Feeds:
Posts
Comments

It really felt like quite a long time since I had picked up a Dean Street Press book, when I took Nothing to Report out of the tbr cupboard. It was absolutely the right book at the right time, and an author I hadn’t read before. It is the first of two books – and I have had to buy the second, Somewhere in England too – because it is clear it will follow on, and on finishing this one I knew I would soon want to pick up the stories of these characters.  

I have always loved novels written and set during the Second World War (far preferable to modern historical novels I think) but there is an added poignancy perhaps to those novels set in the final months of peace. First published in 1940 Nothing to Report takes place largely in 1939 – the last short chapter in 1940 – and everywhere there is the talk of war, preparations well underway months in advance.

This is that lovely type of English middlebrow fiction where nothing very much happens, there are no great dramatic episodes, instead we have recognisable types, living ordinary lives in a small English village. So, in a sense all of life happens here – the ordinary and every day, the events that loom large in everybody’s lives. Carola Oman’s writing style is very slightly in that Provincial Lady tradition. There’s some gently amusing lines from a writer whose style I engaged with immediately.

“‘I have told Rose that there will be a chauffeur for dinner.’ She ended, frowning slightly at the slight cannibalistic sound of her sentence.”

Fortyish, unmarried distressed gentlewoman Mary Morrison is known as ‘Button’ among her closest friends. She now lives in a much smaller house; a converted seventeenth century cottage, her former large family home is nearby – but Miss Morrison is philosophical about having had to let that go. She is helped around the house by Doris, a very young girl from the village. Mary remains at the centre of village life surrounded by friends. One of her friends, Catha, Lady Rollo has just returned from India, and she is set on setting up a lavish household in the vicinity, with her husband and children. Catha’s son the socialist Tony is Mary’s godson – of whom she is very fond indeed, a different young man to his brother the perfect Crispin, and his sister Elizabeth who is due to be presented at court.

Each chapter title is a date – beginning on February 22nd, 1939, with the final chapter dated midsummer 1940. Throughout this period, war is a popular topic of conversation. Women of Mary’s generation certainly have reason to remember the First World War – Mary has recently renewed her first aid certificate coincidentally on the anniversary of her first certificate – as she recalls to her friend.

“I found that I was sitting for that examination on the exact anniversary of my last shot at it—quarter of a century ago—January 16th, 1914. And what’s more, under the questions, I had scribbled, in the high spirits natural to sweet seventeen, ‘Never again! not if I know it!’ Before I returned that paper to its file,” said Miss Morrison, “I added the words, ‘First Aid taken again January 16th, 1939. I did not know.”

With war looking more and more like a possibility, Miss Morrison hears from her widowed sister-in-law in London, Marcelle and her challenging daughter Rosemary who may soon be arriving to stay with Mary to escape the expected bombs. Another minor character, who we don’t see much of in this book is Miss Rosanna Masquerier an historical novelist – who is apparently a wry self portrait of the author herself.

“Hasn’t it gone into a cheap edition?” “I am glad to say it has,” affirmed Miss Masquerier, brightening. “Now I am so interested to hear that you are pleased about that,” said little Mrs. Mimms, to whom prolonged silence was an impossibility, whatever the circumstances. “I never know myself whether it is a good thing or a bad thing for an author when their books are sold off cheap.”

Many of the characters in this novel rely on Mary Morrison’s calm, sympathy and practical good sense – she is a very likeable character – and there may just be the chance of a late romance on the cards.

Although the majority of the characters are firmly upper class – as a reader I really didn’t get that sense of snobbery that some writers of this period fall foul of. In fact – Carola Oman shows us something of all classes living in her fictional village of Westbury-on-the-Green. Sheilah Hill and her sisters are portrayed as cheerful busy middle class young women, one of whom keeps house while one sister breeds bloodhounds and another cultivates flowers. The daughters of a Canon, Sheilah is about to leave for Canada to be married. When a young working class village man gets married – the whole village turns out to watch, no matter who they are – everyone it seems loves a country wedding, and supports the young couple starting out.

As the inevitability of war draws nearer – village life carries on, there’s an unexpected day out at Ascot – Elizabeth’s coming our ball in London and Mary’s annual holiday to Scotland. However, it is 1939, and we all know what happens next. The novel ends in Midsummer 1940 – and naturally not everything is quite tidied up neatly – just as in life. So, I really mustn’t leave it too long before I read Somewhere in England.

The first book I started after moving to my new flat was chosen for me by Liz – who had actually bought it for me one Christmas. She was helping sort the tbr cupboard (yes cupboard!) and thrust this one at me to read next – I hadn’t known what my next read was going to be. I really don’t know why I hadn’t read it before – the perils of a large tbr I suppose things get forgotten about. So, despite the fact that I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, A Bite of the Apple is definitely a book right up my street. Liz knows me, she knew I would love this, I did.

For anyone who has scanned bookshop shelves looking for that tell-tale apple on the spine of a book – or who, like me, has far, far too many dark green spined VMCs to house – this book is a joy. Part memoir, part history of Virago including thoughts and reminiscences of over forty years of feminist publishing, this is the story of a publisher and a movement. The excitement and vision that started it off – the passion, determination and belief that made Virago the success it was, and still is – is all here.

