It is a special place to her because of Mrs Quin her grandmother, who dedicated herself to the gardens for so many years.

“In summer the beds are like the flowered stuffs sold in shops, blue, white, and pink. The garden is filled with the scent of lilies that sometimes wins against the clove smell of the pinks, and at night there is the scent of stocks and white tobacco flowers. In late July, the great bushes of hydrangeas, blue and purple, have heads as big as dinner plates and sway across the drive if they are heavy with rain.”

As Tracy comes to terms with her loss, and tries to reconcile herself to the idea of the loss of China Court, she meets Peter St, Omer who farms Penbarrow on her grandmother’s land. Peter is from a once prosperous family, in the area, a family with a long complex history of its own. Peter’s future is now as much tangled up in what happens with China Court as Tracy’s is.

Alongside the story of Tracy, Peter, and the aftermath of Mrs Quins death – Godden evokes the stories of the previous four generations. For me that is what made this novel so special, the way Rumer Godden weaves these stories almost seamlessly through the main narrative. In this way we get to know the cheating Jared, the sad, beautiful Lady Patrick, the embittered Spinster Eliza, who finds an unusual outlet for her dissatisfaction, and Ripsie, an outcast orphan and her love for two brothers, who rose to become a powerful matriarch at China Court. It’s testament to Godden’s skill that she is able to weave so many stories through the central narrative – all these people step fully formed from the pages. The people and places of a Rumer Godden novel are always extremely well drawn, making her novels fully immersive and compelling. A real pleasure to spend time with. The only very slight issue I had with this lovely novel was the last few pages (no spoilers) it jarred quite a bit, and includes a scene which I found rather dated.

One of the main delights though is the story of a very special book collection – no spoilers, but book collectors will adore it.

Small Things Like These – Claire Keegan (2020)

This is a novella that has been reviewed widely by other bloggers, a much loved novella, and I can see why. It was also recently featured on the BBC TV programme Between the Covers. Small Things Like These is a slight, powerfully told novella – set in a small Irish town in 1985 in the run up to Christmas.

“It was a December of crows. People had never seen the likes of them, gathering in black batches on the outskirts of town then coming in, walking the streets, cocking their heads and perching, impudently, on whatever lookout post that took their fancy, scavenging for what was dead, or diving in mischief for anything that looked edible along the roads before roosting at night in the huge old trees around the convent.”

This was a gorgeously written novel, beautifully, elegantly spare, not a word is wasted in this emotional little story. The novel is dedicated to the women and children who were kept in the Magdalene laundries during that most dark period in Irish history.

Bill Furlong is a family man, and coal merchant, it is his busiest time of year, but there is also a recession on. His wife and five daughters are preparing for Christmas, looking forward to the Christmas celebrations in the town. Bill has known hardship in his life – and he is well aware of how different his life, and the life of his mother could have been. His mother had been very young and unmarried when she gave birth to Bill, but thanks to the kindness and support of a local wealthy woman, who gave Bill’s mother both a home and a job, becoming in time like family to them both – he grew up in safety and love.

Keegan shows us what a cloak of secrecy there was around certain issues in small towns like this in Ireland. These are good people, but they have grown up knowing some things aren’t spoken about, some things just are, and at the heart of all of that – is the church.

One of Bill’s regular customers is the local convent, the nuns there run a training school for girls – of course what it really is, is a mother and baby home. Things known, but not spoken of. One morning while delivering coal to the convent Bill makes a discovery that leaves him with a big dilemma. He discovers a young girl, cold and dirty locked in the coal shed – she begs him to find out what he can about what has happened to her baby. Bill takes the girl inside to the nuns, who make a great show of gently scolding her, feeding her and warming her up, while pouring out cups of tea to Bill. It’s one of those terrible situations where everyone really knows what is going on.

Bill is horrified by this experience, should he maintain the silence that surrounds such things, or expose the convent? He is left in no doubt that speaking out will risk his daughters’ futures as they attend the school attached to the convent. He speaks to his wife – she urges him to leave well alone – but Bill is horribly conflicted, and can’t quite forget the young girl he met that morning.

