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With thanks to the British Library for the review copy, and for inviting me to be part of their blog tour.

The British Library have recently published some new titles to their already brilliant list – and I was delighted to receive this one to review for the blog tour. Winifred Boggs was a totally new name to me, and apparently little is now known about her, other than she published around a dozen novels under her own name and pseudonyms. Sally on the Rocks first published in 1915 is set during that same year, still quite early into World War One.

There are some pretty serious themes in this novel, though the novel is never heavy, nor does the author labour her point in any way. In fact, the premise might make Sally on the Rocks sound like a fizzing, early twentieth century romance, it is far more than that, and I am delighted that I have persuaded my book group to read it in December.

In this novel Winifred Boggs highlights beautifully the inequalities between men and women in the early years of the twentieth century. While a man may be permitted, or at least forgiven a youthful indiscretion, the same rules did not apply to women. A woman’s life could be utterly ruined by even the merest hint of a sexual relationship before marriage. Set at a time when some men were already returning, broken, and traumatised from the trenches, and others were being hailed heroes merely for wearing a uniform – this is definitely a novel that has a lot to say about England during WW1.

As the novel opens we are introduced to Miss Maggie, a truly loathsome character who is capable of destroying anyone with her sly, knowing gossip, and habit of wheedling out the most hidden of little secrets. Miss Maggie wields her power over the very English village of Little Crampton.

“The sooner you discovered that Miss Maggie was neither to be defied nor ignored, but appeased, the better. Also that it would save time and trouble to tell her your own version of the worst. No matter how small the skeleton she pounced upon, the lady could make its bones rattle so loudly that you would be deafened yourself.”

She very knowingly writes a letter to Sally Lunton in Paris, Sally had previously lived in Little Crampton with her guardian the Rev Adam Lovelady. Only for the past six years, Sally has been living a rather more Bohemian existence in Europe – but the war has rather put a stop to all that. Miss Maggie tells Sally about a new resident of Little Crampton, A Mr Bingley; bank manager and bachelor – with a very healthy bank balance. Miss Maggie knows exactly what she is doing, because at thirty one the one thing Sally really needs now is a husband, there were virtually no other options open to women of her class at the time. Only, Miss Maggie knows there is another woman in the running to be Mrs Alfred Bingley. A youngish widow: Mrs Dalton, who has a dear little girl has already caught Mr Bingley’s eye. Miss Maggie hopes that she will be able to sit back and watch the drama of a little love triangle unfold. That’s not to say that Mr Bingley is a particularly attractive proposition, he’s not. A pompous, Anglican lay reader, over forty who is resentful of the attention all the young soldiers are getting, but has no intention of lying about his age to enlist himself. However absurd it might seem to us today, a woman without independent means, had to be practical. A husband with money meant a woman had some sort of life of her own, a home, and a position in society.

So, Sally arrives back in Little Crampton, settling back at home with her guardian Rev Adam Lovelady, a gentle, kindly man, still grieving the loss of his wife and child some years earlier. Sally knows what she must do, and she sets about the work of getting Mr Bingley to marry her. Though there is no rivalry between Sally and Mrs Dalton after all, they recognise in one another the need the other has and wish each other well – and may the best woman win! It’s a lovely bit of female, solidarity and understanding.

“They knew it was going to be a struggle to the death, and yet they were attracted instantly, and wished it might have been friendship. How delightful to have laughed together over the situation, and that absurdity, Mr Alfred Bingley.”

Despite her best efforts to keep her mind on the job, so to speak, Sally can’t help but be distracted. Firstly, she meets a handsome soldier, returned from the war, he is tortured by his experiences and, haunted by a mistake he made. When Sally first meets him he is threatening to shoot himself.

“The stranger looked at her and found her uncomely and very much in the way. What in opportune things women were! Desperate as he had been, it had taken a little nerving up to set out thus upon the Great Adventure, but he had nerved himself up, and for this. All would have been over now, restfully over, if it had not been for this interfering woman with the long, grim mouth. Damn her! The crimson of the sky blazed into his eyes; it made him think of blood and terrible things. He would ever have ceased to think by now, save for this girl. Damn her! Damn her!”

Sally takes away his gun, finds him some temporary employment and lodging – and despite his initial surly ingratitude involves herself in his story, wanting to help him recover from his ordeal. The second distraction comes in the form of a face from her Bohemian past. Sally’s secret has followed her home from Europe, and should it become known any idea of a sensible marriage to Mr Bingley will be off the cards. Miss Maggie is a veritable blood hound when it comes to secrets – and will go to the most extraordinary lengths to find out the worst – after which she makes sure everyone else knows about it. Sally has good reason to be concerned.

Sally on the Rocks is more than anything a compelling read, its themes make it for me particularly interesting, and Sally is a fabulous heroine. A woman a little outside of her time, perhaps. I can’t wait to talk about this with my book group in December.

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Translated from the Italian by the author

The last book I had to review from my September reading pile – I had to start reviewing out of order – back on track now.

I first encountered Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing in 2006 when I read her much anticipated first novel The Namesake, a couple of years later I read her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies. I didn’t encounter her again until 2018 and this time as a translator – when I read a novel by Domenico Starnone that she had translated from Italian. I was intrigued. In 2011 Jhumpa Lahiri had moved her family to Italy, where she immersed herself in the language and culture of her adopted country. Incredibly, she began writing in Italian, she has translated two novels by Starnone, as well as writing two of her own books of non-fiction in Italian. Whereabouts – first written in Italian, was Lahiri’s first novel since The Lowland in 2013.