“It was common to think of the literary tradition that runs from Jane Austen through Ivy Compton-Burnett to Barbara Pym as a clever and witty women’s view of a small domestic world. This was not a ghetto we accepted. The female tradition included writers of vast ambition and great achievement: mistresses of comedy, drama, storytelling, of the domestic world we knew and loved. I saw a large world, not a small canvas, with all human life on display, a great library of women’s fiction.”

Lennie Goodings has been with Virago almost since the start, when Carmen Callil founded the iconic press, she really has seen it all. She began part time in 1978 in the one roomed Virago office, accessed by five flights of steep stairs. She had no idea then, that in time she herself would become the publisher, but she did know that she had found her home.

Throughout these years Lennie Goodings worked with some incredible writers, some pretty big names too – and here she describes those working relationships. Remembering her meetings with women like Maya Angelou, Rosamond Lehmann, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Dunant and Sandi Toksvig among many others. These glimpses of the women, who for some of us lets be honest, are our heroines, is wonderful, Lennie Goodings shows how many of these writers had just as much passion and belief in what Virago were doing as those working for the publisher at the time.

However, like with any organisation of its kind Virago had – and still have – their naysayers. Those who think that having a separate publisher for women, somehow diminishes their art – they have the same problem with the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Apparently, and it was news to me, A S Byatt refuses to have her books put forward for the women’s prize – there seems to be a fear from some quarters, that if books are published by a women’s press and nominated for a women’s prize then men won’t read them. (Rolls eyes). So, that there is the problem, isn’t it, still despite over forty years of Virago publishing, there are those who don’t take women’s writing seriously enough. I do my bit, by reading very few men (ha! Sticks tongue out!) Lennie Goodings however puts her case for the need for Virago and for the Women’s Prize rather better than me.

“With fiction, what seems to matter more is the gender of the writer; because even in this new world of outspoken writers and readers it appears not all words are equal. Something seems to happen to a novel when it has a woman’s name on the spine.”

One of my favourite chapters – perhaps not surprisingly was the one about the Virago Modern Classics list that started in 1978 – which includes a marvellous encounter with octogenarian Rosamond Lehmann. The classics of course have been an enormous success – oh and how we cheered when the green spines came back – changed a little for the twentieth century but green again. The first one of course was Frost in May – and was followed by so many more – that are now collected and cherished by people like me. Goodings reveals how the list changed the way women’s novels began to be seen, attracting new readers, becoming a strong and familiar presence in bookshops. Suddenly new life was given to the novels of writers like Rosamond Lehmann who had thought their day was done – and generations of readers can thank the Virago Modern Classics for the books that made it into their libraries.

The Virago that Carmen Callil started in that one roomed office all those years ago is not the same company as it is today. Lennie Goodings discusses how difficult remaining independent was, there were some forthright discussions and disagreements, but things had to change. In 1995 Virago became part of the Little Brown group and Lennie Goodings was there to see that transition through and explains clearly why that was necessary for Virago’s survival. Revealing how the imprint has moved forward, and how many exciting publications have come about since then, that may not have done otherwise. Today, Lennie Goodings is chair of Virago Press – still working with the authors and books that have been her passion for so long.

This was a marvellous book, really giving a lot of insight into the feminist movement of the late 1970s and 1980s – the publishing industry and the books and writers I love. Definitely, a book to keep to refer to again.

It feels like a long time since I read The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line, but it really isn’t all that long, but a lot has happened since I first picked it up. I read this book the week I moved from my old house to my new flat. I chose it because I thought it would be an undemanding read, without being too light. Originally I bought it for the title – I rather like these quirky kind of titles, they always rather cleverly make me want to read the book. In many ways this book really hit the spot – it was exactly the right kind of book for a crazy, tiring, week of upheaval. It has an engaging, witty, often sarcastic narrator and is generally well written – there was nothing about the book I didn’t like really, and yet, it was ever so slightly underwhelming. That may have been my fault – as it was a week of various distractions and slow reading days.

Sybil is the narrator of the novel – and I really liked her slightly weary, sarcastic tone, there are some very funny moments and some deliciously wry observations. There is a lot of subtlety in the writing, which is definitely something I enjoy, so I felt I should have loved it more.

Sybil works at The Royal Institute of Prehistorical studies in London – where she is happy enough in her work. Her life is on a fairly even keel – living with her boyfriend Simon. So, Sybil is utterly dismayed when her old adversary and former university tutor is appointed as Head of Trustees. Helen Hansen is only a few years older than Sybil, glamourous, bossy and with some academic success already under her belt. She had tried to have Sybil’s degree downgraded, but was out voted by her senior tutors. Rather humiliatingly, Sybil has an accident while ice skating with Simon, right in front of Helen – leaving Sybil with a nasty bump on the head. Helen wastes little time in seducing Simon and taking him for herself, leaving Sybil, betrayed, broken hearted and needing to find a new home – all while having to put up with Helen at work.

