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With thanks to Neglected Books and Boiler House Press for the review copy 

I am failing still to review the majority of books that I am reading, this month feels worse than ever. However, there is one recent read that I really wanted to tell you about. Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan is being re-issued by Boiler House Press on the 30th of November – so you’ve not long to wait, and it’s definitely one I recommend looking out for.  

Two Thousand Million Man-Power is an extraordinary novel. The title I would suggest, doesn’t immediately make one want to grab it off the shelf, though it is at least intriguing. Gertrude Trevelyan herself and her literary legacy has almost completely been wiped from history – funny how this always happens to women writers! During her lifetime she was very well regarded and published eight novels. Trevelyan was a very political and socially aware writer, and in this novel, she shows an extraordinary understanding to all that was happening around her in the later 1930s. However, as the introduction to this new edition explains Gertrude Trevelyan’s name has been completley excluded from all indexes of inter-war literature. So, it seems almost miraculous that Boiler House Press should have even heard of this novel, much less decide to re-issue it, a novel after more than eighty years in the wilderness brought back for a new generation of readers. So, if like me, you enjoy inter-war literature, especially that which highlights ordinary life in a realistic and unsentimental way, this is absolutely the novel you’ve been waiting for.  

The novel concerns Robert Thomas and Katherine Bott from New Year’s Eve 1919 until the funeral of King George V in 1936. Throughout these years they change and grow, experiencing youthful radical idealism, economic boom and bust, terrible poverty, unemployment and comfortable middle-class life in the suburbs with all the trappings. What Trevelyan does brilliantly however is to set her novel and place her characters very much in the context of everything that was happening in society and the wider world. Robert and Katherine move through their world in London against a backdrop of newspaper headlines, radio broadcasts and advertising slogans. The world of the 1920s and 1930s is realistically laid before us.  

“In streets of crowded tall houses and in wider streets of lower houses and on broad high-roads with houses spaced out by gardens and out in Surrey where new red villas were dropped among the pines, and down in the farms and manors of the West Country, and up through the Midlands and North in sudden huddled stacks and unexpected farmsteads, and in the crofters’ cottages and tumbledown castles of the Highlands and in solid Lowland homes and in grey Yorkshire towns and moorland farms and in fishing colonies down the coast, and on the flats of Essex, and in the small new houses beginning to sprout on the extreme northern edge of London, and in the brick and stucco villas, behind tight curtains, and in streets of crowded tall houses, the greater number of the forty-seven million one hundred and thirty-three thousand inhabitants of the British Isles slept or listened to the sounds of sleeping. The Reparations Conference had broken down in Paris: Allied proposals; over in Dublin police were potted at from doorways; civil war in Russia was practically over; Poland was making a defensive alliance with Rumania; in London the Reparations Conference was at it again: German counter proposals. In the early hours of the morning, down off Ladbroke Grove where a coster’s barrow here and there was on the move, Robert opened an eye and saw the room was still half dark and shut it again.”  

When we first meet Robert and Katherine, they are young and single each pursuring their own career, each living in rented rooms. They are both high minded individuals, full of idealism, they meet at an evening lecture after their day’s work. Robert is a research chemist with a cosmetics firm, Katherine is a London County council schoolteacher, with little affection for the children in her care. They begin a relationship, with all the ups and downs of most relationships, it will be several years before they actually marry and set up home together.  

The couple’s fortunes wax and wane – as do some of their youthful ideologies. They move to better, then worse properties, lose and gain employment. Acquire all the modern trappings of successful living, a car, a radio, modern furniture and then sell them again when times are hard.  

I am wary of giving too many spoilers here, but Trevelyan shows us how personalities and relationships are affected by economic changes. She also satirises rather beautifully the suburban bourgeoise life. This is no cosy, love story, it is a realistic portrait of a very believable couple living a very believable life. Robert is easily the most likeable of the two – Katherine is changed too much by her experiences of difficult times, but even as a young, single schoolteacher, she seems more pragmatic than Robert.  

Gertrude Trevelyan is a name which deserves to sit alongside the other literary giants of her generation, and it is good news indeed that this novel is being made available again.  

I am writing this while in a very bad mood – and that’s why I haven’t blogged earlier in the week as I had originally intended and why I am behind in reading and commenting on other blogs. It is amazing how trying to sort out what should be a minor issue can become all-consuming, take over your days, and interrupt your nights. I am so distracted and mithered that I am finding it hard to concentrate. I am already finding writing full reviews more challenging than it used to be, so I didn’t really need this as well.  

However, while I am struggling to write properly about books, I am reading them – not in such large numbers as I would like but I am thoroughly enjoying the business of reading, choosing what to read next and sitting quietly for a while with a book. There’s a special kind of comfort in sitting up late in silence while the world slows down a little and entering that world that you have wanted to return to since you last laid the books aside. That never diminishes. A feeling that only the booklover understands. 

The book I started November with is the perhaps oddly titled Two Thousand Million Man Power by Gertrude Trevelyan (1937) which I was delighted to receive a review copy of. I will definitely be reviewing it later this month. It’s a brilliant novel – ignored for something like eighty years it is finally being reissued by Boiler House Press at the end of the month. It’s about a man and a woman, ordinary people over several years, against the backdrop of all that was going on in the 1920s and 1930s, their dreams and the slow destruction of those dreams when everyday life is brought into play. I shall say nothing more, but please look out for it; it really is quite brilliant.  