Not a great deal happens in Whereabouts – but that shouldn’t matter – unless you’re looking for a plot driven novel I suppose. The writing is incredible, elegant and minutely observed. Not a word is wasted, an evocation of a city and one woman within it.

“Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect. And yet it plagues me, it weighs on me in spite of my knowing it so well.”

The unnamed narrator of the novel is a single woman in her mid-forties, in whose company we move through the city where she lives. She walks along the streets, over bridges through restaurants or shops, she notices the people around her. She stops to have a coffee in a little square, she recognises people she knows, or merely those she has seen on the street before.

The story of this woman is told in a series of short vignettes, chapters are titled for the places and situations in which we find her, In the Piazza, On the Street, At the Beautician, In the Sun, At My House etc. There is an incredible sense of belonging to this place, to this unnamed, acutely observed city, but also a sense of isolation.

“The city doesn’t beckon or lend me a shoulder today. Maybe it knows I’m about to leave. The sun’s dull disk defeats me; the dense sky is the same one that will carry me away. The vast and vaporous territory, lacking precise pathways, is all that binds us together now. But it never preserves our tracks. The sky, unlike the sea, never holds on to the people that pass through it. The sky contains nothing of our spirit, it doesn’t care. Always shifting, altering its aspect from one moment to the next, it can’t be defined.”

Cities are wonderful places from where to tell stories, such numbers of people, anonymously brushing shoulders as they venture forth. Yet, within cities there are neighbourhoods, where residents may see the same people at the bus stop or in the coffee shop, strangers become more recognisable and we develop relationships with some of the people around us. Lahiri portrays that relationship we can have with parts of the cities where we live beautifully, recreating those small everyday moments that happen everywhere.

We share small moments with this woman, getting coffee, talking to the barista she knows, bumping into her ex in a book shop, getting a manicure at the beauticians. There are also some awkward social encounters too, a get together at her home, where the husband of a friend proves himself to be something of a pompous idiot, who consumes all the best cakes. She also attends a baptism of a colleague’s child – but overwhelmed finds an escape at the local beach.

As she moves through the city, we become privy to the woman’s thoughts, as well as her observations, her reminiscences, and her current concerns. Three of the chapters are called In My Head – and are concerned with her inner thoughts, memories of her parents, reflections on her own solitude or reluctance to face the day. She is moving toward a finale of sorts. She has decided to leave this city – to start again elsewhere, leaving is never easy. Through each short chapter we move closer to the time when she will leave the place she seems attached to, but wants to shake off.

“This stationery store has been one of my haunts for years. When I was a young girl I’d go there to get what I needed for school, then for college, and now for teaching. Every purchase, however mundane, makes me happy. Each item validates my life somehow.”

Her mother is an elderly, though oppressive figure, twice a month the woman goes to visit her mother, taking cat’s tongue cookies with her. Her mother can talk of little besides what is wrong with her, while the daughter sits and remembers the woman she was once, when the mother was the age the daughter is now. She remembers the loss of her father, when she was much younger, a loss she very much still carries with her. There is a sense of the woman looking back at the what might have beens, considering the choices she has made throughout her life. She seems happy to be on her own, yet she is very aware of all the people around her who made different choices, seeing those other choices reflected in those other lives.

This was such a beautiful little read – under 200 pages, and full of quotable passages. There is poetic, almost dreamlike quality to the narrative. I am reminded that I want to read much more by Lahiri – especially the book she wrote about her move to Italy and how she began to write in Italian.

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Anyone who follows Dorian on Twitter may well have seen his huge enthusiasm for Bear by Marian Engel – Dorian wrote a wonderful essay about the book which you can read here. I confess to having bought this new Daunt Books edition of Bear on something of a whim – and then wondered if I wanted to read it. When I saw that Bear qualified for the #1976club I decided it was fate. I admit I approached with caution – after all there’s really only one thing people talk about when they talk about this novel, and that’s rather a shame it’s about so much more than that (more about that later). I think I was affected by my preconceptions of this, and that idea it might not be for me. However, I did really enjoy Bear, for me a four star rather than a five star read – though I couldn’t explain why.

Two things I love in a novel – or novella I should probably say – and that is beautiful, unfussy prose, the other a strong sense of place. Engel’s writing is pitch perfect, and I could have included many more quotes in this review – I was spoiled for choice.

Bear is a novel about self-discovery and solitude, the natural world and its healing powers on a fragile soul. It’s oddly tender in places, often funny and on the back of my copy is described both as ‘the best Canadian novel of all time’ and ‘the most controversial novel ever written in Canada.’ And if that doesn’t make you want to read it, I don’t know what will.

Lou is a librarian, who works for a heritage institute, in the city, by day she is buried in the basement of the building surrounded by manuscripts, photographs and old maps. She lives a small, lonely life with little if any variation.

“In the winter she lived like a mole, buried deep in her office, digging among maps and manuscripts. She lived close to her work, and shopped on the way between her apartment and the Institute, scurrying hastily through the tube of winter from refuge to refuge, wasting no time. She did not like cold air on her skin.”