“…he found himself asking was there any point in being alive without helping one another? Was it possible to carry on along through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror?”

Claire Keegan is a well known short story writer, and although I haven’t read her stories yet – it is evident that this is an author in superb control, the ability to tell the story of this town and its secrets in under a hundred pages is phenomenal.

December in review

Following on from my favourite books of the year post – is my December reads. December is a funny old month – it seems to fly by, and famously January goes on for ever. I had an ok reading month – which definitely could have been a lot better as I had some lovely time off work over Christmas – but I seem to have been watching a lot of box sets instead. I also have a bit of a hangover from December to January in terms of reviews still needing to be written.

Oddly, my fickle mood has extended to blogging and I found myself reviewing out of order – so some books I read three weeks ago have still not been written about. Now I am wondering whether I should just break my own rule about reviewing everything – or do one big post of mini reviews – I’ll see how I feel in the coming days.

December began with me reading Watson’s Apology by Beryl Bainbridge (1984) – which was fantastic for two thirds of the book then went a little flat. That is always so disappointing, she is a great writer, however.

Next up was China Court by Rumer Godden (1961), which I read for Rumer Godden reading week. It was absolutely brilliant – I loved the way she was able to weave the story of several generations together so seamlessly. Oddly, I still haven’t reviewed this yet – and I really wanted to. I will try to pull something together in the next couple of days.

Read on my kindle was Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (2020) which has been loved by so many readers and featured on the BBC book programme Between the Covers. A pitch perfect little novella – it’s another I still need to review.   

Murder After Christmas by Rupert Latimer (1944) was a BLCC sent to me quite recently. It seemed perfect for December – and is entertaining in a number of ways. Overall though, it didn’t quite hit the spot for me, but does contain all the ingredients for a great festive mystery.

The Amazing Mr Blunden by Antonia Barber (1969) a modern children’s classic Virago sent to me for review. A ghost story with a time travelling twist, and a very satisfying ending, although not a Christmas story, it was somehow perfect for this time of year.

Another book that was absolutely perfect for this time of year, The Woods in Winter by Stella Gibbons (1970) – and it ended up featuring on my favourite books of the year list. Just a delight from start to finish. I must read more by Stella Gibbons soon.

Which Way? By Theodora Benson (1931) was the last book of the current BLWW list to read. A couple of their recent publications I have read before in other editions so may well reread – but I now have them all looking pretty together on the shelf. This was an experimental 1930s time slip novel – and I enjoyed it much more than I expected (I generally dislike time slip). An unusual little novel which I recommend.

A Song Flung up to Heaven by Maya Angelou (2002) the sixth of the Angelou autobiographies, I only have the final book and some poetry from this boxset collection to go now. It was a quick read, but it’s always entertaining and revealing to read about the life of this incredible woman.

The book I started next; I am still reading on the 1st of January so that can be my first book of 2022.  

As January begins my tbr is looking like it wants to burrow into the flat next door. I have books I bought with Christmas book tokens arriving on Tuesday, and no idea where in the tbr they’ll go. I could sit here, and promise that by December I will have got on top of this chaos, but nobody, particularly me believes that. I would like to improve the situation, but I am hopeless at not acquiring books.

Christmas yielded some marvellous books – as well as book tokens.

My Birmingham bookcrossing secret Santa came up trumps with books by wonderful writers, all from my wish list. We opened our gifts over zoom a few days before Christmas.

Double Vision by Pat Barker

Good Bones by Margaret Atwood

The Tent by Margaret Atwood

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

The Public Image by Muriel Spark – a massive thank you to Sian.

Five Persephone books from family:

The Deepening Stream by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

One Woman’s Year by Stella Martin Currey

Random Commentary by Dorothy Whipple

Round About A Pound A Week by Maud Pember Reeves

A Woman’s Place 1910 – 1975 by Ruth Adam

Vivian by Christina Hesselholdt from Jacquiwine

Summerwater by Sarah Moss and Shuggie Bain from my friend Gill.