Several weeks ago, I suddenly had the urge to re-read Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour (1947) – which I did. Re-reading Elizabeth Taylor is always a pleasure and I decided I should give myself permission to do this more often. Then quite coincidentally my book group decided to read an Elizabeth Taylor for November, and after some discussion we settled on Palladian (1946). So, my second read of the month has been that. I found my memory of it to have been rather sketchy – I remembered a few important things but had forgotten others. It certainly isn’t her best book, but there are flashes of her brilliance in it, and while parts are a little over-wrought, her characterisation is as fine as ever. I finished rather sorry there wasn’t just a little more.  

That, I suppose is why we keep the books we do. So that we can one day take out an old friend, open up the pages and say – “ah, yes, I remember you.” There is a comfort in familiarity too.  

I haven’t bought any books for a few weeks (polishes halo) but a couple have come into my life. Two Christmas themed reads from the British Library The White Priory Murders a mystery for Christmas by Carter Dickson (1934) (aka John Dickson Carr) and from the women writers’ series Stories for Christmas (2022). I am saving both for next month. I have also just redeemed a Persephone gift voucher I had from Liz back in May for my birthday. I have ordered Dorothy Whipple’s The Other Day (1936)– and I can’t wait for it to come.  

Speaking of Persephone, I realised I had quite a bit of a Persephone backlog, I received several last Christmas which I still haven’t read. So, while everyone else seems to be reading novellas for novellas in November (I shall try to join in later in the month) I am contemplating starting one of two huge Persephone tomes. I just fancy getting really stuck into a big novel. I have The Oppermanns by Lion Feuchtwanger (1934) and The Deepening Stream by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1930) to choose between, and I fully intend to settle down later this afternoon and make my choice. There are still a few other Persephones unread in the cupboard, but I have a feeling that I shall probably cheat and read that new Dorothy Whipple before I read them.  

That’s all from me for now, I shall endeavour to write properly about something I have read soon. In the meantime, happy reading.  

October in review

Of course, having hoped that in October I might get somewhere closer to my old blogging routine, I didn’t really get anywhere near it. I did manage one more blog post in October than in September – and I managed to join in with the #1929 club. So, I am clawing my way back.  

I hope you all had a good month of reading during October – autumn has set in, and the nights are really drawing in. Here in the UK the clocks went back to GMT at the weekend, and it’s been raining a fair bit the last few days. Definitely the time to get to grips with some good books. My October reads were largely very successful, only one really failed to hit the spot, and even that had things to like in it. I am going to try and write more fully about one or two of them, but no promises.  

I began October reading a beautiful collection of Irish short stories This Train is For by Bernie McGill (2022), a new to me author. Sent to me by Cathy from 746 books in the summer, it has introduced me to an author I shall want to read again. The writing is exquisite, spare and full of feeling. In this collection are stories of grief, loss sadness and some surprising touches of magic. Many of the stories feature journeys, some physical some of the mind.  

My second read was inspired by Jacqui of Jacquiwine’s Journal – whose review of A Helping Hand by Celia Dale (1966) had me rushing off to buy my own copy. I am so glad I did, it’s a chillingly brilliant novel, reminiscent of Shirley Jackson, with elements of Celia Fremlin, Muriel Spark and Patricia Highsmith. The story of systematic elder abuse (from before such a term existed) by greed, exploitation and manipulation might not be for everyone but it is horribly compelling. Celia Dale weaves the most extraordinary tale of suburban domestic horror around her small group of characters, it makes you wonder what is going on behind the neat net curtains next door.  

My next two reads were both for the 1929 club – I had to get started early in order to stand any chance of writing about them. The first of them was Eve in Egypt by Stella Tennyson Jesse (1929) reissued by Michael Walmer. I have already reviewed this for the 1929 club and had to admit to being a bit underwhelmed. It is a blend of fiction and travelogue and parts of it worked better for me than others.  

Water Weed by Alice Campbell (1929) the first of my two kindle reads in October was sent to me by Dean Street Press and introduced me to a new Golden Age type mystery writer. Slightly longer than the average Golden Age mystery, we see a plucky young American heroine desperately try to prove her long-time friend is innocent of the crime he is accused of. There is actually much more to it than that though – see my previous review.  

Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie (2022) a new novel by Kamila Shamsie always seems like quite an event, so I had to treat myself to the hardback. One of the books I want to review more fully – so I shall save most of my thoughts for then. Having had such a success with Home Fire no doubt expectations were high for this. Overall, I loved it, it isn’t quite the jaw dropper that Home Fire was, but it is a different kind of story. It is a novel about the ties of childhood friendship and what we owe to those who have known and loved us longest – it is also a novel about Britain today, about power and how we use it.  

Confusion by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1993) my second kindle read is the third book in the five volume Cazalet chronicles. I probably won’t be reviewing this in full – as it is hard to write about books in the middle of series. Here the war is in full swing, one father is missing, presumed dead after two years with no word – but will he turn up one day after all? Almost everyone it seems is having an affair or liaison of some sort – so Confusion is a pretty good title. Everyone seems rather un-moored after living through a long war – as VE days gets closer the feeling of exhausted relief is quite palpable.  

The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (2022) I bought this as soon as it came out in May with birthday book vouchers. I had loved The Mercies, which I only read at all because my book group chose it. This is another historical novel based on something that really happened. The dancing plague that hit Strasbourg during the hot summer of 1518 is the background to this fantastic novel. As more and more women join the dancers in the city square, the city authorities declare an emergency. Musicians will be brought in to help dance the devil out of these women. Living nearby is Lisbet heavily pregnant after a dozen previous lost babies, a beekeeper living with her husband and mother-in-law. Her husband’s sister returns from the mountains after serving a seven-year penance for a crime no one will name – but Lisbet is determined to discover. Then the musicians arrive, and more and more women join the dancers. This is a novel that becomes harder and harder to put down.  