Then, unexpectedly her work provides Lou with an opportunity to escape the tedium of her existence. She is asked to travel to a remote Canadian island to inventory the late Colonel Jocelyn Cary’s estate. Anticipating a summer in beautiful surroundings, quietly cataloguing, Lou heads north in her car. Although the car can only take her so far, the last little bit of her journey must be done by boat. The house on Cary’s Island is a white, octagon, Lou is surprised that a house of such quality isn’t better known. She is shown around the house and island by Homer Campbell, from who she will get her supplies. She learns about the gas lighting the wood stove and the pump outside. Yet, it’s only at the last minute she is told about the bear. It seems there has always been a bear on Carey’s Island. Homer doesn’t know why there’s always been bear, there just has. Lou is well suited to cataloguing, sifting among the materials left behind by an earlier generation and finding out all she can about that life – but she certainly hadn’t reckoned with caring for a bear.

“So this was her kingdom: an octagonal house, a roomful of books, and a bear.”

Lou settles down to her work, she is intrigued by Colonel Cary and his descendants, hoping of course to uncover something incredible. She also becomes more and more drawn to her unusual charge. The bear is chained up in the barn, an ageing bear with sad eyes and matted fur. Lou connects with him on a simple level – two creatures brought together, sharing a space. An ancient indigenous woman who formally cared for the bear, tells Lou the bear is a good bear. Lou takes the bear into the lake with her, allowing the water to clean its matted fur. She allows him off the chain, and in the evenings the bear comes into the house, sprawling out in front of the fire.

“‘Bear.’ She said, rubbing her foot in his fur, suddenly lonely. The fire was too hot, and the fur rug, had edged toward her. Oh, she was lonely, inconsolably lonely; it was years since she had had human contact. She had always been bad at finding it. It was if men knew that her soul was gangrenous.”

Gradually, Lou’s relationship with the bear begins to change, he’s no longer an it, a creature to be chained up and feared. Although that potential danger is always there, adding a little frisson perhaps to the heightening sexualised tension between the two of them. It’s testament to Engel’s skill as a writer that this bizarre relationship – which does of course become a sexual one, is while rather shocking, also believable. So, yes that is what everyone talks about with this book – a novel likely to have people crying ‘ugh, bear sex! No thanks.” Well, I am very glad I took a chance. It is, dare I suggest, rather more grown up than, woman has sex with bear.

Bear is so much more than the one thing everyone talks about – there is a sensuous subtlety to Engel’s writing. The story of Lou and Bear is told with a sympathetic tenderness. However, it is Lou’s discovery of herself that is the real joy to witness. Engel’s descriptions of the natural world are really beautiful, there is a stunning sense of place, an appreciation of the rhythms of the seasons and the natural world.

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The #1976club starts today, I have come to thoroughly enjoy these club reads hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuckinabook and 1976 is one of the later years that have been selected. There were a good selection of titles to pick from including lots of books I have read before and was quite tempted to re-read. In the end I decided to go for two new reads – my second 1976 title will be reviewed later this week.

It is especially pleasing that Brian Moore’s The Doctor’s Wife fitted into this reading week, as 2021 is the centenary of Brian Moore’s birth and Cathy at 746 books has been celebrating his life and work all year. I first read Brian Moore in 2019, when I read his 1955 novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, maybe the best known of his novels these days. Earlier this year I read Lies of Silence and The Feast of Lupercal as part of the centenary read-a-long hosted by Cathy – remembering suddenly that my dad had been a big fan of Brian Moore’s novels. There are themes present in The Doctor’s Wife that I certainly recognised from those other novels. Despite, the fact that the majority of this novel is set in France, the Troubles in Northern Ireland loom large. Yet, in this novel Moore also examines human relationships, especially within marriage with great insight and understanding.

Sheila Redden, a thirty-seven year old Doctor’s Wife from Northern Ireland, arranged to stay overnight in Paris with a friend Peg, before continuing her journey the following day to Villefranche where she would be joined by her husband. The same room, in the same hotel where they spent their honeymoon sixteen years earlier.

“What about those men you read about in newspaper stories who walk out of their homes saying they are going down to the corner to buy cigarettes and are never heard from again? This is Paris. I am here. What if I never go back?”

Four weeks later, Sheila is nowhere to be found, and her brother; Owen Deane another doctor, has followed her to Paris to try and discover what happened and where she is.

When she arrived in Paris Sheila knew that her husband Kevin was rather less keen on this holiday than she was, in fact he would probably have rather stayed at home. She was looking forward to catching up with Peg, and seeing a bit of Paris again on her own. She has no idea that a chance introduction will see her spending her holiday with an American man eleven years her junior. Tom Lowry is attractive and charismatic and instantly attracted to Sheila, he is nothing like her husband. Sheila is flattered by Tom’s attention, but leaves Paris as planned for Villefranche and the hotel where she is due to meet her husband. Tom follows, and Kevin doesn’t arrive – held up by work at home, he promises to try and get away in a few days, of course he never does.

“She looked back now at this eager stranger, this American boy, smiling at her, sipping wine. ‘I don’t know,’ she said ‘some people never want to go outside the place they were born in. And others seem to want to run away from the day they’re old enough to walk.’

‘And which are you?’

‘A runaway.’

‘But you didn’t leave, did you?’”