Kaggsy sent me a gorgeous little pairing – The Christmas Dinner a Washington Irving short story from Renard Press – such pretty little editions and Holly and Ivy a Christmas story from poet Sean O’Brien published by Candlestick Press.

So, no wonder the tbr cupboard is feeling the strain.

At the time of writing, I don’t have any major reading plans for 2022 – I will join in the challenges I usually do – and I am fairly certain that I will host Daphne du Maurier reading week again in May. Other than that, with fickle being my middle name these days, I will be reading very much according to mood.

Now I just need to catch up with my reviewing.

Twelve books for 2021

I have read 110 and a half (ish) books in 2021 – but decided to stick to my twelve books for twelve months, I used to try and make it around 10% of my year’s reading, but then stuck at 12. It’s my blog and I’ll cheat if I want to.

There are a few stats at the end of the post for those of you who like that kind of thing – I don’t have clever spreadsheets so there aren’t many because I had to do maths. Before that though on with the books.

My list represents the kinds of books I love, having said that, there are four nonfiction books on it – which is ridiculous for someone who is always saying I don’t really do much non-fiction. Also, there are no translated books on my list, and only one Persephone book (though I haven’t read much Persephone this year anyway). Despite that, I do think it’s a very me list of books.

So, in the order in which I read them: (click on the title to go to the review)

O, The Brave Music by Dorothy Evelyn Smith (1943) – read way back in January, not the only novel from the fantastic British Library Women Writers on my favourite list of 2021. A coming of age story set before the First World War, about the daughter of a non-conformist minister of a northern-town.

The Living is Easy by Dorothy West (1948) – which I also read back in January, the last book I had to read, by this writer of the Harlem renaissance, whose body of work is sadly very small. This is a brilliant novel, with a fairly unlikeable central character. It’s the story of a woman’s ambition for her family, and the control she exerts over that family to get them and herself where she wants.

Expiation by Elizabeth von Arnim (1929) yet another read in January – January was clearly a very good month. I love Elizabeth von Arnim and couldn’t understand why this had been out of print for so long. It is a satirically humorous novel about middle class prudery and close-minded cruelty, and one that is hard to put down.

The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor (1976) which I read in March. Set in a fictional Dorset seaside town – it contains one of the most, chilling and memorable teenage characters I have ever encountered. Trevor creates an appalling malevolence in Timothy Gedge – that is utterly brilliant, as are the observations of the other residents of this claustrophobic little town. Completely compelling.

Together and Apart by Margaret Kennedy (1936) which I read in March. The first of three Margaret Kennedy novels I read this year. I love her writing, her complex families, and the way she weaves a story out of them. This is a simply brilliant portrayal of a family breakdown, the story of a couple’s divorce and the fall out around it.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969) which I read in April with my book group, and which started off a little reading project with two good friends. The first of Maya Angelou’s remarkable volumes of autobiography – there are seven, and I have now read six – is the story of her childhood in the 1930s and 40s. It’s so memorable and shows the determination and resilience of the woman she became, something which comes through all her books.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne (2021) a much anticipated biography that I read in April. I don’t always do well with big heavy hardbacks, but this was so good, I couldn’t leave it alone. Revealing, honest and remarkably affectionate it might have divided some Pym fans, but I loved it.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak (2019) which I read in July; I barely have words for the brilliance of this novel. Only my second by this author, but I shall read more by her soon. A novel with dark themes it is full of love, hope and incredible friendship, and I couldn’t love it more.

A Bite of the Apple: – a life with books, writers and Virago by Lennie Goodings (2020) read in September well if this wasn’t right up my street I don’t know what is. Part memoir, part history of Virago including thoughts and reminiscences of over forty years of feminist publishing, this is the story of a publisher and a movement. The excitement and vision that started it off – the passion, determination and belief that made Virago the success it was, and still is – it is all here.

Dreaming of Rose: a biographer’s journal by Sarah LeFanu (2013) which I read in September was a book I wasn’t even sure if I would like. Published by Handheld Press, who have reissued several early works by Rose Macaulay, I loved it, and it’s hard to say why. I am fascinated by the writer Rose Macaulay, and this journal by her biographer, charting her relationship with her subject and the process of writing a biography absolutely gripped me in a way I hadn’t expected. I have bought the biography, and hope to read it in 2022.