So those were my October reads – only seven but I have stopped worrying too much about that.  

I don’t have too many plans for November – my book group will be reading Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor and as it’s about ten years since I read it, I will be enjoying a re-read of it soon. I shall try to get to some novellas for Novellas in November and I might try some Margaret Atwood essays for MARM – it does very much depend on my mood though.  

So, tell me what brilliant things did you read in October? I always love to know – and whatever you pick up in November – happy reading.  

Finally getting the two books I read for the 1929 club reviewed. I knew I had to get myself prepared to even have a chance of getting down to writing about them in time. The two books I read were rather different, one a more literary type book a curious blend of fiction and travelogue by a British writer and sister to the slightly better-known F. Tennyson Jesse, the second by an American golden age crime writer. To be honest I had more success with one than the other – reviewed here in the order I read them.  

Eve in Egypt – Stella Tennyson Jesse (1929) 

This is certainly presented more as a novel than a travelogue although there are definitely features of the latter – the book is peppered with photographs that Jesse herself took on a similar expedition. Set in the late 1920s, the novel does have a very 1920s feel to it – a good deal of gushing, jolly hockey sticks, frivolity and wit which is charming. The characters are all very engaging (of a particular type) and the dialogue between them is deliciously sparkling. So, there are definitely things to enjoy here, and kept me reading. A couple of things worked less well for me, but I will come on to those later.  

Eve Wentworth is a very beautiful young woman from a certain kind of privileged background (though this is never mentioned – we know the kind of family they are immediately) she lives with her sister Serena and brother-in-law Hugh Erskin. She is in a slightly awkward situation, having been asked by two different men to marry them, they are waiting for an answer, which she seems unable to give. She is bemused it seems by how silly men get over her – but accepts it as her lot in life too. 

“The nuisance was that so often just being natural and friendly seemed to do more harm than anything else! What a pity men were so terribly susceptible! The least little thing, and they seemed to be thrown off their balance. No stamina, Eve supposed.” 

Just at the right moment longtime family friend Jeremy Vaughan invites them to join him on a tour of Egypt, sailing on a traditional dahabeah along the Nile. For Eve this is a perfect escape. Eve has always liked Jeremy, the two have always got on well, with a teasing, relaxed friendship that has developed with those years of easy familiarity. However, during the trip Eve begins to sense her feelings toward Jeremy are changing, which is further complicated by the appearance of a wealthy young American and her brother they meet along the way. So, that is essentially the main premise, which is lovely, charming and hugely appealing – some predictability to the ending, but I don’t mind that.  

Now to what worked less well for me.  

As Eve, Serena, Hugh and Jeremy travel along the Nile, they employ the services of a dragoman named Moussa who will remain with them throughout their tour guiding them and ensuring all their needs are met. It takes about ten seconds seemingly for Serena and Eve to utterly adore Moussa and cast him in the role of a sort of paragon. Moussa we are soon told absolutely adores them too, especially ‘Miss Eve’ for whom we suspect he would happily prance across hot coals. He is constantly delighted by them, beams his approval, wags his head in wry amusement etc. I find this all rather uncomfortable – it is a typical colonial trope which crops up in novels of this period – but I can’t say I enjoy it.  

Secondly, are the detailed historical and geographical details that Jesse has woven into the narrative, often in long conversations between characters – as they set about learning about the history of where they are travelling. I found this rather tedious – and there were a few places where I had to skip a little just so I didn’t get bogged down. Other people might love these details, but for me there were too many and it became dull.  

So, a bit disappointing but good enough to persevere with.  

Water Weed – Alice Campbell (1929)  

Kindly provided by Dean Street Press 

One of the Golden Age mysteries that Dean Street press reissue – this was an excellent kindle read. A bit longer than I had expected but not the worse for that. I really liked Campbell’s sparky heroine and her fully fleshed characters and a mystery that took time to build.  

Young American Virgina (Ginny) Carew is spending several months in London. Here she and her father run into fellow American and family friend Glenn Hillier. Ginny is particularly shocked by what she sees as an obvious change in Glenn. Thinner, distracted and nervous, Ginny finds it hard to engage him in conversation and he is soon rushing off. 

As her father returns to the States, Ginny starts to learn a little about where Glenn’s problems might lie. It seems he has become involved with the family of an older woman, Mrs Fenmore known as Cuckoo. Cuckoo, a beautiful, apparently fragile woman, legally separated from her second husband lives in a large country house with her son Henry and daughter Pam. However, it is clearly with Cuckoo herself that Glenn is infatuated – there has already been a little bit of gossip about the pair. Glenn has spent several months staying with the family and is talking about ditching his plans to return to the states where his father will help him gain good employment.  

Soon, Ginny finds herself invited to stay with the Fenmore family, as a friend of Glenn’s and reluctantly she accepts. Immediately, Ginny senses that she might not be quite as welcome as the invitation might suggest – there is much about her hostess that she simply can’t work out. Glenn seems to be utterly devoted – but absolutely worn down and worried to bits at the same time. The whole atmosphere of the house is strange, even the servants seem peculiar. While Glenn repeats odd stories about Cuckoo’s fears, Ginny hears unexplained footsteps in the corridor outside her room late at night and sees Cuckoo steaming open letters to Glenn from his father in the States. 

“It was the faint but unmistakable noise of a cautious footfall pursuing its way along the passage outside her room. She held her breath and listened alertly. Yes, there was no doubt about it, someone was creeping along, very slowly, a step at a time, with the subdued tread of slippered feet. Who could it be? And why did the person not turn on the light?” 