The inevitable happens, and Sheila embarks on a passionate affair with Tom. There are a few rather explicit sex scenes which may not be for everyone, but it’s clear that despite the differences in their ages, it is Sheila for who all this is new, a million miles from her sexual experiences with her husband. This a kind of awakening for Sheila – as if she is suddenly becoming the woman she always should have been.

“How did I get so bogged down in ordinariness that even this once I couldn’t do the spontaneous thing, the thing I really wanted to do. The future is forbidden to no one. Unless we forbid it ourselves.”

Alongside the story of Sheila and Tom, there are flashbacks to the life Sheila had in Northern Ireland her memories of the troubles, which have affected her greatly, and her narrow stifling marriage to Kevin. She also has a fifteen year old son, but seems able to tell herself that he doesn’t really need her anymore, he will be off her hands in a few years anyway. It’s rather sad, that while Sheila is contemplating never returning to her life in Northern Ireland, it is her teenage son who seems to be considered the least.

On the one hand there seems to be no judgement from Moore on the behaviour of his characters, however it is interesting that throughout the novel, he mainly refers to Sheila as Mrs Redden – driving a point home, I thought. The reader remains in little doubt that Kevin Redden is not the man Sheila should be spending her life with, there is a very unpleasant scene between them, which I don’t want to discuss here, because others may be reading this book this week. Sheila has to make some big decisions about her future, Tom is pressing her to go to America with him, Kevin insists she should go home. When Owen Deane arrives in Paris no one seems to know where Sheila is.

A novel about a woman having an affair with a younger man, and making seismic decisions about her life, is nothing new. Yet, Moore brings something else to this age old story. He also makes it fantastically compelling.

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With thanks to the British Library for providing a copy of the book

The British library have now published a number of E C R Lorac mysteries, and though I haven’t read them all, it’s clear she has become a very popular writer among lovers of Golden age mysteries. She was a prolific and popular author during the 1930s, 40s and 50s and also wrote under the name Carol Carmac. These Names Make Clues was first published in 1937, when Lorac was already establishing herself as a mystery writer. However, Martin Edwards in his introduction explains how this novel came to almost be completley forgotten. It is surprising given how popular Lorac has been, and what a good example of golden age fiction this is.

Like so many of the best detective novels of this period, These Names Make Clues is set between the wars, April 1936 to be precise, and gathers a large number of people altogether in one place – at least to start with. The novel opens with Chief Inspector Macdonald at home, looking forward to settling down with a new book. He decides to open his post first though, and one of his letters is from Graham Coombe inviting him to a treasure hunt party. The treasure hunt is to have clues that are of literary, historical, or political nature, and those invited to play, Coombe explains, detectives of a literary, psychological, or practical bent. Would Macdonald consent to pit himself – and his skills – against Coombe’s invited guests of thriller writers and others? Initially, Macdonald is really not keen. He discusses the party and his possible attendance with his friend, the journalist Peter Vernon – but on the toss of a coin decides to go along after all.

The set up is all very Christie-esque, Macdonald arrives at Caroline House – the London residence of Graham Coombe and his sister – and is given a literary pseudonym, each of his fellow guests is similarly disguised. Various parts of the house have been given over to the treasure hunters in which to hunt for clues and make their investigations. The treasure hunt gets underway, and Macdonald likes to think he might know who one or two of his fellow hunters may be. Here the reader really needs to have their wits about them, because most of the people we meet at Caroline House during the treasure hunt have two names, the pseudonym given to them at the party, and their own name – confused? me? absolutely.

The fun stops rather abruptly when the lights all go out and ‘Samuel Pepys’ is found dead in the telephone room. ‘Samuel Pepys’ is revealed to be well-known detective writer Andrew Gardien.

“There was a desk by the window, on which stood the telephone. A large arm-chair stood in the middle of the small floor space, and against the wall facing the window was a fine mahogany bureau, whose heavy front was pulled out, though the flap was not let down. Pulling aside the chair a little, Macdonald said ‘I’m afraid he is here. Very much here.’”

Macdonald is on hand to look into the strange circumstances right away, and what initially appeared to have been natural causes is quickly suspected to be anything but. There’s quite a bit of who’s who to be sorted out, not to mention who was where, and who saw who in those places when the lights went out – all of which sets things up rather nicely for a very puzzling mystery.

Macdonald and his CID colleagues get to work, but the very next day, Gardien’s agent is also found dead, in very bizarre circumstances, but who died first, and was one responsible for the other?

Macdonald’s friend journalist Peter Vernon is drawn into the mystery when he gets talking to one of the treasure hunters at the inquest. Soon, he is chasing all over the countryside in a borrowed sports car, in the hope of landing himself a scoop into the bargain.

“The long straight stretch of road ahead was ideal for a chase. The M.G was new, and in tip-top order, and Vernon began to enjoy himself. He was soon near enough to read the registration number ahead and to realise that his luck was in.”

This is an enjoyable mystery, perfect for these autumnal evenings and lazy weekends, a little short on atmosphere perhaps, but plenty of twists and turns that keep the reader guessing.

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With thanks to Handheld Press for providing the book

Dreaming of Rose was originally published in 2013, but has been revised by Handheld press for this new edition.