In an attempt to start to heal herself, and at the suggestion of her friend Jane, Sybil joins a poetry class at the library. The class begin with haiku – and Sybil takes her notebook around with her – jotting down odd little haikus, while wondering why on earth she has joined a poetry class. Feeling her lack of poetical knowledge, she goes to the library to look some up for herself. Even here, Ruth Thomas’s observations are delightfully wry.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to be here for long.’ ‘The lending desk closes in five,’ she said. And she wheeled on towards a door with a poster on it saying Enter a World Of Adventure, and disappeared through it. For a while I couldn’t locate the Poetry shelves at all. I walked past Pottery and Ceramics, past Parenting Skills, Personal Development, Philosophy, Psychology and Pet Care, but there was no Poetry. I walked past an old man sitting beside a shelf that said Withdrawn Fiction: 10p, and a big woman in Scholl sandals and beige socks, reading a book called Bring Me My Arrows of Desire. I walked past a carousel displaying off-the-peg reading glasses – See Clearly Again for only £3.99! said a sign – a claim which seemed improbable to me, like one of Jesus’s miracles. Pinned to a cork noticeboard beside the carousel was another poster I hadn’t noticed the last time I’d gone there. It said: THE WORLD ENDS TOMORROW! (according to Nostradamus) So please make sure you return your overdue books”

Helen is a fairly poisonous character – and the reader is always going to be team Sybil all the way, Ruth Thomas manages to make Helen absolutely hateful, in a kind of passive, aggressive way almost immediately – honestly I wanted to slap her. It soon becomes apparent that Helen is perhaps not quite the brilliant, academic that everyone thinks, and Sybil becomes determined to expose her for the fake that she is – no matter what. It also becomes apparent that all is not well with Sybil – but has anyone noticed? She gets on well enough with her other colleagues, but Sybil feels all alone with her theories about Helen, swamped by the misery of Helen and Simon’s betrayal.

“I could never quite work Raglan out. He was a big-voiced, big-opinioned man, but also he could be very shy. He was old school but he also seemed to have a peculiar respect for all Helen’s dire money-generating plans, and had now even appointed her as the Institutes new Chair of Trustees. So I couldn’t start condemning her in front of him…”

I enjoyed the workplace setting of The Royal Institute of Prehistorical studies – where poor Sybil gets a little overwhelmed working on the index of a book that the lovely, gentle, middle aged (I imagined slightly dusty) academic Raglan has been working on, only now Helen has muscled in, adding a chapter and is being named as co-author. It all rather sticks in Sybil’s craw.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read, and I would definitely consider reading this author again. It perfectly portrays the devastation that can come with the end of a relationship, but the backdrop of The Royal Institute of Prehistorical Studies just makes it that little bit more interesting.

Part of my August reading each year tends to be some vmc titles (or books from equivalent publishers) for All Virago All August which is a reading challenge first started by members of a Virago group on Librarything. This year, I really didn’t do very well, only managing two books – this was the second of them, but what a treat it was.

Edith Wharton is perhaps best known for her novels that depict the upper class society that she herself knew so well. Old New York contains four short novels set in New York of the 1840s, 50s 60s and 70s. Just like in some of her full length novels, here Wharton shows us a society that is ruled by its customs, prejudices and strict moral codes of behaviour, it is a society of great privilege but also one of some suffocation. In these four brilliant stories Wharton uses themes of marriage, infidelity, illegitimacy and jealousy to explore this complex society.

The first novella is False Dawn and concerns the changing fashions of art appreciation, a young man and the expectations placed upon him by his wealthy father. Lewis Raycie is an only son of a brilliant but exacting father. As the novella opens Lewis is preparing to leave home for his Grand Tour – he has also fallen in love with the adopted daughter of another family, who he thinks his father won’t approve of for him. Halston Raycie is a man who has very particular ideas about things – and it seems it is not just his son who find themselves unequal to contradicting him.

“Now and again the gentlemen, warned by a menacing hum, slapped their cheeks, their brows or their bald crowns; but they did so as furtively as possible, for Mr. Halston Raycie, on whose verandah they sat, would not admit that there were mosquitoes at High Point.”

So, when Lewis is charged by his father to return to America with fashionable Italian old masters – it is a quest Lewis takes very seriously, determined to get as much for his father’s money as he can. Halston Raycie has a dream of creating a gallery of heirlooms. Lewis sets out on his travels – naturally he is away for a long time, and while in Italy he is lucky to meet John Ruskin – and it is under his influence and following his advice that Lewis makes the purchases he does. On his return to America, Lewis’ father judges the paintings to be utter rubbish – they are indeed great works, but by artists unknown to Halston Raycie and his associates, and so Lewis is made a laughing stock, punished and derided for his apparent error.

If I had to pick a favourite from the four novellas collected here, then The Old Maid would be it – it concerns a woman who breaks the strict sexual code of her class. Charlotte Lovell is engaged to be married when she reveals to her astonished cousin Delia Lovell Ralston the secret she has been keeping from everyone. Charlotte had briefly felt a great passion for Clem Spender – a young man Delia had once harboured feelings for, before she settled for a safe, society marriage. Charlotte had crossed the line of what was acceptable between unmarried young people of the times, and she bore Clem’s child in secret. The child was placed with people to care for her – but Charlotte loves her child fiercely and wants to be part of her daughters life. Following Delia’s advice and with her help, Charlotte breaks off her engagement – as she is ‘unworthy’ of the man who knows nothing of her transgression. Delia finds a way for Charlotte to have her daughter in her life – although she can never be acknowledged as her mother. The novella mainly focusses on the different ways society allow these two women to experience motherhood – and how the woman seen as ‘the old maid’ is the only one of them to have experienced a strong and memorable passion.