Ginny is at a loss as to what precisely is going on, and what if anything she can do to help Glenn, toward whom her feelings have begun to change from mere friendship.  

Eventually – at least halfway through this book, a murder occurs – and it’s pretty easy to guess who the victim is going to be. As the murder is discovered, Glenn disappears and is instantly assumed to have been responsible. Only Ginny it seems believes he couldn’t have done it, but she will have an uphill struggle finding out the truth and convincing anyone else. 

A thoroughly engaging read, with a satisfyingly dramatic ending. I look forward to reading more by this author.   

With thanks to the British Library for my copy 

Despite my continued inability to get blog posts written, there are books I have read that I would like to tell you all about, if only I could make myself do it. 

War Among Ladies by Eleanor Scott is one of the most recent reissues from the British Library women writers series and was easily my favourite read of September. I love a school setting, and this devastating portrait of women teachers and 1920s education was a thoroughly immersive read.  

It is the 1920s, Besley High School for girls is not a particularly well thought of establishment, exam results have been on a downward trajectory, and some teachers find they simply can’t get a better position at any other school. Here, the staffroom is rife with muttered resentments and petty spite. For these apparently nice, often middle-aged English women are in a battle for their very survival. All the teachers are women, all the women are single, living in shabby rented rooms – with little or nothing to brighten their existence. We see them troop back wearily to their rooms, where they are served small, inadequate meals by sour landladies and spend their evenings marking piles of exercise books they brought home with them. The reality of this existence as presented to us by Eleanor Scott is both realistic and depressing.  

However, the choices for these women are few – and once the teaching career has been embarked upon, it becomes difficult to leave. It is in the character of Miss Cullen that Scott shows us the terrible injustices that teachers like those at Besley High faced. Miss Cullen is a French teacher, she has been teaching a long time, and used to be pretty good at it, however her methods are old fashioned, and this is further demonstrated in the recent exam results. In the graduation system of the time, a failure in one subject meant an overall failure. So, when only four girls pass the end of year exam, everyone knows it is because of French, because of Miss Cullen. Ultimately, with the shadow of the inspector a constant dread, everyone’s livelihood is under threat, the very existence of the school could be in danger. Miss Cullen is not the most popular member of staff, but now she is openly despised, and knows it. Scott describes her unkindly, it seems – though as the novel progresses, we see feel real sympathy for Miss Cullen and her potential fate. 

“She was an ugly figure standing there in the fresh sunlight, rows of young impertinent faces ranked before her. Her hideous home-made dress of brown casement cloth strained across her square, sturdy body and hung in ungainly folds above the thick ankles and flat, broad shoes. It was an odd face, as so many are when you look into them. The skin, reddened and rough, and slack now from want of exercise and years of unhealthy life, stretched tightly across the high, narrow forehead, where no stray line of hair softened the angularity, and sagged beneath the eyes and long, weak, protruding chin. The mouth, set a little open, smiled perpetually, anxiously.” 

For as Miss Cullen’s abilities as a teacher have crumbled so has her ability to keep order in her classroom. The girls treat her with great disdain, the group dynamic lending them the bravery to act in ways they wouldn’t if on their own. The noise from her classroom is often unbearable – she is mortified by her lack of control and does all she can to cover it up and excuse it, but of course no one is fooled. Miss Cullen has lost the respect of both her pupils and her colleagues. Miss Cullen is fifty-six years old – she has four years until she can collect her pension, and thankfully retire. There is no mechanism for her to retire early, this is perhaps the greatest cruelty of all. If Miss Cullen (or any other teacher) leaves or is sacked and remains unemployed for the intervening period left before retirement, then they will sacrifice all the pension contributions that have been made so far – and end up with nothing. Miss Cullen is well aware of her failures – but she simply can’t walk away, she would have nothing at all to live on if she couldn’t find another job, and at her age she would be unlikely to do so.  

Into this troubled environment come a new, younger crop of teachers. Among them English teacher Viola Kennedy. Viola – is young, and as yet hasn’t been totally subsumed and broken down by the system – she is optimistic, full of idealism, puzzled by the cynicism and resentment, she finds at Besley. As Viola initially holds out the hand of friendship to Miss Cullen, the other staff members are plotting how to get rid of the woman who could destroy all their careers. Viola’s friendliness towards Miss Cullen is treated with harsh suspicion by her older colleagues, and they waste no time in trying to put her fully in the picture.  

“IV (the dreaded IVb of last year) was enjoying itself. The noise was such that no human voice, not even Miss Pearson’s could possibly have made itself heard. Girls talking, shouting, banging desks, stamping, all looking at her with merry, challenging eyes to see what she would do.” 

An evening with a group of girls at the theatre ends in near disaster for Viola, and a visit from the inspector has everyone rattled. The headmistress is shown to be weak and, in a community, where everyone is apparently watching what you do, gossip is rife when Viola meets a male teacher from a neighbouring school.  

The tension for these women is real – their cynicism, suspicion and weariness are not to be wondered at, and it can’t be long before Viola is affected by it.  

This really is a quietly devastating novel – revealing the unrelenting misery of an existence where women are trapped by their circumstances and yet terrified of losing that small inadequate bit of independence.  

With thanks to V&Q books for the review copy. 

 

I feel I am a little late posting my review – so apologies to V&Q for that – I didn’t get this book read when I thought I would because I spent so many weeks reading almost exclusively on kindle to save my sore hands.  

I accepted Odesa at Dawn from V&Q books intrigued, but knowing it was rather outside my usual reading sphere. The idea of a “surreal contemporary spin on the classic spy novel” was instantly appealing especially given the Ukrainian setting. I had first got to know V&Q books as a publisher of German books in translation, this novel is different in that it was originally written in English, not German. Sally McGrane in a Berlin based writer and Journalist who has worked in Russia and Ukraine.  