Sally on the Rocks by Winifred Boggs (1915) which I read in October, another brilliant reissue from the British Library – I have read several of this series this year, they have produced such a great list. This has a surprisingly modern feel for a novel written during WW1. It beautifully highlights the inequalities between men and women in the early years of the twentieth century.

The Woods in Winter by Stella Gibbons (1970) which I read very recently in mid-December. Just a delight from beginning to end. A novel about solitude, friendships, and the natural world – it is one of my favourite novels reissued by Dean Street Press.

So there we have it twelve favourite reads from the year that was 2021.

A few simple stats:

Out of nearly 111 books I read:

99 books by women (If I include the one I am reading and haven’t quite finished in time for 1st January)

12 by men – gosh even I am surprised at that marked difference. It’s not deliberate.

Only 11 books were non-fiction which makes the inclusion of 4 on my favourite list, rather marked. However 2 other books contained both fiction and non-fiction pieces.

Only 5 books I read this year were first published in 2021.

20.9% were by writers of colour and oddly enough 20.9 % was also the total books read in translation, both those figures slightly up on last year.

Is anyone really surprised by those figures? I don’t think I am.

So, that’s another year over, I wonder what the next one will bring? What were your standout reads of 2021?

Well my reviewing is really all over the place at the moment. There are books I read at the beginning of December that I still haven’t reviewed, and here I am writing about something I read a few days before Christmas. However, I was eager to tell you all about this as soon as I could, it was such a delight.

Stella Gibbons was a very prolific writer, and many of her novels have previously been reissued by Vintage with their recognisable red spines. However, they didn’t reissue them all, but the wonderful Dean Street Press have reissued five that were previously unavailable. The Woods in Winter was in fact the last novel that Stella Gibbons wrote for publication first published in 1970 – although another novel also written in the 1970s was discovered not long ago and reissued by Vintage. I had only read about six Stella Gibbons novels before this, and this one has reminded me how remiss I have been.

I know I have read a lot of Dean Street Press books – one day I will do a top ten or something – but The Woods in Winter is definitely one of my top DSP novels. A novel about solitude, ageing, the natural world, and unique relationships it is an absolute joy from beginning to end.

Our heroine is Ivy Gover – a middle-aged, curmudgeonly char woman – and who doesn’t love a char woman? When we first meet Ivy, she is living in one room in London. She supports herself with the pension money from her three dead husbands and money she gets from charring. The opening line of the first page reveals the story to be set around forty years before Stella Gibbons was writing – I couldn’t help but sense an old woman, going back to a time when she was most happy. Ivy Gover’s life on the other hand hasn’t been easy, losing three husbands, cleaning for other people, finding reading and writing a challenge – and always she wanted to live in the country where she had grown up. Miss Helen Green is one of the people Ivy chars for – a young woman uncomfortable with the fashionable set of bright young things she is friends with – unsatisfied in her current romance, yearning quietly for so much more.

Suddenly Ivy’s life changes forever, she receives a letter from a solicitor – that Helen has to help her make sense of – telling her she has inherited a small cottage from an uncle, in the Buckingham countryside, near to where she grew up. Ivy wastes little time. She rescues a dog, that she knows has been tied up and mistreated – and takes possession of her new home as soon as she can.

“…for the first time in her life, she was living as she had always unknowingly wanted to live: in freedom and solitude, with an animal for close companion. Her new life had acted upon her like a strong and delicious drug.”

Her canine companion is Neb – a ferocious beast with anyone but Ivy – the bond he and Ivy has is absolute. She saved him. When Ivy and Neb move into the cottage, it is the start of winter, the thatch in the roof has a large hole – and mice and cockroaches are also resident. Only, Ivy treats all creatures with respect and affection, and lets them be. As the cottage is only leasehold, the land around it is owned by Lord Gowerville – who is not responsible for repairing the roof – and poor Ivy can’t really afford it. Ivy though has other talents – she is a kind of wise woman, at one with the natural world around her.