“You could always have told, everyone agreed afterward, that Charlotte Lovell was meant to be an old maid. Even before her illness it had been manifest: there was something prim about her in spite of her fiery hair. Lucky enough for her, poor girl, considering her wretched health in her youth: Mrs James Ralston’s contemporaries, for instance, remembered Charlotte as a mere ghost, coughing her lungs out – that, of course, had been the reason for her breaking her engagement with Joe Ralston.”

The narrator of The Spark is a young man who is fascinated by a man of his parents’ society – in Hayley Delane the narrator sees something different to the other men of his age and type. He is particularly puzzled by Hayley’s marriage – a marriage Hayley entered into against his friends’ advice. Leila is fifteen years younger than her husband – her father a drunken disgrace who has been ejected from his clubs. Leila has no money – and isn’t especially beautiful – she isn’t even in love with Hayley, and after her marriage is often seen indulging in other flirtations. Hayley quietly puts up with all her antics because it seems that he loves her. When Hayley Delane horsewhips a young man for his mistreatment of a horse – it is assumed by everyone that it’s really in revenge for his flirtation with Leila – however it really was because he hated to see a horse beaten. His morality is such though that his actions will be seen to compromise his wife – and so Hayley apologises to the man – and so all is well. Ironically – and Wharton excels at irony – it is Hayley’s goodness and morality bring him into conflict with the society in which he lives.

As so often in Wharton’s fiction it is society’s prejudices and assumptions that hurt those who are suspected of breaking its rules In New Year’s Day we meet Lizzie Hazeldean a woman whose fortunes improved dramatically when she married. There are too many potential spoilers for me to say much about this lovely, subtle story, but when Lizzie is suspected by those who matter of having an affair – she is judged and finally ostracised. In the fate and treatment of Lizzie Hazeldean we see how society treated women – what silly narrow lives these women had, born into a particular class, denied the right the work, yet without sufficient money – marriage was their hope and saviour. This story is, as Marilyn French in her introduction to this edition suggests, a protest to this very situation.

Old New York is a simply marvellous collection of four novellas – classic Wharton storytelling at its best. This was an excellent pick for my All Virago All August.

Murder by the Book – murder for bibliophiles; if there was ever going to be a perfect book for bookish fans of golden age crime then this must surly be it. The British Library are very good at bringing out these anthologies of stories from time to time, ably edited by Martin Edwards who always provides some useful background information to the stories and their writers. There have been some lovely, themed collections already – not that I have managed to read them all as yet – including stories featuring water, sporting stories, stories featuring mysterious creatures and Christmas stories. This time and perhaps most appealingly of all – we have stories featuring book collectors, libraries, ghost-writers, and authors. Again, we have a veritable who’s who of golden age writers collected here – including Nicholas Blake, A. A Milne, Julian Symons, Gladys Mitchell, and Ngaio Marsh – sixteen stories in all arranged chronologically by the date they were first published.  

Of course, I can’t possibly write about all sixteen stories – we’d be here all day – but in an attempt to give a flavour of the whole collection I have picked out a few to highlight. I have a feeling lots of other bloggers will be reviewing this one over the coming months.

The collection opens with an intriguing little tale – A lesson in Crime, written by GDH and M Cole a husband and wife writing duo (always interested in how that works). It is a very sharp little tale – in which a best selling crime novelist is given a particularly nasty little lesson in the crimes he writes about while travelling by train.

While most of the stories are set firmly in England, a couple are set further afield. One of my favourite stories was Malice Domestic by Philip Macdonald. It has a fabulous twist – and like the best stories of this type builds slowly. Carl Borden and his wife live in El Morro Beach. Carl is a writer, married to Annette for nine years, apparently happily, though a few of their closest friends have been dimly aware that perhaps all may not be quite so ideal as it looks. So, when Carl begins to suffer terrible stomach pains and extreme sickness after only eating at home, his friend doctor Wingate is very concerned and determined to get to the bottom of what’s going on.

Another excellent story – this time set in India is Book of Honour by John Creasey. An Englishman working in India develops a long and deep friendship with an Indian man he first meets when he is absolutely destitute. Baburao works hard to become a successful bookseller – but a terrible resentment and enmity develops between this gentle man and his eldest son.

A Man and his Mother-in-law by Roy Vickers is a brilliant story -long enough to fully immerse the reader. When a man marries a sweet, docile ‘obedient’ little wife he comes to enjoy his easy predictable life. However, he really doesn’t much like the relationship between his wife and the woman who raised her after her parents died. It’s another of those stories where we know whodunnit straight away – the interest lies elsewhere and it’s a thoroughly compelling story.

“In a letter written on the eve of execution, Arthur Penfold seems to share the judge’s astonishment that a man of his calibre should turn to murder to extricate himself from a domestic difficulty. A student of criminology could have told Penfold – if not the learned judge himself – that murder eventuates, not from immediate circumstance, but from an antecedent state of mind.”

In A Question of Character, by Victor Canning, a man decides to murder his wife primarily because of his own vanity.

Geoffrey Gilroy is a mystery writer, and so is his wife Martha. The problem is that Martha’s success has now greatly outstripped his – relegating him to being merely Martha Gilroy’s husband. Geoffrey, who already has a mistress he would much rather be with anyway – has quite frankly had enough.