Having now read ten books by Rose Macaulay, I do consider myself to be something of fan, and eager to learn more about her. While Dreaming of Rose: A biographer’s Journal is a book about Rose Macaulay’s biographer Sarah LeFanu, it is also, of course, about Rose Macaulay too. I’m not sure I expected to love this one as much as I did, not always being great with non-fiction and being more interested in Rose Macaulay herself and her writing than in her biographer – I thought. Well, I was wrong, everything is connected, Rose Macaulay, her work, and her biographer and I absolutely loved this book. It prompted me to buy Sarah LeFanu’s biography of Rose Macaulay, published in 2003 by Virago. I think this book sets the interested reader up perfectly for the biography – but I shall probably wait a while before I read it.

As the title suggests – this is a journal, a journal kept by Sarah LeFanu during the period she was writing her biography of Rose Macaulay, a writer and great traveller. It is a book which for me works well on two fronts, allowing readers to explore Rose Macaulay through the eyes of another – while also giving us a glimpse into the life of the biographer at work. The biography of Rose Macaulay was published in 2003, and the majority of the journal entries date from 1998 to 2002 when Sarah was writing the book. In 2012 a sealed archive of embargoed Rose Macaulay material was opened – and Sarah took up her journal again, to record this momentous occasion.

LeFanu shows us that the work of a biographer is not easy – there are a lot of hurdles to be got over, many frustrations encountered along the way. Family life, children’s school holidays might sometimes get in the way, and sometimes after days struggling with a particular chapter – it must be set aside for long periods to make way for other, paid work.

“I suspect I’m blaming Rose for my inability to get on with writing this chapter. I desperately need a clear space with no teaching. I’m doing a day school on women poets the weekend after this, and haven’t even begun to think about it. And then there’s all the next term’s reading still to do.”

During this period Sarah was a very busy woman, teaching at Bristol university, abridging books for BBC radio 4, editing anthologies and picking up various bits of freelance work. Yet, as soon as she could, she would come back to Rose, picking up the threads of her literary investigations, persuading people (or not) to talk to her, and thanks to an Art’s Council award travelling to some of the places that Rose had. She is also incredibly honest about her own self-doubt, a terrible critic of her own work, her own worth – there are times when Sarah LeFanu questions her own ability to write the biography at all. Money worries rear their ugly head too – bills are due and there’s little left in the kitty – it’s certainly not all glamour.

The relationship between the biographer and their subject (perhaps especially when the subject is no longer with us) is a unique one. There is naturally a responsibility to that person concerning revelations that they may not have wished to be made so public. In Rose Macaulay’s case many of the letters she hadn’t wished published were published years before Sarah LeFanu began writing her biography. Rose Macaulay’s great secret was already out. Those letters left out of that publication were sealed for fifty years – and opened in 2012. In 1918, Rose Macaulay met a writer, and former priest Gerald O’Donovan, a married man, and father. Their relationship was secret and lasted twenty-five years – until his death.

“This evening I finished James Lees-Milne’s entertainingly bitchy Ancestral Voices. In his entry for 27 July 1943 he describes Rose Macaulay as ‘dry and twitchy’ at a dinner party where they were both guests. I know that it was the first anniversary of Gerald O’Donovan’s funeral. But how was Lee-Milne to know? According to Victor Gollancz Rose’s affair with Gerald had been the best kept secret in London.”

The short story Miss Anstruther’s Letters is inspired by the grief that Macaulay suffered after his death – it’s a deeply poignant story even without that background knowledge. So, alongside LeFanu’s investigations into Rose Macaulay, she must also consider the huge role Gerald O’Donovan played in her life.

LeFanu shows us just how complex and yet consuming the relationship between a biographer and her subject is. Unearthing those little nuggets of information that go into creating a picture of a person – it’s not unlike a treasure hunt, following the clues, hoping to find the things no one else has – fitting it all together, creating an understanding. Appreciating how that relationship works, and where the pitfalls might be, how the biographer can feel like they are chasing a ghost, Sarah LeFanu references the biographer of Robert Louis Stevenson. She also references another long held literary secret – that of Dorothy L Sayers and her son. There is a responsibility in the biographer’s art – and it is one that LeFanu is well aware of.

This is a wonderful book; I am so very glad I have read it. One I think that will interest those interested in Rose Macaulay and those interested in the art of the biographer. Warning – it might make you want to read a lot of books by Rose Macaulay, but of course I would say that could only be a good thing.

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September has been a sort of year’s beginning for me, for as long as I can remember. As a child I was ruled by the school calendar and the constant promise of weekends and school holidays, and my working life has been pretty similar – over thirty years working in the same primary school, this my thirty first September, and yet it wasn’t quite the same for me this year. I returned to work, after yet another sick leave before the holidays, looking forward to a new school year. Three staff days started the term off and that was that for me, I realised I wasn’t well enough, and so off I went again, not how I had wanted to begin the year. So, I haven’t even met any children yet. Anyway, long story short, I am starting again next week – hoping it will be much better.

So, therefore my September reading hasn’t been as dire as I had predicted (though my October reading might be) – it hasn’t been especially good either, because I have been binge watching Walter Presents dramas and falling asleep most afternoons utterly exhausted for no reason. Still, nine books read, and all of them great, and incredibly three of them non-fiction – I mean who am I?

I began with A Bite of the Applea life with books writers and Virago by Lennie Goodings (2020) a perfect book for me, I absolutely loved it.  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.