“Calmly and irresistibly, the singing and light flowing out from the cottage with something else began to pull. They pulled with heat, and luring sounds sweet and harsh, and the other force that has no name. In woods, away across the dark field and up the hill; and in hallows in the hedge, and in crevices which had remained dry under the grass swept sideways by winter winds, this pulling was felt; and strange, microscopically small eyes opened, as soft or horny lids stirred, and faint shivers ran along spines covered in chitin or fur. The wind swept greatly over the great trees, rocking slowly in blackness.”

By curing Lord Gowerville’s dog – she earns his respect and protection and gets her roof repaired for free. Now she is comfortably settled with her dog, the mice, cockroaches, and a pet pigeon. Ivy is very content – yet despite her anti-social instincts she can’t help but to have some surprising effects on her neighbours. We meet Angela Mordaunt, a sad spinster living with her domineering mother, still mourning her dead fiancé, also the romantic local vicar and Lord Gowerville’s unpleasant agent. The Cartaret sisters, friends of Helen Green arrive on the scene – who for something to do it seems – open a tea shop in the nearby village. However, Ivy’s greatest challenge arrives in the shape of a twelve year old boy called Mike, a runaway who shows up at her door. The relationship that develops between Ivy and Mike is poignantly portrayed – and it’s hard for Ivy, knowing that where Mike is concerned she has to do the right thing, even if it breaks her heart.

There is a touching conclusion to this novel – set at the time when Gibbons was writing, which gives us a beautiful sense of time passing, and moving on set within the same landscape. It also highlights the divisions that existed in the 1970s (and still do) between those who push for progress and those who wish to protect the countryside from the ravages of that progress.

Thank you to the British Library and Virago for providing copies of these.

I’m back from a lovely couple of days spent with the family over Christmas – and I hope you all had a good, restive period too. I didn’t go away, but stayed at home, visiting my family on Christmas day and Boxing day – and that proved to be a really nice and stress free.

 I am reviewing very slightly out of order now; I feel very behind this month anyway. However, both of these books seemed just right for the festive period although only one of them is strictly speaking a Christmas book.

Murder After Christmas – Rupert Latimer (1944)

Murder After Christmas by Rupert Latimer – looked like the perfect book to settle in with, a couple of weekends before Christmas. It certainly has all the requirements of a cracking good festive mystery. A cantankerous wealthy old man arrives to spend Christmas, there is lots of snow, and a lot of jokes about how easy it would be to murder said guest. There are also some complex family relationships, a few secrets, a redrafted will, some poison, and a lot of humour. There is surprisingly little mention of the war, for a book published in 1944 – but I can see how people at the time might want an escape from the reality of life.

Old Uncle Willie has come to stay with the Redpath family for Christmas. He is very cantankerous and enjoys being so. He has a colourful past, and is of such interest to people that the Redpaths can expect lots of visitors all wanting to get a look at the old rascal. Aside from the expected visitors Rhoda and Frank Redpath who throughout the war have shared their home with Frank’s aunt Paulina are expecting their adult son John and his fiancé Margery home for Christmas. There is a big party planned for boxing day and lots of parcels piled up on the hall table – plenty of opportunity for a murderer to strike.

So, when poor old Uncle Willie is found dead in the snow, wearing his Santa costume there are a lot of questions to be answered. It appears that the old man was poisoned by his favourite chocolates, or was their something sinister in the mince pies that were later found concealed rather oddly in his room?

“A war’s on and a murder has been committed – and we sit here talking nonsense about almond whirls and mince pies.!”

The mystery is investigated by two very senior policemen – Superintendent Cully and the Chief Constable Major Smythe who knew the dead man slightly and was at the party at the Redpaths house the night before the body was found.

There’s a lot of figuring out who precisely had a motive – who benefitted from the will, who knew about the will etc. All this is satisfyingly complex – and I did find the solution to be very clever – I definitely didn’t guess.

However, something about this one didn’t quite hit the spot with me. I feel it’s a little long, and rather repetitive – the story really could have been a lot tighter. Still, if you really like your festive whodunnits, this one is another for the pile.