“…he just saw red, gulped down his martini and got out of the room as fast as he could. We walked all the way back to Sloane Street with his mind in a murderous fog. Martha Gilroy’s husband. The best selling novelist. He’d married Martha ten years before, when she had been a private secretary to an industrial consultant. Not a good secretary either.”

What Victor Canning does so well here is to let us get into the mind of this potential murderer – his thought processes and planning are laid before us. We know exactly what he plans to do, when he proposes to do it and see him begin to make the necessary preparations. Where the tension lies in this story – is in whether his plan will come of – and will he be caught. Canning’s character is a fairly methodical man – he has thought out every bit of his plan – he puts his plan into action chillingly, without a moments hesitation. I must say it is a very compelling story, superbly paced with gradually increasing tension, which I finished with my heart in my mouth.

As a reader of mainly women’s fiction, I would have liked to see more women writers represented in this collection. Still there are a few good stories by women too – a couple were new names to me including Murder in Advance by Marjorie Bremner. Dacre and his good friend Dr Allerton seek to solve the murder of a playwright Lewis Maynard. They come to the conclusion that the answer lies in the play he was planning on writing. I was also glad to see Ngaio Marsh in the collection, a writer who’s novels I have enjoyed immensely in the past. Chapter and Verse – comes at the end of the collection – and sees Alleyn’s wife Troy contacted by a man who knew her husband in New Zealand. The man describes himself as a bookman – and is doing some research into the names that appear in an old family bible he has in his possession. When he arrives to show Troy, she ends up getting drawn into an unexpected murder.

This is a brilliant collection of stories – some very inventive crimes and an absolute must for all you crime loving book obsessives out there. I predict that this one will do well at Christmas – if the c word is allowed in early September.

August in review

Well August has been a funny old month – stressful and dragging where my house move is concerned – and flying by in other ways. My reading has taken a bit of a hit, because while I continued to be away from work, my reading has been quite a bit slower – definitely stress induced. As has become traditional I wanted to concentrate on #Witmonth and vmc reads for All Virago, All August. I did quite well with #Witmonth – especially as I had already read two #witmonth books at the end of July. However. I did much less well with my vmc reads this year, managing only two, though they were both excellent.

I began the month reading In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova translated from the Russian by Sasha Dugdale. A fascinating book, gorgeously written much lauded by other readers. A mixture of genres it tells the story of the author’s Russian Jewish family, and wider Europe over about a century. It is an incredible piece of work.

I have been reading Maya Angelou’s seven volume autobiography with Liz and our friend Meg. Singin’ & Swingin’ & Getting Merry Like Christmas is the third volume. It concerns her relationship with her son, her first marriage and the beginnings of her life in showbusiness including her time on tour with the cast of Porgy and Bess.

Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki translated from the Greek by Karen van Dyck was one of the books I was determined to read for this year’s Women in Translation month. A beautiful coming of age novel about three sisters in the years before the Second World War. There is a lot more going on in this novel than the premise might at first suggest, themes of marriage, fidelity, women’s roles, the bond between siblings and motherhood are all delicately explored. 

The first of two kindle reads this month, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery translated from the French by Alison Anderson was a book I had been aware of for some time, but really hadn’t known much about it. Renée Michel is a concierge at an elegant apartment building in the centre of Paris, like twelve year old Paloma in one of the apartments upstairs, Renée hides her true self from the world. How these two unlikely people find a common bond is beautifully told.

The British Library are very good at producing anthologies of brilliant mystery stories, Murder by the Book edited by Martin Edwards is a particularly good example for the book lover. Stories from a range of brilliant Golden age writers set in libraries or involving writers.

Another #Witmonth read was a book I had heard about from other bloggers; The Union of Synchronised Swimmers by Cristina Sandu – translated from the Finnish by the author. A novella really, it tells the story of six girls from an unnamed country who join a synchronised swimming team in order to escape the country they are from. It’s quite an odd little novel, but not unenjoyable.  

My second vmc read of the month was Old New York by Edith Wharton, and what a treat it was, she was such a wonderful writer. Four short novels of Old New York in one volume, full of Wharton’s observations of society with all its strictures and pitfalls. Containing themes of class, jealousy, infidelity, and illegitimacy.

As I entered the week when I was expecting to exchange contacts and complete on my flat purchase and house sale, I needed something, diverting but not too challenging. I chose The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line by Ruth Thomas, which I probably originally bought for the title alone. I wasn’t sure whether it would be my kind of thing really, but it proved exactly right in fact, generally well written, but reasonably undemanding, with an engaging witty tone, it was fine if not a little underwhelming.

So, on to September – and really I don’t know what to expect from September book wise – I am not making any plans or putting myself under pressure. I am currently reading A Bite of the Apple by Lennie Goodings, which Liz bought for me for either birthday or Christmas, though not sure which year, and which she selected for me to read now when she came to see the flat and help with book sorting. I shall of course be settling into my new place – and also later this week returning to work after another long break. So, my reading will certainly be affected by all of that. I shall be reading strictly according to mood – and if I am able to read anything at all and really enjoy it – that will be enough.

As ever, I would love to know what you have been reading, and what plans you might have for September.

Happy reading.