This story clearly takes place before the current war that started so shockingly last February. Ex-CIA man Max Rushmore travels from the US to Odesa to attend a conference where he will meet up with some familiar old faces and drink a lot in the hotel bar. He is also hoping to delay an awkward conversation with his wife about his future. While Max is not unlikeable as a character, the reader rather does feel for his poor put upon wife, who never has a clue what he is up to.  

So, when Max hears a rumour of a strange discovery, he can’t help but prick up his ears. He simply can’t help getting himself involved in a bizarre investigation following the discovery of the local governor’s hand in a vat of sunflower oil. Later, Max stumbles across a toe bearing the same very distinct markings – a birth mark that is well known as being that of the governor’s. Yet, the governor is alive and well, as far as anyone knows.  

McGrane takes us into the dark, underbelly of Odesa, where corruption, violence, and political tensions are rife – and seemingly part of everyday life. Alongside the shadowy figures who will soon start tracking Max Rushmore’s every move are a network of mafia-like stray cats who appear to have an uncanny knack for knowing exactly what is going on.  Led by Mr Smiley (yes he’s a cat) these cats are oddly creepy, and a brilliantly bizarre addition to this compelling and witty tale.  

“With a swish, Mr Smiley curled his tail. Pressed his body to a tattered brick facade. Listened. Felt. Became part of. The city had a single consciousness tonight. As if every building and every being breathed the violence in the air. Tourists in hot pants were jumpy. From car windows, the tinny beats were lower and louder than usual; from every corner came the sound of tyres screeching. The scent of burnt rubber. Soviet-made brakes wailing, heartbroken by their own demise.”

Max’s investigation takes him to every dark part of this beautiful Black Sea port city that is so coveted by the Russians, through the miles of crumbling catacombs that lie under ground and threaten any moment to cave in. We meet a host of colourful characters along the way, including The King, an elderly man who is not to be underestimated, and whose name is enough to strike terror into some, a poet-psychiatrist, Lion, a former convict, Sima, a young woman who narrowly escapes being blown up by a bomb, a scientist with a strange secret theory involving axolotls and a businessman totally out of his depth.  

Short chapters really help to make this a compelling, pacy read which really gets to the dark heart of Odesa. Throughout the narrative McGrane even manages to pay tribute to such luminaries as Pushkin, Gogol, and Chekov. All in all, a thoroughly, fascinating novel combining elements of weird science with more traditional spy genre elements. 

September in review

Here I am on the 2nd of October trying to work out why I failed to blog much again during September – the month when I was going to try and get back to something close to normal. I don’t know – fatigue is a big factor but it’s frustrating, nonetheless. I am missing that interaction I get from blogging, so I need to try harder. I only managed to write three blog posts during September, and I am again horribly behind reading everyone else’s. Anyway, I read or re-read eight really good books during September and was a good way into my ninth as the month ended. That final one can go into October’s pile though.  

One thing I managed in September after weeks of almost exclusively reading on my kindle was to read some physical books – I had rather missed that. Two books read on kindle at the beginning of the month but then I managed to get some physical books off my tbr.  

Oddly enough, the beginning of September now feels like a long way away, when I was reading Marking Time (1991) by Elizabeth Jane Howard on my kindle. The second book in the Cazalet series which has whetted my appetite for more soon. Set toward the beginning of WW2 – we see the changes war brings to the family.  

My next read, Mr. Bowling Buys a Newspaper (1943) by Donald Henderson – a friend had mentioned it to me after she had finished reading it, and I knew I wanted to read it too. Apparently, Raymond Chandler’s favourite novel, it is something of an inverted crime novel. The mystery here is not who the killer is, but whether he will be caught. For Mr Bowling buys a newspaper following each of his murders to see if there is any news on his crimes. The trouble is no one takes much notice of his victims, there is a war going on after all, which is a pity because Mr Bowling really wants to be caught – or thinks he does.  

Of Love and Hunger (1947) by Julian Maclaren-Ross was one of the books that appeared in Jacqui’s blog post about boarding house novels. I admit I hadn’t heard of it but was intrigued enough to buy a copy. These penguin modern classics are such satisfyingly smart editions. We follow the fortunes of Richard Fansawe, a vacuum cleaner salesman in a down at heel seaside town. He lives in a dingy boarding house, never has much money and hangs around town with the other dubious characters who pursue the same, depressing occupation. War is approaching, several of the characters refer to the certainty of it – and whether it will give them another purpose. Against this background Richard meets Sukie, who he finds very desirable – she is also married to his friend. What Maclaren-Ross does so brilliantly here is to reproduce the atmosphere of this town, these disappointed men pursing a hopeless profession.  

A View of the Harbour (1947) by Elizabeth Taylor was a reread. My love of Elizabeth Taylor is well known, I think. I have read more than half her novels twice and have been meaning to re-read the rest for ages, this felt like such a treat. Newby, a coastal village long past its best, everyone looks out on everyone else. Nothing much goes unseen for very long. Bertram, a painter comes to this place, just before the season gets going. Tory, still smarting from her failed marriage has become involved with her neighbour Robert, whose wife Beth is Tory’s friend but is far more involved with the fictional worlds she creates in the books she writes. Mrs Bracey – an invalid, never leaves her house, is a sore trial to her daughters who she pesters for gossip. Her world has narrowed to what she can see from the window or hear about from others. Lily Wilson lives above the town waxworks; she is lonely and a little afraid of the exhibits when she comes back alone at night. She starts frequenting the pub a little more often – for the company. Taylor is as brilliant as ever here – the atmosphere of a sad, grey seaside town and its inhabitants is perfect, her observations as ever spot on.  