Nothing to Report by Carola Oman (1940) another great re-issue from Dean Street Press. Set mainly in the last few months before war breaks out in 1939, among the people of a small English village. There is a sequel I am looking forward to reading too.

I chose to read Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (2019) the second book by Elizabeth Strout about this character because I was just in the mood for it’s linked short story style. An absolutely brilliant novel – through these stories, Elizabeth Strout creates the sense of a town – Crosby, Maine, and in Olive has created a remarkably real and thoroughly memorable character.

Ordinary Families by E Arnot Robertson (1933) was one of a very large pile of unread old green vmcs I have. Many have been languishing unread for a long time, and this one caught my eye when I was looking for something to read. A coming of age story rooted in a small boating community in the Suffolk marshes.

The Heart of a Woman by Maya Angelou (1981) is the fourth volume in her incredible autobiography. This volume sees Maya becoming immersed in the world of writers and artists in Harlem, going on to work in the civil rights movement and becoming involved with African freedom fighters.

The first of four books I read in September which I have yet to review – but will in the fullness of time. Dreaming of Rose by Sarah LeFanu (2013) was very kindly sent to me by Handheld Press earlier in the summer when I was up to my eyes in moving and reading for Women in Translation month. I finally read it and was surprised at how much I loved it. Surprised because I am not always good with nonfiction. A biographer’s journal it is a fascinating look at how a biographer works and her relationship with her subject. Rose Macaulay is a writer I am already fascinated by so it hit the spot and I went off and bought Sarah LeFanu’s biography of Rose Macaulay on the strength of it.

A nice bit of golden age crime hit the spot last weekend. These Names Make Clues by E.C.R Lorac (1937) sent to me by the British library, it’s one of their more recent publications. A treasure hunt party ends suddenly with the death of a writer – and the next day his agent is discovered dead in his office. Chief Inspector Macdonald is at the party under sufferance and so gets straight down to figuring it all out.

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (2018) was a novel I had intended to read for Women in Translation Month but didn’t manage to fit it in. Translated by the author from the Italian – I am fascinated by Lahiri’s decision to start writing in her second language – and have already read one of her literary translations. This is a beautiful novel, delicate and fragmentary in which not much happens – a really lovely piece of writing. I am determined to read more of Lahiri’s back catalogue as I haven’t read much by her at all.

The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore (1976) I read for the upcoming 1976 club hosted again by Karen and Simon. I wanted to make sure I had at least one thing read and ready to write about, before going back to work. I will review it during the club week. A novel about an Irish woman who has an affair in Paris with a younger man might not sound especially compelling, it’s an age old type of story, but Moore brings so much more to it. It is insanely compelling.

I am not making any plans or promises for October. I do have a couple of review books I want to get to, including Sally On the Rocks by Winifred Boggs which I am on a blog tour for later in the month. I will be happy enough if I can just enjoy a few books even if it means reading less than usual. At the time of writing, I haven’t even chosen my next read – as I have just finished The Doctor’s Wife a couple of hours ago. I could read something else for the 1976 club – watch this space.

What brilliant things did you read in September? And what are your October plans? Whatever they might be – happy reading one and all.

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The fourth volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography; The Heart of a Woman sees Maya becoming immersed in the world of writers and artists in Harlem, going on to work in the civil rights movement and becoming involved with African freedom fighters. I have been reading these volumes alongside two good friends, Liz, who many of you will know from her blog Adventures in Reading, Running and Working from Home, and our non-blogging friend Meg. It’s been lovely to be able to discuss the book with them – each of us I think impressed by her extraordinary resilience.

This volume takes up Maya’s story a little while after the end of the last book where we left her working in Hawaii. Following on from her tour with the cast of Porgy and Bess, and her showbusiness work in Hawaii, Maya was living for a short time in a commune with her son Guy. It’s just a stop gap though, soon Maya and Guy are on the move again (they move frequently). Guy is a teenager now, growing up and keen to take on the responsibility he believes he should as a young man. Maya has reason to fear for Guy, the constant moving around means he has few friends, and as a teenager he is at risk of being targeted by other black youths.

“They were young black men, preying on other young black men. They had been informed, successfully, that they were worthless, and everyone who looked like them was equally without worth. Each sunrise brought a day without hope and each evening the sun set on a day lacking in achievement. Whites, who ruled the world, owned the air and food and jobs and schools and fair play, had refused to share with them any of life’s necessities–and somewhere, deeper than their consciousness, they believed the whites were correct. They, the black youth, young lords of nothing, were born without value and would creep, like blinded moles, their lives long in the darkness, under the earth, chewing on roots, driven far from the light.”

For a while, Maya goes back to singing, but she in unsatisfied with her work. She is aware of the work being done in Harlem, the efforts of Martin Luther King. She decides to go the New York, and discover Harlem for herself.

“It was the awakening summer of 1960 and the entire country was in labor. Something wonderful was about to be born, and we were all going to be good parents to the welcome child. Its name was Freedom.”

In Harlem she is introduced to the Harlem Writer’s Guild, where she meets Paule Marshall, author of Brown Girl, Brownstone that I read last year. This is one of a number of extraordinary encounters in the book – including an ageing Billie Holliday, Martin Luther King and Malcom X. Soon Maya is working for a key civil rights group in Harlem, helping produce a review show to raise vital funds. Her focus and organisational skills impress, and it isn’t long before Maya is running the Harlem office of the SCLC.