Translated from the Finnish by the author

My final post for #witmonth is a little bit of a shorter post. The Union of Synchronized Swimmers is a novella – an odd little book in some ways, though not unenjoyable.

There is a lovely poetic quality to certain sections of this novella which I particularly enjoyed, a delicate use of language to describe movement and water.

“The girls started to play, though they were too old; their movements aimless at first, like they could’ve been doing anything else. They plunged into the water and sprang up, parting the surface with their hands. They crept among the reeds and made birds scatter from their nests. They tore flowers growing by the river and drew shapes in the air. They pushed each other’s heads under the surface and kept them there, as if performing a baptism. They stood on their hands in the water, their feet swinging madly against the branches of the trees.”

In an unnamed country – though the implication perhaps is that it is a former Soviet country, a group of six young woman meet by the river. Here they mess around in the water together. They are workers from a local factory, this is where many of the local women work, so many of the men have left the country to find work. They can see across the river to another place, another country, where things are very different. Soon the fun at the river turns more serious, the women start to train – they become a team, a team bringing some Olympic hope to their poor, struggling nation. For the women though this is their chance to get away, perhaps their only chance – to discover what really lies across the river.

“In the evenings, when they fell on their beds like lumbered trees, the girls felt the movement of water inside their bodies. It rocked them to a place that belonged neither to this nor to that side of the river. The beauty of the threshold: on the other side of it, everything was still possible. Perhaps they were happier then, more complete and satisfied, than they ever have been or would be.”

In alternate chapters we see the young women in the past, as they train together and in the present as they live lives far away from where they started – each of them in different countries. In chapters named for each of the six young women; Anita, Paulina, Sandra, Betty, Nina and Lidia – we see something of what happened next. Running away can’t always bring complete happiness though as these women find out – there are difficulties ahead for all of them, and one of them will decide ultimately to go home.

Anita lives in Helsinki, when she starts a relationship with a man from her own country, she decides to hide her true origins from him – never allowing her knowledge of their shared language to escape. In California Paulina goes on a boat trip – the kind tourists and new arrivals might take, but the experience only makes her feel more of an outsider than ever. In Rome Nina orders coffee in a café, goes to work at the warehouse – she is proud of her new language skills, and is acclimatising herself to the noise of the warehouse.

“There’s nothing I can’t say in both languages, she thinks, and grabs the handles of the cart. Nothing stays inside one language. Each thought – like the one of how she will eventually grow numb to the noise and the smell of the warehouse – begets its double.”

Language is an issue for all of them in some ways, in the Pyrenees Sandra is mocked for her accent and pronunciation. Meanwhile in San Martin, Betty gambles in a casino, reflecting on the difficult time she had when she lived in Bucharest, the place she had landed in first – a place where she had once stolen fish heads out of a rubbish bin. This move has been more successful she thinks – she tells her fellow gamblers at the table how she had travelled from Bucharest to Paris with a truck driver.

Lidia is the one who goes home – worn out by the years away, finding peace in the place she came from.

Cristina Sandu’s prose can be quite spare and there is a fragmentary nature to this story of leaving home in search for freedom – and to me the ending felt very abrupt. Still, it certainly gives pause for thought about the meaning of freedom, or what home might feel like – and how for some, on the other side of the river, the grass may not be quite so green after all.

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

I think for many of us there are those books which we have been aware of for years, the covers of which are instantly recognisable, and yet have still totally passed us by. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one such book for me – I didn’t even really know what it was about, and had forgotten it was a novel in translation. So, this #Witmonth I decided to read it having seen quite a bit of hype about Muriel Babery’s latest novel on social media.

My ignorance of this book was such, that I had no idea of just how literary it is, nor how philosophical. I am quite happy reading literary novels, I do so quite frequently, the philosophical I am less keen on, but actually in this novel I was fine with it. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a novel that celebrates the inconspicuous among us, it’s poignant, funny, and intelligent.

“As for Madame Michel…how can we tell? She radiates intelligence. And yet she really makes an effort, like, you can tell she is doing everything she possibly can to act like a concierge and come across as stupid. But I’ve been watching her, when she used to talk with Jean Arthens or when she talks to Neptune when Diane has her back turned, or when she looks at the ladies in the building who walk right by her without saying hello. Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.”

Renée Michel is a concierge at an elegant apartment building in the centre of Paris. A building inhabited by gracious, wealthy bourgeois families. Once she ran the building with her husband, but now she is a widow, living alone with her cat. Her one friend in the world is Manuela Lopes – a cleaner of other people’s homes, who one day plans to go home to Portugal. On Tuesdays and Thursdays at two, Manuela arrives to drink tea with Renée.

Renée is purposely unremarkable, a small dumpy, middle aged woman she prefers to perpetuate the stereotype of a building concierge with the people living around her. In fact, she has a fierce intelligence, a lover of art, music and great literature, a deep thinker and lover of Japanese culture. She is also a wonderful observer of people, and it is with some humour that she watches the comings and goings of the apartment dwellers – none of whom give her much of a second glance.

Upstairs, in one of the gracious Parisian apartments lives Paloma, the twelve year old daughter of a dull parliamentarian. She has little time or patience with either of her parents or her older sister – for she is a quiet genius. Rather like Renée she tries her best to hide her true abilities. In despair at the world in which she finds herself she has decided that she will end her life on the day of her thirteenth birthday. Until then, Paloma will continue to act as just another average pre-teen – wholly unremarkable – conforming to the expectations already laid down.