The Amazing Mr Blunden – Antonia Barber (1969)

Lovely Virago sent me this book in early December with some festive chocolate – and although I generally don’t read children’s fiction – unless it’s lout oud to actual children – I knew I really wanted to dive in. The Amazing Mr Blunden has been re-titled and reissued to tie in with a new film arriving on Sky soon I believe. This book for older children was originally published in 1969 under the title Ghosts – but as I can confirm is just as likely to be enjoyed by adults too.

It is described on the back cover as an enthralling ghost story with a time travelling twist. Now, I do think there is something about ghost stories that make them perfect reading for Christmas time.

Siblings Lucy and Jamie first meet Mr Blunden at their home in London, when he calls unexpectedly to offer their mother a job as caretaker to a large empty house in the country. The job offer is a lifeline to their mother, newly widowed and with two growing children and a young baby life has clearly been hard since her husband died. Before he leaves though Mr Blunden has a quiet word with the children.

“‘When you come to the house, you will hear strange tales. They will tell you in the village that it is haunted, but you must not be afraid. When the time comes… you will know what to do.’”

Settled happily in the country, Jamie and Lucy – wonder about the words of the strange old man. Soon though they meet the ghosts he was talking about – Sara and Georgie from a hundred years earlier. They urgently need help, and explain to the children about the wheel of time – and how they can actually help to change what happens to them. Jamie and his sister will have to be very brave and undertake to travel back to Sara and Georgie’s time – to a house ruled over by the sinister Mrs Wickens who plots against them and often locks Georgie in the cellar.

Lucy and Jamie want to help the children from the past – but after exploring the local graveyard and asking an old gravedigger about the people buried there – they hear the stories of the old house that are well known in the area. Can they really change what has already happened? There is a lot for them to try and understand – and in the end they must simply trust in what Mr Blunden has told them – and believe in what they are doing.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot – it’s a lovely story of ghostly time travel and friendship. There is a delightful twist at the end too. I must say I spent a very pleasant day with this one last week – just what I needed at the time.

Beryl Bainbridge is well known for her psychologically astute novels of working class life, novels like The Bottle Factory Outing and Harriet Said… However, she also wrote several historical novels – using some fascinating periods and events as inspiration. Whatever time period she writes about, Bainbridge explores her characters’ motivations and frailties with precision and understanding. It must be what makes her enduringly popular with readers.

I recently discovered that I had two copies of the exact same edition of Watson’s Apology on my tbr – and with the feeling that I might have had at least one of them for quite some time, I decided it was time I read it.

Watson’s Apology is a fictionalised account of a real life Victorian murder. The actual murder of Mrs Anne Watson by her husband took place in Stockwell toward the end of 1871. At first glance I suppose, it could be seen as just one more, tragic domestic murder. Yet, Beryl Bainbridge weaves a story of a marriage around the known facts. An author’s note tells us that the story is based on a true story, and that some documents that are presented have been edited – but of course much of the story comes from the imagination of a novelist. Despite the fact there must surely be quite a lot of fictional license taken with the true events, the story does have a feeling of authenticity; these characters feel very true to life.

The novel begins with some letters, letters from John S Watson to Anne Armstrong. Watson is a former cleric and has recently been appointed as a headmaster at a Propriety school in Stockwell. Anne is living in very reduced circumstances with her sister in Dublin. The sisters, who squabble continually, share a squalid room in a lodging house. Anne often bitterly reflects on the life their family used to have. Anne Armstrong and John Watson met once briefly seven years earlier – a meeting that John Watson remembers with some misty eyed fondness, and which Anne has totally forgotten. It is this very brief, social encounter years earlier that prompts Watson to begin writing to Anne with a view to marriage. The two finally meet some time later, and Anne accepts Watson’s proposal – naturally seeing in it a welcome escape from her dreary, poverty stricken life.

“Watson, for one brief moment, saw an insignificant little woman standing there with a handbag dangling from her wrist. Then he moved forward to greet her and took her hand in his, and she looked at him without smiling. Perhaps she was fuller in the face than he remembered, and bulkier in figure, but her eyes were unchanged and when she spoke he recognized that same husky intonation of voice which he had picked out above all others in that crowded drawing-room in Marlborough Street.”