Odesa at Dawn (2022) by Sally McGrane was kindly sent to me by V&Q books and I fully intend to review it soon. I am determined to get the three review books I read in September reviewed this month, even if I manage nothing else. Totally outside what I usually read, yet I really enjoyed it. Odesa at Dawn is described as a surreal contemporary spin on the classic spy novel. Fast paced and witty, we really get to see the gritty, dark underbelly of Odesa. I shall save the rest of my thoughts for a full review.  

War Among Ladies (1928) by Eleanor Scott very kindly provided by the British Library, the latest in their women writers series. This was easily my favourite book of the month. Again, I intend to review this one more fully in time. Set in a girls’ High school in the fictional town of Besley – which we quickly realise is a narrow-minded provincial entity, of which it would be disaster to fall foul. The staffroom at Belsley High School is a haven of bitter resentments and spiteful gossip. The staff are all single women living in shabby lodgings, if they lose their job, they lose their pension and all the years they have paid into it. In a school where the failure of one means the failure of all, everyone is under threat. A new teacher arrives, full of optimism but soon gets drawn into the scheming, internal politics.  

The Seat of the Scornful (1941) by John Dickson Carr again sent to me by the British Library, I have quite a number of these BLCC books tbr, I chose to read this one over the others because it is set in Devon. I have a great love of Devon, though Devon itself doesn’t really play much of a part here. Still, it is a thoroughly enjoyable mystery, a small cast of characters, yet still keeps the reader guessing and I thought the twist at the end was quite brilliant.  

I do plan to review some of those books, though certainly not all of them. Fingers crossed I can do a bit better this month. 

The Pachinko Parlour (2018) by Elsa Shua Dusapin translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins. I was sent to be by Jacqui after she had finished with it. A beautifully understated little novella. Claire travels from her home in Switzerland to visit her grandparents in Tokyo. She and her grandparents are Korean, they had fled Korea at the time of the war, Claire had grown up on another continent, visiting her grandparents in Japan from time to time. It is summer, the heat rises daily, Claire divides her time between tutoring twelve-year old Mieko in a strange apartment in an abandoned hotel (Mieko sleeps in what was once the swimming pool) and lying on the floor in her grandparents apartment, daydreaming. Her grandparents own Shiny, a Pachinko Parlour that draws people in day and night with its promises of good luck. The relationship which develops between Claire and Mieko is wonderfully drawn, as is the awkwardness of the relationship between Claire and her grandparents as she attempts to plan the long-promised trip for the three of them to Korea.  

In the meantime, tell me what you’ve been reading and what your plans for October might be.  

Scenes from an unpredictable childhood 

This memoir had only been out for a short time when I bought a copy for kindle. It was my last read for August – and one of the books I read recently that I was determined to write something about, even as I struggle to find my blogging mojo. I had previously read two of Kit De Waal’s novels and attended an excellent author event where Kit was on a platform with Jackie Kay. Knowing that she comes from a part of Birmingham very close to where I live and near to where I have worked for over thirty years, I was very keen to read this childhood memoir.  

This is a memoir written with great warmth and honesty, aspects of Kit’s childhood were tough – but the enduring nature of sibling love particularly shines through. They became a resilient little band who together endured poverty, hunger and their mother’s religion until such time as they could get away.  

This is a memoir of a woman who as a child in the 1960s and 70s was caught between three competing worlds, British, Irish and Caribbean. Her family was a mixture of clashing personalities with a hard-working Irish mother who often juggled two or three jobs, but who rarely ever cooked at home and a Caribbean father who spent money on flash clothes and shoes and occasionally cooked up large elaborate meals. Born Mandy Theresa O’ Loughlin, Kit was a nickname that she gained later. The second of five siblings, Kit grew up in a house where birthdays and Christmas celebrations were forbidden, the bible was the only book in the entire house and her mother believed that the world would end in 1975.  

I will die for my grinding embarrassment when the teacher halts the school assembly before the worship bit starts so that me and my sister can walk out. And I will die for the shame I feel when I walk back in again past superior girls and sniggering boys in time for the announcement of detentions and who won the Art Prize, who won the English Prize. My sister, usually. I will die because while I sit outside assembly and they sing ‘There is a Green Hill Far Away’, I sing along but only in my heart. Worst of all, in my heart.

When Kit was around five, her mother found the Jehovah Witnesses – or rather they found her, as I think that’s sort of how it works. She dragged the children with her to the Kingdom Hall, where long meetings twice weekly had to be endured. At school Kit and her siblings were singled out – they had to sit outside the assembly hall – it sets her apart in a heartbreaking way. She longs for a birthday party, to pull a cracker, she is seventeen before she learns about the jokes inside crackers. Kit also loves to sing the songs she isn’t allowed to sing, and when she and her sister get put in a school Christmas concert, she sings out with gusto.

I learn my part, practise my part, guard it in my heart. Kim, a soprano, has had the same talk from Mr Martin, that we are singing Handel’s statement of fact that God shall reign forever and ever, accompanied by a little orchestral support, and we sing in harmony at the bus stop, on our walks home, in bed when the others are asleep. We sing until we are perfect, until Mr Martin has Kim in the front row, soprano, and me right behind her, and the concert is set for a Tuesday night. A Tuesday night. Meeting night. A Christmas concert.  