“no one seems to have thought of the fact that if life is absurd, being a brilliant success has no greater value than being a failure. It’s just more comfortable. And even then: I think lucidity gives your success a bitter taste, whereas mediocrity still leaves hope for something.”

Renée and Paloma are both separately hiding their true selves from the world – a world that is incapable of really seeing them, a world that can’t appreciate them. However, when Ozu; a wealthy Japanese man moves into the apartment block, Renée and Paloma discover the other to be an unexpected kindred spirit. It seems that only Ozu can win over the cynical Paloma, and see through Renée’s disguise to the person she really is.

‘They didn’t recognise me,’ I say. I come to a halt in the middle of the pavement, completely flabbergasted. ‘They didn’t recognise me,’ I repeat. He stops in turn, my hand still on his arm. ‘It is because they have never seen you,’ he says. ‘I would recognise you anywhere.’

This novel is a real celebration of the unremarkable, it beautifully captures the mind of someone the world has overlooked. As for why Renée is so keen for the world to see her as a simple concierge, unremarkable, uncultured unnoticeable – well you will have to read the book to find that out – it was a question I kept asking myself – and we do discover the reason in time.

There is a poignant, inevitability to the ending, which shocked me a bit – but then I realised that it was actually the perfect ending, though it was very bittersweet. I’m so glad I finally got around to a book I had been aware of for so long.

A little bit of housekeeping – I am moving house tomorrow. So, I will likely be a bit quiet for a while, not sure how long before I have Wi-Fi again to start with. I will do my best to keep up with blog posts, social media etc via my phone but don’t be surprised if there is a bit of a lull.

Translated from the Greek by Karen van Dyck

Three Summers is one of three #Witmonth books I still have to review, ideally by the end of the month. I have rather a lot going on at the moment so not really sure if I will manage it.

This is a novel that several bloggers have reviewed over the last year or so, and it became one I really wanted to read. Jacqui kindly sent me her copy (which I shall be sending back soon) so that I could read it over #Witmonth and I am so glad that I did. It’s a modern Greek classic, a coming of age type story, filled with sunshine and the voices of three sisters.

“That summer we bought big straw hats. Maria’s had cherries around the rim, Infanta’s had forget-me-nots, and mine had poppies as red as fire. When we lay in the hayfield wearing them, the sky, the wildflowers, and the three of us all melted into one. ‘Where are you? Off hiding again?’ my mother called. Shhhhh. We whispered and told secrets. Other years Maria and Infanta had told the secrets, leaving me out since I was the youngest. But this year…”

Growing up between the wars, in the Greek countryside near Athens are three sisters, living in a big old house with their mother, grandfather and Aunt Theresa, surrounded by a beautiful garden. Maria is the oldest, sexually bold, but ready to settle down and raise her own family, Infanta, distant but beautiful and the youngest Katerina – through who’s eyes we see the majority of the story. Each sister has their own small plot of garden to tend, each plot reflecting the personality of its owner. Maria’s garden is all little neat squares, while Infanta’s is wild, and has almond trees which need lots of watering, Katerina’s garden is full of flowers, the planting as spontaneous as she is.

Katerina is dreamy, rebellious, and deeply curious. There are secrets and dark events in the family’s past. Aunt Theresa changed forever when she was raped by her fiancé as a young woman. Katerina is especially drawn to the story of her Polish grandmother – who scandalously ran away from her husband and two children. Katerina is fascinated by this romantic figure – who nobody ever mentions, but Katerina gets some little bits of information from the family housekeeper who has been around for years.

“Memories… memories. The air is heavy with them. I can’t stand it anymore. I no longer fit in that big room with the piano, the little boxes of seeds, the peacock embroidery. I run outside and lie down on the grass. I look up at the moon between the two eucalyptuses; it touches the ledge of the cistern, and I can see the silhouette of a frog in its circle of light. But the frog is not on the moon. Like me, it is on the ground looking up.”

The sisters enjoy a good relationship, sharing secrets and dreams, talk about the local boys, gossip about neighbours, and try to figure out their parents. Their parents are separated, following their father’s infidelity, he now living in Athens – they visit him and his colourful brother from time to time.

As the title suggests the novel is set over three summers. Three summers during which these three sisters lives start to change, as they cross that divide between girlhood and adulthood. In the first summer, Maria has a sexual adventure with a neighbour’s son, who she has no intention at all of marrying. She wants to marry, as she announces to her surprised family, and she settles quickly for another neighbour; Marios, the equivalent of the boy next door.

Marios’s mother, Laura Parigori, is a fascinating character, a traditional wife and mother in many ways, she clearly yearns secretly for more. We feel an unspoken frustration in her for the smallness of her life, the things she will never do, she is still only in her forties, and while that was older then, than it is now, the years stretch ahead of her, formless and empty.

Time marches on and both Infanta and Katerina must negotiate their own fragile love affairs – while watching their elder sister settle into marriage and impending motherhood. Intense feelings, jealousy and uncertainty enter the lives of these young women – as they try to make sense of these new and exciting relationships. Katerina falls madly in love with David an astronomer who is writing a book – and when she sees him in the company of Laura Parigori a few times, she is mad with jealousy. Infanta seems taken up with Nikitas, with whom she shares a love of horse riding which they are able to do together.