It is here in New York that Maya is introduced to African freedom fighters, she gets swept up in their passion and politics, she is inspired by their similar causes. It is around this time that Maya meets yet another unsuitable man Vusumzi Make an African freedom fighter – who says he wants to marry her. Maya is engaged to another man at the time, so she has a decision to make. She finishes the relationship with her fiancé and throws her lot in with Vus – they don’t actually marry legally – but Maya travels with him to London and Egypt. Her new role as an African freedom fighter’s wife – is not quite what she expects, Vus is a charmer who racks up debts and expects Maya to act like an African wife – but Maya is a capable, independent woman, frustrated by inactivity she starts to feel jealous at the influence of Vus on her son. As a reader, we know this is another relationship that is doomed from the start – but Maya tries to make it work for Guy’s sake.

While Maya is in Africa she learns how different black Americans and black Africans are – there is also a difference in how she is treated as a black American. Africa is an emotional experience. Reminding Maya as she flies from Egypt to Ghana about the millions of African people stolen from their homeland by the evils of the slave trade. At the airport in Accra Maya and Guy are surrounded by a wonderful sea of black people, one thing they notice though is that some of these people are actually wearing the uniforms of airline pilots.

“Three black men walked past us wearing airline uniforms, visored caps, white pants and jackets whose shoulders bristled with epaulettes. Black pilots? Black captains? It was 1962. In our country, the cradle of democracy, whose anthem boasted ‘the land of the free, the home of the brave,’ the only black men in our airports fuelled planes, cleaned cabins, loaded food or were skycaps, racing the pavement for tips.”

In Ghana, Maya and Guy face more challenges when Guy is involved in a terrible car accident. How Maya always manages to land on her feet – walking calmly away from difficult situations is incredible. She doesn’t always make the best decisions in her personal life – and it is clear that her son was affected adversely by the constant moving around and the times when Maya had to leave him in the care of others when she was working. However, she is utterly devoted to her son, and everything she does is with the best of intentions, and she is always honest.

What next for Maya? Goodness knows, there are three more volumes to go.

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The first time I heard of E. Arnot Robertson was several years ago when I acquired a copy of her novel Four Frightened People (1931) – which I read in March 2015. It’s a book many people don’t really like – and while I did like it, it made me fairly uncomfortable in places – it is of its time, I suppose, but that isn’t always palatable now. Ordinary Families is a very different book, none of the things that made me and other readers so uncomfortable in her earlier novel are present. E. Arnot Robertson was a very popular novelist during the 1930s and 40s, publishing eight novels, I would venture to suggest however, that she isn’t very well known today.

Ordinary Families is a coming of age novel – though one firmly rooted in the Suffolk marshes, a place Robertson knew well – unlike that jungle of her earlier novel. Our narrator is Lallie, one of four children of the eccentric Rush family. They live in the sailing village of Pin Mill on the Suffolk marshes – where all things boating, bird watching and inter-family rivalries dominate their days. The Rush children have all been brought up to understand the Rush family sense of humour and a sense of fair play, encouraged to fend for themselves from quite early on.

“I do definitely remember, though, stretching my ankles ecstatically to straining point as I knelt, resting back on my heels, so that the spongy ground should make long black stripes of dampness, like those on the beech-boles just behind us, all the way down the front of my brown stockings, and not only patches on the knees and toes. This was luxury: no other children, we had gathered, were encouraged to get as wet as we were – who else would have been allowed to play in February on the marsh by the river? – Certainly none of our friends.”

The Rush father is quite a character, an impossibly handsome former adventurer, who once crawled across the mountains in Chile and nearly starved on an expedition to Greenland. Now his sense of fair play is such – that during a regatta race he handicaps each of his four children, to give the neighbours a chance – only all his children win. Accusing his son Ronald of cowardice when he suggests pulling out of a race because his boat is unseaworthy Rush snr damages their relationship forever.

Lallie is the third of the Rush children – living in the shadow of her very beautiful younger sister Margaret. Lallie is considered ‘Brainy’ only this isn’t really a compliment, she is a keen observer of the natural world – the descriptions of which are particularly lovely, spending hours by herself in the marshes and along the estuary where she lives. As she grows up, Lallie turns her observant eye on the people around her, her family, and the neighbours in Pin Mill. There are times when she both loves and hates her ‘ordinary family.’

“Religion went bad in mother. It was just her luck to lose her faith when her children were growing independent of her and she needed it, after it had coerced her into bearing six children in her early married life, when she would rather have remained father’s gay out-of-doors companion – the girl he married and sometimes seemed vaguely disappointed that he had lost, in this devoted nurse to his children. If religion had to leave her stranded sometime, why could it not have done so before, when she would have found compensations? But unlike Mrs Cottrell, who dressed well, talked well, kept house well and drew well, all with one hand as it were, mother was a bad manager. Mrs Cottrell might be late for everything social, but she would never be late for spiritually, like this.”

Their biggest rivals locally, are the intellectual Cottrells – when the Cottrells hold a glitzy party – and don’t invite the Rush family, the relationship between the two families breaks down completley.