In an old, terraced house on Springfield Road in Birmingham about a mile from where I live now, Kit and her siblings grew up knowing both poverty and hunger – she knows love too – though it seems to be of an unpredictable kind. Long hours are spent watching TV with dad in absolute silence, she enjoyed a fierce solidarity with her siblings who were subject to the same experiences as her. Racism was a daily part of her life too – growing up in a family with Irish/Caribbean heritage she and her siblings didn’t fit in easily anywhere – and even her own maternal grandmother viewed Kit and her siblings as being second to her other grandchildren.  

Kit is clearly shaped by her early life – I suppose we all are. Despite growing up in a house with just one book, she does much later discover a great love for books – what a solace and escape they are, as all book lovers know – it is a relationship that continues today.  

This is such an engaging memoir that I found it quite a quick read. For me personally though, the landscape of young Kit’s world is one I know so well that it was fascinating seeing it at an earlier date through her eyes.  

 

 

 

There is something wonderfully satisfying about reaching the end of the first book in a series having absolutely loved it, knowing there are more books to come. In the case of The Light Years the first book in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s famous Cazalet series, it was particularly pleasing, the first book I had read by her, so many more to anticipate as she wrote many standalone novels too.  

I have come to Elizabeth Jane Howard pretty late in my reading life – I don’t think I thought ‘she was for me’ – well I was clearly wrong. I remember my mum reading a few of her books thirty odd years ago, so I knew her name. In 2012 I went to a celebration of the life of the novelist Elizabeth Tayor at Reading library accompanied by a few bookish friends. In Elizabeth Taylor’s later life, she had become good friends with Elizabeth Jane Howard, and to our amazement – as she was clearly quite elderly and unwell, Elizabeth Jane Howard attended the event and spoke about her friendship with that other novelist. Yet still I didn’t read her. I do think perhaps the way her novels have often been marketed is part of the problem. I read these books on kindle – and I’m not sure the editions in the image above would ever tempt me to pick them up. This is an enduring problem with some women writers, and I should have really learned that lesson by now.  

It is thanks in part to Jacqui from Jacquiwine’s Journal that I decided to read EJH finally, she has read and reviewed a few of EJH’s standalone novels, her enthusiasm convinced me.  

I don’t want to go into too much detail of the plots of these two novels because I think reviewing books that are part of a series can be difficult for both writer and reader. Yet I enjoyed these two so much – they were just what I needed at the time too – that I want to give just a little flavour of them  

The Light Years (1990)  

The first novel in the Cazalet Chronicles – if you like a family saga these are for you. There is a helpful list of characters and their relationships in the front – but as I was reading on kindle it was too irritating to keep going back to that – and I found I managed perfectly well without it. There is a large cast of characters, but I found EJH introduces them all in such a way that the reader can keep track quite happily.  

The Light Years starts in 1937 and progresses through 1938 – a time of political uncertainty and upheaval and dark times in Europe. War was constantly expected but held at bay – though for how long. Set over two summers before the war, as the family gather for their annual summer pilgrimmage to the family estate in Sussex.  

William Cazalet (aka the Brig) and his wife Kitty (known as the Duchy) are at the head of a large family. They have four adult children, Rachel who is unmarried and lives at home – and three sons, Edward, Hugh and Rupert. Edward is married to Villy – they have three children, Hugh is married to Sybil they have two children as the novel opens but a third is born later, Rupert is married to Zoe, his second wife, having lost his first wife in childbirth, his two children are from his first marriage. There is also Jessica Castle – Villy’s sister, her husband Raymond and their four children. Assorted servants at the various houses that the family spend time in complete the cast. For this is primarily a story about a family set against a background of extraordinary times.  

EJH does well at depicting these families – for though part of one large family, each nuclear family is individual with its own highs and lows. One of the marriages here seems much stronger than the others, one husband is shown to be adulterous, another infatuated by his child bride, while his brother is haunted by his experiences in WW1.

This duel of consideration for one another that they had conducted for the last sixteen years involved shifting the truth about between them or withholding it altogether and was called good manners or affection, supposed to smooth the humdrum or prickly path of everyday married life. Its tyranny was apparent to neither. 

The children are generally well drawn spanning the whole of childhood from babyhood through to mid-teens. Their concerns are typical – fear of school, keeping secrets from grown-ups, friendships and squabbles. Some of the older children are already beginning to resent being lumped together with the children but are still several years away from being treated like anything else. Louise desires above all things to be an actress, and learns huge amounts of Shakespeare by heart, Polly is terrified at the thought of war, Clary hates her stepmother and at twelve is a rather sad and lonely figure.  

By the time this novel ended I was obsessed with the characters, and it was only a matter of time before I began the second book.  

 

Marking Time (1991)  

The second Cazalet novel opens in September 1939 – as Britain is plunged into war. The family are together in Sussex – Edward, Hugh and Rupert returning at weekends after spending the week in London. The families are divided across two properties owned by the Brig – a short distance apart, where it is considered sensible for most of them to remain throughout the war.  

A fourth child has been born to Edward and Villy, though this has not made Edward any more faithful than he was before. Louise now sixteen moves from cooking school to London parties where she meets a famous painter, is still intent on becoming an actress and absolutely dreads getting an awful war job. Edward and Rupert join up, but while Edward remains in England, Rupert who is younger joins the navy and is soon facing danger. It is up to Hugh to keep the family business together – especially now the Brig appears to be losing his sight. Rachel continues with her charity work, a hard-working woman who continually puts others before herself, even her forbidden love for Sid comes second to her family and her duties. Sybil, meanwhile, seems unwell, and is forced to consult a doctor in London, so terrified of worrying her husband, she allows a great deal to go unsaid between them.  

The children are again in fine form here – Polly often anxious, Clary desperate for news of her father – Louise rather selfish, but also a little lost and lonely.