Ever curious, Katerina begins to make discoveries about the past, her mother, a somewhat shadowy figure throughout this novel – seems to be acting oddly and Katerina is determined to find out why.

There is a lot more going on in this novel than the premise might at first suggest, themes of marriage, fidelity, women’s roles, the bond between siblings and motherhood are all delicately explored. The gorgeous descriptions of the natural world, the lushness of Liberaki’s prose and this beautiful translation make this a gorgeous summery read.

August is of course Women in Translation month – but for some of us it is also All Virago All August, a month in which we read vmc books and books from similar publishers like Dean Street Press and Persephone. I have only managed one Virago book so far, the third volume in Maya Angelou’s seven volume autobiography. I have been reading this alongside Liz and our friend Meg, as ever, I am a bit behind as Liz has already managed to review this one. Singin’ & Swingin’ & Getting Merry Like Christmas focuses on Maya Angelous’s first marriage, her relationship with her young son and the start of her life in showbusiness. 

“Ivonne said, “You know white people are strange. I don’t even know if they know why they do things.” Ivonne had grown up in a small Mississippi town, and I, in a smaller town in Arkansas. Whites were as constant in our history as the seasons and as unfamiliar as affluence.”

Race plays a part in this part of her story too, as for perhaps the first time in her life Maya must learn to build relationships with white people. White people have only featured in her life quite negatively at this point, she spent a lot of her youth growing up in small town Arkansas – definitely a place where white and black didn’t mix. It’s understandable that she is wary of people’s motivations, can she trust them? will they really understand her? So, when a young white woman offers Maya a job in her favourite record shop she is at first rather taken aback.

“Early mornings were given over to Bartok and Schoenberg. Midmorning I treated myself to the vocals of Billy Eckstine, Billie Holiday, Nat Cole, Louis Jordan and Bull Moose Jackson. A piroshki from the Russian delicatessen next door was lunch and then the giants of bebop flipped through the air. Charlie Parker and Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan and Al Haig and Howard McGhee. Blues belonged to late afternoons and the singers’ lyrics of lost love spoke to my solitude.”

Maya loves music, it is the perfect job and it allows her to take her son out of weekly childcare and move him back in with her full time. It is here that she meets the man she will marry – a white man of Greek heritage. At first everything seems great. Her son gets on well with his step-father – quickly thinking of him as daddy. However, Maya’s husband is clearly a controlling presence in her life – and soon things are not as happy as they were. Maya has the spirit to get out before things escalate – a single mother again, she needs well paid work quickly.

Maya gets a job dancing in a club – it all sounds a little sleazy, and there is quite a racket going on with drinks. Customers are supposed to buy the dancers drinks, and Maya works out how the customers are being conned and explains the racket to the customers when they offer her a drink.  Her honesty makes her very popular with the customers but not with the other women, who jealously conspire to have her kicked out. Maya is always astonishingly resilient, and it’s not long before she is back on her feet – dancing again. This time she is dancing in proper shows, and it is at this time that she adopts the name Maya Angelou – Maya the name her brother called her and Angelou a corruption of her married name.

When Maya goes to see a performance of Porgy and Bess she is utterly blown away. This all black cast of talented singers, actors and dancers – she feels like she has come home. So, when the chance comes for her to take a small part in the touring production of Porgy and Bess, she jumps at it. It means leaving her son in the care of her mother for months – but she feels it is a chance she can’t pass up. It certainly is an incredible opportunity for the company will be touring Europe and North Africa – places Maya could have probably only dreamed of visiting at this time in her life.

In Maya’s company we travel across Europe seeing these places with Maya’s wide eyed wonder and intelligent curiosity. She naturally wants to experience as much as she can.  Starting out in Canada and then on to Paris, Verona, Rome, Venice, Zagreb, Alexandria, and Cairo – with the company of Porgy and Bess Maya really gets to see something of the world, have adventures and make friends.

“I was really in Italy. Not Maya Angelou, the person of pretensions and ambitions, but me, Marguerite Johnson, who had read about Verona and the sad lovers while growing up in a dusty Southern village poorer and more tragic than the historic town in which I now stood. I was so excited at the incredible turn of events which had brought me from a past of rejection, of slammed doors and blind alleys, of dead-end streets and culs-de-sac, into the bright sun of Italy, into a town made famous by one of the world’s greatest writers.”

 She discovers that in lots of places black people are treated differently than in North America, in fact it seems that black Americans are rather preferred to white Americans. However, she has been away from her son for a long time, and so the time comes when she realises she must leave the company and go home.

On her arrival home, we see how her young son has been affected by her long absence, nervous and hating her to be out of his sight – Maya knows she won’t be able to leave him again. She re-builds her relationship with her son with love and understanding and some guilt over what she has done to him by leaving.

We finally leave Maya and her son – who has now changed his name from Clyde to Guy together in Hawaii as Maya undertakes another performance job, this time though, insisting that her son travels with her.

I had to remind myself that at this point in her life Maya is still a young woman, she has done so much. Her continuing determination and resilience shines as brightly as in the first two volumes – and I am really looking forward to seeing where she goes next.