The novel spans at least ten years – during which time Lallie grows from a young girl into a young woman. She and Margaret spend eighteen months at a finishing school in Belgium – although the time is rather glossed over. The family are amused when Lallie starts writing letters to the Times about wonders of the natural world she has observed – but Lallie is very much her own person, and goes her own way, remaining very much attached to the natural world around her. Already rather over-awed by her sister’s beauty Lallie is rather shocked at Margaret’s casual attitude to sex – Lallie is sexually aware herself though, drawn to one particular man – who she decides to hold out for, no matter what.

I have lots of unread old green Viragos on my shelves – and what I love about them, is that I’m not always sure what I will get. There is always a few surprises in exploring these novels that have perhaps fallen out of fashion, and are little talked about now – the Rush family were wonderfully eccentric and made for excellent companions while I was reading this. After my first unusual experience with E Arnot Robertson in 2015, I was very pleasantly surprised by this novel.

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It was over four years ago that I was introduced to the character of Olive Kitteridge in the Elizabeth Strout novel of the same name. At least a year ago – and probably a bit longer, my sister loaned me her copy of Olive, Again – the book that continues the story of Olive as she gets older. So, it was definitely time I got around to reading it. I picked it off the shelf because I thought I would like to read short stories, and then this caught my eye. Not short stories exactly but not a traditionally linear novel either.

This is such an outstanding piece of writing, that I am very afraid I won’t be able to do it justice – I loved every word – and in Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout has created a truly exceptional character. Exceptional because she is so real, so recognisable and through her eyes, Strout examines all that life throws at us, the vicissitudes be they small or large that dominate everyday life. Olive is a former teacher; it seems she’s taught most of the younger generations in the town. She is a woman on the wrong side of seventy – coming to terms with what that means, and finding out how it feels to get older.

“But it was almost over, after all, her life. It swelled behind her like a sardine fishing net, all sorts of useless seaweed and broken bits of shells and the tiny, shining fish—all those hundreds of students she had taught, the girls and boys in high school she had passed in the corridor when she was a high school girl herself (many—most—would be dead by now), the billion streaks of emotion she’d had as she’d looked at sunrises, sunsets, the different hands of waitresses who had placed before her cups of coffee— All of it gone, or about to go.”

Olive is a difficult woman, she’s outspoken, bad tempered and as prickly as hell, but also capable of great sympathy and understanding. Sometimes, she has the ability to say just the right thing to the right person, the courage to sit with a dying woman, and speak normally and the openness to welcome a Somalian woman into her home.

“Because in February the days were really getting longer and you could see it, if you really looked. You could see how at the end of each day the world seemed cracked open and the extra light made its way across the stark trees, and promised. It promised, that light, and what a thing that was.”

Like that earlier novel, Olive, Again is written in a series of linked short stories, one or two of them more about other people in the town where Olive lives than about Olive herself, stories in which Olive may just walk along the street and pass the time of day. Through these stories, Elizabeth Strout creates the sense of a town – Crosby, Maine – a traditional sort of American coastal town I suppose in the twenty-first century.

Olive, Again picks up pretty much where the first book left off. Olive is in her seventies, widowed following her husband Henry’s death – something she is still getting used to, and looking as if she may be embarking on a new relationship with Jack Kennison, also a widower. Her relationship with her son Christopher continues to be difficult – especially now he lives so far away, and she has a grandchild she barely knows. The stories in this novel – span probably around a decade – during which Olive’s life is not without its challenges, managing her grief alongside a new husband, getting older, trying to reconnect with her son and taking in all the changes that are taking place in the wider society of Maine.

“He would never have imagined it. The Olive-ness of her, the neediness of himself; never in his life would he have imagined that he would spend his final years with such a woman in such a way.

It’s that he could be himself with her. This is what he thought during those first number of months with a sleeping, slightly snoring Olive in his arms; this is what he still thought.

She irritated him.”

There are a host of brilliant characters, some of them more connected to Olive than others, many of them only know her as Mrs Kitteridge, their former high school teacher. We meet Ashley – whose baby Olive delivers in the car outside the house where she was attending an excruciatingly dull (to Olive) baby shower. Kayley, an eighth grader who takes on some cleaning jobs during the holidays to earn money – one job in particular takes on a surprisingly disturbing turn. Suzanne returns to the town on the death of her father in a fire at the family home, poleaxed by what has happened – she leans heavily on the family lawyer for help. Cindy has cancer – and it’s going to kill her, but her husband still hasn’t taken the Christmas wreath down from the front door – it’s February, and he acts like everything’s going to be ok. There’s the poet Olive meets in a café, a woman she once taught, later Olive finds herself in one of her poems and is initially mortified.

However, as brilliant as all these other characters are it is of course Olive who is at the heart of this book. She ages noticeably throughout this book – age brings its own discomforts and challenges, fears and vulnerabilities, Elizabeth Strout addresses them all through this character of Olive Kitteridge.

“‘When you get old,” Olive told Andrea after the girl had walked away, “you become invisible. It’s just the truth. And yet it’s freeing in a way.’”

 It really is an excellent portrait of ageing – a poignant one too, which I didn’t find ever became wholly depressing, it is realistic though.

There is a quiet wisdom to Elizabeth Strout’s writing, she has a wonderful ear for dialogue and an understanding for people and how they are with one another, what makes them afraid, the mistakes they make. I have three other Elizabeth Strout novels on my tbr – I mustn’t leave it so long to read another one.

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