However, this is not destined to be a happy marriage, it is clearly a marriage of two people who aren’t well matched. This is something Bainbridge clearly recognises, the depiction of this often poisonous relationship is brilliant, sad but at times quite darkly, humorous. The Watsons’ life is not an easy one, there’s as much hardship for Anne as she ever had in Dublin. A series of unsatisfactory homes, little for her to do, or lose herself in and a husband more interested in his books and the school than in her. There’s a wonderful, though excruciating holiday to Hastings, years after they are first married – which highlights beautifully how miserable they are making each other. In time Anne’s only real pleasure is in baiting her husband, criticising, and nagging, and then later the poor, unhappy woman turns to drink.  

Throughout their marriage, John Watson’s great pride, and main interest is in his very learned books and his job as headmaster. He is dedicated to this role in a way he was never dedicated to his wife – and Anne sees that, and resents it thoroughly. Watson is a man who cares what people think, so he tries hard to shield the people around him from the truth about his marriage, the arguments, his wife’s drinking, and his own unhappiness at home. Their servant Ellen Payne is of course privy to all the domestic unpleasantness – and will become an important witness.

It is John Watson’s pride and dedication in his headmaster role that is part of the problem – when after almost thirty years he is suddenly relieved of his duties, his anger and confusion knows no bounds. He is desperate to be reinstated, sharing his grievances with anyone who’ll listen – and at home all day, he has no escape from Anne’s tongue and her drinking.

“He was on the landing, on hands and knees, when Ellen Pyne came back. He called out to her that she must wait. He was dipping a rag into a basin of water and wiping the skirting board clean. But she didn’t hear, and knocked again, louder than before.”

Anne’s death happens off camera – so to speak. Bainbridge doesn’t show us the exact moment – though there is more discussion of that moment later during the trial. Up until this part of the book I was thoroughly enthralled, so well written, the story of this horribly mismatched couple is compulsive reading. However, after Anne’s death about two thirds the way through the novel the style changes.

The remainder of the story is told in a kind of reportage style – using witness testimonies from Watson’s trial, letters, and newspaper reports – based I am sure on actual records. Bainbridge uses the vernacular of the times, but surprisingly this is all really very dull. There is a bit of repetition, and the compulsive nature of the book is lost, such a shame because the first two thirds was excellent.

I am still glad I read this, it is such a fascinating story, and Bainbridge is a fantastic writer – I just wish the final third had been written in the same way as the majority of the book.

One thing I was particularly interested in was who Bainbridge felt the most sympathy with – her sympathy – and the law’s in some ways – seem to have been with John Watson. Yet we must remember a woman died brutally – she wasn’t a nice woman, but she was also a very unhappy woman, a woman who had wanted love and didn’t get it – who had no agency and no useful thing to do.

Finally, I am reviewing my last read of November. It feels like such a long time since I read this book – which turned out to be easily one of my favourite reads of the month. Out of the Red into the Blue was the last Barbara Comyns book I had to track down, and I found a plain, ex library copy for around £30 – I had to snap it up. So, the pictured edition isn’t what my edition looks like – mine wouldn’t make a very pretty picture, but I am so happy I own it – and all Barbara Comyns’ books, in a variety of editions.

Out of the Red Into the Blue is a memoir not a novel and having so loved her novels, I admit my expectations weren’t high. However, I needn’t have worried, I loved this book. It is possible though, that I am not very objective when it comes to my favourite writers, of course this isn’t like The Vet’s Daughter or Their Spoons Came From Woolworths – we couldn’t expect it to be. Yet, Comyns voice is recognisable, quirky, and sometimes rather odd. We all know that person who tells a good, funny story of things that have happened to them, to who we always say, ‘oh my goodness, that could only happen to you!” Barbara Comyns must surely have been that person for all her friends. When her son sends her a strange little beeswax figure of a man, Barbara immediately decided it will bring her family good luck and puts it in pride of place in the drawing room. When she and her husband have a row in Spain – she runs away and ends up hiding up a fruit tree in the dark to escape guard dogs.