She felt she was a bottomless pit of memories, and she was only fifteen. What on earth must it be like when you reached the Duchy’s age? You’d hardly be able to think at all for them; it would be like having so much furniture in a room that there was nowhere left to move.

Neville is an absolute terror – always up to something, generally trying to get Lydia to join him, they are a similar age, while Teddy is getting rather too big for his boots and poor Christopher Castle lives still in absolute terror of his father who bullies and undermines him constantly.  

I shall say no more but book two ends on something of a cliff hanger, regarding the fate of one particular character, and so it probably won’t be long before I embark on book three.  

Each one of these books contain so many story threads that are woven brilliantly together – a real old fashioned, addictive saga – well written and thoroughly engaging.  

(oops well this post ended up far longer than I had intended.)  

August in review

 

No one is more surprised than me to find myself sitting here doing this – not yet sure if I’ll make it to the end of the post. Though if you’re reading this, I suppose I must have done.  

August was really quite difficult; September is shaping up to be similar – although some improvements have been made. I certainly haven’t been able to go back to work. I simply haven’t been able to make myself write blog posts and I really don’t know why. I have been more absent on social media and massively behind reading other bloggers’ blog posts. I can’t say I will definitely catch up, I’m sorry.  

One of my big stumbling blocks to reviewing has been that rule I set myself years ago to review everything I read. Now, despite not having read that much during August I feel the task of reviewing things I read a month ago, utterly overwhelming. So, of course I am now going to be breaking my own rule. I won’t be writing full reviews of most of what I read in August. Not sure when/if I will get a full review written at all. I will have to continue to play it by ear.  

I started the month reading The Boarding House (1965) by William Trevor – a brilliant novel of boarding house life. William Bird dies as the book opens; he is the proprietor of a boarding house taking those sad souls on the fringes of society. The lonely, those who don’t quite fit it, a petty conman an immigrant. When Bird realises he is dying he decides to leave the boarding house to two of his boarders, the two he considers likely to cause the greatest amount of conflict and upset. The reader can almost hear William Bird chortling as the chaos and discontent unfurls. Trevor’s characters are just brilliant, some rather creepy, several just desperately sad. If you like a boarding house novel, this is a must.  

One of the books I talked about in my last post of mini reviews was Elena Knows (2007) by Claudia Piñeiro translated by Frances Riddle. Absolutely loved this Argentinian novel about a woman searching for the truth about her daughter’s death. It’s poignant and so well observed. 

An Elderly Lady Must not be Crossed (2020) by Helen Tursten translated by Marlaine Delargy. I also talked about this volume in my last post. A fun, quirky second volume of elderly lady stories. Great fun.   

Next, I re-read O Pioneers! (1913) by Willa Cather as my book group chose it for September – we meet next week. It had been a long time since I first read it and it was an absolute pleasure to settle down with it again. I actually bought a second copy of this to read on my kindle rather than pull my old VMC off the shelf – all but one book read in August were read on my kindle. Here Cather captures the drama of the frontier landscape. Alexandra Bergson is at the centre of the novel, having arrived as a girl from Europe, she grows up on the Nebraskan prairie taking over her father’s farm. Her determination and hard work sees her make more of a success of it than anyone expected. She begins to tame the wild, difficult landscape and falls in love with it. Coupled with the story of Alexandra’s struggle to make her farm a success is the story of her relationship with Carl who she’s known since childhood and her younger brother, who is destined to cause great scandal and bring tragedy upon himself. Alexandra’s passion for the land comes at some cost to herself.  

The Marble Staircase (2022) by Elizabeth Fair a new publication from Dean Street Press that caused some excitement as it’s a ‘lost novel’ by Elizabeth Fair whose previous six novels were originally published between 1952 and 1960. No fear that this might be inferior to those other novels, I had previously read four of those earlier novels and I think The Marble Staircase is even better. It’s a more reflective novel I think, a novel of an older woman, who is beginning again in a small seaside village after being left a house by an old friend. Here she must sort out the house, make new friends, and settle the dispute with her grown up daughter who disapproves of this sudden move. There is some flash back to an earlier time when she was a young widow holidaying each year in Italy with her friend. An absolute joy of a read, with some fabulous characters.  

The Light Years (1990) by Elizabeth Jane Howard – I have felt for some time that I should give Elizabeth Jane Howard a try, perhaps having misjudged the kind of writer she was. This was the first of her Cazalet novels – a five volume family saga which opens in 1937. It has a huge cast of characters, but EJH introduces them in such a way that I didn’t find myself getting confused. This novel follows the family in the last couple of years before war – the European situation a constant backdrop and concern. The family prepare for their annual pilgrimage to the family estate in Sussex leaving their various London home for the summer. Children arrive home from school – or prepare to go to school next term, but the girls are generally taught by a governess. It is very much a different time, with its own rules and rhythms, and I got utterly swept up by it right away and started September reading the second book.  

Without Warning & Only Sometimes (2022) by Kit de Waal a fabulous childhood memoir from the author of My Name is Leon. I loved this; Kit grew up just a few streets away from where I am living. It’s an area of Birmingham I know very well indeed. She grew up with her siblings in the 1960s and 70s, and it was certainly an unpredictable childhood. A childhood in which she knew hunger and poverty. Her mother became a Jehovah Witness and dragged the children with her to meetings, from then on there were no birthday or Christmas celebrations and the only book in the house was the bible. I shall say no more in case I decide to review this one more fully later.  

No promises about when I will pop up again with something, but I do aim to do better.  

Let me know what you have been reading recently and what plans you have for the rest of September.  

Happy reading.