“There were two to begin with, but later they were joined by a tiny dog that was even fiercer than the others, and eventually I was forced to climb a tree to escape them while the dogs barked and snuffled below. It was a horse’s banana tree – at least I always called them that, but later I learnt they were called alcarrobas. Fortunately this was a large tree and I could get quite high, but every now and then a banana (or pod) would fall on the ground and start the dogs off again. Men came from the farm-houses with torches to see what was causing all the noise, and I was terrified they would see me up the tree and think I was mad – it would have been impossible to explain what I was doing up there at that time of night in Spanish.”

This is the story of how Barbara Comyns and her family left England for life on a Spanish island. The Island they settle on is called Ciriaco in the book, only that doesn’t exist, so I assume she decided to fictionalise the place – Wikipedia claim it was Ibiza where they lived briefly before moving to Barcelona. There are also some other things which are ignored or glossed over, and the timeline is slightly confusing – as the book seems to span less than two years – ending with a return to England. Only, the family actually spent many years in Spain. None of that really matters – as for a Comyns fan this book gives a delicious little glimpse into the slightly chaotic world of Barbara Comyns.

The book opens with Barbara her husband, daughter, and several dogs living in a large house in London that they can barely afford. Barbara’s son Nicholas is away in Cyprus doing National Service. Barbara’s husband Raymond she describes as a civil servant – who has recently lost his job, and is finding it hard to get another one. The truth was slightly more colourful of course – her husband (real name Richard) had in fact worked for MI6 alongside Kim Philby – and was laid off due to his association with the renowned double agent. About her own career she is rather self-effacing describing herself as having written a bit and published a couple of books.

For several chapters we follow the family in the year or so before they move to Spain – a time of money worries, difficult lodgers, worries with pets, and a new housekeeper in the basement. It is Barbara who comes up with the idea of Spain – and it takes a while to sell the idea to her husband. They must also contend with the trauma of disposing of a house they love, and what to do with the pets. Eventually, Barbara goes alone – to find a house – her husband joining her later. Her grown up children don’t make the move to Spain initially but join their parents later on a series of visits. Tasked with finding a house – Barbara is staying in a small, cheap hotel – where she is rather horribly uncomfortable – and until the weather improves very cold – it’s an inauspicious start.

 “Although I was very lonely, my days were happy until it became dark and cold and I had to return to my hotel. As soon as I went into that dreary street my spirits sank. It was one of those streets where the road is always up and the wind always blows. I would go into my room and try and make it comfortable by lighting the little oil stove and putting the saucepan of water on top, but, besides making a great smell, the stove made very little difference to the room because the ceiling was so high and the window so large. When it became dark I always tried the electric light hopefully, but it never came to more than a faint glow. I bought a 100 watt bulb instead of the tiny one provided, but to my horror the weight pulled the whole light fitting out of the wall, so I had to rely on candles.”

Finally Barbara finds the first of two houses the family live in on the island – and while it isn’t perfect – it has a wonderful view of the sea and Barbara who is desperate to find a home – takes it. Raymond arrives with the youngest of the dogs they had had in London – and the house’s impracticalities soon become apparent – having to get water from a well in the kitchen, terrible problems with drains and small rooms all opening off the living room. However, in great enthusiasm Barbara sets about trying to create a garden. They are visited by Raymond’s father and Caroline their daughter – who ends up staying a long time – and Nicholas pays a flying visit too.

The second house they move to is in the town, in a rather poor street – but the house has other advantages – being in a sunny position having its own back yard with trees. Here they settle in, and Caroline is soon very much a part of the island, an attractive young woman she attracts a lot of young men – falling in love with a young man called Pepe. There are more dramas around dogs – and a falling out with the local dog catcher (quite unpleasant to read about) – Barbara’s family certainly seem to make their mark – and their time on the island is always eventful.

This book was a joyful treat for me – because I love Barbara Comyns – but it actually made me want to know more about her the woman and her family. I could have read many more pages of this stuff. Delightful.